A million years ago, a galactic empire fell. The ruins of that ancient empire are a source of many things. Wonder, knowledge, academic careers, and treasure. Treasure is what Beau Johnson seeks, tracking down artifacts for high-paying clients. Once a top student at the specialist institute for the study of the ancient empire, Beau rejected respectable archaeology and academia in favor of adventure.
Unlike his one-time rival Park Ki-tae, a brilliant student who became an enforcement agent tasked with keeping Imperial artifacts out of private collections. Beau thinks Ki-tae needs to loosen up, have more fun, and, especially, stop making it his life’s work to send Beau to jail. Ki-tae thinks Beau is a rogue and a criminal. And it was a big mistake to sleep with him that one time ...
When a client sends Beau after a legendary artifact that supposedly allows communication with the dead, Ki-tae pursues, sure this time he’ll nail Beau. But circumstances force them to work together and deal with the feelings for each other they’ve both long denied. They have very different plans for the artifact they’re seeking ... if it’s not a myth. Will they ever agree on their plans, or on anything else at all?
It was quickly like the old days. Beau pressing his attack, and Ki-tae defending, smooth and controlled, countering each strike and thrust, until Beau’s attack slipped a cog and Ki-tae was inside his staff, getting him in an arm bar, then stepping out of it smoothly a second after Beau tapped out.
He backed off and waited, jō held loosely. Beau was breathing a little faster than Ki-tae. A light sheen of sweat made his tanned skin shine.
“You’re out of shape,” Ki-tae said. A touch of psychological warfare helped. Beau would surely feel defensive. He only smiled for now, though.
“There’s only so far a man can run on a ship the size of mine. Don’t you worry about me. I’m in plenty good shape to kick your ass.” He lunged even as he was speaking, staff taking Ki-tae’s jō down to dig into the mat. Ki-tae stumbled, his forward motion becoming uncontrolled, and Beau hooked his leg out from under him so he dropped to one knee. Quick as a cobra’s strike, Ki-tae freed his staff and made a swipe at Beau’s legs, but Beau backed off fast.
“That’s not a legal move,” Ki-tae said, rising, using his stick to help him up, testing his weight on the leg in case it was hurt. No. The mat had done its job.
“Nobody cares about legal moves in the field. The only thing that counts is winning the fight.”
Ki-tae couldn’t argue with that. He’d certainly pulled a few illegal moves in the field himself.
“In that case ...”
He was a dervish, going full speed, not the slightly slower pace of sparring, where he paid more attention to technique, always checking his forms for correct position of hands and feet, correct stance, angle of his hips.
Beau fell back, overmatched by the speed. Ki-tae pushed him farther back until he hit the wall, but Ki-tae didn’t press the attack. They both knew he’d be able to if this was a real fight. He backed off into the middle of the floor again. Beau stood away from the wall, panting.
“Okay,” Beau said. “I admit, I’m a little out of shape.”
“You’re winded. The Beau Johnson I remember fighting would not be breathing so hard after a few minutes of sparring.”
“Yeah, I remember our last fight,” Beau said, and gave that devilish smile. Damn, Ki-tae didn’t want to think of that fight. The demonstration they’d given at the conference. The rush it gave him ... No. That was psychological warfare, wasn’t it?
“Of course there’s more about that conference that I remember ...”
“I’ve done my best to forget it.”
“Sure you have, Kitty Cat.”
“That’s Agent Park to you.”
Beau laughed, approaching, spinning his staff again. “Kitty Cat, I know how you taste. I think we can be on first-name terms.”
“My parents didn’t name me Kitty,” Ki-tae pointed out.
“Shame. I picture you with cat ears and whiskers, and I get all wound up.”
“That’s an odd kink.”
They circled each other. Beau twirling his jō, Ki-tae holding his in a defensive position, ready for a fresh attack. It came while Beau was still trying to distract him with nonsense and smiles. Ki-tae met it easily. His counterstrike knocked the staff from Beau’s hands, and Ki-tae instantly had him in a joint lock, forcing him to his knees. Ki-tae went down after him. Unconventional. But he went for a choke in this position, the staff across Beau’s windpipe -- without pressure -- Ki-tae holding it in place with one hand and a shoulder, while capturing Beau’s other wrist with his hand.
Beau froze, as an opponent usually did when he had the jō across his throat. A trained opponent, that is. Others tended to panic. Beau reached up and tapped his chest to indicate his surrender. Ki-tae released him at once and stepped back. Beau stayed on his knees, looking up at Ki-tae.
“Shit, Ki, you are damn good. Better than ever.”
“Practice, Mr. Johnson. You are clearly not getting enough. Which is a shame, as you used to be quite a passable competitor.”
Chagrin crossed Beau’s face, wiping off that irritatingly magnetic smile.
“Some instruction to refine your techniques would bring you back up to standard,” Ki-tae went on, feeling a little bad for the man. “It’s easy to lose your edge without an instructor correcting your errors.”
“I suppose you get that regularly,” Beau said. He wasn’t standing up yet. Was he taking the opportunity for a rest, or was he hurt? Ki-tae didn’t actually want to hurt him.
“There’s probably an instructor on the ship. At least aikido if not a jō specialist.”
“Yeah, some of the tourists like to imagine themselves as agents, eh?” Beau said. “Bet they never get around to the paperwork part.” He was still on the mat.
“Are you injured?”
“Not so as you’d notice,” Beau said, though he seemed to be moving stiffly as he rose. Ki-tae stepped closer and offered him a hand to rise. Beau took it with a brilliant smile. He was glowing with sweat, his hair darkened and heavy with it. He let Ki-tae pull him to his feet and came forward, stumbling perhaps, so Ki-tae had to drop his staff and catch him, feeling Beau’s superior weight try to force him back.
“Feels like you’re up for a little hand-to-hand,” Beau said. “Or is it something else you’re after?”
“Wha --” Ki-tae asked, before Beau cut him off, pulled him in with an arm around his waist, and dipped his head to kiss him. Ki-tae gasped, which was a mistake as it opened his mouth to Beau’s, letting him deepen the kiss to something more suited to the hotel room than the practice room. Hot, tasting of spices and coffee. Beau pulled him in closer, until Ki-tae was pressed up against him.
Ki-tae acted on instinct. No formal instruction needed for his counterattack. He brought his knee up into Beau’s balls, then shoved him away hard.
“Son of a bitch!” Beau stumbled and fell to his knees, groaning and cradling his groin.
“What the hell are you doing?” Ki-tae demanded.
“Counting and hoping I get to two,” Beau gasped out in an agonized voice.