Chapter Seven: Quinn

“So, what do you want?” Trini asked.

 What did I want?

The answer that sprang to my lips, even as she held that ridiculous stuffed doll, had to be hastily bitten back.

 “What’s your favorite place when you’re off shift?” I answered instead.

 She huffed slightly. “It’s not very fancy. Probably not at all what you’re used to.”

 “Do you want to go someplace fancy?” I asked quickly. Thinking about her past, how excited she’d been at such small treats as we’d had this evening, I cursed myself.

 I should have looked at the damned brochure back at the bar, found somewhere nice to take her for dinner.

 She shook her head quickly, dashing all of those romantic thoughts away.

 “Not really my scene, honestly. Besides, do you think they’d let me in looking like this?” she declined.

 The city lights sparkled over her skin, and the warmth of her smile and the mischief in her eyes should have been a passport to anything, anywhere.

 “Alright then, I’m not much for someplace dressy, if you’re not. I’d have to think hard to remember my manners, anyway.”

While Doc had made sure we had enough training and etiquette to pass almost anywhere, I’d be the first to admit I was a little rusty.

 Maybe more than a little.

 “Come on then, I know just the place. Nobody will look at you twice, manners or not.”

 I followed her through the crowd, thoughts spinning.

 What was I doing here?

 It was easy enough to say I was looking for traces of Torik.

That Trini had so far been the only possible lead.

But I should have asked around more, gone to other bars.

Surely there was a shadier side of town, and if Torik had gone underground, it seemed that would be a more likely place to find him than the sections of town I’d visited with Trini.

But still, the evening hadn’t been a waste.

I’ve been able to watch the crowds, seeing how people interacted here.

For a pleasure planet, there was a certain wariness. A certain tacit agreement that while fun might be the goal, sacrifices might have to be made for the collective good.

Like that crazy banking system.

If I didn’t know better, I’d think that everyone owed the corporation for their livelihood and was paying it off.

It was surprising they didn’t have to pay for their oxygen.

Maybe I should ask.

“Here we are, just down this way,” Trini said, breaking me from my thoughts.

She turned quickly down a narrow street, then just as quickly backed up into me.

But not fast enough.

An earthshattering wail came from the little boy sprawled on the street in front of her.

“Oh my gosh, are you okay, honey?” Trini asked, kneeling next to him.

An exasperated looking man hurried to the child’s side. “He’s fine, he just needs to learn to watch where he’s going.”

“But I ran into you. And I fell. And I tore my pants. And my knee hurts. And I’m gonna get in trouble!”

With every complaint, the child’s voice grew higher and shriller.

“You know what would make it better?” Trini asked.

Big water-filled eyes blinked at her as the little boy shook his head back and forth, sniffling.

“Nothing.”

“A new friend can make everything better,” Trini promised, and handed him the giant doll.

Apparently she was right, because immediately the child clutched his new best friend and broke into a babbling explanation of how wonderful everything was now to his father.

The man picked the boy up, carefully balancing the doll, and headed out onto the Boulevard.

“I thought you really wanted that monstrosity,” I commented softly as Trini watched them go.

“It’s hard to be little sometimes,” she whispered. “It seemed an easy enough fix.” She shot me a mischievous grin. “Besides, if I really wanted another one, I know who to ask, right?”

I blinked, mulling that over as she skipped away. I caught up, then noticed the amazing smells coming from just a few doors away.

“Are we almost there?” The sudden growl of my belly made me hope that we were heading to wherever was the source of that aroma.

“Yep,” Trini said, reaching an open doorway covered by a half-curtain. “Best empies in Rondi.” She stepped through, and I followed.

“Best on Heladae or anywhere in the sector,” a thin man insisted from behind the counter. “I guarantee it.”

“Anything you don’t like?”

I shook my head. “I suspect I could eat three of everything here,” I admitted as my stomach let off another enormous rumble.

She shook her head sadly. “If you’d eaten all your cone, you wouldn’t be so hungry now.”

I handed her a credit chip and sat down at a small table, hand painted in a bright design of the three golden suns against a blue sky.

She joined me after a moment.

“He really does make the best empies in the city. Probably on the planet, too,” she whispered.

“I believe you, but I don’t know what that is. So it’s an easy bet.”

“Really?” Her eyes lit up. “I’m not going to tell you anything more. It’s going to be a wonderful surprise.”

I believed that, too. Because what I was smelling promised good things.

Within a few minutes, the thin man came back out carrying a tray of bowls filled with small crispy half-moons of pastry, stuffed to bursting.

“And there’s the dipping sauce,” Trini explained as she picked up one of the golden pastries and carefully bit into the edge. “Careful, they’re hot.”

They were, and delicious.

Spicy and savory, with a cooling sweet sauce to be spooned into them.

For a moment, everything was silent as I focused on the food.

She pushed the third bowl towards me. “You really were hungry.”

“I burned a lot of fuel,” I said, then moved half the pastries onto my plate and pushed the bowl back towards her.

“No,” she shook her head. “I’m done.”

I ate the last few slowly, the initial ravenous hunger sated.

At least for food.

“If you’re done, I should head back,” Trini said, reluctance seeming to drag at her words.

“Is it dangerous at night?” I asked. “I was watching while we were walking, and I haven’t seen any petty theft. Seems like there’d be plenty of opportunity for pickpocketing, if not flat out muggings.”

She looked up in surprise. “Here? Not a chance. It’d be bad for business if anything like that was allowed to happen. Rondi City is probably the safest place you’ll ever go.”

No reason to tell her that wasn’t exactly a high bar.

“No, Russar just worries about me. And,” she blushed and looked down.

“And he doesn’t trust me at all, does he?”

She bit her lip, shrugging helplessly. “It’s just that he’s protective. I’ve been working there a long time. He’s got the whole big brother thing going on.”

As long as that was all it was.

I caught myself. Really? I was here for information, moving on as soon as I had a solid lead.

Trini could partner up with Russar or anyone else, and it would be none of my business.

But it felt like my business.

“Come on, let’s get you home before your big brother gets worried,” was all I said as we headed into the brightly lit streets.

But even though we were back at the Merry Stormcloud in less than half an hour, Russar didn’t look as happy as we’d expected.

“I was hoping you’d stay out a little bit longer,” he said.

“That’s a first,” Trini said, eyebrows raised. “What’s going on?”

“You’ve got someone waiting for you in the back,” Russar admitted. “With luck, they would’ve left before you returned.” He scowled at me. “Couldn’t you have taken her someplace further? Maybe come back in the morning?”

“I think you’re forgetting, she’s my guide,” I answered. “It’s her call where we go.”

 “Makkar’s back again?” Trini sighed.

“This Makkar,” I asked shortly. “The mopey-looking one that was here before?”

Trini stifled a laugh. “Yeah, that would be him.”

Russar threw his hands up in the air. “Mopey, and needs to learn how to pull his weight. I get to say that. He’s my little brother.” He rested a hand on Trini’s shoulder. “But it’s not Makkar.” He tilted his head back, just a bit. “It’s Mada.”

Trini went very still. “Mada Sommu?” she breathed. “What is she doing here?” “Looking for you,” Russar said.

“For me?” she squeaked.

“Somebody want to catch me up on this?” I asked.

“Mada Sommu runs well, everything on Heladae,” Trini explained in a whisper.

“Close enough to everything,” Russar agreed. “And she is not afraid to do whatever it takes to keep her grip on things.” He looked at Trini closely. “You can’t think of any reason she’d be here?”

Trini shook her head, curls flying. “Nothing. Unless, unless it’s something to do with Makkar.”

“Better not keep her waiting,” Russar decided. “She’ll know you’re back, I’m sure.”

Trini swallowed hard, then headed to the back of the tavern. I moved to follow her, but Russar put a hand out.

“You’re just passing through, no reason to get involved in this.”

“Is Trini involved?” I asked softly, trying to remember that Trini considered this man an older brother.

And therefore not someone I should throw through a wall.

“Apparently,” Russar admitted.

“Then I think I’ll go see what’s happening,” I said mildly and moved past him.

I lengthened my strides and reached Trini’s side by the time she stopped at a table where a woman with long red hair appeared to be holding court.

Three toughs, dressed in obvious battle armor, were ranged behind her.

The one to the left stepped forward as I reached Trini’s side, but froze when the woman, obviously Mada Sommu, raised her hand.

“Not yet, darling. Let’s see what this is.”

I grinned. “As far as I’m concerned, this isn’t anything.” Slipping an arm around Trini’s waist, I pulled her into my side. “Just checking up on my girl.”

“Really?” the woman drawled. “Then maybe you’re just as interested as I am in this question.”

She turned back to Trini, who shivered a little under my hand. “What was Makkar doing here earlier today?”

Trini shook her head. “I don’t know, he comes by sometimes, but I promise, I’m not seeing him. We broke up long before you guys started, well…dating?”

Mada laughed, long and low. “Dating is a word for it. You think he just comes by for old times’ sake?”

“I think he tries to borrow money from Russar sometimes,” Trini admitted. “He’s not worth much, but Russar’s not going to let his little brother be out of credits.”

“And that’s really all he came by for?” the woman asked again, her piercing cold green eyes moving back and forth from me to Trini.

“That’s all I know about, ma’am.” Trini nodded. “He might have been planning to meet someone here, but I didn’t see him talking with anyone else.”

“Well, then, that’s enough for now.” The woman rose and her guards snapped into formation around her, then they strode out of the Merry Stormcloud without a backward glance.

Trini sagged against me and I put her in the chair. “What’s wrong,” I asked. “Do you know what that guy was here for?”

She shook her head. “No idea. Just, that woman is scary,” she whispered.

Russar rushed over, handed her a small glass of clear sparkly liquid. “Figured you could use this.”

“I think she’s after Makkar,” Trini told him, and took a sip.

“Can’t imagine why she’d bother,” Russar said. “He’s pretty enough to catch a girl’s eye, even yours, and you should’ve known better. But I told him from the beginning, she would chew him up and spit him out if he stepped wrong.”

I rubbed Trini’s shoulders. “She doesn’t seem like the kind of woman to go chasing after a man.”

“She’s not,” Trini agreed. “But if she thought someone had disrespected her, hurt her? She’d chase after that, all right.”

“Well, nothing to do with us,” Russar announced. “It’s quiet and Paulo’s out of town. I might go ahead and close down, restock and clean for a while. You head up to bed, and I’ll see you in the morning.”

He headed back to the bar, but I stayed where I was, frozen.

“What did he mean for you to head up to bed?” I said slowly. “With me?”

The frightened look finally left Trini’s face as she rolled her eyes. “Of course not. I live here, too. It’s cheap, and you can’t beat the commute.”

Oh. Of course she did. But the fire that had sparked in my blood refused to die down as I followed her up the narrow stairway, eyes hungrily devouring her curves.

“See, this is my room right here.” She stopped at the doorway before mine.

She’d be on the other side of the thin wall. All night.

“Thanks for letting me play tour guide,” she smiled up at me. “Not sure if that helped you with what you were looking for, but it was a lot of fun.”

I couldn’t help it. I slid one hand over her hip and drew her to me. Bending towards her upturned face, I kissed her temple, then brushed the edge of her ear, waiting for her small hands to push against my chest, to resist.

Listening for the smallest breath of ‘no’.

But instead, she stretched up on her toes. “I think you missed,” she whispered, then my lips fell on hers.

I’d meant to only take a taste, a brief good night kiss, a sample of what I couldn’t have.

But as she melted against me, my tongue teased the seam of her lips until she opened, soft and sweet.

And for a change, this was a sweetness I’d never have enough of, never be sated.

With every strength of will I’d ever possessed, I let her go and stared at the wall, fighting to control my breath.

“Good night, Trini.”

I walked further down the hall and waited by my door until she entered her room.

I stretched out on the bed, waiting for sleep, but as usual, it didn’t come.

Instead, when I closed my eyes, I saw my console back on our old ship, where I’d decoded the distress call so long ago.

Convinced my brothers we had to detour from our mission, investigate.

Where I’d brought us all into a trap, to be slaughtered by the Hunters’ games, then put into a dreamless sleep, until we were woken by Nadira and Ronan.

I didn’t sleep much anymore.

Over and over the images played out, and no matter how much I tried, I was powerless to change them. To stop myself from trusting that message.

Crash.

I sat up halfway. I’d been so wrapped up in the past that it took a moment for the sounds to detangle, to separate reality from memory.

Thud.

A fight.

Here and now, not on the ship. Not on the Star.

And then a scream.

Trini.

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