Knight Errant Sneak Peek

Of the hundreds of lives Eve Marcori saved before, during, and since the war, mine was the most important. If I could have changed that—the importance, not the saving—I would have. Not because I resented owing everything to Eve; she was welcome to all of it. The trouble was staying out of trouble. Eve expected it, demanded it, deserved it, but I wasnt any good at it. Especially when it meant letting a dirt-stupid cheat take my stake.

Ross—the cheat—dealt the last card to each player. Around the stained table some hunched forward, some sat back, arranging their cards as they measured their hands, their stakes, and their opponents. From the front room music thumped, only the bass reaching us to vibrate the table. Ross puffed on his cigar to blow the smoke at me.

“In over your head already, little Taro?”

I was big enough to—

Not worth a fight, I told myself again. It was my own damned fault. I should have spotted the trick before I joined the game, especially as it was such a transparent one. A finger-cam and a pair of attuned goggles, and every time he dealt, Ross knew every card in every hand. Even when he didn’t deal, if he just stretched or grabbed a friend’s shoulder, or…

“Go frag yourself,” I told him, stacking three credits to put in the pot. Fuggit. Easy come, easy go. I’d play my hand, lose my money, and go find a straight game. Or go the hell home. Eve would appreciate that. She’d be glad of anything that didn’t end with me in jail, but letting her know early that she wouldn’t need to bail me out tonight—

My comm beeped. Ross grinned; he knew it meant I was leaving and his trick was safe. I sighed and tossed my cards, face-down.

“Duty calls, fellas. Don’t get too happy on my credits.”

“Yah,” Parker muttered, waving a dirty hand while he watched Mick, “time for your bedtime story, little Taro. Go get tucked in.”

He didn’t know how old I was; he was just following Ross’ lead. I flipped him off and clapped Ross’ shoulder. “Those are some damned sexy glasses, big guy.” I snagged them off his face. “Whooo, snazzy!”

“Daft bugger, give em—!”

“Yah, yah.” I dropped them on Parker’s face, dodged Ross’ grab, and ducked out the back door as the fight started behind me. Forced down the laughter and flipped my comm open.

“Taro here.”

“‘Bout damn time,” Eve’s voice grumbled. “You in the middle of anything?”

“Not anymore.” I moved down the narrow street as the noise inside grew. Walked wide of the “massage parlor” when I saw the girls trawling for work. “What’s up?”

“Damned doc’s enjoying himself, so I’m stuck. Run over to the uni district and pick up some baggage?”

Was she asking me? “Baggage? Cargo? Do I need a truck?”

“Baggage. His name’s Rafe. Take him to the ship; I’ll meet you there soon’s I can find an escape route. Sending the address. Marcori out.”

I’d have wondered what the hell, but there wasn’t any point. Ours not to reason why, as Ben—still “the doc” to Eve after four kids—was fond of quoting. Though he did manage to get answers out of Eve when none of the rest of us could.

And he managed to drag her places no one else could. I smirked as I hopped aboard a rumbling street-car, put a credit in the slot and hung onto the outer bar while the driver waved me in. Eve hadn’t worn a dress to the college function she was stuck at, since the woman named the Bitch by combat-hardened Marines didn’t wear a dress ever, but she had been talked out of her silver fatigues and into a dark blue suit that looked great on her and that she’d complained about at every step until she was out of my hearing and probably beyond.

I’d tried to get invited to Ben’s alumni party. Not because I liked to dress up; I didn’t. Because I’d wanted to smirk at Eve. Despite what she’d do to me later.

The street-car hit the end of its territory; on a broad avenue of shops, I switched to a hover bus, moving up as I moved towards the expensive part of town. Though I’d rather walk than sit inside, I didn’t dally when Eve sent me on a job.

Finally I hit the uni district. I’d last been there for my test. I found the address easily, a little homegrown coffee shop with mismatched chairs, just far enough from the campus not to be crowded. Damn Eve, anyway. Ten people inside, and I had no description, no nothing. I’d assumed I was going to a home, or I’d have asked. How was I supposed to know who her baggage was?

I stood by the door a minute, but no one greeted me except the teenager behind the counter. I told her I was meeting someone, and still no one approached me. Blast it.

After another scan of the customers, though, I went over to a curly-headed brunette dressed like a theatrical pirate in white and blue striped pants and a baggy billowy blue shirt. He’d been staring out the window; when I cleared my throat, he jumped and looked up, a brilliant smile forming instantly.

“Rafe?” I asked. The smile widened.

“Lucky me, I am,” he answered, bouncing to his feet and bowing. “Rafael Rylie Ballard,” he said. “Rafe. At your service.” His eyes gave an extra sparkle, adding voltage to one hell of a grin. “And you are…?”

“Taro. Captain Marcori sent me.” I didn’t tell him I’d looked for the most baggage-like person in the room. Ben had spent years trying to teach me some manners. I’d have to tell him I’d finally used them. “Come with me.”

“Anywhere,” he said, and picked up a bag. Another sat on the seat opposite him, so I grabbed it.

Damn. He packed like Eve, fitting every last thing she could in the hold. I took the other bag from him, just for balance, and led the way.

When Eve said baggage, she wasn’t kidding.

“Cori—excuse me, Captain Marcori—said she was sending her brother,” he said, raising one eyebrow as he looked me over. Eve was tall with blue eyes, blue hair, and white skin. I was short and dark, dark, and dark. I looked back at him blankly.

“She did,” was all I said. Rafe the baggage laughed.

“I’m dying to know how she acquired a brother in the last five years,” he invited.

“She ordered me from the Late-Night Bargain Bonanza.”

“Ah, an impulse buy.” The baggage laughed again and stuck his hands in his pockets to slouch along beside me. “But wait, there’s more?”

“Order now and get a baby-sitting attachment at no extra cost!” And baggage-handler. Scut-job completer. Not that I minded. I didn’t work any harder than Eve did, or Ben, and I adored my three nieces and one nephew.

“Baby-sitter?” Rafe crowed. “Cori? Has babies?”

Who the hell called her Cori? Ben and I got to call her Eve. Marines called her Bitch, and to Leopard Squadron—what few survived—she was the Ice Queen. Ship’s crew who weren’t family or Marine called her Captain, and strangers called her Marcori, Captain, or various muttered curse words. Before I could ask—he’d been nosy enough, I figured it was my turn—my comm beeped again. Not attention. Panic. I pushed Rafe’s bag at him and dug for my comm. Got a fix and led off towards the bay. Mikey, just blocks away. What the hell had he gotten into that he couldn’t get his own mountainous self out of?

“What is it?” Rafe called from behind. “And why did I pack this so heavy?”

“Stupidity,” I answered both questions.

Around a corner I found a spacers’ dive—small, dark, and cheap—spilling injured bodies onto the boardwalk. I shoved Rafe’s other bag at him. “Wait here!” I ordered, and dove in the open window shouting, “Taro coming in!”

Damn Mikey had hit me before.

“Heh,” the fool said from the bar, lifting a beer to me, “nice jump. Bitch’d be proud.” A few more groaning bodies lay around him. A glowing sign sparked fitfully behind his head. Whizz sat a few stools away with his head in his hands. Not hurt. Just wishing he could disappear.

“You hit panic for ten drunks?” I demanded. “With Whizz right here?”

“I’m helping,” Mikey explained with a grin. “Had t’ get the Bitch out of that party ‘fore she killed someone. You’ll see. She’ll thank me.”

Not a chance in hell. I pulled out my comm to cancel the alert before the whole damn crew jumped in the window. But I didn’t explain to Eve. Mikey could do that himself.

“Is it safe to come in now?” Rafe asked from the window. “Can I use the door?”

“Gods below, it be the baggage!” Mikey charged across the room to snatch Rafe through the window into a back-slapping reunion. “How ye doin’, lad?”

Eve gave nicknames to everyone but me. I wondered just how useless Rafe Ballard could be, to have earned “baggage” for his.

“Let me guess,” Rafe said when we came into the third row of owner-operated ships on Greater’s freight landing field, “Cori’s ship is the sparkly-clean one.”

“That’s her!” Mikey said. “Bless her shiny ass!”

“The Pendragon’s Dream,” I told Rafe. “Six decks, ten crew, twice the cargo she should be able to hold, and more than enough engine to move it.” Contrary to what her design specs said. “Shiny inside and out.” Because she did glow in the slanting light. The outside of the Dream didn’t shine because of us; Eve hired a service for that, and would till she found a way to get us outside to scrub during h-space transit. The inside shone like the outside, though, and that was all elbow grease and soap and whoever’d pissed her off lately.

“It’s a lot prettier than the other ships,” Rafe said, and he was right. Most freighters were the next thing to bricks. The Dream had class, and aerodynamics.

“She’s back already,” Whizz said. “Damn.”

When Whizz said it like that, “she” could only be Eve. Twelve years older than me and more protective than any granny, my sister waited on the ramp of her ship. Her bare arms were folded across her chest; instead of her Marine-issue utilities she’d changed into training clothes. Well, yeah, in preparation for kicking Mikey’s—but Rafe precluded whatever she’d meant to do.

“Cori!” he yelled, and ran up to her, grabbed her and bent her backwards and kissed her.

And she didn’t kill him. Didn’t even break his legs. As far as I could tell, she kissed him back.

Mikey chuckled and went on inside with Rafe’s bags. Whizz picked his chin off his chest and all but tiptoed past. I gave the reunion thirty more seconds before I killed the baggage myself.

At one-point-five seconds to my deadline, Rafe removed his lips and let Eve straighten. Still in his arms, she punched his shoulder.

“Damn it, boy, you let that idiot get past me.”

“Of course,” Rafe said with a grin. “He’d do the same for me.”

“Not likely.” Eve pushed him back with a grin of her own. “All right, back off. I got a partner now.”

“Taken?” Rafe yelped like I hadn’t told him that already. He fell to his knees. “No! The flower of womanhood is off the market? Oh woe! Oh—”

“Oh shut up.” Eve, still grinning, tousled his hair roughly. “I’ll deal with you in a minute, fluff.” She turned the grin on me and pulled something white and flat from her jacket. “Kentaro.” She held it out. “This came for you today.”

Oh. Shit. Oh, shit. An envelope, as Ben had said. The more formal the communication, the more tangible it needed to be. So my fate would be printed on a piece of paper. Stuck inside another piece of paper. And sealed, as if anyone with five seconds and fingernails—

Eve’s grin flickered as I stared at it. “Come on, kid,” she said, “no point in being scared now.” She took my hand and shoved the envelope into it. Bouncing as she did, springing up on her toes and back. Never saw that before.

“Come on, kid,” she said again. “Only one way to get me off your back and you know it.”

If there were any way at all to get her off my back…I turned the envelope over. Golden light caught the envelope, glittering off the square seal. UGMT spelled out in fancy foil letters. University of Greater Ma Terr. Sent out by courier, when they could have handed it to Ben at the party. Stupid—

Eve had made fists to keep from snatching the envelope back, but she wouldn’t restrain herself for long. I slid a fingernail under the edge of the thick paper and popped it open. Extracted the letter.

“Dear Mr. Kentaro Hibiki-Marcori, we are delighted to inform you that—”

Accepted. I’d been accepted.

Blast. Bollocks. Bloody effing hell.

“Failed, huh?” Eve asked, reading my face. She snorted, tried to brush it off. To hide her disappointment. She usually had a great game face, but not this time. “Oh, well—”

“No.” I handed her the letter. “I didn’t fail.”

“Kentaro!” Eve the Bitch Marcori, freighter captain, Leopard pilot, and Marine veteran, squealed and snatched me forward to hug me. She’d never done that before.

“What is it?” Eve’s forgotten baggage asked. At least he’d got up from his knees.

“Kentaro’s going to college,” Eve tossed over her shoulder. “Early, no less.” She beamed at me. “Your mom’d be proud, kid. Damned proud.” And she reached out and ruffled my hair like she hadn’t done in two years.

“Beautiful and brilliant?” Rafe asked, smirking at me. “Where did you find him, Cori, and are there any more?”

Eve rolled her eyes, then clapped my shoulder. “Come on. I’ll hand the baggage here over to the brat and we’ll go celebrate.”

Oh. Gods. “Eve, I—” think fast! “—I have an appointment. Nic Cebelos has a cargo I think would turn us a nice profit.”

“Right.” She knew about the plan. I hadn’t had the chance yet to tell her that I’d run into Nic and made the deal already. She shrugged off Rafe’s arm that had somehow landed across her shoulders. “Stop by when you get back, then.” She smirked. “Even if it’s late. I hear Lily Cebelos is back with her dad.”

Gods, yes. And her need to douse herself in glitter had yielded to a fondness for poofy lace. I smiled anyway and walked away.

I wandered back to the city, just walking. Greater was the capital of Greater Ma Terr—real creative with the names, guys—but it was still a college town. Which, for some reason I’d never figured out, meant there was a lot of walking everywhere. Not that I cared about that, but everywhere I went led the same place—their damned shiny university. Each time I saw it in the distance I turned at random, tried not to walk over people, and didn’t pay any attention at all to where I was going in the short term.

In the long term—college. When Eve announced the plan I’d laughed. When I took the test I did my best because damn it Eve had a right to my best, but I hadn’t thought I did well.

Blast my effing luck. I must have guessed right on every frigging thing I didn’t know.

College. Classrooms and lectures. Sitting in one place for hours on end while people talked at me and gods help me if I didn’t remember it all to regurgitate back, because it cost a small fortune to send someone to the finest college in the galaxy—The University of Greater Ma Terr: Building the Foundations for a Galactic Future—and I’d rather be chained to a rock like that Prometheus guy than let Eve down like that.

College. Thousands of idiots in one place, and me not supposed to hit any of them. Fools like—like Rafe the baggage. Useless and over-happy, or worse, useless and snobby. Brainless twits from across the Union, not a one of them ever worked a day in their lives, never did anything interesting, and wouldn’t know a straight flush if it bit them. And I’d have to live with one. One in my room. A hundred more outside my door. Airheaded wastes of skin who didn’t know how to work a butler to get their boots polished, let alone manage their own lives.

College. Reports and essays and dirt-dull literature. Meaningless crap I’d have to pretend to care about so I could come out a well-rounded person. Important stuff neglected so I could jump through all the appropriate hoops to become respectable.

Respectable. Me. Why the hell—

Because Eve wanted it. I shook myself out of the self-pity. Eve had made my mother a promise and she meant to keep it. Respectable wouldn’t kill me. She wasn’t even sticking me in the four-year program like Donte. No, two years and I’d be done and back on the Dream and everything would be how it had always been, only maybe I’d have grown up enough to be less of a pain in her ass. A better influence on the kids. More of a help with the ship-management headaches.

College. I got my bearings and set off briskly to have a look at the school. My school.

The campus was better maintained than most places I went. Less…assorted. Buildings looked different, but still like they belonged together. The gym was nice. The place smelled good. Due to the planet following the Standard calendar, summer break actually happened in the northern hemisphere’s spring, so there were flowers everywhere. And students from across known space. Less dirt than in the city. Narrow towers that didn’t block the sun, walkways to protect the grounds. More spacious. And with more plants. It was nice. I’d lived in worse places. Lots worse. It was…nice.

Fuggit. When I was stuck there would be soon enough to learn the place. Now I’d better enjoy my freedom. I headed for the worst section of town. The part where I felt most at home.

Well, one step up from the worst section, per standing orders. Though I should probably just go back to the ship before I got in real trouble. Getting barred from the university before I started would be a thousand times worse than never getting accepted, but gods knew it was the kind of thing I’d do.

As usual, I didn’t do what I should.

As slums went, Greater’s wasn’t so bad. Doors and signs and extras might sag, but the buildings themselves stood mostly straight. Litter hopped around in the variable wind and the scudding clouds hinted at a washing the city could use, but I’d seen ports where I wouldn’t step into the alleys without hip boots, so I gave the place points.

I wasn’t allowed in Old Greater because Eve had forgotten where I grew up, but that was okay because just outside of Old Greater was one of my favorite places. It held a good mix of spacers, low-lifes, and the targets otherwise known as college students. And those in the slums were mostly like me—there because they wanted to be. Plays and museums and fine restaurants could be fun. Surfing and skydiving and dog-sledding were always good for a rush. But for a real challenge and a good night, give me a low bar and some smart poker players every time.

And on that note—through a window I spotted a familiar face, one I was always glad to see. And he hadn’t seen me. I slipped in the door and hit the bar first.

Jimmy Akitari, Executive Officer of the Push Through, jumped when I thumped a beer in front of him, grinned as I threw myself into the chair opposite. “Taro Hibiki,” he said. “Just when I thought I’d die of boredom.” I smirked. His dark face held a new scar, making his left eye look a little more slanted. Old Marines never had scars erased. Eve had— “Your sister would be pissed to see you down here,” he said. I reached for the beer I’d given him; he snatched it.

“I’m following orders.” I pointed across the street. “Old Greater starts over there.” Prick.

“So it does.” He snorted and lifted his beer. “What’s the plan? Find a bar full of Fleet to insult? Get chased by a howling horde of whores? Do something completely new yet still following the trend of monumentally stupid?”

“I thought we’d just find a good game and see where it goes from there.”

“Downhill, if I know you,” Akitari grumbled, but he drained his beer and stood. “Lead on, you cantankerous bastard.”

“If you don’t like it, why come?”

“Well,” Akitari fingered his nose, flattened in our first liberty together, “I’m drunk. And that whore thing turned out okay.” He grinned. “Three of ’em caught up after you left.”

I chuckled and led on.

Seven dives, six games of cards, three dart matches, two fights and a swearing match later, I’d had enough and headed home. In the dark street Akitari meandered next to me, in no shape to even notice our vector. I, on the other hand, could honestly tell Eve I hadn’t had a sip of intoxicants. I hadn’t set foot in Old Greater, either, and I hadn’t laid so much as a finger on a prostitute. If any other member of the Dream crew made that report, Eve would send them back to do liberty right. She might even lead the way. Little brother Kentaro, however, would get a proud grin, maybe a cuff on the shoulder. Lucky me.

Ben said Eve expected more from me because she knew I could deliver. I thought it was because my mom wasn’t around to tell her she was over-doing it

“Taro! Good Taro.” Akitari threw an arm across my shoulders. I staggered a few steps before I adjusted to his weight. Luckily the crowd had thinned since sunset so I didn’t step on anyone. “You’re a good man, Taro Hibiki.”

“You say that now, but will you still love me tomorrow?” The lack of street lamps was dumb if they wanted to control crime, but it did add atmosphere. Something in me liked the dark.

“Love you. I do.” Gods, was he that drunk? “My friend. Get me drunk, get me laid…never fails. Want some fun, follow Taro.” He leaned more, getting comfortable. “Get me laid. Come on, kid, let’s get us some girls.”

“Some?” I turned his face away. Gods, his breath would send a Krechan missionary scurrying. “I doubt you’ve got enough left to handle one.” Especially when he didn’t notice the girls we’d just passed, standing under their own personal streetlight.

“Them’s fighting words, son.” Akitari tried to straighten; I hauled him back from walking into a parked groundcar. Some rich kid slumming, probably. He’d make it home eventually, both poorer and smarter. “I got ’nuff for—for six girls!”

“Their loss, big guy. I gotta go home.” Get home and make sure Eve hadn’t let that idiot Rafe upset Ben. Get home before all the crazy ideas bouncing around my head got out and blew everything to hell just when I’d actually exceeded Eve’s expectations.

“Home.” Akitari shuddered. “Don’t know how you stand it. Life with the Bitch…do like her trainees, though. Colvin’s a fine lad. Reliable. Boy never loses it.”

“Ryan survived six months on the Dream,” I said. “Nothing on the Push Through is going to faze him.”

“Heh, that’s the truth.” Akitari squeezed, pulling me off course. Holding him up was easy. Countering his mass when he moved unexpectedly wasn’t. “You should come. Bitch is about ready to cut you loose anyway, isn’t she? Come work for me.”

“Jimmy Akitari, you can’t handle liberty with me more than twice a year.”

“No,” he said with a shudder. “No, no. That’d kill me for sure. I know!” He swung an arm; I knocked it away before he clocked me. “Rotating duty! I’ll assign people to play with you.” He chuckled again. “Heh, like to see that tight-ass Burke after a night on the town with Taro.”

Hells. Now I was an escort service? “Sorry,” I told him again. “Eve is sending me to college.”

Akitari threw back his head and roared. I pulled him back on balance before he fell on his ass.

“You—!” he gasped, swiping his eyes. “College! You!”

“It’s not that frakking funny,” I growled, dragging him around the first ship on the field. It wasn’t effing funny at all. Though Akitari was still chuckling.

“College,” he said again. “Taro Hibiki!”

“Shut the fuck up, Akitari.”

“Ooh, I’m tellin’ her you swore!”

“Not if I break your jaw, you won’t.”

“College,” he muttered again. “Taro! Never make it. Run away. Make your own life.”

“And do what, join the frigging circus?”

“Circus.” He chuckled some more. “Yeah. Come to the Push Through and join the circus. Ellie likes you.” He slapped my ass; I was too weighted down with his upper half to dodge. “She’ll make you feel right at home. Cute little—”

I dumped Akitari in the nearest ditch and walked away while he swore. He was two ships from the Push Through. Shouldn’t take him more than an hour to find his way home.

The outer iris of the airlock usually stood open as long as any of the crew was off the ship. Other captains tsked, but Eve said if any slime came all the way to the Dream to see her, then she wanted them to feel welcome. Also, she trusted her crew to stay awake on watch. Which we certainly did. The second my heel cleared the safety margin, the mechanism started. Hanna in the cockpit, I bet myself. She liked to draw while stuck up there, and she got impatient waiting to open or close the door. And—yep. Before the outer iris was closed, the inner started to open. Eve would kick Hanna’s ass if she knew, but I wouldn’t tell. Unless Hanna pissed me off.

The inner iris opened on the drab walls of Deck Foxtrot. A few doors away the lift stood open; Hanna must be in a good mood. I went past it, though, to the ladder. Work, Eve said, cures what ails you.

Before I made the next deck I remembered the fights and how tired I was, but I stuck it out. A Marine in pain is a happy Marine.

Deck Alpha looked just like Foxtrot until the door to Eve’s cabin opened. In their home, she let Ben alleviate the boring a bit, and that meant rich colors and a spicy incense and usually soft music.

Eve was in bed when I hailed since Dream time was far ahead of planet time. I let her chew me out and didn’t remind her she’d told me to stop by no matter how late while I petted her lizard-cat-thing Snitch. The beast was like that. Ignore me for weeks, then demand attention in the middle of the effing night… When Ben wandered out to see what was going on, I cut Eve off with an apology. Reported my good behavior, sent Snitch on her way and got the hell out of there, headed for my cabin down the hall.

Small, dark, and crap everywhere. Yay, home. Should clean up, though we weren’t due to take off till—the hailer sounded. Who the hell—

Slag. Ben. Brown skin and black boxers; he’d only paused to grab his kit.

“Hey,” I said for lack of anything better. “0500 comes early. Can we talk tomorrow?”

“Take your shirt off and sit on the bed.” Only Ben could have walked into that cabin for the first time and not reacted to the black everywhere, or the knives stuck in every soft target but the bed. Eve would have critiqued my accuracy. Anyone else would have been seriously disturbed, and probably turned around and left.

I wished Ben would.

“It’s just a scratch, Ben. Didn’t even—”

“Now, Taro.”

Frak. Usually quiet and always polite, Ben made it so easy to forget that he was at least as stubborn as Eve. And more observant in some ways. Not that I was betting Eve had missed the dried blood on my black shirt, that I’d managed to forget. She probably just thought I was being a proper Marcori by ignoring it.

The healer in Ben wouldn’t let him do the same. Damn it. I took my shirt off and sat. Ordered the lights to a hundred percent and thought about my sister while her lover knelt next to me.

“What happened?” he asked, though he had to recognize the pattern of slices. Eve liked fights as much as I did, and the size and strength of the felinoid people of the Calanian Sovereignty made them preferred playmates. I’d heard she actually lost a fight to one once.

“I told Akitari I was bored,” I answered Ben.

“You met a Calanian named Akitari?” Gentle hands cleaned and disinfected and covered the three claw-marks my parry had deflected to my lower ribs instead of my gut.

“Jimmy Akitari of the Push Through. I told him I was bored, so he called a Calanian a—” I paused to make sure I got it right. “A fecking gobshite whose every breath shamed Tetchukal.”

“That,” Ben said, “would do it.”

“What does it mean?” Since Eve ordered me—well, my oldest niece Kat, who followed my lead in everything—since Eve ordered Kat to watch her language, I always needed new not-quite swear words. My sort-of brother-in-law sat beside me on my bed.

“What it sounds like, mostly. Gob means mouth.” He shook his head. “Okay,” he began. I yanked my dirty shirt back on. “By the time the faux-skin wears off, the wound should be closed. So you won’t need to avoid getting it wet or anything. But tell me if you do manage to open it again. Since you’re as bad as Eve at being careful of injuries.” He stared at me until I nodded. “I mean it, Taro. If I even think you disobeyed me, I’ll ask Eve to deal with you. I don’t care how macho you suddenly need to be, I won’t let you neglect yourself.”

“If you tell Eve, she’ll do a lot more than give me an effing scratch.”

“She will,” Ben agreed. “And then I’ll know to hunt you down. You didn’t even stop to wash that, Taro. What would you have done if it got infected? Treated it yourself?”

“You’re right, Ben.” Agree, and he’d go away. “I should have said something. I’m sorry.” Agree and apologize.

But he didn’t go away; he sat waiting for more. I didn’t have a clue what else he wanted to hear, so I shut up. After a long moment Ben tilted his head and his shaggy hair brushed his collarbone.

“It amazes me,” he said softly, “how you’ve grown in four years. I look at you now, and I remember that thin, frightened boy who came on board, and I’m just…astonished. Superbly fit, widely skilled, amazingly confident…Eve and I are very proud.”

I remembered that boy too, and I never forgot what Eve and Ben had done for me. But I doubted that Ben had mentioned it now just to praise me. Not that he wouldn’t do that; only the timing made me suspicious. So I kept my mouth shut. He sighed and spoke again.

“No matter how competent, even adults need a hand sometimes. Eve and I still want to help, Taro.”

“I’ll…keep that in mind, Ben.” Get out, get out, please go away before—

“Taro, what is it?” he asked softly, reaching for my shoulder. I bounded off the bed. Shit! Cover—

“I’m just tired, Ben. Are you done? I swear there’s nothing else.”

“You’re not just tired. There is something else.” He didn’t mean medical, though, or he’d have called Eve to sit on me while he checked for other wounds. Hells, get him out! Denial wasn’t going to work, lying either, shite— “Is it because Eve keeps pushing you to go to school?”

“No. Yes.” Frak. Should have gone with his answer. Too late now. “It’s not Eve.” Slag it, the last thing I needed was her after me!

“Whatever it is, Taro, I want to help. Will you let me?”

His brown eyes were wide and sincere as he stared from my bed. His dark hair stuck out around his face, making him younger. Eve had tousled that hair, I reminded myself. Eve, who had rescued me from certain death eleven times, given me a home and a family and a future—

Cabron. Meaning me. It was an Español word that meant bastard, asshole, bitch, and other good things all in one. I’d picked it up from another crew-member. It was one of two good things about Selene—the girl could swear.

“I’ll…handle it,” I told him. When all else fails, stonewall. “It’s my problem.”

“Taro, are you in some kind of trouble? Remember we’re family. No matter what—”

“It has nothing to do with our family!” I snapped. A blatant lie, since clearly it was affecting our family. But he didn’t call me on it. “I will handle it,” I said more gently. “Myself. Now please leave. I’ve been up for twenty hours; I’d like to get some sleep before PT.” Physical Training. It was as close as Eve came to a religion, and it happened way too effing early.

“All right,” he said, moving for the door. “We’ll talk tomorrow.”

Bloody fecking hell.

As soon as the door closed I ordered loud music to max volume, snatched knives to throw. It didn’t help. I kept flinging while the walls vibrated and I debated going to the gym. Training was the only way to get my head on straight. But if Ben knew me half as well as he thought he did, he’d be waiting to pounce again.

Mierda. Shite. If I stayed in my cabin, I’d explode. I went out the back way—no one knew my cabin had a back way—and took the access tunnels to the gym. No Ben. If he was lurking, he was doing it outside. Thank gods he didn’t know me as well as he thought he did.

If I could have started college right then, I’d have done it in a heartbeat. Gods spare me Ben—and Eve, he’d bring her in soon—gods spare me Ben and Eve determined to help.

Fecking hells. I’d have to stay clear of them. Act normal, definitely not seem like I was hiding, but stay clear of them.

Yeah, like that was going to work. The Dream was big for a family-run freighter, but her crew was small. Trying to keep away from Eve and Ben—

Just have to manage. Wasn’t like I had a choice.

I shook him—them—out of my head and spent a couple hours beating the hell out of every target I could find. The gym had a lot of them. Practice dummies and pads and mats, not to mention mirrors and weights and everything else I needed to get some proper work done.

It helped.

2

The viewports were still dark when the comp chimed, warning me PT was about to start. I tidied up quickly tossing pads and other gear in their bins. Didn’t want to look like I’d been there for hours. Even my gung-ho sister would question that.

Rafael Rylie Ballard, I discovered minutes later, hadn’t got himself killed yet. They came through the door at oh-five-fecking-hundred—Eve dragging, her gloved hand clasped around the wrist of the baggage, and Rafe hanging back to watch her ass. Eve grinned when she saw me. Slag. She wore work-out gear—shorts and a tank. The goofy bastard still looked like a theatrical pirate, this time in tight black pants and a black vest over a light purple shirt. With puffy sleeves. And open halfway down his chest, showing three or four necklaces. And wearing—I sniffed. Yep. Cologne.

Right.

“Kentaro,” Eve said when she got to me, “you train Rafe. Try not to hurt him too much.”

What?

My sister grinned at her–passenger? She didn’t take passengers!—and went on. “He’s delicate.”

Gods spare me delicate. “Eve, I was going to—”

“Later.” She absently parried Rafe’s casual hand that would have landed on her left ass cheek as more of the crew wandered in. Even the kids were yawning. “Mikey will take Kat for now. You’ll have time for her. No way is Rafe going to last an hour.”

“I’ve been working on my stamina,” he said with a look that had nothing to do with exercise. That did it. Rafe Ballard was getting his ass kicked. I owed it to Ben.

But I do have a little decency, I found. Buried deep and stomped on frequently, but there in my psyche. So I didn’t go out of my way to hurt the newbie. I just didn’t try that hard not to. And whenever I thought of going easier on him, he made a lewd comment. About Eve, about Hanna or Ariel–about me. I trained, he flirted. And worked that grin, trying to charm his way out of making an effort. It never occurred to him that if he didn’t want to get hit, he should attempt the block I’d just shown him.

Finally I left him pretending to practice and went to talk to Eve. She was supervising kick drills, something I happened to be very good at. When I wasn’t…doing whatever the hell it was I was doing. Not accomplishing much, that was for damn sure.

“Yeah, it’s a waste of time,” was Eve’s helpful answer. “Don’t worry about it.” She watched the fool dance around the mat, playing with what he’d been shown and getting it all wrong. “Rafe’s just…hopeless.”

“Then why train him? Let me—”

“Because I said so,” Eve growled. Great. It was because she’d been a sergeant, I knew. They never quit on a boot, even after they’d given up.

“Then give me Kat. A few good knocks from a three-year-old and maybe he’ll start trying.”

“Not likely.” Eve smirked. “There’s only one thing that boy works at.”

Frakking bloody hell!

“You can try,” my sister went on. “Look at it as a learning experience. When you’re a captain, you’ll need to know how to get work out of every sort of crewman.”

“When I’m a captain—” —of what ship? I wanted to ask but didn’t, “I won’t hire anybody so useless.” Captain? That was her plan? Ship me off to college then ship me off permanently?

“It’s not as easy as that,” Eve said with a grin. “I didn’t hire Rafe.”

“You let him on board.” Captain. Oh fecking hells.

“Yeah,” she grinned. “Pretty, isn’t he?”

“Since when do you care about pretty?” Ben. What about—

“Got eyes, don’t I?” Those blue eyes sparkled. “He has his uses.”

“Eve! You’re—”

“—attached, not dead.” Hells, she was teasing me, and I was an idiot for falling for it. Now I’d shown she was bothering me, of course she was going to go on. With a grin. “Yeah, Rafe’s purebred NAVU.” Her grin became more of a smirk. “No Actual Vertical Use,” she explained. “Horizontal, though… Rafe’s forgotten more about bed-games than most men ever knew.”

“And that matters to you exactly how?” I snarled.

“I’m preserving him for the women of the galaxy,” Eve answered, grinning even wider. “Heroic of me, isn’t it? Especially considering how dangerous he is. Women getting bruised up falling over him, fighting over him…if you were a girl, I’d have slapped a chaperon on you.” She frowned. “Though Rafe’d talk his way ’round just about anybody. Could just tie him up…” Her voice wandered off.

She didn’t have to sound like tying him up would be fun.

Fuggit. I stalked back to my student. Trying and failing to hit Eve wasn’t very satisfying. Hitting Rafe Ballard would have to do.

Luckily it wasn’t hard.

As usual, I hadn’t thought far enough ahead. Eventually Eve took pity on her friend and sent Rafe to “put some mass on those scrawny arms” on the weight machines. She sent Kat to Hanna and led me away from the others to spar.

Oh hell.

When we had a good rhythm going, she started.

“Doc says something’s bugging you.”

I didn’t answer. She silently, forcibly reminded me she was the only person I knew who could kick my ass any time she felt like it.

“He says it’s something big, or at least you think it is.”

“Your buddy stopped working to watch us.”

“Kentaro…” she growled though usually she didn’t give warnings. Ben must have told her smearing me into the mats wouldn’t help. Damn it. That would have been better than an interrogation.

“I told him I’d handle it. Captain.” Anyone else would have taken the formality as a hint to back off. But Eve didn’t take hints.

“You haven’t been in real trouble in months. Did all that stupidity break loose at once? What did you blow up?”

“Nothing, Captain.” If only.

“Kill somebody?”

“No.”

“Steal something they’re going to come looking for?”

“No. Eve, I told you I wasn’t doing that slag anymore. I said I would stop and I did.”

Fast, so frakking fast—she caught my arm in a bind. The follow-up was a chop at the throat, but she didn’t throw it. Instead she held me there, searching my eyes. Hell.

“Say it again,” she ordered.

“I haven’t killed anyone. I picked some pockets last night, but I didn’t get caught and I didn’t take anything anyone would come looking for. I haven’t blown anything up in almost a year. I have done exactly what you effing told me to, without fail, for months now and I am getting damned sick of saying so.”

She let me go, but she wasn’t ready to fight more. I waited.

“You’re sure you can handle it.” That wasn’t a question, so I didn’t answer. “If it does get away from you, is it going to affect this ship?”

Get people hurt, she meant. Get the ship impounded, get me taken away in chains, scare the kids. “No.”

“Okay.” She tossed her hair. “I’ll keep the doc off you on one condition.”

“What is it?”

“The second,” she poked to make sure I was listening, “you think you might be in over your head, or that it’s going to affect this ship or the people on it, you come to me. I’ll have your promise, Kentaro.”

She had reason to doubt me, I reminded myself. More than once my bullshit had landed family and/or friends in trouble. Not to mention the time—

“Your word,” she demanded again.

“My word on it.”

“Fine. Hit the showers.”

It was just a reprieve, I knew as I walked away. She’d be watching me, and Ben might still convince her to demand an answer, or—

“That was incredible,” Rafe the baggage said as I passed him. “I can’t decide which of you is hotter.”

Asshole. If he was going to fecking ask for it—but Eve was still watching, so I only hit him once.

I made it count.

Eve took pity on the bastard again, and damned if she didn’t detail me to show him to sickbay after breakfast. And take Ben a tray, since he’d gotten wrapped up in something and not showed for the meal. She even told me to hang around and give him a tour when the doc was done with him.

Hell. But it wasn’t just to test me. Hanna, the usual hostess, was staring at the idiot like she’d never seen a man before, despite his bruises. So far Rafe had Whizz laughing too hard to notice Hanna’s distraction, but he would. Mikey was on watch, so he didn’t see Ariel absorbed into the fool’s fan club. Yet. Eve was thinking ahead, not to put the flirt alone with either half of the couples on the crew. That left me and Refil, the Kertak engineer.

Refil had a job to do. And, furry or not, she was female. Eve was playing it very safe. Damn it.

“If it were me,” I pointed out as we sat around the worn table, “you’d say the pain was a natural consequence of screwing around. And then put me to work on something to make it all hurt worse.” Oh please, make him scrub some blasted floors. Even if I had to do it too, as his Eve-appointed mentor. I knew how to scrub a damned floor.

“If it were you, I would.” Eve grinned at Rafe; he grinned back. “But Rafe’s not crew. He’s…baggage.”

“You can carry me off any time,” the bastard told her with a leer.

I didn’t hit him; Hanna did. But only lightly, and she laughed and tossed her hair as she did.

Fecking shite.

“So,” the baggage said as the brushed-steel elevator dropped. Eve hadn’t even put him on ladder-restriction like she did to all new crew members. “Did Cori win you in a fight?”

“No.”

“A dice game? Thumb-wrestling? Booby-prize in a drinking contest? First prize in a booby—”

Jackass. “My mother adopted her.”

“Really? Is that how she got a ship of her own?”

Nosy sod. “No.” I still wasn’t clear on how Eve had gotten a ship of her own. Or where the money for Donte’s tuition—and soon, mine—came from. I had no doubt freighting paid well, since she did it so well. But surely not enough for that. Especially if she was making payments on the Dream.

If. I didn’t know. Questioning Eve was just not an easy thing to do.

“So do I get to meet your mother?” Rafe asked. “Is she as cute as you are? Is she more…” his voice dropped to imply things, “friendly?”

Prick. “She’s dead,” I snapped. He winced finally, so I kept going, pressing the attack. “My whole family died in a pirate attack when I was younger than Kat. Eve says I look a lot like my mother, and Kat–Katana–is named after her. Eve saved me, and she and I are the only survivors of that ship. All the other children she saved have since died.” Damn it. Cassie, I miss you. “Anything else you’d like to know?”

“How to get my foot out of my mouth?”

“Ask Ben to amputate it.” The doors opened; I walked.

In sickbay the idjit groped Ben. I almost broke his arm before I thought, but a look from Ben reminded me that anything I smashed, he would have to fix, so I didn’t. Instead I made plans to accidentally be elsewhere when—hmm, who was most likely to want him dead first?

Me. Because the prat teased that I was jealous. So I made plans to be provably far away when the bastard mysteriously stumbled out an airlock.

Hanna was lurking in the corridor when we left, wearing something orange and flowing and dressy. She’d just thought she’d let me off the hook and give Rafe a tour herself. Yeah, right. I told her to blast off. She swore at me. The stupid baggage threw an arm around each of us.

“Don’t fight, you two. There’s plenty of me to–“

I hit him. Not that hard, but he staggered and Hanna steadied him. Slipped her arms around him. Damn it. Rafe was delighted to let her shield him. Frakking hells. I didn’t even want him and I had to fight for him.

“Captain’s orders,” I told Hanna. Maybe she’d missed that in her swooning.

“Captain won’t care,” Hanna answered. “She only made you do it because you complained.”

Maybe, but she’d still care if I disobeyed. Rafe landed a hand and Hanna smirked, happy to be groped.

“You want to trade watch for babysitting tomorrow?” I asked. “And the next day? And—how many shifts do you owe me?” It was at least three. I wasn’t sure exactly, but Eve knew. And Hanna knew that she knew. Also, Hanna hated watching all four. She loved getting an armful of baby, but all of them at once drove her crazy.

“Asshole,” Hanna snapped and stuck her tongue out. “Don’t look at me next time you need an alibi.” She escaped Rafe’s hands and flounced down the corridor. I stuck my tongue out at her back.

“I’m hurt,” Rafe said, dropping his arm across my shoulders again. “She gave up so easily.”

“Wish you would.” I poked a hard elbow into his ribs to get the arm removed, and took him on his tour. Yay.

By dinner Eve had ordered the fool to stay away from every woman on the crew. And the women to stay away from him. Especially since she’d brought back Donte and Selene, fresh from another year of college. Donte was still so serious, but glad to be home. Selene was as bitchy as always, sniping at Eve and still not wearing anything that could really be called clothes.

Yeah. Selene and Rafe in the same place was just begging for trouble. Although…Selene would break both his arms and both his legs with no second thoughts.

Well, so would I, if it wouldn’t still be Ben putting him back together. I gave up my plans to make the moron suffer, set my brain on endure. Since he was still with me. Lucky me.

Actually, on second thought, I was lucky. Rafe made a good excuse both to avoid everyone and to be grumpy when I couldn’t. That would certainly help with the staying clear of Eve plan. If I could just find a way to shut him up, it would be even better.

The rec room wasn’t my normal hang out, but I’d thought it might occupy my…baggage. No such luck. Rafe Ballard bounced around the room a few times. Tried to pull me into a table game, tried to watch a vid, tried to annoy me into an argument. Picked up a book and put it down. I directed him to the ones with pictures. He flipped me a gesture, but smiled as he did, and chattered about…something. Idiot. I thought to drown him out with music, but my head already hurt. I could have gone to my cabin and left him on his own, but a lonely Rafe would be a bored Rafe, and that was sure to lead to trouble. That Eve would blame on me. Besides, Kat had managed to decapitate her doll again. I needed to fix it.

Fixing the doll was more complicated than it sounded. Kat didn’t play with babies; the doll was a victim she rescued since she wasn’t allowed to save her little sisters. When in one piece, the toy could call for help in seven languages. And only Uncle Taro was trusted with putting him back together when wild adventure broke the poor guy.

Uncle Taro was honored.

Rafe turned on some soft music and flopped, sprawled on the couch like it was a bed and he was the only occupant. His cologne mingled with the scent of peanut butter. I made a note to check the cushions for left-behinds. And to hit Rafe if he didn’t stop staring at me.

“Damn, Kentaro,” he blurted finally, “how do you stand this?”

“Stand you? Not well.” Kentaro. Eve must have threatened him. She wanted everyone to use my full name, but she was the only one who did. Even Donte shortened it most of the time.

“This—” Rafe waved a hand around him, “—this quiet! I never dreamed Cori would run a peaceful ship. What do you do for fun?”

“Everyone is probably doing it. I’m the only one stuck with someone I don’t want.”

“Lucky I don’t have that problem.” He bounced closer and made to lay an arm on my shoulders. I hit him, not too hard.

No need to hit the solar plexus hard.

When Rafe could breathe again he bounded off of the couch to wander some more. He didn’t find anything to play with this time, either, so he came back to annoy me. This time he did it from just out of reach. That suited me. If he was out of my reach, I was nearly out of his.

The fool cleared his throat. I ignored him, fiddled with connectors. The doll wasn’t supposed to have a permanent nod.

“Why did Cori tell me to stay away from Selene especially?” he asked right before I went ahead and hit him for staring. “She likes me.”

“You want to mess with her, there’s a waiver you need to sign.” Stupid thing, why wouldn’t it— “Ben can’t fix everything, you know.” Maybe if—I took the head back off.

“Then why was she hitting on me at dinner? And that Donte didn’t mind, either, so it’s not that.”

“Selene does that,” I muttered, peering down the things neck. “Touch her, though, and she’ll break your arm. And even if she did fall for your dubious charms, the captain would kill the both of you. Because Donte would care, as soon as he noticed. He’s just—thick.” Like, neutron star dense, anywhere engineering wasn’t a factor.

“Why would Cori get into it?” Rafe asked. “She used to get intense about people minding their own business.”

“This is different.” I gave him a glare to make sure he got my point. “She’s…careful…of Donte. So am I. If you lay a finger on Selene and she doesn’t break your arm, I will. In three places. And if you start that touching shit with Donte, I’ll hit you so hard you’ll wake up old and ugly.” That threat always worked when Eve used it on Selene. Rafe was as stuck on himself as she was. “Don’t even get near him. Strangers bother Donte.” I thought about telling him it was for his own safety, but I didn’t. If the idiot scared Donte, he deserved what would happen to him.

“Why?”

I went back to the doll instead of answering. The truth was, I didn’t exactly know why Donte was so jumpy. But anybody who had lived on the streets and kept his eyes open could make a pretty good guess why a person would shower three times a day, jump at being touched, shy from strangers, and be too scared of small spaces to sleep in a cabin.

Selene was very good for him, though. He was a hell of a lot better now than he’d been. Which was the only damn reason the rest of us put up with the foul-tempered ex-stripper.

“You know I’m going to keep bugging you, right? Only,” Rafe’s voice got less sure, “then you’ll probably hit me again. You hit hard! I guess I should expect that. I mean, Cori said you take your training seriously. For her to say that…”

Endure. This was just another part of her training.

Endure.

Stupid doll. I could get the head to straighten now, but it wouldn’t speak. I took the head back off. The door swished; Donte glanced from me to Rafe and hesitated. I waved the decapitated toy at him.

“You’re just in time. Tell me what the hell I’m doing wrong.”

Give the boy a problem—Donte stepped around the couch, sat on the table I’d been working on, and took the doll. He bent his dark-blond head over it as Rafe moved closer. I glared at the stupid sod over Donte’s shoulder.

“The resistor is…” Donte poked a finger into the neck, then groped in his pocket. Selene had been at him about his clothes again; he had to reach under a blue sweater instead of a black one. I held out my circuit meter. Donte took it with a chuckle. “What was it this time? The Second Battle of Mantixa?”

“Mikey was telling stories this morning, so I’d guess he was the Fleet Commander’s daughter.”

“That can’t be.” Donte shook his head, shoved back his hair. He was letting it grow. That was more of Selene’s influence. He usually cut it right before the Dream landed. “The child survived.”

“Yeah, well, Kat’s still practicing. Think what she’ll be like when she’s Eve’s age.”

Donte smiled at mention of his precious captain. Most of us loved Eve, but Donte worshiped her. The smile faded as fast as it always did.

“So can you fix the doll?” I asked.

“I think—” those long hands of his worked their delicate magic, “—that will do it. Give me the head.”

“No.” I shook mine. “Uncle Taro is supposed to fix it. I can do it now that you figured out the hard part.”

“Right.” Another brief smile. “I came up to thank you.” He handed the doll and my tool back. “How did you know Selene would love a simple toy so much?”

“Well, you know, cute and snuggly, big blue eyes…” I stared at him. Donte shook his head, brushed his hair back.

“But how did you know Selene would like cute and snuggly?”

I rolled my eyes and gave up. “I just had a hunch. Is she on watch?”

“Yes.”

“Good to be home, isn’t it?” I sat back to re-attach the head.

“Yes!”

Donte was like me. He didn’t want to go to school; he’d rather learn by doing. But Eve said college, so he went to college. At least he was making a go of it.

As I would. Damn it.

“Captain Marcori told me you’re starting next semester. She’s very proud.”

“Yeah.” Damn it.

Rafe had been inching closer. I let him; even Donte couldn’t miss me glaring now he wasn’t absorbed in a problem. The sap spoke up from a meter away, half-assed listening to me.

“Kentaro is mean to me,” he said, flashing that sparkly grin. “Do you want to play a game?”

Damned if Donte didn’t respond to him. Almost, anyway. He hesitated, then shook his head with a polite refusal and walked around the other end of the couch to get to the door. Rafe stared after him.

“Wow. That smile of his is…intoxicating.”

“There’s something about it, all right.” Maybe it was because for a shining instant, the sadness disappeared from his eyes. I’d been known to do some damned dumb things to get Donte to smile.

“I’m guessing the toy looks just like him?” Rafe went on, sitting beside me. Hells. Why didn’t he shut up and…go to bed or something? He’d whined all day about how tired he was after Eve dragged him out of bed for PT.

That was something I’d been trying not to picture for hours.

“Yes,” I answered, getting up. “The teddy bear in question has a distinct resemblance to the only person who can touch Selene without getting hurt.”

“He’s one of Cori’s rescuees?”

“You’re not as stupid as you look.” Most of us were rescuees, but I wasn’t telling him that.

“Ouch!” Rafe clutched his chest. “You wound me! Kentaro Hibiki-Marcori, how can you be so cruel? And how long did it take you to learn to write that long-ass name?”

I snorted and dug out the stuff for table tennis. Maybe the fool would quit talking if he had something else to concentrate on.

For a game or two, it worked. The only sounds were piano music and the patter of the ball, the whacks of the paddles. But then he settled in, and got a lot better. Started talking again, too. Damn it.

“I was there, you know,” he said out of nowhere. I returned his serve anyway.

“Where?” The ball came back.

“There. When Cori rescued the Fleet Commander’s daughter. Well, I wasn’t with her, but I was on the Wolf.”

“What the hell were you doing on a Fleet carrier?”

“Cori, of course.” He grinned as I flubbed, hit it into the net. Prick.

“Okay, you were doing my sister. I figured that out. How the hell did you get on that ship?”

He served again. “Same answer. Cori.”

“Why?”

“She didn’t know what else to do with me. What do you think? She wasn’t your average Marine by any stretch, but even Cori never made a habit of sneaking fifteen-year-olds onto Fleet ships.” He missed the ball and had to chase. “At least, I don’t think she did. Mikey wouldn’t have thought it was so funny if she’d ever done it before.”

It was no surprise that Mikey knew Rafe’s whole story. The big guy had been at Eve’s side for her entire Marine career, and supposedly mustered out after she left because it “wasn’t fun anymore.” But if he hadn’t told about Rafe yet, he’d been ordered not to. Which meant he wasn’t going to. Eve and only Eve held Mikey’s loyalty.

Oh slag. He had shared the story. A fifteen-year-old stowaway. Mikey had never said what happened to that boy, though.

“You’re the one she rescued from Stud,” I blurted. “In a dice game.” The terrified joy-boy she’d won in a dice game. That…explained a lot.

“Got it in one! You’re as intelligent as you are beautiful.”

I snarled and slammed the ball too hard; it cleared the table. The idjit grinned and went after it again.

“She sneaked me onto the Wolf,” he said, and served. I returned it. “She was trying to think of somewhere safe to put me, but then the ship had to bug out, and she couldn’t get me off.” He smirked, but skipped the obvious innuendos. With the grin, though, he’d made me think them. “I was there for her court martial, too.”

“Damn.” I actually felt a chill. I didn’t worship my sister, but that court martial was epic to Dream crew. Eve had done what she had to do—hijacked a Fleet ship, kidnapped Marines, et cetera—and gotten herself thrown out of the Corps for it. If she had chosen to obey orders that day—that girl might have survived without her rescue. And Eve would still be a Marine, with Mikey at her side, as always. Whizz would be home chasing the animals around the farm. The rest of us would still be in whatever hell she’d plucked us out of.

I missed the effing ball again. Rafe grinned and called the point. “Do you want to play again?” He served before I could answer. “You should have seen the Fleet Commander’s face,” he said, as the ball came back and he returned it, “when Cori showed up in his airlock with me as part of her baggage.”

Oh hells! I laughed and missed the ball. Bastard. He had to run out of story soon. “Did he even try to argue?” I asked.

“How could he?” Rafe returned. “There was his daughter, so happy to have her savior on board and making a big deal over me, wanting to know if Cori had rescued me too.”

And Eve would just look to the Fleet Commander, to let him explain to his daughter what he meant to do with her rescued stray…

“Why do you call her ‘Cori?'”

“You know her Marine nickname! Have you ever tried to call her Bitch? Without—” he made a show of cringing and missed the ball for his theatrics. “She got tired of listening to me stutter, told me to call her that.”

At least Ben and I had earned her first name. There was comfort in that. I tried my own distraction, and asked something I wanted to know anyway.

“So if you needed rescuing from being a whore, why are you such a slut?”

It didn’t faze him; he returned the ball. “I’m not. I’m actually very selective in my choice of partner.” I snorted. He grinned.

“You don’t see it,” he said, “because there’s such a fine concentration of wonderful people on this ship. I can’t choose just one to hit on.”

“I’m betting that’s got something to do with why you need rescuing again.” Maybe he wasn’t so bad. When he stopped blathering on about nothing. And if he’d quit hitting on everything that moved.

“Alas, tis true,” Rafe sighed. “I’m just too irresistible. The lady completely forgot to mention she was very, very married to a large, mean-tempered, space-faring individual. When she remembered her marital status—and his return date—I looked for an escape route, and stumbled across someone meaner to hide behind instead.” He returned the ball and gave a suggestive wiggle. “And I’ll tell you, Kentaro…I’m grateful, but it’s put a serious kink in my lifestyle. I’m not used to sleeping alone. I’m so…restless…that risking Cori’s over-protected little brother is looking good.”

“Touch me and I’ll knock every tooth out of that stupid grin.” After one night he was desperate?

“Why so defensive?” Rafe shot back. “Afraid you might like it?”

And damn it, I got ideas. And missed the frakking ball. Rafe’s eyes widened.

“Holy shit! You are afraid you’d like it!” He grinned. “Stuck up to our neck in denial, are we?”

Denying denial…would just sound like denial. I went for a stonewall. “Fuck off, Ballard.”

“What’s the matter? Do you think real men don’t like men? Are you gay, Kentaro?”

I went after the ball. Damn it, damn it, how the hell—

“You are!” he exclaimed. “And Cori doesn’t know!” Then, “Kentaro’s got a secret!” he sang.

I served straight to his gut, wishing it were a bowling ball. Rafe caught it, shook his head and stopped smiling.

“You really do have a problem,” he said, all amusement gone from his voice. “You know there’s nothing wrong with it, right? People are just born that way.”

Gods spare me the therapy. Why I hadn’t killed him yet?

Oh. Eve. Right.

Slag! How was I going to keep him from telling—he served, I missed it and chased. When I turned back with the ball, Rafe was right in front of me.

“I can help,” he said softly, reaching for my face. “If—”

Straight punch to the stomach. He folded with a wheeze.

“Yes, I’m gay.” I squatted so he could see me, down where he was bent over and trying to gasp air into his lungs. “You’re not. Keep your pity, and keep your filthy hands off me. I know where they’ve been.”

“…that…wasn’t…necessary…”

“Maybe not.” I went back to the table, picked up the racquets to put them away. “But it was fun.”

“Don’t…” Rafe straightened with an effort, went back to his end of the table. “Come on.”

Idjit. I tossed him his paddle and served. Wasn’t like I had anything better to do. Especially since the minute he was bored, he’d probably run to Eve, spill his discovery just to rile things up—

“It’s not such a big deal,” he said. “Only assholes care. It’s not like you can’t defend yourself from them.”

“When I’m pathetic enough I need your help, Ballard, I’ll shoot myself.”

“You could tell Cori, at least,” he went on, like he knew a damn thing about anything. “I don’t know anyone else here yet, but I know Cori. Homo, hetero, even xenosexual, Cori doesn’t give a damn who you sleep with. So long as your boy, girl, or alien is willing, anyway.”

I considered flattening that damned big nose he couldn’t get out of my business. Then he wouldn’t be so pretty. Rafe got the ball, served it back. We’d lost track of who should serve a long time ago.

“Clearly it is a big deal to you,” he said. “Why?”

Hell. He’d spill, sooner or later. And if I asked him not to, he’d just do it sooner. Probably use it to win a game, the schmuck. And say it was for my own good. And once that was out… Options, Taro. Look at your choices, pick the best one. And face the consequences.

I could just kill him. That packed a little more in the way of consequences than I was ready to accept. Though if Eve never asked me directly what happened to her baggage–

Forget it. She’d ask.

So. Get him off the ship, before he had the chance to tell? I could toss him off easy enough, but he’d just come back. And tell Eve why I’d thrown him out. If he left the ship willingly, though… He’d said he wanted to get laid. And he’d started out looking for a ride off-planet. There had to be lots of places where it wasn’t hard to get both. And as hot as he was—as shameless as he was—he could probably even get them from the same person. I could honestly tell Eve that her baggage had got a better offer.

I looked closer at that idea, testing it from all angles. It could work. Eve had not told me he wasn’t to leave the ship. I knew damn well she’d told him that, if he was hiding from someone who might hurt him. But she hadn’t told me. And if the large, mean spacer did show up, I’d handle him. Even though he had every right to beat Rafe to a pulp. Eve wanted the fool protected, so he would be.

“Come on,” the idiot broke into my thoughts. “You can talk to me. I’ll be gone in a week.”

Okay. Plan Alpha, find Rafe another ship. Except for the loss of my idiot-shield, the only consequences of that would be good ones. Plan Bravo—get something on him, to keep him quiet. Even that moron had to have something he was ashamed of. Harder to do, but still only good consequences. Plan Charlie—get him drunk and leave him sleeping it off under a table. Eve probably wouldn’t delay our departure to look for him. But she’d be mad as hell at me for not carrying his stupid ass back. I could live with that. She’d get over it. Eventually.

No, damn it, she wouldn’t. If I left him passed out, anything could happen to him. It had to be Alpha or Bravo. Demmit.

Selene was on watch. She was the one member of the crew who would not give a damn if Eve’s little brother wanted to go into port. She probably wouldn’t even bother to make a note of my leaving for Eve to find in the morning. But once Hanna went on duty—if she even let me off the ship, Hanna would tell Eve immediately. Damned sure she was still pissed I’d kept her from Rafe.

Time to move. I caught the ball instead of returning it. “You’re right. This ship is too damn quiet. Let’s go find some excitement.”

He gave me a look, probably wondering if I meant to make him put up or shut up. As if. But then he grinned and tossed the paddle down. “I’m always up for excitement.”

3

“So.” Rafe had wasted a quarter-hour of my window of opportunity renewing his cologne and changing from the black vest to a leather jacket a lot shinier and less abused than mine. Now he took it off. Draped it, then himself, over the chair opposite me. “You still don’t like me. Why show me a good time?”

Hells. Not even the target-rich environment I’d found could distract the bastard from needling me. And I’d outdone myself, too. The bar-owner worked hard to attract a female clientèle. Flowers in vases and on the curtains and tablecloths, well-dressed young people serving pretty drinks—there were more women per square meter than in the girl’s dorm at the college. And many of them were spacers. The clean, pretty environment didn’t keep the men away, of course. But all the women knew they were only there for one reason. It cut down on communication difficulties.

The truth sometimes cut down on communication difficulties. I wasn’t above using it. “I’m hoping you’ll find yourself another berth. One with a nice warm woman in it will solve both our problems. Until then, I’ll hang around and make sure you don’t get what you deserve from the large mean spacer.”

“You’re a sneaky one, Kentaro.” He grinned appreciation. “What else would I expect from Cori’s little brother?”

To get his ass kicked if he continued to be so annoying? It never seemed to occur to him. Maybe because Eve didn’t beat on him. How the hell he got that consideration, I couldn’t guess. Well—just didn’t want to.

“If you must keep talking to me,” I told him, “call me Taro. Only Eve uses the whole thing.”

“Cori is awfully…careful…of you.” Finally his eyes wandered. “I take it she hasn’t noticed you’ve grown up yet?”

“When you care enough to be a pain in the ass…” She had reason, though. I did understand that.

“You have to admit,” he flashed the sparkly grin, “her protectiveness comes in handy. She guarded me night and day, and I was glad of it. It’s scary as hell, bunking with a couple hundred Marines.”

“That was just selfishness.” Damn, how long did it take a waiter—

“Do you really think that?” Rafe’s eyes narrowed; he leaned forward. “Does Cori usually sleep with her rescuees? Does she often seduce fifteen-year-olds?”

Hells. He was right. I’d taken my turn at being stupid.

“I slept in her bunk for two weeks,” he said, “and she never touched me. It was the longest I’d gone without sex since my training began, and she wouldn’t let me touch her. Except I couldn’t not touch her, in that bunk. And it was driving me crazy. But she told me I had the rest of my life to chase older women. Maybe eight flipping years difference between us, and she wouldn’t touch me.”

“Didn’t last, did it?” What the hell had Eve ever seen in the guy?

“Because of who she is,” Rafe retorted. “She can’t help helping.” He smiled at a waitress, and a beer appeared before him. Damn. “The night before we broke out at Mantixa, half the ship was bunking with the other half. Cori told me the Wolf was headed into a hell of a fight and nobody wanted to die un-laid. Then she told me to go to sleep.”

“Do you think I want to hear this?”

“Do you think I care?” Rafe shot back. “I waited until she fell asleep, then I woke her up. And she still resisted. Until I told her I didn’t want to die never having loved someone I chose. That when she rescued me, she gave me my choices back—and I’d chosen.” His grin sharpened. “That’s a line that would only work on her. I’ve had some great nights since then, Taro, but that one is still the best of my life. Every night I enjoy is thanks to her. A tribute to her. She’s the best gift God ever gave this galaxy. And whatever you think of it, I’m damn glad I had the chance to give something back.”

Well hell. Damned if I’d apologize to him for what I’d thought of Eve. “You should tell her that tribute bit. She doesn’t like to be thanked, but that would make her laugh.”

“Then I will.” He drained his beer. “And now, if you’ll excuse me, since God’s Gift is a mommy, you’re violent, and everyone else on that damn ship is off-limits…” He bounced out of the chair, to wrap an arm around a blond walking by. She jumped–but she smiled.

Damn, he was fast. I might actually get to sleep tonight. As soon as Rafe was safe—

Now there was a sour thought. How long did I have to keep an eye on him? If I left and then he got jumped before he reached the relative safety of some tart’s bed, Eve would be furious. And she wouldn’t get over it. People Eve rescued were supposed to stay rescued.

Slag. I’d have to trail the fool and the love of his night to her ship. What a damned joyous evening I’d let myself in for.

Maybe it wouldn’t take that long. The idiot was dancing with three women already. One was plastered to his back; she’d take him home in a heartbeat. Or throw him down right there. And she was a spacer; I knew her face if not her name. The other two, though, seemed to be joining forces to lure the jerk closer. Maybe all three would jump him—I cursed, because he danced on to another. And another. Accepted a drink from a redhead, and moved on again. Damn, could be he was picky.

Could be the bastard just wanted to annoy the hell out of me before he chose the lady of the evening.

The lady of the week, if he really wanted to get off-planet.

Lots of annoying watch-the-dumbass-play-the-whole-effing-dance-floor later, I decided women had bad taste in music. Cheesy, sappy, busy, but catchy enough I couldn’t ignore it…I watched Rafe, kept an eye on the envious losers drinking alone and thinking of kicking Rafe’s ass for hogging the women, drank water and tried not to tap my feet. When I caught myself thinking the lady of the evening was in for a treat, I looked away to order my own blasted beer.

And got refused, my youthful face belying my fake ID.

Frak. That was why I played in places too shoddy to check. One reason.

Rafe had seen the exchange. A few minutes later one of his cast-offs came over with an extra beer and whole lot of friendly. Prick. I aimed her back at him with a hint that he was turned on by pain, but I kept the beer. The asshole fended off the foot-stomper, sent me another cast-off with another beer. I scared her away with talk of my illness, then suggested to a large Marine veteran that “my friend” was feeling adventurous.

My “friend” was a little wild around the eyes before he escaped that one. But he stopped sending me castoffs, so I only had to ward off the genuinely interested. Between them and keeping an eye on the dipshit having the time of his life, I had one hell of an evening.

Killing him was looking better all the time.

At least four girls tried till the last minute, but Rafe sent them off with their arms around each other and when the bartender kicked us out, we were incredibly, miraculously, alone.

Miraculous my ass. He’d done it on purpose. He wasn’t done annoying me yet.

Probably fifty ditches lay between the not-quite slums of not-quite Old Greater and the landing field, I thought while I stood outside the bar in the semi-clean soft air and pondered getting the stupid baggage home. I could drop him in a few. Maybe accidentally lose him in one. Last night I mostly hadn’t minded the carrying. Jimmy Akitari was a friend. Rafe Ballard wasn’t. But he’d had enough booze that I could either watch him stagger four steps in the wrong direction for every meter on the right vector–or hold him up. And fight off those damn hands.

He was damned fast with those hands.

Knocking him out would be a relief, but then I’d have to carry him. Or drag him. By the feet and face down seemed like a great idea, but that spark of decency wouldn’t let me.

He was taller than Akitari, but I held him up, fought the hands while I dreamed about the other options. And checked the depth of every ditch we passed. If I found one with enough water in it…fekking baggage.

We were in the shadow of a ship before the idiot accidentally avoided one too many of the injuries I’d accidentally headed him into, and I realized the bastard wasn’t nearly as drunk as he was pretending to be. I threw him off with a curse. His laugh floated out of the dark.

“Aw, come on, Taro! Were you not enjoying yourself? I’m told I’m very good with my hands.”

Son of a frakking bitch. Deep breath. Calm thoughts. I’d gone this long without murdering him, it would be a shame to blow it now. Thirty-eight hours homicide free…

“Rafe!” a voice called. A woman’s voice, soft but strained. “Holy God—”

I snapped to guard. Realized I couldn’t see a damn thing.

“Who–” Rafe began, answering.

“Get over here!” I snapped. “Stay close to me, and keep your damned hands to yourself.”

“Taro, no women want to hurt me. Trust me.” The fool moved closer to me as he talked, so I let him blather. Maybe he was right. But it wasn’t damn likely someone had come looking for him with pure intentions, either. Or even not so pure intentions. Surely he was all tied up by this time, most nights. I moved towards the edge of the shadow.

“Rafe, please!” She sounded like she was crying. I didn’t like this, I didn’t—

“Lydia? I’m—”

I clapped a hand over his mouth, pulled him with me towards the light. And changed my mind. Right now, we were invisible. When I didn’t know what was coming, invisible sounded pretty damn good.

The Dream was three ships away. I made sure which pocket my comm was in. Press the panic button, and in two minutes Eve would be at my side. But holy slag, would she be pissed. And probably naked. Best to make sure I needed her first. I watched the edges of the ship shadow and thought. What the hell would this Lydia be doing out here in the middle of the night?

Options. She wanted to warn Rafe—but she’d done that already.

She wanted to run away with him—but the time for that was before the husband was expected back.

Back. He was a spacer. His ship was due—

The zlat! of a power weapon proving my thoughts were on the right vector was no comfort at all.

Stun, I realized as I sagged. I felt no pain because I’d been stunned. Rafe caught me, clutched me to his chest and begged me to tell him what was wrong. Idiot. Even if I could talk, he was babbling too loud to hear me warn him about the hulking shape blocking out the light at the edge—

“Oh shit,” Rafe breathed when he finally looked the right way. I would have agreed, but the stun reached full effect and the universe winked out.

 

Knight Errant is available at Amazon and  Smashwords, in ebook form. Also available in print from Amazon.

Comments are closed