Page 38

Author: Rachel Bach

I moaned at the touch, and his breathing hitched as his fingers dug into me. Before I could adjust, he flipped our positions, lifting me up and turning so that I was now the one pinned against the ship with Rupert all around me. He kissed me hard, his grip so tight it was almost painful, and then he pulled away so fast I nearly fell.

I stumbled, grabbing the planet jumper’s hull for balance as I tried to figure out what the hell had just happened. Rupert was now standing at the other end of the rain shadow, as far from me as possible. His back was turned, so I couldn’t see his face, but I could see his muscles clenching under the clinging fabric of his wet shirt, his shoulders pulled up tight as a fighter’s just before he delivers a deathblow.

“I’m sorry.”

His voice was so resolute I wanted to cry. But I didn’t cry. I got mad.

“Why are you always apologizing?” I yelled. “Caldswell may own us when we’re on his ship, but we’re not on his ship now. I wanted that just as much as you did, so don’t you dare apologize to me!”

Rupert dragged his hands through his dripping hair. “I shouldn’t have allowed this to happen,” he said. “Any of it. It’s my fault.”

He turned then, and his face was the cold mask I’d seen on the bridge when he’d held a gun to Caldswell’s throat. “This can’t go on, Devi. It ends now.”

“Why?” I shouted. “Because of Caldswell? Because you’re all part of some huge secret and can’t get Devi involved? Bullshit, Rupert!”

I was saying too much, but I didn’t care. I was so sick of lies, mine and his. So sick of secrets. I’d told him before that I wanted him more than I wanted the truth, and I’d meant it, but this was different. If he was going to deny something we both clearly desired so badly, then by the king I was going to know why.

I lunged forward, slamming my fists against his chest as hard as I could. I’ve knocked over bigger men with that move, but, as always, Rupert didn’t even wobble.

“Tell me,” I said, staring up at him. “If something’s wrong, tell me. If it’s dangerous for us to be together, then tell me why. If it’s because being with me will wreck your career with whatever Caldswell’s into, then tell me that. Just tell me why you’re pushing me away. Whatever it is, I can take it. I’m the merc, remember? There’s nothing I can’t handle. But don’t you dare act like you were the only one who made these decisions. The idea that you ‘allowed this to happen’ is crap and you know it. Everything between us was a two-person gig, and I won’t let you take it all on your shoulders. But don’t you think for a damn second you can just push me away and not tell me why like I’m some weak little girl who can’t take the truth.”

“I don’t think you’re weak, Devi,” Rupert said. He wasn’t shouting. I’d never heard him raise his voice, actually, but there was an edge to his tone that made me cringe. “But it changes nothing. What happened between us was a mistake.”

“It was not a mistake,” I hissed.

“It was,” he said. “My mistake. I was wrong, I put you in danger, but now I mean to make it right.”

“There’s nothing to make right!” I cried. “What danger am I in from you?”

Rupert looked away, and I felt his chest rise under my fists as he took a deep breath. Even with his head turned, I could see him icing over, shutting me out. Panic gripped me, and I leaned closer like I could somehow pull him back.

“There’s nothing more to discuss,” he said with cold finality, hands coming up to push my fists away. “This is ov—”

“I know what you are!”

Like a switch cutting off, Rupert’s body went still, but I refused to be distracted. I’d just played my final card. It was now or never.

“I lied about what I remembered from the tribe ship,” I said, staring up at the profile of his closed-off face. “I remember everything. I saw you there. I heard your voice, that’s how I know you saved m—”

Rupert moved so fast I didn’t even see it. One moment he was turned away, the next he was facing me with one hand gripping the back of my skull and the other over my mouth, cutting off my voice. His grip was painful, his hand burning hot against my lips, but it was the look in his blue eyes that got me most. They were wilder than I’d ever seen them, and I realized with a cold clench that Rupert was terrified.

“Not another word,” he whispered, his fingers shaking. “Don’t say another word. Whatever you think you remember, whatever you think you saw, it was nothing.”

I made an angry sound of protest against his palm, and Rupert’s fingers tightened until my jaw ached. “Nothing,” he hissed. “You will never speak of this again. Not to me, not to the captain, not to anyone. Do you understand?”

“No!” I shouted, finally getting my hands up to rip his away. “You think I can’t see what you’re doing? You’re trying to save me again, but I don’t need saving.” I clutched his hand in mine. “You don’t have to lie or hide from me. Please.” I could hear the desperation in my voice, and it’s a testament to how afraid I was of losing him that I didn’t even care. “Please, Rupert, tell me what’s going on.”

Rupert stared at me for a second, and then, like a falling tower, he slumped forward. His hands slid down to encircle my waist, and he pulled me close, his face landing in the spill of my wet hair where my neck met my shoulder. “I want to,” he whispered against my hair. “I want to talk to you, Devi. So, so badly. But I can’t. Once you know, there’s no going back. It’s no world for you.”

“Shouldn’t I be the one to decide that?” I said. My voice was low and angry, but I couldn’t help leaning my forehead into the warm comfort of his shoulder.

Rupert raised his head with a jerk, and for the first time since the night we’d slept together, his calm mask vanished completely. “Why is everything a fight with you?” he said, eyes flashing as he grabbed my arms. “This isn’t a contest, Devi. You can’t just throw yourself at it until you win. I’m not keeping things from you because I enjoy it. It’s dangerous. I’m dangerous!”

“So what?” I shouted. “My whole life is dangerous!”

“Not like this!” Rupert shouted back.

We stared at each other for a moment, our bodies tense like we were about to start fighting for real. But then Rupert closed his eyes. Feature by feature, his face relaxed, the cold calm falling back over him like a winter fog.

“This is over,” he said softly, dropping his hands and stepping back so that we were no longer touching. “All of it. You will never speak of what you saw again, and in return, I won’t tell the captain you kissed me.”

My mouth fell open. “Are you threatening me?”

“Yes,” Rupert said, looking at me through narrowed eyes. “Because you won’t listen to anything else. In any case, this is never happening again. Everything between us is finished.”

“The hell it is!” I shouted, lunging forward to grab him. But as my hands shot out, Rupert vanished into the rain like a ghost.

I stumbled as my fingers caught nothing, blinking at the blank wall of water where Rupert had been a second before, and then I turned and slammed my fists into the planet jumper’s hull with a furious scream. The old ship rang under the blow like a gong. I hit it again for good measure before sinking to the ground and wrapping my aching hands around my knees.

I don’t know how long I stayed like that, sitting on the dirty cement with the rain all around me, but by the time I stood up, the downpour had slowed to a drizzle. I brushed the grit from the pavement off my ruined skirt as best I could, and then I grabbed all the bags, the ones I’d been carrying as well as the ones Rupert had left, and carried them to the ship.

Mabel must have been busy while I was gone, because the cargo bay was nearly full. Caldswell and Basil were sitting in front of the piled boxes on a pair of battered folding chairs, watching the last of the rain.

“What happened to you?” Caldswell said, eying my wet clothes as I climbed the ramp. “I thought you were getting your suit repaired.”

In an incredibly unprofessional move, I threw the shopping bags straight at his chest. To my disappointment, his chair didn’t even tip as he caught them. “Is there something you’d like to discuss, Morris?”

“No sir,” I said. “Just returning your property, sir.”

He frowned, but I didn’t wait around to answer more questions. I stomped up the stairs, through the mercifully empty lounge, and into my room. Nova was sitting on her bunk, but before she could ask what was wrong, I grabbed my towel and headed for the showers. I didn’t even bother to strip out of my wet clothes, just shut the door and turned the water on hot as it would go. As the scalding stream rolled over me, I peeled off my wet dress, balled it in my fists, put it to my mouth, and screamed into it until I was reasonably sure I wouldn’t shoot something.

Needless to say, I screamed for a long time.


When I finally dragged myself out of the shower, the first thing I did was grab my handset and send a message to Anthony.

Considering how we’d parted when I’d left Paradox, running to Anthony now was pretty low, but he was the only person I knew who was high ranking enough to get me the information I needed. Rupert could threaten me all damn day, but if he thought I was going to bow my head meekly and slink off, he had another thing coming. If he wouldn’t tell me what was going on, I would find the truth myself.

Righteous anger sent my fingers flying over the projected keyboard as I typed a long, detailed letter describing everything I remembered about Rupert’s other form. I stuck to the basics, describing the black scales, incredible strength, and impossible speed but leaving out all the damning details like where I’d seen him and why I wanted to know. I also left out Caldswell and his Warrant. Even in my rage, that was a hornet’s nest I did not want to kick, especially not with Anthony involved. But I was going to find out what Rupert was if it killed me. I was done being coddled, done being patronized. Rupert was wrong, this was a fight, me versus him, and from here on out, I was going on the attack.

I sent the message using the planet’s network rather than the ship’s. Seni Major sent communication drones into hyperspace every five minutes, so it would get there faster, and there was no chance of Basil seeing the letter and busting me. As an extra precaution, I used my old address from the Blackbirds. Not only would this make sure Anthony knew the message was really from me, it would keep Caldswell out unless he was ready to hack the Blackbirds’ private mail.

Message sent, I closed my handset with a triumphant click and threw myself back on my bunk. But the satisfaction of sticking it to Rupert was short-lived. Bit by bit, my righteous fury was dying down, and as it went, the enormous wave of misery it had been holding back started to break through.

As much as I tried not to think about it, my brain kept flashing back to Rupert burying his face in my hair. Rupert kissing me. Rupert, vanishing into the rain.

Wetness began to pool behind my eyelids, and I put my pillow over my head, shutting out the world as shame overtook me. I was not crying. I hadn’t cried since I was fifteen. I didn’t cry … and yet all I wanted to do was break down sobbing.

I tried in vain to summon up my old standbys. Couldn’t cry now, had to focus on my job. After Rupert’s threat, I was pretty sure he wouldn’t tell the captain about our conversation, but I was beginning to regret sending that message to Anthony. The size of the risk I’d just taken was only now starting to hit, and I suddenly realized that I might have just blown the career I’d worked my entire life for out of anger over a man.