After the Earth was used up, we found a new solar system and hundreds of new Earths were terraformed and colonised. The central planets formed the Alliance and decided all the planets had to join under their rule — there was some disagreement on that point. After the War, many of the Independents who had fought and lost drifted to the edges of the system, far from Alliance control. Out here, people struggle to get by with the most basic technologies; a ship would bring you work, a gun would help you keep it. A captain's goal was simple: find a crew, find a job, keep flying.
With only the sky for reference,
it becomes that which defines
(Jennifer Bartlett, The Field Guide to Sound)
year of the snake
sixth anniversary of the end of the war for unification
The trouble with Niall’s piloting, by Harry’s reckoning, doesn’t have anything to do with his actual ability to manoeuvre their shabby spacecraft through asteroid fields or star clusters. The trouble with Niall’s piloting is that he holds the intercom mouthpiece too close to his teeth.
“This is your friendly local pilot of the Direction,” Niall announces in all of his crackling splendour, settling his shoulders and smirking Harry’s way. “To all you lazy fuckers still in bed I thought you might like to know we’re touching down on Beaumonde in approximately twenty minutes and our local time is… 0900 hours. Shit. I am jetlagged as fuck.”
The broadcast splutters to a graceless end.
Harry snorts and kicks at Niall’s pilot chair. “You know, if you didn’t snog the thing it wouldn’t make all those sounds.”
“But if I didn’t snog it, how would it know how I feel?”
“Communication is the most important part of a relationship, Nialler.”
Speaking of — Harry flicks the consul switch for radio and buzzes through static until he picks up a signal. He wants the Voice of the Underground — last time he tuned in there was some mention of Cheshire — but at a stretch he’ll settle for Alliance news. Not like any of their blatherings will be legit, but sometimes a person can suss out when something tetchy goes down by how blithe the bland announcers act.
“A cargo ship has been grounded on Shenzhou. Thanks to the efforts of Alliance cruiser Alcyone all casualties were averted.”
Niall and Harry share a brief, unconvinced glance.
Beaumonde looms towards Direction’s hull like a dark sunrise, half-lit by the blue-white light of its titanic sun. Planets closer in orbit fight off the kind of heat Harry usually associates with engine cores or prompt and merciful death.
“Look at that atmo,” Niall marvels, flipping a few switches by his left arm, “Thick as your skull, Haz.”
“Thick as your mum’s skull,” Harry grumbles, too sleepy to come up with a better rejoinder. Maura Horan hasn’t a thick skull at all, so it’s poor as insults go.
“Yeah, yeah. Send her a wave and give her your regards,” Niall says, flicking a series of dark grey switches.
Harry stands and cracks his knuckles. “Let’s get our girl down in one piece this time, yeah?”
Niall nods. “Your lips to god’s hairy ears, Haz. And go easy on the thrusters, we’re not made of credit over here!”
Harry rolls his eyes and trudges down through the fore passage towards the engine room. No one appreciates the true perfection of Harry’s scrunched nose of disgust, since he and Niall are the only ones awake before departure and the engine has yet to develop sentience — not to say Harry’s given up hope on that front. Ships are mysterious masters.
Harry chats a little to the Direction’s whirring engine as he fiddles with gears and pulleys. People say you ought to talk to your plants, make ‘em grow greener and taller, and by Harry’s reckoning the same thing could be true about ships.
Plenty of folk think Harry’s a mite addled in the brain-region, but it don’t bother him. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, he remembers Zayn quoting to him once. Said he learned it off some Earth-That-Was myth he studied in Companion school. Louis had rolled his eyes and proclaimed all old myths to be useless bollocks, but Harry kept turning the phrase over in his mind like an engine trying to get its kick. More things in heaven and earth, or rather, more things in heavens and earths: all two-hundred-something terraformed planets orbiting their burning star cluster, each with their own sky.
Harry pats the curved wall of his engine room. “Air’ll be thick on-planet, love, so we better make sure our thrusters don’t do the boomy-boomy this time, yeah?” Direction whirs as if in response.
“Stage one,” Niall shouts through the intercom.
Harry sets the aft thrusters and double-checks that they’ve enough fuel to get them bloody anywhere. They do, albeit barely. “Now I know city planets aren’t your thing, but maybe I can get Louis to authorise a spare part or two while we’re planetside getting that cargo.”
Direction wheezes and rumbles, her ancient gear changer clanking painfully. Harry winces.
“Yeah, I think that might be wise. Definitely need a new port thruster. And maybe something for the g-line.”
Harry snorts. G-line. He gives Niall the go-ahead, and then settles in for the pitch and yaw of a descent.
“Be nice,” he warns, “We do not want a repeat of last month. Nearly exploding in the atmosphere of Newhall was, like, not really my preferred way of death.”
The ship rattles.
“Uh-huh. That’s what you said last time.”
There are loads of things Harry would like to change about the Direction: her undersized bunks, the rusted hob in the kitchen, how she always seems to shed panels like a cat in the summer sun. Her engine doesn’t make the list. Now, she’s got the Trace Compression Block engine, which is all kinds of reliable, but the special thing about a Firefly-class spaceship like theirs is the reaction drive. When the ship gets going, she’ll produce plasma as hot as the surface of a star and send the Direction rocketing across the sky in a burst of brilliant yellow light like a hulking metal lightning bug. Every time Harry sees that burst of yellow he feels about twelve years old again, standing in an endless Cheshire wheat field and staring up at the sky thinking, adventure.
In the end, they touch down with minimal hitches. Niall spends about an hour and half arguing with the port authorities until they get their parking permit and Harry takes an all-too-brief nap in his engine hammock before the rest of the crew comes thundering across the hall for their breakfasts and wake him up.
Harry’s hardly closed his eyes when Louis bellows from the dining area, calling them in for a talking to at the top of his voice. Harry pulls himself out of the hammock with a sigh and pats the engine once before leaving, just to be sweet to her. She’s been good to them today, should get some kinda reward. The good oil, if they can afford it. She’s been running on bargain Boros stuff for months.
“You know,” Zayn is saying in the dining area, putting their old kettle on for tea, “We have an intercom for a reason.”
“Don’t work half the time,” says Louis grumpily.
“ Fei hua ,” says Harry, affronted. “Niall literally just used it.” He fixed that system his own self, it works just dandy.
“You just don’t want to admit you can’t work the intercom,” says Zayn. Louis makes a face.
“I don’t get enough credit for handling port authority politics,” says Niall, wandering into the kitchen from the bridge, munching on a protein bar, “Don’t land her own self, do she?”
Louis rolls his eyes. “We got autopilot?”
“You always say that and it never stops being all wrong about, like, how autopilot is meant to run on a ship at all. Also, point: autopilot won’t negotiate with rutting Peter Keo’s power trip problems. For an entire hour.”
Zayn winces sympathetically. “He does seem to really hate us.”
“Louis did call him a — what was it?”
“Totalitarian astro-dick,” Louis supplies. “Then some more creative stuff in Mandarin.”
Harry nods. “Right. A totalitarian astro-dick.”
Zayn snorts. “Nice. I mean, probably dumb as shit, but —”
“Completely accurate and warranted,” Louis says with blissful antagonism.
“And completely making my life annoying, by the way,” Niall adds.
“What are we going to do about that pick-up?” asks Liam, looking up from where he’s sat at the table, cleaning gun parts with a check rag. “Contact said we’ll need at least three hands to get it across town, and that’s if the cargo’s feelin’ charitable.”
“City,” Harry says, “Beaumonde is an industrial planet, Liam. It’s a city.”
“Is it?” Liam chews on his lip. “Yeah, guess so. Don’t really know what’s the difference, honestly.”
“Well, one’s bigger,” Harry says.
Louis loosens his holster, unlocking his pistol so that Liam could take care of it next. “I’m on cargo. And Liam, and —”
“Me?” Harry makes his eyes big and does his best ‘very competent’ smile.
“Not dressed like that. What are you wearing, an undertaker’s party frock?”
Harry looks down at his midnight blue floral tunic. “It’s designer!”
“You look like Yama’s granny dressed you.”
“It’s cool,” Harry sulks, slumping down in his seat. “What do you know about fashion.”
“It’ll be me, Liam and Zayn,” Louis continues, unrepentant of his utter lack of sartorial judgement. “We’re the best shots. Haz, you’re on passenger duty.”
Harry’s spine bolts up straight as summer maize. They haven’t had passengers in going on a year, practically. “Passengers? We get passengers?”
“Passengers are good, ain’t they. We need the credit,” Liam says, as if any of them need reminding. “Lou, you gotta go easier on your grip, here. Look, it’s practically worn though — that ain’t safe.”
“Safe, Tommo’s favourite of all the words,” Niall says wryly.
“Passengers. Joy of joys.” Zayn’s face goes all pinched. Getting away from people was about two-thirds of Zayn’s reasons for refusing his posh Companion placement to sail the outer edges of the ‘verse in a rickety ship where he can do the fun things like empty smelly septic tanks and eat bland protein paste. Why live on some rich and prosperous central planet meeting glamorous people, wearing beautiful clothes, going to parties and having sex for a living when you got septic tanks for your perusal?
Sometimes Harry does not understand Zayn at all.
Louis shares a commiserating look with Zayn. “Make sure they pay loads, Styles. Loads.”
“You’re the cap’n, cap’n,” Harry says, making a half-hearted salute. Nothing can dampen his spirits. Passengers. There’s only so many times he can listen to another of Louis’s stories about escaping the law as if he didn’t know ‘em all by heart.
Niall gets to his feet with a groan, rubbing his bum knee. “Well, if I ain’t needed I am due for an epic nap. Good luck with the new cargo. Hope it don’t bite.”
“And hope you don’t get pinched by the feds,” Harry adds helpfully. “Don’t look suspicious.”
Louis does what is, by Harry’s estimation, the least effective ‘not suspicious’ face in the whole of creation.
Harry rolls his eyes. “Maybe Louis stay behind Zayn, if you run across any Alliance patrols.”
“Fuck off,” Louis snaps, then glances at Zayn and goes quiet.
“We’ll be fine, Haz.” Zayn prods Harry’s cheek right in the dimple until he grins. “Now, pick out some nice strangers for us to host, yeah?”
“Only the best,” Harry promises. “Rich and pretty.”
Zayn laughs. “Good Hazza.”
Liam gets Louis and Zayn strapped down with their most obtrusive weapons and Niall retires to his bunk grumbling about Peter Keo. Harry goes to change. If he’s to be meeting passengers, he’s got to look his absolute finest.
Beaumonde is always dark, a bit. It’s the pollution that does it: the rays of Blue Sun fighting through an atmosphere that’s mostly smoke and cinder. The only brightness on the street comes from shop signs and neon adverts that flash blue and silver from the skyscrapers looming over the docks.
Maybe it’s space-minded, but Harry imagines growing up here must feel like suffocating, like someone’s got a dusty pillow over your head that they won’t let up. Back home Harry used to lie in the field behind his house and look up at bright freckles of thousands of stars, almost close enough to touch. His moon didn’t have cities to make pollution, and he’d watch the colossal curve of Syco cross the sky like a great glowing marble and wonder who up there was looking back. Folks here couldn’t do that if they wanted to. They can’t even see their own moons at night.
The dusty air jabs at Harry’s lungs and he absently feels for his inhaler. His trousers are too tight to fit anything in the pockets. Niall offered to swap passenger recruit duty but Niall’s tired and everyone knows Harry’s the best at drawing them in, so he stayed put.
Anyhow, he wanted to be outside. A transport hub like Beaumonde never stays quiet for a minute. Vendors hawk their wares up and down the dock and high sing-song adverts peel over the planet’s tight skyscrapers. Transports roar overhead, taking scores of citizens to their high offices or tiny little flats. Everyone’s got their own story and Harry wants to hear every single one.
Gorram is this planet thick, though — Harry keeps having to stop and wheeze into the elbow of his shirt, catch his breath before making the ship pitch: “Mid-bulk transport, new model Firefly class, quick ride no trouble here to Three Hills, swear on my mama’s life.”
Harry says the no trouble bit with a straight face, too, even though if all goes well the Direction will be riding with stolen cargo and they haven’t had much besides trouble since the day they won their ship five years back.
He’s managed three passengers already — a surveyor couple with clunky metal equipment and an old herder looking to make his way back home — but Louis wants at least five, so Harry’s out until he delivers.
Most of the folk on the docks are shabby-dressed and pale like Harry, with that greenish hue you get spending too much time out in space, no matter what your tint. Nothing promising. Except — there.
Across the way, a tall figure picks through the crowd and doesn’t quite mix. Maybe it’s the fancy fits, or the way the man’s picking his way around the rubbish, but something about him says money, says good profit, says maybe Harry can jack up the price and tell him that they got a higher-grade engine than they do. If the bloke’s off some wealthy central planet, he won’t miss the spare credits, and Direction’s in mighty dear need of a new engine compressor.
Besides, the mark’s got a good face and a nice silhouette and Harry likes to pick passengers that got some aesthetic value. He likes to plan ahead, maybe garner something intimate for the flight time. He ain’t no doxy — Louis can eat it — but it does get lonely out there in the black, sometimes.
Harry straightens up and hones in on him. He barely has to do his bedroom eyes twenty seconds before his mark starts towards him, which means either Zayn’s Companion tricks work real well or the mark has a powerful desire to head Three Hills way. Harry’d rather believe the former, if he’s honest. Just a nice thought.
If it had been Harry in that Companion school instead of Zayn, there’s no chance he’d have quit, no matter how much finicky lute practise Zayn says they got to do.
“Wei, stranger,” Harry says, smiling all nice and slow up at the man, angling his body the way Zayn taught him.
The mark’s eyes ease down towards Harry’s lips, then skim the rest of the line of his body, which is promising. Harry had guessed the mark was like to be sly, or at least there was the chance, but it’s nice to have a better confirmation. You never know what kind of backwoods planets can train people up to hate that. Think it’s bad for the population growth and all.
Harry’s just about ready to seal the deal with some pointed lip biting when his lungs convulse violently, rejecting the smoke of Beaumonde’s factories in long, deep hacks.
So much for seduction, he thinks bitterly, and lets go his hopes of swindling him a bit — no more’n they need, mind. Maybe he could try for sympathy, instead. Harry gropes for his inhaler, eyes squeezed shut with the force of his coughing.
“You all right there?” The mark’s voice is low and kind, his accent oddly familiar. “Go on, take a deep breath.” He’s kneeling in front of Harry now and he puts the inhaler to Harry’s mouth, holding it there as Harry tries to breathe. The mark’s eyes are wide and hazel-green, all marbled like a forested world. The mark doesn’t look away. Slowly, Harry feels his lungs start to clear out.
The mark smiles then, one side of his mouth higher than the other. “There you go, that’s alright, innit. Qù ba, slowly. Not used to this kind of air, then?”
Harry shakes his head. The mark’s clothes scream Core planet but he’s got an accent more like Harry’s, them Red Sun sort of elongated vowels, his Mandarin with the tones all mucky. They got those accents on some central planets, too, though, Harry reckons. He could still be a Core dandy, clothes like he’s got. Harry’s fiercely jealous of the mark’s dapper check suit. He’s even got a waistcoat.
“Sorry,” Harry chokes out, “The atmo’s shit, ain’t it.”
“Nasty,” the mark agrees, “Makes you want to get the hell off-planet, don’t it?”
“Sometimes, yeah,” Harry says, wiping at his watery eyes. He’s sure to be flushed now but may be that’ll work for him. “Like you?”
“Like me. You own this fancy scrap of metal, then?”
Harry makes an affronted face. “The Direction is a fine vessel, sir, and she’s mine but I don’t own her none. We all share.” Halfway through his bristle Harry remembers he’s meant to be selling, not telling off, not if he don’t want to skip out on dinner later. Planetside’ll be one of the few chances they got for a meal that’s more than various flavours of protein and spices. “Listen — we’re headed for Three Hills, like the sign says, and we’ve a good, smooth ride and nice facilities, safe flyin’. Promise.”
“Promise?” repeats the mark, his smile all toothy and lopsided. Harry grins back, pleased as some intimate doings seem to still be on order for a possibility.
“Promise,” agrees Harry, punching out his dimples. “I’m Harry Styles, by the way. This here’s the Direction, and we’ll be settin’ off tonight. We take all manner of payment, if you've got it, since you've got to... have payment. To fly.” Harry winces. He'd got distracted doing Zayn's trick with the eyelashes. Zayn never gets mixed up like that, but Zayn's got much more practice than Harry.
“I’m Nick Grimshaw,” the mark says, all amused like he’s got a joke he’s not telling. “And what d’you know it, Three Hills will suit me just fine. ”
“Brilliant,” Harry says, relieved. “I’d’ve offered to drop you anywhere ‘round the system but Louis hates when I do that, says it’s a waste of fuel.”
“Right,” says Nick Grimshaw with a sort of bemused tolerance, “Glad not to put your Louis in a mood, then. Now, there’s me, but I’ve also got a mad woman travelling with me: orange hair, temperament to match, but I promise keep her from setting fire to anything valuable.” The mark smiles, lopsided.
Harry frowns. “Well, if you don’t mind bunking, but they’re single beds, if you—”
“We keep our bits well separate. Just friends, us. That’ll do fine, Harry Styles.”
Harry heaves a little sigh relief, which takes some effort in the smog. “Right, good then. All set, so long as she’s here by take-off.”
The mark — Nick Grimshaw — shifts his bag to pull out a small, battered box. “Grand. And I've got the credit, but I thought this might be of particular interest to flying folk such as yourselves.” He passes the box to Harry.
Harry opens the box and then stops short, stomach rolling in jolts like he’s leaving atmo. “Shénshèng de gāowán,” he breathes. “Yeah, reckon, that’s worth about half a sail.”
“Bananas?!” cries a voice, high and shrill. It echoes off the metal fittings of the hull and straight into the passenger bunks where Aimee and Nick recline in preparation for their voyage. “You let two passengers on for bananas?”
Aimee raises an eyebrow at Nick over the curve of her elongated nails, pausing briefly in her filing.
“What?” Nick sputters, all aw-shucks innocent, but with that guilty edge of a laugh he does when someone’s got his number.
Aimee purses her lips and returns to her filing. “You know what.” Aimee makes it her business to know everyone’s numbers. She’s got one of the best directories in the ‘verse.
Nick scrunches his face up and heaves a pillow at her, which he’s going to regret later because of the two of them, Nick has always cared more about tidiness.
As if on cue, the voice reverberates into the shuttle yet again. “This ship don’t run on fruit, Harry,” the man’s shrieking. Maybe boy, with that spiny tenor of a voice.
“I should probably be thankful,” Aimee muses, tilting her forefinger to examine the angle. “I saw the face on that kid who checked us in. You would have paid double price for this cab ride, you slag.”
Nick chucks the other pillow. “Would not have. We’re on limited budget and I’m frugal!”
Aimee snorts. “Right. Frugal, is it? Well, try to find somewhere other than our shared bunk for your transit fuck, ‘kay? All the pretty little spaceboys you’re dicking are all well and good, get ‘em, sweetie, I’m proud of you, but I’m bored of seeing their bare asses every morning.”
Nick huffs a sigh into the fold of his arms. “It was one time, Aims. Once.”
There have been at least seven times since they left Radio One a month and a half ago. Twelve, if you count dick-side, which Aimee does on days when Nick gets particularly stroppy. “He had a good mouth,” Aimee muses, instead of arguing numbers, because it’s a much more interesting topic. “You sure he’s not already snatched up?”
“He does, doesn’t he?” Nick says, visibly perking up. He scrambles to a seated position, moving to straighten the covers of his bunk as he goes. “Let’s never hitch on a ship without anyone pretty ever again. So boring. What was that Ocelot 787? The one with the crew of pensioners. That was the worst. What’s spaceflight for but a little illicit affair?”
“Travel, possibly,” Aimee suggests, dry.
Nick sticks his tongue out at her, because he may be in his third decade now but he’s got the maturity of a seven-year-old.
“That Ocelot was trashy, though. Wall-to-wall carpets?” Aimee makes a face. “Shag carpeting and faux-wood walls. Remember those blinds with the earth pastiche scenes when you pulled them down? Little yaks dotted over rolling hills. Hideous. We’re on a fucking spaceship, for fuck’s sake, just accept it.”
“Maybe they were compensating for their own lack of carpeting,” Nick suggests, wriggling his fingers over his coif to demonstrate.
“Hair of the decor.”
“Scalp dreams of the nearly obsolete.”
Nick and Aimee snicker at each other, briefly, and Aimee feels a burst of gratitude that she’s doing this trip with her best friend. Not that she would have minded if they’d sent her out with Greg, or Zane or someone, the job’s the job, but — she’s glad it’s Nick, that’s all.
“What do we call this guest bunk, then?” Nick asks, waving at their spartan surroundings. “Vague attempts at Companion zen?”
“Bargain bin Sihnon,” Aimee says, raising an eyebrow at the beige paneling and luxuriating in judgement rather than sentiment that will just make her tear up and ruin her eyeliner. “Paper sliding doors? Seems unwise. Are they expecting only celibate shepherds in residence?”
“Last Firefly we were on had their very own pastor, remember that?” Nick twists his quiff up, beaming at the memory. “Maybe they come with the model! Fun-sized god worshipper, wee little holy book in hand.”
Their sad little paper divider door gives a woody wibble, which is probably meant to be a knock. Nick makes a face at Aimee, with which she heartily concurs. “Yes?” she calls, not bothering to move.
The door slides open with some wobbly effort. It’s not Nick’s boy. It’s a different one, buzz-crop and muscley. Aimee likes those aspects in a person, from a visual perspective.
“Hello,” says the muscley boy. He’s got hopeful sort of puppy eyes and quite a large weapons holster, which is a fun combination. “Welcome to the Direction. Just wanted to let you know that we’ll be meetin’ up in the dining area once we set sail for an introduction, if you don’t mind comin’ up there for a minute.”
Aimee stifles a snicker at his mature phrasing, watching the careful way the boy’s holding his shoulders as he delivers a message that sounds like he practised it in a looking glass.
“Does your ship come, by any chance, with its own shepherd?” Nick asks brightly. “I heard they came with the Firefly model.”
The boy’s eyebrows furrow perplexedly in the centre of his forehead. “Well… I mean… I do prayers, sometimes, if it’s them you’re looking for. But we don’t got nobody specialised onboard? Unless one of the other passengers is?”
Nick pouts, lip out like a bottom step. “Now you’ve let me down, Unnamed Crew Member! I was hoping it’d live up to reputation, this boat of yours. Insecty-looking light-up spaceship, one religiosity-inspired fella in the wing. Like a gift bag!”
The boy blinks at them both, like Nick’s speaking a dialect that bears some vague resemblance to his own but sports none of the same nouns or verbs, and he’s trying to parse meaning out of the adjectives. Poor thing. Aimee chucks her nail file at Nick. “Grim, stop messing with him. You’re confusing the boy. Let him do his job. What’s the rest of your speech, then?”
“I… er,” stumbles the boy. “I’m meant to say… We’ll be needin’ you up in the kitchen by 21:00 or thereabouts, or whenever we leave harbour? For the captain talk?”
Aimee gives her best innocuous passenger smile, bland as plain rice. “We’ll be up come take off time. Don’t you worry…”
“Liam,” the boy supplies.
“Liam. Go on now, Liam, shoo.”
Liam shoos. Aimee likes that in a person.
“No preacher,” Nick grumbles, tossing back onto the pillows. “I was hoping for a repeat of that last Firefly. Real laugh, that one.”
Aimee smiles with half of her mouth. “Yes. And you loved them, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, well. Some crews are special,” Nick says, and then seems to register he said something serious and hides his face in his pillow.
Aimee laughs low, filing the tip of her nail and feeling faintly homesick. “Yes. Some crews are.”
An hour passes before a Red Sun accent — more rhotic and lilting than Nick’s — comes crackling through the loudspeaker with unnecessary violence.
“Brace yourselves, we’re goin’ out! Aw — cuntrocket.” A thud. “No worries, it’s fine, just a bit of… paneling freedom. Involuntarily. Fuck — stop that, Lou. Oh shit, that’s a… That’s a little — oh fuck.” Another thud, louder than the first. “Right! Okay, we’re good. Take off in five, four, three —”
Out of the corner of her eye, Aimee can see Nick wince as the ship shudders into the air, leaving their stomachs somewhere below in the city, racing to catch up. The boosters jolt and catch with a roar, and all of Aimee’s bones go lead-dense and heavy.
“I hate this part,” mutters Nick, folding his arms into his pillow. Aimee reaches across the gap between their beds to pat his elbow.
The ship quakes as planetary gravity competes with the simulators on the ship. Aimee can feel the warring deep in her gut. That’s Nick’s worst part, but Aimee doesn’t mind. She knows what comes next. There’s a disconcerting metallic creaking as the ship crests through atmo, and suddenly everything is very still and smooth. The wing-mount engines power off. Silence blankets their cabin.
They’re in space.
Aimee breathes the newly generated air, savouring that tangy canned scent of vents clearing. The blackness of space winks through the small portal window and swallows the hazy mass of Beaumonde as it shrinks in their wake.
Nick takes a long, shaky breath.
“Give it a few minutes, babe.”
“Shut up,” Nick snaps, and then seems to settle himself before continuing in a small voice, “Remind me how hard it is to break one of these portal windows again, please.”
“You couldn’t do it short of some high-grade explosives.”
“Which we don’t have.”
“Which we don’t have,” Aimee agrees.
Being just a plate glass port away from all-consuming nothingness can drive a certain kind of person batty, but Aimee didn’t set foot on solid ground until she was nearly eleven. She’s seen Nick do his just-in-space anxiety bit a couple hundred times and has never managed to understand a wink of it.
Nick sits up slowly and keeps his head turned firmly away from the window. “Right. This is totally normal. We are definitely meant to be on a great hulk of metal in the void. I love uncertainty and trusting an unreliable collection of steel machinery!”
Aimee rolls her eyes. “Fuck’s sake, Nicholas, how many times have you flown? Jesus, if I can get used to rain and snow and mud and dirt, you can get used to a little space travel, darling.”
“No need to be nasty,” Nick says, frowning.
“C’mon, you idiot. Let’s go meet our hosts. Fingers crossed they don’t love the Blue Sun News Network.”
Aimee slides her feet into her massive heels — no easy feat, walking on six-inch heels in space, so she likes to show off her agility — and checks her hair. Seems counterintuitive that two people like her and Nick would be travelling under the wire, between Nick’s flashy waistcoats and her poisonous orange coif; but Aimee’s always found that if you make a sparkly enough first impression, most people don’t bother to look past the flash.
Nick groans as he gets to his feet, tugging at his quiff. “Thirty-one,” he mutters, peering over Aimee’s shoulder at his reflection. He prods his crows feet, scowling. “What happened to our youth, Aimes?”
Aimee rolls her eyes. She’ll be thirty-five this year, but figures since time is based on solar models it doesn’t count for her. She refuses to acknowledge any statement regarding her age, or appropriate behaviour thereof, or Nick’s whinging about his wrinkles. “Clubbing and capital overthrow, Grimshaw. Suck it up.”
“It’s like an asteroid hit my face,” Nick whines, stretching the skin with two fingers. “Very specifically, though. And in tiny little pieces.”
“God, you get stroppy vesselside. I’m going to hit your face myself if you don’t shut up.” Aimee smoothes her bun. “You look fine. Dashing, handsome, make all the little ex-farmboys swoon for your dick. Let’s go.”
Aimee gropes through her bed for her handheld and proceeds out the door. Aimee’s been on enough Fireflies to get the basic layout so as she walks she flips through the screen, checking for notifications. They’re still in signal, which is nice: advantages of staying inside the Blue Sun system. Sure, these planets may have spawned a monomaniacal corporation that has the government by its distended corrupt balls, but they’ve got by far the best cortex reception in the ‘verse.
Ian’s sent her a little capture of Matt Fincham giving a rude gesture. Aimee makes a mental note to retaliate in kind and sends Ian a string of unrelated pictograms.
The living quarters of a Firefly all cluster together in the heart of the ship to conserve warmth: passenger quarters and common area on the lower deck, connected to the combination dining area-kitchen by an industrial steel staircase. Aimee takes the stairs at a brisk pace and is careful not to get a heel caught in the grating.
The dining area looks cluttered, which she expected on a ship with five lads in their early twenties, but homey-feeling. Warm. Someone has done graffiti all up the walls, and the dining table and chairs are all rough handspun wood, the kind you find on a border planet that’s never seen a furniture megastore before. One of these boys — maybe all of them — has a worried mother on some nowhere ranching moon.
There are three other passengers scattered around the room and Aimee makes it a point not to look up much from her handheld. She doesn’t want to give the impression that she’s interested in that whole temporary shipboard intimacy malarky that space virgins wet themselves over.
A pointed throat clearing makes Aimee glance up from her screen. The shortest of the space boys puffs out his chest. “I’m Louis Tomlinson, captain of the Direction,” he says tersely, staring them all down in turn.
“Red Sun,” Aimee whispers to Nick, before turning back to her handheld. “Hates the Alliance — probably considers himself a Browncoat — but doesn’t do much about it besides spout off on Unification Day. Rancher, never could make it as he’s too small and pretty-looking and it pisses him off.”
Nick snorts and leans back. “Doncaster, to be specific. It’s the second moon on Syco. Mining, mostly.”
Aimee raises an eyebrow. Nick looks pretty pleased with himself, like he searched this kid up on the cortex but Aimee knows he hasn’t. “How’d you graft that?”
“Tell you later,” Nick says. Another couple of boys trickle in through the bridge door and Nick’s shoulder goes tense. One of them is the pretty one who checked them in. Aimee does her best to keep from snickering.
She hasn’t heard a word of whatever Doncaster Louis’s been saying, but she can make an educated guess as to the bent. The ship’s off-limits, pain of airlock or something. Blah blah. He does seem like the smuggling type.
Aimee leans close to Nick’s ear to mutter, “They look twitchy, don’t they?”
“Huh?” Nick tears his eyes away from his new crush. “Suppose. Could just be nervous about passengers, though.”
“Or they could be doing some heavy crime.” Aimee glances between them and then corrects herself, “Or light, probably incompetent baby crime.”
“At least they’re not feds?”
“Could you stop staring at your next blowjob and consider this? The feds could go after these idiots and stumble across us by accident. With our fucking luck.”
“You worry too much,” Nick whispers.
“I get paid to worry too much,” Aimee reminds him, and tunes back in to the captain’s meandering lecture.
“Off-limits,” Louis blusters emphatically. “If you need something in the bay you get one of the crew to escort you down. You stick to passenger quarters and the kitchen. Everywhere else is crew-only.”
Nick keeps darting glances at the pretty boy who checked them in — Harry, he’s called. For his part, pretty Harry is sending Nick little smiles of his own and Aimee waves Ian a grumpy text: Grimshaw’s on the pull again. There was never a chance Nick wouldn’t already be half in love with him, really. Tall, with wide shoulders and narrow little hips, big eyes in his farmer boy face, red lush mouth. Delightfully eccentric button-down printed all over with flamingos. Exactly Nick’s type. At least one of them will be able to amuse themselves on the journey.
“And which of these fine folks are the crew? Just the pale ones, or do you self-tan onboard?” asks Nick loudly, darting glances over at pretty Harry to see if he laughs. He does, which Aimee takes as reasonable indicator that they’ll be fucking within the next twelve hours.
The captain glowers at Nick and begins the stilted introductions, running easily through the recitation until he pauses with a strange aborted shutter, looking at the boy who’s come up behind Harry. “And here’s Zayn Malik,” he says. He starts to say something else but cuts himself off, starts rambling on aggressively about laundry, or something.
Zayn Malik hangs behind Nick’s Harry, doing a standoffish shy bit that works well for him. He’s wearing a battered leather jacket and plain trousers like they cost a year’s wages on a central planet and Aimee raises an eyebrow.
“I will bet you all the credit on my person that that boy is or was a Companion,” Aimee tells Nick in an undertone, nodding over at Zayn Malik. Between him, pretty Harry and first mate Liam’s muscles, this ship sure is well-decorated. Aimee makes a mental note to congratulate Nick for his choice of vessel later.
Probable Companion Zayn’s eyes flicker when he clocks Aimee staring, surprisingly. Companions are usually much better at hiding their emotions than that. Most of them have that frozen benign half-smile down pat. Maybe that’s why this one is sailing in some old model spaceship with a gaggle of border moon boys instead of pulling in mountains of credit on a Core planet.
“What?” asks Nick. “Oh, him. Yeah, fit.”
Aimee sighs. She’ll take a stalker capture later, send it off to Pix or Gillian. They’ll appreciate those cheekbones better than Nick, who’s already in a dick haze from that pretty mechanic’s cocksucker lips. “Just don’t fuck him in our bunk, asshole,” she whispers, jabbing Nick in the ticklish place under his ribs.
Nick scoffs and kicks her ankle. Aimee wouldn’t place bets on it.
Louis nearly puts his foot through a vent plate and then curses violent and fluently, because Yazad and Jesus and every array of deity worshipped in any podunk moon, fuck, that hurt.
“I don’t think that’s physically possible,” Zayn says, gliding onto the bridge. “At least not with sheep. Giraffes, maybe.”
“What the fuck is a giraffe,” Louis snaps, shooting Zayn a nasty nose-wrinkle. Louis’s foot hurts like hell and Harry’s undersold the passengers, as usual, and if that hadn’t been enough bother they’re sitting on top of black market cargo that’s currently hidden in his bunk; black market cargo that’s probably shitting all over his stuff by now. Louis is not in the mood for girwhatevers. He tosses himself into Niall’s pilot chair and stares out at the black.
“It’s a mammal. Four-legs, long neck. They’ve got a few in some Core animal reserves,” Zayn says absently, stirring his tea with a poised hand that could’ve been straight out an etiquette book. Zayn’s thick accent always softens when they’ve got visitors and his back straightens like the string of a puppet tugged up. It’s like he’s remembering all that Companion training that tried to breed the border moon out of him. It drives Louis batty.
Louis just glowers, because fuck the rutting central planets, fuck Zayn’s fancy Core manners, fuck the Alliance herding them so tight they can’t seem to get any good jobs anymore. Alliance never did nothing for him, never did nothing for his. And his bloody ship is near on falling apart. He needs a rutting job or they’ll be dead in the water. And no sad kiddie capers, neither.
Zayn rolls his eyes and takes a seat in the second chair, which is meant to be captain’s. Though Louis is sitting in the pilot’s, so. “All right, Lou. What’s up your xì pìgu, then?”
“Gǔn kāi, Zayn,” says Louis, throwing one of Niall’s bobbly dolls at his head.
“You’re always a twat when we have passengers,” says Zayn, chucking it back at him. “Which one do you hate this time, then?”
“That rutting twatty posh one,” says Louis darkly. To be fair, he hasn’t spoken direct to the man, but circumstances tell a tale. Someone with a coat cut that fine shouldn’t be docked half price for a voyage. Ain’t right.
Zayn’s expression is, as usual, nearly impenetrable. “Think they’ll be trouble?”
Louis makes a face. Civilians are generally a bit addlepated, as a rule. He’s not too worried. Once the passengers get all settled, the crew can transport their cargo to the hanger bay and not let the civvies into that part of the ship. No harm, no foul, no Alliance jail. “We’ll keep ‘em in the dark. Don’t much care, fuck ‘em. You hear about the cargo?”
Zayn looks infuriatingly all-knowing, sipping at his tea. “I thought the pick-up went well, but Liam said we may have a problem with the law. Tagged, are they? You want to find someone to strip them before we fence it?” He raises an eyebrow, managing to communicate four worlds worth of skepticism in the tilt of a facial muscle.
“Don’t rutting start.”
Zayn raises his non-occupied hand like he’s surrendering. “I didn’t start.”
“You were about to.” Louis ducks Zayn’s eyes and fiddles with the dash. Niall will probably murder him for that later. He’s very particular about his controls, go fucking figure. “We don’t have a contact versed in removing trackers, our man on Three Hills won’t have ‘em tagged, we’re sure to get snatched with the cargo now and get hunted down by the seller, not get paid, and wind up spinning out in the black with no fuel. Blah blah fuckedy blah. Want to say ‘I told you so’ now?”
“I told you so,” Zayn says promptly.
Louis tries to keep the amused twitch of his mouth to a minimum. “Fuck off. We’ll figure it out. One step at a time.”
“The last time you said that, we ended up in lockdown on a geese-juggling moon for three months.”
Louis rolls his eyes. “It was a month, max, and nobody got hurt. Don’t make a fuss.”
Zayn levels a flat look in his direction. “They shot you.”
“Just a little bit,” says Louis, waving a hand aside. “Barely a scratch.”
“In the chest.”
“It missed any vital organs.”
“You no longer have an appendix.”
Louis shrugs. “Like I said. No vital organs.”
Zayn snorts and chucks the bobbly-headed geisha doll back at him. “Whatever. I just don’t want to risk our license just because you don’t want to admit you made a mistake.” His tone says mild but his face means business.
Louis flushes. Shame and irritation feel mostly the same to him, just red blood and heat running together until his face feels like it’s about to boil off. “Fuck off, dickwad. Black market beagles, my arse. They don’t even do anything. We couldn’t have gotten cattle or sheep or summat valuable?”
“Folk value all sorts of things,” says Zayn, looking out into the depths of space like someone ought to be filming him for an art piece about melancholy.
Louis throws a grease rag at him. “Can it, plastic Buddha.”
“It’s true!” Zayn snorts and leans back in his seat. Beyond the glass plating, the mass of Blue Sun blazes out from the black. “Nobody off Beaumonde has any use for cattle, Louis.”
“They would if they stopped importing meat.”
“And selling cattle to Three Hills is like selling scarves to our Hazza.”
“He’s got eight hundred but he always wants three more?”
Zayn snickers. “He’ll pay extra for the ugliest pattern you got.”
Niall’s earsplitting crackle on the intercom interrupts any response Louis might have had. “The passengers are all out of the way, mate. We’re clear for removal.”
Louis winces. “Brilliant. Time to see how much dog shit I’ve got on my bedding.”
“Just open it, mate,” Niall says.
Louis stares at his bunk hatch. Down in that underslung room, thirty-three black market beagles are waggling their stubby tails and likely shitting all over the floor. They’d been given seds for liftoff, but they should be awake now, barking and shitting and weeing all over his belongings.
Why the fuck had he given the okay for them to be stored in his bunk, again? Should’ve made Liam or Harry house ‘em. So what if Liam has dangerous weapons and Harry’s got toxic mechanical fluids.
“If they’ve weed everywhere, you fuckers are cleaning that shit,” Louis demands, and pushes the hatch open. He can’t see much for the first few rungs down the ladder but the smell billows up around him as soon as he’s halfway. “You’re fucking cleaning it!”
Louis hits the floor and is overrun on all sides by yipping cargo, all fur and tongues underfoot so deep he can hardly move away from the ladder to let the others through. Little fuckers. They had dogs on Doncaster where he came up but they weren’t fancy like these little fuckers, they were self-sustaining and roamed the streets on their own, mostly and definitely wouldn’t have ruined everything in his godforsaken rutting bunk. He hears the thump of Harry and Liam landing behind him and tactfully doesn’t murder them out of general irritation.
“Ooh, who’s a good lil pup?” coos Harry. Sure enough, Harry’s on the floor with three of the canines climbing all over him, making big eyes and falling hopelessly in love with something he shouldn’t, like usual.
“Sorry about all the wee, Lou,” says Liam sadly, clapping Louis’s shoulder.
“I can smell it from up here!” calls Niall from the hatch, his head poked down at the top of the ladder.
Louis can practically feel Zayn roll his eyes from the top of the ladder. “Niall,” Zayn says quietly, “Not so loud, not all the passengers are asleep, probably.”
“I love them,” says Harry fervently. “Can we have a pet? I want a shipboard pet, they’d be so dead useful, I swear.”
“They’d wee everywhere and not contribute anything to the goings on,” says Louis flatly, picking up a desiccated wall-hanging that used to show the moons of Yuang-Li with the tips of his fingers. It smells disgusting. “These dumbshit creatures better get us a good payment. You’re sure they’re worth more’n cattle? Fucking nonsense.”
“Three Hills is mostly cattle already,” points out Liam. He’s checking all the dogs’ vitals with their little handheld med scanner, shaking it vigorously in between sessions to keep it from crashing. “Don’t need more. Anyway, these boys are luxury animals, ain’t they?”
“Zayn says hurry up,” calls Niall through the hatch. “And also we agree with Haz. Pets would be sick.”
Harry beams. “See?”
“No,” says Louis flatly. “You done yet, Liam?”
“One more,” says Liam, checking under a floppy ear. The med scanner gives a sad little buzz. “So far so shiny. We can start moving them now, but no seds. Could cause damage and it’ll show in their system.”
“Bloody brilliant,” sighs Louis. “And for sure they’re tagged?”
Liam waves the scanner under one beagle’s paw and a little holograph Alliance mark hovers above it, hateful as ever. Louis’s stomach turns at the sight, just by instinct.
“It’ll be okay,” says Harry immediately.
“Shut up, Harold.”
“I’m only saying,” Harry sighs, rubbing a beagle’s floppy ear.
“Right, let’s move them on,” Louis says hastily, before they can get into the tangle of what the hell they’ll do about it. One step at a time. He scoops up a wiggling creature and ferries it up to Niall.
When Louis became a smuggler, he thought he’d be taking underhand medical supplies to needy and virtuous border planets, or ferrying food rations to starving folk on the rim, but here he is out in the middle of fucking nowhere transporting some specially bred leisure canines with piss problems. This is bullshit. Smuggling was meant to be a noble gorram action job. Nothing like this. Louis’s hands are going to smell wet and pissy for months.
“Boxes of puppies,” says Harry happily. “We’re literally gonna be carrying boxes of puppies.”
“Yeah, yeah,” grumbles Louis, nudging Liam ahead of him to move faster. “We’re all kings of Londinium, hurry the fuck up and get these wee-machines out of my bunk.”
They shuttle the little bastards down to the cargo bay in efficient calm, which is a new and exciting mood for them as a crew. Zayn insists on laying blankets and cushions down — “It’s cold in space,” he says, and Louis can’t deny him bloody anything — and Niall rigs up sunlamps over the spread in the hopes they’ll stay energetic and not atrophy too much. After a decent amount of fiddling, Zayn pronounces the set-up adequate and they all start trickling off to their beds.
“Haz,” Louis says, and catches the sleeve of Harry’s bizarre sparkly caftan before he can leave. Harry stops and looks back at him, all slow blink like a cow chewing cud. Louis’s gut spikes in annoyance. “Oh, don’t give me that shit.”
Harry’s face stays all long-suffering calm, yoga gentle, which only irritates Louis more. “I just know what you’re going to say.”
“Oh? And what’s that, then?”
Harry sighs from the chest and looks down at his feet. “Don’t trust the passengers, don’t get in deep with the passengers, don’t bloody talk to the passengers ‘cos they’re probably all, like, undercover Alliance feds trying to sniff out our illegal operations. Right?”
Louis makes a face. They all know each other too bloody well. “I was going to tell you Niall wanted to do the cooking for dinner tonight, actually.”
Harry looks up. “Oh. Really?”
“Well, that, and the other thing you said.” Louis kicks his shoe so it bumps up against Harry’s, trying not to be so blustery it raises Harry’s defensive hackles. “Listen, seriously, I don’t trust ‘em.”
“You don’t trust anybody.”
“That ain’t true,” Louis says, frowning.
“Well, you don’t trust hardly anybody.” Harry sets his chin. Folk like to think he’s soft, Harry, but a more stubborn little bastard Louis has yet to meet. Except, possibly, when Louis looks in the mirror. “I’ll talk to who I want to talk to, Lou. I can handle myself.”
If Louis were less of a fine, upstanding member of society, he’d hit Harry over the head with one of those wee-blankets. “Fine. Just don’t — they’re leaving, Haz. Don’t tell ‘em nothing.”
“I know,” Harry says, and disappears up the catwalk towards his bunk.
Louis thinks irritably about Nick Grimshaw’s polished fancy-arse shoes and his friend’s gigantic heels. He hasn’t seen a more useless pair of peacocks since the one and only time he set reluctant foot on a gleaming central planet to pick Zayn up from Companion school. Those bastards won the war, and here Louis is on his crumbling ship with contraband so undignified he doesn’t even want to mention it to himself. He can’t tell his mum that this is what he’s doing now. He’ll need to make something up: say they’re smuggling medical tools to the fuzzy-wuzzies or some shit.
God, he doesn’t even have a house to his name. If the Direction goes black, he’s got nothing.
The crew fends for themselves in the kitchen during the day. It’s not like there’s no time in the black to mix an instant miso or dehydrated noodles, so Harry — and Niall, who takes offence when Harry calls himself the ship’s cook — leave the others to it until dinner.
Unfortunately, this means that if Harry wants to hide anything, it’s like to be found near immediately by somebody hunting through the cupboards for a snack. Harry’ll be sharing the fruit he got off Nick with the crew, swear on his mama’s life, but there are six bananas and technically they were gifted to him.
Harry hasn’t had a banana in gone on eight months and they’re his absolute, hands down favourites. He lifts the lid of the box and sniffs deep of them, their soft smell seeping through the green-yellow peels. They’re good, too. The single one he bartered for eight months ago was crushed brown and bent from long travel. He grabs one, reasoning that it’s best to pick the one that’s like to go bad first. That way it’s a bit charitable, as well as delicious.
The peel separates from the banana with a fresh sort of sound that makes Harry feel clean and, well, human, sort of. Spend too long eating protein paste from sealed packs and you’ll start to feel a bit android.
Harry rests the flesh of the banana on his tongue for a minute, just letting it savour there, and then bites through, slow. The flesh of the fruit is sweet and clean and raw-tasting, like standing out in a field with sun beating down over his skin. He closes his eyes and lets that freshness seep through him like recharging a battery.
“Oh! Ah. I see today’s a day for penises, then. Thematic. Interesting!”
Harry opens his eyes and realises he’s staring at Nick with a banana shoved halfway down his throat. He snorts, trying not to choke on precious fruit while he laughs. “Penis day?” Harry asks, once his throat has settled.
“To be honest, I just walked in on your pilot jacking off on the bridge. I’m traumatised. I may never recover.” Nick sprawls out on the dining bench, eyes rolling up in his head as he claps a hand to his chest. “Bury me at sea, Harry Styles. Float my corpse off into space. Bon voyage.”
“You’ve had a good run,” Harry says wisely. “Wait — what were you doing on the bridge, anyhow? Passengers aren’t allowed up there.”
Nick waves his long hand to the side, fingers fluttering. “I can’t be contained, Styles. I’m an outlaw. A rebel. Although, an outlaw whose eyes have been grievously assaulted. Your pilot just laughed and wiped his hand off and invited me to take a look at the new Saphacen control panel. You’re heathens here, Styles. It’s Lord of the Flies. It’s the Lost Courtney Colony.”
Harry puts the kettle on, because even heathens like a cup of tea. “We’ve all been desensitised. We’ve been flying together for like… five years, now, I guess. Barely registers, at this point.”
“Does your pilot have a fetish for asteroid fields, d’you reckon? Troll the cortex for intimate shots of sexy space rocks? Or is he more a nebula sort of bloke?”
“Gas rings,” Harry suggests. “They’ve got that special something.”
Nick snorts. “A special, vice-grip sort of something.”
“You’ll get used to it.” Harry shrugs and takes another bite, remembering only too late about that whole, eye-contact whilst eating a banana, thing. Nick delicately looks away. “I’ve seen ‘em all going at it, one way or another.”
“My poor innocent eyeballs,” Nick sighs. “Preacher-man once blessed this cursed head, you know. You’re giving away all the lord’s work.”
Harry hums through his mouthful. “Which lord?”
Nick makes a considering sound. “Never thought to ask proper. He was a bit busy shooting at things, you know those lordly types.”
“Never met a lord, me.” Harry slows down his bites to savour the experience and then feels even dirtier. Like he’s deep-throating fruit in front of a new passenger: what a way to welcome guests.
Not the first time, comes Louis’s voice in his head.
He resists the impulse to argue with his internal Louis.
“They’re overrated, as a rule. Wouldn’t recommend the experience.” Nick stuffs his hands into his tight pockets and looks at Harry for a long moment. “Glad you like those,” he says, nodding at the bananas.
Harry nearly chokes. “Sorry,” he says, “I don’t mean to — I mean, I was a little bit making eye contact. It didn’t mean anything, I wasn’t trying to, uh. Not that I don’t — I mean, I didn’t not mean anything by it. But it wasn’t on purpose? The dick thing, I mean. I didn’t fellate a banana on purpose.”
“Poor banana,” Nick says, grinning. “Here it thought you’d have a spring wedding.”
“Under a banana tree, for the irony.”
Nick laughs. “Banana bread for the wedding cake — ooh, is that too dark? Bit dark.”
“You turned a romantic comedy into a murder mystery.”
“The Suckling Fig.”
They grin at each other for a long moment.
“Well, I need to, uh…” Nick leans back against the curved wall of the kitchen, smiling vaguely. “Get to my unspecified activities.”
“Right. I’ll, uh — see you about. Hopefully not with the penis theme. I mean — oh, hell. See you later.”
Nick’s ears burn as he retreats into the belly of the ship.
Harry loves passengers. If he had it his way, the Direction would have passengers all the time.
Honest, Harry hadn’t intended to visit the kitchen for ogling of any kind, but when he reaches the doorway to see Nick Grimshaw bent over rummaging through the cupboards it just seems natural to carry on. It’s a nice view, really. Nick’s trousers are quite tight around his arse.
“Bloody… fuckshit,” Nick Grimshaw is saying, tossing aside a packet of protein sweetener. “Where do you pretty idiots keep your rutting tea? Persephone? Down inside Londinium itself? Fuck’s sake.”
“Next to the kettle, usually,” Harry says.
Nick startles, knocking four cans of preserved veg to the floor with a clatter. “Aha,” he says, once he stops flailing about a bit. “That’s sensible. Xiexie, Harry Styles. I was just about to filch some of your flavoured leaves while your crew was presumably asleep, since it’s dead late. You don’t mind, do you?”
“We’ll be airlocking you posthaste,” Harry lies. Unlike nearly everything else they have for consumption, tea is easy to come by, even in space: there’s no trouble transporting dried leaves. It’s all chips off blocks of condensed protein and tea every day for them, really. Harry puts the kettle on. “Now clean that up.”
Nick laughs in a sharp crack and does so, piling all the cabinet contents back in with far more organisational capacity than any of the crew had managed before. When it’s all sorted he hoists himself to his feet and comes up behind Harry, a might closer than a platonic acquaintance type might do, normally, which is nice.
“We don’t got nothing too fancy,” Harry admits, eyeing the sad state of their tea collection with a little trepidation.
“Twinings!” Nick crows, reaching over Harry’s shoulder to pick up the box, beaming at the black and yellow label. “Just like home, that. Lovely, couldn’t ask for better leaves to soak in water that used to be our waste products.”
“Like home?” Harry asks, perplexed, because that means — “Hey, you’re not Core at all, are you?”
“Hold up, Core? Me?” Nick cackles, all warm and wheezy like when the air vents go wonky, his face splitting with the force of it. “Where’d you get that one? Not with this voice, mate. Core-bred, Nick Grimshaw! Stunning. Me dad would have quite a few words to say about that one. Harry Styles, you’ve wandered far too long from home. Shameful. Someone ought to tell your mother she’s not waving you enough.”
“You’re not,” Harry gapes, wondering how he hadn’t put it together before.
“Am so,” says Nick proudly. “Think I’d know where I came up, sailor.”
Harry looks up into Nick’s face, feels himself start to smile without meaning to. They’re standing real close and the moment’s thick all of a sudden, like an engine sprung a heat leak in a small space. Harry’s not a person who gets edgy easy, not when it comes to standing real close to people he might want to have an intimate relation with sometime in the next hour or so, but his stomach’s churning all nervous.
“Water’s going,” Nick says.
Harry pulls himself out of it almost physically, turning to sort the kettle and make the two cups. He’s pretty sure he’s still all red and flushed. It’s becoming a theme.
Five years out in the wild wide ‘verse and Harry’s never met anyone else off Cheshire, not one. “Cor. What’re the odds? Whereabouts, then?”
“You know Oldham Farm?” Nick tries to take a sip of his tea and winces, blowing out his tongue. The offended expression Nick aims at his beverage warms Harry near as much as the tea.
“Best wheat in the system!” Harry dregs through his memory and comes back with the advert theme, shaky but the tune’s there. “If bread’s your jam, spread on to Oldham!”
Nick beams, laughing with all his teeth. “Lord, what a shit pun structure.”
“True,” says Harry. “They really could’ve been butter.”
Nick’s mouth twitches at the corners. “Yeah, The language was spread a mite thin. Pretty crumby advert.”
Harry nods. “They kneaded to work a little harder. Really rise to the occasion.”
“Wouldn’t want to get an injera-ry, though, if they were on too much of a roll.”
“They wouldn’t if they panettoned it down!”
“What if they just got naan-compliant?” muses Nick.
Harry intends to formulate something with ‘pita’ or possibly ‘yeast’ but the giggles are bubbling in him too high. He barks a laugh, then another, and then both he and Nick are bent over snorting into their mugs.
“What’s so bloody funny,” Niall snaps, shuffling through the kitchen towards the bridge. He’s wearing pyjamas and his hair is every which way, and he’s glaring like he’d sooner shoot than talk. “It’s gone on 14:00, dicks. Trying to have a rutting sleep, fuckin’ giggly arseholes.”
It only makes them laugh harder. Niall makes a lewd gesture as he passes and slams the divider shut behind him.
Once they finish their tea they’re on to the wine, Harry’s vintage, brewed in the engine room. It’s foul but it works, and they’re both a little giggly and tipsy so it’s easy to go from sitting at the kitchen benches to Harry straddling Nick’s lap, settling himself down with more wiggling than’s strictly necessary.
“Hi,” says Harry, looping his hands over Nick’s shoulders. Nick’s face is shadowed in the dim room, light flickering over the white teeth of his grin.
“Hiya,” says Nick, and it sounds dirty as any swear Harry’s ever heard. Their faces are centimetres apart, breathing warm wine smell into each others’ noses. “What do we have here?”
Harry’s going to take that question as rhetorical, as they’ve both been pretty openly building to this all day. He answers with his mouth, leaning forward and tilting so that he can press his lips against Nick’s, lick straight away along the seam. Nick doesn’t seem to be one for playing either. He opens right up, wet hot mouth and sharp teeth, one of his hands going to hold Harry firmly in place at the back of his skull. It’s good straight away, sparks zinging down Harry’s spine. He’d been angling for it before but he’s desperate, all of a sudden, hardening rapidly in his trousers, pressing against Nick’s groin and clutching needy at the back of Nick’s shirt. Harry’s attracted to a wide array of people but there’s no predicting this, whose mouth will send his nerves firing at all angles.
Nick has a sure hand, sliding past the layers of Harry’s shirt to reach the skin at the small of his back, spread wide and reach down to palm at his arse. The shift of angle means Harry’s hard-on rubs tight against the solid line of Nick’s cock, hot even through the layers of trouser and pants. Harry breaks the kiss to gasp, wet. “Fuck,” he says, and Nick smirks, spreads his fingers and squeezes.
“What, d’you want me to bend you over the table?” he asks, teasing. “It’s right here, after all. Convenient.”
“Yes,” Harry says immediately.
Nick sucks in a breath and kisses him again, more teeth this time, gathering him up close. Harry squeezes his hands between them so he can undo Nick’s waistcoat, hoping vaguely that his hands aren’t covered in engine grease as it’s quite a nice waistcoat and he’d be sorry to have ruined it. He pushes the fabric off of Nick’s shoulders and starts in on the shirt, running his nails though Nick’s chest hair as he goes.
It’s far fewer steps to undress Harry, just the tug of a jumper over his head and he’s bare-chested in the slight chill of the kitchen, pressed skin to skin against a fit passenger with kind eyes.
“Onboard art project?” asks Nick, running his hands over Harry’s arms, and it takes him a minute to catch up.
“Oh,” says Harry, sounding a bit more breathless than cool. He looks down at the ink criss-crossing over his torso. “Yeah, guess so. Zayn’s got a tattoo gun, and, well. We get bored. I like them.”
Nick runs his thumbs over Harry’s bicep, pulls his torso around so that he can examine it better. “This your ship?” he asks, pressing his lips to the rendition of the Direction. His tongue flickers wet and warm over the muscle.
“Yeah,” says Harry, half-choked.
“And what’s this? Seventeen black?”
“Quadrant,” answers Harry, tilting his head back so Nick can bite over the skin more easily. “Almost got — oh — stranded there once.”
Nick grazes his teeth over Harry’s collarbone and Harry can’t stop the breathy sound from escaping his throat. Nick bites into his throat next, one hand flicking a nipple. “You’ve four of these, did you know? Like a cow.”
Nick grins, twists the nipple and this time Harry does cry out. Nick pushes at him so that Harry’s leaned against the lip of the table, nearly arched over. Harry goes easy, lets Nick have the full span of his chest to peruse. Harry had thought this was going to be a quick ship fuck, hasty handjobs or a dry rub or summat, but it seems Nick’s of the mind to explore proper, get the lay of the land. It’s too slow for Harry, who wants more now, he’d rather one of them get to fucking, but he breathes shaky through it as Nick fits his hands over the plane of his abdomen and fingers the arch of his hipbones, sucks bruises into the wings of his collarbone birds.
Harry’s clutching sort of desperately at Nick’s shoulders, mussing up his hair when he can reach it. Nick’s clever with his mouth and Harry’s doing a bloody terrible job of keeping quiet and Nick hasn’t even touched his dick yet.
“Is that a clothing hanger?” asks Nick, amused. His voice wouldn’t sound completely fucked out to someone who didn’t know what was going on, which is a talent Harry envies a bit.
“Yeah,” says Harry, giggling a bit when Nick tilts the skin to get at it, close to the ticklish parts of his underarms. He can feel Nick smile against the skin.
“Strange child,” says Nick. He unwinds one of Harry’s arms and inspects the skin there, running his thumb over the words at the crook of his elbow, bringing Harry’s hand up to inspect the wrist. He bites over the cross in the web of Harry’s thumb and first finger and then takes his thumb into the tight suction of his mouth. Harry groans, low, hips jumping forward involuntarily.
“Interesting point, Harry,” says Nick, releasing the digit with a pop. “You know, I think you may be right.” He thumbs open the clasp to Harry’s trousers and nudges him up so that he can tug them down. Harry’s shaky and eager and his cock releases sticky and hard from the cloth, bobbing into the air.
“Fuck,” says Harry, almost whimpering as Nick pushes him back so that he’s sat at the edge of the table. “Please.”
“Very polite,” says Nick, hands spreading Harry’s legs wide on the table. He’s very close to Harry’s cock now, eying it with an appraising look that makes Harry tremble. “Really, Styles? This and that face of yours? Don’t seem quite fair, that.” Harry means to say something in response, hopefully cheeky and more coherent than his brain feels but Nick is taking his cock in hand, forefinger and thumb making a loose circle as he jacks him slowly.
“Please,” says Harry again. He’s balanced on his elbows, clenching his hands at his sides and fighting with every ounce of his body not to buck his hips up towards Nick’s tempting mouth, because that ain’t polite and he’s a nice boy.
The reverberation of Nick’s chuckle vibrates through Harry’s hips and then Nick is taking him in, tongue first and the slick glide of his mouth, maddeningly slow suction over the head of his cock.
“Oh, fuck,” groans Harry, elbows giving out. Nick’s not giving any quarter, not speeding up nor tightening, just using his deft mouth to drive Harry completely and totally insane. He’s almost shaking, breathing hard and sweating within minutes, has to bury his face in his arms to keep from waking the entire crew. Every time Harry lets out a particularly strangled sob Nick’s grip tightens.
“Nick, c’mon,” pants Harry, “I’m not going to last.”
Nick slides off his cock but leaves his mouth close so that when he speaks next, Harry can feel the breath. “Go on,” he says, looking up at Harry. “Want to taste you, go on.” He takes Harry back in, deep, so warm and wet and knowing and it’s a matter of seconds before Harry’s orgasm crests and he spills into the heat of Nick’s mouth with a desperate whimper.
“Fuck,” Harry says, once he’s caught his breath a bit. He can see nebulas swirl distantly through the dining area skylights. He has no idea what time it is, or where they are.
Passengers are the greatest.
“Nice.” Nick wipes his bottom lip with one long alien finger and leans over Harry to kiss him, mouth salty with come. Harry opens up to him straight away, slow and hazy and fucked out.
“That was good,” Harry says, his voice coming out all croaky like he was the one doing the sucking.
“Mm,” Nick says, pleased into the skin of Harry’s neck. He bites there, lightly nipping over his pulse. “I know. Brilliant, aren’t I? Best in the ‘verse. Intergalactic cock sucking champion 2517. And counting.”
“No, that’s me,” Harry whines, although the haze of his brain sort of belittles his protest.
“You’ll have to prove that, Styles,” says Nick, chuckling, pressing the hot line of his erection into Harry’s hip.
Once Harry can move, he’s going to suck Nick’s soul out through his cock. He’s got a reputation to maintain. Harry’s gonna blow Nick’s mind and also his dick, but he’s got to wait until he can move first.
“Would now be a good time to mention that I know about you?” asks Nick brightly, brushing some sweaty hair out of his eyes. “Not in a creepy way. Well, a little bit in a creepy way. Knew who you were before, at the docks.”
“Huh?” Harry blinks, twisting his neck around so that he can peer at Nick’s face.
Nick blows into Harry’s ear, obnoxiously. “X-Factor.”
Harry snorts. He hasn’t heard that one in a while. Only folks off Syco and its moons know much about their weird little annual competition and Harry’s used to getting recognised when they’re in his home quadrant, but definitely not all the way out in the black. “Nice. You watched that series?”
“Mm-hm.” Nick’s face twitches like he’s keeping in a laugh. Up close, he’s got a lot of freckles, thickening over the breadth of his high forehead. When he’s not actually laughing, his eyes still crinkle up at the corners like he’s about to. “You and your boys were very charming, I’m ashamed to admit. Too bad you didn’t win the grand prize.”
“Embarrassing,” Harry says, maybe a beat too late. He traces over Nick’s forehead with one finger and Nick’s face looks bemusedly tolerant, like he’s not accustomed to the traditions of Harry’s people but he’s open to reading a guidebook, or something.
“Dunno." Nick shrugs his free shoulder. “I mean, yeah, it’s a bit of a crap programme but it got you a ship, didn’t it?”
Harry remembers the Direction looming ahead of them in that gleaming landing ground on Syco; Zayn’s hand on Harry’s waist as he nodded towards it, that one’s ours, lads; and Harry got to name her. “It did that. Thanks to Simon Cowell and the Powers That Be.”
“Lucky,” Nick says, and Harry nods. Most folks back home are doomed to farm forever in an endless parade of rice and sorghum and wheat you have to sell off-world to keep afloat. Sometimes you can get passage on some dusty transport to stock grain, but if a person wants off world they’ve got limited options. Once a year, they have X-Factor.
Nick tugs a lock of Harry’s hair gently. “Now, what’s this you were saying about your vast and incredible fellatio proficiency?”
That’s a challenge, sure as Harry’s breathing. He gets to proving it.
“You look happy,” Louis says archly the next morning, levelling Harry with a skeptical stare.
Harry busies himself with the tea, dumping sugar into Liam’s mug. He’s a little hungover from the wine the night before, but nothing too terrible. Just enough to make him feel sort of hazy and satisfied.
“Got with that passenger last night, did you?” Niall asks, leaning over Harry to swipe his cup. “They were flirting up a fucking storm in the kitchen, loud as fuck, woke me up.”
“Lucky that’s all they woke you up with,” Zayn says.
“I’m unlucky,” Liam says, sadly. “What the fuck were you two doing, cock callisthenics?”
Harry tries and fails to suppress a smirk and passes Liam his tea. “Just showmanship,” he says, eyes going a little unfocused at the thought of how Nick’s fingers twisted tight in Harry’s hair, keeping him close. Maybe there’s a pun in cock callisthenics. Cockisthenics? Nah, that’s too clumsy.
“Oh Buddha’s dick.” Louis twists one of Harry’s extra nipples savagely, because Louis hasn’t gotten much twixt his nethers in quite a span and he’s a jealous, ornery sort of person. “Stop thinking about that twat’s Core-bred cock, you doxy.”
“He’s not Core,” Harry says, affronted. “He’s off Cheshire. Like me.”
“Thought so.” Zayn smirks, swiping his mug. “That accent’s pretty familiar.”
Harry doesn’t make a face, because that would give it away that unlike Zayn and Zayn’s witchery, Harry hadn’t sussed that until Nick told him.
Louis looks a bit like he’s lost his footing but doesn’t want to fall down in front of anybody, which is sort of Louis’s default expression. “Whatever,” he huffs, going off to rummage through a cupboard. “Still dresses Core. Posh as fuck. Summat off about him, I can tell. He’s hiding something.”
“D’you think so?” Liam asks, furrowing his eyebrows.
Niall shrugs and rips open a food packet, dumping the contents onto the burner. “Probably. Most folks are.”
Zayn stares at them all. “We’re hiding something. We’re smugglers, mate. Sort of the name of the game.”
“That’s different,” scoffs Louis, pulling out and abandoning several storage boxes of spices and dry goods. “He seems like he’s hiding something illegal.”
Zayn blinks at Louis’s crouched form, the eternal sorrow of his long-suffering intellect etched over his fine features. Harry tries not to laugh. “Louis,” Zayn says, measured. “We’re criminals. We’re hiding something illegal.”
Louis shrugs, shirty. “Just floppy-eared freak beasts.”
“Illegal floppy-eared tagged freak beasts,” Niall corrects, brightly. “Like to get us swiped by the feds and shut in lockdown, luck we’ve got.”
“You talk to our buyer?” Liam asks, cocking his head at Louis.
Louis shakes his head, motions to Niall. “His job.”
“I did,” Niall says, “No luck.”
Harry winces. Usually, having Niall do the negotiation is a surefire win. Better than Louis, anyway, who always curses and dares them to turn them in to the feds if they don’t like it.
“We’ll have to do something about the tags, then,” Liam says. He frowns, staring down into his tea like it holds the secrets of the ‘verse. “Tricky. They’re embedded and I think they give off a signal if not deactivated before removal.”
“Haz? Could you manage that?” asks Louis, quirking an eyebrow at him.
Harry pulls his lower lip into his mouth, worrying over the skin with his teeth as he considers. He’s good at most tech, it’s true, but tags are small and delicate: high-level computing. He’s better with parts that bang together and make clangy sounds when they’re not working. They got no secrets. Not like tech. Tech’s all secrets. Programming don’t make sense to Harry. It wasn’t a language he ever needed to learn.
“I could try,” Harry hedges. “But I might fuck it up, to be honest. ‘M not… great at the fiddly sort of things.”
“S’all right,” Niall says immediately, thumping Harry’s shoulder. “We’ll get someone off Three Hills, maybe. Don’t worry about it, Haz.”
“Okay,” says Harry, fully intending to worry about it. Three Hills is a rough place and so far as he knows they don’t got any contacts there, aside from their buyer.
Louis nods. “It’ll be all right, lads.”
The last time Louis said “It’ll be all right,” their whole ship was nearly melted to bits in a lava flow on one of Daedalus’s moons. Harry had lost his favourite boots in the flow. He’d also nearly lost his skin, and possibly his entire life.
Harry suspects that Louis takes a long-sighted view of ‘all right’. Like, maybe they’ll be all right after four years in Alliance lockdown. Or, they’ll be all right after they find a way to dodge the buyers who wanted a pack of untagged beagles. Or, they’ll be all right eventually, in the sense that none of their trouble are exactly permanent, seeing as they’ll all die someday.
Even so, Harry always believes him a little bit.
“We don’t have any contacts on Three Hills,” Zayn says as soon as the other boys have left the room.
“Unless you’ve been holding back on some pretty exciting information, and seeing as you’re shit at holding back information, I’m thinking that’s unlikely.”
“I know, okay?” Louis puts his head down on the kitchen table. “I know. Leave me alone.”
“Nah.” Zayn smells of smoke and wood as he sits next to Louis, one arm brushing against his ribs. What is truly, profoundly unfair is that Zayn is gorgeous even when Louis has his eyes completely shut. He can just tell. “I thought I’d give you shit for a minute and then let you whinge about passengers for a while.”
Passengers. Louis jaw clenches and he picks his head up. “Fucking passengers.”
Zayn laughs. “That’s right, mate. Fuckin’ passengers. Five awful passengers. You want to go smoke?”
“Yes. Fuck, yes, mate, I thought we were out.”
“Picked some up on Beaumonde from this girl I went to school with.” Zayn pats Louis’s shoulder once and then stands. “C’mon, let’s go to Bus One. If we get the stink in here there’ll be a row.”
Louis tactfully ignores girl I went to school with, although he does spend a while grumbling internally on Companions and their twatty schools as he follows Zayn to the shuttle they’ve named Bus One. The other shuttle — Bus Two — is for jobs and scouting and boring storage boxes. Bus One is the party shuttle. It stinks of grass and sweat and reminds Louis of his cramped room back home, where he’d tried to blow smoke out the crack in his window but never managed to hack the right angles.
Zayn makes the roll-up, his practised fingers deft on the rice paper and Louis has to look away when he brings it to his mouth to lick the paper shut with his pink tongue. It doesn’t take long until Louis sinks into the burnt orange sofa like a miner at the end of a long day, his body melting and his brain comfortably slow.
“We could have a contact on Three Hills.” Louis leans his head back until it hits the back of the sofa. “We could make a contact. Ain’t power in the ‘verse could stop us, if we wanted to get a contact.”
“Sure. I like getting swindled, personally. It’s underrated.”
“And the fucking — like, the fucking passengers. Most of ‘em seem, like. Quiet. Old. That’s all right, but those two. You know. Harry’s fancy friends.”
“Nick and Aimee,” Zayn supplies.
“Twat One and Two. It’s like, they think they’re so fucking… Superior. All sparkly fits and stupid in-jokes and shit. What do they bloody know about anything, anyhow? Probably been born with a bloody — whatsit. A silver fork.”
“Haz says Nick’s off Cheshire.” Zayn blows smoke from his pursed lips and his cheekbones stick out above the concave valley of his stubbled cheeks.
“Yeah, between you and me, mate — Cheshire’s a bit soft. Like, rich. Well, richer’n us. Never saw them mining or, like. Fighting in the bloody war. They stayed neutral, didn’t they?”
“Not like that was either of their decisions.” Zayn relaxes more, his knobbly knees spreading far out in front of him in a deep v.
“Nick’s older, though. He could’ve, like.” Louis coughs and tries to hide it, lungs burning. “He could’ve fought, probably.”
“How d’you know he didn’t?”
Louis levels a stare at him. “Really. Him. He does face masks.”
“I’ve done face masks.” Zayn steals the roll-up from him and takes an inhale, letting Louis live with that information until he finally lets the smoke go in a puff across the empty shuttle. “Part of, like. Companion shit.”
“That why you quit?”
“You know why I quit.” Zayn passes the roll-up back to Louis. “Too much, like. Shit. You know? All that practise, and the dancing, and the dealing with clients. Not for me, I guess.”
“You would have been good at it.” Louis closes his eyes and wonders what Zayn would be like without all that training still seeped into his bones, without all the schooling and the languages and the calligraphy. He can’t imagine a Zayn who doesn’t know things, odd things, like Earth-That-Was myths and how to eat specialty foods and how to graffiti neon faces onto the walls of Bus One. Maybe Zayn’d be like that anyway, all quiet and knowing and effortless, even if he hadn’t been plucked off Bradford to go to that school.
“Thanks.” The warmth of Zayn’s arm presses against Louis’s and sends sparks running all through his body. “Doniya likes it. She got placed on Syco, y’know. ’S good, so she’s close to Mum. I was worried she’d get a spot on, like… Sihnon.”
The only thing Louis knows about Sihnon is that it’s a central planet and, as such, he a little bit hates it. “Yeah,” he agrees, like he can follow Zayn’s train of thought.
Silence falls for a moment and then Zayn murmurs, almost guiltily, “D’you ever think of packing it in?”
“Packing what in?”
“The traveling. Maybe the crime, I dunno.” Zayn gnaws on his thumb. “Direction’s our home, I know that, but sometimes… A plant in a pot isn’t the same thing as a garden.”
We don’t have any plants, Louis thinks but thankfully doesn’t say. He sits with that for a moment, lets the thought burrow into his uneasy gut. “You want to leave?”
“No. I want to stay somewhere.”
The orange sofa pulls Louis further into its depths. He’d be lying if he said he never considered packing it in. He does hate the black sometimes, hates the sucking cold and the anxiety of breaking atmo and the endless parade of negotiations involved in being a minor criminal, lying to his mum about what exactly he’s risking his limbs for.
“We could get a plant,” Louis says finally. “If you wanted.”
“Nah,” Zayn says, knocking Louis’s knee with a careless fist. “You’d kill it.”
The two of them sit with that in the quiet of space, passing the roll-up back and forth until the paper burns out.
Louis bounces his knee, dizzy in the smokey shuttle room. “You want to fool around?”
“Yeah, all right,” Zayn says lazily, and Louis goes to him.
Most of the passengers elect to have their tea in their bunks, except Nick and Aimee and the elderly herder with the white moustache, who putters around the kitchen finding spices to add to his chicken-flavoured protein paste before retreating downstairs with his steaming bowl.
Zayn is clearly still stoned. He keeps smiling vaguely and his red-rimmed eyes stay at half-mast no matter where he’s looking. Louis can’t stop thinking about how he’d be laid out on that old sofa in Bus One, if he’d gasp and whimper if someone sucked his dick or if he’d be quiet and sleepy, just laying back and enjoying it. Today, pressed close together with their hand stuffed down their trousers, Zayn’d been demanding, kept asking for more.
It’s just friendly between them, just a helping hand between mates in the black. Still, Louis can’t stop picturing the look on Zayn’s face as he came, worrying it like a new coin.
Maybe Louis is still a little stoned, too.
Louis salts his tinned veg and scowls down the table at their two interlopers. Aimee has her handheld laid out on the table and taps at it between ferrying bites of protein to her lipsticked mouth. He’s begrudgingly impressed she’s able to navigate her chopsticks that easily with nails as long as hers are. Across from her, Nick and Harry have their heads bent together, giggling about something or other. They sure warmed up fast.
“So what is it exactly you boys shuttle?”
Louis looks up from his tinned tomatoes. Aimee has her head cocked to the side, still glancing down at her handheld. Beneath the table, Zayn kicks Louis’s foot and leaves it there.
“Huh?” Liam’s fork misses his plate and hits the table.
“This is a transport ship, right? What do you transport?” The curve of red lip on Aimee’s still face sets Louis’s insides bumbling around a bit.
“Well, we got passengers,” Harry says helpfully. He grins sidelong at Nick and Louis would bet the rest of his preserved rations that he’s got one foot hooked around Nick’s skinny ankle. “Some better than others.”
“Right, but I couldn’t help but notice some of your bunks were a bit…” Aimee looks over at Nick, who shrugs.
“Bunks were dandy for me,” Nick says. “I take no issue with any amenity. Although the hot water does run out a mite fast.”
“Maybe we should share,” Harry suggests, not nearly quiet enough.
Aimee looks back at Louis, gaze disconcertingly even. “They were pretty rutting dusty for regular occupation. I’d imagine passengers aren’t your main source of income, so I wondered what was.”
“Oh, this and that,” Niall says, flashing that deceptively open smile, “Whatever people need moving. Food sometimes, farm equipment, even did sheep once. Moon I’m from — Mullingar, it’s the fifth moon on Syco — we’re more of a cattle people, but a herd’s a herd, am I right?”
Aimee cocks her head at him. Louis cannot possibly imagine someone like her getting anywhere near a herd of any kind. “That makes sense. Certain parts of the ship do have a bit of an animal aroma. Pass the pepper?”
Animal aroma. A prickle goes up Louis’s spine.
Niall passes the pepper and launches into a story about his and Harry’s quest to rid the stench of sheep with the power of scented candles and a dream.
“I don’t trust them,” Louis tells Zayn in an undertone.
Zayn speaks through a mouthful of protein. “I’m shocked.”
“They seem okay,” Liam says peaceably on his other side.
Louis rounds on him, horrible traitorous… traitor. “Do they, Liam? Do they really?”
Liam pulls his mouth to the side. “Guess not?”
Niall must have said something funny; Aimee’s laugh rings through the dining area. Nick and Harry are back to that infernal giggling, like they’re old friends and hadn’t just met a few days back.
Louis scowls down the table. “Correct, Liam. They do not.”
Days go by alternating slow and fast in space travel. Some hours rush past and Harry’s minutes can blur away fucking around with Grimmy or annoying Niall in the bridge, attempting to make protein paste edible and keeping the ship from falling apart, or they can linger dimly, dark and endless as the black ahead of them, that swallowing deep space dark that sucks the light from the windows and the heat from their bones. Harry spends hours stretched naked beneath his little sunlamp, trying to trick his body into thinking he’s seen open sky sometime in the past fortnight.
Harry’s wristwatch says it’s six in the evening but it may as well be midnight, or half one in the afternoon, or tomorrow. He’s got the lights up as high as they’ll go in the engine room and he’s thinking about a few hours ago, when he’d spent an hour snogging Grimmy in his passenger’s bunk, laughing against each others’ mouths whenever Aimee made a disgusted noise and slammed the screen door behind her after fetching this or that.
Harry’s had no sad share of passenger flings, but he likes this one.
“I like your boat.”
Harry swivels, nearly dropping the compression coil he’d been fiddling with. As if summoned, Nick Grimshaw is leaning in the doorway, peering in towards the chugging engine with bright, interested eyes.
Nick looks at everything and everyone like they’re of incredible personal import, even the Direction’s shitty, old model core compressor and Harry knows full well Nick couldn’t give less of a shit about engines. Yesterday Harry had tried to explain drift fusion and Nick had fallen asleep onto Harry’s chest in the lounge. Harry probably should have been annoyed, but couldn’t quite manage it. Nick had made little snuffling noises, and twined his hand in Harry’s collar.
Still, in Harry’s experience, not too many people come see him in the engine room who actually want to talk about port control thrusts, unless it’s in a sex way. Not that Harry minds, really.
“Thanks,” says Harry, wiping at his face. He’s probably only managing to smear the engine grease around instead of removing it altogether, which is disheartening. “I like her too.” He pauses, taking stock again of Nick in the doorway, the long line of his skinny legs, his genial face. “You don’t much care about engines, do you?”
Nick smirks. “I do think it’s a nice ship.”
“You’re really here for summat else, though. Right?”
Nick shrugs. On him it’s elegant, all long lines and fine-cut blazer. He’s grinning like he’s got a secret, and he’s about to let Harry in on it. “If you insist, Harry Styles. So demanding. Will the work never end?”
“My hands are all oily,” says Harry, showing them.
“I’ve seen worse,” says Nick, with a cheeky grin Harry wants to snog off of him.
The next course of action, obviously, is to do just that, so Harry wipes his hands as best as he can on a spare rag and goes to pull Nick further in to the engine room, fingers through his belt buckles, keeping his mouth a little open and a half inch away from Nick’s, breathing hot towards him so that he’ll want to follow. Sure enough, Nick gives first, swooping to claim Harry’s lips with his, mouths open and greedy as they suck and bite, Nick swallowing all the little noises Harry can’t help but make.
Harry likes to mess around in the engine room and it looks they’re headed that way, all handsy and panting, until a pointed throat clearing cuts through the rush.
“Grimmy. If you could take time off from tonsil diving, we’ve a wave you should take a look at.” Aimee Phillips is standing at the doorway, high bun pristine. She’s smirking but there’s something off around her eyes, a little nervous.
Nick pulls back immediately. He’s still got his hands on Harry’s hips but he’s making expressions at Aimee like they’re transmitting code between them, all staccato eyebrows and the twist of mouths. “Is it…” He trails off, eyebrows furrowing.
Aimee nods, holding out her handheld towards Nick. Nick detaches himself from Harry and examines it, his face shadowed in the low light. “What does Finchy say?”
“Heavy.” Nick twists his face, eyebrows furrowing down over his eyes like window blinds.
Aimee shrugs. This appears to be enough to communicate what she wants to, as she falls silent, tapping away at her handheld as Nick peers over her shoulder.
Harry reaches for the compressor again, just to have something in his hands so he’s not staring. Aimee and Nick have that shorthand language garnered from a long friendship where nearly everyone you speak to regularly is in a confined space with you. The Direction’s engine gives a weak little clang, as though she agrees with Harry’s discomfort.
Aimee and Nick startle and look up, eyes abruptly registering their whereabouts. For a moment, Nick looks almost guilty, fearful like a smuggler watching a fed find the false edge of their hidden compartment. “Soz, Harold, you don’t mind, do you? Aimee is in desperate need of my company, y’know.”
Harry shakes his head. “Go on, it’s fine, I’ll see you later.”
“Cheers,” Aimee says shortly, not even bothering to make a sharp joke at Nick’s expense. She pulls Nick out of the room by one elbow, her bright hair flashing as they round the corner and disappear. The engine clangs a bit in the abruptly empty room.
“Yeah,” Harry agrees, kneeling to check the absorber levels. “I don’t know either, girl.”
She burbles, parts catching and going again.
Harry oils a gear, holding Nick’s face in his mind, the shadowed intent look he’d directed at Aimee’s handheld. “I really like him,” he admits, out loud for the first time. “Yeah. I like him a lot.”
Harry lets that thought hang in the quiet, all bright and hopeful and sad at once, like fairy lights left glowing in an abandoned settlement.
Nick’s a passenger. That’s right in the name, ain’t it — he’s passing through. He’s got a ‘verse out there waiting for him. Harry’s got the Direction, thirty-three black market beagles with Alliance tags and his boys; Gemma at her fancy school on Syco, his mum and stepdad back on Cheshire. That’s fine. That’s not nothing.
The day stretches on long and lonely, Harry’s sundry chores ticking away the hours. Aimee and Nick are nowhere to be seen, holed up in their bunk with the screen shut tight — not that Harry checked none, of course. He ends up loitering in the cargo bay with the beagles, watching them eat their special canine protein.
“You’re not lonely, are you?” One of the beagles yips, tumbling into Harry’s lap and making him laugh. “No. You’re a dog. You don’t get lonely, do you?”
Harry’d had a cat, when he was a kid. Dusty, a fierce little tabby who kept the rats from getting at the wheat in the barn. She hadn’t been a snuggler usually, but sometimes if she’d been hunting all day and she’d lay up right next to Harry’s leg and doze there, fuzzy warmth seeping through Harry’s jeans while he fiddled with his holodeck and tried to rig it to play Zhu Qiu.
Maybe he can convince Louis to let him keep one of the dogs, just for the companionship.
Niall’s stacked makeshift goals out of old crates and Liam patched their ball, so the whole of the crew gets together to play their own facsimile of football in the cargo bay. The black market beagles watch with big eyes, heads tilting left and right to follow the play.
“Harry, you are awful,”Louis says, passing the ball to Liam.
Harry struggles to stand from where he’d fallen on slippery grating. Dirt is a fine thing that he misses dearly. “I’ve got my own unique style,” he says, and then snorts. “Styles.”
“Careful of the dogs,” Zayn calls, kneeling down to pull one’s floppy ears. “We’re gettin’ a bit close to ‘em.”
Louis pretends to scoff and then carefully aims the ball away from their cargo.
Liam — taking his turn as goalkeeper with clunky old mechanic gloves covering his hands — tries and fails to catch the ball. Louis whoops. “So we get anywhere with the tracker removals?”
“Still nowhere,” says Niall. “Which is where we are in the ‘verse right now, so that’s accurate.”
“I could ask Nick and Aimee,” Harry offers, “It sounds like they got a lot of friends on Three Hills.”
“No,” Louis snaps. “We ain’t taking from them.”
“We’ll just take from other, less known-to-us criminals.” Zayn’s got one of the dogs in arm now, its nose pressed close to his neck.
“We don’t know they’re criminals,” Liam says reasonably. “They could be, like, travellers. Sightseers.”
Louis puts his hands on his hips and rounds on Liam like a beleaguered rooster. “Liam, who goes to Three Hills? Tourists? Nah, herders and criminals and the odd trader, and traders are just criminals waiting for the opportunity to do some crime. You think they’re herders?”
Liam screws up his face, considering. “It’d be kind of impressive if they were. Like, with Aimee’s shoes. It’d be hard to ride a horse in them, wouldn’t it?”
Louis looks at Liam until the latter visibly quells. “Yeah, all right,” Liam says, and ducks his head.
Harry busies himself tying his laces. Personally, he thinks Louis’s complex about fancy folk has gone a little far — if Harry had the opportunity, he likes to think he’d be at least as fancy as Nick — but he knows better than to rile Louis in front of people. Or at all. Harry’ll rile Louis for bananas or passengers; other than that he prefers to smile and nod and then go ahead and so what he wants anyhow. As a tactic he’s found it significantly more successful.
Sometimes, in the monotonous black they call night for no good reason but to give them something human to hold onto, Louis searches Doncaster up in the cortex and spends a few hours looking at the street images of dusty dirt roads and rows of red brick houses. He learns all sorts of stuff he’d never have known before: the word for how rain drizzles down all year is ‘temperate oceanic climate’ and how on Sundays Louis would take his sisters to the market and trade the jumpers and mittens they knitted for food and cortex credit is ‘market economy’.
That’s where Zayn finds him, in the bridge scrolling through the Cortex and wondering where they get off saying Doncaster’s life expectancy is ‘predictably low.’ He’s listening to the Voice of the Underground with one-ear perked.
“ — reports of riots on Hera,” says the Voice, “And civil unrest on several larger Di Yu settlements, so if any happy smugglers want to grab and run now’d be a good time juncture.”
“Anything about home?” Zayn’s voice is carefully moderated to sound offhand and he sits down like that too, knees wide and back slumped. Louis ain’t fooled, though — Zayn’s hands are so tense white blooms over his knuckles where he’s clenching his fists.
“Not yet,” Louis tells him, and they wait in tense silence. Last week the Voice told them Bradford was the site of a few minor uprisings and Zayn had looked grey for hours until he heard from his mum. Louis has been careful since then.
“Rumours are circling about connections to the factory demolitions on Syco — sabotage? Our source says probably! Everyone loves a little sabotage of a morning.”
Louis thinks that he feels about Syco the way he’d feel about a nasty older brother, if he’d had one: a sort of resentful ownership, a reluctant hand in how he turns out — the way a moon feels about its primary body. Syco never gave its moons nothing, but they’re stuck with each other, ain’t they? All of ‘em: Doncaster and Bradford, Wolverhampton, Cheshire, and Mullingar, revolving around that great blue mass. And if Syco falls, what’ll happen to Doncaster?
The whole mess weighs down on him the more he thinks it over. Sometimes Louis thinks there’s no power in the ‘verse could untangle what Blue Sun and the Alliance wrought. Maybe it don’t matter that all he’s doing is illegally ferrying posh canines from rich people to other rich people. Maybe it don’t make a lick of difference, in the long run.
Sometimes Louis suspects that all he’s really doing out here in the black is running away.
“That’s all we got for today. This has been the Underground, I have been the Voice of the Underground, you have been listeners. Goodnight.”
Zayn lets out a sigh of relief that Louis echoes, like two balloons going flat. He switches off the transmitter.
“All right. Want to go check the cargo?”
Louis snorts. “No fucking chance.”
There may be folk who can resist Zayn Malik looking at them with tenderly disappointed eyes, but in all the ‘verse Louis Tomlinson has seen — and he’s been from one corner to the other, from the bustle of Beaumonde to the backwoods of White Haven — he has yet to find one.
Zayn smiles like a sunrise and Louis reminds himself that Zayn was taught that smile, that he studied that smile, that it’s not something special for Louis at all, and they go and check the cargo.
“The cargo smells,” Louis grumbles, eying a couple of sloppy animal droppings with distaste.
“The cargo just needs a little love, that’s all.” Zayn greets the deliriously happy horde of beagles as easy as anything, like they aren’t climbing all over him and getting his nice trousers all furry. “Don’t you, stinko? Yeah, you do. Oh, you’re so stinky.”
Louis keeps a discreet distance.
Zayn’s eyes crinkle at the corners as he looks up at Louis from his beagle dwelling. “Were you always this awkward ‘round creatures, Tommo, or are these li’l guys special?”
“I wasn’t.” He was.
“You were, weren’t you?”
“They’re not gonna shit on you, Lou. C’mere. I’ll show you.”
There might be folk in the ‘verse who can resist Zayn Malik, covered in baby beagles, beaming at you like he’s got a yellow dwarf star shining out from his skull, but Louis is not one of them and if there are folk like that somewhere, Louis doesn’t trust them. It ain’t natural.
“You ever wish we could smuggle something important for once?” Louis stuff his hands in his pockets. “Something cool, like, meds or food or supplies.”
“Important’s overrated,” Zayn says. “I want, like — don’t laugh.”
“Someday, I want a big house with all sorts of living things in it. Rescued things, maybe, what need homes. Like, lizards and dogs and cats and stuff.” Zayn smiles down at a beagle. “Things with heartbeats.”
“Harry says the ship’s got a heartbeat.”
“Harry’s a weirdo.”
Louis laughs. “True enough.”
Louis approaches the cargo careful, in case one of them wees. He can smell wee so they’re probably weeing. God, he misses good working dogs. Didn’t bother with you much, didn’t need much upkeep. Nothing like these fancy little bastards.
“Relax,” Zayn says, snorting. He reaches out to jostle Louis a little, holding his elbow. “They can tell if you’re thinkin’ unkind thoughts, yeah? Like babies.”
“I can deal with babies,” Louis says. “Babies I know. These… I don’t. These are some expensive genetic freakshows fancy arseholes got made up to amuse their spouses. No point to them. Like, I dunno, high heels. Useless.”
“Suspect those do a job in making a person taller,” Zayn reasons, gathering the beagles to his chest. “They’re all just creatures, mate. Just… c’mere, sit down.”
Louis sits down as bidden and tries not to look stupid. He fears that might be impossible. Zayn lifts a bundle of cargo in his gentle hands, kisses it delicately on the tip of its wet nose, and passes it to Louis.
“See? Not so bad, is it?”
Zayn’s eyes, when he’s happy, are these limpid brown things with crinkles at the corners and they do things to Louis’s insides, like he’s been drinking hot cocoa or strong whiskey, and they make Louis feel like maybe he should just lie down in the dark for a couple hours and try to not exist anymore.
“No,” he says, trying not to look at Zayn directly. “No, not so bad.”
Nick and Aimee’s little bunk has rice paper thin walls, which severely undercuts her plans. The next room over houses an old Sino man with a wise man moustache and he may look like a Three Hills herder, but she’s not about to write him off over that.
“No worries,” Nick says breezily, “This is a Firefly, right? This hunk of metal is about two-thirds odd little passageways and hiding places. We’ll find something.”
“We’ll be back in signal soon. Fuck, why couldn’t we just stay in Blue Sun? At least I’d be able to load a fucking image.” Aimee clicks her handheld repeatedly. “I need to stay in contact, Nicholas.”
Nick shrugs, clearly too dick-happy to be overly worried about his bloody job and livelihood. “We’re on holiday, Aims. Zane’s covering until we get to Three Hills and the info we’ve got will buy us all sorts of shiny new equipment.”
“Like a new handheld, hopefully.” Aimee tosses hers aside and sighs. “I’m bored. You bored? Want to go swindle some border moon babies out of their credit?”
“Nah, I’d rather have a nap, if I’m honest.” Nick yawns wide enough to put his molars on inspection. “I’m knackered.”
“Uh-huh honey,” Aimee drawls, and leaves Nick to it.
The common area is home only to a laundry line strung up between walls and the threadbare shirts hung up to dry. Aimee takes the stairs up to the dining area, where, sure enough, a handful of the crew are sprawled around.
“Why do people always congregate in the kitchen? No, don’t answer that, I know.” Aimee fishes her pack of cards out of her coat pocket and thwacks them down onto the wide-planked table. “Tall Card, anyone?”
Within a half hour Aimee’s won all the money off muscly Liam and lost a bit to pilot Niall, who’s sharper than Aimee gave him credit for. Once he managed a few coins Niall bowed out begging autopilot management and escaped to the bridge with his earnings. Liam remained and systematically lost and then lost again, but at least he’s fairly good-natured about it.
“You know,” Aimee says, looking up from her cards for a moment, “If you need help stripping the trackers on your dogs, I know a girl.”
Liam goes white. “What — what do you mean? What dogs? I don’t know what you’re referring to, ma’am, as we don’t — does one of the other passengers have a pet onboard? We charge extra for, uh. For pets. And the like.”
“Liam. Take a breath.”
“You ain’t — you ain’t an inspector, right?”
Aimee screws up her face and gestures to her pink latex top. “Honey, do I look like an inspector?”
“I don’t know!” Liam’s eyebrows waggle around like caterpillars looking for a place to land. “I ain’t seen many! Oh, god, please don’t tell anybody. Louis will kill me.”
“Don’t you worry, kiddo, I’m not in the business of ratting anybody out for sheltering some poor, defenceless creatures.” Aimee pats Liam’s rough hand. “Promise.”
Liam doesn’t have much experience with the tenuousness of an outlaw’s promise, clearly, as he visibly relaxes. Aimee wants to smack him over the head a bit and make him try harder to keep her quiet — for fuck’s sake, traveling two weeks with somebody doesn’t mean you trust them — but she keeps herself in check. Barely. If nothing else, it shows Aimee she’s got nothing to worry about. Lord help her but she likes these bumbling space toddlers. She’s not sure if she wants to fuck them or tuck them in at night.
“Gorram hell. Where did I go wrong? One minute I was a hardened bitch queen, the next I’m passing handouts to —” Liam is staring at her like she might explode at any minute. She sighs. “Anyway. I’m prepared to help you boys. Do you want the help or not?”
“Tommo won’t like it.”
“Your Tommo won’t like anything he gets from Nick or I. We’re too sparkly for his taste.” Aimee taps irritably at her handheld, composing a text for Pixie when they finally get signal again. “Why do I like that? What has happened to me on this damn boat? Did you all spike the air vents with pheromones?”
“Never mind. We land in twenty-four hours, you don’t have the contacts you need, I do, let me keep you from failing utterly and completely, you incompetent baby hunks.”
Liam struggles with this for a moment, and then nods. “Okay.”
Aimee sighs and puts her feet up. “There, that wasn’t so hard, was it?”
“Dunno,” Liam mutters, “You don’t got to tell Tommo, do you?”
Not an hour later, Nick has emerged from his nap to join Aimee at cards down in the common area and Louis’s voice rings shrilly down the staircase.
“You what?” Louis shouts, and Aimee smirks down at her hand.
Nick puts his cards down and squints at her. “What did you do?”
“Why do you think I did something?”
“I know your face, Phillips.”
Aimee shrugs. “You know how they’re smuggling those beagles?”
“Yeah,” Nick says, and Aimee wonders if Nick gleaned that himself or if Harry told him.
“They’re tagged and they only have the one contact on Three Hills, and he won’t take tagged goods.” Aimee lays down her tall card. “I said I’d put them in contact with the girls.”
Nick winces. “That a good idea?”
“They’ll be fine. Better than their seller hunting them down for reneging a contract.” Aimee shakes her head and takes Nick’s queen. “I’m getting too charitable in my old age. I don’t know what happened to me.”
“You like them,” Nick says, delighted. “Keep your bra on.”
Aimee gives him the finger. “Least I haven’t fallen in space love. Splove. The weakness of the space virgin, Nicholas, very sixteen of you.”
“Shut up.” Nick’s tall card isn’t enough to beat Aimee’s and he scowls at his deck for a minute before picking another. “It’s not like that.”
“I know your face, Grimshaw.”
Something soft and painful passes over Nick’s eyes and he shifts in his seat, twining his long legs around each other. “I just like him,” he says quietly. “Back garden and a dog like him. You know?”
Nick hasn’t had a back garden since Cheshire and Aimee’s never had one — unless you count the container plants her dad coaxed to life in a storage unit on the Woodstock — but yes, Aimee gets the motion capture. “I know, babe. I know you do.”
“Don’t yell at me, but he sort of makes me want to… I don’t know, settle down. Maybe get a house somewhere, stick one of their black market beagles in it — maybe a rescue or three — and, like, learn how to cook summat better than protein slivers on defrosted toast.”
“Nick,” Aimee sighs, and Nick waves a hand at her.
“I know, I know,” he says. “Higher calling. Etcetera. It’s just a thought.”
“You’ve already named the children, haven’t you.”
“You can fuck right off,” Nick grouses, which means he has.
Aimee moves from her chair to the sofa and pulls Nick to her, lets him fold his gangly limbs down so she can get her arms around him properly. “You’ll have that someday,” she promises.
“What if I want to be completely and utterly selfish and leave this whole, bringing truth to corners of the ‘verse thing to somebody else? It doesn’t have to be me who helps with this. I was just in the right place at the right time.”
“You love it,” Aimee reminds him, “You whine and complain and arse around but you love it, Nick Grimshaw.”
“I do,” says Nick. “I just… Maybe I’d like to have a life someday, too.”
“You will, babe.” Aimee pets Nick’s hair gently. “You will.”
Harry braces the engine for departure prep then presses his face up against the port window. The dim, looming curve of Three Hills stretches out below, miles of golden steppes and the lone starry spiderweb of the capitol city. The streets may be dirty and rough down there, but out above it looks real pretty.
Three Hills is one of them odd planets that mix city and country so deep you can’t tell from which. They got a country name and continents of prairie and the mess of it leaks into their capitol. New Ulaanbaatar is all concrete and yaks and streets crammed so deep with rickety buildings you can’t see the ground.
Some planets, like Cheshire, took well to terraforming and grow crops easy. Three Hills don’t. Back when the Alliance terraformed the place it didn’t work quite right. The soil never spawned much of anything, and word got out around the ‘verse. Story goes, Three Hills used to have another name but they changed it to make it sound good for settlers. Boats of families arrived expecting green hills and gardens to find nothing, just dust and barren ground, cold dry grass and rocky soil. Folks are adaptable, though, especially when they don’t got much choice in the matter. The settlers built it up, brought in sheep and horses. Three Hills does okay now, though it’s got a reputation for some less than savoury folks.
Harry don’t get to look more than a few minutes before Louis bellows them in from the kitchen.
“You recall I actually gotta fly this thing,” Niall says, roughing up his hair and looking back at the bridge. “Don’t land her own self, does she.”
Louis rolls his eyes. “We got autopilot, bùshì ma?”
Niall shrugs and flops down in the chair next to Harry. “Such as it is. I give you five minutes for blustering and then I got to get to it, mate, unless you fancy pulverised innards for your tea.”
Louis straightens his shoulders. “I got us a contact.”
“You got us a contact?” asks Zayn, archly. “Or did some passengers get you the contact? Specific passengers?”
Louis shoots Zayn two fingers without looking.
“It was a collaboration,” Harry tries, reaching over Liam for a pressurised compactor that looks off. Liam tries to slap his fingers away but Harry snatches the barrel before he gets the chance.
“You’re the cap’n, cap’n,” says Niall, kicking his feet up on the table. “We gonna fuel up before?”
“The contact’s on Three Hills,” says Aimee’s voice, sharp from the corridor. Harry startles. For a person who wears such loud footwear, Aimee sure can sneak in unnoticed. “Fuelling can come after.”
“You called?” Nick asks, sliding onto the bench next to Harry. Harry tries not to beam too much at the contact, but he can’t fully help it. He feels all warm inside, a fuel cell leaking red hot through his organs. He swivels the compactor devotedly. Aimee takes the seat on Nick’s other side and pulls out her handheld, tapping away.
“We’re about forty from land,” Louis says, placing his hands spread out on the table and staring Nick straight in the eye. “Time to drop your secret agent act and give us names.”
“Thirty-five,” corrects Niall. “Talk fast, I gotta make sure we don’t all die in a fiery blaze in a second.”
Aimee surveys Louis over the rim of her handheld, fingers never stopping their typing. “Grimmy and I will take you in to meet our friends. You’ll present your problem, nice and easy. Details come when we’re on the ground. Our contacts enjoy a certain level of discretion. We’ll take two of you, maximum.” Her handheld buzzes and she looks down at whatever’s on it, mouth quirking.
“I’m going,” Louis says immediately.
“And we all gave a roar of shock to hear,” Nick says. “May I advise, considering how well I know our friends, we take young Harold along, as your second? I think he would… appeal to them.”
Harry stills the revolving compactor in favour of blinking at Nick.
Louis’s brow furrows. “Absolutely not. Harry’s a mechanic and when he ain’t a mechanic he’s a cook. He ain’t the criminal type. Haz ain’t geared for this, just because you may want him along seeing as you’ve been rutting like fancy dogs last few weeks in all sorts of not-your-bleedin’-bunk locals.”
Nick snorts, his cheeks going pink. Harry shrugs one shoulder. What can he say, he’s creative.
Louis rolls his eyes. “Liam should go. He’s the best shot.”
Liam looks up from the table, beaming like Tu Di Gong Claus himself done granted all his solstice wishes. “I work at it,” he allows.
“Trust me, it’s not gun-proficiency you’ll be needing,” Aimee says airily. “Unless you’re talking about another kind of arms.” She smiles sideways at Liam. “You’ve got both of those areas covered, haven’t you?”
Liam flushes red and pleased. “Got to get cardio and muscle mass for when you’re grounded.” He fumbles with a few gun pieces.
“Poor Ian,” Nick drawls, resting his chin on one hand and smirking at Aimee. “Leave him behind to go swanning about the worlds, picking up all the young sharpshooters. You’re a vicious orange doxy, you.”
“Thank you,” Aimee says, one hand on Liam’s bicep.
“Liam is a fine shooter,” allows Zayn carefully, “But Louis isn’t terrible, and neither am I. More importantly, you’d need someone who knows how to deal without cursing your beneficiaries to high heaven and then stealing their ornamental fruit.” Zayn raises one eyebrow at Harry, who pouts. One time. “I want to go.”
“No offence, but you kinda attract a look, Zayn,” Niall says, checking his watch. “If it’s a quick in quick out nobody notices kind of job you want, maybe skip it out. Speaking of.” He waves his watch in the air. “Barely any seconds left, here.”
“True point,” says Nick. “Three Hills ain’t seen much by way of fancy, generally. Our friends like the only fancy to be themselves.”
Zayn smoulders at Nick, which probably wasn’t the expression he had been aiming towards. Harry can tell Zayn’s genuinely upset by the implications, but that’s not the show on his face. It ain’t Zayn’s fault, it’s all that Companion training. Zayn smoulders by default.
Nick hasn’t flown with Zayn gone on five years, so he isn’t mostly immune to the smoulder as Harry is. Nick sort of sputters for a second. Harry doesn’t blame him, just rubs at his back a bit until he’s able to move past the force of Zayn’s face. Happens to everyone, sometimes.
“I’m dead serious,” says Nick once he’s regained his senses. “I’m not leading you astray on this. Harry should come along, it’ll make things go loads smoother. Harold, what do you say?”
Harry bites his lip, clicking the compactor into place. He helps on jobs all the time, but he’s never been the one to go in for negotiations or to meet with folks. Sometimes they let him sweet talk the locals, but he’s never met up with a crime lord or nothing. “I’m shiny,” Harry says, finally, “So long as everyone agrees. Vote?”
Aimee and Nick exchange bewildered looks. The crew of the Direction is already raising hands. Harry and Liam hold up one finger for yes, Zayn and Louis two for no.
“I’ll let you think this is just a tie-breaker,” says Niall, getting to his feet, “But we all know it’s because the boat’s really mine. I say okay. Harry’s not bad at this, and I expect Grimmy wouldn’t lead him into harm’s way. Not that I know you that well, mind.” He fixes Nick with a stone cold stare. “If any harm do befoul either of my boys, I’ll personally hire out your death and dismemberment. And I know a lot of big blokes.”
“Noted,” says Nick.
“Shiny.” Niall grins, chucking his protein wrapper in the compactor. “Time to make sure we don’t land and kill us all.”
Nick blinks at Niall’s back as he disappears through the hatch to the hull. “He’s not kidding about the dismemberment, is he?” He doesn’t sound afraid, just measuring.
“Nope,” says Harry. “You’re lucky he didn’t go with disembowelment. That’s usually his favourite.”
“Huh,” says Nick.
The Direction doesn’t land via morgue, and once Zayn and Liam have fussed over Harry’s under-armour sufficiently they’re off, cutting through the busy pavements of New Ulaanbaatar towards places unknown.
“They’re called the Scissor Sisters,” Nick tells them. He’s got his hands in his pockets and weaves through the honeycombed streets like he’s lived here his whole life. It’s funny, Harry wouldn’t have thought Nick’s fine waistcoat would blend in the motley environment, not around the press of dusty layers everyone’s got on, but he fits in seamless. “Got most of the city under their platform toes. Nice bunch of gals, pacifist-like.”
Aimee snorts. As always, she’s a few steps ahead of everyone else, the pristine coif of her fluorescent hair a beacon like a flashing advert sign.
“Right,” Louis says, skepticism in every curve of his cocked eyebrow. He hasn’t let go of his holster since they touched ground.
“No worries, they won’t skin your innards and feast on your bollocks,” says Aimee lightly, her five inch heels clacking on the cobblestone. She smiles, all teeth. “Probably. It’s only Tuesday.”
Nick and Aimee are good at crowds. Where Nick weaves and bobs through the masses, Aimee cuts like a sharp knife, staring straight ahead until people get out her way. Got a gaze like an uncocked pistol, Aimee. People spook easy when she looks on them.
“How do you know them?” Harry asks, ducking the swing of someone’s shopping basket. “The Scissor Sisters?”
Aimee and Nick exchange looks, unreadable. Harry wishes Niall was there, so that he could exchange looks with someone too. Louis is too busy crowding Harry, making sure he don’t dawdle.
“I worked with them, a while back. I used to manage ‘special events’,” Aimee says wryly, her claw nails curving into quotation marks.
“I’m very social,” Nick adds unhelpfully, slinging an arm around Harry’s shoulders. “Butterfly of social talkin’, me.”
Harry has absolutely no idea what any of that means. What’s a special event for a crime ring? Fancy dress parties with convicts? Posh kidnappers’ ball?
Aimee leads them up to a tall iron gate and presses a buzzer. The metal lights green and blue, veins of the delivery system arcing into the building behind. Nick bends his head to murmur something to her. The low sound of their exchange is lost in the noisy street, high sirens cutting into Harry’s ears so he can’t eavesdrop.
Louis takes a step back and grips Harry’s arm so tight he may get a bruise. “Stay behind us all through,” he says, brows pulled over his eyes. “Don’t wander off. You ain’t been on these kinds of jobs before. Crime girls are no joke.”
“I’ll be okay,” Harry says, patting Louis’s tense knuckles.
“Don’t bloody know why they said you ought to come in the first place, it ain’t safe,” Louis grumbles, pulling Harry into place. “Those dicks. If anything happens, shoot ‘em first.”
“I don’t have a gun,” Harry points out.
“Semantics,” Louis says darkly.
“Grimmy! Aimee!” cackles the voice of crime through the speaker. The voice of crime is high and giggly, with a flat nasal accent. “Haven’t seen you two for a while! Was beginning to think we weren’t bestest, bestest friends.”
“We’re always bestest, bestest friends,” says Nick affectionately, leaning into the speaker to get his voice picked up, even though he’s loud enough not to need it. “That Este?”
“Este on lead vocals, Nicky baby. Who you got for us today? Haven’t seen those two boy candies before.”
“Couple of sweet young things looking for a favour,” says Aimee, glancing back at them. “And a little extra from us.”
“Goody goody,” says the voice, and with a great creak the gate slides open. A grid of laser protection flashes red before it deactivates. “I’ll let them know you’re en route.”
Harry can’t help but flinch as the gate slams behind them, trapping them in the narrow courtyard.
The Scissor Sisters occupy a tall, skinny grey house off the main thoroughfare, six stories high with an emblem of silver scissors emblazoned on the large front door. Before Aimee reaches the top step the door opens and a tall girl with broad shoulders steps back not quite far enough to let them all through.
“Weapons time,” the guard girl announces flatly. “Step on in, arms out, go on, don’t want any bother.”
Guard girl has the weathered tan of a herder, a bright pink sweatshirt that says baby in Mandarin and dark lipstick the colour of old blood.
“Idree, darling,” says Aimee, waltzing through the door like she was welcomed with a cuppa and a plate of biscuits and kissing the guard girl on both cheeks. “You look incredible, as always. Strong look.”
“Bayarlalaa, Aims,” says Idree, patting her down. She inspects Aimee’s dainty laser gun and flash of sharp dagger curiously before returning them. Aimee tucks both weapons back into her sleek ensemble. “Black lippie’s all the rage in Londinium.”
Aimee flashes a look back at Nick. “Shiny,” she says, turning back to Idree.
“You’re through, let your boys on in.” Idree eyes them up and down. “Cute, ain’t they? Nicely done.”
“We brought offerings of eye-candy,” says Nick brightly. “That’s me, mind you. Those two are far too young and fresh to please anybody.” He steps forward and kisses Idree on both cheeks. “Hiya, love, hear you did in Jake Bugg last month.”
“Didn’t,” says Idree, shiftily. “Was just… the last one to see him alive.” She looks over Nick’s pistol with the same interest she showed Aimee’s lasers, tosses the gun into a flat plastic tub on the table by the door and lets Nick through. “May’ve got gifted with his gear, but that’s just a sweet coincidence.”
Idree's quite handsy as she checks Harry for weapons, grinning like a wolf as her hands ghost over his bum, but Harry’s unarmed and goes through easy.
Louis looks ready to shoot her in the tit when she moves on to him.
“Arlen 380?” she says, skeptical, pulling the pistol out Louis’s holster. She revolves it experimentally round her finger in a practised motion. “Bit old, ain’t it? Unification War model. Bad pullback, stilted quick load. Couldn’t get summat better?”
Louis glowers. “Fuck off,” he snaps. “You don’t need fancy kit to shoot anybody.”
Idree raises an eyebrow. “Kid, dunno if you noticed, but you got no guns. I got all the guns. You’ve got one boy on your side, I got a house filled to the brim with bullet-happy harpies. See the dynamics? Maybe not the time for Browncoat bluster, teacup.”
Harry can almost see Louis swallow down the swearing he’s itching to do. Idree filches the rest of his weapons, even the knife hidden in the sole of his boot, and dumps them with the others in a big crate.
“Aw, puppy,” she says when she’s through. “Don’t fret, you’ll get your toys back after school. Go on up, Nick and Aimee know the way.”
Louis mutters something both rude and anatomically improbable under his breath.
Harry follows Nick and Aimee up a wide marble staircase. The fits of the place are all mock fine, gold fittings and glint, but it’s untidy like how he’d imagined a Companion training house to be before he ever met anybody in the trade. A pile of glittery leggings puddle in the corner of the landing and rows of fluorescent undergarments dry on the fine gold bannister. Mismatched stilettos lie abandoned on every step. Some of the heels are stained red.
Nick and Aimee lead them into a wide, bright room, all high ceilings with big industrial windows. Reclining in a lavender throne behind a wide wood desk is a woman, all tan skin, platinum hair and red, red lips. Another girl perches atop the messy surface, fox face split in a cackle, her long legs dangling into the other’s lap.
Harry stumbles over a discarded necklace and the clatter rings through the room. The Scissor Sisters turn, faces flashing murder over the heavy weight of their gold jewellery. Harry’s stomach churns for a moment, until they suddenly relax, smiling easy.
“Our faves come back to us!” cries the tall, fox-faced one, and in a graceful loping motion Harry envies she bounds off the desk and hurtles towards Aimee and Nick, octopus twining long arms around both their necks to pull them in.
The one with red lipstick moves more sedately. “Lovies,” she coos, squeezing Aimee and Nick in turn. “We missed you. Where have you been all our lives? We thought you’d left us forever, it was the worst.” She peers over Nick’s shoulder at Harry and Louis, who are stood nearer to the door, nervous. “And you brought us some lovely visuals! What d’you call these handsome lads?” She grins at them, putting one claw-tipped nail to her red mouth. “Are they for us? Did you bring us presents?”
Nick keeps his arm wrapped around her waist as he gestures to Harry and Louis. “Rita, this is Louis Tomlinson and Harry Styles. They’ve been so kind as to transport us on their fine scrapyard death trap vessel, and have a bit of a favour regarding crime they’d love some aide on. Boys, this is the divine Rita Ora, and the equally gorgeous Cara Delevingne, queens of the Scissor Sisters.”
“We very much appreciate your hospitality,” Harry says, hoping he got the words right. His mum tried to teach him enough manners to get him through most of the system, but he’s not sure if that’s the right custom for Three Hills.
“I want one,” says Cara, putting a hand to her narrow chest. Cara pouts at Rita. “Babes, can we keep him? He’s so cute!”
Nick smirks proudly. “Told you,” he mouths at Louis. Harry doesn’t have to look over to know that Louis has not stopped scowling. Louis hates stuff like this, the glitzy room and the corner stacked with discarded furs. Says it ain’t genuine. Harry knows he’s thinking about Doncaster, about the dusty streets and cold floorboards of the house he grew up in. Harry doesn’t mind it, though. Everybody got their own way to make a home.
“What are they queens of, then?” Louis asks Aimee, not as quietly as he probably intended.
“Mostly parties,” Rita informs him, “Parties and bullshit.”
“Literally,” Cara adds. “We’ve got a lot of cattle.”
Rita leads them to the overstuffed little sofas by the desk, flopping into a love-seat mindless of the debris she’s displacing. Cara sprawls half on top of her, fishing a knit cap from underneath Rita to pull over her long hair.
Harry nervously surveys the unoccupied surfaces, twisting his fingers into the knit of his sleeves. He doesn’t want to sit on something important and offend anybody’s majesty by mistake. Louis took the unoccupied corner of the other loveseat and the open chairs are covered in fancy detritus.
“Here, Harold,” says Nick, reaching forward to grab hold of Harry’s wrist and tug him back. Harry hits Nick’s lap off-balance, so Nick has to settle him. “Careful, Haz. Wobbly like a newborn pony, you are.”
“Not used to the grav,” Harry protests, flushing. “’S lighter than on the ship.”
Nick pulls him in tighter, looping an arm around Harry’s middle so one of Nick’s big hands spreads possessive over Harry’s belly. His pinky edges the band of Harry’s trousers, which don’t seem fair. “Sure,” Nick says, the warm rumble of his voice reverberating through Harry’s back. “Let’s live in your beautiful delusions.”
Harry flushes, hot down his collar.
“Oooh,” cackles Cara, delighted. “We see how it is, Grimshaw.”
“Get it, boy,” hoots Rita, clapping her hands together and kicking her heels up on the centre table, knocking over a stack of shiny fashion mags. “I’d watch that.”
“I’d pay to watch that. Ever think about motion capture?” asks Cara, raising one eyebrow suggestive-like.
“Or a live show, let’s not undersell,” says Rita. She puts one finger to her lips. “Now that’d be a thing to see. Could raise a tidy sum. Any interest?”
Aimee raises a hand, palm out. “Dessert after dinner, girls. Let’s get through their little favour first, then you can hit on them all you want.”
“Shiny. Gives me time to prepare my lines.” Cara rubs her hands together.
“She’s spoilt,” says Rita indulgently, patting Cara’s leg. “Like me.”
Louis snorts, aggressively unimpressed. Harry shoots him a look, willing him with every fibre of his being not to make a comment.
Rita and Cara eye Louis and Harry with mild, polite interest. “Any time now,” Rita advises, “We ain’t made of downtime, sugar.”
Louis shifts in the chintzy loveseat and explains their predicament in terse terms, biting off the words like they’ve personally offended him.
When he gets to the part about the trackers, Cara snorts. “You didn’t check that one up front?”
“Like Miss Londinium here didn’t pull plenty of mistakes when she was getting started,” says Rita, rolling her eyes. “Everyone’s a mite stupid at first. That your first job, Louis?”
“No,” says Louis, sullen. He flicks a bit of dirt off his scuffed boot. The laces have been knotted three or four times to keep from falling apart. His mouth is pulled to the side and if someone were to draw him in a cartoon style, they’d probably put steam coming out his ears.
“Might be a good time for a charm offensive, popstar,” Nick murmurs into the shell of Harry’s ear.
“Wow, how have you survived so far?” Cara’s asking Louis, leaning forward with wide eyes. She genuinely doesn’t seem derisive, just curious, but Louis’s face is going as red as the Direction’s engine room.
“It was my fault, I got all distracted when I picked ‘em up,” says Harry, cutting in. He looks right at Cara, willing his face to go as wide-open sweet as he can manage. “They were real cute, see. I didn’t scan them at all; I never saw that sort of dog before.”
Rita makes a sympathetic eyebrow. “Beagles are so fucking cute I could puke. Never saw a live dog until I was about twelve, me.”
“That’s so sad. Poor Reets.” Cara pets the flawless curl of Rita’s hair.
Rita accepts the stroking as her due and then turns back to Harry, more serious. “Your boy’s right, though. Cute or not, can’t go anywhere with that tracking. Surprised the Alliance hasn’t swooped in to play merry hob with your livelihoods by now.” She glances over at Aimee. “‘Spect you know why that’s the case, babes?”
Aimee nods. “The reception was shit out there, but we managed to block what we could of the Cortex.”
Rita’s grinning sweet and cheerful, but there’s something hard that glints at the back of her eye. “That the real reason why you brought us Dimples and his merry man, Aimee? Beagles and boys, slip a little contact under the wire?” Harry can’t read the way Rita and Aimee are eyeing each other now, all smiles on top with a storm brewing or an asteroid field swirling just beyond sightline. Beneath him, Nick goes tense, his heart pounding double pace.
“We have the information we promised, Rita. The broadcast will go out as planned.”
“Let’s hope that’s enough,” Rita says. She glances at Nick. “What’s your take?”
Harry tries to share a glance with Louis but he’s stone faced, broiling a bit. Harry expects he feels a bit humiliated. It’s got to be hard for Lou to go from ship captain — even if they only let him call himself that a bit as a courtesy — to Dimples and merry man, meant for trading.
“Little pitchers,” sing-songs Aimee.
“Big ears,” agrees Rita, relaxing back a bit. “We’ll talk after our boys are put to bed. Cara, do you know if the Haim girls are in house?”
Nick raises one finger. “Este was on the monitor when we came in.”
Cara fiddles with the clunky stat watch that encircles her bony wrist, prodding until a few numbers project from it, flickering small and hazy. “All home, just rode through this morning.”
“Good, then they’ll know who it’s for.” Rita turns to Louis. “We’ve got some girls who can help you with your troubles. We’ll lend them as a personal favour, since Aimee’s vouched for you. But you’ll owe us, Louis Tomlinson.”
“We may call in a little favour someday,” adds Cara, pinching her fingertips close together. “Very small. No trouble.”
“Sure thing,” says Louis dryly. “Very small, no trouble. We don’t get much of a choice in the matter, I assume.”
“Not so much.” Rita tugs Cara’s wrist up to her eyes and peers down to punch in a few buttons into the transmit watch. “Settled. Our girls know to meet you at the door. You can show ‘em the sights, sort it out.”
Cara smiles sweet at Harry, her thick eyebrows tilting up all friendly. “You’ll stay with us, baby. Just ’til your people are back with our mates. Not that we don’t trust Grimmy and Aimee’s judgement, mind. Just can’t be too careful.”
Harry sucks in a nervous breath but tries not to let it show.
“Like hell,” snaps Louis hotly, turning on Cara like she talked about his mum. “You don’t get rutting hostages in this swindle.”
Cara rolls her eyes. “Don’t tell me you wouldn’t do the same for your own people. Safekeeping, obviously. We’ll take very good care of him.” She grins, angelic. “Promise.”
“It’s fine,” Nick assures, kissing Harry on the cheek before he nudges Harry off his lap so that he can stand. “They’re knaves of honour in this den of thieves. Sort of. Well, they won’t kill you.”
“I’ll be okay,” says Harry, though it’s more of a hope than a fact at this point. Nick lets a hand linger at the back of his neck, fingers running through the hair at the base of his skull. It feels good.
Louis bristles, fingering his empty holster and then sighs. “If you harm a hair on his head…”
“As if we would mess with that majestic coif,” says Rita. “We’ve got to change for the shindig later; Harry can help us pick our fits.”
“Go off shopping?” asks Louis, sharply. “Gonna buy a little well-being with plastic platinum?”
Rita just smiles, the curve of her garnet lips a pristine crescent like the Red Sun setting. “Oh sweetheart,” she says. “You don’t buy happiness. You steal it.”
Louis’s mood is set firmly to cross. He’s not of the mind to change his attitude, not after sitting in that rutting ridiculous mess of pretension that could feed half of Doncaster for a month.
The guard girl hands him back his weapons and shows him to the back door, where a wrought iron gate swings open to reveal a dusty courtyard flanked with high walls. An archway straight ahead gives way from the city to a quick escape through the careening stretch of prairie that borders the town.
Three girls stand in the courtyard holding the reins of four rangy-looking horses: a bay, two chestnuts and a palomino who’s trying and failing to bite the smallest girl’s elbow. Sisters, probably: each oval moon face is tanned and friendly, framed by long sheets of hair. Their simple clothes hang dusty over their long legs and they’ve got big, toothy smiles: white strong teeth like folk who grow up with enough milk.
Louis runs his tongue reflexively over his shoddy, cavity-ridden molars.
“Hey!” says the tallest one, waving cheerfully. She sports a slick of red over her mouth like Rita had. “I hear you got a mite of trouble.”
Her short vowels and that nasal twang common to this part of the ‘verse pin her as a Three Hills girl, easy enough. Begrudgingly, Louis feels himself start to smile. They remind him a bit of his sisters.
“I’m Este Haim,” says the tallest one. “Short-shorts is Baby —”
“Alana,” she substitutes, kicking dust towards Este.
“Surly over there is Danielle,” Este says, nodding at the darkest girl who hasn’t been nearly as jolly as her sisters. “And you’re Louis.” Este grins with all her milk-fed teeth. She’d be like Harry, teeth like that, but Harry smiles like he’s giving you his heart to carry ‘round in your pocket. Este smiles like she’s got twenty hearts in her pockets, but she’s got room for one more.
Louis nods, adjusting his braces, feeling the comforting weight of the gun holster tucked back on his hip. “Guilty as charged, I guess.”
Este tugs the Palomino’s reins out of Danielle’s hands and brings the horse forward, towards Louis. “Here you go. Anything for a friend of Grimmy!”
Louis suppresses the face he desperately wants to pull. “Uh-huh,” he says dubiously, and takes the reins. “Who’s this, then?”
“Blondie,” Danielle says, and mounts her horse without further explanation.
They ride off without another word and Louis is left fumbling to get a better seat on Blondie, who doesn’t seem particularly keen on sheltering him for long. The Direction landed south of the city, just beyond the low green hills that loom in the distance, and none of the girls so much as consult a compass before careening out onto the steppe.
After months cooped up in the black or on suffocating city worlds like Beaumonde, some deep primal part of Louis can’t help but go helium-happy and delirious at the spread of field and open sky beyond New Ulaanbataar and the pound of hooves beneath his body, even as he worries about his grip on Blondie’s saddle.
Alana grins back at him companionably, her long hair whipping around her face. “You been to Three Hills before, Louis?”
Louis shakes his head.
“Gorgeous, ain’t it?”
Louis can’t disagree. The unbroken sky rings so blue it almost hurts.
“‘Course, there’s been some rumblings that the Alliance want to ‘develop.’” Alana does quotation marks with her free hand and her face goes dark. “Nothing overt, obviously, just the odd rumour on the news. Can’t get a straight word out of those assholes, can you?”
“Bastards,” Louis scoffs, feeling on-kilter for the first time all day.
“That’s why we’re so glad Grimmy came and —”
“Alana,” Danielle admonishes, pulling her horse closer to her sister so she can frown at her.
Louis hates being kept out of the loop. His spine prickles. “What does Grimmy have to do with your development?”
Alana makes a face back at him. “Sorry, kiddo, I thought you knew.”
The horses pound on, all dusty coats and muscle.
Louis pitches his voice over the rumble. “Knew what?”
“There, is that your ship?” Este points ahead of her needlessly. There’s no one else in eyeshot, let alone another spaceship, and certainly not one as distinctive as the Direction. Her cargo bay is open and Zayn stands out front in a threadbare black jumper, eyes shaded against the sun. “Phwoar, who’s that?”
“None of your bloody business,” Louis snaps, and Este laughs aloud.
“Okay, dude, I get it. Mitts off. Can’t blame a gal for looking, though, can you?”
Louis glowers, but Este just laughs and tosses her long hair.
“Howdy!” shouts Alana, darting mischievous eyes back at Louis to see if he gets cross.
Zayn waves a tentative hand.
“Meet our crime girls,” Louis says, pulling Blondie up in front of the cargo bay door.
Zayn grins up at him, his eyes warm crinkles. “So you found yourself a horse, huh.”
“Fuck off.” Louis dismounts clumsily, his foot catching in the stirrup and he lands on the dry grass with a graceless thump. He keeps his head turned so Zayn doesn’t see his blush. Give Zayn five minutes with Blondie and they’ll probably be on a wavelength Louis hasn’t got with anyone besides, maybe, a football on a good day.
Sure enough, Zayn makes a beeline for Blondie’s face and is soon stroking her long nose and gazing into her big eyes like he’s ten seconds away from offering her a place on their gorram spaceship.
Niall and Liam come around from where they’ve been doing something involving getting mud all over their faces and stick their hands out for manly handshakes. Zayn sticks with the pony.
Este introduces herself and her sisters, spends a good ten minutes introducing the horses and their lineages, then launches into a spiel about livestock conditions that sounds rehearsed, as though she has to speak to everyone about livestock conditions before she can get down to the business of saving their smuggler arses from Alliance feds.
Alana stays back to situate the horses and Liam leads them all into the cargo bay where their gorram cargo what got them into all this trouble is held. Zayn parts reluctantly from Blondie, tugging her forelock for a moment before tearing himself away from her big eyes.
Louis hangs to the rear of the party and keeps his hand on his pistol. He likes these girls but doesn’t know them from Adam. Can’t be too careful.
Niall sweeps up a dog and directs its snout towards Este and Danielle. “Haim girls, these are the beagles. Beagles, these are the Haim girls.”
“Cute,” Este says, and Zayn smiles like she’s complimented his offspring.
Danielle whips a black and metal contraption from her worn leather back and Louis nearly cocks his gun before realising that whatever crap she’s got, there’s no bullets in it.
They all hang back to watch Danielle deprogram the beagles’ chips. She’s fast about it, with quick hands and a sure eye on her scanner. Professional. The crime girls weren’t kidding.
“Alliance tags fucking everything these days,” Este says, leaning over to point something out to her sister. “Three Hills was meant to be open trade, back in the day.”
Louis snorts. “Before the war, maybe.”
“Even a couple years back.” Este sighs. “Shit changes. Blue Sun sees all this land — we’re low-population and high land mass, even for the Rim — and they start thinking, maybe it’s less useful as it is. We’re pretty much self-sustaining, you know. Heaps of nomadic herders and everyone in the city, well. We look out for each other. Rita and Cara, they’re outsiders but they’re good leaders. Fair.”
Zayn looks up from where he’s holding a beagle still for Danielle’s scanner. “What does the Alliance want to do?”
“Paint us all as criminals, then lay waste to the world and build some fucking factories. Keep the news quiet until it’s too late to do anything to stop them.” Danielle doesn’t take her eyes off the dog. “So we’ve been told.”
“Well, aren’t you?” Liam shifts, his neck cracking. “Criminals, I mean?”
Niall elbows Liam in the side. “We’re getting his brain looked at,” he tells Este.
“And, what, you came across these puppies in a strict, legal sorta way?” Este smirks. “Whatever. We just — we needed the press, is all.”
“Este,” warns Danielle. “We don’t know them.”
“They’re friends of Grimmy’s!”
Niall frowns, looking around the cargo bay. “Oi, where’s Haz?”
“He’s, uh. Back in the city.” Louis wrinkles his nose. “With their psycho bosses.”
“Hey,” warns Este. “They your bosses? No? Then guess who doesn’t get to call them yak shit.”
Louis makes a face but not a fuss, which he figures is close enough to apologising to count.
“Done,” Danielle says, and then stands, dusting off her jeans. “You have a buyer to transport these guys?”
“Batsaikhan? That’s what the supplier called him, anyway.”
“He’s all right.” Este claps Louis on the shoulder hard enough to make him wobble. “Just don’t cuss. He’s religious. Hates that.”
Fuck, Louis is sick to death of meeting people. He wonders what it’s like not to have to play nice every gorram minute with whatever dickhead he has to defer to in order to get his way. Must be nice. Relaxing, like. They say crime is all about networking, these days. Louis would rather it be all about shooting.
“We’ll get you there next,” Este assures him. “Here, why don’t your boys pack up those beagles? We’ll help you strap them in.”
Liam and Zayn get to putting the beagles in their travel crates, Niall clears out the four-wheeled mule and Este leads Louis out of the cargo bay towards Alana and the horses.
Louis fixes her in one eye. She stands at the bottom of the ramp, long hair and red lipstick, her terse sister a dark, silent shadow. “You’re only gettin’ paid to deactivate the trackers. Why you doing the rest of this?”
Este flashes an amused glance back at Danielle. “You really are a paranoid son-of-a-bitch, ain’t you?”
“Don’t talk about my mum like that, you prairie harpy.”
Este laughs at that. “You’re all right, Tomlinson.”
“Yeah, you’re all right too,” Louis says grudgingly, “Don’t tell anyone.”
Este puts one hand to her heart. “I’ll take the secret to my grave.”
Good. Wouldn’t be smart networking if it got out that Louis Tomlinson went around liking people.
Nick could have managed on a horse — as he likes to remind everyone periodically, his sister has a farm — but Aimee put her stiletto down and they ride out of town on dusty motorbikes. The riotous noise of New Ulaanbaatar fades fast under the all-encompassing blue sky, the low hillsides and the long plains of grass.
“You sure we got the coordinates right?” Aimee hollers over the roar of the wind.
“Pretty sure!” Nick points ahead where, sure enough, smoke plumes up from a single ger. The squat, round building has been covered in white canvas and bolted three times around by cord, giving the effect of a puffed-top macaroon.
The wide, red door swings open soon as they switch off their motorbikes. Aimee glimpses the whir of tech inside but she’s more interested in the face: suntanned and beaming, with grey hair.
Nick snorts. “Oh, go on, disgust me.”
Aimee rushes forward to catch Ian around the neck. He smells like wood and metal, which would be a disconcerting combination only Aimee’s too busy sucking face to give a shit.
“I stole your girl, Grimshaw,” calls Ian when they finally part, and Aimee kicks him hard on the ankle.
“I am cold and alone,” Nick says, ducking past them to get inside the ger.
Aimee snorts. “That’s not what your friend would say.”
“Oh, I’ve heard about this.” Ian pulls the door shut behind them. Inside, a beaming Fiona pats Nick’s cheek without ceasing her foot on the pedal of the generator. “Fifi, Nick has a new main squeeze.”
“Oh, do you, now? Is this the boy on that Firefly? The one with the arms and the tattoos?”
“Hush, you harpy,” Nick says, his scowl undercut by how he can only manage to keep it going for about twenty seconds.
“I like your fur,” Ian says, stroking the shoulder of her massive golden brown coat. “It looks like you killed a bear and wore its skin.”
“There are hunters here who do that,” Fiona adds helpfully.
“Look at your stupid face,” Aimee tells Ian, squeezing his cheek until the skin goes red. Fuck, she missed this man. She never notices how much until she sees him again, and says for the thousandth time that doing trips without each other is dumbshit and she won’t be doing it anymore. Of course, she always sails out again, but that’s the job. They have to keep on the move. “You fucker.”
“I missed you too,” Ian says, face going soft.
Behind them, Fiona and Nick make puking noises.
“Okay, okay, we get it, you love each other. Do you have the drive?” Fiona holds out an impatient hand and Aimee laughs, breaking away from a gawking Ian to dig the metal cube from her cleavage.
“Kept it close to my heart, and also my tits, which are the better parts of my heart,” Aimee informs her and passes it over. “Everything should be on there.”
Fiona plugs it in and scrolls through the information, holoscreen after holoscreen and reams of technicolour plans. “Brilliant,” she says, “Let’s send it out.”
“Gorram I missed the radio,” Nick says, hand to his heart. “Oh, microphone, never leave me.”
Aimee smacks the back of Nick’s head so his quiff wobbles. “Shut it and start talking. We’ve got truth to tell.”
By the time Louis and the other boys ride back into town, richer and down a few fancy dogs, Harry appears to have been commandeered by the locals. He’s waiting for them in the Scissor Sisters’ courtyard, flanked by Rita and Cara and dressed significantly sparklier than he had been when Louis had left.
Zayn sputters out laughter behind him, gripping Louis’s shoulder so he doesn’t fall over. “Haz, you’ve got a little — mate, it’s sort of…”
“What?” Harry touches his mouth absently, only smearing the lipstick further.
“All over your chin,” sighs Cara, and goes to clean Harry up. “You’ve got to be more careful.”
“I like it,” Niall announces. “You look like a handsome deranged clown.”
Liam makes a face. “Is that a good thing?”
“On some moons,” Niall says. “Don’t judge, Payno.”
“I’m going to wash my face,” Harry says, looking forlornly down at the smeared red paint on his fingertips. “Maybe we should try it again later.”
Rita smirks. “See, there’s this shindig, and we thought —”
“Shindig?” Liam looks hopeful. “I like a shindig.”
“I don’t want to know,” Louis announces. “I do not care. We brought your girls back, you can give our boy back, now we can go.”
Harry’s eyes flicker. Louis doesn’t look directly at him. He told Harry not to get attached, and what did he go and do? Exactly the opposite, as usual.
“Sooner we settle this, sooner we can get off this rock,” Louis says. He plants his feet firmly on the marble floor.
Rita shakes her head. “Soz, babes, afraid you’ll have to wait around a spell. It’s Nadaam. No ships will be authorised to take-off or land anywhere within the city; they’d spook the horses.”
“The fuck, now?” Nobody thought to tell him about this before they made landing? It’s that geese-juggling moon all over again.
“It’s a local festival,” explains Zayn in an undertone, “Horse-riding mostly, some wrestling and archery. They do ‘em on lots of herding worlds.”
“It’s like their X-Factor,” Rita agrees. “Or, what’s that thing they celebrate on Greenleaf? You know, they get all sorts of goodies and worship a beardy bloke with a red jumper? Like that.”
“Christmas,” Zayn says. “That’s called Christmas.”
“Right. Well, it’s big news around here, and you’re all lucky enough to get front row seats.”
“Goody,” Louis says dryly. “No chance we could take off anyway, fuck whatever local bullshit’s going on?”
Harry frowns. “It’s their festival, Louis.”
“Yeah, and your eagerness to respect local tradition wouldn’t have anything to do with extra fuck-time with Nick Grimshaw, would it?”
“I wouldn’t mind, to be honest, Louis.”
“I wouldn’t say no to a shindig,” Liam says. “Could be a laugh, right?”
“Their local delicacy is fermented horse milk,” Niall adds. “Which sounds fuckin’ nasty, and also I want to try it.”
Zayn shrugs and digs his toe into the dirt. “Should be fun. I like their horses. They’re wicked.”
Louis sets his jaw. Captain, his fine arse. He’s as much captain as Harry is a fashion icon, which is to say, he may think he is but he ain’t.
“Right, it’s settled!” Cara claps her hands together. She starts chattering to Harry about prizes and festivities and the promised shindig. Zayn hangs back to take Louis’s arm.
“It’s not so bad, is it?”
“What?” Louis refuses to look directly at him. That way lies… Well, problems. Problems with his leadership abilities and decision-making skills, not to mention his dignity.
“I thought — Louis, we haven’t been in one place longer than two days in six months. Like, I miss real gravity at this point. Dirt. Animals that aren’t space-nutty. We don’t have a new job lined up or anything and — fuck, I just want a nap, you know?”
Zayn’s eyes are wide and velvet brown, and he misses dirt. Louis would have thought Zayn wouldn’t be so keen on all the new people but he looks almost happy here, drenched in sun and quicker to smile than when they’re out in the black. Louis looks out at the rest of his crew. Liam and Niall are laughing uproariously at something and Harry’s got face paint smudged over his chin. The four of them all look so pale and green compared to the Three Hills natives, so sort of spindly and weak. Niall’s legs are narrow as fence poles.
“Maybe we’ve been flying too long,” Louis says, his insides clenching. He misses it too — gravity, grass, the sun on his face. Sitting in a garden with a cup of tea didn’t come from a plastic-sealed pack.
“Let’s just… stay here for a bit, then. See the festival. Let Harry have his little romance, what’s the harm?” Zayn grins at him, his eyelashes casting long shadows over his cheeks.
Where does he get off having eyelashes like that? Maybe they implanted them in Companion school. It ain’t natural, nor fair, nor good at all for Louis’s dignity.
“No harm, I suppose,” Louis says, although he still thinks Harry’s intended is a bit of a twat. “Yeah, all right. Let’s stay a while.”
The ‘verse can wait. It ain’t like the Direction is busy bringing justice to the corners of the rim or nothing, anyhow. No one’ll miss them if they just — rest a bit. Personally, Louis would rather do the resting far away from these Scissor Sisters types, but the Haim girls are all right and Zayn’s spot on: they’re tired. They’re all so gorram tired.
No harm in staying put, just for a while.
The shindig is set to start at ten but Rita assures Harry that no one actually turns up until midnight. By half eleven he’s sat at a corner booth in a dim room learning how to sip a cocktail without smudging lipstick. Liam handily beats Niall at darts and Zayn and Louis bicker over by the pool table, their faces so close together that from a distance you’d think they were kissing. Rita and Cara are giggling over at the DJ booth with a curly-haired woman called Annie Mac who hails from the same moon as Niall. He doesn’t know why Louis stopped making a fuss about staying on-world but he likes it — it’s nice getting to go to a real party, to be in a crowd again, to hear more than five voices at once.
“I feel like I should give Rita and Cara a medal.” Aimee slides into the booth across from him, balancing a tray of shots in one claw-fingered hand. She’s wearing some sort of feathery top that makes her look like a bird of prey, in a nice way.
Nick is stood above Harry, blinking down with raised eyebrows and a twitching mouth. “Hiya,” he says, voice low. He looks good, maybe a little tired but his quiff is tall and shiny.
“Hi,” says Harry. He drinks from the glass a bit slow, not bothering to hide the smirk. Maybe he should thank Rita and Cara too, if that’s the reaction. “You gonna sit?”
Nick slides in next to Harry, thigh tight against his and slings an arm behind Harry’s shoulders. “Looks good,” he whispers, sotto-voiced into the curve of Harry’s ear.
“Hell,” says Aimee, and pulls out her handheld to tap away at the holoscreen. “Don’t mind me, just fuck right here.”
“Wouldn’t mind,” Nick murmurs, with a wicked grin in Aimee’s direction. “Cara and Rita did you up proper, did they? You like it?”
Harry runs a hand up Nick’s leg, tipsy enough to grope heavy. “Do you?”
“Grim,” says Aimee, “If you can tear yourself away from your sex frenzy for a sec, Annie’s here.”
“Annie?” Nick tears his eyes away from Harry’s mouth, face lighting up like the rear engine on a Firefly. “Seriously? All the way out here?”
Aimee points. Nick’s eyes swing in the direction of her finger and he beams with all his teeth, bounding up from the bench and hurtling across the room. Annie Mac spots him and they hug, tight and sincere. Nick’s eyes squeeze shut and he buries his head into Annie Mac’s shoulder. Harry can feel his face go soft. It’s nice to see Nick love someone like that.
Aimee is gazing a little too knowingly at Harry over the rim of her glass.
Aimee’s eyes soften. She pats Harry’s hand. “You know we’re leaving, Haz. Tomorrow.”
Harry’s insides jolt, uncomfortable. “Tomorrow? I mean, I knew — I just thought— after Nadaam, Liam said we’d be here for a few weeks yet.”
“See, that’s what we can’t be having here.” Aimee waggles her finger between Harry’s eyes. “None of this. If you do this, he’ll want to stay, and we can’t be having that. He’s always late, Grim. We can’t be late. You got me?”
Nick and Annie Mac are laughing uproariously across the room, still clinging onto each other. Nick’s laugh wheezes like the creak of a door, opening and shutting. Harry shakes his head. “I, uh. Not sure what you mean, exactly?”
“It’s big picture, Harry. I’m sorry about it, but Nick’s needed. I’m sure he’d find a way to fuck it up if he stayed, anyway. Maybe this is better. Short and sweet, before he gets a chance to think himself into an anxiety attack.” Aimee rubs her forehead, looking sad. “No, that’s bullshit, I’m sorry I said it. I can see how you are about each other. I wish like hell things were different, but they’re not. Listen, just don’t doe eyes him too much, okay? He has to go tomorrow. You get Nadaam, don’t you? You got the voyage. Maybe later, maybe… But right now, he has to go.”
Harry deeply wants to give Aimee a hug and bake her some bread, or something. She looks exhausted, the sharp points of her cat liner doing nothing to mask the weariness in her eyes. This is the first time Harry has seen Aimee look anything except loud and brash and perfectly coiffed. She’s like Nick in that way — all shiny carapace and a soft inside. Harry likes her a lot. He’s glad she and Nick have each other. “Are you two… Are you okay?”
Aimee snorts and then laughs, loud and anxious, putting her head in her hands. “Not particularly, Harold. But someday. I think soon, maybe. It’s a big ‘verse.”
“Are you — I mean, is there anything we could do to —”
Nick slides back in next to Harry, slinging a lazy arm around his shoulders and Harry stops short. Nick smells good. Harry should find out what cologne he uses, before tomorrow.
“What are we talking about?” Nick asks, looking between Aimee and Harry. “Terrible things?”
Aimee shakes her head briefly at Harry, an aborted jolt of the chin.
“Nothing in particular,” Harry says. “Clocks.”
Harry keeps the doe eyes to as much of a minimum as he can as the party goes on, meeting dozens of people whose names he tries to remember, dancing close and sweaty with Nick and downing the sickly sweet fluorescent drinks from the attendants.
The lights blaze his irises into white flecks until all he’s got eyes for is Nick; Nick’s hands holding him close, their hips rocking together, foreheads a sweaty press as they pant close to each others’ mouths. He wants get his arms around Nick and tug until their ribs slot together like cogwheels, merge their bodies so he can’t leave tomorrow.
He hooks a hand around the sweaty curve of Nick’s neck and kisses him, hard, like Nick’s got something Harry wants. It’s all teeth and tongue and after a dizzy minute Nick is giving it as good as he gets, long fingers digging under the hem of Harry’s shirt. Harry wants them to bruise. They’re both hard, hips flush and fighting for it, and Harry wants so much he thinks he might burn up and die from it right there. He wants to fuck Nick into the floor in the middle of this party. If it’s the drinks or the pulsating beat or the way Nick tastes, Harry doesn’t know and can’t muster the blood to care; he’s feral as a fox skirting the chicken coops on the edge of town.
They pull back, Nick’s hands cradling Harry’s face. Harry must not have lipstick on anymore; it’s smeared across Nick’s mouth. Harry leans forward to capture it, but Nick leans back in time.
“C’mon,” he says, or maybe mouths, because Harry can’t hear anything. Nick catches his hand and leads him through the press of bodies, away from the laser lights and the bar.
They wind up in a small room somewhere off the main corridor, kissing and pushing past fabric to reach skin. There’s no handy lubrication dispenser anywhere and even if there were, Harry’s too worked up for something that involved. They jerk each other off, foreheads pressed together as they gasp and keen. Nick’s face is so close and it’s intimate, the hand on his cock and his wide eyes clear and unguarded in the dim light; they finish quickly in a way that would be embarrassing if Harry could muster up the ability to care.
“Think I’d get stabbed by a Scissor Sister if I wipe my hand off on — what is this?”
Harry looks at the shadowy fabric-covered boxes behind Nick. “Probably weapons or something.”
“Shiny,” Nick says, and uses the cover to clean his hand. Harry leans over him to do the same.
The small room is quiet save for the low hum of noise from the party. The faraway beat pulses faintly through the door.
Harry toys with Nick’s big hand, running their fingers together. Harry’s fingers are blunt where Nick’s are long and graceful; they’re what his mum would call ‘piano hands’. “Where are you headed next?” he asks, trying to sound casual.
“Athens, I think. Give it the big one, eh? We’ll stay in the Georgia system another month or two and then relieve Zane in White Sun, well hard but Aimee’s got all these massive plans — oh, I’m not meant to be talking about that. Shh, I said nothing.” Nick bats at Harry’s face with his free hand. “Nothing, nothing, I’ve erased your tiny mind.”
“What’s in White Sun? Where are you — ”
“You are going to get me in trouble; I hate having to keep everything all hushy-hushy all the time. It’s rubbish. I’m quitting tomorrow.” Nick smooshes Harry’s cheek. “Let’s talk about summat else. Like, which smell animal d’you want to see race tomorrow?” He waggles his eyebrows. “Sexy, right?”
The streets of New Ulaanbaatar teem with dressed-up travellers and horses decked out in brightly beribboned manes and braided tails. Families set up in ger camps outside the city and fireworks crackle at all hours, accompanied by the low thump-thump of a house dance beat. Zayn helps Idree paint the door to the Scissor Sisters’ headquarters in intricate swirling designs and Louis watches, trying not to feel crazy whenever Zayn smiles at her.
In the afternoon Idree and Este Haim come calling. Idree has replaced her rust dark lipstick with a festive pink about the colour of Harry’s lips when he’s been snogging, which is presumably what he’s been doing instead of emerging into the sunlight at any point since the party. Niall, Liam, Zayn and Louis sprawl in the Scissor Sisters courtyard, exhausted from a spirited kick-around.
“We thought you might want to come see the fair,” Este shouts, pulling a dusty mule bike to an abrupt stop. The two of them look uncommonly fancy, with bright festival garments and combed hair.
Niall struggles to stand, beaming. “Yeah, brilliant!”
“Do we got to wear those, uh…” Liam motions at Idree’s printed folded tunic.
Zayn kicks Liam’s ankle. “No. That’s for people from here, Payno. That’s not for us.”
“Oh,” he says, looking a little disappointed.
Idree smiles at him and pats his cheek. “Maybe we could get you a nice hat.”
“Shiny,” Liam says, and grins.
Idree and Este grumble about off-worlders not knowing the front of a pony from the back before loading them up onto the mule and driving them through the crowds to the edge of town.
The buildings give way to clusters of gers and then finally to open field, not so open now as every square foot of ground seems to be packed with boots or hooves. Scores of children run through the crowd, grabbing reins and repositioning their ponies. There must be three-hundred horses and as many young jockeys holding their reins.
Louis thinks about what Este said, how the Alliance wanted to strip the land for factories, do it so fast no one had time to protest.
Niall turns his face to the sun, the flecks of his peeling pink nose catching light.
Soft-eyed, Zayn watches the way one boy takes his horse’s head in his small hands and kisses its spotted nose. “What are they singing?”
Idree smiles at Zayn and motions to the crowds of children atop their short-legged horses. “It’s an encouragement song,” she explains, and then sings softly, “My good horse, be fast and strong. You have run well since you were born on your feet. Keep running, and be a good friend of mine.”
If he were here, Harry would say something about how maybe they’re like the horses: running, fast and strong. Travellers, like. Harry likes pretentious shit like that. Louis doesn’t like to think of himself as somebody running, somebody born on his feet. In his best dreams he’s settled with a garden. He doesn’t want to keep running. Not forever.
The Direction was meant to be a prize. Not a life-sentence. He’s not sure when it started to feel that way.
“First place in that race gets a mid-range shuttle,” Este says. They all whistle through his teeth.
Liam cranes his neck looking through the crowds. “I want to see the wrestling. Where’s that at?”
“I’ll take you. I’m competing.” Idree shows her bright yellow badge.
“Wicked,” Niall says, “I’ll be your number one fan.”
“Will you now?” Idree leers at Niall, who leers right back.
Este turns to Zayn and Louis, absently re-tucking her tunic. “Will you two be all right?”
Zayn agrees and before Louis knows what’s fully happening, he’s being pulled bodily from the mule and is trudging on the dusty ground dodging the kicks of massive stallions and little dappled ponies. Louis is not Harry. He did not grow up used to this shit — let alone this horse shit, gorram is that smell something to remember.
“Will you slow down?” Louis flinches and grabs Zayn’s elbow. “I’m about to get crushed, here.”
“Este told me it’s very good luck if a horse stands on your foot.”
“Oh, goody,” Louis mutters, but Zayn’s all lit-up and happy and fuck if he’s going to screw that up.
“Este also told me it’s very good luck if you get hit by a sheep’s knuckle.”
“A what now?”
Zayn just laughs, white teeth flashing. He hasn’t shaved in a week or so and his cheeks are shadowed in black. The way a long lock of his hair falls into his eyes makes Louis want to lie down in front of the horse race and be trampled to blessed death.
“Oi, look who’s finally made an appearance!” Zayn elbows Louis and points through a gap in the animals.
Nick and Harry perch atop a high fence, ankles entwined and seemingly more interested in their private conversation than the chaos around them. After a moment, Harry spots them and whoops, his low crackly voice echoing even over the roar of the excited crowd. Harry jumps down from the fence and drags Nick with him until they meet in the middle.
“Thought you’d be too hungover to make a showing out here, mate,” Zayn says, and Nick snorts.
“I was sick in an antique vase,” he informs them lightly, “Whilst Harold woke fresh as a spring day. Yao Nu.”
“Isn’t this brilliant?” Harry asks, face split in a grin. “Nick’n I met a rider and we’re rooting for him. He’s called Irka Bolen and his horse is called Jennifer.”
Nick laughs. “See him, over there?”
Ahead of the pack, a little boy with a ridiculously printed scarf wrapped around his head waves enthusiastically.
“Don’t tell me,” Louis says.
“Yeah, we gave him my scarf! He thought it was cool, and I thought, like, what if he wins, and he starts a whole new fashion movement here? Winning jockeys get called something cool — I can’t remember — but they’re, like, quite famous so. Wouldn’t that be cool?”
Zayn elbows Louis in the ribs and speaks before he can, “Sure, Haz.”
Harry grins, satisfied. “C’mon, we’ve got great seats.”
Nick and Harry hold hands as they squeeze through the crowd back to their fence. Louis tries not to look too hard at the way their long fingers twine together, or the way Nick fairly glows whenever Harry laughs at something he says.
Louis told him not to get attached.
Zayn pulls Louis up to sit next to him on the fence and the touch of his cool hand lingers even under the beat of the sun.
“They’ve done this for thousands of years.” Zayn nods at the children adjusting their saddles. “I’ve read about it. On Earth-That-Was, and now here, for thousands of years. They use the same bridles, sing the same songs. It’s cool.”
Louis looks over at Harry and Nick but they aren’t paying attention, just giggling about some stupid thing or another.
“Huh,” he says, and feels stupid enough to sink through the fence to the long grass and lie there for a millennia or two.
After the race, Zayn and Louis leave Harry and Nick to their public displays of disgusting and go in search of sustenance.
“I think it’s cute,” Zayn says, “They, like. They really like each other. They’re both so weird.”
“I agree with part of that,” Louis says, and tries not to think about how it’d feel to be like them, curled together in full view of a riotous crowd.
Over on the outskirts of the races, carnival stands have popped up selling ice planets and candy floss. Louis gets a yak meat sandwich and Zayn gets some sort of fried dumpling stuffed with mysteries.
“Doncaster doesn’t have anything like this, does it? Any festivals?”
Louis shakes his head. “Alliance didn’t like our folk songs. I mean, most of them were some iteration of ‘fuck the Alliance’, but…”
Zayn laughs, and Louis’s stomach goes light at the sound. Sometimes he thinks it don’t matter if no one but Zayn laughed at his jokes.
“Oh, shit, is that —”
Louis follows the point of Zayn’s finger to a knot of Alliance peacekeepers in that hated blue uniform. “Fuck,” he mutters, “Oh, fuck, fuck.”
“Relax,” Zayn says, elbowing him. “Relax, Lou, they’re not going to come after petty smugglers. Don’t draw attention.”
They follow the pull of the crowd closer into the fed’s orbit. One of them is holding up a hologram that shudders against the bright sun and doesn’t quite win the right to be entirely visible. “Have you seen these citizens,” he says loudly.
Louis nearly drops his sarnie. The hologram, in the moments between flickers, very clearly depicts Nick and Aimee. Their names are printed underneath in glowing script.
“Oh, fuck,” Louis breathes.
“Oh fuck is right,” Zayn says, knuckles white. “C’mon, let’s go find one of the girls. Someone needs to tell them.”
“I’m going to have to like them now, aren’t I?” Louis takes a giant sulk bite of his sandwich. “Bastards.”
Liam comes barreling into the ger before she or Ian gets a chance to cover any part of their nudity. No tentative knocks, no awkward waiting for permission: that boy sure has come a long way since they met.
Aimee levers herself to a seated position, breasts bared to the world. “Liam. I don’t think you’ve met my husband, Ian. Ian, this is Liam. He’s cute, don’t you think?”
The faint tan Liam has managed to acquire in forty-eight hours gets completely obliterated by a lipstick-red blush. “I — er, I’m mighty sorry, ma’am, sir, I didn’t know —”
Ian pulls a blanket over his crotch and looks long-sufferingly at Aimee. “I wish I could say this was the eighth time that happened. I wish I could say that was only the tenth.”
“Calm down, Liam. It’s not like I wasn’t planning on having you here at some point — don’t give me that look, Ian, we’ve discussed it — but this is a little ahead of schedule.”
Liam clearly doesn’t know how to process any of that. He swallows repeatedly, eyes flickering from Aimee’s face to her chest as though he can’t manage to look away.
“Maybe you could start by telling us what you came running in here for?” Aimee suggests.
“Right.” Liam clears his throat. “Oh — right, gorram it, I came in to say how Zayn and Louis were out at the fair and saw some fed with your pictures. Like, wanted pictures. Not — not your, uh. Husband. You and Grimmy, I mean.”
Ian curses low and fluent in Mandarin. Lord, Aimee loves that, but she doesn’t have time for a threesome. Life really is such a bother, sometimes.
Aimee slides out of bed and begins looking for her clothing, half-aware of Liam staring at her like he’s never seen a naked woman in his life, which she knows for a fact can’t be true as she’s seen the Direction’s porn logs. Harry’s interests are particularly quirky.
Bra first, then dress and underwear — good thing Aimee has her cases still packed; they’ll need to make a swift and subtle exit. “Liam, I promise I will give you a strip tease someday in the future, pending the approval of my husband. Right now I need you to find Annie Mac, tell her to get her ship ready and tear Nicholas from the conjugal company of your boy. In that order.”
“Nick’s, uh. Out front, with his bags, I —”
Ian struggles to pull his jeans on under the covers. “Annie Mac,” he reminds Liam patiently, “Mullingar lady with curly hair, stop ogling my wife, please.”
“Right. Sorry. Right, I’ll just…” Liam ducks out the door in a hurry.
There’s a laser gun under the bed but Aimee makes the executive decision to leave it behind. Tech guns are useless, really, just a battery away from bludgeon. She never thought a communications job would require so much knowledge of firearms.
“So, what do you think?” Aimee slings her bag over her shoulder and looks over at Ian, still fumbling to button his shirt.
Ian raises an eyebrow. “Babe, we’re about to take off and hightail it to another corner of the ‘verse. I think a threesome is logistically impossible at the moment.”
“You never know where life takes you. We’ll see them again.” Aimee straps a pistol under her skirt and checks outside the ger for any Alliance action. “I hope. God, for Nick’s sake, I really hope.”
Outside the capital city Three Hills is all sky. Their terraforming didn’t allow for forests here, just long rolling low hills and small gnarled bushes, beautiful as the fierce heat of Yellow Sun beats down over the tall grass. Ahead of their small party, casting the only shadow for an acre, is an Eshu-class transport, light but durable, the kind with the extenders and the admant plating. Harry wants to find something to complain about but Eshus are pretty solid. Not good for cold climates, though. Their in-atmo engines struggle with heat retention.
“I hope you’re not going somewhere with snow,” Harry says, frowning at the ship.
Nick looks down at him, bemused. “Hm?”
“Snow,” Harry repeats. He points at the wing-mount engines. “Taqi Mark III’s have trouble in the cold. They’re a better urban model. Decent at short in-atmo flight, for a spacecraft.”
Nick hums in consideration, squinting at the iron-plated vessel, his shoulder companionably warm against Harry’s. A couple of the Scissor Sisters load Aimee and Nick’s trunks into the hold, occasionally making obscene hand gestures towards them when their hands are free. A few metres away, Aimee leans around Rita’s head to simulate something dirty back. Harry don’t recognise the movement, so he supposes it to be the cutting edge in trendy swearing.
“Well.” Harry bumps their shoulders together, willing himself not to do anything with his face that would make Aimee do avant-garde cussing at him.
“Well,” Nick says, catching Harry’s hand in his.
Harry turns toward Nick, looks at the way the sun rakes through every colour in Nick’s hazel eyes and turns them all spectacular, green dredging up gold. I think I’m in love with you, Harry wants to say, but doesn’t. “I’ve… I’ve really liked meeting you,” he says, instead.
Nick’s eyes swim a little and he laughs, squeezing Harry’s palm. “I’ve really liked meeting you too, Harold.”
They stare at each other for a long moment, Nick’s irises all shot through with gold, and Harry wonders if he should say it. Maybe — no. Or — No.
“Here,” Nick says finally, pushing something square into Harry’s hand.
Harry looks down at Aimee’s ever-present handheld, sleek and covered in buttons. Probably two, three-thousand credit easy, especially with the cortex overrides. “I couldn’t,” Harry says immediately.
“Don’t worry about it.” Nick shrugs, a little awkward. “Aimee got a new one off the Scissor Sisters. Me too, actually. It’s no bother, just a bit of scrap otherwise, so. Thought it could come in handy.”
Harry snorts. “Handy.” He waves the handheld to illustrate.
Nick grins. “Yeah. Anyhow, it’s dead useful.” He ducks his head, picking invisible fluff from the line of his shirt. “Old model, so not the greatest, but it’s got your standard con link, cortex search. And I… I mean, I put my number in. If you wanted, you know.”
“I’m never going to leave you alone,” Harry beams, tapping through the opening screen to add a pictogram of a prawn next to Nick’s name.
Nick still isn’t looking directly at him. “Wouldn’t mind.”
Something in Harry’s chest stutters and clamps, like when a gear don’t fit right. “Okay,” he says. “I… won’t then.”
“I’m going to go now.” Nick shoves his hands into his trouser pockets, shifting from foot to foot. “Not good at the goodbyes, me.”
Harry throws his arms around Nick’s neck, nearly bowling him over. Nick’s taller, but Harry’s broad-shouldered and strong where Nick’s long and spindly, which is a word Harry knows Nick would hate him using. Nick’s arms go around him slow and then press him close until his long fingers dig into Harry’s back. Harry forces his nose into Nick’s neck and breathes the smell of him, no stale sweat of spaceflight now, just his cologne and the warm tang of his skin. He imagines waking up to Nick’s skin like this every morning. His eyes water, helplessly.
“I’ll miss you,” Harry admits, a little thickly.
“I’ll be just a wave away,” Nick says, not too steadily himself. They pull away from each other, Nick’s face going soft and painful when he sees Harry’s wet cheeks. Nick wipes his skin with long fingers, steady and careful. “None of this, Harry Styles.”
“Sorry,” Harry says, although he’s not sorry.
Aimee walks toward them from where she’d been speaking to Cara and Harry doesn’t meet her eyes directly, because he’s pretty sure he’s doing exactly what she asked him not to do with his face. “Grim?” she asks, voice uncharacteristically soft. “You ready?”
“Yeah,” Nick says, not looking away from Harry. “Yeah, okay.”
“Bye, Nick Grimshaw,” Harry says, attempting his best smile.
“Bye, Harry Styles,” Nick says back, and he kisses him light on the mouth. Harry doesn’t get a chance to deepen it, make their tongues move against each other the way he wants, before Nick’s striding away, head bent and hands in his pockets. Aimee takes Nick’s arm and leads him up into the cargo bay, and they wave until the docking door closes.
Harry waits, watching as the VTOL engines fire to explosive life. The boat wavers as it rises, one engine boosting more than the other but soon they’re air-bound, rocketing out into the sky. The sun beats down, and Harry angles his hand against it so he can peer up at the splay of bright blue and the gentle shadowy curve of Three Hills’ two moons.
There are five main sequence stars in their universe, a handful of protostars, gas giants, asteroid belts, deadrocks, thirty-some planets and twice as many moons. At school Harry used to stare at the big messy iridescent map on the walls: every planet was outlined with population, main exports, capital cities. The feed shorted out every couple minutes and all the worlds, from shining Londinium and Sihnon in the centre way out to Cheshire on the rim, would buzz and flicker.
The sheer mass of ‘verse use to light a fire in Harry’s belly but now it also makes his head spin.
It’s a strange kind of life, vesselside. They dip little toes into people’s worlds and then leave, maybe come back years later expecting the same still pond only to find babies grown and crops harvested, ‘cos that’s the sort of thing about worlds, ain’t it? They keep on spinning without you. All seventy-some of them, the spiderwebs of entwined lives, each town its own star system, each person their own universe. Everyone weaves together and folk like Harry don’t stick round long enough to see the web.
That’s the price of flight, Harry reckons. You see the stars, but you’ll always leave those lives behind. And maybe you’ll visit, or maybe you won’t; and maybe they’ll remember you, or maybe they won’t. Some folk stay put on their worlds and watch the fields grow and the herds graze, but what about people like Nick and Harry, wafting around through the ‘verse like dandelion seeds, too fast to see the seasons change? How does anybody ever find each other again?
Harry clutches his new handheld and keeps waving, even though the ship is too far up to see.
year of the horse
month of lìchūn
year of the miranda scandal
Londinium looms around the Direction as they weave through riotous teeth of great marble monoliths, fog bearing down on the planet like a winter coat. The visibility is bad, and Niall has white knuckles and a harrowed face as he navigates through the never-ending industrial haze obscuring the scores of shuttles and ships that buzz over the concrete like a swarm of bees around the flowers of Cheshire.
Harry keeps checking their coordinates. They all keep checking the coordinates. The entire crew of the Direction are clustered in the bridge, staring out at the world below them.
A Core planet — the Core planet. Next to Sihnon, Londinium is the oldest planet in the ‘verse, one of the first to be terraformed back in the days of Earth-That-Was. Harry’s got no idea why petty border moon thieves like them are doing a job down on Londinium, but some mystery client gave them a contact, fake papers and an embarrassingly large promise of money and here they find themselves.
Niall flies them in a little shakily, unused to having to signal so often and check the flight patterns of so many other ships. They touch down on a private helipad nestled high up on one of the skyscrapers like an eagle’s nest, double and triple checking the coordinates.
“This feels weird,” Liam says uneasily, biting at the corner of his thumb. He runs his free hand over his holster.
“Them’s the coordinates.” Niall flicks the com link on. “That’s what we were given.”
Harry’s handheld buzzes and he glances a look at it. There’s a waiting message from a contact labelled only as a tiny pictogram of scissors. He taps open the message to find Cara’s grimacing face, the whites of her eyes exaggerated as they pop out. It’s a vid capture.
“Hiiii,” she says, and then blanks out.
“Weird,” Harry mutters.
“Not that weird,” Zayn says, and motions out below them.
At the edge of the landing platform is Cara, tall and skinny with oddly neat hair, a dark mouth and long tight skirt. She waves.
“Huh,” Louis says. “Guess they’re our employer. That explains a lot.”
They all blink at him.
“What?” Louis adjusts the strap of his holster and strides out of the bridge. “Stop gawking. Let’s go get paid.”
Up close, Cara looks even more off. Gone are her trainers and beanies, replaced by spike-narrow shoes and a slim-cut blazer. Her messy hair has been brushed stick-straight, hanging limp on either side of her face. She looks — she looks Core, clean and tidy, in a way she never had before. She smiles wide as they approach, tackling each of them in a hug by turn and then falling back to tug her shirt into place.
“Took you long enough,” Cara says, patting Harry’s cheek a little more aggressively than is strictly necessary. “I thought you’d be in days ago.”
“We ran into a little technical trouble off Hera,” Niall admits, shrugging. “Bit of an engine problem. In that the engine wasn’t working.”
“Semantics,” says Louis, making a face.
Zayn holds himself very still next to Harry. Liam’s too busy gaping at the soaring view over the city from the dock. This sector of the planet boasts a cluster of high-rise buildings sprouting like silver weeds next to the sleepy dark curve of the river. Everyone has big windows the size of walls and they all seem to keep their lights on. Harry can see straight through to dining rooms and kitchens, bedrooms and corridors: all the tall, clean people living their tidy, prosperous lives.
“What are you doing here?” Harry asks, and Cara turns, angles of her face catching shadows beneath the bone.
“All in good time,” she says, glancing up at a bulbous black thing on the wall behind her. It looks a bit like a gangrenous spot.
“It’s a camera,” Zayn explains, low in Harry’s ear. “Londinium’s monitored everywhere. Every projection screen, every vid holder. This mission’s going to be a real bitch.”
Harry looks up at the dome and wonders who is looking at them from the other side.
“I registered you as my wayward cousin and his mates,” Cara informs them, turning so they’re forced to follow to hear her. “Louis is the cousin — I thought you had the sharpest face — and I’ll give you your new idents inside and explain the job. Keep up!”
Cara leads them through a series of sliding doors, pressing her thumb to the screen next to each opening. Behind the third set of doors is a spotless open-plan flat, pristine white furniture and glass walls so clear Harry can hardly make out that they’re glass at all. It looks like a show room. There’s no evidence at all that anyone lives there, and Harry assumes it must be an empty flat until he notices a gold-framed photograph of Cara and what is presumably her family on one wall. They’re all blond and thin, with narrow faces and blank eyes.
“Is this your family’s flat?” Harry asks, nearly tripping over an ornamental gold leopard trying to get closer to the picture.
“Yep,” Cara says, popping the p. “Don’t worry, though. Mummy and Daddy are off to Majorca for a few days. We’re safe.”
Louis snorts. “Why, what would they do? Sneer at us to death?”
Cara laughs, and it’s the emptiest laugh Harry has ever heard.
Zayn looks back at her and Harry can’t read faces like Zayn can but he sees something in Zayn’s big eyes that sets his blood running. Harry always wanted to see the Core, but now he just wants to turn tail and run back to the Direction and lock the hatch with every cog they got. He’s not sure why Cara brought them here, but it’s sure no black market beagles. Harry crowds up behind Niall, who doesn’t seem particularly bothered and is fiddling with a little silver box.
Cara tells them there’s a party — more of a holding cell sort of party, she says, as if they’d know what that’d be — and on the bottom level, beneath the revellers, they’re keeping a couple special guests.
“Glad you all managed to make it under the wire — the job goes down tonight. There’s an art benefit for the museum. Blue Sun is the sponsor. Their people plan on taking the special guests into their own hands tonight,” she continues, “And we don’t want that to happen. Nothing good comes from that.”
“What kind of special guest?” Louis looks edgy, fidgeting like he’s nervous or excited. He keeps his hand glued to his pistol.
“Kind of special guest Blue Sun doesn’t take much of a fancy to. Some victims of corporate espionage, the odd dissident.” Cara spreads a building plan over the wide glass dining table. “Among them somebody you remember: Nick Grimshaw.”
Harry’s spine goes ice cold.
“Why?” he asks, “Why do they want Nick?”
Cara ignores him. “We have individual teams on each guest we want out. They’ll all be at the party but good fucking luck figuring out who they are; we’re not to know each other or work together. It’s safer. You never run out of enemies on this godforsaken rock and if someone gets caught the rest of us don’t go down too. I’m point-person on Nick and you lot owe me — us — a favour. Don’t you?”
Harry is not thinking about favours. Harry is thinking about Nick. When was the last time he’d heard from him? He’d sent a capture of a double sunrise — but that was weeks ago. How long have they had him?
Their job is to get Nick out and off-world without anybody dying or getting nabbed by security. And Nick can’t be fingerprinted, or IDed by anyone. “Easy as lying,” Cara says brightly.
“I’ve always been more of a truth-teller, myself,” Niall says.
Louis screws up his face until it’s all pressed together like an angry mouse. “Why?”
Niall cocks his head at Louis. “Mostly it’s just easier to remember.”
“No, I meant, why do we got to get Grimshaw off-world. Why’s he so important?”
“Lou,” Harry says, but Louis doesn’t so much as glance over.
Cara looks at Louis, and then she looks at Zayn. “You know. Don’t you?” “Who has him?”
“Know what?” Harry looks at Zayn too, his familiar profile lit against the starry-windowed building past the glass. “Know what, Zayn?”
“Nick’s a Voice. Isn’t he, Cara.”
Liam’s face is blank as rice paper. “Voice of what now?”
Louis goes a little pink. “No.”
“You are clever,” Cara says, with that manic grin of hers. “Hole-in-one. Nick’s our Voice, and we need him back. We’ve got illegal news to tell.”
Louis stares at Cara. “No. Not you. It ain’t. It can’t be you.”
Cara’s laugh teeters on the knife-edge of manic. “Me too! Me too, and your little boy blue. Or, Harry’s boy, I reckon. If you’re still keen, that is. Are you?”
“Yes,” says Harry.
“Zayn, it’s not them. It’s not.” Louis looks at Zayn a little plaintively, as if he’s asking to be let off a ride at a carnival fair. “For fuck’s sake, they’re Core. C’mon.”
“They’re not Core,” Niall corrects him. “Well, she is. But he ain’t. And does it matter?”
“I still got no rutting idea what any of you are going on about,” Liam says calmly, like he ain’t expecting to be filled in but feels it’s pertinent to remind them anyway.
Zayn hasn’t taken his eyes off Cara, not once. “Nick’s a Voice of the Underground. I’ve suspected for a while. That’s why him and Aimee were so keen on our broadcasting capability — they wanted to make sure he could keep the messages going even in the black. What is he — Voice for the Georgia system? Got caught up on a central planet?”
“We’ll stay in the Georgia system for a month or so, then go relieve Zane in White Sun.” Harry takes a deep, shaky breath.
“You and Rita — I don’t doubt you care first about Three Hills, but I’d hedge a couple hundred credit on a bet that you’ve got some interest against the Alliance as well.”
“There’s nothing like teenaged rebellion,” Cara tells him. “And my daddy’s so deep in Parliament he’s more stone than flesh.”
Louis rounds on Harry. “Did you know too? Were you, what, helping him out? Didn’t think to mention it?”
“No. I didn’t know anything.” Harry stands up. He’s had enough intrigue talk today and if they’re going to a party, they better get dressed. “And I don’t really care. Nick’s in trouble. I want to get him out.”
“This ain’t… normal trouble, Haz.” Liam’s gone a little wibbly-faced and he keeps fingering that old pistol of his. “This is big time, high-grade, secret prison trouble. This is the kind of trouble that gets you airlocked with nobody blinking an eye.”
“You don’t have to come, then.” Harry makes for the wardrobes. He doesn’t know if Cara’s got a suit or something that’ll fit him, but if she has, it’ll probably be in a wardrobe. “None of you do, if you’re so bothered. I’ll do it myself.”
Cara comes up behind him and ruffles through the nearest wardrobe, coming out with a slim-cut suit that probably costs as much as Harry’s whole damn home moon. “That’s touching and all but as far as plans go, I wouldn’t say that’s the greatest, Harold.”
“I don’t care,” Harry says staunchly, and starts stripping off. “He’s in trouble.”
“Oh my god. Haz,” Louis says, irate, “We’re coming, don’t get your pants in a twist. I just — give me a fucking minute to get used to the idea that Nick Grimshaw is the Voice of the bloody Underground. Nick Grimshaw. He wears cravats. How is somebody who wears cravats the voice of the bleedin’ people?”
“Some people like to look nice,” Harry says. He likes cravats. He likes Nick in cravats. He should probably get Nick off this planet so Nick can go on wearing cravats, and Harry can go on seeing Nick wear cravats, and none of them has to do anything stupid like get shot or airlocked by a monomaniacal corporation.
“Ni-hao, Cara and associates,” rings an unfamiliar voice through the cold steel room. Harry’s heart makes a jump to his throat.
“No, it’s fine, it’s cool!” Cara waves her arms in front of Harry’s face like somebody signalling a spacecraft from below. “It’s just my friend; she’s getting us into the party.”
Cara disappears down another long hall and comes back with a girl around her own age. “This is Taylor Swift. Tay, these are the boys I mentioned.”
“Ni-hao,” Niall says, “I, um. I like your earrings.”
Taylor Swift’s earrings shine like jewelled suns, dangling down towards the high neck of her black lace gown. She’s as tall and elegant as a lady in a fashion advert, with full red lips and blond hair curled under; she looks at all of them with mild, polite amusement. “Xiexie,” she says, her voice droll, “I like them too.”
“So you’ve told folks about this? Are you sure it’s —” Liam swallows hard enough to make his Adam’s apple bob. “Are you sure that’s safe?”
“None of this is safe!” A nervous laugh flutters Niall’s chest and he rubs his palms on his upper thighs. “Pretty sure this whole, whole thing is — not safe.”
“‘Teeny, tiny favour,’” Louis quotes, almost admiringly. “You girls weren’t fucking around.”
Zayn has gone a bit still over by the breakfast bar and Harry realises, abruptly, that he is not actually wearing any trousers at the minute. Taylor Swift really is quite, uh. Tall.
Taylor Swift blatantly gives them each the up-and-down, one side of her full mouth higher than the other. Her eyes linger on Harry, and Harry’s bright pink pants. “Shiny. Which ones are going in?”
Cara nods towards Harry, who has frozen in the process of standing in his pants with one trouser leg on. He can’t seem to figure out how to safely remove his trousers and don the other ones without falling over entirely. “I’m thinking Harry, here, and Zayn. You know Zayn, don’t you?”
“Just them?” Louis glares her down, arms akimbo. Cara ignores him.
Zayn puts a quiet hand to Louis’s elbow and steps forward. “Wei, Taylor. It’s been a long time.”
Taylor stares at Zayn for a split-second of confusion before her eyes go wide and she shrieks, both hands flying to her mouth. All the decorum evaporates and Taylor Swift of the deep blood red lipstick looks like more like any girl not long out of the schooling house, the kind of girl who gives her pets silly names and keeps swearing she’s going to learn to knit. It’s almost exactly like when Zayn collapses into giggles and his nose scrunches up, because no matter how Companion-y he can act at the heart of it he’s just a boy, really, just a boy not long out of the schooling house who loves dogs and his mum and drawing on the walls in thick black markers.
Nick’s a little like that too. Some folk could think he’s a bit uppity, Nick, but once you see his face when he’s happy — no one could resist him.
No one, apparently, except whoever’s got him now.
“Oh my god, Zayn Malik? House Kallistrate? I can’t believe it.” Taylor throws her arms around Zayn and squeals a little, rocking him from side to side. “I haven’t seen you in —”
“Since I left training,” Zayn says, a little bashful. “Londinium, huh?”
“I know, right? I got so lucky, it’s great.” Taylor pulls away after another squeeze to smooth the front of her gown. “I know I said I wanted Sihnon, but I’ve found Londinium, like. Really interesting.” Her eyes glint like a sparked match.
“Always knew you had it in you.” Zayn leans back with his hands in his pockets, looking Taylor up and down. “I like your hairdo. It’s good, sleek.”
“Oh, do you?” Taylor touches the ends of her coif. “I like it too. You look great — but then again, you always did!”
“Yeah, well,” Zayn says, not even remotely denying it. “Thanks for helping us out, anyhow.”
“Not a problem. Cara’s an old friend.” Taylor circles Harry a few times, tilting her head to one side. “Plus, this one has… Potential. Excellent taste in undergarments.”
Niall laughs. “Good luck with him. I think most of the engine grease found a home in his hair.”
“Shut up, Niall.” Harry looks down at his worn-out jumper and obvious trouserlessness. He always privately thought he’d make a gorram brilliant Companion if he’d been given the chance, even if Zayn says he’d be chucked out for no self control.
“I’m thinking — long hair, slicked back. Tight t-shirt.” Taylor taps a nail against her lower lip. “Or — no. We don’t want you to stand out, do we? Just blend in.”
“Can we, uh, possibly hurry?” Harry scans the white room for any sort of timepiece and pulls the forgotten trousers over his arse, finally. “When’s this shindig start?”
“Not on time,” Taylor says, and prods him into place. “Now stand still.”
When Harry was about six, his sister’s activity of choice was draping him in their mother’s dresses and scarves and parading him about the front room thus attired. This experience is not dissimilar. Taylor manoeuvres Harry capably into various positions and uses all kinds of buzzy devices Harry ain’t familiar with to clip the ends of his trousers to the right length and fix the way his shirt goes under his jacket and get his hair to be some kind of presentable.
Cara and the other boys talk strategy at the dining table, marking up the building plans and maps spread over the glass. Zayn, the arsehole, gets ready in about fifteen minutes — ten of which are spent making faces at himself in the mirror — and looks perfect. Louis keeps glancing at him and then looking away, like he’s not allowed to look on the sun too long.
Harry looks down at his suspiciously fancy trouser socks. Normally he’d be loving all of this, but his stomach keeps twisting into intricate knots at the thought of Nick as some guest, held in the belly of one of those grey monoliths waiting to be carted away to some Blue Sun headquarters for god knows what.
“Ms. Swift, not that I don’t appreciate it, honest, but is this — necessary?”
Taylor smacks him lightly on the cheek with the back of her hand. “This is how you get the guy, Harry Styles. You look like you fit into the crowd. You act like you fit into the crowd. You let me carry you through the tricky etiquette parts, get past the guards, you find him, you sweep him off his feet and then run like hell. You hear me? Like hell.”
Taylor’s eyes are a cold, flinty blue in her made-up face. She looks like she knows something about ‘like hell’.
“You’re not just a Companion, are you?”
“Don’t be silly,” Taylor says, going back to fixing Harry’s curls. “I’m the highest-ranked Companion on this whole damn planet. I’m already at the top of my game. Why on earth would I have ulterior motives?”
Harry considers this for a moment. “Aren’t you worried we’ll get you caught? Being the highest-ranked Companion, and all.”
“No. Because, Harry Styles, I am not a quitter. And you boys are going to do exactly what I say. You hear me? Exactly what I say.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Harry says, and lets Taylor put him in shoes that pinch his feet.
Not an hour later Taylor’s got them in the reception queue outside a vast stone building with more columns than a magistrate’s mansion.
“Neoclassical,” Taylor calls it, and Cara scrunches up her nose and mutters something about the whole thing being a marble gin shop of a building.
“Londinium’s Museum of Art,” Zayn says, “Most of the Earth-That-Was stuff got displayed here."
“Don’t that mean security’s like to be tight? Like, so many thousand flies tight?” Harry fiddles with his cuff.
“They got the possibility, but trust me. The most important thing is that we look like we belong.”
“It’s the Champagne Trick,” Taylor says, and sighs when no one seems to get her meaning. “If you need to get in to an exclusive event, carry a champagne flute and they’ll assume you’ve already been accepted. Essentially: look good, act right and no one will chuck you out.”
“It’s better to have your party crashed than not,” Cara agrees. “Everyone knows that.”
Harry nods like he’s got any ruttin’ idea what they’re going on about.
Drawing her wrap tightly around her shoulders, Taylor rises to her full height and steps away from the crush. “I’m due inside. Remember — it’s Mandarin to staff and anyone older than you are, Anglo if they’re younger or someone bumps into you or steps on your foot or something. Follow Cara’s lead — Zayn, you’re not too rusty? You know what you’re doing? Harry, copy Zayn. Stay together. I’ll find you inside.”
Parting words delivered, Taylor swans away, looping around the queue to be let in at once, no ident or security scan necessary.
“The Champagne Trick,” Harry mutters.
“Wuo duh tian ah, Cara Delevingne, is that you?”
A bucktoothed girl in a long fur coat launches for Cara, kisses her on both cheeks then pulls back with her hands still clawed round Cara’s shoulders. “I thought you ran away to some absolute shithole border planet, darling it is so good to see you!”
“Hi, Candida,” Cara says, with a grit-toothed smile.
“Gosh, how funny that you’ve got to queue. Is this Daddy’s punishment? Harsh!”
“He’s trying to ‘build my character’,” Cara agrees tightly, making quotations with her hands.
“So where have you been, babe? No one’s seen you in, what is it, two entire years? We’ve —”
Cara’s face has gone flat and ashen. Harry elbows Zayn’s ribs. “Do something,” he hisses.
Zayn looks away into the middling distance and semi-purses his lips. Window light coasts over his cheekbones, settling shadows in the hollows beneath. His lips look almost red. Cara’s not-friend Candida stops in the middle of her interrogation to stare.
“Who is this, Cara?”
“My friend — uh, Fabian. Fabian, this is Candida. We went to school together.”
“Charmed,” Zayn says, with a slow smile.
“And I’m Henry.” Harry holds out a hand for her to shake. He makes sure to keep close eye contact. “So nice to make your acquaintance, Candida. What is it you do?”
Candida talks for a long time about finance management. Harry hasn’t got the faintest what she’s on about but he smiles and nods and does his most welcoming face until they reach the stairs and Candida has to go forward to get through security and leave them behind.
“I hope she chokes on a canapé,” Cara mutters, glaring at Candida’s back. As soon as the guards start looking their way she drops that scowl like an old coat and turns back to Zayn and Harry.
“Thanks. I told Rita you boys would work for this,” she says, glancing back to where Candida disappears into the entrance, “She wanted the girls off the Little Mix.”
“They’d have been a solid choice,” Zayn says, eying the guards ahead.
Some years back Jesy and her crew got the Direction out of some trouble on Persephone. Truth be told, Harry’s not sure Rita was entirely wrong in her deduction. If he’d be in charge of running a crew to rescue Nick, he’d probably pick someone — not them. Someone better. Someone less haphazard His innards go cold again. He keeps forgetting that it’s Nick in that great stone building. “How long ’til we get through?”
“Let’s budge a bit,” Cara says, and the three of them press forward in the queue until they’re right under the noses of the guards. It feels like naught but ice water runs through Harry’s veins but none of the posh-looking workers so much as glance down at Cara’s ident cards, just waving them through the scanners after a cursory once-over. The Champagne Trick.
The great dome of the entrance hall bathes the rustling crowd in artificial light. Everywhere Harry looks is so full of beauty he’s not sure how to fit everything into his eyes at once: fine engravings and lush colours and fine fabrics draped over every surface. He knows this ain’t good, strictly speaking, not in the universal sense, but it’s hard not to feel a rush at the luxury on display. All these riches and he’s one of them, with his velvet jacket and shoes shined like a new coin. Fanciest party Harry ever had growing up, they all took turns on pony rides under trees his mum had strung up with fairy lights and ribbons.
“I wish I was in a onesie right now,” Cara mutters, straightening the line of her suit jacket against her shirt. “Like, cartoon characters all over it. That kind. Fuck, there was a reason why I got the gorram hell out of here.”
“You hearing any of this?” Zayn snorts and jerks his head towards a woman passing. Harry listens in and tries not to look like he’s eavesdropping.
“We’ve had too many carbohydrates today to be this bitchy, Margot,” the woman trills, and brushes past.
“You see Taylor?” Cara asks, “Or, uh… Bartholomew?”
Cara raises her eyebrows. “It’s a code name, obviously. We’re undercover.”
“I can’t see anybody in this crush,” Zayn says, his shoulders a tense line under the cut of his jacket.
Ahead of them, a tall woman with a monocle sniffs, “Look at that jien huo, is that a skirt or a pocket square?”
“See, all of those backwoods people are just looking for handouts,” drawls a large man in a grey suit, “If they really worked they wouldn’t have a thing to complain about, Horace.”
A skinny girl waves her handheld at her friend. “Black ice is trending.”
“Black ice is trending,” Cara informs them, one thick brow raised, “In case no one told you.”
“Look at that food,” Harry says, elbowing Zayn. Well-coiffed men with silver trays pass out all sorts of oddities on cracker slivers: a red blob of something, a blue blob of something else, and if Harry’s honest with himself he wants to try them all. “You never left training, you could have been at parties like this all the time.”
Zayn’s mouth twists wryly. “Why d’you think I left? That food’s shit.”
The crowd pours out into the main ballroom and Taylor swoops in on them like a black lace butterfly, explaining in an undertone who the people to watch out for are and who they got to charm to get to the other levels. She passes them glass flutes of bubbly wine and introduces them to the fancy folk who keep coming up to her to say hello, and manages to do it in such a way that it looks both effortless and somehow forgettable.
“The next guard shift is in an hour,” she whispers in Harry’s ear, “Be ready.”
Harry has never felt less ready in his life.
The four of them weave together like an irregular planetary orbit as they travel through the ballroom to the doors on the east side.
“That man over there is the head of the Blue Sun media conglomerate,” Taylor whispers, gently guiding Harry’s gaze over towards the centre of the room, “I’m going to go divert his eyes — the second those guys aren’t looking this way, you’ll want the fourth door down.”
Taylor glides towards the target and within thirty seconds Harry, Zayn and Cara are ducking through the designated door with champagne flutes in hand. They come out into a marble stairwell lit with flickering wall sconces. Zayn scans the ceiling for cameras, and Cara kicks off her high heels and stores them behind a potted ficus.
The door creaks. They all freeze, staring at the sliver of light grow as the door swings slowly open.
Cara flattens herself against the wall. Harry throws Zayn a brief, terrified look.
“C’mon, no offence to Grimmy, let’s —” Zayn pulls Harry to him so their bodies press flush together and attaches his mouth to Harry’s neck, keeping a secure grip on his arse.
The door opens completely now and a man in an embroidered jacket steps through. “Sorry, boys,” he says, waving a hand indulgently, “I didn’t know this area was taken!” He looks behind him, starting. “Who are —”
Cara brings the potted ficus down on his head with a dull thunk before he can say anything more. He topples easily.
“Right then,” Zayn says, blinking.
Cara kneels to press her fingers to the side of the man’s throat. “He’ll be fine,” she says, and drags him over to the corner with her discarded shoes.
Harry nearly collapses. “Wow,” he says, feeling a nervous giggle balloon in his throat, “Looks like my arse was on the line.”
Zayn makes his Harry face, a combination of exasperation, affection and mild disbelief in his existence. “Let’s go,” he says.
Wordlessly, the three of them take the stairs down, down, down; Harry counting the doors until they must be on the fourth lower level.
Someone — or many someones, or many armed someones — have just been through this corridor, because unconscious guards lay slumped along the walls. The bang of a door down at the other end makes Harry jump.
“For fuck’s sake,” Cara scoffs, looking down the hall, “Whoever that team was is sloppy as hell. Look, the cameras are blown to bits. We’ve got to be quick — it shouldn’t be long until an alarm goes.”
Any brain activity in Harry’s head dulls to a low, angry buzzing. What if they hadn’t been fast enough, what if the team before them fucked it up, what if someone took Nick somewhere else, what if —
“Here!” Zayn waves Harry and Cara halfway down the corridor and through an open door where, sitting amongst stacks of wrapped paintings like another unit for storage, is Nick.
Nick, with a dazed expression and a purplish bruise spreading over his jaw. Harry rushes forward, blind to Cara pulling some sort of plastic dart gun out of nowhere to aim at the little grey camera stationed on the ceiling, blind to Zayn rushing out of the room to secure the next phase of their plan — Nick.
“Hazza?” Nick’s eyes aren’t focusing, he’s staring somewhere to the left of Harry’s ear. “Hazza, I’m meant to go to a party.”
“I know,” Harry says, hauling Nick to his feet, “It’s a real nice shindig, Nick, now let’s — let’s go.” Nick can’t manage to stand too well so Harry pulls one of his arms over his shoulders and half-carries him out of the storage room and down the flickering corridor. Somewhere in the building, there’s an enormous crash and Cara cusses low.
“I swear, some of these other teams are complete crap,” she mutters, aiming another dart at a camera just in front of them. “If we get out of this one alive, I’m never working with any of them ever again. Or dead. I’m not going to work with any of them dead, either.”
“Let’s focus on the alive idea,” Harry advises, picking up their pace. Nick mumbles something indistinct into Harry’s neck and Harry holds him tighter, hauls him along faster as Cara speeds ahead.
Alive. Any god who might be listening — alive.
Sharp bile rises in Louis’s throat. He keeps his eyes on the doors and his hand on his gun, ready at moment’s notice once Zayn and the rest show their prettified faces. Beneath him, Bus Two rumbles, its engines ready.
Niall cranes his head back from the controls. “They could be a while, think I could go for a wee?”
“No,” Louis snaps, and motions him back into place.
Liam checks his gun cartridges for the thousandth time. “Yeah, I’m set,” he decides, also for the thousandth time.
“I am aware, Liam.”
Louis’s head pounds. He ain’t never been this high up before, not on a building anyhow, and he’s got a faint suspicion all this waiting may unhinge his cranium some distance from reasonable.
So the captain’s gone whack-brained, and Niall’s white-knuckle giggly nervous, and Liam’s doing what he always does when he’s tinkle-scared: double-check everything that can be checked until everyone’s lost the plot with his oddly parental need to check the fuel cartridges when he don’t know nothing about ships except how to ride in one. And, of course, Zayn and Harry look like sparkle posh freaks and they’re down beneath them risking life and limb to rescue Nick rutting Grimshaw, who so happens to be a Voice of the Underground.
Back on Syco when they won X-Factor, Simon Cowell had handed them the papers to Direction and winked, his massive orange face disconcertingly smooth. “You might be surprised what you find out there in the ‘verse, boys,” he’d said, and Louis never believed him so much as he does right this minute.
“Oh, oh shit, Lou — look.”
Louis nearly blows Liam’s brains to bits turning to follow his point but there, sure enough, the automatic doors wheeze open for the glittering figures of Zayn — no visible wounds, no blood — and Cara. They stumble out onto the roof followed by Harry, who’s got Nick slung around his shoulder like they’re doing a three-legged race.
“Niall, get the —” Louis kicks the shuttle hatch open.
Out the corner of Louis’s eye Niall is a blur of movement. “Got it, got it!”
Bus Two rumbles and shakes. Louis darts half-out the shuttle to help Zayn through, then to hoist Cara up until she tumbles in a puddle of shiny fabric. Harry shoves Nick towards him and gasps, “Hurry, hurry, they’re —”
“Incoming!” Liam cocks his rifle and aims at the doors. Purple-bellied Alliance uniforms pour out by the dozen, blazing those pretentious laser guns ain’t nothing but feh wu anyhow. Louis nearly falls over bracing Nick’s gangly weight and Harry’s got one leg in the entrance as Niall tilts the controls up and the whole shuttle quakes with misplaced bodies. Laser shots whoosh by and Liam’s cussin’ up a storm, sending back bullets fast as he can fire.
“Too many people onboard,” Niall whispers, “Oh, fuck, fuck, we’re humped, let’s just get ruttin’ through this.”
“C’mon, Nialler,” Zayn shouts over the roar of the engine as he and Louis haul Harry the few feet into the shuttle. Liam takes one last shot and then slams the shuttle hatch shut.
“Guhn kwai,go, go, go!”
“I’m goin’! Gorram it, Liam, we’re two bodies over and it’s going to be —”
“I don’t care, just —”
“Nick? Nick, you with me?” Harry has Nick’s head in his lap, big hands holding his head steady. Nick just stares up at him with wide, glassy eyes and an expression like he don’t know quite who or what he is.
“Shiny,” Nick slurs, “Real nice party. I always did wanna see that, uh. That painting. What’s the one? Of the sky.”
“That’s the one.” Nick takes a rattling breath that sets Louis’s heart a thrumming. “It was real pretty, wasn’t it?”
Louis swears low and violent, every manner of words he’s learned so far on the ‘verse. “What’s wrong with him?”
“Drugged,” Cara says, stripping her well-cut blazer off. She doesn’t bother to hang it up, just lets it puddle like any old piece on the shuttle floor. “He’ll be fine.”
Harry’s face has gone white and patchy pink, and he clearly doesn’t quite believe Cara.
Louis pokes his head into the cockpit and scans the skies. Niall’s playing confused bystander in the security swarm and, lucky for them, they aren’t the only shuttle caught up in it. Zayn straps himself into the copilots seat and flicks the radio over; amidst the static it sounds like another team wasn’t as lucky as they were.
Absently, Louis feels for Zayn’s arm and holds on. The fabric is as soft as it looks.
“You sure he’ll be fine?” Harry brushes hair away from Nick’s face anxiously. “Cara, you’re sure?”
“Reasonably,” Cara says, kneeling down to put her fingers to Nick’s neck.
“Oh, Haz, I’ve ruined myself on starters. Didya see? Little quiches. Size of a two pound coin." Nick curves his fingers into a circle. “See? Just that size. A nice little party.”
“Nice,” Louis repeats, turning back to the cockpit. “Yeah, sounds like a real fun mess of violence and druggings.”
“Plus, the food was shit.” Zayn drums his fingers over his knees. “‘Least we get paid.”
“Can’t get paid if you’re dead.”
“Cheerful talk from the Tommo,” Niall says, navigating them around a posh silver shuttle.
They run into some trouble drifting back out away from the security vessels coming in — Cara joins Niall in the cockpit and feigns giggly drunkenness until the drones wave them on — and just in under three hours since launching the retrieval operation they’re docking the shuttle back onto Direction.
Niall takes off at a run and Louis keeps right at his heels, leaving the others behind to deal with whatever the fuck drugs Nick has going on. They’re piling into the bridge before Louis realises Cara’s been following and he turns towards her, snapping, “You’re going to want to get off this ship; we don’t have time to get you settled back into your flat.”
Cara fixes him with an eyebrow-heavy stare. “You think I came back and grovelled to my father and played sweet just to get caught by the feds for abducting a prisoner? Come off it, Tomlinson, I’ve blown my cover all to fucking hell. If I go back I’m dead.”
“She was never planning on going back — we’ve got her bags in the hull.” Niall slides into the pilot’s seat, punches a few buttons and heaves a sigh of relief. “Jesus. We got lucky. There must be ten other escapes from that party; the readings are all over the gorram place.”
“Well don’t just crow on it, punch it! Let’s get the fuck off this rock!”
Cara elbows Louis aside to get to the cortex screen, hailing Taylor Swift before either of them can say no. The screen flickers in white static until the call patches through.
“Everything work out?” Taylor appears to be crouching in a toilet, her face close to the screen and voice pitched low.
“All clear so far,” Cara tells her, making the a-okay sign with her right hand. “We’re about to try and get off-world.”
“Go south for a while before you try,” Taylor whispers, and Niall scoffs.
“What, you think I’m that green? Please.” Niall grabs the intercom handheld and practically spits into it, “Will Harry please get to the cunting engine room, please? Jesus ruttin’ shit dick, we don’t got time for this!”
Onscreen, Taylor winces. “I don’t have much time either. Looks like most of the other rescues went okay. I’ll — I’ll see you around, Cara.”
Cara touches the screen. “Thanks, Swifty. Really.”
“No worries. Just — run. No matter who’s after you, okay? They are the hunters, you are the foxes — and you run.” Taylor’s fierce blue eyes fill the screen for another half-second, darting all over the toilet cubicle like she’s looking for something and then she blinks out and the cortex screen goes black.
Running. More gorram running. Just what the doctor ordered, though Louis has the sneaking suspicion that for the first time he just did something worthwhile with his smuggling expertise. That weren’t no black market beagles, that’s for damn sure.
Louis situates himself into the copilot’s seat and tries not to let his ribs go too tight. They haven’t not died yet.
“Goodbye and good riddance,” Cara says to the splay of Londinium below them. Her face is complicated: wistful and bitter and proud.
Louis does his level best not to vomit as they leave Cara’s family’s building in their wake, just luck and a little skill standing between them and a clean escape.
After a decade and a half of recreational revolutionary activity, Aimee has near perfected the art of trying not to fucking lose it with worry over whoever’s gotten themselves into high-grade trouble this time.
Rule one is never stop moving. If she stops moving she’s dead, like a shark.
Rule two is find something closer to worry over. If she’s busy worrying about their transmitters and whether Fiona’s set the right coordinates for the broadcast, she can do something about that. If she’s busy worrying about whether the Scissor Sisters can get Nick off that stone prison of a central planet, there’s nothing to do but sit and curdle her stomach with doubts until she’s sick all over the new carpet.
Rule three is yell at everyone. That one just makes her feel better.
“Ian! I need a fucking fore cable,” Aimee hollers and, bless him, Ian chucks a rolled up coil at her without complaining.
Staying onboard the Woodstock was at first sweet and then cloying, in the usual manner of trying to go home again. She’s at the stage where she simultaneously feels sixteen again, raring to get off the damn ship to see the ‘verse; and her real age, constantly trying to prove to her parents that she’s actually not still a sixteen-year-old with a powerful longing to move to an urban centre. Any urban centre. Practicality be damned.
Fiona powers up the backup generator to boost their range and Ian transmits the last of the details over to Radio One; Aimee refrains from mentioning how much easier this could go if they’d had Nick with them to do the broadcast here.
“Aimee?” Min knocks on the door to her own antechamber, a handheld clutched in one fist. “We have a message from a Niall Horan for you.”
Ian reflexively cups Aimee’s elbow, which she appreciates, she really does, but throws off in a minute in a hurry to get to Min. “Did he say? Did he fucking say?”
“All clear so far,” Min says, laughing a little and pushing at Aimee’s shoulders. “We’ll dock at the nearest station and give them our coordinates.”
“Oh thank fuck.” Aimee holds a hand to her racing heart. “Fucking shit wank. I’m going to have so fucking many heart problems in, like, five years.”
“I’ll let all that cussing go for now. Just for now, mind.” Min shakes her head ruefully. “We really did try to raise her better than that, Ian.”
Ian comes up behind Aimee to slings an arm over her shoulders, the warm weight grounding Aimee to the floor. “Don’t worry. I know you did your best.”
If he’s honest, Harry doesn’t really pay attention to ship politics after they break atmo. All he cares about is that they aren’t currently being followed nor detained, and that Nick regains lucidity within about three hours although he’s still wobbling a bit more than he’d generally like.
Liam helped get Nick situated in Harry’s engine hammock so that Harry could see to Direction whilst not letting Nick out of his sight. There’s not much to do now that they’re in the black, but as recent hours have not been precisely legal, Harry figures it’s better to stay on-hand in case of some quick escape.
Nick dozes lightly in the hammock and Harry tends to the gently rotating engine mass, dedicatedly not thinking about the consequences of any actions at all, in the whole wide ‘verse.
Liam comes back looking pale and anxious. “Cara’s had us wave Aimee,” he says, “So we’ve got to meet her ship at some spaceport at the edge of White Sun.”
“That a good idea?” Harry pushes his hair out of his eyes. He can’t imagine staying put anywhere could be what Taylor had meant by run.
“Spaceport’s secure and Cara’s got to get back to Three Hills somehow, I guess.” Liam rubs his eyes with one dirty hand. “Gorram it, Haz, how did we get here?”
“To be honest, Liam, I’m not sure where we are, exactly.”
Liam ignores him, running nervous hands over his face. “I think we might be fugitives. I dunno how being a fugitive works, but I think we’re probably some of them now. How the gorram hell did this happen?”
“Well, we won a singing competition,” Harry reasons, wiping engine greasy hands on his trousers, “And somewhere along the line we became wanted criminals.”
The noise that emanates from Liam sounds like something from a small, whimpering dog.
Harry looks over at Nick, curled onto his side with his hands tucked close to his slack mouth. Harry probably ought to be more freaked than he is. “Life’s mad,” he says. “Now c’mon, I guess we’re going to have to change all our identifying numbers.”
Their chosen destination lies semi-hidden at the cusp of the asteroid field that circles the White Sun system like a gate ‘round a posh housing development. Only, seeing as it’s the Alliance, they call it the Halo. “Bunch of deadly rocks keeping the riffraff out, call it a gorram halo,” Louis grumbles, but Harry suspects he’s a little pleased to be frequenting such a deadly sort of place.
Niall docks them at the spaceport without paging a solitary person. A robotic voice reads out their dock number and they land, all without any kind of authorisation code. It strikes Harry as mighty eerie, and when the ship’s secure he’s not exactly eager to go out and roam.
The crew — and Cara, and Nick — clusters just outside the airlock hatch door and peers down the grubby corridor. Unsavoury sorts of persons pass by in clusters. Most of them ain’t bothering to hide their weapons even as a mild courtesy. The ceiling appears to be half-rusted, and the docking display doesn’t even light up when Niall presses the button.
“Huh,” Niall says, thumping the dead display a few times for good measure. “No negotiations at all. Could get used to that, to be honest, if it weren’t for the diseases I probably just picked up by touching… anything.”
Nick rubs his eyes, still a little weak from whatever they gave him on Londinium. “Oh, lord. Of course Aimee chose this one; it’s practically lawless.”
“Cheerful,” Liam says faintly. The deeper into the heist they get, the more Liam’s brain seems to unspool.
Louis, on the other hand, seems to dig into the situation like a cat sharpening its claws. He grins a shark’s smile. “Lawless, you say. No laws at all.”
Cara pats Louis’s head, to his obvious consternation. “You have done enough crime today, young apprentice. Now it is time to exchange hostages.”
“Hostages?” Liam looks slightly alarmed.
“Excellent,” Louis says. “I’m extremely armed. I’ve got a gun on every limb, y’know.”
“She means Aimee,” Zayn explains.
Liam nods. “Right. Well, given the area, I think someone ought to stay behind with the ship.”
“Judging by the number of pistols I’ve seen in the last thirty seconds, I second that.” Niall whistles, low. “I feel like we ain’t armed enough. You feel like we ain’t armed enough?”
Louis rattles one metallic-sounding arm. “Haven’t I told you ‘bout my gun on every limb?”
“Judging by how this spaceport has a reputation for shipjacking, I think you are both wise.” Nick claps Niall and Liam on the shoulders. “Now c’mon, let’s deliver Cara and get this over with, shall we? Liam, lock the door behind us.”
Liam transfers his best pistol to Zayn and then does as requested, promising to stand by the door with a couple rifles for good measure.
Harry feels a bit like he’s living in a fugue state, like he’s gone and got very drunk without noticing or maybe dreamt all this up. He’s had a surreal couple days. “Where are we going?”
Nick grins. “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re going to Woodstock.”
Woodstock, as it turns out, is a mid-sized resident ship strung up with fairy lights and draping patterned curtains over the port windows with a population of forty-three. Harry loves the graceless hulk of it passionately and immediately.
The captain, a tall Sino woman named Zhang Min, greets them in the foyer with Aimee’s familiar massive black case and a couple other bags at her feet.
She claps Nick on the back hard enough that he wobbles like a cornstalk in the wind. “Glad you’re back with us, Grimmy,” she says, grinning a wide, white smile, “Even if just for a few minutes. You still owe me latrine duty.”
Nick blanches. “It’s been two years, Min!”
“Two years I have not forgotten, Nicholas. Now, introduce me to your middlingly legal friends, will you?”
Nick does, and Min shakes each of their hands and looks them each hard in the face like she’s reading something in their irises. Harry keeps his eyes as wide as he can and tries to project ‘trustworthy’. He thinks, given the blaring wanted sign for a Firefly behind Min’s shoulder, maybe ‘trustworthy’ is pushing it.
Min follows Harry’s gaze. “Don’t tell me. It was all a big mistake and not even a mite bit your fault.”
Liam clears his throat. “Matter of fact, ma’am —”
“It fucking wasn’t,” Louis interrupts.
“I mean, kind of,” Harry says, “To be fair, the heisting was all us.”
Niall shrugs. “We were heisting a person of his own free will, Styles, I think the jury’ll understand.”
“But, like. There’s no jury, and if there was, it’d be all Core folk and they ain’t exactly —”
“There’s no jury,” Zayn agrees, laying a quiet hand on Harry’s elbow. When Zayn does that, it means stop talking. Harry stops talking. “There’s just you, ma’am. And what’s your verdict?”
Min looks Zayn right in the eye and for one bum-melting moment Harry thinks, we’ve made a mistake. Then she smiles real big. “We don’t judge here, Mr. Malik.”
Nick snorts. “What she means is, they’re outlaws too.”
“Convenient,” Harry says brightly.
“Quite,” Min agrees, and ushers them into the hold. “Anyhow, your wanted sign hasn’t been printed yet. That’s for someone else. Now, Nicholas, let’s go get Aimee, she’s been worried sick. Cara, you’re to travel with us for a little while, so we’ll get you set up inside. You three stay out here.” She points at Louis, Zayn and Niall. “Keep a hand on a gun.”
Niall starts, looking towards the hatch. “Is anyone like to burst in here? Thought you locked up.”
“It’s never to early to start practising vigilance, boys. Now sit tight.”
Harry exchanges glances with Niall, avoids the frantic signalling of Louis and gets the impression from Zayn that he ain’t worried, which quiets any concerns he might have had. Min leads them through a short corridor, up a flight of stairs through to a wide canteen dotted with residents.
There’s a blur of violently printed clothing as Nick is tackled by an anxious Aimee, swearing under her breath all the while about ‘necessary risk’.
Ian gives Harry a more decorous hug. “It’s good to see you, Styles. I hear we’re trading hostages. Hiya, Cara.”
Cara cranes her neck to give the dining area a once-over, her eyes appraising the bright hanging flags and abundant carved wooden deities. “This’ll do,” she says, and then laughs. “Been nice doing crime with you lads.”
“We should do it again sometime,” Harry says.
“I’ll look you up.” Cara ruffles his hair affectionately.
“If you can find us, that is.”
“Please,” scoffs Cara. “Just who do you think you’re talking to?”
Two older residents fuss over Aimee in a way that make Harry sure they must be her parents, and Min threatens them in a friendly sort of manner, and Cara hugs Harry again tight enough to force the air from his lungs, and before Harry really can get the lay of the Woodstock they’re going back out the way they came in.
“Two for the price of one,” Nick marvels, one arm around Ian and the other around Aimee. “We got a good deal.”
Harry struggles to maneuverer the various cases that come with their good deal. “So long as we don’t need anyone to knock a bloke out with a ceramic pot.”
“Young Cara, I presume? Don’t worry, Harold, if something dangerous happens we’ll have Aimee deal with it, and the rest of us can just run away. With courage, and, uh. Dignity.”
“That’s my life motto,” Ian adds cheerfully.
“I hope that woman ain’t a double agent,” Louis says, and then reconsiders. “Although I kind of do, to be honest. A shootout would do great things for my mood right about now.”
“Because you are twisted in the brainpan,” Niall says calmly, sitting against the wall plating with his knees tucked up.
“Because I am a reasonable man who bloody hates all this rutting waiting.”
“They shouldn’t be long,” Zayn says, biting at his thumbnail.
Niall tucks his legs in closer to his torso and thunks his head back against the wall. “Listen, somebody’s got to say it.”
“Say what? That she’s a double agent and it’s time for us to go in, guns a-blazing?”
“We can’t go on like normal now, can we?” Niall closes his eyes. “That sign may not be for us but you know it’s a matter of time ’til we got one of our very own. And then what?”
“Work the rim? Stay out in the deep black?”
Even as Louis says it he knows — god, none of them want that life. Just thinking about the deep black, the wider edges of the ‘verse where rim planets more antiquated than he’s seen subsist on barely anything, space so thick and deep and long they don’t see sun for months — makes his stomach go in on itself like a black hole. Harry’d go stir-crazy for want of new faces and Niall’d get sad and quiet, Liam’d make ‘making the best of it’ a lifestyle none of them are prepared to deal with. And Zayn —
Zayn stands by the hatch, one hand on his gun like Min told him and his face trained to a blank mask.
“We’ll talk about it later,” Louis decides. “As a crew. Let’s just — get this done. All right?”
“Yeah, all right,” Niall says doubtfully but he lets it go.
Louis avoids a truly warranted shootout between him and a crap pickpocket during the walk between the Woodstock and Direction, a feat for which he ought to gain himself a couple accolades, but no one in their party seems to acknowledge his bigness.
“I thought you’d been all corpsified by now,” Liam says, stepping back to let the party pass through to the cargo bay. “Oh — Mister Phillips? Mister, uh. Aimee’s husband, nice to —”
“Ian’s fine,” he says, “Just help me with this case, will you? Aimee, I think you overpacked again.”
Aimee scoffs. “Damn right I overpacked. I’m worth it, husband.”
“Let’s get this bird in the air,” Louis says, elbowing Niall. “Think that yī dà tuó dà biàn might want to follow up and, y’know. Get with the pistols. And the pickpocketing.”
“What, you run afoul of someone?” Liam peers out into the corridor before shutting the airlock door.
“Some scrappy boy thought he was a proper criminal,” Zayn says, unstrapping his pistol from his hip, “Don’t listen to him.”
“Yes listen to him,” Louis says, puffing out his chest, “I single-handedly defended this entire crew, you know, Liam, and then was big enough not to garner further troubles!”
“Harry, not that I don’t appreciate the hand-holding but I can walk, you know.”
“I know,” Harry says, getting an arm around Nick’s waist anyhow, “Maybe I just felt like a little groping.”
“I’m going to miss all the fun banter,” Niall says sadly, taking the stairs in bounds, “Stop bantering without me!”
“A truly hardened criminal,” Louis continues, “‘Bout twice my size. Real mean-looking.”
“Couldn’t have been more’n fifteen,” Zayn says.
“Never believe Zayn, Payno.” Louis slings an arm around Liam’s shoulders and takes a deep breath, gearing to tell the heroic tale of how he prevented gang warfare by the grit of his teeth and, like, the saintly quality of his attitude.
“Good of you to invite us to the ship meeting,” Ian says, taking a seat at the dining table next to Aimee.
“Well you’re — you’re sort of crew, now. Aren’t you?” Harry has a possessive hand on Nick’s knee and glances up at Louis for confirmation.
God — well, this does put a dampener on Louis’s mood, but. They are all on this boat now, and they’ve done some entertaining crime, and they’ll all be on the wanted poster, probably. He manages a brief nod.
Harry glows, pleased. “See? You’re in our crew.”
Their worn wood table manages to cram them all together: Aimee, her hair done white blonde now, gripping the hand of the husband Louis’s only met a couple times; Harry, keeping Nick close; Niall, pale and quiet at the head of the table; Liam, drumming his fingers on his jeans and probably making lists in his head. Zayn’s the only one looking at Louis. His eyes are deep brown and calm, and Louis wants to crack a joke instead of handling this but he can’t. Not with Zayn looking at him like that. “So. Let’s do this. Where do we go?”
Liam clears his throat. “Three Hills? We got friends there.”
Aimee shakes her head, looking regretful. “They had sightings of us on-world last year.”
“We can’t go home, can we.” Zayn curves his shoulders into himself. It’s not a question. “That’s too obvious; we can’t go home.”
“We don’t know for sure they have much on you lot,” Ian says, then looks regretful. “But yeah, if we’re to be safe we can’t take that chance.”
“All right,” Zayn says dully, “Yeah, all right.”
“We’ll find somewhere else,” Louis says quickly. “Zayn, we’ll find a good — we’ll find a good place.” He can feel his cheeks burn, and looks away quickly.
They toss out possible contacts: a cousin on Beaumonde, an old friend on New Kasmir. Ian writes them all down on a big piece of paper and then crosses them out as opposition comes up: a major Blue Sun factory on-world, a security station hub for Alliance officers.
In the end, there are three names left on the paper, and the ship is already going in one direction.
Louis runs a hand along the curved doorway of Direction. Does he still get to be captain when they’re on-world? He spent so much of his life wanting, wanting so bad to wear the captain’s hat, run a spaceship and do all sorts of important things for the ‘verse; now he’s on the verge of giving it all up easy for the kind of life he’d scorned as a kid.
Harry waits just inside the doorway, watching him patiently.
“I feel like I ought to be more — more, sad, you know. About going to ground. Losing the ship, and all.”
“We aren’t losing her, Lou. Just taking a break. We’ll go to ground a year or two and then — who knows, you know? Anything could happen.”
Harry looks about an eon older than he had a year ago. He hasn’t gone wrinkly and grey — it’s something about the way he holds himself now. Steady. Broad-shouldered. Louis doesn’t know how to talk to this Harry, all of a sudden.
“It’s, like. Direction is our home, but it’s not really, not in its essence,” Harry says earnestly. “You know? It’s about the people. That’s our real home. Plus, I’ll like. Carry it with me.” He points to his left arm. “Since it’s my tattoo, and all.”
Oh, right. Harry’s an idiot. A laugh escapes Louis’s tight chest and he shoves him a little, just enough so that Harry loses his already shit balance and has to catch himself on the wall.
The iron of Zayn’s bunk door is cold against Louis’s knuckles as he knocks and then pushes the hinged door open to climb down. Below, Zayn is rolling up clothes and shoving them into a worn black leather rucksack.
“Packing already?” Louis looks around Zayn’s bunk, the photos of his family, the graffitied walls. “We’ve a few days until we get there.”
“Just thought I’d, like. Get a head start.” Zayn sets the rucksack aside and sits on his messy bed.
Louis takes a deep, centring breath. He’s been flying with Zayn for six years and fucking him for two and it’s about time he — ugh — talks to him about it. Right. He’s going to do it now. Now.
“Lads, I don’t mean to alarm anybody but it looks like we got some imminent adversity here. Very imminent. Like — some very severe swearing would be a good, good kind of appropriate response.”
Oh, thanks to blessed Buddha. Or — not.
Zayn on his heels, Louis climbs the bunk ladder so fast he nearly slips off the rungs and high-lines it up the short way to the bridge. “What do we got?”
“Alliance cruiser, just one click ahead. Right in line of flight.” Niall punches a few buttons and swivels in his seat to look Louis right in the eye. “They got our wanted poster; we’re humped.”
“Shiny. Best hope they… don’t.”
“Good advice,” Zayn says dryly.
Aimee and her husband are next into the bridge, Aimee pushing big-rimmed glasses up her nose and peering over Niall’s shoulder at his read-out. “If we run we’ll be a target,” she says. “Best bet, stay locked on our destination and…”
“Hope,” adds her husband. He spies Louis’s expression and adds, “Yeah, it’s not great, is it?”
The Alliance cruiser bears down on them inescapably, the big symbol on Niall’s map growing larger until they can see the bright light of the massive ship ahead. Everyone has crammed into the bridge to watch.
“Here we go,” Niall mutters, as a green light flickers on his display.
The radio buzzes on and a voice sounds, “Firefly class transport, you are ordered to identify yourself.”
Niall looks back at Louis. “We don’t have a fake serial number. I mean, Liam and Harry changed the markings, but we don’t have a fake serial.”
“They might not have a flag yet,” Aimee says, “Min hadn’t gotten word, anyway, sounds like the Alliance have some other messes on their hands.”
Louis looks ahead at the green glow of the cruiser. “It’s a risk.”
Zayn puts a hand to Louis’s elbow. “Everything’s a risk. Do it.”
Niall turns towards the controls and reads off their own serial number. The silence that follows feels almost poisonous, like an infection in the air vents, and then —
“Cleared,” says the voice on the radio, “Your bow mandatory registration markers are missing. This is an official warning. Another offence and you will be fined.”
“Got it,” Niall says quickly, “Thank you, we will absolutely — fix that.”
“Just between us, Direction, you really were robbed on X-Factor. Don’t forget about those markers. Safe travels.” The radio goes off. No one says anything as the cruiser disappears into the black, and then they all collapse, laughing.
“You really are a lucky couple of idiots,” Aimee gasps from her husband’s shoulder.
“I hate this,” Liam moans, head in his hands, “I really hate this; I’m never flying again.”
“Well you’re possibly in luck,” Nick informs him, wiping tears of laughter from his eyes.
“I will never disrespect that programme again,” Ian says, “You lot have fans everywhere.”
“It’s worth it to take a risk. Don’t I always say that?” Louis puffs his chest out, putting a hand on the back of Niall’s chair and surveying the blackness ahead. “I definitely always say that.”
“Sure,” Zayn says, raising his eyebrows. “Take credit for the whole accident of fate, Lou.”
Harry says something in response but Louis isn’t listening at all: he’s too busy taking Zayn’s infuriating face in both hands and kissing him, long and sweet.
“About time,” Niall mutters, and Louis aims a kick at him without looking.
“I feel bad.”
“What do you feel bad about?” Harry looks away from the cartoons playing on their little cortex screen and down at Nick, laying sprawled on the sofa with his calves and feet over Harry’s lap.
“We got you in trouble.”
“No, you got us out of trouble. Then we got ourselves into dumb trouble, and then Cara got us into important trouble.”
“Important trouble,” Nick repeats, and scoffs. “Yeah, well. I don’t want you lot to have to stop flying because of — because of us.”
Harry sighs, leaning his head back against the wall. He can’t deny that part of him wanted to fly forever. Part of himself still wants to keep going, see new worlds, meet everybody. Flying is lonely, though, and long, and dark. The boy he had been — lying under a tree in mid-summer, staring up at the sky and praying for an escape — he didn’t know how dark it got, in the black. He didn’t know how cold it could be. “It’s not like we’re grounded forever,” he says. “And — honestly, I think Louis and Zayn would have…” He doesn’t want to say quit. They wouldn’t quit, exactly.
“Sort of. None of us really, like. None of us knew what this would be like. Louis still kind of hates flying, you know. He gets buggy if he thinks about the mechanics too hard. Doesn’t even like to see the engine room.”
Nick laughs. “To be honest, Harold, I am not especially keen on that aspect of space travel. I am thrilled I was too loopy to know what the fuck was going on when we took off last night. This morning? I have no gorram idea what time it is.”
“I love this ship.” Harry reaches his hand back so it rests on the curved panel wall behind him. “I do, I love it, it’s been the making of me. I think… I think I’ll love the next thing, too. I think I’ll love it as much.”
Nick hides his smile under his arm. “Sap,” he says, pleased.
Red Sun, Zhu Que in the Mandarin, is the coldest sun in the ‘verse. Home to two protostars and a nasty little asteroid field separating the first two planets in orbit from the mass of the rest, a traveler could count the number of ‘developed’ worlds on one hand. Say Red Sun to a person on a central planet, they come back with tales of Dyton and Syco crime syndicates and the Greenleaf drug export business. Say Red Sun to one of the boys on this ship and they come back with tales of home.
Aimee never thought they’d settle on New Kasmir or Beaumonde. These boys wanted their familiar star; they wanted their own sun in their sky. Before anyone had decided on a destination, Niall had already programmed the autopilot towards Red Sun. Like he knew, he knew he wanted to go home.
As the Direction begins its descent onto Jiangyin, everyone piles into the bridge to watch save Harry, who’s needed in the engine room and Nick, because they seemingly can’t bare to be parted from each other now they’ve been reunited.
Aimee grasps Ian’s hand. She can’t exactly blame them.
“It’s green,” Liam says, and Aimee and Ian exchange amused looks.
“Looks like Mullingar, a bit,” Niall says, guiding them through the wide sky. “More mountains, though. And warmer.”
The topography puckers over jagged continents in scores of mountain ranges and long, low hills. They want mountains. Mountains will provide good cover for an inexplicable spaceship.
The closer the ship gets to land, the more Aimee’s stomach sours but she tries to keep that from her face. She’s not grounded forever — and this is a good moment for these boys; she doesn’t want to ruin it.
Niall brings the Direction to a gentle rocking descent in a fold of the Janus Mountains, not far from the city where their third-hand contact promised a decent, albeit potentially underhand living for as long as they need to stay hidden.
“What do I say now?” Niall looks out the cockpit, over the rolling swell of green hills ahead. “All off-board?”
“Let’s ignore it,” Louis advises. “We’ll only have a big scene and — ”
“And Lou will cry, which he’d hate to do in front of Nick and Aimee.” Zayn slings an arm around Louis’s shoulders. “C’mon. Let’s go get some air.”
They retreat from the bridge, Liam leaning close to Niall to ask, “And we’re positive no one’s tracked us?”
“Nope,” Niall says, hands in his pockets.
Niall fixes Liam with an amused half-smile. “We’ve just got to live in hope, Leemo.”
Any traveler knows fitting people from all corners of the ‘verse onto one metal boat can be like jamming together engine parts from entirely different models. All crews develop some sort of camaraderie eventually, hard not to, but if there’s one truth in Aimee’s ‘verse it’s this: some crews are special. Sometimes the parts fit together just right, and that’s not just a crew; that’s a family. Aimee’s been flying since her very first breath of life, and she’s only met a handful of crews like that.
These boys will still be a crew down here in these Jiangyin mountains. She’d bet anything she owned.
In thirty-whatever years, Aimee has never once lived in a house. Nick mocks her for not understanding how bugs get in through windows, how easily dirt travels on shoes, how to sweep stairs. Ian winds up doing most of the tidying.
You say city to Aimee and she thinks high-rise, prime cortex connection, glass and pavement. Sindri, population 238,000, still hasn’t quite nailed down plumbing.
Lesedi Wyrzyk’s aunt traveled for a short time on the Woodstock when Aimee was just a toddler. As the proprietor of the most popular general store in the largest of Jiangyin’s four small cities, Lesedi’s not inconsiderable clout wrangles them lodging in the hills surrounding Sindri. She’s secured what they call a villa: a cluster of small stone buildings surrounding a central garden, just beneath a tidy gnarled orchard of olive trees. Their kitchen window looks over the rest of the city; its faulty light-grid flickers all through the night.
The boys of the Direction take easily to their new lives. They all grow beards, except Harry, who can’t, and Niall, who shaves his under-chin monstrosity after a month.
“I was scaring myself in the mirror,” he says dryly, when Aimee asks.
Zayn and Louis set up in one of the small stone outbuildings. Within two weeks they’ve managed to acquire a spotted cat, a rangy collie and some sort of lizard. As spring dissolves into Jiangyin’s mild summer, Zayn naps out in the garden, stretched long and brown under the sun and Louis rides out into the valley looking for trouble. Aimee assumes he finds it; she never asks him directly.
“He’s making inroads,” Lesedi tells her during one of the long lunches she hosts on Sundays. “Inroads and trouble. My second cousin is looking out for him.”
In the green courtyard of Lesedi’s building, Harry and Nick are hard at work wrangling a parade of assorted children for a game of awful football. Most days Aimee can’t help but feel like she’s got chains on her ankles, holding her fast to the dirt, but she likes watching the boys run around in the sun and laughing, stumbling over nothing and sprawling over onto the grass.
Ian has started asking Aimee about babies. The idea doesn’t scare her as much as it once did.
Louis practises saying home.
“I’m going home,” or, “let’s eat at home,” or, “I’ll talk to him when we get home.”
It’s the simple things: a cup of tea in the garden, Zayn curled up asleep on the sofa, a local crime syndicate that he’s pretty sure he can cow into letting him join. The cortex struggles to hold a vid-call to his mum, but when Louis sees her he doesn’t have to lie so egregiously.
“The Governor’s bullying townships by holding up supply trains,” Louis can tell her now, “Me and the lads are going in to fix that one up next week.”
He likes only lying the normal amount.
The custom of the people in the Janus Mountains is to give all the villas names so the postmaster can find them. Not that the postman goes out to each door, mind, but he likes to divide the parcels up under little labels and make folk ask not for their own names but for the name of their villa, and thus become responsible for all the post and not just theirs.
“Very cheeky, you lot at Number One,” postmaster Shekhar Liao tells Harry, wagging his finger before passing a bundle of letters over the divider.
“I think it’s a lovely name,” Harry says, winking and tucking the letters into his bag.
“Cheeky,” Shekhar repeats. “Now, since you’re heading up that way, why don’t you relieve an old man of this parcel for Villa Corales? And, it’s only a little further, this box for Bittsbury Court? My constitution, you know, Harry. It’s not what it was!”
“How can you say that, you’re in the prime of life, Shekhar!” Harry holds his hands out for the parcels anyhow, laughing. Shekhar doesn’t like to go up into the hills, and has never let Harry leave with just his post.
“And how is your young man?”
“Nick’s good, thanks. His project’s setting up nicely. Actually, we need some tech they only carry in Anupam, so if you need anything from out there Niall and I are making the trek next week.” Harry shakes his satchel so everything settles more easily, then slings it over one shoulder. He can carry the rest of the post by hand.
“That’s a journey for some supplies, that is.” Shekhar whistles. “Your young man’s project best be worth it, you taking that journey.”
“Oh, I don’t mind. It’s a nice ride and all.” Harry lifts his shoulders. “I’d do it for him even if it weren’t.”
“Good man. It’s the things you do for love,” Shekhar says, smiling beatifically, “The things you do for family. Ain’t no power in the ‘verse greater than that, boy. Ain’t no power in the ‘verse can stand a candle’s chance in space against that.”
Shekhar doesn’t know why Harry and the others landed out here in Sindri, in the funny little villa up in what locals call the Primrose Hills. Most folk have come to the conclusion that they ran into mob trouble on Syco or possibly Dyton, and usually look at Louis like he probably instigated whatever got them off that world. Jiangyin’s not so hot on reception: they can’t get X-Factor, let alone the Voice of the Underground.
Hopefully, with Nick and Harry’s help, that can change.
“Take care, Shekhar,” Harry says, bumping the door open with his hip. “Let me know about Anupam.”
Shekhar waves from behind the table. “Bǎo zhòng, Harry.”
The walk from Shekhar’s post office to Number One takes a good twenty minutes, and by the time Harry’s climbing the hilly road to their villa he’s sweating. He offloads one parcel to Villa Corales and then trudges up the winding road towards home.
Liam’s sitting out front, whittling a piece of elm down into some indeterminate shape. “That all looks heavy,” he says.
“Looks can be deceiving, but in this case, they ain’t.” Harry heaves his messenger bag down next to Liam and stands up, cursing his past self for agreeing to ferry post to the next villa up as well.
“Hey, Haz,” Liam calls, “Y’know, I was thinking.”
Harry sighs and turns back. He really wants a wash. The sooner he can get this parcel off his hands the faster he can stop smelling like sour milk.
Liam squints up at him. “I think I figured out the real difference between a town and a city. In a town, you know everybody. In a city, you’re more like to meet somebody you’ve never met before.”
Harry shifts the weight of the parcel to his other arm. “Oh?”
“Yeah. I think I didn’t know before because we never stayed long enough.” Liam holds his carving out to examine it from a distance. “I think that’s the key distinction, though.”
Despite himself, affection burrows into Harry’s chest like an animal seeking heat. He takes off for the next villa, whistling.
On a drizzly day in autumn Aimee sits them down at the rough-hewn kitchen table and tells them she’s leaving.
“They need a producer on Radio One,” she says, patting Nick’s shoulder. “Ian and I need to get back to normal.”
“I wish you could stay,” Nick says. His eyes are bright. Harry grasps his hand tightly.
“I’m not made out for this planetside shit,” Aimee says kindly, “The grav is weird and I’m not wild about sunrises from this angle.”
Nick takes this in. He doesn’t seem happy, but he’s not particularly surprised, either. “You’ll visit?”
“Locals tell me there’s some sort of beer festival in the springtime. I’d have to truly be in Alliance lockdown to miss that.” Aimee grins. “Don’t worry, baby. There’s not a power in the ‘verse that could keep me away for long.”
Harry angles his hand against the suns so he can peer up, waving until his wrist aches, watching the Woodstock shrink into wide blue sky.
Harry’s adult life has been a montage of goodbye scenes: standing in the port window waving down towards towns and cities, icy or hot, concrete or grass, always small faces disappearing below him. He’s not sure he likes being on the other side, not entirely, but the harvest is good this year and Orla Zhang’s baby is due in June. Louis and Zayn have started to make noises about going on home to see their families and Harry just knows they’ll ask him and Nick to dog-sit.
His mum stays back in the old farm on Cheshire. The orchard will be in bloom now, bursting with apple flowers. Harry knows how to find her.
"You want to go in?" Nick asks, sliding his arm around Harry’s waist.
The light blows Nick’s skin out into a blaze of hazel eyes and smiling mouth. For the first time, Harry doesn’t want to be the disappearing ship. He wants the web. He wants the pond and the orchard. He wants the small solar system: two stars circling in their little ‘verse.
"Yeah," Harry says. "Let’s go home."