Want, Take, Have
A Slipstream short story
Reesa Herberth and Michelle Moore
Author’s Note: This story contains minor spoilers for The Slipstream Con.
They found him sitting in a café, sipping a glass of iced tea and perusing the menu. The entire scene was familiar, a rose-tinted tribute to their first meeting. Long ago, when Tal and Vanya had first set their sights on running down Kellen Frey, King of Crimes Nobody Could Prove He’d Committed, they’d interviewed a recent victim of his at the very same café. At the time, they’d had no idea that they were actually dining with the man himself, while he scoped them out to see if they were really a threat.
“I got a nice white wine.” Kellen gestured to the open bottle and the two empty glasses in front of their places as they sat down. They’d been on a job the last time, and there hadn’t been any wine.
“You know, it took us awhile to figure out what your sketch meant. Or that it was even supposed to be a clue.” Tal poured for the three of them, just a little extra in his own glass. It was a really excellent bottle, and it would have been a shame to let it go to waste.
Kellen grinned, blue eyes alight as he inclined his head and sipped. “You’re smarter than you let on. I knew you’d get here in time.”
Tal studiously investigated the menu, dropping it just enough that he could raise his eyebrows. “And is there any particular reason you felt the need to run off in the middle of the night without an explanation?”
Vanya looked up as well, the little crease between her eyes more telling than she knew. “At first I thought it must be a Heston thing.” The venom she infused the name with was familiar, too, and even though he was playing a game, Kellen leaned across the small table and curled his fingers around her wrist, a loose bit of contact that made her smile.
“Not Heston.” Frey’s gaze turned to Tal, and his wide, predatory smile softened into something a little more genuine. “It’s been a year, you know, since you gave me a lift off Station 43. I couldn’t think of what to give you.”
Tal returned the smile. He couldn’t help himself, really, which was where most of his problems with Frey began and ended. “If you’d just said you wanted a nice anniversary dinner, we could have done this without spending three days chasing you down first.”
Releasing Vanya’s hand, Kellen sat back in his chair and picked up his menu, his amusement returning in a way that would have made him look smug, if not for the tiniest bit of uncertainty in his voice. “You’re buying dinner.”
Kellen’s grasp of honesty was still a bit shakier than some, but he worked at it for them, even when it put him at a vulnerable disadvantage. “I just know how much you enjoy chasing me across the stars. I couldn’t think of what else to give you, so I figured the chance to catch me again would have to do.”
Vanya’s cough almost covered her giggle, but Tal, with his fair skin and his tendency to blush, didn’t fare so well. “That’s… that’s pretty much the perfect gift, actually.”
Kellen waved off the words with another smile, but once he’d returned to his commentary on the menu, and the terrible choice he faced between the two most expensive items he could order, his hand slipped across the table, brushing Tal’s.
Figuring it could be considered in the same spirit as the rest of his gift, Tal caught Kellen’s fingers and held on.
Vanya was going over their current warrant file a few days later, when Kellen sauntered into the room looking too innocent to be real. She raised her eyebrows at him, and made a small noise of protest when he turned her chair and climbed into it with her, knees braced on either side of her thighs. Usually subtle, he’d missed that entirely, practically jittering with nervous energy. She leaned back enough to get a good look at him, but when she tried to brush his hair over his ear, he caught her hand and held it instead.
She knew his fingers in the dark, and she knew them now, nimble and dancing across her palm. He wasn’t furtive about his desires, but she’d learned, if slowly, that she couldn’t hurry him into telling his secrets. When Kellen’s lips travelled her collarbone, she used her free hand to steady him, circling his back and holding him in the chair.
“I haven’t given you your anniversary present yet.” Finishing the statement with another kiss to her neck, he leaned back against her steadying hold.
“We had a good meal at the restaurant where we all met. Surely that counts?”
Smiling, he shook his head. “If you were the same person, it might. But since you and Tal aren’t a symbiotic construct, at least to the best of my knowledge… Two people, two gifts.”
The was no denying that he was a flexible man, and the way he reached backwards over his head to brush the console was nothing so much as a calculated show of his flippant brand of grace. The screen behind him changed to the image of a painting, one she recognized from a half-hearted viewing of some docu-vid about classical theistic art. Kellen’s smile was always easy, but now it verged on winsome, and that couldn’t possibly be a good sign.
“Ask me about the Mertaug painting at the Jubal gallery, Vanya.”
She knew before he said anything, though there’d never been any reports made about the painting, and certainly none tying it to him. She wasn’t often surprised, but this was a good one, at least until the actual words were spoken. “If you know something about the Mertaug painting at the Jubal gallery, you really shouldn’t tell me.”
He settled lightly on her lap, leaning up close again, and she could feel that he was interested in more than bragging.
“I know that the curator of the museum sold the original to pay off a gambling debt. I know he hired me to paint him a copy. I know the copy has fooled two insurance agents, and the new curator.”
Vanya started to protest, but he put a finger to her lips and shook his head. “I know that the statute of limitations on Scaffidiro ran out over a year ago, so this is just a good story I’m telling you, and nothing that means anything at all to an Imperial bounty hunter.”
She kissed him before he could say anything else, then broke apart because she couldn’t help laughing. “And what else do you know, Kellen?”
He winked at her, completely ridiculous, utterly him. “I know the painting the curator sold was a fake too. And I know better than to tell you where the original wound up.”
He gave things to Tal that he wouldn’t give to her. It was partly her fault, because where Tal would wait to find out, she pushed and pulled, rarely content with the bits and pieces of his past as they came to light. This was his gift to her, then, a secret shared without having to ask. Kellen was watching her as she unwrapped it, and a slow smile spread across her face.
“What about the–” He leaned forward to cover her mouth with a kiss, eyes dancing as he halted her question.
“No, no, you can’t ask about that until next year.”
“That’s a Taumner pendant, they’re the only ones who can handle a stone like that. They’ve kept that particular formation in the family, no one else has ever been able to reproduce it. A rose cut, with brilliant pavilion and a step-cut crown. It has more scintillation–” Tal’s overly-loud yawn cut off his explanation, and Kellen swung his chair around to face him. “Sorry, am I boring you? You were the one who asked me if I knew what this was.” He tapped the notebook screen.
“And I was expecting a yes or no answer. Not a lesson in jewellery styles.”
Kellen sighed. “Gemstones, not jewellery. Honestly Vanya, how have you tolerated him this long?”
She laughed, holding up both hands. “Don’t try to drag me into this argument. I was okay with yes or no, too.”
Vanya leaned forward, elbows on the back of his chair. “Aw, don’t sulk, sweetie. You’ll ruin the surprise.”
Between the press of her breasts against his back and Tal’s knee sliding insistently between his thighs, Kellen’s exasperation faded. “I hope it’s a good surprise,” he said, slightly mollified. “Does it involve less clothing?”
Tal grinned, spinning the chair back to face the notebook. “Only if you prefer to run your heists naked. Not that it hasn’t worked quite well for you in the past.” Kellen didn’t bother to hide a smirk and Tal rolled his eyes. “Anyway, how would you like to steal this rose pendant crown faceted thing?”
Curiosity warred with suspicion. “Have you both had a falling out with Elain? Because the last I heard, that was in the Imperial treasury, only brought out for viewing on high holy days.”
“True.” Vanya straightened up, the distracted pat on his head a poor substitute for breasts. “At least, true up until the last viewing.”
“No. No, no, no. In fact, the very suggestion wounds my delicate professional sensibilities. That’s not a heist. It’s an insurance recovery case.” The worst of it was, he did feel more than a little indignant.
Tal at least had the courtesy to look distressed. “But you get to steal it back from somebody really good.”
“And that’s supposed to make me feel better? You do realize that I’m not one of the good guys, right? I don’t recover things. I make them go away.”
“But you didn’t let me finish.” Vanya swung a leg over the arm of the chair and dropped into his lap with a little more force than necessary. “I didn’t tell you who you’d be stealing it from. Delshad Elizondo.”
“That cheating two-bit hack–” Kellen cut himself off, mustering up a scowl in the face of Vanya’s obvious amusement.
“I hear he couldn’t handle the job himself,” Tal said conversationally. “Had to hire outside. Cost him a boatload. Be funny if he spent the money for nothing and lost the gem to boot.” Tal’s hands settled on Kellen’s neck, thumbs pushing at the knot of tension that always seemed to live at the base of his skull.
“And I hear that he’s bragging around about his estate being a virtually impenetrable fortress. Almost sounds like a dare.” Vanya leaned forward, offering him an enticing flash of cleavage. “You’d get to plan everything yourself, do the job, and take the credit with the Empress.”
Kellen made a noncommittal noise, unwilling to give them the satisfaction of his interest, despite the fact that he’d already cheated, calling the schematics up from the computer with only a thought and the touch of his hand. His eyes narrowed in thought. “If, and I repeat, if this is something I might find of interest, and I’m not saying I have, what kind of a time frame would I be looking at?”
“I think you’d have at least a couple of hours to plan it.” Van slid off his lap, the warmth of her thighs a slow drag down his legs. “And a three-person crew to run it with, if you think we’d be of use.” Smiling at Tal, her voice held a note of teasing. “We’re reasonably familiar with how you do things, even more so after the past year.
Kellen’s smirk fell away, pushed out by a slow, genuine smile. “You’re giving me a crime for our anniversary. You really do know how I work.”
Tal’s grin held wicked promise as he pulled Kellen to his feet with ease. “We thought if you really wanted, you could pull a runner afterwards, and we could chase you for a few days.”
Shaking his head, Kellen drew them both in, and the kiss they all shared went a long way towards distracting him from the job at hand. When they finally broke apart, his back pressed against the metal wall, Kellen wasn’t sure if the dizziness was just the three of them, or the conduits for the nav and data systems in such tantalizing reach.
He kissed them again, first Tal, then Vanya, thrumming with all the possibilities laid out before him. “No, no chase. In fact, once we’ve finished this, you’ll be lucky if I let either of you out of bed for days.”
“We could get a jump on that part now.” Tal’s suggestion sounded almost plaintive, his pupils blown wide and his cheeks flushed.
“I’ll get the jump on you later.” Making shooing motions, Kellen waved them down the corridor towards their shared workroom. “Get a move on. There’s mayhem to be done.”
“Want, Take, Have”, a Ylendrian Empire story, is copyright 2011 by Reesa Herberth and Michelle Moore.