Watching people is an occupation I will never tire of. People surprise me you see. There are days when they do things I would never have expected of them. Sometimes they are good. Sometimes they are bad. Sometimes they are amazing. Sometimes they are terrifying. I’ve seen it all in my life. Some people fall, and some people ascend to heights I would never have imagined of them. I just love watching that happen.
The hatch opened into the hangar bay and Jack stepped out with a smile into the football field-sized compartment. Natalie followed on his heels and their eyes swept from one side of the bay to the other. Serenity floated in space through the bay door on the left, a beautiful blue-green pearl in the darkness. Stars shone through the other large door, sprinkling space with their pinpricks of light. The sounds of repair work echoed off the bulkheads and the damaged remnants of war machines filled the bay from side to side, end to end, and top to bottom on every available flat surface.
“They just had to send him,” Charles said from his right.
Jack turned to see the man leaning against a bulkhead while performing his own scan of the bay. He followed Charles’ eyes to a mountain of a man he didn’t recognize. A new shuttle with a stylized H on its flank sat next to the energy curtain that held the atmosphere in. “I gather you know him?”
Charles Edward Hurst frowned like he’d just eaten something rotten and then whispered a single word for Jack’s ears only. “Yes.”
“So who is he?” Jack asked in an answering tone. Then he turned his gaze back to the mountain of a man. The man walked through the hanger bay like he owned it. Jack didn’t like him just on principal.
“That is my Dear Cousin Lenny.”
Jack looked back to Charles in surprise. “Real cousin?”
“For certain definitions of the term.” Charles shrugged. “Complicated family ties.”
“I’ll bet.” Jack echoed Charles’ action and looked to Lenny again. “So what’s he up to?”
“Nothing good,” Charles growled as Captain Wyatt stepped in front of the man.
“Do you think we need to help her?” Jack asked.
“Yes.” Charles pursed his lips rather than moving. “But I want to see how she reacts first.”
“Get off my ship,” Wyatt ordered with all the authority of a ship’s captain.
“Looks like a good start to me,” Jack said with a smile.
“Possibly,” Charles returned but continued to study the standoff.
“Now there is no need to be rude,” Lenny said with a patronizing smile that Jack instantly hated. “I am just following orders.”
Wyatt’s eyes narrowed. “Your orders. Not mine. Now get off my ship.”
Jack raised an eyebrow at Charles. “I don’t think Lenny realizes how dangerous she is. Maybe he’s the one that needs help?”
“Possibly,” Charles said with a slow nod.
“You are hereby ordered to surrender this ship,” Lenny began to growl like an avalanche on the roll. The rumble started somewhere south of the deck, rolled up through his legs, and Jack recognized the sound of an angry mountain about to explode. He pulled an official looking paper out of his suit coat, unfolded it, and shook it out. A holo projection of the seal of the Joint Chiefs hovered in the air for all to see and Jack realized just how serious this was. “My authority has been authorized at the highest levels,” Lenny finished with a victorious smile.
Charles stepped away from the wall and approached the two. “What is going on here?” he asked with a boom in his voice to get their attention.
Lenny turned towards him and his eyebrows rose in surprise. “Ah. Hello, Charles. I did not realize you were here.”
Charles smiled and Jack could see the looseness in his limbs. Charles was ready for whatever came next. “You know me, Leonard. I never announce myself until I am ready.”
Jack examined the man again. A mountain fully aware of how superior he was to everyone else in the room. Except possibly Charles. Yeah, he looked like a Leonard to Jack. But he liked the name Charles gave him better. It diminished him real nice.
Lenny nodded in agreement. “Very true,” he rumbled. “What is your business here?”
Charles shook his head. “I am just passing through. Reinforcements sent to Serenity. I am required to check in with the station flagship. What is going on here?”
Lenny smiled at Charles. It was not a friendly smile. “This is family business,” Lenny said as if that was all he needed to say.
“Of course it is,” Charles answered and offered a smile towards Wyatt. “That is why you are here,” he said back to Lenny. “So what is the business?”
Lenny shifted from foot to foot and frowned. Finally the mountain cleared his throat. “It is a routine reassignment of naval assets to more reliable commanders.”
Charles’s face broke into a smile at that and Jack recognized the signs of his commanding officer playing just a little bit slow. “Ah. What ship are you here for?”
A low growl tumbled out of Lenny’s throat like the mountain was about to explode. “Los Angelesssss,” he finally said after a long wait.
Charles played it perfectly. Jack had to hand it to the man. He looked towards Wyatt in undisguised surprise. Then he looked to Lenny for confirmation. Then he glanced at Jack as if asking if he was misunderstanding something. Jack played along and shrugged as if he had not heard a thing anybody had said earlier. The noise in the hangar bay would stop most ears from hearing, so faking no knowledge was certainly reasonable at this point. Charles turned from him to look back towards Lenny with very plain confusion written on his face.
“Why?” Charles asked.
The mountain’s cheek twitched like he’d just been slapped. “Captain Wyatt is not reliable,” the man rumbled back with a tone filled with anger.
“Interesting.” Charles rubbed his jaw as if he was trying to make sense of a senseless situation. “Might you tell me how not?” His voice was polite and soft, and Jack almost shivered. Most people were dangerous when they were loud and angry. Charles was not most people.
Lenny crossed his arms and looked down at the other man for several seconds before explaining. “She exhibited supreme cowardice in the face of the enemy, resulting in the loss of nearly every ship under her command.”
Jack’s jaw fell open and he couldn’t help himself from blurting out, “She saved an entire star system!”
Lenny frowned at him for a moment and then turned away as if dismissing the rabble. And in that moment Jack regretted every time he’d thought of Charles as a rat bastard. Dear Cousin Lenny was an entirely different class of rat bastard. “Admiral Bainsworth’s report is clear,” Lenny said to Captain Wyatt. “And you have been given your orders.”
“And I’ve given you mine,” she growled back. “Get off my ship.”
Lenny let out a long, rumbling breath. “This is not your ship anymore.”
“This ship is property of the Republic of Texas,” she said. “You have no authority here.”
Lenny blinked. So did Jack for that matter. He turned to Wyatt in surprise but she had no time to return his look.
“One second please,” Charles interjected before anyone else could say anything. “This ship flies the American flag, not the flag of Texas.” He waved a hand at the American flag on one bulkhead to prove his statement.
Wyatt smiled. “The United States Navy leased her,” Wyatt explained. “But the Republic of Texas built her, owns her, and can recall her at any time if they feel her best interests are not being taken into account.”
“What is the method of this recall?” Charles asked in his best reasonable tone. Charles could do a very good reasonable tone.
Gabrielle flickered into being, twiddling her fingers and smiling like the cat that had just gotten the canary. “Hi. Name’s Gabrielle,” she introduced herself. “And I’m authorized by the Republic of Texas to assure that their interests are taken into account.” The seal of Texas flickered into view before her, significantly larger than the seal of the Joint Chiefs in front of Lenny. Jack smiled. Texas always did have to do things bigger than everyone else.
Charles took in a long breath as he considered the competing claims of authority. Then he furrowed his brow. “Do you question his authority under the Joint Chiefs?”
“No,” Gabrielle answered for Wyatt. “But per ‘USS Austin vs. the United States,’ a starship can act as an official representative of the owner of record. And per the eighty-first ‘Republic of Texas vs. the United States,’ a starship’s owners have final say on the captain and crew of their ship.”
“Interesting.” Charles frowned and shook his head. “But those were peace time lawsuits. We are at war now. Surely that changes matters.”
Gabrielle smiled. “It might. We would be happy to ask the nearest military court to adjudicate the matter. I believe it would be located on…Serenity?”
Jack laughed. Not one person on Serenity would rule against Los Angeles today.
Charles chuckled. “It does take a certain mental…flexibility to pursue this.”
“Flexibility is what they’re known for,” Jack quipped. Then he felt Wyatt’s gaze on him and turned to see her narrowed eyes.
“And you will never know how right you are,” she said with a touch of levity.
Jack chuckled again and turned to Charles. “I told you she was good.”
“Indeed,” Charles answered.
Lenny simply gave her a thin smile. “I had hoped that you would follow the lawful orders of your superiors faithfully,” the man said in a voice that categorically disagreed with the words he was saying. “But I see you have no intention of doing so. On the off chance of such a reaction, your superiors assigned four dozen warships of the Pennsylvania Star Fleet to my command to…clear up any misunderstandings.”
Wyatt’s eyes narrowed. So did Jack’s for that matter. And even Charles turned a disbelieving look towards Dear Cousin Lenny.
“Are you threatening me?” Wyatt asked in a dangerous tone.
“I am merely informing you of the balance of…authority,” Lenny returned with a smile.
Jack’s contacts showed a rundown of the fleet on the edge of his vision and he swallowed. Those starships and their crews were utterly loyal to the Hurst family. And while Los Angeles was a good ship, she couldn’t hold out against that many warships before Epsilon Reticuli and Serenity shot her all up.
“I see.” Wyatt nodded very slowly. “Is that your…final offer?”
Lenny’s eyes narrowed at her tone of voice and Jack had to admit she had a spine of iron. “These are your orders,” the mountain said in a tone that demanded acceptance.
Captain Wyatt nodded once and turned away from the man. She said a single word. “Gabbi?”
The ship’s holoform smiled back and Jack had a feeling that they’d rehearsed this. Wyatt had something up her sleeves. “Yes, Captain?”
Wyatt nodded again as if in thought. But Jack knew her far better now than he had two weeks ago. She’d already decided her actions. Now she was just playing to the audience. Jack looked over at Charles to see if the other man saw it too. Jack blinked as the man’s stance registered. Charles knew what was going to happen and Dear Cousin Lenny was well and truly out of his depth.
“Would you make the call, please?” Wyatt said in a tone far more conversational than the situation should have called for.
“Of course, Captain,” Gabrielle answered and closed her eyes. She opened them a second later. “The call has been made.”
“Thank you, Gabbi.”
“My pleasure, Captain.”
Lenny’s eyes had narrowed to slits during the performance and now a low rumble that reminded Jack of a volcano about to explode rolled out of his body. “What are you doing?” the man asked in a tone that showed he had no more patience for her.
Wyatt just smiled and raised one hand to forestall any further words. “You might want to wait a moment.” Then she winked. “We’re still on the line. Busy day today.”
Lenny’s nostrils flared like an angry bull. “Now just you wait-” He cut out as his earbud began to buzz angrily.
Jack focused and heard the words as clear as day. “This is Judge Advocate General Alan Marshall of the Serenity JAG Corps. I will be overseeing this disagreement. Please stand down and return to your ship immediately.”
Jack raised one eyebrow in Charles’ direction. The man held a studious expression in place that told most people nothing. But Jack knew the man too well to be fooled by that. The man was positively gloating.
Jack’s contacts flashed and a view of Serenity filled them. Dozens of starfighters rose from the planet on plumes of flame. He scanned them to see a mix of old and new American, European, and even Chinese designs. JAG was sending every fighter they had to enforce their authority. But they wouldn’t be enough if Lenny decided to push the button.
“Girls?” Jack said and looked questioningly at the cybers standing around him. They returned his look with studious gazes and he smiled.
“That won’t be necessary, Major,” Captain Wyatt called out before he could order them to warm up their fighters. “We’re all one, big, happy family, aren’t we?” she added with her eyes on Lenny.
Lenny’s eyes narrowed and he opened his mouth to speak.
She interrupted him with another hand. “You might want to wait a few more seconds to answer that,” she said with a Cheshire smile.
Then space outside the hangar bay exploded in rainbow light and Jack turned to see the spectacle. A dozen eruptions of light spilled into normalspace and a warship rose out of each one. His contacts filled with information and his jaw dropped in recognition. The eight frigates, three destroyers, and one single heavy cruiser proudly displayed the symbol of a rising sun on their glowing prows. Names scrolled down his contacts but he already knew every single one of them. The tears in hyperspace sealed, space became an infinite blackness that spread out to the stars again, and Jack realized that Aneerin had been in on this all along.
The Peloran said that Hollywood would remember Jack well. He hadn’t meant the city. He’d meant the flagship of the Free Japanese squadron that sailed with Aneerin’s fleet. The Los Angeles-class starship came about in a graceful arc to stop near her sister ship with a spray of maneuvering thrusters. A holoform flickered into existence near Captain Wyatt a moment later. She was the very image of a stereotypical Japanese schoolgirl crossed with a California surfer girl. Which was to say that she was the perfect stereotypical Free Japanese, and Jack wondered how in all the worlds she could pull off that look while in a perfectly tailored military uniform.
“Holly,” he mouthed and the new holoform winked in his direction before turning back to Lenny. A flicker to the side caught his attention and Jack turned in time to see a copy of her holoform bounce into view next to him with arms outstretched.
“Jack!” she exclaimed, her holoform buzzed as it went to full power, and she wrapped her arms around him in a very big and very solid hug. “I’ve missed you!”
Jack answered her with a laugh and a hug. “So you were Aneerin’s little ace in the hole this time?”
“Totally,” she answered in a singsong tone, disentangled herself from him, and nodded towards where Captain Wyatt and Dear Cousin Lenny stared each other down. “Now we get to watch the fun.”
Lenny opened his mouth to say something but Wyatt cut him off.
“I will not surrender my ship. Leave now and take your lapdogs with you.”
“You can not order me,” Lenny spat out.
Wyatt smiled and spread her arms out wide. “Maybe not. But I can suggest non-suicidal actions for you to follow.”
Lenny’s nostrils flared and he opened his mouth to respond but someone else spoke first.
“You might want to stop right now,” Charles said in a deceptively soft tone and everybody froze. Even Jack felt the chill and looked towards the stranger in Charles’ body. Charles Edward Hurst stood in the hangar bay, taller and more commanding without saying another word than Jack had ever seen. The heritage of one of the richest families on Earth radiated from every pore of his being and even the mountain stopped at the sight. Charles’ head snapped up to look Dear Cousin Lenny in the eyes. “You have been outmaneuvered. You should leave before you do something the family will regret.”
The mountain blinked, and Jack saw the man back down. “Yes, Master Hurst,” the man said and turned to walk away. No one spoke as the mountain stepped back into his shuttle. The silence remained until it lifted up off the deck and thrusters sent it rocketing out through the energy curtain holding the vacuum of space at bay.
Only then did Charles Edward Hurst let out a long breath, and the scion of a great family faded away. He turned back to them and just Charles looked out of his eyes. For the first time Jack truly understood the difference between the man Charles had been trained to be and the man he had become. He thanked God in that moment that he’d never crossed the first man.
“You command him?” Wyatt asked.
“No,” Charles answered Wyatt’s question with a shake of his head. She gave him a disbelieving look. “Very rarely,” Charles temporized. Then he shrugged and passed a hand over his face. “He is my cousin.” Charles shrugged again. “For flexible definitions of the term.”
“So.” Wyatt’s eyes glinted like daggers. “You really are one of them?”
“You doubted me?”
Wyatt sighed and shook her head. “I don’t know.”
Charles cocked his head to the side in a silent question.
“Think about it,” Wyatt began. “Someone walks out of no where, saying he is from one of the richest families on Earth, and he just so happens to have a grand plan and has picked me and only me to invest his riches in?” Wyatt snorted. “I’ve seen those scams before. Would you believe it in your position?”
Jack had to admit she had a point. He’d gotten those mails too. Though they were usually bankers from Fallen Japan with promises of riches if he let them use his accounts to smuggle their money out. They always seemed to snag someone without the common sense to realize they were going to have their accounts emptied and then be stuck with all the overdraft fees.
Charles glanced at Jack and they exchanged impressed looks. She surely was a smart cookie. “I would certainly doubt my words in your position,” Charles said. “Do you trust me now?”
Wyatt bit her lip for a long second and then sighed. “Why should I?”
Charles smiled. “How do I convince you that you can?”
Wyatt shook her head. “I’m not sure you can.”
“Try me.” Charles gave her a thin smile.
“Fine.” Wyatt nodded and gave him an answering smile. “Tell me why you serve.”
Charles breathed in and breathed out very slowly as he considered his response. “The universe changed when the Peloran made Contact. It changed again when the Shang attacked us. My family has to change or this new universe will kill them.” He waved a hand towards Holly. “As today just showed.”
“I see,” she whispered, eyes straying to Lenny’s back. “Is this all about family?”
“In a way,” Charles answered with a sigh. “Perhaps I hope to redeem my family name before it is too late.”
Wyatt crossed her arms and sighed. “What if it is already too late?”
Charles examined her for several seconds before answering. “You would not be the first to say it is too late. Did you know that Admiral Aneerin did not trust my family and would not speak with any of us when he made Contact?” Wyatt cocked her head to the side at the admission. Charles smiled. “It is true. And I decided long ago that I needed to speak with him to make this project work. Even if that meant going around my family.” He fell silent and willed Wyatt to understand.
Wyatt nodded to show that she did. “You’re wading in dangerous waters.”
“Trust me,” Charles said with a nod. “I know well the waters I wade in. As should you. You realize this is a temporary win, do you not?”
A grim determination filled Wyatt’s face. “I won’t let them have my ship.”
“I know you will do everything in your power to stop them,” Charles said and nodded towards Holly. “And Aneerin will help. But he has few ships to spare on errands like this. And I know the power my family will bring to bear on you. You have made an enemy today and he will never sleep until he breaks you.”
“Then I’ll make him die of sleep deprivation,” Wyatt said with a grim smile.
Charles laughed. “I like the way you think.” Then he sobered. “But my father will bring allies. My entire family will side with him. And everyone who owes them will follow. You cannot win.”
Wyatt shook her head. “I won’t give up.”
“They will destroy you.”
Wyatt’s eyes challenged his. “I won’t let them have Gabbi!”
Jack raised a hand to stop Charles. Wyatt was a bit too stubborn for the direct approach. Jack considered the irony of thinking her stubborn for a moment, and then dove into the issue with both feet. “Excuse me, Ma’am. But if the Hurst family decides they want this ship, I’m not sure even the Republic of Texas will stand in their way.” He shrugged and nodded towards Holly. “And she’s only here because Aneerin asked her to come. Right?”
Holly nodded with a wince. She didn’t like this any better than any of the ships.
Jack sighed and looked around the hangar. “I’m betting someone in Austin will get a bribe and they’ll sell the ship to the Pennsylvania Star Fleet for a song and a lap dance. And just like that, the ‘owner of record’ will remove you as captain. Will you continue to fight this then?”
Wyatt looked towards Gabrielle and the cyber nodded. Wyatt let out her breath and shook her head. “Why would they want this ship badly enough to do that?”
Jack nodded towards Charles. “His father was instrumental in ramming through the political force to give you the resources to build this ship,” Jack said. “Perhaps he feels like he…owns her?”
“He’s wrong,” Wyatt growled.
“Yes, he is,” Jack said with a nod and looked back and forth between Wyatt and Gabrielle. “But if the United States and even Texas decides you aren’t worth the headache…well…what are you going to do then? Go off and fight some hopeless guerilla campaign against the powers that be?”
Wyatt’s eyes narrowed. “I’ve never fought a hopeless battle.”
Jack laughed. Then he raised his hands in defense as she glared at him. “No, no! I believe you!” He shook his head and sighed. “But…shouldn’t you have a fall back position? A plan? An option B? Every great strategist is supposed to have them, right?” Then he smiled. “And you’ve always been one unless I miss my guess.”
Wyatt crossed her arms and cocked her head to the side. “Now you’re just buttering me up.”
“Olivia.” Jack smiled and shook his head. It was time for another approach. One he’d never used with her. It was time to get serious for once. “Can I call you Olivia?”
Olivia Wyatt frowned at him. “I won’t stop you.”
“Good,” Jack said with a warm smile and stepped closer to her. “Olivia. Do you love your country?”
Olivia’s frown turned to a look of confusion and surprise. “Of course I do,” she said as if the mere question was an insult.
“So do I,” Jack said with a smile he hoped would ease the sting of the question. “I love America. I love every State in the Union.” He frowned then and shrugged. “Well, there’s some I don’t love as much, but you get the idea right?”
Olivia crossed her arms and pursed her lips. “Where are you going with this?”
Jack sighed. “I love my country.” He met her gaze with a sincere look. “We both do. But do we trust our country?”
Olivia blinked and opened her mouth to say that of course she did. But no words came. She shut her mouth and aimed a silent look at him. “I don’t know,” she finally said. “Do we?”
Jack smiled at her reversal of the question. It was masterfully done, and proved just how good she was. Jack sucked in a long breath and let it out. “When I was a kid I never thought about it. Of course I did. I was raised to respect and trust authority. But what do you do when they don’t respect you?”
“I don’t know,” Olivia repeated. “What do you do?”
Jack laughed. She was a smart one. “I keep fighting of course. Though sometimes I wonder what I’m fighting for.”
Olivia smiled. “No you don’t.”
“Girls and parties, of course,” she said and aimed a cocked eyebrow at him.
Jack laughed again. “Olivia.” He shook his head. “That is a very useful fiction,” he said with complete honesty. “And it is best if most people believe it.”
“Really?” Olivia’s expression betrayed a mix of interest and doubt.
Jack sighed. “Okay, okay. So I do love girls and parties, but…not exclusively…”
“I don’t think anyone would accuse you of exclusivity,” Olivia said in a wry tone.
Jack rubbed his forehead. “You’re not going to make this easy for me, are you?”
“Is there any reason to?”
Jack shook his head. “I suppose not. Look. I didn’t volunteer for the right reasons. They were pretty bad in fact. And I’m still trying to figure out the right reasons for all this.”
Olivia folded her arms again and just waited for him to explain.
Jack looked at Natalie and she smiled at him. He looked over at Charles and chewed his lip in thought. And that gave Jack the right words. “We all do what we do for different reasons. Charles here wants to build things. Maybe redeem his family name while he’s at it. He wants to do things we’d all be proud of.” He paused and she nodded for him to continue. “I fully admit that I volunteered to get some payback for my family. I wanted to kill Shang. That’s not the best reason, but there it is.”
Olivia nodded in acceptance of his reasoning.
“But then I found a partner who demanded more of me.” Jack nodded towards Betty and she smiled back. “So I’ve spent the last two years trying to live up to that trust.”
Olivia aimed a long look at Betty. “What did she demand of you?”
“That I live,” Jack said with a smile. “Seriously. Live. Be more than the guy that just wanted to kill the enemy. Be the guy that wants to do something good after all this killing is done. See things. Go places. Live.”
“That’s a nice Hallmark sentiment,” Olivia said and pursed her lips at him. “But what good is it here?”
“Hope is always good.” Jack’s smile grew. “But in all honesty, where I think it matters here is that I’ve had to spend a lot of time going over things I thought I knew and putting new perspectives on it. All while playing this Captain Jack role so nobody realized I was doing it.”
Olivia gave him a thoughtful look but remained silent, so Jack sighed.
“Did you know I was a history major in college?”
Olivia aimed a disbelieving look at him.
Jack placed a hand over his heart and smiled. “Scout’s honor.”
Olivia raised one eyebrow.
“There was a girl,” Jack admitted.
Olivia laughed out loud at that and Jack waggled his eyebrows at her.
“Yeah, I didn’t pay much attention to the teacher, but a near eidetic memory makes it easy to remember stuff later. And like I said, I’ve been putting new perspectives on what I heard back then. You know what I’ve learned now?”
Olivia pursed her lips and met his gaze with interested eyes. “What?”
She was listening. Jack knew he’d won. All he had to do was reel her in now because she was listening. And she would like this. “History is full of people who think they can change everything. Most of them fail spectacularly. And most that work, have a lot of people working together to do it.” Jack looked around the hangar bay with a smile. “We built something amazing six hundred years ago. America the Great. But would John Hancock…George Washington…or Thomas Jefferson be proud of what we have made of that?”
Olivia looked around the hangar bay and chewed her lip, but she didn’t answer his question.
Jack sighed and shook his head. “Do you want me to throw in John Adams and Benjamin Franklin? Maybe quote some Federalist Papers?”
Olivia raised her eyebrows in surprise. “Really?”
Jack snorted. “Yes, Olivia. Really. I read their letters. What they said to each other. I read what they left in print for their descendents to read. I read their warnings and now I think I actually begin to understand them. Enough to know that even this President can’t clean our government up. We’ve spent centuries messing things up. People like the Hursts are out there, happy to keep buying their way through all of our lives. I love my country, Olivia, but I’m afraid we’re way too far down the rabbit hole to ever come back.”
Jack sighed and shook his head. “But this thing Charles is working on? It’s a real fresh start. It’s a real chance to do something new and great and…no matter how talented you are at blowing stuff up, you are a builder at heart.” Jack paused for a moment and smiled at Olivia. “You could make something amazing out there. Something new. Something fresh. If you work with the right people.”
“What about you?” Olivia asked, concern coloring her face.
“Me?” Jack shook his head. “Oh no. Captain Jack Hart is nowhere near the right kind of people for a job like this.” Then he glanced back and forth between Olivia, Natalie, and Charles. “But I think he is.”
Olivia sighed. “You do know how to push my buttons,” she whispered.
“That’s me,” Jack said with arms spread wide. “Always happy to push your buttons.”
“And there you go again,” Olivia said with a snort. “Just when I thought you could be serious.”
“What can I say?” Jack waggled his eyebrows. “I take my insincerity seriously.”
“You do know you’re the only person I know who could say that with a straight face?” Olivia said with a chuckle.
“I’m a unique human being,” Jack returned and gave her one of his best smiles.
“Thank God,” Olivia whispered under her breath. The words were soft enough that he could pretend he didn’t hear while being loud enough to ensure he did. She was getting good at this. She turned to Charles and shrugged. “I’m not giving up,” she said with a wave around the hangar bay. “We may have some things to talk about. But you have to be completely honest with me,” she said and aimed her finger at him like a weapon. “You hear me?”
“Loud and clear,” Charles answered.
“Then maybe we can make some plans,” Olivia said very slowly.
“And with that magic word, I’m afraid I really must go,” Jack said with a bow.
“Magic word?” Olivia asked with a surprised look.
“Plans,” Jack said with a theatrical shudder. “I really can’t let anyone think I partake in such…forethought and such. It would absolutely ruin my reputation.”
Olivia laughed out loud at his words. His first thought was that she had a nice laugh. His second was that he hadn’t heard it nearly enough.
“Besides,” he continued and turned to see Natalie, Betty, and Jasmine standing against the bulkhead in their dress whites. “I have something I need to do planetside.” Which reminded him. He had something to do up here as well.
“Oh?” Olivia asked.
Jack smiled at Olivia and lashed out at Charles with a single punch. It impacted directly on the bicep and the man recoiled in a mix of shock and pain.
“Ow!” Charles exclaimed. “What was that for?”
“Natalie,” Jack said, the one word cutting through the noise of the hangar bay.
The indignation on Charles’ face fell away. “Oh.” He cleared his throat. “Right. Touché,” he finished with a sheepish look.
Olivia looked back and forth between the two of them. “Do I have to separate you two?”
“Nope,” Jack said with a smile that professed total and complete innocence. “I think we understand each other completely.”
“Indeed,” Charles added and rubbed his bicep with a wince.
“Boys,” she whispered under her breath and rolled her eyes. “Fine. Go,” she ordered with another laugh. “Get out of here before you ruin my reputation too.”
Jack aimed one of his best smiles at her. “Always happy to help with that, too, you know.”
Olivia sighed again and he waggled his eyebrows once more as he turned away.
She’d done well today. She had since Epsilon Reticuli actually. He’d thought her just another cruiser captain back then. Not that there was anything wrong with that, but he’d seen a lot of starships in the last two years. But Aneerin was right. She was better than most. And if she could avoid eating a bullet she might just prove herself better than that. She just needed some friends to keep her from eating that bullet.
But for now he really did have a very important date down planetside. And he did not intend to be late for it. Natalie, Betty, and Jasmine smiled as he approached them. “M’ladies?”
The cybers shared a long glance and he couldn’t help but think they were sharing a private joke at his expense. Well, it was good to laugh. He was happy to make people laugh.
“Shall we allons-y?” he asked with an elaborate wave of his hands.
They smiled and turned towards the rebuilt Avenger. He followed in their wake with a sigh. Today was going to be a seriously long day. He looked forward to living every fantastic minute of it.