“We’re lost,” Marz said.
“Not at all,” Beau said confidently. “I know exactly where we are.”
“Oh yeah? Where are we?”
“And what time is it?” she asked, the follow-up question Beau expected when he did the “here” gag.
“Now,” he answered.
“The opposite of helpful.” She stumbled, and Beau slipped his arm through hers. But he needed her support too. They carried on, holding each other up.
“I feel so drunk,” he said. “I think the recycled air makes you feel drunker. You ever notice that?”
“Bozo, you drank enough tequila to float a sixff…” She stopped. “Sits… Sic…”
“One of those things, yeah. Enough tequila to float a sixff-regime mega barge.”
“That’s one big boat.”
“We are lost, though.”
“Lost as fuck,” he agreed.
They’d been shambling along together since they’d left the bar forty minutes ago and had definitely taken a wrong turn, away from the business-class accommodation area.
“We’re definitely in economy here,” Beau said. There were no carpets on the deck plating. The walls and bulkheads were unpainted metal. There was one ray of hope, though. He saw it up ahead of them. A shop front with a friendly sign in the shape of a coffee cup.
“Let’s grab a brew and maybe hire a native guide to lead us back to civilization,” Beau suggested.
“S’six fifteen,” Marz pointed out. “Bet they’re closed.”
But no, the little coffee shop was open for business, with the delicious aroma of the dark nectar wafting from its door. Beau and Marz strolled in, their swaggers a bit unsteadier than usual.
“What’s your pleasure?” Beau asked Marz as they approached the counter.
“I can’t tell you that in public.”
“No, you crazy purple thing; coffee, what kind of coffee?”
“Quadruple-shot red-eye,” she said. “With cream. And an extra shot.”
“Are you sure? Last time you had that you didn’t sleep for three days and threw up so much, I thought you were pregnant.”
“The cream was off.”
Beau snorted and turned to the counter. He’d just ordered the coffees when he gasped. There was an etched mirror behind the counter, and in it he saw a face he knew. He spun around. Park Ki-tae was sitting at a table with an empty plate and a teapot and cup in front of him.
“Well, grill my balls and serve them on toast, look who it is.”
Ki-tae was staring at him with a look of dismay and trying to hastily gather up a gym bag and his staff. He wore civvies—black pants and a dark-gray long-sleeved shirt, but Beau doubted that meant he was on vacation. The man was on duty. He was always on duty. Except for that night at the conference…
“Park?” Marz said. “Isn’t it a small fucking galaxy?”
“No, it’s a huge fucking galaxy, and yet here we all are.” Beau hid his worry that Ki-tae knew about King’s commission, and instead plastered on a smirk. Show no fear.
“So we just have
to say hello.”
Ki-tae almost got away before they strutted over, grinning at him. He half rose, then sank down again, as if accepting the inevitable. He poured from his teapot.
“Ms. Jankowski, Mr. Johnson,” he said stiffly. Mister, huh? So that’s how he wants to play it?
“Agent Park,” Beau said. “Imagine seeing you here. Mind if we join you?” He grabbed a chair and turned it to sit on it backward, without waiting for an invitation to join him. Marz sat and looked as if she might put her feet on the table, but instead put one of them on another chair, showing off her knee-high purple suede boots, covered with an almost fetishistic number of zips, buckles, and straps.
“Gracious me, of all the people to run into,” Marz said. “It’s our old friend Kitty Park.” A scowl darkened Ki-tae’s face, but he spoke with chilly politeness, maintaining his formal exterior. Such an iceman. No wonder Beau had seen him as a challenge from the day he arrived at the Institute. He’d been determined to break that control. He’d never done so in debates or in jujitsu contests. But he’d certainly done so that one night at the conference, and an out-of-control Park Ki-tae was a sight to behold.
But he shouldn’t think about that. Park might be after him. He had to find out. If he wasn’t trying to avoid being seen by Beau, then why had he been hiding down here in the cheap end of the ship?
“It’s hardly a big coincidence to find me on my way to the Imperial sector,” Ki-tae said. “Most of my fieldwork is based there, obviously.”
“Ooh, so you’re on a mission?” Beau said. “How thrilling. Do
tell.” Despite the mocking tone of the question, he watched Ki-tae’s face carefully, looking for any tell, any giveaway. His contemplation was spoiled when a waiter brought over his and Marz’s drinks.
“I’m doing my job, yes,” Ki-tae said when the waiter left. “I’m on official business. Which is none of yours.”
“Because you know, I wondered if you were still trying to pin something on me.”
“Why would you think that? Do you have something I can
pin on you?”
“You can hope, Kitty, you can hope.” Beau knew how much the nickname “Kitty” annoyed him. Nearly as much as that picture Marz had created of him once with cat ears and whiskers. Though he had looked very cute. “But I am glad you’re here. My staff has had no good action for weeks.”
Marz burst into a laugh at that. Ki-tae sat up straighter and, if it was even possible, seemed to apply an extra layer of frost to his exterior.
“Excuse me?” he said, so loftily that the words nearly needed a parachute to work their way down to Beau.
“What? My jo#.” Beau grinned. “Why? What did you think I meant?”
“I…nothing.” The ice cracked. He looked embarrassed.
“I haven’t had a worthy opponent for months,” Beau said.
“Hey,” Marz said. “What am I, chopped liver?”
“You’re not bad,” Beau said, “but jo#’s only a secondary discipline for you.”
He was quite serious. His practice was not as it should be lately, and Marz was okay with a staff, but her main martial art was Kendo. Ki-tae had always been a good opponent. It would be not only useful, but also fun to spar with him. Beau turned back to Ki-tae.
“I mean it. Since we’re both stuck on here for the next couple of weeks, let’s spar. It will be as good for you as it is for me.” And getting to talk to him informally might encourage him to let something slip… “What are you doing? Solo practice? That’s never as much fun as using your staff on someone else.” He smirked when Ki-tae rolled his eyes.
“As classy as ever, Johnson.” He turned to Marz, who was also smirking. “I’m surprised to see you still hanging around with this renegade. You could have been senior in the languages department by now.”
“When I think of all those staff meetings I’ve missed out on, my heart breaks.”
“You could be doing important research on source documents. That’s why you had the ocular implants, isn’t it?”
“Nah, I got sick of tripping over stuff when using the bathroom in the middle of the night.”
He favored her with a blistering scowl. Hard to believe they’d been quite good friends once. But when Beau had arrived, he’d drawn her into his circle. She’d been pretty stiff back then, nearly as much as Ki-tae, but Beau had recognized her brilliance and had the feeling there was more to the rather staid scholar than met the eye. He’d blatantly stolen her from Ki-tae’s group. Before Ki-tae could steal her back, she was dying her hair purple and taking the drug that gave her skin a purple cast—terribly trendy among hardcore students of the empire.
Ki-tae turned back to Beau. “Yes, all right, we can have some sparring sessions. If you will refrain from…being irritating.”
“There’s no way he can do that,” Marz said. “It’s in him. He’s irritating right to the bone marrow.”
“You’re fired,” Beau said amiably.
“I own half the ship,” she pointed out.
“Okay, then your cat is fired. She doesn’t accept my authority at all.”
“She doesn’t accept the authority of lesser species. Oh, are you leaving?” This last was to Ki-tae, who had resumed gathering up his things.
“Since this conversation has become entirely ridiculous, then yes.” He stood. “I’ll contact you to arrange a sparring session,” he added, to Beau.
“How’s your hand-to-hand?” Marz asked. “I’d be happy to help you brush up.”
“I believe it’s up to spec, thank you.”
“You don’t want to wrassle?” Beau asked. “Most men would pay for the chance to have Marz give them a thorough beating.”
“Goodbye.” He marched out, jo# resting on his shoulder.
“I think that man is so good at stick-fighting because he’s got the biggest stick of all jammed up his ass,” Marz said.
“Can’t say I noticed it,” Beau said, smirking, a little eyebrow waggle. “You know, when I was in that vicinity.”
“Hah. I tried to investigate more closely myself once, you know.”
“What? You and Agent Kitty?”
“I tried to seduce his frosty ass. Second year of master’s.”
“Yeah, exactly. It didn’t work. I say ‘seduce,’ but it didn’t get much further than the flirting stage. He didn’t even seem to grasp what I was doing. Just wanted to go on debating a translation I was working on at the time.”
“He’s a six on the Kinsey scale for sure. But never mind that. Why do you think he’s here? You think it’s a coincidence that he’s heading to the Imperial sector when we are?”
“You think he knows about the job?” She put both feet on the floor and leaned in closer, going serious.
“It’s his job to know about stuff. Maybe the Institute has a spy on King’s staff? They watch all the big collectors closely.”
“King was pretty careful, though. Even sent his sex bot out of the room when he talked to us about it.”
“True, but someone passed on those leads to him, so someone other than him knows about the mission and could have squealed to the Institute.”
“Damn. You think it’s true? It might be a coincidence. Like Park said, his job takes him to the Imperial sector a lot. He must be on this transport several times a year, the same as we are. Inevitable that our paths would cross one day.”
“He looked like he was trying to sneak out of here without us seeing him. Why do that if he didn’t care about us seeing him?”
She bit her lip. “So, what do we do? If he starts tailing us after we arrive, it’s going to cramp our style.”
“The first thing I have to do is find out if we’re his mission or not. That’s why I asked for the sparring sessions.”
She grinned. “You going to beat it out of him?”
“Nah, the sparring will be a warm-up. I’ll bet I can get him to invite me back to his quarters. And then I just have to make sure he falls asleep and gives me the run of the place.”
“Any plans for making sure he falls asleep?”
“One or two.” They exchanged grins. “You may have failed to crack the shell of our dear Kitty, but I didn’t.”
“Yeah, yeah. Don’t forget I had the room next to yours. I heard you cracking that shell all night long.”
Beau wasn’t remotely ashamed of it. Remembering hearing Ki-tae’s cries as Beau fucked him into a state of blissful oblivion was a warm memory on cold and lonely nights on the ship. One night. It wasn’t enough. And now he had a good reason to try to make it happen again. A reason for the good of his crew, not only to satisfy his desires. Though that would be a hell
of a bonus.