What nobody told him about war or interstellar travel was the boredom.
Joseph Korso had been trained for combat, hand-to-hand grappling and punching and generally kicking the shit out of other people, winning battles on fields and in tight rooms. And military tactics, deploying men and ships and maneuvers, winning wars in the scope of a galaxy. The only thing that tickled him more than throwing a punch was firing at a hostile craft in a dogfight. He was born for the struggle, bred for survival and destruction and firefights, the adrenaline rush and the smell of gunsmoke, coppery sweat and metallic nostril-stinging blood.
Not this. Not hours of sitting on his ass in the Captain's chair, hours of staring out the window at the tiny pinpricks of light dragging past, the long stretches of silence and stagnation and leg cramps.
It gave him too much time to think. He didn't like being left alone in his head. By the time his thoughts started going in circles, he actually started to miss the chatter that usually assaulted his ears. Even when he tuned it out, it was background white noise, like the constant hum of the ship's engines. But even in the silence now, it was there. He couldn't get his brain to shut up any easier than...
He folded his arms across his chest and cracked his neck; it didn't really help. He could still hear himself think.
A soft mechanical swish-click behind him. Korso shut his eyes as footsteps interrupted the heavy silence.
"I don't suppose we're there yet?"
Korso hunched down in his chair and rested a heavy boot against the nav console. "No. I told you, not for another two days at least. Might be faster if we could manage more than a crawl without this junk bucket shaking apart, but... until we get an on-ship engineer to patch us up on the move, we'll just have to keep puddlejumping."
He was babbling, he'd said more just now than he had in days. Anything to fill the silence.
"Really, Captain, I still don't see why we need to involve anyone else-"
"Hey, if you want to hold your breath and fix this death trap whenever it springs a leak, be my guest."
"All I'm saying is, more hands on deck, more ways to split the profit-"
"No profit if we're dead. First thing once we hit dock, I'm putting word out we're looking for a mechanic. End of discussion."
"Hmmph." Preed huffed and flopped into the anchored seat adjacent to the captain's chair, eying him sideways. "And why are we so cranky today?"
"I am not cranky." Korso grumbled.
"Well, you're certainly not skipping around picking daisies either."
"Acerbic, then? Irritated? Awoke on the wrong side of the bed, and been carrying on with a stick firmly inserted up your-"
"Shut up, Preed!" But Korso forced his voice to a lower level, studiedly even. "I am perfectly calm. In fact, I'm making that a new priority."
"Really, inserting sticks into your orifices is a new priority? How fascinating."
"No, you maniac." Korso pulled in a deep breath. "Just trying to bring it down a few notches, keep myself from getting wound up so tight. Rather not die of a heart attack before I'm 50."
"You might try giving up the cigarettes."
"Nope. Not worth it."
"Hmmm." Preed was looking at him with a narrow leer of suspicion. "So this sudden - calm - is all for your health? Just some, mmm, general well-being?"
"I can think of one very specific benefit."
A few seconds of expectant silence. Then-
"We-eell?" Preed drawled. "Are you going to share it with me, or shall I extract another molar?"
"Honestly, sometimes talking with you is like pulling teeth!"
Korso gave a rough chuckle and leaned back, hands behind his head; he hadn't looked at him once yet. "Preed, what's the cycle we go through every week or so?"
"I'm sure I have no idea what you mean." Preed sniffed, turning his horned nose up to the ceiling.
"You needle and harass and annoy me until I can't take it anymore, and I'm seeing so much red I just have to throw a punch. Then we end up beating the crap out of each other. And in the middle of beating the crap out of each other, we..." Korso made a vaguely obscene gesture and trailed off.
"And we're just bitching at each other until we're bashing each others' heads against walls and fucking and then starting it all over again."
"...I fail to see the problem here."
"Tough shit, it is a problem." Korso glared at the opposite wall.
"Hmmm," Preed cocked his head, appearing deep in thought. "And you've decided the solution is to take deep breaths, and not ever get angry."
"I'm just not letting you get under my skin anymore, that's what starts it all off. If I don't get mad at you, I don't fight with you. And then I don't do anything irresponsible and stupid."
"Like letting me... under your skin."
Preed glowered, copper eyes narrowed at Korso - who still wasn't making eye contact or otherwise giving him the time of day. He folded his stringy arms and stewed for a few seconds. "Well," he said at last. "You do seem to have given this a good deal of thought, hmm? And this is quite the abrupt way to inform me I'm being dropped like last week's gruel, isn't it?"
Korso recognized the warning sign, but still didn't look over. He was question-talking. Preed only talked in constant rhetorical questions when he was really getting riled.
"You can handle it," Korso said out of the corner of his mouth, like unconsciously speaking around an imaginary cigarette. "It's a big galaxy, Preed. You can find someone else to torment when you get bored."
"Fine!" Preed spat. "Though it's mystifying indeed that a big, strong, hardened military man can't handle a bit of friendly torture from little old me!"
"It's not the torture," Korso murmured. "It's what comes after it. Can't wrap my head around it. Dangerous..." he shut his mouth, rotated the chair to face further away. "Better if we cut this out before it goes any further."
"And you're just unilaterally deciding this, without giving me any consideration whatsoever or having any intention of even informing me, had I not dragged it out of you?" Preed suddenly grinned, sharp and sharklike. "Why Captain, you malicious, devious, callous-"
Korso rolled his eyes. "Please, don't hold back, tell me what you really think."
"You're adorable when you think you're in control."
"Fuck, on second thought, keep it to yourself."
"I think," Preed's tone shifted again, turned on a dime - into a smooth and thoroughly unnerving purr. "That you sorely underestimate my ability to read your behavior, predict it... and compel you to behave the way I want."
"Oh, really." Korso did look at him now, eyes hooded and corner of his mouth twitching. "I think you overestimate your power."
"But my dear Captain, that's what I do. Arrange the game so it plays out in my favor. It's why I'm invaluable to you, it's how I've stayed alive this long. And in many cases you owe my talents the same."
Korso shook his head. "You are some piece of work. You really think you've got the entire galaxy over a barrel," he said, somewhere between irritated and amused. A familiar place, by now. "And you're always two steps ahead of your shit-for-brains human captain, don't you? Jeezus fuck, are you ever in for a surprise, you uppity bastard."
"Is that something you'd put a wager on?"
"Bet money? With you? Not a snowball's chance."
"Not money, then. How about something more interesting?"
"What's on your twisted little mind?"
Preed smiled, and tented his long fingers in front of him. "One week," he said, smug as a canary-eating cat. "Seven little standard galactic days. We see if things turn out as they always do, or if they run a little differently." Korso didn't answer, just kept him fixed with a hard stare - so he kept talking. As he always did.
"Using any means aside from brute force, lethal coercion, or any form of direct physical contact," Preed grinned, wide and toothy. "I will... guide you, into dropping this ridiculous case of cold feet - and letting me back under your skin."
"Do your worst. It won't work."
"Oh, I intend to."
"No direct contact. You really think you can handle that?"
"I shan't lay a finger on you - or even come within a pre-determined range of personal space, if you'd prefer."
"How generous of you."
"Anything, to help you realize that this," Preed slithered to his feet, deliberately undulating every sinewy muscle, tendon and angular edge. He circled the captain's chair, long strides with a rocking, swaying swagger. "Is exactly what you want."
"Yeah. Well, good luck with that."
"Oh, my dear Captain," Preed cooed, stopping his rotation. He snaked in close, shit-eating grin all sharp teeth and alien facial contours. "I wouldn't be so confident unless I were convinced you're simply denying yourself senselessly, out of some feeling of... human... I-don't-know-what." A smooth shrug. "I would never insinuate myself where I'm not wanted - waste of precious time.
"But I am wanted. And you know it." The Cheshire smile widened. "And besides... I never place bets I won't win."
Korso didn't say a word; a stony, tight-lipped stare his only reply.
"Well - shall we shake on it?" Preed extended a long-fingered hand, bent over in a mockery of a Human Victorian-era gentleman's bow. "That is the Old Earth wagering custom, I believe?"
Korso sat motionless for a moment - then he thrust his rough hand into the Akrennian's, firm grip clamping down on the bony fingers. He didn't expect the steely strength that met it. Those thin, brittle-looking fingers shouldn't be so strong. He turned the motion into rising from his seat, using Preed's hand to pull himself up.
"I win, and you drop this." He growled.
"Oh, of course! Akrennian's honor. You go one week without ravishing me, and I shall gracefully concede defeat. But if I win... well, you win too, don't you? Everybody's happy."
Korso made a grunting snort that might have been a laugh. "We'll see. Fine. It's a bet."
"Well, now..." Preed gave a low, extended chuckle in the back of his throat, and didn't release Korso's hand from his sharp, tight grip. "This is going to be fun."
# # #
A/N: I can't tell you how reluctant I was to put this in "humor/romance." Anything involving Preed trying to be alluring should just automatically fall under "HORROR," don't you think? In any case, this little idea refused to leave me alone, and I just had to start this, even though I have three current Titan: A.E. projects now I've yet to finish. I'm not even entirely sure where I'm going with this one, or exactly how Preed goes about winning. The only thing I know is, he eventually does. Of course he does.
I'm actually having a weird idea of making this a kind of prompt, if anyone would try it. Ahh, the woes of a tiny fandom. If anyone has an idea for a future chapter, I wholeheartedly invite you to give it a try. I'd love to see some writing for my favorite dysfunctional!pairing, and see what any of my readers come up with. What's Preed plotting? Does it work? I still intend to write more here, but that doesn't mean you can't play too. Just link back here, and show me what you come up with! It'd make me a very happy freak. Or, you know. I could just write more, too.