It was all over. Not bad, really, lasting almost half an hour – last time it'd been fifteen minutes. His mind floated in a blissful void as he laid supine, his body liquid with exhaustion, panting hard and fast. He could feel sweat chill his skin, an unpleasant addition to his aching muscles. A muted roar thundered in his ears, rendering him deaf to everything but his own disjointed thoughts. Over…it's over already. So short…damn it…up…get up and try again…
The roaring increased in intensity as he strained his muscles struggling to sit up. A familiar large body crouched next to him and he winced as a warm, strong arm wrapped itself around his shoulders, and helped him to sit up with tender concern. He smiled painfully.
"Here…let me help you."
His gaze dragged up to the man's face. That familiar face was so close that tendrils of the man's brown hair swept over his own face and shoulders. Those honest gray eyes were gazing at him. He had a strong chin. Dominant. I know every centimeter of that face…every nook, every hollow, every shift and slide of muscle under skin, every flare of emotion…I know it all. Soon he'll smile at me.
Sure enough, those full lips curved upwards and the man leaned in close to his ear, as if to impart a delicious secret. He gasped, electricity crashed through his body and his eyelids slid shut as the man's wet tongue run delicately from lobe to crest. Then the expected whisper in his ear: so soft, so warm.
"So…do you concede defeat?"
…Well? Do I?
…Yeah, right. He sucked in breath, gathered the last of his energy together and spat a mix of blood and saliva onto the man's face. "Fuck you!"
Sparks exploded in his head as he was thrown back down onto the floor with a crash. For a while he could only struggle to regain his sense of self, cradle his head in his hands, and hug his knees to his chest to ward off any possible follow up strikes. He jerked as he was kicked at the back of his thighs. A soft, casual kick; blatantly contemptuous of him as an opponent. He wanted to scream. Damn you, don't write me off like that! It's not over yet! But deep down, he knew it was over. Again.
He looked up to find his opponent in the center of the training hall, surrounded by his friends, one beautiful, tall Adonis with his fists raised high in gloating victory. His voice smug, his smirk superior. Reveling in the backslapping and cheering of his group of friends. The same pathetic cheer, time and time again.
"Rory! Rory! Rory! Rory!"
Although the training hall was small and less than twenty sat watching, it might as well have been an arena of thousands, ridiculing without mercy. He wiped their trophy away from his mouth only to smear it across his cheek in a slash of magenta. I hate you! I fucking hate you!
Never had he come close to winning a match, no matter what he did, no matter how hard he trained. Damn it, it's so goddamned blatantly unfair! Isn't the underdog supposed to win? Isn't the one with justice on his side supposed to shine through the insurmountable odds? He smiled a little grimly to himself. That's it. I'm taking my life back to God and getting a refund.
No use telling himself he had skills far superior to the average civilian. Worthless to realize there were only a handful of men who had the ability to put him in the humiliating situation he was in now. It all meant nothing if he couldn't beat Rory.
He heard footsteps approaching, and a new figure crouched beside him, a body smaller than the previous man's, but comforting in a way Rory's was not. He let himself uncurl a little and twisted his head around to find blue eyes in a handsome face washed over with concern.
"Kai…oh god, look at you. A walking advertisement for bandaid. You okay?"
"Uh…" No damn it! I'm not okay. I'm fucking not okay! He fought back a sudden choking fury, sighed, and attempted to sit more upright. He spoke carefully to avoid aggravating his split lip. "I'll live. I guess."
The other man gave a small smile and flipped back a strand of blonde hair as he rose to his feet. "Well, if it's any consolation, I've never seen you fight as well as you did today. All the extra training's paying off."
"Yeah, one day I may even scare him into fighting his hardest." The sarcasm made his lip bleed afresh. He held one shirtsleeve up to staunch the flow as his companion grinned, slung his weary arm over a shoulder and braced his sides with the other arm.
"C'mon. El's setting up the medikit and a nice, hot bath in your apartment."
"Jorgen, you're gold."
A flash of a grin deprecated the comment, and both men walked away. Both acknowledged the odd word of encouragement and condolence from the dispersing crowd with a polite nod. Jorgen did the talking, he wasn't up for chit chat. They reached the door and Jorgen paused as the panes of glass slid open. "Just routine, man, just routine."
"God yeah. Pathetic, isn't it? This must be the fourth grudge match and I've never even come close to beating him." Inevitably, his head dragged around towards the source of their discussion; a shaking, weakened moth to the burning flame.
The flame was burning brightly, surrounded by a crowd who were as wax in his hands. Tall, handsome, popular, the drinking companion of choice, the favored friend, drawing others around him as if he were the source of all light, a blazing sun. He held a cold beer, and was laughing at a joke, sending a few flirtatious smiles to three worshiping girls, his opponent dealt with and apparently forgotten. Confident in his strength, content in his power. So desirable.
Jorgen also stared for a moment, admiring the sight before loyalty squelched the feeling down. He glanced over to his friend. Kai was also staring at Rory, and the strength of emotion on the man's face disturbed him. Kai generally preferred to suppress fierce emotion. "Come on. Let's get going, huh?" He repeated the suggestion twice before nudging the man hard. "Come on, Kai! Can't hang around here forever!"
Jorgen gently drew his friend's body around, away from the blinding light. "Idiot. Let's get out of here."
Kai dragged around and allowed himself to be led out through the sliding glass doors. The familiar cream walls appeared, a painting showing a garden at dusk slightly to the left caught his attention, as it always did. The painting wasn't exceptional; children from every corner of the Earth contributed all the paintings on the Space station Courageous, but it reminded him of home. Which was probably the point.
The corridor was crowded, the majority coming head on, lured by the bar nearby. The two men sifted their way through the horde until it thinned out, sidestepped to avoid a kid on a skateboard, and walked to the nearest elevator. Kai sighed and leaned back against the large electronic map that lay opposite the elevator's red metallic doors as Jorgen pushed buttons. "I want a beer."
"Well, you can't have a beer. Your head's already screwed enough for one day."
Jorgen raised his chin. "Just wait. El will agree."
"I'm sure he will, and that's a sorry testament to the both of you." He shifted his head lazily to avoid a gentle cuff from his friend as they waited for the lift. Presently, a simple melody sounded and the door slid open. Inside, two kids were glued together at all strategic points; the two men sent each other pained expressions and turned their backs. Kai tried to focus on the song playing to block out the noises coming from behind as they waited. The elevator came to a smooth stop and a suave male voice interrupted the music.
Welcome to level twelve. Shopping, Entertainment, Dining.
The couple broke apart long enough to saunter out, and the doors slid shut.
"Thank god," Jorgen muttered. "Were we ever that obnoxiously indifferent to people's gross-out levels when we were that age?"
Kai felt his lip. The bleeding wasn't so bad anymore. "We were worse."
Presently the suave voice came again. Welcome to level fifteen. Private Residences.
Both exited the elevator as the doors slid open at area C, corridor m, moved over to the nearest adductor's metallic blue doors, and waited once more. The doors eventually slid open, they entered the carriage, and soon they were travelling across the expanse of floor 15, section m. Kai glanced around. The carriage held maybe twenty people, most of them pretending not to stare at him. "I'm glad it isn't a long journey. I'm exhausted and I really want that bath," he murmured.
"Not long now."
Both men sighed with relief as the adductor drew to a final stop and the electronic voice purred out their arrival at 15Fm. To Kai, the ten minutes it took to walk down to corridor 15Fx seemed ten hours. Once they turned down the corridor, they passed the numbered doors on either side of the cream walls and as always, his eyes averted hastily from The Panther Room 08, with the small, black cross over the door. Empty. For a whole year now, empty. Don't think about it. Just don't.
He'd always wondered who had chosen to name each room after the flora and fauna found on Earth, and why. To inject a note of organic wholesomeness to what was essentially a sterile construction? A psychological trick to simplify the mind-numbing concept of a space station so huge it housed over ten thousand people on one floor alone?
Both men stopped outside the Falcon Room, number 10, Kai pressed his thumb to the IDPAD and punched in his password in on automatic. The green light flashed, he pressed the door release button and the doors swished open.
Standard issue, of course, but who hadn't decorated to suit their own tastes? After an admiring eye had coveted the three guitars, in glass cages and protective pakfoam, against the left wall the living room, those technologically inclined might notice that the opposite wall sported a huge two by two meter screen. Others might drool at the plush, well-organized workstation just inside the door to the right, with the state of the art computer that had all the usual additions; lightning fast web access, color scanner and printer, hologram builder, games, and Sim software.
Those after food would head straight for the dumbwaiter set into the left wall, punch in an order on the electronic menu, then wait impatiently for the food's arrival complete with a cultured voice hoping that the recipient would enjoy the meal. And inevitably they would. The space station employed an army of competent chefs, who, while not aspiring to the heights of cordon bleu, could be guaranteed to provide an enjoyable hot meal, drinks and desert at the end of a tiring day.
The first thing Kai eyed, however, was the plush, cozy, black pleather sofa that beckoned with soft seduction from the middle of the room. "Sofa…" he moaned.
"No. Bathroom first."
His hand reached out, yearning. "But…sofa…"
"Come on, you big baby." Jorgen skirted the favored furniture, determination alone preventing his friend from being sucked into its gravitational pull. He jabbed the green, lit button and the doors to the bedroom slid open.
"Kaito Corbett, get in here now!"
Kai eased a smile at the testy voice coming from the bathroom ahead. He noticed the plush comforter he'd tossed back from his bed in frenzied concern of being late for work was now tidily in place, the sliding doors to the built-in closet were now closed, doubtless with his formerly strewn clothes set right on their hangers, and the shelves neatly stacked once more. Anal-retentive. "Hey El…"
"Idiot. Hurry up."
Both men snickered and shuffled into the bathroom. There was the door that led to the toilet on the right, the dual shower and Jacuzzi to the left, and the basin and cupboards in the middle. All the faux green marbling with gold detail was supposed to suggest quiet luxury; he thought it soulless. But he didn't hate it enough to waste credits redecorating.
The basin's countertop was sporting the promised medikit, while a small man, serious of face, ran a hand through his wild tangle of sandy brown hair as he surveyed the preparations. He turned to focus the intent regard on the duo, and frowned at the sight of his injured friend. The man pointed to the wide ledge of the Jacuzzi. "Sit."
Jorgen laughed at Kai's mock scared, meek face. "I'll punch in an order for dinner." He turned to the door again. "What do you both want?"
Kai opened his mouth to speak but was forestalled by Ellery.
"For me, the traditional steak dish, bread roll, uh…choccie cake and a large beer. For him, mashed 'tatoes, steamed veggies, icecream and nutri-juice."
"What?" Kai protested. His lip bled again. "Baby food? Don't I even get a fucking beer?"
"Look, you idiot, you've started the bleeding up again…see? You can't eat anything solid; it will just aggravate your lip and beer will make you sick after the beating you got…"
Jorgen rolled his eyes at Kai and made 'nag nag nag' motions with his hand, laughed without sympathy and left the victim to his fate. He turned on the menu and selected the orders by touchscreen. In due course, the familiar suave voice let him know that the order had been received and processed and would appear at the dumbwaiter in approximately twenty minutes. From inside the bathroom he could hear Ellery fussing and Kai cursing amongst the sounds of clothes hitting the floor and the gush of high-pressure water.
He flopped onto the sofa and switched on the galactic news, keeping the volume down. Sure, he wanted to hear the latest info, but hearing Kai swear and curse at the indignity of it all as his friend tended and nagged was far more amusing. Presently he heard Kai screech and laughed cruelly. Antigel. No one liked that initial application of the dual antiseptic and local anesthetic, even if it was effective. Sure, it only took a minute until your injuries were pleasantly numb, but it sure hurt like a bitch when it first hit your skin. He was just wondering if it wasn't time for dinner to arrive when Kai emerged, wrapped in a silky robe, his split lip sewn shut, and looking very sulky.
"Gimme the sofa. Now."
Jorgen moved over and Kai flopped down, curled up and settled his feet comfortably on his friend's lap. He snatched the remote and jabbed a few buttons with ill humor. "When's dinner arriving?"
"Anytime now, I…"
A sexy guitar riff filled the room on cue and Jorgen rose, only to pause as Ellery sauntered into the room and held up a forestalling hand. "Don't get up, I've got it."
The brunette opened the dumbwaiter's top glass door and a waft of heaven filled the room. All three dug in to dinner without delay, although Kai tended to mash his food. Jorgen turned up the volume and they all stared at the screen. Images flashed, a tall dark man with a white beard was holding a press conference.
"What's this?" Kai grunted.
"Latest update," Jorgen murmured. "The UN is finally talking about joining the Milky Way Galactic Federation."
Kai barked out a short laugh. "Guess he couldn't find an excuse to stall anymore."
Ellery snorted. "Do you blame him? Not everyone's thrilled with the idea of joining our fate with some of the planets that don't share our view of life, not to mention we'd be at the whim of Intragalactic legislation." The brunette's lips tightened. "There is that little matter of international pride."
Kai shrugged. "Like I've said; pride's no use if we someday discover intelligent and aggressive life out there beyond our local group. Earth and Mars are stuck out in an insignificant solar system on their own. Someday we might be glad of some powerful backup."
"Yeah, yeah, I know. But I still can't help wondering if that oh-so-powerful backup is going to use our space stations and our men as gun fodder for a cause we don't even agree with."
"No problem, we'll send Rory Granville out to deal with it; he can collapse a galaxy through sheer ego alone."
Ellery hesitated for a moment, and then shrugged. "Good. And maybe he can deal with the Galactic Feds muscling in on our territory and assuming authority over us while he's at it."
Kai waved a deprecating hand. "Look, I'm not saying it's an ideal situation, okay? I'd love it if we could remain independent, but there's no escaping the fact that we're vulnerable out here on our own. Plus, you know we need the trade."
"Yeah, you're right, but I can't help wondering what's in it for them, you know? The entire population of Earth and Mars combined are a drop in the ocean for them. Sixty-seven populated planets compared to our piss-poor two. And they're only the ones we know about!"
"That's why it makes sense to be on guard. Who knows what other life forms hide inside this darling monstrosity, when not even they know?"
"But why don't they know?" Ellery cried. "Are they really trying to make us believe that they managed to stumble across our insignificant little corner of the galaxy but haven't fully explored other areas? It makes you wonder if there are any other viable life forms out there. After all, our beloved sun has its share of duds."
"It's not so strange, we were the nearest viable cluster." He shrugged. "Anyway, we need the crystal. And besides, we can't risk alienating the Feds, not right now. You know why."
His friend's voice turned subdued. "Yeah, I know all too well that we need them, especially you, but I still don't see why they need us."
"Idiots, it's because we make the best beer in the universe and they're terrified if we get pissy we'll withdraw it from trade." Jorgen flipped the channel and turned to his companions. "Look, lay off the heavy stuff, okay?" He took a slug of beer and picked up the remote. "It's been a hell of a day as it is."
Kai shrugged. "I downloaded about fifty new movies last weekend."
After a good half hour of bickering over choice, they settled down. Kai watched quietly, but his eyes were glazed, his brows creased and lips tight.
Eventually Ellery gathered together the used plates and shoved them onto the dumbwaiter's shelves, pressed a few buttons and leaned over the back of the sofa to mess up his friend's hair. "What happened with you and Rory this time?"
He gave small shrug. "Nothing much."
Jorgen and Ellery shot each other exasperated looks.
"You always say that!" the taller man complained. "Don't you ever get tired of doing the strong, silent act?"
His lips twitched up, but his voice remained deadpan. "No."
"Kaito!" the two men chorused.
"What's there to say?" He scrunched up on the couch. He knew he looked defensive, but he couldn't help it.
"There's a lot to say," Jorgen shot back. "There's a lot you could say about the whole, stupid mess."
"Well then you say it, Dr. Freud. Leave me alone."
Jorgen jumped up from the sofa and started to pace. "Goddamn it, you are so frustrating! I know you're as sore as hell inside that dumb, tender little heart of yours and there you sit, trying to convince yourself and the rest of the world you're Mr. Ice. Do you think you're fooling anyone?"
He would have loved to deliver a cutting slap-down but could only fume in silence. His friend rolled his eyes and shoved his hands in his jeans pockets.
"Argh, you always do that! Oh god, why do I even bother? Fine. Bleed in silence. See if I care."
The blonde turned and stormed out of the apartment, ignoring Ellery's startled protest. Kai stared at the blank screen, his expression neutral.
He hunched his shoulders further, and ducked his head as Ellery sighed and leaned over to ruffle his hair again.
"You know he's just worried about you."
"Damn it, Kai. You can't keep it bottled inside forever-"
"-Yes I can."
"No you can't!" Ellery biffed his head. "And don't interrupt. One day you'll want to explain. We'll bring the beer. Okay?"
"…Yeah. I know."
Ellery left him in solitude. He grabbed a cushion, hugged it tightly and continued to stare off into space.
The chant of the crowd echoed in his mind over and over. He couldn't get rid of it. He tried to hum a favorite song, but it remained. I fucking hate you, you traitor.
Rot in hell, you bastard.
…Golden, beautiful Rory…
Kai exploded up off the sofa and hurled his empty glass at the doors to his bedroom. Of course, being plastiglass it didn't shatter, but the ugly ceramic bowl it knocked over did. He stood there, panting hard, his face twisted with rage until the door of the nearby closet opened and a familiar beaver-shaped robot whizzed out. He bit back hysterical laughter. The robot vacuumed the broken shards into its bowels with cheerful speed, industrious and efficient. Kai watched it work with an ironic smile. Three cheers for the good old EGABVA.
The metal beast scanned the area to ensure all was tidy and safe for human feet to tread on once again, gave a little chirp, and then turned to head for its home. Kai swept the little gadget a mock bow. "After you."
The EGABVA whizzed back inside its haven and Kai pressed the door tab with a sigh. Can't even get angry in the privacy of my own home without something happening to make it appear ridiculous. He stood aimlessly for a moment. It was still too early for bed, and despite his exhaustion, sleeping held no appeal. There was always work to do, but…specializing in Sim production and programming required serenity and concentration, and he had neither. Guitar? Game? He strolled over to the sofa and ran his fingers over the black leather. …Another movie?
I'm buggered, Kai. You don't mind if I crash here, right?
Kai's brows drew together, and he rubbed his forehead to ease the tension. It seemed so real; a man curled up on his sofa, pleading with his twisted grin. A skinny rat with messy black hair, piercings and tats. And attitude. Plenty of it.
It became more his sofa than mine, lazy bastard. All wrapped up in the blankets…drooling in his sleep. Oh god how I used to love teasing him about it, he always was extra grouchy in the morning, telling me to fuck off, demanding breakfast…Oh god…
Kai found his fingers digging into the back of the sofa. Five years. Five fucking years you've been gone, you stupid bastard. What the hell happened? Why did you have to disappear like that? How could your craft have screwed up that badly? I looked so hard for you…I promise I did everything I could to find you, but I couldn't. I managed fuck all.
His legs hit the back of the chair at his workstation and he came to himself with a start. He couldn't remember the journey over. He sat down on the plush chair and sank his head down onto his palms, letting his elbows support him. The questions were back. The day-to-day rush of living enabled him to forget about them for a time, but they always came back. Were you scared? What did you think about at the last few moments? Did you think of us?
He flicked strands of black hair away and ground his face into his palms. Thinking of his friend's death was painful enough, but thinking of his terrified, lonely death was unendurable. Goddamn you, Gavan.
And inexorably, his mind slid to the other two. Matt. Shen.
He cursed with soft venom. He understood that politics couldn't give easy answers. He understood that Earth's government could not justify a full-scale war involving countless of innocent lives for the sake of only two men, who were military reserve who knew the score, at that, not even civilians.
He understood that the United Nations could not risk alienating the planet that supplied a full twenty percent of the galaxy's demand for the crystal which had become so necessary for all the Earth's technology, including the very space station he called home. He understood that the UN's agents were doing all they could to induce the Shivian government to admit to their presence, either alive or dead, and if alive, negotiate their release.
But his heart didn't understand any of it. All he knew was that two of his closest friends, friends who meant the world to him, had made a forced landing in Sri an Thanc one year ago, sent one garbled message to reassure the space station that they had survived the crash, and had promptly disappeared without a trace.
The possibilities were many and none of them pleasant. Robbed, stabbed, thrown in a river…kidnapped and sent to the mines… He shivered. Falling into the hands of the wrong company meant a short life of cruel slavery.
Kai bit his lip and jerked open the top drawer at his desk. He drew out a huge, old-fashioned notebook, as thick as his palm. Its hardback cover was a dark red, and one was able to lock it shut using a lock and key, which he kept hidden away. The front had a simple title in gold lettering. All My Boring Secrets because no one else cares. As always, he smiled.
Bloody Matt. He always did have a weird sense of humor. And on my eighteenth birthday, too. After Kai had finished belting his friend with enough force to make the younger boy laugh, he had sworn to use it for no such thing; instead, he would draw. True to his word, especially in the following years after his disappearance, rarely did a week go by when he didn't take the time to draw some simple cartoon to sum up what he'd been doing. No one knew about it, not even Jorgen and Ellery. They had become good friends over the past few years, but the diary was something special. It was something only the five of them knew about.
The five of them.
Kai flipped through it. Fast friends in those teenage days of junior high school, sports, exams, hanging out…those careless, fun days of performing as a garage band. Then their need to get away from the family nest and live independently, find employment. Something exciting, something different from the eight to four of the salary man.
And so, they'd had their pact to train at the space station together. How glamorous and kick ass it had seemed, way back then. That wild night as they all passed the entrance exam, even Shen who had lied about his age and had actually gotten away with it. Kai smiled as he ran a tender finger over the humorous comic; they'd all been pissed off their faces: Matt with his face mashed against some strange girl's cleavage, Shinya sprawled on the floor, himself hitting on to anyone he could grab. And oh god; the hangover the next day.
He skimmed the cartoons depicting the journey to the space station, over ten years ago. Their excitement, their horseplay in the space plane, the hilarious comic of their eyes popping out as they got their first glimpse of the size of the damned thing.
He flipped through it all with slow reverence, reliving those first four years of intensive training, getting used to the routine, taking classes, developing their own interests, their own specializations in their working world. The Military Reserve prided itself on being self-sufficient, and enjoyed the reputation of being the best place to go for all kinds of technological services, from Computer Programming and Sim production, Kai's specialty, to the latest in equipment for the cut-throat world of commerce, the design and production of all the most fashionable in consumer goods and specialty equipment for industry.
For any and every kind of technical need or problem, you could be guaranteed of finding at least one man who knew how to find it, fix it, or offer something better. The fact that this man could also pilot warships and kill you with his bare hands was almost incidental. Life on the military space station was sometimes exhilarating, sometimes boring, often frustrating and always as exhausting as hell, but through it all they were together. The five of them.
And then Gavan had disappeared and shattered their lives.
So they were four, then. Heartsick men who had leaned on each other for support and had got on with their lives because there was nothing else they could do. Throwing themselves into the work, getting a name for themselves as being the best in their field. And three years later, there had come the second tragedy of Matt and Shen's disappearance.
Then there'd been two. Two men who had drank together through those dark nights and held onto each other's friendship with fierce possession.
"DOWN IN ONE! DOWN IN ONE! DOWN IN ONE! YEEEAAHHH!"
Rory tilted his head back as far as it would go and gulped down the last of the golden liquid in one long swallow. He sighed, shut his eyes for a moment, then opened them again, raised the glass high with a satisfied yell and banged it back down on the table with a big grin as his friends cheered around him. He raised his arms on a war cry and slumped back down into his chair. He hit it through pure luck.
A party of six men surrounded him at a central table in the best bar on level ten; The Tenth Circle of Hell. A brunette attempted to thrust another mug into his hands with inebriated inaccuracy and gave a big, big smile.
"Why, thank you, Bazza," He edged the proffered mug in the right direction with the discretion of a true friend but let it sit. "So kind."
"Nnnnoooooworries…" The man promptly sank his head into his folded arms and appeared to fall asleep.
"Another one who couldn't keep it up." Rory shook his head, sad. His comment was directed to a blonde with a quirky face who shook his head and drained his glass.
"We've had a tiring day, man. Emergency call at fucking four thirty in the morning. There was trouble with one of the generators on level three today. A total bitch to fix. Took us five hours just to work out what the fuck was going on and another five to patch it up. Maybe another week to fix it properly. It totally sucks. Don't be a mechanic, man. It's a fucking ass-drag of a job."
"At least you got out of weapons training."
"But that's the best part of being in the military!" the blonde whined. "I hate having to miss afternoon training! I mean, yeah yeah, the regular work's important and it gives us a regular paycheck, but it's the training that kicks ass, right?"
"God, what kind of a half-assed response is that? You secretly like your work, don't you?" the man accused.
"Gimme a break, Stuie!"
"You do, don't you!"
Rory laughed and held up two mocking hands. "Guilty! Yes, I like my job! And I'm not ashamed! Hackers of the world, unscramble!"
Rory grinned, a big, cheerful grin that actually met his eyes. It was the first genuine grin his friend had seen all day. "Sure, general security is boring, but it gives me great opportunities to mess around with a bit of delicate hacking. You just don't know the thrill of cracking codes, man. It's so cool to work on something impossible to open and then get in! It's the best feeling in the world, that moment when the lock clicks open or the computer screen lights up with the forbidden. It's fucking awesome knowing I can go anywhere I want. You should try it sometime."
"Nah." Stuie grimaced. "I just don't have the brains for it. Sad, but true. I'll leave you to it."
"But if you hack into my room and steal my porn collection, you're dead."
"What? What would that cute redhead think? Oooh, blackmail material!"
Stuie stuck his tongue out. "August Cosmogirl in '76. Too bad."
"She said she likes a man with no brains. So you can hack, I'd rather fuck."
"Having brains enables me to enjoy both."
"Ha! When was the last time you got laid?" The blonde raised his brows and tilted his head. "Never used to take you for the hard working type. What happened?"
Rory raised his eyebrows but said nothing, merely taking a sip of the beer. Finally, he deigned to reply. "Nothing 'happened'. Just found something to interest me, that's all. It's not hard work when you like it."
"Yeah right," the blonde snorted. "I like being a mechanic but I still think it's fucking hard work." He shifted in his seat and flicked a peanut into his mouth, eyeing his friend with care. "Speaking of hard work, how's the race for the promotion going?" He noted the stiffening of Rory's shoulders and the wary, closed glint in the gray eyes with a touch of sadness.
"A long road, isn't it? You've been working towards it for almost a year now?"
"Yeah, the guy currently in the position won't retire for another year, and the candidates have to show they've acquired certain qualifications first. The board has had it all planned out for years. Seems excessive if you ask me."
Stuie stared down at the empty mug in his hands, shifting it back and forth as he considered his words. Rory was a friend, but even he didn't like to see the man explode. "Kinda surprised when you said you were going to run for the promotion too. Well, I can understand Kai wanting it, I mean, let's face it, underneath those cheekbones and cool attitude, he's a geek. Not that there's anything wrong with that…"
Rory couldn't help smiling at the gentle pity in his friend's voice. "There but for the grace of god go I…" he teased.
The joke was lost on his friend who nodded absently. "But you…you always used to say how much you liked living here and how you loved your job and all…how climbing the military ladder was nothing more than a climb to a word processor and a fat ass…so why…?"
Rory feigned an attack of obtuseness. He absorbed himself in picking the bar's drink coaster into little pieces.
"Just doesn't seem like your kind of thing, the promotion…" Stuie prodded.
The blonde hesitated for a long time, then shrugged. "Yeah, man…things change." He flashed a half-grin. "Brilliant match today, by the way. That roundhouse kick was a killer."
"Kai's getting better all the time, but, isn't he? You're going to have to watch it, huh?"
He wondered what had happened between them. Was it about the promotion? Or something else? Whatever it was, neither of them seemed willing to let the rest of the world in on the secret. Instead, they marched around like starched cats. "Do you think you'll win the promotion?"
"Fuck yeah I'll win!" Rory exploded. "There's no way I'd let him win! He can kiss it goodbye right now. He may as well have kissed it goodbye right from the start."
"You sound like you hate the man!"
"Ro…Damn it I just don't believe that! I know we don't talk about it, but…god, man. You used to be so close. Closer than brothers. After Matt and Shen disappeared, you were each other's entire world. Why…?"
Stuie took one look at Rory's expression and raised his eyebrows on a sigh. "Yeah…I guess so."
"Anyway…got a lot to get done tomorrow. I'll call it a night." Rory rose from the table and slapped Stuie's shoulder. "Thanks for shouting."
"No problem. Your turn next time."
Rory laughed. "Sure thing."
And then he sauntered out the door. Stuie watched him go and ordered another beer in a morose tone. It seemed like a good night for a few more drinks.
Kai perked as a familiar melody permeated his room. That was quick. He dropped his pencil, moved over to the dumbwaiter and snuck a guilty glance in the general direction of Ellery's apartment.
Of course he knew it was stupid to ease the door open and hide the beer in the crook of his arm, but he just knew Ellery had mutated over the years with psychic powers. He sat back down, cracked the lid, and took a long slug. Aaaahhhh…
A sudden burst of guitar music made him jerk and choke. He coughed violently, causing his lip to ache, and turned to his laptop to read the new email message.
psychomouse16Hj. a profound sense of fatalism, Kai opened the mail.
I TOLD YOU NOT TO DRINK BEER! SHAME ON YOU, YOU INGRATE!
Kai laughed as he typed back a response. You are so fucking creepy. How did you know? He sent the message out, shook his head, and picked up his pencil once more. He was just about to hit the pen to paper when the guitar music sounded again.
You'll never know. Flames out, Jorgen still pissed but willing to forgive out of the generosity of his heart, also because he wants you to build a Sim of Tanika Talle for him. He has a crush.
Kai grinned. Once he'd sent a suitable reply, he continued on with his nightly comic. He drew the fight with as much humor as he could dredge up, depicting a huge grinning Rory-monster with one massive foot on a little Kai with crossed eyes and tongue hanging out. He brought the comic to colorful life with colored ink pens, dated it, locked it, leaned back in his chair and sipped the beer.
And so ends another day in the life of our superhero, Kai Corbett. Watch as our meek computer geek stands up for justice and magically transforms into a week-dead cat! Stay tuned for the next exciting episode, as our intrepid hero has his head flushed down the toilet by the Evil Rory-monster as he laughs maniacally at him.
He sighed, drained the last of his beer, and slammed the glass down. On impulse, he reached for a blank sheet of paper and drew a different comic. He took his time over it, letting his hands of the past take over the hands of the present and draw him an old, bittersweet scenario. A young Kai, in jeans with the bad-ass chain hooked on the side, black t-shirt, dyed hair and an outlawed cigarette dangling from his fingers, curled up on a couch in his parent's house, laughing, wrestling with a young Rory who was trying to snitch the precious cancer stick.
We were so happy then. There was nothing more important to me than our friendship. Staring at the comic wouldn't force it into reality, no matter how intense his gaze. His lip twisted up as he grabbed his pen and crossed the drawing out with a ferocity so hard the paper tore.
I'll never forgive you.