Snake glided down the corridor, slowing his footsteps as he approached Axel’s suite. Snake felt belligerent enough tonight to want to avoid the man. Maybe it would do Axel good if he didn’t always give in. Maybe he should play hard to get, just once. How difficult could it be?
He made the decision there and then. If he could just make it by Axel’s room and seek the sanctity of his personal space, he would put a privacy seal on the door and avoid Axel for the duration of the rest period. The man might be spitting fury in his face in the morning, and he might have to pay the price for that another time, but tonight, just this once, Snake would show Axel that he couldn’t always have his own way.
Soft light drew attention to the slight gap in the doorway. Snake turned his head, looking resolutely down at the floor, almost as though not looking would make him invisible.
“Where do you think you are going?”
A soft curse made its way into his mind, but he clamped down on his tongue. The rule was that he always checked to see if Axel wanted him. Some nights, the other man would send him on his way, sometimes for days, but if Axel wanted his presence, he gave it. Not tonight. No way!
His feet didn’t seem to be listening. He slid to a halt against the wall, leaning into it, seeking some way to sink into the solidity.
“Snaaakkkeee.” Axel hissed out the word.
“I do wish you wouldn’t call me that.”
“Nonsense. You love it.”
“You shouldn’t call me that, though. You might let it slip in front of the others. You let it slip in front of the new girl.” The trouble was, he did love the nickname in some perverse, twisted way, it being the closest thing he was ever going to get as a pet label. Maybe he wouldn’t have minded if there had been some emotion behind it, but he gave and he gave, and he never received anything like love in return. The thought hardened his resolve.
He shook his head. Seeing Axel’s eyes widen a little was undeniably gratifying. Fear chased the emotion away as Axel took a step forward. Those blue eyes coupled with all that sandy blond hair always made Snake catch his breath. Looking at Axel almost made him think of his home planet with waves crashing against a sandy shore under a blue sky, and that didn’t even account for what the man’s soft husky voice did to him. He stifled a whimper as Axel came up next to him, leaning with one hand on the wall. It meant he couldn’t retreat. He could scurry ahead to his suite, though. Unable to help it, Snake glanced that way, knowing he would never make it. The moment he moved, Axel would stop him. As though reading his mind, the man placed his other hand against the wall on the other side, effectively trapping him.
“You suddenly found a backbone, Snaithen
?” Axel stressed his true name.
Snake shook his head before he realised what he was doing. “I’m not as weak as you’d like to think,” he protested.
“No” -- Axel leaned into him, holding him against the wall with a line of bodily heat -- “but you know what I can do to that backbone of yours. I’d call you spineless if I didn’t know better.”
The insults emerged laced with promise. Snake blinked rapidly. A fleeting thought passed through his mind over whether he was going to cry or not. He regretted having folded his arms across his chest, in defiance, when Axel’s weight trapped his arms between them. That left Axel’s hands free to move in, to caress his sides, slipping down and then inwards. Although Snake pressed his back as hard as he could into the wall, the natural curve of his spine provided a hollow, and Axel slipped his hands into that gap.
“Don’t.” Snake twisted, hating the curl of desire he felt even as those fingers brushed gently.
“You know the things I can make you feel,” Axel whispered, still stroking. “You enjoy them, so why fight them? Why fight me?”
His voice sounded strangled, but Snake managed to force out his words. “You know why.” The admonishment gave Axel pause. His hands stopped moving. Those blue eyes met Snake’s gaze, and stared back, unblinking. If eyes were the windows to the soul, as humans seemed to believe, Snake would have said Axel had sold his long ago. Right now, he couldn’t be sure. He might have said it was regret or pain he could see in those eyes, except you never associated those things with Axel.
“Are you all right?”
The sound of a feminine voice took a moment to sink into his brain. Even when he finally realised they were no longer alone, Snake had to drag his gaze towards the woman. Only when he broke eye contact did Axel step back.
“Just a little disagreement,” Axel said, sounding lazy and bored.
“Is that right?”
It took Snake another moment for him to realise Sela was asking him. He nodded. “We…tend to disagree on many things.”
She nodded, but still she looked at him. “Well, see you in a few hours,” she said. “I don’t know about you, but I need a really good rest. One where I don’t have to keep one eye open.” She made a joke of it, but Snake blinked in surprise when he realised she was opening the way for him to make a graceful escape. He hesitated only a moment, glancing at Axel who had narrowed his gaze and sported a sneer, before he took the opportunity to run off to his room.
“You interrupted a private conversation,” Axel said, several seconds after Snake had closed the door to his suite. He could test the entrance after Sela had left, of course, but if Snake had set the privacy settings, he would not rage outside the man’s door. No. He could make Snake pay in many other ways, another time.
“If it were private, maybe you should have taken the discussion somewhere else.” Sela turned her head and glanced around the corridor. “Somewhere less open.”
“I would have done.”
Although he refused to look in her direction, Axel could see from her posture that she studied him. He expected her attitude to irritate, but instead, she made him curious. He didn’t like the feeling. A few more seconds ticked by in which he finally did begin to grow agitated. He cast his gaze up to her face.
“Whatever it is, just ask.”
He nodded. “I can decide whether to answer.”
Her eyes moved up and down the length of him. She folded her arms, and then leaned against the wall. “What is he?”
question he hadn’t expected. He quickly contemplated bluffing, but he knew better. Reaching out, he grabbed Sela’s arm and yanked her towards the door of his suite. Expecting resistance, Axel was surprised when he didn’t meet any. However, the slight gasp that left her lips proved satisfying.
Closing the door, he ordered security seals, and then turned to face her. She was looking over the contents of the room, though most of the accommodations looked similar. Still, his was more sparse than most. He never spent time here except to sleep…or fuck. Her gaze moved back to his face.
“I’ve heard Meliora call him Snaithen. Earlier you called him Snake.”
Damn! Snake was right, and she had remembered it. He couldn’t believe he had made such a slip. “I’d ask you not to use it. Snake as in snaca
, old English, to crawl. Synonym as in serpent. To creep.”
“You’re telling me it’s just a play on words, a personal insult?”
“If that were the case, I would imagine you getting the whole crew to use it.”
Again, he shrugged. “I’m an uncharitable kind of guy. I don’t like to share…anything.”
“Even insults? My, you are reclusive.” She paced a little while he watched her, warily. “I thought it was a joke, at first. I mean, the guy moves oddly, and there’s something peculiar about his eyes, but…” She turned to face him, raising her eyebrows. “Do I really need to go on, or shall we banter some more and both lose out on sleep?”
Axel growled. The sound rumbling out of him made him jump. No one had caused such a reaction in him for years, and he wasn’t certain if it was because the woman upset him, or because she clearly knew something about Snake’s ancestry. He covered his loss of composure by advancing towards her. He stalked across the room, and she backed up, putting out a hand as though to stop him. Despite the gesture, he quickly noticed the lack of fear in her eyes. Her expression cleared, became blank, much as his own was doing. They stood there, preparing to fight, and he didn’t know how it had come to this so quickly. He took a deep breath, calling his senses back, drawing his mind away from that place where he held a violent streak in check. The knowledge that he did this disgusted him, but he also accepted it wasn’t his fault. The Coalition was to blame.
“He’s a mosasaur
,” he said, before he even knew he intended to tell her. A slight crease appeared on her brow. He watched as her personality bled back into her eyes. She hesitated a moment longer, and then lowered her hand.
“That’s not possible,” she said. “They’re extinct.”
“Not quite. Just widely scattered, and in severe danger of extinction.”
“I once thought they were a legend.”
She looked up into his eyes, though they differed only a little in their respective heights. This was one tall woman with good, solid…incredibly
long legs. Realising he had lowered his gaze to look at Sela’s legs, Axel hid his reaction by turning away, to pace. Finally, he turned back to her, but she seemed not to have noticed, so apparently lost was she in the idea of a genuine mosasaur being on board the ship.
“I mean the term isn’t even correct. Mosasaur as in an extinct marine lizard and related genera…” Her voice trailed away. Just as well, for she sounded as though she were reading from a biology text. She finally appeared to notice Axel was still in the room. “They aren’t related to lizards. They’re…”
“I know. Why do you think I call him Snake? I’m not going to argue this. Like snakes, some argue his race evolved closer to mosasaurs; some claim they should be identified with varanids.” Both terms applied to the evolution of snakes and the belief that they may have evolved from lizards. “Nothing is going to make me believe in a reptile man either way.”
“He’s not…I mean there’s nothing…” She stopped, giving him a look he found curious. “I mean, biologically…”
She might never finish a sentence again, but one thing was clear. She knew more than animosity existed between the two men, her query suggesting Axel knew something of the other man’s body, and didn’t like to ask questions relating to Snake’s sexual performance. The question that concerned Axel was what she would do with all this information.
“If anyone else here on this ship works out what he is, I’ll know where it came from.” He dropped the tone of his voice lower, intentionally, letting her know he wouldn’t be pleased. “If anything happens to him as a consequence, I’ll know who to blame.”
“They don’t know?” She sounded incredulous, and it tempered Axel’s anger. She had a point. “How many years has he been on this ship?”
“He was here before I came, and I joined this group about four years ago. So…long enough.”
She blinked. “Are they just that blind, or are they ignorant?”
“Both, in various degrees. Asta and Meliora don’t worry me, though.”
“Marshall?” She made it a question.
He hesitated, and then nodded. “Marshall would hand him over in a heartbeat.”
Sela frowned. “How can you follow a leader you can’t trust?”
“I don’t trust anyone.” To how many people was he going to have to explain that? “I follow no one either.”
“Marshall would really sell him?”
“Not unless it suited his purpose, but quite possibly, yes. He’s a little…racial, shall we say, when it comes to species. There are plenty who would pay top whack for one of Snake’s kind.”
“You’re short of funds?”
“No, but if we were, Marshall would consider it. More likely, he’d use Snake as a bargaining chip.”
“The women would stand for that?”
“Most likely Snake just wouldn’t return one day, and we’d hear how he had valiantly died in an ambush. Marshall would think up some excuse, and Asta would believe him.”
“I noticed that. She would believe anything he had to say.” Sela’s perspicacity surprised Axel. She looked thoughtful again. “So it’s true, the reason they became…may become extinct?”
Axel nodded. Sela swallowed in apparent distaste, and he couldn’t blame her. “I can see why many liken them to snakes,” he elaborated. “The unscrupulous, which include mercenaries and the Coalition, have used mosasaurs for many medicinal purposes in similar ways.”
“Such as?” It sounded as though she didn’t really want to hear the reply, but she had asked, and he would answer.
“They’ve used the skin sloughed from…certain areas. The gallbladder. They’ve used them to treat skin diseases, hemorrhage, convulsions, and pain. The list goes on. They seem to have remarkable regenerative abilities, and many scientists tried to harness that. It’s said that some of them carry venom, but Snake doesn’t, and he can neither confirm nor deny it. He’s not had much chance to interact with any of his race. He’s one of the few who left the homeworld at the last possible minute and even then, Snake was quite young. He remembers the planet more than he remembers his people.” He paused. “There are those who also found them good for…nourishment.”
He stopped talking; she had put up a hand as though she knew what he was going to say, too late. He’d deliberately chosen a modest word to cover his explanation. Still, he couldn’t pander to her sensibilities. He wanted to stress how important it was to protect Snake. He didn’t know this woman, but so far, he liked what he saw and hoped it wasn’t an error in judgement.
“So, you do
care about him?”
Her remark brought him out of his thoughts. “What?”
“Despite your hostility and seeming irritation with him, you care.”
“I don’t…” Words failed him. If he didn’t care, then what was he feeling? He shook the thought off. He didn’t want to care and couldn’t afford to. “I don’t want to see him dissected if that is your meaning. I wouldn’t wish that on…”
“Anyone?” she provided, when his sentence trailed off.
people,” he said. “There’s always the exception.” He didn’t mean Sela directly. He had other candidates in mind, but if she said something that meant Snake got hurt then no matter what he felt for Snake, or why, he would gladly add her to the list, and he let her know it in his tone of voice, indeed, his whole expression.
“You don’t have to worry,” she told him.
“Good. Then that means you don’t have to worry, either.” Her single nod said that she understood him perfectly. Axel just wished he could understand his own actions so easily.
Sharon Maria Bidwell