Author Note: this is a teaser! Go to my profile and find where you can buy Outside, or sign up for a chance to win a free copy.
1. Almost a handle
Flint didn't notice Gamble at first. No, he just didn't notice Gamble in that particular way: he'd certainly noticed him as a coworker, as soon as he walked into the labs corridor on the deep-space station where they both lived and worked. Flint was an up-and-coming exogeologist who had worked hard to get this far—and far it was: Nkwame Station was situated around Gliese 876d, fifteen light years from home. He had ambitions to go even farther. Someday, the sooner the better, he wanted to get onto the away trips in little ships that went close to the systems they were analyzing. Close enough to watch their rovers land in real time. For the time being, he was happy enough to work in the labs and get to know people. Until he got Outside, onto one of those ships, he was doing what he could to gain experience, skills, and seniority. He was also applying to every away project that came up. He didn't expect to get into the first or even the eighth project he applied to. But every time he applied, he got good notice, and meanwhile he was doing really well with the projects he was given on-station.
Flint did notice right away that Gamble was a good man to know. Gamble was an administrator in the labs, sort of a generalist, and not directly in the hierarchy over Flint and his work (which figured in Flint coming to see Gamble in that way later on). Flint saw Gamble taking his turn at leading meetings in the department, and conferring with leaders of different teams. He was only a little bit older than Flint, but he seemed to have already gotten himself into a pretty important place in the admin collective. His name showed up frequently on the agenda committee and other task groups.
Flint liked the way that Gamble ran a meeting, and he liked the way he talked to the people under him as if they were on the same level. He also noticed that Gamble had soulful, long-lashed eyes that focused right in on the person he was talking to, and a way of standing that brought his listener into his orbit and kept them there as long as he was speaking. And then when he spoke he hadpleasant, potent voice, both soft and clear. But even though Flint noticed this, and more—the set of Gamble's shoulder, the curve of his thigh—it was more or less as an abstraction. He still didn't think of Gamble as a person who existed outside of work, let alone as a potential partner. It was just that Gamble made the workplace that much more pleasant to spend his time in.
Gamble, on the other hand, noticed Flint in that way the first time he saw him at a meeting. He didn't plan to do anything about it, but he did think the guy was delicious. He hit a lot of Gamble's marks. Gamble liked men with a lot of limb and expressive manners. Flint was gangly, long-limbed and loose like a spider monkey,. he had bright, deep-set, expressive eyes, he had flexible, mobile lips, longish hair, and a tendency to suck on his thumbnail when he was nervous or thoughtful, which always drew Gamble's eye right to those lips. Gamble could imagine getting very close to that. He didn't feel any stress about whether he should make a move or not. There would be time enough for it later if the occasion arose. Like Flint, he also noticed that they weren't in the direct line of hierarchy—and their ranks were close enough for socialization, always an issue in the elaborately and rigidly ranked society of Nkwame Station.
Though Flint was obviously lower-ranked than Gamble, they did have access to all the same corridors and activities. And judging from his easy behavior around the lab corridors, Flint was pretty likely to be a civilized person, unlikely to cause problems. On the other hand, Gamble didn't think any playtime between them was realistically going to happen. It was unlikely that they would ever meet away from work, and Gamble never approached anybody anywhere near the labs or offices. That's what the Meets were for, and the various rec halls, and other people's parties. Gamble prided himself on his ethics, both personal and professional. And professional ethics demanded a clean separation of his work and personal lives.
When Gamble first saw Flint at the Red Meet, he felt completely free to approach him and begin a neutrally flirtatious conversation. Though Gamble was excited to see him in a social context away from work, he wasn't heavily invested in the outcome. It really didn't matter which way it went, though he could practically taste the skin at the back of Flint's neck already. The Meet was full of people he knew to be reliable on that score. If he needed to get off tonight, he would. But he'd rather do it in the Flint's company if he could—at least sometime: . Maybe not tonight. He'd see. Yes, he had mixed feelings. He didn't mind it. It was sort of exciting to be a little bit unsure of himself for once.
Gamble sidled over to the low bar where Flint was sitting by himself, sucking on his thumbnail and contemplating the crowd. "Flint, right?" as if he wasn't completely sure of the man's name, as if he hadn't watched him moseying down the corridor this very morning, as if he hadn't turned his head today when he'd heard his name spoken aloud, "Kind of hard to just jump into all that, yeah?"
He let his eyebrows do the gesturing, indicating the whole room, with all the people in it here to connect. In one corner, a woman from the Research Garden was expending her last shred of courage in approaching a man Gamble thought was an accountant, with so much anxiety in her posture that you could wonder how it could ever be worth it to her to make the attempt, while the accountant seemed all but oblivious to her suffering. In another corner, two women seemed to have come to some kind of conclusion, but since they were settling in over a couple of glasses, maybe their decision did not involve sex. And here, Gamble was just casually initiating a conversation that could go anywhere.
Flint turned to him, not quite startled, and gave him a slow smile. "Yeah," he said. "I forgot to get practice in this stuff before I got here." He waved his hand generally in the direction of the same people Gamble had indicated before, the researcher and the accountant, the two women with their beer, and also a trio who were making their way towards the hygienic and well-equipped back rooms.
"It was on your list of things to do before you left?"
"Sure it was. I was warned. They said—you better be ready to take some damned initiative when you get out there, or you'll be lonely as a toad in a rat lab."
"And are you?"
"Not quite," Flint said. "Are you?"
Gamble grinned. "Nope. I've got lots of practice in taking some damned initiative. I love taking some damned initiative."
Flint's eyes suddenly went wide, and Gamble's pulse quickened. He hadn't even started flirting properly, and Flint was already—something. If not exactly his yet, something for sure. He liked it, but he didn't want this to go too fast, not before he had a lay of the land. He was always careful when he was cultivating a new playmate, but this time he wanted to make extra sure. This felt like a situation fraught with possibilities, both good and bad, like it could go anywhere, and Gamble liked knowing where he was going. Obviously, if Flint was at the Red Meet, he was open to sexual activities, possibly on the prowl already. But though Flint seemed like he was probably eager, he also gave the impression of a person who was quite inexperienced. And in that laid a hundred possible difficulties.
So Gamble changed the subject, slowed things down. For the next half hour, he deftly ran a conversation about the music playing in the other room, the dancers, the more incomprehensible hobby collectives on the station—anything but the fact that Gamble was getting ready to seduce Flint. It wasn't entirely a manipulative act. He was also trying to gauge whether he really wanted to go through with this right now. If Flint was as green as he looked, Gamble might want to wait until he'd been around a bit longer. He wasn't really into holding someone's hand through their rites of passage. There was a tendency for the newbies to go to extremes, and that could lead to all kinds of messes. he didn't want to wake the sleeping slut in a person on the one hand, and be caught in the position of having to talk them down from some rash project to fuck everybody on the station. On the other hand, he didn't want to deal with the lugubry of first, passionate, idiotic love aimed in his direction either. What he wanted was a friendly little fling, with some very hot moments, which could mellow into a friendship with occasional benefits. Not too often, after the first flush of getting to know each other, and not too intense.
Gamble was never a guy for intense emotions. He'd had a taste, just a taste, of that, and decided he liked his emotions mild and comfortable, thank you.
Then Flint said, "So here's me taking some damned initiative. Do you want to do a thing? My room, or the back of the Meet?"
Gamble took in Flint's wide-eyed tension and winced. As delicious as Flint was, he was going to have to take a pass on it, and it was going to hurt the guy. But it would possibly hurt more if he'd taken up with him right now, if he was as vulnerable as he looked. In an attempt to be diplomatic and to keep open the possibility for later, he said, "Not tonight, I'm afraid. I've got a bad stomach brewing, and I better not subject you to the possibilities that entails. Maybe another time?"
Flint looked disappointed, but only just. Good, Gamble told himself. Not too volatile. He doesn't take everything personally. They talked a little longer, and then when they were taking their leave, Gamble to nurse his not-entirely-fictional upset stomach and Flint to imagine what Gamble would be like in bed—or more accurately, on the floor or against the wall—Gamble said, "Nice hair, by the way. Almost long enough for a proper handle."
"To hold on to when you're thrashing around."
Flint's eyes went wide again. He licked his lips and asked, in a rusty voice, "How long is long enough?"
Gamble winced again as he bit his tongue. Recovering his cool, he said, "About... to... there." He traced a line below Flint's shoulder blades, watching Flint's expression. The guy was really, really gone. So responsive.
He would be following up some day. If he dared.
As it happened, it was only a tenday later that Gamble found Flint at a greater departmental meeting, wearing a hat that completely concealed his hair. As this was the first time that the two could be expected to encounter each other without going to a Meet, Gamble took it as a message that Flint, on second thoughts, had decided he wasn't interested in Gamble. He didn't spare it a thought, though: this was a meeting, not a Meet—it was work, and at work, Gamble was all work.
Author's note, again: THIS IS ONLY A TEASE! Look at my profile for how to get the rest.