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cybertemptation: a love story based on true events that really happened

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“So,” says Jacqui, propping her chin in her hand as she watches Aria move about the small kitchen, “anything exciting happen while I was away?”

 

Aria flops into the chair opposite her, a wide grin on her face.

 

“You’re not going to believe this ,” says Aria.

 

--

 

Cass drums their fingers on the table. Being made to wait like this is a tactic, they know, but the inaction of it is still annoying, and a little worrying. There's always a chance that Mako's fogging isn't as good as he claims it is. They drum their fingers again, trying to keep their shoulders relaxed.

 

There's a hiss and a click as the door unseals. Cass's eyes flick to the doorway. They're careful to keep the rest of their body relaxed, slouched back in the chair, a position designed to look comfortable but really isn't. They hope they're not going to have a pulled muscle after this.

 

“Kallius, sorry to keep you waiting.”

 

Cass tilts their head. “I understand these things take time.”

 

Ameraldo Redichi, possible smuggler and definite murderer, smiles at them. Cass smiles back, and hopes it looks genuine. Or as genuine as Kallius, small-time burglar with big-time gambling debts, should look.

 

“So” says Ameraldo, clapping his hands and rubbing them together, “I hear you're looking for a job.”

 

“Looking to collaborate on a job,” says Cass.

 

All they have to do is draw this out long enough so Mako and Aria can get into Ameraldo’s office. They just need to keep him talking.

 

Ameraldo holds up his hands. “Of course, of course. Collaborate.”

 

“I assume your people have checked the details I gave you?” says Cass.

 

The faked details of a warehouse, secure but not too secure, the log full of the sort of mundane items that were easy to sell and hard to trace. Mako had had a lot of fun fogging that one up, his imagination running a little wild on some of the rarer items.

 

“Yeah, looks like a real sweet deal. But I can see why you'd want a little outside assistance.”

 

Ameraldo's face gives nothing away. Cass feels like one big clenched fist. They hope the tension isn't showing on their face. They hope Mako fogged Ameraldo’s system as good as he talked.

 

Of, if not, they hoped Aria was getting ready with that backup plan. As embarrassing as her idea for an out had been, better to be embarrassed than dead.

 

“And are you willing to be that assistance?” says Cass.

 

“Depends how much that assistance is worth to you.”

 

Cass pretends to consider things for a moment, as though they didn't walk in here with their opening gambit prepared.

 

“Sixty-forty.”

 

-----

 

Jacqui holds her cup of coffee in front of her, the sunlight pouring in on their small apartment on COUNTER/Weight making her green hair look almost blue.

 

“Cass ain’t that dumb,” says Jacqui dubiously, taking a sip of coffee.

 

Aria nods in agreement, adding more fruit and whey protein into the blender. “Right, but Kallius was.”

 

-----

 

Ameraldo raises an eyebrow. “You're asking for a lot of assistance. Eighty-twenty.”

 

“Seventy-thirty,” says Cass, “you've checked my financials by now. You know I can't take any lower than that or I may as well try to go for it myself and take my chances with the law.”

 

Ameraldo pauses, and then grins. The fluorescent light of the room gleams on his platinum teeth.

 

“You've got yourself a deal, kid,” says Ameraldo. “But you're gonna owe me for this.”

 

Cass nods. That's fine. They don't intend to be Kallius for long after they leave this room.

 

Ameraldo stands. “Come, we'll discuss the details in my office.”

 

“Right now?” says Cass.

 

Shit.

 

Ameraldo raises his eyebrows at Cass again. “My office is one of the few locations on this rock secure enough to do business.”

 

“Right,” says Cass, “of course. It's just-- I'm honoured. That you think this is a big enough deal for a secure location.”

 

They've got to keep Ameraldo out of his office, that's the whole reason they're going through this whole charade instead of breaking in. Locks that are only susceptible to being hacked in the tiny window of time after Ameraldo has unlocked them, systems that are only traceable after he's accessed them, corridors that lock at random intervals with the path in or out only known to Ameraldo himself.

 

Ameraldo laughs. “I didn't get to where I am today by talking about my work where just anyone could hear. Come on.”

 

Outside, there's yelling, the distant noise of someone making a fuss-- Aria coming to their rescue at last.

 

Ameraldo frowns, his hand going to his gun. Cass's weapons are with the security guard out the front of the building, locked under eight layers of security. They hope Aria's still at good a dramatic performer as she is a singer.

 

The door slams open. It's not Aria.

 

It's Mako.

 

“Kallius, there you are! I've been waiting for you for ages ,” says Mako, pouting at Cass.

 

-----

 

Jacqui chokes on the protein shake that Aria insists they both drink now, like Jacqui isn’t mostly synthetic material created to be strong, and powerful, and good at killing. It's a sweet gesture, in its way.

 

No ,” says Jacqui, “No way, I know exactly how this is going to end and there’s no way it can be good.”

 

Aria smirks.

 

----

 

Mako heads swiftly towards Cass, ignoring Ameraldo. He bends to kiss Cass on their cheek. Cass tilts up to him, reaching up to put their hand in Mako's shoulder and block their faces from Ameraldo's view.

 

“Where’s Aria?” hisses Cass.

 

“She got held up, she said you needed a second body in the room for an exit,” whispers Mako. Louder, he adds. “Not to rush you, babe, but remember we’re supposed to meet your sister for dinner. And you know how she gets when we're late.”

 

Mako turns towards Ameraldo, his hand still on Cass's shoulder, possessively curling around Cass's shirt collar. “She always gives me an earful, like I'm the one who’s making us late! She thinks I'm a bad influence.”

 

“You are,” says Cass.

 

They're not entirely sure where that came from. It's certainly not part of the previously-agreed-upon Kallius backstory. Mako grins at them, delighted, so Cass figures it must have been the right call.

 

“Only in all the best ways,” says Mako.

 

His hand slides around the back of Cass's neck, and Cass feels themselves flush. This was definitely not part of the Kallius backstory.

 

“Well,” says Ameraldo, voice tinged with laughter. “I see we'll have to hammer out the details later.”

 

“Right,” says Cass. It's hard to think with Mako's hand on the back of their neck, overheating their skin. “Right, yes. Sorry.”

 

Ameraldo chuckles. “No need to apologise. Been in the same situation a number of times myself over the years.”

 

Thank you,” says Mako emphatically. “I'm so glad my Kallius is working with someone so understanding. Not like the scoundrels they usually work with.”

 

Ameraldo laughs, putting his hand on his chest. “Understanding. I like that.” He pauses. “I'm having a small get together at my apartments tomorrow night. Why don't you and... “

 

“Taylor,” says Mako brightly, “Drillbot Taylor.”

 

---

 

“Absolutely not,” Jacqui says.

 

A quiet moment in between meetings has allowed Aria to continue her story from breakfast. Jacqui's not finding it any more believable now than she found it that morning.

 

“Oh, it’s one of his favorites,” Aria says, fixing her eye make-up from cry-laughter.

 

“Does he still use it now?” asks Jacqui.

 

Aria shrugs, and then squares her shoulders as another group of faction leaders comes into focus. Back to work.

 

----

 

“Why don't you and Mr. Taylor come by, and we can work out the details then?”

 

Mako gasps. “A party? We'd love to.”

 

“That's what I like to hear,” says Ameraldo.

 

Mako takes Cass's hand, pulling them out of the room behind him, talking loudly about the family dinner Drillbot Taylor is about to suffer through in the name of love. Some of the guards frown at the two of them as Mako leads them towards the exit and some smirk , but their hands stay away from their weapons, so Cass certainly isn't going to complain. At least not until they're out of earshot.

 

A car screeches to a halt in front of the doors.

 

“I called us a cab,” says Mako loudly, “we'll be late otherwise.”

 

“Good idea, um, babe,” says Cass.

 

He shoves Cass towards the door, and it clicks open. Aria is in the driver's seat, her long hair bunched up messily under a cap. Most of the backseat seems to be taken up by a pile of coats.

 

Mako tumbles in after them. When Cass hits the pile of coats it feels hard and cold, and lets out an annoyed grumble in AuDy's tone of voice.

 

“Stay down,” says Aria.

 

“You think they still have eyes on us?” says Cass.

 

They had let go of Mako's hand when they got in the car, but now they slip their arm around Mako's waist, pulling him close. Anyone looking in would only see a couple, leaning close together in the back of this speeding cab.

 

Aria flicks them a glance in the rearview mirror. “Give it another block or two.”

 

Mako leans close into Cass. They can feel his heart beating double time where Mako's pressed against them. The car swings around a curve and Cass tightens their arm around Makos waist. Mako falls a little, one hand curling around the lapels of Cass's jacket. He looks up at Cass, eyes wide, taking a breath and then pressing his lip together.

 

They're distantly aware of the sound of Aria swearing at the other drivers.

 

“Sorry!” she calls back to them.

 

They tear their eyes away from Mako, still feeling very aware of Mako's body pressed hot against them.

 

“No problem,” says Cass.

 

“It is, actually,” says AuDy, from under the coats.

 

Cass shifts so that they're not leaning too heavily into AuDy. “Sorry.”

 

“Not that,” says AuDy, “well, yes, that, but also the other thing.”

 

“What other thing?” says Cass.

 

“The files,” says Mako, “they're only half there.”

 

Cass looks back down at Mako. “What do you mean only half there?”

 

“There's a reference to another drive,” says Mako, “all the files connect back to it. The stuff we pulled is basically useless without it.”

 

Cass sighs, running a hand through their hair. “So this was all for nothing.”

 

“Not exactly,” says Mako, “I know where the other drive is and we have a perfect in to get to it.”

 

“Great,” says Cass, “where is it?”

 

Mako bites his lip. “Um. So you know how Ameraldo invited us to dinner tomorrow?”

 

“Yes,” says Cass, “wait, no. We're not doing that.”

 

“Sure we are!” says Mako, “It's the perfect cover!”

 

“It's a terrible cover,” says Cass. “This cover was supposed to be an emergency exit not a long-term thing! And you weren't even supposed to be involved!”

 

“If it weren't for this cover you'd be stuck in Ameraldo's office right now,” says Mako.

 

The car jerks sharply again, accompanied by Aria's cursing, and Mako half-falls into their lap. Cass tightens their grip around Mako's waist to stop him sliding into AuDy.

 

“It's not detailed enough to withstand that kind of scrutiny,” says Cass.

 

“So we’ll make it more detailed,” says Mako.

 

Cass sighs. “Mako.”

 

“Cass,” Mako intones back.

 

Up the front, Aria laughs. Cass frowns at her.

 

“No, listen,” says Mako, “I can add stuff in, back it up, it'll be fine.”

 

“We really can't get to it any other way?” asks Cass.

 

“You're the one who wanted to try sneaking in,” says Aria.

 

“Yeah, and we tried it,” says Cass.

 

“Yes, and it worked,” says AuDy, their tone muffled by the coats.

 

“Barely,” says Cass.

 

“Hey!” says Mako, twisting to look up at Cass.

 

Cass doesn't look down, feeling conscious of how close their faces would be at the angle. They can feel Mako's hand, still curled around their lapels, fiddling with a torn seam.

 

They sigh. “Security's probably going to be even heavier at his house .”

 

“Yeah,” says Mako, “that's why it's a better idea to be sneaky instead of just trying to blow a hole in his house.”

 

“Would that work?” says Cass.

 

“Not if we actually wanted to get the information,” says Mako.

 

Aria flicks her eyes to meet Cass's in the mirror. “Hey. If you really don't want to do this…”

 

Cass takes a deep breath in and out, not quite a sigh. Mako's body moves with them where he's still half lying on top, warm and pliant despite the bumpy ride.

 

“No, it's-- you're right,” says Cass. “We already have an in. It's the cleanest way.”

 

Mako tugs their lapel. “I knew you'd see it my way.”

 

Mako leans his head against their chest, body relaxing on theirs even further. He stays that way for the rest of the ride.

 

--

 

Jacqui kisses the top of Aria's head where they're curled together on the couch.

 

“That's sweet,” she says, “I don't know that I believe it, but that's sweet.”

 

“Hey, would I lie to you?”

 

Jacqui huffs a laugh. “No. But you would exaggerate.”

 

“Maybe,” says Aria, “but every word is true, I swear .”

 

--

 

Cass feels thankful they used their fake name when they rented the hotel room. If they are still being tracked, at least things will still line up. The glow of the projection of Ameraldo's apartments illuminates the group's features from below as they work through their plan of entry.

 

“Okay so, they open the door, how do the two of you look?” says Aria.

 

“Uh,” says Mako. He looks down at his own bright shirt and then across to Cass's green-grey one. “Like this?”

 

“No, I mean, because Ameraldo thinks Kallius and Drillbot Taylor are a couple. So how do you look ?”

 

Cass shuffles their feet a little, so they’re standing closer to Mako. Aria folds her arms.

 

“I’ve seen you both stand closer to strangers on the Starlight,” says Aria, “at least put an arm around each other or something.”

 

Cass hesitates, their arm bumping into Mako’s awkwardly as they both try to put an arm around each other’s shoulders at the same time.

 

--

 

Jacqui lets out a loud, sudden laugh.

 

--

 

“It might be simpler if we just break in,” says AuDy.

 

“You two seemed fine at this in the car before,” says Aria.

 

Cass feels themselves flush. “That was different! We were in a dangerous situation. I wasn't thinking about arm placement.”

 

“Exactly,” says Mako, nodding along.

 

“You're about to head into a dangerous situation,” says Aria, “the kind that would go better if you could both relax .”

 

Cass awkwardly drapes their arm over Mako's shoulders, still barely touching him. Mako wriggles, making a face.

 

“Well don't do that ,” says Aria, “Maybe you should hold hands instead?”

 

“Can't we just do it when we get there?” says Mako, “it worked okay in the moment last time.”

 

“Fine! Fine,” says Aria, “if your body language is weird, maybe Ameraldo will just think you had a fight or something. We should at least work out some specifics, if case you get asked about your relationship.”

 

Cass feels Mako tense up under their arm.

 

“This is a business meeting between criminals,” says Cass, “I don't think it's going to come up.”

 

“Even criminals make small talk,” says Aria, “just the basics, come on. How long have you been together?”

 

“Six months,” says Cass.

 

“Two years and three and a half months,” says Mako at the same time.

 

--

 

Jacqui gives Aria a look.

 

“Yeah,” says Aria, “that's what I thought too.”

 

--

 

“You really think it would have been that long?” says Cass.

 

“Sure,” says Mako, “why not?”

 

“I didn't think Drillbot Taylor was the kind to settle down.”

 

“He wasn't,” says Mako, “and then he met Kallius.”

 

There's an odd tone to his voice Cass can't quite figure out. If they could see his expression they might be able to crack it, but Mako is looking down at part of the hologram, thin blue fingers sweeping lines of distortion through the image.

 

Aria clears her throat. “Okay. Two years and three and half months it is. And how did Drillbot Taylor and Kallius meet?”

 

“Kallius was in a bar and Drillbot Taylor picked their pocket,” says Mako, before Cass even has a chance to try and think of anything, “He thought they looked cute from their ID.”

 

“And Kallius decided to date this guy who stole from him,” says AuDy.

 

“Drillbot bought them a drink or something to make up for it, I don't know,” says Mako, “Maybe he returned their wallet without them noticing so they didn't know it even happened.”

 

“Hmm,” says AuDy.

 

Mako's cheeks are flushed. He's not usually so easy to fluster about his plans, but Cass supposes they are pushing him for more detail than usual.

 

“I really don't think they'll need that much detail,” says Cass, “that's probably enough.”

 

“Yes,” says AuDy, “we should focus on the job.”

 

Aria sighs. “Fine.”

 

Ameraldo's apartments are actually four different apartments, built separately and then remodeled to be connected together. There are a few photos of them floating around the mesh of the more public spaces, from fancy events and the occasional interview Ameraldo has given over the years. Mako can only give a sketch of the inner sections of the top two layers.

 

“This is what the floorplans say it looks like,” says Mako, gesturing to the hologram in front of him, “but I'm guessing if you use your home as your super secret crime base, you probably aren't following bylaws about submitting accurate floorplans.”

 

“Probably not,” says Cass.

 

They press their lips together. Even the floor plan they can see and confirm looks like a maze, corridor twisting and ending in dead ends. Going into a situation without a solid plan is one thing-- if the war taught them anything it's that going into somewhere with a too-rigid plan is sometimes worse than no plan at all-- but it's the absence of information that bothers them the most. They don't even know what kind of security measures they should be on the lookout for.

 

When they look over to Mako, he doesn't look too certain either, worrying his lip between his teeth as he spins the projection of Ameraldo's apartments around and around.

 

“Hey,” says Cass, leaning over to put their hand on top of his. “I can go by myself.”

 

“No you can't,” says AuDy.

 

“I'm not going to force anyone to walk into danger for me,” says Cass.

 

“I want to come,” says Mako. He pauses. “And besides, AuDy's right. You can't hack for shit, and even if you could you're not nearly good enough to go up against that system. And I already said I’d go.”

 

“No, Drillbot Taylor said he’d go,” says Cass, “Maybe… maybe he and Kallius had a fight and so Kallius has to go on their own.”

 

“What would they fight about?” says Mako, “They’re in love.”

 

Something twists in Cass’s stomach.

 

“They can still have fights,” says Cass, “Maybe Drillbot Taylor got into a fight with Kallius’s sister or something.”

 

Mako makes a face. “I think it would take more than that for Drillbot Taylor to back out on dinner plans with them.”

 

“I don’t know that Drillbot Taylor is that dedicated to following through,” says Cass.

 

“He’s been with Kallius for over two years ,” says Mako, “I think that should count for something .”

 

“People do lots of things for years,” says Cass, “that doesn’t mean they can’t still argue with each other.”

 

“If you don’t want me to come with you on this just say so,” says Mako.

 

“It’s not about what I want , it’s about not putting people in danger if they don’t need to be,” says Cass.

 

“Mako does need to be,” says AuDy.

 

“Exactly!” says Mako, “How are do you think you’re going to get the files?”

 

“I could…” Cass thinks for a moment, searching for options, “You could talk me through it over our comms.”

 

“What if they notice the comms?!” says Mako.

 

“They will definitely notice the comms,” says AuDy.

 

Mako gestures wildly at AuDy.

 

Cass sighs. “You guys really think this is the best way huh?”

 

“No,” says Aria quietly, “but it’s the best way we’ve got.”

 

“It would be the best way anyway,” mutters Mako.

 

“So,” continues Aria, “what are you going to wear?”

 

----

 

Jacqui puts two fingers to Aria’s lips and Aria falls immediately silent, her eyes going wide.

 

“You really don’t have to give me the full outfit montage,” says Jacqui.

 

Aria presses a soft kiss to the tips of Jacqui’s fingers, tilting her head back a fraction. Her breath ghosts over Jacqui’s fingers, the fog of her breath ghosting over the metal for a moment.

 

“Why don’t you rest your voice for a while?”

 

Aria nods, her hands sliding up Jacqui’s chest to rest on her shoulders, her fingers running through the short hairs on the base of Jacqui’s neck.

 

Aria grins. “Good idea.”

 

“Shhh,” says Jacqui, leaning down to kiss her.

 

----

 

Mako slips his hand into theirs when they're a block out. Cass looks down at their joined hands and then slowly back to Mako's face.

 

Mako shrugs, a faint purple blush spreading over his blue skin. “We're a couple, remember?”

 

“And we're hardened criminals,” says Cass, keeping their voice low, “I didn't think they were given to public displays.”

 

“Sure they are,” says Mako, “and anyway, Drillbot Taylor is an affectionate guy.”

 

“Please tell me you aren't going to refer to yourself in third person this entire night,” says Cass.

 

“Maybe,” he says, drawing out the word.

 

“I'm serious,” says Cass, “We don't want to draw any more attention than we have to, we just have to get in, get the files, and get out. No big displays, nothing showy.”

 

Mako pouts. Cass has seen that expression too often when Mako is trying to get out of doing the dishes to be moved by it, but they don’t remove their hand from his. Mako swings their hands back and forth as they walk. Something about the motion makes Cass's stomach flip-flop in time with Mako's swings.

 

Ameraldo's apartments are in a relatively nice part of town, the streets kept clean and the rubbish kept out of sight. The building itself is older but well-maintained, the newer additions that Ameraldo has made shine smooth and polished. Those additions have no windows.

 

As they approach, a car pulls up in front. Two very large people get out, scowling up at the building as they head inside. One of them glances in Cass and Mako’s direction and Mako stops short. He turns to Cass, running his hands up the lapels of Cass's jacket in a show of straightening them.

 

Mako leans up, pressing a kiss to their cheek. Cass hopes the sound of their sharp inhale is lost to traffic noise.

 

“You ready?” says Mako quietly.

 

Cass swallows and nods. Mako nods back. He takes hold of their hand again as they head up to the door, giving them a quick squeeze before he rings the doorbell.

 

A camera snakes out of the wall in front of them and Mako grins widely up at it, wriggling the fingers of his free hand in a cheerful wave.

 

The door clicks open, sliding back to admit them.

 

Here goes nothing , thinks Cass, a steps through the door.

 

Mako follows, his hand tightly clutching theirs. Despite their unease over the situation and bringing Mako into it, his hand feels reassuring in theirs.

 

The lights in the hallway ahead of them flicker on, leading them through the winding corridors, showing them which turns to make when. The walls are lined with screen's, showing a much brighter view outside than you would ever be able to see through the smog.

 

Cass is just starting to get a sinking feeling in their stomach, the slow-building realisation that they're not entirely sure of the way out, when they emerge into a large room. This room is also lined with screens but unlike the small false windows of the corridor, these run floor to ceiling, giving a high view of the whole city.

 

Mako makes an appreciative noise, letting go of Cass's hand to step closer and press his face to the screen as though he was looking out onto a real view.

 

“Quite a sight, isn't it?” says Ameraldo, from behind them.

 

Cass hesitates for a moment. “Much better than the real thing.”

 

Ameraldo laughs. “That's right, that's right. Kallius, Drillbot, I'm glad you could come by tonight.”

 

“Of course!” says Mako brightly, “It was so nice of you to invite both of us.”

 

Mako's grin is wide and false around the edges. In that way, it looks a little like the one Ameraldo is wearing.

 

“I always try to be nice about business opportunities,” says Ameraldo, “My parent, god rest their soul, used to say be nice first, you can always be mean later , and I've found it's a good model for this life.”

 

Mako nods enthusiastically. “Oh exactly, exactly.” He gives Cass a sidelong look. “Your sister could stand to learn that.”

 

“She's not that bad,” says Cass quickly.

 

Ameraldo laughs. “Family dinner didn't go so well?”

 

“Oh, you should have heard her,” says Mako.

 

Cass wishes there was some way to get Mako to tone it down. His being there was supposed to help Cass fly under the radar a little more. Instead, Mako launches into a complicated and dramatic description including, the Cass's horror, voices.

 

“Sorry,” says Cass, when Mako pauses for breath, “are we making you late for dinner?”

 

“Not at all,” says Ameraldo easily, “in my house dinner waits for me . It waits for me most other places too. But I suppose we should be making a move. Don't want the others getting restless.”

 

He leads them, nodding sympathetically as Mako continues his tale. They've gone a few corridors when one of the plot threads Mako is detailing starts to sound familiar. Their eyebrows raise higher, memory sparking now that they know what to look for in Mako's tale.

 

“Here we are,” says Ameraldo, interrupting Mako to spread his arms wide.

 

The room is certainly deserving of the gesture-- high, intricately painted ceilings arch high over polished marble floors. The room is empty of decoration, letting the brightly tiled walls give it color. The hologram fire in the fireplace that takes up the majority of the back wall gives the room light. In the center is a long table made of steel and glass. Three of the black metal chairs are empty.

 

“Whoa,” says Mako. He turns to Cass. “Babe, why can't all of your jobs involve dinners in places like this?”

 

Ameraldo laughs, saving Cass from having to answer.

 

He claps Mako on the shoulder. “Maybe now they will. Let's see how this job goes first.”

 

Ameraldo walks to the head of the table, leaving Cass and Mako to take the two seats closest to the door. Cass sighs inwardly with relief.

 

They lean in close to Mako as the two of them move to sit down.

 

“I can't believe you took Kallius’s family story from the last six months of As The Comet Turns ,” whispers Cass.

 

Mako presses his lips together, not able to fully hide his grin. “ I can't believe you noticed.”

 

“Welcome,” says Ameraldo, “I'm glad you could all make it out tonight, you know I always like it if I can have all the parties of a plan together before we really start to move forward. You might have noticed we have two new faces here, Kallius and Drillbot. Kallius is interested in making a partnership, and some of you might like to see if you'd be interested in what they have to offer.”

 

Cass smiles awkwardly, in a way that they hope reads as ‘nervous criminal' and not as someone mentally blanching at what they can remember about the rap sheets and reputations of the rest of the table.

 

“Yes, hello,” says Mako, “this is Kallius and I'm Drillbot, their boyfriend . I don't have any business proposals for you but I've been told that I'm exceptionally charming.”

 

“Who told you that?” says Cass.

 

“You do, babe,” says Mako, waggling his eyebrows at them, “every night.”

 

Several people at the table, including Ameraldo, laugh, and Cass feels themself flush. Aria was right, they should have locked it down before they went in. At least then they'd have some way to get a handle on Mako and pull him back a little. Once they’re out of here, they are going to have to have words with Mako about agreed upon backstory and dynamic.

 

Still, the joke makes the other people at the table relax slightly, their eyes sliding off Cass and Mako and back towards Ameraldo.

 

He doesn’t say anything Cass didn’t already know-- the expansion of his shipping fleet is continuing steadily, and the rest in attendance tonight work as head of docks on other planets. Cass is careful to keep their face interested without focusing too long on any one person.

 

Parts of the walls slide back to let service bots roll out, carrying dinner plates. They set down plates of fish, tiny parsley laurels on their heads. Cass's hand twitches, stopping themselves from reaching to touch the golden leaves resting on their own head.

 

“I apologise, Kallius,” says Ameraldo, “My other guests insisted on fish and it didn't occur to me until later that it might be a sore subject. I don’t have many social dinners with Apostolosians.”

 

Ameraldo's words are casual, but the rest of the table is watching them closely.

 

“It's fine,” says Cass, careful to keep their voice even and their posture loose and relaxed, “I've lived here a long time. Apostolos is more like a bedtime story than something that needs loyalty.”

 

Under the table, Mako squeezes their hand and Cass has to suppress a flinch. They hadn’t even realized Mako’s hand was still tangled in theirs.

 

----

 

“That's a shitty power move,” says Jacqui.

 

Aria hums in agreement, running her hand up and down Jacqui's bare arm, pressing their bodies closer together. Jacqui shifts her arm, sliding it further around Aria's waist. The sound of rain against the hull of the ship makes everything seem peaceful.

 

----

 

After the meal, the table slides away into sections, steel legs levering up to form high cocktail tables. Ameraldo makes his way from table to table, speaking at length with each separate group.

 

“Hey,” says Cass, “can you, you know…”

 

“To the table?” says Mako.

 

“No, to... “ they look around, trying to assess where the best route further into the apartment would be. They need to get upstairs. “...to the droid entrance. We'll go through there.”

 

Mako's eyes lose a little focus as his gaze turns inward. Cass leans in close, blocking Mako's expression from the rest of the room's view. They're not sure how much experience the rest of them have with strati but they'd rather not add in another risk.

 

Ameraldo claps his hand on their back. “And how are the two lovebirds doing?”

 

Mako blinks, his reaction slowed as he comes back to himself.

 

“Great,” says Cass, trying to cover the pause, “Drillbot was just saying the other night he wished we could go to a nice place for dinner and this is the nicest place I think I've ever been in.”

 

“Well, if this job works out, maybe they'll be more nights like this one,” says Ameraldo, “Not so many dinners at your sister's huh?”

 

“Oh, babe,” sighs Mako dramatically, reaching across the table to cover their hands with his, “taking me out to all the nice places, just like you always said you'd do one day.”

 

Ameraldo chuckles. “Someone true to their word. I like that. I'll be back around to talk business later.”

 

And with that he moves on to the next high table. The eyes of the rest of the room follow him as he goes.

 

Now's the perfect time.

 

Cass clears their throat, tilting their head towards the door. Mako gives them a quick nod, slipping out from his seat. Cass takes a deep breath before copying the motion. Their whole body feels tense.

 

The wall behind them slides open, the movement not as smooth as earlier, and they pull Mako in behind them. The wall slides shut, plunging them both into darkness.

 

“Can you turn on some lights?” whispers Cass.

 

“There aren’t any,” Mako whispers back, “I think all the service bots here have night vision.”

 

“Great,” says Cass.

 

They reach out with their free hand, feeling along the wall. Mako follows without much resistance, clutching their hand tight. Cass rubs their thumb over the outside of Mako’s hand in a way that they hope feels reassuring.

 

“Can you look for the exit?” says Cass.

 

“It’s really dark in here,” says Mako, “I can’t look for anything.”

 

Cass rolls their eyes. “With fogging, Mako. Can you look with fogging .”

 

“Oh,” says Mako, “Right.”

 

His grip on their hand relaxes a little, and Cass slows their pace so they don’t lose him.

 

A light patch in the darkness opens a little ways ahead of them. Cass lets out a breath they didn’t even realise they’d been holding.

 

They peer out from the doorway. No sign of guards, but in a place like this that doesn’t mean no security.

 

“We’re in a blindspot,” whispers Mako, “if we time it right we should be able to go from blindspot to blindspot without triggering a system alert.”

 

“You got it?”

 

“Oh, yeah,” says Mako, grinning, “I got it.”

 

Mako pulls him out of the doorway, which closes behind them back into the seamless viewscreen of the outside world, and presses them flat against the wall opposite. He’s not forceful, but Cass feels like all the breath is knocked out of them by the motion of Mako’s body against theirs. Mako’s eyes have a glazed look, focused on something high on the wall.

 

“What--”

 

“Camera paths,” says Mako, sounding a little breathless, “Just-- trust me, okay?”

 

Cass takes a deep breath. “Okay.”

 

They edge along the wall, Mako leading them around one corner and then another. Occasionally he pauses, mind working at something Cass can’t see.

 

Mako’s so distracted he doesn’t notice the non-mesh, very real guard rounding the same turn they’re about to make. Cass pulls Mako back sharply, flattening them both against the wall and pinning Mako underneath them like Mako had done to them earlier, their hand over his mouth to muffle his squeak of surprise.

 

The guard pauses. Cass stares very hard at the wall, willing luck to be on their side for once. Just this once .

 

The guard continues on their way and Cass relaxes, letting out a long, quiet breath as their footsteps fade from earshot.

 

“Is, um, are they gone?” whispers Mako, his voice muffled by their hand.

 

His lips brush against their palm as he speaks. Cass suddenly processes how close they are, how tightly Mako must be pinned between them and the wall. He wriggles a little, fingers hot where they curl around Cass’s wrist to move their hand away from his mouth.

 

“Yes, we’re fine, I think,” says Cass.

 

Mako nods, then wriggles again, trying to squirm out from under them. They swallow, stepping back quickly. Mako tugs at Cass’s wrist, keeping them close. There’s not much of a gap between their bodies and it makes Cass feel as though there’s no enough space for them to breath deeply. It’s dizzying.

 

“The cameras,” says Mako.

 

“Right,” says Cass, “the cameras. Right.” They pause, taking a breath to refocus. “Which way?”

 

Mako slips his hand into theirs, pulling them the direction the guard had come from. “Security room’s not far.”

 

“Good,” says Cass, “I can’t wait to get out of here.”

 

Mako hesitates for a moment before he continues to pull them forward along the wall. “Yeah. Me too.”

 

True to the rest of the building, the security room proves tricky to find. They walk past it a few times, backtracking to find it. The door is almost indistinguishable from the rest of the wall, only made noticeable if you really look at the depiction of the skyline, the way the city lights on the security room’s door flicker out of time with the rest of the wall.

 

The door slides back under Mako’s careful eye, and he looks over his shoulder to grin at Cass. They grin back, feeling something warm uncurl in their chest. Watching Mako do this is like watching Aria mid-concert, a person full of delight in their strengths.

 

For such a secure facility, the security room seems like any other-- the dark room is lit by banks of monitors and switchboards that Cass only has half an understanding of, mixed with the regular mess people leave at their workstations, food wrappers that missed the bin and a mag left open on one of the screens, half-way through an article.

 

Mako lets go of Cass’s hand to stretch his arms high above his head, tight neon pink t-shirt riding up slightly under his jacket. Cass looks away quickly, pretending to look at the mag article.

 

“I’ll keep a look out,” says Cass.

 

They stand awkwardly by the door, careful not to touch anything, while Mako hovers over the panels, his hands fluttering above the switchboards.

 

“Careful,” says Cass.

 

Mako waves a hand, tension going into his shoulders. The screens flicker, images of the various apartment rooms replaced with lines of code flying past too fast for Cass to be able to catch anything.

 

Cass folds their arms over their chest, ears straining for any outside noise as they watch Mako work. It’s strange to see Mako so focused, or, no, not that. It’s strange to see Mako so focused and serious , with no grin tugging at his lips or laughing glint in his eyes.

 

They shake themselves, leaning closer to the door. Was that--

 

The click-click-click of the security guards’ heels as they walk towards the room is unmistakable. Cass’s stomach sinks, fear making their chest feel too tight to breathe. They move quickly to Mako, carefully putting a hand on his shoulder.

 

“We need to go,” says Cass.

 

“No,” says Mako, “I have it, I just, I almost have it.”

 

The footsteps are getting closer and Cass twitches. They look between the door and Mako, worrying their lip.

 

“Mako, come on,” whispers Cass.

 

“I’m going as fast as I can,” whispers back Mako, “I can’t force it to send any faster or we’ll lose it, I just need like, a minute.”

 

“Well you haven’t got a minute,” says Cass.

 

The door rattles slightly as it begins to slide open.

 

“Shit,” says Mako, “Uh, Cass, go with me on this, okay? It’s just for a minute.”

 

“Go with you on--”

 

Mako’s pulls them towards him, his mouth on theirs and his hand going to the back of their head. He makes a soft sound into their mouth when they rest their hands on his sides, and another, deeper, sound when they run their hands under Mako’s bright jacket up his back.

 

For a moment Cass loses themself in it. There is no guard approaching, no group of dangerous people downstairs, no job on the line, no war on the horizon. There is only Mako, his hands hot through the fabric of Cass's shirt as Cass presses him back against the table.

 

“Who’s-- oh!” the guard clears their throat, “Excuse me. You’re not actually allowed in here.”

 

Mako peers around Cass, his right hand still tangled in Cass’s hair and the other still hot on their side. Cass can’t seem to make themself look away from Mako, the way his cheeks are flushed, the way his lipstick is smudged a little from Cass’s mouth.

 

“Oh, sorry,” says Mako, sounding breathless and not at all sorry.

 

Cass clears their throat. “We were just trying to find somewhere a little quiet. To talk.”

 

“Right,” says the guard, “Well, I’m going to have to ask that you find somewhere else to do that.”

 

“Right,” says Cass, “Yes, we… we'll do that.”

 

“Yep!” says Mako brightly.

 

“I’ll escort you back to the dining room,” says the guard.

 

“No, that’s okay,” says Cass.

 

“Yeah, no, we’re good,” says Mako, “I mean, we found our way here.”

 

He winks at Cass, which they can only assume means he's managed to transfer the file. The guard watches them both carefully as they head down the corridor. Cass slips their arm around Mako's waist, slowing their pace and ducking their head to murmur in Mako's ear.

 

“Did you get it?”

 

Mako inhales sharply. “Did I-- yeah. Yeah, no, I got it. Told you I only needed a minute.”

 

Cass feels themself flush. Their sense of time is all out-- they're not sure it was a minute. It had felt longer than that, and also like barely any time at all.

 

They steal glances at Mako, their sheepishness under the guard's gaze only partially an act. Mako's cheeks are still flushed, and for a moment they feel overheated, thinking about the others in the party downstairs seeing them both and guessing what had happened… although that was the point of the entire exercise. Everyone was supposed to think that, a smooth theft covered by a performance of a clumsy romance. Everything going according to plan.

 

Mako slips his hand into theirs as they headed back towards the party. Cass blinks in surprise at the touch, looking down at their joined hands for a moment before they look back to Mako's face.

 

“Oh,” says Mako, coming to a halt, “wait.”

 

Before Cass can question him, Mako is leaning up, gently wiping at their bottom lip with his thumb. They swallow hard.

 

“You had some lipstick on you,” says Mako quietly.

 

“Oh,” says Cass, “uh. Thanks?”

 

Mako shrugs, giving them a lopsided smile. “Hey, no problem.”

 

The other guests look up as they re-enter. Cass flushes, their nerves jumping under their skin. Ameraldo approaches them as they return to their table.

 

“Sorry,” says Cass, “we were just, um, I had to, um--”

 

“I had to go to the bathroom,” says Mako, sounding utterly unconvincing, “Kallius was... making sure I didn't get lost.”

 

Ameraldo raises his eyebrow. “Is that so?”

 

Cass freezes. “Yes?”

 

“We, um, maybe got a little distracted on the way back,” says Mako sheepishly, “It's mostly my fault, I've never been very good at refusing the advances of handsome people. I hope we haven’t disrupted the evening too much.”

 

Cass feels their cheeks flare with heat. Ameraldo laughs.

 

“As long as you can focus on the job, I can't fault you for that,” says Ameraldo.

 

“On the job is fine,” says Cass, “He's not coming with me.”

 

Ameraldo laughs again. “It seems that might be a good idea.”

 

Mako grins, sliding his chair closer to Cass's. “I suppose I'll just have to enjoy our time together while I can then.”

 

He slides his arm around Cass's shoulders, playing with the ends of Cass's hair. Cass shifts in their seat, feeling entirely too warm where Mako is pressed against him, a squirming feeling in the pit of his stomach.

 

“I'll return them to you once I'm finished, don't you worry,” says Ameraldo.

 

“I'll still worry,” says Mako.

 

He's speaking to Ameraldo, but he doesn't look away from Cass, and it makes Cass's chest feel tight. It’s probably from nerves, Cass thinks, they’re still in a dangerous situation. It must be nerves.

 

--

 

“Cass was right of course,” says Aria, a little out of breath, “they were still in a dangerous situation.”

 

Jacqui adjusts her grip on the punching bag. “Keep your fists high. But that’s not why they were nervous.”

 

Aria huffs a laugh, giving the bag two quick jabs. “No duh. And things were mostly non-dangerous until they started to walk out and then…”

 

“The Chime speciality,” says Jacqui, “everything running smooth until it explodes.”

 

“Literally,” says Aria.

 

--

 

“Shit,” says Cass, “shit, shit, shit.

 

They run down the red-lit corridor, half-pulling Mako behind them. Elsewhere in Ameraldo's apartments another explosion sounds as Mako overloads another part of the system, making the floor jump under their feet. The images that line the corridor flicker. Cass hopes they don't go out-- it's the only thing lighting their way in the gloom.

 

Cass skids to a stop at the corridor branches, looking back at Mako.

 

“This way,” says Mako.

 

He charges to the right, pulling Cass behind them the way they'd been pulling him earlier. As they round the next corner, Cass sees the wall slide open, the tip of a security bot’s rifle poking out.

 

Time slows down.

 

Cass yanks at Mako's hand, pulling him back out of the line of fire. Mako stumbles, tripping over his own feet and bringing Cass down with him, landing solidly on top of him. Laser fire sears into the screen's behind them, filling the corridors with the acrid smell of burning plastic.

 

Cass puts their hands either side of Mako's face. “Are you okay? Did you get hit?”

 

Mako covers one of Cass's hands with his, leaning on the ground with the other. Cass can feel his arm tremble a little. Mako's hand is shaking too, his fingertips brushing the back of Cass's hand.

 

Mako . Did you get hit?” they ask again.

 

Mako swallows. “No, I'm fine, I--”

 

The security bot fires a second round, the angle closer to their position on the ground.

 

Mako makes an annoyed sound at the back of his throat. Cass can feel the vibrations of it in their palms.

 

“Of all the-- we so don't have time to do this right now.”

 

“We don't have time for what?” says Cass.

 

Mako takes a deep breath. “Ask me later.”

 

He sits up, crouching under the line of fire to pull Cass up and out of the way, his hand curled in the sleeve of Cass's jacket. He keeps it there, the fabric clutches tight in his fingers, as they continue to head for the exit. His hand bumps against theirs as they run.

 

Finally, finally, they make it to the entry way, its grandeur somewhat lost under the glow of the red lights. Footsteps echo off the wall and the way the sounds bounce makes it impossible for Cass to tell how many there are, or where they're coming from. They swing their gun from side to side, panting.

 

Behind them, the front door rattles, making the horrible screeching sound of metal grinding against metal as it cracks open under Mako's eyes.

 

Mako tugs at Cass's sleeve. “Come on.”

 

Cass pushes him forward. “Go, I'm right behind you.”

 

“Oh no you don't,” says Mako. He changes his grip, taking Cass's hand tightly. “No self-sacrificing last stands from you tonight, let's go.”

 

He hauls Cass behind him as he wriggles through the gap. The door slams shut behind them, hissing at it locks and seals itself into place. For a moment, out on the porch, they just look at each other. Cass can hear people's fists slamming against the door, muffled yelling. Something rumbles under their feet, either another explosion or a very big mech.

 

“We should go,” says Cass.

 

Cass pulls Mako along for three blocks before Mako starts to lag behind in earnest, breath rattling.

 

“Starlight,” Mako manages between breaths, pointing at the sign to the underground stop.

 

Cass nods. They don't run, but they do keep their pace fast, trying to blend in with the crush of other commuters. Mako presses in close in with the crowd and Cass slips their arm around his waist to stop them from getting separated. Mako freezes for a moment, his body twitchy under their touch, before he slides his own arm around their waist under their jacket, his fingers curling around the hem of their shirt. His knuckles bump against their bare skin as someone jostles them, and Cass stifles a gasp.

 

It's easy to slip inside the train, pressed close together, rocking with the train's rhythmic movements. When they go to change trains, Cass keeps their arm around Mako. Mako gives them an indecipherable look from under his lashes, but he doesn't move his arm from around their side.

 

They switch trains a few more times before they make their way to the Kingdom Come in earnest. The gangplank rises as soon as they're in, the hull of the ship rattling as AuDy takes off.

 

Cass keeps their arm looped around Mako's waist to stop him falling over, gripping the side of the ship with their free hand. The ship rocks violently and Cass falls backwards against the wall, still holding tightly to Mako. Mako's arms are trapped between them, his palms hot through their shirt as he looks up at them.

 

Mako licks his lips. He opens his mouth, then closes again, biting his lip. Something in the pit of Cass's stomach clenches at the sight, and it makes their breath catch in their throat.

 

“You made it!” says Aria from above them.

 

Mako springs backwards, looking up at Aria. “Hey, hi! Yeah, we got it. Probably won't be able to go back to that part of town for a while.”

 

Aria laughs. “Probably not. Come on Drillbot Taylor, come help me decode what you managed to pull.”

 

“That we managed to pull,” says Cass.

 

“Team effort,” says Mako, still looking up at Aria, “I pulled the code and Cass pulled me out.”

 

Aria swings down, landing by Mako with a metallic thump . She glances back over her shoulder at them, and they shrug.

 

“I'm glad you guys managed to work better as a team in the moment than you did when we were going over the plan,” says Aria.

 

“I don't know if I'd go that far,” says Cass, “things almost exploded in our faces. Several times.”

 

“You mean you froze and I had to do some extraordinary quick thinking in order to bail you out,” says Mako, “Several times.”

 

“Telling people we were making out is not quick thinking,” says Cass.

 

“Was the making out before or after the literal explosion?” says AuDy, through the ship's coms.

 

“Uh,” says Cass, feeling themself blush under Aria's curious gaze.

 

“Before,” says Mako flippantly, “Anyway, we got the files, all we have to do now is decode them and send them through to Orth.”

 

“Right,” says Aria, “let's finish this so we can get paid.”

 

She slings her arm over Mako's shoulder, steering him towards the door. As she leaves she glances back at them, raising her eyebrow. Cass shrugs again. They’re not sure what Aria's asking them with her expression, so they can't answer with one of their own.

 

Mako doesn't need their help for this part. There's no reason for them to follow. Cass keeps leaning back against the hull of the ship, feeling the vibrations of the ship breaking through the atmosphere.

 

--

 

Jacqui leans back to admire the paintwork she’s just completed on the Regent's Brilliance. She looks back at Aria, who nods, still swinging her legs back and forth where she’s sitting on a table.

 

“So that’s when Mako told you his side of the story?” asks Jacqui.

 

“Sort of,” says Aria, “it was mostly just a lot of sighing.”

 

“I don’t know if you can say that that’s sort of telling you anything,” says Jacqui, “sometimes a sigh is just a sigh.”

 

Aria hops off the table. “Maybe if you don’t know what to listen for. But if you have the ear for it, a sigh can tell you anything.”

 

“Is that so?” says Jacqui.

 

“Yeah,” says Aria, smiling up at her, “for example--”

 

She plucks the paintbrush from Jacqui’s hands, going up on her tiptoes to kiss her. Aria’s hand curls around the back of Jacqui’s neck, her touch warm and soft on her skin. Despite herself, Jacqui sighs.

 

Aria leans back slightly, her lips brushing Jacqui’s as she speaks. “See. You can say a lot,  in a sigh.”

 

“I don’t know,” says Jacqui, “let me hear you from you, to be sure I’ve got it.”

 

Aria smiles, and leans in again.

 

--

 

Aria and Mako are in the ship's common room, the blue light of the screen illuminating them. Cass leans their shoulder against the doorway, watching Mako pick apart the coding for a moment before Aria motions them forward. She stands, patting Cass's shoulder on her way past.

 

“Be gentle,” she says quietly.

 

Cass frowns. “What?”

 

“You know what,” says Aria.

 

Cass approaches carefully, leaning their hip against the side of the chair as Mako works. Blue light illuminates Mako from below as code flicks by. He doesn't look up. Their arm twitches, almost going to slide around Mako's shoulders. It's strange how fast you can build an instinct for something. They flex their hand instead.

 

“I'm glad that job is over,” they say, “no more long-term cover story jobs. Or short-term cover story jobs.”

 

The lines of Mako's body tense where he's hunched over the holographic screen.

 

“Yeah,” says Mako, “what a relief, huh?”

 

“It was okay for you, you're great with the fake identities,” says Cass. “You love that stuff.”

 

“Yep, that's me,” says Mako.

 

Cass frowns. “Mako, are you alright?”

 

“Couldn't be better!” says Mako, his chair scraping as he stands, “Fantastic, actually.”

 

“Mako--”

 

“You know, this is pretty much done so I think I'm going to turn in,” says Mako, “all that pretending really takes it out of you.”

 

Mako slouches out of the room, heading towards his quarters.

 

Cass tilts their head back, looking up at the grey ceiling for a moment. Out of the corner of their eye, they can see the blue glow of the code.

 

The room feels too cramped, that's what it is. They need space. Or at least, the illusion of space. Something to take their mind off the memory of Mako's hunched shoulders.

 

Cass heads to the cockpit, sitting down in the worn seat next to AuDy. AuDy flexes their left hand, the only acknowledgement they give that they notice Cass's presence.

 

“So,” says Cass, “a big day.”

 

“Not really,” says AuDy, “Aria and I spent all of it in the ship waiting for the two of you.”

 

“Oh,” says Cass, “yeah. I guess you would have.” They pause. “We probably would have gotten back sooner, but things… deviated from the plan. A little.”

 

“Yes,” says AuDy, “Good thing Mako kept your backstory simple.”

 

Cass makes a face. “I don't know of I’d say he kept it simple, but I guess his covers have been more wild than that in the past.”

 

“Yes,” says AuDy, “it's like we're always telling him, it's far easier to use details of truth than to make something up wholecloth.”

 

“I don't have a sister,” says Cass.

 

“Not that part,” says AuDy, “the part about how you met and how long you've known each other.”

 

Cass frowns, thinking. “We haven’t known each other for two years-- we met when Orth introduced us for that job.”

 

“No,” says AuDy, the strain of annoyance beginning to seep into their audio, “you met before that, when Mako picked your pocket and I made him give you your wallet back.” They pause. “It's not really surprising you don't remember, we were celebrating buying the ship and you spent most of that night uncharacteristically intoxicated.”

 

Cass frowned again. “The night we bought the ship… oh.”

 

“Yes,” says AuDy, “although you are correct in that some months later you were formally introduced to Mako by Orth.”

 

“I think... “ Cass says slowly, “I think I need to go talk to Mako.”

 

“I do not believe you need my permission for that,” says AuDy.

 

The night they'd bought this ship. Now they remembered. The night they'd bought the ship had coincided to Koda messaging them to say they were unable to retrieve any of Cass's personal items from Apostolos, and also to their parent, beginning a broadcast to the entire system with their siblings standing behind them saying Here, with the whole of my family behind me.

 

After that Cass had made the executive decision to remember at little as possible. They've always thought it was a good decision, despite the hangover that followed. Until now.

 

Cass knocks on the metal panel of Mako’s door.

 

“Go away, Aria!” yells Mako, “I said I don’t want to talk about it!”

 

“Uh, I’m-- it’s Cass?”

 

There’s a scuffling sound from inside the room and then Mako’s door slides open.

 

“Sorry,” says Mako, “I thought you were Aria.”

 

“Yeah, I got that,” says Cass. They hesitate. “Can I come in?”

 

Mako shrugs, stepping back to allow Cass to step into the tiny space. All the furniture in Mako's room is cramped next to it on top of each other in the corner, to give people room to be able to step inside the room at all. It feels claustrophobic. This feeling is not helped by Mako, who can't help but be close to them in the small space.

 

Mako shuffles his feet, crosses his arms over his chest, making himself smaller to fit the space. “So. What do you want?”

 

Cass swallows. Their throat feels very dry. “I, um. About Kallius and Drillbot--”

 

Mako makes a face. “Listen, you don't have to--”

 

“It's fine I just-- I didn't know,” Cass clears their throat, “I didn't know you were using stuff that happened. Stuff with us? Real life stuff?”

 

Mako's eyes go wide. “What stuff?”

 

“The, uh, the first meeting story,” says Cass, starting slow and picking up speed as they go along, “I kind of… don't remember that night a whole lot, there was this broadcast and I-- anyway. I thought you were just making up a scenario, and now that I think about it, I probably seemed like a real asshole when Orth introduced us--”

 

“Wow, Cass, no,” says Mako. They reach out and grab Cass's hand. “That was like, a million years ago. I'm super over it.”

 

“Two years three and a half months ago,” says Cass, smiling.

 

Mako smiles back. “Yeah. Happy late anniversary.”

 

Cass ducks their head, their eyes falling on their still-joined hands. Mako twitches, jerking back.

 

“Sorry,” he says. His smile has a twist to it. “I guess I got too deep into character, huh?”

 

“Maybe a little,” says Cass, reaching for the familiar joking tone from before.

 

Instead, Mako winces. “Hey, uh. I'm sorry if I like, made you uncomfortable--”

 

“No, Mako, that's not--” Cass takes a deep breath. “Are you… okay? since we got back I feel like--”

 

“I'm fine,” says Mako, a little too quickly.

 

Cass was a doctor for a while. They still are a doctor, when they need to be. There's an edge people get to them, when they're holding something back that needs to be coaxed out of them. Cass takes another steadying breath.

 

“Actually, even during the mission, you were…” Cass trails off, trying to find an example more concrete than a sharp breath or a lingering touch.

 

“Mako,” says Cass “what didn't we have time for?”

 

Mako frowns. “What?”

 

“At Ameraldo's, when we were trying to get out, when you pulled me out of the way of that laser, you said to ask you later…” they trail off, not sure of the best way to ask. They're not entirely sure what they want to ask.

 

“Oh,” Mako breathes, “ that .”

 

Mako takes a small step towards them in the cramped space. He licks his lips, and Cass's eyes track the movement. Distantly Cass thinks he should tell AuDy to check the air ducts in Mako's room. It feels much warmer than it should.

 

“You,” Mako clears his throat, “you mean, when you had your hands like this?”

 

He takes their hands, holding them up to his face. Cass flushes, remembering Mako's body against theirs, gravity pushing Mako down onto them. They cup Mako's face in their hands, and Mako's eyes flutter closed for a moment before he meets their gaze.

 

“Yes,” says Cass, their voice low, “you… I thought you'd been hit. I-- because of me, because of some stupid job--”

 

Mako touches the back of Cass's hand lightly. “But I wasn't. I was fine. I'm fine.”

 

Cass takes a shaky breath. “Yes.”

 

“So,” says Mako slowly, “we were like this…”

 

“Not exactly,” says Cass, “We were positioned differently at the time.”

 

Mako flushes before Cass has fully processed what they've just said.

 

“Right,” says Mako, “right, we were more like, um…”

 

He takes a step backwards and Cass follows. Mako circles Cass's wrists, pulling them down onto the bed with him and Cass uses the momentum to pull Mako on top of them. Mako's body has the same warm pressure as before, only now it’s without the urgency that near-death put upon it. He shifts slightly, settling more comfortably on top of them, one hand bracing some of his weight in the bed next to Cass's head and the other resting lightly on their chest

 

“In the interests of accuracy,” says Cass.

 

“Right,” says Mako, sounding strained.

 

Cass hesitantly brings their hands up to cradle Mako's face again. Mako sighs, leaning into their touch.

 

“So,” says Cass. “We were like this. What didn't we have time for?”

 

“This,” says Mako.

 

He leans down to kiss them, one hand tangling itself in their hair. His other hand stays warm on their chest, fingers curling in the fabric. It's just a quick press of his lips, warm and dry. Mako makes a move to pull back and Cass moves forward to fill the space, following Mako's lips.

 

They lean up into the kiss, moving their hand to cradle the back of Mako’s head. Their other hand trails down his side to palm the curve of his ass. Mako gasps into their mouth, his hips rolling forward, and Cass takes the opportunity to deepen the kiss. Mako grips the front of their shirt tighter in response.

 

Cass leans back slightly. “I can see why we wouldn't have had time for this while we were there.”

 

“Yeah,” breathes Mako, “I mean, this is something I want to take my time with. If-- if I can.”

 

“You can,” says Cass, “ we can.”

 

Cass pushes Mako’s head down towards them, and Mako follows the motion easily, his body relaxing under their touch. Cass wriggles their hand under Mako's tight pink t-shirt, running their nails lightly down his back. Mako whines into their mouth, shuddering. They can feel the heat of him against their leg through the layers of fabric.

 

Cass pulls at his shirt and Mako eagerly wriggles out of it. They take advantage of his distraction to shift slightly, so that their thigh is between Mako's legs. Mako gasps, rocking against them before he breaks off the kiss, his cheeks flushed purple against his blue skin. Cass slides their hands over Mako's chest, along surgical scars, the places where metal hid underneath his skin.

 

Mako's breathing seems loud in the small space, trailing off into a whine and Cass moves their leg under him. Mako drops back down, kissing with more urgency than before and he grinds down on their leg.

 

Cass gasps as Mako's hands wriggle between them to work at the fastenings on their pants. Mako grins, shifting his focus to their neck. Cass clutches at his back, fingers digging in as Mako manages to get a hand inside their underwear. He teases along their opening and Cass arches up into his hand, aching for more sensation.

 

“Mako,” says Cass. It comes out as too much of a groan to have the amount of annoyance they wanted.

 

They can feel Mako smile against their neck.

 

“I said I wanted to take my time,” says Mako.

 

“We have plenty of time,” says Cass, “come on --”

 

They break off with a choked-off gasp as Mako pushes a finger into them, his thumb brushing their clit. Mako sucks bruises along the scales on their neck as his hand works, another finger sliding in easily. They buck up into his hand, pulling at his shoulder until they can kiss him again, wet and messy. Their breath comes in quick pants in rhythm with Mako's hand. Mako slides in a third finger, biting Cass's bottom lip as he does so. The sensation of it pushes them over the edge, muscles clenching around Mako's fingers as the heat rolls through them.

 

Mako runs his hands through their hair as they come back to themselves. Their body feels loose and warm, although their clothes feel a little too rumpled to be comfortable.

 

Mako is warm against them, comfortable and solid. Cass hums, rolling onto their side to kiss him. They press him back, until he's lying flat on the mattress under them. Mako swallows and Cass grins down at them, peeling off their shirt throwing it somewhere behind them.

 

Mako huffs a laugh. “I can't believe you only get naked now .”

 

Cass runs their hands up Mako's chest and then slowly back down, tapping their fingers over the fly of Mako's silver-washed jeans. Mako bites his lip.

 

“You took your time,” says Cass, “Now I'm taking mine.”

 

Cass hooks their fingers into the belt loops of Makos jeans, pulling them down as slowly as possible. Mako arches and they lift off him just a little, just enough to pull them down and off, so that Mako is naked under them.

 

They slide their hand slowly up Mako's leg, teasing him as he had done to them earlier. Mako whines, a high and needy noise, and Cass smiles down at him.

 

They lean down to kiss him. As their lips meet, Cass slides a finger easily into Mako. He gasps sharply into their mouth. It sounds a little like their name, the word too broken up and ragged to clearly distinguish.

 

They add another finger, scissoring him open before they add a third. Mako moans, head thrown back and hands clutching at the sheets, at Cass's shoulder. They kiss him deeply, swallowing the sound before kissing along his jaw, down his neck, their teeth nipping at his skin. Mako tries to follow their lips as they lean back to survey their handiwork.

 

“Cass,” whines Mako.

 

Cass huffs a laugh before leaning down to kiss him again, their hand speeding its motion. The rhythm of Mako's hips stutters.

 

“Cass,” Mako moans, “Cass, I'm-- I--”

 

“Let go Mako,” Cass whispers against his lips, “I'm right here, let go.”

 

Mako comes with another loud moan, his back arching off the bed, his hands clutching tightly at Cass. He falls back against the bed, panting, pulling weakly at Cass's hand until Cass settles down beside him.

 

Mako immediately rolls onto his side, throwing a leg and arm over Cass and burrowing his face into their shoulder. Cass runs a hand through Mako’s shaggy neon hair, pressing a kiss to the top of Mako's head. Mako looks up at them, his breathing still a little ragged.

 

“Hey Cass, will you, uh…” He swallows. “I mean, you don't have to, but you could stay here tonight, if you wanted? Not that your place is far away, but like. If you want to.”

 

Cass tilts his face up towards them further, kissing Mako softly. They feel Mako sigh into the kiss.

 

“I do want to,” says Cass.

 

--

 

Jacqui holds up her hand. “Listen, I buy that Cass told you what happened at Ameraldo's, and I buy that they told you about having some kind of realization, but I don't think I buy that they hooked up.”

 

“Of course they did!” says Aria, “weren’t you listening to the rest of the story?”

 

Jacqui gives her a skeptical look. “Even in they did, I really don't think Cass’d go into that much detail with you.”

 

“So I'm inferring a little bit,” says Aria, waving her hand, “I've gotten pretty good at putting the pieces together.”

 

The door slides open behind them and Cass walks in, a big pink and yellow jumper over their sleep clothes. They nod to Aria and Jacqui, yawning and they make their way over to the kitchen counter.

 

Aria raises her eyebrows at Jacqui, her eyes darting from Cass to Jacqui.

 

Jacqui huffs a laugh. “A borrowed jumper doesn't prove anything.”

 

“Hmm?” says Cass.

 

“Aria's just trying to prove to that on top of interplanetary pop star and notorious freedom fighter, she should also be known as an unmatched detective,” says Jacqui.

 

“I never said unmatched ,” says Aria. She leans forward over the table towards Jacqui. “I'm happy to be matched.

 

Cass hums again. They sound half asleep still, leaning against the counter, their eyes fluttering shut as they take a sip of coffee.

 

“Big night?” says Aria.

 

Cass makes a spluttering sound. Jacqui looks over to see them mopping up spilled coffee.

 

Cass clears their throat. “Uh, yeah. You could say that.”

 

They take a sip of their coffee, turned away slightly from Jacqui and Aria so that their eyes are trained on the door they just came through.

 

Jacqui frowns, squinting at though that will help her see better in the artificial morning lighting of the common room. She doesn't remember Cass having so many blue and green scale patches on their neck as that-- oh.

 

She turns, raising her eyebrows at Aria. “Guess I owe you an apology, detective.”

 

Aria laughs, leaning forward to press a quick kiss to Jacqui's lips. Jacqui can feel her lip gloss smudge with Aria's, mixing the colours. She smiles.

 

“It was an easy case to crack,” says Aria solemnly. “They're very loud, and my room’s down the hall from Mako's.”

 

Cass makes another choking sound, blushing furiously. “ What ?”

 

“I'm just saying,” says Aria, “maybe with our next payout one of you should invest in soundproofing.”

 

“I… just because-- I mean, not that--” Cass splutters, their cheeks almost as deep green-blue as the hickies on their neck.

 

The door slides open again. Mako waves at them, heading straight for Cass.

 

“Good morning!” says Mako cheerfully.

 

“You're in a good mood this morning,” says Jacqui.

 

“Had a good night,” says Mako, grinning.

 

“Yeah,” says Aria, “I heard.”

 

Mako's grin doesn't falter. “Maybe you should have got that soundproofing AuDy told you about after you brought Jacqui home the first time.”

 

Aria flushes a bright-- and very pretty, in Jacqui’s opinion-- pink. Jacqui huffs a laugh, then leans over the table press another quick kiss to Aria’s lips.

 

Mako plucks the coffee from Cass's hands. He takes a sip, wrinkles his nose, then turns to add a ridiculous amount of sugar. Cass huffs, pouring themself a new cup, but even from her position on the other side of the room Jacqui can see the smile softening their face.

 

Mako leans his head against Cass's shoulder, smiling down at the cup in his hands. His smile, too, has a softer edge to it.

 

“So. No job today?” says Mako, looking up at Cass expectantly.

 

Cass hums, taking a sip. “Not today. Orth recommend we lie low for a few days.”

 

“Lie low huh?” says Mako, “Guess we have to stay on the ship for that.”

 

Cass taps their fingers on the cup. “That was the recommendation, yes.”

 

Mako clicks his tongue. “Guess we'll just have to find some way to keep ourselves occupied. You know, while we lie low .”

 

Cass flushes. “For a few days, yes.”

 

Days , huh?” says Mako, grinning up at them.

 

Cass's flush deepens.

 

Jacqui rolls her eyes. “Tell me we were never that obvious.”

 

“I think we were probably worse,” says Aria, grinning over at her.

 

--

 

“I should have figured you'd be a complete octopus,” says Cass.

 

“You're very easy to octopi,” Mako mumbles against their shoulder.

 

Cass hums. “Most people have said my body feels too cold for that.”

 

“That'll even out then,” says Mako, “I always run hot.”

 

“So I've noticed,” says Cass.

 

Mako raises his head, resting his chin of their shoulder to look at them. “Is that your way of saying you think I'm cute?”

 

Ridiculously, Cass feels themselves flush. “Maybe.”

 

Mako laughs, bright and loud. The sound echos cheerfully in the small space.

 

“Shut up,” says Cass, “don't let it go to your head.”

 

Mako presses a kiss to their shoulder. “Don't worry. I think you're cute too. You're cute and cool and I'm cute and hot. Cuteness in balance.”

 

Cass laughs, and ducks their head down to kiss him.