“Why do you insist on taking these farm jobs?” Era complained, ducking into Aife’s coat, pursued by a disgruntled rooster.
“Why do you insist on terrorizing the chickens when I do?” Aife replied calmly, nudging the rooster away with her foot as she put the engine of the combine back together. “It’ makes both of our lives difficult, and costs the farmers a days worth of eggs!”
“He started it!” Era poked his head through Aife’s coat collar, “I was just learning the lay of the land!”
“I’m pretty sure that’s my job,” Sgt. Reynolds chuckled, engine purring slightly louder than the tabby cat curled up on his saddle.
“He’s got a point there, Era,” Aife pulled the wrench out of her boot, “Your job is to help me fix the machinery and keep me focused so we don’t end up with a bull tractor.”
“Don’t even say those words in the same sentence,” Era shuddered, “tractors are too simple for anything too crazy to happen, but let’s not risk putting ideas into their heads.”
Aife sighed, and glanced down the fleet of tractors waiting to be fixed. She didn’t enjoy working for farm corporations, but they paid well enough for her to justify the lower prices she charged the independent farmers. “It would certainly make life more interesting.”
“I think life is interesting enough around here,” Era commented, as a crop duster buzzed uncomfortably close over their heads.
“Bloody pilots,” the Sergeant growled, waking the cat who meowed in annoyance.
“What kind of Imperial scum have you been hobnobbing with?” Era scampered up to perch on Aife’s head, “that exclamation was positively British!”
“Both of you have clearly blown a circuit or twelve,” Aife groused, shaking the dust out of her hair and glaring in the direction of the crop duster. She blinked. “Era, does that plane look…familiar to you?”
“Considering we’ve worked on just about every kind of plane known to man, it does look strangely familiar.”
“That’s what happens when flyboys try to take your head off,” Sgt. Reynolds growled, burning rubber on his way to confront the reckless pilot.
“We’d better catch up, or you’re going to have a lot of explaining to do,” Era commented pointlessly, as Aife was already sprinting to cut the vengeful motorcycle off.
“Who would’ve thought I’d need to cowboy mount a moving motorcycle?” Aife grunted, grabbing the Sergeant’s handlebars, planting her feet for a second, and vaulting into the saddle.
“Who even thinks to teach kids how to do that?” Era screeched, claws scraping against Aife’s scalp.
Aife winced. “An old cowboy, duh. Ease up, Era, we’re not in immediate peril.”
“No, we’re just casually riding up to a person that just tried to kill us, after we had to chase down a murderous ex-army bike, armed with nothing but a wrench and a pacifist death ray.” Despite the fear in his tone, Era’s claws loosened their grip on Aife’s hair.
“I don’t recall seeing you do anything but panic,” Aife muttered, reaching for the ray gun tucked into her belt. It was always better to be safe than sorry in the farmlands, and she sent a silent thank you to that old cowboy for being paranoid as she brought the Sergeant to a stop by the raffish fighter jet.
“Sorry if we scared you, doll,” an irritatingly sauve voice emerged from the cockpit, immediately followed by a face Aife couldn’t place at first. “But this old girl and I have an understanding. You were never in any dang…er.” The pilot caught sight of Aife, and all the color drained from his face.
“We know each other, don’t we.” This was more statement than question, and Aife loosened her grip on the ray gun. Clearly she’d done something to this flyboy to earn his respect and fear.
The pallor in the pilot’s cheeks was replaced by an angry flush. “You don’t even remember me? You ruined my life, and all you have to offer is a waste of a good entrance and a ‘we know each other’?”
Aife dismounted, giving the Sergeant a warning nudge. “Jesse, right? I plugged up some holes you managed to get blown in your girl there a few months ago.”
“And somehow made her completely useless as a fighter in the process!” Jesse exploded, causing Aife’s hand to tighten on her ray gun. She knew she could handle this man, but she preferred to do so in a way that wouldn’t risk her fingers. She had some precision jobs lined up, and it was hard to fine-tune clockworks with busted knuckles.
“She seems to fly like a dream,” Aife replied, keeping her expression neutral.
“I’d hate to see your dreams,” Era mumbled, slipping from Aife’s head to drape himself around her neck.
“Oh, she purrs like a kitten,” Jesse sneered, touching the bridge of his nose which, Aife was pleased to see, was no longer perfectly straight. “That is, until I try to take her to altitude. Then she’s a mad bull.”
“And I’m meant to be the cause of that?” Aife felt uncomfortable. Her quirk wasn’t exactly a secret, but she preferred not to explain it to everyone who wound up with a little more personality in their machines.
“Yes! No! I don’t-” Jesse shoved his hands into his hair, which Aife noticed was rather shaggy and unkempt. “Before that dogfight, she was the best fighter I’d ever flown. Now we’re relegated to cropdusting and carnival performances.”
Aife looked closer at Jesse. It wasn’t just his hair that was being neglected; his clothes were dirty and frayed, and his boots were scuffed. When she compared this tired dusty drifter to the spit-shined pilot she’d met months ago, she felt a twinge. Like a machine that had fallen into disrepair, this man had been robbed of his purpose.
Era twitched as Aife walked over to the plane. “What do you think you’re doing?” he hissed, “that plane isn’t broken. You can’t do anything for a machine that isn’t broken.”
Aife laid a hand on the scarred fuselage, and looked back at Jesse. “I’ll see what I can do. No promises, though.”
Sgt. Reynolds’ engine gave a low growl, and Jesse blinked. He looked like he was trying not to cry. Not that Aife could blame him; she’d just told him he might get his life back.
Era ground his gears. “So much for simple tractor maintenance.”
“Say I did understand why you’re helping the flyboy,” Sgt. Reynolds growled, rock music blasting from his speakers, “that still doesn’t explain why you’re letting him assist in the repairs.”
“You know I hate agreeing with this old fart,” Era creaked, shaking his head to dislodge some stray hay, “but he’s got a good point. My job is very difficult with him hanging around, handing you tools and sorting screws all the time.”
Aife groaned, and dumped the calico cat off her back as she rolled over. She hung her head over the edge of the loft and peered down at the two machines. “First of all, you’re not even trying to do your job, Era. You’ve just been offering sarcastic commentary all week. And secondly, I’m trying to convince a semi-sentient airplane that its fear of heights can be cured by that flyboy. Now, this is my first time trying this kind of thing, but I’m pretty sure that requires the presence of said flyboy. Doesn’t mean any of us like it.”
“Is sarcastic and unhelpful commentary not what he does on a regular job?” the Sergeant chuckled, as Era huffed and taunted the barn cats.
The barn door rattled, and Jesse sauntered in. “Funny. I never took you for an AC/DC kinda girl.”
Aife rolled her eyes and sat up. “We can’t all model ourselves after Dean Martin, you know. And there better be burgers and fries in that bag you’re holding.”
Jesse held up the paper bag, and the drink carrier he’d been holding behind his back. “Complete with the cherry coke and chocolate milkshake you ordered.”
Aife groaned and sat up. She then kicked her legs over the edge of the loft and let herself drop onto the pile of hay on the barn floor. “All fries better be present and accounted for, mister. I’d hate to break your nose again when we’ve been getting along so well.”
“The only greasy goodness to pass these lips came from my own bag, promise,” Jesse grinned, setting the food on the work bench and pulling Aife out of the hay.
Aife bounced to her feet, and shook the hay out of her hair. “Keep up this delivery boy act and I might be forced to consider you a friend.”
Jesse chuckled, and sat down on the other side of the bench as Aife dug into her dinner. “We wouldn’t want that now, would we?”
The song the Sergeant was playing came to an end, and mellow jazz started to play. Aife scowled at the motorcycle, while Jesse laughed again and shook his head.
“Just when I think I’ve got you figured out, you reveal another facet of your personality.”
“Taste in music doesn’t have any indication of personality,” Aife groused, dipping a fry in her milkshake, “I enjoy a lot of old music. I also have a soft spot for post-techo grunge rock. Doesn’t mean anything.”
“On the contrary,” Jesse replied, sipping on his own milkshake, “nothing about those genres of music are in conflict with each other. You clearly have a soft spot for lost causes and a nostalgic streak a mile wide, hence the old music and the pristine army motorcycle.”
“Right, and the rock music represents my love of excitement and adventure, also represented by the sergeant, and the post-techno grunge has to do with my disassociation from society and cultural norms.” Aife tossed one of the barn cats a stray bit of burger. “You’re far from the first to try to put the pieces together and find out what makes me tick.”
Jesse shrugged, gave her a half-hearted grin. “How close did they get?”
Aife rolled her eyes. “The mistake all of them have made is assuming every taste and decision has some sort of deep meaning and provides them a window into my soul. It’s not my personality that’s complicated; it’s my history, same as everyone else’s.”
Jesse’s brow furrowed, and he focused on Aife’s hands, and then her face. “I never thought of it like that.”
Jazz faded into introspective acoustic music, and the mechanic and the aviator finished their meals in strangely comfortable silence.
“I think she’ll be ready for a test flight in the morning,” Aife said, as Jesse stood to head to his cot, “I’ll want to tag along to see how she runs in flight, but I may have found the problem. Hopefully the two of you will be battle-ready by the end of the week.”
It took a second for Jesse to register what she was saying, but when it clicked, Aife was sure she’d never seen a happier person.