This is Issue #106 of DeathWatch, an ongoing Serial. Click that link to go find ‘A Beginning’ and read from there, if you need to catch up.
* * *
Brilliant. Whitehot. Blinding. Searing.
He woke up to the taste of metal on his tongue, char at his teeth, and had to blink ash and blood from his eyes.
For a moment, he couldn’t remember who he was, or how the world got to be on fire.
It came back in flashes, memories overlapping one another, a hundred thousand moments leading up to the instant right before–
“Sha? SHA!” He cried out instinctively, and began to try to get himself out of the rubble surrounding his body. Moving was hard; everything felt impossibly heavy, and he could tell by the parts that seemed the coldest and heaviest that he had injuries that would need attention. His left arm, in particular. He couldn’t move his fingers well, and he knew something vital had been broken or cut away, and it would have to be bound and dealt with.
But first — he had to figure out how to get out from under timbers and twisted brass, glass and wiring, without passing out from how much his arm hurt.
“SHA!” he shouted, and began to cough. He rolled and twisted, gritting his teeth against every jolt of agony, and he bumped and scraped his left arm in the process. He managed to pull himself free from where he was, amidst the detritus of what had been the pilot’s chair. His left arm hung uselessly, bleeding still, though that seemed to have slowed, clotted by the dirt and dust and ash covering everything. He stared at it for a long time, not quite comprehending, then pulled one of his belts loose to strap it against his chest, leaning back against a wall when he felt his head swim from the intensity of the pain.
He looked around, but saw no sign of Sha.
“How’d that fucking work?” he wondered aloud, frowning. “You were right with me. The last thing we were doing–”
* * *
He was watching out the front window of the ship when he felt her hand slip into his.
Her other hand took the drink from him, and lifted it to her lips. She smiled as she swallowed the rest of it down, then let the glass fall to the floor. Sha’s lips met his, all whisky and fire, and he pulled her close, turning away from the front window, ignoring the way the horizon was climbing higher, and the ground was coming up quickly. The kiss was exactly what he needed in the last moments of his life, hot and sweet and all-consuming.
They staggered away from the window and he sat in the pilot’s seat, pulling her into his lap.
* * *
She has to be close.
“Has to be,” he said, pulling himself through the wreckage, looking for her. “Sha?” he shouted, staggering through the smoldering remains of her ship. The longer it took, the more he felt his heart in his throat, a rising tide of panic that wouldn’t go down.
“Sha!” he shouted, staggering around, looking in what remained of rooms, amidst the debris of comms dashes and what had been a small front galley, where Hana liked to make tea. “Sha! ANSWER ME!” he roared, and the effort of it made his teeth buzz, and his eyes feel like they might burst.
* * *
She spread her legs to straddle him, and he laughed against her willing mouth, feeling the heat of her. He lifted his hips, momentarily caught up. The pleasure of it erased any hint of terror in the back of his mind. There was nothing wrong — nothing to fear. She pressed, and he gave — she pulled, and he relented.
“We might die,” he mumbled against her lips.
“Probably,” she answered, half-breathless.
“Anything you wanted to say?” he wondered, pulling back just a touch, to meet her eyes.
“Y’always talk too much,” she teased, and leaned in to kiss him once more. When he started to speak again, she bit his lower lip enough to make him hiss, and interrupted, saying, “And I love you.”
“I love you,” he murmured, and his lips met hers, and they both closed their eyes.
The whole world exploded.
* * *
He saw her.
“No,” he whispered, feeling his knees go weak.
Thrown free of Nate’s arms by the tumbling chaos of the crash, Sha lay half-pinned beneath a collapsed outer wall, bloodied and still. He knelt beside her and brushed her hair out of the way. Something began to drip, to splash on her upturned face. He reached up and touched his own cheeks, startled by his tears as they washed the ash and dust from her skin. He put two fingers to her throat and found a pulse, steady and strong, and bowed down to press his forehead to hers. “Hey,” he said. “Hey, c’mon. Need you t’get up. You hear me?”
The relief he felt as her eyes fluttered open was nearly enough to make him laugh, and render him faint. “There she is,” he breathed, dizzied.
“Th’fuck?” she sputtered, coughing. “Quarter?”
“Yeah, Captain. Actually, you know, I saved your life, I think that means I get the ship. Isn’t that how rank works, on this side of the Ridge?”
“You can have it,” she said, staring up at him, trying to concentrate. “Might be fucked, though.”
He looked down at her, keeping his gaze steady on hers, until he could see her eyes focus. “Can you move?” he wondered, stroking her cheek.
She coughed again, nodding, saying, “I think so. Can feel my fingers and toes. Everything hurts, but I don’t think anything’s broken. Miracle of miracles. S’big fuckin wall in the way, though.”
“Gimme a sec, here,” Nate said, and he began to put his shoulder to the half-fallen wall, planting his booted feet and giving a shove. The wall lifted with a shuddering creak, and Nate gritted his teeth, groaning aloud. “Move — move movemovemove!”
Sha scuttled out from beneath the rubble, pulling her legs to her and curling up.
Struggling to hold the wreckage up until she was free, Nate fell with the wall. He cried out, as he twisted out of the way, but didn’t quite manage it. The broken lumber and steel tore open his coat and sliced into his already-broken arm. Blood poured; he clapped a hand to it, kneeling, panting, struggling to catch his breath.
“Shit–” Sha hissed, pulling her bandana off. She tore off one of the ragged sleeves of Nate’s shirt, wadded it up, and used the bandana to tie it tight against his skin. “C’mon you big baby,” she said, clapping his good shoulder. “Let’s get moving,” she said, moving to stand, to offer him a hand.
They stood together, in the hulking ruin of the TS Jacob, holding one another, simply breathing. Nothing new looked like it would fall in; nothing was in imminent danger of exploding. They didn’t have to run. Not just yet. Hell, for all they knew, the army was already outside, waiting.
Finally, they picked their way through the shattered remains, grabbing up a little food and med supplies, some rope, stuffing it into two backpacks, and stepped outside of the ship, onto the broken, smoking earth. In the distance, they could hear sirens, horses, explosions, and the storm itself was still building — a light rain had begun to fall.
Nathan O’Malley looked up at the sky, and burst into laughter.
“Shit, did you hit your head?” Sha wondered, looking back at him.
“You owe me a bottle,” he said, barely managing it through the hiccuped giddiness.
“What?” Sha snorted. “You’re really thinking about that right now?”
“Pfft.” Nate’s dismissive manner was evident. “You’re just pissed ’cause you lost. We’re walking away from this. You owe me a bottle.”
“Fine, fine,” Sha said, rolling her eyes and waving a hand at him.
They stopped, staring out at the battlefield — Ilonan forces had engaged some of the crew, but it looked like a group of them were headed for the trees in the distance; they were cresting a hill and headed out of sight. Nate hoped against hope they might all make it, somehow.
“No army coming this way yet,” Nate noted, looking around.
“They’ll come,” she countered.
“Wanna bet? They think we’re already dead, don’t they?”
“I’m through making bets with you,” Sha said, smirking. “Although I’m glad I just lost this one. Fuck, I’ll even buy you two bottles, if we ever get out of this shithole.”
Nate rolled his eyes, saying “I’m going to need a fucking drink way before we get out of Ilona. Besides — it’s not such a bad place. Might even be beautiful. If it weren’t for all the, y’know, death and destruction.”
* * *