DarkHorse Vendetta by Orin Drake
A completed novel, available as a paperback through Lulu and an ebook (Part One) through e-Quills.

        Chapter 24 - More Than Placebos

        They actually stayed there in the hallway together for quite some time, each zoning out and staring into the lights. It was surprisingly therapeutic--and neither one of them wanted to ruin the experience by thinking of the general tasks at hand, let alone actually getting up. That was just asking for trouble.
They'd have spent the whole damn day and likely most of the night there on the floor had footsteps not shaken them out of their pleasant daze. At first, they both thought they were just imagining things... but as the sound became harder to deny, they cast one another a look--
        Yup. Up on their feet before they really wanted to be, waiting for whoever had been brave enough to seek them out. Pheta was almost a certainty... so the tall, muscled guy in a dark military uniform definitely came as unexpected.
        "I am the fleet's Commander, Captain." He introduced himself to both of them with a quick nod and a single, stiff solute. "Commander Laquea, at your service."
        Holy shit. Jack barely held her tongue. "At ease, Commander. Thanks for coming."
        Julian's sudden coughing fit was almost not a terribly obvious attempt at hiding laughter. Somehow "thanks for coming" didn't seem... quite right. It was funny, though.
        Pretending as if she had no knowledge of his stifled response, Captain Veis continued as seriously as she felt she needed to. "I'm... frankly not certain what to do next." She felt it easier to admit upfront.
        The Fleet Commander nodded, getting the feeling that things were a lot more casual around the DarkHorse than he'd first thought. In actuality, that was a bit comforting... if not unusual. "Whenever you're ready, we should go through attack patterns. Defense maneuvers, orders, codes. All ships should be made aware of the plans and the patterns as soon as possible."
        That sounded like a damn fine idea. "Alright. Let's say all necessary personnel should meet on the DarkHorse's bridge in... an hour."
        "Very good, Captain." Another salute was offered... but then he just kinda... stood there.
        Ooooh, right. It'd been so long since she'd felt the need to be professional. "Dismissed, Commander."
        He seemed more than willing to leave them be. Not in the usual way, though--he more took on the mild look of an excited child, completely ready to seek out and discover new worlds... or at least see all the cool features of a talking ship.
        Julian shook his head, still amused. "This'll be a ride, huh?"
        Truth be told, she kinda felt like hitting him. Hard. Instead, she let a bitter-sweet grin run over her lips before she made to take off without him. She stopped just as the hallway curved, of course, waiting for him to catch up.
        The reaction had only been so unexpected. Walking alongside for a moment first, he pondered out loud, "And why an hour from now?"
        "Gives everyone time." She dismissed. "And, I'm hungry. We have a galley, may as well make use of it."
        "Just because we're on a more advanced ship doesn't mean the food is any better." He joked.

        The quality of a chef meant absolutely nothing without a similar quality of raw material to start off with... or better. Usually better was preferred. Not that she minded, really--her kitchen staff wasn't exactly bad or anything. She expected about the same of Julian's, give or take. Worst case scenario, they were teaching one another. That couldn't be... that bad... right? Better not to think about it, perhaps.
        All in all, it was like any really nice cafeteria. Still offering a surprising choice of foods, even. Jack made a note to try and stop in at a station to get more supplies in the very near future. Not only would it be helpful for morale, but she was going to run out of tea soon. That was a definite no. She needed the placebo comfort of that goddamn tea.
        While Julian loaded up on a couple of standard fares, she decided to stick to the supremely simplistic--something chicken-like, and a biscuit. Hungry though she was, she also knew that the likelihood of her stomach being able to take in that much food was probably pretty damn nonexistent. Laying prone in a hallway for a long period of time would only keep her heart rate and worse-case-scenario thoughts down for so long. Less than an hour away were plans... real plans. Defensive plans. Patterns. Domani could handle most of it, sure... but she'd probably still have to be there for final word. And both of them for final passwords. So much... finality...
        When she'd finally realized she'd spaced out, leaving her food untouched, her fellow captain was sitting across from her with his hands folded. Waiting. "Greetings from this dimension." he just barely maintained the energy to keep on the correct side of his mouth. "I thought you were hungry."
        His voice had been so even and cautious that she was starting to think she'd accidentally waited out the entire hour and missed the meeting. "Me too." She offered, trying not to let her thoughts get the better of her. Tearing the biscuit open, she found it a little more difficult to eat than she'd expected. She knew she had to get something down, though, so she tried not to look as if she were forcing herself.
        To very little avail. He couldn't really help but watch, running ideas through his mind that just might lighten the burden so she could just fucking eat... "You can wait until the meeting's over. If you'd rather."
        Would she rather? She wondered if it'd be any better then. "Eat." She decided to respond, seeing as how he hadn't touched a thing on his tray, either.
        "Hunger strike." He grinned. "I eat when you eat."
        That was... odd. She sat back with her arms crossed, looking amusingly defiant. "You may grow weak and waif-like."
        He mimicked her position, trying not to let his expression show the least bit of humor. "I may. So might you."
        This was ridiculous... but miraculously making her feel better. She gave him a half-serious death glare... then grabbed the bread and tore it into even smaller pieces, popping them into her mouth one by one.
        Feeling strangely deity-like, he picked up a fork and followed her lead. Hey, whatever worked.

        He'd never really seen her nervous before. Not like that, at least. It was more than unnerving. In some senses, the closer they got to "battle time"... the worse off she seemed to feel. His thoughts on the subject really culminated when he watched her simply stop as they got out of the lift just before the bridge. A full and complete halt.
        While he didn't turn back to watch, he didn't exactly move forward, either. He waited, hearing her long, indrawn breath. Stress? He was beginning to believe that it was a hell of a lot more than that.
        No matter. She'd done whatever she'd needed to, and began the walk again. Right into the bridge with all the pouring confidence she could muster. And he gave her credit for that, alright... but he was starting to believe perhaps that he could see the line of a mask, finally cracking...
        "Alright, how are we gonna win this thing?" she introduced herself.
        Pheta was there, of course. She had already been conversing with the Fleet Commander by the looks of it. The rest of the bridge crew gave nods and went back to their work, several mapping out positions on a small holographic grid, testing the sizes of the ships and how close they could get to one another safely.
        "Captain." Laquea greeted Jack specifically, turning from Pheta for the moment. "I had wanted to ask if you might be willing to use the Sephirot as a battleship."
        She nearly laughed at that. "I'm not sure it's up to the task. Even with repairs..."
        He nodded once, understanding. "It could be useful, however."
        As a distraction... Well, it wasn't as if the ship didn't deserve to go down in a blaze of glory. It'd served very well. "If it can be of help, then feel free." She relented, suppressing every memory of the lost Black Albatross that she possibly could.
        "You can use the Durago, too." Julian chimed in, understanding.
        "Thank you." Commander Laquea responded with yet another nod, turning back to Captain Veis. "Are you ready for long strings of protocol?" he joked dryly.
        Pheta could see it. Hell, even Julian could see it. Jack had tensed--not her facial expression, so it was very unlikely that anyone who didn't know her would have caught it at least. She'd almost completely frozen up... and that was not something that she did.
        Ready? What a question. She swallowed with a dry throat, feeling her body give a moment's pause to her mind's seeming blankness. A beat too long... she knew her answer had come a beat too late, but she tried anyway. "Ready as I'll ever be, I think."
        While the response had been a sleek and unquestionable as ever... Pheta used very gentle but precise words. "We've got this quite under control for now, actually. Feel free to go get some rest or do something a little more entertaining until you get called back."
        Jack blinked at the sentiment rather than the words. Was it that transparent? No matter, it wasn't something to question to that extent. Not with so many other things swirling around her head. Truth was, she felt exhausted. Damn. She'd been sleeping far too much lately... or maybe not quite enough? It was honestly a little hard to remember. "If you're sure you can handle things here." She partially joked.
        The woman nodded, successfully keeping all else unaware of her captain's near slip. "Entirely. But I'll call if I need you." She let a bit of humor slip in, then turned to Julian. "And you can take a breather, yourself."
        "Honored." He responded gratefully. How could he deny that gloriously sanctioned shrug-off of duty?

        Conversation on the way back to the Captain's Hall was at a minimum. And the shitty thing was, Jack wasn't even sure why. She'd known she'd tensed, nearly frozen... and she had a good idea that Pheta hadn't been the only one to notice... but damned if she were going to bring it up in conversation. Arriving in the lift, she wished Julian a pleasant good-night, even though it was early. Didn't matter; she'd gotten the impression that they'd both be sleeping soon, anyway.
        And he... decided to let it all go, for the time being. When she was ready... well, she'd let him know indirectly if nothing else. Until then, until he was certain about something going on in her head... he didn't want to push it. You didn't just poke at wounded animals. Well, not if you valued your life. If things got any worse... he'd have to confront her sooner or later. He liked to believe she knew better than to let a thing like that happen, though.
        The instant she'd walked into her quarters, clothes flew. No attempt was made at folding them up neatly or so much as placing them at the same location. They were simply shed like skin, directly on her way to the bedroom to change into more comfortable attire. Hardly any thought was given to the Niehder-cat cohabiting her home--until she saw his sleeping form in the room at the end of the hall. Lucky for her, she thought, and darted into the bedroom. Not that she assumed it would have been terribly inappropriate for Doxy to have caught her in her underwear, but... it might have seemed the slightest bit rude. A little strange that he wasn't on any of the furniture...
        Well, that much was easily solved. Apparently having heard her sliding a drawer shut, he stumbled down the hall and peeked into the bedroom with a wide yawn.
        She walked over and gave his ears a good scratch. "Hey, couch is free." She joked.
        He seemed to take her advice, enjoying the ear massage for another moment before finally taking his exit into the main room. The creaking of the somehow still-able-to-creak sofa was the satisfying indication that he'd found a more comfortable spot.
        She let herself smile a little with that idea. Kinda sweet in its own right... living with a giant cat that made his own use of her furniture and providing company. Staring down at the collapsed bed, she started to wonder about recent events. And then, finally laying down, her mind began to run as if to catch up with having been ignored earlier.
        Plans were being set... Domani was no doubt adding its two cents, if not running the whole operation... Pheta would brief the bridge crews once everything was settled. Then Julian and herself would be briefed. And would have to decide the next plans of action, it seemed.
        As for what she was going to do... what she wanted to do or felt was best... it caused her head to pound, quite literally. Could she really use the fleet for what ultimately amounted to her own purposes? Or any of the rest of them for that matter? Even crew members she'd worked with for a long time... could she ask anyone to put their lives in danger?
        Ugh. She felt more horribly sick than she ever had before, in her entire life. And that was counting certain boring nights spent with other psychotic assassins playing "will you eat this?" in an abandoned kitchen they'd already camped out in for a week. That wasn't a fun memory. The day after was even worse...
        Her stomach clenched, and she curled in on herself in an attempt to alleviate it... to find some sort of... comfort, for lack of a better word. The idea of sleeping was steadily becoming less and less realistic. Damned if she didn't try, though. Curled up tightly like some small animal under the covers, Spectre still at her side, she damn well made an attempt to fall asleep. In reality, she didn't really feel so tired in that way. Sleep simply... did not wish to grace her.
And then... she let herself wonder... if perhaps there were similar happenings across the hall. Not that there
would be... but she wondered. What a stupid idea. Didn't exactly stop her from wanting to just... peek out the giant window out there. Just to get the view. Maybe that'd lull her into sleep. Making her way to the door, she heard a quiet rustling behind her.
        "It's okay, Doxy." She whispered at the shining, tired eyes that greeted her from the couch. "I'll be back."
        The words seemed to satisfy him enough. With a sleepy grunt, he readjusted himself and closed his eyes again.

        There was an unmistakable tremble in her legs as she stood in front of that eye to the universe, that immaculate round window, overlooking the stars... At least there was no more debris in sight. She wasn't sure how well she'd be able to handle that one... not that it mattered, really. Part of space, now... floating throughout the cosmos.
        Less than a pleasant thought given the situation. Sure it was kind of beautiful--while the circumstances weren't favored, the idea that the exploded bits would eventually make their way into deeper regions of the universe than living creatures may ever hope to be able to explore was... grandiose. But in her state of mind, it kind of made her glance over to the other end of the hallway...
        --Now, really. What kind of an odd thought was that? She had no business disturbing the poor guy. He'd had to put up with quite enough. Anyone could see that. Blind and deaf Durshe buffalo could understand that.
        So... why did she feel the need to approach his door? Perhaps just to peek underneath and see if there was a light... which of course was impossible to determine. Well, maybe he was up. But then, maybe he wasn't... One knock couldn't hurt. Okay, a couple... not so loud. Just enough if he were awake and... well, close to the door. Alright, so it was a sad excuse for a knock, and she had no idea what she was trying to prove... eh. Maybe she could go back and get some sleep at least--
        Then, to her great surprise, the door slid open. Hair mussed, eyes half-focussed, he did actually manage to stumble to the door quickly enough to answer it. How the almost whisper-dim sound of quiet knocking had made its way to his bedroom and through his somewhat forced sleep was a mystery saved for another time.
        She felt almost a little ashamed for bothering him with no conceivable reason. "I was... uh... well, sorry. I didn't mean to wake you. I'll just go--"
        No appropriate words would be found in his throat--so he took action. Only firmly enough to be felt, he grasped her arm and gently tugged her inside. "I don't mind." He hadn't meant for his voice to be quite so serious... but he was almost immediately glad that it was.
        Her stomach felt... a little tight. Moreso than it had, even. Collapsing in on itself. It almost gave her the feeling of a cornered wild animal--
        And that look was a little painful. She'd come for something... and perhaps now that she thought she might find it, she was afraid of how close it was..? Maybe? No, didn't matter. No need to overanalyze, or even begin to develop an explanation any further than the moment. He flashed her as sincere of a smile as he could after being woken up just after he'd fallen asleep, releasing her arm. "Relax. You could use it."
        She caught herself, that insanely cornered instinct to just take off and run barely suppressed by common sense. Or... a not so common sense. Whatever the hell it was--she nodded, determined to at the very least pretend like this sort of thing happened all the time. With somewhat of a tired grace, she sat herself on the couch and leaned back.
        Satisfied enough, he joined her at a safe but not too great distance. He didn't really want to ask what she'd come for... it'd probably cause her to close off, hiding deeper into herself... But then, he couldn't live with himself not knowing, really. And, dammit, she'd just have to deal with it. In his mind, they'd gone way too far together to start backpedaling. He would let her advance at her own pace, though. After all, that's what brought her to his quarters in the first place.
        She gave the wall across from her a thorough staring at, trying to find... more than mere words. Ideas? The ability to express, perhaps... and suddenly she laughed a little. It was all ridiculous. Her feeling so trapped and weighted... waking Julian up and not knowing why, exactly... Burdens. They weren't real. Not unless a person decided to take them upon themselves... and, damn her, she did. She just wasn't a person to leave before finishing what they'd started... but they were taking a toll. She'd frozen, and that was... a horribly painful fact. Just for a moment, but... she had. If she'd done that in her assassin days, she'd have been taken out by her "own people" long ago. "I... don't know... what direction to aim for right now, I guess." She admitted, almost to herself. It wasn't a full explanation, but it was all she had to go on.
        Well, her laughter was a good sign, right? "Stars aren't lining up for you?"
        Quaint. "I seem to be following galaxies at a time... constantly moving... hard to pin down just one little star in all that." She sighed, knowing that wasn't... quite right. She was growing a little too tired and annoyed to care. And still it was all... ridiculous. Nonetheless... "Damn that need to understand."
        Regardless of the sentiment, he let the grin through. "Look, Jack... you just can't think of it that way."
        And while she appreciated his attempt at reassuring her... she shot him of look far stronger than mere skepticism. She was silent, however, ready to listen to what may lay behind his thinking.
        "At this point, it's more than just about you. Sorry to crash your ego." He looked like he'd just won a war single-handed, puffed up and proud of his bluntness. And of the initial sharp reaction it clearly got.
        She nodded, though. "I know it. It's not about me until I fuck it up royally."
        "Well then," he suggested ever so helpfully, "Don't do that."
        A very slightly amused sneer was written darkly on her lips. "I think a conversation with Doxy would have done me more good." She gave him a good-natured verbal back-hand.
        He chuckled, diverting his gaze for a moment... and then, all of a sudden, he stood up and held a hand out to her. Not even he was sure what the hell he was up to... but when she hesitantly grasped on without a word, he knew it didn't really matter. Silent, he led her to the doorway of his bedroom--where she stopped short, releasing her grip and giving him a look more curious than ultimately spiteful. He held up both hands almost as if to show he weren't armed, quiet assurance that he wasn't planning anything like that... then reached for her hand again, gently pulling her toward the bed.
        She... was a little too surprised to do much more than follow him as he lay down, getting tugged along with him. At first, the thoughts generally running through her head were pretty obvious... but when he only stretched one arm out and coaxed her to lay down next to him, the anxiety faded. How that was possible, she didn't even care to waste energy on figuring out at that point in time.
        It all came as a major surprise. Both the idea that he'd actually taken her into his bedroom, and certainly the fact that she had laid next to him, her head lightly on his arm, without protest. There were... a million things they could talk about. Theories of the universe, of life and mind and experience... but what seemed most poignant, most meaningful, was the casual comfort of the silence. It was easy, perfect, and unforced. "You really need some sleep, Jack." He offered quietly.
        And, despite her knowing better... or feeling she knew better... she let the weight of her head fall completely on his shoulder and closed her eyes. Within seconds, she was blissfully asleep.
        He allowed himself one soft stroke of his fingers through her hair... then decided to take what he was offered and leaned back, letting sleep fall back over him.

Content copyright Orin Drake 2011.
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