Guess who's up to her eyebrows in homework at the end of the semester? ME! My schedule should free up a lot after this week, but for now the work is taking a toll. So, no new blog story today, BUT! I've re-released Changing Worlds on Amazon/KU, and with that comes Opening Worlds, the short story that started it all. For your edification, if you haven't read it yet and love sci-fi (you're following me blog, of course you love sci-fi) I'm posting Opening Worlds here in all it's glory today. Please enjoy!
Jason Kim looked over the mission log his supervisors had sent down earlier that afternoon and stifled a sigh. Back to Perelan. Damn it, he knew that the Silver Star was the best ship for those particular runs—part container vessel and part upper-class cruiser—but that didn’t make him like them any better.
Admittedly, the cargo was good. There was always a high demand for luxuries on Perelan, and he never had a problem filling the hold while he was there, but the passengers…. He could happily give them a pass. It was part of the deal, though, and while he was captaining a merchant vessel instead of a military starship these days, he always honored his deals. No pretending the life support couldn’t handle an influx of people, no insinuating that their treatment of his highly-trained civilian staff was anything other than exemplary. In fact, it was likely his staff would do the civvy version of a mutiny if he refused passengers from Perelan, and Jason didn’t want to deal with that.
He sat back in his chair and glanced at the log again, charting courses and times in his mind. He’d load fuel and foodstuffs for arrival at Ceyla City and pick up passengers there. That would include three Perels, who apparently had decided they wanted to finish their post-adolescent “tour of the ’verse” in high and expensive style. Following Ceyla City, they’d stop by Ishtar to load elegant, handcrafted consumer goods that would be snapped up on Perelan, and then finally circle back to the vaunted planet itself to drop off his three interlopers. After that, thank whoever his scheduler was, he was off-duty for a month. It was past time too.
“Orders come down the pipe, sir?” his second-in-command asked, smiling slightly. “Fluttering down to you like little angels from on high? Zipping along the information superconduit? Smacking into your brain at warp speed—”
“Thank you for that series of outdated turns of phrase, Flo; you must have been saving them up for a while.”
“Yes, well, I like Old Earth idioms as much as the next person, sir.”
“Or far, far more than the next person.”
“Yeah, that.” She peered at the screen with interest. “Where’re we going?”
“Ceyla, Ishtar, Perelan.”
“Money run,” she noted, not at all put off by Jason’s terseness. “Passengers?”
“Whomever we can fit comfortably, but we’re reserving three suites for some Perels coming aboard in Ceyla.”
“Oooh, they’ll need them,” Florence smirked. “Make sure they get the biggest beds available too. Perels rarely sleep alone.”
“I’m well aware of their preferences.”
“They’ll be good for business. Everyone wants to travel with a Perel….” Florence’s voice trailed off as she remembered why Jason might not like to hear that. “Sorry, sir.”
“Water under the bridge, Flo.”
“Nice one,” she congratulated him.
“For you, I’m willing to make the effort.” Jason looked over the mission log again. “The delivery for Ceyla should be arriving around fifteen hundred hours, local time. Can you handle the loading and preflight check? Make sure all the staff are on board and prepped?”
“Absolutely, sir,” Florence said immediately. “I’ll let you know when everyone is settled and we’re ready to head out. Go and do something relaxing. Have a bubble bath. Hit a punching bag. Holo-snipe something.”
“Point taken,” Jason said dryly. He left the bridge and headed back to his quarters. He paused as he stepped into the foyer, looking around with jaded eyes. As the captain, he was given the nicest quarters on the cruiser, nicer even than the first-class cabins that would be going to the Perels. It really wasn’t right, he mused. He didn’t need all the space, not anymore. He lived alone. Had lived alone for nearly a year now. He had a massive tub that was going to waste, a bed he rarely spent more than a few hours in, and a living room with a couch he never sat on. The formal dining room was always empty, never used for entertaining guests nowadays. When Blake had been with him, they’d had people in at least once a week. The only place that still got the same level of use was the kitchen, and that was just because Jason loved to cook.
Jason brushed his fingertips across the back of a mahogany dining chair, a piece he had inherited from his parents. He should probably have the dining set sent back to his home on Jacksonville, or just put them into storage, but there was always the possibility that he’d have to use the set at some point. When someone important enough came on board, he’d have to follow the old tradition of inviting them to dine with him. In the meantime, he could deal with the empty spaces. He was very good at that.
Jason went into the kitchen, carefully laying his captain’s jacket over the back of a stool as he did. He glanced in his cooler, looking over his selection of fresh foods. Not much to choose from, and they wouldn’t reach Ceyla City for another week. He activated his com and put a call in to the ship’s steward. “Kayle?”
“Yes, Captain?” The Dorn’s smooth, harmonic triple voices were immediately soothing, and Jason felt his shoulders relax. He hadn’t even realized they were tense.
“I’m running low on produce. Could you have one of my regular orders brought on board before our departure?”
“Certainly, sir. May I add some Chinese cabbage to your order? I’m having some brought on board for our guests and thought of you.”
It had been months since Jason had made kimchi. He quickly ran an assessing eye over his cupboard. “Can you find some red chili pepper as well? And fresh ginger?”
“I will endeavor to meet your needs, sir. The ginger may be quite expensive.”
“That’s all right. If you find it, I can afford it,” Jason said. It had been a long time since he splurged on anything for himself, and ginger was a versatile luxury.
“Yes, sir. Anything else?”
“No, thank you, Kayle. Check in with Flo before you finalize the order, though. She’ll be a bear if she doesn’t remember to get some of her ice cream on board before we head out.”
“Very true, sir.” The lowest of Kayle’s voices was heavy with irony, and Jason knew that Kayle remembered that week as vividly as the rest of the crew did. Florence Zelenkar was an excellent officer and a generally cheerful person, but she had her weaknesses, and a certain brand of ice cream only available at their current berth was one of them.
“Kim out.” Jason turned his com off and rolled his neck in a circle, listening to the minute cracks and clicks with a frown. If he had time in Ceyla City, he’d get a massage. There was a relaxation therapist on board, as well as countless holo programs for exercise and stress relief, but Jason didn’t really want to bother his crew with his tension, and he never seemed to be able to lose himself to the virtual reality of a holo like he should. Blake had given him massages that seemed to melt his bones, but those had stopped coming long before their relationship had ended.
Jason closed his eyes and sighed. If he could go back and do it over…. No, never mind. There was no point in speculating on the past. He headed toward the bathroom, his lean fingers reaching up to undo his shirt buttons. The tub might not get a lot of use, but the shower was almost as good.
“Sir?” Florence appeared at his elbow in the loading bay. “We have embarkation starting in five. Time to smarten up and impress the masses.”
“Mm,” Jason replied, watching as his hold was rapidly emptied of its cargo. “I’ll be right there.”
“Of course you will, sir. And I’ll just wait here for you.”
“Commander Zelenkar, I’m not going to stand you or our passengers up,” Jason gently chided, knowing what she was thinking.
“It will mean a lot to them to be personally greeted,” she said unrepentantly. “I’m only staying in order to take over if something goes wrong and you’re unavoidably detained or something like that.”
Jason stared flatly at his first officer. “You’re coming very close to implying dereliction of duty on my part, Commander.”
“That isn’t at all my intent, sir. I merely wish to facilitate the execution of your many duties as best I can,” Florence said with a perfectly straight face. “That includes me being on hand to assist you in any way possible.”
Jason glanced down at his chrono. “I should probably leave now if I’m going to get to the doors on time.”
Florence just kept looking attentive.
“My pleasure, sir. I’ll finish things up here.”
“When you’re done, meet me in the bridge. Ceyla’s control tower is opening the shields for us in forty-five minutes, and we don’t want to be late.”
Jason walked away with the barest hint of a smile on his face. Somewhere in the recesses of his mind, he had been thinking that he might be a little late, but time was tight, and it was important to get the cargo unloaded as safely and efficiently as possible. His first officer was perfectly capable of overseeing that, however, and the cartel he worked for did specify that the captain of the ship be there to greet all incoming passengers, as well as see them off at their destinations.
He made it to the doors with thirty seconds to spare. The rest of his crew was on hand as well to welcome the passengers and guide them to their cabins.
“How many are we taking on?” Jason asked in a low voice as he stopped next to Kayle. The Dorn was bent gracefully in two, a ritual posture signifying welcome, or so Jason had found out a while back. Kayle was still a foot taller than most of the Terran crew.
“Twenty-seven, sir.” Kayle’s harmonics were serene. “All human except for the Perels. I have prepared their cabins to their specifications.”
“Good.” Naturally, Kayle had everything well in hand. He should; he had six of them, after all. Jason looked at his chrono again. “Open the doors.”
The cruiser’s wide passenger doors opened, revealing the high-ceilinged entrance hall, his uniformed, attentive staff, and himself, hopefully looking friendly. Blake had often told Jason that his poker face couldn’t improve on his normal imperturbability, and that he’d seen statuary with more emotion. Or some variation thereof. Well, expressionless was better than unhappy, Jason reasoned.
He did his part in welcoming every passenger aboard, shaking hands, clasping shoulders, or bowing depending on the newcomers’ preference. Jason was well acquainted with most of the human-inhabited systems in this part of the ’verse and their protocols. The new arrivals were whisked away, and finally there were only the Perels left to board.
All three were male, the only gender allowed off Perelan without a vast accompaniment. Two of them were perfectly identical, answering a question Jason had wondered about before regarding their reproductive process. The twins were slightly shorter than he was, with moon-pale skin and glossy, silky hair that tapered to sharp, quill-like protrusions from the top of their head in a line down their spine. Their stylish black jumpsuits, made of far better material than usual for the standard spacer’s clothes, were backless to accommodate their alluring anatomy. They had nearly-human features, but their eyes were twice the size of a human’s, dark brown and almost without white. Their chins were sharp and pointed, and their ears were shaped like tea leaves, pointed back alongside their heads. They were beautiful, dream-like creatures with the morals of an alley cat, and judging from their perky welcomes and lingering caresses to his hand, they were both in the market for partners.
The third was similar, but also strikingly different. Every Perel Jason had ever seen before was a single tone, from the smooth skin over their front halves to the lustrous pelt across their backs. This one was two-toned, the same white-pale skin, but his hair darkened as it changed, becoming an amber brown at its tapered points. His ears were slightly tufted with darker pieces as well, and his large eyes were the same amber as his head and back. His features were a little less pointed, a little less ethereal, but he was just as beautiful as the other two. He looked curiously at Jason, who suddenly realized that he’d been keeping the Perel waiting.
“Welcome aboard,” Jason said stiffly, disturbed by his lack of focus. He offered his hand, and the Perel shook it gently.
“Thank you, Captain.” His voice was a warm, husky sound, not exactly a purr, but not a normal speaking voice from a human perspective.
“This is Kayle, the steward on the Silver Star. He’ll accompany you to your quarters and answer any questions you might have.” Jason stepped back slightly, more than glad to pass the responsibility of settling their passengers off to the capable Dorn. “We’ll be departing shortly.”
“I am Ferran,” the Perel said quickly, his introduction cutting off Jason’s retreat. “These are Neyarr and Garrell, my cousins.” His bright eyes were fixed on Jason’s face, startlingly intimate.
“Honored to make your acquaintance,” Jason said automatically. “Please excuse me; I need to supervise our departure.” He nodded slightly, and then turned and walked away, trying not to move faster than he normally would. Externally, he was fairly sure he looked the same; internally, he was unsettled. Jason had never been affected by a Perel before. Generally, he found them beautiful but not attractive—sexual but not sensual—creatures. He certainly had never been aroused by one before.
Not, Jason mentally berated himself, that he was aroused now. Interested, perhaps. Yes. Interested. And so would all twenty-four of the other passengers be, and most of his crew as well. He didn’t care to be one more brief conquest for a voracious Perel. He didn’t want to be anyone’s brief conquest. Transitioning in and out of relationships with ease had never been one of Jason’s traits, and he wasn’t going to change at his age. Squaring his shoulders, he made his way to the bridge.
“You’re avoiding the dining room.”
“Yes,” Florence said slowly, drawing out the vowel, “you are. You never invite people to your place these days. I get that. You’re not under any obligation to. But it’s only courteous to check on your passengers and accept some of their invitations to dinner. You’ve been holed up in your room or on duty for the past three cycles.”
“A captain is always busy,” Florence said philosophically. “But that doesn’t stop him from doin’ what he’s gotta do.”
“At what point did you make yourself my social secretary, Flo?”
“When you started acting all weird,” she replied. “C’mon, come to dinner with me tonight. I’ll take the Perels, I’ve got a standing invitation to their table. You can hang out with some lovely, normal humans and be dashing and friendly and make people happy.”
“All that in one simple evening.” She spread her hands. “Amazing how it’s all coming together, like fate. You’re such a brilliant multitasker.”
“Don’t push it, Flo.”
“Perry’s got the bridge,” Florence said with a fast subject change. “Are you going to wear your uniform to dinner?”
Jason made a face. “Are you asking my fashion advice? Really? What have I ever done that makes you think I would be a good person to ask about what to wear?”
“You always look good.”
“I’m always in uniform,” he reminded her.
“Yeah, well, it so works for you.”
Jason shook his head. “I’ll see you at dinner, Flo.”
“Got it, sir.”
It said something for his state of mind that Jason did consider his more casual clothes, briefly caressing silk and cotton before turning back to his uniforms. They were stiff, formal, and suited to the attitude he wanted to project. He adjusted the collar in his mirror, smoothing the dark blue fabric down. He didn’t see in himself what Florence did. He was moderately tall and slim, his hair was thick and still black as night. His features were plain, regular except for the slight tilt at the edge of his almond-shaped eyes. He was just himself. The uniform would make anyone look good. He left his hat off and made his way to the dining room.
Jason stopped at the door, astonished by the transformation. The elegant tables, normally spaced well apart, had been clustered together in the center of the room. The Perels were, for lack of a better word, holding court, and every single person there was in their thrall. Each of the twins was in someone’s lap, and people were laughing and generally being far more relaxed than the formal dining room was accustomed to. The third Perel, Ferran, was standing and speaking with Florence, but as soon as he saw Jason, his attention shifted. He excused himself moved toward Jason. Florence threw him an amused look that made him want to shout at her, but now wasn’t the time for emoting.
“Good evening, sir,” the Perel said, his tone warm and inviting. Very inviting…. Jason ruthlessly shifted his brain back into captain mode.
The Perel held out his hand and Jason shook it briefly, resisting the gentle slide of fingers against his wrist.
“It’s Ferran, yes?” As if you didn’t already know.
“Yes, Captain,” Ferran said with a smile. He paused for a moment, as though expecting a first name back, but Jason didn’t say anything else. “Will you join me for dinner?”
“It looks as though there isn’t any other choice,” Jason said with a glance at the conglomeration of tables. One of the twins was doing some sort of contortion now, in another passenger’s lap, and everyone seemed to be enjoying it.
“We could pull something aside for ourselves,” Ferran offered. “I would prefer it.” Huge amber eyes gazed at Jason, apparently finding him… finding him what, exactly? Whatever the Perel was seeing, he seemed to be fascinated.
“Fine,” Jason found himself agreeing. “I’ll speak to the staff.”
“I can do that,” Ferran said quickly. “There are several with the main group now.” Sure enough, his diligent wait staff was as taken with the impromptu show as everyone else was. Jason sighed internally. Discipline always suffered when Perels were on board. Ferran slipped away, and Jason quickly walked over to where his first officer was sipping a glass of champagne.
“Did you know this was happening?”
“Just because it’s happened every night out so far didn’t necessarily mean tonight was going to be the same,” Florence said primly.
“I don’t appreciate being set up.”
“I’m setting you up for fun!” she encouraged. “Ferran is a great conversationalist. You might enjoy yourself. If you don’t, you can leave. One of the perks of being the captain.” She leaned in a little closer. “He really wants to know more about you. He’s asked me about you every evening since he boarded.”
Florence was saved from having to answer by the return of the person in question. Ferran didn’t touch Jason, although from the way he extended his hand toward him, he seemed to want to. Instead, he turned to indicate the table beside the wall, about twenty feet away from the other diners. Jason accepted the invitation and joined him at the table, where a waiter who wouldn’t quite meet his captain’s eyes poured them fresh glasses of water. Jason picked his up and sipped a little, watching Ferran do the same. “No champagne for you?”
“I’ve had a glass,” the Perel explained. “My cousins are fonder of it than I am. But you, Captain, would you care for some?”
“I’ll be back on shift in an hour. I don’t want any alcohol in my system.”
“One hour?” Ferran seemed disappointed. “You can spare no more time?”
“One hour should be sufficient for dinner,” Jason said. He felt like an asshole when he saw his companion’s face fall further. “But please, call me Jason while I’m off duty.”
“Jason.” Ferran immediately brightened. “Thank you for your name.”
“My pleasure,” he replied, trying not to stare too openly into his companion’s eyes. He looked over at the waiter. “Whatever Elise has fresh is fine.”
“Another of the dinner salads, please,” Ferran requested.
The third wheel vanished, and Jason was left in semialoneness with the Perel. Fortunately, he wasn’t expected to start the conversation.
“You are very reserved.”
Jason set his water glass down with a thump. “Only by comparison.” Ouch, harsh, he thought with an inward wince.
Ferran didn’t seem bothered, however. “Yes,” he agreed. “More dignified. More… aloof. We are not accustomed to aloof.”
“I can’t imagine you would be.”
Ferran shrugged elegantly. “We are empaths. If the surrounding mood isn’t comfortable for us, then we do our best to adapt it to better suit our needs.”
“Is that what you’re doing with me?” Jason asked, his jaw tight. He really didn’t need to be some Perel’s pet project right now.
“No,” Ferran said quietly. “The Silver Star is large enough that we could avoid your presence if we wished, and you seem inclined towards privacy. You are not uncomfortable, Jason. You’re just different. Your emotions run very deep. I find you quite interesting.” He tilted his head slightly. “You do not care for us, however.”
“It’s not you specifically,” Jason assured him, flushing slightly at being called on his attitude. “I’ve never really known a Perel before.” Damned if that statement didn’t have a double meaning too.
“Most humans seek us out. We are considered enjoyable company.”
“I would be more than happy to better acquaint you with our ways.”
“I’m not interested in sex,” Jason said bluntly. Ferran’s ears flattened a little.
“We are more than our sexuality, Captain,” he replied, a little less fluidly than before. “I would never presume to ask for more than you wish to give. I simply thought you might find our culture interesting. Most humans never bother to inquire.”
Ah. That’s what jumping to conclusions gets me. “Excuse me. I didn’t mean to offend you.” Oh, what the hell. “I’d be very interested to learn more about your culture.”
Ferran smiled, his ears perking back up and the quills along his head settling to softness again. “Do you have any specific questions?”
Now that he thought about it, Jason did. “What is the climate like on your world?” Perels didn’t seem overly fond of clothing.
“It varies depending on the region, but overall warm and moist,” Ferran said. Their plates arrived: Ferran’s small with a colorful display of fresh vegetables and a delicate citrus dressing, and Jason’s with a filet of what looked like salmon, but probably wasn’t, given their distance from the home system. There was a salad for him as well, and a small side of long-grained rice. It was a meal reminiscent of home, and Jason found himself enjoying it.
Much to his surprise, he enjoyed the company even more. Florence was right; Ferran was an excellent conversationalist. He moved easily from topic to topic, answering Jason’s questions about Perelan fully, but not going overboard, and asking his own questions about Jason’s home. Before he knew it, he found himself describing the Jacksonville colony and his family’s home there.
“It’s a challenging place to live,” he admitted, “with the storms and the rapid shifts in temperature. The entire planet is closed to further development, mostly because homesteaders don’t take the warnings seriously enough and settle in places that can’t be tamed. Jacksonville and Buquetti are the only colonies of any size left, and more people choose to leave than stay.”
“Do you miss your family?”
“I’m the last member of my family to live there,” Jason said. “We were among the original colonizers, but after the first few generations, most of them chose to move on. My parents died long ago, and I am their only child. I don’t spend as much time in the house there as I’d like to.”
“Tell me about your home,” Ferran requested softly. Jason opened his mouth to begin, but then his chrono chimed.
“Oh.” Time had completely gotten away from him. “Excuse me. I have to be on the bridge in five minutes. Thank you for dining with me.” He folded his napkin precisely and pushed his chair back.
Ferran stood with him. “Will you join me tomorrow evening?” he asked.
“I had planned on eating in tomorrow.” Jason saw the sparkle in Ferran’s amber eyes dull a little and shocked the hell out of himself by continuing, “Would you care to dine with me?”
“I would be very pleased to join you,” Ferran said, his lips curving into a sweet smile.
“I’ll send a crew member to escort you. Enjoy the rest of your evening.” Jason turned and walked away, wondering what he was getting himself into by inviting a Perel to his rooms. Probably nothing more than a comfortable evening together. He had no doubt now that it would be comfortable, and perhaps another presence would help to exorcise some of the bad memories he had of his own space.
He wouldn’t tell Florence about it, though. Her head was big enough as it was.
Jason was sure the following morning that Florence knew exactly what was going on, but she graciously spared him the third degree and focused on running the cruiser instead. They were five days out from Ishtar but had plenty to do: managing ship functions, overseeing the health and well-being of their passengers, and keeping an eye on their course. Cruisers like this practically flew themselves, but unexpected gravity waves could shift the most meticulous plans, and Jason thoroughly rechecked their course every shift.
The only indication Florence gave that she knew about her captain’s dinner guest was a cheerful, “Enjoy your evening!” as she took over for him on the bridge. The closest Jason came to commending her for being a busybody was his quiet, “Thank you,” before leaving. As he reached his rooms, he paged Kayle and asked him to send an escort for Ferran.
“Certainly, Captain.” All of Kayle’s voices registered satisfaction. For the first time, Jason wondered how concerned his closest crewmembers had been about him that they were suddenly all smug over a simple dinner invitation. He took off his jacket and stood uncertainly outside his bedroom door, wondering if the occasion called for changing into more casual clothes. Jason eventually decided against it. He didn’t want to seem too welcoming. On the other hand….
Jason realized what he was doing and frowned. This was not a date. There was no reason for him to change, or for him to be hesitant over what to wear, or for him to be nervous at all. This evening was nothing more than cultural exchange, the chance for him to learn more about an alien race. When he was in the fleet, he’d loved having the opportunities to visit new worlds and new peoples. The war had changed that, though, and now he was content to run his routes and return to his isolated home whenever he could. That sort of reclusive life hadn’t appealed to Blake for long, although he’d hidden it well. Still, Jason should have seen it coming. He should have seen more.
Jason left his formal shirt on, undoing the top button and pushing the sleeves a little ways up his arms. The kimchi was ready to go. He’d had it fermenting for a while and didn’t want to stain the shirt. Apart from that, he’d prepared japchae, a noodle and vegetable dish that could be eaten cold, and there was hot water for tea. After a moment’s consideration, Jason brought out his celadon-glazed cups instead of mugs. He set them on the formal dining table, considered the lonely effect, and then moved the cups and plates to the bar separating his kitchen from the living room instead. There were stools to sit on; it was formal enough. He slipped a reed place mat under each plate, and then consciously made himself stop fussing. Ferran would arrive any minute now.
The door chimed, and Jason felt himself relax a little. He walked over, and the door slid open, revealing Ferran and a concierge. “Thank you, Nori.”
“My pleasure, sir,” the concierge replied, and then he was off down the hall.
Jason stepped back and motioned the Perel inside. His guest was dressed in a warm brown color, the fabric close and clinging like a jumpsuit would, but made from a far finer material. The neckline was high, but Jason could see that Ferran’s back was still bare. The quills seemed more sharply delineated that evening, less feathery and soft than before. He wondered about the body language of a Perel, and how close it was to a human’s. Was Ferran nervous? Jason felt his underused abilities as a host reappearing. “Thank you for coming.”
“Thank you for the invitation,” Ferran said just as formally.
Jason berated himself as a poor purveyor of small talk and tried again. “Are your cousins taken care of for the evening?”
“They undoubtedly will be,” Ferran assured him. “Your staff has been most attentive, and Neyarr and Garrell have made many friends here.”
Jason was a little curious as to whether “friend,” in this context, was a synonym for lover, but after his faux pas the night before, he didn’t feel comfortable asking. “I’m glad they’re enjoying themselves.” He motioned toward the kitchen. “The table felt too big for only two. Do you mind eating at the counter?”
“Not at all.” Ferran walked beside him to the other room, his lively eyes taking in all of his surroundings. “Your quarters are very elegant.”
Jason smiled. “Are you sure you don’t mean sparse?”
“Not at all. The openness makes one feel welcome, freer to move than in a place with clutter. The furnishings are simple, but very well-made.” He sat down on the stool at the counter and placed his hands on the blue-veined marble, smoothing over it lightly. “It suits you very well.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment.” Jason retrieved the hot water and poured it into the teapot. “Would you like some tea?”
“Yes, please.” Ferran’s gaze fell on the plates of colorful kimchi. “Is this what we’re having for dinner?”
“Part of it.” Jason brought the plates over to the counter and sat down next to Ferran. “I was wondering, are you vegetarian?”
“That means I don’t eat meat?” Ferran waited for Jason’s nod. “No, although I rarely choose to eat animals. Did you make this vegetarian for me?”
“When I make kimchi, I usually prepare it without meat, but the rest of the meal is vegetarian as well, just in case,” Jason said. Ferran’s quills perked a little bit, and he smiled at the admission. “It is spicy, though.”
“That’s all right. Is this a popular food for humans?”
“For some humans. My ancestors came from Korea, and kimchi has been prepared there for thousands of years.”
Ferran took a small bite, just enough to taste. He smiled suddenly. “It’s sweet!”
“It’s not always prepared sweet, but I like it that way.”
“I like it too.” He took another bite. “Tell me more about Korea.”
“Oh no,” Jason refused, lightening his refusal with a smile of his own. “I want to learn more about Perelan. There’s very little information about your home world on the register. Fewer than a dozen Terrans have been allowed to visit your planet since we first made contact almost a century ago. The only times we ever see you are at the trading station in orbit or when Perels like you and your cousins leave to sightsee. By all accounts, you’re a very passionate people.”
“You’re very diplomatic,” Ferran said. “It’s true—when we get the chance to travel, we’re often… overzealous, especially at first. But you must understand, Perelan is a highly insular society. There aren’t many of us—fewer than a million now—and males outnumber females five to one.” He paused to take a bite while Jason poured the tea. “We were a patriarchal society until our civil war, almost a millennium ago. Over eighty percent of our population was destroyed, and our scientists were very… uninhibited with their biological attacks. Of those who survived, over half were left sterile. Genetic manipulation since then has improved the situation somewhat, but not much. We are now ruled by a council of matriarchs, and by law, all Perels who are capable of reproducing are kept on Perelan.”
Jason frowned slightly. “Does this mean….”
“Yes, Captain. I’m sterile. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here.”
Judging from Ferran’s tone of voice and formality, Jason guessed he’d struck a nerve. “You’re my guest this evening, Ferran. Please, call me Jason.” That got him another small smile. “Have you enjoyed your time away from home?”
“Immensely!” The Perel’s tone and ears perked right up, and his quills became silky. “There’s far too much to see, though. It was so hard to choose.”
“How long have you and your cousins been traveling?”
“Nearly one of your standard Terran years.”
“Where have you visited?”
“Many fascinating places.” Ferran began to describe their trip, starting with the departure from Perelan, and Jason felt mildly smug at putting his guest at ease. Ferran was interesting to listen to, his descriptions fresh and open. Perels who went off-planet were generally catered to, as they gave very freely of themselves and their money. Jason was glad to hear that Ferran hadn’t had any truly bad experiences.
The empty kimchi plates were exchanged for the japchae, and more tea was poured. Ferran ate with a good appetite and complimented Jason on his cooking. They compared notes on the places that both of them had visited, and after several hours, Jason had moved them down to his much-neglected, but very comfortable, couch for dessert, which consisted of small cups of chocolate mousse.
Ferran devoured his helping as politely as possible and scraped the cup thoroughly. “I like sweets,” he sheepishly explained.
“Next time, I’ll make more,” Jason said.
“Next time?” Ferran’s ears perked again, and his eyes widened farther.
“If you’re interested,” Jason amended, slightly surprised at himself.
“Very much,” Ferran assured him. “You’re wonderful company.”
“I’m glad you think so.”
“Everyone seems to think so. Your crew speaks very highly of you.”
Jason shrugged. “They’re paid to work with me.”
“It’s more than that,” Ferran said. “I can feel their respect when they talk about you. They seem very protective of you. The man who escorted me here felt rather concerned that I not do anything to make you uncomfortable.”
“Ah.” Well. That was sweet, and more than a little embarrassing. “Most of them have been with me for several years.” At least a year of him with Blake and a year without. No doubt, the contrast was more severe than he realized.
“Then surely they know you well enough to have formed a reliable opinion.”
“I suppose.” Jason was tired all of a sudden. He’d done more talking this evening than he had for the past week, and he didn’t feel like doing any more introspection.
“It’s late. I should leave you.” Ferran stood, and Jason rose with him.
“Would you like an escort back to your suite?”
“No, thank you. I can find it,” Ferran replied. Jason walked Ferran to the door, grateful for the chance to be alone again, but feeling a little guilty over it as well.
“Will we dine again tomorrow?”
Jason sighed. “Not tomorrow. I have the evening shift. Is the day after all right?”
Ferran’s quills sharpened slightly. “The day after is fine for dinner. May I join you tomorrow for lunch?”
“Won’t your cousins think you’re abandoning them?” Jason asked lightly.
“We’ve been together constantly for nearly a year, and anyhow, they have each other. I want to get to know you.”
Jason had the feeling he was being paid another compliment and didn’t really know what to do about it. “Lunch will be fine. I’ll let you know when I’m free.”
“Thank you.” The door opened and Ferran turned toward it, paused, and then turned back. “On Perelan, we have a special gesture for good-byes. It’s a bit like a human hug, but less tactile. May I show you?”
Ferran leaned his upper body close to Jason’s and turned his head slightly so that their right temples touched. Jason felt the intense heat of Ferran’s skin and the warmth of his breath on his cheek. It seemed to fill and soothe him, but then Ferran was drawing back. Jason wanted to follow him and just barely stopped himself.
“Good night,” his guest said softly.
Ferran left, and Jason leaned against his closed door. His whole body was aching for that tender warmth, and he felt his first erection in far too long growing. He sighed. It was going to be a rough few weeks.
Jason gave his crew a day of leave once they reached Ishtar. All of the human passengers were disembarking there, since no humans were allowed to visit Perelan without a ridiculous number of permits. With only the three Perels to take care of, the crew’s workload was minimal. He was rather surprised when Florence said to him, “I’ll stay with the ship this time.”
“You love visiting Ishtar.”
“I’m coming back after we finish at Perelan.” Her expression was completely ambiguous as she continued, “I thought you might like to show Ferran around some. Since he’s never been before.”
And never will again, the subtext shouted loud and clear. Jason wondered just how much Florence knew about Perel culture. Probably more than he did, and after five days of nearly-constant company with Ferran, he felt like he had learned quite a lot.
Jason found it inexplicable. Ferran seemed to want nothing more than to spend time with him. His cousins were working their way through the humans like it was a competition, and morning-after descriptions of incredible sex were becoming commonplace. It was only them, though. Ferran kept to his cousins or to Jason, which made some of the passengers pout and his crew brazen enough to wink at him from time to time. One officer even threw him a knowing look and an offhand comment about his privacy that made Jason want to yell, “I’m not fucking him!” Because he wasn’t. Not that he didn’t want to, at this point.
They’d eaten at least once a day together ever since that first evening. Ferran had joined him for lunch, and then, after his shift was over, had surprised him with an invitation to dessert. The dining hall had been deserted except for the two of them, and they’d stayed up for several hours, long after Jason was usually asleep. It had made his next shift a little trying, but Ferran cooked for him in his quarters the next evening.
“I didn’t know you cooked,” Jason commented as he sat and watched the Perel sauté button mushrooms and some sort of crystalline grain he’d never seen before.
“Cooking was one of my responsibilities in my mother’s household, and probably will be again when I am married,” Ferran replied.
“You’re getting married?”
“At some point. It’s expected,” the Perel demurred, stirring slowly. “Fertile females take many husbands. Males who can breed occupy themselves with caring for the children; those who cannot, take care of the household. Our females are highly educated, far more so than… anyhow, when my cousins and I return, we’ll be the right age to be married. Ney and Garr are already promised to someone.”
This information didn’t sit at all well with Jason, despite telling himself he needed to be tolerant of other cultures. “Why do they let you leave?”
“Our mothers have learned that it is in our best interest to allow us some freedom before our marriages. Those who can afford it send their unmated sons to travel beyond Perelan. Those who cannot, make do with a period of liberty on our home world. I’m very fortunate to be here.”
His words said “fortunate,” but his tone was low, and Jason had learned when Ferran’s quills went completely flat like that, Ferran was sad or disappointed. He stepped in behind Ferran and put one arm gently around his shoulder, saying nothing, just holding and offering support. Ferran’s quills fluttered against his arm, but the wide smile he turned on Jason was reassuring.
That had been their first embrace but not their last. Ferran seemed to crave touch, and whenever they met after that, Ferran greeted him with a hug and left him with a Perel farewell. They watched a movie together one evening on the couch and ended up with Ferran’s head in Jason’s lap, his body curled up in a ball. Jason hadn’t done anything more than rest his hand on the back of Ferran’s neck, but Ferran had seemed happy with it.
The tension between them had been clear, but Jason was positive Ferran wasn’t going to make a move, not after their awkward first conversation a week ago. Jason wasn’t sure he was going to make a move either, honestly. Yes, his body was very interested. His mind was engaged, and he found Ferran to be a fascinating person, but casual was difficult for him. Unfortunately, casual was all that was possible with the Perel. Jason had to decide whether it was enough, and Florence had given him the perfect opportunity to do that.
Ferran was clearly surprised by the invitation out, his eyes going wide as his quills flared.
“I thought you had to stay on board.”
“Florence is covering for me,” Jason explained. “She thought I needed a break.”
“That’s very kind of her.”
“It is,” Jason agreed. “You shouldn’t feel obliged to go with me, however. I’m sure your cousins have plans.”
Ferran gave Jason a look. “Have I done anything to suggest I would not be perfectly happy accompanying you?”
Jason shrugged. “I just want to make it clear you have options.”
“I’m aware of all my options. I want to go with you.”
They left the Silver Star and took a flyer to the edge of Ishtar’s capital city. There was a nature preserve there, a place that Jason loved to visit whenever he had the time. Ishtar didn’t have nearly the natural volatility of his home planet, but it did have incredible fauna. The preserve was less of a zoo and more like a game park, the only enclosed section being the butterfly pavilion.
There were over a thousand varieties of butterfly there, some of them native to Ishtar, some of them imported from Earth. Jason and Ferran stood on the observation deck and watched a million bright bodies flit about.
“They’re so lovely,” Ferran said. “Like jewels. We have something like this on Perelan, but they have dark, simple coloration.”
“There’s very little wildlife on Jacksonville,” Jason noted. “Nothing delicate survives. I have a butterfly house, though, as part of my garden. It’s expensive to maintain, but I like to look at them, and they help pollinate the flowers.”
“You have something like this in your home?”
“Much smaller,” Jason said with a little laugh, “but yes, something like this.”
“I wish I could see it.”
There was no mistaking the sadness in Ferran’s tone. They both knew he didn’t have time to make a side trip, not at this point. “I wish you could too. I’d have enjoyed taking you there.”
Ferran made a noise Jason had never heard from him before, something between a sigh and a whimper. The gaze Ferran turned toward him was positively wounded. “Let’s talk about something else,” Ferran whispered.
“All right,” Jason agreed. “Why don’t we go? We have dinner reservations in an hour.” Ferran just nodded, and they left the butterfly pavilion in a decidedly somber frame of mind. A little time and distance seemed to help, and when they were sitting down to eat an hour later, Ferran seemed normal again.
“It’s all eaten with your hands?”
“It’s traditional here,” Jason said as he rinsed his hands with the help of the waiter. Ferran followed suit, and then he picked up the first appetizer. “It’s kind of like a competition, keeping your fingers clean while you eat. I’m not sure why.” He bit into the crudité and closed his eyes briefly.
“That looks good,” Ferran said, watching Jason raptly.
“Try it.” Jason held out the other half, and then started in surprise when Ferran leaned over and ate it out of his hand.
“Very good,” Ferran agreed a moment later, his lips curved in a saucy smile.
Jason decided at that moment not to fight it. Ferran wanted him; he wanted Ferran. Whatever happened would happen. His new resolution fit his Zen turn of mind well, and Jason immediately felt more relaxed. “You should try some more.” He lifted another, different appetizer and held it out. Ferran nibbled at it, the edges of his lips brushing Jason’s fingertips. “Good?”
“Delicious,” Ferran replied.
They worked their way through five plates of finger foods, finishing with things that were so sweet and sticky it was impossible not to get their hands messy. The waiter was standing by with water and towels, though, and Ferran seemed to love every second of it. Jason paid, and they walked back out to the flyer. Ferran took his hand, and Jason turned toward him, bringing their bodies close. “What do you want?” he asked.
“Where do you want to go? There are some excellent hotels—”
“Back to the ship,” Ferran blurted, his grip tightening a little. “Back to your rooms. Please.”
“All right,” Jason murmured. “We can do that.”
It wouldn’t have been his first choice, but he wanted Ferran to be comfortable. They headed back toward the ship. The flyer was an automatic, so neither of them had to drive, which was good since the Perel had decided that his rightful place was on Jason. He straddled his lap, light and lithe against him, and ran the soft pads of his fingers over the ridges of Jason’s face. Jason looped his arms loosely around Ferran’s waist, not wanting to pull him any closer, because he didn’t want things to be over before they’d gotten back to the Silver Star. Usually, he had excellent control, but it had been a long time since he’d been with anyone, and Ferran was beautiful and warm and wanting.
Ferran leaned closer and brushed his lips, feather-light, over the lines that his fingers had traced. He paid particular attention to Jason’s eyes and ears, and when his mouth closed gently over one earlobe, Jason moaned softly, tightening his grip on Ferran’s naked back. “I want to do what you like,” the Perel said breathlessly. “Tell me what else you like.”
“Mmm, I like you. Everything about you.”
“I would do everything with you.”
“God.” Jason squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. “But not here. Wait until we get to the ship, all right?”
“Until we get back to your ship,” Ferran agreed. He stopped petting Jason, but he didn’t move, instead curling forward and tucking his head beneath Jason’s chin. His quills were lax with contentment, and they hadn’t even done anything yet.
They managed to board without having to see anyone else, although Jason did check in with Florence before firmly bidding her good night. They got into Jason’s quarters, took their shoes off, and Jason hung up his jacket. Then he took Ferran by the hand and led him back into his bedroom. It was a large bed, with a simple white comforter and two long pillows, decorated with a single red stripe down the center. He stared at it for a moment, remembering, and then decided to make a new memory. “Undress,” he said, turning to look at his lover.
Ferran stepped back a bit, and then smoothly pulled his tunic over his shoulders. His pants went next, sliding down slim hips and over his dark-nailed feet. The shimmering bronze fabric lay like a pool on the floor. There was a flush of color in his milk-pale skin, especially over his face and groin. He had a familiar anatomy, which was something of a relief to Jason, and he was completely hard.
“Go lie on the bed.”
Ferran cocked his head a little in curiosity, but turned and crawled up onto the bed. Seeing his body totally exposed for the first time, not just his back, was enough to make Jason want to jump onto the bed with him, but he sternly reminded himself to calm the hell down. Ferran lay down on his side, curling a little, and stared at Jason.
Jason unfastened his shirt and took it off, folding it on top of his simple dresser. He did the same with his pants, making a neat pile, and then pushed his underwear down and off and placed them to the side. Now comfortably naked himself, he stood at the foot of the bed for a long moment, admiring the picture Ferran made lying there, sweet and wanton at once, and committed the image to his mind. “You’re so beautiful.”
“So are you,” Ferran murmured. He stretched out his arms, and Jason moved into them, curling up against his lover so that they faced each other. “Anything you want,” he said. “Whatever you want.”
“Lie on your back,” Jason directed. Ferran did so, and then Jason began to explore him. He started the same way Ferran had, fingers drifting over his features and the smooth lines of his body, followed by lips and tongue. Ferran’s eyelids quivered when Jason gently licked at them, and the same treatment of his ears provoked a guttural grunt. Jason meandered down his body, teasing three pairs of nipples, delving into his bellybutton, and then skipped his groin and caressed his thighs and calves.
Ferran whined and panted, his breaths pleading with Jason to touch him, and when he finally did, just a glance of fingers and palm, his body curled reflexively. “Jason!”
“Too light?” Jason asked.
“Too… not… more,” Ferran finally said. “Again.”
Jason had noted, in their brief hands-on interludes, that Ferran seemed to prefer a light touch. His skin was highly sensitive, his proprioception incredible. It probably had to do with them being a mostly nocturnal species, accustomed to low light and visibility. Jason gripped more firmly, but still gently, one hand on Ferran’s shaft as the other cupped his tightly-drawn testes.
“Jason!” There was need and heat and so much affection in Ferran’s voice.
“Like this?” Jason breathed. “Do you want to come like this? Whatever you want, Ferran.”
“More of you,” his lover pleaded. “More for you. Lie with me.”
He stretched his arms out again, and Jason went to him, lying between his legs and pressing their erections together. He was covered in precum, as slick as if he had used the lubricant in his bathroom, and the slightest touch between them was a wonderful pain.
“Jason,” Ferran hissed in his ear, slipping flexible legs over his back and pulling him closer. “Jason, Jason, yesss….” They ground together once, twice, a third time, and then Jason was coming, his semen gushing between their bodies. His groan of release blended with Ferran’s high, sharp cry as he came as well.
Jason gradually regained his mind and realized he was probably crushing Ferran. He pushed his weight up onto his arms and pulled back a little, looking into his lover’s face. Ferran’s great amber eyes were slitted, only the darkness of arousal gleaming through. His mouth was slightly open as he panted, and before he could rethink it, Jason leaned in and kissed him.
It was their first kiss. Kissing felt more intimate than sex in some ways to Jason; it was more than lust, it was permission for a partner to claim a more substantial piece of him. Kissing, to Jason, symbolized letting his guard down in a major way, and even as he reveled in Ferran’s passionate response, he wondered if he was doing the right thing. Ferran didn’t seem to share his hesitancy, opening into the kiss like it was breath and he would suffocate without it. His tongue was longer and thinner than a human’s, and a little rougher, but he was careful with it, only giving Jason little licks, not curling it around the back of his throat.
Jason pulled himself away after a few minutes of kissing, heading into the bathroom for a wet cloth. He cleaned himself off quickly, but thoroughly, and then went out to where Ferran was sprawled boneless, content, and wiped him clean as well. They lay together for a while afterward, Jason on his back with Ferran’s head on his chest, arms tight around his middle.
“Was it wonderful for you?” Ferran finally asked.
Jason smiled. “Absolutely wonderful. You’re wonderful.”
“Good.” His lover snuggled in closer, pressing his nose against Jason’s throat. “You’re wonderful, too.” He was quiet for a moment, and then said, “I could be again.”
“Yes.” One of Ferran’s hands drifted down toward Jason’s cock, which was taking a decided interest. “If you like.”
“Oh, I like.”
Ferran laughed, low and husky, and shifted on top of him, kissing Jason again before sliding down his body. After a few moments, Jason realized that his tongue was just rough enough, and more than long enough, and so wet and so tight that it was impossible not to come for him. Jason returned the favor, they rested for a while, and then, an hour before his shift started, Ferran brought him into his body. The tight, pulsing heat was so familiar, yet so, so alien, and instead of sharply-defined human muscles beneath his fingers, he gripped the trembling, crested quills of a Perel. It felt amazing, and with the edge taken off his need, Jason prolonged their coupling until Ferran was crying out and begging and writhing against the bed, and his abandon was so gorgeous that Jason had to give him relief. He touched him, stroked him in a loose grip until his lover came, and then he let himself go. It was glorious.
There was just enough time for the two of them to shower before Jason had to leave. “You can stay if you like,” he offered Ferran as he buttoned up his uniform jacket.
“I should return to my suite to change and greet my cousins, but I’d love to come back,” Ferran replied.
“I’ll come find you after my shift,” Jason promised. Ferran drew him in close for the Perel good-bye, but this time as their temples touched, he cupped Jason’s face with his right hand.
“This is how lovers say farewell,” Ferran husked. Moved, Jason copied the action, and then pressed a brief kiss to Ferran’s cheek before turning to go.
It was another thirteen days to Perelan, and Jason spent every waking hour of them either thinking about Ferran or being with him. He’d only felt this way once before, when he’d first met Blake. That had turned into a lengthy courtship, layers of intensity building between them until the tension had been unbearable.
With Ferran, of course, it was different―Jason didn’t feel the same need to outdo himself at every turn, not when their time together was so circumscribed. All he wanted was to be with Ferran, for every tender moment and every mundane action. Ferran seemed to feel the same, passing up the drama favored by his cousins for quiet evenings spent together, talking about whatever came to mind. It was a welcome intimacy, a connection, that Jason had never felt before. He was determined to enjoy it for as long as he possibly could.
While Jason didn’t advertise his relationship with Ferran, he didn’t try to hide it either. His crew seemed to heartily approve, especially Florence. The other two Perels were less accepting of things. It was strange. The first day they had seemed pleased for their cousin, almost relieved, but as the cruise went on and Ferran continued to basically live with Jason, their approbation faded. Ferran ignored it, but it bothered Jason.
“Are they unhappy with me?” Jason asked him over dinner five days out from Perelan.
“Not with you specifically,” Ferran assured him. “More with me. They think I am being unwise.”
“I thought sowing your wild oats was an expected part of this trip for you.”
“It is. My cousins simply wish I were sowing… a little farther afield. They think I’m spending too much time with you,” Ferran explained.
“Ah.” There was some logic to that. “And what did you say to them?”
“That how I spend my time is my business. I’ll never—” He stopped abruptly, his quills sharpening and rising. They settled as he said, “I like spending time with you. I told them that. They are satisfied.”
Despite their supposed satisfaction, one of the two sought Jason out at the end of his shift the next day. “May I speak with you?” he asked with cool politeness.
Jason checked his chrono. “If it’s more than a simple issue, you’ll have to wait fifteen minutes.”
“I will wait.” The Perel retreated to the observation deck below the bridge. Florence was standing with Jason, and watched him go.
“I think I know what this is about.”
“Yeah?” Florence sighed. “Me, too.”
Jason was surprised. “Really?”
“Yeah. Garr actually asked me to bring it up with you, but I didn’t feel comfortable interfering with your private life, and told him so.”
“This must be a new discomfort.”
“You’re happy,” she snapped. “I’d like to see you stay happy.”
“Flo… what Ferran and I have is temporary.”
“Yeah, and that’s a damn shame. Fucking Perelan matriarch bitches.”
“Keep that opinion to yourself, Commander,” Jason said sharply.
“Yes, sir. That one’s Neyarr, by the way.”
Fifteen minutes later, Jason joined the Perel on the observation deck. “How may I help you?”
“You may please stop encouraging my cousin.”
“Encouraging him to what?”
Neyarr’s quills flared. “To intimacy.”
“That’s a surprising statement coming from you.”
“Emotional intimacy,” he clarified. “He is too close to you. It will make his reintroduction to our world much more difficult. Ferran has enough challenges facing him when we reach home again. He would have been better off accepting a betrothal before leaving. It would have kept his mind more focused.”
“I don’t understand what specifically you’re asking of me.”
“To stop seeing him. Stop sleeping with him. Stop caring for him.”
Jason drew in a sharp breath at the pain he suddenly felt in his chest. Stop? Now, before Perelan? “I don’t think I can do that.”
“You are not good for him, Captain,” Neyarr insisted. “We are sent away knowing that this is the end of our adolescence. It is to be our one great look, and afterward we put aside the frivolity of childhood and dedicate ourselves to our families and our people. Ferran comes from a powerful family, and his marriage contract will be worth much to his mother despite his sterility. He must be able to enter into a contract with a clear mind and an open heart, with the memories of this time to sustain him. If you engage with him further, I fear the memories will not suffice. He will be in love with you, and he will not be able to dedicate himself to his home properly.”
“Why aren’t you telling him this?”
“My brother is, as we speak. We have tried several times already, but Ferran will not hear us. I come to you in the hopes that you can keep his best interests in your heart, and do what is right for him. You are a thoughtful man. I know you will consider my words.” Neyarr inclined his head, and then turned and walked off the deck. Jason turned and stared out blankly into space. Give Ferran up. Now.
He had known it was going to end, of course, he’d gone into it knowing that, but now? He didn’t feel ready. He hadn’t prepared himself to let go yet. He couldn’t let go yet. Even as he thought it, Jason knew he was in real trouble. “Hell,” he muttered under his breath. He needed to get back to his quarters.
Ferran beat him there. He was sitting on the couch, his legs curled tight against his chest, his big amber eyes fixed unwaveringly on Jason as he opened the door. “He spoke with you.”
“Your cousin? Yes.” Jason took his jacket off, rubbed his aching neck. He felt far too tired.
“He told you to leave me alone.”
“Yes. For your sake.”
“Garr said the same thing to me.”
Jason looked straight into Ferran’s eyes. “They’re not wrong.”
“They feel wrong.”
“Feelings aren’t always the best indicator of what’s right and wrong.”
“I don’t want to leave you. Alone.” The pause wasn’t lost on either of them. “Please don’t make me go.”
“Ferran….” Jason toed off his shoes and socks, undid the top button of his shirt, and came over to the opposite side of the couch. “No, stay there,” he said when Ferran made as if to join him. His lover looked wounded, but obeyed. “Can you convince me they’re wrong? Neyarr didn’t sound like he was making thing up on the fly. I had no idea your life would be so circumscribed when you returned to Perelan.”
“I told you the fate of sterile males.”
“Can’t you pursue an education? Your people are well-liked, couldn’t you become a diplomat?”
Ferran shook his head. “Our mothers feel the need to keep us close and well in hand. They fear another great shift in our society might lead to our extinction next time.”
“They don’t trust you.”
“No. They don’t.”
Jason leaned his head against the back of the couch. “Ferran, I don’t want to make returning to Perelan hard for you.”
His lover shook his head. “It was always going to be hard. The tour is more than a gift to keep us content. It is a trial of our character. Not everyone can return to Perelan and reintegrate into society.”
“What happens to those who can’t?”
“They usually kill themselves. My older brother was one such.”
“What!” Jason was shocked out of his exhaustion. He sat up and stared at Ferran. “Why did he do that?”
“He said he missed the stars.”
“You have to go.” Jason’s heart felt like it was going to pound out of his chest. “You have to leave. Right now.”
“No, no….” Ferran extended a hand toward him, his voice soothing. “I am not like him. I will not hurt myself. The only thing that will damage me is being forced to leave you earlier than I must.”
“Please, trust me. Trust me to know this much about myself.” Ferran pulled his hand back to his chest. “Unless my staying hurts you. I never want to cause you pain.”
“It’s too late for that,” Jason murmured. “You know, don’t you? You can feel it.”
“Yes. I love you, too.”
“Come here,” Jason said tiredly. Ferran came immediately into his arms and curled around him, almost protectively. “I’m sorry.”
“For this, for us. I should have known better than to get involved with you. I did know better, in the beginning.”
“Don’t be sorry for us,” Ferran whispered. “Would you really rather we never meant anything to each other? You are worth every challenge being with you brings me. I hope I’m worth it to you.”
“That’s not in question,” Jason replied. “I’m just… hell. I’m just sorry. This is going to get very difficult.”
They stayed curled together on the couch for the rest of the night.
The final few days of the trip to to Perelan were subdued for Jason. He didn’t give Ferran up, to the obvious discontent of his cousins, but he didn’t lose himself in him like he had before, either. He couldn’t. He was too busy mapping his lover’s body, fixing it in his memory and trying not to think about what he was heading back to on Perelan. An arranged marriage. So he could be a glorified servant. That was probably unfair, but then Jason wasn’t feeling like being fair. He felt like taking the ship to Jacksonville and shutting the two of them away in his house forever. He felt like showing Ferran all the places he’d never been to, of taking him back to the home system. He felt like staying in bed and never having to get out again. All lovely thoughts, and all completely impossible.
Their last night together was incredibly tender. Jason spent hours making love to Ferran, teasing him and opening him and taking him, and then he gave himself for the first time. He hadn’t bottomed often, not even with Blake, but Ferran had been slow and cautious and so, so gentle, and it had been wonderful. Ferran had curled around him like he always did afterward, but this time his grip was tight, and he murmured muffled words in his language into Jason’s hair. Jason wanted to ask him to translate, but he refrained. It probably wouldn’t help him to know.
The next day, the Silver Star docked at the trading station in orbit around Perelan. The station’s manager came to meet them, and welcome the three wayward travelers home. Jason was on hand to greet her and bid farewell the Perels.
He had already said a more emotional good-bye to Ferran that morning in bed. Neither of them had slept for more than an hour, and his lover’s eyes had been dilated and slightly panicked.
“Not like this,” Jason said firmly. “You have to pull it together and convince me you’re going to be okay, or I’ll never forgive myself.”
“I am sorry,” Ferran said. “It’s harder than I thought it would be.”
“Yes.” Jason didn’t have to say I told you so; he got no satisfaction out of it.
Ferran shut his eyes briefly, and then unclenched his hands from Jason’s pillow and relaxed some. “I’ll be fine.”
“I miss you already.”
There was nothing Jason could really say to that. He pulled Ferran into his arms and held him close for a long time, breathing in his lover’s exhalations and pausing every so often to kiss him.
He couldn’t do that now, at the gate, not if he wanted to maintain any sense of dignity. The manager was a Perel, and undoubtedly empathic enough to know what was going on, but he felt no desire to break down in front of her. Jason shook hands with Neyarr and Garrell, and then it was Ferran. Eyes down, Ferran leaned in and touched their temples together, and then clasped Jason’s face in a lover’s caress. Jason did the same, ignoring the offended yip from one of the other Perels, and then pressed a kiss to Ferran’s cheek. They parted, Jason looked at him one last time, and then he turned and walked back into the ship.
Jason turned command of the Silver Star over to Florence, who, for once, didn’t have anything to say. He took a small passenger cruiser to Hadrian’s Rock, where his personal ship was berthed, loaded it with supplies, and then made his way back to Jacksonville. It took less than a week, but it felt like much longer to Jason. He barely slept, keeping himself alive on stimulants and vitamin injections and flying constantly. He was fortunate that there were no storms on the surface when he touched down inside his compound, because he probably wouldn’t have navigated them very well.
Jacksonville was remote, a dying community on a deadly planet. Those who stayed did so because they had the means and they’d found something to love in the beautiful savagery of the place, not because it was in any way convenient. For the first time since he left Perelan, Jason started to feel again. It wasn’t comfortable. He moved through his rooms, exhausted feet hitching slightly on the hardwood floors, his hands moving over everything he owned, as though trying to convince him that it was enough to have things and not Ferran.
Jason stayed out of the greenhouse. He couldn’t go in yet and see the butterflies. He went onto his deck instead, little more than a strip of concrete and a foot-thick metal railing, and watched an electrical storm move in. All the storms of Jacksonville were dangerous, but the electrical storms were something special. They combined the power of thousands of lightning bolts with the beauty of royal purple clouds, cerulean skies, and the pale green mist of the crashing ocean. It was suicide to stay out during one of them, but Jason felt oddly detached from his body. The rain poured down, hitting him like nails, but his face was already wet. It rained, and it thundered, and the sky broke into a million bright and jagged pieces above him, and all he could do was mourn.
When the hail came, he felt himself begin to bruise, and reluctantly reentered the house. A few moments later, his deck was inundated with enormous hail, splitting into slush against the concrete until enough was built up so that every new piece was cushioned on the bodies of its brethren. Jason stayed and watched, soaking wet and shivering, until the storm let up an hour later. His shoulders and head stung with the hail’s impact, and he reluctantly headed into the shower.
Jason had done something similar when Blake left him, deliberately given himself over to the fury of a storm. It seemed like a fitting way to say farewell to a piece of himself, and the last time he’d done it, he’d felt… different. Better, a little more at peace. This time, he only felt sore, tired, and the need and the anger inside of him were still there, not exorcised like he had hoped. When sleep came, it was like it had been before, filled with Ferran, and he woke up to a bleakness that clenched his heart tight and wouldn’t let go.
People very rarely visited Jacksonville, and no one had ever visited specifically for Jason before. He couldn’t quite believe his ears when the colony’s control tower hailed his home’s com. “Who wants to meet with me?”
“It’s a Federated Colonies diplomatic cruiser, sir, currently registered under Ambassador Giselle Howards.”
Jason’s lungs froze for a moment. “She’s assigned to Perelan.”
Too many scenarios began to spin through his mind, and none of them were optimistic. “I’ll open my compound for her cruiser.”
“Yes, sir, thank you.”
Jason closed the com and opened his compound’s personal shields. Moments later a sleek, elegant cruiser was touching down twenty meters from his front door. It held ten people at most, but it held them in absolute style. He slipped on his sandals and went out to meet his visitors.
The ambassador was a tall woman, taller than him by several inches, with dark brown skin and white hair trimmed very close to the scalp. She wore a blue silk pantsuit and a white silk scarf around her neck, and if Jason had possessed the energy to feel self-conscious about being seen in his simple cotton house clothes, he would have.
“Captain Kim,” she greeted him, shaking his hand.
“Ambassador Howards,” he replied. “Would you care to come inside?”
“Please.” She followed him inside and took his invitation to sit down at the table. “No tea, thank you,” she continued when he offered. “What we have to discuss hopefully won’t take long.”
“What exactly do we have to discuss?” Jason asked as he sat across from her.
“There’s a situation on Perelan. A good situation,” she quickly reassured him after seeing him pale. “For the first time in our combined histories, Perelan is considering opening itself up to new alliances. Formal alliances, requiring diplomats and negotiators. They are considering diminishing some of the tariffs that make trading so difficult, and allowing aliens with the right qualifications access to places on their planet that we’ve never seen before.” She paused, clearly expecting a question.
“How does this concern me?”
“You, Captain Kim, happen to be the only person who is considered provisionally qualified by the Council of Matriarchs.”
There was only one thing she could be referring to, but Jason wasn’t sure he believed it. “Why, because I slept with a Perel?”
“No, because you’re in love with a Perel,” Ambassador Howards replied calmly. “Or so I’ve been assured. Your character was fully investigated before the Council would approve my coming here on their behalf, of course. Your first officer, Florence Zerenkal, speaks very highly of you. Your superiors with the Shimona Cartel say you’re an exemplary captain, and the Perels who have personally interacted with you were impressed. One in particular.”
Jason’s throat felt dry. “Ferran.”
“Yes. Matriarchs are strongly devoted to family, and they would never have considered letting one of their offspring go for more than a proscribed tour without a strong emotional commitment from their partner.”
“Partner?” Jason mentally shook himself and tried to catch up. “This is about Ferran becoming my partner?”
“Yes.” The ambassador pulled a document and a pen from her briefcase. “The Council is only willing to open their borders to someone who is as dedicated to them as they themselves are. In essence, you would be agreeing to an arranged marriage, Captain. You and Ferran would spend a year together under observation on Perelan while he learned the art of diplomacy, and, afterward, you would be responsible for accompanying him on all his missions on Perelan’s behalf. You would have to give up your current job, of course, but you would be offered a position within the FC’s diplomatic corps. It would mean a raise in salary and a dedicated cruiser and staff for the two of you.” She tapped the film beneath her hand. “All the details are here. This is a chance to open new doors for an entire world, Captain.”
“This is…. Ferran and I knew each other for less than a month.”
“If, after the year was up, you wished to end the marriage, it would be ended.” She pointed at another line on the sheet. “You don’t have to do this, Jason,” she said kindly. “It’s very irregular, rather archaic by Terran standards, and would greatly restrict your freedom for at least a year. If you chose to remain married, it would be considered a permanent bond. Divorce is unheard of on Perelan except in rare, pre-negotiated situations similar to this or in relationships that have devolved into abuse.”
“And Ferran wants this?”
“Both he and his matriarch. He’s to be a test case. The Council has apparently been waiting for years for someone to fit their requirements, and he actually approached them about the possibility right after he returned. There was some question as to his fitness due to familial issues, but he was evaluated and approved. Now, all you have to do is sign.”
Jason looked down at the film on the table, words that would shape the rest of his life if he agreed to them. “I want to talk to Ferran.”
The ambassador shook her head. “One of the requirements is that you sign before discussing it with him, as proof of good faith. Please be assured that this proposal wouldn’t be here if he wasn’t wholly dedicated to you.” She sat back and folded her hands. Jason looked around and thought of everything he would be giving up in order to have Ferran. Then he pictured Ferran, and a moment later he signed the contract.
“Excellent.” Ambassador Howards signed her name below his as a witness, and then beamed at him. “I suppose you want to see Ferran now.”
“Well… as soon as possible. Can we leave immediately for Perelan?”
“No, that’s not necessary yet. He’s here on my ship.”
“What?” Jason felt the blood rush out of his head. “He’s here, now? I could have discussed this with him?”
“No, you couldn’t have. Good faith, remember? He was sure you would sign. The Council agreed to give the two of you some time here alone before sending you to Perelan. Shall I ask him to disembark?”
“Yes.” Jason stood up from the table and walked quickly to his door, back outside into his compound. The door to the ship was already open and Ferran was running through it and toward him, and in another second, he was in Jason’s arms, holding him desperately close.
“I knew it, I knew you would, I knew it, I knew,” Ferran whispered, his voice catching roughly. “I love you, I’m sorry, I love you… have I ruined everything else?”
“No,” Jason said. “Nothing’s ruined.” He cupped Ferran’s face in his hands and kissed him. “Are you sure about this?”
“So sure,” Ferran replied, kissing him back. “And it’s… it’s only for a year, if you decide you don’t want me forever.”
Jason smiled. “We’ll see. It was a good safety measure to add, but I don’t think we’ll need it. I think forever suits us better.”
Ferran beamed and kissed him again. “So do I.”