Rory McCabe, the Errant’s mechanic who, along with Jinna Pride, his newly declared delbar-am, had returned to the ‘ship early, wasn’t the least surprised that Eitan hadn’t returned with John and Jagati.
He was surprised to find they already had a job booked.
And, as John explained to Rory, while Rory was fiddling with the aft port engine pod, they would be lifting off at fourteen noon the following day.
“It’ll take that long to get the cargo loaded,” John had explained from where he crouched outside the pod. “But that also gives us time to make certain Jinna has a safe place to stay.”
“Thanks for that.” Rory continued to affix an almost-new power pack to the pod’s incoming battery ports. The work was necessary, but it also helped distract him from the fact that Jinna would be leaving the Errant.
They'd only barely opened their hearts to one another, and already they would be parted.
Still, they'd have the morning, and it would ease his mind, at least a little, to see Jinna was well settled before they lifted off.
“Speaking of Jinna…” Jagati poked her head through the engine’s hatch, angling to peer around John, “why are you in here mucking with an old engine instead of snuggled in bed with the new girlfriend?”
“Jagati,” John said.
“Like you weren’t wondering…” Jagati poked him in the shoulder before glaring at Rory. “So? What gives?”
Rory grimaced, but knew Jagati was not one to let up.
“I’m in here,” he told her, “because, for one, we need all our engines functioning to be able to fly, and for another, I’d imagine no one here has tried to share an airship-sized bed with an expectant mum?”
“Can’t say as I have,” John admitted.
“Nope,” Jagati agreed.
“That said,” John continued, leaning in to lay a hand on Rory’s shoulder, “you’d best not stay up too late. Between getting Jinna situated, load-in, and pre-flight, tomorrow will be a busy day.”
“I vote we make Eitan clear the bact-tanks,” Jagati suggested, referring to the fixtures responsible for recycling the ‘ship’s waste and gray water. Located on the lowest deck of the gondola, the bact-tanks provided both filtration and ballast.
And while the bacteria-laden containers were considered the peak of clean reclamation , they were also as pungent as a compost heap, and thrice as dangerous.
All of which meant no one enjoyed policing them for clogs, leaks—or, worst of all, a failure of the bacteria to thrive.
“I second that vote,” Rory responded with the smile he knew his crewmates were looking for.
He didn’t know how successful the smile was, but after a beat, John shooed Jagati back, leaving Rory to finish his work.
Once the engine pod was flight ready, for the moment, at least, Rory climbed up to the galley, thinking to read for a spell, in hopes it would relax him enough to sleep… somewhere.
He was well into his novel—one of a box of dreadfuls John had found in the bargain bin outside an Epsilon book store—when Eitan entered the galley.
“Care for some tea?” Eitan asked, moving to the stove.
“Wouldn’t argue,” Rory replied and, over the edge of the book, watched his one-handed crewmate fill the kettle, set it on the galley’s flameless heating unit. “You’re on rota for the bact-tank pre-flight.”
“Maybe I should make this a bottle of wine, instead,” Eitan said, though he continued with his preparations, putting water on to boil before heating the pot and adding a healthy scoop of tea to it.
Rory noted Eitan had chosen chamomile, in deference to the late hour, he supposed, and—once the kettle began to shriek—poured the steaming water into the pot.
He carried the pot to the table, fetched mugs and strainer, and poured out.
All with just the one hand.
“Thanks,” Rory said, setting down the book.
In unison each man raised their mug, blew at the steam, and took a cautious sip.
The floral scent wreathed the air as Rory lowered his mug. “You’re home sooner than I expected,” he said, before he thought better of it.
“And you are not in your cabin, with Jinna, as I might have expected,” Eitan observed.
“Narrow bed, pregnant woman,” Rory pointed out.
"Of course," Eitan murmured, taking another sip. "Do you believe she will
“It’s only,” Rory continued, “I can’t help but notice that you're always back sooner than I'd have expected.” And, before he could think better, added, “That is to say, you never spend the night.”
“I haven’t noticed any of the others, yourself included, staying anywhere but the Errant.”
“Hah,” was Rory’s comment. “Still, if any one of us had received even a third of the offers you do, you can put hard starbucks on it that we’d be sleeping elsewhere.” Even as he said this, Rory thought how, now he and Jinna were—well—he and Jinna, he might indeed find himself sleeping somewhere else… from time to time.
“You keep a count?” Eitan asked, drawing Rory’s attention.
“No.” Rory picked up his mug. Put it down. Picked it up, again. “Maybe.”
Eitan’s lips turned up in the hint of a smile and both men took a sip of tea, sighed, and set their mugs down with a gentle double-thump.
Rory glanced at his book, then up at Eitan, who was watching him.
“You may ask,” Eitan said.
Rory frowned. “I thought you only sensed another body’s thoughts on physical contact.”
“True, but in your case, I can see the curiosity written on your face. You have a question. Ask.”
“Fine then.” Rory leaned over his tea to meet the other man’s dark gaze. “Why don’t you spend the night with any of your lovers? Ever?”
Despite having prompted the question, Eitan let out a soft breath before responding, “I have bad dreams.”
“Bad dreams?” Rory echoed. “But, doesn’t everyone? I mean,” he continued, waving a hand, “Keepers, after near to twenty years of war, I’d be more surprised if a body didn’t have nightmares. Which I suppose you’d know, what with being a sensitive and all, and…”
And here, Rory’s voice faltered, as he recalled that, yes, Eitan was a sensitive, and as previously noted, one who, on physical contact, could feel what another felt, as well as share their thoughts.
It was, Rory supposed, a part of what made him such a popular bedmate.
Who wouldn't want a lover who could sense their needs, their pleasures… and share his own?
But what if the sharing didn’t stop when the lovemaking ended?
I have bad dreams.
And Eitan, himself a veteran of the war—and, more, a survivor of years in the Adidan gladiatorial arenas—would have no shortage of fuel for his nightmares.
Rory blinked, then focused on the other man, who was watching him, patiently waiting for the quarterstar to drop.
“No off toggle,” Rory murmured, meeting Eitan’s patient gaze. “You’re still a sensitive, even in your sleep.”
Eitan nodded, sipped, set the mug down. “There was a time… before the war, before Adidas, I could spend the night in a lover’s arms. Only once did my dreams travel, and that was with another sensitive.”
Here he paused, and a shadow seemed to pass over his expression, but then he shook his head and let his left arm—the one missing a hand—rest on the table. “That has changed,” he said simply. “And while I cannot deny it is the height of rudeness to slip from a lover’s bed so soon after the gift of sharing, of the two offenses,” he glanced down at the hand that wasn’t, then up at Rory, “it seems to me that walking away is the lesser.”
“I suppose it would be,” Rory said, his voice distant as the stark truth struck home. The truth that, no matter how close Eitan became to another, at the end of the night, he would always be alone.
Eitan, meanwhile, gave a simple nod before downing the rest of his tea. Rising, he put the cup in the sink for Jagati to complain about in the morning, then strode out of the galley.
But just as Rory was picking up his book, Eitan turned, started to say something, then stopped.
Rory set the book down. “You have a question of your own?” he guessed.
“After a fashion,” Eitan admitted. “I just wondered, we have been working together for many months, yet not a one of the crew has asked about this.” He held up his left arm. “As far as I can sense, no one wants to.”
“Ah, well,” Rory picked up his book again. “We on the Errant tend to live by the Air Corps motto, don’t we?”
“I was Infantry,” Eitan reminded him. “I have never heard the Air Corps motto.”
“Well, then, to further your education…” He raised his mug, as if in a toast. “‘Leave your past on the ground, lest it weigh you down,'” he said, then drank.
“Interesting,” Eitan said as Rory set his mug on the table. “Someday, perhaps, you can teach me how to do that.”
With which statement he left Rory with his tea, and his book, and a strange twisting in his chest.