A/N: Hello my lovelies! I have returned from the dead, not with Elder Scrolls or Fallout, but this time The Outer Worlds.

I love this game. I love my Captain. I love Ellie. And there is not enough Ellie fics on here, let alone Ellie romance fics.

So here. Happy birthday.

Also: WHY ARE THERE NO OUTER WORLDS FICS ON THIS SITE?

This fic will probably be another chapter long, I think. We'll see.

A/N

"Alex Hawthorne," she says, swirling the name around her mouth like bad alcohol. She sucks back another long drag of her Stogie Slim, ignoring the way Dr. Mfuru glares at her. "Yeah, I've heard the name before. Smuggler, aren't you? Your ship's the Unreliable?"

"The one and only."

"So it's true, then, that you smuggled all the Lemon Slapps out of Cascadia before the town went to shit?"

"Yeah. You're welcome, by the way."

"And that you boarded a freighter and nicked their shield servo without them noticing?"

"Sure, why not."

"I also heard on the Aetherwaves that you blew an entire marauder crew out the airlock of their own ship."

"Well, if it's on the Aetherwaves, it must be true."

Ellie smirks and works her jaw, eyeing this captain from head to foot, and the man smiles back.

She's been around enough liners and hotdogger mercenaries to know half the shit they prattle about isn't true, but nevertheless, she appreciates the attempt. Style does count for something, she figures.

But she likes him. He looks capable enough, well-armoured and well-equipped, so she lets him talk to Mfuru, lets him square her debt with Jessie. Which means she's in his debt now.

Great.

"Look, Hawthorne," she says later, watching Jessie disappear into the crowded street outside the med bay. "I don't know why you helped me out back there, but you did, and I owe you one. Hm. Tell you what – I'm a little short on bits at the moment, but I'm a decent scrapper and better-than average sawbones. If you're looking for a medic, I can work my debt off."

The Captain crosses his arms and smirks. He's good-looking enough, for a drifter, his jaw strong and his eyes sharp and his brown hair unruly, like it can't be truly tamed. "Hm," he says. "You really don't like owing people, do you?"

"No, I don't."

"Well, I didn't do it so you'd owe me. How about you give me your pack of Stogies and we call it even?"

"What, these Stogies? Sorry, can't. These cancer sticks are like gold 'round here. Worth sixty bits a pop."

"Well then, welcome aboard..."

"Ellie."

"Right. Ellie," he says, shaking her hand. "Welcome aboard."

He never does tell her why he did it.

But she follows him to his ship.

She never looks back.

000

There are others on the ship, other crackpots and misfits, and it makes her wonder if she's lumped in with them now too.

There's the engineer so spineless she just about melts to jello at a glare or sharp word, and the pretentious preacher with an all-encompassing need to be right, and that kid she's seen down in the Back Bays, eager and annoying as a canid pup. There's even a useless reprogrammed cleaning robot.

"So what does that make me, Vicky?"

"It's Vicar, Ms. Fenhill. And this isn't one of Felix's bootleg dramas."

"But if it was?"

"If it was, you'd be the abrasive asshole who ignores the 'do no harm' principle of your medical training."

"I thought you were the abrasive asshole, Vicky."

Well, maybe the Vicar's right. But she'll never tell him that.

The Captain brings along a shiny sniper rifle he says he dug out of the steaming guts of a Primal back in Emerald Vale. Ellie doesn't believe him. Neither does the Vicar. Felix does, of course, but Parvati's the only one who was with him when he claims it happened, and she's not saying anything.

"I saw… well, Law, Ms. Fenhill, I'm not too sure what I saw. I mean, it looked like a Primal and all, but it smelled real bad and I didn't want to get too close to it, you know, on account of all the N-Rays still around it and such, but the Captain did come back with his shiny rifle after our run-in with the beasts, so who knows."

Parvati talks too much, almost more than Felix. She's like a mock-apple pie, all brown and crusty on the outside, but warm and gooey and way too sweet in the middle, liable to turn to mush once too many people start poking in their fingers – and as much as Ellie's irritated by the girl, she doesn't want to stick around when that happens.

The rifle is silver and almost iridescent if looked at in the setting sun, like it's been stripped of its paint or something, and it's modded and rebound and the Captain even named the fucking thing.

"The… Asscrack Expander."

"Yeah. Like it?"

"Captain, with all due respect – what the fuck?"

And he laughs and says it's a perfect name, really, because it does tear them a new asshole.

Ellie can't argue with him.

000

The Captain doesn't say much when they camp the night in Roseway. Actually, he doesn't say much at all.

Parvati tells her that before Ellie joined the crew, and even before the Vicar did, the Captain diverted the power to Edgewater and convinced the deserters to return.

He also kicked out Reed Tobson.

"I mean, I never really liked Mr. Tobson, to be sure, but I don't think he deserved what he got."

Ellie cleans her pistol in the firelight and takes a sidelong glance at the Captain, on watch over the ridge a ways. She prides herself on three things above all in Halcyon:

Her pistol, her medical prowess, and her ability to keep people at arms length.

Lonely? Maybe. Safe? Always.

"Why? What did he get?"

Parvati frowns. "Exile."

"Hm. That's not so bad, Parvati. I mean, the guy's still alive, right?"

"Well that's just it, Ms. Fenhill. He wasn't dead. But the Captain kicked him out of town and made him go out into the wilds all alone."

"So? He didn't kill him. Anyone else would have."

"…I think maybe he should have."

Ellie blinks. "What?"

"There are worse things than dyin', Ms. Fenhill. Bein' all alone in the world is one of them, especially with monsters all around you in the dark."

Ellie's heart nearly breaks with the crushing truth of that.

000

The Captain says his name is Alex Hawthorne, but the Vicar tells her one night he thinks the man is lying.

It's not in the way he holds himself, Max says. No, the Captain is so sure of himself he could give half his confidence away and still have too much. And it's not in the way he handles things either – the Captain is brilliant with his rifle and even better at talking his way out of – or into – situations.

It's the way the young man says his name. A certain coolness, a small dither, a tiny little dip in his voice when he says Captain Alex Hawthorne. His charm is undeniable and his ability to lead others, to rally people to his cause, makes Ellie believe that he very well could be Alex Hawthorne, dashing smuggler of some renown.

"His armour is obviously stolen, Ellie. So's his gun. And the ship. And don't you think the real Hawthorne would have enough caps to actually pay his crew?"

She doesn't notice the Vicar's observations. And truthfully, she doesn't care. The Vicar is so uptight about things Ellie's certain his ass must ache all the time from being clenched too fucking tight. The man is like Rizzo's Lemon Slapp – slick and bright-looking, but sour and in denial over fading away to Rizzo's massive Purpleberry line, somehow believing it's special and quietly better than the rest.

He knows a lot without knowing a lot.

"ADA says he's Hawthorne, Vicky, and I've learned long ago not to fuck around with robots," she says, mouth full, leaning back in the kitchen chair to ping another purpleberry crunch nugget at SAM's back.

Max sighs.

000

Ellie's room on the Unreliable is small, with space enough for a desk and some crates and a dress form for her leather jacket when she's not wearing it. And the bed is small, too, but surprisingly more comfortable than any other ship bed she's slept on in the past. She thinks that maybe it's because no one has ever slept in it before.

So she asks him about it one day.

"The bed? I don't know, Els, probably not," he says, stepping over a freshly killed raptidon, wiping acidic blood from his face. "I mean, your room's right beside the kitchen, so I'd think not many people would want everyone to hear them jerking off in the night."

Ellie smirks at the thought, and at the new nickname she's just received. "Well, wouldn't you know?"

Hawthorne blinks. "Know what?"

"If anyone's ever slept in my bed before."

"How the hell should I know?"

"It's your fucking ship."

"I don't pay attention to where people sleep on my ship, Fenhill. I don't give a rat's ass."

"Well, you know where my room is, don't you?"

"That's because I can hear you jerking off in the night. Those prefab walls are thinner than they look."

Ellie smiles.

She doesn't notice the sagging way he says his own name, not like the Vicar does, but she's beginning to suspect that maybe the man isn't from Halcyon.

He spends a lot of time with Max during transit, just listening about the Plan and Laws of the solar system (Scientism? Really?). She's caught his fervent tossball debates with Felix over meals (wait, so how many players are on the field?) and the excited rush of Parvati's infodump of corporations and their respective weapons (there's a company called CircusTime? Really?).

She's heard his muffled gasp at seeing the infinite starry sky surrounding Scylla for the first time, and he does stare an awful lot at his datapad map.

Also, he says strange things sometimes.

"Uh, Captain?" Felix squints in the ruddy glow of the Last Hope's corner booth. "What's a hot potato?"

"What?"

"A hot potato. You just said hot potato."

"What? No I didn't."

"Yeah you did."

"Felix, I –"

"Sorry, Captain, but you did say it," Ellie says, swooping to Felix's rescue before Hawthorne reaches across the table and twists the kid's ear again. "You said, and I quote: 'sounds like Monarch is the love child of a really bad bender and a political hot potato.' You then said 'sounds like fun' and mentioned Sublight and crazy bitch in the same sentence, but I won't tell Lilya."

The Captain frowns and takes a prolonged sip of his Zero Gee, drilling holes with his glare at the eyes around the table in turn.

A long moment passes.

"I didn't say shit."

Sometimes there's no arguing with the man.

And its only years later, after all this is done, that he will finally tell Ellie what a potato is. And Ellie will send Felix, wherever he is, a long-range message telling him too.

Felix won't respond.

000

They're on the Groundbreaker refuelling when she first sees him do it. Just a quick little thing, perceptible to no one and nothing but Ellie's sharp eyes.

Hawthorne winces and stops where he is, his fists clenched tight into balls, the skin of his knuckles stretched white over them.

He catches her eye.

"You're hurt?" she says.

"You care?"

"I'm a doctor, smartass. Is it bad?"

"I'm fine. Just a headache. From all this neon and recycled air, you know."

It's a lie and it's a weak one. Her Captain cradles his arm and flexes his hand, rotating his wrist to let the blood move.

"Alex, I'm a pretty damn good doctor."

"Don't be so modest, Els."

"I studied anatomy back in med school. I don't recall any arm ligaments or vessels connecting to the brain."

He says nothing.

"What happened?"

"Does it matter?"

"Of course it matters!" she chides, giving him a light shove. "If you're hurting –"

"I'm fine," he bites, rubbing at his temple. He reaches into his travelling bag and pulls out a bottle with the label ripped off, shakes out the contents, and swallows three pills without any water. "Just a headache. I'm fine."

He walks away.

000

Ellie keeps her distance. Not just from the Captain, but from them all. Just assume everyone's out for themselves and you'll never get taken for a fool. You'll never be disappointed.

She's been told before by another merc on a long-distance hauler once that she was harder than Chaw and colder than space. To anyone else that might've been a hurtful thing, but Ellie wore that with pride.

Literally. She had a patch made and sewn onto her leather jacket.

"Harder than Chaw and colder than space," the Captain mused, squinting at the patch on her shoulder. "Hm. You plan on going public with that slogan, or is your PR team still working on it?"

Felix laughs, nearly choking on his food. Parvati claps his back.

"It's not a slogan, smartass. It's my motto."

"What's a motto, boss?" Felix coughs.

"Nothing, what's a motto with you?"

Ellie would have removed herself from the kitchen if she hadn't only sat down to eat.

"Law, it's like being around a throng of schoolchildren in here," the Vicar snorts, skirting the edge of the kitchen around the childish laughter seizing the room.

"For once I agree, Vicky."

"A motto's a… saying, I guess. Something you, uh, follow. Live by. Max?"

"Hm. Our illustrious leader, ever the silver-tongued charlatan." The Vicar joins them at the table. "A motto is a maxim: a phrase meant to formally summarize the general motivation or intention of an individual, family, social group, or organization."

"There you go, Felix. Clear as mud."

Felix screws his brows. "So your – intention is what, Ellie?"

"I don't know," she shrugs. "Stick to myself. Don't trust anyone as far as you can throw them."

"That's – that's no way to live, Ms. Ellie," Parvati frowns. "Everyone needs something."

"Besides a smoke and some privacy?"

"Our crew's like a machine. All the parts got to work together, else we'll shake ourselves to pieces."

"I'm not really one for metaphors, Parvati."

"We all need each other to work right. We need a medic, and an engineer, and a pilot, and fighters, and someone smart to set things right – that's you, Max – and we need a leader. We can't all be these things. Everyone needs everyone else."

The table is silent for a moment, each ruminating on Parvati's words.

Ellie bristles uncomfortably.

"The only thing I need is some fucking sleep and for people to stay the hell out of my business."

She leaves her food uneaten and storms away to her room.

The walls are thin indeed, and she hears their murmurs late into the night.

Don't take it to heart, Parvati.

Yeah. If that were true, she wouldn't be here.

000

They stop at that derelict station again, the one that looks like a floating piece of shit with frayed wires and bits of space junk floating around it, far away from anything else, right on the edge of the system.

Hawthorne is the only one that exits the Unreliable when they dock here.

Ellie is starting to think there's more to Hawthorne's story than he's willing to let on.

"There is nothing of interest for you here," ADA stoically says when she asks her. "Captain Hawthorne has… private business to attend to."

She's considering making Parvati rewire the damned ship pilot robot thing, just so she can get some answers.

"I would advise against that," the pilot says. "I am hardwired into the Unreliable. Removing or altering my code sequences would likely send us plunging into the nearest star."

She gives up on that plan rather quickly.

000

"Hey, Felix."

"Yeah?"

"Wanna hear a joke?"

"Sure."

"Sex."

"…I don't get it."

"I know you don't."

000

Ellie is no stranger to one-night-stands and passing flings, skittering around haulers and cargo liners a good slice of her life, and it's been a long time since she's done anything with anyone. So when they finally land in Stellar Bay, she's quietly thrilled the Captain makes a straightaway for the local bar.

They're supposed to be meeting someone, some hunter who will guide them through the wilderness to their next stop on Hawthorne's increasingly dangerous and seedy secret quest or whatever he wants to call it, and they find her there, smashed far beyond all reasonable limits, and while he's charming her up at the bar, Ellie takes a look around the place.

The stench of fish and sulfur is almost unbearable, and factory smog and cigar smoke makes her eyes water, but that's maybe a good thing, seeing as the 'men' in here are a saltuna can's throw away from being mantisaurs themselves.

"You think the Captain is bent, Ellie?"

Ellie closes her eyes, sighs, and turns halfway to where Felix is seated beside her.

"What are you drinking, Millstone? Of fucking course the Captain's not bent, look at him."

Felix is the thickest guy she's ever met. Honestly, SAM is programmed to spew cleaning jingles and the robot is brighter than him. Felix reminds her of Tarmac and Cheese – dull, artificially coloured, and the classic baseline meal, always influenced by the addition of something else, be it salt and pepper, or cisty-dogs, or mock-ketchup. Also way too cheesy.

"I know, I mean, he's full of charm and he's smooth and all, and – don't tell him I said this – he's not ugly, either. It's just – I don't know," he shrugged, wincing as the Iceberg whiskey burned its way down his throat. "He's Captain Hawthorne! He could have any woman he wants, any one of them here. But he won't, just watch. And he hasn't yet, right? Have you noticed? I think he's gay."

Ellie ruminates on her own Iceberg.

Fuck, the kid is right.

Of all the places they'd been and the people they met, not once has she seen the man slip away with anyone, man or woman. He's not ugly – not at all – and he could charm his way into a marauder's pants if he wanted.

So… why?

Maybe it's the alcohol burning through her, or the low ache of need denied too long, or maybe it's just her desire to prove the kid wrong that made her do it.

Anyway, she downs the last of her drink, wipes her mouth, and slides in behind Hawthorne.

"Hey, Cap."

Hawthorne turns slow, eyes lidded and groggy with drink, and gives her a lopsided smile.

"Hey Els. This is Nyoka, our guide."

"The woman you dragged us halfway across the system for?"

"Yeah. She's a hunter, I guess."

"Not just a hunter," Nyoka slurs, "the hunter. And your guide. And I'm gonna – I'm gonna guide the fuck outta you all, and get you… where you need to go…"

The hunter's head slips from her hand and smacks down onto the bar.

"Charming."

"What do you want, Ellie?"

She huffs. "What do I want? What makes you assume I want anything?"

"The only time you come to me is when you want something."

She frowns. Bites her lip. Tries to look enticing.

"Fine. You caught me."

Not one for words, Ellie reaches up, grabs Hawthorne's unruly hair in her fist, and brings him down to her, kissing him.

It's sloppy and wet and he tastes like cigarettes and rye, but it's… not bad. The heat creeps up her neck and she can feel the Captain kissing back, simply famished, and he slides a warm hand round her waist, and his stubble scratches her lips and her palm, and then she lets go, breathing hard and so is he, and she grins wickedly, stealing his drink, and all she says is, "Fuck, Alex, you kiss like you've been deprived of snatch for a hundred years."

She turns around, back to a wide-eyed, gaping Felix.

Ellie shrugs. "Definitely not bent."

The kid chokes on his whiskey.

000

For being a treacherous, sulfurous, slithering shithole, Monarch is sort of… pretty.

Like Nyoka.

The woman is brash and rude and sinfully sharp all at once, and Ellie loves it. Loves the way she gives no shits, takes no prisoners. Loves how she downs a bottle of Zero Gee before she tears out her machine gun, and how she keeps a bottle of vodka beneath her overcoat, and how effortlessly she can read the terrain, as easily as the Vicar reads his sermons.

She's almost jealous of the woman.

"Shit, the bridge is down," the hunter announces, already reaching for a drink. "We'll make camp here tonight and head on around the river in the morning."

Before Ellie sits to clean her pistol like she does every night, she follows the woman down the bank to the river.

"Hey."

"Hey."

The river flows from the north behind a bluff to pass before them, twisting around the steep banks, and disappears to the south, the beginning and end unseen.

"Beautiful, ain't it?"

"Yeah, sure, I guess. If you ignore the way it burns your skin and the flesh-eating fish in it."

"Hm. You know, I've seen this river a thousand times. Crossed it a thousand more. But I never really thought about it before."

"About what?"

"About where the water came from. About where it's going."

Nyoka uncorks her vodka and takes a long swig.

"I know it's weird. But… lately I've been thinking just how strange it is. I mean, the river's the river, and it's always there. Always will be. But the water flowing through is never the same. And it never stops. It's always changing, always moving."

She swallows down something old and painful, something Ellie can't see.

"Dr. Fenhill –"

"Just Ellie."

"Fine, Just Ellie. Be truthful with me, okay?"

"Sure."

"You think people can change?"

Ellie thinks long and hard on this one.

"I want to say no. I want to say that people are always who they are born as. And that's partly true. I don't know if a man can change himself, but I know that roads can sometimes change you. Walking them always changes you. Sometimes in small ways, and sometimes in big ones. Every step moves you. Closer. Or further away. Are you the same? I think so. But I think the way you walk might change."

"And what do you think would happen if you forgot all your roads?"

It's not a question, and she knows it.

Ellie shrugs, lighting up a Stogie Slim, and offering one to the hunter.

"Lost in this wasteland. You must have a better answer than me."

000

The Vicar kills the man behind the walls of Fallbrook, and he's never the same again.

Ellie knows his anger bubbled to the surface sometimes like the sulfur pits around them, but she never thought the priest would coldly murder.

"He's been in prison," Parvati whispers to her. "On Tartarus."

And suddenly a whole lot more makes sense to her now.

000

"Captain, can I have a word with you?"

Hawthorne looks like he might just piss himself, or vomit. Or maybe both, which would be funny.

"Sure. What's up?"

Ellie makes him sit down on the other stool across from her. She's sucking back another Stogie and hands him one. He takes it, and she notices his trembling hands. Been noticing that a lot lately.

"A couple things, actually," she begins. "First – I want to talk about my debt. I've paid it off, I reckon."

"You reckon?"

"Yeah, I do. Now, I've been thinking, and yes, I'll stay on as your medic and hired gun, but no, I won't do it for five-hundred bits. I'll take no less than a thousand."

"Right."

"Per week."

He whistles. "Steep."

"It's a steal, considering I saved your ass from that mantiqueen acid today. Tell me of any other medic in the system who could've done better. I'll wait."

"Seven-fifty?"

"Nine hundred."

"Eight."

"Eight-fifty."

"Eight."

She smirks, shaking his hand. "Sure. Figure I'd stay awhile, make sure you don't get yourself killed. I actually don't hate you, despite what you may think. Glad I'll still be kicking around."

"Likewise."

"Plus I'll be getting first dibs on whatever loot we come across – after you, of course."

"Then you better start washing your goddamned dishes after you use them."

"That's what SAM is for, isn't it?"

He laughs, and then he sucks in a sharp breath, clutching at his head.

Her eyes narrow.

"That's the second thing, Alex."

His eyes narrow back.

"You gotta tell me what the hell is going on with you."

He grunts, pulling out that unlabelled bottle and downing about five of those pills.

"Nothing."

"I don't have time for this, Captain. It's getting worse, I can see it. You and I both know the only reason that mantiqueen spit on you is because you had a spell and just about passed out."

He rubs at his brow. "You… wouldn't understand."

"I'm a fucking doctor. Try me."

He grinds his teeth, thinking of a way to word it all.

"I… think I have hibernation sickness."

Ellie blinks. "What?"

"Yeah."

"You… you were in stasis? When? For how long?"

"From – Hesperides," he says, denoting the mining asteroid a few light-years away. "I didn't want to be awake for the journey, so I hopped aboard a passenger ferry and slept it away."

She's not sure if he's lying to her or not, because he won't meet her eye, but she reckons there must be a grain of truth somewhere in there.

"Well. For hibernation sickness I'd recommend drinking plenty of fluids and taking it easy, neither of which you ever do."

"Right."

"I'd also suggest we pick up some reactive kinematics next time we're on Groundbreaker. Might make your headaches and limb pain a bit less severe."

"Sounds expensive."

"Nothing a captain with a paying crew can't afford."

He smiles, massaging and flexing his arm. "Thanks, Els."

She deflects. "Hey, it's in my best interest to keep you alive now."

"Sure."

It hangs in the air between them now, heavy and unspoken, yet practically screaming in their faces.

"Is there… something else you wanted to talk to me about?"

Fuck him.

She sighs, feeling a headache of her own encroaching.

"Look, Cap, about the other night in that bar – I was drunk and hard up and Felix said you were bent and I needed to prove him wrong. That's all that was."

"Hm. Right," he begins, a slick smile sliding up his face. "That's all it was."

"Truer words have never been spoken."

"So did you?"

"Did I what?"

"Prove him wrong?"

"Well shit, I think so. I mean, you kiss like a horny teenager, but not a gay horny teenager, you know?"

"Thanks, my fragile ego is shattered."

"Fuck off, Cap, your ego is so big it makes a Primal's dick look small."

He laughs. Then she laughs.

"Really, Alex, I – apologise," she manages. "It won't happen again."

"Are you sure?"

"I'm sure. I don't do touchy-feely, alright? And I most definitely don't do crewmembers and captains. Too messy."

"What, you afraid of catching feelings or something?"

"No, I'm afraid of nothing, I'll have you know. But I'm not too keen on getting a knife between my ribs, if you catch my drift."

"I do. Harder than Chaw and colder than space."

"Exactly."

"Doesn't it ever get tiring? Don't you ever get lonely?"

"Nah. That's what alcohol and quickies are for."

"I mean – personally. Don't you ever feel alone?"

"What, you mean like friends? Like getting all mushy and warm and confiding your sins? Having someone to talk to?"

"Sure."

"We're talking right now."

"I know."

She paused, and he smirked.

"Goodnight, Els."

He got up and left, but not before snatching the Stogie from between her numb fingers.

000

Ellie dreams.

Or rather, she has nightmares.

It's the same one she's been having a while now, the one where she's on Groundbreaker peddling her contract or something equally boring, and then the pack of feral canids show up and chase her down, biting at her ankles, gaining on her and gaining on her. Groundbreaker dissolves and she's in Byzantium again, outside the university, the polished metal and stone almost making her blind. She turns then, and the pack of canids melts into her parents, into marauders and spacers, into the crew of the Silvercove, into Caster.

She awakes in a cold sweat and reminds herself why she's hard as Chaw and cold as space.

000

"You should style your hair, Vicky. I think a nice faux hawk could give you that don't fuck with me vibe you're working on, you know?"

"I mostly use my face for that."

000

They get a scare when Felix and Nyoka drag Hawthorne through the gates of Fallbrook, bleeding and unconscious.

"A goddamned monster of a raptidon!" Nyoka wheezes, a sordid blend of horror and ecstasy in her voice as she helps Ellie and the rest of the crew haul him onto the bed of their rented house. "A legendary beast!"

"Is he – is he – is he gonna be okay, Doc?" Felix trembles, pale as a sprat.

"I'm not sure, kid, it doesn't look too good right now –"

"Doctor."

She blinks up at Max and then at Felix, who looks about ready to pass out himself.

"Right. Uh, yeah, he's fine, Felix. Why don't you go back to the landing pad and grab some water and adreno and extra bandages for me, alright? Parvati, you go too."

Felix nods, and vacates the cramped room with the engineer.

"How bad is he really, doctor?"

She pries off his bloodied and melted armour with deft fingers, and the Vicar helps, and Nyoka takes a swig of her vodka to calm her trembling hands before she assists them as well.

"Ah. Not too good. The rapt must have been really fucking angry with you guys."

"Ha! Understatement of the century, Fenhill, you should've seen it! The monster was asleep and the Captain wanted to go round it, but Felix and I knew we could take it on – turns out the thing was down the hill a whole lot farther than we thought, 'cause it comes barrelling up towards us and it's getting bigger and bigger and it's calling all it's other rapt friends, right? And –"

"You should've listened to him, Nyoka," the Vicar seethes. "You should have left the beast well alone and traversed as far as you could around it like the Captain said."

"Now look here, preacher, I ain't one to run from a good hunt –"

"Just – leave."

"I –"

"Leave!"

The hunter tosses her empty bottle on the floor a little too aggressively and groans. "Whatever. I'm gettin' drunk."

The Vicar sighs, catching Ellie's eye. "That wouldn't have happened if Nyoka wasn't drunk and Felix wasn't so impressionable."

"I know."

The Captain gained a few days bedrest and a badass scar from it all, and Max and Ellie gained a new appreciation for the other and an unspoken resolution: one of us must always be there with the Captain. For his own fucking sake.

000

Ellie reads in her spare time.

Not that she has much spare time, mind you, but on quiet nights aboard the Unreliable when Nyoka passes out early and Felix's serials end sooner than he thought, she reads.

Not boring old textbooks like the Vicar has stacked to the ceiling of his room – no, she's read enough of those in her youth to last her a lifetime. And she doesn't read heroic tales and comics like Felix and Parvati do, the ones with overly-characterised tropes and impossible situations with their always happy endings.

No. She reads poetry.

She downloads poems of all types from the Aetherwave onto her datapad and keeps them in several layers of folders so no one could ever accidentally stumble upon them by accident.

Except the Captain, of fucking course.

"What's this, Els?"

And she nearly has a heart attack when he pops his head from her doorway, datapad in hand.

She's never flown so fast from the kitchen and into her room in her life.

"What the fuck do you think you're doing?"

"Looking for my datapad," he staggers as Ellie slams the bedroom door shut behind her. "I can't find it."

"Why the hell do you think I'd have it?"

"I don't know, you're the one dealing with our inventory and manifests, so I figured –"

"Well I don't, okay, so you can just fuck off now."

She snatches the datapad from his hand and he smiles a deadly smile.

"I didn't know you read poetry, Ellie."

Architect, strike me down now.

"I don't, okay? It's – it's from my mom, she sends me stuff sometimes."

"No she doesn't. You haven't spoken to your mother in years."

"I don't – I mean I never – I –"

"It's okay, Els," he says, and all she wants to do is smack that stupid smirk off his stupid face. "I knew you were a romantic deep down, somewhere. Very deep."

"You –"

"We all have our kinks. Max jerks off to his god or whatever, Felix to his tossball stick, and I've caught Parvati dry-humping the fusion reactor once or twice. Okay, that's a lie. But I've seen Nyoka do it. I just thought yours was your leather jacket or your switchblade or something, not Homer's Odyssey."

Ellie runs a hand over her face. "I would rather melt into the floor than be having this conversation with you right now."

"You know what my kink is?"

"I don't care."

"Leather jackets and switchblades."

"Don't fucking test me, Hawthorne, I swear to all the gods –"

He ducks under her swing and slips out the door, locking the door to his own room tight behind him.

May be the smartest thing he's ever done.

She gets a ping from her datapad as she's just getting into bed, from Hawthorne.

Els.

Found my datapad. Left it by ADA's console, oops.

Found something you might like.

There's a link to an Aetherwave article and a poem she's read before, Song of Myself by Walt Whitman, an old Earth poet. It's sweet but she's read it before.

She reads it again.

Another ping on her datapad, another message from the Captain.

Els.

I read it. Nice, if a little flowery and long. I especially liked this part:

'All goes onward and outward, and nothing collapses,

And to die is different from what anyone supposed,

And luckier.'

What do you think that means?

Ellie sends off her own message.

It means go the fuck to sleep Alex, we have a long day tomorrow.

She hesitates, then sends another one.

It means everything we do in life is meaningless. Whether we choose to be a doctor or choose to be a smuggler doesn't matter. We all end up dead at the end of it.

He sends back:

But we choose. That's the difference.

000

Nyoka simply collapses in front of the five graves before her.

A pang of guilt rips through Ellie's heart for the woman.

She's quiet that night at camp, and they both keep an eye on her, fearful she might wander off and drown herself in alcohol or the river. But she's asleep now, breathing in deep, steady breaths for perhaps the first time in a very long time.

Ellie respects the woman immensely, even considers her a not-quite-friend-but-almost-maybe-close-enough. They just get each other, but this – this is beyond her comprehension.

How could someone so strong be so utterly weak? How could she let those people shake her to her very core? Make her linger on this planet for far too long, make her see ghosts in corners and guilt in every blade of grass?

"It doesn't make you weak," Hawthorne whispers, careful not to wake the hunter. "It makes you stronger."

"I don't see how."

"They were a team of six. Six guns are better than one."

"Unless the others are all pointed at your back."

He ignores her. "But it's not only that – they made each other stronger. They helped one another. Became better people. And now that they're gone – Nyoka will be stronger than before, and not because she only needs to worry about food enough for her, but because she lived through it all and can take that with her. They were her family. But I think she's found a new one now."

"I still don't get it."

"I hope someday you do."

000

Hiram Blythe is a fucking asshole. So is Graham, and Sanjar, and Catherine, and everyone else on this stinking shithole of a planet.

They all want something from them, from the Captain: Hiram wants his broadcast tower, Graham wants a revolution, Sanjar wants a promotion, and Catherine – well, Catherine wants to get into Hawthorne's pants, plain as day, but she also wants control of everything on Monarch under Sublight's greasy thumb.

"Fuck her. Fuck him. Fuck them all," she spits, kicking at the already rotting door of the derelict prefab house they're camped in.

Hawthorne smirks. "Jesus, Els, you're so wound up. Maybe you should rub one off. Me and Nyoka will plug our ears, honestly."

"Speak for yourself, Captain."

"Ha."

"Doesn't this bother you?"

"Doesn't what bother me?"

"This! All of this! These pricks asking for handouts all the time! And you – you're just giving them what they want. Always. Why?"

Nyoka passes him a cigarette and he lights it, shrugging. "I need their help."

"No you don't. You don't need anyone's help, Alex. Fuck them all. Let's just leave this fucking place, run some Sublight contracts. You don't need to get involved with the Iconoclasts and MSI."

"I do."

"Why?"

"What's this really about Ellie?"

Ellie fumes and Nyoka gets the hint.

"This is way too hot for me, and I ain't drunk enough to deal with theatrics. I'm taking point," she says, stumbling out of the prefab.

The door slams shut.

"So?"

"I just – I don't get it. Why you're doing all this for everyone. Why you need their help."

"There's… something I'm involved in. Something I need. Something big. I need information to get it. Hiram has that information. He needs his broadcast tower to deliver that information, and MSI and the Iconoclasts are junking up the airwaves with their propaganda."

"Deliver it to who?"

"That's all you need to know."

Ellie is not satisfied, not in the slightest.

"What's this something big? I want in."

Hawthorne laughs. "No, you really don't."

She runs a hand through her short hair. "Fine. Fine. Whatever. Fine."

"I get the feeling it's not fine, Els."

"Just – be careful, Cap. That's all I'll say. Nothing's free in this universe or the next one. Don't give them more than you take."

"Balance, then. Smart."

"No, not balance. Entropy."

"Entropy. How so?"

"Be unpredictable. Have no order or reason to it all. Make them guess."

"Descend into chaos, you mean."

"Yeah. Maybe a little bit."

Ellie bites her lip, then finally takes a seat beside her Captain.

"I fell in love once. To a ship captain."

Hawthorne's eyes widen.

"His name was Caster. Dashing, roguish, handsome, he had it all. He had my contract for six years on his ship the Silvercove, too. A smaller C-class freighter. I was the crew's medic, fresh out of school, my first real placement. There was nine of us."

Some beast howls in the night outside.

"We docked at Groundbreaker one day to unload a shipment, and the mardets come and arrest me. I spent three fucking months in that cell, and not once did any of them come back for me."

"How did you get out?"

"I bribed the guard."

"With what?"

She doesn't answer that. She doesn't need to.

"Spent the next year searching for the Silvercove. Found it on Terra 2, in some backwater skug-hole of a town called Wellspring. Walked in on Caster fucking some whore. First thing he says to me is "How did you find out about your bounty?" My what? My fucking bounty put out by my parents, back before they decided to entirely give up on me."

They're silent for a moment.

"So, what happened?"

She lights a cigarette in the growing dark, shrugging.

"I killed him."

They're silent for a moment more.

"Point is, Cap, people are monsters. They'll eat you alive if you don't eat them first."

"So, what, that's it then?"

"What?"

"The tale of Ellie Fenhill? Hard as Chaw and cold as space?"

"What about it?"

"You were sold for a few bits and caught your man cheating on you. Is that really enough to turn into such a cold-hearted bitch?"

She thinks she should be a lot angrier than she is, but she's simply not.

"It's a good start, yeah."

"Right."

"It's more than that. It's being around smugglers and mercs and spacers all your life that makes you cold. You have to be. You've gotta have nothing, cause then no one can take anything from you."

"But then there's no one to watch your back. Death could come a lot swifter that way."

She shrugs again. "That's the good part of dying – when you've got nothing to lose, you can run any risk you want. Like taking up space on a stolen ship led by a man from out of the system. Who's also conversing with a wanted fugitive."

Hawthorne smirks bitterly. "Hey, you said it, not me."

"So it's true, then. You're talking to Welles."

"Who spilled?"

"ADA. Sort of."

"Fucking robots, I swear."

"And you're not really Alex Hawthorne."

"I am now."

She looks at him – at his stupid smile and his unruly hair, and his keen eyes that always look too closely at things.

"Who are you, really?"

"Look – the things I've done have all been real. And the Unreliable – that's real too. Max and Parvati and Felix and Nyoka and ADA and SAM and you – it's all real. Nothing's been a lie."

"Except your name."

"I guess. But that's real now too."

Ellie sighs. There are some things in the universe not meant to be known. There's a time to let things go, and she had a feeling this was one of those times.

A smile plays at her lips.

"So, you're saying your embarrassingly low tolerance for alcohol is real then? And your pathetic aim with any weapon that's not a rifle?"

"Sadly, this is true."

"And your terrible kissing, I suppose."

"Hey, that's not fair. You caught me off guard and it – it's been a while."

"How long? A fucking century?"

"Ha. Just about."

"If you say so," she laughs, and then it happens.

A change in the air, a sudden weight, a heavy friction as something else, something more slides into place and settles there. She sees it in his eyes first, and then in his features, and she thinks he might see it in her, too, mirrored back.

"Alex –"

He leans in and kisses her.

This time it's a little softer, a little less messy, and it utterly fogs her brain, and she's unable to do anything but what she really wants to do deep down, and that is kiss him back.

So she does.

No.

Then she pulls back.

"Alex, I can't –"

He ignores her, kissing her harder than before, as if that would make her forget that she can't for whatever reason, as if that might push the faces of others, the face of Caster, from her mind.

It does.

And anything that does, she takes.

He surprises her with a groan that claws its way up his throat, and an urgency overtakes him, his skin twitching with a frenzy he'd only ever felt when he was losing a fight.

It overtakes her too, and she's pressing herself into him, her leg curling around his. She groans back, and nudges him down, and she rolls with him, the pressure of his body now impossible to ignore.

No.

Both of her hands cup his face now, her lips moving across his with an experienced fervour he couldn't possibly hope to match, not after so long. He places a hand on her waist, and she kisses his jaw, his neck, bites his shoulder, kisses with her entire body rocking into him in waves, her bony hips jutting against his own. It's almost too much.

She nudges a knee between his legs and feels him hard, straining against his bodysuit, and then –

She stops.

No.

No no no.

It's too much, too close, she can't, not with him, not with her Captain –

"Els?" he breathes under her. "Ellie, what's wrong?"

This, she wants to scream. All of this.

She untangles herself from him and practically jumps away, as if she'd been burned, but the places his skin had been are cold, and she shivers.

"I – nothing's wrong, Cap, I just – I can't. This was a mistake."

"It's not, Ellie, I –"

"It is. I don't do crewmembers or – or captains, I told you. Things get too messy."

She grabs her gun from the chair, wipes her mouth, and stares down at him on the floor.

"I'm sorry."

She leaves the prefab and doesn't come back until morning.