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Unregulated Void

by Rikougawa Yashiki (俐巧川 やしき)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/282895.html)

There wasn’t a whole lot you could complain about with a period of general galactic peace. Unless you were someone like Carmine Centauri, who’d spent most of your adult life either training for or being directly involved in a period of general galactic war, and then you were just pretty well out of luck.

Which is why Cen actually took the holovid message from Steele, which turned out to be about a job, which turned out to be a job she couldn’t pass up in her current underemployed state of affairs.

Which was how, stars preserve her, she ended up on a tin bucket of a mining shuttle with two of her exes for a twelfth-cycle straight.

***

Steele had called her a handful of times of in the last few cycles, usually for a reason but rarely for an important one, and almost never left a message. But he had this time, an actual holovid rather that a text transcript (which were always vaguely hilarious from him). So something was serious, serious good or serious bad.

And still, she might have just deleted it unseen, but there was just nothing going on to the point where she was casually measuring up the worth in scrap metal of the non-essential devices in her apartment just in case.

She played the message.

Steele looked older in holoform, but she guessed that was mostly just the way that the light array washed out his hair and skin, and the put-upon air he wore, like the very idea of holocommunication was an affront to everything he stood for as well as a particularly nasty personal insult. But really it’d only been three cycles since she’d seen him in person.

“So, uh… Cen,” recorded holo-Steele opened, same gravely drawl as ever, and there was a tingle in the base of her spine as sense memory shot through her, “assuming you get this–which I ain’t, actually, knowing you–I, ah, got a TO position open on this mining run coming up. On account of my last TO… left. Anyway, I don’t know what you’re doing or whatever, but I’d kind of rather have, like, any person I already know ain’t void-crazy than try to find someone else on short notice so… The pay’s whatever, like, usual mining pay. Usual mining everything, real typical run. Only… Yeah, fresh out of tech officers.”

Cen was perking up more by the word. Asteroid mining was one of the boring truths that kept the galaxy running, the sort of medium risk/medium reward venture that would make you a decent payday that would last a couple times more than the long run you’d have to put into it, provided you didn’t accidently die in the unregulated void in an undermanned shuttle. Lots of post-war ex-GAMA officers ended up there, apparently Steele included, already coming in with the tech and travel training for solo middle-length space runs. Cen herself had never gotten hooked up with one, but she was sure, sight unseen, that she could run whatever tiny ship and tiny weapons system he had in her sleep. She… could do this. She could probably deal with being stuck in a ship with Steele for several weeks.

“So… If that sounds like a thing you might wanna do, the specs are all attached, assuming this com thing ain’t acting all weird on me. And uh, that’s it. Me and you and R’arshe.” He pulled out his heaviest-duty sarcasm. “Just like at Academy! Super fun.

“Aw, dammit,” she murmured, rolling her her eyes and stabbing the bit of air that displayed the stop button. But self-preservation won over, and she pulled up the specs rather than dragging the recording to the trash icon.

***

Despite herself, Cen spent the next few weeks in a flutter of anticipatory nerves, until she was actually standing on the void dock in front of Steele and R’arshe with a bag of clothes slung over her shoulder. Then it got way worse and disappeared at the same time, which was more or less how things usually were for her.

“Cen. You actually showed up.” Steele squinted at her appraisingly, wearing an artfully coordinated smirk and eyebrow arch. In actual real life, she could see the red tint in his hair, and the ruddy flush of his pale skin (that would get real red after about twenty minutes on a planet with direct sunlight). But she did find herself thinking that he indeed looked older, not by much, but it made her memories feel more out of date than she’d been assuming.

“Geez, Alleghany, don’t get all emotional on me.” Swapping flat, low-grade sardonic statements basically a tearful reunion between. What was she going to do? Hug him or something?

“Greetings, Carmine Centauri. Your presence is pleasing to my visual and aural senses.” No one who knew Cen even a little bit called her Carmine, but R’arshe didn’t either, saying her full name like one word, CarmineCentauri. Most Arc’honians grasped the easily-comprehensible nuance of human first names and surnames, but ze was just… like that.

“Yeah, uh, back at you, R’arshe,” she said with an uncertain smirk.

R’arshe just nodded and flushed a little more blue. Ze never smiled, other than as a sarcastic mimic, but hir expression went softer. Ze pretty much looked the same as always: about human-sized and human-shaped, with dark almond-shaped eyes and the usual range of Arc’honian mood-chromatophore indicators that ranged from gray to light teal on the visible spectrum. Ze was tallish for an Arc’honian, too. Had a few inches on Cen.

“I had forgotten what it sounded like to hear my name pronounced correctly by a human,” ze said lightly, an undisguised but friendly barb at Steele, who still said “R’arshe” as if it rhymed with “harsh.”

“Whatever, we don’t all got weird tongue parts.” Steele nodded toward the ship and they started ambling toward it.

“It’s a glottal stop, which ain’t even that hard to do,” Cen pointed out, falling into step easy.

“That sounds disgusting.”

“Just means a bit of the throat.”

“It is as if your language were constructed with no attempt to be aesthetically pleasing.”

Cen rolled her eyes. “You two are pretty much the same, huh?”

“Yeah, well, so’re you, Centauri.”

“Ouch,” she said, straight-faced, and he spared the sharp opening syllable of a laugh as he opened the hatch of the mining shuttle.

***

It didn’t take her long to get acquainted with the OS. It was an older model, the kind she’d trained on nearly a decade ago; a cargo shuttle rather than a gunner, but same principles, and it wasn’t like there was wind resistance in the void.

That didn’t keep Steele from hovering around her while she modified the settings.

“So this is what y’all been doing since GAMA fired everybody?” Cen asked without looking up.

“More or less,” he said airily.

“Huh. Not what I woulda figured, really.”

“Yeah? What’ve have you been up to?”

“Nothing much. In and out of places.”

“Yeah, that’s exactly what I figured.”

She rolled her eyes. “Them’s fighting words, Alleghany.”

“I ain’t saying you got a problem with authority figures, but… you absolutely have a problem with authority figures.”

“Explains why we get along so well. You like this gig, though?” She looked up for a second to see how his face would contradict his answer.

“It’s… fine. Ain’t much to it ninety percent of the time.” Mostly truth, if she was any judge.

“Rather be bossing people around on some stars-forsaken rock that just got terraforming laid on it?”

“Yeah, but that never happened,” he said flatly.

She bit her lip. Yeah, she was rusty at talking, she was pretty sure. That was kind of a jerk thing to say, even if most everybody else had a lot of their long-term plans dashed.

“Sorry.” Her voice was quiet but not quite soft.

“Whatever.”

She was relieved when the door swished open and R’arshe strolled in, even if that meant there was someone else there to hover and watch her calibrate touch controls and notification volumes.

“Everything okay?”

“I would have informed you already were it not,” ze said, in that precise tart tone that rode a perfect line between sincere impatience and slyness without reading outright mean or sarcastic.

“Well, ain’t that peachy. Cen, you ready to get flying?”

“Gimme like five minutes. Whoever was here last had the controls all weird. Who would even fly like this?”

“Yes, who?” R’arshe practically trilled, and that rode zero delicate lines between insult and teasing.

“You can definitely shut up about that,” Steele said, going all captain-voice. “Cen, you do what you gotta.”

Cen would have asked, only she knew those two, and for one thing, she wouldn’t need to, and for another, she was trying to pay attention to this, and drama would require more brain power to absorb than background banter.

“Aye-aye,” she muttered.

Yeah, this was going to be a long month.

***
Cen didn’t like retracing her steps. The past hadn’t done her many favors and she usually didn’t care to dwell.

Academy had been fine, considering. Considering it was the only way off the Lunarian colony when you were seventeen and weird and half-wild and hated everything you touched and saw and breathed. Earth’s moon had been a ghost town when she was growing up, the abandoned dark-side gently being dismantled and recycled even while the last few farm labs and waystations chugged along. She didn’t know what it was like now, abandoned or gentrified or blown up.

Okay, she probably would have heard if it was blown up. But she would swear she didn’t care if she did.

Aptitude tests steered her towards tech and she’d taken to it fine, swum through it like water and learned how to shoot and code and fly. It was a semi-elite program, and a good half the students couldn’t crack it, but she did fine.

R’arshe had been her roommate. Basically every human had a Arc’honian roommate, ostensibly to put the “alliance” in Gaian/Arc’honian Military Alliance but practically because a bunch of teenagers cohabitating with their own species, approximately one-half of which was a sexually-reproducing single-gender race, caused a lot more problems than it was worth.

It… sort of worked.

It was slightly disingenuous to call R’arshe her ex, which implied a lot more than what had actually gone down. But Cen had few enough in her life, and was almost legally an adult by the first time she kissed another person with intent. It seemed at least a matter of clarification on her part to keep that sort of signifier for that particular person, even if that relationship had lasted all of one twelfth-cycle and gone all of nowhere.

They definitely did not talk about it.

Steele was a couple cycles older, and had been their training squad leader in third cycle. Steele and R’arshe instantly clashed and argued so much that most of the rest of the squad was sure they’d actually come to blows within the first few weeks. What ended up happening was they became nearly inseparable, without decreasing the amount they argued one iota. Everyone besides Cen was fairly baffled by this.

She and Steele, after a wary period at the start, had the kind of easy, eye-rolling banter that made everyone either assume they absolutely were an item, or should be one, or would tragically never see their way to being one barring some improbable rom-com type circumstances.

They were all, eventually, wrong, to various degrees.

She didn’t talk about it. Steele had stopped trying about it with her after the first few utterly failed attempts.

It was amazing how much three people could not talk about things they didn’t want to talk about, and Cen and Steele and R’arshe were heavyweight contenders in the Denial Olympics in general.

Case in point: Absolutely everything about Steele and R’arshe’s friendship.

But Cen wasn’t going to say a damn word about that, either.

***

Flying, like most everything on a spaceship, was long stretches of boring punctuated by short unpleasant bursts of interesting. Cen mostly stuck to the control room while they were making any sort of time. It was especially dull while they were still in regulated void-space, with less chance of getting jacked and almost zero chance of a moon-sized chunk of space junk drifting unexpectedly into your flight path. She still kept an eye on the video feed. You couldn’t trust proximity scanners for every single thing in the void.

Steele and R’arshe were in and out, sometimes working at the other consoles, sometimes just for company. You had to leave each other alone but not too alone when you were stuck together for the long haul, and sometimes just the change of quality of silence from having another person add to it was enough to ease the monotony of the light minutes.

Steele was in there with her now, but he’d stopped engaging with the screen at all and was instead sitting back and sipping replicator coffee.

A little more than a week in and they were pretty settled into the sudden bursts of conversation that came up while rotating around each other. It wasn’t anything more than a sudden flicker of idle curiosity that made Cen voice a question that she’d almost forgotten she’d had. “So, what happened to your last TO?”

“We, uh… broke up.”

“Ain’t that against the rules, there, Alleghany? You make them fill out paperwork about it too?”

“You’re never gonna let that go, are you? You know it’s a GAMA regulation.”

“Never ever gonna let it go,” Cen confirmed. “Though… you don’t seem too upset about it in particular. ” Not that Steele would get properly upset about it, but if there were hurt feelings, she would’ve already run into a minefield of “whatever“s and general sarcasm.

“Just didn’t work out. She was one of those… ‘I wanna go see the galaxy!’ types, like… like good thing R’arshe did weapons rotations, basically, because she never could shoot worth a damn.”

“Huh. That is… not what I woulda guessed.”

He shrugged. “It’s hard to meet folks, doing this. You meet someone you like okay, who likes you back okay, you give it a try until it stops working.”

She chuckled darkly. “Now this is properly eerie. We ain’t accidently body-switched in the last minute, have we?”

“Oh stars no. Nah, I just… maybe see what you meant. Didn’t at the time.”

“Yeah?” She was silent a minute, staring past the screens to the dark. Sometimes space travel reminded her of wandering the dark side as a kid, where in between running around though moderately dangerous ruins and scraping her knees, she’d look up into a starlit black so dark she could almost touch it, or feel it heavy in her throat even as she gulped the thin atmosphere into her moon-stretched lungs.

Maybe that was why she took to it easy. Maybe she was built for it, was looking for it before she knew what it was.

“Yeah,” he said at length.

“Well. Think you got it figured better than I do. Never did figure out how to manage it with people I didn’t mind seeing leave.”

If it had been someone else, they might have talked about it or something, but it was Steele and he just sort of hummed noncommittally and settled back into silence.

It was almost comfortable, or the discomfort was so old, it had become familiar, had become its own sort of comforting.

***

Cen and Steele had had a thing.

But the thing was also wrapped up in the context of Jay, and that was a Thing, and of all the many lanes of her past down which Cen did not want to take a walking tour, Jay’s was the one with the most banners of neon tape saying *DO NOT CROSS*.

There is a type of romantic interest who will alone see the light in your eyes, take you aside and tell you that secret: that you aren’t like the rest of them, that you’re something rarer altogether.

That was not Jay. Jay was the type to waltz up and say, “Hey, you’re awesome. Y’all notice how she’s really awesome?” and make you feel like melting between the floor grates in the best kind of way. And Jay could get away with that kind of thing, entirely free of irony, with her million-watt grin and strangely wholesome brand of swagger. She didn’t have a bone, muscle or sinew of sarcasm in her body, stars preserve her, and Cen fell for her harder than hard anyway.

Jay was the best thing that ever happened to her. Jay was the one that made her understand the cheesiest lovesongs ever written. Jay was the one that flipped her head around in all the ways she needed it flipped, made Cen reconsider how she defined herself and what it meant to include another person in that definition, as a partner. Dammit, Cen was going to marry that woman.

And then Jay really, really broke her heart.

The worst thing about it was it wasn’t anything bad, nothing Cen could blame Jay for, nothing she could blame herself for. Jay was brilliant, and the woman might as well have head “I am your leader and everything is going to be all right” written across her forehead for how much everyone took it as a given. Of course she was going to get promoted to a highly exclusive long-term discovery mission.

And Jay would have given it all up for Cen, but Cen wouldn’t let her. That kind of chance happened once in a lifetime and Jay was made for the stars. It was seven cycles. It was possible to wait.

They tried the long-distance thing, which meant Cen had a cycle and a half to watch their relationship disintegrate, for everything that used to be easy to get so, so hard and hurt so much, before she even started on the grieving process.

After it was really over, after it was five conversations of crying and apologizing over, Cen took a bunch of leave in one of the trashier ports, and found that for all the universe was infinitely expanding and carrying her one true love into some forsaken nowhere arm of itself, it apparently wasn’t big enough, because Steele Fucking Alleghany walked into the same bar where she was drinking herself blind.

And stumbled into her rented room later that night.

Cen probably wouldn’t have slept with a stranger even in the blackest of blackouts. Alleghany, though, was very much not a stranger and that Academy friendship that she’d convinced herself was too important to ruin with the messy details of a relationship had been in benign stagnation for the last five cycles. So Drunk Cen had done a bunch of very considered mental calculations during half a dozen shared rounds and drunken life status updates and come up with the elegant solution of Oh Why The Hell Not? Then she’d leaned in and kissed the taste of whisky off his lips.

Steele was amiable to that development.

It was the exactly the kind of meaningless and stringless one-night-stand she’d needed to get over her ex. It might have actually helped, too, if they hadn’t fucked again the next morning after sleeping off the hangover.

She was honest. You had to give her that. She was honest. After the second round of post-hangover sex, she broke it straight. “This is just for leave, you know that?”

“Yeah. You know how I know? Because you told me this is just for leave last night before you broke my belt buckle.”

“It was a weird belt buckle anyway.”

That was the refrain, and she kept going back to it.

And then they’d spent two entire weeks basically never out of arm’s reach from each other, hanging out like old friends but also fucking, and that was more of a relationship than her actual relationship had been for a long time.

And then she’d said: “This is just for leave.”

And then he’d said: “Yeah, but maybe…?”

And then she’d split, five days still paid for on the room.

For all that she had, on some level, been putting her relationship with Jay away since week one of Jay’s mission, this goddamn thing was spilled out of the drawer in her soul where she’d shoved it last and she wasn’t even a little bit ready for it.

The worst part was that he wasn’t that far out of line with a “maybe.” But there wasn’t any way that it wasn’t going to be long distance for a while, if it ever was a thing, and she just could not go through that again. It was easier to smash his feelings and leave. It would hurt less in the long run.

She’d signed the fucking Organic Resources relationship disclosure form he sent her a week later, then ignored his calls until he’d stopped calling. It hadn’t taken that long. He was reasonable. She had reasons.

The war had ended less than two cycles later. She’d ended up catching up with him in person a little while after that, another accident of being in the same place at the same time since there wasn’t so much space to go out and be in for them now.

It was fine. Fine. Absolutely fine. Whatever.

***

“Wow. You are terrible at this, Cen. Like… I’m kind of embarrassed for you. You can fly a spaceship in real life.”

Cen pulled a miserable face at him through the semi-translucent game-field. “Yeah, I can, and it’s way better than this stupid nerd game that’s all math. And not even fun math. Boring math. Y’all made math boring. This is worse than school.”

“That you can quantify specific types of math as fun makes your imminent defeat all the more satisfying,” R’arshe said over steepled fingers.

“Besides, it’s mostly strategy.”

“Yeah, spend a bunch of fake treasure money on fake shield and hope you don’t get attacked by the kind of fake space horror that can break through your fake shields on your way to a bunch of other fake treasure.”

“See, you got it down,” Steele said with a fake ingratiating smirk.

She poked her little avatar ship further toward the gold planet.

“Um… you can’t do that,” he said immediately.

“Yeah, I can. I did.”

“No, it ain’t in the rules.”

“Hang on. I can’t do this.” She pinched her fingers around the station and pulled it out of the game and mimed throwing it at him. It disappeared from her fingers and reappeared in the previous position. “This I can do.” She pushed it a hypergrid square further.

“Sure, you can just do whatever you want and have nothing mean anything.”

“Yes. I like this game better now.”

R’arshe clucked hir tongues in annoyance. “I can reinstall the Novice settings,” ze warned.

“Don’t you dare,” Cen said, dragging a diamond nebula closer to the gameplay.

***

Two weeks and three days, and finally they made it out into the unregulated void, and everyone was actually busy. Cen didn’t deal with any of the logistics trying to find enough rock with enough useful metal to make the run pull a profit. All her mental energy was put in keeping the damn ship afloat, the separate feeds of the surveillance vids in a constant array around her workstation.

There were just more things to run into outside the web of force fields and repellant cannons that made regulated void-space regulated. She just pointed the ship where they told her.

The actual mining was pretty boring, scanning rocks and targeting them with tractor beams, pulling them into the cargo bay. It was a dance of staying toward the edge of the belt and skirting past patches that had been utterly picked over, but really all it took was four days of being more than half-decent at flying and persistent enough to get it done.

They got it done, and it wasn’t bad, really, half a week of sleep deprivation after the slog of long-haul travel, and another pair of weeks to get out of it. And she could put the full shields back up to get out of the UV. She saw how if you could handle the boredom, it wasn’t a terrible way to make a living.

Of course, it was when they were headed back that Cen, bleary-eyed at her station, noticed the ship that had fallen into tailing formation, just an accidental catch of silver in the grey and black and starlight white of the void on the screen, and her head went clear as adrenaline poured down her spine.

First thing, she brought up the manual holo-capture of the surrounding void and chased the general area of the scope of the fifth camera. There, dammit, that telltale shimmer of illegal cloaking that had tricked the proximity scanner into silence.

She flicked a finger over the intercom icon. “We got some company,” she announced tightly. “Cloak-and-dagger types.”

Over the returning channel, Steele swore pretty spectacularly in Kirrinnikin–funny how he could get the accent right for that. “Fire at will. Probably won’t do any good, but if we’re real lucky, them knowing they ain’t boarding us without a fight’ll scare ’em off.”

“Got it,” she said, and from a hidden panel in her control board, the weapon system controls rose. Couldn’t be much of an array on this thing, and the stars knew when it was last calibrated, but still her breathing went calm as her eyes flicked between the feed and the holo-sphere, calculating the angles to hit a ship she couldn’t see.

Three good bursts, and the proximity alarm flashed as their pursuer was temporarily revealed. A hit, but worth nothing. The cloaking tech dropped as it surged forward.

“Fuck, that just made ’em mad,” Cen said, the com link still open, then almost jumped out of her skin as the door swooshed open behind her.

“Yeah, we’re getting boarded,” Steele declared, dropping into one of the other command chairs. “Aw, your first mining run and you get to deal with space pirates. Lucky.”

Cen knew enough, and had looked up enough data between taking the job and showing up for it, to know that the assailants weren’t after the asteroids in the cargo bay. They were after the ship itself, and whoever was in it wasn’t much of a concern.

“Hope you kept the anti-virus up to date,” Steele commented.

Cen managed to bark out a laugh. “Who do you think you’re talking to, Allegany? I upgraded the hell out of this bucket on day one.”

“Good. Cause they’re gonna try to knock out life support first. Make a bubble in here, and hide it.”

“Where’s R’arshe?”

Hir voice came in through the com. “I am in position.”

“Ain’t the first time we’ve played this game,” Steele said quietly to her. Cen’s throat worked dryly as her fingers flew over the controls, burying a sub-sub-sub-sub-command to keep the dedicated emergency life-support generator for the command room running come hell or high water.

There was a difference between knowing that Arc’honians had genetically and artificially modified themselves for centuries and every member of their species was so full of nanotech that you could practically drop them on any planet with a whisper of atmosphere or blast them a dozen times and they’d pull through in fifteen minutes, and knowing that your friend was in a room where the heat and air were going to be knocked out.

She sweated as she typed, trying to spare the second to look over at Steele’s display and see where R’arshe even was. The docking bay, yeah, of course. What? Stars, this was fucked up.

The pirate ship caught them in a tractor beam, slowed them to a full stop. Cen stalled the engine with barely a thought. No sense wasting power.

She gritted her teeth as they scrabbled through her system, let them do what they thought they were going to do. It’d be easier to fight they if they thought they were pushing her system over with barely a shove.

Disabled the weapon system. Why bother? Killed the engine. It was already off, assholes. Shut off the lights. Come on, there were emergency chemo-luminescent strips everywhere anyway. All the rest of the automatic systems followed, and she let them go.

Then she pulled a trick they hadn’t taught her in the Academy.

She’d been setting up the routine since minute one. She reflected their read of the dead system back at them, praying to the stars they just had a bunch of big illegal hack tricks and not a real genius on the other side of the screen.

They she turned everything back on, save the lights. A minute ticked by, and she stared at the infra-footage of their still outwardly disabled docking hatch being manually broken into. Everything stayed on. For a flourish, she modified the life support in the docking bay to optimum Arc’honian home-world settings, which were definitely absolutely poisonous to most known species.

“What the stars are you doing, Centauri?”

“Home field advantage.” They didn’t need to be quiet, but the sense of invasion seemed to demand it.

“Why didn’t I hire you cycles ago?”

“You never asked.” It didn’t matter if she flirted with the idea of deleting his messages every time she’d gotten one, she never actually did. And even back when she’d had a good job, she probably would’ve walked out the door if he’d ever so much as asked her to stop by and defrag his system. She just hadn’t known that until it happened.

It didn’t make anything easier, knowing.

The hatch opened.

The pirates were one of the bipedal races, Gaian or Arc’honian or Risdalite judging by the number of arms, but wearing blackout armor so she couldn’t actually tell. There were only two of them, but that was two people in photosonic blast-resistant armor against one Arc’honian with one gun.

The smart thing to do would be to take advantage of the limited visibility in the suits and dodge a lot, and physically topple them if possible. Ze could probably take a good half-dozen shots before slowing down, enough that it was a reasonable advantage to go armorless.

R’arshe just stood in the middle of the bay, though, flushed cloudy teal with hir weapon trained on them.

Cen did the math about the same time they did. The barrel was thinner and longer than a blaster typically was, and R’arshe wasn’t moving an inch.

She shot murder-rage eyes to Steele, who just put a finger to his lips, then looked down to his console to type something.

An IM window popped up silently in a corner of her screen array. it’s a fake. got a permit for it and everything. come on, cen.

If he actually had a working bolt gun on a fucking spaceship, she probably would have tied him up and put her boot on his throat until he admitted he was actually a Jovian exomorph, because there was no way in the galaxy that Steele Alleghany would do something that illegal. And that foolish, too, but breaking rules? Nah. Bending them in really lateral ways to pull shit like this? Absolutely, but that required uncommon respect for the letter of them.

Her flutter of panic had distracted her from the opening lines R’arshe talking the pirates back through the door, but she tuned back in for an explanation of how the gases in the docking bay would affect non-Arc’honian respiratory systems should their suits become pierced, and it was very educational, but she tuned back out as she watched them back over the threshold of her ship.

She slammed the docking hatch shut and set it to disconnect, then fired her parting shot. She just didn’t have time to hack them properly, but she could fuck with their system a little bit, confuse them while she high-tailed it out of there.

At least she remembered how to open perpetuating junk channels. That was just an intradepartmental prank, usually, but if you were in battle, it could be bad as an unshielded plasma cannon blast. Your system was your life in the void.

Whoever was running tech on the pirate bucket couldn’t be ex-GAMA. To be honest, ex-GAMA TOs didn’t end up unemployed very much. Cen was kind of an outlier.

She punched the engine and got out of there.

Stars, her heart was pounding, and at some point she’d stood up to lean over the console and type, only she couldn’t actually remember it. She stepped back and breathed in deep.

Steele put a hand on her shoulder and she almost flinched away but didn’t.

“How the hell did you ever handle something like this before I showed up?” she asked in a distant voice.

“That… was kind of amazing,” he said, ignoring her question.

“Fuck you. That was very amazing.”

“Usually we gotta fight ’em off in the breach.”

“Usually?”

“It doesn’t happen every run. Like, one in four, tops.”

She almost hit him, or yelled at him, but eh, what was she expecting anyway?

She laughed instead, the tight manic giggle of hey wow guess I’m not dead right now. She leaned against him and he put his arm around her a little too fast, like maybe he thought the was falling or fainting or something, and she looked up to side-eye him but ended up kissing him instead.

Funny, that. Not funny like haha. Funny like hey wow guess I’m not dead right now.

It only lasted a moment, and she pulled back quick.

“Cen…” His voice was soft, but there was a warning note in it.

Was there going to be a point in her life when she would stop kissing people she shouldn’t? She wanted to be there. It was taking so much longer than she wanted it to.

“Sorry, I… That wasn’t anything.”

“Okay, yeah, sure.”

R’arshe’s voice came over the open com channel. “What was not anything?” It wasn’t a question, judging from hir tone. Arc’honian hearing. Perfect.

This was why she hadn’t wanted to take this job. Almost exactly why.

Just like Academy. Super fun.

***

After she fixed the air back to something she could breathe, she went down with R’arshe to scope the docking bay. Apparently space pirates could be kind of poor sports and leave you with a parting gift of the exploding variety. All the better to scavenge the carcass of your ship later.

Preliminary scans showed there was no real problem, but she at least had to take a look. The thing about bombs was that there was an element of subterfuge to them.

The mood in the air was… tense.

Cen checked that the two way function was off this time, and spoke while staring at her device. “Look, I kissed Alleghany, okay? Don’t make a whole thing about it.”

“To reinitiate the romantic relationship you had with him several cycles ago?”

“No. No. Stars, no, I just… it was all adrenaline and nerves. I didn’t mean it or anything.”

“Do you possess feelings for him?”

“No,” Cen lied, not knowing how much of a lie it was until it was coming out of her mouth. Of course she did, and had, always had, since the first damn time they’d looked at each other and both rolled their eyes. She always had feelings, too many and too fast and for anyone she got close to so she just tried not to let anyone know, and minimise the damage when they did.

Cen countered defensively. “Do you?”

“No,” ze said quickly. There were nuances to Arc’honian expression and coloration that you could misread even after cycles of knowing one, but Cen was pretty sure she could pluck a luddite inhabitant from the farthest untouched corner of the Milky Way and ask them if R’arshe was lying in that moment, and once the screaming stopped, the answer would be “of course, absolutely.”

“Okay, then. Guess it ain’t a problem.” It wasn’t a nice thing to say, but there wasn’t a clear way out of this mess.

She caught a little murmur of activity on her scanner, and knelt to search it out. “Shit. There’s something under the grates.” She backed off the particular one she was on and soniced the screws out with her multitool, then looked at R’arshe. “Um?”

Impassively, ze crouched and heaved the plate enough that Cen could drop to her stomach and wave the light of the scanner screen around in the space underneath. Between a knot of cables and a couple ribbed tubes, she saw a glimmer of black, and reached down to pull a little disc, about the size of a poker chip, out of the bowels of the floor. She squirmed back out of the hole and R’arshe let the grate slam back down once she was clear.

“That’s just nasty,” she murmured, turning it over in her fingers.

“What?” Hir voice was taut and thin, but that might have just been because of the danger.

“This. Damn, I can’t even e-mag on the ship–”

Ze just held out and hand, and Cen dropped it in hir palm and watched hir snap it in half.

“…Also an option, I guess,” she said.

“Dispose of it via the access valve to the exhaust duct before turning the engines on again. Otherwise it will auto-repair.”

“Smart.”

“This is not the first time we have experienced such an attack. Though, truthfully, it was one of the easiest, due to your intervention.”

“I try,” she said evasively. “So… We’re good?”

“We are, to my knowledge, good.” R’arshe pressed the broken pieces into Cen’s hand. She smiled thinly, but R’arshe just dropped hir gaze and walked towards the door.

Not good.

***

They made it back into regulated void-space with no more trouble. They weren’t totally out of the woods in regards to danger–any ship noticeably heading in from the fringe was a target, because nobody really came back without something of value, but the sense of wilderness was gone.

Cen was a mix of relieved and bored. This thing would be over soon, and then she’d… go home and figure something out.

Or… not.

If she could just sweep this emotional tangle under the rug and stomp the bump of it flat, she wouldn’t mind doing this for a while. It was kind of the most at home she’d felt since she was GAMA proper. Nothing but her wits and her system to keep her aloft in the void, and this time she didn’t even have to wear a uniform and wake up at 05:00 every day.

Better than tech support, and she couldn’t even hold down a steady gig there anyway.

Things were mostly fine on the surface. Turns out that if three people were bound and determined not to talk about a thing, it didn’t get talked about. It was too easy to make jokes at breakfast or fall into that easy attentive silence of fringe travel.

That it went away so fast, though, made it wear more on Cen, where the quick lance of a real fight might have sped the recovery.

Mostly R’arshe was just kind of ignoring her. Not aggressively, but noticeably. And that got to her, with an extra twist of nostalgic hurt.

It was the third time in two days where Cen had been in a common area and R’arshe had entered only to see her and all but turn around and immediately walk out.

The only thing keeping this time from being an immediately was that ze stepped forward toward the table where Cen was sitting and reached for the spare tablet, picked it up and swiped through it a few times purposefully.

“Hey,” Cen said.

R’arshe paused, and set the tablet down, and blinked at her. “Yes?”

Cen felt the weight of upcoming action, like opening her mouth to speak again was suddenly a manual function, a sticky gear she’d have to slam into place.

“R’arshe, I’m really… actually sorry. About a couple days ago, and… being defensive, I don’t know. It wasn’t… a thing I intended.”

Ze gave Cen a slightly blank look, and Cen wondered exactly how passive this aggression was going to be. But then ze dropped hir gaze, and looked a little exhausted, and nodded.

“I accept your sentiment, Carmine Centauri.” Ze stepped forward and extended a hand, palm forward and fingers pointing toward the ceiling, and Cen fit hers to it, fingertip-to-fingertip except where there was no match on the sixth.

R’arshe’s skin was warm under her fingers, a few degrees hotter than her own. It was nice, really, to suddenly feel heat in the perfectly regulated shuttle thermosystem air that felt like nothing at all.

“Your heart rate is increasing,” ze pointed out, and Cen yanked her hand back like she’d been burned.

“Sorry. Just… kinda antsy. It’s nothing.” Well, might as well continue with the blatant lying. They were in too deep to call each other out anyway.

“If you say so,” ze said, perfectly sincerely, and picked the tablet up again, then took it to the other side of the room. Ze didn’t pointedly leave, though, so… small victories.

She wondered in what different way she would have screwed everything up if it had been R’arshe who was close enough to victory-kiss. Well, that was some other divergent universe’s problem. She was still just stuck in this one with her own choices.

***

Some of those choices she’d made a long time ago, and was still stuck with the consequences.

Back in the Academy, staying up late was just robbing yourself, but Cen just didn’t adjust to 06:00 wake-up calls for most of the first cycle. That R’arshe didn’t either only made it worse, the two of them keeping each other up talking like you could only talk with the first person in your life you’d ever found that you could talk with.

It wasn’t that they were soulmates. Proximity bred their closeness more than an instinctive match, but they meshed well enough. Cen felt rangy and odd and backwater among Gaians and Martians, one of only a handful of Lunarian students, the rest of whom were all cliquey with each other.

R’arshe didn’t socialize much either, because ze was either at ease with hirself or at odds with others, but seemed happy enough to hang around with Cen in public and private and make comments about everyone else.

That was enough to build a whole empire of friendship on as a teenager.

It hadn’t been a special night or anything, and this had been back before Cen realized that things don’t happen on special nights, or at milestone events, and even if they do, that isn’t why. Everything builds, drops of water that collect until they start spilling over the edges, one last little thought or action that starts the fall.

They had both been on R’arshe’s bed, probably talking about strategy class or some other thing that Cen would never for the life of her remember later.

All she remembered that it had been something biting in that too-precise trill of hirs, something that Cen would have laughed at if they hadn’t been whispering and trying not to get caught again, and that she’d covered her mouth and bent forward in a silent giggle, and when she’d looked up, she’d been very close to R’arshe.

And then it went still. And then she’d leaned in and kissed hir.

It wasn’t until a split-second after Cen put her lips on R’arshe’s that she’d realized she actually had no idea if this was a thing hir species did, and suddenly the range of possible outcomes widened terrifyingly from the binary of acceptance and rejection.

That would’ve been a moment when interspecies sex education would’ve come in real useful, but nope, conservative schools. Ignoring the realities of the galaxy.

And then R’arshe had been kissing her back with the full tacit understanding that not only was it a thing, but it was also a thing ze was on board with.

And that was a moment, a moment she’d remember later, a moment that the chasing of would be an undercurrent in her life that she wouldn’t even realize was there most of the time. That key turning in the lock, that space of a second when the wanting became the having.

That wasn’t how she’d processed the moment then, though. Then, it had just been the weird wonder of figuring out how mouths go together, with the added weird bonus of a kissing partner with a bifurcated tongue.

Then they’d made out for a while, and fallen asleep in the same bed, and it was all so very innocent in a way that would be very distant from her understanding later. She’d been seventeen, not twelve, but she was an odd seventeen.

It wouldn’t take much to unravel it. In a few weeks, Cen would pull away when R’arshe reached for her arm while walking between classes, not totally knowing why she did. That would splinter it, and neither of them would talk about it.

Them staying up at night had become less of a thing until it wasn’t a thing at all, and it was easier to stake awake in class then, so it never was a thing again. They still got along, and after a few more weeks, it had stopped being a problem.

But it didn’t stop being there, in the edges of certain moments.

A pattern was established.

***

Cen could leave the command room more often now, but she really didn’t bother. If she just stayed out of the way, maybe it’d all blow over faster.

That plan might have worked, too, except it was a control room, not a secret broom closet.

“What’s the timeline looking like right now?” Steele asked as he strode in through the door. It was almost the end of the diurnal period, but he was still charged up in captain mode for some reason.

Cen swiped her console to display it on the main screen. “Like this.”

He leaned in over her, a steadying hand on her shoulder. “Huh. Ain’t terrible. Actually a little better than we been doing.”

“‘Cause you ain’t got a dilatant flying this bucket?”

Her voice seemed to startle him a bit, close to his ear and accordingly hushed. He pulled back a bit, suddenly aware of how close they were, making her exceptionally aware of it as well. A beat stretched by, and then another. Cen really wanted to swallow but her throat couldn’t quite manage it.

And then the control room door hissed open again and Steele shot back up to standing position like he’d been jabbed with a cattle prod.

It was… less convincing than he might have intended.

“Oh. My apologies. I did not intend to interrupt you.” Ice fairly crystallized on R’arshe’s carefully mild words.

“Wasn’t… nothing there to interrupt,” Steele mumbled, stepping back. Cen turned in her pilot’s chair, slapping the provisional autopilot automatically.

“Right, so you were staring intently at Carmine Centauri in the fashion of every holo-soap opera for no reason?”

“Look, it isn’t…”

“Oh, is it not? You do not need to prevaricate. You two are clearly compatible. If that is your intention, then I wish you happiness.”

Cen wasn’t exactly an even-tempered woman, but she wasn’t much for outbursts, either. The serious stuff left her cold and still, more likely to walk away. And this was a prime walking-away situation. And yet…

“Dammit, will you just stop it, R’arshe?” she burst out, louder than she wanted.

Everything did go still then, and R’arshe glared at her, lips pursed, eyes cloudy-dark. Still, it might have even diffused back into nothing, or at least back into the same level of low grade aggression, if ze hadn’t said what ze said next.

“Stop what?”

The fight went out of Cen as the words formed on her tongue, so when she spoke, her words were soft again. “Actin’ like I’m the one keeping you from something, when I ain’t.”

R’arshe didn’t really show the hit, went blank instead, but that was telling enough.

Cen spared a glance at Steele, who at least had the decency to not look surprised at all, only apprehensively resigned. She looked away.

It almost wasn’t about him at this point, or it was insomuch as it ever was, which was never the whole picture. The actual conflict here was that R’arshe had cast her as rival, or shoved her into a recently departed one’s place. And maybe that was fine for Steele’s scapegoat ex, maybe that had all worked for them in some wonky way to make that situation stable or stagnant or whatever.

It just hurt Cen, and she was tired of it.

“I’m sorry, okay, but don’t… say things like that, like you’d be okay with it when you wouldn’t, because I wouldn’t be and I’m–” I’m not okay with you two going off and being together without me either but at least I’ll be gone in two weeks and it won’t matter anyway.

At least the last bit stayed stuck in her throat. Maybe it was written on her face, but… plausible deniability.

Now was definitely the time to walk away, so she drew her heart up into herself and marched through the tableau toward the door.

“Cen, wait–” Steele called, with the nihilism of an expected cue.

She stopped in front of the door as it slid into the wall with a little pneumatic noise, then turned tentatively. It closed after a moment of stillness. She turned.

“I, uh… didn’t expect that to work,” he said blankly.

Cen barked out a laugh. “Well, fuck. Should I go?”

“No…”

“No,” R’arshe repeated.

“Yeah, no, don’t do that.”

“Oh….kay.” Something clicked for Cen. “Wait a second. What about you?” she asked of Steele. “We said our thing.”

“Yes,” R’arshe said, the lines in the room shifting. “To whom do you feel romantic attraction, Steele Alleghany?”

The sheer amount of put-upon he managed to pull off in his expression didn’t help Cen’s ridiculous urge to laugh. “I…” He didn’t just pause, but came to a full visible stop. After another run-up pause, he tried again. “…Both of you…” He ran out of words again.

Cen laughed again, and it sounded brittle out loud. “That your answer?”

“Dammit, I don’t know… Yes? Whatd’ya want from me? I didn’t know there was going to be a quiz. Ain’t like… anyone ever made this clear before today, and now we’re, what, deciding?”

“That was not the question,” R’arshe said quietly.

He shifted and sighed. “Both of you,” he repeated, without the upward inflection in his voice.

There was a beat of silence.

“Same,” Cen said, looking up defiantly.

Really?” R’arshe burst out, all the precision dropped from hir voice in that one syllable.

“Well, maybe if you didn’t decide to get mad at me for no reason, you might have noticed,” she countered. At some point, this whole bizarre conversation had stopped feeling like a minefield of carefully guarded emotions and started feeling like they were arguing about breakfast or hologames or any other ordinary thing, and she finally felt like her footing was back under her.

“That is not why I– After first cycle, I assumed–”

“Yeah, well, we all assumed stuff.”

“Okay, yeah, I’m missing something here.” Steele sighed. “What’s the score? You like her back or what?”

“I possess feelings for Carmine Centauri, yes–”

“All right, great, we’re all even.” He exhaled slowly. “So, where does that even leave u–”

Whatever the rest of his ramble was got cut off by R’arshe stepping forward purposefully, grabbing him by the neck and kissing him soundly.

If Cen had any doubts about the kind of mess she was getting into with this, they fled as she watched Steele melt, watched him pull hir close in a desperate jerk and deepen the kiss.

In a way, she’d been waiting for this as long as they had. And for all her crushes and pining, it would never been right without this. And she got to witness it, watch them finally break. Her heart throbbed, but there wasn’t any hurt in it.

Steele pulled back first, gasping. “Weird,” he breathed, and R’arshe recoiled as much as ze could while still caught tight in his arms. “Er, good weird? Awesome weird,” he amended, and gave up and kissed R’arshe again instead.

“You knew what you were getting into,” Cen muttered, rolling her eyes so hard despite a grin.

The sound of her voice, though, broke the spell and they pulled apart awkwardly.

She stepped forward into their sphere and kissed them each once, lightly. “I put the ship in full auto ages ago. Let’s get out of here before anything gets jostled.”

***

“Should we maybe… talk about this?” Steele tugged the first two buttons of his shirt open as he spoke, but his voice still sounded strained. He stopped there.

R’arshe moved from kissing Cen’s mouth to her neck, and she was thankful for the corridor wall. She definitely had never appreciated corridor walls enough heretofore in her life, either for structural integrity or as places to swoon against. It felt ungrateful of her. “Yeah, we should definitely… probably do that,” she agreed between gasps.

“Like… nowish?” His protests failed to match his actions, as he slipped a hand into the gap between the small of her back and the wall. She nudged forward enough for him to curl his arm around her and R’arshe groaned against her throat. Steele’s other hand stroked the nape of R’arshe’s neck and ze pulled away from Cen to kiss Steele again.

“We should talk about finding a place that isn’t a hallway,” Cen mumbled dreamily, then her mind followed that single track and derailed spectacularly. Shuttles weren’t even a little bit built for comfort, and there honestly wasn’t a place on the ship much more accommodating than the floor they were standing on.

Steele and R’arshe parted lingeringly, heads still bowed toward each other for a long moment after their lips broke contact.

Then he looked over and caught her eye. “Okay, fine. Guess there’s no way this ain’t happening right now, so… I know what to do.”

He broke away with what had to be a remarkable effort of willpower and strode down the hallway, turning towards their personal quarters. Cen and R’arshe followed almost immediately, and caught up to him.

Steele shooed them inside her room but didn’t follow. They looked at each other blankly for a second, but then Cen pressed R’arshe against the wall and kissed hir again soundly, and that passed the time, anyway.

Steele was back in a minute, and they stopped. He was awkwardly carrying a cot mattress, which he threw on the floor, then yanked hers from the metal bedframe and shoved it down beside the other. Side by side, the mats fit snugly between the base of the bed and the wall, the edges curled slightly. It wasn’t spacious, but it was soft and you couldn’t fall off of it.

“Oh, that’s…” She connected the dots. “This used to be your ex-girlfriend’s room.”

Obviously, Cen.”

“I never thought of that.”

“Seriously, let’s talk about anything else. Or not talk.” He leaned against her vacant bedframe and kicked his shoes off.

She just stepped back and let R’arshe have him. She owed hir one. Or didn’t. Whatever, she didn’t mind. Cen slipped her boots off and dropped to the mattress, then, after a second of hesitation, pulled her tunic over her head and tossed it on the floor.

Had to start somewhere.

R’arshe dragged Steele to the mattress by his open collar, not that he required such a measure of convincing. Sitting on the edge, ze unzipped hir boots one-handed and slid out of them.

She watched them kiss again, a little softer but still there was that kinetic energy that had been coiling up for cycles finally unravelling. The little voice in the back of her head saying things like this is way too fast and you had your hormone chip replaced three cycles ago, not five, right? and are you seriously even doing this? trailed off and lost its place. She didn’t even realize she was just staring until they broke this kiss and caught her, and the tableau went absurdly still.

And then she laughed, short and sharp, and shattered it. Steele breathed out that almost laugh of his and moved towards her, and R’arshe followed so they were sitting together in the center of the beds.

Cen leaned forward and kissed R’arshe. Ze tasted just a little bit like warm metal, different chemicals in hir skin, and it was familiar and she’d missed it. Ze still tasted like their first kiss.

When ze pulled back gently, Steele was staring at them. Cen smirked, and R’arshe caught his gaze pointed and raised a brow.

The uncertainty of the arrangement melted, and that intensity washed back in. Steele kissed her, R’arshe kissed her, they kissed each other. She unhooked her own bra since neither of them could quite manage it and Steele just pulled his shirt off instead of finishing unbuttoning it. His freckles were more apparent on his chest, stark against his skin instead of fading almost invisibly like they did on his face.

R’arshe pulled him in close, kissing him deep for a moment while hir hands tracked curiously across his skin. Steele broke this kiss and sighed against hir neck, the sound of it achingly soft.

He slid his hand up hir chest, lingering at hir collar. “This is… okay, right?” Ze nodded, breath coming hard, and he slid down the zipper of hir shirt, then pushed the stiff vinyl of it off hir shoulders and down hir arms.

R’arshe blinked apprehensively, eyes vaguely downcast. Hir chest was smooth, vaguely familiar lines of musculature without any human secondary sex characteristics. Down at the base of hir abdomen were hir reproductive glands, raised and slightly translucent, deeper blue than the rest of hir skin.

Ze flushed, and it went down hir torso and arms, kaleidoscoping out across hir skin. It was cute.

Steele leaned in, uncertain, and raised his hand for an awkward instant before moving it up to R’arshe’s neck and pulling hir forward into another kiss. It only lasted a moment, and dissolved into a private moment of eye contact.

Then Steele trailed his hand down, down the blushing plane of hir chest and straight to hir glands, and pressed his palm flat against one and moved his wrist in a tight circle.

R’arshe hissed out some syllables, a little too fast and with too thick of an accent for Cen to catch, but she was pretty sure it it was an expletive and she was pretty sure she got the gist.

“Oh, that is… good,” ze clarified hoarsely.

“This is… so much more squishy and weird than I was expecting.”

“Been researching xenobiology?” Cen asked, trying so hard to deliver the double entendre with a straight face. But honestly, who didn’t? The internet existed.

“Shut up.”

“I am unsure if I should be… disturbed or… flattered,” R’arshe said unsteadily, then groaned. “Or… nnngh… grateful?”

“That one,” Steele supplied.

“That one.” Ze slid a hand up his thigh, then pressed hir palm over the fly of his pants. Steele made a low noise in his throat. Lots of research, yeah.

Cen moved in behind R’arshe, knees on either side of hir hips, and ze leaned into it, head tipping back onto her shoulder as ze moaned. Hir skin was warm and a little velvety, soft but with a very faint nap of tiny sensory hairs.

She reached around to mirror what Steele was doing, pressure and friction against the slippery erogenous gland. He was actually… kind of right. It wasn’t at all a familiar sensation, or one that would have felt at all sexual out of context. But R’arshe panting and arching against her definitely did, and stars, ze was loud and Cen was into it.

It was only a handful of minutes before R’arshe started to tip, groans turning to soft keening. Cen kissed a line down hir neck, sucking on hir skin as the blue in it thinned out, went pale and soft. Ze cried out as ze came, fluttering and spasming between Cen and Steele, hir arms around his neck and hir head against her shoulder.

R’arshe pitched forward bonelessly and kissed Steele. Then ze twisted and kissed her too, grabbing her shoulders like ze might fall without the support.

“You okay?” she murmured when it broke.

“I… Yes?” Ze sounded dazed and dreamy, and Cen giggled as she wrapped her arms around hir and lowered hir to the mattress. Steele untangled from hir gently, and Cen looked up at him, still grinning.

“Hey,” he said, voice somewhere in the bottom of his register, all smoke and intention, and her breath caught in her throat.

Steele pulled her into his lap and she kissed him, her hair curtaining down around them. They were still wearing too many clothes, though, and she pulled off of him and staggered up to her feet to peel her leggings and underwear off. He followed suit, getting out of his pants faster than it would have taken her to try to fumble open his zipper. His cock arced against his stomach, fully hard and wet at the tip.

Cen dropped back to the mattress, falling to her knees and leaning over him, hands on his shoulders. He looked up at her,

She settled her knees on either side of him and eased onto his cock. Even slick as she was, it’d been a while, and fullness burned almost painful for a moment. Then he grabbed her hips and pushed into her and hit the spot inside her that poured lightning down her spine and made her gasp.

She pitched forward and braced herself with a hand on his chest, and he dropped back onto his elbows. She rocked against him, every brush against her inner nerves making her twitch and shudder.

The shivery oversensitivity retreated into good old animal rhythm. She rode him and he followed her pace, shallow strokes that stayed deep. She leaned down and kissed him, caught his lower lip between her teeth and sucked it lingeringly, and he groaned against her mouth.

“You good?” he rumbled as she pulled back, breathing in short soft gasps

“Mm-hmm.”

Steele dropped all the way to his back and grabbed her ass, pulling her forward. She braced herself on her palms, flat on the mattress on either side of him, and he fucked her harder, the leverage lower and different. She found the new rhythm fast, ready for it now.

He grabbed her hip with one hand and fit the other along the top of her thigh, slipping his thumb down against her inner folds. “Little lower,” she murmured, and gasped as he brushed against her clit. The warm build of pleasure in her went sharper, and she just chased it, grinding down on him.

Climax built in her steady, gathering heat down at the base of her. She was vaguely aware of R’arshe stirring, finishing undressing languidly, then settling back to watch them. Occasionally she looked up and caught hir gaze, dark and riveted, and it felt good, knowing how that secondhand thrill felt, knowing she and Steele were causing it.

She fell fast after she started to tip, going from steady to frantic, and Steele swept his hand from her hip up her back, guiding her down to kiss her roughly. Her thighs clenched as bucked hard against him, pleasure washing bright white through her as she gasped hard and ragged.

He came while she was shuddering through the aftershocks, holding her tight as he arched under her, growling through clenched teeth. She shifted her balance to one hand and ran her fingers light down the side of his face. He blinked up at her, slow wonder in the afterglow, and she smiled.

Cen’s veins felt all fizzy and sparkly, and she kissed him almost vacantly, just a soft brush of lips. She untangled from him unsteadily, her limbs all heavy and weak as she tried to use them, but she managed to drop to the mattress between him and R’arshe without incident.

The world came back to her slow, her breathing evening out by degrees. She ached already, a tightness in her muscles that sleep would mostly but not quite erase, but it was low and almost pleasant while lingering endorphins washed through her body.

R’arshe rolled over towards Cen, propping hir weight on one arm so ze could lean down to kiss her. She tipped her chin up into it, moving dreamily.

She felt Steele press in beside her, curling up and brushing his lips against her shoulder.

All the attention was making her feel warm and exposed, sparking though her skin like a live current. R’arshe traced a hand up the plane of her stomach, and Steele trailed lingering kisses from her shoulder to her breast, his mouth hot against her skin.

She moaned into R’arshe’s mouth, and hir tongues slipped around her own while hir hand went to Cen’s other breast. She had to turn her head and break away, and R’arshe just kissed a trail along her jaw while she gasped for air.

“Fuck,” she panted. Arousal curled back in around her fast, barely ebbed from her first orgasm. “Just… touch me, dammit.”

Steele caught R’arshe’s eye then grabbed hir hand and guided it down, slotting their middle fingers together and stroking them against the center of her. She bucked against their hands, a sob of pleasure wracking through her.

Their touch felt loose and light after being fucked, a little clumsy, but she was still overly sensitive enough that it was probably better.

She trembled and rocked up against them, eyes closed and back barely touching the mattress. Steele leaned down close, pinning her a little with his weight. “Easy,” he murmured, lips brushing her ear as he spoke. She exhaled shakily and nodded, and he kissed her throat before pulling back.

Then he pulled his fingers from R’arshe’s and slipped two of them inside her. She keened and panted, almost coming right then. But, no, a couple gulps of air and she was still just near the edge. She felt wildly punchdrunk, the first time she didn’t have to concentrate or do anything to come. She was just going to unravel in their hands regardless.

When she came, she came hard and senseless, like the floor had dropped out from under her, and the noise she made left her throat raw for a few seconds. When she blinked back to reality, heart pounding so hard she felt like it was fluttering in her chest, the two of them were kissing over her. Which… whatever, fair enough.

She took a couple deep breaths to get her head clearer, then ran the back of her knuckles down R’arshe’s chest, going just low enough to make hir gasp and break the kiss. Then, fairly matter-of-factly, she sat up and pushed through them, then playfully pushed R’arshe at Steele before collapsing semi-gracefully on the empty side of the mattress.

Steele swept in the space she left, pushing R’arshe onto hir back and kissing hir deep. Ze wrapped hir arms around his neck, keeping him close. The desperation was gone, that unsubtle crash of lips first meeting, but the intent was still there, just kicked into a lower gear.

She sighed without meaning to, her heart caught in her throat. They just looked so good together, close and lost in each other. Watching people you loved be in love was nice. It didn’t cut like jealousy, but it was sharper for watching from the outside.

Even when they broke to breathe, they lingered together still.

Steele put a hand on hir chest, but paused there. “Are you… okay to go again, or…?”

Ze shifted deliberately and Steele shuddered at the touch. “Clearly you are.”

“Well, yeah, ‘swhy I asked.”

R’arshe shifted again, one hand moving down to wrap around Steele’s cock. He was already more than half hard, and jerked automatically into hir fist. But ze didn’t do anything else quite yet, just leaned up and kissed him, soft, just on the lips.

“Come here, Steele Alleghany,” ze whispered, the words pretty and precise and low and serious, and hir other hand swept up from the small of his back to his neck, and dragged him down on top of hir.

They resettled against each other, legs tangled and bodies aligned so R’arshe groaned at the friction as ze stroked Steele off. His hand joined hirs for a moment, guiding, then slipped down to brush teasingly against R’arshe’s glands. Ze groaned exquisitely, and he caught hir in a kiss before moving back to stroke hir again.

Cen, still watching, bit her lip. Stars, they were gorgeous, Steele’s back sweat-slick and his cock ruddy and glistening in R’arshe’s fingers, R’arshe flushed all pale pretty blue and arching up into the pressure of Steele’s body and hand sliding across hir sex.

She slipped a hand between her legs, just seeking relief. It was easy to get herself off, but there wasn’t any electricity to her own touch. She barely noticed, though, watching the two of them move together. They always had that ping-ponging energy between them, ready to one-up or back up the other in a second. With the dodge of words gone, it was thrown in sharp relief.

It only took her a couple minutes to come, biting down on the cry that wanted to burst out and almost seeing stars behind her eyelids.

Damn, Cen,” she heard Steele say, and her eyes snapped open. They were still fucking, but looking at her.

Feeling loopy, she smiled and waved a little. Steele grinned and dipped his face into the crook of R’arshe’s neck and muttered something else, while R’arshe just kept eye contact a wry second longer before turning back to hir partner.

It turned more intense by degrees, faster and more frantic, grabbing at each other. R’arshe came to climax first, voice gone brittle and exhausted as ze whimpered out hir pleasure. A handful of seconds later, he buried his face against hir neck again and came across hir chest, stripes and spatters of white across the deepening blue of hir skin.

Silence reigned briefly, the two of them just gasping together, until R’arshe spoke. “That was… more disconcerting than I anticipated,” ze panted, arching a brow. Steele just rolled off of hir, almost laughing, and found the top sheet shoved in a wad at the edge of the mattress. He dragged it down R’arshe’s chest gingerly, then tossed it across the room.

“Fine. We’re even then.”

“It’s just… you–as a species–produce an astonishing amount of fluids.”

“No. Guess what. We’re not having this conversation right now, cause also I got your weird slime on me, so…” That train of conversation ran dry, so he just kissed hir as punctuation.

When they parted, he moved to the space between hir and Cen and settled down. “Hey, Centauri.”

She’d been watching them through her lashes but she blinked and looked up at him. “Yeah?”

“C’mere.”

She scooted over towards him, but then he got an arm under her and pulled her up onto his chest. She wriggled around for a moment, slotting her legs between his and R’arshe’s.

“So…” he said softly, his voice a rumble against her ear. “Here’s the thing. Are we doing this for real?”

“I am willing to commit within the reasonable parameters of circumstances and emotional variants.”

“You have just got a real way with romance, dont’cha, R’arshe?” But he leaned in and kissed hir anyway.

“Cen?”

“I like this. It feels right, like this.”

The tension had made everything frustrating, kept them tight in place. The major cords of it had been neatly severed, though, and they hadn’t fallen apart. They’d… fallen together.

Not that signing on to an emotional commitment to two people with their own whole sets of hangups was going to be a tension-free ordeal, either, but it wasn’t a zero-sum game, apparently, and that made everything a hell of a lot more possible.

“Yeah, it kinda does.” He pressed a kiss to the top of her head.

R’arshe’s hand nudged hers, and she aligned their fingertips by touch. She looked up through her lashes at hir, skin all soft blue and eyes dark and crystalline and catching hers.

There aren’t that many times when you can see all the slips and mistakes of your past in a kind light, but everything that led her here, she could forgive. At least in that moment, she could forgive it all.

And that seemed like enough of a sign.
.
When ze pulled hir hand back, Cen let hers rest on hir chest, somewhere above hir heartbeats, and finally let her eyes fall closed.

***

The port was technically in view, but it was really just another point of light off in the distance. Cen was just watching the stars pass and occasionally adjusting the ship’s course to dodge outbound vessels.

The door hissed open behind her, but she didn’t even look or try to guess who it was until her chair tipped back slightly with the pressure of someone folding their arms on the back and leaning down. She caught blue in her peripheral vision as she leaned back further.

“Almost there,” Cen said.

“According to recent company reports, there is a particular shortage on iron ore and a resulting price increase. It would be profitable to eschew the customary respite between mining runs.”

“Another month stuck in the void with you and Steele? Sounds terrible. I vote yes.”

“This vessel is not a democracy,” ze replied cooly, and Cen laughed as she turned to kiss hir.

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