“So there he was, hanging from the line, this high off the ground.” Sitting in The Frayed Rigging, back in the day, Jagati raised a hand up above her head to indicate the height, “Begging me to promise I’d tell his mama he died bravely.”
“And did you?” John asked, leaning forward over the little table to avoid another celebrant’s low-swinging mug.
“I did so promise.” Jagati let her hand drop to the table with a thud. “Right before I promised it’d be me who killed him if he didn’t unclip in the next three seconds.”
John’s mouth twitched. “I’m guessing he unclipped.”
“Of course he did.” She snorted at the memory. “Never been a fledge on the lines wasn’t more scared of me than the drop.”
“Not only the fledges,” John said. He spoke with the careful pronunciation of the supremely drunk because “just one drink” had devolved into “just one more drink,” which led, of course, to another, and another, and another.
So many, in fact that Rory—who had indeed been waiting for John and Jagati—now slumped in a drunken stupor, his light brown head pillowed on the table, oblivious to the tides of chatter flowing through The Frayed Rigging.
John thought this impressive, given how much louder and more crowded the Rigging was in comparison to A Fine Mess.
Though here the majority of clientele were in the uniform of the Colonial Air Corps, and while the air in the Rigging was as redolent with sweat and smoke as the Mess, the patina of damp wool and acrid booze gave way to that of seasoned leathers and single malt, underscored by a hint of apple from the hukkah snug at the back of the pub.
“You saying you’re scared of me?” Jagati asked, drawing his attention back to the table.
“Being of sound mind, yes,” he said with a nod. “Yes, I am.”
“Smart man.” She nodded and swirled the liquor in her glass. “But the thing is, yeah, I can be scary as… As…”
“As a big scary thing?” John suggested when she trailed off.
“Yes!” Jagati stabbed the air in agreement. “But what I’m saying is… I am saying what is… I mean, where’s the future in it?”
“Future?” John echoed the question of the night. He’d heard variations of same voiced by various uniformed types over various drinks at various tables throughout The Frayed Rigging as aeronauts of every rank pondered the imponderable—a tomorrow unburdened by war.
Around and between these deeper conversations rose the requisite toasts to comrades fallen and airships lost, and a young redhead in the uniform of the Airborne Infantry was singing a song older than Fortune to the accompaniment of a mandolin, bodhran, and oud.
It was all so familiar to him, the crowd, the noise, the scents of leather and whiskey and the Parting Glass of which the young woman sang.
“Hey.” Jagati poked him, reaching over Rory’s shoulder to do it. “You're not payin’ attention.”
“I am so.” He moved his arm out of reach.
“Oh yeah?” She flopped back in the chair and crossed her arms over her chest. “Then what’s the answer?”
Had there been a question? “I have… I have… I have no idea.”
“Exactly!” Jagati slammed both hands down on the table with enough force to set their glasses rocking.
Rory didn’t even twitch.
“But I do have an idea,” she continued, tapping the table.
Now Rory let out a soft snore.
“I thought Campbell Islanders were s’posed t’be able to hold their liquor,” she whispered as she stole a glance at the snockered gunner.
“Nah.” John picked up his own nearly empty glass. “Campbells’r lightweights compared to the Fordians.”
“Up the Fordians!” Jagati raised her own glass in a martial salute.
“The Fordians!” John echoed.
“And plans!” she added.
“And plans… Wait.” His glass thumped down again. “What plans?”
“You know…plannnns…from the ideas… For the future.”
“Right…those plans.” He nodded and smiled and she smiled back, and he paid no attention to the niggling at the base of his skull that seemed to be trying to remind him of something. Something about plans, and futures, and how her plans weren’t—
“See, the thing is,” she said as she leaned in again, drawing his gaze into those glimmering brown-gold eyes until every coherent thought dissipated like hukkah vapor, “I only stuck with it this long ‘cause of the smogging war.”
“Smoggin’ war.” Rory’s tousled head rose, then plopped back down again.
“It?” John asked, though in truth he wasn’t paying much attention to her words.
“The Corps, man.” She poked him again. “Try and keep up a’ready.”
“Corps. Right.” He rubbed his arm. “And still, ow.”
“Too many years. Too many fights. Too many deaths.” She shrugged and looked around the room. “And not enough to believe in.”
“There’s still things… Stuff… Beliefs…to believe in,” he insisted with more energy than sense. “You just, you’ve got to put your beliefs where your mouth is.”
“Yes!” Jagati poked him again and grinned. “And where are our mouths in this particular scenario?”
“Ummm.” John felt his ears go hot. Probably because of his brains, which were currently dribbling out of them.
“Never mind.” Jagati waved off her own risqué humor and leaned forward again, not noticing she was resting her chin on Rory’s head. “All I’m sayin’ is, we should do something we love, and that we’re good at.”
“Everyone should do what they lo—what they’re good at,” John agreed.
“So,” she began, peering at him, “what’re we good at?”
“Ah, well, let’s see.” He looked away, since her eyes tended to distract. “You are good at jumping from high places and yelling at people—and shooting them when the yelling doesn’t work. And you’re quite fetching.” Then he realized what he’d said, and quickly added, “Rory is crystal and comb with mechanicals, and the occasional thieving, and he’s a real person people. Peosal perpon. People…person,” he finally got out.
“Yeah, yeah, hear that?” Jagati nudged Rory with her chin. “You’re a people person.” Then she looked up. “What about you?” she asked John. “What’re you good at?”
“I don’t know.” He looked down at his hands. “But I used to be a damned good captain.”
“Yeah,” she said after a beat, “you were.” Then she pushed up from the table—ignoring the small yelp from Rory…as it was his head she used for leverage—and started for the door.
“Wait.” John also rose, far less steadily. “Where’re you going?”
Jagati paused and looked over her shoulder. “Why don’t you come along and see?” she asked, and proceeded to sashay towards the door.
And here was the thing about that sashay…it wasn’t suggestive. It didn’t tease. It promised nothing but a kick in the nethers to anyone attempting an uninvited boarding. Jagati’s brand of sashay was cocky, confident, unapologetic.
And John felt it like a hook in the gut, drawing him inexorably after her.
Two steps later he turned back.
“What are you doing?” Jagati asked.
“Bringing backup,” he muttered under his breath as he hauled Rory up by the collar.
“Up and at’em, Sergeant. Duty calls.”
“It does?” Rory blinked owlishly, his brown eyes slowly coming to focus on John. “Oh, hallo, Captain.”
“Please don’t call me that.”
“Aye aye, Cap—yow!” After a few unsteady steps, Rory’s feet caught up with the rest of his body, but then uncaught up again as he passed the redhead, who’d taken a break from the stage to join a handsome young officer at the bar. “Lovely voice you’ve got there, Pride,” he told her.
“You’re up next, McCabe,” she said. “Liam here promised a duet.”
“I did?” Liam asked, but John was already hauling Rory through the mass of uniforms and out into the street.
“Trouble?” Jagati asked.
“Only trouble is the captain yanking me away from my stage debut,” Rory groused.
“Stop calling me that.”
Jagati, nowhere near as drunk as she appeared, rolled her eyes. It reminded her of a play he’d forced her to sit through where some risto was talking about some other risto protesting too much. She didn’t remember anything else about the play, having fallen asleep, but she’d bet starbucks to honeycomb her old CO was protesting way, way too much.
It was a bet she’d have won, too, as some forty minutes later she saw the expression on his face as they approached the CAS Errant, a sleek little blockade runner of Midasian design, moored in the salvage yard of the Nikean dock. Even as she watched his eyes light with interest, Rory began to catalogue the airship’s merits.
“She’s six decks,” he said, sounding as smitten as John looked, “with a single operator helm, rigid envelope, liquid aluminum batteries and a gondola pressurized to thirty-thousand feet…”
And though John listened politely, Jagati knew Rory’s pitch wasn’t necessary—the captain had already fallen for Errant, and fallen hard.
Eventually he would sober up and, when he did, he might be pissed at finding himself captain and part owner of an airship. Still, as she’d pointed out earlier, John was an honorable man and as such would stand by his word, however drunkenly that word might have been given.
Eventually, he’d even come to thank her for it.