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Rory slammed into his cabin—which looked as if it had been torn apart in a search because, oh, right, it had—and toed off his boots. These he kicked aside so they ended up in the general direction of the closet, next to the pile of laundry Galileo or his minions (and how did one go about finding minions anyway) had pulled from the inset hamper.
Near to snarling with irritation, he yanked down his suspenders and stripped the damp shirt straight over his head, tossing it onto the mound of rumpled clothes.
As if I’d be daft enough to hide the calculator with the dirty knickers.
He spun towards the head, avoiding looking at the ruin of his bed or the tipped-over inkwell on the desk blotter and drawers flung to the deck.
Twenty minutes, he thought. Ten, even. Just long enough to get out of the cold wet clothes and into a hot, wet shower, and then, maybe, once he’d sloughed the muck of the night off himself, he could face…
“Rory, we have to— Oh...ah… Hmmm.”
He looked over his shoulder to see Jinna frozen halfway through the cabin door.
The cabin door he’d neglected to lock, because no one ever came into his room without knocking. Or ever, really.
He set a hand on the bathroom’s doorsill and stared at the basin. “Can I help you?” he asked, not caring that his voice chill because, smog it, he truly had needed those few minutes.
“I’m sorry,” she said, her voice sounding oddly hollow to him. “I didn’t realize you’d be…” The sentence trailed off and he now looked over his shoulder and he saw her eyes were fixed on his back or, more accurately, the marks on it.
All twenty-nine of them.
“It’s fine,” he told her, turning so she’d not have to look on the mass of scars.
“No it isn’t,” she said, blinking hard. “What they did to you? What Rand did to you? And to John, and to Quinn and his company? It’s not fine.”
Now he blinked. “I meant, it’s fine that you’ve come barging into my room.”
“I didn’t barge—yes, I did,” she backtracked, her eyes dropping. “I wanted to apologize for not saying something about Liam’s father, before. I just didn’t want you to—”
“To what?” The words burst out as he found himself unable to contain the hurt. “Didn’t want me to what? Care? Be there for you? What?”
“This.” Her eyes shot up, snapping. “I didn’t want you to be—this,” she said as she gestured at him. “All...snippy.”
“I am not snippy,” he said…snippily. “What I am is angry.”
“And I didn’t want you to be that, either!”
“Well, pity it is that you can’t always have what you want!”
Her hands closed into fists at her sides. “It’s not like I—”
“You never said a word,” he cut her off, his voice so low it hurt to speak. “Mia says it’s been months that smogging bastard’s been after your babe and you never told me. Not one word, not one letter, not a single ping on the radio. Why? Did you think I’d not come?”
“No,” she said. She shook her head once, with an expression he remembered of old. Chin tilted up, eyes cool… The pride of Pride. “I knew if I called, you’d come.”
The jolt of her words scored as deep as the whip scored his flesh back in the day, so it was a moment before he could speak again. “But you didn’t.”
“No,” she said again.
“Because you didn’t want me to come?”
“No,” she said for the third time, “I didn’t.” Her gray eyes were enigmatic as a Campbell mist. “Can you think why?”
Because you’re stubborn? Because you’re convinced there’s naught you can’t handle on your own? Because you know how I feel and can’t return it? “Because I’m not Liam?”
“Because,” she said, her voice suddenly thick, “you don’t know the answer to that question.”
And because he didn’t—he truly did not—he could think of nothing to say as she turned and left the room, shutting the door behind her as she went.
In the corridor outside Rory’s cabin, Jinna once again recalled that night in the Rigging, over a year ago.
She remembered Rory leaving and Liam taking her hand to lead her from the crowds.
She remembered Liam’s kindness, and the warmth of his touch.
She remembered the sadness in those moss-green eyes as he’d said, “I’m not him.”
And she remembered, with an ache that went down to her bones, the kiss, and what came after when she’d said, “I know.”
And most of all, she remembered how her hand had brushed over his cheek as she added, “Neither am I.”
“You know what you are?”
At Jagati's question, John looked up from the baking dish he’d been inspecting for cracks. He’d only just retrieved it from the floor—Galileo’s people had been exceedingly vigorous in their search of the Errant. “I’m quite confident you’re about to tell me.”
“You are a self-sacrificing, honor-blind moron with a martyr complex who won’t be happy until he gets himself killed!”
“Put that way, I sound like an over-achiever.” He set the dish on the table and ducked down under it to collect the pieces of a broken mug.
An inarticulate sound emerged from Jagati’s throat. Either that or Quinn’s draco had stowed away on the Errant.
“I’m not kidding.” She ducked down as well so they were both under the table, wedged between the chairs John had recently righted.
“Have a care of that shard,” he told her, reaching for the broken bit of crockery before she could rest her hand on it.
“See?” She waved that hand around instead and whacked a chair leg. “Damn it…that’s what I’m talking about. Here I am yelling at you—”
“I’m deeply aware of that.”
“—and you’re all, don’t cut your pinky, dear.”
“I don’t believe I said anything of the sort.”
“You’re watching out for me, even when I’m ready to finish the job Quinn started and throttle your over-principled neck until you’re blue in the face!” Absently, she retrieved a tin of tea and a lone chopstick.
Since they’d been short a chopstick for over a week, John didn’t think its presence on the floor was related to the search. “I fail to understand how you routinely find fault with my watching out for you,” he said. Now he’d his hands full of broken mug, he eased back from under the table and straightened.
“I don’t find fault with that.” She popped up on her side of the table.
He looked at her.
“Okay, I do find fault with it, but that’s not why I’m yelling at you this time.”
“Ah, well, then, carry on with whatever it is you are yelling at me for this time.” As he spoke, he carried the mug’s detritus over to the trash niche and dumped the bits.
“How can you not know why I’m yelling at you?” she yelled. “When, for the I’ve-lost-track-how-many-times, I come along to find someone trying to kill you, and you not doing a smogging thing to stop yourself being killed?”
“Not all of them were trying to kill—”
“Kill, maim, damage.” She waved her hands and almost poked herself with the chopstick. “You know what I mean.”
“I do,” he said, crossing over to remove the offending utensil, lest she do serious harm to herself.
“Stop that.” She batted at him. “Stop taking care of me.”
“If I did that, would you stop taking care of me?”
“I don’t take care—”
“Would you walk into a situation where I was being killed, maimed, or damaged and just let it happen?”
“What? No. Of course not.”
He looked at her, one eyebrow raised.
She glared at him, both eyebrows lowered. “I’m just saying—again—that Nasa was not your fault. You are not the one who killed those soldiers. I know it. Eitan knows it. Hells, even Quinn knows it, now, so what makes it so impossible for you to accept that on that one day there was a bigger dog—a bigger, rabid dog—and that day the big, rabid dog won?” Her voice lowered, though he’d not say it became soft. “You did everything you could to stop Rand. It is not on you it wasn’t enough.”
“Perhaps not,” he murmured, though in fact he was still processing everything they’d learned from Quinn. Knowing Rand’s motive, or what Rand considered a motive, provided some clarity. But did knowing why a thing happened make what happened any more forgivable? No matter the underlying cause, his ‘ship had been used as a murder weapon and his crew made accessories to the crime.
“You’re thinking,” he heard Jagati say. “Stop that.”
“Now that is asking the impossible.” He turned away to put the tea in its proper cabinet and the chopstick in the sink with the rest of the surviving kitchenware. “You’ve never willingly taken to command,” he said, turning on the water, pleased to see it running hot, and tossed a handful of crystals from the soap canister into the basin with the dishes.
“What does that have to do with—” She gritted her teeth. “No, I haven’t.”
“Which is understandable,” he said, turning the spigot to the right so it could fill the rinse basin.
Joining him at the sink, she snapped a towel from its hook on the wall. He almost smiled. She really did have acerbic down to a science. “Because with command comes the acceptance that every life lost is on you—”
“That’s complete aurochs sh—”
“It’s the truth,” he cut in, digging through the water until he found the sponge and, once he did, applied it to one of the plates he’d rescued from the compost bin—an act of pure spite on the searcher’s part. “An uncomfortable truth, but there it is. And there’s another truth,” he continued. “A corollary to the first, that the life of the captain is held in higher value than that of her crew.” He slid the plate into the rinse water and looked at Jagati. “I imagine that’s what really kept you from ever accepting the captain’s chair, the fact others would die for you.”
“Stop turning this back on me,” she said, automatically retrieving the plate and starting to dry it. “I’m not the one who’d allow myself to be murdered because of some misplaced sense of responsibility.”
“I just finished explaining why it isn’t misplaced.” He dredged the bowl he’d been washing in the soapy water before moving it to the rinse. “But for you, well…”
“Well, what?” As his voice trailed off, she set the plate on the counter and pulled out the bowl.
“Let’s just say I don’t believe you’ll ever be comfortable with the idea of someone else placing a higher value on your life than you do,” this he said to the chip on the mug he was washing. “Possibly because, as far as I’ve seen, you value your own life at a pin’s fee. Shakespeare,” he explained at her confused glare. “You remember, from when I took you to see Hamlet?”
“I remember sleeping through most if it.” She turned her scowl down to the bowl “What is it even supposed to mean?”
“It’s supposed to—it does mean that I have never seen anyone more likely to throw herself in front of the arrow, whether there’s something to be gained by it or not.” He looked up to see she’d gone still, the bowl dripping in one hand and the towel hanging limp in the other, her face unreadable. “It means,” he said to that expressionless mask, “perhaps you’re right, and I shouldn’t allow myself to be blamed for what Rand did, but by the same quarter star, perhaps you should accept that your life has more worth than you give it.”
Still she didn’t move, nor did her expression change.
“Any road,” he said as he turned his attention back to the dishes, “whatever your thoughts, the answer is no, I will not stop taking care of you, if only because you can’t be bothered to take care of yourself.” With that he dipped the mug into the rinse and held it out to her.
Jagati looked at the mug, then at the bowl in her hand, then at John.
In the end, he supposed he was lucky she decided to throw the bowl into the bulkhead instead of his face—though he imagined this was only because the sound of ceramic breaking was more satisfying than the dull thud of a bowl to the nose.
By the time an unusually cross Rory relieved him at the helm, Eitan was more than ready to take the rest Tiago and his crewmates tried to force him to earlier.
On entering his quarters, however, he found his bed in a less-than-welcoming state.
And his desk…
Not a surprise, nor a hardship for a man who’d spent years sleeping under the moons, or inside a cage.
Still, looking on the wreckage, he felt what little energy remained slipping away, like the edges of a waking dream.
Closing the door behind him, he unbuckled Rory’s spring-blade and set it on one of his emptied shelves—the last thing he wanted was to stab himself in his sleep—and dropped heavily onto the deck, to lean against the bed’s frame. Here he sat, staring blankly at the books strewn over the floor, the desk empty of everything but his sword, which should have been hanging on the wall above, and his clothes, scattered over the deck.
His head tilted on noticing a shirt near his right foot, the sleeve of which had ended up half-wrapped around the bottle of a Tendo red he favored, as if cradling the wine.
Idly he reached out and lifted the bottle, holding it up to the light gleaming from the bulkhead.
Maybe just a sip.
The murmur of a thought had him tucking the bottle under his left arm and working out the cork, which he set aside. With his hand now free, he raised the bottle and took a long, welcome swallow.
No one made wine like the Keepers of Tendo. The cool, moist climate and rich hillside soil provided grapes the rest of Fortune envied, and for good reason.
A little more couldn’t hurt.
Without thinking, he took a second drink, and then a third.
Enough, he told himself with a shake of the head he immediately regretted, as it set the room to spinning.
With exaggerated care he set the bottle on the deck at his side before retrieving the cork and putting it back in the bottle.
Except he didn’t, because the cork missed the bottle entirely, and Eitan’s hand slid down to hit the deck.
“Tired,” he muttered, wondering why his tongue tasted like cotton.
He tried again to cork the bottle, and again missed.
“Smog it,” he said, dropping the swarming cork and slumping sideways with a dull thud. To his befogged brain, the hard bamboo decking felt like the thin mattresses used by the Chandrasekhar dormitories.
“Trust me,” Galileo said, stepping from the bathroom to crouch at Eitan’s side, “the deck is more comfortable than those mattresses ever were.”
Which was wrong, because Leo shouldn’t be there.
“Of course I should,” Galileo said. “Your captain invited me, when he stole my calculator.”
No, Eitan thought.
“Yes,” Galileo said as Eitan’s eyes, heavy with the morph Galileo had slipped into the wine, finally closed.