Sitting at the bar of A Fine Mess, one year past, John was staring at Jagati. “Have you gone crystal mad?" he asked, unable to determine if the buzzing in his ears came from the murmuring crowd or his own blood pressure rising to dangerous levels. “You can’t buy an airship.”
Jagati, with the aid of Martin’s dishtowel, attempted to clean John’s whiskey from her leathers and didn’t even look up. “Why not?” she asked, wrinkling her nose—John presumed at the eau de cheap booze rising from her sleeve. “Keepers, but you weren’t kidding about this stuff. I think it’s stained my jacket.”
“Please,” John said as he held up a hand, “let’s at least try to stay on topic. How did you manage to buy an airship? I don’t recall the Air Corps salary being that generous.”
“It isn’t,” she admitted. “And we don’t own it yet, but,” she said, giving up on the jacket and retrieving her glass of scotch, “Rory’s convinced the Errant’s current owner to hold off any other buyers until you’ve seen it.”
“Rory? Other buyers? I’ve seen it?” John’s right eye started to twitch. Is this what a stroke feels like? “Why do I have to see it? And where is Rory?” And why are you buying airships together? Not that he begrudged either a jot of happiness, but, well, this was Jagati, and Rory was…Rory.
Jagati held up a “just a minute” finger and took a sip of her scotch. Then she made a face. “You’re sure this is the good stuff?”
“Right. Okay. So, in reverse order, Rory’s waiting for us to join him.”
“At the airfield?”
“At The Frayed Rigging.”
Hearing the name of the Nikean pub most frequented by members of the Air Corps, John’s expression went from confused to closed. “Tell him hello from me.”
Her expression went from amused to stubborn. “There’s no reason you can’t tell him hello yourself.”
“I’d prefer not to inflict my presence on the rest of the Corps, thank you.”
“Don’t call me that.”
The denial was so flat and dead it twisted in Jagati’s innards. She could have taken it if he’d shouted, if he’d been mad about it, but this? “Fine,” she said, “that’s fine, but there’s not a single one of your old crew who blames you for what happened at Nasa.”
“Laz does,” John said, referring to the young man who’d accosted him, before adding, so softly she barely heard it, “I do.”
“Keepers save me from honorable men.” Jagati tossed the rest of her drink back and slammed the glass on the bar before leaning both elbows on it and craning her head around to face him. “Listen, the whole thing was a rancid deal, comb to honey, no one’s saying different, but I don’t see how crawling away—”
“I did not crawl—”
“—into a hole and attempting the world’s slowest form of suicide with this poison disguised as liquor—”
“You know, I can hear you,” Martin called over from where he was pouring out a shot of purported whiskey.
Her eyes snapped up to glare at Martin. “And am I wrong about your booze?”
Martin sighed. “No.”
“Then shut it.” She turned back to John but found instead an empty stool. She continued to turn until she saw the broad, wool-clad shoulders pressing through the crowd by the door. “Smog it. Pitte!” She jumped up, with some pressing and sidling of her own, and got out the door soon enough to see him striding up the cracked sidewalk. Her long-legged stride easily caught up to her old CO before he reached the first corner. “I’m not letting you run away.”
“I don’t believe I am running,” he pointed out, continuing to walk rather quickly.
“Anyway,” she said, keeping his insane pace, “about Rory and the Rigging…”
He came to a halt. “Jagati.”
“Pitte.” She stopped also. “Don’t be an ass.” She paused, thinking. “Don’t be more of an ass than you already are.”
He blinked. “If this is your idea of persuasion—”
“Just shut up and listen!” She raised a finger, but at his look, didn’t follow through with the poke. “It’s what we always promised ourselves, isn’t it? When the war ended, we’d meet at The Frayed Rigging and drink ourselves under the table?”
“That was years ago, when I was still part of that we you’re talking about.”
“Jagati.” He shook his head and started walking again. “I’m glad the war is over,” he told her as she made haste to keep up, “but it’s not my victory to celebrate.”
“Why?” she asked, stepping around in front of him and walking backwards. “Because you were mag-leved out of your command by some bent general? It wasn’t your fault. Everyone on the Kodiak knows it wasn’t your fault. It was Rand’s call to fire on those deserters.”
“Alleged deserters,” he corrected. “It was his order to murder the alleged deserters.” And even saying it, the words were bitter on his tongue. As bitter as they’d been all those years ago, at his court martial.
“Right,” she agreed, coming to a halt in front of him, forcing him to stop as well. “Alleged deserters.”
“You’re only saying that because you want me to listen.”
“Yes. So shut up and listen and for five minutes forget about Rand and Nasa and come to the Rigging for one drink. Rory’s waiting for us.”
He stared at her, but could see no subterfuge, only the simple invitation. He looked at the sky, which predicted more rain before the suns set, then to the listing remains of a school, destroyed during the last blitz. “Fine,” he said, looking at Jagati. “One drink. But,” he added, holding up a warning finger, “absolutely no talk of plans or airships, or captains or—plans.”
“Sir, yes, sir,” she replied, pounding her chest in a salute so vigorous John half expected she’d cracked a rib.
“I’m not joking,” he said as they started to walk again.
“That is to say, I’m utterly serious about this,” he asserted.
“I understand,” she said. “No ‘ships. No plans. My word to comb.”
“Because I’m done with command,” he insisted.
“So you said,” she agreed, being very, very careful not to smile.