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Crashing into You

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’’Come on, come on!’’

My fingers tapped on the tablet screen as my pulse raced in my ears. The program struggled to keep up with my commands, leaving the numbers to shift almost too quickly for me to read, but I had no time to waste.

‘’She went in here!’’ Shouts erupted from the entryway into the spaceport.

‘’I programmed you better than this!’’ I hissed and tried to make myself smaller by pressing against the side of the modified cargo ship. Despite looking retired, it was the only ship that would be quick enough to get me off and away from this blasted colony.

The Empire soldiers that were hot on my heels only made that idea much more desirable.

I cursed behind gritted teeth as I tried what felt like my hundredth combination of numbers. The sound of heavy boots came closer as the soldiers searched in-between the cargo crates and transport ships. They seemed to be just as motivated to find me as I was to get far away.

Finally, just when I felt like snapping my tablet, it beeped and the door unlocked. Without looking around, I slipped inside, quickly closing it behind me before leaning against it, giving myself a second to get my quick breathing under control. Briefly, I wondered whether it would just be best to hide and just wait them out, but, seeing as I had just broken into someone’s starship, I wasn’t that interested in waiting around for the owner to come back. Stealing it seemed a bit easier.

Without wasting any more time, I moved to the pilot seat, eyes running over the control panel as I sat down.

‘’I’d think twice about that.’’

I flew right back up and whipped around, coming face-to-face with a man. I threw my hands up the second I realized that he was pointing a blaster at me, looking less than amused.

‘’I can explain!’’ I blurted out, but it only made his frown deepen.

‘’Breaking in and attempting to just fly away on my ship? Can’t wait to hear that story,’’ he grumbled as he stared me down.

His body language made it clear that I was one tiny misstep away from finding out how it felt like to be shot, and it didn’t exactly make it easier to think straight. Then, I noticed his jacket.

‘’You’re a union pilot…’’ I mumbled, feeling my mouth go a bit dry from the familiarity of it. ‘’Look, the Empire is currently tearing this spaceport apart to locate me, and I have no clue why. I have to get out of here,’’ I explained, but my honesty didn’t win me any favors.

‘’I don’t give a damn who’s after you or why, just get the hell of my ship.’’ His voice was low and intimidating, giving me the impression that my chance of changing his opinion was very, very low.

Nevertheless, I wasn’t in a position where I could give up.

‘’Please! You’re-‘’ A blast hit the side of the ship, interrupting me off and catching both of us off guard.

‘’What the hell!’’ He yelled just as the door opened and more shots hit the ship.

A woman rushed through the door and inside. She turned around; laying down covering fire as two men quickly followed her. As soon as the last of them had their foot inside, she slammed her hand down on the button and the door closed.

‘’Atlas, get the engine running!’’ A man ordered, but Atlas was already moving.

After I was shoved out of the way, the chaos seemed to make everyone oblivious to my presence.

‘’Nova, Jaxon, pods! Atlas, when can we jump?’’ The man I assumed to be the captain roared out orders as shots kept hitting the side of the ship until the shields kicked in.

‘’It’s too crowded, give me thirty seconds!’’

I rushed to the window as we lifted from the ground, watching as the crew started firing back, easily taking out multiple by just a few shot. Whoever was shooting, they clearly knew what they were doing. The shields absorbed the remaining incoming shots as Atlas got the ship off the ground, easily maneuvering it through and out of the crowded airport. As we got clear enough to jump, I watched the remaining soldiers board their own ships, but we were gone before they even had a chance to take off.

A second later, the ship jumped and my view switched into the darkness of open space.

‘’Holy crap…’’ I breathed, finally feeling a bit of tension leave my shoulders, but it only lasted until I heard voices next to me.

‘’Everyone alright?’’

‘’Just fine, captain,’’ the woman answered.

‘’Why the hell was the Empire even after us? I thought we lost them on Ebon five.’’

‘’I have a pretty good idea why,’’ Atlas muttered, shooting a glance in my direction.

I met his glance before the three other people joined him, finally noticing me.

For a moment, they all looked surprised, but the man in red quickly cocked an eyebrow.

‘’Friend of yours?’’ He asked, showing me a smirk that seemed a little too well practiced.

Atlas didn’t even bother to answer him, simply glaring at him instead.

‘’So who is she?’’ The captain asked, studying me briefly.

‘’A thief and stowaway,’’ Atlas grumbled before I could answer for myself.

‘’Look, I’m sorry about breaking in, but the Empire would have caught me and done God knows what if I hadn’t hacked the lock,’’ I explained.

‘’And what did you do to have them come chasing you like that?’’

‘’I-I’m not sure, actually,’’ I spoke, my voice shaking a bit as I recalled what had happened only an hour or two ago. ‘’I had left to go to work, but I forgot my keycard so I went back. I saw soldiers kicking my door in and searched my place. When they spotted me, they started chasing me, yelling that they had an order to take me into custody.’’

‘’She’s not lying,’’ the woman commented while her eyes lingered on me.

‘’Of course I’m not lying.’’ I crossed my arms, the stress from earlier making me defensive. ‘’I’ve never broken into anything before and I’ve never done anything for the Empire to come chasing me like that. I’m an engineer, not some bounty hunter or thief,’’ I huffed.

‘’Kid, you’re the last one here who gets to have an attitude,’’ Atlas grumbled before passing me.

My glance fell on his jacket as he moved by. I couldn’t shake the feeling of familiarity, but I pushed the thought away. I had to deal with this situation first.

‘’Give her a break, Atlas, or are you grumpy because a civilian managed to bypass your lock?’’ The man in red smirked, earning another glare from Atlas.

‘’Shut up, Jax.’’

‘’The Empire doesn’t just chase civilians, so you must have done something to catch their attention,’’ the captain spoke, crossing his arms over his chest.

I looked down when all of their eyes moved back to me.

‘’She did say she was an engineer,’’ Jax commented.

I hesitated for a moment. I wasn’t sure if I could trust them, but as things were, I wasn’t sure if I could bluff my way out of it, and, given the situation, getting on their good side by not lying was probably the right move.

‘’Well, I did just finish a project I was working on as a hobby, but I’m not sure how they would know about it. I’ve only tested it once,’’ I admitted, meeting the eyes of the captain.

‘’Surveillance. The Empire likes keeping tabs on neutral colonies, like yours.’’ He watched me closely like he was suddenly suspicious of me. ‘’What was the project?’’

‘’A new type of stealth shield,’’ I answered and watched as all of them suddenly looked at me with interest instead of boredom or suspicion. Even Atlas’ interest in me seemed to increase, but it only lasted for a split second.

‘’Captain, why are we even having this conversation? She broke in here to steal my goddamn ship. I don’t care who’s after her, let’s just dump the stowaway on the closest planet.’’ He glanced at me once he was finished speaking, the hardness in his eyes making me want to disappear.

‘’I’m sorry for breaking in, I really am,’’ I spoke as I looked right at him, hoping that he could hear or see how sincere I was,’’ but I didn’t know what else to do.’’

‘’Quick question,’’ Jax moved closer to me, looking me over with a sly smile, ‘’just curious here, but what was your plan once you got inside? Just fly away?’’

His question surprised me a bit, and I couldn’t tell if he was joking or being serious, leaving me a bit hesitant to answer, ‘’…yes?’’

‘’So you’re also a pilot?’’ The captain asked.

‘’N-not officially. My father is, and I know how to fly but I never got the license. Why does it matter?’’ I asked and looked back at Jax, who was looking rather delighted.

‘’Look,’’ he smiled as he stepped closer to me again, ‘’we have a lovely stranger breaking into our ship with the intention of flying away with it while the Empire is on a hot pursuit. We’re just a little curious about who we’re dealing with here.’’ His voice was smooth as he spoke and I relaxed a little bit. ‘’Now, I like you already, mainly because you either proved my point that the lock was crappy or you’re just a good hacker, but Atlas here obviously isn’t a fan of you, and the more we know, the easier it is for the other two to get an impression of you,’’ he explained, making it all sound like it was nothing serious, but it only made me more nervous.

Then I got an idea.

‘’What if we made a deal?’’

‘’No.’’ Atlas’ hard voice cut through the room, dismissing my idea without even hearing what it was about.

‘’Atlas.’’ The captain glanced at him before returning his attention to me. ‘’What are you proposing?’’

‘’If you can drop me off on a colony in the outer rim or something, I could get away from the Empire. I don’t have a lot of credits, but I know my way around Union ships, so maybe I could help fix something or-‘’

‘’Like hell you are. No one else than me touches this ship, and I’m not about to change that because of some kid who thinks she knows what she’s doing,’’ Atlas spoke, glaring angrily at me.

I quickly returned his glare, angry that he would question my abilities that easily. I opened my mouth to defend myself, but loud beeping from the ship’s control panel stopped me.

‘’What now,’’ Atlas huffed before moving to it.

‘’What’s happening?’’ The captain asked.

‘’An Empire vessel is requesting a connection. Looks they’re currently dying to have a conversation with us,’’ Atlas scoffed.

‘’But they’re not shooting? That’s a surprise,’’ Jax commented before sitting down in one of the chairs.

‘’Let them through. Maybe we’ll learn why they’re after her,’’ the caption spoke, steeling himself in front of the screen.

Atlas grunted in disagreement, but he answered the call nonetheless. I stayed at the window as the screen started flickering before establishing a proper connection. A tall and imposing man appeared on it. His grey skin suggested another race than human, but the rest of his features contradicted the possibility of him being anything but a mix. Once I noticed the high-ranking Empire uniform, I edged a little further away from the screen, hoping not to be seen by whoever it was.

‘’Ah, if it isn’t Orion,’’ the man on the screen spoke while showing a charming smile.

‘’What do you want, Tiberius?’’

‘’I don’t really have time for the likes of you, so I’m just going to be blunt here. You have something that belongs to me.’’ Tiberius eyes and tone hardens as he speaks.

‘’No one belongs to you, Tiberius,’’ Orion replied while narrowing his eyes, his own tone just as hard.

Tiberius smiled before he glanced around, causing our eyes to meet. His smile grew, but his glance remained cold.

‘’Ah, there you are, Miss Eiso. I apologize, I do believe that there was a misunderstanding this morning,’’ he spoke, making my skin crawl.

‘’Misunderstanding? Your soldiers trashed my place and then chased me-‘’ I started, raising my voice while stepping closer to the screen, but he interrupted me before I could give him a piece of my mind.

‘’Please, there’s no need to be angry here. My men are thorough. I expect nothing less of them, but, seeing as things got a little out of hand, I would like to give you my offer personally. We can easily arrange for you to be transported to my ship, or would you rather have me come and get you?’’ The threat in his voice was obvious, and I felt my face falter when he said it with such ease.

I had absolutely no desire to hear his offer. The Empire had too much blood on their hands and it would go against everything I believed in, everything my father believed in… I glanced at the rest of the crew. Was I really in any position to put them in more danger? My hesitation caused me to nervously chew on my lip while my glance fell on Atlas.

The pilot already had his focus on me, studying me silently until our eyes met. For once, he didn’t look like he was ready to throw me out of the window, but I couldn’t read much more than that. His face remained indifferent as Tiberius cleared his throat, attempting to gain my attention again, but my eyes stayed locked with Atlas’.

Please

‘’Miss Eiso, if you don’t answer-‘’ the video feed cut off as Atlas pressed his hand down on a button, promptly ending the conversation.

‘’Don’t tell me I was the only one who was tired of listening to him,’’ Atlas grumbled before looking at Orion, who simply shook his head.

‘’Get us away from here.’’ Orion’s expression softened as he gave Atlas the go-ahead, focusing on me afterward. ‘’I’m guessing you have some questions.’’

‘’Just a few,’’ I mumbled and leaned against the wall, ‘’who was that and why is he interested in me joining the Empire?’’

‘’Tiberius Fox. He’s high-ranking and definitively not someone you would want to have anything to do with. I can’t say exactly why, but he recruits people he thinks have a potential but are submissive to him. I would guess it has something to do with your engineering skills. If you really did create an improved stealth shield, a lot of people would be interested in that technology,’’ Orion explained.

Briefly, I wondered what his connection with Tiberius was, but I didn’t really feel like prodding too much into personal relationships, especially not when we hadn’t reached any sort of agreement on how to proceed.

‘’So he’s bad news,’’ I sighed.

‘’That’s one way to put it,’’ Jax chuckled before addressing the elephant in the room, ‘’so, what’s our next move?’’

‘’Well, I’d be forever grateful if you could drop me off in the outer rim,’’ I mumbled a bit hesitant.

‘’Of all the places, why the outer rim?’’ Orion asked, obviously surprised why I would make such a request.

‘’She’s looking for someone,’’ The woman joined the conversation while her eyes lingered on me.

I was about to ask how she knew, but Orion spoke before I could.

‘’We can’t take you there. It’s too far off our original course, and we’ve already lost time from this detour.’’

I felt my face falter a bit, but it wasn’t exactly a surprise. ‘’How close can you get me while staying on your original course? As I said, I’m willing to work to pay for it.’’

‘’Paradise-5 is the closest colony that’s not under Empire control, but it really doesn’t live up to its name,’’ Jax spoke while looking up from his tablet.

‘’I’m not letting her touch my ship,’’ Atlas reminded us with a grumble.

‘’An improved stealth shield could be very useful,’’ the woman spoke as she moved closer.

‘’An installation of a shield wouldn’t be so bad, would it, Atlas?’’ Jax smirked as he looked at the pilot, only getting an annoyed grunt as a reply.

Orion’s glance lingered on me as he thought about it, and I only felt myself get more nervous as I waited for his decision.

‘’We could use an engineer around to fix a few problems, but I’m not saying yes to any prototype before I’ve seen what you can do.’’ Orion decided, crossing his arms. ‘’Atlas, I know there are some minor fixes she can do, but I’m going to let you decide which,’’ he spoke as he turned around, fixing his eyes on Atlas, waiting for his reaction.

‘’You know I’m not in agreement with you here, but if that’s what you want…’’ He grumbled, obviously not satisfied with the situation, but he followed orders. ‘’Fine, I’ll see what she can do tomorrow. I need some shut-eye,’’ he sighed, suddenly looking exhausted as he ran a hand through his hair.

‘’Some rest doesn’t sound like a bad idea,’’ Jax admitted as he stretched in his chair before standing up. ‘’I’m Jaxon by the way,’’ he smiled at me, ‘’Orion’s the captain, that’s Nova,’’ he gestured toward the woman, ‘’and, of course, you’ve met our charming pilot, Atlas,’’ he continued, making Atlas grunt as he moved back to the control panel.

Orion and Nova both left the room after giving me a curt nod, and Jaxon followed him, waving at me before rounding a corner. The silence that followed was suddenly strange. It hadn’t been quiet since I had plugged my earbuds in that morning, but now it almost felt like it had snuck up on me, and I wasn’t okay with it. I wasn’t ready for the anxiety that I felt bubbling up inside me. Instead, I took a deep breath as an attempt to calm my breathing down a bit while I focused on Atlas, stepping closer to him before I spoke up.

‘’Tess.’’

‘’… What?’’ He asked without turning around, focusing on plotting in the course and setting up the autopilot.

‘’Tess… that’s my name,’’ I spoke, my voice shaking despite my effort to sound calm.

His fingers stilled for a moment, hovering over the buttons before turning around. Our eyes met, and the scowl that looked like it was his permanent expression softened just slightly, easing the sinking feeling in my chest.

‘’Alright, Tess,’’ he sighed as he stood up from his seat, the height difference showing once we stood this close and I had to tilt my head back to look him in the eyes. ‘’Are you freaking out?’’ He asked with a strange calmness. His eyes were still hard, but, as they were completely focused on mine, it didn’t seem like it was intentional. Nevertheless, just thinking that it wasn’t helped a bit, even if it was just my imagination.

‘’This… this is really happening, isn’t it? I have some high-ranking Empire guy after me and-and they trashed all my stuff, all my projects, and my whole apartment, I-‘’

‘’Breathe, kid, you’re rambling,’’ he cut me off, making my mouth snap shut once I realized what was happening.

I stayed silent as heat crept into my cheeks when embarrassment replaced every other feeling in my body. Atlas was so far the only crew member who I felt like I needed to prove myself to, so of course, it would be in front of him that I had a minor meltdown. Splendid.

‘’You done?’’ He asked, his glance searching my face for any signs that I wasn’t.

‘’Yeah, sorry,’’ I breathed and watched as he sat back down, finishing the autopilot’s setup. ‘’It’s been a long day… I guess I lost it a little bit. Thanks,’’ I sighed, finally feeling the exhaustion from all the stress and running.

‘’Mmm…’’ His reply was a low hum, but I was thankful that he didn’t have any snappy remarks.

Not knowing what else to do, I watched as he finished, his fingers deftly flying over the control panel to check on the ship and fuel levels before getting up. I followed him, my eyes busy with recognizing the patches on his leather jacket and looking around, taking in my surroundings. The ship seemed big for such a small crew, but it was well-kept, which must have been because of Atlas. Given how he reacted when Orion suggested having me help with the upkeep, I couldn’t imagine Atlas having anyone but himself fix things.

I smiled to myself. Seeing someone being that protective of their ship was a little cute, even if they were being a jerk about it.

We walked into a lounge area, and I immediately felt drawn to the biggest couch in the room.

‘’We don’t have any spare beds, so it’s this or the floor,’’ Atlas spoke before continuing down the hallway.

‘’I’ve slept worse places,’’ I mumbled to myself reassuringly, watching his back until he went disappeared into a room.

I slumped down on the couch, sighing as I moved my arm beneath my head as a makeshift pillow. Despite still feeling uneasy about the whole thing, the exhaustion took over as soon as I closed my eyes. I was out like a light, but it was restless, leaving me groggy and confused once I woke up because something was sniffing my face.

Groaning, my hand went up to push whatever it was away, but it stopped once it settled on something fluffy. I opened my eyes and met a pair of big blue ones, surrounded by green fur. My hand moved from the top of its head and slid down its back, but it was too busy sniffing my hand for me to repeat the movement.

‘’You’re a cute little one, aren’t you?’’ I whispered, smiling as it continued to focus on my hand.

‘’I see you’ve met Comet,’’ Atlas spoke behind me; effectively making me yelp as he startled me. ‘’Come on, there’s not going to be any breakfast left if you wait much longer.’’ I could hear the slight amusement in his tone, but he had already turned around once I looked over my shoulder.

I glanced back at Comet, but it was busy scuttling off me and down on the ground, leaving me to get up instead. After having a quick stretch, I redid my messy bun while silently yearning for a shower. Still, messy hair or not, I wasn’t about to miss out on the most important meal of the day, so I quickly followed Atlas into the mess area.

Once again, I was a little surprised by how big the ship seemed when the crew was so small, but the nonchalant chatter and messy dining table made up for the slightly strange atmosphere. Jaxon was the one providing the chatter, and he quickly smiled at me as I walked in. I sat down in the empty seat between Nova and Atlas, my eyes wandering the table while Jaxon kept telling his story.

Staring at the food, I wasn’t sure what I was allowed to take. Atlas must have noticed my hesitation since he leaned closer to me, keeping his voice low as he spoke, ‘’just take what you want. We don’t expect you to work on an empty stomach.’’

I glanced up at him, my pulse quickening a bit once I noticed how close we were, ‘’you sure?’’

His facial expression told me to just start eating, so I did, although a bit tentatively. I felt Jaxon watching as I helped myself to some food, making sure not to take the last of anything in case someone else wanted it.

‘’I don’t think anyone is going to object if you take the rest of the eggs,’’ he chuckled and pushed the plate in my direction.

‘’Thank you,’’ I smiled and happily emptied the plate, doing my best not to wolf down the food.

‘’By the way, I don’t think you’ve told us your first name yet,’’ Jaxon spoke while leaning back in his chair.

I glanced up at Atlas, a bit surprised that he hadn’t said anything, but he merely shrugged at me before continuing to eat.

‘’Oh, sorry, I’m Tess Eiso,’’ I spoke as I looked back at him, briefly catching a glimpse of Atlas pausing, but it was only for a second. ‘’And thanks for giving me a chance. I know the terms aren’t exactly perfect-’’ Atlas snorted loudly but I ignored him, ‘’but I don’t really know what else to do, so I’m really grateful,’’ I smiled, glancing at the three people without a frown on their face.

‘’If you don’t mind me asking, why are you heading to the outer rim? You could easily disappear on a neutral colony,’’ Orion asked.

‘’Oh, um,’’ I mumbled and paused to finish chewing my food, ‘’my father is out there somewhere, so I might as well go there now that the Empire is after me,’’ I explained.

Once again, I noticed Atlas pausing and I snuck a glance at him. His expression didn’t make me any wiser and he was back to eating within a second, making me wonder whether or not it had actually happened. The rest seemed content enough with my answer and the rest of the meal was spent with casual chatting. Once I had finished eating, the table was cleared and the crew went their separate ways on the ship. As people left the room, I wasn’t sure what to do and stayed at the table, feeling a bit like a lost puppy.

‘’Get in gear, kid. I’m not waiting around for you,’’ Atlas spoke from the doorway, looking at me like he was already annoyed at having me around.

He started walking as soon as he saw me moving, his long strides leaving me to practically jog to catch up with him. From the second he walked into the bridge, his mood seemed to improve by a small fraction, and it made the slight frown on his face ease into something milder. Still, it was obvious that he would have been more content without my presence, but he would have to get over his stubbornness. As he sat down in the pilot chair, I made a silent pact with myself. I wanted to impress him, or at least have him seem less annoyed by me. Either was good enough, but even the latter of them felt a bit hard to archive. Yet, I wasn’t a quitter.

Letting out a small sigh, I joined him at the control panel, once again watching as his fingers danced across the buttons.

‘’I bet you can do that in your sleep,’’ I thought out loud, immediately realizing that I had just let that thought slip and my face exploded with heat, but he answered before I could make an effort to save face.

‘’Of course I can,’’ he grunted as a reply while he pressed a button.

A projection of the ship and its status appeared in front of me, drawing me like a moth to a flame. I made a small noise of admiration as I looked it over, scanning all the information. I had expected someone like Atlas to take good care of their ship, but I hadn’t expected it to be so well equipped, especially not with so much off-the-market tech.

‘’Is that… is that really an SD-2870 Hyper Liminal Drive?’’ I asked, my voice giving away my excitement.

‘’A custom model,’’ he spoke proudly before looking up at me, ‘’ever worked on one?’’

‘’Are you kidding? I’d never been able to get my hands on tech like this. I’ve been dying to see one though, especially because it hasn’t been properly tested yet,’’ I smiled and met his eyes.

A small smile tucked the corners of his mouth, making my pulse quicken a bit as our eyes lingered on each other. Despite his attitude, I couldn’t deny that he was attractive, and being that close to him while he was nearly smiling only made it more obvious to me. His eyes had a shade of deep green that I’d never seen before, beautifully contrasting his dark, silver-streaked hair.

I took a quick breath before tearing my eyes away from him and back to the projection. Heat bubbled in my cheeks and I couldn’t keep a small, bashful smile at bay as I refocused on the ship.

‘’Is it quicker then? I’ve read a lot about the tachyon effect on the drive. It’s impressive how they’ve managed to manipulate it,’’ I asked, going back into excited-by-an-engine mode.

‘’Oh yeah,’’ he hummed, pressing another button that zoomed in on the engine.

Detailed numbers appeared, ranging from current power usage, model number, temperature, and stability. My smile grew as I ate them all up, storing the important numbers in the back of my head for future use. I was already mulling over which upgrades I would love to implement when my glance found the shield generator. Like the rest, it was sort of a mix of old and new tech, overall giving me the impression that parts were most likely only changed because they were broken, not because something new and shiny had gone on the market. I knew that specific generator like the back of my hand and it was my chance to prove myself.

‘’Atlas-‘’

‘’You’re not changing anything in this area of the ship,’’ he shut me down immediately, making the excited grin on my face turn into a frown. Watching my expression flip to the opposite must have been amusing to him, seeing how a nearly nonexistent smirk formed on his lips. ‘’Here,’’ he pointed to a specific place on the projection, ‘’this is what you’re fixing today.’’

I stared at it, nearly squinting when the shape didn’t make all that much sense to me. It wasn’t a part of the engine, but it was still located here on the bridge. When I finally realized what it was, I couldn’t help but hide my disappointment.

‘’You’re seriously having me fix the ship’s internal climate system?’’

‘’Got a problem with it?’’ The snark was back in his voice and I wanted to roll my eyes at him.

‘’If that is what you want to be fixed, then I’ll fix it,’’ I spoke softly and shook my head, already moving to find the unit. ‘’ Where're your tools?’’

‘’In the box next to it,’’ he spoke, already busy with something else behind me.

Hidden away in a corner, I spotted the sad old thing. It looked like it was the original that had come with the ship, and I wondered if he had picked it just because of its age. Sure, I usually worked with newer tech, but it wasn’t like the older stuff was foreign to me. Pressing my lips together in annoyance, I grabbed my tablet from the table and moved to the unit. I removed the front panel and plugged the tablet in; using a program I had made myself to run a diagnostics on it. The tech was too old to give me much to go on, but it only made the challenge more interesting, giving me a bit of renewed energy.

Muttering a few reassuring but determined words to myself while I took my jacket off, I got to work.

Chapter Text

The ship was quiet as it drifted through space with a steady course. The only noise disturbing the silence came from the bridge; more precisely from the internal climate system that was currently being taken apart. Grease was smeared on my shirt and cheeks as I lay on my back with my head inside the unit, fiddling with wires behind the main panel. It had been a puzzle figuring out what was wrong with it, and it felt like I had just been finding dead ends and not the actual problem.

I emerged from the unit with sweat running down my forehead. Thinking a silent prayer, I wiped the sweat away with my forearm and pressed the power button, expecting to hear another fizzle as it died immediately. It stuttered instead, keeping me in suspense for another second before it started running properly.

‘’Yes!’’ I cheered and threw my arms up, still holding a screwdriver in my right hand.

‘’Someone’s loud,’’ Atlas commented drily from his seat.

‘’With good reason,’’ I grinned and looked in his direction as he stood up.

‘’You fixed it?’’ He asked as he approached me.

‘’Yeah, some of the wires had died, so the power module kept getting destabilized. I replaced the dead ones and rerouted them past the heater core. They shouldn’t get damaged from now on,’’ I explained with a big smile as I looked at him.

For the first time, he actually looked a little bit impressed with me and I felt my heart soar when I spotted a hint of a smile. It was subtle, sure, but it was there and that was enough for me.

‘’Well, you might not be entirely useless then,’’ he hummed as he studied the climate system. Surprisingly, his voice lacked the usual snark and just then, maybe, just maybe, I wasn’t such a nuisance to him. I kept quiet, figuring that no matter what I said, it would ruin the moment, no matter how small it was. I just smiled softly and watched him instead. He nodded approvingly before his eyes moved to me, studying my face for a short moment. ‘’Go take a shower, kid. You’ve got grease all over you.’’ He nodded towards the hallway before going back to his chair.

I cleaned up after myself before leaving, heading for the mess area. My jacket and tablet were left behind on the table since I didn’t have any immediate use for them.

Nova and Jaxon were sitting on each side of the kitchen table, both cleaning their own blaster while six more lay on the table. The sight surprised me a bit, momentarily making me linger in the doorway.

‘’Oh, hey Tess,’’ Jaxon greeted me when he noticed me.

‘’I see Atlas put you to work,’’ Nova commented.

‘’Oh, yeah, I fixed that old climate system.’’

‘’Wait, you fixed that old thing?’’ Jaxon asked, surprise momentarily making him pause his cleaning.

‘’That was not an easy task,’’ Nova stated as her hands continued to clean her blaster. ‘’I believe that means that you did a good job.’’ Her voice was kinder than I had heard before and I couldn’t stop myself from beaming with a little pride.

‘’Thank you! It’s been a while since I’ve worked on anything that old,’’ I smiled, ‘’but I’m really dying to take a shower. Can I borrow one or do you have any that’s more… for guests?’’ I asked, searching for the right word as I wasn’t quite sure how to put it.

‘’We have a guest bathroom you can borrow, no problem,’’ Jaxon chuckled.

‘’Thank you,’’ I smiled and felt my shoulders relax, ‘’Nova, you wouldn’t happen to have a hairdryer that I could borrow? My hair takes hours to dry without help.’’

‘’No, sorry, my hair dries very quickly.’’

I glanced at Jaxon. Surely, a man who seemed to care a lot about his looks had to have a hairdryer stashed away somewhere. As if he was reading my thoughts, he gave me his best fake pout and put a hand on his chest, looking as if I had greatly insulted him.

‘’The fact that you even think that-‘’

‘’He does,’’ Nova cut him off with a small smile and a playful glint in her eyes.

‘’I feel like you’re ganging up on poor, little me,’’ Jaxon pouted.

‘’I promise I won’t tell anyone,’’ I laughed.

‘’Fine, but only because you fixed the heating, I hate sleeping in the cold,’’ he smiled, shaking his head, ‘’come one, I’ll show you where it is.’’ He got up from his seat and holstered his blaster at his hip. I smiled at Nova as I started following him to his room. Ten minutes later, I had been given a towel, a fresh white T-shirt, which he’d dug out from his closet, and borrowed his hairdryer. I’d barely been here for more than a day, and I already felt like I owed these people so much.

I stepped into the shower, sighing in appreciation as the warm water made my muscles relax. It felt good washing the grease and dirt away, but I didn’t linger for longer than necessary, even though I could easily have stayed in there for another ten minutes. Drying my hair and getting dressed, I appreciated the clean T-shirt, even though it was a little too big.

I glanced at my reflection in the mirror, feeling a bit more like myself once my curly, rust-colored hair was loose and wild like it had a mind of its own. Freckles were scattered across my face like stars on a night sky and a thin scar ran along the right side of my jawline. Feeling rejuvenated, I tucked a bit of the front of the T-shirt into my pants, giving it a little bit of shape as I walked out of the bathroom and back into the mess hall.


Everyone was already gathered, getting ready to eat dinner. Just like earlier, Jaxon seemed to be the one talking, primarily steering the conversation while the three others offered a few inputs, some more than others, depending on the subject. Atlas was the first who noticed that I walked in, and our eyes met across the room. Briefly, surprise replaced the bored expression on his face, prompting my pulse to go just a little bit faster. A second later, he looked away, his expression hardening again just as Nova noticed me.

‘’You have a good timing, Tess,’’ she spoke, alerting the two others off my presence.

‘’That’s what I’m known for,’’ I smiled warmly as I joined them, sliding into the seat between Atlas and Nova again.

‘’Good job on fixing the climate system,’’ Orion spoke as he sat down. His expression was neutral, but he seemed less guarded. It seemed like it wasn’t just Atlas who might have changed their opinion about me.

‘’Did Atlas tell you that he’s been stuck with it for over a month?’’ Jaxon asked, shooting a glance in Atlas’ direction. His grin widened when Atlas glared at him.

‘’Next time something breaks, I’ll give you a call and then we’ll see how you do,’’ Atlas muttered and went back to eating. I stifled a small laugh and quickly took a bite to further hide it. Atlas huffed next to me, obviously not pleased with the reveal, but it only made me happier about fixing it.

‘’Either way, it proves that you’re certainly capable,’’ Orion stated, concluding that subject before starting a new one, focusing on how supplies were holding up and where it would be suitable to land and stock up.

I listened to them as they planned while I ate, noticing how the tone changed between them. It was still casual, but they all sounded a bit more serious. Even Atlas spoke in a less snarky and hard tone. Eventually, I found myself focusing more on what Atlas was saying, or more specifically, his voice in general. He leaned closer to the table and voiced his approval of an idea through a deep hum that practically rumbled within his chest. It sent a bolt of electricity down my spine, making my skin tingle when I found myself imagining what his deep voice would sound like in a more intimate situation.

‘’Tess, are you alright? Your heart rate just increased a lot,’’ Nova asked as she looked at me, immediately putting me in the spotlight and pausing the conversation.

‘’How do you-No, I’m just fine,’’ I spoke quickly while the heat intensified once the three others glanced at me as well.

‘’Are you sure? Your face is getting flushed,’’ she continued, a touch of concern in her voice.

‘’Y-yes, just perfect!’’ I cleared my throat and tried to smile, but my embarrassment only worsened once Jaxon cocked an eyebrow while sporting a smirk in my direction.

‘’So we land on Kalios tomorrow and stock up on supplies, then we should be good for a while,’’ Atlas spoke up, steering the conversation back on track and gaining the attention of both Nova and Orion. Jaxon’s glance lingered on me for another moment before he refocused on the conversation as well. I silently thanked him in my thoughts and busied myself with eating what was left on my plate, attempting to keep a low profile.

‘I’m crushing on him, aren’t I?’ I questioned myself as I tried to piece it together. I was pretty sure that I was correct, but it didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, not when he’d never really been nice to me. I swallowed thickly as I quickly peeked at him out of the corner of my eye. Why was it always the closed up types that I crushed on? To make it worse, Atlas wasn’t just closed up. It seemed like he had fortified himself within a stronghold with thick walls and a shield. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t be sticking around for too long, so ignoring it was for the best anyway.

Taking a quick breath, I refocused back on their conversation. The subject had changed to one that I could take part of, allowing me to think of something else. The distraction lasted until I only had myself to keep me company.
I was back on the couch in the lounge, but sleep was on the last thing on my mind. Even with the whole crush thing packed away, the Tyberius Fox ordeal only took up more space, robbing me of any real rest. After what felt like an hour, I gave up and moved to the bridge to get my tablet. Sketching ideas for future projects usually helped me whenever I was restless, and I had some ideas for the ship that I wanted to get started on.

The atmosphere in the bridge was different when no else was around. The soft, constant murmur of the engine was comforting and reminded me of being home. I took a seat at the console next to the pilot’s chair; not really daring to sit there again when the memory of having a blaster pointed me was rather fresh. Still, it was peaceful and quiet, allowing me to work effectively and without interruptions. Just when my idea for a minor upgrade for the ship’s shield looked done, I heard footsteps behind me.

‘’What are you doing here?’’ Atlas asked me. His voice was quiet and less reserved, like me being there wasn’t the worst thing in the world.

‘’Not trying to steal the ship, I swear,’’ I joked as I glanced at him.

He snorted as he sat down in his seat. ‘’You’re sitting in the wrong seat for that,’’ he commented, earning a soft laugh from me.

‘’Trust me, you don’t want to sit there unless you’re allowed to,’’ I smiled, going back to finish my plans.

A comfortable silence fell between us. He busied himself with checking on the ship and I did the same with my work, going through some of the calculations again, just to be sure. Once done, I looked up, noticing Atlas staring out the window with an almost soft expression on his face. I followed his glance and took a moment to take in the stars.

‘’It’s really beautiful… I’ve never seen this many stars before,’’ I murmured, keeping my eyes on the view.

He was quiet for a moment before speaking, ‘’one of the benefits of being in space.’’

‘’My colony did the whole simulated day and night cycle, but it was never dark enough to see the stars very clearly,’’ I explained, remembering some of the nights I had spent with my father on our building’s roof. I smiled because of the fond memories, but the fondness turned into a sinking feeling in my chest and I pushed the thoughts away.

Atlas reached beneath his seat and brought out a bottle of whiskey and a glass. I watched as he poured himself a drink, his glance wandering back to the view as he gradually looked more relaxed. It suited him.

‘’Do you do this a lot?’’ I asked, letting my eyes linger on him a little longer.

He took a sip before answering. ‘’I like to make sure that everything is running, and it’s quiet here,’’ he spoke, keeping it a bit vague.

‘’I have this small workshop in my apartment. I don’t allow anyone in there because it’s my personal space. I can just be me in there,’’ I smiled faintly, but my smile died as soon as I realized that the Empire had probably done what they pleased with that place.

‘’That describes it pretty well,’’ he hummed before taking another sip.

‘’Well, you can’t exactly ban the others from the bridge, but I get why you like it here. It has the same vibe. Like it’s just you and you don’t really have to think about anything. You can just sorta… be,’’ I spoke, knowing that maybe I was getting a bit too philosophical in the end. ‘’I mean, I don’t mind being with people, but after a while, I just get this need for silence and solitude,’’ I added.

‘’Going with that, you’re currently interrupting my solitude,’’ he spoke, busying himself with pouring another glass, but his tone was still neutral.

‘’If you’d like me to leave, then just say so,’’ I spoke, keeping my voice soft and understanding. If he really wanted some space, I wouldn’t deny him of it.

‘’Do what you like, but don’t get any funny ideas,’’ he grumbled, getting a bit of his usual bite back as he kept me at an arm’s length, but it didn’t bother me.

‘’Actually, I have something I would like to show you,’’ I smiled and presented him my tablet.

He glanced at it for a moment before accepting it, looking like he wasn’t exactly keen on it but his curiosity got the last word. The glass was left on the floor as he studied my drawings, eyes running over the calculations and taking everything in. His eyebrows furrowed as he read, but his expression gave nothing away, leaving me in suspense.

‘’I’ve done this upgrade before. It takes a couple of days, but it improves the overall stability and performance of the shield without drawing more power,’’ I explained, nervously watching his expression as it shifted. ‘’I need a couple of parts for it, but they’re pretty standard and not expensive,’’ I continued.

Slowly, a faint smile formed on his face, making my heart beat just a little faster. ‘’Not bad,’’ he mumbled as he tapped on the next drawing.

‘’So… you’ll let me do it?’’ I asked a bit tentative.

‘’I’ll run it by Orion first, but I don’t see why he would object it,’’ he spoke and I perked up in my chair.

I stayed silent as I didn’t want to come off as too excited, but I didn’t stop myself from smiling. Relief and a bit of pride washed over me, easing some of the last tension out of my shoulders. Retreating into a comfortable silence, I leaned my head back, closing my eyes for a bit while Atlas had fished his glass from the floor while still looking at the tablet.

‘’Don’t doze off here,’’ Atlas spoke after a couple of minutes, making me stir in the chair.

I stretched before forcing myself up, glancing at him as he sipped his drink. My eyes fell down, my conscience nagging me to finally get ask him the question that had been forming in the back of my mind. Swallowing thickly, I gathered my courage and kept my eyes on him.

‘’I’m not trying to step on your toes or anything, but when you were still with the Union, did you ever meet a man named William Eiso?’’ I asked.

His body tensed for a moment and the glass paused almost awkwardly on its way to his lips, but his expression didn’t change in any way. He kept his glance on the tablet and moved his hand, finishing his drink before answering me. ‘’Heard the name before but never met him, sorry,’’ he spoke, his voice hard and somewhat dismissive for the first time that evening.

I took it as a sign that he wasn’t very keen on talking about his time as a Union pilot, and I didn’t blame him. I’d seen what I’d done to some people, ruining them in different ways. I had a feeling that Atlas was hiding something, but it wasn’t my business to find out what or press him for answers, so I merely wished him a good night before leaving the bridge, feeling a bit deflated. Still, the feeling only lasted until I found a blanket and a pillow on the couch, and I went to bed with a soft smile instead.

 


 

‘’I’ve never been on an actual planet before,’’ I smiled, busy with taking in my surroundings.

‘’I’m not coming to find you if you wander off, so get a move on,’’ Atlas grumbled beside me, obviously not sharing my excitement.

Kalios was small but bursting with life, the streets crowded with people and a layer of green covered the edges of the city, making the transition from civilization to nature appear blurred. I kept glancing at it whenever I caught a glimpse of it. My head was buzzing with questions: was the grass more natural? How would the air taste? How big were the trees in the center of the forest? But Altas kept me on a short leash, which was probably for the best. He was already not happy with being away from the Promise for this long, and the number of people in the marketplace only seemed to agitate him further.

Orion had approved of the shield upgrade, but we needed a few standard parts. Since everyone already had their own provisions to gather, Atlas was tasked with taking me to get said parts. As expected, he had not agreed right away, but one stern look from Orion had him following orders, but he didn’t like it one bit. Still, he looked good even when frowning, so it wasn’t all that bad for me.

‘’If you don’t want me to wander off, then walk a little slower. Your tempo is insane,’’ I spoke, barely dodging bumping into someone.

‘’Get some longer legs,’’ he huffed.

‘’I wish,’’ I snorted and walked up beside him, barely catching a glimpse of something that resembled a smile on his face. ‘’I didn’t expect so many people.’’

‘’It’s one of the last decent places to shop. Anyone who’s heading further out stops here first,’’ Atlas explained like it should be common knowledge.

‘’Who runs it?’’ I asked, noticing the lack of both Union or Empire banners and guards.

‘’No one. The planet is neutral but it’s more orderly than most places. Come on, the shop is just around here,’’ he spoke and took a sharp turn, breaking away from the large crowd of people and into a smaller pathway, almost looking like an alley but cleaner.

Specialized shops lay on both sides of the pathway. There wasn’t a lot of space for maneuvering, but a good amount of people moved in and out of the shops. It seemed to be primarily tech-related shops, but some of the signs were in languages that I didn’t recognize. I glanced at everything, trying to take it all in while also looking at all the tech. Most of it was foreign to me, making my fingers itch to figure out what it was.

‘’Wipe that stupid grin off your face,’’ he grumbled next to me, but it didn’t affect my grin.

‘’I’ve never been to a place like this before, I’m excited!’’ I grinned as he rolled his eyes at me, causing me to laugh.

We stopped at a shop and Atlas had to duck his head down to enter it. Inside wasn’t much better, but he was just barely able to stand up straight without bumping into the ceiling. The shop itself was small and filled to the brink with different modules, generators and other hardware, and a small area was dedicated to software. I wanted to look at it all, but I knew we didn’t have time for that, so I searched for the parts we needed.

‘’Ah, Molniya, I haven’t seen you in a while,’’ the shopkeeper greeted Atlas as he appeared from the back.

I paused when I realized that I had just heard his last name, but I quickly went back to looking when the two of them exchanged pleasantries behind me. Atlas sounded strangely civil, but it vanished the second the owner mentioned something about the Union attempting to include the planet in their faction.

‘’Should have known that those dogs wouldn’t satisfied with what they have,’’ he grumbled angrily, his tone hard.

‘’The Empire has been sniffing around here as well, and they’re a bigger problem than the Union,’’ the shopkeeper informed us, glancing in my direction, ‘’who’s this? I usually never see you accompanied by anyone.’’

‘’A thief and a stowaway, if you ask him,’’ I smiled, gesturing to Atlas who just shot me a look that was somehow a warning but also had a faint hint of amusement in it, ‘’but I’m also an engineer. We’re looking for an Abelix transfuser, helix wires, and a tier two power barrier,’’ I continued, listing the parts we needed.

‘’I have those in the back, give me a moment,’’ the man hummed as he moved, fetching the parts.

I went back to looking around, gasping when I found a rare circuit board that I needed for my prototype shield. ‘’This is amazing,’’ I mumbled to myself, scanning the rest of the area to see if I could find anything else.

‘’What are you mumbling about?’’ Atlas asked, startling me a bit when he sounded much closer than before.

I glanced over my shoulder, but I had to look up to meet his eyes. Sure enough, he was right behind me, his gaze moving what I was holding. He looked genuinely interested, but I couldn’t get over my surprise of how close he was standing to me. Not that the little shop had much space to begin with, it still caught me a bit off guard and heat crept into my cheeks. Looking down to hide it, I cleared my throat before speaking.

‘’It’s-uh, it’s a mark X circuit board. I need it for building my shield prototype. It’s the only one that can handle the power level without burning out,’’ I explained, turning it over in my hand, ‘’It’s not very common,’’ I added, glancing up again.

His eyes were focused on my hands, but they moved to mine once he noticed that I was looking at him. We’d never actually been that close before. My pulse sped up as we lingered there for a moment, simply looking at each other. Then, he snapped back to reality, quickly taking a step back and putting more space between us. The owner conveniently reappeared with the parts and started packing them into a bag.

‘’Right, anything else?’’ He smiled, glance flickering between me and Atlas.

Before I could say anything, Atlas sighed and plucked the circuit board right out of my hands and onto the counter, ‘’just this.’’ He pulled a large pouch of credits from his jacket, leaving it on the table for the owner to look at.

‘’Pleasure doing business with you,’’ he beamed at us both as we left the store, Atlas carrying the bag.

‘’Hey, I’ll pay you back for it,’’ I spoke up as I walked behind him.

‘’If it’s going in my ship, you’re not paying for it,’’ he replied, his tone making it clear that he had no interest in discussing the subject.

Swallowing the urge to insist, I hummed a 'thanks' instead and stayed behind him, finding it easier to avoid people when they were moving out of the way for Atlas anyway. We walked in silence, heading straight for the starport and the Promise, but we only made it to the edge of the marketplace when a commotion caught my attention. People were yelling while others were fleeing the cluster of chaos. I couldn’t tell what was going on until a civilian was pushed on the ground, making room for me to spot the red and black uniform.

‘’Atlas-!’’ I gasped, my hand moving to grab his forearm to get his attention, but he had already spotted it, and his hand found my wrist first.

‘’Shit,’’ he groaned and tugged me along, steering us further into the crowd in an attempt to go through another exit.

Yelling erupted behind us and someone barked my name like he expected me to stop dead in my tracks. The grip on my arm tightened as Atlas started running, pushing past people who were beginning to panic. I glanced over my shoulder and my heart jumped into my throat when I saw them pursuing us. Panic rushed through me like a wave, urging me to move. We broke free from the dense crowd by taking a sharp turn, continuing down another small pathway with shops on both sides. We dodged the confused shoppers as the Empire soldiers followed us, sending the people we had just passed through various stages of panic.

‘’Move!’’ A soldier roared behind us as an attempt to make them get out of the way, and the intensity of the voice made my skin crawl.

‘’Atlas!’’ I called his name in desperation. I trusted him but even I could tell that we needed to do something quick.

‘’I know!’’ He sneered as he tugged me around a corner and out on a road with more people. He looked over his shoulder before making another sharp turn into a small alleyway.

He pushed me against the wall, hiding us behind a building’s fire escape as he pressed himself against me. I choked on a noise of surprise when his body was pressed flush against mine, his scent invading my senses. My hands caught a fistful of his jacket as I fought with getting my breathing under control, trying to make as little noise as possible all while trying to ignore just how close we were. Atlas had his gaze fixed on the road, but he ducked down when they appeared, yelling loudly.

‘’We lost them, commander!’’

‘’Find them!’’

Our eyes met and I felt my face flush, immediately hoping that he would just figure that it was from the running and not because his hard body pressed against mine. But even with the messed up thoughts in the back of my head, I was scared, and I knew that it showed more on my face than anything else. His eyes turned soft once he saw my panic. Somehow it felt like he told me to calm down, but the eye contact was broken once footsteps came closer and he pressed me further against him, making us as small as possible by putting his arms around me. I held my breath while my face was pressed against his chest, his heart racing wildly within it. My grip on his jacket tightened while I squeezed my eyes shut, desperately praying that the soldier would turn around.

They stopped just before the fire escape and it felt like my heart came to a halt. They lingered for a moment, shifting where they stood before finally turning around and walking back out on the road. We waited until we heard them move on, both of us taking a quick breath as soon as we could.

‘’Seven hells,’’ he breathed as he drew back from me.

I felt like the whole world was spinning. Anxiety welled up inside me as I realized how serious this was. The Empire was actively chasing me, causing a sense of guilt to wash over me. I was putting everyone else in danger now, wasn’t I?

‘’Hey,’’ Atlas’ stern voice saved me from my thoughts, drawing my gaze to his, ‘’you’re only making this harder if you freak out, so save it for later.’’ His voice was hard but there was an undertone that sounded like concern. I nodded faintly and his expression softened as he spoke, ’’good, let’s get back to the others.’’

His hand found my arm again as we moved on, guiding me through the city and back to the starport. The closer we got to the ship, the more soldiers we spotted, and it was starting to look like we couldn’t avoid a confrontation.
Shots erupted when he finally arrived. The rest of the crew had engaged the soldiers in combat, holding their position just in front of the ship. Atlas steered us around them and behind some crates that shielded us from the soldiers while the Promise was in front of us.

‘’Listen to me, when I tell you to run, you haul ass over there, got it?’’ He asked while preparing his blaster and catching the attention of Nova. He looked at me to make sure that I had heard what he said, then his attention moved back to her.

Nodding discreetly in our direction, Nova let us know that she’s seen us. She gave Orion and Jaxon a heads up before throwing something at the soldiers. A second later, Atlas roared ‘’now!’’ and something exploded. The air filled with thick smoke and I didn’t hesitate to run.

Adrenalin rushed through me like a wildfire, making me forget about the searing pain in my legs from running so much. My pulse drummed loudly in my ears as I ran straight for the others, moving blindly through the thick smoke while the soldiers were momentarily dazed by the sudden smoke grenade. Their confusion only lasted a second longer, and they didn’t hesitate to start shooting again, firing recklessly into the smoked area.

A shot hit right next to my feet, effectively motivating me to run faster, even though my lungs were screaming at me to stop and catch my breath. Red blaster shots lit up the smoke as I ran through it, but the shape of the Promise finally appeared through the thick smoke. It was a sight for sore eyes, but the feeling of relief was quickly forgotten when an intense heat flew past me. I hardly got to react to the first shot narrowly missing me before the second followed, grazing my right side. I felt the heat connecting with my skin, the force of the shot nearly making me stumble and fall, but I kept myself upright.

‘’Tess!’’ Jaxon yelled my name when he spotted me, guiding me to safety while shots still continued to color the smoke around me. I nearly crashed into him but he caught me easily, quickly guiding me inside the ship. Atlas stormed in right behind me and went directly to the pilot seat. Nova had gotten the ship to take off as soon as we were inside and immediately moved once Atlas was there, abandoning the bag with parts at his chair before taking over.

As soon as we were off the ground, it felt like my body started screaming and the pain finally overwhelmed the rush from the adrenaline. I hissed as I slumped to the side, steadying myself against the wall as I desperately wanted to clutch my right side, but every part of me screeched at me not to touch it. ‘’Oh fuck,’’ I groaned as I saw the blood.

The T-shirt had offered zero protection from the shot, and even though it had just grazed me, the wound was just as big as my hand and consisted of an angry mixture of missing and burned off skin, both stinging intensively and burning at the same time.

‘’Shit!’’ Jaxon was the first one who reacted. Instantly, he appeared next to me and looking a bit panicked, ‘'Orion, get the first-aid kit!’’ He yelled, catching the attention of everyone.

‘’What the hell is happening!?’’ Atlas yelled from his seat, busy flying us away from the planet.

‘’Tess got shot!’’ Jaxon answered him as he moved my left arm over his shoulder and hooked his other arm beneath my knees, lifting me up. I hissed as the pain shot through me like an angry firebolt, burning its way through my side as Jaxon put me on the table. It was bleeding more profusely than I had anticipated, seeping onto the table and making me dizzy.

‘’Atlas!’’ I called his name desperately, scared out of my mind and with tears rushing down my face like two waterfalls. I needed his calmness and stability to counter my own panic. I called his name again and squeezed my eyes shut when someone lifted the T-shirt and exposed the wound. I heard him curse wildly, yelling for Nova to take over while my head started to swim.

‘’Orion-‘’

‘’I got it.’’ Orion and Jaxon spoke next to me, their voices rushed and stressed.

Then, something wet pressed against the wound. I barely kept a scream back behind gritted teeth as pain soared through me. A hand found mine, clasping it tightly and I immediately returned the gesture in desperation.

‘’You’re going to be fine, kid,’’ Atlas spoke next to me, subduing the panic in the back of my mind.

‘’It fucking hurts!’’ I cried out, groaning loudly as Orion treated me. Atlas' grip only tightened, offering me some sort of comfort when his words couldn’t. My breathing hitched as I wanted to pull away from Orion and the pain, twitching whenever he touched me.

‘’Lie still,’’ Atlas ordered, his voice streaked with concern.

I choked on a sob as I did my best to do as he said, finally feeling how the intense pain eased into something lighter but constant, like a throbbing in my whole right side. The three worked together as they wrapped my midsection with a bandage and my brain finally started to slow down a bit. My breathing was still ragged and hard, and I felt disgustingly damp all over.

‘’Better?’’ Atlas asked, his hand giving mine another squeeze before letting go.

I nodded weakly, exhaustion keeping me from opening my eyes for another moment. When I did, Atlas, Jaxon, and Orion were all looking at me.

‘’She needs to rest,’’ Orion spoke beside me, his eyes scanning me over.

I was about to mutter that I was fine, but a pair of hands moved beneath me and picked me up before I could. I sucked in a sharp breath when the dull pain announced itself immediately, but I didn’t stop me from looking a bit surprised at whoever had picked me up.

‘’Atlas?’’

Orion and Jaxon seemed just as surprised as me, but neither of them said a word as he carried me off.

‘’Look, you need some proper rest, which you aren’t going to get by passing out on the couch,’’ I wanted to interrupt him but he didn’t even give me a chance, ‘’so I’ll let you borrow my bed, but it’s a onetime thing, got it?’’ He asked, his voice stern but his eyes were soft.

I just nodded and he mumbled a low ‘good’ as he opened the door using his elbow. Carefully, he put me down on his bed, supporting his weight by putting one knee on the mattress. It creaked from the added weight as he leaned in over me, making sure that I was comfortable. I was battling my own exhaustion when I gazed up at him, noticing the look of concern in them.

‘’You just got shot and you’re smiling, what the hell is wrong with you?’’ He sighed, shaking his head at me as he leaned back, but I caught his sleeve before he was out of reach. He looked at me in slight confusion, but he stayed still, waiting for me to speak.

‘’You could have just left me-‘’ ‘’Kid-‘’ ‘’-but you didn’t… even though I’m bringing all of you in danger… you didn’t,’’ I spoke, my voice wavering as I expressed my shambled thoughts, ‘’I’m way out of my comfort zone here, Atlas, and I would already be in the claws of Tyberius if it wasn’t for you and the crew. I don’t know how to properly thank you.’’

He looked surprised by my sudden honest outburst, but his expression remained soft as he kept his eyes on me. ‘’You’re a magnet for trouble, and I don’t care one bit for that, but I’m not just going to leave you behind, no matter who’s after you,’’ he spoke calmly and with a resolve that warmed me to my core. ‘’If it’s making you so anxious, just say thanks and get some sleep.’’

I smiled at him and exhaled heavily before letting go of his sleeve. ‘’Fine… thank you.’’

‘’Yeah yeah, go to sleep. If you’re not rested after hogging my bed, I’ll make you’ll regret it,’’ he smiled before heading out, surely going back the bridge.

I got comfortable as the door closed. Despite the dull, constant ache in my side, I felt relaxed as I wrapped myself in his sheets, dozing off as his scent calmed me down. I’d never fallen asleep that fast.

Chapter Text

It had been a while since I had slept like that.

Slowly drifting awake, I rubbed my eyes and fought the urge to stretch as I recalled the pain from yesterday. Was it even yesterday? It felt like my brain wouldn’t wake up, making me feel groggy even though I knew I must have slept for a while. Slowly, I sat up, hissing when the ache in my side intensified and pain flared through it.

‘’Fucking hell,’’ I groaned quietly before looking around.

The lights were off, telling me that the ship was currently simulating nighttime, but a small light burned at the desk, illuminating Atlas’ broad back in the darkness as he sat there, slumped over his desk. His jacket was placed over the back of his chair and I could tell that he was sleeping from the way his back rose and fell. My body relaxed just from seeing him, leaving a bittersweet smile on my face, but it only lasted until I heard his unsteady breathing.

Curious, I got up, moving over to him to search his face for any sign that something was wrong. His brows were knit tightly together, his expression staying within a range of anger and hurt, looking as is he was dreaming about something horrible. His shoulders trembled as he sucked in a sharp breath, muttering something to himself as his jaw clenched and unclenched. He was having a nightmare, an awful one, by the looks of it.

I reached for him before I really thought about it, hand touching his shoulder as I whispered his name to rouse him as gently as possible.

My plan backfired immediately.

Within seconds, he was up, the chair clattering on the floor behind him as he caught my wrists and drove me back against the wall, pinning them next to my head in a tight grip. The impact triggered a wave of pain to run through me, causing me to make a sound that was a mixture of surprise and discomfort. His breathing was quick and panicked, and his eyes were wild and unfocused, as if he was staring right at me without realizing who I was.

He was reacting to me like I was a threat.

‘’Atlas, it’s just me,’’ I winced, his eyes wavering when I used his name. ‘’Atlas!’’ I tried again but louder this time, finally getting a reaction.

It looked like something snapped within him, his eyes clearing like a layer of clouds had just dissolved. Confusion rushed through his eyes and expression while he was almost gasping for air.

‘’Look at me, Atlas,’’ I spoke calmly, his grip around my wrists getting clammy before drawing back like I had burned him. For once, he looked scared and unsure of the situation, tremors running through him as he tried to get a grip on himself. ‘’Hey, it’s okay, nothing is happening,’’ I hummed, trying to calm him down while I gave him some space.

‘’Get out.’’

‘’Atlas-‘’ I started, not wanting to leave him when he looked so out of it, but he cut me off before I could tell him.

‘’I said get out!’’ He yelled, the anger in his voice cutting into me like a knife.

My heart throbbed painfully as I moved toward the door, watching him slump down on his bed. His elbows pressed into his knees as he hid his face in his hands. My feet came to a halt just before the door. Listening to his ragged breathing, I knew I couldn’t leave him like this, especially not when I felt like it was my fault.

I braced myself for anything as I moved back, taking a gamble as I sat down next to him.

‘’I told you to get out,’’ he hissed, but I stayed put, giving him a little bit of space by not touching him.

‘’I’m not going anywhere,’’ I replied, my tone harder than I wanted it to be, so I sighed before continuing, ‘’I’m not staying because I pity you, I’m staying because I want to… and this is my fault anyway,’’ I sighed.

I wasn’t sure what else to say, so I just waited, listening as his breathing started to even out. It was a bit unnerving seeing him like that, it didn’t fit the image I had of him in my head, but I didn’t think any less of him. It just added to his complexity. Gradually, he regained his usual composure, but there was a vulnerability to him, and I was scared of making him feel like I was taking advantage of that.

‘’I’m… I’m not going to ask any questions or prod you for information about what just happened. I’m just going to be here if you need me, alright?’’ I tried stringing a sentence together that made sense and somehow explain that I wasn’t just there to see him fall apart.   

He stayed silent but eventually let out a long exhale while his hands ran through his hair.

‘’Why’d you even wake me up in the first place?’’ He whispered, changing the subject while keeping his glance focused on the floor.

‘’You were having a nightmare... a bad one,’’ I explained. An uncomfortable silence followed, and I busied myself with chewing on my lip before asking a question that was flashing in my mind like a neon sign, ‘’are you alright?’’

In the back of my mind, I knew that he didn’t trust me enough to answer the question, and I had a nagging feeling which told me that he never would. A pregnant pause followed my question, and it only made the feeling worse as we sat there, Atlas visibly hesitating. I felt my face falter, but I pushed the slight disappointment back down, hiding it away as I drew a quick breath.

‘’Sorry, I said I wasn’t going to ask any questions,’’ I huffed, smiling weakly as I got up, ‘’thanks for letting me borrow your bed, but you should get some proper rest.’’ I moved to the door without looking at him, only pausing when I stood in front of it as it opened. Glancing at him then, I caught a glimpse of his unguarded expression.

No, he wasn’t alright and it couldn’t have been more obvious in his tired expression, but if he wasn’t okay with confiding in me, I didn’t want to make him feel forced. Furthermore, Atlas seemed like the type who dealt with problems by himself. So I walked out of his room, although I didn’t feel okay with it, and my stomach turned into knots the further I got away.

I kept thinking about turning around and march back in there, throw my arms around him and pull him into a tight hug. As much as I wanted to think that he would appreciate it, I wasn’t a fool and I wasn’t about to give myself false expectations either. So I gave him space to deal with it, heading for the bathroom instead so that I could wash off what felt like a layer of grime covering my skin.

I showered carefully, trying my best not to get soap in my wound, which by now just looked like an angry, uneven red circle, the rawness of it making me avoid stretching. Even with the wound, the shower helped take my mind off things, and I felt a little more like myself once I dressed in my own teal colored blouse.

Clean and somewhat refreshed, I walked into the mess hall, finding Jaxon already in there and getting ready to start preparing breakfast.

‘’Someone’s up early. How’s the wound?’’ He greeted me with a dazzling grin and I already felt my mood brighten a bit.

‘’I didn’t expect you to be such a morning person,’’ I smiled as I moved closer to him, ‘’oh, you know, just a constant, low-key throbbing,’’ I hummed, making him chuckle.

‘’Sounds about right,’’ he smiled, finding the last few things he needed from the fridge, ‘’as for the morning thing, it’s my turn to make breakfast, and everyone gets pretty grumpy when you skip your turn.’’

‘’I can imagine that,’’ I smiled, looking over the ingredients, ‘’so, what are we having?’’

‘’A family tradition.’’ Pride shined through his voice as he spoke and his infectious good mood had me relaxing like I’d known him for years.

‘’Really? Can’t wait to see what it is,’’ I hummed and leaned against the table, ‘’need any help?’’

‘’Nah, that’ll ruin the surprise. Just sit down and relax,’’ he instructed, shooing me away with a wave of his hand.

I did as I was told and sat down in what had become my usual seat. Comet seemed to appear out of nowhere, happily joining me at the table when Jaxon started telling me a tale about a job he had taken before he’d joined the crew. Clearly caught up in it, he described every little detail of his heroic way of catching a wanted man while also saving a minor colony. While petting Comet, I reacted with ‘ohs’ and ’ahs’ as he started flipping pancakes with ease, never once pausing his story.

‘’… So they set up a statue of me in the town square as a thank you. Nice people, and with a good eye for aesthetics, really,’’ he grinned and flipped a pancake into the air, ‘’but, hey, enough about me, how’s ‘life on the run’ turning out for you?’’

‘’Well, I could live without having someone like Tyberius hunting me, but I got to meet you guys because of it,’’ I smiled. Somehow, it already felt like I’d been here longer than I had.

‘’Yeah? That’s good. How’s the crush going then?’’ He flashed me a grin over his shoulder.

‘’I-uh, what are you-what are you suggesting?’’ I asked, stumbling over the words as if they were giant blockades on a road, and heat rushed to my cheeks as his grin only widened because of my reaction.

‘’I have to be honest, of all the people you could crush on here, he is the last one I expected,’’ he laughed, clearly enjoying how I gradually got more flustered.

‘’Breathe one word of this to anyone and you’ll regret it,’’ I muttered, glaring at him the best I could.

‘’Our little stowaway is actually trying to threaten me, I feel like a proud parent!’’ He laughed before flipping a pancake like a professional. I pouted at the table, but it only lasted until he turned around, looking at me with genuine sincerity instead of amusement, ‘’seriously though, he’s a good guy and actually quite the sweetheart underneath all that-’’

‘’Snark?’’ I chuckled.  

‘’Snark, gruffness, plain grumpiness, or whatever you want to call it, just don’t get fooled by his way of keeping people away,’’ he hummed as he prepared another pancake.  

I thought back to our late night conversation on the bridge. He’d been nice until I’d asked about my father and thus his time with the Union, but even then he wasn’t rude or a jerk, it was just a touchy subject. Then I reminded myself of the episode this morning. Recalling the wild look in his eyes made a chill run down my spine, but the look I’d seen on his face as I’d left was what haunted me. 

‘’Even so, I’m not interested in making a move on someone when I’m not staying,’’ I spoke, my voice suddenly small. The thought of leaving wasn’t very pleasant, but I had to find my father.

Jaxon fell silent for a moment. It was as if he hadn’t realized until now that I would actually be leaving at some point. When he did speak again, his voice was softer but quiet. ‘’Forgot about that... It feels like you’re a part of the group already… you were looking for someone, right?’’

‘’My father disappeared while on a mission eight years ago, but four months ago, I got an encrypted message with GPS locations that match a small planet in the outer rim. The sender was hidden, but it was addressed to me and with my father’s nickname for me inside. It can’t possibly be from anyone else,’’ I explained, my glance focused entirely on my hands as I spoke, recalling the moment I had opened the email like it was yesterday. ‘’The Union never told me what happened to him. They just gave me some excuse that he had perished, but they have no proof of it, nothing… so I just… I just need to know,’’ I mumbled, still feeling a little unsure about the whole thing.

‘’Well, once you find you what happened, I’m sure you’re welcome to rejoin the crew. We are in dire need of a proper engineer,’’ he smiled and attempted to brighten the mood again.

‘’Please, you just want me around in case the climate system breaks again,’’ I returned his smile, making him chuckle as he finished the last pancake.

‘’I did tell you, I really hate sleeping in the cold,’’ he joked and I shook my head.

I helped him set the table, barely finishing before Nova and Orion joined us. We ate and talked about trivial things, keeping the mood casual. Still, no matter how nice the conversation was, I kept glancing to my side, expecting Atlas to suddenly sit there, but he had yet to show himself when we were halfway through the meal.

‘’It’s not often that Atlas sleeps in,’’ Orion observed once he noticed me glancing at the empty chair.

‘’He was pretty exhausted when I woke up. I told him to get some rest and that I’d save him some breakfast,’’ I spoke, lying a bit about the last part but Orion just nodded, seemingly satisfied with my explanation.  Only Jaxon eyed me for a bit, but I couldn’t tell if it was just to tease me or because he thought he knew something. Either way, I just shot him a glance that translated into ‘shut up’. Ignoring him, I busied myself with finishing my own plate of pancakes before saving what was left for Atlas.

Once everything was cleaned and packed away, I headed for the bridge, desperate to busy my mind with work. Gathering what I needed, I couldn’t stop thinking whether or not I wanted to forget the episode this morning. It seemed like such a crucial piece of the puzzle that was Atlas Molniya, but knowing that he dealt with something like that made me uneasy. While I felt that ignoring it wasn’t helping anyone, I didn’t know what else to do, especially not when I didn’t know if the rest of the crew knew about it. However, even with my limited knowledge of his personality, I immensely doubted that they did, but it wasn’t my place to tell them.

So I decided to keep it a secret. If Atlas didn’t want them to know, then I wouldn’t be the one to expose something so personal.

Having made my decision, I distanced myself from it all by focusing on implementing the shield upgrade, prioritizing the minor things while Atlas wasn’t there. It kept me occupied for a couple of hours, but the sound of footsteps approaching me stole my attention away. I looked up from my tablet, glancing at Atlas as he sat down in the pilot seat next to me. He looked a lot better and the broken expression was long gone.

‘’Did you eat breakfast? I saved some pancakes for you,’’ I spoke as I glanced down at my tablet again, continuing to run diagnostic tests of the shield modules. I was determined to keep the conversation as normal as possible.

He gave me some sort of grunt as a reply, already deeply focused on checking the ship and the status of various things in it. We settled into a comfortable silence while we both tapped away on our own devices, and it actually felt a bit domestic to sit next to him and work. The thought left a lingering warmth in my chest, making me smile as I noted down the last numbers that I needed for the next part of the upgrade. Satisfied, I leaned back in the chair, about to stretch but stopped immediately once a sharp pain threatened to rush through my side.

‘’Alright, that’s done,’’ I sighed and pulled my knees up against my chest.

‘’Do you ever do anything else than work?’’ He asked while looking a tiny bit impressed beneath his stoic expression.

‘’In my defense, I did sleep in a very nice bed all night,’’ I spoke matter-of-factly but I couldn’t stop myself from laughing when he looked at me with a rather disapproving look. ‘’Hey, you offered it, so you can’t be mad about it now,’’ I laughed, somehow making his frown soften a tiny bit.

He muttered something under his breath before he reached for his supply of whiskey under his chair, smoothly pouring himself a glass.

‘’Isn’t it a little early for that?’’ I chuckled, my question making him huff.

‘’It’s late enough somewhere in the universe,’’ he replied nonchalantly while his expression softened.

I shook my head at him while he took a sip. Humming in appreciation, he examined the glass with amber liquid like he had just been asked to describe the taste, but he kept his thoughts to himself.

‘’You’re horrible, do you know that?’’ I laughed softly as I leaned my head back against the chair while I kept my eyes on him.

‘’So I’ve been told,’’ he hummed with a slight smile, causing my heart to do a flip.

‘’I bet,’’ I joked, grinning because of the look he gave me. ‘’Now that you have some alcohol in you, will you let me work on the shield module?’’  

‘’It should be quiet enough here for it to be disabled while you do,’’ he replied, his free hand already flying across the control panel. I moved to the floor as he typed away, disabling the module so that I wouldn’t get electrocuted the moment I touched it. The maintenance hatch was easy enough to get open and I exhaled in relief when the shield module was somewhat accessible and not hidden away behind a ton of wiring. At some point, they’d always been further inside the machinery, making them a hassle to work on unless you could access them from the outside.

‘’There, should be safe now,’’ he informed me, keeping an eye on me as I wiggled my way inside, stopping once my upper torso was inside.

‘’Thanks!’’ I reached my arm out and gave him a thumbs up.

‘’You have what you need?’’

‘’Yeah, but if you’re sticking around, can you hand me the tools I ask for?’’

‘’Alright.’’

I smiled to myself when he agreed more easily then I had first thought. Having his help certainly made the whole thing more manageable when I didn’t have to crawl in and out whenever I needed something. We settled into a comfortable silence as I worked; only momentarily interrupted by my requests. It was nice and comfortable. It felt like neither of us had any expectations of the other to create small talk and continue down that awkward path. Or at least it felt like that until he cleared his throat and asked me a question.

‘’How’s the whole wound thing going?’’

My hands paused for a second as I questioned whether or not he had actually just asked about my wellbeing.

‘’Eh, I’ve had worse,’’ I joked.

‘’Oh, I bet, living on a Union colony is rather rough.’’ He played along, sounding rather satisfied with his own joke.

‘’You know the drill, it’s not going to be a good day unless there are at least two gunfights somewhere in the colony before noon,’’ I added.

‘’With good reason,’’ he huffed, almost smiling.

‘’Oh yeah, random violence always makes the day better,’’ I laughed as I agreed with him. ‘’Can you hand me the transfuser?’’

‘’I’ll keep your casual opinion about violence in mind next time we run into the Empire,’’ he remarked as he handed me the part.

‘’You know, I feel like they’d agree with me,’’ I chuckled as I accepted it and plugged it into place. Once it was secure, I stuck my hand out again, ‘’Helix wires, please.’’   

‘’I don’t doubt that,’’ he spoke as he handed me the wires, ‘’how are things looking?’’

‘’Installing the parts doesn’t take long; it’s running the test and calibrations that takes about half a day. I have to make sure that everything runs smoothly before turning it back on. If it’s not calibrated correctly, it can blow a fuse and make the power supply go dark, which is obviously something we don’t want, ‘’ I explained while fiddling with the wires.

‘’We’d better stay and drift here until that, then,’’ he concluded, sounding okay with the situation.

‘’If I work through the night, I could probably have it finished by tomorrow morning if you’re worried,’’ I offered. It wouldn’t be the first all-nighter and surely not the last.

‘’I’m not going to let you do an all-nighter when you’re still recovering. You can joke all you want, but anyone would be bothered by a blaster wound like that, even when it just grazed you,’’ he spoke, his voice stern but in the way where you could hear it was because he was worried, even when he tried to hide it.

Knowing what direction this could go in, I wiggled my way back out and sat up, catching his eye as he stood before me. ‘’Look, I’m not saying that it doesn’t hurt and that I’m feeling all peachy about it, but it’s not a hindrance while I work,’’ I explained, raising my voice a bit while still trying to sound reasonable. Worried or not, he wasn’t about to tell me what to do like I was some child.

‘’And I don’t care if it’s a hindrance or not. The Empire should have no way of finding us here, so there’s no reason for you to push yourself. End of discussion,‘’ he declared in an annoyed and dismissive tone, but it only made me want to continue.

I quickly got to my feet when the frustration settled in my chest. I didn’t need him to act like he knew what was best for me. ‘’You can’t just say that and end the conversation!’’

‘’I just did,’’ he grumbled and his eyes turned hard, telling me to drop it but I just glared at him.

 ‘’You’re so frustrating!’’ I groaned, immensely annoyed with his behavior.

‘’Get used to it,’’ he sneered while towering over me.

‘’You-!’’ I began; ready to start some stupid fight, but a loud alarm cut me off, alerting us that there was trouble. Immediately, both our attention flew to the console. Cursing wildly, Atlas took his seat and checked what was going on, leaving me to feel a wave of dread rushed over me as I stood behind him, watching.

‘’Atlas?!’’ Orion called as he appeared, closely followed by the rest of the crew.

My eyes scanned the information that appeared on the screen, making my heart drop when I realized what was happening. ‘’It’s the Empire! They’ve found us!’’ I yelled as I glanced back at the other three.

‘’How the hell did they manage that?!’’ Jaxon groaned.

‘’I don’t care how; we just have to get out of here! Kid, we need that shield back up!’’ Atlas roared next to me as the scanner started beeping, informing us that three ships were currently locked in on us.

Panic overwhelmed me like a thick substance that threatened to suffocate me. Just then, at the worst possible time, I could only think of one thing.

This was all my fault.

Chapter Text

The loud, constant noise of the alarm drowned everything out with its insisting blaring, providing a perfect soundtrack for the panic that rushed through me.

This was all my fault.

This was all my entire fault.

My breath hitched as I stood there, eyes locked on the radar display and the three red dots that were drastically approaching us. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew I wasn’t making things better by just standing there, but the urge to jump into action wasn’t enough to pull me out of the pit I had fallen into. However, Atlas roaring my name did the trick.

‘’Tess! Get out of your head and start fixing that shield!’’ Atlas’ hard tone dragged me right back to reality like a slap to the face, and I sprang into action just as Orion started giving out orders behind us. Jaxon and Nova ran to the pods while I moved right back inside the terminal. My pulse raced as I tried to think of ways to save this whole thing. Orion and Atlas discussed our few options while I just started to move my hands, hoping that I would have some kind of miraculous revelation.

‘’Alright, kid, talk to me!’’ Atlas yelled as he made a sharp turn, making me yelp as I rolled to my side.

I balanced myself while going through everything I could possibly think of. ‘’I can’t reset this in time for it to be safe!’’ I replied and let my eyes run over everything before continuing, ‘’the current power module can’t handle the stress from the unfinished upgrade.  I can’t say how long it will hold before crashing!’’

‘’So what the hell do we do?!’’

‘’I can connect it, but it’s a gamble! Other than that….’’ My voice trailed off as I kept racking my brain for ideas.

‘’I need more than that!’’ He yelled as he did another sharp turn just in time to dodge a shot that had sent the radar blaring.

‘’I need time!’’ I yelled back, frustrated with my own inability to think of something.

‘’We don’t have time!’’ He reminded me as a shot hit us, rattling the entire ship.

‘’I know that we don’t!’’ I groaned.

‘’Atlas, we have to do something!’’ Orion chimed in.

‘’Seven hells!’’ Atlas swore as he maneuvered the ship, forcing me to hold on to the edges of the maintenance shaft to steady myself. Right then, I had an idea.

‘’What kind of fighter ships are they?!’’ I asked; already busy plugging in the wires that were missing.

‘’Standard Empire ones, quick and nimble. Why?’’ Orion answered me.

‘’If we’re close to any type of planet that has an atmosphere of any class above five, then we can descend through the atmosphere while they can’t. Their shield can’t handle the heat, let alone the designs of their ships!’’ I explained hastily.

‘’She’s right,’’ Orion agreed, ‘’the standard fighter ships are made for space battles, not descending onto planets.’’    

‘’What about our shield?’’ Atlas pressed, not buying my plan.

‘’I can boost it. If I direct enough power to it, I can keep it running for long enough, but I can’t take enough without affecting the engine as we go down.’’

‘’And then what?’’

‘’When we get through, I can redirect power back to the engine and give you a small window to do an emergency landing,’’ I finished explaining and plugged the last wires into their temporary places. I popped back out in time to see one of the dots on the radar disappear, telling me that either Nova or Jaxon got one of the Empire ships.

‘’And exactly how many times have you done that?!’’ Atlas asked while we took another shot, making another alarm start beeping.    

‘’Well… I-‘’ I started, hating myself for hesitating at such a crucial moment, and Atlas immediately picked up on it.

‘’I’ll take that as ‘never’,’’ Atlas grumbled, obviously not pleased with the situation.

‘’If it’s our only choice…’’ Orion spoke up, not needing to finish his sentence.

 Atlas’ face twisted into a frown. ‘’You sure this will work?’’

‘’99%,’’ I replied, already readying my tablet.

‘’Ugh, fine!’’ He groaned. ‘’Tell Jaxon and Nova to buckle up when I say so. This isn’t going to be a smooth ride.’’

‘’How close are we to a planet that we can use?’’ Orion inquired, prompting Atlas to use one hand to steer and another to flick across the control panel, bringing up a star map.

‘’Arene is the closest. It’s a class 6, so it should do,’’ he spoke as he typed in the coordinates, his eyes flickering between the map and the window.

‘’Good. Tess, be ready,’’ Orion instructed, giving me a sharp look.

I nodded and fought the urge to swallow. I glanced at Atlas and my chest tightened because of the obvious stress in his expression. The thoughts from before resurfaced in my mind, reminding me just exactly whose fault it was that we were in this situation. Trying to push them back down, I took a deep breath and looked out the window. I felt a sliver hope as I spotted what could only be the planet Arene, but it shattered the very second later when a large Empire ship appeared right in front of us.

Atlas cursed widely while he tried to turn us back around, but the ship was suddenly yanked back, stopping us from going anywhere.

‘’They have us locked with their tractor beam,’’ Atlas explained grimly, rapidly typing away on the control panel, but his expression only turned more stressed.

‘’What’s going on?’’ Nova asked as she reentered the bridge with Jaxon right behind her.

‘’They’re getting ready to board us,’’ Atlas replied with a huff, frustration and anger making his expression and voice hard.

‘’Nova and Jaxon, help me set up some defensive positions. Atlas, let me know exactly when they’re about to rush us,’’ Orion gave out orders with a strange calm, delegating assignments like they were used to getting boarded. Nova and Jaxon quickly started on trying to set up a defensive perimeter, tipping over the heavy table in the middle of the room to act as a makeshift shield.   

‘’It’s Tyberius, isn’t it?’’ I asked out loud, hoping that someone would answer me.

‘’I’m quite convinced that it is,’’ Orion replied. 

‘’I didn’t think he’d be able to get his head further up his ass than it already was, but then he goes and chases us through two star systems,’’ Atlas complained loudly while readying his blaster.

I sucked in a quick breath as the situation played out in my head. They board us, the crew gets locked down in combat while there’s only four of them and… stars know how many Empire soldiers are onboard that huge ship. No matter how much I believed in them, I couldn’t see how the crew could win this. My glance moved to the door. If… if I just turned myself over, nothing would happen to the crew, right? Then again, I couldn’t just throw open the door and expect everything to go smoothly.

My eyes fell on the control panel, mapping which buttons I had to press to bring up the communications terminal, but Atlas spoke up beside me before I could attempt to do anything.

‘’Kid, go hide.’’ He stood up from his seat before addressing Orion, ‘’Cap’, they should be ready for boarding us now.’’

‘’Go hide?’’ I repeated, not entirely happy about the order and it showed on my face.

‘’Unless you know how to handle a blaster, you’re not staying here.’’ Atlas frowned at me, giving me a hard look that told me to quit being difficult. His face told me that he was ready to shove me down the hallway and out of sight, but a loud noise from the door forced a change of plans. ‘’Their bloody timing is starting to piss me off,’’ he grunted and ducked down behind the table, pulling me down next to him.

At once, chaos erupted. The door was thrown open and shouting voices demanded us to surrender, but the crew’s reply was simply to start shooting at them immediately, taking advantage of them having to move through the narrow doorway. The soldiers were quick to retaliate, shooting wildly at anything whenever they saw a chance to hit one of us. A shot hit the wall right above me, making me yelp in surprise.

‘’Keep your head down!’’ Atlas barked at me before firing back at them.

‘’I am! But how the hell are we going to get out of this?’’ I voiced my panicked thoughts as he sat on one knee next to me, charging his blaster for another round.

He shot me a look full of determination, eyes studying my face for just a second. ‘’Have some faith in us,’’ he spoke as he maintained eye contact, waiting until I nodded weakly. Satisfied with my answer, he joined the others as they shot back, somehow managing to drive them out of the doorway.

‘’We’ve pushed them back,’’ Nova announced as she fired away, hitting a soldier square in the chest as he tried to get back to their own ship.

‘’We need a plan. As much as I like shooting, this is going nowhere,’’ Jaxon reminded us as he recharged both his blasters.

‘’Jaxon’s right, we have to think of something,’’ Orion agreed, eyeing the doors for a second before focusing on Atlas.

‘’As long as we’re stuck in their tractor beam, we’re not going anywhere,’’ Atlas reminded them.

I peeked over the edge of the table, glancing at the door as they started to discuss our options. It quickly became evident that they were rather limited, which only resulted in what I would categorize as crazy ideas. Then, as they were busy deciding whether or not storming the bridge was the only plausible action, I noticed movement by the door.

‘’Guys!’’ I yelled, drawing their attention to the door as someone’s hand appeared, throwing something small and round across the room. It bounced off the wall and landed right at my feet.

‘’It’s a smoke grenade!’’ Atlas yelled just as it triggered, making a loud ‘tick’ before exploding, sending thick smoke everywhere. Heavy footsteps immediately followed, swarming into the room.

Panic seized me and I reached for Atlas, catching the sleeve of his jacket in blindness. A second later, his hand found mine; offering me some sort of calm, but it didn’t last. I wanted to call his name, but a gloved hand clasped over my mouth while another went around me, pulling me back and away from him.

‘’Subject is subdued!’’ The soldier holding me yelled from behind a mask, informing the others as he tried to haul me away. I struggled the best I could, trashing against him until another soldier slammed the stock of his blaster into my stomach. I crumbled like a piece of paper, gasping for air while the two soldiers grabbed both of my arms and forced me to stay on my knees.

Atlas cursed loudly from somewhere within the smoke. His frustrated outburst was followed by a few groans and some stray blaster shots, but it was clear that none of them stood a chance. By the time the smoke started to clear, I was kept still by the soldiers at the doorway and the rest of the crew was on their knees in handcuffs, surrounded in the middle of the room by a handful of soldiers. Neither of them looked good. Atlas had blood running down the side of his face and I’d never seen him look that angry.

‘’Now, this is a lot better.’’ A voice I recognized as Tyberius appeared as a pair of footsteps approached from the Empire ship and onto the Promise. A shiver ran through me as he stepped inside, his glance sweeping over the crew before finding me, a confident smirk shaped his lips.

I stayed quiet as he approached me. The look he gave me made me want to squirm away and hide, but the soldiers’ grip on me only tightened once Tyberius was within reach. He stopped in front of me and his smirk turned into a smile. ‘’I’ve been looking for you, Tess Eiso.’’

‘’If I go with you and do as you say, will you let them go? You have no use for them,’’ I asked as soon as I could, my eyes searching his for any sign of empathy.

‘’You’re willing to swear your loyalty to me if I let the scum go?’’

‘’Tess-‘’ Atlas raised his voice, but I interrupted him before he could say anything else.

‘’Not now, Atlas,’’ I snapped at him and shot him a look that pleaded him to stay quiet. He narrowed his eyes at me, somehow conveying that he was absolutely not okay with what I was doing, but he said nothing. I looked back at Tyberius, hardening my eyes while taking a quick breath. ‘’Look, if you don’t do it, I’m going to make you wish that you never took me aboard your ship,’’ I explained, doing my very best to sound threatening, but it only prompted a faint chuckle from him.

‘’Fine. I don’t feel inclined to waste any more time on these criminals anyway,’’ he spoke as he nodded at the soldiers holding me, giving them the sign to get me on my feet.  

‘’You can’t be serious!’’ Atlas objected as soon as Tyberius gave the go ahead. The rest of the crew quickly voiced their disapproval as well, and the soldiers had to keep them subdued. Even with two soldiers holding him down, Atlas clearly wasn’t seeing them as a threat. ‘’This is bullshit!’’ He groaned and somehow managed to shake one of them off. The soldier readied his rifle instead, aiming it directly as Atlas’ head while he barked the order to sit still.

‘’Atlas, please stop!’’ I begged him, the raw desperation in my voice making him look at me. He stopped struggling after a moment of eye contact, anger still plainly visible in his expression, and I silently thanked him in my mind as relief washed over me.    

‘’Ah, yes, I should have expected you to be difficult, Molniya. Considering you served together with her father and all,’’ Tyberius spoke calmly, smiling at Atlas as if he was exchanging casual pleasantries. ‘’Such a waste, he could have made a fine Empire pilot, but we all have to meet our end at some point.’’

Atlas looked like he was ready to rip Tyberius’ head off, but I just stared at him in disbelief. Served together? So he knew him? Slowly, as Tyberius handed me a crucial piece of information, Atlas’ behavior suddenly made sense. The way he had reacted when I had asked him about my father, and even when he’d heard my full name. He knew exactly who I was and had kept quiet the whole time.

It felt like everything was crashing down around me.

‘’You lied to me?’’ I asked in disbelief as Tyberius left the ship. Before I could say anything else, the two soldiers holding me started to follow, pulling me along with them. I kept my eyes on him as they pulled me away, desperately wishing for him to finally look at me. Once he did, the sight didn’t give me any comfort. His shoulders had slumped and a storm of emotions passed through his eyes, but I couldn’t tell them apart. Disappointment made me bite my lip as I looked away, taking a quick breath to calm my distressed heart. I couldn’t even bring myself to look at the others as the soldiers escorted me out of their sight.

The soldiers led me away from the Promise and onto Tyberius ship, leaving the rest of the soldiers to free the crew under safe circumstances. I hoped that neither of them tried to do anything stupid and just accept the situation. I wanted them to be safe. Still, as much as I wanted to worry about their safety, the situation that I was in started to dawn on me, and the fact that Atlas had lied about knowing my father didn’t make it any easier to process.

My mind was swimming in thoughts by the time we reached the bridge. The sheer size of it overwhelmed me and it was nothing like the Promise. It felt indifferent and hostile, giving me a feeling that I wasn’t allowed to be there. Fighting the urge to make myself small, I looked around, taking in as much as I could in case I ever needed to remember the layout of it. Tyberius stood in the middle of the room, overlooking everyone that sat at a level lower than him. A pair of huge, curved windows granted a view of everything in front of the ship.

‘’Just like I promised, the Promise has been released from the tractor beam and they are free to go. I’m a man of my word.’’ He turned to look at me as he spoke, folding his hands behind his back before approaching me. ‘’Now, I’m sure those… people have been less than kind when discussing the Empire, but I assure you, everything we do is for a good cause,’’ he explained with a smooth voice and a smile, giving me the impression that he was trying to charm me.

‘’Good intentions or not, why am I here? Why did you have your men chase me like I’m some sort of criminal,’’ I asked with a frown.

‘’Once again, I apologize for how things were handled. As to why, it’s very simple,’’ he explained before stepping closer to me. I tried to take a step back but the soldiers stopped me, forcing me to accept that he invaded my personal space. ‘’You see, I divide people into two categories, those that have something that I want, and those that do not.’’ His finger curled beneath my chin, tipping my face upwards as he spoke. His eyes ran over my face like he had degraded me to an object, free for him to appraise like he saw fit.

‘’Let me guess, I’m lucky enough to be considered a part of the first category?’’ I asked, my voice low and hard.

‘’You have some very specific talents that I require for an important project,’’ he mused and lingered for another moment before he withdrew from me, moving towards the center of the bridge again, ‘’but we can discuss that later. Escort her to her room, please.’’ He gestured for the soldiers to leave with a simple wave of his hand once he had turned his back to me.

I didn’t fight them as they led me away. Instead, I tried to figure out just what Tyberius had in mind for me. It had to have something to do with my engineering skill, that much was clear to me, but exactly what he wanted me to build or work on, that was still a mystery. Even so, I had a feeling that it surely wasn’t something good. His comment about the Empire doing a good cause rubbed me wrong in every possible way. The whole thing reeked of something that I should get out of, but that was easier said than done.

The ship was humongous and they’d definitively not gone easy on the security. Escaping looked pretty impossible, and even if I somehow managed that pull that off, I doubted that Tyberius would just let me go that easily. My chest grew tighter and tighter as we walked, passing more guards than I’d ever seen before. When they finally stopped in front of a heavy door, it felt like I couldn’t properly breathe anymore. The solid metal door opened, revealing a small room with a single bed, and one of the soldiers nudged me inside. As soon as I was inside, the door closed again.

I slumped down on the bed, catching my head in my hands while my eyes started to burn. Less than an hour ago, everything had been fine, and now… now things felt so uncertain. As I sat there, the look on Atlas’ face haunted me. I wasn’t sure what was worst, just how much it hurt that he had actually lied to me or how his expression had been so cloudy with emotions, that I couldn’t even tell if he had looked genuinely sorry. Was he even sorry about it? I squeezed my eyes shut as I recalled how he’d acted in the short time we’d known each other. Did I even know him well enough to know if he was? And why would he deny knowing my father?

What felt like the weight of the world pressed down on my shoulders as I questioned everything, leaving my heart to twist within my chest. Tears finally fell, rolling down my cheeks as I sat there in silence, lip quivering.

Nothing made sense anymore.

 

 

Hours later, the door finally opened again. Two soldiers waited for me, one of them telling me to follow them in a gruff voice. Both of them were armed, so I did as I was told without any hesitation.

‘’What’s happening?’’ I asked a bit tentative, but neither of them answered me as one of them moved behind me as the other started walking, once again leading me through the ship. I stayed silent the rest of the way, instead trying to figure out where we could be heading as we moved through another part of the ship. After a few minutes of walking, we arrived at what looked like the hangar. Several fighter ships were lined up in a row, ready to take off in a matter of minutes, but what caught my eye was the big, square entrance in the side of the ship. The shield shimmered as it covered the entrance, keeping us all safe from suffocating while objects could still pass through.

On the other side of it and out in space was a giant structure. It was unlike anything I had seen before. It didn’t look like a traditional base because of the cylinder shape, but it was far too big to be a ship. The exterior of it gave nothing away about its purpose, only leaving me with more questions as we approached a small group of people. Tyberius stood with a couple of soldiers and a man I’d never seen before in front of a shuttle, waiting.

My throat tightened once I realized that they were waiting for me.

‘’So that’s her? Looks like another lowlife to me,’’ the man huffed as we approached, eyeing me from head to toe. He sounded unimpressed, his voice was sharp and deep, but it almost sounded like it didn’t belong to him when he spoke. He didn’t stand much taller than me, and he had slicked back blonde hair and hard, dark eyes hidden behind glasses. He looked older than Tyberius and wore a lab coat, appearing as some sort of scientist or engineer. He looked at me like I was a bug he was ready to step on.

‘’Don’t be fooled by her appearance,’’ Tyberius commented before looking at me, ‘’this is Caine Yao, you’ll be working with him.’’

‘’For me, to be precise,’’ Caine corrected him, his eyes still focused on me.

‘’And what exactly will I be working on?’’ I asked, looking for some answers.

‘’This,’’ Tyberius gestured to the structure I had been looking at earlier, ‘’is what you will be working on.’’

‘’Before you ask what ‘this’ is, you’ll have to wait until we get there. I’m not indulging just any idiot in secret Empire projects.’’ Caine informed me with a flat tone, looking rather uninterested in the whole thing. ‘’We’ve wasted enough time already, Tyberius.’’

‘’Yes, that we have,’’ he agreed and focused on me again, ‘’you’ll take the shuttle with Caine, then he will explain everything you need to know.’’

I eyed them both before I glanced at the shuttle. I knew I was in no position to say no, so I merely nodded and followed Caine. He didn’t appear as someone who liked to be kept waiting, so I didn’t take any chances. Nothing about this sat well with me, but I stepped onboard the shuttle and kept quiet as we took off. Caine kept his eye on me the whole time, leaving me to nearly squirm in my seat. I escaped his scrutinizing gaze by looking at the structure. The size of it was impressive and could easily be the same as a big colony, but there were no windows, only a grey exterior made of metal plates.

It remained one big mystery as we approached it, the shuttle entering a much smaller hangar through a narrow entrance, clearly not meant for anything larger than a transport ship. The inside didn’t offer me any more clues about its purpose, but I did notice a lot fewer guards and more people that moved around in lab coats. However, the place wasn’t exactly bursting with life.    

‘’Follow me,’’ Caine spoke as he started walking, heading out of the hangar and into a hallway. As we walked, I noticed people glancing at us, most of them focusing on Caine. They quickly looked down when he got close enough, and it almost looked like they were afraid of him.

He continued down the hallway until we reached a small door. He pressed a keycard against a panel, prompting the door to open, revealing a small room with only a table and two heavy looking chairs. Silently, he gestured for me to take a seat. I hesitated for a moment, but it only lasted until the look in his eyes hardened, then I sat down in one of the chairs. Once I sat down, he closed the door and reached for something in his pocket.

‘’I like to do things a certain way here,’’ he mumbled as he found a small remote and aimed it at me before pressing a button. I stared at him in confusion until I heard a click from the chair I was in. Then, what felt like a faint electrical current crept over my skin, spreading out and covering my upper body. My first reaction was to jerk away from the strange feeling, but I couldn’t move.

‘’What is this?!’’ I panicked and looked at him, finding him wearing a small smile that raised so many red flags in my head.

‘’A minor version of a stasis field,’’ he explained as if it was something completely ordinary while approaching me. ‘’Like I said, I like things to be done a certain way, and because of that I do not care for troublemakers,’’ he spoke clearly as he fished a small, black, circular object from his pocket. It was flat on one side but curved on the other, and with an even smaller button in the center of the curved side. ‘’This little thing helps me avoid just those types, and I’ll give you a little demonstration of how it does that,’’ he continued speaking while he pressed the small thing against the side of my neck and pushed the button.

I groaned loudly when small, curved metal spikes dug into my skin, making the circular object latch onto me. It felt like I’d just been struck by eight needles simultaneously, but they didn’t go back out again, making me want to claw them out as soon as I could.

‘’What the hell did you just do to me?!’’ I yelled in a mixture of anger and panic, but he didn’t seem to care much for my reaction.

‘’let’s call it a precaution,’’ he spoke calmly and pressed the button on the remote again, releasing me from the stasis field. He watched as the first thing I did was to try to remove the thing from my neck, but I yelped in pain when a surge of electricity rushed through me the very second I touched it. ‘’Bad behavior is punished here, and touching it is bad behavior.’’ He smiled at me, humored by my pained expression as I stared at him in disbelief.

By the stars, What had I gotten myself into?

Chapter Text

Time felt like a strange concept.

There was no day and night simulation cycle, no indication of hours ticking by or when a day had passed. The bright lights were always on, leaving you to wonder if it even was possible to turn them off. The place functioned like a prison and every single person with the black chip on their neck were cheap workers, brought here against their will. Engineers and scientists, all with their own specialized field were working amongst each other, but no one was allowed to share any information about it. Every so often, you would spot someone without the chip. Those were here voluntarily and stood a rank above the rest. Then, there was Caine.  

Caine was the highest ranked and the overseer, controlling ‘bad behavior’ as he saw fit. I’d quickly learned why people had looked afraid of him, and I was very certain that the man had never heard of the word empathy. He’d made it perfectly clear why I was there when I had arrived nearly two weeks ago.

‘’Tyberius spotted you when we got intel on someone managing to drastically improve the durability of a stealth shield, and that is a technology that we need,’’ he explained, his eyes never leaving mine.

‘’For what?’’

‘’For making this entire construction invisible to the naked eye.’’

It was such a statement to throw out there, and I didn’t understand it the idea behind it. The shield made sense when used with quick fighter ships or even transport ships that had to go invisible, but a giant construction like this? Obviously, this was something they didn’t want anyone else to find, and that only made me more suspicious of the whole thing. Nevertheless, I couldn’t exactly avoid building it, not when it felt like Caine was constantly breathing down my neck. So I did the only thing I could.

I stalled for time.

Since my blueprints were stored on my tablet and said tablet was still onboard the Promise, I had to start from scratch, but it only gave me so much time. And, as I currently sat in Caine’s office, I knew that my time had run out.

‘’You’re wasting my time, Eiso,’’ Caine spoke as he sat in his leather chair by his desk.

I sat on the other side with one of the few security guards lingering behind me. I tried to look calm, but whenever his hand moved anywhere close to the proximity of his remote, I flinched, making me look like the nervous wreck that I was. 

‘’I’m almost finished with the blueprints,’’ I explained and cast my eyes down, focusing on his desk. Caine liked things to be neat and in order, leading me to believe that the answers I was searching for were somewhere on his desk. However, it wasn’t like I had plenty of opportunities to find out.

‘’You said the same thing two days ago,’’ he sighed and got up from his chair. My glance followed his hand as it picked up the remote. ‘’Need I remind you how I feel about people who waste my time?’’ He asked while he toyed with the remote, making sure that I saw how his finger circled the button.

I swallowed hard before answering. ‘’No… sir.’’

His eyes stayed on me as he studied me. His expression was cold and unreadable, giving me no information about what was going on inside his head, and it remained that way as he clicked his tongue in annoyance. Then, he pressed the button with no warning. Every single muscle in my body tensed and my jaw snapped shut as the pain rushed through me from the chip. I fell to the ground, convulsing against my will while groaning through gritted teeth. When he finally released the button, the pain that had seized my whole body subdued, leaving me gasping for air and my muscles sore.

‘’I would strongly advise you to practice sounding sincere,’’ he sneered at me while he placed his boot on my throat, rolling me onto my back and pressing down hard enough for me to choke. Both my hands moved up to grab him by the ankle, desperately trying to get some air. ‘’I want those blueprints done in two hours, do you understand?’’ His voice dripped with venom as he pressed further down.

‘’Y-yes,’’ I gasped.

‘’I said, do you understand?!’’ He roared, losing his usual calm composure to get what he wanted.

‘’Yes!’’ I somehow managed to raise my voice and he finally removed his boot, leaving me to have a coughing fit on the ground.

‘’Good. Now, get out of my office.’’ His voice was back to normal, calm and collected. He moved back to his desk while the security guard roughly pulled me to my feet and out of the office. The tight grip on my arm helped me stay upright as he dragged me down the hallway and towards my cell. I considered struggling to try to free myself but dropped the idea once I recalled how I’d seen the guard treat those who tried to fight them. I still hadn’t given up on getting out of this place, but truthfully, the few options I had were beginning to look a little bleak.

Like always, the guard was kind enough to shove me inside the cell, not even sparing a glance in my direction as I fell to the floor. He scanned his keycard and activated the force field that acted like the door, locking me inside the tiny room that only had a narrow bed in it. Sighing heavily, I sat up against the bed and ran a hand through my hair. Every muscle in my body was sore and aching; killing what little motivation I had left as I sat there.   

For once, I allowed myself five minutes where I did nothing but feel sorry for myself. Once those were over, I took a couple of deep breaths, attempting to regain a little energy. Staying on the floor, I scootched over to a small access panel in the wall next to the door. Getting it open the first time hadn’t been easy, but I’d been doing it since I’d arrived, so it popped open without much trouble. The wires were in a mess because of my experimenting, and I still hadn’t figured out which combination would override the force field. Wrong guesses had resulted in me getting zapped a few times, but it was a lot less painful than being punished by Caine.

Recalling which combinations I had already tried, I started working. It was a struggle without the proper tools, but I made it work. Once in a while, a security guard would walk by, and it was a little hard to look nonchalant while attempting to break out of a cell, but I hadn’t been caught yet.

‘’Come on,’’ I breathed as I tried the fourth combination. The wires sparked as I held them together and the force field flickered before it disappeared completely. I forgot about my sore muscles and quickly got on my feet, checking if the coast was clear before walking out. My pulse started to race as I kept my face neutral, doing my best to keep a low profile as I approached the workroom. If by any chance I managed to escape, I couldn’t leave them with the blueprint for the shield, not when I had such a bad feeling about this place.

My luck continued as just one other engineer was at their desk, paying no attention to me as they were busy working. I found the blueprints while trying to appear as an epitome of calmness, leaving the room again before heading for the hangar. I managed to get about halfway there when the lights suddenly cut off and I came to a halt in a hallway.

Everything was dark. I could hear footsteps stopping around the corner ahead of me and multiple people beginning to yell in panic. My heart leaped into my throat as I stood there and the footsteps took a few hesitating steps, coming closer to me as they rounded the corner. I knew that I had nowhere to run, but I had no chance to come up with a plan as the emergency lights turned on, shrouding everything in a dim orange light. Immediately, I locked eyes with whoever was in front of me.

My heart stopped when I saw who it was.

The blueprints fluttered to the ground as I dropped them, heading straight for the man in front of me and throwing myself at him. My arms wrapped around his neck and he caught me like I didn’t weigh a thing. I pressed myself against him as his arms moved around me, accepting my overly dramatic embrace as alarms started blaring around us.

‘’You have no idea how happy I am to see you,’’ I whispered, tightening my hold around him while thoroughly ignoring the part of myself that yelled at me for being too obvious. A feeling of safety and comfort rushed over me, making me momentarily forget how things had been two weeks ago.    

‘’I have an inkling,’’ Atlas sighed with a hint of a smile in his voice. Maybe sensing how much I needed it, he held on to me for another moment before easing his grip around me. ‘’We have to get moving.’’

‘’Where are the others?’’ I asked as I withdrew myself from him, quickly picking up the scattered blueprints.

‘’We split up to find you, but we should get back to the hangar. The place isn’t crawling with guards, but-’’ he paused as he looked at me, his eyes narrowing, ‘’what the hell is that on your neck?’’

‘’A disciplinary chip.’’

 ‘’A what?’’  

‘’Just-eugh, I’ll explain later. Did you bring your blaster?’’ His frown and ‘how dumb are you’ look made me smile for what felt like the first time in forever, and I just shook my head as I turned around. ‘’Good, then we have somewhere we need to go first.’’

‘’We don’t have time-‘’

‘’Atlas, I’ve been here for two weeks and I still don’t know what the hell this place is. There’s one office here where we might find the answer and we need to get it,’’ I explained and started walking, really not in the mood for arguing. He made a point of groaning but followed me nonetheless. I led him down the hallway, past the cell I had just broken out of, while a few people passed us. They looked at Atlas in bewilderment but were too busy with getting away to say or do anything.   

We reached the office without any trouble, but it was locked, making me groan loudly before beginning to fidget with the panel. If I could short-circuit the force field in my cell, how hard could it be to override the door lock without tools or a tablet? Having Atlas wait impatiently behind me didn’t really help me work faster, but it wasn’t his presence that interrupted me.

‘’Eiso!’’  Caine yelling my name made me freeze like a deer caught in a pair of headlights.

‘’I see you made friends,’’ Atlas grumbled as he moved in front of me, his tall frame blocking Caine from looking at me with those furious eyes of his.

‘’What is the meaning of this?! I knew I should have thrown you out of that goddamn shuttle the minute I had the chance,’’ Caine yelled, absolutely livid by the sound of it.

‘’Please just shoot him if he pulls out a remote,’’ I spoke as I stayed behind Atlas’ broad back.

‘’Let me guess, it triggers something in that chip?’’ He hummed as his hand settled on his blaster.

‘’I’ll be tased if he uses it,’’ I replied while leaning to the side, catching a glimpse of Caine as he came closer to us. Meanwhile, Atlas muttered something under his breath and drew his blaster, charging it.

‘’You imbecile! Luring these lowlifes here to ruin my project! I’ll have you tortured for this! I’ll-‘’ Caine raged as his hand moved into the pocket where I knew he kept the remote. I squeezed my eyes shut and waited for the pain to force me to the ground, but I heard a blaster shot followed groaning instead.

‘’How dare you?!’’ Caine sneered as I left my hiding place behind Atlas. Caine was on his knees, left hand clutching his right as blood dripped from it and the remote laid scattered on the ground in front him, shot to pieces. 

I exhaled in relief before walking over to him. Atlas followed right behind me, hard eyes focusing on Caine as we approached him. I snatched his keycard while Atlas kept his blaster aimed at him, making sure that Caine knew what would happen if he were to do anything. Atlas stayed there as I accessed the office and started rummaging through his desk, grabbing anything that looked like it could give some answers about this place. When I merged with a hefty pile of files, Caine was nearly shaking with rage.

‘’I promise you, I’ll hunt you down, Eiso. Don’t you dare think that you’ll get away with his,’’ he hissed at me, his eyes filled with more emotion than I’d ever seen before.

‘’You’re a piece of shit, Caine,’’ I spoke my mind as I glared at him, making Atlas chuckle. ‘’Come on, I can’t wait to get out of here,’’ I sighed, clutching the pile of files against my chest.

‘’That makes two of us,’’ Atlas spoke as his eyes lingering on Caine a moment longer. ‘’Next time, I’m going to aim for something more important than your hand,’’ he scoffed at him before turning around and followed me, leaving Caine to his anger.

For a second, I wanted to turn around and get one last look at him, but I already knew that I wouldn’t be the last time that I saw him, so I didn’t give him the satisfaction. Instead, I picked up the pace and headed back to the hangar. Once we got there, I realized that I’d never been happier to see a starship, let alone the people standing in front of it. They all looked relieved when they spotted us and I felt with chest swell with happiness.

‘’You’re a sight for sore eyes,’’ Jaxon smiled as we approached them.

‘’Are you alright?’’ Nova asked, already looking me over before I could say anything.

‘’I’m fine, thanks,’’ I smiled at her before looking at the others.

‘’Save the welcome party for when we’re on the ship, we’ve been here for long enough,’’ Atlas spoke as he continued inside.

‘’Atlas’ right, we’ll continue this on the ship,’’ Orion agreed.

The group moved inside while Atlas started the Ship, quickly and easily getting us away from the Empire construction in the middle of nowhere. I watched it disappear from the windows and lingered there even after I couldn’t see it anymore. Even with the relief making my stiff shoulders relax, I could feel the exhaustion creeping up on me. My whole body felt sore and I just wanted to go lie down somewhere, but there was still so much to discuss.

‘’Tess,’’ Orion spoke up beside me, startling me, ‘’are you sure you’re alright?’’ he asked me, genuine concern making his voice soft.

‘’Yeah, I’m just… I’m fine,’’ I sighed and smiled weakly at him.

‘’Still, I’m sure you’ve been through a lot. You look like you could use some rest.’’

‘’Orion’s right, Tess, you should think of your health,’’ Nova spoke up, agreeing with Orion.  

‘’I’m not sleeping before I get this horrid thing out of my neck,’’ I sighed and slumped down in one of the chairs. Comet appeared like it had been waiting for me to sit down, and I started smiling immediately once I saw the little fluff ball. ‘’Hey buddy,’’ I mumbled and started scratching it behind its ear.  

‘’Wait, what thing?’’ Jaxon sat down next to me, looking at me with a puzzled look until I moved my hair away, revealing the black chip. He leaned closer to me as he inspected it. ‘’What does it do?’’ He asked as he reached for it, but I swatted his hand away before he could get close to it.

‘’No touching, it reacts to it by tasering me,’’ I explained.  

‘’Tasering? The Empire really uses every trick they can think of,’’ Jaxon scoffed.

‘’How do we get it off?’’ Nova asked.   

‘’Shooting the remote that controlled it obviously did nothing, so the only thing I can think of is creating a miniature EMP wave to fry the circuit board in it,’’ I explained.

‘’I might have something that could do that.’’ Atlas joined the rest of us at the table. I suddenly felt a bit awkward about meeting his eyes. All of a sudden, the air felt thick with unsaid things, and I had to take a deep breath before I could look at him. He looked… exhausted as he gestured me to follow him before he walked ahead. Jaxon flashed me a smile as I got up, making me roll my eyes at him before following Atlas out of the bridge.

Nervousness, curiosity, and exhaustion was a weird mix of emotions, and it felt like they were all trying to be the dominant one and dictate which direction my thoughts went in. By the time we were inside his room, I felt like some sort of a messy bundle that was just waiting to explode and go everywhere. I desperately wanted some answers about my father, but it didn’t feel easy to focus when I had a hard time looking at the man who was supposed to provide them without having my pulse run off like a racehorse.

Feeling a bit defeated, I sat down at the foot of his bed while he rummaged through his desk, looking for something. The silence between us wasn’t directly uncomfortable, but it was different and almost raw as if neither of us wanted it to be awkward, but we weren’t sure how to make it anything else. Finally, Atlas found what he was looking for and joined me on the bed.

‘’Here.’’ He held out a small ball that was about the same size of a grenade. ‘’It’s an old prototype. It’s supposed to discharge a minor electromagnetic pulse after a short delay.’’

‘’Supposed to?’’ I glanced up at him with a small smile and one raised eyebrow.

‘’Never had a reason to use the damn thing. It’s back from my Union days,’’ he explained briefly.

‘’And you've kept it?’’

‘’I don’t throw functional stuff out,’’ he grumbled, obviously not amused by my questions.  

‘’That explains a couple of things,’’ I mumbled while looking around, laughing faintly once I saw how he frowned at me. I was tired, sure, but it didn’t stop me from making dumb jokes. ‘’Fine, fine…’’ I smiled and pressed the button, watching as the little ball lit up. The lights grew smaller and smaller, providing a silent countdown before discharging the EMP. There was a soft beep as the chip was fried and the mechanism holding the legs closed loosened. I quickly plucked it off, hissing slightly as the legs were pulled out of my skin. The little thing looked so insignificant as it lay in my hand and I studied it briefly, not really noticing that Atlas had stood up before he sat back down, wordlessly handing me a band-aid, a big square one.  

‘’Thank you,’’ I murmured as I applied it gingerly, trying not to press too hard against an area that felt like it had been abused. Atlas hummed something as a reply and a silence proceeded to fall between us. I opened my mouth to speak several times, but I couldn’t find the right words to convey everything that was going on inside my head. At the same time, it felt like he was waiting for me to speak like he expected me to bombard him with questions, but we both remained quiet. What finally broke the silence was me inhaling sharply before trying to construct a sentence.   

‘’I-um… Uh, I feel weird saying ‘’knowing you’’, because I don’t-I mean, I’m not…’’ my voice trailed off and I sighed before attempting again, ‘’what I’m trying to say is that I know that there has to be a reason for you not to tell me, because you don’t seem like someone who would do that without a reason. I didn’t exactly make the best first impression… I just… I just want to know, and I want to know your reason for not telling me. I think I deserve that much.’’ I glanced at him once I was done trying to speak my thoughts.

He was hunched over; elbows resting on his knees, and his eyes were focused on the ground. He sat for a minute, almost looking a little lost in his thoughts. Then, he exhaled heavily before speaking, ‘’I didn’t say anything because I wanted to ignore it. I figured that we would just drop you off somewhere and then I’d never see you again. I would never have to think about you or Will again, and it would be that easy…’’ now it was his turn to trail off as he paused. His eyes closed for a moment before refocusing on his hands. ‘’But then you turned out to be not entirely intolerable and I actually started caring about your safety, and then it just seemed impossible to tell you without it blowing up in my face,’’ he explained.

‘’How did you know my father?’’ I asked the question that had been on my mind ever since Tyberius had exposed Atlas’ secret. ‘’I know your Union days isn’t your favorite subject, but I’ve been wondering about it since.’’

‘’We were in the same squadron,’’ he explained as he got up and moved to his desk again, this time moving a stack of papers and books to reveal a small glass frame. He brought it with him as he sat back down, handing it to me. The Union patch inside nearly made my eyes burn once I saw it. ‘’He was my leader, to be more precise,’’ he spoke quietly as he looked at me for the first time in a while, but I was too busy with looking at the replication of the patch that had been on my father’s jacket.

‘’You… you were in the Fire Falcons…’’ I breathed as I processed the information. Atlas hadn’t just seen or spoken to my father a few times, they’d been in the same elite squadron. He’d even been made his successor as the squadron leader. ‘’What happened on that mission, Atlas? The Union would never tell me,’’ I pleaded as I looked up at him, meeting his eyes.

He looked more uncomfortable than I’d ever seen him. Saying he looked less than thrilled about telling me was a severe understatement, and his hesitation couldn’t have been more obvious when he looked away.

‘’Atlas, please, I need to know,’’ I pleaded and grasped his forearm. He seemed surprised by my sudden touch, but he didn’t shake it off. Instead, his glance lingered on my hand for a long moment, eventually moving up to my face. I whispered another ‘please’ while I held his gaze, watching as his eyes wavered before he let out a sigh and looked down.

‘’We were out in the middle of a skirmish with other fighters when the surface of a nearby star collapsed in on itself. We weren’t prepared for it, and the enemy was more concerned with taking us down than getting away from it. Will… Will was hit before he was clear of the star’s radius and his engine died…’’ he paused and closed his eyes for a second. ‘’I watched as your father’s ship got sucked into the stellar black hole that had formed in the middle of it… The others were swallowed up by the supernova. I only made it out by the skin of my teeth,’’ he explained mournfully and I squeezed his forearm reassuringly, trying to offer him some comfort.

‘’Are you… are you sure that he got pulled into the black hole?’’ I asked, having to swallow before I could finish my question.

‘’Yeah, I’m sure,’’ he sighed and ran his free hand through his hair, frustration replacing his mournful expression. ‘’I get back as the only survivor and they make me take his spot.’’ His voice was hard as he spoke, clearly resenting the Union for how they had handled it.

‘’He must have survived though,’’ I thought out loud as my thoughts drifted back to the email.

‘’Tess, your father got sucked into in a black hole. There’s never been any proof that someone survived that.’’ He had a look of pity in his eyes when he finally glanced at me, but I just shook my head at him.

‘’You don’t understand, he sent me a message five months ago, he can’t-!’’ I had raised my voice when I saw the look he was giving me, and I realized that he didn’t believe me. ‘’He can’t be dead, Atlas! It makes no sense!’’ I continued, frustration making me fly to my feet while I looked at him as my eyes got watery. ‘’He’s not dead! I know that he isn’t!’’ I kept going; exhaustion and frustration making me flip like a switch, turning me into some yelling mess that took it out on someone who did not deserve it. ‘’I refuse to believe it!’’

I bit down on my lip as the look in his eyes softened before he stood up. I expected him to throw me out because of my childish behavior, but, instead, he just sighed and pulled me into his embrace, one arm moving around me and drawing me in while the other settled in the back of my head, urging me to lean against his chest. I returned the embrace with no hesitation. My arms moved around him and my hands grabbed a fistful of his jacket while I finally let go of all the pent-up emotions. I let the waterworks flow freely while I just embraced him tighter, hoping to somehow gesture how much I appreciated him and what he was doing.

His scent was oddly comforting and his strong embrace gave me a feeling of safety. I thought back to how I had reacted to seeing him in the hallway, smiling through my tears once I realized that I’d gotten two hugs out of him in just one day. He didn’t say anything as he waited for me to calm down, not releasing me until my hands eased their tight grip on his jacket.

I took a deep breath as I looked up at him, letting just enough distance linger between us for me to tip my head back. My mind felt empty for once as if I had just pulled the plug and every thought had drained away like water in a sink. My breathing calmed as I looked up at him, taking in the softness in his eyes as he gazed down at me. I moved without thinking, my hands slipping around his neck and drawing him closer to me as I tiptoed, ever so softly pressing my lips against his while I closed my eyes.

It only lasted a second, and I felt his shuddering breath hit my lips as I drew back, opening my eyes just as I dawned on me what I had just done. The realization appeared mutual, judging by how his eyes widened in shock as he stared at me. My mind jumped into overdrive, focusing on two words as they appeared like a flashing neon sign in my head.

Oh no.

Chapter Text

My heart had stopped as I stood there, staring up at him with mild panic while Atlas looked back at me in shock. Heat exploded in my cheeks, spreading all the way back to my ears and neck. Quickly, I took a step back, leaving his embrace and putting some space between us. Hopefully, he couldn’t hear how quick my heart was beating against my ribcage.

‘’I-uh… um…’’ I mumbled, feeling my throat go dry as my mind started racing and my pulse drummed loudly in my ears. ‘’I’m… I’m sorry, you can’t just kiss someone, I know that, but you… and I-I just, I mean, I feel like I’m all over the place, and-and-‘’ I rambled, trying to talk my way out of it but it felt like I was only digging a deeper and deeper grave for myself with each word that flew out of my mouth. So I stopped myself, snapping my mouth shut and covering it with my hands.

The shocked look on his face eased, but it was only replaced by something that I could not read, something neutral and closed off. His expression only made me more nervous, and this wasn’t a situation that I could just waltz out of. As I stood there, it appeared like I only had two solutions in front of me. I could lie and tell him that I had been caught up in the moment, or I could tell him the truth and jeopardize the whole thing, and possibly make it very awkward for the remaining time.

His eyes never left mine as I hesitated, rooted to the spot while I tried to decide what to do. When I finally did, I moved my arms around myself and glanced down, hoping to gain some courage. ‘’Look, I…’’ I paused and took a deep breath before forcing myself to look up at him again, ‘’I’m going to be honest here… um… I like you… a lot, actually. I told myself that I wouldn’t do anything about it, but… yeah…’’ I confessed quietly, nervously waiting for his reaction.

It looked like a thousand thoughts went through his head. Eventually, his expression settled into something similar to a frown, making me feel like a child that was about to be scolded. When he finally spoke, it wasn’t to scold me but it didn’t make things easier either. ‘’Why?’’  

‘’Why?’’ I repeated, brows knitting together in confusion. ‘’What do you mean ‘’why’’? I can’t explain it like it’s some simple thing,’’ I spoke, slightly frustrated by feeling like I had to explain something that I had little control over. ‘’Seriously, I meant what I said back in that hallway, and if… if you don’t feel the same, then I’ll stay out of your way,’’ I continued after a small pause.

He sat back down on the bed, his neutral expression slipping slightly and exposing something raw underneath. I stayed where I was to give him some space, and also because I really had no idea how he felt about all of this.

‘’This isn’t exactly my area of expertise,’’ he sighed after a while and looked up at me.

‘’What, feelings?’’ I joked, smiling softly as he frowned at me, but my smile didn’t last for very long. ‘’Atlas, if you just want me to go, then-‘’

‘’No, that’s not the problem…’’ He kept his eyes down as he spoke, first sounding like there was more to it, but he didn’t add anything else to the statement.

‘’Then what?’’ I asked, well knowing that I might be stepping on his toes by pressuring him for an answer, but I needed to know.

‘’Look, you’re the only person I’ve shown some kind of affection in decades, and, as much as I want to think that you’re still as annoying as you were when you tried to steal my ship, I don’t,’’ he admitted, ‘’somehow, you’ve managed to make an impression on me.’’

‘’Soooo, you don’t want to throw me out of the window anymore?’’ I smiled faintly as moved a little closer to him. He snorted because of my question and shot me a look that translated into ‘don’t push your luck’. Nevertheless, it didn’t make my smile any smaller.  ‘’Is it alright if I sit?’’

‘’Do as you please,’’ he mumbled, trying to sound like it didn’t matter to him but I could tell that he was watching me out of the corner of his eye.

I did nothing to hide the fact that I was admiring his profile as I sat there, trying to settle on what to say next. I glanced down and exhaled softly before speaking. ‘’So-uh, I have feelings for you. Even considering how neither of us made a great first impression-‘’

‘’You were stealing my ship.’’

‘’- and you pointed a blaster at my head. Like I said, neither of us did great back then, but I feel safe with you. You’ve saved my ass multiple times, and if you really wanted to shove me out of a window, you could have done that plenty of times.’’ I glanced back up at him. ‘’What I’m trying to say is, that if you feel just… well, something for me, and if you want to, then I’d like to see where this goes.’’

His eyes were focused on the floor while he remained silent, but I felt my heart stutter when I realized that the grumpy Atlas Molniya, one of the finest pilots that the Union had ever had in their ranks, was actually blushing. A spark of hope ignited in my chest, but I did my best not to break into a stupid grin.

Finally, after what felt like an eternity, he exhaled and looked at me with a stern expression. ‘’This stays between us and in private, got it?’’

‘’Trust me, as much as I like the others, it’s not really something I want to include them in… mostly because I don’t think that Jaxon would be able to shut up about it,’’ I laughed before suddenly realizing that I could have misunderstood him. ‘’Wait, that means yes, right?’’ I asked sheepishly.

‘’I’m giving you a chance to show me that you don’t annoy the hell out of me,’’ he replied curtly and stood up from the bed, heading from his desk.

‘’You already told me that you don’t find me annoying though,’’ I grinned, heart soaring like a horse galloping through a field like I had seen in old vids.

‘’Keep going like that and I’ll strongly consider using the ‘throw you out a window’ option again,’’ he grumbled as he shrugged his jacket off, leaving it on the chair.

‘’Fine, sorry,’’ I snickered. ‘’What happens now?’’

‘’I’m going to sleep,’’ he replied with his back to me, fidgeting with something on his desk.

‘’Oh…’’ I breathed while I felt warmth creep into my cheeks. Truth be told, after everything that had happened during the last two weeks, I really didn’t want to be alone. ‘’Um… can I stay, maybe?’’ I asked quietly as my voice had lost the confidence that I’d had just a minute ago. I knew I was pressing my luck, but it didn’t stop me from trying. ‘’I kinda don’t want to be alone right now,’’ I added.

He stood still for a moment, keeping his back toward me as he decided on an answer. ‘’Fine, but you’re getting kicked out the minute you disturb my sleep.’’ He tried making it sound harsher than it was, maybe because he was embarrassed about sharing a bed with me, but it felt like he was going easy on me because of what had happened. Or maybe he actually didn’t mind me staying?

‘’Thanks,’’ I mumbled, focusing on the feeling of exhaustion instead of creating more questions in my head. He hummed something low as a reply before he turned the lights off, but the room didn’t go completely dark. The stars outside provided a faint, eternal light, almost making it feel like time stood still. I turned my back to him as he continued undressing, giving him some privacy while I slipped out of my shoes and pants. I moved underneath the covers, eyes focusing on the ceiling as he did the same next to me.

I glanced at him in the darkness, eyes trailing over his broad back. Despite trying to avoid it, there was one question I couldn’t get out of my head. So, in order to sleep, I decided to get it over with.  ‘’Can I ask you something?’’

‘’Preventing me from sleeping counts as disturbing it,’’ he grumbled.

‘’I know, but it’s important.’’

‘’Then spit it out so that I can sleep,’’ he sighed in annoyance.

‘’Last time, when I woke you up… is there anything I did to trigger it?’’ I asked carefully, trying to approach the subject as gingerly as possible. I turned over so that lay facing his back. ‘’I’m just asking because I want to try to avoid it, in case it was because of anything I did,’’ I clarified.

A heavy silence followed my question, and I started to think that I shouldn’t have asked about it. I chewed on my lip as I waited, my mind already busy with trying to come up with some way to excuse him from answering, but he sighed before I could say anything. He rolled over and onto his back, his eyes lingering on the ceiling of the bed.

‘’You said I had a nightmare… I don’t have control over those episodes, but it wasn’t because of what you did. It just happens, but I haven’t had one for a while,’’ he explained quietly. His voice sounded tired, but not like he was exhausted, just tired of dealing with what he was telling me about. After a moment of silence, he turned his head and looked at me, his eyes finding mine in the darkness. ‘’This also stays between us,’’ he added.

I rolled over on my stomach and used my elbows to prop myself up. ‘’Or you’re going to throw me out the window?’’ I asked, attempting to lift the mood with one of my dumb jokes.

‘’Or leave you on a deserted moon,’’ he grunted.  

‘’Oh, can it be one with low gravity? If I’m going to die I want to have some fun and bounce around first.’’

‘’I think that can be arranged,’’ he chuckled faintly, and I realized how much I loved that sound.

I smiled softly as we lay there in the darkness. I couldn’t look away from him. The fact that he’d agreed to give this a chance still seemed a little unreal to me, but I suddenly felt a little nervous about it. Not in the sense that I regretted it, not at all, it was more the worry that this might slip away because of his nature. Maybe I was overthinking it, but he didn’t seem like the type who would openly confess his feelings, not without having a blaster to his head. Still, the worry left my mind once my eyes flickered down, focusing on his lips.

I had actually kissed him.

Recalling the brief feeling of it, warmth started to creep into my cheeks. I wanted to kiss him again. I wanted to feel him melt as I kissed him, leave him with an empty mind and desire burning in his eyes. Heat rushed through me as I looked back up at him again, now fully realizing how close we were. His dark eyes met mine and it felt like my mind came to a halt.

‘’Atlas?’’

‘’Mhm?’’

‘’… Can I kiss you?’’ I asked, my voice almost a whisper and just a little thick with desire. For a second, he looked a little surprised by my boldness, but as his eyes flickered to my lips, his expression changed. Maybe it was just my imagination, but it actually looked like he was a little nervous. I leaned closer to him as his eyes flickered back up to mine, the look in them granting me unspoken permission to close the distance between us. As much as I wanted to throw myself at him and leave him breathless, I moved slowly, making sure that he had time to pull away in case I had read him wrong. But, much to my relief, he stayed still, eyes falling back down to my lips as I drew close to him.

Then, as my heart pounded wildly in my chest, I pressed my lips against his.

Slow and gentle, I kissed him almost like I was afraid to overwhelm him, but it didn’t stop me from savoring the feeling of his warm, soft lips against mine. Nervous or not, he kissed me back with no hesitation, adding fuel to a building fire in my stomach. I added a fraction of that fire as I kissed him again, pulse drumming in my ears as I appreciated how his lips felt against mine. I tilted my head, taking advantage of the new, slightly different angle.

It was a languid kiss, on the verge of turning into something much deeper, but it stayed just there, teasing, lingering just beneath the surface. I heard him take a sharp inhale through his nose before he leaned closer to me, making my heart race even faster and my mind thinking of nothing but how his lips moved against mine. A delicate shudder ran down my spine, making my heart stutter within my chest.

It felt so right and natural that I had trouble pulling away from him. When I finally did, I only moved a few inches away, lingering there as I felt his unsteady breath hit my lips and my mind working itself out of the haze. I knew that my face was flushed by the time I opened my eyes, and I couldn’t stop myself from smiling when I noticed how his cheeks had gotten a little red as well. It was a nice look on him.

I lowered myself down next to him, trying not to smile like an idiot as I relaxed on the bed.

‘’That could have been worse,’’ he hummed as he leaned his head back against his pillow, eyes already closed.

‘’You’re always so nice,’’ I mumbled, making him huff. My eyes lingered on him as the faint light spilling in from the window allowed me to appreciate his relaxed expression. My glance studied the bridge of his nose before moving, following his jawline and then his neck down to his collarbones. I tore my eyes off him before the urge to touch him could overwhelm me, reminding myself that we were supposed to sleep.

And sleeping wasn’t such a bad idea. I closed my eyes and exhaled softly, sinking into the bed. For the first time in two weeks, I felt safe and relaxed, dozing off after what felt like seconds. At some point during the night, my sleep was interrupted by someone touching me. Still half-asleep, I somehow managed to smile as his arm draped over my waist. Judging by his breathing, he was still fast asleep, and it felt like my heart grew three sizes because of his subconscious action.  

Listening to his steady breathing, I drifted off to sleep again.

 

When I finally woke up, I felt like I had just finished hibernating for six months. I stretched lazily before sitting up, yawning. The room was still dark but Atlas was already gone, giving me the impression that it wasn’t ‘nighttime’ anymore and that I had slept in. I sat there for a minute, gathering my hair into a bun while my mind started to wake up like an old terminal that hadn’t been booted in a while.

I crossed my legs as I started to recall the conversation from yesterday.

My father had been his squadron leader, then there was a black hole and a supernova, and… I knew it was unreasonable and that there had never been any proof of it, but I didn’t believe that he was dead. Somehow, he must have made it through, nothing else made sense, did it? I sighed as I thought it over. What I believed didn’t make sense according to science, or simple common sense, but still, I didn’t believe it.

‘’This is a mess,’’ I breathed and let my glance wander the room, settling on the spot next to me on the bed. My fingers went to my lips, touching them gingerly as that fresh memory filled my head instead. Heat crept into my cheeks while I smiled to myself. Sure, it was a secret and something very new and uncertain, but still, it was something.

I got up as my stomach started begging for food, replacing the feeling of butterflies. I got dressed and made the bed before leaving the room, heading straight for the mess hall. Jaxon was there, dressed casually and pouring cereal into two bowls.

‘’Looks like I’m not the only one who slept in,’’ I smiled as I walked up to him, grabbing a bowl for myself.

‘’Hey, I deserve some rest. I worked pretty hard to find you,’’ he grinned at me and grabbed the milk from the fridge.

‘’How did you manage that, actually? The whole thing was, I mean, is pretty secretive.’’ I poured some cereal and joined him at the table as he served the other bowl to Comet. My smile grew as the green alien wiggled in its seat before digging in, happily munching on the cereal and stuffing its mouth.

‘’I have my ways,’’ he winked at me before shoving a spoonful cereal into his mouth.

I rolled my eyes at him. ‘’Now you’re just trying to sound mysterious.’’

‘’Mysterious is my middle name.’’ He cocked an eyebrow at me and smirked, nearly making me throw my spoon at him.

‘’You’re horrible,’’ I laughed, covering my mouth with my free hand. ‘’Just tell me, I want to know.’’

‘’Fine,’’ he laughed and leaned back in his chair, ‘’I have a lot of contacts, but it was like putting a puzzle together. We figured that you wouldn’t be sighted anywhere, so we focused on whatever Tyberius could be involved in, which wasn’t easy, by the way. Eventually, one of my guys told me about this strange construction that he had come across out in the middle of nowhere. It was the best lead that we had so we went for it,’’ he explained.

‘’Easy or not, thank you for doing it. That place wasn’t exactly a vacation,’’ I smiled at first but ended up sighing when I thought of Caine.

‘’Just so you know, when he wasn’t working on the ship, Atlas was pretty much breathing down my neck until I found something, and he can be pretty scary when he wants to,’’ Jaxon chuckled before giving me a look, ‘’also, I couldn’t help but notice that someone didn’t crash on the couch last night.’’

I choked on the cereal I was swallowing. ‘’W-what? No, that-‘’ I coughed, getting it under control before speaking again, ‘’that was just-look, Atlas was just nice enough to let me stay… I didn’t exactly feel like being alone,’’ I mumbled, telling him the truth but keeping some of it to myself.

‘’Fine, I’m giving you a free pass on that one then,’’ he chuckled, amused by my reaction.

‘’I feel like I’m supposed to thank you for that,’’ I huffed, giving him a slight smile as I shook my head.

‘’Well, there’s always something to thank me for.’’

I snorted with my mouth full of cereal. ‘’Charming as always, aren’t you?’’ I laughed once I had swallowed.

‘’Someone has to be,’’ he grinned at me, making me laugh again.

‘’You keep telling yourself that,’’ I joked, making him laugh this time. I grabbed another spoonful of sugary greatness, savoring the fact that I was eating something that wasn’t bland nutritional paste.

‘’Be honest with me here, how are you holding up?’’ he asked, the tone of his voice more serious than before. I paused my chewing for a second, considering his question while I glanced down at the table. ‘’You’ve got a nasty looking bruise on your throat,’’ he commented.

I recalled the feeling of Caine’s boot on it, making me shudder as the memory of suffocation dwelled in the back of my mind. Unconsciously, my fingers brushed over my throat. ‘’I… wasn’t fast enough, so I got punished,’’ I mumbled, hesitating for a moment before I looked up again, ‘’my wound is healed, though. It’s not exactly pretty, but hey, I’m alive, so that’s good,’’ I huffed, attempting to smile but it was halfhearted. ‘’As for that place… it wasn’t good but I wasn’t one of those that received the worst of it.’’

‘’If you ever want to talk about it, I’m here, alright?’’

‘’Yeah, thanks,’’ I replied, this time smiling genuinely, and to seemed the ease his serious expression a bit.

‘’Good, not all of us can drown our troubles in booze,’’ he smiled when his joke made me huff.

‘’Be nice.’’ I shook my head and ate the remaining spoonful of slightly soggy cereal.

‘’I’m always nice.’’

‘’Yeah, yeah…’’ I sighed and stood up, bringing my bowl with me. ‘’I’m just going to take a quick shower, then I think we should look into those files that I brought with me from that place. I have a bad feeling about it,’’ I spoke and turned around; looking at him as he helped Comet gather a few pieces of cereal that it had spilled.

‘’I’ll tell the others.’’

‘’Thanks,’’ I smiled at him and gave him a little wave before I left the kitchen, heading to the bathroom. My shoulders slumped as I walked. While Jaxon’s sentiment was appreciated, being reminded of it all was something I could do without, even when it had just happened. I knew it wasn’t possible, not yet, but I wanted Caine out of my head. I wanted to forget those dead yet haunting eyes.

I sighed just as I turned the corner, feeling like my mind was about to fall into a pit when I heard someone else walk towards me. I looked up; expecting Nova or Orion coming towards me, but seeing Atlas caught me off guard. Nonetheless, I was smiling before I knew it.

‘’Good morning.''

‘’It’s well past morning,’’ he huffed as he approached me.

‘’It’s morning somewhere in the universe,’’ I replied, using his own line at him and nearly making him smile, but his expression hardened when he stopped right in front of me. I looked at him in slight confusion, but his eyes were no longer on mine.

‘’What’s that?’’ His voice had an edge of concern in it and his eyes narrowed as they focused on my throat. My hand moved up and covered it. ‘’The bruise on your throat, what happened?’’ He asked again in a low voice when I didn’t answer right away.

‘’Is it that obvious?’’ I sighed, feeling my expression falter.

‘’It’s big and purple, so yeah, I would call that obvious,’’ he replied.

I looked to the side, mulling over my answer for a brief moment. ‘’That guy… Caine... he was in control of the whole thing, and he punished people for what he considered ‘bad behavior’. I was stalling for time, which he did not care for, so he had me brought to his office to intimidate me and remind me of my position,’’ I took a deep breath before continuing, ‘’he tased me through the chip, and as I was on the ground, he stepped on my throat. The bruise is from his boot when he suffocated me,’’ I explained and chewed on my lip, eyes focusing on a screw in the wall.

‘’Remind me to shoot him in the head the next time I see him,’’ he grumbled darkly but sighed a moment later, ‘’you alright?’’

‘’I don’t know… Jaxon asked me the same,’’ I mumbled and felt my shoulders slump. ‘’It’s like... I want to talk about it but not really. The whole thing is still so vivid in my head, and I don’t want it to be,’’ I continued, still not looking at him.

Atlas was quiet for a moment, perhaps considering what to do. Shortly after, he moved the few steps closer to me, surprising me a bit by closing the distance between us. I looked up in time to meet his eyes before his arms moved around me and pulled me in, trapping me against his chest. After a second of hesitation, I moved my arms around him as well, exhaling heavily as I leaned my forehead against him and closed my eyes. His scent calmed my nerves 

His arms tightened around me, giving me a reassuring squeeze. ‘’Better?’’

‘’If I say no, does that make the hug last longer?’’

Atlas merely snorted as a reply, making me smile as I held him tighter. Right then, things didn’t look so bad anymore, but even though I tried to ignore it, somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew that the worst was yet to come.

Chapter Text

‘’Sooo… anyone mind telling me what we’re looking at here?’’ Jaxon asked as he stood next to me, looking like one big question mark as he tried to make sense of the blueprints that were spread out on the table.

‘’I’ve been looking at these for the same amount of time as you have, give me a second,’’ I mumbled a bit frustrated as I tried to make sense of the stack of blueprints. Not all of them had anything to do with the construction itself and since I had seen so little of the place, it was a little hard to place those that actually did.

‘’What can you tell us about the place?’’ Orion asked as he glanced at one of the blueprints that looked like some sort of weapon.

‘’It’s like some strange research project, but it’s structured like a prison. Caine, the guy who’s running the place, he and Tyberius brings in people that can contribute to whatever it is they’re building. Most of them are there against their will, you can tell because they’re wearing the chip as well, but I saw a few that were there voluntarily,’’ I explained as I kept looking the blueprints over, finding it easier to talk about when I didn’t have to look at any of them.

‘’What did they want from you?’’ Nova asked, joining the conversation.

‘’My stealth shield. He told me that he wanted the whole thing to be invisible to the naked eye, which really doesn’t make sense to me unless they’re very interested in hiding that thing.’’

‘’Yeah, because that’s not suspicious at all,’’ Jaxon grumbled, flipping a blueprint over.

‘’Suspicious or not, I refuse to believe that whatever they’re building is anything but some shit that we have to deal with at some point,’’ Atlas spoke up from the other side of me. He placed his hand on the edge of the table and leaned in, grabbing a specific blueprint and putting it at the center of the table. ‘’I’m no engineer, but these capacitors aren’t like any issue I’ve ever seen. If they work, they’re able to store a massive amount of power.’’

‘’The place is gigantic, and I saw only a fraction of it, but there could easily be a room big enough to be full of those,’’ I spoke as I glanced at the blueprint he was pointing at. He was right. Nothing about those capacitors were like the standard issues that I had seen. ‘’So, they can store great amounts of power, but what for?’’ I mumbled to myself as I looked through the blueprints.

‘’The thing looked too big to be moveable, so I doubt that it’s any kind of ship,’’ Nova shared her thoughts with us and both Orion and Jaxon nodded in agreement.

‘’But they’re still attempting to hide it,’’ Orion pondered, ‘’a command station maybe?’’

‘’They already have fifty of those all over the universe,’’ Atlas replied drily.

As they continued to discuss various theories, I focused on the blueprints, flipping through them like it would reveal something new to me. It was hard searching for something that you didn’t know what was and everything could be relevant. My mind went into work mode, ignoring all the sounds around me as I zoned out. My eyes ran over everything, signs, page numbers, serial numbers, and notes, anything that could have some sort of meaning. It took a moment, but, finally, I started seeing a pattern.

Erratically, I started sorting the papers into two stacks: one for the construction and once for everything else. Their discussion continued as I kept working, focusing on going through the stack for the construction once I had finished dividing the blueprints. Some of the blueprints were missing, but I had enough to understand what the construction was about, so I eagerly went through them, curiosity and dread kicking my brain into overdrive.  

My face paled when I finally realized what I was looking at.

‘’This… this is…’’ my voice trailed off in disbelief and the others saw the look on my face. I looked up when Atlas leaned closer to me. His eyes shifted from the blueprints to me, noticing the look of slight panic in my eyes. ‘’This… the whole construction… it's one giant weapon.’’

‘’That whole enormous thing is a weapon?’’ Jaxon asked.

‘’Look at this.’’ I pointed at the center of the blueprint I was currently holding. ‘’The construction isn’t only round, it’s a cylinder. I knew something was wrong with the layout of, and now it makes sense. I was never at the center of it because it does not exist. Instead, it’s this…’’ I paused as I flipped through a few of the pages, ‘’ it's built like some sort of beam is going to be channeled through the center of it, stabilizing whatever it is as the weapon is fired.’’

‘’A beam that size is…’’ Orion started, his voice trailing off before he could finish, so I did it instead.

‘’Death... a beam that size can destroy anything… kill anything,’’ I spoke, running a hand through my hair as the situation became clear to all of us.

‘’If the Empire is in control of a weapon this big, no matter what sort of destruction it can do, it’s far from good,’’ Nova voiced her opinion and Jaxon made a noise of approval.

‘’What do we do?’’ I asked as I looked up the others, glance flickering between the four people.

‘’We? Since when did this become our problem?’’ Atlas grumbled, sounding less than thrilled about the idea.

My glance flew right back to him and I felt my expression harden when I saw the dismissive look in his eyes. ‘’We’re the only one's who knows, and you’ve seen what kind of person Caine is. If they finish this, if they actually get this thing to work, which seems rather plausible considering how many scientist and engineers they have in their control, then this will affect the universe. Back on Kalios, the shopkeeper said that the Empire was snooping around. What if they’re expanding? What if this is part of their plan to do just that? We can’t ignore this when we’re the only ones who knows something!’’ I explained, making it very clear how I felt about this whole thing, but I wasn’t done, not when all of the episodes started to line up in my head.

‘’No matter what, Caine needs to be stopped!’’ I stood up, raising my voice without realizing it as I kept going, images of every wretched time he had punished me flashing through my mind. ‘’What he’s doing now, how he’s treating people like they’re prisoners and-and punishing them as he sees fit, he has to be stopped!’’ I yelled, not comprehending what I had done until a second later. My breathing hitched as I realized it, my pulse racing in my ears while I felt heat rush to my face out of embarrassment.

‘’Tess?‘’ Jaxon said my name but I didn’t register it.

Atlas’ expression was calm as his eyes stayed focused on mine. Despite me having just yelled at him, he seemed unaffected, the soft look in his eyes causing my breathing to shudder as I realized what I had just done.

‘’I-I… I don’t-I’m so sorry.’’ My voice wavered as I looked down. ‘’I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to yell,’’ I apologized, my voice shaky and small as I stood there, feeling exposed to everyone in the room.

‘’It’s fine,’’ he replied calmly, clearing his throat before addressing the others, ‘’before all of you start bugging me about this, even if we did agree to do something, how in the seven hells would we fix this?’’

‘’Explosions always seem to work,’’ Jaxon replied.

‘’We would have to get the people working on it out first,’’ Nova reminded him.

‘’Tess, how many people would you estimate worked there?’’ Orion asked.

‘’Uh… I’m not sure that I saw everyone, but maybe around a hundred, at least?’’ I mumbled a reply.

‘’Then we’re going to need a bigger ship,’’ Atlas pointed out and left us all silent. Nobody argued with that point. The promise could not handle that many people, and it wasn’t like we could just get our hands on a bigger ship. ‘’So, unless one of you have a giant ship docked somewhere, then we’re not getting anywhere close to a solution right now,’’ he continued, frustration making his voice sharp.

‘’Atlas is right. We’re at a stalemate for now,’’ Orion sighed, glancing at the blueprints.

‘’What should we do then?’’ Nova asked the question the rest of us were thinking.

‘’I’ll check in with some of my contacts, maybe I can find something that we can use,’’ Jaxon offered.

‘’Let me know if you find anything, Jaxon. Until then, we might as well use the time to get some rest and unwind,’’ Orion spoke calmly, his glance resting on me once he reached the end of his sentence.

I looked down to avoid his gaze, wishing I was somewhere where I could hide from their eyes.

‘’Will do, captain,’’ Jaxon replied. I kept my glance down, listening as he left the room. Nova followed him after announcing that she’d be in her room and Orion didn’t stick around either, leaving Atlas and me alone with a heavy silence. I closed my eyes for a second and felt my shoulders slump, trying to ease the tension out of them.

‘’Hey,’’ Atlas hummed after a moment, drawing my attention to him as I slowly lifted my head and looked at him. I felt a rush of emotions go through me as I stood there, unsure of what to say to someone when I felt so much shame for having yelled at them like that. Even with all the shame twisting my stomach, I wanted to cry when I saw the look on his face. I’d seen him concerned before and I’d seen how he looked when he was worried, but this expression… this was new.

He looked at me like he understood what had just clicked in my head, but in the sense of knowing how shitty that feeling was. The worry in his eyes had never been that clear and raw, making me suck in a sharp breath. ‘’I’m sorry,’’ I whispered, ‘’I didn’t realize that I was yelling before I was done.’’

‘’You don’t have to explain yourself to me, you idiot,’’ he murmured quietly. ‘’You’re allowed to be a mess after what happened.’’

‘’Me freaking out isn’t doing anything good, and it’s certainly not fair taking it out on you,’’ I sighed, making myself look down at my feet.

He stayed silent for a little while before exhaling heavily. ‘’Come with me,’’ he spoke and started walking, leaving me to look at him in slight confusion.

‘’Where to?’’ I asked as I started to follow him.

‘’The lounge. I need a drink, and by the looks of it, you need one as well.’’

‘’Is whiskey going to make me feel like a less shitty person?’’

‘’Whiskey solves everything,’’ he huffed, glancing at me over his shoulder as we walked into the lounge. ‘’Take a seat.’’

I slumped down onto the couch I had been so lucky to sleep on, throwing the blanket and pillow onto a free chair next to me to make more room. ‘’So, how quick is whiskey going to make me feel less shitty?’’

‘’Depends on how much you drink.’’ He prepared to glasses, easily carrying them both in his large hand while having the bottle in the other. He sat down next to me and poured each of us a drink. ‘’Just to be clear, I’m not taking care of you if you get shitfaced.’’ He warned me, giving me a look that showed me that he meant it, but his efforts to look grumpy only made me smile.

‘’I’ll have you know that I’m quite a charming drunk,’’ I smiled, making his frown deepen.

‘’Yeah, I highly doubt that.’’

I snorted at his reply and reached for the glass, eyeing the amber liquid with a bit of forced optimism. I had tasted whiskey before, and it exactly been a nice experience, but Atlas was watching me, waiting for me to actually take a sip. Ignoring the memories of a burning throat, I took a large sip, trying to look nonchalant about it while expecting to be coughing within a second, but it wasn’t that bad. Sure, it still burned as it went down, but it had a taste of smoke and wood, somehow working together to create some sort of rustic taste when I started to recognize the flavors.

I looked up to find Atlas watching me, nearly smiling in satisfaction. He quickly focused on his own glass instead, taking a rather large sip. I kept my eyes on him, glancing at him out of the corner of my eye as he drank, noticing how his Adam’s apple bobbed up and down when he swallowed. Maybe it was the whiskey or maybe it was just the fact that I was very aware of how attracted to him I was, either way, the sight made heat creep into my cheeks as I watched him. I didn’t look away until I forced myself to.

‘’This is some expensive stuff, isn’t it?’’

‘’What are you basing that deduction on?’’

‘’The fact that it doesn’t taste like ass,’’ I smiled, feeling more at ease now that it was just us. He huffed and shook his head at me, making me laugh because of his disapproving look.

‘’I’m starting to think that I should have given you something cheaper,’’ he sighed as he leaned back, making himself comfortable on the couch while keeping his glass with him.

‘’Oh, so it is expensive?’’ I asked while I moved to sit with my front facing him and my side against the backrest.

‘’And old,’’ he added before taking a sip, obviously enjoying the taste a lot more than I did.

‘’Yeah? Thanks for not handing me something awful, then. My opinion of whiskey isn’t exactly great, to begin with.’’ I smiled at the brim of my glass before taking another sip. This time, I let it linger in my mouth for a moment longer before swallowing, attempting to get a more clear taste of it. ‘’But this isn’t all that bad when you get a little used to the taste.’’

Atlas smiled faintly then, seemingly satisfied with my comment on the taste, and I relished the sight of it. Even though it was subtle, it was nice and genuine, nearly making me smile from just looking at him. However, no matter how much I tried to not think about it, the blueprints and how I had yelled at him prevented me from smiling. I glanced down instead, focusing on the floor while it started to eat away at my conscience.

‘’Hey…’’ Atlas hummed, once again drawing my attention to him and away from my own, destructive thoughts. His eyes found mine immediately. The sincerity hidden in their green depth made the tension in my shoulders ease as I gazed at them, silently admiring them for a moment. ‘’Quit beating yourself up for that shit, alright?’’ He spoke in a low voice, making his request strangely intimate as we sat there on the couch, momentarily ignoring our surroundings.

‘’I know… it’s just… I can’t get it out of my head,’’ I explained, ‘’the things he did to me… what I saw him do to others…’’ My voice trailed off and I looked down, watching my fingers fidget with the glass.

He was silent for a long moment before exhaling slowly. ‘’Look, I’m not saying that it’s going to be easy… You of all people should now that I’m still dealing with my own demons, but what you’re doing now, it’s not helping… you can trust me on that one.’’ He spoke quietly, his honesty making my chest tighten.

Almost carefully, I took a deep breath before looking back up at him, and, like before, his eyes quickly found mine. Knowing that he wouldn’t be like this with just anyone made me smile as I looked at him, grateful that he would take his time to be this genuine with me. Even so, my smile nearly disappeared as I remembered the discovery we had made today.

‘’I just want to get this entire thing over with,’’ I sighed, ‘’then I can forget all about Caine, Tyberius, and the Empire in general… I could use a vacation from all that,’’ I huffed, making Atlas chuckle.

‘’Couldn’t we all.’’ He agreed before emptying his glass.

I followed suit, once more trying to appreciate the taste more by letting the whiskey linger in my mouth before swallowing it. However, even when the taste was starting to get better, the burning as it ran down my throat wasn’t, making me grimace once I had swallowed.

‘’I can mix you something else if you want. Unless you like making that face every time,’’ he offered, teasing me.

‘’And here I was, beginning to think that you were a nice person,’’ I laughed.

‘’Better you find out now than later,’’ he chuckled as he went for a refill.

Shaking my head, I leaned closer to him, brushing my arm against his as I held my glass next to his own. Once he had poured for himself, he did the same for me before leaning back again. Seeing an opportunity, I stayed close to him, which he picked up on rather quickly.

‘’Ever heard of personal space?’’ His tone was neutral, but I’d learned to tell when he was actually grumpy, so I merely smirked.

‘’Yeah, but I really like being in yours,’’ I teased, prompting a bit a color to appear in his cheeks.

Grumbling something under his breath, he looked away by turning his face in the opposite direction and took a large sip of whiskey, apparently trying to hide his embarrassment from me. His poor attempt only made me laugh softly. Wanting to tease him more, I leaned closer, attempting to give him a kiss on the cheek, but he noticed my movement and turned his head to see what I was up to, causing me to kiss the corner of his mouth instead of his cheek.

Sitting there, I expected him to be embarrassed, surely even annoyed that I would pull something like that where someone could have walked in, but I most certainly did not expect him to pursue my lips with his own while I was trying to apologize. But he did.

Because of the slight surprise, I had started to lean back to make some space between us while I was already halfway through saying ‘sorry’. However, his hand moved to the back of my head, preventing me from drawing back. His eyes narrowed as he leaned closer to me, closing the narrow gap between us.

Truth be told, I wasn’t prepared for him to kiss me.

His lips found mine confidently in an eager kiss that tasted like whiskey. I made a surprised sound before returning it, quickly abandoning my glass on the table so that I could slide an arm around his neck and move closer to him. His fingers settled into my loose hair as I pressed against him, humming against him in satisfaction. The kiss turned into a series of kisses, accompanied by soft hums and quick breaths, and my mind was effectively worked into a haze by his lips.

My pulse drummed wildly in my ears by the time his tongue ran across my bottom lip, urging me to give him permission to enter. I parted them in a heartbeat, eagerly meeting his tongue with my own, deepening the kiss. Atlas left his glass on the table before letting his hand trail up my leg, stopping once it reached my hip. From there, it moved around me, settling on my lower back to press me harder against him.

Our lips continued to meet until we had to part for air. Staying close, we were both breathing heavily while a bit of color had settled in our cheeks. His eyes were half-closed, watching me with a clear interest like he was waiting for me to make the next move. I took it as a challenge and smirked at him before leaning backward, bringing him down with me as I let myself fall down on my back. The hand in my hair moved and his arm slipped beneath my head instead, both acting like a makeshift pillow and propping my head up for him to kiss me more easily. Apparently satisfied with my rearrangement of our position, he showed me a subtle smirk before moving closer, catching my lips with his once more.

I took control of the kiss this time, moving my hand to the back of his head to grasp his short hair while my teeth caught his lower lip. I moved up against him, pressing my chest against his and kissing him hard. My actions rewarded me with a low groan that rumbled in his chest while his hand moved up, grasping my waist. It was far more heated than when I had kissed him last night. This time, I didn’t restrain myself and used every trick I knew, attempting to make his mind filled with nothing but thoughts of me.

The fire from last night flared up in me again as his lips fitted against mine like they were made for each other and he was as aware of it as I was. His weight pressed me down and into the couch beneath me, letting me know just how it felt to be beneath his hard body. The satisfying sensation coaxed a low moan from me that made his breathing hitch.

By the stars, I just wanted to remove the layers between us and-

The sound of footsteps approaching us put an instant stop to the impromptu make-out session. Without a word, we untangled and withdrew from each other, putting as much space between us as we could. My heartbeat was racing as I sat up, trying to look normal, but I knew that my face was slightly flushed and my lips felt raw.

Atlas cleared his throat and retrieved his glass from the table, immediately taking a sip. I reached for my glass just as Jaxon walked in. His gaze located us as soon as he stepped into the lounge, and a sly grin started to appear on his face. I frowned at him as our eyes meet, hoping that he wouldn’t say anything unnecessary.

‘’I didn’t know we were having a drink today,’’ he grinned as he approached us, ‘’and you even brought out the good stuff. Not bad, Atlas.’’

‘’Shut up, Jax,’’ Atlas grumbled.

‘’Oh, sorry, am I interrupting something?’’ Jaxon was fishing for information while looking like he was thoroughly enjoying the situation he had just created.

‘’No, I just asked him for a drink, that’s all…’’ I replied. I tried to sound calm, giving him as little information as I possibly could, but, judging from the way his grin had broadened and how he was eyeing us both, he knew he had interrupted something. I suppressed the urge to groan in frustration and changed the subject instead. ‘’Did you get a hold of any of your contacts?’’

His grin turned into a sly smirk, obviously picking up on my plan, but after seeing the look I gave him, he played along. ‘’A few. Most of them are no good for something like this, but I did set up a meeting with one of them. Based on the little information I gave him, he’s interested in hearing more.’’ Jaxon grabbed a beer from the cooler before sitting down on the opposite couch.

‘’And he might be able to help?’’

‘’He’s the boss of a rather large group of people, and he has a couple of ships that would be big enough for us to use.’’

‘’And what sort of business would this group be in?’’ Atlas asked.

‘’Oh, you know, relocating of goods and the like,’’ Jaxon replied, trying to sound like it was no deal, but Atlas narrowed his eyes.

‘’Pirates, really?’’ Atlas frowned, obviously not amused by the idea.

‘’Which are worse, bounty hunters or pirates?’’ I asked before taking a sip.

‘’Pirates.’’ They both answered in unison, nearly making me laugh when Atlas gave Jaxon a pointed look. ‘’We only go after criminals, but pirates don’t care who you are or what you’ve done. They will pick you clean and leave you stranded, ‘’ Atlas continued, pointing out the difference to me.

Our eyes met for the first time since we had been interrupted. I recalled the feeling of his body on top of mine and him seeking my lips like he couldn’t get enough of what they were offering. I swallowed thickly as I forced myself to look away before the nature of my thoughts would be evident on my face.

Quickly, I placed my focus on Jaxon instead. ‘’No offense Jaxon, but why would a pirate captain want to help us save people and stop the Empire?’’

‘’First of all, because they would be paid. Everyone likes credits. Second of all, everybody hates the Empire.’’ Jaxon listed the two reasons before taking a large sip of his beer. ‘’Other than that, the guy really likes new tech, so putting an end to an Empire science project like this is definitively going to make him interested.’’

‘’When are we meeting with him?’’ I asked, genuinely interested in meeting a pirate.

‘’In two days on Abelas. It’s a neutral mining colony and perfect for something like this.’’

‘’Abelas? Remind me to bolt everything down before we go anywhere,’’ Atlas grunted.

‘’I take it that this colony is nothing like Kalios?’’

‘’You could say that,’’ Jaxon laughed, ‘’Kalios has their own internal justice system, Abelas is where people go when they want to avoid anything that has the words ‘justice’ or ‘law’ in it.’’

‘’Well, that sounds exciting,’’ I hummed and took another sip of whiskey.

‘’Tess, you’re from a Union colony, everything will sound exciting compared to that,’’ Jaxon laughed.

‘’Hey, at least I’m out here and broadening my horizons,’’ I replied with a smile.

The look he gave me told me that he agreed with me but I rolled my eyes at him when I realized what he was implying. ‘’Since we’re going somewhere that has a notorious amount of crime, we should probably teach you how to use a blaster,’’ he mentioned once he was done with looking at me like he saw right through me and Atlas.

‘’I never thought I would say this, but Jaxon is right,’’ Atlas spoke. His agreement made Jaxon’s smile widen drastically.

‘’Oh Atlas, you just brightened my whole world. Say it again, I want to record it this time,’’ Jaxon beamed and brought forth his tablet, immediately making Atlas’ expression darken noticeably.

‘’Piss off,’’ Atlas muttered, making Jaxon laugh.

I smiled to myself and busied myself with emptying my glass while Jaxon started to steer the conversation, telling me about some mission where he had been forced to work with pirates. Doing my best to listen to the grand tale, I couldn’t stop myself from glancing at Atlas whenever Jaxon was busy with some complex hand gestures that he insisted were vital to the story. Atlas did the same, the ghost of a smile appearing on his face as he noticed.

Atlas was right, whiskey did solve everything.

Chapter Text

‘’Tell me again why I’m the one doing this?’’

‘’Because everyone else is busy,’’ I replied, turning the blaster over in my hand as I inspected it.

Atlas muttered something about modifications and upgrades before sighing. ‘’Fine… Let’s get this over with.’’

About two hours ago, we had landed on the small colony, Abelas. Just like on Kalios, I was excited to be somewhere new, but, unlike the last place, I had zero desire to go exploring on my own after taking one look at the colony. Clearly, what Jaxon had told me about the neutral colony had not been a lie, and, despite only having been here for two hours, I was already nervous about the place.

Learning how to shoot had never seemed like such a good idea, but Atlas wasn’t exactly excited about having to teach me while we waited for the meeting to begin. It was already evening when we got outside, but the giant lamps inside the spaceport never turned off, providing us with enough light.

‘’Have you tried shooting before?’’

‘’No, never got the chance to try it.’’

‘’Pay attention then,’’ he spoke before pointing at the front of the blaster, ‘’the fun stuff comes out of here, so do yourself a favor and don’t point that end at yourself. This thing here, that’s the button you push to start charging it again. It takes a good ten seconds, so keep an eye on the indicator here. It tells you how charged it is,’’ he explained as he pointed at the things he was talking about, ‘’if you can, try not to let it run completely out of juice. It takes longer to charge the emptier it is, and getting caught while you’re empty is pretty shitty.’’

‘’So charge it whenever I have the opportunity to, got it.’’ I nodded.

‘’Good. This is the safety. Don’t be an idiot and keep it on when you’re not shooting at someone.’’

‘’Can it recharge while the safety is on?’’

‘’Yes. This is the trigger and this little thing at the end is the sights. You use those small indicators to aim with,’’ he explained, gesturing for me to hold the blaster properly. Feeling a little nervous, I stood up straight and pointed the gun at a row of junk I had lined up earlier. Atlas corrected my stance a bit by lifting my arms and nudging my feet with his own. ‘’Now, take off the safety and try to aim at that piece of metal in the middle.’’

I followed his instructions and turned on the blaster, disabled the safety and took a deep breath before trying to aim. Adjusting the blaster a bit, I squeezed my left eye shut as I aimed.

‘’When you’re ready to shoot, exhale while slowly squeezing the trigger,’’ he spoke next to me in a low voice.

Spending another few seconds to be sure of where I was pointing, I did as he had told me and slowly pulled the trigger while exhaling. Not knowing when it would shoot, the recoil, when it did fire, surprised me quite a bit, messing up my stance. The shot itself missed and hit just below the spot I was aiming for.

‘’Well, you’re not the worst shot that I’ve seen,’’ he huffed, smiling faintly as he moved behind me. ‘’Try again, and mind the recoil. This model has a bit more bite than others.’’

I tried again and retook my stance, aiming at the piece of metal again. Like before, Atlas readjusted my arms, but he did it by moving his own around me. His chest pressed against my back as he helped me, and I did my best to keep my focus on what we were doing. I took aim again, this time aiming a little higher than before, and exhaled as I fired my second shot. I was more prepared for the recoil this time, and having Atlas right behind me, stabilizing my arms, made it less noticeable as I fired. The shot actually hit the target this time, knocking the piece of junk off the barrel it was on.

‘’I hit it!’’ I exclaimed in excitement and looked up at him, sporting a big grin.

‘’You’re not getting praised before you can hit it without my help,’’ he smiled and withdrew from me so that I could try again.

‘’You’re a strict teacher,’’ I smiled as I recharged the blaster.

‘’Better get on it then.’’ His smile challenged me as he watched me.

Eager to prove myself, I readied myself again, going through the steps in my head as I lined up the shot. Preparing myself for the recoil, I pressed the trigger. The shot missed, flying right over my target by what looked like a few inches. I cursed under my breath before making another attempt, this time taking longer to aim before firing my fourth shot.

The bottle I had been aiming at exploded into pieces, making me exclaim a triumphant noise before turning my head to look at Atlas. His glance was already focused on me as a smiled, almost looking a little proud.

‘’Not bad, but try and see if you can hit the rest of them. Might as well get some practice time while we can.’’

I hummed in agreement and got ready to continue, actually feeling a bit excited about it. I knew it would be a lot different to shoot in actual combat, but training like this with Atlas was nice, so I didn’t feel any rush to end it. He watched me as I continued to practice, gradually getting more consistent with my aim. Still, it was far from perfect, but I was good enough to hit a can and send it flying, which felt pretty satisfying.

‘’Looks like you’re not entirely hopeless with a blaster,’’ he commented when I hit the second can.

‘’You know, you really suck at giving praise,’’ I laughed and secured the safety before lowering the blaster.

‘’Never said I was any good at it,’’ he chuckled as he approached me. Double-checking the safety, I handed the blaster back to him. ‘’Keep it. You’re familiar with it now,’’ he spoke as he gently pushed the blaster back to me, ‘’besides, you need to be able to protect yourself, just in case we get split up.’’

‘’You have a point, thank you.’’ I smiled and attached the blaster to my belt. Once that was done, I leaned closer to him, my smile turning a little flirty. Catching him off guard, I grabbed the front of his jacket and guided him down while I stood up on tiptoes, stealing a quick kiss. I let go of him as quickly as I had grabbed him, laughing when I saw the surprised look on his face. ‘’And that’s a thank you for teaching me how to shoot.’’

‘’You’re taking some liberties here,’’ he grumbled, his efforts to sound disgruntled suffering under the fact that he was blushing faintly.

‘’Sorry not sorry,’’ I smiled a bit smugly before pulling away from him. ‘’Just seizing an opportunity.’’

He shook his head at me before looking away like I had just embarrassed him, making me laugh as I watched him. By the stars, I loved that expression he was wearing. Warmth bubbled in my chest as I watched him, and it felt like it made something bloom that had never been there before. Affection rushed through me, and I desperately wanted to kiss him again, but Nova appeared from the side of the ship, quickly making me suppress that urge.

‘’The captain told me to inform you that we’re about to depart,’’ she told us just as Jaxon showed up next to her.

‘’So, how horrible were you?’’ Jaxon asked with a teasing grin.

‘’I hit the target on my second shot, so you tell me,’’ I replied with a shrug, grinning back at him. Atlas snorted beside me, reminding me that it had not been without help. ‘’Fine, my fourth,’’ I corrected myself.

‘’Fourth? Not bad,’’ Jaxon whistled.

‘’I agree with Jaxon. You should keep practicing when you can, Tess.’’ Nova smiled kindly, prompting me to smile right back at her.

‘’I will, thank you. Knowing how to defend myself is actually a pretty nice feeling.’’

‘’How was Atlas as a teacher?’’ Jaxon asked me. He did little to hide how interested he was in my answer, which only made me more self-conscious about the whole situation. Hopefully, Nova had no idea what was going on, but it felt like she knew more than she let on, and I still hadn’t told Atlas how quickly Jaxon had seen through me.

‘’Strict,’’ I quickly replied, hoping that the answer would be too simple for him to read in to, but the look in his eyes told me otherwise. A smirk formed on his lips, but before he could start digging, Orion joined the rest of us outside.

‘’Is everyone ready to leave?’’ He asked as he approached us. His glance settled on me once he noticed the blaster attached to my belt. ‘’And how did the shooting practice go?’’

‘’Well, Atlas said I’m not entirely hopeless.’’ I laughed, making Atlas huff audibly next to me.

‘’Are we going to stand here and chat all night or can we get this meeting over with?’’ Atlas grumbled as he started to walk, leaving the rest of us behind.

I subdued a snicker just as Jaxon glanced in my direction. I could tell that he was dying to ask me for details, but he had to settle for shrug as we all started to follow the grumpy pilot. Too curious for his own good, Jaxon waited for Nova and Orion to pass him so that he could walk with me. He eagerly elbowed me when I waked up next to him, but I asked my own, loud question before he could.

‘’So, who exactly are we meeting?’’

He immediately frowned when I cut him off before he could ask me about anything, and I couldn’t stop myself from smiling smugly when I saw his reaction. For once, it was his turn to roll his eyes at me, which he did rather dramatically. Then again, I didn’t expect anything less from him. ‘’You’re not getting out of this,’’ he promised me in a whisper before talking normally, ‘’an old buddy of mine. His name is Ray, and please, do not call him captain. That man’s ego has no reason to get more inflated.’’

‘’Sounds like someone else I know,’’ Atlas spoke up from the front. He had paused to let the rest of us catch up, but he didn’t look too pleased about having to wait for us. Still, Atlas rarely looked pleased when he wasn’t on the Promise, so that was nothing new.

I tried to hide my snort, but it turned into a full-blown laugh when Jaxon elbowed me once again. ‘’Hey, you’re not supposed to agree with him,’’ Jaxon pointed out, his smile betraying his attempt to sound hurt.

‘’But he has a point,’’ I laughed, making him sigh in an exaggerated manner.

‘’Every day, you proceed to hurt my feelings,’’ Jaxon pouted.

‘’It’s about time that someone did,’’ Atlas commented.

‘’I didn’t sign up for a two against one.’’

‘’Oh, is the legendary Jaxon Silva out of comebacks?’’ I grinned as I elbowed him this time.

‘’The legendary Jaxon Silva is never out of anything,’’ he declared.

‘’I can mention several times where you did run out of something vital.’’ Nova joined in, making me laugh again when she so nonchalantly ruined his claim.

‘’I can’t believe you’re all siding against me like this. I feel so attacked.’’ Jaxon pouted. This time, it looked a lot more genuine.

The banter continued for another minute as Orion also joined in, lasting until we reached the bar that was right on the outskirts of the spaceport. It was certainly a convenient spot for a group of bounty hunters to have a meeting with a pirate captain. The sounds of music and talking spilled out when two people fell through the door and outside, yelling all kinds of swear words I’d never heard before.

‘’Looks like a high-end establishment,’’ Atlas commented dryly as he looked the place over. Another pair of drunks stumbled outside, these two singing in a language I didn’t understand.

‘’You say that like you know what high-end is,’’ Jaxon replied, smiling broadly when Atlas gave him a grumpy look.

He proceeded to walk inside like it was his usual hangout spot. Orion and Nova followed him next, but Atlas lingered for a moment longer, waiting for me to move next to him. ‘’Keep an eye on people. There’s not one person in there who wouldn’t hesitate to empty your pockets if they got the chance.’’

‘’I didn’t bring anything valuable with me… besides the blaster, of course,’’ I replied, glad that he would take the time to warn me.

‘’They’re not the picky types… just be careful,’’ he added the last part in a more quiet voice, clearly intending that only I should hear his slight worry.

‘’I will, thanks.’’ I smiled at him before moving inside.

He followed right behind me as the warm air hit me right in the face. The smell of beer and smoke followed, making me question when was the last time that I had been in a bar with friends. Suddenly, the colony life seemed like it had been ages ago, but, even with the whole Empire ordeal, I didn’t miss it. Even when this thing with Atlas was still so experimental, I was convinced that it was worth it.

‘’You coming?’’ Atlas asked while standing a little ahead of me. His height made him easy to spot in the crowd.

‘’Yeah, sorry,’’ I smiled brightly and followed him, letting him lead me to the table where the rest had gathered at a table. Jaxon was already sending me a look when we arrived, his eyebrows nearly wiggling out of their place as I approached him.

‘’So, what kept you two?’’ He asked immediately once I was close enough, keeping his voice low enough for the others not to hear but still loud enough to not disappear in the commotion around us.

‘’Be careful or your eyebrows are going to fly off,’’ I huffed and smacked him on the arm.

‘’Hey, I’m just rooting for you two,’’ he smiled his signature smile and grabbed my arm, ‘’come on, you can tell me all about it while we got some drinks for this thirsty bunch.’’ He dragged me with him as he headed for the bar.

‘’Have you always been so hungry for gossip?’’ I laughed as we pushed past the people. I couldn’t stop myself from looking around, taking in the sights of such a chaotic place and the strange people in it. I loved it.

‘’Just spit it out. I know I interrupted something in the lounge.’’ He winked at me, his smile turning into a confident grin when he spotted the way color rushed into my cheeks.

‘’We were just talking. You know, like people do.’’ I tried so hard to play it cool, but I could tell immediately that he wasn’t buying it. Suddenly, I felt like I was back home in one of the bars with my friends, discussing our potential love lives. Considering how everything had been lately, it was strangely refreshing. Honestly, I wanted to gush about it and tell him all the details that he was clearly so interested in knowing, but then again, this wasn’t just some random crush.

I glanced back at the table, catching a glimpse of Atlas. He didn’t exactly look out of place, but he definitively looked like someone who didn’t want to be there. Still, even with the slightly grumpy look on his face, I felt myself smiling. It was a weird thing. I’d never felt the need to be serious about anyone, but this thing with him? I wanted to give it my all… give him my all.

‘’Seriously, it looks like you’re head over heels.’’ Jaxon’s comment brought me back, reminding what was happening. Feeling a bit sheepish, I looked back at him, expecting to be greeted by his usual grin, but his expression and smile were much softer. ‘’ It’s a good look on you,’’ he smiled, meeting my eyes for a moment before focusing on getting the attention of the bartender.

His comment left me with a strange feeling. Was I? I had nothing to compare it to, but it certainly felt more intense than what I had experienced before. Still, there was a fear of the unknown, and taking a plunge into it the deep end felt a little scary. However, I already knew that it wasn’t going to keep me from pursuing whatever this could be. So, instead of disappearing into my thoughts, I withdrew from them and focused on what was currently happening instead. ‘’Alright, what are we having?’’ I asked as I moved in next to him, joining him at the bar.

‘’Well, I’m thinking that you’re old enough to handle your and Atlas’ drinks while I’m heading back with these,’’ he replied while grabbing the three glasses the bartender had just prepared for him.

‘’I think I can do that.’’

‘’Good girl,’’ he smiled at me before moving away and walking back towards the others.

I turned my attention to the bartender and ordered a glass of whiskey and a drink for myself. I watched him work until someone addressed me.

‘’You certainly don’t look like you’re a regular here.’’ I looked up and found a man about my age smiling at me. His hair was the same shade of silver as Nova’s and slicked back, but it didn’t make him look sleazy. Instead, he had a natural charm to him. His smile softened his otherwise strong facial features as he looked at me.

‘’And here I tried not to be obvious about it,’’ I replied, looking away from him as the bartender finished my order.

‘’Well, I’m sorry to say it, but you seem to have failed that,’’ the stranger chuckled before addressing the bartender, ‘’I’ll have the usual.’’ The bartender acknowledged his order before accepting my credits. ’’So, how does a colony girl like you end up on Abelas?’’

‘’Nothing you need to worry about,’’ I brushed him off with a smile as I grabbed the drinks.

‘’Just trying to make conversation,’’ he chuckled while leaning closer to me.

‘’No need. I have four friends waiting for me.’’

‘’Yeah? Have fun then, colony girl,’’ he smiled at me as the bartender appeared with his drink.

I huffed for myself as I turned away from the bar. ‘’You too, strange man,’’ I called out as I walked away, making my way through the crowded room. Jaxon had taken the seat that wasn’t next to Atlas, surely something he would point out to me later. Orion and Nova were already engaged in conversation when I showed up, making Atlas the second one to notice me. His gaze settled on me like he had been waiting for me, the ice in his eyes thawing once they found mine.

‘’Thanks,’’ he spoke loud enough for me to hear when I gave him the glass of whiskey.

‘’You owe me one,’’ I joked as I sat down, making him smile faintly before he hid it by taking a sip. Instead, he bumped his knee against mine, offering me some sort of physical contact in secrecy beneath the table. I smiled before of the gesture. Honestly, I’d never imaged that a simple knee bump would make me that happy. It might have seemed a little silly, but given how Atlas had surely not tried to romance anyone in a while, knowing that he tried was enough to make something warm bubble up inside me.

‘’When is your buddy arriving?’’ Atlas asked, looking like his usual grumpy self as he addressed Jaxon.

‘’Ray is always fashionably late.’’

‘’Even when it’s business?’’ I asked.

‘’Always,’’ Jaxon chuckled before taking a sip.

‘’Well, sounds fitting for a pirate.’’

‘’And what do you know of pirates?’’ He laughed.

‘’I’ve watched holo vids!’’ I protested, but my answer made both Jaxon and Atlas laugh. ‘’Oh, shut up.’’ I couldn’t stop myself from laughing as well, but it didn’t stop me from cursing at them before taking a large sip of my drink.

‘’Looks like everyone is having a good time,’’ a fourth person spoke up as he approached the table.

All three of us looked up. While Jaxon broke into a smile and stood up, my eyes widened when I saw the same smile I had just walked away from.

‘’You’re late as always, Ray,’’ Jaxon greeted the stranger, naming him for the rest of us. The two of them shook hands and smiled warmly at each other. When the greeting ended, Jaxon sat back down and Ray took the only free chair at the end of the table, leaving him to sit between me and Jaxon.

‘’So we meet again, colony girl,’’ Ray smiled at me as he sat down.

‘’Strange man,’’ I greeted him by tipping my head.

‘’I feel like I missed something,’’ Jaxon commented from his side of the table.

‘’Just a little meeting at the bar,’’ Ray explained before having a sip. ‘’So, what’s so important to have an urgent meeting in this shithole?’’

Orion and Nova had noticed Ray’s arrival, but, considering the place, it was Jaxon who explained everything. He kept his voice low as he went over everything, and he stopped once he reached the more technical parts. I took it as my cue to continue, explaining the blueprints and my assumptions in great detail. If Ray did have an interest in technology, it seemed important to appeal to his curiosity.

‘’And you have no idea what kind of beam it is?’’

‘’No. It appears to require a great deal of power and stabilizing, but I can’t make it any more specific when I’m lacking the rest of the blueprints.’’

‘’What’s the plan then?’’

‘’Get the people out and bomb it to hell,’’ Atlas spoke up, his voice harder than usual.

‘’Aaaand to steal some tech before the bombing part,’’ Jaxon quickly added.

‘’Moving the people, that’s where I come in, I assume,’’ Ray stated, obviously already knowing the answer.

‘’We need one of your ships. Our own can’t carry that many people. Of course, you’ll be paid for it.’’

‘’I don’t want credits. What I want is to have a look at all that shiny tech.’’

‘’I don’t care what you grab from there, as long as it’s not some crazy killing thing,’’ Jaxon huffed, easing my nerves by putting up some boundaries for the pillaging.

His clarification made Ray chuckle, ‘’I only want upgrades for my ships, not some ‘’crazy killing thing’’.’’

‘’So, we have a deal then?’’ Orion asked.

 Ray leaned back in his chair, making it look like he was contemplating the offer. ‘’Buy me another drink and we have a deal,’’ he smirked and made Jaxon laugh.

‘’Fine, fine,’’ he continued to laugh as he got up, ‘’anyone else?’’

The three others all raised their hands. Nova volunteered to go help, and the two of them disappeared into the crowd as they headed for the bar. Once Jaxon was gone, Ray quickly turned his attention to me.

‘’So, how did an engineer get mixed up with this lot?’’ Ray leaned closer to the table while his eyes settled on me.

‘’That’s a long story,’’ I replied and took another sip.

‘’Really? Those are my favorites,’’ his smile widened.

‘’Well, the Empire thought I was interesting, so I broke into a starship and here I am,’’ I explained, hoping that my short version of it would make him disinterested, but it didn’t seem to work.

‘’Oh come on, there’s no need to keep it short.’’

‘’It’s hard to prolong something that’s not interesting,’’ I gave him a polite smile.

‘’It sounds more like you’re selling yourself short to me,’’ he smiled back, although a lot more charming.

‘’I really wouldn’t agree,’’ I laughed shortly before focusing on my drink.

‘’Oh? It’s rare that I meet a humble, gorgeous woman like yourself. Usually, those two things do not go together.’’ He lowered his voice as he spoke; flattering me like it was the most natural thing for him to do.

Atlas shifted in his seat as he grumbled something, seemingly as annoyed by this as I was, but before I could say anything to Ray, Nova and Jaxon appeared. Ray’s attention quickly shifted to the full glass of beer that was placed before him, and Jaxon quickly struck up a conversation with him. In the beginning, it was mostly those two catching up, but, as the evening progressed and more alcohol was brought to the table, the conversation turned into Jaxon telling the rest of us about some of his crazy stories. It turned the conversation far more comfortable, and, because of Jaxon’s ability to tell stories, I was enjoying myself soon enough.

At some point, the conversation had turned into smaller ones and more spread out. Atlas went to get another drink and Jaxon was brought into Orion and Nova’s conversation when they asked his opinion about something. Before I had even noticed, Ray had already focused on me again.

‘’Tell me, Tess, have you considered working as a fulltime engineer on a starship?’’

‘’It seems like one of the only things I can do now,’’ I chuckled and took another sip. A little alcohol and the comfortable conversation from before had greatly improved my mood.

‘’Then,’’ he started, pausing to lean closer to me, ‘’I would very much like to offer you a spot on my crew.’’ I stared at him in surprise, now even sure what to say to such a sudden offer, but he didn’t give me any time to react before he spoke again. ‘’What do you say we get out of here and discuss this somewhere more… private?’’ He had lowered his voice, using an alluring tone while his hand settled on my thigh, quickly sliding up and inwards before squeezing it.

I froze for a millisecond, letting it sink in that he seriously had the nerves to touch me like that. My eyebrows knitted together as I started to frown deeply. Really, who the hell did he think he was? Anger bubbled up inside me as I opened my mouth, ready to tell him exactly what I thought of his offer.

‘’Hey asshole, get your hands off her,’’ Atlas spoke before I could, his tone far harsher than I’d heard before, and everybody reacted to it.

The table went quiet and everyone but Ray turned to look at Atlas, who was looking royally pissed off. Ray smiled as he withdrew his hand, making a show out of putting them both in the air like he was surrendering.

‘’Calm down big guy,’’ Ray chuckled as he played it off like it was the most normal thing to do. ‘’I’m just making some conversation here,’’ he explained as he stood up to face Atlas. Somehow, he managed to continue sporting a cocky expression despite having to crane his neck back to look him in the eye.

‘’Groping someone isn’t ‘’making conversation’’, prick,’’ Atlas replied, his expression hardening.

‘’Guys, come on,’’ Jaxon involved himself as he joined them on the floor, attempting to calm the two.

‘’Yet I don’t hear her complaining,’’ Ray smiled in a way that nearly had me throwing my drink in his face.

‘’Yeah no, fuck this,’’ I spoke loudly as I got up from my chair. ‘’Ray, I swear, if we hadn’t just made a deal, I would smack you so hard that you’d forget which star system you’re from,’’ I continued as I walked in-between them. ‘’Instead, I’m just going to say that you’re a fucking dickhead and leave you with that.’’ My statement made Atlas bark out a short laughter while Ray only narrowed his eyes a bit as he kept smiling, looking like my words hadn’t made him any less interested. Without another word or looking at the rest of the crew, I grabbed Atlas hand and brought him with me as I walked away.

Neither of us said a thing as I guided us outside, pushing past the crowd of people that had only gotten larger since we had arrived. When I finally got outside, I let go of his hand and I took a deep breath. ‘’Well, so much for keeping it private,’’ I hummed and turned around to look at Atlas, curious to see his reaction to all of this. To my surprise, Atlas was still holding a glass of whiskey, and the sight of it made me laugh as soon as I spotted it.

‘’What?’’ he asked before taking a sip, ‘’its good whiskey and I paid for it.’’

‘’I know, I know. You’re not a wasteful man,’’ I laughed and moved closer to him. ‘’Hey, so, since I have zero interest in going back in there, how about we go back to the Promise? Jaxon went out and restocked the bar earlier today.’’

‘’That doesn’t sound like a horrible idea,’’ he hummed with a small smile. He proceeded to down the rest of the whiskey in one go, somehow making it look impressive, and abandoned the glass on a windowsill. I couldn’t help but smile at his casualness, especially not when he had just called someone an asshole for me. I hadn’t felt like a damsel in distress, but having someone else step in and call the other person out on their shit, that was a pretty good feeling.

We started walking together. Atlas stuck close to me, giving me the change to find his hand with my own and give it a soft squeeze. Honestly, if having to deal with assholes resulted in more private time with Atlas, then dealing with them didn’t seem all that bad anymore.

Chapter Text

Maybe it was a weird thing, but as I sat there and watched him as he drank, I concluded that watching Atlas greatly appreciate a glass of his favorite whiskey was strangely sensual.

We had made a beeline for the bar as soon as we got inside the Promise, and Atlas had wasted no time on deciding what to get. He had gone straight for a bottle of whiskey that had almost been hidden away in the back and hummed in approval after opening it as he took in the aroma of it. While he was busy with pouring us a couple of glasses, I plopped down in the couch and simply waited for him to join me. Feeling a little flirty, I met his glance with my own as soon as he turned around, letting him know that I had been watching and waiting.

‘’You look comfortable,’’ he stated as he approached me.

‘’I will be a lot more comfortable when I have a drink in my hand and you next to me,’’ I smiled, trying to tease him a bit but my straightforwardness only made him smirk in return.

‘’If I hear one more sentence like that out of you, then you’re losing your booze privilege,’’ he warned me, making me chuckle as I accepted the glass he was offering me.

‘’What? I’m not allowed to flirt with you?’’ I tried to pout, but it was hard making it look real when I couldn’t stop smiling. I took a sip while watching as he sat down next to me, but my attention was stolen by the whiskey as I tasted it. ‘’Oh, this is nice,’’ I hummed and had another sip, ‘’is that a hint of caramel?’’

‘’You’re getting better,’’ Atlas smiled and looked a little proud.

‘’I’m guessing it’s expensive?’’

‘’More than you know,’’ he huffed while smiling before drinking. He moved the glass to make the whiskey swirl, looking like he was contemplating something. ‘’Luckily, this was sitting around in an abandoned warehouse, and leaving it there would obviously have been a waste.’’

‘’Why does that sound shady?’’ I laughed.

‘’Well, the owner had just been collected by us, so the abandonment was rather new,’’ he chuckled as he moved his arm to lie on top of the backrest behind me.

‘’Sounds awfully convenient,’’ I smiled and leaned closer to him.

‘’More like a lucky coincidence.’’ He was smiling softly as he lifted his glass to his lips. I watched as he tasted the whiskey, his expression softening as he appreciated the flavors. My eyes moved to his Adam’s apple, watching it move as he swallowed. For a moment, I got lost in the thought of kissing his throat, imagining what it would be like to tease him with my lips and teeth. The fantasy lasted until he put the glass down, resting it on his thigh before turning his head to look at me.

I looked up and met his glance with my own. Maybe it was just because of the lighting, but it looked like his eyes darkened when he saw the desire in mine. Neither of us said a word as we sat there, but we both leaned in at the same time, causing our lips to meet halfway in an eager kiss.

It started out soft like we were still testing each other, but it soon turned heated as we both got into it. Immediately, we drew closer on the couch, our breaths mingling as we paused to move our glasses to the table. His arm moved around me and towards him, making me moan softly before his lips found mine again. The taste of whiskey lingered on his lips as he kissed me with a desire that made my heart rate quicken. I parted my lips before he had even had a chance to express his need for me, but he took advantage of it straight away and deepened the kiss.

I hummed against his lips as I pressed closer to him, desperate for more contact. Caught up in the moment, I kissed him hard and moved to straddle him on the couch. He took a sharp breath as I repositioned myself, and his hands quickly found my hips before slowly moving up my sides. Recalling the urge from what had been just minutes ago; one of my hands gripped his short hair and pulled it to guide his head back while I broke the kiss. A groan rumbled in his chest, but he had to swallow when my lips greedily made their way down his jaw and onto his throat.

His breathing turned heavy as I got familiar with the taste of the skin on his throat and neck. Gradually, I used my teeth to further tease him, drawing small huffs and faint moans from him as I got bolder. His hands gripped my hips tightly when I bit him harder than before, making him draw a sharp breath. Feeling satisfied, I kissed the skin I had just abused before leaning back to take a look at his face.

His eyes were narrowed and darkened by desire when they found mine, effectively sending a spark of electricity down my spine. He leaned forward while one of his hands moved up to the back of my head where his fingers tangled themselves in my hair. His lips sought mine like they were the only things he could think about, the only thing he desired to feel and taste.

Wanting more, I started rocking my hips back and forth, grinding my lower body against his. It was easy to feel that he was as aroused that I was. He groaned against my lips as he pushed his hips upwards, eagerly meeting mine and letting me feel how hard he was. Arousal and desire rushed through me, leaving me to moan longingly while I moved against him.

It was like we reached a silent agreement. My arms stayed around his neck while his moved beneath me, supporting me as he stood up. I kept kissing him while we headed straight for his bedroom, but I had to stop and laugh when he had to angle himself correctly before he could open the door. Once inside, he ignored the lights but locked the door before moving to the bed and lowered me onto it. Although my arms moved away from his neck, my legs stayed where they were, keeping our bodies close as our lips reunited in a heated kiss.

My hands busied themselves with removing his jacket. Knowing how much it meant to him, I kept my recklessness under control as I slipped it off him. Usually, clothes mattered little to me in a situation like this, but this was actually a piece of clothing that I respected. However, my sentiment didn’t save it from being pushed to the floor when I had finally removed it from his body. As soon as I could, my hands explored his upper body. My fingers traced the curves of his muscles before focusing on his suspenders as I started to work them off his shoulders.

‘’Someone’s a bit eager,’’ he hummed before his mouth started to focus on tracing my jawline.

‘’Sorry,’’ I smiled before taking a quick breath when he found a soft spot behind my ear. Suddenly, I wondered if I was moving too fast for him. The last thing I wanted was to pressure him. ‘’Atlas, if this is-if I’m moving too fast-‘’ I started but he didn’t even let me finish speaking.

‘’Tess,’’ he said my name before leaning back, making our eyes meet. ‘’If I wasn’t interested in being with you like this, then I wouldn’t have carried you to my bedroom in the first place,’’ he told me, his tone serious but calm as he reassured me.

‘’Good, I just wanted to be sure,’’ I smiled and moved my hands up to frame his face. His expression softened as I touched him. ‘’And again, sorry if I seem a little too eager,’’ I chuckled and guided his face down, wanting to kiss him again.

‘’It’s fine, I like eager,’’ he hummed as he leaned down, catching my lips with his.

I smiled before I kissed him back. My hands snaked their way back down to his chest, slowly sliding down it as I prolonged the inventible just a little longer. Finally, my curiosity took over, prompting my hands to move back up and free him of his suspenders. Next on the list was his shirt, and I made far quicker work of getting that off. I kissed him hard as I ran my hands down his bare chest. I knew he was in good shape, which was still sort of a mystery to me when he basically lived of whiskey, but I had simply accepted that he must have some sort of hidden fitness routine, but even with that in mind, I was pleasantly surprised by how toned his stomach felt.

Wanting to see exactly what he had been hiding under that thick jacket, I flipped us over, once again straddling him as I sat on top of him. The sudden change in our position had clearly surprised him, but he went with it, watching me with great interest as he waited to see why I had put myself on top. I hummed in satisfaction as I got comfortable and let my eyes run over his chest. My teeth sank into my bottom lip as I appreciated the sight before me, and I noticed how a faint blush had crept into his cheeks. Still, even with the slight blush on his face, I could tell that he was enjoying the way I was eating him up.

‘’Is there something on my chest?’’ He asked while smirking, looking incredibly smug.

‘’Just enjoying the view.’’

‘’Yeah? I take it that you like what you’re seeing then?’’

‘’I always like what I see when I look at you, but I didn’t expect you to be so…’’ I gestured to all of him when I couldn’t find the word I was looking for.

‘’So… what?’’ He continued, making me laugh in delight when he appeared to be fishing for a compliment.

I hummed as my eyes traveled down his torso again. If he really wanted a compliment, then I wasn’t about to cheat him of one, but it wouldn’t be without having a little fun as well.

‘’Well,’’ I started and slowly traced a finger along the lines of his abs, ‘’how honest would you like me to be?’’ I smiled and leaned forward, using my other arm to hold myself up while my finger moved up to his collarbone. ‘’Like how I find you incredibly handsome and was attracted to you from the very start, or maybe you would like to hear about how thoughts you of kept me up at night out in the dark lounge?’’ I asked in a sultry tone and watched how his eyes narrowed as I came closer to him. I was close enough to kiss him if I wanted to, but I settled for letting my finger trace an invisible line up his throat, making him shudder. ‘’If you want, I can even tell you about exactly what I did while thinking of you in the darkness.’’ I lowered my voice as I spoke, maintaining eye contact while my hand moved down and placed it on his chest.

He had to swallow before taking a shaky breath, looking like he was imagining exactly what I wanted him to and the streak of red across his face turned more noticeable. His reaction made me smile with satisfaction. ‘’You’re not too shy to use dirty tricks, are you?’’ He hummed in a low tone, making me chuckle.

‘’Not when it’s you, no,’’ I replied before giving him a quick but passionate kiss. I pulled away after that and leaned back into a sitting position. His eyes followed me as I moved, focusing on my hands when they found the edge of my blouse.

He watched me as I stripped myself of it, but he couldn’t keep his hands off me once it was gone and thrown to the floor. They wandered up my sides, following my curves until he reached my bra. I was about to make a joke about him needing help with it, but he snapped it open before I even had a chance to open my mouth. One of his arms moved around me, keeping me in place as he sat up and brought us closer together. My breathing hitched as his mouth pressed against my throat while the arm around me pressed my lower body against his. My head fell back to give him further access to my throat, and a moan escaped me as he took advantage of it. When his mouth started to travel further down, I tipped my upper body backward, supporting myself by putting one hand on the bed.

My breathing turned uneven when his free hand cupped my left breast and his thumb brushed over my nipple. His damp breath hit my skin before his lips pressed against it, leaving a trail of kisses down my chest and cleavage. He proceeded to toy with me, chuckling against my skin as I practically whimpered when he kept teasing the area around it and not the nipple itself. I groaned his name in frustration, grinding against him just to get some of the stimulation that I craved. He let out a faint moan before he finally granted me my wish.

I cursed under my breath as his mouth started to work me into a haze. Small moans and whimpers fell from my lips as I started to grind myself against him, finding an angle that made both of our breathing heavy. Clearly, what he was doing was working, but I had reached the point where I needed more of him.

‘’Atlas,’’ I purred his name, my voice thick with desire, and he caught my drift when my hand tipped his head upwards. I kissed him as soon as I could, breathing in through my nose as I kept his lips occupied in a way that made him moan against my own. I greedily swallowed each moan while I pushed him backward, following him down until he was on his back again. From there, I worked my way down, placing languid kisses all the way down his upper body.

Once I had moved into a better position and gotten comfortable, I glanced at him while my fingers undid his pants. He swallowed as I pulled both his pants and boxers down in one go, freeing him from the confinement. When I closed my hand around the shaft of his erection, I quickly concluded that he definitely had nothing to be ashamed of, and it only made me more excited. If I had been less impatient, I would have toyed with him like he had with me, but the thought was not even seriously considered by me. Instead, I went straight to it, making him choke on a moan as I closed my lips around his head.

From the beginning, it was obvious that he was trying to be subtle about his sounds, but he had trouble with sticking to his plan. As soon as I got into it and moved both my hand and head up and down, his plan fell to pieces as he loudly cursed. One of his hands went straight to my head and grabbed a fistful of my hair, but he did nothing to alter my movements, which I was rather happy about. From there on, his sounds spurred me on; allowing me to experiment with what he liked the best while also giving my confidence a little boost.

He cursed under his breath while he barely managed to keep his hips still, telling me that he was getting close. With the intention of continuing to another activity, I pulled away from him, flashing him a smug grin when our eyes met. He was still breathing quickly as I made my way back up to him and gave him an almost chaste kiss. Not satisfied, his hands framed my face as he murmured a low ‘’come here’’ before pressing his lips against mine in a hungry kiss.

He turned us over while he still had me locked up in his fierce kiss. Apparently as impatient as me, one hand trailed down my torso and stopped at my pants. His fingers deftly undid the button and zipper, allowing him to slip his hand beneath my underwear. I gasped when he wasted no time and his calloused fingers finding exactly what they had set out to locate. I rocked against his hand and moaned into a kiss, but my newfound source of pleasure was short-lived. Much to my disappointment, he withdrew his hand from me, leaving me to make a noise that voiced my feelings. As a response, he merely gave me a quick but passionate kiss.

He sat back while his hands got busy with removing my pants and underwear. I lifted my hips to help him and was quickly completely naked with him between my legs. For a moment, I forgot how to breathe when I saw how he was looking at me. Giving himself a few, quick strokes, his eyes ran over my body, looking like he was trying to memorize every curve he laid his eyes on. My pulse was racing when his eyes found mine, and the intense look in them made it feel like my whole body was on fire.

It was his turn to flash me a smug smirk as he moved down, kissing me on my inner thigh before his mouth and tongue continued where his fingers had left off. I took a sharp breath when his tongue pressed against me, and both of my hands went to grip the sheets when he did it just right. Much to my satisfaction, he quickly involved his fingers and slowly pushed two of them into me, easily making me moan.

‘’Yes! Just like that!’’ I gasped and rocked my hips against him, not able to keep still.

At no point was I concerned about hiding my sounds. I was far too caught up in the moment to even consider that some of the others might figure out what was happening if they were anywhere close to Atlas’ room. Instead, I was way more focused on what his mouth and fingers were currently doing to me.

Given how long we had already been at it, it didn’t take much for me to reach the point where I was nearly falling to pieces. I cursed and arched my back when his fingers curled inside me, stroking a spot that made me see stars. My reaction made his know exactly which spot to focus on, rapidly pushing me towards the edge. When I finally fell from it, it was intense and fulfilling, rushing through me like a wildfire. My moan was breathless and unsteady; sounding like it barely managed escaped my body.

‘’Stars, I needed that,’’ I breathed and smiled before sighing in satisfaction. I hazily opened my eyes when I felt Atlas shift his position, moving so that he was on top of me again. He placed his left forearm on the bed above my head, using it support his weight and keeping himself propped up, and the other hand moved to caress my side.  My own freed themselves from the sheet and moved up to touch him instead, one of them following a line that started at his lower back and moved up to grab his shoulder. Our eyes met while I readjusted my legs so that they hugged his hips before gesturing for him to continue. His lips found mine as he moved his hand down between us to position himself. Then, he pushed into me, not stopping until he was fully inside me.

I threw my head back and let out a low moan. I couldn’t describe how satisfying it felt to be filled by him, and listening to his shaky breathing only made it better. His hand moved to my hip and gripped it when he started to thrust into me, slow and deep.

‘’Fuck, this feels good.’’ The words slipped out without much thought, but they expressed what was going on inside my head pretty well.

Atlas chuckled before placing a kiss on my throat, drawing a soft moan from me. Gradually, he increased the pace and force of his thrusts, the hand on my hip keeping me steady as our bodies collided. Breathing quickly, I threw an arm around his neck to bring him closer to me, allowing me to kiss him greedily and express my desire for him through it.

Wanting more, I angled my hips upwards, finding an angle that made me moan and him curse in a shaky breath. His grip on my hip tightened as he settled into a hard but slightly slower rhythm, stroking a spot inside me that made me moan surprisingly loud.

‘’That was loud,’’ he commented in a teasing tone. His breath hit my lips because of how close together we were, and hearing how husky his voice had become nearly drove me wild.

‘’Shut up,’’ I huffed before kissing him, channeling my embarrassment into it. He hummed as he returned the kiss, clearly amused over my answer, but I kept him from commentating on it by keeping his mouth occupied. My hand moved up to the back of his head, running my fingers through his hair as I kissed him deeply. It turned messy real quick, but moans and soft grunts interrupted us as he increased the pace. His movements pressing me down into the mattress with each thrust, and I absolutely loved feeling his weight on top of me.

It was exhilarating how our bodies collided against each other in fast and hard thrusts, but without making it any less intimate. I realized how much I had needed it. Mixed with my rapid heartbeat, all I could hear was his quick breathing and our bodies meeting, and I could think of nothing else than how amazing it felt to have him this close to me. It was a distraction that had been much needed, and I fully gave myself over to it.

My head fell back while I clung to him, moaning while desperately keeping my hips in the right angle to take in as much of his as I possibly could in that position. His mouth moved to my throat, easily taking advantage of how exposed it was while he kept the intensity going for a while longer before he had to slow down. It felt like my heart was about to burst through my ribcage while his damp breath hit my throat. His lips pressed against it tenderly, matching the pace he had slowed downed to and the much gentler way he thrust. The grip on my hip eased while his lips kept planting gentle and tender kisses on my throat.

‘’Well, that was pretty fucking amazing,’’ I huffed and relaxed my hold on him. My words had him chuckling in the way that I loved, and it felt like my heart grew three sizes just from hearing it. I smiled as I tilted my head back up, meeting his glance as he moved in to give me a kiss. ‘’Alright, big guy, my turn,’’ I grinned and smacked his arm to make him turn over.

‘’I’m throwing you out if you ever call me that again,’’ he muttered as he moved to lie on his back.

I couldn’t stop myself from laughing as I moved on top of him and straddled him again. His hands found my hips and gave them a squeeze. Our eyes met while I got comfortable, and I quickly found myself smiling. There was a soft, unguarded look in his eyes when they met mine, making me pause while his hands slowly moved up my sides. I sat still for a moment, entirely mesmerized by how he was looking at me in such a tender, warm way, and I completely forgot to breathe for a moment.

Neither of said a thing as we simply took a second to just get caught up in what was happening. I stayed silent even as I came back to reality. Smiling, I leaned down to kiss him while his hands moved back down to my hips. I hummed softly before pulling away from him and sitting up straight. Placing a hand on his chest to steady myself, the other took hold of him. I held his gaze as I positioned myself before slowly lowering myself, moaning as he slipped inside me again.

His grip on my hips tightened while he took a sharp breath. I started to rock my hips in a slow rhythm, eager to show him what I was capable of. He leaned his head back as he let out a low moan, clearly enjoying it as much as I was. I experimented with finding the right angle while my gaze focused on him, watching how pleasure showed in his expression. My heart rate sped up again as I watched him, his expression and sounds encouraging me to move faster.

I let out a moan when I finally found the right angle, and both of my hands moved down and gripped his shoulders to keep myself steady as I rocked my hips faster. I could feel the pressure beginning to build and I had to close my eyes as my movements started to get a little more erratic. Atlas cursed loudly beneath me and pushed his hips upwards, making me cry out when the new angle permitted me to hit the spot that made my mind go blank.

His fingers dug into my skin as I kept going, making both of us moan as I worked that angle like it was the solution to all my problems. The pressure was building rapidly, fueled by my own movements and the low moans that made their way past his lips. My mind was empty for all things except for him and how tightly he held on to me. I could feel how I was tiptoeing on the edge, causing me to dig my nails into his shoulders in near desperation.

Finally, I fell from it.

I moaned when I climaxed and my mind came to a halt when an intense feeling of release rushed through my body. I continued moving my hips to ride it out, getting as much out of it as I could. He followed a second later, letting out a husky moan while he tossed his head back. My erratic movements started to slow down as the satisfaction set in, and it felt like my mind was rebooting. Breathing like I had just run a marathon, I collapsed next to him, utterly spent.

As I worked on catching my breath, I lazily patted him on the chest with the back of my hand. ‘’Good job, you did well,’’ I huffed, immensely tempted to add ‘big guy’ just to annoy him.

Atlas let out an earnest, breathless laugh that made me feel all mushy inside. I rolled onto my stomach with a soft smile, watching as he ran a hand through his slightly damp hair and took a deep breath. He looked remarkably relaxed for once. Like he didn’t have so many shitty things to deal with right then, and I felt like I was seeing a side of him that few had experienced. He deserved to be like this all the time. He deserved better than struggling with traumatizing events and memories.

My hand reached out, cradling his cheek and turning his head so that he would be looking at me. His eyes were soft when they found mine. They gave me a strange sense of calm. As if I would always be okay when he was with me. I leaned closer to him and captured his lips in a soft kiss. I wanted to give him some sort of comfort. Some sort of feeling that it was all going to be okay, but I had no idea how to properly express my thoughts through words. So I kept giving him soft and tender kisses, hoping that they might somehow tell him how I felt about him. His hand moved to the back of my head as he returned every single kiss I gave him, and, deep down, it felt like he understood what I was trying to tell him through them.

We parted when I slowly withdrew from him. Looking at him right then, I realized that Jaxon was right. If what I was feeling for him right now wasn’t love, then I didn’t know what else to call it. ‘Love’. I could taste the word on my tongue, and some part of me wanted to say it, but the other still wasn’t ready. It felt like it was too soon.

His hand moved down and tucked my messy hair behind my ear, making me smile and lean into his hand. ‘’It suits you,’’ he spoke quietly and with a fond look in his eyes.

‘’Messy hair?’’ I chuckled and leaned closer to him again.

‘’Smiling,’’ he hummed while moving his hand to the back of my head again. Before I could react, he guided me down so that he could bring our lips together again. I smiled into it as I returned the kiss.

‘’That was really corny,’’ I told him in a whisper before kissing him again.

‘’And some of the shit you say isn’t?’’ He asked while his other arm snaked around me.

‘’Oh, no, I’m trying to flirt with you most of the time.’’

‘’Sounds like the same to me.’’

‘’I’ll have to make it more obvious, then,’’ I smirked.

‘’Please don’t.’’

I laughed at his grumbled response. His lips curved into a soft smile while he rolled onto his side and pulled me closer to him. I stifled my laugh as he pulled me against his chest, getting me close enough so that he could easily press his lips against mine.

Honestly, breaking into the Promise had been the best decision I had ever made.

Chapter Text

Safe.

It felt safe knowing that someone was sleeping next to you. Someone that wouldn’t just be a mistake from last night, but someone you wanted to wake up next to. The feeling of them shifting, the sound of their breathing, and the warmth they shared with you.

Safe.

 

A pair of strong arms moved around me, gently rousing me from my sleep as they drew me closer to their owner. I sighed once I felt his warmth, awake enough to register his embrace and to hear how he mumbled into my hair in his sleep. His arms tightened around me like he was searching for something to anchor himself to. Being so close to him, I could feel how quickly his heart was beating in his chest.

‘’Atlas…’’ I sleepily murmured his name in an attempt to reassure him. His hold on me made it harder for me to turn, so I stayed put, drifting between being asleep and half-awake.

His breathing didn’t slow down and his mumbling turned louder and more insistent, and I could make out the panicked tone in it. It provided the kick I needed to wake up, and I somehow managed to twist myself around in his arms.

My hands moved and framed his face, and I realized how damp his skin was.

He was having another nightmare.

‘’Atlas,’’ I tried again, raising my voice a little and making it firmer, but it didn’t reach him. His breathing shuddered while he tightened his grip around me again. ‘’Atlas!’’ I raised my voice this time, determined to wake him up from whatever was haunting him.

Finally, his eyes flew open, scared and wild; looking like an animal that had been startled awake. He gasped for air while he stared at me, not recognizing me immediately. There was a fear in his eyes that made a lump appear in my throat, but I quickly swallowed it.

‘’Hey, hey, it’s alright, I’m right here,’’ I spoke quickly, keeping him focused on me. I repeated my reassuring words and watched as recognition softened his eyes. My thumbs stroked his cheeks with careful moves, attempting to help calm him down. ‘’It’s alright, Atlas… I’m here,’’ I murmured, and his grip around me started to ease.

His breathing shuddered again while he moved his hand to the back of my head, drawing me closer to him and allowing him to press his cheek against the side of my head. Instinctively, I moved my arms around him instead and held him tight. I stayed there, feeling him tremble and listening to his shaky breathing. Slowly, it started to calm while his body stilled.

He let out a deep sigh and further eased his grip on me. I pulled back enough to take a look at his face and his eyes quickly found mine. Despite that he had just been sleeping, he looked utterly exhausted.

‘’You okay?’’ I asked as soft as I could while my eyes searched for any indication that he wasn’t.

‘’Just peachy,’’ he huffed, the exhaustion clear in his voice as well.

‘’Of course,’’ I replied and gave him a soft kiss, ‘’you look exhausted, though.’’

His reply to that was a mere groan that rumbled within his chest, clearly not impressed with my observation.

My eyes lingered on him for a bit, studying how the stress had carved lines in his forehead and started to turn his hair silver. Feeling a strange need to try to remove some of it, I slowly ran my hand through his damp hair. I repeated the movement, making him exhale softly through his nose before looking at me again. Our eyes locked and we kept looking at each other. Neither of us said a word while we lay there in the darkness, simply taking in how we gazed at each other in silence.

Slowly, the mood changed as neither of us looked away, and it felt like the tension from the nightmare eased into something else. Gradually, I felt my pulse quicken while we drifted closer, drawn to each other like there was some sort of magnetic attraction between us.

His hand moved up to the back of my head again, his fingers working their way into my curls. He had a look in his eyes that set my whole body on fire and had my skin itching to be touched by him. I could tell the very second he decided that he wanted to kiss me, and I had already parted my lips by the time he had drawn me closer to him and captured them with his own.

He kissed me like he could think of nothing else, like I was the only thing that existed in his world, and the only thing he needed. He’d kissed me with plenty of emotion and desire last night, but this raw and intense, making me feel like he had put the world on pause. My heart soared in my chest like it wanted to escape its cage, and I eagerly returned the kiss, wanting to make him feel the same as emotion as I was.

We shifted into a more comfortable position when that one kiss turned into multiple, each new one adding more fuel to the desire rapidly building between us. I let out a faint hum of approval when his hand moved down and found my thigh. I parted my legs before he even had a chance to gesture for it, and I swear that I could feel him smirk for a second before he moved his hand again. I let out a small gasp when his fingers found the spot that made me close my eyes and sigh longingly.

Wanting to hear how I reacted to his fingers making me melt beneath him, his lips trailed down to my throat, teasing my skin with his teeth before making up for it with his tongue and lips. As amazing as it felt to have his calloused but precise fingers work me into a mess, I needed the satisfaction of being filled by him more.

‘’Atlas,’’ I moaned his name while moving my hips, ‘’please…’’

‘’Please, what?’’ He asked, clearly enjoying my impatience.

I groaned in frustration but had to moan when he found a spot on my throat that made my skin tingle.

‘’You didn’t answer my question,’’ he teased. His voice was husky and thick with desire, making a rush of arousal surge through me.

I cursed at his reply, but my own impatience was making it hard to waste time on being sassy. ‘’I need you,’’ I explained, emphasizing the important word in my short sentence, and my honesty quickly rewarded me with an eager kiss that kept me busy while he positioned himself between my legs.

Finally, without any further comments, he pushed into me, and we both moaned because of the sensation. Mindful of the fact that we hadn’t spent much time on foreplay, he penetrated me slowly, giving me a chance to adjust to his size. Even with the slight strain, the satisfaction of it made me sigh like I had been waiting for it for hours.

‘’Fuck, you feel amazing…’’ he breathed when he started to move his hips.

I smiled and moved my arms around his neck to pull him closer to me, but he was already leaning in, making us meet halfway in a deep kiss. It lasted until he changed the angle slightly to thrust deeper into me, making me moan against his lips. Satisfied with my response, he slightly increased the pace and stayed with that angle, cursing beneath his breath as he made both our breaths quicken.

We settled into a rhythm that focused on depth and precision, and it felt more intimate than last night. Maybe it was because of the simplicity or because we stayed close, sharing kisses and feeling the other’s body press against our own as they collided. Maybe it was a mixture of the two. Either way, it felt amazing to be this close to him, to feel his skin turn damp against my own while I listened to his faint moans and quick breathing.

His lips captured mine while his hand moved down and repositioned my right leg, angling it so that he could thrust deeper inside me. My nails dug into his shoulders when I felt it, and I couldn’t stop myself from cursing loudly while tossing my head back. He took a sharp breath but kept going, his movements turning more insistent as he neared his climax.

Wanting to finish with him, I moved one hand down between us and quickly worked myself closer to the edge. Right then, it felt like nothing else than us existed, and it was like my mind had been completely emptied except for the feeling of him and our intimacy. It only intensified when his lips and teeth started claiming my throat, and I could feel his quick breathing dampen my skin while my climax was rapidly approaching.

Unlike last night, the mood didn’t call for multiple positions or attempts to prolong the act. It felt like we silently agreed on just focusing on what felt right and going with that. We had plenty of time to explore, but right then, we just needed the intimacy, to feel the other person close to us in the early hours of morning, and the comfort that they offered.

Suddenly, it felt like everything clicked into place and the pressure exploded, making my mind go blank. I gladly surrendered to the rush and my lips parted in a silent moan. Atlas followed a couple of seconds later, thrusting deep inside me and letting out a husky moan.

In the following moment, the only sounds were us breathing quickly, but it was quickly followed by me trying to subdue a breathless laugh.

‘’Do I even want to know why you’re laughing?’’ Atlas sighed and gave my forehead a quick peck before he rolled over and onto his back. He ran a hand through his damp hair and let out a huff.

‘’It’s a good laugh, don’t worry,’’ I chuckled and moved, resting my arms on his chest to keep myself propped up so that I could look at him. Atlas’ post-climax expression was probably one of the best I’d ever seen on him, mainly because he actually looked relaxed for once, but the faint red hue in his cheeks and how dark his eyes were definitely added to its attractiveness.

‘’How?’’ He grumbled while glancing at me and looking rather unconvinced.

‘’Because it was amazing,’’ I hummed while leaning in so that I could kiss him. ‘’I also have a tendency to laugh when I’m happy, so I hope that you’ll excuse me for laughing after having great sex that I’m happy about,’’ I explained and stole another kiss before pulling back to look at him.

‘’… you’re a strange one,’’ he concluded and his expression softened when I started to laugh again.

‘’Really? A strange one? We just had sex and that’s what you choose to call me?’’

‘’Do you want me to repeat myself?’’

His reply made me shake my head, but I still leaned closer to him while smiling. ‘’Sometimes I really question myself why I’m with you.’’

He chuckled at that and snuck his arms around me. ‘’It does seem like an awful decision,’’ he spoke while pulling me closer to him.

‘’Those are usually the fun ones, though,’’ I smirked.

‘’Really?’’

‘’Mhmm,’’ I hummed in agreement and closed the very small gap between us to kiss him. ‘’Feeling better?’’

‘’Yeah… I’m fine…’’ he mumbled, suddenly looking a little embarrassed.

‘’Good.’’ I didn’t comment on his embarrassment, but it did make me smile a little as I leaned in to kiss him again. This time, I let it linger, kissing him soft and slow to hopefully make that blush in his cheeks a little more noticeable. Once I pulled away, I started smiling again when I could see that it had worked, and he undoubtedly knew it as well. ‘’You know, you look pretty cute when you’re blushing.’’

‘’You do not call a grown ass man ‘’cute’’.’’

His sour expression made me laugh. ‘’So, I can’t call you cute, but I can’t call you big guy either. What am I allowed to call you, then? Old man?’’

‘’I have a name, so use that,’’ he told me in a rather displeased tone, and I really had to struggle to keep myself from laughing again. ‘’And I’m not old,’’ he grumbled.

‘’I’m sorry to tell you, but forty is old,’’ I teased.

‘’Fuck off. I’m only thirty-four, you ass.’’

‘’Only thirty-four?’’ I repeated with raised eyebrows. I started laughing when he frowned sternly, and I could tell that he was considering throwing me out the window again.

‘’Why did I agree to this?’’ he sighed, trying to sound madder than he actually was.

‘’Please, I’m the best thing that ever walked into your life,’’ I huffed and attempted to flip my hair over my shoulder, but it was too messy to look even remotely classy.

‘’More like stumbled,’’ he smirked.

‘’Hey.’’

‘’Or fell.’’

I smacked him on the chest to shut him up, but it only made him laugh instead. Hearing that sound made me smile automatically.

‘’You are a horrible, horrible man,’’ I smiled and shook my head at him, internally adoring the happy look on his face.

He looked at me for a moment before he snaked his arms around me while the look on his face softened. ‘’Seems like I’m not horrible enough for you to leave, though,’’ he spoke quietly, making his comment sound less of a joke and more like a question he didn’t want to ask so openly.

‘’Well,’’ I started and ran a hand through his hair, ‘’you have plenty of other good qualities.’’

‘’Not to burst your bubble, but I’m pretty sure that you’re the only one who thinks that.’’

‘’So what?’’ I asked before kissing him. ‘’I’ve never cared what others’ think, so fuck them.’’ He smiled at that, but it wasn’t a regular smile. It was one of relief and vulnerability, and it felt like my heart could burst just from looking at it.

‘’You have a real way with words,’’ he hummed while his eyes found mine.

‘’Why, thank you. See? You can be nice when you want to,’’ I pointed out.

My reply made him huff with a faint smile, ‘’you really are a strange one.’’

‘’But you still like me,’’ I smiled and leaned closer to him.

‘’Now you’re just making assumptions,’’ he replied in a low voice, but I knew that he was just being a tease.

‘’You called Ray an asshole for me, that’s pretty much a declaration of your feelings for me in my book,’’ I teased back.

‘’It doesn’t take much to make you happy, does it?’’ A small smile played on his lips as he asked me, making my heart stutter.

‘’What can I say? I’m a simple girl. Cuss someone out for me and I’m all yours,’’ I shrugged with a smile.

‘’I’ll keep that in mind,’’ he hummed and the small smile grew bigger. Seeing him smile like that made warmth bloom in my chest, and the sensation of it intensified when he closed the small gap between us to kiss me. It was quick but sweet, and it left me smiling when he withdrew. ‘’Now, go back to sleep. There should be a couple of hours before the alarm goes off.’’

‘’You have an alarm on even when we technically don’t have a reason to get up early?’’

‘’Hey, I have a ship to take care of. I can’t be lazy like the rest of you.’’

‘’I feel like I’m allowed to be lazy.’’

‘’Uh-huh.’’

I rolled my eyes at him before I got comfortable next to him. It was hard not to smile and I didn’t try to fight it. Instead, I simply enjoyed the feeling of being so close to him and listened to his steady breathing, which gradually slowed down. With his arms still around me, I closed my eyes and exhaled softly.

He made me feel so safe.

 

Waking up to an alarm had never really sat well with me, and I made that clear by groaning loudly when it interrupted a lovely dream that had just gotten to the good part. Atlas, on the other hand, was not only wide awake but also seemed fine with being woken up by such a horrible sound.

Still a bit groggy, I turned over when I felt him shift beside me. He moved and sat on the edge of the bed, giving me a good chance to admire his back and the muscles that flexed when he stretched, but my attention was stolen away by the black shape on his shoulder blade. I would never have guessed that Atlas would have a tattoo, but it made sense to me once I recognized the shape of it. My chest tightened a little when I studied it. The familiar shape of it reminded me of my father, but I did my best to suppress the uncomfortable feeling before I spoke.

‘’You know, I’m a little impressed by how quickly you can get out of bed.’’

‘’I’m guessing you’re the type that has multiple alarms?’’ He asked and glanced over his shoulder. A small smile appeared when he saw me getting more comfortable with his blanket.

‘’Only five,’’ I admitted and laughed when he shook his head at me, ‘’that’s a completely normal amount!’’

‘’You have pretty shitty self-discipline.’’

‘’Shut up,’’ I smiled and ran a hand through my hair to brush it away from my face.

Atlas chuckled and stood up from the bed, quickly putting on a pair of boxers. When he started to look for some fresh clothes to wear, my glance found its way back to his tattoo. I still felt a little weird about it, but I decided to comment on it either way. ‘’I like it… your tattoo,’’ I commented quietly.

He paused for a second while he stood with his back to me. His hesitation gave me the impression that it was a touchy subject, but he wasn’t the only one who felt like that. ‘’Everyone in the squad got one done,’’ he explained, still not facing me.

It felt like my chest tightened again, and the fact that he stayed with his back to me only made it worse. ‘’Atlas,’’ I started, hoping that saying his name would make him turn around, but he stayed still. ‘’Atlas, please look at me…’’ Finally, he turned around. ‘’If it’s making you uncomfortable to talk about, then we can stop.’’

He hesitated again, but at least he was looking at me this time. Eventually, he sighed before walking over and sat down on the bed. I propped myself up and give his arm a squeeze with my free hand.

‘’We… The Firebirds… it was a good squad, and Will was the best damn leader those pricks in the Union ever had the pleasure of having in their piss poor club,’’ he explained. His anger shined through at the end of the sentence, so I gave him arm another squeeze to comfort him. ‘’The tattoo was his idea…’’

‘’I never saw it,’’ I mumbled, feeling a little odd about not knowing this.

‘’We all got them done a couple of days before the last mission…’’ he spoke quietly and kept his eyes down.

A silence followed as I sat there and took everything in. It was strange to know that Atlas knew my father in ways that I didn’t and that he had seen him the same day that he had disappeared. Even talked to him… It made me jealous in a strange way, and I wasn’t sure what to do with that unpleasant feeling.

‘’You alright?’’ He asked after I had been silent for a while.

I could tell that he was worried about me, and that worry made it easier to deal with the jealousy. ‘’Yeah, I’m-it’s just a bit strange to think that you saw and spoke to him that very day while I hadn’t been able to get in contact with him a for a couple of days,’’ I tried to explain what I was thinking, but it felt like it wasn’t sure how to put it into words. ‘’I’m… I’m kind of jealous of you, I think.’’

Now it was his turn to be silent for a moment, but it seemed like he spent it on choosing his words and not processing what he had been told. ‘’Look, this whole situation is fucked up, and I’m pretty positive that it would be weird to talk about no matter how we did it,’’ he spoke but made a short pause where he simply looked at me. When he started speaking again, his voice was smaller and more uncertain, and he started to rub the back of his neck. ‘’Back when I realized who you were, I wanted to avoid all subjects that had anything to do with this. I’d rather be shot than have to tell you that I knew Will… You know full and well that I don’t like talking about this, but you have a right to know, so I’m not going to deny you of it.’’

My eyes started to burn a little as he spoke. When he had finished, I was at a loss for words, so I acted on my emotions instead. Ignoring the fact that I was still naked, I sat up and moved my arms around him in a tight embrace. He stilled for a second before returning it, taking a moment with me where we just sat there.

‘’I know this isn’t easy for you, trust me, but I don’t know how to properly express how happy I am that you’re talking about it with me. Thank you for telling me,’’ I spoke and tightened my hold on him, ‘’no matter what happens or what anyone says, you’re a good man, Atlas. It’s important to me that you know that.’’

He didn’t say anything, but he embraced me firmer, giving me the impression that my words mattered to him, he just didn’t know what to say. I was more than okay with his silence and simply returned the gesture.

We stayed like that for a long moment, and I kept embracing him firmly to hopefully show him how I felt about him without putting it into words.

Eventually, we let go of each other. Atlas looked a little embarrassed as he headed into the bathroom, mumbling something about having to get ready. Once he was done in the bathroom, I switched places with him, but not before stealing a quick kiss. It prompted the slight blush to reappear, which he didn’t seem too happy about it, but it only left me smiling as I left to take a shower myself. I took my time to get ready before heading to the mess hall. To my surprise, everyone but Atlas was already there, and, as expected, Jaxon looked like he was dying to say something.

‘’Good morning, Tess,’’ Nova greeted me with a smile.

 ‘’Oh, good morning, Tess, did you get up early? I couldn’t find you when I looked for you in the lounge,’’ Jaxon asked with a sly smile.

I shot him a look. He knew full and well that I hadn’t slept there, but he was forcing me to say it in front of the two others as well, and I quickly felt myself getting flustered. ‘’You really don’t waste any time, do you?’’ I sighed and rolled my eyes when he started grinning, ‘’and good morning.’’ I joined them at the table and quickly started to pour myself a cup of coffee. Considering the look on Jaxon’s face, I had a feeling that I would need some caffeine.

‘’What did you expect? You basically marched right out of the place with Atlas in tow.’’

‘’Look, I just got a little carried away last night,’’ I explained.

‘’I think it’s nice that you and Atlas have gotten close,’’ Nova commented before sitting down.

‘’He does seem a little less grumpy,’’ Orion spoke as he helped himself to some coffee as well.

‘’Guys-‘’

‘’I’m so proud of you, Tess. Watching you talk like that to Ray and then just walk off to have some quality alone time with our very own grumpy pilot. It nearly brought a tear to my eye,’’ Jaxon gushed and faked a sniffle as he ruffled my hair, making me groan while trying to push his hand away.

‘’I agree with the part about how you defended yourself. If you want, I can teach you some self-defense,’’ she offered, and I briefly smiled because of her kindness.

‘’Knowing how to defend yourself is never a bad thing,’’ Orion commented, endorsing Nova’s offer with a small nod.

‘’Guys-‘’ I tried again, but was once more interrupted.

‘’Didn’t know we had a morning meeting planned,’’ Atlas spoke as he walked in from the direction of the bridge. He sounded like he knew what was going on and had zero interest in taking part in it.

‘’Atlas! Just the man I wanted to see!’’ Jaxon exclaimed, immediately making Atlas frown.

‘’Who gave him coffee?’’ Atlas grumbled while he walked over and sat down next to me.

While grabbing a mug and filling it with some coffee, he bumped his knee against mine under the table. I tried to hide my smile behind my mug, but I caught Nova looking at me with a soft look on her face. She smiled as well when our eyes met, and I felt myself relax. It was nice knowing that all of them seemed to approve, although I was a little worried that Jaxon’s approval would annoy Atlas to no end.

‘’Oh, look at you two, acting like a couple and everything already, ‘’Jaxon smiled, looking at us like he was witnessing a miracle. In some way, the miracle part did seem a little fitting, but Atlas merely grumbled something in annoyance before taking a sip of his coffee.

‘’We’re literally just sitting next to each other, Jax, so calm down, will you?’’ I sighed.

‘’You’re not fooling me, I see you trying to hide a smile,’’ he replied with a raised eyebrow and a sly smile. ‘’Now, I’m still very interested in knowing what I interrupted back in the lounge,’’ he continued while wiggling his eyebrows at me, making me give him a very pointed look.

‘’Shut up, Jax,’’ Atlas spoke drily, but it didn’t have the desired effect.

‘’Considering what I heard last night, I would have expected you to be less grumpy today.’’

I choked on my coffee.

‘’What in the seven hells were you doing near my room?’’ Atlas asked, being a lot cooler about it than I was while I attempted to recover.

‘’Actually, I wasn’t anywhere near your room, but based on your reactions, my assumption seems to be correct,’’ Jaxon grinned in a way that perfectly portrayed how satisfied he was with how easily he had just conned us.

A blush crept into my cheeks while Nova handed me some napkins. I quickly accepted them and got my coffee spill under control while trying to avoid drawing any more attention to myself.

‘’One more comment and I’m leaving your ass on this shitty planet,’’ Atlas grumbled, but his threat only made Jaxon laugh.

‘’Jaxon, leave them be and get back to preparing breakfast. We have plans for today and I’m starving,’’ Orion spoke before Jaxon could make any more snappy comments.

‘’Fine, ruin my fun,’’ Jaxon laughed before following Orion’s instructions.

Much to my relief, Orion and Nova settled into a conversation about the plans for later and what sort of restocking we had to do before leaving the planet. I wanted to ask how the meeting had gone after Atlas and I had left, but my attention was stolen away by Atlas bumping his knee against mine again. I snuck a glance at him and watched how he casually drank his coffee. Once again, his secret display of affection made me smile, and, despite Jaxon’s comments, I was actually glad that things were out in the open.

Now that we didn’t have to hide it anymore, maybe things could feel a little more normal. Well, as normal as it could be while still dealing with the Empire and working on a plan to blow up a building.

Still, even with all of this going on, I wouldn’t trade it with my old life.

Not after getting to know this crew.

Not after meeting Atlas.

Chapter Text

‘’How’s it looking?’’

‘’Fine so far. There are some wires that should be replaced, but it’s nothing that needs to be done immediately. Besides that, the plating covering some of the vital parts could use some replacing.’’

‘’Good. Come down and help me when you’ve closed her up again.’’

I finished checking some of the wires that ran inside the hull of the ship, making sure that all of them had been plugged in correctly before closing the panel and securing the screws. Once that was done, I scooted to the edge of the Promise and glanced down. Atlas was already waiting for me to jump down from his beloved starship, but I took a few seconds to appreciate the sight of him.

We’d been working on checking and fixing the outside of the ship while the others had gone out to get supplies. Honestly, I had really wanted to go with them, but I wasn’t about to skip out on the chance of seeing Atlas doing some manual labor in a very hot spaceport. Much to my satisfaction, he had removed his jacket pretty quickly, allowing me to get a good look at his upper body now that he was only wearing the tight black shirt.

‘’Stars, thank you for creating this idiot,’’ I mumbled and took a deep breath to ready myself.

‘’Are you going to sit up there all day or what?’’ Atlas asked, smiling a little smugly as he looked up at me.

‘’I’m staying up here until you look ready to catch my ass,’’ I replied, making him snort loudly.

‘’How the hell do you look ready? You want me to throw my arms out?’’

‘’Well, now that you’ve said it…’’ I laughed.

‘’We all want something we can’t have. Now get your ass down here.’’

‘’Come on, don’t be so boring,’’ I teased and shimmied for a couple of seconds, hoping that it would somehow convince him, but it seemed to have the opposite effect. Giving me a rather unimpressed look, he turned around like he was about to walk away, making me laugh and call out, ‘’fine! Stay still then!’’

He moved back to the spot he had just been in and watched as I scootched closer to the edge. Once there, I glanced at him, waiting on him to gesture that he was ready before I gently pushed myself off the edge. Sure enough, Atlas caught me without any trouble, locking his arms moved around my waist to secure me as he lowered me to the ground.

Knowing that we were somewhat hidden on this side of the ship, I stayed close to him and smirked while I snaked my arms around his neck. ‘’Well, hello handsome,’’ I spoke in a low voice and let my eyes rest on his lips for a moment before finding his eyes.

‘’You never take a break, do you?’’ He huffed, doing his best not to smile but he couldn’t fully stop it.

‘’I have an incredibly attractive man in front of me, so why would I not tell him?’’ I smiled, watching as he started to blush because of my flattery.

His reply was a deep hum while leaning down, catching my lips with his own and drawing me closer to him. It was sweet but short, and it left me wanting more when he pulled back. Nevertheless, I let him slip out of my hold and watched how he cleared his throat before getting back to work. The blush still lingered in his cheeks, a faint reminder of how easily my words could make it appear.

‘’I need your help,’’ he spoke and gestured to the open hatch next to us.

‘’What? Are your hands too big to reach something?’’ I joked, referencing the last few times where he had asked for my help. I knew the man was protective of his ship, but he really wasn’t good at asking for help, and, so far, I had mainly come in handy when he needed to reach something in a small space.

He merely grunted as a reply while he approached the hatch, staring at it as if it had personally insulted him.

I hid a small laugh before joining him, ‘’so, what’s the problem?’’

‘’The shield’s been a mess since… since the shit episode with Tyberius, and I’ve managed to track the problem to the outer power relay, but that’s where my expertise stops,’’ he explained, somehow both acknowledging what happened back then with the Empire while also downplaying it.

‘’What happened after that shit episode?’’ I asked and looked up at him, realizing that I’d never asked him about what they had done or how he had fixed the shields. I could tell that he was avoiding looking at me when his eyes focused on the ground. His hand moved to the nape of his neck, rubbing it while he chose his words.

‘’Pricks trashed the main console inside before taking off, so we couldn’t follow them when they took off with you. We were stranded in space for a week while I got that and the shield fixed, but Jax was looking for you from the start, so at least he was useful for once,’’ he scoffed and stood for a second before running a hand through his hair. ‘’I’m guessing the reason that they actually let us go was because of something you did?’’ he asked and finally looked at me.

‘’I promised Tyberius that I wouldn’t be trouble if he let you guys go… I didn’t know that they wrecked anything.’’

‘’You couldn’t have,’’ he spoke quietly and looked back at the hatch, ‘’I used your blueprint on your tablet to fix the shield, but I’m not an engineer like you so I’m stuck.’’

I followed his glance and studied the panel for a bit. ‘’Well, I can see why it’s acting up,’’ I commented before moving closer, pushing the open panel aside to look at the wiring behind it.

‘’Are you insulting my ship?’’ Atlas asked in a grumble.

‘’I’m just saying that there’s a gap in generations,’’ I laughed and started to go through the mess. ‘’You can be my pretty assistant again and hand me my tablet.’’ I looked up at him and winked at him. He scoffed and shook his head, but he gave me the tablet without any complaints.

He watched me as I worked, playing the role as my assistant while also keeping an eye on what I was doing. At first, I wasn’t entirely sure if he did so to make sure that I wasn’t messing with his ship, or if he was simply interested in watching and learning a bit, but as time progressed, it felt like it was the second option. The feeling only seemed more valid when he started asking me questions.

‘’Mind telling me what you’re doing right now?’’ He asked me while his glance was focused on the wires I was currently twisting around each other.

‘’I’m twisting them together because these Cera wires have a tendency to break if they’re not supported by something, and since they’re too short to reach the sides of inside of the panel, I’m twisting them together,’’ I explained while moving a little to the side so that he could see what I was doing.

He moved closer to me when I started the next step. I glanced up at him for a second and noticed how focused he was on following my fingers as they moved, clearly interested. Smiling a little to myself, I kept talking and explained what I was doing step for step. While it was nice explaining my work to someone interested, I took a little comfort in teaching him more about the shield upgrade, just so that he would know what to do in case anything happened later.

I didn’t want the crew to be stranded again, especially not if I wasn’t there.

‘’Oh, look at you two, fixing the ship together,’’ Jaxon spoke happily, his voice catching us both off guard.

We both glanced up to see him approaching us while looking like a proud parent. Ray and Orion were with him, and Ray was already wearing a smile that made him look like an asshole when our eyes met. I rolled my eyes at him and focused on Jaxon instead.

‘’Are you just here to comment on what we’re doing or do you actually need something?’’ I asked. My tone did little to hide that I was a little annoyed to be interrupted.

‘’Actually-‘’

‘’We need you and your pretty hands,’’ Ray spoke up, drawing my attention back to him.

‘’You don’t need her for anything, prick,’’ Atlas spoke while sending Ray a sharp look before switching to Orion, ‘’why is he even here? I’m not letting this ass on my ship.’’

‘’I’m here because you need my ships, big guy,’’ Ray answered before Orion could, his smile broadening when Atlas frowned.

‘’Call me that one more time and-‘’ Atlas started, clearly ready to give Ray a piece of his mind, but Orion cut him off before he could say anything more. He gritted his teeth when Orion said his name in a hard tone, and I could easily see how the muscles in his jaw tensed.

‘’Whatever this is about, I’ll talk to you when this is done and I’ve taken a shower, alright?’’ I put an end to the conversation with a sigh, not interested in this potentially going wrong because of the two idiots.

‘’No problem. Come and find us when you’re ready, yeah?’’ Jaxon spoke, trying to lighten the mood a little.

Ray simply shrugged before starting to walk off, shooting a glance in Atlas’ direction as he walked into the ship. Jaxon quickly followed him, mouthing what looked like ‘sorry’ to me before disappearing inside. Orion let out a small sigh before following the two.

Atlas had already started muttering several insults the very second Ray had stepped out of his view, and he even included some curse words that I’d never heard before. I let out a huff and turned my attention to him, my glance immediately drawn to the very obvious lines in his forehead. The sight nearly made me frown as well. Instead, I elbowed him in the side to get his attention.

‘’Alright, big guy, let’s get this finished.’’

‘’Tess, I swear-‘’

‘’I know, I know,’’ I laughed and leaned closer to him, ‘’look, Ray’s an asshole, we all know that, but we need his ships, so maybe tone it down a bit with the very obvious hostility?’’

‘’He’s an asshole? He groped you,’’ he reminded me, still frowning severely.

‘’Trust me, I remember that just fine. My point is, I want to get this Empire business over and done with, and we need his stupid ships to get all the people off that fucking thing. I want him gone as much as you do, but I also want this to proceed and not have to wait for Jaxon to find another solution. So let’s just suck it up like grownups, okay?’’ I asked after explaining myself.

His frown eased a tiny bit, but it was obvious that he wasn’t okay with it. We kept eye contact while he made up his stubborn mind, eventually breaking it to look down while muttering something beneath his breath.

I kept my eyes on him and nearly sighed when the frown on his face stayed there like it was carved in stone. ‘’Atlas,’’ I hummed his name while moving closer to him, making him look at me again as I stepped into his personal space. I put my arms around his neck and drew him closer to me, maintaining eye contact with him.

He made a small noise of approval while he moved his arms around me, accepting my embrace. ‘’What’s this about?’’ He asked quietly, his tone lacking the usual grumpiness.

‘’You looking like a grumpy old man,’’ I told him, making him huff.

He looked like he was about to agree with me for a second, but he settled on pulling me closer to him instead, earning a smile from me. ‘’You should know full and well that I don’t care about shitty people, especially not stopping myself from telling them how shitty they are.’’

‘’Oh, I know,’’ I laughed, ‘’and I usually like that hobby of yours, but with this particular shitty person, you’re just going to have to settle with telling me about it.’’

‘’You’re really asking a lot of me here,’’ he hummed and leaned closer to me.

‘’I firmly believe that you co do it.’’ I smiled and tiptoed, barely keeping myself from stealing a kiss.

‘’You might be putting too much faith in me.’’

‘’Well, I’m a person full of hope and eager to believe in your ability to keep your mouth shut,’’ I explained, tilting my head a bit to the side to look more convincing.

‘’I make no promises,’’ he declared with the ghost of a teasing smile playing on his lips, telling me that his mood had gotten a little better.

‘’You’re by far the most stubborn man I’ve ever met,’’ I sighed.

‘’I do my best,’’ he hummed, sending a faint chill down my spine while he leaned the last few inches closer to me, catching my lips with his own. He kissed me softly, leaving me to sigh approvingly before he pulled away.

‘’Just say that you’ll try, please?’’ I asked while sliding my hands down his shoulders to his chest.

‘’Fine, I’ll try not to tell him how big an asshole he is. Happy now?’’

‘’Very,’’ I replied with a smile before kissing him.

Despite him agreeing to try, I was a little doubtful whether or not he would actually be able to keep his opinion to himself. Even so, I didn’t push it further and went back to finish working on the shield. His mood seemed better, but it took another dive when we walked inside the Promise and found the group sitting in the lounge. Jaxon and Orion both kept the discussion going while I grabbed Atlas’ hand, pulling him with me as I walked straight to his room.

‘’You don’t have to pull me along like I’m some child,’’ he commented once the door closed behind us.

‘’Maybe I just like to hold your hand,’’ I replied with a shrug before letting our hands slide apart. Atlas grunted while he sat down at his desk, quickly finding something to fiddle with, while I continued inside the bathroom. Knowing they were waiting for me, I quickly stripped and got into the shower.

Once in there, I took a moment where I just appreciated the sensation of the water streaming down my body. Right then, I didn’t think about the Empire, Caine, or the ordeal with my father. I let my mind come to a small pause where it simply focused on the sensation of the warm water. Exhaling heavily, I finished up and stepped outside to dry myself off with a towel. Halfway through getting dressed, my thoughts were just about to return to their usual stressful subject when I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror.

The sight made me pause.

Standing there in just my underwear, I had a perfect view of the part of my body that I had tried to avoid looking at. The red scar on my right side stood out against my skin, acting as a grim reminder of how serious things had gotten since I’d left my colony. I had scars from working and from my childhood, but this one was big and circular, and the scar tissue was still fresh, making it look like I’d been branded by my current circumstances.

Branded by the Empire…

I ran my fingers over it, feeling the uneven skin when it knocked on the door. Atlas called my name, but I had trouble looking away from it while my mind starting to work itself into the dark pit that had formed in the back of it.

Even if we managed to stop Caine and his project, wouldn’t it just give them more reason to chase us and further provoke Tyberius?

Would it make us wanted criminals?

Would we ever have a chance to live normal lives?

Would all of this ever stop?

The thoughts turned more persistent, drowning out the sound of Atlas knocking on the door and calling my name again. Then, somehow, all of them focused on one idea, on one conclusion that made me catch my breath when it suddenly felt hard to breathe.

I could have died.

I could easily have died by the hand of the Empire.

A pair of hands grabbed my shoulders and turned my upper body, forcing me to look away from the scar in the mirror. Dark green eyes found mine, the worry in them pushing a bit of clarity into my head, acting like a beacon of light in the midst of all the darkness.

‘’Hey, Tess, it’s alright, just focus on me. I’m right here,’’ Atlas spoke softly, but I could hear the slight stress in his tone. His hands moved up and framed my face while I tried to get my panicked breathing under control again. ‘’Relax, it’s alright,’’ he continued in a low voice, soothing me like I did whenever he had a nightmare.

‘’I’m okay… I just spaced out,’’ I explained, well knowing that it wasn’t the truth, but I didn’t feel like dealing with it. Not when I knew that the others were waiting.

‘’Bullshit,’’ he scoffed, ‘’it looked like you were about to have a panic attack, so don’t stand there and lie to me.’’ His tone was a bit harsh, but there was no denying the worry in it.

‘’Sorry…’’ I mumbled, casting my eyes down to escape the intensity in his, but I had to look back up when he said my name.

‘’Tess, I’m not… Seven hells, I’m not as good at this as you are, but you’re making me worried here. What’s going on?’’

I couldn’t look away from him as I hesitated to answer him. He already had so much to deal with on his own, so a part of me wanted to downplay it or even lie to make it easier for him, but I knew keeping it from him would only worsen things later on. I pressed my lips into a thin line while I considered my words, trying to make sense of what had just happened in my head.

‘’I… I’m scared, Atlas… I need to finish this, but I’m scared that it’ll only make things worse, and I don’t know what to do with that feeling,’’ I explained, my hands grabbing a fistful of his shirt to make me feel like I had anchored myself to him.

His reaction was to move his hands to my waist and pull me into a tight embrace. He leaned his cheek against the side of my head and took a deep breath before speaking, ‘’I know things are shitty right now, believe me, but it’s usually not as crazy as this. Just stick with me and you’re going to be fine, got it?’’ He comforted me in a low, soft voice.

In a way, I would never have pictured Atlas to be able to comfort someone like this, not when he had seemed so closed-off at first, but, now, after knowing what he’d gone through and still struggles with, he knew what it was like.

So I tightened my embrace around him, taking advantage of being able to do surround myself with his presence and scent to calm myself. He allowed me to stay there until I finally pulled myself away from him. He looked down at me when I moved, making our eyes meet briefly while I stood up on tiptoes so that I could kiss him. It was long and soft, and another wave of comfort rushed over me as he hummed against my lips and further tightened his hold around me. We kissed again and again, each one softer and more fragile than the last as we sought the comfort the other offered.

It reminded me of how strongly I felt about him, and once again I could taste the word on my tongue, but it wasn’t the time to say it. Instead, I prolonged the vulnerable moment for a little longer, letting myself be comforted by the only man in the universe that I’d ever felt this fulfilling sensation of love for.

By the time we parted, his hands were framing my face like I was something fragile he was afraid to break. My own had moved up and around his neck, keeping him close to me as we stayed close.

‘’Better?’’ He asked in a low hum.

‘’Yeah, thanks,’’ I replied and gave his shoulders a squeeze before my hands slid down to his chest.

His thumbs caressed my cheeks like he was wiping away invisible tears while having the softest look in his eyes that I’d ever seen. It made me feel like I could melt into a puddle right then and there, and I couldn’t keep myself from smiling like I was in one of those cheesy romance novels that my friend Lana always made me read.

‘’Good,’’ he hummed again before leaning in, kissing me yet again.

Honestly, he was a lot better at comforting than he gave himself credit for.

 

Thirty minutes later, I was dressed and had joined the others in the lounge with Atlas by my side.

‘’That’s it…? That’s the plan…?’’

‘’For now, yes,’’ Orion answered my question, making me frown in slight disbelief.

‘’Bombs… you want me to build bombs…’’ I repeated while my glance shifted between each person sitting across from me.

‘’You want that building destroyed? Then you’re going to have to do something drastic,’’ Ray explained.

‘’We’re on the shadiest planet in the universe; tell me why we can’t just buy explosives here?’’ Atlas asked.

‘’Ever since the Empire busted the smuggling ring in the inner systems two months ago, anything that can easily be made into explosives is impossible to come by,’’ Jaxon informed us.

‘’So, you want me to build a bomb instead? You do all realize that I fix spaceships and have never built a bomb, right?’’

‘’Maybe, but you and me both know that there are several parts of a ship’s engine that can be turned into one,’’ Ray answered my question before any of the others could, forcing the conversation into a pregnant pause while he and I simply looked at each other. After a moment, he leaned in, placing his elbows on his knees. ‘’An energy core can be manipulated to overcharge and explode, and it can be fitted with a timer.’’

‘’If you know that then why don’t you simply build them?’’ Atlas asked beside me, his tone clearly expressing how little he desired to be here, let alone talking to Ray.

‘’Because it requires skilled hands and knowledge of how energy cores work,’’ Ray explained with a smile and reached for his drink. ‘’I’ve seen these things work. If this place is as big as you’ve described, they’ll do the trick just fine,’’ he continued before tasting his drink.

‘’Purchasing energy cores would also draw a lot less attention than explosives,’’ Orion mentioned from his spot in the chair.

‘’And we can easily get them here,’’ Jaxon spoke as he glanced up from his tablet.

I remained silent while the others started to discuss the situation and how they would solve the problem with moving all the people. What Ray said was true. Energy cores could be manipulated to explode, and, in theory, I knew how to do it, but I only had experience with keeping them stabilized and secure. Besides having no experience with it, was this even something that I wanted to be associated with? Building the bombs to destroy a giant Empire building?

‘’Tess,’’ Atlas murmured my name, easily drawing my attention to him. He’d leaned closer to me while I was busy with slightly panicking. ‘’Are you alright with this?’’

His question made me visibly hesitate before deciding on an answer. ‘’No…’’ I replied in a whisper, keeping my voice low so that only Atlas could hear me.

‘’Then tell them that you don’t want to be involved in that shit.’’

‘’It doesn’t sound like there’s an alternative, and I want this thing to be over with.’’

‘’No one can force you to do it and I don’t want you to do something that you’re going to regret.’’ The look in his eyes softened as he spoke, giving me no reason to doubt what he was saying. His words eased the tension in my shoulders, but I still felt like I couldn’t deny having any part in the mission when I wanted it finished so badly.

‘’You’ve been awfully quiet, Tess. Are you against the idea?’’ Orion asked me once he noticed the secret discussion I and Atlas were having.

My glance shifted to Orion for a second before going back to Atlas, noticing how he was now frowning at me. I didn’t want to say a simple yes or no, but I knew that he would be annoyed with me if I didn’t speak my mind. ‘’I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea, no, but I’m mainly just wondering if there really isn’t any alternatives?’’

‘’Not if you want this project destroyed within a month,’’ Ray replied with a shrug.

‘’Look, Tess, we all know that this is a lot to ask from you, but I’ve asked around and tried to pull some strings, but none of my contacts are willing to sell or lend us anything because of the current situation. If we don’t come up with something ourselves, this isn’t going to happen until we find another engineer or someone else starts smuggling explosive materials again,’’ Jaxon told me. He looked tired for once, telling me that he really had done everything he could to try to give us more options.

‘’We also have to consider the fact that the Empire’s still working on this weapon. The longer we wait, the more time they have to finish it, and we still have no information about what they’re going to do with a weapon this size,’’ Orion reminded us.

Orion’s words made me look down, my glance focusing on watching my fingers fidget with the hem of my blouse. Both he and Jaxon were right. If we wanted this possible threat to be neutralized before it could turn into a real problem, then something had to be done now. To make this scenario even more stressful, I was the only one who could build what we needed.

Out of all things, why’d it have to be bombs?

Sighing, I ran a hand through my hair before looking back up at the three men in front of me. Jaxon looked relieved when our eyes met, but it didn’t make me feel any better about my decision. Looking at Orion instead, I took a quick breath before speaking, ‘’fine. Let’s give the Empire another reason to want our heads on a plate.’’

Out of the corner of my eye, I could tell that Atlas was shaking his head in disapproval, but, honestly, there were bigger things at stake than my personal feelings, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to relax properly before that weapon was reduced to junk floating in space, waiting to be picked clean by scavengers.

Still, despite rationalizing my decision, the words left a bad taste in my mouth, and it only intensified when the others started to discuss buying the needed energy cores.

Atlas was right.

I was going to regret this.

Chapter Text

Atlas’ hadn’t only been right about me regretting saying yes to convert the energy cores into bombs, he was also very clearly pissed about me not listening to him.

 

It was the day after, and I’d placed myself in the lounge to get away from everyone, including Atlas. He was very obviously not pleased with my decision and he did little to hide it, which really wasn’t what I needed. It drove me to remove myself from his vicinity, almost hiding in the lounge as I started to work on the blueprints of the improvised bomb.

The bad taste in my mouth had never really gone away. Instead, it only intensified as I worked, gradually turning into a small pit in my stomach while more and more numbers and information were added to the blueprints. I could feel it grow as I started to run the first simulations, but I did my best to ignore it and stay focused on figuring out how big the explosions should roughly be.

However, when I could tell that I was starting to get close to the solution some hours later, I could no longer ignore the pit that felt like it was about to eat me up from the inside. I let out a groan in frustration and pushed the tablet away from me.

I’d never built or repaired anything that I wasn’t proud of and I’d never even touched a project against my will. Doing this, sketching blueprints and running simulations for something that most of me didn’t want to be involved with, it was a horrible feeling that I wasn’t quite sure what to do with.

Right as I was about to groan again, someone walked into the lounge behind me.

‘’I sense a troubled heart within my vicinity.’’ Jaxon announced his presence by talking and his happy tone actually made me feel a little more relaxed.

His remark, however, made me snort loudly.

‘’Sounds like I hit the nail right on the head,’’ he spoke while moving and sat down next to me.

‘’Atlas’ being a giant jerk,’’ I sighed.

‘’What? No, that can’t be,’’ Jaxon grinned and nearly laughed when he saw my sour expression.

‘’Fuck off.’’

‘’Oh come on,’’ he laughed, ‘’he’s just being himself. You should know by now that he isn’t good at talking and dealing with situations like these. Probably made some dumb mistake and now he doesn’t want you to do the same.’’

‘’Acting like an ass isn’t the best way to make me see his side,’’ I huffed and ran a hand through my hair, ‘’besides, he can’t sit there and decide which decisions I’m going to regret.’’

‘’Well… are you regretting it?’’

His question made me look at him. The grin was gone and replaced by an expression that was calm and understanding, almost as if he was already expecting me to say yes. I thought about my words for a moment before speaking.

‘’Honestly, I don’t know if I’m allowed to call it regret when I still think that have to do it… I don’t want to do this, Jax, I know that, but I can’t sit here and do nothing to make this end.’’

‘’Tess-‘’

‘’I can’t afford to say that I don’t want to, not with something as important as this.’’

He looked at me for a while before sighing. ‘’I know this isn’t an easy thing to do, but I admire you for doing it anyway. As for Atlas, he’s probably just worried about you.’’

‘’He has a shitty way of showing it then.’’

‘’Tess, he’s shitty at almost anything that involves human interaction,’’ he laughed.

His comment made me smile to myself but I still gave him a pointed look. ‘’He’s getting better.’’

‘’Well, it is hard to get worse at something when you’re already at the bottom.’’ He winked at me and stared laughing again when I threw a pillow at him, hitting him square in the face.

‘’You’re worst.’’ I smiled and considered throwing another pillow, but I merely shook my head at him instead.

‘’Probably, but you’re smiling again, though,’’ he replied while throwing the pillow back at me. Satisfied with his work, he got up from the couch and moved to the bar where he grabbed himself a beer. ‘’Now, you gonna be fine on your own? I have some guns that I need to work on.’’

‘’I swear, if you’re referring to-‘’

‘’I’m talking about these beautiful but deadly guns,’’ he declared while flexing his arms with a smug grin, clearly enjoying how he made me groan loudly.

‘’Just leave already,’’ I laughed and watched as he waved at me before exiting the room and disappeared down the hallway, towards his room.

Shaking my head at him, my glance moved back down to my tablet, but even after the talk with Jaxon I still wasn’t ready to continue. Instead, I got up and walked to the bar. Having a drink to calm down to didn’t sound like a bad idea, especially not when I felt the pit from before starting to open up in my stomach again, like it was waiting for me to start thinking about it again.

So, to keep myself occupied for just a little longer, I opened the cabinet and glanced inside, hoping to find something that would fulfill my needs. Despite still being a bit mad at Atlas, I recalled his statement about whiskey solving everything. Not caring about his reaction, I specifically searched for the one he had served me a couple of days ago and smiled a little once I found it. Just as I started to pour myself a glass, someone else walked into the lounge.

‘’I see you’re helping yourself,’’ Atlas commented as he walked up next to me and grabbed a glass for himself.

‘’You were the one who said that it solved everything,’’ I huffed, lacking my usual amused tone whenever I made a joke or reply like that.

‘’I told you that you were going to regret agreeing to it,’’ he reminded me with a grumpy tone while I tasted my drink.

His words had me gripping my glass harder out of a mixture of annoyance and frustration. Hearing ’I told you so’ really wasn’t something that I needed.

‘’I’m not going to sit here be useless, Atlas,’’ I replied in a harsh tone that clearly showed how I was feeling right then.

‘’Disagreeing to build bombs doesn’t make you useless.’’ He’d matched my tone as he spoke. If it had been said differently, his words could have been reassuring and comforting to hear, but as we stood there, not looking at each other, they only acted as a fuel for the rapidly building tension between us.

When I looked up at him and our eyes met, I briefly thought about how quickly our dynamic had changed, but my frustration with him only increased when I saw the stubborn expression he was wearing. It felt like he just wanted me to admit that he was right, but I wasn’t about to do that without also giving him a piece of my mind about his behavior.

‘’Right now it does! You heard what’s going on right now. No materials are being smuggled and we can’t get our hands on any finished explosives, so what else can we do? We can’t afford to sit here and wait! It’s already been a week and we have no information about what Caine’s currently doing. So, yes, saying no to build these damn things would have made me useless, and that’s the last thing I want to be!’’ I explained angrily. I couldn’t keep myself from raising my voice, but it felt like he wasn’t actually listening to what I was saying. Instead, he fixated on one problem without considering the consequence, and it was driving me crazy.

‘’Fuck the materials and the lack of information! Stopping the Empire’s shit show is not your sole responsibility, Tess!’’

‘’If it’s not my responsibility, then whose is it? I don’t see anyone else trying to stop it, and no one else can build bombs, so I guess that I can add that to my resume if I actually survive all of this!’’

‘’So… what? You want me to just stand here and watch you do shit that you’re going to regret because you have a fucked up sense of responsibility?’’ His eyes had narrowed as he spoke and he’d crossed his arms over his chest, becoming defensive.

‘’No! I want you to support me in my decision, no matter how shitty you think it is!’’ I yelled, immensely frustrated. ‘’I don’t want to do this and I already feel like something is eating me up from the inside, but there is no one else, Atlas! I’m literally the only one here capable of doing this, so I’m going to do it so that we can stop whatever they’re planning to do. Why can’t you just pretend support that?!’’

‘’Because I don’t want you to!’’ He yelled while looking as frustrated as me.

‘’Can you for once not be a stubborn jerk?! You’re only making me feel worse about this and that’s the last thing I need right now!’’

‘’I don’t want you to make a fucked up decision that you’re going to regret for the rest of your life!’’

‘’And what makes you such a specialist on this matter?! Because you did that yourself?!’’ I blurted out, not thinking about what I was saying before it was too late.

‘’Yes!’’ He replied immediately and kept my glance locked by his own intense one.

Neither of us said another word as we stood there, processing everything that had just happened. After a short moment, it seemed like Atlas realized what he’d said, and he quickly looked away from me before I could see the crack in his invisible wall. If I’d been any less angry, I would have said something to try to diffuse the tension, but I was too frustrated with him and his stubbornness.

So, instead of saying anything, I grabbed his hand and pulled him with me as I walked. I wanted this discussion over and done with, but I wasn’t about to do anymore yelling in the lounge. Surprisingly, he didn’t object to me leading him out of the lounge and into his room in silence, presumably agreeing with my decision to move this somewhere more private. Once inside, I dropped his hand and turned around, looking straight up at him.

‘’Listen here, I’m done with yelling at you and trying to avoid you because you’re pissing me off, so let’s get this discussion over and done with,’’ I spoke, my voice flat and annoyed.

‘’Listen to you, finally talking some sense,’’ he commented drily.

‘’At least I’m making an effort here to solve this.’’

‘’You want a fucking medal for that?’’ he snorted.

‘’You’re by far the most stubborn, infuriating man I’ve ever spent my time on!’’ I declared.

‘’Like you’re one to talk, acting like a kid who has no idea what the hell she just agreed to,’’ he scoffed, giving me a challenging look that made my pulse quicken and ignited a fire in my stomach, fueled by frustration and how downright attractive he looked while pissed off.

‘’I’m not the one acting like an asshole here,’’ I replied while stepping closer to him and poking him in the chest.

‘’Really?  You’re being an idiot by not listening to me,’’ he replied in a low tone, nearly sounding like a growl that quickened my heartrate while stepping closer to me, minimizing the little space between us and forcing me to further crane my neck back to look him in the eye. His body almost touched mine and his scent and presence invaded my system, further arousing the fire that flared through me, but I tried my best to ignore it.

‘’I swear to every single star out there, you’re impossible to argue with!’’ I huffed loudly, feeling an intense need to do something with the pent-up frustration.

‘’No shit, it’s really not an activity that I recommend,’’ he snorted, watching me as I rolled my eyes at him.

I was immensely pissed at him while also wishing that he would pick me up and take me on the nearest surface like he pleased. The thought had my eyes flickering down to his lips for a brief moment, imagining them against my skin before his teeth would mark me as his. When our eyes met again, there was a subtle change in his. Even if it’d only been for a second, he’d seen how distracted I’d been by admiring his lips, but he didn’t say anything or move. Instead, the look in his eyes gave me the impression that he was silently challenging me to do it.

Without any further hesitation, I closed the short distance between us, using some of my frustration to kiss him hard and insisting. He responded immediately, kissing me back with the same intensity while his hands gripped my waist and drove my body against his. I’d never kissed anyone while being angry with them, but I quickly settled into a method that was rough but passionate, allowing me to express how I felt about him while getting it out of my system.

He uttered a faint moan when I caught his bottom lip with my teeth, the sound of it sending a bolt of electricity through my body. I took advantage of his parted lip, seeking his tongue with my own while I snaked my arms around his neck and drew myself closer to him. His hands left my waist to slide down and grab my cheeks with his large hands, using the position to drive our hips together so that I could feel how aroused he was.

I broke the kiss to mutter a ‘fuck’ beneath my breath, using the opportunity to catch some air and find his gaze with my own. I would never get tired of seeing how his eyes darkened when he was aroused, but seeing how he was still looking somewhat pissed off only made it better. Given the mood of the situation, I felt the need to tell him exactly what I wanted from him while keeping eye contact.

‘’I want you to fuck me, Atlas, and I want you to do it hard and rough. Think you can do that?’’ I asked him with a challenging smirk playing on my lips. Watching how my request had him suck in a sharp breath while his eyes filled with a look that couldn’t be described as anything less than exhilarating, was absolutely amazing.

Almost immediately, his lips sought mine with a newfound hunger that kept me occupied when he easily picked me up and placed me on the nearest surface. If things had gone more slowly, I would have taken the time to laugh at the fact that he had chosen his half cluttered desk, but, considering how he was keeping my body against his while kissing me like his hunger for me would never be sated, I didn’t think twice about it.

Instead, I moaned his name when he finally gave me the chance, encouraging him as his lips moved down my throat. His teeth quickly replaced them, making me draw a sharp breath while my fingers gripped his shoulders. He had my pulse racing when he drew away to pull my top off me, discarding it on the floor as he moved on to ridding me of my bra. As soon as I was bare chested, his hands and mouth got busy with touching and tasting me. He seemed completely disinterested with teasing me and went straight to the point, easily making me moan longingly when his mouth focused on my right nipple first.

It was easy to tell that he was doing what I had asked of him. His fingers dug into my skin as if he felt a need to keep me exactly where he wanted me while he marked it like he would never have the chance again. He applied the right amount of pressure, making me gasp and shudder on the table as he somehow knew exactly how rough he could be without taking the pleasure out of the experience.

Easing my tight grip on his shoulders, I started working on sliding the jacket off him, but he pushed me backwards, leaving me on my back while he shrugged it off himself. Wanting to give him a little show as he undressed himself, I cupped my breasts and squeezed them together, playing with them while his eyes ran over me like I was a meal he was admiring before devouring it.

With his jacket, suspenders, and T-shirt taken care of, his hands found their way back to me, this time hastily working on getting the last pieces of my clothes off. In one swift pull, both my pants and underwear were gone, causing me to take a sharp breath when I suddenly felt a bit exposed. However, I had little time to feel like that. His fingers quickly moved down to touch me while he leaned closer and trailed my cleavage with his lips.

‘’Someone’s excited,’’ he commented with a husky voice when he felt how much I craved him.

I wanted to make a snappy comment but a moan forced it way past my lips when he pushed to fingers into me and curled them against the spot he knew would prevent me from saying anything than a low ‘fuck’. His thump started to circle my clit, leaving me to moan and arch my back, desperate for more of his touch.

His teeth nipped at my skin before he drew away to watch me with his dark eyes, narrowing them when he coaxed a longing whimper out of me. The burning desire in his eyes kick-started a fire in my stomach, rushing through my body with each little movement his fingers made, feeling like it was completely out of my control.

‘’Tell me again,’’ he spoke in a low, deep voice that was thick with arousal, while his other hand grabbed the edge of the desk next to my head so that he could lean in over me, ‘’tell me again what you want me to do to you.’’ His voice was like pure fuel, making the fire in my veins burn hotter as it rushed through me, gathering in my lower stomach.

‘’Fuck me,’’ I gasped and locked eyes with him, ‘’I want you to fuck me.’’

‘’How?’’ He asked in a low growl, his fingers making me moan as they brought me closer and closer to climax.

‘’Hard, like you mean it,’’ I answered after taking a quick breath to keep my voice steady. I had to moan right after I said the last word when he found just the perfect spot. ‘’Yes, right there!’’ I gasped and tossed my head back, breaking eye contact with him.

‘’How bad do you want it?’’ His damp breath hit my throat as he spoke, followed by his lips and teeth while his fingers focused exactly where I needed them to. ‘’Tell me,’’ he growled against my skin, causing me to take a sharp breath when his teeth sunk into it. His voice and fingers had me so close to the edge that I could hardly keep myself still, desperate to be undone by him.

‘’Bad,’’ I moaned, ‘’so fucking bad, Atlas!’’ My hand went up at grabbed his wrist in desperation, holding on to him as I finally fell. My lips parted in a breathless moan while the sensation rushed through me, consuming me completely. The following moment, all I could hear was my quick breathing and my pulse drumming in my ears while the aftermath slowly burned through my system. However, it wasn’t allowed to linger for long.

His free hand ran down my thigh before it moved to his pants, rekindling my desire when I heard him unzip them. Looking at him, I sought his eyes with mine and smirked once they met.

‘’Come on, Flyboy, show me what you can do.’’

He matched my smirk with one of his own, nearly making me forget how to breathe because of how downright attractive he looked. If we weren’t already in the middle of it, I would have jumped him right then and there. Instead, I got to bite my lip in excitement as both of his hands grabbed my thighs and pulled me closer to him, positioning me so that he could push into me, burrowing himself inside me with one, deep thrust.

The satisfaction of being filled by him had me moaning like it was a sensation I had lived without for years. His nails bit into my thighs as they kept me in place while he took me harder than he’d done before, fulfilling my wish right from the beginning. The rapid drumming of my pulse filled my ears along with the sounds of our bodies colliding, my own moans, and Atlas’ quick breathing, creating a mix of sounds that had my mind come to a stop.

My left hand went to grip the edge of the table, helping to keep myself somewhat still as he thrust into me. My teeth sank into my lip while my head fell back, and I had to curse loudly when he angled his hips perfectly, striking a spot that erased every single thought in my head and replaced them all with a haze that coated everything in pleasure.

I wanted to praise him and explain to him in detail how amazing and exceptional he felt, like something I’d never experienced before but wanted to have every single day the rest of my life, but anything that was more than one simple word was impossible for me to say, let alone construct into a sentence that would make any sense. Instead, I did nothing to stop or muffle my moans, letting him hear my satisfaction loud and clear through them.

‘’Hard enough for you?’’ His voice was husky and thick with desire, and his tone told me that he was definitively taking pleasure in having me like this.

‘’Yes!’’ I gasped, unable to go into detail about it, but he seemed satisfied with my short, honest answer.

He hummed deeply while moving his right hand from my thigh to the edge of the desk, using it to support himself as he leaned in over me. I shifted my hips upwards, changing the angle and taking in more of him. We both moaned in unison and he quickly took advantage of the new angle by increasing the pace. My grip on the desk tightened while my other hand moved up and grabbed his shoulder, feeling how damp his skin was.

My nails pressed into his skin as he kept thrusting into me, leaving me at a loss for words but with parted lips, barely able to make any other sounds than short moans whenever his body collided with mine. He hissed because of my nails and his own dug further into my thigh, returning the gesture while attempting to keep my body in place as he made our bodies meet again and again.

Knowing that we were both nearing our end, my hand moved down to pleasure myself, causing a shudder to run through my body. It felt like a bolt of electricity rushed through me, making me arch my back while muffling a moan. Suddenly, it felt like my body consisted of nothing but pent up pressure and my fingers couldn’t move fast enough so that it would finally be released. My desperation had my lips parting in what sounded like a mixture of a moan and a whimper, telling Atlas how close I was to losing myself.

He kept going, growling a string of curse words beneath his breath while a drop of sweat ran down his forehead. Then, as suddenly as all of this had started, the pressure exploded and it felt like every muscle in my body tightened. It was mind-blowing and completely engulfing; feeling as if someone had thrown me into a pool of water that immediately submerged me like it would never let me surface again.

Atlas followed a second later, his movements becoming slower and more erratic as his own orgasm surged through him, making his body tremble. Both our bodies were slick with sweat, which neither of us seemed to fully notice before we’d come down from our physical high. Ignoring it, I threw both my arms around his neck and pulled him closer to me, catching his lips in a deep kiss while the buzz kept my mind in a delicate haze. He hummed approvingly against my lips, responding like he agreed on making the moment last a little longer.

When we finally drew apart, we were both breathing heavily and neither of us moved, taking a moment to collect ourselves. My arms moved so that my hands could slide down his neck and down his shoulders, smiling as I felt how he relaxed because of my touch.

‘’No matter how mind-blowingly amazing that was, you’re still the most stubborn, infuriating man I’ve ever spent my time on.’’

My statement made him chuckle and shake his head while he leaned back and stretched, giving me a good view of his torso, which I fully exploited. Noticing me looking at him like he was the best damn thing I’d ever laid my eyes on, made him smirk like he owned the world. However, instead of making a comment about it, he helped me up from the table and onto the bed, collapsing there beside me.

‘’Never ended an argument like that,’’ he huffed next to me while running a hand through his damp hair.

‘’Don’t expect all of them to end like that,’’ I laughed and snuggled up next to him.

‘’I’ll make a note of it,’’ he chuckled while moving an arm around me.

‘’Good,’’ I hummed and pushed myself up on my elbows before taking a moment to consider what I wanted to say. ‘’Listen,’’ I started, well-knowing that it might be an odd moment for it, but I needed to say it. ’’I know all of this isn’t ideal in any way, but, even though you disagree with me, I need you to have my back, Atlas. I can’t do this without you supporting me just a little… I need you,’’ I explained while looking him in the eye, watching as my words changed the look in them.

Atlas was a stubborn man, that wasn’t a secret, but now that all the anger and frustration was out of the picture, I could finally show him my vulnerability and how much I needed his support.

Feeling a little exposed, I glanced down for a second before looking back up at him. ‘’I’m not saying that I want you to change your opinion; I just want you to see it from my point of view. You know I need this to be over and done with, and waiting for an unknown amount of time is not an option for me.’’

His green eyes stayed with mine for a long moment, looking at me while different emotions ran through them as he thought about my words. Making up his mind, he used the arm around me to press me closer him while he moved to lie on his side, cradling me against his larger body like I was something he wanted to keep away from the rest of the universe. His hand moved into my hair and guided me to rest my head against the nook of his neck, making it so that I couldn’t see his face.

‘’I feel like I’m constantly repeating myself, but you know that I’m shit at stuff like this. I’m sorry for being a dick… I just don’t want to see you make the same mistakes I did,’’ he spoke quietly and tightened his hold around me.

‘’I know,’’ I murmured while moving my arms around him, returning the comfort he was giving me. ‘’I value your opinions and all the insight you can give, but I need to do this. If they manage to get that weapon working and test it before I can do anything, it’s going to eat me up from the inside.’’

‘’The next time something like this happens, promise me that you’re staying out of it.’’

‘’You know full and well that I can’t promise something like that.’’

‘’It was worth a shot,’’ he hummed into my hair, attempting to lighten the mood a little.

‘’I admire you for trying, and sorry for calling you an asshole.’’

‘’I’m quite sure that you also called me a jerk at some point,’’ he reminded me.

‘’Fine… sorry.’’

‘’Yeah… I don’t know if I can forgive you for that.’’

I could hear in the tone of his voice that he was smiling, prompting me to force some space between us so that I could look at him. I felt myself smile as soon as I lay my eyes on his, feeling what had now become a familiar sensation of warmth blooming in my chest. His eyes found mine like it was the most natural thing for them do to, and the warmth in them had my smile widening.

‘’Really? Jerk and asshole, that’s where you draw the line?’’

‘’They’re two very harsh insults to call someone.’’

‘’Well, I’m sincerely sorry then,’’ I chuckled and leaned closer to him.

‘’You’re still not entirely forgiven,’’ he teased.

‘’We both know you can’t stay mad at me.’’

‘’And when did we establish that?’’

‘’The very second you kissed me back,’’ I informed him while my eyes flickered down to his lips for a second.

‘’You used dirty tactics. Can’t blame me for giving in.’’

‘’Sure, keep telling yourself that,’’ I spoke as I closed the distance between us and finally pressed my lips against his, kissing him tenderly.

I could feel him smile against my lips before he responded, tightening his hold around me to draw our naked bodies closer. The kiss turned into multiple when neither of us drew back, and it reminded me of the first time I had kissed him properly. The nervousness was long gone but it was still as thrilling to kiss him, especially when I could feel how much he wanted and savored it.

When we finally drew apart, his hand had moved from my hair to cradling my face and my arms had snaked their way around his neck. His thumb caressed my skin like he was handling something precious, making my lips part in a smile. I would never get enough of having him close to me like this, let alone the chance of disappearing into those amazing green eyes of his. It was comforting and gratifying, filling me with a sense of warmth and love that I’d never felt to this extent before. It felt like I belonged somewhere. It was a feeling that I had been missing ever since my father disappeared, but I hadn’t realized how starved of it I had been until that very second.

The realization made me kiss him again, seeking the conformation that he needed me as much as I needed him. He gave it to me like he could sense all the emotions that rushed through me, keeping me close and anchored to him. My lips moved away from his, placing tender kisses along his jawline until I reached the soft spot just beneath his ear. A content sigh escaped him when I lingered there, placing a light kiss on it before I whispered the three words that I had kept so close to my heart.

‘’I love you.’’

I closed my eyes when the words had left my lips and waited for his reaction. He didn’t move as he processed my words, but, even as he kept me waiting, I didn’t regret telling him. When he finally spoke, his voice was vulnerable and soft, giving me the impression that he was speaking from his heart.

‘’I… I’m not a man of words, but you have a way of drawing them out of me like they suddenly make sense. I never expected you to have this impact on me but you’ve become one of the most important things in my life. Despite how you got here and all that’s happened after, I’m glad that you ended up on my ship...’’ He paused to take a deep breath. ‘’What I’m trying to say is that I’m in love with you, Tess.’’

‘’You can’t say that you’re not good with words and then proceed to tell me all that,’’ I spoke with a smile, teasing him a little.

His response was to mutter something beneath his breath and pull me closer to him, holding me captured as I started laughing. My arms moved down and my hands found his sides while I wiggled to free myself, but his hold on me remained tight. I ran my fingers down his sides to try and find a place where I could attempt to push myself away from him, but my daring escape idea was quickly forgotten when the movement of my fingers caused a short, sharp laugh to erupt from him.

‘’Oh, what’s this?’’ The mischief in my voice was impossible to miss and I immediately felt him tense up next to me.

‘’Don’t you dare-‘’ Atlas warned me in a dark tone but my fingers were already moving before he had finished his sentence, forcing him to interrupt himself as he struggled with keeping a wave of laughter back.

Completely ignoring his warning, I pursued his sides with my fingers; now very eager to hear a full-blown laugh from him. His arms moved to stop me but I quickly used to opportunity to push him over and straddle him. I bit my lip to keep a laugh back as he squirmed beneath me and his hands grabbed my wrist to stop me. I managed to fight him long enough to finally get a laugh out of him, erupting through a snort before forming into a full, earnest laugh. It sounded amazing and quickly had me laughing with him. I was still laughing when he pushed my hands up, and the severe look on his face only intensified it, making me snort as well.

‘’I swear on my ship, you’re going to regret it for the rest of your life if you tell anyone I’m ticklish,’’ he informed me with a stern frown while I managed to get my laughter under control. He let go of my hands when I had subdued my laughter, but he still wasn’t looking too pleased with me.

Still feeling a little frisky, I flashed him a smirk and leaned a little closer to him while answering. ‘’Well, you could punish me a little,’’ I spoke in an alluring tone and ran both my hands down his chest, feeling his hard muscles reacting to my touch. ‘’I wouldn’t mind,’’ I added in a lower voice.

‘’And you call me horrible,’’ he huffed and shook his head at me.

A soft laugh bubbled through me while I leaned down to kiss him. His hands found my thighs and ran up my sides as he kissed me back, adding more depth to it. Once again, the single kiss turned into multiples and our hands started to wander, looking for places they still hadn’t explored yet on the other’s body, eventually leading up to a round two that lasted well into the night.

Having a place to belong and someone to love… it was suddenly a little easier accept how my life had turned out.

Chapter Text

The wires had a beautiful silver color under the harsh light of the lamp next to me. My gaze was focused on the movement of my fingers and how they held the end of the wire correctly while I attached them the right place on the circuit board. I could feel the strain from working in my eyes, but I didn’t stop, not even when all the other lights in the room had been turned off.

It had taken me three days to prepare and finish the bombs, and then I’d immediately started working on building my stealth shield prototype. Ray’s ships were already outfitted with one each, but the Promise wasn’t, and it needed to have one for the plan to work. We needed to catch them by surprise or the whole thing would turn too complicated, and they couldn’t know that we were coming. Luckily enough, I’d found the last parts that I needed in different shops on Abelas, but it had been one hell of a scavenger hunt that had lasted a whole day.

That was two days ago.

‘’Hey…’’ a low voice caught my attention while a pair of hands found my shoulders and gave them a squeeze. ‘’Come to bed, Tess. You’ve been working nearly nonstop since yesterday morning,’’ Atlas spoke softly while rubbing my shoulders, his thumbs pressing against my stiff muscles.

I closed my eyes when I realized how tense I was and let out a sigh while I leaned my head back, simply letting myself be swallowed up in how amazing his hands felt for a moment longer.

‘’I need to finish this first,’’ I replied in a quiet voice.

‘’You can finish it in the morning. You barely slept last night.’’

‘’But-‘’

‘’No. You’re getting some sleep, whether you like it or not, so get up or I’m going to carry your ass to the bed,’’ he warned me and left no room to argue with his strict tone.

I couldn’t keep myself from smiling a little as I gave in, muttering a low ‘fine’ before standing up. Atlas stayed where he was and waited for me to turn off the last light in the room. The room fell into the soft, usual darkness that I’d come to love.

It was soft because of the window above the bed allowed the eternal, soft glow of the stars to illuminate the room just a tiny bit, making it so that it was never fully dark unless the ship was somewhere without stars. Tonight, just like it had been for more than a week, it wasn’t stars that gave the subtle glow but the lights in the starport that were never turned off. It didn’t cast the same type of light into the room. However, it didn't stop me from admiring the way it allowed me to see his face once my eyes had gotten used to the darkness.

He looked tired and just a bit worried, but there was still a sense of warmth in his expression. I smiled because of it and watched how his eyes softened with affection. His fingers brushed a lock of hair behind my ear before he leaned in and placed a soft kiss on my forehead.

‘’Come on,’’ he hummed softly before moving away from me and starting to undress.

I followed his example, lazily pulling my clothes off and leaving them on the floor before collapsing on the bed. Atlas made a remark about my messiness as he joined me, but I simply ignored it and I snuggled up next to him. He pulled me closer to him and exhaled deeply, making me smile while I felt the exhaustion slowly claiming me.

‘’Atlas?’’

‘’Hm?’’

‘’I love you,’’ I whispered.

‘’Yeah… love you too,’’ he replied and placed another kiss on my forehead, giving me the feeling of safety while I drifted to sleep.

When I woke up, it was unclear what time it was, but I could hear the shower running, which meant that it couldn’t be that late when Atlas was still here. Not fully ready to wake up yet, I rolled over and got comfortable, allowing myself to get a little more sleep.

The next time I opened my eyes, the shower was no longer running. Feeling like I’d slept for more than a day; I stretched and made a noise in appreciation because of how good it felt.

‘’About time you woke up,’’ Atlas commented from somewhere in the room.

‘’Good morning to you too,’’ I spoke while sitting up, smiling once I saw where he was.

Sitting with his back to me, Atlas was at his desk, fiddling with what looked like his old Gameboy. I watched as he put down a screwdriver and pick up a small pair of pliers. After another moment of careful movements, he put everything down and turned around to face me.

‘’Refreshed?’’

‘’Very.’’

‘’You should be,’’ he chuckled and leaned back in his chair, ‘’you’ve slept for ten hours.’’

‘’Only ten?’’ I joked and stretched again. ‘’Feels like five, tops.’’

‘’You’re unbelievable.’’

His statement made me laugh while I got out of bed and walked up next to him. He didn’t hesitate to let me into his personal space by moving his arms around my waist and pulling me into it. I gladly accepted it and smiled warmly, feeling more whole when I was so close to him. I showed my appreciation by placing a soft kiss on his forehead, earning a low hum from him.

‘’Staying busy?’’ I asked while gesturing to the Gameboy. During the last couple of days, I’d learned that Atlas was the restless type when he was grounded, which made a lot of sense, considering both his nature and occupation. I didn’t tell him, but it was one of the reasons why I pushed myself a little more. I didn’t like seeing him like he was a bird locked in a cage. It seemed too unnatural.

‘’Better than listening to Jaxon tell another one of his glorified stories,’’ he huffed.

‘’I think we're all getting a little restless,’’ I thought out loud while letting my fingers trace his jawline. ‘’Unless there are any problems, I should get the shield finished and installed today, and it shouldn’t take Ray more than a day to get his crew ready.’’

‘’If they’re not too hungover.’’

‘’I don’t’ blame them. There’s not much to do here if you don’t have any bombs to build… or Gameboys’,’’ I joked and kissed his forehead again when he grumbled, clearly not appreciating my joke as much as I did. ‘’Don’t worry; the shield should be installed and ready to go tomorrow. You’ll be back amongst the stars in no time.’’

‘’Just don’t overwork yourself,’’ he spoke quietly like he was afraid Jaxon was standing outside with his ear pressed up against the door.

The mental image made me laugh, prompting a strange look from Atlas, but it turned into a content one when I tipped his head up and leaned down to kiss him.

‘’I’ll be fine. You worry too much.’’ I smiled at him and kissed him again when he didn’t look completely convinced. ‘’I’m going to grab a shower and some food before getting back to that shield. Can you get the old shield ready for removal?’’

‘’I removed it yesterday so you don’t have to think about that.’’

While humming a low ‘thanks’, I stole a quick kiss from him before pulling myself away from him and went into the bathroom. Honestly, I would have loved to stay in his embrace for a little while longer, but I wanted to finish the shield and get started on running the calibrations that couldn’t be done without my guidance. I’d been working on a program that would make the whole calibration process automatic, but I hadn’t exactly had a lot of time to finish it. That said, the majority of the minor ones could be finished through the program, so I still had a chance to get some time to hang out with the crew if I didn’t run into any problems.

For once, I finally had some luck, like someone had been praying for me to multiple gods. Sure, the work still took all day, but it was without any major problems. To make it better, the whole crew started to check in on me once I moved into the bridge to install the new shield.

Orion and Nova appeared to hear how things were progressing and to ask me more questions about the base. Nova had even brought me a cup of coffee for me to sip while I gave them as much information as I could remember. It wasn’t the most pleasant subject to talk about, but the more they knew, the easier the mission would be.

Jaxon was kind enough to bring me dinner, but it quickly became clear that he had another reason for doing it besides being kind.

‘’Soooo, how did your first fight end?’’ He asked while I was busy chewing on a piece of mystery meat. ‘’I heard you guys yelling in the lounge.’’

‘’Honestly, Jax, if you’re bored then I’m sure Ray and his buddies will let you go with them to the bar,’’ I replied, clearly not interested in being his entertainment.

‘’Oh come on, Tess. You seemed so down and now you’re fine. I just want to know what happened so that I won’t say anything stupid,’’ he defended himself with a smile.

‘’Like that’s going to stop you,’’ I commented with a sly smirk that turned into a soft laugh when Jaxon pouted.

‘’And here I am, bringing you dinner because I’m a good friend, and you won’t even tell me just a little bit.’’ He wiped a nonexistent tear from his eye, showing me how hurtful my words were.

I rolled my eyes at him and sighed. ‘’Fine. We started arguing in the lounge so I dragged him to his quarters because I didn’t want the whole crew to hear.’’

‘’And then you realized your flaws, apologized and made up?’’ He asked with a tone that suggested that he knew more than he let on.

‘’Have you met Atlas?’’ I snorted with a faint smile and stabbed a slice of a flavorless carrot with my fork. ‘’He’s too stubborn to just do that, so we kinda kept arguing but at a lower noise level,’’ I admitted, now feeling a little good about venting.

‘’Says one of the most stubborn women I know,’’ Jaxon laughed, making me roll my eyes at him as I chewed.

At some point, I probably would have challenged him and that statement, but, considering that he wasn’t the first person to tell me that, I let it pass. ‘’Okay, I’m not exactly the most relenting person here, I’ll admit that… But we talked it out. We’re fine.’’

‘’Talked it out? Huh, from what I heard when I went to check on you, there was definitively no talking involved,’’ he told me, giving me that godforsaken smirk that was both charming and insanely infuriating. It showed perfectly how pleased he was, like a cat that had just caught a mouse without any real effort.

My face went hot the same second I realized that he had me exactly where he wanted me. If there had been any food in my mouth, I would most definitively have choked on it, but, instead, I just sat there awkwardly, my movements put on pause. My fork had been condemned to linger in a strange sense of limbo on its way up to my mouth, carrying the last carrot slice.

‘’You… you didn’t…’’ I mumbled, completely embarrassed by the fact that he’d heard us. ‘’You ass!’’

‘’I just wanted to make sure that you were alright! You should thank me for not interrupting you two,’’ he said with a laugh, seemingly finding my reaction rather amusing. ‘’Besides, you’re not the first to solve an argument like that, so calm down.’’ He winked at me.

‘’This is so embarrassing,’’ I muttered and put my fork down before covering my face with both hands.

‘’If it’s any comfort, it was the first time that I heard you two while going at it.’’

‘’Not helping!’’ I groaned, making him laugh.

‘’Relax, will you? We’re all adults here.’’

I peeked at him through my fingers. ‘’I’m not an exhibitionist so the fact that you heard us is embarrassing to me, adult or not,’’ I huffed and moved my hands, ‘’just – Don’t tell Atlas, alright?’’

‘’Oh, don’t worry, the only thing I’m going to tell him is that I think the color purple suits him,’’ he snickered.

‘’Purple?’’ I repeated in slight confusion. I’d never seen him wear that color.

‘’You really need to stop giving him marks that high up on his neck.’’

‘’Seriously, one more word out of you and you’ll have to dodge a fork,’’ I warned him in a disgruntled tone. The heat had reappeared in my cheeks and was impossible to ignore, only making me more embarrassed about the whole thing.

Jaxon simply laughed again, but he laughed in a way where it wasn’t ridicule. It was the way you would laugh if you teased a friend. Still, it didn’t make him any less annoying.

‘’Fine, fine… How’s work then?’’

‘’Almost done. It should be finished in two, maybe three hours. Then I just need to let the program run the small calibrations and it should be done tomorrow morning,’’ I explained and ran a hand through my hair, ‘’I want to test it out before we tell Ray that we’re ready, though. I need to be absolutely sure that it’s perfectly integrated with the system and calibrated.’’

‘’Sounds like you still have a lot to do. Don’t overwork yourself, alright?’’ Genuine concern made his voice softer while his usual smile crossed his features.

‘’Never thought you and Atlas would agree on something,’’ I commented with a small smile before finishing my dinner.

Jaxon shrugged. ‘’We all care about you, and Atlas is actually getting in touch with his softer side now that you’re here. We're all worried about you. Plus, it seems like you have a habit of putting too much pressure on yourself,’’ he spoke calmly and like it was a given thing, but it wasn’t to me.

‘’You know,’’ I spoke after a brief pause, deciding to open up a little, ‘’even with all the shit that’s happened, I haven’t felt like I belonged anywhere since my dad disappeared. I hadn’t realized how much I missed until recently.’’

‘’The crew… the people on this ship is an odd bunch but they’re good. We have your back, but I think you’re fully aware of that by now.’’ He smiled at me and I returned the gesture.

‘’Yeah, thanks… and thanks for bringing me dinner. I always forget to eat when I’m working intensively on something.’’

‘’I’m not about to let our precious engineer go without food,’’ he spoke as he got up from the chair, ‘’now that you’ve been fed and socialized, I’ll let you get back to work.’’

I snorted at his choice of words, making it sound like I was some animal they had to check up on and take care of. ‘’Yeah yeah, thanks for not letting me forget what human interaction feels like,’’ I joked and got a chuckle from him as he headed out of the bridge, taking my empty plate with him.

Smiling softly, I grabbed my tablet and went back to work, giving it the directions it needed before running the simulations. When the numbers were correct, the calibrations were accepted by me and the program added them to the shields internal code. It wasn’t the most exciting work, but it kept me focused because of all the numbers I had to add to the input and check before accepting any new changes. Simply said, it kept me on my toes because I couldn’t afford to make any mistakes, not this far into the programming.

Slowly, the progress bar went up, allowing me to see how much more input it needed from me before it could do the rest in its own. At some point, someone came into the bridge and said something, but I was too engrossed in the numbers on the screen to look away, instead mumbling something about being too busy.

When the progress bar finally hit one hundred percent, nearly three hours had passed. Still sitting on the floor, I stretched and rolled my shoulders, now noticing how stiff they’d become. My glance moved to the window, momentarily forgetting that we weren’t in space. Disappointment settled in my chest as I was greeted by all the artificial lighting and not the stars I had hoped to see.

I sighed just as someone else walked into the room, their footsteps drawing my attention away from the disappointing view. I felt myself smiling the second I saw who it was.

‘’Finished working yet?’’ He asked in a quiet voice while he started to smile a little himself when he saw how I reacted to his approach.

‘’Yeah, I was just admiring the lackluster view for a moment,’’ I replied while gesturing to the window.

‘’More like depressing,’’ Atlas commented while his glance focused on the spaceport outside for a few seconds before finding me again.

‘’True… I really miss looking at the stars,’’ I replied and started to get up from the floor.

‘’You and me both,’’ he sighed and didn’t hesitate to offer his hand. He helped me up easily, but he didn’t immediately let go of mine. Instead, he used it to guide me closer to him, making my smile widen as he brought me into his personal space.

He looked like he was mulling something over for a second. ‘’I think I might have something to fix that,’’ he spoke while wearing an almost secretive smile.

‘’Really? Now you’re just making me curious.’’

‘’You make it sound like that’s a hard thing to do,’’ he joked while he started to pull me out of the bridge.

‘’Oh, shut up,’’ I huffed and let him lead me through the ship. ‘’So, what exactly is this ‘something’?’’

‘’Have you ever heard of being patient?’’

‘’Yes, but it doesn’t sound very fun.’’

‘’Sometimes I wonder how you’re a functioning adult,’’ he sighed and tried to sound serious, but, even though I couldn’t see it, it was obvious to me that he was smiling.

‘’It’s one of life’s greatest mysteries,’’ I replied and started to laugh when he shook his head at me.

‘’Well, that is a good way to describe you,’’ he chuckled while we walked into his room.

‘’I’m going to take that as a compliment.’’ I smiled and sat down on the foot of the bed.

Atlas simply chuckled again while going to his desk. There, he started to look through the drawers, mumbling something as he searched for something. I watched him while wearing a soft smile, only getting more and more curious as I waited.

A moment later, he hummed in approval and pulled out a small black object. It was around the same size as a ball but the bottom of it was flat, telling me that it could sit on its own. He pressed the buttons on the side, frowning a little out of concentration, looking like he was giving the device some sort of input or changes. Still keeping me in suspense, he moved to the door and turned off the lights.

I was just about to make a comment on the romantic lighting, but my words were forgotten when he turned on the device and I realized what it was.

‘’Oh,’’ I whispered, immediately mesmerized by the stars being projected from the device in his hand.

Satisfied, Atlas put it down on the desk and shrugged off his jacket before joining me on the bed. He lay down on his back and I quickly got comfortable next to him, using his shoulder as a pillow.

‘’It’s beautiful,’’ I spoke quietly while his arm moved around me.

‘’Honestly, I wasn’t sure if the old thing still worked,’’ he admitted.

I simply smiled and studied the different patterns and constellations. When I started to recognize a few of them, my smile disappeared. ‘’Wait… is this…?’’ I asked while pushing myself up so that I could look at him in disbelief.

The soft smile he wore only confirmed my suspicion. ‘’It had the star map from your colony as an option. Figured you might want to look at something familiar for a change.’’

My glance moved back up while I tried to figure out what to say. It was almost strange to see the stars I had grown up with and even though they were merely a projection, the sight of them made my eyes sting a little.

‘’I never thought that I could miss stars, but seeing them now…’’ I trailed off before finishing my sentence, taking a second to consider what I actually wanted to say. ‘’Before… when my dad was still… he would take me up on the roof of our apartment building, and we’d spend the night talking and looking at the stars. He taught me about the different constellations and told me about the few planets we could see,’’ I spoke with a small, bittersweet smile.

‘’He told me about it once or twice… He wasn’t the type that spoke much about his personal life, but when he did, it was about something you’d done.’’

He sounded like he wasn’t entirely comfortable telling me, but he never was when he spoke about his time with the Union. When it also had something to do with my dad, it seemed to be even more of a sore spot, but I had the feeling that it was mainly because it was somewhat of a weird situation.

‘’Really?’’ I looked at him again, catching my breath a little when I saw how he looked at me while the soft light from the stars danced across his features.

‘’You passed your final engineering exam with the highest remarks and got a job offer the same day you graduated. I had to hear about it for two weeks.’’

‘’Sorry about that,’’ I chuckled and leaned closer to him.

‘’Impressive how you managed to annoy me even before I’d met you.’’ He smirked and brushed a stray lock of hair behind my ear.

‘’It’s both a curse and a blessing,’’ I sighed in an overly dramatic way and managed to make a matching expression.

‘’Yeah, you’re definitively the one suffering in this relationship,’’ he huffed, making me laugh softly while his hand moved to the back of my head, gesturing me to lean closer.

I complied while smiling, eagerly capturing his lips with my own. It was a sweet, languid kiss, the kind that made lazy butterflies appear in your stomach and left you smiling when it was over. His hand moved down, fingertips trailing my spine like he was deliberately trying to make me shudder, and it worked. I caught a glimpse of a small, satisfied grin before he kissed me again while his hand settled on my lower back.

When we drew apart, I made a small humming noise to express my approval while lying down again. I snuggled up close to him and his fingers started to go in circles on my back, soothing me as we both watched the stars again.

‘’Thank you,’’ I whispered and placed my hand on his chest, ‘’I needed this.’’

‘’I know. You’re not exactly hard to read.’’

Knowing that he was right, I merely huffed to show my displeasure, but I was smiling again when it made him chuckle. My hand felt the vibrations of it and the steady beating of his heart, reminding me how deeply I cared about the idiot next to me.

‘’I really love it when you do that.’’

‘’Do what?’’

‘’Chuckle… you’re doing it more often now,’’ I hummed, knowing that he was most likely blushing by now. Wanting to catch a glimpse of it, I shifted a little and leaned my chin on my arm. Sure enough, a faint hue of red had spread across his cheeks.

‘’Are you deliberately trying to make me embarrassed?’’ He grumbled.

‘’Maybe… You’re certainly not making it very difficult to achieve.’’ I smiled playfully.

‘’You’re completely-‘’

‘’Lovely?’’ I interrupted him and earned a disapproving look, ‘’or were you going to say something else?’’ I asked, my tone making it very clear that I was teasing him.

Obviously not satisfied with me, he huffed and used the arm around me to keep me where I was while he turned around. I started to laugh as he held me against him, doing a very poor attempt at wiggling free from his grasp. He quieted my laugh by kissing me, and I immediately accepted my punishment.

‘’I was going to say insufferable,’’ he informed me in a low voice while wearing a small smile.

‘’I have no idea why you would call me that.’’ I managed to pout.

‘’You’re delusional,’’ he grunted.

‘’I think you mean wonderful.’’

‘’I’m quite sure that I don’t.’’

‘’Say it or I’m going to make you regret it,’’ I warned him, smirking mischievously while I let my fingers ghost over his sides. He took a sharp breath and shifted away from me, making me laugh because he seemed so afraid of the thought of being tickled.

‘’You’re the worst,’’ he grumbled.

‘’Sorry not sorry,’’ I said with a laugh and leaned closer to him, snaking my arms around his neck.

He rolled his eyes at me, but he didn’t complain or hesitate to respond when I found his lips with my own. His arms moved around me again and the kiss turned into multiple, gradually shifting from being soft and languid to the kind that had my heart racing and left me out of breath.

For the rest of that night, I didn’t focus on anything else than Atlas and the projected stars above us.

 


 

 

‘’Right… everything should be ready to go,’’ I mumbled while I checked the numbers on my tablet for what felt like the hundredth time.

‘’Just so I’m completely sure what’s going to happen, what exactly did you improve about the shield?’’ Jaxon asked with his usual smile.

He stood in-between Nova and Orion, all of them waiting to see the shield, that the Empire was so immensely interested in, in action. Atlas was standing next to me and silently watching as I tripled checked everything. He trusted me enough to implement the shield, but it was still a piece of unknown technology in his precious ship. It made sense to me if he was a little nervous.

‘’How simple do you want me to explain it?’’ I smirked at him.

‘’As simple as you can manage,’’ he laughed.

‘’Fine. A stealth shield will try to mimic the area around the ship, but if it has to mimic an area with big objects, like a building or another ship, it’s very unstable and easy to see. It’s slow to progress and show detailed objects. So stealth works fine in deep space where the area is barren, but it’s noticeable anywhere else,’’ I explained while running a last test on the calibrations.

‘’My improvement is an overhaul of the programming and capabilities of the shield’s mimicking abilities. I’ve found a way to add more accurate sensors, making the camouflage more stable and advanced. It took me four years of hard work to make it work.’’

‘’So… it’s more smooth?’’ Jaxon asked.

‘’It’s smoother, yeah, but it’s also more stable, and capable of mimicking the background almost perfectly. There’s still a small delay when the ship passes anything large, but we’re talking one second instead of six, and I’m working on removing it entirely,’’ I explained proudly, excitement making my pulse quicken.

Right then, I was pretty happy that we’d taken a spot in the back of the starport when we first arrived. Testing the shield away from prying eyes, or, as many we could avoid, was definitively the best way to do it.

‘’It sounds impressive. I’m expecting it will look the same in action,’’ Nova spoke her thoughts while glancing over the ship.

‘’It will also provide us with a much better tactical advantage than other ships,’’ Orion added.

‘’Come on, Tess, make the old girl disappear,’’ Jaxon grinned at me, obviously anticipating the grumbled ‘hey’ from Atlas.

Taking a deep breath, I pressed the button that would activate the shield, and we all watched as the Promise nearly vanished into thin air. The only thing that gave it away was the faint ripple of static that coursed through it as it copied the background without any trouble.

The tension in my shoulders eased when they all reacted. Jaxon whistled, Orion and Nova hummed approvingly, and Atlas mumbled something beneath his breath while walking closer to inspect it. I moved to the other side, wanting to show them exactly how good it was at mimicking a moving object.

‘’This is goddamn impressive,’’ Jaxon spoke while they all watched me walk around the ship.

‘’Again, it took me four years to make, so it better be,’’ I chuckled.

‘’I’ve never seen anything like it… and this is just a prototype?’’ Orion asked.

‘’Well, a pretty well-developed prototype,’’ I answered while joining them again, ‘’I want to remove all of the remaining delays and make it less sensitive. You need a good enough engine and power module to generate enough power for this thing to run.’’ I shared my future plans while stopping next to Atlas.

‘’Escaping enemies will be no problem with this shield, no matter where we are,’’ Nova spoke with a small smile, seemingly enjoying the thought of an easy escape.

The three of them started to discuss the possible uses while I turned off the shield. Atlas shifted closer to me and softly bumped his shoulder against mine to get my attention. We shared a small, secretive smile while I leaned closer to him.

‘’I have to say, it’s not bad,’’ he spoke in a low voice.

‘’Have anyone ever told you how amazing you are at praising people for their hard work?’’ I joked.

‘’Fine,’’ he huffed with a small smile, ‘’I’m impressed. It’s a great addition to the ship.’’

‘’That’s better.’’ I smiled at him before sneaking a glance at the others. Deeming that it was safe enough, I grabbed Atlas’ hand and pulled him with me as I snuck around the side of the ship. Knowing that we were out of sight, I turned around and tiptoed, stealing a quick kiss from him.

He muttered something about me being annoying while I stifled a laugh. However, I wasn’t annoying enough for him to keep himself from leaning closer to me, kissing me properly while we hid from the rest of the crew.

For a brief moment, my mind was focused on something else than what lay ahead of us.

Chapter Text

A feeling of dread had been building ever since the Promise had left Abelas’ spaceport.

 

Closely followed by Ray’s two ships, Atlas flew us into Empire territory, heading towards the last place I wanted to go in the whole universe. I stood next to him on the bridge while the others were busying themselves with checking their weapons for the fourth time.

At first, my focus had been on making sure that the stealth shield was running without problems, but as we got closer and closer, I couldn’t look away from the view in front of us, waiting for the giant building to appear.

Shifting my stance, my hand brushed against the blaster attached to my belt.

We were expecting more security this time. I highly doubted that Tyberius hadn’t been informed about what had happened, so it seemed foolish to expect anything else than a high increase in guards. Knowing that Ray had about twenty people on his ship made me feel a little at ease. Considering that they were successful pirates, I figured that they had to be at least decent shots.

However, it dissolved the very second I spotted something white in the distance.

‘’We’re approaching the target,’’ Atlas announced, drawing the attention of the three others.

‘’I see it’s still as ugly as I remember,’’ Jaxon commented with his usual smirk.

‘’I don’t think they care about the exterior design,’’ Atlas huffed.

I exhaled sharply in agreement with him.

‘’I don’t see any ships. I expected Tyberius to set up patrols now that someone outside the Empire knows about the weapon,’’ Orion said calmly.

‘’Considering what happened between Caine and me, I don’t think that he is counting on us coming back.’’ I shifted a little as I spoke, still not feeling very comfortable talking about it.

‘’Maybe they don’t think that we’ve realized what it is.’’ Jaxon offered another explanation, but I shook my head before he was even done speaking.

‘’No. Caine knows that I took those blueprints and that there was enough information on them for us to put two and two together… he’s just sure that I would never come back.’’

‘’Well, that shithead sure is in for a surprise then,’’ Atlas grunted while he slowed the ship down, not taking any chances as we continued to approach the massive construction with care. ‘’If I see him again, I’ll be aiming for something more vital this time,’’ he muttered.

A chill ran down my spine as I remembered the look of pure rage on Cain’s face when Atlas’ had shot his hand. Unlike him, I wasn’t exactly looking forward to seeing Caine again.

‘’Tess? Are you alright?’’ I looked up when Nova addressed me.

‘’I will be when that thing is reduced to space debris.’’

‘’I promise you, when everything is done and set up, you can have the best seat on the ship and watch it explode. I’ll even make you some popcorn.’’ Jaxon bumped his shoulder against mine while sporting his trademark smirk.

‘’The best seat here is my seat, and you have zero right to give it away,’’ Atlas grumbled from the pilot seat.

‘’I’m sure that you can make some arrangements so that both of you can sit there, then.’’ Jaxon’s casual reply made me snort while Atlas muttered something that sounded close to ‘piss off’.

‘’Jaxon, save it for later.’’ Orion put a stop to the teasing, sounding a little on edge now that we were closer to the construction. ‘’We’re getting closer to the entrance so start getting ready to engage.’’

Nova, Orion, and Jaxon moved back to the table behind us and started to prepare their blasters and equipment. I stayed where I was and kept looking for any movement near the entrance, watching for anything that would make the blue energy shield flicker as something passed through it, but nothing moved except for us.

Realizing that nothing was waiting for us outside, I gripped Atlas’ shoulder in an attempt to keep myself calm as we approached the entrance.

‘’It’s going to be fine,’’ Atlas murmured, keeping his voice low so that only I could hear his comforting words.

‘’I know,’’ I replied and looked to the side when I noticed the faint flicker of an active stealth shield.

It was the smallest of Ray’s ship. The biggest one was too large to fit inside, so it would stay outside in stealth and wait for the smaller ship to bring people to it. The smaller ship, which Ray had named the Crusader, was as big as the Promise and would be the first to breach the entrance. Ray had more people than we did, so it made more sense that they went in first. Plus, they also had more experience with boarding other ships, based on what they typically did for a living.

Sticking to the plan, Atlas slowed down and let the Crusader pass us, which required a little delicate maneuvering because of the stealth situation. ‘’Captain Asshole is in the front and almost at the entrance, so you all better be ready to blow some Empire shit up,’’ he announced to the rest of the crew.

‘’Blowing Empire shit up sounds like a great Friday night,’’ Jaxon chuckled as he attached his two twin blasters on his belt.

‘’It’s Thursday, Jaxon,’’ Nova told him while preparing her blaster rifle.

‘’It’s a joke.’’

‘’I fail to see how it’s a joke when you’re referring to the wrong day?’’

‘’It’s – never mind,’’ he sighed, making me smile for a split second because of how defeated he sounded.

‘’Stay focused. We don’t know what’s waiting for us so stay on your toes.’’ Tension followed Orion’s words, and everyone fell quiet as we watched the Crusader come closer and closer to the energy field.

I held my breath and tightened my grip on Atlas’ shoulder when the view in front of us was suddenly filled with the ship deactivating the stealth mode the very second it touched the energy field. Then, it all went quick. Using the moment of surprise, the Crusader rushed through and the Promise followed right away, flying into a situation that immediately turned chaotic.

Within minutes, the hanger was filled with people while the alarm was blaring loudly; alerting everyone that someone unwanted had arrived. Atlas got us down quickly, opening the doors before the Promise had even touched the floor so that we could join the fray with Ray’s crew. While Jaxon and Nova had no trouble with jumping out, basically looking like dealing with the chaos was a piece of cake, I hesitated. Unlike them, I’d never jumped out of a moving vehicle and into a firefight.

Surely noticing my slight panic, Orion turned to address me before following the others. ‘’Tess, stay with Atlas and give him back up until you regroup with us.’’

The serious tone in his voice worked as an anchor for me, allowing me to take a deep breath and refocus on the situation. ‘’Understood.’’

Satisfied with my response, he gave me a quick nod in return before following Nova and Jaxon into the fray. I watched him join the others before I headed back to my spot next to Atlas, getting there just in time to hear him curse beneath his breath as he maneuvered the Promise into the small space behind the Crusader.

‘’He really couldn’t have gone a little further in before landing,’’ Atlas muttered, clearly annoyed with Ray’s parking job.

‘’I’m amazed that you’re focusing on that and not the fifty Empire soldiers that just ran into the hangar,’’ I commented while watching them spread out into a defensive position before shooting wildly at our party.

‘’I’m not surprised by how many dogs the Empire has on their leash, and I’m sure everyone expected there to be more security after the last stunt we pulled,’’ Atlas replied just as the Promise touched the ground.

I hummed in agreement and looked away from the soldiers, wanting to get a better overview of the situation we were about to join. It looked like everyone who had a blaster was using it as if they would never have another chance to fire one again, but it was obvious that our party was at a disadvantage in terms of numbers. Hopefully, our aim was a lot better than theirs.

In the middle of all the chaos, people in white lab coats stood out amongst the pirates, soldiers, and bounty hunters, making it much easier to notice how panicked they were. From what I could see, most of them seemed unsure about if they should go to the Empire or the strangers currently attacking them, which made a lot of sense considering most of them had been brought here against their will.

‘’Those poor people,’’ I whispered my thoughts while Atlas got up from his seat.

‘’We’ll get them out. Just stick close to me and worry about not getting shot for now.’’ He detached his blaster from his belt and headed for the door, ready to join the others.

‘’Yeah, really not keen on experiencing that again,’’ I huffed while following him, my pulse quickening as I got closer to the door and the chaos outside. When I stood next to him, I took a deep breath to calm myself as I readied my blaster.

‘’I’m serious… Just be careful. You’re not exactly used to gunfights.’’

‘’You know, I like it when you get worried about me.’’ I smiled softly and attempted to tease him a little, but my anxiousness shined through and made it sound halfhearted. The look on his face told me that he saw right through me and wasn’t very impressed.

I sighed softly. ‘’I’ll be okay, Atlas, and I’ll stick close to you, so you can worry about me while I’m right next to you.’’ My smile turned into a faint one while I spoke but seemed to be enough to soften his expression.

‘’You better be,’’ he mumbled, almost making it sound like a warning, and leaned closer to me. A second later, he captured my lips in a soft kiss that completely stole my attention.

Right then, it felt like we both needed the reassurance of it before heading into the chaos outside. Still, we both knew that we didn’t have the time, so we broke apart before the one kiss turned into multiple. Without saying another word, we headed outside to join the others.

When we got outside, we took a few seconds to get a sense of what was happening around us. Having the advantage of his height, Atlas quickly spotted the rest of the crew further into the hangar. They were busy with keeping a group of Empire soldiers from entering the hangar from the right, effectively laying down enough suppressive fire so that they couldn’t just charge in. But, when Nova had to recharge her rifle, two of the soldiers managed to move to a new cover, gaining a better position and the opportunity of attacking Jaxon, Nova, and Orion from two directions.

I stuck close to Atlas while we made our way over to them. He led the way, guiding us between crates of cargo to keep us as covered from any stray blaster shots coming our way. By the time we got close enough to help, my pulse was drumming rapidly in my ears, boosted by the adrenalin that surged through me like a wild river.

I followed Atlas’ example and aimed my blaster in the directions of the soldiers, but, unlike him, I didn’t immediately start shooting. I hesitated. Not only had I never fired at a living target, but I’d never fired at anything that even moved or was behind people I’d rather not hit. The drumming of my pulse intensified while I tried to convince myself to shoot, but my finger didn’t move. Not until I saw a soldier take aim at Jaxon.

I corrected my aim and fired without a second thought; hitting him square in the chest and making him drop his rifle. Jaxon had noticed the movement and quickly took advantage of the soldier’s momentary weakness. After two quick shots from him, the soldier was no longer a threat.

While in cover, Jaxon turned around and flashed me his usual grin and two thumbs up. I rolled my eyes at him before focusing on helping the others. Although some of my shots missed their target, I didn’t hesitate again.

It was hard to tell how long it took, but we eventually got the situation under control. The area looked like an absolute mess. Scorch marks from missed shots decorated the walls and floors, and the defeated Empire soldiers had been tied up, even those that were currently unconscious. Their fate had sparked a heated debate amongst the pirates. From what I could hear, the options were to leave them to their death, sell them to slavers or simply dump them on a nearby planet and be done with them.

Out of the three options, only one of them didn’t immediately raise red flags in my head, but I was too occupied with the lack of Caine to join their discussion. My attention went straight to the hallway that I recognized far too well. The path to his office was burned into my mind and I could picture his furious face as clear as day. My grip on the blaster tightened as the fear was replaced by anger, driving me towards the hallway like it was the only thing that mattered.

‘’You,’’ A voice addressed me while its owner grabbed my arm, ‘’I know you. You’re the one that got out.’’

Forgetting my plot for revenge, I turned my head and found a tall woman looking at me with a mixture of fear and confusion in her eyes. Her long, black hair was pulled into a messy bun, revealing the black chip on her neck.

It took me a second to recognize her.

‘’You’re Dr. Maris,’’ her grip on me eased when I said her name, ‘’we’re here to get everyone out before turning this place into space debris.’’

‘’Thank the stars,’’ she sighed in relief and let go of my arm.

‘’You’re going to save us?’’ A man asked as he came up to us, his hopeful tone matching the look in his eyes.

‘’We have a bigger ship waiting outside. When everyone is safe, we’re blowing this thing to pieces.’’

‘’That’ll trigger the failsafe,’’ a second woman with blond hair told us while stepping closer with a worried look.

‘’This place has a failsafe?’’

‘’Yes. Caine had someone I know create and install it after the incident with you. It’ll trigger and send every single piece of data stored here to the Empire. You’ll have to deactivate it first or Tyberius can start this project anew.’’

‘’Shit… Where can I disable it?’’

‘’The main control room. It’s on the highest floor. You'll find the console there that you’ll have to use. It’s the only one here that can access the failsafe,’’ she explained and gestured towards the elevator on the far side of the room.

‘’Okay, I’ll let the other’s know that we have to do that before activating the bombs, then. Where’s the person that made it? I’ll need their help to disable it.’’

Her face fell. ‘’He… Caine thought he would be a liability if anyone wanted to destroy the weapon. He had him killed the second it was done, but please, you have to hurry! If Caine gets there first he’ll alert Tyberius and then none of us will make it out of here alive!’’

If the urgency in her voice wasn’t enough to make me stressed, the sudden yelling behind me did the trick. A second wave of soldiers took everyone by surprise as they charged into the room, shooting at everyone and everything in front of them.

‘’Hurry!’’ the blonde yelled while pushing a keycard into my hand before attempting to find cover.

Looking at the new wave of soldiers, I could see we had no chance if more backup arrived. Knowing this, my eyes darted back to the elevator. As I stood there, the thoughts from before reemerged in my head, reminding me of my personal vendetta with Caine and pushing me towards the elevator. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew I should have alerted some of the others before being reckless, but there wasn’t exactly an easy opportunity to do so.

At least that’s what I told myself as I used the keycard and pushed the button for the highest floor.

The sounds of combat gradually disappeared as the elevator went up, leaving me to listen to my own heartbeat quickening. Besides the main console being there, I had no idea what I was about to find. Ever since we’d learned that this construction was a weapon, I’d been curious about what kind it was. Considering how important it had been to Caine to have my stealth shield, it had to be something extremely vital to the Empire.

Finally, after what felt like the longest elevator ride in my life, it came to a stop and the doors parted.

A humongous, circular room appeared before me. The center of it had no floor and basically looked like a giant pit, and I immediately knew that the answer to my question was in it. Two large consoles stood next to each other in front of me, but neither of them caught my eye. Instead, it was the single console that stood on a platform that was suspended above the pit. A metal rod protruded from the underside of the platform, giving me the impression that it played a vital role in charging or creating the beam that would be stabilized down the center of the construction before being fired.

The platform was held up by four cables that were attached to the ceiling and only reachable by crossing a thin catwalk. Like the platform, the catwalk was held up by cables and all of them looked like they were able to detach from the ceiling. It was most likely a security measure and it didn’t surprise me, not when I knew who had designed this place.

Caine was crazy enough to put taser chips on his victims. Obviously, he would have a detachable platform.

The only thing that struck me as odd was the fact that the main console would plummet into the unknown with the platform, but with the failsafe in place, it made sense. Knowing Caine, he’d have a backup program in case the platform dropped. As much as I hated him, the man was a scientific genius.

Ignoring the first two consoles, I headed straight to the catwalk, experiencing a strange rush of excitement as I was finally about to see what this whole thing was about. When I caught the first glimpse of what was down there, I felt my stomach drop.

‘’How… how in the hell?’’ I whispered to myself and stepped closer, standing at the edge.

Some thirty feet below me, a swirling, thick, black mass seemed to be floating in the pit, pulsing like it was alive. It almost looked like black water and moved like it had its own current. I’d never seen anything like it in person, but it instantly reminded me of the holovids we’d watch back in science class. Only… it couldn’t possibly be the same thing.

‘’Impressive, isn’t it?’’

The familiar voice made a chill run down my spine. I turned around slowly, coming face to face with Caine and a blaster pointed at me. I stopped turning my body to keep my own blaster out of his sight before reluctantly raising my hands.

Not seeing me as a threat, he stepped closer to me before speaking again. ‘’I was hoping you’d come back. Didn’t think you’d be idiotic enough, though, but here we are.’’

‘’You’re insane, Caine. Whatever that down there is, it’s not going to exist in an hour.’’

‘’I thought you’d learned how to speak to me during your stay here, but I guess you can’t teach manners to someone like you,’’ he scoffed at me.

I couldn’t stop myself from smiling. ‘’I’m a lot more annoying when I don’t have a chip stuck to my neck.’’

‘’I should have choked you when I had the chance. It would certainly have made things a lot easier.’’

‘’And Atlas should have shot you somewhere else than your hand.’’

‘’Ah, yes, the ex-Union pilot that disgraced his unit. I had Tyberius send me a little information on him and his time as a pilot. I’m expecting that you know who his squadron leader was?’’ His slight smile and tone told me that he was trying to rile me up.

‘’Quit it. I already know that he served with my father.’’

‘’Did he tell you how his whole squad perished by the hand of the Empire?’’ His smile grew when he saw me frown.

‘’The Empire lost their own fighters in that supernova as well. I’d hardly say that the Empire killed them,’’ I replied, clearly not interested in what he was trying to do.

‘’So you say. Humor me, do you know how long it takes for a star to collapse in on itself?’’

‘’I’m not going to-‘’

‘’Answer me or I’ll make this process a lot more painful.’’

I stared at him with a hard look for a moment before doing as I was told. ‘’Depends on the size, but it usually takes at least three years. Why are you asking me this?’’ My tone did little to hide that I was tired of his games.

‘’That particular star only took six hours to collapse.’’

My mind came to a halt. ‘’No, that - that shouldn’t be possible,’’ I mumbled in disbelief while my brain tried to process the information.

It should have taken years for a star of that size to collapse. It made no sense, unless…

I turned around and stared at the black mass in the pit. My pulse started to quicken as the pieces fell into their places. ‘’This is…’’ my voice died and I had to take a sharp breath as I turned back around, ‘’what have you done?’’

‘’I’ve created the most powerful weapon in the universe. I've done the impossible and made an artificial black hole and created a way to harvest its power. Imagine the satisfaction when I proved that it could make a star or a planet’s core collapse in on itself within mere hours,’’ he answered proudly, looking immensely satisfied with the look of realization on my face.

‘’It took me twenty years to develop the first prototype, but the waiting was more than acceptable when my very first test went so well,’’ he continued with an almost fond look on his face.

 My mouth went dry. ‘’Test? You killed all those people in a test? You took my father away from me in a fucking test?’’ I spat out the last word like it was toxic and I could feel the anger making my skin hot.

‘’Every test needs a subject to be effective. If it’s any consolation, I attempted to retrieve your father. Nothing I tried worked, sadly. I would have liked to study what his body had been exposed to in an artificial black hole. It would most likely have been extraordinary.’’ He smiled at me while he spoke, taunting me.

‘’You’re a monster!’’ I snapped at him and balled my fists in anger.

‘’No, Eiso, I’m doing what no one else can in the favor of the Empire. Imagine how quickly our territory will grow when people know what will happen if they oppose us. The Union won’t stand a chance against us.’’

‘’Murder makes you a monster!’’

‘’Sacrifices are necessary for success! I’m sure your father would have been proud to-‘’ I lunged at him before he could finish his sentence.

My sudden charge caught him off guard, giving me the opportunity to ram my shoulder into his midsection before he could properly aim. Adrenalin and anger had my pulse racing while I tackled him to the ground and immediately worked on getting the blaster away from him.

Caine groaned loudly when we hit the floor and his head banged against it. For a split second, I hoped that I could take advantage of this, but he fought back with no hesitation and nearly managed to throw me off him. However, I managed to straddle him hard enough to stay put while trying to grab the blaster.

Another surge of adrenalin rushed through me as I finally did, but my success was short lived. The second after I’d pushed it out of his hand and away from us, one of his grabbed a handful of my hair and yanked my head back. I groaned loudly and went to grab his wrist to stop him but my attention quickly went to his other hand when it closed around my throat.

‘’You little bitch,’’ he hissed and tightened his grip, ‘’you dare to think that you’re going to stop me?’’

Fear overwhelmed me.

Suddenly, the feeling of having even just a slight upper hand was gone. Instead, it felt like I was back on the floor with his boot against my throat. I inhaled sharply and grabbed his wrist with both my hands, digging my nails into his skin in panic. He didn’t flinch and clearly enjoyed having power over me, smiling when I gasped for air.

‘’Helpless little thing, aren’t you?’’ He smiled at me and further tightened his grip.

His arrogance refueled my anger.

It overtook my fear and drove it out of my head, reminding me that I was anything but helpless and, besides the hands around my throat, he had no power over me. This time, there was no little remote that would cause me suffering by the simple push of a button.

Realizing all of this, I let go of his wrist and balled my right hand into a fist before punching him straight in the face as hard as I could. He groaned loudly and pulled both his hands back to cover his face. Ignoring the faint throbbing in my hand, I seized the opportunity and dove forwards, reaching for the blaster.

I almost had it within my grasp when a hand grabbed my ankle and pulled me back, resulting in only my fingertips brushing against the blaster. While uttering an angry snarl, Caine pulled me back towards him, making me huff in frustration before refocusing my attention on him. He looked absolutely furious and had blood running from his nose, making him resemble a wild, injured animal.

Wanting to get free from his grip, I flipped over on my back and went to kick him away from me by aiming at his face. He barely managed to dodge but quickly took advantage of my now defenseless position, giving my ankle another hard pull towards him.

‘’I’m going to kill you, Eiso,’’ he sneered as he was forcing himself on top of me.

‘’Like hell you are,’’ I grunted while struggling against him.

Much to my dismay, my struggling wasn’t very useful so I quickly resorted to a tactic I knew had worked earlier. Although I couldn’t get as much force behind it as before, I punched him again, this time hitting his right cheek. He hissed a string of curse words at me while his left hand grabbed my right wrist in a crushing grip. I yanked it back repeatedly, hoping to get my hand free, but I quickly realized that it was to no use.

Accepting that my hand was momentarily useless, I used all my strength on trying to throw him off by bucking my hips upwards, but it didn’t even seem to annoy him the slightest. I felt the frustration reappear, mixing with anger when I wasn’t able to throw a full-grown man off me. I was quickly distracted from those two emotions when he returned the favor and struck me in my face.

Pain bloomed across the left side of my face and mouth, making me groan in pain. I could feel a drop of something warm run down from my bottom lip, telling me that it had split open.

‘’I’m a man of my word,’’ he spoke in a harsh tone, ‘’and you’re too troublesome for me to waste further time on.’’

Proving his point, both of Caine’s hands promptly closed around my throat. I took a sharp breath as panic seized me again, and it only worsened when I felt his thumb brush over my throat and saw a look of pure delight in his eyes. I gripped his wrists and immediately tried to pry them off me while I struggled; now desperately trying to throw him off.

‘’You’re weak,’’ he huffed while leaning closer to me and keeping our eyes locked, ‘’like a bug that can’t escape from being stepped on.’’

My reply was a mere grunt and a glare, but it would have been a lot more descriptive if the lack of air hadn’t prevented me from speaking.

‘’Maybe I should let you join your father and just dump you into my beautiful creation instead?’’ He wondered before smiling at me. ‘’I do enjoy this a lot more, though.’’

All I could hear was his spiteful words and my own pulse drumming away in my ears. Gradually getting more and more lightheaded, I knew I had to do something if I planned on leaving this room alive. My mind went to the blaster that was somewhere on the floor next to us.

Maybe, just maybe…

Hopefulness spurred me on, but it was quickly shot down when I realized that the grip around my throat was too tight for me to even turn my head. If I could, I would have cursed loudly to express my frustration, but I had to settle for a groan. In the next moment, I remembered that it wasn’t the only blaster in the room. My right hand moved down to my hip, searching for the one I was hoping was still attached to my belt.

Caine was too occupied with choking me to notice that one of my hands had abandoned his wrist, and I kept myself from showing the rush of emotions I felt when my hand closed around the handle of my blaster. My fingers struggled with the holster while I gasped desperately for air, and my vision was beginning to darken when I finally got it free.

As quick as I could, I flicked the safety off and pressed it against his ribcage. Right then, I saw the look of realization on his face when he felt it. His expression changed a split second later and I watched as his face twisted in both anger and pain when I pulled the trigger.

He let out a loud groan and withdrew both his hands as he went to clutch his side, leaving me to take multiple greedy gulps of air as he fell to the side. I jerked away from him and got to my feet as quickly as I could, immediately slumping against the nearby console while I tried to catch my breath.

Slowly, as I watched how Caine remained still while a pool of blood started to form beneath him, I slid further and further down. When the adrenalin had fully left my system, my legs finally gave out and left me on the ground. My glance stayed fixated on Caine and I stayed where I was, not even moving when I could hear the elevator doors open.

‘’Tess?! What the hell-!’’ Atlas was yelling the second he spotted me. I figured that he was most likely mad about me disappearing but it seemed like he momentarily forgot about it when he saw Caine on the floor. He didn’t say another word until he was next to me and had grabbed my shoulders. ‘’Hey, look at me.’’

I forced my eyes away from Caine and looked up at Atlas’ worried face. He kneeled down next to me before cradling my face with his hands. ‘’You alright?’’

‘’I shot him.’’

‘’You did good.’’

‘’I – I think he’s dead.’’

‘’By the looks of it, it would have been you on that floor if you hadn’t shot him,’’ he spoke quietly while he tipped my head up, referring to the marks that had appeared on my throat. His thumb on my chin guided my head back down so that our eyes could meet again. They lingered there for a moment before moving down, narrowing a bit when he noticed my lip. ‘’You look like shit.’’

His remark had me snorting and smiling faintly. ‘’Thanks.’’

‘’You’re welcome. Now, come on, we don’t have a lot of time.’’ He stood back up and offered me a hand.

I took it and shot a quick glance at Caine’s lifeless body while I got back on my feet. ‘’I’m guessing one of the scientists explained the situation to you?’’

‘’Only the part about you being an idiot and going up here alone. Didn’t stick around for the rest of the story.’’

‘’So you snatched a keycard and just got on the elevator without knowing a single thing because you thought I was in trouble?’’

‘’I was mad at you,’’ he muttered and looked away from me, a faint blush appearing in his cheeks.

I moved closer to him and snaked my arms over his shoulders and around his neck. ‘’You’re really cute,’’ I spoke with a smile before guiding him down to a height where I could kiss him. Despite my intentions, it quickly ended when I had to wince because of my split lip.

He grumbled something about how he was absolutely not cute but I simply ignored his objections. Instead, I turned and looked at the main console on the platform. I started to walk towards it, prompting Atlas to notice the huge, menacing pit for the first time.

‘’What the hell is this?’’ He asked while following me.

‘’An artificial black hole. Caine figured out how to create one and harvest its powers. This construction stabilizes the energy and turns it into a beam that can be fired,’’ I explained while hesitantly stepping onto the platform, ready to jump back if the failsafe triggered. When it didn’t drop, I continued towards the console.

‘’So, it’s a giant beam of death. Thought we already knew that.’’

‘’Yeah, but we didn’t know what the bream actually was or what it did. It’s…,’’ I paused and turned around, looking at him as he came to a stop in front of me.

He narrowed his eyes slightly. ‘’I’m not going to like what you’re about to tell me, am I?’’

My eyes flickered down while I took a quick breath. ‘’No, you’re not. Caine told me what it does. The beam… it - it makes a star or a planet’s core collapse. I can’t explain the exact science behind it, but it must be able to transfer the energy of the black hole into the core, somehow. Caine… the first time he tested it, the core only took six hours to collapse and trigger a supernova.’’ I watched his expression shift as I spoke.

Judging by the anger that settled in it, I didn’t have to explain any further. A range of emotions followed anger, and I realized that despite how hard it had been for me to hear, it could only be worse for the single survivor that had experienced it firsthand. He stayed quiet for a moment, eventually looking over his shoulder.

‘’I swear if that bastard wasn’t dead already…’’ He didn’t finish his sentence and instead looked back at me. ‘’Black hole or not, the bombs should completely destroy this place, so why are we still here?’’

‘’Because Caine had someone make a failsafe after I got away. If something happens to this place while it’s still active, it’s going to trigger, which will make this platform plummet into the pit below and send all the information to the Empire. They’ll be able to start the progress anew and rebuild this monstrosity.’’ I moved to the console while speaking, tapping away at the keyboard to see what I was working with.

‘’And how long will that take?’’ He asked as he stepped closer to me.

‘’Honestly, I have no idea but I’m aware that I have to hurry. If they’ve stuck to the plan, they should be placing the bombs now.’’

Because of my time here, I was familiar with the system and how Caine wanted things to be programmed. The failsafe itself was hidden behind passwords, firewalls, and other security measures, making me frown when I learned how protected it was. However, it became clear that the person programming them had been rushed to finish it. That said, there weren’t any obvious entry points at first, but there were holes that had been more carelessly finished than others. As I went on, it appeared like the carelessness was actually weak points created intentionally.

‘’How does it look?’’

‘’I think… whoever made this somehow managed to make it look more secure than it is. They’ve left weak points, but it’s still going to take me a minute to disable it. If I’m lucky, I can distract some of the data as well.’’

‘’Tess, we’re here to destroy it. Why the hell would you extract the data?’’

‘’Caine said that he’d tried to find my dad. That’s the data I want. What if he got close to finding him without realizing it?’’

‘’Tess-‘’

‘’I could use it to continue looking for him. I need to-‘’

‘’Tess, listen to me,’’ Atlas grabbed my arm and used it to make me look at him, ‘’we both know that Will is gone. You’re chasing a ghost. You need to realize that and let him go. No one has ever been seen after disappearing into a black hole, artificial or not.’’ I could tell that he was trying to sound calm, but his tone came out a little harsh, contrasting the worried look in his eyes.

Still, no matter what his intention was, it wasn’t his tone that made me scoff at him. ‘’I’m NOT giving up on finding him, Atlas,’’ I yanked my arm back, ‘’not until I have definite proof that he’s actually dead.’’ I went back to working on the console when I was done talking, making it very clear that I wasn’t the slightest interested in continuing the subject.

If he wasn’t interested in helping me, then I was fine with it, but I wasn’t about to let him stop me.

He stayed silent after that and simply watched me work. There was a tension between us but I quickly forgot about it as I worked. Despite it being a little easier than I had first expected, it didn’t help that I had to hack my way into such an important thing while being under time pressure. If it did trigger, then all of this had been in vain and we’d only succeeded in momentarily stopping the Empire from taking over the universe.

‘’Here we go,’’ I mumbled as I managed to pass the first round of security. I leaned closer in concentration, fully aware that one wrong move could trigger the failsafe and make the platform we were standing on plummet into the darkness below. For what felt like the hundredth time that day, my pulse drummed away in my ears.

‘’Getting somewhere?’’

‘’Yeah, it’s going to take a little while, though. The guy who programmed this might have left a few weak spots intentionally, but that doesn’t mean that I can easily get past them.’’

 ‘’Alright. I’m going back down to see how if I can buy you some more time, then. I don’t trust captain asshat and his crew of idiots to not fuck something up.’’

I nodded absentmindedly while I worked on getting past the firewall. ‘’I’ll see you down there.’’

Given the disagreement about the data, I’d expected him to leave right away. Instead, he lingered, apparently hesitating before finally making up his mind.

‘’Look at me for a second.’’

For a very brief moment, I considered not doing it, but the insecurity in his voice made me curious. The look on his face matched his tone, and I felt my expression soften.

‘’Look, I’m sorry if I was being a jerk. It’s just… I’ve seen what some people become when they can’t let something go, and it’s not a pretty sight,’’ he explained.

I felt the tension in my shoulders leave as I looked at him. ‘’I know I’m grasping at straws here, but I just need to see what kind of information Caine found. If there’s nothing there and those coordinates lead to nothing, then there’s not much more I can do. I’m fully aware of that, so don’t worry.’’

He simply looked at me before eventually exhaling sharply through his nose, apparently accepting my answer. ‘’When all of this is done, I’ll take you to those coordinates.’’

‘’I’ll hold you to that.’’ I showed him a small smile that made him look more relaxed.

‘’Try not to get into any trouble for five minutes,’’ he spoke while he started to head for the elevator.

‘’Unlike you, I don’t make any promises,’’ I replied as I turned my attention back to the console.

I could hear him chuckle while he got further away. The sound made my smile broaden as I worked and I picked up the pace so that I could get back down to the others as well.

Based on the sound of his footsteps, Atlas was a couple of feet away from the platform when a loud boom erupted somewhere beneath us. I stopped working and glanced towards Atlas, wanting to see his reaction. He had stopped walking and our eyes met as he turned around. Confusion showed in both our expressions but it was quickly replaced by something close to alertness when a loud beep played from someplace above us.

It all went by in a flash.

The beep acted like the gunshot at the start of a race, making us both break into a run towards each other. He roared my name in desperation when multiple clicks above told me that the cables had just been detached from the ceiling. In the following second, I could feel the floor beneath my feet disappearing.

Our eyes met right as he got back to where the platform had only just been connected to the rest of the floor. He dropped to his knees while a look of helplessness settled on his face as I started falling.

He shouted my name again, almost sounding like a gutted animal, and the echo of it was the last thing I heard as it followed me down and into the darkness that swallowed me whole.

Chapter Text

Darkness.

There was nothing but darkness.

Fear and the anticipation of pain had my whole body tensed up while I waited for a sign my existence was about to end.

At some point, it felt like I had stopped falling, but it was impossible to tell how much time had passed. Since nothing had happened yet, and I was still alive, it gave me plenty of time for my brain to comprehend what had just happened.

Immediately, the miserable expression on Atlas’ face appeared in my mind. The thought that this would most likely be another burden on his conscience made my heart clench painfully. It quickly got worse when I imagined him waking up from a nightmare alone with that wild, haunted look in his eyes, and I wasn’t there to help him calm down.

As much as I didn’t want to believe it, I couldn’t stop myself from acknowledging that I might never be at his side again.

I took a sharp breath and went to rub my eyes when they started to sting. As if things couldn’t get worse, the Empire still had all the required data to rebuild the weapon and I had actually killed a man. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t stop myself crying when everything felt so overwhelming.

Just as I tried to keep a sob back, I felt a prick in the back of my mind. A second later, what felt like a large, invisible hand closed around my head and yanked me back, pulling me somewhere through the endless void. I screamed from the very second something grabbed me and I didn’t stop until it let me go.

Unlike before, I didn’t go back to floating and actually landed on my feet.

I took a sharp breath to gather my nerves after the downright strange experience. Whatever it was, at least it had momentarily made me think about something else than Atlas.

‘’Tess?’’

I froze when someone actually spoke behind me. As if that wasn’t strange enough, it was a voice I knew.

Not really believing it, I turned around slowly.

In front of me stood a blond man with a soft smile, freckles scattered across his face, and kind eyes. Seeing the well-known Union pilot jacket had tears welling up in my eyes again and my lip quivering.

‘’… Dad?’’

‘’Hey Tessie.’’

I didn’t move a muscle. Hearing my old nickname was a strange sensation, and it caused a chill to run down my spine. ‘’It this… are you real?’’ I asked hesitantly.

‘’I sure hope so,’’ he chuckled, ‘’otherwise, I might have wasted a lot of time being stuck here.’’

His reply was enough to convince me and I closed the short distance between us with a few quick steps.

He opened his arms and pulled me into a tight hug as soon as he could. I crushed myself against him, still not fully believing that he was in front of me. After a moment of just hugging, we both drew away. His hands moved up and framed my face while his eyes studied me.

‘’Just look at you. You’ve grown so much.’’ He smiled at me, his eyes crinkling in the corners as I remembered.

‘’I would be impressed if I hadn’t changed in seven years,’’ I joked.

His smile turned bittersweet, which made my own falter.

‘’I’m sorry. I didn’t know it had been so long…’’ He admitted before brushing a few stray curls behind my ear. ‘’You don’t feel time passing in here.’’

‘’You got pulled into a black hole, dad, I don’t blame you for losing track of time. I would like an explanation of this place, though. Are we stuck here?’’ I asked as the image of Atlas flashed through my mind again.

‘’The only thing I can tell you about this place is that when you stay here for long enough, you’re no longer just a human. I don’t know how you got here, but the raw energy pulled you apart and left you in pieces. I used all of my own to put you back together as quickly as I could. I didn’t want you to change as I’ve done,’’ he explained before smiling softly when he saw the confused look on my face. ‘’I’m a part of this place now, Tessie, just like it’s a part of me.’’

‘’So I can actually get out of here again?’’

My pulse quickened when he nodded. So I wasn’t condemned to floating around in empty space for all eternity. I could actually get out and back to Atlas. Back to the crew. A sudden burst of happiness and relief rushed through me, lasting for about a couple of seconds before I realized what he had said.

He couldn’t leave with me.

‘’But, dad-‘’ I started when the thought of losing him again settled in my head, overshadowing everything else.

‘’No buts, you know that,’’ he interrupted me and pinched my cheek, ‘’I’m stuck here but you can still leave, so let’s not change that, alright?’’

‘’Dad, I’m serious! I’m still not fully convinced that I’m not dead because the thought of us actually having this conversation in a black hole is absurd in so many ways.’’

‘’Listen, I can’t explain the science behind this, but you’re most certainly not dead and not yet stuck here. I know none of this makes any sense, but you have to trust me. As absurd as all of this is, it’s real.’’

I frowned at him while I thought it over. Deep down, I knew he had to be right and I definitively wanted to believe him if it meant that I could get out and find Atlas and the crew again. I sighed before speaking. ‘’Fine, but I have some questions.’’

‘’You can get three questions then you’re out, got it?’’ He negotiated with me like he’d done when I was little and had begged him for one more goodnight story.

It was hard not to smile a little.

‘’Five questions.’’

‘’Three.’’

‘’Four.’’

‘’Fine… Four questions.’’ He gave in with a sigh.

My smile widened. ‘’I can live with four.’’

‘’Good, then shoot.’’

‘’Did you send me a message?’’

‘’Yes, although I wasn’t sure if it had worked.’’

‘’What's special about those coordinates?’’

‘’They're the backdoor to this place, which is also from where you’ll leave. I realized it was here when my mind and the energies here had merged. I was hoping you’d be able to find it and, well… me.’’ His explanation also answered the next question I had lined up.

‘’So I can come back to see you,’’ I thought out loud when the relief of knowing that I could come back soothed some sadness that lingered in my chest. However, the relief only lasted until the next question formed in my head. ‘’You said that being here changes you. Has it changed me in the time I was a human puzzle?’’ I asked with a mixture of curiosity and nervousness. The idea of walking out of here without being my normal self was anything but pleasant.

‘’I can’t say for sure... as far as I know, you shouldn’t have been here long enough for it to be something big, so it might be something small or there might be no changes at all,’’ he admitted almost hesitantly, looking as worried as I was. ‘’From what I can tell, there are no physical changes, at least.’’

His reply didn’t do much to calm my nerves, so I took a deep breath before speaking. ‘’Only time can tell, I guess.’’

‘’I’m sorry I can’t give you a better answer, Tessie. I did what I could to get you back to who you were when you entered this place.’’

‘’It’s okay, I’m just happy that I’m still in one piece, so thank you for that.’’ I smiled at him and watched how his expression softened again. ‘’Okay, last question, how did you manage to send that message?’’

‘’As I said, I’ve become one with this place. The energy here is… chaotic and powerful, but I think I’m starting to understand how to use it. The message was an experiment to see if I could manipulate something outside of here. It took me a while and I tried multiple times, but I’m not sure, which of my tries succeeded. I’m still a long way from using it even somewhat properly,’’ he told me while looking a little proud of himself. ‘’Now, we don’t have much more time and I have a question for you.’’ He took a quick breath while his expression changed into something fragile. ‘’My squad… what happened to them?’’ He asked in a small voice.

I could tell how much this affected him. After all, I knew how much his squad had meant to him and after hearing how Atlas had praised him as their leader; it wasn’t an easy question for me to answer.

‘’After you got sucked into the black hole, it turned into a supernova… Only one of them made it out alive.’’

Grief settled in his expression and I felt my heart drop because of it. I’d always hated seeing him like this.

‘’I… I had hoped that more of them had made it. They were good men and deserved a lot better than dying like that…’’ he spoke quietly while his eyes lingered on the floor. After a slight pause, he looked at me again. ‘’Who was the survivor?’’

‘’Atlas Molniya… They made him the squadron leader but he left the Union shortly after. ‘’ I paused briefly, taking a second to decide how much more I should tell him. A moment later, I decided to tell him the truth. ‘’Listen, dad,’’ I started and proceeded to tell him the short version of what my life had been like for the past months, starting with how the Empire had shown up at my doorstep and ending with how I had gotten here.

He stayed quiet as I spoke but he was obviously surprised by how I had managed to bump into Atlas. I downplayed how well we knew each other, but, judging by how he started to smile faintly, he probably had an idea, but he didn’t comment on it. Instead, he simply pulled me into a tight hug.

I returned the embrace and neither of us spoke for a moment, simply relishing the fact that we could share a hug for the first time in seven years.

‘’You have to get going now, Tessie. I wish it had been under different circumstances, but I’m happy that I got to see you,’’ he spoke fondly and gave me a squeeze before letting me go.

‘’Me too, dad.’’ I smiled at him while I tried to ignore the fact that my eyes were getting wet again.

His smile grew a little as he framed my face and used his thumbs to wipe a few stray tears off from my cheeks. If the whole situation hadn’t been so absurd and unreal, it would probably have hit me harder than it did. Maybe it was because I still wasn’t one hundred percent convinced that I wasn’t dead, or that this could be something my mind had thrown together as I drifted around in some sort of limbo state.

‘’Good, now turn around.’’ I followed his instructions and stood with my back against him. ‘’Can you see the little light there?’’

A light appeared in the distance, flickering like it was trying to catch my attention.

‘’Yes.’’

‘’Go towards it and don’t stop. It will lead you outside. Promise me you’ll be careful out there,’’ he spoke while placing his hands on my shoulders, almost making it seem like he wasn’t completely ready to let me go yet.

When I nodded again, he gave them a quick squeeze before giving me a soft push, sending me on my way.

‘’I’ll come back to visit, I promise,’’ I told him once I had taken a few steps forward.

‘’I’ll be waiting,’’ he replied behind me, sounding a lot further away than he should have.

However, I didn’t turn around and headed straight for the light. When I realized that it was actually getting bigger, I broke into a run. Now desperate to get out and actually prove that I was still alive, I didn’t look back or slow down, only using my hand to shield my eyes from the brightness of the light as it grew.

The second after I had to fully close my eyes, I felt a force push me from behind. Suddenly, I was no longer moving but standing still on my feet. My heart was racing away while I tentatively opened my eyes.

Lush, green flora spread out before me, momentarily making me catch my breath because I’d never seen anything like it. Then, when a breeze flew by and caressed my face, I feel to my knees. The tall grass around me rustled in the wind and brushed against my bare arms, making my skin tingle.

I was out.

More importantly, I was still alive.

My eyes closed when an intense feeling of relief washed over me like a tidal wave.

For a long moment, my mind was focused on the fact that I was still alive. However, it was eventually replaced by two pressing questions: where was I and how long had I been gone?

The need for answers got me back on my feet and had me looking around for any useful information.

 I was standing on the edge of a green, tropical looking forest, and behind me was the entrance to what looked like a cave. I knew it had to be the back entrance that I had just walked out of, but it looked nothing out of the ordinary and nearly had me doubting it because of the normal appearance. I quickly brushed the thoughts aside and focused on the forest ahead of me instead. Knowing that it had to be my way away from here, I started wandering in a random direction.

Despite my efforts to try and stop it, my mind drifted into the negative path.

What if I had been away for a week? Or even a month? What had happened to the others? To Atlas? What if they hadn’t gotten away in time or Tyberius-

No. No. I shook my head to stop myself from going further down that trail of thoughts, forcing myself to only focus on finding any signs that could lead me to some kind of civilization. It was hard to tell how long I had been running, but, much to my luck, I eventually stumbled out from the lush flora and onto a small path.

All the running caught up to me the second I set foot on even ground and I had to stop to catch my breath. Standing still, I could feel how my leg muscles were stinging from exhaustion, telling me that I would most likely not be running anywhere else today. Realizing that, I took a moment to look in both directions, hoping that something would give me an idea of where to go.

It had gotten darker since I’d left the cave, so my eyes went to the sky just above the tree line. Maybe it was just my imagination, but it looked like it was lighter at the right. Double-checking the left side and the disappearing sun’s position, I followed my gut feeling and went to the right.

My muscles started to protest when I took the first step, but I didn’t dare to stop. I knew that negative thoughts would flood my mind if I didn’t keep going and I really didn’t have time for a panic attack. To counter it, I took deep breaths and focused on seeing the crew again, especially Atlas. As it gradually got darker around me, my thoughts went back to the night we had lain together under projected stars. I remembered how softly he mad smiled while the faint glow of the stars illuminating his features so beautifully as I leaned in to kiss him.

I held on to that memory, which now felt like it had happened long ago, and I didn’t think of anything else, not even when I spotted a small city on the horizon. Instead, I replayed it in my head, recalling how his large hand had caressed my back in soothing motions, only stopping when I finally reached the border of the city.

Whatever this place was, it was smaller than any place I’d been before. The buildings were old and all the apartment blocks were similar, giving me the impression that this place was probably a small colony somewhere in a neutral section.

Streetlamps were starting to turn on and a few of them flickered, barely illuminating the empty streets. Despite the emptiness of the streets around me, I could hear yelling and laughing somewhere in the distance, so I followed the sounds with the hope of finding someone I could speak to.

I followed the sounds down a side street and caught a glimpse of three people as they went back inside a building that strongly resembled a bar. Normally, I would have hesitated before walking into a place I didn’t know, but I was too desperate to be hesitant. It drove me forwards and I followed them inside, briefly pausing when the humid air hit me in the face when I opened the door. Music and chatter filled my ears as I stepped inside, making me feel a little more at ease as I took a look around.

The place wasn’t packed and the majority of the people were sitting together or standing at the bar in groups, looking like they were unwinding after work. I noticed a few of them looking at me but I didn’t think too much about it and approached the bar. A large man with blue skin and short, silver hair, watched me approach him and leaned against the bar, waiting for me to place an order.

‘’Excuse me, can you tell me what day it is?’’ I asked with a polite smile, hoping that he wouldn’t laugh at my ridicules question. In reality, I was prepared for him to laugh, but I wasn’t expecting him to merely grunt at me before speaking in a language I’d never heard before.

‘’Wait, I-‘’ I reached for the tablet I usually had attached to my belt, wanting to use its translator program, but it wasn’t there. The man spoke to me in a dismissive tone and nodded towards the door before moving his attention to someone next to me. ‘’No, wait, please. I need help.’’ I raised my voice to regain his attention but he simply ignored me.

Mild panic started to appear in the back of my head. I parted my lips to speak again, desperate for him to hear me, but a woman next to him spoke before I could.

‘’You can forget about him, he doesn’t anything else than Kaix and Zeria,’’ she told me with a heavy dialect while tilting her head to the side. Her emerald green skin was beautifully contrasted by her pitch black hair and matching eyes, which studied me closely while she was restocking glasses with all four of her hands.

‘’Please, I need your help. I know this is going to sound absolutely crazy, but I have no idea where I am or what day it is,’’ I explained to her, trying not to sound as panicked as I felt, but I could hear that I had done a poor job. ‘’Please!’’

She continued to study me for a moment before saying something to her colleague. Then, she put the glasses she was holding down and gestured for me to follow her. ‘’Come with me.’’

I didn’t hesitate and followed her, making my way past a group of people and through a door that was hidden away in the back of the bar. She led me down a small hallway and stopped in front of a door. ‘’Hurry. I don’t have all night,’’ she said as she opened the door and went inside.

I picked up my pace and hurriedly joined her in the room. As I closed the door behind me, I took a quick look around while she settled into one of the two chairs next to a small table. Based on the bed and the rest of the furniture and decorations, I got the impression that this was her private room.

‘’What’s your name?’’

‘’Tess.’’

‘’I’m Marah. So, let me guess. Finally scored enough money to get off one of the moon colonies?’’

‘’Moon colonies? I-‘’

‘’Or did you come here with your friends and smoked a bunch of Silver Irises? That stuff will fuck up your kidneys.’’

‘’No, I’m-‘’

‘’You can be honest. I don’t judge.’’

‘’Listen to me!’’ I raised my voice in annoyance. ‘’I’m not from any moon colony and I didn’t smoke anything! I woke up in the forest and found my way here by sheer luck! I don’t even know what date we have!’’ I explained with a huff.

She stared at me for a moment while frowning at me, clearly not appreciating my tone. ‘’Alright, calm your tits. I have to listen to enough yelling later during my shift,’’ she sighed before picking up a tablet from the table. ‘’What’s the last thing you remember?’’

Her question made me hesitate.

How much could I tell her? It was too late to fake amnesia, and I didn’t want to give her any more reasons to think that I was crazy. I decided to focus on what was most important to me right then. ‘’The date… please just tell me today’s date.’’

‘’Which system?’’

‘’Eros,’’ I replied while she turned on the tablet.

‘’It’s… the fourth day in the ninth cycle.’’

A chill ran down my spine. ‘’The-the ninth cycle? Are you sure?’’

‘’Yeah, says so right here,’’ she spoke while handing me her tablet.

Despite how little I wanted to believe it, she was right, but it didn’t make it any easier to progress. My whole body went rigid while my mind came to a complete stop.

‘’So, how many days did you miss?’’ She asked after a long moment of silence.

There was no way that I could tell her the truth.

‘’Two,’’ I lied, doing my best not to choke up.

‘’Shit... Got any way to contact some people?’’

I shook my head. My tablet was back on the Promise, and I didn’t even have an ID on me or any credits. Nothing.

‘’Give me a second.’’ She got up from the chair and went to the other side of the room where she grabbed a communicator from the top of a dresser. When the other person picked up, she switched into a language I didn’t understand. As fascinated as it sounded, I couldn’t think about anything else than the date.

It was a lot worse than I had hoped.

It hadn’t been a couple of days and it hadn’t been a week.

Six months…. I had been gone for six whole months.

‘’Alright, I’ve got a friend who owes me a favor. He’s flying to Keris tomorrow and I got you a ride. You should be able to get home from there. We have a spare room you can crash in tonight,’’ she spoke and put her communicator back on the dresser. ‘’Come on.’’

I mumbled a low thanks and got up before following her into the hallway again. We only passed two doors before she stopped and opened the third one, revealing a room that looked similar to hers but with less furniture and decorations.

‘’I’m figuring you might want some time alone, plus I have to get back to work. I’ll bring you some food later, okay?’’

‘’Thank you,’’ I replied quietly and walked inside.

She closed the door behind me, leaving me to slump against the wall as soon as I could. Finally, everything hit me at once and I slid down to the floor, barely keeping a sob in while I hugged my knees and leaned my head against one of them.

Every single negative thought from before flooded my mind like a tidal wave had just washed over me and carried me away. As quickly as they had all emerged, one of them stood out and kept being repeated by a voice that was getting louder and louder.

If Atlas didn’t believe that my dad was still alive, did he think any differently about me?

The memory of him shouting my name in such a gutted way filled my head, and I struggled to keep myself from imagining the worst.

Six months…

‘’Shit,’’ I muttered and wiped my eyes when I couldn’t stop myself from picturing how devastated he would be. ‘’Shit, shit, shit,’’ I huffed when the tears started to roll down my cheeks. Taking a sharp breath, I did my best to calm down by telling myself that I wouldn’t get anything out of crying.

It didn’t work.

Three seconds later, I was a bawling mess on the floor.

I let myself cry until I couldn’t cry anymore. Then, I kept telling myself the same thing over and over.

Somehow, I would get back to them.

I would find my way back to Atlas, no matter what.

The words were still clear in my head the next day as I stepped onto a small transport ship that would take me to Keris, the nearest transport space station in this section.

I had no idea how I was going to do it or what I was about to throw myself into, I just knew that I wasn’t a quitter.

I was going to find my way to the Promise.

Chapter Text

‘’Tess.’’

Big, warm hands circled around me, pulling me closer to their owner.

‘’Tess,’’ he whispered my name again next to my ear, his breath caressing my skin because of how close we were. It was followed by his lips pressing against the soft spot behind my ear, coaxing a low sigh out of me.

‘’Wake up,’’ he whispered again but his voice sounded further away this time.

Slightly confused, I went to turn my head while my eyes fluttered open, but everything was pitch black. When I tried to call out for him, it was like my throat had been tied shut.

‘’Where are you?’’ His question echoed around me, the miserableness in it making my heart drop.

I tried calling out for him again but I couldn’t speak.

‘’I need you back, Tess.’’

Then, without a warning, the hands withdrew and the sensation of his body against mine vanished, only leaving the memory of warmth behind.

‘’I need you to come back to me!’’ He pleaded, his voice getting louder.

I tried to scream and reach for him, but no sound came out and my hands found nothing.

‘’WAKE UP!’’

I gasped for air like I had been starved of it while I flew up in a sitting position.

My mind was in shambles and it took a couple of seconds for me to realize where I was.

The old engine of the outdated freighter hummed away in the engine room further down the hallway, mixing with the sounds of my rapid breathing. While I was trying to get my breathing under control, the engine groaned and sputtered like an old man as we drifted towards a planet called Skov.

I had wasted two weeks on Keris before finding a ship that was headed further towards the inner systems while also having at least one crew member that could understand me. During those two weeks, I had tried to find as much information as I could, mainly about where I was and where the Promise could be.

Much to my disappointment, I hadn’t learned anything about the Promise and its crew. Instead, I had only learned how far out I actually was in the outer rims. If I had my own ship, I would take me at least a month and a half of nonstop flying to get back to Abelas.

I had been lucky to negotiate my way on to the Phoenix, an old freighter ship that was headed to Skov, which was supposed to have the biggest spaceport in this system. Since the ship was so old, it didn’t have the capacity to go into jump drive, meaning that the trip would take a week.

The captain, Rexal, had only agreed on letting me fly with them because I had offered to work for him since I had no credits to pay with. It was hard work but it gave me something else to think about than the recurring nightmares.

Having gained control of my breathing, I ran a hand through my hair before touching my neck, feeling how damp it was. The nightmares were getting worse…

I lay back down on the thin mattress, momentarily missing the comfort of Atlas’ bed. Even the couch in the lounge was for more comfortable than this, but it was the only thing available. Rolling over on my side, I wrapped the blanket around me while I filled my mind with the memory of Atlas’ bare chest against my own while his arms held me like I was something precious. I remembered the silly conversations we’d have in bed and his warm chuckle, letting it all soothe me as I drifted back to sleep.

 

‘’It’s a shame you’re headed for the inner systems. Could have used someone with your skills,’’ Rexal grunted while standing next to me. Despite being a huge, beefy, intimidating man with turquoise hair and matching beard, he was very sweet and had been nothing but nice to me during the last week.

‘’Yeah well, I have some unfinished business there,’’ I replied while giving him a weak smile.

‘’Give me a call if you ever change your mind. Here,’’ he spoke while handing me a small pouch. ‘’It’s not much but it should be enough for a couple of meals.’’

Normally, I wouldn’t have accepted it, but since I had nothing and had no idea how long I would be here, I thanked him profusely before accepting the pouch of credits. He quickly became bashful and hurriedly gave me a pat on the back when one of the crew members addressed him in a language I didn’t understand.

‘’We have to get going. They’re cutting some of our pay if we’re not back on time. Watch your back out there, alright?’’

‘’Of course. Thanks again.’’ I smiled.

He gave me a nod before joining his men and helping them with getting the cargo onto the ship. I watched them for a short moment before having a look around while I started to walk further inside the spaceport. The place was definitively livelier than Keris, but it still wasn’t comparable to places like Abelas and Kalios.

On Keris, I’d learned that the best places to get information about jobs were either the bars or a board, where crews could post any potential job openings and the like. The board seemed rather old fashioned, but since I didn’t have a tablet or any other way to get online, it would do just fine.

Luckily, I quickly found a large board with pieces of papers on it, but my luck didn’t last for long as the most of them were written in languages I had no idea how to read. Feeling a little deflated, I let out a huff and looked around, hoping to spot another one.

A similar board stood a few feet away. Based on the number of people standing in front of it, I figured that the jobs on it were probably better. I waited until the group had moved on after taking a few of the papers before going over to have a look at it. After just a second or two, I quickly realized that the jobs weren’t the usual kind.

The board was full of wanted posters from both the Empire and the Union.

I ran my eyes over the sea of people, scanning the photos that I could see because they weren’t hidden by newer wanted posters. A little wave of relief washed over me when I didn’t recognize anyone in the top layer. My curiosity had me flipping the ones on top away so that I could see the older ones, but, once again, I didn’t recognize anyone on the pictures.

As I took a step back towards the first board, my eyes randomly fell on a crooked one at the top right corner. I could only see the bottom of it, but the little bit of text I could see had my heartbeat quickening.

‘Eiso’ was written in bold letters.

After making sure that no one was looking in my direction, I quickly snatched the poster without looking at it. To my surprise, there was another one right beneath it with the same last name. I hurriedly took that one as well and folded them both in half so that no one could see what was on them. Then, while trying not to stand out, I walked away from the board and headed into a small alleyway for privacy. I stopped once I felt like I was far enough away from other people.

Telling myself how many other people I shared my last name with, I unfolded the two wanted posters.

On both of them, my own face was staring back at me.

It felt like the ground disappeared beneath me.

Just when I believed that the situation couldn’t get any worse, both the Union and the Empire had put a bounty on my head. I could somewhat understand the Empire’s reason, but why the Union had gained interest in me was a mystery, especially since I had been nonexistent for six months.

‘’Looking at your own wanted poster in a back alley really isn’t a good idea,’’ a man grunted next to me, startling me.

I jumped away from him in surprise and quickly went to tuck the papers away but his hand closed around my wrist before I could.

‘’Let go of me!’’ I protested and took a step back, trying to put some distance between us but he simply followed me.

‘’Now, now, no need to act like that.’’ The blonde man smiled at me as he pulled me closer while his other hand went behind his back.

‘’Fuck off!’’ I groaned and was about to try and shove him away from me when he brandished the knife he had just retrieved from the back of his belt. My plan to struggle was abandoned immediately and I froze instead.

‘’That’s better. Let’s not make this harder than it needs to be,’’ he spoke while twisting my arm to force me closer to him. ‘’Both the Union and the Empire wants you alive, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t show up with a few bruises, get my gist?’’

‘’Please, you don’t understand-‘’

‘’Listen, darling, I’ve been in this business for too long to fall for sob stories. If both of those fractions want a piece of you, then you must have done some serious shit.’’

‘’No, I’m serious, I haven’t done anything!’’ I protested again.

‘’Save your excuses for the Empire,’’ he huffed.

‘’Please!’’ I tried again and tried to get my hand free. I knew full and well that the Empire would never let it slip that they had me back in their custody, which meant that I would most likely never see Atlas or any of the others again. I couldn’t let that happen.

A mixture of slight panic and determination had me frantically thinking of a way to get away from him, but someone else beat me to it.

‘’Let her go.’’

Both of us looked up in surprise at the third person and the man immediately pointed his knife at them. A helmet kept their identity hidden, and the rest of their appearance didn’t give me any clues about it either.

The person already had their blaster drawn and pointed directly at the man.

‘’Listen, asshole, I’ve already claimed this one, so piss off,’’ the man sneered.

Clearly not giving one shit, the unknown person shot him right in the thigh.

‘’What the fuck!’’ He yelled as he stumbled and dropped his knife before falling against the wall next to us. His hand let go of me to support himself while cursing loudly.

Seeing my chance, I immediately went to remove myself from the chaotic scene, but my escape was cut short by the other person as they grabbed the back of my jacket. I attempted to wiggle my way out of it but stopped struggling the second I felt the muzzle of the blaster being pressed against my back.

‘’You’re coming with me. If you even think about struggling, you’re getting the same treatment as him,’’ they spoke and nodded towards the man, who was still cursing like it would make him feel better.  

When I nodded, they pressed the blaster against my side instead, keeping it hidden between us and their heavy jacket. Their hand grabbed my arm and used it to guide me in the opposite direction I had come from. I could feel my heart hammer away in my ribcage as they led me through the city, keeping to the backstreets where nobody glanced twice in our direction.

When we entered an area that looked like a slum, they stopped at one of the few that didn’t look like a complete ruin. The blaster was still firmly pressed against me as they removed their hand and retrieved a keycard to unlock the door. Once it was open, they quickly pushed me inside before closing the door.

I stumbled inside and was momentarily shocked by the salvaged tech and lit up screens around me. Blueprints of weapons and buildings, rapports bursting with information, wanted posters and the local news filled the screens, leaving me to wear a confused expression as I turned around to face my captor.

My confusion turned into shock when I realized that they had taken of their helmet.

Looking more ragged since the last time I saw her, the tall woman looked at me like she couldn’t quite believe what she was seeing either. The last time I had seen her, her long, black hair had been up in a bun, but now it was even longer and trapped in an unkempt braid.

‘’You’re supposed to be dead,’’ she spoke quietly while narrowing her eyes, clearly not trusting me.

‘’Dr. Maris,’’ I nearly whispered her name, still in a slight state of shock. Never had I expected to see the scientist that had recognized me and pressed me for answers back on the construction again, but there she was.

A sudden wave of clarity hit me. If she was here, then Atlas and the others had most likely gotten away as well. ‘’My group, what happened to them?’’ I asked while stepping closer to her.

Her immediate reaction was to aim her blaster at me. ‘’Stay back. I have no reason to believe you or that you’re really whom you appear to be, so I’m not answering any questions before you explain yourself first.’’

For a split second, I wanted to argue and insist that she answered my question first, but, deep down; I knew I would have done the same.

‘’I – I shot Caine,’’ I mumbled and had to pause when I saw how a look of shock settled on her face. I swallowed before continuing, telling her nearly everything that had happened up in the room, how I had found myself in a black hole and what I had been up to since.

Her face went through a range of expressions, clearly interested in my experiences but also having trouble with progressing what I was actually telling her.

‘’I know this sounds absolutely crazy and I’m well aware that no one has ever been found after entering a black hole, but I’m here in front of you.’’

‘’What you’re claiming to have experienced should be scientifically impossible.’’

‘’Trust me; I’m fully aware of that. It shouldn’t be possible for me to be here but I am. I don’t know what else to tell you.’’

She stared at me for a long time before finally lowering the blaster. ‘’If I had the equipment for it I would DNA test you.’’

‘’And I would have let you. I understand if you don’t trust me. I just want to know what happened after I was gone, please?’’ I asked pleadingly in my desperation to get any kind of information about the others’ fate.

She hesitated for a moment before finally giving me an answer. ‘’We all got away, but it was a close call because Tyberius and his goons showed up after the failsafe was triggered.’’

‘’I was about to disconnect it when something caused an explosion beneath us and the floor dropped.’’

‘’As far as I heard, one of your pirate buddies messed up the timer on one of the bombs. We barely managed to get out before the construction blew up. Tyberius’ ships arrived just as we got out. It was lucky that they had just used their hyperjump, so they couldn’t follow us.’’

‘’Atlas, the man who followed me up to the control room, did you see him?’’

My heart did an uncomfortable squeeze when I saw how she hesitated. It reminded me of when I had to tell my father what had happened to his squad, which made a knot appear in my stomach.

‘’When neither of you came back down, I told the captain of your crew where you had gone. They went after you. When you didn’t come back with them, and the pilot looked like someone had just forcibly ripped his heart from his chest, we all assumed that you hadn’t made it. Most of us thought that Caine had killed you.’’

‘’He almost did,’’ I mumbled while the mental image of Atlas being utterly devastated filled my mind. I shook my head to get rid of it. ‘’At least you all made it out and the construction got blown up,’’ I spoke, mainly saying it out loud to reassure myself that the situation could be a lot worse than it seemed to be.

‘’Despite having the data, it doesn’t seem like Tyberius has started to rebuild it yet. I’ve managed to build a listening device to keep tabs on what the Empire’s doing in this area of the galaxy. A few other survivors hid out here as well, so we use it to keep a safe distance from them. The Union doesn’t have any interest in going this far out in the outer rims,’’ she explained while walking over to one of the two desks that stood in a corner of the small room.

At first glance, it looked like they were filled with various scrap items and wires, but there were actual devices hidden beneath some of them. I had no idea how many of them worked, but I immediately started looking for anything that could resemble a tablet.

Dr. Maris had turned her makeshift device on as she sat down. The static lasted as she turned a few knobs, looking for an active frequency. When she found one, the room was filled with the sounds of a woman speaking a language I didn’t understand.

Neither of us spoke as we listened to the woman. Considering the look of concentration on her face, I assumed that Dr. Maris understood the foreign language, so I kept my questions to myself while I waited. My silence lasted until I heard what sounded like the woman saying my name.

‘’Wait, did she just say my name?’’

‘’Someone tipped off an Empire spy that they saw you at the spaceport. Probably got a hefty coin for it because of what you did. Tyberius put the highest bounty on your head out of all of us.’’

‘’Shit,’’ I muttered and ran a hand through my hair. If they were now aware that I was still alive, traveling suddenly became a lot harder. Especially since the Union was looking for me as well. ‘’I get why the Empire is after us, but why the Union?’’ I asked once the woman had ended her rapport and Dr. Maris had turned off the device.

‘’After the whole incident got out, the Union branded us as traitors. As far as they see it, we were there voluntarily. Some of the survivors were caught fairly quickly after. I have no idea what their fate was. The rest of us hid in the outer rims or managed to find a good disguise and a neutral colony or planet,’’ she explained and turned around in the chair to face me again before continuing, ‘’in my case, simply changing my hair color wouldn’t be enough, so I’ve stayed out here while working on a solution.’’

She stared at me for a moment before coming to the same conclusion as me. ‘’If you’re planning on getting back to your crew, you’re in for one hell of a struggle with coming up with a working disguise. You’re easily recognizable and bounty hunters usually aren’t stupid.’’

‘’I know to cut and color my hair won’t do much to hide my freckles or scars. Still… I have to get back to them. He – they need me.’’ My shoulders slumped when I realized just how big an impact those warrants had on my journey back. Not only would it make everything far more difficult, but it would also possibly mean that it would take a lot longer for me to get back as well.

The realization made my eyes watery and I quickly wiped the few tears away, refusing to cry out of frustration in front of her. I took a deep breath before speaking again. ‘’You don’t happen to have a tablet or something? I might be able to get in contact with Jaxon.’’

‘’No, I’m still working on assembling enough parts to finish one. You don’t find a lot of tech salvage out here.’’ Her reply was blunt and destroyed what little hope I had left, which clearly showed on my face.

For the first time since stepping out of the cave, I had no plan and no idea what direction to go in. The only thing I could think of was to try and put together some sort of disguise, but I didn’t know where to start. I was too occupied with trying to think of something to notice how close she was watching me.

After a long moment of silence, Dr. Maris got up from her chair and pushed it back hard enough for it to screech against the floor, practically forcing my focus to move to her.

‘’Look, I usually don’t go out of my way to help people, but I do owe you one for getting me off that blasted Empire experiment,’’ she spoke while moving to the other desk and tossing a few pieces of paper on the floor, ‘’I’ve been working on a prototype that’ll allow you to change some aspects of your appearance. It basically covers your body with a thin, electronic layer that makes it possible for you to change the color of your hair and skin and your complexion.’’

‘’Electronic shapeshifting?’’

‘’No, not yet, but that’s my plan for it. Right now it’s only able to change colors.’’ After carefully disconnecting some external wires, she pulled out what looked like a slightly oversize wristwatch. While walking back over to me, she pulled a small screwdriver from her pocket and used it to press a small button on the back of it. It beeped and the screen lit up, allowing her to use its touchscreen.

‘’Now, let’s see,’’ she took a quick look at me, ‘’we definitely need to lose the freckles and the scar, so we change your complexion. Any wishes for hair, eye, and skin color?’’

It was a weird question but I quickly had the first color in mind. ‘’Can you make my hair silver?’’

‘’I could make it iridescent,’’ she grunted, sounding rather unimpressed with my color choice.

‘’Silver is just fine, thanks,’’ I huffed with a small smile. ‘’Can you give me deep blue skin and grey eyes?’’

She nodded while finishing the last inputs and then handed me the watch. ‘’Once it’s on, you press the two buttons on the right and the top one on the left side simultaneously,’’ she instructed while I put it on.

I did as she said and pressed the three buttons. A second later, I could feel the electric current rush over me, reminding me of the sensation of being trapped in Caine’s stasis field. Then, as the sensation ran down my arms, I could see my skin change into a brilliant navy blue.

‘’There’s a small mirror behind you.’’

I eagerly turned around and approached the mirror. Seeing my new reflection was probably one of the weirdest things I had seen, although not as weird as seeing my father again in a black hole after seven years apart. Sure enough, my freckles and the thin scar that ran along the right side of my jawline were gone and my hair was a beautiful shade of silver. My eyes were now grey and matched my hair. All in all, it was a little unsettling to look at, but it seemed to be an effective disguise.

Still, unsettling or not, it was very impressive work and I had never seen anything like it.

‘’This is amazing! Thank you for this!’’ I spoke while turning around to look at her, ‘’I’m pretty convinced that I would be screwed without this.’’

‘’Save it, we’re even now. Just take care of it and be sure not to bump it against anything. As I said, it’s only a prototype.’’ She dismissed my attempt to thank her with a wave of her hand. ‘’I know it’s not what you want to hear, but you’re going to have to stay here for the night. The Empire is most likely already here and looking for you.’’

I knew there was no reason to argue, especially not after having heard the transmission earlier. She proceeded to tell me more about her creation and how it worked, which was useful information and made the rest of the evening go quicker. However, the stay ended up being extended by another day because of the Empire’s stubbornness, but it felt like Dr. Maris was actually a little happy about having some company for once.

When the Empire had finally left the spaceport, my luck stretched a little bit further as I quickly managed to find a job on a ship that was headed further inwards. However, my luck ended the second the captain changed the course because of a better offer for his cargo, resulting in me wasting more time. When I finally got a little closer to some of the bigger planets and spaceports, that fact that I didn’t have an ID became a problem, but at least the disguise was working.

My time was spent on working, saving credits for a tablet and trying to find any information on the Promise’s whereabouts, which often prioritized higher than sleeping because of the recurring nightmares. My subconsciousness seemed extremely keen on letting me relieve the whole incident with Caine or torment me with the fact that I wasn’t with Atlas and the crew.

Days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months. After three months on the go and barely escaping two random run-ins with the Empire, it felt like I was chasing a ghost. While being stuck on Helios, a large spaceport about two hyper jumps away from the border of the inner systems, I overheard two bounty hunters in bar discuss their dissatisfaction with losing two targets to the Promise crew.

Despite being relieved because I was finally getting some information about them, it was extremely disheartening to learn that I had only just missed them by a day. If that hadn’t been hard enough, I was robbed of my credits on the way back to the spaceport and was left with a split lip and a bruised ribcage.

As rough as it was, my stubbornness kept me going, and I found myself barely missing the crew again a month later. That time, I got the information from a barkeeper that had the pleasure of dealing with Jaxon. Amazingly, Jaxon had told him that they were headed for Abelas and had a few stops along the way.

Feeling hopeful for the first time in months, my luck continued when I managed to find a cargo ship that was headed to Abelas. Even on a slower ship, if Jaxon was telling the truth and they had planned some stops on the way there, I should be able to make it there before them.

That idea lasted the first three weeks of the journey but was scrapped during the fourth and what would have been the final week.

 

Tight.

Too tight.

His thumbs pressed against my windpipe and robbed me of the ability to breathe, all while wearing a sick, delightful expression.

‘’Helpless little thing, aren’t you?’’ He smiled at me as I gasped for air and desperately tried to stop him from choking me. ‘’I told you I was going to kill you, Eiso.’’ His voice echoed around me, coming closer and closer as my vision as darkening because of the lack of air.

‘’Struggle for me, Eiso, you’re not-‘’

A loud alarm cut Caine off, causing me to wake with a start.

The combination of being sleep deprived, the nightmare, and the loud alarm left me confused about my whereabouts for a couple of seconds, leaving me to look around in mild panic until I remembered where I was.

For once, there had been no problems, and Amelia, the huge cargo ship I was currently on, was actually on point with its expected arrival at Abelas. But, based on the loud alarm that was blaring, that seemed to have gone out the window.

Scared that it could be a problem with the engine, which I had only just looked at, I quickly got dressed and headed out into the hallway. Panicked yelling echoed down the long hallway, increasing the unease I was feeling and prompting me to break into a run as I headed towards the yelling.

Turning a corner, I barely avoided colliding headfirst with another passenger.

Della, a woman around fifty and the one in charge of the cargo, loudly cursed at me while she grabbed the railing to steady herself. ‘’Bloody scumbags, the whole lot of them!’’ She huffed angrily while detaching both of her blasters and throwing one of them to me. ‘’Here, take this. I trust ya’ know how to use it.’’

She was already moving by the time I had clumsily caught it, so I quickly went after her while undoing the safety and checking the blaster’s charge. ‘’What the hell is happening?’’ I asked while jogging after her, both surprised and impressed by how quickly she could walk with shorter legs than me.

‘’We’re being boarded! I told the cap’ this route was a horrible idea, but does he ever listen to me? Of course not! Stupid-‘’

My pulse immediately started racing. ‘’Boarded? Are you sure?’’

‘’Why do you think the alarm is going? Those assholes used stealth to creep up on us and then attached themselves to the side of the hull. They’re working on getting inside right-‘’ a loud boom came from further ahead. ‘’Well, it sounds you can forget about the working part,’’ she grunted.

A drop of sweat ran down the nape of my neck and continued down my spine when it dawned on me what was happening.

As if it wasn’t bad enough that pirates were currently boarding the ship, it seemed like I was headed straight to them, along with an older woman and only two blasters. I was quite convinced that the situation couldn’t be worse.

Gunfire erupted in the storage room in front of us and it only got louder as we came closer to it. Della walked straight towards it like she had to deal with pirates every day, and she didn’t even hesitate to throw open the door and go inside while shooting at anything and anyone that moved.

I followed her inside with far less confidence and quickly tried to get an idea of how bad the situation was.

The scene I walked into was pure chaos. A large hole had been made in the hull of the ship and there were people shooting everywhere. Clearly, I wasn’t familiar enough with the crew to immediately know who was on our side and who wasn’t, so I kept my blaster down while I tried to figure it out.

‘’Start shooting, woman!’’ Della shouted beside me before moving further inside the room, leaving me to fend for myself.

I cursed and took aim in the direction of the hole, figuring that anyone coming out of it had to be pirates. I forced a couple of people to stay behind the nearest cover by shooting at them, nearly managing to hit one of them in the arm. However, they were able to leave that position when I had to recharge, and I had barely hidden behind some cover when my plan was completely sacked.

‘’I would forget about that.’’ A man had snuck up on me and had waited for me to recharge, easily catching me in a bad position while he had his own blaster ready and aimed at me. Recalling what Atlas and Jaxon had said about pirates usually only taking the cargo and leaving the crew, I decided to not take any chances and to put my hands up.

Some thirty minutes later, all of the crew was bound and gathered in the center of the storage room while the pirates were starting to take the cargo they wanted onto their ship. Della, being absolutely furious about the situation, had been gagged and sat next to me, struggling against the rope while she was presumably cursing despite the cloth in her mouth.

‘’That’s the old hag I was telling you about, captain. Bitch got me right in the good shoulder.’’ A woman spoke behind me and made a small grunt to emphasize their annoyance.

‘’Deserves you well for underestimating someone because of their age,’’ the captain replied with a chuckle.

The sound of the voice had me jolting upright as soon as I heard it. Desperate to make sure that my memory wasn’t playing a trick on me, I quickly looked over my shoulder to confirm whether or not it was him.

Sure enough, it was my least favorite pirate captain.

It was fucking Ray.

I called for him immediately.

‘’Ray!’’

‘’Oh? I don’t believe we’ve met?’’ Ray spoke while taking a good look at me, his smile widening.

He looked as punchable as I remembered him.

‘’We have, but it’s been a while. Please, I need to speak with you in private,’’ I replied, trying to convey that it was rather important while avoiding exposing myself in front of everyone by saying who I was.

‘’Usually, I don’t object to a request like that, not when it’s beautiful women like yourself, but, seeing as you’re currently taken hostage by my crew, I’m afraid I’m going to need a little more information about this private chat you’re asking for.’’ He tilted his head to the side as he spoke, looking like he was enjoying the fact that I frowned when he didn’t just agree.

‘’I swear it’s worth your time!’’ Frustration had me raising my voice.

‘’I said I need information, not reassurance.’’

‘’And I understand that, but it’s not a thing I can just freely talk about,’’ I huffed angrily. His attitude was getting on my nerves.

‘’So it’s classified information?’’ He asked while placing his hands on his hips, somehow managing to look even more arrogant.

‘’Yes, so if we could just-‘’

‘’Against who?’’

‘’Both the Empire and the Union, but-‘’

‘’Not interested.’’ He dismissed me with a simple wave of his hand before walking away.

I was momentarily stunned by how uninterested he was in what I had to say, and I quickly felt my anger and frustration come to a boiling point.

Fuck it.

‘’Tess Eiso, remember her?!’’ I shouted after him, making him pause. ‘’She disappeared nearly a year ago while you guys were storming an Empire construction, but I know what happened to her!’’

My last sentence made him turn around. He studied me for a second, surely trying to recall if he had seen me there, but his expression turned neutral when he started to approach me again. ‘’You should just have said that from the start, sweetheart,’’ he spoke while grabbing my arm and used it to pull me up on my feet.

Still angry with him, I kept my mouth shut as he rather roughly steered me through the ship, not letting go of my arm before we were inside his private quarters. ‘’Alright, start talking,’’ he huffed while crossing his arms over his chest.

‘’Untie me first.’’ I pushed my hands toward him. My frown deepened when he simply stared at me. ‘’I’m not your prisoner, Ray.’’

After another moment of simply staring at each other, he finally moved and fulfilled my request. When my hands were free, he walked over to a nearby table and chose one of the many bottles to pour himself a drink from. ‘’Now, explain yourself. Unless you were there, how the hell do you know about that mission?’’ He asked while still having his back to me. His voice was darker than I had heard before, which surprised me a little.

‘’It’s easier if I just show you,’’ I spoke while pressing the three buttons I hadn’t touched since I had put the watch on several months ago.

Ray turned around as it beeped, drink in hand, and his eyes widened as the electronic layer covering me flickered a couple of times before gradually disappearing, revealing what I actually looked like. The second he realized who I actually was, he dropped his glass. Completely ignoring the shards of glass on the floor, he stepped closer to me while looking like a giant question mark.

‘’How – how in the hell…?’’

‘’Long story short, I fell into an artificial black hole and stepped out of it somewhere in the outer rim six months later. I’ve been trying to get back to the Promise since.’’

‘’I can’t believe you survived,’’ he spoke quietly as he expressed his shock.

‘’It’s crazy, I know. Listen, Ray, the Promise should reach Abelas in about a week and I really need to be there,’’ I explained, not doing anything to hide how mentally exhausted I was.

He stared at me for a few more seconds before he snapped out of it, shaking his head before regaining his usual compose. Then, he let out a slight huff while going back to the table he had just been at. ‘’Unless Jaxon knows how to pull a miracle out his ass, you’re not going to find them on Abelas.’’ He picked up a tablet and opened a specific article before throwing it to me.

Looking at it, my eyes immediately fell on a row with four pictures, one for each of the Promise crew members, lined up below a bold headline that read ‘BOUNTY HUNTERS APPREHENDED AFTER SKIRMISH IN NEUTRAL SPACE’. The article was on an Empire news site and had been published two days ago.

‘’No no no no,’’ I muttered to myself while I read further down. According to the article, they were set to be transferred to a state of the art prison out in sector 3, where they would serve their sentence of 20 years. Nowhere did it say why they had been caught, so I knew Tyberius had something to do with it. ‘’Ray-‘’

‘’I’m not having my men storm an Empire transporter ship. Jaxon and I are even.’’

Anger welled up in me. How could he care so little? ‘’Maybe you’re even with him, but you’re not with me,‘’ I huffed while walking towards him with a finger pointed at him. ’’If one of your men hadn’t fucked up with the timer, the bomb wouldn’t have exploded and I wouldn’t have missed six months of my life and spent another five hiding, working my ass off for lousy pay and getting robbed!’’ I poked him hard in the chest to emphasize how shitty it had been. ‘’You’re going to help me get them back, whether you like it or not.’’

Although I moved my hand down, I stayed where I was and looked him right in the eye, letting him know just how serious I was. After a couple of seconds, his usual smug smile appeared.

‘’I have to say, I like it when you’re bossy.’’ He smiled at me, tilting his head a little bit while he leaned closer to me.

‘’Ray, I swear-‘’

‘’Fine,’’ He leaned back and raised his hands to show his surrender, ‘’but Jaxon is going to owe me a favor for this.’’

‘’He can owe you two for all I care. I just want them off that transporter as quickly as possible,’’ I huffed and stepped away from him.

‘’Yeah yeah, I’ll have Phoebe gather some information once we’re done with this raid.’’ He started heading towards the door. ‘’You stay here in the meantime. I don’t want you running around on my ship.’’

‘’I’ll behave, don’t worry.’’

He exhaled sharply before exiting the room. Once he was gone, I sat down on a couch near a large window and looked at the article again. My eyes stopped at their pictures, this time noticing that all of them had visible cuts and bruises. It felt like my chest tightened as I looked at them, and I had to turn the tablet off when I saw Atlas’ black eye.

The plan had changed drastically, but it only refueled my motivation.

Now, it wasn’t just about me getting back to them, but they also had to be freed from a high-security ship that transported Empire prisoners.

Why couldn’t things be easy for once?

Chapter Text

‘’Hey sweetheart, you ready?’’

I looked up at Ray when he addressed me. I had been so deep in thought that I hadn’t heard him approach me and the small group of people I was standing with. While they had been busy talking amongst themselves, I had run over the plan we had agreed on two days ago through my head again and again.

Despite what I first had expected, we had agreed on trying a more subtle approach. Instead of attacking them directly with all of Ray’s crew, we had boarded his smaller ship, the Crusader, and were currently headed towards the Empire transporter ship in stealth mode.

Phoebe, one of Ray’s high ranking officers, had been very effective with gaining information about the ship and had located a blind spot close to a maintenance hatch. Using that, we could cut one of the main powerlines, which would make a good enough distraction for us to enter, find the crew and the Promise and get the hell away from there.

To make the boarding a little easier, Ray had managed to get his hands on some Empire uniforms. I had no idea how and I honestly didn’t want to know.

However, even with the uniform on, I was still wearing my disguise underneath. Considering that I was wanted by the Empire, if we were caught, I’d rather live the rest of my days in some prison and not be back in Tyberius grasp, so I kept the disguise on.

‘’I told you not to call me that,’’ I huffed.

He chuckled because of my reaction. ‘’You didn’t answer my question.’’

I rolled my eyes. ‘’Yeah, I’m ready. Get in, find the Promise and get out while you find the others,’’ I listed the things I was supposed to do once we arrived. In all honesty, I was nearly going out of my mind because of how nervous I was about flying the Promise. I hadn’t flown for about a year and a half, so getting back into it by flying the Promise and escaping an enemy ship wasn’t something I was looking forward too.

Also, I didn’t even want to imagine a scenario where I made a dent in Atlas’ beloved starship.

‘’Hey,’’ Ray murmured in a low voice, making me look at him again. ‘’When this is over, remember that for you all of this has been nearly six months, for them you’ve been gone for almost a year. A lot of things can change during such a long time.’’ He kept his eyes locked on mine as he spoke, almost as if he was making sure that I heard every hushed word he had just told me.

At first, the fact that what he had said seemed so uncharacteristic of him caught me off guard, but my silence continued even after I had thought about what he meant. I knew it but I had avoided thinking about it. Now it seemed like Ray was forcing me to accept that things could have changed. People and their feelings could have changed. Atlas could have…

Shit. I couldn’t even think about it without it felt like some invisible hand was squeezing my heart too tightly.

‘’That was awfully profound. I didn’t know you had it in you,’’ I joked halfheartedly while looking away, hoping he would leave the subject alone.

‘’Tess-‘’

‘’I know,’’ I cut him off, ‘’I know I can’t expect anything.’’ My tone made it clear that I was done with the subject.

‘’Captain, we’re approaching the transporter!’’ The pilot called from his seat to alert us to get ready.

‘’Good,’’ Ray responded loudly, giving me the impression that he was answering both me and pilot at the same time. ‘’Get ready you assholes. Anyone fuck up and you’re cleaning the toilets for a month!’’ He shouted and grinned when his crew responded with excited shouts.

After taking a deep breath to calm myself, I put on the helmet I had been fidgeting with ever since Ray had tossed it to me when we left on the Crusader. The others followed suit once Ray reminded them of it and their excitement turned into concentration instead.

Amon, the one who was in charge of cutting the powerline, stood ready in his spacesuit at the door. He and Ray exchanged a few words as we waited for the pilot to take us close enough for Amon to easily reach the hatch. When the pilot gave the signal, he put on his helmet and Ray patted him on the shoulder.

It took less than five minutes for Amon to open the door, walk through the energy field, float over to the hatch, work his magic and return to the ship. We started moving again the second he was back inside, heading for the transporter’s side entrances that were used for smaller fighter and cargo ships. Since the main powerline had been cut, the sensors would be down but the energy field was running on a secondary line that was outfitted with a backup generator. Even with the energy field still active, we could continue inside in stealth mode without being detected by the sensors.

As the pilot started the slow landing to make as little noise as possible, Ray spoke up again. ‘’Everyone remember the plan? Find the idiots and bring them back here without looking suspicious. Don’t act like morons and they won’t find you suspicious,’’ he went over the plan while glancing over the group, looking satisfied when everyone nodded. Next, he looked in my direction. ‘’And you’re finding the ship and getting it out of here. We’ll rendezvous back on Deimos.’’

When he had gotten a steady nod from me as well, he put on his helmet. A second later, the Crusader hit the ground.

Ray was the first one out. After making sure that the coast was clear, the rest of us followed him. To finish the look, we all grabbed the Empire issued rifles that had been fastened to our backs and held them as the soldiers did. In the distance, I could hear some confused yelling, probably guards trying to figure out why the main lights had gone out.

Knowing that it would be suspicious of a group of guards to stand so close together, we all spread out under the faint glow of the lights that ran on the secondary line. Because of the uniforms, it was impossible to tell who was who, but the others were quick to divide themselves into pairs of two and disappear down the hallways that led to the different cell sections.

While we knew what sections of the ship the cells were in and where the Promise was most likely located, we hadn’t been able to find out which cells Atlas, Orion, Nova and Jaxon were in, so the group had to search for them without causing any suspicion.

Unlike the others, I set out alone and headed down a hallway that was in the opposite direction. My pulse drummed loudly in my ears, and I hadn’t gone very far before two soldiers came running in my direction. I nearly stopped on the spot out of panic, but my feet kept going, quickening the pace a little to match their haste. None of them took much notice of me, but by the time they had passed me, my neck and back were slick with sweat and I struggled with keeping my breathing steady.

I tried to look like someone with a busy agenda and quickly scouted around for the Promise in the first hanger I came into. Soldiers and a few engineers were huddled around a console, seemingly looking for the reason for the missing power. Not wanting to be questioned, I quickly started moving again while trying to visualize the crude map I had seen of the place.

As far as I remembered, there were four hangars with entrances, so I only had two more to find and search. One part of me felt like was easy enough, but the other part was busy with sweating bullets and not looking suspicious. Disguise or not, I couldn’t just run away from them like the last times.

‘’It’s going fine. You’re fine,’’ I whispered to myself after I had passed another pair of soldiers on my way into the second hangar.

In reality, I had expected there to be more guards. Despite it being a relief for me, I considered the fact that the cell sections most likely had the majority of them stationed. After all, it made a lot more sense that they would be guarding prisoners and not cargo and one or two starships.

The lack of guards was also evident in the second hanger, resulting in me relaxing a little bit more as I looked for any signs of the ship that had become my home. Unlike the first hangar, this one was mainly filled with large cargo boxes that blocked my view of some of the back rows.

Making sure that no one was looking in my direction, I gripped my rifle a little tighter and quickly slipped between two boxes. Knowing that I was out of sight of anyone who came into the hangar, I felt safe enough to not look over my shoulder constantly and focus more on being on the lookout for the Promise.

Since I was looking for something shaped like a starship, the cargo boxes didn’t interest me very much, only what could be hiding behind them. After passing four more rows of cargo and three fighter ships, I finally spotted the old cargo ship. Momentarily forgetting about staying in character, I started running the second I had spotted the orange paint.

The old girl had scratches on the sides that I didn’t recognize and I spotted a couple of new, crude hull repairs. Clearly, the crew had been through some rough spots since the last time I had seen them. The thought left a knot in my stomach, which only grew as I opened the door and stepped inside.

Having never been alone on the ship, it was almost unsettling to be there while it was completely silent and dark. I moved further inside and toward the pilot seat, but I had to pause when I stood next to the chair. A strange sense of nostalgia hit me as I stood there, and I almost expected Atlas to stand behind me, pointing a blaster at me while telling me to reconsider sitting in that chair.

After a couple of seconds, I looked over my shoulder. Despite knowing that I was being foolish, I still felt a twinge of disappointment when he wasn’t there. Shaking my head at myself, I refocused on the task at hand and turned my attention back to the control panel.

My attention stayed there for about four seconds before it went to the pitter-patter of small feet approaching me from behind. I whipped around, expecting the worst without actually knowing what it could be. Then, just as they were about to be close enough for me to see them, I remembered the green little furball.

‘’Comet!’’ I gasped as the alien pounced on me, making me stumble backward and bump against the control panel. His little hands drummed against my helmet, but I couldn’t tell if it was out of anger or excitement. After a moment of struggling, I finally managed to get a proper grip on him and pulled him off me, leaving him to squirm while frowning, which looked rather adorable.

‘’Calm down, Comet! It’s me, Tess!’’ I tried to get my point across in an angry whisper to keep any noise at a minimum.

It was like I had flipped a switch. Even with the helmet muffling my voice slightly, Comet calmed down immediately and instead stared at me for a second. Then, he leaned closer to me and started sniffing loudly, scrunching his little noise out of effort as he fact-checked my claim. A moment later, his face lit up and he lifted his arms in the air while making the same sounds as when he was munching on cereal.

‘’Hey buddy,’’ I chuckled when he eagerly wiggled and attempted to grab me. When I brought him closer to me again, he hugged me before tapping my helmet again. ‘’Not yet. We need to get out of here first. Someone else is getting the others, but you can help me get the Promise out of here,’’ I explained while putting him down. ‘’Can you keep a lookout by the door while I get the old girl ready?’’

Comet nodded and quickly headed to the open door, peering around the corner. Smiling, I turned back around and started running my eyes over the control panel to get familiar with it again. Once I knew where everything was, I flipped the first switches on to restore power. The lights above me flickered before turning on, and it felt like the ship was waking up from a heavy slumber. Once the rest of the control panel had power again, I ran a system check to see which shape it was in.

When it was finished, a miniature 3D projection of the ship and its status appeared in front of me. I cringed once I saw the many red numbers and highlighted areas of the ship. Not only did we have a ton of repair work to do later, but one of the rear thrusters and some engine parts had been damaged, meaning that the ship was both slower and would take longer to charge up for a hyperjump. On a positive note, the shield wasn’t too damaged and there should be enough power for me to use the stealth function.

Eager to get out of here, I sat down in the pilot chair, but I had barely gotten comfortable when Comet made a panicked noise at the door before running in my direction and hiding behind a console. I had barely gotten back up from the chair when someone stepped inside.

‘’Who the hell is messing around in here?’’ A female soldier asked in an agitated tone. When she spotted me, she moved a couple of steps closer. ‘’Identify yourself.’’

It took me a second before I remembered the ID that Ray had told me. ‘’N7-896. I’m,’’ for once, the perfect excuse quickly formed in my head, ‘’I’m conducting research on the crew’s activities. Direct orders from Tyberius.’’

‘’And why haven’t I been informed about it?’’

‘’It’s classified,’’ I responded, hoping that she would leave it there.

‘’Classified my ass. This is my section.’’

‘’Tyberius instructed me not to discuss the details with others because he doesn’t want any information leaks, not after what happened to his last project. If you’re unhappy with it, I suggest you take it up with him.’’ I shrugged to appear calm. I highly doubted that she could get in contact with Tyberius out of the blue, so, if she was annoyed enough to go for it, at least it should buy me enough time to get out of here.

‘’That son of a-‘’ she muttered a word a didn’t understand under her breath and detached her radio from her belt. ‘’Nothing happens in my section without going through me. Get your ass out while I get some answers.’’ Judging by the tone of her voice, she was very annoyed by the situation that I had just made up.

My mind went into overdrive to try and find a way to get out of this while I walked towards her, deliberately going a bit slow so that I had more time to think. She paused in the doorway to use her radio, loudly bitching at the person on the other end before demanding that they establish a connection to Tyberius himself as fast as possible.

A second later, a loud alarm started blaring and it was followed by a voice that said, ‘BREACH IN PRISONER CELLS A, B, C, AND D’.

After a brief moment of surprise, I quickly figured that it had to have something to with Ray and the others and that it had to mean that they had gotten the crew free. Despite triggering an alarm, I had enough faith in them to get out safely and focused on my problem instead.

Taking advantage of the woman now being confused and yelling various commands into her radio, I ran the short distance to her and shoved her out the door. Just as she landed on the ground with a heavy thud, I slammed the button next to the door and entered the code to lock it. Then, I sprinted back to the control panel and started activating buttons and switches before I had even sat down in the chair.

Comet appeared at my feet as the engine came to life, and he clung to one of them as the thrusters got us off the ground. The alarm outside got louder and I could see more soldiers flock into the hangar. It looked like my escape could take a little attention away from the others, but I wasn’t really in a good position to deal with it, so I quickly scrapped my old plan of using the stealth shield to fly out.

Instead, I turned the Promise around and went straight for the energy field, catching a glimpse of some of the soldiers getting into the three fighter ships.

I cursed while I breached the field and flew outside, using the little time I had before the others pursued me to bring up the status screen. Just as expected, the ship was nowhere near ready to jump, and I had no one manning the turrets, so I had no other option than to evade them until the engine had built up enough power for the jump.

If I wanted to live, I had to cut power to nonessentials and divert it to the jump core instead. My jaw tensed while my gaze flickered between the control panel and the window. Unlike Atlas, I didn’t know the exact spot of all the buttons, meaning that I had to look, which was rather stressing when the proximity alarm alerted me of the fighter ships getting closer. However, the pressure had me working effectively instead of shutting down, which was a nice change for once, and I quickly eliminated the climate system, the turret pods, and all the internal lights except for the bridge.

It did have a noticeable effect on the counter, but it wasn’t enough to get me out of here within the next ten minutes, which was more than enough for the fighters to reduce me to pieces if I messed up. Proving my point, I barely managed to grip the steering wheel with both hands and dodge a shot by rolling to the side.

‘’Shit!’’ I cursed loudly when I had to dodge another attack. The Promise felt heavier to steer than I had expected, and there wasn’t anything in the immediate area that I could use to make evading the fighters easier. For a brief second, I was annoyed by the fact that it wasn’t like in the movies where I could do some intense flying in an asteroid field and lose them in there.

I maneuvered around the large transporter instead, making sure to stay clear of the exit where the others would have to come from. It broke their line of sight of me, but it was a matter of time before they got close enough to me to shoot at me again, so it wasn’t a trick I could use multiple times.

When the proximity alarm went off again, I steered away from the transporter and headed straight up, using the brief moment of calm to turn off the communication systems and transfer the power to the jump. The timer cut down to five minutes, which still felt like far too long with the fighters hot on my tail.

Movement by the transporter caught my attention. Fearing that it was more fighter ships, I felt an intensive wave of relief when I saw the Crusader emerge from it. They were followed by five fighter ships, but the number quickly went down to three when the Crusader’s turrets started returning fire.

Seeing a chance of getting a little help, I quickly turned the Promise straight down and went around the transporter again. Comet clutched my leg tighter as I turned her upside down for a couple of seconds. Her weight made it easier to perform a tight loop around it, breaking their line of sight and even sending two of the ships in the wrong direction because they couldn’t see me.

Knowing that fighter ships couldn’t shoot backward, I lined up behind the ones that were following the Crusader and followed them as they stayed on its tail. I prayed that whoever was in those turrets would figure out what I was doing; now regretting a little bit that I had cut the comms. I held my breath as I waited, intensively concentrating on any type of sign that the Crusader was about to return fire. When the fighters pursuing me started approaching me again, I was about two seconds from ditching the plan when the turrets finally went off.

I aimed the ship down a millisecond after the turret had moved, dropping down below the other ships just as the turrets started firing, hitting two of their own pursuers and one of mine. The remaining two followed me down, one of them falling behind because of a damaged wing. The other one didn’t waste any time and unleashed a flurry of shots. Three of them hit the rear shield, making the ship shake and me curse loudly when another alarm started blaring to inform me about the damage.

My glance flew to the status screen and my heart jumped a little when there was only one minute left. My attention went back to the Crusader when I saw them take a nasty hit to the side. A second later, the ship accelerated and went into hyperjump, disappearing before the situation could escalate. Knowing that the crew was safe sent a rush of relief through me, but it was cut short when a new alarm started beeping.

When I realized which one it was, my heart sank.

The proximity alarm went haywire as it basically screamed at me that the fighter behind me had just locked on to the Promise, and the shape of a seeker missile appeared on the screen, rapidly approaching the ship. My eyes flew to the status screen. There was still thirty seconds left before I could jump and I had nothing to hide behind, meaning that I had to take a hit.

Gritting my teeth, I made a choice and dipped the ship to the left, sacrificing the rear thruster that was already damaged. The ship shook violently and Comet squealed while I continued steering the ship left, attempting to loop behind the fighter and waste some time. They immediately saw through my plan and did a sharp turn, retaking their position behind me.

When the beeping started again, I felt the panic settle in my head.

The first one had killed the rear shields, meaning that another hit could kill me and destroy the ship, and the rest of the shield was already running on lower power, so, in reality, any hit could be the last. I could feel drops of sweat form on my neck and run down my back while my eyes flew back to the status screen.

Ten seconds.

Ten seconds before I could jump but it would take the missile less time to hit its target.

I could be dead in ten seconds.

The realization hit me like a rock, resulting in me making a hasty decision with zero hesitation.

Acting fast, my hands went straight to the control panel and disabled the shields and all of the alarms sensors, except for the proximity alarm, rerouting the power to the remaining thrusters. The noise was reduced to the rapid beeping of the proximity alarm while the Promise shot forwards, but I knew it wasn’t enough speed to outfly it.

While the beeping got louder, my hand hovered over the hyperjump button.

Every inch of my skin felt clammy and I was suddenly hyperaware of it as I listened to the beeping turn into one steady tone, drowning the rapid drumming in my ears out. I held my breath while I waited.

Then, mere seconds before the missile would hit, the button turned white and I slammed it as quickly as I could.

The familiar pull of the hyperjump followed a split second later and the Promise was boosted forwards before disappearing from where it had just been, escaping certain death.

A brief moment later, Deimos appeared before me and it felt like I could finally breathe again.

My heart was still hammering away when I landed the Promise inside the large hangar. When it was safely on the ground, I slumped back in the seat and simply sat there for a moment. Sensing that we were safe, Comet let go of my leg and jumped into the empty chair beside me, nearly falling onto his back while letting out a long breath of relief.

After it felt like my brain had caught up, a desperate urge to breathe without restriction overcame me, prompting me to tear my helmet off.  After throwing it away from me, I quickly stood up and turned towards the door, but my knees wobbled and I had to grab the chair to stop myself from falling.

I had to find Atlas.

Groaning in annoyance, stood up straight but kept my left hand on the chair for support while my right went to the watch. Just as I pressed the three buttons to disable my disguise, the door to the Promise opened and someone stepped in.

My eyes met a pair of very familiar green ones.

At first, anger was the dominant emotion in his expression, but it shifted to a mixture of shock and disbelief when the electric current withdrew from my skin, revealing who I was. For a brief moment, neither of us moved.

During the last months, I had thought about what to say to him and how I hoped things would go, but, as I suddenly stood in front of him, I just froze like a deer caught in a pair of headlights. So many words formed in my head at once, but my brain couldn’t decide whether I should apologize or explain what had happened. In the middle of that chaos, the fear of him having moved on settled in my head, making the clutter of thoughts worse. Before I could make a decision, he spoke.

‘’… Tess?’’ His voice shook with uncertainty and was more vulnerable than I had ever heard it before.

‘’Hey handsome,’’ I replied with a soft smile and felt how my eyes started to sting, ‘’I’m sorry I took so long.’’ My voice was thicker when I spoke again and I felt my bottom lip quiver when he started to walk towards me.

When he was close enough, his shaky hands framed my face carefully. I started to cry when our eyes met again now that we were closer and I saw that they were wet as well.

‘’I don’t – is it really you?’’ His voice was only a whisper now, and his tone mimicked the disbelief in his eyes.

‘’Atlas, I-‘’ I started speaking with the intent to explain everything. My voice was brittle and unsteady, but it was only his name that made it past my lips before he cut me off and further prevented me from saying anything else by capturing my lips with his. My hands found his jacket and gripped it tightly as he kissed me, sending a rush of overwhelming emotions through me.

As he kissed me, it felt like he was trying to prove to himself that I was real and not a figment of his imagination, and I did everything I could to help convince him. I threw my arms around his neck and kissed him with all the pent-up emotions I had been walking around with for nearly six months. When we drew apart, we stayed close and his shuddering breath hit my lips.

‘’You have no idea how happy I am to see you,’’ I whispered, using the same words I had said to him back when the crew had come to rescue me from Caine and I had thrown myself at him in a hallway.

The throwback had him smiling in a soft and relieved way, telling me that he clearly remembered. ‘’I have an inkling,’’ he responded with a voice that was still a little shaky, and it had me laughing softly while tears were still falling down my cheeks. ‘’It’s you… I can’t believe it, it’s really you.’’ His arms moved around me and pulled me closer to him, almost crushing me against him.

He leaned down far enough to hide his face in the crook of my neck. ‘’I thought – seven hells, I thought I lost you. We looked everywhere for you without knowing where to start or if you were even alive. I didn’t know what to do with myself. ’’ His voice was low and shaky, and I could hear the vulnerability and pain in it, nearly making me cry harder when I realized that I couldn’t do anything to remove the emotional scars that my absence had left.

‘’I tried getting in contact with you but I didn’t have anything to do it with, and the warrants’ – I was so scared of getting caught and never seeing you again,’’ I spoke while moving my hands to the back of his neck. ‘’By the stars, I’ve missed you. Getting back to you was the only thing that kept me going.’’ My words had him tightening his grip around me like he was afraid that I would disappear again.

We stood like that for a moment before he moved his head, this time leaning his forehead against mine. ‘’I swear, if this is just another dream then I’m shooting someone when I wake up,’’ he mumbled while his thumbs wiped away the lingering tears on my cheeks and his eyes studied my face. ‘’From this point on, you’re forbidden from going anywhere near a black hole.’’

Soft laughter bubbled through me. ‘’I know how ridicules it sounds, but there’s one that I would like to show you.’’

‘’You’re right, that sounds absolutely ridicules,’’ he agreed before humming approvingly when I kissed him.

I tilted my head to the side to deepen it, feeling a little overwhelmed again now that the fact that I could kiss him had settled in my head. To deal with it, I kept kissing him until we had to draw apart to breathe.

‘’I missed you so much,’’ he murmured before giving me a tender kiss. ‘’I can’t believe that you’re really back…’’

I knew the last part of his sentence would probably have ended with ‘and not dead’, and I could understand where he was coming from. The situation was nothing less than unbelievable after all.

‘’Even with all the shit I’ve been through, I can’t imagine how painful it’s been for you. Honestly, I’d even come to terms with the fact that you might have moved on and accepted that I was gone, but I was so scared that it was true,’’ my voice turned smaller as I admitted my fears. ‘’I’ve thought about this moment since I walked out on the other side, but everything I had thought of saying went out the window the second I saw you.’’ I smiled faintly as I spoke, looking into his eyes as several emotions passed through them.

‘’There were times that I thought… I had some dark thoughts, but I kept repeating the last conversation we had about your father. You hadn’t given up on finding him, so I couldn’t give up on you, but some part of me did believe that I would never see you again,’’ he admitted, clearly not proud of saying it, but the sadness in his eyes eased a bit when he saw the reassurance in mine.

‘’As much as I thought that I might find him, I still had my doubts, so I know that I would have felt the same way if it had been you that had disappeared.’’ My hands moved up to frame his face, allowing my thumbs to brush over his cheekbones as lovingly as possible. ‘’I’m just relieved that you didn’t forget about me,’’ I whispered, embarrassed to even have thought of the possibility, but the way he smiled so softly had me wondering how I had ever doubted him in the first place.

‘’As if I could ever forget about you,’’ he replied in a whisper and further reassured me by kissing me tenderly.

‘’Good, because I still love you, and I would feel a little foolish if you didn’t,’’ I laughed and felt my eyes get watery again when relief and happiness settled inside my chest.

‘’I love you too, so you can stop crying. You know I’m not good at dealing with it.’’

‘’I know, I know, I’m just… I’m just so relieved and happy to see you again.’’ I smiled.

‘’Yeah, you and me both, kid,’’ he spoke with a small sigh that expressed the same relief that I felt before seeking my lips, kissing me like it was the only thing he cared about right then.

I happily responded with a small noise of content while I kissed him back. My arms moved around his neck to keep him close to me as we kept going, both silently agreeing that this was what we needed right then.

‘’Until we know something for certain, we shouldn’t tell Atlas. He’s dealing with enough right now.’’ A voice I recognized as Orion’s approached the Promise, but I was far too occupied with being able to kiss Atlas to react to it.

‘’I’m telling you the truth. I can sense her. She feels… different, but I’m convinced it’s her.’’ Nova’s followed.

‘’And I’m telling you it’s impossible. We haven’t found any new information since she was seen on Skov, and I would know if she was anywhere near here,’’ Jaxon replied while they were right outside, making me and Atlas reluctantly draw apart when we could hear them step inside. ‘’We all miss her, but there’s no way that Tess is-‘’ Jaxon continued while he looked away from Nova and Orion but he stopped talking the very second he spotted me in Atlas’ arms.

I was about to crack a joke about what he had said when he had walked in, but he started running just as I opened my mouth, preventing me from saying anything out of surprise. Seconds later, his arms replaced Atlas’ as he caught me in a hug that lifted me from the ground.

‘’Jax!’’ I gasped his name in surprise but started laughing a second later when he swung me around before putting me back down again. Once I was back on my feet, he didn’t hesitate to pull me into a proper hug.

‘’I knew you weren’t dead! I knew it!’’ He exclaimed loudly before withdrawing from the hug, grabbing my arms and looking at me like he didn’t know how to properly express his excitement. ‘’Holy cosmos, I don’t believe it!’’

‘’Jax, give her some space,’’ Orion spoke as he and Nova approached me, both smiling warmly, ‘’I’m relieved to see you again, Tess. Welcome back to the Promise.’’

‘’Technically, that should be my line,’’ Atlas commented.

‘’Oh, I’m sure you’ll give her a proper welcome later.’’ Jaxon flashed his usual sly grin and his joke had Atlas frowning at him like he was imagining the different way to boot him off the ship.

‘’I sensed you when you arrived with the others back on the transporter. I’m very happy to see you again.’’ Nova smiled at me and gave my arm a quick squeeze. Knowing that she wasn’t the most comfortable with expressing emotions, her gesture felt just as welcoming and warm as Jaxon’s hug.

‘’You did some crazy flying out there. You should have seen cranky, old Atlas here almost have a heart attack when we jumped without his precious ship.’’ Jaxon gestured to Atlas, clearly enjoying the ability to tease him again while I was present.

‘’Believe me, it wasn’t exactly easy to fly in her current condition, and I’m a little rusty,’’ I huffed with a small smile. ‘’Could have gone without the near-death experience, though. I think Comet agrees with me,’’ I added before looking at the chair where Comet had collapsed earlier.

Jaxon followed my glance and spotted the little alien. ‘’Comet! You’re alright!’’ Comet wiggled in the seat before jumping into Jaxon’s outstretched arms, receiving some well-earned snuggles from the scoundrel.

‘’Not to be pushy, but I’m quite sure that I’m not the only one here who is wondering what happened to you? We’ve been searching for you since you disappeared, but we didn’t have much information to go on. We only received an actual lead five months ago but then it went quiet again. After that, I have to admit that I lost a little hope. It seemed uncertain that we would ever see you’re again and now you’re here. ’’ Orion gave me a short version of how the last year had been for them and what they had done to find me, dampening the mood a little by asking the question I knew they all wanted the answer to.

In all honesty, I couldn’t blame them for losing hope, not when there’d never been another case of something turning up after disappearing into a black hole.

‘’I expected that you guys would be surprised to see me. There’s never been any evidence that I shouldn’t be dead or still stuck in limbo, which I actually was for the first six months,’’ I started explaining and then stopped when I realized how crazy all of it was going to sound. ‘’I think… I think you better all sit down before I tell you what happened. It’s going to be hard to believe, especially the first part.’’

After agreeing that it would be more comfortable, we all moved to the lounge. I took a seat next to Atlas in one of the sofas, and he didn’t hesitate to find my hand with his own, anchoring me to him. For once, Jaxon didn’t make any commentary on it, and I assumed that he was too wrapped up in his curiosity to even notice our subtle display of affection.

‘’Right, so-‘’ I started but paused when I tried to decide how to go about telling my crazy story. I took a deep breath before continuing. ‘’After I fell, I got stuck in some sort of limbo state for six months. Technically, I didn’t exist for that time period and it didn’t feel like more than an hour had passed, maybe even only thirty minutes – it’s hard to tell when you’re stuck in complete darkness – but, next thing I know, something is grabbing me and I’m suddenly standing in front of my father.’’

Atlas gripped my hand a little harder when I mentioned my father. ‘’Wait, Will? You saw Will? He’s alive?’’

‘’I thought he had been missing for eight years?’’ Jaxon asked, recalling what I had told him about my father.

‘’He was, and in most ways he still is, but he was inside the black hole and he’s the one who sorta put me back together? I know it sounds insane, but the place apparently pulled me apart, like some human puzzle, and he fixed me. He was adamant about me getting out of there before I would become stuck like he is,’’ I explained, a tiny bit amused but the look of pure confusion on their faces.

‘’Hold on. Your father is alive and stuck in a black hole?’’ Orion asked with raised eyebrows.

‘’Yes. He said that he’d become part of it, so he can’t leave the place, but he’s managed to somehow use it to his advantage. He sent me a message with coordinates in it.’’

‘’Yeah, they lead to a weird cave on a tiny planet far out in the outer rims. We checked it out a while ago but there’s nothing there,’’ Jaxon spoke, drawing my attention to him.

Now, it was my turn to look surprised. ‘’You went there?’’ My glance flickered to Atlas for a second before returning to Jaxon. ‘’When?’’

‘’Back at the beginning of the ninth cycle. I don’t remember the exact day,’’ Jaxon replied and looked at the others to see if anyone could remember.

‘’It was the third.’’ Nova joined in, answering the rest of my question.

I simply stared at her for a moment while my brain had to do a hard reboot. ‘’You have to be kidding me!’’ I groaned loudly while slumping back against the couch. ‘’One day! I stepped out of that weird cave one day after you guys have been there!’’

‘’Please tell me that this is one of your bad jokes,’’ Atlas huffed before running a hand through his hair.

‘’No, I’m absolutely serious! I came back on the fourth and I went to Keris the day after. I can’t believe this.’’ I covered my face with my hands before faint laughter rippled through me, quickly turning much louder when I realized how absurd it was.

‘’That’s… I don’t even know what to say to that,’’ Jaxon spoke with a defeated look on his face while Orion shook his head.

‘’Seven hells, I could have skipped six months of doing shitty work, nearly getting caught by a bounty hunter and being robbed,’’ I groaned while my hands slid down, one of them finding Atlas’ again.

‘’You were robbed? I’m sorry that you had to experience that.’’ Nova gave me a worried look.

‘’Yeah, I almost had enough to buy a tablet to contact you guys with. It was even on the same day that I learned that I had only just missed your guys by a day on Helios,’’ I huffed bitterly. Atlas squeezed my hand while the frustration from back then nearly radiated off me. His gesture made me relax a little again and I exhaled heavily. ‘’I can’t believe I missed you guys twice.’’

‘’Still, you kept going. I think that’s very admirable, considering that it couldn’t have been easy for you to travel,’’ Orion voiced his opinion.

Feeling a little encouraged by his words, I proceeded to tell them everything that had been going on, focusing on the important parts like running into Dr. Maris and then how I had convinced Ray to help. They all listened intensively as I spoke, saving their questions until I was done. Feeling rather mentally exhausted, especially after that flight, I was grateful that they didn’t overwhelm me with questions and kept their curiosity at a minimum. At least for now.

Probably sensing not only mine but also their own exhaustion, we all agreed that it had been a long day and that we could continue tomorrow. Atlas kept a firm hold on my hand as we got up from the couch. I caught Nova looking at me with an expression I couldn’t quite interpret as he steered me toward his room. However, she didn’t say anything as Atlas led me away, so I told myself that I would ask her about it later. Right then, I was way more focused on getting some alone time with the man I had been trying to reunite with for six months.

When we had stepped inside his room and the door had closed behind us, I used our still linked hands to pull him closer to me. Neither of us felt the need to speak while our eyes met and my free hand cradled the right side of his face. We studied each other in the dim light that flooded in from the window above the bed. I exhaled softly through my nose when I felt how much I had missed standing here with him, but, as much as I wanted to fully enjoy the moment, I couldn’t look away from the bruising around his eye and the cut on his cheek.

‘’I’m alright,’’ he hummed softly like he’d read my mind. His hand found mine on his cheek and moved it down to his lips, kissing my palm gently.

‘’Are you sure? It looks like they were pretty rough with you,’’ I expressed my worry in a small voice.

‘’I’ve had worse,’’ he said reassuringly before his thumb gingerly touched the left side of my upper lip, ‘’looks like it scarred.’’

‘’It’s not exactly pretty,’’ I huffed with a small smile before sliding my hand out of his and to the back of his neck, using it to guide him closer to me.

‘’You’re still the most beautiful person I’ve laid my eyes own,’’ he breathed before our lips met.

I smiled against them before fully responding to the soft kiss, savoring how his lips fit against mine so perfectly. As the kiss deepened, one of his hands found its way into my hair while the other settled on my hip, reminding me that I was still wearing the uniform. However, when his tongue ran along the seam of my lips, the thought slipped away as quickly as it had appeared, and I didn’t hesitate to part them and meet his tongue with my own.

Gradually, the kiss turned heated, causing my pulse to quicken while a lingering heat settled in my stomach. Suddenly, kissing him wasn’t enough. I needed more.

‘’Atlas,’’ I breathed his name against his lips, my desire for him obvious in my voice.

His response was a deep hum that rumbled within his chest. His hands circled around me and pressed me against him, leaving me to take a sharp breath before kissing him hard. It didn’t take more than that before we were both urgently working on ridding the other person of their clothes. His hands made quick work of the uniform and easily had the top gone, leaving me in only my bra and pants while I had only unzipped his jacket. When my hands moved over his shoulders to slide it off him, his body noticeably twitched while he broke the kiss to wince.

It immediately put a damper on the mood.

‘’Atlas-‘’

‘’It’s nothing,’’ he cut me off while taking his jacket off himself. Even when he did his best to look stoic, his expression slipped when he shrugged it off, showing his discomfort.

‘’Bullshit.’’ I scoffed and poked his shoulder, making him wince again. ‘’This clearly hurts, so drop the attitude and let me help you get this off. I want to see how bad it is,’’ I spoke while carefully removing his suspenders.

‘’Tess-‘’

‘’No, I’m serious,’’ I cut him off this time while tugging at the hem of his T-shirt, ‘’let me help you.’’

After a second of frowning at me, he eventually relented and allowed me to help him remove it. When it was gone, I quickly spotted why his right side was sore. Bruises were coloring his skin in shades of blue, yellow and red, running from his right shoulder to down his chest and around his side in a random pattern, stopping at his waist.

I caught my breath when I saw it, and my heart did a little squeeze when I realized that he must have ignored it when he was hugging me so tightly earlier. As tenderly as humanly possible, my fingers ghosted over a particularly large one on his shoulder. ‘’Did you manage to make one guard severely hate you or did you piss off multiple?’’ I asked while finding his gaze with my own.

‘’Both,’’ he snorted before leaning down and kissing me again, clearly more interested in continuing the previous activity than talking about the bruises.

Despite being a little annoyed with his dismissive attitude, it quickly melted away when he kept kissing me, easily reigniting the flame from before. I quickly got lost in how his mouth moved against mine like I was a feast he was ready to devour whole, and I was more than ready to let him. Getting a little too caught up in it, I pressed closer to him and threw my arms around his neck, resulting in him wincing once mere.

‘’Sorry,’’ I apologized while removing my hands. As our eyes met again, there was no denying the frustration that lingered just below the surface in his. I was about to suggest that maybe we should wait when I got an idea. ‘’Sit down,’’ I instructed while guiding him back with my hands.

Making sure that I didn’t touch any bruised part of him, I steered him backward and onto the edge of the bed. When he sat down, I flashed him a smug smile while I worked on getting my heavy boots off, which was a struggle to do while attempting to look a little classy.

‘’So,’’ he started while my fingers got busy with undoing my pants, ‘’is this a ‘shut up and look pretty’ thing or do you mind telling me what you’re doing?’’

‘’I thought we had established that I was the impatient one in this relationship?’’ I smiled at him while I stepped out of the pants. Stripped down to my underwear, I used my knee to part his legs before placing it between them on the bed. ‘’For now, all you have to do is relax,’’ I explained in a low voice as I leaned closer to him, catching a glimpse of desire in his eyes.

‘’I can work with that,’’ he replied in a deep hum that sent a rush of heat through me.

‘’Good,’’ I whispered before closing the short distance between us and claiming his lips with my own. It didn’t take long before the mood was back and he had to swallow a faint moan when I ran my hand up and along his thigh. I squeezed it while my lips moved down his throat and his chest, avoiding any bruises as I sank to my knees between his legs.

His eyes followed my hands as my fingers got to work with undressing the rest of him, starting with unzipping his pants. When I started to slide both them and his boxers down, he placed both of his hands on the bed to support him as he leaned back and lifted his hips, allowing me to pull them down. He took a sharp breath when I freed his erection and I watched how his abs tensed when my hand closed around his shaft.

Sporting a cocky smirk, I glanced up at him and took a second to simply take in the view. Because he was leaning back, I was in the perfect spot to admire his broad shoulders and toned upper body. Even with the bruises, he looked stunning, and I had to tear my eyes off him before I could refocus on the part of him that my hand was currently wrapped around.

I could feel his eyes on me as I gave him a couple of slow strokes while I adjusted my position, leaning closer so that I could run my tongue up his shaft before letting it swirl around the head.

‘’Seven hells, Tess,’’ he moaned when I closed my lips around him and one of his hand moved to tangle itself in my hair when I slowly started to move my head up and down.

I went slowly at first; starting with an almost tantalizing rhythm that had his breath quickening while I eased into it, gradually moving a little faster and involving my tongue once I had found a proper rhythm to work with.

While my left hand started stroking him in the same rhythm as my head moved, my right moved down and slipped beneath my underwear, moaning against him when I started touching myself. His moans and the way his grip on my hair tightened had me focused on nothing else than working him into a mess with my hands and mouth.

I teased him and hummed against his flesh before sucking on it, immensely enjoying how I could make him curse beneath his breath and moan, which acted as a pure accelerant for the fire building in my lower stomach.

However, as much as I liked to hear him, I kept my movements under control and slowed down whenever I could feel his hips twitch or muscles tightening. I had to fully remove my mouth from him when his hips jerked upwards, warning me that he was getting close. I let out a low moan while my hand kept stroking him at a slower pace and my lips pressed against the inside of his thigh.

I glanced up at him to see his expression. His half-lidded eyes were already focused on me, leaving me to take a sharp breath when I saw the desire in them and the faint line of red that spread across his cheeks. I moved with no hesitation and pulled myself up from the floor before pursuing his lips with my own, hungrily kissing him.

He shifted his weight into one hand while he responded to my demanding kiss. His free hand grasped my hip and squeezed it before it trailed down, moving beneath my underwear. Slowly, he slid them down my body and only let them go when they were past the point where they would fall on their own. While his hand followed my curves back up and found my hip again, my own got busy with removing the last piece of clothing on me.

Once my bra had joined the rest of our clothing on the floor, I closed the distance between us by straddling him and sat down on his thighs. Knowing that I might need some support, he sat upright, allowing me to move my arm over his good shoulder. I kept my hands off the other one because of the bruises and instead ran my fingers through his hair. It coaxed a hum out of him while he leaned closer to me, putting himself close enough to press his lips against my throat. I let out a longing sigh as they trailed down, passing over my collarbone before continuing down to my chest.

His left hand found my thigh and caressed it, leaving me to moan because of how badly I wanted it. ‘’You have no idea how much I missed you,’’ I spoke in a low voice before biting my lip when his free hand cupped my breast and his thumb brushed over my nipple, ‘’… and your hands.’’

He chuckled against my skin. ‘’What did you miss about them?’’ He asked in a husky voice while squeezing my thigh before the hand moved inwards.

‘’The-,’’ I had to swallow when his hand reached my inner thigh, ‘’the way they feel against my skin when you touch me.’’

‘’What else?’’ he asked again while his thumb circled my nipple, teasing my while his other hand was dangerously close to touching me where I craved it the most.

‘’Their size… and your fingers,’’ I continued before making a little noise of frustration while rolling my hips, gradually getting impatient because of how close his hand was.

I could feel him smile against my skin before he finally touched me, easily coaxing a low moan out of me. He remembered exactly how I liked to be touched, and despite being a tease before, his deft fingers wasted no time with working me into a mess.

As if his fingers weren’t enough, the hand that was cupping my breast massaged it while his lips closed around my nipple, stimulating me further as he involved his tongue. After six months of not having felt his touch, let alone be near him, I quickly melted under his hands and mouth.

It didn’t take long before my free hand was clutching a fistful of sheets and I was steadily approaching the edge. When he curled his fingers against the spot that had me see stars, I struggled to keep my hips still while my nails dug into his shoulders. He worked that spot and hummed against my skin, quickly resulting in me moaning breathlessly while my whole body tensed.

Seconds later, I took a sharp breath before parting my lips in a silent moan as I was pushed over the edge.

A sensation of bliss settled in my system while my mind worked itself out of a haze, eventually picking up on the fact that his lips had moved to travel up my throat. When they found mine, I hummed approvingly against them as I responded to his slow kiss.

My hand untwisted itself from the sheet and moved between us. While his lips kept occupying mine, my hand closed around his shaft, causing him to kiss me harder when I started stroking him. Both of his hands settled on my hips when I shifted my position, and they helped with keeping me steady as I slowly started to lower myself on him.

We both took a sharp breath as he slipped inside me.

His hands gripped my hips tighter as I continued down and a low moan rumbled in his chest before making it past his lips. My head fell back while I let out a longing sigh, momentarily lost in the sensation of how amazing it felt to be filled by him.

‘’Stars, you feel amazing.’’ His voice was husky as he moaned against my throat, followed by his damp breath before his lips went against it.

‘’That should be my line,’’ I huffed with a small smile.

While his mouth was busy exploring my throat, I slowly started to roll my hips. From that point on, there was no talking involved as I found a rhythm that quickly had us both busy with other things. Because of our position, my movements were more restricted than if he had been on his back, but, as he hungrily sought my lips with his own, it was clear that neither of us had any intention of adding space between us.

We needed closeness.

It didn’t take long before we were both breathing quickly and our bodies were turning damp. When I moaned against his lips because I found the right angle, his arms moved around me, pressing me as close to him as he could without further halting my movements. The kisses turned messy very quickly and I clung to his shoulder when I felt the heat rushing through me like a wildfire.

My movements turned erratic as I chased the promise of release, and I could tell by the sound of his moans that he was getting closer to the edge as well. His desire showed in his hungry kiss that completely consumed me, leaving me to lose myself in it and the heat.

Seconds later, it felt like the heat exploded and surged through me, causing me to break the kiss by moaning while my muscles tensed. Although my movements slowed down, he was quick to follow me. His forehead pressed against my shoulder as he climaxed, and I could feel his damp breath hit my skin as he moaned breathlessly.

For a moment, we simply stayed still while the only sounds in the room were our quick breaths.

It lasted until his lips pressed against my shoulder in a tender kiss before following an invisible trail up my throat, making me chuckle until they reached my lips. His strong arms gave me a soft squeeze while he kissed me a languidly.

When we parted, he smiled softly. ‘’Welcome back, Tess.’’

His words had me smiling while a familiar warmth bloomed in my chest. Somehow, hearing him say that only made the situation more real like it finally dawned on me that I was actually back. I leaned my forehead against his and whispered a low ‘‘thank you’’ before kissing him again.

I was home.