Of course it wasn’t going to be simple.
Gideon’s intention, to net Celia, Del, Wendell, and Ellison, would require several elements each.
First, an irresistible lure; second, no possibility of collateral damage; and third—
“—more than just you, me, and Elvis to execute properly,” Gideon explained, dropping the stick he’d been using to sketch scenarios into the dirt-encrusted floor.
The two had hunkered down near the window, but to the side, so no one peering in from the street should be able to see them.
“I thought there weren’t to be no killing,” Mia said, her face splitting in a yawn.
“Wasn’t, and any,” Gideon corrected before he caught the yawn contagion himself. “In this case execute meant… facilitate. We need a team if we’re going to facilitate the plan,” he clarified, then fought off another yawn. “And maybe a nap.”
“You go ahead, I’m fine.”
Gideon looked at Mia, whose eyes were at half-mast. “Uh-huh.”
“Well, I am. And anyway, don’t you want someone t’keep watch?”
“Elvis will let us know if anyone gets too close. He has ears like a draco,” Gideon pointed out.
Gideon sighed. “Yes, the joke is lame, but he does. Come on,” he patted the floor as if it were a nice, comfy mattress. “It’s been a long night for both of us, and you didn’t even get a morph nap like I did.”
“Fine!” She threw her hands up in the air. “But don’t blame me if the bad guys come upon us all unawares and like that.”
“I promise, if any bad guys come upon us unawares and like that, I’ll take full responsibility.” He leaned against the wall and stretched his legs out in front of him, crossing at the ankle.
Thankfully, Mia gave up the argument, which only proved to Gideon how tired she must be, and curled up next to him.
Elvis, who’d been roosting on the spindle of a broken chair propped in a corner, hopped over and stretched himself out on Gideon’s leg.
Gideon let his head fall back against the chill wall, while Mia’s breathing slowed, and Elvis’s tail ceased to twitch, and really, it was almost homey.
Except for the creeping damp.
And the fact he was being hunted.
And that Celia had his coat.
Gideon felt a shiver at his side and, without thinking, draped an arm over the sleeping dodger and was surprised when she burrowed deeper under his shoulder.
It was the sort of thing he thought a daughter might do, if he and Dani had ever…
“How long will you be away, do you think?” Dani asked, leaning her chin on her crossed arms, her hair spilling over the pillow.
Like black rain, Gideon thought, as he always did, and curbed the urge to reach out and touch that hair. “No more than a month. Less if there are no Midasians involved. What about you?”
“One week out to the drop zone, we do what we do in a day.”
“Confident,” she corrected. “Another two days for the ‘ship to scour the region, and a week back for resupply.”
“Which means you’ll be out on another mission by the time I get back.”
“Life in the Corps,” she said, turning to her side so they were eye to eye. “At least during wartime.”
“And when hasn’t it been wartime?” he asked.
“It won’t last forever,” she told him. “Eventually, the Coalition will run out of crystal to power their weapons, or they’ll get tired of beating their regiments against the wall of our Corps. It won’t last forever,” she repeated with a quiet fierceness.
Gideon wished he could borrow some of her determined optimism, but he’d been up close and personal with the enemy for far longer.
Dani’s home colony of Fuji lay too far west for the Coalition forces to easily reach, meaning she’d grown up far from the conflict. Her childhood, at least, had been unclouded by air strikes and occupations and reprisals…
“Hey,” she tapped the pillow, “Fortune to Quinn.”
“Sorry,” he said, but he did push down thoughts of endless battles to focus on the woman currently sharing his bed. It was still difficult for him to believe she was here. “You were saying?”
“I was saying when it’s over, you could come home with me.”
“Home,” he repeated the word, which felt foreign on his tongue.
His last true home had been a radio tower in Tesla. Since then he’d had a bunk in the infantry barracks, a tent, the sky, an occasional berth on whichever airship was transporting his company.
Only since his promotion to colonel had he known the luxury of a private room in the officers’ barracks.
“You’ll like Tendo,” Dani was saying. “All of Fuji is beautiful, but Tendo’s tree line goes all the way to the ocean, and we have snow in the winter. Kids,” she added meaningfully, “really love snow.”
Home, he thought, staring, and kids.
Practically in the same breath.
“Why,” she said, scooting closer, “are you looking at me that way? And if it’s because you don’t want children—”
“What? No,” he said. “I mean yes. I mean,” he paused, because he wasn’t sure what he meant.
“Gideon? You’re staring.”
“Because you’re not real.” The words fell out before he could stop them. “I keep looking at you because I can’t believe you’re real,” he admitted in a rush, and then backtracked when he saw the flash of hurt spark across her features. “Not like there’s anything wrong with you. What I mean is, you couldn’t—shouldn’t—be here. Not with me, I mean.
“Keepers!” He flung himself onto his back and pressed his arm over his eyes. “Never mind. Just shoot me now and put me out of your misery.”
“No, I think I understand,” she said, pulling his arm down. “I’m just too good to be true, is that it?”
“You’re too good for me,” he said, meaning it. She was, after all, an accomplished, educated woman from a high-ranking family. A family he’d never met, and doubted he should.
“True,” Dani said, though she was smiling as she said it, “but I believe you’ll eventually come to see that, while a truly shining example of womanhood—brave, intelligent, and a crack shot—I’m also only human, and therefore as flawed as the next person.”
“Well, you do have odd taste in music,” he said, trying to match her tone and failing miserably.
“Gideon,” she murmured his name softly, then propped herself up on one elbow so she could trace her fingers along the line of his jaw, slowly and carefully, as if she were an artist and he her pallet. “Do you really need a reason for my being here? In your life? In your bed?”
“No,” he said, then sighed. “Maybe?”
She smiled. “Then let’s just say that nature abhors a vacuum.”
Ah, well, yes, that explained everything. Not. “So, what, I sucked you in?” he asked though, as her hand continued to explore, he started to lose the thread of the conversation.
Her smile went a little sad. “You have a big, empty space inside,” she told him. “That’s the kind of thing that makes women go all soft and gooey inside.”
Then she leaned closer, her warm lips brushing his neck, then his cheek, until they reached his ear where she could whisper, “Makes us want to fill up all the lonely.”
“Hallooo, Fortune to Gideon!”
“Dani?” Gideon shot up from his crooked slump, dislodging Elvis and causing an unfortunate twang in his neck.
“Who’s Dani?” Mia asked.
Gideon let out a pained breath. “No one,” he said, hating that his voice sounded hollow—as it would if he had a big, empty space inside.
A Dani-shaped space.
Mia just looked at him, one hand soothing Elvis.
“Someone,” he admitted. “Just…someone.”
Mia looked at Elvis, who looked at her. The two seemed to have formed a bond. It was a comfort to Gideon, as it meant they’d be able to look after each other, if the plan went swarm.
“Okay.” He scrubbed his face the rest of the way awake, “Where were we?”
Mia’s head tilted. “You was saying we needed a meticulous setup, no possibility of collateral damage, and a team.”
“Were say—never mind.” He shook his head, crossed his legs, and leaned forward on his knees. “First order of business, the team.”
“This Dani gonna be part of it?”
“No,” he said after a short beat, “but I have a few ideas.”