Homecoming – Day 12-2

I manage to make it through the rest of the day without any more naked encounters. Jake leaves at some point for work related matters and Ben has training. With Maddie sulking somewhere I’m alone in the house. That doesn’t help with most of my problems – for example that I keep checking my phone every few seconds. I fold a towel, I check my phone. Make a bed, check the phone. Drink some tea, check the phone. The display doesn’t even have a chance to turn off. But no word from Sam.

I’m going stir-crazy, can’t sit or stand still for longer than a few heartbeats. My last task for the day is putting away the laundry. Most of it clean linen and towels, only a few actual clothes. I go into Ben’s room last, open a window to air it out while I put his clothes away. The shirt and sweats he had given me for that dinner back then.

A stronger than expected gust slams the door shut behind me, sends some papers on Ben’s desk flying. It’s not snooping but actual cleaning, I tell myself, and pick them up. Meaningless stuff, some flyers, some copies of what turns out to be high school notes. Of course, he’s not living here anymore, this is all old. My heart skips not only one but a couple of beats when I find some sheet music among the clutter. Bittersweet symphony.

Okay, there has to be a good explanation for this. His Dad also loves that song, it doesn’t mean that Ben is actually the one who sent me the sheet music for it back then. Asking for a duet.

“Oh god… oh god, oh god, oh god…” My mind broke, maybe slapping myself can reboot my brain. Not that I would actually slap myself, but this discovery now is more than I can handle. Now that I think about it, the hairtie I found in my locker just appeared a day after my old one broke. I told Mom after school, in the kitchen of the mayor’s house. And that notebook? My own one had been snatched by some bully – a.k.a. Jake – so Ben could have noticed and given me a new one.

This is the moment my soul leaves my body, the moment my teenage dreams and reality collide. My high school crush was also my secret admirer! And I was too stupid to realise! But said crush is engaged to my friend, or better, former friend. If they are still engaged, that is.

My phone uses this exact second to ping, I drop the papers and grab it, but it’s only a text. At least it’s from Sam.

Sorry, today was crazy busy. Just listened to your voicemail. Can’t call you today, but I want to talk to you. Tomorrow?

Tomorrow is Sunday. The dinner party.

Yes, of course! And again, I’m sorry for not calling you last night.

After some back and forth I delete the ‘Can’t wait to hear your voice’ and just send it as it is. The little icon is telling me that Sam read it and is typing now.

It’s okay, family comes first. Let’s just leave all that behind us and focus on what’s important, okay?

But what is important? A few years ago discovering that Ben had a crush on me like I had on him would have been the most important information in the world for me. Right now I have trouble actually processing it.

Is the important thing the one between me and Sam? Or maybe just our business idea? Maybe it’s just the few things I left at Sam’s place and the even less things Sam left at mine. There is so much I want to ask but I’m too afraid of the answers.

Okay.

What else could I reply after all? I’m not okay, this whole mess isn’t okay, my parents are not okay. It’s an empty word that doesn’t mean anything to me.

In autopilot I clear away the papers, close the window and make sure everything is spotless when I leave.

 

The festival starts at 6pm and I arrive at Miho’s at 5. More than enough time to halfway down the first drink she serves me and top it with a cookie so there’s something to soak up the alcohol.

Between bites I tell her about my short exchange with Sam, having turned every word, every punctuation mark in my mind over and over already.

“That’s good, right? You can talk tomorrow and make up, and hopefully your mood will be better by the time the party starts. The bitchface clashes with the dress. Any dress to be exact.”

Gotta love Miho for her honesty. If not she’s making you.

“Thanks. But yes, I will either be much happier or crying.”

Those Espesso Martinies are a blessing, my first one numbs my swirling thoughts and the second smoothes the crease between my eyebrows. Not even the night before handing in my thesis I was so stressed like last week.

“Drink up, it’s time to close the shop and get out there to have some fun,” Miho instructs me, hangs a sign into the window of the door, informing potential customers of her absence during the festival.

“No one’s gonna come anyway.”

She’s not wrong, people are already milling towards the meadow where the festival has been set up during the last week.

“And we are leaving now, too.” I grab my jacket and my purse, make sure to drain the glass completely. I need some distraction or I’m going to bounce out of my skin.

“Are you really that excited for the fair?” Miho asks when I skip down the sidewalk, keyed up and tipsy.

“Well, there’s food and drinks, so yeah, I’m looking forward to it.”

“We could have food and drinks at my place, too,” she points out and it’s true. We could have that, even for less money, and usually I’m all for being thrifty, especially since my finances are pretty tight right now. But there’s something about festival food that just makes me happy. Must be the ridiculous amount of salt, sugar and fat. And the fact that they were rare treats, as a kid Mom only ever bought me one thing on festivals.

“But we can’t watch the crowd and gossip,” I reply, nod towards a few high school kids. The girls in too tight, too bright clothes and the guys in what looks like at least three sizes too big.

“Don’t tell me we were like that.” My closet never held the It-pieces anyway, and I was too self-conscious to show much of my body.

“Nope. Can you imagine that they are only six, maybe seven years younger than we are?” Miho squints, shakes her head. “That guy’s pants are so low, you can’t even see his knees.”

“Yep. That other guy, though, wears pants that are so tight, it must be painful.”

I remember getting bullied at school for my clothes a lot. I was poor back then, I’m still poor today, so I’m used to it. Feels strange to be on the other end of the teasing and gossiping now.

“So, what do you want to do first?”

I have 20 bucks in my pocket, not really much but way more than I could spent as a kid. Not that I have the same interests anymore, I won’t buy candy floss for it or ice cream. Well, maybe ice cream.

“Here?” Miho looks around, the crowd already scattered over the whole area. “Nothing.”

“Oh, come on! Let’s get a snack and just walk around a bit.”

“I swear, if it wasn’t for you to distract you from your actual problems, I wouldn’t even be here.” She sighs but gives in, follows me to the first row of food trucks and stalls.

“As if you had anything better to do than worry about how you will ruin your date tomorrow,” I grumble back. “And just for the record, you are not going to ruin it. You haven’t scared him away with your awkward flirting yet, so I guess he’s tougher than he looks like.”

“I certainly hope so.” The smirk is audible in her voice, even for me in all this noise.

I huff a chuckle, investigate the menues of the stalls. Fries, sausages, burgers and hot dogs. The usual fast food. Some people sell pizza slices, some meat skewers.

“Wait, isn’t that your Mom?”

It is. She’s serving people bowls filled with stew, her wrist still bandaged. I can spot Dad in the back of the truck, probably doing what he does best. Nothing.

“Excuse me for a second, I gotta commit patricide.” Why did he bring Mom? She’s still injured and actually could get into some serious legal trouble since she’s on sick leave from her original job.

“Sure, I’m waiting here for you.” Contrary to her words she’s getting in line, though, waves at my Mom but I focus on Dad and how to get to him. There’s a door at the back of the truck and it’s not locked. Second mistake of the night, Dad.

“What the hell are you doing?”

“Oh, hi Jazzy-bee. You want some stew?”

Mom also turns around but a customer demands her attention. Good, because I don’t really want her to hear what I have to tell Dad. I lower my voice to a hiss, glare at him.

“I want some good explanation why you let Mom work here in her condition and why you are here in the first place!”

I hate how casual he is, completely undisturbed by my anger.

“It’s a festival, I have a food truck. Perfect match.”

“Yeah, I get that, but you had promised me not to come here at all,” I press out, frown at the scents that register only now that I’m in the middle of them. Is that Mom’s carrot and beef stew?

“Really? I can’t remember such a promise. Besides, your mother is the only one who can tell me to stay away from her – and she doesn’t.”

Not only the heat in that small space, filled with cookers and huge pots of stew, nor the alcohol I had earlier are responsible for how my blood rushes to my face. It’s pure anger and  frustration.

“You are a jerk. A liar, a scammer, and worst of all, a loser. You are a failure as father and  the worst partner a woman could have. Congratulations, Bradley, you are officially scum now and I don’t want to ever see you again.” I planned to deliver this little speech coolly and distant, but I can already feel my eyes burn and my bottom lip quiver. Very impressive, I bet.

“Jazz!” It’s my Mom chiding me, not Dad. He just shrugs, turns to Mom who glares at me.

“It’s okay, Bridgy, she’s just a bit upset.”

“No, I’m not!” I could only look more like a petulant kid if I stomped with my foot, so I don’t. “I’m not upset, I just had a realization. You are a leech and I’m done with you.”

It would be so cool if I managed to storm out and slam the door behind me, but I trip over some rug and catch my fall just in time at the doorframe. Dad doesn’t follow me but Mom yells after me, I ignore her and stumble on, past some other stalls and towards a row of trees. My throat is tight, I’m choking on air, gulping it down until I cough.

“Hey, you okay?” Miho grabs my arm, holds me up. I’m only now realizing that I’m shaking.

“No,” I bark between sobs. “I’m just – so fuckin’ dumb!”

And furious. Why, why the hell do I have to have parents like that? I love Mom, she’s great, but so stupidly blind and deaf when it comes to Dad.

And Dad… well, he might not be the worst person in the world – there’s a long line before him, mostly politicians – but for me he only means chaos and disappointment.

“What happened?” She leads me to a bench, pushes me down on it before she sits next to me.

“I’m an idiot, that’s what happened!” My hands tremble, I clench and unclench them to get them back under control. “What – what’s that smell?”

“Your Mom was nice enough to give me a bowl of that stew. It’s a bit bland, though.”

“Ha! Figured!” He can get Mom’s recipe, but not her palate. Dad has no clue how to season food, never had. It’s either too much or too little, never just right. I wipe my eyes and cheeks dry, shake my hands.

“Can you believe that all my money is that stupid food truck and this bland stew?” I would laugh if it wasn’t so sad.

“Your money? Why your money?” She hands me the bowl, I only need a spoonful to know that I will never get my money back.

“Because he suddenly showed up at my place a few weeks ago, told me about this – this situation he was in.” I poke at some piece of beef in the stew, imagining I’m stabbing Dad. A bit. Not killing him, just enough to hurt.

“What situation?” She gently takes the bowl and spoon from me, robs me of my little distraction.

“So he knocked some chick up and came to me to whine about how this time he wants to do the right thing and take care of her and the kid and all that. And that he needs some money for that, doctor’s bills and a crib and – god, I really thought he was serious.”

“Wait, what? He comes to his daughter to beg for money for a kid that he has with someone else?”

I sniffle, wipe my nose with the back of my hand.

“That’s what I thought.”

“So – he doesn’t have that kid? Or does he? I’m confused.” She stares at the stew almost accusingly, eyes narrowed and nose scrunched up.

“Oh no, that woman is real and so is the baby. The mother found me on my social media account and once we were sure that yes, I’m Brad’s daughter and yes, she’s having Brad’s other daughter soon, we talked. A bit. It’s not an easy situation and she’s aware of that. Tracy. Her name is Tracy.” She’s only a couple of years older than me. Poor girl.

“Shit.”

I nod, shudder through another breath. “So I gave Dad all the money I had in my saving account, but under a few conditions. He had to tell Mom. Over the phone, not in person. He promised, no, he swore, that he wouldn’t bother her again, wouldn’t ask her for money. He did. Took 4678 dollar from me and around the same amount from Mom.” The taste of copper spreads in my mouth, I have chewed on my bottom lip so hard that I’m bleeding now.

“Fuck. Now that’s low!”

I hold her back from storming off and ripping Dad a new one on her own.

“Do you have an idea how much a food truck costs? Small hint, around six to ten thousand bucks. I told him he could only use that money for the baby, but I guess it was just stupid from me to think he would actually listen. Or care. He never cared.”

“Stupid fucker,” she hisses, glares at the stew some more.

“Yeah. But you know what? I’m just gonna let it go. So I lost some money, but I also learned a valuable lesson. Can’t trust a liar even if he says he changed. Because guess what? He’s still a liar.” I inhale deeply, splutter the breath out in a loud, unladylike sound.

“Well, you know, some people can change,” she points out, lips drawn into a tight line.

“I know. But not him. Never him.”

I jump up, shake my arms and legs to get rid of the gloomy thoughts.

“Okay, I need a drink and some ice cream!”

“Fine. And although I want to repeat that I hate festivals, let’s go and try out some games. Might help to get your mind off things a bit.”

 

We try whack-a-mole first and go fish for duckies next. Miho wins me a strange plushie – well, it’s not an animal, but definitely not a person either. A brown square with huge teeth and beady eyes. She says it’s a Domo-kun and although I never heard that name so far or seen that little fellow, I kinda like it. A glass of cheap beer later and my mood is slowly improving, the lights and sounds of the festival distracting me better than the booze.

“Where are we going next? Ice cream?” I point towards an ice cream vendor and Miho shrugs, just follows me but pouts when I tell her it’s my turn to pay now. I can afford two servings of ice cream.

“Oh, you are here, too.”

The familiar voice makes me grin and Miho blush.

“Hello, Mr. Sanders.” I wave at him, give Miho a pointed look before I order her some strawberry ice cream.

“That’s not what I wanted,” she grumbles.

“Well, it’s what you get. Because it fits your teint so well.” She jabs me in the ribs but I know she’s not really angry. She would have hit me harder in that case.

“Do you want some ice cream, too, Mr. Sanders?” I like saying his last name, mostly because he looks so sheepish when I do. No idea why, calling him by his first name without ever actually introducing first should be worse, at least by my standards.

“Vanilla would be nice,” he answers and Miho’s mumbled: “Now that’s disappointing,” is almost drowned out by the sounds of some carousel nearby. But I can hear it, snort a laughter before my poker face is back in place and I order some vanilla for Jared and some cherry ice cream for me.

“Are you having fun at the festival?” I ask him, hand him his ice cream and grin back at Miho who glares at me. So much for our nice girls’ night out.

“It’s a welcome change for sure.” He tries his ice cream, frowns when he looks at my bag where the Domo is tied on. “What’s that?”

“Miho won it for me. Apparently she’s a genius when it comes to festival games.”

His raised eyebrow says enough for Miho to raise to the unspoken challenge.

“What? You don’t believe it?”

“I didn’t say that,” he points out, but doesn’t deny it.

“Oh, she’s really good. Never saw someone whack a mole like that. As if she holds a personal grudge against the game.” I was only getting all my aggression out of my system, but Miho – well, she took it seriously.

“And? Do you?” He’s turned to her now, stares at her intently. I’m definitely out of place here.

“A grudge? Sure. That pesky lil’ fella had it coming, though.” A smile tugs at her lips and she hides it behind her ice cream cone.

“And is it only the mole or do you take all the games so seriously?”

Time for me to get out of here. The ice cream should buy me some time before the heat in their gazes sets something aflame. Their clothes, probably.

“That’s for me to know and for you to find out,” she replies with a smirk. “But if you ask nicely I will win you a plushie, too.”

That’s my cue to just scam, I guess.

“Try the shooting gallery,” I suggest, not without hidden agenda. It’s the most macho game after the strongman game after all.

“Why not?” Jared agrees. “And maybe I can win something for you, too.”

“By shooting?” Miho scoffs, but complies. “Don’t cry if I show you how it’s done, though.”

She looks back at me, tilts her head inquiringly. “You coming?”

“Nah, you kids go and have fun. Me and Domo, we need a break.”

Her eyes narrow at me slightly and I open mine wider, wordlessly signalling her to go with her crush. If only she knew some more sign language. But she gets what I mean, shrugs casually.

“Fine. Take care, will ya?”

“Me? Why? I’m not the one standing next to you when you handle a BB gun.” I poke my tongue out at her and earn a slap on my bum in exchange that only fuels my laughter. “Go, it’s okay, I promise.”

She nods, warily, but smiles when she turns to Jared. I watch them walk off, no contact but each seeking the other.

“Yeah, I give them a week before they bang,” I tell Domo and wander off to see what else I can do with my remaining eleven dollar.

Sorry!

Hey there,

I’m sorry, I messed up the order for the Homecoming chapters. Obviously I skipped a whole day and now I will quickly fix it. The day in question was Day 3. I hope it’s not too confusing…

Homecoming – Day 5

It’s more the habit that takes me to the café the next morning, I don’t even need the Wifi today. But there’s not much else to do and maybe I can catch Anna on Skype. My project is stagnating until I can get hold of Sam and so far there is no text, no call, no email. Nothing.

“Hey,” I greet Miho, trudge to the counter to take the cup of coffee she is brewing for me.

“Why the long face?”

I grunt, sip my coffee and slide onto a seat at the counter. “Small towns suck.”

“Yeah, tell me about it.”

The sound of my spoon stirring in the cup buys me some time to get my thoughts in order.

“You know why I always wanted to leave? Because everyone always got their nose in your business. You can’t tell anything to anyone without it coming back to bite your ass.”

She raises her eyebrow at me, leans over the counter with a grin.

“And what, pray tell, came to bite your derrière? Excuse my French.” She snickers, proud of her joke.

“That one was really bad,” I let her know, ignore the actual question in favor of keeping things light. “Was Jared already here today?” I say his name in a singsong voice, just to mess with Miho who promptly curls up her lips in a pout.

“No, he wasn’t. And I would be surprised if he came again after you tried to poison him with what you dare calling ‘coffee’ yesterday.”

“Hey, I know how to drink it, I don’t have to know how to make it. At least not with this abomination you call a coffee machine.”

We banter back and forth until the bell signals the arrival of a customer. To both our disappointment it’s not Jared, but some elderly lady ordering some cake for her birthday party next week. After that the mood has changed, sobered, so I decide to boot up my laptop and check my mails. Still no word from Sam.

Looks like I have to bite the bullet and ask Anna to contact Sam about the texts so we can get on with it. As if my life wasn’t hard enough already.

I’m still struggling with how to tell Anna when the bell chimes again.

“Good morning.”

I know that voice and glance towards the counter to see the same transaction like the last few days. Jared takes his coffee, Miho takes the money and he’s off. Before he can reach the door though he stops, sips from his coffee as if to make sure it’s good and nods. I would feel offended if he wasn’t right. Miho snickers and from my place I can see Jared grinning before he leaves for real this time.

Over an hour later and I still haven’t written the mail to Anna. How to tell her that I can’t get hold of Sam anymore? We are supposed to be lovers after all, at least that’s what our friends think. What I liked to think for a ridiculously happy time.

I groan, push those thoughts aside and myself up from my chair.

“I need a break,” I loudly announce, not that anyone but Miho can hear it.

“You want some cake? Or a cookie?”

“Don’t tempt me, coffee enchantress.” I feign a heroic pose but shuffle towards the counter anyway. “What have you got?”

“Apple pie, chocolate tart, vanilla salt cream pie. And lemon meringue.”

I mentally check the contents of my wallet. Usually I don’t spend money on needless things that I can get at home for less. Especially since I don’t even have a job.

“That meringue looks incredible,” I admit and with that my decision is made.

The first bite takes me right to dessert heaven, it’s sweet and sour, soft and a bit chewy.

“Wow, were did you get this?” It’s rude to talk with your mouth full but I’m so in love with this flavor, I don’t care for manners.

“I made it,” Miho casually answers and gets a slice for herself. “I make all my cakes. That way I can be sure they are exactly how I want them to be.”

“Control freak baker, huh? You won’t hear me complaining.”

We eat in comfortable silence and it’s hard to believe that we only started talking three days ago.

“So, it’s Friday today. Any plans for the weekend?” Miho keeps poking at her cake and I have to think about her question.

“Not really. Mom will have to work and I will need Wifi. Are you open all week?”

“No, I’m off on Sundays. You will have to find another place to leech of the Wifi there.” She grins and finishes her cake, but looks past me when the door opens again.

“Wow, that’s the busiest I saw this place so far,” I mutter but freeze when I turn to look at the customer.

“Hey, Jayjay!”

Two days in a row? Really? I have managed to avoid Ben for years now, but it’s like I’m cursed. I can’t just pretend not to see him, not after we had eye contact.

“Benny… wow, what are you doing here?”

He waves at Miho who looks back and forth between us and simply vanishes into the backroom.

“Mads wants some cake from here for the weekend. Figured I could pick it up for her.”

In his baseball jacket he looks like back in High School, leans on the counter like he has always leaned on the counter in the cafeteria. A strange déjà vu.

Miho comes back with a box in her hands, slides it over the counter.

“Here you are, blueberry cheesecake. Can I get you anything else?”

“Nah, that’s all. Thanks, Fujiwara, see you next Friday, I guess.” He flashes her a bright smile and hands her a 20 dollar bill, pats my upper arm.

“Jayjay, if you got time tomorrow, how about you join us for dinner again? Dad was so happy to see you last night and Mads kept asking me stuff about you. She wouldn’t shut up.” He chuckles, his hand lingers on my arm and my face explodes in a bright blush. One that doesn’t go unnoticed my Miho.

“I was really surprised to see her there, but I’m happy that you are happy. Together.” As if my red cheeks aren’t telltale sign enough, my voice is shaking, too.

“Yeah, she’s really great. Can’t believe I never noticed her in school.” He shrugs, his hand falls away from my arm and I can breathe again.

“Let’s be honest, you were pretty occupied with baseball.” I try to smile but my face doesn’t listen to my brain.

Miho’s snorted chuckle sounds like a ‘Ha!’ and I turn towards her, puzzled by the bitterness in her voice.

“Well, I still am,” Ben points out. “But honestly, have dinner with us tomorrow. There will be cake for dessert.” The box dances under my nose up and down.

“Yeah, sure. Why not?” My lacking enthusiasm doesn’t seem to register with him, satisfied he got the answer he wanted he nods and pulls the cake box back.

“Great. Dad and Mads don’t have much to talk about so I hope you will liven things up a bit. See you at 8, okay?” He waves and rushes out, leaves me feeling hung-over.

“So, you had dinner with the mayor and his family last night? Is that related to your ass being bitten by something you said to an earlier time?”

Miho’s smug tone rubs salt into the wound and I slump down on the counter, my forehead connects with the wooden surface with a loud thud.

“One of my former best friends dates my – former best friend,” I mutter.

“Best friend, my ass. Ben Rosenfeldt might be a lot but he never was any girl’s ‘friend’. The question is, did you bang him or did you only dream of banging him?”

Is there a use in denying? At this point I’m sure there’s not, so I admit it was the latter.

“But that was five years ago, I’m totally over him.”

“Sure, keep telling yourself that and maybe your face will get the memo next time and not erupt into 5o shades of red when he touches you.” She opens the register and puts the money away, doesn’t even pay attention to my frantic attempts of denying.

“It’s not like that anymore!”

Her annoyed sigh sounds as if she’s scolding a child for the umpteenth time about the same argument.

“Oh please! The problem with High School crushes is that you can’t get over them that easily. They have burned themselves deeply into your hormonal and emotional history and your body is unable to separate the guy from your physical response. Or in short: if he made your knees weak and panties wet with 16, he will also do so with 26 and probably even with 36. No idea how it is once menopause shreds the whole hormonal balance.”

My eyebrows shoot up, my jaw drops. “Wow, that is – a wild hypothesis. Any back up data for that?”

“Only rational thinking and the experiences of hundreds and thousands of women before us,” Miho lets me know and clears away my plate and cup. “But on the bright side, now you know what you will do this weekend.”

Blood Spatter: Part 6

WARNING: This part contains smut.

Eyes turned to focus on them as Kiril urged Miho away from the table to where there was enough room to dance. This fictitious crowd bowed their heads respectfully, curtsied, before Kiril twirled Miho around.

“There have been many balls such a this,” he told her, their faces close.

“How are you controlling all of this in such detail and yet still able to form sentences?” Miho blinked, still preoccupied by their surroundings to pay too much notice to Kiril’s touch,

“You think women are the only ones able to multi-task?” he huffed, squeezing her body a little tighter against him. “The blood of a true vampire is very potent… among other things.”

At this, Miho sputtered out a laugh and accidentally trod on his toes, and their slight stumble saw them slide directly through a passing couple.

“I’m sorry,” she chuckled stepping back into the rhythm of their graceful path around the glittering space. “But that…”

“I wonder what potent thing you are imagining, Sparrow,” he grinned, knowing full well the innuendo he’d made.

“What’s with the nickname?” she asked on a different tangent, but it had been something she’d thought about on and off.

“Sparrows are small and delicate,” he replied easily, spinning her with the dramatic flourish of intangible cloth.

“Delicate? Me?” she snorted, somewhat proving her point.

“And you have this furtive awareness, always looking for danger,” he added.

“Ah, can you blame me?” she laughed, gasping a little when he leaned her back draped over one arm.

“No, I cannot,” he conceded, staring down at her with suddenly greater focus.

From her eyes, to her lips, his gaze then travelled to the extension of her neck, and as she noted this, Miho’s muscles tensed.

“You look hungry,” she exhaled quietly, her fingers clenching tighter against his jacket. “Should I be sensing danger?”

“Do not doubt I want to taste what Alex stole,” Kiril admitted, the hand not holding her reclined touching lightly to the line of her jaw before trailing slowly downward. “His trespass was unforgiveable.”

“Because he attacked me without provocation and that was wrong, or because the alpha male in you thinks my hunter blood should only be for you?” she breathed, but her eyes had narrowed sharply.

Slowly, maintaining eye-contact, he brought her upright, so close the tips of their noses were touching.

“Yes,” he told her quietly, and Miho was so transfixed, so consumed by the lush gleam of his eyes, that it took her several seconds to notice the orchestral music had ceased, as had the movement of bodies around them.

“I should kick your ass for that response,” she told him flatly, but he saw the continuation of her statement twitching on her lips.

“But?” he prompted.

“But I’d rather you kissed me,” she admitted, but Kiril still did not look especially moved.

“Why then, do you not kiss me?” he offered, challenge smeared across the slight upward tweak of his mouth.

Glowering, Miho lifted herself a little onto her toes and leaned forward, pressing against him with her lower body whiles her lip drew closer to him; then she smugly pulled back, just before their lips made contact – she made a point of showing him he was not the only one capable of playing games.

At this is was not pleased.

“Frustrating, isn’t i…” Miho began, but the air was crushed from her as he tightened one arm, and with the other slid his hand into her hair and brought her face to his.

 

It’s a ravenous kiss so fierce I think I might disappear inside him completely, sparking a fire almost beyond my control.  Every inch of my skin is suddenly singing a heavenly choir of rapture – and it’s terrifying just how ready I feel to face the apocalypse, if only to prolong this a little more. As my fingers dig into the taut muscles of his upper arms I can feel just how much he wants me too; I’m doing more than flirting with danger now, but whatever spell he’s got me under I don’t think I can resist it for much longer.

Even at the nip of his teeth against my lower lip, I’m still so caught up in the desire to taste his skin I ignore the potential of him biting down just a little too hard. Oh God, my head is spinning because I can’t remember the last time I took a breath – and I don’t care.

My gasp echoes around the hall, now empty but for Kiril and I, my panting a stark contrast to his complete composure. But his eyes are devouring me so indecently I cannot bring myself to move my face any further than I absolutely need to ensure I don’t pass out.

“See?” I grin in dizzy triumph. “You’re not the only one who always gets what he wants.”

“Is that all you want?” he inquires, the seriousness of the question dropping the floor from under my feet.

What he wants is obvious, and I simply cannot deny I want it too – trying to convince myself otherwise is now futile.

“Aren’t my thoughts loud enough for you now?” I volley, brushing my fingertips beneath the collar of his shirt.

“You told me not to intrude, Sparrow,” he points out, teasingly pecking at my cheeks, “so you are just going to have to be explicit.”

“Oh, explicit is exactly what I’m thinking,” I reply breathily, chasing his lips until he allows me to warm them with my own once more. “Distract me from this insufferable waiting, Kiril.”

“Is that what I am? A distraction?” he frowns, but the way he’s tugging me against his body by the waist tells me right now it’s highly unlikely he cares about anything other than getting me naked.

“Distraaaaaact me,” I hiss against his throat, before kissing up under his chin.

His reaction startles me at first, giving me a shove away, but his sharp bark at the pair of attendants to clean up precedes the equally as sharp snatch of my hand and the swift jerk of my body toward the exit.

 

There is a faint sense of travel, but the distance between the castle and my hotel is little more than a blur, pouring like molten liquid into the moment Kiril and I burst into my suite. The push and pull of emotions I’ve experienced since meeting him is full throttle forward – pull his jacket away, pull his shirt buttons free, pull his bare chest against mine.

The air rushes loudly from my lungs as I’m slammed against the door, and my legs wrap naturally around his waist; his tongue, cool and moist against the inflame of my skin, slithers maddeningly down my throat, across my collarbone and across my chest until his lips suck my left nipple into his mouth.

“Gaaaah,” I hiss as his teeth pinch, and a thrill of fear shakes magnitude 10 down my spine. “Kiril… wait…”

“Rrrrwhaaat?” he growls, lifting his head with a face full of fierce. “Do not tell me to stop.”

“No… not that,” I pant, helplessly drowning in his eyes, raking my fingers through his hair as I struggle to find more words. “No biting.”

“Are you afraid, Sparrow?” he whispers against my cheek, though his unflinching gaze doesn’t break contact.

A denial is derailed before I can voice it, the promising strain of his desire pressing between my legs.

“Yes,” I admit, a word frighteningly loud as even the sound of our heavy breathing vanishes.

“Good,” he praises, his wolfish grin at first suggesting a twisted satisfaction in my alarm, but then I see in the sudden stillness that’s gripped our bodies, it’s my honesty that has garnered his approval. “Trust me.”

“Take me,” I shudder out, and throw the last of my caution to the whirlwind that envelopes us both.

Thought gives way to pure sensation: the tearing of fabric refusing to give; the swimming intoxication of breath held far too long; the slick of perspiration and persistence.

Trembling in desperate anticipation, I welcome the weight of his body, frantic to smooth my palms over the sculpture of his muscles, aching for him to touch more than just the surface.

Begging like I have never felt lust before.

Teased from toe-tip to top, to the very limit of my frustration, until he can see the wildness, the agonising fracture lines of my libido chasing every caress.

And begging like I have never felt lust before – or perhaps once – I had the taste of him in my mouth and the heaving delight of him within; even though it wasn’t him, even when it was no more than the craft of my imagination and a warm substitute.

Now there is no need, but need for him, and had I sense of anything other than that, my pride might protest. But he is every bit as hungry as I am.

Ravenous, he drags me up, a puppet sobbing feverishly for him to end my torment. My body curls, back arches as he reaches around to dance his fingers against the throb of my suffering, and I can’t hold out any longer.

It doesn’t sound like my voice, but somehow it’s the most natural utterance I’ve ever made – a choking moan without meaning to be a word, just the pure expression of my body’s inability to comprehend anything other than the pleasure of Kiril tipping me over the edge.

The way he pulls back on my hair, the gratification of his teeth grazing my shoulder, that he is unrelenting even as I convulse, is finally punctuated by the surprisingly slow ease of him inside me. This delicious pressure from within, slow, measured strokes, causes my muscles to contract so tightly I may never unwind.

Who cares?

I’m a tense ball of yearning wanting more, rocking myself against him forcefully until I’m rewarded by his voice mingling with mine in incoherent harmony.

“Sparrow,” he grates out through his teeth, my earlobe bearing the brunt of his next assault in a stinging bite that draws close to breaking his word, but doesn’t.

“Don’t stop,” I breathe giddily, grasping for enough air to fill my lungs but light-headed regardless as another storm breaks over me.

Thunder rumbling at my very centre.

Lightning searing every nerve ending.

There is no way to distinguish between sweat and tears of ecstasy, but neither he or I care.

In a slight moment of terrible respite, my back hits the bedsheets and I peer up at Kiril looming over me with an ardent restraint I both hate and admire.

“What?” I swallow heavily, unable to keep from squirming as he poises at my entrance but moves no more.

“I want to burn that face you are making, into my memory,” he declares, and it’s now, now that he’s hovering above looking down at me I see his teeth, his fangs, the touch of his tongue tapping one point.

My chest stops moving; I am mesmerized.

“No,” he whispers, leaning slowly forward to frame my face with large hands, lying against me with a tenderness I do not associate with monsters, “not that face,” he continues, brushing my lower lip with one thumb before burying himself inside me again.

With his head nuzzling into the crook of my neck, his hands slithering up my arms to grip my wrists and hold them firmly down, I know there is nothing I can do to fight him – if he’s going to kill me, I’ll die.

It’s not death that’s bubbling in my veins though, not death tingling through every fibre of my body, nor are the screams Kiril smothers with his tongue cries for help – it’s a star gone supernova consuming everything in its path.

And if he stops now without filling me to the brim?

Perhaps that is death.

That is the face,” he groans, and I open my eyes to see his – wild and shameless – trying to fix me in his focus as I watch him come undone.

 

Kiril’s voice drifts softly to where I lie comfortably beneath the bed covers. Blearily, I try to blink away the tattered remnants of sleep and listen in.

“… control freak,” Kiril sniffs, standing by the window with bright of morning cutting a black silhouette out of the day. “Give me more time.”

There he pauses. I cannot hear who he’s talking to, but he doesn’t seem irritated or in any way put out.

Typical Kiril.

Though I make no attempt to hide my interest in his conversation, sitting up, my interest moves from his lips to the bare of his chest. There are no marks on his skin where last night my fingernails broke the surface in my ardour.

Our ardour.

Slowly, my eyes widen, because beneath the sheets I’m a mess, and I’m a mess because…

“Oh shit,” I gasp, suddenly scrambling to free myself of the tangle.

“Just do it, Narumi,” Kiril huffs, turning to fix me in his gaze. “I have to go.”

The hand holding his phone drops to his side, and I become motionless.

A naked, vulnerable example of intimacy without protection.

“I’m ahh… I’m going to…” I mutter.

“You look like death,” he smirks, amused as he makes absolutely no effort to hide his appreciation of my figure.

“Kiril… we… I’m…”

“Yes, a frightful reminder of the things I would very much like to repeat,” he grins, approaching.

“You need to tell me right now,” I demand in a fluster, pointing at him almost in accusation. “Can you get me pregnant?”

Kiril blinks, but his surprise is feigned.

“We could try I suppose,” he offers, spreading his hands and approaching with clear intent.

“This isn’t funny, Kiril, can a vampire get a human pregnant? Because I don’t want some needle-teeth horror chewing its way out of my body.”

“Then it is lucky I do not sparkle in the sunlight then,” he smiles, but I shuffle back before he can touch me.

“I am not joking!” I cry in agitated frustration, only to find myself swiftly backed up against the wall.

“And I am not laughing,” he hisses against my lips, our noses point to point. “Do I seem a man who longs for the complication of a child?”

“Just tell me you can’t get me pregnant,” I sigh, shivering as his fingers brush my bare hip.

“You and I, cannot have children,” he assures me gently, but his grin is teasing.

“And other things? Oh god, where was my head when I just…” I rush on, thinking about all the diseases one might catch from unprotected sex.

“I am not sure where yours was, but mine,” he chuckles, smoothing hair over my ear as he breathes against my cheek, “was somewhere deep, and dark, warm and beautiful.”

“I bet you say that to all the vaginas,” I stammer out, my fingers tensing against his sides, hankering to dig in.

“Those conversations do not usually last very long,” he admits, kissing one cheek lightly then moving to the other, “but I would definitely like to resume the discussion I began with yours last night.”

“Now you’re just being vulgar,” I snort, but a smile tugs my lips upwards as he lightly kisses them again.

What I’m doing – other than the obvious – I don’t know. What I do know, is being touched by Kiril is unlike anything else, and it’s utterly stupid how much I want him to never stop.

 

After running the water cold with activities other than cleaning, Miho dressed and sat on her suite’s balcony in the mid-morning sun. She’d been staring at her phone for some time before inhaling deeply and calling a number she had not hesitated to dial in the past.

It rang only once before Sebastian answered, and the image of him crouched over it, glaring, waiting for it to ring flashed in Miho’s mind’s eye.

“Have you any idea how worried I’ve been?” were the first words he said, and Miho rubbed her brow where a frown instantly formed.

If his concern for her was indeed so fierce, why had he not told her about the vampire in their midst? Why had he been so cryptic about his warnings to stay away from Kiril when he had to have known she would push back when not provided with a valid reason.

“Would you have accepted the real reason if he’d told you?” she wondered silently, finally responding loud. “I’m pleased to hear from you too, Sebastian.”

“Really? You know, if that were true, you might have responded to the fifty message I’ve left for you already,” he snapped.

“I’ve been running all over Prague looking for my missing best friend,” she volleyed curtly, her mood quick to darken. “Imagine Selina went AWOL,” she continued, leaning forward in her seat, “because that is how I feel right now, how I’ve been feeling, so I’m sorry if I’ve gone deaf to all your warning-warning danger Will Robinson over Kiril Lambert.”

A short silence ensued, during which time Miho sucked in a deep breath and flopped back; she hadn’t meant to be quite so savage.

“Uh, I’m sorry,” she sighed, rolling her eyes across the city. “I’m really exhausted, and Jazz’s trail’s gone cold.”

Why she was especially tired, she did not say.

“I don’t mean to badger you, Miho,” he responded, his voice also tempered by apology, “but that family are just so dangerous. I don’t want you to get hurt anymore.”

“Then tell me everything at Pale is fine,” she replied, trying to muster up some positivity. “I hope you’ll manage to give Selina some of your time.”

“You know she loves the club,” Sebastian conceded, letting the matter of the Lamberts go – or the moment. “I actually think she was happier helping Mieke and I out than she would have been having boring old dinner with her boring old brother.”

It wasn’t the first time Selina Ross had visited and spent time at Pale, and though she was several years younger, Miho quite liked the girl. There was an infectious optimism about her that made being grumpy almost impossible, and patrons at the club found that incredibly magnetic.

Having her around was good for business.

“I doubt very much she travelled all that way to see the club,” Miho chuckled. “Boring old or not, kid sisters and big brothers have special relationships.”

As she spoke those last few words, Kiril stepped out onto the balcony behind her.

“Maybe,” Sebastian grunted, and there was another pause before he spoke again, during which time Kiril made it clear he wasn’t going to give Miho space to finish her call in privacy. “So, I meant Mieke and I can handle things here but, if there’s nothing…”

“I’m not coming home without her,” Miho stated flatly, staring up at Kiril whose lips began to part as if he meant to speak.

In warning, Miho sharply raised a finger and her stare became a glower. The last thing she needed was for Sebastian to recognise Kiril’s voice. Teasingly, he leaned closer.

“I know you love her,” Sebastian said somberly, “just, promise me you won’t destroy yourself in this search.”

“I’m a big gi…” Miho began, but Sebastian cut her off, his tone of voice absolutely serious.

Promise me,” he insisted, and hearing him, Kiril’s eyebrows twitched downward.

“You know I don’t like making promises,” Miho answered carefully, “especially ones I may not be able to keep, but… I promise I will keep my eyes open and my wits about me.”

A heavy exhale signalled Sebastian’s surrender.

“Okay, well, you know how to reach me if you need anything, so call me,” he added.

“I will,” Miho affirmed. “Say hi to Selina for me.”

“Will do.”

That ended the conversation, and Miho dropped her phone into her lap, chewing the inside of her cheek for a few seconds until Kiril’s shadow across her caused the bloom of a shiver.

“Mr. Ross seems very invested in your wellbeing,” he noted, and it might have sounded casual but for the slight scowl he was wearing.

“Friends usually are,” Miho shrugged, trying not to play into his looming broodiness.

“You and he…”

“Don’t finish that sentence, or question or thought,” she huffed, rocking to her feet and standing, but Kiril caught her wrist before she could slip back inside.

“Which question would that be?” he queried. “Whether you are in a relationship with him? Sleeping with him? I suppose that would go some way to explaining his hostility toward me.”

“Yes,” Miho replied ambiguously.

Kiril’s touch was warm – generally it was not, and it reminded her of the first time he’d heated his skin for her.

“That, and I imagine in large part because he doesn’t like the idea of a vampire making a meal out of his boss,” Miho added.

“Mmm, just his boss. Doubtful,” he asserted, walking his fingers up her other arm in a gesture Miho thought was absurdly cute – so much so she couldn’t help but laugh. “What?”

“And what if Sebastian and I are a thing?” she posed, teasingly, and Kiril’s expression became serious.

“One more reason to kill him,” he answered flatly, pulling her against him and trapping her in his arms with her back to his chest.

“Don’t you dare!” she hissed, struggling as he nudged her closer the balustrade and lowered one hand to the front of her pants.

“Or what, little Sparrow?” he smiled against the shell of her ear, his fingers burrowing into her underwear.

“Fuck you, Kiril,” Miho growled, squirming as he rubbed against her, but her declaration sounded less fierce as his name twisted into a moan.

“It is kind of you to be so explicit in your invitation,” he hummed against her throat, grinding against her even as she squinted at the street.

“Someone is going to see us,” she grumbled, fighting a losing battle with her self-restraint. “Damnit, why does this feel so good?”

“I have had a lot of practice,” he responded, delving into her with slow strokes – one, two, three fingers – until the volume of her encouragements grew conspicuous. “Sing louder, Sparrow,” he groaned into her hair. “Let all of Prague know how I make you feel.”

Clenching her teeth, Miho resisted that urge, trapping cries in her chest even as Kiril began to work free the buttons of her blouse.

 

Then his phone rang.

 

“Ignore it,” he snapped quickly, withdrawing from her so he could tend to his own pants, but this afforded Miho a moment of clarity.

“Kiril, answer it,” she panted. “What if it’s Arno?”

“Grrr,” Kiril snarled, standing straight and digging out the phone, barking into it the moment he answered. “What?”

With a hand on her chest, heart beating wildly beneath her palm, Miho stumbled into a seat. And her heart wasn’t the only thing pulsing – she was sure if there was any more friction, even if she just crossed her legs, she was going to lose it.

Instead, she tried to focus on what Kiril was saying. His expression had sobered, but his body was still tensed… everywhere.

“We made our agreement, and I will keep it if your information turns out to be accurate,” he said curtly shifting over to Miho, whose hand reached up to him without prompting. “We will head there now,” he continued, his lips pinching when Miho traced her fingers lightly around the front of his pants. “Mhm, ensure your people do not alert them.”

Grinding his teeth, he listened to his caller’s response while Miho palmed him, grinning up cheekily.

“Fine,” he grunted, then without bidding his caller farewell, he hung up and tossed his phone aside before grabbing Miho’s hand.

“Sparrow, you are asking for trouble,” he warned, dragging her back to her feet. “Here I have the location of our fugitives, but all I want is to tear your clothes off.”

“God, I can’t believe I want you to,” Miho shuddered, wrapping her arms around his neck. “But Jazz? They really found her?”

“According to Arno,” Kiril confirmed, his forehead lowered to hers. “But right now I do not want to leave this suite.”

“You deliver Jazz to me, and I’ll do whatever you ask,” Miho exhaled breathily, tapping her fingers against the swell in is pants for extra emphasis. “And I’ll even enjoy it.”

“Get your coat,” he dropped, before clicking his tongue and forcing himself to turn away from her.

In a flurry, Miho did as she was bid, the burning in her loins distracted by the prospect of finally seeing Jazz again. Kiril hadn’t said whether Arno described her physical state, but Miho assumed Kiril would extend the courtesy of preparing her for the worst if… if what they’d found was a corpse in a ditch somewhere.

In the cab she couldn’t keep still, fidgeting and twisting in her seat. Though Kiril sat beside her watching, her mind was elsewhere – what she would say to Jazz, how relieved she would feel, how to hold her tears back so she could yell at her for just up and disappearing.

“This waiting is unbearable,” she muttered, wringing her fingers until her knuckles cracked, until Kiril closed much larger hands around hers.

Immediately she sat up a little straighter, the touch of his flesh against hers like an aphrodisiac that made her thighs quiver.

“According to Arno’s people, both Konstantin and Jazz are located on the outskirts of Prague in a cute little cottage… playing house,” he explained, sounding exasperated.

“Playing house,” Miho repeated quietly to herself, gnawing on her lower lip before leaning back and looking up into Kiril’s face. “With a vampire? Is that even possible?

Immediately Miho could tell Kiril had heard her thoughts, but he said nothing.

Miho considered her feelings for Kiril more seriously now. If Jazz had run away to be with Konstantin…

“You were talking to Narumi earlier,” Miho stated out of the blue. “Is something going on?”

“Hmmm,” Kiril hummed thoughtfully. “Konrad is wondering where his favourite son has disappeared to, and doesn’t have his least favourite son to take it out on.”

“What does that mean?” Miho frowned. “Is he going to send an army to march on Prague and extract you?”

At this Kiril emitted a pithy laugh.

“For Konstantin, perhaps, but not for the like of me,” he expounded. “If his golden child does not return soon, he may indeed send agents in search of him. Better that he goes back of his own accord.”

“And is Narumi on your side, or your father’s?” Miho pressed, trying to distract herself with backstory.

This caused Kiril to chuckle.

“Konrad is a tyrant,” he asserted. “No one is truly on his side, at least not out of choice. Fear maybe.”

“Is he really that much of a monster?” Miho scowled, then continued. “So, if he found out I was a hunter?”

“That in and of itself is not enough to condemn you,” he explained, but lifted a hand to her cheek. “But treaties are tenuous things, Sparrow. It is best you tell no one about yourself, not even Jazz.”

This caused Miho to frown.

“Jazz and I don’t keep secrets from one another,” she declared, her lips quivering as Kiril’s thumb approached them.

“We both know that is not true,” he smiles slowly. “Or she would not have disappeared without your knowledge.”

“You’re assuming Konstantin didn’t force her,” she scowled, her stomach churning. “Kiril, if she is with him, if she has been with him all this time… could he… would he turn her?”

There was silence but for the rhythmic sound of the car.

“It is a possibility,” Kiril answered eventually watching her reaction closely.

“What will that mean?” she exhaled, leaning into his hand until her head slipped to his shoulder.

“Complications,” he replied, idly stroking Miho’s hair, “but nothing I cannot handle.”

“Complications how?” Miho persisted.

“My father has no love for the turned vampire,” Kiril explained, disdain thick in his voice. “In the hierarchy of influence, they are even less than humans; the turned are a bastardised form of pure vampire blood, stains he refuses to acknowledge as being of worth to his domain.”

Miho pondered this, but the brush of his fingers against her scalp made it difficult to think.

“If Konstantin has turned your friend,” Kiril continued. “If they fled together and Konrad finds out they are involved, he will kill her.”

“He’ll have to go through me,” Miho snarled, straightening, and Kiril pinched the back of her neck.

“He will kill you too, Sparrow,” he pointed out. “Especially you.”

“Narumi,” Miho scowled. “Whose side is she on?”

“Hmph,” Kiril snorted, his fingers slackening. “Narumi is in the unenviable position of being caught between her place in the aristocracy and Konrad’s law-keeper, and what she believes is right.”

“So if she finds out I’m a hunter?” Miho prompted.

“It would be a terrible shame if I had to kill her,” Kiril mused. “I actually like her.”

“You’d kill her?” Miho frowned, shifting her body a little sideways so she could look into his face. “For me?”

“Let us not dwell too much on hypotheticals,” he responded, leaving the question unanswered. “Soon we shall have the information we require to move forward, and prevent Konrad from becoming more of problem for anyone.”

 

Soon the city gave way the green countryside, and in the hills to the south of Stradonice, the car came to a stop at the entrance to a dirt road where a man stood waiting.

Fiercely biting into her lower lip, Miho approached him with Kiril at her side, watching and listening as the pair spoke in Czech. Impatiently she scraped her toe through the gravel, until the man turned to his own car.

“There is a cottage half a kilometre up this track,” Kiril reported, taking Miho’s hand and pulling her into motion. “According to our friend, Konstantin and Jazz are both inside.”

“How the hell did they find them out here?” she whispered, as much to herself as to him.

“I imagine Arno really wanted to avoid the consequences of not locating them,” Kiril answered, and continued. “When we reach the house, allow me to approach first.”

She didn’t question why. If they had gone to such lengths to disappear, then they may not be all that happy about being discovered. Still, Miho couldn’t imagine Jazz ever doing her harm, vampire or not.

At the sight of the cottage, Miho found herself barely able to breathe, and Kiril gave her hand a squeeze.

“Wait here,” he instructed, and after releasing her he pushed through the picket gate and began up the path to the front door.

“Wait here,” Miho sigh, resuming her lower lip attack until she couldn’t stand it anymore.

Kiril pulled back the tattered fly-screen door and knocked three times against the chipped paint of the wooden door beneath. He could sense Miho at his back, knew she wouldn’t listen, but focused his hearing on any sounds of movement.

Then he was gone, one blink and he had dashed away, leaving Miho blinking at the space where he’d stood. She could only think he’d hear something and rushed off to intercept it.

“Jazz!” she shouted, shouted with all the energy she had, and after stomping up onto the porch she turned the front door knob.

Beneath her palm it turned, and steeling herself, she moved into the dim interior of the cottage.

“Jazz?” she called again, this time a little more discretely, but her answer came not in the form of her best friend’s voice, but in a loud crash and the sound of splintering wood.

There was little time to wonder at how her reflex was to run toward the sound rather than away from it – before rational thought blossomed, Miho had sprinted through the unfamiliar house and burst out the back door.

“Do not run,” Kiril warned, pointing at where Konstantin was struggling from the hole in the side of the cottage he’d made with his body’s impact. “For the chosen son you are a real pain in the ass.”

“Jazz,” Miho dropped in a breathy whisper, and the blonde woman’s head snapped in her best friend’s direction.

“Miho?” she mouthed, barely a sound at all – just enough for Miho to hear, enough to break the dam that held back the tears.

But Jazz’s expression was a conflicted twist of joy and angst, and her eyes darted between the two brothers before returning to Miho.

“My life has nothing to do with you Kiril,” Konstantin growled, brushing off his shoulders.

“Do you have any idea…?” Miho wept.

“Konrad has tasked Narumi to find you…” Kiril volleyed.

“I didn’t want to hurt you…” Jazz murmured, taking a hesitant step toward her friend.

“No, Jazz!” Konstantin called out urgently. “If Konrad’s looking for us we need to get even further away.”

“Who do you think our father is exactly?” Kiril rumbled, stalking toward his brother again. “There is no place you can hide he will not find you.”

“I thought you were dead,” Miho sobbed, peering up from where she’d sunken to the ground, Jazz’s figure wavering through tears like a ghost. “Are you dead?”

“I’m…” Jazz began, but her sentence faltered.

As Kiril and Konstantin physically clashed once more, Jazz crouched down before Miho and lightly placed her hands on Miho’s knees.

“… it’s complicated now,” she finished, Miho’s raw pain cutting her deeply; but she knew she deserved it and more.

“Why couldn’t you tell me about this? About him?” Miho choked out, taking hold of Jazz’s hands tightly, wrapping warm fingers around cold.

So cold that her eyes widened.

“You… He…” she stammered, blinking furiously to clear her vision. “Did he force this on you?”

Miho stopped listening despite having asked a question. The answer had already formed in her mind – this vampire who had taken her best friend away, turned her into this thing against her will… she would kill him, and it was written all over her face as she rose.

“No, Miho!” Jazz exclaimed. “It isn’t like that.”

“Really?” Miho balked, swiping away Jazz’s attempt to place a gentle hand on her shoulder. “So he sat you down and asked you politely and you said, oh sure son of a vampire king who’ll kill us both for it, make me a vampire!”

“We… not exactly,” Jazz admitted, fixing her grip around one of Miho’s wrists and holding her back easily.

“I don’t care who he is!” Miho shrieked, fighting against Jazz tooth and nail, but both women were nearly bowled over when Kiril came tumbling toward them.

“You of all people should understand the desire for freedom, Kiril,” Konstantin glowered, his voice suddenly so much lower, his body inexplicably growing until his clothing strained and threatened to tear.

“Konstantin don’t!” Jazz shouted, as she jerked Miho back against her chest and folded both arms around her. “Just calm down, we need to, to talk to them!”

Kiril was picking himself up, his expensive clothing streaked with mud and grass, while Miho struggled, and he cut a glance to her and paused when Jazz lifted her head a little toward her friend’s neck.

“Miho, we need to talk,” Jazz said thickly, and the taller woman fell still, just a moment, before wriggling around in Jazz’s hold to hug her tightly. “Inside,” Jazz prompted, looking around Miho at the two brothers briefly, before sliding her hand into Miho’s and guiding her back toward the cottage.

Snakes and Starships: I

Spoiler warning below for various Starship Promise routes. Read on at your own peril.

 

 

Antares’ route: Antares has been promoted to Commodore and has a high leadership role amid others like him.
Atlas’ and Tyrian’s route: Atlas and SP’s MC (here named Jenna) are together on the promise. Tyrian made his appearance as per Atlas’ route, which led to the happenings of his own route. At the end of Tyrian Season 1 he’s on death row thanks to the Union, but has somehow escaped custody.
Orion’s route: There is a tense, but present understanding between he and Antares, and they have the ability to contact one another.

Jaxon’s route: Rumour has it, in the bloody coup staged by Rastaban Saiph he killed the former emperor to claim the title himself. Saiph’s daughter – Miho – is rumoured to have killed Jaxon’s ex in a disagreement over ‘who was more worthy of him’. This rumour is unsubstantiated.

 

General setting: With Tiberius Fox out of the picture – the Empire’s most active and vocal militant force – Rastaban Saiph, an Empire general, emerged with unprecedented force, assassinated the generally unknown emperor of the Galactic Liberation Front, and crowned himself in charge.

 

I

 

“I can’t believe this is still being plastered all over the galaxy,” Miho snorted, scrolling through The Jewel Box, then back up to a specific image. “Blah blah, kidnapped an Empire princess, blah blah take the culprit alive at all costs…”

“You’re taking this too lightly,” the man to her left on the bridge chided, but Miho just grinned up at him.

“And you take everything too seriously, Terovin,” she chuckled, tossing her tablet down onto the console as they came out of warp at the co-ordinates she’d set earlier. “That Empire ass can set as high a bounty on me as he likes, it’ll get him nowhere.”

“I agree it’s unlikely you’ll be betrayed by the people we help, Captain, but there are plenty of credit-hungry bounty hunters who’d jump at the chance to turn you in.”

“I find your lack of faith disturbing,” Miho grumped. “Any bounty hunter worth their stars will take one look at that listing, realise it’s dirty Empire money, and decide against getting involved, while the idiots who don’t know better have no chance of catching me anyway.”

Terovin just grunted, and manually began to manoeuvre the Excellon closer to the large Empire freighter moving at sub-light speed toward Cassius V.

The other vessel seemed not to notice their approach, but neither on the Exellon’s bridge seemed the least bit surprised.

“You ready for this?” came a gruff voice from the corridor, before a huge tank of a man stomped into view.

“As always,” Miho smiled, standing to flex her shoulders. “A total cake-walk.”

“Captain!” Terovin barked just as Miho joined her compatriot in the hall. “An attack class Empire ship just appeared on our scanner.”

“What’s their transponder signature?” she grumbled, looking back to the monitors to await the answer.

“Ahh… TD096-Y-76,” he reported, then looked up and over at his captain. “It’s Commodore Fairchild.”

“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Miho cursed, throwing herself into seat while gesturing sharply with her hand. “Get us out of here.”

“Well that was productive,” the large man standing behind her rumbled, sour and surly.

“Why aren’t we moving?” Miho growled, glowering at her first officer.

“We’re locked in a tractor-beam,” Terovin reported. “Our magnetic reflux drive it still out of commission.”

“Perfect,” she muttered, raking her fingers through her hair.

“What now?” the large man queried, and Miho stood again, squaring her shoulders.

“Dress-ups,” she sighed.

“Seriously?” Terovin blinked. “There is absolutely no way Commodore Fairchild hasn’t seen that bounty notice.”

“What’s he going to do? Throw me in the brig?” she snorted, but Terovin didn’t look convinced.

“We both know he’s not everything he appears to be,” he pointed out. “Our luck has held so far, but this is a really risky gambit.”

“No choice,” she shrugged in resignation. “Come on, you’re with me.”

 

Antares stood ready with his boarding party, his usual steely expression coloured only by the red visor obscuring his eyes. He had plenty of other things to do with his time, but the unmarked ship running stealth so close to an Empire freighter couldn’t be ignored.

“They’ve cut thrusters, Commodore,” Corvus reported, and Antares nodded.

“Good,” he said curtly. “Let’s deal with this quickly.”

There was a deep rumble as the breaching clamps locked in on the captive ship, then several sharp hisses as the airlock between was pressurised.

He led from the front, with battle-ready Empire soldiers at his back, and with all confidence he stepped across the threshold… to be greeted by two figures.

“Huh?” one soldier ejected, his voice slightly muffled by his helmet, but not his surprise.

“I hope you have a very good reason for this, Commodore,” Miho dropped, her tone dripping with barely restrained annoyance.

Though he couldn’t possibly have anticipated her appearance, Antares did not flinch, nor did his impassive expression falter.

“Highness,” he acknowledged, bowing with effortless grace, and his soldiers followed suit.

“Kindly unhand my ship,” she dropped, staring flatly through Antares’ visor with expectance.

Her posture was perfect, her attire clearly of Empire origin, and the crown nestled in the mahogany tumble of her hair clearly declared she outranked even the Commodore.

Not that you’d know if from his reaction.

“Please understand, Highness,” he began evenly, despite the intensity of Miho’s gaze, “the Empire has been on high alert after your kidnapping, yet here you are in command of your own ship?”

Visibly, Miho’s irritation increased, while Antares remained ice-cold.

“Obviously,” she dropped, lips pursed. “And I do not intend to address your bafflement.”

Her chin tipped upward a little in a haughty gesture, but still Antares seemed unmoved, even if his soldiers began to shift a little uncomfortably.

Two wills: they seemed somehow to glow through the pace between them, burn and crackle.

“Regardless, I am unable to release your ship until I am satisfied you’re in no danger,” Antares told her flatly. “If this is your ship and crew, tell them to stand down while my people conduct their sweep.”

Terovin was the first to react, lifting his blaster a little higher, but Miho’s face slowly lit up with a smile.

“So devoted,” she praised – a voice of smooth, natural honey. “Very well.”

She stepped forward, eyes still locked, and offered him her hand.

“You shall entertain me in the meantime,” she added, gaze narrowing slightly until he took her hand and bent over it, touching his lips ever so lightly to the back of it.

“You are welcome aboard my ship, Highness,” Antares said as he straightened, resuming eye contact immediately.

Again, Terovin’s feet shifted, and Miho turned to him.

“Co-operate with Commodore Fairchild’s soldiers,” she commanded, and though she could not see his expression through the visor of his helmet, she knew he was scowling. “I have nothing to fear in his company, rest assured.”

It was then Antares who held his hand out to Miho, who -with all the graciousness in the galaxy – accepted his offering… and refused to grimace when his fingers coiled around hers almost painfully.

Leaving Terovin and her crew on the Excellon, Miho was escorted onto Antares’ ship all the way to his private quarters.

 

When the door hissed closed behind them, Miho remained silent and waited for Antares to finish his scrutiny.

“The last time I saw you,” he said finally, “you were beaming proudly behind your father as he seized control of the Empire.”

“Oh? You were there?” Miho queried, but Antares knew she’d seen him. “I didn’t think respect was your forte.”

At this taunting he took at large step toward her, but Miho did not move.

“Do not forget who I am,” she warned him instead, continuing to stare at him from beneath her lashes. “I’m here as a courtesy, because dressing you down in front of your men…”

“You’re here because I captured your ship,” he interrupted. “And because the Emperor listed a bounty all over the universe demanding your kidnapper and you, be brought to him.”

“I wasn’t aware you were a bounty hunter,” Miho retorted coldly, “let alone someone eager to do the Emperor’s bidding.”

“What are you up to?” Antares pressed, leaning a little toward her face, and Miho’s upper lip curled a little.

“When your soldiers are finished searching my ship, I will return to my business unhampered,” she told him sternly, turning her shoulder and slipping around him until he took her arm firmly. “Do not forget who I am,” she repeated, her sneer now full of pointed threat.

“And what would that be, Miho?” he sniffed, so close to her face she could feel his breath of her lips. “Empire militant? Assassin? Political strategist? Dutiful Princess?

“And fast approaching royally pissed off,” she growled, glancing down at his offending hand then back up.

“If you will not tell me,” he began again, and this time Miho interjected.

“I will not tell you,” she smirked, lifting her free hand toward his cheek, touching it lightly. “But by all means, do whatever you like to try and get it out of me.”

As Antares’ fingers enclosed her wrist, there was a sudden burst of sound from the intercom.

“Commodore!” Corvus barked. “The Princess’ ship has broken from our docking clamps and blasted beyond the range of our tractor beam.”

Antares’ grip on Miho tightened, but her expression had slipped back into stoicism.

“Your people will be off-loaded in due course,” she explained, unconcerned as Antares backed her up against the wall. “Unharmed, if a little embarrassed.”

“They abandoned you,” he hissed, aside from his grip the first real sign of irritation. “Why?”

“They have their orders,” Miho replied, not flinching when Antares planted one leg between hers.

“To what end?” he persisted.

“Let me ask you a question, Commodore,” she countered, testing the strength of his hold on her arms ever so slightly. “Why did you decide not to tell the Emperor you screwed his precious, innocent daughter after plotting your revenge so long?”

“Innocent,” he exhaled, his lips brushing hers as he enunciated the word, “is something you are most certainly not.”

“You’d know,” she smirked, bumping forward just enough to bring their lips together more solidly.

“Commodore Fairchild?” Corvus’ voice came again, and Antares released Miho to slam one palm against the intercom on the wall beside Miho’s head.

“Let them go,” he ordered briskly, never allowing his narrowed eyes to stray from Miho’s. “The Princess is safe, and that is all that matters.”

“Oh the chivalry,” Miho taunted, rotating one of the buttons on Antares’ uniform. “Aren’t you just my hero?”

Snakes and Starships: II

“That would suggest I think you can be saved,” Antares countered, sliding his hand across the wall until his fingers curled lightly around one side of her throat.

“Luckily I have no need or want of that,” she whispered, purposefully rolling her hips forward against him. “Other things, however, for which I once developed a taste,” she added, licking her lips suggestively, “I don’t mind admitting a desire for.”

He did not move but for the slight twitch of his fingers as Miho kissed him again, a long, lingering kiss she drove into his mouth with increasing insistence until he pulled his face away.

“You assume much,” he growled, and though it sounded like a reprimand, a warning, his body had already betrayed him.

“I’ll even let you be in control,” Miho grinned, nipping at his lips. “Unless you’re feeling submissive.”

In response, Antares pressed his lips to her neck and began to burn a trail upward along the line of her jaw.

“Guess not,” Miho chuckled breathily, as Antares draped her captive arm around his neck.

While he made his way to her lips, claiming them with a possessive force, Miho dug her fingers into his glossy black hair and raked her nails across his scalp.

“I suppose your rank meant more to you than retribution,” she taunted, grunting as he seized her waist and hoisted her off her feet. “And I nearly told him myself, just to see the expression crack his face. Oh, the ruin he’d bring down on you.”

“You should concern yourself more with the ruin I am about to bring down on you,” he snarled, and wrapping her legs around his middle, Miho cackled.

“Do it,” she urged breathily. “I want you to.”

No more words were exchanged.

Whatever had transpired between them in the past, it seemed to fuel a dangerously potent passion that tangled them both in a smouldering, lustful haze. The soft clatter of their uniforms hitting the floor was muffled by the quickening ebb and flow of respiration, a song of increasing desperation.

Antares danced them around the room, shoving Miho against surfaces here and there, until the cold glass of his fish tank against her bare skin cause her to let out a particularly large gasp.

Satisfied by the sound, Antares grinned triumphantly into Miho’s face and dug his thumbs into her thighs. Steadying his stance, he teased against her slickness until she bit down hard on his shoulder. The enthusiasm of his penetration caused Miho to cling to his broad shoulders, ten sharp, blood-red knives clawing bright, erotic sigils into his skin.

Their union scorched against the cold expanse of space, a fiery maelstrom of energy consuming both until their bodies and wills could take no more.

When they both ached, Miho laid against Antares’ chest, idly flicking his nipple, while he lightly tugged against a strand of her hair.

“Next time, I’m on top,” Miho murmured languidly.

“Next time?” Antares repeated.

“Sex with you is, not entirely unpleasant,” she mused. “But,” she went on, twisting the large ring she was wearing until the massive garnet slid sideways, “all good things come to an end.”

“I’m delivering you to the Emperor,” Antares announced, completely deadpan, but Miho didn’t seem fazed.

“I know,” she sighed comfortably, smearing her thumb across the clear gloss the garnet had revealed, before smoothing a thin film across her lips. “For all your rebelliousness, you love your position and power too much to give it up for a sweet piece of ass.”

Still, despite this clear point of conflict, Miho smiled as she slowly stretched a leg over him and rolled on top, cheekily toying with his lower lip with her index finger before sucking on it hungrily.

“Unfortunately,” she murmured, pausing to smother him for a few more, enjoyable seconds, “I have other things to do, than bow to my father’s whims.”

With one last kiss, Miho rocked back, and though Antares’ hands had come up to rest on her hips, they fell away from her body heavily.

“What?” he hissed, brows twitching as that fuzzy, weighted sensation began to spread throughout his whole body.

“Sorry, Commodore,” Miho yawned, shifting off him and the bed and beginning to collect her clothing. “I hope Corvus didn’t inform the Emperor you’d recovered his daughter, because you’re going to have some serious explaining to do when you arrive empty handed.”

Outrage exploded from Antares’s eyes, but he found himself completely unable to move. He was powerless, able only to track her movements as she tidied her hair and reaffixed her crown before pulling the sheets up to Antares’ chin.

“Paralysis will wear off in a few hours,” she informed him glibly, lightly touching his chin before heading to the door. “That should give you plenty of time to come up with an entertaining excuse.”

Blowing him a kiss, she then left him to his no doubt infuriated rumination, while she slipped out into the corridor.

She hadn’t expected guards, after all, she wasn’t an enemy, and so for the most part Miho moved unhampered through the ship. Despite wearing a crown, she hadn’t always been a princess – her repertoire of skills was extensive from a life lived in the military thanks to her father.

He’d been good for something at least.

That Antares’ ship was Empire in origin made it easy for Miho to initialise the escape shuttle, and before Corvus could rush to find Antares and tell him about it, she was well and truly on her way to the nearest colony port.

 

“You sure leaving Jenna and Atlas alone together is a good idea, Jazz?” Jaxon queried, giving her a light nudge in the ribs as they navigated the streets of Cygnus II.

“Sure,” Jazz shrugged, scanning their path.

Expecting to get jumped was an occupational hazard.

“That’s it? Sure?” Jaxon poked, and though Orion sent him a warning glance, he continued. “She’s been acting all kinds of jealous since you and that grumpy bastard got close.”

“Quit creating drama where there isn’t any,” Jazz sniffed. “Besides, she’s about to have her hands full with her Union defector friend.”

“Remind me again why we’re helping the guy?” Jaxon snorted. “How many times did we have to rescue Jenna because of him?”

“Too many,” Orion responded curtly, “but the fact remains he’s had access to Union technology and other secrets. He could be useful.”

“You’re just jealous because he’s prettier than you,” Jazz snickered, delivered in casual hip-check.

“Of that guy?” Jaxon scoffed. “The legendary Jaxon Silva is jealous of no man, especially not one with a ponytail.”

Orion rolled his eyes, while Nova frowned slightly in consternation.

“I sense some masculine insecurity,” she announced, which caused Jazz to laugh, but the smile dropped at the sound of blaster fire. “That is Union weaponry,” she assessed, shifting her hold on her own massive cannon.

“I really want this to just be a coincidence,” Jazz muttered, taking out her own pistol.

“Doesn’t matter what it is, it’s coming from the direction we’re headed in,” Orion pointed out. “Nova take the rear.”

Jaxon might have made a lewd comment, but he too was readying himself for combat.

 

When Miho had landed the escape pod at the space port, she’d wasted no time leaving it there. She knew the moment he was able, Antares would track it to her location. Terovin and the Excellon crew would come and retrieve her eventually, but for the time being she needed to blend in – not something she could do in full Empire regalia.

Sticking to the shadows as much as she could, she skirted back alleys until she could ‘borrow’ some clothing from a washing line: a ridiculously mismatched ensemble, but far less ostentatious than her uniform.

“Life would be so much easier if…” she muttered to herself, but stopped mid-sentence and mid-step when she recognised a dreadfully familiar flash of white. “…if that guy died in a hole,” she finished in a rasping growl, glancing upward to a nearby balcony before hauling herself up. “What the fuck are you doing here, Sol?”

Like a cat she crept along rooftops, tailing the Union Admiral and his entourage silently, unable to keep from satisfying her curiosity. He was the kind of man who hated doing things for himself, so whatever had brought him to the streets of Cygnus II, it had to be important – just the kind of thing Miho loved to spoil.

What she discovered at the end of their journey, was another Union soldier, one garbed in an exo-suit she had become painfully familiar with. But there was no camaraderie, and the solidly built soldier took a defensive stance the moment he caught sight of the Admiral.

“Your futile attempt at freedom is over, Aquila,” Evander Sol smirked, as the Union soldiers spread out to block all routes of escape. “I will ensure you pay for your disloyalty with your life.”

As usual, Sol spouted self-righteous Union rhetoric clichés as easily as he inhaled, and Miho had to stop herself from looking for something to throw. Instead, she took stock of the surrounding area, did another headcount, plotted several courses of action.

She may have been there to re-join her crew, but there was nothing she liked more than spoiling the Union’s day.

Evander Sol was completely irresistible to her – a pompous do-right hypocrite of the highest order: a manipulative monster wearing a fractured mask of virtue.

“Mirra couldn’t clean up her own mess?” the beleaguered soldier snapped, his tense gaze also analysing the situation carefully.

“Admiral Mirra’s folly is her arrogance,” Sol declared, the words rolling off the tongue without even a hint of the irony.

It was all Miho could do not to give herself away by cackling incredulously.

“Her failure will be my success,” Sol continued smugly, “and I intend to be the one to flip the switch on your life myself.”

Of course, Miho didn’t know the backstory here, but the opportunity to mess with both Sol and Mirra was just too great a temptation. Above them all at their backs, Miho rose slowly from her concealed crouch, and she knew the exact moment the trapped soldier saw her.

Beaming, she inclined her head to him before looking down, poised on the roof’s edge like a diver – her intention clear.

“Are you in on it too, Sergeant?” the soldier asked, a good deal of accusation in his tone, and their attention remained on him. “Do you sacrifice your faithful? Your loyal? Do you tell them they’re serving a greater good while being the rot at the core of the Union?”

Not long ago he wouldn’t have dreamed of saying such things, but his eyes had been opened. He still believed in freedom, in fairness, in the things the Union said it stood for, but now he knew it was all smoke and mirrors serving the interests of a powerful, corrupt few.

“I will not allow your lies to pervert the sanctity of the Union,” Sol announced pretentiously, his victorious smirk far too much for Miho to tolerate.

As if she could fly, she launched herself from the roof. Her fall was a gracefully choreographed arch away from the building with Sol and his soldiers her intended landing zone.

 

By the time blaster fire flashed into view, alarmed shouts were audible, but the crew of the Promise only skidded to a halt when Tyrian appeared with a body cradled against him with one arm, shooting behind him with the other.

“Back to the Promise,” Orion barked, before reporting back to Atlas. “We’re coming in hot, Atlas.”

“So what else is new?” Atlas’ voice grumbled over comms. “Who’d we piss off this time?”

“Union,” Orion answered, laying down some covered fire so Tyrian could catch up.

“To be fair it’s Tyrian’s fault,” Jaxon clarified. “And he’s bringing a friend.”

“More strays?” Atlas grumped. “We ain’t got room for any more strays.”

“No time for a discussion,” Orion barked, little plumes of smoke erupting around he and the others as they fled.

Snakes and Starships: III

Evander Sol’s ship dogged the Promise as it tried to leave Cygnus II, but Atlas was able to fly the Union pilot – not that you’d know it given Atlas’ bitching.

When they’d boarded, Jazz took charge of the unconscious woman Tyrian had been carrying, and Orion ordered Jaxon to keep an eye on their unknown in the infirmary.

“What the hell was that?” Atlas snarled, glaring at Tyrian from his seat.

“Evander Sol,” Tyrian answered, looking equally as displeased. “I don’t know how he found me.”

“That fancy suit would be my guess,” Atlas grated. “Bringing that asshole into things.”

“It’s clean,” Tyrian retorted, bristling and balling his fists.

It was then he realised there was blood on his hands, and this seemed to take the heat out of his irritation.

“Who’s the woman?” Orion questioned.

“No fan of Sergeant Sol, that’s for certain,” Tyrian replied. “She came out of nowhere and just pounced. Disarmed half of Sol’s soldiers without a weapon, took one then started firing.”

“Brave,” Nova appraised, but Atlas disagreed.

“Stupid.”

“Out-numbered and out-gunned, Sergeant Sol had me pinned,” Tyrian frowned, glancing toward the corridor leading away from the bridge. “He’d have captured me before you could arrive if not for her.”

“So you thought you’d bring her onto my ship?” Atlas glowered. “Having you here is bad enough.”

“She may just have saved my life,” Tyrian argued, firing up again. “I wasn’t going to leave her there for the Union to… butcher.”

“All right, that’s enough,” Orion broke in, placing himself between the two men before things could get really out of hand. “We’ll have Jenna take another look at the suit to make sure it’s not hiding anything the Union can track, and when the woman wakes up we can find out who she is and where we can leave her.”

“Sol is like a dog with a bone,” Tyrian scowled. “If he finds out who she is, he’ll hunt her down too. Because of me.”

“That’s your problem, Buddy,” Atlas sniffed, turning himself back to the controls.

“I’ll take responsibility,” Tyrian nodded staunchly, then stalked from the bridge, Nova following him when Orion tipped his chin.

In the infirmary, Jazz had had to pretty much kick Jaxon out the door so she could treat the anonymous woman’s wound without her clothing in the way. The blaster wound in her shoulder was clean, but it was the bloody laceration on the back of her head that concerned Jazz most. At least the bleeding had stopped.

“You sure picked an interesting group to fall in with,” she said quietly, dragging a portable scanner over and taking images of the woman’s skull. “Hmm, well you’re at least lucky there are no fractures.”

After checking for brain swelling, Jazz covered the unnamed woman with a blanket and unlocked the infirmary door. Not a second later, Tyrian entered with Jaxon at his heels.

“How is she?” Tyrian queried, a deep furrow between his brows.

“She took a nasty blow to the head,” Jazz reported, “but the wound isn’t as bad as it looks, and I’d be really surprised if she didn’t wake soon. Scalps always bleed a lot. The blaster wound is going to bother her for a while, but it’s not life threatening.”

“Any clues to who she is?” Jaxon asked, drawing a little closer to get a better look at the woman’s face.

“Nope,” Jazz admitted. “The only thing of any interest she had in her possession was this ring.”

She had removed the large gemstone ring from her patient’s hand and placed it on a tray nearby; its size and sparkle immediately engaged Jaxon’s interest.

“That thing has got to be worth…” he began, but Tyrian cut him off with his thoughts vocalised.

“Incongruous with her attire,” he noted, and Jazz nodded.

“Agreed. The clothing is several sizes too big,” Jazz said. “Not what I’d expect from someone who leaps from rooftops and attacks heavily armed Union soldiers.”

“There wasn’t much time to consider the reasoning, but I’m sure Sergeant Sol recognised her,” Tyrian mused darkly. “He seemed particularly surprised.”

“Then she could be Union?” Jaxon offered, then frowned.

“Possible,” Tyrian supposed, but he didn’t sound convinced. “But if she is, she isn’t afraid to make – or be – an enemy of one of the most ruthless men among their ranks. And for what? To save a stranger?”

“Sure you don’t know her?” Jazz poked.

“I’d like to get to know her,” Jaxon smirked, his eyes wandering over the sleeping woman’s body.

“Cut that out,” Jazz scowled grabbing Jaxon by the arm and propelling him toward the door. “Lay a hand on my patient and my next procedure will be a double orchidectomy.”

“Orchi-huh?” he blinked.

“She’ll remove your testicles,” Tyrian explained.

At this, Jaxon took a big step away from both the bed and Jazz.

“Tyrian, you made it!” Jenna exclaimed, nearly falling over herself as she burst into the infirmary and unashamedly threw herself at him.

“Hi there, Firebug,” Tyrian smiled, giving her a light hug. “Yeah I made it, though not without incident.”

 

Atlas continued to share his sentiments about their unexpected guest, but his voice had dropped to a disgruntled mumble.

“Just get us far away from Cygnus II and Evander Sol,” Orion instructed curtly.

“The hell does it look like I’m doing?” Atlas grunted.

“Ideas, Captain?” Nova prompted, seeing Orion deep in thought.

“It seems unlikely Mirra would tell another admiral about her failure,” Orion reasoned, frowning.

“But a death-row prisoner’s escape, especially someone with Lieutenant Aquila’s record, would be difficult to keep quiet,” Nova pointed out, and Orion nodded in agreement.

“God damnit,” Atlas cursed, and Nova and Orion looked to him. “We’re being hailed by your asshat brother.”

“On screen,” Orion sighed, rubbing the back of his neck and looking up to where Antares’ face soon appeared. “Antares,” he greeted as coolly as he could. “To what do we owe the pleasure?”

“You just blasted off Cygnus II past a Union warship,” Antares began, without any pause or pleasantries, “with something that belongs to me.”

Genuine surprise patterned Orion’s face.

“You picking fights with Sol on purpose now?” Orion queried, shrugging his shoulders a little. “Not that he’s much of a challenge these days.”

“Very soon, the Union is going to be the least of your worries,” he declared, his tone cold, expression serious – not that he was often anything other than those two things. “Give me the princess,” he went on sternly. “This is one bounty too hot even for your band of misfits to handle.”

“I know he’s got a pretty, purple, ponytail, but calling the guy a princess?” Orion smirked, but his mind was turning over.

Atlas, meanwhile, looked to the door leading off the bridge, the knowledge of what was in the infirmary with Jazz making his hackles rise.

Unimpressed, Antares glowered at his brother.

“I’m not interested in the Union traitor,” he dropped. “But unless you want the entirety of the Empire’s fleet breathing down your neck, you’d best hand the woman over and leave this sector post haste.”

The idea of being the Empire’s enemy number one didn’t thrill Orion much; skirmishes were one thing, poking his nose in their business, sure, but in the belly of the Promise laid the injured daughter of the Empire’s greatest tyrant. That was more than a target on their backs if word got out.

“You said bounty,” Orion pointed out, focusing back in, and Antares’ lips twitched in displeasure.

“Believe me, she’s not worth any amount of money,” he asserted.

“You’re right, we wouldn’t take payment from a genocidal maniac like Rastaban Saiph,” Orion snorted, “but I know you’re not just toeing the Empire line, Antares, so what do you actually want with his daughter?”

A short silence that followed, which Orion eventually broke with a chuckle.

“It can’t be,” he laughed, folding one hand over his stomach.

Antares looked even less amused.

“No,” he responded flatly. “All you need to worry about is the pain the Empire will bring if she is caught on your ship.”

“We might not do deals with filth like Saiph,” Atlas put in, still in his chair with a bottle of whiskey in one hand, “but what’s your girlfriend worth to you?”

At this point, Antares inhaled a slow breath, attempting to hold his temper, while Orion continued to stare expectantly.

“I am trying to help you,” he said, very nearly through his teeth, and Atlas hissed out an incredulous splutter, followed by a loud laugh.

“And I’m the centre of the fuckin’ universe,” he announced.

“Atlas has a point,” Orion noted, now crossing his arms over his chest. “You get to claim the bounty, and we get nothing, which doesn’t sound like much of a deal.”

Again there was a pause, Antares’ eyes darkening with each second that passed.

“Fine,” he said eventually. “Name your price.”

 

Jazz finally kicked Jaxon and Jenna out of the infirmary but allowed Tyrian to remain. He sat at the woman’s side with a scowl crumpling his forehead, glaring at her face like it could tell him who she was and why she had intervened.

When the door opened and Orion stepped in, Tyrian raised his head and examined the man’s expression; he didn’t like what he saw.

“What’s going on?” Jazz asked as Tyrian got to his feet.

“That,” Orion began, pointing at the unconscious woman, “is Miho Saiph, daughter of maybe the biggest tyrant in the history of all species in the known universe.”

“Saiph?” Tyrian blinked with no small measure of horror, looking between Orion and Miho.

The Emperor Saiph?” Jazz added slowly, her eyes bugging.

“That might explain her zeal in attacking Sol,” Tyrian mused darkly.

“The last guy was bad enough,” Jazz exhaled, hand moving to cover her mouth. “But Saiph is…”

“A true monster,” Tyrian finished for her.

“Antares is going to take her off our hands,” Orion told them. “He’ll give us the bounty the Emperor is offering for her safe return, and we don’t have to have anything else to do with her or her father.”

“Wait,” Tyrian frowned uncomfortably. “What was she doing on Cygnus II dressed like that?”

“Who cares?” Atlas huffed, appearing at Orion’s shoulder a moment before he all but stomped over to Jazz. “I want her off my ship.”

“Uhmm,” Jazz murmured, pinching her lower lip between her teeth for a second before finishing her thought. “No.”

All three men blinked at her.

“What do you mean, no?” Atlas responded gruffly.

“She is my patient, in my infirmary,” she declared staunchly, “so I get to say when she’s well enough to travel.”

“Come on, Jazz,” Atlas scowled. “This ain’t anybody, this is…”

“I heard who she is,” Jazz broke in, setting her jaw stubbornly.

“And I’m not comfortable with treating an unconscious injured woman like a payday,” Tyrian added, much to Atlas’ irritation.

“The day you get an opinion on my ship is the day I give up drinking,” he growled.

“That wouldn’t be so bad,” Jazz muttered, but the foul look Atlas sent her warned her not to say anything more.

“She wasn’t marching through the city, flanked by battalions and armed to the teeth,” Tyrian pressed. “She was skirting rooftops in clothing obviously not hers, and she saved my life for whatever reason. The very least she’s owed is the chance to give a little context before she’s bundled up and carted away like cargo.”

Orion seemed to be considering Tyrian’s plea, much to Atlas’ disdain.

“At the very least it’s worth finding out what she was up to,” Tyrian added, and Orion seemed to be swayed.

“You’ve gotta be kidding me!” Atlas exclaimed.

“I want her in hard-light cuffs before she wakes,” Orion said finally. “Atlas, we need somewhere to lie low for the time being.”

“This is bullshit,” Atlas snarled, stomping out of the infirmary in a volatile humour.

“Secure her,” Orion commanded, his lips a thin, sour line. “And if she makes one false move, Jazz, sedate her. Nova will stand guard.”

 

“No way,” Jaxon dropped, his eyes wide. “What am I, an emperor’s daughter magnet?”

“She didn’t come looking for you,” Tyrian pointed out flatly.

“Hey, she could have heard I was going to rescue you on Cygnus II,” Jaxon postulated. “And just happened to run into you getting cornered by Sol.”

“Unlikely,” Tyrian responded coldly.

“Quit the bickering, you’re giving me a headache,” Atlas complained, filling his tumbler with whiskey. “What’re you going to do about your brother?”

Orion scratched at the back of his neck.

“I doubt very much he’s interested in the bounty being offered by the Emperor,” he mused. “But I don’t know what his real motivation is. Whatever it is, he’s not going to be pleased we’re not following his orders.”

“I’m all kinds of cut up about that,” Atlas snorted, before taking another swig,

“What about Sergeant Sol?” Jenna piped up, looking a little worried. “I mean, we’re not his favourite people already, and, then we go and, well she went and beat up his people and we rescued her so…”

“For the record, I was against that,” Atlas grumped, and Jenna took the opportunity to move a little closer to him. “And the fact Sol’s involved?”

Atlas looked like he wanted to spit.

“It wouldn’t hurt to get a little information on what the Empire is up to,” Orion reasoned thoughtfully. “If the princess isn’t cooperative, we lose nothing offloading her to Antares.”

“Be the only good to come of that guy,” Atlas added.

“He is a bit scary,” Jenna admitted.

“Wouldn’t act so tough without all that Empire tech behind him,” Atlas snorted.

“We could just tell Sol, Fairchild has the princess,” Jaxon pointed out, and everyone looked at him.

“A surprisingly good idea,” Orion acknowledged, and Jaxon looked offended.

“Surprisingly?” Jaxon balked in exaggerated offence.

“Jenna, can you subtly bring this information to the Union’s attention?”

“Uhm, sure,” she nodded, pulling her tablet up from where it hung at her side. “Easy-peasy.”

“We’ll lay low on Pragmicet, on the outskirts of Los Urlio,” Orion informed then, shifting his eyes to Tyrian. “Once we figure out what’s going on, we’ll decide what further action to take.”

 

It was with a near blinding headache that Miho awoke. She was hesitant to open her eyes, but as memories returned to her, she became increasingly aware she had no idea where she was.

Sol’s outraged face was the last thing she remembered, but the smile tugging at her lips caused her skull to throb with greater ferocity.

It was her muttering that drew Jazz’s attention, and before Miho was properly awake, Orion and Tyrian entered the infirmary, leaving Nova outside just a shout away if need be.

When she did peel her eyelids back, it was Orion’s face that first came into focus, and though his hair was short, there was an odd familiarity about him. Her wonder, however, lasted only as long as it took for her to realise she was in cuffs.

“Did I somehow get invited to a weird foursome?” she murmured, her gaze wandering to the other two people in the room. “Again?”

Then Jaxon entered.

“Fivesome?” Miho grumbled, eyes finally fixing on Tyrian. “Huh, well if it isn’t Evander Sol’s best friend.”

“Hardly,” Tyrian responded, but it was Orion who continued.

“We know who you are, Highness,” he declared seriously. “What we don’t know if what you were doing on Cygnus II, and why you attacked Sol.”

“Unarmed,” Tyrian added.

If being questioned straight off the bat was supposed to faze her, Miho showed no signs.

“I don’t need a reason,” she snorted. “The guy is a grade-A asshole. I should think, however, given my insatiable need to ruin Sol’s day allowed muscles here to avoid capture – and it’s clear that is what was about to happen – I’d get a little more thanks than hardlight cuffs.”

“That doesn’t explain why you were on Cygnus II in the first place,” Orion pointed out.

“Very observant,” she smiled, exhaling slowly and gently stretching her muscles.

“Just take it easy,” Jazz told her, moving a little closer though Orion stopped her. “You were injured covering Tyrian’s escape.”

“Tyrian, is it?” Miho mused, giving him a look up and down. “So what was it you did to piss Sol off? Everything about you screams Union, so, what was it? Too slow following blind orders?”

Had he not now become accustomed to being a ‘traitor’, Tyrian might have winced at that comment, but as it was, his expression remained neutral.

“Cygnus II is in Union space,” he said. “What business could the daughter of Rastaban Saiph have on a Union colony?”

“Must I be the daughter of Rastaban Saiph?” Miho counter-questioned, her eyes roaming again until she spied her ring across the room. “Are you all the sum of your parents? Hmph.”

She’d have crossed her arms if she was able.

Orion drew himself up a little taller.

“Well, if all you’re going to do is make attempts at misdirection, then you’re worth no more than the bounty Commodore Fairchild has offered for your return.”

His eyes narrowed, and hers hardened – he’d definitely touched a nerve.

“Why would he be so insistent?” Orion added, his tone as infuriatingly off-hand as he could make it.

“I honestly don’t think he’d want me to tell you,” she smirked, a knowing and arrogant smirk that actually reminded Orion of his brother.

“Is that your final answer?” Orion prompted.

“You cheated on him, didn’t you?” Jaxon piped up for the first time.

Despite some discomfort, Miho lifted herself up a little to peer at Jaxon more closely.

“Are you offering?” she asked, and beneath the weight of her scrutiny Jaxon looked surprisingly caught off guard.

“Uhmm,” he murmured noncommittally.

Her gaze shifted to his metal arm.

“You could at least give a girl a hand,” she added bitingly.

“Come on,” Jazz implored, though she looked a little annoyed. “We could have just handed you over to Commodore Fairchild already, but we wanted to hear your side of the story.”

“You’re all awfully Commodore this and Commodore that,” Miho noted, looking over Jazz from toe to top with far more appreciation than she’d given Jaxon. “Anyone would think this…”

She paused to take them all in as she decided what to call them.

“… group, was pro-Empire, though that doesn’t account for him,” she reasoned, focused turned back to Tyrian. “Unless you’re a traitor – that would explain why Sol descended from on high to deal with you personally.”

“I am not a traitor,” Tyrian scowled, taking a step closer to where Miho was lying, much to her enjoyment.

“Enough,” Orion huffed. “We’ve no time for games, so if you’re not interested in telling us what you’re up to, you can discuss it with the Commodore on his ship.”

“You think he’ll pay you and then just leave you go on your merry way?” Miho scowled, as Orion lifted his command tablet.

“We have an understanding,” Orion smiled thinly, tapping against the screen until Corvus’ face appeared. “Tell Commodore Fairchild we have what he wants.”

“Waaaaait,” Miho grated out slowly, the sound of loathing.

“You’ve got some nerve, Orion,” Antares growled from the tablet’s surface, but Orion hit the mute button. “I’m listening.”

Everyone was listening, and Miho did not look the slightest bit pleased.

“Commodore Fairchild interfered with my covert mission, removing me from my ship,” she explained. “Since I have more important things to do than him,” she continued, not losing momentum despite the innuendo, “I was forced to extricate myself, and landed on Cygnus II to rendezvous with my crew.”

“What covert mission?” Orion pressed.

“Sure,” Miho scoffed, “allow me to waive all subterfuge and spill the inner workings of my covert mission.”

“It couldn’t have been too important if you were willing to risk getting caught by Sol, or worse,” Tyrian noted, and Miho sneered.

“I think you underestimate my dislike for the man,” she snapped, rolling her eyes.

“If you’re on a mission, what’s with the bounty your old man posted?” Jaxon queried.

“The bounty is my cover, obviously,” she sniffed. “There was no kidnapping, there is no kidnapper.”

“Cover for what?” Orion insisted, but Miho ignored his question.

“Which is why, Orion, giving me to Fairchild is as good as handing him to the Emperor for execution – getting in the way of my plans? He’ll pay with more than his rank for that, and where would that leave you and your understanding?”

Orion couldn’t help but look down at his tablet’s screen, where Antares was glowering up at him.

Then he ended the call.

“Smart,” Miho nodded smugly, then held up her bound wrists, but the shake of Orion’s head said it was over.

“Your story doesn’t add up,” Orion declared, and Tyrian added his thoughts.

“A cover that would have every power-hungry Empire thug looking to gain the Emperor’s favour hunting for you? Sounds counter-productive to me.”

“You’re making assumptions,” she snorted.

“Counter-productive unless you want every power-hungry Empire thug hunting you,” Orion concluded, and Miho rest her head back and let out a long, slow breath.

“All you small-fry need to know, is that the universe will be a much better place if you let me get on with my work,” she huffed.

“You still want to let her go?” Orion asked Tyrian, who rolled his shoulders but did not allow his attention to wander from the bound princess.

“Give us a reason to let you go,” Tyrian said – not imploring, but Miho could see he really didn’t want to turn her over to the Empire.

“You dislike the Empire that much?” she questioned, laboriously pulling herself up into a sitting position.

“I dislike anyone who harms others for their own benefit,” Tyrian responded earnestly, which caused Miho to chuckle.

“You want to know what I’m up to?” she posed, and everyone in the infirmary nodded. “I’ve been going on a killing spree.”