The war ends and it’s not like either side wins, not really. The Moriyamas win - they own the majority of the territories in the ‘verse now, and the people who live in them. They call themselves leaders. Unifiers. They don’t treat the outer worlds as anything beyond resources, and those who call them home are as equal in their eyes as the crops they struggle to raise. The core planets prosper. The war ends and no one really wins, but everyone has something to lose.
He knows it’s stupid, coming back to the Foxhole like this - Palmetto is far enough from the core planets that there’s no one to recognize him, not as Neil Josten, but all it takes is one wrong word to one wrong sort and the Alliance has Nathaniel Wesninski back on their radar. He knows it’s stupid but, well, it’s the closest he’s ever had to a home. “We’re short a set of hands,” Wymack tells him; he meets Neil at the property line with a 12-gauge drawn, the house a spot on the horizon.
“I can’t stay planetside.” The desert smells too much like smoke and fire. Too much like burning.
Wymack drops the barrel of his gun. “I didn’t say planetside.”
The Fox isn’t a pretty ship. She isn’t a fast ship, either, or a particularly large one. In fact, she’s not much of anything at all.
Neil’s halfway in love with her before he even sets foot on board.
Her captain - Dan, she greets him with a cocky smile and a cocked pistol, putting both away in the same smooth motion she takes him by the hand. Heard a lot about you. He tries to swallow the panic her words bring up, bubbling like bile in his throat - looks far too soft for the reputation she’s earned, and he doesn’t need to fake his respect for her. Her husband - Matt, he greets with a bright smile and a back-slapping hug - is the pilot.
“So Josten,” they’re sitting around the small table in the mess, elbows and knees knocking, and he wants to ask why they don’t use the larger dining table on the other side of the room - he wants to ask, but he doesn’t want an answer. He gets it and he owes them one. Matt is still a point of brightness in the dim lighting. “Wymack say anything about the job before he sent you this way?”
He shrugs. “He said I’d fit right in on the Fox.” Other than the three of them, he hasn’t seen evidence of anyone else on the crew - Wymack had said they were short a pair of hands. He hadn’t mentioned they were short at least five others. “He also said I was a crazy son of a bitch.”
Dan smiles at him that same, crooked grin. “You’ll fit in just fine.”
He meets the crew the next morning.
The first comes up the ramp and places a wet, smacking kiss against the bulkhead. Without a second of hesitation, he places an identical one on Neil’s cheek. “You got me a pretty,” he croons at Dan, who doesn’t smile at him like she did at Neil.
“Fuck you, Hemmick.” A well-aimed kick has him moving past, sliding his arms out from his coveralls to tie the sleeves around his waist; the shirt he wears beneath is a bright rainbow of colors. A well-worn tool belt is slung low on his hips, and his fingers are stained at the tips. “I don’t want to hear your voice again until you get my ship in the air.” A sarcastic salute and a blown kiss follows him out of the hold. Dan can’t keep the corners of her lips from twitching up as he leaves.
Kevin Day - the floor beneath him seizes, knees going weak and he wants to drop to the deck, wants to vomit, wants to run and never look back because the last time he saw Kevin Day was a lifetime ago, when they both wore Alliance colors. He hadn’t heard of Kevin Day turning sides, and suddenly coming back to the Foxhole seems less a dumb choice and more a deadly one - stalks on board next, flanked by a pair of identical blonds. “No.”
Dan glances at him coolly, unimpressed. “No?”
“We don’t need to take on more crew,” he snarls, and Neil forces himself to look anywhere but the familiar black ‘2′ inked into his cheek; in another lifetime, under another name, he’d worn a similar ‘3.’
She’s a good foot shorter than he is, but she draws herself as tall as she can when she faces him down. “Last I checked, Day,” and there’s the steel. “This was still my ship.”
One of the blonds laughs at that, a startled, simple noise; his brother turns at the noise, a small frown on his face, and steps closer. “Andrew?”
Andrew is dressed in a loose set of black clothes, similar to pajamas, and a vacant expression. He doesn’t react to his brother’s voice or to his name, but he does turn to Kevin and (tugging him down with a hand fisted in his shirt) prods at his face. “Two.” He jabs a finger into the mark, not at all gentle. “Day.” He laughs again, as hollow as his gaze. “Time to go.”
Softly, Kevin shoves the hand at his cheek away, and turns a baleful glare on the others present. “Whatever, Wilds. He’s your problem, then.” He stalks off in the general direction Hemmick - Nicky, he corrects Neil later - had taken; the twins follow, Andrew being towed along by his brother’s hand at his elbow. He doesn’t seem to have noticed Neil’s presence on board.
There’s a frustrated noise beside him; Dan stands at his side, hands on her hips. “Kevin,” she says, unaware that Neil knows more about him than anyone on the ship could hope to. “And the Minyards, Andrew and Aaron. I’m not going to say you get used to them, but Aaron’s a hell of a doctor and keeping Andrew means keeping him. Just…” She offers him a pistol, handle first, and wiggles it until he takes it. “Maybe don’t let him near anything sharp.”
Allison’s shuttle docks right before dinner - this time they are at the larger tables, eight places set for seven chairs filled, and the door opens to reveal a staggeringly beautiful woman. She ignores the smiles and calls in greeting to sit beside Neil, moving her chair as close as possible to press their sides together. “Hi,” she purrs into his ear; she’s sitting on the side that isn’t visibly scarred, and he almost wants to turn his head to startle her. Maybe it would move her away. “You’re new.”
“Yep.” He gives in to the urge and faces her; she blinks twice, but otherwise doesn’t react. He ignores her and returns to his meal.
Nicky cackles, and slaps his hand against the table. “This proves nothing,” Allison tells him without looking away, but she returns her chair to its original position, and she doesn’t speak to him again.
They pick up a shepherd three days later. Renee, she calls herself.
She doesn’t look like any shepherd Neil’s ever seen - her hair is white where it isn’t a rainbow of colors, and she wears soft dresses; her jacket has a small, fuzzy, brown bear patch sewed onto it. There is a small silver cross around her neck, but otherwise no markings of her religion.
She kisses Allison on both cheeks when she boards, and she smiles at Kevin (and Kevin smiles back). Even Aaron, who Neil didn’t think was capable of it, softens when she approaches. “How is he?” she asks him, voice as quiet as the rest of her. She sets Neil on edge.
Renee hums a small noise when Andrew finally appears, and for the split second where he realizes exactly who is speaking to him, his gaze is no longer vacant. “Andrew,” she greets him warmly, and doesn’t flinch when he turns to her. She sets Neil on edge. “I brought you more books. Will you tell me about your trip?”
He nods. It’s the first sign that there’s an actual human in there that Neil’s seen.
One week into his time aboard the Fox, he wakes up after two hours of restless sleep to Andrew crawling into his bunk. “Brown eyes,” he tells Neil’s as soon as they open; there’s that same blank intensity on his face, the one that Neil isn’t sure means there’s nothing going on in his head or just too much - all he knows for sure is that Andrew is straddling his chest, staring intently at his face. He remembers what Dan told him.
The gun is a comforting weight beneath his pillow. He thinks of the fastest way he can get it without alerting Andrew of his intention.
“Brown eyes,” Andrew sing-songs again, one hand moving slow and gripping Neil’s chin in a vice-like grasp to hold his head steady. “Don’t like them.” His other hand comes in to view; it’s holding a knife.
It’s a futile struggle - for all that Andrew is maybe five feet tall he’s solid, and the grip he has on Neil’s chin tightens painfully as soon as he thrashes, clenching short every desperate attempt to dislodge him. He thinks maybe there’s something in the way the knife hasn’t brought down, hasn’t sliced into his flesh (and he hates it, how familiar that would be. It’s the hesitance that is strange to him), so he stills. “Andrew.” The blond doesn’t respond to his name. “I’m going to move my arm.”
Again, no reaction. Hazel eyes haven’t moved from their hawk-like examination of his face.
There’s nothing else he can think of at this point - he raises one arm, agonizingly slowly, and brings it to his eye. The contacts are easy enough to remove with the years of practice, and he tosses first one and then the other to the farthest corner of the room. “They’re lenses,” he says slowly.
Andrew turns his face one way and then the other, a softer examination, before releasing his chin with a violent thrust. “Don’t like them,” he repeats, and climbs silently up the ladder to the hallway.
Neil spends as much of the following day as he can on the bridge. The large windows and the personal touches make it warm. Bright. It’s the most human part of the ship. He has yet to see anyone from Kevin’s group set foot on it. “Is everyone on this ship insane?” he asks without preamble - the two hours of sleep had been his only, after the run-in with Andrew. He can feel exhaustion burning like sand in the corners of his eyes (brown eyes, he hears Andrew sing-song as he dresses. He leaves the lenses out).
Matt shrugs one shoulder casually. “Define insane.”
It’s as good as a yes.
(They rob a bank. Neil laughs his way through it.)
The benefit of having a companion on board is that it lends their crew the smallest degree of legitimacy - as a general rule they’ve got more warrants between them then they do actual bodies, but Allison has the credibility to walk the Core worlds freely. She offers to take Neil along.
“No,” he tells her politely, but firmly; he doesn’t elaborate. He gives an inch of explanation on this ship and they all take a mile, and he has precious little lie left to give.
She laughs instead. “Don’t be shy, Neil. I’ve got makeup and powders that could fix your face right up, no one would recognize you.”
He doesn’t tell her that it’s exactly the opposite.
Instead he takes Nicky up on the invitation to Columbia.
Despite his exhaustion, Neil volunteers for extra work on the bridge. It feels safe in a way his berth doesn’t, full of life and the echoes of the humans who spend their days on it - Dan’s jacket. Matt’s plants. Allison’s earrings, never a matched pair. Renee’s books (she sets him on edge). He’s promised to find them a route to Whitefall that best avoids Alliance and Reavers alike.
He startles at Andrew’s voice, a quiet whisper to match the nighttime stillness of the bridge. A shadow unfolds itself from the bench by the window, jagged black outline against the endless black of space, and Andrew seats himself on the table where Neil had spread the star charts. They wrinkle into valleys and peaks beneath him. “Me?”
Andrew’s head cocks to one side, considering. “Too.” It doesn’t make any sense; he’s learned that Andrew never does.
“Alright then.” It should be easy enough to ignore him; Neil’s been making himself disappear for eight years now.
Minutes pass before Andrew leans over, one fist knocking against Neil’s skull painfully. “Brown.”
Annoyance bubbles over - it’s been fourteen (fifteen, now) days on this ship and he’s had nearly double that number of violent encounters with Andrew’s gang. Despite his best efforts to ignore them, he’s been cornered by elbows and shoves on a regular schedule of dislike. And now, in the part of the ship their group doesn’t belong, minding his own business, Andrew returns for a second attack. “Yes,” and he grabs Andrew’s wrist, wrenching the arm away. “Brown. Get over it.”
The motions swings back with Andrew’s hand around Neil’s wrist, but lacks any of the gentleness; he pulls, hard, pulling Neil off balance so he can snarl in his face. “Brown.” He crumples the star charts beneath his other fist, ripping a few of them as he tugs them loose, and tosses them at Neil. “Brown eyes,” he growls, and releases his hold on both Neil and the maps; his hands twist into his hair, pulling in a way that looks far too painful, and his jaw clenches like it night snap. “Brown lies.”
It’s not the words that catch him, but the effort that goes into speaking them. It’s the same way his mother spoke, bleeding herself stuck to a seat, like she couldn’t die without passing these few phrases on. Andrew is speaking like that now, like the weight of the ‘verse is crushing the words from his chest. Neil’s eyes are not brown. Neither is his hair. This is apparently the color of their lie. “Andrew,” and he moves a hand closer; Andrew flinches away from him, and now the chest being crushed is his. He tries again, softer. “Andrew, are the charts wrong?”
Every muscle in his body relaxes, the hands finally releasing their vice grip on his skull. His hair stays up in pointed tufts. “I can fix the colors,” he whispers, and makes small grabbing motions at one of the pens at Neil’s elbow.
The morning after that exchange, Neil walks into the mess; Nicky wordlessly slides a plate in front of him, and Kevin shifts on the bench to make him space. The silence between them is comfortable. “So Neil,” Nicky breaks it, sliding across the small table from them. “What’s your story?”
The food turns to ash in his mouth. He escaped the Alliance eight years ago, with a new name and a new face (courtesy of the Butcher - half of his face and a good portion of his torso were warped with a web of burn scars) and he hasn’t looked back, but sometimes his past tip-toes up to him in the quiet moments like these. Sometimes he looks at Kevin and swears that Kevin looks back and sees. Other times, he walks the ship and feels like he’s got the purple-bellied uniform on still. “I’m from Bernadette,” he mutters. “Nothing else to it.”
Andrew sits at his other side with an apple; he cuts it into tiny, uniform cubes with a knife, and leaves the pile in front of Nicky like a gift. “It’s safe now,” he informs his cousin with a small smile. Nicky looks sad as he murmurs a thank you, and Andrew wanders off to the main part of the ship.
“What’s his story?” (Neil had tried asking Andrew, only for him to go taut and tense again like that night on the bridge, muscles drawn tight as they could go, and all but yanked his hair out.)
Nicky’s eyes follow the path Andrew took, and he sighs. “Their mother couldn’t afford the twins, so she sold one to the Alliance. When Aaron finally tracked him down, he’d been at the Academy for five years.” The crushing weight is back against his chest; he knows what goes on to the kids at the Academy. He’s seen it firsthand. Suddenly, much more of Andrew’s erratic behavior makes sense.
He also has an answer to the unspoken question about Andrew’s brain - too much, not too little. There’s a certain kind of kid the Academy looks for.
Dan brings Neil and Kevin with her to the meeting.
It goes south fast.
“Well ain’t this the strangest site in the ‘verse,” Patience greets them. “Kevin Day, standing behind a captain that ain’t Riko.” Kevin falters a step, just enough to dislodge the gravel beneath his boots, but it’s something out of character for him - the Alliance had trained the clumsiness out of them both before puberty, and not for the first time Neil wonders what transpired between then and now to bring Kevin this far to the other side.
“Things change,” he recovers.
“Not all things.”
It takes everything Neil has to not react, to not turn his head or give in the panic that claws its way up his gut, to not reach for his pistol and fire as many shots as he can right between his eyes - he can’t react. He can’t let them know he speaks Japanese (He’d learned it in his years on the Raven, back when he had been the third of a trio. This is the first time all three of them have been together in nearly a decade). Riko Moriyama lowers the hood of his poncho, gaze sharp and cheekbones sharp and the clean lines of the number one sharp against his skin, to smile at Kevin. Kevin cringes.
“Brother,” he moves forward to take Kevin in an embrace. Over his shoulder, Neil sees the abject horror in Kevin’s gaze, and something in him breaks.
“There’s another thing that doesn’t change,” he whispers far too loudly to Patience, and ignores the way that Dan gestures for him to be quiet. “Riko’s brother wanting nothing to do with him.” He elbows his way over to the pair, and taps Kevin on the shoulder; both men spin to face him. “Can we go? I’m bored.”
Kevin stares, fragile, but doesn’t move. Riko does. “Do you know who I am?”
“You’re Riko Moriyama.” Neil doesn’t go for his gun; he goes for the throat instead. “Do you wanna know who I am?” Neil slowly inches his way between Kevin and Riko, even though every instinct in him screams not to have either man at his back, until he can step backwards and knock Kevin into Dan’s reach. “I’m Neil Josten. I’m the one who’s going to put a bullet in your skull.”
The Fox crests the rise, a startled stampede of cattle herded before her. Neil doesn’t make good on his threat, but he doesn’t die either.
They spend a week on Palmetto, relaxing as best they can.
Wymack shakes his head when he sees Neil, but he lets him in the house.
Three days after they leave the Foxhole, Neil wakes up again to find he is not alone; this time Andrew is sitting at the foot of the bed. “Stupid,” he greets Neil once he notices he is awake.
“Yes,” and he grabs the covers, pulling them over his head. “Get used to it.”
The story comes in bits and pieces.
Kevin turns his back on the Alliance and spills their secrets alongside the dropped mouths at the dinner table. The terraforming, the war - all of it was meant as nothing more than a capitalist endeavor. It was never about the people. Riko sees the ‘verse as his own personal money-maker, and he’s running the outer rim worlds down into dust. The family wants him stopped. (He doesn’t outright say that the family wants them to stop him, but he doesn’t deny it when they ask, either.)
Aaron quietly tells them everything he’s learned about the Academy. About the experiments, the attempts to create an army to rival any future rebellions - he tells them about how they take the smartest and turn them into weapons. He tells them how sometimes they try to sharpen the blade too far, too lethal, and they end up with someone like Andrew. “He’s not stupid,” he snarls, but none of them have thought it - too much, Neil thinks, not too little. “The experiments, they make it so they don’t feel. Messed up the bridge between the language ports, so what he means and what he says gets all flipped around.”
Allison tells them about Sihnon, and the companions. Dan tells them about the brothel in the desert and the men who took far more than they were willing to give. Renee tells them about Haven and the past that drove her so far to the side of good. Andrew, in starts and stops and wrong words, tells them about a place called Miranda.
And Neil tells them about Nathaniel.
(The next time he sees Riko face to face, it’s seven months later and Riko calls him by his name; Neil laughs. He gave inches and miles and all of his past for the crew of the Fox, keeping nothing but a single promise for himself. “I’m Neil Josten,” he says around the trigger of a pistol.
He makes good on his threat, and he buries Riko Moriyama and Nathaniel Wesninski in the desert.)
That night, when he docks the shuttle aboard an otherwise sleeping ship, he forgoes his bunk to slide to the floor next to Andrew. “I hate you,” the blond tells him casually, easily - now that Neil knows what to look for, knows how to find the tangled paths from word to meaning, there’s no more moments of taut muscles and angered anguish between them.
“Yeah,” and he grabs a blanket, pulling it over them both. “I’m used to it.”