That was it, then.
There would be no grand vengeance, no blood spilled, no denouement to this story Piastol had been telling herself for the past seven years. He didn't do it, after all.
Piastol stared at the hands that supported her, braced against the cold deck of Vyse's ship. They were hers, but they didn't feel like it at all as she grappled with the sudden re-contextualization of all her defining memories.
Vyse and his crew hadn't killed her father. The fire that sunk the Aquila hadn't been their fault. They were there to help. Her vendetta against pirates, the conviction that had galvanized her in her darkest moments, was suddenly as substantial as the clouds that drifted far above.
And, of course, there was that last bombshell to deal with, too.
I have a sister, she thought, disbelieving. Maria is alive.
By all rights, she should be happy. But in that moment, she was frozen. Her body refused to move as her thoughts raced frantically from realization to realization, and she stayed there alone, hunched over on the deck of the Delphinus.
That is, until a voice drifted to her across the expanse of her thoughts.
"Are you going to be okay?"
Piastol jerked her head up automatically to look to the source of the sound. It was difficult to make out any details of the person in front of her through the blurry film over her vision. She blinked her eyes several times as she tried to get a better view, desperate for something to latch onto. She couldn't quite form the words for a reply.
"You're crying… are you hurt?" The voice sounded worried, and the blurry silhouette drew closer as whoever it was knelt in front of her. "Moons, give me strength," the voice said, and a gentle warmth began to creep over her as green magic gradually went to work mending her wounds.
It didn't have much of an effect. Deathhound would've healed her already by now, but that only made it more concerning that she felt so paralyzed. And yet, despite knowing that it was doing her no favors, she felt herself relax as the magic flowed through her. Her arms slackened, and her body pitched sideways.
She heard a yelp of surprise as she landed on something - presumably whoever had been healing her. Piastol took a deep breath and scrubbed at her closed eyes with her fingers, trying to clear away the mist that had blinded her. When she opened her eyes again, she was greeted by the blue skies above - and a confused-looking young woman with blonde hair and green eyes gone wide.
Piastol frowned, squinting at the face above her. It was upside-down, but it looked familiar. Yes, she'd seen this face before. "You're one of Vyse's crew. Weren't you fighting me just now?" Her voice came out hoarse, but at least it was coherent.
"Well, yes. But you're still out here, most of an hour later… I was beginning to worry you were seriously injured." The woman fidgeted, and Piastol's head jostled. She realized she was still on top of her, and she let out a groan as she hauled herself up and into a sitting position. "Do you need more healing?" the woman asked, her tone halfway between concerned and frightened.
Piastol rubbed at the back of her head. Despite the creakiness, she wasn't in any pain. She simply felt… exhausted. She turned herself around to sit facing her would-be savior, her knees bunched-up in front of her. "I'm fine," she said.
By the way the woman flinched, she guessed her tone was a bit harsher than she'd meant it to be. "That's a relief. With the way you were fighting, I was worried we'd…" the woman shook her head and trailed off, the train of thought clearly upsetting her. The motion jostled her golden hair beneath the odd-looking veil she was wearing. Green eyes resettled on her, and Piastol met them without expectation. "Is there… anything I can do to help you on your way, miss Piastol?"
Piastol didn't say anything right away. It was slowly coming back to her. She'd heard Vyse call this girl Fina once or twice. While Vyse and the redhead had been up front trying to shred through her defenses, this girl had been in the back, supporting them with spell after spell. Her eyes narrowed. "Why are you helping me? I tried to kill your friends."
Fina looked surprised at the question. "Because… You don't seem like a bad person. You were fighting us because of a misconception, weren't you?"
Piastol's gaze burned harder into Fina. "Misconception or no, if I'd had my way, Vyse would be dead right now. A smart sailor would've thrown me overboard."
To her surprise, however, Fina didn't flinch away again. Instead, she matched Piastol stare for stare, her face set with determination. "No. That's not how I… not how blue rogues treat people."
The air between them was thick with tension for a moment as the two of them continued to stare each other down, neither wanting to relent. Eventually, however, Piastol broke away, looking off to one side towards where her ship was still moored to the deck railing. "A code of honor?" she scoffed. "That's rich, coming from a bunch of pirates."
"You know now that we never did anything to you," Fina said. Piastol could sense that she was still being stared at, just as hard. "Why are you still treating us like enemies?"
Piastol shrugged. "So Vyse didn't kill my family." She grinned humorlessly as her gaze traveled over the sails of her ship. Avenger, she'd called it. Funny how that worked out. "Are we supposed to just be friends, now? The pirates and the pirate-hunter, holding hands and singing shanties together?"
"What do you have to lose?"
A lump formed in Piastol's throat before she could think of a comeback. She wrapped her arms around her shins and buried her face in her knees. "My…" she struggled to get the words out as she forced the lump back. "My sister. My whole way of life. Everything I have left." She suppressed a shudder as she closed her eyes over the burning sensation that threatened to turn into an outpour.
Silence. Piastol didn't look up to see whether Fina had left. If their positions were reversed, she doubted she'd have stayed. Finally, a hand settled on her shoulder - clearly hesitant, but still there.
"I'm still very new to all of this, so… I can understand feeling confused and directionless." Fina spoke slowly, as if deliberating over each word. "But if there's one thing Arcadia has taught me, it's that nobody is alone here if they don't want to be."
Another shudder. Piastol felt a rebellious tear trickle down her cheek despite her best efforts. "That's… That's stupid. So I just… ch-choose not to be alone?" she snapped, trying to inject venom into her tone, but only managing pain.
"Isn't your sister out there right now, waiting for you?"
Maria. Moons above, how she'd wanted to see her little sister growing up. Just thinking that name put more cracks into her already-failing composure. Maria was alive, she was here in mid-ocean, and Piastol knew where.
But there was no happiness in that. The faces of a dozen pirates she'd felled flashed through her head. Memories of night after night after night training herself to be a weapon, to master the tools of a killer. Was there even a scrap of Maria's older sister still left within her?
"I can't see her," Piastol finally choked out. "I'm a monster. Her big sister Piastol is the angel of death." she shook her head and sobbed, once. She was babbling, she realized, but it felt cathartic to get the words out. "The moment I touch her, I'll stain her with all the blood I've spilled."
"You can still get better," Fina replied, insistent.
"How?" The word came out as a shout, laced with seven years' worth of pent-up anger. It drifted away on the eastward wind, leaving only echoes behind with the defeated angel of death.
She heard Fina sigh as the ringing faded. "I don't know," she admitted. "But I do know that you're capable of it. Didn't Vyse already say as much?" Piastol could almost hear the smile behind the words.
Piastol shivered as she recalled Vyse's last few words to her.
You're not the angel of death. You never were. You've always been Maria's older sister. Just ask her… I'm sure she'll tell you the same.
"That… that still leaves me alone, until the day I can face her," she protested, her voice frail.
Fina chose that moment to say something that surprised her. "We're here. Vyse already forgave you, didn't he?"
Piastol blinked. For the first time in what felt like hours, but was probably only minutes, she lifted her head and looked at Fina. "Are you… asking me to join Vyse's crew?"
Despite her earlier tenacity, Fina suddenly looked very self-conscious, her cheeks turning pink. "Is that a strange thing to ask? You could join until you were ready to leave."
What could she say to that? Piastol almost wanted to laugh at the absurdity of it. When she'd awakened this morning, she'd wanted nothing more than to kill Vyse, and now she was being offered a place on his ship? "And I could leave at any time?" She said the words without thinking.
Fina smiled at her. "You have your own ship, so I don't see what would be stopping you."
Was she really considering this? Joining up with a bunch of… pirates? Her, a pirate hunter?
You're not the angel of death. You never were.
Piastol took a deep breath and straightened up, endeavoring to clear her head as it swarmed with conflicting doubts and reassurances. Blue eyes met green as she put on her best imitation of a roguish smirk. "Fine. But if I have my way, I'll make sure you regret extending the offer."
"Hey, Fina. How'd it…" Vyse trailed off as he seemed to realize that Fina wasn't alone entering the bridge. "Uh, how'd it go?" he finally finished, eyeing Piastol with naked confusion.
Piastol matched his stare, but didn't say anything. "Great!" Fina replied, missing the look entirely as she focused on Vyse. "I think Piastol will be okay."
"That's great," Vyse said, looking from Piastol to Fina and back again. "But, uh…"
"What is she doing up here?" Aika cut in, giving voice to Vyse's unspoken question. "Didn't you go down there to send her on her way?" By the look on her face, Piastol could guess that Aika wasn't quite as ready to forgive her as Vyse was. She turned her cool gaze on the red-head with double the intensity.
"She wants to join the crew!" Fina said cheerfully, as if immune to the tension that had followed her into the room.
"Piastol… wants to join the crew of the Delphinus?" Vyse repeated, slow and uncertain. He looked to Piastol for confirmation, clearly expecting her to object at any moment.
Piastol shrugged her shoulders, nonchalant. "At least temporarily, yes. If I'm going to change how I think about pirates, I can't afford to pass up an opportunity to see them at work first-hand."
"Right…" Vyse sounded skeptical, but his expression turned thoughtful.
That's better than the outright "no" I thought I'd get, Piastol mused.
"Absolutely not!" Aika snapped, stepping between her and Vyse. She hesitated for a moment, looking like she regretted the outburst, before continuing in a softer tone. "Look, I can understand some of what you went through, but you still tried to kill us. You're dangerous, even if you may not hold a grudge against us anymore."
"Aika…" Fina protested.
Aika shook her head before she could continue. "I'm not backing down on this. Four times she tried to kill us, and each time she refused to listen to reason. Even when it was obvious she was in the wrong, she still insisted on fighting. Is that the kind of person you want on the crew, even temporarily?"
Piastol looked away, avoiding Aika's eyes. She wouldn't say as much out loud - not yet, at least - but she could see the girl's point. Even knowing the truth, she could still feel a lingering bitterness towards both Aika and Vyse, and she wasn't sure it would ever go away.
Vyse sighed. "It's difficult to argue with that reasoning. Do you have anything to say that might convince me otherwise, Piastol?"
She didn't. Despite the burning desire to prove both of them wrong, Piastol couldn't think of any good reason why they should trust her. The whole thing had been a farce, after all, just as she'd-
"How can you both be so cold?" Piastol blinked as a voice dragged her out of her thoughts. All eyes were suddenly on Fina as once again, her expression grew hard with determination. "I came to Arcadia full of misconceptions. I was told that each and every one of you was untrustworthy and barbaric. If I hadn't been captured, I might've even… ended up fighting you. Who can say?"
"It's not quite the same…" Aika's voice lacked some of its earlier conviction, despite her protest.
"Isn't it?" Fina said, fixing Aika with a look of utmost sincerity. "I've learned so much from my time spent traveling with you. But if I hadn't, I don't know what kind of person I might be today. So please, don't rush to judgement. If you can forgive the unkind things I once believed about you, you can forgive the things she believed, too." Fina briefly turned her head to offer Piastol a small smile.
Piastol balked at her. The two of them barely knew each other. What was this girl doing?
"We never had to forgive you, though, Fina. You've always been our friend," Vyse said. "Not that I don't see what you're saying…"
"You don't know what you might have thought of me if circumstances were different. You can't know." Fina replied, solemn.
Both Vyse and Aika were silent for several long moments, deliberating. Piastol watched Fina await their decision - perhaps with greater apprehension than she herself did - and boggled.
"Okay," Aika finally said, deadpan.
"Okay?" Vyse looked at her, one eyebrow arched.
"Okay. If you really think it's the right thing to do, Fina, then I can withdraw my objection," Aika said, before quickly adding, "if she leaves her weapons in the armory for the time being."
"What?" Piastol hissed.
"It's not an unreasonable precaution," Vyse added.
Aika, apparently, would brook no objections. "What are you even going to need them for, if you're not going to cause trouble?" she pressed.
Piastol glowered at the both of them before relenting. "Alright, fine. If it avoids another fuss."
She heard Fina breathe a sigh of relief, and again felt a little twinge of confusion. She found herself avoiding looking in her direction as Vyse continued. "Well, if that's settled, then I guess I don't really have any objections, either. Welcome to the crew, Piastol - at least, for however long you plan to stay," he said, smiling warmly at her.
Piastol dropped her gaze to the floor. "Thanks."
"Let's introduce you to the crew, then!" Vyse said, seeming much more in his element now that the conflict had died down. "After all, it wouldn't do for one of them to have a heart attack the first time they see you walking around the mess hall."
Aika nodded and headed for the console. "I'll put out the call to assemble here."
Piastol bit back the urge to groan in frustration. This was going to take a while…
Most of another hour had passed by the time the last of the crew had gone back to their stations, finally allowing Piastol a merciful reprieve from any further awkward introductions. She leaned against the bulkhead just outside the door to the bridge, waiting in blissful silence while Vyse, Aika and Fina discussed the exact details of her accommodations in private. She didn't much like the idea of being excluded from the discussion, but at this point, she'd take any break she could get from dealing with groups of people.
Finally, the door to the bridge opened, admitting Fina out into the hallway before it swung closed again. Piastol looked up at her expectantly.
"I have good news! Brabham went down to the cargo hold, and he says that your ship should just barely fit, if we take down the sails," she reported.
Piastol nodded. That was a small relief, at least. Joining the crew wouldn't have meant much if she'd simply spent all her time sailing the Avenger in their wake. "Great. I'll sleep in the hold, then."
Fina's smile grew faint. "If that's what you'd prefer. You're welcome in the crew quarters, though."
"You saw how I handled them. I'm going to need my space," Piastol said. "Besides, I'd bet money that both of those two geezers snore."
And like that, the smile was back to its full warmth as Fina broke out in giggles. It was oddly satisfying to see, though that didn't stop Piastol from quirking an eyebrow at the girl. "Point proven," she said.
"I suppose I can't deny the truth in that," Fina admitted. "They're both very loud." She nodded her head, as if confirming something to herself. "So you'll be staying in the hold with your ship, then. Currently, we're heading to Sailor's Isle to resupply, then onwards to Crescent Isle."
"Crescent Isle? I haven't heard of it," Piastol said.
"It's where we've made our base!" Fina said, a hint of pride in her voice. "It's really beautiful. Vyse discovered it when he was stranded there for a week, if you can believe it!"
Piastol frowned. "I'm sure it's lovely."
"I think you'll like it, at least."
Piastol nodded noncommittally, her gaze traveling from Fina to one of the portholes that opened into the little hallway they occupied. Fina followed suit, seemingly unsure of what to do or say next. Eventually, she moved to step past Piastol towards the stairs. "Well, if you'll be alright here, I'll-"
Fina stopped halfway around the railing that guarded the stairwell, looking back at Piastol over her shoulder with an expression of innocent curiosity. "Yes? What is it?"
What did she want to say? Piastol grasped for the right words, leaving the two of them in an awkward silence for a moment, but thankfully, Fina didn't leave. "Why… why are you so determined to stand up for me? Both of your friends had a point about me back there. I'm dangerous."
The frown Fina wore in response to her question triggered an unpleasant twisting in Piastol's gut, making her feel like she'd said something wrong. But there was no accusation in the tone Fina used when she answered. "Because I can tell that you want to change. For your sister, and - I hope - for yourself." She smiled again, though it didn't reach her eyes this time. "And I've learned that expanding your horizons is an amazing thing. I don't think it's fair to deny you that opportunity."
Piastol didn't know how to respond to that. She sounded sincere. "I see," she said, her voice stilted.
Fina looked sympathetic. "Did that answer your question?"
Their eyes met as Piastol stopped deliberately looking anywhere else. She could see another question implied within those green orbs - Do you want me to stay? A part of her wanted to accept that invitation. There were still so many things she was trying to process, so many things she needed to talk through. Her entire worldview had been upended in the last few weeks, and she still had no idea what she was doing joining up with Vyse.
But that would be imposing. And she'd imposed enough on Vyse and his crew - and especially this woman in particular. "Yeah. That answers my question, thanks."
"Okay," Fina said, giving her a curt nod. "I'll be around. And - welcome aboard the Delphinus," she added, her voice carrying a note of pleasing warmth. With that, she descended, her footsteps a whisper against the metal stairs, until she was out of sight.
That left Piastol alone. Again she found herself staring out the porthole at the blue skies that encircled her always, wondering what she would do next.
The skies had no reply - but she stayed a while, anyways.
Five days. That was the estimation that had been given to her - five days until they'd reach Crescent isle. One to Sailor's isle, one that would mostly be spent picking up supplies, then three to Crescent. A fairly straightforward trip, and likely an uneventful one. Considering the whispers she'd heard around mid ocean about Vyse's exploits, it was almost surprising how idyllic it all sounded.
Piastol lounged on the cot in the tiny cabin of the Avenger, staring up at the ceiling while Deathhound, her loyal feralisk, slumbered nearby. It was evening now, several hours having passed since her defeat and subsequent whirlwind recruitment. And, despite everything, it had been quiet. She could distantly hear the hum of the Delphinus' engines from where her ship rested in the hold.
It might even have lulled her to sleep, had her mind not been so thoroughly occupied. There were still too many things to consider, too many uncertainties ahead, and despite the calm all around her, Piastol could feel an uncomfortable tightness in her chest.
What am I going to say to Maria?
What happened to the Aquila, after all?
She exhaled wearily and turned to lie on her side, looking at Deathhound - her longest-lived companion. A beast, trained to be a weapon, not too unlike herself. The last, and largest question loomed in her thoughts, inescapable.
What am I going to do with myself after this?
Her eyes glazed over as she tried, and failed, to come up with clear answers yet again. She might not be alone on the Delphinus, but she was absolutely no closer to understanding her future.
A knock sounded on the door, rousing her from her stupor. Deathhound was on his feet faster than she was, and he hurried to the door to growl at it. A bitter part of her wanted to just open the door and let Deathhound do what he would - but to her credit, it was a part of her that was quashed easily. "Down, boy," she said softly as she hauled herself out of the cot and over to the door.
The growling ceased at her command, and no ruckus was made as she opened the door to reveal a lanky old man standing on the other side. "Ah, so y'ain't asleep after all!" Brabham said, grinning broadly.
Piastol gave him a flat look. "No," she said simply.
Either the old man didn't notice the rejection in her tone, or chose to ignore it, because his grin didn't falter. "I've got a job for you, since you're part o' the crew now. Figure we oughtta put you to work quicklike!"
Piastol's eyebrow twitched. "And what job is that?"
Brabham stepped back from the door and beckoned to her. "You can walk n' talk, can't ya? Time's a-wastin'!"
She considered slamming the door in his face. But - and the thought brought her little comfort - she was staying here on Vyse's good graces. There would be little merit in claiming membership on the crew if she didn't help out. She bit back on a snide remark as she stepped out of the cabin and shut the door behind her. "Let's just get this over with."
"That's the spirit!" The old man was seemingly unperturbed by her mood, and with long and sprightly steps he led the way out of the hold. "Now, I'm gonna need your help with some cleanin'."
"What kind of cleaning?" Piastol asked, impatient. The humming of the engines grew louder as they went.
"The kind I can't usually do when the ship is in motion!" The wave of heat that washed over Piastol's skin as Brabham opened one more door confirmed her suspicions - he was leading her to the engine room.
Brabham stepped inside, and Piastol resisted the urge to fan herself as she followed him in. Down the center of the room stretched two large, powerful-looking engines. Even in their slightly grimy state, it was obvious that these were top-of-the-line Valuan technology. "It's sweltering in here. I'm pretty sure if I touch either of these things, I'll burn my hand," she said, giving him an annoyed look.
"Well, that's why you ain't gonna touch 'em!" Brabham said, chortling. "I've heard about you usin' some of that fancy wind magic. Use that, and save us both some headache!"
Piastol stared at him. "You want me to use wind magic… to clean the engines?"
The old man folded his arms over his chest. "What? Y' afraid you can't handle it?" Despite the taunt, his grin was as bright as ever. It felt like he was trying more to encourage her than to belittle her.
This was a stupid idea. A reckless idea, really. And it made perfect sense, coming from someone on Vyse's crew. Leave it to a bunch of pirates to come up with the craziest, most hare-brained- "I guess I'll try it," she said, pushing down the pessimistic tirade she'd felt herself sinking into. Old habits die hard, she supposed.
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, finding her center. One hand outstretched toward the engines, she opened her eyes and called, "Moons, give me strength!"
She had only ever used magic in combat before, and as such, she didn't have a lot of practice controlling or directing it - but it didn't seem too hard, in theory. The stream of air that blossomed from her palm was at first almost too powerful, and she winced as the force of it pushed her back a few inches across the floor. The engines rattled under the force of it sweeping across their many interlocking parts, and she bit her lip as she focused on reining in the excess energy.
Within a few seconds, she managed to calm the torrential gale, coaxing it into a steady, more controlled stream of air suitable for the task ahead of her. She gradually swept the column of air over the engines, blasting away the accumulated grime and dust, and for a while, it seemed to be working well. She felt a small smile forming on her lips.
That was, until it started getting harder to see. Something caught in her throat as she inhaled, and the flow of magic halted as she clutched at her chest and coughed. She could hear Brabham coughing, too, from nearby. "Aw, damnit! All this dust…"
Piastol waved at the air in front of her with a hand, trying to clear it away from her face. "W-well, what were you expecting? It has to go somewhere!"
"I thought the magic woulda taken care of it!"
"Magic doesn't work that way!" She snapped.
"Gah, let's just get outta here. We'll figure out how to deal with this once the dust's all settled," Brabham said, grabbing her by the wrist and guiding her out of the engine room.
He let go of her before she could think to pull her hand away, and by then they were back in the hallway. Brabham shut the door behind them, turning around to lean against it before breaking down into chuckles and wheezes.
Piastol glared at him. "What's so funny?"
It took the old man a few seconds to calm down enough to speak properly. "Sorry. I just don't get t' see somethin' like that every day. I wasn't even thinkin' about where the dust would go." Despite the mess they'd made, his smile was still impossible to wipe away, and he pushed off the door with the same energy he'd had leading her there. "Up for another task? My night shift's just beginnin', but with your help, we might get it done twice as fast!"
"I don't see why you need my help," Piastol said wearily, though she didn't hesitate to follow him this time when he started leading the way.
"Well, y'see," Brabham said, "I ain't as strong as I used to be. And, well, some darn fool jammed th' door to the loo up on the top deck. I need someone young n' strong like you to help me pry it open!"
Piastol resisted the urge to put her face in her palms. It was going to be a long night.
It was some two and a half hours later when Brabham finally declared an end to their chores. Piastol's legs, arms and back were aching, leaving her dead on her feet as she dropped onto a bench with Brabham near the central staircase amidships. She sighed and leaned her head against the railing behind her as she closed her eyes for what felt like the first time in an eternity.
"Ya did a great job tonight, kid. I'm impressed with your gumption!" Brabham said proudly.
"Everything hurts," Piastol groaned.
Brabham laughed. "Aye, it starts out that way. But if you put enough time into it, you'll get used to it."
She shuddered. "I'm not sure I want to get used to this kind of work."
But the old man just laughed harder. "D'aw, don't be like that! Honest work's the best kind o' work you can do. You'll see the value in it eventually, m' sure."
Piastol blinked her eyes open and fixed him with an unamused stare. "Don't hold your breath."
Brabham smiled at her silently for a moment before getting to his feet. "Well, I best be headin' back to the crew quarters. And you, lil' lady, should get to bed. You look about ready to sleep 'till the next eclipse!"
Piastol grunted in response, and Brabham departed with a wave goodbye. She stayed where she was for a minute, letting some of the ache fade, before getting up and dragging herself down the stairs towards the hold.
Deathhound was waiting for her when she returned to the cabin of the Avenger, his tongue lolling out as he entreated her for attention. She gave him a quick pat on the head before staggering over to her bed. "I'll give you s'more attention tomorrow. Promise," she said. He seemed to take this in stride, walking to her bedside before curling up obligingly.
Piastol gave the hound a tired smile before collapsing onto her cot. Her mind swam hazily with thoughts of Maria, of missing fathers, and uncertain futures. But mostly, she considered how warm and soft the cot felt beneath her right then and there.
She was asleep within a minute.
The sun was steadily climbing towards its midday apex as the crew of the Delphinus dispersed to their tasks on Sailor's isle. Everyone seemed like they had something to do, somewhere to be. Everyone except Piastol, who, when she'd asked Vyse about it, had been given instructions to "just take it easy". Her features scrunched up in a scowl as she recalled the easygoing smile with which he'd said it. The last thing she wanted right now was to be alone with her thoughts.
She wandered the streets of the busy town with Deathhound in tow until her path wound its way to Polly's tavern, almost on instinct. It was only when she got there that she remembered that Polly wouldn't be there - the island's most famous cook had signed up with Vyse's crew not too long ago. She considered going in anyways to see how Anne's cooking measured up - but without the familiarity, the appeal had suddenly vanished, and she let out a sigh as she turned and wandered back down the street in search of something, anything, to occupy herself.
Her gaze drifted out over the crowds as she passed through them. A mother coaxing her children away from a storefront displaying an array of sweets. Two middle-aged men sitting on a bench, engaged in quiet conversation. Near the ship parts shop, she glimpsed the stout builder Izmael excitedly comparing tools with Kirala, who wore the bemused expression that seemed to be a feature of every one of Izmael's conversations. Seeming to sense the direction of her thoughts, Deathhound brushed up against her legs, as if to remind her that she wasn't entirely alone.
And then, her eyes settled on a woman wearing distinctive white clothes, with blonde hair that fell to her shoulders, staring out over a guardrail at the sky. Piastol stopped in her tracks, ready to turn around and head the other way - but she stopped herself, frowning as she considered. Why do I want to avoid her?
The answer was obvious when she searched for it. Because she'll just try to help you more. You've been enough of a burden already. Leave her alone and spare her the stress. Piastol's expression darkened as she sank into those familiar thoughts, ready to make good on her plans of walking away.
You can still get better.
The world returned as the memory of those five words cut through the rest of the noise in her head. She'd said at the time that she didn't know how, and she still didn't. But maybe, just maybe, she could set aside her doubts this time, and see what happened.
At least if it didn't work out, she'd know better next time.
"Hey, Fina," she said, doing her best to come off as nonchalant.
Fina jolted slightly at the mention of her name. Perhaps she, too, had been lost in her thoughts - but she recovered her composure quickly as she straightened up and turned around. "Oh, Piastol!" she replied, smiling. "I'm sorry I didn't see you. I was distracted."
Piastol couldn't tell whether the smile was for her, or for politeness' sake. She really hoped it was the former. "I didn't mean to startle you."
"No, it's alright," Fina said, shaking her head. "I probably needed someone to shake me out of it, anyways." The look on her face grew uncharacteristically bleak for a brief moment, only for the smile to return soon after. "Oh!" She said, seeming to finally notice the hound at Piastol's feet, "That's the creature you fought with before. Is it your friend?"
Piastol could feel a nagging desire to pry into what Fina might've been thinking about - but there were far too many voices in her head telling her it was a bad idea. Instead, she obliged with an answer and a small smile. "His name's Deathhound. He's been with me for a couple years now."
Though she looked a little discomfited by the name, Fina didn't comment on it as she looked Deathhound over curiously. "He's very big. But…" she suddenly glanced away, looking embarrassed. "May I ask what kind of animal he is?"
"Eh?" Piastol blinked. "He's a feralisk. Have you not seen one before? They're pretty common around mid ocean."
Fina fidgeted awkwardly before shaking her head. "Well, I've seen a few before, but I never knew what they were called…" She hastened to change the subject. "How are you enjoying…" she frowned thoughtfully, and muttered something under her breath. "What did Vyse call it… Ah! How are you enjoying shore leave?"
Deathhound seemed a bit disappointed not to be the center of attention anymore, but Piastol simply shrugged. "It's… alright. I don't have a lot to do. Usually, if I was on Sailor's isle, it'd be to find my next bounty. Without that, I'm a bit listless."
Fina canted her head to one side as she stared at Piastol with a blank expression. "You never did anything else? No hobbies, or favorite places to go, or… anything?"
"Uh…" Piastol shuffled awkwardly, looking away from the girl's innocuously bemused expression. "Well, I used to visit the florist, sometimes, to look at the flower arrangements. I'd only browse, though."
"Well, that's something!" Fina said brightly. "Did you already visit today?"
There it was - the difficult question. Piastol sighed. "I haven't been there in over a year. Not since I accidentally broke a vase."
Fina's face fell, albeit briefly. "That's unfortunate. But I'm sure they'll have forgiven you by now!"
"I'm not so sure about that. It was pretty expensive," Piastol protested. "I don't think I'd feel right going there again."
Fina got that thoughtful look on her face again, going silent for several seconds. This time, when her smile returned, Piastol thought she could detect something mischievous in her eyes. "You won't even show me where the florist's shop is? I'd at least like to see it…"
Ah, Piastol thought, so that's her game. The attempt to manipulate her was almost endearing in its earnestness. Piastol looked away and very deliberately frowned. "I don't know… I'm pretty sure you could ask anyone around here, and they'd give you directions."
"But…" Fina's smile faltered - evidently she hadn't anticipated that response. "I could, I suppose, but…" She sighed, the sound more tired than Piastol would've expected from her. "Please?" she finally said, looking defeated.
The look on her face might've melted even the Empress's heart. Piastol immediately regretted looking at her out of the corner of her eye, her resolve shattering instantly.. "Okay, okay. I'll take you to the shop, but I'm still not going inside," she said.
"Thank you, Piastol." Fina said, relieved. This time, Piastol was certain that the smile was for her.
They were about halfway to the shop when Piastol heard a strange noise. It sounded like a cross between a squeak and a chirrup. She turned and looked at Fina over her shoulder. "Did you hear that?"
Fina had stopped where she was, glancing at the silver bracelet around her wrist. "You smell a cham nearby?" she said, wide-eyed, before looking up at Piastol. "I'm sorry if this is abrupt, but can you help me with something?"
As she stepped closer, Piastol realized that the strange sound was coming from the bracelet. "Sure, but… what is that sound?"
Fina looked around for a moment, confirming that the two of them had the street to themselves. "Okay, you can come out," she finally said as she looked back to her bracelet.
Before Piastol's eyes, the bracelet seemed to melt off Fina's wrist before expanding into a vaguely ball-shaped creature with a small, curly tail that extended from the lower rear of its body. It waggled tiny arms at her as it chirruped at her again. "W-what is that?" Piastol gasped as she stumbled back a step. Deathhound growled at it from his position on the ground, though the thing hovered safely out his immediate reach.
"Don't worry, it won't hurt you!" Fina said, hurrying to assuage their worries. "That's Cupil. I've had it since birth. It can change shape at will."
Piastol calmed down a little as Cupil hovered curiously towards her, swaying gently in the air. "I've… never seen anything like this," she said, staring. She slowly reached out and poked it. It yielded slightly under her touch, letting out a sound that vaguely resembled a giggle. Deathhound's growling gradually faded as his master calmed, and he watched the proceedings with cautious interest.
Fina blushed and smiled. "Everyone says that."
"Sorry," Piastol said automatically, before shaking her head. "I'm getting distracted. You said you needed my help with something?" She tried to stop staring at Cupil, and only partially succeeded by staring at Fina instead.
"Yes! You see, Cupil only eats small fragments of moon stones called 'chams'. They tend to appear all over the place, and, well…" Cupil let out another squeaky chirp. "Cupil seems to have sniffed one out in the area. I was wondering if you'd help me find it?"
"A moon stone?" Piastol looked around, but didn't spy anything that matched the description in a quick sweep. "I suppose it can't be too hard to find it. Deathhound," she said, looking down to the feralisk, "Can you find a moon stone around here? Something small."
Deathhound barked his assent. "Cupil can help!" Fina offered. "If… if Deathhound wants the assistance, that is," she quickly added, looking uncertain.
Piastol glanced up at Fina and smirked, before looking to Deathhound again. "What do you say, boy? Do you want Cupil to help you?" Deathhound looked up at the floating silver creature, the two of them briefly locking eyes. Piastol couldn't be certain what the mutt was thinking, but eventually he huffed and started off in the direction of a nearby alley. "That sounds like a yes," she reported.
Some of the tension seemed to go out of Fina at the reply. "Okay, Cupil! Follow Deathhound!" Cupil made another chirping sound and flew off after the feralisk, leaving Fina and Piastol alone.
Piastol sighed and sat down on a nearby bench. Fina followed suit a moment later after looking to her for confirmation. They sat together in silence for most of a minute before Piastol thought to say something to break the silence. "You're a very unusual person, Fina."
Fina looked taken-aback. "Huh? Is… is that bad?"
Having anticipated the response almost the moment the words were out of her mouth, Piastol shook her head. "No. Maybe that was a bad way of saying it. You're just… very different from everyone I've ever known. In a good way," she hurried to clarify.
That got a smile from Fina, though there was sadness in her eyes. "I don't do a great job of fitting in."
This was going south quickly. Why did you have to open your mouth? she thought, chastising herself. "Maybe you don't, but that's not a bad thing. You're unique. A lot of people around here wouldn't give me the time of day, but you've already stood up for me twice. And that's while barely knowing me…"
Something seemed to click for Fina. "Oh." She frowned. "You keep mentioning that. Does it really weigh on you so heavily?"
Piastol winced. She hadn't thought to be so transparent. "I… kinda can't stop thinking about it."
"May I ask why?"
"Because... " Piastol groped for an answer. "Because I feel like I'm supposed to pay you back. That's how this works, isn't it? Someone does something nice for you, because they're expecting a favor down the line…"
Fina shook her head. "You don't owe me anything, Piastol."
Piastol smiled wistfully as she stared down at her feet. "I know. You're nothing like the people I've grown up knowing. And I don't know how to deal with that."
"Hm…" Fina frowned, seeming to search for an answer. Before she could, however, Deathhound came trotting back around the corner with Cupil in his wake. He had something small and sparkling clasped in his jaws, and he presented it to Piastol when he reached her.
The object that dropped into her palm was undoubtedly a moon stone, albeit a small fragment of one. Too small to be of use as fuel, but maybe… "Is this what you were looking for, Fina?"
Fina brightened at the sight of it. "It is! That's a cham!" she said, clapping her hands together.
"Here," Piastol said, offering it to her. "Maybe this can be my way of repaying you?"
Fina shook her head. "I already told you that you don't owe me anything," she said. "But I will accept it as a gift, from a friend." Delicate fingers plucked the stone from Piastol's palm, before holding it out to Cupil. "Here, Cupil! Catch!" She tossed the glimmering stone into the air, and the little silvery creature darted out to catch it in its mouth. It made a sound something like a purr as it twirled once in place. Finally, Fina turned back to Piastol. "Cupil says thank you. And so do I," she added with a warm smile.
Piastol felt a curious pang in her chest, and had to look away. "It was the least I could do, really."
Once Cupil had returned to his hiding spot around Fina's wrist, Piastol led the rest of the way to the florist without saying much else. Fina pulled ahead of her as they arrived. "I won't try to make you come inside with me, but if you do decide you want to, I hope you will," she said with the same amount of warmth. Piastol gave her a weak smile before Fina went inside.
Piastol looked down at Deathhound as she wrestled with the prospect of following her. "What do you think I should do?" she asked him.
Deathhound stared up at her, jaw slightly agape as he panted, and eventually tilted his head slightly to one side in an imitation of her posture.
Piastol huffed and looked away. "Some help you are," she muttered. Eventually her eyes were drawn to the display in the window. There were several bouquets and potted specimens all arranged pleasingly, showing off a broad spectrum of colors. She'd never had much botanical knowledge, but she'd always appreciated the way they looked when arranged just right.
She remembered coming here for the first time a little before she'd met Deathhound. For a few moments, that dark and brooding child had simply been a little girl in a flower shop, admiring the displays. She couldn't quite get to that level of innocent tranquility anymore - especially with all the havoc she'd caused since - but at least the beauty of the blooms remained a constant.
It could've been a minute or an hour that she stood there reminiscing. Her awareness returned to her as the jingling of the bell hanging above the shop door told her that Fina was back. She started slightly as she caught sight of the haul in Fina's arms. She was now laden down with several bouquets, all in varying colors. "You were busy," Piastol understated.
Fina beamed at her over the bunches of flowers. "I wanted to get something for everyone, but I settled for Vyse, Aika and Enrique…"
"I'm sure they'll be very pleased at the gift," Piastol said, feeling unaccountably awkward at all of the unbridled enthusiasm.
"Oh! And this one is for you," Fina said, reshuffling her grip on the bundle to proffer one of the bouquets.
It was an arrangement of flowers with pale white petals, though some of them had a distinctly blue tinge to them. Piastol accepted it with wide eyes. "You didn't have to do this."
Fina grinned at her. "They reminded me too much of you not to. But you don't have to keep them if you don't want to," she added, though her smile persisted.
Piastol cursed herself for the heat building in her cheeks. She hurriedly stepped past Fina in the direction of the docks, keeping her back turned. "Well, either way, that's a lot to be carrying. I can help you take these back to the ship. We should be getting back about now, anyways," she said, willfully trying not to stammer.
Fina nodded and handed her another of the bouquets to carry, and together they headed back towards the Delphinus, Piastol again leading the way. Mercifully, she managed to calm herself down a little on the trip back - but she made it a very important mental note that she'd need to find a vase.
The rest of the day came and went, and the Delphinus set off for Crescent isle. Brabham once again dragged her out of her cabin to help with his chores, though thankfully he didn't wait until the middle of the night this time, and the work was not quite so vigorous as it had been before.
Piastol half-considered going straight back to her cabin, but a gurgling from her stomach stopped her part way along her journey to the cargo hold. She hesitated for several long moments. She had dried food on her ship she could eat - but she also recalled that Polly was here, on the same ship as her, no doubt working in the galley.
Of course, that would mean visiting the mess hall, which would be its own ordeal. Every member of Vyse's crew seemed to have some quirk or another that made them insufferable. Well, almost every member, she amended as a slight smile lifted one corner of her lips. She sighed and turned around, heading back up the steps to the upper decks. She'd be damned if she let a little social anxiety keep her from Polly's cooking.
The mess hall was easy to find, and smaller than she'd thought it would be. Still, it was larger than what could be found on most ships, and her gaze swept slowly over the accommodations as she descended the steps leading into the hall proper. There were three tables, and all of them were unfortunately occupied. Piastol grimaced at the prospect of having to join someone as she wound her way over to a counter that opened onto the galley.
To her further chagrin, it was not Polly that greeted her from the other side, but a young woman in unusual blue clothes, with black hair. Piastol vaguely remembered the girl shyly introducing herself as Urala. "Oh! Uhm… Miss Piastol," Urala said, bowing deeply. "Welcome."
Piastol tried to keep her disappointment off her face. "Thank you. Are you the only one working today?" she asked, trying and failing to get a better look into the galley.
Urala quickly shook her head. "N-no! I'm not. I'm merely helping miss Polly. Why? Did… did you want to speak to her?"
Now that there were fewer people clamoring to distract her, Piastol found the girl's reticence a bit less grating. It reminded her a little bit of… "If you could ask her about making one of her meat pies, that'd be great," Piastol said, shaking herself out of her thoughts. She couldn't be spacing out in the middle of a conversation.
"Of course! Right away." Urala bowed one more time and quickly departed, leaving Piastol to once again scope out her choice of seating.
The table with Brabham, Izmael and Pinta was right out. She got enough of the old man doing chores with him. That left her with either Khazim and his cronies, or… she frowned. The garishly-dressed woman was Osman, but she was struggling to remember the name of the slim fellow in the orange jacket that sat across from her.
"Piastol." A familiar voice spoke up from behind her, drawing her attention back to the counter.
A similarly-familiar scent drifted to her from a silver plate on the countertop as Polly smirked at her from the other side. "You're in luck. I just got done making a few of these."
Piastol tried to keep from salivating as she looked between the pie and Polly. "Lucky me. Do I owe you anything?"
Polly scoffed. "You're a member of the crew. I think you know the answer to that question." The woman's smile broadened as Piastol scooped up the plate with hunger evident in her eyes. "It's good to see you out and about. I was worried you'd just spend all your time cooped up in the hold."
Piastol's expression immediately soured. "Is everyone so concerned with my business?" she grumbled.
Polly didn't seem troubled by her tone. "Could you blame us if we were?"
Some of the wind went out of Piastol's sails. The woman had a point, much as she hated to admit it. "I'm doing fine, Polly. I don't plan on shutting myself away forever."
"That's what I like to hear," Polly said with a chuckle. "Well, as long as you stick around, I'll be happy to treat you to more of my cooking." With that, she disappeared back into the galley.
It was a tempting proposition. Piastol settled her choice of seating by simply choosing the nearer of the two tables, occupied by Osman and what's-his-face. "Oh my. It looks like we have company," Osman said as Piastol began to dig in without so much as acknowledging them.
The man rested his arm on the table, leaning his cheek against his palm. "And who should it be but our most mysterious new crew member. Piastol, right?" Piastol looked up from her pie to glower at him. He grinned in a way that was probably intended to be roguish, but mostly came off as conceited. "Ah, it's alright. You don't have to talk if you don't want to." He looked from her to the larger woman across the table. "Osman and I were just discussing the lost treasures of Ixa'taka."
Osman chortled haughtily, lifting a hand to cover her mouth. "You wouldn't believe the things he claims to have seen. I've appraised a fair few Ixa'takan trinkets in my day. Most of it is solid gold. If even half of what he says is true…" she trailed off, her eyes sparkling behind her ruby spectacles.
"Oh, it's all true, madam," the man assured her. "There are few places I haven't been in my travels. My renown was not easily-acquired," he said, briefly glancing at Piastol out of the corner of his eye.
"From most people, I'd be unlikely to trust such fantastical tales. But you do have a certain… charm about you that makes me want to believe it," Osman purred.
Piastol wanted to gag as she listened to the continued exchange, even despite how good Polly's meat pie was. Her fork clattered against the plate as she set it down and turned to fix the man with a glare. "What was your name again?"
The man balked at her. "What? You don't remember me?" he quickly schooled his expression of surprise into one of amusement. "Well, there's no accounting for taste, I suppose. I am Domingo, the greatest explorer and treasure hunter Arcadia has ever seen," he said, inclining his head towards her in a mock bow.
He seemed to watch her expectantly, waiting for some reply that she hadn't yet thought through. "Ugh," she said simply before taking another bite and chewing sullenly.
The beleaguered expression that briefly crossed his face made her feel considerably better. "Well, Piastol, while you're here, why don't you share a story of your own? You've doubtless been to some interesting places in your… travels." He said the last word with an unpleasant emphasis that made her instinctively want to kick him.
She reined in that impulse, however. "Not a lot to say. I mostly stuck to mid ocean. Hunted pirates. Killed some of them." She shrugged, trying not to delve into the memories that accompanied the recounting. "It wasn't glamorous work."
"Surely there must have been some intrigue," Osman insisted, looking put-out.
Piastol turned her glare on her, but the woman didn't seem intimidated by it. Evidently, Osman had seen worse. "Fine. You want intrigue? There was the time I met the pirate who I thought had killed my father," she said.
Domingo's expression soured. "Oh. You mean…"
"Yeah," Piastol snapped. "I mean Vyse. I fought him once before I even recognized him, and he and his friends beat me like it was nothing. And then, once I did recognize him, it got worse. Because then I knew I had to take him down."
Osman raised a hand, trying to cut in. "I don't know if this is really appro-"
"So I threw myself into my training, because what else did I have to aspire to? I thought I was going after the man who'd destroyed my life. I fought him, again and again and again, each time realizing a little more that it was pointless. Not only because I'd never win, but because he didn't do it. And now…" she hissed, "and now, I don't know what I'm doing anymore. Why I'm even on this damned ship, pretending to be a member of his crew!" She only realized she'd raised her voice when she lifted her head to find every eye in the room settled on her.
"Piastol…" Domingo said her name in a tone of surprising sympathy and concern. It only made her want to scream.
She turned around to find Polly staring at her from the galley. "Turns out I'm not fine after all," Piastol said bitterly, pre-empting anything the woman might try to say. "All of you should just… leave me alone. Pretend I was never here." With that, she stalked out of the room, up the stairs and back into the halls of the ship. No one tried to stop her, a fact which she was thankful for.
Sympathy was the last thing she needed right now.
Piastol stayed in her cabin the rest of the day, ignoring the occasional knocking at her door. She didn't trust herself not to explode again.
At first, she didn't fully understand why she'd boiled over so suddenly - but over several hours spent alone with her thoughts, she'd begun to form something of an idea.
It had been seven years since she'd last been on a Valuan flagship. She'd been a little girl then, with dreams of seeing the world, and becoming a master swordsman. Everyone on the crew of the Aquila had been like an extended family to her - especially Ramirez. Outside her mother and father, he might've been the only person who'd really and truly understood her. He might've even understood her better than they did.
Her time on the Aquila had shaped her expectations of the world, of herself. But in the end, it had all gone up in flames. She'd lost her mother, her father, her little sister, and Ramirez, all in one day. She'd been set adrift in a harsh world without anything to anchor herself with, save for the vague promise of vengeance, someday. She'd honed herself into a weapon fit to carry out that vengeance, certain that it was all she'd had left.
And now, here she was, on another flagship, with another crew. But it wasn't the same. There was no connection, no familiarity. Only bitter reminders of what she'd lost, and of the knowledge that she couldn't even have the closure she'd desired.
Perhaps it hadn't been right to snap at Domingo and Osman. Especially not at Polly. But it had been building up inside her, so quietly and so insistently, that she hadn't even considered the words before they'd left her mouth.
She sighed and covered her eyes with an arm as she lay on her back in her cot. Maybe she shouldn't be here, after all.
A knocking sounded from her cabin door. She grit her teeth as she sat up. "I'm not helping with your damned chores today, Brabham," she growled, loud enough to carry through to the other side.
She heard a muffled voice, and again a knocking on the door. Piastol made an exasperated noise and got to her feet, walking to the door and opening it. "I said-" she stopped mid-sentence as she was confronted not by Brabham, but by Fina, wide-eyed and clearly worried. "Oh. Fina. I thought it'd be Brabham again."
Fina's forehead creased in a deep frown as she shook her head, her eyes sad. "No. Just me."
Despite how acidic she was feeling, Piastol couldn't keep looking at those eyes. Her gaze tracked down to the floor between them. "What do you want?"
"To talk to you. I heard about what happened…"
Piastol's fingers clenched tightly around the door. "Look, if you're here because Vyse wanted you to check up on me, then you can just tell him-"
"I'm not here for Vyse. I'm here for you, Piastol," Fina said, and the steel in her voice made Piastol lift her head to look her in the eyes again. "Whatever you're feeling, you shouldn't have to weather it all by yourself."
The bitterness returned. Shame and embarrassment in equal measure settled like a lead weight in Piastol's gut. "I'm not your responsibility, Fina. You don't have to worry about me."
"You're my friend, Piastol!" She was almost shouting, and the intensity of it was enough to make her recoil. Fina scaled back the volume, but not the intensity of her voice as she continued, "I'm allowed to worry about you. So please, please stop acting like my desire to help is some terrible burden on your conscience." She closed her eyes tightly, and Piastol could see the beginnings of tears welling up in the corners of her eyes. "It isn't fair."
Silence hung between them as Piastol found herself at a momentary loss for words. Eventually, she found her voice again. "Okay. Please come in," she said, her throat feeling tight.
Fina nodded and followed her in. For lack of anywhere better for them to sit, Piastol sat down on her bedside, and gestured for Fina to do the same. She did so, and again silence prevailed as the two of them both weighed their words.
"I'm sorry," Fina said, wiping at her eyes. "For shouting. That was uncalled-for."
"It's fine," Piastol replied, looking the other way. "You were probably right to be frustrated with me."
She saw Fina nod out of the corner of her eye. "Do you want to talk about… the outburst?"
"What will happen if I say no?" Piastol asked. "Will you be upset?"
"No. We can talk about other things, if you want. Just… please talk?"
Piastol frowned. "I've just… been slowly realizing that this isn't home. I'm sure everyone here really does care, in their own way, but… It's never going to replace what I've lost."
"It's not meant to replace anything, Piastol. It's something else, something new."
"Maybe," Piastol admitted. "But the similarities are hard to ignore. And… I feel like I've failed myself, by choosing to stay."
Fina was looking at her, the glimmer of green prominent in her peripheral vision. "Even knowing that we had nothing to do with what happened to your family?"
Piastol nodded woodenly, not wanting to meet that gaze. "Even still. It's not even that I blame Vyse, or any of you…"
"You're blaming yourself," Fina said, the cot creaking beneath her as she leaned closer.
"Am I wrong to do so? The Aquila is gone, along with everyone I cared about, and I'll never find out why. All because I blindly hunted the wrong man for seven years…"
"You've done enough already. You grew up to be strong and resourceful. I think anyone from back then would be proud of how much you've grown," Fina countered.
"How much I've grown?" Piastol chuckled mirthlessly. "I can barely hold a conversation. I'm less a person and more a weapon."
"I like you. Is that worth anything?"
Piastol shivered and finally looked up at her. Her eyes held the same sincerity that always seemed to radiate off her. She felt her heart skip a beat. "Yes, it is."
Fina smiled, ever so slightly. "Then you don't need to treat yourself like this."
Piastol swallowed the lump in her throat and avoided the urge to look away again. "I'm not sure I deserve any better, though."
"You really don't like accepting help," Fina said. It was more a confirmation of fact than a question.
Piastol grimaced. "Guilty," she said, before adding, "and you really want to help me. I'm starting to think there's more to it than just simple compassion," she said, fingers tensing around some of the sheets beneath her as she took a shot in the dark.
Fina flinched, but nodded, looking embarrassed. "I suppose there is, after all."
Torn between despondence and inexplicable anticipation, Piastol willed herself to be calm. "Will you tell me why, then?"
Fina nodded again, then looked away, her gaze drifting to the ceiling, as if trying to pierce it to look up at the moons above. "You don't know much about me, do you?" she asked.
Piastol shook her head. "Basically nothing."
She watched as Fina took a deep breath and let it out. "When I first came to Arcadia, I was completely alone, tasked with what felt like an impossible mission. I had no one to depend upon, and I was… deeply afraid. I was nearly captured during my first night. Vyse and Aika saved me," she said, a nostalgic smile briefly turning up her lips.
Piastol felt her brow furrow. "When you first came to Arcadia?" she said, confused at the implication.
"I'll get to that," Fina said with a knowing look in her eye. "Vyse and Aika became my friends. I wasn't alone anymore. They saved me again, even when it put them at tremendous risk, and then they helped me complete my mission. They set aside everything to help me, again and again…" She tilted her head slightly to one side, glancing at Piastol. "It's a debt I can't possibly hope to repay."
Piastol's shoulders suddenly felt very heavy. She looked away. "You're paying it forward."
"No," Fina said, firmly. "That's what I thought to do, initially. But, over time, I realized that the two of them did what they did with no expectation of repayment. They did it because they cared - because they wanted to make my life better. I was lost and alone, and they helped me find my path out of the goodness of their hearts." Her voice was gentle but insistent. "I can tell that you're dealing with the same kind of pain I was. You feel alone, and in over your head. But you're not - not if you choose otherwise."
She'd said something like that before, but it made more sense now. Some of the weight had faded, though now it had been replaced by curiosity. "And that's why you want to help me?"
"Yes." It seemed so simple, laid out like that. Simple enough to wrap her head around. There was a note of tension in Fina's voice as she continued. "Piastol…" Piastol looked up at her, frowning thoughtfully. "Do you know what a Silvite is?"
Piastol vaguely remembered hearing the term, long ago. "Only vaguely."
Fina's voice was distant as she went over the details. "I'm a member of an ancient civilization that predates the rains of destruction. I was sent here, to Arcadia, from a place called the Great Silver Shrine, that presides over the world from far above the skies. My mission was to retrieve the moon crystals of Arcadia for the Silvite elders… and also to find someone who went missing, a long time ago."
It might've been hard to believe, if it didn't line up so neatly with what little she already knew about Fina. "So that's why you're so… different. And your clothes…" She'd known they were strange clothes from the first time she'd seen them, but there was something familiar about them, too. She hadn't given it much thought until now.
Fina nodded, avoiding her gaze. "I hope you don't think any differently of me, knowing this…"
Piastol quickly shook her head. "No, absolutely not. You're still the same Fina to me. I just-" It finally began to click in her head as her eyes went wide. "I've… seen someone dressed like you before."
And then, Fina was staring at her in shock. "You have? When?"
Piastol's mind was racing as she put the pieces together. "I-It was seven years ago, aboard the Aquila. A man washed up one day after a storm, in a bizarre-looking ship, wearing strange clothes just like yours. His name was Ramirez."
Fina trembled visibly as she gawked at Piastol. "What happened to him?"
Is she okay? Piastol wondered, starting to get worried. But the urgency in Fina's eyes told her to keep going. "He joined the crew of my father's ship, joined the armada. He was an amazing swordsman. He even trained me a little." Piastol's eyes grew distant. "I thought of him like an older brother, really. But we grew apart in the last few weeks before… before…" she felt her body tense up as the last two pieces connected in her head. "Before the Aquila caught fire and sank. He seemed… preoccupied."
Fina was still staring at her. Whether she was following the same train of thought, Piastol couldn't tell, but the expression she wore told her that she was close to tears. "I knew him," Fina said, her voice wavering. "Back on the Great Silver Shrine, when I was growing up."
Realization was dawning on Piastol like a fire searing its way through her every nerve - but she could still see the pain on Fina's face. She forced herself to breathe and calm down as she scooted closer. "Was he the person you were looking for?"
Fina sniffled and nodded, her lower lip quivering. It took her another moment to speak again. "I missed him so much in the years since he left. And then I found him again, in Valua…" She set her face in her hands as she bit back a sob. "He's so angry and bitter. I don't know what's happened to him…"
Where the words might otherwise have galvanized her burgeoning suspicions, instead they simply made Piastol's heart hurt. She didn't know what to say. If Ramirez really had changed so drastically… Was there any comfort she could offer? Fina was shaking as she continued to hold back tears.
Piastol steeled herself, took a breath, and closed the rest of the distance between them to pull Fina into a hug. She felt the last of the girl's restraint fail as a few drops of wetness fell on her arm. Fina buried her face in Piastol's shoulder and let herself cry, one arm moving instinctively to cling to her.
They stayed like that for a while as Fina worked out all of the grief that had been building up within her. Eventually she managed to stem the flow of tears, and her breathing gradually slowed and steadied. "Thank you..." she finally said, her voice a little above a whisper.
"Are you going to be okay?" Piastol asked.
Fina gently pulled away, straightening up enough to look Piastol in the eye again. She offered a brittle smile as she wiped a few stray tears from her cheeks. "I will be. But… I will say that I really needed that."
Piastol smiled back at her. "I'm glad I could be of some help. It feels like it was long overdue."
Fina laughed. It was brief, but it brought Piastol's mood up considerably nonetheless. "One day it'll get through to you that this isn't an exchange."
"Maybe one day. I did say you'd regret trying to help me."
"You did," Fina admitted, though it didn't make her smile any less bright.
They stared at each other for a few moments without any further conversation, until Piastol started to feel her cheeks heating up again. She looked away and cleared her throat. "But, uhm, is there anything else I can do for you, Fina?"
"Let me stay here a little longer?" Fina suggested. "I could use the company."
Piastol grinned despite her embarrassment. "I can do that."