by Kuruki (来木)
Jacob glanced down the corridor, his heart beating fast. The governor’s guards had been called away and he was alone for the first time since his ship landed three days ago. He had to escape from the palace before they returned. He hadn’t seen his family or Andy since Jacob was sent off planet years before. They hadn’t come to see him. Did they even know that he was finally home again?
The corridor was empty as Jacob tried to remember his way back to the skiff yard. The governor had several skiffs of the kind Jacob had learned to fly at the school where he’d spent the last seven years. He turned right then left and, after glancing both ways, he dashed across the main corridor. He heard voices in the distance, but not agitated ones. No one was looking for him, yet.
A guard stood by a local girl, laughing at her joke. Her smile widened and she begged his pardon but she had delivered her tithe so she best get home. The guard asked her to stay awhile and she agreed if they could step out of the sun. The guard offered her a few minutes inside to cool down and they disappeared around a corner. Jacob shook his head. He’d met girls—and guys—like that while at school, but never fell for any of their lines. He already had his other half. He just had to find him.
With the only guard distracted from his duty, Jacob had time to pick the best of the skiffs and disable the other three. They would fly for maybe one kilometer before sputtering to a stop. With luck, all three would leave at once and the guards would have to walk back to get replacements for the pieces Jacob dumped on his skiff’s passenger seat.
He glanced around the yard then took off. Flying on planet was different than flying in space, but as Paxton claimed to be the best school in the seven galaxies, he’d learned both. He flew north for four kilometers in case he was seen leaving then turned, heading southwest towards the stone circle. Not only did he not fly past the edge of the forest, he couldn’t even see the edge. The forest must be hundreds of kilometers across.
When Johnpaul Gaillard landed on Verlin twenty-odd years ago and declared himself Galactic Governor this entire area had been chalk hills. His first act was to transplanted ten square kilometers of boreal rainforest around the palace he was building. This was before Jacob was born, but the week before he had been taken from his family and sent to Paxton, the forest had been just a patch on the horizon when he stood in the stone circle.
Why had the governor enlarged his forest so much? The original was impressive enough to keep the locals from protesting the bogus election that made him governor. Why did he need to expand it? Who was he trying to impress this time?
The stone circle came into view and Jacob turned to the west, but could see no sign of his home. Maybe something was left. Maybe if he could just walk where the streets had been, he could find a clue to where all the people had gone. Maybe they were still there, but living among the trees. Jacob quickly circled back to the stone circle and lowered the skiff into the center. He could find nowhere else to land. He hoped the spirits would forgive him.
Ivy covered the stones. Jacob draped a few vines over the skiff. To get this long, the ivy must been growing for years. He found the largest of the stones and walked by it to the left. The village should be right down the hill. Jacob’s steps scared a squirrel up a tree and several birds out of another. When the governor did something, he did it thoroughly. But he wasn’t as careful with this part of the forest as with the first part. Some of these trees were dying and it didn’t look like anyone was trying to stop the decay.
Jacob paused and looked around. The forest rose on all sides of him. This was where his village had been, but not one stone was still standing.
His village was gone. His family was gone. Andy was gone.
Why were these trees here when his loved ones weren’t? Jacob threw his weight against the dead tree in front of him. The tree shook, dropping dry, orange needles all around him. He pushed it again. The tree tilted but when he stepped back it righted itself. The stupid tree. Didn’t it know it wasn’t wanted? Jacob hated the tree. He hated the forest. He hated that man, the governor. Just because that man had contributed his DNA at Jacob’s conception did not make him Jacob’s father.
Darnell was Jacob’s father. He was the man who rocked Jacob to sleep whenever he woke from a nightmare. He was the one who had laughed with him and cried with him. He was the one Jacob turned to when he skinned his knee. Where were his father and his brother and most of all, where was Andy? Would Jacob never find them?
What if something had happened to them while he was far away? What if they were dead?
Jacob got a running start and kicked the tree with both feet as he’d been taught to take down an opponent, not caring if he got hurt. What point was his body if his heart was gone? The shallow roots ripped from the ground with the sound of dry wood snapping. Jacob walked up the titling tree and jumped on the trunk. He had no power or freedom, but he would make this tree fall in place of the governor.
With a crack the last of the roots snapped and the tree bounced as the branches broke. Jacob rode it out, crouching to keep his balance, and then wiped the dry needles off his uniform. The tree was down, but Jacob was far from satisfied. His effort had been wasted. He couldn’t knock down all the trees. Some looked healthy and it wasn’t really the forest’s fault. It was the governor’s fault. Everything was.
The root bundle was about two meters tall and a quarter of that deep. Jacob thought he caught a glimpse of white among the broken roots still in the ground. He stooped into the hole and shoved the brown dirt away. Under it was a path in the chalk, rounded smooth by many feet over the centuries. He pushed at the soil, digging along the path with his bare hands, forcing dirt out of his way.
Was this? It had to be.
A bush blocked his way. He got to his feet and, ignoring the scrapes on his hands, yanked the plant from the ground. One side came out easily, but some of the roots were deep. Jacob laid the bush down and looked underneath. The hole in the chalk where the roots were deeper was cut in a perfectly straight line.
This was where a house had stood, where it had stood before the governor’s ship touched down for the first time, where it had stood for centuries. Darnell had said that the newest cottage in the village was two hundred years old. The cottages had all been built of stone from far away; some were as old as the stone circle.
And now they were gone, every house, every stone, every single person. All those years of waiting, hoping, and dreaming of coming home and hearing someone call him Coby again were gone, shattered by the governor.
That horrible, horrible man ruined everything he touched: the planet, the village, Jacob’s life. Everything was gone or wrong or ruined.
Jacob pounded the ground with his fists as hot tears slid down his face. He has lost the only ones that matter, the people that kept him going, the ones he thought of when he woke up and as he fell asleep. So many nights he’d dreamed of walking into the village, being hugged by his father, laughing with Brayden as they compared heights and staring at Andy. He could never decide what Andy would look like, other than his dark hair and blue eyes, but just being Andy make him beautiful to Jacob.
Sometimes the dreams would change after Andy appeared. Jacob would get him alone and say that he wanted to be more than best friends now that they were grown. Andy never pushed Jacob away or told him to stop as Jacob took Andy into his arms.
Jacob didn’t look up when he heard footsteps. The guards stopped at a polite distance behind him and the leader waited a full minute to say, “Young master?”
Jacob got up with a sigh and took the offered handkerchief. He would never be happy again, but from now on he’d never let them see him cry.
Loud running footsteps echoed off the tunnel walls. Anthony turned, his laser in hand, waiting for a sign if the runner was a friend or foe. Kaelan shouted his name and he relaxed. But why was she running through the caves? If Darnell or one of the other adults heard her, she would get clouted on the head for making such a racket.
Kaelen stopped just inside the glow of Anthony’s lamp, panting heavily. “You’ve got to see this!”
“See what?” Anthony asked, checking the label on the crate against the one on the list. A resistance was nothing without supplies. Anthony was still missing one box of ammunition. He’d found three holding up a table in the main cave. This was Anthony’s job because their quartermaster went missing three weeks ago. He wasn’t the first. Governor Gaillard had ways to make people disappear.
Anthony squeezed his pencil at that thought. Gaillard’s comeuppance was long overdue.
“Anthony,” Kaelan whined. “Listen to me. The blond is here.”
Anthony turned to Kaelan slowly. “Are you sure it is the blond not just a blond?”
Kaelan had been known to interpret what she saw for maximum shock value.
“Come on, Anthony,” Kaelan said, sitting on a convenient crate. “You know I know all Gaillard’s guards by sight. And this guy isn’t just sort of blond. He is really blond. And even though he is a spacer, his hair is longer than a woman’s.”
“If his hair is that long, then how do you know he’s a spacer? How do you know he’s a he?”
Kaelan sighed. She stood up and took Anthony’s clipboard and pencil out of his hands then set them on a crate. “Come on. If I’m exaggerating, I promise to help you all afternoon.”
“You better believe that I’ll hold you to that.”
“Sure, but just come and see him.”
It was time for a break anyway. Anthony could only stand so many hours in the caves. He stopped for a minute out of habit just inside the entrance to let his eyes adjust. He and Coby had spent long hours in these caves, running and playing, and sometimes sleeping in them. With Coby, exploring in the dark had been exciting: something new around every corner. The caves had felt snug and comfortable rather than too small. Whenever they went out without waiting for their eyes to adjust, the bright sunlight would blind them, setting them off into fits of giggles as they floundered around.
But since Gaillard had moved a forest above the chalk, the difference had never that great. And Coby was gone. No amount of hoping and dreaming would bring him back. They didn’t even get a body to bury or a grave to visit. Coby, the one Anthony loved more than anyone, was dead at the hands of Gaillard. Anthony would never forgive him.
Anthony peeked out. Even before the forest, the cave mouth had simply looked like a dimple in the rock. Now it was a shadow in a shadow. No one could see it unless they were looking for it, and even then many still couldn’t. Through the centuries the caves had been used as a store house, a meeting place, and a refuge when the village was threatened. Now it was all three.
Kaelan glanced around and then darted for the nearest clump of trees. Anthony slipped towards a fallen log. He would circle the hill and meet Kaelan on the other side. They couldn’t risk the hideout being found and Kaelan, for all her other failings, was more careful then most. When Anthony caught sight of her, he signed, “Which way?”
Now why hadn’t Kaelan said that in the first place? The village was important. It was where the resistance started, where the first person had disappeared, where the first homes and fields had been lost to Gaillard’s growing forest. Kaelan, like most of the people from other villages, referred to her own village by where it had been and Anthony’s village simply as “the village”. It needed no name.
A sound wavered through the forest, silencing the chattering squirrels and twittering birds. Anthony dropped to his belly. From the top of Circle Hill a skiff lifted into the sky, a flash of white and blond in the driver’s seat.
Why would any of Gaillard’s men be wearing white? Kaelan scrambled over until she lay by Anthony. “See, what did I tell you? He is flying Gaillard’s personal skiff.”
“Why didn’t you tell me he landed in the stone circle?”
“Does it matter?”
Anthony bit his lip. Kaelan had never been off planet or taught to fly a skiff. The resistance, for all the help it secretly got from the lieutenant governor, couldn’t afford one, yet. So Kaelan didn’t know how much work they were to fly straight up or down. Only the best of pilots could have preformed that trick. Anthony signaled, “Check for enemies,” and then followed his own advice. Several guardsmen were marching from the area, tripping over roots and twigs. Anthony waited until they were well out of sight then went back to the village.
“See,” said Kaelan. “He stood right here.” Then she acted out what the blond had done. “I went for you as soon as the guards came up to him. Why, do you think, didn’t he bring them with him?”
Anthony couldn’t come up with a reason. He shook his head. “We have to tell Darnell.”
They slipped back to the cave and went in search of Anthony’s parents and Darnell and his son Brayden. Darnell was the unofficial leader of the resistance. He was the one that Lieutenant Governor Rayburn came to after Coby disappeared, saying he had done all he could, but Coby was dead. Did Darnell really want a man who would stoop so far as to kill a child as governor of his planet?
Darnell, in his anger and with the backing of his neighbors, confronted Gaillard about Coby. Gaillard responded by transporting all the citizens of the village hundreds of miles away and covering the area with forest. But the forest was to the rebels’ advantage. It was good for hiding and plotting in.
“What have you got?” asked Brayden.
“We saw the blond,” Kaelan said, grinning.
Anthony sighed. “He’s an ace pilot.”
“But,” said Anthony’s mother, “do you think Rayburn is right? Is he here to end the resistance?”
Anthony shook his head. He had no idea. “I didn’t see him. I only saw him fly.”
“I saw him,” Kaelan said, clearly loving the attention. “He was about our age.” She nodded towards Anthony. “And he wore a uniform like Anthony’s but his vest is brown and he has a white, fluffy shirt.”
Anthony sighed, running his hands though his hair. “Did he have a tie?”
“No,” said Kaelan slowly, “his collar was ruffly but the shirt was loose at the neck, so maybe he just wasn’t wearing it.”
Anthony nodded as he gnawed his lower lip.
“And that means?” Brayden asked.
“That he’s from Paxton, where the elite of the elite go. I saw a few of them while I was off-world at that school.”
“And this means for us?” Darnell asked.
“We need to move up the plans.”
Jacob brushed half his long, blond hair until it shone then swished it over his shoulder before pulling the other side forward. Hair swished so well on planet. Jacob had never meant to let his hair get this long. It was due for a cutting on the day the men in uniforms had come and pulled him out of Andy’s arms. The governor had touched the ends and disparaged the only father Jacob could remember. On that day Jacob vowed to never let it be cut until he was home again.
But he would never be home again. His home was gone. He blinked back the tears that threatened to fall. His family had to be somewhere. Someone had to know where they were. Please let them all be alive and well. Please let him meet them again. Please let them be happy to see him.
Jacob hadn’t had a moment alone since he’d run off last week, which was why he was brushing his hair in just his boxers. The guard simply didn’t know where to look. But even antagonizing the guards couldn’t keep Jacob’s attention for long. He needed to escape from this gilded prison and find his family and Andy.
His closets were stuffed with new clothes, but Jacob opted for the trousers from his school uniform. They were white, the governor’s least favorite color for clothes. Despite the fact that the practice grounds were chalk, the governor insisted that his guards wear black. He said that only natives—how Jacob hated that word—wore white. The governor must never have seen a local in his life.
The guard muttered into his com about Jacob’s choice of clothing, but Jacob ignored him. Let the governor lecture him on how to present himself or what people would think of him or his role and place in society. Jacob’s place was in his village with his family, his hand in Andy’s. That was where he was meant to be. That was where he should be, not cosseted in the palace.
Jacob yawned and slowly stretched in full view of the guard. The day would be warm, so he decided not to wear a shirt under his school vest. He zipped the vest up slowly. The man’s eyes closed as he leaned against the wall, but Jacob could tell that the sound affected him. Jacob hoped that babysitting him was given to the guards as punishment. He’d hate to think it was a reward.
He slipped on his boots and then looked himself over him the huge mirror above his dresser. Everything was to his satisfaction. Day seven of Operation Annoy the Governor was coming along nicely.
If all was right with the world, that large, ugly picture of the planet Falkner would fall on the guard’s head. Falkner was where the governor’s ancestors were from, where Jacob’s ancestors were from on both sides, he was told at school, but he didn’t care. He was from Verlin and would always call it home.
A boom sounded and the room shook. The hideously gilded frame slipped from its hook and fell on the guard’s head. Jacob couldn’t help laughing as he stepped back to keep the huge picture from landing on him as it flopped forward. What had the noise been? Sounds this loud were sure to disturb the governor’s tea.
Another boom rent the air. Jacob danced sideways to keep from being hit by picture frames. He heard a creak and turned toward the big mirror. It slowly detached itself from the wall. When it shattered against the dresser the glass would spray everywhere. Jacob dove for his bed and pulled the quilt over him.
But not fast enough. Pain throbbed from his right shoulder. Every breath hurt.
School drills filled Jacob’s head. He needed to calm down, check his injuries to see if they needed immediate treatment, and then find an exit. He turned his head. A piece of glass as wide as his finger and nearly as long was sticking out of his shoulder. He reached for it with his left hand but that jostled his vest and pulled on the glass, sending knives of pain through his body. He tried again this time with his right hand, carefully keeping his fingers away from the sharp edge. As he pulled out the glass, pain shot through him. It hadn’t hurt this much going in.
He carefully set the bloody shard on top of the quilt and opened his vest, pulling back the shoulder. He wiped the blood away. More welled up in its place, but didn’t drip drown his chest, so he was in no danger of bleeding out. He had nothing to use as a bandage anyway. Every surface in the room was covered in glass. He slowly lifted the quilt as he pushed it back to keep the glass off of him. This made his shoulder ache and bleed faster, but he couldn’t risk more wounds. He slipped from the bed. The carpet crunched beneath his feet. If a new explosion knocked him to the floor, he’d be in a lot of trouble. He had to get outside before the palace came down around his ears.
Jacob cautiously stepped across the back of the glass covered paintings on his way to the door. He stopped and checked on the guard. He didn’t hate the guy personally. He just hated the one he represented. The guard was unconscious but otherwise uninjured. The painting of Faulkner had fallen in front of him, so he’d been saved from the glass, but the canvas had lots of glass shards in it. Jacob hoped that painting was expensive or irreplaceable—maybe a one of a kind from a long dead, famous painter or a centuries-old painting handed down for generations or, better yet, both.
The nearest way out of the family wing of the palace was blocked with debris and the next had guards, who would insist on keeping Jacob ‘safe’ if they saw him. He spotted an unfamiliar corridor. This one didn’t have pictures on the wall or vases on tables outside of every door. Maybe it led to the servants’ quarters. Whether it did or not, he was less likely to be killed by flying debris.
He walked down the corridor without seeing anyone. His shoulder hurt a lot. Was it still bleeding? He pulled back the shoulder of his vest and bolts of pain shot through his entire body. He reached out blindly and found a wall to support him. The fabric had been stuck to the wound, which was bleeding again. He should have been more careful. He leaned against the wall until he got his breathing under control.
Jacob ran his hand through his hair. He felt something warm and moist. Gross. He pulled his hand away. Some of the strands stuck to his palm, which was covered in blood and now he’s smeared the blood into his hair. He wiped his hand on his trousers and only then did his head wound start hurting. As if he needed that now.
A gust of air rushed up the corridor. He couldn’t be too far from outside. He turned a corner and bright light nearly blinded him. Sunlight reflected off a large chalk area and through open double doors, bathing the corridor in white. He couldn’t see any guards at first, but once his eyes adjusted he saw six lying in the chalk at the edge of what must be the practice grounds. Each held a gun or laser rifle, pointing into the trees, but none were firing.
If this was a drill, it was a very realistic one.
A wide, white beam shot out of the trees, aimed not at the guards, but over the palace. The guards fired back as something exploded above and behind Jacob. The walls shook. Either the weapons were going to kill Jacob or the building would. He stepped onto the chalk. A laser or bullet would be much better than dying slowly under tons of rubble. The guards, busy firing into the trees, didn’t notice him. He walked out further and asked a guard, “Who are you fighting with?”
The guard turned to him, anxiety covering his face, “Young master, please go back inside.”
“What? And die?”
Whoever these fighters were, if they were against the governor, he was on their side. And not a single bullet or laser had hit the chalk, so they weren’t shooting at him or the guards.
“Please, young master, get down,” the guard begged.
Jacob turned to the trees. A netting of some kind hung over the practice ground, connected to a pole at Jacob’s far left. Someone from the forest was shooting at the box near the pole’s top. Sparks ran along the ropes for a moment. Two of the guards cried out in fear. One of them ran back into the palace. Something swung out of the trees directly at Jacob. He saw a laser cannon with a dark patch above it and light below, then he was forced to the ground and all he saw was the cannon glowing inches from his face.
He was going to die.
Anthony paused a moment to catch his breath. He hadn’t planned to leap from the tree, but when the blond walked out as if he was invincible, Anthony had only waited until Brayden knocked the power from the netting.
Brayden and the others reached the chalk. Anthony shifted the cannon on his shoulder. This mission was to find and retrieve the blond and Anthony had him at his mercy, but the problem was that Anthony’s only weapon at the moment was a laser cannon. Cannons did not have finesse. He couldn’t afford to kill the blond, so if the man resisted he would be forced to let him run. But not many people would risk death when a cannon was in point blank range.
Gaillard’s guards dropped their weapons. “Please,” said the one nearest Anthony. “Please don’t hurt the young master. He has done nothing wrong.”
Young? Could Kaelan have been right about the age? Anthony shifted the cannon back and looked the blond over. The blond looked understandably terrified. But Anthony’s blood ran cold as he recognized the dark eyebrows under that blond hair. “Coby?”
But Coby was dead—or so they had been told by Rayburn. If this wasn’t Coby than who could it be? And if it was Coby than why had Rayburn lied? He was the person funding the resistance. What could he have gained by lying to them?
The blond licked his lips and blinked rapidly. “Andy?”
No one had called Anthony that in years, not since Coby died—or went away or whatever happened to him. If this was Coby then where had he been?
The laser cannon was so bright that the blond was probably temporarily blind. Anthony nodded to Brayden. He needed someone to take the cannon, but Anthony was the only one wearing protective gloves. Brayden called to the man who carried a second set of gloves and Anthony was relieved of his gunner job. Brayden looked maybe-Coby over. “You two are kind of cozy.”
Anthony looked down to where his knee was planted between the blond’s thighs. He pulled back quickly, untangling himself from the netting. Leave it to Brayden to mention something like that during a battle. Brayden lifted the blond to his feet. “Take Coby back to base.”
So Brayden thought the blond was Coby too. Anthony wanted to ask why, but Brayden had turned away to interrogate the guards.
Anthony took the blond’s arm and led him into the forest. The blond tripped over a bush. That was right. He couldn’t see. Anthony slowed down and took the blond’s hand. The blond held Anthony’s hand the same way Coby always had, with his right in Anthony’s left, his arm behind and his thumb on top. “Andy? Is that you?”
The voice was deep, so deep in fact that it sounded out of place coming from the blond’s tall, lean body. This couldn’t be Coby. Could it? But he would play along until he found out otherwise. “Yeah. We have to get moving. Can you see yet?”
Maybe-Coby blinked again. “I see a green and brown blur.”
His left hand reached out and touched Anthony’s hair. “It’s still black.”
Then he smiled like Coby smiled, back when their only worry was whether Anthony’s mother would let them eat outside and whose house they would sleep in that night. Anthony and Coby had been inseparable from the day Coby had come to live with Darnell to the day he was taken away.
Maybe-Coby squeezed Anthony’s hand and tears glittered in his eyes. “Andy, I’m so glad to be home.”
Anthony’s chest ached and his throat went dry. If this wasn’t Coby…. If this wasn’t Coby, Anthony would have to go through all that heartache again. It would be worse this time. The Coby before was his other half, his twin born to a different mother. But in the years Coby was gone, Anthony’s image of him had changed. His dreams were no longer of the two running over hills, swimming in creeks, or playing hide and seek in caves, but playing a game far older.
How many times had Anthony dreamed of his first kiss? Sometimes it was in the caves, sometimes by a creek, but the one that came most often was at the stone circle. Coby—it was always Coby—would lean forward and brush Anthony’s lips, then Anthony would back him against the biggest stone and they would perform the ceremony of One Heart and leave their mingled seed as a sacrifice to the spirits.
This kind of thinking would get him nowhere. Anthony tugged on maybe-Coby’s hand. “Come on. Let’s go home and patch you up.”
Anthony chose the narrower paths so he wouldn’t have to look at maybe-Coby. This guy was tall, taller than Anthony would have expected him to be—Coby had always been smaller than Anthony—and he looked as if he wasn’t done growing. His skin was the milky white of someone who never spent a day under any sun. No planet-bound person could ever be that pale. If this really was Coby and if he stayed, then his color would return. He used to darken quickly each summer.
This wouldn’t be so hard if maybe-Coby wasn’t this handsome. Did Anthony only want this to be Coby because this is what he wished Coby looked like? As a child Coby’s features had been big and awkward, but he had grown into them. He was graceful in a way he hadn’t been as a child. Now that his sight was back, he hadn’t tripped over a root or caught a branch in his long hair. What was the hair about anyway? It was longer than a woman’s and shone brightly in the patches of sunlight.
Being in front didn’t help. He could feel maybe-Coby’s eyes on him and when he turned back to look, those eyes were drinking him in.
Jacob never let go of Andy’s hand as he followed him through the forest. The hills looked so different with trees on them. Andy looked so different. He had grown up, beautifully of course, because he was Andy. He was shorter than Jacob, but he might still be growing. They were only seventeen after all. Jacob hoped that they both stopped growing soon or grew together, because Andy’s mouth looked to be at the perfect height for Jacob to kiss.
Andy turned and Jacob nearly did kiss him. He was just right, just perfect. If only the distrust would leave his eyes, but then caution was one of the things that made Andy Andy. Jacob lifted a hand to Andy’s temple. “You’re hurt.”
Andy leaned away and shook his head. “It’s not much. Thirsty?”
He passed over a canteen. Even from the metal container, the water tasted like home. “What happened to the village?”
“Gaillard didn’t like us asking questions about you.” Andy paused, biting his lower lip. “The guards called you young master.”
“The governor has it in his head that I am his son, just because he was married to my mother and all,” Jacob said quickly, unsure of how Andy would take it. “I guess I lived in the palace when I was little. I don’t remember her or him. If you ask me, Darnell is my father.”
Andy nodded. “Darnell misses you a lot. That’s why we are fighting. We were told you were dead.”
Oh, that explained why Andy wasn’t happier to see him. “You know it’s me—Coby, right? I’ll show you my scars to prove it.”
Andy blushed a dark pink. Like any energetic boys on worlds without advanced technology, they had their fair share of scars. Jacob had one from his hip bone to the top of his thigh from the time he’d angered a nanny goat. He had other smaller ones as well, but that had to be the one Andy was blushing over.
Jacob grinned. He wanted Andy thinking about that part of his body. “Let’s get home.”
The village might be gone, but home was anywhere with the ones he loved.
The path widened and Coby’s easy strides kept up with Anthony perfectly. If Anthony closed his eyes, he would feel like he had stepped back in time. Coby was at his side. Coby—this had to be Coby; he even breathed the same way. As they walked, Coby explained how his mother had died while Gaillard was offworld and Rayburn, who Coby had called Uncle Ray, sent him to live with Darnell. When Gaillard had returned several years later, he had been unhappy to find his son being raised as a native.
“I was shipped off to Paxton to ‘learn my heritage’ or whatever. The governor’s family has been taking over planets like Verlin for generation. The oldest son stays to run things and his brothers try to find planets of their own. I guess they are famous and I look just like them, so I could never escape comparisons. Johnpaul Jacob Gaillard the fifth, or is it sixth? I’d rather be Coby.”
Anthony nodded. At his school, he’d learned that moving a forest, holding elections that the natives weren’t allowed to vote in, relocating villagers, and a few people disappearing was nothing compared to what some planets suffered under their self-appointed governors.
But when one of the missing was your son, or brother, or best friend….
“Why would Rayburn tell us you were dead?”
Coby shook his head. “He knew where I was. He’s my mother’s brother. He attended my graduation. Did you know that at Paxton only the top students get hot showers?”
Anthony had heard that, but these were the children of the elite, so he hadn’t believed it. “I’m kind of partial to hot water myself.”
As they walked Coby told stories about his school, of learning to read and write, to fight, and to fly. “The best pilots don’t have to share a room with seven other guys.”
Coby’s familiar rhythm, even with the difference in how deep the voice was, was relaxing. Anthony hadn’t felt this free in years. It was like a dream.
Jacob stopped by a huge fallen tree. He looked over his shoulder. The ivy-covered stone circle was behind him. That meant that the cave opening was just about… He pointed. “Home?”
Andy bit his lower lip. “For now.”
Once inside the cave, Jacob could forget everything, his long absence, the governor’s actions, Uncle Ray’s motivation. He was a kid again without a care in the world. “The main cave?”
“Not yet,” said Andy in the darkness. “We need to patch you up.”
“The treasure room.”
Jacob took the lead. The boys had called it the treasure room because the shelves carved into the chalk walls were perfect places for feathers, sticks, colored rocks, and other interesting things. He easily found his way in the dark, but right when he thought he should have entered the cave he ran smack into something.
“Sorry,” said Andy. “I should have told you. This is a store room now. The entrance is on the far right.”
Jacob felt along the wall of crates and found the opening. A moment later a light flashed. Andy had lit the lamp. The cave looked very different full of crates, barrels, and bags. Andy motioned to a crate as he grabbed a small box. “Let’s get you patched up.”
That was how Andy’s mother had always put it when they came in bleeding. Jacob smiled, glad something hadn’t changed. “Then it’s your turn.”
“Whatever. Just sit down.”
Jacob obeyed. The medical kit was primitive—by the standards of his school—but better than the ripped sheets and herbs that he’d been patched up with before he left the planet. The antiseptic Andy used to clean Jacob’s head didn’t even sting. Jacob closed his eyes and listened to Andy hum. Andy always hummed as he worked, but it was never a whole song, just a few lines or a chorus repeated endlessly.
This tune was one of the old ones that went with many different songs. He could be thinking about roving without a care in the world or working hard now for future rewards or even that song about the lady who left her husband only to find out her new lover wasn’t human at all. Did Andy still not believe that Jacob was Coby?
“I don’t have any of those paint-on bandages, but it’s stopped bleeding so you should be fine. Let’s see your shoulder.” Andy spread Coby’s vest.
“Watch out,” Jacob said. He liked the feel of Andy’s hands on his chest and the way Andy worried his lip made Jacob want to kiss it better. “I ripped the scab away once already.”
Andy shook his head and rolled his eyes the way he used to when Jacob did something particularly stupid. Jacob grinned and the corners of Andy’s mouth turned up. Andy was so close. If Jacob just reached out his arm… he would probably rip the scab off again. He sighed, leaned against the wall of crates, and concentrated on not getting aroused by Andy’s touch while he was being doctored. But that was a lost cause really.
Andy had calluses on his hands and they felt just right against Jacob’s skin. Andy was careful as he always was and removed the fabric without causing the wound to bleed. Jacob’s eyes followed the wet cloth as Andy wiped the blood from Jacob’s chest. The cloth was cold, but warmed quickly against his skin, which wasn’t surprising with how hot as he felt under Andy’s gaze.
All too soon he was clean. Andy dried off the area around the wound and put a bandage on it. Jacob moved his arm around to see where the pain began. As long as he didn’t lift his elbow above his head, the wound didn’t hurt.
“Hey, stop that,” said Andy. “I just patched you up.”
Jacob grinned. “Your turn.”
“No,” said Andy. “I’m all right.”
“I’ll be the judge of that,” Jacob said, getting to his feet. “Anyway, you’re bleeding.”
Jacob grinned at the set line of Andy’s lips. He put his hands on Andy’s shoulders and pushed him down onto the crate. Andy rolled his eyes, but as Jacob got on his knees in front of him, Andy bit his lip. What was he thinking?
Andy’s vest was not like Jacob’s. It had no visible fasteners. Jacob used the opportunity to trace the two front seams with his fingertips. Andy’s breath caught then he blushed, pushing Jacob’s hands away. “Let me do that.”
Jacob grinned. The vest was closed with RealSeal along one of the seams. RealSeal was older technology and probably perfect for rebels who spent most of their resources on weapons and food. The fasteners on the Paxton uniform used super-old technology that was manufactured just for the school. The students couldn’t decide if it was to keep anyone from making reproductions or a consequence of the same philosophy that lead to cold showers and overstuffed dorms.
“What at you smiling at?” asked Andy as he let go of his open vest.
Jacob spread his hands across Andy’s chest. “You are very beautiful.”
Andy bit his bottom lip. Something was on his mind, but not the right something, or he would have blushed. Jacob gently pushed the vest off Andy’s shoulders, biting his own lip to keep from tasting the tempting skin. The vest had blood near the hem on one side, but Andy’s trousers didn’t. Jacob picked up the wet cloth and wiped Andy clean. The only wounds Jacob could see were on Andy’s temple and a scrape on his shoulder that was already scabbing over. “What happened?”
“We got into a skirmish about a kilometer from the palace. One of our men was hurt. He fell against me and I bumped into a tree.” Andy touched his shoulder.
“And this,” asked Jacob, daubing antiseptic on Andy’s temple.
“Plain bad luck.”
Jacob grinned. “There is nothing plain about you.”
Andy lifted his hands palm out between them. “Quit that. I don’t know what you—”
“You know what I want,” Jacob said, leaning his chest against Andy’s hands. “I want to be like before—only more.”
Then he lowered his mouth for a kiss.
Warm lips pressed against Anthony’s and because they were Coby’s lips, Anthony opened his on instinct. He welcomed the probing tongue inside as he wrapped his arms around Coby’s back. This is what he wanted, what he dreamed about. Of course, in his dreams the angle was always perfect and nothing ever poked him in the back.
Anthony pulled himself closer to Coby then broke the kiss and buried his face against Coby’s neck. Coby didn’t smell the same, but he was eating different foods and using different soaps. Still, Andy felt a pang of loss. What else was different? Could they ever be like they once were, only more? Was that even possible?
Coby shifted back to his knees and lifted Anthony’s chin. “You are thinking too much.”
Coby’s mouth took his again and this time Anthony held back nothing. He ran his hands along Coby’s arms and down his bare back as far as he could reach then slipped off the crate. Coby sat back, pulling Anthony with him and after a few moments of adjusting, Anthony was straddling Coby’s cross-legged lap. This put their mouth at an even level and they breathed hot breaths against each other’s cheeks.
This was good. This was right. This was what Anthony wanted. He ran his hands down Coby’s chest and set about devouring Coby’s tongue. Coby pulled Anthony’s hips closer to his and Anthony was forced to grab hold of Coby’s shoulders to keep from falling backwards.
Coby hissed and Anthony moved his hand from the bandage. “Sorry.”
“Kiss it better.”
Anthony leaned back to get a better look at Coby’s face. Coby’s grin heated Anthony’s chest. Coby pulled Anthony closer and kissed the scab on his shoulder. “Like this.”
Then Coby moved his kisses across Anthony’s collarbone and up his neck. Anthony breathed shallowly, his body growing hotter. Coby sucked hard right under Anthony’s ear. At the same time Anthony felt something against his stomach. He tried to move away, but Coby’s arm across his back kept him firmly in place. Still, it was nice here in Coby’s arms, a place he never thought he’d be. He sought Coby’s mouth and ran his hands through Coby’s long, silky hair.
Something touched Anthony’s dick and it wasn’t through cloth either. RealSeal unfastened clothes silently; Anthony had never considered it a problem before. He pulled away from the kiss, but Coby didn’t let him go far. Sure Anthony liked the kisses, but he wasn’t ready for the rest. Not until he was sure that this was Coby and that Coby was on their side. He was almost positive, but what if almost wasn’t enough? What if someone found them like this? What if someone found them and it turned out this wasn’t Coby at all? “Wait.”
Coby moved his hand from Anthony’s dick and rubbed Anthony’s back with both hands. “Andy, don’t make me stop. You were always the cautious one, keeping me out of trouble, but I’m not the same boy I was. I have been taught to lead, to follow my instincts. My instincts say that we should keep going. If we don’t, we may never start again. Tell me, would you be satisfied if this is all that ever happens between us?”
No, Anthony wouldn’t.
“And if I let you go now,” said Coby against Anthony’s neck, “You would just come up with more reasons to say no later.”
That was probably the truth. “I just…”
“Anyone could walk in on us. I have a pallet around the back.”
Coby kissed Anthony’s neck then leaned back, so Anthony could get off his lap. When Anthony tried to fasten his trousers, Coby took his hand. “Don’t bother.”
Anthony blushed at Coby’s leer. He had never imagined Coby would look like that, so grown up, so in control, so full of want and need and lust. It took Anthony’s breath away. Coby stood up without letting go of Anthony and picked up the lamp. “Where?”
Holding up his trousers with one hand, Anthony led Coby around a wall of crates and to his pallet in the back corner. Coby set the lamp on the floor and fell to his knees at Anthony’s feet. He tugged the fabric from Anthony’s fingers and spread it. Anthony couldn’t take his eyes away as Coby leaned forward and licked his dick. Coby’s tongue was warm and wet and sent shivers though Anthony’s entire body.
Coby smiled then licked him again. Anthony drew in a shaky breath, but it came out as a moan when Coby sucked him in. That felt like nothing Anthony had ever experienced before. Coby’s heat radiated from his mouth and his hands and his chest pressed against Anthony’s legs, heating Anthony until the very air in his lungs burned. He dug his fingers into Coby’s hair and gasped for breath. Coby sucked him deeper. Anthony moaned. How could his body take this? How could anybody’s? Wouldn’t he die of this? Die now that he was finally with Coby again?
His body was a bonfire, an oven, a laser blast that could melt rock. His skin was molten and sucking sounds that filled the air sent him still higher. “Coby, Coby, I—”
But he could only make a strangled sound as waves of ecstasy rolled over him. Seed spewed from him and in the haze he felt Cody swallow. “No, Coby. You don’t have to.”
But Coby didn’t listen. He just sucked harder, milking the last of Anthony’s seed. Anthony had dreamed of this, but in his dreams Coby was always shy and never wanted to swallow. Real life was better. Much better.
Anthony swayed on his feet. Cody pulled off with a wet smack and a sigh. Anthony’s head spun. His legs were too weak to hold him. He sank to his knees and then lay on his back. Coby ran his hands over Anthony’s body. Anthony closed his eyes and made little grunts and sighs. He was so much more sensitive than just a few moments ago. Coby sucked in a nipple and Anthony arched his back. The shock waves echoed inside his body. He liked Coby’s hands on him. He hoped Coby never stopped.
Coby’s warm tongue flicked across the swollen nipple and then down the scar that Anthony got while climbing a rock when he was ten. “You still have the scar. You seem more real, more Andy with the scars in the same place.”
Anthony hummed in assent. He would have agreed to anything as long as Coby kept touching him. A strange hush filled the air and then Coby took Anthony’s hand. “I want to feel more real to you.”
Under Anthony’s forefinger was Coby’s hip with the scar, a bumpy line on Coby’s otherwise smooth skin. But against the edge of Anthony’s hand rested Coby’s hard dick, still unsatisfied. This was his left hand, though, and he didn’t think he could do the organ justice with his left, so he rolled onto his side and opened his eyes.
Coby’s eyes were dark as coals in the half light and his lips were open and full. Anthony leaned closer and sucked in Coby’s lower lip, bringing his right hand down to Coby’s dick. He had never gotten anyone off before except himself and his few times felt nothing like where he went with Coby. “Coby. Never leave me again. Never.”
He wrapped his hand around Coby’s dick and Coby’s reply was cut off by a gasp. Anthony grinned, enjoying Coby’s reaction. He ran his hand down then back up. The next time he did it, his hand squeezed tighter, but not tight enough to hurt. Coby moaned and Anthony leaned forward to catch the sound in his mouth.
Coby slid one arm under Anthony’s neck and the fingers of his other hand dug into Anthony’s arm above the elbow like he never wanted Anthony to stop. Anthony turned his left hand so he could massage Coby’s balls. Coby hummed and his tongue vibrated. Next time Coby sucked him off, Anthony would have to do this. He wanted to feel that vibration around his dick. But for right now, he would make Coby feel good.
He got up on his knees and straddled Coby. Coby’s eyes were heavy, and he made little gasps like a child in want of a toy as his fingers dug into the bedclothes. He was more like the Coby Anthony had been raised with—in need and looking to Anthony to fill it—than he had been since they had met again. Was this all it took to bring the old Coby back? Not that Anthony didn’t like the new one, too.
His own dick got hard again and his temperature rose. He leaned forward to get another taste of those inviting lips. Coby wrapped arms around Anthony’s shoulders, holding on tightly, while his tongue did amazing things in Anthony’s mouth. Anthony slipped his left hand deeper in Coby’s trousers.
“Shouldn’t we,” gasped Coby, turning his head, “wait for the stone circle.”
So Coby wanted to perform One Heart with him? Had he dreamed of it like Anthony had? Anthony moved his hand back to Coby’s balls. He sucked in Coby’s earlobe and hummed. Coby jerked in his hands, gasping loudly. Anthony hummed again.
“I’ll wait, but not long.” Anthony was amazed at his own words. They were true, but he was never this bold—at least not since they were young. Back then Coby would follow him anywhere and do anything he asked. Andy had learned to be careful of what he asked of his friend, but now was not the time for caution. Coby was back in his arms at last. “Tomorrow at noon, with the sun on our skin, I will make you mine.”
“Andy, Andy,” Coby screamed then froze. What had happen? Had Anthony said something wrong? But Coby’s dick pulsed in his hand and warm liquid spattered against his chest. He sighed in relief even as he pumped Coby’s dick with renewed vigor. Coby gasped, moaned, and purred under him. Was Coby enjoying it as much as Anthony had? He looked like he was.
Coby let out a final gasp and his body relaxed. He smiled up at Anthony. “Andy, I love you.”
Anthony opened his mouth to reply, but a loud knock filled the air.
“You guys have had enough time to check scars,” said Brayden, muffled like he was still outside the cave. “What’s the verdict, Anthony? Is this our Coby?”
Anthony and Coby quickly wiped their chests with Anthony’s blanket and fastened their trousers. Anthony picked up the lamp and took Coby’s hand before they walked around the wall of crates. Luckily, Brayden and whoever he was with were still around the other wall. Anthony pulled on his vest, but had to help Coby into his because of his shoulder.
“Well,” said Brayden, coming around the corner.
“Brayden,” Coby yelled, throwing himself at his older brother, and then he looked over Brayden’s shoulder. “Dad.”
Anthony smiled at the family reunion and caught his own father’s eye. They still had a lot to speak about.
“And,” said Melden, Andy’s dad, “Rayburn used this lie to get us to overthrow Governor Gaillard for him. The resistance was financed by groups opposed to self-imposed governors. Rayburn didn’t actually give us a penny. Whenever anyone realized this, they disappeared.”
“So much for all we supposedly owe him,” said Brayden from on top of a barrel in the corner. Jacob—Coby was sitting on the crate with Andy between his legs. He pulled Andy against his chest and after only a moment of indecision, Andy settled back with a sigh.
“I guess,” said Coby’s dad, “you are really Gaillard’s son.”
“No,” said Coby, tensing up. “I am your son. I have always been, for as long as I can remember.”
His dad rubbed his head. “It’s all right. You can be both.”
“But Dad,” Coby said, reaching for his arm. “You’re the dad I love.” He looked around at his dad and brother and Andy’s parents. “You guys are the family I love. The ones I love.”
Everyone smiled and he could feel their love for him.
“I have an idea if Andy’s willing to let you cut your hair,” said Brayden, eying the two of them.
“He can always grow it back out,” said Andy, running his fingers through the lock of Coby’s hair that he’d pulled across his chest. “What’s the plan?”
“One,” said Brayden, pointing at Coby. “Coby was sent off to that fancy school to learn to rule a planet.”
Coby sighed, not just to rule, but to conquer as well.
“Two,” Brayden lifted another finger, “Gaillard wants his son in one piece more than he wants Verlin.”
“So he says,” Melden acknowledged.
“Three, we need a governor now that we’ve joined the Galactic Union.”
“Yes,” said Ella, Andy’s mother. “Even though the only people allowed to vote were Gaillard’s men.”
“And four, if we take back the planet, one of those resistance supporter organizations will send ships to make sure no one takes Verlin away from us again.”
“That’s what they’ve promised,” said Andy. “They are pretty protective of us once we are free.”
“I think,” Brayden said in his way that made people feel stupid if they disagreed with him, “we should send Gaillard a lock of Coby’s hair and tell him to leave or else. We inform our connection that Verlin is ours again. They send ships into orbit. Then we tell Rayburn that he’s not the new governor—Coby is—and send him away.”
They talked about it for a while, but couldn’t come up with anything better. Coby’s stomach rumbled. He hadn’t eaten breakfast and it must be well past noon. “All right,” he said. “I’ll do it, but when we fill out the transfer of power forms, I don’t want to be Johnpaul Jacob or even Jacob Gaillard. I want to be Coby of Verlin.”
Andy tilted his head back and kissed Coby’s cheek. “You have always been Coby to me.”