“Croach,” said Sparks, feet on his desk, looking at the memo that had come into his in-tray. “We’re, uh, we’re being inspected later today. Some Mars-Earth Coalition bureaucrats comin’ down to check we’re doin’ stuff right.” He lifted the first page of the memo, reading the paper underneath.
“And, uh, wehavetopetendtobemarried.” Sparks mumbled the last part of the sentence, keeping his eyes firmly fixed on the sheet in his hands.
“I am sorry, Sparks Nevada, I did not hear you. Speak clearly.”
“Today. We’re being inspected.”
“Yes, that much I heard.”
“Sparks Nevada, if you do not enunciate clearly, no one will understand you.”
“It’s really simple, Croach. Inspectors from the Mars-Earth Coalition are coming today to inspect our marshallin’ operation.”
“Yes, Sparks Nevada, we have already established this at some length.”
“And a couple of months ago, they introduced some new regulation, havin’ bin talkin’ with them USSA types too much, statin’ that only married couples could be Marshal and Deputy. Somethin’ to do with it workin’ so well on starcrafts, I dunno. So anyway, they sent through the paperwork, and on account of it being a dumbass regulation, I just ticked the box that said we’re married, figurin’ nothin’d come of it, but apparently all the Marshal’s were doin’ it, marshallin’ not being a career suited to family types. So now they’re sendin’ round inspectors makin’ sure. So when they come, we’re gonna hafta pretend we’re married, otherwise I’ll lose my badge, and that ain’t somethin’ I reckon on happenin’. Again.”
“Bagropa. Sparks Nevada, are you telling me that you falsified paperwork?”
Croach’s voice rose a notch with incredulity.
“It didn’t sit well with me, but it’s not like it was paperwork that was gonna set some outlaw free, or get some innocent thrown in jail. And, given it was paperwork that was makin’ sure I got to keep doin’ my job and keep the good folks of this planet safe, I figgered it’d balance out.”
Croach frowned at this explanation. He narrowed his eyes and leant forward, antenna twitching.
“Croach, what are you… oh gross…” Sparks batted Croach’s antennae away as it poked into his ear.
“Forgive me, Sparks Nevada, I have to ascertain that you are not a Jupiter Spy.”
“Well, I’m not. I’m me.”
“I must be sure, Sparks Nevada; falsifying paperwork is most uncharacteristic. I would be under onus to you if you let me finish my investigation.”
Sparks sighed, “If’n I do, reckon we can get back on with our day?”
“Once I ascertain that you are indeed Sparks Nevada we may indeed resume our normal duties.”
Sparks sighed again, “Fine. Do what you have to.”
He held still as Croach bent to examine him more closely, suppressing a shiver as Croach’s antennae brushed lightly over his face. After a minute Croach straightened.
“Yes, Sparks Nevada. You have not been replaced with a Jupiter Spy. I am under onus to you for my suspicions.”
“Nah, Croach,” Sparks waved off the onus. “It’s as well to be cautious.” He sighed. “Look, I know I’m askin’ a lot. But it ain’t like I’m just doin’ this for me. Mars needs a marshal, and it don’t got anyone better qualified than me, and it don’t need some bureaucrat from the MEC deciding I ain’t fit to be marshal just cos I ain’t married. So I lied on some paperwork and now I need you to back me up during this dang fool inspection.”
Croach exhaled a breath that might be called a sigh of exasperation if the being in question admitted to experiencing emotions.
“Very well, Sparks Nevada. I concede your argument. I shall attempt to help you convince this inspector that we are indeed in a relationship of reciprocal onus, but only because I perceive that G’loot Praktaw benefits from your continued status as Marshal.”
“Thanks buddy, I owe you one.”
“Sparks Nevada, you shall owe me more than ‘one’. I am placing you under great onus to me for this undertaking.”
Sparks spluttered but before he could formulate a reply, the Marshal Station Artificial Intelligence chimed in.
“Marshal, an MEC Inspectorate Ship requests permission to enter Mars airspace.” “This’ll be the inspectors, reckon. Ok, AI, put them on screen.” Sparks turned to the vid screen, taking Croach’s hand and pulling him closer to his chair.
“Sparks Nevada, what are you doing?”
“I told ya, Croach. We have to make these inspectors think we’re married, otherwise I’ll lose my badge.”
“Sparks Nevada, I am placing you under so much onus for this. So much onus.”
The vid screen flickered to life, and two familiar faces appeared on it.
“Noodle, don’t tell me you got married without telling me.”
Sparks made a noise that was definitely not a squeak and dropped Croach’s hand.
“Mom, Dad, what are you doing here?”
His voice rose an unhelpful octave.
“Sparks, what have I told you about using proper protocol?” Caiaphas’ voice cut across the audio feed.
“Commander, Captain, what are you doing here?” Sparks did not sound less flustered the second time.
“Your mother told you that we had been seconded to the Mars-Earth Coalition whilst the Indomitable was being refitted. Did you really think we wouldn't come to hear of your so-called marriage? Admiral Jenson was good enough to assign us to this investigation so that we could hear your explanations in person. Now come on, aren't you going to let us enter your orbit and teleport down?”
Sparks shrank slightly against his desk. Seeing Caiaphas’ stern glare projected larger than life on the vid screen made him feel like a kid again, called to the carpet in his father’s office to explain why he was flunking Future History.
“Sure, Dad… Sir…Captain.” Sparks amended his sentence in the face of Caiaphas’ glower.
“Marshal Station? Give the MEC Eunomia permission to enter low orbit and send ‘em the teleport co-ordinates.” He gave his parents a smile that overshot cheery and nearly made it to manic. “See you in –” He was cut off as Caiaphas ended the transmission.
Sparks looked at Croach, one hand rubbing the back of his neck embarrassedly.
“Croach, you gotta know I had no idea they’d send Mom and Dad here. I ain’t gonna ask you lie to them. When they teleport down I’ll just hafta tell them the truth. Mom might be able to persuade Dad to get them to let me keep my badge.”
Croach opened his mouth to reply, but was prevented from doing so by Stacy and Caiaphas Nevada materialising in the middle of the Marshal Station.
Almost before the glittering lights of the teleport beam faded away, Stacy stepped forward to pull Sparks into a hug.
“Why didn't you say anything, Noodle? Getting married is such a big step and you didn't even tell us?”
“Actually, Mom –”
Caiaphas interrupted his explanation with his best lecturing tone.
“Sparks, do you realise how much you've upset your mother? You never think of anyone else, do you? You just go off and do what you like.”
“Actually, Dad –”
This time Sparks was interrupted by Croach, who stepped forward and interlaced his fingers with Sparks’, cutting in smoothly with “Captain Nevada, Commander Nevada, the introduction of the Mars-Earth Coalition regulation caused us to enter into marriage more quickly than we would have otherwise. Our relationship was not a matter of public knowledge, and so no one was informed.” Here Croach shot Sparks a pointed look. “I apologise for any undue distress this has caused.”
Sparks stared at Croach, mouth open in surprise. Before he could formulate the question to ask the Martian what on Earth he thought he was doing, Croach had elbowed him in the side in a clear “shut up” signal, and Stacy had thrown her arms around both of them and pulled them both into a hug.
“Please, Croach, you’re family now. Call me Stacy.” She pulled away far enough to glare good-naturedly at Sparks, “I still think you could have told your own mother.”
Sparks figured that if Croach had decided to play along, they wouldn’t fail for lack of trying on his part, so he elaborated, “Mom, it’s like Croach said, we hadn’t told anyone. Our relationship was pretty new, this regulation change happened, and it seemed like sensible to get married, even if’n we weren’t exactly plannin’ on it yet. We was workin up to telling folks, and ‘course you were top o’ that list.”
Caiaphas made an unconvinced harrumphing sound. “Hmph, well, the inspection shouldn’t take more than 72 hours. I take it you have our quarters prepared?”
“Sparks, didn’t you read the memo? It was quite clear. It is imperative that we are able to stay on-planet and close by for the duration of the inspection.”
“Oh, yeah, sure,” said Sparks, who hadn’t read the memo beyond the initial paragraph explaining the need for inspection. “You can stay in Croach’s room. It’s not quite ready yet but…”
He trailed off as three sets of eyes focussed on him, Caiaphas’ with a sort of triumph, Stacy’s with disappointment, and Croach with his “you’re a moron” look; a look that he had perfected over the years to be able to convey with his eyes alone.
“Croach’s room? Surely you both share a room..?” Caiaphas’ syrupy-sweet faux-incredulity was worse than his anger.
Thinking quickly, Sparks barrelled on, “Sure. But, uh, Martian’s hafta sleep in an embryonic sac every few days so’s their nanotech –”
“Nah Nohtek,” Croach corrected.
“– whatever, can keep ‘em all fixed up. Like a robot running a diagnostic or whatever. And being as it’s super gross, Croach keeps his old quarters at the station that he can use when he needs ‘em. Right?” He looked over at Croach, who he thought for a split second looked pleased that he had remembered that detail of Martian biology.
“Sparks Nevada, you are incorrect. Formation of, and subsequent resting in and consumption of embryonic sacs it not, as you designate it, ‘super gross’. It is glorious and natural. However,” he continued, suddenly realising that this line of conversation would not help them achieve their goal. He shifted his attention back to Caiaphas and Stacy. “It is an action for which I prefer privacy, and so I keep a room here at the Marshal Station that I can use when necessary. And I have had occasion to use it recently, so it is indeed not ready for your arrival.” Croach picked his words with care, making sure that each was, technically speaking, true, even if it conveyed an impression slightly counter to reality.
“Well, that’s okay, my dear,” she said, “Caiaphas and I have to go and interview the people of this settlement first anyway. I’m sure you boys can have it ready by the time we return.”
“Thanks for trying, buddy, but looks like we’ve been rumbled.” Sparks said, as soon as his parents had left. “Ain’t no way no one is gonna tell Mom and Dad anything that’ll back up our story.”
“I believe you are correct, Sparks Nevada. Perhaps, as you say, you will be successful in persuading Commander Nevada to prevail upon the Captain to use his influence and allow you to retain your badge.”
“Yeah. I appreciate you tryin’ to help, anyway. I hafta ask though, why did you step in? I was about to explain everythin’, let you off the hook.”
“The identity of the inspectors did not change my reasoning. I still believe you are the best custodian of law and order for G’loot Praktaw.”
Sparks couldn’t quite look Croach in the eye.
“That’s… that’s maybe the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.”
Croach made a gesture that definitely wasn’t anything as human as a shrug.
“It is merely the truth.” He looked away. “Also, your father underestimates you. The chance to prove him wrong would be…pleasing.”
Sparks couldn’t quite suppress a smile. It was as close as Croach ever got to admitting a feeling, and rarer still for that to be in support of him.
“C’mon,” he said, gruffly. “Dad’ll probably insist on stickin’ round the full three days, whatever happens, so we should at least look like we’re sortin’ somewhere for them to stay. I’ll give you a hand with your room.”
Sparks hesitated before crossing the threshold into Croach’s room. Croach was a private being, and for all they spent most of every day together, Sparks knew he valued his own space. Sparks smiled slightly to himself. They had spent even more time together recently; Croach had taken to spending some of most evenings in Spark’s small sitting room. Occasionally they played Battle Chess, but more often than not they sat in companionable silence as they continued their solitary pursuits. Neither of them was particularly made for company, but it was… nice, Sparks thought, not to be alone. He had grown to look forward to their Battle Chess games more and more recently. That was the time they fell into easy conversation, about whatever subjects crossed their minds. Sometimes Croach even unbent enough to let slip a few stories of growing up with his tribe, and Sparks had found himself talking about his time at the academy, and growing up a USSA brat on bases and starships across the galaxy, things he’d never told another being in his life. Those conversations seemed to be happening more and more lately. Ever since Croach had… His smile faltered. Ever since Croach had Come Back. To him. Mars. To Mars. Sparks shook his head to dislodge the thoughts. He didn’t like to think about that time.
Back in the present, Croach exhaled a heavy breath and shot him a look that clearly said “are you going to help or not?”, and he took that final step into the room.
The room was exactly what he might have pictured had he ever imagined Croach’s room. Neat and sparse, with very little to show that the room was occupied.
Croach’s Quantum Bow and Techno Arrows leaned against a wall. His computer pad sat in its charging station on his bedside table. A shelf on the wall contained a neat row of books; battered and well read copies of Rebecca Rose Rushmore’s novels, starting with Bushwackers of Neptune and continuing in a uninterrupted line until they abruptly stopped with a copy of We’re From Earth: A Tale of Star-Crossing Lovers, spine uncracked.
Sparks grimaced at the book and his eyes slid along the shelf to where a small collection of objects lay. A small hunting knife, a couple of water worn pebbles and a wood carving of a horse. A rocket steed. Mercury, in fact, as Sparks well knew, seeing as he had whittled the thing himself. Sparks had been idly working a piece of firewood one evening a few months back, when they’d been camped out on the trail of some robot outlaws who’d tried to rob the general store. Sparks couldn’t remember what they’d been talking about when Croach had looked at the position of the stars, and noted with a tone of slight surprise that it was the anniversary of his gaining dominance over his broodmates. It had seemed obvious at the time to hand over the figurine as a birthday present, despite Croach’s objections that it wasn’t his birthday, and that the anniversary was one that should be marked with solemn contemplation of the broodmates who had perished to allow him to continue his life-path, not with frivolous gifts.
Sparks reached out to touch the horse, a knot in his chest that he couldn’t quite identify at the thought that Croach had kept it anyway, kept it safe through the gunfight and successful capture that had ensued, had carried it carefully home and placed it on this shelf, the only spot of personality in an otherwise barren room. At the last minute he swerved his hand and picked up the knife instead. He examined it carefully; it looked old and subtly different from the one that Croach habitually carried at his belt – more ornamental, with an intricate design laid into the handle.
“Sparks Nevada.” Croach’s voice cut sharply across his thoughts, making him jump. “Please be careful, it is old and extremely fragile.”
“What is it?” Sparks asked, placing the knife back on the shelf.
“A hunting knife. It was presented to me upon my successful completion of my Hee-Ros K’west. It belonged to my primary progenitor, and their primary progenitor before them and their primary progenitor before them...”
“A family heirloom, then?” Sparks cut in, aware that Croach would continue to list the precise number of primary progenitors who had previously owned the weapon.
“An artefact of the history of my tribe,” Croach corrected, snippily.
“Whatever.” Sparks turned his attention to the pebbles, frowning as he recognised them as being from the pool by the waterfall out on the plains. He cleared his throat, suddenly anxious to get out of there. “C’mon then, Croach. What needs moving?”
“The Saloon Doors are open.”
“Thanks Doors,” Barkeep looked up from the glass he was polishing to see two uniformed USSA officers entering his saloon. He frowned as he tried to remember why they looked familiar. “Can I help you? I don’t want no trouble in my place.”
“I can assure you, we are not bringing trouble.” In another era, in another place, Caiaphas would have added “my good man” to that sentence.
Barkeep looked sceptical.
“You see, in my experience, folks in uniform tends to bring trouble whether they mean to or not. And here you are. In my place. Where I do not want trouble to be.”
Stacy stepped forward before Caiaphas could respond.
“I’m Stacy Kerns-Nevada. Commander. USSA. And this is my husband Caiaphas,” she held out her hand for Barkeep to shake.
His face cleared.
“Of course, you’re the Marshal’s parents. We met that time his horse organised the surprise party. Mordecai Benmont Jiminy. But most folks round here just call me Barkeep.” He shook Stacy’s outstretched hand.
“Ah, yes. It’s Sparks we’re here about. We just need to ask you some questions. MEC business.”
“Do you run this establishment?” Caiaphas cut in, running a metaphorical white glove over an allegorical picture frame.
“Yep, this here’s my place,” said Barkeep. “Where I don’t want no trouble,” he added, parenthetically. “What did you want to know? Can I get you a drink whilst you’re here?”
Stacy looked like she was about to reply, but Caiaphas answered, “No. We won’t be here long. We just have some questions about my son’s marriage.” Caiaphas’ lip curled on the word.
“Ah, so Felton got it right then.” Barkeep smiled, “He said Sparks and Croach had gotten married but I thought they’d’ve told us if they had.” He shrugged. “I guess I was wrong. I did think about using the powers of the Force Galactic to find out, but if my wife knew I’d done it there would have been trouble, and trouble is something I am anxious to avoid, not just in my place, but also in my home and in my personal life.” He paused to pick up another glass to polish. “You said you had questions?”
“Yes,” said Caiaphas, curtly. Barkeep’s reiterations of his stance re his place and trouble therein were starting to annoy him. “You said you didn’t know my son and that… Martian were married?”
“No. Like I said, Felton seemed to know something about it, but I didn’t think they would have got married in secret. They must know everyone would have been pleased for them, especially after the whole baby thing.”
“Baby thing?” Caiaphas spluttered.
“You know, when everyone thought Croach was having the Marshal’s kid, but then it turned out to be that Jupiter Spy going round impregnating every one.” Barkeep grimaced at the memory. “That was some trouble that I was glad was not in my place. But wasn’t the USSA tracking him last I heard?”
“Seems my son left some salient details out of his official reports,” said Caiaphas through gritted teeth. “What did my son say when you confronted him?”
“Didn’t you ask him about this apparent marriage?”
“Well no, sir, I didn’t, and I’ll tell you why. If the Marshal and Croach didn’t tell us they got married, they must have reasons of their own for not doing so, and asking them is prying into their business, and prying into other peoples’ business is like to cause trouble here in my place, and trouble I am keenest to avoid. I should explain. My wife, seeing as she is a troubleshooter by way of her job, is surrounded by trouble all the live long day, and when she comes home she doesn’t want to deal with no trouble, that being like work to her, and…”
Barkeep looked at the shade of puce that Caiaphas was slowly turning, and realised that further explanation might just cause trouble to occur in his place, and as that was the one thing that he did not want, he decided to change the subject.
“Anyway, you must be happy for Marshal Nevada,” he said, turning to Stacy. “I know we all are. For Croach too, of course. They both deserve some luck in love. Seems like they’ve been heading this way for so long. That Jupiter Spy affair caused some trouble there, and we worried it might be permanent. In fact, my wife and I were discussing the other day whether we should set the Marshal up with someone. Before Felton told us the news, of course. Good job we didn’t. Might’ve caused some trouble, and I wouldn’t want that.”
“This Felton seems to know a lot about this apparent marriage. How did he find out?” Caiaphas glowered at Barkeep.
“I don’t know exac’ly. He said something about a bee and some paperwork, and I’ll be honest, I wasn’t really paying attention. I thought about using the Force Galactic to find out, but, you know, trouble.”
“And where might I find him?” The veneer of civility Caiaphas had so far managed to keep on his tone was wearing thin enough to be translucent.
“This time of day? Probably up at the Widow Johnson’s place.”
“Then that’s our next port of call. Come on, Stacy.” Caiaphas turned to stride out of the saloon.
Stacy gave Barkeep a mildly apologetic smile.
“Thank you for you time.”
Caiaphas glared at the Doors, which seemed to take a half second longer than normal to swish open with an extra cheery “The Saloon Doors are open.”
Caiaphas growled under his breath and left, Stacy following in his wake.
“Mr… Felton, is it?” Caiaphas made a show of looking at his notes, his tone even more curt than normal. His mood had not been improved by the last hour spent first trying to find the homestead belonging to the Widow Johnson, then suffering the indignity of his wife asking for directions, and finally having to travel into the backwoods of this godforsaken planet just to talk to some yokel with a straw hat and denim overalls.
“Mr Lagravenese, actually. Felton is my given name, but that’s all anyone round here calls me. Felton is fine.”
Felton held out one dirt stained hand, which Caiaphas pointedly did not shake.
“Captain Nevada, USSA. We’re here to ask you some questions about the recent marriage of the Marshal to the Martian known as Croach the Tracker.”
“Nevada? Of course, you’re the Marshal’s dad. I remember. I’m not sure as I can tell you anything you don’t already know about him marryin’ Croach. Unless they didn’t not tell you neither.”
“My son seems to be rather unforthcoming of late.”
“Aw, now that is a right shame. I don’t know why they wouldn’t tell anyone. Everyone in town is just dying to celebrate with them.”
Caiaphas stopped just short of rolling his eyes and asked with icy politeness,
“Mr Lagravenese, would you be so kind as to tell me how you came to know of Sparks’ marriage, when everyone else appears to be in the dark.”
“Sure, Captain Nevada, but done no-one told me, I found out by pure accident. Was about two weeks ago, or was it three? No must be two weeks ago, I remember because of the strange plants growin’ out here, (this not being my farm, you understand, but the house of the Widow Johnson, a fine lady with whom I have somethin’ approachin’ an understandin’), so I’d gone in to the town to ask the Marshal for halp. Now, it turned out they was just some unusually large carrots, but it always pays to check because there was that one time where there was a plant what looked normal but then it started eatin’ hypercattle, but anyway when I got to the Marhsal Station, weren’t nobody there because the Marshal and Croach were chasin’ some robot outlaws who had robbed the bank, and I was glad they were catchin’ ‘em cos I would’ve been at the bank whilst they was robbin’ it, but by the chance that I had stopped at the gelato store for some gelato (I sure can’t resist that hazelnut gelato), and if’n I hadn’t stopped for gelato, I would’ve been in the bank and would’ve got taken hostage with all the people in the bank, which just goes to show that a little indulgence can be a good thing. So there not being hide nor hair of Croach or the Marshal, and neither me nor the station AI knowin’ when they was comin’ back, robot outlaw catchin’ bein’ so unpredictable, I was all set to leave a note for the marshal cos whilst the plants were weird, they weren’t actually eatin’ anythin’ yet, so it could wait til they returned. I was leaning over the desk to write and a bee came into the Marshal Station and I am powerful afeared of bees ever since that one time I got stung by a bee and my hand swelled up near as big as my head, and I can vouch for it that bees ain’t all tickly like caterpillers, and so I was tryin’ to get away from the bee and in so doin’ accidently knocked some paperwork off of the Marshal’s desk and as I was gatherin’ it up I saw there was a sheet headed Marriage Certificate with the Marshal and Croach’s names on and I was surprised and not surprised that they were married because it seemed like they were passing significant looks at each other more and more of late but surprised that they hadn’t told anyone they were getting’ married because whilst they’re both kind of private, Croach did invite everyone to the Surprise Event for the baby that turned out to be a Jupiter Spy so they must’ve known everyone would want to celebrate with them, but I guess they must have reasons for not wanting to mention it and I’m sure they’ll tell everyone when they’re ready.”
Felton paused for breath at the end of his monologue, looking at Caiaphas with the shining happiness of one who has been as helpful as they know how.
Caiaphas ground his back teeth together.
“Come on, Stacy, it’s clear these townspeople know nothing of any interest. Let us get back to the Marshal Station and begin compiling our report.”
Without a further look, he turned on his heel and swept back down the drive, back towards town.
Stacy noticed Felton’s fallen face.
“Mr Lagravenese, thank you for your time, you have been most… helpful.”
She hurried after her husband.
Moving Croach’s things into Sparks’ room took very little time, and by the time Stacy and Caiaphas returned, Sparks was back at his desk in the Marshal Station, writing reports whilst trying to pretend he wasn’t apprehensive about his parents’ reaction, and Croach was sat at his own desk doing whatever Martian thing he did whenever Sparks did his paperwork.
“The Marshal Station Doors are open.”
Sparks jumped at the sound, jumping to his feet when he saw his mom and dad walk in, Caiaphas with a face like thunder.
“Mom, Dad, how did it – ”
He was cut off by Caiaphas saying,
“I’m not sure how you’ve got this town wrapped around your finger, but somehow you have. Show us to our room, boy, I need to start compiling my report.”
Slightly bewildered, Sparks took Caiaphas and Stacy through the connecting door to the Marshal’s quarters, and led them to Croach’s bedroom.
Caiaphas stormed into the room, and immediately commed the Eunomia to port down his and Stacy’s luggage.
Stacy hovered on the threshold, casting worried looks between her husband and her son. She sighed, and reached out to lay a sympathetic hand on Sparks’ arm.
“Don’t worry, Noodle, he’ll come round. You know your father is set in his ways. I think the fact that you didn’t tell him hurt more than he cares to admit.” She squeezed his arm, “You know, you should consider making a formal announcement once we get this all straightened out. Everyone we spoke to would love to celebrate with you both.”
She squeezed his arm again, before slipping into the room and closing the door in Sparks’ even more bewildered face.
Croach was waiting for him when he got back to the office.
“I have no idea how it happened, but it seems like whoever they talked to in town backed us up. We might actually make this work after all.” Sparks slid into his chair, and picked up the topmost piece of paper.
Croach’s single syllable response made Sparks look up at him; it was devoid of any inflection, which was wholly unusual, whatever Croach might think. The Martian was sitting stiffly behind his desk, staring into the mid-distance, looking utterly uncomfortable.
“What?” Sparks asked.
“I did not expect… It does not matter.” Croach looked down at his desk.
“Something’s eating ya.”
“Sparks Nevada, I can assure you that nothing is eating –”
“Metaphor, Croach.” Sparks waved him off.
“I am aware, Sparks Nevada, of the vagaries of Earth English.” Croach glared at Sparks. “I merely meant to inform you that I am fine and there is nothing with which you should concern yourself.”
“Sure…” Sparks returned, levelling a sceptical look at Croach.
They held eye contact for a long moment, a battle of wills to see who would break first. A small voice in the back of Sparks’ brain crowed “winner!” as Croach looked away, exhaling heavily.
“Sparks Nevada.” Croach paused, seemingly casting about for the right words. “Sparks Nevada,” he began again, “has it not occurred to you that your parents will be disinclined to believe this charade if they do not witness some… moments of physical affection between us.”
Croach studiously addressed a point six inches to the left of Sparks’ head, and if he didn’t know better, Sparks would swear a faint purple blush tinged his cheeks.
“I… ah… Sure.” Bravado carried Sparks through his confusion as it so often did. “I said as much earlier when I held your hand, didn’t I? If’n we work in some huggin’ as well, we’ll be right.”
“That hardly seems sufficient in this case.” Croach still refused to look at him. “You humans seem particularly attached to the act of mouth kissing, and I fear it would arouse suspicions if a supposedly newly married couple avoided doing so.”
Sparks made a strangled sound, and got up to pace behind his desk. When he had thought up his plan, he hadn’t quite thought through to this part. And the worst of it was that Croach was right, dammit. His father, in particular, was clearly determined to find the truth, and wasn’t going to believe him on the basis of his say so. Sparks cut a sideways look a Croach. The Martian had also got up from his desk, and was standing in front of it, awkwardly fiddling with the hilt of his hunting knife, watching Sparks pace, waiting for his response. Sparks realised that Croach was as uncomfortable with the whole situation as he was, and felt a sudden rush of gratitude that he was willing to bring it up, to put himself through this awkwardness all for the sake of his badge. “Okay,” he said, pacing round to the front of his desk to lean back on it. “Okay. We can do that. What’s a peck on the cheek between friends, anyway?” Sparks let out a chuckle that slid sideways towards panic.
“Sparks Nevada,” Croach gave him a serious look, “I do not believe that will convince your father.”
Sparks pushed away from his desk, annoyed.
“I’m not making out with you in front of my parents!”
“No,” said Croach, softly, cutting through Sparks’ objections. “I do not believe that would be successful either. I calculate that our best hope is if we can lead your parents to believe that they have interrupted us in a… private moment.”
This time Sparks was the one who couldn’t make eye contact. There had been a quiet intensity to Croach’s voice that had made a knot tighten in his stomach.
“Okay,” he said again. He breathed deeply, forcing himself to relax. “You make a good point. What’s your plan?”
“If we are alone in the kitchen tomorrow morning, we will be ‘caught’ when your parents come down for breakfast.”
Sparks played the scene in his mind’s eye, a strange flutter in his chest as he pictured himself kissing Croach. The Martian was right, though, it would be easy to create the illusion of an intimate moment if his parents entered at the right point.
“Obviously, with my extra senses, I will be able to ascertain the correct time to start the ruse.” Croach said, as if he was reading Sparks’ thoughts.
“Yeah, whatever, okay, good.” Sparks suspected that his attempts to be casual were failing slightly.
There was silence for a second.
Croach cleared his throat.
“We shall have to practice,” he said, returning his gaze to the fascinating point six inches to the left of Sparks.
“Practice?!” Sparks squeaked, ears turning red.
“It is my experience, Sparks Nevada, that human mouth kissing is an awkward endeavour at first, and if we are to persuade your parents we shall have to give impression that our relationship is of some standing.”
Croach took a step towards Sparks, and he took a step back, bumping up against his desk.
Croach gave a smile without a hint of amusement, “For example, Sparks Nevada, if you run away every time I come near you, we will not convince anyone.”
“Fine. Whatever. You win. Let’s get this over with.” Sparks resolutely looked everywhere but at Croach as the Martian took the remaining steps to cross the room.
A memory of stimulating Croach’s egg sacs sprang into his mind unbidden and he closed his eyes against the image. When he opened them again, Croach was standing in front of him, close enough that they were almost touching. Sparks had never felt intimidated by the inches of height Croach had over him, nor by his superior strength, but his heart pounded in his chest as Croach reached forward to sweep his hat off of his head and set it on the desk behind him. With two gentle fingers on his chin, Croach tilted Sparks’ head up, and Sparks had just time to register the sympathetic look in Croach’s eyes before Croach leant forward and pressed his lips against Sparks’.
Sparks wasn’t sure what he had expected, but Croach’s lips were soft and slightly cooler than human body temperature. Croach’s hand slid from his chin to cup his cheek, and Sparks’ eyes drifted shut as he returned the gentle pressure of the kiss. At some point, Sparks’ hands came up to wrap themselves around Croach’s shoulders, and Croach seemed to take that as some sort of sign, and tilted his head, changing the angle of the kiss, darting out the tip of a tongue to trace Sparks’ lips. Sparks sighed into the kiss, opening his mouth under Croach’s. He yelped in surprise as Croach’s two tongues slid in to tangle with his own. He hadn’t expected the intense jolt of pleasure that shot through him and he pulled away from the kiss.
“Bagropa,” he swore softly under his breath.
Croach looked at him with a swiftly shuttered hurt expression on his face and started to back away. Sparks arrested his movement by slipping one hand from Croach’s shoulder up to the back of his head to pull him back into a kiss. A wave of relief washed over him as Croach kissed him back, and he pressed himself closer to Croach’s chest. He shivered as something tickled his scalp and he realised that Croach’s antenna were brushing softly through his hair, and his fingers had slid under his shirt to trace the skin at the small of his back. Sparks mapped Croach’s back with his hands, feeling the rough cloth of his vest.
Neither cowboy nor Martian noticed the Marshal Station AI chirrup and say “The Marshal Station Doors are open” and they both startled when Felton rushed into the office yelling “HAAAAAAAAALP!”
They broke apart, and this time Sparks was sure Croach was blushing purple, whilst his own ears burnt red. They couldn’t quite look at each other, and instead looked at Felton, who was out of breath with running, but had something of a twinkle in his eye as he said,
“Sorry f’r interruptin’ Marshal, but there’s robot outlaws out in my back field and they’re firin’ their weapons all over the place and I think they’re after rustlin’ my hypercattle and I cain’t be losin’ any of ‘em, not if’n I’m to follow you fellas into wedded bliss, not that I’ve asked the Widow Johnson yet, nor am I entirely certain of her answer if I do, but if I don’t have a full head of cattle for the market next month, won’t much matter if I do or I don’t cos I won’t be able to afford it anyhow. Marshal, HAAAAAAAAAALP!”
“Okay, Felton,” Sparks said, grateful for something to do. “We’ll come and deal with them outlaws for you. AI, tell my parents where we’ve gone. Croach, let’s ride.”
He snatched his hat up from his desk, jammed it on his head, tried to pretend he hadn’t put it on backwards and strode out of the office, Felton and Croach following.
The trio rode in silence to Felton’s farm, a fact that Sparks was grateful for as it gave him some time to try and quiet his whirling thoughts. He couldn’t stop thinking about that kiss in his office. He wasn’t sure what he had been expecting, but it wasn’t that. It should have been awkward. It shouldn’t have felt like the most natural thing in the world to wrap his arms around his best friend, and lose himself in his lips. It should be something he was trying desperately to forget, not a memory he couldn’t push from his mind. And he sure as hell shouldn’t be unable to stop wondering what it would be like to have those twin tongues exploring other parts of his body the way they had explored his mouth. No wonder Red had chosen Croach over him.
Sparks looked over at Croach, trying to discern from his profile if the Martian was just as shaken by events as he was, but Croach looked as inscrutable as ever. Sparks thought he was pretty good by now at reading the micro-expressions on Croach’s face, and the undertones in his voice that told his real emotions, but right now Sparks had nothing.
Croach looked over at him, an eyebrow slightly raised in question, and Sparks realised he had been staring, admiring Croach’s seat on his hoversaddle, and looked away sharply.
Well, he had his answer and he should have known it. Croach was completely unaffected by their kiss. The Martian had told him as much. He was going along with Sparks’ insane scheme for the good of G’loot Praktaw and that was all there was to it. Once all this was over, Croach would want to put it behind them, and whatever whatever was being stirred up in Sparks’ head was just that; in his head, and he was just going to have put it out of his mind if he wanted to get back to whatever passed for normal on Mars.
Sparks, Croach and Felton crouched behind a rocky outcrop, watching the robot outlaws. There were four of them; each wielding some form of energy weapon that they were firing at seemingly random rocks in Felton’s back field. The hypercattle had moved to the far side and were out of harm’s way for now, but that didn’t solve the issue of just what the outlaws were up to.
“Alright,” said Sparks in a low voice, keeping his eyes fixed on the robots. “There’s four of them, they all have laser blasters –”
“Cannons.” Croach interrupted.
“What?” Sparks looked over at Croach.
“The robot outlaws are not armed with laser blasters, they are laser cannons.”
“No they’re not, they’re laser blasters. I know a laser blaster when I see one, Croach, and those are laser blasters.”
“You are mistaken, Sparks Nevada, those robot outlaws are equipped with laser cannons.”
“In that case, those laser cannons look remarkably like laser blasters.”
“I assure you, Sparks Nevada, they are laser cannons. My vision senses are keener than yours and I can see clearly that they are laser cannons.”
Sparks’ voice rose in volume and the robots paused in their firing and looked over at the outcrop of rocks. Croach, Sparks and Felton held their breath, certain that they had been rumbled, but after a second, the outlaws looked away and continued to discharge their weapons towards any available rock.
“So they’ve all got laser blasters, cannons, whatever,” Sparks continued in a quieter voice. “And they outgun us two to one.”
“Hey,” said Felton, indignantly.
“Felton, you’re not armed, are you?” Sparks asked, slightly more alarmed than he let on.
“No,” said Felton, sadly.
“Good. Point is, there’s two of us here with weapons and there’s four of them there. Our only hope is to take them by surprise. Croach, on the count of three we break cover, you take the far left, I’ll take the far right, and we’ll down two of them before they even know we’re here, leaving the two middle bots, which we should be able to take in a straight shoot, no problem. Okay?”
“Yes, Sparks Nevada, this does sound like the most efficacious plan.”
Croach nodded and silently nocked an arrow to his bow, whilst Sparks drew his laser pistols.
“One,” said Sparks, shifting into position.
“Two,” he said, tensing himself to spring out from behind the rock.
“Three!” Sparks and Croach leapt into open ground, raising their weapons to fire.
“Sparks, what are you doing, sneaking off without telling us where you were going?”
Caiaphas’ voice rang out across the plain and the robot outlaws looked up, spotted Sparks and Croach and started to run towards them, levelling their energy weapons at the pair.
The next seconds seemed to move in slow motion for Sparks. He and Croach fired, taking out the outermost robots. As he took aim at the next bot, it fired at him, and Croach leapt towards him, shoving him out of the way. Croach grunted as the laser bolt hit him square in the chest and fell, unmoving, to the ground. Sparks yelled and, from his position on the floor, fired rapidly, destroying the remaining robots.
Time sped up again as Sparks scrambled to his feet and rushed over to Croach, who wasn’t breathing. Sparks’ heart stopped as he looked at the still form and he crouched down to shake Croach’s shoulder, muttering “Come on, Croach, don’t do this to me buddy, come on now.” He couldn’t lose Croach, not again, not so soon. He hadn’t quite been able to trust in Croach’s Nah Notek since he had returned, and was just waiting for it to do a number on him again and take his friend away from him.
“Sparks,” said his father, moving forward, “There’s no need to be melodramatic. The Martian’s nanotech will fix him up.”
“Nah Nohtek,” Sparks corrected, blinking away tears that had suddenly formed in his eyes. “And, no, actually, sometimes it fails, so forgive me for worrying about Croach getting shot. Which,” he added, looking up at Caiaphas with fierce anger, “he wouldn’t have been if you hadn’t given away our position just as we were about to surprise those bots.”
Caiaphas had the grace to look repentant.
“Sorry, son. I didn’t realise you were in the middle of something. You know we’re supposed to shadow you during this inspection. You shouldn’t have left without informing us.”
Sparks glared, “You found us, didn’t you? I did tell the Station AI to let you know where we’d gone, but we couldn’t wait for you – there was no way of knowing what those robot outlaws were up to.”
He pointedly turned away from Caiaphas and gently lifted Croach so that his head was resting in Sparks’ lap. Stacy took a step towards him, wanting to comfort him, but wasn’t sure she’d be welcome, so hovered, worrying, between her husband and her son.
“Come on, Croach, speak to me,” Sparks said, “You’ve had enough time to do your thing.”
There was a squelching sound, and Croach coughed. He blinked twice, spluttered another cough and looked up at Sparks to say, “I told you they were laser cannons.”
Sparks let out a laugh of relief, grinning.
Sparks could see the smile in Croach’s eyes as he looked down at him.
“Don’t do that to me again,” he said, reaching out to touch Croach’s cheek, then thinking better of it at the last second and patting him awkwardly on the shoulder instead.
“Forgive me, Sparks Nevada,” said Croach, seriously, “My speech cluster was hit, and so I was unable to respond as quickly as I wished.”
“As long as you’re okay now. You good?” Sparks asked, gruffly.
“Yes, Sparks Nevada, I believe I can get up now.”
“Come on then, bud,” said Sparks, helping Croach to his feet. “Let’s see if there’s anything left to arrest and get back to the station.”
“I assure you, Sparks Nevada, I am perfectly able to sleep on the floor.”
Sparks sighed in frustration. He wasn’t even sure why he was still arguing. His bed, whilst comfortable, was not quite the size of a full double bed, and if you intended on sharing it, you had to be prepared to get pretty personal with the person you were sharing it with. Sparks’ mind flashed back to kissing Croach that morning, and he was suddenly very glad Croach was on the other side of the room. Hell, that was probably why Croach was insisting on sleeping on the floor; he was feeling all the awkwardness of their situation, and didn't want to be closer to Sparks than he had to be.
“Fine,” Sparks relented, “but here,” he threw a pillow from his bed across the room, registering a small victory point when it hit Croach square in the face. “And there's a spare blanket in the closet over there.” He nodded to where he kept his clothes. Sparks watched as Croach fetched a blanket and made himself comfortable on the floor, before turning out the light and rolling over to sleep.
Sparks was woken in the middle of the night by a low moaning sound. He sat up on his elbows, peering blearily through the dark to try and locate the source of the noise. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he realised with a start that it was Croach; he was whimpering in his sleep and shivering under the blanket.
“Croach.” Sparks whispered loudly. “Croach.” He whispered again a little louder when he got no response. “Croach.” Still no response.
He sighed, and leant over the end of the bed to shake Croach gently by the shoulder.
“Croach, buddy, wake up.”
Croach blinked awake, staring up at him in confusion.
“What is it, Sparks Nevada?” he asked with concern, half sitting up and reaching for his hunting knife.
“You tell me, Croach.”
Croach frowned, but before he could open his mouth to reply, Sparks continued “you were makin’ noises and shiverin’ and stuff. Was worried you might be sick.”
Croach relaxed, laying back onto the pillow.
“I am fine, Sparks Nevada.”
“I am. It is simply a normal autonomic function.”
“Croach, I’ve camped out with you enough to know that shivering and moaning are not normal.”
“I am fine. The laser bolt merely did slightly more internal damage than my Nah Notek was able to repair whilst I was conscious. The deep tissue repair lowers my core temperature and causes some minor discomfort. If you allow me to return to sleep, the repairs will be complete by morning. I assure you, this will not affect my effectiveness in my duties.”
Sparks ignored the alarm that ran through him at Croach’s words.
“That wasn’t what I was… never mind.” He sighed. “Can’t be helping being on the floor.” He turned back a corner of the duvet. “At least come up here where it’s warmer.”
“Sparks Nevada, I told you, I am fine.”
“Croach, I’m not gonna be able to sleep if you’re makin’ all that racket. Stop being stubborn and get up here.”
Sparks could tell Croach wasn’t feeling great because rather than argue further, he dragged his pillow over to Sparks’ bed and climbed in. Sparks folded the duvet over him before turning his back to Croach and trying to find a comfortable position on his half of the bed, muttering under his breath about stubborn Martians being the death of him.
Consciousness came slowly back to Sparks that morning. The first thing he became aware of was the fact that his nose was cold, and so he buried it into the warmth in front of him. The second thing he became aware of was that the warmth also possessed a bulk, which was pressed comfortingly against him. The third thing he became aware of was that the bulk was Croach, and that he was spooned up behind the Martian, one arm flung over him, nuzzling his face into the back of his neck.
Sparks gave a small yelp of surprise, and scrambled backwards out of bed. He was only glad that he had woken first and was able to extricate himself from the situation before it became embarrassing.
“Sparks Nevada, what is the matter?” Croach rolled over to look at him, an eyebrow raised in question.
“N…Nothing,” Sparks stammered, as he suddenly realised that Croach must have been awake the whole time. “I just, didn’t realise the time. If we’re gonna, you know, before my parents, we’ll have to,” he nodded towards the door.
“Ah, yes,” Croach looked at him levelly, an unreadable look on his face.
Sparks looked away, feeling his ears burn in embarrassment. He started pulling out clean clothes for the day, unable to stop himself from shooting sideways glances at Croach who had seemingly reluctantly got out of bed and was also gathering his things. This whole enterprise was really messing with Sparks’ ability to understand Croach’s expressions; he could have sworn Croach’s face was showing a mixture of longing and hurt, but that couldn’t possibly be right.
As Sparks picked up Croach’s hunting knife before Croach could bend down for it and Croach passed him the socks he was just starting to look for, a small part of the back of his mind noted that despite everything, they worked together in this as well as in anything, moving fluidly out of each other’s way in the small space, reading the other’s intentions as well as in the field. And – socks. There was something about socks. Sparks backtracked his thoughts a little. Socks. His socks. Croach passing him his socks without making eye contact and – Sparks mentally cuffed himself over the back of the head. Croach had looked uncomfortable and embarrassed and no wonder. There he was, standing there in his bare feet. He might as well have been completely naked as far as the Martian was concerned. Sparks might not get all of Martian culture, but that was one he had down, and he was normally pretty good at making sure his feet were covered at all times around his friend, but clearly with everything that was going on, he hadn’t thought things through when he was getting ready for bed the night before. And with that thought Sparks felt his ears start to burn once more as he realised what Croach obviously already had – Sparks had been barefoot when they were in bed together last night. Sparks shook his head to clear it. That didn’t mean anything. It was only those crazy Martians who had weird hangups about feet and the removal of socks. It didn’t mean anything to Sparks. It was an accident. And Croach would know it didn’t mean anything. Of course he did. Otherwise he’d have said something. Which he hadn’t. So it wasn’t a problem. Clearly.
Sparks cleared his throat to say something to break the tension that had overtaken the room whilst he had been thinking, but the noise sounded unnaturally loud in the silence, and so he closed his mouth again and turned back to his task.
He didn’t know what he was going to say anyway. He’d accidentally bared his feet to his best friend and now he was going to have to go downstairs and kiss him so that his parents could catch them. Sparks sighed quietly. This wasn’t going to be awkward at all. At. All.
Sparks stepped aside to let Croach out of the room, trying to read his face and see how he was taking everything that had occurred this morning. Maybe it would be better to just call off the whole ruse now. Maybe they should just go and have coffee and breakfast like it was any normal day. Close to, he was surprised that he didn’t see the embarrassment he was expecting. Instead, he caught a hint of sadness in Croach’s eyes, and as the bedroom door closed, it suddenly hit Sparks. Croach was probably feeling lonely; Red hadn’t been seen since she’d taken off to clear her head after Jib Janeen had thrown all their lives into turmoil. Sparks was sure that having to play at relationships with him was only reminding Croach of everything he no longer had, and he was touched once more by the lengths the Martian was willing to go to help him keep his job. Sparks squared his jaw resolutely. He wasn’t going to let his own confused emotions get in the way any more. He wasn’t going to call anything off. He wasn’t going to let Croach down. He was going to convince his parents he was married or die trying.
When Sparks entered the kitchen, Croach was busying himself with making a pot of coffee – a beverage he had long since stopped pretending he didn’t enjoy drinking as much as Sparks did. Sparks stopped at the doorway for a second, wondering what he was going to say. Croach looked up.
“Coffee?” he asked.
Sparks leant against the counter, watching as Croach finished making the coffee, admiring the elegant movements of his hands, the quiet grace with which he moved around the kitchen. So lost in thought was he that Sparks almost jumped when Croach handed him a mug.
“Thanks,” he said, sheepishly taking it. “I didn’t ask earlier. You okay? Your nanotech-”
“Sort you out ok?”
“Yes, Sparks Nevada, I can assure you that my body has been completely healed by the power of Nah Notek.”
“Good. Good.” Sparks scratched the back of his neck, uncomfortably. “Uh… about, uh, about earlier…”
He was interrupted in whatever he was about to say by Croach taking his untouched drink out of his hands and setting it on the counter next to them.
“What?” Sparks glared.
“Your mother is at the top of the stairs,” said Croach, taking a step closer to Sparks, head cocked on one side, listening.
“Oh, uh, right, uh, ok.” Sparks was aware he was stammering but couldn’t seem to stop himself. He shut up abruptly when Croach stepped closer still, so that his hips lightly pinned Sparks’ to the counter.
Croach once more lifted Sparks’ chin with two fingers, and leant in to kiss him.
This time Sparks wasted no time in wrapping his arms around Croach and pulling him even closer. Sparks just had time to register the creak of the stairs before Croach deepened the kiss and all rational thought fled his mind. One of Croach’s hands had drifted up to stroke through his hair, whilst the other splayed across his back. Sparks pressed closer, unable to suppress a moan as he slipped one hand under Croach’s vest, fingers finding cool Martian skin.
He lost himself in the feel of Croach’s lips and tongues, forgetting where they were and why they were doing what they were doing. He gave a yelp of genuine surprise, breaking their kiss, when his mother breezed into the room with a cheery “Good morning boys, how are-” Stacy stopped abruptly when she realised what her son and his deputy were up to. “Sorry, I didn’t realise you were…” she trailed off.
“Oh, uh, mornin’, Mom, didn’t see you there,” said Sparks, blushing furiously.
Croach had not moved, and Sparks had to fight the urge to hide his face in the Martian’s chest.
“Good morning, Commander,” Croach turned to look at Stacy, moving away slightly.
He was still close enough that his hips pressed against Sparks’, which was not helping him regain his composure, and any moment now Croach was going to notice the effect he was having on him. Sparks’ ears turned even redder, and he tried to subtly push Croach away. Croach seemed to take the hint, and with an unexpected reassuring squeeze to Sparks’ shoulder, moved back towards the coffee pot, saying, “Would you like a cup of coffee, Commander?”
“Stacy, please. I told you, we’re family now,” Stacy laughed, only the way she couldn’t quite make eye contact betraying the embarrassment she felt.
Sparks took a couple of deep breaths, before managing to ask “How’d ya sleep, Mom?” in something approaching his normal tone of voice.
Sparks was very glad that there didn’t seem to be any outlaw wrongs on Mars that needed righting, because his ability to concentrate was completely shot. He was supposed to be catching up on paperwork, but found his thoughts drifting to that morning and the accidental socklessness and his kiss with Croach about once every ten minutes. Even the memory of it was enough to turn the tips of his ears slightly pink. Or he’d be in the middle of typing a sentence and realise that instead of thinking about the next word, he was watching Croach at his desk opposite, watching his fingers tapping on his keyboard, until Croach looked up, eyebrow raised slightly in question, and Sparks would either look away quickly as if he wasn’t staring, or pretend he needed clarification from Croach regarding a detail he was writing into his report.
Sparks rubbed his temples. He was clearly going mad. He was even starting to imagine that Croach was watching him too. He kept feeling eyes on him, but whenever he looked up, Croach was either intently focussed on his computer screen, or staring off into space somewhere.
It didn’t help that Stacy and Caiaphas were sitting watching them both, Caiaphas with notebook in hand, into which he made the occasional note accompanied by a disapproving noise.
Sparks checked his holo-watch. Three more hours before he could call it a day. He needed to get out of there. He jumped to his feet.
“C’mon, Croach, we need to patrol the town square.”
Croach gave him a quizzical look, but followed him to the door without a word.
“Not so fast, boy,” said Caiaphas, easing himself out of his chair. “You know we need to follow you when you’re on duty.”
Sparks paused with his hat halfway to his head.
“Oh, uh. No… no need. Not patrol. Just. I need to have a private conversation with Croach.”
Caiaphas opened his mouth to argue, but Stacy laid a placating hand on his arm.
“Let the boys have some space. You’ve been watching them like a hawk since you woke up this morning. Besides, I’m sure you need to some time to compile your report for the day, and didn’t you say you wanted to conduct some more interviews this afternoon?”
Caiaphas muttered under his breath, but sat back down, leaving Sparks and Croach to swiftly pass through the ever helpful Marshal Station Doors.
“Sparks Nevada -” Croach started.
“Did my mom just wink at us?” Sparks interrupted, turning to regard the now closed doors with a confused look. “As we left, I could have sworn Mom winked at us.”
Croach stopped mid-sentence and also regarded the door in puzzlement.
“That seems…unlikely?” his voice rose at the end, making it more question than statement. He shook his head, dislodging the thought. “Sparks Nevada, what was it you wished to discuss?”
“Discuss? Oh, uh, nah, nothin’, Croach. Just needed to get out of there. Get away from Dad’s tuttin’. Reckon you could probably do with a break too.”
Croach titled his head slightly in acknowledgement, and gestured that Sparks should lead the way.
They started a slow circuit of the town square, falling into easy step. Sparks couldn’t stop himself from darting sideways glances at Croach, trying to discern how the Martian was feeling about the whole enterprise, wondering what he was thinking. Wondering if he was thinking about their kiss as much as he was.
“What is it, Sparks Nevada?”
“What? Nothin’, nothin’.”
“Sparks Nevada, you have been glancing at me at a frequency of approximately 1.78 times per minute since we left the Marshal Station. That does not appear to be ‘nothing’.”
Sparks sighed quietly. “Just. Just wonderin’ how you’re holdin’ up. With… this mornin’ and… everythin’.
“I am fine, Sparks Nevada.”
Croach wouldn’t quite meet his eyes, so Sparks pushed a little more.
“I am sure, Sparks Nevada. Everything is going according to plan. It is for the good of G’loot Praktaw.”
Sparks eyed him suspiciously, but said no more, and they completed their circuit of the town square in silence, Sparks adding a new worry to his list; a worry that this was going to irrevocably damage their friendship.
When they got back to the Marshal Station, Caiaphas and Stacy had left for the second round of interviews and Croach and Sparks had a blissful couple of parent-free hours to finish the paperwork and start cooking dinner. Croach had suggested cooking some traditional Martian food (“After all, Sparks Nevada, if we were in a relationship of reciprocal onus, it would be surprising if we did not equally share household duties”), and Sparks agreed. He couldn’t fault Croach’s logic, and he enjoyed the occasional meal of the more human-digestible dishes that Croach had made for them both when they were camping out on the plains, or once or twice when it had seemed more efficient to cook for them both at the same time. Not to mention, he was looking forward to seeing his father’s face when he was informed of the menu, as he had been known to complain about the lack of “simple Earth food” on more than one occasion.
Whatever awkwardness had been between them before melted away as they worked together in the kitchen, moving around the small space fluidly, anticipating each other’s needs.
Sparks felt himself relax and some of his earlier worries about the harm he might have caused their friendship with his mad scheme dissipated as they worked, and Sparks found himself almost humming under his breath as he chopped vegetables.
Then he heard the Marshal Station Doors announcing the return of his parents, and all the tension flooded back.
Caiaphas’ face was indeed a picture when he was informed what he would be eating that night, and it so threw him off that he was silent until they were halfway through the second course, leaving Sparks and Stacy to carry the brunt of the conversation.
“So, Sparky,” said Caiaphas, with imitation geniality. “What’s this we keep hearing about you and Croach having a baby some months back? Everyone we meet seems most keen to bring it up. Except you.”
Sparks looked over at Croach, who had gone very still.
“Cos we don’t like to talk about it,” Sparks said, tightly. “Sure you’ve heard the full story by now.”
“I’m sure your father just meant that we’re interested to hear your side of the story, dear,” said Stacy, soothingly.
“Ain’t much to say. You’ve read the reports. Lousy Jupe spy came round, made everyone think they was havin’ babies, and came and swooped ‘em all up just as folks was gettin’ used t’ the idea.”
“Word is that you did not take the news that your Martian there was having your baby at all well,” said Caiaphas. “Some locals at O’Toole’s made a point of bringing it up.”
“No. Reckon I didn’t.” Sparks reached out to place a hand over Croach’s where he was gripping his dinner knife rather tighter than normal. “I can’t say as I was in the best frame of mind at the time.”
“I’m sure it was a shock, finding out you were bringing a halfbreed child into the world.”
Sparks slammed his fork on the table.
“I don’t wanna hear that language in my house,” he said, voice dangerously low. “Not that it’s any of your business, but what I meant was that I just had my, my daughter ripped away from me before I ever got a chance to hold her, nevermind that she turned out not be mine, and then I find out there’s another kid on the way, and just as I’m comin’ round to that idea, that one gets taken away from me too. So no, I did not take the news well, and I don’t like to talk about it, but if you think any of that has anything to do with Croach bein’ the one who was havin’ my kid, you are so far wrong you can’t even see right. I think about the kid I lost, both kids I lost all the damn time, thinkin’ on what ifs and maybes and how things mighta turned out, and I reckon there ain’t another bein’ on this planet I wouldn’t rather bring a kid into this world with than Croach. He’s kind, compassionate, and he’s got more humanity than most humans. He’d make a better father than most anyone I know. Especially anyone in this room.”
Sparks paused for a breath, and looked over at Croach, whose face was now a very pale blue, all the colour having drained from it.
“Now if you’ll excuse me, Croach and I are goin’ out.”
Sparks barely registered the swish of the Marshal Station doors and the AI announcing his egress as he stormed out of the building. He hesitated slightly, his anger having driven him outside with no real destination in mind. He scuffed his feet, feeling the dust of Mars beneath his boots, anchoring him. He took a deep breath, and decided he might as well do something useful and patrol the town, but before he could set off, the sound of footfalls behind him made him tense and then almost immediately relax as he recognised Croach’s gait.
“Sorry about that,” he said, without turning round, letting Croach fall into step beside him.
“Sparks Nevada, you have nothing for which to apologise.” He put a hand on Sparks’ arm to stop him. “You are not responsible for the actions of your father,” Croach said, seriously. “On the contrary, you made it quite clear that you would not tolerate his behaviour and for that I thank you.”
Sparks felt his blood start to boil again as he thought about Caiaphas’ words.
“I can’t believe he would… In my own house… With you sittin’ right there. I’ve half a mind to kick him out when we get home and damn the inspection. Ain’t no one get to talk like that on my watch.”
“That would seem… counter productive,” said Croach, resuming patrol. “The inspection only has one day remaining, and I believe that your father would construe any attempt on your part to curtail it as non-cooperation and fail us.”
“I s’pose you’re right. I just see red t’think of you havin’ to make nice with someone who can think that of ya. My own flesh and blood too.”
“It is not the first time I have heard someone express such opinions, and I am sure it will not be the last. The important thing is that you do not think that way, and neither does Red. And for the most part, nor do the townspeople, or at least they do not say so within my hearing.”
“It ain’t right,” Sparks muttered, kicking at the ground.
“Nevertheless, it is the way things are.”
“I can’t believe he’d say that though. In my own house. When have I given him the impression that I would be ok with that. Have I done something that made him think that was acceptable.” Sparks’ anger roiled again, leaving him breathing heavily. “How can you stand here talking to me, when he can say something like that? My own father. How can you forgive me?”
To Sparks’ surprise, Croach grabbed him with a hand on each arm and turned him round so he could look intently into Sparks’ eyes. “I will only say this one more time, Sparks Nevada. You are not your father. I do not forgive you because there is nothing to forgive.” Croach searched Spark’s eyes for a second, and clearly unsatisfied, pulled Sparks towards him in a sudden motion, wrapping his arms around him for a hug. Sparks froze for a second; he didn’t think Croach had ever hugged him before, but after the last couple of days it felt surprisingly natural to loop his arms around Croach’s waist in return and lean up against him. Sparks gave in to the instinct he had fought that morning and buried his face in Croach’s chest, his physical presence unexpectedly reassuring. Taking a deep breath, he found himself relaxing by degrees, anger slowly dissipating. He wasn’t sure how long they stood there wrapped in each others arms, but after a while he could have sworn that he felt Croach drop a kiss into his hair, but he was clearly imagining things. He coughed awkwardly and stepped away, sternly reminding himself that no matter how nice it felt to be held by Croach, in just one day the charade would be over and everything would go back to normal, and they would go back to being friends just the way they normally were.
They walked back to the Marshal Station in silence, where Stacy and Caiaphas had wisely taken themselves off to bed already. Croach suggested they play Battle Chess, and Sparks poured himself a glass of bourbon whilst Croach set up the board. They talked about very little during the first match, and what conversation they did have was purely about the game. Sparks felt the last shards of the restless anger that had driven him out of the building earlier finally evaporate as the combination of the whiskey, focussing on the game and Croach’s quiet company worked their magic.
He won that match, which was not unusual; their record was closer to 50-50 than either would care to admit.
He was slightly surprised to win the second game as well, though. He’d made a stupid mistake in the midgame that Croach had singularly failed to capitalise on, which was entirely unlike him.
It was when Croach lost the third game in a row that Sparks really started paying attention. He studied the Martian carefully under the pretext of thinking about his next move. Now that he was looking for it he could see that Croach was clearly distracted. His attention would wander every few minutes, then snap back to the board. The casual Croach-observer probably wouldn’t notice, but Sparks had years of practice trying to understand what he was thinking and feeling.
Sparks was so distracted by Croach’s distraction that he lost game number four, a game that would never make it into the annals of Battle Chess as one of the greats.
“You ok, Croach?” Sparks asked.
“I am fine, Sparks Nevada, thank you.”
“Sure? You ain’t been playin’ great tonight.”
Croach raised an eyebrow infinitesimally.
“I beat you just now, did I not? I am merely a little tired. In fact, if you will excuse me, I think I shall retire.”
It suddenly hit Sparks. Croach was probably feeling awkward about having to share Sparks’ bed again, and that was why he was so distracted. He was probably worrying that Sparks was going to bare his feet at him again. The nice thing to do would probably be to let him go to bed alone and give him some time to fall asleep before joining him.
“Sure, bud. I’ll just… uh… read this book for a bit.” Sparks said, casting about for an excuse, and his gaze lighting upon Flora and Fauna of the Desert Plains of Mars. “See you up there.”
Sparks picked up the book and made a show of leafing through the pages. Croach gave him an odd look, but merely wished him good night and went upstairs without another word.
Sparks managed about ten minutes of reading before he felt his eyelids begin to droop. The plant and animal life that eked out a living on the barren wasteland of the plains couldn’t hold his interests at the best of times. He put the book down and sat drumming his fingers on the arm of his chair for another five minutes before giving up and heading up to bed himself.
By the time he’d finished in the bathroom, making sure his socks were firmly on his feet this time, Croach was already asleep, or at least seemed to be, so Sparks quietly slipped into bed beside the Martian and turned out the light.
Sparks woke up the next morning to find that despite starting on opposite sides of the bed, somehow in the course of the night he had ended up snuggled close to Croach’s side, an arm and leg thrown across him, his head resting on Croach’s shoulder. He tensed slightly, hoping that Croach hadn’t noticed and hoping to move away before he did. As he contemplated how best to achieve a stealthy retreat, the arm that he now realised Croach had curled around him tightened, tucking him more firmly against Croach’s side. There was no way he could move without Croach noticing now. Sparks remembered the realisation he’d had the previous morning about Croach’s loneliness, and decided he couldn’t be the one to put that sad look onto Croach’s face again, so he stayed where he was. He relaxed, settling into a more comfortable sprawl against the Martian. It was definitely in order to spare Croach’s feelings, and definitely not because he was enjoying cuddling up with him too much to want to move.
Sparks shifted a little and realised that if he wasn’t careful, his enjoyment of the situation would become only too apparent, one way or the other. He carefully repositioned himself, untangling his legs from Croach’s and putting a little more distance between his lower extremities and Croach’s.
“Did you sleep well?” Croach asked, suddenly.
Sparks started, wondering how long Croach had been awake for and what he had noticed.
“Uh, yeah, Croach. Sure. You?”
“I achieved an adequate resting state, yes.” Croach replied.
Sparks knew he ought to move now that they were both awake, but Croach had made no movement to release him, and he really was very comfortable where he was. Five minutes, he decided. He would allow himself five minutes to store away some memories, and then he would have to get up and remind himself that Croach was his best friend, and when his parents returned to their ship at the end of the day, everything would go back to normal and whatever these odd feelings that had been stirred up were, they would have to go back to where they came from.
Sparks was so lost in thought, it took him a moment to realise Croach was asking him a question.
“What’s that?” he replied, not very intelligently.
“Last night.” Croach repeated, patiently, “Did you mean what you said.”
“What I said when?”
“When you told your father that there was no one you would rather raise children with than me.”
The question took Sparks by surprise. He was tempted to make a joke of it, but there was something in Croach’s tone that made him think that the question had been weighing on his mind for some time, so he took a moment to give it the due attention it deserved. He had said it in the heat of the moment to his father, but it didn’t take much thought to know that it was true. In fact, he was taken aback by just how sure he was about that.
“Yeah, Croach. Yeah, I guess I did mean it.”
“But what about The Red Plains Rider?”
“Red ‘n I are too much alike. Both too ornery and stubborn. You know what she was like when it all went down, she made it quite clear that I was neither wanted nor needed in the situation, no matter what my thoughts and feelings were.”
Sparks levered himself up onto one elbow so he could look down at Croach.
“You ‘n me are already a heck of a team. Reckon as there’s nothin’ we couldn’t do if’n we wanted. And, well, heck, you actually wanted me around to raise the kid we thought we was havin’, which seems t’me like a pretty fundamental step.”
He smiled at Croach, and was pleased when Croach smiled back.
“I find no fault in your logic, Sparks Nevada. It would appear that you also are the being that I would most want to raise offspring with.”
“Really?” Sparks’ smile widened, warmed from the inside to know that Croach felt that way about him.
“Certainly. I would not have phrased it the way you did, but you are correct. We are indeed ‘a heck of a team’.”
Sparks held Croach’s gaze for a long moment, a sudden tension, a sudden heat flaring between them. Something in Croach’s eyes made Sparks wonder if he wasn’t the only one for whom these last few days had provoked unexpected emotions. His gaze dropped to Croach’s lips and almost without conscious thought he found himself lowering his head to meet them. His eyes drifted shut in anticipation. The last thing he saw before his eyes closed was Croach tilting his head to receive his kiss.
There was a knock at the bedroom door.
“Noodle, are you awake?”
Stacy’s voice broke the spell between them and Sparks nearly tripped over his own feet in his haste to exit the bed. A maelstrom of emotions whirled through him as he crossed the room to answer the door and Sparks firmly told himself that the greatest of them was relief that the timely arrival of his mother had prevented him from making the biggest mistake of his life. It was bad enough that he’d roped Croach into this whole sorry charade, worse still that he’d invaded his personal space during the night; if he’d given in to his mad impulse to kiss him out of the blue, he could wave goodbye to the best friend and partner he ever hoped to have.
If he felt any disappointment at all it was definitely only a twinge, barely worth mentioning. And he almost certainly hadn’t seen those feelings mirrored on Croach’s face as they’d been interrupted.
Sparks opened the door just wide enough to see his mother standing on the other side. He realised that it would be useful to their ruse if he opened it wide enough for her to be able to see that Croach was indeed in his bed, but somehow he couldn’t bring himself to embarrass Croach like that, and so he stood, door barely ajar, blocking her view into the room.
“What is it, Mom? Is everything alright?”
Stacy smiled, “Everything is fine, Noodle, it’s just your father has decided that he has enough information to make his report, so we’re going to leave. He’s ordered the teleport for half an hour from now, so I wanted to make sure you were ready to come say goodbye.
Sparks felt like the bottom fell out of his world. His father cutting the inspection short meant that he must have found incontrovertible proof that he was lying. He could wave goodbye to his marshal badge. He’d put his friendship with Croach on the line for nothing. He might have been able to convince Caiaphas to intercede on his behalf before the scene last night, but he knew that now his father would take the greatest of pleasure in following regulation to the letter.
“No need to look so worried, Sparky,” said his mom with a laugh. “Of course you passed. Anyone with eyes can see how in love you two are.” She sighed. “I know your father is being… difficult, but it’ll just take time for him to adjust. This wasn’t what he dreamed for you.” Stacy patted Sparks on the cheek. “I’m just happy that you’re happy. I was always worried about you down here by yourself.”
“Mo-om,” said Sparks, flushing with embarrassment, “I’ve told you, I’m fine.”
“I know you are, honey, I know you are. I have to go finish packing; I’d better see you downstairs in time.”
Stacy left, and Sparks closed the door, relief making his knees turn to jelly. He slid down the door to sit on the floor.
“Did you hear that?” he turned to look at Croach, his breath catching in his throat at the sight of the Martian sitting in his bed, an unmistakable smile on his face.
“Congratulations, Sparks Nevada. The future of G’Loot Praktaw is secure.”
Sparks grinned back, and their eyes caught and held for a moment before Croach looked away. Sparks was obviously too far away for him to see clearly, because it appeared as if a faint purple flush had crept across his cheeks. Sparks shook himself. Even if Croach had blushed, it was probably because Sparks was staring at him like some sort of idiot. With a mental smack upside the head, Sparks turned his attention to getting dressed.
He found his parents in the Marshal Station where his father was giving very precise instructions to the poor Teleportman whose job it was to return them and their belongings to the MEC Eunomia.
“And be careful with the bags, Teleportman Danielson. I noticed some scuffing when you ‘ported them down.” Caiaphas broke off when Sparks entered, and Sparks realised that he wasn’t just being his usual exacting self, but that he was in a bad mood and was taking it out on everyone around him.
“Ah, Sparks, glad you could join us.” Caiaphas’ voice dripped sarcasm. “I’m sure your mother has told you by now, but I since I can find no contrary evidence, I have no option but to report that you have passed your inspection and are free to continue your duties as Marshal.”
Sparks expected to feel triumph and relief at this news, but instead he felt an overwhelming anger at his father’s obvious disapproval.
“I guess I oughta be thankin’ you,” he said tightly, “but it’s clear t’me that you ain’t doin’ this but because you have to, and you’re sore disappointed not to find reason to take my badge away from me.”
Caiaphas sighed. “Sparky,” he said, almost kindly, “it might not have been what I wanted for you, but I’ve come to terms with you wanting to live on this godforsaken backwater. You must understand that I’m disappointed not to have you following your brother and upholding the Nevada family traditions.”
“Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you, Captain, but I’m happy here. And I’m doing good the best I know how. If you can’t respect that, can’t you at least be happy for me?” Sparks wondered as he said it why he was bothering. This was an argument he was never going to win. He glanced over at Stacy and saw that although she tried to hide it, she was upset that he was fighting with his father again. He rubbed the bridge of his nose, thinking he should try and make some form of peace before they left. He opened his mouth to apologise, but before he could, Caiaphas replied.
“You expect me to be happy for you? Happy that even after I pulled all those strings to allow you to graduate from the Academy you derelicted your duty to hide out on the fringes of civilisation and play at cowboys? Happy that you decided to shack up with that marjun?” Venom dripped off the word. “Happy that my grandchildren are going to dishonour –”
Sparks cut him off, all of his good intentions flown.
“Not. One. More. Word,” he ground out, shaking with fury. “If I hear one more word about Croach come out of your mouth, I will not be responsible for my actions, Marhsal or no. Go. Get out. Get out of my Marshal Station. Get out of my house. Get out of my life.”
He pointed at the door, almost hoping that his father would do something that would allow him to release his rage. For once, though, Caiaphas did not underestimate his son, and quickly tapped his handlink and teleported back to the ship without a further word.
Stacy looked at the space where Caiaphas had been, and turned a sympathetic look on her son.
“I’m sorry about your father, Noodle.”
Sparks tensed. He wasn’t sure he could take another of his mother’s well meaning attempts to broker peace between him and his father. He was surprised when instead of continuing, she merely squeezed his shoulder and said. “Don’t forget about your friends. They love you and want you to be happy.” She took a step back and called for a teleport. Just before she disappeared, she said “Look after that husband of yours, do you hear? He’s a good man.” And she was gone, leaving Sparks blinking after her.
Sparks sat down heavily at his desk, his anger gone along with his parents, taking the wind out of his sails. He tried for a second to regret his words, but he couldn’t. As a child, he had idolised his father, as a teen he had resented him, and as an adult he had made uneasy peace with the fact that Caiaphas would never understand him, would never even try to appreciate someone else’s point of view. But he never would have expected his father capable of such vitriol. Whatever other feelings he had had towards his dad, he had always respected him, but now he had lost even that. He couldn’t believe the things he had said about Croach, about someone he believed to be his own son’s husband. There was that word again. It had brought him up short when his mom had said it just now, too. Through all of this pretending to be married, he had never thought about the fact that, as far as the world was concerned, Croach would be his husband. Except that he wasn’t. This was all just a ruse to make sure Sparks kept his badge, nothing more. Except. Technically. He was. Sparks had filed the paperwork himself. Legally, Croach was his husband. Sparks found himself mouthing the word. Somehow there was a weight to it. A weight that made his heart constrict and his stomach flip. He smiled a little despite himself. Croach was the best fake husband he’d ever had. He felt his face heat as he remembered kissing him, remembered sharing his space, his bed. He tried to remember the last time he’d felt as happy as he had that morning, talking about raising kids with Croach. It was funny, he hadn’t really thought about it much before, but somewhere between the Jib business and now he had gone from grudgingly accepting that Croach was having his baby to not being able to stop picturing it. Some little kid with blue skin that clashed horribly with their ginger hair, running round the Station, the best of both of them. Sparks shook his head. He was being ridiculous and he knew it. He guessed that was what happened when you fell in love. His thoughts stopped dead at that, piling up behind one another as he realised fully what he had just said.
Sparks had always thought that revelations were supposed to come like lightning bolts out of the blue. Not sidle sideways into his brain, waving sheepishly like they had been there for some time and were just waiting for him to notice. But there it was. He loved Croach. The knowledge of it settled over him, seeped into his bones. He put his head in his hands with a groan. How was he supposed to ride out with his deputy, camp with him, sit opposite him in this Marshal Station day after day, knowing that he was in love with him. Because there could be no telling him. Telling Croach would be the surest way to make sure he hightailed it out of there, never to look back. Back to his tribe, back to Red. No. Croach could never know. Sparks didn’t want to contemplate life without Croach and having his friendship was enough. More than he deserved after what he’d put him through these past three days. More than he deserved after making him listen to his father’s poisonous words. His friendship was enough. It would have to be.
The words of the report swam before Sparks’ eyes. He had read the same sentence four times now and it still wasn’t making any sense. The last few weeks had not helped his concentration. He’d not been able to stop his mind wandering whilst he was supposed to be completing paperwork. Couldn’t stop reliving every moment of those three days in intricate detail, or from staring at Croach, from admiring the way his fingers curved round his Quantum Bow, or the way he tilted his head when he was contemplating his next Battle Chess move. He thought he’d been doing a pretty good job at not letting Croach see, but if he got any more behind on his filing, the Martian would start to notice that he was mooning around like a lovesick space-puppy.
“Sparks Nevada, I am leaving.”
“Sure, Croach, I’m only doing paperwork this afternoon. I’ll comm you if somethin’ comes up,” Sparks said without looking up from the report he was pretending to read.
“No, Sparks Nevada, I am not just leaving the Marshal Station. I am leaving town. For good.”
At the finality in his tone, Sparks did look up, confused.
“Wait, what. What do you mean, leaving?”
“I mean precisely what I say, Sparks Nevada. The charade we performed for your parents exposed feelings that I can no longer ignore, and the discomfiture they have engendered heaps onus upon onus and therefore I will best fulfil it by returning to my tribe.”
“No. Don’t. Look. Things’ll get better.”
“I think not, Sparks Nevada. It is clear that my feelings are distasteful to you. You cannot even bear to look at me. Every time I look at you, you look away. You have made several paperwork errors this week alone. The only remedy is to remove the source of the discomfort. And thus I go.”
Having said his piece, Croach walked toward the door, but not before Sparks had seen the hurt and sadness on his face. He tried to take in what Croach had said, but he couldn’t think past the gut wrenching fact that was Croach walking away and there wasn’t a damn thing that he could do about it.
“The Marshal Station Doors are open.”
The AI’s voice cut through the turmoil that Croach’s words had thrown Sparks into, and Croach’s meaning crashed down on him at once. Croach thought that Sparks disliked him. That their three day sojourn as a married couple had been distasteful to him. After the way his father had behaved, he couldn’t let Croach walk out of the door thinking that. He couldn’t let him walk out of the door period, but at the very least he owed him the truth. Sparks jumped up from his seat, reaching a hand out uselessly as he rounded his desk.
“Wait, that wasn’t, uh… I mean…Don’t leave.”
Croach stopped on the threshold. Sparks’ hand dropped to his side as he fiddled nervously with the holster of his laser pistols.
“I’m not… I don’t think that…It’s not that. It’s the other thing. I mean… I, uh… I… you know… about you, I think…you are… don’t leave. That’s… that’s the main thing. Don’t leave. It’s not…It’s not that I can’t look at you. It’s more like… more like I can’t stop lookin’ at you.”
Croach turned and took a step back into the Marshal Station. Unheeded, the Station AI announced the doors’ closure.
“Sparks Nevada. You are not making any sense.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I can assure you, I do not.”
Sparks sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose, leaning back against his desk.
“I mean, when you were talkin’ about feelings and everythin’, I thought you’d noticed… I thought you meant…you know…”
“Sparks Nevada, I have already told you that I do not know.”
“I thought you were talkin’ about me. And…and feelings. That you’d noticed and it was making you uncomfortable. And that was why you were leaving.”
“Noticed, Sparks Nevada? I do not follow.”
“Dang it Croach, you know I’m trying to tell you that I’m in love with you.”
A deafening silence followed Sparks’ words as they both absorbed what had just happened.
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. Nothin’ that happened when my parents were here was distasteful to me. I’m not my dad.”
“I never thought that you were, Sparks Nevada. It was never my intent to accuse you of that. I simply misread the situation. I apologise.”
Sparks brain finally caught up with the last several minutes as he finally sorted through everything Croach had told him.
“Wait. If’n you weren’t talkin’ about, about me. Then you were… you were… were you…?” Sparks trailed off, hope making his heart beat faster.
“I believe I made my feelings perfectly clear, Sparks Nevada.”
“You didn’t and you know it. I told you the truth, you know I did. I love you and if’n you’re feelin’ anything near the same you gotta tell me. I gotta know. Am I right, or am I making a dang fool of myself. Again.”
“Yes, Sparks Nevada.”
Sparks felt his heart flip at the unmistakable smile in Croach’s eyes and the warmth in his voice.
Croach took another step towards Sparks and another until he was stood directly in front of him.
Croach reached out to take the hat off of Sparks’ head.
“I love you, Sparks Nevada.”
Sparks grinned, and pulled Croach’s head down into a kiss with a hand on the back of his head. Sparks’ hat fell unnoticed to the floor as Croach pressed himself close to Sparks, wrapping him in an embrace.
The fingers of Sparks’ other hand curled under Croach’s vest to skate meaningless patterns over his lower back. The small voice at the back of Sparks’ mind gave a triumphant “winner!” before Croach’s dual tongues robbed him of rational thought.
The hand on the back of Croach’s head drifted up, scratching gently at the base of his antennae. Croach made a small strangled noise in the back of his throat, and pushed Sparks more firmly against the desk.
This time the Marshal Station Doors did not open.
Chapter 13: Epilogue
Three Months Later…
Stacy’s computer pinged. It was a holomail from Sparks. She opened it and read:
I hope you understand why we couldn’t have you and Dad there, but I wanted you to know you were right. All of our friends were happy to celebrate with us. Croach thought you might like to see this picture. My husband truly is the best person I know.
Attached was a picture that showed a gathering inside the saloon. As far as she could tell, nearly every townsperson she had met was crammed into the room, including, she realised with a small chuckle, Sparks’ horse Neptune or whatever he was called. If it was possible for a horse to look disgruntled, he did. There was the barkeep who owned the saloon, out from behind the bar and dancing with a capable looking woman with a Troubleshooter wrist computer on her wrist. Felton, the overly loquacious yokel was talking animatedly with a woman in a simple dress. And in the centre of the photo, Sparks and Croach, looking at each other as if there was no one else in the room, looking even more in love than when she had last seen them.
Stacy wiped away a tear, smiled at the photo, then shut down her computer pad and went back to the bridge.