by Kat Heckenbach -
“Piper, wait up!”
The voice echoed off the metal walls of the corridor behind her, distorted by the faint mechanical hum that filled this level. Piper stopped walking and turned around. Nik was jogging toward her, face solemn.
Piper spun on her heel and continued walking away from him. Why had she bothered stopping? Jerk.
“Piper, please! I’m sorry!”
Yeah, right. Her eyes burned suddenly, and she strained, willing tears not to form.
In moments she felt the heat of his presence behind her, matching her pace. His words came nearly breathless. “Please stop. I didn’t mean it.”
Piper inhaled, clenching her fists at her side. “Too little, too late, Nik.”
“I was just teasing. I didn’t know it meant so much to you. It’s just a rodent.”
Piper slammed to a stop and rounded to face Nik. “Not ‘it’ you heartless slug! He! And he is my best friend!” Her heart pounded, sending her pulse thrumming in her ear. Tears pushed past her lids against her will, but she ignored them.
Nik’s brows knitted together and he lifted his arms as if wanting to reach out to her. But he pulled them back and crossed them in front of his chest. “I’m sorry. Really, I am. I came to help you find him.”
Piper searched his eyes and found genuine concern. She closed her eyes and nodded. Then warmth infused her as she felt his arms wrap around her shoulders. She sank into him, resting her head against his chest. “Thank you.”
He rubbed her back and she pulled away from him. He smiled down at her, his hair slipping out from behind his ear and hanging in front of one eye like a black curtain.
Piper took Nik’s hand and led him down the corridor. Tara had said she’d seen something small and brown skitter across the floor in an area just around the corner only twenty minutes ago. They reached the juncture and Piper let go of Nik’s hand. She dropped to her hands and knees. A shuffling thunk told her Nik had joined her.
They crawled around, peeking into any gaps in the metal walls, snaking around support beams.
“Here, Piper…” Nik’s whispered voice was filled with excitement.
Piper snapped her head to the side and saw Nik kneeling in front of a gap between wall panels, arms stretched out to his sides. She scooted over to him and peeked over his shoulder.
“Freedom! There you are!” She pushed past Nik and scooped the brown, furry bundle into her palms. No more than six inches from nose to the base of his tail, Freedom perched on his back legs, whiskers twitching. His long, slender tail wrapped around her fingers.
Piper touched her nose to the tiny pink one.
Nik chuckled. “You know, he’s actually kinda cute.”
Piper turned to him and smiled. “He’s the best.”
Nik bit his lip as his eyes shadowed. “He’s from the planet, isn’t he?”
Piper swallowed and looked away. Was she ready to tell him everything? Indecision roiled inside her as Nik moved closer.
“We’ve been together for seven months, Piper. I’ve never asked you about your past.”
She forced out, “I know.”
He waited in silence. She felt his gaze, imagined him staring at her profile. She closed her eyes.
“He’s from the planet, yes. So am I. My mom died when I was young. My dad was a bug hunter. He was killed. I was alone…starving. Pretty soon the traffickers had their eye on me. I couldn’t bear the thought of ending up someone’s…” Her voice cracked, but she steeled herself and continued. “I stowed away on a cargo shuttle from the planet to Avenir.”
Nik’s hand touched her shoulder…the gentlest touch she’d ever felt besides Freedom’s nuzzling. She realized tears were streaming down her cheeks. They dripped off her chin and landed on her open hands, on Freedom.
“Was he your pet while you lived down there?”
She shook her head. “I found him at the loading dock. I was sneaking around, trying to figure out how to get into the shuttle. I’d set my pack down—my last piece of lavabread was in the pocket. Freedom snatched it and ran off with it. I chased him.” Piper smiled at the memory and stroked Freedom’s fur. She raised her eyes to meet Nik’s gaze. “He led me to the rear hatch, and then straight to the perfect hiding place.”
Nik stared, amazement shimmering in his blue eyes. “So that’s why his name’s Freedom? Because—” He stopped, as if the next word had caught in his throat, and then looked down at the brown rodent in Piper’s hands and smiled.