Korso munched-slurped on the juicy, purple fruit and elbowed his way through the swinging saloon-style kitchen doors. He wouldn't be going back in there any time soon - the Benbow's kitchen was the least changed for all the renovations, and too full of memories. Chasing Sarah around the oven island, distracting her with kisses, trying and failing to learn the simplest of her recipes and making spectacular messes. The time he'd nearly set the place on fire the one time he'd attempted a birthday dinner surprise. Well, she had been surprised when the fire department arrived.
But it wasn't just the memories keeping him away. The kitchen was inhabited. Soon as he'd slipped inside, a whirring, buzzing rattle-trap with glowing LED eyes clanked out from the pantry and asked if he wanted pancakes. It said its name was B.E.N., and proceeded to talk his ear off. It didn't care what his answer was, either, pancakes were imminent. Then, while he was still speechless (not so much from shock, but being unable to get a single word in over B.E.N.'s chatter), a floating little blob of squishy pink... something, scoot-floated up to him, warbling happily.
"The fuck're you supposed to be?" he muttered and glared with his arms crossed, not sure he trusted the ridiculously cute little blob looking at him with its huge, innocent googly eyes.
"That's Morph!" the robot cackled, mechanical arms grabbing cooking implements and starting to slap together something that might have resembled pancakes to a disturbed child with no concept of Earth food. "I'm B.E.N.! Did I tell you that already? I think I did. Unless I didn't?"
"I think you told me everything already..." Korso growled. But these two were the only people (if one used a very loose definition of 'people') he'd seen all day, and he needed information. "Either of you seen anyone else this morning? Place is a ghost town."
B.E.N. didn't seem to hear, and kept rattling the pots and pans. But the smiling pink goo was attentive, orbiting Korso's head - and changing. Suddenly it was a tiny Sarah, hanging a sign that read "CLOSED" in midair, and walking away. Korso frowned - who had she gone to see? But before he could dwell on that, the thing was changing again. A small Jim trudged up an invisible flight of stairs and became a miniature Silver, adjusting his cyber-biotic leg with a wrench extension of his arm.
"Heh!" Korso nodded, with a reluctant little scoffing laugh. The thing that couldn't talk was being infinitely more helpful than the thing that could. He liked things that gave him help without a bunch of lip to go along with it. "That's quite the trick you got - hey..."
Speaking of things that gave him lip, a tiny Preed now slunk before his eyes. Korso had to smile - the little morphing gel had gotten his first mate's long-limbed looseness spot-on in perfect miniature, spindly arms flowing in perfect, languid Preedness. He stopped himself from poking the tiny replica, and instead held out one finger like a canary's perch. The grumpy little figure stalked onto it - But the small reproduction hunched, seemed to move with difficulty. Then one long hand went to its metal-plated head, tiny face twisting in pain.
"Damn." Korso grunted, shaking his own head. "Where'd he go?"
The tiny Preed hesitated - then glared furiously up at Korso, chattering an unintelligible tirade of squeaks and angry blips, and blew an enormous raspberry. Then it huffed off through a tiny disembodied set of kitchen doors, stomping off Korso's finger and melting back into the floating goo. Morph trilled unhappily, looking deflated and sad and somehow more runny than before.
"Yep. Sounds like Preed."
Morph chittered and gurgled, cheering up instantly, and Korso became dimly aware that B.E.N. was still talking - and, apparently, making him pancakes. He wasn't generally one to pass up free food, but a dull ache in his temple told him he'd better get out of this kitchen if he knew what was good for him, and these two critters. It was all a little surreal and altogether too happy for Korso, so he skedaddled as fast as he could get away - but not before grabbing a succulent purp from a full barrel.
Now he left the closed-in kitchen, noise and irritating perkiness behind him, heading into the sunny, open front common room. As he entered, someone across the room turned; Jim's face set back into its hard, determined mask as he crossed his arms.
Korso wiped the purple juice from his chin on his rough sleeve and cleared his throat. "James!" he said around the last bits of purp - then swallowed. As soon as his mouth was free, he couldn't think of a thing to say. "Good, uh... good morning." He jabbed his thumb over his shoulder back toward the kitchen. "You know you got a pink - thing, in there, right?"
Jim nodded, rocking back on his heels. He still watched Korso like a hawk, stuck in that self-preserving mode of scrutinization, searching for any hint of betrayal. "Guess you met Morph and B.E.N."
"The robot that wouldn't shut up."
"Yeah... they're good friends."
Korso hesitated for an awkward moment, rubbing his stubbled chin. "You get a chance to talk to your mom?"
"Yeah. Yeah, she told me." Jim was quiet and thoughtful, fiddling with his earring. There were a few seconds of silence, and the kid didn't seem inclined to continue. After a while, Korso couldn't stand it anymore.
"You seem pretty sure I can help you."
"If anyone can, you can." Korso said levelly, matching him stare for stare. "You found something that wasn't even supposed to exist. Took a bedtime story, and made it real. Now, I know that the Titan is real, and out there - I worked with Sam Tucker on it for years, saw it with my own eyes and touched it and smelled it. And now, together, you and I can find it." He spread his hands, gave an appealing smile. "So... will you do it? Come with me, and make another bedtime story come true?"
Jim stared at him for a moment - then let his head flop forward, smiling at the floor. Slowly, his head started to shake from side to side, and Korso's smile froze. "You are a real piece of work," Jim said at last. "You still think you can come in here and spin this like it's a big father-son reunion thing, and I'll go along with it for old time's sake. You got some balls, talking about a bedtime story you never told me. That was Mom, every night. Even then, you never gave a damn."
"James, that's not -"
"Shut up." Jim's voice was flat, not at all raised, with no anger behind it - but it made Korso stop anyway. "Believe it or not, I do have people who give a damn about me. I know, right! Big surprise. Sure was to me. Mom..." His voice softened, and so did the angles of his face. Everything about him became softer, somehow brighter.
"Mom taught me to always at least TRY to do the right thing. I wasn't always great at that, and I'm still not perfect... but then I met this old cyborg. He taught me I was worth more than anybody thought - more than I did, that's for sure. And that I could do things I never thought I could. And Captain Amelia-"
He broke off, a grin suddenly spreading across his face, crooked and bright and excited. The sullen teenager was gone, and he somehow looked older and young at the same time - grown up, with a boyish enthusiasm that had never really had a chance to grow before. "Bet you didn't know I'm in the Royal Spacers Academy now, did you? Someday I'll be a real pilot. And go real places, do real things. Important things."
He smiled, at something or someone only he could see. "I'm gonna rattle the stars."
After a moment, Jim looked back at Korso, and the seriousness was back. Whatever had made him smile was a private treasure, something Korso couldn't get a bead on, and would probably never reach. "Anyway. I'll have to ask for some time off, but... I'm pretty sure they'll let it fly, if Captain Amelia puts in another good word. That's 'cause she taught me never to give up on something I put my mind to - and how important it can be, to be part of something bigger than myself. Figure the entire human race counts."
"Then you'll do it?" Korso grated, barely able to contain his combined hope and frustration.
Jim just looked at him for a long time - then nodded. "Yeah."
"Jeezus H. Fuck, kid, you made the right call!" Korso clapped his hands and let out a laugh louder than he intended, striding across the room and throwing an arm around Jim's shoulders. "This is gonna be great - another adventure for you! Shit, I knew you were still my boy-"
Jim shrugged his arm off and stepped away. "Not saying that yet. And you can just stop with the pep talk. I'm not doing this for you."
"Kid, I don't give a single fuck why you do it, just so long as you do."
"Well. It's still not for you. It's for them."
"And for yourself." Korso's smile faded, replaced by his default glower. "Long as we're being brutally honest here, you might as well admit that. The other half of adventure is the glory - so don't pretend you're doing the entire human species a favor out of the goodness of your heart. Everybody's in this for themselves, and don't you forget it. Or pretend it's not true."
"Hey. At least I'm honest about it. That's better'n you'll get from most sorry shits in the 'verse."
Jim watched him for a long time, face a studied blank. The first, most difficult lesson the Academy had taught him was self-control. He was still learning. The dent in the Valkyrie from the rocks said that for sure.
But this time, he just took a deep breath - and strode past his father to the bottom of the stairs.
"I got a lot of stuff to get together," he said, hand on the railing. "Figure out when you wanna leave. I'll be ready."
"You're not gonna regret this, James."
Jim stopped halfway, and hesitated for a second.
"Don't call me that. It's Jim."
The young man didn't turn around. Without another word or a look back, he headed up the stairs.
# # #
Korso wasn't much of a skipping guy, but now might be the time to start. He didn't really even think he knew how and wouldn't be caught dead trying, but at least his footsteps were a little lighter, and he didn't stomp down the hall as if he were trying to punch through the floorboards. Happy adrenaline pumped through his veins; for the first time in he didn't know how long there was a light at the end of the tunnel, he could see from point A to point B, he had a game plan and a purpose, he was driven and alive. He didn't remember the last time he'd felt like this, and he'd ride this precious, joyful high as far as it would take him.
They'd fire out of here, find the Titan, and everything would be fine. Better than fine! But first he just needed to get out of this goddamn house and all its suffocating memories, blast off this dry rock. And to do that, he needed to find-
"Preed!" Korso rounded a corner - and stopped dead, starting at the crumpled form on the floor. He ran the next few steps, crouched down and pulled Preed into a half-sitting position, supporting his head, heavy with the metal plate, with one hand. "God - shit, what's going on with you?"
Preed's eyes were squeezed shut in agony but he squirmed, tense in Korso's arms, and his long fingers curled into hooks that clutched at Korso's worn leather overcoat. "It's splitting apart-" he gasped, forcing the words out between clenched sharp teeth.
"What? What's splitting - is it your head?"
"YES, what in blazes else would it be? It's - pain, so much, un - un - endure-"
"Okay, let's get you up, back to the room, you can lay down and - fuck, we don't need this right now!"
"Well, I'm dreadfullysorry for the inconvenience!" Preed hissed, forehead pressed against Korso's chest as if that would keep his head from falling into a hundred pieces.
"Come on - up." Korso hooked his elbows under Preed's armpits and stood up, supporting all of the Akrennian's stringy weight. They stood there for a few seconds in an off-balance kind of extended hug while Preed panted from effort and pain, and Korso shot nervous glances up and down the hallway. He couldn't decide if he wanted someone to come along and help them, or if this was something to keep entirely to themselves. "Okay - you good to walk?"
Preed's feet wavered, his knobbly knees knocked together and wouldn't support him, but he wouldn't stop trying either. "There's no need to carry me," he said with difficulty, but still clung to Korso's chest. "Sorry to... disappoint, Captain. But don't - let go of me, either."
"Fine. Let's go." Korso half-dragged, half-carried his first mate down the hall, holding him together - but pretending the Akrennian's weak steps were effective, and Preed wouldn't have found himself sprawled on the floor again without him. He needed at least the illusion of not being entirely helpless. So together they limped down the corridor, and Korso tried to hang on to whatever remnant of his good mood remained, even as alarm bells went off in his head, and something cold clenched in the pit of his stomach.
"Got some good news at least," A grin found its way back across Korso's rugged face. "Kid's gonna help us. Looks like coming here wasn't a complete waste after all."
"How wonderful for you." Preed muttered, head hanging low, eyes shut. He wasn't even trying to support himself anymore, and let himself be dragged.
Korso gritted his teeth and rolled his eyes at the guilt that systematically broke down every bit of his good mood. No, feeling happy and renewed was going to have to wait. "So what happened up here?" He asked at last, looking back over his shoulder at where he'd found Preed on the floor. "You just keel over, or what?"
"It's been getting worse," the Akrennian groaned. "It's nearly happened several times, but I was always able to at least stay upright. But yes, I suppose I did - today's been the most intense. I was coming back up here to have a lie down when... whoops-a-daisy."
Korso frowned - that explained his outburst at Morph and B.E.N. earlier. Besides the obvious, of course. They reached the door to the room, and Korso shifted Preed to one arm, juggling him and the doorknob, shuffling the both of them inside and gratefully shutting the door behind them. He didn't feel like exposing this weakness to anyone who might be watching, after all. And some undefined, territorial aggression boiled, subdued and unconscious, at the thought of anyone else seeing Preed like this.
"Okay, here we..." he half-muttered, easing Preed down onto the bed, just to be saying something.
"I'm going slowly, shut up and lie down." Gently he lowered the Akrennian's damaged head onto the pillow; Preed lay back with a long hissing sigh. Some of the agonized tension faded from his face, but his eyes stayed closed as Korso jumped up again to make sure the door was locked from the inside. Secure. Good. And no footsteps outside; if they could just get out of here without answering any uncomfortable questions... the sooner they were offworld, the better.
An ominous thought nagged at the back of his mind. That cyborg's golden eye - the way it focused and glinted at him, it almost seemed like it could see right through him. What if it really couldsee through things, through walls? What if that hulking goon had been watching them the entire-
"I've been seeing things," Preed's faint voice from behind him made him stop, slowly turn around.
"What kind of things? Like - hallucinations?"
"I don't... know."
Korso slowly stepped back over to the side of the bed, arms crossed, and stared down at the Akrennian on the bed. Preed sprawled like a loose-jointed ragdoll, spread-eagled out like he'd been dropped a hundred feet, like a body that would have a white chalk outline around it, back on Earth. His yellow eyes were open a sliver now, looking up at Korso and fighting to stay focused. Even past the squint and how his face still screwed up from the pain, Korso read the fear loud and clear.
"You see anything right now?" Korso pressed, voice rough and tight, one hand fidgeting at his nose, his stubbled chin. He could never keep his hands away from his face, when that cold little ball formed deep in his gut.
"What? No, no - when I sleep."
"When you... goddamn it, Preed, those are just dreams!" Korso let out a gruff laugh of relief, sinking down to sit on the bed. "Everybody has 'em-"
"Akrennians don't." Preed's flat voice made him stop mid-laugh. "Dreaming, as you call it - our brains don't work that way. We go to sleep, we wake up, and there's nothing in between. It's an old saying, the best night's sleep, you don't even know you've had it. We don't see anything that isn't there."
"But now you are."
"Mmm." One bony-fingered hand went to the metal plate, tapped it with a dull clink. "It's this damned thing, I - it's turning everything wrong. Playing cruel little tricks on me, mucking up my brain. I can't even think- everything's twisted, the wrong way 'round. And I can't make it stop, I can't stop seeing..."
"Seeing what?" Korso prodded, raw throat giving way to a rare tone. Softer, easier, almost gentle; something that would have surprised even him if he'd stopped to think about it.
Preed's bony chest rose and fell in a long sigh. "Nothing important," he said at last, closing his eyes again and turning his pounding head away from Korso.
"Come on, Preed, you're a better liar than that. Try harder, or give it up."
A faint smile pulled at the corner of Preed's twisting lip. "Don't worry about it, Captain." Another slow, deep breath, and the Akrennian folded his long limbs into a more comfortable, less-grotesque position, something like a loose-curled fetal pose. His hand was up picking at the metal plate again - and Korso automatically reached out to stop him fussing at it.
"As you say," Preed murmured, allowing his hand to be pulled away from the place where everything hurt. "It'll all be fine now. The boy will help us find the Titan... and you'll have your prize."
Korso let out a harsh sigh, like a growl on a rush of breath. Rested his elbows on his knees, one hand clenched in a white-knuckled fist, the other one staying in loose contact with long, bony fingers.
"It's not everything, though. We can stop for a while, get this - your head shit, get this taken care of."
"Now, Captain. I know you're also a better liar than that - of course it's everything. It's always been everything."
"That's not-!" Korso barked - then cut himself off.
Sarah. "It's always been that ship. It's always been Sam."
"But... I truly appreciate the gesture." Preed said quietly, when Korso didn't continue. He spoke in a kind of dreamy, faraway half-whisper, almost a singsong lilt. "It'll be fine now. Your boy will help us... and if he doesn't, the Drej will."
Korso froze. Slowly turned to look at the half-conscious Akrennian.
"The Drej?"He forced the words out in a kind of desperate, lifeless whisper. "What did you say?"
"Oh, yes..." Preed sighed, easy and tranquil and not quite all there. "I called them, this morning. They should be here any minute."
# # #
A/N: Oh, shit, son.
An incredibly big thank you to everyone who's reviewed here or written to me about this fic, and who have wanted to see it continued. I can't even tell you how much it means, and how happy and grateful I am that there are people who care about what I have to say about these characters. I love them dearly, in an awful, dysfunctional, sick kind of way. And I love you in a thoroughly non-sick, warm and fuzzy way. Thank you, so much.
Just one more chapter to go, I think. Seatbelts on, duckies, it's gonna be a hell of a ride. Bang.