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Noel Christopher DelMonde stood in the shower aboard the Maria Graciella for the second time, leaning wearily on his hands against the wall. His new found friend – an’ lover, his mind insisted on adding irritably – had just gotten out, after showing him just how next to Godliness cleanliness wasn’t.
He closed his eyes, shaking the wet hair away from them. He didn’t precisely know what had hit him – other than Jeremy Maurice Paget’s wickedly playful lust. He’d felt it from other guys, something that was beyond his control, but he’d never acted on it before. At least not completely. He’d always stopped, panicked, before anything went farther than mutual fondling. But there was something about Paget’s completely bold yet utterly submissive approach that had taken all his barriers down, something that hadn’t happened since he’d tried to commit suicide at the age of twelve.
Three years, he growled to himself. Three damn years o’ workin’ my ass off not t' feel an’ here come this fine piece o’ chocolate t’ rip me to shreds again.
His hold on his empathy was always tenuous at best. He usually didn’t even know he was being affected until he’d gotten himself into something so deep it was too late to get out of. Then he used his temper and his fists and his telepathic ability to get into people’s heads to brawl his way out. Just like he’d tried to do this time.
But it hadn’t worked. He didn’t know why. And while it would be convenient to blame it all on the buckets of pure hunger the TerAfrican boy had been pouring all over him, he knew in his deepest heart that there was a little bitty bit more to it.
An’ if I stay here in this damn shower fo’ another minute here, I gonna start t’inkin’ ‘bout it, he warned himself.
He reached out to turn off the water and heard Jer’s voice say, “There’s a clean towel out here for ya, N.C. And I’ve got a surprise for you when you get out.”
“I hate surprises,” he muttered, even as renewed, liquid heat swept through him. For an instant, the past several hours replayed in his head. Paget’s mouth-work was without a doubt a sample of the best the boy could do, followed – or maybe preceded by – the skill of his hands and the lascivious talent of his backside. He’d brought Del to a fever pitch in the corridor just outside the bath, accepting, even encouraging Del’s fury, turning it to savage, sensual need. What they went on to share in the luxurious bedroom of the Maria Graciella could in no way be called making love – even fucking seemed somehow too tame. Rutting, maybe.
Yeah, two fuckin’ animals in heat ruttin' they damn brains out, Del though sourly. He hadn’t held back, Jer’s cries and moans only increasing the rougher he got. And he got very, very rough, egged on by the images in Paget’s mind, not only of the shitty way his cousins – the whole damn world! – treated him, but by pictures of a lithe, sensual, strikingly handsome Asian with cruel eyes and startling finesse doing things to the young black boy that Del had never even dreamed of – but knew he would be from now on.
With a fierce growl, Del stepped out of the shower, quickly drying himself. His clothes were still in the bedroom, so he simply wrapped the towel around his waist, took a deep breath, and prepared himself to be surprised.
Jeremy quickly set up his ‘surprise,’ not knowing how long his new lover was going to take in the shower. New lover. He shivered, the emerald he’d surreptitiously taken while the creature – N.C., he reminded himself with a grin – had been in the shower the first time still singing in his veins. It hadn’t exactly been playing fair, but even as mind-blind as he was, he could see the seething need for release in the young man’s dark eyes. And Sulu had taught him exactly how to give it.
He smiled at the thought of his best friend, and it soured when he remembered why he was in New Orleans alone. Sulu was with Cal, having let Ernesto borrow his needle for a ride down memory lane. Jeremy shuddered. He was NOT going to think about that now. He’d gotten his own release of that particular pain and wasn’t about to spoil what was already a tenuous situation.
When N.C. appeared wrapped in a towel, Jeremy had to remind himself to keep breathing. The Cajun boy, only a few weeks older than he himself was, was without a doubt the most beautiful non-AsianTerran Jeremy had ever seen. His large, luminous eyes held depths within them that the TerAfrican knew he could never hope to fathom, but he was content just to drink them in. And the fine young body was a delight to his senses; every last one of them. The way he responded to Jeremy’s own voracious need was only icing on the already unbearably delicious cake.
Jeremy had dressed in one of Ernesto’s robes, and, wishing he didn’t have to, offered DelMonde one as well. The Creole boy grunted and took it, slipping it on and belting it before sliding the towel out from under it.
“Jesus, N.C., you’d think I hadn’t seen it,” Jer admonished, “ – and thoroughly mapped it,” he added with a grin.
“Shut th’ fuck up,” Del offered. “What your damn surprise?”
“Ta da!” Jeremy proclaimed, turning around and lifting a case of bourbon into view.
The dark eyes widened. “I thought your ID no good,” he said.
“Since I used Ernesto’s frequency, they didn’t ask,” Paget explained happily. He saw the young man before him swallow. “And I got a couple of pounds of Rigellian sent up too.”
“Shee-it, boy, you plannin’ some kinda party?”
“Yep. Just you and me on that test drive you said we had to take to check out Gracie’s engines. No reason not to have fun along the way, is there?”
Del cocked his head. “You pretty confident ‘bout flyin’ this t’ing drunk an’ stoned,” he observed.
“What’s the matter? Don’t think you can keep up with me?”
“Boy, I can drink you under th’ table any day o’ th’ week,” the Cajun retorted.
Jeremy grinned engagingly. “Let’s find out.”
The test drive went exceedingly well. They’d each had a bottle of bourbon and shared two pipes of Rigellian before Gracie had reached her top sub-light speed. Del found that Jeremy had a quick wit and a snarky streak to match his own, making observations about his cousins that, though based on only a very short interaction, were devastatingly accurate. He was an incorrigible flirt, but seemed as willing to take Del’s gruff refusals with good-natured teasing as he had before been unwilling to even entertain the notion. He was funny and easy-going, curious without seeming nosy – Del conveniently forgetting he’d called Paget a busy-body. The Cajun found himself warming more and more to the infectious charm – though that could’ve been the bourbon and Rigellian. He was actually grinning as he went below to tweak the intermix ratios of the Maria Graciella’s engines. Jeremy stood at the top of the gangway, holding onto the safety rail.
“You’re not too drunk to do that right, are you?” he called.
The Cajun’s voice was full of youthful insouciance. “Shee-it, son, I only had me one li’l ol’ bottle.”
“And a pipeful of galaxy-class smoke,” Jeremy reminded.
He heard the deep snort. “That only gonna make it take longer. An’ since you not payin’ me by th’ hour, what th’ fuck do you care?”
The yacht shuddered a little as Del’s first adjustment was made. “Hold on, Gracie,” Paget murmured.
“Who th’ fuck you talkin’ to?” Del demanded.
Jeremy grinned. “The ship, of course.”
“Gracie,” came the muttered reaction. “You one crazy mother-fucker.”
Paget sat down as the ship swayed again. “Don’t all good engineers talk to their ships?”
“You not one.”
“Well, I’m not a Maker or anything, but…”
“Maker?” the question floated up to him as the engines started a high-pitched whine, then went back to a smooth purr.
“It’s what the people who build needles are called at the Clave,” Jeremy answered.
“Y’all actually build them pretty li’l t’ings up there?”
“Sure do.” Jeremy paused, considering. “You wanna go up and see?”
There was only silence from below.
“Get to th’ control room an’ punch her up to warp,” the Cajun said, his voice sounding suddenly cautious.
There was something in the tone that made Jeremy both sad and filled with anticipation. “Will do,” he called, and pushed himself up. He made his way to the pilot’s seat, checked the sensors to see that the traffic patterns in Sol’s system were clear enough for a jump, then laid in a course out of the ecliptic and hit the controls. The starfield outside the large viewscreen blurred as the yacht leapt into warp and Jeremy held the speed to a little over warp one. He waited, counting the seconds – and the warning lights that had previously indicated a temperature spike didn’t come on. He edged it to warp two, then three – the ships’ fastest speed. Still no overheating.
Delighted, he rose, turning, calling out, “Fuck it, N.C., you did it!” – and almost bumped into his guest who was approaching the controls, wiping his hands on a towel.
“’Course I did,” the boy said immodestly. “This all th’ speed she got?”
“It’s all she’s rated for,” Paget replied, grinning.
“You want me t’ fix that?” Del replied with a wicked grin of his own.
“Ernesto would throw you a party,” Jeremy assured.
“That be another job – an’ another fee,” Del returned.
“The party wouldn’t do it?”
The Cajun cocked his head. “What kinda party you talkin’ ‘bout, son?”
“Only the best,” the TerAfrican answered. “Lots of good music, lots of willing Groupies…”
“Hangers-on, people who don’t race but love Racers – and Makers,” Jeremy replied with a leering wink.
“That so?” Del murmured.
“And lots of chemicals, the best Haven shit around.” Paget grinned again. “And of course all the alcohol and smoke you want.” He paused, then leaned closer. “For fuckin’ free,” he added.
The Cajun's boy’s eyebrows rose. “No shit?”
“And a place to crash when you need it.”
Del frowned. “How many people we talkin’?”
“Lots,” Jer said, “but I think there’ll be something there to make it – comfortable for you.”
Jeremy took a deep breath, then almost whispered, “It’s called sapphire, and it dulls the senses. All of them,” he said, letting his mind give it a particular emphasis. He watched as Del let that sink in.
“All of ‘em, huh?”
“It doesn’t make you fall asleep or anything. It’ll just quiet down the noise a little.” He paused, still gauging the Cajun’s reactions. “What do you say?”
Del slowly explored the certainty in the black boy’s thoughts. The promise was heady, even as his naturally suspicious mind looked for traps or loopholes. The idea of actually going up to the Clave was an exciting one, as much for the danger inherent in it as for the idea of finding something that could make being in a crowd something less than the ninth circle of hell. There were pictures in Paget’s brain that were tantalizing – and one that was an agony of worry and fear. He gleaned all of the boy’s mistrust and hatred of the fabulously wealthy Ruis Calvario; learned that the man was a former Racer and the Clave’s biggest patron. And that Jeremy thought of him as a dangerously manipulative sick-fuck who had gotten some kind of hold over the fierce-eyed Asian Terran – Sulu – that made the TerAfrican’s heart ache. Sulu was his life, Sulu was, he believed, the only person he would ever love, and Sulu was caught in a desperate well of twisted desire and bitter helplessness from which Paget anxiously wanted to save him. The intensity of the emotion made Del shy away in sudden, terrified denial, even as he recognized the lure of them.
Paget did have a bit of a personal agenda – that bringing someone with his skills would give Paget some welcome credit with his fellow Clavists – but that was far below the boy’s genuine love of the place and his certainty that there, Del would find a home; true belonging and respect that was so clearly missing from his life in New Orleans. He also saw how much of Paget’s flamboyant performance in the bar and on the Maria Graciella was just that – a performance. His desire for Del was absolutely honest, as was his quick decision that the only way to break past the battered telepathy and empathy was to go all out flaming, making him seem at the same time an easy conquest and an unstoppable force to be reckoned with. The dichotomy piqued Del’s interest, as it had been intended to do, and the Cajun frowned a little at the manipulation.
Then he saw the deeply caring soul beneath it. Somehow Jeremy had known how badly he needed both to be accepted and to make his own way. He saw the intricate and intelligent mind contained within the apparently casual façade, the quickness with which Paget assessed situations and came to a course of action – and how often his intuitions regarding tactics and strategies were correct. The boy had acted as he had, and done what he’d done because something within him had understood all the loss and misery behind Del’s own façade, and Jeremy Maurice Paget was incapable of walking away from someone who was hurting.
Del took a deep breath, easing out of the contact with Paget’s mind. Before he was even aware of it, there was a whisper somewhere deep within him, a familiar voice of love and devotion: You not let this slip away from you, li’l Christmas, it said. This boy fo’ real, an' he not never gonna lie to you.
He had to take another breath before he could speak. He stared into Jeremy’s dark brown eyes, forcing away all his hard-learned lessons about the perfidy of trust. He saw it when the light of hope kindled in them, and his lips quirked into a half-smile, half frown.
“Sapphire, huh?” he said.
Paget smiled and nodded. “Sapphire.”
Within an hour, Del had the yacht doing a smooth warp five. Jeremy was jubilant, and they toasted the success with another bottle each of the bourbon. Then Paget set the coordinates to bring them back to an orbit somewhere between Terra and Mars. Del watched, fascinated as, even drunk, the TerAfrican piloted the ship toward a large, man-made satellite. He called into someone named ‘Barak' and got the go-ahead to bring ‘Gracie’ into the large hanger.
As she slid into a berth, Del’s eyes nearly popped as the protective shields over the yacht’s windows smoothly slid down, revealing a huge bay with dozens of the sleek, beautiful one-man crafts known as needles. He noted Jeremy’s smile as the engines powered down, and waited impatiently as the hangar pressurized. The ship’s hatch opened as several people, most not much older than himself, spilled into the bay.
“That’s Lynx’s boat!” someone called, a dark-haired, green-eyed beauty with a thick New York accent who flung herself into Paget’s enthusiastic embrace.
“Sure is,” Paget replied. “He’s in Rio and let me borrow her to have a Maker look at her.” He grinned proudly. “Which I did.” He turned, gesturing to Del.
The girl cocked her head. “And this would be…?”
In an instant, Del comprehended the Clavist tradition – no one used their real names. Paget was thought of as ‘Cobra,’ the girl, whose name was Daffy and who didn’t care who knew it, was still known as ‘Groupie.’
“I Cajun,” Del said, and saw Jeremy’s surprise.
“He’s a galaxy-class Maker – and one hell of a…” Jeremy began wickedly.
The girl reached up, smacking Paget solidly in the back of the head. “Do you always have to get the good ones first?” she demanded in annoyance.
“He not really my usual type, cher,” Del broke in, quick enough to forestall any comment from the TerAfrican, but still a sexy Southern drawl.
Daffy gave him a through once over. “Well hot damn,” she said, and showed her teeth in a very sensual not-quite-a grin.
“Lynx owes him big for fixing Gracie,” Paget rejoined, “and for upping her speed to warp five.”
“Ooh, and rich, too,” Daffy purred.
“Rich?” Del asked.
Jeremy grinned. “We didn’t exactly haggle on the fee,” he said, “but I figure I can get a cool thousand for ya.”
Del tried not to show his shock, and Paget laughed.
“Come on – Cajun – there’s sapphire to be had… and someone you have to meet.”
The ‘someone’ turned out to be a Haven Dealer named Lane Gage, who had graciously handed Del two sparkling blue pills after Paget had explained what he wanted and why. Del scowled at the freely-given personal information – did the boy have to advertise that he was ‘pathic? – and the handsome Haven had purred, “on the house for a first-time customer,” and smiled at him as he glanced uncertainly at the capsules in his hand.
“Go on, Cajun,” Paget urged. “Just try it. If you don’t like what it does, it’ll wear off in a few hours.” He grinned. “No harm, no foul, right?”
Del shrugged. “I not get not'ing to wash ‘em down wit’?" he asked.
“Just hold them in the back of your mouth,” Gage told him. “They’ll melt there like candy.”
With an unconvinced grunt, Del did as the Haven had suggested. There was little taste to it, just a liquid feeling that quickly spread through his throat and down it as he swallowed. He waited, mentally counting, trying not to wince at the noisy crowd of people around him and the loud background music.
Slowly everything started to get quiet. The sound around him softened, receding into nothing more than the purr of a finely-tuned engine, or the lapping waves of the Gulf. The press of the dozens of minds in the large, comfortable room eased, only an awareness that they were there remaining, with no intrusion of words or thoughts bombarding his brain. The intensity of so much emotion from so many others faded, muting lower and lower until there was…silence.
Del shuddered, aware that his eyes were blinking only by the feel of his lashes against his cheeks, and soon, that was gone, too. He started to slump, and Jeremy gently grasped his arm, leading him to a leather couch that stood along one wall. He almost flowed down into it, hearing Paget’s voice as though it were very far away.
“You all right?” the TerAfrican whispered.
It was an effort to get his mouth to work, to dredge an answer from the lethargy in his brain.
“There not'ing here,” he managed.
“You like it?”
Like it? Fo’ th’ firs’ time in all my life, it jus’ me in here! he almost crowed, unable to force himself to speak out loud. Desperately mixed emotions ran through him – all his own – of wonder and hope and fear and relief and dread. He was alone – no longer a jumble of half-thoughts and fleeting washes of emotion. All his demons were still there, waiting, but they had no power over him. They couldn’t compel him to despair or to anger or to grief; they were as quiet as the rest of the room. He was cradled in a swelling, peaceful blue, one that, as it enveloped him, had no beginning and no end. There was a touch of panic – how would he know he was alive if he couldn’t hear others’ thought, feel others’ emotions? How would he know they were alive? – but it melted under the release of the pressure that had tortured him for so long.
He didn’t know if he finally managed to answer Jeremy’s question, but the boy seemed satisfied. He smiled and gave Del a kiss on the forehead.
“Enjoy, Cajun,” he murmured, and Del didn’t know if he walked away – and didn’t care. The blue took him down and down and down, and he was at peace.
Hours later, a trickle of thought and sensation made itself known within him. He glanced up as a burst of incongruously dark light seared along his inert empathy. He caught a whisper of thought from Jeremy, a joyous, grieving, hopeless intake of breath. There was a commotion at the door of the large room, the crowd of people converging, then parting as a figure wound its way through them. Calls of welcome and excitement echoed into his brain, the feeling of sensuality and urgency and delight. Jeremy’s devotion was a bright spark that joined with the glowing, golden darkness, then both turned and came toward him.
He grunted as he sat up straighter, a headache beginning to throb at his temples.
“Cajun,” Paget’s voice said, filled with a heady mix of adoration and hunger, “this is Kamikaze. Kam, Cajun. He’s the Maker who fixed Lynx’s boat.”
The black eyes were no longer fierce, but the face was the same as in Paget’s memories, a young, handsome Asian with a smile like night and sunshine. But the emotions that flowed from him were thick and tortured, a rich, heady mix that was both compelling and frightening. Del found himself being drawn into the dark gaze and he responded with the same denial that had come to him when first seeing him in Jeremy’s thoughts.
He forced himself to nod a greeting, swallowing as the familiar cacophony began again in his being.
“He’s grounded,” Paget murmured, and Kam spoke.
“Not anymore,” he said, the deep voice full of both amusement and sympathy. “Cobra, get him a pipe. It’ll ease the rise.”
Kam sat down next to him as Paget moved off. “First time?” he asked. When Del only growled, he chuckled. “It’s gonna feel like hell till you get your equilibrium back – or take more sapphire.”
“More,” Del muttered. “That be soundin’ good t’ me.”
“Cobra tells me you’re a galaxy-class Maker,” the young man continued. “I’d like some modifications to my needle. When you’re up to it, I’d like you to take a look at her.”
“Cash money,” the Cajun retorted, his voice harsh.
Kam smiled. “Not a problem,” he assured.
The images that flashed in Del’s brain of why ‘cash money’ was ‘not a problem’ were cruel and ugly.
“Whyfor you mess wit’ that mother-fucker?” he asked bluntly.
Kam blinked. “You got shit for shields, you know that?”
“An’ you got shit fo’ brains,” Del snapped back.
The Asian’s smile went cold. “Are you like Cobra?” he wondered aloud, his voice rich silk. “You like it rough, too?”
“Fuck off!” Del spat.
Kam’s fingers traced sensually along his cheek as he slowly rose from the couch. “I think you’ll change your mind, galaxy-class Maker,” he murmured. “In fact, I can guarantee it.”
He moved away, pausing only to give Jeremy a quick kiss as the TerAfrican came back with a pipe full of Rigellian.
“What did you say to him?” the black boy asked, clearly wounded.
“Leave me th’ fuck alone,” Del snarled. “'Less you got more sapphire.”
Paget frowned at him. “It’s not good to take too much…”
Del pushed himself up from the couch, quickly scanning the room until he found who he was looking for. Daffy was laughing with the Racer Jeremy had called ‘Barak,’ standing next to a huge dish of multi-colored capsules, and Del headed for her.
“Which one’s sapphire?” he asked gruffly, not caring that he was interrupting her conversation.
Daffy blinked at him. “Sapphire? Blue? Duh!” she said.
“Thank you ever so fuckin’ much,” he growled, and dug into the bowl until he came up with two of the glowing blue pills.
“Nice introduction, asshole,” Barak sneered.
Del ignored him as the blue salvation melted in his mouth.
“Foul-tempered son-of-a-bitch!” Daffy called after him as he returned to the couch and sank into it.
The second dose was easier to handle. Del found he could stay aware, and watch the people around him, thoroughly enjoying their light conversation and flirtations that didn’t make him react with need of his own. People came to talk to him, each one wanting some help with tweaking their needles. He grinned as he realized what Jeremy Paget had done – talking him up non-stop and giving him thousands of credit-sized reasons for staying with this new, exuberant ‘family.’ There was only a little bitterness as he realized he really had no other ‘home’ to go to: His cousins were all mean-spirited shits who used him for entertainment value. His father was a right bastard, and Del didn’t really care if he ever saw him again. The only person he had any affection for – his Oncle – would surely understand what he was doing, and why. The best thing, though, was that these people didn’t seem to judge him, or think him crazy. His talents – even unproven – were respected. He was wanted, he was valued, and with the sapphire, he knew he would be able to handle the crowds. Here he could make a real name for himself. He wouldn’t be that ‘dumb, possede kid’ anymore. And he’d be paid – well paid – for the skill that had in New Orleans been the only reason people had had for even putting up with him.
He glanced around, finding Jeremy smiling at him. Kam was next to him and the troubled young man smiled, too – all his demons well-hidden behind something that came to Del’s senses like a cold wind blowing. He shuddered and tried to look away, but the spark of understanding in the black eyes held his gaze. He heard Daffy’ bright laughter, the music and muted thrum of life a soothing blue wave washing over him.
Yeah, he decided with a mental nod. Here somewhere I can belong. Here somewhere I can stay. An’ you got my thanks, Jeremy Maurice Paget.
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