"I repeat, this is the Indazita, requesting immediate assistance. We've lost power and are running out of emergency life support—" The words blurred into static.
Osman looked over his shoulder, his hand paused above the steering controls. "Captain?"
Adam looked from Osman's anxious face to Kris's, and then shook his head. "Hold your course."
"Thank god," Osman said.
Kris gaped. "What? Adam, what are you—"
Deepa burst into control, still buttoning her shirt, bare feet slapping the steel deck. "What's going on?" she demanded.
"Distress signal," Adam said.
That brought her up short. "Shit. Off the channel? Failing comms and life support?"
"It's a classic."
"Son of a bitch," she swore, tucking dark hair behind her ears. "We're not going to…." She raised her eyebrows.
Kris looked back and forth between the two of them, his confusion obvious. "Adam, we have to help them," he insisted. "There are people dying out there. We need to change course."
The comms crackled clear again. "This is Captain Ryce of the Indazita. If anyone is in range, please, please, we need immediate assistance—"
Kris looked at him expectantly, clearly waiting for Adam to come to his senses and do the right thing. Because it didn't occur to Kris that Adam could do otherwise. And Adam wished to the sun three times and back that he could live the rest of his life without disappointing Kris, but he didn't have time to explain it right now.
No, that was a lie. He had time, he had—
"We're a ten-man crew. Please, only hours left!"
—he had hours, apparently. But memories were threatening to slip their leash, and he needed to get as far from the Indazita as possible.
He turned his eyes to the display, refusing to watch Kris's reaction. "Deepa," Adam said, his voice cracking.
His first mate silenced the transmission.
"Adam!" Kris said, reaching for his arm.
Adam knocked his hand away. "It's a trap," he said. "They're not in any distress." He sneered the last word, bile rising in his throat.
"You don't know that," Kris protested. "How could you possibly know that? They could be dying, and we're the only ones close enough to help. Protocol requires that we—"
"Your protocols, not mine," he cut Kris off. "Deepa, as soon as we're in range of a patrol, notify them of the Indazita's coordinates."
She raised an eyebrow. "You don't wanna go out there? Show them what real distress feels like?" Her fingers were drifting toward the firing console.
"Just notify the patrols," he said firmly.
Kris's voice was hushed when he said, "Don't do this, please. Just…just open comms; talk to them."
Adam couldn't ignore the plea in that voice. When he glanced at Kris's face, he saw something dawning in his eyes—something that looked like horror. Adam ached with the loss, but he couldn't deal with it now—he could barely breathe. "Leave it, Kris," he said.
Kris took a deep breath, set his jaw, and Adam knew he'd made up his mind. "No. Protocol requires that we respond to another vessel in distress. I'm responding."
Kris turned to face the console, and Adam grabbed his shoulder. "Try it and I'll take you off," he snapped, panic wielding the words like a whip.
Kris paled and fell back a step.
Deepa's and Osman's heads turned at the threat. "Kris, man, you can't," Osman said, a little wild around the eyes. "Adam's right; it's a trap."
"I mean it," Adam said, his voice pitched low and shaking. "I'll do it."
"Maybe you should. Then I wouldn't have to watch this," Kris snarled, gesturing to control, to the crew all grim-faced and guilty.
"Kris," Adam said, and it wasn't a plea, it wasn't, but he needed Kris's trust on this.
Kris shook his head and turned away to pace across the cramped deck.
"Osman," Adam said, "get us out of here."
"We're gone," Osman said, and fired up the secondary thrusters.
Adam awoke to the shudders of the main engine powering down and sat up in bed. He was alone. He scowled at their blankets; he didn't think Kris had joined him at all last night. Fuck. That was a first in months.
Kris had disappeared after the showdown in control yesterday, unwilling to hear Adam's justifications for abandoning the Indazita. And he wasn't done being stubborn, apparently.
The intercom in their room chimed, and Deepa's voice came through. "We're a couple tera-klicks out from Aboreo Station. Kris, anytime you're ready to take over the steering…."
They'd be landing in a half hour, then. Adam hurried to his storage locker and pulled out his two-tone red trousers and silver jacket. He hesitated over his customary white shirt, but finally threw it back and pulled out a slithery black tank top. Kris loved the feel of it against his skin, and Adam wasn't above playing dirty today.
He finally saw Kris when he opened the door to control, there in the empty chair at the navigation console. "Kris," Adam started.
Kris spun around and hit him with a glare that could burn solar systems.
Adam covered his hurt by frowning right back.
"Judging by that scowl, he's still pissed at you," Deepa said.
Adam turned his frown on her. "What?" he asked sharply.
"Nothing. Here," she passed him a stack of reports. "The inventory lists for the Novos and Morven cargoes."
Adam's eyes flicked once over the top page before he stuffed them in the pocket of his jacket. Those reports always made Kris uncomfortable. Adam glanced up and stared at the back of Kris's head, noting the uncharacteristic tension in the set of the pilot's shoulders.
Deepa took her seat and cleared her throat. At Adam's querying glance, she said, "I was just thinking…. I trust Kris not to crash us into the nearest moon out of spite, but he could make this a hell of a rough landing if he wanted."
"Don't give him any ideas," Adam said, only half-joking. He ached to go over there and massage the knots out of Kris's stiff neck and shoulders, to get that familiar, wide smile pointed his way again.
She snorted. "It's nothing he hasn't already considered, I'm sure. But maybe you should talk to him?"
"There's no point talking when he won't listen." Adam had learned that lesson months ago.
"Try again," she said, and this time the steel of her former command edged into her voice. She held his gaze until he relented and stepped forward.
"Hey," Adam said, low, for Kris's ears only. "Can we go talk about this? Privately?"
"No," Kris said coolly. "The flight deck is near capacity; this is going to be a tricky enough landing without you distracting me with bullshit platitudes." He wouldn't even look at Adam.
Adam pinched his eyebrow against a growing headache and backed off.
Deepa swore and fastened her safety straps. Adam sat in his chair and did the same. Just in case.
Kris's landing was perfect, the textbook rewritten by a poet. Even the customs agent remarked on it when he boarded with his checklist.
Adam was heading toward the loading ramp when his feet slowed and his gaze slid to the escape pods. He gave in to the compulsion to run a quick inspection without questioning it—until the first door slid open, and self-awareness rudely interrupted his ritual. The panic from yesterday buzzed in his blood again, a low hum of distress, and he had to take several deep breaths to fight it back. He kept his movements slow and deliberate as he programmed the diagnostics, as if controlling his breathing now could control fate down the line.
Doug surprised him as he was running the final checks. The weapons sergeant leaned into the third pod—more than they needed for a crew of five, but better safe than sorry—his thick forearms braced on the steel doorframe above his head. "So how much do we expect to get?" Doug asked.
"At least 6,700 for the prizes. But Dulane Colliery probably won't top 500 for our own haul."
Doug grunted unhappily. "How much are you setting aside for upgrades?"
Adam shrugged. "That depends how much we get paid and what you see out there. Make a list of what you think we should get, and I'll tell you if I can afford it."
Doug nodded and jerked his chin toward the loading ramp. Adam waited for the last diagnostic cycle to finish successfully before setting the system pane down and following Doug off the ship.
At least two dozen other ships crowded the flight deck, crews running between, loading cargo and dodging conveyors. All of the corporations were represented—uniforms in gold, green, brown, black…even the rich blue of the Perth Corporation concentrated around a convoy of Perth ships on the far side of the hangar. There were a few independent crews scattered across the deck, but fewer than last year, and even fewer than the year before.
A quick scan of the armaments on display confirmed what Adam already knew; his Lausanne was the best-equipped ship on the station—aside from the Perth convoy, of course. He caught a few speculative looks from the other independent crews, clearly envious of the wealth of firepower and shielding Adam had acquired over the past few years. Doug clapped Adam's shoulder and headed off toward the Perth convoy, his eyes alight at the prospect of scouting out the newest weaponry on the market.
Adam hurried to the Dulane Colliery office on the fifth tier, a small, windowless room far removed from the spacious luxury of the first, second, and third tiers. A small gold plaque marked the door, which opened to reveal an overabundance of opulence. Every surface was crowded with ornate knick-knacks. There seemed to be as much luxury and decoration crammed into this tiny room as in the vast Perth suite occupying the first and second tiers.
The receptionist took his name with a bored smile and asked him to wait. She got up from her desk and squeezed between the crowd of inlaid cabinets and potted plants to reach the desk of her employer, who was sitting in plain sight just ten feet away. Adam rolled his eyes at the artificial pomp but held his tongue. Rollin would acknowledge his presence only when the factor felt like it.
Rollin finally deigned to acknowledge him, looking up at his secretary's soft prompting and then turning his head as though just noticing Adam. He beckoned Adam over.
Adam waited for the secretary to fight her way back to her seat before navigating the tricky route to Rollin's desk, trying not to knock anything over. His mind boggled at the prospect of Rollin trying to squeeze his enormously obese body between the jade statues and delicate porcelain lamps. It seemed more likely that the office had been installed around him.
"Captain Lambert," Rollin said, when Adam had finally dropped into the chair across from him. "Good to see you. What cargo have you brought me today?"
Adam handed over their shipping manifest: "Conductive polymer chemicals from Veyko."
"Ah, perfect," Rollin said without interest. "Just what our facilities need."
Adam very carefully didn't roll his eyes at the lie. "And as for our…other assignment," he began.
Rollin sat forward eagerly, reaching out a meaty hand. "Yes?"
Adam lowered his voice and said, "We took a Torch ship going—the Novos, and a Cestilian freighter coming—the Morven." He passed over the inventory lists Deepa had made before they'd detonated the two vessels.
Rollin smiled his shark's smile. "Yes, I'd heard about the Novos. What a pity for the Torch Brothers." He started flipping through the data sheets, the fingers of his right hand typing briskly on the console. "And the Morven. My, my, all that processed crude."
While the factor calculated his own appraisal of the cargo they'd destroyed, Adam looked around him. He instinctively checked behind him, expecting to find Kris in one of his usual spots, perched on the carved-ivory filing closet or kicking his heels against the marble water feature. Kris was still keeping his distance, though.
Adam set his jaw and turned back to Rollin just as the factor set the papers down.
"A total of 55,000 credits, if I'm not mistaken. That makes your cut 8,250. Agreed?"
Rollin gave Adam the same patronizing smile he always used—the one that said he was doing Adam a favor instead of adhering to the terms of their unofficial agreement. It made Adam want to punch him in the face. But 55,000 credits was more than fair market value for the cargo Adam had destroyed, and 8,250 was a whole lot more than their own estimate.
It said something about the goodwill Rollin's winking favors engendered that after two years of working for him, Adam still expected to get screwed over every time.
He stuck out his hand and shook on it anyway. "Agreed."
Rollin tapped a few buttons on his console, turned around in his chair, and pulled a piece of paper from a safe. "I have something else for you, too," he said, his smile twitching into something that bordered on friendly. He handed the paper over to Adam, who blinked at the coded message.
"Rumor, Captain Lambert. Word has it that Perth lost one of its new trainers when you took the Belerica several months ago. You didn't happen to notice one of them in the cargo hold?" Rollin's eyes were sharp on him.
Adam twitched at the cuffs of his jacket, cinched almost too-tight around his wrists. "That was the freighter hauling titanium wiring, right? With the escorts? Huh. Must've missed it."
"I'm surprised you could miss something so valuable in your inventory." Rollin's knowing smirk said he knew Adam's secrets—all of them.
That was the look that kept Adam waiting for a knife in the back. Rollin knew too much about him and his crew to ever sever their relationship cleanly.
Adam made himself shrug. "They're small, right? All we knew to expect was the wiring."
Rollin's smile widened, but he didn't challenge Adam on it. "Well," he said, bona fide excitement creeping into his voice, "as it turns out, we think they did lose a trainer. Which is a huge hit to their bottom line, let me tell you. And that," he tapped the paper Adam was still holding, "is a notice that the government is responding to the loss by auditing Perth's trainer program. A full investigation into its legality and ethics. We couldn't have possibly planned an outcome like this! Once this hits the broadcast, their shares are going to take one hell of a hit. You can't imagine how much damage you've done for us."
Adam laid the paper down on the desk. "You're welcome?"
Rollin shook his head. "I haven't even thanked you yet. I've gotten permission to grant you a bonus for this little coup—just a small token of appreciation. Based on the estimated value of a trainer for this fiscal year through the next five, Dulane Colliery is pleased to issue you another 39,000 credits."
Adam couldn't breathe for a second, his eyes wide with credit marks. "Are you serious?"
"Yes!" Rollin crowed. "Honestly, we couldn't be more pleased. You've single-handedly put Perth's R&D on hold for at least a year, possibly more. This is the first significant blow anyone's landed on them in this sector. It's really shaken up their execs."
Adam's thoughts immediately turned to the unusually large Perth convoy on the flight deck. "Does that have anything to do with the armada they've got parked down there?"
"Most definitely. And speaking of...." Rollin leaned back and steepled his fingers. "An escort that deep means they're transporting something especially valuable—possibly even a replacement trainer. I don't think I need to tell you how grateful the commissioners would be if you managed to take out a second one. Especially in this political climate, with an open government investigation—a second loss could sink the program for good."
Adam flinched, but his eyes stayed focused on Rollin. For the first time all day, he was glad he couldn't see Kris's expression. He fussed with his sleeves again and said, "Even 39,000 credits can't buy the armaments I'd need to take on that many escorts."
Rollin's pleasure dimmed, but he shrugged and took back the paper. "Well, it can't hurt to keep your ears open. In the meantime, how would you like to deliver a load of steel bearings to Colony Eisenbach for us?"
For the hundredth time, Adam wished Rollin would provide them with better cover than moving glorified paperweights from station to station. It was getting harder to brush off the stares when he deposited his payout at the bursar's office. And nearly 50,000 credits for a polymer load…that was just ludicrous.
Adam pocketed the receipts and walked back out to the flight deck, taking his time now to examine the various cargoes being loaded. There was a light-weight cruiser taking on what looked like perishable food stuffs, the boxes marked with the Zaaki Corp's exotic fruit label. While that haul would bring them a tempting percentage, he changed his mind when he noted the lack of uniforms on the crew. He and his crew had struggled for years to make a living as independent transporters before going bankrupt; they'd none of them take kindly to attacking 'one of their own.' And Deepa might very well kill him for it.
He focused his attention on a larger vessel, this one crewed by InterLight employees in garish orange jumpsuits. A stack of large containers waited alongside their loading ramp, branded with the silk farm logos of the New Trang Colony. He would have to watch if they were loading or unloading.
Two men jogged past with empty lorries bound for the Perth side of the hangar, and Adam followed their progress, noting the security perimeter Perth had created around their large cargo freighter. A dozen blue-uniformed guards stood ready, a dozen rifles fully-charged. The Aboreo Station security team was keeping its distance from the Perth encampment, eyeing the corporate guards warily. In fact, the entire flight deck seemed hushed, tense.
"They're nervous," Kris said.
Adam whirled around to find Kris standing behind him, a small smile on his lips as he surveyed the room. Adam sighed with relief to be back on speaking terms. "More so than usual," he agreed. "Not that I blame them."
"Says the biggest predator in the room."
Adam had to smile. "What can I say? I don't like interlopers scaring off my prey. And that show of force…that's bound to set the other crews on edge." He ran his eyes over the Perth guards one last time before stepping back to bump his shoulder against Kris's. Kris didn't shift away from the physical contact, and Adam felt the tightness around his heart ease just a bit. "So what do you think?" he asked, jerking his chin toward the flight deck.
"There's a shipment of Applen liquor getting ready to head out. A Ten-Segai ship, just behind the Zaaki."
Adam followed Kris's pointing arm to a small ship he'd overlooked. Small, fast, and on-loading one of the more costly cargoes in the hangar. "Nice catch," Adam said. "Come on, let's get a closer look." He started a circuitous walk back to his ship, Kris keeping step and pointing out various details about the ships and crews they passed.
"Ideal," Adam murmured, after they'd passed the Ten-Segai Company's ship. Bo would use her wiles to find out their flight plan later.
Kris nodded. "So, I was wondering…." His steps slowed, and Adam matched his new pace. "D'you think anyone here might have helped the Indazita?"
Of course Kris hadn't forgotten about that.
Kris shot him a quick, cautious look. "We could ask. Maybe one of them knows something about her."
The thrill of their big payout and the excitement of selecting their next score evaporated. "No. Any ship that got close to her wouldn't be here now," Adam said, putting every ounce of certainty into his tone. "She wasn't in distress. There's no reason to ask."
"You keep saying that," Kris said, impatience edging his voice.
Adam quickened his steps, waving to Bo as they approached their own loading ramp.
"Don't ignore me," Kris demanded, falling behind.
"Let it go," Adam whispered, more a prayer for Kris's capitulation than anything else.
Adam pulled out a receipt for his engineer, who was clearly waiting for her paycheck before heading out on shore leave. He handed it over and kept walking, not even bothering to share the good news about their latest windfall. Bo's elated shriek was drowned out by the clang of Adam's boots stomping up the metal ramp.
Kris caught up to him in the corridor, falling into step. "I'm not letting it go. People's lives could have been in danger out there. They may be dead by now. And you didn't lift a finger to help them."
"I told you—"
"You told me it was a trap. That's all you keep saying! All I want to know is what makes you so sure? I want to believe you were right. Explain it to me. Please."
Adam bit his lip and kept walking.
Kris skipped ahead of him and put a hand to his chest to stop him. "You're a mess, Adam. You barely slept last night; you're giving yourself an ulcer; I can see the headache between your—"
Adam grabbed Kris's upper arms and forced him backward into a shallow alcove between two ventilation bulkheads. "You're my headache right now," he growled, using his extra height to loom over Kris.
Kris glared up at him, and then the hard set to his jaw eased. His hands came up to rest on the front of Adam's jacket. "I don't want to be," he said earnestly.
Adam's temper settled immediately. "I know."
"Is it so hard to give me an explanation? I don't have your experience with all this. I'm trying to learn, here."
"I know," Adam repeated. "But this isn't the right time. Later—a lot later—I'll try to explain." He brushed a tentative kiss across Kris's forehead, hoping Kris would allow the caress…and believe the lie.
Kris's arms wrapped around Adam's waist, and he pressed up against Adam. "All right," he said, his lips brushing Adam's collarbone as he spoke.
And even though Adam felt guilty for Kris's confusion, for lying, he couldn't deny his relief at having the fight over and Kris back in his arms. He nuzzled down Kris's temple, tipping Kris's face up for a proper kiss, and Kris allowed that, too, arching up for it and meeting his lips for a long, soft kiss.
"You were such an asshole yesterday," Kris sighed when their mouths parted.
"I'm sorry," Adam said sincerely, and was rewarded with another kiss, sweeter, longer.
"I haven't seen you like that since…the beginning."
The comparison cut deep, reminding Adam how he'd treated Kris when they'd met. "Really sorry," he repeated, squeezing Kris even tighter.
Kris gave a low moan and caught Adam's hair, pulling Adam's head down to lick into his mouth, tongue rubbing against his in Adam's favorite dance. By the time he let Adam go, they were both gasping. And then Kris pressed his forehead to Adam's shoulder and said, "You threatened me."
Adam's heart throbbed painfully. "I wouldn't have," he blurted, clutching at Kris's shoulders. "I swear. You know I swore I would never do that to you—"
"I couldn't be sure of anything, you were so upset."
Honestly, in the moment, Adam hadn't been sure himself. But he would do anything now to make Kris stop hiding from him, to take that devastated note from his voice. He loved Kris, and the thought of hurting him now was unconscionable. Maybe if he just told Kris, shared the whole, shameful truth of what they'd done, maybe Kris could forgive him for yesterday, for all of it.
He opened his mouth…and stopped himself before he'd formed the first word.
A few kisses and he was ready to confess everything? How the hell had Kris learned to manipulate someone like that? Another stab of guilt flared when he realized he'd taught it to Kris, himself, in their first weeks together. He pushed that thought away firmly. It was far too late to undo his past crimes—any of them.
Adam blew out a breath and took a step back, resisting Kris's hold on his waist. "You really think you can seduce it out of me?"
Kris looked up, his gaze assessing. Adam couldn't imagine ever thinking of Kris as naïve again. "It was working, wasn't it?"
"That's low, Kristopher."
"So's this," Kris said, his hands slipping inside Adam's open jacket to touch the thin black shirt underneath. "You know how much I love this, how good it feels." He stroked his fingers across Adam's nipples, and Adam gasped and shivered with renewed awareness of the brush of silk and catch of silver micro-wires on sensitive skin. "Yeah," Kris purred, pressing his advantage. "You knew what you were doing when you put this on. You wanted me distracted."
True, but Adam wasn't about to admit that aloud.
Kris was distracting himself, anyway, pupils dilating, leaning in closer to let his breath fall hot over Adam's skin. Adam stifled his groan and stepped into Kris again, pinning him against the wall. He reached between them and palmed Kris's cock, finding him half-hard in his jumpsuit.
Kris writhed against his hand and pinched one of Adam's nipples as payback. They both shuddered at the sensations, mouths coming together, breathless and struggling for more.
"Damn it, can't you keep it in your room?" Osman said, right behind Adam.
Kris's eyes flew wide, his breath escaping in a startled laugh.
"You know this isn't something we need to see, right?"
Adam's face flushed with embarrassment, and he closed his eyes to find some composure before gritting out, "Thanks, I'll keep that in mind." He could feel Kris slipping out from under his hands, the heat that had built up between their bodies vanishing too quickly. So much for their reconciliation. "Did you want something?"
"Yeah," Osman said. "I heard a rumor about a fucking huge paycheck."
Adam scrubbed at his lips, straightened the already-perfect fall of his jacket, and turned to face his systems engineer. "Your timing, as always, is terrible," he informed Osman before dragging out a receipt.
Osman took one look at the number, grabbed Adam, tried to twirl him, and then gave up and just kissed his cheek. "What the hell! How'd we get so much?"
The how was one more fight Adam didn't want to have with Kris today. His eyes flicked up and down the empty corridor as he said, "I'll explain it to everyone after we ship out, okay?"
"Okay, sure, fine. Holy cow," Osman sighed, pressing the paper to his heart.
"Don't spend it all in one place," Adam advised. "And we're loading in at 10:00 tomorrow—don't be late."
Osman saluted and ran toward the loading ramp.
Adam looked at the other receipts in his hand and huffed. There would be no chance for privacy with Kris until everyone had been paid. He tugged at his lapels again and headed deeper into the ship.
Deepa had her hand out the moment he stepped into control, her white teeth flashing.
Adam couldn't hold his frown in the face of her enthusiasm. He pressed the remaining receipts into her hand.
She took one look and whistled. "I thought Bo was telling stories again. This is...this is huge."
"It makes a dent," Adam agreed. "Get you your next ship a few months sooner, at least."
"A few months? Try a year!"
"There's Doug's, too, if you wouldn't mind. And tell Bo to get details on that Ten-Segai ship loading up on Applen liquor. Oh, and make sure everyone knows to be back by 10:00 tomorrow."
"No problem." She pocketed the receipts and then gave Adam a suspicious look. "You in a hurry to get rid of us for some reason…oh."
He didn't need to ask what she had seen. He was distracted, aroused, frustrated, and he desperately needed some privacy so he and Kris could pick up where they'd left off. Preferably before Kris came to his senses and remembered he was still pissed at Adam.
"I take it things are still…unresolved between you two." She kicked her heels up on a console. "What's the fight about?"
"It's none of your business."
"Bullshit," she grinned. "You may be the captain, but he's the pilot. If he refuses to fly, do you really want to trust this ship to Osman again? Come on. I'm your friend more than his," she offered.
Adam sighed and admitted defeat. There was no sense ordering her to start shore leave already; Deepa only followed orders when she was good and ready to. And she clearly wasn't ready yet. "He doesn't understand about the Indazita—how we could be so sure."
Her smile dropped and she straightened in her chair. "Can't he just take your word for it?"
"Not this time."
"And you haven't explained about the—"
Adam jerked his head at her, and she cut herself short. Kris was listening in; he always was. Adam and Deepa would have to choose their words carefully.
"I can't," he said. "It's not just my secret."
She considered that for a moment. "I would trust you to make that decision for us," she finally said, lifting her brows at him. "You already trust Kris with our lives; that's good enough for all of us. This isn't any different."
"It is," Adam muttered, unable to explain what he was really afraid of.
She stood up and pocketed the receipts. "I don't think so," she said, and put a hand on his arm. "He's already forgiven us our profession and what we did to him. I'd bet he's capable of more." She raised her voice, as if to guarantee Kris would overhear her next words. "I think you have to decide how much you really trust him. And then make the decision of how much to tell him about us."
Adam glared at her. After hearing that, there was no way Kris would let it go.
She ignored his anger and said blithely, "I'll take care of Doug and track down Bo. You're staying in control?"
"Yeah," he mumbled. "Sure."
"Okay. I'll clear the ship—make sure you two can talk." She gave him an encouraging smile.
"Great," he sighed. He braced his arms on a console and let his head hang down as he tried to collect his thoughts.
Deepa opened the door, said, "Play nice," and left the control room. When Adam eventually looked over his shoulder, he found Kris leaning against the inside of the door, arms crossed, watching him.
"Baby," Adam started to say, but Kris talked over him.
"This is about trust? You don't trust me?"
"It's not. It's not like that."
"I was right there, you know. Your body was practically screaming 'fight-or-flight.' And Deepa was ready to go in all lit up. Even Osman was rattled. Something about that ship got to them and got to you, made you afraid—"
Adam flailed his hand in a categorical denial.
"You can't pretend everything was fine. You were so worked up about that ship that you brought up old threats. And now you're keeping secrets from me."
"It wasn't that ship," Adam blurted, the words slipping out before he could stop them.
Kris missed his confession, still busy laying into Adam. "This is my life. This is all I have. You can't do this to me, keep me in the dark when I don't have a choice—"
Stricken, Adam cut him off. "You do have a choice: you can leave. I promised I wouldn't keep you. If you want off this crew, just tell me."
"I don't want to leave," Kris corrected him, exasperated. "I'm staying with you. So I need you to stop keeping secrets from me."
Adam hesitated for a minute, avoiding Kris's gaze. "Kris, we've done things—I've done things—that I can barely live with. We can't even forgive ourselves—how can I ask you to forgive us?"
"That's not up to you," Kris said slowly. "Let me make up my own mind."
That's what it came down to—Adam's shame and the fear Kris couldn't forgive him. There was no way to deal with either of those but to let Kris decide for himself.
Shoulders slumping in defeat, Adam nodded. Kris raised his eyebrows, surprised at his victory. Adam turned and accessed the smallest console, searching through the records for the file he needed.
Kris moved closer.
"I want you to— You need to read something," Adam said.
"Okay," Kris said, and came to stand next to him in front of the small monitor.
Adam's fingers trembled slightly as he found the right broadcast file and displayed it on the screen. He shifted back to let Kris stand in front of him and started the scroll. Adam's eyes followed the text while Kris read snatches of the survivors' accounts aloud.
Adam wrapped his arms around Kris, holding on while he could, before Kris was completely disgusted with him. They watched the words scrolling up the screen as the details of the George Town's destruction flashed by. When it reached the last section, the graphic descriptions Adam couldn't bear to relive, he closed his eyes, ducked his head, and pressed a kiss to the warm skin of Kris's neck, then another, and another.
Kris squirmed in his grip and tipped his neck invitingly, but also scolded, "Adam, I can't read like this. Come on, did you want me to see this or not?"
Adam sighed and left off, going back to watching the screen as the final, damning numbers flashed up. Five survivors out of a crew of seventeen.
The scroll ended, and Kris turned in his arms to look at him. "They'd responded to a distress signal," he said thoughtfully.
Adam switched off the screen and nodded.
"Is this what you were thinking about yesterday? You were scared of a similar ambush?"
"I wasn't thinking about it. I was remembering it."
Kris looked surprised, sympathetic, and Adam wished he could leave it at that—claim to be one of those five survivors—but he wasn't that good a liar, not with Kris.
"I sent that distress signal."
Kris took a step back, nearly out of his embrace. Adam's fingers tightened in Kris's jumpsuit, but he resisted the urge to pull him back in.
Adam tried to temper the truth, tried to excuse murder. "You know what I do for a living. What we all do. You've been helping us for months. But before you, it wasn't so easy; Osman could barely hold a straight line. So at first we didn't hunt. A few years ago, I got the idea to set up in remote areas far off the patrol lanes and lure them out. It worked great for the first few prizes. No one put up a fight, no one got hurt. It was so easy. But the problem with setting out a lure is we couldn't control who responded."
The words poured out faster, getting away from Adam now that he was finally speaking them aloud. "You know how carefully we choose our prizes. They have to have the right kind of cargo, minimal armaments, a corporation crew that won't fight life and limb to protect their ship…and they have to be up to code. The George Town…she was old, decrepit, should have been decommissioned decades ago. After we'd disabled her engines, we kept waiting for them to abandon ship, like the other crews. But they only had one functioning escape pod—only room enough for five. The other twelve…twelve, fuck. They were dead from radiation poisoning within half an hour."
"Jesus," Kris whispered. His eyes were closed, but he was listening, swaying in Adam's hands, a terrible, sad expression on his face.
"We didn't know how bad they'd been damaged, didn't realize they were trapped, dying—we didn't know anything 'til we risked a boarding party. And after," he shuddered at the memory of their corpses, "after, we set the charges and took off. We never reported the prize, never told anyone what we did. That's the only reason we don't have federal warrants over our heads." It was the cardinal rule of privateering—no one got hurt. The government was stretched too thin to police petty theft and corporate sabotage, but murder was a different matter. And a dozen murders…. "No one knows it was us—was this crew that killed those people." A white lie: Rollin's increased favors in the months after meant he probably had suspicions, if not outright proof.
Kris was breathing hard, still not looking at him.
Adam couldn't bear to hear whatever Kris would have to say. He pulled Kris to him with a sharp jerk, wrapping his arms around him before he could escape. Kris's arms wound around him, perhaps on instinct, and Adam breathed in the scent of his hair, whispering, "I know how to set a good trap. And yesterday's distress signal, five tera-klicks off the patrol lanes, just outside un-boosted comm range, it was perfect—a perfect trap."
"And you just went past. That means they stayed out there, sending that signal, waiting for somebody else to answer," Kris said. "Deepa wanted to go after them…."
Another crime on his long list of sins. "The Lausanne may be strong enough to take on two Perth escorts at once, but yesterday, we panicked. I panicked. All I could think about was the George Town." And how to keep this from you, he didn't say aloud. He tightened his grip on Kris and held on to what he had.
"You were right," Kris said after a long time, the words muffled against Adam's shirt.
Adam hmmed a question.
"It was better not knowing," Kris whispered. His next breath was ragged, and Adam had to cup Kris's face, turn it up and kiss him before Kris could throw accusations at him, pull away and hide again.
Kris wrenched out of his grip and swung, his fist connecting with Adam's jaw, making nerves light up and throb with pain. Adam gaped and touched his face, shocked, but even more surprised when Kris lunged forward for another kiss, hanging onto Adam's neck so Adam couldn't retreat.
"You did this," Kris panted in between desperate kisses that sparked in Adam's blood and made his mouth feel swollen and bruised. "Damn you. God damn you." He shoved at Adam's jacket, and Adam shrugged it off and let it fall to the floor in a silver heap. "You made me—" Kris's voice choked off, like he couldn't bear to finish the thought.
"I'm sorry," Adam panted, willing to answer for whichever sin Kris was laying at his feet: ignoring him; lying to him; shanghaiing him into a life of piracy; making him fall in love with a coward and a murderer.
Kris's mouth found his throat, and he bit hard enough to make Adam cry out. "You son of a bitch," Kris growled, and Adam nodded his agreement. "Back, back," Kris ordered, pushing against his stomach.
Adam let Kris direct him backward, until his knees bumped the seat of his chair, and Kris was urging him down. Adam sat, eyes flying wide as Kris climbed on top of him, knees bracketing Adam's own as he reached up and started pulling down the zipper of his grey jumpsuit.
"Oh, fuck," Adam moaned, finally understanding what Kris was after.
Distract me, Kris's lips begged.
Don't let me think, his body demanded.
Adam obeyed, pulling Kris's head down to kiss him again, to drive all thoughts from his mind with raw sensation. Kris hissed and bit Adam's lip, anger hot between them, and Adam took it gladly. He helped Kris get the jumpsuit off his shoulders so Adam's hands could skate down bare skin, freeing Kris's arms and then tugging the material lower, down to his hips.
"Yeah, that's—" Kris panted. "C'mon." Kris's fingers found one of Adam's nipples and pinched hard before soothing the sting with gentle circles over the sheer fabric.
Adam arched at the sensations before touching the neckline of his black shirt. "Should I take this—"
"No," Kris said. "Leave it on." Kris was grinding against Adam's stomach, his eyes rolling back with pleasure. "Yeah."
Adam didn't wait for further instructions. One hand caught the back of Kris's neck and dragged him down. He sucked Kris's lower lip into his mouth and slipped his hand down Kris's jumpsuit. Kris bucked up into his seeking fingers, hardening cock finding a familiar home in Adam's fist. Adam stroked and sucked, his body as attuned to Kris's pleasure as Kris was to his, both of them moaning into the kiss until they were breathless.
Kris fought his way free of the kiss and looked down at Adam, his eyes dark and unreadable. "You're gonna fuck me," he said. "Right here. Just like this."
Adam gulped and nodded, blood abandoning his brain for his cock, and his heart pounding double-time. "Anything," he promised. At Kris's pointed look, Adam put his hands to work undoing his belt and opening his trousers. Kris kept up, shoving his jumpsuit down even further, revealing perfect, smooth skin from collarbones to hips. Adam stared helplessly as his fingers worked on autopilot, freeing his stiff cock from painfully tight pants.
Kris contorted above him, getting the jumpsuit wedged down across Adam's thighs. Kris's eyes fell to Adam's cock and a smirk tipped his frown in the right direction. And it was that expression—that first, pleased look on Kris's face—that almost broke Adam's heart. He wanted to take Kris back to their quarters, lay him out on their bed and make love to him properly, remind him how much Adam loved him, how much Adam was willing to do for him. But Kris didn't want that from him now; he would think Adam was trying to hide something again.
Kris met Adam's eyes, and Adam wondered how much of that Kris had caught, if his heart had skipped a beat, if his breath had caught in his chest. Kris didn't give anything away, his smile slowly fading before he raised his right hand and licked across his palm.
"Oh fuck," Adam groaned, and all thoughts of going slow went out the airlock.
Kris licked his skin thoroughly, pink tongue curling between each finger, getting his hand dripping wet. Adam was paralyzed by the show until Kris reached down and wrapped that hand around Adam's cock, palming the head and spreading his saliva down.
"Shit," Adam hissed. "God damn it."
Kris twisted his wrist and pumped his hand a few times, sending waves of pleasure shooting up Adam's spine. Adam's hips bucked into the tease, and something flickered across Kris's face too quick for Adam to name. "Okay," Kris said, and if it sounded like a question more than an order, Adam didn't call him on it.
"Okay," Adam agreed, and slid down lower in the chair to find the angle where their bodies aligned. He held his wet cock steady and guided Kris down with a hand on his waist, a thumb stroking his favorite spot just inside Kris's hip bone. Kris eased himself down, slowly engulfing Adam in tight heat until the head of his cock was in and he could let go, pull Kris close for a long kiss.
Kris's breath escaped on a ragged gasp, his fingers fisting in Adam's hair as their lips clung and their bodies came together, inch by gradual inch. When Kris was seated on Adam's lap at last, Adam's cock throbbing in the silk of him, Kris finally leaned back and met his eyes. Kris's old smile was there, bright in his eyes and curving his lips, as if relieved to find Adam right where he'd left him.
Adam smiled back and rubbed a thumb over his cheek, whispered, "Love you."
He saw the moment reality intruded, Kris's blissful smile fading as he remembered the fight. Adam answered the only way he could: with a sharp jerk of his hips.
Kris gasped and moved with him, grinding down into the next shallow thrust. A moan spilled from his lips, and his eyes cleared again, adrenaline and lust obliterating everything.
"You're so beautiful," Adam said, his hands sliding over Kris's chest, greedy for all that skin. Kris arched into his hands, hips working over Adam in small circles and lip caught between his teeth. Kris's cock was trapped between their stomachs, dragging across Adam's shirt, liquid shivers moving across Adam's skin, and oh, Adam would wear this shirt every day if Kris wanted.
Kris was grinning, his pupils dilated, head lolling side to side in pleasure. When Adam slipped his hand down to squeeze Kris's cock, Kris's body clenched tight around Adam's, stealing his breath away with the almost unbearable friction, the sweetest drag. Adam retaliated by lifting Kris up by the hips and dropping him, gravity driving Adam's cock in deep. Kris's hands were still tangled in Adam's hair, and he tugged sharply in encouragement.
"Up, baby, help me," Adam panted.
Kris eased himself up before dropping down onto Adam's next thrust. "So good," Kris breathed, and lifted up again.
Their rhythm was slow and harsh, rough and demanding, Kris's grip tight enough to yank hairs loose from Adam's scalp, Adam's grip hard enough to leave bruises on Kris's thighs, and the thought of those marks made him thrust faster. He began stroking Kris's cock in earnest, slick with precum and sweat.
Kris started to fall apart, his breath frantic, voicing the whimpers that Adam bit back. "So close," Kris said, and Adam agreed with a slurred, "Yeah," his balls tightening, drawing close to his body.
"Now, baby, let go," Adam finally whispered, and pulled him down and close as his cock jerked inside Kris. Through the maelstrom of pleasure, he felt Kris spilling over his hand and his stomach, soaking his shirt, and he smiled and kissed Kris through it because oxygen was secondary to this need.
Afterward, Kris lay slumped hot against Adam's chest, the rest of Adam's skin cooling in the recirculated air, and Adam wanted to stay there, floating, forever.
It took him a long time to come down, but Kris was much quicker to recover. He ducked his head under Adam's chin, his hand fisting in Adam's shirt, and his voice seemed to come from a long way away when he said, "You killed twelve people."
"Yes," Adam said.
"They were trying to save you—" Kris's voice cracked, his words breaking off into abrupt silence.
Adam forced his eyes open and stared blindly up at the ceiling, a hard lump in his throat as Kris slid off and left Adam shivering and alone in the captain's chair.
Adam's bad mood was still in full force the next morning.
The crew was aboard, their shipment loaded and paperwork stamped, and their prey had a two hour head start. This was one of Adam's favorite moments: the universe stretched out and waiting for him just beyond the hangar walls. But this time it felt like everything was wrong.
That feeling definitely had something to do with the way Kris had eyed their bed last night and told Adam he needed 'more time to think.' Adam glanced at Kris's back now, and he caught the way Kris's skilled fingers fidgeted over the navigation console.
Deepa dropped into her seat with her sleeves shoved up and her hair brushed back, her entire body vibrating with eagerness. "Bo's so excited for this prize she can barely see straight," she reported. "Or else she's still hungover. She and that Ten-Segai engineer really hit it off last night."
Adam grimaced and went back to staring at Kris.
"2,000 tons of Applen liquor," she whistled. "This'll be our best haul since the—" She caught herself just in time, a hand slapped over her mouth.
Kris turned his head and glanced back at them. When his gaze caught Adam's, Kris flinched and turned to face front again.
"So...you told him," Deepa guessed, finally noticing Adam's misery.
"I don't want to talk about it."
"Uh huh." She looked around the control room, her leg bouncing, stimulants practically leaking from her pores. And then she said, "Are we gonna leave? Or just sit here. I don't know about you, but I've got a hot date with some bottles of Applen."
Adam sighed and forced his gaze away from Kris's back. The signals were green, all systems in optimum condition; no reason to delay. "We're leaving," he agreed. "Doug? Let's get those doors closed," he said into the comm.
"Oh, I liked Doug's suggestion for a tractor beam upgrade," she said, fastening her safety straps. "Even if Perth isn't releasing it yet, I'm sure we'll find one on the black market soon."
Adam nodded his agreement and tapped his fingers impatiently.
"I mean, it's a huge investment, and I don't want to tell you how to spend your share…."
He didn't rise to her bait. "We'll see about cost when we find one."
He could feel her grinning from four feet away.
The loading ramp doors were still blinking on his display, and Adam's frayed patience unraveled further. "Doug," he repeated, annoyance sharpening his voice. "Any time you're ready."
Deepa leaned over in her seat and whispered, low so Osman wouldn't overhear, "I think he was giving Bo an assist last night. If you know what I mean."
Adam couldn't care less who on his crew was getting off with a Ten-Segai employee—not when his boyfriend refused to even look at him. "That's not an excuse for falling asleep on the job," he snapped at her, and then leaned on the comm again. "Doug!"
The light stopped blinking just as Doug's voice cut in, panting and a little ragged, "Doors closed."
"Thank you," Adam muttered, and ignored Deepa's smug, "Oh, somebody sounds rough today!"
"Kris—if you please," Adam added, softening his tone.
Kris nodded without showing his face or a hint of emotion. "Take off in five, four...."
Adam buckled his straps and prepared for acceleration.
Pain in his side woke him, and Adam opened his eyes to Kris's hissed, "Wake up!"
He rolled over and rubbed at the spot on his hip where Kris had pinched him, glaring up at Kris for a blurry moment before the significance of Kris's presence in his bed sunk in. Kris must have joined him during the night; which meant he'd made a decision, and that he was—
Kris's hand came up and covered Adam's mouth. "I heard something. Listen."
Adam's eyes focused enough to notice that Kris wasn't naked; that he was, in fact, still wearing his jumpsuit. The disappointment of which was not relevant right now. Adam shook his head and frowned, his body already tense in response to Kris's alarm.
"I heard voices. Not our crew. There!"
Adam listened as hard as he could, and after a few seconds he thought he caught a low murmuring over the vibration of engines and the constant system hum. "You're sure they're not ours?" Adam demanded, even as he shook Kris off and rolled out of bed. He grabbed up a pair of pants; this was not the time to be caught naked.
Kris climbed off the mattress and stepped over to the door. "Positive, I know everyone's voices too well. How the hell did strangers get aboard?"
"Good question," Adam said, and reached for his gun.
He was just scanning the small room for his boots when Kris gasped. Adam looked up to catch Kris's shocked expression before Kris yelled, "It's a bomb!"
Adam didn't think, he just moved, running forward to get to Kris, pull him to safety—
—and the room exploded.
Adam winced—and even that small movement set his whole head throbbing—and tried not to whimper like a dog.
"C'mon," Kris was saying. "Open your eyes. C'mon, baby, please."
Adam made himself obey, his eyes cracking open to nothing.
But then Kris was over him, Kris's lips pressed to his, and saying, "Oh god, thank god," against his skin.
"What happened?" Adam asked. It only half-sounded like a whimper.
"The bomb blew in the door. You're pretty messed up."
No kidding, Adam wanted to say, but he saved his strength to lift his head and orient himself.
There was a thick haze of smoke in the room, and the still-smoking door had landed on his left arm.
Adam thrashed, jerking his arm free. "Oh fuck, are you okay?" he demanded, grabbing at the bracelet on his wrist. He didn't want to think about the blood spilling from his left shoulder.
"I'm fine," Kris assured him, one hand cupping Adam's cheek. "I'm here. You're…. Okay, yeah, it's better if you don't look at that. Just reach up here and apply pressure. Don't look! Just squeeze."
Adam met Kris's eyes and swallowed against the barely-suppressed panic he saw there. "Okay," Adam agreed, and slid his hand up to meet Kris's, finding the wet spot on his shoulder. More pain shot down his arm when he squeezed, but his fingers were working, and Kris looked as whole and healthy as the day Adam had met him.
"What happened?" he asked, looking down at the oozing cuts all over his bare chest, the smoldering pieces of metal around the room.
"You were out for a few minutes. They decided you were dead."
Adam's temples throbbed. So did the back of his head. His whole body felt like one massive bruise. "There are intruders—"
"I overheard them say they locked the crew in the cargo hold. You were the last one."
"Fucking pirates," Adam mumbled, shoving himself to his feet.
"Adam," Kris said, catching his free hand. "They're not after our cargo. They've been trying to change our course, pointing us toward the nearest star. They're trying to kill us."
The deck lurched under him, and Adam stumbled against one of the bulkheads, his stomach rebelling as his headache tried to scream its way out of him.
"I know it hurts, baby," Kris murmured, at his side and stroking his hair, his touch as gentle as a breeze. "I'm so sorry."
It was physically painful to concentrate. Adam took a few deep breaths and tried anyway. "They're trying to kill us," he repeated.
"Yeah," Kris confirmed. "I've overridden their course changes so far, but they're gonna figure it out eventually. And once they know I'm on board, that I'm still alive…."
They would come looking for Kris.
"…I have to get to the cargo hold," Adam decided.
"Yeah," Kris said, but his expression was doubtful. "Can you walk?"
"I'll crawl if I have to," Adam said, and ignored the way his legs shook under him, eager to take him up on the offer. He pushed himself away from the wall in the direction of the open doorway and staggered straight into the adjacent wall.
"No, oh," Kris cried, trying to steady Adam as best he could.
Adam blinked his eyes a couple times and tried to focus, but his blurred vision wasn't just smoke from the blast, after all. He played it off like the crash was intentional, stooping down with a hand braced against the wall so he could pick up the gun he'd just tripped over. With the weapon tucked safely in the waistband of his pants, he took another shot at the door.
It took two more tries to get his hand on the doorframe, before the world spun and sent Adam tumbling through the doorway to land hard on the hall flooring.
"Oh shit," Adam groaned as the deck rolled under him, his head spinning. "Which way's up?"
"You have to get up," Kris said, crouched next to Adam and giving him a pleading look.
Adam blinked, and Kris was gone.
Adam stared at the place where Kris had just been. Kris was still ordering him to get up, his tone getting strict, but he wasn't there, and then—and then Kris was suddenly back, his finger right in Adam's face.
"What the fuck." Adam's right hand released his shoulder and grabbed for his bracelet again. "Kris, are you okay?" He tried to squint down at it. The red vinyl cuff looked a little scuffed—both of them; apparently he was seeing double—but it seemed intact.
"I'm fine, I told you. Now come on, up!"
Adam ignored the panic building in his guts. His crew was in danger, the enemy could be anywhere, and Adam was seeing things—or not seeing them. There were too many reasons to panic to give in to it now. He crawled toward what looked like the nearest wall and climbed his way up until he was gasping against the pain in his head but more or less upright.
"Okay. Which way am I going?"
Kris raised his hand, but Adam's eyes were closing against his will. It was really fucking bright in the hall—
"Hey, eyes open!" Kris snapped, and Adam opened them automatically.
"What?" he said, his voice a little slurred. Another symptom he would have to ignore for now.
"You've got some mild brain trauma," Kris said, leaning in close and peering at his eyes. "How much can you see right now?"
Adam looked around obediently. Both ends of the hallway were shifting, fluid and uncertain, like seeing underwater. "I see you," he said. Even though Kris was just as blurry, and there'd been that weird blip where he'd disappeared, Kris was still the most stable part of his world right now.
"Okay, that's alright," Kris lied, and Adam forced a smile. "I'll help you. First, put your hand back on your shoulder and squeeze. You have to keep applying pressure. Good. Now, hold out your left hand." When Adam raised his shaking arm, Kris took his hand and squeezed. When Kris tugged, Adam took a hesitant step. "That's it. You lean against this wall if you start to lose your balance, okay?"
"I can't see where I'm going," Adam warned him.
"I can," Kris assured him. "You just keep those eyes open, and I'll get us to the cargo hold."
"Cargo hold," Adam agreed. He felt crippled, helpless, unable to defend himself, his crew, his ship. But he had one chance to save them all. "I'm ready," he said, and let Kris's next tug lead him forward.
They'd made it to the end of the first hallway—a grueling, three-minute trek that should have only taken twenty seconds at a stroll—when Kris put a hand to Adam's chest and whispered, "Go back!"
Adam stumbled backward, around the corner he'd barely navigated, and waited for Kris to explain.
"One of them, coming this way."
Adam swore and fumbled for his gun. How the hell was he supposed to shoot anything, when he couldn't even—
Kris stepped behind him and caught Adam's forearms, guiding them upward until the gun was pointed roughly ahead of him. "Gun up. Ready? When I say, you shoot, okay?"
He wanted to protest, but he couldn't think of a coherent word to say, and Kris's were the only steady hands he had. He nodded.
After a long moment, silent but for the pounding of blood in his head, Kris said, "Shoot!" and Adam did.
The sound pierced his ears, and he almost missed the high, feminine cry that followed. When he focused on the floor, there was a dark shape laid out on the deck.
"Good," Kris said, his voice as shaky as Adam's grip on the gun. He took a deep breath and said, "Let's keep going."
Adam followed him down the next corridor, trying desperately not to think about the swell of panic building in his chest. And then Kris disappeared again.
Adam was completely unprepared for it. Kris's sure grip was suddenly gone, and Adam's next step faltered, the step after that sending him shoulder-first into a wall. "Kris," Adam begged, his voice strangled from the pain. He blinked his eyes as hard as he could and opened them wide again. "Where the hell are you?"
"Adam!" Kris shouted, standing right in front of him, fingers painfully tight on Adam's shoulders.
"Where'd you go?" Adam yelled, his throat clenched tight against the rising tide of panic. "How could you do that?"
"I didn't go anywhere! What happened?" Kris demanded. "Couldn't you hear me?"
"You were gone," Adam said. He followed Kris's gaze down to his wrist, and Adam started swearing again.
"Something must be wrong with the device," Kris said, and Adam hated the resigned way Kris said it, just accepting it. "That means we have to move faster. Come on."
He took Adam's hand again and urged him ahead, keeping up a continuous commentary: "We're halfway down 6B. The mess is coming up on the right. The ladder to the lower gun port is on the left. You're doing great, baby. Just keep following me, just like that." His voice cut out every once in a while, words dropped like a bad comm link, but the hot grip on Adam's fingers stayed tight and true. And Adam kept following, not thinking about how damaged Kris's device might be—about what he would do if it couldn't be fixed.
Until Kris was gone, completely gone, again.
Adam found a wall—only a handful of paces from the 6F juncture, per Kris's last report, and waited. He waited ten seconds, and then twenty, and then a full minute, keeping count of the pulses beating through his head. "Kris," he called as the panic crested. "Come back. Please. I'm sorry, it's my fault, I'll—" He tried to swallow, found he couldn't, and spat instead. "Fuck, I'll do anything you want, just…don't be gone. Please, I need you."
His legs were trembling, harsh breaths shredding his throat and lungs, and Adam's hands were empty as if Kris had never existed. And for just a few seconds, he slipped under. Adam doubled over and vomited, choking on panic and bile and grief, on the possibility that Kris was dead, until he was hollowed out. And then he leaned his shoulder against the wall and took the first shuffling step alone.
It took forever to go the last few dozen meters. Every faint sound, real or imagined, had him pulling out his gun. He dropped it twice and lost track of his surroundings once, floundering in the middle of a junction with no wall to help steer him. But luck—if Adam deserved any, after the life he'd lived—was on his side.
He finally propped himself against the small access door to the cargo hold and sighed with exhaustion and relief. Finding the door lock posed its own challenge, but after feeling his way up both sides of the door, Adam belatedly remembered to touch the sensor in the center. He leaned his weight on it, let the scan run, and forgot to catch himself before the door had slid away, and Adam was falling face-first over the threshold and into the arms of his crew.
There was muted shouting, a flurry of hands, the deck hard under his back, and Deepa's fingers cool against his throat. "What the hell happened to you?" she demanded, crouched low over him.
Adam blinked up at her wavering silhouette and smiled. "I got blown up." His smile faded as he remembered, "So did Kris."
"Is he okay?" she demanded, cradling Adam's wrist.
"I don't know," he admitted, and swallowed the accompanying ocean of grief.
Somebody gave a low groan of pain, over to the right. Adam turned his head, glad for the distraction. "Who—"
"Doug," Deepa said. "They worked him over good. Who are these fuckers? What the hell are they after? They boarded at Aboreo; they have to know we're just hauling spare parts!"
"They want us dead," Adam said. He couldn't remember why he was so sure of that now, but he was.
He felt the gun tugged loose from his pants. "Then we'll have to kill them first," Deepa said. "We're taking back the ship, right now," she called, a rallying cry to the others, and Adam tried to sit up. "Not you," she said, pushing him down; it didn't take much force. "You and Doug are sitting this one out.
Doug made a noise of protest that Adam seconded, but Deepa, Bo, and Osman were already ducking into the bright glow of the hallway.
He had no choice but to close his eyes and pray.
There were lights flashing by, his head tipping crazily down and up. There was pain, excruciating, digging deep into his shoulder, and Kris's lips against his cheek, his voice soothing in Adam's ear….
He opened his eyes to darkness that quickly resolved to the dull metal of his quarters, black soot streaks radiating across the ceiling. He was in his bed, alone—no, not alone; someone was talking, almost too soft to hear.
When Adam lifted his head, he spotted Deepa on the foot of the bed, her legs stretched out on the mattress. One booted foot bumped Adam's leg as she murmured over a readout pane.
She looked up and smiled, teeth shining ice-blue in the glow from the display. She tucked the readout under the bed and scooted up the mattress to sit by his hip. "Welcome back, Captain," she said, and saluted him for the first time in two years. "I'm pleased to report that we're once again in command of our own ship."
He dropped his head back with a long, relieved sigh. "Good job," he said. "Everybody's okay?" He tried to take stock of his own injuries, but everything felt detached, muffled by morphine.
She nodded. "Doug's been awake since this morning—you were the last hold-out. Bo patched up your shoulder as best she could—it'll hold 'til we get to a doctor. I'm calling it a 100% survival rate for this voyage." She caught the way Adam's eyes instinctively darted around the room and added, "Including Kris."
Adam had to check for himself. He leaned up to scan the dim room; the pieces of door were gone, the doorway standing empty. There was no sign of Kris anywhere. "Kris?" he asked.
He hadn't meant the question for Deepa. She answered anyway. "He's still handling the navigation. Been following my orders, too. If you two ever have a falling out, I wouldn't mind having him on my next crew," she said with a smirk.
Adam ignored the bait and checked his wrist. He was still wearing the bracelet, but he couldn't see or hear Kris at all.
"Nobody took it off," she said. He felt her hand on his knee and wished he could pretend it was Kris's touch he was feeling. "We know better than that."
"I can't…. He disappeared," Adam blurted. His head still ached, and remembering made the pain worsen, but he had to explain. "One second he was with me, and then he was just gone. I still…I can't see him at all."
Deepa's brows knotted and she leaned down over the bracelet. "He got caught in the explosion," she said, considering.
"My fault," Adam said. He should have known better, should have used his head and moved away from the bomb instead of taking Kris straight toward it. He brought his right hand up and started tugging at the red casing, digging underneath for the hidden ties.
Deepa helped, slim fingers squeezing between his skin and the vinyl, until the ties came loose and unraveled. Adam pulled the casing off, ignoring the small section of red that had been scorched darker, the larger section that showed abrasions and a thin crack. The slender silver band that remained on his wrist was unchanged, undamaged, a perfect circle.
They spun it between their fingers, four times round, both of them peering closely until Adam risked saying, "It looks fine."
"Yeah," she agreed.
"Then why can't I see him?"
It was possible that Kris was doing it on purpose, his guilty conscience pointed out. They'd had a fight, about the Indazita, the George Town. Adam had walked into that bomb instead of protecting Kris…. It was a ludicrous accusation—he knew Kris better than that—but it was the only explanation left.
Her grip settled, painfully tight, around Adam's forearm. And then she said, "I know how much you hate to take him off…." She waited until Adam met her eyes before continuing. "But maybe the problem isn't him. Maybe it's you."
Adam tried to hide his flinch. He wasn't sure he entirely succeeded.
"It's just a suggestion," she said, her grip loosening, sliding higher to hold the bracelet. "But it would rule out the possibility of damage."
He hesitated, like he hadn't with the bomb, like he hadn't when he'd found the bracelet on the Belerica seven months ago.
And then he said, "Okay."
She didn't do it for him. She dropped her hands to her lap so Adam had to remove the bracelet himself. He whispered a quick apology as he took it off, in case Kris could still hear him, was still listening. And then he thrust the bracelet at Deepa before he could change his mind.
She slipped it onto her wrist, her gaze fixed on the titanium alloy, and then her head snapped up, and her eyes widened. "Oh my god," she gasped, one hand flying to her chest.
"What?" Adam demanded. "Is he okay? Can you see him?"
Her face broke into a huge grin. "He's loud," she whispered, just for Adam.
The realization that someone else could hear Kris slid like a knife between his ribs. He shoved his jealousy aside. "Is he okay?" he repeated.
Deepa ignored him, seemingly fascinated by the sight in front of her. "And cute. Damn. Oh, sorry," she added, looking contritely at a spot near the foot of the bed.
Adam could imagine the look on Kris's face.
"No, he's okay, really. See?" she said, and turned her eyes on Adam. "Ignore all the cuts and bruises. He's awake, he's talking; he's fine. He says he can't see you…. No, of course you wouldn't! But if I can see you, hear you," she reached out her hand and then grinned again, "and touch you, why can't he?"
Adam looked back and forth between Deepa and the empty place where Kris was.
Deepa nodded, listening, and then squinted at Adam. "I suppose…. Okay," she said, nodding forcefully to Adam, like he was supposed to pay attention now. "Kris thinks it's you. Or, you know, you getting blown up. He can still access your senses, but he can't interact with them. So he thinks maybe all that swelling from the head trauma messed with whichever part of your brain he's supposed to interface with."
"So, when the swelling goes down…?" Adam asked. He hardly dared to breathe.
Deepa looked toward Kris again, and then shrugged. "We aren't doctors. But why not?"
They had to be right. Adam wasn't sure he could deal with never being able to see Kris again, to touch him, hear him. "So Kris is totally okay?"
"Yeah, he's fine," she reported. "The interface is perfect." She held out her right hand and said, a smile lighting up her face, "It's nice to finally meet you, Kris."
Her hand grasped and shook the empty air, and Adam wanted to laugh and scream at the gesture. He forced himself to stay still, to let Deepa have this moment. And Kris—Kris didn't get to meet anyone like this, not since Adam took him. So he bit his tongue and blinked his eyes at the sheet covering his body. He was naked under the sheet, he realized. His pants were gone, and he hadn't been wearing anything else when the bomb went off—
Deepa said, "Of course, just a second," and Adam watched her slip the bracelet off.
He reached out a greedy hand, but she held the bracelet out of his reach and said, "Ah ah, not so fast. I need a second without anyone listening in."
"Deepa," Adam said, his voice a warning. This was one of Kris's greatest fears—losing time. She couldn't do this to him.
She ignored the warning. "I just need a second to say damn. You said he was cute, but…I guess I'm saying I get it, you know? How you could be happy with this." She looked at the bracelet, twisting it lightly in her grip. "But why the fuck anyone would volunteer to live like this, I'll never understand."
"Deepa, give him back. Please."
She pressed on. "Just remember what I said; if you two don't work out for any reason, I'll take him." She winked at him, but finally passed him the bracelet, and two seconds later Kris was safe on his wrist, where he belonged.
Adam looked around hopefully, but Kris wasn't magically there.
"No?" she asked, her smirk fading to sympathy.
"Not yet," Adam gritted through his teeth. He was an optimist. He had to believe Kris would come back.
"Sorry," she said.
"So," he said, changing the subject. "Who the hell were those people?"
"Oh," she said, sitting up straight, her spine going rigid with anger. "Oh, you won't even believe it. Fucking Perth."
"Yeah! Those assholes sent a pack of mercenaries onto Aboreo to make an example of the biggest, baddest pirates they could find. Which was us."
"Why the hell would they—"
"My guess? Retribution," she said. "Payback. For…" her eyes dropped to the bracelet.
"Shit. Fuck," Adam breathed, cradling Kris's device protectively. The Perth Corporation was the largest trading company in the galaxy, with their own colonies, their own army, and enough warships to protect their cargo freighters in the less-patrolled sectors. No one in this sector was big enough—or crazy enough—to go after one of Perth's convoys…except Adam and his crew. Considering how the blowback had nearly killed them, it had been one of the stupidest ideas of Adam's career.
But if he hadn't done it, he wouldn't have met Kris….
"They jumped Doug just before takeoff and waited 'til we were well out of range of the patrols. You were right—they were supposed to sink us into a star and make it back to Aboreo in one of our escape pods."
"Does Perth know about Kris? That he's with us?"
Deepa shook her head. "Doubt it. I threw one of the mercs in the airlock and threatened to space him unless he spilled. And believe me, he spilled. Their orders said nothing about a trainer. If this had been a rescue mission, they would've known what to look for."
Adam closed his eyes and tried to organize his thoughts, tried to figure out how much could be salvaged. "So this was just random luck? They haven't pinned the Belerica on us?"
Deepa snorted softly. "Oh, I wouldn't say random. Dulane has never been subtle with our payments. And that little 'bonus' for destroying Kris? I'll bet you my share, everyone on that station figures we're pirates by now. Our cloaking doesn't extend to the bursar's office, no matter how much new tech Doug installs."
God, he'd known that would bite them on the ass. "Then we have to consider this whole sector burned," Adam said. "We need to relocate; either find another Dulane factor to work with, or go legit again, or…start stealing."
Deepa frowned, her body sagging. "I figured. After we dumped our visitors, I had Kris—"
"Wait," Adam said, "what did you do with them?"
"Shoved them in a pod and dumped them a few dozen tera-klicks off the lane. Bought us at least three days before anyone finds them."
"Alive or dead?"
She spared him a fleeting smile. "Both. Seven mercs, and only four of them were still breathing, so I figured one pod would be enough. They all fit, more or less." She waved a hand at Adam's shudder. "Well I wasn't gonna keep three corpses lying around for the customs agent. This way, the evidence is gone, and we can make a clean start. I've got Kris going full-bore toward the Velano sector."
"We'll need to have a meeting," Adam decided. "See who wants to stay on."
"We've got time. It's two days to the next station. I've been reading some of the sector specs to Kris, so he'll know what to expect."
Adam blinked, surprised.
"I didn't know if he'd ever been," she said, a touch defensive. "And you always complain how annoying he gets when he's bored. You've hardly been a barrel of fun just lying there like that."
"Thank you," Adam said, touched that she'd thought to spend time with Kris.
"Now I've finally gotten to meet him, I may change my mind about which of you I like better," she teased.
"He's totally nicer than me," Adam agreed.
"And cuter." She patted his knee. "But I declared you unfit for duty 18 hours ago, and I'm not reversing that decision yet. So you stay in bed unless you want this to turn into a full-blown mutiny." She stood up, handed him the readout pane, and added, "In case either of you gets bored."
He spent an hour reading the files Deepa had collected, and another half hour letting his eyes rest on the system maps. When he couldn't keep his eyes open any longer, he whispered a goodnight to Kris and let sleep take him again.
Nothing had changed when he woke up. Adam went back to his studies, letting Kris get a good look at the Velani Hole and the Greater Rift, the most dangerous features of the Velano sector. It wasn't until he unconsciously flexed his right arm that he realized there was a familiar weight on his shoulder. When he tipped his head to the right, Adam felt hair brush his cheek, spiky and soft.
"Kris," he said, "I can feel you," and his next breath caught on a sob as the weight eased suddenly. But instead of disappearing completely, a new pressure formed, what felt like fingers sliding down his face. When soft lips brushed his, Adam closed his eyes. This way, at least, he could pretend that it was any other night, and Kris was safe in bed with him.
Kris resettled against Adam's good shoulder, his hair prickling against Adam's skin and his fingers tracing a long circuit up and down the inside of his arm. Adam kept his cheek pressed to Kris's temple and his eyes closed tight, and pretended everything was fine.
He didn't know how much time passed before he heard Kris saying, "—seen me, I couldn't stop laughing. That was my first love, did I ever tell you that? The feel of the sun on my skin, the wind in my hair, skimming the treetops in my neighbor's biplane…."
"You never told me," Adam murmured, wanting Kris to keep talking so he could listen a little longer before chancing his eyes.
"I caught hell for taking her out on my own," Kris said. "No lessons—they were scared to death—but I just knew my way around her. That was the first time I really knew what I wanted. God, I can't believe how long ago that was."
Adam screwed up his courage and forced his reluctant eyelids open. When he turned his head, he found Kris still resting against his shoulder, one hand raised above him, imitating the swooping motion of his first solo flight. Adam reached out his own hand, catching Kris's jaw and turning his head to meet Adam's gaze.
Kris made a joyful sound and lurched forward, pressing his lips to Adam's, his hands carding through Adam's hair.
"Oh my god," he panted into Adam's mouth. "You're back?"
Adam kissed him again and nodded. "Think so."
"You can hear me, too," Kris said, relief thickening his colonial accent. "Don't ever scare me like that again."
"I'll promise if you will."
"Deal." Kris stretched, and Adam felt it all down his right side, Kris's knees bumping his, Kris's boots kicking his ankle a little too hard, Kris's chest landing on his as he sprawled across Adam, his arms loose around Adam's neck.
Adam squeezed him with one arm and savored the warm feeling curling in his chest. "You were telling me about your first love," he prompted, wanting Kris to keep talking to him, to be as free with his story now that he knew Adam could hear him.
"Mm," Kris agreed. "There's nothing out here quite like it: flying in atmosphere, with mechanics and hydraulics instead of systems software, feeling the wind fight back when you change direction."
Adam couldn't help smiling at Kris's happiness. "How old were you, that first time?"
"Eleven, I think. My dad was waiting for me when I landed. He grounded me for a month. Literally," Kris added with a laugh. "And then he signed me up for flight school."
Eleven years old and already flying solo, terrorizing his family and neighbors. Adam had never stood a chance against Kris Allen. "Do you ever miss it?" he asked, meaning all of it, the flying, Kris's childhood home.
"Yeah," Kris admitted, sobering. "I haven't flown in atmosphere since I learned interstellar physics and got hired by the corporations. There's really no money in it, so I had to…I mean, it just made more sense to sign a piloting contract, you know? And then when I really needed it, the trainer contract came up." He took a deep breath, hugging Adam a little tighter. "I knew I was giving up a lot. I knew that. But they promised I could still fly everything. I just didn't think about…about that kind of flying."
They were quiet for a long moment, listening to the hum of the engine flying under Kris's perfect control.
"I can't fly anything," Adam finally said, preparing to offer the only thing he could.
Kris snorted. "I know."
"But maybe there's a way we can get you on one of those planes. Even if you aren't exactly solo, you'll still feel everything. And if you don't want me there, we can find someone else who can take you up—"
"Stop," Kris said, pushing up to meet Adam's eyes. "Stop that. I told you, I'm not leaving."
Adam gritted his teeth at Kris's infuriating insight. He wanted Kris to be happy, and if happy meant putting him on someone else's wrist for an afternoon or a lifetime, he would find a way to fucking deal with it. "But if I can't—"
"I thought I was perfectly clear, before; I just needed time, and I've had it. Hell, I pulled that trigger for you, babe. I've made my choice."
"I pulled the trigger," Adam corrected. It was his gun, his hand on the grip, his crime to live with, not Kris's.
"Which you couldn't have done without me." Kris scowled at him. "Stop arguing with the guy who saved your life, okay, asshole? I'm saying I'm not leaving you."
Adam wanted to keep arguing, to resist the forgiveness he didn't deserve and the shy smile that wanted to break out across his face. He failed on all counts.
Satisfied, Kris nodded and settled his head back down on Adam's chest. "Besides," he said, his voice going smug, "it's not like you've ever bothered taking lessons. Am I right?"
It took Adam a few seconds to guess Kris's meaning. He tensed up. "I don't think that's a good idea."
Kris ignored him. "Biplanes aren't hard. If you find me a colony with atmosphere, I can totally teach you how to fly one."
"I'm serious—I don't think I can handle something like that."
"You will," Kris assured him. "I'm a certified flight instructor and one of Perth's hand-picked trainers. They wouldn't have made the offer if I weren't good at it."
"It's not the trainer I'm doubting; it's the pupil."
"I'm not gonna let my first official trainee crash and burn. Think what that would do to my reputation!"
"If I fail, we both crash and burn," Adam grumbled. "If your biplane doesn't have a systems interface, you won't be able to save us when I screw up."
"Exactly. No choice but to succeed. Come on, Adam. I want to share this with you—just you." He paused for breath and then asked, "How much do you trust me?"
Adam lifted his head and shot him a suspicious look. Kris was obviously trying to look earnest, but a smile kept tugging at his cheeks. "You are such a bastard," Adam groaned.
"I'm calling that a yes," Kris said, sounding far too pleased with himself. He pushed himself up again and crawled over Adam's body, the pressure of his weight settling on Adam's hips. "I promise, you'll love it," he said as he leaned down to kiss Adam.
Adam grumbled some more but kissed him back, good arm holding Kris close and eyes wide open to everything they had.