Kai spent the next two hours in the medical wing, nursing his beloved through his ordeal. Stuie, of course, milked the opportunity for all it was worth, raising plaintive eyes to Marguerite, pretending to suffer bravely, receiving plenty of kisses and cuddles, and fully believing he was being sneaky.
Kai pitied him.
Rory, on the other hand, deeply immersed in the antiseptic bath and pissed off about it, made no attempt to pretend to be 'brave' and made such an almighty fuss he couldn't stand it anymore. "Oh come on, Rory," he cried. "It's not that bad."
The brunette glared at him as a nurse removed the thermometer from his mouth, wrote on his chart, and left. "Not that bad? Why don't you rub steel wool over your entire body and then you sit down in this."
From the plentiful cursing coming from adjoining rooms, the rest of the squad agreed. The nurses, he noted, looked alternately amused, condescending and exasperated. The unfair part of it, Kai considered, was that after dealing with his beloved for ten minutes, the nurse assigned to him had blatantly abandoned her wayward charge except when it was necessary to interact with him and left him to deal with all the sulks and petulance Rory was capable of.
Whenever he asked questions about what they'd discovered, he received nothing more than a reluctant grunt. He knew the guy too well to mistake his desire to forget about it for a while. Which was disquieting. They'd discovered something, and it wasn't good. Which made him even more impatient with curiosity, made him unwise enough to issue some threats, and was punished with more bad-tempered grunting.
It dawned on him that Marguerite was being a lot smarter than he was; he changed tacks and became solicitous and caring through the various blood tests, urine tests, eye tests and sundry examinations, which served him better. By the time they were seated in the Tenth Circle with the rest of the crowd and had their first beers in front of them, Rory was practically purring.
"Aaahhh…" he sighed. He put the mug down.
"Well?" Matt repeated.
The brunette glanced around, which made Kai, sitting beside him, also glance around. All of them; himself and Rory, Shen and Matt with Xiang and Vida beside them, Jaime and Gavan, plus Katherine, Ro-Sim, Jorgen and Ellery sat in the quietest corner of their favourite bar. At the next table, Stuie sat centre stage with Marguerite, Gazza, Jerry, and other buddies listening to his loud and inebriated boasting.
"Well, as you know, we first went to Shivia to coordinate with the Shivian government's people. From what the captain let drop, he didn't even need to threaten to make our knowledge public; they were more than willing to go in when they heard there were Shivian slaves. Apparently there's an election coming up, plus a lot of the families whose loved ones had disappeared over recent years were starting to get more vocal. Plus they need to stay on the Courageous's good side since the Crystal deal." Rory smiled a bit. "I think the lot we talked to were even motivated by a desire to free the unjustly imprisoned. Amazing, huh?"
"You've shocked me," Gavan muttered. Jaime nodded.
"In any case, they didn't have to send in as many men since we were there, so they bent backwards helping us." Rory took a swig of beer then sighed. "Okay, so we get given a map of the area, a good map of the compound – that place was huge, by the way - we make plans, and we go in. The fighting itself only took a week or so. I think the escapes engineered by our intrepid lot," he grinned fondly at the four of them, who all smiled somewhat sheepishly, "put them on their guard, because by the time we got there, they were ready for us. At a guess I'd say Five thousand all armed."
Kai gasped. Everyone was surprised.
"Five thousand Thirconites all armed?" Matt cried. "You're kidding? I thought it was a private company?"
"Well it was in a way, it's just more complicated than we originally thought." Rory shifted. "I'll explain in a minute. Still," he continued, "they were hopelessly outnumbered and trapped, so they crumbled in the end. The biggest problem we had was finding living Thirconites to question; most of the rabid fanatics committed suicide rather than be taken in for questioning."
Kai raised his brows. "Fanatics?"
"Yeah. That's the thing. It turns out it was a private company, just like we thought, but more than that. At least, Shen and Matt were the victims of a private business out for profit; a sweat shop pure and simple, but god only knows how it happened, but from what our Shivian allies explained afterwards, they shared the compound with a extremist religious group; they're the ones who were experimenting on the DEHV virus, and kept slaves as 'assistants' just like we thought. He turned to Gavan. "So you were right; your purpose was as cheap labour in their DEHV experiments.
They either struck a deal with the sweatshop owners or threatened them, we couldn't tell which, into helping them out by supplying unwitting 'participants'. We found this out from those who survived; most of those still living were the ones not motivated to suicide; the scientists and those Thirconites working for the sweatshop owners. Which was great because they were the ones who could tell us what was going on. Most of the scientists working for the religious fanatics were there pretty reluctantly, apparently, the usual story; their families threatened unless they cooperated, you know the deal."
He turned back to Gavan and Jaime. "Those religious fanatics were a pretty mean bunch. I'm a bit shaky on the details, but they considered all foreigners to be vermin, plus they were extremely paranoid. From what the scientists told us, they kept you all isolated from each other in order to keep you docile and unable to unable to band together to rebel, plus in the event of something going wrong or one of you escaping, as you did, with each slave having different duties, you wouldn't be able to piece the whole story together and provide any useful information against them."
Gavan managed a bitter little sneer while Jaime flopped back on his chair. "Well I figured it must have been something like that." He shook himself. "But it doesn't make sense."
Matt slammed his beer down. "He's right! Why all the secrecy? So they're trying to find a cure for DEHV, why hide it from their slaves like that? Why all the illegal subterfuge?"
"Well I guess they just wanted easy victims to experiment on," Kai offered. "I'd imagine even in Thircon, using live slaves as experimental subjects would be frowned upon, right? There's all those ethics committees to clear shit with, all the rules and safeguards…Supposing the government found out, they'd be a massive crack-down on their ethics and they'd lose their chance to make a hell of a lot of money, right?"
Rory shook his head. "Not even close."
Kai's jaw dropped. "…What?"
"We were wrong, Kai." Rory turned to him. "They weren't trying to find a cure for DEHV at all."
Everyone stared at him. Kai was left with nothing to say. "But…but you've just told us they were trying to find a cure for DEHV!"
"No, K.C." Rory 's voice was sick. "I told you they were experimenting with DEHV."
They all stared at him. Only Katherine and Ro-Sim seemed to understand; their expressions grew distressed.
"Please explain," Xiang asked in her soft voice.
"They weren't trying to cure the DEHV, they were trying to accelerate it."
"Biological warfare, Kai. They're a proud, deeply religious race that's been under the Shivia yolk for ten years. The group who ran the compound were an extremist militant group; a radical off-shoot of the political left. They've been trying to make the virus more virulent and faster acting."
Kai sank down in the chair. Sick, numb disbelief washed over him. "Oh my god…" Then he remembered what the virus did to its victims and a wave of nausea surged up in his belly in one sickening lurch. "Oh god makes me wanna puke." From the looks on his companions' faces, they agreed. For a long time, they were silent. It seemed almost sacrilegious to talk.
"The ultimate revenge," Katherine finally murmured. "In their eyes, watching their Shivian oppressors dying diseased and unclean must have seemed a fitting fate. And the Thirconite government?"
Rory shrugged. "Naturally denied any knowledge of the group and denounced them. Which could be true, those in charge would need to be pretty damn sure it was going to work before turning a blind eye. And of course the poor average sod in the street wouldn't condone it. I gather that however proud and resentful of the Shivians they may be, most of them do have a sense of honour about fair fighting and so on."
"I believe it is so," Katherine concurred.
"And how were they going? In developing the uh… the virus," Jaime asked. Kai couldn't stop a small smile; despite the subdued tone, there was a certain amount of professional interest there, even Gavan perked.
Rory shrugged. "Well the Shivians are still going through the data, but assuming the Thirconite scientists weren't lying, they hadn't got far in inducing virulency in their victims, but once they induced it, they'd been making some progress in speeding up the process of tissue degeneration."
"Not exactly what they were after, was it?" Jaime murmured, his gaze distant. "I mean, it doesn't really matter how fast it kills them, since they'll die eventually anyway. Inducing virulency was what they needed."
"My heart bleeds," Gavan muttered.
"And how were they planning on getting the virus out into the Shivian population anyway?" Xiang asked. "Shen told me they're very careful about it."
"Through their local food products, I was told. Apart from producing silks, apparently they have a large plantation of some kind that produces some kind of drink?"
"…Sap!" Shen broke in. "That's what we called it, anyway. They used to give it to us every day. Very healthy, I think. It wasn't half bad."
"Yeah, well apparently they ship it out in bulk to the Shivian mainland. Induce virulency, send the contaminated drinks out to few strategic places, those who consumed the drinks spreading the virus to their families and friends…"
"But wouldn't they test products that come from Thircon anyway?" Matt asked. "You'd think the Shivians would expect something like that."
"No idea." Rory shrugged. "You could ask the captain when he comes back. We only stayed to get the general idea of what was up; the captain wanted us home ASAP to safeguard our copy of the data."
Another silence fell while they pondered what they'd been told. Finally Katherine sat up and assumed a brighter air. "Well, they didn't succeed, which is something to be thankful for. And certain good things have come out of this. Those unjustly imprisoned are now reunited with their families, a potential cure is under way," she nodded to Matt and Shen, "and the Shivian government is now alert to the danger and hopefully such a scenario will not be repeated."
"Of course it will be," Gavan grunted. "It's always the same old crap, just the name of the place and planet change. People never learn from their mistakes."
She gave him a hard stare. "Optimists do, pessimists don't." Once she was assured the man was suitably abashed, she continued, "I think we've discussed this long enough, it's time to forget about it and be grateful for our blessings."
"Yes mum," he mocked.
"You're skating on very thin ice," Kai warned, sotto voice. "I'd be careful if I were you, you didn't see what she did to the stereo system in MacIntyre's place."
"Yes that will do, Kai," she replied tartly. She signalled a waiter. "Well, work out what you want to order."
All meekly complied.
Matt tucked his towel firmly around his waist and flopped down on his sofa. "Ah, it feels so good to be back in my own room."
Shen watched his friend take in the bright blue and red walls and black and white chequered tiled floor with every sign of satisfaction and eyed the bronzed statue of a naked female warrior. "…Whatever you say." He felt a hand on his shoulder; before he could react he fell back onto the sofa next to his friend. The blonde offered a self-mocking smile and ruffled his hair.
"Funny, but we haven't been alone together since we got back. Kinda missed ya."
He chuckled. "It's been a bit of a madhouse."
"I'm amazed you managed to prise Xiang off you..." A melodious call interrupted. Shen sprang up.
"I'll get it." He retrieved two mugs of steaming coffee from the dumbwaiter and placed them on the coffee table with his usual care before sitting again. Yes," he continued, "it took a bit of negotiation to get her okay with the idea of being out of her sight."
"Shades of things to come?" the blonde asked slyly.
Shen just smiled and shook his head. "She'll ease up once she realizes I won't disappear again."
They were silent for a moment. Then his friend took a sip of coffee and stretched. The air was pregnant with intent; he expected something heavy from the man. But Matt merely said,
"Oh, I almost forgot to tell you. The captain found our furry friend. Wharum Mwrah or whatever."
Shen perked up. "Oh good! So he's okay?"
"Yeah, he's fine, still with his, um, pack. They're all heading back to their own planet – some place called Kawrheem Wuraha in Volpa – um, not sure of that pronounciation but yeah - it's near Vyatna - they've had enough of Sri an Thanc, apparently."
"Not surprising. Didn't Wharum Myrawh have any message for you?" he teased.
Matt turned a bit red. "Yeah, apparently he demanded that the captain explain why I was so hostile to his romantic overtures. The captain explained the difference between human and Volpian mating rituals, which he apparently found ridiculous, but he offered his apologies for the misunderstanding. He wound up by giving his fondest regards while his family laughed at him and told him that it would never have worked anyway."
"Yeah, yeah, ha ha and all that." Matt folded his arms. "Anyway, how are your plans going? For the huge bookstore and wedding and stuff."
He shrugged. We figured we'd have the wedding on Vyatna; you know, The Light of the Six Sisters, remember?"
Matt stared at him with dawning wonder. "Yeah, I remember. Back there, when we were sneaking out at night to the temple. We were going to go there if we ever escaped."
"Well, I decided we'd have the marriage and honeymoon there, around July, then set up our bookstore business somewhere."
"Neat. Am I invited?"
"Of course. Everyone's invited. To the ceremony anyway, not the honeymoon."
"Ha ha. So you haven't decided where to settle yet, then?"
"Not for certain. But Xiang wants to do it on Chiopagne because she thinks there's a good niche market for Earthian culture there, plus Jaime recommended it. And you?"
"Well, Vida's invited me to go visit Mars and stay with the family sometime, but for now…" he trailed away. "Rory just told me he got promoted; did you know about that?"
Shen sipped his coffee. "Yeah, he let me know."
"Well, he's taken a position on GOFPOL and suggested I be his personal assistant."
He glanced over. "…Oh. On Hesperone?"
"I said I'd take it. It'll mean studying politics and economics and shit at the university part time, but I can deal. I never did think I'd be in the Courageous's graphic design company forever; I hated having to follow Carter's ideas, he sucked. We're planning on starting out low and moving up the ranks." He laughed a little. "Who knows? Twenty years time, we might be prez and vice."
A moment of disquiet hit him. Before their ordeal, of the five of them Matt had always been the one he was closest to in spite of their different personalities, and during the ordeal they'd only grown closer still. It felt strange, almost wrong, to break apart so suddenly. He felt strangely bereft.
He shook his head. It took only a day's travel to get to Hesperone from Chiopagne, and there was always Phonecall; not like he'd never see the man again! "Well, you've already got a head start on the vice," he deadpanned.
The blonde threw back his head and laughed. "You bet!" There was a short pause, the heavy atmosphere returned, and he sensed the man was ready to get to the point. "…And are you sleeping okay?"
Yes, overly casual. His smile turned a little rueful. "…Not the greatest, actually. I usually take Sleepeze"
The blonde let out a big, relieved sigh. "Me too. Thank god it's not just me. I keep having nightmares, they wake me up and then I can't get back to sleep, and if you ever tell anyone this I'll kill you, but I hate being alone." He let out an embarrassed noise as he squirmed on the seat. "It makes me feel all edgy and weird, okay?" he muttered.
"Safety in a crowd?"
Matt flashed him that embarrassed face and nodded. "Something like that."
"I think if Xiang wasn't with me, I'd feel the same." He attempted a teasing tone. "No Vida?"
The blonde let out a laugh around his coffee mug. "Not yet. I'm planning a slow and careful siege."
"Well, what do you know? It took a year's imprisonment to do it, but you've finally worked out what patience and careful planning means."
This brought out another loud laugh. "Fuck me, you're right." They were silent for a while longer. Matt nursed his mug and stared down at the lingering steam. "…Do you think we'll get over it?"
Shen paused and took his time to really think about it. "Yes. We've got great family and great friends. They won't let us angst over it. And we're tough."
"Yes!" The blonde raised his mug in a salute. "Tough!"
"So we'll be okay."
Matt smiled, ruffled his hair again and planted a chaste kiss on his forehead. "That's alright, then."
The sky was a soft sweep of colour, the setting sun sending a myriad of soft oranges, pinks and reds to highlight fluffy clouds and merge with the dark blue of twilight. The last flickering rays spilt sparkles over the dark green sea; wave after wave pounded the shore. To the right, the beach swept a graceful arch to peak at a high cliff, to the left, it trailed away as far as the eye could see, shimmering, soft folds of sand. Gavan and Jaime sat on a sandy dune, alone, the warm summer breeze ruffling their hair, teasing at clothes.
"It's a beautiful sunset."
Gavan shifted closer into his lover's embrace. "It's nice to be alone here with you."
"Yeah." Jaime placed gentle kisses on his forehead, cheeks, nose and lips. "Funny. I thought if I ever got out, I'd spend the first year finding the most crowded places I could and absolutely drench myself with people, but…I don't want to after all. I don't mind small groups, but somehow being in the middle of a crowded elevator or shop…it's intimidating. I feel almost scared. Well, not really scared, just uncomfortable and edgy. I mean, me, scared! It's unnatural!"
"Me too. Everything still feels so weird. Like I'm standing in the middle of the morning rush, and I feel like I'm not really there. Strange."
"Well, I was kind of tossing a few feelings over to Dr Yuhtz this morning, and she said it's normal. She said something about us growing so used to being caged that we've come to depend on it and we feel uncomfortable without it. But she said we'd slowly get used to things again."
"Yeah, yeah. I know. Oh god!" Gavan raised fists into the air. "I can't believe this! We're here! Here! On the Courageous! We're not there. No more back breaking work, no more alarms, no more chains and blindfolds…we can do whatever we want; sleep in, go to movies, read a book, talk and laugh and scream, and best of all, we never have to eat that slush ever, ever again!"
They both burst out into insane laughter.
"Still…we really should have taken it easy, the first night."
"Yeah, never been so sick in my life and having my stomach pumped wasn't exactly fun."
"…Your friends are cool."
Jaime flushed. "…Okay, so I'm getting over it."
"You are way too possessive. Besides, Kai's with Rory, you know that." After a pause, Gavan planted a kiss on his lover's lips. "And I'm with you."
"Sweetie," Jaime purred.
Gavan let a smile brush over his lips and settled against his lover in deep content. His feelings on meeting his friends were to exquisite to be put into words. The shock of their dramatic appearance, the disbelief as they were herded onto the plane, the pain of daring to hope that they'd made it when they reached the Courageous, seeing his family again. He shivered in pleasure.
"It's all so wonderful. I called Riope and Mickael and Mel, you know. Mikael and Mel are married now, working in Scandinavia on your planet Earth. Riope's hitched too, back on her home planet. They're going to meet us on Mars when we go visit. Did I tell you? I can't wait to tease them properly about it!"
He smiled a little. "No you didn't. Oh well, that's nice I guess."
They were both silent for a while.
"…So, what now?"
He shrugged. "Dunno. What do you want to do?"
Jaime also shrugged. "Well, I'm rich. When I first disappeared, dad set aside some shares and a lump sum for me in the event that I reappeared, and the family accountant went to work on it. The idea was if I never did show up, they'd eventually use it to start some kind of charity for those who's loved ones disappeared." He grinned wolfishly. "Well, too bad, I did make it back so it's mine, all mine!"
Gavan laughed. "How much is it?"
"Oh, only five billion credits. Nothing much."
A numbing wave of shock splashed over him. "What?" Jaime made for a calm shrug, but he didn't doubt for a second that his lover had been looking forward to flinging that at him. "You…you bastard! You can't just toss that on someone's lap without warning!" The man simply laughed and sank back onto the sand, resting his head in his hands. A big grin washed over his face. He liked to think he was above a petty grab for credits, but he couldn't deny it gave one a pleasant tingle. Sure beat having to scrape for every cent. "So what? We can do whatever we like?"
"Basically. I wouldn't mind going back to Chiopagne. I still want to start my own label."
He thought it over. He'd never been to Chiopagne, but he'd seen pictures, of course, been taught all the basics in high school. Rather European in its architecture and lifestyle, with an emphasis on self-expression and drama. Cosmopolitan, chic, arty, extravagant. Jaime all over. "…I hope you don't expect me to be like that," he warned.
"All daaahling and lah-di-dah."
Jaime laughed. "Honey, there is only room for one eccentric drama queen in any household, and I snatched that honour before I was even born. Just be your darling, dour self."
"Great. Because I don't want you dragging me down red carpets and expecting me to do all that social stuff with a bunch of tedious snots when you become famous."
His lover grinned. "Oh, don't worry, I can do your share for you."
"For my sake. Ow!" Jaime snickered, then calmed down. "My strengths lie in innovative design and haut couture. I'm good at it. I can be successful at it. But…after everything that's happened, the rich and privileged just seem so…so worthless and somehow…a massive insult to those less fortunate. I don't need the money – I want to channel it into setting up community aid programs in poor places and stuff. You know; encouraging fair trade and clinics and self-reliance and stuff."
He shrugged. "Sounds good to me."
"But what do you think? Do you even want to live in Chiopagne? Because I can easily set up shop somewhere else."
Again he shrugged helplessly. "I just don't know, Jaime. I spent so much time back there trying so desperately hard not to agonize after life outside of prison, I didn't imagine what I'd do with my life if I ever got out."
His lover nudged him. "Well, you are out and it's safe to think of your future. Remember, money's no object, as long as you're doing something you'd enjoy. So think now."
He huffed in exasperation and stared out at the sea. What do I want to do? He thought about all his childish enthusiasms that he'd changed as often as his clothes. He thought back to his teenage years and the secret fascination he'd had in law dramas on TV before his awkward rebellious stage and subsequent bad grades had wiped any hope of that out.
Then the chance to work on the Courageous had come along, and he hadn't thought of those old fantasies of him righting wrongs in a court anymore. After all, everyone knew that justice was a load of crap, and the past few years hadn't made him any more optimistic… "Actually, I wouldn't mind going back to school," he muttered gruffly. "Repeat senior high, I mean, and then do a degree. Lift up my lazy arse and study this time."
Jaime gave him an enthusiastic nudge. "Great! As long as you're happy. So, study what?"
Jaime let his grin slide wider. "You'll never make it, you're too honest."
He laughed and growled and punched him. "Says you. I'll make it because I'm a mean motherfucker who won't give up."
"You really have a hard on for that place, don't you?" he snickered. "Wherever, I don't care."
"Bastard! I just happen to have fond memories of Hediosya, that's all. It's a great city. Cultural and quirky and clean, and not too snobby. Lots of weird cafes and bookstores and stuff. You'll love it."
They were silent for a while. Despite himself, enthusiasm bubbled in his belly the longer he thought about it. A new place, a new start, he'd study hard this time and make a career of slamming assholes into the ground. There could be nothing more satisfying. And if they were rich, and they certainly seemed to be, he could afford to represent the poor bastards who really deserved it. He'd go from planet to planet, from country to country, righting wrongs like he'd always wanted to.
Scratch that, he'd buy a state of the art, two-square-meter wall monitor, hook it up to Phonecall, and take most of his meetings at home, in some office he'd have especially made for it. It was perfectly acceptable, and done more often than not. The less space travel he had to do, the better.
"Remember? Remember how we used to fantasize about this?"
A big, satisfied smile washed over his face. "Oh yes. And now it's true. I just can't believe it. It doesn't seem real…" He waved a hand around. "It's kind of strange. Back there, I used to have all those nightmares about being on the Courageous and free, it used to torture me. And now I am here on the Courageous, and I'm having constant nightmares about being back there."
"Yes. You, me, Matt and Shen should start a Sleepeze Addicts Club."
He kissed his lover, long and languid. "A small price to pay for being here with you."
"Speaking of being here with you…" Jaime stroked his hand through his hair and pulled him closer. "Let's go make love in that soft, warm, cozy bed of yours. We can have a rousing, delicious fight to see who ends up the Dom. Maybe I'll even let you win," he taunted.
It brought about the desired response. Gavan's eyes flashed ominously. "Yes, lets." He grabbed the remote and pressed the red button, and all the coastal beauty disappeared, revealing Kai's simulator room. "Get ready to run."
But Jaime was already heading to the door, laughing. "Try and catch me!"
"What are you doing, K.C.?"
Kai jerked as Rory mooched into his room unannounced. He put the lid back on his pen and sent his lover an accusing look. "Didn't hear you come in!"
"Ah, but then, what's the point in being such a brilliant hacker if I can't snoop?" He winked. "Damn, I was hoping to catch you jerking off."
"Tough luck, missed it by five minutes."
Rory made an exaggerated disappointed face. "Shit. So what are you doing anyway?"
"Just updating my diary." He shut it. "Matt's been nagging to see it so he can catch up on what's been happening in my life while he's been away."
His lover fell back onto the plush leather sofa with a bounce. "Are you going to give it to him?"
He snorted. "Are you kidding? No way. But it did remind me that I hadn't updated for a while."
"Well, let me see."
Kai hesitated until Rory's expression changed and he got out of the sofa and strolled over with his hand out. He sighed and handed it over. "Here."
Rory grabbed and opened it, flipping past the entries he'd already seen until he came to the last few. He soon started laughing; he figured the man was looking at his depiction of Gavan and Jaime being being chased around twenty-four seven by herds of family members, although the man soon shot him an accusing look.
"Excuse me I resent this!" He offered the comic of himself flailing around in the antigel bath, his face silently wailing. "I wasn't that bad."
"Oh yes you were."
"Screw you." The man shot him a grumbling look which soon turned back to a grin as he perused the rest of the entries. When he got to the last, his expression faded. "Wow, look at that; me winning the promotion. Fast work."
"Well, it is the event of note."
Rory stared at him over the diary, brow raised. "I think the hordes of "fans" worshiping me might be a bit much. I mean, I think about ten thousand would cover it okay."
He offered a bland smile. "What, a paltry ten thousand?"
"Well, there's Matt and ShenShen, Gavan and Jaime…I don't see you in the crowd."
Kai shifted his chair back and put his feet up on his desk. "I'm there, just can't see me amongst the adoring hordes, that's all. Part of the joke."
He felt Rory come up behind him and lay his hands on his shoulders. The hands started to massage.
"Part of the joke, right. Stupid me."
"…I never got to say it before, but congratulations. So when's the real acceptance ceremony?"
"Tomorrow. I elected to take up the position in Gofpol in Hesperone." Rory gave an embarrassed smile. "Ironic, isn't it? Here I was absolutely furious with you for sailing off to Hesperone without me, and now I'm the one who's voluntarily going." He offered a diffident grin. "I'm hoping to dig up more dirt on that Yi V Yi Whatever guy before anonymously 'exposing' him. Job starts next month, got a great pay rise."
"Lucky you. You'd better buy me a nice birthday present this year. I hope the promotion won't make you even more arrogant than you are already."
Rory noted the forced sunny, unconcerned, joking note in his lover's voice and stifled a sigh. Kai was jealous because he won the promotion. And he knew Kai was angry at himself for being jealous. He didn't want it to come between them, not after everything that happened. "Hey, what can I say? The better man won."
This had Kai exploding out of his chair, his fists pummelling Rory's chest. "Fuck you! Shut up! Shut up! So you got the fucking promotion, so what? It was just luck! Because I had a broken leg and I couldn't be a hero like you, damn you! It's not fair!"
Rory grinned and grabbed his lover's wrists, effectively stilling the tornado, then gave him a brief, firm kiss. Kai's expression was a mixture of resentment, fury and embarrassment at his own behaviour.
Kai's face was red with shame, but he snickered. "Yeah. Damn you."
"Hey, you gotta let it out, right? It's natural."
"Goddamn it Rory, you're starting to talk like Dr. Yhutz. Keep it up and you'll soon be unbearable."
Rory blessed this acid comment with a big grin, picked Kai up by the waist and carried him over to the plush leather sofa, and they both sank down. Kai was always the most sarcastic when he was ashamed of himself. When the man spoke again, his voice was more open, honest and teasing.
"You don't have the iron for the promotion though, you're too soft."
"What?" Rory lifted Kai's shirt off, then his own, and dumped them on the floor. He pointed to his chest with both thumbs, his chin up proudly. "This body is made of steel!"
Kai grinned as he poked at Rory's groin. "I dunno…seems kind of soft to me."
Rory growled and undid the buttons to his jeans, letting them pool around his knees, then straddled Kai's body, shoved his underwear down and rubbed his sex over Kai's mouth in suggestive little circles. "Well, if you want to forge steel…" Rory smiled at the bemused, aroused sleepiness in his lover's eyes, then gasped as a wet tongue slicked his length. "…You have to make the fire blaze up large and red and hot."
The bemused, aroused sleepiness intensified on Kai's face as his own saliva was rubbed over his mouth. "And how do I do that?"
Rory leaned down until his husky purr sounded in Kai's ear. "By blowing on it."
Later, much later, Kai sighed and flopped down next to his lover on the sofa. They both stared up at the ceiling.
"So your new job starts next month."
Rory shot him a look. Yeah. It's pretty minor, but there's plenty of opportunity for promotion. Oh, I asked Matt if he wanted to be my assistant. He seemed keen."
Kai grabbed a half finished bottle of soda and took a long slug. "Oh? Good. It's hard to imagine Mr Sonicball getting all serious on us, though."
"Isn't it?" Rory laughed. "He's even going to take night classes; suggested it himself! I'm glad, though, it'll be good to have someone I trust by my side."
He murmured something suitable as his mind worked overtime making plans. He'd send in his resignation tomorrow, toss the project for the Galactic Feds onto Katherine to sort out, and start looking around Hesperone for suitable digs. "Which city?" he asked.
"Um…the capital. Forúche."
"Ah." A nice, big, sprawling office with living quarters upstairs…a neat garden with plenty of seats for people to sit on while they read brochures… I'll get in touch with S'ion and SimWorks and let him know I want to keep them on as my suppliers, and maybe I can convince...
"…and I'll let you deal with house hunting, okay?"
He jerked back to attention. "What?"
"House hunting," Rory repeated patiently. "Makes no diff to me, but I figured you'd want something for your office; we can live upstairs or something."
Kai put his mental thoughts on pause just long enough to grin and place a fond hand on his lover's shoulder. "Our thoughts commune. You rock."
A big, bashful grin washed over Rory's face. "Well, you know, I know you're going to want to throw yourself into making this perfect office so since you're going to be doing that anyway, you can deal with our private quarters, too, right? I mean I really couldn't give a toss about furniture and crap, and I get a company coaster…as long as we're near the beach, that's all I ask. Is that too out of the way?"
"Nah, it fine. Most of my business will be by Internet anyway. But I just want a good office. I've been planning it for months." He sighed. "But next month? It'll be a hell of a rush."
"That's three weeks. It isn't like you need to give them time to replace you; Akira's there now, and you can find a good place in that time. You might want to find something close by for Matt, too, since you're looking anyway. But not too close," he added with a grin."
"Yeah I guess. I'll get Katherine to help, she knows people there, and they might be able to suggest a few good places in our price bracket. Now that the captain's back, she might spare us a few moments of her precious time."
"Cool. How's Ro-Sim?"
Kai's lips curled up. "Ecstatically happy. Did you know he didn't even tell the guy he was coming? I assumed it had all been prearranged, but, as he explained later, he wanted it to be a surprise because he found surprise interesting and wanted to see how Marcus would react."
Rory convulsed with laughter. "Poor bastard."
"Quite. He called me yesterday. After duly taking in the man's surprise, and telling me with a perfectly serious face that it wasn't as expressive as he was expecting – Marcus apparently being too stunned to do anything but stare for a good ten minutes - he dumped his bags in the hallway and happily informed the man he was moving in. He then proceeded to unpack his bags and sort things out to his own satisfaction. I gather that Marcus soon appreciated the realities of the situation – that he had no control of it at all – and meekly agreed with everything Ro-Sim suggested." He watched his lover helpless with mirth and his own grin widened. "He's having the time of his life sightseeing and 'taking care of' Marcus. I get the feeling the man is a still a little shell-shocked but I'd imagine he's enjoying it. Ro-Sim is so very good at taking care of one."
"Oh yeah," Rory grinned. Kai shot him a wry look which had him grinning defensively. "Hey, I couldn't help it! It just seemed to…well, happen and somehow I felt like I was rejecting him if I didn't, and…well…"
He laughed. "Oh, I know. In some ways he's so blissfully naïve, and in other ways so sneaky. And it seems I programmed him to have the morals of your average rabbit. Just don't tell me about it." His thoughts drifted back to his plans for Simply Sims and he sighed. "I really wanted that MLASC," he mourned. "I so, so, so wanted it, but the captain said they were Galactic Fed property…" His voice was saturated with a mix of yearning and pique. "Damn Feds. How come they get the best stuff? They hardly ever do anything."
Rory let out a big, long laugh. "Come to my room."
Kai sat up and glanced down at him. "…What?" Rory jumped up and grabbed his arm.
"Come on! My room."
The man dragged him along without giving him time to protest. "What's up?"
Kai hissed in exasperation as he was led down the corridor. "What?"
"Wait," Rory replied.
No matter how much he cajoled, pleaded, bribed or threatened, he couldn't induce anything but an infuriating smug smile. By the time they reached Rory's room, he was ready to throw another tantrum. Rory unlocked his door, and he followed his lover into the main room.
"This had better be good…" His jaw dropped as Rory swept his arm out on a big grin.
The MLASC in all its glory sat enthroned on the coffee table.
"Rory?" he breathed.
The brunette's smug smile returned. "During wind-up talks with the captain after he came back, he let slip that the Feds would be coming in mid-next month to pick up our Sim prototype and pack up the equipment. I knew you'd bawl if they took your baby away, so I broke in last night with Ellery and Jorgen and snuck it in here. By the time the Feds get here we'll be on Hesperone with your darling MLASC."
He sucked in a breath and let it out. "El and Jorgen are in on this? But won't the Feds know we stole it?"
Rory grinned. "It's their going-away present to you. According to El, there's going to be a so unfortunate freak accident with the faucet in the office. Such a pity, but the whole room will be a complete write- off and they will be forced to chuck everything out. No help for it, so sorry."
Kai laughed. "I hope the Feds are insured!"
"Who cares? Katherine assured us that we're insured against being sued for recovery, and that's all that matters."
"She's in on this too?" A warm balm touched his heart. "Nice."
"Anything for her darling Maker." Rory mocked. "It's unhealthy, the way they worship you. I still think you do it deliberately."
Kai leaned against the wall with a grin. He had Matt, Shen, and Gavan back. Shen was getting married, Matt discovering a life beyond sports and a girl to match him, Gavan and Jaime off to glorious splendour on Chiopagne, a mere two day's journey away from them. He and Rory were finally together again. And they were off to Hesperone, the most beautiful planet in the charted Milky Way, ready to fulfil their dreams. And he had an MLASC. Life was good. Except for one thing.
"Shut up, Rory."
All right, we're done people! That's it - the end. No more. So, you've made it this far, how about giving me a review? Pretty please? You don't have to say only nice things, I'd be grateful to know if there's anything that seems weak or doesn't make sense. Throw me a bone, people! It really is disquieting to have people reading but not saying anything... In any case, I hoped you liked this And once more, thanks to Psyche, Promiscuous Misprocuous and Qui for their wonderful reviews :) heart