It came as no surprise Mia didn’t want to leave her friend, but Rory’s assurance that Quinn was on the way to recovery, along with John’s suggestion Jinna might want some company in the galley, reassured her somewhat.
But it wasn’t until she looked up to the starboard pod, where the draco kept vigil, and received a dip of the head from the small creature, that she consented to leave Quinn’s side.
Even under the current circumstances, John found himself delighted by the exchange.
He was less delighted to see Rory popping up to follow them. “What was that you said to Jagati, about Killian Del?” he asked, angling around to face John and Mia both.
“That toxic bastard,” Mia spat into the tarmac, “he thinks Jinna’s babe should be his.”
“Sounds like him,” Rory muttered, glancing at John. “Half the reason Liam joined up was to get away from his da.”
“Jinna said Liam was nothing like the old codger,” Mia said with a nod.
“Which is all well and good.” John continued to usher the girl along. “But…”
“He’s been after Jinna for months,” Mia continued over him.
“Months?” Rory asked, his expression going still. “How?”
“Wouldn’t take no for an answer,” Mia affirmed. “But tonight he stole the hive, comin’ into Kit’s, loaded with muscle and meanin’ to take Jinna to his house and keep ‘er there until she had the baby,” Mia said. “Can you feature it?”
“No,” Rory said, looking up the gangplank, as if he could view Jinna inside the Errant. “I can’t.”
“Neither could Gideon.” Mia’s head bobbed in agreement. “You should’a seen ‘im! He knocked the honey outta all three Ohmdahls before they figured they was working for a toxic—”
“Bastard, yes,” John said, attempting to wrestling the conversation back to the present.
“I need to see to Jinna,” Rory said, starting up the gangplank.
“You need to see to Colonel—to Quinn.” John stepped in front of him. “Then you need to see to that aft pod, or we won’t be able to lift off, and if we can’t lift off,” he continued before the fire in Rory’s eyes became an argument, “Jinna will still be on the ground, in Nike, where Minister Del can reach her.”
Rory’s jaw twitched and his eyes, which always seemed to grow larger when he got angry, continued to spark, but he jerked his head once and turned back to where Eitan crouched next to Gideon.
John let out a foggy huff of breath and turned to Mia. “Shall we?” he asked.
She shrugged and started up the gangplank. He followed, and found himself hard-pressed to keep up with the nimble street thief as she sprang up the companionway.
“She’s a nice ‘ship,” Mia offered as they headed up the corridor towards the sounds of water on the boil, “excepting it looks like the Coalfarts dropped a plasma barrel on it.”
“Yes,” he said as the tea kettle’s whistling softened, “I’m aware.”
“Hey.” Jinna’s head popped out of the galley’s starboard door. “This place is a mess.”
“A little misunderstanding regarding a piece of cargo,” John said, following Mia.
Jinna’s head tilted. “The same cargo Galileo was after?”
“Who?” Mia asked.
“Possibly,” John said to Jinna. “You wouldn’t know him,” he told Mia.
“I hope not,” Jinna murmured, then raised her voice. “I’ve got the water going, but I can’t find the tea in,” she waved at the wreckage, “all this.”
John, having seen the galley, wasn’t surprised. “I’ll loo—”
“Books!” Mia burst out, racing forward to the stack of books John had last seen in Eitan’s arm. Stooping down, Mia sorted through them with the care and fascination of an antiques expert opening the foot locker of a First Lander.
John, recognizing a kindred spirit, joined Mia, and the look on her face as she caressed the spine of one in particular struck him like a blow. He bent over and retrieved the thick, many-times read tome, giving it a puzzled glance. “Interesting. I didn’t realize we had two of this one. I have this exact story in my quarters. Well, on the floor of my quarters,” he amended. A surreptitious glance told him Mia had almost shuttered the longing in her expression. He tapped the book against his palm as if considering some deep problem. “Bad form, keeping extra nonessentials on an airship,” he said to the dodger. “I don’t suppose you’d care to take it?”
Jinna, leaning against the bulkhead, made certain not to smile as Mia flushed and agreed to accept the book, but only as a favor, of course.
And people said she was proud.
If, by people, one meant a specific, over-tall, over-skinny Campbell.
Thinking of Rory had her casting her eyes downwards, to fall on another of the discarded books, and her brow rose as she recognized the chemistry pamphlet.
She bent over to retrieve the thin manual, but John, coming up at her side, beat her to it. “Explosives, Accelerants, and Detonators?” he read the title as he handed her the booklet. Behind him, Mia sat cross-legged on the deck, already poring over her new treasure.
“A reminder of the old days.” She tapped the booklet in her hand, as he had the Pratchett he’d just given to Mia. “Read this front to back in basic. And then back to front, and then sideways.”
“That’s right.” John folded his arms over his chest. “Rory said you were in demolitions.”
“Small hands, flexible fingers.” She held one hand up and waved. “Good for disarms.”
“And now you’re working in a diner?”
“It’s all chemistry, isn’t it? Until the soufflé explodes. Then it’s a party.”
He laughed, as she’d hoped, though the cough that followed was unpleasant. “About that tea?” she said aloud, jerking her head towards the galley.
“Of course.” He followed, but not before taking another look at Mia.
“I’m surprised you didn’t offer her the whole library,” Jinna murmured, glancing over her shoulder.
“Given her circumstances, I doubt she’d be able to keep it. I’ve learned a bit about a dodger’s life over the years,” he explained as her brows rose in question.
“Me too,” she admitted. “I still consider it a personal triumph I got Rory to teach me to pick a lock.”
“Impressive,” John said, not hiding his surprise. “He’s not one to share much of his childhood.”
“Because he didn’t really have one,” Jinna replied.
Again they looked towards the corridor, and another child grown up too fast.
John turned to Jinna. “What are the chances she’d fly with us?”
“Slim,” Jinna admitted. “I’ve been trying to get her out for months, but even if she dared walk away from her fagin, she said he’d find her, or us.” Her eyes narrowed. “I’d have liked to see him try.”
John could believe it. But he also believed Jinna had enough amoral predators in her life, so he took a different view. “Perhaps Colonel Quinn and his, ahhh, his friend…”
“Elvis,” he smiled as he echoed the draco’s name. “Perhaps they’ll be able to convince her there’s a better way.” He shrugged. Then he winced, because too many things hurt at present.
“You’re not mad at him?” Jinna asked. “Quinn?”
“Of course not,” he said, and meant it. “He has every right to his anger.”
“And you don’t?” Jinna asked.
To that, he had no response.
Nor did he, later, when Jagati came stomping back up the gangplank with Rory’s parts, the suggestion they lift off as soon as possible, and the news Gideon was awake and less inclined to commit murder.
Since lifting off required the parts, he sent her to find Rory while he, Mia, and Jinna finished the mint tea Jinna made from a packet he’d found under a chair.
Afterwards, all three made their way down the gangplank, Mia and John talking about the book and Jinna protesting she didn’t want to be any trouble.
“So you’ve said,” John told her, as he’d said before, over tea. “But lately, trouble is pretty much the Errant’s stock in trade.”
As he spoke, the port aft engine sputtered, whined, and ground to silence.
“I’m on it,” Rory shouted from somewhere within.
Mia laughed. Jinna, clearly overtired, tensed up.
“Really,” John told her. “It always works out. Eventually.”
“It’ll be fine,” Mia said with a thump to Jinna’s shoulder that made John wonder if Mia had met Jagati before tonight.
“Yes,” Jinna said. “Absolutely.”
John, however, having avoided it as long as possible, finally turned his steps and his attention to Quinn.
Eitan gave John his crooked nod and moved away, giving them some privacy.
Quinn’s brow quirked as he studied John. “So,” he said after a beat, “you’re okay?”
“Couldn’t be better,” John told him, then he shook his head. “I should have taken care of Rand. If I’d been faster... Well…” He met Quinn’s gaze. “I should have taken care of him.”
“Not to worry,” Gideon told him, and both turned to see Eitan watching. “I will.”
John took a breath to speak when the port engine sparked to life and the draco, which had been clinging to the gondola, swept down to perch on Quinn’s shoulder. Talons digging into the leather pauldron, he gave John an approximation of Jagati’s stinky eye.
“I don’t know—” John began.
“Eitan explained what happened,” Quinn cut him off, his expression hitching back to something more human—something John figured was closer to a man who’d make friends with a dodger and come to the aid of a young woman in need.
“Ah,” John said. “But still, I should…”
“I should have suspected,” Quinn said at the same time.
Both stopped, looked at one another, both wearing similar not-quite-smiles.
Quinn’s not-quite-a-smile shifted to a grimace. “Me first?”
John nodded in acceptance.
“Right. Okay… so, I should have guessed… should have known you weren’t in on it,” Quinn admitted slowly, as if attempting to explain to himself as much as John his view of their shared history. “General Rand was the only one who spoke to me after the attack, and he…” He paused before cautioning, “What I’m telling you has to stay on the down-low.”
John’s fist went to his heart. “Understood, Colonel—sorry—Mister Quinn.”
“Please” Quinn’s eyes gleamed in the running lights, “I think we’re way past the need for formalities. Call me Gideon.”
John’s lips twitched into an almost smile.
“So here’s the thing,” Quinn—Gideon—continued, idly scratching his draco’s head, to the beast’s obvious delight. “After the attack at Nasa, Rand blackmailed me into a confession.”
“What?” The question came out louder than John meant and Elvis reared up in distress. “Sorry,” he murmured to the draco, at the same time waving at Mia and Jinna with a smile that probably looked as pasted-on as it felt.
“I know.” Gideon’s chin dipped in sympathy as he soothed the draco. “It’s smogged as Earth, but it happened. He came to see me in the Kodiak’s brig, and bold as crystal threatened the lives of my surviving company and… someone else.”
John realized he was staring. “Why?” he asked. “Why would a full system general… I mean… Why?”
“I don’t know,” Gideon said, his own frustration obvious. “He said something at the time that gives me a clue but it never made any sense,” he raised a hand and ran it through his hair, wincing as he hit the place Jagati’s shooter had struck.
“Nothing Rand did on the Kodiak made sense,” John pointed out. Rory had twenty-nine scars on his back to attest to it.
“No,” Gideon agreed. “But still…” His voice trailed off and he turned his gaze out, towards Nike. “When I asked him the same question—when I asked him why—back on the Kodiak, he said I should never have touched her.”
And here, John was convinced he couldn’t hate the general more. “You’re saying he murdered five people, put you in the Barrens, tortured one of my crew, and ruined both our careers because you and his wife found each other attractive?”
“No,” Gideon replied. “I’m saying he did all those things because he believes I had some sort of relationship with his wife. I didn’t. But he either didn’t know, or didn’t care. But the comb of the matter is, Nasa was never about treason. It was personal.”
“I’m guessing it still is,” John said, eying the other man.
“Maybe just a little,” Gideon said, then at John’s pointed glance, sighed. “Or a lot.”
As he spoke, all four engines came online. Jinna and Mia came over to join them while Eitan strode down the gangplank, drawing John’s thoughts from past offenses to present crimes.
Contraband technology, amoral sensitives and a fugitive mother-to-be were more than enough to keep him occupied.
“Revenge would be simpler,” he muttered.
Gideon made a sound that might almost have been a laugh.
“What’s funny?” Jinna asked as she pulled up at their side.
John and Gideon shared a glance. “It’s—” Gideon began.
“It’s complicated,” John said at the same time.
John, Gideon, and Jinna grimaced, while Mia rolled her eyes, convincing John the dodger had either met, or was somehow distantly related to, Jagati.