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Early mornings on the Dionysian were Fiearius' favorite time of day. Admittedly, he was rarely awake for them, but on those occasions when he found himself out of his quarters before the rest of the crew started stumbling about, he reveled in the the quiet peace. It reminded him of the days when it was just him and his little brother aboard the great monster of a spaceship. Before everything became ... messy.
On this particular morning, he was settled into a seat in the mess hall which was predictably vacant. Sooner or later, the first semblances of life would start shuffling in for breakfast, but until then, Fiearius was free to lean back, prop his legs atop a table and scribble away in his notebook of logic puzzles to pass the time. No one needed his attention. No one wanted to ask him anything. No one was around to pester him about their own personal dramas. He could just sit alone as the stars flew by the window and breathe easy for a few hours.
Or perhaps not.
"Number puzzles again?"
The voice greeted him from the doorway. It was Aiden, wandering inside the mess hall, a book in hand. The tension that had shot through Fiearius' spine eased away. Of all the people who could have disrupted his morning peace, he could not have picked a better candidate.
"You know me too well," said Fiearius with a smirk, kicking one of the nearby chairs out from under the table, which Aiden took to.
"Well, I don't know what else you'd possibly be doing with a pen and paper," he mused, lowering to the seat. "Writing in your diary, maybe?"
"Touche." Fiearius lifted his pencil to him in cheers.
"Rarely see you at this hour, though," he went on, prying open his book and glancing over the mess hall. It was too early even for Amora to be starting breakfast preparations.
Fiearius hesitated. Truth be told, he'd been sitting alone in the corner of the mess hall and scribbling numbers into his notepad since take-off. Last night. Hours and hours ago. "Couldn't fall asleep," he admitted with a careless shrug and scribbled yet another.
"Oh?" said Aiden, peeling open the spine of the book and paging through it, though he glanced across at him knowingly. There was something in Aiden's expression that made Fiearius pause. It wasn't accusation, because Aiden never made bold accusations: around him, people usually naturally confessed. But he certainly knew. And sure enough -
"So, how'd the job go yesterday then?"
Fiearius could only hope that Aiden didn't notice just how quickly he froze. His pencil hovered awkwardly over the page and his eyes were locked determinedly on the half-drawn two. That particular job was the last thing he wanted to talk about with Aiden, of all people. He didn't need a reminder of what he'd done just when his mind was starting to move away from it. He certainly didn't need the guilt of having to meet his eyes and admit it...
"It was fine," he replied at last, though he knew it sounded like a lie even as it passed through his lips. He couldn't blame Aiden for disapproving. He was right to. Hell, he disapproved himself most of the time. Sacrifices had to be made though. Desperate times called for desperate measures. If the only way to get this ship out of a crisis was to pick up his old profession again, then that's what he would do.
That justification only barely worked to soothe his own conscious. No doubt it wouldn't soothe his friend's. And there was something distinctly unnerving about disappointing Aiden. It wasn't like disappointing Cyrus or disappointing Corra or Finn. Them, he could handle. But disappointing Aiden …
He changed the subject.
"Found Corra and her new little nuisance-brigade drinking stolen scotch by the fountain on the way back though," he told him, feigning a light-heartedness to the conversation. "You'd think someone that small couldn't be so loud." He tilted his head curiously and muttered, genuinely impressed, "You'd be wrong."
Perhaps Aiden felt like doing him a favor, because he didn't pursue the subject. "Is that what the yelling was about last night? I was wondering." He skimmed a couple pages with his thumb. "Leta getting along well with Corra then?"
Fiearius laughed just once. "Seems that way, don't it? Who woulda thought? Even fancy Vescentian doctors can fit in around here. Though I shouldn't be surprised I guess. Found a place for you, didn't we?"
Aiden, who had been a university professor once upon a time and perhaps the furthest opposite from the high school dropout criminal renegade sitting across from him, laughed. "Yes - somehow, even us educated, learned people can find a place here. Actually, I'm starting to think where people come from matters less and less," he went on, frowning thoughtfully. "Maybe you might think Leta's completely out of place, but you know what? It's you she reminds me of the most." Aiden paused, and amended hastily, "Don't tell her I said that, of course. Would hate to insult her ... "
"Me?" Fiearius repeated, laughing in disbelief. "She reminds you of me? Gods, I don't act that entitled do I?"
"I was going to go with something closer to 'impassioned,' actually. Or maybe 'combative.' Or 'militant." He squinted at the wall, scratching his chin. "I suppose these are getting less and less flattering."
"Thanks," Fiearius grumbled, eyeing him warningly. "You're lucky you're you, else I might not let you get away with that."
Aiden only smiled. "Well, glad to hear she's getting along well then. Makes my job easier... " His eyes nearly fell to his page again, before he looked up, wrinkling his forehead in sudden thought. "Speaking of which. Has Ludo spoken with you lately?"
Fiearius' attention, which had wandered back towards his notepad, perked back up instantly. "Ludo? No. Why?"
"He had some questions that I thought you'd be better off answering yourself," said Aiden steadily, his tone completely neutral. He may have been a professor in his previous life, but he often reminded Fiearius of a counselor, or a therapist. In Aiden's case, Fiearius liked to think his place actually was better suited to be the Dionysian. "He just expressed some concern about what the next job would be. And when. I don't think he took it very well when you picked Leta as your gunhand." A thin smile ran over his face.
"Leave it to Ludo to get possessive over who has the honor of risking life and limb," Fiearius grunted. Releasing a sigh, he added, "I'll talk to him. Last thing we need is that guy getting agitated." He tilted his head curiously. "Anything else I need to know about the ranks?"
"Well, laying out the next few stops wouldn't go amiss with a few people," he said mildly. "Particularly from our paying passengers. You - do know we have paying passengers, yes?" he added, to which Fiearius rolled his eyes. "Palia? And her husband? They are paying you to be on your ship. Sometimes these people like to hear from their fearless leader."
"Of course," said Fiearius, leaning back in his chair, tipping it onto its back legs. "Next time someone asks you about 'next steps', just tell 'em to come find me." He grinned innocently. "I'll happily give them my answer."
"Ah, no, in that case, I don't think so," said Aiden politely. "I wouldn't subject anyone to that."
"You're a better man than I, sir."
Fiearius lapsed into silence and took to simply observing the older man sitting beside him, until finally he asked, "So you heard from your girl recently?"
Aiden picked up his head and regarded Fiearius quizzically through narrowed eyes, as if he couldn't decide whether or not to be amused. "If you mean Edaline, who is a friend, no, not very recently. She's still working in the Ellegian cluster and doesn't have access to the cleanest lines of communication. Although, she may be leaving there soon; she's considering moving toward the outer span. And don't ask me if you can meet her."
"So when can I meet her?" said Fiearius at once, grinning. His tone was light when he continued, "Dunno why she has to be such a big secret. Just tryin' to show some interest in a friend, what's wrong with that?"
"I suppose - nothing … " replied Aiden, but he was saved the trouble of answering as new voices arrived in the mess hall.
"Is it really morning already?" said Corra, holding her head in her hand and leaning against Leta as she dragged herself toward the sink for a glass of water. "Can it not be? Can I go back to sleep? No, can I go back in time to last night and not drink that much?"
At her side, Leta seemed to be managing her hangover far better: she was making a beeline straight toward Fiearius, winding around the tables toward him eagerly, a sight that made him groan immediately. He wasn't in the mood to stomach these two again - particularly not Leta, who clearly had something on her mind, for a change - and to make matters worse, Aiden was standing to his feet, abandoning him.
"'Morning Leta, Corra," Aiden said warmly, to which Leta flashed him a friendly smile (and of course she did - even she wasn't immune to Aiden's good nature). "I'll go tell Ludo you'll speak with him later," he added to Fiearius, slipping away from the table. He didn't appear to notice the dirty, betrayed glare that Fiearius shot toward him as he walked away.
Immediately, Leta took his vacant seat, dropped her hands flat on the table and stared at Fiearius eagerly.
"Good morning. Sleep well? Great, so, I've been doing a little digging," she said, a giddy little ring to her tone that gave Fiearius the immediate urge to scoot his chair away.
"Digging my grave, I suppose?"
"That, yeah, and I did some research on the Baltimore, after what you told me last night -" Which was only a few hours ago, Fiearius realized, doing quick math in his head. Apparently he wasn't the only one who hadn't slept. No wonder Leta looked frenzied.
" - which, by the way, research is much easier to do when you're not locked on a Society planet," she went on. "But listen. I found the name of the guy who captured Ren." She drew in a deep, ready breath that she grinned through, her eyebrows high on her forehead. Clearly, this was big news to her. "He was an agent in the Internal Affairs department on Vescent. Now he's mostly retired, he does other work for the Society."
Fiearius stared at his notepad longingly for a beat longer and then looked up at Leta. She was perched on the edge of her seat and held his gaze eagerly to make sure he was listening. Recognizing defeat, he let his pencil clatter to the table. "Internal Affairs, huh?" he said, mild interest in his tone.
"Yes, he was an agent there. His name is Arnett Casner and I want to talk to him. And before you think that's impossible, it's not. Because he's not exactly hard to find. He's loaded, as you can imagine, and he holds these gigantic galas in his estate once a month - huge, fancy parties for all these dignitaries - and I want to sneak in and I - want to talk to him."
Fiearius heaved a sigh and pulled his legs off the table. "Yeah sure, because a Society socialite is gonna be real happy to chat with a girl near the top of his employer's wanted list," he remarked dully, but Leta was not dissuaded. In fact, she looked more excited than ever.
"No, that's just it," she breathed. "This is why we have to go to this event. His next party is a masquerade party. Everyone will be in masks. This is our chance, we'll be in disguise the entire time."
Well, she had one important detail figured out, he had to acknowledge that, frowning. But she was forgetting every other piece of the puzzle.
"So you wanna go to this place," he muttered. "And sneak into some big fancy party. And talk to some guy who, what was it, mostly retired from Society work?" His eyes narrowed at the idea. "Kiddo, you don't retire from the Society. Especially not from Internal. Retirement is a nice word for 'you died'. Sounds sketchy."
"How's that sketchy?" Corra asked indignantly, taking a seat beside Leta. "Weren't you in Internal Affairs? You retired."
"Yes, but I also have a nice big price on my head and live on a spaceship," he corrected, pointing the end of his pencil at her. "Do you see me having a visible public life? Throwing big parties? No. That would be stupid. It's sketchy." He shrugged. "But even if he is, as you say, retired and safely so, what do you possibly hope to gain from talking to him?" he wondered sincerely.
"He might know something that'll help us," Corra piped up at once.
"Right, like 'Society prison ships are indestructible, inescapable death traps'?" he replied cheerfully. "Already know that. Real helpful."
"Don't you ever get tired of being so negative?" Corra snapped.
"Don't you ever get tired of being so irritating?" Fiearius replied. Leta intervened quickly.
"How can you say I won't possibly learn anything?" she pressed. "He knows exactly where Ren is, he put him there. He knows what tech could be guarding him and he knows how long they plan to keep him there. I have to talk to him," she said seriously, and then admitted, "The guy is sketchy, I know, but I know we can get something out of him or anyone else at that party. He doesn't seem to mind boasting about his life's work."
Taking a deep breath, she went on, determined to override him, "I've got it all figured. He lives on this planet called Dune, which isn't well-regulated at all, so there must be black market opportunities there. Right? And we need to lay low because of Dez anyway, right? So you can do whatever business you need to do after you come to the gala with us. And the entire guest list to get into the party is by CID, so Cyrus can break into it and add all of our names to the list. Between the four of us, we're bound to find out something."
After a short, expectant pause, she glanced at Corra and whispered, "We'll have to go shopping for dresses, you know," which made Corra's eyes go round and shiny in amazement. Suddenly more engaged in this fight than ever before, she shot Fiearius a look of pure fire. "Don't you dare ruin this," she warned. "You still owe me."
Fiearius regarded her incredulously. "For what?"
Corra looked admonished. "Everything!"
Fiearius' expression darkened and he took a moment to look between the two of them. Corra was always resilient and rebellious, he was used to that. But the doctor? Dov'ha ti'arté, he'd never met anyone so entitled and bossy in his life. It was like she was worth ten needy crew members herself. It was almost impressive. In the most annoying way possible. And he'd had about enough of it.
"Okay, my honest opinion," he began hotly. "This guy? He ain't gonna tell you shit. Why should he? What can you offer him in return? Maybe he's retired, but I can almost promise you this guy isn't suddenly a good samaritan who wants to help out poor little girls who lost their boyfriends. You want information in this span, you gotta pay for it." He raised his hands in surrender. "And even if you could afford the price. I still don't think he can tell you anything that's gonna help at all. Maybe he knows everything and will tell you the door combination, but you gotta ask yourself, what exactly is the cost of this?"
Corra dropped her mouth open, clearly angered, as he knew she would be. She had never liked his cold, hard truth nor the way Fiearius tended to deliver it.
"I don't just mean financially," he went on, ignoring her and turning back to Leta, who was watching him in attentive silence, absorbing his every word. "I mean in terms of risk." He started counting off on his fingers. "You don't know what you're walking into, you don't know who these people are nor do you know what they're gonna do if they find out you're sneaking around vying for information on a class 5 Society prison ship. You said he's from IA? Then you can only be sure of one thing. That's he's dangerous." He smiled grimly. "It's very very possible that you won't walk out of there. And for what? The chance for a few more tidbits of information?"
"Of course," Fiearius went on sarcastically, throwing his hand in the air, "maybe I'm totally wrong and this guy is the answer to all your prayers and he'll solve all your problems and you'll get your happy ending. Probably not." His smile vanished into a resolute and serious stare. "It's an unnecessary risk. And you'll be damn lucky if it turns out even remotely in your favor."
A lengthy silence followed his words. Leta's hands curved together on the table. Finally, Corra snapped, "Why do you hate hope so much? Let her try for goodness sake."
Fiearius smirked at her coldly. "Oh, she can try. I'm not gonna stop you. I'm just providing my professional opinion. Which is that you're gonna regret it, that's all." He shrugged, then started to stretch his arms over his head.
"But you're not wrong about one thing," he went on. "Dune's a good place for business. So if it'll make you shut up, we'll head there. Go to your fancy party. I honestly hope it works out for you." He paused thoughtfully. "It won't. Since I hate hope so much." He shot a quick glare at Corra. "But go on and try."
"So you're not coming," said Leta bitingly. "Even though we have more of a chance of finding out anything with you there?"
Fiearius mustered a smirk. "There's little chance that anyone in that room won't have noticed the Society's database of bounties in the last four years..." He grimaced apologetically. "And I'm just a bit recognizable. I'll pass." He stood up to his feet, kicking his chair aside on his way toward the door.
"But please, go. I shall live vicariously through you as I get some real work done so you can afford to go dress shopping," he went on casually. "Oh and good luck getting Cy to go with you," he added, letting out his bark-like laugh. He left the deck to go set the course, leaving Leta looking shocked, and really quite hurt, at the table.
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Once Fiearius left, Leta put her face in her hands and allowed herself exactly three minutes of hatred, anger and swear words so vicious that Amora, the cook, gasped in horror as she entered the mess hall. But Leta wasn't listening to Amora. She had half the mind to stalk after the captain on his own ship and slap him across the face for promising to help her and now acting completely useless.
Finally, with several deep breaths, she shook it off. She didn't need him now. She had work to do.
So, with Corra on her tail, Leta marched to the command deck where she crawled up the ladder, knocked twice on the metal hatch to Cyrus' room and called, "You awake in there?" Without waiting for a response, she pushed it open and climbed inside, holding a mug of coffee in one hand. Just as shamelessly, Corra clambered in afterwards.
Leta's first impression of Cyrus' room was that it looked less like sleeping quarters and more like a workshop. Blueprints covered the walls, drawings lay in piles, and his desk was covered in textbooks. Leta glanced over the walls curiously before she looked to the figure in the bed, who had just sat upright, alarmed, his hair a mess.
"What the-?" said Cyrus incredulously, his face reddening as he secured a sheet around his middle. With his other hand he fished for his glasses off the nightstand.
"We come bearing coffee and good news," said Corra cheerfully, plopping onto his bed beside him, as Leta reached to hand him the mug, which he accepted wearily.
"Coffee and news are great," he muttered, "but what I really would love is some privacy…"
"You're not too hungover to listen, are you?" said Leta, hardly able to contain herself as she lowered to the edge of Cyrus' bed. "Because something's happened. And I wanted to ask y - wait, are you really naked under there?" she demanded suddenly, as she glanced down at the blanket with an irked brow, laughing at the fresh redness in his face. "Whatever, never mind. Listen - I found out the name of the guy who captured Ren. And I'm going to get him to talk to me. He works for the Society and he lives on Dune, and every month he holds these parties in his mansion. And I want to go to the next one. I want to talk to him. I have to talk to him."
If this was too much information for Cyrus at this early hour, he did not appear to mind. In fact, he frowned thoughtfully. "But how will you not get caught?" he asked after a moment.
"We'll be in disguise," Corra put in helpfully, casting him a hopeful grin.
"And you know how to get in?"
"That's easy," said Leta at once.
"Identifying the guy?"
"Covered!" chimed Corra.
Cyrus glanced between them and fell into a contemplative silence as he considered the notion. For a moment Leta's heart sank: he would turn them down, just like his brother had. He too would call the whole thing stupid and cast them off. But then he muttered thoughtfully, "That's not a bad idea. It's probably worth a shot, right?"
"See! I knew I liked you better for a reason," said Corra, beaming and grasping his shoulder.
Leta, sighing in relief to finally have real help, went on, "So you'll add us to the guest list," she continued, trying to calm herself, though her fingers drummed atop her knee as she stared intently at him. "And you - you could stand watch while I make nice with these people and talk to this asshole. You're smart and helpful and you know how to use a gun and Fiearius refuses to help, so - I was hoping you'd come with."
Cyrus paused in mid-sip of his coffee, slowly lowering the mug. "Oh - no I - I don't think so," he answered, sounding characteristically nervous. "I can't see how I could help. And she's much better with a gun than I am." He gestured to Corra. "I don't think you need me. I'd probably just get in the way."
Corra, busy examining her nails, pointed out, "And you hate large social gatherings."
"And I hate large social gatherings," Cyrus agreed, smiling sheepishly. "I'll help you get in. But unless you get Fiear on your side, I think you two are gonna have to take on the rest alone."
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"I can't believe I'm doing this," Cyrus sighed, nervously adjusting the collar of his formal jacket as he stood in the gardens beside Leta. All around them, couples stood in line to enter the gala, chatting and laughing. "I can't believe - "
Before he could finish, Corra hooked her arm around his, elbowed him in the ribs and lifted her chin confidently, using her free hand to swish her new dress. "Shush," she scolded, grinning through the mask on her face. "What if the cap'n's right and we do get into trouble? Won't you be glad that you came?"
"If I'm not dead," Cyrus muttered, and then winced when she squeezed his arm too tightly.
Leta barely registered the banter of her two companions. Since she'd generated this plan, she could think of little else than how to do it - of how to talk to Casner the right away. She had to engage him, she had to find out about Ren, and she had to do so without revealing who she was. Fiearius hadn't shown any other interest in the idea, except when he'd seen the three of them departed the Dionysian earlier that evening.
"Surely there must be some mistake, finding these shining beacons of beauty and class exiting my ship," he'd said to Leta and Corra with a dramatic flourish of his hand, before adding, gesturing to his brother, "And with this." He'd let out a loud bark of a laugh and strode past them carelessly.
But it didn't matter what Fiearius thought about their appearance or anything else. Now, it was time to execute. With an inhale of breath, she shifted the bodice of her long purple gown - an item she'd picked up with Corra earlier in the afternoon - fixed the mask on her face, and stepped into the hall.
At once, Leta had to squint her eyes. The hall was larger than a cathedral and every painting and wine glass and woman's gown glinted in the light. As she stepped down the ornate staircase, Leta drew her long gloves higher up over her forearms, effectively concealing the Society tattoo on her her skin. Though, if there were any place where that mark on her arm would be admired, it would be here. Resisting the urge to glower, Leta kept her lips in a smooth, thin line of indifference as her eyes shifted over the large oval room beneath the mask.
She scanned over the sea of gowns and suits, and suddenly, a problem struck her. By the looks of it, she was the only person unaccompanied, absent a partner to curve her arm around, and as such, she stuck out: she was going to draw attention as a single young woman. It wasn't a terrible hindrance, but nonetheless, she felt a stab of annoyance at, of all people, Fiearius. He was supposed to be her goddamn date.
Pausing at the bottom of the stairs, Leta stood tall and still, just another wealthy guest at this party. For now. "I'm going to get a drink," she told them. "Let me know if you see him."
"We'll keep an eye out," Corra assured her, though her attention had wandered up to a glittering, tremendous chandelier on the ceiling. Still holding her arm, Cyrus provided Leta a weak smile and nodded quickly. Well, at least one of them would probably be paying attention.
Satisfied, Leta drifted toward the opulent, half-moon bar in the corner, its rows of liquor bottles glistening like jewels. She rested her elbow on the shining surface, her eyes behind her mask moving through the room for any signs of Casner. Was he the gracious type, she wondered, who would start greeting guests at the the door? Or was he going to be loud and raucous and command attention from a table?
Her thoughts were interrupted a moment later by a gray-haired gentleman in a fine suit (at least twice her age, Leta noted) who brushed her arm. He bent low to speak in her ear.
"You, my dear, are drawing every eye in this room."
Sure fucking hope not, thought Leta at once, but she forced a smile all the same. She managed to exchange all the right pleasantries with this man, the traces of her Vescentian accent and demeanor surely helping her cause. At least her until he said, "May I buy you a drink?" and gestured toward the premium liquor.
And with that, Leta couldn't help herself. "But it's an open bar," she said bluntly, snorting, and then regretted it immediately. That was a comment someone from the Dionysian would make, but not an affluent young woman with millions who just loved these sort of events. Luckily, after giving her a curious look, the man seemed to think Leta was being coy and chuckled appreciatively before having a flute of champagne delivered to her.
Leta picked up the glass, sipped it and smiled stiffly. As soon as her back was turned, the smile dropped off her face. If this was how the whole night was going to be, she needed to corner Casner soon.
But he wasn't near the tables, Leta noted, nor was he on the dance floor - though it was hard to tell once the orchestra struck up a lively tune and more couples joined in. Leta tilted the rest of the champagne into her mouth, furrowing her brow as she regarded two security guards near the wall. She had the sudden sense that Casner was nearby - he must have been, this was his party -
And that was when it happened. Just as she reached to deposit her emptied glass on the bar, there was a strong grip on her upper arm and someone had tugged her away from the bar and steered her decisively toward the dance floor.
Leta was about to yell in protest, but it caught in her throat when she glimpsed the stranger who held her at his side. The man was tall, dressed in formal wear and his face was covered in the most obnoxious orange and red feather bird mask. No one else in the room was wearing an animal mask of that size. But it was his subtle smirk that gave it away.
"What're you doing here?" she hissed to Fiearius as he pulled her into a dance.