“We found it in one of the old military uniforms,” said Iko. “It’s to remind you that you’re one of us now, no matter what happens.”
Kai grinned. “It’s perfect.” He looped the chain around his neck and tucked the medallion under his shirt. He gave Cress a quick farewell embrace, then pulled Iko into a hug. Iko squeaked, frozen.
When Kai pulled away, Iko looked from him, to Cinder, then back. Her eyes suddenly rolled up into her head and she collapsed onto the floor.
Kai jumped back. “What happened? Did I hit her power button or something?”
Frowning, Cinder took a step closer. “Iko, what are you doing?”
“Kai hugged me,” said Iko, eyes still closed. “So I fainted.”
With an awkward laugh, Kai turned to face Cinder. “You’re not going to faint too, are you?”
Kai wrapped his arms around Cinder and kissed her, and though she wasn’t used to having an audience, Cinder didn’t hesitate to kiss him back. An impractical, uncalculating part of her brain told her to not let go. To not say good-bye.
The light mood was gone when they separated. He set his brow against hers, the tips of his hair brushing her cheeks. “I’m on your side,” he said. “No matter what.”
Kai turned to face Wolf last. He lifted his chin and adjusted his fine shirt. “All right, I’m ready when you—”
The punch hit Kai square in the cheek, knocking him back into Cinder. Everyone gasped. Iko jerked upward with a surprised cry as Kai pressed a hand against his face.
“Sorry,” said Wolf, cringing with guilt. “It’s better when you don’t see it coming.”
“I somehow doubt that,” said Kai, his words slurred.
Cinder pried his hand away to examine the wound, which was flaming red and already beginning to swell. “You didn’t break the skin. He’s fine. It’ll bruise up nicely by the time he’s back on Earth.”
“Sorry,” Wolf said again.
Kai gave his head a shake and didn’t complain when Cinder pressed a kiss against his cheek. “Don’t worry,” she whispered. “It’s weirdly attractive.”
His laugh was wry, but appreciative. He kissed her one last time before hurrying into the podship, like he might change his mind if he stayed for another moment.
“Do I get a good-bye kiss too?” said Thorne, stepping in front of Cinder.
Scowling, Cinder shoved him away. “Wolf’s not the only one who can throw a right hook around here.”
Thorne chuckled and raised a suggestive eyebrow at Iko.
The android, still on the floor, shrugged apologetically. “I would love to give you a good-bye kiss, Captain, but that lingering embrace from His Majesty may have fried a few wires, and I’m afraid a kiss from you would melt my central processor.”
“Oh, trust me,” said Thorne, winking at her. “It would.”
For an instant, while the joke was still written across his face, Thorne’s gaze flickered hopefully toward Cress, but Cress was captivated by her own fingernails.
Then the look vanished and Thorne was marching to the pilot’s side of the shuttle.
“Good luck,” said Cinder, watching them adjust their harnesses.
Thorne gave her a quick salute, but it was Kai she was worried about. He tried to smile, still rubbing his cheekbone, as the doors sank down around them. “You too.”
Kai watched Thorne’s hands, seemingly competent, as they toggled a few switches on the podship’s control panel. They emerged from the Rampion’s dock and dove toward planet Earth. Thorne tapped some coordinates into the computer and Kai was surprised at the jolt of longing he felt to see the satellite imagery of the Commonwealth appear on the screen.
The plan was for Thorne to leave Kai at one of the royal safe houses—far enough from civilization that the podship should go undetected, if they were quick about it, but close enough to the city that Kai would be retrieved within an hour of alerting his security staff to his return.
“This must be weird for you,” Thorne said, dragging his fingers across a radar screen. “Your cyborg girlfriend being a wanted outlaw and your fiancée’s niece and all that.”
Kai grimaced, which made his cheek start smarting again. “Honestly, I try not to think about the details.” He shifted his gaze toward the Rampion as it receded fast from the viewing window. “Does she really call herself my girlfriend?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t know. We haven’t spent an evening gossiping and painting each other’s toenails since the kidnapping.”
Glaring, Kai leaned back against the headrest. “I’m already uncomfortable with you piloting this ship and being in control of my life. Try not to make it worse.”
“Why does everyone think I’m such a bad pilot?”
“Cinder told me as much.”
“Well, tell Cinder I’m perfectly capable of flying a blasted podship without killing anyone. My flight instructor at Andromeda—which is a very prestigious military academy in the Republic, I will have you know—”
“I know what Andromeda Academy is.”
“Yeah, well, my flight instructor said I was a natural.”
“Right,” Kai drawled. “Was that the same flight instructor who wrote in your official report about your inattentiveness, refusal to take safety precautions seriously, and overconfident attitude that often bordered on … what was the word she used? ‘Foolhardy,’ I think?”
“Oh, yeah. Commander Reid. She had a thing for me.” The radar blinked, picking up a cruiser in the far distance, and Thorne deftly changed directions to keep them out of its course. “I didn’t realize I had a royal stalker. I’m flattered, Your Majesty.”
“Even better—you had an entire government team assigned to digging up information on you. They reported twice daily for over a week. You did run off with the most-wanted criminal in the world, after all.”
“And your girlfriend.”
Kai smothered both a smile and a glare. “And my girlfriend,” he conceded.
“It took them a week, huh? Cress could have laid out my whole biography within hours.”
Kai pondered this. “Maybe I’ll offer her a job when this is all over.”
He expected it, and he wasn’t disappointed—the irritated twitch beneath Thorne’s eye. He hid it easily, though, his expression morphing into nonchalance. “Maybe you should.”
Kai shook his head and looked away. Earth filled up the viewing window, a kaleidoscope of ocean and land. He gripped his harness, knowing they were hurtling through space at terrifying speeds, yet feeling like he was suspended in time for one still, quiet moment.
He let his shoulders settle, awed by the sight. The next time he would be up here—if all went according to plan—he’d be on his way to Luna.
“You know what’s really strange to think about?” Kai said, as much to himself as to Thorne. “If Levana hadn’t tried to kill Cinder when she was a kid, I might be engaged to her right now. She would already be queen. We could be plotting an alliance together.”
“Yeah, but she would have been raised on Luna. And from what I can tell, being raised on Luna really messes people up. She wouldn’t be the cuddly cyborg we’ve all come to adore.”
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