A/N: Hey again! Here's chapter 4. Angst and fluff and sadness and more angst and a little bit of sexytimes for you. Also spoilers.

One more chapter after this one.

Thanks for all the lovely reviews and kudos! Enjoy!


"So. You threw off the constrains of proper society and abandoned a life of luxury to live as an outlaw."

"You finally get me, Vicar."

"Regret it?"

"Let's see – I got freedom, independence, and – usually – space from people telling me how to live my life."

"And how long before you reckon you'll end up back where you began?"

"See, I knew there was a lecture coming."

"The universe has a way of snapping you back to where you're supposed to be, Fenhill."

000

The Unreliable sinks towards the surface of Terra 2 just as the sun is going down, scattering a million little pinpricks of dazzling aurous light across the white buildings of the capital city – a sensational show, unlike anything her crew has ever seen.

Byzantium is like that – a show, pretty on the top, cold and hard beneath the powder and glue.

"I haven't been here in – shit, over ten years now."

She says it with too much provocation, too much force. She does that to hide the tremble in her voice.

Because Ellie is terrified of this place.

She read a poem once – can't remember by who or what it was really about, now – but part of it said people leave something of themselves behind when they leave a place. Part of you stays there, even if you go away. And there are things in us we can only find again by going back there.

She stares down at the spires of stone thrust from the earth like broken teeth, like a dragon's maw, rising like a wave to swallow them. To swallow her.

Ellie doesn't like who she was when she was here. She doesn't want to find it again.

000

"So. This is where you're from."

Ellie blinks back the light as it reflects off the white stone. She lights a cigarette for herself and Nyoka and leans against the fountain in the middle of the square, wishing Hawthorne would hurry up and just rob the guard already, and wishing she'd brought her sunglasses.

She sucks in the Stogie. "Yeah. Yeah, I guess it is."

"You sound thrilled."

"Sure. Nice to be back on solid ground, feel the sun on your skin again. Byzantium always did have the nicest sun. Good for tanning, if you… care about that sort of shit."

A gaggle of pretentious young women turn their noses up as they pass them, chattering disapprovals under their breath. Ellie stares right back.

Nyoka sucks in her Stogie and goes to lean beside the doctor.

"I can read you like I can read the Rideout Swamps."

"The fuck's that mean?"

"Means you're smelly and soggy and full of rapt shit."

"Har har."

"Nah, I mean it. Something's up with you, girl. You know, you can tell me. I won't go blabbing to the others about it."

Ellie bites her cheek. "Nothing's up, Nyoka. I just – I don't have very good memories of this place. I'm not in love with my planet like you are." She shrugs. "Just – I'd rather not be here, is all."

The hunter is flitting her eyes across Ellie's face, looking for something there. Whether or not she finds it, Ellie really doesn't want to know.

"Huh. Y'know, kinda reminds me of something I once heard a sawbones say."

Ellie glances at Nyoka.

"Great is the art of beginning, but greater is the art of ending."

That puts a bad taste in her mouth – and Ellie doesn't recall the Stogies going stale.

"I put this place behind me years ago. It's over."

"It's never over," the hunter says. "This is your home, no matter how far or how long you run from it. It'll always be a part of you."

"Fuck this place," Ellie seethes, scowling at the sun, the buildings, the very air of this Law-forsaken city. "There's nothing for me here. There never was."

"Maybe. But maybe there is. And it might not be over – not yet, maybe not ever. And maybe you can't put it behind you – sometimes the pain just runs too deep. I know that better than anyone. But that still don't mean you gotta let it hurt."

Ellie sighs, swallowing down something old and painful.

"You just gotta let it go."

000

She feels like such an imposter, a ghost of a ghost drifting down the streets she used to know. And like a sliver of light in a dampened, muted dream, a sharp memory slips inside with every step she takes.

She will never belong here. She knows this.

000

"Hey, Felix."

"Yeah Doc?"

"Don't talk out loud. You'll lower the IQ of the entire street."

000

Alex says he knows what he's doing, but Alex says a lot of things.

He has no fucking clue where to go from here.

So, naturally, the crew finds themselves in the local bar again.

The place is pretty much the same as it was ten years ago, Ellie thinks, the ceiling too tall and the lights too bright and the counter too polished but the booze is decent and it doesn't smell like sulfur or cigarettes so it's got something on the other dives they've sloshed around in.

"Filthy pirate trash."

Oh, right. Yeah. She remembers why she hates this place.

"What'd you say to me?" Ellie seethes, rounding on the man a little brokenly, sloppy with drink.

"You heard me, doll."

"You piece of fuckin' –"

"That's enough, Ellie," Hawthorne warns, tugging at her sleeve. "Not worth it."

The doctor shakes the Captain off and stares down at the man so severely Ellie thinks she might make him spontaneously combust. "Stand up and say that to my face."

The man does, setting his drink aside and rising from the stool. He towers over Ellie, over Alex, and his mother must have fucked a Primal, the guy is so big.

"You're filthy pirate rabble. The whole lot of you," he growls, waggling a finger at the crew in the booth. "You don't belong here. All the detergent in Byzantium couldn't wash the filth from your – what is that, a dirty pillowcase?" he laughs, pinching the corner of Ellie's jacket.

"It's a bomber, you uncultured fuck," she seethes, slapping his hand away.

"Come on, Els," Alex presses. "Listen, sir, let's just drop this. We don't want any trouble, really. We were just leaving anyway."

He nods to the others and they rise from the booth, Felix protesting lightly.

Hawthorne puts a hand to the small of her back, and Ellie lets herself be led away to the door of the bar.

"That's right, take your cunt home. Keep her on a leash next time."

There's a heartbeat.

Then Alex reels.

He lets go of Ellie and stalks back to the man, positively fuming. He balls the collar of his shirt in one fist and strikes the man across the face with the other, sending him reeling back into the bar stool, foundering over it, laying him flat on his ass.

"Don't you dare call her a cunt, you fucking sleezy piece of horse shit. She's got bigger balls than you'll ever have. Than any of you."

The place is deathly still, stagnating in the innocence unmarred by violence and bar fights.

For a moment.

Then the man's friends step in.

"You scrawny little shit," one of them growls, heaving Hawthorne up by his collar – and then Felix's fist swings around in an effortless haymaker, clapping the man across the jaw, sending spittle flying out at the Captain.

Felix's eyes are wide and he flexes his sore knuckles a moment, before a smile splits his face and Nyoka smiles and Alex must have smiled back because all fucking Hell breaks loose.

Chairs fly and fists fly and beer and glass and curses fly, and someone pulls at Ellie's hair before she swivels and punts them ruthlessly hard in the crotch. Max screams something and ducks beneath a tossball bat, his feverish smile pink with blood not his own, and Parvati retreats into a corner before withdrawing her wrench and Nyoka smashes a kitschy bar sign over someone's head and SAM keeps switching between sweeping up glass and knocking heads together and Felix is absolutely in his prime, gelastic and cursing and clouting, and then someone shrieks for the guards and the crew hightails it out of there, spattered in blood and alcohol, and fueled by alcohol and thrills, and they blunder out into the street, more alive than maybe they've ever been.

"Fuck," Ellie wheezes, catching her breath in a narrow alley as the corporate guards jog by. "Fuck, Alex, that was –"

He twists his fingers through her hair and crushes his lips to hers in a bruising, breathless way, and when he pulls back he smiles, and laughs, and there's blood running down his face and his hair is stuck-up and sweat-slicked and there's a fire in his eyes, a keening sort of mischief that makes Ellie want to see that in his eyes more often, for many more years to come.

She wipes the blood from his brow gently, softly, and places a hand on his cheek.

"You know, Alex Hawthorne – out of everyone I've ever met, I think I hate you the least."

He laughs again, clasping her hand with his own.

"Yeah. Yeah, I don't hate you either."

000

The drinking glass shatters on the kitchen floor and Ellie turns around.

"Hey, boss, you alright?"

"Yeah, Felix, I just – I'm fine," Alex says, staring down at his hand in confusion, gingerly bending his fingers. "I'm… fine."

He's not.

Even Felix doesn't believe him.

000

They're standing outside the university. Ellie hates this place, probably more than any other place in the universe.

She almost wants to go inside again, nearly walks down the path and up the stairs through that great wooden door, if only to feel the pallid medical exam lights on her skin once more, the stench of disinfectant and medicine stinging her nose, taste the dusty tomes and hollow echo of the halls deep in her bones.

She doesn't know why she wants to. Maybe just to taste her youth again, those days when the first stirrings of rebellion began to flicker in her heart. Or perhaps she thinks she might reach some sort of… understanding, maybe, a kind of acceptance or peace with it all, but she knows she might never get there. That would be far too easy.

She doesn't know why she wants to. But she knows even less why she doesn't.

She takes a long drag of her Stogie. She passes it to Hawthorne.

The man sucks it in. Lets it out. Then glances down at the thing, a smile splitting his face.

"What?"

"Nothing. It's just – you know, I haven't smoked a cigarette in seventy years? I quit the day before the Hope left."

"You're having one now."

"No, I mean, a real cigarette, one with tobacco and tar and stuff. Not this – what is it called, tobaccorn? It's just… slightly off. Like a shadow of the real thing."

He shrugs.

"Suppose I'll never smoke one again."

"You miss it?"

Ellie's asking about the cigarettes, but it hangs there in the air:

Do you miss Earth?

Do you miss your old life?

Do you wish you stayed behind?

He glances at the Stogie a moment longer, eyes glassy, and Ellie wishes she knew what he was thinking, wants to know if there are memories attached to cigarettes and he's flicking through them now, like a rolodex of moments in time.

Maybe his parents caught him smoking at fourteen behind the video store with his friends. Maybe the smoke curls up from the ashtray beside the bed where he first falls in love with Sarah. Maybe he crushes one beneath his boot and turns and walks away.

He shrugs again, flicking the burnt-out cig on the grass of the university commons.

"Nah. These are good enough now."

000

Byzantium.

An ancient city on Earth, Alex tells her. It's beginning shrouded in mystery, the city rose and fell, changed hands, changed names, gave birth to an empire, a religion, fell again, rose again, endured.

But everything that has a beginning must also have an end.

"Rome wasn't built in a day," he says. "But it was destroyed in one."

000

"How are you doing, Ellie?"

"What? I'm fine, Vic. Why do you ask?"

"Because we're in Byzantium. You haven't been here in a decade, and you didn't exactly leave on the best terms."

"How do you know about all that? Who told you?"

"Your face. It's got an unmistakably darker scowl to it than normal."

000

Ellie finds herself wandering into the Captain's quarters.

He's slumped in his office chair, legs crossed, frowning down at his datapad.

Ellie keeps being struck with how… hollow he looks compared to when she first met him, all those months ago in the med bay, despite the kinematics Mfuru installed. He's thinner and paler and his eyes sink lower, but they're still bright and sharp and daring, still his.

"Hey," he says, barely glancing at her as the door hisses shut.

"Hey. What're you up to?"

"Not much. Just – finishing up some things, you know. Trying to figure out how the Hell we're going to break into those labs and steal the dimethyl sulfoxide for Welles."

"Have you considered just asking them for it?"

"I have, yeah. Unfortunately, ADA doesn't calculate any scenario where we make it out of that conversation with all our blood still inside our bodies."

"Yikes."

He sets his datapad face down on the desk, rising from his chair with a wince, turning his full attention to her.

He looks so old despite his young age – like those seventy years he spent asleep are finally starting to catch up with him.

"Maybe you should try talk to Clarke."

"Clarke? Why?"

"He's the Minister. He's got to know something. Remember that night at the bar? When you fucked that big guy's face because of your little man syndrome?"

"Excuse me, I thought it was rather chivalrous. Also, fucking SAM is tiny compared to that guy."

"Fine, whatever, you're my hero."

"ADA, record this conversation please."

"Yes Captain. Recording."

"Do go on, Doctor."

"Architect, you're hopeless."

"Right now, yes. Until we get the chemicals for Welles. Then we'll have Hope."

"It's a shame you never had kids. You have a wicked arsenal of bad dad jokes."

"I know, right? Felix and Parvati are bad influences. Anyways, about Clarke."

"Right. I overheard that guard in the pub boast about how he had front-door access to the Minister's house. Maybe we shank him, steal his card, and rough up Clarke a bit. He's Board, you know. Flimsy as a boned saltuna. He'll break."

Hawthorne grins at her. Moves a little closer. Places his hand on her waist.

"That's… not half bad, Els," he hums, breath ghosting down her neck. "Knew I kept you around for something."

"Yeah. Something," she agrees, sliding her hand beneath the waistband of his sweats.

There's something in the way his eyes flutter, the little sigh he lets go, in the brush of his lips against her cheek that has Ellie reminding herself that she's using him for sex, for fun, and that's all it is.

That's all it is.

Hawthorne presses her against the desk, grips at her hips, and pulls her into a kiss that almost seems as if he's reminding himself of that too.

000

"What's up, Millstone? You look like you've been dragged through the mud by a horny raptidon."

"I'm just tired is all, Doc. I woke up at four this morning to put fake spiders in Max's bed before he wakes."

"Architect, I wish I could care about something as much as you care about ruining Vicky's life."

000

"I used to play here as a kid," she says, pushing lightly off the ground from the swing, fingers wrapped tight around the cold chain. "Used to come here when my parents fought – which was a lot, even for upper-class snobs. Used to climb that tree, right over there," she nods, out toward the knobbly old thing in the corner of the playground. "Used to climb it and pretend I was flying a ship out in space. Ha. Even then, I wanted to leave."

000

Ellie fucks him when she's angry. She fucks him when she's sad. She fucks him when she's horny or frustrated or just plain bored.

She's never fucked him simply because she wanted to, though.

His hands are soft, now, and getting softer every time they do this, and they dig into her hips less and wander across her face more, fluttering across her eyelids and cheeks sometimes. His tongue doesn't go in interesting places any more – no, it dips beneath her jaw and sometimes between her breasts, but mostly just her lips, now. He still whispers dirty things in her ear, but they're funny, now, a little joke between them, like they really don't mean anything anymore, and the way he says her name has gone from Ellie to Els…

Softer, simpler, warmer.

Ellie ignores it.

And when he comes inside her, as he often does, now, he doesn't get up and go, or make her leave – he sighs, kissing her softly, holding her gently, and keeping her close to his chest.

Ellie ignores it.

She ignores the way he smiles at her between the silent moments, and the way he runs a hand down her side, and makes her laugh when he whispers something so terribly, stupidly funny in her ear, and she hates the way she loves it.

Hates the way he makes her feel so utterly trapped in this, in his arms, yet so unbelievably… safe.

Relying on others for your wellbeing is what gets you killed in the end.

Just ask Caster.

Ask Sarah.

"I'm sorry we're here, Ellie," he says, chest rumbling, nose warm on the back of her neck, right as she's on the very edge of sleep. "I know what it's like, being back in a place you hate. Hell, I couldn't get far enough away. I had to leave the system."

He chuckles, and Ellie cannot help but smile a little.

He has the idea even before she does, and yet she's always known she'd end up back there again anyway.

Back home. Her parents.

No, not home – that house. Those people who raised her.

Yeah. There.

"I'll go with you," he breathes.

"Thanks."

"I'll go anywhere."

Ellie hesitates.

"I know."

000

Byzantium is a place of pulsating whiteness, of pallid nothing and sameness, flat as a river and shallow as one, too. Like a river, it pretends it is on some great journey, some fantastical adventure to a great wide somewhere – but not to you, of course, you who stand by the shore and look upon the ones in yachts and liners, the ones whose money and bloodlines weaved a rope ladder that will only pull them up if they're drowning.

Ellie had a rope, once. She cut it and tossed it out to sea long ago.

Now she drifts unmoored and free.

She manages to slip away from the Unreliable one night, just to breathe and think, yet her mind is too far in the gutter because Felix manages to tag along and when she can't shake him, she gives up, and in a flash of compassion that she almost instantly regrets, Ellie takes him with her to a place she holds very dear to her. The only place in Byzantium, she thinks. A rose between the thorns.

"Hey, Doc, you better not be taking me up here just to shoot me and leave me for dead. Or toss me off the roof. Or – take advantage of me."

Ellie grumbles, but it's really more to cover her chuckle.

"Felix, if I ever kill you, it'll be day, you'll be facing me, and you'll be armed."

"Huh. Are you always this sentimental?"

"I had a good day."

They take the elevator to the top of the Halcyon Holdings Corporation headquarters, slip through a maintenance tunnel, and climb the emergency ladder up to the roof, to the very top of the city – and they're dangling in the wind atop the tallest tower, like a torn flag clinging to a pole, right in the centre of it all, and it's almost like being back on Groundbreaker again, all the little lights twinkling below, the people crawling through the streets like ants, through the spires of stone like jagged weeds around them.

The milk crates are still there, Ellie thinks with a smile, still standing obstinately in this place they don't belong, and she sits down on one, and Felix on another, and –

"Holy shit."

Looking up, Felix and Ellie see a million little stars glittering deep in the velvet of a night with no moon. Even the lights of the city cannot touch them, not here. Ellie knows them all, their stories and their names, from her days in school and her days navigating aboard freighters. She knows them in a familiar way, the way she knows her own hands. The way she knows her friend.

It's quiet here. More quiet than the Unreliable at night, than the unending plains of Monarch, than the absolute deafness of space.

"You know, I never left Groundbreaker until the Captain took me away," he says. "I never saw the stars before. Well, you know what I mean. Out the windows of the ship, sure, but not like this – not like how they're supposed to be seen."

"Yeah. This is really something, ain't it?"

"Fuck, there's so many."

"Byzantium has the densest collection of star clusters and nebulas in the Halcyon system. Only the Earth system is denser, because it's closer to the centre of the galaxy."

"Law, Doc, I ain't no science major. I didn't understand a word you just said."

"Lots of stars. See them best here."

"Right. Got it."

"You know, I used to come out here sometimes by myself. At night, I mean."

"Yeah?" Felix hums, still gawking at the stars.

"Yeah. Used to keep me sane, I guess. I did it when something was on my mind, or I needed to think things over. There's just – something about sitting alone in the dark that reminds you how big the world really is. How far apart we all are. Also, it's a great spot to get high once in a while, without the corporate guards dragging you home for 'indecent public indecencies."

"Ha! Yeah. Well, I kinda feel… big in all this. Like we're a part of something bigger, you know, something more – like I was meant for more than just picking pockets and moving cargo on Groundbreaker all my life."

Ellie thinks about lighting a Stogie, but worries it might blot out the sky.

"Yeah. I know exactly what you mean, kid."

"No you don't. You had everything, Ellie."

"Yeah. Everything except freedom and purpose and parents who gave a shit about anything but themselves."

"Least you had folks."

"You're lucky sometimes, you know. Having no one. You don't owe anybody anything. Better than having someone who makes you feel like nothing. Like you owe them simply for existing."

"At least what you had was something. Good or bad, it was real, it was tangible."

"Wow. Big words, Felix. Who taught you that?"

"Max. But it doesn't matter, it's true. You had something, and that made you you. I had nothing, and that makes me – nothing, I guess."

"Hey, don't say that, Millstone. You've got the biggest heart – and the biggest balls I've ever seen. And shitty parents or a stuck-up life didn't give you any of that. You did."

Felix sighs, holding his head in his hands tiredly.

"I always imagined my parents were heroes, you know. Someone cool and brave and who had a ship and who almost died saving a planet from an asteroid or something, and they left me behind to keep me safe, and, well – I know they were probably just some young kids, or some soldier who knocked up a whore and didn't know it, but that kept me going for a long, long time. Waiting for my ship to come get me. To take me away."

"I always imagined my parents were actually robots. That would explain a lot."

"Ha! Who knows, maybe they are, just like in episode fifty-eight of Space Hospital: Night Shift."

"For someone who never went to school, Felix, you are the nerdiest kid I've ever met."

"I'll take that as a compliment."

They're quiet for a long time. Ellie watches the stars wheel ahead, listens to the breeze whistling off the stone spires like a howling beast of Monarch. She almost nods off to sleep before Felix speaks again.

"I don't know," he almost whispers. "Maybe it was just an accident. Or maybe it was all meant to be, like fate or destiny or something, like Max says. Law, I don't know – and you better not go blabbing to anybody about this, Doc, I swear. I don't – I don't know what it is that made me cross paths with you all, but I can't deny my ship came in exactly when it needed to."

Felix looks so young, she thinks, and Ellie realises he can't be much older than nineteen or twenty at most – just a kid, in all retrospect. He hasn't seen the stars. He hasn't seen the worlds. Fuck, he hasn't done a lot of things, and he hasn't had anybody to do it with.

He's crying. Well, not crying, but he's nearly failing to hold back tears.

Ellie's heart does a strange thing, then, and without a thought, she pulls the boy close to her chest, embracing him, running a hand over his arm and through his hair like the mother he deserved but never got.

He breaks into a sob, a heavy, deep cry that echoes out into the night, over the city, yet no one can hear but them.

000

"Got any more of those drugs, Vicky? That shit we smoked in your room that night. Oh, wait – do I have to use the prison name? Whaddya call 'em in the clink – candy? Papers?"

"Drugs."

"Boring. How about Cripple Sticks?"

"No."

"Fine, what about –"

"Ellie, I don't have any mushflower tokes left."

"Not even if I trade you some cigarettes?"

"No. I got rid of them after – after Scylla. Probably for the best. They can lead to insanity as easily as enlightenment."

"You know, I think I liked the old Vicky better. This one's boring."

000

They lay in his bed and she doesn't even ask him to, but once he starts talking about it, the words come out and they don't hardly stop.

He tells her about whales. He tells her about oceans. He tells her about rainforests and tigers and horses and dogs. He tells her about dinosaurs, and how they were real, and lived long before any human ever showed up. He tells her they managed to bring back the woolly mammoth from extinction, and the uproar that caused, how people thought they were playing God.

He tells her about God. He tells her about Buddha. He tells her about the wars and the politics and the way people kill each other so easily over something so stupid as a different belief or colour of skin.

Ellie rather thinks that world is far more fairy-tale than anything else in Halcyon.

"But what I miss the most, I think, are apples. Real apples. Not your silly Spacer's Choice mock-apple thing. Crunchy and juicy and so fucking good. The taste of apples is what I miss. And I miss picking them. They smell like fall, like back to school, like leaves changing colour. I miss that the most."

He tells her about the seasons, the way the world turns and circles the sun, and with it comes the snow and the cold and then, sure as the ground beneath their feet, the rains and the flowers and green things again, over and over, in an endless circle.

Halcyon doesn't have that. It doesn't have life, doesn't have changing and growing and moving. Halcyon has terra-formed sameness.

And then, just before he drifts off to sleep, she hears him say to her:

"When this is all over, I'm going to make some scientist bring back real apples. Then you're going to try one. Then you're going to take me right out to the edge of the system, like you said. I haven't seen a sky without stars. You'll have to show me."

Ellie dreams again, but this time it's not about her parents, not about Caster and the Silvercove.

It's about apples and dolphins and big hairy elephants.

000

"I threw all my dolls down here once," Ellie muses, leaning over the railing, gazing down into the murky water below. "Every last one. Even the one my grandmother gave me, made on Earth, over two centuries old. It had real straw hair and beach sand in its eyes. I hated them. Hated how they dressed, how they were always smiling. Hated how much my mother loved them. And I thought, maybe, if I threw them all away, she'd get upset or feel sorry for me, take me out for ice cream – you know, give a shit. But all she said was don't worry, I'll buy you more. And she did. My grandmother's doll meant nothing to her, after all. Hm. Figures. I don't think anything did."

000

Ellie stands on the doorstep of her parent's house.

This is where she grew up, the space beyond this door. This is where she lived and studied and worked and slept and cried and hated it, and this is the last door she walked out of more than ten years ago.

She's about to walk into it again.

"What do you suppose they'll say?" she asks him, even though she knows exactly what they'll say.

"Does it matter?" he says, and it's almost like he knows she knows what's about to happen. The only one who ever could, really. "I'll be right here. Don't think they'll try anything, but I'm not afraid to pop a cap in your old man's ass either way. Any way this goes. Uh… you said your parents are rich, right?"

Ellie chuckles, the last thing she ever thought she'd do when she came back here.

"Please don't. I don't want to explain that one to the corporate guards."

"Fine, fine, I won't."

He takes her hand. More than that, she doesn't pull away.

They step inside together.

000

"ADA?"

"Yes, Doctor Fenhill?"

"Who was Hawthorne before he was Hawthorne?"

"I am sorry, I do not understand the question, Doctor."

"Alex. You know, the Captain. Who was he before?"

"Before what, Doctor?"

"Alex wasn't always Alex. His escape pod landed on the real Alex Hawthorne and killed him, right?"

"Correct."

"So who is the Captain now?"

"Alex Hawthorne is the Captain of the Unreliable."

"I know, I mean, who was he before?"

"Before what?"

"Before he killed the first Alex."

"There's only one Alex, and that is Captain Alex Hawthorne of the Unreliable."

"Ugh. You're enjoy this, aren't you?"

"Perhaps a little."

000

"Hey. Um… I'm sorry about your folks, Ellie."

"Don't be. I'm just sorry I forgot to raid the liquor cabinet before we left."

"I… know that's a joke, but… be careful. I lost someone once. After I buried him, I raided his Iceberg stash for a bit of comfort, and I ain't stopped drinking since."

"Thanks, Nyoka, I appreciate the thought, but I'm fine. Really. In fact, I'm better than fine. I'm great. I've got all their money now. They might actually have to go out and work for a living."

"Look, I know what it's like, trying to forget your past. Hell, I think the whole crew knows. And maybe I'm not the best one to come to, but I'm always here if you wanna talk."

"I… thanks."

"No problem."

"Actually, I do want to ask you something."

"Yeah?"

"How do you – I don't know. Cope?"

"Ha! I don't cope well, Doc. You know that. My bottle of vodka knows that."

"Fine, not cope, then. Just… move on, I guess."

"Move on."

"Yeah."

"Well, I didn't, for a long time. I sat and stewed in my own shit, blaming everyone but me. Then you and the Captain came along and – and helped me bury them. My Charon family. You just gotta bury it with dirt, Doc, not with alcohol or drugs. You gotta bury it, and then you gotta put one foot in front of the other, every day for the rest of your life. What else can you do? You ain't gotta show your folks that you're living fine despite them – you gotta do it for you. That's how you move on."

000

Ellie doesn't listen to Nyoka.

She totters down the stairs towards the Captain's quarters, the world sort of lurching and hazy, bottle of the hunter's whiskey on her breath.

Hawthorne almost runs into her going up.

"Oh! Shit, Els, I'm sorry," he says, and pauses when he notices the drink, putting his hands on her shoulders. "Hey. You alright?"

Ellie swallows down the bile and rye in her throat, putting a little swing into her hips.

"Heyyy, Cap. I've been missing you the last couple days," she slurs, the man going frustratingly in and out of focus.

"Have you now?"

"Where've you been?" she purrs, running a coy hand up his arm.

He frowns.

"I've been talking with Clarke. Your idea worked, you know. He's given us the key to his office in the Ministry of Accuracy and Morale. So far I've –"

"You shaved," Ellie murmurs, staring up at his face now through half-lidded eyes focussing on nothing. "Looks good."

She goes to touch his jaw, to feel the short, neat stubble there, to trace her fingers along his throat, but he grabs her wrist before she does.

"Ellie. You're drunk."

Fuck. Her name on his lips always sounded good, but now, desperate, all she can imagine is what it will sound like, over and over, panted out in breathless moans and groans and –

"Yeah. A little."

"You smell like a bottle of moonshine, for God's sake."

She shrugs.

"Nyoka's fault."

"Is it now?"

"Mhm."

Ellie trails the fingers of her free hand down his chest, pawing at his waist.

"Hm. You up for a little fun, Cap?"

He frowns at her.

"Els, you should… go to bed. Come on. I'll take you back."

Her fingers wander further down, ghosting over his hips, and she hooks them round his belt, smiling lewdly.

"Just a quickie. That's all I need."

"Ellie –"

With a feral growl, Ellie heaves the entirety of her small frame against Alex's much taller one, taking him by surprise, swinging him round by his belt and hurling him against the cold prefab metal of the ship hull. He slams his back against it with a hard thud, the impact nearly winding him.

"You talk too fucking much," she growls, fumbling his belt buckle with one hand and simultaneously bringing a knee up to press between his legs. She can feel him through his jeans against her thigh, and it sends a hot rush of need to her lower belly.

"Els…" Alex says, and the sound of her name on his lips again nearly drives her off the motherfucking edge.

She forces her other hand free from her grasp and snakes it up into his hair, yanking his head down to her level, crushing her lips against his in a violent, bruising kiss.

He tastes like Stogie Slims and Lemon Slapp and he smells like leather and Alex and she can feel his short stubble against her cheek, her lips. She sucks and pulls at his lips and their teeth crash together, vicious and needy and then she moans into it and fucking fuck almighty the guy needs to fuck her right now.

"Els," he says again, "I… no."

It's only then, when Ellie pauses for a second, does she realise that Hawthorne is not kissing her back.

She ignores him.

"I want you, Cap," she growls, slipping her tongue into his mouth again, pulling violently at the belt that won't unbuckle fast enough, before giving up and plunging her hand down the front of his jeans, grabbing him harsh enough to elicit a sharp hiss through his teeth. "I want you. Inside me. Now."

"Ellie, no."

"Just – mmn – just shut up and fuck me."

"No, not like this."

Ellie's growing angry.

"Just – fuck, Alex, shut the fuck up and – and just let me have this."

She crushes her lips to his in a bruising sort of way, so hard that she can taste blood on her tongue, and she digs her fingers deep into the flesh of his hips, pulling him to her harder, faster, now, and yeah, it might be a bit desperate, but Ellie's never been one to hang too much onto her pride.

Because Ellie wants to forget.

She wants to use him to fuck away all the memories of this place – she thinks back to a time, some other place – Monarch, maybe, the first time they slept together – and pretends that's what this is, pretends that's where they are, pretends that's what they're doing.

She pretends, pretends, pretends.

But reality has this awful way of flinging you back.

"Ellie, stop."

The authority in his voice is severe, rare enough that, even in her state, she listens to him.

The ship is deathly quiet, and his lips are swollen and red, blood staining his skin from her teeth. She lets go of him, pulls her hand out of his pants.

"Hey. Hey, are you alright, Els?"

Ellie sighs, running a hand through her sweaty hair.

No sense in lying about it.

"Yeah. Yeah, I just – I got a lot of things on my mind."

"No shit."

All Ellie wants him to do is leave her, let her lie here in embarrassment and let her drown in her memories and loneliness, but he doesn't – he puts his arm around her waist and pulls her to him, cradling her against his warmth, and Ellie nearly cries at the closeness of it all, of the very vulnerable yet safe way he makes her feel. She can feel his heart beneath her ear, steady and strong, always there, and he rests his chin on her head and just holds her.

Just holds her, and nothing else.

It's nothing, and yet it's everything.

000

"Vicky, you're like the dad I never had."

"What? You don't have a father? I was sure you did."

"Well I mean I do, but he sucks."

000

"Hey, Els," Hawthorne says, datapad in hand.

"Hey."

"You know, I was just thinking…"

Ellie frowns.

"…yes?"

"Uh, umm – right, you know, what's his name," he struggles, scowling in concentration. He shuts his eyes tight, thinking. "The… doctor, from…fuck," he seethes, turning away in poorly concealed embarrassment.

Ellie swallows.

This is not the first time he's forgotten Dr. Welles' name.

Or Lilya Hagen's.

Or hers.

000

"This is where I met him."

It's an unassuming little place, really, just a storefront with a stone bench and an artificial tree in an oversized pot, exactly like every other storefront and bench and artificial tree in an oversized pot, but this is the place where the old Ellie died and the new Ellie began.

"Who?"

"Caster."

"Oh."

And what else can he say?

She sits down on the bench, cold and hard beneath her ass, and Hawthorne sits beside her.

She lights a Stogie and offers him one.

"Met the bastard right here, on this very bench. I was sitting here, waiting for the owner to bring out a bag of nanners. My mother sent me to the store to get some, for her nanner bread – terrible shit, always hated the stuff, it was too dry. Then Caster sat down right there, right where you are, and –"

"And where you going?"

The handsome ship captain smiles.

"Anywhere but here."

He always knew exactly what to say.

Hawthorne takes a long drag of his cigarette.

"I met Sarah on a park bench too."

"Hm. No shit."

"Hey, I really did. Well, I knew of her through a friend of a friend who set us up before that – he was in remission and knew her from a support group he went to, but, you know," he shrugs, "I actually met her on the bench."

Ellie wants to ask it, but she doesn't know how, can't find the words without sounding… brash.

Ellie wants to know what you say when you meet a dying person.

And then what you say when you fall in love with them.

Hawthorne sucks in again, eyes glassy and faraway, smiling a little.

Ellie knows he's thinking back to that day almost a century ago, beneath a tree in a park on the bench, and that he's thinking of the way Sarah smiled when she first saw him, and how soft her skin felt when they shook hands, and how his eyes probably lit up like they did in the alley after the barfight, alive and raw, and she wants to know how often he goes back there, in his mind, how frequently he visits that park, how many times he's dreamed of that bench and the things they said as they sat and fell in love.

"You would've liked her, I think."

Ellie swallows and looks away, if only to hide the tears threatening to well up past the brim of her eyes.

"Yeah, well, you would've hated Caster."

"You think?"

"I know."

There's a bench in both the stories, she thinks, and the middle is the same, too – falling in love, that is – and even in the end the both of them die.

But Ellie killed Caster.

And Alex lost Sarah.

How un-fucking-fair.

"Huh. So, did you ever get them?"

"Get what?"

"The nanners for your mother."

Ellie smiles a bit at that one.

"No. Never did. Walked away from here and right onto the Silvercove, and I never looked back."

"I left the funeral and jumped on the Hope the next day. Never even said goodbye to my parents. Guess they thought I offed myself."

Hawthorne winces.

"Hm. If there's one thing I regret, it's probably that."

"Well, I regret not poisoning the nanners before I left."

Alex smiles, and it's a small, timid, painful thing.

He takes his hand in hers and squeezes.

Ellie squeezes back.

Ellie lets go.

000

In the Ministry of Accuracy and Morale, Hawthorne stands in front of a row of human test subjects, chewing his lip in thought.

"Fuck. A preacher and a doctor. I thought you're supposed to be good at giving advice."

He's trying to decide whether to steal all the dimethyl sulfoxide Welles needs or to leave most of it to keep the subjects alive. Max doesn't know what to say, and neither does Ellie. In truth, she doesn't give a sprat's ass about the test subjects in vitro, because they're bound to die anyway and it's not like the Board will reward them for it in the end. All she cares about is hurrying the fuck up because the corporate guards are bound to find them sooner rather than later.

But Ellie doesn't say that.

"It's… an intriguing conundrum, Captain, I must admit."

"Ha! No shit," he breathes, running a hand through his hair.

Ellie doesn't know why this is so moralising for him, why this is different than the dozens of spacers and marauders and other assholes they've killed, why he can't just pull the plug and let them die – hundreds of thousands of others are depending on them, so what's a handful here, now?

"Because they're innocent," he says. "Fuck, this is some real Omelas shit."

"Omelas?"

"You know, the story. The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas."

"No, I don't."

"I'm familiar with the work," Max says, frowning. "A tale of internal conflict. The fictional city of Omelas is perfect, a utopia, but their happiness is dependent upon the horrific suffering of a single child, locked away in a cellar. Omelas cannot exist without it. After learning of the secret as children themselves, the citizens fight with themselves in trying to understand the concepts of misery and joy, and whether or not to leave Omelas or accept the terrible justice of reality."

Max pauses.

"Most stay."

Ellie rolls her eyes.

"How about we debate the meaning of the universe after we get the Hell out of here?"

"I can let them die and save everyone aboard the Hope," Alex continues to Ellie's chagrin, "or I can let them live and doom the rest."

"You can stay in Omelas or you can leave it," Max mumbles. "Not an easy choice, Captain."

Hawthorne ponders the people in the tubes, his brows quirked in deep, deep thought.

"Yeah. But the story is called The Ones Who Walk Away, not The Ones Who Stay."

In the end, Alex stays.

He kills the subjects and takes all the gas.

Ellie's nightmares are made of their screams for many, many years afterward.

000

The colony is dying.

And really, Ellie is not surprised.

The terraforming isn't working. The earth is too sour. The water is too salty. The food is not healthy. The air is slowly bleeding them dry.

The entire colony is starving, everyone is dying, and all Ellie can do is laugh.

Because the Board is going to kill the Hope colonists and use the ship as a prison.

Oh, yeah. The Board knew about the Hope all along.

It's a punch in the gut to the crew, of course, but it's the greatest one-liner Ellie's ever heard.

Clarke's terminal told them all this. It also told them where to find the dimethyl sulfoxide, and they steal it with only a few corporate guards going 'missing'. They steal it, and smuggle it away, and they finally leave that fucking city, leave all the memories and elitists and bad tastes behind.

Ellie thinks of what Nyoka said to her once, about accepting your past and the place where you're from – embracing it, even when it hurts – but Byzantium hasn't changed in the ten years she's been gone. It hasn't changed since the gates opened a hundred years ago. It wouldn't change even if Hawthorne manages to save them all from themselves.

She knows this, because the blood of privilege runs through her veins, and she'll never change herself.

If Ellie had access to a nuclear weapon, she would've used it on that place.

And whatever Ellie thought she might find by coming back here again, she didn't.

C'est la fucking vie.

000

Ellie,

Come see me down in the cargo hold. These fucking cows shit everywhere again.

Hawthorne.

Ellie almost doesn't go because she hates those stupid woolly cows and she hates how dirty and sour they smell and she hates the way their fur makes her nose itch but she goes anyways because she'd rather not get bitched at by the Captain later.

"Alex?" she says, giving a wide berth to the animals mooing their displeasure at the world. "Alex? Where are you? I'm not –"

"Boo!"

"Ah!" she yelps, twisting around, just about to put her fist in his face.

"Now, now, Doctor, no need for that."

"Where the fuck did you come from?"

Alex smirks, pointing to the ceiling beneath the walkway.

"You're getting rusty, Els," he tuts. "I was in the rafters."

Ellie lowers her fists. "Why the fuck are you hanging from the rafters like some juiced-up hobo from Edgewater?"

"Look, I know all you Halcyon natives are right sticks in the mud, but back on Earth, see, we had these things called practical jokes where –"

"I know what a practical joke is, asshole. They're supposed to be funny."

"I thought it was hilarious."

"Of course you did, you don't – mmph."

The Captain is kind enough to cut her off with a slow, deliberate kiss, one that steals whatever retort she had right from her mouth.

Her eyes close and she lets it happen, lets him trace her neck with his nose and his hot breath on her skin makes goosebumps rise there. His hands on her hips are steady, thumbs kneading into her flesh, and Ellie backs up until her knees hit a crate, cold through her pants. Alex gently pushes her down on the cool metal and her breath hitches when he moves his mouth from her lips to her throat, along her jaw, down her neck, and lower, until he's pulling at her undershirt to graze her breasts with his teeth.

Ellie gasps, groaning at his touch, and thrusts her hips up into his, finding him already hard against her stomach.

This is exactly where she belongs, Ellie thinks, if she were to ever belong somewhere: on this ship that she loves, the thrum of her engine reverberating through them, and a very sexy man between her legs, slowly stripping them both of their clothes.

"Alex," she starts, then gasps as his fingers enter her. "Alex, what if – mmm – what if someone sees us?"

"I don't care. Do you care?"

"Not really."

"Good. Plus, no one will come down here anyways – the cows are so fucking smelly."

Ew. Right.

"Gross."

"I know, right?"

"As long as they stay over there, I'm fine with this," Ellie hums, arching her back to get closer, nearer him.

"Don't worry, they will," he says, his dick hot against her thigh. "I threatened to eat them if they so much as mention this to anyone."

"Hm. So, this ambush was premediated, was it?"

"Of course," he smirks, thrusting inside her. Ellie moans. "I always wanted to fuck you in a semi-public place."

"You're too big a pussy to fuck me in an alleyway or something?"

"Hey, alleyways are filthy places, you know."

"As filthy as a cow pen on a space ship?"

"Hm. You do have a point."

He rocks his hips against hers, slowly, not in any rush, and Ellie's skin is hot against the cold metal of the crate. She wraps her legs around him, digs her nails into his hips, nips his ear and his neck.

Ellie's no stranger when it comes to sex: it's a tool for release, a way to bribe and get what she wants. It's no more personal than Virginia against her hip, than a Stogie in her mouth – a thing she enjoys, keeps near. But never loves.

Yet this… is different. Ellie's mostly read boring old textbooks on anatomy and medicine in her time, and poetry, of course, when she gets the chance, but she's read a few other stories in between the rest, and this, with Alex here, right now – this feels like what those stories always talked about. This feels like making love.

But Ellie doesn't love him. Ellie doesn't love anyone. There's only strangers and bosses and acquaintances – alright, maybe friends – but no loves. Lovers, of course, but… not this.

So... what is Alex to her?

He's her boss, of course, the best she's ever had. And she supposes he's her friend, along with the rest of the crew. Lovers, of course.

Is that it?

Yes, she tells herself, because she needs to hear it. She needs him to mean nothing to her.

But the thing is, he does.

He means a lot.

He might mean everything.

But Ellie won't admit that. She never does.

And years later, Alex dies knowing it.

000

"What're you gonna do when this is all over, Doc?"

Parvati has a grease-smudged bandana covering her face so she doesn't breathe in engine exhaust, and Ellie can't see the quiver of her lips that she's sure are under there.

"Dunno. Haven't really thought about it much, Holcomb. You?" she deflects, before the engineer can call her out on her lie.

"Well, I was hopin' I could steal some ideas offa you. Never been on a ship before, I ain't sure where to go from here."

"What about the Groundbreaker with Junlei?"

"Oh, I'd love to, but I'm not sure – I mean, they're all so smart there, the engineers, and I wouldn't want to distract her from her work. Plus, she hasn't asked me yet."

"Back to Edgewater then?"

"Mayhaps. Thought about it. Reed Tobson ain't there no more, and I heard that lady from the botanical labs has started growin' food there now, and the people ain't so sick no more. It would be nice to see that, you know, see the town runnin' as it should be, but…"

"But it's not here."

"Yeah. It ain't here."

"I've been on a lot of liners and cargo ships, Parvati. They're pretty much all the same. I'm sure you could find work on another one if you wanted."

"Yeah, you're probably right."

Parvati droops her head, and the girl has never been good at hiding what she's feeling. A weakness, Ellie always thought, though Parvati has the toughest will of anyone she's ever met, so maybe there's a bit of strength in it.

"But hey, who knows," Ellie adds – she can't stand the way Parvati's eyes sag anymore – "this might not be over. The Captain could keep us all aboard for a long time yet, keep us running stints for colonies. Once the Hope gets up and running, a lot of people will need food and weapons and supplies. This could be a long-term thing."

Parvati frowns. "You think?"

"I know."

The engineer looks away and fiddles with something for a minute. She wipes her hands on her overalls and sighs, pulling her bandana down.

"The Captain's not… well, is he, Doc?"

Ellie swallows but doesn't look away.

"What makes you say that?"

"I may not be as educated or travelled as you, Ellie, but I ain't dumb either. I can see it, I think everyone sees it."

"Sees what?"

"He's sick," she breathes, voice trembling a little. "He's got his headaches and his shaky arm and you can't tell me you ain't noticed the way he… forgets things sometimes, like he just don't remember where he put his gun down, or that he forgot he already took a shower that day. Felix caught him hurling into the toilet again last night, and he didn't even eat his supper. I just – I'm scared for him, Ellie. I want this to be the last ship I ever serve on, but I just don't know."

Ellie bites her lip, plotting her words carefully.

"It's just his hibernation sickness," she says, and she's getting tired of hearing herself say that, repeating it like a broken record. "He's gotta get used to his kinematics, and he's taking drugs for his headaches, drugs that Welles gave him, I think, so he's in good hands. It's just – it's a lot, Parvati, what he's doing. He pushes himself too hard. He doesn't rest, and he needs to."

"Is that the truth, Doc?"

"Yeah. Yeah, course it is."

"You tryin' to convince me or you?"

"Look, I'm the doctor here, Holcomb," she snaps, instantly regretting the way she makes Parvati frown. "It's just – sorry. I mean, I won't let anything happen to him, Parvati. Trust me."

"I do trust you, Ellie. Probably more than anyone."

Ellie wishes she trusted herself even half as much as Parvati seems to.

000

Hawthorne isn't getting any better.

He's stopped vomiting, for the most part, SAM tells her. But the robot also found eleven empty white pill bottles with the label ripped off stashed under his bed.

Hawthorne isn't getting any better, she pings to Welles, because she knows the scientist knows about him. Might probably know better than anyone in the system. Is probably the one giving Hawthorne the pills in the first place.

Who is this? How did you get this address?

Fenhill, Hawthorne's crew medic. Captain tends to leave his datapad lying around. For a smart man, you'd think his password would be more complicated than 'iamalexhawthorne123.'

The Captain has told me about you.

Ooh, gossip. What's he say?

You're the doctor from Byzantium. He trusts you. You're the one he's currently sexually involved with. I hope you know he's unable to reproduce. An unfortunate side-effect of the particular concoction I injected him with.

Yikes. Don't plan on getting knocked up though, so I'm fine with that. Does he know?

Yes. I am quite surprised he has not confided that information with you.

There's a lot he doesn't say.

Right, well, he has his reasons.

Welles, I need to know what's wrong with him. He's not doing good. His hibernation sickness is bad. Any amount is bad, but seventy years? He shouldn't even be alive.

You're correct. I understand your concerns. I have prescribed him Nisoprosyn Oxycorabine. He tells me it's working.

It's not.

I assumed as much. He says he doesn't like to bother me with these things, but it's of utmost importance that he remain healthy in order to retrieve the dimethyl sulfoxide for me.

He's more than just a fucking tool, you know.

Yes, you are correct. I apologise. I've come to know the Captain as a good friend and confidant these past months. Also, I must divulge – you are only the third person I've communicated with in almost forty years, and the first one not calling himself 'Alex Hawthorne'. So forgive me my lapse in communication etiquette.

It's fine.

The Captain told me you had reactive kinematics installed. Excellent choice, doctor. That definitely will help his inner ear imbalance and still the lurches in the space-time relapse approximation afflicting him.

About that – what the fuck is that about? Stopping time?

I'm afraid I do not have concrete answers, Dr. Fenhill. Nothing more than anything you've probably already discovered. This is more than just hibernation sickness. Like his sterility, the chemical formula in his veins has some… unintended side effects. He has extensive nerve damage in his left forearm, onset neuromuscular dementia, considerable heart palpitations and end-stage renal failure.

Oh.

A lump forms in Ellie's throat.

Oh.

I apologise you had to find out this way.

Her heart races, there's sweat forming at her temple –

Does he know?

Yes.

Ellie can hardly swallow – the air is too dry in the room –

Is he dying?

No no no –

Yes.

Yes. Yes. Yes.

There has to be something we can do.

Unfortunately there's very little we can do besides keep the pain at bay. I will prescribe him Hepaprozac Epidipine. I would appreciate it if you kept in contact and updated me on his condition.

Okay.

I expect it to deteriorate, Doctor. I suggest you expect it as well.

000

They're going to skip the Hope to Terra 2.

It's the last step in Hawthorne's grand plan, the last thing they need to do before they can start waking them up, start rebuilding and making Halcyon into something it was always meant to be.

Alive.

They're going to skip the Hope to Terra 2 tomorrow.

But not tonight.

Tonight, it's raining in Edgewater and all Ellie wants to do is go back to the Unreliable and sleep, sleep until this fucking nightmare is over. She feels like a stranger, a fraud, like it's only a matter of time before the universe takes notice and plucks her from the city, from these streets she doesn't belong. She's walking in a dampened dreamworld, the earth beneath her feat a ticking timebomb.

It's raining, and Hawthorne wants to go swimming.

He strips down to his boxers before the old stone fountain in the town square, the rain beating down his back, rolling down his skin in littles beads. No one is here – no one is crazy enough to be out in the rain in the dark – and he dives in. Ellie is freezing and soaked right through and certain he'll break his neck, the water's not deep enough, but he doesn't.

He surfaces, shaking the water from his wayward hair, and laughs.

"Come join me, Ellie!" he calls to her.

"Nah, I'm good. I don't want to get wet."

He laughs again, and floats there in the water on his back, floats there like he isn't dying, like this place isn't killing him. He floats there, his hair pooling out around him until it appears to her that Alex owns the fountain, owns the city itself, and it exists to hold him.

It's how she feels about any place the Captain finds himself in. The Unreliable was always meant to be his – there is no one else who could occupy it. Not even the real Alex Hawthorne.

No one is out, the people are gone. The world often stops when it rains – a paradox, because everything is happening all at once.

Trees drink. Fish swim. Gardens bloom. And it's here, of all places, in the dark in the rain under a watery streetlight in the city Parvati grew up in and hated, that the growth of flowers splinter her ribcage and she falls in love. The exact moment her chest blooms, making it difficult to breathe, is right now, and she knows this, knows it more surely than anything she's ever known before.

It might be pity. Alex is dying – he was right all along – and she feels sorry for him. For herself.

It might be a feeling of brotherhood, perhaps, a kinship you feel after hardships won only through being there with the other.

It might be love. She thought she loved Caster, but she never felt like this.

He's going to kill her. He's going to die and break her heart, and there's nothing she can do to stop it.

She knew. Perhaps she knew all along.

How dare he. How dare he make her love him, and do something so stupid as die.

He's pulling a Sarah on her.

Ellie wants to laugh about it, but she's not sure she can ever laugh again.

Ellie does not jump into the fountain. Later, years away, she doesn't even regret not doing so.

Those memories would've been a lot more painful if she had.

000

She traces a finger across the scars that riddle his body: the bullet spray from those spacers in Roseway, the acid burn from that giant raptidon, and there's others, too, others she's helped heal with her own hands, and others she has no story for.

She wanted to know their stories, once. Now, she's not so sure.

And touching him is a paradox in itself – his flesh is from the past, not meant to be here. An unplanned variable. He should have died an old man before Ellie was even born. But now that he's here, in a time that doesn't belong to him, he's dying.

The universe always takes what is due.

It's not fair.

000

"What's wrong, Ellie?"

"Stuff it, Felix, I'm not in the mood to talk."

"It's just – you seem awfully… sad, lately. Or mad. Extra mad, I mean – more than you normally are."

"It's this fucking place."

It's not. Well, it is, but not only.

"It's the stupid Board."

It's not.

"It's all the goddamned asinine questions people keep asking me."

It's not.

It's Hawthorne.

It always was.

000

They skip the Hope to Terra 2.

And Welles is gone.

000

"So, Phineas got himself taken to Tartarus. That's usually a one-way trip."

"I never got to know Doc Welles," Felix says. "We ain't friends or crew. But he's still one of us. He's the reason the Boss is up and walking right now. We can't just leave him to die on Tartarus."

ADA pipes in. "To extract the scientist, you will need to infiltrate the Labyrinth. But that course of action is likely to be quite dangerous, Captain."

Hawthorne sighs, splaying his fingers on the table. His crew is seated around him, around the kitchen. He looks ragged, burnt out, like a Stogie with only a puff or two left in it.

He looks like he's dying.

"We can't abandon Phineas," he says tiredly. "We have to free him if we've any hope of saving the colony."

"I am programmed to warn you whenever you exhibit inclinations toward 'risky' behaviour," ADA adds. "Breaking into Tartarus will not be easy."

"Captain? If I may?"

"Go ahead, Max."

"Getting in is the simple part. It's getting out again that's the trouble. Trust me."

"Lets just do it," Felix thrums. "Kick down some doors, grab Doc Welles, and cut a path out. We don't need a plan – we got guns!"

Nyoka picks at her teeth with a toothpick nonchalantly. "Well, folks, I ain't exactly keen on busting into a prison, but riddling Board stooges with bullets does sound like a riot and a half."

"Mr. Phineas is just about the only person with power tryin' to do any kind of good in Halcyon. We got to bust him out."

"Parvati's right," Max says. The engineer gives him a smile, and he takes it.

"I know," Alex sighs. "I know. And I know this isn't going to be easy, guys – Hell, it might not even work. We all might end up in a cell, or worse – I won't lie, there's a good chance some of us won't come out of this the other side. But we have to. I really believe we do. If saving Welles means saving Halcyon, then I'm just about ready to do whatever it takes. What – what do you all think?"

Nyoka smirks. "It's the craziest plan I've ever heard. And I mean that as a compliment."

"You're my Boss, my friend, Cap – and I'll walk into fire with you."

"I'm with Felix. I think it's insane. But maybe the colony needs a healthy dose of insanity right about now. I won't lie, just thinkin' about it all has got me into a tither – but it's the right thing to do."

"You're asking for more than bravery from us, Captain," Max says. "You're asking for everything."

"I know."

"But there are worse ways to go than dying for a good cause. I'm in."

Alex smiles.

"Let SAM get the grime out! It's what our units do best!"

"The entire plan is a terrible idea. But I admire your bravado, Captain, which leads me to illogically believe, against all odds, that you will be successful."

"Thanks, ADA. Always the voice of encouragement."

He glances toward Ellie, and something in his eyes makes her want to look away.

"What about you, Els? What's your thoughts on all this?"

Ellie fakes a smile. "Won't lie, this plan is shit. But all your plans so far have been shit – or non-existent – so what the Hell. Let's go save the world."

The Captain smirks at that.

"Thanks, guys. Look, if things go sideways in there, I just want you all to know – I'm grateful I picked all your sorry asses up when I did, else I might've had to shoot you otherwise, and that's just a waste of bullets. And – thanks. For being there. For being here now. I couldn't have done this without you."

"You're damn right," Nyoka barks. "Now let's get this rapt and mantiswarm sideshow on the road."

Alex laughs.

"Yes. Let's."

000

RAM hisses and spits fuel and sparks into the air, and the drones dither and dip, and then, like falling asleep, slowly then all at once, Sophia Akande's giant robot dies.

Hawthorne collapses.

"Alex!" Ellie screeches, rushing to his side. The crew picks themselves up from the dust, helping Sanjar's forces and Junlei's people and Iconoclasts lick their wounds and pick through the dead.

"Alex! Alex, stay with me!" she yelps, slapping his bloodied, bruised face with her hands. Just when she feels like her heart might crawl out of her throat, the Captain's eyes flutter.

"Oh," he says, eyes just barely focussing on the woman above him. "Oh. We won?"

Ellie almost laughs. A smile tickles her lips and she feels that now-familiar emotion swell once more within her. She cradles the dying man in her arms, tears threatening to spill over.

"Yeah. Yeah, we won."

"Good," he breathes. "Always good to win."

Ellie doesn't want to let him go.

But she knows she has to.

She knows the ending of a story when she's there.

000

Phineas Welles is exactly as she imagined him – old and stooped and absolutely insane, muttering scientific conjectures and inane musings into the air – although she doubts she would be much different if she spent forty years alone on a spaceship with only notebooks and her hand for company.

"Ah, you must be Doctor Fenhill. It's good to finally meet you. I must say, you are much more – uh, masculine than I imagined you to be, from your correspondence and all."

Ellie is far too exhausted to punch him right now.

"Yeah. You're mousier than a sprat wearing a tutu, Welles."

The man blinks, clearly out of practice with socialization.

Ellie smiles tiredly.

"Nice to meet you too."

"Ah. I see. A joke. Yes, ha-ha, very funny. I wish to thank you for looking after Alex while I was aboard my ship," he says. "I wish I could have been with him to care for him during his tribulations, but alas, up until a few moments ago I was the most wanted man in Halcyon for nearly half a century."

"It's no problem."

The scientist eyes her momentarily.

"Hm. You're wondering about his condition."

No point in lying.

"Yes."

"It's deteriorating at an accelerated pace, doctor. I suspect, if he does not die from bullet spray, he will have a heart attack or suffer nephrotoxicity from his acute kidney failure relatively soon."

Ellie winces.

"Is… is there nothing we can do? Nothing at all?"

"I'm afraid not. All I can do is keep him comfortable. He knows he's got very little time left. Does the rest of his crew know? Does he know you're aware?"

"No."

"I might make amends now."

There must be something in Ellie's eyes, something that makes Phineas' face soften.

"Take solace in knowing what you did changed the fate of everyone in Halcyon, Doctor Fenhill. Changed the course of history."

"Yeah. Doesn't feel like it."

"Good things happened, despite it all."

"No, Welles," she bites, eyes hard. "Good things don't happen. Bad things happen, and you wring victory from them while laughing at your enemies."

000

A week later, Chairman Rockwell keeps his promise and announces support for the reviving of the colonists. He absconds Welles of all misdeeds and wrongdoings, and publicly apologises to Minister Clarke.

It's a fairy tail ending if she's ever heard of one.

So why doesn't it feel like it?

The night before Rockwell's announcement, the crew of the Unreliable finds themselves back on Groundbreaker, in The Lost Hope, in their booth in the corner, each cradling a beer, and each laughing and joking like this isn't the end of everything.

"Should we be celebrating?" she quips, interrupting Felix's wildly outlandish rehash of the time the massive raptidon almost ate the Captain for breakfast back on Monarch. "I mean, after everything that happened?"

The crew looks uncomfortable now.

"Well, this ain't exactly a celebration, Doc, but their ain't no shame in victory."

She frowns. "Not much of a victory. We lost a lot of people. Good people. People that didn't deserve to die."

"Since when have you given two shits about the morality behind it all, Ellie?" Nyoka says.

"We did exactly what we set out to do," Alex adds, eyes her with mild suspicion. "I think that counts for something."

"I think it counts for shit."

Hawthorne purses his lips.

"Everything alright, Els?"

"Yeah. I'm fine. I'm just – I'm a little tired. Think I'll hit the hay early tonight. See you all later."

Ellie gets up and leaves, leaves without turning around, without saying goodbye – and this is a goodbye.

She's leaving. And she's not coming back.

Alex manages to catch her right before she steps out onto the docks.

"Hey. Hey, Ellie – where you going?"

"I'm done, Alex," she bites, making him blink. "It's done. It's all over. We did what you came here to do, and now it's done. I'm leaving."

"You're leaving? Why?"

"What did you think was going to happen, Alex?" she bites, both hating and loving the sting in his eyes. "That we'd get married? Settle down? Have kids? Pretend like it all meant something?"

"I – I thought it did."

Ellie's heart's breaking, she can feel it, and she does nothing to stop it.

"No, Hawthorne, it doesn't. It didn't mean a fucking thing. I used you to fuck away Caster, and that's it. That's all it was."

Alex frowns. "I don't believe you."

"I've never been so sure of anything in all my life."

"I think you're lying," he says. "I think you're terrified of being anything other than cold-hearted bitch-faced Ellie, and I think it scares you that I'm still here and I've done nothing to push you away yet, and I think you're afraid of loving me back. Because I love you, Ellie," he says, with all the desperation of a man who's losing a battle. "I love you. I want you to stay."

Ellie swallows. It feels like she's walking on a blade – it hurts, and either way she falls, it will kill her.

She could stay. She could stay with him and love him like she wants to, like he deserves to be loved.

But he's dying.

She's not as brave as he is. She cannot bear to wake up next to him every morning and be reminded of that. She can't do what he did, can't love him like he loved Sarah. She can't look into his face and watch him wither away, watch him sink and wilt and fade, until he's nothing.

Because he's everything.

Ellie has a choice, now: she's looked into the face of the wretched child in the cellar, and she can stay and be happy despite it, despite that knowledge gnawing at the back of her mind, or she can walk away from Omelas, walk away from him, and simply refuse to accept the stark reality in front of her.

Ellie steels herself, looking deep into the hollow eyes of the man in front of her.

"I don't."

And that's that.

Ellie turns away from him.

Ellie walks away from Omelas.