As he approached, Sam threw a small metal ball at the table. The group at the other end reacted with sudden violent movements. He couldn’t see exactly what was happening from where he stood, but the slumped shoulders and halfhearted curses coming from the second group led Holden to believe that Sam had done something good for her team.
Sam spun around and threw up her hand. The group at her end of the table, which included Naomi, took turns slapping her palm. Sam saw him first and said something he couldn’t hear. Naomi turned around and gave him a speculative look that stopped him in his tracks. She didn’t smile and she didn’t frown. He raised his palms in what he hoped was an I didn’t come to fight gesture. For a moment, they stood facing each other across the noisy room.
Jesus, he thought, how did I let it come to this?
Naomi nodded at him and pointed at a table in one corner of the room. He sat down and ordered himself a drink. Not one of the blue liver-killers the bar was famous for, just a cheap Belt-produced scotch. He’d grown to, if not appreciate, at least tolerate the faint mold aftertaste it always had. Naomi said goodbye to the rest of her team for a few minutes and then walked over. It wasn’t a casual stroll, but it wasn’t the gait of someone going to a dreaded meeting either.
“Can I order you something?” Holden asked as she sat.
“Sure, I’ll take a grapefruit martini,” she said. While Holden entered the order on the table, she looked him over with a mysterious half smile that turned his belly to liquid.
“Okay,” he said, authorizing his terminal to open a bar tab and pay for the drinks. “One hideous martini on its way.”
Naomi laughed. “Hideous?”
“A near-fatal case of scurvy being the only reason I can imagine drinking something with grapefruit juice in it.”
She laughed again, untying at least one of the knots in Holden’s gut, and they sat together in companionable silence until the drinks arrived. She took a small sip and smacked her lips in appreciation, then said, “Okay. Spill.”
Holden took a much longer drink, nearly finishing off the small glass of scotch in a single gulp, trying to convince himself that the spreading warmth in his belly could stand in for courage. I didn’t feel comfortable with where we left things, and I thought that we should talk. Kind of process this together. He cleared his throat.
“I f**ked everything up,” he said. “I’ve treated my friends badly. Worse than badly. You were absolutely right to do what you did. I couldn’t hear what you were saying at the time, but you were right to say it.”
Naomi took another drink of her martini, then casually reached up and pulled out the elastic band holding her masses of black curls behind her head. Her hair fell down around her face in a tangle, making Holden think of ivy-covered stone walls. He realized that for as long as he’d known her, Naomi had always let her hair down in emotional situations. She hid behind it, not literally, but because it was her best feature. The eye was just naturally drawn to its glossy black curls. A distraction technique. It made her suddenly seem very human, as vulnerable and lost as he was. Holden felt a rush of affection for her that must have showed on his face, because she looked at him and then blushed.
“What is this, Jim?”
“An apology?” he said. “An admission that you were right, and that I was turning into my own screwed-up version of Miller? Those at the very least. Hopefully opening the dialogue to reconciliation, if I’m lucky.”
“I’m glad,” Naomi said. “I’m glad you’re figuring that out. But I’ve been saying this for months now, and you—”
“Wait,” Holden said. He could feel her pulling back from him, not letting herself believe. All he had left to offer her was absolute truth, so he did. “I couldn’t hear you. Because I’ve been terrified, and I’ve been a coward.”
“Fear doesn’t make you a coward.”
“No,” he said. “Of course it doesn’t. But refusing to face up to it. To not admit to you how I felt. To not let you and Alex and Amos help me. That was cowardice. And it may have cost me you, the crew’s loyalty, everything I really care about. It made me keep a bad job a lot longer than I should have because the job was safe.”
A small knot of the Golgo players began drifting toward their table, and Holden was gratified when he saw Naomi wave them off. It meant she wanted to keep talking. That was a start.
“Tell me,” she said. “Where are you going from here?”
“I have no idea,” Holden replied with a grin. “And that’s the best feeling I’ve had in ages. But no matter what happens next, I need you there.”
When she started to protest, Holden quickly put up a hand to stop her and said, “No, I don’t mean like that. I’d love to win you back, but I’m perfectly okay with the idea that it might take some time, or never happen at all. I mean the Roci needs you back. The crew needs you there.”
“I don’t want to leave her,” Naomi said with a shy smile.
“She’s your home,” Holden said. “Always will be as long as you want it. And that’s true no matter what happens between us.”
Naomi began wrapping one thick strand of hair around her finger and drank off the last of her drink. Holden pointed at the table menu, but she shook her hand at him.
“This is because you confronted Fred, right?”
“Yeah, partly,” Holden said. “I was standing in his office feeling terrified and realizing I’d been afraid for a long, long time. I’ve screwed things up with him too. Some of that’s probably his fault. He’s a true believer, and those are bad people to climb into bed with. But it’s mostly still mine.”
“Did you quit?”
“He fired me, but I was probably going to quit.”
“So,” Naomi said. “You’ve lost us our paying gig and our patron. I guess I feel a little flattered that the part you’re trying to patch up is me.”
“You,” Holden said, “are the only part I really care about fixing.”
“You know what happens now, right?”
“You move back onto the ship?”
Naomi just smiled the comment away. “Now we pay for our own repairs. If we fire a torpedo, we have to find someone to sell us a new one. We pay for water, air, docking fees, food, and medical supplies for our very expensive automated sick bay. Have a plan for that?”