“Taking your victims home is messy,” Titan said. “Unprofessional. Your DNA will be all over her.”
“Don’t worry,” Kaftan said. “I’m good at making these things look like accidents.” He smoothed his hand over his pants. “If you’ll excuse me, I need to go circulate. Can’t get a good auction if you don’t have buyers frothing at the mouth.”
“Kaftan?” Titan said, stalling.
The man turned. “What? What I says goes. Done is done.”
“This is a side matter, something personal.”
Kaftan slowed and pivoted back to him. “I’m listening.”
“During this operation, my employer hired some local talent. Sent orders outside our usual chain of command. Me and my fellows had a bet about who’s name was to be rubbed out. Care to give me a hint? I can make it worth your trouble.”
“Shame I’m a thief, not a liar, I’d love to take your money. But I don’t know. The supplier said it would be easier for them if a certain officer of the law was scrubbed out. Would have put the city on high alert if any more of them dropped. It was bad for business. If the supplier wants to do something now, that’s their business.” Kaftan shrugged as he walked off.
Titan stared after him in horror. Employers and suppliers did not add up to a small operation. He turned just in time to see Arwel sweep through a group of giggling women who were enjoying an anecdote from a dark-haired model.
“Sir! I apologize, I didn’t catch your name when you came in.”
“Ty is what my friends call me.” He watched as Selena moved out of view following one of the illuminated paths into the artificial jungle. “Was there something you needed?”
“Need? No. I want to introduce you to someone if you feel inclined to socialize.”
More like he wanted to steer his unvetted visitors away from the black market traders, but at this point any information would help. He hadn’t missed a mission briefing since he was fourteen, now it seemed like he’d have to reset the clock.
His host gestured for him to follow along a flagstone path. “Are you enjoying the garden?”
“It’s… interesting,” Titan said.
“Different than the formal gardens in Descent I imagine. I’ve been to Kytan, of course, it’s practical a requirement if you love horticulture, but it was the wind forests in Essan that really captured my imagination. The little rock pools and hidden forests tucked away in the rills and valleys were quite breathtaking.”
Titan nodded as he made a note to look up the places Arwel was naming.
“That couldn’t be done here, naturally,” the man continued on as the path snaked across a decorative creek and behind the crashing sound of the waterfall, “but I think my designer did a good job of catching the creative spirit of the original. There are hidden vistas around
every corner. And hidden beauty.” He stopped and smiled.
It took Titan a moment to realize that Selena was standing in the shadows of the artificial rocks watching the party. Their approach hadn’t triggered a response.
His approach hadn’t trigged a response. He’d expected their shields to synch again, but they weren’t. She’d reconfigured hers in the brief time they’d been apart.
Arwel winked at him and mouthed, “Good luck,” before slipping away down the path.
For a moment Titan let the moment be. Selena Caryll, alone in the moonlight and shadows, waiting for a chance to step into the spotlight. She was beautiful.
There was the first dark shadow of fatigue under her eyes, a hint of strain around her eyes, a pinch to her lips that spoke of anger, weariness, and control. He wanted to take away her worry, rush her away from her, or fight the battle, or do whatever needed to be done to wash the darkness from her eyes.
Stepping loudly he walked up behind her.
Selena pivoted, a wide-eyed expression of startlement and fear on her face. For a drawn out moment she stared at him uncomprehending? “Titan?”
She shook her head in disbelief, shields and data tight as the night she’d punched him. “You’re not supposed to be here! You need to leave. Now.”
“I will, in a moment.” If she gave him no other choice. “But I behaved badly earlier and I wanted to apologize.”
He expected her to draw up her shoulders and nod knowingly the way most people did when he acknowledged he treated them poorly. Selena only looked at him in confusion.
“This afternoon,” he said, slowly trying to feel his way across the sudden gap between them, “I left. With Lily Sekoo. Because she was injured, and I didn’t check on you. As your partner I should have followed up.”
“You were concussed, bleeding, and your implant was exhausted. You didn’t to do anything but get to the Sabiha’s medical bay without collapsing. Which it seems you did. Well done. Go home.”
“I came to make sure you were okay.”
Selena shrugged. “I received the medical treatment I needed. Does that satisfy you?”
“Not really,” he admitted. Again, he felt there was a key piece to the puzzle that was missing. None of her reactions made any sense. Immediate forgiveness was probably unlikely, but being locked out hurt.
She raised her eyebrows. “What?”
“I thought we’d developed a bit more of a dialog and I’d get more information than an ensign on their first day on the bridge.”
Glancing back through the trees at the part Selena sighed impatiently. “Would you believe me if I said it wasn’t personal?”
“If it didn’t feel personal, yes.”
She glared at him, blue eyes cold as the black between stars. “I did what you suggested and archived my war memories so I could focus on the task at hand.”
Titan expanded his shield so it brushed against Selena’s. It was like trying to catch mist in his hand. “Did I hurt you so much that you had to erase me too?”
“It was a calculated decision.” Her voice was chilly and distant. “Painful. Torturous. I can’t go through that again. I can’t take another loss like I did with the Persephone and my crew.”
“And, you think I’d leave you?”
“Wouldn’t you?” Her forehead crinkled as she let her fear bubble to the surface. “When this is over and you have no reason to keep company with me? When your crew, and captain, and allies start questioning why you spend time with that worthless Selena Caryll, what did you plan on doing?”
“I planned on asking permission to court you.”
She closed her eyes. “Oh, Titan.”
“Did you not want that?” He sorted through every moment they’d spent together trying to find the cues he’d missed.
“As a woman, yes, I’d be delighted to be courted by you. As a senior officer? No, I can’t let you for the same reasons your captain will reject the suggestion: I have nothing to offer.”
Titan took a step closer. “What do you mean?”
“There is no advantage to your crew if you court me. I can’t offer ships, officers, training berths, or even a social boost. I’m worthless.”
Force teleporting a captain somewhere so he could yell at her gave him an estimated survival rate of zero-point-nine percent, his implant informed him. Besides, he didn’t have a suitable venue picked out. Clearly an oversight.
Selena crossed her arms, signaling an end of the discussion.
“What about your intelligence?” Titan asked.
She shrugged. “What about it?”
“Isn’t that something you can offer? Your years of experience? Your contacts with the locals, which are obviously much more developed than you led anyone to believe. My captain doesn’t need ships, she needs to build a future. I need a future.”
“I doubt your crew would accept that argument.”
“Then I find another crew.”
The nearby waterfall seemed to grow louder as the silence stretched between them.
Finally Selena said, “You don’t mean that.”
“I do.” He tried to force a smile. “It was bound to happen anyway, wasn’t it? If you wanted to change crews you would have done it by now. That means you want to keep the Caryll name and any spouse will have to join your crew.”
“I don’t want to ask for that kind of sacrifice.”
“You don’t need to.” He risked taking another step closer.
Her crossed arms became a closed-shoulder self-hug. She shook her head. “You think you know how this ends. You think you’ll spend more time with me, learn my secrets, and still love me. You won’t. Whatever fantasy you’ve built in your head, I’m not that woman.”
“I don’t have any fantasies, not about who you are at least,” Titan said. “I’ve seen you work, and fight, and lead. I’m not promising you every day will be perfect, but the bad days together will be worth fighting for. I know that. Because when I’m around you I’m happy. I have hope.”
“Don’t do that,” she said, her voice breaking. “Don’t make me your source of happiness. I can’t give you that.”
Titan stepped close enough to reach her if he dared. “I’m not asking you for anything but a chance to be beside you every day. The good days and the bad. I promise you, I’ll always be there.”
She shook her head again. “No. No you won’t. There’s things I’ve done-“
“We’ve all done things!” He inhaled sharply to keep from yelling. “We’ve all done things,” he said again, quieter this time. “We aren’t children. We’re survivors of a war and there isn’t anyone here who can’t tell you who they killed, or who they wanted dead, or who killed someone they loved. That happened. There’s nothing you did that would make me think less of you.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Then tell me,” Titan challenged. “Tell me what you did that you think I’ll never forgive. If you’re right, I’ll leave. If you’re wrong…” He spread his hands in surrender. “We’re all wrong sometimes.”
Selena turned away, shields tightening around her.
“If you’re going to banish me from your life, shouldn’t it be like you’re imagining? Let me storm out.”
“Can’t you just accept that you’d hate me?”
He took a deep breath and resisted the urge to start the next civil war at some grounder’s garden party. Luckily, his ancestors had blessed him with a wealth of stubborn women in his life so he knew the right answer here. Very calmly he said, “You do not get to dictate my feelings or my reactions. You can give me facts, but that’s all you can do. I get to choose whether I am angry or not. I’m not an infant who needs protection. Let me take my hits like an adult.”
An angry silence shimmered in the air between them.
Titan smiled. “That’s what I thought.”
Selena frowned over her shoulder at him, half question, half condemnation.
“You’re not worried about what I think at all. It’s not my forgiveness you’re doubting.”
“If your goal was driving me away, and you had a weapon to use, you’re smart enough that you would have used it by now.”
She turned slowly, unfolding with a quiet fury until she looked every inch a fleet captain. “Did it ever occur to you that I was trying to spare you?”
“I don’t need to be spared.”
Silver-blue lightning flickered in her eyes. “I shot you down. That night Balaur led the strafing run? It wasn’t Hollis Silar with Perrin and Hermione, he didn’t have the fighters. I did. I took the shot that should have killed you.”
The memory was still raw, the smoke in the cockpit burning his lungs, the alarms and sound, the rushing sensation has true gravity grabbed him and pulled him down. His throat tightened around a remembered scream.
“I shot you down, and you weren’t there when Balaur needed you. You missed the war. You let people die.”
He shook his head, forcing his thoughts to the present. “No. That’s me. That’s survivor’s guilt. You may have heard the echoes in my mind, and I’m sorry for that, but that’s not me. I know if I’d been there for Mal I would have either died in war or been executed after. The Sciarra crew wouldn’t have survived. My Aunt Elea never would have taken control of the crew. Mars. Rowena. All of them would have died if I hadn’t been there after the war. I was the only Warmonger the Star Guard would take. Carver trusts my loyalty and common sense, and me being free of the war is the only bridge we had to rebuild on.”
“That doesn’t make it forgivable.”
“Maybe it makes it inevitable,” Titan said. “Maybe our ancestors knew and changed your shot.”
She curled back in on herself. “Or maybe I’m a worthless shot. If you’d died we may not have ever gone to war.”
Stepping forward he held out his hand, silently willing her to reach for him. “Our other was starvation. Maybe not for your crew, but most the Warmongers were low on rations. We’d been limiting births, cutting back training, we were dying. Landing at least gives us a chance to live, even if it means changing how we do things. I’m not ever going to be angry that you shot me down. It was the right choice.” He gave her shield a gentle nudge as tears filled her eyes. “Selena, I’m here.”
With a tiny grumble of forfeit she stepped forward into his waiting arms.
Titan wrapped his arms around her, lowering his shields so there was a place for her and her wet cheek rested on his chest.
“If you say I’m beautiful when I’m angry or something stupid I’m going to drop-kick you into vacuum,” she muttered as she hugged him back.
“Not a word,” he promised, though she was always beautiful. He traced the painting on her arm, the stars and comets with silver tails that were three thick, wide grooves in her arm. They started just above her elbow at almost the same place his scars ended.
Selena shivered and pulled herself together as her shield melded with his. Gently, she pushed him away. “I…” There was a tsunami of emotions flooding his senses. She wanted to apologize, wanted to yell, wanted to run away from all of this, but the core of Selena had always been duty. Loving a captain was like that, it meant loving not only them but their work.
He leaned forward and kissed her forehead. “I know, the job comes first.”
“I need to go keep an eye on Kaftan.”
“He knows you were there today,” Titan said. “He saw you.”
She tossed her wet hair. “I was counting on it.” The words dripped fleet arrogance. With a smile she ran a hand down his shirt. “You really should go, though. You’re exhausted and you’re injured.”
“I’d rather stay nearby even if I’m not involved in the op. Kaftan said something that makes me think we don’t have a handle on this yet, and I don’t want you walking into this alone.” He shot her the conversation as he felt her gathering her objections. “I promise to stay out of the way and only jump to the rescue if you actually need.”
“Hmm, Captain Sciarra trained you how to be a second in command very well.”
He chuckled. “Don’t I get credit for doing anything on my own?”
“Mmmm…” She wrinkled her nose. “No. Not when you’re wounded. Maybe when you can fight back…”
The image of hitting the wrestling mats with Selena made his heartrate jump.
Soft fingers caressed his jaw. “It’s been a while since I had a training partner.”
“I’ll tell Silar he needs to find someone else’s ribs to break.” He kissed her fingertips before she pulled away.
Her smile was pure bliss.
“Couldn’t we leave Kaftan for the night? There are so many better things I can think to do.”
“Tempting, but if the Lees need the medicine, we need information now not later. If we catch Kaftan selling the information we can probably get him to hand over the details of the heist.”
Titan closed his eyes and sighed. When he’d pictured declaring his undying love to someone he hadn’t factored in the possibility she’d be in the middle of a mission. Although, considering the kind of women he was attracted to, that was a dramatic oversight. He made a mental note to warn his future children that chasing aggressively intelligent lovers would mean chasing them into the field sometimes.
Selena leaned in. “I can hear your brain overheating.”
“I’m making notes.”
“For children we don’t have yet.”
“It’s still something I need to remember.” She’d said YET. He was giddy with hope. “I should let Ro know I’m staying here for a bit before she raises a fuss.”
Nodding, Selena stepped away. “And I need to find Kaftan and convince him I’m enamored with his self-absorption and money.” She winked at him. “How do I look?”
“More beautiful than the moon and stars.”
She sent him a burst of affection and then hurried away through the shadows back to Arwel’s party.
:Ro?: He kept the message on a tight beam so he didn’t trigger any of the grounder’s safety precautions.
:Where in the name of my ancestors are you?: Rowena demanded. :Mars is pacing and I almost bit my nails.:
:Don’t lie. You never do that.:
She an image of a thread she’d unwound from her socks. :We’re worried. And bored. Mostly bored. Are you done chasing shadows?:
:I’m staying here tonight.:
Rowena responded with a memory of her banging her head on the hull of the engine room.
:It’s not what you think. Selena is helping the Jhandarmi and I’m being a perfect gentleman.:
:I know what that means,: Rowena said caustically. :And I can’t imagine you have the energy to make their whole team that happy in one night.:
He smiled. :I’m a talented man.:
:You’re going to be a dead one if you-: Rowena cut herself short.
Titan waited, then pinged her. :Ro? Are you okay?:
There was the faintest tracery of contact, a simple message on a distress frequency.
He pinged Selena and felt the message break apart as soon as it left his shield. Someone was jamming fleet communications. They were under attack.