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Page 262 of Caliban's War (Expanse 2)

Holden watched him go and was gratified to see him wiping his eyes as soon as he got out of the room. It was okay to be a weepy little kid as long as everyone else was being a weepy little kid.

Prax gave him an awkward pat on the shoulder and said, “Come back to the galley in an hour. Pudding will be ready.” Then he wandered out and into his cabin. He was already reading messages on his hand terminal as he closed the door.

“Okay,” Amos said. “What now?”

“Amos,” Naomi said, getting up and walking over to stand in front of Holden. “Please take ops for me for a while.”

“Roger that,” Amos said, the grin existing only in his voice. He climbed the ladder up and out of sight, the pressure hatch opening for him, then slamming behind him when he went.

“Hi,” Holden said. “Was that right?”

She nodded. “I feel like I got you back. I was worried I’d never see you again.”

“If you hadn’t yanked me out of that hole I was digging for myself, neither of us would have.”

Naomi leaned forward to kiss him, and he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her tight. When they stopped to breathe, he said, “Is this too soon?”

She said, “Shut up,” and kissed him again. Without breaking the kiss, she pulled her body away from his and began fumbling with the zipper of his jumpsuit. Those ridiculous Martian military jumpsuits that had come with the ship, TACHI stenciled across the back. Now that they were going to have their own company, they’d need to get something better. Jumpsuits made a lot of sense for shipboard life, with changing gravities and oily mechanical parts. But something actually tailored to fit them all, and in their own colors. ROCINANTE on the back.

Naomi’s hand got inside the jumpsuit and under his T-shirt, and he lost all thought of fashion choices.

“My bunk or yours?” he said.

“You have your own bunk?”

Not anymore.

Making love to Naomi had always been different than with anyone else. Some of it was physical. She was the only Belter he’d ever been with, and that meant she was physiologically different in some ways. But that wasn’t the most notable part for him. What made Naomi different was that they’d been friends for five years before they’d slept together.

It wasn’t a flattering testament to his character, and it made him cringe when he thought about it now, but he’d always been pretty shallow when it came to sex. He’d picked out potential sexual partners within minutes of meeting a new woman, and because he was pretty and charming, he usually got the ones he was interested in. He’d always been quick to allow himself to mistake infatuation for genuine affection. One of his most painful memories was the day Naomi had called him on it. Exposed for him the little game he played in which he convinced himself he genuinely cared for the women he was sleeping with so that he wouldn’t feel like a user.

But he had been. The fact that the women were using him in turn didn’t make him feel better about it.

Because Naomi was so physically different from the ideal that growing up on Earth had created, he had just not seen her as a potential sexual partner when they’d first met. And that meant he’d grown to know her as a person without any of the sexual baggage he usually carried. When his feelings for her grew beyond friendship, he was surprised.

And somehow, that changed everything about sex. The movements might all be the same, but the desire to communicate affection rather than demonstrate prowess changed what everything meant. After their first time together, he’d lain in bed for hours feeling like he’d been doing it wrong for years and only just realized it.

He was doing that again now.

Naomi slept on her side next to him, her arm thrown across his chest and her thigh across his, her belly against his hip and her breast against his ribs. It had never been like this with anyone before her, and this was what it was supposed to be like. This sense of complete ease and contentment. He could imagine a future in which he hadn’t been able to prove he’d changed, and in which she never came back to him. He could see years and decades of sexual partners, always trying to recapture this feeling and never being able to because, of course, it wasn’t really about the sex.

Thinking about it made his stomach hurt.

Naomi talked in her sleep. Her mouth whispered something mysterious into his neck, and the sudden tickle woke him up enough to realize he’d been drifting off to sleep. He hugged her head to his chest and kissed the top of it, then rolled over onto his side and let himself fade.

The wall monitor over the bed buzzed.

“Who is it?” he said, suddenly as tired as he could remember ever having been. He’d just closed his eyes a second earlier, and he knew he’d never be able to open them now.

“Me, Cap,” Alex said. Holden wanted to shout at him but couldn’t find the energy.

“Okay.”

“You need to see this,” was all Alex said, but something in his voice woke Holden up. He sat up, moving Naomi’s arm out of the way. She said something in sleep-talk but didn’t wake.

“Okay,” he said again, turning on the monitor.

A white-haired older woman with very strange facial features looked out at him. It took his addled mind a second to recognize that she wasn’t deformed, just being crushed by a heavy burn. With a voice distorted by g-forces mashing down on her throat, she said, “My name is Chrisjen Avasarala. I’m the UN assistant undersecretary of executive administration. A UN admiral has dispatched six Munroe-class destroyers from the Jupiter system to destroy your ship. Track this transponder code and come meet me or you and everyone on your ship will die. This is not a f**king joke.”

Chapter Forty: Prax

Thrust pressed him into the crash couch. It was only four g, but even a single full g called for very nearly the full medical cocktail. He had lived in a place that kept him weak. He’d known that, of course, but mostly in terms of xylem and phloem. He had taken the normal low-g medical supplements to encourage bone growth. He had exercised as much as the guidelines asked. Usually. But always in the back of his mind, he’d thought it was idiocy. He was a botanist. He’d live and die in the familiar tunnels, with their comfortable low gravity—less than a fifth of Earth’s. An Earth he would never have reason to go to. There was even less reason he would ever need to suffer through a high-g burn. And yet here he lay in the gel like he was at the bottom of an ocean. His vision was blurred, and he fought for every inhalation. When his knee hyper-extended, he tried to scream but couldn’t catch his breath.