John Danziger's scarred, calloused, grease-stained fingers traced lightly over a wrench in his tool kit, skipped away from it, and grasped the next in line. He adjusted the size with a flick of his thumb and brought it to the nut. It refused to turn for a moment, and he shifted his grip and tried again. It came loose all at once, and he hissed around his teeth as his knuckles--not for the first time, not for the thousandth time, not even for the millionth--rapped against another piece of engine.
Without bothering to check for blood, he set the wrench down and finished unscrewing the bolt with his fingers. Laying it down by his side, he went to the next nut holding the panel. With that undone, he splayed one big hand under the panel and lowered it until it rested flat on the ground. The innards of the Transrover lay open before him, and it only took a second to see the problem.
Damn silly wiring was like a shankin' snowflake these days--breathe wrong and it went to hell. He wasn't surprised, though. Mining vehicle, and it was being pushed along like a troop transport. It was in the wrong place, doing the wrong thing, and it was falling apart.
He pulled out a meter and checked the wires themselves for conductivity. They still looked okay. Not great, but they'd keep the 'rover rolling. If he were on the stations, he'd replace them, but here his supplies were limited, and he had to make do as long as he could.
Of course, if he were on the stations, John reflected as he put the meter away and reached up into the guts of the vehicle, he wouldn't be doing this. It wasn't where he was supposed to be, and it wasn't what he was supposed to be doing (not really), and he hadn't fallen apart yet. Which was pretty good, considering.
Of course, others hadn't been so lucky--
His fingers paused on a wire, and he took a slow careful breath. Not thinking about that. Absolutely not thinking about that. She's doing better every day, if you believe Julia.
He concentrated hard on the tiny wire between his fingers, twisting it back into place and going on to the next one. This, he knew how to fix.
Something heavy settled on his knees, and a pained grunt escaped him. Looking down his body, he saw a little khaki-clad butt resting on his legs. "True-girl," he said. "That was cute when you were five. Plus it didn't break my kneecaps. You aren't, and it is. Off."
"I wanted to make sure I had your attention," his daughter said, leaning down so she could see him.
"Yeah, well, you do. Off." He bounced one knee upward, and she toppled forward off his legs with a yelp. He went back to work, knowing his daughter was as tough as an old boot.
She settled herself cross-legged on the ground, then her face appeared again. "Dad," she said.
"Yeah." He groped for the last wire.
"Are you listening?"
"Are you sick or something?"
His hand paused. "What?"
"Are you sick?" she repeated slowly. "You can tell me if you are."
John stared blankly into the machine, then shoved himself out from under it to look his daughter in the face. "Sweetheart, I'm fine."
"Are you sure?" she persisted.
"Yes," he said, wondering where this had come from. When they'd first left Devon behind in the cryo-chamber, his daughter had become near-fanatical about his health, but he'd thought she'd gotten over that.
True crossed her arms, not looking one bit convinced. "Uly's mom said she wasn't sick and she was."
As if he needed reminding. "I'm not sick. Unlike some people I could mention, I eat all my vegetables and go to bed at a reasonable hour." Not that he slept, but she didn't need to know that.
She snorted loudly. "No, you don't. You were up until moonset playing cards last night."
"And how would you know that?" he asked. "Because I remember sending you to bed at moonrise. You wouldn't happen to have snuck out, would you?"
She looked momentarily flummoxed, then said in very lofty tones, "We're getting off the subject, Dad."
He grinned. Still got it, Danziger. Won't ever lose it. "Right," he said. "The subject. Your sudden obsession with my health. What makes you think I'm sick?"
"Well . . . You never fight with Devon anymore."
He felt the grin dissolve, and he stared at her for several seconds before managing to say, "Can you start from the top there, kiddo? 'Cause I'm lost."
She looked up at him without a trace of mischief in her face. "You always used to yell at her, and she'd yell back, and it was kinda funny. But you don't anymore."
"We didn't always fight," he said. "We got along okay sometimes. We get along okay," he corrected himself, because using the past tense regarding Devon Adair still gave him the heebie-jeebies.
"Yeah, but when she said something you didn't like, you'd tell her. Like, right away."
"You don't. Dad, the other day when she said we were going to take the faster route, I thought you were gonna pop a vein, but you didn't say anything. And everyone thought you were going to, even her. I saw her looking at you."
He'd thought he was going to pop a vein, too. The route Devon had wanted would shave a day and a half off their passage through the foothills, but it was also tougher than his pick, which wound around the base of the mountains and was more or less flat as a pancake. "So I didn't fight with her once. So what? Honey--"
She poked him. "You haven't gotten in one fight with her since you and Julia brought her back. And it's been six weeks."
"What's bad about that? I thought you'd like it that I'm not fighting with her anymore." He frowned at her, confused. "You want me to hate her or something?"
She rolled her eyes. "Da-ad. Julia explained to me and Uly way back."
His blood ran cold. "Explained?" he echoed.
"About how come you and his mom fight."
"Did she now." A horrifying image flooded his mind, of the doctor explaining the weird forms that raging sexual frustration could take. With diagrams.
"Uh-huh. She said you and Devon are just really different, and you both want what's best for all of us, and you both always think you're right, and just 'cause you fight, it doesn't mean you hate each other or anything." She peered up at him. "She was right, wasn't she?"
John let out his breath. No mention of diagrams, thank god. He'd never bothered to hide the facts of life from his daughter, but just because she knew how nuts and bolts fitted together didn't mean she understood any of the whys. "She was right," he assured her. "I don't hate Devon. I never did."
"Then how come you don't fight with her anymore?"
Lost in his daughter's mental cul-de-sac, John could only blink. It was probably best not to try and figure out how she'd gotten there. He didn't want his head to explode. He put his arm around her shoulders. "Look, the lady's been sick. You know that."
"And we're all trying to look after her until she's on her feet again."
Literal as only an eleven-year-old could be, True said, "But she's on her feet again. She's walking and everything."
He blew out his breath. "I mean, until she's got all her strength back. 'Cause she may be walking and everything, but she's not at full battery power, you know?"
She frowned over this, but finally conceded the point. "Okay."
"So . . . I figure she doesn't need me yelling at her right now."
She put her head to one side. "So you're trying to be nice?"
"Yeah, that's about the size of it."
She considered this. "Are you sure you're not sick?"
He pulled her close and noogied the top of her head. "Smartass."
She giggled into his chest, but sobered quickly.
He sighed. "Look," he said. "If you want, I'll go to Julia and make her test me for everything she's got. Even the ones for, I don't know, pregnant sheep. Okay?"
He smoothed her rumpled hair. "Feel better?"
She nodded, her eyes on her knees.
He said quietly, "True-girl, I'm not gonna collapse and leave you alone like Devon did, I promise."
She sighed heavily. "Devon said she didn't have a choice. She said if it had been up to her, it wouldn't'a happened."
His heart contracted when he remembered finding Devon on her hands and knees in the dirt. "That's because she didn't take care of herself and she let it go too long. I do, and I won't." He tipped her chin up. "Got it?"
She nodded firmly, and this time she did look convinced. "Got it."
He let out his breath. "Wanna check my work?"
She considered it. "'Kay."
They scooted under the Transrover together. As she studied the workings of the vehicle with an owlish frown on her face, he thought about what she'd said. True was his touchstone. When she called him on something, he knew it was so.
He was treating Devon differently. Hard not to, after what had happened.
He'd thought at the time that putting her in a cryo tube and then walking away would be the hardest thing he would ever do. But watching her pretend she was still as tough as Grendler hide, the way she looked now, when she was supposedly cured . . . that was killing him by inches.
On a frame like Devon's, it didn't take even ten pounds to go from trim to frail, and a lot more than ten had melted away between the illness before they'd put her in cryo and the stress of her recovery. The veins in her temples and wrists showed right through in thin blue lines. The shadows under her eyes were so dark and deep it looked like someone had punched her. She looked as bad as her kid had to start out with.
And yet, everything was "fine." I'm fine, everyone, I'm just fine. Julia, you don't need to sedaderm me to sleep, I'm fine, even though I wake up with shadows under my eyes bigger than when I went to bed. I can walk all morning, I'm fine, even though I have to sit down all through lunch. Don't hover, don't fuss, don't worry, don't let me know how much you care, because I'm fine and I don't need any of it.
When a woman had the color of a bleached rag, the apparent strength of a bowl of semolina mush, and she'd clawed her way back from the other side of death only six weeks before, it was kind of hard to get a good fight going, no matter how provoking she was.
"Looks good, Dad." True said, bringing him back to the underside of the Transrover.
"Okay." He replaced the panel and they scooted out from under the vehicle, satisfied that it would carry its load at least a day further. "You wanna go check on dinner? I'm about ready to eat my own arm."
She giggled and bounced to her feet, darting away toward the fire. John looked ahead of her to where Devon sat in a patch of shade, painstakingly measuring something on one of her everlasting maps. She paused, closed her eyes for a moment, and shook her head. Then she opened them again, leaning closer to the table as if that would help her focus.
John's lips tightened. Everything was fine. Just fine.