Xander liked daisies, just not scattered all over the ship. Al’s spontaneous decorating had turned the corridors on the Prodigalinto a post-blizzard winter scene. Xander crouched in one of the corridors, trashcan in one hand, plucking daisies out of the floor grates with the other.
An acid wash would have been faster and more effective, but the ship had to be on the ground for that. Since Captain McLeod wasn’t planning on landing anytime soon, the only alternative was cleaning up the daisies by hand.
Xander tossed another daisy into the bin under her arm, and it vaporized the flower with a hiss and a puff of air that smelled like ozone and burnt grass. She hated to discard such cheerful flowers, but they couldn’t fly into battle with a ship full of daisies. That had to be bad luck of some kind.
Xander stood and looked back down the corridor with its flickering illuminators and mismatched floor grating. Without the daisies scattered all over the floor panels, it seemed less cheerful. Maybe that’s why Al had scattered the daisies everywhere.
She slumped her face into her hand.
Not sure which is worse, thinking Al can reason or thinking the Prodigalcares.
She’d been on this ship too long.
At the end of the corridor, Devon stood up from where he crouched, his blond hair crazy and his grin crooked and dashing. He pointed to her trashcan. “You finished?”
“Yes,” Xander said. “All done.”
Devon approached her with his trashcan held out, and she took it from him, nesting it inside hers.
“Good work,” he said. “Go take a break.” He held up a bunch of daisies and started to wrap a piece of wire around them.
Xander narrowed her eyes at him. “I was going to check with Marty to see if he needed any help in engineering.”
What was Devon doing with the daisies?
Devon arched his eyebrows as he noticed her gaze, and he grinned at her, showing all his teeth. “Girls like flowers, right?”
Xander smothered a giggle. “Am I a specific girl? Or just a girl in general?”
Devon grinned for an answer, and Xander rolled her eyes.
“All girls like flowers,” she said. She shifted the bins to her other arm. “Even the ones who say they don’t.”
His grin didn’t dim, and he saluted. “Roger that, chief.” He pointed to the trashcans. “Can you take care of those?”
Xander shook her head, shooing him away. “Go on.”
Like a puppy eager to play, Devon rushed down the corridor to the crew quarters, and Xander headed for engineering where she could toss the daisy ashes and see if Marty needed help preparing for their upcoming assault on the Knightshade Syndicate’s flagship.
A sharp bark echoed in the corridor, and Newt the Pomeranian raced around the corner. The white puffball of a dog darted between her legs and ran circles around her until she set the bins down and held out her arms. The little dog leapt, and Xander caught her.
“Crazy mutt.” Xander hugged the dog close.
“Little Newt like the little girl.” Claude, the ship’s loader, lumbered around the corner, moving at a far slower pace than his Pomeranian.
Xander craned her neck to smile up at him. The giant NUGerman loader had to hunch over to move around in the corridors without banging his head.
“You clean up the daisies, ja?” Claude asked.
Xander pointed to the vaporizing bins. “Devon and I just finished.”
Claude looked up and pointed to the air vent over his head. “In there too?”
Xander gaped. “Inside the air vent?” Surely Al hadn’t gone that crazy with the daisies.
Remind me never to underestimate Al again. She sagged for a moment before she set Newt down and picked up her trashcan. “Can you help me get in there?”
Claude patted the top of her head. “Ah, Xander. Such a good girl.”
Xander smiled up at him. Claude had a heart proportional to his height. The big NUGerman was so full of laughter it couldn’t help but spill out, and most of the time he infected the rest of the crew with it.
Claude reached up and pulled the vent shaft grate off as though it weighed no more than an oven rack, and he grabbed her under her arms. She couldn’t hold a yelp in. His hands could probably span her rib cage. Twice.
He lifted her into the shaft, and Xander pulled herself the rest of the way in.
Lo and behold! More daisies.
Forget the trashcan. I should shove all of these down Al’s shorts. Maybe that will teach her a lesson.
She pushed the trashcan in front of her as she squeezed forward through the shaft.
“The little girl is okay, ja?” Claude asked from below.
“Yeah, Claude, I’m fine,” Xander called back to him. “It’s a tight squeeze, but I can make it.”
Xander pulled herself forward and tried not to think about the gunk her shoulders gathered every time they scraped the sidewalls of the shaft. Sparse light from the corridors beneath shone just enough light to see by. The daisies almost glowed in the dimness.
The shaft smelled musty but not stale. It could have been much worse. Captain McLeod’s strenuous cleaning standards probably kept the ventilation system as fresh as it could be, considering the circumstances.
Captain McLeod had cobbled the Prodigal together with the shell of an Old Earth mega-yacht and discount engine parts. The patchwork ship didn’t look like much, but inside it smelled like a home. The grease and oil of a garage mixed with the vaguely floral scent of laundry detergent and the soft aroma of breakfast. Warm lights, big windows full of stars, and the freedom to be yourself—that was life on the Prodigal. The Anastasia, the fortress-like NUSovian mineral harvester that had rescued her from deep space months earlier, had more room, more crew, and more resources. But it always smelled like reconstituted beets and body odor.
The Prodigal was better.
Xander dragged herself forward with her elbows to the next grate in the shaft. She peered through the grate and paused, blinking the dust out of her eyes. She had expected more corridor beneath her, but instead she saw—an unmade bed?
She leaned to the side of the shaft to get a better angle. Engine parts and coffee mugs, greasy gloves and tattered jumpsuits littered the room. Three pairs of cracked goggles hung from a peg on the wall.
This had to be Marty’s quarters. Only the ship’s engineer would collect engine parts and goggles.
The shaft had diverted from the main corridor and led her over the crew quarters. Fortunately, Marty was in engineering, but that didn’t mean the rest of the rooms were empty.
Daisies are definitely going down Al’s shorts.
Xander moved forward and tossed more petals into the bin. She reached the next grate and couldn’t stop herself from glancing down.
What if it were Kale’s room? What would she do then?
The last time she’d stumbled across his quarters wasn’t a pleasant memory. Her face burned just thinking about it.
Of all the crew members, Kale made the least sense. He’d been the one to save her, but then he’d been so cold, so distant. But he’d come for her when she ran away. And he’d hugged her in the cargo bay just the day before.
Confusing man. Kale had more mood swings than a woman.
She froze at the sound of voices below her. So much for the crew quarters being empty.
Gingerly lifting the bin, she scooted forward in the shaft, knees and elbows silent as she dragged her body toward the light. She set the bin down and gathered the petals from the shaft.
“I don’t like flowers.”
Xander paused at Jaz’s voice and glanced through the grate. The tiny crew room below didn’t even look lived in. Neat and organized. Sparsely decorated with gun clips and ammunition. And Jaz herself stood at her doorway, hands on her hips, facing Devon Chase with a scowl.
Xander couldn’t help herself. The grin split her face before she could stop it.
She knew Devon and Jaz liked each other, but this took it to a new level. Who else could pierce the stony-eyed bounty huntress’s walls than the unsinkable Devon Chase?
Devon held out the handful of daisies, bundled together with copper wire. “All girls like flowers.” He beamed.
Xander stifled a giggle.
Jaz shifted her weight and accepted the daisies from him.
“See?” He set his hands on his hips, grin stretching from ear to ear.
“This doesn’t mean I like you, Devon Chase.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard that before.”
Jaz rolled her eyes and stepped backward. She set the daisies on the desk in the corner, and Devon followed her. He flopped on her bed, still grinning.
“You are a miserable opportunist.” Jaz faced him with folded arms.
“Hey, when was I going to get another chance to bring you flowers?”
“So you picked them up off the floor?”
He shrugged with a goofy face. And Jaz laughed.
Not a fake laugh. A deep, real laugh.
Xander arched her eyebrows. Not once in all the time she’d been on board had she ever heard Jaz Carver laugh. The fierce woman had barely smiled. Was this the same person?
Jaz turned and sat on the bed beside Devon, and he set his hand on her thigh.
Xander glanced at the daisy petals.
This wasn’t flirting. This wasn’t Devon trying to convince Jaz to go out on a date. This wasn’t even him trying to start a relationship. From the looks of it, they were already in one.
“Thank you,” Jaz said.
Xander busied herself picking up petals.
“Jaz, what’s wrong?”
Jaz didn’t answer, but Xander could imagine the woman’s piercing glare.
“You don’t think this is a good idea,” Devon surmised. “You don’t want to attack the Tempest?”
“That’s not it.”
“It isn’t?” Devon chuckled. “I mean, it’s not exactly the best idea we’ve ever had.”
Xander glanced down at them and paused. They sat on Jaz’s bed, holding hands. Jaz, so fierce, so strong, so cold, leaned into Devon with her forehead against his neck.
Xander feared to breathe. If Jaz finds out I’m up here, she’ll skin me alive.
“We’ll be fine,” Jaz murmured against his neck. “It’s—the android.”
“The android?” Devon pulled back. “You’re kidding.” He grinned. “If she weren’t around, I wouldn’t have been able to bring you flowers. You should thank her.”
Jaz straightened and glared at him.
“What?” he laughed.
Jaz stood and pulled out of his hold. She leaned against the desk in the corner. “It’s not right, Devon. Can’t you see it?”
Devon frowned. “She’s an android. Kind of quirky. But she’s not dangerous.”
“Its entire purpose here is suspect,” Jaz said.
“She jumped into a firefight on Elara. Probably just didn’t know any better.”
Jaz shook her head. “It’s not a normal Al-Unit, Devon. It’s completely different.”
“I thought Al-Units were all different,” Devon said. “More human. That’s what they were known for, right?”
“This one isn’t the same.”
Devon leaned forward on the bed. “You’ve seen other Al-Units?”
Xander bit her lip. Jaz had spoken of Al-Units before. She had known the person who made them.
Jaz lifted her eyes. “My father made them, Devon.”
Xander covered her mouth with her hand. Jaz’s father made Al-Units?
Devon straightened on the bed, head tilted. “Your father?”
“They were his obsession,” she said. “He only made a handful, but they were his life. They were more important than anything else—including us. That’s why I left. That’s how Talon found me.”
Devon sighed. He held out his hand, and Jaz stepped forward to take it. She settled into his lap, and he wrapped his arms around her.
“I’m glad.” Devon pressed his face into her hair. “Otherwise I’d never have found you.”
Xander looked away, heat rising in her cheeks.
“You know,” Devon started, “we might not come back from this one.”
Jaz pulled back enough to show a smirk.
“I mean, what do we got?” He shrugged. “An old ship and four short-range fighters? Against Knightshade’s flagship? Sounds pretty risky.”
“Devon, every time we are preparing to leave on a dangerous assignment, you come in here and pull that very line.”
“Every time.” She rolled her eyes. “Why is that?”
“Because you’re a sucker for my pouty faces.” He stuck out his lower lip.
Jaz laughed again, a clear sound like a bell ringing.
“Does that mean it’s working?” he asked.
Jaz shifted in his lap and straddled him. “You’re right.” She settled her arms around his neck. “We might not make it back from this one. But I have to report in five minutes.”
He smirked. “Plenty of time.”
Jaz kissed him and ran her fingers into his hair.
And that’s my exit cue.
Xander didn’t wait to see any more. She seized the bin as carefully as she could and backed up in the vent shaft. She didn’t need to find any more daisy petals. If any petals blew out of the vent shaft, she’d take the blame and wouldn’t mind.
Overhearing their conversation was one thing. Watching this was something else entirely. She tuned out the sound of their voices as she backed away, Devon saying something about bringing her flowers more often.
She backed up until she felt the shaft disappear. She’d found the open grate Claude had pushed her into.
“Claude?” She called down. “Are you down there?”
There was no answer. Where had he gone?
There wasn’t enough room to roll over in the shaft, and there certainly wasn’t enough room to turn around. But she couldn’t just jump down. The corridor floor was too far away, and she had to bring the trashcan too.
A giant hand grabbed her ankle.
“Claude!” She yelped. “Can you get me out of here please?”
She backed out of the vent shaft and let her legs dangle. Claude was seeing more of her than she wanted, but Claude wouldn’t take it the wrong way. The giant NUGerman loader was like a protective older brother.
The hands on her ankles slid to her hips and helped her back out of the shaft. They slid to her ribs, supporting her weight as she dropped out of the shaft. She sighed in relief as the cooler air of the corridor reached her face.
She pulled the trashcan with her.
Movement at the head of the corridor caught her eye. Claude waved at her from up the hall.
“Hey.” Kale’s voice rumbled in her ear. “Don’t tell me you let Devon convince you to climb up there?”
She glanced at him over her shoulder, his blue eyes sparkling with laughter.
Devon was with Jaz, and they were—Xander swallowed hard and tried to convince her face not to turn red, but it wasn’t working. Her cheeks burned, and from the laughter in Kale’s expression, she knew the dimness of the corridor wasn’t hiding it.
“I—Claude said—so I did.” She held up the trashcan. “Can you—put me down?”
Kale smirked. “Sure.”
He stepped backward off a stool and set her on the floor panels. The moment he released her, she turned to face him. She tilted her face up to meet his eyes.
“Thank you,” she said.
“You’re welcome.” His eyes were still smiling. “Where are you off to now?”
Great question. Where was I going? She forced a grin.
The image of Devon and Jaz wrapped in each other’s arms seemed etched on her eyeballs. She couldn’t not see it. And now her ribs tingled from the firm pressure of Kale’s fingers. Had anyone else’s touch made her feel that way? She couldn’t remember. If there ever had been anyone, the memory of it was lost to her, like the memories of everything else.
Daisies. Xander held out the trashcan. “I was getting rid of these.”And after that? You were going to do something useful. “Engineering!”
Kale quirked a slender eyebrow, his lips curling in a half-smirk that made her stomach flop over. “What about engineering?”
Calm down. He’s going to think you’re crazy. Xander set her jaw.Crazier. “I’m going to dump the trash, and then I was going to engineering to see if Marty needed help with anything.”
Kale’s half-smirk spread into a full smile. Holy moly, the man needed to smile like that more often. The warmth of it wrapped her in a protective embrace that made her want to throw herself in his arms.
“Great minds,” he said, taking the trashcan from her. “How about we go together?”
Xander nodded. “Together.”
He started down the corridor, and she fell into step beside him.
Kale’s friendship meant the world to her. She’d finally earned the right to claim it, but she couldn’t lose sight of who he was. He was dangerous—in more ways than one. The dizzying tempo of her pulse proved that.
Friends. They were friends, and that’s where they needed to stay.
She tightened her grip on the disposal bins and hurried toward the galley.
But even as she tried to turn her thoughts to what needed to be done next, she couldn’t shake the image of Devon and Jaz wrapped in each other’s arms. She couldn’t stop feeling the gentle press of Kale’s hands. And she didn’t want to.