Ryan tugged his hands out of Chad's grasp. "I don't need to be rescued," he insisted.
Chad frowned, "What do you mean you don't need to be rescued? Of course you do." That was why Gabriella had scoured the city's computers to find traces of Ryan. It was why Taylor had spent all week hacking into Tower security, tweaking the face- and voice-recognition subroutines and reprogramming the android guards. It was why Troy had spent three nights drinking and gambling with the contingent of human guards, watching for his chance to steal an access card. And it was most definitely the reason why Chad had an unregistered skimmer hovering two stories down, near an unlocked window.
"I don't." Ryan turned away sharply and walked over to stand by the bed in the corner of the room. It looked way larger and more comfortable than any prison beds Chad had experienced before, but this was the Tower. They probably fed their prisoners from gold plates, too.
"Ryan," Chad started, swallowing down his urgency. They had time. Gabriella had analyzed the Tower schedule to the microsecond, and they had time. "It's safe, we have it all planned out. Kelsi's been missing you like crazy." He crossed the room to stand behind Ryan and pressed his palms against his shoulder blades, just letting him know that Chad was there, at his back. He always was. Over Ryan's shoulder, he could see a shelf set into the wall above the bed. It was set with knickknacks and an image cube, and it was even more unexpected than the bed itself.
"I can't go back with you," Ryan said. Under Chad's fingertips, his back was tight and knotted. "I would if I could, Chad, but you don't understand."
"Then you better explain it to me, because I'm not gonna just leave you here."
Ryan looked miserable when he turned his head to meet Chad's eyes. "You have to. In fact, you have to leave me here, right now, before-"
He was interrupted by the door sliding open. Chad stepped between Ryan and the intruder, pulling his shoulders back and trying to look taller. He didn't have a blaster, but he had a trank at his hip, and he wrapped his fingers around it stealthily as the newcomer – a woman, slender and blonde and utterly disdainful – examined them.
"What are you doing" she demanded sharply. Chad opened his mouth to tell her how very much it wasn't her business, but she spoke again. "Ryan, who is this?"
Ryan stepped out from behind Chad. "It's ..." He skimmed a jittery hand over the crown of his hat. "Sharpay, don't be like that. It's nothing."
Chad felt a bolt of pain go through him. Ryan knew her. Ryan clearly knew her well, and he was willing to dismiss Chad as nothing.
"It's not nothing," she said. Her mouth was a tense line, and there was anger in her eyes. "He's one of them, isn't he? One of the ruffians you've been gallivanting around the system with when you're supposed to be here with me? I just got you home, Ryan." She sounded so hurt that Chad felt a moment's empathy for her before the sense of her words sunk in.
Oh, God, they were married. Chad turned his head and saw Ryan's white face, and beyond that the shelf of junk over the bed. Little mementoes of someone's life. He wondered how many pictures of Ryan and Sharpay he would find if he activated the image cube. Chad felt sick and weak. He was trying to rescue Ryan from his own wife. What the hell was wrong with him? For the first time since he'd seen Ryan yanked into that police pod, Chad was at a loss. The need to save Ryan and bring him back had been thrumming at the base of his skull all week, and now it was silenced by the knowledge that Ryan didn't need to be saved.
Ryan didn't want to be saved.
Sharpay sent a cold, bitter glare at Chad and reached out to press a toggle on the wall. "I'm activating security," she said.
"Don't, Shar," Ryan yelped, hurrying to her. "Don't do that." But it was too late. He sent Chad a desperate look. "Get out," he said. "Hurry."
Chad wasted a second staring at Ryan, trying to reconcile the Ryan he knew, his Ryan, with the idea of a married man who came home to the Tower. And then his second was up, and he ran. Chad might have been taken in by a pair of guileless blue eyes, but he wasn't stupid.
The skimmer came in handy, after all.
They took a respectable exploration contract and went out to catalogue solar flares or something. Chad didn't pay much attention, but Taylor and Gabriella were happy about it.
Chad spent a lot of time in his cabin, avoiding the pitying glances of his crewmates. He took dog watch, taking care of the ship while everyone else slept.
There was a message waiting for him when they dropped into orbit above Lypria, beeping patiently as it awaited download. Chad took one glance at the origin code and deleted it.
Troy talked Chad into accepting a mission delivering medicine to quarantined planets. Not because Troy was a humanitarian (although he often was), but because the navigation necessary to hit all of the drop points before the illness turned deadly would leave the whole crew too tired to think. Or remember.
There was a reason why Troy was Chad's best friend.
They were docked for repairs at Spacestation Yorta when the comm system pinged to let them know someone was requesting to come aboard. Chad opened the lock, expecting to find a delivery of protein rations or the tariff inspector.
When the lock cycled open, though, there was Ryan, looking taller and slimmer than Chad remembered, and also far more tired. Chad hated the fact that he couldn't stop staring at him, but he was simply incapable of having Ryan in front of him and ignoring him.
It took him several moments to notice that Ryan wasn't alone. Sharpay was lucky that Chad didn't spin the lock closed right on her daintily, ridiculously shod feet.
Ryan lifted a hand in an awkward half wave. "Chad," he said. Then he paused, like he hadn't actually planned what to say after that. "Um, Chad. I should … would you let me clear some things up?"
Chad wanted to say no and turn them away from the ship. He wanted to say to hell with deliveries and inspections, and especially to hell with guys who share your ship and your cabin for months without mentioning being rich and married. But the pathetic fact was, he hadn't seen Ryan in weeks, and he couldn't seem to turn away from him.
Chad crossed his arms over his chest and inclined his chin. "So talk."
"I lied when I came aboard," Ryan said. Chad barely managed not to snort because, duh. "My family name isn't Vance, it's Evans." This time Chad did snort. An Evans. No wonder Ryan had been in the Tower; the Evanses owned half the system. "But that's all," Ryan added hurriedly. "Just my family, that's all I lied about."
"Just your family is still a pretty big lie," Chad said, eyeing Sharpay. She glared back at him.
"Listen," she said. "I don't like you. Your ship is ugly, your hair is stupid, and you took Ryan away from me."
"I didn't know I was taking him away from you," Chad pointed out. "I was just taking him away." Ryan had never said why he needed to get off-planet, just that he was looking for transport and it didn't matter where. With Chad's crew, it was considered polite not to ask too much about a person's past. Right now, Chad was wishing he'd been a little less polite.
"Wah, wah, wah, he didn't tell you he was rich. Get over it." Sharpay tipped her head back and stared up for a moment, huffing out a sigh. "I wanted him back home, but not if he's going to be all whiney and sad," she said. "Take him back on your crappy little boat so he'll be happy again."
Chad raised a skeptical eyebrow. "You're giving him to me?"
"No!" She sounded outraged. "He's my brother, and I'm not giving him up. I'm just … loaning him to you."
Her brother. Chad jerked his head to stare at Ryan, who was blushing and biting his lip. Ryan, who wasn't married. Ryan, who had spent the last month moping around the Tower. Chad felt unsteady, and had to reach out and grab hold of the bulkhead for balance.
"Ryan?" Chad hadn't said his name aloud in weeks, and he'd forgotten how it felt on his tongue. He swallowed and said it again. "Ryan, do you want to come with us?"
Ryan's face lit up, and Chad almost didn't hear Sharpay mutter, "I thought you said he wasn't an idiot." Ryan took a step toward him and then another, and then Chad had his arms around him. He shut his eyes tight, because he felt like everything he was feeling would spill right out of them if he didn't.
"I get visits," Sharpay said. Chad opened his eyes to look at her and saw that she was watching them almost wistfully. "Visits and transmissions and pictures, or I'll have Daddy send the police after you again."
Chad nodded fervently. "Absolutely." And then he went back to hugging Ryan, because it had been so long.
"So," Sharpay said. "I guess this is goodbye." She sounded lost, and Ryan pulled away from Chad's arms at her words.
"It's not time to depart yet, is it?" Ryan asked. Chad shook his head. "Okay, then we have time to show Sharpay the Wildcat, right?" Without waiting for an answer, Ryan grabbed her arm and tugged her forward. "C'mon, let me show you our ship."
Our ship. Chad beamed and followed as Ryan led the way.