They’ve been sending her out on her own for years, so it’s something of a surprise the day she finds him there, leaning against her bird and jabbing forcefully at a tablet. She takes a second to size him up: a cadet, obviously, but not button-polished like they usually are; his flight suit looks grubby already. His hair is a disaster, she notes; it’s positively straining to be longer than regulation, the ghost of a wave across his forehead.
“Who are you?” he says when he sees her, and it’s almost charming, how affronted he seems.
“Your new god,” she says. “Lix Storm.”
“Ominous,” he says, instead of anything useful, like his name or his rank or why the fuck the Corporation brass have sent him to her. Christ, but he’s a little shit. This might actually be fun.
“Put that away,” she says, nodding at his tablet. “We’re flying now.”
It’s been so long since she shared her bird with anyone, she isn’t expecting it to be this easy. He’s angry, all the time, humming under his skin and grinding his teeth with it, but that can be useful. He loves to fly, which helps. She thinks he must have learned on something much smaller, the way he leans into the corners, the way he keeps his elbows in so they hardly ever brush hers.
He hasn’t had to leave anyone behind yet; he’s scared he’s the one who’ll be left.
There’s a friend he talks about incessantly, who’s come up through cadets with him, who he seems to fight with about everything. He says her name quickly, like he’s trying to muffle the chime of it.
Lix wonders about them, sometimes riles him about it, but most of the time it seems too much like pressing on a bruise, so she lets it be.
He escapes as soon as they land, every time, raps the wing with his knuckles and runs. Literally runs, half the time. She doesn’t go with him, never asks to meet his friend even though she thinks he’s angling for it. Instead, she showers, imagining a bath, and props her feet up in a corner of the mess.
Once, after their third patrol, George comes to sit with her. She hates George.
“How are you getting on with Lyon?” he asks her, looking smug.
“Good, good,” she says, and lets her smoke blow in his face.
There are flight plans they’re supposed to stick to, of course.
“Don’t be so wet,” she tells him, the first time he mentions it, and he doesn’t bring it up again. He twinkles though, round his mouth, every time they veer close to the edge of the map.
“You remind me of her, you know,” he says once. “Or she of you. I don’t know which way round it should be, because I knew her first, but you’re older.”
Lix is in desperate need of a smoke. “Do shut up, darling.”
“Isn’t that unprofessional?” he says irritably, scrubbing at his forehead with the back of his hand. His hair is even longer now; they’ll cut it all off soon. “Your calling me ‘darling’ like that?”
What a boy he is. “I can call you what I like,” she says. “Don’t you know? There’s nobody listening.”
She flicks him in the ear. “I wish you were a cigarette,” she tells him, to soften the blow. “I’d light your head on fire.”
He hates auto-pilot, which she finds endlessly amusing.
“I don’t want to miss anything,” he says stubbornly when she tells him to sleep. He’s looking out at the starfield. He’s always looking out, pointing things out to her as if she isn’t already acutely aware, as if she hasn’t had years of hurling herself at those same stars.
“That’s admirable, darling, but those stims will burn your eyes out if you’re not careful.” She hits the button, ignoring the twitch in his hands. “And then what would be the point?”
“You take stims,” he says, turning his head to look at her sharply.
“Yes,” she says. “But I wash mine down with whiskey.”
The first time they’re sent out on an actual mission, he lights up with it. She gives him the controls, because that’s what he’s here for, to learn; there are things he wants to prove.
Their landing is awful, skidding and bouncing on the dock and both of them falling to the floor of the bird, and when George cracks the hatch and sees them lying there, crying with laughter, his lips thin, lemon sour.
They watch the footage back, after.
“Such accuracy, such control,” Lix says, pointing. “Good show, Mr Lyon, textbook technique,” and Freddie laughs helplessly into her shoulder in the screening room.
They go out on yet another three-day patrol, screamingly tedious excepting the fact that Freddie’s wound even tighter than usual.
“She’s been streamed,” he says on the third day. “They’ll make her a captain.”
Lix flicks on the auto-pilot.
“Bel, I mean,” he adds, unnecessarily. The name rings out. His hands are flexing uselessly in mid-air.
Lix stands up. She has a flask in the first aid kit; she should probably get him drunk.
“So it shouldn’t be too much longer,” he says, when she still doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t take the flask. “Me with you.”
Darling, if you were ever going to be streamed, they wouldn’t have sent you to me. This is what she should say – it would be kinder – but she kisses him, instead. He kisses back, hungrily, mouth opening wide and wet, hands clutching at her waist. Her arms go around his neck, one hand still gripping the flask.
He fucks like he has something to prove. She wants to tell him there are worse things in this life than being left behind, that there are deeper hurts. She spills booze down his neck and licks it away and he does take the flask then, takes it and throws it behind him without looking and licks the taste from her mouth.
They knock the bottle of stims all over the floor, pills skittering everywhere. She imagines grinding them to dust underneath her back, and then she doesn’t imagine anything at all, closes her eyes against the starfield.
When they land, they sit for a minute, the two of them in the cockpit. He leans across, fiddles with the collar of her flight suit, patting it down instead of pulling it aside to see the marks underneath.
“My fearless leader,” he says, and leans their heads together.
This is the end of the beginning, she thinks. It surprises her, the wash of sadness after the thought. She reaches up and puts her hand in his hair, scratches lightly at his scalp.