Noon traffic in the Zocalo was a riot of noise; people in close conference, bargaining for the day’s purchases, calling to each other, the rustle of fabric, packages and bags jostling about, and the rattle of goods on pallets being navigated through the press to various destinations in the marketplace. Tom Darquin sat at its edge, bent over his lunch at one of the Zocalo’s many little “open air” restaurants. His expression, sullen and thoughtful, didn’t quite match the mood of the day progressing around him, as his mind roved over the past few days.
“I thought the point was ordering real food on leave.”
Darquin turned, beaming a smile of surprise on seeing Kim. Maybe it was the distortion of the crowd, or that the science officer was actually cheerful, but he hadn’t quite recognized her voice at first.
“If I could afford the real thing, you think I’d still be in this outfit?” he countered quickly. “So what have you been up to?”
“Mm. May I?” She pointed to one of the empty chairs. “Unless you’d like privacy…”
“No, no, sit before you get stampeded on.”
“Thanks.” Kim dragged out the chair across from him and settled. “Nothing much today. Simply trying to find ways to occupy myself. Strange.”
“I think we’ve all forgotten what to do. No one’s tried to kill us for, what, a week?”
“I’ve lost count in my state of shock,” Kim quipped, then glanced up at the urging of her telepathic senses. Even in the crush of lives around her, she couldn’t miss the buoyancy of one vaguely familiar presence threading her way through the Zocalo. A moment later, wearing a triumphant smile to match what Kim sensed, Yoshino Klevetati emerged.
Yoshino stopped short on seeing them. “Mr. Darquin! Doctor Matsumoto! This is a pleasant surprise.”
“You look as if you’ve conquered a world or two,” Kim said, smiling up at the albino-pale operations officer. The woman was a striking image, with her frost-white hair and skin above the habitual somber darkness of the Ranger uniform.
“Yeah, you must be covered in good karma. Did you bring enough to share with the rest of the class?” Darquin said by way of greeting, and gestured to another chair, inviting her to sit.
Yoshino bowed and sat. “Actually, the answer might be yes to both questions. Look what I was able to find.” She withdrew two peacock feathers from her sleeve and laid them on the table. The blue-violet iridescence seemed to shimmer against the drab utility of the tabletop.
“Whew. Now there’s something I never expected to see out here.”
“They are real. How did you ever get them?” Kim asked on the heels of Darquin’s surprise.
“I’ve been looking ever since we arrived. Someone took pity on me. Though I don’t think I have enough left in my pocket for more than a bowl of rice!”
“That’s okay, spoo’s cheap around here. Want some?” Darquin offered the bowl sitting near his elbow.
With a flush that was more pronounced for her pale coloring, Yoshino accepted. “Why, thank you.”
“No problem. You’re doing me a favor.” He popped a pasty white cube of spoo into his mouth. “I don’t have to eat it all now.”
“Tom….” Kim laughed, then drew her attention back to the feathers. “So, what have you planned for the feathers, Yoshino? And would you like anything? I am about to order.”
“That bowl of steamed rice would be good, thank you. And as for the feathers, I intend to save my quarters.”
“Save your quarters?” Kim asked, pausing with incomprehension.
“You’re welcome to come and watch the show,” she added with a faint smile that betrayed her delight in being cryptic.
Kim leaned toward the waiter hovering, murmuring an order, but her eyes were on Yoshino with curiosity. The exchange went on for a while without her.
“Show? Should I bring popcorn?” Darquin asked, as confused as Kim.
“If you like. But be prepared to share. Kuri loves popcorn.”
“A cat that eats popcorn….”
“And goes absolutely mad chasing peacock feathers. Enough to enhance anyone’s karma.”
Comprehension struck him smack between the eyes. “Ah! I imagine it does.”
Kim was about to add her own comments when she sensed Margaret wandering through. She gave out a short, sharp whistle that, for Margaret, would have been guaranteed to feel like a knife the day before. “So you made it free after all,” she called as Margaret detoured.
Margaret grinned in answer. “And how goes it, Cyfeilles?” Her gaze flickered to the others.
“Well. And you, today?” Kim’s smile was amused.
“Better,” came the sheepish reply.
Kim went for gold in tempting injury. “Care to sit or would you still rather keep from the crowds?”
Darquin caught the last and looked down with a small knowing smirk, recognizing the signs of party-induced weariness. He was starting to feel as if he were back in Earthforce. Just for that he got a portion of the glaring Margaret turned on Kim. Still, Margaret took a chair, nodding across at Yoshino.
“By the way, have you properly met Yoshino yet?” Kim asked, returning to her manners. “Yoshino, this is Margaret Morgan.”
Yoshino rose briefly to bow before sitting again. “Good afternoon, Ms. Morgan. I don’t believe we have met, beyond the bridge of the Phoenix.”
“Pnawn da. And I don’t think so either. Welcome aboard.”
“‘Good afternoon,'” Kim translated.
“Konnichi-wa, then!” Yoshino returned with a shy blush.
“Meg, you want anything? The waiter’s coming back…” Kim moved Yoshino’s prized feathers to the last empty chair between them.
“Ah…. Anything but spoo. No one is going to convince me it’s anything better than warm meat jello,” Margaret declared after smiling and inclining her head to Yoshino. Darquin made a dramatic show of protecting his bowl of spoo, shielding it with his arm.
There was a brief flurry of activity as plates, bowls and glasses were laid out. Steamed rice and a bowl of vegetables were put before Yoshino, and the generosity brought a mild protest. “You didn’t have to do that, Doctor Matsumoto. Really.”
“My treat,” Kim dismissed. She picked up the chopsticks to start into her own order, an indulgent plate of beef and vegetables over rice. When were they going to be able to eat like that again? Weeks, at least. “I’ve not had leave in ages and funds to spare. Where else to spend it but on friends?”
Yoshino inclined her head deeply in thanks. “You honor me.”
With lunch beginning in earnest, conversation reduced to a series of long pauses interspersed with requests to pass things across the table and questions about the food. Even with the dull roar of the crowd beside them, it surpassed the turmoil and violence of recent months.
“Heh, starting to feel like I’m twenty again,” Darquin said. “I could almost believe there isn’t a war on.”
“Ie,” Margaret agreed, folding her arms on the table. The waiter disappeared to get the new order.
Kim smiled ruefully. “I know. But then there is always something going on. We just didn’t know it then.” There was a thoughtful silence then and as the mood darkened, Kim scrambled for something to say. “You know…. A week ago I’d have said you should save your money, Yoshino. You think Kuri would like a hamster?”
Margaret coughed suddenly. Darquin gagged for a second on his spoo. Yoshino looked puzzled.
“Ah… “Bob”. A pet of the Commander’s. Vengeful, I know. But as I could not feed him to the lions…”
“Um, well, it’s not like you can make it look like an accident…,” Darquin pointed out.
Margaret coughed again and held her tongue. There was always a way, with some creativity.
“Don’t get that worried look on your face, Tom.” Kim grinned. “A moment’s temptation.” Actually, she was reluctantly starting to feel concern for the XO. He’d been quiet for a while now… seeming strange to Kim’s limited knowledge of him…. And Kim couldn’t read a damn thing on him with her telepathy. She still didn’t understand that.
“Perhaps something a little less permanent?” Yoshino asked, thoughtful.
Kim played along, looked at her with new appreciation. “Possibly.”
“As long as I don’t have to attend a spacing,” Darquin said, half serious. A week ago it would have been an acceptable joke, but not after what had just happened so recently…
“Lord, I do not want to spend any time on that ship.” Kim grimaced.
“I saw it….” Yoshino said, unconsciously clenching her left hand. She’d had to watch it from the bridge, sickened and shocked as the Captain of the Hellfire exercised his powers in dealing with a traitor.
“I heard,” Kim repeated, too low for most of their hearing. She couldn’t describe the feeling of sensing the death out in hyperspace. It had ripped her out of sleep with a scream. Margaret glanced at her, grimacing, and sipped at her tea. Yoshino looked at both of them, but averted her gaze, for politeness’ sake.
Kim shook off the feeling. Not now. “Well, at least we’ll be parting ways with the Hellfire, right?”
“Any idea where we’re going next?”
“I don’t know, but the captain’s gone.” Kim frowned thoughtfully. “I’m sure something’s wrong, or the Commander wouldn’t be acting as he is.”
Margaret blinked at the revelation. “I didn’t know.”
“Sorry to hear it,” Darquin sighed.
“Well….” Kim glanced at Yoshino, then decided on trust. “I haven’t sensed him anywhere since the first night we got in. And Commander’s been showing someone new around.” Kim shook her head. “I don’t like it.”
Yoshino looked puzzled, but realized something was up. “Sensed him?”
“I’m a telepath,” Kim confessed quietly. Margaret watched Yoshino warily and Darquin looked around the Zocalo in case someone heard.
Yoshino’s eyes widened in surprise, then she slowly nodded with understanding. “Ah…. Thank you. Again, you honor me.”
Kim shrugged, faint unease. This was the first willing admittance she’d made. “You’re one of us.”
Darquin tapped his own Ranger pin. “We seem to be in this together, whatever it is.”
Lunch slowly disappeared, the plates taken away and dessert menus left. No one moved to order, caught up in the conversation and a rare moment of relaxation.
Yoshino leaned closer to Darquin while Margaret and Kim were caught up in a friendly debate over books. “Mr. Darquin, I am reminded of something else… if I may ask a question?” Yoshino asked. Her pattern of speech was still slightly formal, but she’d warmed considerably over time, daring to initiate.
“Sure, I guess. You can even ask two of ’em.”
“I understand that you use the bokken?”
“Yeah, from my Academy days. I had to use it for a while till I got a fighting pike of my own.”
“If you would be interested in maintaining your skill, I could use a sparring partner.”
Darquin was confused at first. “Um, sure. Always handy.”
Yoshino smiled. “Thank you.”
“Staves are… impressive weapons,” Kim commented on catching the end of the conversation. Her voice was amused, and she rubbed her side ruefully. Her ribs had only just healed from the pummeling she’d taken on Minbar.
“Still recovering from your last impressions, Kim?” Darquin said.
“‘Impression’ is one way to put it. Halfway to my backbone I’d say,” Kim complained, but she was laughing about it now. She thumbed their attention to Margaret. “Maybe you can beat on her a bit, until I get the nerve to use them again.”
Margaret grinned over the lip of her teacup.
“Anything else? Coffee?” Kim asked, splurging.
“I think I can chip in for one,” Darquin said.
“On me. I owe you more than that,” Kim protested. She glanced to the others.
Yoshino declined on the coffee, but asked, “Tea, please. Plain.”
“Mm. I’d best not,” Margaret declined with reluctance.
Kim nodded at Yoshino, then looked at Margaret. Her friend wasn’t one to refuse coffee. “You sure?”
Margaret nodded. “So our good doctor can’t shout at me.” Her grin was wry.
“Oh, no, she’s been after you? I swear, she must have clones,” Kim said cheerfully enough, and hid her sudden concern. She’d ask later. “More tea, then?”
“No, I’m fine.”
Kim leaned to the waiter and began listing the order. She almost missed the new arrival.
“Afternoon. Not interrupting a staff meeting?”
“Billy?” Kim blurted with surprised pleasure, then took command of herself. She turned to find him just behind Margaret. “No, nothing of the sort. You on duty?”
“No, for once,” Billy answered, nodding to Margaret.
Yoshino removed the feathers from the empty chair, tucking them back into her sleeve. Margaret waved to the seat. “Eh, Bilk. We’ve room for one more, I think,” she said and grinned.
“Sit?” Kim urged. “Oh, this is Tom Darquin, your Ranger counterpart. And this is Yoshino Klevetati, our Ranger on Ops.”
Darquin’s brow furrowed with curiosity when he heard the nickname. Trying to hide a smirk, he reached out and shook Billy’s hand. Billy grinned, unoffended. He nodded to Yoshino. “Ma’am.”
Yoshino rose briefly to bow. “Good afternoon.”
They both sat and Kim finally remembered the waiter. “Anything, Billy?”
“Ah, caff’s good.”
“It’s three coffees and a tea,” Kim said to the waiter.
Billy frowned a little. “You didn’t–“
“Probably,” Darquin agreed, keeping a straight face. Margaret hid a laugh in a sip of her tea.
“The crowds are noisy. I’m sorry,” Kim lied cheerfully.
Billy rubbed the back of his neck, barely controlling his color. He didn’t argue further. Darquin watched them both, quietly and secretly amused. “So…” Darquin struck up a conversation with Billy, “you’re in Security? Earthforce?”
“Once upon a time. Been….” Billy thought a moment. “A year now? The Mars bombings did it.”
“I can believe it.”
Kim grimaced. “Would for anyone that had a conscience.”
Billy’s grin was twisted. “Well, when your own dome is gone…? I stayed on, worked in a free dome. For a while.”
“Must’ve been tough, getting out of there and coming here,” Darquin commented.
“Yes, but….” Billy shrugged. “Took a while, too.”
“I’ll say it does. Earthforce took me the long way around. Took about three years.”
Margaret glanced at Darquin, nodding in understanding for the general, if not knowing the specifics. Kim glanced at him also, but with surprise. She’d not heard much about Darquin’s career before the Rangers.
“Damn. I feel lucky now,” Billy said.
There was a moment’s silence as coffee was brought. The waiter set out the mugs before Billy, Darquin and Kim, and tea before Yoshino. Cream and sugar went in the middle of the table. Kim absently handed up her credit chit to pay.
“Thanks, Kim,” Darquin said, raising his cup with a smile. He laughed as he picked up the cone-shaped pitcher of cream. “Well, savor the sensation while you got it,” he said to Billy.
“I will,” Billy agreed, raising his mug to Darquin.
“Indeed,” Kim agreed. Mugs were lifting in an impromptu toast.
Margaret smiled wryly. “None of us took the easy way here, I think.” She added her nearly empty teacup to the toast.
“I don’t think there really is one, is there?” Darquin pointed out.
“To the better way, then,” Kim said.
Yoshino raised her teacup also. “Indeed. If there is one, we shall find it.”
“Probably build it. One bit at a time,” Darquin said.
Billy chuckled painfully. “A better way.”
Kim lowered her mug and took a small sip, the others following suit.
Yoshino drained her teacup, setting it down and rising in a fluid motion. “And now, I had better return to my quarters while I still have some.” She smiled. “No room is safe from a bored mi-ke.”
Billy raised his eyebrows, but didn’t ask. It wasn’t his business.
Margaret drained her cup as well. “Shouldn’t there be a fireplace around here?” she said to herself, amused.
Kim smiled at Margaret. “What the hell.” She put a cream and sugar in her coffee. “Tell Mira and I’ll reprogram your showers.”
Billy coughed, hiding a smile. She could. And would. “Afternoon, then,” he said to Yoshino.
Yoshino turned to each person at the table, ending with Darquin. “You are all welcome to stop by and take a hand with the feathers. And don’t forget the popcorn, Mr. Darquin!”
“I won’t. Abayo,” Darquin bid goodbye, followed in their own fashion from Kim and Margaret.
Yoshino smiled, bowed once more, then flowed into the crowd.
“So… if we banded together, what do you think would be our chances on altering the resupply order for something real for the galley,” Kim said, returning to amusement. Margaret laughed. Billy just sipped at his coffee slowly, listening and glancing beside him every so often.
Darquin chuckled. “Depends on who the new CO’ll be.”
“If it’s a new CO. Surely T– Narsh wouldn’t just leave?” Kim protested.
Margaret shook her head. “One would think not, but….”
“Yeah, I hope not. I barely had a chance to talk to him,” Darquin said.
“I wish I had that quiet a track record.”
“Your record? Mine reads like a Sex Pistols album.”
Both Margaret and Kim stared at him.
“Sex Pistols? Do I want to know?”
“You know… anarchy? ‘No Future’?” Darquin said, a self-directed bit of tongue in cheek. “No one listens to the classics anymore….”
“Classics I know, but….” Margaret shook her head.
Kim leaned back in her chair, cradling her near-empty mug in her lap. “Darquin, you’re not warping the minds of your juniors are you?” she teased.
There was a long pause, then, “You mean just today or…?”
Kim laughed openly. “I’m still dealing with your presence in Science.”
Margaret grinned, arms folded and sitting comfortably back in her chair.
“Oh, that’s where I left all the Robert Johnson….”
“I’m not asking,” Margaret declared.
Kim grinned into her mug, taking another sip.
“I’m just a bad penny,” Darquin said to Billy.
Billy’s eyes were twinkling. “Takes one to know one.”
Kim shook her head at them and Darquin threw her an amused glance over his cup.
“Worse than him?” Margaret indicated Billy grinning.
“No contests. Please,” Kim pleaded.
Darquin laughed. “Well, everyone needs a hobby–“
Billy grumbled at Margaret, concentrating on his coffee.
“Well….” Margaret was just gearing up, tossing out the amused threat of details.
“Haven’t you told enough people this week?” Billy growled at his old friend.
“Billy, you should know Meg,” Kim teased.
“I could come back later…?” Darquin joked.
Billy glared at Margaret. “No, I’ll be fine.”
Margaret survived the retelling, but Billy was flushing badly, staring at the table. Kim was as amused as the first time, but she managed her face better. Margaret was looking decidedly pleased with himself.
“Um… does this mean he’s leaving the tip?” Darquin asked.
Kim’s pent laughter broke free.
“Haven’t started a game here yet, thank you very much,” Billy said testily.
Darquin allowed a small, cautious smile. “Well…it was good enough for Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains, right?”
Billy grinned suddenly. “I suppose so.”
Kim glanced at her watch a few minutes later. “Well, I’d best find that supplier. I’m supposed to see about getting some extra EVA equipment and oxy supplies. Commander’s ordered it and I’ll have to go inspect it.”
“Sure, meet back on the ship if I miss you. And thanks,” Darquin said.
Margaret stretched, pushing back from the table. “Later, then, Cyfeilles.”
Kim smiled at them both. Standing, she missed the flash of disappointment on Billy’s face at her leaving. She stood fishing out a cash tip.
“Actually, I needed to head that way myself,” Billy said, fumbling a little and standing with Kim. Margaret couldn’t stop a wide grin at the transparent excuse, but held her tongue for now.
“Nice meeting you, Billy. Clear skies.” Darquin offered.
Billy smiled faintly. “And you.”
“Well, catch you both back at the ship.” Kim glanced at Billy, then led the way around the table. Billy followed, pointedly ignoring Margaret. Darquin pretended not to have noticed anything until they were gone. Margaret laughed to herself, amused and pleased, and Darquin gave her an inquiring look.
“What are you thinking?” Margaret asked.
“I’ve never seen Kim enjoying herself before! Not this much.”
“Neither have I. Nor Bilk, and I’ve known him far longer.”
Darquin spoke half to himself. “Wow… good to see with everything else that’s going on.”
“Ie.” Margaret agreed.
“Too bad we can’t bottle it and spread it around the ship.”
Margaret chuckled, a little sad. “It would be nice.” She shook her head before getting lost in memories. “See you on the ship, yes? Have to make sure the juniors haven’t destroyed everything yet.”
“Yeah, good idea. I’ll probably meet you on the shuttle back.”
Margaret pushed her chair back and stood, delivering half a salute before disappearing.