Winter(6)

By: Marissa Meyer



While Cinder couldn’t imagine him abdicating his throne and setting off on a lifetime of space travel and adventure, it was rather adorable watching him try to fit in.

“I was kidding,” she said. “Engine rooms are supposed to be dirty.” She examined the filter again and, deeming it satisfactory, twisted it back into the cylinder and bolted it all in place. The humming started up again, but the pebble clatter was gone.

Cinder squirmed feetfirst out from beneath the module and ductwork. Still crouching, Kai peered down at her and smirked. “Iko’s right. You really can’t stay clean for more than five minutes.”

“It’s part of the job description.” She sat up, sending a cascade of lint off her shoulders.

Kai brushed some of the larger chunks from her hair. “Where did you learn to do all this, anyway?”

“What, that? Anyone can clean an oxygen filter.”

“Trust me, they can’t.” He settled his elbows on his knees and let his attention wander around the engine room. “You know what all this does?”

She followed the look—every wire, every manifold, every compression coil—and shrugged. “Pretty much. Except for that big, rotating thing in the corner. Can’t figure it out. But how important could it be?”

Kai rolled his eyes.

Grasping a pipe, Cinder hauled herself to her feet and shoved the wrench back into her pocket. “I didn’t learn it anywhere. I just look at things and figure out how they work. Once you know how something works, you can figure out how to fix it.”

She tried to shake the last bits of dust from her hair, but there seemed to be an endless supply.

“Oh, you just look at something and figure out how it works,” Kai deadpanned, standing beside her. “Is that all?”

Cinder fixed her ponytail and shrugged, suddenly embarrassed. “It’s just mechanics.”

Kai scooped an arm around her waist and pulled her against him. “No, it’s impressive,” he said, using the pad of his thumb to brush something off Cinder’s cheek. “Not to mention, weirdly attractive,” he said, before capturing her lips.

Cinder tensed briefly, before melting into the kiss. The rush was the same every time, coupled with surprise and a wave of giddiness. It was their seventeenth kiss (her brain interface was keeping a tally, somewhat against her will), and she wondered if she would ever get used to this feeling. Being desired, when she’d spent her life believing no one would ever see her as anything but a bizarre science experiment.

Especially not a boy.

Especially not Kai, who was smart and honorable and kind, and could have had any girl he wanted. Any girl.

She sighed against him, leaning into the embrace. Kai reached for an overhead pipe and pressed Cinder against the main computer console. She offered no resistance. Though her body wouldn’t allow her to blush, there was an unfamiliar heat that flooded every inch of her when he was this close. Every nerve ending sparked and thrummed, and she knew he could kiss her another seventeen thousand times and she would never grow tired of it.

She tied her arms around his neck, molding their bodies together. The warmth of his chest seeped into her clothes. It felt nothing but right. Nothing but perfect.

But then there was the feeling, always lurking, always ready to cloud her contentment. The knowledge that this couldn’t last.

Not so long as Kai was engaged to Levana.

Angry at the thought’s invasion, she kissed Kai harder, but her thoughts continued to rebel. Even if they succeeded and Cinder was able to reclaim her throne, she would be expected to stay on Luna as their new queen. She was no expert, but it seemed problematic to carry on a relationship on two different planets—

Er, a planet and a moon.

Or whatever.

The point was, there would be 384,000 kilometers of space between her and Kai, which was a lot of space, and—

Kai smiled, breaking the kiss. “What’s wrong?” he murmured against her mouth.

Cinder leaned back to look at him. His hair was getting longer, bordering on unkempt. As a prince, he’d always been groomed to near perfection. But then he became an emperor. The weeks since his coronation had been spent trying to stop a war, hunt down a wanted fugitive, avoid getting married, and endure his own kidnapping. As a result, haircuts became a dispensable luxury.

She hesitated before asking, “Do you ever think about the future?”

His expression turned wary. “Of course I do.”

“And … does it include me?”

His gaze softened. Releasing the overhead pipe, he tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “That depends on whether I’m thinking about the good future or the bad one.”

Cinder tucked her head under his chin. “As long as one of them does.”

“This is going to work,” Kai said, speaking into her hair. “We’re going to win.”

She nodded, glad he couldn’t see her face.

Defeating Levana and becoming Luna’s queen was only the beginning of an entire galaxy’s worth of worries. She so badly wanted to stay like this, cocooned in this spaceship, together and safe and alone … but that was the opposite of what was going to happen. Once they overthrew Levana, Kai would go back to being the emperor of the Eastern Commonwealth and, someday, he was going to need an empress.

She might have a blood claim to Luna and the hope that the Lunar people would choose anyone over Levana, even a politically inept teenager who was made up of 36.28 percent cybernetic and manufactured materials. But she had seen the prejudices of the people in the Commonwealth. Something told her they wouldn’t be as accepting of her as a ruler.

She wasn’t even sure she wanted to be empress. She was still getting used to the idea of being a princess.

“One thing at a time,” she whispered, trying to still her swirling thoughts.

Kai kissed her temple (which her brain did not count as #18), then pulled away. “How’s your training going?”

“Fine.” She disentangled herself from his arms and glanced around the engine. “Oh, hey, while you’re here, can you help me with this?” Cinder scooted around him and opened a panel on the wall, revealing a bundle of knotted wires.

“That was a subtle change of subject.”

“I am not changing the subject,” she said, although a forced clearing of her throat negated her denial. “I’m rewiring the orbital defaults so the ship’s systems will run more efficiently while we’re coasting. These cargo ships are made for frequent landings and takeoffs, not the constant—”

“Cinder.”

She pursed her lips and unplugged a few wire connectors. “Training is going fine,” she repeated. “Could you hand me the wire cutters on the floor?”

Kai scanned the ground, then grabbed two tools and held them up.

“Left hand,” she said. He handed them to her. “Sparring with Wolf has gotten a lot easier. Although it’s hard to tell if that’s because I’m getting stronger, or because he’s … you know.”

She didn’t have a word for it. Wolf had been a shadow of his former self since Scarlet had been captured. The only thing holding him together was his determination to get to Luna and rescue her as soon as possible.

“Either way,” she added, “I think he’s taught me as much about using my Lunar gift as he’s going to be able to. From here on, I’ll have to wing it.” She examined the mess of wires, aligning it with a diagram over her retina display. “Not like that hasn’t been my primary tactic this whole time.” She furrowed her brow and made a few snips. “Here, hold these wires and don’t let them touch.”

Edging against her, Kai took hold of the wires she indicated. “What happens if they touch?”

“Oh, probably nothing, but there’s a small chance the ship would self-destruct.” Pulling out two of the fresh-cut wires, she began to twist them together into a new sequence.

Kai hardly breathed until she’d taken one of the threatening wires out of his grip. “Why don’t you practice on me?” he said.

“Practice what?”

“You know. Your mind-manipulation thing.”

She paused with the cutters hovering over a blue wire. “Absolutely not.”

“Why?”

“I said I’d never manipulate you, and I’m sticking with that.”

“It isn’t manipulation if I know you’re doing it.” He hesitated. “At least, I don’t think so. We could use a code word, so I’ll know when you’re controlling me. Like … what were those called again?”

“Wire cutters?”

“Like wire cutters.”

“No.”

“Or something else.”

“I’m not practicing on you.” Slipping the cutters into her pocket, she finished splicing the rest of the wires and relieved Kai of his duty. “There, we’ll see how that goes.”

“Cinder, I have nothing better to do. Literally, nothing better to do. My time on this ship has taught me that I have zero practical skills. I can’t cook. I can’t fix anything. I can’t help Cress with surveillance. I know nothing about guns or fighting or … Mostly, I’m just a good talker, and that’s only useful in politics.”

“Let’s not overlook your ability to make every girl swoon with just a smile.”

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