"So what's the problem?" Dex asked without looking up from the line of figures stretching down the side of his blueprint. "I thought you two were past this point, Cap."
"I don't know. She's just in it for the story. I thought she wanted something else, but…" the pilot shrugged a little morosely. "Nothing's happened for two months now, action-speaking, and she seems bored. I can't help but think the two are connected."
Snap…snap…pop. "Do you want something else with her?" the engineer queried finally.
Sky Captain let his hand hang off the back of the chair he sat in. "I don't bloody know, Dex," he moaned. "I should love her, I really should, the whole world expects it, but…"
"But she annoys the hell out of you."
He smiled hearing the other man utter a curse. "Yes, she does. Constantly. Is that odd? Does she annoy you, too?"
"I don't really see her enough for it to get to me," he answered moderately.
"De-ex…" He spun the chair around with one foot so that his still-dangling head faced the paper-laden table and gave the other man a knowing look.
"Yeah, okay, she's pretty ridiculous."
"Thank god you agree," Joe sighed, standing so suddenly that Dex glanced up at him. "If she bothers you, quite possibly the nicest person on the planet, then I don't have to feel bad about her bothering me."
"Nice people generally don't spend their afternoons building things designed to kill people," he pointed out as the pencil in his hand traced a neat row of digits.
"You're an exception to the rule, then. What is this, anyway?" he inquired as he drew nearer and studied the complicated lines on the page.
"It's a jet engine. Frank Whittle – he's research and development for the RAF, we worked on the Manta project together – came up with it about ten years ago. He's got a working prototype in his lab, but he's not very happy with it. He asked me to look at it and see if I had any suggestions."
"Is it any good?"
"It's amazing. I'm putting a pair on your plane as soon as I figure out how to make them stop exploding."
"I'll give it plenty of test time first, Cap. You know that."
"Just making sure you aren't planning your revenge, that's all," he joked, plopping back down into his seat. His jovial tone didn't match his mood; his engineer had been acting oddly for weeks now, seemingly finding excuses to be near him but then giving off an aura of mere toleration at his presence. His determination to figure out what was going on in the other man's head, coupled with his recently renewed distaste for a certain reporter, was what had driven him into this back corner of the hangar. He had to know what was going on, and he knew the best way to do it was to keep talking until he could decipher the problem.
"Revenge for what?" Dex asked, arching an eyebrow.
"Polly, of course."
"Oh, that." He laughed shortly. "You had to chase her. It would have looked weird for you not to, after the way she presented the Totenkopf thing. Besides, I was busy here."
"Busy here…" Joe mused at the offhand way Dex had said those words. "You did all of the work practically. I barely raised a finger, did I? You pulled everything back together, corralled the men, juggled the expenses, fielded phone calls. When did you sleep?" Now that he thought about it, the other man seemed to have pulled off a miracle in rebuilding the base as quickly as he had.
"I mostly didn't," the engineer admitted. "But it was kind of fun, you know, getting to watch all the new buildings go up."
"I should have been here more to help. It's not fair that it all got dropped on you. You don't even get the credit for it, at least not in the wider world."
"I don't mind, Cap. Everything's running like it should be again, and I'm working on new projects. You know that's all I need."
"All you need, Dex?" Sky Captain asked in a low voice that left nothing to question.
He glanced up and around, making sure no one had come into earshot during the last few minutes. "I have you. That's all I really need. The rest can fall into the ocean for all I care." He tapped the blueprint with the eraser of his pencil. "All this other stuff…they're just perks."
"And you're really not jealous about Polly?" There was a note of wonder in his voice. "I thought you might be."
"I know you, Joe," Dex said seriously, meeting his eyes. "You're attracted to her because she pushes back from time to time. You respect her because she's very, very good at what she does. But that's all there is. You'll never stay with her long-term because she doesn't really make you happy."
"You make me happy, Dex."
"I try," he shrugged.
"You succeed. Constantly." Leaving his chair once more, Sky Captain strode the few steps back to the other man's side and stared over his shoulder. "How fast do you think it goes?"
"Mmm…this engine has a lot of potential."
"How much potential?"
The engineer straightened, shook out his writing-cramped hand, and glanced around conspiratorially once more. "I think you'll be able to break the sound barrier with it, once I've made a few other modifications to your plane," he confided, his eyes gleaming with an eager light that had been missing of late.
Joe gaped at him. "You're joking," he accused quietly, his mission forgotten at this news. He leaned in until their shoulders brushed together, curious to hear more.
"Would I tease you like that?"
"I know exactly how much of a tease you can be, thank you. But…the sound barrier? Seriously?"
"Seriously, the sound barrier. Poof!" He wiggled his fingers in a bad imitation of a magician making something vanish. "Another conquest for the illustrious Sky Captain."
"Courtesy of the absolutely brilliant Dexter Dearborn," Joe murmured back, not having missed the dark sarcasm lurking between the other man's words. "Not that anyone will pay attention to your part in the whole thing. You'll get swept under the rug again, like always. I loathe that, you know."
"I don't do this for fame, Joe. I hate the limelight, it makes me look jaundiced."
The taller man smirked. "Then why do you do it?"
"You already know the answer to that," the engineer chastised gently, shifting around the table so that no one who might be observing could say they stood close by one another for too long.
"Maybe I just like to hear you say the words," the pilot pushed, his hands splaying over the blueprint as he bent towards him, his eyes insistent.
"I do it for you," Dex confessed shortly. "Now back up before you get us in trouble."
They stayed frozen for a moment, each giving the other a piercing stare, before Sky Captain resumed his full height. He watched his friend, his partner in everything that mattered, pick up where he'd left off. Only when a new column of figures became necessary did he speak again. "I haven't had a chance to really give all the things I missed the last couple of months a thorough going over yet," he announced. "I'm going to need your help with that."
Snap, pop, and he finally looked up. "Okay, Cap. Whatever you say."
"It could take some time. Can you clear your schedule?"
"If you can clear yours, mine's as good as empty."
The pilot flinched slightly. Dex could cancel his plans so easily for him because all of his plans were for Joe, so the only task left was to ascertain the order. Sky Captain suddenly felt how neglectful he'd been of late, and he couldn't help but lean back over the table to whisper his next words. "A thorough going over, Dex," he hissed into his ear. "It could take a very, very long time to complete, so I suggest you pencil me in indefinitely. Do you understand?"
"I get it, Joe," he said a little exasperatedly.
Balancing on the edge of uncertainty, he pushed just a little harder. "…You don't mind, do you?"
The secret smile he gave only to Joe slipped across his lips as he considered all that a 'thorough going over' implied. His ire at the other man's recent absences slipped away more easily than he'd expected, and he shook his head, laughing a little. "I don't mind, Cap," he answered, warmth creeping back into his voice. "I don't mind at all."