Captain Nick Steele is young to be in command of a starship, and his Astrogator, Cai, is fresh from the Guild Halls himself, which is not how things are supposed to be done. It’s bad enough that they’re both wet behind the ears, but Nick quickly discovers that he’s irresistibly drawn to Cai like a moth to a flame, with the same relative risks the moth faces. Cai proves the stronger man when he tells Nick in no uncertain terms that he can’t risk burning out Nick’s mind for the sake of some physical pleasure. As their ship spirals into the dark heart of Tarasch, will Nick ever overcome Cai’s objections to their mutual attraction?
Nicholas Steele quickly went through the shutdown checklist for his flitter. He secured the controls and slid out of the vehicle. For a moment, he just stood there looking at the house that, so unexpectedly, had become a home for him. The ivy had covered more of the whitewashed walls, and the blue trim needed to be repainted again, but the house looked much as it had the last time he’d seen it, right before his first posting on the Scarlet Dragon. Three years objective time, he thought. Has it really been three years?
“Nick!” called Gilly’s familiar voice. “You’re finally here!” The voice was soon followed by the woman who’d adopted him, and she swept him into a tight embrace before stepping back and looking him over with a critical eye. “You look tired.”
“The inquiry was a long affair,” Nick admitted.
She touched his new captain’s pin. “Congratulations on this. Evie’ll be home in an hour, we’ll have dinner.”
“I’ve only a couple of days R and R before I have to report back.”
“Laughing Owl. New Gator, just out of the Guild Hall.”
“New Gator and new captain?” Gilly shook her head. “I’m sure you’ll manage, but don’t they frown on that sort of thing?”
“Usually, but the psych people think Cai and I will be a good fit.” Nick shrugged. “We’ll see.”
Gilly nodded then looked about as if just noticing that they were still standing in her tree-shaded yard. “Let’s go inside. We can talk while I fix dinner.”
Nick followed her in, casting a glance at his herb and vegetable garden. Someone had kept it up while he was away, and he was pleased to see the healthy growth. “Who’s been doing the gardening?”
“Evie has,” was the surprising reply. Gilly flashed a grin over her shoulder. “Turns out, you aren’t the only Steele with a green thumb. It just took you being gone to motivate her into taking over.”
“Somehow, I’m not surprised.” He’d always had faith in his little sister. Evie just needed space, time and love to blossom. He would be forever grateful to Gilly for taking them in, two abused children, after their father’s timely, if belated, demise. She had given them the foundation they’d desperately needed in order to grow. “How’ve you been, Mom?”
“Oh, about the same as always. Haven’t had any cases like yours since, well, yours. And thank the powers that be for that.” Gilly set out a snack tray of vegetables and dip.
“I wasn’t asking about work,” Nick told her as he helped himself to some carrots.
She shrugged a shoulder. “Nothing new there, either. I’m a trifle older but still healthy.”
“Good. Keep it that way.”
They both laughed and spent the rest of the hour catching up while they demolished the tray of vegetables.
When Evie was due to arrive, Nick stepped back outside, leaving Gilly to putter around in the kitchen at her insistence. He took a closer look at the vegetable patch. It was clear of weeds, well watered and vigorously growing. He plucked a sprig of mint to chew on without even a pang of guilt. Mint was a weed that would happily take over the entire area if it wasn’t kept in check.
He straightened up, brushed soil from his hands and turned at the sound of approaching steps, quite loud to his augmented ears, barely perceptible otherwise.
Evie came into view a few moments later. She saw him a moment after that, for her face lit up and she broke into a run straight for him.
He caught her easily and swung her about. “Evie, good to see you. How’ve you been?”
“I’ve been fine, unlike you, gallivanting all over the universe and not writing. I mean, really, would it kill you to input a message once in a blue moon?” Evie tossed her long, black hair back and sniffed at him.
“Evie, I did write.” Nick set her on her feet and relieved her of her bag. “But relativity still holds…three years I’ve been gone, yes?”
“That’s right. Three years and no messages.”
“It’s only been ten months for me.”
“Oh,” said Evie after a moment. “I didn’t think about the time dilation.” Her gaze shifted to his collar and the rank insignia. “Mom told me you’d made captain. Congrats, bro.”
“Thanks, sis. I’ll try not to let it go to my head.”
“So, you’re in university? What’s your major?” They walked toward the front door together.
“Eco studies. You’re the one who got me interested. I’m specializing in the human-created species.”
“How are my unicorns?” Nick had missed his mountains and the small blessing of wild unicorns he’d spent so many hours observing as a youngster.
“They’re doing really well. The new stallion’s a strong one and almost all the recent foals have survived, doubling their numbers.” Evie frowned for a moment then added, “But there are signs that there’s a dragon in the region now. It might start preying on the blessing. We’ll see.”
“A dragon?” Nick stopped with his hand on the doorknob and tried not to bounce with excitement. “I’ve always wanted to see one.”
“Okay, want to go dragon hunting tomorrow?”
“It’s a date.” Nick grinned at her as he held the door open. “Speaking of dates, have you had any?”
“Maybe. One or two. There’s this guy I met...we’ll see.” Evie flashed him an impish smile and promptly turned the tables. “What about you? Any cute guys in your life yet?”
“Not yet,” Nick was forced to admit. “But, then, I haven’t exactly been looking.”
“Oh, Nicky,” and Evie looked genuinely upset. “They say command is lonely for a reason, you know.”
“I’m sure I’ll find someone. They also say that everyone has someone out there. It’s just finding that person that’s the trick.” Even as he reassured his sister, he thought back to his days in the academy, and the visit to Guild Hall where he’d first met Cai. The Astrogator’s very blue eyes still haunted his dreams.