As I crossed in front of the crew’s quarters on my way back to my private station, a door glided open and Jes stepped out. She stopped as soon as she saw me.
“Second,” I said in acknowledgement, nodding at her.
“Hurly,” she replied, using my last name rather than my title of Captain. I didn’t mind her informality—I’d long resented the hierarchal structure of the space fleets—but it wasn’t like Jes to forgo what she saw as earned respect.
“How’s the shoulder?” Though I had work to do, something besides the ship’s gravity simulator held me to the spot.
She rolled it, wincing. “Tight but healing.” She seemed to waver but held eye contact in a way that I recognized as being pure Jes. “Can we talk?”
“Um, crew’s quarters are a little cramped right now…”
I realized at once this was to be a Serious Talk, requiring privacy and a delicacy of which I might not be capable, especially after learning what I had from Lead Commander Wren. Despite that, I had to give Jes my best attention. She’d saved my life on more than one occasion and would no doubt have opportunity to do so again.
“Come with me to my quarters. I wanted to check to see if the specs for circling were in yet.”
Jes’ face concealed her surprise, but having shared a tight living space with her for several years, I saw through it. I’d never invited anyone back to my quarters, the one luxury I maintained as Captain. Few others had their own living space. The doctor, the engineers simply because that level had the space, and a makeshift cabin for gunnery lead Kurinne because her post-traumatic stress after the near-miss take-off from Everine kept her from sleeping most nights.
We took the stairs, both preferring the busyness of walking. Usually Jes’ opinions took up the space between us, and the contrast made her silence all the more disconcerting. At the top of the second riser I made the sharp left to my cabin and waited for the door to recognize me. It opened, shuddering a little—I kept forgetting to have an engineer take a look at it.
“Come in,” I said over my shoulder as I walked through the doorway and waved on the info board above my desk. The specs had yet to arrive. My stomach eased.
“Anik, Captain’s door is acting up again. No rush, sometime after mess should be fine, I know you’re working on the grav.” Jes waved off her tablet and slid it into her chest plate, her smile sheepish.
“You do take care of me.” I returned her smile, thinking not for the first time how lost I’d be without her. Probably literally, considering her internal navigation was superior to my own in every way. ‘Earth-bound’, she liked to tease me.
“I’m glad to help. Wouldn’t want you getting stuck in here.”
“Ah, but then you’d be First. Not a promotion you’re after?”
She should have known I was teasing; I’d never once suspected she’d step over me. But she shook her head, solemn. “I don’t want your job. It’s yours because you’re the only one who can do it.”
“Is everything okay?” I asked, needing to know what was behind her furrowed brow and never one to wait patiently for exposition.
“Yeah, of course.” In one smooth movement she pulled back her shoulders and widened her stance, like a cat puffing up to appear bigger. On a subconscious level it worked and some of my concern alleviated, but at the forefront of my mind I recognized it was a ploy, self-defence.
She continued, “Just, gets overwhelming sometimes. Floating in the nothing, touching down only once every few months, knocking out Searchers and never hearing anything.” She slumped, her collarbones becoming prominent with her shoulders falling forward. I forced myself back into her words, my eyes on hers.
“It’s the mission,” I said, voice soft, easing the cat’s fur back. You don’t have to be so big with me, I wanted to say but didn’t.
“It’s more than that—” She cut herself off, maybe as surprised as I was by her abrupt tone. “Sorry, Captain.” She moved past me, standing in front of my cabin door with her back to me. Etiquette dictated that I stand beside her to let her out, since the door wouldn’t recognize or obey her. I decided to be rude, but watched carefully for signs that she really did want out and away from me. It was almost painful to follow my instincts because being wrong could hurt our friendship, something I care about more than even the mission.
I put my hand on her shoulder. “Jes—”
She turned hard on her heel to face me. Her hand came up to knock mine off but it seemed accidental, it was simply in the way, because now both her hands were on my shoulders, and she stood a mere half-metre from my face. The few centimetres of height she had on me disappeared with proximity. I was looking at her collarbones again, the dips in her brown skin, her skeleton seeming barely contained.
I knew what was happening but I couldn’t move. I was her captain, there was an imbalance of power. Even if I were sure, I couldn’t trust myself, couldn’t forgive myself if she wasn’t sure. But when she pulled her hands back, I missed the warmth, and my body was moving without express permission. I grabbed her hands, replaced them, held them.
Then she kissed me. With our bulky suits and mass of hands between us, my mouth felt everything, undistracted. There was the waxy slide of the honey balm we used to defend against the arid manufactured air. Her mouth opened and she breathed, and though it had occurred to me before that we’d shared a million common breaths on this ship, never had I tasted her like this. My grip on her hands tightened—how long could I hold her against me, how much of herself could she share?
Why now, when the truth of our mission had been revealed to me, and I could never tell her?