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theseus' ship

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He’s barely set foot back onto his ship from the shuttle from Second Miltia when several people rush to catch his attention.

Jr. has a sequence of conversations in rapid succession: a maintenance worker with updates about the Durandal’s repairs; a 100-Series with a damage report of the main highway; a Vector employee pitching ideas for new software for the Foundation to install. He crosses his arms over his chest and listens to each of them, focused and measured, asking and answering questions as they come up, gesturing in various directions to indicate to whom the tasks should be delegated.

At the end of it, after a firm handshake, a sympathetic smile, and skeptical consideration respectively, Shelley approaches him and speaks in the hushed tones of discretion. Jr.’s face visibly relaxes at first, then veers into concern, and they both seat themselves on the bench next to the shuttle elevator, her with her hands folded in her lap over a digital folio and him with his legs drawn up, one knee up with his arms resting over it, deep in thought as she explains, inaudibly, whatever it is that’s so pressing.

MOMO hangs back.

She waits on the far side of the dock area, tapping her foot in the air just above the floor without impacting it. There’s a woman seated somewhat across from her, whose eyes she’s avoided meeting after an initial friendly wave hello, and if she looks back over her shoulder, there’s a little boy near the escalators who, in turn, is waving wildly at her every time she turns her head. With the level of enthusiasm he’s exhibiting, she’s starting to suspect it’s because they’re both wearing similar hats.

Her heart’s in her throat by the time the discussion with Shelley appears to have run its course. As they both begin to stand, MOMO takes a deep breath, steels her nerves, and stands up, too. The floor is an infinite distance to cross and takes mere seconds to pass through, and she thinks of hyperspace as she approaches them and broaches her topic.

“Jr., can I talk to you?”

Jr. smiles warmly at her. “Sure, what’s up?”

Shelley smiles at her too, and she feels guilty.

“Um, just you?”

Jr. exchanges a glance with Shelley, in a split second that anyone else might overlook, but she was born to notice these things. It takes a conscious effort to remind herself that these fragments of behavior, the minutiae of musculoskeletal movement, are not always conscious choices by everyone else.

“Yeah, of course. Let’s go to the park. That okay?”

MOMO nods and raises her eyebrows and relaxes her eyes and upturns the corners of her mouth. “Yes, that’d be okay with me.”

Jr. makes eye contact with Shelley again, and MOMO feels like she’s out of the loop, like there’s something she’s somehow missed, that she could have all the information she needed if only she’d been studying the situation even more closely.

“Okay, cool. We’ll be back in a bit, Shelley. I’ll keep you posted.” He raises his hand to wave to her as he turns around, leading the way as they walk towards the platform for the loop line’s shuttle. “Nervous about the analysis tomorrow?”

MOMO reverses the decisions she just made about her facial expressions and wonders if it could be considered an about-face. “Yeah.”

“It’s understandable to be scared. I am too.” Jr. inputs their travel destination and grabs onto a handrail in the center of the car, bracing his feet flat to the floor as the train begins to move. “I don’t like hospitals or medical stuff very much, either.”

MOMO hesitates as she considers the placement of his grip on the stainless steel and whether she’s expected to react to the slight lurch of acceleration. She remains stable, and settles for holding onto another handrail mounted closer to the wall.

They’re both quiet as the everyday sounds of machinery carry them to the park area. She watches Jr.’s fingers flex against the metal and wonders hypothetically, horribly, what would’ve happened if chaos had not hauled him back into the car. She wonders what would’ve happened if Ziggy had not helped Shion rescue KOS-MOS, if the weight of the world’s wreckage had exerted its full force on her shoulder, if she’d been without a cyborg’s steady grace to support her.

Jr. looks over at her, his expression open and lightly quizzical, and MOMO looks down at her boots, wishing the shuttle had windows, wishing the soles of her shoes seemed as sturdy as every ancient advancement that cumulatively reinforced the certainty of Ziggy’s footsteps.

When they disembark the shuttle she falls into step beside him, and she keeps just enough distance between them to still her impulse to reach for his hand. There are people in the lobby and she doesn’t want to be observed by them or anyone.

He casually shoves his hands into the pockets of his coat, taking confident strides towards the next set of escalators like he owns the place, neatly eliminating the possibility and closing the door on that theoretical outcome at least for the next few minutes. She flexes her own fingers, curling her left hand into a fist to release any tension she can, and pretends her phalanges are constructed of liquid metal like her distant realian relatives; she doesn’t feel tough at all.

MOMO sets foot on the ascending escalator and waits for it to carry her upward, as it moves her forward passively on a path of someone else’s design. Abruptly she notices Jr. is no longer next to her, and has darted over to the right-hand side instead, jogging against the force of descent to keep pace with her, with twice the effort. He catches her eye and grins, and MOMO can’t help laughing despite herself; it’s almost enough to cheer her up, but the exuberance of her laughter is itself the issue.

Jr. doesn’t turn it into a competition, and there’s no race to the top; they reach the summit at the same time, and he slips his hands back into his coat. She wasn’t the one running but still feels winded.

He crosses back over to reverse course once again, and strolls into the park through its designated exit, although there are functionally no differences between the two doorways. It’s an everyday defiance she admires, even some sort of self-amused deviance, and she wants so badly to be that brave as easily as breathing.

It’s late afternoon and the Foundation’s simulated sun has just begun to dim. The park has its own internal fixtures to illuminate the space regardless of the time, and she takes in the diffuse sources of light, one photon at a time.

Jr. gestures broadly. “There’s no bad seat in the house, here. Take your pick.”

MOMO evaluates her options, calculates the greatest distances from the other visitors, and maximizes the space that’s out of anyone’s direct line of sight. She’s not sure if it’s worse to face the park entrance, or face the fountain, or face the distributor who’s worried about lost documentation as he paces around next to the same bench she sat upon with Shion, back a few days and forever ago when Jr. had made a comment about her father that she still doesn’t know how to process.

She settles for facing the entryway so she can see who might walk in; she’s already accounted for everyone present currently and doesn’t want to be caught unaware by any newcomers or, in the worst case, unwelcome intruders. The magnitude of the colony’s massive mirrors unfurl far behind her, man-made superstructures in the form of mechanical petals, fractals just like the organic flowers growing here in every way but their base materials.

Without asking for his approval, MOMO leads the way to an imitation of an island on the left-hand side, itself facing a facsimile of a forest, bespoke spaces inhabited by mass-produced insects and mass-produced people all propagated like seedlings, or trees grafted to produce consistent results, to reduce genetic aberration. The bridge seems uncrossable, itself unlit yet aglow with track lights recessed into the floor and submerged in the reflecting pool, but the flickering signals of the environmental bugs give the impression that she has at least one parent guiding her as she finds her way to the right spot.

Jr. sits on the furthest edge of the seating, up against the pane of glass to give her as much space as is available. MOMO sits down at first towards the center, then scoots closer to him, then worries if she’s gotten too close or whether it would be more awkward to move back again after her thigh has already nudged into his. Even with multiple layers, his leg seems oddly exposed without wearing his usual holsters, and she freezes in her indecision, at once aware that she’s crossed directly into his personal space but reluctant to leave it now that she’s existing in his orbit the way the Foundation is currently stationed in Miltian space.

“So,” he starts, drumming his fingertips on his knees and utterly immobile otherwise. He follows the wandering, pseudo-random programmed path of an environmental bug as it blinks its way through the air in front of them. “You holding up okay?”

“I don’t know,” she blurts, honestly.

“Yeah. I feel the same way a lot of the time.” He laughs a bit, but not at her, under his breath and very tired. “People always ask, but they usually don’t want the real answer. In my experience, at least.”

MOMO can see her reflection in the red beads of his earring, wavering in the metal coil, warped and cast in triplicate when he moves his head, and she thinks about his brothers and her sisters.

She sorts through a cascade of information, of olfactory data that identifies odorants as his deodorant, VOCs from the synthetic sections of his clothing, endocrine function and its typical thresholds that trigger identical sense memories from the baseline subjective experience of the world embedded into her brain. His skin cells are surprisingly static, unlike the decaying shift of the fibers of fabric or the dead structures of repurposed leather kept out of landfills, efforts made to recover items cast aside as a microcosm of the people the Foundation prevents from slipping through the cracks. In some ways it reminds her of Ziggy, because his skin doesn’t change, either, but his isn’t alive, and Jr.’s is, somehow.

She parses all the data and determines that he smells good, decides from the visual input that he's attractive, and wishes her sisters could experience something like this.

After a moment passes, he speaks again, assertive and reassuring. “I’m not trying to pressure you at all, here, but it seemed like you had something important you wanted to tell me.”

When he looks at her he's handsome and heroic and everything that's good in her world, the only thing she had to look forward to after years of isolation; the infatuation is overwhelming and she feels so foolish. She can tell he’s waiting for her to say it, literally in the spotlight thanks to the overhead light in the section of the park she chose and with him looking back at her, and the kindness in his expression makes it harder to find the phrasing for what she’s struggling to articulate, regardless of how much she rehearsed it to herself, how much she mouthed the words when she was alone and working through the potential permutations of how this could go after he returned to the ship.

“Um, so..." She regrets how she’s started it already, unaccustomed to this novel clumsiness, aggravated with how difficult it is to navigate social situations when she’s adept at navigating through star clusters or a superhighway’s oncoming traffic. “Before... Jr., I wanted to say, before they do the analysis tomorrow, and in case I don’t wake up the right way when they’re done...”

He sighs, his elbows locked, knuckles tensed as he presses his fingers against his kneecaps. There’s obvious worry written into his face, and it reinforces her fear that she was not wrong to identify this as the last moment she may have to speak her mind while it’s still hers.

She’s heard people refer to having butterflies in their stomachs, but what she’s feeling seems more like nanomachines left unattended, and she’s uncertain if she’s resentful of the nervousness that’s been programmed into her in ways she can’t access and switch off. If she could just shut down all of this complication, if she could set up deliberate tunnel vision for herself for once and be purely objective, to process data as math and nothing else, to seek refuge in the simplicity of zeroes and ones, maybe she’d be better off for it.

MOMO looks at him, at his eyes she remembers in ways she doesn’t, and something keeps suggesting to her that the sun should be lower in the sky, that the air should smell different, that there should be more wooden construction nearby, that he shouldn’t look nearly so exhausted.

She draws the hems of her sleeves up into her palms and twists the cloth beneath her fingers, distracts her racing thoughts by working out the figures to map folds of a plane, determining the way it would move if subjected to a variety of forces that could act upon it instead of simply her own shaky hands.

Jr. holds very still, as if he’s trying to make himself smaller than he already is, to become utterly nonthreatening. It’s like he's afraid to take up too much space on the bench, with no room to move without getting up entirely. Even so, he meets her eyes, unwavering and ready to listen, the way he always has been.

“I... really like you. A lot.” It’s dangerous to hope for anything, for as long as she’s been alive, for as far back as her inherited memories extend her perception into the past. “Do you... do you think, uh, that... could we...?”

“No. We can’t.”

It hurts that there’s no hesitation in his response, shot down with the severity of reporting a death toll. The moment upends her, like leaving the safety of the tank, the air harsh as she took her first unassisted breaths, choking like a fish swallowing jewelry.

“Oh,” she says, her face hot, her temples tense. “Okay.”

“It’s not fair to you to be unclear about this, so not now, and not ever. I could never think about you in that way.” He shakes his head. “I’m honored and humbled that you trust me enough to tell me, and that your family trusts me, which is why I could never, ever betray that trust.”

MOMO can tell he’s uncomfortable with her proximity, and admits to herself that he has been the whole time, and she reels from self-imposed shame as she slides over on the seating to give him more space.

“And it’s not because you’re a realian, and it’s not because of Sakura. It’s because I am almost thirty years old.” His posture relaxes slightly, and he laces his fingers together loosely over his knees as he continues. “And I’m flattered you think so highly of me, and I know it sucks, I know it’s disappointing, but years from now? You’ll look back on this moment and you’ll appreciate that I told you no. I could not live with myself if I was the kind of person who would say yes, and I would not deserve your family’s trust if I took advantage of that.”

She’s torn between watching the sincerity in his face and the fidgeting of his hands, and she knows he means it, she knows he wouldn’t lie to her about something so serious, but some stubborn part of her doesn’t want to say goodbye to this already, doesn’t want to set this down after less than a week of getting to have a first crush. There’s nothing about any of his nonverbal cues to indicate he’s being anything but direct with her, and she can’t unthink the truth of it.

“Yeah,” she says, haltingly. “You’re right.”

MOMO nods as if to convince herself, and it sends the two ribbons on her hat swaying, overlapping but never quite lining up, never the same piece even though they’re genuinely cut from the same cloth.

Jr. observes her without staring, and she can sense that his heart rate has steadied now that the conversation has reached this point, that he’s still stressed but it’s down from its peak when he was unintentionally cornered.

“It’s just,” she adds, in a rush of last-minute bargaining, compelled to further explain herself even if it’s overkill. She rubs her thumbs over the ends of her sleeves, worrying the fabric until she’s worried she’s managed to ruin it. “I’ve felt this way as long as I can remember, and maybe for more time than I actually can remember, and I finally got to meet you, and I thought... I don’t know what I thought.”

"Sakura's world didn't revolve around me, you know. We were important to each other, sure, but she was her own person way before I ever met her, and I've become someone far different since those days, too." Jr. shrugs, and there’s a sadness to him that reminds her of shared moments she never truly saw, on a porch swing in the shadow of a house he could never live in, that no one could. “I haven't been that boy in the fourteen years you’ve been alive. You don’t know me as well as you might think.”

MOMO doesn’t want to hear it even though she knows she needs to, and the more he talks her through it, the harder it is to keep from crying.

“I don’t want that for you, you know? Your world shouldn’t revolve around me, either. You shouldn’t hang onto every word I say, or that anybody says. You gotta... I dunno, achieve escape velocity and go do your own thing, right? And as cool as I am, admittedly...” He smiles at her and aims dual-wielded fingerguns at the space in front of them both; it’s difficult to continue meeting his eyes. “You are gonna meet people even cooler than me. It just takes some time.”

MOMO rubs her thumb over the back of her wrist, where the engraved bullet is stitched into her sleeve. She’s fighting a losing uphill battle. “Would it be okay if I gave you a hug?”

“Of course you can.” His voice sounds strained, heartbroken in the way she doesn’t want; she doesn’t want pity. “MOMO, of course you can.”

She takes him up on it anyway, afraid of what will happen in the morning, missing her dad and missing her mom and missing Ziggy while he’s undergoing maintenance, missing a cat she’s never met, missing a dreamscape of cornfields from somewhere she’s never been, some liminal space cobbled together from a patchwork quilt of ideas and unrealized summer fantasies. As soon as she presses her face to his shoulder she starts sobbing, with the unbearable weight of the worst week of her life, culminating in a crushing rejection and an embrace as a literal consolation prize.

“Hey, hey, it’s okay. You’re gonna be okay.” Jr. brings his arms around her upper back and holds her; she can feel his head as he leans his cheek against her hat. “You’re not stupid, and I’m not mad at you or anything.”

MOMO curls her arms around his chest, between his back and the interior of his trenchcoat, and she doesn’t know how to make her hands move the right way, or how to handle anything with a level of finesse that would prevent the devastating embarrassment that’s seized her so completely. He’s warm and he smells good and she wants to kiss his cheek like she remembers doing in another lifetime, or to kiss his neck where his sweater is blocking her from doing so, but she doesn’t do it; she doesn’t want to make it weird, she’s made enough of a mess already and she’s all too familiar with how people try to take what they want from both of them.

She cries and he kisses the top of her head through her hat like she’s a little kid. She almost wants to hate him for it, but can’t bring herself to feel it even as she has the thought.

“You do trust me, right?”

She nods against his shoulder, clinging to him as long as she’s allowed to, more aware than most could ever be how quickly this moment will end forever. The ribbons from her hat trail over his back just enough to reach for the wing patches sewn into the material.

“Then believe me when I say it’ll fade. As unfair as this seems, I promise you it will fade, and we can still be friends, and it will be fine.” Jr. pats her on the shoulder twice, squeezes her upper arm, and keeps his hand resting there afterward. “We’re all here to support you.”

MOMO sniffs a few times and closes her eyes against his coat. She takes a deep breath and lets it back out. “All right.”