I HATED Ami’s base. A barren, arid planet made of rocks and dust. Probably why he made it his home base—a strategic move. The place was fitting in many ways. The days had a habit of trickling together into nondescript mush since I’d been here.
Furious winds raised sandstorms. They were choking monsters that grated into your lungs and scratched at you from the inside. Howling wind was the background music to my every day. At night, it came in particularly handy—it woke me from fitful dreams. I had an odd love-hate relationship with Asai, the planet of wind and sands.
I took in all that emptiness as I looked out the window. My home planet, Kator, was rich in vegetation. It had silky, rich air. Not even wars could diminish the luxurious beauty of the world Zaoh and I came from. The Haffa territories were jungle, untamed and irresistible as he was. I sometimes dreamed of him being born of brutal wilderness and the sky, of stars beyond the horizon and the taste of cold rain.
Zaoh didn’t seem to notice the dust storm. He practiced his sword mastery smack in the middle of it. He glided between blurry particles and slid into the wind, his strong body slick in its moves. My eardrums pounded and I couldn’t breathe. It had nothing to do with the damned dust. My heart lurched into my throat and struggled there, cutting off air.
“Come back to bed, gorgeous.”
The chokehold broke as I looked back at Ami. He lounged in bed, sprawled in outmost debauchery… beautiful in ways I’d known nothing about before meeting him. The soft azure of his skin glistened with sweat and radiated with inner light. It contrasted the glum of everything around. He was breathtaking when well fed with energy. Hard not to be in awe of him, really. Lithe and nimble, sporting the face of innocence but with the unmistakable air of wickedness, Ami ran a finger down his neck. On the way down, he grazed a pebbled nipple and poked at the delicate line of his hipbone. Trailing even lower, it ran around his beautifully hard member. His mismatched eyes were hot and beckoning as they fixed on mine. His lips parted in invitation as he squeezed his balls hard, hips twitching.
“Come back to me,” he rumbled. “Feed me, gorgeous.”
I smiled and padded away from the windows. Providing Ami with the nourishment his empath skills demanded was a pleasure through and through. The sash still clung to my fingers, and he grinned. I paced around the bed, inspecting him with my best commander face on. The way his pupils blew out each and every time, remnants of the power-vibe came to surface helped balance me.
“On your back, Ami. Hands and feet stretched up.”
Brilliant eyes glazed over as I tied his wrists and ankles together. While turning him on one side, I smacked his perky ass cheeks, the first couple of times softer but harder with each new slap. He squirmed and moaned as the rich sound of skin slapping skin filled the room. Just his moans had me fully hard, and that was not even counting the glowing navy of his ass as spanks kept raining down. I found throbbing insides as I entered him again. It didn’t take long to have him coming all over his chest and the bed. I pumped brutally for my own release. Reaching it was less fulfilling than I’d hoped, but it kept some of the darkness at bay. It didn’t work to be picky, that much I’d learned. We outlaws had to take our joys where we could find them.
Thoughts of Zaoh didn’t leave me for more than a few seconds at a time, though, regardless of what I did. As I poured the remains of my rational thoughts into Ami, one image coiled tight around my gut—Zaoh dancing in the winds, slick and deadly in his every move, gliding between particles of dust from the storm raging inside of me. And he mastered it just as easily as he did his swords and knives.
There was nowhere to hide from the piercing purple eyes, the constantly straight line of his lilac lips, or his impressive presence. I carried him inside, tucked neatly into the deepest recesses of my mind and soul. He lurked there for the chance to badger my sleep. It made no difference that I’d left Kator, run from my demons… useless. Everything was useless. There was no way to outrun what you carried inside. I was obsessed with him. A sickening mix of admiration, debilitating hate, and crippling desire slapped me in the face each time I saw him, even from a distance.
I closed my eyes and the winds picked up. They rushed around my heart and grazed it raw. It wasn’t the sandstorm outside that plagued my every waking hour. It was the one I carried inside that would bury me alive.
MY MIND was made up—Ami was a complete bastard. It had nothing to do with our history and everything to do with right now.
Sitting there with the rest of his top picks wasn’t my idea of a good dinner. And yet there we were in all our glory. No way could I eat. Food refused to pass beyond my lips. Burning purple eyes had my ears buzzing. I felt him watching me across the table. Zaoh’s presence overwhelmed me even without looking at him.
The azure devil in front of me grinned and licked his lips. “Don’t like your dinner, gorgeous?”
“It’s fine,” I grumped.
Long fingers aimed a fork at me, his motions eerily graceful. “Fine? I don’t give my champions ‘fine.’ I give you stupendous. Maybe it’s the company you don’t like?”
I choked on water, sputtering like a fool. “You trying to kill me, Blue?”
He chuckled, mismatched eyes turning warm at the nickname.
Beside me, the famous space thief and troublemaker extraordinaire, Camelia D, snorted. That was, by large, her basic response to life. “Something’s ruining your mojo, admit it,” she muttered.
“My mojo is fine.”
“Like the food, fine?” she asked, batting long eyelashes.
Oh, they were such a riot. They begged to be put out of their misery. I contemplated the thought for a couple of moments, but taking out my fellow mercs wasn’t much of a smart move. Ami’s protection made our band of misfits into an operating unit. Without his connections, I suspected all of us would likely meet swift and unsavory repercussions. Our previous lives weren’t exactly badge-of-honor material. I didn’t have to like him, though, not right then. Ever the perceptive empathic bastard, he blew me a kiss. I tossed a bread roll at him.
Smacking it away with ease, he put on the serious face. “I’ve got a mission, kids. Bet that’ll cheer you up, Ron. Won’t it?”
It most certainly did. I spread my lips into a smile, my mood getting better as quick as a lightning bolt. A mission was exactly what I needed, a break from Asai and its turbulent sandstorms. A breather from the mojo-breaking elements on it. It had to be a one-gun mission, though. Being stuck with Camy in the tight space of a ship was a mixed blessing. I refused to contemplate the merry band getting any bigger. Going out with Zaoh wasn’t even an option—I’d made that perfectly clear to Blue the moment the Haffa came in. So far, my opinion had been taken into consideration, thank the stars.
Ami pushed his plate away and took a few sips of wine. He gave each one of us a cursory look and smiled. “Major cargo escort. Don’t get excited, Camy, it needs finesse. No explosives or any of that shit. I’ve had it with your dramatic exits. For a renowned thief, you sure do make a blasting mess of a merc.”
Her lips pursed. “Kiss my ass, pretty boy. Those fucktards shot at me. What was I going to do, smile my way out of there? Maybe let them ruin my ship, like someone here did? Either I blew them up or they’d blow my ass into stardust.”
“Lovely visual, baby. But you’re grounded. Too big a mess and too recent to go out yet. I’m still talking those idiots down from you blowing their mother ship to smithereens. Though in your defense, anyone stupid enough to get their main blown by one unruly merc deserves what’s coming to them.”
Camy’s fiery green eyes squinted and she threw a hand-wipe at him. “Unruly my ass.”
He grinned. “Especially that. We’ll get to the bottom of it together, though, no fear. Besides, if you’re so full of pent-up energy, we both know I can always use a boost. You’re grounded. The boys get to go out and play.”
I did my best to show no disappointment. Escorting cargo was as much of a mission as washing my mouth. But it meant I could be away for a while and that was good news. I had to take it. “I’ll go, Blue.”
He inspected me for a moment then nodded. “Fine, gorgeous. All yours.”
“Great. What am I escorting and where?”
“Private commission. What I do know is you have to get it through Zax zone.”
Zax zone sounded promising. Those bastards didn’t know how to do anything but fight. Maybe I’d get some collateral action, the real kind. Truth be told, I was itching for some real excitement. We all were, most likely. Ami bitched about it to high heavens, but then again, he had been the one to handpick each of us as his guns.
I nodded, fingers rapping against the table. “When am I leaving?”
“As soon as you’re ready. You’re meeting your contact on Kalvaria. And be sure to keep your trigger-happy finger in check. I don’t have a current accord with that station. If you get caught, you’re on your own.”
The rap of my fingers turned louder. “I’m not a kid, Blue.”
“Of course not, gorgeous. But I’m not gonna lose any of my top guns just because you’re bored when nothing blows up.”
I grinned. “Well, if blowing is what’s on your mind—”
He smacked my hand.
Ridiculous. I wasn’t trigger-happy or explosions-addicted—that was Camy’s field. Probably going in all smooth to steal stuff frustrated her raging-bitch side. Now that she could blow up things, she went to town with it every chance she could possibly summon. I wasn’t that dramatic. Well, there had been that one incident…. Completely unintentional. It wasn’t my fault the bastards felt compelled to shoot me down. I was just trying to escape with their cargo. I took a pod to escape. It had been a close call—an even closer call when Ami found out his favorite ship got blasted into oblivion. I thought he’d chew my ass out that time, but he got over it by the time I pushed him down on his bed. Blue was forgiving like that. It made working for him especially fun for a while there. Besides, regardless of who went out, it was mission complete and really good profits for him. He just loved to nag and bitch.
I was bored. That was why I’d asked to go. When the body wasn’t busy, the mind took revenge. We were creatures of action, Zaoh and I. Kator had been at war for centuries. Fighting was the only thing we really knew. Both Celians and Haffas, though different in oh-so-many ways, were the same in one regard—we were brought up with the fight in our hearts, thrumming through our veins. No home-base pets, not really. And while the Celian part was more civilized, Haffas were truly wild creatures—impossibly strong and brutally determined. I’d seen a Haffa of Zaoh’s size take down up to five of our Celian soldiers with ease. I’d seen Zaoh himself take down close to a dozen. He hadn’t been public enemy number one on our side of Kator for nothing.
When I didn’t have a mission, I missed being part of the troops back home. But every time I got close to Kator, those damned images blasted through my mind… probably a good thing I was declared a deserter, to be executed on the spot if caught within Celian territory limits. Pathetically, the only flavor of home was Zaoh—part of the reason I’d left it to begin with. But he didn’t know that. And it was in my best interest to keep things that way.
Besides, I wasn’t a soldier anymore. I was a merc now, part of Ami’s top guns. The Amaari was legend even on Kator. His negotiator abilities were second to none. If you wanted something, you got him to get it for you. Ahlen Zari was the second-best choice; the bastard had no finesse, though. Ami was a smooth operator. His guns were always drawn but never blazing. And now I was part of that arsenal, just like the Haffa, because of whom I’d given up my previous life. Just like the vivacious Camy D, a tall and lean creature who came with one of our new ships. As in, she dashed out of it in the hangar and tried to off us all. And loot the place. Ami was so touched, he took her in on the spot. She was a magnificent thief, capable of stealing the sugar from your cup of tea if you didn’t keep a close enough watch. Sadly, she turned out to love blowing things up too. Ami’s reputation as smooth operator was slowly dwindling away. We were turning from smooth operators into guns blazing, but still top dogs. That was what really mattered after all—being top dogs.
I got up, happy to finally have a reason to stop pretending to eat. Zaoh shot to his feet to block my way. My lungs squeezed tight as soon as I was face to face with the purple hell of his eyes.
“You weren’t dismissed, Vid. Sit back down.”
I gritted my teeth and turned in Ami’s direction. “We done here? I’ve got to pack my shit if I’m going out.”
“Go ahead, gorgeous. I’ll wait for you in the hangar.”
Stomping to my room, I tried to shake off the memory of those purple black holes. It was a bad thing to think about. Getting away from Asai would be pointless if I carried the mess with me out to space.
A second set of steps thudded behind. Decisive but not rushed, they sounded closer and closer, so I stopped. For some reason I couldn’t turn around.
Blood rushed away from my extremities and into my head all at once. How did he know about that nickname? No way he’d just used it by chance. A cold sheen of sweat covered my palms. “I’m no commander anymore,” I gritted out through clenched teeth.
“Should I call you Deserter Vid, then? More fitting?”
Zaoh’s gravelly voice sounded vaguely amused, almost playful. Maybe Ami had told him. If I knew about him becoming a traitor to the Haffas, maybe he’d found out about me too. Only I had a reason to know about him. A personal reason. Perhaps he had one as well. Perhaps he knew it had been me commanding the troops that caught him and his sister…. My mind said to calm down, to rein in my pulse.
I turned around halfway, still not facing him. “So you’re Traitor Dem, then?”
Tense silence fell between us. It was a cheap shot. He wasn’t really a traitor while I was a deserter. It would have been better to turn around and leave. My feet refused to respond, though. They were glued to the floor. His simple presence messed with my wiring. I gravitated toward him so strongly it was a constant conscious effort to pull away. To what end, I didn’t have the vaguest—about both impulses.
“At least I didn’t leave my troops by choice,” he finally said.
No, he hadn’t. His sister had been killed in interrogation. After that, against all odds and beyond any possible logic, Zaoh Dem had escaped Celian incarceration. The reasonable conclusion was he’d sided with us. So Haffas declared him traitor and condemned him to death as soon as he returned to his base. Of course, the man escaped their captivity as well, maybe helped like he’d been to escape ours. He was resourceful like that. No way to get him under control unless he felt like playing nice. Ami was delighted to tell me and his other mercs that particular personality trait the evening he brought Zaoh in. A whole fucking universe at his disposal, and the bastard had to end up where I was. What were the odds?
I cleared my throat and stuffed my hands into the pockets of my khaki overalls. “Had something to say to me, other than that?” His heavy boots had a considerable distance between them. I imagined him standing there, tall and strong, sort of majestic. I didn’t dare to look at him as I waited for an answer.
He seemed to ponder on it, tapped the tip of his boot a few times. “Despise Haffas so much you won’t even look at me?”
I smiled tightly. “You’ve read me wrong. Buried my war with Haffas a long time ago.”
“Just despise me, then?”
“Not at all.”
He took one step closer, small but significant to my pulse—it skyrocketed. “Then look at me.”
I had to use all my willpower to find his eyes with mine. The brutal force of his gaze struck me worse than I’d expected, but I held strong. “Well? What is it? Wanted to get chummy?”
He snorted. “Don’t overestimate yourself. Just letting you know we’re on this mission together.”
No. That little azure bastard wouldn’t dare.