Jagati spent most of the two hours after the escape from Dyar’s Canyon charting a course for Nike, one twisty enough to keep Tariq off their backs.
Once it was complete, she left the bridge to find Rory climbing down from the envelope where, he said, some leaky cells needed patching. Learning his next stop was the aft port engine pod, she asked if he wanted her help.
His refusal was less diplomatic than panicked, but then the last time Jagati attempted to wield a spanner in an engine pod they’d had to set down in the middle of the Barrens while Rory repaired her repairs.
Some might find such mechanical incompetence embarrassing. Jagati looked on it as honey in the comb and headed to shower off the clinging Dyar’s Canyon dust.
It also gave her time to think.
By the time she emerged, the dust was little more than a violet smear on the shower floor, and she’d come to a decision. A glance out the circular window as she dressed showed a soft landscape rolling beneath a shredded lace of clouds. Even from eight thousand feet she could see a few optimistic patches of green in the Allianz hill country, though the Keepers’ Almanac augured another spate of serious winter storms before spring officially sprung.
It was the possibility of those storms that had the Errant curving around the base of the eastern Amazons, rather than daring a passage. The massive range, which bisected the northern half of the continent, was dangerous under normal circumstances, but aeronauts caught flying in an Amazonian storm were more likely to end up with a tree in the Forest of Memory than arriving at their destination.
In fact, it was only two months past that the loss of the CAS York in the Amazons had crammed the papers and radio waves. The news, she recalled, hit Rory especially hard, as he’d served on the York for the last years of the war, and been close friends with the ‘ship’s first officer. Even months later, he had a tendency to become quiet at odd moments, taking himself off to his quarters or the machinist’s room, where he’d bury himself in some mechanical project or other.
Come to think of it, there’d been a lot of prosthetics for Eitan to lose since the York’s fall. She bet old Siddhartha, the ‘ship’s cog on the Kodiak, would have a pollen day with Rory’s behavior. Lucky for Rory, Jagati’s skills lay in other meadows, so she did with his issues what she did with her own.
She ignored them and instead headed up the passageway to John’s quarters, where she put an ear to the door and heard water running. Sounded like John had also opted for a shower, which meant her timing was perfect, as long as John was going for more than a quick sluice.
She raised her knuckles to the door and rapped softly. When he failed to respond, she tested the brass knob and found the door unlocked.
Taking it as a sign from the Keepers, she pushed the door open, slid inside, and closed it behind her, lest the chill of the passageway infiltrate the small, steam-warmed space. Immediately she looked to her right, whence said steam billowed, and found the bath’s pocket door had been left half-open, revealing a portion of the cabinet-sized shower stall’s flexi-glass screen.
As she looked, a flash of dripping elbow appeared on the other side of the screen, followed by a portion of equally wet torso. Her heart kicked into overdrive and her eyes locked on that torso which, she had to admit, showed the captain didn’t stint on the PT.
It also showed the angry line of an old knife wound, the remnant of what had been a very bad day, just above his hip.
A hand slicked with soap—sage, her nose told her—slid over the scar, and then John shifted again, leaving her looking at nothing but fogged flexi-glass.
With a relieved huff of breath, Jagati turned her attention to the rest of the room.
Unlike the captain’s quarters on the Kodiak, John’s berth on the Errant wasn’t appreciably larger than any of the others, which should make the search easy.
It also made his obsessive neatness even more obvious.
The jacket he’d worn down in the canyon had already been wiped clean, and now hung neatly on one of two hooks to the right of the closet, next to his gun belt and sword.
Since they were nowhere in evidence, she assumed his dirty and bloodied clothes were already in the drawer-like hamper, installed in the bulkhead under the hooks, where they would remain until whoever was up on the laundry rota collected them for washing and mending.
His bed was made up to Corps standards, and Jagati almost wished she had a quarter star to bounce on the gold-and-russet coverlet (hand-woven as a gift from his former landladies, who’d been heartbroken to see him go).
She looked to the bed’s right, at his desk. Not an object out of place. Same with the shelf above.
Not a single object out of place, nor any sign of the swarming box they’d retrieved from Tariq’s camp.
She looked under the bed but found not even a single dust dodo, then straightened and turned to peer inside the closet. Under her feet, the deck juddered some, indicating Rory was still having a go at the aft port engine.
To steady herself, she set a hand to the bulkhead but instead it came to rest on the battered leather of John’s jacket. Instinctively, her fingers clutched at the sleeve, taking obscure comfort in the sturdy leather.
The jacket had been a gift from her, presented to John on the day they’d taken formal possession of the Errant. She’d given it to him to replace that Grounder wool travesty he’d been wearing when she found him in A Fine Mess.
Though Jagati never said so aloud, the rugged, self-belting brown leather suited him far better than the rigid lines of his Air Corps jacket ever did.
And now she was romanticizing a coat, for Keepers’ sake. Disgusted with herself, she turned her attention to the closet’s interior.
If I were John, where would I hide the satch—
“Looking for something?” John asked.
The hand resting on the jacket became a fist as she realized the water was no longer running. “Yes,” she said, forcing a smile and turning to face John, who, she saw with some distress, was standing at the door to the head and, hoo boy, wearing nothing but a towel held negligently around his hips, just below the memorable scar. “I, ah, I thought maybe you’d borrowed my gun-belt,” she explained, forcing her eyes to meet his.
“Your gun-belt,” he repeated, his expression mildly curious. “You mean the one you’re wearing, or a different one?”
Shit, was she wearing her gun-belt? She looked down. Of course she was, because where else would she keep her shooter? Stupid, stupid, stupid… “Fine!” She waved her hands in the air. “I wasn’t looking for my gun-belt.”
“I thought not,” he said, curiosity deposed by a hint of amusement.
“I was looking for—” she began.
“You were looking for—” he overlapped.
“—the box,” they both said at once.
Jagati felt her teeth clenching. “Tell me this isn’t going to be a thing.”
“This talking-at-the-same-time thing.”
“I’m sure I couldn’t say,” he murmured. “I’m too busy wondering if this is going to be a thing.”
“This?” she asked, backing up a step at his expression, which was now neither curious nor amused. “What this?”
To her annoyance, the amusement returned. “This thing where you sneak into my quarters.”
“I wasn’t sneaking,” she countered. “I knocked!”
He tilted his head. “I didn’t hear a knock.”
“Guess the water was too loud.”
“Or the knock too quiet.”
“Maybe. Whatever. Anyway, if you don’t want someone sneaking into your room, you should lock the door.”
“I thought you weren’t sneaking?” he asked, his tone annoyingly reasonable.
She thunked her hand to her head. “Okay, maybe I was sneaking. A little. But it was for a good cause.”
“The cause being to take the box,” he said, leaning one shoulder against the bathroom’s doorsill.
“Not take, just—look, we agreed it would be a good idea to let Rory try to open it, didn’t we?”
“I said I’d think about asking Rory to look into the issue,” he countered. “Was that not proactive enough for you?”
“It’s not that.” She shrugged, looked down, noted the livid burn creasing his left thigh, just below the towel which, as she stared, shifted downwards. Her eyes darted towards his desk while her face warmed. “Not exactly that,” she said to the writing box, set dead center of the desk. “It’s just, breaking into the case would skirt too close to your personal boundaries.”
“Your sense of what’s right and what isn’t.” She waved a hand in his direction. “And breaking into someone else’s property isn’t. Face it, Pitte, you’re an honorable man.”
“Why,” he mused, “does that sound like an insult?”
“It’s not an insult.” With a shrug, her focus shifted to the pocket watch he never wore, but kept in a little wooden bowl near the writing box. “It’s just, being an honorable man isn’t the greatest survival trait on Fortune.”
“And because I am such an honorable man, you decided to ‘protect my interests’ by taking the issue of the lockbox out of my hands.”
“Listen, I get you’re mad—”
“Who said I was mad?”
“Your speech pattern gets even more formal when you’re pissed.”
“That must be disconcerting.”
“You have no idea.” She turned to glare at him. “Anyway, this is a ridiculous way to have a conversation. Would you mind at least getting dressed?”
“I wouldn’t mind, but you’re standing in my closet.”
“I am not.” Am I? Swarming apiaries, she was. When had she backed into the closet? She’d even kicked over one of his (ruthlessly cleaned) boots. “Fine.” She started to push her way out when a knock on the door, followed by Rory’s head popping into the room, sent Jagati all the way back into the closet’s narrow confines.
Please don’t see me, please don’t see me… Wait, why does it matter if he sees me?
“Sorry, didn’t mean t’interrupt your shower.” Rory’s voice filtered through the pair of muslin shirts that had fallen in front of her. “I must not have been thinking, what with being busy patching two gas cells and skelping dodgy engine pods into order since we boarded.”
“Not at all,” John replied, his voice pleasant. “How can I help you, Rory?”
Jagati stifled a sigh. It wasn’t that John didn’t catch Rory’s sarcasm, but by being him and seeming to accept everyone else’s words at face value it completely took the lift out the opposition’s airship.
As was proven by Rory’s unstifled sigh and the rattle of paper.
“It’s this note. The one you left in the shop with the cargo.”
Cargo? She just barely stopped herself thumping her head against the closet wall.
“What about it?”
“Well, I ken you want the box open, but the question is, do you want it fast, or pretty?”
What’s the difference? Jagati thought.
“What’s the difference?” John asked.
“The difference being, if you’re wanting it pretty, it’ll take as long as it takes to suss out the combination, and being it’s a tri-level Kairos lockset, it’ll be pure luck if I manage it before we reach Nike.”
“I seal up the machinist’s room, fire up the cutting torch and sure as Ben’s your uncle, I’ll be through the case in an hour, two at most. But it’ll make a hash of the case, which might be a problem if you’re not wanting the client to know we’ve opened the thing. And if whatever’s inside is heat-sensitive, or flammable, or—”
“I understand,” John cut in. “How about this, go for pretty but, if it doesn’t seem possible by the time we set down in Nike, we’ll consider fast.”
“Aye to that,” Rory replied, and the door clicked shut. She was just stepping out of the closet when it opened again. Cursing loudly in her head, she ducked back again.
“One more thing,” Rory said.
“There’s still enough in the clean tank for fifteen minutes of running water,” John said with the barest hint of impatience. “Eitan may want a few of those minutes, but there will be another full tank bact-scrubbed by 2800, latest.”
Of course he’d check the progress of the bacteria tanks. She rolled her eyes. Just as he’d leave a reserve for the rest of the crew.
“And that’s grand,” Rory replied after a beat, “but I meant to ask if you’d cleaned that wound properly.”
She could almost hear John’s eyes dropping to the burn on his leg.
“Oh. No. I mean, yes. It’s fine. I’m fine,” John said. Rory must have looked unconvinced, however, because he continued. “I promise, there’s not a hint of grit or thread or anything but leg in my leg. Keeper’s Truth.”
“If you’re certain, then…”
“In that case, I believe I’ll take myself off and use up seven and a half of those minutes of water.”
Inside the closet, Jagati listened to the door close again. This time, however, she counted to twenty before easing past John’s shirts to see him still leaning in the open bathroom door, waiting.
“So,” she said, crossing her arms over her chest, “you asked Rory to open the box.”
John simply watched, a small smile tugging at one side of his face, which made no sense to her, but at least it was something to look at beyond the expanse of bare male flesh, or the very loose grip he seemed to have on that towel.
“So,” she said again, “I guess I’ll go now.”
“I think you’re forgetting something.”
“What? Nope. I’ve got all I came in with.” Except my dignity.
“Not that kind of forgetting.” He straightened and took the two and a half steps necessary to meet her. “I was thinking of something else. Something more…personal.”
“Personal?” Was her voice squeaking? Her voice never squeaked.
“Yes.” He leaned closer, tilting his head down the two centimeters necessary to come close to hers. “Something like,” he was so close she could feel his breath over her lips, “an apology.”
“An— A what?” Her head snapped up and her fists clenched, and it was only fear that socking him would lead to a lost towel that kept her from following through on the punch that was forming. “Why?”
“It’s what one generally does after being caught breaking and entering—”
“There was no breaking. Entering, yes, but no breaking.”
“And attempting to steal—”
“Not. Steal. Not— You know what? This is a stupid conversation. One I am going to end. Now. By leaving.”
John took half a step back and, with the hand not protecting his modesty, gestured to the door.
Shaking her head, Jagati yanked the thing open and was out in the passageway before she could do something she really regretted, like slugging her captain.
Since her brain refused to settle on what “worse” was, she decided to forget the entire affair.
It was time to relieve Eitan at the helm, anyway.