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Venka makes the smoothest landing Chiela’s seen from her on Abern, a planet composed almost entirely of salt-seas and deserts - Chiela doesn’t know exactly how people survive on a planet like that, but Pipra assures her that they manage just fine; or rather, he says, “They can drink salt-water, it’s totally cool!” - probably because they’re not under fire or riding out some unstable atmospheric conditions or falling apart which Chiela totally still blames Nikolao for. They land about a mile outside of what looks like a handful of poorly-constructed hovels, but are, apparently, only the tip of the iceberg, structurally-speaking. Chiela maybe gapes like an idiot when they’re led beneath the surface, through winding tunnels, to an underground compound that looks like something out of a military textbook.

Shit,” she says, and Pipra returns with an, “Oh my gosh, I know.” Their guide turns and gives them a - well, frankly condescending sort of look, like they’re a couple of idiots, which, hey, excuse her for being surprised - before pushing open a door to what turns out to be a long, high-ceilinged hall, that looks as if it’s been transformed into a makeshift barracks. The whole things a mess frankly, with people - freakishly tall people, and, hey, look, more Xenomorphs! - laying all over the place in huddles of blankets, some with packs at their sides, some with just a few possessions heaped beside them - whatever they could grab while fleeing, Chiela guesses - all of them looking, well, a bit unwashed. There’s some surprised murmuring that goes through the hall when they walk in, and then Venka and Dioscorus enter the hall, at which point, there’s a lot of surprised shouting and people scrambling to their feet. The woman nearest to them - just as tall as Venka, with the same knot of blond hair at the nape of her neck, and the graceful air of a cat - goes so far as throwing herself at Venka, wrapping her in her arms, then does the same with Dioscorus.

“We thought you were dead!” she says, slightly muffled with her face pressed into Dioscorus’ chest

“Well,” Venka says, leaning into Dioscorus’ side and looking pretty pleased with herself, which Chiela’s willing to grant her, because Venka’s definitely earned a few smug looks, with all she’s managed to survive, including escaping Morpheus twice, which most people don’t come close to doing once, “we’re not.”

Dioscorus just bares his teeth in that unnerving smile that he has and scrubs a hand through her hair. “Vespera,” he says, “you made it out.”

The girl - Vespera - although she seriously looks way too young to be any kind of rebel, just snorts and pulls back, looking up at Dioscorus, who’s still taller than anyone around him. “Gonna take more than that to get rid of me,” she says. “Slim fucking odds, though, you know? Most ships never made the jump. We figured you didn’t, either.”

Dioscorus turns from looking at her to looking around the hall, brow furrowed, frowning, and that’s the closest to upset Chiela’s ever seen him come. “How many of us are left?” he asks.

“About a hundred, here,” Vespera says, “There were two other ships, but we lost contact with them three jumps ago. Four hundred if they’re still alive. If not,” she gestures once around the hall, “this is all of us.”

“Uh,” Chiela says, and everyone turns to look at her as if they’d forgotten she was there, which they probably did. “How many of you were there?”

“Well,” Vespera darts a look at Dioscorus before she says, “Nobody knew who all of us were. Too fucking dangerous, you know? If they got one of us, they could have gotten us all, that way.” She rocks back on her heels, sticking her hands in her pockets and adds, “Me? I knew there were 800 of us. Didn’t know who, though, until the whole fucking ship was running for the exits.”

“Two thousand,” Dioscorus says - everyone’s attention turns on him, and - “Shit,” Vespera says, “I knew you were holding out on me. I fucking knew it, man.”

“You already knew too much,” Dioscorus says, shrugging. He’s still looking around the room, frowning. “I’m going to,” he makes a one-handed motion that could mean he’s going to take a walk around the room or that he’s going to do a little dance or - whatever. Probably he’s not going to dance. This isn’t exactly a dancing situation. Plus, she’d bet Dioscorus doesn’t dance at all, even when it is a dancing situation, and. Right. Okay. There he goes! walking around the room, with Pipra following loudly in his wake. Chiela turns back to the group, to find that Venka’s gone, too, walking in the opposite direction that Dioscorus and Pipra had gone, to see who made it out alive or possibly just to get away from Nikolao, who knows, and that Vespera’s standing there, rocking back and forth on her heels, darting glances between all five of them, smile slipping off her face, looking the kind of awkward you are, Chiela guesses, when you’re stuck unexpectedly with the survivors of a species that your species tried to wipe out.

“So, uh,” Vespera says, running one hand her hand and giving a nervous little laugh, “I, uh, should probably know who you are, right? Morpheus, he made a big fucking deal out of catching you. And good job, you know, uh, getting out of, um, I mean, I didn’t see, but,” She stutters to a halt, letting the silence hang awkwardly between them, before shaking herself, visibly rallying with a smile and saying, “I’m Vespera.” She holds out her hand - to Nikolao, which is unfortunate because even from here Chiela can sense how much he wants to throw her in a holding cell and forget about her, and all he does is glare. Vespera’s smile wobbles but before it can collapse, Ixchel steps forward, taking Vespera’s hand in both of hers.

Ijnep. I am Ixchel,” she says, her snakes hissing along with her, which seems to weird Vespera out about as much as it did Chiela, in the beginning. She doesn’t, to her credit, stare too blatantly, just shakes Ixchel’s hand, smile rallying again.

“Ixchel, huh?” She says, laughing, still with an edge of nervousness, “You’re, uh, you’re really out there, you know?”

“Yeah, well,” Terasu says, and Vespera shoots her a surprised look, “embodiment of a planet, you get what you get,” at which Vespera looks even more surprised, and now she’s staring blatantly.

“But, I thought,” she says, and shocked really isn’t a very good look for her. “Morpheus said you were dead!”

“Well,” Terasu said, echoing Venka, “We’re not.”

“Wait,” Vespera says, darting a look between the five of them, “Wait, wait, wait. The Guardian - “

“Present and accounted for,” Terasu says, giving a smart-assed little salute, “We’ve got a Lacertan, too,” which Chiela figures is her cue, so she allows her body to shift, into one long contraction of muscle, fingernails lengthening to talons, skin toughening to scales, and wings flaring wide behind her. She takes a few ambling steps forward, body curling around Vespera, brushing against her sides, and allows Vespera to run one hand reverently along her flank. She can feel a sudden rush of pure relief wash over Vespera, and memories rise to the surface of the run from the ship, sirens wailing, guards striking out the crush of bodies around them, felling rebels along with the innocent; the shudder of a ship’s take-off under fire from heavy artillery, nearly shaking apart; and Vespera standing in front of a mirror, white faced, staring into her own eyes and thinking I’m 16, I’m only 16, I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m going to get us all killed, I’m never going to get us out of this alive, wanting, so badly, for Dioscorus or Venka to be at her side, to tell her what to do next. Chiela lets her mournful voice rise, ringing through the hall, and there’s more surprised shouting now, muffled to Chiela’s ears, some people backing hastily away, some pressing closer.

“Holy shit!” Vespera says, and Chiela hears the second, “Holy shit!” more clearly as she shifts back to her mundane form. “I thought you guys were a fucking legend! A fucking legend, man!”

“Yeah,” Chiela said, “Not so much.”

“Can you really tear a ship apart?” Vespera said, giving her a keen look, an almost childish excitement in her voice.

“Uh,” Chiela said, “I’ve never, y’know, tried,” at which Vespera looked so disappointed that Chiela felt compelled to add, “But we haven’t found anything yet that can shoot me down,” and probably, when they did find it, it’d be at the worst possible time. Like in the middle of a fire fight.

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