Leo was discharged from sickbay several days earlier than expected. "I knew you were tough, Leo, but you really are something else," marveled the doctor. "It's like you healed up completely over night."
It's all thanks to your care, Doctor.
The doctor quirked a bushy eyebrow. "Well, take care of yourself. I don't want to see you back here anytime soon."
"And give my regards to the Soldier."
I will. Thank you. He turned to leave sickbay, and marveled at how wonderful it felt to move about freely. He took a deep breath and let it out again. He was alive. He was well. He felt better than he had in a long time.
He couldn't wait to tell Jomy.
The sickbay door opened before him. And there stood the Soldier, leaning against the corridor wall with arms casually folded across his chest. Leo stopped in his tracks.
"Well, well, there you are, Leo. Took you long enough."
How did you know?
Jomy narrowed his eyes. "You think anything on this ship happens without my knowledge?" He pushed away from the wall. "Just who do you think I am?" But then Jomy laughed, and suddenly Leo found himself wrapped up in an exuberant hug. "Oh, Leo, I'm so glad you're better!"
Leo smiled and returned the hug. Me, too.
Jomy pulled away and asked, "So, uh, Leo, what are your plans for the day?"
I'm officially fit for duty again, so I am completely at your service.
"Then can we just hang out and do nothing all day?"
"Nothing! No work. No stress. Just nothing."He brushed his blond bangs out of his eyes. "Just you and me. How about it?" Jomy's tone was light, but Leo heard the plea behind those words. Jomy shouldered a heavy burden as Soldier, and there were probably things that Jomy hadn't told him out of consideration for his weakened condition these past few weeks. But it was Leo's job to find out what the Soldier needed and to provide it for him. If the Soldier wanted some quiet time to relax, then Leo would make sure he got that.
I'd be honored to spend a day doing nothing with you, Soldier. Where shall we start?
"How about some lunch?"
That sounds good. I haven't eaten yet.
Jomy smiled. "Then come with me! I know just the place."
Jomy led him to the ship's central park beneath the bridge. They made their way up a grassy rise at the edge of the park. Jomy stopped to rummage around in some bushes. He emerged a moment later with a bundled-up, gray blanket and a white storage container. Before Leo could ask what he was doing, Jomy had spread the blanket out on the grass and sat down on it, placing the white box beside him. He patted the empty space next to him on the blanket and said, "Come on, Leo. Picnic time!"
Leo laughed and joined Jomy on the blanket. Well, this is a surprise!
Jomy opened the box and pulled out a thermos, which he passed to Leo. "Tea for you. And here, some sandwiches. And fruit salad." He handed the items to Leo, then took out some utensils and two mugs. He set them on the blanket between them. Leo wondered just how much advance notice the Soldier must have had of Leo's release from sickbay to arrange all this. Perhaps the doctor was in on it.
Leo unscrewed the top of the thermos. The refreshing scent of mint wafted up. Tea for you, Soldier?
Leo poured the hot tea into the two cups and handed one to Jomy. Then he put the thermos down and took a sip of tea. It was sweet but invigorating. It's delicious.
"Good." Jomy was parceling out the sandwiches onto small plates. Leo watched him idly.
So we're really doing nothing today?
Jomy brushed his hair out of his eyes again. Leo made a mental note to schedule a hair cut for the Soldier tomorrow. "That's right. Got a problem with that?"
Not at all. He took the plate Jomy handed him.
They ate their sandwiches, chatting about nothing and everything. Leo found himself entranced by Jomy's smile, his animated gestures, the glint in his eyes as he laughed about the latest pranks the children had played on Professor Hillman. It felt so nice to sit here in the sunlight with a cup of tea in his hand, his best friend at his side, and no agenda, no mission on his mind. And compared to the narrow confines of sickbay, even this small, enclosed park inside the Shangri-la felt vast and wonderfully open. He couldn't remember the last time he felt so free.
"Are you listening, Leo?"
Leo set his cup down carefully on the blanket. Not really, he admitted.
Leo smiled at Jomy's surprised face. I am simply happy to be by your side again. He reached out a hand and placed it over Jomy's right hand. The gloves they wore reduced their telepathic sensitivity, but the physical contact was still enough to let Leo share his feelings easily with Jomy.
Jomy's hand curled into a fist beneath Leo's hand, but Leo did not release it. This peace, this warmth, this happiness—it is only when I am with you, Soldier, that I feel this way.
"Even in the midst of this giant mess I've gotten us into?"
Even then. He smiled. Even in the very beginning, when you were nothing but trouble, I felt this way.
"You mean, even onAtaraxia?"
Leo nodded. Last night I had a dream about Ataraxia. Do you remember how we escaped from your school on that old bicycle? I dreamed about that.
Jomy's eyes widened. "Was it—a nice dream?"
Yes. That was the first time I was able to read your heart. The first time I felt your warmth. Young Jomy's thoughts had been chaotic with confusion and fear, but as his anxiety gave way, there had been only warmth, love, and longing for his family. In Leo's mind, Jomy's heart had appeared full of light.
Jomy's face reddened. "I had no control over anything, you know. I was just stuck on the back of that bike with you."
Leo laughed. But because of that, we became friends. And even now, your heart has not changed.
"Are you sure about that?" Jomy pulled his hand out from beneath Leo's, but then he shifted on the blanket to move closer to Leo. His hand reached up to touch Leo's cheek. "Tell me, can you read my heart now, too?"
Startled to find himself so close to Jomy, Leo reached out tentatively with his telepathy but it bumped into the invisible wall encasing Jomy's mind. No. Now you shield it like any adult. Considering how wild and uncontrolled Jomy's telepathy had been when he was younger, it was quite the accomplishment.
Would you like to read it? asked Jomy, switching to telepathy as he leaned closer. Leo could see his own reflection in Jomy's green eyes. It was just like that strange moment yesterday when Jomy had leaned over his bed in sickbay and told him he was beautiful. Jomy's eyes had looked like this then—a dark emerald green—and they had been this close then. If it had been anyone else, Leo would have thought Jomy wanted to—
"Ah, would you look at that!" A loud, gruff voice interrupted them, and Jomy abruptly pulled away from Leo. Leo looked up and saw Zel, shouting at them from the path cutting through the center of the park. "Is that what I think it is? The so-called Soldier having a picnic in the middle of the day when we could be attacked by Humans at any moment?"
"Zel!" Ella was with him. "Not so loud, please."
"I'll be as loud as I want! Not like that do-nothing brat listens to me anyway!"
The old engineer shook his fist at Jomy. "Is this what you cancelled today's meeting for? A picnic? Don't think I won't bring this up at the next meeting, Soldier! I'm not done with you yet!"
Jomy rose to his feet. With a sweep of his hand, he flipped his cape out for dramatic effect. "I hear you, Zel. I'd be happy to continue this discussion more quietly, if you'd care to join our picnic."
Leo picked up the container with the remaining sandwiches and stood up as well. There's enough to share.
Zel clenched his fist and let out a growl before turning on his heel and storming away down the park path. Ella nodded politely at both of them before hurrying after her friend.
They watched them go, then Jomy sat back down on the blanket, muttering a curse. Leo sat down beside him and offered him another sandwich. Jomy took it and ate it with big, angry bites. Leo poured some more tea for both of them and quietly watched the Soldier. Zel had disappeared, but a tension remained in Jomy's posture.
Is he always like that now? Leo asked after a little while.
You shouldn't antagonize him further.
"My very existence antagonizes him."
Leo fell silent. He hadn't realized just how much Jomy's relationship with the Elders had deteriorated. Zel's words were outright mutinous, and while he was perhaps the most outspoken of the Elders, his open disdain for the Soldier suggested that Zel had support from other members of the crew. Even Ella had not disagreed with his words—she had merely tried to keep them from reaching the Soldier's ears.
Have you spoken to the captain about this?
"Not directly. Not yet. But he sees what's going on."
Maybe I should go with you to the next council meeting. He cast a sidelong glance at Jomy to gauge his reaction. I know we were only joking about it yesterday, but perhaps I could go as an observer…a neutral party.
Jomy looked up. "Maybe. But you'd hardly be viewed as neutral. And you'd really end up caught up in this in-fighting."
I'm your assistant, Soldier. I'm already caught up in everything you do.
Jomy snorted. "I know. And you're right. But let's not worry about this now. I want to enjoy the rest of our lazy, do-nothing day!" He picked up the fruit salad container and offered Leo a spoon. "How about dessert?"
After their picnic, Leo and Jomy went for a leisurely stroll through the ship, ending their walk at the observation deck. They sat down in some of the armchairs to take in the view for a while. Leo carefully avoided talking about anything work-related, and Jomy seemed happy to chatter on about the training he'd been doing with Harley lately. As the day drew to an end, though, the observation deck began to fill up with crewmembers looking to relax at the bar or to dance to some light music with friends. Leo worried Cid might show up, and Jomy seemed distracted by the increasing noise, so Leo suggested they head back to the residential area and call it a night.
"Good idea. I'll walk you to your room, Leo."
The offer came as a bit of a surprise. Usually it was Leo who escorted Jomy to his quarters, but Leo would not protest the role reversal today. Together they walked to Leo's quarters.
"I always forget how empty your room is, Leo," observed Jomy as they stepped through the door.
Empty? Leo glanced around his quarters. The standard-issue furniture was simple but functional, and the muted pastels and whites of the décor matched the tone of the rest of the ship. The bed was neatly made, and the small table and the counters were spotlessly clean. A lone succulent grew unobtrusively on one of the half-empty bookshelves. He wondered he had watered it while he was in sickbay. Everything was just as Leo had left it. I think it's just neater than yours, Soldier.
"Well, that's true!"
Do you have a little more time to do nothing tonight, Soldier?
"Sure, why not."
Good. Leo walked over to the closet and opened it, trying to remember where he had last put his deck of playing cards.
Leo turned and found Jomy suddenly at his side, leaning against the closet door and peering at him with big green eyes.
W-what is it?
"Are you really feeling better?"
Leo's face softened. Jomy really was worried about him. He placed a hand on his shoulder to reassure him. I'm fine, Soldier.
"And you'd tell me if you have any problems? Any lingering aftereffects from the incident?"
Leo held Jomy's gaze for a moment, then let go of his shoulder and turned back to the closet. He picked up a small black bag from the floor and began rummaging through it. Of course I would, he said. He could feel Jomy's eyes on him.
Relieved that Jomy let the topic drop, Leo pulled his deck of cards out of the bag and offered it to Jomy. Care to join me for a game or two?
Jomy grinned. "How could I refuse?" But then his smile faded. "I should go see Blue soon, though. So let's just do one round."
Leo nodded and gestured for Jomy to take a seat at the small table for two. They sat down and Leo began shuffling the deck, enjoying the satisfying feeling of the cards fluttering against each other in his hands. Speaking of Soldier Blue, how is he doing?
"Same as always." He paused. "Yesterday, Physis and I managed to reach him, briefly."
Leo folded the cards. What? How?
Jomy ignored the question. "We confirmed that he can still hear us. I wanted to tell him about everything, about the trip to planet, all that, but there was no time." He sighed. "You should go see him yourself. I can promise you that he'll hear you, even if he doesn't answer."
Leo tried to process exactly what the Soldier had just revealed to him. Slowly, he began dealing out the cards. Blue was alive. That they had known. Blue was conscious, to a certain extent, as they had hoped. And Leo was not surprised that Physis and Jomy were experimenting with reaching him, even though this was the first he had heard of such joint efforts. But there was one questing nagging Leo.
Soldier, are you still—supporting him?
Jomy began picking up the cards that came sliding across the table to him. He avoided Leo's eyes. "Yeah, well, of course I am."
"She knows what I'm doing."
Leo's hands froze. He set the undealt cards down on the table and leaned back in his chair, letting the information sink in. Given Physis's extraordinary powers, he should not be surprised that she knew that Jomy was literally providing life support to Blue. Since when?
"Since yesterday. Or maybe a little while before that."
"I know! I didn't plan on telling her yet, but she figured it out and I had no choice but to admit it."
Leo wondered what Physis thought of the whole thing. Soldier, there might be problems if too many people learn the truth.
"I know. Don't worry. She won't say anything."
How is she taking it?
"Um, well, you know. Alright, I guess."
Does she know that I know?
"No. I don't think so."
Leo let out a sigh and picked up the cards again. I leave your side for a few weeks and the next thing I know you are conspiring with others and doing all sorts of other crazy things. He dealt the last cards.
"And I'm telling you not to worry. I've got it all under control."
Leo hoped he was right.
In the morning, Leo went to the main aircraft hangar to report for duty as flight instructor. To his surprise, his colleagues and students greeted him with cheers and a shower of confetti when he arrived.
"Welcome back, Leo!"
"Our ace pilot is back!"
The attention embarrassed him. He politely extricated himself from the group, rounded up his students, and shepherded them to the classroom for an impromptu meeting. He wasn't scheduled to teach that day, but he wanted to find out what the substitute teacher had covered during his absence. The students were only too eager to prove how much they had learned, and Leo found himself wishing that they would always show such dedication to their studies. But he looked forward to returning as their teacher full-time by the end of the week.
Once the meeting ended, Leo made his rounds through the main and secondary hangars, re-familiarizing himself with the places he called home. He stopped and chatted here and there with friends and colleagues, and before he knew it, it was late afternoon.
That was when the captain summoned him. Leo. Stop by my office when you have a moment.
Leo blinked, a bit startled to be addressed directly by the captain out of nowhere. Aye, sir. On my way, sir.
He quickly made his way to the captain's office. Before he could knock, the captain called, Come in. And so Leo entered.
Captain Harley sat behind his heavy mahogany desk. He held an antique pen in his hand as he wrote something on what looked like actual paper. He put down the old-fashioned implements and rose to his feet as Leo entered.
"Leo," he greeted him, moving from behind his desk to shake Leo's hand. "Welcome back."
Leo smiled, returning the captain's firm grip. Thank you, Captain. I am happy to be back.
"A remarkable recovery, I hear. I find it almost hard to believe that you're Mu, as tough as you are."
Leo smiled. They took very good care of me in sickbay.
"So it seems." Harley regarded him in silence for a moment, but then he spoke again. "Leo, you must be wondering why I called you here. It's simple: I want you to keep an eye on the Soldier."
Is something wrong?
"No. But his influence with the Elders—such that it is—is eroding rapidly. I even thought he and Zel would come to outright blows at the last Council Meeting."
Leo frowned. He had sensed from Jomy's behavior that the last meeting hadn't gone well, but he did not know it had been that bad. He wasn't actually surprised, though, after witnessing Zel's outburst in the park.
"Leo, you're his right-hand man. I need you to be there for him. I'm not asking you to spy on him for me, but if you notice anything odd—if you realize that these 'issues' are affecting him more intensely than they should, I need you to let me know."
Of course, Captain. I will do anything in my power to assist the Soldier.
"I know. I would do more myself, but I am limited in my role as member of the Council." He folded his arms. "Some say I favor him too much as it is."
Captain, assuming it's not a terrible breach of protocol, would it be possible for me to attend the next council meeting with the Soldier?
"I see no reason why he couldn't bring you along."
Then I would like to attend. It seemed clear to Leo now that some of the Elders on the Council were merely shifting all the responsibility and all the blame to Jomy. It was time the Soldier had some visible supporters—other than the captain—by his side.
The corner of Harley's mouth quirked up. "I see your faith in the Soldier has remains as strong as ever. Stay by his side, Leo. I suspect he will need you even more than he already does."
I will, sir. No matter what.
"You have my gratitude. I look forward to seeing you at the next meeting."