Cosmic Grind Episode 1 – Welcome

Green door… green door…

Xafir was tired of running. After a week and a day, he still wasn’t out of range of the security grid, and there was still no way of predicting just how much time he had left before the tracker in his neck would spark back to life again. His self-inflicted electrocution had been enough to short out its circuitry, but it was only a temporary solution. It had left him sick and shaky as he fled the prison, able only to pray the thing didn’t finish repairing itself before he could reach his goal. He was straddling the edge of almost-desperate-enough to try cutting it out, but the damn thing was micrometers from his jugular –an intentional placement of course– and his hands weren’t nearly skilled nor yet steady enough to avoid accidentally killing himself.

The only thing that kept Xafir from trying something rash and self-injurious (again) was the instinct that he was very close now. A reclusive Bomarri fence (the last of his rapidly dwindled connections) had sold him the information with some reluctance– directions for finding a guy who specialized in shit like digging around in folks’ vital organs without killing them.  

Whoever this person was, they didn’t keep shop in a particularly nice part of town. Not that Xafir could be surprised. One didn’t typically harbor murderers in the kempt, manicured, and human-ridden city center.

His current lack of options meant there wasn’t any use in worrying about the background of this supposed savior of criminals, their motivations, or what they would expect in return. But now, as Xafir passed landmarks that had been described to him (a graffiti tagged transaction/communication station on a corner, a faded sign for a Hajjorain pharmacy that no longer existed) it was difficult not to let those worries gnaw at the back of his increasingly frantic mind.

Green door, green door… Ah. There. A rusty door with peeling green paint and a surprisingly well-lit entryway just beyond a rolled up steel security grate. Xafir placed his hand on the dented knob, said a silent prayer to anyone who might be listening, and stepped inside.

The damp night air sloughed from his skin as he stepped into a somewhat humid, but climate-controlled environment. It was a low-rent space, judging from the neighborhood and the unpleasant flicker of sickly yellow fluorescent lights. Vials and tools littered the work space beyond a dingy front desk, and the stately, medical-looking chair in the middle of it all set Xafir’s nerves even further on edge. What kind of well-established criminal could stay in business by slicing open neck veins in this cluttered, unsanitary, and most importantly unlocked little room?

And then, there was the creature there to greet him.

At very first glance, Xafir thought that it was a human there, lounging in a wheeled chair with bare feet propped on the examination chair. Though the general form and colors of the person fit the traits of Cyxtraxis’ occupying species, quick examination proved it to be another kind of alien. He’d seen these — the Nuarr — only once before, in his childhood, but recalled that they came in a variety of hues. This one was a tawny brown similar to some humans but darker splotches peppered the shoulders and edges of the long face, cheeks slashed with crimson markings.

If this species had a binary gender structure, Xafir couldn’t tell which side this one fell on. Tall, long limbed and slender, the alien had rusty blond hair that was wiry and ineffectively tied back. Loose linen clothes in muted colors — a vest over a sleeveless top and roomy trousers — masked any curves that might exist. When the Nuarr looked up at him over the edge of a tarnished tablet, it was with eyes too large and dark to be either human or native, and it was a little unnerving.

Xafir was uncomfortable with the unblinking eye contact, and his gaze darted away (while still keeping the alien in his peripheral vision). He took quick stock of the waiting area he stood in. A few old chairs repaired with tape and stacks of tattered paper books filled the patch of floor in front of the desk, fenced off from the work area. Additionally, every bit of wall space was crowded with framed photographs of mostly human appendages and other fleshy parts. This wasn’t a medical office at all, Xafir realized with a start.   

“Looking to get inked, friend?” the shop owner finally drawled, not bothering to uncross the propped-up ankles.

Xafir hesitated, half a beat from turning around and booking it out of there. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust strange androgynous aliens who poked dirty ink needles into skeevy customers, it was just that if this was the wrong place, the tattooist in front of him had a whole lot of potential weapons to use against an escaped prisoner. Not to mention the hefty bounty he was sure was inching upward with each day, each hour he stayed on the run. The place looked like it was due for an upgrade that’d cost just about what Xafir was worth at the moment.

“A-ah, well. That depends…” Xafir finally spoke, closing the door behind him, but keeping one hand on the hilt of the laser cutter tucked into the back of his waistband. “On whether or not you’re the Yellow Doctor.”

The alien’s brows lifted and a sigh escaped thin, red lips. Tossing the tablet carelessly onto the nearby steel cart sent it rolling halfway across the room. “Not just anybody gets to see the Yellow Medic,” the words were bored, indifferent. “What’s your story?”

“Not your business,” Xafir answered pointedly, but not rudely, pleased that his voice didn’t give away the fluttering of his pulse. So he was in the right place after all. “Unless you’re selling what I need. You understand. Caution is all that’s keeping me alive these days.”

“We’ve got what you need,” the alien assured him impatiently. “But we’re a family business. So we try to screen out the serial killers and cannibals.”

Panya!”

The tattoo artist jumped when the heavy drapery over a doorway on the back wall was tossed aside. A second alien entered, this one’s appearance far more dramatic. Once standing, the one called Panya was tall but this new one was even taller and sported a mane of  wild, voluminous yellow hair. With broad shoulders and deep brown skin, this alien cut a striking figure but it was the markings that were the most transfixing — a warm cream color that speckled cheeks and nose and splashed a wide stripe across the eyes.

“What have I told you about harassing these poor people?” the second Nuarr scolded.

“You can’t just take in every single one, Ooryan! They’re not all gentle, you know, and I run a business here too!”

Xafir took a step back, wary at finding himself suddenly outnumbered. “I’m no murderer. Don’t eat sentient flesh either.” His gaze shifted to the new arrival, the one called Ooryan. “The Yellow Medic, I presume? Or is it Doctor?”

“Oh, do I have a special name now and everything?” Ooryan placed a hand on one narrow hip, the hint of a smile tugging thin lips. “How flattering. What can I do for you?”

“Take it in the back,” Panya hissed irritably, glancing at the front entrance.

Ooryan gave a sarcastic-sounding huff and waved Xafir in, holding back the curtain for him. Xafir didn’t take his hand off his makeshift weapon, or his eyes off of Ooryan, but he followed without complaint. He knew that, in spite of the risk, this was his last and best chance to get the tracker disabled permanently.

“Quite a charmer, hm?” Xafir commented, when the curtain was dropped and he entered the back room of the tattoo shop. He’d imagined dirty storage space and unused equipment behind the parlor but instead he was greeted by a warm living space. The room was of a decent size, comfortable, with a worn sofa and small square table to the left, and a small kitchen to the right. There was a sink there, some cupboards, and a narrow hallway just ahead, with two doors on each side, perhaps leading to the living spaces of this building, or perhaps to the workspace of the ‘Yellow Medic’. It was all clean, well lit and really quite cozy.

“My little brother is a good kid, believe it or not,” Ooryan replied with a shrug. “I ask a lot of him for my hobby.” Xafir was just a little surprised when, instead of continuing on, Ooryan waved him to the couch. “Tell me what you’re looking for, stranger,” The alien’s voice was low and friendly, posture welcoming and open while perching on the edge of the table.

Xafir sat, still cautious, but allowed his grip to leave the handle of his improvised weapon, taking some comfort from being able to feel where it still pressed into the small of his back. “I need a tracker chip removed or deactivated.” He tapped the side of his neck.

“Mmhmm,” Ooryan responded, dark eyes raking over Xafir. “What have you heard about me, mister– what was your name again?”

“Reevic.” The lie came easily to his tongue. “I’ve heard that you’re the only one who can help me. Or, I guess, the only one who will. Don’t have much in the way of options, uh… Sir?” he guessed, hoping he wouldn’t offend.

“Not a sir, but ‘Ma’am’ is awfully formal, don’t you think?” Ooryan chuckled. “I can do what it is you’re looking for, Mister Reevic, is it?” she returned the query as to his gender somewhat cheekily, but waited for the nod of confirmation from Xafir before continuing. “…but it may not be in such a way as you expect. First you have to tell me about yourself. Without lying.” Ooryan wagged one finger like an admonishing parent. “And I decide whether you’re worth saving.”

Xafir frowned, decidedly uncomfortable with the idea of ‘opening up’ to this strange person who could as easily fuck him over as save him. But he’d said it himself, hadn’t he? He was out of options. There was nowhere left to run from here. “What exactly do you want to know?”

“Oh, everything.” Ooryan gave him a smile, leaning forward with a playful, casual air. Though not unattractive even by native standards, the hard-angled nose and jaw, and the way Xafir had yet to catch her blinking left him ill at ease. “Where you were born. How did you get locked up. Why did you escape.”

“I was born here, on Cyxtratis.” This was easy to answer– after all, it was evident from his features. The slick, feathery black hair that peeked out from the hood he wore, the symmetrical facial patterns of light and dark indigo skin that mapped the planes of his features with a shine like the back of a beetle, all were characteristic of the Cyxan people. He hesitated at the other questions, unsure if the alien had some way of reading his truthfulness. “I… was a prisoner at Draftow because I tried to kill someone.” Vaguer seemed safer. “I escaped because she’s still alive.” Well, it was half-true anyway.

“A woman,” Ooryan said with piqued interest. “Always fascinating. A lover?”

“No.” Xafir snorted with mild humor. “No, she was my employer.”

“And you attempted her murder because…?”

Xafir’s lips went thin, his eyes narrowed. “Because she hurts people and gets away with it. Because everyone else turns a blind eye to it, due either to their lack of empathy, or their own powerlessness.”

“Is this so? Tell me about her. How did she employ you?”

“I was indentured to her estate at birth. My parents both worked for her.” It was a common story. Many of the native Cyxes had ended up in similar employment when the first surge of alien (primarily human) colonization shifted the economic foundations of the previously overlooked planet. “I spent a lot of time in her company, but things changed when I began to show signs of puberty.”

A moment passed as Ooryan considered this, considered the somewhat unique gender structure of Cyxtratis’ native population. Considered who this ‘Reevic’ had once been before the change that roughly half of them chose to undergo during adolescence. “A human fascinated by a girl becoming a man? How boggled they must be by the whole process.”

“‘Disturbed’ would be a better word,” Xafir huffed, surprised at his own openness, wondering at how desperation had loosened his tongue so quickly. “Elva has something of a… habit of surrounding herself with young, ‘exotic’ girls. She never liked the idea that some of them might not stay small and soft and… pliant.”

The alien’s air of almost-mirth had faded. “She tried to stop you?”

Xafir hesitated, sensing that this question would be followed by others that he was less comfortable answering. But he nodded, his mouth a tight, narrow line. “Me, and others.”

The room fell into a silence that stretched uncomfortably long. Ooryan studied him quietly, strange features no longer amused, no longer a playful predator over its prey. But when the drilling continued, it was not for more personally sensitive information but instead: “How did you try to kill her?”

The unexpected question raised a curious brow, but this, at least, Xafir didn’t mind speaking of. “I picked up a steak knife and put it in her back. Unfortunately, I missed anything vital.” He shrugged. It wasn’t like he’d spent his free time at the estate learning about human anatomy.

Ooryan’s mouth pursed with amusement. “And now? You’re off to finish the job?”

“I’m not so stupid that I’d head straight to her. No, the first time was impulsive, emotional. This time, I’ll be ready for it, have a plan.”

“You’re quite an interesting case, Mister… Reevic,” Ooryan concluded. “And far more likable than most that come my way. Frankly most of them I can tell at a single sniff that they’re not worth saving.”

Sitting sat back on both palms showed the thin membrane between each where they fanned.

“Thank you… I guess,” Xafir hemmed, unsure what to think about this doctor who seemed to enjoy playing judge and jury to the no-doubt seedy stream of criminals who sought help. Still, his pulse kicked up expectantly, hopeful that Ooryn might, after all, be able to do something about the tracker chip that was complicating his intention to live free through the end of the week.

“How long have you been out?” Ooryan asked, as a physician would ask a patient about his symptoms.

“About a week.” More than a week, actually, but Xafir thought it might sound like bragging to say he’d eluded the security authorities for so long.

“No run ins?” Ooryan continued and lazily slid from the table to cross the room. The alien’s hands were soft, supple and startling as they touched his throat, guided his chin skyward so they could feel lightly at the implant nestled along his jugular.

“One or two close calls,” Xafir admitted, swallowing awkwardly against her palm. “But I’m good at hiding.” Her fingertips were cool where they met his skin, and he shivered.

Ooryan gripped the point of his chin suddenly in two wide-padded fingers and frowned into his face. “But confident you haven’t been followed.”

“I wouldn’t have come if I thought I was being followed,” he assured her. It wouldn’t have done him any good to have the tracker removed if there was someone waiting for him outside the door when he left. “The tracker’s nano-circuitry is inactive now, but I don’t know how long I’ve got before it reinitiates.”

“Well, I have good news and news you’re probably not going to like,” Ooryan said and sank into the seat beside Xafir. “The good news is, I’m pretty sure we’ll be able to get it disabled permanently. The less good news is it will take at least two days. You don’t have to worry about the marshals. You can’t be detected here, even when the tracker reactivates.”

Xafir’s frown deepened. “What do you mean I can’t be detected here? And why will it take so long?” He tried not to sound panicky, but there was a distinct if slight up-hitch to his voice as he white-knuckled a couch cushion.

The alien’s cool touch slid over his gripping hand, sending a deep involuntary shudder through his entire frame. Her palm settled there with a pat, and when Xafir’s eyes snapped up, the expression he observed was no longer clinical nor teasing. Instead she offered him a genuine, comforting smile. When her features softened with kindness, it made Xafir’s heart stutter its rhythm and ache, a milder echo of the surge of electricity that had ripped through his body back at the prison. There was a part of him that couldn’t help feeling that turning a stolen, jacked-up stun prod on himself was somehow less dangerous than putting himself in the hands of this person.  .

“Calm yourself. It’s safe here.” Ooryan sighed, then, with an almost comical frown. “The hardest part is always the explaining. The way I can help you isn’t through some medical procedure or removing the implant. It’s a bit more… metaphysical than that.” She held his gaze, not quite so unnerving as before, and with that velvet-soft hand growing warm over his, it seemed impossible to mistrust her.

“Wh-what do you mean?” Xafir found himself stuttering, oddly undone in a way that bordered on emotional. He wasn’t sure he liked the feeling and though he didn’t think she would hurt him (somehow), nonetheless he leaned away, brow furrowed, confused.

“My people– some of us are born with a talent for…  a sort of telepathy,” Ooryan began patiently, gently. “It’s how I know you aren’t being 100% forthcoming about your real name.” She smiled, cheeky at his startled look. Before he could protest or take his chances back out on the street, she squeezed at his hand placatingly, her own expression changing to something more apologetic.

“Please don’t fret about it, Xafir,” she said reassuringly, and her skin seemed to grow warmer against his. “I can’t read your innermost thoughts, nothing like that. It’s only that something as prominent and familiar as your name is right there on the surface. And it’s a lie you have to think on too often to keep it hidden. But I don’t mind, it’s perfectly understandable.”

Xafir shook his head, disquieted and distrustful, battling with his flight instincts. He had to remind himself that whatever creepy abilities this person had, she was, nevertheless, his only shot at freedom. “I don’t like it,” he frowned, feeling it was important to voice his discomfort, whether or not Ooryan could sense it herself. “But I don’t see that I have have much of a choice. Tell me how this technique of yours is going to help me, please.”

Ooryan nodded, approvingly. “I — or rather, you and I — can permanently disable the nanites in the implant. It’ll be as good as gone. It’s something of a complicated thing, and I need to know you better or things could go wrong.”

“You aren’t… going to look inside my brain or something, are you?” Xafir asked, only somewhat suspiciously.

“Hardly,” Ooryan laughed. Her hand slid away and the deep sense of trust faded, but a weak flicker of something remained, pulsing faintly in Xafir’s chest. “You can stay with my brother and I.”

“Are you SERIOUS?” Panya chimed in suddenly –loudly– from the other side of the curtain, making it clear that he’d been eavesdropping on at least some of their chat.

“Yes, I am serious, Panya!” Ooryan snapped back instantly. “This is what you agreed to!”

There was a blustering, irritated sound from the front of the shop but nothing further.

“I… I have some money, but not enough for room and board for two days,” Xafir began, hesitant, uncomfortable with the realization that he wasn’t more uncomfortable with this whole unexpected situation.

“Don’t worry. We’ll take care of you. I know it’s hard to believe. It’s what I do. A hobby, sort of. So just give it a chance. As far as your safety from the authorities, the shop has a dampener. Yeah. REALLY illegal.” She grinned wide, casual in the admittance of highly criminal activity.

This at least was comforting– that these people so openly admitted to being engaged in operations nearly as illegal as escaping prison. Somehow it made Xafir feel less at a disadvantage. Telepathy though… He licked his lips nervously, but felt himself nod. “Okay.” He pushed up from the couch then, but realized he had no idea what came next or where he intended to go once he was standing.

Ooryan touched his arm, comforting. “Are you injured at all?”

Xafir frowned, but didn’t shrug away from her continued invasion of his personal space, at risk of offending the ‘doctor’. He shook his head in response to the question. “A few scrapes, nothing serious.”

She nodded and joined him in standing. Though she was tall enough to dwarf Xafir’s comparatively compact stature, she no longer felt mysterious or frightening. Her manner was warm and open and disarming. “Well, then are you more tired or more hungry?”

Now this made Xafir perk visibly. “Food?”

With a laugh, Ooryan stood, laid a wide palm on Xafir’s chest and gently pushed him back to the couch. “Sit. Relax.”

She turned on her heel toward the modest kitchen and began unloading ingredients from the cooling unit, Xafir’s anticipation growing as food was stacked on the counter.  Ooryan got to work, skillet clattering as she dropped it on the burner and started a flame beneath it. “How long were you locked away?”

“Two standard years, seven months, three days,” Xafir recited, grateful to be seated again, instead of hovering awkwardly on his feet waiting for something to happen. “Give or take.”

Ooryan was clearly a skilled cook, hands swift and practiced. It didn’t take long for the sounds and smells of food to lure Panya past the curtain. Despite his earlier vocal reluctance to allow Xafir to stay, Ooryan’s brother seemed now to have no qualms about flopping onto the plush, beat up sofa where Xafir sat.

“Long time. Were you a boy or a girl when you went in?” the tattooist asked, legs splaying, one knee hooked over the arm of the couch.

Xafir offered a sidelong glance, vaguely put out at Panya’s casual acknowledgement that he had continued listening in on the conversation. “I’d transitioned to adulthood almost three years prior to my imprisonment,” he answered, seeing no reason to lie about this.

“It must really throw a wrench in the human penal system, eh?” Panya laughed, tossing a glance back at his newest house guest. “Do they still have segregated jails or do they not bother anymore?”

Xafir raised a brow, surprised that this seemingly worldly, pseudo-criminal alien didn’t know about things like the human-run prisons on Cyxtratis. “Cyxan criminals who haven’t settled are sent to juvenile discipline homes. Not jail.” He sat up a little straighter, strangely self-conscious in the presence of a being who, even sitting, near towered over him. “But in the adult prisons they do take great care to prevent potential reproductive activities. Believe me, they are both stringent in maintaining the separation and… thorough in their examinations.”

“Panya’s curious,” Ooryan sing-songed.

Indeed, the alien appraised Xafir’s frame up and down, studying him lazily, thoroughly. He seemed to ignore Ooryan’s teasing. “You’re the first one of your type to come looking for my sister.”

“Most of the natives don’t get far enough to seek us out. The humans keep quite a grip on you,” Ooryan put in.

“They’re afraid one day we’ll all decide to actually fight back.” Xafir snorted at this, shook his head. “I don’t know why they worry. Did a thorough enough job of making sure we’ll never do something so… revolutionary.”

“Your people don’t seem that upset about the whole situation. You all would have died if the humans hadn’t decided to throw some money at your little mudball.”

“This ‘little mudball’ seems to be good enough for homeless alien trash like you,” Xafir snapped back.

Xafir’s irritated response only made Panya’s lewd grin widen. “This homeless alien trash has your fate in their hands.”

“Your sister’s hands maybe — all you seem capable of offering me is ink poisoning.” Xafir sneered, and looked Panya up and down in an echo of the examination the alien had performed moments ago, replacing interest with disgust. “Or a venereal disease.”

“Oh, forward! Ask me on a date first!” Panya barked, earning a roll of eyes from Ooryan at the kitchenette.

“Is that your game, then? Put out for a hand out? I’ll bet an inking needle’s not even in the top ten list of things your customers want you to stick in ’em.”

“Chh, hardly,” Panya scoffed with a distasteful sneer. “My sister only takes in the finest pedigree of humans but in general, my customers are disgusting.”

“Then why cater to them?” Xafir wondered, surprised to find himself genuinely curious. Not that this changed his appraisal of Panya. The guy was definitely a prick.

The alien shrugged, long arms spread across the back of the couch. “They pay. I’m an artist. I need a canvas. And there’s something just satisfying about leaving art on a body, leaving a mark that will last that thing’s entire life. Don’t you think?”

Xafir avoided the question, but didn’t quite manage to avoid thinking of the scars he must have left on Elva’s back. “You’re one of those guys who inks ‘dick and balls’ instead of ‘strength and honor’ when some ignorant alien wants a tattoo in your flowery-looking language, aren’t you.”

“Oh, you have no idea.” Panya sat forward, amusement replacing boredom in his posture and expression. “The real art comes from working things into the details that are overlooked by the human eye. Or through mathematics. Or so many other ways.”

Xafir seemed to consider this with a grudging interest, if not respect. “You only tattoo humans then?”

Long fingers waved dismissively. “And some others. But your skin’s more like mine, doesn’t take the cheap ink kindly. ” He smirked. “You have to have an immune system lazy enough not to bother washing away foreign toxins. I could tattoo your type, but the ink is more expensive and not worth it to me. They’re sort of like… sketches, my humans.”

“Sketches?” Xafir echoed raising a brow. The guy was strange. High-brow and low-class all at once, somehow both pretentious and charismatically vulgar. “So then what would be your masterpiece?” Mocking, but curious nonetheless, and Xafir was irrationally annoyed at himself for not outright hating the tall alien.

“Huh, hadn’t thought about that before.” Panya reached for a long pipe resting on a small table aside the sofa. The object was elegant and steely, with a thin plastic tube that coiled off one end and disappeared behind the couch. One quick puff and rust-colored smoke trickled from Panya’s parted lips. “Inking up some government pissant or famous twit, I suppose? Unless you were offering.” He flared his thin nostrils with a snort of rolling smoke.

Xafir snorted back. “Like hell I’d let you stick inky needles in me. You’d probably take the chance to sneak in some sort of subliminal message or insult to my mother.”

“Panya, would you at least wait for me to go to bed before you start reeling him in,” Ooryan finally cut in, pouting as she set down a steaming plate of grain topped in a dark, creamy sauce with vegetables and a generous cut of meat. She gestured Xafir over to the small table, pulling out a chair for him to sit.

Xafir accepted the seat and the plate gratefully, eyes wide at the sight of such bounty as he could hardly remember last indulging in. It was far better looking and smelling than anything he’d had in prison. “Thank you,” he ducked his head in a nod of gratitude, even letting slide the comment about her brother’s intentions.

Panya rose with excited greed for his sister’s cooking, reaching for a plate she’d left him on the counter, then joining Xafir at the table, turning his own chair around to straddle the back rest.

“Sadly, I have to work early, so I will actually have to turn in.” A warm, comforting hand slid down Xafir’s arm– Ooryan’s way of drawing his attention. “If you’d like to bathe tonight, Panya can show you where things are. We may have some clothes that fit you.”

Xafir swallowed the bite that filled his mouth before nodding, somewhat dazed. He still had trouble believing these people would be willing to do so much for him just because they’d judged his character worthwhile after only a few questions. “A bath would be nice,” he agreed.

“Take your time,” Ooryan smiled reassuringly. “This brat stays up late. Think of our place here as your home.”

Xafir smiled back, imagining the look of annoyance on Panya’s face even without turning to look at him. “Thank you again, doc. Sleep well. I want you rested before you go around messing in my brain!”

Practically glowing with delight, she ran the back of her fingers along his cheek before sauntering over to the front curtain where a steep set of metal steps to the left lead up to a door in the ceiling. Halfway up the stairs and with one hand on the hatch door, Ooryan turned back to point and aim a glare at her brother, cheer disappearing for a moment when she spoke, “You. Keep it down.” Still, she flashed them a good natured, teasing smirk just before disappearing through the door, dropping it closed with a thump.

Panya snorted through his nose, busy stuffing his mouth.

“Your sister’s very… handsy, isn’t she?” Xafir observed, rubbing idly at the place where her fingers had grazed his skin. It wasn’t that he didn’t like or appreciate physical contact — in fact, under normal circumstances, he’d consider himself very hands-on. It was just that he was beginning to wonder if Ooryan had decided him worthy of saving for less than noble reasons.

Wiping at his mouth, Panya shrugged. “She’s affectionate with her pets. It’s nothing weird, don’t worry.”

For his part, Xafir did his best to eat slowly, deliberately, forcing himself not to hork down his meal like he hadn’t eaten for the last day and a half. Between bites he licked his lips, took a breath or two. “How often do you have to share your place with the… ‘pets’ she brings in?”

Another lazy shrug. Panya wiped the bottom of his bowl with a finger and licked the wide pad clean. “Not too often, every couple months I guess. She owns the place, so I don’t have much say.”

“Ah,” Xafir nodded, feeling suddenly awkward here alone with the odd tattooist and his own cooling dinner. He couldn’t say he’d ever been particularly good at small talk in the best of circumstances. “So… she said something about a bath?”

Panya crossed the room to toss his bowl into the metal sink.  He turned to lean back on the counter with a jerk of his head to the right. “There’s a bathroom down the hall, right side. Towels in the cabinets. You can use my soap if you don’t wanna smell like a spiced cake.”

Xafir hadn’t asked what he’d smell like if he used Panya’s soap, but thankfully he came out of the bath smelling like nothing more than clean. It was the best he’d felt in, well years, really. He was free, clean, had a full stomach. Soon he’d have this tracker problem sorted out, and he’d be able to finish what he’d started almost three years ago.

He dressed in the clothes Panya had dug up for him– simple cream-colored linens, human styled but decently fitting. There were loose trousers and a low necked, zippered tunic, knee length but split up the sides to the hip for better movement. He debated during his shower what to do with the laser cutter, hesitant to set it aside, to lose the security of that last resort, despite the lingering feeling that he should do nothing to make these people lose faith in him. Still, survival instinct edged out trust, and ultimately he tucked the tool into one pocket.

Before leaving the wash room, he took a look in the mirror, frowning a little at how sunken his eyes looked, how thin his cheeks. A healing bruise, near invisible in the darker parts of his skin, showed green in the lighter flesh of one brow ridge, and a few healing scrapes still marked the subcutaneous bumps of one cheekbone. Similar, minor wounds peppered his body, but he could have been worse off. No broken bones, no infection.

He made his way down the hallway back to the room with the kitchenette, steps silent out of habit, instinct leading him to hug the shadows. Panya wasn’t there anymore, but both bowls had been washed, left to drip dry beside the sink, and a pillow and folded blanket had been left on the sofa, presumably for him.

The curtain between this room and the tattoo shop had been drawn, and Xafir could hear voices from the front. Though one of them belonged to Panya, the other was unfamiliar. He could feel his heart rate kick up with a sudden, not-so-irrational fear that he’d been tracked here, that someone had come to kill him, take him back, to–

“–run a clean shop here, right? Quality ink and all that, yeah?”

A customer. Xafir let out the breath he’d been holding, shaky, lightheaded with relief. It was just some human come to get tattooed. He crept closer, pressing himself to the wall and peering through the sliver of space between door frame and curtain. It was a large male human, past his prime but not too old — he had the muscled arms and ponched belly that were common in the human immigrants of Cyxtratis, especially near cities. Though Xafir had been raised in the company of a finer breed of humans, he’d seen plenty of the ones with close cropped hair and hard jaws. They usually worked in the mines and transit centers. Whatever the profession of this one, he wasn’t uniformed and didn’t have the air of an undercover marshal.

Panya seemed to think the same, judging from his careless posture, slumped back against the messy desk that greeted customers. “Of course. We specialize in humans so we carry the top of the line shit — and nothing incompatible. Don’t haveta worry about nanites consuming your tender flesh. I do still have some excellent bio-luminescent options though if you want your mark to glow.”

“Good. Good,” the man nodded, thoughtful in a thick sort of way, but satisfied with Panya’s answer. “But nah, none of that fancy crap. Just need this.” He handed Panya a tattered scrap of paper, presumably depicting the image he wanted etched onto his flesh. “Got real special meanin’ to me, so you won’t fuck it up, right?”

The artist looked unimpressed by whatever it was but shrugged his agreement and fell bonelessly into his well-oiled, wheeled work chair. Lazily, he picked up his tablet to scan in the image and nodded the man into the padded metal recliner.

“So who is it?” he asked, not exactly interested as he rolled across the polished concrete floor to thumb through a cabinet of ink bottles.

The guy sank into the offered chair, his air unconcerned. Panya returned to ratchet the seat backward until his stubbly jaw pointed up at the ceiling. He dropped his forearm heavily on the attached table like it was a boneless ham. “She’s the woman me and the boys named our platoon after. Invented the hull-piercing bullets that downed half the rebel birds. Hots and brains, you know? Died in the first wave, though. Always hoped I’d getta meet her…”

Xafir quietly bristled, gritting his teeth at the mention of the war that had led ultimately to the human occupation of the planet. His people might not have put up a fight, but there had been others along the way, other planets in the system that hadn’t rolled over quite as easily as his.

“Quite a lady,” Panya said and Xafir wondered why the customer didn’t take exception to his deadpan voice. With his canvas laid out, Panya flipped to life a series of lightly pulsing fields meant to immobilize the man’s arm. Idly, Panya spun the needled pen while his other hand worked the tablet, importing the photograph into the projector that peered over the work station. “You a soldier, then? Must’ve been still young when the war ended. Why’d you stick around? Find some native piece of ass?”

“Nah,” The guy tried to shrug, but the field keeping his arm in place made it a lopsided movement. “Too old for military service now, and nothing back on New Earth for an ex-soldier. But here, everything’s new– a man can carve something out for himself.”

Xafir suspected the only thing he was carving out these days was a permanent spot at the local drinking hole. Though the man wasn’t drunk now, Xafir could smell the alcohol soaked into his skin.

“Certainly is,” Panya said offhandedly. He worked in silence for a few moments, his pen moving at an almost alarming speed. The blue-green beam of the projector glowed eerily in his dark eyes as he worked over the shapes of what Xafir assumed was a portrait of some human woman.

When, after some time,  Panya eased back for a long moment to inspect his work, he glanced toward the curtain. Xafir was sure the alien saw him — or perhaps felt him there. With a tiny purse of a smirk, Panya turned back to his art. “So how many beetles did you take out during the war? You were what, a pilot?”

It took a significant amount of self-control for Xafir not to choke audibly at Panya’s words. What exactly was the alien playing at? The question was obviously meant to get a rise out of Xafir, or perhaps he intended to subtly chide him for eavesdropping. Not that Panya had any room to criticize that particular behavior.

“Sure, yeah, well… see the native folks mostly stayed out of the way– their government, such as it was then, sent a few ships out to Onix at the start, but that was all part of the alpha wave, you know, and after that, they surrendered pretty quick. Once we’d occupied the surface here, resistance was, well, minimal. Quickest battle I flew in, t’be honest with ya.”

“How fortunate for you,” Panya intoned, pausing to change ink cartridges. “And all the resources that came with it. What’d you settle in to do here?” His full concentration was on his work, everything in his posture, his movement, his focus… the body before him really did amount to nothing but a canvas. Each time the whir of the needle stopped, Xafir was sure he could feel Panya’s attention on the doorway, peering at him askance.

Xafir frowned, but didn’t move away from the curtain, torn between a growing ire at the man in Panya’s chair, and the fascination he couldn’t deny feeling as he watched the alien work. And maybe he hoped Panya’s fingers would slip and scar the guy, but well, wasn’t a little wishful thinking understandable?

“Commercial piloting mostly. These days, I’m in shipping. Nothing special, but at least I can still fly.”

After working in silence for a few more minutes, Panya flicked absently at his tablet and subdued, instrumental music filtered into the room through a few speakers rigged around the place. Another hour passed this way without another word, Panya immersed in his work as though he had neither a customer nor a houseguest.

Finally he sat up and rolled his chair back, arching his spine  with a groan. “There ya go — oh what was your name?”

“Miles,” was his answer, spoken on the tail of a yawn as the human sat up straight, cracked a kink out of his neck and swung his legs over the side of the chair. He twisted his arm to get a look at the dark, fresh ink, rimmed in the red of inflamed flesh. He nodded with satisfaction. “You do good work.”

“Thanks,” Panya said and turned the tablet onto Miles to sign for the funds transfer. “Enjoy your sexy gun lady.”

Miles the ex-pilot nodded his thanks and left, inked and happy, if a little poorer.

Panya followed shortly after to pull down the security grate, and locked the shop door behind him. He took his time cleaning the workstation and sterilizing his tools and by the time Panya found him, slumped against the wall beside the curtain, Xafir had long since fallen asleep.

“’Ey, Beetle.” Panya jostled his shoulder with a bare foot. “You gonna sleep all night there?”

Xafir startled awake, halfway to his feet before he remembered where he was. After a week of quick dozing whenever he could take the risk, the safety of Ooryan and Panya’s place pulled at Xafir’s tired body like a drug.

“Your customer gone?” he asked, peering past Panya into the now-quiet room.

“Yeah, a while ago,” Panya replied. He sank into the couch that was supposed to be Xafir’s bed and fished a package of human cigarettes from his pocket. He tucked one between his lips and offered the package to Xafir. “You hungry again, yet?”

Xafir waved away the offer to smoke and also shook his head, no, to the question. “I’m fine, thank you. Your sister made a good meal.” He hovered awkwardly for a moment before deciding to settle on the opposite end of the couch.

With a flick of light, Panya breathed life to his cigarette and thoroughly examined Xafir once more. This time, he was far more interested as he made his visual inspection of Xafir’s body– curious, if not subtle. “You clean up pretty well.” He grinned around curling wafts of smoke.

Xafir frowned, sure Panya was making fun of him, but not wanting to call him on it, lest his host decide he wasn’t worth sharing his living space with after all. Unsure how to respond, Xafir settled on a slightly suspicious, “Thank you”.

From the way his eyes lingered, Panya’s words certainly didn’t seem insincere. But eventually he slumped down, letting his frame settle into the cushions and his head tip back to exhale a lazy geyser of smoke. “When’s the last time you had a hot shower?”

“You mean prior to… a couple of hours ago?” Xafir snorted, sank back into the couch, mirroring Panya’s posture, willing himself to relax. He’d sleep better for it later. “Guess it’s been almost two weeks now. Course, it’s been years since I showered solo.”

“I guess it’s best I didn’t follow you in, then,” Panya mused with a flick of ash.

“You’re very forward, aren’t you,” Xafir observed, tugging at the collar of the loose tunic Ooryan had given him to wear. It occurred to him that the shirt might belong to one of the siblings’ previous clients. Or worse, one Ooryan had decided not to take on.

Panya shrugged. “I’m not the coy type. It’s easier, less time consuming, to be straightforward. Also, you’re different, you’re interesting. I like you.”

A quirk of confusion tugged at the corner of Xafir’s mouth, and he said nothing for a long moment, searching Panya’s face, trying to figure out his game. The alien was forward, and oddly enough, Xafir found it appealing. It was difficult to ignore the thoughts that came to him, reminding him of just how long it had been since he’d enjoyed any sort of casual physical company, how long it had been since he’d touched another person with the intent to thoroughly explore them. His skin prickled with perhaps unsurprising interest. “I bet you say that to all your sister’s criminal projects,” he finally spoke, deadpan as he could manage. Interest or not, didn’t want to appear overtly eager.

“Pft, hardly. Just because I fuck a human doesn’t mean I like any of them.”

I try to make a habit of liking the people I have sex with,” Xafir countered with a tiny smile, falling into the rhythm of their banter. “So tell me what there is to like about you.”

A frown peered across the couch before Panya sighed dramatically. “Fair enough.” He took a long drag, seemed to be taking the time to consider what to say. “I’m a good artist.”

“Do you have images of your work there?” Xafir indicated the tablet Panya had been using earlier. “I’d like to take a closer look.”

“Yeah, plenty.” Panya reached for the tablet on the table before the sofa and tapped it a few times before handing it over to Xafir with a slideshow. “Thing is, my work’s not in what you can see. Most of that shit’s just working off of projections. It’s the programming that’s the art but that… I don’t actually get to see the results of.”

“How does it work?” Xafir wondered, browsing through images of human and alien limbs, breasts, skulls, shoulders and more, all decorated in –enhanced by– Panya’s art.

“Nanites. Not caustic or destructive ones– human skin’s as delicate as a baby’s asshole. But gentle, tiny nanites. That guy’s smarty bitch?” He dug into his vest pocket and tossed a wadded slip of paper into Xafir’s lap. When he unfolded it, he was able to glimpse for the first time the pretty, made up face of the woman whose bust was now etched into Miles’ arm. “About twenty years from now, brainy lady’s face will slowly start to melt off. It’ll take about ten years to reveal the mangled skull underneath. And then over the next five years, the whole tattoo’ll vanish.”

Xafir didn’t try to hide the smirk that followed this explanation and even as he flipped through the examples of Panya’s work, he wondered what secret images might be underneath each one. “Anyone ever come back to complain? Or have you not been doing it long enough yet for your ‘surprises’ to be revealed?”

“Yeah, not yet. Only settled in to work here about three years ago. Most of ’em are fifteen years out from activation. Half of ’em come in so shit faced though, I doubt they’d remember ever getting the ink, let alone where they got it.”

Now Xafir did laugh, nodding his understanding. The humans might not respect the native culture, but they were particularly fond of Cyxtratis liquor. “What would you have given me if I came here looking for a tattoo?”

“You?” Panya repeated with an arch of brows. “I dunno… I’ve never inked someone I liked before. I’d have to think about it. And I’d have to order some special ink for that dark fuckin’ blue skin of yours. Not many beetles make their way this deep into the human cities, you know. Not even the affluent ones.”

“It’s because we don’t like the smell,” Xafir explained, only half-joking, catching Panya’s eye for a moment before looking back to the tablet. “No faces or animals or anything like that. But maybe something decorative. How would I look with stripes?” The smile was coming easier with practice.

“That could be pretty hot,” Panya mused. He curled in, squirming almost snakelike, closer. A soft, long hand cupped Xafir’s jaw to tilt his face toward Panya. He was considerably taller than Xafir, though built with a long, lean frame that made him hardly imposing, even having to look up to meet his gaze. Panya’s eyes were such a deep, red-brown that they were almost black, pupil and iris just a little too large. They searched Xafir’s features, careful now not to make eye contact.

The fingerprints tracing his cheekbone filled Xafir’s chest with the same strange warmth that Ooryan’s had, though the pang was weaker. Lost in admiration and inspiration, Panya inspected the way the light played on Xafir’s darkest flesh and the ridged bumps that accented his features. “Maybe. Or maybe something more abstract. Oh, or something in gold. Shit, your skin is amazing.”

Said skin heated noticeably, though no visible change occurred in Xafir’s features. “I guess you really don’t see too many of us in this part of town…” A teal-tinged tongue peeked between Xafir’s thin lips, licked nervously at the corner of his mouth and disappeared again. He didn’t understand how it worked– the sensation that Panya and Ooryan’s species seemed to inspire, but Xafir was pretty sure he shouldn’t enjoy it as much as he did.

Panya’s attention darted with interest to the bright color of his tongue, pupils dilating noticeably. His cool touch traveled down Xafir’s exposed neck, lingering fondly in the dip of his throat. “Only seen about a dozen up close since we got here. And they always seem to be fat in the city, figured you all were. But this…” Again he took a moment to enjoy the vision of Xafir’s lean, muscled body, wide shoulders, narrow hips, all swathed in alternating shades of pearly blue. “I like this.”

“There’s not a lot of opportunity for weight gain in prison,” Xafir scoffed mildly, then licked his lips again when he met Panya’s appreciating look. “Are you seducing me or just teasing?”

“Oh, I’m seducing the hell out of you,” Panya replied calmly.

“Will I regret it in the morning?”

A light laugh huffed over Xafir’s mouth as Panya’s palm slid down his chest, slowly forcing open the zipper down the front of his tunic. “Believe me, you won’t.” And then his mouth was on Xafir’s, not forceful but hungry, eager, coaxing surely. The smaller man stiffened, hand lifting to Panya’s chest, pushing him away. Xafir’s brow was furrowed, his aspect uncomfortable.

“Is eating your partner’s face part of your people’s mating ritual too? I thought it was just a human thing. I can’t say I’m really into that.”

Panya stared into the other’s dark face blankly. “Kissing? It’s not uncommon. Not eating, just… touching.” He paused with a smirk, but he wasn’t quite so smarmy, so self-confident now. Instead he was sultry with interest, with obvious desire. His left arm across the back of the sofa, behind Xafir’s head, Panya lifted his free fingers to Xafir’s mouth. That tantalizing silk-softness slowly felt his lips, stroked lightly over them. Brushed delicately at his lower lip, parting them just slightly as he watched Xafir’s face. “You don’t use your mouths at all?”

Xafir felt the flush heat his face again. “Well, yes, we do use them.” A pause. “Just for…. other things.” He licked his lips again, an unconscious nervous tic, this time finding a strange, but not unpleasant hint of flavor. Panya lit with interest and chased Xafir’s tongue back, the velvet of a fingertip stroking boldly at his taste buds.

A moan slipped unbidden from Xafir’s throat, and he found himself sucking eagerly at that digit, searching for the subtle, lovely taste of Panya’s skin. It took a moment for him to come back to himself, embarrassed when he realized his own behavior.

But Panya only grinned at him lustily, his finger stroking, tempting, savoring the texture and the heat of Xafir’s mouth. He pushed in deeper, petting, exploring. He added a second finger, toying with his tongue, breath slowing when Xafir licked between them. His fingers slid almost free to stroke, wet and silky over his lower lip.

Xafir took him by the arm then, turning Panya’s hand to expose the paler skin on the inside of his wrist. Without breaking eye contact, he licked him there, then took the skin lightly between his teeth, biting just hard enough to leave a mark, a small bruise. “How long will it last?” he wondered, guessing a bruise wouldn’t mar the alien’s skin for long if a tattoo wouldn’t last.

“Mmm…” Panya eased closer, practically in Xafir’s lap and curled around his shoulders. He studied the faint mark on his tawny-dark skin. “Three, maybe four hours,” he guessed. “Why?”

“So I know whether I need to be careful not to leave a mark where your sister might see it,” Xafir explained, free hand lifting to Panya’s slender waist, rubbing at the point of his hip. “But sounds like that won’t be a problem.”

Panya pressed closer still, trapping Xafir in the corner of the couch. “That’s more like it,” he purred. Cocky, playful, smug, he hovered on Xafir’s breath, only smirking at the reproachful look it earned him. “Give it a try.” And then slowly, sumptuously, he pressed in for another kiss. This time was different, gentle but confident, letting him adjust.

Just when the bristle started to sink away, Panya’s tongue pushed past his lips and flooded Xafir’s mouth with his subtly sweet flavor. Xafir startled, began to pull back, but stopped, tightened his hold on Panya’s wrist, and growled around his tongue. Then, he sucked hard on that invasion, drawing it harshly into his mouth, biting it, lashing against it with his own tongue.

It was Panya’s turn to start, grabbing for the arm of the sofa behind Xafir. He gasped, then groaned as the other man sucked at him hard enough to hurt, if not enough to cause harm. With an enthusiastic growl of his own, he added his own will, pushing deep, stroking, fighting against the delightful slickness of Xafir’s tongue. A break for air, a bite at his lip and then in again, Panya’s aggression pressing him into the sofa cushions.

Xafir’s fingers dug hard into Panya’s hip now, inhibitions fading away as the moment took him over, the excitement of making what he might later consider to be a bad decision. Right now though, all he could think about was claiming Panya, making him his for the next… well however long he could drag it out for.

At some point in the clash of tongue and lips, Panya finally climbed into Xafir’s lap in earnest. Straddling him, Panya sank against his solid, if smaller frame and pressed in for yet hungrier kisses, biting, sucking. He yanked down the zipper of Xafir’s tunic all the way, letting it fall open and his warm hand explore the patterned skin of the Cyx’s chest and belly.

“Panya…” Xafir breathed, both hands now on Panya’s hips, holding him in place. “You’ve never done this with a native, right?”

“No,” Panya answered, sounding unconcerned. The flesh around his eyes had grown darker, making the whites starkly bright around his deeply dilated pupils. “What do I need to know? You have a penis, right? I mean, either way, whatever.”

Xafir laughed, a husky, throaty sound and nodded. “Yeah, I do. One of the perks of this body.” A hand smoothed up Panya’s side, then moved to his shoulder, tugging him closer. “It’s something else… I– I want, but I have to ask you first… there’s this thing I can do. It makes everything feel better, more vivid, more intense. If you want… I mean, it might not even work on you, but…” He hesitated, clearly torn between embarrassment and the ever increasing desire to get on with it. He squeezed at the back of Panya’s neck, licked at his jaw, shivered with the pleasure of his taste. “It only takes a little scratch, just enough to break the skin a little…” He sucked Panya’s ear into his mouth, worried it between his teeth, but didn’t bite down.

“Yeah, do it,” Panya demanded without hesitation, urgency growing and patience dwindling. He caught the native’s mouth again to wrench another warring kiss from him as Panya shrugged out of his vest and thin shirt. And then bare-chested, he sat up straight, his height bringing Xafir conveniently to his throat.

Xafir groaned with relief, letting his brow rest briefly against Panya’s shoulder while he centered himself enough to feel sure he could do this without getting carried away. With one hand on Panya’s jaw and the other at the small of his back, Xafir held the taller man in place, taking a moment to lap at his skin, to suck at the prominent collar bone that had been so graciously offered. “It’ll only hurt for a second,” he promised, then, quickly, before Panya could change his mind, Xafir let the points of his teeth scrape across the skin stretched tight over bone. Just enough, just enough to leave a small, red scrape, just enough to draw the smallest drop of blood, just enough to open Panya’s body for the toxin that arousal had let mingle with Xafir’s saliva. Xafir growled when he licked at the wound, hungry for the taste of the other man, hungry to feel his response. It wouldn’t take long.

For all the delicacy of his frame, Panya didn’t so much as grunt at the drawing of his blood, instead letting his hands wander along Xafir’s back and shoulders, worshipful. Panya’s skin was quickly, visibly changing color, turning a richer, more saturated red. “I should tell you something too,” he said, distracted with watching Xafir’s blue tongue lap at the pale brown flesh of his chest. The delicate mottling on his shoulders and markings on his cheeks grew darker, enhancing the contrast. “We –Nuarr people– are hermaphroditic.”

“Isn’t sharing new experiences fun?” Xafir teased, not quite able to bring himself away from the bit of Panya’s skin he still kissed, licked, hummed into. “The good thing about being born female– I know my way around a variety of genitalia. Also,” he couldn’t help himself, biting at Panya’s shoulder now, rougher. “I’m a fast learner.”

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