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“Well it’s not sneaking out if you use the front door.” Han snorts. She’s still perched on a messy nest of disturbed sheets and blankets. Legs crossed. Arms crossed. Delivering a fierce scowl to an empty corner of the room. “I’m not having Sagacious Crane babysit us all the way to the end of our damn patience, and I know she’d get up at the crack of dawn just to catch us trying to bail on her. By the time she thinks to check the window, we’ll be long gone.”

(Lotus must not be used to rising so early. She performed a truly spectacular yawn when she finally woke. With her bodyguard’s hand still hugged tight against her face. Han’s palm replays the sensation, over and over again, no matter how hard she tightens her fist. Wicked. Greedy. Creep.)

“Get yourself ready to hike. No time for breakfast. Eat on the road if you’re hungry; we got plenty from the barge. Gods willing, we get a sister-free inn tonight.”

She is a statue. A fearsome, carved guardian, shield for a fumbling priestess. No matter the squeaks, the pat-pat-pat of soft footsteps, the grunts of tying bags shut, she is unmoved. No spirit of mischief or misfortune will pass her brooding gaze without challenge. Without coming to terrible harm.

“...bud, tap me on the shoulder or something when you’re decent. Veiled. Decently veiled. Wh-whatever.”

*****************************************

Then, they were ready.

Lotus stood in her priestess’ silks, save for the band of jagged Dominion red hiding her face. (Didn’t she have another veil?) No pack weighed upon her shoulders for the march ahead; Han was handling it. Their food, spare clothes, the dozens of odds and ends that make a journey a little more bearable, all slung alongside her wrapped patta. If it weighed her down, she wouldn’t say.

The window stood open, curtains thrown back and double shutters flung wide. Through the light drizzle, off in the distance, the clouds were just beginning to warm with the colors of sunrise. No rope hung from the sill for the drop below; Han would handle it.

“You ready?”

Lotus nodded. Prim, proper, and clueless.

“Alright.”

Quick as a snake, she dipped low, and scooped Lotus up into a princess carry as if she weighed less than her silks. One arm hooked under her legs, the other cradling the small of her back. Both squeezing her tight against her chest, for the second time this morning.

One step back. Three steps running. Then sail through the air. That’s how it went, right? That sounded right. She must’ve done that before, once. Or twice. It was. So hard. To concentrate. When her whole head was suddenly stuffed with flowers…

[Defy Disaster: Risking her own safety to get Lotus and their things down in one piece: 4 + 2 + 1 = 7]
The world is still quiet here.

There are three place settings prepared. One, occupied and attended by an entranced mouse. The other, set a companionable distance down the counter. A bowl of dolce de leche, a sampling of every topping on offer, a crepe, fresh from the pan, and a glass of milk to wash it all down. A comforting meal, for a goddess of hearth and home, in offering for this moment of peace.

The last sits before him, untouched. He’d served Jil first, and Hestia second (she wasn’t fussy about such things, not when there were hungry bellies to fill), and when the gods had finished speaking he’d found he’d filled his bowl much too high. He thinks to scrape some back into the pot, and he doesn’t know if he means a spoonful or a bowlful. But that’d be rude, right? A horrible bit of table manners, and besides; it just didn’t feel right. A terrible betrayal, to cook all this, and not even take a single bite. No chef who did the job properly would neglect the sacred rite of the One Taste.

And so, Alexa, as you walk in, Dolce dips his spoon into a heaping bowl of sweet dessert, sprinkled with chocolate and crunchy wafers, and takes a big bite. And, wouldn’t you know it? He rather likes the idea of another taste. And another after that. And maybe a few more once he’s finished those off. But not before he sets aside his spoon, scoops you a bowl, and pushes it across the counter.

“Here; there’s plenty to go around.”

And maybe you’ve got your appetite back, Alexa, just like he found his. Or maybe you’re happy to nurse that bowl in peace. Whatever you like, there is a seat for you too. The world is still quiet here. What one god weaves, no other god may unmake.
Seek not the darkness, Jil. Please. Don’t run for the safety of walking unseen. Masks shatter, armor crumbles, and no Lantern is here to light the path, but there is another light, here. Can you feel it? Not the piercing, steady rays of the sun, but a flickering, gentle warmth; pouring out of his heart, shining through his earnest smile. For you. For this moment.

“It’s good, right?” There is a skipping, easy dance to his motions, even constrained to a chair. His shoulders bounce in time with the last few stirs, and he pours out the precious mixture in a proper serving bowl. “What’s nice about dulce de leche is that you can have it so many ways.” Flit, flit, flit to the small bowls of seemingly random ingredients he had her fetch earlier, dropping a spoon in each one and pushing them to their rightful place. Fruits and bits of chocolate and snappy sugary crackers and whipped cream, to name just a few. “I like it with something a little crunchy, to vary the texture, but go on. See what you like. I’ll make us some crepes.” A drizzle, a swirl, and in goes the batter into the waiting pan.

Let your tears be what they may. Compliment, tragedy, vulnerability, weakness, we can figure that out later. The food is hot, fresh, and plentiful. The company small, but happy to have you. There is a world outside this room, but not a world so pressing that it can’t wait a while longer. There is a seat for you. There is a seat for him.

Won’t you join him for dinner?
Han wakes, dizzy and drunk on dreams sweeter than wine. All the world is softness, and warmth, and peace. The woven texture of the blanket on her bare shoulder feels all the richer, for the softness of silk against her chest. The light chill of the early morning - so early, that even the birds are slow to sing - makes her sink all the deeper into a cocoon of warmth. She squeezes, gently, and presses the girl in her arms flush against her. Body and silk, heat and heartbeat, she is here, she is here, she is hers. Bliss. Simple, perfect, bliss. Her shimmering, gorgeous hair is an ocean, all for her. She dives into its depths, drinking deep of heady, sweet flowers. Laughter bubbles up out of her, a burbling little rumble in her chest. The world is quiet here. She could lie like this forever, and that’d be okay.

She passes from the waters. Her vision fills with Lotus’ bare neck.

Her mouth clamps shut. Inside the horrified stillness of her mind, she notes the course pants brushing against her legs, the priestess silks still wrapped around Lotus. Then, only then, does she breathe. Through her nose, only, sharp and shuddering. Not a whisper of breath on Lotus’ skin to wake her. She can’t see her face. She can hear her snoring. She’s still asleep. She can’t see her face. She can’t see her own face. She only remembers talking, and hugging, and falling asleep. But she can’t see her face. She can’t know. She can’t know until she looks. She needs to look. She needs to know. She needs to

kiss her

A fire, in her heart, in her blood, screaming to kiss her. Kiss her. The feel of her lips on your neck. Kiss her. Lost, and moaning. Kiss her. Kiss her. Melting mindless in Emli’s arms. Kiss her.

She doesn’t move a muscle. She can’t. She can’t. She’s burning alive but she can’t. They need to see the waterfall. There’s flowers to weave in her hair. There’s a city, where they can be anything they want, just for a day. She can’t. She promised Lotus would see them all. She’d get her there safe. She’d protect her.

Even from herself.

The reward for her steadfastness is agony. To flee the neck, she must resist the jaw. To flee the jaw, she must resist the cheek. To flee the cheek, she must part her lips and only whisper into a delicate ear.

“Hey? Bud? S’time to get up.”

Turns out, it’s rather difficult to talk when you can hardly breathe. She nudges her, which is to say, her arm trembles, and the bundle of girl shifts a hair.

“Early start. C’mon. We gotta go.”
A cutlass points at his nose. A tiny sampling spoon valiantly nudges it aside. He’d use the whisk, but, well, occupied.

“I beg your pardon,” and if she tries to cut him off, well! His trusty spoon isn’t going anywhere. “But could you please refrain from deposing me for a few minutes? I haven’t finished yet, and you haven’t eaten, and it’s no good making big decisions when you’re hungry.” He tilts his head, peeking past the cutlass at her shoes, and runs complicated division sums involving tidiness and decorum.

He decides not to ask her to clean the countertops while she’s at it.

“Besides, I’m afraid you have it backwards.” He hasn't stopped stirring through the whole rebuttal. “It was my idea to come along with the Princess. Maybe Vasilia was thinking of it beforehand, but I was the one to bring it up.” As to letting her down? They’d both done a little of that already. Wouldn’t like to do it again, that’s for certain, but they survived it, together. He’d like to think they could do it again, Rift or no Rift.
Dolce beams, wreathed in the steam of simmering milk and sugar.

“I’m glad my obvious mental breakdown isn’t causing you any undue stress.”

And returns right back to stirring. Did you know, that one must stir dulce de leche almost constantly until it’s ready? Improvements in ingredients and technique can only get you so far. At the end of the day, it must be carefully, so carefully attended to, lest it burn and ruin the whole batch. But Dolce does not mind the chore. See his perfect smile, not budging an smidge as he works, and works, and works, and works at the mixture. If the pointed silence carries a taste of mischief, then it certainly must be the imagination. Hunger does funny things to a mind, you see.

“Of course I know about the Rift.” A pair of skeletons, embracing, matching knives through one another’s hearts. His grip on the whisk tightens. “We have to do something about it, or else, well, that’s it. Just like we’ve got to do something about the Tides, or else they might self-destruct, and that could be it too. Only, someone’s raised the cry of Assassin, and now I’m hiding in the kitchens. Maybe that’s where we stop. Just like Salib could’ve done it, and the Endless Azure Skies, and Bella, more times than I can count, and the Yakanov, and the Armada, and the Eater of Worlds, and, I might be forgetting one or two?” He frowns, and his whole face wrinkles in thought.. “No offense meant to Aphrodite - it’s a terrible, awesome Rift, among the worst obstacles we’ve faced yet - but we’ve not had a free step this entire journey. But the only way the journey gets done is if we keep taking steps, however we can.” Otherwise the journey may never get done. How many more crews did Hermes have to send? Who’s to say any of them would succeed where they’d failed? “So, I have to keep believing there’s a way we can do it. And figure out how before we get there.”

“That said.” He scoops a sample free with a spoon, observing its consistency before taking a delicate lick. A while longer, but getting there. “It’s not like we’re going in blind, either.”

With one hand stirring, the other counts off.

“First: Hades loves to gamble. I’ve not personally seen him care much whether he wins or loses, or even how often he loses. Never in the stories, either. This is just a hunch, but I don’t know if he’d go for a wager if he knew, for sure, how the cards would fall. I don’t know if he’d be this invested if he knew he’d win every time. If that’s true, then that means there is a way through the Rift, even if nobody’s found it yet.”

“Second: We have to be doing something right so far, more than the crews that came before us. We’re yet to reach the point of no return for the Rift, yet, Demeter said Aphrodite assured her that Vasilia would have killed me by the time we reached Salib. There are…” He swallows uncomfortably. “...signs, that other journeys ended long before ours, by Aphrodite’s curse. But it hasn’t happened to us yet, despite the fact that it should have, and I can’t believe that’s down to chance.”

“Third: There’s some things the gods have told us that I can’t make sense of. Hades told Vasilia that, on this side of the Rift, love is denied to all. That the Rift only magnifies and accelerates existing fault lines. Aphrodite himself told me I did not have love. And yet. Vasilia and I are closer now than we were at the journey’s start. Aphrodite saved our lives, when all I had to offer was the promise that I was hers, and she was mine.” Denied love, then saved for love, all in the space of a few minutes. The gods may act on whims as they so choose, of course, but that answer sat wrong in his heart. There was something more afoot, if he could just figure out how it all pieced together…

Hrmm. But first, there was stirring to do.

“It’s not an answer.” He admits, returning to his careful kitchen work. “I need a little more time, some opportunities to consult the gods further. But I think I’m close to something.”
“Jil…”

They’ve stopped. The kitchens, for a ship like this, are enormous, numerous, and perhaps the only place on the ship that sees regular cleaning. The Manor staff twice over couldn’t hope to fill the one they’ve stopped in. Now, it’s occupants only number two. They have a whole island, just for the two of them. More than enough space to fix a proper meal, in private, where they won’t be disturbed. Where no one will wonder why the Captain lays his hand so gently over her white-knuckled grip.

“...we’ve still got half a galaxy to go.”

He squeezes, once.

“Could you fetch me that pan? Second from the right, medium size. Would you like something savory, or sweet?”

He’ll need a little more of her help, as it turns out. Half of everything’s out of reach, wheelchairs move too slowly to prepare everything in time. No matter what her tastes, there are dozens of steps made easier with an extra set of hands. Fetching, and peeling, and stirring, and washing. Plenty to keep the hands busy, and the mind, just busy enough to be occupied. And, at the end of it all, the promise of a hot meal, shared in friendly company.

Hard to go wrong with that, no matter how much the world'd turned upside-down.

“If all the clans needed were money,” he continues, at a time when all there is to do is stir and wait. “I can think of plenty of options for more sensible risks that’ll still pay you a sufficient reward. After all, people make money all the time, everywhere. The Starsong make plenty, running couriers, scavenging, knocking over local warlords, that sort of thing. This far out, there’s bound to be whole planets that have barely been touched. You’ve even got your own ship now.”

He sets aside the bowl a moment to rub his aching hands. “So why bother risking a trip to Gaia, just to wish for a planet of gold and jewels? Where’s the sense in that?”
Weeks ago, Han took Lotus to the Festival of Leaves. They stayed longer than she meant to. Couldn’t we attend a tea ceremony, just the two of us? Oh, have you ever seen so many wonderful snacks, ever eaten anything so lovely? Would it be alright, just one more thing, this play, the poster looked so lovely, can’t we? Can’t we? Time and again, those sparkling eyes turned to her, and time and again, Han of the Highlands relented to the growling ache of her heart. It would be long, long hours before she was finally satisfied.

A few days later, she slept, and the last thing she recalled was not the mesmerizing song of a treacherous flute, but the warmth, the delicate weight of Lotus, perched snug upon her lap. And she slept. And she was satisfied.

The first day was the hardest. There is a scar in those woods, just off the main road, where the trees are shattered at the trunk, and the undergrowth is torn up by the roots, and ugly, ashen gouges rend the earth. Some still hiss, and steam, in the rain. She ran, not to find help. Not to find civilization. She ran to cast anger, sorrow, guilt heavier than mountains, everything she had into a blazing engine of motion. Consume it all. Make it stop. Make it stop. Make it stop.

The second day was easier than the first. The third, easier than the second. The steady current of time did what the will of dragons could not. The gasping, aching emptiness inside passed from her awareness, the novelty eroded away until it was little more than the constant patter of rain. Wake up. Run. Eat. Run. Sleep. Repeat. Find a witch. Find her. And she needed nothing else.

A week ago, Lotus kissed her.

A lot’s happened since then.

Lotus was torn screaming from her back, lashed by a thunderbolt that was meant for her. The both of them were bound, chained, and made to march. She never got a chance to see if she was badly hurt. She hardly got a chance to see her at all; they blindfolded her the second time she took a swipe at the soldiers.

They spent a week on a barge. Never together. Never alone. Always under the watchful care of soldiers, of slave girls, of the Red Wolf herself. Reduced to glances across tables, gasps of conversation in passing. Lots of time alone. Waiting for traps to spring. Wondering why thoughts always turned to her, her, her. And she remembered the emptiness in her heart.

Until Lotus kissed her again.

A lot’s happened since then.

They, they kissed the same girl. Watched, kissing. Sort of. Accidentally. Then, they tied her up. Properly. Which was. Educational. Then, hand in hand, darting away in the cover of darkness. Flitting silently through the ship. Swimming, running across the waters, escaping in the nick of time, then-!

Close enough to touch. Nobody around for miles. Side by side, in the waning light of evening, walking the roads together. Standing apart. In silence. For hours. And her reward is ruin. Lotus will leave her. Lotus will go. Lotus will never look at her the same way again. And the first day will be the hardest yet.

Until Lotus works a miracle.

They’ve left the lobby. They’re in a strange, small room. They are alone, somehow. It isn’t important. Lotus holds her face in her soft, warm hands. Lotus shines care and concern over her through sparkling, shining eyes. Lotus pours worry, and fear, and the shadows of her heart out, in a voice that sounds so much prettier when she’s laughing.

The scent of sweet flowers surrounds her.

“Bud. Look at me.” And she’s got her head in her hands, and she won’t _let_ her look away. Her fingers absently toy with her hair. “She was looking for some rogue spirit named Zhaogoon. And even if she was looking for you, I sure as hell wouldn’t rat you out to her.

She doesn’t realize the fire she puts in the word. Unmistakably, she knows this priestess. They have history, they do.

“Now. I want you to sit your pretty little butt down and tell me every damn thing you want from this trip. I don’t care if it takes us all night. Nobody’s taking you anywhere until you get it all. Got it?!”

Lotus may have to use her words. Those strong hands squeeze her cheeks so firmly, she may not even be able to nod. And Han dares not let her go.

For it will be long, long hours before she is satisfied.

[Rolling to offer Emotional Support: 6 + 2 + 1 = 9]
“Excuse me.”

He frowns. The snapping still rings loud in his ears.

“I don’t know where you got your information from, but they must have been mistaken. Our last Captain stepped down in the midst of the Alcedi contest of ritual combat for the Captain’s chair. I entered as one of the competitors, and…”

Come to think of it, he didn’t actually fight any ritual combat. Of course he didn’t. That would’ve meant disaster for sure. How could he possibly fight entire warbands? How could he win? What had he done instead?

“...and I asserted that they had no legal right to fight me, as I was the duly appointed Captain, and they hadn’t made the proper offerings to clarify their intent to Artemis. Then, yes, that bought me enough time until the incident on the bridge, where I…saved the ship by asserting that right again. Hrm.”

He quietly removes the ornate Captain’s hat. Runs a shaking finger on the edge of the intricate badge of office.

“My apologies. I, everything happened so quickly, I’d forgotten how exactly it happened. I thought saving the ship was what convinced the crew I was suitable for the job, but you’re absolutely right. I just took the job as it’d been offered, and held on long enough for everyone to accept it. I didn’t think…” Not quite true. He was thinking. He’d done an awful lot of thinking. Just never quite in this direction.

“It was by a vote, at the start, since there were only the four of us. I didn’t want it. Alexa didn’t want it. The Princess wanted to be Champion. Vasilia offered, and we agreed. But how was anybody else to know that? Galnius and their defectors, the Secretary from the Eater of Worlds, the Hermetics, the Coherent, the Alcedi, they all came on later. All they’d know is that I’d claimed authority from the previous Captain. Then we were straight to Endless Azure Skies, and - well, you were there for the rest of it.”

The rest of it. A desperate flight. A hard decision. The horrors of war. There is quiet enough for both of them to remember, before he speaks again.

“But you are wrong about the Princess. She’s on this journey because she doesn’t want to kill her mother. I don’t think she’d say it as such, but it’s the entire reason she’s chosen this journey. She wants a free world. A world where the stars are open to all, however they want to see them. She won’t get that, so long as Nero holds the throne. Nor will she get it if she wins that throne in a bloody revolution.” No one would forget that her reign was bought by blood. No one would forget the lesson, that Empresses weren’t as immortal as they seemed. Besides, the princess who could drive a spear through her mother’s chest couldn’t also cling to her beautiful dreams.

“So here we are, on a journey to Gaia, on a gamble from Hades, with a wish as the prize if we should succeed where a few hundred crews before us have failed. The one way to get what she wants, without driving a spear through Nero’s heart.”

He gives a little huff. “Can you imagine, picking this, just to get rich?”
“Well. It’s not only an imperial title.” Ah. Were his sinking spirits that obvious? Not good. The job is his. Even if he’s the one who chose it. You can’t have a broken heart where a Captain should be. And while the thought spirals deep into a corner of his mind to gnaw and work at a mask that might pass muster, a mouse who belongs to another ship entirely wheels him to the kitchen to fix a snack. So he continues. “The Starsong carry the same title on their ships, but it’s not quite the same job. It’s…” He wrinkles his nose thoughtfully. “Imperial Captains are appointed to their positions by those higher ranking than them, and, as I understand it, are responsible for maintaining the obedience of their crews. Starsong Captains are chosen, by the crews themselves, and are responsible for maintaining the well-being of the crew, the Starsong, and whatever planet they land on. Not necessarily in that order, but all of them are important. Imperial Captains must work above their crews. Starsong Captains must work with their crews.”

“It’s a good system. I liked it, when I was a part of it. It’s what we had when we first started on this voyage, though there were only a small handful of us. Then we took on the Hermetics, the Coherent, the Alcedi. Our Captain, she had to step down, for personal reasons. I thought I could be Captain in her place. Like the ones I’d served under. But here, all anybody knows is the Imperial way of doing things. They know how that works. They know where they fit there. And, I think…”

He’s not speaking of anyone in particular. Nobody is listening in. Nobody is anywhere close to listening in. His voice drops to a whisper all the same. “I think when I’ve tried to change that, they see that vanishing. They feel the ground dropping out beneath them.” Like a little chef, taking his first, terrifying steps out of the Manor. “After Salib…what room is there for change? When everyone’s so, so…”

Shaken? Hurt? Almost certainly. Almost. Because it’s conjecture, isn’t it? A best guess, gleaned from stacks and stacks of casualty reports, requests for offerings for rites of remembrance. Snippets of conversation, half-heard, and cut off once he was seen. A feeling in the air, that might just be his own weary heart, for all he knew.

“...in any case, Imperial is what the crew expects. If I’m to work with them, I need to at least speak it well enough to hold a conversation.”
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