General Satsuke finished reading the skinny note, then handed it off to the colonel before turning to face the crew. “Thank you for your service,” she said, her eyes landing on John.
“We weren’t given much choice in the matter,” John pointed out.
“Except for delivering that wee message,” Rory added. “We did have a choice, there.”
“Yes,” the general said, glancing at Rory. “Major Ouellet sent word of your agreement.”
Jagati, meanwhile, was studying Satsuke’s expressions—while keeping her own shields tightly locked. It was past time, she figured, to determine how much of her being able to ‘read people’ was actually that, and not some sloppy psy crap.
Solid idea, except, as she soon discovered, General Satsuke’s expression was more a non-expression. This, Jagati realized, was a person used to giving nothing away.
She gave up and turned to study Baek-Tenjin, thinking the lieutenant’s face could tell her more.
“I hope the Corps means to honor that agreement,” John said.
“Actually,” the general began.
Here we go, Jagati thought, turning back to the general. “Don’t tell me,” she said. “Times are tight. The post-war coffers are thin. The brass is cutting costs on all fronts—“
“Actually,” Satsuke cut her off with an utterly neutral glance, “I have been authorized to make you a counter offer.”
Jagati, surprised, looked at John, who showed almost no reaction. But for John, the less emotion he displayed, the more the other guy better watch out.
“I hope you’re not planning to bargain,” he began in the mild tone Jagati had learned, long ago, to respect. “Major Ouellet made his offer in good faith, and we honored—”
“I don’t bargain,” Satsuke again cut in. John’s eyes narrowed, but Baek-Tenjin glanced up, and while it wasn’t quite a smile, Jagati caught a crinkle at the edge of his eyes that hinted at amusement.
Score! she thought.
“My apologies,” John said.
“No apologies necessary.” Satsuke met John’s gaze, then looked at the rest of the crew. Her cast-alusteel exterior seemed to soften, and the part of Jagati attempting to read the general’s face did a happy dance. “The fact is,” Satsuke said, “thanks to recent events in Nike, my team has finally managed to deliver proof of what really happened at Nasa.” There was a pause as all four of the Errant’s crew went very still, and not a one of them mentioned meeting Gideon Quinn in Nike. “It is because of this proof,” Satsuke continued, “that I have been granted clearance to—not compensate, as I don’t believe there is any compensation for what each of you endured when the Kodiak fired on Nasa—but at least make some reparation, by way of restoring the salaries you all lost since that day, as well as clearing your records of any false accusations.” She paused and looked at Eitan. “Your case is a little more complex, as you had been declared KIA.”
“Wait,” Rory said.
John turned to Eitan. “You never—” he began.
“—told anyone you were alive?” Jagati finished, then grimaced, as it appeared no matter what her feelings about the man, she and John continued to share at least part of a brain.
“I didn’t feel it necessary,” Eitan told them, nothing in his expression giving anything away, either.
Keepers, Jagati thought, it was like watching a game Guess What I’m Thinking Bingo.
“My tour technically ended while I was in Adidas,” Eitan explained, “and by the time I escaped and reached the colonies, the war had ended.”
“Fair enough,” Jagati said, because what else could she say, then looked back to the general. “How—?”
“How complicated?” John asked, over Jagati’s question.
She had to try, very hard, not to poke him in the arm.
“Not as much as it might have been,” the general replied, keeping her attention on Eitan. “Since you waived death benefits to next of kin, it is more a matter of removing your name from the rolls of the lost—though we will leave your tree to grow in the Corps Forest of Memory.”
“I am pleased you won’t be killing any trees on my account,” Eitan murmured.
Satsuke didn’t respond, but instead picked up a file from her desk, and from that file pulled out a stack of envelopes. “Here are the settlements I arranged,” she said, setting the file down and handing out the envelopes. She gave the first to John, then continued to pass out the rest out.
John, frowning, opened the envelope and pulled out a sheet of paper and what looked like a check. He focused on the paper, reading it silently, until—
Jagati tried to reinforce her shielding, but nothing could stop the sandstorm of John’s emotions.
Vindication… a gaping well of grief… the rasping, ever-present shame… and so, so much more.
She steeled herself as the tangle weed of emotions John had, no doubt, tamped into a small, dark space for years, now tumbled forth, the whole illuminated by a spinning ball of joy/relief/unburdening of not having to scrape for every quarterstar.
The whole washed over her, leaving Jagati with the sensation of walking into five amazing smelling kitchens, and a forest fire, at the same time.
Yet, all John showed on the outside was a single muscle contracting on his jaw.
Her hand reached out to steady him, but… not the time, not the place…
And he didn't look like he needed support, anyway.
“There you are, you little booger.” Jagati found the bay leaf in the stew, determined not to lose track of it before serving the one edible dish she had learned to make.
It was too early to take the leaf out but, if she stood it up in the middle so she wouldn’t forget it. She did so, then grinned, as it looked like a tiny shark’s fin.
She started pushing it through the stew, then burned her finger, then remembered she still had to start the rice.
This time, she was determined to not mess it up, and actually read the instructions on the little card from John’s recipe box.
Water just over the knuckle…
She chuckled to herself as she used the knuckle on her most used finger.
“Lid on to boil,” she murmured as she clanged the lid closed on the rice. “Lid on and wait,” she popped the masala’s lid into place. Then she noticed the rhythm to that so she started tapping the spoon on the both lids. “Lid on boil, lid on wait, lid on boil, lid on wait…”
“Keepers witness, Rory, if you’re not checking the aft port pod I will confiscate every last drop of Campbell’s Best and—oh.” John’s voice shifted from aggrieved to shocked in the tap of a spoon. “Sorry,” he said, turning his eyes upward, as if seeking guidance in the struts. “I thought Rory was in here.”
“Well, he’s not, is he?” She snapped, mostly to cover the fact that she damn near jumped out of her skin at the sound of his voice.
The avoidance-fu had been strong with them since lift off from Upsilon, to the point where she had almost forgotten how awkward it now felt to breathe the same air as John.
“You know, for a sensitive, you have an incredible talent for misreading the room,” John pointed out. “At least, where it comes to me.”
Jagati made a grumbling noise, but quietly.
Not only was he right, but, over the scent of the masala she could sense another set of spices; the warmth of pine and sage, but tinged with something like burned leaves that she immediately connected to his frustration and… sadness? Forcing herself to not lift the lid on the rice, she opened the chickpeas to stir, for something to do, then realized she had lost the bay leaf. “Dammit.”
She heard John sigh, then heard his footsteps as he crossed the galley. She shot a glance to her left to see John had parked himself against the counter, and was staring at his feet.
“Okay, so clearly I am touchy… about choking people on a bay leaf.” Which wasn’t entirely untrue. Plus, she didn’t need to look at John if she was looking for the blasted leaf.
“Ah, but we all know that Find the Bay Leaf is a time honored tradition in most Fordian households,” John said, clearly as willing as Jagati to avoid the mammoth in the room.
“You know me,” she said with an almost smile. “I hate following the crowd.”
At which point both turned towards each other, and their eyes met, and the mammoth came crashing down, and for the space of a few heartbeats, the connection that had driven them towards each other that night in the ice tavern shimmered to life, as warm and vibrant as in the moment.
He straightened, she turned towards him.
They each took a step towards the other, and then…
“Oy! Something smells fine!”
Rory’s voice was like a bucket of ice water over Jagati’s head. “Tell me we’re havin’ that masala, again and I’ll be a—ah, oh.”
Both John and Jagati turned to where Rory had frozen in the starboard door, one foot still comically in the air. “Masala it is, then,” he said, then dropped the foot, then glanced at John. “Great. Grand. So.” He paused, then shook his head, then spun and headed forward.
Hopefully, Jagati thought, up to the aft port pod, where he could bash himself in the head with a spanner, sparing her the effort.
Then again, Jagati reminded herself, Rory may have done her a favor. Because as much as she trusted Captain John Pitte, she wasn’t quite as sure about John Pitte, special ops officer.
“He’s right. Dinner does smell grand,” John said, and when Jagati turned, found he’d moved away and was standing where he’d been standing, before the almost—well, before. His eyes were fixed on the pot, still bubbling happily as he added, “I told you once, not that long ago, that I had quite a few secrets.”
Her spoon froze mid stir, recalling their conversation on the Nike tram. “Mmmph.” Breathe, stir, breathe, stir. “I guess there are secrets, and there are secrets… and I was expecting… well, not expecting…” She felt like an ass.
“You expected I was harboring an illicit gambling addiction? Or perhaps have a hidden collection of Terran soup tins?” he suggested, referring to one of their earliest cargos. “Something less—less.”
There was a hollow feeling in her chest, making his humor fall flat. “I mean, it is not easy to swallow, when the one person…” She hissed, put the spoon down and looked at him. “My bad.”
“How?” he asked, still leaning against the counter.
She shrugged. “I get too cocky about what I know about who and why.” She shrugged again. “I’ll get over it.”
“Will you?” he asked. “Can you?” And, into the following silenced added, “Would it be different, if I’d learned something about you? Something you’d specifically kept hidden?” The question hung between them, and when she failed to pick it up, he continued. “We all have secrets, Jagati. Some good, some bad, some—some because maybe we don’t want to think about them. Do they make us less worthy?”
“Less worthy?” She echoed the question, forcing the shoulders that had had curled forward while he was speaking to settle down for Keepers’ sake. “Less worthy to who?” She stared into the bubbling stew. “The one keeping them, or the one they need to be kept from?”
“Either,” he said. “Both?” She felt, more than saw, his hand rise, as if reaching out, before it fell back. “I suppose that’s for you to decide. Either way, I’ll be waiting.” He straightened from his spot at the counter and started to leave, but at the door of the galley he paused to add, “I’ll see you at dinner.”
And then he was gone.
Tapping the spoon on the side of the pot, Jagati turned down the heat, put the cover on, leaned over the sink, and swore.
The problem was, now that John had asked, she was no longer certain whether she was afraid of his secrets, or her own.
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