Time: shortly after the end of Beside a Black Tarn
A scrabbling sound came from just outside the open cargo bay. Ness slowed his steps and unsnapped the cover on his sidearm. Habit these days, going armed when they were in port. He cringed every time he realized how good it felt, how natural to wrap his fingers around a pistol grip, but Shax reassured him it was a good habit.
For the ports they visited and the company they kept, Shax probably wasn’t wrong.
When he reached the loading ramp, he spotted a pair of boots sticking out the side, the owner presumably wedged into the space between ramp and the outer hull plating of the bay door. The boots wriggled. More scrabbling came from the ramp followed by muffled and highly colorful cursing. Ness frowned at the boots. He recognized them, of course. He just couldn’t parse what was happening here and didn’t particularly trust their owner.
A tiny voice whispered that he should seize those boots by the ankles and yank hard, but he knew he’d immediately regret being mean. Probably not safe anyway, considering the person involved.
“Julian.” Ness tried to say it softly. The name still came out forbidding and sharp.
The boots wriggled backward as Julian squirmed out of the tight space, revealing first his too-perfect butt (that Ness shouldn't have noticed) and finally his too-handsome face (that Ness didn’t want to think of as attractive.) The drawn pistol didn’t help Ness’s opinion of him one bit.
“Oh, hey.” Julian’s smile seemed a bit distracted. “You’ve picked up a spacer rat.”
Ness still had a hand on the butt of his weapon. He eased off and crossed his arms over his chest. “Yes. I know.”
The shock on Julian’s face was nearly worth the uncomfortable conversation. “You can’t let those things get a foothold on your ship. They’ll chew through wiring and baffling panels. Damn nuisances. I’ll take care of the little bastard for you, though. Just need to get a good line-of-sight shot.”
Moving slowly, Ness put a hand on Julian’s shoulder and gently pushed him off to one side. With a pointed glare at Julian’s drawn sidearm, Ness waited until Julian secured it in a boot holster.
“Just…don’t do anything,” Ness said before he let out a low, trilling whistle.
Nicodemus poked his head below the loading ramp, whiskers twitching, and leaped to Ness’s offered hand. He squeaked at Ness and scurried up his arm to his shoulder still chittering in an agitated fashion the whole way.
“Shh.” Ness used one forefinger to stroke between Nicodemus’s ears. “The mean government agent won’t hurt you.”
“Shit.” Julian muttered. “Oh, shit, I’m sorry. You’re not thinking that I—”
Ness held up a hand. “I don’t think you purposefully set out to hurt something belonging to me. Though not all rats are vermin. This is my spacer rat, Nicodemus. Probably better if you had asked.”
All expression had drained from Julian’s face, all attempts to charm and cajole dropped completely. Something in his shuttered expression read as vulnerable, as if he expected a blow to fall at any moment. It made Ness feel guilty and…damn it, he didn’t want to feel guilty.
He fought an exasperated sigh and settled his wings against his back, surprised that he had been mantling unawares. “You were trying to help. The ship. Shax. The crew. I see that. But we are crew here and you are a passenger. It would be appreciated if you didn’t take things in your own hands.”
“Profound apologies.” Julian sketched a polite bow. When he straightened, a crooked smile tugged at one corner of his mouth. “I’m told they’re nice hands. Are you certain you don’t have anything you’d like me to take in them?”
Not long ago, Ness would have missed any hint of suggestiveness. Now, he wished he could stop the blood from rushing to his face and ears. Julian probably never blushed. “Quite certain.”
“I’ll always be misstepping with you, won’t I?” The teasing tone had vanished again but at least Julian didn’t look so stricken. “May I pet your rat?”
“Nic will have to determine—” Ness choked off as Nicodemus ran onto Julian’s outstretched hand without hesitation. Little traitor.
“Please to meet you, Nicodemus,” Julian said softly, petting Nic’s head carefully. “Sorry for the misunderstanding. You're truly not like other rats I’ve met.” Julian glanced up at Ness, a calculating light in his eyes. “Do you have problems keeping track of him?”
“Not…most times. He’s often with Leopold.”
Julian held Nic up at eye level. “And yet you were running around the cargo ramp all by yourself, weren’t you, sir?”
Nicodemus chittered at him, clasping Julian’s thumb with both suction-cupped forepaws.
“Clever young man. Would you like a camera? I have something just the right size for you. We could make you a little harness, too. Wouldn’t that be fun?”
Before Ness could find his voice to intervene or even protest, Julian had walked back up the cargo ramp with a happily chirping Nicodemus on his shoulder. Ness let out an irritable huff as he leaned against the outer hull of the Brimstone.
As bad as Shax, that one. And there, right there…that was the problem, wasn’t it?