Chapter Eighteen: Corollary Fates
From the control bay, Captain Theron had watched the service vessel land in his ship and seen what, and more importantly, who was unloaded.
It gave him pause.
Displeasure was not the word. Calculative would have been more fitting as he evaluated what he saw and processed the advantages, disadvantages, and implications that it presented.
After a brief meditation he ordered that Clay and Maliek be brought to his quarters briefly and that a single room be prepared to house his two new "guests".
Meanwhile Leo and Aeris were in a daze, being led off the maintenance ship that had facilitated their escape and onto "The Corsair", which clay described as "Their new Oh So Cozy home".
But while they walked the unfamiliar halls Aeris thought to ask, in a very tired voice, "Where are we going?"
Maliek answered, gently pushing her along with a gingerly placed hand. "Going to see the captain now. Don't worry, you're gunna be just fine."
"Oh… alright," was all Aeris said.
She trudged along tiredly, just as before, until the group that surrounded her and Leo finally stopped in front of one last door.
Maliek placed a hand on Leo and Aeris's shoulders and pulled them in. "Now listen close you two. When we go in you're staying out here. You won't have to say anything unless the captain asks to talk to you. But Clay's going to say most of what needs saying, so you should be covered. Then we can go get you a room and you can rest. Everything making sense?"
The pair nodded silently, evidently too detached from the situation to validate it with a response.
Maliek looked up to see Clay waiting for a sign to move forward, he nodded and Clay stepped up to the door.
Inside Cutler Theron heard a knock, followed by the sound of his door creaking open.
He saw his first mate and Armourer walk wordlessly through the threshold into the room. They paced forward until they were standing a respectable distance from him.
Theron stepped up from behind a table covered in holographic charts made to look like ordinary paper on top of an ordinary wooden table. Theron's eyes looked sharp as razors when they locked onto his officers. "…so you decided to disobey my orders then Clay?"
Maliek stepped forward. "No captain, we did as ordered. Everything was done just like you said…. we just did more than what you asked."
Theron turned his gaze onto his Armourer. "Maliek be quite. I wasn't talking to you. And you 'did' disobey me. I don't remember saying at any point to "feel free to blatantly ramble about the space station, causing all kinds of disturbances to rescue some random cats because you felt guilty."
Clay stepped forward in Maliek's defense. "Captain, Maliek holds no responsibility for this. I'm to blame, I gave him his orders and he followed."
Theron rolled his eyes back to Clay. "I see… so you mean to tell me that none of this is anyone's fault but yours?
There was a fraction of a second of reluctance before Clay answered, "…yes."
Theron sighed sadly and closed one eye while he stroked his eyebrow back and forth. "…you're a good man Clay, and a better leader, but you need to learn to cut your losses. If something had gone wrong while you were satisfying your conscience then this whole fiasco would've ended in disaster… you're just lucky that didn't happen."
Clay's gaze never wavered and his face leaked no emotion.
Theron's leaked plenty, but to the surprise of Maliek and Clay, the emotion was positive.
"Now with that said, the mission wasn't a disaster; the station is gone, no-one was seriously injured among the crew, and to top it all off you recovered our stolen merchandise."
Malik stood up straighter, looking worried. "Merchandise, Captain?"
Clay too seemed to have become concerned. "Captain, I think that it might be unwise to sell them at this point, especially when we consider what just transpired."
Theron saw the looks on either of his subordinates' faces. "Look at the two of you. You look like you're afraid that I'm going to murder them in their sleep tonight. "
He shook his head. "You've got no reason to worry; I have no intention of selling them this time. The situation you've put us in…. is unique, but not necessarily in bad way. There is potential here. We stand a lot to gain, them and us, if we play our hand well."
Theron's eyes shifted to Maliek. "Even so, we have an issue to deal with now that requires contending. Maliek-"
"Since it seems that our days of poaching are more or less finished, your secondary position as jailer seems a little unnecessary, doesn't it?"
"Yes sir, I suppose so."
Theron smiled. "I'm glad we agree. Now I've been thinking about this, since we can't have our new feline friends wandering aimlessly about the ship unsupervised, and since you seem to have shown such an interest in their wellbeing, I think it fitting you be assigned the role of caretaker for our new… guests."
Maliek smiled. "I'll do it happily captain."
Theron snapped. "I don't care how you do it, as long as it gets done."
Despite the harshness of the phrase, Theron was smiling. Maliek noticed.
"Of course sir. Thank you sir."
Theron waved away Maliek's gratitude and turned back to his chair, trying to seem cantankerous. "Yes, yes, now go and show them to their quarters, I've already sent someone to show you the way, Clay and I still have some matters to discuss."
Outside the room Leo and Aeris patiently swayed back and forth while waiting.
In his boredom, Leo began looking around. When he found nothing interesting his eye was drawn to the tall man standing behind him.
"Say… weren't you the guy who helped us get out?"
Reaves, who was indeed that person, smiled down at the little cat thing. "That's right."
"How come you aren't in the room with the other guys."
Reaves shrugged, "If I was going to guess, it would probably be because I'm not actually part of the crew."
Leo looked confused for a moment while he pondered this. But the moment passed quickly. "Well thanks for saving us anyway."
Reaves chuckled, "Any time little man."
Leo turned to her. "What is it Aeris."
"Nothing," Aeris spat, bitterly. "I'm just not thrilled about being "saved" by the same guy who was keeping us prisoner."
Reaves looked down at Aeris with a hint of sadness.
Leo looked confused. He turned back to Reaves, "so if you're the same guy tell me why you helped break us out?"
Reaves was about to explain when he was interrupted by Maliek coming through the door leading out of the briefing room.
Aeris stepped forward and tried to look inside before clay shut the door behind him. "So what's going on in there?"
Maliek rubbed his hands and looked worried. "Well there's good news and there's bad news."
Aeris's face adopted the same worried expression as Maliek's. "What's the bad news?"
Maliek dropped the facade and smiled mischievously. "Well the bad news is that clay is probably getting chewed out for going against orders and saving the two of you." Maliek's smile widened. "The good news is that you two can stay and that I-", Maliek puffed out his chest in exaggerated pride, "-have been assigned as your caretaker until the captain decides that you two can wander about without causing any kind of problems."
Aeris's expression went through phases of anger at Maliek for his teasing, to relief and happiness that they could stay and were, for the first time in what must have been eternity, safe, to finally an expression of false dismay.
"But that means we'll never get to go anywhere without you following us, Leo's a walking disaster. There's no way any captain would trust him to do anything."
Leo interjected, "Hey, I'm not that bad. In fact I'm brilliant, but no one else is smart enough to realize that."
Maliek chuckled, "Oh I'm sure of that." Then he turned and waved for Leo and Aeris to follow. "Now if you'll just come this way I'll be showing you to the luxury suite, equipped with all the amenities of home."
Aeris grumbled, "I seriously doubt that."
They followed Maliek through interior of the ship, spying many different rooms that clearly had some indiscernible function, until at last he stopped in front of another airtight door with a hatch wheel for a doorknob.
With a flamboyant wave of his hand and a dramatic bow of the waist, Maliek motioned that they enter. "My Lord, My Lady, I give you… the luxury suite."
Aeris rolled her eyes and started spinning the hatch wheel. When it stopped spinning with a solid clank Aeris pulled on the handle welded to the side to open the door.
To her irritation, the door didn't budge, so she yanked at it.
The door still didn't move.
Aeris growled audibly and punched the door angrily.
A fraction of a second later, Aeris realized her mistake. In that same second, the pain registered in her brain.
Aeris recoiled, shaking her hand to relieve the pain while she cringed.
Propelled by the force of Aeris's punch, the door smoothly drifted inward. After three inches, it drifted back shut with a creek, seeming to laugh at Aeris and her bruised hand.
After shoving her hand under her armpit, Aeris lifted her foot and kicked in the door with all the force she could generate.
With a satisfied grumble she stormed past Leo and Maliek into the room.
The moment they thought she couldn't see them, they both looked at each other and shrugged, following behind into the little room.
Not a second later, Leo collapsed onto the nearest flat surface and caved into sleep. He was exhausted.
By lucky coincidence he happened to fall in a bed.
Aeris stared at Leo sprawling, then without looking, asked Maliek a question. "How long has it been?"
Maliek stepped over Leo to cover him in a blanket folded at the foot of the bed, "About three cycles."
Maliek straitened himself, "Period of twenty five hours. Ever since we started colonizing other planets, working on each planets solar clock didn't make sense anymore. So we switched to cycles of twenty five hours. Since hours and minutes don't change with the sun, it works."
Aeris kept staring. "…three days, that's all it's been?"
Maliek came up from behind her with a new blanket and draped it over her shoulders. "It's surprising isn't it; feels like it should have been longer."
Aeris stood misty eyed examining the room, lost in thought. She pulled the blanket up her shoulders. "… yes."
Maliek spared Aeris a glance before he left and recognized the expression on her face. Her eyes looked like glass, staring at nothing now.
There was little Maliek could think to do, so he left Aeris only with a suggestion, "You should get some sleep…you might need it worse than he does."
Aeris came out of her daze for a moment and looked at Maliek. She gave him a halfhearted smile, "Yeah. With this nightmare over, maybe I'll finally be able to do that."
Maliek smiled back from the doorway, "That's the spirit. Now off with you, I'll wake you up when it's time to meet the captain. The door'll be guarded until then, but I'll be nearby if you need me."
Aeris turned back to the wall and Leo. "Okay. See you whenever."
Maliek shut the door behind him, still concerned, but not overly so. Aeris would be fine.
Despite how she felt, sleep found Aeris easily. But for her, rest was still some way away.
After long hours of tossing and turning in bed, Aeris's torment had yet to finish.
He was gone from her life, but in her mind, his evil flourished.
In a blank, white, empty space, Rekaterin stepped forward, emerging from nowhere, walking down nonexistent steps, talking all the way down.
"Welcome my dear… to reality..." He spun a ball of silver from the emptiness with a circular motion of his wrist, letting it drift above his fingers as it morphed into gruesome figurines, depictions of horror and torture of a twisted and evil sort.
Rekaterin looked around, then down at the ball, admiring his own reflection against its misshapen surface. "It's beautiful…," his eyes reached up, impaling her soul with them like twin spikes of ice, "…isn't it?"
Aeris backtracked away from Rekaterin. "NO! You're dead. You're gone. We're gone. We were free! How are you still here?!"
Rekaterin followed her, step for step keeping pace. "Because I never left Aeris… you never left."
"No…no that isn't right", she whispered to herself, shaking her head, trying to clear it.
His mirthless laughter rang out inside her head, taunting.
Aeris closed her eyes and shook her head furiously, trying to clear it of the sound.
She turned her head to look forward again, and he was standing there, in front of her, just as real as she could imagine..
There was a moment of stillness, where Aeris swayed and her eyes met Rekaterin's. Then it occured to her that she should run.
But as if he'd read her mind, Rekaterin smirked. "No no no, you are going nowhere…"
Aeris felt something inside of her grow queasy, then she dropped like a stone, hands clutching her sides. "This… can't be real, "she gasped between waves of pain. "I… watched it happen…"
Rekaterin chortled, "I'm afraid not, all just more tricks and games. But we do have some things to look forward to don't we?"
She lifted her hands from her side, pressing them against her ears to block him out, "No! You're lying!"
"Am I…" Rekaterin shook his head. "You must think that mustn't you. What else could you do…" The ball was shifting again now. Slowly its surface sank downward, the edges thinned until it finally created the shape of a glass, one filled with red liquid.
Rekaterin swirled the device in his hand, creating a small whirlpool, then slowly he lifted it to his lips.
The glass came away.
Aeris convulsed, vomiting.
As she wiped the bile from her lips with barely responsive hands she screamed, "What did you do?!"
Rekaterin smiled and looked at the glass. "Now now, is that any way to talk to me?"
The glass came up again.
Blood began streaming from her mouth, flowing until it streamed over her tongue and out her lips with that revolting metallic flavor mixed with a smell of decay.
She couldn't stop it.
Aeris was brought from her knees to all fours as the blood pooled around her.
She begged, despairingly, "please…. stop!"
The cup came up again. "We aren't finished yet."
The blood came faster, now from her nose, then her eyes.
It was filling her throat, building pressure behind her eyes, spilling from her mouth and nose is a powerful stream.
For every breath she took she only chocked, hacking and instinctively trying to breath, only to pull in more until he blood filled her lungs.
She couldn't even scream.
She reached for her throat.
Her fingers reached in, went down to stop it, but Aeris convulsed on the ground and the blood kept coming.
It was agony.
Finally, with a monstrously evil smile, Rekaterin drained the glass. Aeris felt herself die as blood forced its way out from her very skin, bathing her in it, swelling until she was coming apart at the seams.
She would have cried, she would have screamed, she would have begged and pleaded, anything to make it stop.
The blood came.
Aeris shuddered and twitched in death, the lights of her consciousness dimming in the cold embrace of her own life's blood.
"Isn't it fun Aeris…" Rekaterin drank anew from the glass. "I've always loved watching this part."
Aeris barely managed to lift a hand. The blood blinded her, but she could still hear him in her head.
Before the end Aeris whispered out in her mind, ".…why?"
Leo's voice responded beside her. "…because you're dreaming Aeris."
His voice came again, "You're dreaming Aeris….." and again, "…..wake up…. Wake Up…. WAKE UP!"
Aeris gasped, pulling a violent burst of air into her lungs, and opened her eyes to see Leo standing over her, shaking her furiously, shouting at her.
For almost two seconds Aeris didn't move while Leo looked over her with concern, no longer shouting now that he saws her eyes were open.
Her heart was racing, her chest heaving under the labor of her breath, which came in sharp painful gasps. That was all she could manage. Her chest felt tight, like someone was gripping her heart and throat from the inside, squeezing it. Every heartbeat pounded against her head.
She'd undressed mostly before going to sleep, but her fur was soaked in an uncomfortable damp sweat. She felt cold and tense and moving was difficult. She felt frozen.
But as the moments slipped by, Aeris felt heat rush through her veins.
It spread all through her body until she felt uncomfortably hot, feverish.
She found that she could move again. In that instant, Aeris shot up from bed and snatched Leo, pulling him close. She searched him desperately, taking in every bit of him, her hands roaming his face, his shoulders, his back, his hair, until she was sure that he wasn't just another dream.
It was Leo, and when Aeris knew she just managed to make the smallest painful sound before she buried her face in his shoulder. "Oh thank god, Leo. Leo I was… oh god I can't stand it. I feel like my insides are going to come out through my throat."
Leo, true to his nature, took things in stride.
Aeris felt a hand gently placing itself against her back, then slowly, another reaching up to stroke her hair.
Then, with the softest impact, she felt Leo resting his head against hers.
She felt his fur, brushing against her own, and his breath, tickling her ear each time it whispered from his lips, causing her ear to shake. She felt the heat of his pulse in his neck. She felt the rise and fall of his chest, his heart beating against hers.
And in a rare insightful moment, Leo knew just what to say.
For a long time they held each other this way. Aeris clinging to Leo, her eyes held shut as she pressed herself against his warmth, until the frigid memories melted away, Leo holding her tight, wishing that the feeling of her would never leave him.
But the moment passed.
When they were next to each other on her bed, close enough to touch, Leo finally asked what the dream had been.
Next to him, Aeris visibly quaked. Her eyes closed tight again.
"I don't want to talk about it."
Leo was about to let the matter drop when Aeris spoke again.
She was looking at the floor, then she sighed in defeat, her shoulders dropping, "…it was Rekaterin," She pressed her palms against the sides of her head, her voice rose, "I can't get away from him! No matter where I go he's standing behind me, watching me, like a fucking ghost! Now he's even in my dreams!"
Leo's ears fell back. His expression grew heavy as he tried to console his partner, "Rekaterin's dead Aeris, we saw the station explode and everything."
Aeris hadn't looked up. "You don't know that. He could have been on any of those escape pods."
Leo shrugged, "Does it even matter? He's gone."
Aeris looked up, her eyes filled with hatred. She grabbed Leo's shoulders and shook him. "You don't get it do you?! You have no idea what it felt like, what it still feels like! I… I can't stand it anymore Leo…," Aeris let her hands fall from Leo's shoulders, staring down into his lap where the fell. "You're right Leo. Now that he's gone, I should finally be able to let go, but I can't…"She turned away from him, "You just don't get it. "
Leo scooted closer. "But I do get it Aeris, I was there… I watched you die… I watched you, right in front of me…"
Aeris realized her insensitivity then. She gripped the sheets of her bed tightly. She turned her face further away in shame. "Leo I'm sorry, I didn't m-"
"But it doesn't matter-"Leo interrupted.
Aeris felt his hand press against her cheek and pull her eyes up to meet his.
"We're free, alive, and together. You came back and we escaped. That's the end of the story. We can be happy now, and I really want us to be happy together, it's lonely when it's just me." He smiled. "Do you think you can manage that little favor for me?"
Aeris's eyes shimmered in the dim light. A smile slipped past her lips.
When Leo saw both, he grinned happily back. "Wonderful. In that case, I think we should both be getting some sl-"
But Aeris wasn't finished yet, before Leo had a chance to stand, she reached out and pulled him back towards her….
Even Aeris was unsure of her intention when she grabbed him, but once she had her confidence dwindled. Unfortunately for her, the move as made, and Leo was now lying on top her wearing nothing but his boxers and the fiery blush rising to his cheeks.
Leo's voice sounded strained, "Ahhhh, Aeris?"
"Y-yes?" Aeris felt heat flooding her own cheeks. They must have been a deep shade of crimson at the very least.
"Are going to tell me why you just pulled me onto the bed?"
"No…"Aeris was flustered. "I mean yes." She pushed Leo off of her until they were both sitting. "I uhhh, wanted to thank you."
"Ohhhh…" Leo raised his chin in slow understanding, his lips shaping a circle around the word "Oh". He leveled his gaze back on Aeris with a toothy smile. "Aeris, aren't you being a little hasty. Couldn't we just cuddle?"
It was about then that Leo's face was made victim to an extremely painful slap. He laughed as he rubbed his cheek. "I regret nothing!"
Aeris, with her eyes rolling, "I almost didn't."
Aeris stood up and let drop the sheet that'd been more or less covered her the entire time, exposing her purple t-shirt but otherwise bare figure. "I'm going to go take a bath, because I feel plain nasty right now."
It was Leo's turn to be stricken. "I ahh… you emmm… ?"
Aeris smirked and swung her hips while she walked. She turned around and struck a pose. "What's the matter Leo-" She drew Leo's nose in with her tail and flicked it, lacing it back to playfully cover what little wasn't on display, "-are you trying to say something?"
Before he could answer Aeris laughed her way to the bathroom, closing the door behind her.
Leo's stuttering had devolved to complete babble as he watched Aeris's silhouette disappear behind the bathroom door. Then Leo felt the rising pressure in his shorts accompanied by a very strong urge to- "Ahhh, fuck!"
Inside the bathroom Aeris was just running the tap when Leo shouted. She heard nothing.
Only the bathtub and the mirror were allowed to see the warm smile Aeris was wearing as she slipped herself into the tub.
A soft moan of pleasure flickered to life as she felt the warm water soaking into her fur, almost teasing thee skin underneath with its soft caress. She shuddered as goose bumps rose everywhere the water touched.
With that Aeris sank completely into the water like her bones were made of jelly.
"Ooooh… now that's good," she purred.
In the other room, Leo looked down at himself and back up at the door to the bathroom, and thought of how tightly Aeris had been pressing herself against him.
He pursed his lips and huffed. "Hmmm, that… could have ended badly."
Leo shuddered just thinking about that pose, or those legs, or that voice she'd used on him, or that cute little a-
Leo shook his head, accepting that Aeris had no further need of him, and resigned himself to a lonely night; searching for something to distract from his… pressures.
Sure enough, he found it.
A few minutes later Aeris left the bathroom, wearing a thin olive green affair she'd found hanging on the door to the bathroom, one of two that must have been left for them.
When she left she was expecting to have to change her sheets to get rid of the sweat, but to her surprise she found her bed already made, in a sense.
It looked as though Leo had attempted to do her a favor, the result of which was the messiest looking made bed Aeris had ever seen. But the sheets were clean at least.
She appreciated the thought.
Leo, she saw, was snoring away on his bed. It seemed he was more tired than he'd let on while acting as her living teddy bear.
The thought of it sent both warmth and a shiver through her heart. She wasn't sure which gave her goose bumps. The prospect of sleep was admittedly a little daunting after her ordeal.
Of course Aeris wasn't truly afraid, but then, what if she had another nightmare? What if she woke up alone and Leo wasn't there? What of all the effort it would take to make her bed properly?
And here was Leo, drifting peacefully away in his bed, a bed that was made. Aeris pondered this.
She shrugged; there could be little harm in the idea. So she quickly snuck up to Leo.
Then she very carefully lifted the sheets and moved Leo over just a little.
Aeris flinched, and held completely still.
Aeris exhaled with relief, unaware that she'd been holding her breath, then she ever so softly slipped into to bed next to Leo.
Aeris moved the covers over herself, smiling over her success.
But before going to sleep, she looked over at Leo.
It was strange to think how much better he'd made her feel moments ago, lifting her first from the nightmare and then from how she felt, providing her with something to hold on to. In a way, he'd saved her, just as he'd tried so desperately to do in the simulation.
She remembered how he'd looked when she found him standing over her remains, like he'd been shattered to pieces, alone and without a friend in the world. Even trying to imagine what he must have felt made her eyes sting with the beginnings of tears.
But then there was the way his eyes had lit up and the smile he'd given her before barreling into her with that insane hug and the kisses that followed.
After a small and happy sniffle, Aeris wiped her face of an entirely different sort of tear and snuggled close to Leo. Then she wrapped one of his arms around herself and planted a little kiss on Leo's nose.
Almost entirely asleep Leo muttered happily in response, "Mferr, love you too."
To this Aeris simply rubbed her face against him, appreciating his warmth and the way his fur tickled her cheeks.
In that moment, neither of them could have possibly been happier.
With every ounce of energy long since spent, Leo and Aeris slept beautifully in each other's arms.
For hours not a sound interrupted the rhythm of their breathing; apart from the never ending hum of the ship itself.
Time tip toed by, careful not to wake anyone, until a few soft raps against the door roused the pair and Maliek's voice came through the door.
In spite of everything, the duo looked at each other with tired eyes and smiled. They were confident now, that as long as they were together, they would make it through whatever was coming.
UPDATE: For now, this is the end. I changed things up a little and deleted chapter eighteen because I've decided that, for now, this will have to do as the ending to the story.
It's a bit of a cliffhanger, I know, but I wrote this a long long time ago and I doubt that I'll ever follow through with the plans I conceived as a teenager, so this is it...
Good luck everyone.