mission_imprtv.htmlTEXTStMlm>sWP Mission Imperative

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Mission Imperative
by Jacynthe Demorae

"Yuna, you need to take a break." Lise's firm voice carried clearly across the command deck.

Bren glanced up from the open control panel he was trying to rewire. The Deepwater's chief medical technician stood just behind the navigator's station. From here, he could see only Lise's profile and the back of Yuna's head.

"Not until we're out of this," Yuna snapped, her voice gravelly from disuse.

Bren flicked an eye to the chrono built into his wrist-comm, noting the time. The Deepwater had been limping through this asteroid belt for three hours now, and Yuna had not only been manning the helm through the entire run, but had sat a full duty shift just before. Well, in a pinch, either he or Reb could pilot the Deepwater, but under these conditions, their best option was to let Yuna do what she did best.

"Lise is right, Yuna," Reb cut in. "You've been at this for ten hours."

"I can count, Reb," Yuna retorted. "And I am not turning over the helm until we're through this mess."

"If you try to do it all, you'll just wear yourself out."

Bren watched the argument unfold, moderately amused. Reb and Yuna managed to argue about something at least once every ship day. Their spats had become a staple of life aboard ship.

"I'm not trying to do it all, I'm just trying to get through this." Yuna's right hand danced over the nav panel, then returned to the helm controls.

Reb frowned. "At least put Gen on stand-by."

"What do you think I just did?" she flared. "Honestly, Reb, you'd think I'd never piloted a ship before. You're not the only one around here who's capable of making a right decision."

Reb shook his head and picked up the tool case he'd set aside earlier. "Fine. I want to check the re-routing conduits on Seventeen. Page me if you need me."

"IF I need you, I'll do that."

Lise glanced back, met Bren's gaze. She angled her head after the departing engineer, her message clear. Yuna wasn't the only one pushing herself to the limits. Bren grimaced and fitted the casing back onto the weapons console. He'd taken no more than two steps after the engineer when an alarm blared.

"Proximity alert!" Gen's disembodied voice warned. The Deepwater shuddered, as if it had struck a wall. Bren grabbed for the edge of the weapons console, just barely keeping his feet. A chorus of alarms erupted from every station.

"What'd we hit?" Bren yelled over the noise.

"Something hit us," Yuna shouted back. "I don't know what, hang on, stabilizing..."

Tense seconds ticked by as Yuna fought the helm. The alarms continued to wail. Why didn't Reb shut them down? Bren wondered. He moved over to the secondary sensor station. Activating the screen, he tried to make sense of the data scrolling past.


The urgency in Lise's voice whipped his head around. At first, he saw no cause for concern--then the medic pushed past him and moved to the crumpled figure on the deck. She helped him sit up--and then Bren saw the blood.

Bright, crimson smears, staining the spiky blond hair, fast-moving streamers running down Reb's pale face. Adrenaline flooded his system. Not him, not him, not again...


"What happened?" Reb called out, his voice sounding weak.

Lise had produced a medkit from somewhere and was trying to staunch the blood flow. Bren couldn't look away. He knew head wounds bled fast and furious, even the most shallow of cuts looked like a major hemorrhage. It didn't mean a life-threatening injury, it didn't--

"Bren, Yuna, what happened?"

The tone of command shook him out of his daze. Bren looked down at the data display, translating symbols and numbers into words.

"Impact on the starboard side," Yuna reported. "Hull breach on decks Nineteen, Twenty, and Twenty-two," Bren said. Reb had been heading down there. If he'd left a few minutes earlier...

"Geez, what'd we hit, a mountain?"

"We didn't hit anything, it hit us," Yuna corrected, prickly as ever. Her fingers flew over the helm controls, making corrections, compensating for damage.

Gen's voice rang across the bridge. "Atmosphere venting on decks Nineteen and Twenty, sections D through H. Emergency containment seals deployed. Deck twenty-two atmosphere venting in sections E through G, emergency seal failure."

Reb swore and stumbled to his workstation. "Gen, switch to manual override."

A flurry of scan lines broke over Gen's holo-projection. "Switching to manual."

"Reb, what are you doing?" Yuna demanded.

"Trying to save our atmosphere," the engineer retorted. "The emergency bulkheads locked down like they were supposed to, but the hull breach on twenty-two compromised the seals." He bounded over to another station, seemingly unconcerned with the blood running down his face. "If I can close off that entire deck, redistribute the air mix, that might stabilize things long enough for me to get out there with a repair rig..."

Reb's voice trailed off as he became absorbed in his work. When Reb was in "fix-it" mode, the intensity of focus rivaled that of a full-out prex. You could blow up a shuttle over his head and the only attention he'd pay it would be to glance up to see if anything could salvaged for his current project.

Bren heard rapid footsteps ringing on the deckplates. Zak bounded into view, with Gret close on his heels.

"What happened?" Zak asked.

"Collision," Bren said shortly, returning his attention to Reb. Was it his imagination, or did Reb look paler than usual? Every now and then, Reb made an ineffectual swipe at the bloody streamers that threatened to run into his eyes.

"Lise, patch him before he bleeds into something important," Bren growled.

The medic shot him an exasperated look, but turned back to her patient. Reb stood still under her ministrations for all of a minute, but once the medic had applied a sealer, he waved her off. He tapped in something on his console, then waited for a response. Whatever came up on his screen, he didn't like it, judging by his scowl.

"We can repair the damage," Reb said, looking up, "but it'll take everything we have in stores."

"What?" Gret demanded. "How could we possibly have gone through our stores? The project director planned for our work aboard ship and the establishment of a viable colony once we--"

"Lock it down, Gret," Reb said tiredly. He braced his head on his hand, as if to steady it against an internal throbbing. "The colony stores are all intact--and since they're all under code-lock, they'll stay that way until we make landfall. I'm talking about ship stores, what was set aside for our use."

Gret still looked distrustful.

"The project directors couldn't have factored in alien attack or that infestation," Lise argued, coming to Reb's defense. "Even if they had, production and supply lines were breaking down all over Mars and the other colonies. Nothing came from Earth in the last three months before launch."

Bren eyed the medic in speculation. Lise's voice conveyed a sense of experience. Someone's been prexing, I think. He made a mental note to ask her about it later. Events from the Last Days had a habit of biting them on the ass.

"So what're we going to do?" Zak asked. "We can't just leave it as is."

Reb stared at the viewscreen, wearing an expression Bren did not like at all.

"Gret, what's the make-up of those asteroids? Do a full geological scan," Reb ordered. "Three-hundred-sixty degrees around the Deepwater, maximum range."

A brief silence as Gret entered in the query then interpreted the response.

"Mostly rock and ice, unsurprisingly," she said, reading from her screen. "Some have a high iron content."

A flutter of unease went through Bren as he caught a glimmer of Reb's plan. He can't possibly mean to--

Reb left his station, crossing over to join Gret. He looked over her shoulder, reading the results as they came in. He nodded, as if coming to a decision.

"What're you getting at, Reb?" Gret asked.

"Raw materials," Bren said. Ghosts of memories teased him--a Corps escort for an interplanetary mining caravan, patrolling asteroid belts ceded to the mining corporations to insure the supply lines remained secure. Holding off raiders as the Pandora situation grew worse and worse. He set those memories aside. He couldn't afford the distraction right now.

Reb glanced his way, surprised, but nodded. "That's right. The ore deposits in the larger asteroids can easily replace what we'll use up in repairing the hull. Some of those rocks even have small deposits of gold and copper that we'll need for the electronics."

"What good will raw ore do us?" Gret asked. "We can't refine it."

"Yes, we can," Reb countered. "There's a full processing unit and a machine shop on Deck Twenty-four, right below Stores. We can harvest all the material we need from those asteroids--after we finish repairs."

"If you're going to go out there," Yuna warned, "you better do it soon. We're approaching a clear space, but it's pretty small. I don't care how good you think you are, climbing around on the outside of the ship while it cruises through asteroids is just making it tougher than it has to be."

Reb grinned at that. "Can you hold her in the clearing?"

"For a little while," Yuna said. "But she'll drift back into the belt."

"All right. Zak, Bren, let's go." Reb turned on his heel and strode off the Command Deck without looking to see if they were following.
Bren sighed and put his station on stand-by. Definitely in fix-it mode.

* * *
Zak stayed inside the ship, working with Gen to re-route power and cut gravity to the damaged sections. Vacuum seals would have to be set on all of the brace plates before foamed alloy could be applied over them. He and Reb donned EVA suits and went out onto the ship's damaged hull. The sheer yowling emptiness of naked space made him grit his teeth.

Everyone got the shakes the first time they did a spacewalk, everyone. Something about the absolute dark and cold, the absence of gravity, the utter silence, woke up primal fears that slept in the hind brain. Some people couldn't handle it and flew into severe claustrophobic panic attacks. They tried to rip off their helmets, tear out their safety-lines, or just shut down completely, hanging limp in space until someone towed them in.

The Sentinel Corps taught safety in discipline. You never pushed out of a 'lock until you checked your suit and the suit of the guy with you. Double-checked seals, tethers, and comm-units, then triple-checked. You kept the proscribed distance, you moved only when you had to, and even then, only what you had to. Open space wasn't the place to go flailing around like a dirt-grubber learning to swim.

He didn't have Reb's technical skills, so he took on most of the grunt work, towing supplies behind them in a heavy-duty mesh net made of coated wires. The damage looked gruesome, buckled plates and holes punched into the sides of the ship. Magnets set in their boots let them cling to the hull, leaving their hands free to do the work. After repairing what they could on the outside, they moved on to the more heavily damaged areas.

"Yuna," Reb said, switching to the ship-comm, "how're we doing?"

"Holding, but expect things to get rocky in about another forty-five minutes--and I'm being generous, there."

"Right," Reb sighed. "Let's get to work, then."

Bren kept his eyes focused on the work in front of him. If he looked around, he might be able to make out the shapes of the asteroids. If there's one coming for me, there just isn't all that much I can do about it, Bren reasoned, helping Reb set and seal brace plates. If there was one coming for Reb...there still wasn't all that much he could do about it.

For the last patch, they had to split up, with Reb staying outside on the hull with the foamed alloy spray-patch while he cut away the jagged parts of the torn and buckled plates. Throughout the entire endeavor, his heart pounded, his stomach churning bitter acid. You never left your partner--or anyone alive-- outside. That was part of the Corps' safety training. While his job wasn't exactly risk free--any of those raw edges could compromise his suit integrity--it just wasn't the same. Reb was outside. With the brace between them, there was no way Bren could get to him if something went wrong.

He made his way down to the airlock. If anything did go wrong, he could at least hit the outside with relative speed. He kept his comm-line open, listening for any sign of trouble.

"All right, Deepwater, I'm do--"

Reb's voice vanished in a burst of static. Bren's heart spasmed, feeling as if it were twisting in on itself.

"Reb! Are you all right?"

No answer, just the buzz of static over the line, echoing in his helmet. He switched frequencies. "Yuna, Reb's gone silent. Can you track him from there?"

"Hang on, Bren."

He heard her order Gen to run a sweep.

"He's still on hull, Bren. Or at least his beacon is."

That didn't mean anything, he could think of a half-dozen ways for a locator beacon to be left behind while the person inside the suit drifted off.

"I'm going down to the airlock," he said over the comm. Without waiting for an answer, he started down the hall, snarling under his breath at the way the mag boots slowed him down.

He reached the airlock, noting with relief that emergency power was still being routed into the airlock controls, glowing a reassuring standby-yellow. He'd cycle out, then see if he could find that damn crazy engineer. He reached for the control panels, just as the panel flashed green, signaling the start of a repressurization cycle. Bren drew his hand back and waited, staring through the tiny view port set in the center of the heavy titanium hatch. He could see part of Reb's EVA suit, and something in his chest eased.

The control panel flashed green again, and the 'lock cycled open. Reb bounced through, still needing the mags to keep contact with the deck.

"Took you long enough," Bren snapped.

He couldn't tell through the tinted bubble of Reb's helmet, but he thought Reb frowned at him.

"Zak, start restoring full life support, one deck at a time," Reb said over the comm.

"You want it, you got it."

"Yuna, how're we doing?"

"Re-entering the field now," the pilot reported.

They waited for long minutes, neither one breaking the silence. All Bren could hear was his own breathing, loud and hollow in the confines of his helmet. The lights came up to full strength and he felt the tug of renewed gravity. Even after a short time of weightlessness, the artificial gravity dragged at his limbs, making them feel lead-filled and clumsy.

Reb cracked his helmet seal and pulled it off. Bren clenched his teeth on the automatic reprimand. Always check enviro systems before cracking your seals. Rule eighteen.

He called up his own heads-up display--though since Reb hadn't collapsed from lack of air, they obviously had breathable atmosphere now. Still, someone had to keep suit discipline, and maybe Reb would catch on to his example. Everything read normal, so he cracked his own seals.

"All right," Reb said, "Phase One, complete. Meet me back on the Command deck."

"Yes, sir," Bren said sourly, watching Reb as he walked away. Trust an engineer to know how to stride in mag-boots. Shaking his head, he went to stow his suit in the equipment locker.

* * *

The whole crew gathered on the Command deck. Yuna, still at the helm, was beginning to show the strain. She was drinking something light red and frothy, one of Lise's trademark smoothies. Big on nutrition and color, Bren recalled, but short on taste. Zak was bouncing from terminal to terminal, while Gret glowered. Lise divided her attention between Reb and Yuna.

"I can take one of the shuttles," Reb was saying. "Using the robot arm, I can gather up the ore-bearing chunks and stow them in the shuttle's hold. Then I can bring them back here."

"You cannot be serious," Bren said. "You're going to go chase asteroids in a shuttle. That is the craziest--no, the stupidest thing I have ever heard."

Reb glared at him, but Bren didn't back down. "And who's going to pilot the shuttle through that free-floating minefield--you?"

"I'll go with you," Yuna said.

Bren felt a small flutter of relief. If Reb took Yuna with him, he could at least feel assured their irritating leader wouldn't plow head-first into a rock. But Reb shook his head.

"We need you here," he said.

"What?" Incredulous outrage washed over her face. "Wait, a minute ago, you were nagging at me to take a break. Now you're telling me to stay here?"

"We need you here, Yuna," he repeated. "If the worst happens--and I have to plan for it--you'll be needed to get the Deepwater to safety."

"You can't do it alone," Bren argued.

"And I won't," Reb said. "Zak, you're going with me."

"Why me?" their systems man complained.

"Because I can't pilot and operate the robot arm at the same time. The stations are too far apart."

"And half of your targets won't fit in the shuttle's hold, even if the arm can get a lock on them," Bren said.

"That's where you come in."

Oh, he has an answer for everything, doesn't he? Bren crossed his arms over his chest and glared at the slight blond. "Do tell."

"Gret can make up a target map--with Gen's help," he added hastily, seeing the disbelieving look Gret gave him. "Build off the geo-scans. Then you--" he pointed at Bren. "--slice away the rock we can't use, using the cannons. Zak and I reel 'em in."

"It could work," Yuna said reluctantly.

"Could isn't good enough," Bren retorted.

"It's as good as we're going to get." There wasn't even a hint of Reb's usual light sarcasm or fiery temper in those words. The blue eyes staring back at him were as sober as a chaplain's. Damn him for being right. Bren looked away, letting his silence stand as his answer.

"All right," Reb said at last. "Let's get started."

Zak went to Gret's station, and began showing her how to set up the scanning and relay system they would need. Gret listened carefully, nodding every now and then. Her eyes never left Zak's face. Reb and Yuna began plotting out the course the shuttle would take. Bren stayed where he was, not quite brooding.

"He'll be all right."

The soft voice startled him. He looked around and found Lise standing beside him. He hadn't even noticed her.

"It's just a cut," she assured him, "and a shallow one at that. If he'd shown even the slightest symptom of concussion, I'd have tranked him and dragged him down to med bay."

"That's about the only way you can get him there," he agreed sourly, still glowering at the back of Reb's head. "He thinks he's indestructible."

"He's not the only one." Bren looked at her. Lise wore a mysterious smile, as if she knew something that amused her. "He'll be fine, Bren," she said. "Relax."

Still smiling, she brushed his arm in farewell and walked off the Command Deck, heading back to the med bay.

* * *

"All right, everybody ready?" Reb asked over the comm.

"Good to go, shuttle Alpha. You're clear to launch," Yuna said, flicking a glance over the boards.

"Copy that, Deepwater."

Bren kept his attention riveted to the displays on his console. After a moment, a blue triangle appeared on his leftmost screen. A red oval symbolized the Deepwater, and the swarm of green blips marked the locations of the asteroids. Some of the green blips were ringed in red, the ore-carrying rocks they needed. The blue triangle inched forward on his screen, closing in on its goal.

"That's our girl," Reb said. "Bren, we're transmitting target co-ordinates. Stand by."

"I copy, shuttle Alpha. Standing by." Bren lost himself in the comforting minutiae of mission protocol. Checking weapons status, feeding data into the targeting computer, all helped distract him from his nagging anxiety. Reb was out there, in a danger zone, with only Zak to protect him. In Bren's mind, Zak's protection was worse than none at all. Their systems man tended to flake out with little to no warning.

The salvage operation proved a nerve-wracking combination of boredom and bursts of frenzied activity. Bren kept watching his screens, trying not to listen to the paranoid proddings of his Corps training. Paranoia was quite useful in securing an area, but damned useless when one's charge was zipping around in a little shuttle, chasing asteroids without him. When Reb gave the word, Bren fired off a series of two-to-four shots from the energy resonance cannons, breaking up the rocks into more manageable chunks.

"They're going to get brained out there if they aren't more careful," Yuna murmured, after a near-miss from shrapnel. She raised her voice. "Reb, watch out for buzzers. Some of that shrapnel can take on odd spins."

"We're on top of it, Deepwater."

"And below it, and beside it, and in the middle of it," Yuna continued, sotto voce.

Bren held back a grin. Well, at least he wasn't the only one who wished to be aboard the shuttle. Just two more rocks to harvest, then the fully loaded shuttle would return. And Reb would be back where he belonged.
A familiar alarm shrieked over the ship-to-ship, wailing out a proximity alert. On the screen, one of the green asteroid blips headed for the shuttle on a sure collision course.

"Reb, on the port side!" Yuna shouted over the comm.

No response. Bren stared at the glyphs on his screen.

"Come on, come on," he chanted under his breath. On-screen, the space between the shuttle and the rock increased a little bit more every time the screen refreshed, but it wasn't enough, no-where near fast enough.
On the screen, the two glyphs touched, then separated, as if part of an elaborate dance. A burst of noise crashed over the open comm-line. Bren squeezed his eyes shut--

...the Deepwater Gold plowed into the alien ship, Reb's clone at the helm...

"Reb! Zak! Are you all right?" Yuna demanded.

Silence, then a crackle of static.

"--ll right." Zak sounded shaken. "Well, mostly, Reb's bleeding again, but no biggie."

Bren sucked in a breath, torn between calling for Lise and yelling at Zak.

"We're on our way back, Deepwater." Reb's voice, sounding a bit strained. "We're all right. We got what we came for. Alpha, out."

Bren stared at the displays, concentrating on evening out his breathing, slowing his racing heart. He should remain at his post--except he wasn't needed anymore. His commander--his charge--was on his way back to the ship, injured. Bren stepped back from his station. Well, that made it clear where he needed to be.

"I'm going to meet them," he announced into the air. No-one said anything.

Turning smartly on his heel, he left the Command deck and made his way down to the shuttle bay. Bren picked a particular patch of wall and parked himself there. The minutes stretched out, marked by the pounding pulse at his temple. At last, Reb came through the shuttle deck's accessway, head down, a full pack slung over his shoulder. The moment he saw him, all of the anger and anxiety burst out.

"What the hell did you think you were doing?" Bren growled.

Reb's head snapped up. Reddish smears still marred his skin, dried to a flaking, rust-colored crust in places. He put his kit down, not answering right away.

"My job," Reb said at last. "We needed that ore."

"A lot of good a chunk of rock and metal would have done us with our engineer dead!"

"Gret had it right from day one, Bren. None of us are irreplaceable. If needed, Gen can create another Reb Anderson. The Deepwater project was run by scientists, remember? We're all obsessed with fail-safes and back-ups," he finished with a lopsided grin.

Bren didn't see the humor. "You're not expendable," he grated out.

Another Reb Anderson? On this ship? The sheer wrongness of that twisted his guts, sending the Mission imperative thrumming through his mind.

Preserve the gene bank.
Restore life to Earth.
Keep Reb Anderson alive.

Let Reb die? No. Never. Not on his watch. Never again.

"What's eating you, Bren?" Reb demanded. "Annoyed you didn't get a chance to play hero?"

How could someone so intelligent be so stupid at the same time? He stepped forward, unconsciously using his greater height to try and hem the smaller man in. Reb's eyes narrowed, his lips compressing into a thin, angry line. Closed off. Out of reach.


Bren grabbed a fistful of the other's shirt, dragging him up. He caught a glimpse of startled blue eyes.

"What the--"

He had to shut him up, just for a minute, just so he could think. He couldn't do that with that light, sardonic voice filling his ears, clouding his mind. He had to make the other man understand.

The kiss was clumsy, the first his flesh had ever known, but heavy and intense. Reb's mouth opened and-- he was tasting him, probing deep in Reb's mouth. Wet, soft lips, the firm pad of his tongue, hard smooth teeth... By instinct, he tongued the other's palette. He heard a muffled, ragged groan--from Reb or from himself? His head spun, black spots dancing in his vision. Air. Right. One of those minor necessities.

He dragged his mouth away from Reb's, their mouths parting with a moist pop. Reb stared at him, lips dark red and swollen. A slick, urgent heat prickled under his skin, totally different from his playful teasing with Gret or even his sometime-awareness of Lise. This smashed through every defense he had, leaving him with the most intense hard-on he could remember. A swelling warmth pressed against his thigh, proof of Reb's own arousal. So little space between them. He could dip his head and claim that warm mouth again--

Bren pushed himself away, putting temptation out of reach. "Get back to the others. They'll be worried."

Was that his voice? He sounded drunk, his speech thick and slurred. His tongue felt too big for his mouth.

Reb studied him in silence, eyes searching his face. Bren managed to scrape up something resembling his Corps discipline, leashing his turbulent emotions and blanking his features. Then, without another word, Reb nodded once, picked up his pack and started up the corridor. Bren forced himself not to watch his crew mate go.

Within minutes, even the echo of Reb's footsteps had faded away. Bren leaned against the wall, awash with a jelly-joint rush of weakness. Where had that come from? He could still taste Reb on his lips and tongue. Still wanted to go back for more.

He's alive, Bren told himself. A little banged up, but he's fine. The thought calmed some of the spiky panic in his veins, but did nothing for the hot ache in his groin. In his mind's eye, he could see the lines of dried blood disappearing into the neckline of Reb's shirt. From the way he'd moved, the blond engineer would be sporting a wild assortment of bruises tomorrow.

Bruises healed so much faster with massage therapy.

Shit, what was happening to him?

Pushing off the wall, Bren re-oriented himself and started towards his quarters. He didn't want to face the others just now, not with a raging hard-on he had no way to hide or explain. He picked up his pace until he moved through the corridors at a near-run. He reached his quarters without incident--and without encountering any of the others. Once inside, he engaged the privacy lock and blocked all but the emergency communication channels. Then, his solitude and privacy assured, Bren collapsed onto his bunk, flinging an arm up to block out the overhead light.

He closed his eyes, trying to slow his racing heart. So close. So close to losing him. To watch Reb die--again--helpless to intervene. To lose him to a chunk of rock, to be deprived of even the catharsis of vengeance... He didn't understand this need that twisted him up inside. Who had designed these damned memory implants, anyway? For the purposes of storing data, they were great. Where self-knowledge was concerned, they fell flat. Well, he'd only been alive--consciously alive, that is--for a few months. Still, that should be long enough for him to understand his own emotions, they were his, after all.

Kind of like Reb thought he should have been able to understand his Doppleganger?

His subconscious was just being so helpful tonight.

He checked a sigh and tried to force himself to relax. A good soldier took down-time wherever he found it. After today's exertions--and the small mountain of work they still had to do--he should be thinking only of sleep. Except all he could think of was that incredibly exasperating, sure-to-kill- him-through-frustration engineer.

And which kind of frustration are you referring to? a little voice japed.

Bren sat up. All right, enough was enough. He swung his legs over the side of his bunk. He could work out, or go for a jog on the lower decks. A good dose of concentrated physical activity should--

A soft buzz sounded as someone tried the door to his quarters and found it locked. Bren froze. Who'd try to come in without any kind of warning? For a moment, he considered paging Gen, to see who was on the other side of that door. Another buzz, this one cut off abruptly. Maybe whoever it was had taken the hint and left. He watched the door for a long moment. He was just beginning to ease down from his alert pose when the door zipped open without warning. A very nonchalant Reb Anderson sauntered in.

Bren stared, speechless, for a short moment. The door closed behind Reb, sealing them both inside.

"What are you--how did you get in here?" Bren demanded.

Reb gave him that irritating grin. "I'm an engineer, Bren, and I remember designing the Deepwater. You really think a locked door is going to keep me out?"

Bren clenched his jaw, a familiar sense of frustration rising inside him. Reb had that same blithe, arrogant tone he'd used that first time, when he'd cut power to the weapons systems. Reb looked around, an expression of casual curiosity on his face. Not that there was much to look at: the same four walls, bunk, and mini-head they all had in their quarters. None of them had anything in the way of unique personal possessions. It felt a lot like barracks living, and Bren found the parallel comfortingly familiar.

"What do you want, Reb?" he snapped.

"I want to know why you kissed me."

Damn, chortled his ever-helpful snide observer, you asked for that one. Now what, soldier?

He said gruffly. "I--You took a stupid, needless risk out there, you could have been killed."

"Didn't we go over this?" Reb asked.

"Never again," he whispered, his voice scraping past the thorny knot in his throat. "You will never go out there without me again."

"I don't need a keeper, Bren."

"I can't protect you if you leave me behind!"

Reb gaped at him in astonishment. "Who said you had to protect me?"

"I--the Mission--" Bren stammered. The feeling refused to resolve into words, pulsing inside him like a second heartbeat. He couldn't continue. I want you, I need you. If you're in my bed, beneath my body, I know you're safe. If I can hear you cry out and know it's from pleasure and not pain, maybe the nightmares will stop.

He couldn't say any of that. Bren Stuart, put his most private thoughts out on display? Yeah, right after Jupiter becomes a vacation spot. He had a grown man's memories, but a teenager's body. That body had some very specific demands--but surely he could apply his military discipline to shore up his self-control. Oh, but--

"I want you." Shit, had he said that out loud? Had he actually said that? Judging by the look on Reb's face, the answer to that was a resounding yes.

Bren closed his eyes. Oh, brilliant move, Stuart. Why not announce it over the ship's comm while you're at it?

"I thought...you and Gret..." Reb said at last, his voice hesitant.

"Gret is a friend." And much too messed up in the head to be anything more. "Besides, have you seen her with Zak? Those two have 'meant to be' written all over them, even if they haven't learned to read it yet."

He felt the dip as Reb settled himself beside him on the edge of the bunk. Not too close...not so close...please...

"Never figured you for a romantic, Bren." Reb sounded amused.

Still keeping his eyes closed, Bren shrugged one shoulder. "Not much to do on long patrols except read, stargaze, and write bad poetry."


"What kind of bad poetry?"

"Very bad." The memory of some of those verses made him wince. Shakespeare I'm not.


Bren frowned and opened his eyes. "So what?"

"So what are we going to do about this?"

Yes, Reb was much too close. He could feel the other's warm breath on his neck.

"We could pretend none of this ever happened."

"I don't think so."

Bren tried to swallow, his mouth suddenly dry. His heart beat against his ribs, hard enough to bruise. He turned his head, met Reb's eyes. A high flush pinked the engineer's cheeks and his lips were ever-so-slightly parted.

Whoa. Excitable, isn't he?
chuckled his personal peanut gallery.

Bren kept his gaze centered on the other's face, but it didn't help all that much. His body remembered the other's heat, his undeniable response to that ill-considered kiss. Well, if you don't want to forget, I'll give you something to remember.

Bren caught him by the back of his neck and held him still. This time, Reb didn't fight it. He tasted even better the second time. Bren felt the engineer's hands tug at his shirt, pulling the tails free of the waistband of his pants. Reb's hands slid under his shirt and ghosted along the line of his ribs. Bren shuddered and broke the kiss, shying away.

"What's wrong?" Reb asked with a puzzled frown.

"Ticklish," Bren mumbled, pulling him close again. "Not so light."

"Oh," Reb said, before the kiss cut him off again.

Reb's strong hands kneaded the small of his back, his touch surer this time. Bren sidled closer, almost pulling the slighter man into his lap. Warm now, hot, even. He slid his free hand under Reb's shirt, tracing up along his spine. Reb shivered and pressed closer, nudging his thighs apart with a knee. He could feel the hard bulge of the other's erection against his thigh. A fierce lust for the feel of skin against skin crashed through him. He rested his hands on Reb's hips.

"Take off your shirt," he ordered, the ghost of Commander Stuart strong in his voice.

For once, Reb actually obeyed, pulling the thin shirt up over his head and tossing it to the floor. Bren let out a sighing breath, filling his gaze with the sight before him. Reb was all sleek lines and clean angles, long, lean muscles stretching and bunching under pale, smooth skin as he moved. A scattering of fresh bruises shadowed his skin, starting at his shoulders, and his arm, mottling along his rib cage. He traced the ragged edges of the contusions with his fingertips, soothing away the pain. Greatly daring, he began linking the bruises together with small light kisses, forming an invisible chain that wound up Reb's body. Reb gave a shuddery sigh, and wove his fingers into his hair. He looked up at last, into Reb's face.

"Your turn," Reb breathed, eyes fever-bright.

He wants to see me. Without preamble, Bren yanked off his own shirt and tossed it aside. Before the wadded-up garment hit the floor, Reb put his hands on him. Reb had been the first to touch him, coming out of cryo. His body remembered.

A darkness so vast and so deep, he couldn't remember light. Emptiness, an eternity of nothing. Yet he knew something was there, something that shrouded him, protecting him from the emptiness and the cold. Then something tore through that shroud, an invasion of light and heat.

Warm fingers followed the line of his collarbone, snaking down his chest. Bren closed his eyes, letting his own hands rest on the other's hips. Sensation dulled a bit as Reb's touch skated over muscle, then sharpened again. His breath caught, then escaped in a soft hiss as Reb's fingers stroked down along his ribs, coming to rest at the waistband of his pants. He wound his arms around Reb and buried his face in the other's neck.

He caught a hint of a familiar scent, something that touched off a cascade of disjointed memories. The base...but he wasn't on the base anymore, he was aboard a ship, he could feel the cold metal deckplates under his feet. He had a duty to perform, someone he needed to find--

"Commander Bren Stuart, reporting for duty--" The words spilled free, automatic as breathing. He had to find the CO, the CO would know his orders, know who he was supposed to find, protect--

"Take it easy, there. You'll be all right in a minute. Do you know anything about computers?"

He heard the urgency in the other's voice, wanted to respond to it, but he needed to find...find...

"No. Who's the officer in charge here?" he managed to ask.

"Uh...I don't think there is one. As far is we can tell, this is a civilian ship."

"Terrific," he muttered. Now how was he supposed to find his assignment? What was he doing on a civilian vessel?

"You'll have to lose these," Reb murmured, calling him back up out of his memories, tugging at a fold of his pants. His breath washed warm against Bren's ear.

"That means you'll have to move." But he didn't slacken his hold.

"Which means you'll have to let go," Reb said.

"Not just yet," the soldier said, running small kisses up along the line of his throat. He caught Reb's earlobe between his teeth, giving it a playful tug.

Reb gasped, burying his hands in Bren's hair, cradling his head. That's how I want it to be, he thought. I want you to need me, I want you to reach out for me.

So many tastes and textures in the skin beneath his lips. He wanted to know them all, catalog every inch of him. He ran his hands down Reb's back, sliding his fingers under the waistband of his pants. His fingers brushed against the elastic of the briefs the other man wore under his clothes. Reb shivered in his arms and pressed closer.

His hands curved over the engineer's lean ass, squeezing once. Reb tensed in his arms, an eager tremor shivering through him. Bren made a low sound of appreciation--then rolled them both onto his bunk. Reb gave a breathless gasp of surprise at the maneuver, staring up at him with wide eyes.

He has beautiful eyes, Bren thought, leaning in to claim another kiss. So clear. No secrets.

Reb's mouth was soft and willing under his own. The soldier drew his hands up along the other's sides, tracing swirling patterns. Reb's own hands were spread against his chest, not trying to ward him off, but exploring. He made a low sound of encouragement in his throat--that turned into a strangled gasp as Reb's nails scraped over a particularly sensitive spot. Bren caught a fistful of the blanket, squeezing his eyes shut as the other's mouth laved the highly-sensitized flesh.

"Did I hurt you?" Reb asked after a breathless moment.

"No," Bren whispered, a little shaken by the force of his reaction. It was one thing to want someone...something else entirely to act on that desire. "Feels good."

Reb gave him a wicked grin that wasn't anywhere near enough warning, and did it again, this time adding the edge of his teeth. Bren shuddered, and braced himself on his hands, holding himself still with supreme effort as Reb explored him. How long had he wanted this? Probably as long as I've been conscious. As long as I've been alive. Reb's spiky hair felt impossibly soft against his chest, his stomach--

He gasped, arching up, hands sliding into Reb's hair. Reb pressed the side of his face against Bren's inner thigh. The workout pants he wore now felt too tight, an unwelcome constriction. Reb slid a hand over his hip to cradle Bren's straining erection.

His blood began to fizz, bubbling fast and hot under his skin. Like I'm drugged. But this felt far better than the chemical surprise the long-dead General had prepared for him. Reb drew back, settled back on his knees. He stared into his eyes, his touch light, hesitant, and incredibly frustrating. Without thinking, Bren reached down and caught Reb's hand in his own. He pressed up into their joined hands, and watched as Reb's eyes went wide--and hungry.

"Tell me," Reb murmured against his skin. "Tell me what to do."

"Keep doing that," Bren gasped, as the younger man's fingers stroked him again.

He pulled his own hands away, working them through Reb's short hair. Reb's touch became surer, more confident, and Bren willingly submitted. He caught his breath as Reb snaked a hand down the front of his pants. Bren gasped in surprise and hunger, pulling Reb's mouth down to his. He needed something, to feel the other's weight pressing him into the bunk, his warm mouth, and damn if he--

The comm cheeped for attention.

Both men froze. The comm signaled again.

"I have to answer that," Bren said reluctantly.

"You have got to be kidding me," Reb said, his breath hot against his neck.

"I blocked everything except the emergency channels," Bren explained breathlessly, beginning to squirm out from under. "If it's sounding, it's an emergency. 'Sides, you really want Gen beaming in here?"

"She's a hologram, Bren."

"With a record function."

A pause. "Good point," Reb said, and rolled to the side.

Bren got to his feet, and picked up his personal comm-unit. "Yeah?"

"Bren, is Reb with you?"

Yuna. Of all the people to page him now... He took a deep breath, steadying himself. Yuna was as perceptive as an elite scout. She'd figure out what any suspicious tremors in his voice meant. And everyone knew what Yuna felt for their engineer.

"Yeah, we're 'discussing' his innate talent for trying to control everything."

A short silence. Bren held his breath. Yuna gave a short laugh that sounded a little too forced.

"All right, then. When you're done chewing him up and spitting him out, kick what's left up to the Command Deck, would you? Zak wants him to look at something."

Bren blinked away the mental images that conjured up. He gave fervent thanks that the comm only carried audio. Behind him, he could hear Reb moving around.

"Is it an emergency?" he asked. She had called in on one of the emergency channels.

"No." Yuna sounded puzzled. "I don't think so, anyway. Zak made the call, but now he's crawling around under the consoles, doing something, I'm not sure what. Just before it chimed through, Zak told me to take it."

And that was why Zak drove him absolutely crazy--in a totally different way than Reb. Zak thought nothing of doing something like using an emergency channel to page someone for a non-emergency. Probably has something to do with the damn computer, he thought disgustedly.
"He's dead on his feet, Yuna. Even I'm starting to feel sorry for him. Can it wait?"

He almost heard her shrug."I don't see why not. Just pass on the message."

"Will do." He signed off, and stood holding the comm in his hand for a long moment. Then he sighed and put it down on his work table. The mood is officially shot down. He turned around to face Reb--and froze.
Reb lounged on his bunk, his head propped on his hand--and naked as the moment he'd stepped out of the cryo-unit. Minus the goop. Bren just stared.

"Well, are you going to join me, or am I in this alone?" Reb drawled.
That snapped him out of his daze. It took him less than a minute to peel out of the rest of his clothes. Reb sidled back until his back was pressed to the wall, making room for him.

"Zak wants your help with something," Bren murmured, nuzzling against Reb's neck. The fine blonde hairs curled just behind his ear, instead of standing out in riotous spikes like the rest. "It can wait."

"Got that right," Reb managed, running his hands up his partner's back.

The touch sent a chill racing up his spine. He shivered, and tried to lose himself in the feeling again. But he swore he felt eyes on them, accusing eyes. He actually had to look up to make sure that Yuna hadn't somehow gotten into his quarters without his noticing. Hell, maybe she had told Gen to record them, just because their AI had a hologram mode didn't mean she had to show herself to do her job.

"What is it?" Reb asked, breathless.

The sense of wrongness increased, doubts creeping in to poison the moment. "We--Reb, I'm sorry. We can't, not just yet."

Reb stilled. "Are you serious?"

"Reb, I--"

"Get off me." The engineer's voice was clipped and hard, the blue eyes flat.

He complied, cursing himself.

"All right, what the hell is going on? You damn near attack me outside the shuttle bay, you're all over me, and now you say 'we can't do this.'"

Until now, he'd never known Reb had such a gift for mimicry. Do I really sound that uptight? he wondered. He shook his head, hoping to scatter the confusing thoughts.

"I want to, Reb. That should be obvious."

Reb flushed.

"We can't do this now. Not while--not until--I can't let this be an experiment, Reb. It's too important." He ran shaking hands through his hair. He looked up, relived to find Reb still sitting on his bunk, watching him like he was some kind of puzzle the universe had delivered to him to solve.

"Important how?"

He heard countless layers of meaning in those two words. He tried to shape an answer that would meet most of them.

"There're only six of us, on a single ship, with an unknown enemy and an uncertain future. It's--I can't be casual about this, Reb. I don't how everything got tangled into this--the Mission, the future, Yuna, Gret, Lise--but it is. I have to protect you. I can't do it if you leave me behind, and I can't do it if there's a wall between us. And if this is just an experiment for you, if you can just pull your clothes on and walk away, you damn well better believe that's going to put up a wall."

Reb was silent for a long time. Bren waited, holding his breath as the silence stretched out into something almost painful.

"I'm not walking away, Bren," Reb said at last.

The Corpsman let out a gusty sigh, bowing his head in relief.

"I'm not going to pretend I know even half of what you're talking about," he continued. "And I guess that's a good enough sign that we need to wait."

Bren started breathing again, slow and easy. He's not leaving. "Stay here tonight?" he asked.

"All right," Reb said quietly.

The bunk wasn't really built for two, but they managed, with Reb lying on his side, curled around Bren. Reb pillowed his head on Bren's shoulder, a position sure to bring stiffness and achy joints the next day, but Bren didn't care. The other's weight and warmth felt comforting, as did the way the slighter man filled his arms.

"What are we going to do?" Reb asked drowsily.

"I was planning on sleep," Bren replied in low-voiced amusement.

Reb grimaced. "I meant about the others."

About Yuna, you mean. He wasn't blind, he knew what was growing between their mission leader and the fiercely independent pilot/navigator. Meant for each other. But he was meant for me. He knew that like he knew his own name, with a surety that went deeper than prex-memory.

"We'll take it as it comes," Bren said finally. It wasn't much of an answer, but it was the best he could manage in his present stupor.

"All right," Reb sighed, his breath a wash of warmth against his neck. "We'll tackle it after we wake up."

"Good plan," Bren murmured, brushing his lips against Reb's temple. The blond was already half-asleep, so he did little more than burrow in closer against his side.

Reb came up with good plans--and this one would have Bren's full support. Because he wasn't giving this up, this warmth and sure weight in his arms. It soothed the compulsion of the imperative, duty and reward in one package. And God help anyone who tried to take this away from him.


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