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Chapter 15: Prickly little thing.

HORIZON’S CROWN, CASTLE 5


Sophya came to understand that a neck brace and an aching body were the sorts of things that liked to keep fretting minds awake. Especially with a sofa so inhospitable, she wouldn’t have been surprised if it decided to stand up and dump her on the floor. Failing that, it chafed at her arm where she lay squashed against it and resorted to being generally unpleasant to her back.

But those were unkind thoughts towards a borrowed kind of bed and Sophya figured you shouldn’t be unkind to things you were borrowed like that. Even if they made sleep a distant thing. Coveted, but denied.

She tried to toss. To turn. Got nowhere with either, since the neck brace/collar thing had teamed up with the sofa and was diligently disagreeing with every move she made.

Subdued, Sophya huffed up a dramatic sigh.

Silence pressed in around her. A complete thing; one that stations did not have. Not entirely, anyway. If it wasn’t the air filtration system labouring or the constant murmur of the station’s large bodies buzzing with activity, then it was their whispers that had always— unfailingly —kept her company. Their murmurings. Their telling her about the Einling scuttling through a vent, teeth nipping at cables. Their tales of aching hydraulics for joints.

Yes, stations were chatty, and she’d lived on them long enough now to have forgotten what it was like to have silence.

Oh. And then there was the light. Even in the dead of night, a light had begun to pour through the panorama windows, where it splashed against the ceiling with a dirty and almost pink glow. It wasn’t very bright, no, but it was enough to make her wish she could slap her hand against a light switch and it’d go out. Which, with stations, was exactly how light worked.

Not so on planets.

・・・“Are you going to lie there and be miserable all night?”

SIN had draped herself over the sofa’s backrest, her paws dangling lazily. She’d been observing the storm which pushed the odd, pinkish light ahead of it ever since it’d gotten dark.

“Not much else to do,” Sophya whispered back. She was mindful of the two closed doors on the other side of the room and didn’t want to wake anyone. “I’m a bit wired, I suppose.”

・・・“Sit up then. Watch the lights with me. They’re lovely.”

Sophya did. Slowly. By the time she’d made it upright, her heart had begun to work a little harder — though not near as badly as it’d done prior. Turned out Ellen had been right about going to visit the clinic; the meds they’d given her were putting up a real good fight on her behalf. Even her careChip had stopped whinging.

But the neck brace? That thing was Hell’s construct, no questions asked. Tight. Itchy. Tighter still. She couldn’t even turn her head enough to look straight out the window and had to position herself awkwardly to be able to see what’d kept SIN fascinated for so long.

・・・“Pretty, mh?”

“Ominous,” said Sophya.

Where the storm had been nothing but a distant front of darkness when V had drawn her attention to it in the evening (by ranting at it), it had now grown to a mass of clouds boiling across the horizon like water bubbling over the rim of a pot. And these particular bubbles had a distinct, dark pink lining, bruised by sickly green.

It hadn’t reached the far edge of Horizon’s Crown yet. Nor had its light grown bold enough to chase the stars from the sky. But it was approaching both.

・・・“Always such a critic.” SIN stretched with feline grace and set her large, honey-coloured eyes on Sophya. “What’s an old thing like me supposed to do to get you to let in a wink of joy?” Her head tilted. “Well, never-you-mind. What’s gnawing on you?”

Sophya scoffed. “What isn’t?”

・・・“Don’t be coy, you know what I mean. There’s something you’ve been wanting to tell me. Something you’re afraid of.”

With her chest tight, Sophya scoffed again, though this one came out wobbly.

・・・“It’s not the almost burning to death or even that lesser twin in your blood. Whatever it is, you’ve got it buried so deep that I can’t get a read on it. So. Come on. Unearth it.”

“I’ve dreamt,” Sophya admitted. And SIN was right. She’d been reluctant to say it out loud. As with many a thing, once spoken out loud, you couldn’t put it back. Unsay it. “Right after the crash, when we were still in the shuttle. Before you got me to wake up… I think I was with Krisi. Back at the mansion. When she sent us away that night.”

Sent, she thought, the word tasting like milk left out in the sun for a week. She pushed her thumb into her palm and frowned. Rejected was the right word. Feared. Loathed. All well deserved.

SIN watched her quietly.

“I think I’ve had two? Dreams, I mean. Of the second one, I can’t remember much, except that it was freezing cold and I think I saw Krisi again. But it’s all— jumbled? Is that what dreaming is supposed to be? Frustrating? Maddening?”

・・・“Hrrrrm,” purred SIN. “I wouldn’t know. But, Love, you’re certain?”

Sophya hefted her shoulders up in a tired shrug.

・・・“That’s troubling.”

“More so than how I picked up his?” She pointed at V’s door. “Though that one I remember vividly, not like… mine.”

・・・“Harmless eavesdropping is what that was. And now that I know you’re prone to wander, I’ll ward you next time.” Her tail gave an elegant swish. “But we? We. Do. Not. Dream. An ordinary dream is a memory, a mind seeking reason, or a figment at best. Unless, of course, you’re a Bard. Those get to listen in on all those other worlds tucked away beyond Elaya’s Hem and I suppose that’s different enough. But you’re not a Bard. You’re a Cad’his and we are called. Whether that’s the Cataract’s summons, or Elaya’s hem whispering a warning: if you dream it, then it has meaning. It has consequences. A purpose.”

Sophya’s neck brace appeared to decide on growing even tighter. A flash of heat— quickly followed by a chill —bit at her chest. Anticipation. Fear. “You’re telling me I’m being summoned?”

・・・“Goodness, no.” SIN paused. “Least I’d think not? If the Cataract needed you, then you’d know. Hell, I would know. Supposedly, at any rate.” She bristled up on the sofa’s backrest. “Look, I’ve got about as much practice at this as you, alright? It’s only ever properly summoned me twice.”

“It’s a warning then?”

・・・“Probably?”

Sophya squirmed. “You weren’t supposed to agree to that. What you’re meant to say is Oh no, Sophya. Not at all. Don’t worry your stupid fat head over it, there aren’t any cryptic messages spelling out your doom here.

SIN’s feline eyes narrowed. ・・・“You have the most shapely head,” she said. “And I’d know. I’m in it. But, fine. You’re probably right and it isn’t a warning, since what’s the point in warning us if you’re allowed to forget? Maybe it was a message. Or, if Tre wills it, it’s Krisi calling for you. You are sisters after all.”

That hope-shaped coin Sophya had found at the bottom of her life no more than two days ago gave off a tempting glint.

“Which’d mean she’s got to be alive and I haven’t only been imagining her to be.”

・・・“If Tre wills it.”

“He better.”

Though even as Sophya sent a tentative prayer to the stalwart brother, his twin swooped in to answer. By means of noise and mischief/violence, as so was the custom.

A crash sounded outside, followed by a bang. Then, voices. Frantic ones. Raised ones.

Another bang— a whole row of them —sharp and loud.

Sophya flinched and sucked in a shaky breath. “What now?”

・・・“Nothing good, I wager.”

More bangs. More voices. And as they came closer, Sophya’s heart beat faster and another cold shiver sunk through her chest. She regretted having whinged about the silence, suddenly missing it.

And by the time V’s door flew open, Sophya had gotten so tense she straight up yelped.

V strode from his room, all long-legged and, ah, bare-chested, with nothing but a pair of loose slacks riding low on his hipbones. Which, in itself, would have been quite the sight already (or so she figured), though then he had to bring a pistol, which he carried in a one-handed grip, its barrel pointed at the floor. It punctuated the picture with a wild kind of violence she could have done without.

It also told her what those bangs had been. They’d been shots.

Sophya shrunk in on herself.

Another shot rang.

V stopped on his way to the door to throw her a look. The poor light in the flat gave him a shadow-wrapped and harried look, trim and lithe and mostly made of edges. Oh, and his hair was an absolute mess.

“Get behind the couch,” he said, his voice low. Then he pointed his free hand at Ellen’s and Gabriel’s room. The kid had woken up and stuck his wild-haired head outside. V shooed him back inside. The door clicked shut.

・・・“You heard him.” SIN didn’t sound worried as much as curious.

Sophya though— well —she was eager not to be here. Groaning, she laboured off the sofa and did as instructed, placing herself behind it and landing awkwardly on her buttocks on the floor as she sat down. That put the sofa at her back and the panorama window in front of her; a proximity she could have done without, because Elaya have mercy on her, did that Nothing go on forever past the window or what?

If she fell, she’d have enough time regretting near all her terrible life decisions on the way down.

The reasonable thing to do then was not to look at the window and so Sophya dragged herself to the sofa’s end and stuck her head around it. The shots had stopped, after all. Even the voices had fallen quiet, and so Sophya waited, her nerves gradually spooling themselves up tight.

Well. Tighter.

V stood with his back to the wall opposite her, his gun now in a two-handed grip. The muzzle stared between a spot between his spread apart and very bare feet. He, too, peered around the corner, though his focus was squarely on the door at the end of the short entrance hall.

Close by, a fist pounded against a different door.

“Open up!” called a man, his shout leaking desperation. “Please!”

V flexed his fingers around the gun. Sophya’s nerves neared the point where they’d have liked to snap.

Then their door rattled as someone slammed a fist against it.

“Vickers!” the man shouted. He kept hammering away. “I know you’re awake! Open up, man, please! I’ll pay! I’ll pay it all back, I swear to god.”

V’s Adam’s apple bobbed. “No can do, John. You know that.”

“I’m going to fucking die, man. Please. I just need one dose!” The fist pounded against the door again. “One. Does.”

“After you shot up the Guard? Jesus Christ, John, you know I can’t help you.”

“They weren’t listening!” A loud— too loud —CRACK snapped the air in half and something whistled by near Sophya’s head, only to hit the window behind her with a solid thunk.

SIN’s calm from earlier took flight. ・・・“Get back!” she hissed, and Sophya shuffled away from the edge.

“Seriously? Breaching rounds?” V muttered over by the door, his tone annoyed, rather than any number of more apt reactions. Worry. Fear. All of which Sophya had plenty of.

The answer to his gripe was another loud CRACK. A second bullet whistled past the sofa and smacked into the window panel. It clinked to the floor.

“Open!” CRACK “Up!” This shot struck a wall. The impact sounded a lot more muffled than the clink of the other two hitting the glass.

“I’m not opening my door, John.” V barely raised his voice. “Unless it’s to put you down myself. Do you understand?”

“Please— man—“

Sophya pulled her knees up to her chest and tried at being as small as she could muster. She stared at the bullets lying on the ground, their casings all scrunched up from their impact. Or so she figured, anyway. Sophya knew very little about guns, save for the bit where she knew not to be on the business end of one at any point in her life.

Her eyes flicked up. The glass had come away with two white dents surrounded by dense webs of superficial cracks. Beyond the glass, the storm boiled on. Its clouds swelled as they grew nearer.

Had it gotten faster?

More shots sounded. They made Sophya’s shoulders jump. Though these had sounded different — and they ended with a sudden, muffled thump right outside the door.

It took a moment for the realisation to sink in that the man named John had died. Right then. While she’d covered behind a sofa. His life, a thing lived and shared and clung to, had ended.

Sophya clenched her jaw so tight that her teeth creaked. Voices drew near to the door. Someone knocked. Politely, this time.

“Any wounded?” she heard a woman ask.

“No,” said V.

Thump, thump, went the knock again, this time more in confirmation than anything, and then Sophya listened to what sounded suspiciously much like a body getting dragged away.

She hugged her knees tight. There’d be blood there on the floor tomorrow, wouldn’t there? The thought of that made her stomach lurch sharply sideways. She choked down the taste of bile — and stayed very still.

Even as she listened to V’s footsteps (which were real quiet, what with the bare feet), and to a door opening with a shy creak.

“Nuh huh,” V told the door. “Back to bed, Gabe. And tell Mom there’s nothing to worry about.”

Click. The door had closed again. The lights in the flat came on. It made her squint with how bright they were.

And then V appeared around the sofa’s corner, one hand resting on its backrest and the other still holding on to the gun. She must have looked at the weapon funny, because he glanced at it once, scrunched his brows together, and then tried getting rid of it. First, he seemed eager to tuck it into the band of his sweats, but that went nowhere; like he realized what a horrible idea that probably was a second away from shoving it in there. He grunted, fumbled momentarily, and then vanished the gun out of sight before coming back unarmed.

“You okay?” he asked. His hair was a wildly out-of-control mop falling into his forehead and he ranked his fingers through it to fold it up and to the side. The moment he let go, it slumped forward again.

Sophya nodded. A lie, naturally, but what else was she supposed to say? Unlike that stranger, John, or that half-stranger, Pete, she still had her life. Unlike everyone else in that shuttle crash, for that matter. She’d survived getting blown out of the sky and then she’d survived a kidnapping, a salvaging attempt, and, now, a shooting.

Not ever in her entire life had Sophya thought of herself lucky. And, yet, here we were.

Yay, she cheered mirthlessly in the privacy of her own mind.

“Hm,” V intoned and Sophya tipped her head far as she could with the damn neck brace being in the way. The thing had begun to dig into her chin as if its corners had sharpened themselves. It made her skin feel raw.

While she tried not to think of the brace strangling her (and all those dead people she’d outlived), V looked at her with a professional sort of curiosity. Not buying her lie, she assumed, and maybe not knowing what to do with her planted behind his sofa.

“Let’s get you up,” he decided then and came down to her level. That put him straight in front of her, with the lot of him blocking out the view of the roiling storm, the dents in the glass, and two moons up in the sky having a laugh at her expense.

Before he got her up, he twisted around— perched on the balls of his feet —and swiped up the two bullet casings within reach, which he pocketed in his slacks. Once that was done, he reached for her—

—only to pause the second his hand was a hair’s width from touching her elbow. She could feel the warmth of his palm hopping the rest of the way on its own.

His eyes cut up. To SIN.

Atop the sofa’s backrest, SIN purred a smug ・・・“I’ll allow it.”

So V grabbed her elbow with the one hand that’d hovered near it already and her forearm with the other.

Sophya let him. What else was she supposed to do?

Notice how his chest had decided not to grow a shirt, that was what. Since, well, chests did not suddenly decide to do so. You had to go find a shirt, turn it right-side-up, put it on and—

While her mind trotted off uselessly, Sophya refused to look at him. Did her best not to, really. Promise. Swear to Elaya’s graceful ankles. She did all she could to look anywhere else, but, in the end, it was for nought.

He filled out the space in front of her, you see, all bruised in blacks and blues and greens, under which he wore more scars than she could reasonably catalogue quickly. So, with nowhere else to look, she focused on the worst of them. Not. That. She-was-focusing-on-anything. It just so happened that— as he pulled her to her feet —her eyes caught on the burn mark which wrapped around his right biceps like a sleeve. The skin there had a warped and deeply pockmarked texture. Then there were two gnarly blooms, one on his left biceps and one above his hip on the same side. Bullet holes, she figured. They’d healed badly.

And then there was the tattoo: a pair of dice.

They sat shamelessly low, directly above the band of his sweats, next to a thick, dark line of coarse hair which dove out of sight into his trousers. Each of the dice had landed on a four.

Since Sophya knew basic math, she added them together— slowly —and concluded that made eight.

. . .

Up there, beyond the tattoo and beyond the dark dusting of hair and the scars and the bruises, V cleared his throat.

Oh.

Oh no.

She’d been staring.

Witlessly.

At the ink.

“It’s my lucky number,” he said, the words so full of mirth she didn’t need to crane her neck up to see he was smiling.

Not that the smile helped. Mortified, Sophya let herself be navigated to the front of the sofa, where she promptly sat, her ears about halfway burnt down to stubs (or so she thought). And that was how she remained (with her ears smouldering stubs), while V plopped down on the corner of the coffee table in front of her, his legs spread and his hands folded between his knees. He’d put the gun down there, too. It was lying right next to him, the barrel pointing away from them both.

Having learned her lesson, Sophya avoided looking at him directly. His (bare) right shoulder would do. She focused on that. Doggedly.

Cue the awkward silence.

・・・“You two are droll,” said SIN.

Sophya’s eyes abandoned the safety of his (still bare) shoulder. And then they got into each other’s way.

“What was that—“ she tried.

“So, Col told me about the Soulwri—“

They paused. One tick. Two. Then they did it all over again.

“—I’m surprised you didn’t know—“

“—someone ran out of Shim—“

・・・“I swear.”

Red as a chunk of Hell dropped on her head, Sophya leaned back. She made a quick motion across her lips, pretending to lock them with the twist of a key; a key she imagined to be made from simple iron, with a round end and thick teeth. Once she’d sealed her lips, she chucked the key over her shoulder.

V’s eyes tracked it. His brows furrowed (ever so slightly), and for a moment Sophya regretted having let herself imagine it so vividly. But then he huffed up a tentatively amused noise and gave a brief nod, so maybe she’d done okay.

“One of the dependents ran out of Shimmer,” he said eventually. “It doesn’t happen often, but… it does. And they usually put up a fight.”

・・・“If they don’t go easy, then why’s it they are allowed weapons?” SIN hadn’t left her perch on the sofa’s backrest and was peering over Sophya’s shoulder. “He’s put holes in your door. Nearly into her, too.”

“And shot the first Castle Guard squad that went to get him,” V added to the list of things the man had put holes in. Before he’d had the same done to him. “But they’re not. Allowed guns, I mean.”

・・・“You have one.”

V returned to glowering. At Sophya. With a look so stern, she felt it on her even though she wasn’t meeting his eyes. “Seriously? You’re gonna have me talk to her while you do your shy little mouse routine?”

Sophya had not known she could turn redder. But here she was. Positively a beacon of crimson.

“SIN is the one with the questions,” she managed. Barely. “I’m the one with the headache.” And the stupid, scratchy brace and the hurting bones and dear gods, maybe leaping out that window wouldn’t be half so bad. Her pulse hammered against the tight collar.

“Fine.” V’s eyes went back to SIN. “Yes, I have weapons. Registered Runners are licensed to carry through the entire arcology, right there with the Castle Guard and Monarch reps.”

・・・“Is that why you do it? So you get to put up a fight if they come for your brother?”

“No, I do it so that no one is coming for my brother. Period. Runners get good hazard pay. Jesus Christ. Someone dumped their bedside manners subroutine.”

・・・“My bedside everything is just fine.”

Now, if only Sophya could have whipped her head around to glare at SIN, then she’d have done so. As it were, all she could muster was a meek curling of her fingers.

“Anyway,” said V as he scooted sideways a tad on the coffee table to get himself front and centre into Sophya’s field of vision. So much for staring at his shoulder. Hello, collarbone. “My turn. Was Col right? You and your sister are Soulwright heirs and she’s the one who sold your fam out to Arcnetics? Is that why you’re pissed and—”

Sophya found a morsel of courage. “She didn’t.”

V’s brows bounced up.

“Krisi wouldn’t have ever sold out. She loved the family name and she loved the work. If it hadn’t been for her, Da would have never considered cutting ties with Arcnetics in the first place. So when they all said how Krisi traded our name away, I knew something wasn’t right. She’d never. Not willingly.”

Her eyes dipped low and she pressed her thumb to her palm.

“But that was, what, five years ago? Why wait until now?”

Because she said she’d string me up herself if she ever laid eyes on me again?

“It’s complicated,” she said out loud.

“Is there one thing about you that isn’t? Corporate heiress. Pagan. And—“ His folded hands appeared under her nose. He’d leaned in closer. “—Sare? You’re Marked, right? What’s your gig? Shields? The push and pull type? Fire? Ice? I mean, you’re not a Medica or you’d be cartwheeling by now.”

Sophya’s thumb pressed harder into the meat of her palm.

“Oh!” V exclaimed. “Wait, wait. I think I got it.”

… and harder. Her heart rammed itself silly at the top of her throat and near made the neck brace burst. Figuratively.

“You’re a Bard.”

Wooosh, his guess went, straight over her head. Then it flew out the window and hurtled for one of the moons.

But it wasn’t what he’d said. It was how he’d said it that made Sophya finally look. His tone had been light. Careless. It’d been nothing that fit the moment; nothing that fit the fact that a man had just died in front of his door. After trying to shoot his way in. After he’d been willing to defend his home in nothing but slacks and with his hair in disarray and a single handgun.

It made no sense to her.

V’s chin went up. His head tilted. And a quiet smile crept into his eyes. A smile meant to soothe her, she could tell that much. Did it work? No. Not really. If anything it made her want to crawl from her skin, because couldn’t he just leave her alone?

Did that stop him? Her squiring on the spot? Not a chance.

“You defo have the imagination for it.” He raised his right brow, indicating SIN.

・・・“Darling,” SIN purred, “nothing about me is imaginary. Though I’ll give you that: she’s creative, that one. Has got a head full of the wildest thoughts, even if she won't say them out loud." 

“Ugh.” Sophya couldn’t help it. “You’re both awful. You—“ She looked V dead in the eye (for the approximate entirety of about half a squashed second). “—needle me with questions that aren’t any of your business and you—“ SIN got an awkward swipe of an elbow attached to a stiff arm, which, in turn, hung off a stiffer shoulder. “—stop talking about me. It’s rude.”

・・・“Someone’s got to.”

“I don’t need marketing,” Sophya snapped, even if her voice held no bite. She was painfully aware of that. “What I need is all my ducks in order and my head on straight, none of which you’re helping an awful lot with lately.”

・・・“Quack,” said SIN — and turned into a suspiciously cinnamon-coloured rubber duck. A pair of small bandaids crossed over her bulbous duck head. One had hearts on it. The other angry lightning bolts.

. . .

“I dislike you.” Sophya hefted out a sigh and looked to V, who had still not grown a shirt. “No," she said. "I wasn’t lying when I told you that I’m here for my sister. Because, yes, you’re right. I shouldn’t have waited. If I hadn’t taken so damn long then maybe Krisi wouldn't have been on Elpis when the outbreak happened. Maybe she’d have been back across the Well, mad at me for getting into her business, but okay.” Her neck brace tightened. And tightened. And tightened. “That’s what I got to cope with every day since. Being too slow. Waiting. That’s why I risked it. I've got to make up for it.”

As she talked, V’s eyes not once quit boring into her. His mismatched stare— muddy hazel on one side, bright green on the other —was awfully weighty, but his expression unreadable. The other way around though? Pinned under the stare as she was, Sophya had an inkling that he could read her from the inside out. Know when she fibbed. Know when she was being truthful. It was an inkling she preferred not to put to the test and so she didn’t argue how he guessed her to be a Bard. That way, maybe, just maybe, he’d leave it alone and she’d not have to lie.

Plus, the damn brace. She had no time to argue any further, not with the brace/collar/Hell's toy squeezing the air from her throat. She reached up to it with both her hands, her fingers shaking as they fumbled with the clasps on it and a meek noise tickling its way up her chest. There were so many clasps. Too many. And her fingers kept glancing off them.

“Hey,” V said from a sudden, glitchy distance away. “Stop fiddling with that.” He snapped back in close. So close, she felt his knuckles ghost against her cheek and chin.

Startled, Sophya held her breath. She even closed her eyes. Clenched her jaw. She brought the whole damn circus out while his fingers chased hers away and explored the collar’s clasps that’d given her so much grief.

“I’m sorry about your sister,” he said. One clasp popped open with a soft click. The one on her left. Then another on the right. “About her getting mixed up in this shit down here, I mean. And I should have said that earlier, and, yeah, I shouldn’t have thought you’re here for revenge. That was a jerk move. I'm a jerk.”

He found a third clasp at the back and flicked that open, too. Stubborn, Sophya kept her eyes closed, even as his fingers slid over the collar’s edges and gave them a gentle outwards tug. “Damn, this is tight. How were you breathing under that?”

“Badly,” she said as it finally stopped strangling her.

“I figured.” A puff of warm air touched her cheek. The clasps clicked closed again. And then he got distance between them, leaving the collar almost tolerably loose and a touch of peat and ash hanging in the air between them. “Is that better?”

“It’s less clingy,” she admitted.

“Mhm,” he hummed, a moment before he clapped his hands together between his knees. Not loudly, mind you. It was a very well-mannered clap. It served a purpose though. It got her to look — and bookended their conversation from earlier. About what Sare gig was hers. About Krisi. About the name she carried around like dead weight. “Now. You know what this is?” V bobbed his chin at the panorama window.

Sophya blinked. “You mentioned a storm. A bad one, you said.”

“Yeah. Once that thing hits, we’ll get two, maybe three days of rolling blackouts and house arrest.”

“Blackouts,” she echoed as she, too, slid a finger under the collar like he had. Though in her case it was because she wanted to give her neck a sorely needed scratch. Gods, she hadn’t even been able to do that properly earlier, her finger wouldn’t fit right. “House arrest. Do you mean we have to stay in the flat?”

“What— no. But I can’t leave the Castle.” His brow pinched. “Hold up. You don’t know about the storms?”

Sophya blinked.

“Big-ass super storms?” V shifted his rear on the coffee table, scooting closer to her again. “Toxic? Bring all the shitty air up from the ocean levels? Those kinds of storms?”

Sophya stared blankly ahead.

“What do you know about Elpis? Did you read up on the local critters? Or on what’s good to eat and what’ll kill you if you do?”

. . .

“I— I got a city guide. And a map.”

“A map,” he repeated back to her, his tone a bit flat.

“I mean, I didn’t think I’d need much more? Wasn’t like I’d planned an extended stay. Besides, Horizon’s Crown is a city. You’ve got, like—” She gestured lamely. “—City stuff.”

“City stuff.”

“Roads. Roofs. Kitchens. And they briefed us regarding the outbreak up on the orbital island, which I figure is about the biggest deal of all, no? I didn’t think I’d need to look up the weather. Or fix to go hiking.” Sophya paused. Her hand dropped from where she’d been scratching at her neck. “I don’t like hiking.”

V scoffed. It wasn’t a harsh noise though and when Sophya dared a glance, his lips were piling into his stubble on the left corner of his mouth.

“What I was trying to get at is that since I’m going to be stuck here, I might as well help you get set up properly. Which, you know, I was going to do anyway, but I’d planned to be an ass about it the entire time.”

He leaned forward and snatched up the sleeve of her— well, his, really —shirt, giving it a gentle thug.

“First, we’ll get you some clothes. Your own clothes. Something that fits and that you can work in. Plus a pair of boots or something. Maybe a bed, because I have slept on this couch and it is absolute garbage.”

Truth. Sophya chewed on her bottom lip.

V released the sleeve. “We’ll also fix your Dispatch applications, have it all done before the storm clears. But, ah, your name alone isn’t going to land you a better job unless you have something else to show for it. Like, let’s say, an inherited talent for working NetSage chairs?”

She traded him the flattest of stares she could scrounge up on such short notice.

“‘cause if you don’t, you may end up scrubbing bug vats with the other vil Somethings.”

“I’m fine scrubbing.”

“Positive? It’s pretty gross. There’s usually still live bugs in there.” He wiggled his fingers. “They’re squirmy.”

“Positive.”

“Alright.” V shrugged. “That’s settled then. Back to bed with me.”

He rose to his feet. In a very right-at-her kind of way. So sudden was the movement, Sophya ended up frozen on the spot, staring in mounting fright as he — leaned around her. Yes, his (still bare) shoulder came close enough to her nose she nearly touched it, but it wasn’t her he’d come for. It was SIN. He raised his arm. Poised a finger. And flicked said finger at SIN’s rubber duck form.

SIN, ever eager to entertain in her own way, quacked once before she tumbled off the sofa.

“G’night,” he said on the way back up, after which he swiped a hand through his disastrous hair and grabbed the gun from the coffee table.

Then he was gone.

What'd that leave Sophya with? Why, with sinking back into the uncomfortably knotty sofa (because now that V himself had admitted that it was rubbish to sleep on, she had no reason to feel bad about disliking it anymore, no?) and with a mind so scattered, it was like someone had emptied a kitchen junk drawer onto a trampoline. 

“A map,” Sophya whispered.

・・・“City stuff,” mocked SIN. She’d reappeared after V had flicked her to the floor and had put her freckles back on. She also carried a smile. One turned right at Sophya.

・・・“You know what, my prickly little thing?”

“What?”

・・・“I think he likes you.”

Groaning, Sophya folded her arms over her face and wished for sleep that never came.