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To Jinna, stepping inside Kit’s Diner after so long outside was like being slapped in the face with a warm blanket; a blanket redolent with the scents of spices, maple, and bacon.
A glance to her left showed Rory’s brown eyes widening with appreciation, but she’d never known Rory McCabe to be shy around food. Where he put it, she’d no idea, because he had the physique of a scarecrow.
And right now the scarecrow was shaking off the rain, so she stepped out of splash range and turned her attention to the diner and considered it pure luck there were no other customers in the place. The tables and booths on the left side of the room were empty and bussed, and the counter, with its rotating stools, gleamed under the overhead crystal lamps.
Better still, she saw no sign of Sol, the diner’s owner.
Both circumstances meant Rory would have the chance to dry off and stay as long as he wished.
“Banking holiday, luv,” Luis, the day cook, was shedding his apron as he came around the counter, the prosthetic leg he’d earned during the battle of Santandar putting a slight hitch in his step. “Been slower than sap in Treicember, so Sol sent Rian home and told me to head out when you came in.”
“You’re not planning to leave Jinna alone for the night, surely?”
“Ignore him.” Jinna sent Rory a look before slipping out of her coat and hanging it and the umbrella on one of the hooks provided for the purpose. “What’s on the special’s menu?”
“There’s the butternut squash soup on the stove. Fixings for Keeper’s sandwiches and plenty of batter left for griddle cakes.” As he spoke, Luis studied Rory, who was trying to shake the water out of his boots.
Though built like an aurochs driver, Luis preferred his partners on the thin side. The better to feed them up, he’d explained to Jinna once.
“I’ve already swabbed the kitchen,” he continued, “filled the condiments, and done what dishes we had, so you’ll not be at wit’s end with the closing.”
“You’re a queen’s dream,” Jinna told him.
“A burden,” Luis said, “but somehow I manage.” He grinned and, with a last appreciative glance Rory-wards, flung on his coat and stepped out into the night.
“Nice fellow,” Rory commented, giving up on the boots and vigorously scrubbing his hands through his hair.
Jinna shook her head at his obtuseness and looped the apron over her brown kimono blouse. As she reached around to tie the apron back, she felt a little quiver from within and let out a gasp.
“What is it?” Rory asked, already at her side. “Are you not well? Maybe you should sit down.”
“I’m fine.” She sidestepped his efforts to push her towards the counter stools. “It’s nothing. Well, not nothing, it’s the baby. Here.” She grabbed his hand and pressed it over the swell of her belly.
He blanched, and the pallor set off the bloodied abrasion at his temple, causing Jinna to regret the impulsive gesture.
Then the flutters increased, and his expression went from shock to warmth and his palm against her side relaxed.
Under the twin pressures of the child within and the man without, Jinna experienced a long, slow turning of her heart.
Then the flutter subsided and, in a breath, the light in his eyes shuttered, and his hand fell away.
“That’s—grand,” he said, stepping back. “Liam would have loved it.”
Which Jinna knew to be true. Liam would have loved it. He’d already loved everything about becoming a father.
“Take this.” She turned away and grabbed a towel Luis had left on the counter and flung it to Rory. “Go to the bath and dry off. I’ll get some griddle cakes going.” She’d learned years ago Rory had a weakness for them.
“I’d be fine with the soup,” he protested, but by then she was already around the counter and diving into the kitchen, before she punched him. Or before he could see the first tear spill.
“Damn you, McCabe…”
* * *
Almost a year before coming to Rory’s rescue in an alley, Jinna stood in the Rigging with Lt. Liam Del, watching John Pitte drag Rory out of the pub. She didn’t know what it said about her that she still experienced an uncomfortable lurch in her chest whenever Rory McCabe walked away.
As she once again negotiated with her obstinate heart, the boisterous pub seemed to quiet around her. To Jinna, it felt like a bubble of silence pressing at her—similar to the way her ears felt during rapid ascents on the York before the pressurization caught up and the bubble popped.
Except this time the bubble didn’t pop.
This time it held fast as she looked from the door through which Rory had departed to the man at her side, who was also staring at the door. As she watched, Liam’s green eyes, so startling in the warm brown face, turned to meet hers.
Alone in a bubble of quiet, they looked at one another.
In silence he removed the pint from her hand and set it on the bar, then used that same hand to draw her to her feet and, in that same silence, they weaved together through the mass of tables.
As they passed through the crowds, many from the York, she heard hollow shouts and ribald comments likely aimed at the two of them, but those words were on the other side of the bubble, so she paid them no heed.
Then they stepped outside, and the cool air slapped her in the face and she turned to face him.
Brilliant, handsome, good-hearted Liam, looking down at her, his moss-green eyes filled with an understanding so deep it hurt to see as he said, “I’m not him.”
And then she tilted her chin up and he leaned down and, after several long, soft moments they parted, and in those moss-green eyes she saw her own reflected as she replied, “I know…”
* * *
As Jinna wrestled with her feelings in the kitchen, Rory stood inside Kit’s closet-sized bathroom, wishing he could wipe his own sentiments away as easily as he did the remaining drops of water.
Looking in the small mirror hung over the basin, he mopped up the last of the damp before allowing himself to focus on the pale face, shadowed by three days’ growth of stubble and marred by the abrasion Leo’s muzzle had left at his temple.
Not much in the way of wounds— he’d known worse—but it stung. Almost as much as the feeling of Jinna’s child moving under his hands, and knowing neither the babe, nor its mother, could ever be his.
Meeting his dark-brown gaze in the mirror, he saw, briefly, a hint of green.
“Damn you, Liam…”
* * *
Four and a half years ago, Rory McCabe was laboring in the bowels of a troop carrier when he heard a diffident throat clearing, followed by an equally diffident query.
“Excuse me, would you be Airman McCabe?”
Rory blinked tears from his eyes— breather or no, the fumes of unprocessed bilge stung—and looked up from the bacteria channel he’d just replenished. “Aye?” he replied, then blinked again and straightened to offer a fist to the heart. “I mean, yes, sir.”
“Splendid.” The lieutenant who’d spoken dipped his masked face down. “I’ve been looking for you.” He’d come to a halt at the edge of the upper walkway, one hand resting on the bulkhead ladder.
Rory swallowed and felt his face heat under the officer’s regard.
Had the lieutenant been told of Rory’s set-to with Sgt. Coretti? It was this morning’s row that had resulted in Rory being sent to the bact-tanks for another shift of scut work, where he’d spent the better part of that shift changing filters and plotting the best way to jump ‘ship at the earliest possible opportunity.
After all, what harm in adding desertion to a record already besmirched with dereliction of duty?
No matter he’d followed every order to the letter since joining the York, or put in his best efforts, even down here in the bact-tanks (his second home) and no matter the D&D charges were false as a Midasian promise.
To the crew of the York, Rory was an irredeemable scunner and a disgrace to the uniform—as Sgt. Coretti had been only too pleased to remind him that morning.
“Captain Pitte might have fallen for your dodger tricks, but I came up on the streets myself, so you can take your vital insights on Midasian tactics down to the bact-tanks and stow them where they belong.”
Hence the reason he now stood on the narrow walk atop the primary bact-tanks, contemplating desertion. “Looking for me, sir?” he asked, his voice sounding hollow in the breather.
“That I have, Airman. I don’t imagine we’ve met,” the lieutenant added, “bloody ‘ship is huge—well, troop carriers are—but that’s beside the point.”
There’s a point? Rory thought.
“I’m Lt. Del, the York’s third officer.”
“Yes, sir.” As he answered, Rory slipped the spanner he still held into the tool belt buckled over his coveralls. “I know.”
“Of course you do.” The warm-colored skin left visible by the mask crinkled around Del’s green eyes. “Forgive the interruption, but I was hoping you might join me for a chat?”
“Yes, sir,” Rory’s reply was automatic and, despite his worries, he found himself smiling at the other young man.
“Good. Grand,” Del said. “But perhaps we could speak outside?”
“Copy that, sir,” Rory said, wasting no time climbing up to join the officer, who turned and led the way aft, to the secondary tank bay. From there they passed through the port hatch, where both men stowed their breathers on hooks provided for the purpose. From there they moved into the port companionway and continued on to the York’s aft gangplank and out onto the plain where they’d moored early that morning.
Here, under a leaden March sky, the chill of Stolichnaya’s spring fell over them like a damp veil.
“There she is.” Lt. Del’s voice drew his attention to the ristocratic officer who, up close and unmasked, he saw to be close to his own age.
“The Odysseus.” Del nodded to his right.
Rory, following Del’s gaze, looked across the gray-green sedge of the Stolichnayan plain to where a Midasian airship lay.
Her envelope had been staved in and lay aground, with the damaged section making a crater in the midst. Next to the envelope the gondola rested at a forty-five-degree angle, looking as if the airship had made a crash landing.
But as Rory—and any member of the Kodiak’s crew—would attest, where Midasians were concerned, appearances deceived.
“Captain Sanchez wants her repaired and flown back to Epsilon,” Del said.
“That would be a mistake.”
“Your sergeant told me you’d say that.” Del turned his green eyes on Rory. “She also told me not to listen. She said you were a troublemaker, a hand-me-down from the Kodiak after the Nasa incident.”
“And yet you’re here, talking to me,” Rory said, drawn in despite himself. “And I see none of our crew crawling over yon wreckage.”
“Not yet,” Del said. “And not at all, if you can convince me and I can convince Captain Sanchez they shouldn’t.”
Rory looked from the fallen airship to the waiting officer. “If I may, sir, how did you learn of my opinion in the first place?”
Del’s lips twitched. “I was passing by the barracks room and overheard your, ah…your discussion with Sergeant Coretti.” He glanced at Rory. “She doesn’t like you much.”
“She doesn’t like me at all.”
“Which is her right, but it is not her place to ignore a threat to crew safety,” Del said with a quiet fierceness that surprised Rory. “Which brings us back to the Odysseus, and why you believe it a danger.”
“Not believe,” Rory said with his own firm certainty. “I’m certain of it, just as I’m certain Midasians do not allow their vessels to fall into enemy hands. Ever.” He studied the downed vessel a moment before speaking again. “Adidans, Exxonians, Illryians—every other Coalition State or Protectorate has been known to surrender a ‘ship on some occasion—but never the Midasians.”
“I grant you that’s how they’ve behaved in the past,” Del offered, “but surely there must be an exception to every rule?”
“Right.” Rory glanced to his left. The lieutenant had the voice and bearing of a risto, but unlike most of that class, his expression was open and curious, seemingly welcoming an opinion. “Tell me this. Have you ever seen a ‘ship taken by the black fire?”
“No,” Del said, taken aback. “I thought black fire was a myth.”
“It isn’t,” Rory told him. “I’ve seen it myself, when the Kodiak bested the RMS Revenant over Carrefour. We took out her cannon, two of her engines, and Captain Pitte called for their surrender. He’d not even closed the transmission before the Revenant’s captain loosed the black fire on her own ‘ship. It was like a living thing, that fire,” he continued, his expression bleak. “Black as the name, too—an oily black that crawled over the sides of the gondola, and then the balloon. Some of the Revenant crew jumped rather than be taken by it.” Rory shook his head, hoping to clear it of the memory. “If the Revenant’s captain could do that to her own vessel, aloft and with the crew still aboard, do ye not think the captain of the Odysseus would have taken time to destroy her, having come to ground in enemy territory?”
He glanced at the lieutenant, and found him still looking at the downed Odysseus, his features thoughtful.
Which was when it hit Rory. “You’ve concerns of your own about that ‘ship, don’t you? Sir.”
“I do.” Del looked at Rory. “I had them as soon as I heard the name of the airship. Odysseus,” he said to the enlisted’s unspoken question. “The name of a famous grifter back on Earth.”
“Never heard of him.” Rory scratched at his cheek. “What was his game?”
“The Trojan Horse.” Del studied the airship another moment before clapping Rory on the shoulder, surprising the airman no end. “Come along, then,” he said. “Time to convince Sanchez that the Midasians are up to no good.”
And so they did, though Sanchez demanded more proof than Rory’s experience and Liam’s learning, so both men, along with a demolitions specialist from the York’s Airborne division, set out to reconnoiter the Odysseus.
Three soldiers, virtual strangers, boarded the enemy vessel to either prove their theory or return (at least in Rory’s case) in disgrace. But once inside, it didn’t take long for Rory to discover a smuggler’s hide built under the deck of the bridge, crammed full of sealed casks.
It was the demolition’s specialist who discovered and disarmed the pressure trigger that would have ignited a line of micro-grenades and blown the casks—and anyone nearby—to tiny bits.
And Liam, with his university education, recognized the symbols etched on the sides of the casks as ancient Terran signs for a biohazard.
“You were right,” Liam said to Rory as the three soldiers, no longer strangers, hiked back to the York under a lightly falling snow. “If we’d attempted salvage, we may well have seen the next Midasian Fever epidemic.”
All three paused and looked back at the fallen Odysseus, each remembering stories of the Midasian Fever that had devastated Fortune, years before they’d been born.
“I thought that disarm was brilliant,” Rory said, looking to the Corpsman at his side as they continued back to the York.
“It really was,” Corpsman Jinna Pride said with typical Fordian bluntness. She tossed her red-gold braid back over her shoulder and glanced at Liam. “And you’re a smogging genius, sir,” she said, beaming at both men with eyes gray as the mists over the Campbell Isles.
Rory, caught in those mists, tripped over the sedge, causing Jinna to laugh as she caught his arm.
For a brief, bonnie second, he hoped that laugh, that grasp, might be the beginning of a story.
But as he straightened, he caught Liam watching, and in the other man’s eyes spied the first stirrings of longing, so Rory took a deliberate step back from the woman, and from the narrative.
And it wasn’t all bad, for though he lost one story he gained another, a story that included two good friends, and the respect of the York’s captain and crew.
And then, at long last, the war he’d grown up in came to an end, and at the first opportunity, Rory resigned his post. He did so in part to join Jagati and Captain Pitte on the Errant, but also to remove himself from the story of Liam and Jinna, which had no room for a heart-sore third.
Then one day, some months after Rory joined the Errant, Liam met him in The Frayed Rigging and asked him to look after a pregnant Jinna while he, now First Officer, flew an exploratory mission to the Amazons.
“It’d be a weight off my mind,” Liam said, leaning over the small, sticky table they’d claimed, “knowing it’s you who’d be looking out for her, for our child.”
And Rory, despite the knife twisting in his heart, said yes.
Later, when he recalled the conversation, he would remember sensing an underlying sadness in Liam’s smile, but it was easy to believe it was his own sadness, his own guilt, coloring the memory.
He also believed both the sadness and guilt would fade once Liam returned.
Except Liam didn’t return because, not six weeks after the York shipped out, news came the airship had gone down in the Amazons, lost with all hands, leaving Jinna alone and Rory, who should never have said yes, to keep his promise.
* * *
Jinna had the tea brewed, the cakes plated with a bit of bacon, and the syrup warmed by the time Rory reappeared.
He thought she looked worn.
She thought he looked hollow.
Because of this, he invited her to join him at his table to share the meal, and, because the diner remained empty, she agreed.
Once they’d cleaned the plate of even the last drop of syrup, Rory sat back and asked after her health, after the baby, how her flat was serving her and if she’d made any new friends—with all the care of an older brother.
It took everything she had not to kick him.
“I have friends,” she told him, tucking her feet back under the booth to be safe. “Keeper Thalia’s been kind, introducing me around on my service days.”
“You’re still performing service?” He frowned, one brow crinkled and the other rising high into his bangs. “I’d have thought you’d be excused by now.”
“Light gardening in one of the agricenters,” she said. “I’m at least two months away from being completely useless. And friend-wise there’s always Luis, and Mia comes round more often these days. You remember Mia?”
“I do. But I don’t know as I like you keeping company with a dodger.”
“You mean a dodger who’s not you?” she asked. “Mia’s a good person. Besides, she needs a friend as much as I do.”
He didn’t appear convinced, but he also didn’t press. And since closing time was nearing, Jinna rose to finish the side work at the counter. Maybe once the diner was closed, she could convince Rory to walk her home and…
Behind her the diner’s door swung open and a chill breeze touched the back of her neck.
Resigned, she turned to see to the new customers but found instead the very friend she’d been speaking of.
“Honey from the Keepers,” she said with a genuine smile for Mia.
Still at his table, Rory looked up to see Mia the dodger enter, and at her side an infantryman in a battered coat. The soldier glanced his way and Rory nodded to the other man, then turned his attention to his tea, so it wouldn’t seem as if he were listening to Jinna’s conversation.
He greeted Mia as she and her companion passed on the way to a table, after which his eyes drifted back to Jinna and rested there until she disappeared behind the counter.
Enough, he thought, disgusted with himself. Fumbling into his jacket, Rory found a damp wad of cash he’d meant to slip into her pocket whilst she wasn’t paying attention, but now tucked it under the plate and rose from the table as Jinna came by, full pot in hand.
“No more tea, then?” she asked as he passed her by.
“Thanks, but no,” he said, shuffling on towards the door. He was almost to the entrance when…
“Hold up, Rory,” Jinna said.
He froze, turned. “Is there a problem?”
“You left too much money. Again.”
“That I didn’t.” He stuffed his hands in his pockets as she tried to shove the damp bills into them.
“It’s twice what you owe.” She gave up and waved the bills in his face, which in spite of everything, made him grin.
“Consider it a donation to that wee one’s nappy fund.”
“Ach, will you look at the time.” He glanced at the wall clock over the counter. “Best be off. Captain Pitte will be pacing at the gangplank, he will.” He backed up another step.
“You’re using John as your excuse?” Jinna choked back a laugh as he stumbled a few more steps towards the door. “It’s still your money.”
“Best keep it for me, then,” he told her, “until I’ve need of it.”
Then, before Jinna could protest further, he put his hand on the door’s handle and pulled… at the same time turning to walk out so that the opening door smacked him in the forehead, causing him to see, he was sure, a talon of dracos flying around his head. “I’m all right!” he called, shaking the dracos away and, before anyone could say anything, stumbled out into the chill damp that, he thought, was far too appropriate to his current mood.