“Gabe’s not the enemy,” Avril said and rubbed his temples to ease his headache. It wasn’t going away, and he expected dealing with the bondsan and the building conflict between Laurill and Gabe to make it worse. He prodded the bruises on the side of his face where the bondsan had hit him.
“Do you have a camera in there?” Laurill jerked a thumb over her shoulder at the blast-shield separating the cab from the living area.
“Come on, he saved us,” Avril said. “We should focus on the bondsan. What do we do with her?”
“I don’t trust him, neither should you,” Laurill said. “Besides, we saved us. I got you free, and you jammed those bondsan’s implants. Don’t let him take credit for what we did, and don’t trust him.”
Avril sighed. “I don’t care about credit.”
“Good.” Laurill smiled. “But he does, and you shouldn’t say he saved us.”
“How is it possible we trust each other at all?” Avril asked.
Laurill reached forward and clasped one of his hands. “Because of whatever this is.”
The familiar sensation warmed Avril’s skin, and this time, his breath quickened. Laurill was right, the connection between them was real, and even if Avril didn’t entirely agree with Laurill about Gabe, he trusted her.
“Do you have something you can take for your head?” Laurill said.
“Yeah. That obvious, huh?” Avril looked at their hands, then asked, “What was that little stumble back there all about?”
“You saw that, huh? Well, Gabe covers up good. I couldn’t find any skin,” Laurill said.
“It wouldn’t have helped if you did. Nothing happens when you touch Zin either.”
“Unless you’re still not sure about Zin.”
Avril felt Laurill’s irritation through the contact of their skin.
“We don’t know if it only happens when you touch people. Maybe when Zin and Maxian touch, it’ll happen, or Gabe and Maxian, or me and Gabe. We don’t know. I still don’t know about Zin, but you do, and I trust you.” Laurill squeezed his hand. “Be careful though, you want to trust Gabe, but you’re basing it on gratitude. Gabe could be playing you.”
“I thought you kept your suspicions about people to yourself. You’ve made it pretty clear you don’t trust him.”
“I’m trying to provoke a reaction.” Laurill released his hand.
“Starting with distrust isn’t right. Gabe saved— Okay, helped us,” Avril said.
Laurill nodded. “He did, but you’re too trusting. Avril, we can both be right. It’s possible he helped us, and that he can’t be trusted. Let’s meet in the middle, trust but verify. I don’t know what this is yet.” She wagged a finger between them. “But it’s going to get more complicated, so it’s better to think about this now.”
“We have a cadre that can’t die chasing us,” Avril said, hoping to divert her attention.
“Exactly,” Laurill said with a small smile that said she knew she was inverting his meaning. “Our attention should be on them, not fighting each other.”
“Trust but verify lets us do that?” Avril asked.
“We won’t waste energy second-guessing each other. We’ll give people the benefit of the doubt, but we’ll work to remove the doubt as quickly as we can.”
Avril nodded and had a sudden sense they wouldn’t just avoid wasting energy, but they’d be in sync and better prepared for whatever came next. For somebody who’d been raised on independence and self-reliance, it was a strange sensation.
Avril activated a camera, and an image of Gabe kneeling behind the bondsan appeared on the windscreen. The tall man hunched over his AI, and the bondsan leaned forward. Zin was stretched out on the bed, unconscious and undisturbed. “Happy?”
“Not really. That cadre will never stop chasing us.”
“Maybe he can deactivate the implants.” Avril rubbed his temples again.
“Go take something for that,” Laurill said.
Avril started to rise, but Laurill stopped him.
“Verify, right?” Laurill smiled at Avril’s frown. “You can solve the Gabe problem right now so we can focus on the cadre. I’ll be charitable and assume it’s the headache that’s making you this dense. Touch him.”
“You said we don’t know that it only happens when I touch people. Maybe nothing will happen.”
“But at least we’ll know. If it happens, we’ll know, if it doesn’t, we’ll be no worse off.”
“You heard what he said about his talent. He might not go for it,” Avril said.
“So?” Laurill asked. “Fine, wish him a happy birthday.”
Avril sank back into his seat. “I forgot about that.”
“Must be the headache,” Laurill quipped.
“There’s no way that’s random. You and me. Zin? Maxian?” Avril asked.
“Birthdays didn’t come up,” Laurill said. “Thanks for taking us north. Maxian is a scary dude, but…”
“Of course. You trust him, and I trust you,” Avril said, but he remembered Beads’s charred corpse and couldn’t hide his apprehension.
“He was protecting you,” Laurill said.
“I know. The son of Tralit d’Arathan, the terrible black dragon. I’ve heard stories. You met Tralit d’Arathan. Is he as bad as they say?”
Laurill blew out a breath. “Yeah. The stories are right, but let’s deal with one scary situation at a time.”
Avril stayed in the seat for a moment longer. “I have this sense I should know what all of this means.”
“Zin is right. We’ll find out,” Laurill asserted with more confidence than Avril felt. “How well developed are your jamming skills?” She held up the bondsan’s AI.
Avril closed his eyes. Most security systems were simple to bypass when you could manipulate the electrical networks that safeguarded them and controlled the software.
When he opened his eyes, Laurill wore an impressed smile and said, “We’ll make a great team.”
“It took me years to master that.”
“Totally worth it.” Laurill smiled.
Avril turned off the camera in the living space, but before he retracted the blast-shield, he told Laurill, “If the bondsan gets free, there’s a blaster under your seat.”
Laurill gave him a sideways look and mouthed the word, Verify.