The Bar None was quiet for the moment, but Jade knew that wouldn’t last. She’d thought the place was hopping in the winter months, but spring had brought even more customers flocking to the only human-run tavern in Haven colony. She had less than an hour to finish up with the bar droids and then test them to see if her upgrades had any unintended consequences before business picked up.
Kneeling behind the bar wasn’t comfortable, but it was the only way to do a visual scan of the new code. While she worked, she did her best not to think about how much easier this would be if she still had her implants. They’d been ripped out of her during interrogation sessions she’d endured while a prisoner of corporate-backed mercenaries. She’d been one of the best cyber-jockeys in the known systems before the fraxxing mercs had caught her. Now? She was stuck in normal space forever, interacting with machines one keystroke at a time.
Of all the sacrifices she’d been willing to make to escape from Earth, she’d never imagined she would have to give up one of her defining qualities.
The calm was suddenly broken by the thud of booted feet on the tavern’s veranda accompanied by rough male laughter. Someone shoved the door open hard enough it flew back to strike the wall with a loud bang.
Jade froze, her hands locking into fists as an icy chill flowed down her spine. She struggled to think, to move, to do something besides cower like a wounded animal, but she stayed where she was, teeth clenched, muscles screaming with tension, and heart pounding so fast she felt sick.
This was the other price she’d paid for freedom—panic attacks. Her time as a prisoner had left her with more than physical scars, and she was still learning how to deal with the sudden, gut-churning fits of panic that could be triggered by something as simple as a loud noise. She was broken in ways no nanotech or surgery could fix.
Her best friend Maggie hurried out to greet the customers, deliberately standing beside Jade and placing a steadying hand on her shoulder.
“Welcome to the Bar None. Take a seat wherever you like. I’ll come around to take your drink orders in just a moment,” Maggie said.
Several of the new arrivals rumbled words of thanks, some in Vardarian, others in Galactic Common. Thanks to the translators implanted in all of Haven’s citizens, communication wasn’t hampered by language barriers.
“You okay?” Maggie murmured once the others had moved off.
“As a duck in peach sauce,” Jade replied. Her voice was tight and shaky, but she had breath enough to talk, so she’d call that a win.
Maggie snorted. “I swear you make up new expressions just to fraxx with me.”
“Don’t blame me. That was one of my father’s expressions. I have no idea what it means either.” The friendly banter was exactly what she needed to ground herself and regain control. She leaned against Maggie’s leg, trying to slow her breathing and relax her knotted muscles.
It took a few minutes before she was calm again. Then she tapped the screen she’d been working on and activated the upgraded bar system with a still-shaking hand.
“The system and the droids are good to go. We’ll want to test them before it gets busy,” Jade announced as she rose to her feet, determined to keep it together in front of Maggie and the others.
“I’ll test them. You’re on a break,” Maggie stated firmly.
Jade waved her off. “I’m fine. Just need to stretch my back after being crouched on the floor so long. Remind me to talk to Anya about moving the central hub somewhere more accessible.”
Maggie narrowed her eyes and then muttered low enough only Jade would hear her. “If you don’t take a break, I will tell Anya and Saral that you’re pushing yourself too hard.”
“Whoa. You went straight to the nuclear option? How is that fair?” Jade protested. Saral and her two mates ran the tavern’s kitchen, creating some of the best food Jade had ever tasted. The Vardarian female was also a natural caregiver, and she was determined to provide Jade with food, advice, and mothering whether she wanted it or not.
“Who said anything about playing fair?” Maggie smiled and nudged her shoulder against Jade’s. “Grab a seat and relax for a few minutes. Saral has put together a plate for you already. If you don’t stop for a meal soon, she’s likely to come out here and glare at you until you’ve eaten every bite.”
Jade managed a small but genuine smile. “She’d do that. Wouldn’t she?”
“Without a doubt,” Maggie agreed. “She cares about you, Jaybird. We all do.”
Jade still didn’t know how to deal with that. Until Haven, Maggie had been her only friend—the one person she trusted to have her back. Haven was different. The beings here were kind, accepting, and honestly concerned about her. It made her uncomfortable, especially because she couldn’t offer much in return.
“I know, Magpie. It’s just weird. You know?” she replied, using Maggie’s nickname. Those names were part of their shared past, the years they’d spent on Earth, struggling to survive the hellhole that was the hive city known as Athens Two.
“I know. Remember, I’ve had a lot more time to get used to this place than you have.”
“Long enough to fall in love with a hot as hell cyborg and learn to be a badass with that fighting stick of yours.”
“Kes’tarv,” Maggie corrected her with a snicker. “If Striker or any of the others hear you call it a fighting stick, you’ll wound their egos.”
“Yeah? Then I should probably say it to my bookend bodyguards the next time they start looming over me.”
“They’re not looming,” Maggie protested and then threw up her hands defensively when Jade raised both brows and stared at her.
“Okay. They loom a little. They’re protective of you. It’s kind of sweet.”
“No, it isn’t. They get all growly with anyone who even tries to flirt with me, which doesn’t happen much as it is. They’ve got cock blocking down to an art form, and I don’t know why they’re doing it. It’s not like they’re interested. They don’t trust humans. Not that I can blame them.” She shrugged. “A lot of us are assholes.”
Maggie caught her by the hand and dragged her back into the kitchen. “Now, get some food and take a break. Shoo.”
She did as she was told. Experience had taught her that a few minutes of rest after a panic attack lessened the aftereffects significantly. Saral waited in the kitchen. The Vardarian female made a disapproving clucking noise and then handed her a plate stacked high with the Vardarian version of sandwiches with a side order of spicey fried tubers.
“Sit. Eat. Rest,” Saral instructed. “You should have mates to take care of you, but yours are slower to come to their senses than most.”
“Mine?” Jade shook her head. “Who would want me?”
Saral snorted. “Is this some sort of human affliction? That none of you can see what is as clear as the sky on a sunny day to everyone else?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about. Now, I’m going to follow your advice and find somewhere out of the way to eat this delicious meal. Thank you.” She nodded to Saral and then to her mates, Antas and N’tev, before fleeing. Saral was kind, generous, and determined to see everyone around her as happily mated as she was. Jade appreciated the female’s good intentions, but she was too broken for any man to want, no matter what their species.
The closest she had to male company were Wreckage and Ruin, but they treated her like a little sister, not a romantic interest. If she couldn’t even interest the two battle-scarred cyborgs who shadowed her like a pair of overprotective gargoyles, what chance did she have with anyone else?
She slipped into the tiny space they called a staff break room and sat down to eat. Three mouthfuls later, the door opened again.
“No need to check up on me, Saral. See? I’m sitting and eating as instructed.”
“It’s not Saral, but she did tell me to make sure you were eating.” Phaedra’s distinct voice and unexpected laughter filled the air, and Jade leaped to her feet. “Phreak? Uh, I mean Princess Phaedra. What are you doing here?”
The fuchsia-haired woman smiled and settled her very pregnant body onto the nearest chair. “I’m here to recruit you.”
Wreckage swung the axe with practiced ease, each strike taking another bite out of the trunk of the tree he and Ruin had chosen to harvest from the area around their cabin. The spring sunshine felt good on his bare back, the warmth soaking into his scarred skin. Every stroke of his blade filled the clearing with a crisp, satisfying thwack.
Birds sang in the trees and the breeze stirred a hundred branches and a thousand leaves as it blew through the forest. On the far side of their cabin, Ruin prepared a freshly fallen tree, trimming off the branches and peeling the bark. They’d need more logs to have enough to expand their home, but they had months of good weather ahead and plenty of incentive to get the job done.
It had only taken a single winter for them to realize they’d need more space if they were going to get through the cold, dark days of winter without killing each other, though it got easier once their young charge had been granted full citizenship and returned the colony. Cam had proven himself trustworthy and loyal to his new home.
If they moved back into Haven, they’d also be entitled to separate residences that would both be bigger than their hand-built domicile, but neither of them were ready for that. The colony was nice, but it lacked the calm and peace of the forest. After a lifetime of war and then confinement on Reamus Station, Wreckage needed solitude and quiet. The only exception to that rule was the company of his batch-brother, Ruin. The other colonists generally understood and gave them space, welcoming them when they came into town and leaving them alone the rest of the time. It was what they wanted. At least, it had been. Wreckage wasn’t sure about that anymore.
Another swing of his axe made the tree shudder and groan as it gave way. “Timber!” Wreckage called out as he moved adroitly out of the danger zone.
The tree dropped to the ground in a cacophony of breaking branches and tearing wood that ended with a thump he felt through the soles of his boots.
“Why do you insist on saying that when you have no idea what the fraxx it means?” Ruin demanded, his voice clear despite the distance between them.
“Because it’s faster than yelling, ‘Hey, asshole, pay attention to the big tree about to crush you!’” Wreckage called to his batch-brother.
Three seconds later, a fist-sized rock soared over the roof of the cabin. “Hey, asshole, watch out for the rock about to smack you!” Ruin yelled and then added, “Huh, your way is faster. Point to you.”
Wreckage didn’t bother to move. The rock would miss him by ten meters or so. “That gives me ten points. You know what that means?” This time he sent the message via an internal comm link so he didn’t have to shout.
“Fraxx,” Ruin swore inside his head. “Already?”
“Yep. Which once again confirms that I’m the smart one. We’re going into town tonight and the first round is on you.”
Ruin didn’t respond, which wasn’t normal. The two of them bickered like it was a sporting event, and they were both vying for the championship.
A moment later, Ruin appeared around the side of the cabin. His shoulders were tight, his hands fisted at his sides, and his face was twisted into a scowl. Great. Ruin was in one of his moods.
“Problem?” he asked, even though he already knew the answer.
Ruin ran a hand through his dark hair and grunted before answering. “We’ve been in town too much lately. We should stay away for a while.”
“Because everyone is going to forget what we look like if we’re gone long enough? The Vardarians might, but the cyborgs have perfect recall,” Wreckage reminded his friend. This argument had been going on as long as they’d been on Liberty, and he was tired of it. Eventually, someone would figure out their secret. At some point, they’d have to face the consequences.
Ruin’s lips twitched into a momentary snarl. “I know. And I know we’ve had this conversation so many times we can both recite the other’s point of view verbatim, but I…” he trailed off and smacked his fist into his open palm.
“You think I’m looking forward to having that conversation?” Wreckage shot back.
“You’re acting like it.”
“Seriously? That’s the best argument you’ve got?” Wreckage set down the axe and folded his arms across his chest. “We can’t hide out here forever.”
“It’s only been a year,” Ruin argued. “What’s the harm in giving things more time?”
“More time for what? For our brethren to figure it out for themselves? Or for someone to put the moves on Jade while we’re out here hiding?”
“We’re not hiding.” Ruin smacked his fist into his palm again, but it lacked the force of his previous action. “We’re keeping a low profile, but we see Jade every week, and we’re there when she needs us. She’s still recovering. It’s too soon.”
“There’s a small vething gap between too soon and too late,” Wreckage grumbled. That thought had been niggling at the back of his mind for a while now. Jade was brave and tough for a human, but she was still human. They were so weak they’d created cyborgs to fight their wars for them. Jade was stronger and braver than most, but she’d endured hardships and cruelty for most of her life. Then she’d been captured and tortured by mercenaries. He and Ruin knew too well what kind of scars that left.
Jade needed time to heal. But how much? If they left her alone too long, someone else would move in and take the woman they wanted for themselves.
That couldn’t happen. She was the only woman he and Ruin had ever wanted for more than a night. He’d felt it since the moment he’d carried her out of the mercenaries’ ship. She belonged with them, but only when she was ready. Until then, he wanted to stay close enough to ensure they didn’t miss their moment.
“Is Jade the only reason you want to go into town so much these days?” Ruin asked.
“Not the only reason, no. Your cooking is almost as bad as mine, which means the only way to get a decent meal is to pay someone else to make it.” Their future plans included having enough off-grid energy to support a food dispenser, but that wouldn’t happen for at least another year, especially now they were dividing their time between the cabin and their new duties as rangers. Between training sessions and the time they spent patrolling and mapping the areas around the colony, there just weren’t enough hours in the day. Not that he was complaining. Staying active made it easier to forget about the past, and sometimes he managed to push himself so close to exhaustion he actually slept for a few hours before the nightmares woke him.
Ruin nodded in grudging agreement. “Whatever that was we had for dinner last night made me nostalgic for the days of nutri-bars and algae paste.”
Wreckage winced. “You cooked it. Don’t you remember what it was before you turned it into a burnt offering?”
“Something I found in the back of the cooling unit. It was only slightly green and fuzzy, so I figured it was safe to eat.”
“You bastard. I don’t know whether to laugh or worry you poisoned me.” Even if Ruin was telling the truth, it wasn’t really anything he had to worry about. His medi-bots granted him accelerated healing and protection from illness… or food poisoning.
Ruin’s grin faded after a few seconds, and his expression turned thoughtful. “Do you think Jade would like to come out here? You know, for dinner?” He held up a hand. “We’d do takeout, of course. But the place is looking good these days. I’d like to show her around and see what she thinks.”
“Of what? Of the woods? The cabin? Or us?”
“All of it. This is our home. It could be hers, too. I mean, she doesn’t have a permanent job yet, and she hasn’t been assigned housing. We could offer her another choice.”
Wreckage didn’t know whether to laugh or smack his batch-brother upside the head. “Whoa. We haven’t even asked Jade out on a date yet and now you’re suggesting we ask her to move in with us?” He shook his head slowly as he imagined all the ways that could go wrong. “Do I need to contact Skye and some of the other cyborg women to explain to you what a terrible idea that is?”
Ruin cringed. “Fraxx, no. Do not involve the women. I’ll never hear the end of it.”
“We would never hear the end of it, because they’d blame me for letting you even consider the idea. As clueless as I am about dating, I do know we’re going to need to make more of an effort than that. We’ll need to romance her and make her feel special.”
“She is special.” Ruin’s sun-bronzed features collapsed into another scowl.
“Yeah, she is.” Wreckage took a deep breath before locking eyes with Ruin. “So, what are you saying? Do you think it’s time we let her know?”
“Not yet.” Ruin chuckled ruefully. “As you just pointed out, we’re clueless about this dating stuff. I think it might be time to start making plans, though.”
Wreckage clapped his batch-brother on the shoulder. “I think you’re right. We can start tonight while we’re having dinner at the tavern.”
“I still don’t think it’s smart to go into town so much.” Ruin ran a hand over his close-cropped beard. “I could grow this out and you could, too. That worked before.”
“It worked because you and I were kept in isolation most of the time. I don’t intend to spend the rest of my life that way. If we do that, we’re not really free.”
“I know,” Ruin said and then followed it with a heavy sigh. “But when they figure it out…”
“Then we’ll deal with it.”
“My way is easier. Feed her dinner. Show her around. Offer to move her in and take care of her. She might say yes,” Ruin grumbled.
“And she might laugh in our faces,” Wreckage retorted. “That’s not a chance I’m willing to take. We’ve still got time. We’ll work on a plan and then dazzle her with romance and flowers and stuff. Maybe Striker has some suggestions. He managed to get Maggie to fall for him and he’s a sullen, silent bastard most of the time.”
Ruin grunted in agreement. “That he is. If he can figure out romance, so can we. Besides, we’re much better looking.”
“Truth. We’ll clean up the worksite and then shower and head into town. I need a brew and decent food. If we’re in luck, Jade will join us.”
Ruin nodded. “I’ll admit, she’s worth going into town for. That, and I’m tired of looking at your face.”
“And I’m tired of eating charred food that may or may not have been green and fuzzy,” Wreckage shot back.
Once he was alone again, he set to work cleaning up the site and storing the tools for tomorrow. He smiled and hummed to himself as he worked, already looking forward to tonight. They weren’t ready to make their move, but they were ready to make a plan. By the time Jade was ready, they would be, too.
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