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Original Fiction
Space Opera by Juxian Tang

Part 04


"Here, blow your nose." Kai brought the tissue to Cory's face and the boy obeyed. Cory's cheeks were streaked with drying tears but he seemed to have stopped crying; just flinched now and then like a frightened animal. Kai tucked the blanket around him and stayed with his arm wrapped around Cory. There was not much he could say; the boy had seen his father dead just a short while ago - and Cory's mother died many years ago. The boy was an orphan now.

With a sigh Kai smoothed Cory's hair away and felt the big boy lean into his touch. Cory's round eyes blinked and filled with tears again and Kai whispered hastily:

"Shh, it's okay. I'm here."

He felt Cory stir, free his hands from under the blanket, looked at the frantic gestures the giant made and shook his head.

"No, you aren't alone now, not at all. You're with us - with Stacey, and Reo - you like Stacey and Reo, don't you?" Cory nodded. "You're with me."

Kai had never thought that being with him could mean anything for someone - but he could feel Cory relax. Stroking the boy's head Kai thought - not that it mattered now, since it was already done - that despite everything it was better they'd taken Cory with them. Gorn was dead all the same - and what would expect the boy on F-400 without the Governor's protection? Most possibly, a transfer to some asylum.

Cory grew agitated, freed his hands once more.

"Reo?" Kai shook his head. "I don't know. I hope he'll be okay. Now, stop talking." He caught Cory's wrists, interrupting the boy in half-phrase. "Close your eyes and try to sleep now. Okay?"

Cory nodded miserably and did what Kai told him.

He stayed with the boy, listening to Cory's steadied breath. There were no other sounds; Kai knew Stacey was on the bridge, taking control over the ship - and Caesar obviously in the infirmary, with Reo. He didn't want to wonder where the man, the Captain was - if he was even still alive.

Cory's face seemed to smoothen in sleep and Kai stopped holding him, got up on his feet and paced around the room, trying to shush the approaching fit of pain.

"No, please," he whispered, touching his belly. "Not now."

He recognized the beginning of spasm from afar; usually he tried to ignore it, until it hit for real - but now he couldn't afford it: Caesar was too busy to be distracted.

He knew Caesar told him he should've lain down - perhaps it was exactly what had bothered the foetus, everything that'd happened today - but Kai couldn't lie still. Walking seemed easier - at least made it easier to fight the panic the creature's movements inside him caused.

"Quiet, quiet, little one." The warmth of his palm sometimes pacified the baby. But not now; a spasm hit, making him grip the back of the chair not to fall. Kai gritted his teeth, counting seconds to himself. On twentieth it started getting easier. He straightened, pushed a moist strand of his hair away from his face.

"Don't worry," he whispered to the baby. "You're not threatened. Just don't do it any more now, okay?"

A wave of sickness washed over him at another movement of the Heles but then the creature went quiet. It must have panicked as well, Kai thought, didn't understand what was happening.

Careful not to bother the baby, he sat down in the chair. Not feeling pain was good, was almost lulling.

He heard the steps and saw Stacey. Stacey's face looked exhausted, too pale - and the torn cloth clung to his burnt, seeping shoulder. Kai got up quickly, reached to support him - and felt Stacey's hands clasp on him, pull him closer almost violently.

How dark his eyes were ... Kai bit the inside of his lip, fighting unease as Stacey looked at him too intently. Very lightly, Kai ran his palms over Stacey's back, felt hard, rigid planes of muscles. Despite how tense he was, Stacey's hands didn't hurt, clenched on Kai's shoulders.

"How's the ship?" Kai whispered.

"Auto-piloted." Stacey kept holding him too tightly but, casting a look at Cory, turned to whisper as well. "It looks like no one chases us."

"That's good."

Stacey's eyebrows drew together in a fierce frown, his eyes darkened some more if it was possible.

"No, it's not good! There's nothing fuckin' good!" Under his gaze, Kai just stayed quiet - and then suddenly, Stacey made a hitching breath - and his hands locked on Kai's face, hard and very hot. Kai saw his lips tremble as Stacey held him, almost frighteningly intense. "I had to leave you! I don't want to leave you again ... Don't you make me to."

"I won't." Kai shook his head carefully in the lock of Stacey's palms. Didn't Stacey know - it was the only thing Kai wanted: to be with him?

Stacey's nostrils flared; then he seemed to control himself and his hands unclenched.

"Sorry." His touch on Kai's cheek was brief and too light after the intensity of his hands. "I didn't hurt you, did I?" He looked again at Cory. "He's sleeping - and you need to lie down. Let's go find a room, okay?"

His hand gripped Kai's as they walked out.

"Do you know how's Reo?"

Kai saw strands of red hair fall on Stacey's face as he shook his head.

"Caesar's with him. I think he'll take care of everything possible."

All the quarters were empty but Stacey kept leading Kai around until finally they found an unused one.

"Sit down," Stacey pushed him to the bed.

"No, you sit down. Let me do something with your shoulder."

"It's nothing." Kai waited, looking at him patiently. "Oh. Okay. There must be an aid kit in the closet."

It was there; Kai used the scissors to cut the sleeve of Stacey's sweater. Now, as he pulled Stacey's sweater off, he could see again how tense Stacey was, his muscles wooden hard. Kai noticed his convulsive movements as Stacey twisted a strand of his hair on his finger.

"The Captain - do you know what's with him, Kai?"

"Caesar locked him up, in a cell, I think." There was a mingled expression of relief and misery in Stacey's gaze as Kai said that.

"It'll hurt a little," Kai said dabbing Stacey's shoulder. Stacey didn't make a sound; then his arms clasped around Kai's waist, pulled him closer, making Kai lose the balance. He gripped on Stacey not to fall - and Stacey pressed to him, his head against Kai's midriff. Kai flinched; like that Stacey could feel his distended belly for sure. But Stacey didn't seem to notice; slowly, he got up on his feet. Stacey's body was still pressed to Kai's but their eyes were on the same level now.

The heat of Stacey's bare chest was dizzying, the closeness of his white smooth shin, his bare arms wrapped around Kai were maddening - and when he touched Kai's face, ran his fingers through Kai's hair, Kai couldn't resist it any more, closed his mouth with Stacey's.

He felt a small gasp Stacey made - and at the next moment his tongue was met with frantic, hasty motions of Stacey's. The kiss was not soft, he could feel Stacey's teeth against his lips - but he didn't care, it felt good, it felt as it had to be. Stacey held his face as his tongue plunged in Kai's mouth deeply, fiercely.

Kai touched Stacey's shoulders carefully, trying not to hurt him - and felt Stacey flinch - but not let Kai's mouth go. Heat and smoothness of Stacey's skin against the hardness of his muscles and bones - Kai had dreamed so much of feeling it. It was almost like a dream again, he closed his eyes and didn't want to open them not to wake up as Stacey's hands slid over his body, touched his chest hastily, greedily.

A sharp movement - and Kai was on the bed, with Stacey next to him. The impact was soft and he noticed Stacey supported himself not to lean on him. It both touched him and made him resent his state, because he wanted Stacey closer, wanted to feel his weight, the length of Stacey's body against his own.

He ventured for Stacey's groin and found him hard and it made Kai light-headed with joy. He felt Stacey shiver at his touch - and then Stacey's fingers yanked Kai's collar, tore the buttons. Kai felt Stacey's lips on his throat, going down to the hollow between the collarbones - the touches hot and soft and insistent. Kai felt choking, a sound was caught in his throat. The heat of Stacey's hands on his body was the only thing that stayed real for him - nothing else existed.

He felt Stacey's hands pull down his pants and, gasping, Kai thought - oh God, he's going to ... please, please let it happen. Through the web of his eyelashes he looked at Stacey's face, saw its concentrated, nearly desperate expression.

A draft of air against Kai's groin was cold - but Stacey's touches were alive heat. He pushed towards Stacey, moved his legs apart. Please fuck me ... It had to happen now - nothing could spoil it, the creature inside him didn't dare to spoil it. He couldn't let Stacey down.

He shivered feeling Stacey's palm on the length of his cock - and the other one ran over his abdomen. A part of Kai's mind struggled, urged him to do something to try to hide the ugliness of his body Stacey could see, could touch now. But there was nothing he could do - and Stacey didn't jerk his hand away when touching him there.

"I could have lost you," Stacey whispered and his face rippled, as if with pain. He leaned down to Kai's groin - and Kai felt the heat and wetness of Stacey's mouth envelop his cock.

"No, don't ..." He struggled hastily. "Don't do it!" Stacey's widened eyes looked at him. "It's not right for you to do it, take it to your mouth ... I'll do it for you. Or better do it up there ..."

Stacey's spittle dried on his cockhead and his cock pulsed in Stacey's hand. There was a strange, very sad expression in Stacey's eyes.

"Silly child."

"Please," Kai asked.

He saw Stacey move uneasily, shook his head. Sadness in his eyes made Kai shiver for he knew he must have caused it. Yet as Stacey stretched along Kai, his hand still was on Kai's groin, Kai hoped he hadn't said something irreparable, hadn't broken it for them.

"I'm crazy," Stacey sighed. "I didn't hurt you, did I?"

"No," Kai said. Not if you don't let me go.

"There're just two months left. We can wait, right? I just ... really, went crazy ... After Reo ... and everything ..."

This apologizing, confused voice - Kai couldn't stand it, turned to Stacey, caught his hand.

"You can't stop now, can you?" As for him, Kai, he surely couldn't.

"But I can hurt you ..."

"You won't." He held Stacey's gaze - and then something changed in Stacey's eyes.

"Well, let's try like this ... Turn on your side."

Stacey's arm supported him. Kai felt Stacey fumble with his own zipper - and a few moments later the heat of Stacey's cock pressed against his. Heat and silk and pulsing of blood through the fine skin were wonderful. Stacey's palm moved on their cocks, rubbing them together. Now Kai wasn't afraid to look at his face - it was softer, almost peaceful, just with small ripples of pleasure making Stacey's eyelashes flutter.

"Do you feel okay?" Stacey asked and Kai didn't know if he wanted more to cry or to laugh.

"Of course," he whispered, touching Stacey's face. "Of course, I do."

A little while later, after the surge of pleasure already passed but the residuals of it stayed, Stacey put his arms around Kai and held him.

"I've never done it this way before," he said suddenly. Kai shifted to be able to see his face and noticed a curt smile on Stacey's mouth. "I mean ... well, in every other way - but not like this."

Kai thought about it and said:

"Me too," - but it didn't really matter because everything what had been before Stacey was simply 'not like this'.

"I don't know where we're going," Stacey said in a very quiet voice. "Soon they'll look for us. We're criminals now, you know. I'm a criminal."

Kai started saying something and felt the tips of Stacey's fingers touch his mouth.

"I think that's what I've always been. A murderer, a liar ... a whore. And I got you into all this. Because I can't stay alone ... I don't want to be alone."

"I'll be with you. As long as you want me to." Kai had said it before; sometimes he thought Stacey just didn't hear it. But now, for the first time, he seemed to hear. His gaze darkened again as he looked at Kai.

"Promise?"

"I promise."

"You won't lie to me - like ... like Vic lied."

"I belong to you - you're my master."

He saw Stacey wince.

"No, not because of that. I'm not your master and don't you repeat it."

"But you are." Stacey didn't understand - but it was important. "Because I chose you to be."

He knew Stacey still didn't understand - yet his eyes brightened a little, became scintillating green.

"Okay, Kai. If you insist so. But then you're my master as well. Deal?"

It wasn't a deal but Kai stopped arguing. For a few more minutes they stayed quiet and then Stacey started getting up.

"Your shoulder. Let me finish with it."

"It doesn't hurt." But Stacey sat still for a short while until Kai bandaged it. "You like this room? Will we stay here?"

We ... Kai probably looked stupidly happy.

"You'll sleep here with me."

"Yeah," Stacey said harshly. "I don't think Caesar will oppose."

Kai watched him rummage through the closet. He found a military jacket and ripped the signs from it almost with frenzy.

"I'll go see Caesar."

Kai nodded, swallowing with unease. Reo ... Stacey didn't say 'see Reo' but he surely meant it. Stacey was brave for being ready to face him ... but of course Stacey was brave, feared nothing ...

"You'll be here, Kai."

"Here or with Cory."

"No, here. You'll stay in bed."

There were four beds in the room and Stacey squatted in front of one of them, pulled some levers, then kicked it closer to Kai's bed.

"Stay here and sleep."

"Okay," Kai said.

As the door behind Stacey closed, he did just that - curled in bed and pulled the blanket over himself. He didn't feel sleepy - he felt tranquil - content ... ashamed for this feeling, too, because the day was so tragic, for Cory, for Reo. But Stacey's smell still lingered on his body and Kai couldn't stop thinking about it.

He pressed his palms to his belly carefully, felt the weight and resilience of an alien creature inside him and whispered:

"Thank you for not stopping me, little one. Thank you for letting me do it."

* * *

The door to the infirmary was closed and Stacey perched on a stool, leaned against the wall and listened whether there were any sounds. It took so long for Caesar ... A stray thought came to his mind: what if it was really too late for Reo - and he shook his head fiercely. No; Reo had been alive when they found him. The Captain and Gorn - they didn't want to kill him, they liked to hurt him. The memory of the blaster in the Captain's hand as the ray burned long lines on Reo's side made his stomach lurch.

He should've felt grateful to Caesar that the man had killed Gorn, Stacey thought, for now he, Stacey, wouldn't have to do it.

"Humans should feel shame for themselves," he recalled Victor's voice - the words about another thing but seeming so true now.

"You don't know, Vic, you don't know ..."

The door opened and Caesar came out; his short gesture as he touched the doorjamb to steady himself didn't escape Stacey and seemed so abnormal for Caesar. But, maybe, it was really a normal thing, Stacey thought; for the first time Caesar seemed human.

He watched Caesar push his hair, matted and looking greyish with sweat, out of his face. At the next moment the man noticed Stacey.

"You're here."

"How's he?"

"Not so bad. He has some burns ..." Caesar waved his hand vaguely against his front and Stacey clenched his teeth at the realization what it must have meant. "Some broken bones. I did what I could and gave him some painkillers."

"He's sleeping?"

For a moment it seemed he was out of Caesar's field of vision, then Caesar shrugged.

"No."

"Can I see him?"

Caesar shrugged again.

"If you want to."

It sounded tired - somewhat hopeless.

"I want to," Stacey said firmly.

He walked past Caesar and pushed the door. Reo lay in bed, on his side, facing the door, with his eyes open. The light was dull but it did nothing to hide the extent of his injuries, his face bruised black and blue under the whiteness on the bandages. His head was wrapped with white as well, just with a few strands of hair visible - and another stripe of white went over his nose, probably broken.

A blanket covered the rest but Stacey shuddered thinking about it. On a ship like this, there could be no mender, all Caesar could do was to use common means. And no matter how good Caesar was - he couldn't do a miracle.

Reo's eyes, pitch-black, seeming even darker than usual, followed him unceasingly as Stacey walked up to the bed.

"Can I stay here for a while?" he asked carefully. He could sense Reo's tension almost physically. As if he didn't know what to expect from Stacey, was ready to face an enemy. His fists clenched involuntarily but Stacey made himself relax. It did no good now to be angry at the Captain or Gorn or whoever else had done it to Reo.

"If you want me to leave, I'll go."

The eyes were so dark, so pained; then Reo shook his head minutely.

"Can I sit on your bed?"

There was a pause - and then a short nod. Stacey sat down. At least Reo didn't try to move away from him.

He was afraid to touch Reo; even when on F-400, Reo seemed to go rigid at a contact - and now Stacey didn't know what to do. He didn't know what to say, hated himself for being so bad with words. Why did he need to come here at all - if he couldn't do anything for Reo?

A small movement Reo made drew his attention. The young man's lips moved as if Reo tried to say something - and Stacey leaned closer.

"Jaw... fractured. Hurts to talk..." Reo's hand slid from under the blanket and touched his split lips.

"We can talk later."

"I'm... fucked up. Liter- ally and figuratively."

"No, you aren't!" The words Stacey said were not right and Stacey saw a flitting smile curve Reo's lips.

"Oh yeah."

Stacey clenched his fists again; why did he have to feel so helpless? Why couldn't he come up with anything to say - anything that would make it better? If something could make it better at all.

"I only... made a problem... for you... and Caesar."

Stacey shook his head in despair.

"You know it's not so. If not for you, Caesar would let them arrest him," he added with a sudden flash of insight. "It was because you interfered he started fighting. Didn't he tell you that?"

He knew by Reo's eyes that Caesar surely didn't - and he also knew Reo didn't quite believe him; but wanted to believe.

"You saved your brother."

"I failed... I let them do it ..."

"For God's sake! You let them? It could happen to anyone!"

A shake of Reo's head was desperately sad.

"Not ... to everyone ... Not to Caesar ... Not to you."

Stacey looked at his hands; he could've told ... But it wouldn't make it easier for Reo, he knew it.

"It's because I'm weak ... I'm not a hero," Reo said with more force and the words sounded almost completely clear. "I always wanted to be. I wanted to save Caesar ... and he would love me for it. And he saved me again ... you saved me."

Caesar wouldn't love you for it, Stacey thought; wouldn't love you for anything if he already didn't love you. He recalled tiny, shallow sobs Caesar made as he knelt in front of Reo. And all the time while Caesar mended Reo's body - didn't Reo feel his love through Caesar's hands?

"They saw me," Reo whispered. "They saw that I'm not human."

Stacey got up on his feet abruptly, unable to stay still, made a few steps and caught a gaze of Reo's widened, staring eyes.

"Stacey ... don't go ..."

His bout of violence passed, just grief stayed.

"I won't . I'm just ... angry."

He slid on his knees in front of the bed, his face on the same level with Reo's. It suddenly made it easier. Stacey still didn't know if Reo wouldn't startle away from him but reached his hand and ran his fingers over the bandage, over the silky strands of black hair between the cloth. A strangulation mark on Reo's neck was cruel purple.

"I think you did great," he said. "I think you're as much a hero as anyone can be."

He was afraid even the tips of his fingers would hurt against Reo's raw skin - but Reo didn't try to withdraw. He kept looking at Stacey intently but the desperate glitter in his eyes went away.

"You know what I always dreamed about? That Caesar and me, we'd have a ship - and go somewhere, together ... and free ... I guess my wish's coming true," Reo added with breathless irony.

"Will there be place for me and Kai in this dream?" Stacey asked completely seriously. "And for Cory?"

Through his fingers he felt how Reo nodded.

"Good."

He leaned towards Reo, touched the broken face with his lips - and saw Reo close his eyes.

As he got us, Reo whispered in a hasty voice:

"I want a cigarette."

"So do I. I'll search - they must have a supply here."

"Bring some to me then."

* * *

There was silence in the cellblock - but only one cell was locked, so, Stacey didn't have to wonder; the cell where Caesar had been imprisoned some hours ago. And now the Captain was there ... together with two corpses of the guards.

Stacey couldn't hate the man more - but the thought of it made him feel somewhat uncomfortable.

The code locking the door was not changed, was the same one the guards used to open the door; Caesar probably didn't know how to change it. The door opened and Stacey put a hand on the handle of the blaster involuntarily.

The Captain was not going to attack him, though. Two bodies lay on the floor - and the Captain slumped against the wall as far away from them as possible. He looked badly: grey-faced, with his hair drenched in sweat and the side of his shirt soaked with blood. He'd apparently used his jacket to bandage his mutilated hand and cradled it now on his lap. For a moment, smell of blood made Stacey feel sick. But what did he expect? That Caesar would take care of the man who'd tortured his brother?

I want the man dead ... Stacey realized this wish - and then more came: dead, gone, like Gorn was gone ... let someone get rid of him ... but quickly - so that he, Stacey, didn't have to look at him.

Well, the Captain probably would be dead and gone - in a day or, maybe, even in hours, if they let him keep bleeding. All Stacey needed to do for that was to walk away now. So easy ...

The Captain's blood-shot eyes looked up and stopped at Stacey with exhaustion and disgust.

"What're you doing here, puppy? Came to gloat?"

He should've left now; if he was going to leave at all - not let the man involve him into a conversation.

"So, do you like what you see? Does it make you happy? Shooting me like you'd shot the Governor is not enough - you want me to suffer, right?"

Indignance in the Captain's voice hit Stacey in a wrong way. How dared he - to accuse them of cruelty, to demand mercy? He'd fuckin' drawn ornaments with a blaster on Reo's body ...

Stacey made himself swallow the words he wanted to say. The Captain knew what he'd done - what was the point of reminding it?

"Enjoy the view, then," the man said peevishly - and then added in a quiet, almost contented voice. "Maybe, I won't live till then - but I like the thought that you'll pay for everything you've done. The Empire will fuckin' crucify you."

"If they find us."

It was stupid; he shouldn't have started talking. The Captain's greyish eyelids rose minutely.

"They will find you. Do you think the Empire will forgive you hijacking its ship? And kidnapping its Captain?"

"I don't think they'll make a fuss because of you. If they valued you high - why would they charge you with such a dirty job?"

Stacey could barely believe when hearing the dry, coughing sounds the Captain made - laughter.

"Smart boy. It'll be almost a waste when they kill you."

"I told you we're not going to ..."

Stacey cut himself off. There was something nearly hypnotizing in the Captain, in the look of the man's grey eyes, snake-like cold. Something that made Stacey continue to listen, to talk.

"But you really have nowhere to go. I wonder where're you going now," the man muttered.

The blow hit precisely. They had no safe haven they could flee to. All he could do - all he'd done - was just to send the ship as far away from major routes of the Empire as possible. He wished he could've hidden the truth from the Captain - but his face probably had given him away.

"Listen here, boy. You don't have to die. Nothing is lost yet. At least not for you." The Captain's face went animated suddenly, traces of pain and weariness gone from it. Stacey saw how he leaned closer - as if indicating some intimacy between them. "You're different from the others, I can see it - what do you have to do with them? You've been military, right? You still have that kind of bearing. What's your name?"

Stacey didn't answer and the Captain went on.

"I'm Peter Barstow. Listen here. Don't ruin it for yourself! Whatever you've done, it can be forgotten - forgiven. I'll testify in your favor. My word means something, don't you doubt it! You can be in the fleet again. I'll manage to get it for you - I promise. Just don't let things go too ugly. You need me. I need you, too, boy - see, I don't pretend. But you need me as well. There's a shuttle on the ship ... Let them others do whatever they want - and we can leave together. I won't let you down ..."

For a moment the thought was almost seductive. To let the man go, to give him the shuttle and clear the ship of his presence - and who knows whether Barstow would ever reach some planet. The main thing he wouldn't be here. No one of them would have to deal with him - neither he, nor Caesar, nor Reo ...

Stacey stepped away, shaking his head.

"I don't want to be in the fleet again."

It broke the Captain's nearly feverish speech. He stopped, looking at Stacey with narrowed eyes.

"What then? Money?"

"Nope."

"What?"

"I want to kill you, sir," Stacey said.

Before he'd said it, he still didn't know if he was going to do it. And now the blaster lay in his hand as if it belonged there.

God, he was pathetic. These words, this gesture ... Stacey hated himself for them - for this 'sir' that came from he didn't know where, from his fleet days - the fleet he claimed he didn't want to belong to any more.

But it was still better than everything that had come to his mind before. If he wanted Barstow gone - he had to do it with his own hands, not to look for easy ways ... not to try to stay clean - 'cause clean he was not.

He saw Barstow's eyes dash from his face to the blaster and back.

"You can't ... not like that ... You promised to let me go ..."

If Barstow thought Stacey had forgotten - well, he hadn't.

"You won't kill me," Barstow said. "I told you my name. I have a family, I have two children, I can show you their pic ..."

With his good hand he reached to the inner pocket.

"Don't move." Stacey raised the blaster.

He didn't really think the Captain tried for some trick, the man was too smart - and too exhausted - for it. But if he did ... it would be so much easier to kill him in a fight.

What fight? Barstow was wounded, bleeding ...

But if Stacey didn't kill him - who would? Caesar again? Did he want to rely on Caesar once more? Was he going to make Caesar face his brother's torturer again?

Shooting Barstow would be an honest thing to do.

"You're not a murderer," Barstow continued hastily. "I can see it in your eyes. You can't kill me. What do you think - playing judge and jury? You'd be no better than me!"

Well, Stacey was a murderer ... one could think it would make it damn easier.

He had to do it now; it was downright cruel, to keep the man in his sights for so long. Just fuckin' pull the trigger ... And live with it. Because living with not doing it would be much more difficult.

"Have you ever heard about forgiveness? What have I done? Your friend - he's not even dead, right? We haven't done anything irreparable ..."

"I can't forgive you. It's not up to me because what you did - you did it not against me. But to kill you - that I can," Stacey said.

A grip on his wrist startled him, made him wrench away violently. He shot but the ray went aside, charred the wall at Barstow's side. For a moment of panic Stacey struggled and then recognized Caesar.

The doctor looked refreshed - immaculate clean and even not tired any more; it surprised Stacey vaguely because there was really too little time for rest. Something else was new in Caesar's appearance and finally Stacey realized what it was: black shape of the gun on Caesar's belt.

"So, you want to kill him ..." Caesar said thoughtfully. "I didn't expect it from you."

Stacey twisted out of his grip, looked at the blaster in his hand. What should he do? Go on with the execution?

"I appreciate your intention," Caesar said.

He looked as if he waited for Stacey to continue; why did he stop him, then? Why did he have to come here? Suddenly Stacey felt a surge of anger - against Caesar now.

"Doesn't Reo need your attention?"

Caesar laughed.

"He doesn't need anyone now. And I've seen Kai - he's okay as well. But I see you don't intend to proceed with killing him?"

Stacey just glanced at Barstow, couldn't look at the man's widened eyes. There was something so indecent in discussing the fate of the man in front of him.

"You are afraid of sin? Or of crime? Don't worry, I'll take your sins on myself."

What was it supposed to mean? Caesar's blue eyes laughed as if there was some joke Stacey didn't get. He couldn't pull the trigger ... he couldn't.

"Okay," Caesar said abruptly. "Enough of that. There're things I want to discuss with you - and urgently. He - he can wait."

It didn't solve anything - and Stacey felt disgusted with himself for the relief he felt. He knew Barstow watched him as he tucked the blaster away - and Stacey made himself meet his gaze.

"Think what I told you about, boy. You still can save yourself ... while I'm alive."

Locking the door, Caesar glanced at Stacey with interest.

"What did he try to talk you into?"

"Into nothing."

* * *

On the bridge Caesar looked at the charts silently. With his face concentrated like this and the strands of hair he had to hold to keep away from his face, he looked all the way as he'd been on F-400, in the infirmary - not the fierce, raving dangerous man Stacey had seen recently.

"So, where're we going?"

"I have no idea, sir," Stacey replied. There hardly could be a worse answer - but there was nothing he could do about it.

"I have," Caesar said calmly. "There is just one place where the Empire wouldn't get us."

"We're going to Heles," Stacey whispered with dead lips.

"No, we don't. I've never served Heles - unlike you. I served Voices."

Just a short while ago a reminder of his work for Heles would hurt; but now Stacey couldn't quite care.

"You think Voices ..."

"I don't have an intention to return to them as well. But when I worked for them ... Do you know what's their aim?"

Stacey shook his head.

"They want an ideal world ... Well, it's unimportant. Better not to know. Anyway, they think there will be time when no existing species will survive - and the whole system of the Empire - and, maybe, of other species - would collapse. In fact, I guess they prepare it. But they created a few planets, ready for life, that are not occupied till now. When everything goes down ... they'll like playing gods then."

"When is it going to happen?"

"Oh, I don't know. Maybe, in a hundred years."

"Ah."

A little bit, Stacey felt ashamed for not being able to feel concerned. Or, maybe, he was just not in the right state of mind to worry for the humankind. What mattered for him was that they were not going to Heles ... and that Caesar seemed to have a plan.

"I know where one of this planets is located. Here." Caesar's long finger pointed at the chart. "How long will it take to reach it?"

"Four days ... I guess."

"Good. It means we can get there safely, before the ship is going to be looked for."

"But this planet ..."

"It's fully suitable for living. And no one in the Empire knows about it."

Caesar didn't look like he expected Stacey either to argue or to ask more questions. Stacey did, all the same.

"This planet ... if it is so good, why didn't you go there with Reo when ..."

"Because it was the first place where Voices would look for me, right?"

"And now you aren't afraid of it?"

A brief flash of pain through the irony in Caesar's eyes surprised him.

"I don't flatter myself. Thirteen years passed. Can you imagine how their science evolved during this time? And I did nothing; I learned nothing. They found a replacement for me - a long time ago. I also didn't go there ..." Caesar added in a very quiet voice - and because more explanations were unnecessary, Stacey knew Caesar wanted to say something important. "I wanted Reo to have people around him. I still hoped I could make Reo human."

"He is human," Stacey said, feeling his heart clench.

"I appreciate that you say that. I know Reo does, too. So, what do you think?"

"It's not like we have any other choice."

"Decided, then. Will you change the course?"

Stacey nodded and Caesar got on his feet.

"As for the bastard in the closet - I'll take care of him."

Stacey didn't know what it was supposed to mean - but he couldn't clarify it now. Let it happen the way Caesar wanted it.

Coward, he told himself. Well, let him be a coward.

 

* * *

She hated dealing with humans. You could always rely on buying information from them - but you could never know if the information was true. It took Minerva weeks to sort out lies and rumors and fall on the solid track. She recalled the panic she caused in that clinic in the 'free' zone when the doc realized he'd tried to kill her child. There were not many pleasant things in her life - but this one was certainly pleasant.

It seemed finally luck turned its face to Minerva. Sometimes she thought if losing her eyes was some weird sacrifice, accepted by the higher powers without her knowledge. From history, she'd heard about such things; but she'd never imagine it to happen to her.

The empty socket smarted; it also had taken Minerva a while to learn seeing just with one eye. She didn't care much for her appearance although it might look like that she'd never find another partner now. Once she'd ordered a polished shutter of grey gold for her missing eye but her own appearance reminded her about Janus then and she didn't wear it.

Janus ... son of bitch. She should've thanked him for how everything turned, after all. After his attack, the Voices were so chagrined with the crime they allowed to be committed that they agreed to let her go without mentioning the project again. They even provided Minerva a shuttle and an open credit, which was extremely convenient.

On the last night before leaving the station she woke up with someone's presence in her room. In the darkness she struggled to see - until faced a small red light and realized it was Janus' artificial eye.

She didn't have time to scream. Oh, Minerva was going to - she was sure he'd come to finish what he started - to kill her. The light lit up suddenly and she saw him leaning back in the armchair in front of her bed.

"Want to call for help, pretty face?"

In this position he freed his tentacles almost imperceptibly, reached to her and touched her eye. Minerva pushed his limbs away furiously. Fear fought with anger in her and finally anger won.

"You think I can't deal with you by myself?"

"Try." The tentacles reached again and she tried to push them away but her limbs got tangled. His tentacles could be cloned after Uranus but their force was incomparable. She struggled with him.

"What do you want?"

"Have you known them? My hosts?"

For a moment the question didn't register with her; then she laughed.

"What? Do you feel nostalgic? Want to find your roots and such?"

"Bitch." He hit her on the face, threw her back on the bed. Minerva kept laughing.

"I knew them. They both were bastards. Like you're."

"From you, beauty, it sounds like a compliment."

"Suck my dick!"

"You don't have a dick. But I can make you suck mine."

"You don't have a dick, too. You told me yourself - you don't propagate."

It made Janus chuckle again.

"You're right, you're right. But for you - I can acquire it. My creators made me a self-perfecting system, you know."

"Oh yes, struggle for perfection."

The tentacles holding her limbs softened suddenly, became almost caressing. Minerva pushed them off furiously but the memory of their stroking touch on her skin lingered in her mind.

"I'm almost sorry I've driven you away," Janus said softly. "You could've been an amusing partner."

She didn't believe a word of his; apart from the fact that she knew: if he could do something against her - he would. She prepared for struggle again but Janus got up on his feet abruptly. How huge he was ...

"I wish you good luck, dear," he said and for a moment she felt the tip of his tentacle swirl in her empty socket. A caress? An insult? "Find what you look for."

"Find what you look for, too," she whispered. It made him stop nearly on the threshold.

"I look for nothing. I have everything."

Lucky Janus. She still had to find her baby. And for all that was sacred Minerva hoped she would find him before it was too late. The count went for weeks by now - and each planet she visited just to realize that she was late again took some more time from her account.

The trace on a tiny colony lost on the outskirts of the Empire was almost hot. She hated herself for being late - just by how many days? Her anger made her wreck the human property and threaten them with more repercussions until she realized no one knew where Kai had gone.

It was on F-400 where she nearly got in trouble as some demented militaries tried to hijack her ship and imprison her. Well, she should've expected it to happen, with all her poaching on the territory of the Empire. But as she left the colony, all Minerva could think about was her boy who keep growing far away from her, inside a hostile incubator. Humans had tried to kill her child before. They could try again.

* * *

He held his hand on his belly when Stacey came in - and Kai took his palm away quickly. It felt cold; his own body seemed to emanate cold recently. He wondered if he was ever going to get used to it; well, not likely.

Pulling the blanket up as quickly as possible, he tried to hide the arch of his belly. It was pointless - one couldn't hide something so prominent but Kai couldn't stop trying. Caesar said it was obsessive-compulsive or something like that, some other clever words that nearly made Kai feel as if what happened to him was usual, explainable - almost normal.

He met Stacey's gaze and smiled and saw how dark-green of Stacey's eyes brightened. Stacey kept holding his hands behind his back.

"Do you have anything there?"

"Um ... Yeah." Stacey reached his hands and put something on Kai's lap. "It's silly, I know, because you can't eat it all the same - but I thought it was beautiful."

The fruit was dark-red, glossy-smooth and surprisingly symmetrical.

"Reo's found them today," Stacey continued in nearly apologetic voice. Kai noticed how he shook his head to make longer strands fall away from his face. "I thought you might've liked it."

"It's lovely." Kai ran the fingers over the slick surface.

"It smells nicely as well," Stacey said and stepped towards him. His hot, rough-skinned palms lay on Kai's around the fruit and raised it to Kai's face.

"It does," Kai whispered. On the first days on the new planet Stacey's hands were raw, nearly bleeding; even hard work on F-400 didn't prepare him for the amount of work here. But now things seemed to settle down a bit.

The planet Caesar had led them to was beautiful. Warm, lushly vegetated, with enough plants not to make search for food difficult. First days they used the ship for living - but later it became inexpedient to use so much energy for supporting the system; by then they managed to build some kind of huts.

Kai spent most of his time in one of those. Of course, he had never been of any use where any kind of work was concerned - but as days passed, it became more difficult even to get up. The creature grew too big, too heavy, reacted too violent at anything it considered bothering.

"It's just a few weeks," Caesar said. "Simply stay in bed. If it gets worse, I won't be able to do anything for you."

So, Kai was the only one who didn't do anything for the new colony. Everyone else worked. Reo recovered surprisingly quickly, at least physically. His broken hand was still bandaged, his face scarred - and sometimes he shivered and his face went blank as pain made him double; but despite everything he was on his feet and hyperactive.

Stacey said Caesar permitted Reo to do anything he wanted; there was tightness in his voice as always when he mentioned Caesar recently - and Kai knew why.

He recalled that day, the last day of their flight, when Stacey came to their quarters with a distorted face and dark, somewhat surprised eyes.

"I should've killed him ... It's my fault ... I should've killed him."

He told Kai eventually. The Captain, the one held imprisoned in the cellblock ... Reo just got up this day - and the first thing Caesar did was to take him to the Captain's cell.

"Caesar said: 'If you want, I'll kill him right now. Just tell me that you want it. Or if you want, I'll keep him alive. You're the only one who can decide his fate.'"

"What did Reo say?"

"What do you think he said?"

So, the Captain was with them now - worked together with others, being watched, though, and cuffed for the night. Caesar said about it something like they needed another pair of working hands but Kai knew Stacey didn't believe him.

"He knew what Reo would choose. He did it 'cause ... 'cause he wanted to get back to Reo ..." Stacey stumbled and shrugged helplessly. "For feeling for him. You have no idea what I talk about and I can't explain better, right?"

"I understand," Kai said.

Stacey's hands on his were steadily, pleasantly warm - their heat seemed to go all the way through Kai. Kai started relaxing. When Stacey held him ... he almost believed he could finally get warm.

"Shall we put it here?" Stacey picked up the fruit and lodged it on the floor near to the mattress. "It'll look nicely with the light on it."

"You don't have to work more today, do you?" Kai didn't want to get obtrusive, to grab Stacey's hands - but couldn't control himself. His fingers intertwined with Stacey's again.

It must have been fear that made him so clingy. Kai was afraid, couldn't help it. He knew there was nothing he could do - and he knew that after the Heles was out, he would be free, would be okay - everything would be anew for him and Stacey.

But he feared. He'd heard Stacey ask Caesar, when thinking Kai was asleep, if it was going to be difficult. Caesar said harshly:

"Yes."

Kai hated himself for this weakness, for fearing pain - but there was something else he was afraid of. As if he couldn't quite believe that this day would ever come and he would be normal again. At least as normal as possible.

"Nah, work's over for today. I'll just wash a bit and come back," Stacey patted Kai's hands and got up. "Well, maybe, I'll eat something, too." He wrinkled his nose.

Let him go, Kai thought, wait for him to come back later, for the night - if you really want to start this conversation. With Stacey looking down at him, his head awry and his eyes full of golden sparkles - Kai felt so good. But later, at night, it would be good in a different way - the pitch-black sky through the slots between the logs of their hut - and the heat of Stacey's body against his, Stacey's hand holding his through the night. Then Kai wouldn't be able to make himself start it as well.

Don't start it at all ...

He clenched in misery. He had to ... One day he had to. Kai didn't know if it was right or wrong, what he was going to do - but he knew he would regret it all his life if he hadn't said it.

"Stacey."

"What?" Stacey's face with widened, bright eyes looked so young, boyish - and so vulnerable that Kai felt like a criminal for bringing it on him, for shattering the peace in these eyes.

"When the child's born," he said, "what will be with him?"

He saw Stacey's eyebrows draw together but Stacey's voice sounded gentle.

"You don't have to worry about it, Kai. It'll be taken care of."

"Which way?"

He saw Stacey shift uncomfortably, twist a strand of his hair around a finger.

"You'll never have to see it. You'll be free of it and then a new life starts."

"Stacey ... I ..." He couldn't say that. He saw tenderness in Stacey's eyes and it was breaking his heart.

"Don't you worry about anything."

"I ... If it is possible - maybe, there is a way that we can ... keep him?"

A startled expression appeared on Stacey's face - not anger or pain - just surprise; and it made Kai feel even worse.

"Keep him?" Stacey repeated automatically, then added. "You're not serious, are you?"

Yes, he shouldn't have been, he should've used this chance to smile and shake his head and said yes, it was a bad joke. But the heaviness, the familiar weight inside him didn't let him do it.

"I know it's a Heles. But at the same time ... he's a baby, you see. He isn't guilty of anything, it just happened this way ... I know you hate Heles but ..."

His voice trailed off as he saw Stacey's face go completely blank. For a moment it seemed Stacey didn't understand what Kai said. Kai reached to him carefully - as if a touch could say what he couldn't put in the words. Stacey jerked his hand away, started away from him; Kai felt his heart sink.

He should've expected that.

"He isn't responsible for what his parents did, for what other Heles did ..."

Stupid lips! He wanted to slap himself for saying these unsuitable words - but it was too late. Kai grabbed his hair and pulled on it in misery. Stacey stood looking down at him, pale and silent.

"I know I'm just an incubator, he has nothing to do with me. But he's ... he's mine ... He understands when I talk to him ..."

He was babbling; he didn't know why he couldn't stop - because he wished he could. Stacey didn't answer; a vein on his temple pulsed wildly. Kai started shaking.

"If you don't want to ..." he whispered, "we'll do as you want." He shouldn't have started it at all ... he couldn't bear when Stacey looked like that at him. "Please don't get angry!"

Kai regretted at once that he'd said those words. He saw Stacey unclench his fists slowly. Stacey's hands had felt so good on Kai's just minutes ago. Oh God, what had he done?..

"You don't need to be afraid of me, Kai," Stacey said quietly. "I'll never hurt you."

It was not that! Kai was not afraid of him! He was afraid of the damage he'd done.

"I'd never do anything against your will," Stacey continued. "If I knew you wanted to keep this baby ..."

Kai hated this baby at the moment ... but no more than he hated himself. For starting it ... and for going back now - when it was too late.

"I would never suggest killing it," Stacey said in a steady voice. "I thought it was what you wanted - to get rid of it. But if you don't ..."

He stepped away from Kai - and Kai noticed it and knew what it meant. Threads were tearing - and he didn't know how to stop it.

"I'll do whatever you want, Stacey," he whispered hastily. "I just want to be with you ..."

"I'll never force you into anything, Kai. I tried to make decisions for you before - it turned out disastrous. I'll never do it again."

No, please, Kai wanted to beg, make my decisions for me. Don't reject me ... Because it was what he read in Stacey's words - rejection.

"You know - I should've known what happened when one wanted to build the other's life according to the patterns he believed right," Stacey continued mildly. Kai knew what Stacey talked about; Victor ... Victor whom Stacey could not forget and would never forget. "But everyone makes his own mistakes. You're free to do whatever you want. If you want to keep this baby - I'll do everything for you both."

I ruined everything, Kai thought - and his mind refused to embrace the implications of it.

"Don't worry," Stacey said. "Everything will be okay."

He was on the threshold already - and only now Kai understood he was walking away.

"Stacey ..." How he hated his awkwardness, his too cumbersome body that didn't want to move faster. "Where are you going? Please don't go!"

"Good night." It was said with a short chuckle - and then Stacey left.

"Stacey ..." Kai got up and even managed a few steps when the spasms hit. "Shh, Thor," Kai whispered with white lips. He needed to overcome it to stop Stacey. But it didn't work; pain threw him on his knees and he curled over his belly, rocking in pain, counting his breath.

When it passed, it was already too late.

* * *

He heard Kai call for him but didn't stop. In any other case, hearing it - Stacey would be back in a moment. But not now; now it was better not to stop. He was afraid of himself, of the anger he felt. Of course, he wouldn't hurt Kai. Not Kai - with his almost translucent face and defenseless eyes. But Stacey was afraid of the words he could say - he'd almost said them - the words that would hurt worse than a blow could.

I hate you, you betrayed me, what have you done to me ...

Thanks God he hadn't said that. He'd said the right words, the ones he could have been proud with. Kai didn't need to worry.

It still hurt.

The sun was going down quickly but Stacey didn't notice it, walked away from the camp, clenching and unclenching his fists; his breath was shallow and painful. It all was pain ... the memory ... he couldn't bear to resurrect Kai's words in his mind - but he didn't need to.

The Heles child ... Would he ever be free of Heles? They'd stood between him and Victor all the time ... And now between him and Kai.

Vic ... I miss you so much ...

How could Kai? Stacey tried to imagine how it would be, with this creature among them, and his mind balked. Everything had been going to be so fine - they'd wait until the danger was gone, when Kai was free. But with the Heles ... Nothing would be as Stacey hoped.

He felt shame, hated himself for thinking that. What right did he, Stacey, have to decide? It was Kai who had gone through these months of torment; Stacey's wishes were dispensable. Well, he would do the right thing, whatever the cost; he would support Kai, would do everything for him and others on this planet. It was not like he could leave, anyway.

Stacey passed Cory who sat at the fire, roasting pieces of some vegetable. He knew the boy gave him a strange, worried look but didn't stop. He walked between the trees - didn't know where - and he didn't care. He just wanted to be as far away from the camp as possible ...

As far away from Kai as possible? The thought made Stacey feel grief. He'd never thought he'd think that.

He didn't know how long he walked. The sun was gone completely and he found his way by touch. Just some path between trees. To nowhere. He stumbled against a root, slumped on the ground and decided not to get up. So, he sat hugging his knees and listening to the rustle of the branches high above him.

He didn't know where the camp was, he realized suddenly. From here, he could see no fire, hear no human sound. Very funny. Lost in jungles. It didn't matter, he thought. He'd hopefully figure out where the other were tomorrow.

"Or stay here," Stacey whispered bitterly. No, he wouldn't, of course. He would go back ... just not now.

Pain still coiled in him - like an alien, evil being - and Stacey curled on the warm ground, wrapped his arms around his knees. Almost fetal position ... but it did make him feel better.

"Stacey ..." The voice was careful, soft - but unexpected enough to make Stacey uncurl and stare wildly into the darkness. Not complete darkness, though; a small light moved between the trees, approached him slowly.

"Stacey, are you here?"

He felt like keep silent, hide - and chided himself for this immature thought.

"I'm here, Reo."

The light moved closer - and soon a ray of it revealed Reo's dark-eyed face with thin lines of healing scars.

"What the fuck are you doing here?" They said it nearly in one voice - but Stacey held the pause longer, waiting for an answer.

"I looked for you. You marched away like mad ... I thought you'd get lost."

"Well, I didn't." Liar. "I just wanted some privacy. Can I have it?"

"Um ... Yes."

Yet Reo didn't leave. Stacey didn't know if Reo could see his face well but added a scowl to his look, just in case. The flashlight made a circle suddenly as Reo put it on the ground, squatting in front of Stacey.

"So, you're going to stay here?"

"Yeah," Stacey confirmed.

"I just thought you might be interested. I found that grass there ..." Reo dug in his pockets. "Here. I think one can smoke it."

They'd run out of cigarettes a few days ago. Stacey swallowed in temptation.

"I think it tastes like shit but ... Here, help me." Reo started rolling a cigarette but the fingers of his left hand still were less flexible. "Want to try?"

"Sure."

"It's harsh. And don't inhale deeply or I'll have to carry you home."

Stacey took the cigarette and Reo raised a match to light it, shielding the flame with his hand.

It tasted strangely but Stacey didn't really care.

"What happened? Between you and Kai?"

"You interfere again?"

"I'm afraid I do." Reo picked up the cigarette from Stacey and took a drag. Interfering, meddlesome ... But wasn't it Reo's interference what always meant so much for Stacey?

And the truth was he wanted to tell, to complain about his hurt ... No, of course, he wouldn't complain.

"Kai said he wanted to keep Heles child."

Stacey thought he'd see amazement, shock on Reo's face - but it looked like the guy was not even surprised, just nodded. It angered Stacey.

"You knew about it, didn't ya?"

"No." Reo shook his head. "Well, I thought ... In nearly eight months of them together ..."

Together? Reo was a fool! He didn't understand anything! Stacey didn't have time to say that, however.

"What did you tell him?"

"That it's his decision."

"My God." There was a small chuckle in Reo's words. "You said it in this kind of voice, right?"

What was so funny?.. But his head started swimming as well. The grass ... Stacey liked it.

"I said what I had to. You told me not to decide for him - so, if he wants to keep this creature ..."

"But you hate him for it? You feel as if he betrayed you?"

Exactly these very words ...

Stacey couldn't answer it. But he didn't need to.

"So selfish."

"Yes, selfish!"

"You're selfish, Stacey."

"I'm ..." Grass was doing weird things. The words came off messy. "I don't want this child. I can't imagine this child with us ... God, I don't want to kill any child. But it's not a child, it's a Heles ..."

"Heles, Tsatos, human ... does it really matter?" Reo asked quietly.

"No! Yes! You don't understand. It's different! This creature, it will be ..."

"It will be what you'll make it."

"Don't slip me this shit!" Stacey felt angry again. "I'll do the right thing, I'll do whatever I can, even if this creature will be there ..."

"But you'll never be with Kai, right?"

"We've never been together," Stacey muttered. "There's nothing to break off."

Right, nothing ... Not even sex ... or had it even been sex? With Victor it'd been all different.

What if he'd never sleep in one bed with Kai again? Would never feel the kid's longish fingers intertwine through his? It seemed so unfair suddenly. All because of this monster!..

"You hate Heles so much? More than you care for Kai?" Reo asked quietly.

"It hurts." Stacey curled over his knees and hugged himself. It was all because of the grass, his control slipped away completely. Reo was smoking, too, but for some reason Reo was okay. Never mind, Stacey didn't want to listen to Reo. "I don't want this Heles to be. How do you bear Barstow being around?" he asked, raising his head.

He was afraid to see pain on Reo's face - pain that he, Stacey, had inflicted. But Reo's features stayed calm; almost as if he expected this question.

"How do I?" Another drag of the cigarette and Reo killed it on the ground carefully. "I just told myself I won't let anything define my life since now on. Not him, not what happened with me, not my nature. Not books, not even Caesar. I will be what I am - and I'll live with it."

The words frightened Stacey; he knew all of a sudden that he really didn't know much about Reo. Wrapped in his own misery, he barely had any time to talk to Reo, after that time in the infirmary on the ship. And never talk really.

The cold in these words was so little like anything Reo had been. It didn't have to happen like this.

"Reo ..." he whispered and reached his hand, put it on Reo's shoulder. Reo didn't flinch under this touch - stayed tense and hard.

"I can't be anything what I'm not," Reo said. "So, let it be."

Stacey knew he was doing a wrong thing - but his mind was clouded - and his body acted by itself, pressed against Reo, felt Reo's heat and thinness. His mouth was on Reo's before he could realize it - tasted soft lips, the blend of smoked grass identical to Stacey's own. He felt Reo's tongue push against his, intertwine. Stacey's hands lay on Reo's face as Reo's hands touched his chest.

And pushed him away. And at the very second their mouths parted, the folly was gone - just shame stayed. Stacey sat down on the ground, looking at Reo who sat on his ass. There was no disgust in Reo's eyes, just thoughtfulness.

"Please don't say anything," Stacey said. "I know."

Reo's glimmering black eyes looked at him - and there was some wildness sparkle in the depth of them. Reo touched his mouth carefully.

"You know ... I didn't know it was so nice. Kissing, I mean."

"Was it?" Stacey wanted to feel relief but was afraid to.

"Wonderful. And it didn't hurt."

Stacey giggled nervously.

"It's not supposed to hurt."

"And the rest of it? Sex?"

"Sometimes. But mostly it feels good."

"You think me stupid," Reo said. "Like I haven't read about it. Hell, I guess I even had sex ... on the ship, then."

"Stupid. It wasn't sex."

Maybe, it was. Stacey's own life before meeting Victor was a never-ending row of those sex-encounters that had nothing to do with sex and everything with pain. And he was so scared of being forced again that never said 'no' to Victor, obeyed everything he'd wanted - in bed, at least ... and found happiness in this obedience.

"Stupid?" Reo's eyebrows met in a frown. "What is it you say?" But his voice laughed.

"What you are," Stacey shrugged. He felt his heart clench in gratitude to Reo - for turning it into a joke.

"You think you're so tough, don't you? That you can wrestle me down?"

"I suppose so," Stacey said in a small voice.

"Yeah right." Suddenly Reo was on him, pinned him down to the ground, Stacey's wrists in a hard grip. Stacey struggled and giggled. He felt weak; it was grass as well. "How about that?"

"Not ... impressive." He wiggled, trying to shake Reo off. The heat of Reo's body was overwhelming. Stacey relaxed momentarily - and then buckled with new force, overturning Reo on the ground.

"Ouch." The impact must have been too hard.

"Sorry. You asked for that." Now Reo struggled under him. His pale face glowed in the darkness. Stacey grabbed both his wrists in one and ran his fingers over smooth hair. "You can never be stronger than me. I'm a soldier."

He felt Reo going quiet under him and hated himself for the wrong words. He let go awkwardly. It was when Reo lashed out and pressed him to the ground again, now face down. And then suddenly Reo's arms became not fighting but embracing, wrapped around Stacey, cradled him against Reo's chest. It was so unexpected that Stacey didn't know what to do, just let it happen. On the side, spooned against each other, they lay on the ground and Stacey heard Reo whisper something against his hair.

"It hurts now, I know - but it won't always hurt. You'll sleep - and it'll pass, it'll be okay. Everything will work out, with you, with Kai, with me ... Nothing irreparable happened."

The words were lulling; like a magic chant it drained the pain out of him, soothing. On the ground, in the ring of Reo's arms, Stacey felt comfortable, as if he belonged there. As if Reo's words were true.

"And as for the child ..." Stacey flinched a little but Reo didn't let him go. "Don't punish yourself or Kai. Let it go as it goes. Anything can happen, you know. The child can die by itself, Kai can hate it when it is born, you can like it when it is born ... And stop muttering 'never', it's just one of the possibilities. Don't break it. There are more important things ..."

There were more important things. Stacey knew it was true.

"Reo," he turned in Reo's arms and faced him in the darkness, seeing just the brighter glow of black eyes. "You're my best friend. I've never had a friend before."

"You're my best friend, too," Reo whispered.

* * *

The morning got them stiff, cold and wet with dew as they unwound their mixed limbs. Stacey muttered curses; he was never a morning person. Reo apparently was. At least his face looked fresh and quite happy as he gathered his hair in a ponytail.

"You have any idea where to go?"

"Yes, sure." Reo pointed with his chin at quite a visible path through the growth.

"You think Caesar's gonna kick our asses for disappearing for the night?"

"I bet he'll do worse than that," Reo sighed.

They approached the camp, saw Cory who was bringing fresh wood and Barstow who fumbled with the fire. Caesar looked at them from under his hand, his eyes narrowed angrily.

Kai ... Kai must have worried, Stacey thought and flushed in shame.

It seemed a cloud covered the sun above their heads. For a few moments Stacey kept walking - and then as if something stopped him. He looked up and gasped.

"Oh shit ..." Stacey heard Reo next to him.

It was not a cloud. It was a bulk of shiny metal that shielded the sun from them.

Stacey remembered the rest in scraps, in discrete fragments. Cory's open-mouthed face and branches slipping out of his hands. Caesar's hardened eyes. And the feeling of deep vibration, very low - as the ship slid past them, going down.

"It lands," Reo said.

"Did it notice us?"

"I dunno."

Barstow was on his feet suddenly and his bony face glowed with joy.

"They've come for me! They'll take me away! You all are dead!"

The man ran to the trees, towards the place of landing - and Stacey saw Caesar grab the blaster, aim at the Captain's back - then lower his hand. The doctor's face was very pale but concentrated.

"It's not an Empire ship, right, Stacey?" he asked.

Stacey shook his head.

"I've never seen anything like this."

"I ..." Caesar said. "Maybe, I did. Not quite like this. Something similar."

I have to see Kai, Stacey thought. The need was so harsh, so unexplainable - and he fought it. There was no time for it now.

"Let's find out what it is," Reo muttered and touched the gun on his belt.

"Don't ..." Caesar started and then finished. "Don't do anything stupid."

Stacey thought it was not what Caesar wanted to say but there was no time for wondering. They all felt the impact of the ship landing.

"Let's go," Stacey nodded to Reo and they ran.

The ship burned out a huge circle of ash-covered land around it and on the border with it, grass and small twigs still smoldered. The entrance to the disc-shaped spacecraft was opened, black in its silvery corpus. Stacey raised his hand to stop Reo from moving further - but there was no need to do it. Reo froze just as Stacey froze himself.

The creature was so incongruous that it took Stacey some moments to realize what he saw. Its uniform was scarlet, so bright that it looked almost surrealistic. The shiny metal and smooth plastic that the rest of its body consisted of seemed a weird continuation of the unfamiliar ship.

It all registered piece by piece in Stacey's mind: the startling figure - and then - a human one, that seemed incomparably small - hanging from the creature's gloved hands. Barstow.

"Is he alive?" Reo whispered.

Oh yes, he was. The creature held him by the head and the Captain's arms and legs were jerking like a puppet's. Stacey saw Reo raise the blaster and grabbed its muzzle.

"Don't be crazy!"

It seemed the creature looked into Barstow's eyes - pulled him nearer to its face. And then they heard Barstow's voice - distorted, high-pitched, raised desperately in a scream:

"I don't know how we got here! I'm a prisoner myself! It's not my fault ..."

"I see," the creature said. The sound of its voice made Stacey shiver. The voice ... human ... familiar ... But no, of course, it couldn't be so, he'd heard too little ...

A crunching sound reached him and for a moment Stacey couldn't figure out what it was. Then he understood - as Barstow's head crumpled and blood leaked over the creature's hands. Near to him, Stacey heard a little sucking sound Reo made.

The creature threw Barstow's body so far it fell in the grass, behind the burnt circle, and turned around slowly, as if looking for more captives. Stacey pressed to the ground, found it nearly impossible to look at the creature - as if his gaze could attract its attention. And at the same time he felt as if the thing knew they were there.

The creature looked around - and for a moment, as it turned, something about its face, black and metallic and white, made Stacey's heart sink. It was so quiet ... it seemed his heartbeat was the loudest thing there.

Please go away, Stacey thought helplessly. But he knew it wouldn't go, now as it was here. And he knew they couldn't expect mercy from it.

Hell, then they had to drive it away, to make it go ... or to kill it. There was no other choice. The creature was huge - but surely it wasn't invincible. The branches and leaves over their heads suddenly rustled, showered them with twigs and slivers - and the burnt smell became unbearable. The creature was cutting the trees over their heads.

"Come on, come out," the creature said. "I just want to talk."

Now Stacey couldn't deny it: this voice ... But Stacey had no time to think about it. He looked at Reo and met a desperate gaze, whispered:

"Go to the camp. Take them away. I'll try to stop it."

Reo shook his head and aimed at the creature.

"You want to shoot? Shoot away." Stacey could swear there was suppressed laughter in the creature's voice. "Go on! I'm waiting."

It turned its chest to them - and suddenly Reo was on his feet and shot. And for the first time Stacey saw a living being - or was it alive? - Use a shield.

Damn, Reo ... Reo's face was blank and totally surprised as he just stood and looked how the creature turned a muzzle of its own gun at him.

"Now it's my turn, right?"

Stacey jumped at Reo with all his weight, pushed him away from the line of fire, yelled:

"Dammit, run!" - and shot. He knew it was pointless but he needed to distract the thing from Reo - as long as he could. He was ready to feel the laser cut his chest but it didn't come. The creature just stood and waited for him to finish shooting.

"Aggressive humans." The gesture it moved its shoulders was totally human-like. "I don't like it. I was sent for the information and that's how you meet me."

Did it lie? Did it speak the truth? Stacey didn't know - and somehow it hardly mattered because as the creature looked at him, he knew what he'd tried to deny until now. The eye of startling silver in the frame of dark eyelashes, the clear line of the profile that blended in metal and plastic.

"Vic," he said.

"How did you call me?"

No, it was madness ... everything was madness: trying to kill this creature, then trying to negotiate with it ... He couldn't look back to see whether Reo obeyed and ran - he just hoped Reo had enough presence of mind for it; ran and took Kai and others away, hide ... or leave the planet, Caesar knew a little bit about ships, they could go ...

"Vic ... What have they done to you?"

The creature didn't answer - stepped to him - and all Stacey could see was serenity of its face. The long eyelashes fell and rose over its eye.

Then there was a short hiss - Stacey didn't have time to interpret it - and scalding pain slammed into him, right through the middle of his chest - deep and hot. What a strange pain ... He suddenly felt weak, almost boneless.

In surprise, he looked at himself - and saw a shiny spike of metal in his chest. It started from under the scarlet uniform of the creature - but that was not surprising, of course. The creature was very close now; only, strangely, Stacey couldn't see its face clearly any more.

It hurt; it burned to breathe and there was something wet in his lungs. It felt wet on his chest, too, where his clothes were soaked with blood - and on his back, between his shoulder-bones. And then new pain came as the creature twisted the spike in his chest - and tore it out.

Stacey tried to scream but only blood splashed from his mouth. He felt so weak, and it didn't matter any more, and his feet let him down as well. He saw the black ground turn onto him - and thought: 'Kai will be upset'. And then darkness came and everything else was gone.

* * *

Reo lay on the ground, against a tree; Stacey had pushed him too hard. He tried to get up immediately but his head swam. And then, with dazed eyes Reo watched how Stacey stopped in front of the creature. The thing, the monster didn't shoot; but there was something about Stacey, the hopeless stance of his body, the way the blaster slipped from his hands that terrified Reo even more.

He groped for the blaster and understood he'd lost it in the fall. The creature walked up to Stacey. It didn't shoot and for a moment Reo hoped that there was some mind in its hideous body - and Stacey had found something to say to stop it.

Then he saw a shiny end of a spike come out of Stacey's back.

Reo wanted to scream - to shoot - to die - but couldn't move, couldn't take a breath. The spike - not shiny any more as its length coated was in dark, dripping blood - turned; and Reo saw Stacey's body rack with pain when the spike withdrew from him. Then Stacey fell - on his face, silently.

There was nothing but silence - so stark that Reo felt his eardrums about to burst. The creature stood over Stacey - and suddenly Reo met its eyes that looked right at him: a red one and a grey one ... a human eye. Reo waited for the thing to shoot but didn't even move.

It didn't shoot; it looked away, made a step, picked up Stacey's body - and turned, walked away towards the ship ...

He didn't do anything. Later he never stopped hating himself for it - even though what could he do? Just die trying? Yet Reo simply looked as the creature entered the ship and the passage closed. The ship went up, its round shadow slid over the ground as it moved away.

Reo sat leaning against the tree and watched it. The shadow touched him and then was gone. He pulled his legs closer and hugged his knees. He didn't feel pain; just numb inside. Dead.

"You're my best friend. I've never had a friend before."

The memory came to him, of a warm struggling body he'd held in his arms last night, of an almost childish, complaining voice ... of soft lips pressed against his.

I wish I hadn't pushed you away. I wish you could do it ... You're the only one I would trust to do it ...

There was a black stain of soaked blood on the place where Stacey's body had lain.

I don't know what to say the others, Reo thought.

But his body was more in control than his mind, so, he got up and walked back to the campsite. He saw Caesar with a blaster at the aim - and how Caesar's face rippled as he saw Reo. They must have seen the ship leave, Reo understood. They just didn't know what happened. They'd want him to tell them.

But as he looked in Caesar's eyes, he understood that his brother knew the main thing. What else could there be? Reo was alone.

More than anything he wanted to stay silent. No questions asked, nothing said.

"I thought Voices could've sent someone," Caesar said.

"I don't know what it was," Reo answered.

And then he saw Kai on the threshold of the hut as the kid struggled angrily, pushing Cory away. His eyes were so dark, almost thunder-black. He met Reo's gaze and went silent.

I have to say something, Reo thought, to find some words that would hurt less than others. But he didn't know such words; maybe, they were in some book that he hadn't read yet. Kai's eyes darted - as if he still tried to see, to find the one he looked for.

He's gone ... Reo knew Kai could read it in his eyes.

The kid stepped forward, swayed a little - and Cory's arms lay around Kai's waist, supporting him.

"No," Kai said stubbornly. "He's coming, isn't he? He'll be here soon."

Reo couldn't move, couldn't even shake his head - so, he did just nothing. Kai trembled in the grip of Cory's hands, almost vibrated. His lips went white. Reo didn't want to see it, couldn't look at it.

"How did you make them leave?" Caesar asked.

"It. There was just it."

It took Stacey's body away and left. Reo couldn't say it, not in front of Kai.

"Cory," Caesar seemed to understand. Cory obeyed and Reo saw the big boy pull Kai away gently, back into the hut. At first it looked like Kai gave in - and then he thrashed again, struggled to get back, caught Reo's gaze.

"Is he dead?"

"Likely," Reo said. The word was hideous, he should've chosen a different one. Caesar made an annoyed hiss:

"What do you mean - likely? Surely you can tell a wounded from a dead."

"He fell." God sees Reo didn't want to tell that - but he didn't know what else to say. "It took him away."

"No," Kai whispered. "No."

He flailed violently - so that even Cory couldn't hold him - slammed his fist against the doorjamb.

"It is not true! It is not fuckin' true!"

The sound of crunching bones in Kai's hand was terrifying. Reo saw Caesar rush towards Kai - and saw Cory try to embrace him. Kai's face was so pale as if he was going to lose consciousness but his eyes burned.

"Damn it, let me go!" Kai cried out, pushing Cory's hands away. The giant's face crumpled in confuse and distress. "If it took him away, we can go after it. We have a ship."

"Hold him tighter," Caesar said to Cory through the clenched teeth and then turned to Kai. "We can't chase that spacecraft - it's just too fast. Besides ... besides it's most possibly pointless."

For the first time Reo felt angry with Caesar for his merciless way of putting things. But Caesar was right, of course. Even Kai understood it. Anger was gone from the kid's eyes, just darkness of misery stayed. Reo saw Kai's lips tremble, as if in an attempt to say something - and then the kid gave up.

Very quietly, Cory let him go but Kai didn't fight any more. He seemed to look at his broken hand with a kind of surprise. Then he made a step towards Caesar.

Cory was right behind him - and yet he was too late as Kai suddenly slid on the ground.

A moment later Cory held him and Caesar was there - and Reo, too. The kid didn't make a sound; his eyes were shut tight; but his white face distorted with pain, his lips bitten.

At the first moment, Reo couldn't understand what happened. Kai's eyes opened slowly, huge and dark with expanded pupils, and his gaze found Caesar.

"I think ... it started ..." he whispered and then another spasm racked his body.

"Let me!" Caesar pushed Reo away roughly. His face was all set and hard. "Cory, get him in the bed, carefully."

"What started?" Reo mumbled. Caesar didn't answer and then it came across to Reo. "Oh God."

It was too early, he wanted to say, just yesterday Stacey mentioned it was a couple weeks till then ... Cory tried to pick Kai up when another spasm hit. This time Kai screamed.

It terrified Reo; he hadn't ever heard Kai screaming, no matter how bad it used to be. He saw Cory flinch; the giant's lips trembled as he looked at Caesar and Reo as if begging them to stop it. He regained control finally, raised Kai and carried him to the hut with his usual care.

Kai's face was wet, waxen pale and his breath was so shallow and fast as if he was choking.

"Help me, Reo," Caesar ordered crisply. "Let's undress him. And then bring hot water."

Reo touched Kai and felt him arch in another spasm. A scream was muffled but all the more heart-rending because of it. The kid bit the back of his palm to shush himself, Reo realized.

"Stop it, what are you doing?" He pulled Kai's hand away; there was bloody traces of teeth on it.

"I'm sorry ... I need something ... not to scream ..."

"For God's sake, child, scream all you have to," Caesar snapped. Reo held Kai's hands in his as the next convulsion came. Kai's grip was vice-hard, Reo had never could imagine the kid was that strong.

He caught Caesar's gaze and asked just with his lips:

"Is it too early?"

He remembered what Caesar had said about the child killing the host if it decided to get free early. Caesar shrugged.

"Hold him. Don't let him thrash. I need to check him."

The state of Kai's body terrified Reo. He hadn't known it was so bad - under the clothes and a blanket it'd never looked so ... visible. He saw Caesar press on the stretched cupola of Kai's belly - and heard another half-shriek half-moan Kai tried to stifle.

"You hurt him!"

"It's not me," Caesar snapped. "It's the baby. It's disentangling."

Kai breathed quickly, unevenly; his eyelids were half-mast but Reo didn't think he could see anything. Cory held him down, pressed him to the bed, and Reo didn't want to think how Cory could bear it, look at his beloved Kai. Reo suddenly was glad, in a twisted way, that Stacey didn't see it.

Caesar's face was white and concentrated as his fingers slid over Kai's abdomen. Nothing changed in his eyes at another choked cry Kai made.

What is it doing, Reo wanted to ask. If the baby was going up, it was to tear its way out of Kai's body by force - and then it'd be death ... But there was no point asking Caesar. For a few moments Caesar stayed silent, then his eyes flashed blue.

"It's going down. The normal course." He touched Kai's face briefly. "Gather your strength, child. It'll be long - but you can go through it."

A part of Reo's mind felt relief, a part - even more fear.

"Kai." Caesar's voice was so patient, almost gentle. Reo saw the kid's eyes, clouded with pain, open. "It'll be easier if you get up. Trust me."

"I do," Kai gasped. Another spasm came and Reo clenched his fists all through it. Caesar said it'd be long ... How long? Reo already couldn't bear it - he didn't know how Kai could.

"Cory, help him," Caesar said.

The boy raised Kai up on his knees and Kai's hands clenched on the crossbeam. Reo saw the swollen, purple bruised fingers of the hand Kai had hit against the door. Cory braced his arms around Kai for support.

"Water, Reo," Caesar reminded.

He was almost relieved to get away from there for a few minutes - but there was no way he could stop hearing Kai's screams.

* * *

She met the ship in the orbit and recognized it as an abomination belonging to the Controller. Panic hit her. What was he doing here? Was he looking for the same thing that she did? Was she too late?

Minerva couldn't bear thinking it. She almost reached her goal, she was sure. It'd taken her time to trace the possible directions where the refuges could take since they left F-400. Until she calculated the presence of this planet, not shown on any map. Minerva counted the days that were left as well. She still had time to save her child; it still must have been inside the incubator. Oh it was a great idea to intertwine the baby's life with the life of the incubator so tightly. It meant Kai couldn't kill her baby without killing himself.

But as soon as the baby was born ...

Minerva didn't want to think about it.

But Janus ... It was unexpected. Janus knew about the planet, got to it before her - and was leaving it now. The Controller passed her as if she didn't exist - and for a moment Minerva was tempted to let him go. Her socket still hurt and the place near between her heart and nervous center still gave sucking aches every time she recalled Janus. But she had to know.

She slammed the tip of her tentacle into the button of the comm.

Damn bastard, now he pretended he didn't hear her.

When at last Janus appeared on the screen, both human and mechanical parts of his face were equally shut and cold.

"What is it you want, Minerva?"

Amazing. He'd never called her by her name before.

"What were you doing here, you butcher?!"

"It's none of your business. Pass by. And pray that I don't have a wish to waste my time on you."

She saw him raise his hand to his cheek, in an uncannily human gesture, and wipe a streak of blood. Blood was human - red. Fresh blood.

"If you killed my child," she yelled, "I swear ..."

His tentacles appeared from under the uniform.

"I killed no Heles, Minerva."

The screen died.

* * *

Caesar bandaged Kai's fingers - and both of the kid's hands, whole and broken, clenched on the beam tightly. Kai didn't kneel but rather sagged against Cory's body. The giant knelt behind him, supporting him. The convulsions became longer, more lingering and between them, Kai pressed his forehead against his clasped hands. His ghostly pale, exhausted face seemed dazed, his mouth dry, catching the breath in shallow, agonizing gasps.

At these moments he seemed unconscious - but Reo knew better than hope for that. The periods of quiet ended - and then Kai shuddered in Cory's arms.

"Can you give him anything?" Reo asked Caesar.

"I can't." For once Caesar's voice was not antagonistic, just sad. "On this stage the baby will take it as an attack against itself and will damage him. I ... I killed a few subjects like that in my time. It already went down quite a lot. I know we all want it to end as soon as possible - but believe me, it's a good thing that it moves so slowly. So far it didn't injure him. It's going well, do you hear me, Kai?"

Reo saw Kai raise his face and nod slowly. Then he shrieked - and suddenly Reo saw blood and slime leak over his legs.

"I'm dirty ..."

Reo hadn't thought in this state Kai could feel any shame - but the kid's eyes were unhappy as he looked at Reo.

"It's okay, child, it's natural." Caesar patted Kai's head.

Reo wetted a cloth and started wiping the blood from Kai's legs. Their eyes met and Reo saw Kai's lips move.

"Thank you."

Reo's heart clenched. Kai held his gaze - and suddenly Reo saw Kai's eyes mist and trickles of tears run over his cheeks.

He'd never seen Kai cry before.

"Please, Kai ..." He didn't know what he was going to ask for. "Little one, don't ..."

"Reo ..." The kid looked at him through the blur of tears. "Stacey ... he didn't forgive me."

Reo felt his own eyes sting and tried not to blink.

"He did," he whispered, "Kai, he did."

He heard a huge sob and understood it was Cory; tears ran over the boy's face like rain.

"Now really," Caesar started grumpily. "Are you all going to cry?"

* * *

She saw the burnt patch where Janus' ship had landed and chose it as well. The damage done to the forest was significant. Everything this bastard touches gets damaged, Minerva thought acidly. But the truth was she was not in the mood for irony. Hope and fear mixed in her.

She recognized the smell of human blood as soon as she stepped out. Burnt wood and blood ... in the grass, away from her, she noticed a dead body and hurried to it. An old grey-haired man had worn the Empire's uniform. Minerva wasn't interested and didn't touch him.

The place looked abused. Someone - hell, she knew perfectly well who! - had shot at the trees, aimlessly as it seemed. Minerva searched for more dead bodies and found none. Yet her scent receptors defined a patch of darker ground. Soaked blood.

As long as it was human blood, she didn't have a reason to worry, right? But what if ... no, don't think.it ... Damn incubator, how many times Minerva swore revenge on him and his cursed friend. She'd make them beg her for death and then she'd decide whether to kill them quickly.

She saw the little camp all of a sudden as she walked between the trees. It looked empty but not destroyed. Her heart flipped. And then a scream cut into her nerves. Minerva froze in place; she recognized the voice - she'd made this human scream in pain herself.

She stormed into the hut, breaking the door, stopped just for long enough to access the whole picture. Her human toy was there ... and with her child still inside him. His body, normally very slim, seemed distorted - the belly looked almost grotesque. He knelt on the bed, clinging to the headboard, his face and lips bloodless, his eyes dazed with pain. His hair, sticky with sweat, hung over his sharpened, sweat-soaked face. Minerva heard him scream again and knew her child moved inside him.

There were three more humans there, strangers. One of them held the incubator upright, supporting Kai's body with his own. A blond man touched Kai carefully - and there was one human, a pale fierce face, who was the first to see her. She didn't have time to realize what was happening as he grabbed the blaster from the blond man's belt and pointed at her.

"Get away," she hissed. "It's mine! It's my child!"

"You get away, bitch!" the man snapped. His dark eyes narrowed - and Minerva recalled another man who had the same annoying manner of shouting at her and threatening with a blaster.

. Stacey Radek ... for some reason he was not there. All the better.

"One more movement and your child will be born an orphan."

Minerva recognized danger when she faced it. But fear wouldn't stop her; the thought of her baby did. If she tried something ... what if she harmed her child? Kai convulsed again and the sound he made was not a scream but some hoarse wail. There was bloody foam on his lips and blood leaked on his thighs, clotted and almost black.

The sound Kai made affected the mean human with the blaster - but not enough to stop him from aiming at her.

"Don't interfere," the blond man said. "Wait for it to be over."

"How do you know what to do?" she muttered.

"I'm a doctor," he said.

She had a scalding remark on the tip of her tongue, about human doctors - but at this moment the incubator's anus opened - and a slim, dark-grey tentacle slid out, crawling over the human's thigh briefly.

Minerva gave a delighted shriek.

The tentacle withdrew, as if its owner was not sure he liked it outside. Kai made racking, agonized gasps. Minerva heard the doctor say:

"It's okay, child, just a little more left."

He placed his hands under the incubator's anus.

The human convulsed. This time two tentacles came out of him, then more. The strong limbs strained, looking for leverage. She understood now why the doctor held his hands there. The tentacles of her child twisted around his wrists - and the little Heles, dark-grey, resembling neither her nor Vulcan, pulled his body out of the human's opening.

The human shrieked one last time and collapsed. Blood leaked in wide streams over his legs. And the Heles ... he was beautiful.

"He's mine, he's mine!" Minerva lashed out, forgetting about the blaster, grabbed the child from the hands of the doctor and scrambled away, looking at everyone with hostility. Only when she pressed the slick, strong, slime- and blood-covered body to herself did she feel better.

They didn't look as if they were going to try to take him away from her.

They fussed over the incubator, whose face was bloodless, his eyes closed and his lips pressed tightly. He looked dead. But he didn't stop bleeding - so, he must have been alive. The doc pushed a needle in his vein - and the black-haired human who had threatened her with the blaster, the unkind one, was working between Kai's legs, wiping away the blood. She could have attacked them now ...

But it would mean taking some attention away from her darling. She raised the baby in her tentacles, reveling in him. Perfect! Bright-eyed, strong, active, happy, screeching and clicking cheerfully at her.

"You know I'm your mom, chubby," she cooed. "Don't worry, I won't leave you any more! I won't let those humans hurt you!"

"The bleeding is lessening," she heard the hushed voice of the doctor. "I'll sew him up now." And then, in softer voice: "It's all over, child. It's all over."

Kai didn't seem to hear . His body seemed broken, limp as he lay on the bed with his eyes closed. Minerva saw the doc put a thread through a needle. He wasn't going to do it in this barbaric way, was he?

It didn't matter, of course, Minerva reminded herself. She'd wanted to kill the human with her own tentacles, to see him bleed and die, torn apart by her. Or did she want it? The baby reached his tentacle to her face and touched it. So soft and small, the suckers still imperceptible yet.

"Why don't you use the mender on him?" she asked.

It seemed to startle them. The black-haired guy glared at her and she noticed suddenly that even though scars gave his face a wild expression, he was probably very young.

"Because we don't have it," he said at last.

"I can bring it, I have one on my ship." She must have been crazy - what was she talking about?

"You mean ..."

"Heles don't lie," the doctor said.

She hated herself for that. Maybe, she could make an exception and lie?

"Then bring it!" the guy with the blaster yelled. "Don't you see how terrible he feels?"

Minerva moved to the exit, holding the child on her shoulder. She talked to the baby all the way to her ship and back.

"Here," she tossed the mender to the doc.

Kai's eyes were opened, black with pain, but lucid. He looked at her and then she understood he saw the baby in her tentacles.

"It's a boy," she said.

"I know," he whispered. "Thor."

"Not Thor! I wanted to call him ..." But suddenly she liked the idea. "Hey, want to hold him?"

"Wait, don't ..." the doctor started but Kai nodded and, surprised at herself, Minerva put the baby on his midriff.

"Thank you," he whispered. He shivered a little, apparently in pain. Minerva saw how his narrow hand touched the baby's head. The boy screeched contentedly and reached out his tentacles.

"He's hungry," Minerva muttered. "Give him back to me."

"I can't believe my fuckin' eyes," the black-haired guy said behind her.

"Don't say such words in the presence of a baby," she ordered.

* * *

"If you're going to wield this stick, you'll bump someone on the head," Reo said in annoyance.

"Stick? What stick?" Minerva turned to him and he dodged away from a huge log in her tentacle. "Ah, that stick ..."

"Stupid woman," he mumbled. Cory giggled; Minerva's jokes had an inevitable success with him. Minerva returned to sorting out the wood.

She was invaluable at work, Reo thought. She alone could do as much as Reo, Caesar and Cory together and not break a sweat and their little camp acquired quite an inhabited look thanks to her. What Reo couldn't figure out was why she stayed. Why didn't she grab her child and leave - she seemed to have gotten what she wanted, there was nothing more for her here.

"She has some plan, doesn't she?" Reo asked once. "Something evil is on her mind."

"I don't think so," Kai said. "I guess she just doesn't have anywhere to go."

Reo didn't know if he liked the idea of being stuck with the bad-tempered Heles as a co-habitant - but he couldn't mind it. If Kai didn't mind it ...

Well, Kai didn't seem to mind. At first Reo had an uneasy feeling at the thought of Minerva's presence here after everything Kai had been through because of her. He remembered how difficult it'd been for him, when Barstow was still alive, how sometimes he couldn't find a place not to see the man, not to meet him - and nearly hated Caesar for putting the life-or-death choice on him. But then it came to Reo's mind that for Kai everything Minerva had done faded and didn't seem significant in comparison with his loss.

And Kai seemed to enjoy spending time with the little Heles. He was also quietly amiable with Minerva. 'Quiet' was possibly a most appropriate word that described Kai; and it was not a good thing. Reo didn't know, though, what would be better: Kai's anger when he'd found out about Stacey's death had frightened Reo; and his tears ... but Kai's unobtrusiveness was likely more dangerous, more destructive for Kai himself.

Reo had tried to talk to him - of course he did, Caesar justly called him interfering. But he either hadn't found the right words - or, maybe, there were no right words. And even though Kai smiled at him and squeezed his hand and said some soft words of gratitude, Reo still felt as if something irreparable was happening.

He walked up to the pile of wood and picked a log. It was several times thinner than Minerva dragged and twice thinner than Cory dealt with - but it still didn't want to give in. Reo pulled it, panting. No success. Okay, that was the truth - he was neither a Heles nor a giant. Reo hypnotized the log with his eyes a bit - and then narrow white hands lay down on the dark wood.

"Let's try together," Kai said. It did work; they moved the log and heaved it with others.

"Caesar will kill you if he sees you carry this shit. He told you not to lift anything heavy."

"I'm well. Really," Kai said softly.

Somehow Reo couldn't argue; he knew he should've - but he just didn't have heart; Kai probably knew what was better for himself.

"Where's Thor?" The normal position for the Heles kid was in Kai's arms and clinging to his neck. "Minerva will go ballistic if he stayed alone."

"Of course, he's not alone," Kai smiled. "I think Caesar cuddles him now."

Cuddles ... Reo hardly could imagine it. But then, Thor was an incredibly affectionate kid, so, it could be ...

Nah, he still couldn't imagine it.

"Let's take another," Kai said walking in front of Reo to the pile of cut wood.

He looked like a specter, thin and pale, Reo thought; and Kai's short hair added to this impression somehow. As if he was disentangling from his physical self little by little. It frightened Reo; he saw it for what it was - for a one-way to death. And gentle glowing of Kai's eyes and his quiet smiles didn't convince Reo of the opposite.

"I know where we can get more cut wood." Minerva walked towards them gesticulating excitedly. "That son of a bitch Janus - he made a mess where his ship landed. I guess we can bring some logs from there."

Reo could see Kai stop and felt a surge of irritation against the woman. Minerva was nothing but a nuisance; even her help didn't compensate for her tactlessness.

"Janus?" Kai asked levelly.

"Yeah, yeah, the Controller. The son of bitch who," Minerva huffed and raised her tentacle slightly, not touching the side of her face, "marked me for life."

"So, you know who sent him?" Kai's voice was calm and his profile Reo could see was almost serene.

"Voices, of course." Minerva shrugged. "The planet belongs to Voices. I guess they sent him to check who occupied it without their permission. I bet they'd have a cow if they knew he killed someone here," she added in a gloating voice, "even if it was an Empire slut."

For a moment, Reo couldn't understand what she meant and then realized she talked about Barstow.

"He killed Stacey Radek as well," Kai said.

It looked like Minerva knew Stacey; her tentacles jerked up and she turned away.

"I didn't see his body."

"He took the body away," Reo interfered.

"If Janus wasn't supposed to kill, maybe, there's a way ... to punish him for doing it?" Kai asked.

You haven't seen the creature, Reo wanted to say, there's no way to harm it.

Minerva huffed some more. It seemed she suddenly found something irresistibly fascinating between a couple of crossed logs.

"I'd like to take the ship and go," Kai said. "If Voices created him ..."

"Oh shit." Minerva kicked a log and turned back. She looked furious and she looked ... ashamed. Her tentacles coiled in an almost nervous gesture briefly. "I didn't think I would ever say that. I hate that rude, outrageous, good for nothing human of yours, Stacey or whatever is his name is. But when I got to the planet ... I talked to Janus, you see. I think he had Radek with him then."

"Dead?" Reo asked. Minerva rolled up her eyes.

"Actually, I don't think he was dead. God, why can't I lie? Janus looked ... distracted. He said he didn't want to waste his time on me. He wouldn't have a reason to behave like that if there were a corpse with him, right?"

Reo looked at Kai, not knowing what he'd see and feeling a bit scared. But when he met the kid's eyes, there was such glowing hope in them, that Reo understood everything even before Kai asked:

"You think he went back to Voices?"

You're crazy, Reo wanted to say.

"That's where Janus normally stays," Minerva said.

* * *

"You're crazy." Reo took the last drag of a cigarette and stomped on it. "You're not going to ..."

"Of course I am," Kai shrugged and smiled. Now it was a normal smile, not a ghost-like one. It made a difference, Reo thought, to have a person from flesh and blood near to you instead of a shadow. If only Kai didn't have that insane idea ...

"You won't go with this bitch in her ship. I hate to mention it - but if it comes to her mind, you won't have time to say a prayer."

"She promised to try to help. And since she is a Heles, I don't think she lies. Besides ..."

Besides - Reo had heard it himself - Minerva said:

"I'll be happy if I can make that bastard pay."

Reo wished she were not so enthusiastic about revenge to Janus; hell, she was a mother, she should've thought of her baby.

"Voices said I'm always welcome on the station," Minerva kept babbling. "And Janus - he'll pay for everything."

Reo rolled another cigarette and lit it; the grass that had made him feel so wild on the night before Janus' arrival didn't work on him any more.

"So, you made your mind," he said.

"I did," Kai confirmed.

"Okay," Reo said. "Then we'll go."

"We'll?" Kai's eyebrows rose and then he shook his head. "No. Me go. You stay."

"There is no way I'll let you board the ship with Madam alone."

Now Kai looked as if he, Reo, was mad and shook his head again.

"No, Reo. I can't take you with me."

"Take me with you?" It was funny and Reo did his best for his voice to convey to Kai how funny it was. "You put it like this? Let me tell you - I don't need your permission, little one. I can as well arrange everything with Madam."

There was something in Kai's eyes as he frowned at Reo.

"You won't do it."

"Of course, I will. You think I don't want to get Stacey back? You think he meant nothing for me?" Maybe, Reo shouldn't have said that. It seemed a bit heavy-handed - but fuck it, he needed every argument to convince Kai.

"I know," Kai nodded. "But ... You can't go. Reo," he added softly, "if something goes wrong ... how will I look into Caesar's eyes then?"

If something goes wrong, neither of us will have to look into Caesar's eyes then, silly.

"If something happens to you ... Caesar won't survive it."

"He will." Reo shrugged. "Maybe, he won't even notice if I disappear. Or will be glad."

"Stupid," Kai said.

But eventually Reo managed to convince him - well, not convince but stop arguing at least. As for Minerva, she said Reo spoilt her all the pleasure from the mission. And Caesar just asked:

"So, you leave me with Cory?"

Reo thought it was all Caesar said but in the morning before departure he called Reo away and said firmly, not looking at him:

"Don't come back."

At the first moment Reo couldn't believe he heard it right. He could have stopped hoping for anything, could have accepted that all there could be in his life was just being at Caesar's side. But this ... this was too much.

Why, Reo wanted to ask. Did Caesar really hate him - was he disappointed so much that he didn't want to see Reo again? Was it because now everyone knew what Reo was and Caesar's project of making a human out of him would never work?

He didn't ask anything. It was futile. If Caesar didn't want to see him again - what explanations could matter?

"I won't," Reo said. "If you don't want me to."

He still couldn't believe Caesar meant it in the way that he wanted Reo's death. After all, Reo was the patient Caesar had spent the biggest amount of time with - and Caesar always cherished his spent time. Yet whatever meaning Caesar's words had - all that Reo knew was that Caesar told him not to return.

"You're going to the Voices," Caesar continued. "They might invite you to stay on the station. Don't refuse then."

"I don't want back to a glass cage," Reo frowned. Caesar shook his head; a brief smile curved his lips and was gone immediately.

"Don't be ridiculous. They won't put you in a cage any more. I know them - they'll be interested in you. They'll give you a job, a place to be. You'll be with others ..."

"Others like me?"

Caesar didn't answer.

"I'll think about it," Reo said. "Thank you for telling me." He didn't want to add anything but couldn't help. "And you? Why don't you return then? They must have already forgiven you ..."

He saw Caesar shake his head.

"It's not a question of forgiveness. I think they just don't need me any more. I don't want to be ... where I'm not needed."

And that's why you want to stay on a nearly empty planet, brother?

"I'm ..." Caesar's mouth curved suddenly, in a grimace that almost seemed full of pain. "I'm old, Reo ... to change anything ... to do anything real ..." And as Reo wanted to interrupt him, to argue he was not old, not even forty yet, Caesar raised his hand. "Maybe, I've never been young ... I wish I could be ... I wish I could do what I really want ..."

Reo felt his heart drum wildly. There was nothing in Caesar's words, almost nothing that could make him feel this way - but somehow it seemed to him he could read between the words.

"What do you really want?" he asked carefully.

And suddenly he was grabbed by the shoulders - and Caesar's hands, hard and strong, pulled Reo closer. Caesar's lips nearly touched his face and Reo's heart sank. He'll kiss me now, won't he?

"Come back or stay there," Caesar whispered. "But if you get yourself killed, you'll feel sorry about it, I swear."

He pushed Reo away and stepped back.

"Go to the ship. They wait for you."

"Okay." Reo got up from the ground - the push was so hard he hadn't been able to stay on his feet. "Okay."

He wished all the way as he walked - to turn, to look back - but didn't do it. And even though Caesar's lips never touched his, he still could feel the warmth of Caesar's mouth on his.

At the ship Cory, who'd behaved himself all the way till the last minutes, pressed his face to Kai's shoulder and his back heaved with sobs. Reo heard Kai repeat as he stroked the boy's hair:

"But someone has to stay here to wait for us, right? We need to have someone to come back to, do you understand?"

* * *

Faces and voices floated in his mind; they made no sense or connection - he knew he'd never seen or heard them. But they existed - lulling, inescapable, belonging not to him but to the others inside him.

No, wrong! There were no others. Only he, Janus, existed. They were the past - and he was the future and they didn't dare to tarry with him. He had to make them go away. He could do anything, was the most powerful creature in the whole universe - why couldn't he chase away just some memories?

Memories of dead creatures - creatures that didn't even exist.

But Janus couldn't get rid of them; and sometimes a terrible suspicion came to him - that, maybe, he didn't want them gone. Otherwise - why would he do such a thing? Why would he bring this human with him?

The human's body on black sheets was thin and white; narrow and drawn out. Its arms were outstretched and cuffed to the rings in the headboard, ankles chained together and cuffed on a longer chain to the bottom of the bed. Janus liked how the human looked this way.

The human who'd called him by the name that wasn't even his. Janus made him pay for that.

How beautiful the spike had looked, sticking out of the human's chest ... Just a jagged scar was left now, red on white skin. The human's blood was red - red like Janus' uniform. And warm. And it drew such nice ornaments on the human's body. The beauty of these ornaments could almost make Janus put up with the unease the human managed to cause in him.

And Janus would deal with this unease. No one could say the Controller was afraid of anything.

How many days passed since the Voices had sent him to investigate who occupied their sacred planet? Seven ... ten ... There was no reason for Janus to count. He'd handed the Voices a report about an Empire soldier, had to admit he'd killed the man defending himself. Voices reproached him for that but there was nothing they could do.

Then they left Janus alone, allowed him to go back on his ship ... to his captive. About this one Janus hadn't told Voices a word. And he hadn't parted with the human since then. Except for the time when the man slipped into unconsciousness, maybe.

Janus moved his hand, throwing out a needle. One more device Voices didn't give him and didn't know about. But Janus could rebuild his body at his own liking, add as many means of killing to it as he wanted. Or means of curing, as in this case. He pressed the needle to the human's body - to his soft, swollen nipple - and pushed the medicine in. It probably burned - but it made the human come round. The stretched body jerked. And the man's bloodshot, nearly black eyes looked at Janus.

"Morning, dear." Janus waited for the tired eyes to focus on him. The human's breath was ragged; his ribs were broken and Janus didn't mend them well last time. But he liked seeing how the human's pupils expanded in pain and hypoxia. "Have you slept well?"

He reached with his tentacles. Not because the tactile sensations were more pleasant this way - but Janus liked how the human tensed as the tentacles touched him, how he thrashed as if trying to escape. There was no escape. Only the human's wrists and ankles started bleeding; during last hours they'd scabbed a little but now the bleeding resumed. Blood was not visible on the black sheets. Not pretty enough.

"Tell me," Janus whispered. "Who am I?"

He saw the human's ribcage flutter. There was agony in the man's eyes, as if Janus' question hurt. The man's head fell limply and strands of reddish hair brushed over his face.

"You don't want to talk? Did I ask a difficult question? See, I know you. Your name is Stacey - you told me yourself. But how did you call me?"

"Janus ..."

"Liar!" He screamed, lashed his tentacles. The expression of silent horror in Stacey's eyes was delicious. The human managed not to scream as the tentacles hit him - and later, as they groped over his body, he just shivered. "Why do you lie? You called my name on that planet ..."

"I was mistaken."

If only Janus could believe him.

"I don't think so. Let's talk some more?"

Stacey ... His eyes were green, someone Janus knew it. But he hadn't seen them green - the pupils were always widened, in pain or in shock. Dark eyelashes trembled unceasingly over them.

"Look at me," Janus said. A tentacle pushed Stacey's hair away as Janus made him turn his face. "Why don't you look at me? I think you liked my face."

"I don't know who you are ..." Stacey whispered.

Stupid human. The bones of his face were so fine, so easy to crush. Like Janus had done with that Empire military on the planet ... Maybe, if Stacey knew how easy it was just to squeeze a little more, he would behave in a different way.

But Janus didn't want to kill him yet.

The cuffs unlocked and he coiled the tentacles around the human's body. So narrow. So broken. Just Janus' mere touch hurt him. Janus liked the strangled cry Stacey made.

"Tell me." The ring of the tentacles tightened. The human wheezed, unable to take a breath, unable even to scream or thrash. His lips went bluish and blood seemed painted around his mouth. "Tell me!"

He threw the human on the floor, heard a brittle sound of the impact. More bones were broken. The human writhed on the floor minutely, trickling blood from his mouth. So easy to crush him ...

Janus stepped on his hand, felt the thin bones grind under his weight. The human's eyes rolled up.

"Vic. You called me Vic. Remember?"

It felt like he was talking to himself. Janus wasn't sure the human could hear him, he must have been incoherent with pain.

He should've been careful not to kill the man. He'd died on Janus before and Janus had to use every means he knew to reanimate him. Janus decided he'd rather not risk next time.

He still could do some more - so, the tentacles coiled again, yanking the human up.

"Talk, whore. Talk, Stacey."

"I'm not a whore ..."

"You are. You left your lover to die, didn't you? And now you spend your time with another man. With me."

"I thought you said you were him ..." The voice was hoarse, collapsing but the irony in it infuriated Janus. A tentacle made the human open his mouth. A needle was driven in, into the palate - but now it was not medicine but acid. The human jerked and went limp in Janus' grip.

"It's you who said I was him."

Time for the mender. And then some more questions.

Janus knew he did a sloppy job healing the human. But his impatience was stronger than his common sense. Just let open wounds close, broken bones knit together. Stacey's hand was almost in pieces - so, Janus spent a bit more time on making it whole.

Then the mender brought the human back to consciousness - and Stacey gasped in pain.

He wanted to be unconscious again, Janus knew. Or dead. Stacey had asked him for it - to kill him. But Janus never listened and now Stacey stopped asking.

"This Victor. Tell me about him. Did you love him?"

"You fuckin' really think I'll tell you ..." The words were antagonistic; the human still fought. But his voice was hollow, worn out, his eyes closed.

"Tell me. Were you lovers?"

A hard jab of the tentacle under Stacey's ribs wrenched a moan from the human and made him curl as if trying to shield himself. Janus was not going to have it. It was so easy - the tentacles on wrists and ankles pulled Stacey open.

"Did he fuck you, Stacey? Did I fuck you?"

"You're not him ..."

"But I fucked you, too."

And will fuck again. He saw the ripple of agony on the human's face.

"Why did you let your lover die? Tell me. How did he call you? Tell me. Don't you remember?"

"If you were him ... you would know."

"Do you want me to make love to you, Stacey?"

He slammed a tentacle between Stacey's legs and the human shrieked. Janus massaged his swollen, battered genitals. There was no response - there couldn't be - except for the small sounds flying from Stacey's lips. Janus watched how the man's head tossed from side to side; his eyes were closed tightly. His eyelashes were sticky, Janus noticed, and their girlish curve that'd fascinated Janus in the beginning was gone.

Janus pulled the tentacles away. The human whimpered softly. He still didn't open his eyes - and Janus knew Stacey didn't believe it was over.

Right, it wasn't over. Janus used his hands now. The metal palm mashed the human's balls, turning them into purple mass. Stacey's cock, swollen and blue, looked unrecognizable.

"If you don't want to make love, why do you need them at all?" He pulled on Stacey's genitals. The tearing sound of flesh was hideous; Stacey choked with scream. He'd have to fix him here again, Janus thought, and fast.

"Kill me ..." The words trembled in the human's throat. His eyes were wild, unseeing.

"How do you call me?"

"Victor, Janus, whatever ..."

"Shut up!" A blow. His jaw broken. Then his ribs. Ligaments tore as Janus jerked Stacey's legs apart.

It was convenient to have spare limbs. The tentacles pushed Janus' clothes away, revealing his organ. He hadn't forgiven Minerva for teasing him about not having a dick. He'd corrected the situation.

Stacey could keep his eyes shut - but he surely didn't miss it when Janus entered him. The shaft of metal and plastic slipped into a wound of his anus effortlessly.

In. Out. In. Blood was warm and convulsing body felt good. Sometimes Janus wished he could do it endlessly. He could do it endlessly - looking at the human's face frozen with pain; Janus' body didn't have limitations. The human's body had.

It took him longer to regenerate Stacey this time; Janus was barely in time to keep him out of danger. Such a frail creature ... He, Janus, had to take proper care of him.

So, he did; healed the human's wounds and took him to the bathroom and washed the blood off him. The human came round under the shower; his eyes opened - almost without expression in them.

What if one day the human tripped over the edge, Janus thought, and then it would be all over, then Janus would never know the truth.

Then Janus would be safe.

Janus' metal fingers pushed the human's jaw open and poured the water in Stacey's mouth. The human thrashed and coughed. Spiteful ... refused to eat or drink and Janus had to feed him forcibly. Feeding and watering him meant that the human would soil himself later but it was the only way to keep him alive.

He put the human in the bed, on the clean sheets, now snow-white ones. Stacey's face was almost as white - and his nipples and swollen cock were big and red. The skinny body shuddered.

"Do you want to smoke?" Janus asked. He didn't know how he knew that the human smoked. "Here is for you."

The lit cigarette was brought to the human's mouth.

"Smoke."

"Give it ... to me."

The narrow hand of the human, fingers blue with bruising and awkward, reached for the cigarette. Janus let him take it.

It was unexpected; the human sat up suddenly - although Janus had thought he was too weak to even move. And then the glowing tip of the cigarette was pressed to Janus' tentacle, crushed into it. His shield was not up at the moment.

His creators had made him capable of sensing pain. It didn't affect Janus - but he registered it. The burning incensed him. He jerked away, tore the cigarette out of the human's hand. A blow broke the human's jaw but the man's eyes kept looking at Janus with bright, glittering hatred.

Futile resistance ... how stupid could the human be?

Or, maybe, it was simpler. Stacey wanted Janus to kill him. But he should've known better - Janus had more self-control than that. He hit again and the white sheets colored with red.

* * *

"We can't expect her to solve this business for us." Kai heard Reo's voice and looked up. "Did you think what happens if anything goes wrong?"

Kai nodded. He did, of course. Stacey would die then ... if he still were alive.

"Janus is not a Heles - not purely Heles, anyway," Reo continued; his thin fingers traced the corpus of the blaster. "He'll lie his way out of a questioning by the Voices. And when he realizes that Stacey endangers his position ..."

"I know," Kai interrupted him. "What do you suggest?"

A little crazy smile flitted on Reo's face.

"I walked around the station a little, you know ... Found the shuttles ... They are not guarded. They have some code lock but I've found access to their library, I guess I'll crack it ..."

The station was surprisingly laid-back place. No one asked them any questions as they appeared there, no one made any conditions. Even their weapons were not taken away.

"I told you I was welcome there," Minerva said about it. "And you with me. The Voices won't be happy, of course, when I rat on their beloved Controller. But I really hope it'll be the last straw for them. Tomorrow I'll announce his crimes to the Voices."

It was made Kai feel uneasy - she seemed to want more to punish Janus than to find Stacey. But how could it be otherwise - Stacey had killed her husband.

"All counts are off," Minerva said about it. "I have my baby - and fuck the past."

Her help still was not reliable enough; maybe, nothing was reliable enough.

"I know we can get to Janus' ship, Kai. I mean when he's going to be occupied with Minerva and Voices ... So, what'll prevent us from taking a shuttle and searching his ship while he's away? You think I'm crazy, don't you?"

"Not at all," Kai said. "I think you're great, Reo."

Reo shrugged and rubbed the bridge of his nose self-consciously.

"I did mean it when I said I want Stacey back as well. He's my friend."

"I know," Kai nodded.

"And not a word to Minerva, okay? She'll have to be able to come clean before the Voices."

* * *

"That is why I accuse Controller Janus of using his power to commit a crime against personality," Minerva finished and looked around with satisfaction. She liked how she sounded - impressive; she might not be a beauty any more but her bearing and manners no one could take away.

For a few moments the Voices were silent - and then Janus turned to her. It gave her creeps to look at his double face. His grey, human eye had a feral sparkle in it. Strange, she didn't remember if Victor Gessen had ever looked like this.

"What can I say, my dearest?" A fuckin' artist; this pause did attract the attention. "I listened to you and all I thought about was why you did it. Petty revenge? You still can't forgive me for ruining your lovely face, huh? An eye for an eye? Or do you envy me? Did you change your mind and decide to compete me in being a Controller?"

"You son of bitch," she hissed. It didn't go well with her previous image but he'd hit in her softest spot.

"Or did you, Officer Minerva, use this meeting as a distraction to let your accomplices trespass my territory, in the search of that non-existing human?" Janus' raised his hand and she saw a bright signal pulsate on his bracelet.

Ooh shit. Stupid humans.

"At your permission," Janus lowered his head, "I have to leave you now. I need to protect my property."

"Don't let him go," Minerva said - but Voices were silent.

* * *

"Here." Finally a little click - and the door started sliding away. "Hurry." Reo grabbed his hand and pulled Kai in.

The insides of the ship glowed with dull light that made Reo's face and apparently Kai's own look ghost-like white. Kai saw Reo smile but knew Reo felt as little jovial as Kai did.

"It looks quiet. Shall we go together or split?"

The corridors seemed endless - so, there was the only advisable course.

"Let's split."

"Okay, I'll check it on the left, you on the right. Let me know if anything." Reo touched the little transmitter in his breast pocket.

They just made a few steps apart as the alarm hit. For a moment they both seemed baffled and then Kai looked at Reo's face and saw his own resoluteness mirrored there.

"Quickly! Janus can't be here yet ..."

He saw Reo walk - and sudden premonition seized him - or was it the faint smell of ozone in the air?

"Reo ..."

Miraculously, Reo just froze at the moment as thin lines cut the air, turning the place into a net of deadly rays. And Reo, caught in this net, stood between four crossing rays with his arms pressed to his body tightly.

"Shit," Kai heard his voice. "Shit. Shit."

His face was pale, scared and upset.

"Shit. Shit."

"I'll try to switch it off now, just tell me how."

"Is there any button?"

"No."

"Listen here." Reo's voice was constrained. "Leave it. Go find Stacey. And on the way back you'll pick me up."

"How?" Kai felt almost hysterical. If Reo was going to be alive till then ...

"I don't know how. Just go."

He went. There were no more traps set and Kai wondered if it was not the biggest trap of them all.

He walked past the premises occupied with some machinery and none of it looked personal so far. Perhaps Janus didn't need rest or anything. Kai finally found it - the door that went to the personal quarters. It was sealed.

"Stacey!" He didn't know if there was a chance to be heard - but, maybe, if Stacey was alive, if he was there ... Silence.

And Kai rather sensed than heard a small vibration of another shuttle that joined the ship.

* * *

Reo had never complained about his balance; and yet he apparently hadn't realized before how difficult it was just to stand. He looked down at the ray going in a few millimeters from his chest and blew at a strand of his hair. His hair was getting moist; was it hot here?

How much time passed? Sometimes he felt it was hours - but of course it couldn't be more than a few minutes. Why did his legs hurt so much then?

And Kai still wasn't back. Reo thought about the transmitter but it was in the pocket, no way to get it out.

So, Caesar, will you hate me if I fuck up again, he thought. You threatened me that if I dared to get myself killed ... what then? Reo knew what then. Then he wouldn't see Caesar again. This thought hurt worst of all.

It was incredible but he must have been out for a few moments - closed his eyes and switched off - and managed not to fall somehow. But as Reo opened his eyes, the figure dressed in scarlet was in front of him.

"Our last meeting was not enough for you, I see, human. You want to settle our accounts once more? But now there's no one who can stand by you."

"Fuck you," Reo whispered. "I want my friend back."

"Your friend's dead. Just as you're going to be soon."

Reo expected a shot - or another ray - or whatever - but the creature just walked past him.

* * *

Kai sensed a movement behind and turned, flipped out the blaster. He knew what Reo said, about the weapon being useless, but he couldn't help it.

"Shoot," the voice said. "Give me an excuse. On the other hand, you've already given me an excuse by coming here."

As soon as Kai heard it, he understood. He recognized the voice as well - oh God, if it was what Stacey heard ... Something must have shown in his face because the creature's gaze changed to a more attentive.

"What? Did you also know me in my past life? Don't you want to call me Vic? Or anything else?"

The huge figure approached him. Reo, Kai thought, Janus must have passed Reo ... was Reo still alive?

"Maybe, we can negotiate?" he asked quietly.

"Negotiate? An airhead slut like you knows such a big word, huh? I don't think I want to negotiate with you, lovely. Unless you can suggest something better."

"What?"

"I bet you think it's your irresistible body," the creature said with a chuckle. "But I meant a bit different thing. Let's see if you're better at answering my questions than Stacey Radek was."

"Is he dead?!"

Kai could swear the Controller enjoyed his panic immensely.

"Why should I tell you?"

"Is he dead?"

"I'm asking questions here."

A hiss was short - and sudden pain that hit into Kai's shoulder was unexpected. The blaster fell on the floor.

"Who am I? Who was I?"

"I don't know," Kai whispered. Blood streamed over his shoulder from under the spike.

"Don't slip me this shit, you genetic slut!"

How did he know ... about genetic ... Kai convulsed in pain; Janus pulled the spike and the jags on its length tore through his flesh.

"I only ... can say who you remind me ..." He tried so hard for the words to sound clear; he could talk to the creature - there was no other way to fight it. "Victor Gessen."

"I knew that."

The spike was pulled again and Kai fell on his knees, couldn't get up. Janus' gaze was almost thoughtful as he looked at the blood dripping on the floor.

"I remember some things from him. I remember ... you. The redhead, Stacey ... Him too. I don't like it. It messes up my performance."

"It doesn't have to," Kai said. "Let Stacey go. Please."

"Why should I?"

There seemed to be little but irony - and yet there was something; had to be - and Kai clung to the little note of thoughtfulness in Janus' voice.

"Because ... because you cared for Stacey."

"I?"

"Victor Gessen."

"Victor Gessen loved him, didn't he?"

"Yes," Kai said softly. "He did."

"Then why did Stacey let him die?"

Another twist of the spike was agonizing. But Kai couldn't let pain rule over him - not now.

"You're wrong. Stacey didn't ..."

"You understand nothing, human. Victor loved him and your Stacey betrayed him."

"Loved him ... and was ready to destroy everything for this love? Including Stacey? Is it what you do now as well?"

The spike left his body but the tentacles were out, wrapped around Kai's ribcage and squeezed. Kai's consciousness threatened to slip away from him and he didn't know if it was with pain or with the shock of these things touching him ... again.

"I can crush you. I can kill you in so many ways," Janus hissed.

"Victor Gessen ... was more refined in fighting ... his enemies ..."

It was almost unbelievable when the tentacles let him go.

"You're amusing, genetic. Do you really want to see Stacey?"

"Yes ... Oh yes." Kai gasped for the air and clenched his fists, trying not to tremble. Pain seared his arm up to the shoulder.

"Stay as you are - or both you and Stacey will pay for it."

He watched Janus walk to the door and unseal it and looked at the blaster on the floor. He could try ... if his own life depended on it, Kai would definitely try. But Stacey ...

The door shut and opened again and Janus reappeared - a limp pale form in his arms. For a moment Kai couldn't take in what he saw: lax thin limbs, a spill of faintly red hair flowing against the scarlet of Janus' uniform - twig-like contours of the bones. And Stacey skin ... in terror Kai realized he couldn't see an unmarked patch of it, blue and black with bruises and savage red of open wounds.

Stacey was naked; his revealed genitals seemed outsized, swollen and purple in color - and a steady thin trickle of blood dribbled from the tip of his cock. God ... Kai darted his eyes at the blaster again and stifled his urge. If he wanted to fight for Stacey - he had to cope with his anger.

Stacey was alive - Kai realized it and joy mixed with anguish in him. He could see Stacey's chest flutter, and the body in Janus' arms shivered minutely as Janus' steps must have reverberated through it. Janus carried him - like a kid carries a favorite doll he has broken. Kai watched him go down on one knee, put Stacey on the floor, arrange Stacey's arms in an imitation of peace.

"Stay where you are," Janus repeated. "Or you'll both die. Humans are spiteful," he complained and got up, towering over the supine body. "Fragile. And stubborn. And easy to hurt."

"I know," Kai said. He felt unceasing ringing in his ears, with anger and pain and helplessness.

"So, tell me - who of me did he love?"

He had to talk ... it was the only way.

"You know perfectly well who. The one who gave his life to save him!"

"Don't bother, Kai." A faint voice came - and in shock Kai realized it was Stacey. His eyes were opened, huge, unfocusing - and there was so little expression in them that Kai shivered. "He's not Victor. There's nothing left in him of Victor."

"You see, genetic whore." It almost seemed to Kai the artificial mouth of Janus twisted in a derisive smile. "Who knows it better that the lover of the said Victor? He surely would recognize him in me when I ... made love to him."

Don't answer ... Kai clenched his teeth. It took him a few moments to make his voice sound calm.

"Why do you hurt him, none of what happened was his fault."

"He left me to die on Nostromo!"

"You fuckin' thing, Victor would prefer to die again than to be a part of you!" Stacey screamed faintly.

"Oh would he?" A grey tentacle lashed from under Janus' uniform, struck against Stacey's groin. The blow raised Stacey's body from the floor and slammed back; Kai heard Stacey's choking cry and saw with horror a split opening on the stretched skin of his ballsac.

"I told you to stay where you are, genetic."

The spike entered the same wound. Kai fell back on his knees lopsidedly, catching the air with open mouth. The spike wrenched out of his body and he moaned and collapsed over his knees. Then he raised his head and couldn't believe what he saw.

His own blaster in Stacey's hands, directed at Janus.

"No," Kai whispered in despair. "He'll kill you."

But a part of his mind knew it was what Stacey wanted.

"Well, try it. Try it once more." The creature turned and Kai thought Janus' voice had never sounded so much alike to Victor's. "Try to kill your beloved Vic once again. Once again, right, Stacey?"

"Vic is dead." Kai saw Stacey pull the trigger and wanted to close his eyes not to see what would happen.

The darkened light hit into his eyes. And then a line of fire ran over Janus' chest.

He couldn't quite believe it, it had to be some trick of Janus' - but the expression of impossible surprise on the creature's face told him it was true. The light kept darkening slowly. The tentacles emerged from their hidden cavities but there was no real force in their lashing.

"Traitors!" Janus said hoarsely. "Let me down ..."

He stood with the huge steaming hole in his chest and Stacey kept shooting. The smell of burnt plastic was sickening. Janus swayed.

"I walk through the valley of the shadow of death ..." he said suddenly. Kai couldn't believe it but it was what he saw - a tear in the human eye of Janus. "You've never said you loved me, fox," - the creature added and collapsed on the floor.

The shimmering, auxiliary lights turned the scarlet of Janus' uniform into dark, wine red. Kai looked at Stacey and saw him clench the blaster in both hands, his eyes locked on Janus' body. And then slowly Stacey raised the blaster and pointed it under his own chin.

There was no time to cry out; Kai jumped, toppled Stacey over, pushed the blaster away from the dangerous direction. Stacey fought blindly. Kai wondered if he recognized him at all; at least Stacey didn't pull the trigger. He was not strong - but his hands struggled wildly with Kai's. A push caught Kai's shoulder and he gave out a strangled cry - and it was enough to make Stacey stop flailing, to let Kai take the blaster away. Kai wrapped his good arm around Stacey's body and felt him tremble in his embrace.

"Please don't," Kai whispered against Stacey's soft, matted with blood hair. "Please don't kill yourself."

"It was Vic ..." Stacey said, hardly in answer to Kai's words, more to himself.

"No, it wasn't!" Damn this creature, even dying it managed to get back to Stacey. "He did it on purpose, so that you thought he was. Victor wouldn't ever do it to you ..."

Kai felt Stacey shook his head, pressed to Kai's chest. His face, with the eyes covered by nearly translucent eyelids, looked so fragile - desperate - dying.

"Please, Stacey." The broken body in Kai's arms shivered. "Remember that time when we escaped from Nostromo - you asked me not to die, to stay with you then. You said I have the same rights on you as you on me. Now it's my time to ask you. Will you stay with me? Will you live for me?"

Stacey's eyelids trembled, as if he was seeing some dream and couldn't wake up from it. But his body pressed closer to Kai's and his fingers hooked on Kai's jacket, pulled them both together. Kai saw his lips part and heard Stacey whisper:

"Yes."

A sound of steps made Kai look up - and there was Reo, with an aimed blaster.

"The trap switched off!" He stopped abruptly seeing Kai and Stacey. "Oh my God ..."

"It's okay," Kai said firmly. "He's going to be okay."

* * *

"The Voices didn't want to kill the bastard," Minerva said carelessly. On her lap, Thor pulled at her clothes, making cheerful, screeching sounds and she cooed something in Heles, then looked at Reo. "Isn't he the loveliest baby in the galaxy?"

Reo hugged his big toes and muttered:

"In the whole universe. If I never have to answer it again, it'll be too soon."

"Don't say such things, it'll affect the child's self-appraisal," Minerva frowned at him. "What did I say about Janus? They wanted just to de-activate him to make the corrections in his mind. But I don't think they're distraught with how it turned out. Voices are not fools. He was going out of control."

"Can they resurrect him?"

"They can - but I don't think they will. Not with the use of these particular participants at least. The project proved unsuccessful - and the Voices do admit their mistakes."

"That's the only thing that makes them tolerable."

"So," suddenly Minerva gave him a quick look. "Are you going to accept their offer?"

Caesar had known it would happen; Reo himself hadn't quite believed it - and till the last day nothing proved that Voices even knew who he was. But yesterday one of them talked to him ... and offered to stay.

"I dunno," he muttered.

"What? Didn't think about it yet?"

Of course, he did. He'd thought of nothing else but it last night. To stay at the station, among the creatures that were much more amazing that Reo was - where no one would point at his origin ... To learn, to work, to meet people ...

"Why does it worry you, woman?" There was no reason to be angry with Minerva but he was - because she reminded him about the decision he still couldn't take.

"Hell, I just wondered. I like you."

She met Reo's gaze full of horror and laughed.

"Just joking. What does Kai tell you?"

"I didn't ... actually didn't ask him yet. He has hands full now without me."

"Humans!" Minerva shrugged and patted Thor's head. "Do you want to listen to an honest opinion? Stay here. You won't ever get anything from Caesar."

"I know," Reo said.

"Yeah? You do? Then why do you doubt?"

"I know," he repeated. "Caesar won't ever change. I can either accept it or ... let it go."

Let it go ...

Don't come back.

Or come back and live with everything you know so well - Caesar's moods, his rejection, his strictness bordering on cruelty, his attempts to teach Reo something - the lessons that sometimes hurt more than anything else. Wait for another near-death experience to see hurt and tenderness in Caesar's eyes, to feel the demanding touch of his hands.

Could Reo doom himself to that?

One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.
He should've asked himself about it in a different way. Could he stay there and know that Caesar was alone on the planet far away? Maybe, not alone, maybe, with Cory and Kai and Stacey - but still alone because no one of them would care for him as Reo did.

"I don't want you to care," Reo could almost hear Caesar's voice.

Only he knew it wasn't true.

"I'll go back," he said.

Minerva hissed so loudly Thor flinched and made complaining sounds.

"Did you even listen to what I told you? Or do you do it in spite of me?"

"Hey, it would be too much," Reo laughed. "You're annoying - but not to that extent."

"Not half as annoying as you are."

"I thought you said you liked me."

"I lied!"

"You can go back to the planet, too," Reo said recalling what Kai told him, why Minerva stayed with them. "There's place for everyone."

For a moment Minerva seemed thoughtful.

"Nah," she shook her head. "I'm going to Heles. My mother ... she's there. We had a falling out last years but I think it'll be cruel not to let her see such a majestic creature as her grandson is."

"Indeed," Reo said.

* * *

Stacey's face was very pale but peaceful at the moment. He lay in the bed with his eyes closed; three days ago, when Kai and Reo had brought him from Janus' ship, the Voices put him into sleep - and this way he stayed till then. His body was motionless but occasionally his face rippled with pain - as if he struggled through a dream he didn't like.

The Voices said it would take from a few days to a few weeks for him to come round. Stacey's body and mind themselves would decide when he was ready to start living again.

"His body needs time to heal and his mind needs to rest." The voice came out of nowhere but Kai was getting used to it. He just nodded. "And while he's this way, we can delete the memories of the last weeks from his mind." Sharply, Kai looked up and the Voice added hastily. "Don't worry. Our methods are by far more sophisticated than Uranus ever applied. Your friend wouldn't even know it happened."

Kai hesitated looking at Stacey's face. Stacey's limp hand in his palm was cold, unresponsive. If Stacey could forget it ... It was almost too tempting.

"You want me to take the decision for him, don't you?"

"Don't you think you can do it?" the Voice asked.

He wondered what Stacey would choose for him. Would it be forgetting? Sometimes Kai wished he could forget things - all those months of pregnancy and hours of labors - and days after that when he didn't know why he still lived - when Stacey was gone.

Forgetting seemed good. But he knew well what Stacey would choose for himself.

"Leave his memory intact."

"I see," the Voice said. "We sincerely regret everything that happened ..."

"You can apologize to him when he comes round," Kai said harshly. The Voice seemed to notice his tone.

"Oh, we will do it. We never wanted it to happen - to him."

"What is it supposed to mean?"

"You know your friend attracted our attention quite a while ago, on the Heles ship yet. I supervised him. We had plans about him."

Kai knew he squeezed Stacey's hand too hard but Stacey didn't feel it.

"Leave him alone."

"Don't be so afraid, we promise we won't do him any harm. You can stay here as long as you want."

"We're going home," Kai said. "As soon as he comes round."

He didn't know what he'd do if they didn't agree. Was there a way to fight those who didn't have anything but a voice? And their 'home' - the planet where they lived - belonged to Voices as well.

"Of course," the Voice said. "Maybe, it's the best variant. Maybe, it's what was supposed to happen."

Two days later Stacey opened his eyes. Kai watched, not knowing what Stacey remembered, what he felt about Kai, after everything. Stacey's eyebrows drew together in a frown as he looked at Kai through his long fringe. His narrowed eyes glimmered dark-green.

Stacey's hand in Kai's was getting warmer, slowly, and this alone made Kai feel better. Then Stacey reached uncertainly, as if not sure his hands obeyed him properly, and touched Kai's hair.

"Where's your braid?" he said in a rasping, nearly soundless voice.

Gone, Kai wanted to answer and couldn't, felt tears choke him.

"Hey, hey, don't you cry." Stacey's fingers ran over his face - and then something seemed to break in his eyes. He opened his arms - and Kai sank into the embrace, felt the grip tighten around him and Stacey's angular hot body cling to his.

"You're okay." Stacey whispered as his hands patted, groped over Kai hastily. "You're safe ... you're free."

"Oh no, Stacey," Kai smiled unexpectedly for himself. "You're safe. You're free. And you're with me."

* * *

Stacey's hand was warm and hard; the callous patches on it scraped against Kai's palm slightly as Stacey fumbled with his fingers. Kai didn't think Stacey even noticed playing with his hand, submerged in the conversation. But for Kai it was almost too distracting; the touch too warm, too much Stacey's. He sighed, inhaling harsh smell of Stacey's cigarette.

The night was pleasantly cool and the window wide open to let out the tart smoke. Stacey and Reo always ran out of cigarettes - and whatever only they didn't try to smoke ... But Kai liked how it smelled. He lay watching in near darkness how thin swirls of smoke traveled slowly to the window. Stacey kept twining and untwining their fingers - and it was the only point where their bodies touched.

"I think we'll finish the water-tower in the next week if we try really hard." The absent, circling motions on Kai's palm continued. "And then the houses ..."

"You don't think you make them work too much?" Kai asked softly. "They might think it wasn't worth it."

A few weeks after their return to the planet they had a surprise - a ship with a few families, sent by Voices. Kai didn't know why the Voices decided to start populating the planet - whether it meant that what they considered the end of the worlds was approaching or something else. But there were hybrids and some humans and all of them very willing to start a new life there.

Now Caesar had much more patients to take care of - and Cory had friends - and everybody had more work to do. The camp seemed to grow.

"We don't hold anyone here, right? If someone doesn't want to stay, he or she can leave. But I didn't hear anyone complain yet."

"You're as bad as the Board of F-400," Kai chuckled.

"Wha-at?" Stacey giggled as well. "I hope you're not serious. You make me feel like a ... how does Reo call it?"

"Voluntarist."

"Yeah, right. Hell, I hate Reo's books. He thinks everything's there. Okay, maybe, something is - but how about common sense?"

"As far as I'm concerned, I think you have even less common sense than Reo."

The hand on Kai's palm tightened.

"Hey, I don't understand! Are you for me - or for Reo?"

"For you, of course," Kai said seriously. "I'm always for you."

"Even if I'm not right?"

"Even if you're wrong as hell."

Stacey's paused. Their touch became almost non-existing. Kai saw Stacey take another drag of the cigarette.

"That's good. I wouldn't stand the fight for power ... over you."

And I can't stand what you're doing to me, Kai thought. Or, rather, what you aren't doing. These touches - this closeness ... he wanted more. He wanted to be together ...

Well, they were together; no one doubted it. And in a broad sense - they really were. Maybe, it was excessive to want more than these touches - brotherly touches? Platonic - the word Reo suggested but it sounded wrong to Kai. He preferred to think about it as temporary; to believe that he could wait - that he had something to wait for.

Stacey fell on his back and stretched, letting Kai's hand go - but took it again a moment later. Stacey seemed to need to feel him - sought Kai's presence as if it made him feel better. And if it was so, Kai thought, then he was happy to be here. Then he was happy to wait.

Sometimes waiting was worth it; Reo told him that recently. And if Reo said so - Reo who had to go through a roller-coaster with Caesar day in and day out ... then, maybe, it made sense. Then Kai shouldn't complain.

He didn't complain; he just thought that, maybe, he shouldn't just have waited, should've done something. Reach for Stacey, kiss him ... Oh well, he knew what stopped him. The fear ... Stacey's injuries had healed a long time ago, turned into thin pale scars - but there must have been other ones, invisible.

And what if Kai started - and Stacey would ... not, maybe, turn him down - but go rigid at his touch, clench? Or worse - would comply not because he wanted to but because Kai wanted it from him?

Kai wanted it. But if Stacey needed time, Kai was ready to wait.

"Your cigarette is nearly endless."

"Want to take a drag?" Stacey asked.

"Yeah, why not?"

It wasn't a good idea; but Kai didn't have time to think better. Stacey turned up and brought the cigarette to Kai's lips. The place where Stacey's mouth clamped on it was warm and slightly wet. Kai inhaled the smoke.

"Just not too deep ..."

The words were too late.

"Oh God, Kai ..." He heard Stacey's upset voice - and couldn't answer, rushed out hastily to the bathroom. He managed to get in time and was turned inside out as soon as he bent over the bowl.

Shit ... shit. Could he play a bigger fool? Still gasping and coughing and sick, Kai heard Stacey's barefoot steps behind him and felt his face flush. So much for thinking indecent thoughts about Stacey. How wretched.

Stacey was behind him but Kai didn't look back - and then Stacey's warm arm wrapped around his shoulders. A hand gathered water from the wash-hand-stand and brought it to Kai's lips.

It felt good to be supported this way. Kai still felt ashamed but he felt good, too. Stacey washed his face for him while Kai rinsed his mouth; then he turned Kai to himself and wiped him

"Look, I'm sorry." His eyes were jade-green, catching the moonlight. Stacey's palms on Kai's face felt warm and rough. Kai felt the little drops of water tremble on his eyelashes as he blinked, unable to stand the look at Stacey's face. "I should've thought you never smoked."

"No, I should've thought," he muttered.

A little stroke on his cheek was fleeting and the hands were gone.

"Let's go out and get some fresh air."

Kai nodded. He felt a bit hollow, as if something was about to happen and didn't happen again.

He sat on the porch, feeling Stacey's bare shoulder against his own. The little settlement was asleep, all the houses quiet - with the only sound the rustle of wind in the leaves.

"Are you happy?" Stacey asked. The question was almost too casual and Stacey's arm pulled Kai closer, made him put his head on Stacey's shoulder.

"I'm happy," Kai said. "I'm with you. And you?"

He was afraid of what the answer could be.

"I dunno. I thought I knew what it was, to be happy. On Nostromo I sometimes told myself how happy I was. But later ... I started thinking ... that it was like I wanted to make myself believe I was."

Kai tensed and tried not to give himself away.

"And then ... I woke up at the station of Voices," Stacey continued, "and saw you ... and I knew you were okay and the child was gone ... I didn't think about anything then at all. It was just ... the most wonderful thing."

Stacey's hand lay on Kai's and squeezed it.

"I'll always remember it. And I want you to know something ... I'll wait as long as necessary until you're ready."

Until I'm ready, Kai wanted to ask - but couldn't - couldn't talk at all. Until he was ready ... Could Stacey mean that ... that he waited - just like Kai waited?

"Too much happened, I know," Stacey continued hastily. "You need time ... hell, I need time, too. But I don't want to ... anything to stand between us. I want you to know ... I'm here for you. Just like you told me you're here for me."

Ooh Stacey ... Why do you always have to be so fuckin' generous? Kai wanted to say it - but didn't say, pressed his mouth to Stacey's instead and kissed.

For a moment Stacey was startled, his words interrupted. His fingers in Kai's trembled and he pushed Kai away a little.

"I didn't mean that ... I didn't want to force you ..."

"You silly, silly," Kai whispered, pulling him closer again, their lips nearly touching. "You can't force me into anything."

A kiss was soft and deep and long this time. Their lips parted and Stacey got up on his feet. Kai looked at him unsure if something went wrong.

"Hey, what're you waiting for?" Stacey asked. "Let's go inside."

It was only a few steps into their house, to the bed - and their bodies were pressed together again.

"I waited for it for so long ..." Stacey muttered.

You don't know how long I waited ...

The heat and length of Stacey's erection against Kai's was better than the memory, better than Kai's imagination on those nights when he had to take care of himself alone.

"You're hard," Kai said with surprise. "You want me."

Stacey's voice broke with laughter.

"You bet I do."

Still laughing, Stacey hugged him, tried to raise him - and the momentum was awkward - or, maybe, it was what Stacey wanted: but they toppled on the bed - and Kai felt again Stacey's lips on his own.

He wanted more than just a kiss; he wanted to kiss Stacey everywhere, explore his body fully. They struggled a little for a position and finally Stacey got over him. Immediately, Stacey's hands became gentle, pulling Kai closer as Stacey kissed his face. Kai caught Stacey's lips again as his hands plaited through Stacey's hair. And later, as Stacey kissed his chest, he thought Stacey's must have felt how loudly his heart was thrumming.

He moaned, made a high sobbing sound caught in his throat as Stacey's mouth closed on his nipple, sucked it.

"Do it again, Stacey ..."

"What?"

"That."

Stacey chuckled and ran his warm tongue over Kai's nipple once more. Stacey's mouth worked and Kai sobbed, covered his mouth in fear of being too loud. Stacey pulled his hand away, kissed his palm.

"Don't shush it. I like it ... how you sound. I want to hear it ..."

The words nearly did as much for Kai as touches, made him push towards Stacey. Their cocks were wet and the cloth of their underwear was soaked, clung to the skin. Kai convulsed feeling Stacey's palm slide inside his boxers, brush along his shaft.

Stacey raised on his elbow, looking down at Kai with dark eyes.

"My little one," he whispered. "My fair one."

Kai shivered at the sound of his voice, reached for Stacey's hand and pushed it between his legs, showing the direction of the fingers inside himself.

"If you want that, Kai ..."

Oh yes, I do, I do ... Stacey licked his fingers and Kai felt a soft wet touch against the barely perceptible scars around his anus - the scars that were left after the Heles was born. Stacey's finger slipped into him, first one and then the second. Kai felt them rock in him.

"Is it okay?"

"It is. More ..."

But so far there was no more, just two explored his passage, found the aim. Kai saw Stacey smile briefly as he jerked and arched.

"You're driving me mad ..." Stacey whispered, leaning towards him, touching not Kai's cock but his belly with his lips, trailing the line down to Kai's groin. His fingers pushed in and out of Kai steadily, with every touch on his prostate electrifying.

The warmth of Stacey's enveloping mouth made Kai shudder in pleasure almost bordering on pain.

"Stacey, please ..." His hands clenched convulsively in Stacey's hair.

"What?"

"Do something. Don't torment me any more. Inside me."

"Are you sure? Because we can do it in some other way ..."

"I know." He nearly whimpered. "Please do."

"If you say so." Kai saw a smile flit on Stacey's face. That's how he looks at these moments, Kai thought - wild and flushed and glowing. He saw Stacey spit in his hand; then there was a silky touch against his opening - and a push ... Finally that.

He reached and pulled Stacey closer. The new angle was, maybe, a less convenient one - but it let them be together. He could feel Stacey everywhere this way - his lips, his thin strong body, softness of his hair. All together it was too much and Kai gasped, coming, looking with wide opened eyes at Stacey's smiling face.

"Yes, my beautiful, yes," Stacey said and leaned closer. Their hair mixed. The thrusts were lulling. Kai looked at Stacey's dimly lit face and thought he finally got what he'd waited.

"Fuck ... you're fuckin' beautiful ... you're fuckin' mine ..." Stacey muttered and came and hugged Kai tighter. His hands kept patting Kai's hair as they lay together.

"What do you like to do after that?" Stacey asked him a little later. "Talk or sleep or ... no, I don't think smoke."

"I dunno," Kai shrugged. "I never thought about it before. What do you like?"

Lie together, fall asleep with their limbs intertwined - have a small talk - wash each other before getting back to the warmth of the bed ... So many things.

Kai felt Stacey settle more conveniently next to him.

"I don't know either," Stacey said in a sleepy voice. "But we'll figure it out together."

The End

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