Snow crunched underfoot as Leta walked along the ship docks, leading Fiearius at her side. It was his very first walk outdoors in the winter air, and his arm looped around Leta’s so he could balance his weight, his other hand propped up on a cane. Possibly it was the slowest she’d ever walked in her life, and every few steps, he winced or inhaled a pained breath, but nonetheless — seeing Fiearius anywhere but the infirmary was making Leta’s heart stir with real, actual hope.
And there was another reason her heart felt lighter: she had more help now. Daelen, one of her oldest friends from Vescent, had arrived an hour earlier via passenger vessel. Now, he walked along Fiearius’ other side. Leta kept stealing glances at him, hardly able to believe she had a familiar face here with her. When she left, she thought she’d never see him again.
“So how was the trip here?” asked Leta, her arm tightened around Fiearius’ as they took another step forward gingerly. “How difficult was it to get through Vescentian border control?”
“Not the worst security I’ve experienced,” Daelen mused. “Though certainly a lot different than the last time I ventured off-world. They made me answer so many questions about the patient I was visiting, I’m almost sure I broke confidentiality.” He glanced back at Fiearius and smiled kindly. “Don’t worry, I lied.”
Fiearius lifted his brows in vague interest.“‘Preciate it. And thanks for comin’ out here at all. Don’t know how she managed to convince you.”
“Wasn’t that difficult actually,” Daelen claimed with a laugh. “I’ve been looking for a reason to leave Vescent for a while now. And what better reason than to help an old friend?”
“See, not everyone finds me as insufferable as you do, Fiear,” Leta added. She slowed on the edge of the docks. “Let’s stop here for a second. How do you feel?”
“Like a ninety-seven year old man,” Fiearius grumbled, glaring down at his cane, though he didn’t protest taking a break.
“At least you’re outside, yes?” said Daelen, his voice cheerful. Leta had always liked that about him: even back in med school, he found being optimistic much easier than she ever did. “Must be nice to get fresh air after being on the ship so long.”
Naturally, Fiearius cast him a look of disbelief. “Nice? It’s fucking freezing out here. How could anyone actually choose to live on this planet?”
“Hey, what’re you talking about?” Leta swept her hand toward the tall snowy evergreens. “Look at this place. I think it’s beautiful.”
“I think you’ve got a few screws loose.”
At that, Daelen chuckled and started to drift forward once more. “You know, when Leta described to me her situation, she failed to mention half the challenge would be listening to you two bicker.”
Leta sent Fiearius a pointed look, to which he smirked.
“Sorry,” she said to Daelen, grinning sheepishly as she fell into step beside him. “Tell us more about Vescent. How’s home?”
“Well, let’s see. It’s approaching summer now so the weather’s turning up,” Daelen replied conversationally. “They finally built a bridge across the West Ciene Canal which has made my commute vastly more enjoyable. I’ve been visiting the clinic a lot recently. They still miss you. No one’s managed to beat your suturing record yet.”
“Of course not,” said Leta, lifting her chin with pride. “I doubt anyone has beaten my whisky-shot record, either.”
“Never,” Daelen agreed, laughing. But soon his laughter faded and he drew his brow together in thought.
“There’s — there’s been a lot of strange things happening in the past few months, though,” he went on, his tone growing more serious. “Ever since the Society opened up a few new departments. They’re really settling in now that they’ve gained control of the parliament. People have started disappearing.” He glanced at Leta apologetically. “Well…even more than before. And curiously, the news has said nothing of it…”
Fiearius grunted. “Sounds like you’ve got your own little Internal Affairs formin’.”
“Yes, I think that was one,” Daelen remarked, casting him a slightly confused look before pressing on, “People are starting to get scared. I’m sure you remember walking along the bayside on a spring night and finding the whole city out there doing the same?” Leta nodded. “Nowadays, it’s dead. The city shuts down when the sun sets. One of my patients was just telling me last week that he’s begun taking the trains home even though it’s just a ten minute walk and a lovely one at that. It’s worrisome.”
“That’s not the Vescent I remember,” said Leta, feeling quietly horrified. She shifted her shoulders, unsettled. “Daelen, you haven’t … you haven’t seen my dad around, have you?”
“Not in a long while, no,” Daelen admitted, frowning at her. “Right after you left, he came by my office a few times to see if I’d heard from you, but I haven’t seen him personally since. He was publicly supporting a few of the Society candidates for election a couple months ago, but he’s disappeared from the public eye as far as I can tell.”
“That’s — well, that’s good, I suppose.” Leta sighed, her breath turning white in the air. “Good that you haven’t seen him, that means he’s off-planet or in hiding. The Society must want him dead now, thanks to me.”
“Thanks to me, you mean,” Fiearius put in, half-sarcastic, half-apologetic. Leta looked over at him in surprise, but he went on to Daelen, “So that’s why you up and left? Abandon ship before it sinks?”
Daelen grimaced. “Somewhat. Though there are a few…well…personal reasons too,” he admitted sheepishly.
“Personal?” said Leta quickly. “What’s the matter? Is Rosietta alright?”
“Oh no, she’s fine,” he assured her at once, waving her off. “Better than ever even. I’m sure she’s quite content traveling with her new southern artist lover.”
“With her what?” said Leta, balking in surprise. She’d met Rosietta Orsada a handful of times and always found the woman pleasant and friendly; always with her arm around Daelen, always smiling up at him fondly.
Fiearius nudged Leta, looking confused. “Girlfriend?” he whispered.
“Wife,” Leta clarified.
“Ex,” Daelen corrected with a sigh. “The divorce was finalized about a month ago. Like I said…I was looking for a reason to get out for a bit.”
Fiearius grimaced in understanding. “Yeah I bet. Gotta fill that void somehow…”
Daelen nodded in agreement, but then suddenly threw Fiearius a more curious look. “You were married? Or are? Sorry, I noticed the–what is the word for that again? The Ridellian matrimonial mark. On your palm.”
Fiearius released his grip on Leta’s arm to glance down at the crudely drawn circle that seemed to be painted on his skin. Leta had noticed the mark before and assumed it was just another tattoo. But apparently, it symbolized marriage.
The realization gave her pause.
“Chi’tauri. And yeah. I was,” Fiearius confirmed, though he said nothing else. He dropped his hand and quickly circled his arm around Leta’s once more. Daelen seemed to take the hint.
“Well let’s just say your message couldn’t have come at a better time, Leta,” he went on breezily, brushing over the awkward pause.
They reached the outside of the Beacon and started up its long ramp, Leta’s arm still closed around Fiearius’ as they trekked up the angled floor carefully. Now that they had completed their entire walk on real terrain and made it all the way into the warm cargo bay, Leta swept out a hand in victory.
“What do you think, Dr. Orsada?” she asked, pointing at Fiearius’ legs. He was still leaning half of his weight on her, but he’d walked nearly the entire way, and for that, she was eager to ask, “What’s the prognosis on our patient here? Am I a miracle worker or what?”
Daelen glanced at Fiearius’ legs, then forced a cheerful smile. “Well let’s see, how do you feel, Mr. Soliveré? On a scale of one to ten, describe your pain level?”
Fiearius blinked at him. “Just call me Fiearius, thanks. And uh, I don’t know. Seven?”
“I see,” said Daelen, his tone mild and unreadable. “So moderate to severe, then?”
“Yeah. I guess.”
Daelen nodded, then gestured toward a crate against the wall. “Well why don’t you take a break and have a seat over here for a while?” Completely ignoring Fiearius’ look of suspicion, he went on, “Enjoy the fresh air a little longer, it’ll be good for you.”
Fiearius agreeably lowered to the crate, but not without throwing a look of questioning toward Leta. She had no opportunity to assure him, however, because Daelen met her eyes and gestured pointedly toward the hallway.
Leta walked with him, already sensing something was off, something was on his mind. Daelen didn’t look merely thoughtful, he looked worried.