Some of Us Are Looking at the Stars

by Togi Kayako (土宜草子)

Enji’s pod door flashed green to alert him of an official summons, switching to a low, pleasant chime when the camera saw him roll over to face the wall by his cot. The chime repeated four more times before being replaced by a cheap-ass synthesized voice: “Mr. Dariagn Junior, your presence is required in the central meeting room in ten minutes.”

It slurred Dariagn down to two syllables instead of three, dar-een versus dar-ee-un, and paused just long enough before the place and time to hit the auditory equivalent of the uncanny valley. The voice was otherwise almost natural, so it had to be either a late second-gen like Eliza or one of the earliest third-gens that no one had installed any fluency updates on. Even after six years of hearing it, Enji had never bothered to figure out which it was.

He twirled a long strand of brown hair around his index finger and debated how far into the cycle of increasingly intrusive warnings he felt like letting it go today. Definitely not to the point where the minders came to physically take him to the meeting. That was a baby move with no worthwhile results unless you had a strong incentive, courtesy of someone else, for making a scene.

The light shifted from green to yellow and the chime turned into a shrill beep. Enji let that go for four cycles, swung his legs to the floor on the fifth, and watched the lights darken almost to red before he said, “Request acknowledged.” He’d timed it right today — the system cut off entirely before the jarring third style of siren started up. It wouldn’t kick back on for at least forty-five seconds, long enough for him to shuffle into his beige slippers and decide how best to pointedly dishevel his matching top and sweatpants. 

One leg rolled up over the knee with the other left down was suitably awful, but Enji did his sleeves in the same style. There was no way the current head minder wouldn’t notice all of Enji’s pasty skin and thick, dark body hair on display, but the guy had too much of a stick up his ass about following the rules to do more than grit his teeth. It would be more fun if he did — Enji had a chirpy speech about Bodily Autonomy and Freedom of Personal Expression all planned out and ready to deploy at a moment’s notice, along with the relevant citations to back himself up.

Turned out he didn’t even get the minor joy of nose tweaking, as the head minder was nowhere to be seen when Enji reached the spacious, warmly-lit conference room. The usual scatter of tables under the central dome had been removed and all the identical white chairs were set up facing the main screen in tidy rows. In place of the minders drifting around in their pale blue jumpsuits there were a bunch of literal men in black standing at attention around the edges of the room. 

Enji made a beeline for Will’s familiar cloud of black curls and plunked down next to him to hiss, “What’s even going on with all this? Who are the creeps?” The nearest one, a solid ten feet away, shifted his focus right to Enji and narrowed his eyes. Whoever they were, they clearly had a level of enhancement tech that you didn’t usually see use inside a detention center. 

“Nobody’s said yet.” Will shrugged one broad shoulder and leaned over to bump it against Enji’s. Enji started to wrap an arm around Will on autopilot, then thought better of it. “Maybe they sold the place to a new corp?”

Enji shook his head. “That wouldn’t make sense — the Mars Council just agreed to an increased stipend like two weeks ago. They should be celebrating their win, not trying to sell us off.” He tipped his head back, pretending to ignore the creep watching him by looking out the dome at the sleek lines of solar panels and the endless field of stars beyond them. The stars were closer here than they were planet-side, technically, but they’d never felt further away.

“Hey, don’t get your big dumb brain in a twist about it,” Will said, tapping Enji gently on the forehead. “Save the worrying for after we know what’s happening, right?” Enji gave him a smile, because he deserved one for trying to help even though there was a zero chance of success.

The overhead lights dimmed and the crowd fell silent, turning as one to face the screen. Upbeat synth chords swelled and the presentation clicked on, starting with a scene of a sleek silver passenger ship pulling into orbit around a planet that could be real or entirely fictitious. Enji had never seen it before. It was striking: deep blues around the poles that faded to a rich charcoal gray with a paler off-white band around the equator.

A smooth, neutral voice over intoned, “Welcome to your new twilight home. Welcome… to Tenebrev.” As the music swelled to a crescendo, the shot zoomed in toward the planet, moving at speeds far too fast for anything trying to make landfall intact. Enji unfocused his eyes on principle, letting the tourism vid shots of dark-colored architecture and colorfully dressed aliens turn into indistinct blurs.

He couldn’t actually move to cover his ears without getting in trouble, but he let his mind wander off to one of his many hacking ideas that he kept strictly off record. There was no chance he’d get admin access to the cafeteria drink machine’s code, but if could, he had a great plan to override its dispensing limits in a way that would flood at least a third of the room. With some careful time delay, only the minders would be around to clean up the resulting sticky mess.

The genderless announcer droned on about friendly natives, local cuisine, fully translated language, exciting outdoor activities, and a dozen other buzzword-laden phrases that made Enji want to roll his eyes so hard it hurt. His eyebrows did shoot up at the unsubtle mention of tenebs’ biological compatibility with humans. It was obviously meant to be a classier presentation, as they stopped one step short of outright saying you could safely fuck the aliens. With a final, far too chipper, “Looking forward to seeing you soon!” the presentation faded out on a shot of a night sky with two overlapping moons, one pale pink and one vivid yellow. 

Enji snapped back to focus as the assistant head minder, an energetic man barely into his sixties, stepped up in front of the screen with an uncomfortably broad smile on his pointy face. “Now, I’m sure you’re wondering what this is all about! I’m very excited to inform you that we have been selected as the first participants in the Tenebrevian cultural exchange program.”

The minder continued his cheerful explanation of how they were getting shipped off to live on an alien planet. Enji listened with growing horror, noting the liberal use of the word “mandatory” along with a vague threat of consequences for any non-compliance. “A full list of behavioral restrictions, possible program outcomes, and Tenebrevian cultural information will be provided on tablets in your new quarters, which our guests will be escorting you to.”

Minders streamed into the room and ushered the prisoners out row by row, each line trailing after one the creeps/guests like extremely confused beige ducklings. Enji followed after Will, so shaken he didn’t even “accidentally” bump the head minder’s office door with his elbow like he always did. They walked by the kitchens and then out to the docking bay where deliveries came in.

Instead of crates of produce in stasis, the center of the bay held two lines of medical staff in front of tables of injectors and sterilizing wipes, flanked by more of the creeps. Enji rallied enough to find out what they were being injected with: vaccines against local diseases, booster shots for anything transmissible to the locals, and a worrying number of anti-parasitics. The last nurse slapped a handful of foil packets of pills into his hands with a terse, “Take those if you start feeling nauseated after you wake up again.”

They were escorted over to a line of linked habitation pods, windowed and spacious like standard passenger rooms rather than the cramped box Enji had gotten used to living in. Will reached back to give Enji’s hand a quick squeeze and then they were guided off the doors of neighboring pods. A minder went with Will, but Enji got one of the blank-faced creeps to escort him. It was almost flattering, in a way — either they’d correctly determined who was the most likely to cause trouble, or someone had warned them about him.

“Place your palm on the door plate and state your full name.” The creep gestured to the cream-colored pod door, as if Enji could have somehow missed the pulsing green plate right in front of his face.

“What, not even a please?” Enji had his hand in place before he mouthed off, shooting for just compliant enough to stay out of serious trouble. “Benjamin Mell Dariagn Junior.”

The lights went red as it scanned his palm and then blinked green. “Registration updated for Benjamin Mell Dariagn Junior. Preferred pronouns and form of address, please.” The warm female voice repeated his name without issue.

Enji’s eyebrows shot up at the request, but he didn’t hesitate to answer. “Pronouns he and him. Preferred name Enji, and mister is fine if you want to be fancy about it.”

Either someone had programmed a very convincing laugh in this system or there was an actual person on the other end. “Welcome, Mister Enji. We hope you will be comfortable with us for your journey to Tenebrev.” The door slid open and the creep urged him inside with a hand between his shoulders that wasn’t quite a push.

A larger-than-standard cot with a thick foam mattress hinged down from one wall. “Sleep will be induced in four minutes and fifteen seconds. We recommend lying down to minimize risk of injury.” Wherever Tenebrev was, it had to be at least one major gate away. As much as Enji hated the idea of being knocked out, the idea of being awake while passing through a gate was infinitely worse. Unless the anti-emetics they’d given him were well above standard strength, he’d be puking nonstop for hours.

Enji used the tiny bathroom carefully, tucking his elbows close to his sides to keep them unscathed. Despite the caution, he managed to trigger both the sink and hand dryer with his butt, because designers seemed to think everyone taking cruises was both average height and well below average weight. 

He escaped the bathroom and took a second to tip one of the digital picture frames on the wall askew, then stretched out on the cot. He sank into the foam far enough to feel like a fancy doll being nestled into a storage crate. The metaphor was maybe a bit too apt, but he barely had time to start off on a good what-if tangent before a soft, three note alert chime played.

“Sleep induction beginning. Estimated time to gate exit is five hours and nineteen minutes. Sweet dreams, Mister Enji.” A second chime was loud enough to drown out the mechanism that shot a cloud of floral-scented sleeping gas into his face. Enji managed to wrinkle his noise at the artificial smell before every muscle in his body relaxed and he fell straight into sleep.

=⋆✪⋆=

Issik woke to his watch alarm and the pinkish red glow of pre-dusk as simulated by the lighting strip over his nest bed. The actual time was horrifically early, barely evening at all, because the human guests were arriving near sunset and Issik had to make sure everything was perfect. He shrugged off the layers of his bedding strips, shedding the plush, many-textured fabrics in every direction before ducking out into his bedroom.

His claws clicked faintly across the dark stone flooring as he walked to his closet and double checked the formal outfit he’d laid out the night before. His favorite long wrap was the perfect balance of respectable and eye-catching: a deep gray-blue fabric with a few pink and crimson threads woven through and a line of curving white embroidery around the hems. The embroidered text was one of his favorite poems that extolled the virtues of careful positioning and quick strikes. Issik had always found the words as apt for politics as they were for the original context of hunting. 

A quick glance at his comm showed several enthusiastic messages from his parents from late morning the day before, including an invitation to dinner. He tapped back a brief reply about letting his human guest have time to settle in and set a delay so it wouldn’t send for at least an hour. His parents would find something to fuss about, of course, but he could at least exercise some control over what it was.

Issik took his time with his dusting, making sure to be thorough with his chest and forehead. Human noses were less sensitive than a teneb’s, but they would be in close proximity and it seemed only polite. He wished, not for the first time, that he’d had more of a chance to interact with the human ambassadors in person before having to host a human in his home. The last week and a half of rearranging his space and having accommodations installed had been far more frantic and far less planned than was ideal.

Rirrin Sehnka had offered to host despite her climbing injury, but really, a broken ankle was too significant a barrier to having an important guest. The offer might have been genuine anyway, knowing her, but Issik handled it the same way he would a false offer or any poor suggestion: the most delicate negation he could muster, woven through with praise and thanks. She managed to exact a promise to have the chance to meet whomever would have been her guest, but it was such a small concession that Issik agreed at once.

With any luck, she would be more easily dissuaded from pushing the issue than his parents likely would. The poor human would have enough culture shocks to adjust to without throwing them over a proverbial cliff and forcing them to socialize with a pack of loud, nosy people. If everything went to plan, they could spend a few hours in public every day on various activities, and then Issik and his guest could both have ample time to themselves to recuperate.

Issik tied his staid, dark gray headband on, settling and resettling the weighted drape in the front until it was perfectly centered on his forehead and no hint of bare skin remained. In deference to the occasion, he clipped on a band of opaque red beads, each one sand-tumbled to a mirror shine, around the top of the band.

The matching chest cover made a sharp contrast to the short, white fur around it — eye-catching enough to make him feel attractive without being so small or bright that it would be inappropriate for a formal event. He was happy to have taken after his mother’s lighter coloration than his father’s staid grays and red-browns. Issik knotted the ties at his neck and waist, looping the cord back on itself and tucking the ends tidily away inside each knot.

With his back to the full-length mirror, Issik checked over his shoulder with a smaller hand mirror to see if the dark balls of cord were correctly centered. They were, as they always were unless he tied his top on while he was halfway into torpor. He trailed one curved finger under several of the back chains hung on pegs set into the mirror’s frame. Plain red would be the obvious choice, but despite his nerves Issik found himself in a celebratory mood.

Nearly a full year of negotiations and persuasive speeches and dropping off little packets of treats to every damn person he’d needed to sign off on the cultural exchange project, and now it was finally, finally happening. Issik picked up his favorite set of beads, a triple chain in a beautiful gradient from near-black to red to palest pink. One of his lovers had told him the colors drew her eyes downward as he walked in front of her, and that she’d been so caught up in staring she almost tripped over her own claws a few times.

The human Issik would be hosting was male, so they would be walking next to each other and it shouldn’t be an issue even if the human might be interested. Issik took another look in the mirror and tipped his hips to one side. The beads running down his back clattered softly against each other with the movement, swaying back and forth in a way that even Issik had to admit was somewhat alluring. His hips were narrower than they used to be — he had gotten thin in the past few months, too busy to remember to snack or even eat all his scheduled meals some days.

With that thought and the vivid memories of his parents nagging him to eat properly rattling around in his head, Issik fixed himself a hearty breakfast. All other reasons aside, it would be embarrassing to be fighting off torpor while trying to welcome the human and show him around. The slitted windows in his kitchen transitioned from opaque to mostly transparent as Issik chopped fruit and sauteed down a large pile of cactus strips, nibbling away at rockworm jerky the whole time. He topped his breakfast with the remaining cubes of his imported cheese, savoring the tart, salty taste as each one hit his tongue.

Given that most humans preferred communal dining, it might be the last meal he ate by himself in months. It would be a worthwhile sacrifice to make sure this critical first step of the program went smoothly. Issik comforted himself with the thought that the human might keep to a different schedule, or even prefer to dine alone. No matter how things worked out, at least it would only be temporary.

The line of sunlight creeping across the floor turned deeper shades of red as Issik finished eating and tidied up the dishes. He sat back down at the table, briefly resting his hands in his lap and taking in a few slow, steady breaths to center himself. It would likely be an exhausting night of too many people, but he had worked hard to achieve it and felt as prepared as he could be. With a small bark to lift his spirits, Issik slapped his hands down on the table and headed out.

=⋆✪⋆=

The first thing Enji did after he clawed his way back to consciousness was fumble for his new tablet and read all of the information that covered what the minder had called “program outcomes”. With the formal language stripped away, it was pretty simple: behave for the length of the program and get dumped back on Mars, or misbehave and face extra prison time, all the way up to a life sentence. The “behavioral restrictions” were even more clear. Your new alien pal said jump? You asked “Off of what?” and got to climbing.

Enji had a brief flicker of worry about Will, but Will rarely had trouble getting people to like him. Associating with Will had done more to improve Enji’s reputation than anything Enji had managed by himself — not that he’d ever tried too hard. Enji had always quietly thought he was getting the better end of the deal, but Will seemed happy enough to be around him even when he didn’t need Enji to intimidate anyone.

With any luck, life on Tenebrev would go smoothly for Will. Without Enji around, he probably would have fewer problems, at least. Enji would miss their cheesy movie nights and the warm weight of Will using him as a pillow or tucking an arm around Enji’s waist. It would have been nice to give Will a real hug goodbye at least, but as usual, things had gone to shit. Enji pushed his gloomy feelings away and refocused on the list of rules.

At the end was a vague mention of filing a grievance, if you felt your keeper had asked you to do something that violated your personal liberties. Notably absent was any mention of who to contact about that. Enji skimmed over the cultural information, reading category headers and ignoring most of the bullet points below until he hit “Points of Caution”.

Turned out the tenebs were primarily nocturnal because the midday sun more or less turned the place into a death oven. The land near the equator was paler due to both finer sand particles from high winds and from the sun’s bleaching all the color away. It was considered uninhabitable and almost no one went there outside of a few carefully constructed scientific outposts and solar power stations.

Some of the aerial footage was very striking, but Enji frowned at it. Even in the well-settled parts of the world, he would never survive being outside during the day without a fair bit of protective equipment no one was likely to hand over to a known criminal. He pushed “escape into the wilderness” down his mental list.

“Time until arrival?” Enji asked, getting to his feet to start pacing the tiny loop his cabin allowed him. 

“Estimated arrival in five hours and thirty-seven minutes, Mister Enji. That will be around twenty-hundred hours Rhoa standard time and at the perfect point to catch a spectacular sunset!” Enji mumbled a thanks, even though he was now sure the voice was synthesized. No human spouted off a sentence like that in such a perky voice — not unless they were using some very fun recreationals to get them through the workday.

Enji scooped up the tablet when he passed the bed again, and used it to set the large wall-screen to play a slow time lapse of Rhoa, the city he would be staying in. It wasn’t a capital city, or even an important one from what he could tell, but it was a quick drive from the largest space dock on the planet and home to the Teneb-Human Alliance that had organized the exchange.

At first, the city didn’t look like much. Nearly all of the squarish buildings were low to the ground, three stories at most, and built out of the chunks of thick, grayish stone. The setting sun brought out faint hints of red and purple in the large bricks and reflected gold on the long, thin windows that seemed to be the standard for the city. 

Enji leaned in to look at the designs of the dim lanterns flickering on along the major streets and next to every doorway. They came in dozens of faint colors ranging from lavender to yellow-green, and all of the ones on buildings were in unique, organic shapes made up of delicate filigree metalwork. Two moons drifted up over the horizon, a pale pink one followed by the second in a rich yellow.

As the streets started filling with people, Enji all but pressed his nose to the screen. The tenebs themselves seemed built to blend into the landscape, furred black, white, or in shades of gray, with a smattering of browns. What they wore, though, was a riot of color: wraps and loose pants in every shade of the rainbow, decorated with looping embroidery and topped off with all kinds of jewelry set with opaque stones.

Some of the tenebs had on an odd sort of kerchief and a backless top, both of which allowed for even more decoration. Was it a gender thing, a class thing, or something else entirely? There were no striking differences between the tenebs with them and without them — they were all of similar height. Someone stepped out of their house and stretched, giving Enji a great look at the membranes running between their arms and their sides. Too small to support flight, but maybe they could glide?

The oblique mention of “biological compatibility” came back to mind as a teneb walked close by the camera and Enji got distracted by a line of dark beads running down their back. The local garb was pretty skimpy by human standards and even more eye-catching for Enji after years of nothing but prison uniforms. He’d watched as much human-alien porn as anyone else with internet access when he was a teen, but his slum had been too far from a spaceport for him to have much chance of actually getting involved with an alien.

When the attractive teneb wandered out of frame, Enji sat back on the bed with a thump, eyes still locked on the screen. Long before he’d realized he was pansexual in the broadest sense of the word, he had already been fascinated by virtual tours of other worlds. Some remnant of his childhood self was wild with glee: Look at the aliens on the alien planet that I get to go to. He’d never left Mars before he got arrested. Afterwards, the knowledge that his criminal record would be almost sure to keep him trapped on Mars had soured all his previous joy.

Having it flood back all at once made Enji’s head spin with unfamiliar hope. Would his keeper let him explore the city? It would be worth it even if he had to let them lock some kind of tracking device on. Hell, it would be worth it even if he had to be literally handcuffed to a teneb night and day.

The hours passed in a haze of watching footage of various Tenebrevian cities until he was tired enough for a quick nap. He wanted to be sure he would be bright and perky to face his new jailer. Enji took a seat and strapped in for their descent and landing. It was his first planet-fall, and the amount of turbulence combined with his near-weightlessness had him gripping the tablet so hard it beeped a warning at him to prevent itself from being damaged.

As they decelerated and Enji’s weight settled back into his chair, his nerves settled too. He was up the second the buckles released, using the last of his jittery energy to straighten up the room. Best to put on a compliant face for now, no matter what he decided to do later.

A broadcast came on, this time a clearly automated male voice. “Welcome to Tenebrev! Local time is twenty-twelve. The current temperature is twenty-three point nine degrees centigrade. Cultural exchange participants, please remain in your pods and your hosts will arrive to collect you shortly.”

Enji grabbed the tiny earpiece that would be translating for him and folded his tablet down so he could tuck it in a pocket. Two seconds later, the door chimed and Enji’s eyebrows shot up. Apparently his host was very prompt.

“Come in,” he called, posing himself in the center of the room and plastering on his best ‘I’m harmless’ smile. The pod door slid open to reveal a teneb, presumably his host, and Enji realized the one thing lacking from the videos: a sense of scale. The top of teneb’s large, silver-furred ears were barely over the level of Enji’s shoulder and their comparably slender frame made Enji feel like an awkward giant.

They wore a wrap skirt, one of the odd half-shirts, and a headband. Bits of the skirt’s fabric and the strands of beads on their head were a wild array of reds, yellows and oranges, varied enough to clash in places. Despite that, the teneb had a very reserved air. Their face wasn’t giving away any emotion Enji could read, and their posture was stiff in a way that would definitely mean stressed on a human. They blinked, two different sets of eyelids sliding over their all-black eyes, and gave Enji a friendly nod.

“Good evening. My name is Karhil Tahbo Issik and I will be your host.” They extended a hand, three long fingers and a thumb, all with claws that had been filed short. It wasn’t until Enji was mid-shake that he realized he’d heard the words directly rather than through the translator in his ear, with only a faintest hint of an accent. “You are Mrs. Benjamin Dariagn, yes? Please forgive me if I’ve pronounced your name wrong.”

Enji fought back a grin. There was no way they spoke that well and somehow didn’t have a basic grasp on human genders or titles, which meant that had been either a slight or a conversational gambit. Either option was a ballsy choice and he liked Karhil all the better for it. “It’s mister, actually,” he said, keeping his voice level and friendly. “I’m male.”

“Oh, I’m very sorry, Mr. Dariagn.” Karhil gestured as if brushing something off his shoulder and Enji’s translator informed him that it was a common expression of embarrassment. “Or would you prefer Benjamin? Please feel free to call me Issik. I’m male as well — it can be so hard to tell species to species, can’t it?”

“Please, call me Enji.” The guy could not have been projecting ‘I’m just a silly, bumbling alien’ any harder, but Enji had the opposite reaction to what Issik probably wanted. Enji knew a con when he saw it and wouldn’t be dropping his guard around this guy anytime soon. “I’ll have to take your word on the rest, Issik. You’re the first person from a different species I’ve met.” It was easy to let a little bit of awe and enthusiasm color his voice. Two could play at the innocent game.

“Well, Enji, I hope I haven’t made a bad first impression.” Issik smiled, a practiced little gesture that didn’t show his teeth. “I’ve brought some clothing in the local style made to your measurements, if you’d like to change before we head into the city?” He waited for Enji’s nod before turning to grab a small backpack sitting outside the door.

Enji wanted to whistle when Issik turned around. His back was bare beyond a few strands of sunset-colored beads that ran from an elaborate knot behind his neck down to one low on his waist. They hung over the line of darker fur running down his spine, but shifted side to side as he moved in a way that made it impossible not to stare. The placement of the lower tie made sense when Issik stretched out an arm — it had to be low to allow space for the membrane stretching between his arm and his torso. Issik’s wrap hugged his hips in a very flattering way and the tight fit was even more pronounced when Issik bent to get the bag.

Well, seduction was definitely not off the table as an option. Enji smoothed his expression on pure reflex as Issik turned back around and took the offered backpack with a grateful smile. “What an incredibly kind gesture. Thank you so much.” Issik’s ears flicked back, the movement so brief Enji might have missed it if he hadn’t been watching for some kind of tell in response to his too-sweet tone.

“You’re very welcome. I hope they’re comfortable for you.” Issik’s own warm tone hadn’t slipped a bit, but his eyes seemed more intent on Enji’s face now. “I’ll wait outside while you change.” The sentence lilted up faintly at the end, like Issik wanted to make it a question. Enji was tempted to tell him to stay to see the reaction he’d get, but it was too soon for something that heavy-handed.

There were easier ways to test the waters, like the clothing. The bag contained pants rather than a wrap, to his relief, but also one of the backless shirts and a headband that clearly had some significance that Enji didn’t understand. He noted that the fabric choices were a near match for what Issik was wearing, which was a much clearer message: This alien is mine.

Still, everything looked well made and the fabric was airy and soft against his skin. It was far from the worst option, as prison outfits went. Enji tied the shirt on with two simple bows, but took the headband and wove it into his hair as he braided it back. The gesture could be the height of rudeness or utterly trivial, but it wasn’t what Issik intended or expected and that was the only thing that mattered in terms of a test.

Enji rescued his tablet from his previous pants and popped it into the bag, along with some towels and toiletries from the bathroom, because he could. A quick glance in the mirror shook his nerves somewhat — backless clothing and close-fitted trousers were a lot more daring than his usual clothing choices. He didn’t look bad, really. At the very least, he could imagine that it would be a flattering if provocative look on another man, even if he wouldn’t have picked it for himself.

Issik’s reaction to the outfit would be useful or even fun, if he was very lucky. With that thought putting a mischievous spring in his step, Enji went to take his first steps out onto a new planet.

=⋆✪⋆=

Issik had been ready, in theory, to have a human around. All of the phrases he had practiced dozens of times flowed off his tongue without issue, including his little icebreaker ‘mistake’ that seemed to have come across as suitably charming. He suspected that no amount of preparation could have prepared him for the very much not theoretical force that was Enji.

Even the sheer physical size of him was staggering. Most of the humans Issik had met before had been only slightly taller than him, but either they had self-selected to be less imposing or Enji was large even for a human. On a primal level, it was incredibly distracting and doubly so once he changed into the clothing Issik had brought him. His instincts crooned at the back of his mind, insisting that Enji was a good mate choice: big, strong, and healthy. The fact that he was biologically incapable of carrying young didn’t sway the desire in the slightest, of course.

Nor did the fact that he was clearly hiding something. Issik flicked a glance over to Enji as they climbed into the car, and not two seconds later found him looking right back. He was far too alert and on edge for someone who was supposed to be starting a lengthy vacation. To be fair, it was something of a rough start. “I assume you’d like to stop by the marketplace to get some replacement items?”

“Replacement?” Enji asked absently. His eyes seemed to be magnetized to the bustle of the port, drifting back over the second Issik stopped speaking. Whether or not Enji was here under false pretenses, he did seem to have a genuine interest in the planet.

“Since your luggage was lost,” Issik said, trying to tamp down at the amusement creeping into his voice. Enji was all but pressing his nose to the window as the car started off down the road. “If we shop nearer the spaceport, we can probably find more familiar products for you, but we can try closer to my home as well. Our species have no major biological incompatibilities — unless you have an allergy to shellfish?” Issik had specifically requested otherwise, but the selection of the human participants had ultimately been out of his control.

Something in what he said was enough to get Enji’s attention and Issik pressed his hands flat in his lap to keep from fidgeting. Human eyes made it so much more obvious when they were staring. Issik had gotten somewhat used to the obvious scrutiny, but Enji’s blue-gray eyes made for a gaze more intense than most of the darker-eyed humans Issik had met. 

Whatever internal calculations Enji seemed to be doing finished and his face slid into a broad smile. “Oh, of course! I’m glad one of us is thinking. Mom always said I’d lose my head if it wasn’t attached.” His laugh had to be forced, Issik was sure of it, but it came out so naturally he doubted the intuition that usually served him well. “No allergies that I know of. I’d prefer to try my luck with local options, if you don’t object.”

“No, of course not.” Issik preferred it, in fact, as off-world goods would make a far greater dent in the Human-Teneb Alliance’s funds. He tapped the new destination in on the control screen and the car picked up speed as they made their way onto less busy roads. 

Enji stayed silent, focused on the view outside until the boundary fence of the spaceport was shrinking into the distance behind them. “So, tell me about you,” he said, flipping on the focus and the charm as easy as breathing. “How did you get involved in the cultural exchange program?” The way Enji leaned in a little as he asked made Issik feel like he had stepped into a spotlight — warm and facing an attentive audience, but also nearly blind.

“Well, I’ve always been fascinated with other cultures, especially after Tenebrev was welcomed into the Intergalactic System of Advanced Sentients. That was when I was an adolescent — I’m sure you had your own childhood fascinations?” He’d used the same outline countless times, glossing over any specifics in favor of the perfect narrative of childish dreaming turned to adult ambition. The invitation to talk about their own experiences usually deflected whomever he was speaking with away from asking questions.

“Nothing that I managed to turn into such a successful profession.” Enji was laying the praise on a bit too thick, but Issik’s traitor brain lapped it up regardless. “What made you stick with it?”

Issik hesitated, tempted for maybe the first time to tell the entire story and see what Enji would make of it — but no. There was indulging one’s curiosity and then there was blindly sticking your hand into a burrow to see if something inside would bite you. “I was fortunate enough to be paired with a human mentor in my final years of mandatory education. She was an inspiration to me and I hope to make similar connections possible for more people from both our worlds.”

Despite his bland explanation, Enji seemed more interested. His eyes narrowed and he let out a curious hum as he tipped his head to one side. Neck baring did not carry the same emotional weight for humans, Issik reminded himself sternly. “She must have been quite a remarkable woman,” Enji said, warm and coaxing. Oh, but he was good at the conversational dance.

 “Aubrey was indeed remarkable,” Issik said. As always, he couldn’t keep the considerable fondness he had for her out of his tone. “I met her at a difficult time in my life and I credit her influence with keeping it from escalating from difficult to disastrous.” It sounded like an exaggeration, an overworked teen being guided through challenges as they moved toward adulthood. The reality of it involved a great deal of screaming, self-sabotage, and the consumption of so many intoxicants that Issik could no longer smell an overripe fruit without his stomach turning.

“It’s hard to imagine you as a difficult teenager. You seem very composed.” There’s a hint of a tease to the words and a friendly mischief in the curl of Enji’s mouth. Issik saw the second Enji’s smile went strained, though his next words came out almost as light. “Obviously, I was a holy terror as a teen.”

There’s nothing obvious about it, to Issik’s mind. Someone as sharp and charismatic as Enji seemed an unlikely candidate for acting out — but then Issik himself did as well, to most people. “You seem to have grown out of it admirably — or perhaps I should plan to check my sandals for crushed berries while you’re staying with me?”

Enji snapped out of whatever train of thought had been dragging him down with a startled laugh. It was too short for Issik’s liking, but long enough for him to know for certain that Enji’s early laugh had been fake. Issik resolved to do whatever it took to hear the real version again.

“Crushed berries, huh? I’m afraid I don’t know much about local food.” Enji grinned, his teeth bared in a way that promised trouble. Issik couldn’t help but find it irresistible. “Which types would you say stain the worst?”

=⋆✪⋆=

Enji’s attention was split several ways as he and Issik wandered through the shopping district. The tasks at hand, seeing the sights and shopping for necessities, took up the least of his attention. Most of it was divided between figuring out what Issik knew about him and dealing with how damnably attractive the teneb was. Issik was adaptable enough to put Enji himself to shame, maneuvering around topics he didn’t want to discuss while switching between languages to haggle with vendors and explain points of interest to Enji.

At first, Enji had assumed Issik was politely avoiding the fact that he was a prisoner, but as the day wore on he became sure that Issik didn’t know at all. He didn’t question any of Enji’s purchases or suggest Enji might need to repay him somehow, and he hadn’t made even the faintest suggestion that Enji shouldn’t try to escape. On the contrary, he was happy to talk about the dangers of the planet and the sort of preparation needed for any trips outside of a large city when Enji expressed even mild curiosity.

“Someone with your skin tone might sunburn in less than a quarter hour,” Issik said as Enji browsed slowly through a display of toiletries that included sunscreen. Most of it was designed to be combed into fur, from what his translator relayed to him. “I understand a shift to a more nocturnal schedule may be difficult for you, but please consider limiting your time outside while the sun is up.”

“I suppose it would look bad if your human was burnt to a crisp.” Taking a vehicle was almost a must if he wanted to get out during the day — once he was ready to escape at all. As much as Enji wanted to bolt off into the street, he knew that security would be tightest for the first few days. Getting away from Issik would be the easiest part of the equation. Convincing someone in the spaceport to take him off-world would be the real trick, and the more he could plan for that, the better. “I don’t mind being up at night, and anyway, I’m not that outdoorsy.”

Issik accepted that as he had anything else Enji told him, with an agreeable nod that didn’t betray the slightest hint of his feelings on the subject. “Is it the outdoors that you don’t prefer, or physical activities? I had thought to take you to a climbing gym, but I’m happy to substitute something else more to your taste.”

If he didn’t already have two or three other options ready to go, Enji would eat his translator. “Hm, I’ve never done much climbing. Is it popular around here?” He was impressed but increasingly annoyed at how calm Issik was. The urge to see what it took to fluster him was impossible to ignore. “I certainly don’t mind working up a sweat, in the right circumstances,” Enji said, casually picking up a bottle the translator informed him was ‘lubricant safe for genital use’.

Enji watched as Issik’s eyes went so wide he could see a hint of white around the edges and his ears flicked back. Both reactions were gone so fast he almost literally could have blinked and missed it — the man really was a consummate diplomat. “Climbing is the most popular sport on Tenebrev, in terms of both viewing and participation.” Issik sounded more mechanical than most automated systems as he rattled off the sentence. Enji had to turn his head to hide his smile.

“Do you enjoy it?” Enji tossed the bottle into his shopping basket and was suitably impressed when Issik managed not to turn to look. “I think I’d rather try out things you like instead of the standard tourist stuff. I’ll probably learn more that way, right?” It was a better justification than the real one, the nagging voice in Enji’s head that wanted to learn everything that made Issik tick.

“I do go climbing from time to time.” Issik’s voice was fluid and natural again as he returned to the familiar ground of deflecting personal questions. “I’m very flattered that you would consider my interests a priority, but I feel I must encourage you to experience anything that catches your interest. Tenebrev has much to offer beyond my limited sphere.”

Enji raised one eyebrow and gave Issik a brief but unsubtle once over. There was the little ear flick again, gone lightning fast but not quite fast enough to stop Enji from learning that yes, Issik absolutely understood human body language. “I’ll try to keep that in mind,” Enji said. “What else did you have planned? I’d like to take it easy for today, if there’s nothing time sensitive.”

“No, I had intended to return home to let you settle in once we were finished shopping.” Issik stared down a taller teneb with light brown fur who was trying to covertly peek at the alien from the next aisle. Enji gave them a cheerful wave behind Issik’s back, but Issik’s intimidation won out. The translator picked up their muttered apology as they turned away. “Please let me know if you wish to retire sooner. I’m happy to have anything else you need delivered.”

“I don’t mind people looking at me.” Not strictly true, but at least here it was due to his novelty factor. Quite a few of the people he’d noticed checking him out seemed to be appreciating the view — at least one had definitely been staring at his ass. “Can’t blame anyone for being curious about the alien.”

Issik let out a crabby sort of chirp. “I can only hope that all of our other guests are as generous as you. Really, they act as if they’ve never seen a human before. That woman was staring quite rudely.”

“Dumb alien question,” Enji said as they made their way up to the register. Issik kept stopping when Enji tried to walk behind him, so Enji wound up hovering at his side. It made for an awkward game of trying to predict when Issik was going to turn so he could get out of the way. “Is there an easy way for me to tell teneb genders apart?” That got him the first outright suspicious look he’d seen from Issik. Enji smiled wide and made an extravagant shrug that nearly knocked over an eye-drop display. “I know, there was a ton of orientation stuff I should have read, but I’m more of a leap first and look later kind of guy.” With any luck, his version of bumbling alien would hold up to Issik’s scrutiny. There were no guarantees, but the way he seemed comically oversized for the space probably helped.

Issik brought a hand up to cover his mouth, hiding a less than polished smile if Enji didn’t miss his guess. “A bold choice, coming to a planet without knowing anything about it.” To Enji’s surprise, the phrase sounded more impressed than chastising. “For most binary gendered individuals, men wear a chest covering and headband while women do not. The garments cover the additional scent glands males possess.”

Enji tapped a hand to his bare forehead. “So do I read as a man or a woman, dressed like this?” Issik turned to look him up and down in a near-perfect imitation of his own earlier gesture.

“No one will assume anything other than the fact you’re not native.” Issik switched back to his own language to deal with checking out, splitting the bags between the two of them. “But if you were a teneb, you would probably be seen as a male being quite forward in his search for a partner.”

The words were delivered so calmly that they were back out on the street by the time Enji realized in quick succession that he was dressed like he was looking for sex and Issik had let him walk around like that with no warning. All of the stares suddenly took on a new meaning, and his admiration for Issik shot through the roof. What a devious bastard.

=⋆✪⋆=

Issik smoothed a hand over the top of his head, coaxing the fur to flatten down as the car took them away from the noise and too-bright lights of the shopping district. It was shaping up to be a beautiful night, not a cloud to be seen. The pale moon had risen while they shopped and the dark moon was starting to crest the horizon as they made their way from the modern storefronts into the more traditional-looking buildings that made up Issik’s neighborhood.

Most of the traffic was the running the opposite direction as everyone Issik’s age and younger left for work or schooling, most riding in the standard wide-wheeled cars designed to prevent too much dust being kicked up in residential areas. The gossipy elders would start drifting out over the next few hours, sitting under their porch awnings or strolling down the dark stone streets to visit one another and share the day’s news.

Issik couldn’t have picked a better time for their return if he’d planned it. The odds were good that none of his immediate neighbors would be around to want to meet the alien, so there would be no interruptions in getting them both home to have some peace and quiet. Enji seemed to be holding up well, but Issik assumed his energy would start to fade soon. He had been very obliging about stopping to chat with any number of tenebs, despite the slow pace required as Issik had to translate anything he said.

“Do the lanterns have any significance?” Enji pointed at one as they passed, a rather tastelessly large piece with a deep blue bulb. The house it was on looked passable at a glance, but Issik had seen it too many times to be fooled. The dark bricks of the building were only a veneer and the shape was too tall and narrow, indicating modern construction that had been wedged in between existing buildings. It even had large, square windows — an absolute eyesore.

“They’re generally based on the family’s name in traditional script, sometimes with additional words or phrases mixed in. Classical poetry is quite popular.” Poetry was the only acceptable option, in Issik’s opinion. Anything else fell in and out of fashion too quickly, and most of it was senseless memetic phrases or revolting platitudes.

Enji seemed enamored of all the house lanterns, no matter how simple or ornate, staring at each one as they passed by. The play of colored light over his pale skin was striking, casting him in a sunset’s worth of different hues. “What does that weird-shaped yellow one say?”

“I can’t see yellow,” Issik said, following Enji’s outstretched finger, “but I believe it’s the family name and a repeated pattern of the phrase infinite stars. A reference to a relatively modern love poem, and probably a wedding gift.” It was a beautiful piece about lingering by the gate of a lover’s home, linking the concept of star-viewing to seeing their lantern reflected in their eyes.

Issik all but stopped breathing as Enji turned to look at him, their faces no more than a finger’s length apart. “You personally can’t see yellow, or all tenebs can’t?” Enji gazed into his eyes in a way that would have been flustering even without the poem fresh in his mind.

“All tenebs, with a few rare exceptions. Something of a tradeoff for our excellent night vision.” Issik pulled up an image of two color wheels on his comm and tilted it so Enji could see. “These are near identical to me, but I’ve been assured by other humans that it was a helpful example.”

Enji cupped a hand over the back of Issik’s to angle the screen further. His palm was warm even though the car’s air conditioning was on quite high and he was, at least for most humans, under-dressed. “Oh, that’s fascinating. It’s pretty much all reds and blues to my eyes. So that lamp was a very pale pink to you? Wait, what about your second moon? Also pink?”

Issik hoped the light was dim enough to hide his grin as Enji eagerly rattled off questions. “Yes, both are different shades of pink to me, though I’ve seen things closer to how you do at least once. There are special glasses that let us see a broader spectrum of colors, but they tend to cause headaches with extended wear.”

“Well, if you need to know if something’s yellow or not, I’m here for you.” Enji’s hand was still resting over Issik’s, though he couldn’t possibly have forgotten. Issik would have to explain that tenebs generally avoided casual physical contact at some point, but it would only embarrass Enji if he did it now. “And maybe in return you can keep me from tripping over anything critical?”

“A bargain I’m happy to make, though I would hardly be much of a host if I let you stumble around in the dark.” The car pulled to a stop in front of Issik’s house and he regretfully pulled his hand away. “If you’ll wait a moment, I can show you what I have prepared.” He tapped in the command to turn on the small lights strung along his fence and set along the path to his door, along with the floor-level lighting inside the house.

Issik peeked over his shoulder to find Enji smiling and another bit of his nervous tension faded away. “The overhead lights inside can be brightened or dimmed in each room to meet either of our needs. I hope you’ll be comfortable here, and of course, please let me know if you need any accommodations whatsoever.” Issik even had a pair of tinted glasses on hand in case Enji wanted to keep the whole house as bright as day at all hours.

“You’ve really thought of everything, huh? Thanks, seriously,” Enji said. The gratitude in his voice was a world away from the syrupy sweet tone he’d been using earlier and Issik felt his ears flicker with pleased embarrassment. He was so tired that he couldn’t keep his usual grip on his body language, but he hoped it was still subtle enough to escape Enji’s notice.

“You’re very welcome,” Issik murmured. He dithered over their shopping bags, picking out the heaviest ones for himself while making sure he kept a hand free to scan on the door lock. “Please come in.” It was hard to keep up his casual front as he held the door open for Enji, even knowing that the gesture likely meant nothing to him. Issik had certainly repeated that it was normal for humans to enter each others’ homes countless times while briefing the other hosts.

Sure enough, Enji breezed past him with only a quick smile and stepped onto the grooved floor of Issik’s entryway. “Shoes off before I go in, right? I assume this is here to keep the sand out of your house anyway.”

“That’s correct, thank you. You can brush your feet off on the floor, or this mat if the floor is too rough.” Issik set his share of the bags up in the main hall and bent to remove his flexible sandals. They were fitted too close to really let any sand in, but it was still pleasant to run his foot pads along the textured floor and listen to the faint scrape of his claws that meant he was finally home.

Enji was as thorough as Issik could have hoped for, brushing his bare feet along the mat several times before stepping up into the house. “You have a lovely home,” he said, wandering over to look at a watercolor landscape that had been a gift from Issik’s mother. It was visible from the door, because she’d never let him live it down otherwise. “It smells really nice in here, too.”

Issik’s foot caught on the step and he barked in alarm as he pitched forward. Enji caught him with an arm across the chest, moving faster than Issik would have thought possible for someone so large. “Hey now, I thought you were supposed to stop me from tripping, not the other way around.” He was smiling and his arm was steady and warm as Issik regained his balance.

Regaining his composure was another matter entirely. “Thank you. You’ll have to pardon my clumsiness; I think I’m a bit distracted today.” Issik’s primary distraction now was hoping with every fiber of his being that Enji would forget the offhand comment before he read more about teneb culture. The only scent in the house was Issik’s own and the last time someone had complimented that, the two of them had been twined together naked in Issik’s bed.

“Hmm, I could be persuaded,” Enji said slowly, “for the low, low price of some breakfast. I’m starving.” He started picking up bags — more than he had been carrying when they walked in, Issik noticed. “Which way’s the kitchen?”

This, at least, Issik had prepared for. “Let’s eat, and then I’ll give you a proper tour.” Hopefully the very attractive sampling platters he’d ordered would be distraction enough for the both of them.

=⋆✪⋆=

Swapping out a prison cell for an alien’s house had its ups and downs, Enji decided after a few days. The food was much better, and there were enough options that Enji hadn’t repeated a meal yet. He had a modest amount of clothing in different styles to choose from. After Issik’s comment when he had worn the headband braided into his hair, Enji kept his forehead covered outside of his bedroom. One piece of mandatory clothing wasn’t worth putting up a fight over, not when he was trying to be good.

Everything else made Enji want to climb the walls without bothering to go to the gym first. The cultural exchange program was Issik’s, and dearer to him than most people’s children were to them. He trotted Enji out to do some activity or another every day, presumably so they could be seen as role models for the program. Enji’s need to play nice meant that going out and putting on a good show in public was a necessity — and that meant Enji never left the house alone.

He’d tried one casual attempt, and Issik had politely but firmly insisted on accompanying him. Issik’s reasoning was that most people in the area didn’t have translators, and Enji hadn’t been able to think of a polite counter. Tonight, Enji had set his alarm and woken up a full hour before Issik’s usual waking time, only to find him pacing a slow circuit in the main room. Apparently, his alien host suffered from insomnia.

Enji would have been sympathetic, except that he was starting to feel more like a prop than a person. Issik spoke to him in public and when they had meals together, but beyond that he seemed content to ignore Enji’s existence entirely. Most nights, Issik was holed up in his office working or in his bedroom doing who knew what. Issik had made it clear that both spaces were private. A polite but pointed conversation about teneb social norms had also driven home the point that Enji should keep his hands to himself.

When he first got sent to prison, Enji had assumed he would hate everything about it and leave someday without a backwards glance. Alone in the deafening silence of his room, Enji missed it. He wanted to be able to walk down the hall and flop dramatically on Will’s bed to chat or cuddle. Even the kind of physical scuffle that he hadn’t been dumb enough to get into for ages sounded good. On really bad nights, even getting a lecture from a minder had some appeal, because at least that would mean someone had acknowledged his existence. 

Desperate not to be alone with his thoughts any longer, Enji asked if they could take a stroll around Issik’s neighborhood on foot. It was a practical choice for the escape plans he spent a lot of time daydreaming about, too. He could at least try to learn the area better, on the off chance he ever managed to slip out from under Issik’s watchful eye.

“Karhil Tahbo! Good evening!” A teneb woman with plain gray-brown fur waved to them from her yard, and Enji caught one of Issik’s tiny ear-flickers that seemed to be the only tell the man possessed. Unfortunately, reading the precise emotion from a gesture so small and quick had escaped Enji thus far.

“Rirrin Sehnka, good evening,” Issik called, pausing at the line of her fence. “You’re up early tonight. Shouldn’t you be resting?”

She waved them over with both hands, moving them from the wrist rather than the elbow as a human would. The dark cooling membranes gave tenebs a strange range of body language, to Enji’s eyes. A lot of gestures were limited to the hands, but then they could also spread their arms wide in a way that made Enji think of vampires flaring their capes in some of the terrible movies he’d watched with Will. It was killing him not to show Issik some clips, but he was determined to keep playing good human for now.

“Please, come in, don’t stand on ceremony,” Rirrin said. Enji had found that the translator was top quality work, putting him at only a fraction of a second’s delay over a native speaker. Right now, it meant that Issik had no chance to deflect her request before Enji started into her yard. Since he wouldn’t hang back behind Enji — standing behind someone as a male had all sorts of fun implications — they walked over side by side.

Rirrin had a cast around her right leg and a small walking stick propped up against the wall behind her, so Enji leaned forward to offer her his hand. “Lovely to meet you, Rirrin Sehnka. I’m Enji.” Despite practicing in private, he still couldn’t quite mimic the faint trill tenebs made when they pronounced their R’s.

“Oh, Karhil, which bit of that was his name? It is he, isn’t it? What a charming human, and so large! You should eat as much as he does — you’re all but empty fur. Ah, I really couldn’t have picked a worse time to break a bone, could I?” Enji shifted his attention to Issik as Rirrin chattered on, watching his shoulders wind tighter with every word.

“His name is Enji,” Issik said, cutting in smoothly the second she paused to take a breath. “And he was given a translator to assist him in living with us, so he can understand you.”

Rirrin let out a sharp series of chirpy barks that the translator needlessly informed him were laughter. “Sorry about that, Enji! Don’t you mind me one bit, I know I’m at least a decade too old to keep up with a young fellow like you, but you can’t blame a woman for looking, eh?”

“I’ll take it as a compliment,” Enji said, keeping his lips together as he smiled. His teeth were no threat whatsoever compared to the more impressive fangs tenebs had, but it was considered polite and he was trying so hard to behave.

Issik let him finish speaking before adding, “He says that he’s not offended. I trust that your leg is recovering well?” The pause was deliberate. When Issik wanted to, he could start translating in the middle of a sentence and rarely even had to make corrections. Enji had gotten a brief explanation of how similar the grammar was between their languages from Issik, though much of it went over his head.

“Well enough, well enough. Doctor keeps trying to convince me to try this newfangled thing to speed up the healing — nano something or other — as if my leg won’t mend in its own time! I swear, you let kids go study off-world and suddenly they have no patience! No harm meant,” she added, slicing a hand sideways as if to exclude Enji from the criticism.

“Perhaps your doctor simply wants to have you up and causing trouble again as soon as possible,” Issik said, tipping his ears forward in a gesture that was translated as ‘affectionate’. “Please do let me know if you need anything while you’re healing, Rirrin Sehnka.”

Rirrin laughed again, waving them off. “Yes, yes, as you’ve said a hundred times already. I’ll be fine! You two can go off to whatever you were doing now before I start babbling on again.”

Enji paused to wave a goodbye, half hoping Rirrin might drag him back into conversation, and wound up trailing after Issik on their way out of Rirrin’s yard. He heard her laugh again behind him and mutter something too quiet for his translator to pick up, though he would have bet money that it was an off-color comment.

“She’s a wild one, huh?” Enji asked as he caught up to Issik. “Reminds me a bit of my grandmother, honestly.” Despite how long she’d been gone, even the brief mention stung. Enji would have given anything to talk to her again, now more than ever.

Issik let out a tiny chirp that was his own much more restrained version of a laugh. “I was about to apologize for her behavior, but you really aren’t offended, are you?”

“Can’t say I mind being told how attractive I am, no. It lets me pretend that most people are staring for a nice reason for a change.” Bitterness and oversharing, not the right tone to strike for being a good guest. Enji decided to closely study the building to one side as Issik turned to look at him. It was the same dark, round-cornered square as every other damn building on the street. Traditional construction, Issik had said.

“I unfortunately never had the chance to meet either of my grandmothers,” Issik said, guiding them down an unmarked side lane between two houses. “Are you close to your family?” Enji snorted at the question and wound up clipping his elbow on the edge of a jutting stone in the building next to him.

Biting back the multilingual swears Enji wanted to let loose as he cradled his arm was a challenge. “My grandparents are dead and I’m not on speaking terms with my parents,” he said through clenched teeth. “Can I please walk behind you for a minute? There’s not even anyone around to see.”

“Of course,” Issik said, all but instantly. “I’m so sorry.” He took a few steps ahead but turned back to face Enji, gesturing to his injured elbow. “Are you bleeding? We can return home for a first aid kid if you’d like.”

Enji twisted his arm in several configurations before admitting defeat. “I can’t actually see, so you tell me.” He turned half away from Issik and held up his arm. “Probably just caught the funny bone.”

“The skin is slightly reddened, but intact.” Issik had his hands tucked tight at his sides as he examined Enji, even though he was well out of arm’s reach. “I should apologize. It was never my intent to imply you should walk next to me in situations where there isn’t sufficient space. No one would see anything untoward if you were following me somewhere like this.”

Enji briefly wondered what the average teneb’s reaction to offering a piggyback ride would be. It was a shame he wouldn’t get to find out firsthand. “Not really your fault,” he said, as lightly as he could manage. “I think it’s just me picking up on how important this whole thing is to you and overthinking the details, you know?”

“You’re an amazingly considerate person, Enji. I’m very fortunate to have someone like you join my program.” Issik took a small step back and gestured for Enji to follow. “Here, I wanted to show you something.” Enji let himself wince once Issik’s back was turned. Of course Issik liked him now, when he was a good little alien in public and stayed out of the way in private. If Enji let even a fraction of his usual asshole self shine through, Issik would definitely have a change of heart.

Issik took the lead toward the end of the lane, a stone wall covered with thick trails of hanging succulents. They were a mix of smooth, round pods in a pale green and darker curved pieces that looked like nothing so much as tiny, unripe bananas. Issik tugged a section of the thick plants aside like a curtain, revealing a small archway with — to Enji’s eyes — nothing but darkness beyond it.

“Is that a path?” he asked, flicking the light on his tablet on to the lowest setting in deference to Issik’s eyes. Sure enough, in the blue-white glow he could see that the space continued forward, opening up after only a few steps. Enji ducked under the plants and through the gap, keeping his arms close to his body to prevent any further accidents.

Issik made a small, hesitant noise as Enji brushed by him, but Enji heard the plants fall back into place so he was likely following. The open space Enji stepped into was bracketed on every side by walls and the dark stone made it seem even smaller than it actually was. There was a bench with bits of shrubby growth poking up between the back and the seat, and what looked like a steep plastic slide covered in more succulents.

Enji drifted over to take a closer look and saw that it was actually a climbing wall, probably for children, covered all over with small grips and divots. The patch of broad, flat cactus growing to one side made it somewhat more daunting than originally intended. “A secret park, huh?” Enji found himself whispering, caught up in the tiny illicit thrill of being somewhere deserted.

“An oddity left by some of the newer house construction.” Issik dusted off a section of the bench and perched on the edge, tucking his feet together primly. “I used to play here as a child, and then I kept coming as I got older, when I needed somewhere quiet to get away from my family.”

“Things a bit rough with your folks too?” Enji strolled around to the other side of the climbing wall, which was a simple set of stairs leading back down. His light caught on the corner of something silvery poking out of a dark package tucked under the space behind the stairs. “Looks like someone else has been here besides you — there’s a box of stuff down here.”

Issik peered over and let out a soft sigh. “A daylight kit. See the sun symbol on the side? There’s a charity that leaves them around various public areas in case anyone needs them.”

Enji crouched down to take a closer look and spotted the stylized sun design over text that his translator read as Tenebrev Association for the Homeless. “Wow, you still have—” He cut himself off before the rest of the not so culturally sensitive comment could slip out. “I mean, it’s good that someone’s looking out for them.”

“But it would be better if no one lacked for basic necessities, yes.” At the edge of Enji’s light, Issik drooped forward with another sigh. “I’m well aware that Tenebrev is somewhat behind many other worlds in terms of social support. It’s improved quite a bit over my lifetime, but we still have some distance to go.”

Enji traced a finger through the thick layer of dust on top of the box. “On the bright side, it looks like this has been here for a long time and no one’s needed it.” An idea struck him and he added, as nonchalant as he could, “It doesn’t need to be removed because it’s so old, does it?”

“No, there shouldn’t be anything perishable inside. Best to leave it be.”Issik sounded distant, and when Enji swung the light around, he was staring up at the tiny slice of night sky visible overhead. “I can’t imagine anyone will find it here, but it’s not hurting anything.”

Enji made his way over to the other end of the bench and clicked off his light. With his puny human eyes, nothing was visible other than the few stars he could see when he leaned back. “Was that an intentional dodge about your family? It’s fine if you don’t want to talk about it,” he said to the darkness next to him.

Issik let out a faint sigh, so quiet Enji wasn’t sure he’d been meant to hear it. “We keep in touch, if that’s what you were wondering. They’re quite eager to meet you, actually. I’ve been putting them off a bit so you had time to get settled, but if you’re interested, they would be more than delighted to host us for dinner.”

Through their time together, Enji had started to develop a clear picture of Issik, built mostly from the negative space of what he didn’t say. “But if I said I wasn’t interested, you’d be at least a little relieved, wouldn’t you?”

The amused hum Issik made at that felt almost too intimate with the two of them alone in the dark. “You make it very difficult to dance around things I generally prefer to avoid saying.” Enji desperately wanted to reach out and touch Issik, to give him just a small pat on the shoulder. He pressed his hands firmly against his own legs instead.

“You could save us both the trouble and talk to me bluntly instead,” Enji suggested. Issik’s faint laugh was probably a no, but it warmed Enji’s heart to hear it all the same. 

“I think if anyone would be able to get me to, it might be you,” Issik said. “You’re very… easy to speak with.” The pause in his sentence was long enough that Enji had to wonder what other, more exciting alternatives Issik had discarded along the way. Whatever it was Issik had decided not to say, the tone was fond enough to jab Enji with another little shard of guilt.

If he managed to get away, Issik was going to be crushed. Enji could admit to himself that he’d feel bad about that, but the other side of the scales held his freedom. He couldn’t throw this chance away. “Anyway, I don’t mind having dinner with your folks as long as it won’t be awful for you. I’m pretty used to being on display as the alien curiosity at this point.”

“I’ve survived every meal with them thus far, and I don’t doubt they’ll be on their best behavior with a guest present,” Issik said. The tone of his voice suggested he would be making sure of it, regardless of his parents’ intentions. “Also, you’re being far too modest. I doubt anyone who has met you could think of you as a mere curiosity.”

Unlike many of Issik’s diplomatically phrased statements, Enji felt certain he included himself in this one. Enji countered the warm feeling that washed over him with cold, simple logic: Issik didn’t know who and what he actually was. All he really knew was Enji’s very careful front and best behavior. The prison record alone would probably put him off, if Enji’s knack for irritating the shit out of people didn’t manage it first.

Lacking any better reply, he murmured, “Thank you,” into the night air before the silence stretched out too long. To distract himself from his pesky conscience, Enji went back to watching the stars. All of the constellations were different, of course, and Enji had no idea which stars any of the distant pinpricks of light might be. The only sure thing he had was the conviction that he wanted a chance to go visit the planets that might be orbiting them, no matter what it took to get there.

=⋆✪⋆=

It was a lovely night to dine outdoors, temperate and windless. Issik was pleased with how far his parents had gone out of their way to make sure dinner would be comfortable for their alien guest. String lighting decorated their fence, each chair, and the center of their table, so Enji could make it to his seat and actually see what he was eating. Issik’s father had asked dozens of questions about the menu to make sure all the food choices were suitable. There were several small lap blankets folded up on a spare chair, presumably in case Enji got cold. His parents had even rented translators for the occasion so they could converse with Enji directly.

Everything was perfect, but Issik knew from his ear tips to his toe claws that agreeing to the dinner had been the worst blunder he’d made all season. Enji’s smile was brittle and he kept fussing at the edge of his napkin under the table in what had to be a stress response. Every so often, one of his hands would clench into a fist, carefully out of sight from Issik’s parents.

Even without those tells, the amount Enji was drinking would have been worrying. Enji had shown no interest in any activities involving alcohol, and had never ordered it when they dined in public. Now, he’d had enough that he had to be fairly intoxicated despite his larger body mass. Issik wasn’t sure what had set him off, and he could hardly ask with his parents right across the table.

His mother nudged the serving tray of roasted beetles closer to Issik with an encouraging smile. “Come on, sweetheart, eat up! You’re too skinny. I have no idea how you make it through a day without falling into torpor.” The smell of the fruit sauce they were drenched in made Issik’s stomach turn, but he took a small one from the edge of the plate to keep the peace.

“Don’t be ridiculous, dear.” Issik’s father was deep in his cups as well and the amused tilt of his ears boded poorly. “He’s far too busy with work to fall into torpor. Probably isn’t penciled into his schedule more than once a season.” His laugh was loud enough to make Issik’s ears flatten in unison with Enji’s slight flinch.

“I have been busy, but I promise I’m eating,” Issik said. He popped the beetle into his mouth and swallowed it whole before the taste could hit. One polite amount of fake chewing later, he smiled at his mother. “Obviously I wouldn’t be much of a host if I spent much time in torpor. Enji, you can vouch for the fact I’m not tucked away under my desk napping, can’t you?”

Issik had hoped Enji would run with the joke and bring out the charming banter he so often used when they were alone together. Instead, he opened his mouth and said the worst thing possible. “Honestly, I almost would believe you don’t sleep at all,” Enji said with a strained laugh. “I swear you’re always up no matter what time it is.”

That brought another deafening laugh from his father and his mother’s favorite disappointed look. “You’re still not sleeping properly either?” she asked. “Why don’t I talk to my herbalist tomorrow and see if he can pencil you in soon? I know you’d rather try your luck with off-world medicine, but really, some of the traditional remedies work so well—”

“Thank you, mother, but we don’t need to bore Enji with medical talk. I promise I’ll think on it and message you later.” Issik could feel the strain in his face from keeping his expression pleasant. A thousand diplomatic meetings with the prickliest bureaucrats his planet had to offer were a mere lantern compared to the midday sun of dealing with his parents.

“I know perfectly well that means never coming from you,” Issik’s mother said. Her tone was getting sharper by the moment. Issik had never had to guess which parent he’d gotten his temper from, though he often wished he’d taken after his father in that one regard. He took a long, slow breath. He hadn’t screamed at his parents since he had finished his therapy with Aubrey, and he was not about to break that streak now.

Enji’s hand clenched into a fist in his lap, though his face was still impressively neutral. He reached out idly to take a large beetle and popped it in his mouth. Issik’s parents were too busy glaring at their wayward son to pay attention to Enji, right up until he started choking dramatically. Under the table, Enji was giving him a thumbs up. Issik was so baffled that both his parents were on their feet and asking what they should do before Issik even managed to halfheartedly pat Enji on the back.

By the time Enji had stopped choking — or pretending to choke, as Issik hoped was the case — the tension at the table was long gone. Enji wiped a few tears away from the corners of his eyes and sipped at a glass of water. “I’m so sorry,” he said. His voice was rough and the absolutely pitiful smile on his face had Issik’s parents cooing at him like he was a baby fresh out of the pouch. “Everything’s so delicious that I got a little carried away there.”

With that perfect compliment, it was easy for Issik to smoothly get them away from the dinner party with a minimum of reassurances to his parents that they would both try to take better care of themselves. To his shock, Enji didn’t say a word once they were in the car, even after the light of his parents’ lantern was no longer visible behind them.

Issik knew he should say something to open the delicate dance of puzzling out why Enji was upset, but he was tired and he knew it would take ages to do properly. Enji’s expression was flat and his gaze was fixed out the window, despite the fact he couldn’t possibly be seeing much. In a moment of weakness, Issik decided to take the time to unwind a little. He’d broach the subject as soon as they were home again, and figure out how to make things right with Enji then.

=⋆✪⋆=

The silent car ride home only sharpened the edge of Enji’s anger. It figured that the first time he stopped acting perfect, even if it was for Issik’s benefit, he got iced out even more than usual. Enji’s self-control was hanging on by a thread. He knew he shouldn’t have had so much to drink, but he also knew he couldn’t have survived Issik’s parents any other way.

Issik continued not to say a word as they got back to his house and went inside. Enji scraped the sand off his feet with way too much force and untied his headband in the entryway rather than politely waiting to get to his bedroom, but his temper was in check. At least he thought it was, until Issik opened his stupid diplomat mouth and tried to smooth things over.

“I’m sorry that your meal with my parents ended so poorly,” Issik said. He stepped up next to Enji, tipping his ears in a way that was ‘conciliatory’ according to the translator. Enji plucked the damn thing out of his ear and dropped it into his pants pocket so he wasn’t tempted to see if he could crush it. 

“Stop,” Enji said flatly. “Whatever excuses you’re going to make for them, just… don’t. Please.” Hanging on to his resolve to be a good little human was exactly like pushing himself too far in the climbing gym. He could hardly breathe, and everything inside him was burning with the need to let go, consequences be damned.

Issik’s ears flattened out further and Enji got a small stab of amusement as he realized he didn’t need the translator to tell him the gesture was somewhere between confusion and frustration. “I’m not certain that I would be able to do so, as I’m not entirely sure what upset you in the first place,” Issik said carefully. “My parents were behaving well. If something read as a slight to you, I would suspect cultural differences rather than malice.”

Malicious or not, it was the cultural similarities that were the problem for Enji. Sitting at that table had been like time traveling back to dinners with his parents, before they started making excuses to get out of them. His grandfather had been disappointed that Enji couldn’t reconcile with them, but his grandmother seemed to understand. Once Enji cut his parents off entirely, she’d never brought them up with him for the rest of her life.

Enji turned away so he could worry less about his face and focus on his tone. “I think we both know if they had done anything culturally insensitive, you would have corrected them immediately. Let’s be real, here. I’d give it better than even odds that you know more about polite human social behavior than I do.”

“It’s generous of you to give me so much credit,” Issik said. Enji rolled his eyes, but let Issik shrug off the compliment. “Still, if it wasn’t that my parents did something to offend you, I’m at a loss for what the problem could have been. You seemed to enjoy the food, and I hope by now you wouldn’t hesitate to tell me if I was doing something to upset you.”

Something in Issik’s coaxing tone snapped Enji’s already fraying hold on his patience. He turned back to Issik and the words started spilling out of his mouth unchecked. “Why do you let them talk to you like that?” he asked. “Like you’re some idiot who can’t even feed himself properly instead of someone who as far as I can tell singlehandedly picked up another species’ language and culture and pushed forward a major advance in diplomatic relations. Why do you even speak to them when they treat you so badly?”

The last question was one Enji had wound up asking himself a lot as he grew up, after years of other questions with no good answers. He’d made his grandmother cry once when he was a kid, after he asked her, “Why don’t mommy and daddy want to see me?” His grandfather had also grounded him more than a few times for some of the names he’d called his parents.

Too late, Enji realized he was towering over Issik as his voice got louder and louder, making himself big and threatening in the exact way he had tried to avoid since he arrived. He hunched his shoulders and took a couple steps back. “I’m sorry,” Enji said. “It’s been a long day, something just kind of hit a nerve for me. I absolutely shouldn’t have raised my voice at you.”

“You’re not wrong about them,” Issik said softly. Enji’s next apology evaporated at the admission and he stared blankly at Issik. “They’ve never taken my work with the Human-Teneb Alliance seriously. I will insist on explaining one thing in their defense, because it should help you understand their reasoning even if you can’t agree with it. Tenebs are generally born two or three at a time. The year I was born, there was a severe famine. I was the only one of my litter that left my mother’s pouch, and even then I nearly did not survive to see my naming day.”

Enji nodded a few times as the information sank in and regret started to overtake anger. Their situations were nothing alike. Issik’s parents had wanted him and almost lost him. They picked at him because they were worried, not because they thought Issik was worthless. “That makes sense. I’m sorry.”

“You don’t need to apologize. They were being rude, and I can’t fault you for being angry on my behalf.” Issik still sounded like a diplomat, because he couldn’t seem to turn that off, but Enji suspected the sentiment was sincere anyway. “You said this evening hit a nerve — is it correct to assume you mean difficulties with your own family?”

Issik’s voice was so gentle, and Enji was sliding onto the bad side of drunk where he felt like he might cry if he had to bottle up one more feeling. He could always blame the alcohol later if he had to.

Enji sagged against a wall and scrubbed his face with both hands. “So my folks didn’t want kids,” he said. Issik let out a tiny, sad chirp. “Mom’s birth control was part of a recall, but nobody told her in time. Government care was stretched so thin that anybody who could provide a half-decent place for a kid had to keep any they popped out. I mostly spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ place.”

“I can understand why you would no longer wish to speak to your relations.” Issik’s fur was bristling up a bit like an angry cat and Enji couldn’t help but give him a tired smile. It did his heart good to see such an unpolished reaction on his behalf, even if he still felt shaken and raw.

“Yeah, nothing I did was ever good enough to make them happy to have a son.” Enji shrugged and pushed himself up off the wall. “Eventually, I gave up on getting along with them and on making anything of myself. I know you want to dodge any possible praise with your whole diplomat thing, but you’ve done a lot, and your parents should be proud of you.”

Issik’s ears flicked toward Enji and he stepped in to curl one hand over Enji’s forearm. Enji had a brief moment to register that the pads of Issik’s fingers were cool and faintly textured before Issik was back to a respectable distance away again. It was the only contact beyond the rare handshake that Enji had gotten in weeks and his skin tingled where Issik’s hand had been. Issik watched Enji for a long, still moment. His dark eyes usually made it hard to tell where he was looking, but right now Enji could feel the intensity of them focused on his face.

“Thank you,” Issik said at last. “For the compliment, and for your support.” His smile was pointier than Enji’s, but looked at least as tired. “Also for getting us out of there before it devolved into a full on argument. I take it you dabbled in acting at some point during your wild teenage years?”

“Something like that,” Enji said. Figuring out he had a knack for bluffing had gotten him into social engineering, which was a bit like acting except that it hurt people. He didn’t even know how many people he’d gotten fired by sweet-talking them into giving him some almost-harmless information. Ultimately, it had hurt him too. After his grandmother died, he’d stopped caring, got sloppy, then got caught and sent to prison.

Enji wanted to spill the rest of his story out. In the moment, it was easy to imagine a version of Issik that would keep being gentle and sympathetic once he did. It was only a fantasy. He’d been able to imagine versions of his parents that were nice to him too, once.

The smart option was to give Issik as little ammunition against him as possible. As nice as having a heart-to-heart with Issik had been, Enji’s hopes of escape relied on keeping him in the dark.

Not for the first time, Enji wished that compliance with the exchange meant that he’d be let free into the wider universe, or even just abandoned on Tenebrev. Enji would have been happy to play along the whole way, even with Issik parading him around and then putting him away when he wasn’t needed.

Enji didn’t really relish the idea of being a wanted criminal, but the alternative was worse. Dumped right back into the Mars slum he’d grown up in, to likely live and die there with no real chance of getting off-world ever again. Enji liked Issik, despite his attempts not to, but he needed a shot at freedom, even if it meant doing more harm on his way out.

=⋆✪⋆=

There was an old proverb Issik thought of often, though he rarely said it aloud: Raindrops and troubles never strike alone. After the disastrous dinner with his parents, Enji had become more distant despite what Issik had thought was a good reconciliation afterwards. Enji hadn’t even wanted to go out for several days, though he insisted nothing was wrong.

Now, Issik had been summoned to an urgent meeting by Sanesk Ajenib, another host in the program. She had insisted that Issik come alone, but also refused to tell him what the issue was over comm. Sanesk was too level-headed for it to be a joke or something trivial blown out of proportion, so the next evening Issik made his excuses to Enji and caught a car to Sanesk’s house.

His heart sank when he saw a small table and three chairs set up close to Sanesk’s door. Both Sanesk and her human, William Holmes, were already seated. A subject that she wanted to keep out of her neighbors’ ears and one her human guest needed to be involved in? Almost certainly some kind of irreconcilable difference between them. Issik started considering how he could best rearrange his home to accommodate two humans as he crossed the yard to join them.

“Sanesk Ajenib, Mr. Holmes, good evening. How may I be of assistance tonight?” As Sanesk had a decent quality translator, Issik decided to put her human guest at ease by speaking William’s native language. With any luck it would place Issik as a neutral party for whatever difficulty they were having.

The actual conversation left Issik speechless. 

William was apparently a criminal, as were some if not all of the other humans who were here as the first wave of Issik’s exchange program. Issik’s ears went flat two sentences in and stayed locked back so hard he worried they might cramp.

As William finished his explanation, Sanesk nudged a small packet of crystallized nectar drops toward Issik’s hands. “Forgive me for adding another issue on the tail of such a difficult revelation, Karhil Tahbo, but I was wondering if it would be possible to keep this matter quiet for the time being.” Sanesk’s other hand was below the level of the table — as was William’s. “Will would prefer to see the program through, to earn his freedom and ideally stay here on Tenebrev afterwards.”

“I imagine a lot of folks will want the same, with or without staying here,” William said. “If it helps, I think everyone came from the same section of prison as Enji and I, so they weren’t in for anything violent.” At Enji’s name, Issik managed to swallow the entire piece of candy he had been letting dissolve in his mouth. “He was probably the biggest handful out of any of us, but the worst thing I could see him doing is cooking up some wild escape attempt.”

Issik nodded his head slowly and hoped that it conveyed serious contemplation rather than the shock he was feeling. “Thank you both for bringing this to my attention. As long as no one is likely to be at risk, I see no reason to make the information public for the time being.” Sanesk and William both relaxed and subtly brought their hands back to the edge of the table. Issik wondered if Sanesk realized how often she swiveled her ears toward William. It was a relief to realize he wasn’t the only one who found their human guests so appealing.

At least, it would have been a relief if his whole mind hadn’t been flooded with visions of his project crumbling to dust in the most spectacular, public way possible. “If either of you happen to speak with other members of the program, human or teneb, please do let me know if they seem to be aware of anything we discussed today. I’ll be sure to update you of any developments on my end.”

It took a few minutes more to extract himself with a minimum of politeness. Issik took the rest of the nectar drops with further thanks to Sanesk and finally managed to say his goodbyes. Once the car had pulled out of sight of Sanesk’s house, he started furiously crunching them between his teeth one after another. There had to be a solution, a way to figure out who was responsible, and how to convince them to help present the information in a way that would not irrevocably damage Issik’s reputation.

From long experience, Issik knew he would never find it while he was caught in the initial drive to fight or flee. He blew off steam by sending a quick, vehemently worded email to Aubrey explaining the situation. Not only did he trust her with his life, she had seen him at his worst so often that Issik never wasted his time trying to present a polished front to her. Besides, Aubrey deserved his honestly more than anyone else in the infinite stretch of stars.

Issik stopped the car down the street from his house in the hope that a brief walk would start to settle his mind. He passed a few houses and then a familiar voice called out, “Karhil Tahbo! Hello!” Mercifully, Enji wasn’t with him, so Issik could pause outside Rirrin’s gate and return her greeting before continuing on his way. The plan might have worked if she hadn’t followed up with the worst thing he’d heard all night: “If you’re looking for Enji, he headed off that way a little earlier.” She pointed back the way Issik had come.

“Thank you, Rirrin Sehnka, I was,” Issik said. “Have a pleasant rest of your night.” Sugar grit ground away to nothing between his teeth as Issik turned away and clenched his jaw.

“Hope you can catch up to him without too much trouble. You two have fun,” Rirrin called. Issik stalked off at the fastest pace that he could convince himself was still a walk. If Enji was a convict, he probably didn’t have the credits to hire a car and the only destination that they had ever visited on foot was Issik’s secret park. Why Enji would have gone there, Issik had no clue, but it was as good a starting place as any for his search.

Enji wasn’t in the space beyond the curtain of vines, but he had clearly been there. The daylight kit had been removed from its packaging and the children’s climbing structure had been pushed up against the far wall. Issik stared blankly for a long moment before his anger came out hot as the midday sun. He had done everything in his power to welcome Enji: replaced his belongings, kept him entertained, reorganized his home and his life both all to suit one human criminal. It appeared his repayment was an escape attempt.

Issik’s toe claws curled forward, dragging sharp lines in the dirt. He had so much work to do to have any hope at salvaging his program, but hunting down Enji was between him and all of it. The exercise would hopefully clear his mind, and Issik doubted the process would take long.

In the quiet darkness of the park, Issik allowed himself a full-toothed grin that he could never have shown in public. Had Enji actually done his research about Tenebrev, he might have realized what a poor plan he had concocted. Tenebs lived in cities now, but they were a hunting species at heart. One human who lacked familiarity with the outdoors was hardly going to pose a challenge.

Issik felt like a wild adolescent about to play chase with his friends again as he slipped off his sandals and tied them out of the way at the small of his back. Three quick steps took him up the climbing structure. From there, his claws easily caught in gaps in the wall to carry him over and off into the night in pursuit of his wayward human ‘guest’.

=⋆✪⋆=

Enji knew how to take advantage of good luck: have backup plans for his backup plans and be ready to act on them at a moment’s notice. When Issik apologetically said he had some business to attend to, Enji had no trouble smiling and telling him not to worry about it. Enji waited out of sight of the front windows until he heard the car door close and the soft sound of it pulling out into the street.

For all that he hadn’t had a chance to practice his escape routine with Issik’s constant presence, it went smoothly. He had a go bag under the bed with a few pieces of outdoor-ready clothing and an empty water pack in it. While the pack was filling, Enji looted the rest of the house for valuables. The electronics were out — too easy for them to have some kind of tracking built in. Issik’s damn near ascetic lifestyle meant he didn’t have much by the way of expensive knickknacks lying around either.

Enji gathered up what he could, including a small amount of loose currency and some of Issik’s jewelry that looked potentially valuable. The rest of the space in his bag he filled with the little packets of treats Issik had in literally every room of the house but almost never ate. Most tenebs were fond of snacks, due to some quirk of their biology that made them half-hibernate if they got too hungry. Issik seemed to manage his own intake through a mix of rigid meal times and sheer stubbornness.

With the basic necessities of food, water, and barter taken care of, Enji left. The loose cloak Issik had gotten for him served to hide the water pack strapped to his back, but there was no disguising the bag in his hand. He’d layered all of Issik’s stolen belongings under a towel, leaving the snacks and gym clothes on top as a plausible excuse if anyone stopped him.

Possibly the strangest thing of all was that no one did. On Tenebrev, no one knew he was anything but a free man. Enji waved to a few of Issik’s neighbors as he walked by and they only waved back, watching him with the idle curiosity everyone had for their local alien. Enji’s shoulders slumped as he stepped into the tiny walkway leading to Issik’s secret park. His first time walking down a street alone in years wasn’t a milestone he’d ever considered, and the surge of conflicting emotions had him rattled.

Once in a while when he and Issik had gone out to do things, he’d felt like a normal person for hours at a time. The reality always sunk back in once they returned to Issik’s house and Enji was left alone again. He tried to summon up some of the anger he’d felt in those moments when Issik walked away, but it felt even less justified now.

Issik had done nothing to deserve getting robbed, let alone having to deal with the PR disaster that Enji was about to kick off. He was a busy guy, with tons of important things to do, and he’d still treated Enji better than he deserved. Enji tried to tamp down his feelings as he broke into the daylight kit and rearranged the climbing wall to form an escape route. 

The guilt still sat heavy in Enji’s stomach by the time he finished repacking all the gear. He took a long moment alone in the dark to rest his head against the cool stone wall and whisper an apology. He’d never been religious, and no one could hear him, but it felt necessary all the same.

The garden on the far side of the wall was empty, its gate unlocked, and the street beyond opened out into a perfect stretch of wilderness. Low hills and tall boulders meant there was enough cover for Enji to feel safe after only a few minutes’ walk. He stopped and got a map of the area up on his tablet. After double and triple checking that he was correctly oriented toward the spaceport, Enji turned his tablet off and left it on a flat bit of stone.

In all of the variations of his escape plan, Enji had counted on the dual moons to give him enough light to see by. Technically, they did. He could avoid the many and varied cacti, and most obstacles that were tall enough for him to trip over rather than stub his toes on. The light was still dim enough to leave the world around him a mess of shadowy shapes that some animal part of his brain insisted might be a threat. He’d never been in anything wilder than a park before, and the uncertainty left every cell in his body on high alert for danger.

Something small and cool skittered over the tops of his feet, and Enji yelped. The sound bounced off of the surrounding rocks at what felt like deafening volume, and Enji held his breath to see if somehow he had been overheard. He had no watch and no sense of time, so he waited, frozen in place, until his pulse slowly stopped pounding in his ears.

Nothing happened. Enji let out a long, slow breath and started forward again. He ducked under a natural arch made by two tall slabs of rock that had tilted together and smiled at the stretch of flat, open ground in front of him. City lights shone in the distance like a closer twin to the stars overhead, giving him two options to navigate by. Once he hit the spaceport, he’d be back in his element and hopefully sweet-talking his way onto a ship in no time.

Enji’s optimism peaked only seconds before a solid weight landed on his back and sent him face first into the dirt. His breath left his body in a horrible wheeze. Panic told him to struggle or scream, but there were hands gripping his arms and no air in his lungs.

There had been one minder early on in his prison stay who got rough with the inmates who didn’t have a lot of friends and couldn’t defend themselves. Most of the victims made excuses themselves, and medical had covered up the rest. Enji had started a weeks-long campaign of getting under the guy’s skin and finally goaded him to attack where he was sure to be caught on camera.

He hadn’t been prepared for the guy to hit him with a tranquilizer and then start beating him. The other minders had showed up soon enough, and the guy had been fired, but Enji remembered every punch and kick that he’d taken before help arrived.

Enji waited for the first blow to land, but it never came.

“It seems that we may need to renegotiate the terms of your stay here.” Issik’s voice was too calm for someone that had just leapt off a cliff. Enji squeaked out a confused sound, but his body flooded with relief and went limp when he realized it was Issik. “I trust that you have enough sense not to attempt to run or yell if I let you up?” Issik asked.

Enji nodded on autopilot, carelessly grinding a little more dirt into the side of his face. Issik rolled off of Enji in one smooth, silent movement that brought him to his feet. This version of Issik was one that Enji had never seen before: poised forward on his bare feet, arms half-spread and his ears slanted sharply up on high alert. Somewhere under the ebbing tide of fear, Enji had to acknowledge it was a good look on Issik.

Even when he could breathe again, Enji found himself speechless. He shifted himself up to sit at Issik’s feet, fighting back a flinch when Issik’s hands twitched toward him. It was hard to tell in the dark, but Issik seemed to watch him for a long, tense moment before he said, “I’m somewhat surprised that you don’t have an excuse at the ready.”

“I’m somewhat surprised that you hunted me down in the middle of nowhere,” Enji snapped back before he thought better of it. Terror had given way to the crushing realization that he had failed, and anger was hot on its heels. “What do you even want me to say? I don’t see you letting me walk off if I grovel nice enough.”

Issik’s annoyed sigh was faint enough that Enji almost missed it. “Is that really your best plan? Even if you manage to get off-world somehow, you’ll spend the rest of your life a wanted man, given your prison record.” The words were worse than the slap in the face Enji had half expected. Never mind all his good behavior, never mind all his careful planning. Once again, he was reduced to the same thing he always was: a problem. 

Enji could have explained his reasoning. It was better to be a wanted man than trapped on Mars until he went back to prison or to his grave. Issik might have understood, or maybe sympathized.

In some other, better world, Issik could have been a friend. 

In this world, Enji hadn’t cooperated with an authority figure since he was roughly twelve, and he sure as shit wasn’t going to start now. “Let’s be real, Issik,” he said, all fake smiles and sugar. “What I want doesn’t matter, because it’s never mattered. The only thing you care about is what makes your little pet project look good.”

Even as he said it, Enji knew it was a lie. It was the cruelest thing he could spit out at a moment’s notice, but Issik didn’t even react. Enji got to his feet and kicked his bag hard enough that it skidded a satisfying distance to one side. When Issik turned to look, Enji shoved him as hard as he could and bolted.

This time, he managed to hear Issik approaching but still wound up eating dust. It was a good night to have the abstract idea that Issik was stronger than him literally ground into his head, apparently. Enji gave up quicker this time, but Issik didn’t release him even after he stopped struggling.

Some horrible, needy void in Enji lapped up the contact, thrilled that Issik was touching him at all. Maybe he should have made trouble sooner, if this was the end result. He wiggled like he might try to escape purely for the joy of Issik leaning in a bit closer and pressing down on him a little harder.

“If you try to run a third time, I am going to bite you the next time I catch you,” Issik said. His usually precise voice had gone rough with more genuine irritation than Enji had ever heard from him. It wasn’t what he’d wanted from tonight, but Enji counted it as a victory anyway. “I suspect you’re too large for my bite to fully paralyze you, but the muscle weakness would likely be sufficient for me to drag you home.”

Issik let out a small growl to punctuate the threat and it was like a switch flipped in Enji’s mind. He had a decent idea of what teneb fangs looked like, and he’d seen enough vampire movies to romanticize the threat of being bitten. Sprawled out on the desert with an angry alien on your back was a hell of a time for a sexual reawakening, but he’d never been one for convenience, even for himself.

“I don’t think you’d actually do it,” Enji said. It was a win-win kind of statement. Either Issik did, and he got to find out if it was as hot as it sounded, or he didn’t and Enji successfully called his bluff. “Your neighbors would see, and the gossip network would be on it in minutes.”

With Issik all but literally breathing down the back of his neck, Enji could hear a lot more of the little noises Issik usually kept to himself. He didn’t need the translator to figure out the grumbling noise was an unhappy agreement. “Possibly,” Issik said. He was back to his usual restrained tones, to Enji’s disappointment. “But it would be easier for me to explain away than your complete disappearance.”

“Oh yeah? How easy is it going to be the second or third time this happens? Or if the next time we go meet anyone, I tell them I’m a criminal? What if I just make a run for it any time we’re in public?” The mental image of plowing through a crowd of tenebs like some kind of beast run rampant was satisfying. The reality that any of them could tackle him like a linebacker did put a bit of a damper on the fantasy.

Issik’s hands tightened around Enji’s shoulders and he found himself grateful that Issik filed his claws down on a set schedule. “I suppose I can hardly keep you locked up in the house,” Issik said slowly. He got to his feet and Enji shivered as the night air rushed over his back. To his shock, Issik was holding a hand down to him when he cautiously rolled over. “What would it take for you to continue to be on your best behavior?”

Enji let Issik pull him to his feet, half for the extra moment of contact and half to buy himself a few seconds to think. He already missed the angry Issik who was willing to throw him around, but his internal trouble sense warned him he was on the verge of pushing Issik too far. Like the alert system in the prison, the consequences would eventually outweigh the benefits.

Besides, if Issik was willing to bargain, Enji could at least see what was on offer. “What all would that include?” Enji asked. “You want me to go back to playing good little alien pet all the time?”

“Only in public, really,” Issik said. “As long as you don’t break anything, injure me, or make enough noise to alert my neighbors, what you do inside the house isn’t really relevant.”

The feral part of Enji’s brain that was still a little angry knew a mistake when it heard one. Issik had clearly never lived with anyone but his parents before and had no idea what kind of chaos he was opening himself up to. Enji could have a safe place to stay until he came up with a better escape plan, and he could figure out exactly what it took to make Issik lose his cool again. There was even a small chance that Issik would genuinely help him, though Enji wasn’t going to bet on it.

Everything had gone to shit, as usual, but at least he could find a way to enjoy himself. “So I behave in public and do what I want in private? I could live with that,” Enji said. “Only two more questions: for how long, and what’s in it for me?”

“From the explanation William Holmes gave me, cooperating for the length of the program will earn you your freedom, correct?” Issik had tamped himself back down again enough that Enji fought the urge to needle him into another unpolished reaction immediately. Assuming they could strike a bargain here, he’d have time enough for that later.

At least he knew Will was okay. The best thing Enji could do for him at this point was avoid mentioning their friendship. “Freedom to be dumped back into a tiny apartment on Mars, sure. Not really what I’m after. Mars is boring.” Much like the first time the two of them had been alone in the dark, Enji wanted to reach over, open up, and maybe even spill out his dreams of interplanetary travel. Even more than the first time, he knew it was a stupid idea.

“Mr. Holmes also expressed an interest in staying on Tenebrev. I have no way to guarantee results, but I give you my word that I will advocate the same for any of the program participants who wish to remain here.” Issik made a chirp that Enji had never heard before, something small and sad like a lost kitten. “Should the situation take a turn for the worse, I will turn a blind eye to you leaving with any possessions purchased for you and credits enough to see you off-world. Will that suffice?”

On an emotional level, Enji had been more comfortable with the tackling and threats. “You’d seriously help me escape if push came to shove?” The question came out hopeful rather than skeptical, but it had been a long night. Every time he managed to half convince himself Issik didn’t care, he did something so nice that it sent Enji back to square one.

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Enji caught a glimpse of Issik’s fangs in the moonlight as he broke into an unexpected grin. He was starting to wonder if someone had replaced Issik with his hot, wild twin while Enji hadn’t been looking. “I’m well-known for my poor eating habits. No one would be surprised that I fell into torpor under such a stressful circumstance. If you happened to take advantage of that to rob me and leave, I could not possibly be at fault.”

Enji huffed out a faint laugh. Issik was so devious sometimes that it was impossible not to like him. Enji was half-tempted to tell him, but doubted he’d take it as the compliment it was intended to be. “Now that’s a deal I can agree to. I promise I’ll continue to be a good little human in public.” And an absolute pain in Issik’s ass in private for as long as it amused him, but there was no need to spoil the surprise.

Once he had a second go bag packed, he could blow off some much-needed steam by seeing what it took to crack Issik’s composure in private. Enji set himself a personal goal: Find out if he could cause enough trouble to get Issik to bite him, or have fun trying. Whatever he did or didn’t manage, he was done being ignored.

=⋆✪⋆=

For the first week of their new agreement, things were fine. Enji was a little more intrusive, but nowhere near as rude as Issik had expected. He pulled some small practical jokes, rearranging the kitchen drawers or turning books backwards on the shelf, all of which Issik let go without comment. They went out less, because Issik was busy making delicate inquiries of everyone involved in his program, but Enji behaved flawlessly when they were in public. Issik thanked him each time, which Enji brushed off, but he did happily accept the credits when Issik withdrew them for him.

The next morning, Issik stepped out of his bedroom and onto a pile of bright red berries that squished horribly into the pads of his feet. He growled softly and hopped on one leg down the hall to the bathroom. Every single piece of cloth in the room had been removed, all the way down to the cleaning rags he stored under the sink and the bath mat.

Issik took a deep breath to center himself and washed his foot off in the sink. The damp footprints he left through the house would dry quickly enough even if Enji had somehow hidden every towel in the kitchen as well. Issik watched his step on his way there and managed to avoid a second pile of berries tucked out of sight around a corner.

Unfortunately, Issik’s focus on the floor kept him from looking up in time to spot Enji’s second type of trap. He pushed open the kitchen door and knocked over a lightweight serving tray that had been balanced on top of it. Issik’s reflexes knocked the tray away from his head, which only served to scatter the dry beans on it further across the room.

Enji was lounging with his bare feet on the kitchen table, grinning. “Morning,” he said, casually picking a stray bean out of the bowl of berries he was eating. He was sitting in the only chair in the kitchen, smug as some ancient tribal lord in a play. It was a good look, despite how Issik wanted to grab him and shake him by the shoulders.

“Good morning,” Issik said, as evenly as he could. Enji no doubt wanted a reaction, which meant Issik needed to do everything in his power not to give him one. The less he acknowledged the bad behavior, the faster Enji would get it out of his system. At least, that was how it had worked for him when Aubrey did it, and Issik had absolute faith in her practices.

The broom and dustpan were also missing, of course, so Issik simply nudged a path through the beans with one foot and retrieved a bag of his favorite jerky. “I have a remote meeting to attend later this evening, but I should be done around midnight if you wanted to go out afterwards.” Issik had little hope that Enji would agree to anything now that he’d opened hostilities, but it didn’t hurt to make the offer.

“Nah, I’m sure I can find something to keep myself entertained,” Enji said. He sounded so smug that Issik’s claws curled against the floor in frustration. Issik recited his favorite poem about peace, mentally drawing each claw-stroke required to write it in traditional script. When he felt calm again, he looked over at Enji. “Berries?” Enji asked, offering the bowl out.

“No, thank you,” Issik said. He grabbed a few more packets of snacks at random and left the kitchen with as much dignity as he could manage. It helped to think of Enji as some kind of misbehaving pet. He would take the preventative measures he could, such as locking his bedroom door, and then discourage bad behavior as much as possible. There was no sense in trying to punish him, and ultimately, Issik had agreed to let him run wild in the house.

Issik ducked into Enji’s room and took back a small stack of towels Enji had jammed under his bed. As he cleaned up the berries, Issik tried to coax himself into having some compassion. Aubrey had offered it to him when he was actively harming himself and others; Issik could manage some for Enji when he was only pulling pranks. Issik wanted to send her another message — wanted to call her and pile up all his problems at her feet, really. Instead, he reread her last message and let her sympathies and well-wishes bring him a little peace.

Enji did nothing to interrupt Issik’s meeting, which helped take some of the sting out of the fact it was another dead end. No one at the human embassy seemed to know anything. One of the receptionists had chatted quite enthusiastically about their cousin’s application to the program and how disappointed they were that he hadn’t been selected. Given how long they had trapped Issik in conversation, merrily talking over all his polite attempts to disengage, he had no doubt they were sincere.

Issik turned off his screen and took a moment to rest his head on his desk and let out a few small, plaintive chirps. He’d worked so hard to get the program up and running, only to have it ruined by some malicious actor he might never even identify. It also stung that he’d done everything in his power to be a good host to Enji and was seemingly being punished for that as well.

The early days after Enji arrived had felt so perfect. Issik’s program had been going smoothly, and the disruptions to his usual routines were either very minor, or surprisingly pleasant. Enji had even seemed happy, though he’d had ample time on his own where he could have been upset with Issik none the wiser.

There was no way to know now. The odds that Enji would give Issik an honest answer if questioned were so low that Issik couldn’t seriously entertain asking. Issik sat up and forced himself into a neutral expression before cautiously leaving his office.

The rest of the house seemed free from traps, though Enji had rearranged the fallen beans into the rough shape of male human genitalia. Issik stifled a bark of laughter at the sight. Not only was it unbelievably childish, it must have taken Enji most of the time Issik had been in his meeting. Issik left it alone and walked back through the house to Enji’s room, intending to ask if he wanted to get food delivered for dinner.

Issik knocked and took a cautious step back as Enji opened the door. His hair was loose and he was shirtless, which was distracting enough that Issik refocused over Enji’s shoulder and took a deep breath. His polite, prepared question turned into a startled yip as the scent of sex hit him like a slap in the face. Issik wasn’t sure if a human’s scent was naturally stronger than a teneb’s in this one area, but the few blissful times he’d smelled it were etched into his mind.

“What was that for?” Enji asked. He straightened up from his lean on the door frame with visible interest and Issik skittered back another couple steps. “You can’t possibly be scandalized you caught me without a shirt.” Enji tipped his head as if the angle would somehow let him puzzle out Issik’s thoughts.

The sight of Enji baring his neck was the final pebble that started the avalanche. Issik was frustrated by his lack of progress and so tired. It had been months since he’d last taken a lover, and the length of that dry spell hit him all at once. Enji was no less attractive than when Issik had first met him. If anything, he was more attractive now that he’d gotten a little wilder and made himself impossible to ignore.

“I’m going to order dinner. What would you like?” Issik knew his clipped words and refusal to make eye contact probably read as anger, but it was all he could manage with his crumbling self-control. The only other option was a total retreat, which would be even more revealing.

Enji stared him down for several long moments while Issik flattened his ears and fought the urge to fidget like a guilty child. “I’m in the mood to try something new, I think.” Enji’s voice slid down to a pitch that sounded like a teneb crooning to a lover. “Surprise me. Anything you want is fine.”

Issik had to assume the double entendre was intentional, which steeled his resolve not to react. As Enji turned to go back into his room, Issik made the critical mistake of looking up. Enji paused in the doorway and pulled the thick curtain of his hair over one shoulder before having a slow, luxurious stretch. Issik knew he was being baited, but even the most obvious trap could succeed if it was tempting enough.

The broad, pale stretch of Enji’s back was broken up by a small amount of dark hair, with the most striking being the trail running down his spine like a delicate back chain. Enji seemed uniquely designed to drive Issik wild. His height and thick layer of fat still made Issik think desirable mate in a way that neither logic nor long association could shake. It was worse in the moment, as his pose and all of his bare skin on display made him look both vulnerable and available.

Issik reminded himself firmly that Enji was trying to provoke him rather than seduce him. If he admitted to his interest, the most likely outcome was Enji using it against him somehow. Issik called up the long lecture he’d given the other hosts in an attempt to help shore up his weakness. Humans had different nudity taboos than tenebs and a much more casual approach to physical contact.

He hadn’t forbidden relationships between hosts and their guests — that would have been a lost cause — but he had emphasized that open, honest discussion was a must. Acting on instinct and social cues that didn’t translate from one species to another was a recipe for disaster. It was all very logical, but logic did nothing to make Enji any less gorgeous, tempting, or dangerously close.

Far too late, Issik realized he should actually respond rather than merely ogle. “I think I know some options we’ve yet to try,” he said. “I’ll let you know when the food arrives.”

Enji glanced back over his shoulder, pinning Issik in place with his bright eyes as easily as Issik had pinned him to the ground. “Thank you for indulging me, Issik,” Enji said. His voice was deferential, but his mouth was curled into a wicked, knowing smile that made Issik’s heart sink.

Issik fumbled out a sentence about going to order food, tripping over the words like he had learned them yesterday, and hurried to leave. The second he turned his back on Enji, he heard a soft, approving hum. Embarrassment hotter than the midday sun burned through Issik and he all but bolted away down the hall.

=⋆✪⋆=

Enji watched Issik run away with amusement and growing satisfaction. All the pranks and irritations he had tried did nothing, but a little bit of flirting and showing off his bare back was what finally broke Issik? Though he had reacted to something else before Enji even did anything besides open his door. With that question in mind, Enji bypassed all the cultural information he’d been given in favor of running some searches of his own.

The fact that tenebs had a strong sense of smell and it was heavily linked to their sexuality was the best information Enji had learned in months. He even found a few anecdotes from teneb travelers that confirmed at least some of them found a wide range of other species’ scents attractive. Not only did he now know that Issik had been flustered by the fact he could smell that Enji had jerked off, he finally understood why his comment about Issik’s house smelling nice had startled him. Because they had sensitive noses, lived alone, and rarely entered each others’ houses, the only scent in a teneb home was what the owner produced naturally.

Enji behaved for the next few days beyond a few minor pranks to keep Issik from getting suspicious. It was hard not to do more. Issik was even busier now, though Enji wasn’t sure if it was genuine or an excuse for avoiding him. Every fiber of Enji’s being wanted to act out and force him to pay attention, but he had a plan now. All he needed was the chance to carry it out.

When Issik said he had to go to a brief local meeting, Enji barely managed to decline before Issik fell all over himself to assure Enji it wasn’t a problem. Issik dashed out and Enji waited for the sound of the car pulling away. He strolled over to lock the door, then undid his pants and sat down on the ledge above the entryway.

The whole time Enji had been playing at being good, he hadn’t looked at porn or jerked off. Not because the two things were related, but because the stress of keeping up the facade absolutely killed his libido. It had returned with a vengeance the second time Issik tackled him during his escape attempt. Now, with his urge to cause trouble and his interest in Issik twined neatly together, he was half-hard before he even managed to get his dick out.

Enji started to bite his lip, an old habit from living in close quarters with his grandparents, neighbors in his shitty little apartments, and then prison. There was no one else within earshot here, not unless he screamed at the top of his lungs. Enji sprawled out a little more, spread his legs further apart, and tipped his head back to expose his throat.

The gesture carried more weight for tenebs than humans, and arousal made it easy to imagine Issik enjoying the show.  Enji stripped his shirt off and tossed it aside so he could pinch his nipples with the sharp little tugs he liked best. He arched into his own touch with a soft gasp, wondering what Issik’s hands would feel like.

The low groan when he finally gave his cock a stroke echoed obscenely in the room. It was strange but exciting to be touching himself in the wide open space. Exhibitionism had never appealed to Enji, but he’d never minded letting an appreciative partner look their fill.

Unless he had badly misread Issik, he was very interested. It was a thrill to think about him watching, breathing in Enji’s scent, and eventually losing control. Enji closed his eyes and imagined what kind of expressions Issik might have as he watched, what kind of noises he might make, and what he might want to do to Enji when his patience finally snapped.

Enji let out a breathless laugh. He was going to be done long before Issik got back if he kept thinking about Issik’s hands on him, let alone anything more. He’d done his homework on teneb biology, and then watched some local porn for the fun half of his educational experience. Issik had two dicks tucked away under those perfectly neat wraps he always wore and Enji had a long list of things he wanted to try with them.

Maybe Issik would take him right here if he was lucky. Getting pinned to the floor and railed within an inch of his life would be amazing, doubly so if Issik bit him first. The thought of his body so loose and relaxed that Issik could slide both dicks right in was what tipped Enji over the edge. He bucked his hips into his hand and come dripped down his fingers onto his stomach.

Enji’s heavy breathing echoed in the empty room and he shivered as he started to cool down. Cleaning up and putting his shirt back on helped, but he still felt off. His afterglow dissolved into a tangled mess of worries. What if it wasn’t enough, and Issik managed to carry on like nothing had happened? Worse, what if he’d read Issik entirely wrong, and this got him shoved even further away?

There was nothing he could do about it now. If Issik couldn’t be goaded by this, he was probably a lost cause. Enji knew he should put together an extra backup plan or two, but he couldn’t muster the energy. He had the supplies to make a decent run for it if he had to, and Issik’s blessing to do so. That he wanted Issik to ask him to stay rather than basically push him out was irrelevant.

Enji dragged a chair out where he could watch the door. He wanted to see Issik’s face when he stepped in, and most importantly, he wanted to make himself a clear target. Browsing the news helped distract him, but he still had to fight the urge to tuck his feet up under him. The room wasn’t that cold, and he wanted to strike a casual pose to add insult to injury.

When Issik returned, he barely had time to swing the door closed behind himself before Enji saw the smell register. Issik’s eyes went wide and his ears swiveled up. He spotted Enji and made a low, growling hiss that could have been interest, irritation, or both. “Why?” he asked.

There was only one answer for that, really. “Why what?” Enji asked, sweet as sugar, as he casually crossed one leg over the other. Issik’s posture was rigid, and Enji could almost taste the tension in the room. This had to be the time he’d managed to push hard enough to get Issik to snap.

Issik stared at him and didn’t move from his spot in the entryway for a long, long moment. His shoulders slumped, and he went through his usual ritual of taking off his sandals and cleaning his feet without another word. Enji’s hopeful mood started to shrivel up. 

By the time Issik walked over to him, he was visibly unhappy. His ears drooped, and he looked as exhausted as Enji had ever seen him. Guilt surged, and Enji glanced away.

“I understand why you didn’t tell me you were a prisoner,” Issik said. His voice had the sort of tired, disappointed tone that cut directly to the tenderest parts of Enji’s conscience. “I understand why you tried to escape, and why you’ve been pulling pranks. Making less than optimal choices out of a need for control is something I understand on a very personal level, in fact. But even if you want to provoke me, this was completely uncalled for.”

With his speech finished, Issik turned to go. “Wait,” Enji said. He didn’t quite dare to reach out and grab Issik’s arm. “Please wait.” His heart was in his throat. Issik stopped and flicked one ear toward him, but didn’t turn around. “I’m sorry. I’m not doing this to— I mean, I guess I am trying to provoke you, but not the way you think.”

Issik glanced back at him, and Enji could almost breathe again. “If you’re willing to give me an honest explanation, I’ll listen,” Issik said. With growing shock, Enji realized that he believed Issik meant it.

Enji’s next, even more terrifying realization was that he was going to give Issik that honesty with no idea of what he would get in return.

“I want you,” Enji said plainly. The admission felt about as safe as stepping out of an airlock, but he knew it was the right place to start when Issik faced him again. “I was interested from pretty early on, for a lot of reasons, but the night I made a break for it really sealed the deal. Then the other day, when the smell of my bedroom got to you — that one wasn’t intentional, I had no idea, but once I figured it out, I just thought….” Enji ended with a vague shrugging gesture as he ran out of steam.

“Being pinned to the ground and threatened was what made you willing to act on your interest?” Issik’s tone was diplomat-bland.

Enji didn’t know what the right answer was, but the honest one was easy. “I didn’t have to keep up a front anymore and I’d gotten you to lose your temper once, so I figured it was worth a shot. Plus, when you threatened to bite me — well, do you know what a vampire is?”

Issik barked out a startled laugh and slowly nodded his head. “I do, yes. I can even follow your train of logic, somewhat, but… why start with irritating me rather than seduction?” 

When he phrased it like that, Enji felt like an idiot. “I mean, some of that was just for fun,” he said, falling back on running his mouth. “You know me pretty well by this point, right? I’m kind of an asshole for no reason sometimes.”

“Are you really?” Issik asked. His voice was gentle, but the question felt like a pry bar braced at the edge of Enji’s weak spots. “Because when I devoted all my energy to causing problems, I had reasons, even if they weren’t well thought out.”

Enji was gripping the arms of the chair too hard, but he suspected his hands would start shaking if he let go. “I guess I thought it would be easier,” he said. Every word was a struggle to get out, and his heartbeat was so loud in his ears he could barely hear himself speak.

Issk reached over and rested one hand on Enji’s head. Enji straightened into the touch and stopped breathing entirely. “I am never going to bite you in anger,” Issik said, looking him squarely in the eyes. “I am never going to fuck you because you irritated me until I lost control. The only reason I ever take a lover is because of clearly expressed mutual interest.” He let the statement hang. It was an expectation for Enji to meet, but Issik delivered it so warmly that Enji didn’t want to be contrary for once.

Enji still felt lost, but he was starting to see a faint guiding star in the distance. “That’s a lot less of a flat-out no than I was expecting,” he said cautiously. “I think my position’s pretty clear at this point, but what about you?” If Issik liked diplomacy so much, Enji was willing to give it a try.

Issik laughed at him again in a cascade of chirpy, unpolished sounds that went straight to Enji’s heart. “A fair point. I’ve been working so hard not to give you a reaction that I should probably make my position clearer. I was also interested in you from the day we met. You were attractive, puzzling, and a remarkable conversationalist — even more remarkable now that I realize you were trying to work out how much I knew about you.”

The praise was harder to accept than Enji would have expected, but he knew better than to argue and ruin their fragile truce. “I think I was done for as soon as you told me that without the headband, I looked like I wanted to get laid really badly,” Enji said. Issik stroked one thumb across Enji’s forehead with a noise that sounded like a smug purr. The pad was cooler than Enji’s skin and had a faint texture that made him shiver at the thought of it elsewhere on his body.

“Honestly, I hadn’t given it much thought until you asked,” Issik said. His ears flickered with embarrassment. “And when you did, the urge for mischief got the best of me.”

Issik started to lift his hand away and Enji grabbed it before he realized what he was doing. “Sorry,” he said, quickly letting Issik go again. “Reflex. Not trying to be pushy.”

“How much physical touch are you accustomed to?” Issik asked slowly. Enji could almost hear the gears starting to whir. When Issik cupped his cheek with one hand, Enji closed his eyes and leaned into the contact.

“Will and I usually cuddled up and watched a show or played a game together during our free time.” Enji let the words fall out unfiltered, even though the vulnerability made him feel almost dizzy. “We’d bunk together sometimes too — not for sex though, that’s not his thing. But we were probably touching for at least an hour, most days.”

Issik made a noise of pure distress and brought his free hand up to stroke Enji’s hair. “Have you spoken to him since you arrived?” He was already continuing as Enji started to shake his head. “Of course not, neither of you would have comm numbers, would you? Enji, I’m so sorry.”

“Not your fault,” Enji choked out. He was shivering a little, like he wasn’t fully dressed, sitting in a comfortable room on a desert planet. “You didn’t know and I would have lied even if you asked.”

“And yet I feel responsible for the oversight,” Issik said. Enji couldn’t help but smile at the business-like phrasing in sharp contrast to the way Issik’s fingers gently carded through his hair. “If that’s why you were trying to goad me into having sex with you—”

“It’s not,” Enji interrupted. “Trust me, I know how to separate the two. I miss cuddling, but I wanted you even before that got bad. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate this either way. If all you want is to pet me like a sad dog once a day or something, that’s totally fine.”

Issik’s hand froze on Enji’s head, though he didn’t pull away. “You’re remarkably ready to sell yourself short for someone so intelligent.” He slid two fingers down to hook under Enji’s chin and tilted his face up. “Or perhaps I simply haven’t presented my case effectively enough. Shall I attempt to persuade you of my interest, Enji?”

Enji felt as breathless as when Issik had pounced on him. Since he couldn’t manage the words for the right response, he nodded, and he hoped it was enough.

Issik reached up and untied his headband, then dropped the fabric carelessly to the floor. There was a small oval divot in the pale fur of his forehead where one of his scent glands was. Enji knew he was staring like a teenager seeing somebody shirtless for the first time, but he had literally never seen Issik without a headband before.

Before Enji’s embarrassment could get the better of him, Issik crooned softly at him, low and pleased. He let his hand drift down to hover at the collar of Enji’s shirt. “Is there anywhere you don’t want me to touch you?”

Enji shook his head. “Nope, and I’m not ticklish either.” He tugged off his shirt, then took one of Issik’s hands and brought it to rest over his pounding heart. “What about you?”

Issik splayed out his fingers and dragged them down, giving Enji a great little sampler of textures and temperatures. The brush of short, soft fur with the warmth of Issik’s skin beneath it contrasted with the cooler pads of his fingers. Issik curled his fingers around one side of Enji’s chest and added a very nice hint of claw to the mix.

“I don’t like having my throat or my patagia touched,” Issik said, gesturing to the membranes along his outstretched arm with his other hand. “My ears and scent glands are very sensitive, but pleasant as long as you use a light touch.” He let his hands wander across Enji’s chest and stomach for a moment, then gently tugged Enji to his feet. “Perhaps we could move to one of our rooms for a practical demonstration?”

“Yours is fine,” Enji croaked. He felt light on his feet but totally off-balance, like someone had turned down the gravity while he wasn’t paying attention.  

Enji had a split second to register the amused flick of Issik’s ears before he very pointedly turned away and took a few small steps toward his bedroom. He had on the same beads from the day they’d met, three strings of them that swayed and drew Enji’s eyes down the pale fur of Issik’s back. Issik glanced over one shoulder, saw whatever wide-eyed stupid thing Enji’s face was doing, and grinned.

“Please, follow me,” Issik said. The power of context made the bland request Enji had probably heard thousands of times into devastatingly effective dirty talk. Enji was up and at Issik’s heels before he could take another teasing little step. He reached out, hesitated only a fraction of a second, then slid two fingers under the chains of beads and down the dark stripe of fur along Issik’s spine.

Issik arched into the touch with a happy chirp and Enji repeated the motion. The thick fur on his back was coarser than on his hands, but still soft, warm, and incredible for Enji to trail his fingers through. Somehow they made it to Issik’s room, even though Enji could barely stand to stop touching him. Issik reached back for the tidy knot at the base of his neck, but Enji intercepted his hand. “Can I get that for you?” Enji asked.

Issik let his arms drop. “By all means.” He waited until Enji started in on the knot before he added in his driest tone, “Though I should warn you that standing behind someone and undressing them has some very serious implications in teneb culture.”

Enji was startled into a laugh, and it made his hands clumsy as he worked out how to unhook Issik’s beads and pick apart the first tie of his shirt. Issik was patient until Enji went for the second knot and Issik turned to move it out of his grasp. “Let me get the rest,” he said.

Issik stripped his remaining clothing off faster than Enji had managed to get his jewelry undone. To Enji’s utter shock, Issik dumped it all in a pile and kicked it away to one side.

“Can I return the favor?” Issik asked, hooking the blunt tip of one claw at the waistband of Enji’s pants. His thumb dipped lower, tracing over the hard line of Enji’s cock so lightly it made him buck his hips into the touch.

“If you don’t, I think I might come in my pants.” Enji let out a self-conscious laugh. It felt like less of a joke with every passing second.

Issik’s uncontrolled smiles weren’t helping either, but Enji savored each one. “I appreciate your honesty,” Issik said. His tone turned the formal words into a friendly tease, but the fact he meant it hit Enji even harder than the flirting. Issik had no trouble getting Enji undressed, undoing his pants and yanking them down with a speed that was deeply flattering to Enji’s ego.

They both took a long moment to look each other over. Issik seemed fascinated with the thick curve of Enji’s stomach, which was usually one of the body parts he felt most self-conscious about. It was impossible in the moment, with Issik’s fingers drawing whorls through his treasure trail as his other hand kneaded one of Enji’s hips.

Issik’s belly was paler than the rest of him, pure white other than the pale pink slit where Enji could see the round heads of his dicks starting to peek out. Enji carefully stroked his hands down Issik’s chest and stomach. “Okay, very out of my depth here,” he admitted. He eased one thumb inward with cautious strokes back and forth, not quite reaching Issik’s bare skin.

“If it helps, I haven’t been with a human before,” Issik said. “Though I have done some… research, recreationally.” He reached down and dragged the pad of his index finger up along the underside of Enji’s cock. Enji let out a garbled half-curse and Issik chirped out a laugh at him. “Any touch about that firm is perfectly fine for me.”

“Glad it wasn’t just me looking up alien porn.” Enji stopped being shy and stroked two fingers along Issik’s slick opening and over his cocks. They eased out further under his touch and Issik rumbled low in his throat. Each one was less than half as thick as Enji’s under the head, but wider at the base and a bit longer once they were fully exposed. “Fuck, Issik, you’re so hot.”

“The feeling is very mutual,” Issik said with an impatient noise, “Bed, now.” He grabbed Enji’s wrist to tug him over to the bed. It was teneb-style, meaning it was basically a huge bowl filled with fabric strips in a riot of colors and textures. Issik pulled him in and situated them side by side facing each other. “I have something I want to try, if you’re amenable.”

Enji ducked his head with a snort and had to bat a fuzzy bit of bedding out of his face. “Issik, I know you don’t want to get too bossy, but as long as your plan lets me touch you and get off at some point, I’m definitely game.” It felt great to be able to say exactly what he was thinking, and doubly so when Issik rewarded him with pleased noises and a smile.

“Then bring your hips toward me,” Issik said. Enji scooted forward and Issik reached down to make space between his cocks for Enji’s to slide in. They were hot and slick enough that even the first contact felt amazing. Issik guided one of Enji’s hands down to wrap around one side of their cocks and mirrored his hand on the other. With one foot hooked over Enji’s leg for leverage, Issik thrust forward into the circle of their joined hands.

Enji started rocking with him. Issik’s hand on him would have been more than enough on its own, but the addition of his cocks pressed tight around Enji’s made him lose his mind. He got his arm around Issik’s shoulders and pulled him close to press a kiss on the bare skin of his forehead. Issik let out a sharp, deep growl and Enji flinched back. “Sorry, should I not—”

“You should do it more,” Issik said fervently. Enji brushed his lips over the same spot again, then went with his gut instinct and licked along Issik’s scent gland. The taste was strong and salty, but not unpleasant. Issik swore in his own language and clutched a hand in Enji’s hair. “Yes, Enji, please—” Issik broke off into a mix of their languages, but Enji didn’t need to know all the words to get the enthusiasm.

He kept going, dragging his tongue along Issik’s forehead and listening to him go absolutely wild. Issik thrust faster and faster through their hands and his grip on Enji’s hair tightened almost to the point of pain. His whole body tensed as he came in several bursts across Enji’s hands and stomach. Issik tipped his head back away from Enji’s mouth, panting hard.

Enji started to loosen his grip around their cocks, but Issik shook his head. “Not too sensitive, keep going if you want. Won’t retract for a few minutes.” It was an offer Enji was all too happy to take. A few minutes would have been plenty of time in any case, but then Issik let out a deep, satisfied croon and murmured, “That was incredible, Enji.”

Either the praise or the sound of Issik saying his name was all Enji needed to tip him over the edge. His hips jerked forward hard and he came with Issik’s name on his lips and his taste on his tongue. Enji shuddered through his orgasm and went absolutely boneless, slumping back against the side of Issik’s bed. They were still holding hands, and Enji suspected they were going to be glued together as their come started to dry.

“Dumb alien question,” Enji said. He was still a little breathless, and Issik was too as he chirped out a curious noise. “How filthy was me licking your forehead, from a teneb perspective?” Enji watched Issik toss his head back with a sharp bark of laughter.

“Unbelievably so,” Issik said. “It would have taken me months worth of encounters to even consider broaching the subject.” His ears swiveled toward Enji and he stroked a hand through Enji’s hair with a contemplative hum. “Well, maybe only weeks, once I realized how amazing your tongue felt.”

Enji’s afterglow blazed up like a bonfire with the implication that Issik intended to keep him around for more. He mustered up his best seductive smile and said, “Definitely let me know if there’s anywhere else you’d like my mouth, I’m more than happy to oblige.” Issik made another low, growly noise and curled in tighter around Enji’s body.

“As long as you’ll agree to tell me anything you might be interested in,” Issik said. The statement came out light, but his eyes were intent on Enji’s face.

Enji managed a sharp, jerky nod. “I’ll do my best,” he said.

“That’s all I could reasonably ask,” Issik said. “You have my word that I will try to do the same.” He tucked his head under Enji’s chin.

Enji swallowed against the sudden tightness in his throat and kissed the top of Issik’s head. “Thank you, Issik,” he whispered. Issik nodded, held Enji a little tighter, and then crooned at him until Enji drifted off to sleep.

=⋆✪⋆=

Issik toggled on subtitles for the interplanetary news broadcast and then curled his hand back together with Enji’s. Enji’s free hand was fidgeting with one of the bedding strips in a display of nerves Issik hadn’t seen since before they had received the outcome of the initial investigation. As the presenter started to wrap up the current segment, Issik tapped one blunted claw on the back of Enji’s hand.

“It’s going to be fine,” Issik said gently. “They’ve already told us how everything is going to work out. This is only the formal announcement.” Enji managed a jerky nod and then settled deeper into the bed so he could rest his head on Issik’s chest. Issik crooned at him, soft and soothing, and nuzzled the crown of his head.

They had figured out ways for Enji to get all the touch he needed to thrive. With the help of a therapist Aubrey had recommended, the process had gone even more smoothly than Issik could have hoped. William came to visit regularly, giving Enji an extra outlet that kept Issik from getting too overstimulated, though the amount of touch Issik could enjoy was higher than he had expected. He was particularly fond of having Enji curled up on a pillow beside him at his desk, with Enji’s head on Issik’s thigh so Issik could stroke his soft hair while he worked.

“I know, I know,” Enji said. “I just kind of expect someone to pull the rug out from under me at the last second, you know?” His voice was small and he curled inward like a startled wheel bug. Issik had been worried, after their first night together in his bed, that Enji would run off again or simply go back to causing chaos. Instead, he’d cracked open like a geode and laid bare a core more beautiful and multifaceted than Issik had dared to hope for.

With therapy and all the positive reinforcement Issik could offer, Enji had made incredible strides in his healing. They still fought, and they still caught each other’s tender spots on accident from time to time, but Issik knew in his bones when something was worth fighting to keep.

“Should everything go tumbling down a cliff side, I will buy you a ticket off-world and take you to the spaceport myself.” Issik knew Enji still had a bag under his bed, but he also knew it had been untouched long enough that some of the packages of snacks inside were probably expired.

“No you won’t,” Enji said. He was smiling now, so Issik waited for him to continue. “You probably have letters drafted to everyone involved explaining exactly how you’ll escalate the issue if they don’t see reason, or something equally terrifying.” When Issik let out a small, guilty chirp, Enji laughed at him. “I knew it.”

“It’s only practical to be prepared for contingencies,” Issik said primly. He had multiple drafts set up, depending on who needed some additional persuasion applied to them and how far he had to take the case. Thankfully, everyone involved had been willing to see sense without too much work.

The graphic behind the presenter changed to a picture of Tenebrev, and Enji tensed up against Issik. “Our top story tonight: A Mars prison has come under scrutiny for sentients’ rights violations after secretly sending its prisoners to Tenebrev under the guise of a cultural exchange program. We interviewed Karhil Tahbo Issik, the teneb behind both the program itself and the investigation into the Martian issues.”

Issik was pleased with how they edited down the interview. Most of his best talking points had come through intact, and the interviewer herself looked more sympathetic and upset every time she was in frame. They played a few clips from other tenebs involved in the program as well, ending on the very compelling shot of Sanesk Ajenib and William Holmes boldly holding hands as they sat in front of her home.

“Will is one of the kindest people I have ever met,” Sanesk said. “He made poor choices in the past, but haven’t we all? The only thing he really needed was a second chance and I’m honored that my home was the right place for that.” The interview cut off there, but Issik remembered the rest of what she had said: “Without the soil, sun, and rain, the cactus never blossoms.”

It was a quote from a classic teneb children’s book about a rockworm struggling to grow a cactus in all the wrong ways. Issik had ordered a lantern cover with the phrase on it as a gift to Sanesk and William, and he was pleased to see it on display the last time he’d passed their house.

The segment wrapped up exactly as expected. Investigations into the Martian prison continued as issues with tampered records and lengthened sentences came to light. The former prisoners who were part of the exchange program had been given financial compensation along with their freedom and the option to return to Mars or stay on Tenebrev. Issik had tried to suggest Enji take a day to himself to consider his options and had gotten the single most exasperated noise he had ever heard in response.

Enji relaxed and unfolded, sprawling out across Issik’s bedding. “Well, that’s that. If they aren’t going to change their minds and drag me back to prison, I suppose I’ll have to stay right here.” He gave Issik a very flirtatious sort of challenging look and deliberately bared his throat.

Issik rolled over on top of him and traced one blunt claw down Enji’s neck. “You’re more than welcome to, of course,” he said, letting the sentence trail off enticingly. Enji gave him a pointed look and refused to take the bait. “As the investigations continue, I expect I’ll need to take a few trips off-world. But if you’d prefer to stay home…?”

Issik saw the word home land as Enji’s eyes went wide for a brief moment and his hand squeezed Issik’s tight. “Not on your life,” Enji said. He broke into the broad, excited smile that Issik always found himself mirroring. “When are we leaving?”

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7 thoughts on “Some of Us Are Looking at the Stars

  1. “Con-man, still mostly unrepentant for his behavior, finds way to better himself” is a story structure I deeply adore and this entry is no different. I liked the hand-offs between Enji and Issik as the POV character, allowing for insight into both; Issik’s body language getting more attention from his sections, paired with more intimate knowledge of his own culture, is interesting, and swapping him out with Enji’s outsider perspective keeps them from feeling overbearing. Pretty satisfying slow-burn, too!

    I can see why putting together design docs for this ended up consuming your brain! The details about tenebs and Tenebrev are interesting but never feel overwhelming; if something comes up that isn’t immediately clear it feels like the reader is allowed to wonder about it until a more definite answer comes along. Even the literal promo video for the planet zips by! Between the fur, ears, scent glands, and patagia, I envisioned tenebs as being at least a little bat-like, with some interesting marsupial traits to boot, and even before I had that mental image I was still able to identify with Issik as a character. Good aliens, A+.

    • Thank you so much! The tenebs are primarily based on sugar gliders for physical features, though obviously with some alternations like the lack of fuzz on the patagia (which is a word I only learned while writing this). Bats will get you most of the way to what I was imagining though, and besides, they’re super cute.

  2. AHHHHHHHH this came together so well!!! Every piece of the story seemed necessary and everything made sense and I love that enji and issik are both sort of the shady, manipulative type in their communication styles because it meant they were somehow better able to understand each other and all of the tenebrev stuff was so good and enji and issik cuddling and issik making little noises at him KILLS ME kajdid I love this!!!

    • Aaah thank you!! <3 <3 Really appreciate your help on the early version of this, I don't think I would've finished it without the confidence boost. You're the best, chaotic child. :)

  3. I was just blown away by this story!!! The worldbuilding is just *chef kiss* – it struck the perfect balance that good scifi does where I was curious and interested and it is clearly not my world but I also wasn’t overwhelmed by strangeness. The way you fed us readers details was paced so well, it felt very polished.
    I also loved the subversion of the monsterfucking/alienfucking genre. Like, yes, you get to fuck the alien! But he’s a person too and doesn’t appreciate being manipulated. I do hope Enji gets his “bitten and relaxed enough to take both cocks” scene eventually. The whole story was a literary and sensory delight, I enjoyed it tremendously.

    • Thank you so much! I had a total blast with the worldbuilding, but I never wanted it to feel TOO strange. People are people, even if they’re bipedal sugar gliders on a planet with a death sun, y’know? :) I don’t know that I’ll ever write it, but in my head, Enji’s reward for getting a good grade in therapy and using his words will eventually net him all the biting and DP his heart desires.

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