Even the Score
When I walked into the trattoria, some lady in a sparkly dress gasped and covered her mouth. Too late I realized I should have come through the back door. Every table was full of dressed up people, and I looked like hell.
“For god’s sake, Taro!” Jadzia appeared from the dim “atmosphere” of the dining room in full hostess mode, a smile plastered on as she shoved a bus tub of dirty dishes at me. “Get in the back! No one wants to see you bleeding.”
I took the tub, handed her a small bundle of wet feathers. “Here. Dumb thing was drowning in the fountain out front.”
“Oh, it's so tiny!” she squealed, reverting to fourteen-year-old girl. “Who's a wee little—” she coughed and straightened, tilted her chin up and put on the hostess smile. “I'll take care of it.”
“Good.” I headed for the kitchen because Rafe wasn’t in the dining room, and I took the tub because I was going that way.
“Holy smokes, Taro, did you get hit by a bus?” a server asked as I came through the swinging door. I ducked out of his way since he had two trays of food headed out and looked for Rafe.
He wasn’t in the kitchen either. I set the tub in the slop sink.
“Dang, Taro! Mouth off to a corus-cat?” a worker asked, unloading the tub. “Go on into the office. I’ll get the first-aid kit in a minute.”
I went, only because Rafe must be there. But he wasn’t, so I checked the storerooms.
Blasted hell. The rooms were full. The delivery had come in, and I’d forgotten to come help. How? Every single week for months I’d met the truck, then today...idiot. Meaning me. Busy as everyone else was, Rafe had probably put it all away himself, but he wasn’t there now.
He wasn’t in the bar. I checked the private party room, and there he was, sitting at the long table wrapping silverware with another server. It was the new girl; she had long blonde hair and the habit of calling Rafe “boss.” Now she laughed at something Rafe said and put her hand on his arm.
I stuck out a foot and knocked over a chair. Who says I can’t do subtle?
“Taro, my love!” Rafe grinned at me as the girl jumped away from him. “Look at you! Have the zombie hordes come? Was there an insurrection between here and work? Irene, be a dear and get the—”
“He got in a fight,” Jadzia said, brushing past me. She carried a tray with the first-aid kit and a bowl of steaming water. “Again.”
“I’d guess five fights,” Rafe said, calling on years of experience to get it right. “And perhaps a stampede.”
“And they call the two of you adults,” Jadzia growled. “Irene, clock out for your break.”
“Yes, ma’am.” The server slipped past me. Jadzia brushed past on the other side, marching out. Alone, good.
“Taro love, was there a riot I didn’t hear about?” Rafe asked. I went to kiss him and he pushed me into the chair next to his. “Let’s come back to that,” he said with a wink.
“I’m fine, Rafe.”
“Of course you are. But I don’t care for the taste of your blood, so let me clean you up.” He dipped one of the napkins in his water glass and washed my face. I sat still and let him.
His face looked tired. And beautiful, but Rafe always looked beautiful. He frowned concentration as he cleaned me up, and the expression deepened lines already there. Why? I tried to remember when I’d last looked at the books for the restaurant. I thought we were doing okay. I didn’t think he’d mentioned the staff giving him headaches, and I hadn’t noticed any tension when I was around—which really hadn’t been much lately. I’d been busy making arrangements for Carly’s widow and taking on extra duties to show my boss she could trust me.
Rafe made a soft sound and lifted my wrist from the table where I was getting blood on the tablecloth, shit!
“What happened here?” he asked, tilting my arm towards the light sconce on the wall. “What bit you?”
“Smuggler down in Riverside.”
“What species has teeth like this?”
“Oh, he was human. His pet, though, was some kind of lizard. Thought I looked tasty.”
Rafe flashed a grin. “Can’t say I blame it.” He put the bloody napkin under my arm. “This will sting,” he warned, tilting the antiseptic bottle over the punctures. In the years he’d been fixing me up, he’d mastered using just the right amount: a few drops on each puncture and the ruined napkin caught the overflow, none making it to the tablecloth that might still be saved. Rafe reached for a bandage.
“Are you going home, or staying to help?” he asked. “If you’re going to be in the kitchen, these have to be covered so you don’t get us closed down. And no offense, my love, but I’m the only one likely to find you appetizing right now, so it would be best if you stayed in the kitchen and not in the dining room anyway.”
“How long have you been here?” I asked. “You were gone when I stopped by the apartment for lunch.”
“Sorry about that.” He took his four-in-one from the kit that Ben had given him years ago even though Rafe didn’t want to be a doctor. Because Ben knew that with me, Rafe would need it a lot. “Lupe, Nhat, and the terror twins are all sick,” Rafe said, “so I came down to help.”
“You should have called me.”
“I checked your schedule and you had two classes and a meeting today. Also your unique perspective on serving is rarely appreciated by our guests.”
“Could have at least put the order away for you.”
“That would have been lovely, but I managed.” He ran the four-in-one over my lip in circles like Ben had taught him to take the swelling down. “Did your meeting with Commander Al-Sharif go badly?” he asked as he moved the thing to my eye.
“What? No. Postponed. She had to deal with an emergency.” Hell. Shit. Damn. “But Aolani got hurt, so scuttlebutt says Al-Sharif will probably give me a class tomorrow.”
“I’m sorry about Aolani, but congratulations! Taro Hibiki-Marcori, Master Woody, trainer of Woodies!” That was what backwoods-qualified people were called. Rafe loved the name and used it often.
Now he kissed me, gently because of my lip but I hauled him in and kissed him thoroughly.
“Mm...” he said when we came up for air.
“I...was thinking it’s not a good time for a class,” I told him.
“Why isn’t it?” he asked. He tilted his head to look at me sideways, then picked up the four-in-one again.
“The trattoria is getting more popular. Look how busy you are tonight! I shouldn’t leave you to run it alone.”
“Conveniently Jadzia’s last day of school was today,” Rafe said. “Two months of summer break means she can come boss everyone in my kitchen full-time.”
“She’s fourteen. That’s not—” The laughter in his eyes said he wasn’t buying it, and he was right. Jadzia was more responsible than both of us together, and almost as good a cook as Rafe, thanks to his teaching.
“It’s a week in the backwoods,” I said instead. “I could be completely unreachable.” I’d have a satellite comm. That didn’t mean it would work. Or that I’d be chattering on it when any message had to go through three sets of hands to reach Rafe.
“You usually are,” he said. “Fighting wildfires, search and rescue, backwoods training—I never hear a word until you’re sneaking in here all smoky, or stomping into the apartment covered in someone else’s blood.”
I knew it. Or I should have. Rafe didn’t mind the “three sets of hands” part. He liked people knowing how I felt about him. And not saying anything was pretty much always the wrong choice with Rafe.
“You’ve earned this, Taro.” Rafe touched my face, his fingertips mapping my cheek. “We’ll make it work. Like we always make it work.”
“I remember when you wouldn’t be left behind,” I said softly. “Not even fear of Eve made you stay home if I was going somewhere.”
“Yes, well, that’s not really an option here, is it?” Rafe shoved stuff back in the first-aid kit. Then he smiled at me. “At least now I know you want to come back to me,” he said.
“'Though hell should bar the way,'” I said, quoting one of his favorite poems. Damn it, there he went, distracting me. “It’s not fair to leave you with all the work,” I said, coming back to that. Rafe shook his head.
“You’ll be heading out into the wilderness where everything will try to kill you, finding and killing and cooking your own food, no tent, no transport but your feet, and you’re worried about the work left to me?”
“That’s different. You know I love it.” Shit. Now he’d—
“I do know you love it,” Rafe agreed. “That’s why I’m not letting you back out of this. Rule Three,” he declared, like I didn’t know damn well we were on Rule Three.
Realize if you’re not happy, Rule Three read, I can’t be happy. So be yourself, damn it! At least he didn’t quote the whole rule at me anymore. The fixed plaque had hung on a wall in every home we’d had in the last two years. I damn well ought to know the words.
“And what about you?” I snapped. “The rules go both ways. Remember how you didn’t want to cook every day? Now it’s all day nearly every day, and running a business and putting away the order besides. This isn’t what you wanted!”
Rafe sorted the stuff in the first-aid kit. “We’re getting the restaurant off the ground,” he said, his eyes on his hands. “We’ll have more time later. Maybe when Jadzia’s old enough to legally run the place.”
“Or we could just go,” I said softly. “Grab my swords and your camera and run off.”
Rafe grinned, then shook his head with a sigh. “We could. Leaving Jadzia to run the place even though she can’t sign papers. Or did you mean to take her with us and let the trattoria fall apart? What about all our employees? Chiro’s my best server now, but he used to be an idiot. He loses his visa if he loses another job before his probation’s up. Irene has a daughter to support. Lisel starts back at the university in the fall. Nhat is saving to bring—”
“I get it.” I bounced out of my chair to pace. “I get it.”
Rafe watched me from one end of the room to the other and back. “Did something interrupt your venting?” he asked. “You seem...awfully energetic still.”
“Tomabari caught up with me,” I snapped. Chief of Security for the planetary governor, and his governor sent him delivering messages. Stupid. “Told me to go home or Angelo would call in the militia.”
Rafe winced. “I suppose a rampage a month is a bit much to take, even when you only go after the bad guys. Luckily,” he leaned back and stretched, long and leisurely and beautiful as his voice went lower, “there are other ways to burn off that extra energy.”
My pulse quickened. “Closet?” I suggested, holding out my hand to him. “Storeroom?”
“I was thinking—” he began as his fingers closed over mine.
“Bloody hell!” someone shouted. “Get it!”
“It's just scared!” Jadzia shouted as something crashed.
“Hell,” Rafe growled, but he went and so did I.
Jadzia had already caught the thing, but a lot needed straightening out and cleaning up, and we didn’t escape until Rafe was far too tired to follow through on his suggestion.
The Citizen Training Division had a big job and a small building. Nearly every plant and animal on the whole planet—BFR, short for Big Fucking Rock—everything on the planet was trying to kill colonists and they made citizen training an afterthought. Not that I minded. Less training meant fewer neighbors.
Rafe liked to point out that I was working against my best interests, working for CTD.
I crossed the landing field, near-empty since half the pilots were training and the other half attending emergencies. Passed the laserweed that kept people on the paths better than any sign could. CTD was an easily-overlooked building on the edge of the wild and that was how we liked it.
I trotted up the steps and across the porch, went through the door and dodged something flying at my head.
“Hibiki, you rotter! You owe me an apology!”
“Sorry for your bad judgment,” I told the woman behind the counter. “Is the boss in?”
“Expecting you.” She jerked her head at the stairs. “I had to sleep in the bathtub!” she called after me as I trotted up.
The second floor of CTD held the dispatch room and a break room. The tiny third floor held the commander’s office and the files, rumor had it, of everyone to die in the line of duty for the fifty-seven years of the colony’s existence. Sometimes when I heard the story I asked just what “in the line of duty” meant when our job was to teach citizens not to die. Why would we honor people who couldn’t even keep themselves alive? Sure, CTD got pulled into search and rescue a lot, but still. We ought to be the ones still standing.
Top of the stairs and to the right was the commander’s office. The nameplate said Al-Sharif and nothing else. If you were on that floor, you ought to know her rank.
“Come in, Hibiki!” my boss called from the inner office. I grinned and walked past the desk where Stacy sat when she wasn’t downstairs throwing things at people.
Al-Sharif sat at her desk, the windows open behind her to let in the air. She was in her dress uniform, navy blue and severe except for the scarf covering her hair which had little pink flowers on it. Dress uniform meant uh oh, and the scarf didn’t soften that. I’d seen her take down three cocky trainees in a head scarf with small fluffy animals on it. She waved me to the chair in front of her desk.
“I knew it was you,” Al-Sharif said. “You’re the only one who runs up the stairs.” She leaned back in her chair, looked me up and down. “Should I congratulate you on getting past Stacy? She’s been planning to kill you for a week.”
“She’s CTD,” I said. “She should know not to squish a stinkipede.”
“Honestly, Hibiki.” Al-Sharif shook her head. “Most boys outgrow putting bugs on girls when they hit puberty.”
“I’m making up for lost time. I never met a girl scared of bugs before.”
“Yes, I’ve heard of your infamous sister.” She pushed back from the desk; the wheel of her chair squeaked. Picking up her handcomp she walked around the desk to rest her hip on it. “Kentaro Hibiki-Marcori,” she read from the handcomp. “Granted citizenship the day after you arrived, by the governor himself. Within days you founded a restaurant with your partner. Terrorized much of Suitville—that’s anecdotal—with your delivery bike for a while, then took a job flying the post, but got let go because you didn’t care to fly the prescribed routes. Let go from a security firm because you started fights instead of stopping them. Excellent at construction until your crew chief took safety shortcuts and you put him in the hospital. Personal pilot to a council-member until you—well, he wanted to call it kidnapping when you wouldn't take him home until you'd used his skimmer to help put out a wildfire.” She looked up. “Do you know I would not even have interviewed you if Governor Caprice had not insisted? I was no more impressed with your job history then than I am now.”
I squirmed in my chair. “No, sir, I did not know. I did not ask him to do that.” Blast Angelo. And blast Al-Sharif. I’d sent a goddamn memo that I wanted the promotion. She could have sent back a goddamn memo that said “Ha, no!” if that was how it was going to be.
“That I’m sure of,” Al-Sharif said, looking back to the handcomp. “In the time you’ve been with us, you’ve taught hundreds of utter newbs how to not die on BFR, with an impressive rate of 99% of your students still living as of the last time anyone checked. You were backwoods qualified after your first trip into the wild, and helped carry your instructor out. Aolani Kinekelei gave you exemplary marks when she regained consciousness. You took the backwoods course three more times, proving you are,” she grinned, “our kind of crazy.”
“Yes, sir,” I said because she seemed to be waiting for me to say something.
“Sir.” Al-Sharif went back to sit behind her desk. “Another leftover from your sister.” She bent to pull a drawer out and put her feet on it and looked at me. “Now for the other side. You think your Marine sister sang the stars alight, or whatever the saying is for has no faults in your culture. You think anyone who doesn’t do it your way is an idiot. You broke a student’s arm—” I opened my mouth; she raised a hand, “—pardon me, you let a student break his own arm when he didn’t listen to you.”
“If he was going to do it,” I said, “I figured it was better if he did it where I could get him to medical help after.”
She tapped the handcomp. “The other pilots call you ‘Major Trouble,’ but you’re the one they call when things get nasty. I have more complaints about you than all my other trainers put together, but no one else has a 99% survival rate. You even made that dyed-hair bimbo boy from Goodfella survive his reality show.”
“Yes, sir,” I said again, when she looked to me for comment. She raised her eyes to the ceiling.
“Give me patience,” she said softly, and looked at me again.
“Do you know why the Citizen Training Division exists?” she asked. “From all I’ve heard, BFR takes personal liberty to extremes not seen elsewhere in the Union, but we don’t allow our citizens to move out into the wild until they take a class. Why is that?”
“Because they’ll probably die.”
“Probably, indeed. Governor Caprice—the father of the current governor—created the CTD when the colony was in danger of failing simply due to wild-related deaths. Too many cocky fools storming out into the woods without knowing what was out there, and the whole colony was nearly wiped out.” She tapped her fingers on her desk. “So schoolchildren have survival courses, and tourists have newb courses, and even the most seasoned native born in the woods has to pass a test to get a land grant.”
“It makes more sense than some laws I’ve seen.”
“That I cannot debate.” She flicked her fingers. “My point is that a backwoods instructor does not teach newbs. A student in a backwoods class has already achieved a level of experience which makes one unwilling to tolerate the arrogance that you put out like a bloat-toad exudes pheromones.” She stared at me. “I know you can bully, harass, harangue, and drill until the most brain-dead of your students actually gets it, Hibiki. I need to know if you can lead.”
Was that a question? How did I answer it? I opened my mouth; she waved a hand.
“Actually, not even that. I know you can. This is me dithering,” she said. “Hibiki, making you a backwoods instructor would either be the smartest thing I’ve done in years, or the most foolish choice since the sinners mocked the prophet Nüh. Convince me. I know what you can do. Tell me what you will do.”
“I figured I’d challenge them. People like to prove an arrogant ass is not as good as he thinks he is.”
“That’s not exactly the best spirit for surviving the backwoods, Hibiki.” She tapped the desk, staring at me some more. “Why do you even want this job? You’re good where you are. Think about it. Backwoods qualifying doesn’t need as many classes; you’d end up getting more of the paperwork. We all know how you love paperwork.” She shuffled through the screens on her handcomp. “Actually…most people would be sure to keep their noses clean when up for a promotion, but in the month since you asked for a chance, you’ve been in three fights with coworkers and assaulted my secretary with a bug. That’s even worse behavior than usual. Do you want this job, Hibiki?”
Al-Sharif was good. She sometimes knew when I was lying. So I told her a truth instead of the truth she’d asked for.
“Carly. And her widow. We’re always jumping into emergencies, but we don’t get the survivors benefits first responders do.” My hands clenched. Blast it, Carly, you idiot—except she hadn’t been an idiot. She’d been good. Marine-good. Tough as Eve, maybe, and just as dedicated to—
“We’ll take care of Mellie.” Al-Sharif turned her chair to look out the window. MF Mountain, and the burn scar of the fire that had got Carly, lay that way. “We’d take care of Rafe. Even if he didn’t make the best ziti in Suitville.” The chair spun back so she could tilt her head at me. “Did Taro Hibiki just admit there might be come a day he’s not good enough?”
“If there’s one chance in ten billion,” I said, “it’s too much of a risk where Rafe is involved.”
The blasted woman chuckled.
“Rafe...wants to get married,” I said. Had wanted to get married, for years. Now he never talked about it.
Damn her, Al-Sharif smiled. Propped her elbows on her desk, put her chin in her hands, and smiled. “Ah. Now we know. Rafe.” She chuckled again, poked at the pads of her handcomp. “Congratulations,” she said. “Aolani Kinekelei got herself hurt in a training accident, so you’ll take her next class. One of the students is also working towards instructor. Do you know Gedeon Alcor?”
“Silver hair, sharp humor? I’ve met him.”
“He’s done as many backwoods trips as you have. So you’ll have backup if you need it. The class leaves in four days; you’ll have their files by the time you get done telling Rafe the good news.” She waved a hand. “Go on, go tell him before someone else proposes to your pretty. On the way out tell Stacy to send up the paperwork.”
“Don’t make me regret this, Hibiki. And I’d better be invited to the wedding.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”
I headed out, reminding myself that was what I’d wanted to happen.
Going home I carried takeout and flowers, and the weight of a neutron star in a small velvet-covered box in my pocket. The food was Chinese because Rafe ate Italian all the time, and takeout because damned if I was doing this in public. The flowers were daisies because they were in better shape than all the roses I’d looked at. And because there is no perfect moment. Or so Rafe was always telling me. And the box—I was trying not to think about the box. I trotted up the stairs lightly, slipped through the door and didn’t slam it. Instead I closed it quietly. And I didn’t thud through the rooms shouting for Rafe though I knew he was there.
His voice came down the hall from our bedroom, singing as he did something. Probably cleaning up after me. I slipped into the kitchen to put the food down and find a vase for the flowers. Then I was stuck. If he’d been in the lounge like I expected, I could have probably slipped down the hall for a shower before he realized I was home. Same if he’d been in the kitchen.
I didn’t need a shower. All I’d done since morning was walk around. Come on, Taro, you blasted coward!
Rafe’s singing changed to whistling like a treeful of birds, and it came closer. I could hide under the table, or I could effing stand up like a grown man.
I stepped out of the kitchen.
“Taro, my sweet!” Rafe came to kiss me. “I didn’t hear you come in!”
He had a stack of clothes and stuff in his hands. Stuff that normally lived in the bathroom, or on his side of the bed.
“Rafe, what are you doing?”
“Not leaving, you idiot.” He passed me, going into the lounge. I followed. Way to go, piss him off...
His stuff and mine was scattered all over the lounge in piles. On the floor were my search and rescue backpack and a couple others, my hiking boots and four pair of Rafe’s shoes, and much of my camping gear.
“Sorry,” I told him. “Just...caught me by surprise.” But he hadn’t answered my question, and his stuff was still scattered with mine across the lounge. “But what are you doing?”
“Packing!” Rafe set his pile down, then grabbed me and flopped into the couch, dragging me after. “Congratulations, BFR’s newest Backwoods Survival Qualification Instructor!” He kissed me like we hadn’t touched in over ten hours, and I kissed him right back because we hadn’t.
“Mm,” he said when I reluctantly pulled away. His hands squeezed my shoulders. “I was going to say we should go out and celebrate, but we could go down the hall and celebrate. Or stay right here, maybe roll onto the floor...”
“I brought home Chinese. It’s in the kitchen.”
“Ooh, thinking ahead!” His hands slipped to my waist, grabbed my shirt and tugged, pulling it out of my pants. “We should have dessert first,” he said with a grin. “Before Jadzia gets home.”
“I told her to stay the night with her friend.”
“You’re so damn smart and sexy,” Rafe breathed, and nipped my jaw. “Dessert first and last, then.”
Shit, I wanted to just go with the mood, but I only had tonight. Tomorrow I had to start putting together a week-long trip for twelve or more, that had to be ready to start in three days. I had to plan, map, scout, pack—
“Rafe, why is your stuff all over the place too?”
“Can’t we sex now and talk later?” he whined, which meant I’d better pursue the subject now.
“Fine.” He stopped tugging at my clothes. “Fakira called, looking for you, and I asked her a favor.”
Fakira? Fa— “Since when do you call my boss by her first name?”
“Since we talked. Pay attention, sexy, or let’s just forget talking and—”
“What did you ask her?” I demanded, dreading the answer. Had she said anything to him? He didn’t seem like he was expecting anything.
“I asked her if I could go with you. I’ll play the victim, and—”
“Rafe, no! You hate it when everything’s trying to kill you!”
“Yes, but I love clinging to you.” He demonstrated. “And I want a vacation. Jadzia gets a vacation, why don’t I?”
“This isn’t your idea of a vacation. If you want to laze around, we can go to the beach.” Hiking all day, then sleeping on the ground? Rafe hated everything about living rough.
“Mm,” Rafe purred. “Yes. Beach. We should. Later. Now I want to go wild. Like when we crashed on Lesser.” He waggled his eyebrows at me. “Only better. We’ll go out in the woods and play horny caveman.”
“Rafe...” I shook my head. “I’ll have to pay attention to my students. You’ll be bored.”
“I’ll take pictures and write bad poetry. I haven’t had time to write bad poetry in ages! And then horny caveman!”
“We won’t be alone.”
“Then I guess you’d better get a tent, my sexy Neanderthal.”
“A tent with noise dampers.”
“I want to see if Jadzia can boss people when it is her job.”
“Taro, I miss you,” he said, bringing out the heavy artillery. “I’m tired of missing you. I don’t want to be left behind. Please? I won’t slow you down. I’ll do what you tell me. I’ll be,” he licked his lips, “obedient.”
Oh, hell, when he talked like that…
So I wimped out. Took the coward’s way and let myself get derailed. We had horny caveman sex half the night and ate Chinese food at three in the morning and the damn box stayed in the pocket of my pants.
Trust Rafe to set the scene perfectly. We huddled in the deepest, narrowest part of a canyon called Fools Rush In. Sharp grey cliffs rose all around. Rafe the Victim lay in a tangle of rocks at the base of a blank face of stone, blood smeared in a few choice locations. I’d had to limit his artistic vision on that effect. Let him have his way and the trainees would declare him DOA due to blood loss, neatly avoiding their second test. I sat beside him, flicking through the files of my first class on a borrowed handcomp. There wasn’t much. Profile pictures carefully taken to erase all hint of personality, supposedly relevant facts that meant nothing: a criminal conviction ten years ago, high scores on an IQ test, parent of a toddler. Well, that one meant something, maybe. It might mean that McCarney was used to life-and-death decisions while dead of sleep deprivation, unless he let his wife handle all that.
A stingfly fluttered by; I swatted it away from Rafe. “You’re sure you’re all right?” I’d moved a lot of the rocks from his chosen spot, but he hadn’t let me move all of them, for “verisimilitude” he said.
“I’m fine, my love.” Rafe smiled under the hat shielding his eyes and scratched at a patch of red on his arm. “Have you ever known me to suffer in silence?”
“Have I ever known you to do anything in silence?”
He clutched his chest. “Taro Hibiki, you wound me!”
“I’m gonna,” I warned, “if you go overboard. It’s a test, not a comedy club.” Finally I heard the skimmer coming up the canyon. “Let’s see if they spot me,” I told Rafe, pocketing the comp before easing farther into the brambles that bordered the tumbled rocks.
“Not a chance, ninja-boy!” Rafe said. I shushed him before anyone could see him talking to what should be empty bushes. The trainees knew I’d be watching from somewhere. Let that be enough warning to find me.
The white skimmer flew low and slow, gliding just above the cliff tops as it followed the course of the canyon. On one wing was the red stick-and-snake, the symbol for first responders. Around the tail was the swirl camouflage background of brown, green, and grey that signified Backwoods Deployment, background to the winged white axe of Search and Rescue.
At least one of the trainees had their eyes open; as soon as the skimmer was fully visible it gave the wing-waggle that meant the victim had been spotted. Rafe raised an arm in response. The skimmer lifted, to hover atop a cliff across the canyon from Rafe. Two figures jumped out of it and darted into the brush. The skimmer lifted, moved, hovered in another spot. Another pair of “rescuers.” Five times total the skimmer dropped people before pulling into the sky.
“Eight forfeits say the first team walks right through the laserweed,” Rafe muttered. I snorted.
“No bet, Rafe. I say one of them falls in it.” Since when did he know laserweed on sight?
“Pretend I’m not here, remember?”
“Help!” Rafe shouted. “Oh, help, it hurts! Oh my stars! Oh, help! Oh please, oh help!”
“Theatrical bastard,” I muttered. He tossed me a grin.
“Oh my land, won’t anyone help me please?”
“God, will you shut up?” demanded a pale blonde as she stepped into the clearing. Stephanie Rector, I’d had her in my newb class once. Rafe admired the shape of her coveralls before he remembered I could see where his eyes were.
“Help?” he said.
“Yeah, okay.” She looked around, didn’t spot me, spoke louder. “So we got blood on the arm, ankle caught, clearly delirious. I’d be guessing you fell while climbing. So even though you’re conscious, I’m going to be real careful moving you in case of spine or head injuries.”
“Please,” Rafe said. “I’m delicate.”
Rector snorted and knelt, tossing long curly hair over her shoulder. Worn loose, because that's what you want in the backwoods: ample handles for something to grab you.
“Next,” Rector said, “I’m going to want to make sure there aren’t any injuries I haven’t spotted.” She pulled on a pair of gloves. “Universal precautions...” she muttered, and began an examination that made Rafe jump.
“Buy me dinner first!” he yelped.
I breathed deeply and stayed in the bushes.
“Just checking,” Rector said. “I’ve heard you men value some parts more than others.”
“Why don’t you give him a blow job while you’re there?” a brown man with brown hair asked as he strode up, pant legs smeared with laserweed juice. Few minutes to soak in, fifteen minutes to hit him… “Make sure you pass.” Lujan, the nasty brown man was Alex Lujan.
“Shut up,” said the dark-skinned man two steps behind him. Faizal was his name, Kaseem Faizal. “What injuries does the patient have?”
Rector repeated her findings. “So we’d call for an evac. And be told…?” she asked Rafe.
“To get me to a place the skimmer can pick us up, of course,” Rafe said. “You’re a pilot, Stephanie.” Trust Rafe to go straight to a first-name basis. “Would you want to land down here?”
“Want to?” Rector asked. “No. But in an emergency, I would.”
Grabby and stupid. I made a mental note.
“Right,” Rector went on, unaware of me plotting to fail her. She pulled bandages from her bag. “So I’m going to splint your arm just in case, and then I’m going to pull your leg—”
“Got it,” Faizal said, lifting Rafe’s ankle from the cleft between two rocks. Rafe, of course, yelped pain.
“Splint it first, you dumbass!” Lujan snapped. Too late, the limb had been moved.
“It’s clearly not—”
“You think they’re really gonna break his leg?” Lujan asked. “You gotta at least check. Tootsie here was too worried about other parts, she didn’t grab him there.”
“Kiss off—Lujan, was it?” Rector asked. “Just kiss my ass, Lujan.”
“Bare it, sweetheart.”
More trainees showed up to cluster around the victim. Rafe let them fuss over him, but when they picked him up, he rattled in his throat and rolled his eyes back. Rector shot him a sharp look.
“You screwed up, that’s what.” I stood. The trainees jumped, nearly dropped Rafe. “Put him down,” I snapped. “Hurt Rafe and this will be one miserable trip.”
Freed, Rafe hurried to my side. I swept the students with the look Eve gave new recruits who were already fucking up.
“Rector, you blew it,” I began. “You knew he might have spinal injuries, but you didn’t check his spine. If you had, Rafe would have told you he had a fractured cervical vertebrae. As you didn’t, you killed him when you moved him.” I pointed at the brown man. “Lujan, you’re an asshole. Stop it. Search and rescue has to work in close conditions; that bullshit won’t cut it. Faizal, Lujan was right. You should have checked his ankle before moving it. You caused your victim increased pain and trauma. The rest of you took too damn long. The it’s-only-training shit will get you failed in my class. Ravid—” I pointed at the young redhead, “where the hell were you?”
“Tripping over his tongue, sounds like,” Lujan said with a chuckle.
“Better than traipsing through laserweed, dickwad. You might want to go wash your pants. In a minute.” I stood at parade rest. “All right. I’m your instructor, Taro Hibiki-Marcori. Call me Hibiki unless you’re whining. Then it’s Backwoods Survival Qualification Instructor Kentaro Hideaki Hibiki-Marcori sir, and if you can’t remember all of it you don’t get to whine. You’ve already met Rafe Ballard.” Rafe gave them a bow. “He’s our volunteer victim for this trip. He’s also going to cook for you when you’re not showing off your survival skills, so count yourselves damned lucky.” I slipped an arm around Rafe’s waist. “Two more things about Rafe. First, he’s mine. Rector, touch him again and I’ll break seventeen bones at random. Second, Rafe is not a qualified Woody, so part of your course will be to watch out for the civilian. If Rafe gets hurt,” I held each person’s eyes for a moment, “you fail.” I met each set of eyes again. “Any questions?”
“Lujan,” Rafe breathed. I shook my head. No bet. Sure as hell the brown man would be first to be an ass.
On cue, Lujan sneered. I raised an eyebrow.
“Got a problem, Lujan?”
“Not sure I want to learn what you got to teach.”
“Don’t mean survival.”
“I know. And for that you’re carrying the tent.” I looked over them again. “We should have eleven. Where is,” I pulled out the handcomp, “Elias McCarney?”
Dead, it turned out.
“‘Elias McCarney,’” I read from the handcomp. “‘Twenty-three, highly-qualified pilot. Next of kin Gwendolyn McCarney, spouse. One child.’ Who was teamed with McCarney?”
Ravid, big-eyed and looking about twelve, raised his hand like a kid in school.
“He—he was right behind me, sir. I swear. I didn’t notice when—”
“Ever hear of the buddy system, Ravid? If you’d noticed when he tripped…” I shook my head. “Scratch that, you don’t have the mass. If you’d grabbed him you would have gone too. And he died when he hit bottom, not a damned thing you could have done then. You start telling yourself it’s your fault, and I will kick your ass up between your ears.” I put the handcomp away. “This is why we’re here,” I told the class. “Because half a second of stupid makes you the victim instead of the rescuer, and we don’t need that shit out here. Banish the stupid now. If it doesn’t get you dead, it will get you failed.”
I set the trainees to hauling the body down-ravine for pickup, and watched. The whole trip was a test, after all, and it was my job to protect my students and all future rescuees, victims, and bystanders from the stupid.
With only bland profile pictures to go from, I’d attached names to hair, faces, skin color. Now I filled in some of my knowledge base, starting my mental gradebook. I’d compare notes with Rafe later, when I put my impressions in the handcomp. Even on BFR, you couldn’t just fail someone. You had to prove you had reason.
First to step up to the too-common job of picking up the dead was Kaseem Faizal. His hair was black and straight, skin just the shade of the burnt umber paint Rafe had used in the private room of the restaurant. He looked stiff and annoyed, but he was the one to wrap a blanket around the corpse’s ruined head. He wanted to be a doctor, and backwoods survival was a requirement for a free ride to the university’s med school.
Leonard Kizzie took his time pulling on gloves before he bent to help. Pale gold hair, dark gold skin, but the insides of his wrists were lighter so most of that was tan. Muscular with scars on his arms and a bit more chest showing than average. He wanted to be a Bouncer, to police the backwoods of BFR and live the rustic life.
Petra Khumalo, skin two shades darker than mine and frizzy black hair. She kept one eye on me while she worked clearing brush to make moving McCarney easier. I’d met her once or twice for pilot things. She knew my reputation and my nickname. The fact that she’d come anyway spoke for her courage. Or her lack of sense.
Gedeon Alcor, tanned like the leather vest he wore, long silver hair in a braid down his back. Thin and wiry, and wanting to be a survival instructor himself. He was the one to stuff a stretcher under the body, moving the baggage efficiently and emotionlessly.
Alex Lujan, brown asshole. ’Nuff said. He haphazardly cleared brush just to look like he was doing something.
Viktor Zlin, another with a worker’s tan though he wore a large hat over short brown hair. A big man and a hermit-to-be, Zlin wanted a backwoods land-grant. He had leather gloves and moved brush to more effect.
Joss Ravid, nineteen-year-old nothing much yet. He was the palest of the lot, with red-orange hair to set it off. He wanted to be a search and rescue hero. I'd figured a few days of the reality would cure him of that. Now I revised that to a couple hours. Maybe ten minutes, seeing how Ravid—Joss. He was just a kid, so Joss. He watched with wide eyes. Probably his first brush with real death. Blast.
Bao Chen. Skin a shade lighter than mine, suspicious green eyes slanted like mine. Young, but not as young as Joss. More than Khumalo, Chen kept a wary eye on everything around her. A street rat, I bet, though that wasn’t in the packet. It didn’t need to be. I knew the breed.
Takeisha Burck, working with Alcor without a word. Black hair cut close to her scalp, skin black as good motor oil with the blue sheen even. A pilot and a veteran, so we’d met a few times. She wore black Fleet fatigues same as me and looked like she never ate. Not like me.
And last, the pretty Stephanie Rector, skin just a shade darker than Ravid’s and her eyebrows were dark brown despite the blonde hair. She straightened up McCarney’s body on the stretcher, like comfort mattered now. Then she caught Rafe’s eye and winked. He grinned and shook his head. Did she think I was kidding about the seventeen bones?
When they had the body on what little flat ground we had, I pulled out the satellite comm, our one and only link to civilization for the next week or more.
“Morici,” came back as soon as I was done calling. Rafe grinned. Lavon Morici was one of his favorite people on the planet, or so he told her often. “Scare someone off already, Major Trouble?”
“McCarney fell off the damn cliff,” I said. “Landed on his head.”
“Ouch,” her voice answered. “That’s a shame. His kid’s cute as hell. ’Kay. How long till the first pickup point?”
“We’ll be there in twenty minutes,” I told her. “Thirty if I let Lujan wash the laserweed off.”
“Aw, let ’em. They’ve got a week of hell ahead, why not start slow?”
“You’re expecting mercy from Taro?” Rafe cut in. I stuck out my tongue. Morici laughed over the comm.
“What was I thinking?” she asked. “See you in twenty.”
When the skimmer had lifted off with the body of my first dead student, Rafe caught my hand, wiggling his fingers into the fist I’d clenched. I took a deep breath, let it out, squeezed his fingers and stepped away.
“All right, let’s move. Home’s not coming to us. Kizzie, Rector, on point,” I ordered, waving the rest after them. I put Rafe in the middle of the group with Burck and Alcor to keep an eye on him, and swung out to scout, to watch the group from outside, and quietly swear a lot. At McCarney for being stupid and me for—I don’t know. Not catching him. The plan had been no deaths, not setting a new record for earliest body retrieval call!
Because things weren’t going badly enough, we hadn’t gone three klicks before the warm front I’d been watching fulfilled the promise of rain. I pulled Rafe’s umbrella out of my pack and handed it to him.
“What in hell?” Burck muttered with a grin.
“It is an umbrella,” Rafe told her. “With little yellow ducks, an ancient symbol of wisdom and good fortune.”
“Of course,” she said with a snicker. Alcor snorted. I swung back out to my place, moping in the rain. This time I alternated “lost one already, damn!” with “Rafe wanted a vacation, not hiking in the damn rain!”
The storm slacked off as we moved out of the canyon and into the woods, which meant there was less water coming at us, but when I did get “got” it was a big drop that had been collecting on a leaf and felt like the forest had just smacked me with cold and wet.
Kizzie and Rector led fairly well, but I thought it might be mostly Rector. I kept catching parts of stupid crap he said to her, and her smart responses. I hoped she’d kick his ass soon. Eve would have already done it, possibly twice.
I’d built contingency time into the schedule so we did okay, on my third-choice target distance for tramping through the woods, but then I forgot it was a test and picked out our camping spot myself. Rafe dragged me back and reminded me I was supposed to be watching the students work.
“Right.” I picked a nice patch of ground and threw myself down to do my job.
“Right.” Rafe spread out a tarp next to me and dropped to it, then did his giant purring snake imitation, pulling my damp self onto the tarp and wrapping contentedly around me.
“Here,” he said, picking up a long stick from the ground and handing it to me. “Make something.”
It wasn’t a bad piece of wood. I took out my little carving knife.
“Fuckin’ perverts,” Lujan muttered, throwing us a disgusted glance.
“Lujan has fire detail,” I said.
“Mm, fucking...” Rafe breathed in my ear and I snickered.
Half an hour later camp was set up, but Lujan hadn’t got a fire going. When his tinder-pile went out for the third time he stomped off, but Joss took over and achieved flames before I could disentangle myself from Rafe. I complimented him; the kid glowed.
“You’re good at blowing,” Lujan said, coming back. “Come in my tent, kid, I got a use for you.”
Joss froze like a startled animal. Zlin sat up. I whirled the stick I’d been carving, knocking Lujan to his knees. “Sorry, Lujan. Did I interrupt some sort of homosexual joke?”
“Snotty little bastard,” the brown man growled. Rafe let go of me; he had five forfeits riding on me picking a fight by morning. I bounced to my feet.
“Snotty little queer bastard,” I corrected. “And if you don’t change your tone, in a minute I’m going to be the snotty little queer bastard who broke your nose.”
“Ooh, not his nose,” Rafe said. “Taro, if you break his nose you’ll have to let him go home.”
“Right. What do you think then, Rafe?”
“Maybe just a few nasty bruises, my love, if he’s determined to get himself hurt.”
“Well?” I asked. “Care to try, jackass?”
“If he does,” Burck said, “can we gag him tomorrow?” She had a voice as sharp as the rest of her. “I don’t care to listen to him whine.”
“Nobody wants to hear your kink, hag,” Lujan growled.
I flung myself into a spinning kick. Foot to chest and Lujan landed flat on his back. I grabbed a shoulder and flipped him, planted a knee between his shoulders and lifted his head by his hair so he was staring at the woman he’d just insulted. Could’ve kicked him six simpler ways, but I wanted my point made.
“Burck,” I said, “was at Mantixa. She’s a war vet, dumbass, and if you don’t want to go two meters deeper into the dirt, you’ll apologize. Now.”
Rafe leaned forward, eyeing Burck with interest as Lujan finally got a clue and apologized. Rafe had been at Mantixa, along with about ten thousand Fleet and Marines. He liked to collect their stories, but he didn’t pounce Burck right away. Rafe had patience. Unlike me, who damn well knew I wasn’t supposed to be beating up the students.
Once the “fight” was over and the fire was going nicely, Rafe started dinner as I directed Lujan to set up the tent. And pointed out there was only one. He’d spent the day carrying Rafe’s and my tent. Lujan dropped the pack at that.
“Why the hell do you get the only tent?”
“It’s for your protection,” I said with a grin at Rafe. “You don’t want to see, trust me.”
“Oh, I don’t know...” Burck said softly. Rafe winked at her. One side of her mouth twisted in what might have been a long-unused smile.
“Is that biteback weed you just put in there?” Kaseem Faizal demanded of Rafe.
“Good eye.” Rafe tossed him a smile. “You won’t believe how it livens up bland food.”
“You do realize you’ve just made dinner inedible?”
“Dry it, and it’s perfectly safe,” Rafe said. “Would I poison you all?”
“Maybe,” Faizal grumbled. “How do I know?”
“Faizal,” I said from my carving, “you get cleanup duty.”
“But I just—”
“Too good to wash dishes?” I asked.
“Stop talking, Kaseem,” Stephanie Rector said with a chuckle. “Or apologize to Mr. Ballard.”
“Apology would be the smart route,” Khumalo said. “You guys do know he’s the owner of the Adoria Trattoria, don’t you? Poisoning’s the opposite of what I’ve experienced there.” She rolled her eyes. “And oh, the caponata on real bread straight from the oven…”
“Really?” Rector sat forward as Rafe gave Khumalo a bow. “I’ve heard the lasagna is to die for.”
“We pride ourselves on the lasagna,” Rafe said. “And in case you’re not aware, Ms. Takeisha Burck, veterans eat free at the trattoria.”
“Occasionally,” I put in. “We won’t be supporting your sorry ass.”
“That’s exactly what the sign says,” Rafe agreed, presenting Burck with the first plate. “‘Veterans eat free but we won’t be supporting your sorry ass.’ And you’ll pay for your own booze. But you should come in. I’ll fatten you up.”
Burck snorted, but she looked pleased. Smooth talker.
“Hey, anybody else getting food tonight?” Lujan demanded.
“Taro is.” Rafe made two plates and came to me; behind him Rector took over the spoon and served up food for Lujan and went from there. She left Faizal to get his own, though. She smiled sweetly at him when he complained.
“I’m sorry, Kaseem. I thought you didn’t want any.”
After that everyone was too busy stuffing their faces to talk. Rafe watched them, smiling as he ate. I watched him.
He didn’t seem too tired. Maybe in a bit I’d ask him to walk a little farther. I knew a little waterfall he’d love, and the noise of it meant no one would hear me make an idiot of myself.
Then Faizal put his plate down.
“Too much pepper?” Rafe asked.
“No, it...are you sure you can eat biteback weed? I’ve been told it’s deadly.”
“It’s safe. I’ve served it to at least a thousand people in the last six months.”
“I just...don’t feel well,” Faizal mumbled.
I leaned forward to peer at him. Under the brown was a greenish tinge. “All right,” I told him. “Get your bedroll. Chen, you can take cleanup.”
Chen got up without a word. Rafe went around the cleanup to check on Faizal. He was the one who’d spent years helping Ben in sickbay; he was better with illness and stuff while I stuck to first-aid.
“Do you need a doctor, Kaseem?” Rafe asked.
“I think—I’m going to be sick.”
“Do what you have to do.”
Faizal leaned over and did. Rafe held his head.
“Ew!” Lujan yelped.
“Whiner,” Burck said. “I'll get the shovel.”
“Oh God in heaven...” Faizal gasped.
“Taro,” Rafe said, “call for a med-evac.”
“Roger.” I grabbed the satellite comm. “Report.”
“He’s vomiting blood.”