He finally found his voice again. “No. Please. You’re Dauntless’s commanding officer. You belong on her. I… I promise you I won’t resign until this war is over.” The words felt acidic in his mouth, the thing he had never wanted to accept even though he knew so many expected it of him.
“Your promise should not be to me,” Desjani replied, her face and voice calmer now.
“It is,” he insisted. “I’ve avoided making it because it scared the hell out of me. But the thought of not seeing you scared me more. Congratulations.”
“I… I didn’t-”
“No, you didn’t. You never would have tried to manipulate me on purpose.” Unlike Victoria Rione, he realized. “I made the choice. I’ll carry out the mission. As long as you don’t resign your commission. I need you with me if I’m going to have any chance of succeeding. And when my mission is done, and I’m no longer in command of this fleet, I’ll finally say the words that I wish I could say to you now.”
Desjani nodded to him. “Thank you, Captain Geary. I knew you’d do what you had to do.”
“As opposed to what I want to do right now.” Amazingly, she laughed. “If you and I did what we wanted to do at this very moment, we’d be different people. But hard as it is, I must stand here instead of stepping closer to you. Much closer. No. You have my honor, I have your promise. If the gift of my honor gives you the strength to do what you must, it’s a small price for me to pay.”
“You think of it as a price, then?” Geary asked.
Desjani nodded as her laughter faded. “My honor is the thing of greatest value that I possess. That I used to possess. I know you will not use it against me, and I know it is safe in your hands. But there have been times when it felt like my honor was all I had left. I regret losing it.”
“Then I promise you that I will keep your honor safe until I can return it.”
“But… it was given. To my shame… but it was given.” Geary shook his head. “I want to return your honor, and you want me to keep it. There’s a way to do both if that’s what you want.”
“How could I have both-?” She seemed shocked, looking away for a moment before focusing back on him. “You mean that?”
“I can’t come out and say how I feel, just like you can’t, not until this war is over and I’m no longer your commanding officer, but I swear on the honor of my ancestors that I meant it.”
Desjani blinked, swallowed again, then gave Geary a stern look. “You must know something, Captain John Geary. Right now you are my fleet commander, and I do as you say and defer to you. You are on a divine mission, and while that lasts, I will follow you to hell itself on your command. But when all is done and the war is over, a man would come to me with my honor and himself. Not like any other man, not even then, but a man, and I will not be subordinate to any man in my own life or my own home. I will only have a man as a partner, an equal, to be beside me in all things. Any man must agree to that if he someday wishes to share a life with Tanya Desjani.”
Geary nodded. “Any man who really knew Tanya Desjani would gladly commit to those conditions and promise to honor them.”
She gazed back at him, then smiled. “It is very hard, and I fear that it’ll be harder still before all is done. But when the day comes that your mission is fulfilled, I will accept my honor back and all that comes with it.”
All he had to do was get the fleet the rest of the way home and win the war that had been raging for a century. But he’d never thought he could get this far, do what he’d been able to do. If he could somehow end the war, end the deaths…
And, for the first time since he’d been awakened from survival sleep, he knew without any doubt that he had something other than duty to live for. They’d talked around it, they might never again discuss it even indirectly while the war lasted, but they each knew how the other felt and what they’d promised each other. “In that case, Captain Desjani, let’s take a look at the star display and figure out our next move on the way home. We’ve got a fleet to save and a war to end.”
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