This is Issue #79 of DeathWatch, Book II: tentatively called Heart Of Ilona, an ongoing Serial. Click that link to go find DeathWatch, the first in the series, or start from the beginning of Book II!
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“You seemed friendly with Sollerti,” Jules noted, staring up at The Agilis.
Nathan stood beside her, the both of them in their black cloaks, all but invisible on the dark boards above somehow even darker water. “Seemed nice enough. Hard to gauge Ilonan moods, though,” he replied. “Could’ve just been pleasant to talk to while he was figuring out if he could dismantle my elbow. What about you and Nix? She seemed ready to peel you.”
“It’s… A family thing,” Jules said lamely, turning to look at Nathan squarely. “Einin–“
He was already shrugging back the cloak; his arm gleamed dully in the starless night. He looked over at her, and said, “Ready?”
“Guess so. Don’t know how we’ll even take off out of here,” she said, willing to let any real conversation drop, at least for now. If they survived all this, they could talk later, about the million reasons her heart both sang and wept each time she was close to him. “Think we could put it on auto lift while we both cast off?”
She wondered if he had things he needed to say, as well.
He said, “We’ll make it work,” and leapt from the dock–how fearless he always was, how willing he was to leap, so much like herself, it made her heart ache–and caught the net rigging that hung from the pulled-in fins, untied a rope and dropped it down.
Jules caught it easily and began to pull herself up, hand over hand, her jaw locked with determination.
They scaled the ship, rolled over the rail, and came up short as they were faced with the grim stares of uniformed soldiers pointing weapons at them. They wore shrouds and masks and goggles, ready for the air, and their armor covered them entirely, hiding their expressions, their intentions.
Then again, their intentions seemed clear, pistols and aetheric tasers pointed without hesitation.
For a long moment, there in the moonlight, Jules wondered if it had all been a trap of some kind, if Nixus somehow hadn’t forgiven her, when suddenly–
“Agilis!” cried a familiar voice. “Quarter on deck!”
The soldiers pulled their hoods and goggles away, pulled down their masks, and revealed themselves, just about as shocked at the revelation of Jules and Nathan as Jules was about them.
“Brett?” Jules said, her eyes widening. “Hugo? Ana? Desri–” Tears filled her eyes as she looked at the crew of the Jacob, very much alive, very much right in front of her. She could feel her heart in her throat. “How–“
Her heart ached, seeing the nearly two hundred souls flooding the deck, come to embrace her. “Oh, mercy,” she wept, laughing, kissing cheeks and slapping backs and gripping hands. The overwhelming relief warred with the somber knowledge that her own crew, her crew… Was gone. But these beautiful Westlanders, to the last, were alive. It was Sha’s crew, and they were alive.
“Conas? Conas is féidir é seo a?” Jules clung to the wave of familiar humanity that held her. How? How can this be?
She turned and looked at him as he watched the reunion. He mouthed the word ‘Legatus‘ and shrugged to her.
Jules closed her eyes and let her cheeks burn with joy and shame and hope.
“We saw the Hunt.” Hugo sounded lost, his throat working as he swallowed back fear and grief and confusion.
Looking up, Jules saw a small grouping surround Nathan. They reached to touch him, his tattooed skin, his metal arm. He, too, gripped hands, slapped backs, caressed cheeks, embraced his brothers and sisters. This was his crew. These were his family.
“You killed that monster,” Ana whispered.
“He killed you.” Brett sounded furious.
Nathan chuckled, with as much ‘Nate-ness’ as he always had. His lips twisted in that crooked grin that left Jules faintly breathless. “I don’t remember much. I hit him, and we rolled, and suddenly, there wasn’t any ground. I fell. Then it’s a big black hole –”
Jules saw his face, saw the lie for what it was, and felt the punch in her gut that was the warning for all the nightmares they would each have to account for, to one another, later.
“–likely for the best,” he continued, still grinning. “Then, some kindly pirates fished me out of the sea, mended me, added some …accessories, and though they desperately wanted me to stay — how could they not? — I told them I had to get back to everyone else. So, I jumped off their airship, flew down here, and set about finding Jules.”
“…accessories?” Ana wondered, looking bewildered.
“Jumped?” Brett matched Ana’s expression.
Hugo’s voice was the most incredulous. “Flew?”
“Well, there’s this one.” Nate showed off the arm they’d been looking at. Then, he gestured for folks to step back. Ever one for a display with flair, he shucked off his cloak entirely, with more than a little theatrical flourish. The crew let out an audible gasp, as one, to see the shining metal at his shoulders. He raised his wings, flexing them, flaring them out, and they burned lowly in the night, the barest hint of moonlight giving them a strange aura of bluegold.
“Holy absolute fuck.”
Ana stared, mouthing mercy.
All of them stared, gawp mouthed and wide-eyed.
Hugo nearly fainted.
“Nate?” A small voice peeped.
“Ellie.” Nathan’s voice was quiet and easy; he was, of all things, smiling at his crewmates, relaxed as though they hadn’t each all been through hell in the last few months. Relaxed as though he weren’t standing there with an eight-foot wingspan in copper and gold and bronze and brass, all gears and pistons and intricate feathers.
Relaxed as though he hadn’t died and come back. “How’s my favorite Timekeeper?”
She uttered a brief sob and ran to throw her arms around him.
He caught her in an easy embrace, then steadied her. She and the crew stared at his arm, at his hand, at the way his new prosthetic seemed so easily a part of him, burnished and impossibly strong.
“You fell,” Ellie said, and then looked at Jules. “He –“
“I know.” Jules nodded to the young TimeKeeper. “I was in my own cage, only gettin to watch,” she said, her heart too full to quite capture all that she felt.
The crew fell to discussions of that night, the hunt, what they saw, how they remembered it, what had happened to them, since those days, their captors, their torment. Some had what seemed ‘easy’ lives, though they were still treated as slaves, as animals, while others had been brutalized more than they wanted to say. All of them felt more than a little bewildered as to the changing of circumstances; all Nathan would say was that they had a benefactor, an Ilonan who changed his views of Westlanders.
It was too much to take in, and Jules wanted to give everyone as much time as she could, but they had to be ready to launch at dawn. “Agilis!” Her voice sounded stronger than she felt. “This ship isn’t going to be too much different than the Jacob. A little smaller, but when’s size ever really mattered?”
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