Jacqs stood at the edge of the command office and watched as Zeke—Commander Waters—bent over reports with Lieutenant Haslet. “Commander?”
Zeke looked up. “Jacqs? What can I do for you?”
Jacqs glanced over at Haslet. The woman was going to make sure whatever Jacqs said or did, it landed in the middle of ship scuttlebutt. He didn’t quite know how to neutralize a threat he couldn’t shoot.
“Lieutenant, give me a second with the corporal.” Zeke patted Haslet on the arm to dismiss her.
“Yes, sir.” Haslet nodded at Zeke and then headed past Jacqs and out the door.
Zeke watched him, sinking back down into his chair before gesturing toward the door. “Why don’t you close that?”
Jacqs reached over with a foot and kicked the door closed. Not sure how to start this conversation, he crossed his arms and tried figuring it out. He shoulda planned this better. Words weren’t his strong suit.
“Is this about me not telling you I was the new officer?” Zeke asked.
“You’re a pansexual.”
Zeke leaned back in his chair and took a moment to stare at Jacqs. “Okay. That’s not where I thought we were going, but yes. I registered as pan.”
“Fuck. You really are? You’ll sleep with people no matter how they identify?”
Zeke frowned at him. Usually it was Jacqs who couldn’t really get his head around a conversation, but maybe Zeke was equally bad with words. “Is this your way of propositioning me?” he finally asked.
“What?” Jacqs felt his stomach drop. “I’m heterosexual. I’m not interested in any man.”
Zeke nodded. “Okay. I thought you came off pretty hetero yesterday, but that doesn’t explain why you’re here now. Why does my sexuality matter to you if we don’t match?” Zeke had an honestly curious expression on his face, and Jacqs found himself at a loss for words. Why did it matter? It did matter. It mattered if the commander thought Jacqs was going to pay for any favors.
“I ain’t repaying you for not writing me up.”
“What? What the fuck are you talking about, Jacqs?”
Jacqs took a step forward and jabbed his finger in Zeke’s direction. “If you do me favors, I don’t plan on returning them.”
Zeke blinked several times and then stood before coming around the desk. Jacqs braced himself. He didn’t know what Zeke wanted, but Jacqs wasn’t the sort to lie down and take any sort of abuse. Zeke sat on the edge of his desk. “I am not understanding this conversation, so why don’t you explain what you’re thinking?” Zeke suggested.
“I’m thinking I don’t plan on sucking anything.”
“And if you’re a het, that makes sense,” Zeke said slowly. “Why do you think you have to tell me that?”
Jacqs felt like he was off balance and falling farther by the second. He came in to stand up for himself, so he couldn’t figure why he suddenly felt like he was in the wrong. He wasn’t. Everyone had the basic right to choose his or her own sexual partners, and he wasn’t less than anyone else. “Because you did me that favor don’t mean I’m going to repay it.”
Running a hand over his face, Zeke blew out a long breath. Jacqs figured Zeke wouldn’t need to force someone into his bunk. He had wide brown eyes and dark blond hair and the heroic history that would make men and women fall into his bed. But sometimes the men who didn’t need to go forcing others got the most perverse pleasure out of it. Jacqs felt a shiver of disgust run through him.
“Okay, let’s slow this down.” Zeke held a hand up in a surrender gesture. “First, I didn’t do you any favors. You didn’t deserve to get busted back a rank, so you didn’t.”
“Captain woulda busted me down,” Jacqs pointed out, and he knew he was right.
“Maybe,” Zeke conceded. “He does have a certain concept of you that doesn’t quite match reality. Oh, he respects you as a soldier, but he does seem to think you start trouble where I just think you end it.”
“You’re a hothead, and I’m not saying otherwise,” Zeke said, “but you’re not out looking for trouble. You’re just one who doesn’t have the good sense to know when to walk away when it sticks its head up.”
“You would have walked away from that girl?” Jacqs demanded. If the commander said yes, then Jacqs was reconsidering his first impression of the man. No one should walk away from someone being bullied.
“No, but I might have tried to avoid the full-out bar fight.”
Jacqs shrugged. He never did have much luck at stopping fights, so it didn’t seem worth the effort to try. “I’m still not thanking you for saving me from another bust in rank.”
That comment earned him a real cold glare from Zeke. “You’ve said that entirely too many times. I don’t expect thanks. I also don’t expect the ship’s best gunner to show signs of paranoia.”
“I ain’t paranoid!”
“Then why would you think I’m going to demand some sort of favor?” Zeke shouted back. “I haven’t even done anything that you need to thank me for, except pull some local yahoo off your back before two bruisers could jump you at once. It’d be nice if you thanked me for backing your play in that bar.”
“And now you’re calling me paranoid, which would remove me from duty.” Jacqs could feel the fear crawl up into his belly. If he wasn’t fit for duty, they’d dump him off on whichever station was nearest, and Jacqs didn’t have a whole lot of illusions about how well his life would go from there. He’d either take work for some bastard like the one he’d attacked in the bar, or he’d starve. Frankly Jacqs figured he’d be happier starving.
Closing his eyes, Zeke muttered something under his breath for a remarkably long time. “You’re not the easiest sort to have a conversation with,” he finally said.
Jacqs crossed his arms.
“Why do you think I would try and force you into sex?”
“You’re pansexual,” Jacqs said. “It ain’t like it’s a real long leap from one to the other.”
Zeke returned to his muttering before walking back behind his desk and sitting. “That’s an enormous fucking leap, Jacqs. The fact that I’m attracted to a personality and not a body type or set of genitalia does not imply that I would ever force anyone. If you even suggest that I would force someone, I’m going to kick your ass. You know,” he said, the voice suddenly shifting to something more thoughtful. Jacqs’s nerves tightened up more than ever. When officers started getting thoughtful, men like Jacqs had to worry. “Your record doesn’t go back more than four years. You were conscripted off a suspected smuggling ship.”
“I weren’t never convicted of anything.”
“No, you weren’t. But looking at how you’re reacting, I’m guessing you grew up in refugee camps.”
Jacqs didn’t answer. This wasn’t none of Zeke’s business.
“Which would explain why you assume the worst of pansexuals.”
“And homosexuals. You lot are hypersexualized by nature. I ain’t,” Jacqs said firmly. “I ain’t the sort to go having sex anytime I see movement. They don’t have any control. None of them.” Most of the time once Jacqs got going, someone shut him up. Unfortunately Zeke didn’t seem to have gotten that message, because he sat back, and the words fell out of Jacqs faster than he could really track them, faster than he could stop them.
“There’s something wrong with men who let their dicks lead the way. I wouldn’t be like that. I wouldn’t ever be one of them hypersexualized sorts, always looking for someone desperate enough for a bit of bread that they’ll do most anything, and if I do go for a whore, I always make sure to pay them fair even if they aren’t charging full price. A person is worth more than a bit of food.” Jacqs practically had to choke down the rest of the words. He knew what people were capable of. People might like to cover up all that moral rot with a veneer of politeness. They registered their sexualities to avoid misunderstandings, but none of that changed the fact that the rot was there.
“Jacqs, I don’t think you had homosexuals or pansexuals in those camps. I think you saw a whole lot of dyssexual people. I figure the camps breed them. But I am not going to ask anything sexual from a heterosexual man. You looked me in the eye and judged me yesterday, and I’m not any different today.”
Jacqs narrowed his eyes and tried to decide the honesty of that statement.
“No tricks,” Zeke said, holding both hands up in surrender.
“And all that crap about having a drink with me? I mean, you were my officer. Were you trying to trick me into doing something you could write me up for?”
Zeke gave a shrug. “Nope. I was tired of all these assholes who haven’t actually fought all feeling sorry for themselves because they can’t get supplies or because they have to work long shifts. Until you’ve seen friends bleed to death on your hands, you have no cause to go complaining. I was in there looking for a drink and hoping to see crew interact when there wasn’t an officer around, but mostly, I really needed a drink.”
“Unless you’re the one who’s gone and bled out, you ain’t got no room for complaining.” Jacqs realized a half second too late he probably shouldn’t go implying that Zeke didn’t have room for complaints, not after giving up his leg and suffering through the hell of Siros-Two. “Of course, you came close enough. I might make an exception for you.”
“Don’t,” Zeke said firmly. “If I ever turn into one of these people who spends their time complaining, I want someone like you around to tell me to shut the fuck up. I’m sick of people complaining because they don’t get leave as often as they want.”
Jacqs had heard that complaint about a million times. “If you’re alive to get leave at the end of a run, you don’t have room to claim the universe is treating you unfair.”
“Exactly.” Zeke threw up his hands. “If you don’t have anything better to complain about, then get out of my face and complain to someone else—only I’m supposed to be an officer and somehow fix morale. So it’s my job to nod and make sympathetic noises.”
Jacqs grunted. He hadn’t ever thought of an officer’s job quite like that. If that was what officers did with their time, Jacqs would rather cut off his own foot. Jacqs cringed at even thinking that particular comparison. He needed to stop thinking that way before he went and said it in front of the man with no foot. “I’d be more likely to offer to hit ’em hard enough that they had something worth complaining about,” Jacqs said.
“Don’t tempt me.” Zeke rolled his eyes. “So maybe I wanted to have a drink with a man who has stood at the front and who isn’t trying to con me out of extra leave with some sad story about his grandmother.”
“Hell, I don’t even know who my grandmother is,” Jacqs admitted.
“Then you won’t regale me with stories about how you need a three-month leave to go sit at the side of her bed.”
“In the middle of a war? Hell no,” Jacqs agreed. “Do people really—” Jacqs stopped as he saw the look on Zeke’s face. The man was serious. That was enough to make Jacqs want to buy the man a few beers and spot him to a real good whore. He needed the break worse than Jacqs did, and serving on a ship with these losers made Jacqs need it mighty bad.
Jacqs cleared his throat. “You really don’t expect me to go repaying?”
“Hell no. Maybe we can get a beer together and swap war stories, but this isn’t about expecting anything out of you.” Zeke sighed. “What made you even start to think that?”
Jacqs moved to one of the chairs across from Zeke and hesitated a second. Sitting around a superior officer was one of those things they got unreasonably cranky about, but Zeke just nodded toward the seat. After sitting, Jacqs shrugged. “Allie Grah went saying how people think we’re dating because you did me the favor of not busting me down to private.”
“Why is it that the ships that see the least action like to talk the most?” Zeke shook his head. “I can call her out for gossiping if you want, but it will probably go away faster if we just ignore it.”
“Makes sense,” Jacqs agreed. On-ship, denying something worked about as well as tossing fuel cells into a fire. “I should get to my station and check out the targeting sights. They’ve been acting up lately.”
Jacqs had the odd impression that he had Zeke’s full and undivided attention in a way Jacqs wasn’t used to. Officers in particular seemed to ignore him, and even shipmates only paid attention to the bits they wanted. Zeke, however, leaned forward, his dark gaze right on Jacqs.
“Probably not. The seals ain’t exactly perfect, so they tend to wiggle. It just takes readjusting them every once in a while.” Jacqs found himself uncomfortably aware of his hands. He suddenly didn’t know what to do with them, and after thirty-some years of having them, it was strange not knowing whether to rest them on his knees or on the arms of the chair or what. He ended up crossing his arms over his chest.
“Keep on top of it,” Zeke said. “If there’s anything else…” Letting his words trail off, Zeke pinned Jacqs with an intense expression.
“Um. No.” Jacqs stood. “I should just go. So the thing where I accused you of—”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“But it was a real shitty thing to assume.”
“Yep,” Zeke quickly agreed. “It was all kinds of shitty. But you came and asked instead of making assumptions, so I give you some credit for that.”
That was a real strange reaction for an officer, but rather than looking a gift ship in the thrusters, Jacqs turned and headed for the door. Lieutenant Haslet still stood in the hall, and Jacqs headed past her. Most people on the ship got out of his way, but Haslet was a big woman, former infantry who still had shoulders like she carried fifty pounds of gun everywhere she went.
“Problem, corporal?” she asked.
Haslet stepped to the side, putting herself in the middle of the hallway and right in Jacqs’s path. “Then why are you interrupting command meetings, Glebov?”
Jacqs opened his mouth to tell the lieutenant to fuck off, but that didn’t seem right. Zeke would have to send him to the brig for that one, and Jacqs had already put the man in an awkward position once today. Instead Jacqs shrugged. “I did something stupid, and I needed to talk to the commander. If’n he has a problem with that, I suppose he’ll tell me. Either that or he’ll call to have you escort me to the brig, and he didn’t do that, now did he?” Jacqs stepped forward, pressing close to the lieutenant. He could see Haslet shiver, her body stiff as she tried not to back away. Jacqs was a powerfully built man, and he did know how to use that size to his advantage.
“Get to your shift, then,” Haslet ordered. Jacqs gave her a wolfish grin.
“Yes, ma’am,” he answered in a slow drawl, and then he detoured around her, deliberately bumping shoulders. Today was shaping up to be a mighty fine day.