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The clatter of the ladder made him flinch and he jerked his straps lose and swung down with hardly a glance at the mechanic's welcoming smile. Yeah, he was still the top US ace pilot, still 'Sky Captain' to everyone else - everyone but him.
"Welcome back, Cap!"
"Joe! Good to see you and god bless!
The airstrip was restless with people, most of the legion was here; the mechanics out of their berths, pilots from their bunks or games and all of them here to welcome him home. Joe smiled through the slaps on his back, grasping the hard hands of his pilots whose eyes were both intent and sympathetic. They had some idea of what he'd gone through and they helped herd him through the excited welcome home celebration that sprang up like a flashfire. They also touched him; callused fingers brushing over his jacket or his white scarf like he was a luck piece -- the one who'd come back. He turned at the doorway because he knew what he had to do; the welcome was for more than just him.
"What is this all about, men?" he hoisted the glass of whisky someone had thrust into his hand and took a drink. "I take a little vacation and you're running around on the airstrip like kids at a matinee-movie?"
"Vacation he says," someone roared in the background, Jed the maintenance lead if Joe knew his voices right. "Six months in Paudang camp a vacation! Bet you showed 'em Sky Cap!"
Joe tossed off a laugh and spread his arms with a bow. Then straightened up, sobering. The crowd quieted as he scanned them, meeting the eyes of pilots and ground crew alike. "We all showed them, every motherless son of the Legion and the RAF! We showed Tojo what it means to face real men of honor and courage."
Joe lifted his glass high, to the crowd in front, many of which had been in Nanjing then up, higher to the sky, to the wind, to all the men who would never return. His hand shook slightly and the sunrise sparkled too bright in his eyes, making them water. "We showed them, we who stand tall today and those who lost their lives but never th -their courage. We're all free now, boys! We're all free now. To Freedome and the Legion!"
"To Freedom and the Legion!"
Joe knocked back the whisky as the crowed roared in echo, glasses held high, voices rough with memory and release. Joe escaped to his office, refusing to limp until he was safe inside. There, he groaned through clenched teeth and pulled the parachute pack free, letting it crash heavily to the floor. The jacket was next then he dropped his flight helmet onto the desk, rubbing his hands through his greasy hair and wiping his tear-streaked face.
"We're all free now," he whispered, shoulders hunched and face pinched with grief. He'd lost so much; his wingman Carlo, Benjamin Freer the first Negro he'd met who could fly a plane and determined to become an ace pilot. Six months of his life, most of the skin off his back, his plane. Dignity, hope. So much gone and he could hardly feel it. Joe was numb inside, empty. And it showed.
In his hands, planes danced in the air. He was Sky Captain, the ace with the highest kills in the world, the man whose first home was the blue sky. His planes flew like birds, like thistledown in the wind. Not like machines. But not anymore. They flew like machines now. Prize machines yes, the best the legion's engineers could build, borrow or buy but only machines. They weren't alive in him anymore - nothing was. Joe couldn't feel the air the way he used to, he couldn't read the wind in a glance. He couldn't breathe in the morning sunlight and taste the freedom of the skies. All he could smell was the filth of Nanjing, the blood and death, it was ground into his soul and Joe was afraid he'd never be free of it.
A stab in his belly joined the pain in his shoulder and Joe grunted and fumbled in his flight pack. Out came the blue bottle - half-empty - and he fumbled a dusty shot glass out from a filing cabinet and poured a shot of the thick, Milk of Magnesia. Joe sank into his chair, grimacing and swallowing to rid himself of the foul taste, and studied the little glass as the white goo sank down the sides to pool in the bottom. The last time he'd touched this glass, before Nanjing, it had held English scotch and he and Polly had laughed like naughty schoolchildren as they shared it.
"Polly - " he whispered, watching the glass catch the sunlight streaming from the window behind him. She was alright, he'd demanded to know as soon as he'd reached friendly forces, she'd managed to fall in with a sympathetic captor - even reach Tojo Hideki for an exclusive interview. Her safety didn't stir him much, especially while he had wondered during those dark months if she'd sabotaged her plane so they'd go down behind enemy lines. Joe didn't want to believe she'd do anything like that but Polly would do a lot for a story - and he doubted she really knew anything of what it had been like in Paudang. He'd never imagined it and he certainly wasn't going to tell her, when they met again. It wasn't the kind of thing a woman should ever know.
The door rattled and Joe swept the magnesia bottle into his drawer just as Dex practically threw the door open and flung himself in, eyes wide. "Joe!"
"Dex," Joe's smile felt more genuine than it had in a long time. Dex looked - Dex looked the same, thank God, still wide eyed, still like a kid who refused to grow up. He watched his jaw shift, the clean nip of teeth worrying that horrible gum, gaze darting to the shot glass then to Joe worriedly. Joe closed his eyes for a moment. Dex? had been the second thing out of his mouth after Polly.
"Joe - I'm so sorry," Dex shut the door standing in front of his desk with a downcast face and anguish in his eyes.
Joe's smile froze, heart clenching. He didn't think he could stand anymore bad news now - like maybe Dex was going to retire, or accept Frankie's standing offer to be the English Navy's resident genius. But he pushed himself to his feet, because he was still Sky Captain in name if not in heart, and he faced everything the world threw at him standing tall.
"I never believed what they said, Cap'n I swear -"
"Slow down Dex," Joe said firmly over the rush of his words, stomach aching. "What's the problem, kid?"
"I shouldn't have left you!" Dex cried out despairingly. "I wouldn't have - I should have been there, not with the RAF! I didn't believe it when they told me you were dead - they'd never kill you, Joe, not you. But I should've been there with you."
"No!" Joe snapped. He stalked around his desk and grabbed Dex's shoulders, feeling them shuddering under his hands. Dex's brown eyes were wide, startled at Joe's wild yell. He shook Dex, hands biting roughly into his flesh and Dex looked even more stunned, frightened now. "No!"
"Cap'n? I swear I would never have left you, should have -"
"No," Joe's voice shook for a moment, he swallowed hard and steadied himself. "No, Dex you shouldn't have been there. Not you. You were where you belonged -" safe, he thought. Not in Paudang, not starving, not beaten bloody, not mutilated, not - not dead. Not Dex.
He forced himself to step back, dropping his hands and leaning casually on his desk to hide the wave of weak exhaustion that washed suddenly over him. He smiled but Dex only looked worried. "Dex, you and your crazy inventions saved the legion. I was sitting around for half the war while you were out fighting it."
Joe's smile quirked at Dex's small shake of the head. "I chatted with Frankie on my way back, Dex, I know what you were doing while I was a guest of the Japanese."
"Guest," Dex echoed, struggling for equilibrium. "Sure, Joe."
Joe shrugged, crookedly because it hurt to move his left shoulder too much, and didn't bite on Dex's unspoken curiosity. Dex was another who should never know what Paudang was like.
"Hum - " Dex fidgeted. " The guys were thinking, kinda a big breakfast thing, 'cause you're back " Dex trailed off then squared his shoulders, eyes sharp on Joe's face; he had to see something of Joe's exhaustion. "Maybe a dinner instead, huh? We can drag out the china we liberated from Tokyo, break out the steaks and the English whisky the RAF gave us."
Joe nodded, unable to hold onto his smile any longer. He measured his strength and the distance to his quarters the pushed off the desk. Dex scooped up his pack before he could reach for it. "Dinner would suit. Steaks sound good."
Was that his voice? So numb. Behind him, as they broke back into the sunlight where the field staff were rolling his new plane into a hanger for upkeep after the long flight, Joe heard Dex's soft voice.
"I saved half the legion," Dex mumbled, barely audible over the crunch of their footsteps on the gravel paths to the quarters. "But I didn't save you."