It was the ticking that nearly undid her.
Such a little sound, scarcely noticeable, easily ignored. It faded into the background, usually, like the sound of breath slithering through the lungs, the soft susurrus of fur against fur as you moved; you didn't think about it any more than you did about batting your ears. But Chur did, at least for today. Each rattling cascade made the fine dark hair of her mane rise a little higher, made it just that much harder not to wrinkle her nose. Each skipping click made her wonder just a little more frantically if she wasn't being a gods-be fool, if she shouldn't have gotten out while she had the chance to do it cleanly. Pyanfar had said there'd be no harm done, and Py only said what she meant.
And if the mere sound of her own claws ticking once again on The Pride's deck plates was able to unnerve her so, she thought sardonically, it might be best for them all if she did.
But that was a lot of feather-headed nonsense, and Chur knew it, even as she struggled to keep from quailing. She shouldered her duffel a bit higher as she strode down the familiar corridor to the crew lounge; she'd gotten spoiled and soft, that was all, lazing about planetside while she left her mates to do the real work, and she simply needed to get on with it. Recuperation? Pfaugh, that was a joke; if those last jumps hadn't killed her, she wasn't sure that anything could. She'd been malingering, that was all, stealing a bit of leave for her own devices, and she'd gotten used to the leisure.
They'd eventually given up and broken the seals on the ship, exposing the interior to the killing cold vacuum of space, in an attempt to finally put paid to the remains of Skukkuk's pesky, invasive Dinner once and for all. They were operating under the assumption that the slinking, scuttling pests were at last exterminated, but Chur half-expected one to scurry across her path at any moment. Nothing should be able to survive that kind of exposure, but the little bastards had survived everything from electric shock to maunur poison thus far... and she knew, perhaps better than anyone, what sorts of things might be possible out in the deep dark, if a body had a mind to try them. Ahkktish life. Adaptable. Hah!
But it meant in practical terms that the lifts were offline, while The Pride lolled in drydock having its seals mended and its electrical systems retrofitted to accommodate whatever mahen sorcery Py had conned out of the Personage to ease them on their way. She scuttled down the last access ladder with the gratifying ease of practice, landing almost soundlessly; at least she hadn't entirely lost her touch. Her ears rose in pleasure at the sight of the largely featureless corridor, quickly enough to make the sweep of rings that adorned them jingle, and the soft, familiar sound made her lips purse in a contented smile. No fertile estate, this; cramped, tight, and smelling faintly of the recycler, as it always had, this was no one's idea of paradise, nothing anybody sane would think was worth fighting for. But it had become more of a home to her than the Anify holdings had ever been, and she was suddenly, damnably, glad to be back.
Her pace picked up as she drew nearer to the wide, well-lit sleeping area they'd all shared; Haral had warned her that there had been a few changes, but, even as close-mouthed as the rangy hillwoman was, surely she'd have mentioned one as big as that. A quick hop into the shower to wash the oily smell of the station out of her fur—gods, but it clung—and out of the scratchy shirt—it would be so nice not to have to worry about dressing any more—and she'd be up at ops to see what there was to be seen for herself. There was some new scan comp, again, mahen make, number one good, and Chur could scarcely imagine what it would be capable of. AOS a thing of the past, no more need to rely on ID squeals to track ships in range, the means to follow a ship's course through jump... it sounded mad, and probably was, but so did being able to stop in mid-jump and turn around, and the mahendo'sat had proven they were more than capable of that. Perhaps even human technology; the gods alone knew what they were truly capable of. The dry leather of her hands suddenly itched for her boards, with a childlike eagerness to find out just what the new toys were really able to do. Tirun, bless her, had undoubtedly made a bloody mess of the set up, there'd be seven different kinds of sorting out to be done... but it could all wait on the small figure currently waist-deep in the life support hatch beside the captain's cabin.
Gods be good, she'd dreamed this and dreaded it. She fought the impulse to lick her suddenly dry nose, fought to remember all the excellent explanations--excuses--she'd planned on making, and gave it all up as a bad job. “I'd offer a hand, there,” she drawled, “but I think I'd have to assassinate you for the privilege.” The dark red hani froze, still poised on hands and knees, but did not withdraw from the hatch. “Seeing as we're all loyal servants of the mekt-hakkikt now, of course. Or would that be disloyal?” She paused, hoping for a response, knowing she wasn't likely to get the one she wanted. “Got to go with the flow, of course.”
Silence, then, drawing out longer and longer still; Chur's ears drooped in dismay. Still waters ran deep, and none deeper than her sister, but still...
Finally: “Hunh.” Geran wriggled forward another inch or two, resuming whatever task sent her crawling into the walls. “You might fetch me another packet of filters. If I could impose on you.”
Py didn't always know what she was on about.
Quick as a thought, she'd dropped her duffel and bounded back up the corridor, hauling open the supply closet to snatch the requested supplies. She hurried back, slitting the seal on the package with a claw as she did, and sliding one of the small filters free in time to place it in Geran's hand as soon as it withdrew from the hatch and began questing for one. “Ah, Gery, still? I thought we'd spaced the miserable things!” The Dinner had proven particularly fond of the filtration systems, with the life support systems being high on the menu. The awful little creatures had eaten plastics, for the gods' own sakes; the micro-organic support filters had undoubtedly been a veritable feast.
“We did.” Geran's voice was hollow, the echo of the service tunnel muffled by the thick wall plating, but that flat tone was unmistakable. “We're only just getting to find out how far they'd gotten.” The filter disappeared into the hatch, and Chur admired the way Geran's back moved as she slotted it into the receiver. They'd all been raw boned and skinny when they'd parted company, run raggedly to the brink in their mad dash for salvation; but Geran, at least, had come back as good as she'd ever been. Her curly russet fur shone under the lights, thick and full, and the play of muscles beneath her hide was strong and easy. Chur herself was still a bit on the slender side, and her coat was still a bit thin in places, particularly over the gut wound that had nearly ended her. But seeing her sister in the glow of health cheered her immensely; gave her hope that she herself would recover, could be as she had been. As much as any of them could be, anyway.
She braced her back against the wall, and slid down to sit on her bag, handing Geran filters in companionable silence. Eight filters in an array, but only six in a packet—what kind of sense did that make? But it was good to have a task, something simple and mindless to ease her way back into the never-ending routine of shipboard life. Even better to be doing it with Gery.
She handed over the last of the filters and rose to fetch another packet; when she returned, Geran was squatting back on her heels, regarding her with a distinctly unfriendly flat-eared look. Chur offered the filters with a weary sigh; Geran snatched them from her rudely and crawled back into the hatch. “Some of us have to do the mending.”
Chur slumped against the wall, folding her arms across her narrow chest. Anger she'd expected, resentment, maybe, but not sulking... and she should have. Geran sullen was Geran at her worst; left alone, she'd brood and brood and brood, turning the facts of the matter over and over in her mind until an off-handed slight became hearth and blood unto the third generation. Her saving grace was that she was easy enough to jolly out of such moods; Chur wondered, not for the first time, if she'd be as glib as she was if she hadn't had to spend so much time coaxing Geran out of foul tempers. She could be worse than a man when she was in a black study, and it took a deft touch to prod her back onto an even keel.
But Chur had not been there to apply said touch, not this time. And she'd never had one of these moods directed at her.
“I did plenty, Gery.” She settled back onto her bag, shifting to get comfortable on the lumpy surface. With her sister's head buried in the hatch, she was free to allow her expression to show her true feelings. What am I supposed to say, Gery? I'm sorry I almost died? I'm glad you looked after me? I am, you know I am! She chewed her mustaches fretfully. I'm sorry I got scared, Gery? I'm sorry I needed a little time to get used to being alive after all? To wrap my brains around the course we're set to embark on? To try to reconcile walking in the long, deep dark when I know it isn't possible? I said I'd be back before the vanes were repaired, and I am; what more do you want?
But she couldn't say any of that, that was the thing. Geran didn't do well with feelings, got flustered and shut herself down; you could get more sense out of a knnn. Damned inconvenient and damned ridiculous, a hani of her age throwing tantrums like that, but there you were. You couldn't tell her you were hurt and frightened and just wanted things to be alright again. You had to talk her around to things.
What Chur said was: “He has a brother, you know.”
Geran didn't stop her work, but her hide twitched, sending a ripple down her back.
“Light-colored, the Llun are, can you believe it? You'd never guess it from Sfaury and Raruan and them—marrying in's diluted it, I reckon—but most of 'em are easterners, pure and true. Fur like sunlight. Almost as bright as Tully's.” She allowed her eyes to droop shut for a moment, happy with the reminiscence. “Steady fellows they are, too. Quiet. Not like most men. Put me in mind of our own na Khym, it did.”
“Hunh. Best not let the captain hear you say that,” Geran grunted. “Being downworld turned your head. Khym's crew.”
“And so he is,” Chur agreed easily. “Got me thinking, it did. Got me thinking about... oh, all sorts of things.” She propped her elbows on her knees, letting her hands dangle between her thighs. “Alun's not bright, you understand. Well, he is, but he's just a kid. Smart, though. Knows about all sorts of things. Likes to talk about them.” She extruded a claw to pick at a snag in her trousers. “Just a kid. But we... we talked. Talked, too.” She shrugged. “Got me thinking. Never did bother to talk to a man before. They're Immune, see, so it's different. They don't just chuck 'em out when their beards start growing in. They let 'em hang around. Let 'em learn to deal with each other. Let 'em talk.” She paused, waiting, hopeful; Geran did not oblige her with another response. “Got me thinking. Thinking maybe we're more right than we knew, see? Maybe it's not all politics. Maybe we're helping settle our own nests, huh?”
Nothing answered her but the ratcheting click of the wrench as Geran fixed the array back in its moorings. Chur's ears sagged in defeat. “But what do I need with another bastard, hey?” She levered herself to her feet and hoisted her duffel back onto her shoulder. “I'm going to go pack in, then head up to ops.” She stood, waiting for Geran to crawl back out of the hatch, but she seemed inclined to remain there. Childish. “I'll see you up to the galley later, yeah?” She knew better than to expect a response at this point, and turned to trudge her way towards the crew lounge. It was better than nothing. Gery would just need time to sort herself, that was all.
What she did not see as she turned away was her sister's ears perked so high the rings of her many voyages hung parallel to her face; nor did she hear the softly whispered “yeah” that followed her down the corridor.