Chapter 1: αʹ
01. She can become indignant.
Though he is used to walking past her door, he usually does not stop to chat. A quick glance to see what she is doing, he rarely chooses to disturb her peace.
But today she is on the dangerous top step of a stool, changing a light bulb – as he crosses the threshold he registers she has a screwdriver in her hand. That is secondary, however, to him rushing in the room because now she is on her tiptoes, struggling to reach-
He pulls her down without a word, into his arms; she sags on him and tilts her head in question, carefully adjusting her many frills and skirts.
“My light burnt out,” she began, “and I asked Doc if he could change it, but Luka needed him to fix the hinges on her door.”
Joe knows that Luka just had the hinges repaired a few days ago, and sighs; there was no reason she should be-
“And pardon me, Joe-san,” she continues, cheeks reddening, “But I can use a tool on my own.”
Finally giving her proper attention, he studies her face only to find her bestowing upon him a sort of offended pout. Indeed, red still sprinkles the rounds of her cheeks and now her arms cross one another, folded against her chest. She seems almost . . . indignant.
Holding her tightly still, he smirks; she holds her stare and purses her lips.
Nothing breaks the crackling atmosphere, the tense and poised silence. Not even Gai, who happens to be wandering down the hall, enthusiastically perfecting his opening fighting sequence. He whirls and leaps past the open door with appropriate sound effects to match, then walks backward to gaze inside with a confused expression.
“Is there a reason you are smiling?” Ahim whispers, tone light, polite, and laced with a warning.
Still gracing her with his smoldering smirk, he takes the screwdriver from her hand for no other reason than a selfish desire to wind her up.
Chapter 2: βʹ
02. She is attentive.
Because no one else awakens with the sun as she does.
In the still and quiet Galleon, she pitter-patters around in slippers. Staying out of his way.
She knows his routine all too well.
When he emerges, dressed, ready to warm-up for the day with his calisthenics, he sees the small pile of items she has stacked on the seat of his incline bench.
A folded, fresh towel to wipe his face. The countless things with which he adorns his wrist. Pendant. The cord for his hair.
And on the table, a cup of steaming tea.
“Ahim,” he says quietly, “You can go back to sleep if you want.”
Shaking her head, she comes around the corner with his coat in one hand, a teacup in the other. Always graceful. The sunrise splashes her cheeks with gold.
“I am quite accustomed to being awake early,” she responds quietly, sitting upon the couch. Carefully producing a needle and thread, she smiles at the rips and tears in his coat and begins her task.
It is the home he has never known, and the home she has lost.
Two broken persons beyond mere words, adept and talented in the art of silence.
Chapter 3: γʹ
03. She has a few skeletons.
Luka has never inquired about the ring on Ahim’s finger. To say how unusual that is would be the greatest understatement, and Joe wonders how no one else has noticed.
Gai asks at the dinner table, one ordinary night after losing spectacularly to Joe in an arm wrestling match. The captain stuffs his face with gusto, oblivious.
“So is it just a fashion statement . . . or you know,” the sixth member wiggles his eyebrows, flashing a dazzling, cheeky grin, “A gift? A promise? A former suitor?”
Luka’s boot connects with his shin, and he lets out a bellow worthy of a wounded animal. Pouting, he glares across the table.
Ahim places her fork at the edge of her plate, and for a moment, a shadow passes across her round face. Then she raises her hand and waves it, laughing, like the tinkle of a small silver bell. “Oh, Gai-san, it is such a long story. And anyway, it is time for tea.” She rises from the table. With the utmost grace, her dismissal leaves the subject to wither and die.
Along with Joe’s appetite.
Later, he would hear the most wrenching sobs she has ever cried – more painful than the tears she shed for the planet she’s lost. Something guttural and selfish, an emotion so tightly bound to her heart that the slightest touch leaves it shuddering. The darkest secrets and desires of a person, removed from the current task at hand and her wants and needs; after all, she’s said more than once that this is her family, her future, and her heart.
Steeling himself to open the door, he does so – but only a sliver. It is enough, for he can see in an instant just what this is. The ring she clutches. The candle. The slightly worn photograph, crumpled here and there from her horrifying flight from Famille.
“A gift? A promise? A former suitor?”
When an unknown man’s name whispers on her lips, Joe knows it is all of the above.
The furious prowling, the heavy steps will give the First Mate away, but he has to find something to punish in his jealous wake – even if it is himself. And all of the ex-princess’s dreams fall victim to flames.
The smoke curls into wisps as delicate as the loops of her hair.
Chapter 4: δʹ
04. She has a little black dress.
When the click-clicks of her shiny dress shoes echo across the deck, everybody has a dramatic double-take. Doc flushes as red as his captain’s coat, and the latter leans forward in his chair, mouth open slightly. Gai climbs onto the table and points, letting out a yell that reaches the rafters; Luka jumps to her feet, hands clapping together as she exclaims, “Aaah! Ahim, you look adorable!” Glancing at her captain and then Gai, she snaps, “Get your jaws off the floor, boys.”
Brought downstairs presumably by Gai’s yell, Joe rolls his eyes as he descends the stairs in a languid fashion. “Did something happen?” Crossing the deck to observe his captain, he frowns and follows his gaze-
And somehow, Joe manages to collide with the pole behind the chair. No one sees it, for which he is grateful, but now he is a blustering mess. Gai leaps from the table and tackles the swordsman by the shoulders, hissing, “Ahim-san looks – well, she looks-”
Joe covers Gai’s mouth, stares at the floor.
“What’s all this about?” Doc asks, the tips of his ears burning red.
Ahim’s toes point in ever-so-slightly, and she begins to fiddle with one diamond earring; the elegant, dark hair bun reveals her slender neck. Clearly, she has clothes other than her usual frilly choices, though the little black dress is not without puffy sleeves. Ever graciously and classily dressed, though, she has thin dress gloves which reach above her elbows, and the hem is long enough. “You see, Luka-san had a date, but she decided she did not want to go-”
“Good!” Doc interjected.
“-but I felt sorry for him, and he was so very nice-”
“So Ahim is going instead!” Luka finishes, circling her sister and adjusting a thin wisp of hair.
“Why didn’t you want to go?” Doc asks, trying and failing to sound casual.
Luka shrugs. “Bad investment. Give us a twirl!”
Ahim carefully and slowly turns, earrings catching the light. Gai whips out his cellular and holds it in front of him; Joe slaps his hand down irritably, glancing at Ahim as she continues to rotate. To his other side, Marvelous is jabbing buttons and huffing: “How do you take pictures on this?”
Now Joe forcibly rips the cellular from his captain’s hand and tosses it aside.
Gai snaps a photograph, grinning like an idiot.
Ahim walks toward the exit, carefully dislodging Gai’s cellular from his grasp; still beaming, he hardly notices. Waving, she begins to leave, only to stop and half-turn toward the main room. Her captain has resumed his love affair with food, Doc turns back to his project, and Gai remains in a smitten heap on the floor.
“Joe-san? I was wondering if you could possibly help me down the ropes?”
That same tendril of hair tumbles out of her bun, cradling her face. For a second he is frozen and similarly confused – she uses the ropes in a dress every single day. It is not until he hears Luka’s impatient “Tuh!” that his brain unstalls.
Joe decides that the next time she wears this dress, it will be for a better occasion than a poor soul’s pity date. After all, it would make her happy, and she deserves better. The few seconds he receives now will be his.
He takes care to step on Gai’s fingers as he follows her soft giggle out the door.
Chapter 5: εʹ
05. She wonders . . .
. . . if she might like him.
And then, she remembers they are pirates. That she is an ex-princess (or is she?) and he, an ex-soldier.
She has lost too many princes; she decides she cannot risk losing him, either. The safest thing to do is to keep him at a distance, for his poor sake. He will not be brought into the deadly game of thrones.
In the end, it will save him.
Chapter 6: ϛʹ
01. He likes cats.
In the dank and dim light, amidst the rolling torrents of thunderstorms, he scratches its ears.
Still cowering and shuddering, it nuzzles his calloused palm, desperate for shelter.
The portholes, always open, are alight – electricity zigzags across the sky, playing a graceful game of tag around the clouds.
Skitter-skatter: He hears frantic sweeps of slippers.
Now the creature curls its tail around his wrist, not letting go of his protector and silent companion. What better friend than another broken soul?
Smirking, he continues to rub his fingers across its head.
He can see even in the dark how badly she is shaking; the pursed lips lock in her expression, preventing it from crumbling. She shuffles toward him, looking away.
“I am so sorry,” she whispers, “but do you mind if I intrude and sit awhile?”
He sighs at her unnecessary kindness; he does not own this room or space. Now the animal paws his way up Joe’s chest, straining to rub his face. Ahim sits on the other end of the couch, eyes glittering while she watches Joe and the cat.
“I did not know you liked cats.”
He had not known, either.
“And do not worry, I won’t tell him you have one.”
Because the Captain would never take his first mate seriously again.
“I’m letting him go tomorrow,” Joe says quietly, closing his eyes as his face is treated to the rough massage of cat’s tongue.
She sighs, the flutter of forest leaves.
“I do not think you should.” Tightening her shawl around her shoulders, she suppresses another shudder. He glances at her. “The cat is quite lucky, after all.”
Chapter 7: ζʹ
02. He cries often, but can’t handle others’ tears.
Unlike his captain, Joe’s heart skips a beat at the sight of a woman’s tears.
Sure, Marvelous does not always notice disquiet or distress, but he can face them down like an enemy if he has to do so.
You would think, after his stint in the special forces, issues of that nature would be easy to ignore.
Or maybe, it is only because the tears are hers.
He is shameful when he cries – it is not a penchant of soldiers, or ex-ones, for that matter. If another person saw him shedding them, he would easily jump right off the ship.
He has to give her credit – she tries so hard. He knows how distressed she becomes when innocent people are caught in the crossfire.
There is nothing worse than watching her fade back into her normal attire, all weapons and pretense gone. Running to the side of a long-since-prostrate body, bullet wounds peppering his back. Turning him over, she bows her head and almost relents –
- Until she sees the horrified children that begin to come forward.
Joe turns away from his captain, realizing that nobody can bear to look. Shifty glances and awkward stances.
“It will be all right,” Ahim whispers, raising herself to her knees and throwing her arms around the son, his face buried in all her frills.
Over the little boy’s shoulder, Joe watches her face crumple, wither, break.
And he decides he has two choices: To learn to deal with her tears, or to keep them from being cried at all.
Chapter 8: ηʹ
03. He gets a bit jumpy at the sound of a gun.
She does not believe anyone else has noticed or perhaps it is an unspoken understanding. Granted he is unequivocally one of the strongest members of the crew, so who wants to question?
His sword seems to sprout invisible fibers, winding seamlessly into his tendons and bones; it is as much a part of him as an organ.
The gun he holds as a weapon – the way she, female, ex-princess, should hold such a deadly weapon. Yet to her, it is as much a part of her as anything else.
He puts it away quickly, does not like to have it in his hands for long; it seems awkward and filthy in his grasp.
“Train with me?” Joe asks, a hint of disbelief in his voice.
She nods firmly. Behind her, Marvelous looks on curiously.
Beneath the feathered forest canopy they stand, many feet between them. Prim and proper she may be, his expression reveals confusion as she carefully removes her coat.
Without pretense, she points both pistols at him, staring down the shining, glossed barrels. Apprehension flits across his face in a millisecond.
“Yours, too. No swords, please, Joe-san.”
He knows she knows. He complies.
“Trust it,” she says quietly; her voice carries on the edge of the breeze. “As much as you trust your sword, make this a part of you as well.”
He raises one pistol, both hands on it. His stance is noticeably uncomfortable. She places one arm behind her back and takes steady aim.
“Bullets broke your heart,” she whispers. “Let us put it back together.”
Fingers tense in the silence.
“Aim at my bullet – intercept it, please,” she orders.
Joe hesitates, but there is no escaping her stare.
Chapter 9: θʹ
04. He is guilt-ridden.
“Joe!” Luka’s voice is a ruthless warning, a ringing in his ears. “Don’t you dare upset her.”
If he does, he will not mean to; he has come to the conclusion that he may very well be emotionally retarded.
“Or her efforts were wasted,” Luka snaps, turning on her heel and taking care to elbow Doc on the way out. Bandages, ointments, and water all jump up, but manage to settle once again on the tray in his hands. Sorrowfully, he makes a slight face at her retreating back before looking Joe in the eyes.
There is not much to say.
The main room of the Galleon is dim, muted, and has the air of a funeral.
Don’t be morbid, his mind hisses.
How tiny she looks on the couch disturbs him, and he has been there for hours. Just as when he chooses to leave and train, so now he will focus, poised for as long as necessary.
Nothing is right. Her chest does not rise and fall as fast nor as deeply as it should. Skin, grey. There is no tea around; she is the only one who makes it. And, like so many moons ago, they are fighting tooth and nail without her presence.
It’s all so wrong.
He looms over her – a stupid thought crosses his mind to shake her. Holding her upper arms (they are limp, useless), he does it anyway.
“I should have been hit, not you.” Talking to those who are dead to the world.
Why did you save me?
Remembers her leap, so fleeting; the terror on her face abruptly becoming one of pain as she stands between him and death.
Letting her fall gently down to the couch, she does not stir in the slightest. His anger rises in leaps and bounds, and he whirls away, facing the coffee table. The silver tray is there, and he realizes he does not know when it got there.
Losing people all over again, again, again.
Luka leaps over the threshold, screaming at him to stop; she is much too late to stop him from kicking over the table.
Chapter 10: ιʹ
05. He wonders . . .
. . . well, he actually is not wondering, because he does not do such a thing. Contemplating or musing might be a better description.
Or as the others say when teasing the poor man so – brooding.
He is not quite sure how this happened or why. How, anyway? He cannot bring himself to speak, even in his mind; he will not even begin to create wisps of dreams.
A full night’s sleep forever evades him, perhaps bordering on paranoia. She almost glides when she is around him, every moment, whether her hands are bandaging his sorry soul or bruising and bleeding from the endless recoil of guns and kills.
And in the end, he knows it could be the most dangerous emotion he has ever stumbled upon. After all, he is a ruthless traitor, and if he goes up in flames, she would run into them after him.
For her sake, she must remain out of his grasp.
Chapter 11: ια
1: We never speak when we should.
Dusk makes fools of them again, casting them in its dangerous, depressing murk.
In his chair which he has not left for hours – or is it days, melting into nothing? – he waits for the cruel game to stop. Seeming not to blink or breathe or anything else necessary, he is broken.
Luka hovers in the doorway still, ready to tame his outbursts. Head on her chest, wishing for the same relief of her girl’s smile.
A feverish, convoluted love which needs to shatter.
The whimper of the tortured, the terrified: “J-Joe-san!?”
With speed so perilous he is at her side – Luka stirs, reaching for the light.
Clammy and confused, Ahim tries to rise from the couch; the blankets hit the floor. Too weak to continue, she places her pale hand on his leg and breathes, “Thank goodness.”
The only respite he gives himself is to take a lock of her hair. It curls around his finger, a beckoning vine. She lets her fingers trail down his leg as he begins to walks away.
She wants him to stay, but she does not.
He wants to stay with her, but he does not.
Luka’s glare tells him to do something – to be comforting, charming, caring, anything. Joe’s heavy footfalls halt at the threshold, and all he says is, “You’re okay.”
Though his expression is drawn and gaunt, Luka’s sympathy withers in her heart, and she elbows him as hard as she can before rushing to the couch to be at Ahim’s side.
There is the tiniest part of her heart that curls and writhes and rages at his insolence, his sullenness; taking Ahim’s hand to hopefully prevent tears, Luka beats it back again, as always.
She knows Ahim likes him. That he likes her. And she knows life is not fair, that sacrifices must be made. Luka will learn to deal with it, because she does what makes the person she loves happy.
Even if she knows her inside and out, to the tips of her hair, down to her fingernails.
Even if she believes Ahim may have fallen in love with the wrong person.
Even if she wishes it were her.
Chapter 12: ιβ
2. We have complicated shadows.
Oh, dinner is a strange affair. Everybody tiptoes around the injury in the room and the toxin in the atmosphere.
Gai pokes at her many bandages and Luka bodyguards, always vigilant, and smacks him away. She does not let Ahim lift a thing despite how it makes her self-conscious; still, Ahim knows her sister needs this.
Doc keeps his eyes on his plate, terrified by the tension. Marvelous expresses concern at her state, but of course will not let it ruin his dinner.
Joe stares. At food, at the table, at his hands, at her, and the cycle is stuck on replay.
“Joe!” Marvelous says jauntily, chomping surreptitiously on his food. “Are you just hankering for Ahim’s plate or do you have something you wanna tell ‘er?”
Ahim raises her eyes from her plate to meet Joe’s. The captain’s gaze is light, yet burns a hole in his first mate’s skull. After all, he is not so inept that he cannot see the complicated expression of love and pain.
He knows his first mate all too well. He knows Joe is a difficult person to fix, and he has certainly tried.
“Not hungry,” Joe grunts, shoving himself away from the dinner table and stalking off.
Predictably, Ahim rises and excuses herself politely before walking after him.
The captain meets Luka’s gaze. The latter’s eyes are clouded and glossed with something akin to . . .
He will find her in the hallway tonight, waiting. Outside his door. Pirates are not known for stability, loyalty, simplicity, or happy endings.
And he does not mind.
Chapter 13: ιγ
3. We lie broken in our minds from the cracks in our hearts.
He wonders if she has been thinking about it for most of dinner.
“You have not loved since.”
She washes, he dries. Armed with rubber gloves, and he with a towel.
“The bullets. Your constant desire to punish yourself. Your heart was broken.”
She washes, he dries. Steam rises from the sparkling plates.
“And we have danced with others over the course of our lives, trying to fix our feelings of emptiness,” she continues, almost casual. “I with suitors, some I loved, some I did not, and . . . others. And you with your punishment, with the crew, with your Captain.
A plate slips from Joe’s fingers – though more likely he threw it, for his reflexes are far too refined for it to be an accident.
She ignores him with her steadfast grace. She washes, and after a pause, he resumes drying.
A tinkling laugh, laced with sadness. “I know you prefer to believe I’m naïve.”
“But I would never hold love against you, Joe-san.”
Turns the sink off, removes her gloves. Dirty as they are, she holds them against her chest. Still for only a second, she bolts from the room as he finishes the final dish.
He places it in the cupboard, shuts it. His captain and Doc emerge from the door Ahim has just left. It seems as though they will walk past one another without a word, but in one swift movement the first mate nearly lifts his captain by the collar and pushes him against a counter. Danger is in his countenance, but in the end, it is all a core of frustration that not one crew mate has escaped.
Unperturbed, Marvelous reaches behind him to grab a piece of fruit – an orange. Jerking his head toward the door, he uses his other hand to brush off his vest.
“Feeling’s mutual,” he laughs, and Joe releases him. With one last glare, he stalks out of the kitchen, leaving Doc completely confused.
Opening his mouth, he prepares to ask, but Marvelous waves a hand and simply says, “He’s just in love.”
Recent chapters imply LukaAhim, SidJoe, MarveJoe. Implications are everywhere.
4. We never seem to have a moment untarnished.
Tugging his jacket, she traps him in her spell. Not of venom or need, but simply pained concern.
He faces away, body blocking the dim light spilling from her bedroom from tumbling into the hallway.
Wrapping her arms around him, her hot tears soak his jacket between his shoulder blades. Lips moving against him with words she may never speak in front of another living soul – and they are her fears and grateful thanks. Despite all his layers, she always manages to seep between them, underneath them, around and intertwined with them until he is a breathless, loveless mess.
“Marvelous-san said you wouldn’t let him remove it.”
“It’s a reminder.”
“Of what? Suffering?” she whispers, her arms crossed against his chest. Terrified to let him go.
“Reminding me to-”
“To protect you,” he snaps, bringing his head to his chest as though in pain.
Reminding me how I can’t have you.
Without warning, she slaps her hand on his bicep; he seethes as her light, determined hand presses on his wound.
“And you will not let me see, will you, Joe-san?”
Releases him. He is cold without her touch, a shell without an inhabitant. Turning on her heel, she grips the door with porcelain knuckles and prepares to shut it for the night.
But before it can click and lock, he steps in the way – the door bounces off his foot.
A red cut, winding, a tempestuous natural river glitters in the smoky candlelight. Beginning beneath her dark locks and finally fading in the curve of her cheek, he tells himself, again and again, how he is responsible. As he steps closer, now crossing the threshold of her personal space, something in the deep recesses of his mind tells him to stop, and stop now.
Her fingers carefully delve between his shoulder and coat, pushing it off him. The bullet is still embedded in the muscular indent of his bicep, and the candle flames seem to soar, reach, crossing the room with no other intention than to polish the end of the deadly metal rising out of his skin.
It is a bad time to realize she is gorgeous.
“I failed to protect you,” she says, carefully touching the curve of his jaw.
It is the wrong time to want to hold her, take her, steal her breath away in the dark.
“You hurt yourself all the time.”
And from that distant corner, his mind screams at him to stop.
Without words, his boot pushes against the door behind him. She melts – his calloused fingers tangle in her hair.
Chapter 15: ιε
5. And we are fragile.
In the darkness, they gasp in the same breath.
Even their bout of trembling is beautiful synchrony. Sharp, small shoulder blades vibrate against his broad back, tap dance upon his spine. Delicate locks further curling in the heat, they are swallowed in a starkly black mane which drapes her, a curtain. Like silk.
Leaning upright, back-to-back, in the middle of her tossed sheets and missing pillows. Amid a battlefield of bandages and gauze, scissors dangerously poised at the edge of the mattress, tape bound to skin and other things it shouldn’t be. They feel small at the crux of this emotional, physical chaos; so lost are they in emotions previously repressed.
A single bead of sweat is trapped between spines, flesh, and muscle.
All the details frighten and confuse them: His jacket lies in an unceremonious heap on the floor. The bullet has been placed on her desk, next to her ring. No one has pulled the lacy curtains shut. The cord for his hair is broken and frankly, he does not have any idea where it is.
The scent in the air says it all.
“ . . . Sunrise, Joe-san,” she whispers.
He does not answer, but turns his head slightly toward the porthole. At this time, he is normally lacing up his boots, ready to begin his morning calisthenics. She is usually in the kitchen, finishing their tea. Or perhaps gathering her tools to fix his jacket, or her captain’s. Once in a while, usually after a rough battle, she is taming his unruly long locks, when he is in too much pain to deal with it himself.
But this is new.
“Ahim.” His voice is husky. Colors are brighter. It is right. It is wrong.
Her skin has a scent that could lead him through a field of flowers, or just as easily lead him off a cliff.
“Are – are you-”
“Beautiful,” she interrupts. He is not quite sure whether she is talking about the sunrise. Or him. Or this.
Groaning, he leans to one side, falling on to his back with a soft whisper of the sheets. Black locks fan across his face and beneath him, pouring into her lap, onto her thigh. Glancing at her from the corner of his eye, he watches her observe the sunrise with the faintest smile. Curled eyelashes. Tangled waves. The pointed, sharp angle of her shoulder.
He sounds almost droll. Without moving, she says quietly, “Before the consequences surface.”
And then he realizes what they have done. This is not new to either of them, and yet it is. It should not be wrong, considering the crew’s habits, their pasts, their flings, every forbidden moment in between. They know that every time it occurs, however, there are imprints left to fester.
They just aren’t sure what’s next.
She places her hand on his upper arm – with delicate fingers, she cradles his wound.
With an odd expression, a smirk laced with puzzlement and an irritable jerk of the lips, he notices how damn tiny they are.
They cannot have this. It cannot be real. It is too dangerous of an idea to entertain, and both assume the other does not desire a conclusion.
A traitor and an heir?
How laughable it sounds.
Embarking on a road to nowhere –
– Breaking everyone’s hearts along the way.
Chapter 16: ιϛʹ
01. The ink has dried.
He does not inquire about the letter in her hand – chivalry keeps him in line. The ink is not dashed or slanted, no indication of a hastily-written message. It is rather beautiful, truth be told, and with an unexpected pang he realizes how similar it is to Ahim’s.
Carefully tucking the thick mail into her dress, she raises her eyes and smiles.
Pining to ask her who it is from, but the gentleman’s voice in his mind scoffs and shakes a finger.
Interestingly enough, she touches his arm and says, “I am sure it is simply a letter from a grateful Earthling.” As if she feels his silent stare, his barrage of muted questions, she raises herself on tiptoes and bestows a quiet, quick kiss upon his cheek.
On cue, Gai runs past them in excited haste. Only after thirty seconds does he return, arms laden with assorted, colored streamers and odd toys that likely make more noise than the first mate appreciates. Ahim and Joe give one another a look of utter confusion as tears begin to stream down Gai’s cheeks.
“We have to celebrate such a momentous occasion!” he erupts, streamers tumbling from his pile and unrolling across the store’s tiled floor.
Joe pulls a shocked face worthy of a framed photograph. “What are you talking about?”
“Marvelous-san told me everything,” Gai exclaims, sauntering up to Joe and clapping him on the back. The latter shrinks from his touch. “You sly dog, you!”
Ahim attempts to bring sense back to the conversation again: “Gai-san-”
“Took you long enough to start the courting process, eh Joe-san?”
Chapter 17: ιζ
02. The pages are marked.
“Okay, so maybe I jumped to conclusions,” Gai huffs, wincing as Luka pulls a tight knot in the sling to support his arm. “But we’re not blind.”
“Nope, just an idiot,” she mutters, glancing at Ahim out of the corner of her eye. Though present, she has not said a word. It is not until she rises from the table, abandoning a full and prepared cup of tea that Luka calls out.
Scrunched in the deathly grip of her white knuckles is the letter. The ink upon the polished, expensive parchment glistens with an eerie foreboding. The girl makes it to the stairs when she halts in her tracks.
Begins to walk backward. Then, a gasp.
“Why haven’t you opened this letter yet?” her Captain asks, continuing to descend the stairs at a leisurely pace. Slightly intimidating. Waving it blithely, he adds, “And who’s it from?”
“Marvelous-san.” Voice wavers, shaking tones caught in her throat. “Please, return that letter.”
“What has you so upset?” he demands, eyes searching for a reaction.
The captain and Ahim turn to see Luka striding forward. Putting out her hand, her gaze is a ruthless steel trap. “It’s not yours.”
A moment in which all is tense, and she strangles his curiosity with the mere flicker of her eyes.
Carefully, he hands it back – the second it brushes the pads of Ahim’s fingers, she bolts. Ducking under his arm, she hurries up the stairs with the unknown message clutched against her chest.
Luka nods. “She’ll talk when she’s ready.” Her voice is harsh toward her captain, and he narrows his eyes.
Turning away, she gently punches him in the shoulder; not removing her knuckles, she looks away to the portholes and sighs.
“We all have things we don’t talk about,” she says quietly. Her fingers undulate, trailing down the red lapels of his long coat. “We all have a story.”
Chapter 18: ιη'
03. The anchor is raised.
Perspiration emerges from his palms, between his fingers. It threatens to swell and billow the ink on the outside of the letter, and he hurriedly rubs his hands on his prim and pressed khakis.
A frustrated huff: I told myself to stop doing that!
Why he is such an adorable little masochist, he has no idea. Between the three of them (because Gai is far too optimistic to fall into this pessimistic play), they can be a somber troupe.
Why he looks at the return name, he does not know.
A knock, a terrified and reluctant rap-rap-rap! echoes in the empty hallway; he braces himself as the door opens.
“‘Sup, Doc?” Luka asks, hands on her hips. Without waiting for him to stop trembling and stammering, she snatches the letter out of his hands. “I’m guessing this is mine.”
She does not wave him away as she walks back into her dwelling, so he carefully shuffles behind her, ready for his inevitable punishment. But he figures as long as she has him to take the angry outburst, she will refrain from thinking about that man.
The only man Doc has ever known to coax – never force – his Luka into silence.
After shuddering at the thought of how badly she would elbow him if she heard the possessive voice in his mind, he raises his head –
And his jaw drops.
Pieces of the heavy, thick envelope lie on the wooden deck, curled carefully as if preserved. No breath or draft ruffles them. If he did not know better, he would call her expression the likeness of stone.
“Don’t tell,” she inhales, lips barely moving.
“Eh?” he asks in puzzlement.
Her limbs are lightening, and he finds himself lifted inches off the ground by his too-tight collar. Gasping, he cannot speak.
With wide eyes he looks down at her face, the threatening glimpse into a place she despises. The past. The same sort of look he has witnessed from every crew member at least once – and, like Ahim’s, it feels as ruthless as if his lungs have been compressed. There’s something about the females’ pain that makes it feel more intense, and he always feels smaller, a little more pathetic and weak.
“I had no letter. This never happened.”
Lowering him, she swallows noticeably before whispering one last command.
“And . . . especially not Marvelous.”
Chapter 19: ιθ'
04. The flag is thrown.
“You did, yeah?”
Huffing irritably, the man in the blue coat brings his shoulders to his neck as if cold. Gaze focused determinedly away, he does not speak.
“Far too much of a gentleman to talk ‘bout it,” Marvelous says airily. Coat flapping serenely, a soft and blithe red dance. He smirks.
“I’m not askin’ to poke my nose in yer business,” he continues. Stoic silence is his only response. “I’m askin’ because at your word, I’ll pull back.”
Almost a minute passes before the swordsman sighs again, slamming his fist on the edge of the crow’s nest. “Idiot.”
“Joe, stop being s’damn chivalrous-”
“Me!” he snaps. “I’m an idiot.”
“I don’t think she disliked it,” the captain says delicately.
Marvelous finds his arm twisted behind his back, fingers nearly brushing his shoulder; clearing his throat he amends, “I meant, you care her about and that’s how you decided to deal with it. It takes two, and she cares about you too, so let go-”
Marvelous grunts as he is released, rolling his shoulder in a manner reminiscent of Luka, he says roughly, “If you want her, go after her.” Places a hand on his shoulder, squeezes it without remorse. A painful warning. Joe finally raises his eyes to his captain’s.
“When my dream is over, do you think she’ll stay? There are people out there that look to her, Joe. She has a duty.”
“Our dream, you mean.”
“Does it matter whose, if it still ends?”
“ . . .”
“Quit making yerself miserable. Remember, you’re a traitor of the empire. You’re an outlaw, a pirate, a wanted man.”
“I don’t deserve her.”
The first mate’s gaze is shadowed, smoldering, wretched. Like so long ago, Marvelous drags him close, fingers woven around his collar. Knuckles white.
“Exactly. So grab any bit of happiness you can get.”
Chapter 20: κʹ
05. The die is cast.
As they descend the stairs, the noxious atmosphere shrouds them, clouds them. Doc is clawing at Luka’s back, and for the first time in a long time she is not retaliating; Gai seems almost frantic, and upon seeing his captain and first mate, crosses the room in less than a second to shake Joe by the shoulders.
The sixth ranger opens and closes his mouth several times, a fish without air. The swordsman is unnerved by how scared and sad his expression is, and when Luka locks eyes with him and Marvelous in turn, he knows.
The slap of skin pierces the silence, a nail driven through wood.
Without warning, he moves with swift anger; Gai is knocked away and falls into Doc, who opens his mouth to try to placate the captain. Marvelous reaches for Joe’s shoulder, his coat, any part of him he can grasp, but his fingers miss with a quiet whisper.
Truth be told, he is not sure if he even tried.
When the first mate reaches her doorway he halts abruptly, held back by a strange sense of foreboding and chivalry. How funny, his mind recalls, how awkward you are. He feels bound to the immaculately folded sheets and gentle pastel tones.
On her desk are the curled, ashen remains of the letter.
Measured footfalls approach his turned back. They stop, and what his captain says twists his stomach into knots. Tightens his chest, forces it into a vice two sizes too small.
“Her signal is gone.”
Chapter 21: κα'
“A-Ahim-san! Are you there? You know, it would make us feel ten times better if you picked up the phone. Marvelous-san and Luka-san are worried about you-”
“’Ey, what about me?”
“-And we promise we’re not going to read the letter.” His voice falters, wavers, and then slides into quite a serious tone; pulling his injured arm in closer and closing his eyes, he adds, “Promise.”
Lapsing into distressed silence, he wishes and prays – that click is all he wants to hear, echoing in his ears.
His companion mutters to himself: “I can’t identify the paper, the ink, or the handwriting.”
“Don-san is using the letter to find clues, but I promise you that he won’t read it either,” he hurriedly adds, seemingly terrified at the thought of the gentle princess having her privacy breached. “We all want you home so we can help you; remember, we’re a team!” Holding the Mobirate between his ear and uninjured shoulder, his clenched fist punches the air in dismal silence.
Inhaling softly, his countenance appears, if possible, more painfully melancholy than before. In a voice dancing on the edge of a whisper, he says, “Joe-san is upset, Ahim-san. Really, he’s worried. He might really need you.”
“But I guess if you were here, he wouldn’t be this way.”
“Or maybe he would. Sometimes it’s hard to tell.”
Only the shuffling of paper and click-clacks of computer keys echo. Breathing, sighing, emotions have been tucked away with careful fingers, as not to disturb the mausoleum.
Before he can add anything else to the rambling voicemail, the end signal sounds in his ear with an awful finality.
Chapter 22: κβʹ
02. On some distant shore;
“So,” he says in a ringing tone, “Let’s talk about yours.”
She raises an eyebrow in irritation – no one else is on the bridge. Inhaling deeply, she exhales with a cocky smile and turns toward the nearest porthole.
“I have no idea what you’re—”
“I can’t have my lookout abandoning ship,” he interrupts, folding his arms. With slow strides he nears her, then leans against the wall, looming. In his boots he stands at least a few inches over her, but she straightens with defiance.
She does not have to ask how Marvelous knows – Doc will receive a dour punishment.
“My letter was actually just a coincidence,” she says stiffly. “I’ve been receiving them.”
The captain does not respond, but rolls his jaw from side to side in an ugly display of barely-concealed annoyance. “Hmm.”
“They’re from Cain, which I’m sure you already know,” she snaps. “He keeps me updated on his progress. This time, it was a longer letter . . . come to think of it, there was something particularly suspicious that he told me. See, he was in a pub—”
“Pfft. He drinks in pubs?”
“You drink in pubs!”
Marvelous frowns, not dignifying her with an answer.
“It might just be rumors, but there’s a man who has been doing some heavy deals with Zangyack, and they’re after a particular girl. Apparently, he was just a lowly refugee a few months before. All of a sudden, he’s on the radar – or rather, the underground. It sounded as if he’s mobilizing, making a plan.”
The captain sighs heavily, flicking a bit of dust off his red coat. “And?”
“See, that’s why I don’t bother with you sometimes,” she retorts angrily. Stalking past him, and making sure to check him with her shoulder, she sighs.
“And why is Cain telling you this, anyway?”
Luka’s expression is strained between humorless laughter and wounded pride. “Another man calls me pretty, and you’re suddenly gung-ho to beat ‘em up.”
“If that were true, Doc would’ve been keelhauled by now.”
Marvelous lapses into thought, unconsciously and angrily ruffling his coat – and off falls a button, which he catches and clenches it in his fist. Luka half-turns to see his stony gaze staring at it.
“First Ahim, now you,” he murmurs.
They are silent: Luka has the urge to comfort him, but is not sure how. They could always steal into the darkness of the lower cabins, but it is not the time, not now. That cannot always fix things. And a nagging voice playing in the blacked out corners of her mind knows it would not soothe her heart.
It slowly sinks in that Ahim is missing, gone off the map due to her own volition. Emotions stagnate, pool, and boil; her heart dons the devilish insanity of a madman, forcing her to speak in ways she should not:
“If it’s any consolation, I think fate’s made it clear I don’t deserve who I want.”
Marvelous steps toward her, forebodingly, in a time and implication all too familiar to Luka. They stop breathing in unison. The atmosphere spirals dangerously out of control in the midst of a lovely, forbidden juncture they love to hate.
“That seems to be the trend.”
Chapter 23: κγ'
03. Oh, don’t you know we’ve danced before?
He searches high and low, in the crow’s nest and amidst the well-oiled machinery in the hull. Checks closets which have never been used or opened, the hinges so stiff and miserable they cry out in a desperate wail. Why it occurs to him to wander toward the private cabins is his own mind’s mystery, but it rewards him.
His place is always in the doorway, never further. Gai rushes up to the first mate as if to scold him, but flushes in embarrassment that is not visible in the dimness. And anyway, Joe would not touch a thing, not the princess’s belongings.
Against the doorframe, he leans. A weary, broken, emotionally stunted pirate. Not the hero. The soldier in the shadows, never the one standing at a royal’s side.
“Joe-san,” he says, reaching for his arm.
There is no response, as expected. Gai frowns, and then moves closer to the first mate to attempt to see what he sees.
A on ring the desk catches the setting sun’s rays. Prisms play across the wooden planks without a care in the world; oh, how they tease. The closet is open just an inch or two, revealing the glittering hem of a little black dress.
As if Joe can hear his mind musing, he exhales and closes his eyes, unwilling to think of pleasant things. Like it hurts to remember. But his eyes return to something Gai cannot see - the swordsman stares, cold and drawn as stone-face. At the album lying open on a bookshelf, spine facing up, tossed on its typeface so carelessly – too carelessly. Ahim never does that to her books.
“Move,” Joe growls, pivoting to turn only to find Gai in his path.
“Wait, don’t you want to-”
Yanking his sword from his belt he shoves past Gai, snorting humorlessly. “What’ll that fix?”
“I think you have – some very strong – well, what I mean to say is – you-”
Joe’s footfalls continue down the long hallway, and he does not turn to listen as his crewmate flounders.
Gai jumps nearly a foot in the air, cradling the arm in the sling and cringing. When he recovers, he sees the first mate with his knuckles pinned tightly between the hilt and wall. Between the weapon and what cannot move. As purple swells and blossoms beneath his skin, flooding his hand and fingers with adrenaline, he rasps, “Gai.”
“But it’s okay,” Gai says quietly, reaching out a hand. Placating. “This isn’t bad, Joe-san!”
The first mate gives him one last pained look over his shoulder, and then disappears into the darkness with an air of determination so palpable that it hangs in the air long after his departure.
Doc clumsily stumbles down the hallway, Mobirate in hand – the Captain paces swiftly behind him with Luka bringing up the rear.
“Her signal’s back!”
Chapter 24: κδ'
04. Let’s build it up-
And he knows where she is.
He bursts through the door, armed and angry, and screams erupt to the rafters. Subtlety is long gone and now impossible to exercise. Stalking down the foyer and kicking open the door to the kitchen, more frightened, rolling torrents of high-pitched fear shake the room. Withdrawing, Joe now enters the main dining room of the restaurant, where people immediately dive under tables and knock over chairs when they see the sword.
“‘A’ight! Everybody just stay where y’are, thanks.” The first mate can hear Marvelous behind him, who likely strolled through the front door sporting a pistol and a cutlass. “We’ll be quick.”
Gai’s frantic apologies punctuate the panicked uproar, and Joe shoves past a startled hostess –
- and she’s there.
At a large round table to fit a group, as if she is expecting company, she sits with her hands folded on the beautifully stitched tablecloth. Her eyes betray shock at the scene, and her lips press together tightly. The reckless abandon which had driven him here now drained away, dried up, evaporated as he feels her stare root him to the spot. His arm slowly falls to his side. She stands so fast the chair clatters to the floor.
“This is an eating establishment,” she says quietly – he can hear her as if she is next to him, whispering in his ear. He quickly crosses the room amidst terrified stares and without a word, takes her elbow.
She does not relent.
“Sit, please,” she whispers.
He cannot help but gape at her seemingly ridiculous request. Now the rest of her crew runs in and stops short at the sight of her face. The princess takes her arm from Joe and clears her throat.
“Ah, excuse me, restaurant diners?” she asks the room at large. Her question is polite, but her stance commands attention. “I deeply apologize for the carelessness with which my friends have interrupted the dining hour. They are going to sit and dine with me, and they will all put their weapons away.”
At this, Ahim lifts her chin to her captain. For a split second, he seems as though he will refuse, but he knows he is not in control. This is not his domain.
The rest of her crew follows suit, and Ahim’s delicate fingers take the loosely-held sword from Joe. Bowing to the room, to their confused expressions and table-chair barricades hastily made in defense, she adds, “Thank you patrons, you are most forgiving. Please resume your dinners.”
After a moment, people slowly began to pick up their chairs and call their children out from under the tables. A waiter lifts the princess’s chair off the white carpet and stands it upright, waiting for her to sit once more. Before she can, Joe takes her arm again and Marvelous grabs the other.
“I will ask you again to sit and listen,” she says in a measured voice, with a touch of frost. “I came here of my own volition, and for you all to frighten these earth citizens to death-!”
“You disappeared!” Joe snarls.
“Guys, just do as she asks, please! We’re in public!” Doc pleads, tugging on his captain’s coat.
Luka seems furious, but she looks at Gai and they share a nod. Both taking the captain by the shoulders, they force him into a chair. Ahim’s eyes glitter until Joe takes a seat next to her, but not without a frustrated huff.
With her crew seated, wine is brought and poured for each of them. After the noise of dishes and chatter resumes, she lowers her head.
“I did leave, and I apologize. If I stayed, I could not think. I did not handle this as I should have done. I came here to think so no one could demand details of me. I did not plan to turn on my signal, but I felt guilty – and I should not have, because of this.”
Gai, Doc, and even Luka shuffle guilty in their seats, the latter never bringing the wine glass away from her lips.
“But this might be a better place to discuss this. Everyone will be calm,” she continues. Now her fingers twist around one another in distress. She takes a deep breath.
“I received a letter from a person I thought was dead. Or perhaps, as horrible as this sounds, I had hoped he was gone from my life. He . . . was not a good person. When the Zangyack came to Famille, we had already parted ways, and I never saw him again. It was a long letter, and he told me what he has been doing for all these years. He has located me, and . . .”
She trails off, succumbing to shakes. Gai and Doc share a look of distress, and even Luka is quiet. The captain has a face of stone, and the first mate clenches his fists under the table, out of sight, observing the brilliant purple painting his knuckles.
“And he is coming to Earth. He is coming here.”
Suddenly, she looks so small and scared. Trying to raise her head, but she cannot look anyone in the eyes.
“So what d’ we do?” Marvelous asks, tapping his knuckles on the table to catch her attention. The tiniest note of concern laces his gruff voice.
“He’s a terrible man,” she whispers.
“You don’t want him here, do you?” Luka asks.
Raising her eyes, she shakes her head with an almost palpable fear at the thought. The first mate does not know what stupidity possesses him in this moment, but he places his uninjured hand over both of hers. Covered. Protected. Ahim’s next breath escapes her, dissipating in a throaty wisp.
“What did he do?” Joe asks. He does not need to add the unheard words: What did he do to you?
Her answer is indirect. “He was . . . a former suitor. A politically well-connected man.”
His fingers tighten around hers; he can feel many eyes upon him. Out of the corner of his eye, he can swear Gai and Luka are smiling at him.
“That’s all we need to know for now,” Marvelous growls. “When you have more details, you let us know. We’ll be ready for ‘im.”
Ahim raises her watery gaze to each of her crewmates, who all smile and nod in agreement.
“But for now,” the captain begins. Reaching for the nearest waiter’s sleeve, he says, “Oy! Do you have curry in this place?”
Not having any words to add, the first mate does not let go of her hand.
Chapter 25: κε'
05. To tear it down,
“How did you manage to do this?” She carefully bends his fingers. He winces but is loath to show any sign of discomfort, not while tears stream down her face.
“Don’t cry about it,” he replies roughly, but his words never seem to match his actions – from the small, sparse table he picks up a blue handkerchief with his other hand. With her free one, she gently takes the cloth and dabs at her dark eyes.
“Don’t say you’re sorry.”
They lapse into silence as she takes her time wrapping him up. Disinfecting the tiny cuts and rubbing the pads of her fingers along his, searching for broken bones.
“This one,” she murmurs. “It needs to be taped; it is broken.”
The tape is tight and binding, strangely comforting.
Exercising his penchant for stupidity, he asks, “What was his name?”
The scissors with which she had been cutting the tape slip from her fingers and hit the tile without grace. Cursing himself, he regrets asking as she tries to hide her bout of trembling.
“I cannot, Joe.”
With a terrified gasp, she scrambles for the scissors as tears bubble and swell on her lashes. “Oh, how rude of me,” she murmurs.
With one arm, he leans forward and awkwardly holds her to his chest. He does not have comforting words – he never does. Still, if she can understand and feel even a fraction of what he is saying through this, they may still have a chance.
Inhaling sharply, she breathes out tears and muffled words against him. Too near his heart to be healthy or happy.
“When I say his name, it makes him real again,” she says in between tears. “His angry words; his violent vows.”
Winding her fingers in the back of his coat, her voice drops so quietly that he feels she must be whispering to his heart.
“It makes him come alive.”
. . .and drown.
Chapter 26: κϛʹ
01. I did love you, one day then,
The ring bounces twice, and defiantly. Twirling only a few times more to finish its dance, it falls onto its side, echoing in the chamber.
Shadows rush and bleed black, darkening the corners and hollows of an angry man’s face. Swallowing painfully, limbs vibrating with suppressed fury, his threatening baritone holds the silence in limbo.
“This . . . is what you do to my love?”
“Love is patient; love is kind. This . . . is not love.”
If hatred could take form, so it swirls invisibly about his shoulders, threatening to swallow him whole. Edged talons caress her shoulders and leave her shivering in fear.
Shakes her head, wavy locks tapping her cheek – then swings back to gently touch the other. Voice quaking, she whispers, “You don’t manipulate people you love.”
He twitches, taking a step toward her. Atmosphere spiraling dangerously, she folds her arms as if to mold herself into something, anything, protective. A cocoon, a chrysalis; a mausoleum, a straightjacket. Whatever provides a welcome escape from a living lie and too-vivid daydreams of impossible happiness.
“Don’t!” She cuts across the beginning of his apologies. This is how it always goes.
Fast, soundless, he is around her, forcing himself into her space with wavering, furious breaths as careful fingers cradle her wrist. Revulsion dots her arms in goosebumps, flows among every vertebrae in her spine like a roaring current. Ringing takes up residence in her ears and she begins to turn away from him, disgust in her gaze.
(The young soldier is unawares, walking down the hallway to look for his princess. Not his, of course, and he has no particular feelings about this new assigning, but she is sweet to him …)
“Do not touch me!”
He continues, fingers trailing down her tiny forearm. A touch of insanity adds décor to his response: “You make me do this, you know.”
(He had only left her alone for a second, and after all, it was her fiancée who made him …)
The princess takes advantage of his loose grip and throws herself to the side, hoping to escape his grasp. Too bad his fingers catch her fast and
Her wrist to pieces.
The soldier will be forced out of her life long before the war and the fire, the King and Queen’s deaths, and the crumbling of a kingdom. Meanwhile, trauma rips the image of her smiles and pain out of his memory for days and years to come.
(He knows little of love and lies, but he knows this isn’t it—)
The princess’ fiancée stares straight into the young soldier’s eyes, gaze flat as his fingers release her wrist and she collapses into a heap, a sack of ragdoll bones.
Chapter 27: κζʹ
02. But all grand affairs must end.
Luka sets the whiskey glass on the railing of the crow’s nest, biting her lip to keep her pain inside.
“You, out of all of our friends, know every part of me.”
Luka cannot even feel eased by that truth. Nervously picking up the glass again, she throws back the rest and says bluntly, “All of your shadows, but nothing of your heart.”
Ahim’s elbow slides over to touch hers, dark locks undulating and curling again in the wind. Tapping Luka’s face, asking for a glimpse into her soul.
“I tried, Luka, I did,” Ahim whispers, the tiniest hint of a sob teetering in her throat. “I really am beyond fairytales now.”
“I’m no shining example of purity, Ahim. Don’t blame yourself.”
“Well, there are different ways to love,” the princess says cautiously, removing the cap from the bottle and pouring more liquid amber for her companion. Spilling feelings with silence and drowning them in liquor’s sting, the safest method. Luka raises it to the sky, observing the stars twinkling through the clear curve of the glass. One in particular burns feverishly bright, straining her irises and overwhelming her pupils. “Being on a crew of very different people, living together, I know that now.”
Luka throws her free arm around the princess, pulls her close and tries to smile. It will become easier with time, but for now, it is a futile mask. Besides, she does know Ahim well enough to know where her heart is – it hurts to know it is not her anymore.
Luka did not notice the second glass. Ahim raises it to her lips and coats them with strong whiskey, savoring the taste of a very different substance than the wines on which she was raised.
And turning slowly, she presses them to Luka’s forehead in a smile.
Chapter 28: κηʹ
03. Used you to fill all my voids,
Doc sighs heavily, eyes following Gai’s excited dance on the sidewalk. Perspiration bubbles at his hairline and underneath curly blonde locks, threatening to spill; but, in poised fashion, it manages to hold.
“How you have all this energy is beyond me!” he bursts out, attempting to hike the countless shopping bags higher onto his shoulders. Instead, it unbalances him and they all shuttle down his dark green sleeves to weigh on his wrists. With another frustrated whine, he drops them onto the ground. “Are you excited about this?”
“It’s just another adventure,” Gai shrugs, finally choosing to restrain himself. A lost piece of trash swirls in the air, turning over itself and skitters across the sidewalk. Dry, scraping sounds distract him, but he returns his gaze to his companion. A bit of hyperactive heroism swirls in his bright eyes. “And anyway, the Captain says we’re moving, so we’ll move.”
“I know it’s necessary, and safer.”
“Especially for Ahim.” Gai’s eyes follow another crumpled piece of paper.
“For all of us, if this creep is as dangerous as she said.” Making an unpleasant pouting face, he shakes his head. He lets out a small yelp as more stray paper lands flat across his face, slapped against his skin by the unusual wind.
Gai drops his bags and for a second, tries to accommodate Doc’s flailing. With a dramatic flourish, he rips the paper from his face and turns it to the side with a blown up photograph.
A sharp intake of breath.
“Ugh, this city could use a lesson in trash collecting-”
“She’s back at the ship-”
“She’s on here!” Gai exclaims, shoving the paper back in Doc’s face. “Ooof!”
A weighty stack of leaflets, tied with string, lands on Gai’s head and bounces off – he stumbles into Doc and they crash into the concrete in a tangle of limbs. Wrongly-placed elbows and knees cause them to struggle, curses punctuating the mess. Finally, Gai jumps to his feet and brandishes the photograph; underneath, the words “WANTED” and “TRAITOR” are emblazoned brightly, and further still, “Capture.”
“You think it could be that guy?” Doc asks in a wavering voice, placing his thumb on Ahim’s black and white photographed cheek. “This doesn’t make sense … we’re all wanted, I wonder what he’s trying to do?”
A sharp whistling sounds in his ears, grows louder, closer, and suddenly Gai shoves him to the ground again with a strangled cry. Doc only sees a fleeting flash of silver and the catch of the sunset light before nuzzling the concrete. Sputtering, he says, “What did you do that for?!”
Carefully, Gai turns to the wall of the building running parallel to the street, looking distressed. A photograph is pinned, the point of a just-polished blade stuck fast.
Right between her eyes.
“They can see us,” Gai whispers loudly, yanking Doc to his feet for the second time.
“We need to go, now, back to the ship,” the blonde responds, voice pitching horribly.
“He knows where she is. She’s not safe.”
He starts off at a haphazard run, pink scarf flapping behind him. His companion struggles to keep up, managing to pant out: “But – she’s with the Captain – and Luka – and Joe!
She’ll – be –safe!”
Gai speeds up, nursing a troubled expression. None of us can lose you, Ahim-san. Me, either.
Chapter 29: κθʹ
04. And here I crave you,
Time is steadily convincing him that he has lost his mind.
The color surrounding her, cradling flushed and round cheeks, is bright and has not faded. Not even a shade. It follows her everywhere, tantalizing, playing on the hems of her frilly skirts and bouncing in a forest of dark, black loops of hair. Once in a while, it lingers in the room as would a faint scent of perfume or fruit, trailing away as she occupies new space.
The present invades his imagination.
“I figure I know what’s wrong. You probably think you don’t deserve her, and you don’t know if any of this is right.”
Joe hates when Luka takes words out of his head. It is exactly what he can imagine her doing: Knocking him over with a harsh laugh and reaching her fingers into his ears; they’re attuned to glitter and shine, but maybe that is what emotions look like, too. Perhaps that is why she can find them so easily. Which would be ridiculous, he knows. Still, Luka handles him with more care than is deserved.
“I’ll share somethin’ with you, Joe. Love makes you feel like an idiot.”
There’s more color than there used to be.
“Someone up there is laughing at me, I’m sure of it. Just like the day I failed to save my sister. Someone loves watching us get everything wrong.”
But a shadow lingers near the edge of the surrounding aura – terrors from the past try to trip up the determined princess.
“You're about to collide with her past,” Luka warns. For once, Joe does not catch her elbow that comes up to jab his ribs. He is concentrating on wiping his mind clean of unnecessary thought. Pretending he does not love anyone, does not need anyone.
A shadow claws at the edges of her aura – the princess senses it, and so does Joe. For an inexplicable, unexplainable reason, he is more than ready to meet this man from her past.
Color still reigns.
Chapter 30: λʹ
05. And now I’ll save you.
The captain barely breathes as he shoves forkfuls of meat and rice into his gullet; he nearly chokes when Ahim sprints into the room holding fire.
With a screech, she throws it to the ground as Marvelous trips over his chair in haste. Yanks her pink coat from the hooks while the rest of them crash to the floor in echoes of loud zippers and chains. Using hers to throw over the fire, she beats it furiously with bare fists.
Smoke lingers over the wooden deck as the captain tries to lift her from the floor. “AY, gave me a god-damn-heart-attack—”
“He did it, I know he did it, he did it—”
“Quit yer babbling for a sec!”
Joe and Luka are running down the stairs, both with weapons in hand. They slowly lower them, and the swordsman takes slow steps toward the princess, who flings her coat away to gingerly grab a charred mass of paper. Burnt, scorched curls of material fall to the floor and tighten, flake. When she touches them, they collapse into microscopic fragments and die.
“This . . . was the last written account of Famille history. I found it while wandering alone in the wreckage.” A tear hovers on her cheek, slides, lands in the middle of the fragile remains. It forges a disintegrating path through the pages. Deep dark eyes, that which swallow flame and light, flash. “And he knew.”
Joe silently kneels next to her, only daring to take her elbow. He murmurs to her alone, “How would he get in here?”
She swallows. “I don’t know.”
And then, she remembers. Without warning, she leaps to her feet and takes off in the direction of the cabins.
A beat, and then they follow her.
In her doorway, she is a statue of stone. A specter lingers, flattening her sheets, poisoning the air. The porthole window is thrown open wide, clothes and the very few belongings she has strewn on the floor and desk.
“He took the ring.”
Luka wraps her fingers carefully over Ahim’s shoulder, squeezes.
“The wedding ring.”
Joe shoves past the girls furiously, his sword hand shaking as it grips the hilt. He can feel the other man in the air, in the presence he’s left.
“What does he want, Ahim?” Marvelous demands. “Money? Power?”
“Sounds like the idiot is dying for a fight,” Luka hisses.
“Well ‘e’ll get one all right,” the captain snaps, angrily shoving his pistol back into his belt.
Joe follows Ahim’s gaze as the rest of the room fades away and her eyes focus on her white pillow. Pristine, glowing, a perfect backdrop to the vivid object resting on it.
The rose pulsates with a dazzling, frightening energy, beckoning her to the past and all the pain she thought she had left behind.
She steps forward, grasping the back of Joe’s jacket. Twisting her fingers, fear pouring from her grip and stealing across the canvas of his skin. Crawling. Closing in around his chest and lungs. In a quiet breath, scarce above a whisper:
“He wants me.”