This is Issue #38 of DeathWatch, an ongoing Serial. Click that link to go find ‘A Beginning’ and read from there, if you need to catch up.
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While sailing into the Blacklands, into the territories Kieron had thought of as small and undiscovered, wild and in need of taming by ‘civilized’ Allied forces, the airship was kept close to the mountains, skirting the edges of the settled lands in an attempt to remain unnoticed by the Ilonan peoples. The Captain gave Kieron her brother’s books to borrow, though they were written in Ilonan, and for the most part made no sense to him outside of the diagrams and charts he could decipher. He was off active duty while his ribs healed, and once he didn’t need to be drugged for pain as much, he needed something, anything, to keep him occupied.
He read, and he read, and he waited, and he tried not to die of the madness of boredom.
* * *
“Ow, fuck–” The Quartermaster’s voice was low but irritable.
The Captain’s, on the other hand, was irritable but humored. “Shut up, you big baby–“
“Baby? I caught a whole fucking person with one goddamned hand while falling off an airship thank you very fucking mu–OW!”
“Do you really have to–Doc, does she reall–OW!–be here? Right now?”
“It is her ship, Quartermaster.” The surgeon’s voice was gentle and gruff all at once, amused at the interaction between the Captain and the First Mate.
Kieron sat up, rubbing his eyes, and swung his feet out of the bunk, moving to stand and stretch, to pad about. While Sha worked with Nate on getting range of motion back — a functionally one-armed first mate was a disadvantage, to be sure — while she worried over his health and safety, Kieron read her brother’s books, recovered from two slips for people back in Centralis — no pain, no nausea — and didn’t speak to anyone about anything of import. They were scudding along with cloud formations, keeping to mountainous areas, as the Captain and crew of the TS Jacob had done during previous missions, to keep them away from any detection by Ilonan forces.
“Brody!” Nate called. “Tell these bungholes to leave me alone and stop trying to tear my goddamn arm off,” the Quartermaster begged affably.
“Pretty sure you’re supposed to be having them tear your arm off so it can get better,” Kieron said, smiling tiredly. He rubbed his eyes again, yawning, and did his own stretches, checking the bruising along his ribs, pressing gently with his palms, shifting and twisting, frowning slightly, trying to see how much longer they might keep him locked away for his own safety.
Once the Quartermaster was finished, the surgeon moved on to check Kieron’s ribs, prodding them ungently. The man sucked at his teeth, whistling brightly as he jabbed at Kieron, asking, “Does it hurt here? Here? What about here?” He carried on so long, Kieron began to suspect the man was playing him the fool.
It was confirmed when he glanced up to see Sha and Nate barely holding in their own laughter, watching.
Rolling his eyes, Kieron pulled back, growling at the surgeon and moving to pull on a shirt. “Really, you two?”
They laughed, as did the surgeon. “Ah, lighten up, kid,” Nate said. “You’re good. You’re healthy. You’re gonna be fine.”
Kieron didn’t return the searching look from Sha, but instead laughed as well, playing along as he tugged on his boots. He decided they were right; he was going to be fine. For now, at least. There hadn’t been any more nightmares — slips, yes, nightmares, no — the likes of which had woken him up earlier. Part of it relieved him. Part of it made him ache.
When he took the night’s watch that evening, and stood out on the deck as they sailed on in the darkness, he felt the late winter’s chill trying to sink into his bones, the crisp scent of cold still clinging to the world around him, so high in the mountain air.
He stood there, and he remembered.
He had awakened in the night to the cold of the snow on his skin, feeling it melt, weighing down the sheet that laid against him. He’d seen Jet lying beside him, and he could smell winter, and Jet’s skin. He assumed he was dreaming, and didn’t try to move, didn’t try to wake his friend; he just basked in his nearness, and comfortably fell back asleep. The snow was freezing, but it felt like heaven compared to the fever that had raged through him, and so he didn’t fight against it.
He could smell it now, that clean, pure cold scent underlaid with juniper and smoke, and he held to the rail tightly, gritting his teeth against a sudden rush of feeling, a sudden remembrance that was welcome, except for how it burned.
“You make a terrible scout.” Nathan’s voice was right at his ear.
“Calm yourself, Brody. I restate my claim. You’re a terrible scout. You don’t notice shit,” Nate laughed. “How long have you been standing here, staring at nothing?” He was still wearing a brace, but it looked like Nate would rejoin the group sooner rather than later, as well.
“I don’t know,” Kieron admitted. “Pretty sure we haven’t been boarded, though,” he said, rolling his eyes.
Nathan rolled his in return, sighing. “Well when we do get boarded, see if you can find yourself alone with a pretty soldier, get your mind off shit,” he snorted.
Kieron cleared his throat, blushing, and said, “I don’t need to–“
“Bullshit. You’re fucking infatuated,” Nate laughed.
“I don’t know if infatu–“
“Brody. Don’t try to trick a trickster, yeah?” The quartermaster said, smiling, reaching to put a hand on Kieron’s shoulder. “Come on, man, it’s more obvious than you know, and the more you try to hide it, the more she can tell.”
Kieron stiffened briefly, his eyes widening. “What?” he said. “She thinks I–” He interrupted himself to say, “No. NO! Seriously, no.” He sputtered, laughing nervously, shaking his head.
“Trust me, she’s flattered, but–”
“No, Nate, you don’t get it,” Kieron blurted. “I’m thinking about someone else.”
Now it was the Quartermaster’s turn to look baffled. “Karenna? She’s good with knots, I’ll give her that, but–“
And here, the young man just stopped talking, putting a hand over his face and groaning aloud over the sound of Nate ticking off the possibilities of Kieron’s potential affections.
“Come on. Give us a hint,” Nate finally said.
“You don’t know him,” Kieron blurted, without thinking.
Nate rolled his eyes, laughing, saying, “I know every of-age woman in a forty-thousand square mile drop zo–” He paused.
Kieron waited, wincing, as Nathan’s expression looked confused enough to be comical.
“Wait — what?”
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