I was home. Not only was I in my captain’s quarters on the Kaitan, but the ship was docked on Alaxak, in my village harbor, Gamut. I stretched on the furs of my bunk, still drowsy from my afternoon nap after a furious Shadow-fishing schedule had kept us up all night. I wasn’t ready to be awake, but a knock at the door sent me sitting up.
“Hey?” I answered.
I knew who it would be before I heard his voice. “It’s me.”
“Hi,” I said as Nev entered without waiting.
Ancestors, but the sight of him still took my breath away, even with how easily he slipped in that door these days, even with the scraggly beard he now wore as a partial disguise against casual observers. The startling silver-gray eyes, so bright they nearly glowed, the sculpted face, the perfect waves of light brown hair my fingers itched to touch. The fact that all these features came from very particular bloodlines didn’t seem to bother me anymore. Not much, anyway.
I stood up as he entered, and before I knew what was happening, his arms were around me, and he was crushing me to his chest.
Whoa. I still wasn’t used to this. And, Great Collapse, he was strong.
“I missed you,” he breathed into my hair.
I let out a strangled laugh. “You saw me all day--er, night. And you’re also squeezing the air from my lungs.”
“Sorry.” He loosened his hold but didn’t let me go, perching his chin on the top of my head. “And I was around you. It’s not the same.”
“Well, we can’t exactly be doing this in the middle of a Shadow run. We might as well fly straight into a star.”
Nev’s arms slipped away from me. Maybe he’d sensed my stiffness. I didn’t mind his presence here--in fact, part of me wanted it to be a more permanent arrangement. But the tension from the previous run was still too fresh in my mind.
Instead of talking about any of that, he said, “Come out with me.”
I blinked at him. “Where?”
“There’s a bonfire on the beach tonight.” He playfully tugged my arm toward the door. “You know, you led me to believe this place was dreadfully boring--and I thought it was too, when I was here by myself. But I now know that I was just never invited to where the real fun was.”
I sighed. “I don’t go to these things often myself. I mean, I’m invited, but . . .”
Not many people wanted me around. Everyone knew what happened to people in my family. It happened to other families too, even on other planets near concentrations of Shadow, but my family was one of the oldest on Alaxak, our Shadow grounds the biggest. Now only Arjan and I were left of the Uvgamuts. We were like missiles ready to explode.
Not so fun at parties.
That didn’t stop Nev. “All the more reason for you to come,” he said.
Somehow, I let him drag me out the door and off the ship. “Wait, the rest of your disguise,” I said as we headed down the ramp that stretched to the dock.
His new beard wasn’t enough to mask him, though it helped. He paused to slip in the flat brown contacts and bite down on a capsule, both of which he always carried with him now. His features altered in seconds, almost like they were shifting slightly on his face, and then we were good to go.
The walk down to the beach was freezing, crystalline, stunning. I’d seen it many times, but alongside Nev, an outsider, I viewed it with new eyes. The night sky was black velvet glittering with gems, with a sash of shimmering, colorful light across the expanse--the far-off molecular clouds. The two moons shone like spotlights. Our breath fogged the air as we stared up at it all, walking hand in hand and trying not to trip over rocks, chunks of ice, or driftwood on the path from the dock down to the beach. Gamut itself was a collection of softly glowing orbs beyond the shore, as were the lights of various starships along the dock.
The ocean was a humming whoosh in our ears, and for a second, I didn’t know if I’d ever been anywhere more perfectly beautiful. In that moment, I forgot everything that was bothering me.
Until Nev finally brought it up.
“I know today--last night--was difficult. I know the crew hasn’t entirely accepted me, especially Arjan, and since he’s your brother, you might find that particularly troubling.” He spoke quickly, as if to get it all out before I could stop him--deny it, even though there was nothing to deny. He and Arjan had been at each other’s throats the entire run. “But we can do this,” Nev finished.
This. That little word held so much. And I got the feeling that Nev had intended it to. What was this? Nev, living and working on my ship, my planet? The two of us together, not just as captain and crew, but as something more? Building a future we could both share, despite coming from completely different places?
I wasn’t even quite sure what that future would look like. I didn’t know if I could share the responsibilities of captaining the Kaitan with Nev, or if he could give up all remnants of his old life to accept them. Even if we could, would we make our union more official? I’d never let myself consider something like marriage before. I never thought I’d live long enough.
I still didn’t know if I would, but for some reason, the threat of death was no longer enough to keep me from toying with the possibilities.