Havald’s Choice

With an unceremonious yelp Havald felt every one of the twenty-four stone steps of the Eastmarch barrow. Every single one as he crashed down to the mud and snow at the bottom.

“Augh! You — you rot-gutted horker!” he shouted as he drug himself up to his feet. “You can’t just kick me out!”

From atop the stairs the furious Dunmer spat down at him, her fists raw from their fight in the entrance. “Fetcher!” Risala seethed. “I will kick you out, and by Azura I will kill you if I see either of you in any one of these tunnels!”

A tittering laugh spilled out from the trees as the little Nord woman called ‘Vix’ strolled into sight. Her band of ne’er-do-wells weren’t far behind. “Look! At! This! My good country knight, I told you,” Vix practically sang. She sidled up to Havald and snaked an arm around his waist. “I told you she would turn on us soon enough.”

Havald fixed Risala with a defiant glare and slung an arm over Vix’s shoulders. “You can’t keep us all out.”

Risala held out her hands in an open invitation for them to try. 

He could feel Vix’s giggle from how she pressed against him. He’d known Risala for years, but Vix had shown him the truth. The Dunmer was weak. She was holding them back. She was holding him back.

With a casual flit of her hand Vix motioned for two of her brigands to go up and take care of the dark elf. Havald… almost felt bad about it. They had been together once, and now to see her die like this. It really was a pity —

His train of thought was interrupted when the fight erupted atop the steps, and ended just as quickly. Both men crumbled on the steps, lifeless, one of their axes in Risala’s hands. “You get this one chance to leave.”

Kyne’s arse, she was serious. Vix, though? She did not seem one bit surprised. “Oh, my! You really killed them! First you attack your best friend, and now you kill my men? Your little Undaunted are losing their edge if you’re now their guard dog.”

The bitter glare Risala leveled down at them was the first time Havald felt unsure about his choice. There was hurt in that look. And hate. And disappointment.

“By all means, I will kill more. Every one of your bastards until their number double the lives you took.”

Havaled glanced down to Vix, the motion making his bruised and bloodied head spin. He knew better than to question her, but…. “You said Reachmen killed the party.”

The smile Vix gave him was intoxicating, and left a hollow pit in his gut. “My sweet knight, have I ever lied to you?”

Havald shot a snide ‘you heard her’ look up to Risala. He stopped. Those piercing blue eyes held only contempt. All the punches, and kicks and every one of those twenty-four stone steps dulled in comparison to the sudden pain of seeing himself dead in her eyes.

“Decide where you want to die, Vix,” Risala called down. “Up here, or down there?”

Vix stilled against his side. A long, thoughtful pause was made before she squeezed at his waist and motioned for her men to fall back. “I’ll take a third option. We’ll give you this delve, and catch up over drinks another day.”

A look was exchanged between the women that he didn’t quite understand, but then he felt his body turning away, moving in step with Vix. A hand fondly tucked her hair behind her ear as they walked. This was what he wanted. Of course it was, wasn’t it? Havald had everything he wanted, and then cast one more look to the lone Dunmer guarding the entry to the tomb.

Unexpected

“Well, well, well.”

The slow, far too satisfied voice that echoed quietly across from the entrance to the burial chamber was all too familiar. Mouth full of several different lock picks, Risala sighed and rolled her eyes to the heavens before focusing back on her work.

“Either you’ve upgraded to robbing better tombs, or you’ve grown more ambitious,” the man commented as he approached at a leisurely stroll. “Either way, this is a pleasant surprise.”

A smug smile on her face as the first lock on the great chest clicked, Risala took the picks from her mouth and licked her lips as she shifted to kneel more directly before the second lock. “‘Robbing’ is such a dirty word. And, yes. You were expecting someone else?”

“I was, that.”

Risala chuffed a rich laugh as she stuck a pick back between her teeth. “You thought Vix was going to be here, didn’t you, Havald?”

Havald’s steps hesitated, and Risala could feel him scowling at her back. “How do you know about Vix?”

Still laughing quietly, Risala jimmied with the lock for a moment before a second satisfying click could be heard. “She and I met up a few days ago. Switched our targets.” She then looked over her shoulder with a devilish smile. “Vix didn’t mention you, though.”

Flustered, Havald tried to shrug off his disappointment as he pretended to dust his gloves off. “That sounds like her.” She could feel him watching her again before he went back to surveying the various corners of the room littered with bones. “Been a long time since you and I’ve crossed paths.”

Risala scrunched up her nose as she focused on struggling with the third lock. Her luck with locks had always been touch and go. “Has it?”

“Hmmm…” he rumbled, meandering closer to watch her work. “And, if memory serves, I was the one picking locks, then.”

“It was gracious of you go open that chest for me,” Risala hummed.

Havald scoffed a short breath as he crossed his arms over his chest. “Just no leaving me behind next time, eh? Took me a fair bit to get down from that trap of yours.”

The final lock clicked free, and Risala rocked back to stand, taking her time in putting her picks away. “It’s called character building.”

“It’s called you’re a dick.”

Risala smirked unashamedly at him as she walked to one end of the stone chest. “Then you’ll be happy to hear that I’ve turned a new leaf.”

Havald smirked back at her. “Would it work if I said you’re not a book, but a fine wine?”

“If you were someone else, Havald, then maybe. But you’ll have to slake your thirst somewhere else,” she replied. “I’m sure Vix is having leagues of fun over in the delve she’s rummaging through. But since you’re here, mind pretending to be a nice guy for a minute and giving me a hand with this lid?”

“You’re asking the greatest adventurer and swordsman in all of Morrowind for help with a lid?” 

Risala fixed him with a cheeky smirk. “No. I’m asking you.”

The man blinked several times before sputtering a chuckle and rubbing his hands together. “A ‘nice guy’ can’t say no to that. Ready?” he asked as he found a decent hold on the edge.

Nodding, Risala wiggled her fingers under the lip to get a good grasp and braced her feet. “Ready… lift!”

In unison the two hefted the stone top off of the chest, and turned it over to lie on the ground to one side. Then rising up, they cautiously peered into the container.

“Hey! Maybe Vix passing me off to you was a lucky break!” Havald declared as he surveyed the riches covering the bottom of the chest. “You’re not gonna break my nose if I take the wrong thing, are you?”

Risala chuckled, glancing around cautiously as she put on an casual air when surveying the glittering contents of the chest. “I’m just here for a payday.”

“With you? That could mean any number of things,” Havald snorted. Nonetheless, he pulled an empty sack from a pocket, and began to fill it with gold coins, and bobbles, and trinkets.

She let him start rummaging first. When nothing happened, the Dunmer reached in and began selecting items, apparently at random. The tome she’d came for, an elegant silver collar she would have to have checked before she could wear it, a sealed orb and a fat purse sitting beside it….

“Anyone tell you that you have weird taste in treasure?”

Risala looked up to shoot Havald a wry smile. “The stranger the find, the more potential payout.”

He seemed to chew thoughtfully her words as he stood up. Sack slung over his shoulder, Havald leaned to rest his arm on a ledge. “You know, there’s a nice little place back –”

“Havald, no!” Risala shouted at him as his weight pressed down on the stone. The man jolted upright, but it was too late. A heavy grinding sound echoed out from behind the walls as unseen weights rose. Pale blue lights flickered to live along the walls, and with each one the bones on the floor shuddered and gathered and slowly rose.

“Ris… Ris, you didn’t tell me!” Havald softly accused as the two of them began gravitating back towards the exit.

“I only assumed Morrowind’s greatest adventurer would know better,” she replied through gritted teeth.

Nostrils flaring, the man groped at his hip for the hilt of his sword. “So what now?”

“We run, of course,” came her crisp reply as she slowly cinched her own rucksack shut. They were nearly to the door, but every empty-eyed skull turned towards the pair.

“Run? You run?” Havald asked, not caring to hide his nervousness as the two bumped into the stone door frame and each other. The skeletons shifted in unison, and with unearthly shrieks lunged at the doorway.

Eyes wide, Risala threw out her hand, a sphere of daylight exploded in the space between them and the undead. “Yes! Run!”

Adventurers

I must have dozed off. When I woke up, I was still sitting in the circle of stones, but someone was kind enough to leave a mug of some kind of liquid in the circle with me. How nice of them! I hope it’s mead. I suddenly realized I have a powerful thirst. But why is Plucky still barking at me?!” 

Risala gave the letter a sharp swat with her hand before casting it away to drift down to land with the others on the roughly made table. “Are you a complete s’wit?!”

“For the hundredth time! I’m fine! Plucky got me out of there — awww, yes I was talking to you! Who’s a good boy? Who’s a good boy?” Valinka crooned at the mutt who licked happily at the Nordic woman’s face.

“Can you even count to a hundred?” the Dunmeri woman sighed, looking down her nose at Plucky. Still snuggled up to it’s young friend, the canine never came within a yard or two of her, and Risala couldn’t help the smug smirk that briefly tugged at her lips.

“That’s not important. What’s important is –”

“That you’re taking naps in strange circles? And pouring bird potions on yourself?”

Valinka’s head rolled with her eyes, and with a dramatic sigh she slumped back in her seat. “It’s called improvising?” she chimed sassily. “And you have no room to talk.”

“F’lah, you do not know half of what I’ve gotten myself into,” Risala repled, smoothly occupying a rickety seat as if it were a throne, the whole time never breaking eye contact with the dog.

“I know,” Valinka huffed. “It’s not fair.”

“Survive another year of adventuring and maybe then I’ll write you a letter. What’s not fair is that I happen to come around for business, and my hireling is managing to stay alive purely out of dumb luck.”

Valinka jutted out her bottom lip in an insincere pout. “And here I thought you were here to babysit me.”

Risala’s blue gaze narrowed as her smirk widened at the woman. “You wish. Or are you so successful now that you no longer need a patron?”

“No! No, no, I –” Valinka replied hurriedly, sitting up and clearing her throat. “I appreciate it. You’ve been great about the slow times, too.”

“Anything to stick it to your brothers, eh?” Risala noted with a sly wink.

Valinka scrunched up her nose and spat. “Damned straight. Horkers, the lot of ‘em.”

A rich chuckle spilled from Risala, and she slowly sat up to sift through the papers. “Good lass. Now, who was this you mentioned in your last letter?”

Valinka’s brows rose as she moved the mug of ale she had in one hand to let Plucky lap up a drink. “Eh? Oh! Hah! Yes, the dark elf?”

“Ilton Beran.”

Valinka swatted the table with enthusiasm before snapping her fingers and pointing to Risala. “Him! Yes, I got myself an appointment with that one tomorrow!”

Risala casually pulled out a folded scrap of a letter that had been their last correspondence, carefully filing the information away. If Beran was in town…. “Hmmm. You mentioned he’s a collector?”

“Sure is,” Valinka nodded heartily, lifting her mug to take a drink for herself. “If anyone knows where I might find a good adventure next it would be him!” The young woman then hesitated, and narrowed her eyes at the Dunmer. “Unless you know something…?”

“Young Stoneheaver, if I did, do you think I would tell you?”

Valinka tried to put on a sweet smile and it met her patron’s unmoving smirk. “But we could go on a grand adventure! Something daring, and there could be fire, and cultists to route and — oh! I can get us some mammoths! I told you about the mammoths, right?”

Risala laughed again, and with a flick of her wrist tossed the letter back onto the table. “You did. And my answer is still no. I have other matters to see to. I’m sure this… Brenon –”

“Beran,” Valinka corrected.

“Yes, pardon me, Beran, will steer you right and I will hear all about it.”

“Oh, you’ll be sure to hear about all the dirty details! Weh — Well, not all the details, I mean,” Valinka blushed in spite of her unashamed grin as she scrambled to amend her statement beneath the elf’s gaze. 

Risala’s violet-painted lips curled in a knowing, if not somewhat devious grin, and she rocked forward to rise to her feet. “The life of an adventurer is full of surprises. Stay alive, Stoneheaver.”

Valinka’s eyebrows rose as the dark elf did and she turned in her seat. “Taking off all ready?”

“Adventure waits for no one,” Risala noted practically as she took up her axe from where she’d set it aside. “And I’d appreciate it if you don’t mention me when you meet with Beran.”

“Competition, yeah?” Valinka laughed heartily. “Does this favor include compensation?”

Risala grinned as she sheathed her weapon, noting Plucky had slipped around to seat himself on the other side of Valinka. “You learn fast, I will say that for you.” A small pouch was pulled from a pocket and tossed onto the stack of letters. “With a collector around, we take our opportunities as they come.”

“And a party of Undaunted!” Valinka chimed in, clearly excited at the prospect. “Or so I heard. Headed out west two days ago. Whole lot of them after some delve a Khajiit dug up.”

“Where’d you hear that?” Risala asked lightly, glancing over as she fixed on her warm overcoat. 

“Oh, some loud-mouth Nords at the Inn,” Valinka noted with a dismissive shrug.

Risala’s eyes narrowed, and the fixing of her hood concealed the pleased look that passed over her face. Even better. “Well, don’t believe everything you hear? Good hirelings are hard to come by. And no more sleeping in convenient, mysterious circles, Valinka.”

Valinka gave a wide, ambitious grin, and saluted at the dark elf as the door was pulled open. “No promises!”

Forgotten

jenny_brightmist.180306.0049032

A frightened gasp echoed in the shipping container. Drenched in a cold sweat Jenny shot upright, and clawed at the course blankets tangled around her limbs. Then her stomach heaved. Desperate, she rolled off of her cot and grabbed blindly for the metal bucket before pulling it close, doubling over and retching. She waited for her shaking hands to still, and for her arms to stop trembling, then spat. Her groan evolved into something more akin to a whimper as she shifted over the ridges of the floor, and she fumbled clumsily in the dark for the all-too-real prosthetic that she then plugged in and snapped into the base where her left leg had been.

Dragging herself to her feet, Jenny sniffed, and picked up the bucket. Her nose scrunched against the bitter taste in her mouth, and swiping the back of her hand over her cold nose as she padded to the cracked steel doors that opened out to look over the slums of the orbital city. Seventeen blocks away the city was modern and sleek, with clean streets and laughing customers who came and went from ships and telepads on the planet far below. But here laundry lines slung with dirty clothes hung draped between the wooden shacks and shipping crates piled atop each other. Alleys were littered with trash and filth from who knows who, and the narrow streets weren’t much better.

She used the community spigot just outside her door to wash out the bucket in the predawn light, then slumped to sit on the ledge. Eyes still red from her nightmare, she watched the rising of the first sun through the haze, and the gem-like glow of Nexus.

Jenny felt so tired. Tired of being tired. Tears burned in the corners of her eyes as she stared unblinking past the haze of Hei Xing’s skyline. She wanted to go back to sleep, but she feared that she would close her eyes and see them. That she’d smell and feel the Grund, and Krogg, Oghra, and Seth…. She wanted to shower. To burn her clothes and peel away her skin in the hopes that the memories and the guilt would go with it.

It was always the the same dream that woke her, the same memories of a living nightmare she couldn’t shake even when she was two joints deep and locked in her hovel pretending to feel safe. Lifting a hand she felt along the metal slave collar secured around her neck, and then the still tender burn on her skin beneath from her most recent attempt to pick the single tiny manual key hole to remove it. Diaego had put a block over the tracking device in the collar to keep the Marauders from finding her. And in half a year, when she wasn’t worth the effort of being remembered, he would take the collar off. He’d promised. She had to believe that the Ekose would keep his word, if not simply for her own desperate need to hope. While indentured servitude to that slime ball was hardly a step up in the world, it was still something. She’d take anything, really.

Hey!” shouted the gravelly voice of the Ekose from the filthy street three stacked containers below hers. “Blackstar! Get your ass up! We got ourselves a full day o’ work!”

Jenny grit her teeth and hurled the bucket down at the middle-aged thief of a mechanic. “I swear by Fazaar, Diaego, I’ll rip yer throat out if ya call me that again!” she spat down at the Ekose.

“I got six more months of callin’ you whatever I damned please. Get your skinny limbs in your gear, Blackstar. Ya got ten minutes t’ be at the shop.”

She was gonna kill him. Jenny hated her name. Hated that ‘Blackstar’ clung to her even now, like a leech drawing even more out of her life when she thought there was nothing left that he could take from her. No one called her Jenny. No one called her Brightmist. That person had died four years ago in Malgrave.

Struggling to her feet, she turned into the shelter she called home, shoved a rations bar into her mouth, and began to get ready. The Void light had gone out hours before, making the cramped space feel colder. She touched the bottom of the dangling chain to set a fresh light. The soft golden glow illuminated her features, and Jenny liked to pretend that it felt warm. It helped her ignore the fact that she was alone.

Fitting into her shorts that were beginning to get loose, then a worn, roomy t-shirt she’d stolen several months back, Jenny pulled her work coveralls on over the top before looking to her reflection in the cracked sliver of a mirror. She hardly recognized herself, though to be honest she hadn’t for a long time. She was thin, and looked as fragile as she felt. Painting on her makeup she tried to ignore the chopped off, brunette hair that brushed around her ears. A few more weeks and she would change how she styled it and dye it again. Maybe turn in enough scrap so she could splurge on a fancy color. Something bold to distract from the blue eyes of someone who had just about given up. Glaring back at her reflection, Jenny started when she heard the Ekose calling again.

“Hellen! Two minutes!”

“Slag! I’m comin’! I’m comin’!” Snatching up her boots, she ran barefoot out of the container to scale down the others filled with vagrants who were too exhausted or too drunk to wake up. Six more months and she could begin again. Somewhere. She could make something of herself that she might be proud of…. If she lived that long. Maybe… maybe it was better to die forgotten than live a coward. Stars, any other life had to be better than this.

Miss Gypsum

KA-thunk

KA-thunk

KA-thunk

“By KEMOS, will you cease bouncing that ball against my wall?” demanded Morovichi, darkening the doorway of his bedroom to glare at the Granok flopped pathetically on the couch.

Jet Hellmatite froze for several seconds, then his hand holding the bouncy ball the size of an Aurin’s head slowly drew back.

Morovichi’s glowing orange eyes narrowed in warning. He looked tired. Well, more than usual, especially for being dead. “I wouldn’t.”

Jet hesitated again, and then the ball was sailing across the living room, aimed for the wall.

Long claws appeared out from the cuffs on Morovichi’s wrists. In a flash and without moving from where he stood, the rubber ball was fell to the floor in slices.

“Moooor!” the granok groaned, pouting. “She’s so pretty. What do I do?”

“Have you called her?”

“No one calls, ya bucket of chalk.”

“I will have you know that some people find chalk fascinating.”

Jet heaved himself up to look to his datachron resting on the coffee table.

“Stop being an infant.”

“What if she doesn’t reply?”

Morovichi retracted his Stalker blades and leaned back against the wall. “How many beers have you had?”

“That’s arel…”

Irrelevant?”

Jet snapped his fingers and pointed to Morovichi.

“You will not get past this until you contact her.”

“Man, it’s been months since I’ve been on a date. I don’t even know what the lady likes!”

“Ask Miss Brightmist,” Morovichi replied simply, arms crossing over his chest.

Jet stared dumbly at the Mordesh for a moment before his rugged features split into a wide grin. “Yeah. Yeah! I’ll do that!” He turned immediately to scoop up the steel reinforced datachron to tap at the screen.

Jenny was quick to respond, and Jet lit up at the human’s reply. “Sheee… Likes fancy shit.”

“Good. Text her.”

“Now?!”

Morovichi lifted a hand to cover his face with his palm. “Yes,” he sighed. “Far too many beers. Your habits are appalling…. Are you still going to Thayd this weekend?”

Jet nodded, looking confused for a second before his pale grey eyes lit with understanding. “I’ll text and ask her to meet me Saturday!”

“No.”

“No?”

Morovichi nodded.

“Shit, man. Make up your mind!”

The Mordesh cast a side-long glance to his bedroom door, pondering how to make an escape. “Have you had your yearly physical?”

“No,” Jet huffed sassily. “Ya won’t let me unless it’s a male nurse. Who in the blue blazes wants a male nurse?!”

“That is because Nurse Marble and you are the reason we had to remodel one of the wings two years ago.”

Jet chuffed a sheepish chuckle, rubbing a large hand over the back of his head. “Oh yeahhh! But I wanna ask Miss Gypsum out for a date, not make her work. Not that I wouldn’t mind gettin’ “physical” –” Jet and his air quotes were cut off when Morovichi held up a hand.

“You are nigh unbearable some days.” Morovichi wandered over to peer around Jet and read his text. “Good… good, at least you sound sober when you message. Now tell her you need a physical exam and were wondering if she was free.”

His grey eyes clearing a little, Jet tapped out several messages, only corrected twice by his roommate. A giant grin spread across the Granok’s face at Miss Gypsum’s final reply.

“Do not take it personal. I am sure she calls everyone ‘dear’.”

Jet made a face at Morovichi, but then scrubbed his free hand over his chin. “So… I go a day early and get a physical. Oh, I can ask her out then! Ladies love in-person shit, don’t they?”

“Ahh, the rock learns,” Morovichi replied as he righted himself and began to pace back to his bedroom. “We will teach you subtlety yet, my friend.”

Bitter Farewell

The service hatch made a metallic thud that made the halls feel larger and more empty. Somewhere in the distant corners of the ship the screeches of Strain beasts echoed through the pipes. Jenny grit her teeth. Seth had betrayed her father, stole their ship, had his marauders kill the crew, ruined the once beautiful Empress, and now in his death defiled the vessel with Strain.

Jenny walked back into the corridor looking over the patched walls with a sorrowful frown. There was no saving the poor girl even if she’d wanted to. She lifted a hand to press against the wall. Her arms ached with pent up energy and, remembering the lessons from Elrabin, released the primal fire that crawled beneath her skin into the pipes and wires that led to the reactor.

Tears stung the corners of her eyes. Did she regret it? Dwelling on what could have been would change nothing. Jenny thought back as she listened to the distant scuttling of diseased creatures and the groaning of the ship as the generators began to overheat. She had been born on this ship. Had first seen Nexus from its windows, had spent the first years of her life learning and growing within its hull. Would she get rid of any of it if she could? Jenny regretted very little of what she’d done. Not even what she had endured the years her home was turned into her prison. No, she regretted what she hadn’t done.

Jenny’s gloved hand, encased with the data netting of the protective suit, fell to her side. She regretted not apologizing to her father before he had left to get on the transport. She regretted not having the presence of mind to suggest that Seth take his place. Then maybe her father would still be alive and none of this would have had happened.

A unearthly cry sounded to her left, and with a look void of emotion Jenny lifted a mag pistol to incinerate a smaller Strain creature as it lept at her. There was an explosion not far away, and she could feel the heat roll down the hall as her explosive charges in the cooling room blew.

She quickly strode back to the closet and ducked into the service hatch that would lead her out of the space ship. Two minutes and Lady’s explosives further in would go. It was over, and dwelling on what she might erase from her past would do no good. The Empress would be cleansed by fire, and Jenny would be free of it’s shadow to finally move forward.

Like Home

A peaceful quiet had settled over the valley as blue and gold hues of dusk tinted the surrounding hills. Thumbs tucked into the the pockets of her leather riding pants, Jenny stood in her shop, surrounded by the broken and burned remains of her hoverbike. A year of designing in her free time, and a year of building, and now….

“May I be of service?”

Jenny looked up, the memory of fire, and screams, and her body broken in the dirt vanishing with several blinks of her long lashes. “Naw, thanks though, Max.”

The handsomely modeled human free-bot shop assistant pulled off his flashy new cap as he gave the parts on the floor a concerned, assessing look. “The parts present only amount to forty-seven percent of your former vehicle, and I determine it’s functioning capacity to reach no more than thirteen percent. How do you wish to proceed?”

Jenny’s features fell with a severe frown, her hands slowly balling into fists.

“You are unhappy?”

She’d loved this bike. More than any of the others. The chassis had been the same as the first bike her and her mother had given her. She was happy then. Everything about life then had been happy. They had a home. One made from real wood on a moon that hadn’t yet been touched by the Dominion. Her and her mother would ride for hours, and get wonderfully lost – Mother had said that getting lost wasn’t a bad thing. It was an opportunity for adventures. A way of finding a new path to somewhere better you never knew you wanted to get to.

“Miss Jenny?”

Jenny turned in the half circle. The handles were still in tact. They were the same from three years ago – four years ago? She remembered stumbling into the bar in Malgrave, the handles of her bike that sat burning on the ridge a short distance away still in her hands. Covered with soot and sweat there was something in Guy Fantastic’s smile when he traded her his pen for the handle as the sound of marauder ships could be heard in the distance. She’d signed that contract without hesitation. She’d been handed everything, a family, a purpose, a vehicle to realize her ambitions. A surge of warm emotion swelled her chest, and for a moment she’d wondered if she’d made him proud.

A flash of white caught her attention. Jenny accepted the kerchief Max silently offered to her.

She turned full circle again, her frown turning into a bittersweet smile. Had it really been eight months since that first ride in Algoroc? So many had followed, and all of them had been equally wonderful. His warm body pressed against her back, hands sliding along her thighs and around her waist as the world flew by them in rich hues of rust, and loftite, and pine. So far from all the worry. So far from everywhere.

“When we were there, I didn’t miss being back on Nexus – I didn’t even miss Cassus, really. I just… realized that being near you felt more like home than anything else.”

Jenny’s lips tugged up in a small, soft smirk. As Max stood waiting patiently in perplexed silence, she stooped to pick up the leather bike seat, the handles, and a shard of Star Silver to feed her pin-dragon that had crawled down to curl around her fingers. “Thanks, Max. I’m good. You can scrap the rest. I’ll get the grinder outta storage till we can make sumthin’ twice as bad-ass.”

In Here

The shaking had finally stopped. It was a small step. Having unclenched her fists, Jenny stared numbly at her gloved hands. Metal knuckles of the Dominion gauntlets had left small scratches on the glass where she’d punched it, and that was the only good thing she could think about the stolen uniform she wore.

Whoever had designed the cells in the Dominion Legion class B-37 battle cruiser had prepared for the eventuality of holding Slingers, Stalkers, and Espers. She’d dismantled the room several times over in her head. She was not strong enough to break the metal fitting on the sink to make a blade, and making a bat was impractical… not to mention that any of her options would merely get her tazed like Elenia.

And so Jenny sat on the floor of her holding cell. Her limbs felt numb with anger. Anger at what they had done to Jeremy. Anger at what they had done to the crew. At their broken word. At Seeker. There had to be a reason. There had to be something, but he never looked back at them as the man called him brother and slung an arm over his shoulder. Jenny’s mind began to cloud at what only could be betrayal, and she forced Seeker our of her head to keep the shaking from coming back. Now was not the time. Finding him was her last priority.

Her chest ached. Ached at seeing Elrabin curl into a ball two cells over. She ached at seeing Bron trapped in such small quarters, and she ached at the thought of the monsters hooking Jeremy back up to their machine. What else had they done to him? Would  do to him? It made her even more angry knowing that she had promised not to shoot the men who’d done that. Next time Kaamos would not be able to stop her. If there was a next time, and no, she would feel no inkling of remorse.

The guards at the end of the hall chuckled at the unconscious Elenia’s expense, and muttered about Rook and Kaamos before one turned to leave. Jenny tilted her head, counting the clanking footsteps of the retreating Dominion soldier over the soft hum of the laser field filling the doorway. Darkened gaze fixed on the thick glass floor beneath her she scrambled to remember anything and everything about the ship. Where their weapons were, where Jeremy was, where Seeker would most likely be. They would not be in here forever. She still had one tiny trick pinned to her collar. All she needed to do was to keep from going on tilt, well, at least too soon, and wait.

A Cigarette

malgrave sunset

“He’s not there,” Rook’s voiced echoed out to Jenny. “I’m heading to the surface.”

Jenny strolled out of the greenhouse, crumpling up her gum wrapper and tossing it away with a flick of her thumb. Nodding into the darkness of the bunker, she watched as the pale blue glow Rook emitted moved swiftly to the bunker’s exit. It had been several hours since Jeremy had gone out for a smoke right before Kaamos’s surgery. Before Seeker had woken screaming…. Jeremy hated being stuck in a box under the ground. She couldn’t blame him and should not have been one bit surprised at him not being found. But to be gone so long….

Next came the living quarters. It was tempting to amuse herself by searching under couch cushions and in cupboards just to say that she had, but it had already been a long day, and her ability to make light of things was wearing precariously thin. She checked through all the rooms, then the bathroom, and was on her way back out when something on Rooks’ neatly made bed caught the corner of her eye. It was a single, neatly rolled cigarette.

She stared at it for several minutes, a strange, sick knot coiling in her gut. When she finally moved, it took more effort than she cared to admit to walk over to the bed. She picked the familiar object up, turned it over in her fingers, and with a conflicted frown that narrowed her already tired eyes, she tucked it behind one ear and headed out of the living quarters for the surface.

As Jenny crawled up out of the hatch the last echoes of an angered mordesh shout petered out over the sand, and it did not take much effort at all to find Rook. “Any luck?” she called out, dusting sand from her palms.

Rook viciously kicked a sandy stone with a growl, sending it skipping across the ground wildly before sinking into the sand with a soft thump. Colorful Mordescu curses rung in the air before she seemed able to collect herself. Turning to Jenny her shoulders sloped, frowning, and brows furrowed judging from how the glow from her facial apparatus and eyes were cast. “Not a trace…”

Jenny smoothly fixed an unreadable frown over her features as her blue eyes scoured the darkness in vain for… anything. Approaching Rook, she drew the cigarette out from behind her ear and offered it over. “This was settin’ on yer bed,” she said quietly.

Rook closed the distance between them. Spidery fingers plucked the rolled tobacco out of Jenny’s hand and a shuddered breath escaped her. “He left,” she realized out loud. “He left. Why would he leave?”

Jenny stared at the cigarette as if waiting for the paper to tell her something. Anything. Offering a lame shrug of her shoulders she shoved her free hand into her pockets to keep herself from fidgeting or lashing out…. Damn it all, it was too late for this. “Was hopin’ you’d know,” she offered quietly. “Any idea where ‘e’s gone?”

“I don’t have the faintest idea… I have no clue.” Rook shook her head. “I had no warning…”

Jenny licked her lips, and asked what she already knew the answer to.“… Do ya ever get a warnin’?”

“No. Never.”

Rook moved to set a hand on Jenny’s shoulder as she stood to her side. The height difference between them was staggering.“…I’m sorry, Jenny.”

She did not seem to register the hand on her shoulder for several seconds, but finally Jenny shrugged her free shoulder as if the apology was entirely unnecessary. “It’s fine,” she replied with a numb, half-hearted smirk. “He did wha’ ‘e though best fer ‘im…. An’ it’s one less potential casualty.” Jenny frowned at her words as soon as they left her lips. With the message that Dalaca was hunting them again in mind, the thought of Jeremy not being caught in it was the only twisted comfort she was afforded.

Suddenly Jenny was pulled into some sort of a side hug by the mordesh and a moment passed between them that did not need words. Had it not been for the unconscious Kaamos yards below them she had no doubt that the mordesh would have gone after him, and that she would have caught him.

“That doesn’t make it okay, even… even if he thought it was best.” Rook’s voice was level yet unnervingly acidic. “We’re in this together. We’re a family.”

Jenny smiled a little at hearing her own words, and after a few stubborn moments she leaned into the comfort of the mordesh’s side hug. “Will ‘e come back?” She instantly regretted asking. It sounded so… silly. Faithless. Weak. It made her sick. Not that she wouldn’t be just fine with him not there, of course. She had originally encouraged him to stay behind, after all.

There was an eerily long pause, even for Rook. In the dark of the Malgrave night, Jenny could see the mordesh’s eyes rove from one dune to the next. Across tents and abandoned things, like they had the answer all along. They offered nothing short of their sad presence.

“…Usually,” Rook murmured at last. “Jeremy has… a way of things, I guess. But this time…” She pulled Jenny in for a light squeeze against her hip, and Jenny guessed at what she was unable to say.

Jenny nodded her head once in understanding, but she lifted an arm around Rooks’ waist to return a light squeeze of her own. The young woman then dropped her arm, her jaw setting firmly. “Guess we’ll see. Next time I’ll snag ‘is lighter so ‘e won’ be able t’ ge’ very far.” With a flat look to the empty expanse of Malgrave around them, she blew a bubble of gum and popped it loudly in defiance. “You should get some sleep, Rook. I’ll sit up with Kaamos.”

Rook sighed quietly and began to move back to the hatch of the bunker. “Don’t… Don’t stay up here too long, okay?” she asked quietly before disappearing.

Jenny listened to the receding sound of Rooks boots against the ladder rungs, thinking about the lone cigarette the mordesh took with her till the dry desert air was void of everything but the ripple of torn awnings being tugged by the wind and the hiss of blowing sand. She liked the trees of Celestion, so vibrant and full of life. She liked the mountains and loftite towers of Algoroc even more, their heights humbling, and something great to reach out and strive to take hold of. But here… it was empty. There was nothing familiar but what she wore, and the dreaded feeling of being abandoned gnawed at the edge of her mind as almost everyone in the galaxy she cared about hid in the near bunker from a threat that was promised to find them again.

Almost everyone.

Sniffing, Jenny spat away her gum and turned to head back, only to suddenly stop and look down at the ground and the small scattering of cigarette butts beneath her boots. Pink lips pursing into a thin line she set her jaw, and kicked a wave of sand over to conceal them. She didn’t need cigarettes.

Other’s Troubles

Peter’s eyes narrowed dangerously, and he glanced around the crowded dive to ensure no one had heard her. “Call me that again and I’ll wring your skinny little neck.”

Jenny gave a mirthless chuckle, and reached to snag one of the man’s fries. “Is that what ya tell yer mother when she asks ‘ow ‘er li’le criminal’s doin’?”

The man snatched her wrist, but Jenny merely leaned in, narrowed eyes trained on him as she ate the stolen fry. “And what if I drug you back to the ship right now?”

Jenny gave a cocky wink in spite of the nauseating tug in her chest. She deftly twisted her hand free. “You won’. Ya ‘member ‘ow well tha’ went fer ya last time… Ahh! I know tha’ glare,” she chimed, plucking up another fry. “Answers one of mah questions! You don’ know where Blackstar’s parked the Empress, do ya?”

“One of your questions?” Peter asked, his jaw flexing as he glared down at the redheaded engineer. “Fine, I’ll bite. No, I don’t know where the ship’s parked, but it’s not your concern. What is your concern,” the man murmured, leaning into a little too close as he shot a dark glance down the bar filled with workers eating their midday meals, ignoring Jenny’s hand that played with his tie, “is that we’re watching you. We know where you go and when. We even know where some of your little friends wander. I wonder how much those Mordesh would go for, or that little blonde Aurin – What was her name?”

Jenny grit her teeth, shoulders tense as she leaned a little away from him, her glare burning into his shoulder. “I think ya underestimate ‘im. Ya always underestimated all o’ us.”

“Everyone has their price, princess. Fantastic might be untouchable, but he can only protect his little crew so much.” Peter sat back up, frowning in offense at the counter when he saw that his drink hadn’t been refilled. “I should get going. Always a pleasure, Jen.”

“Ya gonna see Seth?”

Peter paused, scowling. “Why do you want to know?”

Jenny’s lips curled in a wicked smirk as her hand slid up his tie. “Give ‘im a message fer me.”

“Drink for you, honey,” said the bartender as he appeared by them, setting a clean little napkin down with one hand and the drink with the other.

Peter shifted his glare to the bartender and opened his mouth to make an asinine comment, but there was no time for him to say it. Jenny’s hand gripped Peter’s tie, and with a swift, sharp yank she pulled the man’s face down to smash against the edge of the bar. He yelped in pain, backing into the patron behind him as he reeled blindly and grasped at his bleeding face.

“Shit! You bitch!” he shouted. Half rising to lunge for Jenny, a small wave of whiskey suddenly sloshed over Peter’s pants, followed by another to the face that redirected his ire to the bartender as the crowded joint fell silent. All eyes on them, several people gravitated to the scene, expecting the worst.

“Shit, honey, I’m sorry about that,” said the bartender, scooting the rescued napkin towards Jenny and pulling a towel from his apron to wipe up the spill on the counter. “I’ll get ya another.”

“What the HELL, Mike?!” Peter shouted, blood pouring from his nose, his shirt and pants soaked with alcohol.

The bartender, who clearly had issues with Peter as well, fixed the young man a withering look. “You’re bothering people and bleeding on my bar. Get out.”

Peter snarled, giving Mike and Jenny black looks. Still holding a hand to his bloodied face, he snatched his coat from the seat of his bar stool, shoved roughly past the redhead, and stomped out.

There was a communal shuffling throughout the crowd as the threat of a full-on fight diminished. Some clearly disappointed, the workers slowly returned to their meals and conversations.

“Piece of trash,” Mike grumbled as he poured Jenny a fresh glass.

Sniffing, she turned to face the bar, shooting a diffusing, charming wink to the man on the other side of the empty stool who still stared. “Sorry fer the disturbance,” Jenny murmured with an apologetic smile at the bartender. “I can take off too.”

Mike chuckled at her, and set a fresh drink on her napkin. “Stay as long as you like, honey. Drinks on me. Get you something to eat?”

Jenny lifted her whiskey and offered the bartender a little toast. “Ya go’ them little fried pickle things?”

The bartender ushering the lurking Aurin waitress to scamper back out to refill drinks, he reached to turn the music to something more lively and nodded. “Sure do. I’ll have them right out for you.”

As he stepped away to lean in the kitchen door, Jenny let out a long, heavy breath. Shit. Shit, shit, shit. Setting her elbows on the bar she lifted her glass and drained half of it. Blue eyes turning distant for a moment her gaze finally drifted down to her napkin. She focused on it, frowning as she noted the pale markings showing through the fibers, then turned it over to read.

end of the bar

The young woman hesitated, then glanced up, her eyes following the bar around till they found the man sitting in the last bench. Jeremy. Her shoulders sank, but the smile that turned up her features was genuine, and she tipped her glass a little towards him. There was no getting out of this one.

Jeremy beamed back at Jenny, raising his glass in reply. With a dutiful scoot backwards he stood from the bench and weaved his way through the dispersing gawkers toward her. “Well well well,” he hummed at her with a smirk. “That was something. Ten out of ten, Jenny – that guy didn’t see that coming. Neither did I, come to think of it.”

Jenny returned a smirk in kind, gesturing to the now empty seat beside her. “One reason I don’t often wear necklaces,” she teased. Then, more seriously, “How much did ya hear?”

He tilted his head at the question, holding his smirk in place. “Enough that I have some questions for you,” he responded, blinking at her, and lifting a hand to place on her shoulder. His eyes scanned her up and down, brows raising slightly. “You alright, though?”

Jenny glanced to the front door of the establishment before smiling and putting a hand on his. “Hmmm, better now…. An’ after all that I s’pose I don’ got much of an excuse t’ not answer you,” she added with a good-natured smile.

“Suppose not,” he confirmed slyly as he turned and rested his elbows back upon the bar-top.  “Though first off – you need to tell me where you learned those moves from because… damn,“ his hands splay out a bit and he broke into a chuckle. “Seriously,” he leaned towards her, voice lowering, “that was just about the sexiest thing I’ve ever seen you do. I mean – almost. It’s up there.”

Jenny’s fleeting look of surprise turned into a mischievous grin, finding herself feeling suddenly pleased that he’d enjoyed the little show, and she leaned in as well. “Oh, that ol’ trick? Honestly? Saw someone fail ta pull it off in a movie years back an’ though’ I could do a ‘ole lot better. Got a lot more tricks where tha’ came from.”

“Seems like that could come in handy,” he murmured, sliding his hand around her back and using their closeness as an excuse to kiss her cheek. He pulled back, looking at her, smirk fading subtly as he did. “So,” he made a small up-nod of his head towards the door. “Who was that guy to you? Pretty clear he was unhappy to see you well before you broke his face.”

_ _ _ _ _

Jenny strode out of the Nebula, fitting a sack of emergency rations (Marko’s leftovers from breakfast) into her canvas pack. She could hear the engine of the ship she’d called in for and glanced back to the other few who’d decided to come along on the little field trip.

Fishing her datachron out of her pocket, she double checked her messages.

heeeeey. So if I send you some coords how fast do you think you can make it out to Wilderrun?

How fast? Please. In spite of her rush and the weight of worry for the stranded trio, she couldn’t help but smirk. It’d been one trouble after another with small intermissions since the start. Since before the start. Jenny grinned and double checked their destination. For a minute – naw – more like a few seconds she was upset for not being taken along. But it was an impulsive, fleeting emotion that was easily discarded. She couldn’t blame him for asking her to stay. She’d have done the same, even if it was only supposed to be a quick there and back before poor Bron crashed his newly fixed ship.

Other people’s troubles are a good distraction from my own, he had told her. The afternoon at Cliff’s bar seemed to have been a forever ago. Where they had agreed to show their cards – well, the ones they were most willing to share. He had spied on Seth for her instead of leaving when things got bad. He’d come back after Malgrave and risked his life for them, gotten shot, and kept her awake in the dataspace when all she wanted to do was sleep and not wake up. Jenny sat herself in one of the two pilot’s seats, adjusted her pistols at her hips, and fastened her seat belt with a resolved click. Now it was her turn.