Smuggling, and How to Make Interstellar Exploration Work For You

by Aosora Hikaru (青空ヒカル)


The computer chimed and flashed a confirmation of the set faster-than-light course on its nav screen. I leaned back in my seat and let the autopilot take over, then yawned and stretched.

“Come on, you haven’t been awake that long,” a voice from behind me teased.

“And I didn’t get enough sleep last night,” I said, turning in the chair to raise an eyebrow at Callum. The light from the computer screens cast a pallid glow over his pale features and made his red hair appear purplish. Even though he hadn’t danced in months, his body still moved with fluid, graceful sweeps.

He rolled his eyes as he pulled the braid over his shoulder and ran his hands down its length. “Please, like you’re complaining, Andrew. As I recall, you practically begged me to keep going.”

I shook my head. “Yeah, okay, fine. Daphne’s got a course set for Van Karet, and I’m sure we can find a job or two there.”

Callum chuckled and patted his hand against the side of the cockpit. “The only woman you’ll ever love.”

“She’s reliable. Never let me down yet.” I raked a hand through my hair, which Callum had taken to trimming for me once he started riding with me. I looked considerably less scruffy now, and wasn’t sure this was helping my smuggler image. “I’m going to try to catch a nap. Wake me up if anything important happens.”

“That would be a first,” he said as he ran his hands over his braid again. “I’ll keep an eye on stuff up here. Go ahead and sleep.”

I dropped a kiss to the top of his head, then wandered back to the crew cabin. Daphne — registered officially as Saint Peter’s Hope — was a small cargo freighter, easily staffed alone but built to house more if needed. She had a few cots I used to sleep in when I flew her solo, but now Callum and I shared a double bed stuffed into a corner of the cabin. It was much more comfortable than the cots, so even now I crawled under the covers and pulled the blankets around me.

It hadn’t really been that long since we’d gotten together, but it felt like forever since that night in the casino where he’d come up to me, all false eyelashes and glitter, introduced himself as Caerwyn, and tried to persuade me to buy his companionship for the evening. I’d declined that initial request, but it was only a month later he was banging on Daphne’s hull, frozen from the sleet and rain that often fell on Traith. We’d both felt the pull, and we both were unable to resist. He’d stayed that night, and never left.

Once I settled in, sleep quickly overcame me. A few hours later, I awoke to Callum wrapped around me, a soft snore filling the air. I gently disentangled myself from his limbs and pulled my boots back on to check on the cockpit again. Daphne’s systems all registered as normal, and I double-checked our location on the faster-than-light route before heading to the galley. I still kept it dry, even with Callum’s presence, so there would be no alcohol to amuse myself with tonight, but I could at least start dinner before Callum woke up from his nap.

The next three weeks passed in relative quiet, as faster-than-light trips tend to, and then we were on Van Karet: A boring planet by any stretch of the imagination — mostly plains, lots of farmers, only one large city — but there were always smuggling jobs to be had there, so we stopped by every few months.

Van Karet’s capital city was the only city on the planet, and it tried to be more than it actually was. It had all the neon lights and tall buildings other cities had, but you could tell it was compensation. That wasn’t Van Karet, it just wasn’t. As a result, the city had grown faster than the government infrastructure, and it was easy to find black market or just-this-side-of-legal jobs.

Callum garnered a lot of stares, as he often did; I knew I wasn’t the reason the gazes of men and women alike followed us down the street. There was a reason he’d been successful as a dancer and prostitute, and even now he would use the attention he gathered to his advantage if it helped us. It was hard to resist when a man you found attractive had a gun pointed at you.

There were a few casinos and bars, but one in particular had the clientele we knew would get us our jobs, so we made our way over to the bar nestled deep in the city center. It had an unassuming storefront, hidden amongst older office buildings and low-rent apartments. I was fairly sure the local authorities knew what sorts of business happened there, but I don’t think they could quite find it in them to care.

It took a moment for my eyes to adjust from the light outside, but it didn’t take long to locate a regular client. I nudged Callum with my elbow, and we moved over to sit at his booth across from him.

“Barton. Lovely to see you and your… associate again.”

I heard Callum sigh next to me. People still assumed he was a hired companion, even people like this client we saw frequently.

“Yes, my partner. In case you forgot, this is Reid,” I said. We stuck to last names only with clients, figuring it was better that way.

The client flushed, then cleared his throat. “Reid, then. I presume, Barton, that since you are here, you are looking for a job.”

“If you have one to give,” Callum said. I could tell by his tone he was irritated by the client’s assumption, and I rested a hand on his thigh, giving it a light squeeze.

“As a matter of fact, I do,” the client said as he pushed an electronic pad toward us. “Just moving some Powder, nothing too complicated.”

I picked up the e-pad and tried not to roll my eyes. Always with the dangerously addictive drugs. Never weapons, always drugs. “This isn’t that far away. You can’t do it yourself?”

“I am not… equipped… to move this quantity,” the client replied.

I flicked through a few more screens on the e-pad, then synced the details to my palm computer. “All right, we’ll do it. How much?”

“Ten thousand credits.”

“Ten thousand?!” Callum exclaimed. “This is worth at least double that!”

I gave Callum’s thigh a squeeze again, but spoke up anyway. “I have to agree with Reid, here. This risk isn’t worth only ten thousand.”

The client sighed. “I can go no higher than fifteen.”

I cast a glance over at Callum. He didn’t look happy, but gave a begrudging nod.

“We’ll take the fifteen. I’m in docking bay twenty. We’re leaving tomorrow by 1500, so you need to have it loaded into my ship before then.”

The client poked at his e-pad for a few seconds. “The Saint Peter’s Hope, correct?”

“Yes, that’s her.” I nodded. “Remember, by 1500 tomorrow.”

“I’ll have it done, Barton,” the client promised. “You’ll be ready by 1200.”

I nodded to the client, then nudged Callum out of the booth. “All right, we’ll be waiting. I’ll send you a message when it’s delivered, and I will meet you back here when we are done.”

It didn’t make any sense to seek out another job when we already had one substantial one, so we just headed back to the docking bay. It was winding toward evening anyway, and I didn’t particularly relish the thought of being out in this part of town at night. Especially not with how people kept staring at Callum. He was more than capable of protecting himself, but I didn’t feel like a fight that night.

Daphne was waiting there in the docking bay, reliable as always, and we boarded together. The gangway wasn’t even all the way up when Callum pushed me up against the wall and stretched up onto his toes to kiss me hard. He shoved his hands into my hair and held me into the kiss, and I couldn’t help but groan against his lips. True, watching those people on the street stare at him ignited that possessive streak in me, and I really wanted nothing more than to stake my claim again, even though nobody out there would know I had.

I started to tug at the bottom of his shirt, and he backed away just enough to peel it off and kiss me again, then he murmured against my lips, “Let’s go get in the shower.”

I grinned and kissed him again, harder, then grabbed his hand and led him through the corridors to the bathroom. We got caught up a few times as we worked our ways through the halls, shedding articles of clothing and kissing each other as we went, but we eventually made it.

It was difficult to tear myself away from him long enough to turn on the shower. The whole time I fiddled with the knobs to find the perfect temperature, I could feel Callum behind me, hands wandering over my skin, lips brushing against the backs of my shoulders. A shiver went through my body as I turned to face him again. My body sang with anticipation, and under it I was dimly aware of just how hard I was. As I embraced Callum, he pressed himself against me and moaned softly as his own cock rubbed against my thigh.

“Come on, let’s get in,” I said, pulling him under the spray with me. My hair was short enough that I didn’t have to worry about it as soon as the water hit, but Callum’s hair was near waist-length and required some adjustments before it fell down his back in a red sheet. As soon as he had that settled, he stretched up to press a kiss to my collarbone.

“I had a feeling this wasn’t just a chance to get clean,” I breathed.

He shook his head against my chest, speaking between kisses. “No, not entirely.”

I adjusted to lean back against the wall, knowing what he was heading for — not that it was a secret anyway, with how he was quickly working his way down my body toward my dick. I pushed his hair back from his face when the water from the shower pushed it forward, my breath picking up the closer he got. After what seemed like way too long and somehow not nearly long enough, he licked a long stripe up the underside of my cock. I let my head fall back against the wall of the shower stall, and breathed a soft moan as he took all of me into his mouth. He set to work quickly, and I forced myself to open my eyes again and look down at him. The sight of him sucking me off was almost as good as the feeling itself, of course, and it wouldn’t do to squander such an opportunity.

The water from the shower ran over his head, pushing his hair around his face, and I took up the futile effort of pushing it back every few seconds, as much as I could focus to do it. I couldn’t let it block my view, of course. The way his lips — those gorgeous, full lips — wrapped around me, the way his eyelids fluttered every time he took me deep, the soft hums and moans we both let out… I loved getting head from Callum, almost as much as I loved him moving under me in our bed.

“Yeah, just like that,” I murmured, pulling a handful of his hair back in a gentle fist. When I spoke, he moved his eyes up to meet mine, and I saw the corners of his lips curl up in a hint of a smile.

I knew that smile. It was a dangerous thing, that smile, one that promised everything I could ever want and more. It was the same sort of smile he’d given me back in the casino, all those months ago. It was the same smile he gave potential marks, when our smuggling jobs called for acquiring items from individuals who didn’t want to part with them. I loved that smile.

He drew back enough to get a breath, then began to drive himself forward, relentless in the motions of his tongue. My hand in his hair tightened, and I couldn’t help but moan again as I started to move my own hips forward to meet his movements. He sputtered as I struck the back of his throat, but moaned louder when I pulled back, his hands coming up and gripping tightly to my hips.

God, I loved to do this to him, knowing that he enjoyed it just as much as me. I loved how he gave in to me, and how he did his best to drive me over the edge in my own pleasure. It never took long when he allowed me to do this, when the sights and sounds and sensations combined into a perfect storm of ecstasy: my cock slipping into his mouth, the way the water from the shower ran over his face and flared out from his nose on each rough exhale, the feel of his tongue as he sucked and stroked my length. That blended look of struggle and sublime acceptance on his face each time I thrust forward.

I knew it would be a wasted effort here in the shower, with the water cascading over his face, but I pulled him back anyway. With a few quick strokes of my hand, I came with a loud groan, long strands of my come stretching across his face. He smiled that smile again, and darted a tongue out to try to reach one before they all washed away. The water flowed into his open mouth, and he looked down with a tug against my grip on his hair to let it run out again.

“Come for me,” I said. “While you’re down there on your knees.”

He cast his eyes back up at me, the water still running over that gorgeous hair, and reached down to stroke himself. He kept eye contact as long as he could, but before long he had his face turned up again and his eyes closed, his hips rocking up into each stroke of his hand. He was gorgeous, so beautiful there before me, and though the water had washed most of my work off, I could still see a bit of my spunk clinging to his eyebrows and lashes. He must have worked himself up while sucking me off, because it didn’t take long before he came into his own fist.

I let go of his hair and helped him up, kissed him hard, and then reached behind him for the soap. “Let’s get you cleaned up.”

True to his word, the client had us ready to go by noon, but we still waited until 1500 to leave. I wanted to make sure we had ample time to prepare Daphne for the trip, because nothing was worse than finding out halfway there that you forgot something important.

Van Karet didn’t have adequate security staff to investigate us loading the freighter, which I was glad for — it was always a hassle on Traith with how nosy they were. We barely had to lift a finger as the client’s men loaded the crates of Powder into Daphne’s cargo hold, and then Callum and I took the time to double-check her stores and ensure we had everything we needed for the journey.

The delivery was only a couple of systems away, a faster-than-light jump of three or so days. We’d only need a little over a week’s worth of supplies and it was easy enough to get those, then we went about running the undocking and launch procedures. While I was more than able to do it all myself, it was nice to have Callum there to help; the procedures took less than half the time with two.

It was easy enough to pass the time while we traveled the faster-than-light route. Some card games here and there interspersed with plenty of sex kept us from getting too bored. When we arrived on Narvil, it wasn’t too difficult to find the contact, though finding him alone proved to be a more challenging task. Finally, after six hours, we managed to corner him in a casino.

“Hello, gentlemen,” he said, careful to keep his voice measured.

“Hello,” Callum said, his own voice low and silky. I kept back, knowing what Callum was aiming for here.

The contact’s eyes flicked from Callum to me and back, and he cleared his throat. “Can I help you?”

Callum smiled, that dangerous smile I loved again, and pressed himself up against the contact. “We have something for you. I want you to pretend that you have purchased my companionship for the evening. Be aware, of course, that I am not actually for sale; my partner here will ensure that you keep your hands to yourself.”

I nodded, my hand pulling aside my jacket enough to expose the holster hidden under my arm.

The contact’s eyes grew wide, and Callum stretched up to speak directly into his ear. “He won’t use it unless he has to. Do understand that we have assets of our own to protect.”

“Of course,” the contact said. “I presume you are from Van Karet?”

I nodded again in confirmation. I let Callum do all the talking here; he was better at extracting marks from public places than I ever was.

“Please, come with me back to our ship,” Callum said, a little louder. “We can… negotiate there.” He looped his arm through the contact’s, and began to lead him outside. I saw the contact stiffen as Callum started outside, and heard the soft murmur of Callum’s voice. “I promise, you are safe. This is all for show.”

“Won’t we get in trouble for prostitution?” The contact asked.

Callum shook his head. “For one thing, they can prove nothing. For another, prostitution is… less illegal.”

The contact seemed to consider this, then nodded, and relaxed. As we walked through the streets of Narvil’s capital city, he grew bolder with his acting, either because he wanted to actually play along with our suggestion or because he truly wanted Callum. I followed a few paces behind, my mood growing darker as I watched his hand wander over Callum’s back, fingers combing through his hair. He got brave enough to actually grab Callum’s ass, and I had to clench my jaw hard to keep from punching him out right there. Callum, to his credit, only giggled and urged him to wait. Ever the actor, but that was why he was successful in the oldest profession, whereas I was not.

We shut the docking bay doors behind us, and Callum immediately stepped back from the contact to stand next to me. “I assume you have men to help you unload this?”

“Let me see it first,” he said.

I rolled my eyes and stepped forward, opening Daphne’s cargo hold. “Here you go. Powder, crated up nice and neat. Now, do you have men to help you unload this? We cannot help you.”

The contact poked his head into the cargo hold, then straightened up and nodded. “Yeah, I’ve got some guys. We can be back here tomorrow at 0930 to pick it up.”

“We’ll be waiting,” I said. “Do not be late.”

He looked at me, and I could tell that he heard my unspoken threat. “We’ll be here.”

I nodded, and closed the cargo hold again as Callum escorted him out of the docking bay. When Callum came back up to me, I grabbed him and pulled him into a rough, demanding kiss. He melted against me, a soft moan escaping as I released him. He stepped back, slightly dazed, and then his lips curled into a smile. He knew what I wanted. He knew I’d been walking behind him, watching the contact feel him up. Callum knew I needed to erase all that with my own hands, my own lips.

“Get inside the ship,” I growled.

Even with my insistence upon staking my claim again we managed a decent amount of sleep, dressed and ready again before the contact came back for the Powder. I made sure we were both armed, just in case. I never trusted these people, which honestly meant I was probably in the wrong line of work.

Or maybe it meant I was in the right one, since I refused to let anyone pull one over on me.

Luckily for us, the contact was an honest man — at least, as honest as a man involved with smuggling could be — and we didn’t need to do much more than prove we were armed to keep them in line. He’d arrived on time, with a crew in tow, and they unloaded and were gone in less than an hour. I made sure I had a proper delivery receipt on my palm computer, then led Callum back onto Daphne. We left Narvil and set course back for Van Karet, and spent another three days passing the time with sex and card games.

Back in Van Karet, we made our way back to that tiny unassuming bar, and located the client in his normal booth in the corner.

He nodded as we approached, and as we slipped into the booth, he said, “Barton, Reid. I got the notification. Good work.”

“Thank you. Now, as for payment…” I pulled out my palm computer and poked at the screen a few times. “When can we expect that?”

“It’ll be in your account by the end of the day.” He glanced around him, then leaned forward over the table. “I have another job for you, if you’re interested.”

I looked over at Callum and he looked interested, so I turned back to the client. “What is it?”

“I have an item of great worth. At least, I presume it’s of great worth… I don’t actually know what it is. Claudius Blackrake wishes to purchase it from me, for a substantial amount. I need you to deliver it for me.”

Next to me, I felt Callum tense. I’d learned more about the reasons why he’d quit dancing at that casino as time had gone on, not the least of which being that Claudius Blackrake had started to view Callum as a conquest, a prize to be won. He desired to have Callum — as Caerwyn — on his arm exclusively. I had become an out for him, once he realized we were both feeling that irresistible pull, and he’d quit dancing as soon as he’d realized that.

We had an unspoken agreement to not take jobs from Blackrake anymore. I opened my mouth to decline the job offer, but before I could, Callum spoke up.

“How much?”

I blinked a few times, but stayed silent and let Callum handle this. It was his right to decide if he wanted to risk facing Blackrake again, and I wouldn’t take that from him.

“Claudius Blackrake is willing to pay a million credits for this item. I am willing to give you one-third of that.”

“Not enough,” Callum said, his voice taking on a dangerous edge. “We need half.”

“I assure you, Mr. Blackrake is a more than reasonable man. You will not face any danger–”

Callum slapped his hands on the table, spitting through clenched teeth, “Do not presume what I face with Claudius Blackrake. Half, or we walk.”

The client turned to me, and I raised my eyebrows. “You heard him. Reid speaks for both of us.”

Silence stretched on between us until finally, the client nodded. “Fine. Half. But only if you deliver it safely. Otherwise you get nothing.”

“Fair enough,” I said. “Where is it?”

“It’s right here,” the client said, and he slid a small disk across the table to me. It was plain and nondescript, just a flat silver thing about four inches in diameter.

“That’s it?” I asked incredulously, turning it over in my hands.

“That’s it,” he said. “Mr. Blackrake will be waiting for you on Traith.”

I nodded, and followed Callum as he led us out of the bar. He was tense, and his body language screamed of rage boiling under the surface.

“We didn’t have to take that job, you know,” I said.

Callum wheeled around, right there in the middle of the street there, and glared at me. “I know that. I know. But I can’t let him keep me down like this. I can’t keep running away.”

I frowned, stepping closer to embrace him and wincing slightly when he backed away. “You’re not running away. He wanted you, and he wasn’t stopping. You’ve done the right thing by staying away.”

“Have I?” He gave me a bitter smile, then turned and started off toward Daphne again.

Obviously I didn’t know what to say to help, so I just followed and stayed silent. It made perfect sense to me to avoid Traith and Blackrake forever. The farther we kept Callum from his grip, the safer we’d both be, right? I tried to wrap my head around the idea that Callum wanted to face him. What would he say? What would he do? Hell, what would Blackrake do?

Callum had done his best to beat me to Daphne and I had slowed down to allow it, so when I got to the docking bay the gangway was down and Callum was nowhere in sight. I made sure the docking bay’s doors were closed and locked behind me, and boarded the ship. When I found him, he was sitting in the galley with a small bottle of alcohol and a glass.

“You know we keep her dry,” I said.

“Go fuck yourself,” he spat.

Generally I wouldn’t have let that language stand, but I also knew the situation we’d just walked out of. I let those words hang in the air for a few minutes, then said, “I hope that’s the only bottle, then. We’ll leave in the morning.”

He muttered something behind me but I didn’t hear it as I headed to the cockpit to check on her systems. He just needed to stew a bit, I was sure of it, and I’d allow him the indiscretion. It’s not like I’d never brought a single bottle back with me when I knew I’d be docked overnight.

Besides, I didn’t often run into men who used to pay for — or try to persuade me to sell, using threats and force — my affections.

After the pre-flight checks all came back green, I headed from the cockpit toward the cabin, peeking into the galley on the way. The bottle was empty now, though the glass still had a bit in it, and Callum wasn’t there anymore. I didn’t have to wonder where he was for long, as he was sitting on the side of our double bed waiting for me in the cabin.

“I’m sorry,” he said, his words slurring.

I shook my head and sat down next to him. “Don’t be. I understand you’re stressed.”

“Yeah, but you don’t deserve it. God, you don’t deserve any of this.” He waved his hand around him, though whether he meant the spacefaring lifestyle in itself or our smuggling, I didn’t know.

“Shh, no. You’re drunk, Callum. Go to sleep, we can talk about it in the morning.”

He sighed, and pulled the disk out of his pocket to set on the shelf next to the bed. “You sure s’alright?”

“I’m positive. Go to sleep.”

He nodded and crawled under the covers, and I slipped in behind him. Soon enough his breathing settled, and only then I let myself fall asleep.

He woke me early the next morning with a loud groan and I had to do my best to hold back a laugh. “Feeling it?”

“God, what the hell did I do to myself?” He had an arm draped over his eyes, and his lips were pulled back in a tight grimace. “I feel like my skull is trying to grow a twin.”

I smiled, then kissed his elbow. “I’ll go get you some medicine. Stay here.”

He grumbled something noncommittal and I took it as an agreement, and headed over to the small medical bay. We didn’t have much there, only enough to try to keep someone alive until you could dock, but we had painkillers at least. They’d have to be enough. When I came back into the cabin, I found Callum sitting on the edge of the bed, turning the disk over in his hands.

“What are you doing?” I asked as I sat next to him and offered the painkillers and a glass of water.

He shrugged, then set the disk on his lap to take the glass and pills. He dropped the pills into his mouth before draining the glass, then said, “I’m trying to figure out what it is. May as well figure it out before we find we’re carrying a bomb or something.”

I picked the disk up again, turning it. It looked to be completely harmless, still just a silver disk, only slightly larger than the palm of my hand. I put it to my ear and heard only silence, then frowned. “I doubt it’s a bomb, at least, but I just can’t figure out what it could be. Why would Claudius Blackrake want it so badly?”

Callum shrugged again and took the disk back out of my hands. “There has to be something more to it. It doesn’t look like anything I’ve ever seen before–” He jumped as the disk suddenly whirred and split open, and he dropped it to the floor. “What the fuck?!”

We stared at the disk, sitting there in a way I would now presume was face down on the floor, a soft glow spreading around it. We waited for something, anything to happen, and when it didn’t, I reached down to pick it up. As soon as my fingers touched it, it closed again.

“Let me see that…” Callum murmured, and took the disk from me again. He turned it over in his hands a few times and poked and prodded it until it opened again. Once again he had it upside down, but when he turned it over we were greeted with something looking like a map of stars and planets.

We stared at it in silence until I spoke. “What is that?”

“I think it’s a map,” Callum said, “but I don’t know what part of the sky this could be.”

I stared at it, wracking my brain, mentally digging through every star chart and navigation guide I’d ever seen, then pointed tentatively at a planet. “I think this is Traith.” I canted my head to the side, scanning where it should be… “And here’s Van Karet. This is Narvil.”

“So what does this do, then?” Callum asked. “All ships have built-in nav computers. This is unnecessary… obsolete.”

The longer I stared at the map, the more sure I became that something was wrong. There was a planet where only a void should be. Every star chart I’d ever seen had nothing there. “I think I know what this is.”

Callum looked over at me, his brow furrowed. “What is it?”

I jabbed a finger at the offending star system. “This shouldn’t exist.”

“Are you saying this is… wrong?”

“It’s either wrong, or it’s supposed to lead us there.” I frowned. “And I bet Claudius Blackrake knows exactly what this is.”

We set a course for Traith, but I could tell after a few days Callum’s heart wasn’t truly in it. I couldn’t tell if it was because he was having remorse over what the disk was, or if he was anxious about encountering Claudius Blackrake.

Finally, over breakfast one morning, I asked why.

“I mean, yeah, I’m anxious about having to talk to him, sure,” Callum said. “That’s true. But I’ve been thinking more about that disk.”

I frowned, poking at my porridge. “And what are you thinking?”

“You said it’s a map, right? It shows a system that we have no other data about, right?”

I nodded, slowly. “Yes.. it shows that system, and gives faster-than-light coordinates to get there. Safely, one would hope.”

Callum furrowed his brow in thought, poking his own spoon into his breakfast. “And what do you think Claudius Blackrake would do with this information? I can’t really see him doing anything… virtuous with this information, can you?”

He was right, of course. Claudius Blackrake would probably send an entire fleet of ships to those coordinates, whether or not he knew them to truly be correct, and he would likely suck the entire system dry. Anything potentially of worth would be gone, and Claudius Blackrake would be all the richer for it.

“Well, yes, but…” I frowned. “That’s a lot of money for us to pass up.”

“Can you really live with that on your conscience?” Callum stared at me, his eyes wide with shock. “You’d really be willing to sell the well-being of this system for half a million credits?”

“How do we even know this system still exists?” I snapped. “Or that it even existed at all? How do we know this isn’t some wild goose chase?”

Callum shook his head and sighed. “I don’t feel right giving it to him. He’d destroy everything.”

“But we don’t even know if it exists!” I stared at Callum, dumbfounded. “You’re willing to bet half a million credits that some system listed in some strange disk that I can’t even turn on is real!”

“And what if it does?” Callum snapped. “What if it does exist, and you have to live with the destruction of this system on your conscience for the rest of your life?”

I dropped my spoon into my bowl in frustration, and stood up to pace the galley. He was right, of course. It felt wrong to let that sit like that. It felt wrong to give that information away, even if the amount of money we’d be given would easily sustain us for the next five years.

Then again, Claudius Blackrake was a very powerful man. If we failed to deliver the disk, he could easily hunt us down himself, or hire every wannabe bounty hunter in the goddamn galaxy to hunt us down. Was that someone I was willing to live with? Was that something Callum had even considered when he brought up this idea?

Callum watched me pace, and to his credit, he said nothing else to try to sway me. He let me stalk around in silence until I was finally ready to speak. I stopped in front of my seat again and took a deep breath. “You do realize that if we do this, Blackrake will hunt us down? He might be willing to just kill me, but I doubt he’d kill you. You know how badly he wants you, Callum. He’d have you collared and at his heel by sundown.”

Callum’s nostrils flared, and he pressed his lips together into a tight line. I knew this wasn’t an angle he’d considered, but he had been too worried about the well-being of this other star system to be concerned with himself. I took my chance to remain silent and let him mull this over, and a multitude of emotions crossed his face before he finally spoke again. “I’m willing to take my chances. Who knows… maybe we’ll get a chance to kill him first.”

I stared at him, shocked by his willingness to murder. It was out of character for him under most circumstances, but I suppose a man who wanted to own you didn’t fall under ‘most circumstances.’ “All right, fine. We don’t have a choice about docking at Traith, though. We’ll need to refuel and restock. Hopefully Blackrake doesn’t find out we’re there.”

“Yeah, hopefully.” He sighed, and reached across the table for my hand. I took it and sat down, and he rubbed his thumb over my knuckles. “We’ll figure it out, even if he does find out.”

I nodded. “Yeah, we’ll figure it out. I’m sure he’s expecting this disk.”

He shrugged. “We’ll figure it out.”

We left the discussion at that, and busied ourselves with cleaning up the galley and preparing for our arrival on Traith. It was only a few more days now, and we needed to know what we had to restock before we landed, to facilitate a quick in-and-out to reduce the likelihood of our presence being noticed. We finished assembling our list just before we docked, and set out to try to gather supplies as quickly as possible.

We’d barely been docked for two hours before we were approached by a pair of Blackrake’s men. “Come with me, please,” one of them said.

I closed my eyes and sighed, and next to me I felt Callum tense up. I put my hand on his arm, then spoke, addressing the pair. “What does he want with us?”

“He just wishes to speak with you,” the other said.

I didn’t trust him, but also knew I didn’t have much choice in the matter; either we could go with them peacefully or they could steer us there to Blackrake’s casino of choice, pistols pressed against our spines.

I nodded to Callum, and he nodded in return. His eyes were tight and his lips were pressed into a fine line. This would not be an enjoyable experience for him, I knew.

“All right, we’ll go.”

The first man inclined his head. “A wise choice. If you’ll come with me, Mr. Barton…”

“No,” Callum said, his voice unsteady. “We go together or not at all.”

This was a gamble on Callum’s part; it was highly likely they wouldn’t take us up on the offer and both of us would have to pay the price. I knew why he wanted me there — I knew he was wanting a shield from Blackrake himself, from the demands he’d likely place on Callum. He hadn’t danced in that casino in months, but Blackrake still thought he could lay claim… or try to.

The first of Blackrake’s men looked at me, as though trying to see if I would talk Callum down, and I shook my head. “No, I’m with him. Either we go together or you can tell Blackrake we refuse to see him.”

He pressed his lips together, and went to confer with his associate before coming back to me. “Fine, we’ll take you together. Follow me, then.”

His partner glared at us as he fell in step behind us. Obviously he wasn’t happy with our insistence, but I couldn’t quite find it in me to give more than a half a fuck about what he thought. Next to me, I could sense Callum’s body pulled tighter than a guitar string, practically vibrating with each step he took. I reached over to take his hand, squeezing it gently. He threaded his fingers through mine, and we walked a few steps hand-in-hand before the man behind us cleared his throat meaningfully. I glared at him over my shoulder before squeezing Callum’s hand and releasing it.

It felt like a longer walk to the casino than it actually was, probably due to the anxiety churning in my stomach — not only for the fact that we’d have to face Blackrake, but because of how tightly wound Callum was next to me. Without me being able to touch him to reassure him, I knew he was growing more anxious by the moment.

“It’ll be okay,” I murmured. “We’ll figure it out.”

He glanced at me, a desperate look in his eyes, but he didn’t try to argue with me.

I noticed Blackrake wasn’t at his normal booth, though it had been several months since I’d been to this casino on Traith and had no idea if he’d changed his habits lately. The two men escorted us through the casino, into a set of hallways I had never been in before. Callum grew even more tense next to me, and his breath came so quickly I was afraid he’d pass out right there. It was too quiet here to ask if he’d been here before, but I already knew the answer was yes. I was fortunate to have only needed to interact with Blackrake there in the casino’s bar.

Finally, after what felt like far too long, we stood in front of a set of double doors. I drew a deep breath, and glanced over at Callum. He had his hands clenched at his side, and his movements seemed almost robotic. His eyes were wide and it seemed as though he used all his power for each breath he drew. He quivered in place and I knew he was locked deep inside his own panic. I hated it, because these men wouldn’t let me do a damn thing for him except force him to tolerate this torture.

One of the men spoke into his collar, too softly for me to hear, and the doors opened in front of us. I said a quick prayer to thank every power I could think of that we’d left the disk on the ship, hidden in the smuggling panel under our double bed. All I had to worry about was Callum.

We stepped forward into the room, prodded forward by Blackrake’s men, and Claudius Blackrake himself waited for us behind a broad mahogany desk. I didn’t even want to think about how expensive it must have been to build that desk, with materials that looked to have been obtained from Earth clear across the galaxy. That must be why he could afford to throw a million credits to get a simple disk.

A simple disk containing a lost and forgotten star map, but a simple disk nonetheless.

“Hello, gentlemen,” he said.

I flicked my eyes back over at Callum, and his posture was still as tense as ever. I turned my attention back to Blackrake, and nodded once. “Hello, Claudius.”

“I have been informed that you are smuggling an item for me,” Blackrake said, leaning forward with his elbows braced on the desk. “I would like to see it.”

“I don’t have it,” I said.

Blackrake narrowed his eyes. “What do you mean, you don’t have it?”

I shrugged, doing my very best to affect a careless mannerism. “Exactly what I said. I don’t have it.”

“Where is it, then?”

“We gave it to someone else,” Callum said from beside me. I snapped my head over, staring at him with my own eyes wide. I don’t know where he found this courage, but I only prayed it wouldn’t result in harm coming to him.

Blackrake’s face immediately flushed a deep red, and he pushed himself up from his desk so quickly his chair fell back. “You did what?!” he roared, an impressive vein popping out at his neck.

Callum stepped forward, his movements still reminiscent of an android more than a lithe dancer, but his voice was more steady this time. “I said, we gave it to someone else. Someone who would respect what that disk is.”

“How could you even–” Blackrake sputtered as he shook his head. “You shouldn’t have been able to–!”

“I can, and I know what it is,” Callum said. “I can’t let you have it.”

“Caerwyn,” Blackrake said, and I suddenly realized that Callum had carefully kept himself hidden from Blackrake as best as he could. Of course he wouldn’t have let him know more than his stage name. He’d kept his birth name hidden from me, even, until he was there on my ship alone, until he was sure he had me. He wouldn’t have given Blackrake such an intimate detail of his life. “Caerwyn, you don’t know what you’ve just done.” He stepped around his desk, his footfalls coming fast and heavy as he approached us. To his credit, Callum straightened up, his chin lifting even as I heard his breathing pick up again.

I wondered how fast I could get my pistol out, if I had to.

Blackrake stood there in front of us, glaring down his nose at Callum, and Callum stood his own ground, though I knew his heart must have been pounding out of his chest. They stood there in relative silence for a few long minutes, until Callum finally spoke in a low murmur. “I know exactly what I’ve done. I’ve prevented you from wiping an entire star system off the map with your greed.”

A heavy silence hung in the air, and Blackrake turned to me, rage burning in his eyes. “Barton, if you do not shut your whore up…”

Before either of us realized it, I’d pulled out my pistol and shoved it into his ribs. “If you ever talk about him like that again, you will swallow this. Do you understand me?”

“Andrew…” Callum said, his voice low and with a not-insignificant hint of warning. I glanced behind me, and both of Blackrake’s men had their own guns pointed at us. Blackrake himself had been unarmed, but I knew there was no way I could win here. I put my pistol back into its holster and raised my hands in surrender, then stepped back from Blackrake.

He still seethed with rage as he stared me down, but he nodded to his men. “You will go get that disk back, do you understand me? You will bring it here to me, or I will use that million credits to put a price on your heads you will never escape.”

Callum glared at him for a few minutes more, then turned on his heel and stomped away. I backed away a few more steps before turning and following behind him, and even though I had the advantage of longer legs I had to jog to keep up with Callum. He led us back to Daphne, and the farther from the casino we got, the more I could see his anxiety bleeding into sheer unbridled rage.

I lowered the gangway, and stepped back to allow Callum up onto the ship before me. I’d give him some space, some quiet time alone and let him process this. He didn’t need me smothering him and ruining this. I followed up the ramp slowly, then set it to raise again. I hadn’t even fully turned around when I was slammed against the wall, a grunt slipping out. I looked down, and Callum had an arm braced across my chest, his lips pulled back in a feral grin.

“Fuck me,” he said. “Right now.”

Somewhere in my mind I knew this was a terrible idea, something that he shouldn’t want me to do and I shouldn’t want to do to him given the current situation, but then he pressed forward, grinding against me. I could feel my dick getting harder, and I used my height and strength to my advantage to reverse our positions. He let out a soft moan as I bent to kiss him hard, my hands sliding up into his hair. Callum reached up, tugging at the collar of my shirt, the cloth stretching under his insistent tugging. I backed up enough to yank the shirt over my head, then did the same to his. He stepped forward again, his lips clashing against mine, barely waiting for me to even drop his shirt before he did so.

He panted against my lips, fingers working frantically at my belt. “God damn it, Andrew, I mean it.”

I ripped my belt out of its loops, and started to advance to back us toward the crew cabin. I didn’t want to speak for fear that I would ruin this for him, and perhaps feed my own second-guesses and ruin this for me. He’d made this request of me before, but never with this much insistence behind it. Then again, I’d never seen him this angry before even after an incidence of his panic flaring.

He followed my lead to the crew cabin, falling back onto the bed as it bumped the backs of his knees. I unbuttoned and unzipped my pants, shoving them down and kicking them aside before reaching down to roughly pull his own pants off. He reached up to me, groaning as I lowered my body weight onto him. He wrapped his arms and legs around me, rocking his hips up against mine, and it was hard to keep my own moan from slipping out. I kissed him hard, shoving my hands up into his hair to hold him into place. We stayed that way for too long, it felt, with our kisses full of need and our bodies moving against each other’s, until Callum broke away to speak again.

“I’m fucking serious, Andrew. Fuck me, or I’ll roll you over and fuck myself on you.”

I grinned, and rolled off Callum to pluck the lube off the shelf next to our bed.

It wasn’t that I didn’t normally enjoy sex with Callum, but when he was worked up like this, I had to admit I enjoyed it all the more. He practically clawed at my skin, pulling me closer. We kissed breathlessly, our lips meeting again and again as our bodies each moved against the other. My movements grew faster, harder, more rough as Callum urged me on. He definitely wasn’t in the mood for anything but the rough fuck he’d demanded, and his enthusiasm helped silence any lingering doubts I’d had about how right this could be.

Before long, I had his legs up over my shoulders, practically folding him in half as I thrust into him hard, our groans echoing through the small cabin. This wasn’t something that would be sustainable or possibly last for any significant length of time. Callum had a need, and he had demanded I fill it.

He had wedged a hand between us, stroking himself with no intent to try to drag this out or delay his own climax, and it wasn’t long before he was tight, so tight around me, and I found myself slumped over him, just as spent and exhausted as he.

With great difficulty I pushed myself up and stretched out next to him, and asked as I stroked a hand over his cheek, “Are you feeling better now?”

Callum nodded without opening his eyes. “Yeah, I am. I just… it was too much. I had to do something to stop thinking.”

“So you really did want that? It wasn’t just… a knee-jerk reaction or anything?”

Callum rolled his head to the side, finally opening his eyes to meet my own. “Are you feeling guilty about this?”

“Well, I mean…” I shrugged and let my fingertips wander over his collarbones. “When we were there with Blackrake you were so scared, so anxious, and then by the time we get back here you’re demanding I fuck you senseless. It kind of felt a little like I was taking advantage of you.”

“No, you weren’t.” Callum shook his head firmly, then rolled up onto his side. “I wanted that. I needed it. I would have been up all night, lost in my own fucking brain if you hadn’t done that for me.”

I took a deep breath and nodded. “As long as you’re sure.”

“I’m positive,” Callum said, a smile on his face. “I truly needed that. It helped, I promise. Let’s get some sleep, and tomorrow we can get the fuck out of here and decide where we’re going to take that disk.”

Blackrake at least didn’t give us trouble while leaving Traith, and we set course for a nearby system to finish gathering our supplies and brainstorm who we could actually trust with this map.

Finally, an idea came to Callum, as we stood in the middle of a crowded marketplace. He leaned over to me, his voice dropped to a low murmur. “What about the galactic council?”

I looked down at him in alarm, my own attempt at a low murmur coming across more as a desperate hiss. “We can’t go to the galactic council! Do you know what they’d love to do to people like us?!”

“Well, where else can we take it?” Callum said. He glanced around again, then leaned in. “Who else is going to try to protect that system? Certainly not anyone else we interact with.”

I grimaced and rubbed a hand over my face. Our turn was next here in this shop, and I let the conversation drop to handle the business at hand. The whole time I was talking, haggling over prices and trying to get a bulk discount, I had the consideration lurking in the back of my mind. Callum made a good point — there weren’t many other opportunities to try to protect the actual system, and since we already told Claudius Blackrake we’d given away the disk, we couldn’t really give it to him now. I also wasn’t sure how exactly Callum would react if I double-crossed him and gave Blackrake the disk anyway. Would he simply leave? Would he exact revenge? I had no idea. It was a variable I was uncomfortable with.

Then again, I was also uncomfortable with the idea of giving Blackrake the disk at all. But would facing the galactic council as a pair of smugglers work out all that much better for us?

I turned back, finished with my negotiations, and drew Callum aside. “We have to come up with a plan to guarantee our safety if we do decide to go to the council. I don’t want to give up this disk only to face a lifetime in prison.”

“We use the disk as the bargaining chip,” Callum murmured, his hands wandering over my chest. People would be less likely to try to eavesdrop if they thought we were in the middle of public foreplay, of course. “Show them what it is, and demand amnesty in exchange for it.”

“And what of Blackrake?” I said, sliding my fingers into his hair.

Callum canted his head to the side, resting his cheek against the heel of my palm. “And what of him?”

I shook my head the smallest bit and bent to press a kiss to his forehead. “We can’t outrun a million-dollar bounty.”

“Maybe the council can help with that, too,” he whispered against my throat.

I tipped my chin back to make room for him and closed my eyes as he moved his lips across my skin. “I doubt they will. A million credits is a lot of money.”

Callum just grazed his teeth over my Adam’s apple, sending a shiver down my spine, before he spoke again. “Not if they make us disappear.”

I sighed and skated my other hand down his side, over his hip with my fingertips just brushing over the outside of his ass. “Can they really do that, though, in a galactic sense? I’m pretty sure we’d have to avoid this end of the galaxy entirely.”

He placed a sucking kiss over my collarbone and murmured, “I don’t really see an issue with this. I don’t want to see Traith or anyone on it ever again.”

“Fair enough,” I replied, then finally pressed a kiss to his lips. “Come on, let’s head back. They know to send the supplies over to Daphne. We don’t have anywhere else to be today… Unless you wanted to find a casino or something.”

Callum grinned at me, nudging his hips forward against mine just the slightest bit. “You just want me to tell you what to do.”

“Well, I don’t particularly feel like losing today, so yes. I want you to tell me what to do.” I grinned in return and slid a hand into his back pocket. “Come on, I know where we can go. Decent drinks, decent gambling.”

I led Callum through the trade district, my hand groping and squeezing at their ass the entire time. The casino I had in mind wasn’t far into the downtown area, but it definitely bordered the red light area of downtown. This, of course, meant that I wouldn’t have to worry about people judging us if we perhaps got a bit too close while in the casino.

Inside the casino, we settled down at my favorite card table, and Callum took the chair by my side, rejecting a hand per usual. He loved to play it like this — just act as though he were some pretty thing I’d hired to keep me company, and whisper strategy and tactics in my ear to help me win. We didn’t win every hand, of course, but Callum had gained an uncanny amount of gambling knowledge while dancing in that casino on Traith and we never left with less money than we’d walked in with. It was a far cry from how I used to be before I’d met him; I used to gamble myself into destitution. I’d have to take smuggling jobs to keep myself fed, and that was how I ended up tangled up in Claudius Blackrake’s web.

“Discard,” Callum murmured into my ear, fingers dancing over my thighs, and I did as he told me. When we left the casino a few hours later, our pocket money had increased half over, and I was feeling far more confident for the trip ahead.

The galactic council met on Parshann, a world nestled in a system near the core of the galaxy, where planets had been settled long ago and civilizations had risen and fallen, and risen again on the ruins. This particular planet had been the galactic seat for roughly ten thousand years, longer even than humans had been capable of fire, much less space flight.

It took a bit of convincing once we’d arrived there, but after three days of negotiations we were allowed in to see the council. It was mostly made up of suashani with their indescribably inhuman faces and vaheera with their lanky bodies and bioluminescent hair-like tendrils, but I was glad to see a few humans amongst their ranks.

The chairperson, a suashani, stood up as Callum and I entered the room. A hush fell over the chamber, and I found it hard to even want to draw breath for fear it’d make too much noise. We stood in the center of the room, Callum awkwardly half a pace behind me.

“Andrew Barton,” the chairperson said. “We understand that you have something you wish to show us.”

I cleared my throat and winced as it echoed through the room. “Actually, my partner Callum Reid is the one who needs to show it to you.” I sidestepped to allow him to step forward, and continued to speak as he produced the disk from his pocket. “We have had this come into our possession. We believe it is a map of sorts, showing an uncharted — or perhaps forgotten — star system.”

The chairperson craned their head to the side slightly on their impossibly long neck. “And why must Callum Reid show it to us?”

“Because I can’t activate it, for some reason,” I said. “He is the only one I have seen activate it.”

As I spoke, Callum opened the disk, and the map glowed in the air above his palm. The image trembled, and I knew he was anxious again, so I rested my hand on his arm in an attempt to soothe him.

When the map flickered the life, the collective council gasped, and a vaheera stood up from his chair and walked across the chamber to us. “I have heard rumors of this map. It is legendary among my people.” He reached out a slender hand for the disk, and Callum hesitated before handing it over.

The remainder of the council gathered together to discuss this amongst themselves, and I took Callum’s hand in mine to squeeze firmly as we watched the vaheera study the map. At length, the chairperson stepped forward and addressed me again. “How exactly did you come to have this, Andrew Barton?”

I straightened up, my chin held high. “I will tell you, if you agree to my conditions.”

I don’t know how I could tell, but I could see the chairperson’s demeanor grow colder. “That depends upon what your conditions are, Andrew Barton.”

I wet my lips with my tongue and drew a shaking breath before speaking. “You will grant us amnesty, and not charge us with any crimes concerning how we came to possess this item.”

“Anything else?”

“Yes.” I nodded. “You will help us to disappear. Claudius Blackrake, a businessman and criminal on Traith, wants to place a million-credit bounty on our heads for failing to deliver that disk to him.”

The chairperson glanced back at the rest of the council, then turned to me again. “We must discuss this, Andrew Barton. We will call for you later.”

“We need the disk back,” Callum said, again surprising me with his sudden bravery. “We need to keep it with us.”

The vaheera holding the map stared us down for a few long minutes, then deactivated the disk and put it back in Callum’s palm. The chairperson watched the exchange, their eyes narrowing. They watched Callum pocket it, then said in a cold voice, “I expect that will come back with you. I would strongly suggest not testing this.”

I nodded. “I understand. We will wait on our ship for you.”

“No, you won’t,” the chairperson said. “We will arrange for quarters for you.”

I thought this over for a moment, then spoke carefully. “Are we being detained?”

“No,” the chairperson replied. “We are protecting our interests.”

“I see.” I sighed, then nodded. We didn’t really have a choice in this, I figured. Either we could let the council hold us for an indeterminate amount of time, presumably in a comfortable room with food supplied, or we could try our luck out in the galaxy by ourselves, which has all sorts of nasty potential for Blackrake hunting us down. Without the council’s protections, that was essentially signing our own death orders. I nodded to Callum, then turned to walk out of the council chamber.

“Andrew Barton,” the chairperson called after us. “We will have one of our guard escort you to your quarters.”

I closed my eyes and sighed, and followed the guard out of the council chambers.

Callum and I had to spend two days in that room. It could definitely have been worse — it was comfortable, with a seating area and a pair of single beds, and we were given plenty of food and opportunities to bathe — but we weren’t allowed to leave. I was about to demand an escort to just take a damned walk when one of the human council members knocked on our door then walked in.

“Mr. Barton, Mr. Reid, the council has arrived at a decision. We are ready for you now.”

I breathed out a sigh of relief. Finally, we’d be allowed out of this room. I took a deep breath and did my best to push aside any nervousness about the council’s decision. There was nothing we could do about it now, and the fact that they’d treated us well thus far boded well for us.

I squeezed Callum’s hand, and he laced his fingers through mine. I paused when he pulled on my arm slightly, and stooped to let him murmur into my ear, “Please don’t make me walk alone.”

I nodded and kept his hand in mine, and we followed the junior council member back to the council chambers. He glanced back over his shoulder at us and raised his brows — apparently he wasn’t used to such open displays, but I didn’t care. Callum’s well-being was most important here, and I couldn’t afford for him to have another panic attack in the open.

We walked in together, a unified front, and stood there in front of the council. Callum’s palm had grown sweaty, and he clung to me like I was his life preserver there. We had to wait there in silence while the junior member joined them again, and after far too long the chairperson spoke.

“Andrew Barton, Callum Reid. Thank you for joining us. We have deliberated, and have arrived at a decision concerning your requests in exchange for the star map.”

I drew a deep breath and straightened up, never letting go of Callum’s hand. “And what would your decision be, Chairperson?”

“We will grant you amnesty,” the chairperson said. “You will face no charges of smuggling or trafficking.”

Callum tensed next to me, his hand crushing my own as his breathing picked up. I tried to squeeze his hand soothingly before I spoke again. “What of Claudius Blackrake and his bounty on us?”

“We cannot make that disappear, Andrew Barton.”

“I’m not asking you to. I’m asking you to help keep our location a secret. Perhaps help us adopt… new identities.”

The chairperson drew a deep breath, their sets of nostrils flaring just the slightest bit. “That is true, you did not ask us to pay the bounty. Very well, Andrew Barton. We will see what we can accomplish with the help of our law enforcement. You and Callum Reid will be safe here as long as you stay. If you leave before we have solidified everything, we can guarantee nothing.”

I nodded as Callum relaxed next to me. I squeezed his hand again, and murmured into his ear, “Better get out the disk for them, then.”

He reached into his pocket with his opposite hand, and pulled out the disk. The junior council member stepped forward and took the disk, then delivered it to the chairperson. We waited in silence while the chairperson inspected and activated the disk, then when the chairperson nodded I smiled. “Very well. Will we be allowed to leave our quarters now?”

“Yes,” the chairperson inclined their head. “You may visit the public areas as any other guests may.”

“Are we dismissed?”

“Yes, Andrew Barton. You are dismissed.”

I bowed just the slightest bit and squeezed Callum’s hand again, then led him out of the council chamber. As soon as the door was shut behind me, I swept him into my arms and kissed him hard. He brought his hands up to rest on my arms and clung tightly to me as he slanted his mouth against mine. It took a few moments before we broke apart, and he gave me a smile, one more relaxed than I’d seen come from him since before we got that stupid disk.

“I can’t believe it,” he breathed. “I’ll finally be out from under his thumb.”

“I would have always protected you, Callum.” I brushed his hair back from his face, and kissed him again. “You never would have been in danger from him.”

He smiled again, a touch sadder this time. “You wouldn’t have been able to protect me from him. This, what the council is doing for us with new identities? This is the only way.”

I frowned, my thumb stroking over his cheek. “What do you mean? How do you know?”

“I just know him. I saw what he did to other dancers before I left. I’m surprised he didn’t track me down before we went back there to Traith,” he said. “I’m just glad this is over.”

“Me too,” I said. “This is a new beginning.”

He grinned and stretched up to kiss me again. “I can’t wait.”

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