CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE: REMINDER
The able-bodied members of the crew were kept busy during the next few days as the Galaxy neared port. Jim took the helm on the Galaxy, and was issuing orders again, taking charge of the repairs of their ships, visiting every infirmary, making contact daily with their commanders and even taking over some of the negotiations with the Myamins. The fleet were escorting them to a nearby satellite port- one rather like the spaceport Crescentia, except broader and fuller. Their Myamin doctors called it Lunaire.
Alanna made her rounds through the infirmaries as well, spending time sitting on the ends of beds and mopping brows and interacting more with her crew in the span of three days than she had in all the months prior. She made a wonderful nurse, and her gratitude to them was unmistakable. They had no idea what to make of it, except to become even more devoted to her than they had already been. Alex made friends among them as well, several times without bothering to introduce himself first. The joy of informing the men that they had just beaten the soon-to-be-Emperor in a game of cards often fell to Jim. He liked to watch the looks on their faces.
Several times the men asked Jim about Nick. If they asked how she was doing, he would answer reservedly. If they asked his part in her deceit, he would leave the room. Eventually one man gathered his courage and decided to question Alanna.
"Your majesty, did the Cap'n... the new cap'n... have aught to do with the cabin boy?"
She turned to him with the first non-sympathetic expression that they had seen her wear. "Why do you ask?"
"It just... they was pretty close. It just all seems...I dunno," he finished lamely.
"She is a personal friend of mine," Alanna pronounced, and the room fell silent. "And he acted according to my orders."
The men shifted a little, their uncharitable thoughts becoming guilt.
One man, stocky and grey-blue, with brown eyes and a sweet smile, and a new mechanical leg, looked up at her with something like hesitation. She got up and moved over to his bed, sensing that he had a question he didn't want to share with the crowd.
"What's your name, sailor?" she asked, giving him a smile.
"Joche, your majesty," he replied, smiling back and reaching up out of habit to doff a hat he wasn't wearing.
"And did you have something on your mind?"
He blushed, turning his cheeks a curiously charming dusky purple. "Yes, your majesty. But I don't know that it's my business, or that you'd even know.."
"Try me," she grinned.
He glanced around at the other men, but they had gone back to their own conversations. "We knew something was off with Nick... can you tell me the truth about her? We got so many different stories, and now I see why... she and Hawkins were throwing us off. But I just want to know the truth. I don't have any problem with her being a girl. She did her work just as good as any boy. I'd just like to know who she was. In case... in case she doesn't get to talk for herself."
Alanna pressed her lips together tightly, taking a deep breath. "I remember you. You were a friend of hers."
"Yes, ma'am. Much as she let anyone be."
She nodded, looking down at her hands in her lap. "Well, Joche. Here's what I can tell you. Her name really is Nick. She really grew up on the spaceport. She ran away from home, and joined your ship to get a new start. She is eighteen, not sixteen. She was obeying my orders the entire time she was aboard. And she is going to live, if I have anything to say about it."
He nodded slowly. "She told us most of the truth, it seems. Except about being a lad. I'm glad to hear she has you in her corner too. She might have a lot to answer for."
Alanna found his hand and patted it gently. "I won't let anything happen to her. She did nothing wrong."
A rich, bloody sunset streamed in through the massive window that dominated the wall behind the desk. The bookshelves were full. The maps on the wall were aged and pocked with the marks of hundreds of pins. The instruments on the desk were well-used, worn smooth where daily use had polished the surfaces. The air smelled of cigars, despite the passage of several days.
Jim dropped his duffel by the door and sighed heavily, running his good hand over his face. Captain Trelawney haunted every shadow. The room itself waited with bated breath for his return. Jim was unwelcome here. An interloper. A fraud.
He was supposed to have had years yet. He felt selfish, but it was true. He was supposed to have had time still, time when he didn't have to think this way, time to be someone who wasn't quite done cooking yet, time to make mistakes.
Time to just be Jim Hawkins. That time had been taken from him.
The captain's echoes pressed in on him from all sides. He wasn't the only one who had lost time.
He kicked the duffel toward the bunk room off to the side. He had no intention of staying here tonight. He was fooling himself to think he would get any sleep at all.
He had somewhere else to be.
The sound of urgent footsteps down the hall caught his attention. Most especially because they were accompanied by the thumping and crashing of a large dog trying to round a sharp corner.
"Stop!" called a thickly accented voice. "Dog!"
Jim stepped out into the hall just as Ishmael rounded the last corner, bouncing off the walls in his haste to reach his room. Jim knelt to greet him, but Ishmael gave him a perfunctory sniff before moving off to whimper at the door to the first mate's cabin.
"I am sorry," panted the winded Myamin sailor who had been trying to keep up. "As soon as we brought him back on the ship, the dog, he was off like a shot... I will take him to the galley..."
"No, he's okay. He's in the right place," Jim assured him, getting to his feet and stripping the sling off. He'd need both hands to wrestle the dog away. Ishmael stood on his hind paws and tried to push the door open to get to Nick. Adamson came to the door and opened it, and was nearly bowled over as the dog forced his way in to look for her. The new first mate gave Jim a questioning look as the new captain threw the sling on the floor in the room.
"Has he been on your ship this whole time?" Jim asked the sailor.
He nodded. "He had been trapped in the hold of this ship. We took him back to feed him and find his owner."
"Well, his owner is in the infirmary, but I'll take him from here. Thank you for caring for him."
"Hawkins," Adamson grunted. "There is a dog in my room."
"I'm sorry," the sailor chimed in, "I thought he would go back to the galley."
"He's looking for the cabin boy," Jim informed Adamson.
"In the first mate's room?" the sailor asked dubiously.
Jim turned to him, the gratitude and goodwill gone from his expression. "Thank you. You're dismissed."
The sailor felt the temperature plummet and beat a hasty retreat after a quick salute.
"No need to snap. It was a valid question."
Jim abruptly turned back to his first mate, startled by the scolding tone.
"Don't look at me like that. You're trying not to be defensive, but you have to toughen your skin. There isn't going to be a man on board who doesn't think you were getting perks from Nick to keep her secret," he informed Jim.
Jim looked at the ceiling, pleading with his temper, then met his eyes. "It wasn't like that," he said flatly.
"It doesn't matter. If you have any feelings for her at all, there isn't much you can say that will make it seem like you weren't serving your own purposes."
There was a pause. Jim shrugged. "Then I guess there is nothing I can say."
He turned and left, with Ismael trotting along after him.
Alex found that he liked to watch her when she wasn't looking. The way she scowled and smiled in the space of the same breath, the way her eyes flashed around the room as she took everything in…
He'd known she was beautiful. He hadn't realized she'd be so vibrant.
He'd always learned to compartmentalize people. Servants, subjects, sycophants… if he knew what they were, he knew what to expect. He'd tried desperately to change that when he assumed command of his father's Navy, but the habit was deeply ingrained despite his efforts.
The miniature portrait of his bride had been given to him a more than a year ago, and immediately shoved into his desk drawer. She was beautiful, and she was well-trained, and she would one day be Empress. That was all he knew of her. That was enough, apparently, to tell his parents that this bride was suited to him.
But Alanna's beauty and training couldn't hide that she was equally stubborn, outspoken, rash, passionate, and generous. She had quicksilver moods, but her passions were pure. She was dangerous when she was upset. But she was fiercely protective of her crew, and those she was close to.
He wanted to be one of those. He wanted to be close to her.
He wanted to watch her eyes light up when she saw something she liked, and watch them flash when she got protective or defensive.
He wanted to watch her flush pink when she got embarrassed.
He wanted to watch her smile and laugh. He wanted to know that she'd come to him when she needed a good cry.
He found himself stopping what he was doing just to watch her face, and watch her hands as she sorted paperwork, and watch her tap her foot impatiently as she looked up at the clock. Her eyes were red with tears she had hidden from him. She was staying strong because she didn't want him to see her weakness yet.
He was fascinated by her, and what had been a duty, an obligation to his family, his country, his crown, had become something that he was really looking forward to. He smiled at her as he finished signing paperwork, stuffing the sheets away and looking across his desk to the little table she'd made her workspace for the time being.
She looked up, and saw him staring. "What is it?" she asked sharply, looking around a little. "What's wrong?"
"Not a thing. I am simply watching," he shrugged. "Do you mind?"
"Watching what?" she demanded, frowning.
Her eyebrows went up, and she blushed furiously, looking away.
"Does it bother you?" he repeated, asking gently.
She looked at him sideways, smiling hesitantly. "No."
The captain stood on the quarterdeck and oversaw the mooring of his ship at the dock. It was a small port, but it would suffice for his purposes. He needed repairs, he needed supplies, and he needed sailors.
Luckily the local government had been warned of their imminent arrival, and had prepared for it. The shops were open, as usual, but men waited at the docks for them. By their dress, it was a hodgepodge of officials, merchants, laborers, and medical men. He took a deep breath and stretched his aching shoulder, and tried not to think. He had a ship to dock.
Orders were barked, and immediately followed. Sails furled and unfurled. The engines growled and sputtered and the deck rattled with loose boards and ramparts. The able men ran hither and thither, up and down the masts with remarkable speed. Some of their injured crewmates watched from the deck, and their captain hoped they watched with the same sense of pride as he did. A skeleton crew was running this ship, and they were doing a fantastic job. He was growing prouder of his men by the day.
When the ship was safely anchored in port, a small clutch of men hurried up from belowdecks and met with the white-clad men of the hospital. Arms gestured, voices called out above the din, men disappeared below and reemerged with stretchers bearing the severely wounded. They would be carefully carried or driven over to the hospital, where they would be treated to care far surpassing that which could be administered on a ship. That was why Alex had picked this port.
They didn't carry her up last. By the captain's count, it was the eighth stretcher up the stairs. They didn't move any more slowly or carefully. They did their job efficiently and effectively. They didn't act as though the body on that stretcher caused the captain's heart to lodge in his throat. And their unbiased action reminded him to keep his head.
She would be fine. He had to believe that. He shoved his hand into his pocket and felt the fine metal of the chain against his fingers. The ragged edges of the broken links picked at his skin, and he knew without looking that the tarnished section was the one he held. He still debated whether it was his place to have it repaired, but for now he would hold onto it for her. Time would tell.
The pain was first.
Beneath the heavy darkness that pressed in on her, the pain glowed like a dying star.
The darkness was receding. Not fading, but receding. Almost in layers. Like coming up for air from bottom of a deep pool.
Shetookan involuntary deep breath at the thought of deep water, with an invented fear that she was drowning, and the pain was suddenly stunning.
Her chest seized and the breath halted in her lungs. She was frozen with pain for a small eternity, unable to even call for help.
Her eyes flew open and fixed on a face above. Bearded. Spectacles. Unfamiliar. He lowered a mask over her face and she felt air whisper over her skin and into her nose. A rush of warmth in her arm. Heaviness sank over her again, and the seizing pain in her chest slowly ebbed until she could draw tiny, shallow breaths that rasped only slightly with the tightness in her chest. She whispered a name, as though that could make him appear.
The heaviness grew until the darkness washed over her again, and she slipped away.
"What do you mean you can't find him?"
"I do believe my meaning was clear," Alex retorted, becoming irritated with her disbelief. "I cannot find the captain. I do not know where he is. If I knew where he was, I would find him and insist that he finish this himself. But instead, I find myself in his stead and wishing my grasp of Terran were better suited to the task."
The corner of Alanna's mouth quirked up and a little of Alex's frustration eased. "I think it's not as complicated as you've made it. Have you checked the engine room?"
"Why in the stars would he be in the engine room?" he demanded incredulously. "He's a captain!"
"Because he's a very peculiar captain," she replied, heading for the stairs. "I'll go and see if I can't track him down.."
Not ten minutes later she returned triumphant, trailing a grease-smudged Captain Hawkins and beaming like the moon.
"Is something wrong, sir?" Jim asked, wiping his hands on a rag.
Alanna peered closer. "What have you done to your sling? Jim!"
"It was beyond saving," he returned.
Alex sighed something in Myamin that Jim didn't catch, and leaned back against the railing with his arms folded across his chest. "I have received word that your Nick is out of surgery," he said quietly. Jim tensed, prepared to run, but Alex stopped him with a gesture. "You cannot go yet, sir. There are decisions to be made."
Alanna looked tired as she began to explain. "The doctor said they had to replace her two lowest ribs entirely. She had a major reconstruction done on her abdomen. The best case scenario is that she can leave the hospital in a month, with no complications in the meantime."
Jim was frozen still. A month. He had gotten his orders in from the Navy. They were already a month behind on their anticipated travel time, and they expected him to get the ship and crew back inside of six months. If he waited four more weeks…
"You can't, Jim," Alanna said softly.
"Yes, I can," he said immediately.
"Not if you want to make it back inside the time frame they gave you."
He stuffed the greasy sling into his pocket. "If she wants me to, I will wait another year. If you'll excuse me, I have to get to the hospital."
She looked even smaller and paler than he remembered. He hovered near the doorway, just struggling to take it in. Her mask was different now: he could see her face a little. The tube down her throat was gone. There were different wires crisscrossing her body.
He ran a hand through his hair. Crossing the room to the side of the bed seemed to take an age. He sat down in the chair beside the bed, watching her sleep. He slipped his hand into hers again, like the last time. "Hey sunshine," he whispered, leaning in.
Her lashes fluttered, and her head shifted. Every movement was agonizingly slow, but Jim held his breath. Her eyes opened, just a little, and met his. The corner of her mouth twitched up.
And her fingers slowly, deliberately, tightened around his.
Then her eyes closed again, and she drifted away. But Jim sat there for as long as he could, holding onto that moment and waiting eagerly for another. He watched her sleep for several minutes, feeling more at peace than he had in days. She breathed evenly, though the breaths she took were shallow and cautious even in sleep. Her bruises were beginning to fade. Her face was calm and without pain. He closed his own eyes for a moment, sighing heavily. Right now, he needed to be here.
"I don't know what to do," he whispered. "I can't be the captain. I'm not the first mate anymore. I can't do this. I don't even know if I want to."
She was silent, and he brought her hand up to rest his cheek in her palm.
"And what I want, I don't think I can have anymore," he breathed, barely even out loud. "I don't know what we're going to do."
When he had to go, he gave her hand a little squeeze and got to his feet, leaning in to kiss her cheek. "I'll come back later, I promise," he said softly.
Nick opened her eyes slowly. The light burned. Her brow furrowed as she tried to adjust.
"Hello there, sleepy."
"'Lanna?" Nick rasped, finding that her throat was parched and her chest ached. "Where'm I?"
"Lunaire. A Myamin space port. In a Myamin hospital."
"I'm alive?" she asked. Shock laced through her body as the awareness returned. And with it came the pain.
"Just barely," Alanna answered, her voice small.
Nick closed her eyes again, taking a slow, deep breath through her nose. There was a mask over her face, supplying air. "It hurts." Her voice was rough and dry and sounded odd through the mask.
"It's going to. You've been in and out of surgery for days. You had a lot of work done, and I don't think you're out of the woods yet."
Nick grimaced and took stock of herself. "Missing anything important?"
"They left you what was intact," Alanna allowed. "But two of your ribs are shiny new, and you still have bits of you needing to be sewn up. Leave it alone," she scolded when Nick moved her hand to her stomach.
Nick said a foul word that prompted a prim look from Alanna. "And watch your mouth."
"It hurts," Nick protested.
The princess shook her head. "I would imagine so."
The patient closed her eyes and settled back, feeling exhausted already. "What's the word?" she asked softly.
"We lost thirty-seven men overall. Thirty-three in the immediate aftermath, and four more have died of their injuries here. There was a funeral a few days ago, and there will be another before the Galaxy launches."
Nick nodded. Her eyes welled with tears. She breathed in slowly. "And that'll be?"
"The captain's been given a very strict timeline. He must have the Galaxy back in port inside of six months."
Nick's brows furrowed again. "But it… was longer getting here."
"Yes. But they will be able to travel faster and less cautiously on the return trip," Alanna acknowledged.
"And when'm I out?"
"Three or four weeks, most likely."
She shut her eyes again. Grief washed through her and she tried to keep it hidden. "Any sooner?"
"Can he wait?"
"He's planning to."
Hope sparked, bright and eager.
"Nick," Alanna said softly, moving closer to the bed. "I would do anything to help. Truly I would. But this is his chance. He could make a name for himself. He's the youngest captain in the Navy at the moment. He recovered and completed the mission despite an attack, and he has everything going for him right now. I know that's not why you did what you did, but what you did has put him in a position to really become someone. And he wants to risk all of that to wait, so you can come back with him. If he ignores them, and waits a month to bring home a runaway who lied on all of her paperwork, that will define him. He's an amazing captain. He has so much potential. But they won't see that. They'll see an acting captain who can't follow a schedule or command a crew effectively, and who permits fugitives to stow away on his ship," Alanna said softly.
The silence stretched out for several long minutes after Nick turned her face away to look out the window. She could see the ships in the harbor. She might even have been able to see the Galaxy, but her vision had blurred, and she wasn't sure.
"I'm sorry to do this," Alanna said eventually. "But I wanted you to know what he's willing to throw away."
Nick nodded slowly. "I understand."
Alanna patted her hand, then moved back toward the door. "Nick. I'll make this right again. I promise. If you trust me, I'll make it right."
Silence was the only reply. Nick laid awake for a while after the princess left, but the relief of sleep claimed her soon enough.
He laid the knapsack on the little table beside her bed and the boots on the floor. The little sounds of rustling were enough to wake her, which told him they had lowered her painkillers.
"Jim," she rasped, a tired little smile on her lips.
It was the first word he'd heard from her in almost a week. His throat was tight as he tried to smile back. "Hey, sunshine. How are you feeling?"
"Peachy." Her smile was exhausted. "How are you?"
"A lot better now," he grinned, sitting on the edge of the bed and finding her hand with his own. "It's been too quiet around here."
"I'll get right on that," she smirked, closing her eyes for a moment and looking as though the struggle to stay awake was getting the better of her. But then she rallied her strength and looked up at him again. "Did you… bring me presents?"
He barked a laugh. "Just your own stuff," he admitted. "You came in with nothing but your dignity, so I thought a pair of boots and some clean clothes might go a long way."
She smiled faintly. But when he moved, something caught the light and snatched her attention. She pulled her hand from his grip and reached out toward his chest. A callused fingertip traced the captain's insignia he had forgotten he'd let someone pin on his jacket. Her hand began to shake with the effort, and he recaptured it with his own.
"I can't… He's really dead," she breathed.
Her eyes wandered his face. He could see her fighting to cope with the reality, her memories crashing down on her. He watched her eyes fill with tears. She struggled to breathe slowly, and he watched the pain grow on her face. He got to his feet, leaning over her, holding her face. "It's not your fault, Nick," he whispered, kissing her forehead. "It's not. He was a hero. He saved Alanna... you both did."
"I-I.. messed up... everything..."
Her body shook with the effort of keeping her breathing steady, and she reached up and grabbed onto his hands against her cheeks. "No, you didn't.. Nick, you did nothing wrong.." he insisted, kissing her face. He wanted to hold her, but he felt like he'd break her.
Her breath hitched and she made a little sound, far more painful than any other sound he had ever heard her make. She clung to him, her whole body tense and still, so still he could barely tell she was breathing. He was irrationally terrified that she would suddenly collapse, lifeless, the way Billy Bones had done.
"Breathe, Nick," he whispered, his jaw against her hair. "Please, baby. Just breathe."
She was still for a few more heartbeats, and then slowly relaxed. Tears streamed down her cheeks, but she was breathing steadily again. "It hurts," she panted.
He gave her a weak smile and held her cheek. "I'm sorry... I shouldn't have made you cry..."
The corner of her mouth twitched, and she reached up slowly to budge the mask down and swipe at her nose. "Not your fault..." she whispered. Her voice sounded so much more familiar without the barrier.
His smile grew a little. "Do you need a distraction?" he whispered back, glancing at the door to make sure he wouldn't be caught.
She nodded ever so slightly, that smile trying to light her face again.
Jim gently pulled the mask past her chin, and leaned in to press the softest kiss to her lips. Her pulse monitor beeped a warning at him, and he pulled back laughing. "I'll never get away with anything. Your poker face is terrible."
He got a real smile from her then. He thought it might have been the most wonderful thing he'd ever seen, black eye and all. She pulled the mask off her face and held it between her hands.
"So when… were you planning to launch?" she whispered. Her smile fell. "How long do I have you?"
He looked up, surprised.
She met his eyes, her gaze steady and level. "It's… I mean, you didn't come here to… I just… I know you're going back. And I'm not."
The bottom of his stomach fell out. He moved toward her again, but she shrank and held out a hand to stop him.
"Don't. Please don't. It won't fix anything. I know what they said. This is for the best..." she said shakily. Her bravado was failing. She was having trouble catching her breath between words.
His heart stuttered and he felt a sudden wave of regret. His hands were in fists in his lap. "No. It isn't," he whispered.
"I have to, Jim. I have to stay. I thought, for a while..." she trailed off and looked down at her hands, and he saw her jaw work silently for a few moments before she looked up again.
"Don't, Jim," she pleaded. "It would be a month... at least, before they'd let me out of here. You can't wait that long."
He looked at her with pity and regret. But her face was set, and he knew that she really meant it.
She took a deep breath. "I'm sorry."
He searched her face. "I would wait, Nick."
"I know," she whispered thickly. Tears left tracks down her cheeks and he brought his hands up to cradle her face and brushed them away with the pads of his thumbs.
"What do you want me to do, Nick?" he asked softly, kissing her forehead when she hitched a sob.
She swallowed hard. "I want you to go. But I want to go with you."
"I know," he breathed, leaning in. Tears prickled in his eyes and he kissed her hair as he gently rubbed her arm, trying to comfort her the only way he knew how.
Her quiet tears slowed and stopped after a few minutes, and she pressed her temple to his cheek and heaved a deep sigh. "I love you, Jim," she whispered, in the tiniest voice he had ever heard.
A surge of joy and relief rushed in his blood, and he couldn't help the laugh that escaped on a sigh. He kissed into her hair again and leaned back to look down into her face. "I love you too," he whispered back, chucking her under the chin with his knuckle. "It's gonna be okay, Nick. I promise."
She nodded faintly, tears still on her lashes and cheeks. "I believe you."
He brushed at her tears again and gave her another smile, trying to hide the fact that he felt like he'd been punched. Was he always going to make her promises he couldn't keep? "I did bring this back," he said, pulling the silver chain from his pocket. "I don't know if you still want it, but-"
Her face lit up with relief. "I couldn't find it!" she exclaimed.
"It broke, and I found it on the deck." In a pool of your blood, he decided not to add. He slipped it over her head and relished the relief and delight on her face. "It… it took a little to repair. It's a little scarred…"
"So'm I," she said simply, smiling up at him. "It's perfect. Thank you." She fiddled with it a little, rolling the rough part of the chain between her thumb and forefinger. "Just… just so you know, I'm not… I don't expect you to wait for me," she said quietly, after a moment.
"I know," he said, his brow furrowing slightly.
"No, I mean… I don't mean with the ship. I mean… when you get back." Her cheeks colored with a blush and she fixed her eyes on the necklace. Her words were breathless. "I don't want you to feel like this means you... owe me anything. You've already given me so much, I…I can't… I shouldn't..."
"Stop." His voice was rough. "Please don't."
She swallowed hard and met his eyes. "But Jim…"
"Don't, Nick. I have no idea what's going to happen. And I don't expect anything either. But don't make me leave with that in my pocket. Please."
She smiled a little and closed her hand around the chain. "Alright, then."
"Thank you," he said, visibly relaxing.
"I wish I had something to give you," she admitted.
"I packed your knapsack. You don't have much you can part with," he teased.
She grinned back, but it was sad. "I know." Then her face fell and realization dawned. "Will you take Ishmael for me?" she asked urgently.
He nodded without even considering. "Of course, Nick. Are you sure?"
Tears threatened again in her eyes as she looked around the room. "I'm sure," she whispered. "I can't keep him here."
He nodded. "I'll take care of him, I promise."
She looked only slightly relieved. They talked for a few more minutes about inconsequentials. He was trying not to think about time passing, about his imminent departure. She tired quickly, having taxed herself physically and emotionally, but was fighting to stay awake. He confessed that the ship was ready to launch, and he would probably leave just after dawn. She fought harder still to get as much time as possible. It made his chest hurt.
When the clock tower outside the window rang the half hour, he cleared his throat and shifted. "The watch is going to change soon. I have to head back..."
"Will you come back? Before you go?" she asked immediately, even though she was exhausted from this visit.
He couldn't help a smile. "Of course."
"Jim… can I ask you one last favor?" she added. She suddenly seemed uncomfortable and a little anxious.
"In my bag… there's a box."
He nodded, moving to pull it from the threadbare knapsack. "Here."
"I can't open it," she admitted. "Do you think you can?"
"May I take it with me?" he asked, studying the box as he turned it over in his hands. It was perfectly smooth and apparently seamless. Save for the differences in the grain, it looked like a wooden brick.
She nodded. "It was my mother's," she added, her throat tightening. "Morgan gave it to me. I've never been able to open it. I've never wanted to. It's…" she paused a moment, lost in her memory. "It's important to me now."
He nodded. "I'll get it open."
It was very late, or very early, when the scrape of his chair at her bedside woke her.
"Nick?" he whispered.
She dragged herself out of a heavy fog of sleep, forcing her eyes open, reaching out for him before she was fully awake. "Morning," she whispered, pulling her mask off.
He grinned and caught her hand, bringing it up to his face to kiss her palm. "Sorry sunshine, it's not quite morning yet."
She shook her head very slowly, still trying to wake up. "Are you leaving soon?" she whispered.
He nodded, slowly turning the lamp beside her bed up to light the room.
She pursed her lips, obviously fighting to save her tears. He wished she wouldn't, though he knew she didn't want him to remember her like that. "How's the crew?" she asked.
"We'll be fine," he whispered, giving her another little smile as he took her hand in his. "They are eager to get home."
She nodded, and he regretted the admission. Why did he have to remind her she wasn't leaving?
"I got the box open," he said. He reached down beside his chair and picked up the little wooden box. He sat beside her on the bed and pulled up a knee to face her.
Her eyes widened. "How? What was inside?"
"I didn't look. It's a puzzle," he explained, putting the box in her hands and guiding her trembling fingers to certain points on the smooth surface. "You have to press here, and here, and then slide it with your thumb..."
There was a muffled click, and the lid came loose. "How did you figure that out?" she asked, wide-eyed with surprise and anticipation.
"It's a lot like the map. But a little less complicated. You'd have figured it out eventually," he assured her.
She pulled the lid off and tipped the box over. A small stack of little leather-bound books tumbled into her lap. A handkerchief with the initials L.M. embroidered in a corner wrapped around a wispy curl of dark brown hair. A silver ring.
Jim's brows rose, and he drew in a sharp breath. "Nick…"
She pressed her hand to her mouth for a moment, her eyes closed. Then she opened her eyes again, and picked up the top book.
"These are my mother's…" she whispered, her eyes scanning the small, perfectly-shaped handwriting. "These are journals."
He couldn't help but smile. "Maybe you'll get your answers," he said gently.
"Maybe…" she agreed. She closed the little book reluctantly and put the pile of them back in the box, along with the lock of hair and the handkerchief. She picked up the silver ring and slid it onto her thumb. It didn't fit past the knuckle. She tossed it back in the box.
Jim watched her face, the wild range of emotions that warred there. He didn't want to speak or break the spell, but he wanted to comfort her. He found her hand again and gave it a little squeeze.
She looked up, giving him a tiny smile. "Well, that was... unexpected."
He grinned and moved to kiss her forehead. She put the lid on the box and moved it from her lap, reaching up to him for a hug. "Do you have to go now?"
He held her gingerly and hesitated to answer, but he knew she was as aware of the time as he was. "Yes."
She hid her face in his shoulder and he stroked her hair. When he moved back, he tucked a loose lock behind her ear and held her face in his hands, kissing her gently. She reached up and laid her hands over his, holding onto him tightly and returning the kiss. Her body was tense, and her hands shook enough that he felt them vibrate on his skin.
"Did that hurt?" he whispered against her lips.
"It would hurt more not to," she whispered back.
He kissed her again, wanting her to know... but the kiss ended too soon. Jim pressed his forehead to hers for just a moment, closing his eyes and taking in a shaky breath. Her hand shifted to the back of his neck, fingers slipping into his hair. His chest felt tight, though he couldn't tell if it was going to burst with the pressure of the words building inside, or collapse inward with the aching emptiness that was beginning to eat at him. He trapped the words behind his teeth and clenched his jaw to lock them up tight. The emptiness he could do nothing about.
"Goodbye," he heard himself whisper. The moment the word left his lips he regretted it.
"I don't believe you," she replied, and he heard the weak smile in her voice.
He let out a little laugh that hitched in his throat. "Good." He sat back a bit and looked over her face one last time. She pulled her lower lip between her teeth and bit down hard. He gently caught her chin and tugged her lip from between her lip with the pad of his thumb. Before he could change his mind, he laid a final kiss on her forehead and pulled back from her to stand up and straighten himself out, clearing his throat.
He felt, for the first time, that he really understood what Nick had meant when she told him he wore the first mate like a jacket. Because in that moment, for the very first time, he deliberately tucked Jim away inside of the uniform that Captain Hawkins wore.
Nick's face was unreadable as she looked him over. "I haven't seen you in full dress in ages. It looks good on you, Captain," she said quietly.
His jaw clenched tightly enough that he thought his teeth might crack. "Thanks," he managed.
"I'll see you soon," she whispered, giving him a smile.
"Not soon enough," he replied.
He turned and slowly walked from the room. In the hall he gave her a little wave and a half-smile. She waved back.
The door shut with a click that echoed down the hall. He leaned into it, pressing his forehead to the wood and closing his eyes for a moment. Deep breath. And another. He could do this.
Then an awful little sound reached his ears. He lifted his head to stare at the door a moment before laying his open hand against the wood. He held his jaw so tightly his teeth hurt. He closed his eyes again, leaning against the barrier as though he could reach through it.
She was sobbing. She couldn't breathe, she was struggling for air, and she was crying like he'd never heard anyone cry. It made his chest and back ache, to think of the pain it was causing her. He begged her silently to breathe, please baby. Just breathe. He stood perfectly still, listening, unable to tear himself away from the door until she started breathing again.
Long minutes passed. He listened to her cry and cough and choke down air until he couldn't take any more. He straightened himself up to go back in and soothe her, to call for Alanna and tell his crew they weren't going to leave today after all, when a hand on his shoulder startled him. Alanna looked at him with wide, questioning eyes and Jim jerked his chin toward the door, silently begging her to do what he could not.
Alanna gave him a sad smile, and raised her hand from his shoulder to hold his cheek for a moment. Her thumb swept across the skin, and he realized he'd been crying. He stepped back, trying to regain control of himself, and she took a deep breath before knocking gently. Jim froze and barely breathed while the door was open. "Nick?" Alanna asked softly. "Oh, sweetie.."
The door shut behind her. The sounds of her consolation drifted out into the hall, and slowly Nick began to calm down. Jim couldn't look at Alex for a long time. Eventually he squared his shoulders and turned to face his future monarch. He knew he should salute.
Instead, he held out a hand, and a question.
Alex held his eyes for a long moment. Then he took the hand and grasped it firmly, accepting both the handshake and the responsibility. Jim swallowed back the lump in his throat.
Alex nodded once. "Bon courage."
Jim nodded and released the man's hand, shoving both of his own into his pockets as he forced his legs to carry him down the hall.
The man on the foc'c'sle turned from the rail to face his crewman. "Yes?"
"Engineering's just given the all-clear. What's our bearing?"
The captain cast one last glance over his shoulder at the glowing crescent moon behind them. Then he pulled himself up a little taller, shut away his ache, and sighed. The black dog at his side thumped his tail on the deck. "North-northwest. Heading 4105."
He approached the deck, leaning on the rampart and looking out over his crew. "Let's go home, men."
END BOOK ONE
A/N: Thank you all so much for staying with me through this long process. I have appreciated every kind word, and I've been incredibly blessed by your patience and long attention spans.
One thing I would like to address- over the six years that it has taken me to write this story, I've learned a lot about myself. I've learned that I am very much in love with writing, and that I've never felt as passionately about a story as I do about the story of Jim Hawkins and a girl named Nick. I also learned that this story had twists and turns in it that I never saw coming. For example- it was never meant to take more than one book to tell. There have been emotions and events experienced that I did not expect. There have been days when I cried after writing, nights that I lay awake and wondered whether Nick would do this or that, what was she feeling, thinking, hoping? What would Jim do if she said this to him? I've given this story a lot more of myself than I ever thought possible, and I've gained so much in return.
But as a consequence, it's taken me six years. And while I appreciate the compliment intended, reviews and comments along the lines of "WHEN ARE YOU POSTING NEXT?!" and "OMG PLEASE DON'T ABANDON THIS STORY! I'LL HUNT YOU DOWN!" were not the most encouraging ways to have a chapter received. I'm sorry that I could not post as often as I wanted to, and I always hoped the next chapter would be worth the wait. But if those of you that do stick around for Book Two could keep in mind that I really do post as often as I'm able, I'd really appreciate it. Reviews that demand of me that I pour in more of my time and energy do not have the effect you may hope. I do this for free, and I write during my evenings and weekends, and sadly, writing fanfiction does not pay my bills. What a glorious world that would be!
As we embark on the journey that is Book Two, I'd like to ask for some feedback. Some of you also read this story on DeviantArt, where I originally began posting. Book Two WILL NOT be posted on DeviantArt- they've changed their submission procedure and made it difficult to post fanfiction there. Instead, Book Two will be contained to , unless you find it difficult to access there. If enough people are in support, I'll be happy to create a Tumblr, or some other account to house these stories and keep them accessible. Please let me know if this is something you are interested in.
Again, thank you for your patience and support. I'll see you all in Book Two!