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set all your mind upon the steep ascent

Chapter Text

 


 

It was a smell that woke him. Jango blinked blearily at the ceiling, breathing in deeply through his nose to let the smell soak in, and waited for his brain to catch up. It smelled...really good. Especially after the breakfast-that-wasn’t. Hopefully Jaster was making the hotcakes he so cruelly denied Jango earlier.

Without moving much, he rolled his head just enough to glance over at Maul from the corner of his eye. The kid was still thoroughly absorbed with the holobook in his hands, like he’d been when Silas’ boring short story collection dragged Jango into slumber against his will. Judging by how quickly Maul was scrolling as he read, Jango couldn’t have been asleep for too long, because he hadn’t finished it yet. Good. Maybe Jaster didn’t notice him sleeping on the job.

He debated for a long moment just going back to sleep rather than disturb Maul’s reading. It was the first time he’d ever seen the kid relax, and he wasn’t looking forward to a return of that twitchy tension. But also, whatever Jaster was cooking smelled really kriffing good and Jango was hungry. Besides, Maul was like a little stick; he obviously needed to eat as much as they could stuff into him, so really Jango would be doing him a favor.

“Hey,” he said quietly, trying to keep it soft like Jaster would. It still made the kid jump about three inches, hands going tight enough around the holobook that the case creaked a bit.

Jango sighed, rolling his head back to look up again. “I’m not gonna eat you, kriff,” he muttered, half to himself.

Maul didn’t speak, just waited, tense and watchful in Jaster’s cushion. Jango repressed the urge to groan, reaching up to rub his hands roughly over his face in a half-hearted attempt to bring himself to alertness. It still felt as though he hadn’t caught up on all the missed sleep over the last few days, one night not nearly enough to wipe away that debt.

“Jaster’s cooking something,” Jango said around a yawn, carefully not looking in Maul’s direction as he climbed slowly to his feet. “We should go see what it is. Probably lunch. Bring the holobook you’re reading, you can hang onto it until you’re done.”

He dropped his own holobook on his cushion, tucked his hands in his pockets, and waited for a response. He didn't start heading for the corridor until he heard the sound of the cushion moving as Maul got up, and he didn't turn and look as he started walking. The kid seemed to get exponentially twitchier when someone's eyes were on him.

When they got to the galley, Jango was very pleased to see that his suspicions were correct. He had smelled hotcakes, and there was a hefty stack of them already sitting in the middle of the table. Dr. Hiralan must have given the go ahead to feed the kid properly, which meant Jango was also going to be fed properly.

Jaster glanced over his shoulder at them with a crooked smile, genuine if not exactly carefree, and Jango felt a bit of the lingering tension from earlier ease. Maul must not be too badly off, if Jaster was smiling like that and making hotcakes.

"Jango, grab the plates? Go ahead and sit down, Maul, lunch will be done in a moment." Jaster turned back to the stove, flipping the plate-sized cake with a twist of his wrist. He was radiating that contentment he always got when he was about to feed someone, Jango noted with amused fondness.

But as he set out three plates, the sight gave him a faintly uneasy feeling that he determinedly pushed aside. The third plate didn't have to be Arla's. That it was Maul's right then didn't mean anything other than that was who was on the ship with them.

Maul hovered by the doorway for a while before sitting, because of course he did, but it didn't last as long, and he was still holding the holobook. He looked a bit less like he thought they were about to murder him when he finally hopped up on the chair, too. Jango didn't wait for Jaster to finish the last cake, he just dropped three on each plate then drizzled his own with spiced honey.

“This one is spicy,” he told Maul with a waggle of the jar. “The purple one is meiloorun, sweet fruit, and the brown one is disgusting.”

“It’s not disgusting, you just don’t like it,” Jaster interrupted obnoxiously, sliding the cake around in the pan. Apparently done, he turned away from the stove to drop the fresh hotcake not on the plate in the center, but on top of Maul’s stack. He gave the kid a warm smile, put the pan back on the stove, then eased himself down into his own chair a bit more carefully than usual.

“I don’t like it because it’s disgusting,” Jango replied with a curled lip, eyes sharp and looking for weaknesses. He found them, eyes narrowing, and added with a frown, “You kriffed up your back, didn’t you.”

Jaster stilled, caught, then too casually relaxed and held himself with his typical easy grace, leaning on one elbow as he reached for the stack. “Don’t be ridiculous,” he said brightly, but notably didn’t deny it. Jango settled back in his chair with a huff, but didn’t argue, just started eating his lunch and pointedly ignoring his idiot buir. Nobody had better blame him for this, because it was not his fault this time. From the corner of his eye he watched as Maul tore off a piece of his plain hotcake, cautiously slipping it up under Jaster’s helmet. He twitched the same way as he had when he tried the dao-ben, almost startled. Jango didn’t care for it, for reasons he wasn’t in the mood to think too hard about.

“Do you want anything on top of them?” Jaster asked Maul quietly. “Hotcakes are good on their own, but they’re even better with a topping. You can try all three of them, if you want.”

Maul went still for a moment, visor trained on Jaster’s face and a strange, confused tension hovering around him. “...No,” he said eventually, his voice tight and wary.

Jaster wilted, just slightly, but enough for Jango to see it. He was hard-pressed to not glower again, but this time at the kid who kept tying his buir up in knots. He restrained himself to tightened lips, and turned his attention conspicuously to his plate instead.

Jaster apparently noticed his shift in mood, because he hummed thoughtfully in that way he did when he was about to find something for Jango to do. Kriff.

“You should comm your sister when you’re done eating,” Jaster said casually, tone perfectly even. When Jango darted a suspicious look at him, he too was paying conspicuous attention to his own plate. “She would probably appreciate the update. You know how she gets when we go out without her.”

“Well maybe she shouldn’t stay home so often then,” Jango muttered rebelliously.

Jaster gave him a Look, and Jango sank lower in his chair with a huff, stuffing a large bite in his mouth in lieu of conceding. Jaster rolled his eyes, his face more fond than it had any right to be, and Jango resigned himself to being the one to break the news that they were getting a new brother. Kriff.

 


 

Arla stared balefully at the chiming comm, seriously considering just ignoring it. She had three papers due in a week, not a single one of them under twenty-thousand words, and not a single one of them done. Nothing Jango had to say could possibly be more important than the sleep she wasn’t getting in favor of those kriffing assignments, and if she wasn’t stopping for sleep than she certainly shouldn’t be stopping for Jango.

But what if it was important? It wasn’t like Jango was a particularly good communicator, so if he was contacting her it was either because Jaster told him to, or something was wrong and he needed backup. With a deep, tired sigh, Arla leaned forward and failed at the comm on the other side of the table until she caught it with her fingers.

That glancing blow sent it skittering right off the table. She slumped forward to smack her forehead against her stack of flimsi with a petulant whine, a sound that would never have left her mouth if anyone else were there to hear her.

“I’ll kill you,” she muttered gloomily. Jango would regret this, even if he never learned what, precisely, he was regretting.

It was more effort than it had any right to be to get out of her chair and walk around the table to pick her comm up off the floor, which meant she was already scowling when she stabbed the screen with a stiff finger to accept the call. Jango’s fuzzy blue holo immediately recoiled, a theatrically alarmed expression on his face.

“When did you join the ranks of the undead?” he asked, his voice at once impressed and horrified, his miniature features just large enough to properly convey his amusement.

Arla just stared, flat and unamused, waiting with growing impatience for him to explain himself. His amusement quickly faded, though, and Arla frowned as it was replaced by poorly masked concern. Poorly masked to her, anyway; he’d likely do a decent job of fooling most people.

“What’s wrong,” she asked sharply, her eyes narrowing and her exhaustion fading under the surge of adrenaline. Her alarm eased even as her dismay grew when Jango sighed deeply, dropping his head back against the pilot’s chair. He was calling her from the cockpit, then. That was unusual, and Arla was starting to grow impatient with the lack of immediate information. She did not like unusual, not around her little brother.

Apparently he sensed her growing displeasure, and feared the consequences enough to quit stalling.

“Buir picked up a stray,” he said with a grimace. “Sentient, this time. Pretty sure we’re getting a vod’ika, providing the kid agrees, and I wanted to give you a heads up before we dropped him at the table for dinner.”

Arla snorted, relaxing back into her own chair with an unpleasant rush of relief that no one was injured or dead. “You mean Jaster told you to give me a heads up,” she said with a smirk.

Jango ignored her loftily, his stubborn little pout that he insisted he’d grown out of appearing on the holo. “Anyway, if you care, his name is Maul and he’s about as fucked up a kid as I’ve ever met.”

Arla frowned, crossing her arms and cocking her head. “Bold claim.”

Jango sighed wearily, and her concern started to rise. “He’s real twitchy. Pretty sure he expects us to kill and eat him at any moment. He’s been carrying around a broken fiber-grown chair leg since we picked him up, like the second he leaves it somewhere he’ll need to defend himself.”

Jango went quiet for a moment, chewing on his lip and looking away from the console, and Arla felt her stomach twist at the tired, sad look on her little brother’s face. “I’m pretty sure he’s sleeping on the floor,” he said finally, his face twisting in a way she hasn’t seen since her own early days of recovery.

“Why do you think that?” she asked calmly, keeping her face even. It’s a good thing she managed it, because Jango flicked his eyes toward the holoprojector, and whatever he saw from her seemed to settle him somewhat.

“Because he’s staying in my bunk, and when I went in there after he got up only one blanket had been moved, and it was the one on top,” he said grimly. “No sign whatsoever that anyone had slept under the rest. No dip in the pillow, which there should have been with Jaster’s helmet pushed into it all night.”

Arla frowned, baffled. “What the kriff does Jaster’s helmet have to do with anything?”

Jango huffed, slumping back in the chair and once again frowning at nothing as he looked away. “That’s another thing entirely,” he muttered balefully. “We picked him up in the first place because he stole Jaster’s helmet off a food stand. Said he needed it for something, and refused to give it up.”

She snorted, incredulous amusement momentarily overwhelming her concern. “And Jaster let him keep it?” she asked, fully expecting the answer to be yes. She wasn’t disappointed.

Jango rolled his eyes, fondness warring with frustration and winning, like it tended to do whenever they talked about their buir. “Of course he did, because he’s the biggest sucker who ever lived.”

Arla huffed a quiet laugh, slumping back in her own chair. “He absolutely is,” she muttered tiredly, dropping her head back. No one else would have taken a chance on her, after all.

Even after she slipped into his compound armed to the teeth, her head absolutely scrambled by Death Watch, her entire purpose bent towards slitting his throat, Jaster still tried to save her. And then kept trying. Even as she raged at him, half-mad with bitterness, barely even recognizing her own brother through the haze of bloodlust, he kept trying. Over and over, until finally his calm, steady care and Jango’s desperate love broke through her conditioning, and the two of them dragged her kicking and screaming back into something approaching sanity.

If they could manage that, their feral little thief had no chance to resist them. Arla half-expected the kid to already be thoroughly attached by the time they got home. “Alright, enough about our new brother. How was the hunt? Tell me everything.”

 


 

Jango ate much faster than Maul. By the time Maul had eaten one of the things, the…the hotcakes, and started another, Jango was already done. He was still working on the second one when Jango finished washing his plate. Maul watched as he left the room without a word, headed toward the cockpit. Jaster watched him go with a tired look, but he was smiling too. He kept smiling when he turned to look at Maul, and he jerked his eyes away, feeling strange.

He...he liked it when Jaster smiled at him like that, he realized suddenly. He liked smiles that weren’t sharp.

Liking things was dangerous. Liking things meant they would be taken away. He didn’t want the not-sharp smiles to be taken away, the thought made his stomach feel cold and twisted. Maybe...maybe if he only looked sideways at them, Jaster wouldn’t be able to tell he liked them, and he would keep doing it.

“Did you find a good story to read?” Jaster asked suddenly, but Maul didn’t jump this time. He was getting used to Jaster talking to him, even though it was strange, so his voice wasn’t startling.

That didn’t mean he had any idea how he was supposed to answer the question. Story might mean history, or something like it, but there was only one holobook that looked like a history. If that’s what he was talking about, why would he ask if Maul found a good one?

But he did find a holobook to read, even if he still wasn’t sure what the lesson in it was supposed to be. It didn’t seem to have one, as strange as that thought was, but he…wanted to keep reading it. He liked it, liked the way the words fit together even if he didn’t understand all of them, and he liked the images attached in places. Without any other ideas, he offered a hesitant nod.

That seemed to be the right answer because Jaster looked pleased, smiling again and relaxing back in his chair. He didn’t ask anything else, so Maul went back to eating the hotcake. It was soft, like the dao-ben, but tasted…different. He liked it, enough to want to keep eating even if he was getting too full to be fast again.

If he kept one, hid it in his shirt when Jaster wasn’t looking, he could have it later instead of a ration. It tasted better than a ration, a lot better. But…Jaster kept giving him more food, and he didn’t even offer a trade for it this time, so maybe there would be something else later too. And the hotcakes were warm still, later they would be cold. He hadn’t had to run at all so far, and the ship didn’t have that much space to run anyway, so maybe he wouldn’t have to. Maybe it would be fine if he ate all four hotcakes.

Hesitantly, Maul finished the last bite of the second one, and instead of trying to hide the third, he just…started eating it. He still felt like maybe he shouldn’t, that maybe he would have to run later and he would regret eating three, but…it was warm, and it tasted really nice, and Jaster hadn’t chased him at all since the first time, so maybe it would be okay.

“Remember the doctor friend I mentioned?” Jaster asked lightly.

Maul frowned. Why wouldn’t he remember? It was just a little while ago, of course he remembered, he wasn’t stupid. He nodded, watching Jaster’s face suspiciously, looking for the trick. Again, it didn’t look like there was one. Jaster’s face was just…it didn’t look like it was trying to hide anything.

“We had a talk, and she looked at the scans,” Jaster went on, looking down at his plate instead of at Maul as he slowly cut his hotcakes into pieces.

The bite of hotcake in Maul’s mouth suddenly felt really dry and pasty, and it was hard to swallow it. He hadn’t…forgotten, exactly, that the scan was to see if there was anything wrong with Maul, but…what if there was something wrong with him? But he wasn’t worrying very long before Jaster talked again, and his words startled Maul into stillness.

“She said you’re a little too thin, and need to eat more to keep your growth on track, so let me or Jango know if you get hungry outside of meal times, alright?”

Maul stared at Jaster for a long time, trying to figure out the trick, but he just…he just looked calm. His face changed after a little bit, when Maul didn’t answer, an expression Maul didn’t understand but that made him feel…twisty, in his chest, and tight. He was starting to think there wasn’t a trick, or a test. Jaster just wanted him to say when he was hungry to…give him food.

Maybe so Maul would be a better fighter? If he needed to eat more to grow, maybe Jaster wanted his loyalty, like Master did. Maul could be useful, if he put in the effort, Master always said so. Maybe Jaster could tell too, that Maul could be useful, and he wanted to make sure he would be.

He relaxed slowly, the tension easing as he figured it out. Jaster was already much better than Master, and hadn’t hurt Maul at all even once, so if he wanted Maul to be loyal maybe…maybe he would be. Maybe Jaster wanted an apprentice, and wasn’t sure if Maul would be good enough, and that’s what the tests were for. Not tricks, just…aptitude tests. That made sense.

“Okay,” he said finally, nodding sharply. He would tell Jaster when he got hungry, to make sure he grew enough to be useful later. That was the right answer, he could tell. Jaster stopped making that face he didn’t understand, and smiled again. Maul looked away from it down at the hotcake, and instead of twisty his chest felt…warm.

It could be good, to be Jaster’s apprentice, maybe.

 


 

Jaster had nearly held his breath while Maul thought about his request, frozen stiff like a shatual fawn under the eyes of a strill. He wasn’t certain what, precisely, Maul was deliberating, but he could hazard a few guesses, and he didn’t much care for any of them. The relief when the boy finally agreed was immense, and Jaster couldn’t help the warm, approving smile.

As he’d begun to expect, Maul immediately looked away from his face, occupying himself with his last hotcake instead. Jaster repressed a sigh as the smile faded, but the warmth lingered. He’d honestly thought Maul would either not answer at all, or somehow refuse his request, but the agreement seemed genuine even if Jaster had no idea what motivated it. Whatever it was, as long as it meant Maul was eating enough, Jaster would take it.

The two of them finished their breakfast in, if not a companionable silence, at least not a tense one. By the time Jango reappeared to snag a second lunch, Jaster and Maul were both finished with their own.

"Put the rest away when you're done?" Jaster asked as he slowly unfolded himself from his chair. He was very much looking forward to being back home, where he could boil his old bones in his tub until they stopped complaining.

Jango grunted through his mouthful, slumped against the table with his eyes lidded, and Jaster decided against asking him how the call with Arla went. He could always find out later when Jango looked slightly less close to a full on sulk.

Lacking anything else to do, since he was largely caught up on his flimsiwork from the morning, Jaster decided to get in on the fun the boys had before lunch, and do a little light reading himself. His decision may, possibly, have had something to do with how cozy and comfortable they'd looked, along with his desire to see Maul relax a bit more.

Maul was still perched on his chair even with Jaster standing, he realized suddenly. It was the first time he hadn't scrambled to his feet as soon as one of them got up. Not only that, but the broken chair leg was nowhere in sight.

Rather than show any overt sign of approval and scare the boy right back into his shell, Jaster casually turned towards the door, and over his shoulder said, "Maul, I'm going to go read in the rec room for a while, if you'd like to join me."

He carefully didn't make it an order or a request, nor did he pay any particularly visible attention to the boy as he walked past him. He couldn't get into the cargo bay, the cockpit, or the weapons lockers, so if he didn't want to join Jaster in the rec room it was probably safe enough to let him go wherever he pleased.

To Jaster's delight, the nearly silent pat-pat-pat of bare feet on the floor followed him down the corridor. He tucked his thumbs into his pockets and tried not to smile too broadly as he stepped into the rec room.

As he moved over to the cabinet to start rifling through their collection, he spied the absent chair leg still sitting on his favorite cushion, apparently forgotten. Rather than make Maul think he'd chosen the wrong place to sit, Jaster settled himself in Arla's yellow monstrosity instead.

As he'd hoped, Maul hesitated only a moment before following Jaster into the room, and headed straight for the spot he'd claimed earlier. He seemed startled to see the chair leg still sitting there, but he shook it off and settled in, holobook in his hands. He looked incredibly small, half-swallowed by the orange fabric, and Jaster desperately wished he had the camera on him.

They would have to get another cushion, he realized suddenly, for the rare occasions they were all on the ship at the same time. Maybe Maul would like to pick one out for himself once he felt a little more secure. He was tempted to try and tease out the boy’s favorite color, but he was clearly already absorbed once more into his holobook, so Jaster let him be.

Besides, he’d been meaning to read this treatise for months, but he kept getting sidetracked by various responsibilities. Keeping his young guest company was a perfect excuse to finally get further than the introduction.