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In The Red

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Ken let out a loud groan of frustration as the video on his wrist comm stopped to buffer again. He shifted from his awkward perch under the hyperdrive housing and swore as the cable his foot was keeping taut slipped and the end fell to the floor.

"What's wrong?" came a voice from the entry to the drive chamber. Ken was in no position to take a look, but he imagined Aya was wearing the same face he always did: vaguely annoyed, probably at something Ken was doing. At least when Youji and Omi had been here, he could pretend Aya was pissed off at them. But Omi had left a month ago to take over the family business, and Youji had left a few weeks later to follow a long-shot rumor about his ex-partner, and now there wasn't anyone else to blame for Aya's bad mood.

"The network is spotty and the only vids I can find that look related to the problem are in Gezoran," Ken said. It wasn't surprising; they'd dropped into Gezoran space when the hyperdrive had failed, and the local vid nodes were, like most local nodes around the galaxy, untranslated. If they were at a trade hub he'd have more luck, but at a trade hub they could just pay someone to fix the problem for them.

"Ah," Aya said. "That explains the—" he stopped abruptly, and Ken sighed and dropped to the ground so he could look and try to figure out what Aya was unhappy about this time. He wiped the sweat off his face with his shirt and ignored the way Aya's eyes narrowed.

"Explains the what?"

"The awkward contortions you were attempting."

"Well, excuse me, I don't have eight tentacles to help me out," Ken snipped.

Aya cocked his head. "I thought you didn't know anything about ship mechanics?"

"I don't. If I did, I wouldn't be trying to watch videos I don't understand with an alien species I can't mimic to try to figure out how to fix this thing."

"You don't need to fix it yourself," Aya said. "The Gezora aren't hostile. I already set a course for the nearest outpost; we can have the drive repaired there."

Ken kicked one leg of the drive housing. "I just thought—well, if Omi were still here, he could have fixed it. Youji could at least have charmed us a better price on the repair. I'm no good at any of that; all I'm good at is killing, and even then, we barely made it out of that last mission alive."

"So you decided to do something you know you're not good at in order to feel useful." Aya's face held its usual lack of expression. Ken would kill for a few grams of insight into what he was thinking.

"Yes!" Ken said. "No—I mean, I did something I know I'm not good at so I could try to be useful," he amended. "I don't have anywhere else to go, all right? You're the one with the moral compass. I just go where I'm pointed. I don't want to know where I'll be in a year if you kick me out."

"You're following my moral compass?" Aya looked surprised and a little horrified, but Ken just shrugged.

"Well, mine's been messed up for years now," Ken said. "At least I can count on you to drop any mission that doesn't seem right."

Aya shook his head slowly, like he was digesting Ken's words or maybe like he was particularly stupid. It was hard to tell with Aya. "I'm not going to kick you off the ship," he said finally. "You don't have to earn your keep."

"One of us should learn how to do repairs," Ken protested. "You're doing navigation and mission briefs and a bunch of other things. I can figure this out."

"We'll reach the nearest outpost in a week. There will be someone there who can fix it for us. We have supplies to last until then. If you want to learn mechanics, we'll find a holo-course when we're back in human space."

Ken looked longingly back at the drive and sighed. "Yeah, all right." The video on his wrist communicator finally buffered enough to resume playing, and the melodic tones of the Gezoran language pierced the space between them.

As Ken went to turn it off, Aya coughed. "But if you want to keep going, I'll help. At least you won't strain something trying to reach too many things at once." There was a baffling hint of red on his cheeks.

Ken nodded, surprised, and flipped the vidscreen up so Aya could see it. Aya frowned as he peered at it. "I see what you were trying to do. I'll take this side," he said, patting the far side of the drive where Ken had dropped the end of the cable. "There's not much else to do on the way to the outpost, anyway. If we manage to fix it before we dock, we'll at least save a few credits."

They didn't manage to fix it before they reached the Gezoran outpost, but Aya went four whole days without glaring at him. For the first time since the others had left, he felt like maybe his life wasn't falling apart after all.