AJ was methodically snugging down the laces, contemplating the rhythm and order of progression. It reminded him of torqueing down a set of bolts on a transmission shaft extension, and if he could concentrate on that, he wouldn’t make a complete fool of himself. No transmission shaft ever smelled so good, like vanilla and sunlight on leather with the faintest trace of hot metal, nor had masses of shining sun-streaked white-blonde hair he wanted to gather up, wrapping around his hands, and pull…
He mentally shook his head, distracting himself from that chain of thoughts. It wasn’t going to happen, and trying to ask her would only get loud and ugly rejection, so he needed to not contemplate it while on task. No matter how lucky Twitch was, some things didn’t rub off. Speaking of the bastard, he was talking again. “You’re supposed to periodically check her breathing capacity.”
AJ paused, wondering how the hell he was supposed to do that, and found her laughing. “I’m good! You’re very smooth and gentle!” His hands vibrated with her ribs transmitting laughter, just as they did when in suit to suit contact in vacuum. Memory flashed through him, vividly as if he was back on the hull in EVA, with Skid laughing as they came around the edge of the hatch… AJ’s gut curdled, and he fought not to remember what had happened next. That never worked, not on any of the memories, so he took a deep breath and let it out, then rolled his shoulders to release the tension.
The girl under his hands didn’t notice, but Twitch did. AJ kept his voice calm. “How often am I supposed to do that?”
“Every time her breathing changes, or you reach the middle laces again.”
“Ah.” He resumed tightening, and when he finished the next set, he paused and contemplated how to ask.
She didn’t wait for the formality. “It could be tighter, but it’s good. I’m too impatient to see if it looks as good on me as I hope!”
That seemed to be a request to terminate, so he tied the loops into a bow, and then the doubled ends into another bow. The result was a familiar knot of many laces he’d seen before on sensies, and explained how the men could get the women out of a corset so fast and on to the action. He really shouldn’t have been thinking about that when she turned around, because the feel of her in his hands was… amazing. And she was hugging him, with a kiss on his cheek so brief and light it was like finding a trickle of fresh air feed in a stale pod. Then she was gone, leaving him cold and wanting.
She had dashed to the half-circle of mirrors, and made a noise in tones he couldn’t replicate that encapsulated something of pure female delight. He watched her swish this way and that, and then spin in a circle, skirt and hair swinging out with the centrifugal force like a cloud of pure colour and motion and joy. A second squeal sounded off to his right, and he looked over to see Lizzes in the doorway of her changing stall, in a waterfall of dark green dress with gold bits that made her copper hair blaze. She was clapping her hands, and bouncing on her feet, as excited as the time she’d discovered a mineral strike in the middle of a difficult hike. “Oh, that looks wonderful on you! I wish I could pull off aquamarine half as well!”
The blonde made an even higher pitch noise. “Isn’t it amazing?” They did that odd girly clasped arm hug while bouncing, and AJ found himself smiling at the utter ridiculousness, and the infectious delight, of it all. “I can’t believe it’s on sale, and it fits!”
“Oh, you have to get it, then!” Lizzes was squeaking, and AJ caught himself before he could frown. Had there been any doubt? He ordered clothes by function and size, and never wondered if he was buying or not as long as it fit parameters. Women, even usually sensible ones like Lizzes, were completely confusing this deep in their own element. They also moved too much, were far too noisy, and apparently didn’t believe in formality. Lizzes hadn’t even let go of the blonde girl when she chirped, “I’m Lizzes O’Bannon! This is my husband Twitch, and my best friend AJ.”
Twitch grinned and gave a parody of a salute while AJ tried to figure out how to respond. A bow was too formal, a handshake not possible and he didn’t know why Twitch had decided that was right. He’d taken too long again, and the blonde was talking. “I’m Jenna Brooks!” She finally let go of Lizzes, stepped back, and gave the other woman a head to toe look that would have been rude if he’d done it. And then made another very loud high-pitched non-distress noise. “Oh, congratulations!”
“How far along are you!”
AJ decided now was a good time to retreat. Possibly out of the shop, to save his hearing. Possibly out of the country, to save his sanity. If only it could be off the planet… Escape was intercepted by Twitch’s firm grip on his elbow, and then Twitch was headed out with him, saying, “If you ladies are happy, then, we’ll be outside!”
Lizzes giggled. “Oh, fine, run away before I can show you the other nine!” But she was laughing, and waved them off. AJ didn’t hesitate to break for the door.
“Always let them know when you’ve hit your limit.” Twitch said softly, and let go as they passed out of the shop.
Instead of relief, they hit a wall of sensory chaos, of the noise of hundreds of conversations and discordant shop musics all echoing off the hard surfaces, and all the smells of the bodies and perfumes and food shops and garbage and… it was offensive enough to kick his inskin into targeting mode and start automatically shot ranging everything as they moved through the edges of the crowd. He was crouched lightly, on the balls of his feet and ready to move in any direction away or toward the attack as people came at him.
Twitch dropped to tacnet, and sent on a channel just between them, “I’ve got your six.” That was enough to make AJ aware he’d be scaring the situationally aware, and lock down the obvious external responses. If all the noise and movement and smells ate at his nerves like acid, at least they didn’t “unnecessarily unnerve the civilians”, as his last report had scolded when he’d been medicalled out… and wouldn’t flag him to hostile overwatch before he could spot them. They moved to partial concealment – a space between a giant potted fern, a tile wall, and an almost-overflowing trash can, where the main flow of traffic swung a little wide of them.
Twitch was scowling at the trash can, and at AJ’s look, snapped, “They keep putting these damn things in, and the civvies don’t understand blast resistant isn’t the same as blast proof.”
AJ shook his head, and tried to focus on the chaotic here and immediate now. There was no reason for the normally easygoing man to be angry, unless… “You hit your limit.”
“About six squeals ago. How the hell do you put up with it, when I know you’re far less used to people and noise than me?” Twitch glared at the trash can like it was a miscreant E-4 that had gotten caught, and shook out his hands to keep from balling them into fists.
AJ decided not to point out he was well over his limit, too. If Twitch hadn’t noticed, no need to make it worse. Instead, he scanned the environment looking for somewhere less nauseating than next to the piled garbage for awaiting the women. “Cafe. Third table on the railing from left. Grab it, and I’ll get coffee.”
Twitch considered the vantage, even as they worked through the flow of traffic and closed on the target. “Good sight lines. Shitty avenues of escape, damned exposed.”
It was the best of a bad setup. “Got a better alternative?” He didn’t snap, because that would only get a nettled response back. It was better to be moving, even if he did want to knife everyone who got within range.
“Not yet. You picked well.” Twitch split, leaving AJ to handle ordering coffee and food. Which, of course, was done up in artisanal style because they were going to bleed the captive audience’s wallets, but would do it with a smile and a frou-frou excuse.
By the time AJ got to the tables, Twitch had somehow wheedled two laughing women out of a table with partial cover from a pillar and the wall that was part of a fountain installation, with clear lines of fire and escape. The man was good, he had to admit. But not always perfect. Twitch was looking at the pile of assorted scones and plate with two premade sandwiches. “The hell’s that for?”
“How hard are you Boosting?” AJ meant it for a rhetorical question, and after a moment, Twitch nodded. There were both deep in the limbic reaction of fight or flight, all augments online and and burning calories hard. AJ let Twitch have the seat with his back to the pillar and good sight lines, and pulled out the chair across the table, angling it at a 45 so he could cover the rest. After kneeling down to fake retying his shoe so he could look under the table on an automatic check for limpet mines or other explosives, AJ settled back in the chair and nodded at the scones. “She threw up this morning, didn’t she? You need to have an opinion when she asks you for something good to eat. The one with the amber chunks is ginger; it’s good for null-G sickness.”
Twitch never appreciated the amount of voice transmission AJ put in, even like now, when he’d flagrantly broken the rules on length and volume. All transmission, the saying in Stryker training went, is high treason. Voice, tacnet, comnet, movement, unnecessary body heat, or any other emission… he physically ached for another hour with his quiet brotherhood, some days. Most days. The bastard was focused on the scone, holding it and viewing it like it was a drunken dare food. “Good for airsickness, too. Guess I can try it on morning sickness.” He bit a hunk off and chewed, chasing it down with a swig of black coffee. “Gah. If that was any sweeter, it’d be rock candy.”
It wasn’t about him. “She likes that.”
“She does.” He ate the rest of the scones and finished his coffee as AJ had the sandwiches and watched his friend relax somewhat once he’d gotten a handle on the ebb and flow of the crowd. After a while, Twitch glanced across the table. “AJ. Thanks for coming. This is hell, but you’re a good man to go through hell with.”
AJ nodded, and held his coffee carefully. He could feel the liquid vibrating to the sheer level of ambient sound and the impact of so many feet, all out of step. The only thing to center himself was the air flow, forced by higher pressure in the kitchen to flow through the cafe and out into the main walk in a continuous breeze. It was designed to attract people with the scents of sugar and baking bread, but the advantage for him lay solely in the filtration before the kitchen. It was clean enough he wasn’t continually assaulted by contaminate warnings pinging in his inskin, unlike the main corridors. He breathed in for a long four-second count, held it for another four seconds, and measured the stale air out slowly as the seconds ticked down.
Centering himself on the airflow wasn’t the same as truly relaxing. That would take no people, or at least no potential enemies. No damn mosquitoes, no noise… The entire planet was far too crowded and noisy, even when it swapped irritating people for irritating insects. Recon like Twitch might be in their element down here, but he hadn’t fully relaxed since he’d been exiled down the gravity well.
Twenty minutes later, Twitch was idly picking the remains of the ginger scone to pieces and jiggling his leg. Both mindless habits annoyed AJ; food should be left whole so it didn’t float into crevices and contaminate everything with mold. Didn’t that matter here, too, even if the gravity couldn’t fail? Without looking over at him, Twitch was speaking . “So, Jenna.” After a long enough silence, he looked over and made eye contact, indicating it hadn’t been a pointless vocalization, but a conversation opener AJ had missed. Again. “What did you think of her?”
What was he supposed to think of her? “Civilian non-combatant.” Not a threat to Lizzes.
Twitch looked at the ceiling. “God grant me patience. Which one of us is still active duty?”
AJ decided a frown was called for, and put enough effort into it that the man was sure to notice. Field too wide. What category of response was required? “What did you think of her?”
“Nice tits. Amazing hair. Little too high-pitched for me, but I already got mine, so I don’t have to worry. Did you even notice that? Do you bat for the other team?” The last was deliberately trying to get an angry response, so AJ ignored it.
“I noticed.” His hands ached to touch her again, still tingling with the memory of her laugh, but his mind was full of the echoes of the flash of memory, the soundless explosion and blood boiling off in vacuum. He swallowed against the conflicting emotions that tried to constrict his breathing, and focused on his coffee. Compliments, then; he was supposed to find a compliment. The way she’d felt… “Nice musculature.”
Twitch cursed, and AJ knew he’d gotten it wrong again. Fortunately, the girls were emerging from the shop, and Twitch was over the railing, treading lightly along the edge of the fountain and hopping down to the floor to head them off to the cafe. Both of them, apparently, so AJ scrounged two unattended chairs for the table. The women were still chattering at high speed, and carrying four bags from the store. Four was at least two more than a dress apiece, and AJ mentally shrugged. Twitch’s problem, not his.