The moment Brun's heel disappears into the ruddy grass, she loses all feeling.

She glances up at Sinuk. She's doing well for herself-- Grinning, of course, and looping her thumb into her cargo pants so she can stick her neck up and lord her height over Darrow, too. Brun closes her eyes.

It was a good effort, she decides. Very kind of Sinuk to distract her. But it wasn't meant to last.

She opens them on Darrow.

She wishes-- dearly, deeply wishes-- that she could decry her ex like any other well-adjusted spurned lover. But Darrow's gaze is washed with relief. Sincere relief. It cuts to see the fear retreat into the stress lines on her face, to see her smudged eye shadow stained lightly with dry tears.

She's come out into the absent north, just short of perfectly impeccable. Blood money in one hand, and heart in the other.

“Hey, Brun.” Darrow's voice is as darkly monotone as her wardrobe. They always shared a certain taste.

Brun's comes back sounding hollow. “Hey, Darrow.”

Sinuk clicks her tongue and rubs her fingers together. “Now, if you'll just slide that sweet, sweet dosh over here, I'll be on my w--”

“What is that.”

Darrow's staring at Sinuk-- not at Sinuk, but at her neck, where the grackle-print scarf hangs like a noose.

Sinuk stares right back. She points at the scarf. “That? Those are called scarves. They're a type of neckwear.”

Darrow blinks slowly, like a sleepy owl. Brun is suddenly finding it much easier to look mad.

“It's cute.” Darrow drums her fingers on the little sandalwood coinbox. “Something Brun would wear. Where did you get it?”

Sinuk's expression plateaus under that wry grin. At first, Brun is convinced she's finding simple (if perverse) pleasure in one of life's little trials. But as the heat in Brun's face burns from slow broil to wild bushfire, she realizes Sinuk has been rendered just as helpless as she is.

Darrow looks slowly between them. Brun doesn't know how much longer she can keep a steady face. If Sinuk is panicking, she may as well belly up and die right now.

The woman finally produces an answer. “My buddy Aksel's a hatter down in Normunt. His partner does embroidery.”

She shrugs. The motion presses the pistol gently into Brun's jaw, visibly straining Darrow. “But this is a one-of-a-kind, so.”

“... I see,” Darrow says. She looks to Brun-- who's concentrating on the least lethal-looking space between Darrow's eyes-- and then back to Sinuk. She opens the coinbox. “Maybe you'll be able to afford a nicer hoodie, too.”

Sinuk snorts. She holds out her hand and makes a two-finger beckoning gesture.

Darrow's resting scowl deepens.

Sinuk lets out a sigh of mock-exasperation. “We ain't animals, Darrow. I can see Castoff from a kuln out. This is just business.”

A tinny little voice comes from their left, beyond the treeline. “Damn it!”

But before Sinuk can get another word in, something buckles. There's a broken noise-- Not a true one, but rather the intimation of sound. That which the mind might produce during the late hours of the night, in horrible anticipation, as it watches a video of a skater take a bad fall without the sound on.

Darrow is shaking. But where Brun feels cut down by her traitorous body, it is Darrow alone who's trembling is the promise of violence. “You think I'm going to gamble for her life?”

Brun knows better than to look at Darrow. She doesn't have to see the cartel-- She can feel it, in the miserable sump that has become them. They still, and watch, and wait.

But Sinuk's just beginning to cut her teeth. She stands tall, chin up, looking down on Darrow. Each syllable is deliberate.

“I wouldn't put it past you.”

Darrow's eyes widen. There is a moment there, a full breath, where the swaying of the grass and the light tundra winds still in turn with the beat of Brun's heart, Sinuk's trigger finger, and Darrow's trembling.

Then Brun exhales, and time delineates.

She's struck first by the absence of her hands, and then by the burst of light and sacre from over her shoulder. On its heels finally comes the searing non-feeling of god's blood flowing freely from Brun's wrists.

Sinuk's voice is a hoarse bark. “Brun--!”

The rope drops from Brun's hands. She feels the ivory grooves of Darrow's crossbow before she recalls catching it. Her eyes, despite everything, are fixed on Sinuk's. They are wide, and dark, and deep. Beautiful, she thinks. And completely helpless.

Darrow yells something. It's automatic-- A motion Brun has slipped through so many times it is as natural a consequence as the recoil of a collision. She streaks sacre through the air as she shoves the mouth of the crossbow into Sinuk's chest.

Brun does not hear the bow go off. The tiny sound that escapes Sinuk eclipses a holy note.

The woman's legs don't immediately give out, but the metalock falls heavily to her side. Sinuk's wide eyes are still locked on hers. Brun does not look away. One knee fails underneath Sinuk's weight. She slumps forward, listing, awkwardly, like a felled tree, and collapses into the grass with a broken sigh.

At that, the crossbow drops through Brun's immolated hands. She holds them close to herself, biting down the bullet in her throat.

Darrow lopes over to the two of them.

“Nice work,” She says. She gives Sinuk a solid kick. The woman doesn't respond; her eyes are glazing over with her consciousness.

Brun clutches her wrists tighter. Darrow is looking at her out of her peripherals, and Brun meets it. You don't know the half of it.

Castoff is the first to break through the treeline, followed shortly by Sato. Thiam emerges from the heath at their right.

“Didn't know you could shoot like that!” Castoff's aluminum voice rings out over the tundra. She catches up with them-- gives Sinuk wide berth-- and is summarily struck in the shoulder by Darrow.

Brun winces.

“This isn't a game,” Darrow hisses through her teeth.

Castoff nurses her shoulder painfully. It's a common mistake for her. She's new, a little hard-headed, and has difficulty reading Darrow's hair-trigger tells. Still, she's smiling at Brun. “How'd she know? You gotta teach me!”

Brun is struggling to recover, and Darrow's gaze is utterly oppressive. “Best not let it happen in the first place,” She says, thickly.

Darrow narrows her eyes. “You've been through worse.”

Ah. Brun lets out a breath as the gashes in her hands slowly knit back together. She hadn't missed firing shots at eachother.

Sato lugs a heavy rifle over their shoulder, smiling dipomatically at the lot of them. “We're really happy to have you back.”

Stolid Thiam inclines her head, slightly, at Brun. Castoff smiles brightly. It even takes the edge off of Darrow.

She did miss them. They were good people-- Good insofar as a ring of illegal dye smugglers goes, anyway-- But solid. Reliable. Like family. It's almost enough to make Brun forget, if only for a moment, about the woman bleeding out at her feet.

Brun looks down at Sinuk. The rest of them follow her gaze.

Darrow squints, and rolls the woman over with the flat of her heel. Castoff, Sato, and even Thiam are still lingering a healthy distance outside of both Sinuk and Darrow's striking range. Darrow kneels down and snaps the scarf off of Sinuk's neck.

Brun crinkles her nose. Classy.

Darrow then picks her crossbow out of the grass. She wipes off the stock with Sinuk's hood, and mutters “Try not to drop it, next time.”

Castoff leans over with her hands on her knees. “So what are we gonna do with her?”

Darrow slowly rises, holding the scarf up to the afternoon sun to examine it. She side-eyes Brun through its loop. “What are we going to do with her?”

Brun stills. She had not yet considered why Darrow made her call the shot.

Now all eyes are on her. Thiam and Sato are both astute in their own right; Brun can never get a read on Thiam, but the two gunners are thick as thieves, and she knows Sato doesn't harbor the labyrinthine suspicions that Darrow does. Brun can only assume that the empty looks they're giving her are sincere.

It is, oddly enough, Castoff that she has the most to fear from. The girl thrives in chaos and would not think to stop herself from accidentally implicating Brun in high treason, if she puts two and two together.

She can't give them the chance.

“Strip her naked and run her through the snowcap,” Brun deadpans. Sorry, Sinuk.

That gets a snort out of Sato, and even Darrow smiles a little darkly as she pockets the scarf. Castoff clenches her fists. “Can I draw on her face?”

Brun shrugs, and holds a palm out at Sinuk. “There's a pen in her pocket.”

At this, Brun kneels down into the auburn grass. She gently pushes Sinuk upright and pokes her head underneath the woman's arm, shouldering her the rest of the way up. Thiam and Sato know their cues; Thiam lingers around the looter, idly running her hand along the support struts of its wings. Sato turns their attention to sussing out the underbelly latch mechanism.

Castoff lingers over Sinuk and Brun, her face scrunched up in concentration and her fingers dancing over the woman's hoodie. She shoves her hand into Sinuk's pocket, grabs a fistfull of lint, metalock, and marker, and makes off east for camp. A high chorus of tittering laughter follows her long through the underbrush.

Only Darrow remains. She watches Sinuk and Brun through eyes of sleet. Brun gazes back at her.

She's tired. They're both tired. Darrow turns away.

The afternoon light smears Sinuk's cheek with rose and peach. Brun blinks. Peeking up at her from underneath heavy lids are those deep, dark eyes.

They are smiling.

A short bout of taiga seperates the camp from the ridge clearing. It's here that Brun remembers how quiet the world can be, and where she takes walks when she needs to be reminded.

Darrow colors it with a suffocating silence. Castoff has run far ahead to give Falx the heads-up about their little tête-à-tête. It leaves Brun to carry Sinuk alone under the weight of her rifle, the absent north, and an uncaring Darrow.

Brun inclines, slightly, to side-eye Sinuk. The oblivion in her face twists Brun's arteries a funny direction. She's swept up in a game of what-ifs that she hasn't played in years: What she'd give to have Sinuk's fearless tongue. What she'd give for Darrow to entertain her nonstop stream of quips. What she'd give for Sinuk, wholesale, so that she doesn't have to deal with the blowback from her ex alone.

What she'd give to share a comfortable silence with somebody again.

“I can't fathom what you see in her.”

Darrow's voice is a low drone beneath the breath of the heath. It cuts the woods into perfect stillness.

Brun stalls. The air in her lungs is caught somewhere in her throat, and she can't think, can't move to extract it. It's hot-- uncomfortably hot-- and that heat blooms between her ribs into the rest of her body. Mostly her face.

Darrow slows her wolfish lope until she's swaying on her legs several strides ahead. She turns to catch Brun in her peripheries. Brun feels her body lock in anticipation.

Darrow narrows her eyes. “Oh, stop. You really are losing your touch, if you thought I wouldn't notice.”

Brun tightens her grip on Sinuk. She unconsciously turns her hip to Darrow, with the woman's dead weight draped behind her.

“You pity her.” There is something in Darrow's eyes that says 'And not me.'

Brun stops her shoulders before they can drop. The breath lodged in her throat escapes in careful, mediated increments. She's not a woman of canon, but she thanks faceless gods that-- for once-- Darrow doesn't know shit.

Darrow turns to face her in earnest, and closes the gap between them. Brun steadies herself. Darrow's eyes are clear and grey. “There was a time when you would have snapped her, you know. Made it hurt.”

Brun meets them. “I know.”

The corner of Darrow's mouth twists upward. It is not at all like how Sinuk smiles, Brun realizes; Sinuk's grin means trouble in the way that a crow, by some fit of avian hubris, gets its head stuck in a can and makes a right mess of everything. Darrow's smile means trouble in the way that an owl listens to the busy hare, who thinks itself unseen, unheard.

Brun's gaze snaps to the motion in her peripheries, where Darrow's hand hovers in the space between them. Brun glances back up at her face. She is not sure an owl is capable of vulnerability. She's watched release videos of rehabilitated raptors, before; even in the undignified grips of men, they look like they could turn their talons on the nearest flesh.

But they always fly away. Darrow ghosts Brun's cheek, before slipping her fingertips underneath her chin. There is fondness there, the full breadth of which Darrow allows herself to express, but it's not that which a woman harbors for another woman. Not warm, not giving, not plaintive, not even benign.

She appraises Brun like a killing implement. “I was afraid of you.”

Brun swallows down black bile.

“And now you're going soft on me.”

Something shifts. Brun is light, and the wind prickles against her skin. That empty space on her cheek is replaced by the cold kiss of a metalock pistol. She struggles not to smile.

Darrow's eyes are very wide. The fondness burns into recognition, into awe, into rage-- icy, wintery rage, the promise of a storm that cannot be weathered-- and then into nothing.

“Cut her some slack,” Sinuk has long shrugged off the trick shot, from the sound of her voice. “She just got kidnapped.”

The crossbow stock sails a wide arc over Brun's head. Sinuk ducks, and the metalock fires aimlessly into the trees. Darrow is furious.

Brun blinks. She stands now between Sinuk-- who's lining up a proper shot-- and Darrow-- who slams her heel into the forest floor and launches herself straight into the woman. Sinuk is struck; The metalock goes off. At point blank, the force of the blast butchers the nook where Darrow's shoulder meets her spine and neck. The rest of her arm goes limp.

Darrow shrieks in rage. The crossbow flies from her grip, strikes a tree, and falls into the grass. Brun dives for it, but by then Darrow has Sinuk's pistol pinned against an old pine with the dead weight of her shoulder.

Sinuk's off-hand slips like water through Darrow's grip, scrabbling for her hoodie pocket. It produces nothing. She frowns. It is then, as Brun snaps up the crossbow, that she and Sinuk both see the gunmetal grey of Darrow's survival khukuri glint in the afternoon sun.

The breath is knocked from Brun. It's a live edge. She loses any delusion of playing the cartel, and screams “Darrow!”

The whites of Sinuk's eyes are caught in the same dappled sunlight as the knife. She brings her knee up hard on Darrow, and wrests the metalock out from under her. There's a thin sound, serrated, like teeth cut on fabric.

Sinuk dances away, stumbles, steadies herself with the pistol still trained on Darrow. “God's blood, don't you know better than to bring a knife to a gunfight?”

Darrow yells indistinctly, and brings up the khukuri.


The khukuri lists in the air. The evening sun rolls languidly over the broad of it, all peach, and purple, and red. It slips between Darrow's fingers, disappearing into the grass with a soft thump. Darrow follows suit.

The crossbow quakes in Brun's hands. She swallows hard. Sinuk's metalock is still trained on the empty space where Darrow was-- Now through it, on Brun.

“Bang bang,” Sinuk says, softly, with two playful bucks of the pistol's barrel. She lets it drop to her side.

Brun lets out a choked sigh. The crossbow falters. She's ready to give out.

Sinuk steps carefully over Darrow and wades through the thick grass. Brun forces her unsteady legs to meet Sinuk halfway. She grabs the woman by her hoodie. “You're bleeding.”

Sinuk waves off a stream of god's blood like a persistant mosquito. “... Yes?”

“No,” Brun's voice cracks. She doesn't care. Her shaking hands struggle with the zipper of Sinuk's hoodie, and that gets a raised brow out of the woman. Brun finally pulls it down, and forcibly peels the hoodie off. She touches a thin slit in Sinuk's shirt. Sinuk blinks, and touches it too. It's wet, and hot, and a little sticky.

“You're bleeding,” Brun says.

“Huh.” Sinuk lets Brun guide her to the old pine, where she's quickly sat down.

Brun bunches Sinuk's shirt up at her collarbone, followed shortly by her undershirt. It would snap if not its stubborn hem. They've both seen better days.

The gash is cut crosswise over Sinuk's chest. It's shallow, but long. Sacre rises at its highest point-- Sinuk's underarm-- while blood weeps out of its lowest-- her ribs. Brun frisks her overcoat, before slipping her hand into its lining and producing a tiny pocketknife.

Her concentration is broken by the traitor's shake in her hands. Blood slicks her grip as she struggles to pull out the blade. “Not much of a medic,” She grunts.

She doesn't have the mind to look at Sinuk's face, until the woman's hands steady her own. “Woah,” Sinuk croons, softly, like she might to a spooked horse.

There's a dark dusting of red to Sinuk's face, and Brun can't tell if it's from the evening light or their current predicament. She's left staring at the woman as she fights with the knife. She's never seen Sinuk blush before.

Brun finally flicks the blade out. She draws it in one swift motion from her palm to her inner arm. God's blood bursts from the wound, and she clutches it close to herself, smothering it before it can escape. She then holds her arm out over Sinuk, spilling sacre sloppily onto her chest.

“That's good--” Sinuk says, as she touches Brun's sacrent wrist. The gash is plastered with light and color. “That's good. Good work.”

Sinuk draws her hand up Brun's and presses it against the top-most point of her wound. Brun's jaw locks. She's a sniper. She's not unused to blood-- real blood-- but if she ever got this close to it, it meant she was doing something wrong. The raw lips of Darrow's cut, The heat of Sinuk's blood, the softness of her skin-- It's all deeply, profoundly wrong.

Sinuk winces, slightly, as she presses the edges of the cut together between her thumb and forefinger. “Just get me closed up. Don't worry about anything else, right now-- Reckon we don't exactly have time to teach you how to culture muscle.”

“I'd like to learn,” Brun mutters, as she draws her palms over the gash. Sinuks' skin burns with Brun's hands, reigniting in sacre, and blood, and brilliant color. What's left behind is a tiny streak of light, and a smooth seam cut across Sinuk's breast.

Brun reaches the cusp of Sinuk's ribs, and falters. Sinuk traces the little trail with her fingertips, all the way down to Brun's hand. She studies her chest through lidded eyes.

Brun studies it, too. Something twists in her-- Something full, and heavy. She hasn't thought about what she's doing. What she's seeing.

She's struck first by Sinuk's shrapnel scars. They extend as far down as her collarbone, and, she thinks, must sprawl across her shoulders, up her arms, down her spine. Brun is thankful she can't see the remainder, but not very. She can't take her eyes off of them, and they are much safer to look at than the rest of the woman's body.

Until Sinuk touches her neck. She scruffs her hackles the wrong way, and Brun bites down the inexplicable urge to smooth them. Her gaze drops from the woman's adam's apple down to her collarbone, and then, unfortunately, the rest of her.

The woman is sinuous. Lanky, gangly, even knobby when she wants to be, that's only natural, but underneath her baggy hoodie is hard, lean working muscle. Rawhide chords of sinew. Blood clots around her scruffy chest hair, and Brun's stomach churns.

Sinuk is handsome, and that doesn't register as a revelation to Brun. Of course she is. She's Sinuk. All idiosyncrasy, all her. Controlled and chaotic, disciplined and unfettered. Nothing accidental about her except all that she sets herself up for. When she first reared her head out in high Asthaom-- Guns blazing, grinning that crooked grin-- Brun must have immediately filed her away under 'Handsome idiot who shows up and ruins everything.'

Guilt weighs her heavy against Sinuk, and heavier underneath her rifle. She averts her eyes. No, that's not what's new.

She wasn't sitting in the woman's lap, back then. They weren't sharing beds, or buying scarves, or flying kites, or staging ransoms, and they certainly weren't bunting. They were simple women; they exchanged names over munitions, struck bets over bulletfire. She could shoot at her, and it was easy. Effortless. Nothing.

Brun balls her fists against the hem of her overcoat. Seeing Sinuk caked in her own blood makes her sick. There was a time when that was as natural as the owl's wild hunt-- some necessary evil of the warpath she and Darrow struck-- but that time has long passed. It's replaced with a name, and a face, and a history.

“That'll do it,” Sinuk says, very quietly, as she traces her jaw. She's looking Brun in the eye, who's startled out of her reverie with piercing pang of shame.

Brun lets out a stifled breath, and sits back. The headfog is not so easy to shake. “Are you sure?”

“Yes ma'am. I'm a doctor.”

Brun stares at her. “... Come again?”

Sinuk strikes a bloody fingerpistol at her chin, grinning coyly. “I thought we went over this already. Material Metaphysics with a focus in Sidereal Metaphysics. And Physics. Among other things.”

“Went over this alread--?” Brun blanches. “Sinuk, I thought you were joking!”

“That's Dr. Vauntariaq, to you.” Sinuk fingers little circles into her chest, and lids her eyes. “So what was all this about stripping me naked and—”

That was a joke,” Brun says, very loudly. She shoots a sharp glance over at Darrow. The woods are still.

Sinuk holds her face in her hands and grins that dopey grin. It might be endearing, if not for the blood now smeared on her chin. “Careful. Might get your wish.”

Brun scowls at her. Hard. Sinuk sobers.

The woman leans forward, midway between pulling down her shirt and getting up. Brun vacates her lap. She sticks her shoulder underneath Sinuk's arm and steadies her on the way up.

... Brun? Darrow?” Castoff's tinny voice carries through the boughs and branches.

Brun freezes, and scans the taiga. Sinuk squints at the horizon. “Best get moving, or we'll both be naked.”

Brun blinks. “We?”

Sinuk blinks right back at her. Her face is empty, for a moment, and then it softens. Her eyes widen, her lips part. She slumps over and runs both hands through her hair. “Oh no... Nonononono your ex just stabbed me, Brun!”

“I'm not going with you.”

Something settles between them, like the silent fall of snow under the last shade of autumn. Pure in its absence of sound, succor, and color, and utterly pitiless. This is it, then. Brun scolds herself for such a childish thought. Of course it ends. But even gazing down the sight of the woman's pistol, even listening to Darrow drum her fingers against the sandalwood box, Brun never really considered what the end would look like.

Sinuk hadn't, either. The mouth of the metalock gapes between Brun's eyes, close enough to tickle her brow. There is no play in Sinuk's face, no humor. She is at her base: Clinical, and unbound.

“I ain't askin'.”

Brun feels nothing. The pistol presses into her, and she closes her eyes. “Fat lot of good that'll do my brother.”

The cool, metallic lip of the barrel kisses Brun for some time. For lack of anything else, she traces it in her memory.

Sinuk laughs, once. Brun opens her eyes. The humor returns to Sinuk's face, and her shoulders tremble under a fit of soft laughter. It's dry, like a tiger's chuff. But warm. A pleasant desert spring. It fills Brun, bubbling up in her gut, pushing against her lungs. She laughs, too, overflowing with tenderness.

The metalock leaves her. Just when Brun begins to want it back, Sinuk sobers. “Y'know I can't leave you here.”

“You're not. I'm staying.” The softness in their eyes is, for once, mutual.

“But Darrow will--”

“How do you think I've made it this far?” There's no accusation in Brun's voice. She's mimicking Sinuk-- a demure grin, a sidelong glance. “I'm the finest sharpshot in the local galaxy.”

Sinuk blanks. She touches her neck, looking down at Brun through inscrutable eyes. “... Yeah,” She says, breathlessly. “You are.”

Bruuuuun! … Daaaaarrroooow!” The acoustics of the woods make Castoff sound much closer than she is, but Brun still starts.

Before Sinuk can get another quip in, Brun darts for Darrow, snapping up the sandalwood box and rounding back to the woman. She shoves it into her hands. Brun stares up at her through burning eyes. “Can you handle Thiam and Sato?”

Sinuk flinches, and looks between the box and Brun. “I-- I reckon I'm gonna have to, aren't I.”

Brun bites her lip and dips her head. She shoves Sinuk by her shoulders. “Go. And don't forget-- You're hurt. Don't die.”

Sinuk stumbles away, and rubs her shoulder. “Are you gonna be okay?”

Brun nods.

Sinuk takes a step backwards, hand on her chest, never taking her eyes off Brun. “Don't wait for me.” She indicates her wrist. “If you need help, you call, okay?”


Sinuk climbs over a felled pine, on the cusp of limping off. She turns to Brun. “I really care for you.”

Brun's tongue is heavy. I really care for you, too, Sinuk. She can't even mouth the words.

Brun?” Castoff is very close. Brun's gaze flickers to the other end of the heath. When she looks back Sinuk's way, the woman is gone.

Brun swallows down her stone heart.

She wades slowly through the auburn grass. With Castoff's warbling drawing closer and closer, Brun sits down, and lays Darrow's head in her lap.

Darrow is out for a full three hours.

Castoff nearly blew past Brun on her wild hunt through the woods. By fluke, her foot snagged on Darrow's, and she took a bad fall into the heath.

Brun cuffed Castoff before she could hit the forest floor. Her hands were still caked in Sinuk's blood, and to the girl's credit, Castoff only screamed a little bit. She gathered the lot of them up and escorted them back to camp without a single word. That was for the best; Brun refused to talk about what happened in the woods.

Darrow also refused to talk about what happened in the woods.

When she came to, she was in Brun's lap. They were back at her quarters, this time. Darrow didn't say anything, just blinked those grey eyes, stood up, and left.

The cartel anticipated hell. Thiam and Sato had both returned empty-handed, and Brun feared for them-- even in Sinuk's sorry state, she sent them home with an untenable hail of bullets. Darrow would not be so forgiving.

Sato put up their rifle without a word and avoided the rest of the cartel for the remainder of the night. Thiam was forced to strike out on her own. It would either be them or Brun that would bear the brunt of Darrow's ire, and the two gunners put in the work to ensure they wouldn't be drawing the short end of the stick this time around.

Brun didn't blame them. She was much better equipped to handle Darrow.

But Darrow ghosted each of their solitary exiles. She instead ambled through the bowels of the ship, hoisted herself up onto the nape of its neck, and pulled her headphones over her ears as she looked out over the twilit tundra.

She's been there for an hour now. The cartel shares this stalemate in silence. Brun lays in her bunk, studying the ceiling.

She has the chance to think-- Really think-- for the first time since she was caught down the sight of Sinuk's pistol. But she isn't reviewing those 24 hours. The memory of it slips through Brun's fingertips like water.

She instead feels nothing, and it is making her deeply sick.

She shouldn't have done that. She shouldn't have done any of that. She should have bared her teeth and postured and slammed the stock of her rifle in the back of Sinuk's skull. She should have abandoned her in a ditch somewhere, leaving the woman to deal with a splitting headache and hollow heart alone.

But her mind's facsimile of Sinuk looks at herself, hums, and gets right back up. That cuts Brun. The woman might even try again, reluctant to accept that she's broached Brun's true face yet.

True face. Like she's a complicated woman. Brun snorts, but it comes out a choked sigh. No-- That's the truth, she wants to tell Sinuk. If there is kindness in her, it was planted there by somebody else. A temporary guest in a den of sin. A hostage.

This isn't mine, she wants to tell Sinuk. What you saw today wasn't me. And not even you can care for something you can't see.

But the woman in her head takes that as a challenge. Brun cancels the mental scenario as her body remembers to cry.

She's seized by stuttered sobs, wracked with a hot, steady ache that holds her in a way that she might compare to the embrace of a lover, if this was the happy universe where she pursued poetry to complement her brother's music. It's been years. She cries years' worth. Her mind remains clinical, empty; a scornful mother corralling a child who acts out only for love. This is, she thinks, what you deserve.

After all, she could not even manage the most basic feat: Ridding herself of Sinuk. And what does that promise? Another ex to giddily crack her ribs and discover the blood runs too quick, too hot, white, and putrid? Or will she decide it's her turn to cut her teeth on the tender flesh of another woman? She chokes. She has never seen Sinuk cry, and she never, ever wants to.

Run, She wants to tell Sinuk. Run as far as you can. If Darrow doesn't find a way to ruin you, I will.

Brun scrubs the bleeding mascara from her eyes, and rolls the cuff of her overcoat down her wrist. She cannot idly wish Sinuk away. She has to tell her. Let me do this one good thing.

She touches her wrist. Sinuk's number is smeared longways down her inner arm, streaked into the river of sacre she'd cut into herself earlier.

It's illegible.

She cries until she can draw no more tears from her eyes, dry-heaves until her abdomen screams in pain. When she is finally rendered innert by grief, she lays awake into early dawn.

Brun is startled out of a sniper's microsleep by motion in the hallway. She does not move.

Darrow doesn't, either. She hovers at the threshold of Brun's quarters, a dank silhouette with something hanging underneath her arm.

“Are you awake?” Darrow says, with little regard for the hour of the night.

Brun gazes at her through the darkness. “No.”

Darrow doesn't smile. She steps through the low archway, minding the twenty-something-odd knives stuck in the threshold column. She ghosts past the dirty laundry, the dead cactus on the window ledge, and the cargo overflowing into Brun's space.

Brun bites down the urge to make herself small. That's like running from a bear. Darrow hates meekness.

“A token of your captor's appreciation.” Darrow hoists Sinuk's missing metalock into the air by the barrel, and tosses it to Brun. She catches it, and tests its tang, weighs its grip between her hands.

For all the time she spent at gunpoint, she hadn't stopped to appreciate how beautiful the woman's pair of metalocks were. They must be vintages; They're heavily burnished, worn smooth to the ironwood, and held together by some bandages and a wish. This one Sinuk totes around in her off-hand, but is just as weathered as its sister.

“... And mine.” Darrow says, very quietly, as she unspools the grackle-print scarf and sends it Brun's way.

Brun only narrowly catches it, that time. She's busy breaking with her gun reverie to stare at Darrow.

Thanks, Sinuk.

“Put it on,” Darrow says, when Brun doesn't respond.

The corner of her mouth flicks. Already have. She humors Darrow and loops it over her heavy head, anyway.

Darrow shifts legs and appraises Brun. “Cute.”

You didn't come down here to compliment me. Brun considers her words. “How do you feel?”

They study one another for a long draw. It should not startle Brun that Darrow's gaze is nothing if not palpable, but she'd forgotten the sensation in recent company. Under the dim light, her irises are almost white, and they trace a sterile edge to her pupils.

“You know, I noticed something funny, Brun.” Darrow's voice has a quality to it that Brun must have heard before, at some point. She scratches her brain, picks and scrapes at it until the synapses all come up bloody, but she can't for the life of her produce the memory.

“What's that?” Brun asks, flatly. She studies the metalock in secret fervor.

Darrow blinks that slow, sleepy owl blink. “I've got a splitting headache in the back of my skull, but I could have sworn Sinuk was facing me.”

“How odd,” Brun says.

“Yes,” Darrow's eyes are sad. “How odd.”

She lingers long on Brun. Out of solemn respect, the world steadies its mad spin until it is completely still. Brun wonders through shallow breathing that Darrow has always commanded that kind of power.

Darrow moves to leave, and the universe is in motion again. “That's put us in the hole for this month. Expect to make it up tomorrow.”

With that, she's gone.

The breath Brun lets out after the clacking of Darrow's heels disappears into the heart of the ship is immense. She's wringing the cowl again, she realizes. She takes it off and turns it over in her hands. Despite everything, it's no worse for wear.

Something catches her eye in the reversible lining. She inverts the loop. Just beside an embroidered stamp-- The artist's signature, she has to guess-- is a hastily scrawled string of characters.

Brun smiles a little sadly, a little fondly. It's Sinuk's number, complete with a lopsided heart at the end.

She reaches for her phone.

The looter carries Sinuk long through Norbast. Far over Basedt, Scaiuq, the lower Beyent, high Asthaom, the ocean black, and-- finally-- Mercasor.

The kite slumps into the howling shield in the same motion that she sinks into the pilot's seat: With a heavy sigh.

Sinuk's breath hitches.

Her chest is on fire. She nearly collapses into the wheel, but catches herself on the dashboard in time to clutch her heart. Brun's scolding plays back in her head. Don't forget-- You're hurt. Don't die.

She'd probably call her a showoff. Sinuk smirks. Then you're impressed? She thinks, and lets out a single laugh. The motion splits her ribs with the full ire of Darrow. She drinks it in and lets her head loll over the crown of the seat, stifling a tiny string of curses.

She thinks to cut herself open and put in the detail work to seal the wound up proper, this time. But she doesn't. The surface work is fine, and her body knows better than anyone how to repair what's underneath. This isn't the first time she's been knifed. She can handle a little pain. And it would make a pretty sick scar, she thinks.

The stinging gives way to a dull ache as her unsteady breaths cede to the singing shield. Her mind wanders back to Brun, and something twinges underneath the gash. How must she be holding up? Is Darrow awake yet? She must be, unless she's sleeping the night through. The aching begins to burn. It's  late morning at Mercasor, and despite what she'd like to think, Brun is doubtlessly losing sleep.

Sinuk doesn't realize she's baring her teeth until she sees her reflection in the cockpit window. She blanks. Being arrested by this gash, arrested by time, by circumstance-- inaction-- it's making her itch to fly right back over the ocean black. Circumnavigate the world in under 12 hours, and maybe gloat about that to Brun.

But she can't. Brun's calling the shots now, and that makes her kind of mad.

Not at Brun. Not at anyone, really. Sinuk runs an unsteady hand through her hair. She doesn't like it. When was the last time she was mad? Never. Nobody holds that kind of power over her.


The tablet buzzes against her thigh. She's happy to leave that thought incomplete, as she pulls the phone out of her pocket and flicks it open.

She lids her eyes. A text from an unknown address:


She taps out the beginnings of a reply, but pauses.

She erases it, and, with a soft smile creeping across her face, types:

no, this is the atayaska