Thirteen days. Nika watched as Boros grew large in her windscreen. Thirteen days in the Black had done nothing to ease the ache in her heart, in her very soul. Coming home brought no happy smile to her face. She reached over and activated the comms. “Twenty minutes to touchdown,” she warned the crew.
Shyla Kramer stepped onto the bridge a couple minutes later, her blue eyes studying the back of her pilot’s head. Everyone was doing their best to give Nika whatever space (or lack thereof) she needed. Shyla had even turned a blind eye to the fact that Connelly might as well be living in her quarters for the past couple of weeks, though she’d warned the rest of the crew that they shouldn’t read anything into it in terms of what it meant for the rest of them. “Haven’t said much about how long you wanna stay, girl,” Shyla said quietly, settling into a chair for their descent into atmo.
Glancing sideways only briefly, Nika kept her attention on her flying. “Don’t really know,” she admitted quietly. “Nala said they buried him the day after I called. Can’t really wait around on that kind of thing.” The practicalities of death were not lost on the pilot. “Don’t know how long she’ll want me to stay home.”
“I didn’t ask how long your sister wants you home, Nika. I’m asking how long you want to stay.” The red-headed captain watched as mountain ranges began getting bigger in the windscreen. “I can keep the ship groundside for four days. I can give you until liftoff, but I can’t put off the next run any longer than that.”
Nika nodded. “I know the schedule was tight,” she replied softly. “I’ll give you enough warning one way or the other.
* * * * *
They were no sooner on the ground in the back pasture before Nika was heading off the vessel. Not quite at a run, but certainly a fast jog was in order as she headed for the homestead half a kilometer away. Ranch hands scattered in the yard and near the barn turned to watch the blonde hustle across the dusty yard, staying out of her way.
By the time she hit the porch, Nala—a very pregnant Nala!—was holding out her arms for her twin to literally collapse into. The sight of her sister pregnant was enough to check Nika’s movements, but only for a moment and then the two women were locked in a tearful embrace.
The rest of the Harbinger’s senior crew followed more slowly across the pasture and into the yard, nodding to the hands they knew from their previous trip and giving the twins their reunion without interruption. Shyla paused near Trey Johannsen, the ranch’s foreman, and greeted him mildly. “Mind if some of the crew bunks down with the hands again?” she asked him.
The massive blond-haired, brown-eyed man looked back at her. “Nope,” he replied. “Nala said you’d need space for about ten.”
“Yeah,” Shyla replied, glancing toward the porch where the two women were finally pulling a little apart. Nika’s expression at seeing the protuberant lump in Nala’s midsection made the redhead chuckle. “I take it Nala didn’t tell her about the baby.”
Johannsen looked toward the porch and smirked. “She wanted to surprise her. This wasn’t quite what she had in mind,” he commented, his smile fading. “C’mon, I’ll get you people settled at the bunk house.” He pivoted on a heel and headed toward the two small houses behind the barn where the hands lived.
* * * * *
“Oh my God,” Nika laughed through her tears as she pulled away, looking down at her sister’s bulging belly. “Why didn’t you tell me??” she demanded.
“Well… wanted to get you home first,” Nala replied with a gentle smile. “I’ve only been asking you for three months to get here. This wasn’t the way I wanted you to come, though,” she said with a sad expression, cradling Nika’s cheek. “Daddy went so fast, it was such a shock. I’m so sorry, Nika.”
Nika shook her head and said softly, “I’m the one who’s sorry. You shouldn’t have had to bury him alone.” Tears rushed to the surface again and Nika had to wipe them away quickly. Glancing back toward the yard, she noted that most of the crew was following the foreman. “Trey holding up all right?”
A strange expression flitted across Nala’s face, gone almost before Nika noticed it. “Mostly,” Nala responded. “He’s had a tough time since the war, and Daddy’s death isn’t making it easier,” she admitted. “We’ll work it out.”
Nika studied her twin and asked quietly, “His brothers helping out?”
“Yeah,” Nala snorted softly. “Let’s just say that Trey and the boys are on the outs at the moment. They’ll manage.” She shrugged at her sister. “Men, right? C’mon, let’s get you settled in the house.” Then she paused and grinned slightly. “Should I offer that one room in the house too?”
Nika started to say something about Trey’s brothers, but she was sidetracked by the question. Brian Connelly was still standing in the yard, his hands shoved in his pockets as he watched the twins on the porch. A faint blush colored Nika’s face.
“Oh my,” Nala tsked in amusement. “Now that, Nika Gwendolyn, is somethin’ I never thought I’d see.”
Nika shoved her, gently, with an elbow. “Aw, quit,” she mumbled.
Nala’s eyebrows shot to her hairline. The blush was enough to tell her that Nika was involved. The shove? That was enough to tell her it was serious. Interesting… she’d have to have a conversation with Harry and Shyla when Nika and Brian weren’t looking. Nala waved Brian up to the porch and hugged him tightly. “Grateful you could get here so fast, Brian,” she greeted him.
“Damn, Nala… wasn’t expecting to get here and find you swallowed a melon, girl,” he quipped back with a grin as he hugged her tightly. “Sorry about your dad, babe,” he murmured into her hair.
Nala pulled away and smiled. “Thanks, hun. Tell Shyla and Harry after they settle the crew in the bunkhouse to come on up to the house. I’ll get you three settled up here.”
Brian nodded, glancing at Nika only once, and then turned and headed for the bunkhouses.
Nala whistled softly under her breath when he got out of earshot. “So you two are hot and heavy, then,” she teased, fanning herself dramatically.
Nika shoved her again and walked into the house with her arm wrapped around her sister’s expanded waist. “Not as much as you and Trey, obviously!” she retorted.
“Hey, I got me a weddin’ ring and everything, little sis!”
Nika stopped in the hallway and said, “Shi, Nala!” She couldn’t quite take in all the changes… her sister married and pregnant, her father dead. “Wow… congratulations, sis,” she said quietly, studying her twin.
* * * * *
Standing in the barn brushing her palomino mare, Nika’s mind wandered across all that she’d seen on the ranch in the last several days. Harbinger had to take off tomorrow, there was no more wiggle room in her schedule. And Nika was struggling with a choice that she didn’t want to make.
The stall door opened behind her and Nika turned to see Shyla stepping into the stall with a currycomb in her hand to comb mane and tail. The two women worked in companionable silence for fifteen minutes before Shyla finally asked, “You’ve been chewing on something since yesterday. What’s on your mind, girl?”
Nika sighed heavily, her hands stroking the horse’s flank absently. “Something’s wrong.”
Shyla merely continued to detangle the horse’s mane, letting Nika talk it through.
“I don’t even have words for why I think so, Shyla. But … Nala’s not … Something’s just not right. She’s not a nervous person, and lately everything’s got her looking out the windows of the house. She said the ranch is doing pretty decent, but she’s leaving out things when we talk.” Nika restlessly brushed several more strokes. “She keeps asking me if the crew’s doing all right in the bunkhouses. You heard anything?”
Shyla hesitated, uncertain how much to say. “I’ve heard some things I’m not entirely thrilled with. Like you, it’s more a feeling than anything I can point to readily.”
Nika looked curious. “Like what?”
Shaking her head, Shyla glanced at her pilot. “Hans said he’s had some of the hands pretty much stop talking if he’s anywhere nearby. He’s been helping out with some of the chores—pretty good on a horse, you know—and he said the first day was fine, but after the second day, when the hands realized that some of the crew knew your dad at least in passing and liked your sister, they sort of clammed up.”
“What the hell does that mean?” Nika demanded quietly.
“Don’t really know, Nika … but I don’t like it much. And Hans isn’t the only one. Harry’s managed to sort out that there’ve been some problems on the ranch in recent weeks. Trey and your dad were having words a good bit before he died. And since Jon’s passing, apparently there’ve been some other changes around here. Harry’s opinion is that they’re not for the better.” Shyla paused. “I’m thinkin’ you need to stay here for a bit longer. We’ll make the run to Aesir and then come back for you. Probably… six weeks, round trip. Or you can meet us halfway, pick up passage to the Core and we’ll pick you up on a fly-by in less time. Whatever works out. Maybe Nala will talk to you more if the rest of us aren’t hanging around.”
Nika’s expression as she spoke made Shyla tilt her head. “It’s not the end of the world to be groundside for an extended time, Nika,” she commented wryly.
With a faint grin, Nika admitted, “I haven’t been six weeks on the ground since before the war. Not sure I’ll know what to do with myself.”
“Pretty sure you’ll figure something out,” Shyla smirked. “If you really want, I can cut Connolly loose to stay with you.”
Nika shot her captain a glance and smirked. “Nah… I’ll be all right. It’s home. What could go wrong?”
* * * * *
I shoulda known as soon as I said those words I’d be eatin’ em later.
* * * * *
Sitting in her jail cell three weeks later, Nika still couldn’t believe just how wrong life had gone after Harbinger’s departure. Leaning her head back on the wall of the small cell, she let her mind drift back across the series of events that brought her here, looking—for the umpteenth time—for anything that might have changed it and still seeing nothing.
Following the ship’s liftoff, life on the ranch seemed to return to normal. Mostly. Nala, being eight months pregnant, couldn’t ride the ranch and do the heavy chores anymore so she stuck close to the house. But the tension didn’t dissipate the way Nika had expected, and she found over the course of the first two weeks groundside that Nala avoided any chance to be alone with her twin for any real length of time. As she studied the patterns of behavior, the clues started to point to an explanation that Nika didn’t want to believe. Nala was easily startled, rarely talked to any of the ranch hands herself, was always on the lookout for Trey’s whereabouts when she did talk to anyone, and she didn’t act like the confident woman she’d always been.
When none of the ranch hands would tell her what was happening, Nika finally resolved to go see Mama Johannsen or Trey’s brother Larry. One of them was sure to tell her what they knew—and she found it odd anyway that Tracy and JJ were staying in town and Mama Johannsen wasn’t on the ranch with Nala as heavily pregnant as she was. Maybe not staying, but at least visiting. They called often enough, but Nala kept putting them both off.
Could it really only be four days ago? When she walked into the kitchen unexpectedly and Trey had his hands on Nala, Nika remembered going stock still in the doorway. Everything after that was only present as snapshots in time.
Trey demanding, “Get the hell out of here! Unless you want a piece-a this too, bī! <cunt>” She’d never seen such pure, demented rage in her life.
Nala begging Trey to leave off.
Trey’s vicious backhand.
Nala flying against the kitchen’s counter, slamming her head into the cabinet and slumping to the floor. The ensuing moments were filmed in a haze of red.
Nika throwing herself at Trey, clawing and screaming in her bloodlust.
The room spinning around her as they brawled no-holds-barred through the kitchen, knocking chairs aside and dumping canisters off counters.
The table rising to meet her face, stunning her long enough for Trey to pin her to the table and rip at her pants and his.
The sheer terror of that moment when she realized that jack-knifed on the edge of the table as she was she couldn’t get enough leverage to fight back.
The realization that there was nothing left of the generous man she’d known her whole life but this bestial rage, that this was going to hurt in far more than physical ways.
Nala’s shout, a clang, a grunt, and the weight holding her to the table fell away.
Nika didn’t remember grabbing the cast-iron skillet from her twin’s nerveless fingers, nor could she remember hitting Trey. Four times. All she remembered was the sick, wet crunching sound.
Nala screaming her name.
Trey lying on the freshly scrubbed floor with his skull caved in like a crushed pumpkin.
So gorram much blood. It was never going to come off.
The clank of the cell door brought Nika out of her reverie and she looked up into the sympathetic brown eyes of Sam Waterson, her father’s best friend and the family attorney. “Well, now, Nika girl… Bet your Daddy’s kickin’ that hùn dàn’s backside all over Hell,” he drawled, taking in the visible damage to Nika’s face, throat, and arms. She was bruised all to hell and looked sore. The tears flooded her eyes once more. “God, Sam… is Nala okay?”
“Nala’s fine, darlin’. She’s bein’ kept at the hospital for observation, she’s a bit bruised up, but she gave a full statement. You’re free to go.”
Nika looked stunned. “I’m… what?”
He moved to reach out and help her stand up. “You’re free to go, Nika,” Sam said gently. “Nala is backing your story, which might not ordinarily be enough, but the ranch hands are speaking up about what they’ve seen recently and her doctor’s exam and Trey’s own brothers are also backing up her account of what’s been going on at the ranch. It’s a gorram shame the war turned a decent, hardworking boy into a monster… but the judge is dismissing all charges against you in a judgment of justifiable homicide.”
Standing up off the bunk slowly, it took several moments for Nika to comprehend what was being said to her. And then she finally nodded a bit. “And … the Johannsens are okay with this?”
Sam shook his head a bit. “Not okay, no. They’re … unhappy. Angry. Trying to figure out how a case of wife-beating got so far out of hand that Trey’s dead. But it’ll sort itself out. Not your problem anymore, darlin’.”
As she walked out of the jail in Sam’s company, Nika still couldn’t quite comprehend. She wasn’t sure she’d ever be able to comprehend. Sam took her back to the house and left her there to get settled. A man named Jesse Granger stepped up to keep things running while the situation sorted itself out, though the rest of the hands gave her wide berth.
When Nala came home, the twins spent several uncomfortable weeks avoiding the issue and skirting around it, trying to find a way to talk to one another about something neither wanted to remember. Finally, Nala cornered Nika in that same kitchen and demanded, “What do you want to do?”
Nika looked at her twin, puzzled. “What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”
“You’re walking around like a ghost, Nika,” Nala said in exasperation. “Either have a fight or yell about it or … do something. I can’t stand to see you this way!”
Nika frowned at her twin and said quietly, “I killed your husband. Why haven’t you kicked me out yet?”
Nala looked startled. “Because you saved my life. Because this is your home. Because you belong here and I love you. Because … oh yeah, did I mention you saved my life and your niece or nephew’s as well?” She paused and studied her twin. “He wouldn’t have stopped this time. It was us or him. And I’m not a bit sorry about it.”
Nika met Nala’s gaze and finally, slowly, nodded. “Me either. I just… keep seeing it.”
Nala wrapped her arms around her twin and held her tightly, sighing heavily. “It’s time for you to get on the horn and call Shyla and them. It’s time for you to get back to the grind, sis. Sitting here stewing about this is gonna destroy you.” She kissed Nika’s temple and pulled back to see her face. “You’ve been groundside too long. Go on. It’s gonna be okay.”
Nika clung to her sister, struggling with the tears. “This sucks. I come home so we can grieve over Daddy, and all this happens. I … the ranch needs me. You’re about to have a baby, you need me!”
“No, darlin’. I need you if you need to be here, and you are always welcome here, it will always be your home—don’t take this as me trying to get rid of you. But this ranch isn’t your life. It hasn’t been since the first time you flew. It’s time for you to go back to your life,” Nala said gently. “Tracy’s coming back from Larson to help me with the baby. And I’m pretty sure Mama Johannsen’s going to want time with the baby, too. Though that I’m not sure how to handle,” she commented darkly. “It’ll work out. Stay if you want to be here, Nika. But I’m giving you permission to go if that’s what you need to hear.”
Nika shoved a hand through her hair. “You’re running me off,” she said to her twin. “For me, or for you?”
Nala shrugged with a faint smile. “It’s definitely harder to get things done around here when someone’s moping like mad.”
With a sigh, Nika finally nodded. “All right. I’ll send the Wave and let you know when I’m heading out,” she said softly.
* * * * *
“Heard you got a Wave today,” Nala said quietly from the bedroom doorway. She was coming up on her due date and looking absolutely huge.
Nika glanced at her and smiled. “I did. I’ll leave here in a week and meet them in the Core.” The shadows in her blue eyes hadn’t diminished any, and to Nala’s discerning eye Nika didn’t look too thrilled about getting back into the Black. But she didn’t look thrilled to stay here either, so…
“Good,” she replied to her twin. “That’ll give you a week to fuss over me and help with the baby.”
Nika paused and then blinked. “Excuse me?”
Nala chuckled softly. “I’ve been in labor since about 7:30 this morning,” she admitted.
For the first time in her life, Nika dithered. “Oh my God! What do you need? Tell me what to do! Do you need to sit down? Some boiled water! It works just like horses and cows, right?”
Nala laughed. “If I’d known you were gonna freak, I’da sent you to the Back Forty until it was done,” she said mildly. “Mama Johannsen’s coming, and so’s Becky Dillanger—she’s a midwife. Tracy’ll be here in less than an hour. It’ll be fine. And yes… mostly it’s just like cows and horses. Don’t be so silly, you grew up out here.”
Nika hugged her sister tight and murmured, “Yeah… and Mama died out here. I just… want to be sure you’re okay. Both of you.” She put a hand on her sister’s stomach, feeling the muscles there clench hard. “Well, now… guess you should do whatever you feel like you gotta do.” She grinned at Nala. “We’re havin’ a baby!”
* * * * *
Sitting in a hotel room in Persephone, Nika grinned slightly at a Cortex view of her baby nephew. Kevin Johannsen was a handsome little red scrunchy-faced being. When the knock came on the door, she turned it off and went to open the portal, admitting Brian with a small smile. “Hey you,” she said softly.
“Hey yourself,” he replied, studying her thoughtfully. “Not like you to dodge Harry and Shyla. What’s going on?”
“Lots,” Nika sighed. And then she closed the door and smiled up at him. “You could at least pretend you’re happy to see me,” she groused mildly.
He laughed, and instead of giving a reply he pulled her to him and proceeded to kiss her senseless. When they were both breathless with it, Brian pulled away and murmured, “As if you didn’t already know that. Now seriously, what’s up?”
Nika’s smile when the kiss ended was far more relaxed than the one she greeted him with, though it dimmed slightly when he wanted answers first. “I’ve got some… things… I gotta sort through.” She hesitated, and he waited silently for her to explain. “I killed Trey,” she told him quietly.
Brian looked stunned. “What the hell happened?”
Nika moved to sit on the edge of the bed and proceeded to fill Brian in on every gory detail of what happened after Harbinger left the ranch, and although he bit his tongue, she could tell he was getting more and more angry. By the time she hit the actual fight that killed Trey, Brian was livid. When she told him of that fight, the almost-rape, and Trey’s death, he was pacing.
When she finally stopped talking, his only words were, “Are you sure you’re okay?”
With a small smile at him, Nika nodded slowly. “A little… shaky at times still. Didn’t really have any time to deal with Daddy, and then all that. It’s… a bit much.”
Brian moved to sit on the bed, and he hesitated before he put his arms around her. “You… I don’t scare you or anything, do I?”
“No,” she reassured him quietly. “You don’t. And I’m okay, I just… I killed him, Brian. And I have to live with that. I don’t think I’m going to be top of my game while I’m dealing with it, and … the kinds of runs we’ve been doing, I don’t know that I’m good for them right now. I need some time.”
Brian nodded immediately. “Let me tell Shyla we’re taking a hiatus.”
Nika looked surprised. “We can’t both abandon ship, Brian,” she said, putting a hand on his arm. “Not that I’m unhappy with the idea, but… I don’t want everyone on the ship worrying about me all the time, and I don’t want to get you guys killed if my flying is crap. That’s why I asked you to not tell Shyla and Harry that you were meeting me. I wanted you to know what’s going on, and I want you to be able to explain to them in more detail what’s what…. But I just need some time away from … everything. The stress of the runs we’re making—it requires a lot of my attention, and I’m just kind of tired of the war, you know?”
He looked worried and saddened. “You’re not coming back, are you? At all.”
Nika made a pfft sound. “That’s stupid. I’ll be back after a few runs. Just… keep up with me.” She smiled. “Drop me a Wave and let me know when you’re places I can get to. I’ll meet all of you when we’re in the same place, and I’ll rejoin … maybe after five or six runs.”
“Swear it,” Brian demanded quietly, grabbing her arms and looking deep into her face. “Swear on Jon’s grave.”
Alarmed by his intensity, Nika said softly, “I swear it, Bri. I’m not jumping ship permanently.” She stood on her toes and kissed him heatedly. When he released her arms, she twined them around him and drew him down to the bed.
* * * * *
“Connelly!” came the bellow from the bridge.
Oh good, Brian thought. Nika’s message had already arrived.
“Yes ma’am,” Brian drawled as he stepped onto the bridge.
“Did you know about this?” Shyla practically spit at him, pointing at the Cortex screen.
Raising a brow, Brian stepped forward to read the message Nika had sent.
Captain, I won’t be rejoining Harbinger yet. Brian has the details, but some things went severely wrong at home and now that it’s sorted out, I’m going to ground. Send a Wave when you’re next making groundfall and I’ll see where I stand then. I will rejoin you as soon as I have my head on straight. –Nika
“Yep,” he responded slowly. “I just found out.”
Shyla stared at her XO, and Harry subtly shifted position to get out of the way in case Shyla threw a punch. “She’s here,” the redhead stated flatly. “She’s groundside somewhere here and you didn’t bother to say word one.”
Brian glanced at Harry’s inscrutable expression and then back to his captain. Squaring his shoulders, he came to some semblance of attention. “Yes, captain. At least… she was groundside as of about four hours ago. She asked me to meet her and keep it to myself.” Not as if it was the first time they’d snuck off for a quickie or a whole afternoon.
“And?” Harry’s tone was mild. The sound of it pulled Shyla back from her anger to study her XO more closely.
“And… she’s a mess, ma’am,” Brian said, his eyes never leaving his captain. “Trey Johannsen was beating Nala.”
Harry’s face went even more Sphinx-like, if that was possible. Shyla’s expression immediately froze into tight displeasure. “Excuse me?” she asked in a dangerously soft tone.
“Nika walked in, found him with his hands on her, and … did what any one of us would have. Trey’s dead.” Brian kept his words calm and flat.
Shyla closed her eyes, anger and pain showing in the lines on her face.
Harry considered quietly and then spoke. “Xiao Mei’s not doing well.”
It wasn’t a question, but Brian finally turned his eyes to the tiny Asian weaponsmaster and shook his head. “No,” he said simply.
Shyla opened her eyes and looked at him. “And you didn’t haul her over your shoulder and bring her back why?” she demanded in a far softer tone than before.
Brian just looked at her wordlessly, his expression shuttered.
“Fine,” Shyla finally said. “You’re dismissed. We’re lifting off in six hours, Connelly. Be ready to go.”
He nodded and turned on his heel, leaving the two women alone on the bridge.
Harry closed the hatch behind him. “He left her there because Xiao Mei demanded it of him,” she said, turning to look at her captain. For the first time in several years, Shyla wore the stressful expression that Harry had thought gone with the war.
“Do we go after her?” she asked, looking at Harry with conflicted eyes.
Harry considered it for a long time. “No,” she finally replied. “She killed a man loved by her mirror, the other half of her self.
What Xiao Mei sees in the reflection right now frightens her. She doesn’t trust herself or her instincts, and she is punishing herself. She’ll come back around, it will just take time.” Harry smiled faintly. “We are more than family. That is a bond that doesn’t just vanish.”
Shyla eyed the tiny woman. “Some days you’re just too Zen for words. Go send Hans to the bridge, tell him he’s primary pilot for a while to come.” She shook her head and turned to look back at the bridge. Amazing how one person missing could change the whole feel of a ship, she mused absently.
Harry simply nodded, opening the hatch and slipping out.
When she finally cornered Brian, he gave Harry far more detail about Trey’s death. It was the attempted rape that concerned Harry more than Nika killing the man. “Xiao Mei was not…?” she asked.
“No,” Brian replied, relief and anger coloring his features as he shoved a hand through his short hair. “Thank God. That hùn dàn better be grateful he’s dead.”
Harry silently agreed, and she relaxed fractionally. “She will be fine, Connelly. Have faith.”
He looked at her and said quietly, “I have to.”