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set all your mind upon the steep ascent

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Maul’s hands were shaking. He glared at them, furious, struggling to repress the rumble in his chest as he willed them to hold still, but they wouldn’t. They just kept shaking, trembling like spark-roach feelers, and he couldn’t keep them still. He balled them into fists, digging his nails into his palms, and hissed. It was never going to work, it was a stupid plan, he’d be caught and—and punished, what was he thinking he wasn’t thinking it was stupid Master would be furious he—his chest hurt and his legs were all wobbly and he—he couldn’t breathe

After a while, he wasn’t sure how long, Maul came back to himself huddled in a ball on the floor in the corner of the cargo bay, shaking and gasping, but he could breathe again so—so he was fine. But he was running out of time. If he was going to try, to—to leave, and he didn’t know how much time he’d just wasted having some kind of baby fit on the floor, he had to do it now. Master would come back to the ship soon, probably, and then it would be too late, they would be back on their way to Tosste. Maul didn’t know what was going to happen on Tosste, but he was certain it would be painful and he—he didn’t want it. He didn’t want it.

His chest hurt. His chest hurt, and his breathing was weird, and his hands were still shaking, but he was going to do it. He was going to leave. All he had to do was go to the control panel, and put in the code he saw Master use when he left. Master didn’t know he saw it, he was pretty sure. Master had never let him see anything like that before, so if he knew Maul was looking he would have covered his hand, right?

...But what if he did know? What if it was another test? What if Master was waiting outside and if he put in the code and opened the door he failed the test he couldn’t—fail another test, he—no, no, it wasn’t a test, it didn’t feel like a test, it felt—he felt—something, he didn’t know what he felt, but it was something and he was going to do it. He just had to get up and go put in the code.

Get up. He took a deep breath, then another one, straining his ears for any hint that Master had returned, but it was silent. One more breath. He stood, slowly, leaning against the wall, and paused to listen again. Still nothing. Master was gone. On shaky legs he crossed the small hold to the control panel next to the door, jerking to a halt in front of it. He stared at it, holding his breath for a moment then letting it out slow, pretending he couldn’t feel his whole body trembling.

Heart in his throat he darted his hand out, not giving himself time to think about it, and punched in the access code. The hiss of the hatch opening made him jump, somehow unprepared for the sound and the sudden movement. His eyes wide, his breath now coming in panicked gasps, he staggered out of the ship, ready at any moment to feel the sting of his failure but—Master wasn’t there. He wasn’t, it wasn’t a test. He was out of the ship, away from Master, at least for now. But that was as far as his plan had gotten, and he had no idea where to go from there. With a hitching sob he wrapped his thin arms around his waist, staring at the deserted port, his mind blank.

No, not deserted. There was a ship in the adjacent dock being loaded with crates by a handful of droids, a being with scales like a lava eel and horns like Maul’s, holding a data pad shouting at them to hurry it up. Maul twitched forward a step, swallowing roughly as his eyes raced over the open cargo bay and jumbled stack of boxes and pallets. If they were in a hurry, then they must be planning to leave soon. If he could get on board without being seen, he could get far enough away from Master that maybe he wouldn’t be able to find him. Master always found him when he hid before, so he’d had a vague idea that he would just keep running, but he needed to sleep sometime so if he was on a ship, he could—he’d be moving fast, in space, so he could sleep then.

And if he didn’t know where he was going then Master couldn’t just pull it out of his head and follow him. He knew Master could read his mind, he’d done it before, so if he just didn’t know then maybe it wouldn’t matter. All he would need to do is keep hiding on ships and maybe—Master didn’t care about him, really, so maybe he would just—give up, if he kept going fast enough. Maul wasn’t worth that much trouble, he couldn’t be, he failed all the time. Maybe Master wouldn’t even care that he was gone.

Holding that thought tight, Maul slunk his way into the shadows, flitting from one to the next as quietly as he could, and made his way toward the open cargo bay. The ship was shabby, patched with different colored metals, and the pilot was even shabbier. The crates were all unlabeled, but there were remnants of labels on them, like someone had scraped them off with something sharp, but not very well. The droids loading the bay were even shabbier than the ship, and didn’t seem to be aware of much. The pilot looked sharp-eyed though.

Fortunately he seemed to be at least a little satisfied with the droids’ progress, because he left them to it and made his way into the ship. Maul waited for a moment, making sure he’d had time to leave the cargo bay and head further in before he made his own way toward the ramp. He timed it carefully, waiting until all five droids were occupied picking up the last few crates before he dashed behind them and up into the hold. Seeing no one, he quickly tucked himself in a corner behind a huge pile of already lashed down cargo, wiggling his way under a tarp lashed down over a small stack of boxes.

Hidden as well as he could manage, he tucked his arms around himself and held as still as possible, listening to the droids moving about and willing them to go faster. If Master returned to the ship and saw him missing before this one even left the port it would be—he didn’t want to think about how bad it would be. He hadn’t gone nearly far enough for Master not to be able to find him with ease once he started looking.

Luck was with him. It was only a few minutes before the droids were all clattering into the hold, and Maul heard the grinding, clanking sound of the hatch closing behind them. The ship rumbled to life only a moment later, the crates around him shaking with the engine’s rattle. Maul was starting to wonder if it would even be able to take off, with the way it sounded, when it suddenly jerked into motion.

He jumped, startled, as he felt the crates over his head shifted threateningly, but they didn’t tumble down and crush him. With the small amount of light filtering through the tarp he could just barely make out his own hands in front of his face. Rather than strain his eyes trying to see, he closed them and curled up into as small a ball as he could manage. Now that the ship was moving, the shivery tension was slowly, slowly draining from his limbs, leaving him shaking and numb.

Maybe it would be okay if he just—slept. There was nothing else he could do, really, either Master would catch the ship or he wouldn’t, so it would be okay to sleep, wouldn’t it? His head hurt, and he was cold, and he was so tired. He could sleep for a little while, then figure out what to do after that. He was away from Master, on a ship going somewhere hopefully far away, and that was what mattered. With one last hard shiver, he slowly drifted into a fitful sleep.

It seemed like no time at all, though, until a stab of blinding rage jerked him back awake with a bitten-off cry. Confused, dazed, he hid his head with his arms and waited for a blow to descend, but—nothing happened, what—another harsh pulse of anger pounded through his mind and he choked back a gasp as something raked through his thoughts with sharp claws and fury. Master, Master knew he was gone, he was going to find him, Maul was going to be punished—no, no he wasn’t, Maul didn’t even know where he was so Master couldn’t pick it out of his head, he was still safe.

Shuddering, arms over his head, he waited for the raking claws and fury to subside. Eventually, after he wasn’t sure how long, they died down to a simmering rage with an edge of cold intent, and Maul slowly, cautiously relaxed. He swallowed roughly, carefully ignoring the wetness on his face as he pulled himself to sit upright. Based on how angry Master was, he probably was going to come after him, so he would need a plan to keep moving long enough for him to hopefully decide Maul wasn’t worth the effort anymore, while still never knowing where it was he was going.

First, though, he needed to find supplies. He didn’t know how long he would be on the ship, but it had taken several days to get from Mustafar to wherever they had stopped on the way to Tosste, and while he’d gone longer without food before he would need water at least. Slowly, cautiously, he crept out from under the tarp, careful to make as little sound as possible. Fortunately the droids were all docked in charging stations, dark and silent, sensors probably powered down.

Flinching at each pulse of rage that set his head pounding, Maul crept unsteadily across the dark cargo bay, straining to hear any sound of movement from the ship’s pilot. Everything was quiet though, the bay empty except the powered down droids. The corridor beyond was dark and empty also, but there was a faint glow from the flickering light panels scattered along the walls. They seemed to be set on low power with how dim they were, but Maul could see in the dark really well so it wasn’t hard to make his way on quiet feet.

He passed two closed doors, one of them with a red light on the pad and one with blue, before he came to an open doorway with no door at all. The room beyond had some of the same type of machines as the little kitchen he was sometimes allowed in on Mustafar. Carefully he snuck across the room, keeping close to the wall, until he came to some cabinets. Holding his breath he eased one open, and the door slid silently to reveal what looked like ration packs. He let out a shaky breath, relieved to see a food he recognized, and grabbed a few from the back to stick in his shirt.

With a little more boldness he peeked into the other cabinets, finding colorful tubs and boxes that he didn’t recognize at all, so he left them alone. The last cabinet he looked in, one with a heavy door that stuck a little before swinging open, he found a bunch of squishy bulbs of liquid in different colors, and a whole big box of clear ones that looked like water. The bulb cabinet was cold, even colder than the air in the ship, and it made Maul shiver. He’d been cold since they left Mustafar, but this was so much worse. Why would anyone want their cabinets so cold?

With a glance over his shoulder to make sure the pilot hadn’t come in without him hearing, Maul reached in and grabbed three of the clear bulbs from the back of the box and tucked them in his shirt with the ration bars. He almost yelped in surprise at how cold they were, much colder on his torso than his hands, but managed to stifle it into a strangled squeak. With enough now to keep him alive for a few days at least, Maul silently dashed back down the corridor to the cargo bay, stealthily moving around the walls on the far side of the droids back to his hiding place under the tarp.

In relative security once more, Maul slowly started to relax a little. He shoved the crates a bit to make enough room to lay down, and tucked his supplies in the very back of the little cubby. He wasn’t so hungry or thirsty that he needed to open them yet, which was good. Maybe the water would be less cold when he got thirsty enough. With Master’s attention fixed on something else, and not on scratching at his mind, Maul could get a little more sleep, maybe. He was so tired.

The next few days, or he thought it was days anyway, passed in a haze of sleeping and waking, hiding under the tarp and silently shaking through more furious rages from Master. Fortunately there was a tiny ‘fresher in the cargo bay, so he didn’t have to make a mess somewhere that would be found later. With careful conserving he also didn’t have to sneak out into the main part of the ship again for more water, the last bulb still half full by the time the ship started shaking and rattling like it had when it was taking off. He needed to get out of the ship without being seen, once the bay was open. If Master ever met the pilot again he would be able to see where Maul had gone, if he wasn’t careful.

Clutching his remaining ration bar and the last of the water, Maul slowly, carefully crept out of his hiding place. The droids were still silent in their charging stations, so he had time to find a spot close to the hatch that he could leap out from when it opened. With a heavy jerk that made Maul’s teeth clack together, stirring his near constant headache roaring back to life, the ship landed. The hatch hissed and groaned it’s way open almost immediately, and as the droids behind him started beeping and twitching to awareness Maul slipped out the still partially closed hatch and dropped to the ground.

There were other people in the port, but it was night time and, at least from what he could see with a quick glance, nobody seemed to be looking in Maul's direction. Keeping his eyes down, doing his best to not get a good look at where he was, he dashed into the closest opening between two large buildings and out of sight before the pilot of the ship had time to even turn off the engines. He was away, on a completely different planet from Master, somewhere he had no idea to look.

Suddenly shaking, his hands trembling so hard he almost dropped his supplies, Maul stumbled around the side of a big bin of trash and slumped to the ground, curling up in the shadows. His chest hurt again but it was almost—good? Like pressure coming off his chest when he’d been crushed under something for a while, like he’d been trapped but suddenly wasn’t, and it hurt but it was—something. Good.

It made him shaky though, and his breathing was weird again, so he stayed in between the buildings until he was fine again. He should find another ship to hide on and go somewhere else, keep moving, but maybe he could find some more supplies first. And something to cover his face, like Master’s robe, so people couldn’t see him.

Just as he was about to go see what he could find, he felt Master scratching at him again, sharp and cold and so angry, so he dropped back down and buried his face in his hands so he couldn’t see anything. All he’d seen from the ship to the little corner he was in was a dirty space port, with only a few ships and people too far to see properly. Master wouldn’t find anything in his mind, he wouldn’t. He’d kept his eyes down the whole time. Still, better to be quick with his plan and get on another ship soon, just in case.

As soon as Master had stopped, Maul dragged himself to his feet, took a deep breath, and cautiously crept toward the other side of the buildings. There were more people over there, walking back and forth across the opening. So many different looking people. None of them looked like Maul, but some of them looked a little bit like Master. Most of them, though, didn’t look anything like either of them.

Keeping his eyes away from signs, not looking up very often, Maul edged out into the open space. There were vehicles going down the middle, and people walking on the sides, so he kept to the sides also. Nobody looked at him. He could feel them as they passed, and they weren’t paying attention to him at all. He felt a little braver, and started glancing to the sides into the openings between the buildings as he went past them, looking for anything that might be useful.

Mostly he saw trash, or sometimes people sitting on the ground. When the people sitting saw him looking they looked back, their notice making his skin shiver with unease, and he desperately willed them to stop looking. To his shock, it worked. The people who noticed him started making a weird face, like they were confused, then looking away again. He kept it up, wishing as hard as he could that no one would look at him, no one would see him or remember him as he slowly made his way along the open space.

He started smelling something after a little while, something he’d never smelled before that made his stomach go tight and twisty like he hadn’t eaten in too long. It smelled...hot. Hot, and familiar, but he knew he’d never smelled anything like it on Mustafar. Curious and suddenly a lot hungrier than he had been before he smelled it, he followed the smell between a couple buildings and away from the open space. There was no one sitting in this narrow gap, so he hopped over the piles of trash without hesitating and dashed to the other end before slowing to a halt.

The open space on this side was smaller, with no vehicles in the middle, but there were just as many people as there were in the other one. There were also little tiny buildings though, set up in front of the large ones, and the smell was coming from one of those. There were more smells, too, but none of the rest were as—as nice as the one from that little building. Keeping up his desperate wish that no one look at him, he crept closer to get a better look.

There was writing on a sign in front, but he couldn’t read it at all. It didn’t look like any letters he’d ever learned. There were pictures though, and it looked a little like the food that Master ate sometimes, but it was all red. It smelled even hotter up close, in a way that made his nose tickle and his mouth water.

Distracted, he almost didn’t notice that someone was looking at him, but when he glanced around to see if any of the other little buildings had anything similar to the red stuff he saw a couple people wearing all metal turned to face right at him. The taller one had red marks on his head, and the shorter one had blue marks, and Maul had never seen anything like what they were wearing. He—they didn’t feel like anything, not even the weird buzzy feel that droids had. He froze, his blood thundering loud in his ears as the bigger one tilted their head to the side. Maul swallowed roughly, edging a step back toward the gap behind him. They were too close and they were looking at him what if they remembered him later and Master saw?

The tall one lifted his hands to his head, and Maul flinched back another step, but all he did was lift the metal off it, and—Maul could feel him, sudden and startling. The metal had been—had hidden him. With a hitching gasp Maul scrambled back into the shadows, even as the tall one frowned and stepped toward him. He didn’t chase, though, and Maul stopped when he was just out of sight, watching the tall one peer into the darkness at him. He thought as hard as he could about being invisible, his blunted nails digging into his palms, and it worked that time, but—only on the one who took the metal off his head. He made the same face as everyone else had, looking away and walking up to the little building with the red food. The other one kept looking into the shadows for a moment, then slowly followed the other one.

The metal thing on his head hid him. Maul couldn’t feel him until he took it off. Then his wishing didn’t work, until the metal thing was off too. Maybe—the metal thing, maybe it could hide Maul. If he could take it, and get away after, maybe he wouldn’t have to keep hiding on ships. Maybe he could just...find somewhere safe, and stay there, and Master still wouldn’t find him. All he had to do was take it and run, and if he was fast enough, he would be safe.

Rubbing at his aching chest, trying to keep his breathing even, Maul slowly started creeping back toward the opening. He was fast, he could do it. He could.