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shortfalls and little sins

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Against all odds, he woke up. It was slow and swimming, like pushing against a heavy burn to make his way to consciousness.

He groaned aloud and stirred, trying to force his eyes open. Above him was a bare metal ceiling. He could feel something on his arm, not prisoner restraints but a medical cuff, presumably pumping him full of good, good drugs considering that he wasn’t in excruciating pain. Infirmary. He was in an infirmary—and infirmary on a ship, he realized, judging from the slight pull of thrust gravity.

His memory was a haze. The last thing he remembered was rigging the reactor on the Agatha King to blow. He remembered the satisfaction, the deep sense of relief that everything was going to be alright, and then—nothing.

“Cotyar?”

His heart thudded in his chest, recognizing the voice immediately. He slowly turned his head.

“You made it,” he said. His voice cracked in the middle, but he couldn’t bring himself to care. She was alive. She was okay. And then: “did we win?”

“My god, I could slap you,” said Chrisjen Avasarala.

“Please don’t,” he said weakly. “I’ve been shot.” He was floating above the pain at the moment, thanks to the drugs, but it was a close enough memory that he was wary of crashing back down into it.

“What were you thinking with that stunt you tried to pull on the Agatha King? You’re lucky Kamal and Nagata happened to be there,” she continued as if he hadn’t spoken, eyes bright with anger. “Or you would have gone up with the ship.”

“That was—“ he licked his lips, trying to wet his mouth “—that was kind of the point.”

She scowled at him, mouth a tremulous red slash. She was wearing what looked like an old pro racing jumpsuit, and the absence of her usual finery made her look bare and vulnerable.

“What kind of fucking imbecilic nonsense thinking is that?” she snapped.

“I was trying,” he managed through mouth as dry as a bone, “to do the right thing.” He could feel the heavy pull of unconsciousness dragging him down again. He groped upward, catching ahold of her arm. “Chrisjen. Did we win?

Her expression flickered, softening.

“Yes,” she said, with a sigh. “Yes we did.”

“Good,” he slurred, already sliding back down. The last thing he felt was the touch of her hand, wrinkled and cool, to his forehead.

::

He woke up again, and this time felt more or less human. He couldn’t tell how much time had passed—the cool white lighting in the infirmary was the same, of course. They were still under thrust, a gentle leisurely burn of maybe three-quarters of a g.

There was a woman in the room with him: tall, clearly a belter, with curly black hair, absorbed in one of the onboard screens. She had OPA signs on her neck, which was concerning. He hadn’t considered that Madam Avasarala and Draper might have been scooped up by OPA. In that case, why would they bother to rescue him too, much less patch him up?

He cleared his throat, and she looked up.

“You’re awake,” she said, rising and coming over to his station. “How are you feeling?”

“Water,” he rasped, to see if she would give it to him, but also because his mouth was still parched. She handed him a bulb easily enough, and while he downed half of it in one go. Now that she was facing him, her face seemed awfully familiar, like he should know her.

“Nagata,” he said, his blurred memories of Madam Avasarala’s words starting to make sense. “You’re Naomi Nagata. This is the Rocinante, isn’t it?” That explained the OPA tats. He’d recognized her from the intel files.

“Yes,” she said. “Don’t worry, you’re safe.”

“What happened?”

“How much do you remember?” she asked, spreading her hands. “A lot’s happened.”

“Not much,” he said, wincing. “I was on the Agatha King. That proto-shit was everywhere. I was planning to nuke the place, but then…”

“Alex—our pilot—and I found you unconscious in the reactor chamber,” she said. “You must have passed out. We got you back to the Roci just in time.”

“Wait, so—you saved my life,” he said.

Nagata look faintly embarrassed, and spread her hands again in a Belter shrug.

“We don’t leave people behind on this ship,” she said. “Not when we can help it.”

Like that was all there was to it.

He swallowed hard, suddenly choked up, and gave her a nod. She smiled and patted his hand.

“I’m sure you have questions, but you have a friend who would probably be happy to help,” she said, looking down to fire off a message on her hand terminal. “I’ll let her fill you in.”

::

Soon the door opened and Draper came in. Her face was mottled with bruises, but she gave a swollen smile upon seeing him.

“Good to see you, spy,” she said, pulling up a seat next to him.

“You too, marine,” he said, shifting in his chair to clasp her hand in greeting. “What the hell happened to you?

She gave a nonchalant, one shouldered shrug.

“Got in a fight,” she said. “Nothing new.”

“Fuckin’ marines,” he said, shaking his head with mock disapproval. “Never found a problem you think brute force won’t solve.”

“Hey, at least I’m not hiding behind a desk while real soldiers risk their lives,” she tossed back, grinning, and he couldn’t help grinning back. It was fun to have someone to exchange insults with—like being back in the service again, before it all went bad.

“So, the Rocinante,” he said. “Strange bedfellows.”

“Well, you know what they say about desperate times,” she said. “Nah, they’re okay. Holden’s kind of a weirdo, but he’s good people and so is his crew. Their pilot’s a Martian, so at least they’re treating the Tachi with the respect she deserves.”

“Yeah…” he said. “Yeah, they saved my life.”

“So I heard,” she said. “Sorry I couldn’t help with that, by the way.”

He waved it off.

“You did your duty, got Madam Avasarala to safety,” he said. “That’s more than enough. No, it’s just…” He couldn’t imagine being a Martian or a Belter and coming up with any reason to bother with saving his sorry ass. Nagata had been hardcore OPA back in the day. She certainly had more than enough reason to hold a grudge.

Draper was watching him blankly, oblivious to his train of thought.

“Never mind,” he said. “You have to tell me what the hell happened while I busy not dying. I’m guessing since we’re still here, Earth and Mars didn’t manage to blow each other to bits?”

Draper shook her head.

“You do not know the fucking half of it,” she muttered, like she was still in disbelief. “Well, anyway…”

It took her a while, and whatever he expected, it wasn’t what she told him.

“Sorry,” he said at one point. ”How many children?” And then: “There’s what over Venus?”

When she was finished he had to close his eyes to process it all. He had the beginnings of a headache.

“Jesus,” he said.

“Yeah,” said Draper in agreement.

“How’s Madam?” he asked.

“Hogging the tightbeam,” she said. “She’s been talking to Earth nonstop, getting all her ducks in a row. As soon as we touch down on Earth, Mao’s going to be buried so deep in his own shit he’ll never see light again. Errinwright’s going down with him too. The only question is whether she’ll have his balls bronzed as a trophy or not.”

“Oh, she will,” said Cotyar with a half-chuckle that hurt his wound. “Never doubt it.” Draper gave him a flash of teeth.

“The writing’s on the wall for your guy Sorrento-Gillis too, judging by the language being used,” she continued. “Not sure I’m supposed to know that, though.”

Madam had never liked Sorrento-Gillis—Cotyar thought he recalled the words “spineless fuckwad” being used. But she had tolerated him because he was the best option.

“How is she, though?” he asked.

Draper gave him a look.

“We don’t braid each other’s hair and talk about our feelings,” she said.

“I’m not asking you to, marine,” he said. “I’m asking you how she’s doing.”

She sighed.

“Scared,” she said. “We thought shit was bad when it was the hybrids, but then this thing on Venus comes along and makes them look like toys. At least the hybrids could be killed. This?” She gave a shrug. “So yeah, she’s scared. We all are. But she’s channeling the fear into anger, so who knows. As coping mechanisms go it could be worse.” She paused for a minute. “I think she’s pretty pissed at you for almost dying, to be honest.”

“Yeah, I kind of got that impression,” he said. “She’ll get over it.” He thought about. “Probably.”

Something that had been niggling at the back end of his brain finally caught up with him.

“Wait a sec,” he said. “When we touch down on Earth? Aren’t you going back to Mars?”

Her gaze cut to the side.

“I assaulted a superior officer, stole top-secret military intelligence, and fled to an enemy nation,” she said dryly. “I don’t think they want me back.”

“Bull shit,” he said. “You’re a fucking interplanetary hero. You could get a full pardon and a medal if you wanted.”

“I don’t want a medal,” she said sharply. “I was just doing the right thing.”

A suspicion occurred to him.

“She’s trying to recruit you, isn’t she?”

Her silence told him everything. He snorted to himself. He should have known. Most bureaucrats wouldn’t have the balls to even think of poaching foreign military personnel, but not Chrisjen Avasarala. She hated wasted talent and had clearly taken a shine to Draper.

Come to think of it, he had too. Draper was good company: tough, funny, and—most importantly—steady as a fucking rock. The real deal. If it were up to Cotyar, he wouldn’t let her go either. He opened his mouth to tell her to take Avasarala up on her offer, but instead what came out was: “You could get your old position back if you wanted it. She’d do that for you. Hell, she’d probably enjoy the chance to gut a couple Martian paper-pushers.”

“Yeah,” said Draper slowly. “Yeah, she said pretty much the same thing to close out her pitch, actually, and that’s what worries me.”

::

He had a surprising number of visitors over the course of the next few hours. He even got to meet the James Holden, who turned out to be just a pretty normal guy, albeit with worryingly dark bags beneath his eyes. The Martian pilot brought him some dinner to eat one-handed and Nagata—who seemed to be engineer, navigator, and medical officer all in one—had been by to refill his pain meds.

And then...nothing. He sighed, and closed his eyes.

“Cotyar.”

He opened his eyes. Madam Avasarala was standing in the doorway, hand on the frame, her mouth a deep downturned crease in her face.

“Hey,” he said. “I was beginning to think you were mad at me or something.”

She sighed and came in, sitting down next to him and laying a hand on his arm.

“I almost lost you,” she said, and he knew her well enough to understand that she meant it as an apology.

“I’m sorry,” he said, meaning it, and she squeezed his arm wordlessly.

“That pandering idiot Sorrento-Gillis will have to go,” she said after a moment. “The fact that he couldn’t grow enough of a backbone to make his own decisions may have been useful in the beginning, but it can’t continue. Now is not the time to let impotent men play at power. There’s too much at stake.”

Cotyar agreed.

“Who will it be?” he asked, the list of possible names unspooling in his memory, each with their list of strength and weakness, pressure points and vulnerabilities.

Her mouth twisted unhappily.

“Me,” she said, and his train of thought came to a screeching halt.

“What?” he exclaimed, half sitting up and sending a shooting pain down his side. “Have you gone crazy?”

“Unfortunately, no,” she said, rubbing her temples briefly. “Still quite sane.”

“No, you’re not,” he said. “What are you thinking? You can’t do this.”

She raised her hands palm up.

“Why not?”

“Because—“ Panic was bubbling in his throat, making it hard to form the words. Because you’re too old. Because you’ve done enough already. Because I won’t be able to protect you.

“Cotyar, my mind is made up,” she said. “I need you with me on this.”

In desperation, he reached for his secret weapon, the last thing he thought might convince her.

“What about Arjun?”

She went still as a statue.

He’d met Arjun Avasarala once, maybe twice. The man had been kind—too kind. Cotyar had never seen any sign of blame in his eyes, just deep sadness. He had embraced Cotyar at Chandrapal’s funeral, weeping without shame.

“What about Arjun?” he repeated, almost pleading.

She let out a breath soundlessly.

“He’s not happy about it,” she said. “He’s very worried for me. But he has been more accepting than I deserve.” She took his hand. “Tell me you’re with me.”

He bowed his head.

“Yes,” he said huskily, acceding. “Yes.”

::

They were doing a decent burn, but it would still take them a while to get back to Earth. Cotyar was grateful for the respite. Within a couple days, he was well enough to get up and walk around a little. He paced up and down the Rocinante’s hallways, slowly getting his strength back.

It was busier than he expected. Besides himself, Draper, and Madam Avasarala, Holden’s crew had picked up, inexplicably, a botanist from Ganymede, not to mention the kids they had rescued from Io. He didn’t see much of the kids or the botanist, presumably sticking to crew quarters, and he had only one interaction with Burton, the ship’s mechanic. Cotyar knew enough of the man’s past to be wary, but when they met in the corridor, Burton just gave him a blank look and brushed past him to the machine shop.

When he tottered into the gym Draper was already there, working away on the weight machines. She had clearly been at it a while, judging from her labored breathing and the shine of sweat on her bare arms. He took one look at her expression—thunderous—and decided it probably wasn’t a good idea to interrupt her.

He had to catch his breath just from the effort of walking to the gym. He sat until each breath no longer felt like a stab in his gut and then slowly, unsteadily made his way through a series of basic stretches and exercises. By the end he was bathed in sweat, limp with exhaustion, and ready to admit to himself that heroics were for fucking idiots and that being shot still sucked.

“Need a hand, old man?” It was Draper, done with her workout, a towel thrown over her shoulder.

“Don’t you—fucking—sass me—” he wheezed out, but took her offered hand anyway. She hauled him to his feet easily. “I was kicking ass while you were still in diapers, marine.”

“And when was that,” she drawled, “back before they invented the Epstein drive?”

The lines had eased out of her face a little, he noticed.

“Careful,” he shot back. “You know what they say about old age and treachery.”

“Right,” she said. “I’ll keep that in mind while I’m hauling your feeble body back to the infirmary.”

Cotyar wasn’t too proud to take her up on that, and he leaned heavily on her till they got back to medical and he was able to collapse on his bed. He got his breath back—again—and Draper got them both a bulb of water.

“Did she tell you?” he asked, not bothering to specify. There was only one “she” he could ever be referring to.

Draper drained the last of her water and braced her elbows on her knees.

“You got something to say, say it,” she challenged, her brow starting to cloud over again.

“Just trying to make sure you know what you might be getting into,” he said. “If she wasn’t honest with you—”

“I don’t get it,” she interrupted. “Are you trying to warn me off cause you don’t trust her or you don’t trust me?

“Neither,” he snapped back, frustrated. “Both! Look, when you defected it was because of extreme circumstances. There’s a big difference between making a snap judgement in a moment of crisis and deliberately, knowingly walking away from the cause you’ve dedicated your whole life to. Are you really going to be okay with giving it all up, switching sides to work for Earth?”

“You don’t get it,” Draper hissed. “There are no sides anymore! Mars, Earth—none of it’s going to matter if that thing on Venus kills us all. So yeah, I’m going to stick with the one person I can trust is going to try and do something about it.”

The fight went out of him all in a rush, and he sagged back against the bed.

“I’m a big girl, Cotyar,” said Draper. “I can make my own decisions. Besides, I bet half of you is arguing the advantage of turning a former Martian marine. You want to make sure no one from Earth tries to stab Avasarala in the back? I’m your best bet.”

He scowled. Damn. She really was good.

“So you’ve made up your mind, then?”

She locked gazes with him, eyes big and dark. It made her look young, but her jaw was firm with resolve.

“Yes,” she said.

“Well,” he said. “I look forward to working with you, marine.”

“Same to you, spy. I figure someone has to be around to look after Madam Avasarala now that you’re an invalid.”

“Oh, fuck you,” he said, but he couldn’t help the smile spreading across his face. She smiled back, and they were in perfect agreement.

“You know,” he said, “I think this might be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

::