The soft scent of citrus that infused most of her belongings had begun to permeate the room. Smiling wistfully as she drifted through her memories, Vanya paused in her unpacking as her hands rested on the rim of the leather chest before her. The ghost of a chuckle tugged at her perfect lips and, deciding the rest of her room could wait, quickly gathered up the parcels at the bottom of her chest then carried them out to the common room.
She couldn’t remember the details of the job–she’d paid less attention to the particulars back then–but she’d never forget her genuine pleasure at the opportunity to learn a bit more about the hill folk of Jiangyin. While her brothers had gone about their work, the diminutive companion had spent the afternoons with delightfully matronly woman.
Humming one of the deceptively complex melodies she’d learned in her time there, Vanya set the pair of pillows on the couch then draped the matching blanket over the back. As always, the intricate beauty displayed in every stitch of fabric made her smile. She owned many expensive things from the finest shops the core worlds had to offer, but these hand made pillows were far more precious to her. And, like Vanya herself, they belonged on Alice.
“Gotta say,” Jacks leaned against the door way between the engine room and the common room, “I gather this place did need a bit of a woman’s touch.”
“Did it?” Her lips curled in an amused smile. Taking a seat on the couch, she pulled her legs up under her as she watched the mechanic, unwilling, at the moment, to let him in on the joke. “Then I do hope you approve.”
“Yep,” Jackson said as he crossed the room toward the little kitchen area that sat across from the couch and the fresh pot of coffee that sat there, “makes it more, homey.” He tipped the the pot toward her and nodded questioningly.
For one brief instant, a touch of sadness dimmed her violet eyes. But her smile remained as she shook her head politely. “No thank you, Mr. Carter.”
“Please,” he smiled as he took a sip, “Call me Jackson, or even Jacks if you want. Mr. Carter is my father, or rather,” Jackson seemed to straighten up mockingly as he talked, “Admiral Carter is.”
“As impressive as Admiral sounds, I think I do prefer Jacks. Our nicknames seem to be far more fitting titles than anything rank or status cares to bestow.” She chuckled softly and drew one of her pillows up into her lap, making room for him to sit if he so desired.
“Can’t say I necessarily disagree with that,” Jackson walked over and sat on the other side of the couch, “I used to be all for that kinda pomp and circumstance, but…” he stopped and gave Vanya a curious look, “Why is it I’ve only known you for a couple of days, but I’m feelin’ comfortable enough to tell you my life story?”
“Sucker for a pretty face?” she suggested, eyes twinkling with amusement as she teased him.”Jacks…” She made sure to use his short-name, “You’ve already helped me through danger in that couple of days. We share a home now. I’d be hurt if you didn’t feel like you could talk to me at least a little.”
Jackson smiled, “I guess you’re right about that,” he took another sip from the mug of coffee, “So if you don’t mind me asking, I noticed there was just a little bit of something between you and the passenger the boys took on.”
The companion shook her head, burgundy locks obscuring her face for a moment. “It’s very complicated. Even I don’t understand it half the time.” She looked back up at Jacks with a small smile. “But yes. I traveled with him on Repose.” That was as much of the story as she felt able to share.
Jackson nodded, “I can understand complex,” the two sat in silence for a few minutes, “So you planning on doing this with the rest of the boat?”
“As a matter of fact I was planning on heading to the engine room next. I think it could use some flowers and a few strings of lights and perfume… lots of perfume,” she teased.
Jackson smiled wide, “Not sure if I’d be up for that, perfume and the smell of engine oil could be a bad combination, make me go all loopy and such.”
Vanya laughed and patted his knee. “And here I was hoping for a perfectly loopy ride too…” She paused, a small frown furrowing her brow. “I never thought to ask. Where are we going anyway?”
Jackson laughed, “Now that you mention it,” he took another sip, “it’s been so gorram long since we first started the job, I can’t even remember where we were supposed to be going.”
“How encouraging.” Anywhere else that would have been a cause for concern. But here… it was almost another sign that she was home.
“Jack-” Bounding into the room, the smile that had been on Joe’s face faltered at the sight of their newest addition. “-son…” The boy stumbled to a stop just inside the ship’s common room. “Just wanted to tell you I got the wirin’ back in order…”
“Shiny,” Jackson smiled at his younger friend. He stood up and walked over to pour himself a second cup of coffee, “That should make the boys thrilled. We’ve still got a lot of cosmetic work to do, but I think it’d be best to get a lot of distance between us and Triumph before we stop for those kinda repairs.”
Nodding, the boy looked at Vanya through the corner of his eyes. “Yeah, well…” Joe adjusted his hat and crammed his hands into his pockets. A companion on the ship was a danger to him. They had unusually keen senses for things. “It is all just maintenance from here on out.”
A smile curled the companion’s lips as she watched the boy fidget. “In that case, you should join us. Come relax for a bit.”
His mind grasped for some excuse to get out. “Oh, no… I wouldn’t wanna interrupt.” He glanced between the two, not comfortable with the thought of watching Jackson and the companion interact.”Sides… I’m a bit unfit for company, ma’am.” He wiped his hands off on the front of his shirt, leaving electrical grease streaks.
“Aw come on, Joe,” he poured a second cup and placed it in the electrician’s hands, “relax a while. We can always stand some good old relaxation time. Especially after what we’ve been through.”
“It’s coffee and conversation, Joe. There’s no such thing as unfit.”
Staring into his cup, the boy sighed and felt his escape closing off. “I s’pose one cup couldn’t hurt…”
“That’s the spirit,” Jackson clapped Joe on the back.
The electrician fumbled a moment, trying to keep the coffee from spilling as Jackson’s gesture knocked the unsuspecting boy forward. “I can only stay a bit… I still have work to do on the comm system.” His fingers tapped the cup in his hands, expending anxious energy.
Violet eyes lingered on the boy’s fingers for a moment. “Have a seat.” Vanya stretched one leg out in front of her then curled it back to her body, shifting the pillow in her lap. “The boys work you hard enough.”
“Just earnin’ my keep.” Joe muttered into his coffee before raising it to his lips.
“Of course.” The companion smiled again. “Though from what little I’ve seen, I doubt that either you or Jacks need to worry about losing your home due to idle hands.” She glanced over at the tall mechanic. “Could I get you to heat up some water while you’re over there? Watching the two of you drink is making me thirsty.”
“Of course,” Jackson walked back over the the kitchen area, “So how did you meet the boys anyway?”
A shadow fell across her face. “I was running from a… painful situation,” Vanya answered honestly.”I paid for a room on a fast ship; I ended up with a pair of overprotective but well meaning older brothers.”
Jackson nodded thoughtfully, “Sounds like how most of us got here, running from our old problems, our old lives.”
“Yeah…” His grimy fingers went from tapping to rubbing the smooth warm porcelain, graying the once clean surface. The conversation was turning down an uncomfortable path. “Anyone know how long the trip to our next stop is?”
Taking in the electrician’s posture with a seemingly absent glance, Vanya chuckled softly. “We were just talking about that. Our dear Jacks can’t even remember where we’re going, let alone how long it will take.”
“Hey I’m just the mechanic,” Jackson grinned, “The boys know this stuff better than I do.”
Foot steps lingered behind them echoing as Kayin approached the happy group of coffee drinking conversationalist, “Excuse me…Jackson, I can’t find Tyler or Durden, looking to pull my way. Anything I can do around here that needs to be done?” Kayin asked almost softly. He was dressed to work in tan overalls and a black shirt, things that were meant to get dirty and grimy ready for anything.
“When there’s work to be done they’ll find you, Kayin.” She deliberately avoided falling back into the old habit of calling him by his last name. “Until then, it won’t hurt you to take a breath and relax with us. Getting to know your shipmates is at least as important as trying to make yourself useful.”
He smiled and moved forward, “Couldn’t hurt, and nothing with alcohol please,” Kayin sat down waiting for his drink and questions from the others.
Jacks tipped his cup toward the kitchen area, “Help yourself.”
Kayin made his way back after a quick apology thinking Vay was serving for some strange reason, a cup of weak tea sounded appropriate. “Thanks. So what brings everyone here?” he asked while stirring the contents of his mug.
“Lots of long stories, for the most part,” Jackson took a sip, “Important thing is we all found our way here.”
“True, but I like stories,” sipped his tea before making a face as it was too hot.
“And being helpful,” the companion reminded him. “So would you be so kind as to bring me a cup?”The request sounded simple enough.
His hands roamed over the various offerings remembering how she liked tea, “I’m here to serve the crew, and just how you like it,” he said walking back handing Vay a mug before sitting down.
“Thank you.” Her smile nearly lit her violet eyes. The tiny woman held the cup in her hands, not particularly interested in taking a drink now that he’d passed the test.
“Well, ain’t this just the picture of domestic tranquility?” Ty appeared in the archway that separated the common room from the cockpit. Mason made to stand but Tyler waved him back to his seat. “I heard, I heard. You’re looking to pull your weight. For now, just relax yourself. It’s a long way from here to Regina by the course we’re running. We’ll have plenty of time to figure out where you fit in the grand plan.”
“And if it’s stories you’re looking for, how ’bout we start with yours?” Durden had followed behind Ty, ducking into his cabin and returning with a dusty green bottle with a faded yellow label. Retrieving a pair of glasses from the galley, he poured a measure and handed the glass to his brother before pouring another for himself.
Copper entered silently, slipping into an empty chair at one end of the big wooden dinner table. Tyler offered the old man the bottle, “A wee nip of the Lord’s finest, Shepherd?”
Copper smiled warmly, “I’ll pass, thank you, son.”
“But it’s so nice of you to join our tranquility.” One delicate eyebrow arched toward her burgundy hair as she gave Durden a slightly scolding glance.
“Wait, what did I do? I thought it was an open party, figured we could all get right cozy and sing songs and such.” Dru said, cracking a smile and flopping down on the couch next to Vanya.
“You all know the words to Hero of Canton, right?” Ty picked up, not missing a beat.
Shifting in her seat, Vanya deposited the pillow in Dru’s lap before smiling and placing her feet there as well. “Well, you do have a lovely singing voice,” she teased.
“If, by lovely, you mean he sounds like cow giving birth, then yeah,” Dru deftly swatted away the balled up napkin that came flying his direction. They all laughed, easing further away from what little bit of tension there was in the room.
“I’ll remember that the next time you take to singin’ in the shower.”
One half of the brother’s brow rose as he sipped his drink. “Don’t go hanging around the bathroom while I bathe.” He rested cool glass base of his drink on the tip of the companion’s pointing toes. “It’s creepy.”
“So… Mason was it?” Though the man spoke to their new passenger, the latest aquisition, he carefully watched Vanya instead. “You and Vanya must have gotten rather well familiar over your time on the Repose…” His tone was pleasant, cordial even. His eyes, however, seemed to read through her expression, between the soft lines of her soft, professional smile. He had always had a knack for that, and it felt as sharp as ever. “Knowing how she takes her tea and all…”
“Yes. Being on a ship together between life threatening adventures and just the mundane…One tends to learn personal nuances and habits. Like how she may like her tea, or the time she accidentally caught me naked, seeing my tattoo and a few scars gained growing up,” he said trying not to miss a beat. “These adventures may bring the most unlikely of pairs close together in ways they never thought possible. Much like your deep rooted bonds with her,” Kayin gambled on this bet slightly as she seemed to trust these two captains on a level similar to Vincent. She fell into the old hat of this crew far quicker than with the Repose, and that said something. His words ended with the most friendly smile he could give before sipping his tea.
“Heh,” his head bobbed with the soft chuckle.
Digging her now cold toes under Dru’s leg to warm them, Vanay listened to Kayin with a certain amount of amusement. It was disconcerting, to say the least, to associate that face with this sudden desire to be protective. “I’m not that particular. It doesn’t take a great intellect to learn some of my preferences.”
“Yeah,” his lip curled and he lifted his glass to it to take a sip. There was a great deal unsaid. Kayin’s story held about as much weight for him as cheesecloth held water. After all, he already knew better. That she seemed to go along with his cover, however, was something. There were few in the verse The Brothers trusted like their sister. Little mei mei. If she wanted to keep his secret… He swallowed the drink down. “I suppose it doesn’t.” He let it go here, but she must have known it wouldn’t stay gone.
Smiling big and bright, blissfully unaware of the impact of his next few words, “I’ve learned about tea preferences, and heard many rants about spring. All the colors, smells, and things in bloom, and how they make her smile because it reminds her of home. When the grounds became alive again after short winter. She told that story a few times,” he finished his drink which was becoming more tolerable as time passed.
An elbow on the table, Durden’s cheek leaned into the hand that it propped up. “Ahhh… Tales of home…” Again, that lip curled as he watched her. With Vanya’s feet firmly tucked beneath his leg, Dru looked for another place to rest his drink.
“Just where was home, Mason?” Tyler was rarely much for the subtle charm his brother could maneuver.
“Don’t you know?” he asked slowly becoming aware of his own mistake.
“Know? Dru’s brow rose and he finally looked at the man. The expression was perfectly void of any sort of insight. He kept his tells well hidden away.
Vanya’s toes dug into the underside of her brother’s leg. Earlier she’d allowed the conversation to shift, now she did it deliberately. “I met Kayin on Persephone. Of course, he’s mellowed a bit since then.” A small smile touched her lips. “But now that we’re all here… perhaps you would be so kind as to tell us where we’re going. Our dear Jackson didn’t quite know.”
“Didn’t I just say Regina?” He looked to his brother, half his brow rising up.
“Did you? I must have been distracted by the talk of showers and singing.” Her violet eyes twinkled as she teased him. “Not exactly the sort of place to audition clients. I do hope we’ll pass by someplace respectable along the way.”
“Well…” Durden smirked, “Now that you’ve got your own shuttle…”
“Maybe she could go to Canton and see how Alice’s duo compare to the locals….It was just an idea,” the idea was asinine and out of place enough to hopefully make people forget about the real reason people questioned things.
“Mudders ain’t so bad, once you get past the smell.”
“Haven’t had the pleasure. Can we go there after Regina? I’ve heard things about Mudders’ Milk and I’m curious.”
Dru turned his smirk to Vanya, “That the clientele you’re looking to hit up, kiddo?”
One delicate eyebrow arched with amusement. “Not exactly. Though life on Repose was fairly cloistered. Maybe I’m losing my touch.”
“Doubt that…you had the Captain and his first mate drooling. War Buddies at that…and you didn’t even look all the interested anyway. Poor bastards.”
His words hit her like a right cross. It was a flash of old-Kayin and, worse, far too soon for anyone, especially him, to be making comments about John. Vanya leaned against her brother, knowing that Dru, by his close physical contact, was the only one to feel the tension in her light frame. “Perhaps I should retire.” Her voice had lost any trace of warmth. “I still have some unpacking to do. The shuttle will take some getting used to, but I think I’m going to be comfortable there.”
Kayin looked at Vay with concern, at least in his eyes, the comment was meant to be a subtle rib against the two war buddies, and a compliment to the companion. Without doing much of anything she had two friends ready to toss aside a war bond. That takes talent. Sadly, it wasn’t seen as such, “Anything I can do to help,” he asked the room though it was directed more towards the woman.
Durden patted Vanya’s frame lightly, a small smile at the barest edge of his lips. “Dishes?” He lifted his glass and threw its contents back with his head. It clacked onto the table. “Joe’s a good cook, but ain’t nobody likes doing dishes…”
A simple nod went to Durden as Kayin helped himself to the dish washing duties.
Jackson laughed, “I don’t think Dru meant that it should be done right now.”
“But why put it off? It would be a shame to leave things undone.” Years of training kept the bitterness from making its way into her tone.
“Good point,” Jackson nodded, “So I gave her a good once over,” Jackson changed the subject,”Looks like we may need to end up getting a new compression coil once we hit Regina. She looks like she’s seen better days but she’ll hold till we get there.”
Dru nodded, “Mei Wen Ti.”
“We could use some other things too,” Jackson straddled one of the kitchen chairs, “what does our financial situation look like?”
The two brothers shared a look. “We’re flying…” Tyler said and took a drink.
“If we hit Regina, and this job pays like it does…” he ran his hand through his beard, almost wavering. “We should be right and shiny.”
Jacks nodded taking another sip from his mug, “Good, cause as genius as I am,” Jackson’s lips parted in a wide grin, “and I am a genius, I’m holding this gorram thing together with Ri shao gou shi bing and chicken wire. I’d like to see what Alice could do at a hundred percent.”
Vanya hid her smile behind her hand. “Oh, I like him,” she chuckled softly towards Dru’s ear.
Durden looked back at her through the corner of his sarcastically narrowed eyes, “And you havesuch good taste…” he mumbled, turning to Jackson. “That’s my girl you’re talking about. It better be the damned best Ri shao gou shi bing and chicken wire in the verse…” Dru, of course, was joking, but it was a reminder of how close to the edge they had been flying. Flirting with danger was one thing when it was just the two of them. Now Alice had a crew bigger then she had… possibly ever.
“Diamond studded,” Jackson tipped his cup toward Dru before taking another sip.
“See…” She refused to let Dru’s comment sting.
“Uh huh,” Dru shook his head, his grin plain as day. “Should I expect some fratranizing with the crew, Vanya? Jackson here’s already had that conversation where I consider putting him in the airlock. I dunno how much more menacing I can get…”
“You’re perfectly menacing.” The companion smirked and patted his knee. She worked past a sudden but momentary pang of loss to continue teasing him. “But the rule stands. No crew.” Not on this ship.
“Good to know some things don’t need arguing over.” Ty said. He blew out a breath and swirled his drink, his eyes getting lost in the amber liquid as it washed up the sides of his glass.
“I remember that look,” she nudged Dru with her foot. “That’s not a good sign.”
“The young lady knows you boys well.” The old man had been quiet up to this point, but the look on Tyler’s face brought out the counselor in him automatically. “What’s got the fire stoked, son?”
“That box down in the hold,” Ty said, frowning. “Now that mei mei’s back home safe, we’re off to make the drop and be gone.”
“That is the general idea.”
“With what’s in the box.” He said without taking his eyes off his cup.
“You know what they say about curiosity,” the mechanic chuckled, “makes them cats all dead and all.”
“Yep. And satisfaction brought’em back. ‘Cept I don’t think anyone here is satisfied.” He looked around at each one of them. “You can’t tell me that none of you has been wonderin’ why that box had such a heavy escort, or why that if it was so important to have all them purple-belly eyes on it, why hasn’t the cortex been alive with chatter about it? The two don’t rightly match up, now do they?”
“Can’t say I don’t necessarily disagree with that,” Jacks stroked his chin, “and after Miranda, the Alliance is looking less and less trustworthy.”
Vanya let out a sigh. Some things never changed. “Heavy guard but no one’s talking? I don’t have to know what’s inside the box to know that it’s illegal, immoral, and highly dangerous… to you or anyone else.”
“That’s my girl… So,” Ty cast a look to Dru, “I don’t know if I can make this drop, not knowing what Kat’s plans are.”
“Like I’m gonna say anything to change your mind?”
“Not really, no.”