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Frankie stepped into Xiphos’s office. “You called?”
Xiphos stuck her head out from her quarters. “Oh hey. Just in time.” She motioned Frankie in, and Frankie sat on her bed. Xiphos had just stepped out of the shower, and was finishing dressing. She brushed out her long headfur, and then turned to Frankie.
“How’s your boy?”
Frankie beamed. “Everything is just… nice.”
“Couldn’t be happier.”
“See? I knew it. You two are perfect for each other.”
Frankie nodded, smiling, drifting away in an idle daydream.
“So,” Xiphos said. She stepped into her office and returned with a clipboard. “The Future.” She handed Frankie the clipboard. “Sign this please.”
Frankie eyed the clipboard. “That wasn’t much of a conversation.” She took the clipboard and read it over. And then she looked up at Xiphos. “What is this?”
“We’re going to be sailing more. You guys went through a lot to get our ship back, so we’re sailing, because it’d be a waste if we didn’t. And because it’s all I really know how to do, and… And if we’re sailing more… well, I want you to be my First.”
“Your first mate?” Frankie asked. “But-“
“You’re the smartest person on this ship,” Xiphos said. “You handle people better than anyone I know. And your negotiating… I need you, Frankie. I need you because I’d be lost without you. We all would be.”
Frankie looked down at the clipboard. Her ears dropped.
Xiphos held her breath. She looked ill.
Frankie looked up at Xiphos, and hugged her. “Of course I will.”
Xiphos laughed and hugged her. She touched her head to Frankie’s, and then kissed her on the cheek. Frankie blushed, and signed the paper.
“Now,” Xiphos said, taking the clipboard back. “When we get back to Adleshore we need to get you a coat. You have to have a Civilian Navy coat. It’s important.”
“I get a first mate patch, right?”
“Of course,” Xiphos said.
“Then I get to put your captain patch back on, too.”
Xiphos’s smile faded. “Yeah…”
“Don’t I need to take an exam?” Frankie asked.
“Nah,” Xiphos said. “I can sign off for you, and I’ll teach you what you don’t already know.
Frankie nodded. “So, Enia…”
“Yeah,” Xiphos said, her ears dropping. “It’ll be nice to… it’ll be nice.”
Frankie stood and stretched. “How much time do we have? I need to shower still.”
“You have an hour,” Xiphos said, looking at her watch.
Frankie turned to leave.
“Hey, Princess,” Xiphos said after her.
Frankie turned back, her ears alert, hands behind her back. “Yes, Captain?”
Xiphos flinched. Then she said, “I- I love you.”
“Oh,” Frankie said. “I know.” She smiled and left Xiphos’s quarters.
“Hey! You jerk! I take it back.” She could hear Frankie giggle from the bridge.
The Nina pulled into the port city of Talanga in Enia just after noon. The sun shone bright in the sky, and Xiphos opened up the vents as soon as the surfaced. She breathed deep and piloted the Nina into a dock.
Billy waited for them, and threw his arms around Xiphos as soon as she set foot on the dock. “Hello, Kitten,” he said, kissing her on the cheek. “I’m so glad you found us.”
“It wasn’t so hard,” Xiphos said, cracking a smile. “I looked at the Carrier Address on the Relaygram.”
“Clever,” Billy said. “But you’re here to visit! That’s wonderful.”
Xiphos looked back at The Nina, just in time to see Toby and Frankie step out, followed shortly by Martin. “We needed a break.”
Billy looked up at the crew of The Nina. “Well, we’re glad to have you. Come on, my van is this way.”
Billy took them to a little village on the outskirts of Talanga. It nestled up to a quiet cove, and Xiphos caught a glimpse of The Rose at a small but serviceable pier. It was like seeing a royal standard flying over a palace; Cait was here. Xiphos’s ears dropped, her tail twitched behind her. She struggled to not wring her hands in her lap.
Martin stayed glued to the window as they passed through the village. Xiphos looked over his shoulder. The roads were narrow, and Billy slowed his van so he didn’t hit the pedestrians that wandered in and out of the streets. There was a market, and a temple, though Xiphos didn’t for which god, a school and townhouses. Billy pointed out his practice, a three-story townhouse with a clinic on the bottom. He smiled when he did, and Xiphos did too.
Billy pulled off onto a small dirt road and when Xiphos saw the cottage she knew right away. It was small, just a few rooms, but neat and angular and… perfect in that Molyneux way. Xiphos sat up, leaned forward, held her breath. Toby sat up next to her. He didn’t say anything. He knew she was looking for Cait, just like he was.
Billy pulled up in front of the cottage, and Toby and Frankie leapt out of the van. Tre peeked his head out of the door to the cottage. He ran out to greet his former crew mates, scooping both of them up into his arms. Martin followed, hands in his pockets, and waited patiently to shake Tre’s hand.
Xiphos held back, watching the reunion, holding herself. Billy stood next to her. He put his hand on her back.
“Everything okay, Kitten?”
“Yeah,” Xiphos said softly. “I’m fine. Everything’s fine.”
Billy pushed her forward gently. “Come on, let’s go see Cait. She’s waiting for you.”
Xiphos’s ears dropped.
“Oh pssht,” Billy said. “None of that now.”
It was a simple cottage, but somehow it was beautiful and sophisticated and refined. Cait had made it all of those things from its simple elements, not changing the house itself, just showing it what it could be.
Cait held court in her kitchen. She had a wood-fired stove, on which she kept an intricate cast iron teapot. She poured tea into simple white handleless teacups, and handed them out to her new audience.
“And of course Mr. Escalera.” She gave a cup to Martin.
“Try it,” Frankie said. “It’s Molyneux Tea. You’ll never forget it.”
She watched eagerly as Martin took a tentative sip. His eyes widened, and Frankie grinned.
“Dios mio,” Martin said softly. “Wow.”
Cait turned her attention to Toby. “Toby, dear, I was hoping to have all of you over for dinner, but I’m afraid my skills are-“
“I’ll do it,” Toby said, his tail wagging behind him. “What did you have in mind?”
Cait looked up in time to catch Xiphos walk in. “I’m sure you can figure something out from what is in the fridge.” She stepped out from her audience. She pulled Xiphos into a long hug. “Hello, dear.”
Xiphos closed her eyes and sighed, leaning into the hug, hugging Cait close. Everyone else suddenly found other things to be interested in. Cait held her out at arms length and looked her over.
“We heard about The Nina. We were so worried.”
“It wasn’t my finest moment,” Xiphos mumbled, looking away.
“Sadly, it wasn’t Nara’s either,” Cait said. She smiled down at Xiphos. “But you’re okay.”
“Yeah,” Xiphos said. “We’re all okay.”
Cait nodded. She looked around her kitchen. “Tre, Billy, I trust you can keep our guests entertained. I’d like to speak to the Captain. Make sure Toby has what he needs for dinner.”
Billy nodded. He turned to Frankie and Martin. Tre swooped in and opened the fridge door for Toby, whose tail hadn’t stopped wagging.
Cait took the teapot with her. “Come, dear, let me show you my garden.” She took Xiphos outside and up a winding path to the top of a hill. There she kept a metal table and two chairs, and a small collection of flowers. The garden, Xiphos knew, was a pretense. The hill looked out over the cove, over its impossibly blue waters, and of course, out over The Rose.
Cait pulled out a chair for Xiphos and then sat in her own. She placed the teapot carefully in the center of the table. She sipped her tea, looking at the ocean, content.
“You’ve been quiet, dear,” Cait said.
Xiphos pulled her jaw tight. “I…” She looked away from Cait. “It’s stupid.”
“Hmm,” Cait said. She sipped her tea. “I refuse to believe that.”
Xiphos collected herself. She closed her eyes, sighed, and said, “I’m a failure.”
“Nonsense,” Cait said simply. “You’re doing much better than I was at twenty-two.”
“I lost my ship, and I could have gotten them killed, and I almost got Frankie killed, and…”
“And did you learn nothing?” Cait asked. She took another thoughtful sip of her tea.
“Well, I mean, of course I did. I’d never put them in that situation again. Ever.”
Xiphos dropped her eyes. “I don’t know?”
Cait shifted, turning to look better at Xiphos. “They used considerable resources of their own to get The Nina back.”
Xiphos frowned. “I was so mad at them when they showed me The Nina in dry dock, like just for a minute. They paid for that. All of it. I never asked them to.”
“You didn’t need to,” Cait said. “They’re your crew. You fell, and when you came back to your senses, they were there to pick you up.”
“They’re still here,” Xiphos said softly. “They kept telling me that, and I didn’t understand.”
Cait gave her a knowing smile. “You’re not a failure, dear. You’re much stronger than me when I was twenty-two. I was an empty shell of a person. I was alone and scared and I didn’t think I deserved anything. I went out on my little boat, and if I had died I didn’t think anyone would have missed me. From what Toby told me, you got back to port, and the next morning you were out working. That’s bravery, dear, bravery I never had at your age.” Cait sipped her tea. “I ran away. You kept going.”
Xiphos stared down at her tea cup, her jaw trembling. Cait leaned over and refilled her cup.
“So when are you leaving?”
“I figured we’d stay a few days and then we’ll head back and go back to work.”
“No,” Cait said, “when are you leaving?”
Xiphos looked up at her. “You…”
“I know you have figured out by now that I did not write that Relaygram.”
Xiphos, her ears alert, looked back down at the cove. “I was going to go soon, and depending on how things go, I’ll likely be back tonight. But if I’m not…”
“I will not wait up,” Cait said.
Xiphos looked at the hand drawn map Cait had made. She stood at the bus stop where she had been left, a few miles from Cait’s cottage, a bag slung over her shoulder. She looked around, for an unmarked intersection, and spotted a small dirt path that led into thick woods. Xiphos swallowed hard and started forward.
She came out into a clearing and instantly knew she was in the right place. Back against the far side of the clearing was a cottage, much like Cait’s. Smoke rose from its chimney. Off to the side, laundry had been hung up on the line to dry, and in front was a garden. Xiphos approached slowly, only stopping when she saw the tail bobbing up and down in the garden. She shifted nervously, foot to foot, and then cleared her throat.
“Kendra Williams?” She said.
The gardener stood. She was tiger, tall and muscular. Mud stained the knees of her simple pants and her tank top. On her head she wore a bandana. She wiped her hands off with a towel. “Yes? How can I-?” She stopped when she looked up at Xiphos, her eyes growing wide. She gasped slightly.
For a moment, they stared at each other, both unsure of what to say. Finally, Jace said, “You got my message.”
“I cried for days,” Xiphos said, her ears dropping into attack position.
“I’m sorry,” Jace said. “It was necessary. I was presumed dead. A message from Cait to you, if intercepted, would create extra credibility.”
“And,” Jace said, sliding her hands into her pockets, “I wanted you to know where I was…”
Xiphos breathed out through her nose. She looked at the cottage. “This is nice.”
“Yeah,” Jace said. “I owe Cait for everything. She managed to talk the Enian government into overlooking the unsavory parts of my past. I’m registered as a Transitional Citizen, but I’m free.”
“You mean Kendra Williams is registered,” Xiphos said.
Jace nodded. “Jace Norton-Li is dead.”
“And Burian Lake?”
Jace smiled. “I had two volunteers.”
“Ah. Did your dreads go with Jace?”
Jace laughed and ran her hand over her head. “A fresh start felt nice.” She started forward. “Do you want a drink or-?” She stopped when Xiphos took a step back.
“Look, just let me get through this, okay? I’ve been doing a lot of thinking since I got that message.”
Jace’s ears perked. She started to speak, but thought the better of it.”
“That Relaygram fucked me up. I thought I was done with you, but I cried hard when I got that message. The whole,” she swallowed hard, “murder… thing still bothers me. A lot, actually. But I can accept that you were in a situation where it was required of you.”
“I have to live with it too,” Jace said.
Xiphos pulled her jaw shut. “I’ve done a lot of soul searching. And… and…” She closed her hands into fists. “And I want to try again.”
Jace’s tail stood out from her body. “I would like that a lot.” She edged forward cautiously until she stood in front of Xiphos.
“It might not be the same,” Xiphos said.
“No,” Jace said. “Uhm… you should know, if we’re going to start fresh, that I took another lover while we were apart.”
“Roz?” Xiphos asked, completely unfazed.
“Yeah. How did you know?”
“I saw how she looked at you,” Xiphos said. “I’m familiar with that look.”
Jace nodded. “So we’re good?”
“No. I mean, yeah. I mean,” Xiphos looked around the clearing. “I don’t know. It’s really complicated. But I can’t deny how I feel about you. Also,” she punched Jace’s arm, “that’s for that fucking message.”
Jace rubbed her arm. “I’m really sorry.”
Xiphos visibly relaxed.
“Yeah, actually. That helped.”
Jace took Xiphos’s hand in hers. She raised it to her lips and gently kissed it. “I want to make it up to you. Just tell me how.”
Xiphos nodded. She leaned forward and Jace pulled her into her arms. Xiphos sighed.
“Come back with me to Cait’s. Toby’s cooking, and I’m sure he and Frankie will want to see you again.”
“That sounds good,” Jace said. “I need to get cleaned up first. And how about a drink?”
Xiphos looked up. “That sounds okay.”
Jace smiled. She took Xiphos hand and led her into her home. Xiphos closed her eyes as they crossed the threshold, feeling the future rushing towards her, new and frightening and exciting and so promising. She squeezed Jace’s hand. She wouldn’t have to do it alone.
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