Thick, black smoke clogged the air, blocking out the sky. It originated from the burning wood of the ship. The sky was further clogged by steam pouring from ruptured pipes, tearing the air with a screaming sound and scalding anyone who came into contact with it. Ashes already littered the air and the surface of everything, and charred wood left black streaks on his hands as he pushed through the wreckage, looking for something, someone. Wood suddenly gave way beneath his hands, and he stumbled into open ground. The air was slightly cleaner, and he doubled over, coughing.
The ground around his ship was painted red and orange by the glow of the flames. He gulped what air he could, spinning around and preparing to dive back into the wreck. His hands landed on a section of hot pipe, burning his palms as he struggled to climb over it. More hands grabbed him and pulled him back, sending him sprawling on the ground. His breath flew out of him in a rush, and he lay there for a moment in shock.
"She's gone, Jonathan!" someone yelled in his ear. "She's gone!"
He slowly managed to roll over onto his back, and found himself staring up into the eyes of his crew. They exchanged glances, and then slowly shook their heads, looking back down at him. He tried to sit up, desperate to dive back into the wreck, but crew members pushed him back down again, holding him there. Their lips moved, but he couldn't hear the words. He had to get back into the ship. He had to.
The flames slowly died, and a soft breeze blew away most of the smoke. Only a haze remained in the air, a bitter taste and an acrid smell. Charred wood and twisted, half-melted metal was all that was left of the airship that he had once piloted. Isabelle, the young woman who worked as a medic on the ship along with her father, had bandaged his hands, and he now wandered through the burnt-out shell, staring around. Why hadn't anyone come back? Why had they all just watched as it had burned?
There was small clear space in the middle of the wreck, the spot that had hit the ground first. Everything else had crumpled around it. It was barely wide enough for one or two people to stand in. He climbed over a charred spar that crumbled under his touch and stood on the edge of the open space, and then lunged across it, tearing into the pile of timbers, heaving them aside like they were nothing more than matchsticks.
And there she was: her brown curls singed so badly they crumbled at the touch of his finger, her face a deathly white and her lips blue, blood caking the area around them. Her neck was at an unnatural angle, and her chest—it wasn't moving. He pressed his hand there, over her heart, but he could feel neither her breath nor her pulse. But still, he couldn't give up. He pulled her into his arms, called her name over and over again. And then, when Abe climbed into the small space and gently put a hand on his shoulder, he knew it was over. She was gone. He howled, crying as he had never imagined he would, shouting curses into the heavens.
It took Abe and Isabelle two hours to convince him to let her go.
They buried her amongst the remains of the ship, the only real home she had ever known, and then they picked over the wreckage for any supplies that would allow them to escape the God-forsaken place known as the Graveyard, the straits where more airships were felled than anywhere else in the world.
Isabelle was the one who found the trinket. She brought it to him, carefully pressing it into his bandaged hands. "She gave it to you," she said. "I thought you might want to keep it, as…as a sort of memento."
He stared dully down at the bronze pocket watch before he fumbled at the clasp, clicking it open. The face was cracked and covered in soot, and in the dead silence of that cursed place, he could hear it ticking—but not as it had before. Instead of the normal, cadenced rhythm, it now ticked twice, paused, and then ticked again, in a way that was eerily reminiscent of the beat of a heart.
When he'd met Emily, she had been selling flowers on a street corner. He'd known it was only a pretense, that she was actually a prostitute, but he'd felt bad for her. He didn't want her services, but he wanted to help her—and so he'd enlisted her to help him find a gift for his mother.
She'd selected a beautiful sapphire necklace that he'd had shipped off immediately. He'd paid her, thanked her, and had been on his way. But her hazel eyes and dreamy smile, the way she trailed her fingers over everything she touched, stayed with him, and soon enough he found himself going back to that same street corner, looking for her. And when he'd found her, he'd done something crazy. He'd invited her to go with him, to take up a new life on his ship West Wind, and though it would be dangerous—he was a pirate, after all—she had accepted.
He'd never seen anyone like her before. The way she dreamed of a fairytale ending and lay on the deck in the middle of the night, staring up at the stars as they slowly turned overhead. He'd laid beside her many times, staring up at those same stars, their hands barely touching as they whispered back and forth. It was plain to his crew that he was besotted.
He could remember the time he'd given her the locket vividly. She had been leaning over the side of the ship, trailing her fingers in the clouds and laughing that musical laugh he couldn't believe she was capable of after so many years of hardship. He'd snuck up behind her, wrapped his arms around her waist, and nuzzled her neck. She had laughed again and turned, embracing him in return.
"It's our anniversary," she informed him when they pulled back slowly.
"I know," he said. "It's been three years to the day since you said you'd come with me."
"And look how far we've come." She'd stepped out of his arms and twirled down the deck, forcing crewmembers to dodge around her in order to not be knocked to the ground—but they didn't care. No one aboard the ship could begrudge Emily anything. She was just that sort of person.
"I got you something," Jon said, following her and eventually catching her hand, forcing her to stop. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the small, velvet-coated box, opening it to reveal the locket inside. She gasped and clapped her hands in delight, and had promptly turned around, sweeping her hair away from her neck.
"Put it on for me, won't you, Jonathan?" She always called him by his full name. She was the only one who did.
He did as she asked, fastening the chain around her neck, his fingers lightly brushing her skin. She'd turned back to him, that smile tugging at her lips, and had kissed him on the cheek. She was always doing things like that—sweet rather than passionate, all stardust and ribbons and white lace.
"Aren't you going to open it?" he asked, pressing a finger to the locket.
She cocked her head at him, shrugged, and then did as he suggested, prying the locket open. A gasp escaped her lips, and when she looked up at him again, that smile had blossomed into a full-fledged grin. She threw her arms around his neck and he caught her around the waist, spinning her. "I love it," she whispered into his ear. "I love it, I love it, I love it." She squirmed loose from his hold and looked at it once more, pressing a fingertip lightly to the portraits within—her on one side, and him on the other, before she clicked the locket closed.
"I got you something, too," she said. She reached into a pocket and removed a bronze pocket watch, holding it out to him. He raised an eyebrow, but accepted it, turning it over as his fingers brushed something rough on the back. It was engraved. He tilted it so the light caught the shallow words.
Jonathan—you are my heart. You always have been, and you always will be. Yours eternally, Emily.
He clipped the chain to his belt and put the watch into his pocket, pulling her into his arms once more. "And I am eternally yours."
Jonathan awoke in a cold sweat, sitting bolt upright on his bed. He ran a hand through his hair, trying to steady his breathing, and looked around. This wasn't two years ago. He wasn't aboard the West Wind, and Emily wasn't curled beside him, her head on his shoulder and her hand resting on his chest. No, Emily was buried in the cold earth of the Graveyard, the victim of a raid gone horribly awry, and he was in his cabin aboard the Phoenix, the ship he had purchased to replace the West Wind.
And as soon as he realized where he was, he realized why he had awoken. He'd almost forgotten their newest passenger. He rolled off the bunk, stuffed the bottom of his shirt into his breeches, and left his cabin, barefoot, to go down to the hold where a hammock had been set up far away from the rest of the crew. A young woman lay there, wide awake and staring at the planks in the ceiling above her.
"Good evening, Captain," she said cordially, though she didn't look at him. She didn't have to. Victoria Warren always seemed to know what everyone was doing at any given point in time.
Jon rolled his eyes and leaned against the gently curved hull of the ship. "And a good evening to you, Miss Warren," he said. "Are you enjoying your stay on the Phoenix?"
"More than I expected to, yes, given the circumstances."
Ah. The circumstances. Yes. Victoria was hardly aboard the Phoenix on purpose. In fact, her presence was entirely an accident. She'd been kidnapped from her family's home in India, to be held for a ransom from her father or her fiancée, both prominent men in the trading world. However, the ship of the men who had kidnapped her had been raided less than a day after her capture—by none other than Jon and his crew. Jon had taken her onboard out of pity, for surely her fate at the hands of the ruffians who had stolen her would have been grisly at best. Now, he was regretting his decision, because she was like…
Well, she was like Emily. The way she looked, the way she smiled, the way she seemed to draw everyone closer to her, the way she lit up a room just by entering it. He hated it. He didn't want to be reminded of Emily, and as much as Victoria was like her, she had to go and ruin the illusion by opening her damn mouth. And when she did, the words that fell out of it were polished, sophisticated, and strangely cold—everything Emily had never been.
Jon couldn't wait to get Victoria off his ship. Unfortunately, he wasn't going to have the chance for quite some time, because he'd decided that the ransom idea had been a good one…and it seemed that Victoria's family and fiancée were being a bit reluctant to pay up.
"I'm glad you're enjoying yourself," he said gruffly, turning away, "because you're going to be with us for a long time."
She was with them for a year. Despite her initial similarities to Emily, it soon became apparent that Victoria was a very, very different person. Cynical where Emily had been innocent, and with a sharp tongue, she didn't need anyone to take care of her. She didn't need soft words and gentle embraces and fleeting kisses. She didn't spend her time staring at the stars or trailing her fingers in clouds. No, instead she spent it sticking her nose into other people's business.
Within just a few weeks, she knew everything about everyone aboard the Phoenix, including Jon—something he was less than happy about. And then, once she had all the information she desired, she started in on a new project: fixing them. They were a motley, broken bunch, the crew of the Phoenix, and Victoria had noticed it from the very start. She started with Isabelle, who had been raised aboard the Phoenix by her father and had become what amounted to the ship's whore in addition to its medic. Within two days of starting in on Isabelle, Victoria declared that Isabelle wasn't actually a whore, she was just pretending to be. She hadn't actually slept with anyone on the ship; she just told everyone she had. And why was she doing this? She wanted attention—from Abe.
As soon as Victoria decided on this, she started in on Abe, who was ignoring Isabelle because of a mix of rage and jealousy. And then she moved on to James, who was running away from a life of aristocratic responsibilities because he was afraid of never being able to live his own life. And she went on and on, diagnosing each member of the crew. And the worst part was, she was right.
And when the rest of the crew had had their problems brought to light to mull over, and ultimately fix with a little urging from Victoria—she mothered them, every single one of them—she set her sights on Jon.
She perched on the rail of the ship as they soared at a leisurely pace through a flawless blue sky and examined the captain as he stood at the wheel, leaning against it and staring off into the distance. He was holding that pocket watch again—the one he never took off, the one that beat like a heart. She knew about the watch, of course, and all about Emily, and she knew what was bothering Jon at this moment. It only took a look down over the side of the ship to confirm that they were flying above the Graveyard, skeletal wrecks of airships piled far below them.
Jonathan Fletcher was a mess. It had been years since the crash of the West Wind and Emily's death, but Jon was just as scarred as he had been the day it happened. Most nights he still had nightmares. He woke the rest of the crew with his screaming, and he was always in a bear of a mood the next day, snapping orders and picking fights. He made rash decisions, like taking out the fragile flying contraptions known as clippers in raids when liquid fire flew through the air. He'd suffered for those decisions, more than once, and he'd made even more mistakes in trying to repair the original ones.
Lately, he'd been drinking. Victoria could almost smell the alcohol on him from where she sat, yards away, when the wind shifted just right.
She watched as he put the watch back in his pocket and retrieved his flask from the other one. Before he could raise it to his lips, she boosted herself off the rail, darted across the deck, and snatched the silver container from his hands. He snarled at her and lunged, trying to retrieve it, but before he could wrench it from her grasp, she hurled it with all her might over the side of the ship. It flew in a gleaming silver arc for a moment before it plummeted down, down, and vanished into the Graveyard.
"Drinking yourself into a stupor isn't going to help anything," Victoria said. He snarled at her again—it was all he seemed to do these days—and she shook her head. "Look at yourself, Jon," she said. "You're drinking yourself stupid, you're putting yourself and your ship in danger, and don't get me started on your crew! Do you want to lose all of them like you lost Emily? Do you, Jon? Because I know they're all the family you have."
"True? Yes, it is. I know your father died years ago and your mother won't have anything to do with you, no matter how many little trinkets you send her from around the world. You're dead to her, and you know it. The people aboard this ship are all you have in the world, Jon, and if you keep acting like you are, you're going to drive them all away from you. And then where will you be?" She leaned in close to emphasize her every word. "Drunk, in a ditch, and alone."
He reeled back as if she had struck him. "No," he said. "No." He wouldn't be alone. He couldn't be alone, because if he was, who was going to hold the nightmares at bay? They were still bad, but not as bad as they had been before… If he was alone, who was going to pick him up and put him back together again?
He couldn't be alone.
He needed a drink, and he needed one badly. He could feel the longing for it in his very veins. But at the same time, he knew Victoria was right. H knew it—he just didn't want to admit it. He spun on his heel and stormed away, disappearing below the deck and into his cabin, slamming the door behind him like a sullen child.
As another crewmember moved to take the wheel, Victoria sighed, shook her head, and descended to the lower deck to talk to Abe and Isabelle. If the Phoenix was to survive much longer, something had to be done about its captain.
Victoria, Abe, and Isabelle pressed themselves against the walls on either side of the galley door, listening to the ruckus within. Jon was singing "The Anacreontic Song" at the top of his lungs, horribly off key, but the rest of the crew was assuring him that he was pitch-perfect. That was their job; to keep Jon drinking in the galley for as long as humanly possible, preferably until he passed out.
When they heard the sound of another round being poured, Victoria motioned for her companions to follow her. They crept down the corridor to Jon's quarters, where Abe neatly picked the lock securing the door, and entered a room of the ship that most of the crew had never seen.
And they promptly proceeded to sack it.
Within minutes, they had searched the entire room, and had amassed all of Jon's liquor stores in a pile in the center of the floor. Victoria stood looking down on it, her hands on her hips, and shook her head. "Honestly," she scoffed. "No one could possibly need so much alcohol for his own personal use." Still shaking her head, she stooped and began gathering the bottles into her arms. Abe and Isabelle did likewise. They left Jon's room, pausing to re-lock the door behind them, and trooped up the deck. Victoria leaned over the rail of the ship and threw her arms wide, watching as the bottles fell from her arm, glistening in the moonlight for a moment before disappearing into the clouds below.
She hoped they didn't hit anyone on the head when they came crashing down to the earth. Abe and Isabelle did as she had done, and within seconds, all of Jon's liquor—his crutch—was gone.
Victoria dusted off her hands and hummed in satisfaction. "All right," she said. "Now that that's done, let's go get him from the galley, put him to bed, and dispose of the alcohol there."
Abe groaned. "I don't like this plan," he said.
Isabelle sighed. "Neither do I," she said. "I'm just as fond of a good ale as you are, Abe, and you know that…but you also know that this is really the only way."
"I know," Abe grumbled. His shoulders slumped in defeat. "All right, let's go."
Jon had never experienced such pain in his life. He was shaking, so violently that he couldn't even stand upright, and his entire body ached in a way, and in places, it had never ached before. His teeth were chattering, and he was freezing and boiling by turns, his heart was going at three times the rate it should have been going. He needed a drink, more than anything, something to stop the pain, but all of the drinks were gone. He didn't know to where they had departed, but departed they had, and he was suffering for it—and Emily wouldn't help him.
"Emily," he croaked out around his chattering teeth. "Emily, just pour me a drink, darling, and I'll be better. I'll be better and we can go into town and get you that ribbon you wanted for your hair."
She ignored him. She was sitting in the chair by the writing desk, her hands folded primly in her lap, and she was looking straight at him with those dreamy eyes—but she wasn't acknowledging him. It was as if he was invisible to her.
"Emily," he tried again. "Emily!"
"Shhh. Jon, Emily isn't here." A cool hand smoothed his sweat-soaked hair away from his forehead and laid a cool cloth there instead. "You're seeing things. Here, have some water." A glass was pressed to his lips by an invisible hand.
"No!" He lashed out, knocking the glass away. He barely heard it shatter on the floor. "Emily, come to bed. Make it feel better. Make it…help me…" He whimpered like a child, unsure of how to make her listen.
It went on and on. He begged her, pleaded with her, but she refused to listen to him. And then, suddenly, she did. She was gone from the chair, and when he turned his head to see where she had gone, he saw her, kneeling beside his bed and holding a new glass of water. "Emily," he breathed.
"Yes," she said. "Here, have some water. You need to drink." She pressed the glass to his lips. This time, he drank, slurping it up as though he was dying of thirst, even though there wasn't a drop of alcohol to be tasted in it. But even as he drank, he knew something was wrong. Something about her voice…it wasn't right.
She talked to him, murmured to him in a steady whisper, all stories and nonsense, until his eyes began to droop shut and he fell deep into unconsciousness.
When he woke up, Emily was gone—she had never been there. Instead, Victoria was sitting awkwardly on the floor of his cabin, her hands and head resting on the edge of his bed as she slept. She'd never left his side. But Emily…he'd thought she'd come back for him.
Jon rolled over and buried his face in the pillow. It was as if she had died all over again, and he had never felt such grief.
He must have fallen asleep again, for when he next opened his eyes, Victoria was sitting in the desk chair, wearing clean clothes, and was pinning up her hair. "Oh, good," she said briskly, looking him over. "You're up." She stood, brushed off her dress, and gestured to the copper tub which had been placed in the center of the room. "Abe brought you a bath. He'll be back momentarily to help you into it—you might be a bit weak, yet. How are you feeling?"
"Like hell," he croaked.
"Good. You deserve it."
He blinked at that, but before he could think of a suitable reply, Victoria was gone, and Abe had entered the room. With a distinct lack of ceremony, he heaved Jon up off the bed and dropped him into the tub, resulting in a great deal of water escaping and a groan from Jon as his sore body impacted the hard metal.
"You deserved it," Abe said, echoing Victoria's words from earlier. "And I'm sorry we had to put you through that, but Jon—you were going to kill yourself, and the rest of us, if you kept up like you were doing. You have to know that. We did it for your own good."
"And who are you to decide what's for my own good?"
"We're your friends," said Isabelle from the doorway, shrugging to indicate she didn't care that Jon was sitting, fully clothed, in a tub of hot water. "Now get out of those wet things and give yourself a good scrubbing, you hear me?"
"You sound like Victoria."
"And she sounds like Emily," Isabelle shot back. "And you know it."
Jon winced; Isabelle was right. Emily had always been after him to wash more often. Just because he was a pirate, she'd said, it didn't mean he couldn't be clean.
"You lot did it, didn't you," he said, stripping off his shirt and throwing it to the floor beside the tub. "You threw my liquor away."
"And the ale, and the rum, and any other form of alcohol on the ship. Yes, we did. It was for your own good." Abe shrugged.
"So you say," grumbled Jon.
"So we know," countered Isabelle. "Wash up, and then get dressed and come up to the deck. Victoria wants to talk to you."
"Who do you think you are, giving orders like that?" Jon demanded. "I'm the captain here."
"You've been declared temporarily unable to lead," Abe informed him quietly. "But, if you go talk to Victoria, maybe she'll let you take charge again." And before Jon could respond, both Abe and Isabelle were gone, the door swinging shut behind them.
As much as he resented it, Jon followed his friends' orders, scrubbing away the signs of his miserable experience and tugging on dry clothes. His hair dripping into his face and without bothering to put on boots—it would have taken too long—he stormed up to the deck to face Victoria.
She was at the bow of the ship, leaning on the rail and looking down at the world below as she so often did. This time, however, she was very obviously looking for him out of the corner of her eye, as she turned as soon as he stepped onto the deck.
"Who do you think you are, doing what you did?" he demanded, cutting directly to the matter at hand.
"Not Emily, despite what you called me several times last night," she shot back. "Jon, you were falling to pieces, and everyone around you—everyone on this ship, your family—was hurting because of it. I know you miss Emily. I know you loved her, like you've never loved anyone else and probably won't love anyone else again. But Jon, she's gone. She's been gone for years, and she's not coming back. And don't you think she'd hate to see you wallowing because of her?"
"I do not wallow."
Victoria raised her eyebrows.
"All right," he conceded. "I might wallow a little." He joined her in leaning against the rail and staring down into the clouds. As much as he hated to admit it to himself—and he would never admit it out loud—Victoria had a point. The one thing Emily had loved more than anything else was seeing him happy. She would probably slap him if she saw him trying to drink his cares away.
"I can't just forget her, Victoria," he finally said.
"And no one's asking you to," she replied, in just as soft a voice, and she put a hand on his shoulder. "We want you to remember her. We want you to remember how happy you were with her—and we want you to try your very hardest to be that happy again." She removed her hand. "I know it won't be easy, and it's not something that will happen overnight. But…think about it, all right?" And she left him to do just that.
They set down in Calcutta several weeks later, for just the space of a few hours in order to let Victoria leave. Her father had finally ransomed her away from Jon and the Phoenix—though now that he had, Victoria was expressing some reluctance to go.
"He doesn't really want me, you see," she explained. "He wants the alliance my marriage will cement for his company."
Jon shrugged. "So don't marry the man."
Victoria sighed and shook her head. "No, I'll marry him," she said. "Even if he couldn't be bothered to come and rescue me from a bunch of pirates. I already promised my father I would, a long time ago, and, well…I don't want to break that promise." She looked down at the airdocks for a long, silent moment, and then looked back at Jon. "Promise me you'll try to move on?"
He took her hand in his own and bowed over it, gently kissing her fingers—now tanned from her long stay aboard the Phoenix. Her family would probably die of embarrassment when they saw what she had become. "I give you my word as a pirate."
She laughed and gently took her hand back. "Well, that's good enough for me." She looked up at the ship and waved to the crew who lined the decks, blowing them kisses as a carriage rolled up to the base of the dock and a man stepped out, coming to retrieve Victoria. "Stop in whenever you're in port!" she called to Jon over her shoulder as she walked toward the carriage.
She flashed him one more smile that was heart-achingly like Emily's—and then she was gone, vanished into the carriage and into her new life. Jon sighed and shook his head. The world would be a duller place without Victoria Warren aboard his ship. But she was moving on, just as she had told him to do. And the worst part was…she was right about everything.
Two Years Later…
Jon surveyed the cabin he had been escorted into, and he nodded in approval. James Auburn had done very well for himself. When he'd left the Phoenix, he'd almost immediately fallen into the position of captain of a pirate ship dubbed the Fallen Star, and he had been proving himself a menace to the skies ever since. However, he had gotten himself into a bad spot, and Jon had been recruited to help break him out of a jail in France.
Now, he had to give his former crewmember a talking to about how life was supposed to be lived.
He looked at Isabelle as James gave them drinks and made idle chatter; she nodded slightly. She knew what he was about to say, and acknowledged that they'd likely all be better off for him saying it.
"So, what brought you in as the cavalry?" James finally asked.
"Rebecca, like I said earlier," Jon said. They'd been over this. James just refused to admit that his cook, a girl who'd made a terrible mistake but had done her very best to rectify it—and had succeeded—actually meant something to him. And when Jon saw the determined set of James' Jaw—the one that said he wasn't going to listen to reason—he sighed and reached for the big guns. And he started to tell him about Emily.
A/N: For the full story of James, Rebecca, and the Fallen Star, check out my novel Rule the World: Revised Edition. It's already completely posted, so you won't even have to wait for updates! [/shamelessplug]