Trigger Warning: This chapter may trigger some people. To see a description of the triggering material, please scroll down to the chapter notes. Thanks!

Chapter 8: In which there are friends

Shotaro stood at the end of the hall, surrounded by maintenance workers. He was laughing, probably telling some story about himself, she guessed. K pushed her hoodie down, spun around, and went down the opposite path.

Everything was fine.

She could hear her heartbeat in her ears, but she was safe and sound - her gut reaction was as fast today as when he landed. Running away had been easy, but avoiding spilling the truth to Kotonami was harder. Still, she managed that too. There was nothing to say. As long as she kept her head down and stayed quiet, things would eventually settle down. She'd been doing it for years now, flying under the radar; she just needed to hold it in until the transfer back to earth was accepted.

Everything was fine.

§

"You're bleeding!" Kotonami interjected.

K blinked and looked around. There were plants. It was her lab. She and Kotonami were debriefing Kuon about the alien rock. The hallway and the people were gone.

"Where's the first aid kit?" Kotonami set her pen on the blackboard and rushed to her side

"Under my desk," K slowly uncurled her fingers, staring at the deep, red gouges.

"Is everything ok?" Kuon looking uncomfortable.

"Fine."

After the silence, K realized that something else was needed of her, so she offered an excuse.

"Probably happened when I trimmed the pea plant this morning. The debrief was so interesting I didn't notice it."

Kuon bought the excuse and cleared his throat.

"I get you. It's all so fascinating that I'm having a hard time keeping my jaw shut so we don't have to clean the floor later," he smiled. "The most intriguing part is the 3D models. Even cloned on the molecular level, they still don't mimic the melodies..."

K looked at his bright, genuine smile, showing off his dimples, and sparkling, golden hair... Her mind went blank for a second, and it made her even more agitated. She'd been terribly wrong. Kuon wasn't photogenic, no, he was even more handsome in person. It was distracting, but it seemed more than just a side effect of attaching a face to the now familiar voice. She frowned at the blackboard and tried to find something smart to say.

"Aaaahn, we think maybe it's related to the substance it's made of," she muttered. "Perhaps the replica should be made of obsidian too."

"I'm working on it, but casting obsidian is almost impossible. I'll start experimenting with simple glass," Kanae responded absentmindedly. "Here, use this to disinfect the wound, and apply pressure with the gauze."

K forced a smile and avoided making eye contact. She didn't want Kotonami to figure out where her mind was. It seemed like there was no end to her nosiness lately.

"Excellent. I'm also setting up a research group on the ground, and Yashiro will take care of expanding our resources without drawing attention." Kuon nodded.

When he said his personal assistant was a drone, K imagined something more… anthropomorphic. The only human characteristic of the hovering screen was the projectid male, human face. She did think that making it wear glasses was a nice touch, though. The drone silently followed Kuon when he walked in front of the board.

"It responds to continuous pieces of music, as long as the tempo is within a certain range, but stops if there is 1.4 seconds of silence between notes," Kuon continued.

"Maybe it can't read the environment when the frequencies are spaced too far or too close," Kotonami suggested.

"No dubstep then." Kuon rubbed his chin.

"What?" K frowned.

"Nevermind." He cleared his throat and turned back to the board.

K sat at her desk, applying pressure as instructed. She thought she saw a red glow on the tips of Kuon's ears. She felt lost. Was that normal?

"I was thinking about the next point. First, the specimen acknowledges a constant stream of sound of any frequency, given it's not too slow, repeats it back once in the same frequency, and then makes a new sound fourteen times in another frequency entirely."

"We think the new sounds might be produced by an echo of the water flow inside the rock," Kotonami added. "It rearranges itself at the end of each interaction, in order to make sounds again..."

"Too obvious." Kuon paced in front of the desk where K was sitting. "If we, technologically behind this tech, can move the water around without making any sound, so should the obsidian. What is the exact frequency it emits?"

"1,420,405,751.786 hertz," Kotonami read from her watch.

Kuon stopped and snapped his fingers. "Hydrogen."

"Of course!" Kotonami smacked her forehead. "Maybe hyperfine transition units."

"It's not a residue, it's a map!" Kuon exclaimed.

"A map?" K was utterly lost. She reflexively checked the door, even though she knew it was still closed. The tightness in her chest didn't lessen.

"Exactly, an elegant solution." Kuon took a seat on the other end of the table. "This 'residue frequency' from the obsidian is in the band emitted by hydrogen atoms, and hydrogen alone."

"And why is the hydrogen so important?" K frowned, sliding away from him.

"In the hypothetical case that your civilization needs to broadcast something anyone in the universe could understand, you would choose the frequency of hydrogen - it is the most common element," Kuon explained.

"We also used it in the pioneer capsules that went out of the solar system," Kotonami added, still typing.

"Thank you, but I know what hydrogen is. My doubt was because it uses the 1420 frequency, it means it came from an intelligent source?" K clarified. "I still don't see where the map comes from."

"That's where the assumptions start." Kuon gave her a half smile. "If you assume they used the same code as we did in the pioneer capsules, the sound should be coded in binary. I'll convert the patterns into coordinates and search for pulsar stars nearby that emit the same radio signature. It's a long shot, but it's still a shot."

"And why would 'they' come to the same conclusion and use the same method as 'us'?" K leaned forward, searching his face.

"I don't know." Kuon ran a hand through his shimmering, golden locks. "I agree it's a weak hypothesis, but if nothing else, it still needs to be ruled out."

When scent of his shampoo hit her, K realized she was staring directly into his mesmerizing, emerald eyes. Feeling the anxiety creep into her stomach, she jumped up from the table. What was wrong with her? Shotaro was in the station, where she could run into him at any time, and she was acting like she didn't have a care in the world, practically drooling on her boss. She should at least try to work; to be useful for a few more days.

"I-I can help to decode binaries, that is, if you need help," she offered.

"Thank you, but I can do it," he smiled.

It made her even more embarrassed. Of course he could. The man was as much of a genius as his father. How patronizing of her.

"You could test out other liquids." Kotonami lifted her head from the keyboard she'd been furiously typing on. "Hassan mentioned something about acids, and it made me curious about the possibilities."

"Who is that?" Kuon turned.

"Our friend who started all of this." Kotonami went back to typing.

"I'll bring him here," K blurted, "I need some fresh air anyway."

She lifted her hoodie, opened the door, and fled the lab before anyone could object. No matter the risk, she needed to get out of there.

Our friend. Bullshit.

Why were people so eager to throw around that label? Why couldn't she be in her own lab, without the constant presence of a chatty escort? K scanned the Mars' Ring halls and picked at her lip to focus.

People were so distracting.

She never had to worry about someone else's presence affecting her productivity before. In the past, she could only see Sho, and it was fine since she wasn't interested in seeing anyone else... since they had a tendency to be snakes playing with her feelings to get to him.

K tore off another annoying piece of skin, stopping when tasted blood. She knew better. Now was the time to stay alert, when that idiot could jump out from anywhere and end her fragile piece with just a...

§

"K! Are you listening to me?" Hassan searched her face.

"No." She wiped the sweat from her brow.

"I said, maybe the obsidian is trying to communicate with us." He cast a glance around the room before adding, "maybe it is a sentient being and you got a pet rock!"

Her head hurt, and her world was spinning. She needed to ground herself. Breathe in and out. The gym. It was Tuesday. On Tuesdays, she taught Hassan karate in the North Gym. This was his second lesson. Sho was not around.

Everything was fine.

"Stop talking about classified stuff out in the open, and do the move again."

"But I don't understand this sequence, can you do it slower?"

Hassan stood in his workout jumpers and high socks, with a confused expression. He looked inoffensive enough, but what if it was just another trap? What if his friendly face was just a mask?

No, everything was fine.

"It's supposed to be a sequence of defensive and offensive strikes." She counted to ten in her mind. "Imagine there's an opponent in front of you."

"But I'm not used to knowing where their 'imaginary arm' is," he sighed.

K eyed the door. Four people walked in, one of them blonde. Not him.

"Come closer and hit me." She beckoned him forward. "Two punches, two blocks, cat stance."

Hassan did as he was told, and she observed his movements closely. As far as she knew, he didn't know who Sho was, otherwise how could he act so normal in the middle of this mess? And how could he so bad at fighting? His strikes landed short and were too soft. He had no spirit.

"Oh, for god's sake." K's patience snapped.

She shifted fluidly from defensive to offensive, and executed the sequence herself, for what seemed like the ninetieth time. Punch, punch, block, block, step.

He reacted quick enough. Good. She did it again. Punch, punch, block, block, step. If he turned out to be a snake, at least now he might be better at biting.

She went over it again, and again and again. With each strike she released her frustrations. All the tension from constantly being on high alert. All her fears.

"STOP!"

K stopped suddenly when she heard the scream, painting.

Kotonami was on the floor, shielding Hassan's body. His arms were bruised. Red.

She'd overdone it.

"A-Are you ok?" The question sounded dumb even in her ears.

Bile rose up in the back of her throat. She went too far.

This was not fine.

"What do you think? If you keep spacing out like this," Kotonami warned, "you'll end up messing up even worse. Get out of the way, I'm taking him to the doctor."

K almost offered a hand, but she couldn't do it. This was her fault. Like Kotonami said, she'd probably just make things worse.

Hassan looked at them both for a long moment, and shook his head.

"I can walk. Just stay here."

He made it to the front hatch before she could make up her mind. K left the room right after Kotonami. Hood up, head down.

She followed them to the doctor's office in silence, and for once Thompson wasn't a dick. He asked no invasive questions and made no offhand remarks. In less than half an hour, Hassan was patched up and properly medicated. K felt helpless as she watched the bandages being applied, the guilt eating her up inside.

She knew she needed to apologize.

"A word, love?" Thompson asked when they were heading out.

K stayed behind in the wall-less room. She simply stared forward, at the starry sky. Not at Thompson. Never make eye contact with Thompson.

"You look like shit."

"Thank you."

He paced around her for a while glancing over every so often, as though trying to decide where to begin

"Are you responsible for that?" He lifted his chin toward the door.

She nodded.

"I thought maybe the air recycler was leaking CO2 and making you less of an asshole recently, but I guess that's just wishful thinking on my part."

She couldn't bring herself to disagree.

"Your luck is that Kanae and Hassan seem accepting of you, poor bastards." Thompson stopped in front of her. "You know, of all the people in this turn, I never thought you would go back to earth before me. Why did you request a transfer back to solid ground?"

"I feel like a change of scenery," she kept her eyes on his graying, red hair.

"If you lie to my face like that again, you little prat, I won't help cover up your latest mess."

K drew a long breath. She supposed it was useless to lie to a former marine.

"I don't want to be on this station anymore."

She felt the weight of his gaze searching her face, but didn't give in to the prickling sensation at the back of her eyes.

"Really?" he stepped back and sat on his chair. "Well then, you'd better hurry up and get your affairs in order. Right your wrongs while you still have the chance."

K accepted the dismissal and started to exit, but he called her once more.

"You know that I'm here if you need me, love."

She ignored him, as usual.

K reached Kotonami and Hassan in silence, rehearsing the words with a bitter taste in her mouth. She gathered a shred of courage before they reached the stairs, and bowed low in middle of the hall.

"I'm sorry."

Hassan and Kotonami stopped.

"Sure," he said.

"I should have been paying more attention, but I know that's no excuse… You ended up hurt because of me and..."

"It's ok," he replied.

"Hassan..." Kotonami started, but failed to continue.

K chewed at the inside of her cheek and looked up. Hassan was sweaty, his back was arched as if protecting his arms, but his almond eyes were calm. They seemed honest.

"Really?"

"Jee han," he nodded, "I should have said this to you before, but I was afraid my voice would break, you know, because of the pain. This is also my fault for not understanding the exercise properly."

He motioned a hand up to his neck, but winced in pain and stopped halfway, making Kotonami rush to his aid. K cringed, knowing too well it was her fault.

"Sorry, I'm a slow learner. Take it into consideration when planning our next sessions," he suggested.

Kotonami gave her an dark look. It was what she deserved. K had lost control, injured an good and innocent person; she didn't deserve his acceptance, but nonetheless, he gave it to her.

She wasn't worth it.

K did her best to measure her words and actions in the next days, to not fade away into the darkness. Her sense of self was spread thin, but she maintained a modicum of social veneer, even when Kotonami started following her everywhere. Kotonami didn't even bother to do it from afar this time. Late at night and early in the morning, at the cafeteria or in the hall, Kotonami was present like a bodyguard. It was pathetic, since the woman was so thin and pretty, and K so muscular and androgynous, that it looked like the opposite - it was like K was following her around.

"Don't you have anywhere better to be?" K snapped after a week, returning from a indulgent trip to the cafeteria.

"Who was the guy who called you Kyoko?"

"Who?" she tried to maintained a level voice. "W-When?"

Kotonami stopped to stare at her, hands on her hips.

"Mo, if that's how you prefer to handle this situation, I'll follow along." she resumed walking.

K chewed at the inside of her lip. "I don't know what you're talking about."

One more week, she just had to deal with this for one more week. Her transfer had been approved. The research was in order, Gustavo was aware - and exultant too, she was sure. Not even a week, just five more days, and she could go down and never deal with…

Her world spun as some clumsy guy shoved her down, on her way out of the cafeteria. She fell to the floor, on her hands and knees, pathetically slowly - courtesy of the martian gravity.

"Kuso, I didn't see you here," he apologized, and the blood in her veins turned to ice. "Hey!"

K ran.

She ran through the halls, climbed up the spiral ladder, and pushed against a wall, covering ground at an inhuman speed, trying to escape from the nightmare.

Everything was fine.

She was fast.

"Kyoko!"

K propelled herself, stepping hard on another handrail. Her heartbeat echoed in her ears and limbs felt impossibly heavy. She needed to get to her room before she shut down. She needed to lock herself in for the next five days.

"Wait for me," Kotonami's voice came from behind her.

"Everything is fine, you can leave now." K ripped off another bit of skin from her lip to focus and thrusted again.

Her cold, sweaty fingers slipped from the handrails, and she ignored whatever she collided with next. She tried to count, but her mind didn't know the sequence. She tried to summon Mio, but the familiar feeling of hatred didn't fill her. Fleeing was the only option. She thought her defenses were better than this and still… how could he? How did he speak to her so casually?

"Is that who I think it is, K? Hold on."

The recoil from Kotonami yanking on her elbow cause them to spin out, crashing into opposite walls. The collision made her take the first deep breath since she'd started running, but she couldn't stop. She needed to hide now and take the shuttle down later. And change countries. Somewhere in South America, or maybe an island. Surely he hadn't reached Hawaii yet, it would be hard, but….

K's eyes focused and found him immediately behind, drifting erratically at a high speed. He had followed them.

"Please, no. Don't."

K pushed Kotonami forward into his path and tried to dash to the opposite side, but her foot got tangled in a handrail and she heard, and felt, a sickening crunch. The sharp, throbbing pain of a broken bone was nothing compared to the way it burned when he inevitably caught up and grabbed her arm.

"Kyoko! It was really you, wow I can't believe it! I didn't know you were up here too, are you also in the robotics division? I should have checked the team's names, but who has time for that? Wow, babe you changed so much!"

She froze, her foot throbbing angrily with every beat of her racing heart. Some part of her brain registered a positive stimulus - he was paying attention to her. She bit through the inside of her cheek so hard she tasted blood. If she just stayed still, and didn't fight, he would be pleased and leave. She needed him to leave.

"This is him, isn't it?" Kotonami's voice sounded far away, like it was coming from underwater. "Should I get help?"

"Help? What are you talking about? I'm not some random guy." Sho's rich, poison voice reverberated through her body and she closed her eyes, feeling herself sink. "I'm not sure who you are, but this reunion is private, so give us some space, would ya?"

"K, talk to me. I'll call security."

"Security? Don't be ridiculous, stupid wo- I mean, hi, I'm Fuwa Sho," he shot her his most charming smile, the one that always won people over, "I just arrived on the station, and I've known Kyoko, Mogami Kyoko, since we were kids. We've been dating for fifteen years now, so don't worry. She's safe with me."

Oh, he didn't…

"That still doesn't give you any right to-" Kotonami started.

"Me?" she looked directly into his eyes. "Are you talking about me?"

A spark of anger brought up one of the Mio lines she had memorized. Lines she had repeated until her old self was erased. K's voice was as cold as the void beyond the station.

"Interesting, I've always been under the impression I was more your pet than your girlfriend."

"Pet?" Shotaro repeated. "What are you talking about? I care more about you than anyone, more than even myself. "

K snickered as she struggled to get free, pain lancing through her with every movement, but he just pulled her closer.

"Babe, I've been searching for you for so many years. I have so much to say, so much I'm thankful for." He spoke the smooth lies with practiced ease. "You were there when I screwed up bad, supporting me even when my parents ran out of money... You are my second in command, my muse, and I made you famous. Was that why you left? You're still not over this?"

He stroked her arm with his thumb and her stomach lurched. She didn't know what was worse, if it was all just a lie, or if he really believed it.

"I left because you made androids with my face." Her jaw clenched and she struggled to maintain Mio's calm facade as nausea and pain threatened to make her unravel. She shook her arm once more. "Let me go."

He looked around at the mention of bots. Kotonami was speaking into her watch, and apart from the figure approaching from afar, the dormitory hall was deserted.

"It's not that big a deal. Kyoko, you are the smartest thing in this world, and you belong to me." He smirked proudly, like nothing had ever been truer than those words. "At first I was pissed off, but everyone else is just playing with second rate copies. I got the original. Did you think I stopped loving you less? You don't have to feel guilty, I'm fine with it."

She felt dizzy, she couldn't take much more.

"You forgive me? I don't deserve such kindness," she spat, venom lacing each and every syllable. "How kind of you to forgive me. What a shame I can't reciprocate. Now, let me go."

"You can't forgive me? For what?" He leaned close to whisper in her ear, "it took me years to find you. There's no way I'm not letting go now."

K snapped.

The rush of adrenaline overtook everything else, and she anchored herself with a toe on her uninjured foot, bent her knees, and headbutted his chin away with all the force she could muster, finally floating free.

"Drop the act!" K screamed, her whole body shaking with rage. She could feel the sting of tears but she bit them back. She wouldn't cry in front of him. Never again.

"You scum! You sold my data, my name, my identity, and my work. You took everything that I had! Everything that I was! I loved you! How could you!?"

Shotaro clumsily reached for a nearby shelf for support, and Kotonami rushed to K's side, standing in between them. "Security is coming, back away."

"Don't shift the story to make yourself the victim," Sho groaned, hurt. "You were always so smart, you had to want to sell it too! Otherwise, you wouldn't have developed the program logic, stored your data and made it react so well to me."

"K! It's not worth it," Kotonami tried to intervene once more.

"Mister Fuwa!" Annya appeared out of thin air. "I was looking for you, your quarters are in the other direction."

Their objections were just noise, fading into the background.

"I just wanted to be with you! For you to pay attention to me! I wanted to come first," K howled behind Kotonami, "but people are just playthings to be used and discarded at will in your twisted, narcissistic mind."

"How many times will you make me apologize for it?" Sho dislodged himself and floated closer to them. "Look babe, let's discuss this somewhere private? They are nothing compared to you, and I know I'm the only one who can make you happy, you left the proof in the code. We can go back to how things were before, working on projects together. Who else would love you the way you are now..."

His speech was cut short when Kotonami's fist slammed into his perfect jaw. Little droplets of blood floated around them, and K was pushed away by Kotonami's recoil. She could feel the throbbing in her foot, but she barely registered the pain.

"Go to hell!" Kotonami yelled, massaging her dominant hand.

"Kyoko, wait..."

Shotaro prepared for another jump, but Aanya held him back while Kotonami dragged K by the hand. She was finally free.

As Kotonami pulled her away to safety, she could hear Annya scolding him.

"Looks like you're suffering from some hearing issues, Specialist Fuwa. Her name is K."

K's heart felt like it was on the verge of exploding. The adrenaline was still coursing through her body, pushing her to move, but where? So much had changed. She confronted him for the first time since... actually, for the first time in her life. She'd called out his lies, and no matter what happened next, peace wasn't an option. He was jealous and vindictive, and he wouldn't give up that easily. Still, she had screamed - spreading all her secrets out in the open. And why was Annya there? How did she arrive so fast? She wasn't from security. Did Kotonami call her? How much did she hear?

There were a thousand questions running through K's mind, but there was one thing she was certain of.

"You punched him," K's just stared at her, dumbstruck. "You mother-fucking punched him."

Kotonami squeezed her hand harder, and kept pushing forward.

"Mo, if you weren't going to do it, someone had to."

Was that allowed? It never occurred to her before. Something started to bubble up inside K, and she couldn't help laughing. Once she started, it just wouldn't stop. The throbbing was getting worse, and with it, the pain. Her body shook, hurting, and dizzy, and nauseous.

"Thank you, Moko-san." K tried to steady her breathing. "I'm just sorry that it came to this. Oh well, I can find a new place to hide. Up here or down there, it makes no difference."

"What are you talking about?" Kotonami was confused.

"Thank God you two are ok," a familiar voice called.

K had never seen Thompson outside his office. His khaki pants and gray hair looked out of place in zero-g. He drifted to them with the speed and elegance of someone who had done it a thousand times.

"Ugh," she groaned, trying to hide behind Kotonami with the last of her energy. "Twice in one week is too much."

Thompson ignored her protests, spread his arms wide and hugged K.

She wanted to resist, but everything was too much. Her head was swimming and it felt like her ankle would snap off completely with another movement. As her world faded to black, she didn't feel Kotonami's tightening grip, or Thompson lifting her body. She let herself succumb, feeling somewhat safe.

"I'm going to murder him, love," he promised. "We are definitely shooting his balls into space."

§

Triggering note: This chapter depicts an abusive relationship in K's talk with her harasser. If you want to skip, the triggering material is in between the moment she runs until Aanya appears.

Hugging, a new concept. We should do this more, don't y'all think?

I'm sorry, I wished to give you all a overdose of sweetness, but my angry editor was branding their scissors at me. I really regret my life choices, and I promise this story is going uphill from here.

SEE THE COVER ART? Please, appreciate this cool illustration Aikori drew to me. I love it too much s2 s2 s2 I'll display it proudly until my lazy ass make the one I planned months ago, hahaha

Science Corner: According to SciShow Space - an amazing youtube channel, go check it out - "It's such a strong possibility that extraterrestrial life would use that [hydrogen] band, that using the frequency [1.420 megahertz] on earth is illegal under international law."

Michiyo: When Hassan said, "It's my first time boarding a spacecraft" I meant it was his first time helping to dock an aircraft from inside the space station, not jumping in one. Sorry for the confusion!