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the knife in my back reminds me of you

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Crichton's body hits the deck with a dull thud, like an odd chime signaling the end of his usefulness. Watching as Aeryn Sun rushes to the side of the father of her newborn child, clearly reliving his twin's death, Scorpius silently reassesses his place in this new universe. So much of his life has been leading up to this moment—the use of wormhole weapons to end Scarran aggression once and for all. Now that it has passed, he's not entirely certain what to do with himself.

With the benefit of hindsight, Scorpius can see that his life has been divided into discrete stages defined by his determined campaigns. As a child, he sought escape. As an adolescent, he sought self-discovery. As a man, he sought revenge. Now that his vengeful plot has concluded (if in a less bloody and genocidal manner than which he fantasized), Scorpius realizes he has no next step planned—a rarity for him. He always assumed that he would give his life to destroy the Scarrans. He was always willing to die for that cause; it seems a shame not to fulfill the bargain.

Yet here he stands on the bridge of Moya, watching as the Scarrans and the Peacekeepers (an added bonus) debase themselves, scraping and pleading with a human to save their lives and their people. Scorpius has to admit that he would prefer them all dead, but seeing them toothless and groveling is a close second. That is, until Stark steps up, taking over negotiations for the fallen Crichton. No death, no total extermination could be sweeter than the leaders of the Peacekeepers and the Scarran Imperium talking interstellar military policy as equals with a Banik slave, especially one brought up in the crystherium fields of Katratzi, watching his own people choke to death on biomimetic fertilizer.

Scorpius could watch forever, to be honest, but there's work to be done. He may not know the path the next stage of his life will take; he does know that he must move quickly. Hesitation is a luxury not afforded to half-breeds.

He leaves command, Grayza and Staleek's humiliation, and Aeryn Sun's cries, winding his way through Moya's sinuous corridors, eager to take stock of his remaining assets on board. (Scorpius' tips for success: to know one's future is to set a goal for self-improvement. To set a goal, one must first ascertain one's deficits and one's qualities. Try making a list either in your head or in an encrypted file set to self-terminate in ten solar days.)

Predictably, his body leads him to the maintenance bay to collect the surplus cooling rods Sikozu manufactured for his new cranial cooling apparatus, as well as the raw material to produce new rods. With Sikozu gone (and quite possibly dead), Scorpius will have to start making them himself again, a time-consuming chore requiring little-to-no guile or cleverness, so not something Scorpius particularly enjoys doing. On his command carrier, he would have a trusted nurse or two to take care of that, but now here. . . Delegating the responsibility to Braca is completely out of the question. Over the cycles, Scorpius has asked of Braca many, many things that push at his personal limits, but Scorpius suspects asking Braca to perform tech work would be asking far too much from the captain.

Having gathered all the necessary cooling supplies, Scorpius takes off to search for the man in question, his one remaining unclaimed asset aboard Moya. Hopefully, he's still alive.

Scorpius taps his comm. “Braca, report.”

There's a few microts of statics before a raspy, muttered, “Braca.”

Scorpius gives a silent prayer of thanks to whatever goddess presides over indigent half-breeds. “Position.”

Heavy breathing. “Tier nine, treblin side.”

“I'm on my way.”

Scorpius finds him in a cell, spread out on the bed, in only his regulation undergarments, covered in his own blood—a sight Scorpius could find quite pleasing if he were the one to have inflicted the wounds. Scarran artillery was nowhere near as delicate and precise in harming Braca as Scorpius is, leaving him ripe with the odor of death rather than pleasure. As it is, Braca can barely lift his head up to greet him. “Sir.”

“Braca. How are your injuries?”

“Healing, I'm told. However, I'm not certain how trustworthy the Traskan witch's medical advice is.”

Scorpius notices the glimmering dust on Braca's face. “Did she drug you?”

“Heavily.” His head lolls to the side. “Did we win?”

“In a manner of speaking, yes.” Scorpius approaches the bed, taking account of all the various salves and herbs strewn around the room.

Braca's wounds are no longer bleeding, devoid of any outward signs of immediate infection, but undressed. “And Crichton? Is he still alive? The Traskan left to tend to him.”

“As far as I know, he remains alive. For how long, I don't know. She might be detained for some time.”

A slight frown forms in the corner of Braca's mouth, hinting at the many times Crichton's health has taken priority over his own. Scorpius sees no reason why this has to be the case any longer; Crichton is spent—endlessly fascinating, but spent nonetheless.

He picks up a bowl of mixed herbs, a healing ointment whose smell Scorpius recalls vividly from his time on Moya. He looks to the stool at Braca's bedside. “Do you mind?”

“No.” Braca never does.

He takes a seat, assessing the relative severity of Braca's wounds. He picks up a brush and spreads a small layer of ointment over the largest pulse burn. Braca is too well-sedated to feel the burning of medicine seeping into the wound. Scorpius goes layer by layer, allowing the open wound to soak up the paste gradually until a thin coating rests on the now saturated burn. Using that as an adhesive, he applies the bandages Noranti had sewn from her own hair—unsavory, perhaps, but more effective than even the best, sterile Peacekeeper bandages. Must be something in her diet. That would explain the potency of her saliva in the ointment.

Granted some degree of relief from the bandaging, Braca lifts his head up and inquires, “Where's Sikozu?”

Scorpius slathers a layer of salve on the laceration below Braca's ribcage. “You don't remember?”

“No.” Judging by how dilated Braca's pupils are right now, it's completely reasonable that he doesn't. “Is she. . .?”

“Most likely.” He gingerly wraps a bandage around the cut. “I spared her life. I doubt the Scarrans and Crichton's wormhole weapon were so generous.”

Braca lets his head rest on the bed, letting a small puff of air out through his nose. Scorpius anticipates the question (“Why were you going to kill her?”) that will shatter Braca's perception of their happy domestic alliance; as he so often does, Braca favors the words that will (perhaps unknowingly) cause the strongest emotional reaction in Scorpius over what Scorpius expects to hear from a subordinate. Staring up at the ceiling, Braca asks, “Why didn't you kill her?”

Scorpius considers his answer, coating a smaller burn with ointment. “Sikozu was not the first to be deceived by Scarran lies.” He spreads a bandage over the burn. “She was young, foolish, willing to believe that the Scarrans would free her people if she supplied information. It was a grave mistake, however. . .”

“We must know when to be strong and when to show compassion,” Braca quotes.

Scorpius nods, accustomed to Braca' unwitting ability to remember every word a superior officer has said—an ability no doubt cultivated out of equal parts blind admiration and ruthless ambition. (Braca's selective yet perfect recall has provided testimony unseating three of his commanding officers, resulting in promotions for Braca each time.) “Sikozu's betrayal is of no import now; Crichton has ended the war. Peace talks have already begun.”

“Nevertheless,” Braca says, “we lost many good Peacekeepers today. High command won't react favorably when they hear Peacekeeper lives were lost due to my. . . alien fancy.” It takes Scorpius a microt to realize that Braca is referring to Sikozu and not him.

“I'm afraid high command will have far greater reason to find fault in our service. Through our collaboration and protection, we directly enabled John Crichton to threaten the destruction of the universe.”

Braca narrows his eyes, perhaps trying to discern whether this is reality or a Noranti-induced hallucination. “Crichton threatened to destroy the universe?”

“Yes. He even activated the wormhole weapon that would achieve its destruction.”

“Why? Why would he. . .” Braca's face changes from an expression of confusion to the resigned, helpless sadness of a child whose parent just murdered their pet keedva.

Scorpius bristles under the gaze. “There was short exchange between Crichton and I prior to the detonation that high command might construe as. . . begging.”

“Are we to be executed?” Braca asks flatly.

“Hardly.” Scorpius scoots his stool forward to attend to the scrape above Braca's eyebrow.

“Good.”

“We will, however, likely face discommendation, possibly demotion.” He slathers ointment onto the cut. “And I doubt either of us will be promoted ever again.” It's like reading Braca his death sentence.

Braca takes a deep, likely painful breath. “If I retire immediately—and I should be eligible due to injury—I would draw a captain's pension.”

“If you retire,” Scorpius purrs, leaning over to place a bandage on Braca's forehead, “you shall want for nothing, pension or no.” He drops a firm kiss on the bandage, murmuring into it, “Loyalty merits reward.”

Even with Moya's internal temperature controls powered down, Braca's hands on Scorpius' face were blessedly cold. Always, his touch was as cool as the man himself, a perfect specimen of frosty Peacekeeper discipline. Scorpius liked to imagine that he could feel the chill radiating through his cooling suit before erupting like a volcano in his brain, hot and generative, releasing tension caused by friction, contained and dangerous euphoria. Seeing Braca again made Scorpius all too aware of the grinding plates within him, Scarran rubbing up against Sebacean. Only the careful ministrations of the lovely Sikozu that past cycle had kept him from blowing his top, snarling like a Scarran and ruining the long con he was running on Crichton. Even so, Sikozu's eager curiosity and keen mind didn't have the same effectiveness as Braca's reliable, experienced hand.

Braca's hands stroked down Scorpius' cheek, thumbs caressing the straps holding the cooling suit's hood in place. (A consummate Peacekeeper, Braca was fiendishly appreciative of good leather.) His hands swept down Scorpius' neck, settling on the built-up shoulder pads, gripping them tightly, testing the body armor underneath.

Scorpius leaned forward, close enough to lick the chilled sweat from Braca's brow. Normally so tantalizing on his tongue, Braca's perspiration was so sour he had to spit to get the taste out of his mouth. But not before his Scarran taste buds reflexively catalogued the chemical composition.

Heppel oil.

Scorpius staggered away from Braca, swinging his fist into a support beam. His hybrid strength versus Moya's Leviathan bulk left his fingers ringing with pain and Moya's neural cluster slightly tickled.

“How often?” he hissed, barely biting back a growl.

Braca looked up the ladder leading out of the neural cluster. “Sir, you'll alert one of my—”

“The heppel oil—how often?”

Braca clenched his jaw. “It isn't affecting my performance or my mission.”

“That wasn't what I asked. How often?

“Four or five times.”

“You're shedding it in your sweat.”

“Four or five times. . .” Braca stared past Scorpius' shoulder. “. . . a weeken. But we don't. . .” He swallowed. “. . . recreate every time.”

Scorpius' hands balled into fists, threatening to smash into Moya again, pummel her over and over again until his gloves filled with clear Scarran blood. Let it all leach out of him, purge the vile substance that flows through his body, invasive, colonizing, moving his limbs and his brain to repeat the same crimes that marred his people's history.

This whole mission started from a visceral disgust at the cinematic revelation of his conception, a war crime etched permanently into a data chip and Scorpius' DNA. While he couldn't overstate how much of his drive to prevent the Scarran onslaught by any means necessary stemmed from a thirst for revenge that grew from Tauza's calculated deprivation, the spark that lit the powder keg was a sincere determination to ensure that Scarrans like Tauza could never again send Sebaceans like Rylani to be violated as a cold, dispassionate bit of strategy.

And yet. . .

They both knew Braca was going to return to her, because this cold, dispassionate bit of strategy would prevent their annihilation.

“Braca. . .” Scorpius stalked over to him, pushing him up against the ladder, resting their foreheads together. “You continue to perform admirably.”

Braca's hands ghosted up and down Scorpius' sides. “Thank you, sir.”

Scorpius nuzzled in closer, darting out his tongue to lick away the taste of Grayza from Braca's upper lip. Braca's eyes fluttered shut as Scorpius went to work, removing the sour traces of trials endured to save the world.

He's surprised Braca can stand through the entire treaty signing; it isn't the first time Braca has surprised him. Scorpius observes as Braca winces over to Grayza. “Grand Chancellor.”

“Captain.” She clucks her tongue. “You should be resting.”

“I couldn't miss the ceremony.”

“Of course. Such a lovely achievement to end your distinguished career.”

“Ma'am?”

“You haven't been told? Pity.” She smiles. “The high council has chosen to honor your service with an early retirement.”

“I'm honored, but I'm not certain I can accept. With the provisions of the treaty in effect, the Peacekeepers will need highly trained—”

Grayza yanks Braca by his elbow, bringing him close enough to whisper in his ear, “Captain, you and I both know that you no longer wish to serve me and I no longer need you. Accept this more than generous offer, take your half-breed, and get out of my dominion. Do you understand?”

“Perfectly,” Braca responds, his voice strained from the wounds surely opened by Grayza's manhandling.

“Good.” She lets go of his arm.

“It was an honor to serve under you, ma'am. I look forward to the day we meet again.” He turns on his heel, brushing past Stark to return to Scorpius' side. “It's finished. We need to leave now.”

“Our vessel is waiting.” Scorpius spares a glance over his shoulder at Grayza as they leave the hall. “Does she know she's only delaying the inevitable?”

Braca shrugs. “I don't think either side believes the peace treaty can stave off war forever.”

“I wasn't talking about the Scarrans. I was talking about her loyal captain.”

“What threat do I pose?”

“I've devoted enough of my life to exacting retribution to know where a wronged man's motivations lie. You're going to return to the Peacekeepers some day and you're going to kill Grayza.”

“Is that an order, sir?”

“Think of it as prophecy.”

Tauza wasn't always there in the room. He had a few arns of respite everyday outside of his allotted rest period. (Not that Tauza had any compunctions against taking their training sessions well into ship's night. Sometimes, she would run him through exercises so long that this his body gave out from exhaustion rather than the familiar heat delirium. Either cause would earn him a few added degrees to the room's temperature controls.) During his free time (so-called; he was as free as a Banik), he would lie back and let his dreams take him far from the confines of his cell, of his defective body.

For the first two cycles under her tutelage, he believed what Tauza told him, that inside him was a pure Scarran boy waiting to emerge, waiting to be freed through arns and arns of study and practice and pure heat. On his own, he pictured his Sebacean half melting away, scorched out of his cells, leaving him one whole rather than two halves, pure and clean. He would walk out the cell doors into the arms of a high caste Scarran family (the foundation upon which all of Scarran society rests, as his lessons taught). They would show him the world beyond the one room in which he'd spent his entire life, and give him a name of his own, more precious than any gem on a dominar's scepter.

Then the illusion fell away.

Tauza was a liar, a manipulator feeding him falsehoods about his conception to ensure his submission. And if she was lying about his birth, what other lies was she telling about him? Who was speaking the truth: a Scarran saying he could overcome the limitations of his body or a body screaming in pain that he couldn't? He looked at his heat signature reflected in a spoon and had his answer.

The way he was was the way he was going to be. He couldn't overcome himself without self-annihilation. There would never emerge a happy, heated Scarran boy from within him; his dreams of the future were never meant to be.

And that was perhaps the cruelest revelation of all.

His first stirrings of hatred, of anger, of vengefulness toward Tauza came not from the daily abuse she inflicted on him (for she had done a commendable job in making him believe he deserved it), but from the ripping away of what small amount of hope she afforded him. She ruled his mind so completely that she made him a monster to himself, one only able to continue its wretched existence through the fallacious dreams of some grand transformation through sweat and blood into an actual living and breathing person. To make him so thoroughly despise himself was a crime in and of itself, but to offer him an escape from that hated self through a door that was never there. . . that was a kind of viciousness he never wished to understand.

Yet the death of one dream marked the birth of another. If he couldn't walk out of his cell into the welcoming embrace of a Scarran family, he could still walk out of his cell into the waiting universe. No one would be waiting to give him a name, so he would make one for himself. He would find escape and one day. . . one day. . ..

One day, Tauza would pay.

The Scarrans would pay. All of them.

They would learn what it was to have nothing and still somehow lose everything.

The ship lurches beneath them, sputtering exhaust back into the bridge.

“Don't worry about that,” the captain says, smiling toothily. “She just needs a little kick.” Staanz picks up a pile of the dolls strewn haphazardly across the deck. “Would you mind giving me a hand with the furnace?” she asks, looking directly at Scorpius.

He glares. “No.”

“Right. Of course. You can't because of the. . .” she blabbers. “I—I asked, because I couldn't be sure. I didn't want to assume that you couldn't just because you're. . . I mean, people like you can do lots of things nowadays.”

“People like me?”

She backs away towards the furnace. “Oh, well, you know. . . Retirees.”

“Of course.”

“But maybe your. . .” She nods her head over at Braca. “. . . er. . . male can give me a hand?”

Scorpius looks to Braca, who nods and heads over to the furnace.

“Just hold the door open, would ya?”

Four hundred microts later, a shirtless Braca downs a canteen of water as the vessel smashes its way through the Flax's perimeter.

“There we go,” Staanz announces, opening up a panel on the control console. “See all those cruisers along the perimeter? You can have your pick of the lot.”

“And they are all flight-worthy?” Scorpius asks.

“Yep. All in top condition. That's the Staanz guarantee.” She winks.

“How?”

“What?”

“How do you make that guarantee?” Scorpius leans forward. “If I'm going to be paying you for your services, I'd like to know your methods, how you do business, how you acquire your product, how, for instance. . .” Scorpius grabs the front of Staanz's shirt, pushing her up against the console. “. . . you came across seventy-four Zenetan cruisers in working order completely unmanned and unguarded.”

“Well, er, they weren't. . .” She swallows. “They weren't exactly 'unmanned and unguarded' when I found them. There might have been a few people on board. Who I. . . disarmed with. . . It's a funny story, actually.”

“Oh?”

“You see, I heard a rumor from a few of my old prison buddies that the whole consortium of Zenetans were going to meet at the baskrin-end of the Flax to divvy up some loot, pay off some old debts, sing a few songs. . . you know, pirate things. I thought to myself, I could make a cycle's credits scooping up whatever they left behind. But I got here too early and had to run before they noticed me. On the way out, I, er, might have—as a security precaution—uploaded a virus I found in the Etrean cluster into the Flax's mainframe that might've turned out to have disengaged the power supply of any ship that tried to exit the Flax using the official Zenetan passcode.” Staanz takes a deep breath. “Whew. It feels good to get that off my chest.”

“So all the Zenetans aboard those ships. . .”

“Dead. Suffocated.”

“I see.”

“If that's a problem, I can show you—”

Scorpius holds up a hand. “Not a problem.”

“It might be, sir,” Braca says. “Are the Zenetans still aboard the ships?”

“Yeah,” Staanz says. “It's not like any of their families have come to claim the bodies. . . That won't be a problem, will it? Because I can clear 'em out. That'll cost extra, of course.”

He steered the escape pod by the stars until there were no more stars. Not that it mattered; his ship was dead in space anyway, a sudden jolt knocking it out of commission. The internal sensors were reading a quarter arn left of breathable air when a Zenetan cruiser towered over him, pulling in the pod with its docking web.

On board, the Zenetans popped open the lid of the escape pod to appraise their newest cargo. “What the crank is that?” the captain asked.

“Some kinda sentient worm,” the first officer responded, “I'd wager.”

He pulled himself up from the pod's pilot seat. “Thank you for rescuing me.”

(“Look at that,” the first officer said. “It can talk.”)

“I would have suffocated if you hadn't retrieved me.” He bowed his head. “I am forever in your debt.”

That was the wrong thing to say to a pirate.

From the Flax to the nearest commerce planet, he scrubbed their boots, washed their clothes, prepared their food, cleaned the lavatories. . . When they called (“Hey, boy!”), he answered. No name, no possessions, no privacy; even so, a better life than with Tauza.

Still, he hadn't come that far to wash socks.

On planet, he managed to ditch the Zenetans by hiding out in a nitrogen storage facility—perhaps the most comfortable temperature he'd ever experienced, but far too cold for the Zenetans to consider looking for him. He made sure they had left the system without noticing he (and a few, small trinkets of some value) had gone missing, before crawling his way out of a ventilation duct to the exterior of the storage facility.

The chill left his clothes frozen to his skin but rapidly warming under the planet's two suns as he made his way through the bustling market place filled with more people than he'd seen in his entire life. Some selling, some buying, some begging for bread, and him moving through the crowd as if he belonged. If he could keep himself cool like this all the time, he might have a place in the universe yet.

Until then, he would have to keep indoors in a climate controlled room lest he fall into heat delirium. With what he stole from the Zenetans, he could rent a cool room for a few solar days, but he would need to find work soon to keep himself off the streets and out of heat delirium. His only work experience amounting to indentured servitude under interstellar pirates, he had no idea how to search for waged labor, much less how to find a position that catered to his specific climatological needs.

However, that day was one in which fortune decided to smile upon him.

Coming down the avenue, he was grabbed bodily by an alien of a species he couldn't quite place. She wrapped a warm arm around his shoulders, squeezing him companionably. (He managed not to flinch away, duck, or hide from a blow that wouldn't come. Not because his time away from the dreadnought had soothed old trauma; Tauza would beat him harder if he didn't take his docks like a Scarran, unflinching.)

"Now there's a young strapping lad," the alien said. (He didn't need to look at her to know she was lying; he always looked a few degrees from death.) "Just the kind of man my associates and I are looking for. Say, boy, have you ever wanted to go an adventure?"

"Er. . ." He squirmed. "Yes."

"Perfect. I could tell the moment I saw you. This—this is a young man ready to make his mark on the galaxy. And I'm just the woman to help you." She leaned over uncomfortably close, her face just a few intons from his forehead. "How would you like to be ludicrously wealthy?"

"I suppose I would like that."

"Ha!" She laughed. "You suppose you would like that. You're funny, you know that?"

"Funny-looking," he said, finishing the joke before she could.

"Funny-looking? And modest to boot. You're a real find, kid. When I'm done with you, you can have any pick of female in the galaxy. That's the kind of money you'll have."

"How, er, exactly will I be making that money?"

"Follow me," she said, guiding him toward a small cargo vessel. "Have you ever heard of Takania?"

He shook his head.

“So few have. And that's what makes this such a prime opportunity. Imagine. . . a vast, untamed wilderness, a planet covered with pure white snow as far as the eye can see. No sentient life, just nature in its unadulterated form, uncorrupted by the vices of civilization. Can you see it?”

He nodded.

“Good. Now imagine underneath all that snow, the largest cesium deposits in the known universe just ripe for the taking by whoever is quick enough and smart enough and brave enough to get there first. Doesn't that sound like the opportunity of a lifetime?”

“I guess. . . Isn't cesium mining incredibly dangerous?”

“Only for cesium miners!” She chuckled. “But don't you worry about that. We've got a whole passel of Baniks rarin' to get to work down in the mines. What we don't have is someone to supervise the Baniks. You know, someone on the ground the bosses can trust to look out for their best interests. A liaison, if you will.”

An overseer was more like it.

He spent six cycles carrying a a stun gun in one hand and a pulse pistol in the other, watching over the small, makeshift barracks where the Baniks spent their few arns of rest time. He ensured that they didn't steal or brawl or breed irresponsibly, the below freezing temperatures deterring runaways completely. It didn't take him long to realize that, even though most people believed it to be true, the notion that Baniks were naturally servile and unfeeling was a complete lie. They were, however, as useful as his bosses believed with some (particularly the Stykera) having untapped reservoirs of potential waiting to be exploited. If ever came the day, his years at the mine readied him to do so.

Despite his initial reservations about appearing sufficiently intimidating, he found that on the freezing surface of Takania he was stronger, faster, and more agile than any other member of the crew—enslaved or otherwise. He was small, true, but the years saw him grow tall on the plentiful (and flavorless) rations given to the crew. While the other managers barely choked down enough calories to sustain themselves in the constant chill, Scorpius relished having three meals a day that wouldn't be thrown to the floor if he showed weakness. This, as it turned out, ending up being the other managers' downfall and Scorpius' good fortune.

Every cycle, more and more managers would fall from malnourishment, exhaustion, or frostbite. And every cycle, Scorpius' share of the profits would increase more and more.

By the time the first mining site was tapped, Scorpius had amassed a tidy sum of currency. More than enough to afford the friendly Diagnosan who'd set up shop once settlements began appearing on the surface. Scorpius had a few ideas about how he might take the chill of Takania with him.

Braca's fists pound the bag in a regimented, rehearsed one-two-three pattern: left, right left; right, left, right; right, right, left; left, right, right, and so on. The sound is loud, constant, deliberately grating, but Scorpius is a disciplined man. He keeps his eyes (mostly) on the reports in front of him, sparing Braca a glance whenever his back is turned. Each time Scorpius looks up, Braca has shed another piece of work-out gear: shoes, socks, a knit shirt, a pair of loose-fitting trousers, an undershirt. Now in just his stretch boxers, the word of Braca's body is writ clear: look at me, look at me, favor me with your glance and my wounds are healed, so hurt me. Scorpius is genuinely curious how far Braca is willing to go in pursuit of those ends, whether he'll keep the last piece of clothing or carry through on the promise of nudity. (A squeamish part of Scorpius hopes Braca doesn't attempt too much exercise while naked; external genitalia seems so vulnerable to injury.)

Left, right, left. Right, left, right. Left, right. . .

Scorpius looks up, expecting a show, yet finding that Braca has cleared the mat. He believes Crichton would call this “playing hard to get it,” in addition to a number of less generous descriptors. Scorpius puts down his covert intelligence report, stretching his way out of the chair, and takes off down the corridor, catching Braca's scent on his tongue, flavored with eagerness and stubborn determination.

Scorpius is keenly aware his prey is luring him into a trap.

At the sight of just a sliver of Braca's shadow, Scorpius lunges forward, pushing his quarry into a bulkhead. Pressed up against him, Braca's heart pitter-patters like a Hynerian hare's.

“Was there something you wanted from me, Captain?”

Still breathing heavily from his exercise, Braca answers, “No, sir.” His heat signature flashes blue.

“Very well,” Scorpius says, taking a step away from Braca. “As you were.” He turns, ready to take off down the corridor, mentally counting down, five, four, three, two. . .

“Was there something you wanted from me, sir?” There it is. The compulsive Peacekeeper need for validation.

Scorpius smirks, his back still turned away. “I may have a few tasks. . .”

“I'm happy to oblige.”

Scorpius spins around and grabs Braca by the waist, hoisting him about a motra off the deck. Lowered slightly, Braca settles with practiced ease, sticking one leg between Scorpius' while wrapping the other around his hip.

“You know,” Scorpius snarls, repositioning his hands under Braca's eema, “I don't appreciate lies.”

Braca's arms wrap around Scorpius' middle, holding on for dear life. “I'm sorry.”

“You will be.” With a mere flick of his wrists, Scorpius rips Braca's boxers clean in half, pulling away the fabric pressed between their bodies, throwing it to the deck. Now, he sighs, this is how he likes it.

Braca's body responds in kind, pressing ever more against him, tensing, perspiring, trembling only just enough for Scorpius to feel. His heart pumps blood like a scout runner's, while his pupils dilate like a night patrolman's, ready to take it all in.

Scorpius starts in with slow pelvic rotations, teasing out this feeling of being wanted (rather than needed) for as long as possible. Once or twice, he has to still the body pressed against him, holding it firm enough to arrest Braca's wriggling attempts at greater stimulation. “Not yet,” Scorpius whispers into Braca's ear, not biting or licking, but breathing onto the sensitive flesh.

“Yes.” Braca swallows hard. “Sir.”

“Can I trust you to keep your hips still?”

“Yes.”

“Good.” Scorpius releases his grip slightly, feeling Braca immobilize his hips as well as can be expected with Sebacean muscle control.

Braca's hands, however, not covered by their agreement, trail down Scorpius' spine, over his ass, fingers pressing firmly against the edge of his codpiece—an area of some sensitivity. Scorpius involuntary rocks forward, rubbing himself along Braca's thigh. While not entirely displeased with Braca's sidestepping of the rules—a talent Scorpius honed in him—Scorpius exacts punishment all the same, tightening his grip on Braca's eema so that his Scarran fingernails pierce the flesh, even through his gloves.

Braca cries out, his body shaking with the urge to rut himself against Scorpius, but he makes no attempt, meriting reward. Scorpius uncurls his fingers, letting the blood rise freely to the surface, already starting the process of healing the wounds he inflicted. Keeping one hand flat on Braca's ass, he raises the other to his hair, now grown to that delicious length best suited for pulling. Scorpius entangles his fingers in it, tugging backwards, forcing Braca to arch his neck. Beads of sweat pour down, pulse thrums, larynx bobs with each swallow—all mundane processes of Sebacean homeostasis now rendered uniquely erotic with Scorpius orchestrating them.

Scorpius grinds hard against Braca's thigh, knowing that when he eventually pulls away, Braca's skin will bear indentation marks identical to the pattern on Scorpius' codpiece. The tips of his fingers likely will as well, as he digs them harder into Scorpius' perineum, stimulating internal reproductive organs from each side of his ancestry.

Feeling the heat rise within him, Scorpius growls his permission, “Now,” and Braca lets himself go, thrusting his hardness against Scorpius' leg. Suddenly, Scorpius finds himself the one struggling to restrain himself, gritting his teeth as he matches the building, burning pleasure in his body with the familiar fluctuations in Braca's heat signature. Seeing himself rapidly approaching as Braca lags slightly behind (and knowing he won't be much good to Braca in a few microts without a fresh cooling rod), Scorpius bites down on Braca's shoulder, sending him over the edge, spurting chiv all over Scorpius' cooling suit as his blood intermixes with Scorpius' saliva.

A few more thrusts, Braca's fingers still steadily pressing at one of the only purely pleasurably parts of Scorpius' body, the tension erupts, heat venting from the side of his head. His body slackens as he leans against the bulkhead, allowing Braca to drop to the deck.

Naked and panting, Braca walks briskly down the corridor to retrieve a fresh cooling rod. Scorpius remains, as ever, confident that he will return.

The carriage spiraled into Scorpius' head with a satisfied hiss. Sikozu settled back down against him, resting her head on his shoulder. “Poor little lamb,” Sikozu said, petting Braca's hair, his head resting on her thigh, dead to the world. “Was I too rough on him?” She smiled up at Scorpius.

“No. I think you'll find with Braca. . .” he murmured, his hand trailing down her soft belly, “. . . a firm hand is required.” She gasped happily as his hand began to stroke a central nerve junction. “You must understand, Peacekeepers are conditioned from birth to obey their superiors unquestioningly. This you know. Braca, however, is one of the few Peacekeepers shrewd enough to require proof of superiority before granting complete obedience.”

“Hence why you're here and Commandant Grayza is sedated in a cell,” Sikozu said.

“Exactly. Now. . .” His other hand cupped her breast. “. . . if you're to enjoy the full benefits of our. . . arrangement, then you must inspire the same deference in him.”

“Hmm. . . and I suppose I can count on you for instruction?”

“Not this time.” He pinched her nipple between his thumb and forefinger, mindful of his fingernails. “Braca's respect is something you'll have to earn on your own. Any interference on my part would be purely counterproductive.” His hand between her legs dipped lower, one finger (nail trimmed, of course) entered her while the ball of his hand kept a constant pressure on her nerve junction. “To be perfectly blunt, Braca already has one of me; he doesn't need another.”

“I don't know,” she said huskily, rocking against his hand. “I find the prospect of two Scorpiuses somewhat appealing.”

“My dear,” he whispered hotly, “you can barely handle the one.”

He quirked his finger inside her, rubbing against the internal surface of her nerve junction. She bucked against him, biting her lower lip. With a pinch of her nipple (not so careful with the fingernails this time), she came undone on top of him, her center of gravity shifting and re-shifting involuntarily as she rode out her orgasm. Braca somehow remained asleep on her lap.

“Does he always tire so easily?” she drawled, her nervous system slowing to a crawl.

“No.” Scorpius removed his finger from inside her, bringing it up to mouth, giving it a nice, long suck. Mingling on his tongue, Sikozu tasted, as always, somehow synthetic, like pheromones from a bottle, a reproduction more real than real. Not that Scorpius was complaining; it was unique and therefore valuable. He licked his lips, staring down at Braca sleeping like a sub-officer after his first overindulgence in raslak. “I don't think the captain has had a good night's rest in a very long time.” Approximately one cycle.

Too smart, Sikozu caught on. “Serving under Grayza has occupied his nights.”

He didn't respond one way or another, but Sikozu knew what Grayza did to men under her command.

The next solar day, the climate controls of Grayza's cell mysteriously malfunctioned, driving up the heat to a level barely tolerable by Sebaceans. Braca was unable to find the hacker responsible, not that he looked too hard.

The stars stretch out in front of the cruiser, some close enough to visit in a solar day's time and some far enough away that they could've died out thousands of cycles before catching Scorpius' eye. Around each star, there could be (or could've been) planets and moons, some habitable and some not. And on those planets and on those moons, there could be (or could've been) civilizations home to billions of people, each with their own lives and place in the universe. Some work, some don't. Some have dreams of bigger things, some are content with what they have. Some will break the orbit of their homeworld, some will live and die there. Yet they all have a purpose.

Scorpius finds himself lost, adrift amongst these stars, these planets and moons, these people.

He's never had a home, a celestial body he could look toward on lonely nights, a planet he'd instinctively locate every time he glanced at a star chart. This rootlessness has never much bothered him before; the company he chose was transient space-faring folks: Peacekeepers born on command carriers, Baniks sold away from their birthplace before learning its name, Kalish engineered in secret labs deep in Scarran space. . . Even when he was without his charges and confidants, Scorpius rooted his sense of belonging in his greater purpose. It was easy to feel a part of the universe when he set himself out to the save the known universe.

Now that he's succeeded (for the time being, at least), he finds himself without a place or a purpose to call home.

It's lonely.

He's closer to Braca than he's ever been (than anyone has ever been). More than at the same table thrice daily, more than at his side for every cooling rod change, more than face down on the mattress whenever the need hits. . . Braca is there. He mirrors Scorpius like a stealth drone, arriving on the scene in a moment of activity then ducking out of sight before his mark sees him. Scorpius might not have even noticed Braca lurking behind him if not for the disruption in infrared waves he leaves in his wake as he returns to the shadows. Without that physical evidence, Scorpius might have let pass the appraising looks Braca gives him across the galley or over the hood of his illicitly-procured prowler.

Scorpius supposes the devotion should make him feel a part of something (a couple; the word tastes chalky on his tongue), but the constant surveillance isolates him like a germ under a microscope. He doesn't have a partner; he's just a man with a particularly heavy shadow.

He burrows a hole in his intelligence reports, going through the motions of his former life, checking up on an interstellar political arena that no longer requires him—that he no longer should require. The Eidolons' influence remains strong, keeping the political waters placid. With the two major powers in the sector no longer at each other's throats, peace and tranquility seems to have spread. No more Hynerian blood tanistry, no more casualties in the Ilanic/Scorvian War, no more terrorism in the Sacred Stillness. . . Scorpius is confident this won't last long, especially with the Nebari Establishment disarming planets one frell at a time. Not that that does him much good right now. He supposes he could mobilize some effort to cure the Nebari contagion amongst Sebaceans. . . or better yet spread the contagion further within the Scarran Imperium, letting the Nebari do the work of weakening the Scarrans for him so he can swoop in and. . . and. . . attack them with a military he no longer commands.

With all his bridges burned in the pursuit of Scarran annihilation, Scorpius can't do a thing to prevent the Nebari onslaught. Minds will be cleansed, people will die, civilizations will fall, and Scorpius won't benefit from any of it. All that suffering seems pointless—tacky, even.

The excess disgusts him.

He's ready to put the reports away for the solar day, perhaps go and watch Braca do push-ups for an arn, when he stumbles on a detail in a Scarran intelligence document he must have glossed over the first time through.

Seemingly insignificant: the minister of the interior requisitioned three crates of baby clothes.

Aha.

He marches down to the maintenance bay at once, physically pulling Braca away from his prowler. “We have a new mission.”

“Sir?”

“The Kalish underground is breeding far beyond the replacement rate.”

“They're arming themselves for revolution.”

“I fear they might require some guidance in targeting the Scarrans' weakpoints.”

Braca smiles slightly. “I can think of no one better to assist them.”

Scorpius squeezes his shoulder. “Prepare the cruiser for stealth flight.”

Braca nods once before heading off towards bridge. He stops just short of the corridor, turning to face Scorpius. “Shall I prepare her quarters?”

“Whose quarters?”

“Sikozu's.”

“Sikozu's?”

“Yes. . . I. . . I assumed that we were—”

We are going to help liberate the Scarran's labor supply. We are going to weaken the Scarran Imperium more than this treaty ever could. We are doing business. Nothing more, nothing less. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir.” He turns on his heel.

“She's dead,” Scorpius says to his back. “Or as good as.”

The standard patter for a first sexual encounter: a lover would pull at the suit, running their fingers down the spine, searching for a clasp or a zipper, looking to Scorpius for help. He would explain. They would gaze at him pityingly for half a microt before he turned their head away, pressing them against the wall, divesting them of their clothing so easily removable without dire consequences.

No matter how different his partners were, they all shared the same assumption that Scorpius' sex life (and life in general) was lacking something, that he was missing out, that he secretly spent his nights weeping over his inability to frell someone without a cooling suit between them.

In truth, Scorpius never understood the appeal of nudity. True, it was a style he could appreciate on others, but his own personal nudity would always be tied up with his memories of the time before his suit: powerlessness, deprivation, pain, lies, torture. . . Not to mention the small fact that removing the suit would kill him or, at the very least, cause the premature expulsion of a cooling rod, which would be fun for neither him nor his partner(s).

The first time he put on the current model of his suit, he resolved to never be without it again. Not even for a microt.

Of course, he couldn't have foreseen the certain issues it would have with personal hygiene. On paper, the suit's self-cleaning mechanisms should have kept his skin clean, healthy, and exfoliated, but Scorpius' body never worked the way it did on paper.

Evidently, the newer, tighter, heavier version of the suit tricked his body into thinking it needed to molt. The process itself wasn't too bad; he just needed to rub against something and that's what he had Braca for. Afterwards, however, the shed scales would stick to his skin, unable to be cleansed away by the suit which perceived them as just another layer of scales. This left Scorpius incredibly itchy and irritated to the point where he threatened to burn down Diagnosan Tocot's hospital if he couldn't find a solution immediately. The Diagnosan returned with two treatment options: (1) permanently removing the body armor embedded in the suit in the hopes that the decreased weight would not stop the molting, or (2) taking a bath with a special soap after every molting. Scorpius chose the latter and vowed that one day he would make Tocot (and his translator) suffer horribly.

While infinitely preferable to constant vulnerability to pulse fire, bathing every quarter-cycle was a definite chore, taking about an arn including prep time. Unfortunately, it was something Scorpius could not do alone. Even in the coldest water, Scorpius ran the risk of overheating, passing out, drowning, and/or lapsing into a coma. It was necessary that he had at least one person to observe, assist in hastening the procedure, and generally ensuring that he did not die. Normally this was not a problem—an inconvenience, perhaps, but not a problem; he always took care to acquire the sincerest loyalty in his nurses, and he kept Braca posted at the door with a pulse pistol to take care of any mutinous threats from within and without the room. However, during his time aboard Moya, the requirement of a trusted companion proved prohibitive.

Trust was an issue aboard Moya even amongst those who had lived together for cycles—and none of them had kidnapped a crewmate's child, or put a chip in a crewmate's head, or threatened to destroy their planet. Even if all that was forgiven (and it wasn't), Scorpius knew from experience not to put his faith in anyone living on that ship; every time he did, they blew up his things.

He didn't trust a single one of them not to leave him for dead in the bathtub. Not even Sikozu. (Or, perhaps, especially not Sikozu, his star pupil in the art of subterfuge.)

In nearly a cycle aboard Moya, Scorpius molted three times, layers of scales piling on top of each other, weighing on his skin, itching like hezmana, irritating the frell out of him. . . All while he needed to portray himself as more harmless, agreeable, and affable toward Crichton than ever before.

It was a struggle.

While being chucked out of an airlock with a bomb strapped to his chest, Scorpius' sole consolation was that, at least, he'd be able to de-scale himself on Braca's command carrier. Unfortunately, Scorpius' supply of medicated soap and qualified nurses were both destroyed along with his command carrier. He had to wait another two solar days for Sikozu to synthesize more soap; it would've taken the old woman back aboard Moya a fraction of that time, but who knew what kind of hallucinogenic moisturizers she would've mixed in.

After testing Sikozu's concoction on a small area on his hand, the scales lifting away, the skin soothed, Scorpius divested himself of his suit, not looking Sikozu in the eye as she drew his bath, pouring in the soap mix. He checked with Braca at the door, ostensibly there to keep out any threats exterior to the room and their new arrangement. Braca nodded at the back of Sikozu's head, keeping one hand on his sidearm. Sikozu apparently still had a long ways to go in earning Braca's submission even after her stunt with Grayza's climate controls.

With the tub full, Scorpius submerged himself, mentally preparing himself for an arn or so of scrubbing and rapidly heating water. He took the sponge to his arm, loosening the first layer of scales before peeling it off like the flesh of a ripe ucuz. Since birth, his skin was a patchwork of Scarran-like scales and a thick, slick Sebaceanoid hide, everywhere except his head which was all Sebacean (fitting) and the only place he grew hair. In the bath, the scales came off in his hand like a chessboard, Scarran scales barely holding onto each other against the absences left by the Sebacean skin that exfoliated away under his cooling suit.

Sikozu poured a pitcher of water from the bath over Scorpius' neck and then pried her fingers through the softened scales, pulling all three layers away like she was opening a Krismas present. It was a tad rougher than his nurses would go, but the immediacy was splendid. Once his entire back was uncovered, Sikozu came to the side of the tub, holding up a patchwork sheet of scales about half a motra long. She quirked her head to the side, considering the object, eyes wide in wonder.

“What?” Scorpius asked.

“It looks like Ydanian silk.” She tilted her head the other way. “May I keep it?”

Scorpius shot a look at Braca, who mouthed, “What?”

Scorpius shrugged at him before smiling up at Sikozu. “Of course. Consider it a token of my appreciation.”

She smiled, carefully setting the fiber down on a chair, then returned to Scorpius, straddling the tub to pry at the scales on his chest. More tenderly than before, she managed to pull most of the remaining scales off in one long, fragile piece. (What was it they said about good luck and peeling a ucuz in one go?) She left Scorpius to scrape off the rest as she folded the skein of skin, putting it on top of the other on the chair. Once the bath was drained, Scorpius dried off and back in his suit, Sikozu excused herself, bouncing off with her loot in the direction of her quarters.

“Sir,” Braca said, moving in from the doorway. “What do you think she plans to do with it?”

“I haven't the faintest idea.”

He never found out. And when he returned to the command carrier to retrieve his things after he abandoned her, he discovered she took a piece of him with her.

The moon's atmosphere is dry enough for Scorpius spark a fire by snapping his fingers. But it's cold, so he'll forgive Braca for finding a Kalish contact on perhaps the least habitable habitable moon on the Scarran border. Even with the hike they have to the contact's cave.

“Do they know we're coming?” Scorpius asks, stepping over some kind of giant, three-legged snake snoring in the middle of the trail.

“They know I am.” Braca takes Scorpius' hand-up, maneuvering over the sleeping creature. “I didn't think they would agree to meet with us if they knew you were coming.”

Scorpius is used to that. “And you're completely certain we're not walking into a trap?”

“Not entirely, no.”

“Wonderful.” Scorpius trudges on through the tundra, the cave now in sight. “Does your contact have a name?”

“Yes.”

“What is it?”

“Er. . .”

“You do know it?”

“Yes.”

“Then why haven't you told me their name?”

“I. . . er. . . don't know how to pronounce it properly.”

Blue, blue, blue, lying blue. “You're lying.” He grabs Braca by the elbow. “Where are you taking me?”

“A cave.” Red. Evasive answering, that's how he's been misleading Scorpius.

Scorpius mentally goes over everything Braca has told him about his contact: a Kalish freedom fighter, a suspected hacker he didn't charge because he saw the value in their potential relationship. At the time, Scorpius took that as a measure of his own prowess as a teacher, having guided Braca to bend the rules to secure a future ally. We must know when to be strong and when to show compassion.

“Sikozu,” Scorpius growls, ready to throw Braca over his shoulder and hotfoot it back to the prowler. But before he can move, something zaps his chest, immobilizing him.

Sikozu comes out of the cave, carrying—what else?—a stasis gun. “We agreed you would come alone,” she says, brandishing a pulse pistol from the waistband of her skirt.

“We agreed to a lot of things,” Braca says. He leaves Scorpius behind, heading up the path. She meets him halfway.

She raises her arms, stasis gun in one hand, pulse pistol in the other, and for one microt Scorpius thinks she's about to shoot Braca in the head. But what she does is somehow much worse. She lets the guns fall to the snow as she grabs hold of Braca's hair, pulling him down for a rough, desperate kiss. Braca melts into her, shakily gripping her shoulders. She pulls away, and he rests his head on hers. Scorpius thinks he can even see him smell her hair.

If he could move, he would congratulate her on earning Braca's obedience. In hindsight, it probably wasn't the best idea to encourage her in that regard, to turn Braca into a servant of two masters once again, but the image of Sikozu choking Braca with his own chest holster overrode Scorpius' well-honed self-preservation instincts. If he has a weakness, that's it.

“Do you still want to talk?” she asks, trailing a finger down his cheek and over an artery in his neck.

He swallows. “Yes.” He looks back at Scorpius. “Do you have a reviving shot?”

“No. But the stasis should decay in a quarter of an arn.”

Braca kneels down, picking up the stasis gun. “Hunting grade?”

She nods. “There's a forest a few metras from here filled with small game.”

He holsters the stasis gun and Sikozu's fallen pulse pistol. “Do I need to pat you down?”

“If you must.”

He starts at her legs, then over her hips and chest, under her arms. “Clear.”

“I assume you'll be doing the same to him.”

“That was the point.”

Frozen in place, Scorpius watches as Braca rifles through his cooling suit, removing Scorpius' numerous hidden weapons, not missing a single one, including the pulse charge Scorpius keeps stashed in his head. He would be proud of Braca's powers of observation and thoroughness if those skills weren't being deployed to render him completely vulnerable.

Finished, Braca stuffs the purloined weapons away—some in holsters, some in pockets, one in hand—before turning to Sikozu. “How much longer until he comes out of this?”

She thinks for a microt. “Before frostbite sets in from lack of circulation. Approximately.”

“Your. . . er. . . domicile, is it warm?”

“Warmer than out here.”

“Good. Help me get him inside.”

“How, exactly?”

They topple him over like the statue of a deposed dictator, dragging him by the shoulder pads up to the cave. Inside, Braca trains his pulse pistol on Sikozu. “Don't try anything.”

Scorpius mentally scolds Braca for not searching Sikozu's makeshift dwelling for weapons, not that she has very much inside to conceal them with: a pot hanging over a fire, a pile of furs, a rusted communications array, and not much else. She's been living like an animal out here, and Scorpius can't figure out why.

Sikozu hefts a stack of kindling from the cave entrance into the fire burning in the middle of her living space. She pokes the fire with a stick, stoking it before warming her hands. She sighs, squatting onto a slab of rock. “Why did you bring him here?”

“We need to talk,” Braca says.

“I don't think we have much left to say to one another. At least, not anything that wouldn't result in one or all of us killing each other.” She smiles cheekily down at Scorpius.

“That's why I have the guns.”

“Of course. Because you are a completely objective third party in all of this.”

“More objective than either of you, at least.”

“There's no such thing as 'more objective.' It's an absolute term; it doesn't come in degrees. One is either objective or biased. And you have shown very clearly who you're biased towards.”

Braca leans up against the cave wall. “If I was truly biased, would I even be here right now?”

“Evidently, yes. And if you were truly objective, you wouldn't have left me to die on Qujaga.”

“That was Scorpius' decision. What did you expect me to do?”

“Talk some sense into him, plead your case. Goddess knows you're the only person he listens to. . . save Crichton.” She mimics Scorpius' voice, muttering, “Always save Crichton.

“Perhaps I would've have protested his decision if I wasn't bleeding out on the battlefield.” He sneers at her. “You can thank your Scarran friends for that.”

“It is truly remarkable how you manage to blame me for your injuries and not once hold Scorpius accountable for sending you to Grayza like cattle to the slaughter.”

“He did what he had to do,” Braca snaps. “I did what I had to do.”

“And so did I.”

They stew in silence, looking anywhere but each other, while Scorpius slowly regains feeling in his body. He closes his eyes, burning from the continuous exposure to cold, dry air since Sikozu shot him. The rest of him remains still so as not to give his condition away until he feels revived enough to take both of them on, guns or no. (If only he could get Braca to surrender that stasis gun; his body armor would guard against everything but a head shot and he's willing to wager that Braca isn't brazen enough to try that. Scorpius has taught him well, but not that well.) When he can wiggle his toes with ease, he gets to his feet, squirreling himself away in a dark corner, arms crossed and eyes glaring at the fire.

Braca pulls the stasis gun from its holster. “Sir, I'm sorry I had—” Scorpius hisses. Braca bites his tongue.

Scorpius glances around the cave, appraising it better than he could paralyzed on the floor. It's equally unimpressive. “Sikozu, I'm glad to see your alliance with the Scarrans has proven so beneficial.”

Sikozu nods. “And yours with the Peacekeepers.”

Djancaz-Bru,” Braca says under his breath. “None of us are happy with our current living situations.” This is news to Scorpius. “That's why I brought you here.”

“To do what, exactly?” Sikozu asks.

“To talk. . . bridge divides. . . end hostilities. . . establish conditions of reconciliation. . . .”

“A peace treaty?” Scorpius snorts. “Do you have an Eidolon waiting outside?”

“No Eidolon. Just me,” Braca says. “I thought we would do this the old-fashioned way. No peacemakers, only a Peacekeeper with all the guns.” He steps away from the wall, raising the stasis gun at Scorpius and the pulse pistol at Sikozu. “Talk.” They remain silent. “Now.”

Scorpius inhales deeply and says the only thing he wants to say to her: “Why do you live in a cave?”

Sikozu sighs. “Following my failure to secure victory for the Scarrans and the revelation of my duplicity to the Peacekeepers, my only option has been to lie low.”

“Very low.”

She sneers.

“Why not live with the rest of your resistance cell?”

“Because I am no longer in the Kalish resistance. Our leaders, in their infinite wisdom, decided my loyalties were compromised.”

“By working for the Scarrans?”

“No. By frelling one.” Sikozu leans away from the fire, crossing her arms over her chest. “Until the leadership comes to their senses, I await here within hailing range for further instructions.”

“And have any been forthcoming?”

“Not as of yet, but I remain confident. You may see fit to throw me away like refuse, but my people don't.”

“You know, I always found your naïveté incredibly charming.”

“Until you left me for dead without a second thought.”

“As you said, I'm not your people.”

“That's right. You're nobody's people.”

Scorpius nods. “It allows me to travel light. Hence the need to throw away refuse.”

Sikozu looks up at Braca. “How long until you throw him away. . . or does the need for someone to change your cooling rods and give you baths ensure the longevity of your relationship?”

“I'm sure Braca is touched by your concern, but you gave up any right to inquire about our relationship the day you betrayed us to the Scarrans.”

“I did that to save my people.”

“And look where that got you.”

“And look where your cycles of endless—”

“Enough,” Braca says, waving the guns slightly. “This isn't going to work.” He looks to Scorpius. “Can we just go home?”

Scorpius smirks at Sikozu. “Fine by me.” He wraps an arm around Braca's shoulders, leading him towards the cave entrance, murmuring in his ear loud enough for Sikozu to hear, “All is forgiven.”

Braca stops before stepping outside. “Sikozu. I'll leave your guns on the hill where I landed my prowler.”

“Fine,” Sikozu says.

Scorpius braces himself for the dry air outside the dank cave when something in the pile of kindling catches his eye. He turns, picking up a piece of spotted wood. “Is this the same wood you've been using for the fire?”

“Yes.”

“Are you certain?”

“Yes, I felled the tree this morning.”

“Did the trunk of the tree split easily?”

“Yes. Why?”

He curses a blue streak in Scarran. “You foolish child.” He stomps over to the fire, removing a burning piece of kindling with his gloved hands. Spotted. He throws it to the ground and upturns the pot of boiling water hanging over the fire pit, quenching the flames.

“What's going on?” Braca asks.

“Marvis elm.”

“Marvis elm?”

“An evergreen tree indigenous to several arctic climates, including this moon apparently. The sap has psychoactive properties that are dispersed through the air when the wood is burned.”

Braca covers his nose and mouth with his sleeve. “We have to get back to the ship.”

“It's too late. We've been breathing it in for the last quarter arn. Neither of us will be fit to fly in a few microts.”

“So, we're stuck here.”

“If Sikozu will grant us stay in her humble abode.”

Across the fire pit, Sikozu tries to catch dust motes in the air between her fingers. “Do you have any water? My mouth is terribly dry all of a sudden.”

Scorpius had the chains special ordered, tracking down the quartermaster who inventoried the fleet with restraints graded for different species prisoners. He had to do the measurements himself, testing how much force he could exert. Apparently, his strength ranked average for a lower caste Scarran with a severed heat producing gland, which was hardly surprising, if unpleasant to think about. (He'd heard a whispered joke within his unit that his Sebacean heritage “neutered” his Scarran half.) At the very least, the appropriate chains were in mass production and the quartermaster assumed he merely required them for a Scarran taking a turn in his Aurora chair. It wouldn't do for the Peacekeepers to know exactly what tools to use to incarcerate him; Scorpius was, as always, aware of how tenuous his position was.

After exchanging the manual for a voice-activated lock keyed to Scorpius specifically, the chains became a seldom-used, but always-enjoyed fixture in his collection of recreational toys. Like most of his possessions, Scorpius had to replace them from time to time, mainly when John Crichton felt the urge to blow up Scorpius' things. When he felt Crichton die shortly after being ejected from Moya, Scorpius comforted himself with the knowledge that, at least, he wouldn't have to buy new stuff every cycle.

By the time Scorpius and Sikozu joined him on the command carrier, Braca had been through the routine of reordering all of Scorpius' possessions enough times to take care of it by himself without Scorpius having to ask. A few solar days after Scorpius was settled in, his quarters were filled with all the comforts of his former position.

Including the chains.

Upon discovery, Sikozu was keen on using them. When he inquired how, purring into her ear, she bounced away, saying, “I'll think of something.”

Two solar days later, Scorpius was hogtied, kneeling on the floor of his quarters, watching raptly as Sikozu frelled Braca's brains out.

“Good boy,” she murmured, kissing the back of Braca's neck. “Such a good—no.” She slapped the side of his arse hard, stopping him from rocking against her. “We don't go until you're ready. And I don't think you're ready.”

From what Scorpius was watching, Braca seemed ready, his cock full and leaking. (Sikozu strategically arranged this scene so that Scorpius was close enough to see and smell Braca's arousal, but just far enough that he couldn't lick himself a taste. Not that Scorpius would have done anything to relieve Braca's condition if he were just a few intons closer; he liked watching Braca squirm. And Braca'd been at it for half an arn, trembling as Sikozu gently prepared him, praising him, stretching him. An outsider might think she was being kind, but Scorpius knew that tortures came in many forms. Or didn't come, as the case stood.)

Sikozu wrapped an arm around Braca's torso, brushing her hand over his nipple before encircling his throat. “When you watched us our first night here, is this what you wanted?”

“Yes,” Braca said.

Her thumb and forefinger pressed down on his carotid arteries. “Yes what?”

“Yes,” he gasps, “ma'am.”

She increased the pressure. “Do you really think I'm that old? Try again.”

“Yes. . . miss.”

“Clever lad.” She let go of his throat for the moment, snaking her right hand between his legs, cupping his mivonks, giving them a light squeeze. “I think you're ready.” She grabbed the base of his cock and began thrusting, keeping her balance with a bruising grip on his left hip. “I always wondered why Peacekeepers kept their officers so close. Now I know why.” She looked over his shoulder at Scorpius. “It must be so incredibly rewarding to have him at your beck and call twenty-five arns a solar day. Your own personal Peacekeeper frell toy.” Her right hand went back to his throat. “Is what you are, Braca?”

Braca swallowed. Sweat dripped from every pore of his body. “Yes, miss.”

“Whose frell toy are you?”

“Yours, miss.”

“Good.” Her hand tightened around Braca's neck as she hastened her thrusts, pounding into him hard enough to make the bed move.

Scorpius watched Braca's breathing quicken, his skin flush, his energy signature flash a deeper shade of orange until exploding in a sea of orange. He heard Braca cry out. Felt his chiv splash across his face. Tasted it.

Braca crumpled on the bed as soon as Sikozu pulled out. Scorpius waited as she tucked him in, getting him comfortable at the head of the bed. Once Braca was tended to, she crawled to the foot of the bed like a keedva in heat, licking her lips, and Scorpius hoped she would be charitable enough to go easy on him, get him off fast, hard, hot. But any illusions disappear when she wrapped her legs around his neck, jerking him forward chains rattling, sending him falling face first into her skrillum.

She was good.

Sikozu lies curled around the snuffed out firepit, idly picking through the poisonous wood. “Field identification of wildlife was not a part of my training.”

Sitting with his back resting on the cave wall, Braca says, “Nor mine.”

“Nor mine,” Scorpius says, stretched out on the cave floor. “Of course, even if it were, Scarran botanists seldom travel to planets cold enough to grow marvis elm. It probably wouldn't have been in the guides anyway.”

“But you knew about it,” Sikozu says. “How?”

“When I was a young man, I worked at a mining operation on Takania. The Baniks there would burn the indigenous marvis for what they claimed were spiritual purposes. But I suspect they were merely trying to dull the pain of their bondage.”

“It's not working for me.” Braca holds his hands in front of his face, turning them over, examining them. “I still feel terrible. But my hands feel amazing.”

“Why?”

“I don't know. It feels like there are little bursts of sunshine on my fingertips.”

“No. Why do you feel terrible?”

“Oh.” Braca's hands fall to his sides. “I. . . I don't know. . . My life seems to have gotten away from me. This isn't what I was supposed to be doing. I was a Peacekeeper. I was someone important. Now, I'm no one.” His head lolls to the side. “Even Grayza didn't want me anymore. . . and she'll take any willing body. . .” His eyes glaze over, his attention lost to some detail on the far cave wall.

“I never thought I'd be living in a cave,” Sikozu says. “Or any other geological feature. But where else am I supposed to go? I'm a bioloid genetically engineered to win my people's freedom, but they don't want my help. I cannot do what I'm programmed to do, so I live in a cave.”

“Not once did I ever imagine I would live this long.” Scorpius' gloved hands caress the cool rock beneath him. “The best I could I hope for was going out in a glaze of blory with the Scarran Imperium. But their empire fell with a whimper and I'm still here. Like a ghost. . . I don't have a life ahead of me, just empty tracts of time where I'm supposed to be dead.”

“You have a choice, though,” Sikozu responds. “You can be anything you want. I can't.”

“Neither can I,” Braca says. “I was born and raised a Peacekeeper. My entire life people have been making sure that's all I was, that I knew that I was a Peacekeeper or I was nothing. Now I'm nothing.”

“You've been more than just a Peacekeeper for some time,” Scorpius says.

“But that's all I ever wanted to be. I'm not Aeryn Sun, for unit's sake.”

“Aeryn's a good person,” Sikozu slurs, petting her own hair. “I think she was my friend. . . I've never had many friends.”

“I haven't had any,” Scorpius says.

“I 'ad one once,” Braca mumbles. “He lived in the wall and I would feed him food cubes when everyone else was asleep.”

“What happened to him?”

Braca hangs his head. “I did too well on one of my exams and one of the other children in my unit snapped his neck and left him on my pillow.” He scratches his head. “I never found out who did it. But I got back at them. All of them.”

Scorpius blinks slowly, remembering something from long ago. “Your first recommendation as my adjutant was to assign your old unit to the front line.”

Braca shrugs. “They were the most qualified for the position.”

Scorpius snickers as he sits up, crawling across the cave floor over to Braca. "According to what criteria?" He nuzzles Braca's cheek.

"Subjective criteria."

"Ah." Scorpius plants a kiss on Braca's forehead. "I knew I saw something special in you that day."

Braca rubs his thumb along Scorpius' chin strap. "Do you still?"

"I wouldn't be here if I didn't." He lies back down, resting his head on Braca's lap, infinitely more comfortable than the cave floor.

"It wouldn't hurt you to tell him that every once in a while," Sikozu says, drawing figures in the fire pit's cinders. "You know what Peacekeepers are like."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Braca asks.

"Well. You're an incredibly forthright people with very little appreciation of nuance or subtlety, which is unfortunate given that Scorpius is a man of subtleties."

Scorpius nods. "Thank you."

"I'm not entirely certain that was a compliment," Braca says.

"Anything can be a compliment if you interpret it skillfully enough."

"That's the point," Sikozu says. "Braca doesn't have the skill nor the training to interpret whatever small tokens of affection you have for him as evidence of a greater devotion on your part. You have to tell him directly."

"I don't think you're giving Braca enough credit."

"She's right," Braca cuts in. "My tenure as a Peacekeeper trained me hash out political subtleties and subterfuge, but there was never a module on. . . being with someone. I don't know where I stand with you.”

“. . . I have always attempted to demonstrate my. . . appreciation of your performance.”

“And you have—as my superior officer, but you're no longer my superior officer.”

“Then what am I?”

“I don't know.”

“His lover?” Sikozu offers. Both men sneer at that. “Merely offering a suggestion.”

“He's my. . .” Braca gazes down at Scorpius. “. . . person.”

“Person?” Scorpius repeats. Not friend, not lover, not brother, not son, not superior—no word to connote a relationship other than “his,” no descriptor conferring status other than “person.” “It's acceptable.”

“I'm glad to have found favor.”

Scorpius kisses Braca's wrist, and Sikozu snorts, “How lovely for you both.”

“You could be my person, too,” Braca says. “That's why I came here.”

“Then why are you over there when I'm freezing my loomas off.”

“Well,” Scorpius says, lifting his head. “You're certainly welcome to join us.”

“Really?”

“I wouldn't want any harm to come to that particular facet of your anatomy.”

Sikozu scoots across the floor, settling down on Braca's left side, opposite Scorpius. Braca wraps an arm around her as she rests her head on his chest, her left hand falling to his knee, just intons from Scorpius' face. He can smell the sticky, sweet sap of the burnt marvis elm on her fingers.

They've never been close like this before. . . not even after recreating.

He wonders if they would have progressed to this if Sikozu hadn't betrayed them or Scorpius hadn't left her on Qujaga. Would she be on the cruiser with them? Would they be as happy as they were on the command carrier even without a mission? Would he be any less listless, adrift, alone, with her there?

No, not at all. People aren't bandages; his time with Braca has proven that. As close as he and Braca are, as warmly as he feels toward Braca, as much as Braca is his person, the man is not a cure for the deep, gnawing existential angst that Scorpius has dulled with extravagant plots since childhood.

“I think. . .” Braca drawls, “. . . those sixty solar days we had on the command carrier were some of the best in my life.”

Scorpius nods. “I think you two are among the best things that ever have happened to me. Of course,” he adds, “not much very good's ever happened to me.”

“What about Crichton?” Sikozu asks. “Where does he rank?”

“Crichton. . .” He sighs shakily. “He destroyed everything I had. My Gammak base. My holdings at the Shadow Depository. My command carrier. My career. And for what? Peace?” He snorts. “Frell peace.”

“I swear,” Braca says, “that peace treaty was the worst thing that ever happened to us.”

Sikozu murmurs her agreement. “If the Scarrans hadn't been so humiliated by the peace negotiations, they would have made good on their promise to free my people.” Scorpius snorts. “Or, at the very least, they wouldn't have taken their misplaced aggression out on my people.”

“Have conditions worsened in the Imperium?” Braca asks.

“Horribly. The Scarrans have started treating Kalish like Baniks.”

“No wonder they're revolting.”

“I was going to help them,” Scorpius says. “The Kalish.”

“Why?” Sikozu asks. “Kalish independence has never been your top priority.”

“I was bored. I thought further humiliating the Scarrans might amuse me for a time. Perhaps the Kalish would come to rely on me to an extent where I felt at least somewhat relevant to the universe. But now I know the Kalish will never accept a Scarran as an advisor. . . It seems the universe no longer has a place for me.”

“For any of us.”

“Then frell the universe,” Braca says. “That's what we ought to do.”

“I don't think even we have the combined stamina to frell the universe,” Scorpius laughs.

“I'm serious. I think we ought to let go of the Peacekeepers and the Kalish resistance and the Scarrans and just. . .”

“What?” Sikozu asks.

“I don't know. Frell each other's brains out?”

“Cause chaos throughout the galaxy?” Scorpius offers.

“Boldly go where no one has gone before?” Sikozu adds.

Braca shrugs. “Why not?”

Scorpius pulled the whip taut against Sikozu's throat, feeling her wriggle in his lap, sensing Braca's eyes on them from above. “Would you like to try my captain?” he whispered into her ear. He took the increased rubbing against his codpiece as a yes. “Braca,” he called. “Report for duty.”

“Do you have any idea what you've done?” Aeryn shouts, her face huge, red, and angry on the cruiser's main viewer.

“How did you get this frequency?” Scorpius asks.

She ignores him. “Did you think for even one microt what the repercussions of your actions would be?”

“I weighed the statical probabilities,” Sikozu says, “extrapolated several possible outcomes, and then chose to ignore them.”

Obviously!

Offscreen, a muffled Crichton says, “Babe, take a chill pill. The vein in your forehead is doing that throbby thing again. Makes me nervous. Like your whole face is going to explode.” She glares. “I'll be quiet.”

“Listen,” Aeryn says, “I don't doubt that you had valid reasons for wanting Grayza dead. We all did. But you can't murder the Grand Chancellor of the Peacekeepers and run away. The vacuum of power—”

“Will need to be filled,” Braca finishes.

“Exactly.”

“So take care of it.”

“Me?”

“Why not?” Scorpius shrugs.

“'Why not?' I thought you assassinated her in a bid for power.”

“As I have told your husband numerous times, I have no need for power.”

“Then why do it? Why take the risk?”

He looks to Braca and then to Sikozu, a smile forming on his face. “Because we can.”