Don West is a man who knows his limitations.
He knows how much he can drink before he gets a hangover, knows how long he can work without sleep or a decent meal, and knows how far he can push his charm before people lose patience (although sometimes, he enjoys pushing it a little past that, just for the hell of it). He knows he's hopeless at cooking, so he makes a point of finding all the best restaurants wherever he goes and has tried every brand of pre-packaged meal from Earth to Alpha Centauri, so he knows which ones taste least like cardboard after the umpteenth time eating them.
Thanks to the Robinsons, he's learned more about himself than he thought there was left to know. He's learned at which point his profit motive gives out; he's learned how long he can stare into the vacuum of space without any hope of rescue; and he's learned that he doesn't actually hate hanging out with kids. It's all right, y'know, sometimes.
And now Don's finding out that it's possible for him to get bored in the face of certain death.
So maybe it starts because he's restless, stuck pacing circuits around the main deck of the Jupiter 2, checking and rechecking systems he thinks might still be dodgy from their latest hairs'-breadth escape — this time from an entire solar system of hostile alien robots, holy shit — pretending he doesn't have their air and power and water supply calculated to the last cubic milliliter like an hourglass sifting away in the back of his head.
When he looks at Maureen, he can see that she can sense the ticking clock, too. It's in the way her hands flutter when she's describing her latest potential solution to their current problem: re-tooling the alien engine to their specifications so that maybe they can find a way back to human-inhabited space. It's in the way she bites her lip as she stoops over her whiteboard, breaking down plans into their constituent steps. It's in the way she meets his eyes when he's finished re-optimizing the avionics system in case they need to land on another planet, even though there's no guarantee they'll ever be able to take off again if they do.
Maybe it starts because he's watching Maureen too closely.
Because while everyone on board is excruciatingly aware of Maureen and John's rekindled romance — they're not being inappropriate, to be fair, but they are mushy enough around each other that Judy and Penny are trading off eye-rolling duties — after a while, John seems increasingly reluctant to leave Maureen's side.
Then Don realizes that it's not that John isn't leaving Maureen alone, it's that John isn't leaving her alone with Don.
Which is hilarious, for the record. As if Maureen would give Don the time of day, with John available anywhere in the same galaxy. They're so wrapped up in each other, and both so clearly have the satisfied glow of the well-laid (thank god for the soundproof insulation in the Jupiters' private quarters, seriously), that there's no way Don is a threat to their picture-perfect family unit.
But hey, it's funny.
And Don is bored. So every time John starts hovering, Don turns up the charm, cracking jokes to see if he can get a laugh — real laughter, instead of a terse smile, which is not easy nowadays — and telling increasingly embroidered stories of his experiences on the Resolute. He leans in closer than he needs to when they're reviewing star system charts, and starts working out a little harder in the garage gym, so he can forego jackets over the t-shirts that get satisfyingly snug around his shoulders and chest and looser around his waist.
Except. He's not doing all this for Maureen's sake. He's flirting with John. It's the best way to short-circuit guys like that, under the circumstances.
Don always makes sure to snag the chair next to John during meals, grins a little too wide when John glances his way, finds excuses to touch him, like when they're trading parts and tools, upgrading the sensor array, or clapping him on the arm when they're done.
He's careful around the kids, of course. But once a day, Penny declares an area of the ship off-limits to grown-ups ("Pick a side, Judy, do you want to make an obstacle course with us in the garage or not? ...yeah, that's what I thought.") and they're left to themselves for a few hours.
Unsurprisingly, Maureen notices first, after a week of slowly-escalating boundary-pushing. Her eyes track Don's movement, curiosity shading into confusion and then into a keen kind of calculation that raises all the hairs on Don's arms. John, watching Maureen, lags behind; her interest in Don makes John's glowers darken, his terseness deepening into a growling kind of curtness, which. Okay. It's kind of hot. But Don would never admit that, because he knows better.
John figures it out a day later. His scowls change to bemused frowns, but he doesn't shift away when Don sidles too close, doesn't bolt. No shock there; Don can't imagine the guy backing down from any kind of challenge.
It's a stalemate, then. As good an outcome as Don could have hoped, honestly.
John stops hovering when Don and Maureen work together.
"You know," Maureen says conversationally as they're poking around the engine, trying to puzzle out how the alien tech integrated into the propulsion systems, "if you wanted to fuck my husband, you could have the decency to ask me first."
Without thinking about it, Don says the first thing that comes to mind. "Who says I'm not after both of you?" He doesn't wince as the words trip off his tongue, but it's a near thing. He covers with a wide, patently-false smile that shows his hand, lets her in on the joke that this has been from the beginning.
She doesn't even glance up from the engine. "Oh. Well, that changes things. Hand me that spanner, will you?"
Don gives in. "I'm kidding, Maureen."
Now she looks, her gaze sharp. "Are you?" She straightens up, taking half a step into his personal space, scanning his face like she's stripping him down into his component parts, assessing each for utility, for flaws, for fractures. The air goes thin in his lungs. "I think I've been around you long enough to know when you're bluffing." Her lips quirk, and why is he staring at her mouth—
"...Mom?" Will calls from down the hall.
Maureen moves away, turns towards the door as Will arrives, and leaves to see whatever project he's working on.
Don is left in the engine room, still holding the spanner. "...fuck," he says, with feeling.
"Language," Penny says, passing by the door with an armful of MREs. He's not going to ask what she's doing with those. He's not.
(He does, because he's lost all control over his life.)
"Here's the deal," John says. "We've found another habitable planet." The kids perk up in their seats.
"...kind of," Maureen adds. "It's slightly hotter than ideal, but there are temperate belts near the poles. It has enough water to refill our reserves, and where there's water, there might be organic matter that we can use for food or fuel."
"Oh, right, you guys haven't fired up the nutrient extruder yet," Don says. "It is spectacularly disgusting." It's not unlike the 3-D printer, except there's a whole processing stage where bits of biomass get fed into the machine. Edible proteins, carbohydrates, and such get turned into a kind of thick slurry and injected into a mold, while inedible waste gets shunted off to the engines. The machine's definition of "edible" varies somewhat from Don's, naturally. But hey, it's exactly the kind of thing that separates hungry colonists from starving ones, if their corner of Alpha Centauri has one hard winter too many. Or if, say, they're trapped in a galaxy on the wrong end of the universe from their intended destination.
Judy looks thoughtful. "Are you proposing a pit stop, or something more... long-term?"
Maureen's hands flex and twine in front of her. "That's what we don't know yet. The alien technology integrated into the ship is responding to our commands — well, Will's commands —” and hadn't that been a trip, finding out that the robot's loyalty had carried over to the heart of its ship "–but we're still having difficulty actually figuring out what it's capable of. We don't know if we'll be able to take off again if we land."
"Pros and cons," Penny says. And they all chime in on their long-standing family ritual, which has become as regular a part of Don’s life as escaping certain death. Maureen and Penny seem to be in favor of landing. John and Judy seem wary. Will is undecided.
They look at Don. "What the hell," he says. "It might buy us some time, and I'm tired of being cooped up in here."
(There is someone else they might have asked, before. If they had trusted her enough. But she chose to stay behind on the robots' homeworld; God only knows what will become of her there.
God only knows what she’ll do.
But that is not today's problem, no sir.)
Landing goes better than last time - which isn’t saying much, admittedly, but Don will take what he can get, even if one of the thrusters goes dodgy and they end up doing a full three-sixty roll before setting down more or less upright. Everyone lets out a shaky breath when they finally skid to a stop.
“Never a dull moment,” Don comments.
Judy laughs and John cuts him a sidelong look that’s mostly long-suffering but has an undercurrent Don can’t place. He hopes it’s amusement. It would suck to start backsliding now.
Maureen gives them the go-ahead to unbuckle their harnesses while she runs scans of the local atmosphere, and everyone sets to their respective tasks from the landing procedure with the smooth practice of having done it ten times a day for the last week, overlaid with a buzzing anticipation.
"What's the Golden Rule?" John asks.
"No wandering off!" the kids chorus in unison, with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
"And if you do go anywhere?"
"Don't go alone, and always make sure an adult knows where you are," Will says, having been drilled on this especially.
“We know, Dad,” Penny adds.
Maureen gives Judy a Look, and Don can’t tell whether it’s Don’t think you’re exempt from this, Missy, or You count as an adult, so it’s your job to keep the rest of us in the loop. Either way, Judy nods like she understands, so Maureen seems satisfied.
Then they’re all at the hatch — itself a bone of contention, because John wanted to be the first one out, and to scout the landing area before letting anyone else out, but literally everyone had vetoed his military instincts — and the sunlight streaming through the crack as it widens is enough to make Don’s eyes water.
Fresh air, he thinks. Thank you, Jesus.
He’d always expected to be a space rat ('till his retirement in whatever tropical paradise he could afford), never minded prefab corridors that look the same on every ship, industrial lighting and canned air. But their ship is small, smaller than anything else he’s worked on, and it’s not that he’s tired of being surrounded by the Robinsons nonstop except when he’s holed up in his bunk or doing a spacewalk for repairs… but they all have their own rhythm together, and he’s not always sure where he fits in.
It’s nothing like his previous crews, that’s for damn sure.
For one thing, he used to have days off. For another, he used to be able to get laid. Not so often that he had a reputation, but he used to have discreet understandings with his crewmates here and there, and… it was nice.
God, they need to get back to civilization. He'd even take Alpha Centauri.
For now, what they have is a slowly-sloping hillside of greenish scree, with low-lying shrubs giving way to something halfway between moss and grass, spongy and bouncy-looking and vaguely blue, a broad ribbon of river cutting though it in lazy serpentine curls. The air smells faintly of fake lemons, like someone just finished scrubbing the floors nearby.
Everyone’s moving out, Judy trekking straight to the river to assess the water situation, Will and Penny taking samples and photos of everything they can get their protectively-gloved hands on, and Maureen and John hauling out the perimeter pylons so they can set up camp.
They’ve decided against using the pop-outs on the ship for now — Don’s not the only one sick of being stuck on board — so he works on bringing out the tents.
Here’s the thing, though: there are only two tents. There were four, but one went missing in the evacuation from that first hell-hole, and another’s been scavenged for parts, its canvas and struts and air pumps coming in handy for everything from patch-jobs to the kids’ blanket forts.
Which is fine. It’s fine. Each tent is rated for four adults, if they don’t mind close quarters, so their six-person crew will be just dandy however they split up, and if John and Maureen want some alone time, they can go back on the ship where nobody can hear them.
He doesn't need to know what they get up to, thanks. Not Maureen, with her knowing eyes and her clever hands, and not John, with his steady strength and single-minded determination…
And oh, shit, Don can imagine it, the two of them together. It hits him like a punch in the gut, right as he drops a heavy crate on the pile. He has to lean against the stack, winded and gritting his teeth as he banishes the images from his mind.
"Don't strain yourself," Maureen advises as she walks past, a long coil of cables looped around her shoulder and chest like a bandolier. Don wants to curl his fingers around it, drag her up against the crates and taste the sheen of sweat on her chest, right below the hollow of her clavicle.
That changes things, she’d said, as if Don wanting to fuck both of them was just another data point, and not a blinking neon sign that they were all going slowly crazy with the relative isolation and total abject hopelessness of their situation.
He risks a glance over at where John's working, hoping the man’s protective instincts will come and stomp all over Don’s errant hindbrain, but John’s stripped down to his tank, overshirt tied around his waist, and there’s an astonishing amount of muscle and chest hair on display, which makes everything worse.
Don turns away, goes inside, finds the nearest faucet and cranks the handle all the way down. He dunks his head under the cold stream for as long as he can stand it, then backs up, huffing and pushing his hair off his face.
It’s getting long. He probably looks like a mess.
He is a fucking mess. What the fuck.
Do not fucking alienate the people responsible for your continued survival, he tells himself.
Although, if he’s perfectly honest, he’s pulled his weight, too. They’re a team. He’s saved their bacon as often as any other person has saved anybody else’s, Will included.
He takes a long drink out of his cupped hands, then turns to grab a towel.
John’s leaning in the doorway, arms crossed.
Don nearly jumps a mile, but catches himself in time. “Everything okay?” he asks, and gives himself a gold star for keeping his voice normal.
“Came in to check on you,” John says. “Maureen said you looked rattled.” He gives Don a searching once-over. “You good?”
“I’m fine.” Don gives him a toothy grin, cold water trickling down the back of his collar, making his shirt clammy and damp. “Just needed to hydrate.” He mimics his usual saunter out the room, but his steps slow and drag as he passes John in the doorway, which suddenly seems much narrower than spec. “You should, too.” He all but shoves the towel at John, like a shield to ward him away, and beats a hasty retreat.
John’s stare after him burns like a brand in the middle of his spine.
“This planet is boring,” Will says, looking at the results of all their first-day testing.
“Don’t jinx it!” Penny smacks his shoulder with the back of her hand.
“We could use some boring,” Maureen says at the same time, and then: “Don’t hit your brother.”
“No vegetation for miles taller than a meter,” John says, pointing out the borders of the area they’ve surveyed on a rough map they’ve spread over the central table in the common room. “Perimeter’s up but there’s nothing to guard against, as far as I can tell.”
Maureen nods agreement. “No fauna bigger than some five-sided bugs the size of your palm, and those seem to function like starfish. No real threat there.”
Judy adds, “Water's filterable, but don't drink it straight, it's got microorganisms I'm not sure about.”
“Tents are up and the nutrient extruder is running smoothly.” Don drops the finished product on the table with a flourish. It’s brownish-gray and shaped vaguely an oversized chocolate bar, but looks are deceiving. “Anyone want the first taste?”
Will grabs for it, takes a bite, then makes a face that's worth the entire loopy landing it took to get here. “Eugh. I thought it would be sweeter.”
“That’s just the base block,” Maureen says, taking it from him and neatly breaking it along one score mark, then another, nibbling more cautiously at the resulting cube. She shrugs, indifferent. “You can program the machine to add flavors.”
Penny follows her mother’s lead. “Ugh, I hope so. This is like… grainy cardboard.”
“Part of a balanced breakfast.” John gives the amused half-smile of a man who’s had to live on worse in the field. “Can it be cooked?”
“There's a setting so it comes out more like tofu, but I wouldn’t use it for soup,” Don tells them. “People have tried to grill it with mixed results. Never tried it myself, though.”
“I miss burgers.” Penny’s voice is mournful. “I miss fries.”
“I miss milkshakes.” Will stares disconsolately at the block of nutrients.
Any minute now, someone is going to mention fried chicken, and they've already established that Debbie is not on the menu unless it’s guaranteed to be their very last meal. “Nope, no, none of that,” Don says. “Because I know how to hack the extruder.” Will and Penny perk up. John lifts an eyebrow, and Maureen tilts her head.
“Please don’t break the extruder,” Judy says immediately.
“I’m not going to break it. I just... know a few tricks, that’s all. Look, you all finish setting up camp and I’ll whip up something for tonight. It’ll be fine, I promise. You’ll like it.” He gives Maureen a wink, and she laughs.
“All right,” she says. “Let’s go, let him have his surprise. Come on, everyone.” She shoos everyone out the door, back to work, and pauses at the doorway when they’re all gone. “Oh, and Don? If you happen to have any… contraband stashed away anywhere? Tonight might be a good night for it.”
Don hopes she can’t see the blush that he can feel creeping across his cheekbones. “I’ll uh. See what I can find, yeah.”
Don West might not know how to cook, but there are two exceptions to that rule: he can build a still out of spare parts (not that there’s anything that can be called spare on this ship…), and he can make kitchen gadgets bend to his will. Spices, not so much, but toaster ovens have been his bitch since undergrad.
The nutrient extruder is very simple: organic material goes in, and a carefully-balanced mush of sugars, carbohydrates, and proteins comes out. How it does the part in between is a chemical engineer’s nightmare involving some kind of souped-up algae colony that comes in packets like sea monkeys, but the output balance can be tweaked depending on nutritional needs. And, with a little tinkering, you can break the balance entirely.
Like, say, if you want something made entirely out of sugar.
Combine that with the texture options… It doesn't take him long at all to get the results he wants.
Whatever madness had taken hold of Don earlier hits him again full force as he exits the ship. The dusk light is a soft, peachy sort of gold over the camp, and the Robinsons are ranged in a circle around the fire that John is coaching Penny and Will to light, despite their already-extensive survival training. Maureen is laughing at some story that Judy is telling, her hand resting on John’s shoulder where he crouches by her knee.
Don’s treacherous little hindbrain wonders, I wonder if he gets on his knees for her a lot.
And that’s, okay, that’s wildly inappropriate, first of all.
But his imagination is helpfully supplying images of Mauren’s hand on John’s broad, freckled back, another carding fingers through his close-cropped hair as he bends low and presses his open mouth against—
Don clears his throat, because otherwise, he cannot breathe.
They all look over at him, and he tries to wave, but the hand he lifts is holding a bottle, so it comes off as more of a flailing salute. “Good, you’ve built a fire.” The carton under his other arm digs into his hip, and the thin metal rods he’d scrounged and assiduously cleaned are pinched in the bend of his elbow.
Will springs to his feet and runs over, reaching out to help in a transparent ploy to find out what’s in the carton. “Ah ah ah,” Don says, weaving away. “Not until after dinner.”
Judy looks unimpressed, but she’ll change her tune soon enough. “Did you reset the machine when you were done?” she asks.
“I did not, but I’ll do it later,” Don assures her archly. “I wanted to make sure the settings were still in place in case we needed more.” He presents the bottle to Maureen, who takes it with a smile and tucks it away, out of sight. She’s probably going to wait until the kids go to bed.
That’s fine. It should be savored anyway. He only has five bottles left, and he suspects that at least one will get sacrificed in some horrible first aid emergency.
They chat cheerfully through dinner, about the planet, about the modifications they're going to try on the engines, about the kids' training for the colony… Maureen goes quiet during the last bit, but John opens up about his time in Basic, which leads to some stories that have everyone in stitches. Don can tell that the rough edges have been sanded off, sanitized for the kids, but they're still funny.
“That reminds me of this time in grad school—” Don starts.
“You went to grad school?” Penny asks. Judy gives Penny a glare that would peel paint at a hundred yards.
“Yeah, what, you think I went straight from some GED to knowing how an interstellar spacecraft operates? Give me some credit.” Don usually lets it slide, because he’s used to self-important colonist families breezing by him as if he's a nobody, making assumptions on their way to their shiny happy future, but it’s different this time. Wherever the Robinsons are going, he’s going with, and he can’t just mentally give them the finger and remind himself how much he’s getting paid. “I have a master’s in mechanical engineering, thank you very much.”
Maureen’s eyes light up like a puzzle piece is dropping into place. “What was your thesis?”
“I ran some models on self-repairing photovoltaic lightsails… it had promise for interplanetary travel, before the Resolute engine came along.”
“Wait, hang on, if we can’t figure out how to make the engine work, that’s an alternative method of propulsion—” Maureen starts.
Don holds up one hand. “Well, no, we don’t have the materials, and it’s basically a snail’s pace compared to—”
“But it’s something!” Maureen interjects. She stops, looking around and realizing that the kids are watching them as if they’ve started an impromptu tennis match.
“I’m glad I stopped at a bachelor’s,” John grumbles, but it sounds like a well-worn joke instead of genuine sour grapes. There’s a glint of admiration in his eyes, a warmth in the way his mouth creases at the corners when he looks at them both.
And oh, oh, Don doesn’t need the whiskey if John’s going to keep looking at him like that.
“What are photovoltaic lightsails?” Will asks.
Don blinks at Will’s perfect recall of the phrase, impressed. He takes a moment, choosing his words — he doesn’t want to talk down to the kid, but he also doesn’t—
“Oh my god, I would rather play Go Fish.” Penny interrupts Don’s train of thought.
Judy sits up. “What did happen to those cards?”
John gives them all a smile as he reaches into a pocket. “I got ‘em right here.”
Don leans in to Will and drops his voice to a conspiratorial murmur. “I’ll show you tomorrow, how’s that? I bet we can play hooky for an hour or two.”
Will looks to his mom, who nods, and then he beams happily at Don as if he can’t wait for an impromptu mechanical engineering lesson. Don just barely catches himself before he can do anything stupid, like ruffle the kid’s hair or something.
To John, Don says, “I’m more of a Crazy Eights man myself, but sure, deal me in.”
John sets down the pack of playing cards — battered around the edges and wrapped in a hair tie — on the table next to him. “Maybe after dessert.”
Don files that moment away for future reference, because he is a weak, terrible man. Meanwhile, he has to fend off three sets of hands offering to 'help' with his surprise. "Hold on, hold on!" He proffers the metal rods he'd brought with him, first. "Each of you needs one of these."
Penny takes one and frowns at it. Then her face lights up as she puts it together.
"Sorry I don't have any graham crackers or Hershey bars, but…" Don opens the box.
"Marshmallows!" Will says.
"Or as close as I could get." Don passes out the 'bricks.' “You'll have to break them up, and they're a little squarish, but…"
Maureen pulls a segment off and eats it raw, her eyes fluttering closed in bliss. "Close enough," she says.
She got a sweet tooth, Don thinks to himself. Good to know. He doesn't know why it seems like important information to have, but it does.
The kids busy themselves with toasting, figuring out where to hold them in the fire, bickering over how brown or black the ideal marshmallow should be. Judy favors a light gold, while Penny lets them light up and blows them out when they're all crispy on the outside. Will almost burns his tongue with impatience, not caring how dark they get before eating with gusto.
"Here, you can have this one," John offers Maureen when his gets overdone. For a moment, Don wonders if he'll hand-feed it to her, but Maureen takes it delicately between thumb and forefinger instead, blowing on it to let it cool down.
Don looks away before she eats it.
Judy’s laughing at something Will’s said, or maybe the fact that he’s said it through a mouthful of marshmallow, consonants muffled and vowels sticky. Don remembers stealing food from the pantry in one foster home, playing ‘chubby bunny’ with the other kids in a tree fort. Not for the first time, he wonders where they all are now.
“We should tell ghost stories!” Penny exclaims.
“You can tell them in your tent.” Maureen gets up and gathers all the skewers.
“Aw,” Will says, not looking tired in the slightest. No surprise, with all the sugar they’ve all had. Maybe they’ll crash soon; Don will trust Maureen’s judgement on this one, but he’ll lay even odds that the kids will still be up by the time their parents call it a night.
John makes sure the kids are all bundled off in their tent with plenty of blankets in case it gets cold, and when he gets back, Maureen pulls out the whiskey and pours healthy measures into each of their cups. She takes a sip and smiles. “I will say this,” she comments, “you have good taste in contraband.”
“Just doing my part for colonial morale,” Don demurs, raising his glass in a salute to both of them before drinking himself.
“Alcohol isn’t prohibited on the colony,” John says. “Why do you have to bring it in?”
“Nothing Alpha Centauri produces is as good as this stuff,” Don tells him. “And I don’t just bring in booze. I import plenty of other things, too. You know, they haven’t figured out how to get a really robust coffee bean to grow there? And don’t get me started on the pain in the ass that is cacao.”
“Huh,” Maureen says. “So you’re… supplementing the colony’s shortcomings, is that it?”
Don shrugs. “Supply and demand. The Jupiters have only so much space, and chocolate isn’t high on their priority list.”
“It’s funny, how you can make breaking the law sound like part of the natural order of things,” John says, shaking his head even as he’s smiling, as if he can’t decide between being disappointed and amused.
“Hey, I was gonna be one of the guys that got us to a settlement on Mars, or Callisto,” Don says, perhaps more defensively than necessary, but it stings to think they might still hold this against him, after everything. “Then the sky dropped alien tech on us and changed space travel from interplanetary to interstellar, and I had to make do with a maintenance gig on the Resolute. Forgive me for finding a silver lining.”
He looks away from John, to find that Maureen's watching him with sympathy in her eyes, her face glowing in the firelight.
"...what?" Don asks her.
"Nothing, I just…" she looks down at her cup. "I know what it's like to break the rules when plans fall apart."
At this, John reaches out, takes her hand, laces their fingers together. She gives him a small, sad smile.
"You?" Don asks. "I can't imagine that."
Maureen takes another drink. When she speaks again, it's hushed, as if she doesn't want what she's about to say to leave the ring of light cast by the fire. "Will didn't pass one of his tests, for Alpha Centauri."
And that's— "Huh," Don says. He stays quiet, too, realizing that the kids probably don't know this. "So you, what, found a way to change the results, or—?"
"I found someone to do it for me, yeah," she says.
Don wants to ask what it cost her, but the answer is plain on her face. It doesn't matter what she paid, she's still paying the price by carrying this secret with her. Keeping it from the kids, from Will.
Jesus, it would crush the kid to know he didn't make the cut.
"Well, as far as I'm considered, we make it to Alpha Centauri from here, you all earned it, fair and square," Don says, keeping his voice light. "No other colonists have had to go through the trial by fire you all have."
"We had help," John points out.
Maureen nods. "We wouldn't have made it this far without you, you know."
Don drinks, hoping the cup will cover whatever expression is on his face. "Aw, I'm just giving you a reason to keep me around," he says.
"That's not the only reason we like having you with us," John says.
That's too much for Don. They haven't even had half the bottle, and they're getting all sappy on him. The Robinsons are going to be the death of him, and not only because they keep finding themselves in peril.
He finishes his drink and stands up. May as well end this conversation on a high note. "I'm going to turn in," he says, ignoring the glances the other two exchange. "Feel free to finish the bottle without me." He gives them a cheeky smile. "I won't wait up."
And then he beats a hasty retreat, leaving them for the safety of the tent.
“Good night, Don.” Maureen’s voice curls through the darkness, coiling around him sweetly, and he falls asleep feeling warm despite the chill in the night air.
For the first time, Don wakes without a list in his head.
Oh, sure, there are things on the ship he needs to fix, to calibrate, to replace… But planetside, they have time that they didn’t before, and there’s no ticking clock lending urgency, no necessary triage to do lest they all die horribly in the unfeeling vacuum of space. Maureen’s White Board of Doom stayed on the ship last night.
Hell, he could sleep in if he wants to.
The tent jostles, and he hears the zipper sing. Somebody's up. There's a rustle, and a soft sound, and John rumbles wordlessly, a sleepy pleased murmur.
"Morning." Maureen's voice is more breath than words. Don imagines he can hear her smiling.
There's another jostle. "Come back to bed." John's voice is hoarse and low.
"Shh, we'll wake Don."
"He's already awake."
Damn, damn, of course John would notice.
Don mimes a yawn and a stretch, squinting into the light. John has pulled Maureen down to straddle him, her sleep cami rucked up to show the sweet swell of her hips and belly, stretch marks silvery in the morning light. Don wants to reach over and trace them with his fingertips, his tongue…
"Don't mind me." Don tries to inject lightness into his half-hoarse voice. "Pretend I'm not even here."
John lifts an eyebrow. Maureen laughs, shifting to roll off, stand up, but both motion and mirth are cut off by John's hands curling up, over the splayed lines of her thighs. Holding her in place.
They're all silent for a moment. Maureen must find the answer she's looking for in her husband's eyes, because she looks back over at Don. "So— what? You just going to lie there and watch us?"
What the fuck. What the fuck. It had been a joke. Hadn't it? Don swallows hard. "...I guess that would depend."
"On what?" John's voice rumbles over Don's skin.
He takes a deep breath and a chance, pushing his sleeping bag down to his waist, letting his palm settle low on his belly, fingertips curling gently into the space between shirt and boxer-briefs, where the line of hair trails down. "How good the view is."
John grins wide at the challenge.
Maureen runs her tongue over her canine. "A show for a show?" She pulls the elastic out of her hair, and it tumbles over her bare shoulders. Don's mouth goes dry; her hair has gotten long, and she's been keeping it tied back nonstop, lately. "Sounds fair to me."
She bends down to kiss John, sweet and slow. When they part, John murmurs, "How quiet do we need to be?"
She smiles against his mouth. "I sent the kids upriver in the Chariot, so they could explore."
John looks over at Don. "Have you noticed my wife is a genius?"
Don laughs. "Hard to miss." Did she plan this? He wouldn’t put it past her. Maybe he’ll ask her later; right now, he doesn't want to be seen as looking a gift horse in the mouth.
John's hands wander with the idleness of familiarity, long sweeps of his palms along Maureen's legs and hips and sides. She arches into his touch, watching Don from the corner of her eyes.
John circles her elbow with one big hand and draws her back down to him. Her hair falls in a curtain around their faces, but Don can still see John cup her breast through her cami, the light circular motion of her hips where she straddles John, the way her fingers start to inch up John's shirt, baring his trim, furred stomach.
Don's half hard already, but in no hurry to move things along. He adjusts his dick in his briefs and lets his legs sprawl, tucking his off hand under his pillow to give his neck more support as he watches.
They break apart again for air, and Maureen urges John to curl up so she can peel off his shirt. He lifts easily, his core tensing and relaxing as he falls back beneath her, her hands running over all that skin. It's like she's showing him off, dragging the edge of a fingernail over his nipple to let Don see how John arches and hisses.
"C'mere," John says, fisting his hands in the hem of her cami, and she laughs, curling forward herself to let him pull it up and off, hair falling everywhere, over her shoulders, down her back, trailing across John's torso. They kiss again, smiling, and Don bites the inside of his cheek, fighting the urge to look away.
The patches of auburn hair in her armpits aren't a surprise, but Don is still overwhelmed by the desire to stroke his fingers there, to see if it's as soft as it looks, to see if she's ticklish. Instead, he watches John's hands go where his can't, listens to Maureen moan as John catches a nipple between two fingers, watches her squirm as John’s fingertips ghost over her ribs. He’s envious of them both, touching and being touched, and he presses his palm against his belly to anchor himself, lets a couple fingers inch beneath his waistband in the prelude to a tease.
They part, catch their breath, John pushing hair away from Maureen’s face while they have another one of those wordless conversations. They turn to Don in unison, and he braces himself, expecting them to have changed their minds.
“Your turn,” Maureen tells Don instead, tilting her head expectantly. He blinks, and she clarifies: “Get rid of your shirt, Don.”
"Oh! Right—" he mutters, even as he scrambles to comply. It's not the first time he's put on a show — in his line of work, long distance relationships are pretty common, and video chatting can get pretty racy late at night — but he still feels more exposed, now, with both Robinsons staring at him from mere feet away. Fortunately, John's eyes are dark and appreciative, and Maureen is staring at him speculatively.
It occurs to him that he might be the first man she's seen besides her husband under these circumstances in a while.
"You two haven't done this before, have you?" Don blurts. "With, y'know, someone else…"
"No," John answers.
"Yes," Maureen says at the same time.
They look at each other.
"That's not the same," John says.
"Yes, it is," Maureen says. "Just because it was with a woman—" Oh, god. Vivid images paint themselves in Don's mind. "An ex of mine," she clarifies, and that doesn't help. "It was only the once."
"Not for lack of trying," John adds in an amused rumble.
"Our schedules never lined up!" Maureen protests, laughing like it's an old inside joke.
"So you're both, uh." Don gestures vaguely. "Not straight?" He really hopes so, hopes he hasn't misread the signs from John.
"Bisexual, yes," Maureen says with a smile.
"She likes labels more than I do," John says, "But yeah."
Maureen narrows her eyes at Don. "Stop distracting us and hold up your end of the deal."
"Alright, alright, pushy," Don says, settling back in his bedding and exhaling. He has to look away, his awareness of them setting his nerves alight even without meeting their eyes.
Put on a show, he tells himself. So he does. He runs his hands over his chest, his belly, thumbs a nipple, drags his nails over his ribs. And then, then — the recognition of being watched, of who’s watching him burning along his skin — he slides one hand down to cup his aching dick. Just that pressure is enough to make him exhale raggedly, and he bites his lip to keep from making any embarrassing noises as he pushes his underwear away, gets skin on skin.
“Yeah,” Maureen sighs, “That’s good.” And Don ventures a look over to find that John’s got one hand in her pyjama bottoms, wrist and forearm flexing, hiding and revealing glimpses of dark pubic hair as she rocks her hips.
John’s watching her, she’s watching Don, and Don watches them both, completing the circuit, matching the movements of his own hand against the rhythm John’s setting. Don doesn’t know what caused their rift, but he sees why John would give everything else up and cross a galaxy to be with her, their connection electric and easy all at once, their synchronicity evident in every movement.
“Don,” Maureen says, voice high and breathless. “Show us.”
And now they’re both watching him, as Don lets go of his dick for long enough to shove the sleeping bag away, push his boxer-briefs down and off his legs. It’s gotten warm in the tent — and no wonder, Jesus, they’re so hot — but Don’s skin prickles anyway, his nipples go tight, the weight of their gazes like a physical caress.
He takes himself in hand again, looks over to see John’s teeth bared, his attention torn between Don and Maureen. And if Don had a topless Maureen writhing in his lap like that, he’d be a goner, too. Whatever John’s doing with his hand is driving her closer to the edge, and she’s fighting to keep her eyes open, lips parted as she pants for breath.
“Let go, baby, let go,” John murmurs, both velvet and gravel in his voice, and Don’s dick leaks in his hand, slicking his strokes. He’s so close but Maureen beats him there, her fingers clenching tight on John’s arms as she cries out and tenses, back arched in one long, beautiful line.
When she starts to relax again, John twists, rolling them both so that Maureen is on the ground under him, her shoulder pressed against Don’s. She laughs, loose and a little wild. It looks good on her. “Hi,” she says to Don.
“Hey,” Don says back, feeling stupid and strung out, his hand still on his dick but his rhythm’s broken, and he’s distracted by the sparkle in her eyes, the flush on her skin, the tickle of her hair where it’s fallen across his arm. He has to look away, but the sight of John hovering over them both, his arms and shoulders taut with the effort of holding himself up at a careful distance, is almost worse. “What’s up,” Don says to him weakly, trying for a smile.
“I’m changing the rules,” John says, and Maureen starts laughing like she’s won a bet, even before he reaches for Don, before Don figures out what’s going on and meets him halfway — fucking finally, yes, thank god — before John’s mouth slants across Don’s, hard and desperate and urgent.
Don lets go of himself, wrapping his arm around John, lost in the sensation of touching and being touched, the broad expanse of John’s back under his palms, the way Maureen’s breast presses into his side as she turns beside him to watch. He could almost come just from this, the sudden wealth of skin against his, John’s tongue in his mouth, Maureen’s teeth in his shoulder, but they seem to have other plans for him.
Maureen's mouth replaces John's, while her husband trails lips and tongue and stubble down Don's neck and across his torso. Shit, I'm going to look like a wreck when we're done, Don thinks, but he doesn't care, not when John's teeth graze a nipple and Maureen guides Don's free hand to her own chest.
"Oh god," Don says, belatedly, realizing what John's angling for as his mouth skims over Don’s belly. "You know I'm not gonna last, right?"
"That's fine. He's probably a little impatient anyway." Maureen smirks and pulls him back into another kiss as John's lips close over his dick.
It's too much, Maureen pressed along his side and kissing him breathless, and John's hot, wet mouth on his cock, broad shoulders shoving Don's legs open. Maureen moves to nip at Don’s earlobe and he risks a glance down, immediately regretting it, because there's no way he’ll be able to look at John the same way again, now that he’s seen the man’s cheeks hollowed out around his dick, brow furrowed in concentration. “Oh, fuck,” Don groans, and John’s pale eyes meet Don’s just as he takes him all the way in, and — “Fuck, fuck, yeah,” Don pants, coming apart, while John swallows around him once and then again. “Jesus Christ, John!”
Maureen laughs again, reaches down to run her fingers through her husband’s hair. John releases Don and leans into her touch, looking pleased with himself. “Get up here,” she says, and he complies, letting her pull him in for a deep, searching kiss.
“That’s even hotter up close,” Don comments, and John breaks the kiss with a chuckle.
Maureen licks her lips. “He tastes like you,” she tells Don.
Don falls back against his bedding with a groan. “My brain is already melted, c’mon, show a little pity, here.”
"Too melted to lend me a hand?" John asks.
"Hell no," Don answers, reaching for him, winding an arm around those shoulders, finding the indent of his spine and following it down, under the waistline of John’s pyjama pants. He’d never admit to having stared at John’s ass when nobody was looking — let a man maintain some mystique, thank you very much — but he certainly enjoys having it under his hand, firm and flexing.
“What do you want, honey?” Maureen asks, wriggling distractingly beside Don ‘till he realizes she’s stripping John down as best she can. Then he’s got even more skin within reach, and he runs his hands over the top of John’s thighs, around to his belly and groin, enjoying the change in hair texture beneath his palms.
“Anything. I—” John’s voice falters as Don finds his erection, hot and hard and thick; Don wraps his fingers around it and gives it a careful squeeze. John’s eyes slip closed and his head drops. “Yeah,” he gasps, as Don begins to stroke. “That’s good. That’ll be fine.”
“I’m aiming for better than fine,” Don says. “Hang on—” He removes his hand despite the noise of protest John makes, and licks his palm, getting it slick so when he closes it around John’s dick again, he gets a smoother glide.
“There you go,” Maureen says, leaning up to kiss John's cheek, his jaw. "We got you."
“Yeah, yeah,” Don says, as John starts rocking into his grip with a moan. “That’s it.” He has an amazing view, John naked and needy above him, Maureen topless next to him, avid interest in her eyes as she watches them both. “Do you wanna come on me, John? Go on, do it.” Running his mouth usually gets Don in trouble, but here it seems to push John closer to the edge. "C'mon, mess me up."
“Ah, god,” John says, and a few thrusts later, his dick is pulsing in Don’s hand, heat splashing over Don’s torso.
Maureen hums a little laugh in the back of her throat, tilting Don's face with gentle fingers on his jaw so that she can kiss him. "Nice work," she says, and oh fuck, it's going to be awkward next time she says that, like after he's repaired the water purification system again or something.
John's arms give out and he collapses to Don's other side, sandwiching him between warmth and bare skin. Don glances between them both. "You two are both solid freckles, aren't you?" he asks to break the tension, and John laughs, covering his eyes with one hand.
"Come here and put that mouth to better use," Maureen says, shimmying out of her pyjama pants, and okay, Don's never been one to back down from a challenge like that in his life.
They're still all tangled together, Don resting his cheek against Maureen's inner thigh, considering whether he's up for another round, John's hand heavy and warm and tempting on his lower back, when the radio crackles to life.
"Mom? Dad?" Judy's voice sings out, and John grunts, reaching over to grab the radio.
"Yeah?" he answers, voice still rough.
Don rolls over, covers his face with his palms, resenting the reminder of… well, of everything outside their tent. They have kids. They’re on an alien planet, with scarce supplies and no way of knowing where home is, let alone how to get there.
“We’re okay, first of all,” Judy’s saying. “But— we found something we think you’ll want to see. We’re on our way back in the Chariot.”
Maureen’s already up, pulling on her clothes. She nudges Don in the ribs with her bare foot. “Come on,” she says.
“Yeah, okay,” Don says, and starts looking for his pants.
Once they’re fully dressed and out of the tent, it’s better. There’s still an itchy patch on Don’s belly that he thinks might be a spot he missed when he was cleaning up, but it’s fine. He tries to scratch it through his shirt as casually as he can manage as the Chariot comes into view.
Maureen and John look perfectly normal, and he kind of hates them for it. Then John slants him a sidelong smile, clapping him on the upper arm before setting off towards the perimeter, and Don exhales loudly.
“It doesn’t have to be weird,” Maureen tells him quietly. She was always too perceptive for his own good. “It— It doesn’t even have to happen again. We can just. Pretend it didn’t happen at all.” Her hands are doing that thing, though, knotting together in front of her waist, belying her calm. It’s reassuring, somehow.
“What?” Don asks, aiming for levity. “Pretend I didn’t bag the two hottest people in this or any other quadrant of the galaxy? Give up the chance to do it again? Psh.”
She laughs. “All right, but we should— Around the kids, I mean...”
“Yeah, no, we’re definitely on the same page there.” He one hundred percent does not want to answer any of Will’s inevitable barrage of questions on that front.
“Good,” Maureen says, as the Chariot pulls to a stop. “That’s good. We’ll find some time to talk later. Figure out, um… rules. And boundaries.”
It’s very like her to want to draw lines, sort this neatly into lists. Do’s and don’t’s. Pros and cons. That’s fine. Don sees the appeal right about now, as the kids pile out of the Chariot, Will waving his tablet and Penny launching into an excited run-down of their exploration.
“Sure, sounds good,” Don tells her, and she nods before walking away, greeting her kids.
Will has photos of some structures, out beyond the fields they landed in, tall pentagonal spires made of stone or earth. “We think they’re like termite mounds?” Penny tells them. “You know, for those five-sided bugs or something.”
“That’s not the cool part,” Judy tells them, taking Will’s tablet and scrolling through photos ‘till she finds the one they’re looking for. It shows a close-up of a spire, and a gloved hand holding up a measuring tape, part of the dirt scraped away to reveal a latticework that looks like a honeycomb divided into five-sided sections. Made of metal.
“...huh.” Maureen says, pinching the screen to zoom in. “Wait, show me the panoramic view again.” Judy reaches over her elbow to scroll back. The spires — there are about half a dozen or so — each have a wide bowl of cleared or infertile ground around them, each hollow big enough for the ship to land in. Y’know, if it weren’t for the giant metal spikes sticking up in each of them. “Do the metal lattices extend under these depressions?”
“We didn’t check,” Will says, deflating.
Maureen hugs him reassuringly. “That’s fine, your dad and I will go out with some equipment to take a closer look. Good job finding these.” She looks at Don. “How quickly can you rig up a portable radio receiver? With more power than the handhelds.”
Don blinks, looks back at the pictures of the spires. “...oh,” he says, feeling like an idiot, finally seeing what she sees. “Yeah, give me one of the backup Chariot batteries and half an hour, you’ll be able to pick up anything you want, with an antenna array that big.” Well, not anything, but maybe enough. He pivots on his heel and starts to half-jog towards the ship, then stops, turning back. “Can I cannibalize—?”
“Anything you want,” she tells him before he can even finish, warmth in her voice that hits him right behind the sternum. “So long as you can put it back together again when we’re done.”
“Roger that,” he says, grinning brightly, and heads to the ship.
"The cool thing about these Jupiters compared to, like, the Resolute," Don says conversationally, as he and John are pulling panels away from the ship to get at the wiring they need, "is that everything is built to be repaired as easily as possible. Dumbed-down design, easy to learn for colonists without advanced degrees. Universal ports, color-coded wiring in neat bundles…" He yanks one cluster out with a snick, frowning when it gets tangled with something else. "Well, in theory, anyway." They haven't been as assiduous about keeping things neat as they have keeping them functional, lately. "We should use this ground time for some maintenance, while we're here. You know, all the little things we've been letting slide."
"Sure," John says, leaning in to loosen the snarl, one hand braced on Don's back. The smell of him goes right to Don’s dick, as if John’s sweat has already hardwired some kind of Pavlovian reaction into his libido.
He grits his teeth and thinks about how he's going to have to flush the nutrient extruder before Judy finds out he clogged it. "So hey," he manages weakly, looking over his shoulder to make sure they're alone. "Maureen said that we should probably keep this thing between us low-key?"
"Smart lady." John smiles as the cables come loose, spilling out into Don's arms. "That's one reason I married her."
"And I'm starting to get some of the other reasons, yeah." If Don keeps looking down the hall like this, he's going to get a repetitive stress injury. "She also might have indicated that, uh. It might not be a one time only thing?"
John folds his arms and leans against the wall where it's not exposed. "Sure. If you're up for it."
Oh, Don's up for it. He could be very up for it in half a minute, if John keeps looking at him like that. "Yeah," he replies lightly. "I could be persuaded."
The grin John gives him is obscene. "Good." He leans in and drops his voice. "Because I have plenty of ways to persuade you."
Three days ago, that would have sounded like a threat. Now, it's so much more than that, and Don has to lean against the bulkhead himself because his knees have decided to turn traitor on him. He wets his dry lips and is gratified to see John's darkened eyes follow the motion. "I look forward to it."
A muscle jumps in John's jaw. "But until then… low-key," he says finally.
Don gives him a crooked smile. "Yes, sir."
Quick as a flash, John's reached out, snagged Don by the front of his jacket. "Not. Helping." His voice is low and ragged, and Don revels in the fact that he's not the only one fraying a little bit, here.
Don grins, unrepentant. "Sorry." He leans forward, into the grip John has on him. "I'll make it up to you later."
There's an excruciatingly long moment where Don wonders if John is going to break and kiss him, right there in the hallway, a tangle of wires pressed between them—
— and then Penny comes around the corner, and John shoves Don back so abruptly that he staggers a little.
"Hey," she says, eyes narrowing. "...are you guys fighting again?"
"Nah," Don says, as John spins in his heel and walks away without a word. The back of John's neck is red. Don straightens his jacket as best he can. "We're just working a few things out. Hey, give me a hand with these cables, will ya?"
She gives him a long, unimpressed stare. "You really need to stop pushing his buttons," she comments at last.
"Sure," Don lies. "I'll do that."
While Maureen, John, and Judy head back to the spires, Don stays behind with Penny and Will to get a jump on ship maintenance. They set up folding tables and spread out parts that need cleaning next to tubs of mild solvent and set to work scrubbing.
"It works!" Maureen crows over the handheld, a few hours later. "It works!"
"Awesome!" Will pumps his fist.
"Neat. Does that mean we can call home?" Penny says, abandoning the air intakes she's been working on. "Or— okay, either home?" She pushes a strand of hair behind her ear, forgetting she has wet rubber gloves on and making a face as she realizes her mistake.
"No, see, all communication— well, all human communication, I don't know what the robots use — is limited by the speed of light," Don explains. "So any messages we might send will take years to get anywhere. And the transmissions we're getting are probably really old."
Will deflates. "So why is it a good thing that we can hear people?"
"Well, for one thing, it tells us we're in the right neighborhood. You can't pick up human broadcasts from anywhere." Don thinks about it. "Which means that last time you told the engine to jump, you actually got us pretty close to where we needed to be. Nice work, kid." Will perks up.
"Okay," Penny says, nodding. "Okay, that's a start."
"And I'm sure your mom knows some fancy math to figure more out, too," Don says.
Sure enough, when Maureen gets back with John and Judy, they're all beaming, and Maureen is brandishing her tablet.
"We got transmissions from both Earth and Alpha Centauri!" Judy exclaims.
"And we got timestamps for both signals, which tells us how far away we are from both stars," Maureen adds.
"Okay…" Penny looks lost.
"We know how fast the speed of radio waves are, so we can calculate how far away the source is by how old the transmissions are," Maureen explains. Will nods along as if he understands it, but Penny visibly resigns herself to not understanding.
"And from there, we can triangulate our position," John says. "More or less."
"Explain that to me like I'm five," Don says, covering for Penny.
“Here’s how it works,” Maureen says, pulling out a stylus and setting her tablet to blank screen. She draws two points and connects them with a dotted line. “Pretend one is Earth,” she writes an ‘E’ next to one dot, “and one is Alpha Centauri.” An ‘AC’ goes by the second dot. “If we know our distance from both of these points, we can kind of guess where we are.” She draws two more points on either side of the dotted line, each a third closer to AC than the E. She connects both unlabeled points to the E and the AC, forming an even diamond, two mirrored triangles on either side of the dotted line.
“Except space isn’t two-dimensional,” Penny points out.
“Yes, right,” Maureen says. “So we could be anywhere along a circular path between the two stars.” Her stylus describes an arc, moving from one unlabeled point to the other through the air, the tip staying the same distance from E and AC the whole time. “But once we know that much, it narrows it down a lot, and we can look at the stars to see if we can find a few familiar ones to help us narrow it down even more.”
John nods, frowning thoughtfully. “And once we know where we are, we know what direction to go in…”
“Provided the engine can get us there,” Don finishes. He looks to Will, who looks back with wide eyes.
“I… don’t know,” Will says, but he lifts his chin, gaze not faltering. “But I can try.”
“Then let’s do what we can to prepare for that,” Judy says. “Restock supplies, run system checks, all of it.”
Don nods along, grinning, caught up. Damn, these kids are impressive. The whole family is impressive. No wonder they got picked for Alpha Centauri. He's just glad he can keep up. Most of the time, anyway.
"So what are photovoltaic lightsails?" Will asks Don, when they're replacing freshly-scrubbed and -regreased parts back into the ship.
"Well…" Don scratches his neck. He'd forgotten he promised to explain this, and he's not prepared. His thesis had a lot of complex stuff in it, but he can do this part. "You know how ships on the ocean used to use wind sails? This is like that, except in space, and they capture energy from the sun and stars instead of wind."
"Neat!" Will says. "And you know how to build them?"
"Yep." Don tightens the last bolt holding a gasket in place. "I designed a version that repaired itself, you know, in case it got damaged by space dust. It required nanotech we don't really have on board, unfortunately, but I built a few working prototypes in my lab." Too bad the robot engine came along, making all his research obsolete.
He'd applied to work on the Resolute in the hopes that he'd have a chance to get a glimpse of the tech that derailed his career. I guess I got my wish, he thinks, looking at the blue-glowing fibers that have insinuated themselves into every conduit on the ship. Fat lot of good that did me.
Don sighs, then turns to Will, mustering a smile. "If you want, I can use the 3-D printer to make a small-scale model of a sail design."
"That'd be great!" Will enthuses. "I can add it to my collection."
And all right, this might not be where Don had pictured himself, back when he was in grad school, but it's not so bad, either. At least he's in space.
And the company isn't bad, either.
After dinner, they set up a telescope outside.
"The first time humans got to Alpha Centauri," Maureen's saying, "we jumped in outside the system, just to be on the safe side. We weren't sure about the gravitational forces, since it's a triple star system, and while we could predict the curvature of space-time, we didn't have immediate readings to confirm the projections. So we used wayfinding stars to be sure we landed in the right spot, ones that we knew we could find from anywhere between Earth and our new home."
She pulls a diagram up on her tablet; it's as dim as it can go, but it still casts a faint blue glow over her features and those of her kids, clustered at her shoulders.
"This is a chart from our navigational computer, based on those wayfinding stars," she tells them. "I've input the distances we know, and if I scroll like this…" she passes her finger over the screen, "it moves the virtual camera position along that arc. So all we need to do is find a perspective that seems close to the constellations in this sky, and we can let math do the rest."
"Cooooool," Penny says, reaching over to scroll the screen herself, back and forth.
Don looks away, finding that a smile's curled the corners of his mouth, and spots John leaning against one of the ramp braces, an equally-fond expression on his face. John catches his eye and lifts an eyebrow, tilting his head towards the ship. Don swallows the grin that threatens to spread across his face, and he nods.
Maureen’s downloading the charts to her kids’ tablets when she glances up, sees John stroll up the ramp, casual as you please. She looks to Don, and he raises both eyebrows, getting a smile and a nod in return.
And just like that, it’s easier than it has any right to be. It’s easy to wait a couple minutes before following John up the ramp, easy to find him waiting in his room, jacket already shucked off and discarded over the small chair in the corner. It’s easy to close the door and lock it and crawl onto John’s lap where he’s sitting on the bed.
“We can’t take too long,” John says, hands already busy with Don’s clothes.
“Okay, yeah,” Don agrees. “I don’t think we’ll need very long, anyway.” He can feel John’s erection, full and hard against his thigh already, and he’s not far behind, with John’s mouth hot on his neck.
(He’s not wrong; it doesn’t take long at all, for either of them)
The planet they're on has no moons, so there's no worry about seeing the stars past the light pollution their camp gives off, and the latter is easily remedied by keeping the fire low and turning off everything on the Jupiter besides a few red emergency lights in the corridors to help them get around without tripping over anything. Still, it's a few long nights of scanning the sky and Maureen guiding the kids in how to take readings before they get their approximate position.
During the days, they run maintenance on the ship's systems, getting everything in good shape for taking off. When the kids get too bored with that, John sends them off to explore in the Chariot — they find more clusters of spires in a few places, and a very pretty lake downriver with a thermal spring that Don wishes he could soak in for a week, but Judy vetoes swimming because the algae ringing the rocks makes the water too acidic.
"Well, what's a spa day without an acid peel?" Don jokes, and she rolls her eyes.
He doesn't care that she has no appreciation for his sense of humor, because the ship is in the best shape it's been since leaving the Resolute, and he's gotten laid five times in the last four days.
Not that he's going to tell her that. What Judy doesn't know can't hurt her, right?
She does catch Don coming out of her parent's room late one night, though, about half an hour after John went outside to take care of the fire and check the perimeter. But Don made sure his clothes were all in order before he left, and he gives a casual wave that Judy returns with a bland, disinterested smile over the edge of the tablet she's reading, so she probably didn't suspect anything.
She'd say something if she thought anything was up, though. One thing you can say about the Robinsons — any of them — is that they usually speak their mind. So if she thought Don was acting suspicious, she'd say so.
"I'm pretty sure I know where we are," Maureen tells them over breakfast the next morning, putting a tablet in the middle of the table with a diagram of their neighborhood of the galaxy on it. "I've run the calculations several times, and the only way I could be more sure is if we were in space, because the atmosphere could be distorting our readings. But, pending that, we're just under one light year away from Alpha Centauri, right around here." She double-taps the screen and the view zooms in to a star with a hand-drawn X in its orbit.
"A light year… that's still pretty far, right?" Penny asks, scooping up some oatmeal from her bowl.
"Pretty far at sublight speeds, but the Resolute can make the jump from Earth to Alpha Centauri in no time, and that's over four light years." Maureen zooms out again, and shows them where Earth is by comparison.
"So all we need to do is get the engine to bring us far enough in the right direction…" Will says, picking at his own breakfast.
"Yes, but." Maureen pulls the tablet back, turns the screen off, and tucks it beside her empty bowl. "Even if we can't get the engine working, we can use our makeshift antenna arrays to transmit a signal, let the colony know where we are, and if they have the Resolute or another ship with a faster-than-light drive, they can come get us. At most, it would take them about a year to find us."
"So no pressure there, buddy," Don says, elbowing Will in a way he hopes is reassuring. "We're saved either way."
"Do we have enough supplies to last that long?" John asks.
"Sure," Don answers. "You know, excepting catastrophes." He looks around for wood to knock on, and settles for rapping a knuckle against his biodegradable bamboo spoon.
"I guess I can survive another year cooped up with you all," Penny says with exaggerated resignation.
Judy looks thoughtful. "I wish there was a way we could communicate faster," she says after a minute.
"Sadly, ansibles are still just science fiction," Maureen replies with a sigh.
"Ansible?" Will asks.
Maureen smiles. "Oh, it's an old word coined by a speculative fiction writer I used to read a lot when I was younger… have you gotten to the Earthsea books yet?"
"I remember those!" Penny says, eyes lighting up.
Don settles back in his chair, nibbling at a granola bar, listening to them all chatting, comfortable in his place at the table, looking forward to their escape and/or rescue.
The rules, when the three of them get a chance to hash them all out, are pretty simple. Don can sleep with either (or both) of them, everyone has to be on the same page at all times, and they have to keep it from the kids.
"It's not that I don't think they're mature enough to understand," Maureen says, her hands describing arcs in the air above the bed as she talks.
"It's just that this is none of their business," John finishes for her. He's in the rolling chair by the desk, fastening his boots, and he gives Don a look that speaks volumes about what the early days of dating Maureen were like.
"Sure, sure," Don agrees. He's still a little dazed because not ten minutes ago, John's thighs were splayed wide over Don's hips as John rode his dick. And, frankly, it's a little unfair of them to expect his brain to function correctly ever again after seeing that. "And this is no big deal, right? Nothing we'd need to share with them."
"Right," Maureen says. "If this gets serious, we can reevaluate our position then."
That makes Don sit up in the bed. "That's not—" he starts, then stops. "You think that's something we need to consider?"
Maureen presses her palm against Don's lower back, like she's trying to steady him. "I like to plan for all eventualities."
They could be on this ship for another year. Don thinks about that. The novelty of having him in their bed will definitely wear off by then. And who knows, they might reach Alpha Centauri sooner than that. Their repairs and restock of the ship is on track to launch by next week, and if Will gets the robot engine to work...
Either way, Don's going to take advantage of whatever time they have. He twists and presses Maureen back against the bed, kissing her soundly.
She laughs against his mouth and pulls him closer.
"Ah, c'mon," John says, sounding aggrieved. "I just got dressed."
Judy figures out that the blue mossy ground cover is really good at converting carbon dioxide to oxygen, and starts building planters for the common room. "So our CO2 scrubbers have some backup," she explains. "And we can feed them into the nutrient extruder if we have to."
"Hey, that way the kitchen will always smell clean," Will comments, looking at Penny pointedly.
"One time!" she retorts, throwing up her hands. "I break the garbage disposal one time—!"
"Don't feel too bad," Don tells her. "I once broke my foster mom's blender, the one she used for breakfast smoothies every morning, and whoo-ee! I was grounded for, like, a year."
"What did you do to it?" Will asks.
Don shrugs. "I had a taking-things-apart phase. To see how stuff worked."
"It's the putting-things-back-together part that's the real trick," Maureen says knowingly, carting in a load of dirt. "I got stuck on that myself a few times."
"Tell me about it," Don says, scooching between her and the center table, letting his palm brush the small of her back as he passes behind her. He catches Penny exchanging glances with Judy. "What? I can say, with confidence, that I have gotten better at that." He starts pulling the perforated tubing he'll be hooking into the water filtration system along the windowsill. "I'm also pretty good at building new from scrap. Like this irrigation setup for your little botany experiment."
"Now, we're sure that the onboard lighting will be able to replicate the wavelengths these plants will need?" Maureen asks. "I don't want to take on all this extra mass if it'll slow us down."
"I've had a few test planters in the medical bay for the past few days, and they've responded well," Judy replies.
"I wonder if they have flowers," Penny says. "That'd be nice."
Will comes in, brandishing a small device. "I got the timer you needed."
"Perfect," Don says. "A little reprogramming, and we can set the irrigation system to run on whatever intervals you like."
"Will we be able to change it if we need to?" Judy asks.
"Sure," Don says. "I can even hook it up to your wrist comp so you can work it remotely, how's that?"
Judy looks impressed. "That'd be perfect, actually. Thanks."
"Anything for you, Princess." Don beams at her.
She rolls her eyes.
They've just about got the ship ready to go when they wake one morning to rain that rolls in slow and settles into a serious downpour as they're all taking shelter on the ship.
"Gross," Penny announces, staring out the window.
Privately, Don agrees. They still have a lot of gear outside, and packing it up tomorrow while it's soaked in rainwater is going to suck. Fortunately, they've kept all lidded containers closed as a matter of course, and the tents are staked down.
"Looks like the universe is telling us to take a day off," John declares.
"There's plenty we can do here on the ship—" Maureen says, before she notices the looks on her kids' faces and relents. "...okay. We can take a day."
"I'm going to be in my room," Penny tells them, and books it.
John and Maureen exchange glances. She's been working on something in her free time, and nobody knows what it is. She'll tell them when she's ready.
"Hey, Will, whaddya say I print that solar sail model for you? We can assemble it together," Don offers.
Will grins. "Sure! What ship do you want to use as a base?"
Don lifts his eyebrows. "Let's see what you got, I'll tailor my sail to whatever model you think is coolest."
Will nods, and heads off to his room to get his tablet.
"I'll be in the garage on the treadmill," Judy says. "Dad, you wanna come?"
John gives her a smile. "Sure." He looks to Maureen. "Day off," he reminds her.
Maureen shakes her head. "Go," she says. "I'll find some way to occupy myself." She ends up hanging out in the common area while Don and Will go over spaceship model specs for the 3-D printer. She occasionally asks questions, but after a bit, she gets caught up in whatever she's reading, curled up on one of the padded benches under a throw blanket, her profile framed by the new greenery in the planters on the windowsill. Don wants to take a picture and send it to John.
He doesn't, but he wants to.
It takes two days for the rain to stop. Maureen doesn't let them while away the second day in idle pursuits, however, but sets everyone to top-down systems checks. Her white board can't fit all the separate tasks, so she groups everything by function and distributes individual lists to everyone's wrist comps.
Don gets stuck with the most awkward jobs, where he has to climb up to peer into overhead hatches and stoop low to look under equipment, so by mid-afternoon, he's kind of reconsidering a soak in that thermal spring, acid content be damned.
Judy's in the infirmary, doing an inventory of their medical supplies, when he takes a break. She spares him a glance when he comes in and beelines for the aspirin. "Sprain something?" she asks.
"Nah, just sore from climbing all over the ship," he says.
"I'm sure," she says dryly, and slams a cabinet door shut.
He turns to see what's got her worked up only to find that she's crossed her arms in front of her and is glaring at him. "Whoa, whoa. What did I do this time?"
"You know, my mom's not stupid," she says, her mouth in an unhappy twist. "She's going to figure out what's going on with you and Dad."
Oh, shit. "....what?" Don tries feebly. "What do you think is going on between your dad and I?"
Judy glances at the door and drops her voice to a hiss. "You're having an affair, and it's going to ruin everything, and–"'
"Oh my god, no. That's not… No." Don holds up his hands placatingly, and tries for honesty. Kind of. "Your dad is not cheating on your mom with me, I swear."
She stares him down, dubious, then blurts, "Penny thinks you're sleeping with Mom."
Oh Jesus, the kids have been comparing notes.
"Neither of your parents are cheaters," he tries again, doubling down. "And I'm no homewrecker." Now she looks more confused than pissed, and he can work with that. "Not that I even could. I mean, c'mon, would either of them really pick me? Over each other? I'm a catch, sure, but I'm not that irresistible."
Now Judy's frowning again, and he doesn't know why. She's supposed to be smiling, laughing maybe, at the absurdity of the idea. Instead, the look she's giving him reminds him of Maureen, assessing and analytical, like she's seeing more than she's supposed to. "I'm… I'm sorry I mistook it for something else," she says slowly. "But you do know they care about you, right? We all do." She looks away, and her voice gets quiet, confessional. "That's why I was mad. I don't want everything to fall apart again."
She didn't want her dad to leave again, Don realizes, shaken.
"Hey, hey," Don says. "That's not going to happen. You will all go to Alpha Centauri, settle in, and become one of those formidable frontier families they make folk songs about. Your sister will make a mint writing 'Little House on Alpha Centauri' books about all of it, it'll be great."
Judy meets his eyes again. "And what about you?"
Don shrugs. "I'll see if the Resolute will take me back." He's not sure they will, but getting conned by a murderous liar and rescuing a good number of colonists has got to count in his favor. "Maybe if your parents vouch for me…" He trails off, realizing that her mouth is curled unhappily again.
"You could stay," she says. "On Alpha Centauri."
"Actually, I can't." He shakes his head. "They put it in our contracts, in case anyone got the bright idea to use the job as a way to sneak off to the colony on the sly. We get fined out the wazoo if we try to settle without taking the tests and going through the system the way you did."
"...oh." She tilts her head. "Would you want to, if you could?"
Don shrugs. "I've thought about it. You know, if I make it to ten trips, I get automatically bumped up the waiting list."
"Which trip was this?" she asks.
"Lucky number seven," he says with a grin. He never thought he'd make it to ten, honestly. He always figured he'd come too close one time to getting caught and cut his losses. His retirement fund is almost where he wants it to be…
He can see her doing the math in her head. "The Resolute makes a trip every six months… you could make it to the colony in two years, if you wanted to."
"If the Resolute is still in one piece, sure." He makes a face. "We don't know what kind of shape she's in, if she needs repairs… if her engine still works."
"So when we get to Alpha Centauri, you could be stranded there," Judy points out.
Don laughs. "I gotta hand it to you Robinsons, you're all confident as hell." She looks confused, so he clarifies: "You said 'when we reach Alpha Centauri,' not if."
She smiles with him and shrugs. "We've made it this far," she points out. "What's another light year?"
"Only another five point eight trillion miles, give or take a billion," he says, "but who's counting?"
Her smile lingers, but slips away all the same. "You never answered my question. If you could stay and settle on Alpha Centauri, however you got the chance, would you?"
I'm not the settling type, he wants to say, but the words catch in his throat, tangle on his tongue. He swallows past the lump of them. "It depends," he tells her after a minute.
I don't know.
He puts on his best smile, the one he uses when he's haggling with a buyer or a supplier, the one he uses when he's chatting with a boss so they'll overlook inspecting the crates he's stashed in the most awkward places in the hold. "What's my incentive?"
Judy sighs, as if she expected nothing less but had hoped for more, just this once, and he takes the opportunity to grab the aspirin and run.
He almost collides with John in the hall.
"...heyyyy," Don says, regaining his footing, ears burning. "Uh, how much of that did you hear?"
"Enough," John says.
Which is… spectacularly unclear, but there's something shuttered and illegible in John's face, and Don doesn't really feel up to prying. He's already exposed and jittery after his talk with Judy. "...okay," Don manages.
"I'll talk to her," John says.
"Cool, I'll… keep working on my list," Don says, and John leaves him alone in the hall with a bottle of aspirin clutched in his nerveless fingers. "After I get some water to wash these down with," Don amends, because his back is really not happy with him.
Finally, finally, the rain ends, and they pack up the ship and prepare to make the jump.
As agreed, Maureen and Don take their seats in the control room, and John accompanies Will to the garage, where the engine has been pulsing steadily blue in its nest of tendrils like a dragon egg about to hatch. Judy and Penny strap into seats in the common area, both alert and prepared for whatever emergency procedures might be necessary.
"Control to engine," Maureen says. "You ready?"
"As we'll ever be," John replies.
"Engine ready," Will confirms, his voice high but steady.
"Liftoff on my mark, then," Maureen says, and counts down from ten. "...three, two, one, mark!"
The ship surges beneath them, the ground dropping away. Acceleration presses Don back into the seat — it's not as bad as his liftoff with John in the stripped-down Jupiter back on that other planet, but it's not exactly comfortable, either.
"Okay, we're at escape velocity," Maureen says, strain evident in her voice. "I'll keep us on course." Her hands are steady and sure on the controls, even as atmospheric winds buffet the ship.
It's a long eight minutes from there, the ship shuddering around them until everything sort of… fades into stillness and calm. "We're into the thermosphere but we're still pretty deep inside the gravity well," Maureen tells them. "Maintain speed and I'll tell you when it's safe to jump."
"Okay," Will says, and if Maureen had sounded strained, the kid sounds strangled.
"How you holding up, Will?" Don says, seeing the same worry on Maureen's face.
"Okay," Will says. He takes an audible breath, and his voice steadies a bit. "It's not being... very cooperative. I can feel it trying to turn us back to the planet, back to where it's safe."
"Well, tell it we just need a little jump in a minute to go where it's even safer," Maureen suggests.
"Think of home, Will," John adds. "Our new home, on Alpha Centauri."
"You can do it, Will," Judy says.
"Think of all those pretty scenes in the promotional videos," Penny adds. "Blue skies, green grass, horseback riding through the forests…"
"...yeah," Will says. "Yeah, I think that's working."
"Remember the pictures of our plot, Will?" Penny continues, encouraging. "That little lake in the southwestern corner, with the big tree we said we were gonna hang a rope off of so we could swing out over the water and jump in?"
Maureen smiles, glancing over at Don. "I didn't know about that," she murmurs, low enough to avoid getting picked up by the mic.
"It's good for kids to have secrets," he tells her in the same quiet tone. "Stuff that's just for them." A couple of foster homes he'd been in had been fishbowls, and he'd hated and resented every minute. The Robinsons are a stark contrast, encouraging independence and teamwork in equal measure, and the kids seem to thrive in it.
Don doesn't know if he's envious of the kids or grateful that they've all welcomed him in as they have, if only for a little while. Probably a little bit of both.
"Okay, I think we're far enough away," Maureen announces. "Will, can you ask the engine to jump?"
"...yeah," Will says, and there's no hesitation in his voice now.
Maren takes a deep breath. "On my mark. Three, two, one, mark!"
Space blooms into light ahead of them, tendrils reaching out to envelop the ship until Don winces and closes his eyes against the glare. There's a twisting sensation, then a lurch, and the light abruptly fades.
Don blinks against the abstract afterimages in his vision, trying to scan the sky, looking for something that can tell him where they are. Maureen is looking at the instrument panel, scanning the readings on the screens.
"...I think we're here," she breathes softly, then works the controls so that the ship rotates, a cluster of three suns wheeling into view, distant but distinct. "I think we made it!" She's laughing now, almost disbelievingly, like she can't imagine that their long ordeal is finally coming to an end.
Don's chest fills, with relief and something else he can't name, and he flips the switch to the communications array. "Alpha Centauri, this is the Jupiter 2, do you read?"
"We're still a ways out,' Maureen says. "I don't think they'll hear us for a few minutes. But we should be safe to move around." She looks to Don, concern dimming her smile. "I need to check on Will. Can you—"
"I'll hold the fort," he assures her. "Go on."
Will is fine, just tired. Judy makes him drink two full glasses of water and sends him straight to bed while the rest of them gather in the common room.
"We're about a month away from the colony at top speed from our standard engines," Maureen tells them. "We could ask the robot engine to get us there faster, but it would only cut our time in half, and… I'd rather not strain Will."
Judy and John nod agreement.
"A month is better than a year," Penny says, clearly not thrilled with the extra wait when they're already so close, but she's willing to make the best of it.
"Good news is that we have more than enough supplies to last us that long," Maureen continues, "and our plot is still ready for us when we arrive. The bad news is…" She turns to Don. "The Resolute has come and gone, and it needs repairs before it can return. So if you wanted to go back to your job, you've got a long wait. Maybe a year, maybe longer."
Don nods, something sinking in his belly. That's one option he doesn't have anymore. "Right. Okay." He lets out a breath. "That's not so bad. I guess I can find temporary housing, odd jobs around the colony, 'till the Resolute comes back…"
They're all staring at him.
"...what?" he asks.
"You don't want to stay with us?" Penny asks in a small voice.
"Aw, you guys don't want a couchsurfing bum underfoot while you're busy getting settled," he says shaking his head.
John looks deeply unimpressed. "We'd make you earn your keep," he says, and yep, Don is going to file that away for future reference, even if he knows John doesn't mean it like that.
"You've saved our lives how many times now?" Maureen asks. "It's the least we can do." Her hands are doing that thing again, twining and twisting in front of her.
"Hey, I was saving my own ass as much as yours," Don replies lightly, but it comes out weak. Why am I even arguing?
I don't want to wear out my welcome.
The realization slams into his sternum, and he barely keeps his breathing steady with the force of it. Because that's the thing, everyone gets tired of his shit eventually. Foster families, kids at school — he couldn't keep a roommate in college for more than a year. Even though he always had plenty of people he was friends with, they never stuck around for long, moving on or settling down in lives that no longer had room for him. So it was easier to keep moving himself, keep busy with whatever work he could find, and if his latest job on the Resolute made it hard to put down roots anywhere, that was fine, because he's never found a place — or people — that wanted him to stay.
And it's fine. It's fine. He's made his peace with it.
It just stings a little, to be offered this slice of a life that can never really be his, knowing he's going to have to walk away from it again.
Judy's frowning at him like she can see what he's thinking, and he schools his face back into neutrality. "Don't tell me you'll miss me, Princess."
Because she won't, he tells himself. She's going to be so busy being a doctor she won't notice he's gone.
"I will," she says simply. And that's—
Nope, nope. He's not going to let that sway him. "We'll still see each other around, I'm sure. I'm like a bad penny, or so I've been told." He glances at Penny. "No offense."
Maureen takes a deep breath. "There's something you're not factoring in," she says, like they're debating pros and cons, like it's a physics problem. "...I think we need to tell the kids." She glances at John, who nods.
"Yes, you should tell us," Penny says, perking up. "Tell us what?"
"What? No, why?" Don says, holding up his hands.
"Because it's relevant, Don," she says, exasperated. "Because we — I — want you to stay, and this is one reason why. And if we're inviting you to stay with us for a whole year or more on Alpha Centauri, the kids deserve to know."
"...oh, gross, was I right?" Penny says.
"No," Don tells her. "...kind of."
Judy stares at Don like the last puzzle piece has fallen into place. "You lied to me!"
"Technically, I did not," Don says. At Maureen's look of confusion, he admits, "Judy thought John was cheating on you with me. Penny thought you were the one cheating on him. I said that neither of them were right, and technically..."
John's short, sharp exhale draws everyone's attention. He's covering his eyes with one hand, and he's laughing.
"This isn't funny," Don says.
"It's a little funny," John says, still grinning.
Don looks to Maureen for help, only to find a crooked smile hovering around her mouth, too. "Our kids are too smart for our own good," she tells her husband. It doesn’t sound like the first time she’s said it.
"Uh, anybody want to fill me in?" Penny asks, raising her hand. "Even though I'm, like, ninety percent sure I'm going to hate the answer?"
"Okay, um." Maureen schools her face into seriousness for a second. "Your father and I have both grown very fond of Don—"
"–yep, nope, please stop talking," Penny interrupts. "I get it now." She folds her arms and drops her head into their cradle. "Gross," she says, quiet and muffled.
"So if Don lives with us, this is probably going to continue…" Judy muses.
"Possibly, yes," Maureen says. She looks to John, and he nods again. Then she looks at Don, questioning and uncertain. "If Don's okay with it." She bites her lip. "And— and, you know, if you say no, you're still welcome, that's not the only reason—"
Don gives in, lets himself believe, just for this second maybe, that she means it. That John means it. He looks at the girls. "Okay," he says. "But only if it's okay with the kids."
"It's fine, I guess," Penny says to the tabletop, but then her head pops up to glare at them. "But if I see any inappropriate PDA, I'm going to find the Alpha Centauri equivalent of poison ivy and stuff it in your underwear drawer."
"Noted," Don says, not smiling. Showing that he's taking her seriously. He turns to Judy.
She's chewing on her lower lip. "When the Resolute comes back, you'll leave?"
"I don't know," Don says. "They might not take me back." They might have discovered his smuggled goods and will want to throw him in jail, for all he knows. "We'll have to cross that bridge when we come to it."
She nods. "Okay. But we can't decide without Will. He gets a vote, too."
"You're right," Maureen agrees. "We'll talk to him after breakfast."
After the age-appropriate explanation John gives him the next morning (which Penny noped out of, dragging Judy away with her so they could commiserate), the only question WIll has is: “Is this like how my friend Tim has two moms?”
Maureen lets out a breath. “Kind of. Except your dad and I aren’t getting a divorce.”
“Wait, hang on,” Don says, because he's really not ready to Go There yet, “also, I’m not your second dad. Maybe like, a fun uncle or—” John rolls his eyes, and Don sees where Judy gets it from. “Whatever, you know, you can keep calling me Don. That’s all.”
“Okay,” Will says, and that’s that, apparently. “It’ll be cool for all of us to hang out when things have calmed down.”
Which Don definitely agrees with. He doesn’t care if it’s on Alpha Centauri or back on Earth; it’ll be a relief to be in a place where he’s not always worried about the next impending disaster or surviving while stranded several trillion miles away from the nearest human civilization.
“Absolutely,” he tells Will. “And you know what, I’m going to have a lot of time on my hands ‘till the Resolute comes back. How ‘bout you and I find a nice tree on your plot of land and we build a fort in it?”
Will looks interested, but hesitant. “....will I have to share it with Penny?”
Beside them, John chuckles. “Not if you don’t want to,” he says, with the weight of someone who deeply sympathizes. At Don’s curious glance, he explains, “I had three sisters.”
“Oh,” Don says. “That… explains a lot, really.”
“All good things,” Maureen assures John, looping her arms around his shoulders from where she’s standing behind him and bending down to kiss him above his ear. John smiles, chagrined, as if he’s heard that before.
And that’s another moment, another picture, that Don wants to take, and keep, and save.
ONE YEAR LATER
Don West is a man who knows his limitations. And one of them is, apparently, arriving anywhere on time when he has to get three Robinsons into a Chariot so they can all go into town together. "C'mon, c'mon, I have an appointment!"
"We know!" Penny says, bustling past him with three empty canvas tote bags slung over one arm and an overstuffed backpack in the other hand.
Don does a double-take. "What are you bringing, you're only going to the market!"
"Copies of my book!" Penny says, beaming over her shoulder and practically skipping. "The bookseller said—"
"Right, right," Don says. "I forgot, she sold out last week."
"Sorry," Maureen says, somehow still typing on her tablet as she navigates from her office — formerly Judy's room — to the door. "I had an idea for the defense grid for my presentation today, and I—”
"Type later, walk now," Don says, pressing his hand into the small of her back to hurry her along.
As if she's trying to drive him crazy, Maureen stops and kisses him instead of going faster. "You'll do fine," she says with a warm smile. "We won't be late. We have plenty of time."
"Easy for you to say, you—" Don catches movement over her shoulder and immediately starts shaking his head. "No, no, absolutely not, Will, he is staying home."
Will looks at Robot, then gives Don an outraged look. "But I promised—"
"Nope, not today. You are not jinxing this for me, and every time he goes into town, something happens. No."
"Besides, I need him to help me work on the house," John says, coming in from the kitchen, a line of soap suds ringing his forearm. "Unless you still want to be living out of the Jupiter when the rainy season rolls around."
"Ugh, no," Will says. "I guess you're staying here today," he tells the Robot, whose head droops in disappointment.
"Sorry, buddy," Don tells the Robot, because it never hurts to stay in the guy's good graces. Will's been teaching him pranks. "I just got a lot riding on today."
John comes over and gives Don a kiss, too, one hand steady and sure on Don's arm. "Remember, we got your back."
"Yeah," Don says, nodding. "Yeah, okay."
And then they're all piling in the Chariot, heading into town.
Don hasn't been this nervous since his thesis defense.
He sits in a narrow plastic chair in the municipal building's waiting room, feeling itchy and uncomfortable. He rubs his palms down the legs of his trousers, wondering if he's dressed okay. Colonial fashion is a bit more relaxed than Earth's, and the market doesn't have a wide selection, but Judy had assured him when she helped him pick out this outfit that it would be fine, so—
"Mr. West?" the secretary calls from her desk, one hand on her headset where it curls out from under her emerald green headscarf. He gets to his feet without even thinking about it. "The governor will see you now."
He takes half a step back, almost falling into the chair when it hits him behind the knees. "The governor?" he asks. "I thought I was—"
The secretary smiles, not unkindly. She's seen a lot of him over the last few months. He even knows how she likes her tea, because it pays to make nice with the people everybody else overlooks. "You don't want to keep her waiting," she says.
"Yeah, yeah. Thanks, Faizah." He heads to the door she points at.
"Good luck, Don," she whispers before he opens the door, giving him a thumbs-up.
He gives her an unsteady smile and heads in.
The office beyond is not as big and ostentatious as he expects — the desk is standard prefab size, and the fanciest thing about the room is the view out the wall-to-wall windows, showing the whole spread of the capitol. Which, okay, isn't a massive city or anything, but it's still the largest settlement on the planet, so it's a nice sight.
The biggest surprise is that the governor isn't alone. "Uh, hi," Don says. "I'm Don West, I'm here about—"
"We know who you are," Captain Radic says, looking unhappy.
"Yes, please take a seat, Don," Governor Li says, giving Radic a quelling glance. She's a petite, curvy woman he's seen in passing a few times, but they've never been introduced before. So he's not sure why she's involved, here...
Don sits. The chair in front of her desk is more comfortable than the one in the waiting room, but not by much. He tries not to fidget with his jacket.
"We've reviewed your records," Li tells him, glancing at the tablet she has on her desk, "and there's been some debate what to do with you. On the one hand, you were instrumental in helping Colonial Group Twenty-Four arrive here safely after they got attacked and stranded on an unknown planet, you helped acquire a second jump drive so that we could build a sister ship to the Resolute, and you and the Robinson family have saved the colony from not one but two disasters since landing here."
"One of those being an entire fleet of hostile alien robots," Don supplies, because he's a helpful guy, and it never hurts to get the details right.
"On the other hand," Radic says in a dour tone, "you ran a smuggling operation on my ship for three years, as best as I can tell, and then abandoned your post at the first sign of trouble."
"Quite the colorful history," Li comments dryly, the amused quirk to her lips the only thing keeping Don from total internal panic. "So you see why I wanted to handle this personally."
"Sure, sure," Don says, aiming for casual. "Did you, uh, come to a verdict?"
"We did," Li tells him. "And it seems, Mr. West, that you have a choice to make…"
"So I can go back to Earth — my retirement fund isn't quite at 'private island' rich, but I could do all right," Don says, setting out plates and napkins on the table while Will follows him with the silverware. "Or I could sign back on to the Resolute… well, no, not the Resolute, because Radic doesn't want me working on his ship ever again, which I take kinda personal… but I could get a job on the second ship they're building, make my ten trips and sign on to the next colonial group after that."
"But the Defiant won't be finished until next year," Maureen says, putting the salad bowl in the center of the table. "So it would take, what, three years before you'd be back?"
"And I'd be under close supervision the whole time I'm on the Defiant," Don says wryly. "It's like they don't trust me or something."
"That's a shame," Judy interjects from where she's pulling rolls from the oven, "what good is being a hero if you can't keep making an illicit profit on the side?"
"Hey, I have been an upstanding temporary citizen of this colony ever since we landed here," Don says. He's hoping she'll forget the time he caused a bidding war that ended in a bar brawl when he sold off his second-to-last bottle of whiskey, but from the raised eyebrow she gives him, she hasn't.
"So those are your options?" John asks, bringing over the platter of pork chops.
"Well, no," Don says. "Li also said I could pay the fine and stay here. Apparently saving everybody's lives is fair exchange for a fast-track to citizenship, but Radic insisted I pay the penalty."
"How much is it?" Penny asks.
"...kind of a lot," Don admits.
"Okay, pros and cons," Maureen says.
Don can't help the smile that spreads across his face. "No need. I already made my decision. I paid the fine."
"...but your retirement fund?" Judy asks.
"Alpha Centauri is as good a place to retire as any," Don says breezily. "And I've still got a little left over, enough to get by."
"Oh my god!" Penny says, launching herself at him. He barely has time to brace himself before she's squeezing the breath out of him. Then everyone's crowded around him, laughing and talking over each other in a joyous cacophony so bright his head rings with it.
(There is a decision they can do their pros-and-cons tradition with. They may not have Orkney Island peat on Alpha Centauri, but they do have temperate weather, sunny hillsides, and grape varieties from all over Earth in the colonial seed vault. And Don does already know his way around a still. But starting a vineyard is something he can bring up later.
He has plenty of time.)
— End —