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Love Alters

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Celestine Station, pretty as its name sounded, was a shithole. Kayc
might have been a novice in treading the spaceways, but a shithole was a
shithole, and he knew one when he saw one. He'd spent the first twenty
years of his life in one, and he'd seen plenty more over the past six
months. Truth was, the trade he ploughed now, he'd seen little else, nor
had much expectation of better. Still and all, that didn't mean he had
to like it. Or that he had to hang around a moment longer than he needed
to complete the absolute basics: refuel, reprovision, stow away his
cargo and leave. Or so he thought, until a hand on his shoulder stopped
him as he was about to embark. He half-turned, and found himself looking
up – a novel experience for him, tall as he was (freakishly tall, cruel
folk said) – into the craggy, stubbled face of the harbourmaster.

"Problem?" he asked, resigned. Not really a question; places like these,
there always was a problem. If there wasn't, someone would come along
and make one.

"You're short on your cargo manifest." A large, grubby thumb stabbed at
a line of illegible script that any but the blindest could have seen had
been tacked onto the end of the original list. "One more piece."

Kayc sighed. So: he was going to be smuggling by default. Well. It
wouldn't be the first time. And so far his gods, questionable as their
existence might be, had seemed to smile on him. "What is it?"

"Shipment for Halcyon. Delivery to House Rydell." The harbourmaster
pulled back his pad and scanned the last few pages. "Everything cleared
and above board – " He leered at Kayc. "Had you worried there, eh?" Kayc
shrugged indifferently. "One item – may be kind of high maintenance, but
you can probably charge compensation if there's trouble – House Rydell's
loaded …"

"I've heard the name," Kayc admitted, but he was frowning. "What do you
mean, 'trouble'? Is it hazardous? Volatile? Because my ship's not up to – "

"Your ship's up to whatever House Rydell pays it to be up to," the other
man snapped, and turned away to send instructions over his wire. Then he
looked back. "As for 'volatile' … well. You might get more than you
bargained for."

By Kayc's reckoning he already had, but there was no point in saying so.
At his back he heard the warehouse doors swish open, then close again,
and he turned to see what he'd been let in for this time.

At first he was puzzled: there was only a port security guard there, her
hand steady on the arm of a tall, slightly built young man in drab green
coveralls. Then it clicked, and he raised a protest.

"You said cargo! This isn't a passenger ship!"

"Room in your hold," said the harbourmaster, with another glance at his
pad. "Nice, empty space just here – " He held out the pad. "See? And
forget what I said before. Treat him right, he's no bother – he's past
the fighting stage. We've had him here a couple of days now, and half
the time we pretty much forgot about him. Cries in the night, sometimes,
but he can keep himself clean. And he don't talk, so don't feel like you
have to make conversation. You want, you can keep him locked in there,
he won't know any better. That way, he won't trouble you at all."

Kayc was staring at the other man. "How can you talk about him like – "

"Like he's not there?" The man tapped his forehead significantly. "'Cos
he ain't. Mindwipe. Boy's just a walking piece of meat now."

Mindwipe?! Kayc turned his stare to the boy, who stood quiescent,
immobile, empty eyes fixed straight ahead, gazing at nothing. He
couldn't have been much more than sixteen: what in all the hells could a
kid like this have done that was so bad as to have incurred the maximum
penalty? For that matter, what kind of godsforsaken sector was this, to
mindwipe a minor? Even on his homeworld they would never have gone so far.

"Families' feud." The harbourmaster must have seen Kayc's expression and
deigned to explain a little further. "Sieur Rydell stepped out of line,
boy was forfeit – now they're sending him home to Daddy to remind him to
mind his manners in the future." He glanced at his colleague for
confirmation. "House Coburg, wasn't it?"

"Who else would snatch the son and heir right out from under the noses
of University security?" the woman said. "House Coburg plays for keeps.
This'll put a real crimp in House Rydell's business for a long time."
Then she grinned. "Lucky I got an insider tip and cashed in my shares, huh?"

"Nice to be able to afford shares," the harbourmaster grouched. He
pulled the young man round by his shoulder, pushed his head down, ran
his scanner over the exposed skin of the boy's neck. Kayc heard a faint
'beep', and the harbourmaster turned the boy back again, straightened
him, and shoved him toward the ship. "He's tagged. Don't get tempted to
dump him out the airlock – the Rydells like to keep tabs on what's
theirs, even if it's damaged goods."

"They didn't – " Kayc found his voice cracking, and had to swallow.
"They didn't reprogram him? They just left him … empty?"

"If I know Sieur Coburg," the security guard commented, her voice dry,
"his boys will've left a little time bomb. Something that'll hit Sieur
Rydell where it really hurts."

"Losing his son wasn't enough for that?" Kayc found the need to swallow
again, harder this time. Then the woman's words registered, and he swung
back toward the harbourmaster. "Time bomb? Volatile?"

The man raised an indifferent shoulder, spread out his hands, gave Kayc
a sheepish grin. "Nothing I can do now, son – he's on your manifest,
he's your responsibility till Sieur Rydell takes him off your hands." He
signed off on his pad, and pressed for a hard copy, clicked the chip
from the base and pressed it into Kayc's hand, then clapped him on the
shoulder. "Play it safe, do like I said – lock him in the hold and
forget about him." He stepped back, and tipped his cap. "Good luck!"

And then it was just the two of them, Kayc and the boy, left alone on
the loading dock. Scion Rydell – Kayc assumed the title held good,
circumstances notwithstanding – still stood where the guard had left
him, motionless but for the slight trembling of his hands, his shallow
breathing, an occasional slow blink. Even when Kayc moved in front of
him, directly into his line of vision, he gave no sign of awareness.
Kayc breathed a sigh.

"What in the nine hells am I supposed to do with you?!"

There was no answer. He hadn't really expected one. Well. The boy could
walk, that had been demonstrated. They would walk, then. Kayc reached
out and laid a gentle hand on the Scion's arm, altering his grip when
the boy winced involuntarily and drew in a sharp breath. There were
bruises on his wrists and on his forearms, more on his face, and his
knuckles were torn; he hadn't gone down without a fight. Kayc felt an
odd touch of pride at the thought. Good, kid! You gave them something to
think about, at least. He exerted a little pressure, steering the boy
forward. He stumbled at first, but then moved readily enough: up the
gangway, through the airlock, into the cabin. Kayc settled him into the
only available chair, the pilot's, and moved around him to close and
seal the hatch and initiate launch procedures. Cold as she was, Lisa's
Luck would take a good ten minutes before she was ready to go. He had
that long to make a decision.

He came back to kneel before the chair, taking the boy's cold hands in
his own. "You can't stay here, not unless they reprogrammed you as a
transit pilot." Silence. "Guess not, huh?" He sighed. "Well … I could
dump you in the hold … it's a short hop, the atmo'll hold that long …
Seems unkind, though. I think you've had enough of that, huh? I think -
Lady!" He found himself backed up against the steering panel, rocked
back on his heels, hands flat on the floor, staring into wide brown
eyes. Eyes that were huge, and fathomless, and terrified. And very, very
much aware.

***

 

In Kayc's mind, he'd had time to make the trip to Halcyon, drop the boy
off, stay for dinner, explore the family estates and spend a blissful
night with the daughter of the house in the time it took him to restart
his heart, which he was pretty sure had stopped altogether for a while.
He closed his eyes; opened them again. No; it hadn't been his
imagination. The boy was no more brain-dead than he was. He
straightened, suddenly conscious of his dignity, his position as
Captain, if only of a one-man junker, and he pushed himself up off the
floor to loom over the boy, who lifted his head, watching him: hunted, wary.

"Do I get an explanation?" Kayc asked, his voice deliberately sharp and
cold. He'd never liked being played for a fool; Lisa had found that out
the hard way, and this kid was going to learn it too.

"I don't know this ship," the boy whispered. "I don't know you. Did my
father send you for me? Who are you?"

Kayc shook his head. "Uh-uh. My ship – my questions. What was that story
back there? My heart damn near bled for you – poor little victim
suffering for your bad rich daddy's crimes."

The boy smiled grimly. "You can keep on bleeding. It was all true."

"But you're not …"

"Not yet." His eyes met Kayc's again, and his smile softened. "Sieur
Coburg's technology doesn't come from the government." He thought for a
moment, then shrugged. "Actually, that's pretty much moot, he is the
government on Bella Terra, he can use whatever he wants. The process you
know is instantaneous – yes? Old personality out, new, improved
personality in, over and done with?"

Kayc was pretty sure he wouldn't like where this was headed, but he
nodded slowly anyway. "Yeeesss …?"

"That's not what they used on me. This is slow release, and cumulative.
I can feel myself vanishing … a little at a time. Every time I sleep, I
wake up, and I reach for memories that aren't there … that I don't even
know what I'm reaching for …" He shivered, and looked away. "I'm afraid
to sleep, now," he whispered. "I'm afraid all the time …"

"You know?!" Kayc was horrified. "How long ?"

"How long do I have, or how long ago did they do it? It's been three
days. At the moment – " He tried to laugh; it wasn't very convincing.
"At the moment, I'd say I'm about half the man I used to be. It's two
days to Halcyon, if you're maintaining atmo. Probably just enough time
for me to be able to see my father's face and still know what the look
on it means."

Kayc had to look away. "Okay. That sucks, yeah." It was an
understatement, but he had no words for the horror, the wanton,
deliberate cruelty. "But do you want to tell me, why the big act back
there? What was that about?"

The boy gave another shrug. "How long were you on Celestine?"

"About half a day," Kayc said, bewildered. "Why ?"

"And did you take to them? Would you invite them into your heart and
your home?" The boy was smiling now; not pleasantly. "They're a bunch of
crooks on Celestine, always have been. That's why Coburg used them for
the transfer. If they'd known that they had me, and no-one to answer to,
and that I still had all the details of my dad's business right here – "
He touched the side of his head. "If they'd known that … and if they'd
known that, whatever they did to me, no-one would ever know …" He
stopped, and jumped to his feet, swung Kayc over to the chair and pushed
his head down hard. He's strong, Kayc thought, surprised: he'd assume
the spoilt, pampered rich brat would be soft and weak.

"Don't throw up!" the boy was saying, quick and urgent. "It's gross, the
whole ship'll stink all the way out, plus you'll dehydrate and die and I
can't fly this fucking thing!"

"I wasn't – " Kayc started, then realised abruptly that he was, and
clamped his mouth tightly shut. Above his head, he heard the boy give a
small, tired, laugh.

"I listened to you talking. I thought, maybe I could trust you. I guess
I was right – you're too squeamish to torture anyone." Kayc made a sound
of protest in his throat, and the hand on his neck squeezed gentle
reassurance. "You have a nice voice. Very … comforting."

Kayc said "Mrpf!" which was supposed to be 'Thanks!', or something like
that, and heard another quiet laugh.

"Honestly, though? If anyone's entitled to puke, I think it should be
me. In a couple of days I'll be pretty much down to the drooling
vegetable stage, won't that be a treat? If I can still remember, I'll
see if I can throw up on you then. As a gift. Okay?"

"Could you stop – Lady! How can you joke about it?!" Kayc managed,
through gritted teeth. The pressure on the back of his neck vanished; he
looked up to see the boy slump against the bulkhead, tipping his head
back and sighing.

"What am I supposed to do? Cry?" He turned his head, laying his cheek
against the cold metal, and whispered, shamefaced, "I've done enough of
that. I'll do more, I guess, once I can't help myself any more. Can you
at least let me face this in my own way?"

Kayc nodded, uncertain of his voice, and turned toward the instrument
panel. "We're about ready to go," he muttered.

"Took you long enough," the boy said. His voice was light, cool and
cultured; it spoke of wealth and privilege and everything Kayc had ever
despised, everything he and Lisa had once fought against. And now Lisa
was, once again, a part of that world; and this boy's world was turned
to ashes. And Kayc? What did he have, now?

Well, he had his ship. And he didn't have to take any nonsense from his
unwanted passenger, no matter how extenuating his circumstances. "There
was mention of an airlock …" he mused aloud.

"It's really a waste of time to try to scare me," the boy said, but he
was laughing again, vivid, vibrant. "Plus, the airlock thing would
actually be doing me a favour." It was a statement, matter-of-fact,
without a hint of self-pity; that seemed, to Kayc, only to make it the
more poignant. "Though I wouldn't be around to see what happened to you,
if you tried it." His hand just brushed Kayc's shoulder. "You want me
out of your way. Where can I go? Other – " He held up a hand,
forestalling Kayc's answer, "Other than the obvious?"

Kayc pushed himself up out of the chair, and steered the boy back
through the cabin. "Bathroom. Galley. Bunk. You decide. No-one provided
a suit for you, so I'll have to maintain gravity and pressure – "

"I'm not that far gone yet," said the boy, sweetly, "I'd figured that
much. Hence, two days."

" – although much more out of you, and I might change my mind …"

"And again, I'd remind you that my father's vengeance would be swift and
terrible – "

"He'd have to catch me first."

"M'm. Also, he might decide you'd done him a favour and reward you …
I'll be nice." The boy's sudden smile was sunny and angelic. "I haven't
had a shower since the Coburgs took me – they were crappy hosts, and
Celestine's a stranger to personal hygiene."

"How big a reward?" Kayc pretended to wonder, tilting his head to one
side and running his eyes speculatively over the boy's body.

"I only said 'might'. You never can tell, with Father.
Please-may-I-use-your-bathroom, Messire Nameless Pilot?"

"Kayc," Kayc said, suddenly embarrassed, as though he'd committed some
huge social solecism. "Not 'Messire' anything."

"Ahhh." The boy nodded wisely. "A revolutionary. I think I was doing a
module all about you people, back at Uni …" He cocked his head,
considering. "Nope. Gone. Ah, well, I imagine it was pretty dull stuff,
anyway." He held out his hand. Kayc shook it automatically, feeling
vaguely foolish; he'd never had much time for formal manners. "I'm Dani.
At least … for the next couple of days or so. After that …" His voice
trailed away.

"After that …?" Kayc couldn't help but ask. Had House Coburg programmed
a new personality? Was it, as the woman on Celestine had suggested, some
kind of time bomb – something designed specifically to hurt or embarrass
Sieur Rydell, to destroy this boy, who must once have been the source of
all his hope, all his gladness? And if so … did Dani know what it was?
Had they made him live with that?

Dani's mouth crooked. "We'll see, then, won't we?" And he actually
winked at Kayc. "Should be interesting … don't you think?"

***

 

If Kayc were honest with himself, he'd have to admit that he wasn't the
best pilot in the system. To be brutal, it was entirely possible that he
wasn't even the best pilot aboard the Lisa. Docking, for one thing, he'd
always found difficult; there were invariably a few bumps and misfires
before he could bring the ship in safely. Launch wasn't quite so bad,
and once he was out in open space with a course plotted, the
autofunctions mostly took over. Still, he liked to be able to
concentrate as he was leaving port, to give the controls and his
surroundings his full attention.

The hum of the shower, and the grating irritation that was Dani,
whistling, made sure that that wasn't going to happen this time out. The
ship lurched horribly as it left the station, and dropped for several
seconds before his hands unknotted enough to steady her and set her on
course. He felt his ears burning, and hoped that no-one on Celestine
Station had been watching too closely. It was hard enough to find work
as things were; he didn't need word getting out that he might not be
among a prospective client's best options.

"Was that supposed to happen?"

Kayc jolted, startled; Dani's bare feet had been soundless on the
insulated decking. He glanced over his shoulder. "No," he said shortly.
"My hand slipped, okay?"

"That's reassuring," Dani said drily. "If I didn't know I was meant to
get back to my father, I'd start wondering if there was a plot."

"A plot?"

"M'm." The boy slipped into the room and settled himself cross-legged on
the floor by Kayc's feet. "To get rid of me and replace me with, you
know, a specially constructed android."

Bemused, Kayc let his eyes drift from the controls to stare down at the
boy. "An … android?" He appeared to have developed a mild case of
echolalia somewhere along the way.

Dani glanced up at him, grinning, his eyes sparkling with mischief.
"With spy cameras, to get access to all the Family secrets!" He squirmed
around until he was kneeling up, looking over the control panel. "Did
this thing come with an owner's manual?"

"There isn't an instruction leaflet, if that's what you mean." Kayc
leaned back in his chair, lifting his hands from the panel and spreading
them wide. "If you think you can do any better, please, go ahead and try!"

"M'm," Dani said again, intent on the controls. "I've never flown
interplanetary … never piloted, I mean," he corrected himself, pedantically.

"You said."

"It all looks pretty basic …" He glanced up at Kayc. "You really want me
to try?"

"No!" Kayc said, hurriedly and as firmly as he knew how. "No, I do not.
I've locked in the course, and we'll be fine."

"'Locked in the course'," Dani mimicked. "And that means, what, exactly?
Do you actually have any idea what you're doing, Kayc?"

"No," Kayc said, nastily, "Actually, I don't." His attempt at Dani's
accent fell far short; Dani only lifted an eyebrow, amused. "If you want
to know, I blackmailed the money for this ship out of my ex-lover. I
took a three-week pilot course, because that was all I could afford.
I've been flying for six months, trying to find freedom and independence
and a sense of worth and all the crap you think having your own ship's
going to bring you, and all it's brought me is grief, and a mountain of
debt, and a really far too friendly acquaintance with … with …"

"Scum," Dani supplied, helpfully. "Riffraff. The dregs of humanity. The
rabble. The Great Unwashed. Hoi polloi …"

"All of those!" Kayc snapped, " – and I don't even know what that last
one was! My point is, this is my life – my job – it's all I have, I'm
doing the best I can, and I don't need you, when you could just've
bought yourself Jump pilot implants and gone to the head of the class
overnight – I don't need you, telling me …"

"Kayc?" Dani laid a cautious hand on his arm. "I didn't mean any of
that. I'm sorry – I was just … I didn't mean to be – "

"Smug? Superior? Condescending?"

"I didn't mean to be!" Dani repeated, sounding honestly distressed.
"Really, I'm sorry. To tell the truth, I envy you. I wish I could be
like you."

Kayc bit out a short laugh. It was unkind, but he couldn't help it.
"Yeah, I just bet you do. But pretty much anything looks good from where
you're standing now – right?"

"No …" Dani's fingers bunched in the fabric of Kayc's sleeve. "I didn't
mean that, either. I meant, even before. Just … you know. Everyday. I
know … I know your life can't have been easy. And I know that everyone's
problems always look less than one's own. But you had a choice, at
least: good, bad, whatever. You got to decide who you were going to be.
You had the chance to change. I never had that."

"Yeah." Kayc couldn't seem to keep the sarcasm out of his voice. "It
must've sucked, being born into a Family – getting everything you
needed, having everything you wanted, education, and servants, and
private flyers, and so much money you never even knew you had it …"

"… my whole life pre-programmed from the moment I was born …" Dani
glanced down, with an odd little smile. "Conceived, actually. I was
really smart, you know, Kayc. You want to know why?"

"Very expensive tutors and an exclusive private school," Kayc guessed.

"I was made that way," Dani said softly. "I was bioengineered. My father
contravened every ethics law there was to do it, but he got most of them
overturned, anyway … He wanted a genius for a son, you see, and he
wasn't prepared to leave it to chance and genetics." He looked back up
then. "That's why the Coburgs took me, why they did this and didn't
just, you know, chop off an ear or whatever. It's kind of like their
little joke …" He reached out his fingers to the control panel, and
brushed them over a random selection of buttons and levers, toggles and
switches, many of whose functions Kayc had yet to determine. "I could've
learned," he murmured, wistfully. "I know I could've learned." He pushed
himself away, up to his feet, and turned back toward the galley.

Kayc stayed where he was for a long time; replaying the conversation in
his head, hating himself a little bit more with every repetition. He'd
never been the kindest of men, he knew, nor the most thoughtful; his own
life had been tough, he'd had to fend for himself from the beginning,
and he had little time for those weaker than himself. Lisa had accused
him of being heartless; she wasn't the only one. But it was never his
intention to hurt; only, sometimes, his tongue ran faster than his
brain, and then hurt happened, whether he meant it to or not. And Dani
hadn't deserved his anger. He didn't deserve any of this. Finally, Kayc
cast a last, anxious, glance over the flight settings, got up, and went
after the boy.

Dani was standing just inside the doorway to the galley, head lowered,
arms wrapped around his body. He was shivering again, looking utterly
wretched, but when he heard Kayc's quiet footsteps he looked up and
tried to smile. "I'm sorry." He seemed determined to apologise for
everything, maybe even simply for being. "I just … I thought, maybe I
could learn a new thing. Maybe it'd stick. And then maybe I could hold
on to being me, if I could relearn the things I already know." He looked
around at the galley walls, neat, compact, practical, soulless, and
shook his head. "I don't know why I came in here. It's not inspiring …
Or else," he went on, drifting away from Kayc, moving toward the back of
the ship, "Or else, if I couldn't still be me, at least I could choose
to be who I became. What I became. Not what they wanted me to be."

"Dani – " Kayc stepped into the sleeping alcove, pulled the cover from
his bunk, moved to Dani's side and wrapped it around his shoulders. He
hesitated – he'd never been much of a one for touches – then let his arm
rest loosely around the boy. "Here. Look. You're scared, I know. I don't
blame you, I'd be scared too, anyone would. But people are going to help
you. Your father – how rich is he? Are you telling me he can't afford to
have the process reversed, get you back again?"

Dani's dark eyes met his, and the sadness in them tore even at Kayc's
scarred heart. "He doesn't like damaged goods, Kayc. I've disgraced him,
let the Family down. He'll write me off as a failed enterprise."

"You don't know – "

"Yes. I do. I knew it from the moment the Coburgs took me. I knew it
didn't matter what they did to me. I just wanted it to be over …" He
turned away. "I guess it will be, pretty soon. I just wish … I wish I
didn't have to wait … I'm trying to be strong, and I'm trying to be
brave, and I'm trying to be a man, but … I don't think I'm doing so
well. If my father knew I'd cried … well. I know what he'd have to say.
And, oh, Kayc, I'm so tired …"

"And you're afraid to go to sleep," Kayc finished for him, his voice as
gentle as he knew how to make it. He reached for Dani again, put his arm
around his shoulders; the boy wasn't cold, he realised now, but
trembling with exhaustion. "Come on." He steered them both toward the
bunk; pushed Dani down to sit on the edge, lifted his feet and settled
him against the pillow, pulling the cover back down and around him.
"This isn't helping. I'll stay with you. And I'll be here when you wake
up. Whatever you've forgotten, I'll remember it for you. I'll help you,
Dani. You don't have to do this alone."

The ghost of a smile lit the boy's pinched, grey face, and he lifted a
heavy hand to touch Kayc's. "You'll help me?"

"I will," Kayc promised.

"That's nice …" It was little more than a drowsy mumble; then Dani
fought off sleep a moment longer, lifted his head, and asked, "Why?"

"Why will I help you?" Kayc closed his fingers around Dani's. "Because
somebody has to, Dani. We're all alone out here, the two of us – all
alone in the world, now. This is all I have and you – you don't even
have that much. Who's going to help us, if we can't even help one another?"

***

 

Once he finally gave up the struggle to stay awake, Dani slept for
hours; so, literally, like the dead that Kayc more than once found
himself hovering over him, checking anxiously for the sound of
breathing. Quiet though he was, it was oddly disconcerting to have
another person on board. Kayc was used to being alone on the ship – and
in any case, ordinarily he would've gone into FTL and done the trip in
half the time, or less. But with the need to maintain atmosphere aboard,
that was out of the question. He twitched about the ship for a while,
unable to settle: checked the hold, as if there were any way that the
cargo could have shifted itself about; opened and closed all the
cabinets in the galley, trying to decide if he were hungry, deciding
first that yes, he was and then no, he wasn't, and he didn't know what
to cook anyway; flung himself down in the pilot's chair and flipped
through the entertainment console, looking for, well, for entertainment
– music, talk, a drama, anything. Nothing was even amusing, or, in fact,
bearable, let alone entertaining as advertised. Finally he pulled down
one of the half-dozen texts he'd downloaded from the central library
last time he'd passed by a terminal, and tried to read. Books and
reading – reading for pleasure – were still pretty much a novelty to
Kayc; it simply hadn't been a part of the culture he'd known, growing
up. He'd never missed it but then, he'd never known it was there to be
missed. He was only now beginning to realise that there were thousands
of years and a hundred civilisations' worth of words and thoughts and
ideas that had been within his grasp all the time, if only he'd known.
The problem now was knowing where to start.

But today, even the classic Old Earth drama he'd chosen couldn't hold
his attention. His eyes were on the words, but his mind was skittering
about from one topic to another: reliving the scene on Celestine,
thinking about the Families and their traditions and their stranglehold
on the system, recalling his conversation with Dani, everything about
Dani … his bare feet, cold and vulnerable-looking on the hard metal of
the station concourse, the bruises on his arms and face, the tiny red
marks on his temples; his dark hair, clipped so short that the fragile
line of his skull was clearly visible; his eyes, so huge and trusting …
and why? What evidence had he that Kayc was to be trusted? How, in the
light of all that had happened to him, how had Dani remained so open, so
innocent?

Kayc reminded himself that what he'd met was not, after all, who Dani
had been; Scion Rydell had probably been no better than any other Family
member. Those people were all, by and large, the same: all pretty much,
in human and, indeed, humane terms, worthless. He'd known a few
exceptions – well: technically, one exception, but that did mean there
might be more – but on the whole, he wasn't inclined to give the class
the benefit of the doubt.

There. There was sound coming from the alcove. He marked his page,
pretending to himself that he hadn't just read the same line five times
over and not registered it at all, and turned off the reader, got up and
headed to the back of the ship.

Dani was awake, sitting huddled in the crook of the bedhead and the
wall, his knees tucked against his body and his arms around himself.
Defensive, Kayc thought; he couldn't blame him. He probably had no idea
where he was, or what was happening. Well: Kayc had promised to help him
remember.

"Dani?" he said, and the boy's face turned to him without recognition,
vacant, unfocused. Kayc sighed. Yes. It was as he'd feared. He moved
forward slowly, holding his hands open, away from his sides, as
unthreatening as he could make himself. Even so, Dani tensed, and tried
to get further away, pushing himself against the bulkhead so hard that
Kayc was afraid he'd injure himself. "Dani, it's okay. You're safe. I'm
Kayc. I'm your – " He hesitated. Your – what? "I'm your friend," he
finished; he personally didn't have much faith in friendship, but, Lady
knew, Dani could do with all the support he could get. "This is my ship.
We're going home to your father's estate, back to Halcyon."

He wasn't getting through; Dani only stared at him, or past him, or
through him, then suddenly made a little, incoherent noise, part sob,
part wordless protest, and turned away, hiding his face in his arms.
Kayc found himself sighing again. Okay. So it was worse than he'd
thought; they were going to have to build from the ground upwards. Well,
he could do that. It wasn't as if either of them was going anywhere for
a while.

"Dani," he said, louder than he'd meant to, reached across the bunk and
took hold of Dani's shoulder to try to pull him around. "Listen! I'm
here to help you, okay? You want to work with me a bit, here?"

Dani turned then, and looked up into his eyes. And, looking back, Kayc
saw nothing: no awareness, no understanding. Dani was gone. And this
time there would be no returning.

The realisation seemed to sap the strength from him; he let himself drop
heavily to the bunk, ignoring Dani's tiny squeak of fear, slumping
forward, dropping his head into his hands. He'd thought … he'd thought
they'd had a chance; that there was something left that could be saved.
But it was lost, all vanished, all wasted. And for what? Revenge – oh,
how he knew the Families – revenge would have been only a part of it.
They'd done this because they could.

Anger stirred in him: the anger he had felt from the start, that one
thinking, feeling human being could destroy another's humanity like
this. But more than that, he realised that what he was feeling was loss
– as though something precious to him had been taken. Which was
ridiculous. He'd known the boy for only an hour or so, spoken maybe a
hundred words to him. How could he miss him, when he'd never even known him?

Well. It was what it was, and now he had to deal with it. They still had
a Jump to negotiate, and then another day before they reached Halcyon
and he could wash his hands of the problem for good and all and, he
hoped, forget it and move on. And Dani couldn't stay where he was all
that time. Just for one thing, at some point, Kayc himself was going to
want to get some sleep. He gathered himself together, and turned back to
Dani, holding out his hand. "Come on. Let's get you out of here. I bet
you're hungry, huh?"

There was no response, only the same uncomprehending, terrified stare.
He bit down on his frustration and tried again. "Dani." He edged across
the bed until they were face to face. Dani watched him warily, but
stayed where he was – which Kayc took as a positive sign, although there
wasn't really anywhere else he could have gone. "That's you – remember?
Dani?"

He wasn't getting through. He had no idea how to do this; the closest
thing in his experience was a boy in his school who'd overdosed on bliss
in the third year. He'd been a lot like this – frightened to the point
of paranoia, almost catatonic. But then he'd gone into screaming fits,
his heart had stopped and he'd died before the medics could get there.
Which was not a comforting analogy, not by any manner of means.

Whatever he did, it was likely to be the wrong thing. He might as well
do nothing. He wouldn't be wanting his bunk for a few hours anyway; Dani
could stay there till then. And if Kayc wasn't in the same room with
him, he wouldn't have to look at the fear in his face, or hear his
small, sobbing breaths. He wouldn't have to care. He certainly wouldn't
have to feel this nebulous and, surely, unjustified sense of guilt, as
though he'd been called and found wanting.

He moved away, not looking back, and made for the galley. Now he came to
think of it, he really was hungry after all. He started going through
the cabinets again; maybe he'd missed something last time around. Mostly
there seemed to be packets of the generic, all-purpose dried stew that
every space station carried and served and sold in bulk. Dissecting that
was always a rewarding exercise. There were pulses in it, he knew that
much. And something red, that might once have been tomato. Or carrot;
sometimes it was more orange than red. (He'd thrown up enough of the
stuff to be more than familiar with its contents, both coming and
going.) The rest of it was 'protein', a vague, catch-all term that, Kayc
suspected, defied analysis.

He turned to get water, and actually, literally, jumped so hard that his
feet left the floor. "Lady!"

Dani had left the sanctuary of the bunk to drift noiselessly after him;
he was standing just inside the door, pressed sidelong against the
frame, gripping its edge with both hands. Kayc shook himself. "Dani, if
you're going to keep doing that, I'm going to have to hang a bell round
your neck! Seriously …" He put the packet down and came around to face
the boy who, he was relieved to see, only shrank from him the merest
fraction. "By my reckoning, you've scared me out of ten years already
today. And those were good years, Dani, I could've used those years.
They would've been rich, those years, they would've been full – I was
going to retire to a little place in the country, with my grandchildren
round my knee … do you understand me?" The smallest of smiles had
crooked Dani's mouth; Kayc moved slightly closer and traced the smile
with his finger, smiling himself when Dani permitted the contact and
didn't shy away. "You don't, do you? You just like the sound of my
voice. Comforting, you said." He let out another sigh – it seemed to him
that he'd used his lifetime allotment of sighs this day alone. "Well.
I'm taking this as progress. If you're not actually freaking out and
trying to crawl up the walls, I'll settle for that … you hungry?" He
rolled his eyes. "Why am I even asking? What're you going to say?" He
patted Dani's arm. "You stay there, okay? Good boy. I'll make some food,
and if you're hungry, you can eat. The way I see it," he continued,
going back to the cabinets, "you pretty much have to be. I don't imagine
they took much thought to you and your comfort, back on Celestine – did
they?" He couldn't seem to shake the habit of trying to include Dani in
the conversation. Maybe a part of him was still hoping that eventually
there'd be a reply.

He made up the stew, poured it into two bowls and brought one over to
Dani. "Here." He held up a spoonful. "Eat." He held the spoon against
Dani's lips until they parted, then tipped the food inside quickly;
watched in horror the expression of surprise and disgust that dawned on
Dani's face, and was only just quick enough to clap his hand over Dani's
mouth in time to stop him spitting the food straight out again. "No, you
don't! You do, and you clean it up. Now, swallow!" As if Dani could
understand him. He steered him across to the basin, and made him lean
over the bowl. "Okay, now spit it out …" He hadn't really needed to say
that; Dani had already done so involuntarily, and was still gagging and
spitting. Kayc leaned back against the counter. He remembered Dani, only
a few hours before, jokingly promising to throw up on Kayc after his
mind had gone. The memory hurt, and the hurt, unreasonably, made him
angry. "Wonderful! Everything else he forgets, but he still knows crap
food when he tastes it. If you remembered what your favourite restaurant
was, " he snapped at the boy, "we could send out a special order for
you." He threw up his hands. "Forget it! Starve, for all I care. When
you're hungry enough, you won't even notice what you're eating – you'll
just be glad to have it. And take it from me, I know!" He sat down at
the table, pulled the other bowl toward him and started to eat. In all
fairness, it really was pretty disgusting. You got used to it. After a
moment, he heard Dani move; he came round the table and stood, watching,
big-eyed. It was weirdly offputting; Kayc ignored it as best he could.
Which wasn't much.

"Okay," he sighed, finally, "let's see what else we can find for you …
it's all made out of the same crap, though, it just comes in different
shapes …"

He went through and rejected almost every item in the store cupboard,
finally heated some frites. All children ate frites, and Dani seemed to
fit that category. "Here." He picked one off the plate, remembered in
time that it'd be hot and snapped it in half. "Open!" He held it out;
after a moment of suspicious hesitation, Dani took it. Chewed, while
Kayc watched him anxiously. And, thank the Lady, swallowed.

With a very little prompting, and a sachet of salad cream that Kayc
unearthed from who-knew-where, Dani managed to finish off the entire
plate by himself. Then Kayc decided to forestall possible disaster and
take him to the bathroom. He devoutly hoped that Dani was going to
retain all this information, because there was no way he was repeating
that experience. That just left the slight problem of what to do with
him now.

"I need to check our course, okay?" Kayc was still doing the
talking-out-loud thing. "Make sure we're where we're supposed to be,
make sure we're making time. Can you stay here?" He tried to steer Dani
back toward the bunk. Dani stood stone still, just looking blankly at
him. Kayc tried very hard not to sigh. "Okay. You can sit in the cabin,
if you're quiet …"

But Dani wouldn't be quiet; he wanted attention. He twitched, and
fidgeted, and fussed, bumping against Kayc's legs and tugging at his
sleeve, and reaching up curious, potentially hazardous, fingers to the
console. Kayc said "Hush, now, Dani!" and "Be still, Dani!" and "Dani,
please!" until eventually his patience snapped and before he realised
what he was doing he found himself storming out of his chair, yanking
Dani up by the arm and dragging him to his feet. He marched him back to
the alcove, ignoring the boy's struggles and the shocked look on his
face, and all but threw him down on the bunk. "That's enough! Now, stay
there!"

White-faced, Dani surged straight back up and shoved Kayc in the chest,
pushing him away. Kayc had forgotten how strong he was, and was caught
off-balance, staggering back and banging into the wall. Furious, he
lunged forward and grabbed Dani's shoulders. "You little fuck, don't you
ever do that again!" He let go his hold just in time to catch Dani's
balled fists as they flailed at him. "I said, no! Do you want me to hurt
you? 'Cause I can, and I will, if you don't behave." Dani was twisting
and writhing in his hold, trying to wrench his hands away, his whole
body jerking with effort; it was all Kayc could do to hold him, and then
it was more, and Dani had broken away from him. Unthinking, Kayc threw
himself after him, hitting him in the small of the back with his own
shoulder and sending them both crashing to the deck. Dani started trying
to scrabble away, but Kayc managed to get above him and pulled him onto
his back, straddling him, pinning down his wrists. "Stop it! Dani, stop!"

Abruptly, Dani stopped fighting and lay still for a moment, panting.
Then he lifted his head, his eyes holding Kayc's, and suddenly,
deliberately, slammed it back against the floor. Then again. And again,
while Kayc tried despairingly to work out how he could simultaneously
keep him still and stop him from hurting himself. Finally he let go of
Dani's wrists, and used the moment of surprise to flip the boy over onto
his stomach and lie along his back. Which, a small part of him noted
wryly, was oddly comfortable; it was a shame they couldn't have done
this under happier circumstances.

"Dani," he said, breathlessly, into the boy's ear. "Dani! Stop it. Stop
it now. I need to fly this ship, and you need to keep out of my way." He
pushed himself up on his arms and held himself a little away, giving
Dani the chance to move. Dani twisted around under him and sank his
teeth into his arm. Kayc yelled, in pain and shock, and, in pure reflex,
brought his hand around and smacked Dani across the face. Dani found his
voice at last then. He screamed, and he carried on screaming all the
time Kayc was hauling him off the floor, dragging him over to the cargo
hold, down the ramp and across to the enclosed hutch that he presumed
had been meant for hauling livestock. He'd never had occasion to use it,
not until now. Dani was still screaming as Kayc clanged the grille shut
behind himself and keyed the lock; still screaming as Kayc turned away,
stamped back up the ramp, and closed the cargo door.

The ship was silent again, then.

***

 

Now that things were peaceful, Kayc went back to his interrupted status
checks. Central Service Core Jump station was starting to register on
the transcom; Kayc felt the familiar nervous flutter start up in his
stomach and his throat. Time to get back into pilot mode and ready
himself for docking. A nice, easy, efficient, smooth docking, with no
foul-ups, that'd go right at his first attempt. He brought up the
station specs on his viewscreen and leaned in as close as he could,
tracing the route and talking himself through the procedures. He could
do it; it was just a matter of confidence. Confidence, and steady hands.
His hands, he noted dispassionately, were anything else but that. He'd
just have to wing it and hope for the best.

He joined the queue of ships waiting for Customs clearance and Jump
authority, and turned the ship to cruise mode. Nothing to do now but
wait. And wait. And wait … Like all Jump stations, CSC was Family-owned
and run, as well as being the only Jump point in this sector; it didn't
have to care too much about its clients' considerations.

"Kayc? Kayc!"

He heard his name, and startled awake. A woman was laughing at him. Great.

"Kayc, were you sleeping on the job?"

He sat up, embarrassed. "Oh, hey, Danaan – you're on this rota?"

"I saw you were scheduled to come through, so I thought I'd hang around
and say hello, take you through Jump."

That made him smile; it was kind of her. He knew she hated scut work,
and was in a position never to have to do it unless she chose. The fact
that she'd choose to do it for him sent a certain warmth, unfamiliar but
welcome, through him.

"Tell me you didn't fly all the way here in your sleep?" she was saying
now, still laughing at him.

"I was resting my eyes," he said with dignity. "I think my viewscreen
needs a tune-up. Or something."

"We'll look at it," she said, and her minuscule on-screen image smiled.
"You all set to dock?"

He groaned. It was safe to do that around Danaan. "Ready as I'll ever be."

"We'll catch you!" She was still smiling; it warmed him, gave him
confidence. Besides, he really hated to fuck up in front of Danaan. He
owed her so much … if not for her, he wouldn't be here now at all, would
never have made it off his homeworld, never have made himself this new life.

"See you in a few," he said, and silenced the com, the better to
concentrate. He re-checked the coordinates, corrected his angle, turned
'cruise' to 'forward slow', and started his descent. If he was holding
his breath, there was no-one to see, and moments later he was rewarded
by the dull 'clunk!' of a successful dock. First time. He lay back in
his seat and breathed out a sigh of relief, then reached forward again
to extend the docking tunnel, adjust the ship's pressure and open the
airlock.

Danaan was waiting for him in the bay, tiny, golden and perfect as ever,
like the ancient goddess she claimed she had been named for. Kayc
wouldn't know; that sort of knowledge wasn't freely available to his
kind, not the way it was in her charmed circle. Danaan had been his
first contact ever with the Families: she'd been Lisa's schoolfriend,
but from quite another mould than Lisa. Lisa, merely rich and not
Family, had been bored by her life of privilege, had found her thrills
slumming in the back streets and sleeping with a factory kid, by
pretending to share his dreams, and his friends' dreams of revolution,
of a new age of freedom and equality for all. But it had been Danaan who
had slipped away from her father's estate to warn Kayc, the night that
the Families' security squads had taken to the streets and cleaned out
the insurgents so thoroughly that they would never rise again; Danaan
who had saved his life, while Lisa had fled back to the security of the
home she had affected to despise and hidden behind her father's name.
And it was Danaan who'd gone to Lisa and told her that, unless she paid
Kayc to vanish, and vanish fast, then every Family on every planet in
all the systems would know all about her indiscretion, and her prospects
for marriage and advancement would be destroyed forever.

He owed a lot to Danaan. She was the one, too, who had found him the
ship, and a training opportunity; he suspected she'd paid for some of it
herself, but would never ask her, not until he was in a position to pay
her back. And the business he now found himself plying, that was her
idea too. A flight academy graduate herself, she knew all there was to
know about life between the worlds; she knew what opportunities were
available, and had nudged him or, to be more accurate, kicked him, in
the right direction. And now, here they were.

It really wasn't her fault that he wasn't better at it. Without her
influence, he suspected that his weak eyes would have disqualified him
from any sort of pilot training; he'd've been lucky to have ended up as
a third-class space tech. But he'd made it this far. He could keep on
faking it until, one day, he found out he could actually do it.

Or, of course, crash and burn in some hideous, epic disaster that would
live on long after him and become the stuff of legends. Which, he
occasionally had to admit to himself, was, on the whole, more likely.

"Kayc!" Danaan said. She seemed, as ever, genuinely happy to see him, a
thing Kayc had never quite been able to understand. She came forward to
meet him, lifted her hands to his shoulders and stretched up to kiss his
jawline. "You are so late – I thought you'd be here last night. It's
just a routine run to Nuestro Salvador – right? You've got some stuff
for Izak? That's what I had logged for you."

"It was," he said, somewhat ruefully. "Celestine came up with a change
of plans for me. I did wav it forward – don't you have the update?"

"I have better things to do with my time than to monitor your every
movement," she told him. "Plus, I could hire people to do that."

"That'd be funnier if it wasn't actually true."

She grinned up at him. "Oh, I think it's still pretty funny! So, you
stopped at Celestine, huh? Kayc, what've I told you?"

"Don't-stop-at-Celestine," he recited dutifully. "Trust me, if I'd've
had a choice, I'd've gone anyplace else." Lady; how he wished he had
gone someplace else. Dani would have ended up as some other poor sap's
problem, and how much grief would that have saved him? "But, you know –
money's tight, and they're – "

" – crooks," she supplied.

"M'm. I was going to say 'cheap', but 'crooks' does seem to be the
popular opinion."

She was looking at him worriedly. "Things aren't going so well, huh? Is
there anything I can do?"

"No!" He'd said it far too quickly, and probably offended her
grievously. "No," he said again, hoping it sounded somewhat less curt
this time, "no, you've already done too much, Danaan – I already owe you
… well. You know. It's okay, I get by." He took her hand, squeezed it
briefly, let it go. "Really," he assured her. "It's still early days. As
long as the jobs keep coming in, I'll be fine."

Her eyes held him a moment longer, hard and appraising; she was Family,
after all, and business was in her blood. She didn't appear
overwhelmingly convinced, but eventually she said, "Well, if you say
so," and turned away, moving toward the ship. "But don't you ever let
yourself get in over your head, Kayc. If you have a problem, a real
problem, you let me know. I'm not letting anything happen to you, not
while I can help it."

"A problem?" Kayc nearly laughed out loud. "Funny you should say that …"

She glanced back over her shoulder as she passed through the tunnel,
eyebrows raised in question. "Oh? How so?"

"Because," Kayc said, and followed her aboard, "that little extra job
Celestine landed me with …?"

"Problem?" she asked, brightly, and dropped into the pilot's chair,
leaning forward to check the controls.

"Problem!" Kayc confirmed. The hard edge to his voice made her turn back
and gaze at him, concerned.

"Kayc, just how bad is this thing? Celestine's always been small-time –
I wouldn't've thought they could've come up with anything you couldn't
deal with ?"

"It's been dealt with," he said grimly, "but it hasn't gone away. And I
think it's going to come back and bite me." His hand was resting on the
cargo hold seal; he jerked his head toward the hatch. "You'd better come
and see for yourself."

Danaan gave a little, uncertain, laugh. "Kayc, what in the nine hells –
what can you have done that's so bad? You, of all people?" But she got
up and followed him, through the hatch; down the ramp. Stopped dead at
the foot of the ramp, her hand to her mouth to stifle her involuntary
scream. "Oh – sweet – Lady! You had him!" Then she was running forward
to kneel by the enclosure, her fingers reaching through the wire. "Dani
– Dani, sweetheart, can you hear me? Dani, are you all right?" She swung
back toward Kayc, her eyes blazing. "Kayc, how could you? How could you
do this to him?!"

Kayc found himself backing away, holding up his hands defensively. "No,
wait, wait just a moment! I didn't do anything – he was pretty banged up
when I got him and the rest he mostly did to himself. He was fighting
me, and I couldn't calm him down, and I had to fly the ship – I didn't
know what to do, this was the only place I could think of to put him."

"In a cage?" Her eyes blazed her fury. "Didn't you think he'd already
been through enough?"

He shouted back at her. "Don't make me out to be the bad guy! I got him
dumped on me – I tried to take care of him – I'm still trying to take
care of him, I'm doing what I was told, I'm taking him back to his
Family – "

"Get him out of there," Danaan said tightly. "Get him out now, and show
me he isn't hurt, and maybe we can still be friends, Kayc."

"He was violent – "

"Yeah, sure he was!"

"Danaan, he bit me!" He held out his arm to show her, but she waved him
away.

"Right. Dani, House Rydell – the sweetest kid I ever knew – I've known
him since he was born, he's never so much as said an unkind word, Kayc,
let alone attacked anyone!"

"Well, that was before, wasn't it?" Then the oddity of the conversation
registered, and he stared at her. "You knew him?"

"I know him. Of course I know him, Kayc, he's Family!"

"And … you knew something had happened to him …?"

She snorted impatiently. "The whole system knows, Kayc. The Coburgs
transmitted everything they did to him on a broadlink. We all had to
just sit there and … and watch … will you open that door?!"

He shook himself. They broadcast it? "I'm sorry." His fingers slipped on
the lock, fumbling; he cursed, softly, profoundly aware of two sets of
eyes fixed on him. Finally the damned thing freed itself, and he swung
open the grille. Danaan almost bowled him over as she pushed past him,
hurrying to kneel beside Dani and take his hands, letting out a hiss of
distress at the mess they were in. "Dani? Honey, it's Danaan. Danaan,
House Whitaker … Dani, don't you remember me …?"

"He doesn't remember anything, Danaan," Kayc said behind her, too
harshly. "Maybe you missed the point of the message."

Dani's face had turned toward the sound of Danaan's voice, but
registered nothing, his eyes dull and blank as they had been when he had
first woken. "Dani …?" she said again, hopelessly.

"He won't talk to you," Kayc murmured. "He doesn't say anything, now."

Danaan let the boy's hands drop and stood, turning away hastily. "I
thought … I thought he might still know me … I've known him since he was
born!" she repeated, and her voice shattered, tears choking her words.
Kayc stood back, letting her cry; he had before never seen her so
unguarded. Then his head turned toward a movement in his peripheral
vision. Dani was standing, unsteady; crossing over to him. Reaching up
to lay a cautious hand to his sleeve and, when Kayc allowed the touch,
leaning forward, laying his face, blotched and swollen and filthy with
tears and grime and snot, against Kayc's shoulder; clinging to him
tightly. Kayc found his own arms going automatically around the boy; he
rested his cheek against the soft stubble of dark hair, and he thought,
I've known him a day, and I think I would kill to protect him.

How had he fallen so hard, so quickly, so easily? How had Dani crept
silently past his guard, past all his defences, and found his way into
Kayc's heart?

He couldn't explain it. But so it was.

***

Chapter Text

"They transferred him through Celestine?" Her moment's weakness
forgotten, Danaan was once again focusing on practicalities. She glanced
down at Kayc's flightlog where it lay in her lap, and nodded decisively.
"Very well, then. As of today, Celestine loses all business from House
Whitaker. And from all the other Families, if I have anything to say in
the matter. They're useful enough, as long as they stay in line, but if
they think they can cross us, they can think again, and be thankful
we've left them the ability to think, while they're about it!"

"Shhh …" Kayc said to Dani, who had stirred uneasily and made a small
sound of distress at the hard voice. "It's okay, she's not mad at you …
I'm nearly done," he added, in the same calm, soothing tone. He was in
the bathroom with Dani, both of them sitting on the floor while he
swabbed the blood away from Dani's hands, torn where he had clawed at
the wire enclosing him, and rubbed salve into the shallow cuts. "Danaan
…" he said, pitching his voice a little louder, to carry across the
cabin. He spoke slowly, surprising himself; he was remembering details
that he'd barely registered at the time: the security guard's frayed and
patched uniform, the harbourmaster's thinning grey hair and the liver
spots on his hands; the pinched, anxious, hungry expressions on both
their faces, faces that were strange to him and yet, somehow, familiar:
he'd grown up among hundreds just like them. "Danaan, don't do that.
Please? They're … they're just working stiffs, trying to get by,
grabbing a few extra bucks when they get the chance. Don't make them pay
for this. And anyway," he added, rising to his feet and helping Dani up
after him, passing back through into the cabin, "Do you think they had a
choice? When House Coburg came to them, do you think they had any option
at all of saying no?"

Danaan had frozen, her finger poised above her touchpad; she was staring
at him as though at a perfect stranger. "You … you never used to be so
forgiving, Kayc."

He managed a tight smile. "Maybe I'm growing."

"Yeah," she said, sounding vaguely dazed. "Maybe that's it." She let the
pad drop, and smiled at Dani. "All better?"

"He's not a child, Danaan!" Kayc said irritably, choosing to overlook
the fact that he'd been treating Dani in exactly the same way.

"I know what he is!" she said angrily. "Since you were so understanding
toward the good people on Celestine, maybe you could spare a moment of
your new-found empathy to try to imagine how I'm feeling – what it's
like for me to see one of my dearest friends – oh, fuck it!" Her voice
was starting to thread again. "Let's just get this damned hop over with,
and we can talk about it on the other side." She reached into the
console for the implant connections and wired herself in. "Breathe
deep," she advised, and flicked on the Jump drive. Kayc looked at Dani;
Jump could be nauseating and disorientating, even when you expected it.

"Hold on," he told the boy, and, almost without thought, pulled him
against his own chest for balance. "I've got you."

They Jumped. Nothing moved; everything moved. Space unfolded all around
them, and in one endless, sickening moment, up was dark and out was down
and light was in and everything was empty and the emptiness shattered
into a million impossible fragments …

And then out. And the world righted itself once again.

Kayc just got Dani back to the bathroom in time.

***

 

Danaan left them at Stella Solus; reluctantly. Kayc feared for a while
he was going to have to throw her off the ship physically.

"Maybe I should come with you to Halcyon," she was saying, as she moved,
inch by slow inch, along the docking tunnel. "You're not the most
tactful guy in the system when it comes to the Families … or ever,
really … and House Rydell's one of the oldest, Jey's pretty hidebound …"

"That's Dani's father?" She nodded. "You're on first-name terms with him?"

"Well …" she hedged, "not to his face. If it was just Hana, that's
Dani's mother, I wouldn't worry … but one word from you out of place,
and Jey could make things really difficult for you."

"Well," Kayc said drily, "that'd be a change.

"Kayc – "

"No, really, Danaan, tell me some more about what it'd be like if my
life was difficult?"

She flung up her hands. "This! This is what I mean! If you start
carrying on like this in front of Sieur Rydell, he's not going to laugh."

"Oh, you think he's going to be laughing? When he sees Dani, the way he
is now?"

She stopped walking and reached out to him. "Kayc. All I'm saying is,
please don't make things any worse than they have to be. You can think
whatever you like, but at least act like – "

"Like a good little peon?"

"If you want to put it that way, yes." She exhaled heavily. "I should
come with you."

"Because the ship's not cramped enough with two people," Kayc said
sarcastically.

"I could commandeer something from Solus – something a bit more
comfortable."

"I'm not leaving my ship."

"No." Danaan sighed again. "I didn't imagine you would. At least go FTL
the rest of the way and get it over with. The longer you have to brood
about this, the worse you're going to be." She looked up at him,
sidelong. "You've got quite fond of Dani – haven't you?"

Kayc hunched a shoulder, feigning indifference. "I never really got the
chance to know him. What I saw seemed likeable enough. For Family." Then
his curiosity got the better of him. "You were really close, you and he?
Before, I mean?"

She nodded, and flushed faintly pink. "I used to dress him up in my
dolls' clothes," she admitted. "He was the most adorable baby."

Kayc just looked at her for a moment. Then he shook his head slowly. "I
swear, I don't know how any of you people ever manages to turn out
normal. I suppose you don't. We can't go FTL," he went on, getting back
to the point. "I've only got the one suit."

"Well, that's pretty stupid, "Danaan said. "You really ought to keep an
auxiliary suit aboard. Any idiot would know that."

Kayc glared at her. "I love it when you call me stupid. Am I in trouble?"

"You would be, if it was anyone but me! No, it's not regs – it's just
common sense. I'll pick you up a spare from the station – there's a
stack of them in lost property, just for one."

"You'll check it?" he asked, before he could stop himself, and she gave
him a withering stare.

"No, Kayc, I was going to supply you with a faulty suit deliberately.
Nothing would give me greater joy than to see you turn blue and
implode." She smacked him on the arm. "After all the trouble I went to
to save your pitiful, worthless ass!"

"An ass you're not even interested in," he mourned. This, at least, was
familiar territory.

She recognised her cue. "Yes, well, Lisa couldn't keep her mouth shut – "

"I remember. " He smirked, deliberately provoking. "And she knew how to
use it, too."

She smacked him again. "You're disgusting! And, from what Lisa said, so
not worth the effort of getting undressed."

This time his smile was reminiscent. "Yeah. Sometimes she didn't bother.
But that was just because she was in a hurry." He rubbed his arm. "And,
by the way – ow!"

***

 

Dani had fallen asleep again after the Jump; Kayc stopped by the alcove
as he reboarded, to check on him. Really, just to have the excuse to
look at him. Danaan had been right. Or almost right: fond fell far
short. He turned himself away, shaking his head. She'd been right about
something else, too. The sooner this trip was over, the better it would
be. Dani would be back with his Family, where he belonged, and out of
Kayc's life, where he most certainly didn't.

Launch completed and course set, Kayc once again found himself at a
loss. All he really wanted to do was sleep; he hadn't had much of a
chance to do so recently. But Dani was taking up the bunk.

On the other hand: it was a big enough bunk – just – for two. Kayc had
heard himself described as skinny often enough to know it must be true.
And Dani had curled up into a tight, protective ball, instinctively
making himself as small and as near to invisible as possible. If Kayc
could just shove him over a little, he was sure the boy wouldn't mind
sharing. So long as he didn't wake up traumatised and terrified, as he
had before.

Kayc was dreaming: he was back on his homeworld, back with Lisa. But
this was a Lisa he'd never known. Real-world Lisa had been aloof and
distant, acting as though she were doing him a favour by fucking him;
this Lisa was warm and passionate, pliant in his arms, her mouth hungry
on his, then sliding away to his throat, hands at the seal of his
collar, tearing it open, stroking down his chest to his belly, ripping
aside the seal that last extra couple of inches to give her free access to –

"Lady!" He wasn't dreaming. And this wasn't Lisa.

"Dani," he said. His voice was rough; he coughed, to loosen it. "Dani,
what're you doing?"

Dani drew back and looked up at him, his eyes very bright. Then he
smiled dazzlingly. "Silly. You know what I'm doing. I'm giving you a – "

"Yes," Kayc said hastily, "I know that. I mean – why – how ?" He
blinked. "And … you're …" He wasn't sure what the word was. "You're –
awake – "

"I'm dreaming I'm a butterfly," Dani said, which explained nothing at
all. He slid upwards, fitting himself alongside Kayc again, chest to
chest, arms and legs twined tightly about the other man. "And
butterflies don't answer questions."

"I'm not sure they do this, either." Kayc backed away, trying to
untangle himself. "Dani – " He couldn't quite believe he was saying
this. "Dani, sweetheart – " (and where had that come from?) " - I don't
know if this is such a good idea - "

Dani only looked puzzled. "You want it," he said simply. "You want me.
You're lonely, and it's been a very long time, and she hurt you so badly …"

"Who - ? How do you know …?"

"… and you were kind to me, so kind, so I should give you something, too."

"Dani." Kayc had to clear his throat again. "None of those is a good
reason to sleep with somebody."

Dani's mouth curled up at the corners. "Didn't want to sleep, Kayc!"

Kayc huffed out a breath. "You know what I – " Then he stopped, and
looked at the boy: really looked. "No," he said slowly, "you don't know.
Do you? All right. Listen. Dani. I do want you. You're beautiful, and I
like you very much, and I love the way touching you makes me feel. But
you shouldn't have sex because you're sorry for a person, or out of
gratitude. And I don't think you really know what you're doing."

Hurt touched Dani's eyes. "I wasn't good?"

"I didn't mean – "

"I could learn," Dani said, his voice husky. "You'd teach me. I could
learn to be good for you, Kayc."

"Dani – no – I meant, you're not – you don't understand … I just … look,
Dani, I just don't think we should do this. I think it's not a good idea."

The smile had faded; Dani looked almost ready to cry, now. "Why not?" he
demanded. "I'd like it. You'd like it. And I know you want to. You
wanted to yesterday, when you hit me."

"Yes," Kayc admitted, "yes, I did." Had Dani still been there, been
present and conscious inside his mind all that time, aware but unable to
communicate? Small wonder, then, if he'd been frustrated and angry. "But
it would have been wrong. And it would be wrong now. And, incidentally,"
he added, "you hit me first!" He took Dani's wounded expression as his
cue to scramble off the bunk and move as far away as the alcove would
allow, giving himself time to catch his breath and recover his thoughts.
The overlay personality, he thought, the time bomb. This is what it is.
It was still Dani; but not as he had been. He had thought the boy he had
first met had been vulnerable; compared to Dani now, he had been
armour-plated. This Dani had no defences at all. No defences, no
barriers. And, apparently, no inhibitions.

"Dani," he said, finally. "Listen. I do want you. Don't ever doubt that.
But I want you so much – if I let myself love you, I don't think I could
ever bear to let you go again. And I have to do that, Dani. I have to
take you back to your father. Those are my orders, and I can't fight the
Families." He closed his eyes and clenched his fists, the nails driving
into his hands. "So let's – let's just forget about it. Okay? It's
impossible, and we have to accept that – " He opened his eyes again, and
wished he hadn't. "Oh, for the Lady's sake, will you stop looking at me
like that! I didn't kill your favourite puppy, Dani, I just said no, and
no to something you don't even know you want!"

"You don't know what I know," Dani whispered, and looked up at him
slantwise. "No-one knows. What they put in my mind. What they took out.
Even I don't know, so how can you?"

Kayc went to him, crouching down by the bed, reaching out his hands.
After a moment, Dani reached back to him. "Tell me," he said gently, but
Dani shook his head.

"I can't … I don't know enough words … it's shapes and colours and
smells and tastes, and they're all mixed up, and I don't know what any
of them mean …" His eyes met Kayc's. "It's like Jump. All the time. In
my head. But I can learn. I'll mend it. I know I can. I will."

Kayc tightened his fingers. "I know you will, sweetheart. You can do
whatever you want to do. I thought you were gone forever, but you came
back. I believe you can do anything." He took his hands away, and got to
his feet. "Now. You hungry?" He turned and headed for the galley. A
moment later he heard the slap of bare feet hitting the floor, and knew
Dani was behind him.

"I'm hungry," Dani admitted. He thought about it for a moment, then
observed, "Actually, I think I'm always hungry. But I'm not eating that
stew stuff," he added, warningly. There was a world of loathing in his
voice when he said stuff.

Kayc cast his eyes to an imaginary heaven. "Of course not," he snapped.
"And what would Sieur like?"

Dani's mouth quirked. "This," he said softly. And he stepped up to Kayc
and kissed him: at first just a dry brush of his lips to the corner of
Kayc's mouth, that seemed almost accidental; then his mouth on Kayc's,
pressing, soft and warm, demanding entrance, demanding response; and
gradually more, and then more, a succession of long, deep, slow, melting
kisses that turned Kayc's legs to water, robbed him of breath and of all
rational thought, leaving him only with longing, with hunger, and
desire. Rational thought had fled: all there was was want, need, oh,
sweet Lady … Dani …

"Now," Dani murmured, sliding his mouth to Kayc's ear, "now will you
take me to bed, Kayc?"

There were reasons he should say no; Kayc vaguely remembered them. But
he couldn't remember now why he had ever thought they mattered. Only one
thing mattered. Only this. Still, he made one last effort. "Thought you
were hungry?"

"I am," Dani said, breathlessly. "I'm hungry … so hungry … oh, Kayc, I'm
starving …"

***

 

The green coveralls were loose and fell away easily, revealing an
expanse of pale flesh, freckled in places and lightly sprinkled with
dark hair, and a surprise: a sunburst of gold and vermilion that flared
brilliantly across Dani's left hip. Kayc ran a finger across it and
laughed in delight and wonder as Dani shivered. "What's this?"

Dani craned and twisted in a vain attempt to see down his own back. "I
remember …" he said, slowly. "I was fourteen … it was the first time I'd
been off Halcyon alone … and I wanted something of my own, something …"
His forehead creased, as the memory flickered just beyond reach. "It had
something to do with my father, I know …"

Kayc bent to run his tongue slowly over the vivid flames. "Something
your father would hate," he guessed. "Something to show that you were
you, and not just his built-to-specs son and heir."

"Yes …" Dani said. "He couldn't bioengineer my mind, Kayc. If he
could've, he would've done. But he couldn't. I was me … I was never
really who he wanted me to be …" he went on, dreamily, and rested his
head on his arms, almost purring with satisfaction as Kayc traced the
pattern again.

"Should've made it a target," Kayc said, and pounced, biting and licking
and nibbling at the emblem, while Dani twisted and wriggled and squealed
under him, protesting and squirming and mock-fighting until Kayc pinned
him to the bed and held his wrists down, and sat for a moment, panting,
seeing himself, all angled cheekbones and shaggy hair, reflected in
Dani's dark, opaque eyes; seeing desire in those eyes, and urgency, and,
oh, and love, all the love that he'd never dared let himself feel, that
was burning now behind his breastbone, all that love and more, caught
and reflected and flung back at him, his for the taking: all his.

Then Dani whispered, "Yes," and then he said, "Now!" and then he said,
"Oh … Kayc …" And then, again, "Kayc!", and again, until finally, he
could speak no more.

***

 

Afterward, they slept. Kayc woke first and lay for a while, propped on
his elbow, watching Dani, wondering who he would wake to be. Sleep
seemed to trigger the changes, or maybe only made them obvious. He
half-hoped to see another change, half-feared it, not knowing what it
might be. But when Dani did wake, it was the same trusting, childlike
gaze that met Kayc's eyes, and the voice that announced, with a certain
note of triumph, "Now I'm hungry!" was the same, too, light and brittle
and just the least bit slurred; no more so than it had been, but equally
no less.

They had only a short time together after that. Kayc pushed Dani into
the shower while he went to consider food and, after a moment's thought,
picked up Dani's coveralls from the floor and threw them in after him
since, as he said, they were dangerously close to being able to walk in
there of their own accord. He made what would have been pancakes if he
had known how to make pancakes – the thought was there, at any rate –
and found himself remembering old Earth histories, and condemned men and
hearty breakfasts, and wishing that he'd never learned these things.

He wished he could turn back. He wished Danaan were with him, or if not
Danaan then anyone, any friendly face. It would be a difficult parting,
he knew; the more so since, although he hadn't spoken of it again, Dani
was clearly dreading his homecoming. He haunted Kayc about the ship,
clinging to his side, so close that Kayc could feel his trembling. He
was coming up on Halcyon's system now, back in the pilot's chair and
guiding the ship past the warding beacons and sentry patrols, Dani
kneeling beside him, watching his hands on the controls with bright,
eager eyes. Watching closely – and learning; twice he put his hand out
and moved Kayc's as he had been about to make a mistake, correcting him
gently. He would have resented it, Kayc thought – learning had come hard
to him – but instead he was overcome by a sense of wonder. He thought
Dani must be mistaken. When Sieur Rydell saw his son, saw how far he had
come in so short a time, how could he help but be proud?

The guidance systems led them to the Rydell estate, which took up one of
the largest of a chain of islands in the southern hemisphere. Lisa
landed with only a very slight bump more, Kayc had to admit, by the luck
of her name than by any skill on his part; Dani's nervousness seemed to
be catching, and his own hands were shaking now. Still, he managed a
smile for the boy.

"This is it!" he said, and wondered if his voice sounded as artificial
to an outside ear as it did to his own. "You all set?"

Dani looked at him and bit his lip, then nodded once. "Goodbye, Kayc,"
he said solemnly, and pulled him into a hug. "Kayc? Please don't try to
talk to my father. Just take your money and go. Please, will you?"

"Okay," Kayc said, bewildered. "If that's what you want. But don't you
think he ought to know - ?"

"It doesn't matter!" Dani said. "It won't make a difference. Just …
don't try to make things better. My dad's never, ever wrong, Kayc.
That's all you need to know." He reached up his hands as if to push back
his hair, and frowned, puzzled, at finding nothing there to be pushed
back. "Open the hatch, Kayc."

There was a small knot of people on the landing pad outside the ship,
half a dozen men, two women. Security, Kayc identified at least two of
them; there were no weapons in evidence, but the alert stances and
watchful eyes spoke for themselves. An older man in a modified military
uniform was probably the flight controller; he presumed the rest were
assorted staff members, there to do the things that Families, unlike
normal folk, apparently couldn't manage without help – writing mail and
planning parties, and such, and driving their own transport. He checked
the thought, and tried to school away the sneer he suspected was
twisting his mouth. They provided employment. They served a purpose.

Dani's father he immediately identified as the squarely built, greying
man at the head of the group, and Dani's mother, he supposed, was the
tall, hawk-faced woman beside him. They stood a little apart from each
other, not touching, not talking, nor even looking at one another. Sieur
Rydell had a dour, grim line to his mouth; his wife only looked tired.
Neither of them seemed to be anticipating any joy in the upcoming reunion.

Kayc opened the hatch and lowered the ramp. "Okay. Let's get this over
with." He reached for Dani's arm, but the boy shied away.

"Don't. Don't let them see you touch me." He looked up at Kayc, pleading
in his eyes. "I said goodbye, Kayc. That was really goodbye. It's over
now. I'm sorry." He took in a deep breath, and moved forward; after a
shocked moment, Kayc followed.

He wasn't sure what he'd been expecting. Dani had implied there wouldn't
be hugs and tears, but Kayc had thought that there'd be relief, at
least. But Sieur Rydell only looked his son up and down as Dani came up,
his bare feet stumbling and uncertain on the hard ground, and said, "So
they sent you back. I hope you're proud of yourself. It's going to take
House Rydell a long time to live down this little debacle."

Kayc watched as Dani ducked his head, looking away, and muttered
something he couldn't catch. Nor, apparently, could Dani's father.

"Did you lose your voice, too?" Sieur Rydell asked harshly. "Don't you
have anything to say for yourself?"

Dani's mother touched her husband's sleeve, and murmured, "Jey – don't.
He can't understand … all the implications ..."

"Can he not?" Sieur Rydell snapped. "Does he at least understand that
he's disgraced us all? Shamed our whole Family?" He stepped closer to
Dani, put his hand under the boy's chin and forced his head up. "Is that
simple enough for you? Your mother's done nothing in the past few days
but fend off callers sending sympathy. Sympathy! As if we needed their
pity!"

"You can't blame him – " his wife tried again.

"And I'm sure he doesn't understand that our stock's dropped twenty
points since the news broke! You can't expect this poor, wounded soul to
understand a thing like that, can you?"

Coming down the ramp and joining the group, Kayc saw Dani step away, and
the glint of danger in his eyes. "Oh, I do," Dani said, sweetly. "I
remember about stocks. That's a shame. But, you know, Father, you've got
this whole nice big estate, and, like, ninety percent of the people in
the system live in rat holes, so you're okay really."

Dani's father went white. "How dare you - ?! he began, and took a step
forward, threatening.

Dani stood his ground, his chin coming up in defiance. "I was hurt," he
said clearly. "I was. I don't know what you did to the Coburgs, but it
must've been pretty low. I'm not letting you blame me for it. I won't,
Father."

"And is that what they put in your head? You think you can talk to me
that way?" Sieur Rydell looked behind him. "Dai – take your brother up
to the house. Keep him quiet, and don't take any crap from him. I'll be
along as soon as I've finished here, and I'll take over from you."

"Your house?" Dani asked. "You're letting me in there? Then what? 'Cause
you had me voted off the Board already – didn't you, Father?"

"What do you think?" Sieur Rydell demanded in return. "You don't imagine
you're still competent to keep your place in the Family, do you? You
were always arrogant, Dani, but even you must realise that you're
useless to us now."

"I realise," Dani said, quietly. "I do. I just … You might have waited.
That's all."

"Wait for what? You're finished in this Family, Dani. I'm sorry, but
after what happened, you can't be associated with the business any
longer, or we'll lose all client faith, if we haven't already. We'll
find somewhere for you … somewhere out of the way …" He reached out to
his son, and Dani flinched away. "What? I'm not going to hurt you, Dani,
is that what you thought? But you have to go away. We can't have you here."

Dani looked away, turning his bright smile on the man who'd come up and
taken his arm, a taller, thinner, younger version of Sieur Rydell.
"Davey," he said, and shook himself free. "You came to watch. That's
nice. Are you very happy now? 'Cos you still don't inherit, you know."
And, as his brother led him away toward a waiting groundcar, he called
back over his shoulder, "Dad – did you wonder how the Coburgs knew just
where to find me?"

Sieur Rydell shrugged the jibe away, and turned toward Kayc. "Pilot," he
said, formal and polite. "Thank you for the delivery. I hope it didn't
take you too far off your route?"

"No," Kayc said, bemusedly. "I was just – I had a delivery in this
sector. Extra couple of days, that's all. I – uh – I need a, a receipt
…" It seemed a weird thing to have to ask for, for a person; but there
was that scrawled line on his manifest, the line that had begun all his
troubles.

Sieur Rydell nodded, obviously hardly listening, and gestured toward the
man in uniform. "My man will see to all that, get your ship ready to go,
see that you're paid. Ask him to show you to the commissary while you're
waiting." He turned away, finished with Kayc and ready to move on to the
next item on his agenda.

"He could stay with me, if you wanted," Kayc suddenly blurted out, and
flushed. What had he promised? But still – how could he not at least
speak for Dani?

Sieur Rydell turned back and looked him up and down. He seemed coolly
amused. "With you?" He glanced at the Lisa. "That hardly seems
practicable. That's a one-man vessel, I believe."

"Yes – but …"

"Did you think I'd provide a better ship? Just to get my son away from
here?" He cocked an eyebrow. "And what would you want with him, in any
case?" Kayc's flush intensified. "M'm. Indeed. You don't think he's
embarrassed this Family enough already?" He paused. "I suppose you
wouldn't know anything about that, though, would you?"

Kayc found his voice. "I don't come from the same level of society as
you, no. From what I've seen, I'm glad of it. Where I come from, we'd
think it shameful to see someone we loved in trouble and turn our back
on them. You didn't even apologise!"

"Apologise?" Sieur Rydell said frostily. "I'm not in the habit of
apologising, pilot, least of all to my own children. He was careless,
and he paid the price."

"He didn't deserve - !"

"I don't suppose he did," Sieur Rydell agreed. "Very few of us get what
we deserve, pilot. But some of us deserve what we get." And with that,
he turned and walked away, leaving Kayc face to face with Madama Rydell,
who looked at him with cold, stone-hard eyes before moving to follow her
husband. Kayc half-reached to her, stopping the gesture when he noted
the guards' hands moving to their coats.

"Madama, he's your son, too," he said, desperate, trying to reach to the
core of her. "Doesn't that mean anything to you?"

She stopped then, and swung back; came very close to him, her face only
inches away from his. He'd been wrong; her eyes had only been masked.
Now they burnt in her white, strained face.

"Listen," she said, almost hissing the words, "listen to me, you smug,
sanctimonious, bleeding-heart piece of trash – you listen! Yes, I'm
Dani's mother, and my husband was so determined to be sure that his son
was his son that we had a team of security guards around the room all
the time we were making the genetic splice. And then I had that thing
transplanted into my body, and I went through nine months of hell, the
way no woman of my station's needed to do for a hundred years. I carried
him inside me, and I gave birth to him, I breastfed him and changed his
diapers, I bought him toys and took him to school and threw him parties,
I dressed him, and I nursed him, and I cut his hair … he was my son, and
I loved him, and I'm telling you now, pilot, that the kindest thing you
could have done for my boy would have been to put a pillow over his face
in the night and let him die. Because what you've brought back to me
isn't my son. It isn't Dani. And I want no part of it." She stepped back
a pace, and raked his body up and down with her eyes, a glare that
seemed to sear him to the soul. "If you'd wanted to make it special, you
could have strangled him while you were fucking him. Isn't that what you
want him for? A pet, a toy? Or do you just want the joy of having a
Family Scion be your whore?"

Kayc found he'd fallen halfway back toward the ship, and rallied
himself. "It isn't like that! Madama Rydell – he was happy on the ship,
with me. He felt safe, he was learning – he was getting back some of
what he'd lost. Your husband's just going to lock him up and throw away
the code and pretend he never existed!"

"And you want to save him," she said, sarcastic.

"Madama – " Kayc held out his hands helplessly. "I love him. I want to
help him."

"Love him?" she said. "So do I, pilot. And I wish the Coburgs had killed
him."

Kayc jolted; they'd have thought it, he knew, but to say it right out in
plain words - ! "You – no! No, that's not … He's still … he's still a
person, a good person, a whole person, even if he's not the one he was.
You can't blame him for what they turned him into!"

"I don't," she said, flatly. "But I don't want to see it, either. I want
to forget this ever happened."

"Maybe you should ask House Coburg to help you with that!"

She slapped him, then fell back, her hands to her own face, tears in her
eyes. "How dare you!"

He shook his head, dazed. He knew he'd gone too far. He would never have
spoken that way to a woman of his own class, and to have done so to one
of the Families … he was lucky she hadn't ordered him shot where he
stood. But she was only standing, staring at him, her face as broken as
her son's. "Do you want to know something else?" she whispered. "Now I
have to do all that, all over again. House Rydell still needs an heir –
all we have is a half-wit and a bastard. And my husband doesn't take
chances. Dani's new brother is locked in a hospital vault somewhere,
just waiting to be unfrozen and implanted in me. And the Lady only knows
what this fucking world has in store for that poor baby." She ran her
hands over her face; her makeup remained flawless. "You think I'm a
bitch, and maybe I am. But maybe you should try being a mother, and see
how well you come out of it!"

And to that, Kayc found he had no rational reply at all.

***

 

Kayc watched Halcyon disappear behind him, and could feel only relief.
No more Families, ever again, he vowed. Simple folk with their
straightforward lies and self-involvement and malice, they were bad
enough. At least when they stabbed you in the back, they'd do it with
their own hands; they didn't keep an entire team of staff to do it for them.

He wished he could have got Dani away. He didn't know what Sieur Rydell
had planned, but he was sure that Dani's happiness came far down the
list of priorities. He tried to put the boy out of his mind; but he was
there now, and wouldn't, couldn't be shifted. The ghost of him seemed to
haunt the little ship; there was no inch of it that didn't hold his memory.

Well. It was the past and, in time, it would fade, as every other hurt
had, finally faded. And for now, Nuestro Salvador had been kept waiting
for its shipment two days overdue as it was. The least he could do for
them was make the best possible speed he could. He suited up, laid in
the course, and engaged the FTL.

Nuestro Salvador had been the first hospital station built in this
sector, the first dedicated hospital station in the system. A century
ago, it had been a wonder of modern technology; but time had passed,
newer, better facilities had been built, and gradually it had fallen
into disrepair. It existed now solely as a charitable facility, tending
patients who couldn't afford anything better, or whom the large,
Family-run hospital stations turned away. Money was short; Kayc's
shipment was superseded medical equipment, and drugs that were past
their use-by date but still moderately effective. This was one of his
regular runs – Danaan, of course, had set up the original connection for
him - and over the past few months he'd come to know and become friendly
with a number of the staff, so he wasn't especially surprised when the
elderly Doctor Jaffee stopped him outside the supply depot and invited
him for coffee; he'd come to think of Izak as a friend, almost as a
father-substitute, and looked forward to their talks.

They found an empty table; sat. Izak said nothing; only looked. Looked.
While Kayc sat, and searched his conscience, and felt more and more like
a bug under a magnifying glass, slowly being fried around the edges.
"What?!" he finally demanded.

"I'm disappointed in you, Kayc," Izak said, at last. "I thought we were
friends."

That surprised Kayc. "I thought so as well. I'm sorry – what – "

"Why didn't you bring him to me?"

Kayc blinked. "Bring – who?" Then he realised. "Dani? You heard about
that, too?"

Izak nodded. "Heard what happened to him. Saw the broadcast. Heard you
were bringing him back to Halcyon. Heard you really didn't want to … I
hear a lot of stuff, Kayc."

"Evidently," Kayc observed. "But I don't understand - why would I bring
him here? No offence, Izak, but you don't have the facilities here to
treat him." He looked hard at the older man, wondering. "Unless there's
something I don't know."

Izak leaned back in his chair, easing the pain of his bad hip. "There
are many things you don't know, Kayc. Specifically, you evidently don't
know that Nuestro Salvador's been helping refugees - fugitives,
transients - since before you were born. Lady, since before I was born."

There was a buzzing in his ears; Kayc felt a wave of dizziness, and
fought it down with difficulty. "No," he heard himself saying, in a
voice he hardly recognised, "No. I didn't know that."

"Well," Izak said, his own voice arid, "wouldn't be much of a secret
otherwise, would it, now?"

"Then," Kayc demanded reasonably, "how would I know to - ?"

"People know, Kayc. They know people, who know other people, who have a
contact, who heard a rumour – did you even think to ask for help?"

Kayc shifted uncomfortably. Asking for help wasn't something he did. He
was independent; proud of it. It was bad enough that he owed Danaan so
much, he didn't need to go building up a huge backlog of debt. Which
made him wonder … "Does Danaan know?"

"Danaan?" Izak's surprise seemed to indicate not. "We try to keep under
the Families' radar. In fact, that's kind of the point of the whole
thing … why did you think Danaan might know?"

"She asked me if I'd been in touch with you," Kayc said, "that's all. I
thought she meant, to say I'd be late with the shipment, so I said yes,
I had. I just wondered – if she meant something else – " And if so, then
he'd missed it; missed his chance to keep Dani with him, safe, to save
him from his Family. Lady; he hoped that wasn't what she'd meant.

"Danaan." Izak seemed to be considering the idea. "No. I've spoken to
her, and I'm pretty sure she doesn't know. I wish she had've done, so
she could've got you here. She's about the only Family member I'd trust.
We would have helped you, Kayc – we'd have helped you get him away
someplace you could both be safe, at least for a while. Someplace he
could rest up and start to heal. Lady, you never know – maybe there
might have been something we could've done for him. You should've
brought him to us."

"I couldn't – his father was expecting me to deliver him – " He was
floundering, Kayc realised, and abandoned hope of ever finishing a
sentence again. "He – " he tried, and gave up.

Izak heaved a deep sigh. "You have no imagination, son," he said in
reproof. "The kid was violent, running amok, you couldn't control him,
he triggered the airlock, you lost all your cargo and barely saved the
ship – how does that sound? And Sieur Rydell's so glad to have his
problem taken off his hands, he pays you your shipping fee, doesn't ask
too many questions, and compensates you for the lost cargo into the
bargain."

Now Kayc was wholly at a loss for words. He had known that Izak was a
good doctor, a good man, a good friend; he hadn't realised he could have
added 'criminal mastermind' to the list. "Yes," he said finally. "Yes.
That would've been a good idea."

"No kidding," Izak agreed. "Well. Danaan's been in touch with me, like I
told you – she's worried about you, apparently – and she asked me to let
you know that she'll see what she can do for Dani. We don't think Sieur
Rydell would do his own son harm. But we don't think he's going to be
too worried if harm should happen to come to him. And that brother –
Sieur Rydell's little mistake – he can't be trusted. Dani had some very
nasty so-called accidents when he was a kid. Danaan's going to offer a
private recovery facility – apparently House Whitaker's had a few
incidents it's not too proud of, too. She thinks she can talk the old
man round, get Dani's mother on her side." He fixed Kayc with an
accusing stare. "He was important to you, Kayc. You should've tried
harder. If you've lost him, you know, you only have yourself to blame.
You should never have let him go."

"Thank you," Kayc muttered. "I think I got that, Izak." He raised his
head and looked straight at the doctor. "Get me a second chance. You and
Danaan do that for me, and I will owe you everything. I'll be beholden
to you for the rest of my life. And I won't even care. I'll do anything.
Anything."

***

 

There was one more thing he had to do on Nuestro Salvador; a side trip
to a remote lab. He found the vault he needed by memory, and stayed
there for a while, fingers pressed against the glass.

His son. Or he would be. One day, when Kayc was in the position to be a
father. For now, this was all he had left of Lisa, all that remained of
his past, his only promise of a future; and making that life happen was
Kayc's sole aim and purpose. Or it had been.

He had tried to keep himself remote from the world, from its people and
its problems and all its pain. But the world had found him, and the rest
had followed, as it was inevitable that it would. The funny thing was
that now, if he could go back, he wouldn't change things. All the anger
and frustration and hurt meant nothing; they were a fair price to pay
for the joy that Dani had, however briefly, brought him. That, if the
Lady was with them, he would bring him again. That they would bring one
another.

Eventually he made his way back to the hangar and boarded the Lisa. The
first thing he saw as he came aboard was the spare suit that Danaan had
given him, tossed in a heap on the cabin floor. He paused, wary: the
Lady knew, Nuestro Salvador wasn't a crime-free zone, but why would
anyone break into his ship after he'd unloaded his cargo?

The ship was quiet, only the hum of the rechargers keeping it from total
silence. He stepped fully inside, and stood still for a moment, letting
his gaze sweep around the cabin. Nothing seemed out of place, nothing
out of the ordinary. Only that suit, that he'd last seen piled in a
corner in the cargo hold. Only that.

He took a step further in; two more strides, and he was at the galley.
He waited for a moment just beyond the door, then swung in suddenly,
thinking to take his intruder by surprise.

The galley was empty; only a cockroach scuttled across the floor,
causing Kayc to curse. Now he'd have to get an exterminator in before he
could lift off. The delay would lose him the job he'd provisionally
lined up, and the expense … well. He had the Rydell bounty; that was a
buffer between him and insolvency. So maybe there'd been more to this
little side-trip than misery and heartbreak and the discovery that a man
could have all the wealth and power in the system, and still be less
than a man. Which he'd never doubted for a moment in the first place; he
hadn't needed the lesson. But he would remember it.

He was suddenly cripplingly, achingly tired. It had been a hell of a
couple of days; a hell of a life. A life of hell. And he'd been the one
to come through it scatheless. He turned the corner to the sleeping
alcove, his hand going to the seal of his collar; froze.

Dani lay curled in the very middle of his bunk, fast asleep, his bare,
dirty feet tucked beneath him, his arms covering his face. Kayc stood
for a while, watching him, and anyone who saw him in those moments might
have thought him another man: a younger, kinder, gentler man, and one
who had lived a happy and a carefree life. Finally, he made himself
move. He stepped fully into the alcove, and settled on the edge of the
bunk. Dani squirmed a little in his sleep, but didn't wake.

"Dani." He was whispering. Why? There was no-one to hear him. "Dani!" he
said again, louder, and he put his hand to Dani's shoulder and shook him.

The brown eyes opened as wary slits, then widened. "Kayc!" Dani
uncurled, stretched, rolled over and snuggled up against Kayc's leg.
"M'mmm …" he murmured, sleepily. "'s nice. I missed you …"

The warmth and weight of the boy against him was the most welcome thing
Kayc had known, he thought, in his life. And one of the least
explicable. "I missed you, too," he said softly, and let his hand drop
to Dani's head, stroking through the close-cropped hair, the downy
stubble at the back of the neck. He's really here, he thought, I haven't
lost him. But how do I keep him? "How did you get here? Did your father
… did he change his mind? Send you to me?" Sooner expect the rivers to
run upstream and the seas to boil dry, but strange things happened.

"M'm?" Dani appeared to have dropped off to sleep again for a moment.
Kayc sighed – love, he was finding, did not preclude irritation – and
repeated his question. "Oh … no. They made you leave me. And I didn't
want you to leave me. So I came back."

Kayc found himself sighing again. "How, Dani? Didn't anyone stop you?"

Dani rolled onto his back and smiled at him, his brilliant, innocent,
empty smile. "No-one saw me. I didn't want them to see me. So they
didn't." He began to work his way up to a sitting position, using Kayc
for balance. "'s how it works now. Quid pro quo."

"I have no idea what you're talking about," Kayc said, in some despair.
"Have you?"

"I'm making perfect sense," Dani said, with dignity. "Just not in your
reality. I slid between the cracks. 's all. Will you keep me now? May I
stay?" He was half in Kayc's arms now, his own arms wound around the
older man, Kayc thought, at least twice, in defiance of all the laws of
physics. He gave in to the situation for a moment, bent his head and
found Dani's mouth, warm and eager and urgent under his own.

If time stopped now, Kayc thought. It could stop, everything could stop,
he could be caught in this moment forever: just he and Dani, in one
another's arms, kissing as though they could become one flesh, just as
their breath had become one. But time moved on, and he had to come up
for air at last. Dani seemed not to need to breathe, and moved toward
him again. Kayc held him by the shoulders and kept him back. "No. We
have to talk about this. I didn't want to let you go in the first place
– but I didn't think I had a choice. What's changed? How are you here now?"

Dani sat back on his heels. "Nothing's changed. But they don't want me.
And you do. Even when you pretend you don't, you do. Don't you?"

"They," Kayc pointed out, "are very rich and very powerful, and very bad
to have as enemies."

"Love is not love," Dani said, in a voice that was not his own, neither
his old, precise, aristocratic voice, nor the lighter, childish tones of
the mindwipe, "which alters when it alteration finds. They altered,
Kayc. They didn't love me." He laid his hand on Kayc's shoulder and
looked up earnestly into his face. "You didn't. You do."

Lady help me, Kayc thought, I do. And I can't let him go again.

There are certainties in the universe: time moves forward, gravity
falls. This was no less sure than those things. But how, Kayc thought,
how he was supposed to keep this damaged, lost boy safe – he, who was
barely master of his own fate – that was as uncertain as the wind or the
weather; as improbable as love itself.

He only knew that he had to try. He had no choice.

"We'll need to reprovision," he said. "And you … you need everything,
I'm going to burn those coveralls if I have to look at them one more
day." He stood and held out his hand. "We're supposed to ship out in a
couple of hours. You think you could be ready by then?"

Dani's smile paled the stars into oblivion. "I'm ready now," he said,
and took Kayc's hand. "And, Kayc? I bet I can still fly this thing
better'n you …"