thewarbingminstrel: (Firefly)
[personal profile] thewarbingminstrel
Weeks and weeks and weeks later...new episode! I'm not too worried about typos, I'm sure they are in there, but who cares? Its just a fic. Its not like I'm trying to get it published.

These are taking more time for me to write, as my ideas are taking me in directions that I did not anticipate. So, forgive me for the wait. But I'm trying to make it interesting. If I failed in that attempt, I apologize.

So get to reading, and let me know what you think! And if you see errors, pretend that I actually got it right because I'm a dynamite dictionary.

And remember: I'm not Joss Whedon. If I was, I would be a feminist.



Affinity

“I knew that this was going to happen.”

Maybe my crew should not see their captain in the current state that I am in: head cradled between my knees, arms dangling at my sides, in full blown panic attack mode. I had started off with banging my head against the circuit board, but stuff started lighting up and beeping funny and eventually Case shoved my head between my thighs. So maybe this was his fault.

No, I knew whose fault it was.

“Hale!” I shouted from the vicinity of my legs, not bothering to move.

“Yes, cap?” he had the nerve to sound amused by all of this.

“When I am able to walk on my own again, expect a beatin’ of the ages.”

“I shall just have to build my strength while you are still hobbling.”

I heard a small, covered up laugh to my right that sounded like Vanya, and my anger surged.

“This aint funny!” I announced roughly, still unmoving. I did not want to look at the screen, at the ship that was hailing us, at the impending doom that awaited there. I did not want to see my one chance at freedom slipping away with every minute that they gained on us.

“We could try to run…” Katherine lightly suggested, without much hope to her tone.

“Why, so that they can shoot us out of the sky?” Hale asked. “Don’t think that they will hesitate.”

“So, what do we do Fin?” Case asked.

I paused, knowing my answer and not wanting to say it.

Hale took that up for me after my jaw began to tick. “Let them board.”

I cursed so loudly that I heard everyone jump at the same time.

The ship grew closer and closer to Chunjing until our ports connected. There was the sound of Case speaking to the pilot of the other ship, and he sounded far too enthusiastic for my peace of mind. Why was I the only one who thought that this was a bad idea?

I did not want to move. But Hale ended up forcing me upright. “Hey. There is no avoiding this one. It is not like you can hide anywhere.”

“Maybe I can whack myself in the brainpan and go dopey till everyone leaves.” The suggestion had merit.

Hale did not seem to think so. “That is a little extreme.”

“What? They want to see an invalid? I’ll give them an invalid!”

“Everyone wants you to get well. That is the whole point of this.”

I felt like I was going to be sick. The thrumming in my head and stomach were too alike, and it was making me nauseous. The worst of it was the looming of it, the over anticipation. I had to admit that some part of me was looking forward to it all. Were these different circumstances, I would not mind the visit so much. Instead, I knew exactly where my place would recede once the two main figures of my life stepped into my bridge with the same hard look.

And soon enough, just as I suspected, there they were.

Hale straightened to stand, and I sat upright in my chair. Zoe and Mal were lock step, and they did not stop until they were hovering over my head.

I lifted my hand and gave a small wave. “Hi mom.”

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“I wish you’d stop looking at me like I did this to myself,” I told Mal who kept frowning at me.

He stayed silent, even crossed his arms. I groaned.

“Do you have any idea how worried we were?” My mother was stooped before me inspecting the cast that Sebastian had put around my leg. “And it is your fault in part. Hunting reavers.” She spat out the last sentence as if it were as bad as me making a living in bile.

I shrugged a shoulder, not denying it anymore. Honestly, what was the point? “They aren’t as tough as you remember, mom.”

She gave me a dark look, and I felt my insides chill.

“I still fly in the same skies that you do. Do not underestimate the dangers that I know full well are out there.” Zoe had a strange cadence from going serious to even more serious. It always scared me as a kid. But underneath the gruff, she was a worried mother. I knew that, even while it made my nerves jittery.

“Hale. You mind explaining how you’re allowing this fool girl to run amuck along the ‘verse?” Mal cut in.

I got angry again. “I’m HIS captain!” I reminded him. “And no one is holding him here against his will.”

Hale had a knack for being technical, and thus was the case here. “The profit in our general work outweighs…” he paused to look at my leg, then continued. “The casualties, sir.”

Zoe was getting riled up again, so Hale clarified. “In Fin’s eyes,” he summed up in closing.

“Its true,” I agreed. “One little cut aint gonna stop me from flying.”

“Little cut, is it?” Mal rose a brow. “You’ve been rendered lame on account of that hurt.”

“Yeah, and most others end up dead hunting reavers. So I’ve come to the understanding that limping away is more than good enough for me.” I put in.

“I don’t want this work to be what eventually kills you.” Zoe reiterated what she had been saying to me since I found Chunjing.

I stared at her for a while, seeing her worry ebb throughout her like a sickness. I sighed. “Mom. We’re good at what we do. We’re the best at it. So we can’t stop now. Not when we have made so much progress. Not to mention, so much coin.”

“And where is all of this extra coin going? Are you saving it up? Do you have a place somewhere planet side? Or are you cycling it all back into the ship?”

As if she had to ask. The extra coin kept me sailing smoothly. Why would I want to have useless coin laying around? When food and fuel were so much more important?

“Chunjing is my home. And I am taking mighty fine care of it.”

“Can’t argue there,” Mal said, ignoring Zoe’s look. “This ship looks to be running true. And its as spotless as a shined up nickel.”

I had Shad to thank for that. His compulsive nature kept him cleaning when he wasn’t playing with explosives.

I introduced Mal and Zoe to my crew that they had not met. Shad was as timid as always, but he managed a mumbled hello from between his tight lips. Katherine was proper for once, watching her language though the effort might be wasted around these two. Vanya gave them a salute and kept her last name a secret. Sebastian kissed my mother’s hand as if she were royalty and gave her many compliments, to the point that I started shifting around in my seat uncomfortably.

Mal eyed Case up and down before finally pointing at him. “He’s Alliance.”

I was not sure how Mal Reynolds always did that. It was like he had a sixth sense.

“Not anymore,” Case told him, looking as humble as possible. “I learned how to fly under their employ and got out.”

“Its my experience with Alliance friendlies that the government does not just let you leave.” Mal was suspicious.

I held my hand up and stopped the other captain. “He does not like to talk about it.”

Mal had stiffened. “I can’t imagine that he would, being a turn coat on a boat full of brown coats.”

I rose a brow. “What browns? None of us were in the war, save you and Zoe.”

Mal damn near barked at me. “You were raised brown coat, you have that blood in you.”

I rolled my eyes at his assertion. “Gordon’s past is just that: the past. He’s the best pilot I’ve ever known and a good friend as well. Saved me and Hale’s hides in a bar when we first met. I trust him with my life.”

It seemed good enough for Mal. For now, anyhow. He had known his share of Alliance friendlies. He still gave Case a stern look and crossed his arms tightly, showcasing his strength. I almost laughed. Case was young and in good shape. Mal, though still in good shape, was far from his prime. He had streaks of gray in his dark hair and the beginnings of wrinkles marring his face. He looked wizened not exactly elderly, but I still joked and called him an old man, earning myself a grizzled frown.

“I would expect a bigger crew for the risks that you take every day,” Zoe said, eyeing my employees up and down. “This is the ship keeping reavers at bay?”

“Best in the bizz,” I bragged. “Ask anyone at any port about a reaver problem, Chunjing will come up first on the list.”

Zoe worried her bottom lip between her teeth for a while, then finally loosened up a little. “I suppose…if you insist on living this life, that you could do worse.” She nodded once in an attempt to appease herself, then knelt down beside me once more for a hug. “I’ve missed you, you fool girl.”

And there it was. I was a kid all over again, craving Zoe‘s hugs more than any other dream a child could have. Wanting to be scooped up in my mother’s arms while she comforted me and made me forget about my pain. I hugged her back and took a moment just being a daughter for once.

“I’m tearing up. This is touching. Truly.” Mal just had to ruin the moment with something. “But I am a-yearning for some grub. I assume since you go planet side more often than we do that you have something edible about this boat? Something more than canned protein?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact we do,” Sebastian spoke up, stepping forward. “I would be honored to prepare something for you and your crews arrival.”

“Well, well, well…” Mal had a dorky smile spread across his face. “Looks like Finy followed my own wayward instruction and bagged herself an on ship companion. Interesting. Aint you a mite too pretty to be flying from one end of the ‘verse to the next?”

“I have many reasons for deciding to fly with captain Fin. One of which, she needed a proper medic and I have the training required for such menial tasks.”

“Don’t listen to him,” Hale said as they walked toward the mess hall. “He is good at what he does, and loves doing it. He is the one who fixed Finy’s leg.”

“Right, right. The whore who can use band aids.” Mal sounded as condescending as always.

Inflection is everything when it comes to certain phrases. The simplest rise in pitch on a certain word can ruffle anyone’s feathers. And on the word “whore,” Seb visibly stiffened.

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Hiding from my mother became my primary task, but it proved to be a hard thing whilst on crutches. And with Mal on her side, she would bombard me at every turn. Eventually, the crew was answering more to Hale than to me from the absence. Sulking about it would do no good, my fate had been decided.

They were already headed planet side, to a nice shanty my mother had procured for off time. It was safe, it was secluded, and it would keep me off of my feet. Somehow, I heard the cage doors slamming shut on me even more off in the distance. It rang in my ears, and I cringed at the sound.

If that weren’t enough, Mal and Zoe had crew to back them up.

I had met them repeatedly over dinner, but did not have the erstwhile concentration to keep up with their names. There was a bubbly type girl who looked fit to make up for Kaylee’s absence. She, I think her name was Crystal, was stout and looked like she’d had her share of healthy meals. Her face was a cute little pout of an expression complete with daring hazel eyes and chipmunk dimpled cheeks, and her bust was overlarge on her wide frame. She was quite a character, from what I could tell. A saucy little smirk stayed placed on her lips more often than not, and she talked about Jayne as if he were a savior.

“The man just knows his guns,” she drawled, using her biscuit to sop up the leftover gravy on her plate. Her coal black curls bounced every time she moved, and she seemed to have the capability to sashay in her seat. Something I’ve never even seen well trained companions pull off.

“Our little Crys here is very friendly with Cobb,” Mal winked at me.

I shuddered at the idea. She was so young. And Jayne…well, he wasn’t.

“Where is Jayne?” Hale asked. “I’ve been meaning to ask.”

“Past three weeks he’s been planet side on Triumph,” Zoe said. “Soul searching.”

“In other words, knee deep in whorings.” I muttered.

Crys wrinkled her nose. Obviously she did not like the sound of that.

“We’ll pick him up before we get you settled,” Zoe said to me. “Don’t worry. He misses you too.”

It wasn’t that I did not miss Jayne and his brusque, less than charming attitudes. But the talk of going planet side had me wrinkling my nose as well.

I was not sure what Crys did aboard their ship, but there was no mistaking the employ of the man seated beside Mal. Marcellin Barrquott. His posture alone spelled hired hand, bone deep. Arms rippled with muscles, one can only assume he got them through hard labor of some sort. Maybe farming, Mal had always did have a softer side for those who knew the workings of ranch life. His bronze skin tone was a nice hue, his long hair was braided and kept in a pony tail. He had a kind smile, but he was very quiet. According to Hale, he had a twin brother aboard Serenity who went by the name Alex. His twin was supposed to be as big as Marcey was. I couldn’t imagine that much intimidating shoved into one room. Just as I couldn’t imagine such a hard man being dubbed “Marcey”. But Mal and Crys seemed to have no problem using the nickname on the beast, so it was starting to grow on me.

There was a few other people under their employ. Most were still on their ship, flying along side us. There was Riddly Lowd, a skinny man with a oily look about his smile. Something about him screamed swindler to me, which can be useful aboard a ship occasionally. He looked clean if nothing else, which was hard to pull off aboard a ship. But he looked fragile, as if a day of labor would crack his spine. His dark eyes were usually bland and empty of emotion of any sort, his hair was nonexistent, and his dressing was forgettable. But Mal didn’t keep worthlessness aboard his ship, so whatever skill he had remained to be seen.

Another crew member who came to mind was Adamina Prickett, a lithe girl who had gained the nickname Ghost due to her ghastly white complexion. Her coarse, black hair was usually down and flat about her shoulders, her dress was usually very masculine and baggy. But her wide, heavily lashed brown eyes were what gave away her true sex. That and her full pink mouth. Something about her screamed bookly innocence, for when she chose to speak it was all about ancient mythologies and famous professors. I knew for a fact that she was the ships engineer from the occasional grease stain that would mark the paleness of her cheek.

I had gained my eclectic picking of crew members from Mal, if you could not tell. We both managed to find the gems amongst the rubble.

“Sebastian,” I gained my medics attention. “Do you remember me saying that Inara Serra was basically one of my aunts?”

He straightened in his seat, apparently finding the first suitable topic for him to participate on. “Oh, of course I do. If it weren’t for your contact with her, I would still be floundering for clients.”

Mal scoffed unceremoniously. “The pretty boy can’t find willing coin in his bed?”

I waved my hand. “It’s a long story, all having to do with some coworker of his spreading lies…either way…” I looked at Seb again wickedly. “You’re sitting no more than three seats away from the man who tried to marry her once.”

If Sebastian had ever lost his cool in the fullest of the sense, this would be that moment. “Who?” He asked before he saw my gaze flicking repeatedly to Mal. “I cannot believe it!” The words seemed to rush out of his mouth before he could stop them.

“What?” Mal dropped his fork loudly onto his plate and did his brooding eyebrow expression. “I aint sophisticated ‘nough to marry an ambassador?”

I snorted.

Seb stammered momentarily, obviously shook up, before speaking clearly. “I…merely am surprised…due to your apparent disregard for my profession…”

“Oh, so was she.” I spoke up. “Which is why she said no.” I was sparkling now, enjoying myself for the first time in a week. This was just as interesting a topic for me as well. More than interesting, I found it funny.

“She didn’t say no!” Mal protested, paused, then dipped his head. “Alright, fine, she said no. But its only because I was…” he grumbled. “In her words, ungentlemanly about it.”

“How so?” Sebastian asked.

“He didn’t ask her permission,” I clarified. “He thought it more practical to toss her over his shoulder and look for the closest cleric in Sihnon.”

Seb’s jaw near hit the table.

The rest of the company chuckled along with me, while Mal grew more and more fiery on the subject.

“You kidnapped her?” Sebastian demanded.

“It aint kidnapping if its done out of love.” Mal had a vein throbbing in his forehead. “Some might call it romantic or spontaneous.”

I was almost bent over with the giggles bubbling out of me.

“Its been years,” Mal continued to defend himself. “I thought it was about time I made an honest woman out of her.” Mal picked up his fork again, pushing the food on his plate without interest. “I was thinking of her. Trying to anyway.”

Zoe was even enjoying Mal’s obvious discomfort. “You can’t exactly still blame her for saying no. That was almost a year ago.”

“I damn well can if I want to.” Mal stood up from the table. “I’ve had enough of this amusement due to my failings.” He turned around and left, most likely unmanned by my laughter.

“Is he okay?” Crys did not look very secure with the way we were laughing at her boss.

“He’s fine,” I told her. “Just taking a moment to pout.”

Sebastian was still floored. “I simply cannot picture Inara Serra with such a…man.” He put it simply, obviously thinking of a more appropriate word like brute or fiend.

“They are mad about each other,” I assured him. “And I’m sure that if he asked again, in a way befitting her manner, she would accept his proposal. They are both too stubborn to be in love. And on far different sides of the tracks where what‘s appropriate comes into the equation.”

“How do you know so much about their relationship?” Seb asked me.

“I talk to Inara often enough. My mother is like an extra appendage to Mal. And it isn’t like its hard to figure them out.”

But he had brought something to light at that moment. Funny, I had such a great perception on the lives of others, whereas my own relationships were skewed to the max. Its always easier to look at things from the outside, however, than bother placing that same scrutiny inward at yourself.

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We landed sooner than I would have liked, the hot sun baking so loudly it penetrated the metal protection of Chunjing.

“You’ll like it here. I fell in love with the villagers, and that’s why I decided to make it a safe point. Port is plentiful as well. And hey! No feds what so ever.”

Zoe was comforting me as we docked, rubbing my shoulders lovingly. All because she had gotten her way. I tried not to grumble, but I suppose that I might have failed.

“We’re not worried about feds, mom,” I tiredly reminded her.

“Perhaps not as much as we used to be. But never be fooled by quiet, daughter. You know as well as I do that there are some powerful people out there who can hold a grudge. There’s no telling who would trundle us up for the sake of interrogation, simply to rectify us spitting in their face once upon a time.”

She was right, of course.

We landed into a cacophony of sound and music. The villagers were definitely a large bunch, but that was about all I could say of them so far. Many people greeted Mal and Zoe as they descended from Chunjing, as if they were long lost heroes. Their crew surrounded them, leaving the ships and mingling with the many different faces.

It looked about as useful a town as a mining trove. But it had the necessities. Seemed the people did not put their coin into making anything lavish, but kept to the simpler side of things. As most out of core-life moons did. Most of the building structures consisted of wooden planks, as well as the walk ways. Nothing looked necessarily sturdy, but it had a homely sort of feeling to it.

I was a lot slower in my procession. Hale had a hand to my low back as I experimented with the crutches being forced onto me. The rest of my crew stayed just as close, like a worried bunch of mother hens.

The place that Zoe had set up for herself was impressive. It was little more than a two story house, but it was nicely set up. A swell of river ran behind it, the surrounding plant life was lush, and she had furnished the place with stylish fixings. It looked like more of a home than a ship, I surprised myself with the thought.

I do not spend too much time on land. I was born on a ship, and thus it was my life. But if I had to pick a place to stay put, this would not be the worse place to do so.

“See?” Zoe recognized the gleam in my eyes. “I told you that it was nice.”

Whether or not my prison was nice was not a matter of discussion. No, it was that I was being kept from my ship. But if I was going to continue beating a dead horse, I had better do it silently. No one was on my side when it came to this.

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My room was as passable as the rest of the house had turned out to be. It seemed that Zoe had been expecting my arrival at some point in the future. The bed looked deliciously comfortable, but the rest of the room was just waiting to be decorated. I sighed and ran a hand through my hair.

“Remind me how I got here?”

“You got shot.” Hale retorted, obediently.

I sighed again and sat at the edge of the bed, ignoring how welcoming the soft coverlet and mattress were compared to my bunk on Chunjing. “Yeah. That’s right.”

Hale was mirroring my thoughts. “Your mother has done good for herself. She makes settling in look like an art.” He was standing stiffly beside the door, looking as if he’d like to bolt at the first provocation.

I turned to raise a brow in his direction. “Are you telling me you like the idea of me not flying?”

“You know my position on this, Finy. I side with your mother. Thinking about you getting hurt again in some skirmish haggling the price of goods, or combating with another reaver ship, it puts a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. You should not fly until you‘re done with the mend.”

“So…you’re worried about me?” I summed it up with a fake smile.

Hale was suddenly at my side, and the room felt very small. Maybe having a man in my room was not a good idea, even if that man was as safe as Hale Tam. “Fin. What do you expect from me?”

I stared at him for a while, then shook my head. “Nothing. Least of all worry.”

He looked disappointed by that, but I could not figure out why. Eventually he wiped all emotion off of his face and became my second again. “What do you expect us crew to do while we are here?”

I shrugged, looking skyward for answers. “I suppose…we can reconnaissance the villagers. I haven’t a doubt that if they have a port, they have work. Mal and Zoe most likely know of a few middlemen in the area who have goods or cargo to move. I hate the thought of you all sittin’ duck just because I’m hurt.”

“We are in no immediate need. The crew could probably use the break. But if any jobs come up, I’ll run it by you.”

I sat there, unimpressed. Everyone knew that they were most likely not going to get any coin for a while. They couldn’t very well take my ship without me on it. Besides, if you thought about it, this was all their fault. If anyone stood up for me, we could still be in the sky.

Hale shakily took my hand and flipped it over palm facing up. He ran his index finger gently along the calluses and ridges. “Being here could possibly warm you up to the idea of another lifestyle.”

I chuckled humorlessly.

“Think about it,” he persisted. “Staying put. Having an actual home. Hiring someone to take over the work of Chunjing, someone you trusted. And we could just…take it all in a different direction.”

I looked at him quickly, almost snapping my neck in the process. “We?” I repeated like a parrot.

“It is not like I’d leave you on your own.”

He tried to seem innocent about it. But my instinct was telling me what he was thinking.

“A place like this?” I started out serious. I leaned toward him, bring my lips close to his.

He smiled a little. “If you’d like.”

“Roomy? Nice little pond feature in the back? Lines to hang laundry, and a front porch to sip tea on? And, of course, lots of space for the kids to run around in.” I gave in and scoffed with the last sentence.

Apparently, my teasing was not appreciated in the slightest. Hale’s face darkened and he dropped my hand briskly. “You do not have to make fun of me for thinking about a simpler life.”

“Yes I do,” I insisted. “Hale, I will never be that girl. Children are sticky. Tea makes me gag, unless Inara makes it. And staying put would be hell for me. I’m a captain, I sail the skies with honor. I kill reavers for a living. That is who I am. It is who I‘m gonna be for the rest of my life.”

He stood up as if I had burned him. “Do you plan to die a captain?” His voice was hot. “Is it so hard to imagine a life without injuries and hardships? Is the thought of a life with me so repugnant to you that you cannot even consider it?”

I tried to soften, but failed. This was irritating. “Look. Everyone knows what kind of a life you could have if you were not on my ship. You could be in a huge manor by now, having a fortune of your own, with a pert little peach of a wife just aching to pop out your legacy. Your father would prefer it. Hell, your mother might as well. But you are not going to live out that fantasy with me. So get it out of your head right now.”

Hale knew that he would get this response from me, but he still seemed disheartened by it. He shook his head. “Then why? Why all the nights spent sleeping in each others arms? Why all the heated passion? What is all of that to you?”

I could not answer his question. I looked away, trying to think of a reason.

“Do you want to live like Inara and Mal?” He finalized. “Away from one another until the separation makes us ill? Then a week or two in each others arms before one of us leaves again? Even they are not satisfied with their relationship. How are we supposed to be?”

“We are far from separating ourselves,” I felt the need to point out.

“Not physically, maybe,” Hale huffed. “But emotionally. A day or two of accord, then weeks denying ourselves. Aren’t you tired of it?”

“No one is forcing you to stay in my bed,” I reminded him. “It is not like I put a knife to your back.”

“No.” Hale crossed his arms over his broad chest. “I go to you. Every time. Hoping that this time, it will be different. And it never is.”

I frowned at him as if I had an unpleasant taste in my mouth. “Hale. What do you expect of me?” I emphasized his earlier words. “I have never led you on. I have always been this way, since we were young. You know better than anyone else who I am and why such a life would be murder for me.”

The two of us stared, combatable at one another. Me, defiant. Him, frustrated. Thus was the story of our lives. We constantly stood at this crossroad. No matter how we pulled away from it and pretended it was not there, ultimately we came to it time after time. The inevitable question. Would I ever marry him? Would we be happy together? Would we gain more than what we already had? Hale wanted it. I was not so sure that I did.

“It makes sense,” he said at last. “Your father died living this life. You might as well also.”

With those harsh words, he turned on his heel away from me.

My heart roared. Something in me broke. And, injured leg and all, I stumbled up from the bed and made it to the door before he could. I fell into the wooden frame, my back heavy against it, and it slammed loudly.

Even as worry momentarily etched over Hale’s face, he remained impassive.

“Hale Tam…” I growled slowly. “You out of everyone this side of the ‘verse knows better. Mention my father, and you might as well start your search for false teeth.”

“You’d never knock my teeth out.”

“Try me.”

It is true that the people who know you the best can hurt you the worst. They knew your weaknesses, the point in your defenses that fell short. They could cut you down with a simple word, and if you weren’t careful that hurt would never heal.

Hale and I are as good of friends as we are able to hurt one another. But never, until this moment, had he ever taken advantage of that.

We stared at one another for countless moments. I could feel my weakened leg trying to give out beneath me, but I stayed put. The fury raging throughout my body was enough to fuel my muscles. For the meantime, anyhow. I could feel all of my future wrinkles settling in where my frown refused to be moved. My breath was still hard and labored from my anger.

“Maybe I shouldn’t have said that.” Hale had the good sense to look slightly afraid of my crazed look.

“It has obviously been on your mind.” I reared up slightly, trying to gain the strength to punch him.

“Fin. Old grudges go no where. You’ll never be able to kill the exact ship that took Wash’s life. How can you even rationalize your motivation behind killing reavers?”

I felt beads of sweat starting to pool down my neck and into my cleavage. Maybe I did need to be on the mend, if being angry sapped away whatever energy I had left.

“I would expect anyone else to say that to me. Anyone. But not you.” My voice sounded far away to my own ears. I sagged a little more against the door and closed my eyes for a moment, then opened them again as the hurt continued to radiate throughout my frame. “Yes, my livelihood may have something to do with not knowing Wash. But. It could be a lot worse.”

“How much worse can it get? We follow the equivalent of space zombies throughout the whole damn ‘verse!”

“If you no longer get why we do this, if you do not agree with it, then leave!” I shouted. “Just leave. No one is asking you to stay.”

“Not even you?” Hale’s brow rose, his eyes taking in my drained state. “What would you possibly do without me?”

I did not know. But I did not want to give in to him. “There are plenty of people I could find to be my second.”

“Who will eagerly risk their lives for you? You’ve never known a loyalty like mine, Fin. And you never will. Admit it.

The hell I would. I snarled at him.

He took a step closer, invading my space. He lifted me up from under my arms and suddenly we were nose to nose. My feet were barely touching the floor. I did not have the energy to gasp, so I closed my eyes instead.

“You cannot even stand without me.”

This had all of the warning signs of a kiss. His lips were in the vicinity of mine, his arms were crushing me close, and when I opened my eyes I saw the riddled lust in his. But I was still angry at him. So when he moved in for the kill, I head butted him.

The result was him stumbling back and loosening his hold, and me falling to my knees before him. When the pain from my thigh resounded with the thud of the floor, I hollered in agony.

“Yeah, I hope that hurt.” Hale’s voice was muffled as he gingerly touched his nose. I one leg crawled into a seated position, as best I could, and then held my own brow.

I stared up at him, my eyes filled with threat. “Do not ever talk about my father that way again.”

Hale softened. With one last tweak of his reddened nose, he bent down and picked me up into his arms. He then sat me down onto the edge of the bed and resumed his earlier tactic of keeping his distance.

“Okay. I wont.” He replied curtly.

“Say that you are sorry.” I insisted.

“I am sorry.”

He was my obedient second once more. But the cordiality he was trying to go for was lost to me. I was in too much pain. Not just from my leg, but from the bloody hole his harsh words had shot into my chest.

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Gordon

The opportunity for a pilot of a ship to become stupid drunk is not something that presents itself often. So I had decided, in lieu of Fin’s being out of commission, that I had better take advantage of it.

The pub I was seated in was clean, if nothing else. The rowdy townspeople who had gotten a head start on me in drink were playing overly loud music and slurring more than singing. The bar mistresses had loosened their robes in order to entice the customers. The drinks passed around were as stale as the scenery. But the liquor was strong and the corner I sulked in unoccupied, and that was all I required.

The nightmares had started again. Damned, hellish things. One thing was for sure, at the very least the “grog” before me could deaden my mind long enough for a peaceful nights sleep. But the fact remained that my demons had returned. And all from a simple interrogation by my captain.

Sure, Fin had not fully intended on ruining all of the progress I had made over the years. In fact, no one knew of my nightly torments so far. And if it were up to me, it would remain that way. However. I was not grateful to the girl’s natural curiosity.

The fact that I could never piece together the dreams in order to sort out my forgotten past did not help at all. Nothing is worse than fighting a battle with a shadowed enemy. An enemy that was far stronger than you’d ever be. An enemy with answers to all my questions.

I looked up when the chair across from me scrapped the floor loudly. My gaze met that of Hale, who was looking as beat as I was. He had a fresh pitcher of ale, from the looks of it a sour disposition, and he plopped heavily into the seat with unceremonious abandon.

I lifted my glass, drained it, then handed it in his direction. He took the silent command and refilled it to the brim.

“Rough night?” I asked.

Hale grunted in agreement. I understood the sentiment entirely.

I noticed the bags underneath the second’s eyes. He was weary of this place already. As was I. Though she did not know it, Affinity was not the only one who did not want to be forced planet side. If we had been able to evade Zoe Washburne and her indomitable captain, I knew for a fact that we would be in the air while Fin had her recovery time. But even with that underlying outlook, it really was best for our captain to be in the care of those who knew about such gruesome wounds.

My eyes flitted over to a busy Sebastian. He was so out of place here, what with his bejeweled attire and mawkish, pretty boy companion looks. However the ladies in attendance had a different opinion of the moneyed individual. One thing that could not be denied was his uncanny ability to adjust to whatever situation he was tossed into. The boy had grit somewhere in the softness of him.

“How is Fin settling?” I found myself asking Hale.

“As well as she can, what with this being completely out of her hands.” Hale took a long swill of his glass, then looked back at me. “We’re to scope out the village for whatever work we can find here.”

I scoffed. “It’s small time. Whatever work Zoe and Mal haven’t already dug up here wouldn’t be worth a trip out of orbit.”

Hale shrugged a shoulder. “She is trying to keep us entertained.”

The ‘with something other than drink’ was entirely implied.

The last two chairs scrapped against the floor, and Hale and I found ourselves staring up at Vanya and Ghost as they sat down.

The two were not similar in the slightest. Vanya still had her leather fade into the night gear on, the clothing of choice molded to her small curves and hugged her lush bosom. While Ghost looked like a page from one of those old middle age story books, her baggy brown pants and white linen shirt hid her feminineness. Though now other than braided, her long dark hair was down curling about her shoulders which further pronounced her wide brown eyes. But that one girly trait was ruined when she slouched down with hunched shoulders in her seat. It put me in mind of a ungainly teenage boy.

“Dis place is uncivilized as jungle,” Vanya spoke up in her thick accent. She curled her upper lip and eyed the villagers as if they were vermin.

“Down girl,” Hale patronized her. “Its just another small village. Not our first, not our last. You can always bathe yourself later.”

Her eyes flashed at him, and I blinked at the action. Vanya usually shows no hint of emotion to anyone. Yet lately, whenever Hale spoke to her he managed to produce a flinch. I wondered on that.

“This town may be simpler than many of the other’s you’ve graced,” Ghost defended in her feather soft voice. “But it is no less worthy.”

“Forgive her,” I told the newcomer. “Vanya is used to the finer things in life. As is Hale. We’re in the presence of the spoiled and the rich.”

Ghost smiled. The mirth put a rosy hue to the pale of her cheek. “I’m not unfamiliar with the type.”

If she was referring to either herself or one of her crew, she did not specify. Instead she changed the subject entirely.

“So. You all truly hunt reavers?”

We nodded in unison, proud of our livelihood as always.

“How is it that you have avoided getting committed?” Her large eyes really were enticing, in a strange innocent way.

Vanya sneered at her. “Is dirty job. True. However, would you rather have ‘dem multiply in the sky to their leisure?”

Ghost proceeded to ask every question known to man about reavers and their habits, and we happily obliged. The more we could inform others on the dangers of reavers, the more the public knows about how to defend themselves against an attack. Not to mention, it gets our name out there. If anyone reported a vessel circling too close for comfort, our crew would eradicate the threat before it became too serious.

The drinks flowed freely. As did the talk. I found myself not minding the company as much as I would expect. The ladies Hale and I drank with were full of chatter, and I found myself enjoying their banter. Being social with others outside of our ship was rather nice. And being that I only left our ship once in a blue moon, I thought I was due for the joyous activity.

Soon, however, I was weary of their company. I’m really a solitary creature by nature. And honestly, there was only so much laughter I could take. I knew what darkness I was returning myself to, but at least the nights of waking up in a cold sweat was familiar next to this. It sounds pathetic, I know, but I am still on a voyage of discovering for myself what my internal issues are. The issue of not being comfortable around happy drunk people would just have to wait.

I slunk out of the bar and avoided the rowdy group just coming in. The moon hung heavy in the damp air, looking about as inebriated as I was. The scenery was dead besides that. Dirt paths, dusty old buildings, paved earth. There was no vitality to this place. Take the people away, and it was a ghost town. Even with the people, I was finding it hard to find any signs of life.

Commonly, I was used to the bigger and the better. Maybe not as big time as Hale or Vanya, but definitely the style. My ancestors started off as indentured servants on Paquin. They didn’t make a fortune for themselves there, but they damn sure did shift into the high life with ease. Mostly swindlers, the sort you usually find on Paquin. But their perseverance paid off in the long run.

Stumbling only a few times, I made it to Chunjing safely. Like a few other crew members, I preferred to take my rest in my usual bunk. No sense in teasing myself with the luxury of a local hotel or bath house. I was sky folk. Sky folk stayed where they belonged.

I went to the helm, as if I had any intention of flying, and plopped down heavily in the pilot chair. I put my feet up and leaned my head back, feeling the drink overtake my senses. Usually when I had pushed myself passed this point, the dreams would evade me. Was it too much to hope for one night’s sleep? The mysteries of my faded past have taken over my life. If it weren’t for Fin and her crew, I don’t know where I would be. But as it was I did not have much going on for me currently. All I do is fly Chunjing. I do not have a lady to divert my frustrations to. Or a hobby. Or some pet ferret that I keep in my jacket pocket. I felt very little substance to what it was I did. Every time we escaped a port I had no anticipation for the next place we would run to. It wasn’t like I had more to look forward to, nothing more than flying once more. I had no family chasing me across the ‘verse. The only friends I knew were on board this ship. If there were anything interesting about me at all it was all in the gray area’s of my brain and even I was a stranger to them.

Perhaps I should take more pride in what I do. I fly the best ship in the sky. Chunjing was a favorite at most ports, the ports where we haven’t angered all the locals anyhow. We did fine where coin was considered. Perhaps we weren’t rolling in it, but we weren’t hurting either. And my fellow crew members were easy enough to get along with the majority of the time. We went through so much together, we had to be some what close.

All of that was fine and well. But nobody knew who I was here, least of all me. Fin deserved a pilot who wasn’t a shadow of a man. The crew deserved someone who could pull their weight equally.

There was a familiar hum to the flight deck that kept me sane. Being in a crowd sometimes made me just wish to disappear. But here, I knew my worth. Here I had a purpose. Breathing wasn’t enough. I meant something here. I took in the cozy beeps and whistles, the lull of the air moving throughout the vents. The controls armed and ready for anything I willed, eager to create magic. The system and instruments were the closest thing a nobody like me had to call home.

Rubbing my temples, I paused in my perusal of the surroundings and focused on one solitary, steady red light. I knew what that meant, but the drink fogged up my senses and made it harder and harder to concentrate. I squinted until the labeling became clear to my blurry sight. Raising my hand, I pressed the button, and a previously recorded wave came over the monitor.

“This is a message for Hale Tam.”

An older looking man with a stately figure appeared before my eyes. His dark hair was perfect for someone of his age, no receding hair line and no grey to speak of. The imposing suit he wore screamed “money”. There was a softness to his face, almost as if he had never fully grown up, but that did little to hide the hardness to him. He had brow wrinkles. His no nonsense voice chilled the air around me, and I fought hard to pay attention to his rapid words.

“Hale. It’s dad. I…I need you to contact me as soon as possible. There is a matter of grave importance that I must speak to you about. Something…has happened. I…” he paused in his speech, putting a hand to his head as if the news he bore were a heavy burden. When he returned his eyes to the screen, a sheen of moisture was held there. The pleading in his eyes was unmistakable, however his voice ceased to waver again. “You need to get back to me at once, Hale.” His gaze went fevered, almost as if his next sentence had him crazed.

“Its your aunt. Your aunt River is missing. She has been gone since last week. I tried to contact the authorities, but I‘m too damned nervous about that. Due to our…standing…I cannot possibly risk it. And being that it has become increasingly difficult for me to contact Malcolm Reynolds, I need you to come back home.”

The moisture in his eyes was proceeding to pour over his lids, but he ignored it with the urgency of his command. “I need you to come back home today, Hale. I cannot waste any more time. If you do not return my call, I will be reduced to doing something drastic.”

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

When I next reached consciousness, my tongue was stuck to the roof of my mouth. My eyes felt as if they had been glued shut. I was seated upright, and it took me a moment to realize that I had fallen asleep at the helm. I mentally slapped myself into consciousness, then wished I had not moved. The weight of my head was currently too much for my neck to handle, and I swerved dangerously in my precarious seat. I managed to sit up correctly in the chair and rest my elbows onto my knees, palms to my face, and breathe the impending illness away.

I rubbed my brows until I could feel my skin go tender. This was one downside to drinking. The liquor currently sloshing throughout my system had managed to do its task of the previous evening, that task being keeping any disturbing night terrors away. However, it had left me unable to do something as simple as circle my head and look around the room. I stumbled forward in my seat until my forearms rested on the control panel. I laid my head there for a moment enjoying the coolness of the metal against my hot, sweating skin.

When I awoke again, a horrible droning sound was being emitted from the station before me. It startled me into slipping out of the edge of my chair and hitting the hard ground. I groaned loudly and curled into a ball, fighting away what could be the worst vomiting disaster this side of the ‘verse.

It took me a good five minutes to get off of the floor again, and by the time I regained my seat the blaring had stopped. I forcefully wiped the sleep from my eyes and blinked rapidly, regaining the brunt of my visual ability. Once I was satisfied, I turned to the controls. The busy red light of the wave recorder flashed rapidly, telling me that there was a storage of messages waiting to be listened to. I was not sure what shape I was in to listen to them, so I stood up and decided to put them off until later. My mind was far too cluttered to focus on anything right now.

Once I stood, I was hit with an overwhelming urge. Did I have something that I had to do? Something to tell someone? I stood there, narrowly avoiding another fall to the floor, and pondered this for a moment. I looked at the panel, then shrugged. What could I possibly have to do? Not only were we stuck here planet side, but I was still lumbering with drink. No one would entrust me with anything right now. So, ignoring the signals going off in my head, I turned and left the room. I was in bad need of a toilet and then a shower. And in that order.

Once I was freshened up, my head cleared. The whites of my eyes were still red, and my empty stomach still filled with alcohol, but these were all liabilities to be dealt with in a silent, brooding manner. So I proceeded to do just that, clenching my jaw for extra determination. I trekked out of my bunk and did a quick survey of the ship, finding no one around except for Shad.

Shad was filthy. His hands were covered in grime, and it had migrated all over his clothing. The only time he does not mind being in such a state is when he had a new toy. And in this case, he was playing with a grenade launcher.

“That…looks…safe…” Each of my words were slow, not only from my voice being used for the first time in twelve hours but also from shock. I do not like weapons very much. They give me quite an uneasy feeling, one that can easily lead to nausea.

“Isn’t she a beaut’?” Shad’s tone was that of awe. He caressed the steel encasing with reverent fingers, as if exploring a lover’s skin for the first time. His eyes were wide with fascination, and a spot of drool hung from the corner of his lips. “I’ll tell you what, they just don’t make them like this anymore. She’s damn near an antique.”

“So, why don’t you try to sell it?” I attempted to make small talk, avoiding the gleam of the weapon. It was almost as if it were blinking at me, staring me down, knowing my every weakness.

Shad reacted like I told him to punch his grandmother. “Sell it? You cannot be serious!” He hugged the launcher close, as if someone were trying to part them. “Never! Have you ever seen one of these operate? It‘s like poetry.”

“Well, I’ll just leave you to the prose.” I skirted around Shad and his legion of weaponry, making for the exit. “If you blow up Finy’s ship, she’s going to have you mounted on a wall somewhere.”

Shad didn’t seem to hear me. He was muttering something about how he could never sell his baby, come hell or high water, and that I was an outright cad for even suggesting such in his presence. When I heard the undisguised sound of kisses, I decided that my plan to leave the two alone was more than just. So I evacuated the ship at the best pace I could manage.

The sun was blaring at a high elevation, and I had to squint my already slumberous eyes even more. Shading my gaze, I walked along the paths of the village, simply taking in the sights. I recognized no one from last night, not a soul, and something about that made me smile. That could only mean that I had not gotten into any trouble, and if that was not something to celebrate then I was not sure what to be happy about.

I later decided that perhaps, I had celebrated far too early.

The dust from the roads were getting to me. I sneezed more than once, which caused my pounding head to ring even more. My movements were not as graceful as I would have liked. I was in desperate need of a good, hearty meal and a tall drink of water. Then later tonight I would probably repeat the process. It is not often that I get to drink my problems away. Usually I’m flying, which completely prevents my habit.

I was thinking of the merits and flaws of my so called remedy when I heard the undertone of angry voices. Of course, anyone who hears such ill contained ire will stop and eavesdrop a little. And that is what I did.

“How long do you plan on trying to evade us? Just because you’re part of that Reynolds crew does not mean you can take advantage of our small operation. We’ve sheltered you from our retributions long enough, little missy. The time has come for you to pay the price.”

“I just need a little more time. Please. You cannot mean to hurt me.”

I recognized that voice. But my memory could not produce a face to go with that small, frightened clue. I moved in closer, finding myself walking to the corner of a shady building. On the side lay a small alleyway, and I peeked around to find none other than Ghost standing before two intimidating looking figures. They were both tall, and rank from the looks of it, but their stiffness was what caught my eye. These were two men bent on hurting someone. And that hurt was directed at Mal’s little engineer.

“We’ve given you plenty of time, missy. Your debt has landed you in more than a spot of trouble. Maybe if you had a tighter hand over the cards, you would not be in this predicament.” The thug who spoke to her had her by the upper arm, his strength not hidden in the least. “Too bad you aren’t in touch with those wiles most women have. You might have been able to persuade us to give you a weeks more time.” He tsked, and his partner chuckled deep in his throat. “More’s the pity. Even if you did wet our whistles, our boss is itching to tie you up by the haunches. Teach you a lesson about tapping out.”

Ghost was giving a mighty effort in not being afraid, but her body was wracking with shivers. Her big eyes were widened to their limit, and she could tell her options were few. Running would get her no where. Even entertaining the two dogs in the sack would not help. She was stuck at an impasse.

I couldn’t leave her like that. I wanted to, dear God how I wanted to. Because I knew exactly how this was going to end up. However, I found myself walking over before I could weigh the pros and cons of my actions. The closer I got to the fray, the harder my heart resounded.

“Excuse me.” My tone was cool and even, as if I were completely under control. Inside, my body was already planning to torture me for my intrusion.

Both men shot their hot glances my way. The thug holding Ghost tugged her closer. “What’s this?” He snarled. Obviously he was not used to someone walking up on him in the middle of a job.

I could feel my body surging with energy, my muscles tightening, my resolve firming. “I am sure that whatever Ghost has done, it cannot be so bad that two men should throttle her. In public, no less.” I held my hands out calmly. “Please, gentlemen.”

Neither one knew quite what to make of me, which was usually the case when I did something like this. The lull of my voice would damn near hypnotize some into unwittingly walking away. But not these two. These two were brimming with testosterone and hostility.

“Gordon,” Ghost’s voice cracked before she could cover her fear. “I am fine. Please, leave us. We’re in the middle of…a debate.”

“One where you are being shaken around like a thief.” I rose a brow.

“She IS a thief.” The lead blunder head spoke up again. “Our little miss here has a gambling problem. Not the only one in town, but we’ve got to make an example out of her. If I was you,” his gaze went hotter. “I would walk away. Now.”

He turned his attention back to Ghost, as if he knew for a fact that I would just up and walk away. Instead, I moved in closer, my movements fluid, the drink momentarily leaving my system as if I were as sober as a judge.

“I am going to ask once more, politely,” I said, stopping a foot away from them. “Please. Gents. Let the lady go. And we can discuss in a civilized manner how she can end this feud.”

“The time for talk is done.” The leader jerked his head in my direction, commanding his partner to get rid of me. “You are done.”

I found myself in a situation that I detested: braced for the first swing of my enemy. I forced myself not to think about it. Instead, my mind went blank and my senses heightened, and when the first blow came I dodged it easily, my reflexes smooth and collected. The goon was all muscle, nothing more. I was much quicker, and thus much better prepared. He rose his fist to swing again, and I turned to catch him in the midsection before he could dole out another punch.

Doubling over, he made the rest quite easy. As he bent at the waist, I brought my conjoined fists to the back of his neck, effectively knocking him unconscious. That was easy. It always was easy for me to pummel someone.

The leader barely had time to blink before he saw his partner on the ground, limp. He made an odd roaring sound, almost like an injured boar. Throwing a forgotten Ghost to the ground, he charged at me, completely prepared to tackle me to the ground.

I kicked up a nearby wall and evaded his attack. When he crashed into the structure, it rumbled as if it would fall to the ground from the force of his impact. I grasped the back of his neck, then slammed his head against the wall once more. There was a sickening cracking sound, like an egg shell being broken, and the thug roared again.

I backed away a pace, even though I could have ended the fight there. Adrenaline fueled my body, and I bounced in place, awaiting his next move. The thug held his head, blood covering his face. He turned toward me, murder in his stature.

“You just signed your death warrant.”

I had heard the words before. I would hear them again.

He straightened to his full height, then headed toward me again. He blocked the first quick jabs I was able to make at him, then threw in more than a few of his own. I was too fast for him, his frustration made him sloppy.

Soon I grew bored with the play and kneed him in the side. He started to topple over, and I round house kicked him the rest of the way to the ground. His fall was a hard one, but not enough to leave him unconscious. No, a quick chop to the neck ended him quickly, and I stood up to take in my work.

Both men were out like the dead, so I turned to Ghost.

She was still on the ground, awestruck. The corner of her mouth was swollen from what I could only assume was a slap, and her lower lip was fattened. She stared at me as if I were a creature, not a man, and scooted upright to sit evenly.

“Where did that come from?” she asked.

My breath was not even labored. “I do not know.” I said.

“Are you a killer?”

“I think I might have been. Once.”

I was surprised that the sick had not taken me over yet. I could feel it starting, the swirling beginning in my stomach, but for the moment I held it back. I walked over to the girl and hoisted her to her feet. She took a moment to regain her balance, and I waited as patiently as I could. Ghost hung on my arm like a heroine in one of those old picture flicks. But in this scene, the heroine must have been disguised as a man. It was a bad disguise, though. At least she had that going for her.

“You have a gambling problem.” I stated matter of factly. I could already hear my voice going far away. The sickness would soon take over me.

Ghost shrugged a shoulder. “It was how I originally got by in life. I needed the coin to eat, and I’m usually very adequate at it. Adequate enough to stay alive, anyhow. But everyone has a bad luck of the draw from time to time.”

“Bad enough to have bad men after you.” I stated.

Ghost blushed a little. It was sort of endearing. “Old habits die hard.”

“Well, this habit is likely to get you killed.” I could not even put bass in my voice any longer. I hung my head down, then ended up sinking to my knees.

“Are you okay?” Ghost was suddenly kneeling by my side, trying to keep me upright. “Did he get a hit on you? It didn’t look like he did, but everything was going so fast…”

“Get someone…” The words were strangled in my throat. The bile rose viciously. There was no stopping it.

Ghost did not have to be told twice. She got to her feet as soon as the vomiting started. “I’ll be back! I promise!” she rushed away, leaving me to my hell.

That was when the visions started. The dark, evil images playing in my mind. Women being gored open. People being tossed out of ships into the vast nothing of space. Heads on spikes. Gas filled chambers. Rape and bombings and other mayhem. This was the price I paid every time I exerted my skills in unarmed combat. This was what clouded my dreams and overtook my existence.

I heaved and heaved until my stomach was dry, and then I heaved some more. I crawled as best I could away from the mess I had made, my face pressed to the ground in my loss of energy. I tried not to scream as the visions plagued me.

Skin ripped. Teeth broken. Bones protruding from the body. Blood, everywhere. I was covered in it, drowning in it. And then a man, someone I cannot really see, telling me to take the gun and shoot the child between the eyes. To make sure that it is dead. To make sure that it doesn’t get up from the crib.

And then the child dying before it could see another summer.

“Good dog,” he praised, touching the collar around my neck. “You’ve done well. We can elevate you to the next program.”

My eyes are blank as he says this. I hear him, but I am not there.

I blacked out, but not long enough for the visions to stop completely. I ended up shouting my anguish, wishing I could just die there. What did I have to live for? At least death would stop this repeat of horror. At least death would be silent.

Luckily, I was forced into unconsciousness yet again. When I woke, it seemed like no time had passed whatsoever. Voices were speaking over me. I couldn’t see anyone at first, and then I realized that I was still in the alleyway, mere feet away from the earlier destruction.

I groaned and a hand held me still. “Do not try to get up.”

Hale. I did not realize that I had been trying to stand. It was as if my body operated without my need, my functions continuing but my soul elsewhere.

“Dammit, Case…” Hale muttered, bringing a spout to my mouth. “Here, drink this.”

I did not fight him. Like I could. And somehow I swallowed the thick substance without choking on it.

“I was hoping for a peaceful stay here.” Hale continued to admonish. “I’m sure these kuh wu degenerates deserved whatever beating you had to give them, but at the cost of your health?”

“Ghost…” I forced out.

“Is fine. Thanks to you.”

I knew that. But Ghost was my excuse for why I was laying on the ground like a useless sack of meat.

Then something hit me. A niggling. The same niggling from earlier. I frowned up at the second-in-command, words falling out of my mouth before I could place them properly.

“Missing. She’s missing. And you have to go back home now.”

“What?” Hale asked abruptly.

“River…is…gone.”

The words were the last thing I could remember saying before everything went blessedly black.
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