Waiting rooms were the antithesis of everything Taro. I knew it, accepted it, and tried not to let him drive me mad.
Antithesis. Ooh, big word, Rafe Ballard.
Ever in motion, Taro paced to the end of the room again, his boots ringing on the deck-plating of the ugly little room I liked as much as I liked the rest of the ship. I’d thought Cori’s ship was dreary till we walked aboard this one. As our unfriendly guide led us deeper into the ship, Taro had frowned at the scuff marks on the floor. I wanted to know why no one smiled.
Taro ruffled my hair as he passed me. It wasn’t often I wanted to hit him, but the thought crossed my mind. Mostly that was nerves. I’d never had a job interview before. A few years of following Dr. Alexander around wasn’t experience, no matter what Taro said. Especially since they hadn’t advertised for a sickbay attendant. Taro insisted ships were always looking for good crew, but how he figured I qualified as ‘good crew’…but he was sure. Beyond sure. Like Taro always was.
He’d been sure we’d have a dozen job offers too, and now we were on our last chance. The Pendragon’s Dream had a departure slot at 2100. If we didn’t want to be stuck on his family’s ship for another three weeks, we had to be hired before the Dream’s boarding call.
If we weren’t hired, I might actually have to kill Taro. He’d planned for two years our escape from under the shadow of his sister, Captain Eve “Cori” “The Bitch” “The Ice Queen” Marcori, Marine veteran and Leopard pilot, invincible, indomitable, rescuer extraordinaire. Three more weeks of Taro’s impatience was more than I could take.
Not once in our plotting, though, had Taro mentioned signing on an in-system mining re-supply ship. How we were supposed to explore the galaxy—
Trust Taro, Rafe. He knew what he was doing. In two years he’d gotten me into and safely out of more fun than I’d had in the twenty years before I met him. My broken arm had been my own damn fault. The time I almost got shot, too. And no one could have predicted that avalanche.
Maybe trusting Taro wasn’t such a great idea. But the alternative was to be left behind.
The inner office door opened. A tall woman walked past Taro with a nod. Another applicant? If they weren’t desperate—
“Mr. Hibiki?” the man in the doorway asked. “Or Mr. Ballard?”
“Hibiki,” Taro answered. “The pilot.”
I moved to his side. “Ballard. The other one.”
XO Wilson waved us into his office. Taro sat in front of the desk without an invitation. Damn it, did he want the job or not? A little courtesy could help.
Wilson sat behind the desk and paged through Taro’s resume on his comp. “I was surprised when you insisted on interviewing with Mr. Ballard,” he said. “That’s not a common request.”
Taro shrugged. “We interview together because we come together.”
No smirks, Rafe Ballard.
Wilson looked from Taro to me and caught on without any smirks. “Are you insane? We carry miners as well as supplies, and a more belligerent, intolerant, thickheaded lot doesn’t exist. If you’ve got something to prove, do it somewhere else!”
Taro leaned forward and highlighted a section of his paperwork. “We can take care of ourselves. And you need a co-pilot.”
“You’re no good to me dead,” Wilson growled. “We’d have to turn around the first time you lost a fight. Also, Mr. Ballard doesn’t have that skill. What about him?”
“I take care of him. And I don’t lose fights.”
Hell. Taro was more like his sister than even blood had a right to be. Why did it always come out at the worst times? “Mr. Wilson,” I cut in, “we’re not looking for trouble. Just jobs. Taro will earn respect faster than you’ll believe. He’ll leave your miners able to work when they get to their destination, too. As for me, medical is the one area no one wants to mess with. No matter how thickheaded they are, people in dangerous professions treat medics with respect.”
“Besides,” Taro added, “that blond you just interviewed is a sniffer. You had to see it. If she’s sober, it hasn’t been long. And you’re a day behind schedule already.”
“And you won’t come alone, even though we could certainly find work and housing dirt-side for Mr. Ballard?”
“Rafe and I are a package deal,” Taro said. Thank God. He knew I wasn’t made to be alone. “And we have to have a cabin.” He tilted his chair farther and flashed a grin at me. “Put us in a dorm and nobody will get any sleep.”
“You don’t have to flaunt it,” Wilson muttered
“Get your captain,” Taro ordered. “Save calling us back.”
“Captain Depp is occupied elsewhere at the moment,” Wilson snapped. He rubbed his eyes. “All right,” he said slowly. Did we have jobs? “Dr. Darevic has been asking for some help. I do hope, Mr. Ballard, that you don’t end up adding to her workload instead of lightening it. Mr. Hibiki, if I saw a chance in a million of filling the position in the next week, I would not consider hiring you. I don’t trust cocky pilots. I hope you’re a little more serious when lives are at stake.”
We did! We had jobs! Taro opened his mouth, but I kicked his foot and he closed it again. “When is boarding call, Mr. Wilson?” I asked.
“Can you two be ready in an hour if we can get the miners loaded that fast?”
“Will it seem arrogant,” Taro asked, “if I tell you our things are already aboard?”
“Yes. Just make damn sure it’s earned, Mr. Hibiki.”
“I’ve never crashed a ship yet,” Taro said. Which was true. He only crashed atmospheric craft. How the hell he’d managed to keep that off his flight log was just another Taro mystery.
“Not in the three days you’ve had your Class One? How reassuring.” Wilson stood. “Hard to believe I have to hire a newly-eighteen-year-old to fulfill safety requirements.”
“Hell of an irony, isn’t it?” Taro asked with a grin at me.
Look out, galaxy, I thought with a return grin. Here comes Taro!
XO Wilson walked Taro to the cockpit and sent his assistant to show me to our quarters. It took two decks of flirting, but I got her to smile.
Our cabin was small, dark even with the lights all the way up, and dingy. I took some pictures before I started. Our first home paid for completely by us deserved recording.
The camera was a gift from Dr. Alexander. It could take 3D vid if I wanted to eat up the memory, but it produced wonderful—photographs, Dr. Alexander called them. Like paintings, they printed out flat so you could hang them on a wall or put them in a hand-made book. And it would be less expensive to ship photograph files instead of holographs back to the Dream to keep the family up to speed on Taro’s adventures. Which was a good excuse to take lots of pictures of Taro.
Dr. Alexander gave wonderful gifts.
Dreariness recorded, I did what I could to make our new home livable, though once Taro was in it, it wouldn’t seem dark. He was all the decoration any room needed.
On that note, I dug out the portraits Hanna had painted of us. Donte had made the removable latch that held them together because he and the rest of the Dream crew still thought I’d decide Taro was too much effort any day now and when we parted ways the portraits would, too.
Someday I’d glue the damn things together, but for now I just put them on the wall.
Hanna’s talent still took my breath, though it might have been her subject. I’m a little biased. My portrait was well done, and pretty because I’m pretty. Taro’s was so much more. Most pictures washed out his skin tone, but she’d got it right, and along with it captured his energy somehow. Not just the tilt of his eyes, but the exact shade and even the glint that was the only warning he gave that he was about to start something. And whatever he started, whether it was fighting, loving, gambling, or flying, he was going to enjoy the hell out of it. The shifting of thought across his face as he considered what exactly he was going to start this time, the tilt of his head as he invited me to join him—
How did I get so damn lucky?
The hailer sounded an hour after lift-off. I’d decided that since the bed was the only piece of furniture suitable for lounging it, instead of the one tiny view port, was my focal point. I had my hands full of fabric, so I just called to open the door.
A bouncy redhead in white scrubs walked in. She had nice hands and a cute nose. She liked me too; she looked me over and grinned. “Well. Aren’t I the lucky one.”
I grinned back. “Dr. Darevic, I presume?”
“Only if you’re Rafael Ballard.”
“Rafe. Just Rafe. Do you usually collect your assistants personally?”
“If I had assistants usually, I might,” she grumbled, propping up the wall in one of Dr. Alexander’s favorite poses. “Are you about ready, Just Rafe?”
Hell. I’d wanted the cabin done before Taro saw it. But one thing living on the Dream had taught me: when you’re supposed to work, you’re supposed to work. Five more minutes does not go over well. And dragging your lover off to a dark corner—well, that wasn’t likely to be a problem on this ship. Sigh. I tossed the tapestry—once known as a sheet—over the chair and bowed.
“I’m at your command.”
“That could be interesting,” Dr. Darevic said.
Unfortunately I did get the cabin done before Taro saw it. Nina, as I was told to call my boss within ten minutes of arriving in a harried-looking sickbay, kept me through supper. Six hours, and I still got back to the cabin first. And got it as done as I could with what I had. Then I waited. Tried to read a book Dr. Alexander had given me, and waited some more.
Determined as I was, I nearly fell asleep before Taro found his way home. He smiled at the cabin but his thoughts weren’t on it. The way he moved told me why.
“Fighting already?” I patted the bed next to me and tried to remember where I’d put the massage oils. Near the bed, surely—ah. Arnica and St. John’s wort, since he looked like he was hurting...
“I had a talk with some miners,” Taro confirmed. “Since you promised I’d leave them able to work, I figured the sooner the better.” He sat and sighed appreciation. I liked a soft bed. So did Taro, but he didn’t admit it.
“How many?” I asked, tossing my discarded shirt where he was about to land to protect the duvet.
“I forget.” Taro pried off his boots and flopped backwards. “I just asked if there were any jerk-offs who had a problem with bent men, and went down the line.”
“Of course you did.” With a few other comments just in case some of the men were shy in their homophobia. “Roll over.” I peeled his shirt off and warmed oil in my hands. “You could have told me,” I grumbled. “You know I like to watch.” I started with long strokes, searching out the painful spots before I went where I knew the tension was. Taro thought he hid the pain, but his every move told me where my hands were needed. He chuckled into the pillow.
“You can watch tomorrow. I’m such a little shit, they’ll have to try it again. See if tonight wasn’t a fluke.”
“Tomorrow night you’re going to be busy.”
“You’d damn well better be. If you’re not here ten minutes after you get off-duty, Kentaro Hibiki, it’s going to be me you’re fighting.”
He didn’t remember. Hell. Muscles knotted under my hands; he knew he’d blown it. He just didn’t know how. Sigh. When would I learn not to talk while I massaged him? It wasn’t his fault he’d forgotten. There was a lot going on. His Class One license, his first job, us moving out on our own... And it wasn’t like it was an official anniversary, anyway. Taro groaned.
“Oh, hell, Rafe, I’m sorry. I lost track of the days. Of course I’ll be here.” He took a deep breath; I felt it under my hands. “Shit. Rafe—I’m on duty tomorrow night.”
“You’re not working the same hours I am?”
“This isn’t a jump-ship, Rafe. In regular space there always has to be a pilot. Today was just an orientation. I’ll be working a rotating shift: six hours on, twelve off. So—every three days, I’ll work the same as you do.”
And two out of three days, I’d be the next damn thing to alone. I pushed my thumbs deep and didn’t ask if he’d known that before we signed on. No whining. Two weeks, damn it, and a good reference for the next job. I could survive two weeks. Even if it meant sometimes sleeping alone.
“Rafe,” Taro said, “I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right,” I said. Two weeks. “What time do you work tomorrow?”
“1600 to 2200. You?”
I’d be starting my regular schedule. “0800 to 1600.” We wouldn’t even pass in the corridors on our anniversary. Taro started cursing.
“Stop that,” I snapped. “You’re not relaxing.” Well done, Rafe. In nine hours I had to leave him. I had to sleep some of that precious time, and I wouldn’t see him again for fourteen hours after that. So what did I do? I got mad at him.
And damn it, he hadn’t even kissed me since we set foot on the damned dreary ship.
“So…” I changed the subject, “How was your first day of getting paid to work?”
“Effing cockpit’s filthy,” Taro growled. “Manned twenty-four hours and nobody cleans? What the fuck are they doing up there?”
“Clearly the captain was never a Marine.” Taro wouldn’t agree, but to me that was one thing in favor of our new ship. It meant I probably wouldn’t be made to scrub decks.
“I still haven’t met him,” Taro groused. “What kind of captain lets a pilot he never met fly his ship?”
Hell. “Two weeks,” I told him. My new mantra. “It’s only two weeks.”
Taro spat a couple curses in Calanian and fell silent as I drilled a knuckle into his shoulder.
“How about you?” he asked after a while.
“The doctor, Nina, seems nice. Sickbay is a mess. Don’t get hurt until I can get it sorted.”
“We took off a week behind schedule and sickbay still isn’t ready?” He swore some more and ended with an apology. “Rafe, I’m sorry. I should have toured the ship before we signed the contract.”
“Two weeks,” I told him again. “We can handle it for two weeks. Now relax. You’re undoing all my work.”
Taro growled and shoved my knee backwards. It unbalanced me and let him eel around to grab. Before I could react he had me on my back and pinned.
I loved when he did that. Sprawled across me was one of my favorite places for him to be.
“To hell with relaxing,” he said. His eyes set my heart pounding. “Just do me one favor.”
“Anything,” I said. He grinned.
“You’re gonna be damn tired tomorrow. Don’t fall asleep near anything dangerous.” Finally, finally, he kissed me. And did lots of other wonderful things, too.
Taro walked me to sickbay after breakfast and grinned at the line waiting outside for Nina. Five bruised, unhappy-looking men, all glowering at him. And by extension, since I stood beside him, me.
Didn’t think of that, did you, Rafe Ballard?
“Gentlemen,” Taro said, still grinning. “This is Rafe. Rafe, these are some of my friends from last night.”
“I’d guessed that.” Don’t yawn, Rafe, not now...I hoped Nina had a coffee pot in her office.
“Be nice to them, huh? I think they’ve had a rough enough time.” Trust Taro to rub it in. He’d better know what he was doing; I was going to spend the next hour or more with these men.
One of the miners snorted. Maybe Taro did know. Nina strolled around a corner and stopped.
“All right, boys, what did you trip over this time?”
Taro chuckled with the men. Nina scowled and stalked past to open sickbay. “You know the drill, worst hurt first. And that doesn’t mean loudest whiner, either.”
I pulled Taro away from the door so when I kissed him he’d kiss properly back. It was going to have to last a long time.
“Rafe!” Nina yelled over the intercom. “Where are you? We’ve got patients!”
Hell. Taro gave me a squeeze and sauntered off with a wink, probably not to go to bed. Which was what I really wanted to do. Especially if he went with me. Sigh.
Only one of the miners needed Nina’s attention. The others she handed over to me since I was qualified to run a four-in-one over their bruises and hand out analgesics and sympathy. They didn’t get much of that, though. They’d have done worse to Taro if they could have managed it.
None of them gave me any trouble, but the one who had snorted outside seemed friendly. He was the last I dealt with, as he was the least hurt. He looked me over with the beginnings of a grin.
“So you’re Rafe.”
“The one and only.” I started on his black eye with the four-in-one.
“I’m Sam, Sam Collier. That Taro is a hyper little fuck, isn’t he?”
I chuckled as I worked in tightening circles, just like Dr. Alexander taught me. I even had a four-in-one of my very own. “You have no idea,” I told Sam, my voice suggesting what a wonderful thing hyper could be. He snorted again.
“At least you got a sense of humor. Your Taro’s one arrogant bastard. I figure gay just leaves more girls for me, but the way he mouthed off, I had to take a swing at him.”
“My Taro could bring a Calanian snorer out of hibernation to take a swing at him.”
“How many times you tried to deck him?” Sam asked.
“I prefer wrestling.”
Sam laughed and decided he liked me. He offered to show me the “fun” spots around the moon base that was our first stop in three days. He even invited me to bring Taro after I promised he was more mellow when I was with him. Sam had an ulterior motive, he told me with a grin. Two good-looking young men would lure the women where he’d have a better chance at grabbing one, since we weren’t competition.
Nina came out of her office to run Sam off then, saying he was as well as he deserved to be since he couldn’t watch where he was going. So I asked her about the accidental injuries joke. She sighed as she turned back to her office and paperwork.
“We can’t keep them out of fights,” she said. “The stiffer the penalties, the fewer workers we get. So if we can blame it on tripping over a conduit, or walking into a pipe, that’s how we report it. The boys know they can let off all the steam they want, as long as they keep it under control. Weapon use and disabling injuries are fully investigated.”
“That makes sense.”
“It still makes a lot of work for me,” she growled. “If you’re done talking, will you please put away that last delivery?”
“I thought it would be easiest to dump the old stuff on the beds so I can sort. Which beds should I leave prepped?”
She gave me a flat stare. “Take the supplies out of the crate,” she said. “Put them in the right cabinets. It’s not hard.”
“I thought it would be easier to rotate everything if I had space to sort. It’s hard to get the new stuff at the back with the old stuff in the way.”
The doctor rolled her eyes. “It doesn’t matter, Rafe. Bandages don’t expire.”
Never irritate people with power over you argued with sooner or later Taro will be in this sickbay and Taro won. Of course. “Dr. Alexander says if it has an expiration, it expires,” I said, grabbing a package of burn gauze. “This kind can decay and has caused severe reactions in persons sensitive to—”
“Dr. Alexander?” Nina interrupted. “Dr. Ben Alexander?”
“You know him?”
“Small galaxy. Yes, I know Dr. Knows-It-All, and you sound just like him.” She waved a hand as she turned towards her office. “Do what you want. Leave one bed.”
Nina did have coffee, and I did make it through without falling asleep near anything dangerous. Note I didn’t say I didn’t fall asleep. We had a few more visitors. I took a picture of Nina, the first person ever to expect actual work from me. By 1200 she knew better. By 1300 she was pretending to throw things when I yawned and wanting to know who had kept me up all night. I just gave her a grin. She listed all the women on the ship and tried to figure it out. I hinted I might be gay and waited for the truth to dawn on her, but she laughed. No gay would set foot on the Depp Down, she said.
Maybe she hadn’t read my medical history that came from the same ship Taro’s did, and maybe she was just being dense. Teasing her was fun, so I only answered with winks and mysterious smiles. And asked her if there was any chance at all of me getting some flowers. Nearly wilted didn’t matter, but they couldn’t be dry. That, of course, set her wondering what I had planned.
Wouldn’t you like to know, I told her.
By 1430, Nina was tired of being teased, and tired of me being tired. She sent me off early with two nearly-dead bouquets she’d managed to locate. I’d hoped the ratio of one woman to every nine men for most of the next two weeks would result in flowers. In the process of locating them, Nina eliminated five women from her list of those who could have kept me up all night.
The message light was blinking in our cabin. Taro’s voice flowed from the speaker.
“Just thought I’d warn you to take a nap, Rafe. If you don’t, you are going to be very, very sorry tomorrow.”
Silly Taro. Didn’t he know I’d be doing that anyway, after last night? I probably ought to fight the yawns a little longer, to swear out a will. If Taro meant to top last night, no way would I survive to morning.
But what a way to go.
I didn’t bother with the will; everything would go to Taro anyway. Unless I managed to take him with me...now there was a thought. Hmm. Taro the tireless, loved to death. I couldn’t hope to match his energy, but there were delightful ways to direct that energy while conserving mine—
Focus, Taro would say. Unlike him, apparently, I’d realized whether we were on the Dream or another ship, we would be in space for our anniversary. So I had what I needed to make the evening special. I made my preparations and then I took Taro’s advice.
If you don’t know what happened, when Taro came home to faux-candles, soft music, and flower petals making a path to the bed where his lover slept on silk sheets, I feel very sorry for you. If you know, but you want details, too bad. This isn’t a sex manual. See the companion volume, figures 1 through about 27, I think. If Taro ever lets me share it.
I’m working on those inhibitions. But don’t hold your breath.
Later I lay in a happy glow while Taro touched me. It’s a thing he does: a patient, comprehensive, three-fingertip exploration, on my shoulder this time. I closed my eyes to savor his touch. His breath caught; he loved when I did that. I loved when he did what he was doing.
To the rest of the galaxy, he was indeed a hyper little fuck. For me, Taro slowed down.
Eventually his fingers reached the gold chain I wore. I could feel him tensing through the bed.
“There are no perfect words,” I reminded him. He snorted.
“You are a damn telepath.” He sighed. “I love you, Rafe.”
“Except those. Those are perfect.”
“I love you, Taro.” And I loved that it bothered him when I didn’t say it right back. At least I didn’t tease him through two or three exchanges anymore. It annoyed and pleased me to realize he’d been holding his breath. Did he still think I was going to stop loving him?
One fingertip slid under the chain to trace its line across my skin. It was an intricate braid, even more symbolic of him than I’d realized when I picked it out. It was strong and amazing—and I loved feeling it touching me.
Two years ago to the day, he’d given it to me. And what a struggle it had been, to get him to do it! I’d picked it out, and he’d still held it for two days, somehow not daring to give it to me. It wasn’t until I’d walked away from him—it was stupid; don’t ask—that he got angry enough to tell me and the entire lobby of the Grand Hotel, Morgan’s Chance, how he felt. Including about a thousand romance writers, there for a convention.
We earned applause.
He’d learned from that. He could tell me he loved me, and he could tell me how beautiful I was. If I wanted more, though, I had to work for it.
I always wanted more of Taro.
His fingers left my neck. I opened my eyes to him leaning over the side of the bed. Either he hadn’t forgotten completely, or he’d managed another of his last-minute miracles.
Taro came up with something in his hand. He swallowed when he saw me watching him. Damn it. Why was it so hard for him to give to me?
Last year I’d tried going first, and it only made things worse. I’d combed the net on every planet we landed on for months, looking for anything anywhere on his family, and presented him with a photograph of his long-dead parents. He’d thought the exquisite hand-painted silk kimono he’d picked out for me worthless in comparison. I’d thought it wonderful—when I finally got him to give it to me.
My poor dear Taro didn’t often run out of words, but he had now. If I let things go, it would be hours before he gave me my present. Again. I smiled and closed my hand over his.
“For me?” Okay, it was a stupid question. But he grinned relief and turned his hand into mine. Soft string, or—I let the necklace dangle from my hand. A crystal, bound in gold wire, on a thin silk ribbon.
“Taro, it’s lovely.” I’d thought the crystal was clear, but only some of the gold was wire. The rest was inside the crystal, a lot of shiny golden needles forming a star-burst—I grinned. Like him, beautiful and simple—until you looked closer. Then even more beautiful, but complex beyond belief.
“I—I love that you never take that chain off,” Taro said. His voice was husky; he cleared his throat. “But I know you like to change things.” He touched my hair that I’d let grow long since horrifying him by cutting it very short. “So I thought…” He ran down again.
“It’s lovely,” I repeated. “And I adore the thought. Thank you.” I put the ribbon over my head. “Do you know what the crystal is for?”
“Jenna said it’s supposed to give you energy.” He grinned. “I figured you could use the help, and it symbolizes me. It works two ways.”
Damn. He had forgotten our anniversary. Jenna was the other co-pilot; she made jewelry as a hobby. Nina had a bracelet of hers that I’d complimented. I clutched my heart. “You wound me, Kentaro Hibiki! Have I ever let you down?” Taro chuckled.
“No matter how tired you are, you don’t complain when I wake you up,” he admitted.
“So there.” I pulled out my present and handed him the box. Giving him a ring was taking a chance since he hadn’t mentioned marrying me in over a year. I didn’t want to be the one to bring it up again now that we could actually do it, but I was pretty sure he wouldn’t take it that way.
It took three seconds for him to laugh.
“Now that,” he said, “is something I can wear.” He pulled the ring from the box and tried fingers until it fit his left middle finger. “I love it.”
When Taro wanted to give me a necklace, he’d had even less idea of jewelry than he did now. So I’d picked out the chain for him to give me, and tried to find something to give to him, and found nothing. I’d been looking since for something that suited both of us, and finally found it.
The ring was silver, a light detailing of a scarf-dancer with his scarf tastefully draped. It was beautiful, it was funny but not obvious—it was a mostly-naked man, wrapped around Taro’s finger.
“Rafe—” he said, and stopped. Damn. If he started telling me why my present was better than his, next year he was getting a bag of toenail clippings.
He’d probably go mushy over that because it was part of me. I didn’t want to hear it. So I made sure he didn’t feel like talking.
Despite the necklace, I fell asleep in sickbay again. This time Nina did throw things at me. Pillows are things.
Taro and I were both scheduled off at 1600, but Nina sent me home early again with a warning. I didn’t tell her it almost certainly would happen again. Oh well. It seemed Taro was right about getting me hired.
Happiness is waking slowly to the soft touch of loving hands. I sighed and stretched; Taro chuckled and continued his exploration longer than usual before the usual thing happened. See the companion volume, if you really want to know.
In the middle of the night the comp beeped once. Taro got up and quietly dressed. When he came to kiss me, I turned his quick peck into a heart-pounding reminder of what he’d be missing. I would not complain, damn it. But I could do my best to make sure he never accepted another job that would haul him out of our bed while I was still in it.
That might make it a little hard for us to earn a living, as I was in it every chance I got.
Jenna the pilot sat next to me at breakfast. I knew who she was, but we hadn’t spoken before. She was a sweet-faced little ballerina-shaped brunette who looked me over with quiet amusement.
“I had to meet the man who gave Taro that ring,” she said. “Where did you find it?”
“A family heirloom,” I explained. “The model was actually my great-grand-uncle Merkle, who invented the self-folding scarf.”
She covered her mouth when she giggled. It was very cute.
“Actually,” I bent closer, put my hand on her shoulder to whisper, “it was part of a long-lost treasure, that vanished with its ship a hundred years ago when the captain spilled his mint julep on the control board—”
Jenna laughed, and clapped her hand over her mouth. But her eyes sparkled. So I tugged on a lock of her hair and she leaned close again. I told her another story, of a frozen trek across a planet that resembled Tolberra VII. And another one, about hacking my way through a jungle to find an artifact of amazing mystical power: with a few days of wearing the ring, Taro would stop being mouthy.
Nina came in though she usually ate with the officers. She grinned at me; I winked back. As soon as she thought about the pilot schedule she’d know Jenna was working some of the nights I’d lost sleep. And it was going to drive her crazy because she’d never figure it out; she had her list, and Taro wasn’t on it.
The poor woman was bored indeed to have turned the identity of my lover into such a mystery.
Halfway through the meal Jenna quit laughing and got quiet. I stopped telling stories. When I left for sickbay, she left too. She walked with me for a ways. Then she sighed.
“You’re going on duty, aren’t you?”
“Unfortunately.” Taro would be off in two hours, and I would be stuck—
“Oh. I kind of thought—Rafe, were you or were you not flirting with me?”
Damn. “I flirt with everyone, Jenna. I don’t mean anything, and Taro doesn’t mind.”
“And the touching?”
“It’s just something I do. If Taro’s around, I touch him. If not—it’s anyone in reach who isn’t likely to hit me. Sorry.”
“I’m kind of relieved. I like Taro.” She sighed again, looked me up and down. “But you really ought to watch that touching thing, Rafe.”
“I know. I try, but I forget.” I stuck out my hand. “Hi. I’m Rafe. You like Taro, I love Taro, can we be friends?”
She hid a giggle, and shook my hand. “Hi, Rafe. Good-bye, Rafe. I’m going to bed now. Thanks for clearing that up.”
“My pleasure.” I let go of her hand before I bowed. “A privilege to be of service.”
“Go to work, Rafe.”
“As you command, milady.” With a more elaborate bow.
“Go!” She was laughing. I went. At the very least, Stefan had always said, leave them laughing.
Stefan. I hadn’t thought of him in a while, though I missed him still. Sometimes I amused myself thinking how the hell I’d introduce him to Taro should we ever meet again. “Stefan, this is Taro, my lover. Taro, this is Stefan, my first teacher, the man who taught me at least half of the wonderful things I do to you every chance I get.”
Oh, yeah. He’d take that well.
Nina was already engrossed in her comp, so I got a cup of coffee and set to work though I saw she was playing a game, not doing the everlasting paperwork she hated. Good for her. I squeezed her shoulder as I passed, and realized I’d done it again.
Stefan had taught me the touching thing, and made it such a habit I couldn’t keep my hands to myself no matter how I tried. Most of the time it wasn’t a problem. At least, it hadn’t been on the Dream. Cori and crew knew I didn’t mean anything and I hadn’t gone off the ship without Taro.
Touching people made them happy, Stefan had said. And that was what he’d trained me for, making people happy.
“What are you thinking?” Nina asked. I shrugged and smiled.
“Of an old, probably-dead friend. Did you need me to do something else?”
“Why do you say probably?” she asked. “The war?”
“I guess.” Most people didn’t realize there was more than one. The pirate war was over. The war against evil went on forever. Cori fought in both; she rescued me from Hakesh. Nina squeezed my wrist.
“I’m sorry. I lost friends too.”
“We all did. You were in what, primary school? Is that when you decided to be a doctor?”
“Flatterer.” She bounced to sit on the bed I was using to sort supplies before I put them away. “I joined the Fleet as soon as I completed my residency, the same as your Dr. Alexander. He was my classmate at Ma Terr. Dated my sister. Brilliant man, I heard. Makes me feel better to know he’s moldering away on a freighter.”
“Dr. Alexander is not moldering,” I said. “He is raising four children, and probably about to stun the galaxy with his research on why their hair is blue.” Because their mother’s hair was blue, of course. But why God’s Gift to the Galaxy had blue hair...
Nina snorted laughter. “Four! He has been—oh shit. Blue hair? Don’t tell me—Mama’s an ex-Marine?”
“You know Cori?”
“Cori?” Nina yelped. “Marcori? Hell, yes, I know Marcori! I was on the Hermes, assigned to the Wolf. We used to draw cards for who had to treat—oh, shit. No wonder that new pilot keeps beating the hell out of my boys! The Bitch trained him! I should have realized there couldn’t be another Marcori without the connection!”
For the confused, Taro’s full name is Kentaro Hideaki Hibiki-Marcori. Hibiki was his father’s surname, Marcori his mother’s. Cori, whose Marine nickname is the Bitch, was an orphan taken in by his mother before Taro was born. And she was there when he was born, and his mother asked her to look after him. Being Cori, she took that promise a lot more seriously than anyone ever dreamed she’d need to. Got it? Now back to Nina, laughing her ass off.
“Oh, good god, the Bitch with four kids! Dr. Shubendra Alexander, married to the Bitch!”
“Not married? Even better! Oh, god, I’ve got to call my sister—” She bounced up, gasping for air, and had to hang onto my arm as another fit of giggles weakened her knees. “The Bitch, a mommy! Nora’s going to die!”
“It gets worse,” I told her. She waited, eyes wide. “Two sets of twins.” Nina yelped delight and staggered into her office, holding onto the walls as she laughed. Damn. I should tell her about me and Taro. Maybe I could make her pee herself.
No, that would be cruel. Stefan would not approve.
Jenna had got me to thinking, which was a rare enough occasion it worried Taro to see it. I didn’t think about Stefan or Hakesh or my family very often, preferring to enjoy the moment I was in. Besides, when I was upset, Taro was upset, and he didn’t know how to deal with it. When he couldn’t beat up whoever was bothering me, anyway.
Hearing about my past always upset him. Somehow he saw being safe and pampered while trained as a joy-boy as much worse than what had happened to him: growing up alone and hungry, a beggar and pickpocket on a planet sliding into anarchy.
Cori had rescued us both, though, and Cori was a safe place for my thoughts. Thinking about her wouldn’t upset anyone with whatever it was that made people around me tend to share my moods.
“It’s scary, watching you think,” Nina said. I grinned across the bed at her.
“That’s what Taro says.”
“Kentaro, you mean, the new pilot? How long have you known him?”
Finally Taro was in the picture. So telling her Dr. Alexander was my doctor made her finally read my medical history? “I met Taro the day I met Dr. Alexander.” And I’d been completely smitten from the first time I saw Taro do his ninja-jump through a window.
“I can’t imagine how you survived on the Bitch’s ship,” Nina said. “Didn’t she beat on you?”
“Cori only beats on people who can defend themselves. Which left out me, Dr. Alexander, and the kids.” And her crew was grateful for it. Thanks to her training there wasn’t a one of them, down to thirteen-year-old Viv, who couldn’t defend themselves in nearly any situation.
“I can tell who she did beat on,” Nina said. “That Taro’s had a lot of injuries.” So she’d read his too—wait. All this time and she hadn’t bothered to find out that he had a life-threatening allergy?
Deep breath, Rafe. Don’t yell—oh hey. Dr. Alexander probably sent it as a separate flagged note anyway. It’s what he would do, and she might have figured she knew what she needed to. So yelling wasn’t even necessary. I dredged my memory for what she’d been saying…Cori. Right. Taro’s injuries.
“Surprisingly, that’s mostly not her,” I said. One of the most amazing things about Taro was how Cori usually didn’t beat him into the deck. “Taro just plays hard.”
“I’ve noticed,” she said with a snort and a glance around her currently empty sickbay. “You two have some sort of deal?” she asked, pushing at my pile to clear a place to sit on the bed.
“You could call it that.” That was probably a hint. Work while you talk, Rafe. I’d learned that from Dr. Alexander. He didn’t mind if I talked, just so long as I kept my hands moving while I did. He’d promised it was a useful skill out in the galaxy.
“Why?” Nina asked.
Okay, we weren’t talking about the same thing, or she wouldn’t have to ask. “What do you mean?”
“It’s pretty obvious. He’s keeping the men busy while you entertain the ladies. I wondered what he gets out of it. Unless he’s just a hyper sadist.”
Keeping the men—oh, she meant the fighting. And she thought the reason she couldn’t link me to one woman’s schedule was that I was chasing all of them. I shook my head with a grin. “Wrong again, Nina. He’s fighting because he’s used to training hours a day. And you can’t connect me to any of the women because Taro is my lover. Hyper, though—you’re right on that.” Thank God.
Her face blanked, then she laughed. “Oh, that’s a good one! For just a second, I bought it—oh, Rafe, that stuff about Dr. Alexander is true, isn’t it? I reported it to my sister—”
I had a bad feeling about this. “It’s all true, including Taro being my lover.”
“Sure, Rafe. That necklace is Jenna’s work.”
“Taro gave it to me.”
“Why so defensive?” she asked. “I don’t care. I’m even envious. Any room in your schedule for me?”
Uh oh. Good job, Rafe, now how do you get out of this one? “I can prove it, I can spell his middle name. And he has a scar—” Like I could prove the scar. Not a chance in hell Taro would come in and drop his pants.
“Sure, Rafe.” She patted my arm and walked away. “It’s okay if you’re booked,” she shot over her shoulder. “I’m patient.”
The one good thing about this was Taro was going to laugh. He’d told me many times that I needed to watch where I aimed my grin. I was just too beautiful to resist, according to him, and it was my own damn fault if I got coffee in my lap by smiling at a waitress at a bad time.
And I should have thanked him for the pitcher of iced tea that had followed. He said.
For the rest of the day, I got a good dose of how Jenna must have felt. Only worse, because Nina’s attentions were definitely not welcome. Jenna had been undecided; I was decided. Never, ever, would I take a chance on losing Taro.
But I’m an amorous fellow. I’m taken, I’m not dead. And Nina was appealing. She was experienced, but not too old, and redheads get better with age, anyway. Pretty, intelligent, clearly lonely…by training and natural inclination, I wanted to make her happy. So random thoughts kept wandering through, and it was all I could do to hide them as Nina watched me. The last thing I needed was to encourage her. More than I already had, by touching her and talking to her and making her laugh. Damn it.
Stefan had taught me to find something to cherish in people. He’d meant clients, but I had long ago extended it to everyone. Seeing the good in people made a scary galaxy a friendlier place. Cori’s indomitable will, Dr. Alexander’s compassion, Donte’s angelic grin, Selene’s fierce beauty—there was so much more to all of them, of course, but you see my point. Something special about each and every person to cherish. Sam’s honest humor. The cute way Jenna hid her laugh, like she was up to mischief.
Absolutely everything Taro did and said and was.
With Nina it was the openness of her emotions. She wasn’t moody or hard to be around, but she never left me in doubt as to what she was thinking, either.
She was thinking about me that day. And enjoying the fact she was making me twitch.
Taro wasn’t going to laugh because I damn well wasn’t telling him.
Had I been off work first, I would have been waiting for Taro, but he wasn’t home when I got there. I barely had time to feel sorry for myself before he arrived, though. He was a bit surprised by my greeting. But he liked it, oh yes.
I wasn’t thinking about Nina. I was reminding myself why I didn’t want to think about her.
Taro went on duty at 2200, though, so while he was willing to occupy me all evening, I put the safety of the ship I happened to be on above my personal wishes and talked him into sleeping. That alone was a rare treat. I never got to watch him sleep unless he was hurt. For once I snuggled him to sleep, and skipped supper to savor holding him.
And to think, damn it. My usual answer to unhappy thoughts was not to think them, but that was a bad idea in this instance. Not to be a jerk, but I’d had experience with—well, determined women. If I didn’t head Nina off quickly, the next ten days would be only a step or two above hell.
Fortunately with Taro in my arms I couldn’t possibly get too unhappy. So I pulled him close and thought.
Dr. Alexander would tell me it was my own fault. Well, he wouldn’t put it that way. He said “what you send out is what you get back” and remind me that when someone hit on me, odds were good I’d inadvertently invited it. That was my training, after all, and seven years doesn’t go away just because you wish it would.
We’d tried to work on that, but all too often I still had to fall back to defense by putting my arm around Taro. If someone didn’t take the hint, Taro was more than happy to take it from there.
Pause for a moment of gratitude to Taro, and to God for giving him to me. And for a few loving touches to hopefully give him good dreams without waking him up.
Back to the problem, before I decided I did want to wake him.
Nina wasn’t ignoring my feelings out of meanness. All I needed to do was convince her I wasn’t interested—okay, convince her it wasn’t going to happen. Without hurting her.
I could probably manage to keep my hands to myself. I’d be miserable for eight hours a day, but I could do it. And not be too friendly with her, and not make her laugh—she wasn’t dense, she’d take the hint. Then, of course, she’d be even more unhappy, thinking she was the only woman on the ship I didn’t want. No. I needed to prove to her that Taro was the reason I wasn’t going to be more than a friend to her.
Well, I had always felt Taro and I were so good together that we deserved an audience. Maybe I’d found a reason—
Behave, Rafe. Taro would never, ever, go for it. Even if I were willing to tell him, which I wasn’t. Because I had been a slut, before he made an honest man of me. Because I did like to make people happy, and I was stuck with Nina eight hours a day. Taro would trust me despite knowing all that. But he’d wonder. Just a little. And if I knew Taro, he’d blow that tiny bit of doubt all out of proportion, make a galaxy of a mote of dust, and drive us both mad trying to make amends for not trusting me.
No way in hell was I telling him. And I didn’t need to, I realized.
When Taro and I first got together and once in a while since, Cori would growl we were making her uncomfortable, we were so intoxicated by each other. She hadn’t put it that way, of course. She’d said we were making her sick.
If we could disgust a Marine, we could sicken anyone. Nina had seen us together outside sickbay, but she might not even know that had been Taro. She hadn’t met him—
Still. She would probably need more than a show of affection, since she was so sure of her assumption. But Taro didn’t show the raw passion we shared to anyone but me. So unless I filmed us—now there was a fantastic idea.
Forget it, Rafe. Or rather, put it aside. Great idea, but not as an answer to this problem.
Tomorrow Taro’s duty hours came right after mine; I wouldn’t see him all day again. Damn it. I ran a hand down his arm and sighed. He smiled in his sleep and whispered my name.
Why in hell was I wasting time on Nina? I turned my attention to Taro. Slow, careful, feather-light attention for two beautiful hours before his own passion woke him right when I’d meant to, giving us time then rolling him out of bed with a sigh and a grin to go to work. He didn’t give me just a peck on the cheek this time.
Yes, I think he probably was late to work. Jenna was damned lucky he got there at all.
Most of the food was gone when we got to breakfast. Nina wasn’t there or she’d have known all she needed to by the way we squabbled over the last pastry. Taro needed a lot of fuel, yes, but I’d missed supper for him, and I thought I should have it. Jenna rolled her eyes just like Cori used to, but she didn’t growl at us.
Nina did growl when she got to sickbay late. I sighed and followed my boss through the door, reminding myself that grumpy was better than horny.
I thought that, until I walked into her office and saw her adding brandy to her coffee. I’m not normally the interfering type, and I’m definitely not into confrontations. But I caught the bottle and took it away. She glared, but she didn’t take a swing at me. That was promising.
“You’re on duty, Doctor.” I took the coffee, too.
“Gimme a break, Rafe. I’m just filling a requirement. No one actually expects me to be a doctor.”
Looking back, I fit her variable irritability into a pattern of abstinence, maintenance, and—looking closely this morning—binging. Damn, I must have been asleep to have missed it before.
“Nina. You are a doctor. Why do this to yourself?”
She crossed her arms and glared, but didn’t answer. I fixed her another cup of coffee and made her mad.
“If it’s because of me—”
“Oh, yes, you’re the center of the goddamned galaxy!” she snapped. “Get over yourself, Rafe. I’m damn near forty, and I’m supposed to crawl into a bottle because some twenty-year-old idiot doesn’t know what’s good for him?”
“I’m twenty-two,” I said. She snorted.
“It makes a light-year’s difference, all right.”
“From the vantage of your years, I’m sure—”
“My years! You shit! I’m thirty-seven, I’m not quite old enough to be senile!”
“You’re right. You’re barely old enough to be my mother.”
She almost took a swing at me. Her hand came up, then her brain kicked in and she laughed. Until she cried, of course. She put her head on her arms and sobbed and told me what an idiot she was, how hard she’d worked to be a doctor, she wasn’t as smart as Dr. Alexander, but damn it she’d wanted it and she’d done it, and, and—
And damned if I didn’t forget, and put my arm around her.
She tried to kiss me. I almost let her. Because damn it, if it was hard for me to leave someone unhappy, it was nearly impossible for me to leave them in pain. Only the thought of causing Taro pain let me pull away in time.
She did hit me then. I dodged a second swing, told her I was sorry, and got out of there. She didn’t follow, so I tossed the bottle down the recycler and tried to pretend it was just another day of moving supplies around.
Nina got quietly drunk in her office. She had another bottle and I didn’t have the nerve to go take it. When she wandered out and tried to snuggle up to me more like a little girl than the frustrated woman I’d been dealing with, I got her to lie down and sang her to sleep.
Taro stopped by while she was sleeping, of course. He raised his eyebrows at Dr. Darevic drooling into a pillow, but he didn’t ask.
“Sam called,” he said after I kissed him. “He wants to know if you’re still going into port with him tonight.”
“I told you he invited me. And you.”
“But I can’t go,” was all he said. Sigh. I’m no fan of quarreling, but the way he wouldn’t even say things he knew would annoy me…
“I know,” I told him. “Would you rather I didn’t go either?”
He wanted to tell me to stay on the ship, but he didn’t say it. He didn’t say anything. I took his face in my hands, tilted his head back to look at me. “What are you thinking?”
“That I shouldn’t worry,” he said. Damn it. “You survived twenty years before you met me, so all the times I’ve protected you, you probably only needed it because of me.”
“Probably?” I asked with a chuckle. He didn’t smile back. “Don’t worry, Taro. I promise to stay away from snowy mountains and card games, and not smile at any waitresses, prostitutes, or performance poets.”
“Don’t flirt with any married women,” he added to my list. “Don’t touch any miners. Don’t try to pet small furry things with fangs.”
“Sam will keep me away from any dangerous wildlife,” I assured him. Taro was right to worry, and wrong. I hadn’t survived on my own before him; I’d always had a protector. But I’d have one tonight, too. The difference was that I wasn’t sleeping with Sam. I hoped that wouldn’t make a difference in how Sam looked after me.
The list of past dangers hadn’t made Taro happier. Nina was asleep and my work was so clearly make-work even Taro could see it, so I talked him into hanging around a while. We played cards for forfeits, to be collected later since I lost as usual, and I was on duty.
You know where to look if you want to know about the forfeits, don’t you?
Taro left before Nina woke up about 1500. Sigh. I took her a cup of coffee and politely ignored her until Sam showed up. He sighed when he looked at her. She gave him a silent snarl. Hmm, some story there?
None of your business, Rafe, so don’t ask. Just weasel it out of someone later.
Sam did a fine job on the moon-base; I didn’t even stub a toe. After five days on that dreary ship, even that dreary moon base looked good, and Sam’s favorite bar in the galaxy wasn’t bad at all.
Doctor Nina Darevic was grumpy again in the morning but I didn’t see her add anything to her coffee. Back to abstinence—that was a good sign. Maybe she was ready to make a change.
At 0900 Jenna showed up, on orders for a physical. Nina told me to do it. I did try not to flirt. But I couldn’t give her a physical without touching her, now could I? We both ended up with the giggles. Nina thought she’d proved something. Damn it.
The next physical, Sara, confused her. I hadn’t met Captain Depp’s assistant before, and that was obvious. But I could see why he’d hired her. Even more attractive than her laser-bright smile was her quick and dry humor. If she saw supply glitches and cargo problems half as fast as she saw and needled any opening I gave her...
By the time Loretta showed up, I was getting annoyed. Because she hadn’t followed Sara, she’d followed Maria. Who had followed Anita, who had followed Sara. Loretta was, as Mikey would say, a lot of woman. The kind you want to tickle just to see her giggle, and watch all the delicious curves bounce. She thought I was adorable, and told me so. I told her I was attached, but if she didn’t mind, I was going to flirt anyway. Then I used every dodge and block Taro had ever taught me, to keep from doing more than flirting. Finally Nina growled and took over. Loretta gave me a wink and complained of Nina’s damn cold hands.
“Call Taro,” I told Nina before the next one came. “If it means so much to you, call Taro down here and settle it!”
She stared wide-eyed innocence. “Didn’t you know? He’s on duty right now.” She patted my arm. I moved it away. “I don’t know what you’re so upset about. Aren’t you the one who told me I should take being a doctor seriously?”
I hadn’t, but it was a step in the right direction. “Then do it. I’m not qualified to give physicals, and you know it.”
“What is bothering you so? If you’re gay, what’s the problem?”
“If I’m not the reason for your stupidity, why are you taking it out on me?”
Like Selene, her eyes caught fire, but she didn’t hit me. She did toss her hair. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The flow of women stopped, though. I cleaned up what little we’d used for the physicals and finally got the last of the supplies put away. Then I went to talk to Nina.
She blanked the comp when she saw me reflected in it. She’d been playing another game. I leaned in the doorway and challenged her.
“If you hate your job so much,” I asked, “why do you keep signing up again?”
“What the hell business is it of yours?”
“I’m the one stuck with you hating your job.”
She bridled, but then she breathed. “I don’t hate my job, Rafe. I care about these people. But they’re all I have, and it’s not enough. My sister’s getting married. Again. Your Dr. Alexander has four children, and he’s younger than I am. Even the Bitch—and you can’t possibly comprehend how right that name is for that woman—found someone. And I can’t.”
“If a family is what you want, maybe you’re looking in the wrong place.”
She snorted. “Oh, yes, here we go again. Twenty—excuse me, twenty-two—and you know it all.”
“I know you’re too good a person for what will happen to you when someone has to notice you drinking on duty.”
She rolled her eyes.
“I know if a family is what you want, you’re going the wrong damn way.”
“Oh come on.” Nina crossed her arms. “You’re either the slickest lady-killer I ever saw, or the worst tease in the galaxy if you and that Taro are really an item. What the hell do you know about families?”
“Nina, darling,” I said, “families happen because people like sex. And sex happens to be my specialty.” She lobbed her coffee cup at me. Fortunately it was empty. I caught it, and filled it for her. “So are you willing?”
“To let you teach me about sex?” she asked. “I’m willing to compare databases.” I reached over her shoulder to turn the cam on, so her comp showed her with me behind her. She grinned. “So far, so interesting.” I rapped her head.
“Quit. I’m not for you.” She pouted. “Trust me; you wouldn’t want little Rafes running around anyway.” I pulled the clip from her hair. “When was the last time you let a professional near your hair?”
“I suppose you know about that, too?”
“More than you do, looks like.” I chuckled. “Look at me, Nina. Do you think this just happens?” I held her hair in the shape I thought would look best. She blinked at how her face seemed to soften. “And your clothes. Taro can wear white. You can’t.” I laid a pair of pale green scrubs across her chest. “See how that gives you color?”
“You’re saying a makeover is the answer to all my problems?”
“I doubt it. I’ll probably have to teach you to flirt, too. And not to throw things. After you get a man, though, you’re on your own. Actual settled family-type life is a complete mystery to me. Except for what I saw of Dr. Alexander and Cori—”
“Oh god!” Nina laughed, then sighed. “Fine. Make me beautiful, Rafe.”
“You are beautiful, Nina. What we need is to get you laid. I’m sure it will improve your temper no end.”
“Name-calling proves my point.”
Selene would have been a huge help. Not only did she know all I did about clothes, and more that I didn’t about makeup, but her temper was more than a match for Nina’s. Nina wouldn’t have argued with her more than once.
But then, a black eye or two would not have improved Nina, so it was just as well. I did the best I could and that, if I do say so myself, was pretty damn good. The smartest move I made was calling Loretta back. She was a spring too, with the right colors in makeup and clothes, and more than willing to help me bring Nina’s beauty out whether Nina liked it or not. She was a terrific ally—when she was working on Nina.
It was a long afternoon. But even after watching me dodge that delicious Loretta for hours, I was pretty sure Nina was still harboring ideas of getting me drunk.
Time for Nina to meet Taro.
His Faithful Squire is available on Amazon for Kindle, and from Smashwords in many formats. It can be purchased in print as well.