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Jim Hawkins knew he should be happy.  He had graduated from the Academy in record time, with flying colors, and-- most importantly to his mother-- without a single spot on his disciplinary record.  (This was somewhat less because he didn't ever goof off, and more because he was much better at avoiding being caught.  But she didn't have to know that.)  She was happy for him, just like all the rest of them at the Benbow that evening. . . B.E.N., Doppler, Captain Amelia, all his friends.  They knew he had done the right thing, that his life was now headed in the right direction.  That was exactly why he should be happy, too.

"I am happy," he muttered as he turned over in bed.

"Am happy, am happy!" a small voice chittered.  Jim opened one eye and looked up at his pet shapeshifter.

"Go to sleep, Morph."  He really was happy to be with his pet again.  He had tried keeping Morph a secret in his dorm room for a while, but it was impossible to keep Morph still, or quiet, for very long.  Jim's only friend in that unfamiliar place got sent home, and Jim was left to face the Academy on his own.

That's over now, he thought, keeping silent this time so as not to excite his pet.  Morph settled down on the pillow next to Jim's, flattening out slightly as he gave a sigh of contentment.  I can captain my own ship now.  I can take any mission, make my name, be a hero. . . .  His hand involuntarily drifted to the back of his neck.  I can grow my damn hair back out again.

Morph made a soft cooing sound and shifted slightly.  Jim glanced at him; the little blob was already asleep.  Animals were so lucky, even highly intelligent ones like Morph.  Sleep and peace came easily to them-- they didn't have to think.

Jim got out of bed as quietly as he could and tiptoed downstairs.  The inn was quiet; the guests were all in bed.  B.E.N. was supposed to keep watch at night, but Jim knew from past visits home that the neurotic robot would have drifted into standby mode in some secluded corner.  Jim suspected that his mother knew what a poor guard B.E.N. really made, a suspicion that was confirmed when he had to un-double-bolt the door to get outside.

Looking up at the stars on the way, Jim walked slowly down the pier that extended from the rocks near the inn.  Crescentia, Montressor's space port, was just beginning to "rise" over the horizon; Jim watched it wistfully as he came to a stop at the end of the pier.

That was where his future lay, to be sure.  But he seemed to see two paths in that direction.  One was the way everyone expected of him: clean living, modest fame, a good reputation.  The kind of future his mother wanted for him.

The other path was excitement, adventure, danger.  The same path his father had taken.

I can't do that to her, he thought as he remembered standing on that pier at another time years ago, watching his father sail out of his life as his mother sobbed in the inn.  It would break her heart.  Probably break his heart too; it had certainly cracked a few times during his one taste of that life, on the Legacy.

Still, thoughts of that shadow path nagged at him, telling him it wouldn't be the same as with his father.  You'll see her again; you won't just leave and never come back.  And there was some woman involved for him, had to have been.  You saw enough of his type at the Academy to know that.  There's no one making you want to leave, no one but yourself.

Maybe that wasn't entirely true.

You could see the stars, you and Morphy, a voice inside him murmured.   And then you could come back and do what you call the right thing.  Your mother can manage; she managed perfectly well while you were at the Academy.  You'll have the rest of your life to do what she wants. . . do what you want now.

"But I charted my own course," Jim whispered into the sea breeze, arguing with the allure of the shadow path.  "I chose the Academy.  I didn't pick this life because Mom wanted me to.  I chose for myself."

Maybe you chose wrong.

Jim's eyes traced the curve of the space port's crescent.  It won't hurt to have a look, he thought.  No one expects me to start working immediately-- I could take a vacation at least.  Stars know, I've earned it.

Yes, he decided as he turned and walked back towards the inn, he'd take Morph with him and spend a few days on Crescentia.  A working vacation, he could call it, a chance to check out the available ships, fish around for a crew and clients, and get used to not having to spend every spare moment studying.  Maybe that would silence the shadow that pleaded so prettily.  Then he could get on with the course he had charted.

The course that felt so wrong.


"But you just got here!"  It was the protest Jim had expected.  Sarah Hawkins delivered it even as she shoveled his plate full of eggs and bacon.  Jim had passed a mostly sleepless night and had gotten up early to have a bite in the kitchen. . . and to disclose to his mother his plan of traveling to the space port.  Sarah had insisted, however, that he sit in the dining room and let her serve him a real breakfast.

"I know, Mom, but. . . well, I've got to decide where I want to go from here, and. . . ."  He looked up helplessly at his mother, who was watching him with a half-amused, half-skeptical face, arms folded across her chest.

"And that's not a decision you can make here?"

"N-no, I have to see what ships are available, and crews, and, well, work. . . ."  In his agitation, Jim got up and started pacing back and forth in front of the table.

"Is that all that's bothering you?"

Jim stopped pacing and looked at her.  Amazing how well she could still read him, even after all his time away from home.  Should he tell her?  No. . . how could he?  How could he say that the time and expense spent on the Academy might as well have been for nothing?

"Yeah, Mom, that's all."  He made himself sit down and start eating his breakfast.  "I'm just excited."

"Well, that's understandable."  She gave him a little smile and went to take the orders of the first guests who had drifted down to breakfast.

Jim thought he was off the hook-- until he came downstairs an hour later carrying his bags, Morph riding happily on his shoulder.  He had already said goodbye to B.E.N. after breakfast; the robot had cried profusely and hugged Jim until he thought he would pop.  B.E.N. had then blithely gone back to washing dishes, the crisis apparently over.

Sarah met Jim at the door, wearing her skeptical face again.  This time, though, it was tinged with concern.

"Jim, can I speak plainly?"

Uh oh.  That doesn't sound good.  "Sure, Mom."

"Ever since you came back from that treasure hunt of yours, I've gotten the feeling that you're. . . looking for something.  Is there another treasure out there you haven't told your old mother about?"  She smiled, but Jim knew it was just to hide her worry.

"No, Mom-- at least not that I've heard of."  He matched her attempt at humor, "So if you had secret plans to add a new wing on the Benbow, you'd better hold off."

"I thought you'd find it, whatever it is, at the Academy," she went on.  "But. . . now I see that you haven't."  She reached up to stroke his cheek gently.  Morph studied the motion a moment, then pressed up against the back of Sarah's hand, cooing.  She gave the shapeshifter a watery smile.

"I'm going to miss you too, you little terror."

"Mom, we'll only be gone a few days.  You won't have time to miss us."  Inside of him, something cringed.  But it wasn't a lie. . . was it?

She seemed to think that it was.  Sarah blinked back tears and turned away.  "You'd better get going.  If you miss the morning shuttle, you'll have to wait until late afternoon."

"Mom-- why don't you keep Morph here with you?" Jim asked abruptly.  He didn't want to make the offer; he had already been separated from Morph, and from all that he stood for, for too long.  But Jim felt that he had to do something to make up for. . . running away.

"No, take him with you.  I'll get along fine with B.E.N. and the Dopplers around."  Sarah glanced back at him with a genuine smile this time.  "I know that little fellow is special to you.  And he missed you so much-- I wouldn't want to separate you two again."

"All right."  On impulse, Jim gave her a tight hug, as tight as those he had given when he was a little kid.  "Love you, Mom."

"I love you too."  She kissed his cheek, then gave him a little shove towards the door.  "Go on now, before I decide to put you back to work."

On the shuttle to the space port, Jim stroked Morph absently as he looked out the window at the planet growing smaller beneath them.  Sarah was right; Morph was special to him.  Jim felt a little guilty about it: as much as he cared about Morph himself, there was another reason he was so attached to the little shapeshifter.

Jim loved him because he had been a gift from Silver.  Not just any gift either-- Silver had given up the one companion he could have on his trip into exile.  The handful of gold and jewels that had rebuilt the Benbow was an impressive gift to be sure, but Jim knew that even every bit of Flint's treasure didn't matter as much to Silver as Morph did.

And he gave you to me, Jim thought, not speaking aloud to his pet since the other shuttle passengers might have thought that a bit odd.  I gave him his freedom, and he gave me the only thing he had to love.  As always, the thought gave Jim a warm feeling in his chest, a sensation that had gotten him through many a rigorous training session and lonely night at the Academy.

After the shuttle landed on Crescentia, Jim wandered around in blissful aimlessness, delighted at being a free man again.  No dormitory curfew, no chores at the inn-- just him and Morph and a hundred beautiful ships.  For the moment at least, the two paths he had imagined the previous night converged into one.  Whatever his destiny, he would find it in Crescentia.

Jim spent the rest of the day walking along the docks with Morph, talking very little but listening carefully to the chatter around him.  He used the same strategy that evening in the common room of the inn where he booked a room for the night.  By the time he went to bed, he had learned that jobs were few and far between at the moment.  There was an abundance of crews, a shortage of ships, and not enough work to go around.  Not exactly what Jim had wanted to hear.

Nevertheless, it wasn't all bad news.  A couple months before his graduation, Jim had heard that a previously unexplored planet had made interstellar contact for the first time.  It had turned out that the planet, called Spira by its inhabitants, possessed a fairly advanced civilization whose elaborate air ships had finally been outfitted for space travel.  The Spirans were reportedly rather surprised to find a bustling galaxy just outside their system.

Now, as Jim learned from his eavesdropping in the inn, regular flights were being made to Spira to work out the beginnings of a trade system.  There wasn't much in the way of employment yet in the industry since negotiations were in their first stages, but transport to the planet was almost constant.

"That's what we'll do, Morph," Jim murmured as he lay in bed, Morph on the pillow beside him.  "We'll go check out this planet-- there's bound to be all kinds of cool things to do there. . . things no one from this part of the galaxy has seen before!"

"Before," Morph agreed.

Then Jim remembered his mother.  He winced and turned over restlessly.  He had told her he would only be gone a few days, and although Spira was fairly close, it was still a two day voyage away.  He would have a day at most to explore the planet before he would have to head for home.

Unless, of course, he made his words to her a lie.

I'll just go for a day, he told himself firmly.  I'll take a quick look around to see what's there, then come home.  I can always go back if there's any kind of opportunity there.  Jim pushed away the intuition that he was lying to himself as well as to Sarah, and tried to sleep.

 

With some careful questioning the next morning, Jim found out that a merchant ship was starting out for Spira that day.  The captain was willing to allow Jim (and Morph) aboard as a passenger for a fee and Jim's assurance that he could help out if the ship ran into any trouble.

There was no trouble, however, and two days later the ship arrived at the newly-constructed space port in Spira.  The port was small, with room enough for only a handful of ships.  The captain told Jim that it was located just outside Luca, Spira's largest city.

As Jim and Morph disembarked, he saw a particularly handsome middle-aged man come forward to greet the captain.  He seemed to be human, although he was striking in appearance, with almost shoulder-length straight golden hair, tanned skin, and very green eyes.  Jim looked around the port, noticing several other people with the same coloring.  There were also a number of other humans, a couple elf-like creatures with pointed ears and wild hair, and quite a few short blue people who looked like anthropomorphic frogs.

Jim wandered out of the port into the city of Luca.  It was packed with people, most of them of the races Jim had already noted, although a few were from other worlds.  Many of the people seemed to be heading for a large stadium on the south side of the city, but Jim was more interested in finding a place to rest after his trip.

"We'll only have one day here," he told Morph as he threaded his way through the crowd, the shapeshifter clinging to his shoulder.  "We'll have to leave day after tomorrow to make it home in time."  Morph chortled and turned into a tiny approximation of one of the blue frog creatures.

Jim went into the first inn they came to.  Despite the crowds of people outside, the common room was deserted.  The only sign of life was a single girl at the desk, her back to Jim as she rearranged an assortment of ledgers and books on shelves behind the desk.  She had blonde hair of a lighter shade than most of the other people he had seen, arranged in two loops at the sides of her head that covered her ears.  When she half-turned to frown at the arrangement of books, he saw the profile of a pretty face with large hazel eyes and a pert, upturned nose.

"Uh, excuse me, miss."  She didn't seem to have noticed Jim when he came in, and she paid him no attention now.

"Miss?  Hello?" Jim tried, speaking louder.  When he still didn't get a response, he rolled his eyes and started to turn away.  Morph, however, had other plans.  The little blob floated over towards the girl, eyeing her adoringly.  After a second of apparent thought, he snuggled up against her cheek.

"Ahh!" she shrieked in surprise, taking a step backwards and throwing up her hands.  When she turned, Jim saw that they weren't hands at all; she had a tentacle growing from each shoulder instead of arms.

"Oh!" the girl sighed with relief when she saw Morph, whose tiny lower lip was quivering.  "You're just a little guy.  I'm sorry!"  She cupped one tentacle under him and stroked the top of his head with the other.  She had four pairs of suckers at the end of tentacle; Morph cooed and rubbed against the upper set.

"Sorry if he scared you," Jim said loudly, moving closer to the desk.  The girl looked at him with a small, embarrassed smile.  Her hazel eyes had oddly shaped pupils, horizontal bars.  An octopus' eyes.

"It's okay; I should have been paying attention.  I don't hear that well, so I didn't realize anyone had come in."

"Do you have any rooms free?" Jim asked the girl.  "I need one for a couple nights."

She gave Morph a final pat, then deposited him on the desk.  "Wow, you're really lucky.  Normally we're booked solid when there's a concert, but someone cancelled just a few minutes ago."  She turned to a computer of some sort on the desk.  "What's your name?"

"James Hawkins.  And Morph," he added with a chuckle as he looked down at his pet.  Morph was still giving the girl a love-struck gaze.

"All right, James Hawkins and Morph, you've got yourselves a room."  She gave him a quick smile and smoothed down a stray bit of hair with a tentacle.  "You going to the concert?"

"Concert?  I, uh, didn't know about it."

The girl's eyes widened.  "You must be from off-world if you haven't heard-- it's the first time Lady Yuna's given a concert in over a year!  That's why there are so many people in Luca today."  Before Jim could ask who Lady Yuna was, the girl sighed mournfully and went on, "I wish I could go, but the inn's owner is making an inspection today.  I don't know why he has to pick today of all days, but we all have to be here.  It's so stupid."

"I had no idea my staff was so unhappy with me," a deep, heavily accented voice said from behind Jim.  The girl looked up, eyes widening in shock and cheeks flushing a pretty red.

"L-Lord Rin!  I'm sorry, I didn't hear you come in!"

Jim turned to see the same man who had greeted his ship upon its arrival.  The blond man smiled at the girl and chuckled.

"It's all right.  I didn't even think about the concert when I scheduled the inspection."  He walked over to the desk, giving Jim a dazzlingly white smile as he passed.  He wore a yellow, lace-trimmed shirt left open to expose a toned chest, at which Jim tried not to stare as he passed.  "You can go on to the concert if you'd like, Tavia.  I'm sure our cook and the barkeep can handle me."

"Really?  Oh wow, thanks!"  The girl dashed out from behind the desk and threw her tentacles around Rin.  Jim saw the tips of more tentacles, these clad in leather sheaths, emerging in the place of feet from beneath the pale blue skirt of her dress and the ruffled white apron she wore over it.  After she released Rin, who was now the one to flush as the buxom girl embraced him, Tavia grinned excitedly at Jim.

"Leave your stuff behind the desk-- you're coming to the concert with me!  You've got to see Lady Yuna sing!"

"Looks like I don't have a choice," Jim chuckled, but he didn't really mind.  Tavia's enthusiasm was catching, and his exhaustion from the trip seemed to melt away.

He followed her outside into the crowd with Morph after securing his bag.  "Who's Lady Yuna, anyway?"

"Only the most famous person on Spira!  I'd never heard of her either before I came here, but she saved the whole world from some big monster, or something like that.  She's really pretty, and everyone says she sings like an angel!  The last time she gave a concert was before I came here, so I've never gotten to see her."

"Why did you come here?" Jim asked as they made their way to the stadium.  "There don't seem to be many off-worlders around."

She shrugged.  "I'm from a really small planet, Moana, and it's hard to find work there.  So my family sent me out into space to find a job somewhere else.  I came here because I figured there would be lots of work to do, with it being newly contacted and all."  She giggled lightly.  "Boy was I right-- I stopped at the inn for the night, and Lord Rin offered me a job as a maid right away."

"Who is this Lord Rin?"  They had reached the stadium, where Tavia insisted on paying for his ticket in addition to hers.

"Ia, you're full of questions!  Lord Rin owns a whole bunch of inns, all over Spira.  He calls them 'travel agencies.'  He's an Al Bhed."

"Al Bhed?  Wait, let me guess-- they're all blond."

"Yup!  They come from the desert.  We also have a Hypello working at the inn as a bartender-- they're the blue ones that look like frogs and talk with a lisp.  He actually used to work on Lady Yuna's airship!  And then there's the Guado. . . ."

Jim tuned out the chattering Octopid girl as they found their seats.  Because they had bought tickets at the last minute, the seats weren't the best; they were high up at the very edge of the stadium.  However, huge video monitors gave even them a clear view of the stage.  Morph had transferred himself from Jim's shoulder to Tavia's and was gazing up at her contentedly, occasionally mimicking a word or two.

Jim hoped there wasn't another major event planned for the next day; it was hard to get a clear impression of Spira when something out of the ordinary was happening.  At least he had a friend now who could tell him about the planet in more detail, and being an off-worlder herself, she was likely to be more objective than a native Spiran.

"So James, why are you here?" Tavia asked, bringing him back to the present.

"Call me Jim," he corrected automatically.  "I just graduated from school, and I'm looking for a ship and crew. . . and work," he added with a chuckle.

"Wow, you're a spacer?  That's so cool."  She started playing with Morph, juggling him from one tentacle to another.

"Well, I've only been on one real voyage," he admitted, "but I have the education for it, anyway.  I could have gone into the Navy, but military life. . . ick."

"Ick!" Morph agreed.

"Why'd you come to Spira then?"

Jim shrugged and grinned.  "Not many off-worlders have been here yet.  I like to be the first to know about a place."

Tavia started to reply, but a sudden roar from the crowd silenced her.  She looked up and pointed excitedly at the video monitor.  "There she is!" she screamed over the noise.

Jim looked at the monitor too.  A slender girl with short brown hair and a rat-tail that reached the ground had appeared on the stage.  When she looked up at the cameras filming her, he saw that one eye was blue and the other was the bright green of the Al Bhed.  She was pretty all right, but she seemed too meek to be a global hero.  Two other girls followed her onto the stage, one tall with platinum hair and the other a petite Al Bhed with a mass of golden braids.

Every single voice in the stadium fell silent when Lady Yuna began to sing.  Tavia was enthralled, tapping her foot-tentacles to the music.  Jim, however, was not overly impressed.  Yuna's voice was nice enough, but the songs were bouncy pop music with a thread of techno, definitely not his style.  He began studying the people around him instead of listening to the music, wondering at first which ones might be able to help him find a job.  Soon, though, his thoughts shifted to wondering which ones were truly happy.  Was there anyone in the crowd who felt like he did-- discontent and so very alone?

Jim's attention was finally drawn back to the girl on the stage when she began singing the last song of the performance.  It was slower and more heart-felt than the others, and to Jim, much more beautiful.

Life was a mystery until you came to me, with time unraveling and traveling on. . . .

He watched Yuna closely as she sang; the song seemed to have special meaning to her, as if she were singing it for someone.  Maybe she was the one who felt like he did; maybe Spira's heroine was as lonely as he.  Morph left Tavia's side and snuggled up on Jim's shoulder, cooing.

I will remember you taught me well, and every day the words you said will stay with me. . . .  I will remember you were my friend, and I believe the words you said will stay with me.

Jim's hand went to Morph involuntarily, cupping over the little shapeshifter as he felt tears prick his eyes.

"Wow, what a gorgeous song!" Tavia exclaimed after the applause for Lady Yuna had died down enough for her to be heard.  "Don't you think so, Jim?"  She looked more closely at him.  "Jim?  Are you okay?"

"Yeah."  Nevertheless, he looked away from her as he muttered, "It just reminded me of someone."

"I see."  Tavia gave him an eerily penetrating look through her slit pupils, then she stood up and wrapped a tentacle over his arm.  "I'd better get back to the inn before Lord Rin sends out a search party for me.  Why don't you come back too?  It's almost dinner time."

"Dinner time!" Morph cried happily, shifting into a spoon.

Jim chuckled, trying to push away the melancholy lingering over him.  "Looks like Morph thinks you have the right idea."

Most of the other concert-goers were still in their seats, watching the stage or video monitor, as Jim followed Tavia out of the stadium.  He glanced up at the monitor as they passed and saw a young blonde man, about his own age, approaching Lady Yuna with an armful of roses.  She ran into his arms, scattering the flowers everywhere.

So that's who she was singing for, Jim thought.  He looked away as the audience cheered for the couple, jealous of her happiness and almost sorry that she wasn't lonely like he had imagined.  What right does she have to sing a song like that, when she's so happy?

But then, what right did he have to be miserable and to wish other people's happiness away?  Telling himself firmly to snap out of it, he walked with Tavia back to the inn.

 

By the time Jim, Morph, and Tavia returned to the inn, a few other guests were gathering in the common room for dinner.  Tavia scooped up Jim's bag from behind the desk and started up the stairs with it.

"Grab yourself a seat-- I'll carry this up to your room."

Sarah had trained Jim far too well for him to allow a girl to carry his luggage.  "Oh no, you don't."  He snatched it away and gave her the most charming grin he could muster.  "You go take care of your guests!"

Tavia chuckled.  "Aye aye, captain sir."  She dropped his room key in his hand.  "It's on the second floor, first door to the left.  Number three.  But hurry up-- once everyone gets back from the concert, you'll have a hard time getting a table!"

Jim hauled his bag up the stairs with Morph tugging helpfully on the handle.  His room was small but very clean, decorated in the technologically-savvy style of Luca-- certainly a difference from the cozy, nautical-themed rooms of the Benbow.  Morph took to bouncing on the bed as Jim stowed his bag in a cabinet then went to wash his face in the bathroom.

Looking at his dripping face in the mirror, Jim noticed that he really didn't look any different than he had as a cabin boy.  A little older maybe, but not by much.  He still had the same slender build that had gotten him teased (and into a couple fights) at the Academy.  His regulation haircut helped, but nevertheless, he couldn't wait until his hair grew out again.

Jim glanced out the room's single window as he scooped up Morph and deposited him on his shoulder.  The streets were now packed with people leaving the concert, quite a few of them streaming into the inn.  As much as Jim liked the bustle of port cities, he wasn't exactly comfortable with Luca.  There were too many people, and they seemed too set in their own schedules and ways of life.  He wanted an ever-changing flow of people around him, not a business-focused routine.

Well, there's got to be more to Spira than Luca, he told himself as he and Morph descended the stairs back to the common room.  It won't all be just like this.

Tavia was right; the room was already crowded by the time Jim returned.  He took a seat at the bar, ordering only a glass of water when the Hypello bartender approached him.

"You're shure?" the blue fellow asked.

"Shure?"  Morph seemed fascinated by the Hypello's accent.

"Yes, thanks."

A moment later, Tavia came by to take his order.  "What would you like?  Tonight we have stew, fried Sallet claws, or Chocobo-Eater steaks."

"Uh, I'll take the stew."  Stars knew what was in it though, judging from the mysterious names of the other items on the menu.

Jim watched the crowd silently as he waited for his meal.  They were mostly humans, and all were dressed in the garb of Spirans.  Apparently, there really weren't many off-worlders on the planet yet.  Like Tavia had, Jim suspected that this meant plenty of opportunities for work.

"Tomorrow we'll check out a neighboring town or two," he told Morph, who was drawing pictures in the condensation on the side of Jim's water glass.  "Maybe there's a town nearby that'll need a merchant ship."

"Ship?"  Morph looked up at him and blinked.

"Good point."  Jim sighed and dropped his chin in his hand.  "It would help if I had a ship."

A few moments later, Tavia returned balancing a large tray full of bowls on one tentacle.  "Here you go, Jim."  She deposited a bowl of stew in front of Jim, then took a quick look around before setting a mug of the brown substance in front of Morph.

"Morph's is on the house," she grinned.  "Just don't tell Lord Rin!"

Morph floated up and gave her a noisy kiss on the cheek before attacking his meal.  Jim chuckled.

"You've got a friend for life now, Tavia."  He ate a spoonful of the stuff himself, then blinked.  It tasted oddly familiar.

"What's in this?"

"That bad, hunh?"  Tavia wrinkled her nose and switched her tray to the other tentacle.

"No, it's not. . . well, it's not great, but it's okay.  It just tastes like something I've had before."

The girl shrugged her tentacles.  "You'd have to ask the cook.  He won't tell us what's in it-- just says it's an old family recipe.

Jim felt as if all the blood had drained from his face.  "A what?"

Tavia set her tray down and peered into his face.  "An old family recipe.  Kind of a bad joke really.  Every time something really gross turns up in it, he says, 'That's--'"

"'--part of the old family,'" Jim finished as a grin spread across his face.  He jumped to his feet and mimicked Morph by planting a kiss on Tavia's cheek.  "Which way's the kitchen?"

". . . th-that way."  She pointed a tentacle limply in the direction.  As he dashed off, she looked down at Morph in bemusement.  "He's an odd duck, isn't he?"  Morph chortled and proceeded to eat Jim's stew.

 

The kitchen was set half a level lower than the common room and accessed by a few short stairs.  Jim clattered down them, pausing on the next to the last one.  In that elevated position, his head was higher than the doorway to the kitchen, and he couldn't see inside further than the floor just on the other side of the door.

Jim's excitement turned to nervousness.  Maybe it was just a coincidence-- it wasn't that brilliant of a joke, and surely there weren't that many ways you could make stew.  And even if it weren't a coincidence. . . was he really ready for this?

"Octavia Cephalia Flavia Seaforth, if that's ye loiterin' on the stairs, come make yerself useful and take these steaks up to the guests!"

It was Silver all right, and there was no way Jim could make himself turn back now.  Grinning, he slipped down the last two steps and into the kitchen.  Silver was at the stove, his back to the door, with two plates of steaks on his cyborg hand extended out to one side.  He appeared to be frying Sallet claws-- whatever a Sallet was-- with his organic hand.

Jim tiptoed over and scooped up the two plates.  "Sorry, I'll try to be quicker next time."

Silver let go over the pan he was tending and moved back as he turned to stare at Jim.  He hadn't changed much either, Jim saw.  He didn't even really look any older, which was a relief.

"Jimbo?"

"You were expecting tentacles?"  Jim felt a tremor in his voice when he spoke.  He set the plates down on the counter and took a hesitant step towards his old friend.

Silver bit his lip, as if he didn't even trust his own voice, then opened his arms to Jim.  Jim collapsed against him in as tight an embrace as he had ever given Sarah.

Neither of them spoke until Silver put his hands on Jim's shoulders and held him at arm's length to look him over.  "What in blue blazes are ye doin' here of all places?"

"Looking for work, mostly.  I finally graduated from the Academy, so I want to get on with a merchant ship."  Jim grinned up at him.  "What about you?"

"Same reason-- work."  The thought seemed to remind Silver of his duties, and he turned back to the stove just in time to rescue the claws from burning.  "Plus, I figure no one'll be looking for me on a little backwater planet like this 'un."  He flipped the claws onto a plate.  "So are they still lookin' for me?"

"Not really.  Captain Amelia launches into a rant about you escaping at least once a week, but other than that, no one seems too concerned."

"Well, that's a relief.  I was afraid ye might be out scoutin' for our dear captain.  Ye ain't gonna turn me in, are ye?"  Silver winked at him, then frowned.  "If that air-headed cephalopod doesn't get down here to get this food--"

Jim chuckled.  "I'll go get her.  And Morph too."

He all but floated up the stairs; all of his worries seemed to have dissolved.  He found Tavia trying to corral Morph, who was bouncing from table to table snatching bites of food away from the patrons.  Jim put his fingers to his mouth and whistled; immediately, the shapeshifter darted over to him, settling in on his shoulder.

"Whew."  Tavia came over to him, out of breath and smoothing down her hair with her tentacles.  "Next time you run off, take him with you!  I can't do anything with him!"

"He's just showing off.  C'mon Morph, I got a surprise for you," he cooed at his pet as he started back toward the kitchen.

"Oh no, the food!"  The girl cringed and darted ahead of them, tentacles a blur as she ran down the steps.  "He's gonna kill me--"

By the time Jim got back to the kitchen, she already had four plates of food balanced on her "arms" and was starting for the stairs.  She stopped and stared though when Morph caught sight of Silver and dashed across the room to him, chittering.

"Morphy!"  Silver held the shapeshifter to his cheek and stroked him lovingly.  "I never thought I'd see ye again, ye little barnacle. . . ."

"Wait, you two know each other?"  Tavia looked from Jim to Silver and back again.  "Did you know he was here?"

"No," Jim said happily.  "It was just luck."

"Hmm.  I don't believe in luck."  She reached over and tweaked what served as Morph's cheek, then drifted up the stairs with the food.

Morph pulled away from Silver long enough to look after her fondly, then snuggled into place on his old master's shoulder.

"I think Morph's in love," Jim chuckled, leaning up against the counter.

"Her attention span's about as long as his," Silver said gruffly, although Jim knew him well enough to tell that he was fond of the girl too.  "I know yer a guest, but do ye mind giving me a hand with these dishes?  The quicker I get done, the more time ye'll have to tell me what ye've been up to these past few years."

"Sure."  Jim would have been happy to peel potatoes all night if it meant he'd get to be with Silver.  They almost immediately fell back into the easy companionship they'd known on the Legacy before the mutiny.  They laughed and talked about inconsequential things, splashed each other with the dishwater, and chased Morph out of the stew pot repeatedly.  It was almost like they'd never been apart, except for Jim's feeling that it couldn't possibly be real. . . that it was all a dream from which he could awake at any moment.

The kitchen was in decent shape after a couple hours of work, and Silver hung up the dish towel with a satisfied sigh.  "Ye've still got it, Jimbo."

"Well, I did learn from the best," Jim smirked.

Silver clapped him on the shoulder.  "Let's go get us a corner up there, and ye can tell me all about the Academy, eh?"

Jim nodded, though a bit reluctantly.  Up until they, they'd hardly spoken of their time apart at all, as if those five years had never existed.  And Jim wanted it that way.  He felt almost as if talking about the Academy would spirit him back there and wake him from the dream.

Don't be stupid, he told himself as he followed Silver up into the common room.  This is real, but the past is real too.  I can't keep acting like none of it happened, like we've never been apart.

Apparently oblivious to Jim's concerns, Silver said over his shoulder, "Tavia does most of the entertainin', nights.  Got a pretty good voice for an Octopid."  He ushered Jim over to a small table in a corner of the room, dimly lit but still affording a clear view of the bar where Tavia was whispering to the Hypello.

Silver went on, "There's a few regulars who like to hear some of my stories, but I usually can get away without bein' noticed much."  He chuckled, a bit grimly.  "The less it gets 'round that there's an old cyborg camped out in Luca, the better."

Apparently, the guests expected a performance out of Tavia, for they began to urge her to begin.  She blushed and protested, but it seemed to all be part of the act, for a minute later she stood up, tentacles clasped neatly behind her back, and began to sing without self-consciousness.  Her voice wasn't what Jim thought of as clear, but it was pleasing enough, with a soft, high fuzziness to it.

It's hard to love and not to be loved, it's hard to please your mind, she sang.  You broke the heart of many a poor girl, but you will never break mine.

Unlike Lady Yuna, Tavia didn't seem to be singing to anyone.  Despite the song she had chosen, Jim had the feeling she'd never loved anyone, not like that.

Oh see that lonesome ship at sea, it sails from shore to shore.  If I was on that lonesome ship, I'd never come back any more.  Those lines struck a little too close to home for Jim, who already felt guilty enough for deceiving his mother into thinking he hadn't left Crescentia.  Of course, he was going to come back. . . but still.

When Tavia finished her song, Morph darted up across the room amidst the onlookers' applause and planted himself on her shoulder, nuzzling her neck adoringly.

"Morphy approves, anyway," Silver observed.  "It wasn't a bad song."

"No. . . but she's never had her heart broken," Jim muttered without thinking.

Silver looked at him closely.  "And ye have?"  He gave a slightly forced chuckle.  "What've ye been up to lately, anyway?"

It didn't happen lately, Jim thought.  Awareness of the past five years forced itself into his consciousness, along with the realization that perhaps he and Silver didn't know each other anymore.  He thinks I let some girl break my heart. . . .

"Can we go somewhere else?" he asked aloud.  "It's so crowded in here, and. . . ."  He glanced at the Octopid girl, who had begun another song but was eyeing them through her horizontal pupils.

"And ye don't want any tentacled busybodies interruptin' ye, eh?"  Silver chuckled and stood.  "Sure, Jimbo.  Let's take a walk.  I think Morph'll be able to take care of himself for a little while."

 

Luca was as bright at night as it was during the day.  Everything seemed to be lit in multi-colored hues: the buildings, the signs, the sidewalks.  Jim winced and squinted.

"Is it always this bright?"

"'Fraid so.  Makes me wish we were out in space somewhere nice and dark. . . and quiet," Silver added as a gaggle of Hypello walked by, chattering.  He put a hand on Jim's shoulder and guided him towards some stairs to their left.  "But we're pretty close to the outskirts of town.  It ain't so bad there."

Jim followed him along the winding walk and up several flights of stairs.  The crowds and buildings thinned then disappeared altogether.  At the top of the last flight, the ground was laid with paving stones for a few yards, then the stones were replaced by a wide dirt road leading out into the darkness.

"They call that the Mi'ihen Highroad," Silver explained.  "It's the main road leadin' deeper into Spira."

"Hunh."  Jim peered into the darkness, frowning.  That would be the road he'd have to take the next day, if he wanted to see more of the planet. . . .

He felt Silver's hand on his shoulder again as the older man chuckled.  "Turn around.  There's more to see the other way."

Jim duly turned, then drew in his breath abruptly at the view of the city.  The edge of the Highroad was on a cliff, hence the need for all the stairs, and Luca fell away almost beneath their very feet in a symphony of colored lights.  From there, out of the press of the crowds, it was beautiful.

"Not sure if I like it here or not," Silver muttered softly.  "Down there, I feel. . . trapped, like.  But then I come up here nights, and it's like the whole place is mine.  Same feelin' I got up there--"  He pointed up to the sky with his mechanical hand.  "--lookin' out at all the worlds.  Like I could pick any one of 'em, and it would belong to me."  He chuckled self-consciously.  "Crazy as it sounds."

"No, I've felt like that too before.  A few times."  Jim moved away from him, over to the railing that lined the edge of the cliff except where the stairs led down into the city.  "But. . . I haven't felt like the stars belonged to me in a long time."

"Oh?"  He heard the creak of the cyborg's pneumatic leg as Silver moved to a bench set on the paving stones, apparently for the use of travelers who wished to admire the city.  "For how long?"

Jim leaned on the railing and peered downward.  For some reason, he couldn't bring himself to look at his friend.  ". . . about five years.  Every time I looked up at the stars coming back from a late class or something, or every time I plotted them in a navigation course. . . they just got farther and farther away.  And I'd look at one, and I'd wonder. . . ."  He trailed off, not sure if he wanted to finish.  There was still that thread of mistrust of Silver, still the phantom ache of a breaking heart.

". . . and I'd wonder if that's where ye were."  The thread snapped when Silver spoke the words in Jim's head.  The young man turned sharply.  Silver wasn't looking at him either; he seemed to be watching something on Luca's skyline.

"Yeah," Jim said simply.  With those few words, his worries had dissolved.  Silver had missed him too.

Jim sat on the other side of the bench and leaned back to look up at the sky.  "Can you see the stars from anywhere near here?"

"Yeah, if ye go a little ways along the Highroad.  That Rin fellow has another inn several miles in with a good open sky.  Tomorrow night, we can rent a hover and ride out there if ye want to see it."

Tomorrow night would be Jim's only other night there.  He tried not to think about that; no sense in bringing it up now.  "Yeah, I'd like to."

"So tell me about the Academy, Jimbo," Silver went on, changing the subject.  "What kind of trouble did ye get yerself into?"

Jim laughed and told him.  He talked more in the next hour than he had spoken in weeks. . . and it felt wonderful.  As he finished his tale with his graduation, he felt that, for his part at least, the years apart had been squared away.  He kept nothing secret from Silver, including the pranks he had pulled as part of his hazing in his freshman year-- things he wouldn't dream of disclosing to anyone else.  And Silver laughed until he had to wipe tears from his organic eye.

"What about you?" Jim asked when he had finished.  "What did you do before you came here?"

Silver sobered noticeably, though he still spoke lightly.  "Eh, I ran, mostly.  Our lady captain was really after me for a while there. . . before she got hitched, I'm bettin'.  I did. . . uh, odd jobs for a while, didn't want to risk getting on with any ship.  I came here soon as I heard about this planet making first contact.  I've been here a few months now."

"No one here gave you any trouble?" questioned Jim.  "It must've been hard being one of the first off-worlders."

"Nah.  For one, I don't see many people down in the kitchen.  And Rin's pretty open-minded, so he was willin' to hire me right off.  Apparently a lot of people don't like the Al Bhed much, so he wasn't much on discriminatin' against other species."

"Are there other cyborgs on Spira?"

"Haven't met any, but I've heard of one-- some guy with a funny name.  Can't remember it.  He's some important leader of somebody or another, and he's got a cybernetic arm and leg too.  Not as good as mine, a' course," he added with a smirk.

Jim had one more question before he could feel completely comfortable.  Looking away, he asked, "Silver, have you been. . . alone all this time?"

"Every minute of it," Silver answered without hesitation.  "Made me really miss not havin' Morphy around."  When Jim glanced up at him with relief, Silver smiled slightly.  "And I even missed not havin' a cabin boy to keep an eye on my every waking minute."

"Now I don't know about that," Jim returned playfully.  "I didn't miss the potatoes, or Mr. Mop and Ms. Bucket, or scrubbing pots."  Silver gave him a curious look, tinged with apprehension.

"You didn't, eh?"

Jim hesitated an instant, then leaned against Silver's chest.  "No, but I missed you."

He had thought Silver might not respond, but the cook put his arms around his shoulders and held him.  "I thought ye might have grown up, Jimbo. . . not that ye ain't more mature and all that, but I figured ye would have. . . settled down by now."

"Not me-- just ask Mom."

Jim hadn't felt so protected since the Legacy had flirted with the newborn black hole, and Silver had shielded Jim with his body.  It almost gave Jim the same feeling now: that his old friend was the only thing keeping the swirling vortex of his future at bay.  Outside of that embrace lay the two paths he had seen on Montressor, the courses he had charted and ignored.  But for now, while Silver held him, he was safe.

He could have stayed there all night, but after a moment, Silver gave him an awkward pat on the back and stood, letting him go.

"Ye've had a long day, lad.  If yer here to look for prospects, ye won't be much good without some sleep."

Jim had to admit he was pretty tired.  He stifled a yawn as he followed Silver down the stairs back into the city.  "I thought I might check out some of the other towns," he explained.  "I'm not too crazy about Luca, but some of the smaller ones might be more my pace."

"Ye'll definitely need a hover then.  Rin owns the rental place too, so maybe ye can get a discount."  He grinned down at Jim.  "And if he's in a good mood, maybe I can get the day off to show ye around.  The bartender's wife, or whatever those frog fellows have, helps out in the kitchen sometimes, so she can do the cookin' instead."

By the time they got back to the inn, Tavia had disappeared, and most of the guests had gone to bed.  The Hypello bartender was wiping down the bar, and Morph was sleepily imitating the dishrag he used.  When he spotted Silver and Jim, he perked up a little and darted over, shaking off droplets of soapy water.

"Gah," Jim spat as the shapeshifter gave his face a soapy nuzzle.  "You want him for the night, Silver?  You two have got a lot of catching up to do."

Silver seemed pleased.  "C'mere, Morphy."  Morph hopped onto Silver's shoulder and settled there with a happy sigh.  Silver patted him, then smiled at Jim.  "Night, Jimbo.  Come down bright and early, and we'll go out on the hover before traffic gets bad."

Jim nodded.  "See you in the morning."

Despite his exhaustion from the day's events, Jim had a hard time falling asleep.  Luca's lights shone in brightly through the cracks even after Jim closed the shutters on the single window; he lay on his back and looked at the multi-colored stripe of light cast onto the ceiling from the window.

How am I going to tell Silver I'm only here for a day? he wondered.  I can't write Mom and tell her I'm staying longer, because she thinks I'm still at the space port. . . and anyway, if Captain Amelia saw the letter and found out that he's here, she'd have him arrested.  Jim decided that if he stayed on Spira more than a day, his only option would be to not tell his mother anything, even though he knew she'd worry.  He could hear her now, ranting about how she had thought he was mature, that he'd grown up. . . that he'd settled down.

Not yet, Jim thought with a little smile.  And he didn't really think that Silver had either.  He might be lying low for awhile, but Jim couldn't imagine him giving up life as a spacer for good.  Maybe he'll even come with me, once I find a ship.  I could rent a small ship of my own, and we could fly her, just the two of us and Morph.

Jim had always assumed that he would sign on to a merchant ship, but the thought of piloting his own very craft, possibly as a freelance courier, was exciting.  And we'll be together. . . .  That was the best part of all, and it was the last thought in Jim's mind when he finally fell asleep.

 

The next day, Silver took Jim along the Mi'ihen Highroad in a hover, and when evening fell, Jim was able to see the stars again.  He hesitated a moment when Silver suggested that they spend the night at Rin's rural Travel Agency-- there was no way he could catch an early ship out of Luca if he agreed.  Then he pushed the thought of leaving from his mind and said yes.  As he lay with Morph in one of the two twin beds in their room, and listened to Silver snoring in the other one, Jim decided that he had made the right decision.

Over the next few days, Jim felt bad every now and then for making Sarah worry, but most of the time, he was having too much fun with Silver to think of home.  On the days when Silver had to work in the kitchen, Jim either helped or wandered around Luca with Morph and occasionally Tavia.  On Silver's next day off, he and Jim went back to Luca's space port to look at the ships.  Jim paused to admire a beautiful little vessel at one of the docks.  She was just what he had imagined when he thought of running a small boat on his own.

"That one's perfect," he murmured to Silver, who had stopped to see what was holding Jim up.

"That's the Revolution.  She belongs to Lord Rin," Silver commented.  "Don't think he's actually flown 'er, though.  She's more of a trophy, like."

"That's a shame.  If she were mine, I wouldn't even get out of her to sleep," Jim said dreamily.

Silver chuckled.  "What would ye do with yer own ship, Cap'n Jimbo?"

"Well, I was actually thinking about that the other day," Jim replied a little shyly.  "Flying my own runs sounds like a lot more fun than being tied down to a merchant ship.  I could get work as a courier, or do small deliveries. . . ."

"Be yer own man, eh?"  Silver spoke quietly, thoughtfully as he regarded the Revolution.

Jim laughed a little, although it sounded forced even to his own ears.  "Yeah.  Someday when I'm as rich as Lord Rin."  He gave the ship one last longing look, then walked on.  Silver followed him a moment later.

Every evening, after dinner was through and Tavia was occupying the guests, Jim and Silver would climb the stairs at the edge of town and watch the lights of the city.  That night, almost a week after Jim had arrived in Luca, he said reluctantly, "I'm going to have to go back to Montressor soon.  Mom thinks I'm still at the space port."

"What will ye do then, once yer back?"

"Stars know," Jim grumbled.  "I left thinking I'd make up my mind. . . should've known it wouldn't be that easy."

"Sometimes it can take a lot a' thought to commit yerself to somethin', Jimbo," Silver replied.  "And then sometimes, ye just look at a thing, and know ye want it."

"Like the treasure, hunh?" Jim murmured.

"Yeah."  Silver's harsh voice was soft.  "Like the treasure."

 

The next morning, Lord Rin turned up at the inn as Jim was coming down to breakfast.  Jim was too preoccupied with worrying about going home to pay much attention to Rin; thus, he was quite surprised when the proprietor approached him as Tavia was clearing away the breakfast dishes.

"I have something I wish to discuss with you, Mr. Hawkins," Rin answered Jim's questioning look.  "Do you have some time to spare?"

"Um, all right."

Rin led Jim outside, then turned in the direction of the space port.  "Our cook tells me you'll be leaving us soon."

"Yeah, I need to get back home," Jim mumbled.  "This trip was supposed to be a lot shorter than it turned out."

"I do hope you'll come back to Spira soon," Rin replied.  "There's much more to see of our beautiful planet than Luca."

When they reached the space port, Rin stopped in front of the Revolution and looked at Jim expectantly.

"So, what's the big surprise?" Jim asked.

Lord Rin smiled proudly and gestured towards the ship.  "There she is!"

"Uh, yeah, she's really nice.  I looked at her yesterday," Jim said dismally.  "You're very lucky to own her."

"Oh, but I do not own her."

Jim frowned.  "But Silver said--"

Rin returned his frown with a smile.  "I owned her yesterday.  But you see, I have many business prospects here on Spira.  There is more than enough to do in Luca to welcome the new intergalactic travelers, without becoming one of them myself.  So I sold the Revolution."

"So that's what you wanted to 'discuss' with me?"  Jim's heart sank.

"No.  This is what I wished to discuss."  Rin handed him a rolled up piece of paper.  "She's yours."

"Wh. . . what?"  Jim unfurled the paper to find the deed to the Revolution in his hands.  Sure enough, the deed had his name on it.  "But. . . but how?  I didn't buy her!  Is this. . . real?"

"Indeed it is."  Rin seemed infinitely pleased with Jim's stunned delight.  "Someone bought her on your behalf.  Anonymously of course, but--"  He broke off as Jim started toward the ship with an excited step, then paused.  The young man spun on his heel and took off in the other direction as fast as he could go, the deed clutched in one hand.  Lord Rin smiled and shook his head.

 

"Silver!"  The cook looked up from his cutting board as Jim pelted down the steps and engulfed him in a hug.  "Thank you thank you thank you!"  Morph had been sitting next to the cutting board, "helping" by snatching and eating bites of carrot.  The shapeshifter, sensing Jim's excited mood, launched himself into the air, bobbing around and mimicking "thank you thank you!"

"Whoa, what's all this, Jimbo?"  Silver gently but firmly put the young man away from him.

Jim waved the deed around excitedly.  "The ship!  Thank you!  I never thought--"

Silver turned back to the chopping block and his carrots.  "When ye can put a whole sentence together, let me know."

Jim was too happy to be put off.  He flung his arms around Silver's back, giving him a hug that would have made B.E.N. proud.  "I don't know how you did it, but thank you. . . so much. . . ."

Silver finally relented and patted one of Jim's hands with his robotic one.  "I told Rin not to tell ye."

"He didn't, but I knew.  No one else here knows me. . . no one else would do something like this for me even if they did know me."  Jim let go and took an exhilarated spin around the kitchen.  "But how did you do it?  Where did you get the money?"

"It was the last of what I took from Flint's trove."

"But you already gave me so much to rebuild the inn!"  Jim stopped his celebration and leaned against the counter next to his friend.  "You shouldn't have spent the last bit on me. . . ."

"I can't think of a better use for it."  Silver smiled slightly and dumped the carrots into a pot.  "I don't need it, now that I have a steady job."

"And you'll have an even steadier one now!  Do you know where we can find a crew?  Hopefully they'll be nicer than your last crew, but--"

"Jimbo. . . ."  Silver moved away and busied himself with the potatoes.  "There ain't no 'we.'  I ain't comin' with ye."

"You. . . .  Of course you are. . . ."  Jim trailed off when the older man didn't respond.  "I-if you're afraid of getting caught, we'll figure something out.  I don't think anyone will know, as long as you stay away from Captain Amelia."  He tried a faint chuckle, but got nothing.  "Why not?" Jim finally burst out, darting forward to clutch at his shoulder.  "Why won't you come?"

"I ain't a spacer anymore, Jim.  This is the life I chose-- the path I charted."

"But. . . I charted a path too, and it was the wrong one.  So I changed it.  You can change yours too."

"Yer assuming that I want to change it."

Jim took a step back.  To his amazed horror, he felt his lip tremble.  "Y-you mean you'd rather stay here for the rest of your life, than sail with me?"  When there was no answer, a tear spilled out of one eye and coursed down his cheek.  Morph noticed the tear and immediately caught on to Jim's anguish.  The little shapeshifter stopped his dancing and floated over to Jim, licking the tear off his cheek and cooing worriedly.

Somehow, Morph's concern only made things worse, and the tears fell faster.  Morph tried to lick them up, then blot them with his gelatinous body.  This failing, he shifted into an umbrella.

All the excitement Jim had felt plummeted.  What good was the ship if he had to sail it alone?  That's not the path I wanted.  It wasn't a choice between respectability or adventure.  It was respectability or him.

Jim pulled away from Morph and stumbled up the stairs out of the kitchen.  He passed Tavia in the stairwell leading to the guest rooms and pulled his collar up to hide his tears from her.

"Jim?" she called after him, but he ignored her.  Jim reached his room and started throwing his belongings into his bag furiously.

I'll leave first thing tomorrow.  Go back to Montressor, see Mom and them, then register as a merchant ship.  That's the path I should have taken all along.

But then there was Morph.  If the shapeshifter didn't find his way up to Jim's room by morning, Jim would have to see Silver again to get him back.  Although maybe, Jim thought bitterly, he should just leave Morph with his rightful owner.  Silver doesn't want to be with me-- so why should I want to remember him?

Jim left his packed bag on the floor and collapsed on the bed with his head in the crook of his arm.  He fell asleep that way and didn't awaken until the room was long since dark.  Jim wasn't sure what had woken him until he heard a noise just above his head.  When Jim squawked and swatted at the source of the noise, his hand came into contact with something gelatinous.  Morph.

"Whew.  Thank the stars it's just you."  Jim cupped his hands around the little creature and brought him to rest on his chest.  He couldn't see the shapeshifter in the darkness, he'd know the resulting coo anywhere.  Morph crawled up his neck and snuggled up under his chin.

"Glad you came back," Jim murmured.  "If I'd had to come get you, I would have had to see him again."  Morph purred in response to the sound of his voice.  "I love you, little guy," Jim went on, fighting back a waver in his voice.  "I-I know I've got the ship now, but that doesn't mean what you do.  The ship's just to get rid of me, but you. . . when he gave you to me, he did it because he loved me."

"Loved me, loved me!" Morph chanted.  "Love you, Jimbo."

Jim smiled again.  "Yeah, I already said I loved you too, you little--"  He stopped, blinked.  "Morph?"

"Morph?  Morphmorphmorph."  There was a big yawn.  "M. . . orph. . . ."

Since when could Morph talk, other than to repeat what was said to him?  And since when had anyone but Silver ever called him "Jimbo"?

"Hey, Morph, wake up."  Jim tapped him.  "Did he say that?  Did he say he loved me?"  A faint snore came from the shapeshifter.  Jim sighed and scooped Morph up, depositing him on the pillow, then stood.  He wasn't sure what to do.  Maybe Morph was just stringing together words he had heard separately.  Or maybe Silver had said it, but a long time ago.

But Morph had never put together words on his own before, and his memory was short-term at best.

Jim took a deep breath and slipped out of the room.  The stairwell was kept lit all night, and he glanced at the clock that hung there as he passed.  It was only a little past ten o'clock; Silver might still be in the kitchen.

Jim could hear voices coming from the common room as he neared the foot of the stairs.  As he passed, he saw the Hypello barkeep serving drinks to a few lingering guests.  No sign of Silver there, which was something of a relief to Jim.  Still, his footsteps slowed as he walked down the short set of stairs to the kitchen.  As he had suspected, Silver was still there, peeling potatoes of all things.  Jim smiled in spite of himself.  No cabin boy to share the load this time.

Silver glanced up as Jim crept into the room.  For an instant, the cyborg looked relieved, then he turned back to his potatoes.  "Want a midnight snack, eh?"

"Yeah.  I missed dinner."  Jim relaxed a little and opened the industrial-sized icebox, peering inside.  "Anything good left?"

"There's some Flan."  Silver heaved himself to his feet and went to the sink to wash the starch off his hands.  "Make sure it's good and dead though."

Jim had already taken the Flan out of the icebox and was carrying it to the table, but he stopped short.  "D-dead?"

"Yeah."  Silver lurched over to the kitchen table and sat down again.  "There's a kind of monster around here they call a Flan.  They come in all sorts of colors, and each color tastes different.  That right there--"  He pointed at the white blob on Jim's plate.  "--is a Flan Palido.  Best kind.  Tastes like vanilla."

Jim looked down at the wobbly mess and swallowed hard.  Then his stomach growled and he shrugged.

"I'm hungry enough to eat anything."  He set the plate down on the table and sat across from Silver.  The Flan was pretty tasty, Jim discovered when he started eating it with a serving spoon.

"Dessert without a proper meal first.  Mom would kill me."

Silver chuckled.  "I won't tell, Jimbo."

"Morph found his way back up to my room," Jim murmured between bites.  "I think he's getting smarter."

That earned another chuckle.  "Oh?  How so?"

"He's making up his own sentences."  Jim licked off his spoon and set it aside.  "Told me he loved me, right out of the blue."

"Is that so."  Silver leaned back in his chair.

"Yeah. . . dunno if he knows what it means though.  He's probably just repeating something he. . . he heard."

"Well, even so, ye know he does love ye."

"Yeah."  Jim prodded the remains of the Flan and watched it jiggle.  "I guess someone can love you without ever saying it."

Silver leaned forward and touched Jim's chin.  Jim froze.  "Ye missed a bite," the cook commented as he wiped off the stray bit of Flan.

"Oh."  Jim started breathing again as Silver licked his finger off.

"Hmm, this one's a bit over-ripe.  Sometime I'll have to catch ye a fresh one.  They're much better."

"I dunno.  I might not ever be back this way."

That finally got a reaction out of Silver.  "What makes ye say that?"

"Well, Spira's just coming onto the scene, intergalactic-wise.  There probably won't be much cause for me to come here, whether I go into shipping or take work as a courier."

"But Jimbo, that’s all the more reason for ye to make runs here.  Get in on the action and get yerself a good spot before all the big companies move in!" Silver urged him.

"And then have to fight them to keep my position when they do show up?"  Jim shook his head and stood to carry his plate to the sink.  What was left of the Flan was almost exactly the size and shape of Morph, which was making him feel a bit ill.

"Ye ain't the type to let those corporate boys push ye around-- unless all that diplomacy spiel at the Academy’s turned yer head."

Jim slumped over the sink, clutching its edge in his hands.  "Oh, what does it matter to you, anyway?  You’re the one who wants to get rid of me."

There was a long silence, then Jim heard Silver’s chair shift.  "What gave ye that idea?"

"That’s the whole reason you bought me that ship, isn’t it?  So I’d leave."  Jim lowered his head, staring at the dishwater through the strands of hair that fell over his eyes.

He felt Silver’s hand-- his organic one-- rest on his shoulder.  "Jimbo, of course that’s not the reason.  I bought the ship because. . . ye deserve it.  And ye’ve got to get yer start somewhere.  No sense in the lad that found Flint’s trove having to work his way up through the ranks to earn his own boat.  Ye should start at the top, where ye belong!"  He squeezed Jim’s shoulder gently.

"If I'll be at the top, then why won’t you come with me?"

Silver sighed heavily, his fingers still lightly contracting over Jim's shoulder.  "I've been to the top, Jimbo.  I was there when I had that longboat full a' treasure in the center of old Flint's planet.  I won't ever get that high again."

"And you let it go because of me."  Jim felt the mutinous tears fill his eyes again.

"Yeah, I did. . . because ye'll go far higher than even that.  Yer just startin' out, even now."  Silver's mechanical hand joined his organic one on Jim's other shoulder.  "Ye don't need me weighing ye down."

"Yes, I do!"  Jim's chest heaved with a suppressed sob.  "I thought I'd never see you again-- that Morph was all I had left of you--"

"Sit down."  Silver propelled him back to the table, then went to the refrigerator.  "Yer just over-tired.  Rushing off on a new adventure right after all the stress of graduation. . . .  If ye want an old spacer's advice, ye need to take yer new ship home and take a couple weeks off.  Spend it with yer mum and that screwy robot pal of yers, and just relax."  Jim watched as Silver started heating milk in a pan on the stove.  "But first yer gonna drink this to put ye to sleep."

Jim started to protest that he wasn't a kid anymore, but the words died in his throat as he realized just how child-like he'd been acting.  "All right.  Thanks."

Silver brought the milk to him and stood over him as he started to drink it.  "Mom used to do this to make me sleep when I was little," Jim remembered with a faint smile.  "She's going to kill me when I get home.  I told her I'd only been gone a few days, and it's been a week already."

"I'm sure she'll forgive ye when ye turn up in that pretty ship."

Jim yawned; as always, the cure for insomnia had worked.  He stood and put his mug beside the be-Flanned plate in the sink.  "Thanks, Silver.  I'll. . . come say goodbye tomorrow before I leave."

"Make sure ye do," Silver muttered.  He picked up a rag and started wiping down the table.  Jim hesitated, considering a final attempt to change the cook's mind, then he gave up and started for the stairs.  He wasn't really angry anymore. . . just hurt.  But he could understand too.  Just because he means so much to me, doesn't mean he feels the same way. . . .

"Jim."

At the sound of Silver's voice, Jim stopped in the doorway and turned back.  The older man walked over to him and put his hand back on Jim's shoulder. . . then pulled him close and hugged him tightly.  Jim was frozen in surprise for an instant, then he wrapped his arms around his friend's shoulders and clung to him.

"I want to go with ye, Jimbo, I really do," Silver muttered.  "But I'd just hold ye back.  What kind of captain could ye be if ye were harborin' a fugitive?"

"A much happier one than I will be alone.  I need you-- I can't do it by myself."  Jim pressed his face against Silver's shoulder.

The cook was quiet for a long moment, his organic hand absently patting Jim's shoulder.  Finally, he muttered, "I can't keep saying no to ye.  Just promise ye'll keep me out of sight of our lovely former captain, all right?"

"You mean it?" Jim mumbled against his neck.  "You'll come with me?"

"If ye can chart a new course for yerself, I guess I can do it too."  Jim felt Silver lean his cheek against his hair for a moment as he added softly, "I'd spend the rest a' my life regrettin' it if I didn't."

"When can you leave?"  Jim pulled back enough to be able to look at him.  "If you need a few days, I guess I could go home and come back for you later--"

Silver chuckled a little ruefully.  "Rin already asked me if I'm going with ye, as soon as I told him I wanted to buy the ship.  He said the barkeep's wife has been askin' for full time work, and he's willin' to hire her to replace me.  So if ye still want to leave tomorrow, I'll be ready."

Jim beamed at him happily.  "So will I."

Silver smiled back and laid his hand against Jim's cheek.  Jim closed his hand over the older man's and pressed his cheek against his palm.  Silver curled his fingertips over Jim's jaw bone for a moment, then pulled his hand away abruptly.

"I'll see ye in the mornin' then.  First thing, mind-- I'd like to get out of here before that frog lady changes her mind about takin' over the kitchen."  He went back to cleaning the table.

"I'll be ready."  Jim went to the doorway, then paused and looked back.  "Silver. . . thank you."

Silver chuckled.  "Ye might not be thankin' me if Captain Amelia finds out ye've fallen in with me again.  Go on to bed, now.  We've got a long trip ahead."

 

Jim was awake the next morning before the sun had even risen.  Too excited to stay in bed any longer, he dumped his belongings into his bag, scooped up a drowsy Morph, and hurried downstairs.  No one was in sight save for Tavia, who was yawning as she laid out silverware on the tables.

"You're up early."  She eyed his bag.  "Shipping out already, hunh?"

"I've already been here a week longer than I meant to stay," Jim retorted as he perched on a barstool.  "Mom's going to freak when I turn up, with a boat no less."  He chuckled and scratched Morph under what served as his chin.  "She'll think we stole it, hunh, Morph?"

"What about when you turn up with an ex-pirate?" Tavia suggested as she finished setting the tables.  She giggled at the stunned look Jim gave her.  "Don't look at me like that.  Obviously, he's going with you; you two have been inseparable."  She sat down a couple stools away and rested her chin on one tentacle.  "It's sweet."

"But. . . how did you know he was. . . what he was?"  For some reason, the thought of Silver telling Tavia about the past made him jealous-- especially if Silver was telling her about their past.  Jim didn't want that shared with anyone.

"Well, when you see a former spacer walking around with half his body missing, you sort of start to catch on," Tavia replied, rolling her hazel eyes.  "And just because I can't hear all that well, doesn't mean I can't hear at all.  Some nights after I'm done singing and the guests have gone to bed, he'll tell stories to the regulars.  He's never actually said he was anything but a legitimate spacer, but it's not too hard to figure out."

Morph had finally roused himself enough to be playful; Jim watched him make faces at his reflection in the mirror behind the bar.  "Did he ever say anything about me?" he asked quietly.

"I know he never mentioned you by name.  Most of the stories are about when he was young, probably before you or I were even born," she added with a smirk.  "But don't be too disappointed.  He hasn't told a single story since you got here."

"Uh. . . ."  Jim didn't quite see the connection.

Tavia reached out and caught Morph in a tentacle, tickling him.  "He hasn't been spending any time in the common room like he usually does.  He's been spending it all with you."

Before Jim could respond, Silver himself appeared up the stairs from the kitchen carrying a single bag of belongings.  He chuckled when he saw Morph happily submitting to Tavia's attention.

"It's gonna be hard to take the little guy away from ye, lass."

"Are you leaving now?" Tavia carefully set Morph down and stood, smoothing down her skirt with her tentacles.  Morph floated over to Silver and settled in on his shoulder.

"Well, my replacement seems t' be pretty settled in down below," Silver observed.  "I'd like to get out of here before she changes her mind about takin' the job."

"I'll miss you," Tavia told him with a little smile.  "Even your yelling at me.  And I'll miss you too, James Hawkins."

"If you ever get tired of Spira, come to Montressor," Jim told her impulsively.  "My mom would probably love some extra help at the inn."

"I'll keep that in mind."

The Octopid girl watched as Jim gathered up his things.  Morph suddenly seemed aware that they were leaving, and he looked at Tavia with a quivering whimper.

"Make them bring you back to visit me, okay, Morphy?"  She went over to Silver and scooped up the shapeshifter.  Morph cuddled against the suckers on her tentacles with a loud sniffle as she lifted him to her face and kissed him just above his eyes.  Morph gave her cheek a little nuzzle, then flew back to Jim and pressed against his neck, refusing to look at her again.

"He'll be fine," Jim assured Tavia, who looked a little misty-eyed in spite of herself.  "And I'll come back to visit sometime, I promise."  He patted her on the shoulder affectionately as she smiled weakly and started towards the kitchen.

"Take care of yourselves.  All of you," was the last thing she said as she disappeared down the stairs.

Jim followed Silver outside and through the streets towards the space port.  It was still too early for most people to be out, and Luna was the quietest Jim had seen it throughout his entire time on Spira.  He and Silver did not speak as they walked, but it was a comfortable silence, not an awkward one.  Jim's slight sorrow at saying goodbye to Tavia-- mostly stemming from Morph's unhappiness-- faded almost immediately.  Finally, after all the years that had passed since he returned from the Legacy, Jim felt like he was on the right path.

By the time they reached the space port, even Morph had cheered up and was excitedly mimicking everyone they passed.  Apparently, Lord Rin had not told anyone that he had sold his ship, for the harbor master, a burly human who looked like he could break Jim in two, came running over and challenged them when they tried to board.  He only relented when Jim produced the deed to the ship.

And then, finally, Jim was able to step on board the Revolution as her master.  He walked from stem to stern in delight, feeling as if he could spend hours just going over every inch of her deck to convince himself that she was real.

"Are we going to sail this boat, or are ye just gonna make love to her all day?" Silver broke into his thoughts, watching him with folded arms and a smile.

"Sorry.  She's just so. . . I just can't believe she's mine."  Jim took a deep breath to calm his nerves.  "All right, I'm ready.  Let's get her in the air."

The ship handled like a dream.  Because she wasn't too much larger than the longboats they had taken out on the Legacy, Jim and Silver didn't have any trouble controlling her on their own.  Nevertheless, the task kept them too busy for more than a few brief words until they were safely out of Spira's airspace and away from what little traffic there was coming into the planet.

Jim didn't have time to really explore his new ship until they had been in flight for most of a standard day.  The galley was tiny, barely large enough for Silver alone, but it was well-stocked with provisions.  Lord Rin had apparently been intending to sail the Revolution, despite what he had told Jim.  There were also two cabins, one with a small bed and the other slightly larger one holding two hammocks.

When Jim went above deck again, he found Silver leaning against the base of the mast and admiring the view of the stars all around them.

"I take it we're on course?" Jim asked as he went to the side of the ship and looked out as well.

"Of course.  Jimbo, I'll be able to tell if we drift even an inch."  Silver stretched and leaned back against the mast.  "Nights like this remind me of my first love."

"Yeah?"  Jim scowled to himself and looked pointedly out at the stars.  The last thing he wanted was for the evening to be spoiled by some old conquest of Silver's.

"Yeah, she was such a beauty.  Never laid eyes on anything like her before.  She was my captain's though, way outta my reach."

"Unh hunh."

"Didn't stop me from dreamin' though."  Jim heard the thump of Silver's mechanical leg as the other man joined him at the side of the ship.  "Every night, I'd climb up top of her rigging and imagine she was mine."

Jim snorted with a mixture of laughter and relief.  "Stars, I hope you're talking about a ship."

"Of course I'm talkin' about a ship!  Ye think I had time for girls in those days?"  Jim looked up at him and got an amused, fond glance in return.  "No, all I cared about was sailin'."  Silver turned back to the sky beyond them.  "Although I guess maybe there was one thing I loved before that ship.  When I was a lad, there was a star'd always shine in my bedroom window.  Least I thought it was a star, back before I knew the difference 'tween them and planets.  I always promised myself that someday I'd become a spacer, and I'd fly right up to that beautiful light."

He leaned over Jim's shoulder, putting his cyborg arm around him, to indicate one of the points of light in the expanse before them.  "There she is, that bright yellowish one.  In a different spot a' course than she was on my planet, but she's in a system near yer own home system, so we can see her from here."

Jim recognized the yellowish orb as the planet Mau, one of the hundreds of world names he had learned at the Academy.  Still, the name on paper conveyed nothing of the loveliness of the planet's light as it shone on them now.

"She's beautiful," Jim breathed, slipping into Silver's personification of the planet inadvertently.  "Did you ever go there?"

"Yeah, I did."  Silver chuckled a little ruefully and lowered his mechanical arm so that it draped against Jim's chest.  "It's Captain Amelia's home planet.  Not near as nice in person as it was from my window."

"You're not a cat person, then?" Jim teased.

"Eh, our lady captain may be more than middlin' fair, but more finicky eaters than her race ye'll never find.  I cooked in an inn there for a week 'fore I lost all my patience with them and shipped out."

Silver's arm was still around Jim, and he leaned against the older man's side, relishing the sense of peace he felt.  "Are they all pretty then, like Captain Amelia?"

Silver chuckled softly.  "Not all.  I've never met an uglier chap than the landlord I worked for there, though he was good to me, young lad that I was.  His little girl was a beauty though, and smart as paint.  She was just a kid, maybe five years old, but she ruled that inn with an iron paw.  Had me bringin' her steamed milk at all hours of the night and tellin' her stories about the stars.  I used to think that if I ever settled down and had a family, I wanted a little girl just like her."  He sighed softly.  "That was before I'd charted my course, ye'd say.  Now I can't imagine thinkin' that's the life I want."

Jim was glad for that, but he didn't like the air of melancholy the thought had given Silver.  "What happened to her?" he asked as a distraction.

"Last time I was there, I heard she'd left the planet.  Her pap was an old man then, but he was still so proud of that little firebrand of a kitten.  Said she'd been chosen as the advisor to a queen somewhere."  Silver shook his head with a wondering little laugh.  "Never would've suspected that.  But smart and pretty ain't a combination ye find very often; I guess queens realize that sorta thing."

"What did she look like?"  For some reason, Jim wanted a picture of the little girl in his mind, a way of visualizing what Silver had given up when he chose the life he'd ultimately followed.

"She had hair as black as that sky up there.  It was curly, never'd been cut her mum said.  Her skin was pale, and she looked so fragile, like her little limbs'd break right off if ye picked her up.  She was strong though.  And her eyes-- bluest eyes ye'd ever hope to see.  And they were big, always open so wide. . . just like yers."

Jim looked up at him again, half-poised to rail at Silver for comparing him to a little cat girl.  The words died on his lips when he saw the tender expression on the spacer's face gazing back down at him.  Silver looked away as soon as their eyes met, and he let go of Jim's shoulders, giving him a final pat on the back.

"Ye'd better get some rest, Jimbo.  I'll take the first watch."

"I'm not tired," Jim protested.

"Ye will be soon enough with just the two of us sailin' this ship all the way back to Montressor," Silver returned sternly.

"Fair enough."  Jim cast one last look at the star fields, then started towards his cabin.  "Wake me in a few hours, okay?  You may have paid for the ship, but you gave her to me, so no fair keeping her all to yourself."

"All right, ye have my word."  Jim reluctantly left him there, gazing out past the rigging at Mau's glistening yellow light.

 

It seemed to Jim that he had barely lain down before a hand on his shoulder gently shook him awake.  He grumbled and swatted at it, only to have Silver bodily haul him up into a sitting position.

"Thought ye were worried 'bout me hoggin' yer ship," Silver laughed.  "Seems like ye'd rather sleep in her than sail her."

"How long was I asleep?"  Jim rubbed at his eyes with the back of one hand and slumped over drowsily.

"About five hours."  Jim glared up at him with a sullen look, making Silver relent a little.  "If ye really want t' go back t' sleep, I can give ye a couple more."

"No, it's okay."  Jim got out of bed, feeling more awake as soon as he stood.  "Get some rest yourself."

"I'll go stake out one of the hammocks then," Silver began, but Jim stopped him.

"No, take the bed.  We can both use it since we'll be sleeping at different times."  Jim rummaged around in his bag to find a clean shirt.  His fingers closed over something small and round; pulling it out, he discovered that it was the earring he'd worn before he went to the Academy.  He'd forgotten until then that he had brought it with him for luck.  He smiled a little as he carefully put it into the piercing in his left ear.

"Well, if yer sure. . . ."  Silver had already sat down on the bed and was pulling off the boot he wore on his organic foot.

"It's fine.  The only problem will be if we get sleepy at the same time."  Jim changed his shirt quickly, then stood with a smirk.  "I don't think it's big enough for both of us."

Silver lay back on the bed, cushioning his head on his organic arm.  "Yer pretty small.  Ye'd fit if need be."

Jim felt, for no good reason, his cheeks grow hot at the thought of the two of them sharing the bed.  "I'll wake you up in a few hours," he muttered, turning to the door.

"Get me sooner if ye need me," Silver called after him as Jim left the cabin.

Jim had no trouble steering the little ship on his own.  He was completely alone; even Morph had gone below deck for a nap.  Even so, Jim wasn't lonely because he knew Silver was just a few yards away.  It all hardly seemed real to him, that he had his own ship at the ripe old age of twenty and that Silver was back in his life, almost as suddenly as he had disappeared from it.

Jim was so caught up in sailing his ship and in his own thoughts that he forgot to wake Silver up.  Eventually, the cook emerged from the cabin, grumbling good-naturedly at Jim for letting him oversleep.  The rest of the voyage was as smooth as its beginning, and thirty standard hours later, they neared Montressor and its artificial moon, Crescentia.

"Where will we be pullin' in?" Silver asked from the wheel.  "The port or the planet?"

Jim looked out at both thoughtfully.  "We're small enough; why don't we just go straight home?"  He grinned.  "Give Mom a real surprise."

Silver chuckled and aimed the ship for the planet.  "Aye, Cap'n."

As he brought the ship into Montressor's atmosphere, Jim directed him towards the rebuilt inn.  Fortunately, they had come in on the Benbow's side of the planet, saving them some time.  Silver expertly brought the little ship down into the canyon near the inn, then scuttled her over to the pier.

"Maybe you'd better wait in the cabin until I get Mom," Jim mused worriedly as he glanced at the setting sun.  "Amelia or Delbert might be in the inn; they tend to bring their kids by in the evenings."

"Whatever ye think best, Jimbo."  Silver started for the cabin, then paused.  "Don't take this the wrong way, but. . . can I trust yer mum not to, ye know, let on that I'm here?"

Jim had secretly been a bit worried about the same thing, but he tried to act confident.  "I'll. . . uh, sound her out first, just to be sure."

Silver nodded and disappeared into the cabin.  He was none too quick, for the next time Jim looked up from the rigging, he saw his mother running down the pier towards him.  She stopped a few yards away and hesitated until she was sure it was he, then she covered the remaining distance in a quick stalk.

"James Pleiades Hawkins!  Where have you been?  You said you were going to be gone for a few days!  And where in the galaxy did you get this ship--"  She broke off as Morph pounced on her, kissing and nuzzling her face in an excess of delight.  Sarah's angry expression dissolved into a little chuckle.

"Morph and I, uh, ran into an old friend," Jim said hesitantly.  "I'm sorry we were gone so long, but some stuff came up, and. . . ."  He trailed off when Sarah gave him a little smile and hopped down onto the ship's deck.

"It's all right, I suppose.  We were just worried.  Delbert was talking about sending out a search party."  She paused.  "Although I think that may have been an excuse for him to go out spacing again.  That still doesn't explain the boat though."

"Isn't she a beauty?" Jim enthused.  "She's called the Revolution.  I'll take you out for a ride in her tomorrow."

Sarah folded her arms, not about to be distracted.  "Where did you get her?  I know you don't have enough money to buy your own ship."

"I didn't steal her, if that's what you're implying."

Sarah smiled a little.  "I should hope not.  What I am implying is that you're going to be making ship payments for the next thirty years."

"No, Mom, she's really mine.  All the way.  She was. . . she's a gift."

"A gift?"  Morph had returned to Jim's shoulder, and Sarah looked from one slightly guilty face to the other.  "Wait, let me guess.  This 'old friend' you ran into.  That's who gave her to you, right?"

"Um. . . yes."

"All right, where is he?"  Sarah started walking up the length of the ship, looking around.

"Wh-where's who?"

"Jim, you've only had one friend that I know of who isn't fresh out of the Academy and as broke as you are.  It's that old spacer you met on Delbert's little adventure, isn't it?  The one you wouldn't stop talking about for weeks, until you left for school?"

"Mom!"  Jim flushed hotly, hoping Silver couldn't overhear her.  "Y-yeah, it was him.  But what makes you think he's here?"

"You have the same expression on your face as that time you had a giant squid stowed under your bed."  Sarah walked back over to him and tapped him on the chest.  "And if he gave you a stolen ship, I'll--"

"I guess yer too smart fer the likes of us blokes, ma'am," Silver announced as he emerged from the cabin.  He gave Sarah the same doff of his hat that Captain Amelia had often received.  It had about as much effect on Sarah as it had on Amelia.

"So you're he, hmm?"  Jim cringed inwardly as his mother looked his best friend up and down.  He could just imagine the thoughts in her head: So you're the one who burned down my inn, who nearly got my son killed, who's been on the run for years from Captain Amelia and all the law she can muster.  Then she smiled and said, "So you're the one who gave Jim the money to rebuild the inn.  I'm glad to meet you."  She extended her slender hand which was all but swallowed when Silver shook it in his organic one.

"I'm much obliged, ma'am," Silver enthused, "and proud to meet the mother of this fine lad here."  Jim flushed for the second time in five minutes.

"Why don't you come in and have something to eat?  You both must be tired."  Sarah patted Morph on the head as she passed Jim on her way back to the pier.  "You too, Morph."

"Uh, Mom?  Captain Amelia and Delbert aren't here, are they?"

"No."  Sarah paused and looked back at the two of them.  "And it's a lucky thing for both of you that they aren't."

"Mom, you can't tell them.  Please!" Jim begged.  "If Captain Amelia knew that Silver was here, she'd. . . ."  He trailed off; the thought was too horrible to express.  He and Silver both looked at her miserably.

The corners of Sarah's mouth twitched in a little smile.  "Stars, as if one pleading face around here weren't enough.  You two look exactly alike."  She started back up the pier, calling over her shoulder, "Wait about five minutes, then come up."

"Wait?  Why?" Jim yelled after her.

"It'll take me that long to get B.E.N. shut down."  Sarah glanced back at them with a little smirk.  "If anyone would blab to the Dopplers on accident, it would be B.E.N."

Jim slumped against the mast and sighed with relief as she disappeared back into the inn.  "Thank the stars."

"She's a gem of a woman," Silver said admiringly.  He ducked back into the cabin to get their belongings, talking through the open door.  "Now I see where ye got yer spunk.  And yer looks."

"You think Mom and I look alike?" Jim blinked when Silver re-emerged.

"Yer the spittin' image of her."

"I know we have the same hair and eyes, but. . . she's so pretty!"

Silver hauled himself up onto the pier, pulling his bag up after him.  "Exactly."  Third blush of the day, Jim thought as he followed Silver up to the inn.

The common room was quiet and empty when Silver, Jim, and Morph entered.  Sarah was setting the tables and had already laid out sandwiches on one of them.

"Isn't anyone here?" Jim asked as he sat down and tore into his sandwich.

"Just a couple small families."  Sarah finished with the silverware and sat down by the window.  "I guess in all your time away you've forgotten what a slow time of year this is."

"Yeah, I hadn't thought about that."

"So what are you two going to do with that ship of yours?" Sarah questioned.

Jim smiled ruefully.  "I hadn't thought about that either.  I'd considered getting work as a courier, but that was before I got the ship."

"Is that still what ye'd like to do?" Silver asked between mouthfuls of his meal.  When Jim nodded, the older man went on, "Then that's what we'll do.  It's yer ship, Jimbo, so it's yer say.  I'd still be peelin' potatoes in Luca if not fer ye, so I'll follow ye in whatever ye want to do."

"Thank you," Jim murmured.

"But unless ye want to get started right away, I wouldn't be averse to puttin' in here for a few days," Silver added.  "Ye may not know it to look at me, ma'am, but I've been workin' myself to the bone lately.  I could use a rest."

"Well, I may put you to work in the kitchen," Sarah returned with good humor, "but you're welcome to stay.  In fact--"  A noise outside made her break off and turn to the window.  "Uh oh, it's the Dopplers.  I thought they weren't coming tonight!"  She stood and looked at Silver worriedly.  "You'll have to go upstairs and stay in one of the rooms until they leave."

"I'll take him to my room," Jim reassured her.  At his gesture, Silver rose and followed him to the stairs.  "Mom, I'll be back in a minute.  Thank goodness she shut B.E.N. off," he muttered to Silver as they went upstairs with Morph.  "He'd probably tell Captain Amelia about you the second she walked in the door."

"I'm sorry to put ye through all this trouble, Jimbo," Silver said as Jim herded him into his bedroom and shut the door.  "Ye and yer mum both."

"Hey, I was the one who made you leave Luca, remember?" Jim grinned.  "It's no trouble.  I'll get you the key to one of the other rooms and come back up as soon as I can get away.  Will you be all right here?"

"I'll be fine."  Silver plucked Morph off of Jim's shoulder.  "I'd better keep Morphy here with me though.  If he's pickin' up sentences as easy as ye say, they might catch on to me being here."

"Good idea."  Jim went to the door and opened it slowly, just in case one of the Dopplers had somehow wandered upstairs.  "Make yourself at home."

"All right, Jimbo.  Go on now, before they start wonderin' where ye are."

Jim quietly shut the door behind him, then started downstairs.  Normally he liked the Dopplers and enjoyed their visits, but tonight he wished they were on another planet altogether.

 

By the time Jim made it back downstairs, Sarah had settled the Doppler family down in the common room.  In spite of his irritation at their timing, he had to smile when he saw the basketful of assorted small Dopplers.  The triplets promised to be as pretty as their mother one day, and Delbert Jr. was. . . well, he looked just like his father.  Jim supposed they couldn't all inherit the looks in the family.

"I'm glad to see you decided to return to us, Hawkins," Amelia said wryly when she saw him descending the stairs.

Delbert wasn't quite so amenable.  "Do you have any idea how worried your mother was about you, young man?" he barked.  "Why, I was this close to going out after you--"

"Delbert, it's fine, really," Sarah interrupted placatingly.  "Jim explained everything to me."

"Sorry I worried you though," Jim apologized as he took a seat next to the kids and started playing with his favorite triplet, the brunette Tisiphone.  "All of you."

"Well. . . just don't do it again!" Delbert finished rather lamely.  He still seemed a bit taken aback every time Jim responded to criticism politely, rather than snap back as he always had before their adventure.

"So is that your ship out there?" Amelia asked, leaning forward in a slightly voracious manner.

"Yes!" Jim grinned.  "That's why I was gone so long.  Isn't she beautiful?"

"She certainly is."  Amelia glanced out the window at the ship waiting at the end of the pier.  "Perhaps sometime you could show me how well you handle her."

"Sure!  I'm actually planning on taking her to the space port soon to look for some freelance delivery work.  I was thinking, with a small ship like that I wouldn't need much in the way of a crew, so we could travel lighter and faster.  Fewer crew members and quicker jobs mean we'll each make more, and--"

Delbert cleared his throat.  "Forgive me for being blunt, but this sounds rather speculative.  I hope you haven't set your family back, ah, financially with this little venture."

"That's not exactly polite, Delbert," Amelia chided, then she cut her narrow eyes back to Jim.  "Although I was wondering how you paid for her."

As Jim was fumbling for a valid response, Sarah jumped in and saved him.  "He practically mortgaged himself body and soul; that's how he paid for her," she said wryly.

"Yeah," Jim added, giving his mother a look of gratitude.  "I'll be making payments until I'm old and grey.  But I don't mind."  He looked out past the Dopplers at the ship through the window.  "She's worth it.  It's all worth it."

Delbert was still frowning a little, but Amelia just smiled knowingly.  Even though he had dreaded seeing her the most, Jim felt grateful to her now.  She might be straight-laced, but she was still a spacer at heart.  She knew what it was like to love a ship.

A few of the locals turned up for dinner, along with the two families staying in the inn.  Sarah took a chance on reactivating B.E.N. after a whispered consultation with Jim; Jim agreed that since the robot never had a reason to go upstairs in the evenings, it would be safe to turn him back on.  Jim did feel a bit guilty telling B.E.N. that they'd had to deactivate him for maintenance, but the gangly robot seemed to buy the story.  He did, after all, require quite a lot of maintenance.

Still, with each minute that passed, Jim grew more anxious about the pirate hiding upstairs.  What if one of the guests heard something?  Or what if one of the Dopplers started wondering where Morph was?  Jim fidgeted, nearly dropped the dishes he was carrying for his mother, gazed absently at the fire instead of participating in the conversation.  Finally Sarah, on her way back to the kitchen with a load of dishes, said rather loudly, "Forgive your old mother for sending you to bed early, Jim, but you look like death warmed over."

"Sure you don't need help with the dishes?" he asked even as he stood, trying to keep from sounding too eager.

"B.E.N. can handle it.  You go get some rest."

Jim bid goodnight to Delbert and Amelia, placated the whimpering Tisiphone with a pat on the head, and headed for the stairs, stealthily picking up a key to one of the unused rooms on his way past the front desk.  Sarah stopped him when she passed by.

"Jim."

"Yeah, Mom?"

"You never did tell me-- he didn't steal that ship, did he?" she whispered.

"No, Mom, he didn't steal the ship.  He bought it with the last of the treasure."

She smirked.  "Well, in that case I don't feel quite so guilty about harboring a fugitive.  And Jim. . . ."  Her smile softened.  "You don't have that searching look anymore.  And that's worth harboring all the fugitives in the galaxy."

When Jim returned to his bedroom, he found Silver seated on the bed with Morph, both of them watching the book about Treasure Planet Jim had had as a child.  His original copy had burned up with the rest of the Benbow, but he had bought a replacement out of nostalgia a few weeks after returning from his trip with the Legacy.

"Hard to believe it's gone now, isn't it?" Jim murmured as he sat down next to Silver.

"Yeah."  Silver closed the book, leaving the room dim after its light was extinguished.  "So how is the lovely captain and her family?"

"Interested in my ship.  Mom helped me field the questions."  Jim chuckled and leaned back, fingers laced behind his head.  "I don't think they're too suspicious.  And it's not like they come by every day, just a couple times a week."

"There's the robot, though."  Silver sighed as he laid the book on Jim's nightstand.  "I guess we could always take out his brain like ol' Flint did."

"I don't think it's doing too much good where it is now, anyway."  Jim held out his hand to Morph; the shapeshifter nipped at his fingers then pounced on his chest, bouncing up and down.  "Oof, do I look like a trampoline?" Jim chided.  Morph chortled and curled up in a little ball.

"Glad to see ye've taken good care of him," Silver observed.  "I missed the little fella."

"Yeah, he's been pretty good company."  Jim stroked Morph above his eyes as the shapeshifter drifted off to sleep.  "It. . . really meant a lot to me, you giving him to me.  Especially when he was all you had."

"Well, I didn't know how long I'd last out there with the police forces of stars know how many worlds after me.  He was safer with ye than me.  But I also wanted ye to have him so that ye'd. . . ye know, remember me."

"Of course I'd remember you," Jim rebuked him drowsily.  The stress of the day was beginning to tell its toll on him, and Morph's faint, peaceful snoring didn't help.  "I couldn't forget you, Silver, ever."  Then he realized that he was forgetting the key.  He pulled it out of his pocket and handed it over.  "It's the room just across the hall.  You can take Morph if you want."

"Nay, he looks pretty comfy right there."  Silver reached out to pet Morph, then seemed to think better than to risk waking him.  He patted Jim on the head instead.  "I'll let ye scout things out in the mornin' and be sure it's safe for me to come down."  He rested his hand against Jim's hair, stroking it lightly with his fingertips.

"Okay."  Jim closed his eyes, relishing the sensation.  He wished Silver would just stay there with him.  His rebuilt room had never seemed as comfortable as his old one had before the fire, but having Silver there changed everything.  Even though the spacer had never set foot in the Benbow before that day, he seemed to belong there.

But Jim didn't know how to ask him to stay, and after a moment, Silver stood and stretched.  "Night, Jimbo."

"Good night."  Jim opened one eye and watched him go to the door, closing it gently behind him on his way out.

 

The next morning, Morph woke Jim in his usual fashion, by chittering in his ear until Jim awoke.  Jim dragged himself to his feet, giving the clock a baleful glance.  It was still early, so he decided he had time for a shower before "scouting things out."  By the time he had finished and made it downstairs, Sarah was already frantically throwing breakfast dishes on the tables.  After a moment, Jim saw the source of her agitation: the young Dopplers' basket resting on one of the tables.

"What're the kids still doing here?" he asked, peering cautiously in.  All of them were asleep except for red-haired Alecto, who blinked up at him sulkily.

"Not still-- they're back."  Sarah blew a strand of hair out of her eyes.  "Apparently Delbert discovered some new comet or other last night and insisted that Amelia fly him off to the registration office before someone else beats him to it.  We have to baby-sit today."

Jim raised an eyebrow.  "You mean like the last time he 'discovered' something because he had his almanac turned to the wrong page?"

"That," Sarah grumbled, "was before they had the kids.  I don't know what we're going to do with them all day."

"I have an idea."  Jim leaned over the basket to tickle Alecto a little.  "I wanted to take you for a ride in my ship anyway-- we could take the kids too!  You think B.E.N. could manage things here?"

"Jim, don't tell me you're suggesting we take those children into space at their age!"

"No, not into space. . . just up a little in the atmosphere."  Jim scooped up Alecto and held her out to his mother.  "See, doesn't she look like a budding spacer?"  Alecto scowled.

Sarah shook her head with a little smile and took the baby in her own arms.  "I suppose it will be all right, and I don't think Amelia and Delbert would mind.  Would Silver be coming too?"

"I think it's safer than leaving him here with B.E.N.," Jim said wryly.

"That's a good point."  Sarah set Alecto on her lap and regarded her slightly pessimistically.  "Between the two of them, they'd probably burn the inn down all over again."

Jim cringed at the reference to Silver's past.  He had told his mother almost everything about who Silver had been and how they had been thrown together on the Legacy; he had felt it would be lying to her not to reveal that the man he had come to love more than anyone except Sarah herself was also nearly the cause of their deaths the night Billy Bones had lurched into their lives.  He couldn't blame her for being mistrustful of Silver, but it still hurt-- mostly because it reminded Jim of how horribly Silver had betrayed his trust once before.

"Mom, he's different now," Jim murmured, looking down at the child on his mother's lap.  "He saved my life, and gave us the money to rebuild the inn better than before, and bought me the ship--"

"I know."  Sarah looked up at him, smiling faintly.  "If you trust him, Jim, then I trust him too."

Jim gave her a pained look in return.  "I trust him," he said softly, yet he added in his thoughts, But then you trusted Dad, and look where it got you.  If Silver does that to me-- if he turns on me again, or leaves me-- it'll kill me.

As she so often did, Sarah seemed to read his unspoken thoughts in that one look.  She reached out and squeezed his hand, then stood up with Alecto.  "I'd better get the little ones bundled up if they're going out.  Go wake up Silver and then see about packing us some lunch, will you?"

"Sure, Mom."  Jim paused on the stairs.  "What about B.E.N.?"

"I don't think he'll be a problem as long as we turn him off before the Dopplers return tonight."

"I hope not," Jim muttered as he went on upstairs.

He found Silver awake, and after explaining the new turn of events, they went to the kitchen to make sandwiches for the trip.  Upon seeing Silver, B.E.N. seemed more curious than anything else, and Jim placated his dozen questions with a promise to explain everything later.

The day was fair, and Jim had no trouble sailing the Revolution out from the pier with Silver to control the sails.

"You two work well together," Sarah commented from where she was seated in the bow with Tisiphone and her blonde sister Megaera on either knee.  Alecto and Delbert Jr. were playing with, or rather fighting over, Morph at her feet.

"I've trained him well, haven't I?" Silver grinned, earning a playful swipe from Jim.

"Trained me, nothing!  I keep you on your toes!"

"Ye do at that, lad."

They dropped anchor near noon to have lunch.  It was a hectic affair at first, with this or that young Doppler constantly crawling off or getting into the sandwiches, but finally Sarah got all but Tisiphone asleep for their afternoon nap.  The little brunette cried every time Sarah tried to lay her in the basket with her siblings, so Sarah resorted to holding her on her lap, cuddling and whispering to her.

"Mom, there's a bed in my cabin if you think she'd sleep in there," Jim offered.

"No, it's all right.  I don't mind holding her."  Sarah smiled down at her little charge, rocking the sniffling girl.  "You were the same way at this age, never wanted me to put you down for an instant."

"Mom," Jim groaned.

Silver chuckled.  "Let me see the little lass a minute."  He put out his arms, and Jim held his breath.  Sarah looked up at the cyborg, clasping Tisiphone protectively. . . then she lifted the child and placed her in Silver's arms.

Tisiphone's eyes widened when she saw Silver's mechanical arm so close to her, and her mouth opened for a wail of terror-- then closed again silently as Silver tickled her lightly with the fingers of his cybernetic hand.  The little girl giggled, then grasped at his metal fingers with her own tiny hands.

Jim watched Silver walk up and down the deck with his enemy's child in his arms, always with his organic arm tenderly clasped around her.  Tisiphone was asleep in minutes, and Silver carefully laid her in the basket next to her siblings.

"There," he said fondly.  "Just needed a bit a' extra attention."

"Do you have children?" Sarah asked abruptly.  Silver gave her a surprised look from where he was bent near the basket; she ducked her head a little and added, "You seemed so. . . natural with her.  Almost like she was your own."

Silver raised one corner of his mouth in a small smile.  "It ain't hard to treat the little buggers like they are yer own, is it?  But no, I don't have any."  He straightened up and walked to the edge of the ship, looking out over the water the way he had looked at the sky with Jim a few nights before.  "Don't suppose I ever will, now."

"There's still time, you know," Sarah pointed out.  Feeling increasingly left out of the conversation, Jim slumped against the mast and folded his arms.  The last thing he wanted was for his mother to convince Silver he needed a family.

"Time, maybe, but no inclination."  Silver glanced at Jim with a reassuring wink.  "I'll be too busy helping Cap'n Hawkins here run this ship to raise any kids."

"Then it looks like I'll have to count on Morph finding another shapeshifter if I want to be a godmother again," Sarah laughed.  "Oh well, once this crew hits puberty, I'll probably want to wash my hands of children forever.  Jim, that reminds me of when you--"

"Mom, don't you dare."

They returned home to find the inn still intact, in enough time for Jim to deactivate B.E.N. and for Silver to abscond to his room before Amelia and Delbert arrived for their children.  Thank the stars Tisiphone can't talk, Jim thought as he watched Amelia fuss over her daughters.  After the Dopplers left, Jim joined Silver upstairs.

"Yer mother's pretty attached to those little tykes," Silver observed.

"Yeah.  Although sometimes I think it's just a ploy to convince me to give her grandchildren," Jim smirked.

"Eh, ye've got plenty of time for that."

"I guess."  Jim sat down on the edge of Silver's bed.  "I don't want kids though.  I like being around them, but I don't want to be. . . responsible for my own, especially if I'll be out in space a lot."  He wrinkled his nose a little.  "And I'd have to get married first if I didn't want Mom to have a conniption."

"So ye've decided the married life isn't for ye, eh?" Silver chuckled.

"Well, just look what happened to Captain Amelia!" Jim grimaced.  "She got married, had the kids, and now she never takes long voyages anymore!  She's gone a couple nights at the most because she doesn't want to be away from her family.  I mean, there's nothing wrong with that, but. . . ."

"But ye want yer lover with ye, not back home on the docks."

Jim felt his cheeks grow hot.  "Y-yeah.  Not exactly what I was going to say, but you could put it that way."

"Well, Jimbo, there's plenty of women who sail; Captain Amelia's certainly not the only one.  And plenty who would go with ye, even if they weren't spacers themselves.  Tavia, f'rinstance.  She'd be capable as any man on a ship once someone showed her what to do."

"Great.  Morph can marry her then," Jim grumbled.

"I'm not sayin' it'd have to be her."

"I don't want it to be any girl."  Jim muttered the words without really meaning to.

"Oh," Silver said softly.  Jim scowled and started to get up, but Silver put a hand on his arm.  "Sorry, Jimbo.  Don't think I'm tryin' to rush ye into anything.  Just look at me; I've been around more than fifty standard years and still not settled down.  There's nothin' wrong with bein' alone at yer age.  Yer just what, twenty?  Twenty-one?"

"Almost twenty-one."  Jim looked down at Silver's hand.  "I don't want to be alone.  I just. . . ."

Silver squeezed his arm gently.  "Don't worry about it, lad.  Let's talk about somethin' else."

"Okay."  Jim managed a little smile.  "What about?"

"Tell me about those kids.  How old are they?"

Jim squinted, trying to remember.  "The triplets are about eight standard months, and Delbert Jr.'s six months older than that."

Silver chuckled.  "Just like the Cap'n, too efficient to waste any time in between."

Jim told him more about the kids, especially Tisiphone, although a thread of discontent remained under the conversation.  Does he really think I should have a girl? Jim wondered.  Is there something wrong with me that I don't want one?

Jim went to bed early but lay awake in the darkness for a long time, listening to Morph chitter in his sleep.  He kept hearing Silver's words: ye want yer lover with ye, not back home.  Who wouldn't?  Who wouldn't want with him the person he loved and needed most?

I'll have that, Jim told himself, closing his eyes tightly.  He just doesn't know it.

Jim had always been willing to acknowledge that he loved Silver, and he was pretty sure Silver knew it too.  What Silver didn't know, what Jim had never even acknowledged to himself, was the way he loved the spacer.  Not as a replacement for his father, not just as a friend.

I want him to be my lover.  Just thinking the words made Jim’s chest constrict with a sudden warmth.  It was hard for him to move any farther than the words, to actually imagine what it would be like.  How would it feel to lie with Silver in that narrow bed in the Revolution's cabin, to feel Silver’s hands-- both organic and mechanical-- on his body, touching him where no one had ever touched him before?  The warmth in Jim’s body was swiftly turning to fire.

But then his doubts promptly extinguished the heat with an icy chill.  What if Silver didn’t think of him that way?  He was more than thirty standard years older than Jim; he might not like younger men.  And that was assuming that he liked men at all.  Maybe Silver looked at him only as a surrogate son, a stand-in for the little Mauan girl and the children he'd never have.

Jim sighed and turned over on his stomach, pressing his cheek against his pillow.  At least I'll be with him again, he tried to encourage himself.  That's better than nothing.

Chapter Text

The next few days were difficult for everyone involved.  Even though the Dopplers only turned up one more time, the visit was unexpected and Silver very nearly didn't make it into hiding in time.  There wasn't time to shut B.E.N. down, so Jim rather roughly yanked out his higher memory circuits just before he carried the lunch orders up from the kitchen.  It wasn't the best of timing, and Sarah was none too pleased when the guests all got served the wrong meals.  She cornered Jim in the kitchen after the Dopplers had left.

"This is getting out of control!" she exploded, throwing her arms in the air.  "It was all right at first, but we can't keep shutting B.E.N. on and off and shoving that pirate in the closet every time someone knocks on the door!"

"Fine, then we'll leave!" Jim snapped back.

"If I could interrupt here, ma'am. . . ."  Silver emerged from the pantry, glancing about with a stealthy look until he was assured they were alone.  "I'm truly sorry t'impose like this.  Jimbo, ye don't have to leave with me just yet.  I could take the ship up to the spaceport and start lookin' for clients and what not."

"Aw, you can't go without me!" Jim protested.

"I just don't want ye to part from yer mum in anger 'cos of me."

Sarah sighed.  "I'm not angry.  But Jim's right; you should go together.  He wouldn't be any use around here if he's moping after you and that ship."  Jim didn't even bother with a "Mom!" this time; he just rolled his eyes.

"One thing though," she added to Jim as he and Silver left the kitchen.  "You're going to fix that poor robot before you go!"

Jim helped Silver carry their belongings (and Morph) out to the ship, then went back in alone to make the necessary adjustments to B.E.N.  After a few minutes of tinkering with the robot's loose "brain," he managed to erase B.E.N.'s memory of the past few days.

"There," he told Sarah, handing her the sandwich-sized piece of B.E.N.'s head.  "After we're gone, put this back in, and he should be fine."

"I hope so."  Sarah sighed and hefted the unit in her hand.  "I can't afford to have any more mixed-up orders."

"Sorry, Mom.  And thank you for putting up with us."

Sarah smiled a little.  "It's all right.  You've been happier these past few days than I've seen you in years.  Just be careful out there-- and good luck."

"Thanks."  Jim hugged her tightly before he left.

"Everythin' okay?" Silver asked when Jim joined him on the ship.

"Yeah.  B.E.N. shouldn't remember you being here at all.  And it's only about an hour to the space port, so we should make it there before anything else happens," he added with a chuckle.

They did reach Crescentia without further incident, although finding a place to dock was more difficult than Jim had expected.  He let Silver handle the matter of "parking," and that of negotiating with the harbor master.

As they left the ship with Morph hovering over Jim's shoulder, Jim looked around at the bustling crowds.  "So where do we start?"

"It's gettin' pretty late, so we'd probably better find a place to spend the night," Silver observed.  "We could sleep on the ship if ye wanted to save some money, but we'll be more likely to find a crew if we nose around the inns a bit."

"I think we'll be sleeping on the ship more than enough later," Jim smirked.  "Let's stay on land tonight."

Silver explained some of the intricacies of finding a crew as they walked to the nearest inn.  Most crews worked together from voyage to voyage, hiring themselves out to different backers each time.  Since they would need one or two other crew members, they'd have to find either unattached spacers, or ones willing to split from their crews.

"Plus, we don't have any jobs yet," Silver went on.  "We might have to make do with some a' the desperate ones fer a while."

"Uh, is that a bad thing?"

Silver chuckled.  "Could be.  I'll take care of ye, though.  No one'll lay a finger on ye, I promise."

Despite the comforting words, the thought of "making do with the desperate ones" troubled Jim.  For the first time, he really thought about the practical side of his plans.  He was quiet as Silver got them rooms for the evening and they carried their bags upstairs.  Jim sat gamely on one of the beds as Silver dumped his belongings on the other.

"What am I getting myself into?" Jim muttered after a moment of watching Morph mimic the table lamp on the nightstand.

"Eh?"

"I haven't thought this through at all.  What if you're right about the crew?  They're never gonna respect a twenty-one-year-old captain!"

Silver raised his eyebrow.  "I thought ye said ye were twenty."

"Okay, almost twenty-one-year-old captain.  At any rate, I don't know the first thing about hiring a crew, or finding clients, or--"

"That's why ye have me," Silver interrupted.  He went over to Jim and rested his hands on his shoulders, looking down at the younger man fondly.  "I'll take care of the business end of things, and keeping the crew in line."  He smiled a little.  "Provided ye trust me."

Jim managed a smile up at him.  "Of course I trust you.  As long as you trust me.  I could always turn you in, you know."

Silver laughed.  "Ye could've done that a long time ago if ye were goin' to.  No, I'd trust ye with my life, Jimbo."  He gave Jim's shoulder a squeeze, then let him go.  "Which isn't gonna be a long one if I don't get somethin' to eat.  Let's go see what they're servin' for dinner."  Jim got up to follow him, then Silver paused and looked back at him more seriously.  "And don't ye worry about anythin'.  I told ye I'd take care of ye, and I mean it."

The inn was much more crowded than the Benbow, or even than Lord Rin's establishment in Luca.  It was louder too, with raucous groups of spacers at the bar yelling drunkenly.  Jim was intensely glad that he wasn't alone.  Morph seemed interested in all the excitement at first, until he got too close to one of the drinking spacers and nearly got pummeled.  After that, he fled back to the safety of Jim's shoulder and cowered under the edge of his collar.

Silver found them a table near the end of the bar.  "Ye want a drink?" he asked as Jim took a seat against the relative safety of a wall.

"I'm not old enough.  Almost twenty-one, remember?"

"If yer old enough to pilot yer own ship, ye can have a drink," Silver assured him with a smirk.  "Just not at the same time."  He leaned over to the bar and signaled the bartender to order two gin and tonics.

"Hope you're not buying for your son there," the bartender observed, nodding towards Jim.  "He doesn't look old enough."

"Of course not," Silver assured him.  After he took the drinks and turned back to the table, he added over his shoulder, "He's not my son."

Jim chuckled as Silver handed him his drink.  "Sneaky."

"Just more proof that I'm leadin' an honest life now," Silver returned.  He held up his glass.  "To us, Jimbo."

"Yeah."  Jim clinked their glasses together and grinned.  "To us."

As they ate dinner, and Morph ate the majority of Jim's roast potatoes before getting caught, Silver pointed out bits of the dialogue around them.  Of particular interest was the conversation between the bartender and an Octopid man, one of Tavia's race, who had appeared at the bar.

"Tentacles says he's looking for a ship," Silver whispered, leaning over the table towards Jim.  "He might be a candidate for the crew."

Jim studied the man; he was young as far as Jim could tell, with long brown hair pulled into a single messy ponytail trailing down his back.  He seemed more excitable than Tavia, waving his arm-tentacles about in the air as he talked.  He was dressed in a rather ragged dark green tunic and khaki shorts with laced openings up the sides that allowed him free movement of the three tentacles that protruded from each cuff.

"I don't know," Jim whispered back.  "He's sort of a mess."

Silver leaned back towards the bar nonchalantly, listening, then reported, "Says he'll be here until he finds a ship, so it looks like ye'll have time to decide.  I don't think many are hirin' right now."

"I'll think about it," Jim said.  He supposed he couldn't afford to be too picky with his crew, but he didn't want to rush into anything either.  Besides, he needed to talk with the young man first, and he didn't want any company at the moment.  I just want to be alone with Silver, Jim thought a little guiltily.

After they ate, Silver stretched and suggested another trip to the bar.  The din of the other spacers was giving Jim a headache, and he wasn't too excited about staying downstairs.

"I think I'll go back up to the room," he demurred, standing up.  "It's so loud here, and. . . well, I need to think."

Silver nodded at first, then caught at Jim's arm as he passed.  "Do ye want to be alone to do yer thinkin'?"

"Not especially," Jim replied with a little smile.

"In that case," Silver went on, standing as well, "I'll join ye, and have them send up some more drinks.  Ye go on up; I'll be right there."

Jim nodded and went to the stairs.  He paused on the landing and looked out over the room.  Will I really find a crew here? he wondered.  Someone capable enough that I'd trust my ship, my cargo, and my life to him?

Then he thought, I trust Silver, and he said he'd take care of me.  We'll figure something out.  Feeling more confident, he started up the stairs.

 

Jim was looking out the window with Morph when Silver joined him a few moments later.  Jim could just see the edge of Montressor rising over the curve of Crescentia.  The planet would be full tonight, and so bright with reflected sunlight, he would hardly be able to look at it straight on once it was whole in the sky.  He had been to other worlds with real moons which had phases, making him wish that his own home planet was blessed with a beautiful, ever-changing moon.

"Nice night," Silver observed, looking over his shoulder.  "Though I guess every night's nice here with only an artificial atmosphere."

"Yeah."  Jim sat down on his bed and watched as Silver made more drinks from the flask of gin and bottle of tonic water he'd brought up.

"That bartender let you buy more even though he knew it was for me?" Jim smirked when Silver handed him his drink.

Silver chuckled in response.  "He was more interested in sellin' drinks than watchin' who they were for."  Morph bobbed over to him and peered down into his glass with keen interest, but Silver gently pushed him away with one hand.  "None for ye though, Morphy."  Morph sulked for a moment, then turned into a straw and slurped up the last of the tonic water instead.

"So what did ye need t' think about, if ye don't mind sharin'?" Silver asked.  He started to clear off his bed with one hand, then gave up and sat down next to Jim instead.

"Everything."  Jim took a long drink, hoping it would relax him.  "I guess I hadn't thought this through enough, even though it's been all I've thought about in days.  But going in there and seeing that those are the kind of people I'll have to take for a crew--"

"Now don't ye go judgin' 'em too harshly," Silver interrupted.  "Ye know, I'm one a' 'those' kinds a' people too."

"No, you were.  But you're different now."  Jim looked up at him.  Silver looked back a moment, then glanced away and quickly downed the rest of his drink. 

"Are ye havin' second thoughts?" Silver asked after a moment.  "Because if ye are. . . now's the time t' say so."

"No, not about the courier work and the ship. . . not about us.  I just. . . I just wish we could do it ourselves, just you and me!"  Jim forced himself to stop talking and finish his drink before he dug himself in an even deeper hole.

"I know, lad," Silver replied heavily.  "So do I."  Jim looked back up at him hopefully, though Silver's eyes, both organic and mechanical, were focused somewhere across the room.  "But it would be a lot a' work, runnin' that ship by ourselves."

"But we'd get to keep all the money we make!" Jim pointed out.  "And we wouldn't have to carry as much food, so we could make better time without the extra weight."  Silver didn't respond, but Jim could see from his expression that he was almost convinced.  "We could at least try, then if we couldn't do it, we could hire someone. . . ."

"Ye sure yer up to that much hard work?"

Jim smirked again.  "Couldn't be any worse than on the Legacy, as hard as you worked me."

"Ye have a point there."  Silver finally turned back to him, smiling faintly.  "All right, if yer willin' t' make a go of it, so'm I.  So instead of findin' a crew tomorrow, we'll be lookin' for clients.  Deal?"  He stuck out his mechanical hand, and Jim shook it.

"Deal."

Morph had settled down to nap on Silver's pillow on the other bed.  Silver looked at him and chuckled.  "Morphy's got the right idea; we should probably make an early night of it."  He paused and picked up the flask from the nightstand.  "But we might as well finish the gin off first."  He took a drink from it then handed it to Jim.

"Yeah."  Jim tilted it back and swallowed a mouthful of gin.  It was a lot stronger straight than mixed with the tonic water, and he winced a little.  "Wow."

Silver chuckled and took the flask back.  "Maybe I should cut ye off there."  He took another drink, then held the flask just out of Jim's reach when he tried to grab it back.

"Hey, that's not fair!" Jim sulked.

"Now what would yer mum say if she found out I'd been encouragin' ye t' drink?"

"She's not going to say anything because we're not going to tell her!  Now give it!"  Jim rose up on his knees and leaned against Silver, trying to reach past him to get the flask back.  Silver grinned and set it on the nightstand, pushing it out of both of their reach with his fingertips.

"You're so mean!"  Jim leaned over him towards the nightstand and would have lost his balance entirely if Silver hadn't pressed his mechanical hand to the small of his back, holding Jim against him.  Jim suddenly realized just how close he was to the other man, a fact emphasized when Silver rolled over on his side, pushing Jim onto his back on the bed and positioning himself between Jim and the nightstand.

"There," he chuckled.  "Let's see ye get it now."

Jim felt like his whole body was pulsing with his heartbeat.  "You win," he murmured hoarsely.  He looked up into the other man's eyes and saw Silver's face change expression, from good-natured triumph to combined surprise and concern.  Jim could feel Silver's mechanical hand pinned under him by the weight of his body.  Jim's own hands remained on Silver's shoulders, which he had instinctively clutched when he'd lost his balance.

Silver glanced down at one of Jim's hands, then back to his face.  He looked as agitated as Jim felt.  "Jimbo--" he began, and Jim was certain that the older man was going to push him away again, the way he usually did when they were physically close to one another for any length of time.

But Silver didn't try to withdraw from him.  Instead, he spread his mechanical fingers slightly and pressed them against Jim's back in a motion both protective and possessive.  He looked as if he wanted to speak again, but he just bit his lip and looked down at Jim sadly.

Jim couldn't stand seeing that expression.  "What's wrong?"

"Nothin's wrong," Silver muttered.  "I'm just. . . thinkin' things I shouldn't."

"Yeah?  Like what?" Jim breathed.  When Silver didn't reply, only continued to look at him under one half-lowered eyelid, Jim went on slowly, "I might. . . be thinking them too."

"Ye couldn't be."  Silver’s expression changed to a faint smile that relieved Jim greatly.

"Try me.  I have a good imagination," Jim murmured.

Silver let go of his hand and caught Jim's chin between his organic fingers.  "Jimbo, I'm thinkin' that either yer the biggest tease in the galaxy, or that ye. . . ye want--"

"I'm not teasing anybody."

"We'll see about that."  Silver bent his head towards him and hesitated.  Jim covered the last few inches on his own, pulling his chin from Silver's grasp to press their lips together.  Silver's hand went to the back of Jim's neck, holding his head still as he kissed his mouth repeatedly.  Jim's heart raced faster each time Silver's lips brushed his own.  He slid his arm around Silver's neck and parted his lips under the older man's.  After an instant, he felt Silver's tongue probe his mouth.

Jim opened his mouth wider, rubbing his own tongue against Silver's.  He wrapped his other arm around Silver's back and clung to him as they kissed, pressing his groin forward against Silver's organic thigh.  The pressure sent a burst of pleasure through his body, making him moan in Silver's mouth.  Silver drew in his breath at the sound, then plunged his tongue into Jim's mouth all the harder.

Silver finally broke the kiss, leaving Jim breathless.  The older man slid his mechanical hand from Jim's back to his side, then down over his hip before letting him go.  The touch nearly drove Jim crazy.

"We really should get some rest," Silver said, then chuckled when Jim's face fell.  "And there's no use givin' me one a' those sulky looks a' yers."

"But--"

Silver put a mechanical finger over Jim's lips, silencing him.  "Don't tempt me, Jimbo.  Please."  The almost desperate tone of the last word told Jim he was serious.

Why not?  Jim's silent question was punctuated in his mind by the cold metal of Silver's finger against his lips. . . and the competing warm throbbing between his legs.  He wanted Silver to do more than kiss him, and he was pretty sure Silver wanted it too.  Whatever was stopping Silver was the same thing that had made the cyborg pull away when they had touched before, and what had made him refuse to leave Spira with Jim at first.  Is he afraid he'll hurt me?  Or afraid I'll hurt him?

Silver withdrew his finger then bent his head and kissed Jim lightly a final time before getting up.  Jim watched him clear off the other bed, unceremoniously shifting Morph aside.  The shapeshifter half-woke and harrumphed, then curled up in a tighter ball and slept again.

Jim rose and went into the adjoining bathroom to undress; when he returned in his night clothes, Silver was already in bed.  Jim got into his own bed and extinguished the light, then lay in the darkness trying to simultaneously figure out Silver's behavior and not think about it.  Does he want me or not? he wondered.  It hurt him to think that the answer might be no, despite the way Silver kissed him.

"Jimbo?"  Silver's voice came abruptly from the darkness on the other side of the room.

"Yeah?"

"Don't take it the wrong way, all right?"

Jim's cheeks burned at the same moment a feeling of leaden ice dropped into his chest.  "Which way is the wrong one?"

Silver was silent so long, Jim thought he wasn't going to answer.  He finally said in a low voice, "Don't think I want t' tell ye no.  I didn't want t' stop."

The ice in Jim's chest dissipated, though he still had to fight to keep his voice steady.  "Then why did you?"

"Ye may trust me, but I don't know if I trust myself.  I had t' stop while I still could."

I wouldn't ask you to stop, Jim thought.  I'd do anything you wanted.

"It's all right," he said aloud, forcing lightness into his voice to keep the desperation out of it.

 

When Jim woke up the next morning, Silver was still asleep in the other bed, Morph draped rather comically over his forehead and snoring.  Jim sat up too swiftly and ended up leaning against the wall as the blood rushed in his head.  The rushing resolved itself into a pounding, leaving Jim with a terrible headache.

"Ugh," he muttered under his breath.  He was confused enough without a hangover too.  He got out of bed shakily and washed and dressed as quietly as he could.  For reasons he didn't really understand himself, he didn't want to wake Silver.

When he was dressed, Jim went downstairs.  It was still quite early, and the chairs hadn't yet been set out in the common room; they were still upside down on the table-tops.  Grumbling to himself, Jim sat at the bar where one other early riser was eating breakfast.

"Coffee.  Please," Jim muttered to the single server, resting his forehead in his hand.

"Not hungry?"  Jim cringed at the sound and half-turned his head to his dining companion.  It was the Octopid man on whom Silver had eavesdropped the night before, now regarding him though intent sea-green eyes with horizontal pupils.  "Rough night, I see."

"No, I'm not hungry."  The server returned with a mug of the strongest coffee Jim had ever tasted.  He steeled himself and drank half of it as fast as he could.

"Sure?"  The man gestured a tentacle at his own rather meager plate.  "Eggs?  Toast?"  He curled the tip of his tentacle around a glass of clear liquid and looked closely at Jim once more.  "Hair of the Alponian that bit you?"

"You're drinking this early?" Jim grimaced.

"Actually, it's just water, but only because I can't afford anything stronger until I find work.  You don't know of any ships that're hiring, do you?"

He doesn't waste any time, Jim thought.  If we were looking for a crew. . . .

"No," he said aloud, "I just got here myself."

"Ah.  From where?"  Jim cast him a dour look which went unnoticed, as the Octopid was busy with his toast.

"The Academy.  I just graduated."

"Well, congratulations."  The man raised his glass half-ironically before he drank.  "Are you on a military ship, then?"

"No.  I'm a courier."  Jim couldn't keep a twinge of pride from his voice.  "I'm here looking for clients."

"You just graduated, and you've got a ship already?"  The man looked suitably impressed.

Jim started to answer affirmatively, then thought better of it.  It might not be a good idea to let on that the Revolution actually belonged to him; that might lead to ideas that Jim had money on him that he didn't possess.  Getting mugged by a greedy spacer-- or an annoyingly talkative Octopid-- would put a damper on his plans for sure.

"Technically, the galactic bank's got a ship," he said wryly.  "I have ship payments 'til I'm fifty."

A wan smile crossed the other man's thin lips.  He wasn't particularly handsome-- with skin paler than Jim's, his face appeared washed out and haggard, his cheeks hollow.  Without the animation he had shown last night, only his eyes seemed really alive.  The faint smile, which somehow seemed ironic, didn't help.

"You're far ahead of me then, but if I hear of anyone who needs a courier, I'll let you know.  Provided you return the favor."

Jim didn't want the man's help, but really, what could you do?  "Of course."

The Octopid rose from his stool, having finished his breakfast.  "What's your name, in case I hear of something?"

"Jim Hawkins."

"I'm Camille Ownby.  I'll be staying here until I find a ship to sign on with, so I'll see you around, I'm sure."  He held out a tentacle, which Jim shook hesitantly.  He had touched Tavia's "hand" before, but Ownby's felt different.  The four pairs of suckers on what was analogous to his palm were rougher and calloused, and he curled the tip of his tentacle around Jim's thumb, almost stroking it when they parted.

If he weren't so self-absorbed, I'd think he's coming on to me, Jim thought as he watched Ownby leave the inn.  But really, it wasn't like that at all.  The looks he'd cast at Jim had seemed to be appraising him in an entirely different way.  Maybe he thinks I do have money, and he's planning on relieving me of it.  I'd better tell Silver, just in case.

He'd forgotten about Silver until then, but now the memory of their kisses rushed back overwhelmingly.  Since his headache had abated, chased away by the strong coffee, Jim's mind was clear to resume worrying about Silver's behavior the night before, and to continue questioning why the spacer still pushed him away, in spite of everything.  That was of much greater concern to Jim than being robbed of money he didn't possess, and Camille Ownby disappeared from his mind for the time being.

 

Silver came down soon after, as the other servers were arriving and setting out the chairs.  Morph was floating along just above his shoulder.

"For a minute there, I thought ye'd run out on me," Silver commented as he took the seat Ownby had recently vacated, with one stool between himself and Jim.  "Ye should've woken me; we needed an early start today."

Jim scowled and asked the server for a second cup of coffee.  In that moment, he decided not to tell Silver about the Octopid after all.  Silver's distance, and more importantly his implication that Jim had already screwed up at that early hour, reminded him infuriatingly of how things had been when they had first met.  If he's going to be like that, he can just get a nice surprise when octo-boy breaks into our room tonight, Jim thought.

"Morph, you want some breakfast?" he asked aloud, beckoning the shapeshifter with one hand and deliberately ignoring Silver.  Morph chittered and scooted over to him.  "Whatcha feel like?"  Morph turned into a scrambled egg, which Jim duly ordered along with a couple extras for himself.  To his surprise, he realized he was hungry after all.

Silver was quiet as they ate, apparently sensing that Jim wasn't in the best of moods.  Somehow, his silence only irritated Jim further, because he realized he didn't really have anything about which to be upset.  He wanted Silver to do or say something wrong, to give him an excuse to pick a fight.

I'm making less sense than Delbert on a good day, Jim scolded himself.  Maybe he's as confused as I am about all this.  After he finished eating, he managed a small smile at Silver.  "Ready to find some clients?"

Silver nodded and stood with a creak of his mechanical limbs.  "Aye.  Why don't ye do the talkin'?" he added after they had paid for their meal and drifted outside.  "Ye put a prettier face on this whole venture than I do."

Jim nodded, flushing slightly in spite of himself.  He walked down the street slowly, Silver following behind him with Morph on his shoulder, and looked carefully at each establishment they passed: inns, pawn shops, mechanics.  Unfortunately, none of them looked like the kind of place that would need a courier.

Finally, they found a potential customer.  Rounding a corner, Jim saw a rather flustered person in the middle of the street, screeching at a trio of swiftly departing spacers in a sea of feathers.

"Cowards!  Scoundrels!  Vagabonds!  I'll make sure you never work in this spaceport again!  I'll-- oh, what's the use?"  The source of the screech drooped and turned back towards one of the building façades.  Jim saw a thin gentleman of about thirty with a pair of large, glossy black wings protruding from his back and a mop of rusty hair which he brushed from his bespectacled eyes.  Something about him reminded Jim of Delbert, even though the man was more avian than canine, and infinitely less pulled together.  Jim watched the man pause at the façade to straighten a rather shabby sign that read "Bertrand E. Merle, Attorney at Law."

"A lawyer," Jim muttered.  "Lawyers use runners, right?"

"I dunno, Jimbo."  Silver stood next to him, looking the man over.  "He doesn't look the type to remember to pay us."  Then he sighed and shrugged.  "But it's not like we're exactly rollin' in prospects."

"Don't worry; I have a good feeling about this," Jim assured him.  He went over to the distracted man and coughed politely.  "You, uh, seem to be having a bit of trouble.  Anything we can do?"

Merle looked over his narrow shoulder at the pair of them.  "Not unless you can go back in time and tell my former self to make those good-for-nothing louts sign a contract."  He turned back to his sign, frowned at it, then grabbed the tip of one of his own wings and began polishing the sign with its feathers.

Jim bit back a chuckle.  "Ah-- no, I'm afraid my ship can't do that, but--"

"You have a ship?"  Merle let go of his wing and turned to face Jim and Silver; his light brown skin paled slightly as he looked Silver over more carefully.  "Erm, I mean, how lovely for you."  He opened the door next to his sign and started inside the building.  "If you'll excuse me, I have work to--"

"Do you need someone with a ship?" Jim interrupted, darting in after the lawyer before he could shut the door.  Silver chuckled and followed with Morph.

"W-well, I. . . ."  Merle led them-- or rather, they followed him-- through a small deserted waiting room into an only slightly larger office, where he sat behind a desk that took up half of the available space.  He seemed a bit more sure of himself once he was in the seat of power.  "Those three. . . gentlemen you might have seen were the latest crew signed on to make document deliveries for me.  Can't rely on the mail, you know, far too slow, so I hire runners-- at least, I've been trying to.  That was my third crew, and I thought they were working out rather well. . . until I asked them to make this latest run."

"Couldn't handle it, hunh?" Jim said, sitting down in one of the clients' chairs in the office and leaning back a bit.  He had the feeling that an air of self-assurance would go far with Merle.  Silver took the other chair; when Jim glanced at him, the spacer was looking from one to the other of them with an expression of infinite amusement.  We're both enjoying this, Jim thought with a slightly guilty smile.

"What's more, they had the nerve not to tell me they wouldn't make the run until they'd taken the advance half-payment-- and advanced halfway down the street!"  Merle groaned and dropped his forehead into his gangly hands.  "I'll be ruined if this keeps up."

"Well, sir, I think you're in luck," Jim began his pitch.  "You see, we're couriers, and we just happen to be in between clients at the moment."

"You're couriers?"  Merle moved one hand long enough to cast a disparaging eye on Silver, then replaced it.

"Yes, with the smallest, lightest ship you'll find running.  We'll make this 'latest run' of yours-- if you'll keep us on after that."

Merle dropped his hands and sat back in his chair with a faint, wry smile.  "Oh, if you make this run, you're hired for life-- provided you sign a contract."

Despite his previous decision that Jim should do the talking, Silver butted in at the mention of a contract.  "What exactly is involved in it?"

"You would agree to make the run for half down, half on completion.  If the run is, ah, successful, then I'd be obligated to offer you employment for the next six standard months.  Basically, I just want your word that you'll try to the best of your ability to complete the run."

He's desperate, Jim thought.  This must be something really important. . . .  He glanced questioningly at Silver, who nodded faintly.

"All right," Jim said aloud, "as long as we get to read through it first."

"I can have it drawn up by tomorrow morning," Merle replied.  "Just a couple small matters first-- how many are on your crew?"

Jim swallowed hard.  "Well, there's-- there's us."

Merle seemed to be waiting for an extension to the answer, then he frowned.  "Just the two of you?  Then forget it-- you'd never make it.  I'm not going to be responsible for certain, ah, failure."

Jim scowled.  "We're as good as any full crew!"

Again, Merle gave them the little, wry smile.  "Maybe so, but that's the other small matter-- where you're going."  They looked at him expectantly; he took a slow breath.  "My home planet, Coronis."

If Jim had heard of the planet in school, he had long since forgotten it.  "Well?  What about it?"

"Civil war," Silver muttered grimly.  "It's been goin' on for several years."

Merle nodded.  "Yes.  My home is now one of the most dangerous planets in the galaxy."  He looked away from them, and Jim saw his thin throat work.  "Most of my family is still there.  That's what the run is for; I need you to take supplies to them.  My sister--"  He broke off abruptly and removed his glasses, polishing them with a wing-tip as he had the sign.

"So that's why no one will work for ye," Silver said in a low voice.  "Ye've tried to send 'em there."

"Well, I'm not going to send you," Merle retorted, shoving his glasses back on.  "The likes of you would never make it."

"We would so!"  Jim clenched his hands over the arms of his chair and half-rose.  "If we can get another crewman, will you send us?"

"Jimbo--" Silver began, then sat back and smiled a little at the incensed look Jim gave him.

Merle looked at them helplessly, then shrugged his bony shoulders.  "Yes.  Can you be ready by tomorrow morning?  If you're sure."

"Yes," Jim said firmly.  "We can."

Once they were back out on the street, Silver put his mechanical hand on Jim's arm.  "Lad, he's right.  Coronis is one of the most dangerous places in the galaxy.  Are ye sure ye want to do it?  We can find another client, eventually--"

"Silver, he needs us!  He's trying to help his family.  If it were Mom stuck on Montressor, needing supplies--"

Silver smiled at him gently.  "Is that all?  Or are ye also tryin' to prove that ye can do it?"

Jim bit his lip, then glanced up at him.  "That we can do it."

"All right."  Silver gave his arm a faint squeeze, then dropped his hand.  "What about this third crewman a' yers?  I assume ye have someone in mind?"

"Yeah."  And if he's as desperate as he looked, Jim thought, he'll say yes.  Even to Coronis.

Jim had turned in the direction of the inn, but Silver stopped him and pointed him instead towards a row of stores.

"If we're going to Coronis, we shouldn't go unarmed," he explained.  There was a slight grimness to his tone that unnerved Jim.

"Don't you have weapons?"

"Not anymore."  Silver looked around critically as they entered an armory.  "Sold 'em in Luca.  It was either that, or give up the last of Flint's treasure."

". . . oh."  Jim turned away somewhat guiltily and examined a display of knives.  "What kind of weapons did you have in mind?"

"Well, can ye shoot?  Although I do seem t' remember ye bein' good with these," Silver said wryly, gesturing at the knives.

Jim chose to ignore the comment.  "Yeah, I can shoot.  They taught us at the Academy.  Although. . . I've never shot at, you know. . . a person."

"It's easier than ye think," Silver said softly in Jim's ear as he brushed past him, heading for the back of the shop where the firearms were kept.

"That's so encouraging," Jim muttered.  He wasn't the least interested in owning a gun; during his training, he had found them too heavy and awkward for his liking.  He was a fair enough shot, at least on the practice range when the target was a cardboard cutout, but he had never enjoyed shooting, even when he was successful at it.

He turned back to the knives.  One in particular caught his attention: a short, wide, folding blade with a darkly iridescent handle. That's the weapon I want, he thought.

By the time Jim joined Silver, the shop owner already had four different guns out on the counter, all of them stocky pistols.  Jim watched as Silver hefted each one in his organic hand and took aim at an imaginary target.

"This one," he finally said, holding up the one with the shortest barrel.  "What about you, Jimbo?"

"I want a knife."

Silver glanced at him, then nodded.  "All right.  Whatever yer more comf'table with."

As they left the shop with their purchases, Jim concealed the closed knife in his jacket.  Morph seemed fascinated with Silver's new weapon, which the spacer wore tucked into his belt, clearly visible.  Morph shifted into an exact replica of the gun and hung from Silver's other side.

The rest of the morning passed quickly, with few words spoken between the two.  On Silver's suggestion, they went over the Revolution carefully, checking to be sure she was ready for the voyage to war-torn Coronis.  As Jim finished the inspection, Silver made an inventory of the food and supplies Rin had left on board, then disappeared into the streets of Crescentia to purchase a few more items.

"I hope he's got enough money," Jim commented to Morph, who had stayed behind with him on the ship.  "I'm almost broke."

"Broke?"  Morph didn't seem to understand the euphemism.

"Yeah."  Jim made an exaggerated show of turning out his pockets.  "No money."

"No money!" Morph echoed, extending two blobs of his gelatinous body in imitation pockets of his own.

Jim chuckled.  "You got it."  He wandered back to his cabin and sat down on the bed.  Where will we all sleep? he wondered.  Practically, it made more sense for Silver to sleep in the cabin, and for Jim and Ownby, provided he agreed to the voyage, to sleep in the hammocks.  Jim wasn't sure that Silver could successfully negotiate a hammock with his mechanical appendages.

"But it's my ship," Jim told Morph, lying back on the bed.  "I should get to sleep in the bed some too. . . ."  Morph flopped down next to him and nestled down into the mattress with loud noises of contentment.  Jim felt his cheeks grow warm as he remembered Silver saying, "Ye'd fit if need be."

Yeah, but if we both slept in the bed, what would that Octopid think? Jim wondered grimly.  What would Silver think for that matter?  If kissing me weirded him out that much, there's no way he'd share a bed with me.

A moment later, Jim heard the source of the trouble himself stomping around above deck.  Silver's footsteps then descended to the galley, a long narrow compartment that ran alongside both cabins and the small hallway that connected the three rooms.  Assorted thumps and other dull noises issued from behind the thin wall separating the rooms as Silver stowed the supplies, then Jim heard him move back into the hallway.

"Jimbo?  Ye in there?"

"Yeah."  Jim forced himself to sit up; the bed was surprisingly comfortable, and he was tempted to curl up for a nap-- which Morph, incidentally, had done already.  Silver pushed the door open wider and stood in the doorway.

"We're pretty well stocked now," he reported.  "More than enough to last us to Coronis and back, even if we run into some, ah, delays there."

"How far away is it?"

"Eh, I'd say four days in a standard ship.  We can probably make it in three, maybe two if we hit a good solar flare."

"So we might be back in a week."

"Jimbo. . . ."  Silver moved a step closer, then stopped, still a couple paces from the bed.  "Ye sure ye don't want to reconsider?"

"I'm not scared, if that's what you mean," Jim scowled.

Silver smirked faintly.  "That's not what I mean.  I wish ye were scared.  We're goin' into a war."

"But we're not going to be fighting anybody!  What's there to be scared of?"

"What did they teach ye in that Academy, anyway?  Even if we ain't fightin', just bringin' in supplies will be seen as us takin' sides.  I don't know which side this Merle's on, but the other one ain't gonna be happy to see us."

Jim looked down at Morph sleeping in peaceful oblivion.  "What sides are there?  What's the war about, anyway?"

Silver sighed and leaned against the door jamb.  "The whole planet's governed under a monarchy-- or was, anyway.  The royal family was supposed to rule pretty fair, but in this day and age, monarchies ain't exactly popular.  There'd been revolutionary talk for a few years before the trouble really started, but no one thought anything was gonna come of it.  Then almost out of nowhere, someone tried to assassinate the royal family."

Jim looked at him, wide-eyed.  "Tried?"

"The queen was killed.  The king survived, barely, with their only kid, a daughter.  Everyone said a woman did it, that she had gotten up this band of rebels almost single-handedly, then more and more people joined 'em.  Last I heard, the king and princess were in hiding, but they'd left their top soldier in command of the army at the palace."  Silver paused thoughtfully.  "She's a woman, too.  S'posed to be one of the most beautiful girls ye'll ever see, and she only calls herself Coronis, like the planet.  No one knows who she really is."

"Maybe she's the rebel leader."

Silver chuckled.  "Ye've been reading too many adventure novels, Jimbo.  Things don't work that neat in real life."  He sobered almost immediately.  "So maybe ye ain't scared of goin' to Coronis. . . but I am."

"You're scared?" Jim asked incredulously.  "Scared you'll get hurt?"

"No.  I'm scared ye will."  He looked at Jim so intently, the younger man felt the blood drain from his face.

"I-I won't get hurt," he stammered, then managed to force more confidence in his voice.  "I can take care of myself."

"I hope so.  If anything happened to ye-- well, yer mum'd have my hide, I'm sure.  I might can hide out from Cap'n Amelia, but I'll wager Sarah Hawkins'd track me down across the galaxy in a fortnight."  He smiled, but Jim only glowered at the floor.

"So you're afraid of Mom."

Silver sighed heavily, his smile melting away.  He folded his arms and glared at a spot on the wall.  "Jim, why do ye have to make everything so damn hard for me?  Ye mean more to me than anything else in this universe-- but by the stars, sometimes bein' with ye is like losin' part of myself all over again.  And it's a part they don't make replacements for."

A tide of conflicting emotions struck Jim.  Out of them all, anger was the only one with which he felt comfortable, so he clung to it.

"I make things hard for you?"  Jim stood, clenching his fists at his sides.  "How do you think I feel?  I can never tell what the hell you want from me!  You don't want to come with me, then you do; you'll kiss me, then you won't.  Just let me know when you make up your mind, all right?"

Silver turned on him with a snarl.  "Can't ye see I'm tryin' to protect ye, ye little fool?  Believe me, I know exactly what I want from ye!  I want ye alive and in one piece, not with half yer body missin' the way I ended up, just to get some money and to prove ye can do it."

Jim didn't think that had anything to do with what Silver wanted from him, until the spacer said through clenched teeth, "I almost lost everythin' for Flint's treasure-- I almost lost you."  The fact that he pronounced the word fully conveyed all the emotion that his stony face did not.

"But you didn't," Jim said in a low voice.  "The only way you're going to. . . to lose me is if you keep pushing me away."

"I'm not so sure about that," Silver retorted.  "As stubborn as ye are, I except ye'll just keep comin' back."  Then his expression softened and he rubbed his organic hand across his eyes tiredly.  "But one day. . . ye won't.  And it'll be better if it's because I pushed ye away, if it's my idea, than if--"

"Than if I decide to go?"

Silver nodded, then dropped his hand to his side and straightened up.  "So ye see then."

"No.  I don't."

"Jimbo--"  The word was almost a groan of frustration.

"I'm not going to decide to go!  If I haven't left you yet, do you really think anything could happen that would make me want to?"

Silver just looked at him.  Jim's anger had dissolved, leaving him feeling only the tiredness that resulted from any cathartic emotion.  He took a hesitant step towards Silver.  "And if all you want from me is that I stay in one piece-- shouldn't you be there to tell me not to make the same mistakes you did?"

"I didn't say that was all I wanted.  And I don't know how well I can protect ye if I'm. . . that close t' ye."

"But that's when I feel the safest."  He took another step forward, and when Silver half-raised his organic arm to him, Jim moved within his reach.  Silver put his arm about his waist and slowly drew him closer.

"Jim, lad--"

Jim leaned into him, resting against his chest.  "Please, just tell me you want me."

"Of course I want ye," Silver muttered, moving his arms up to hold him tightly.  "I just don't want either of us t' get hurt."

"We won't."  Jim pressed his body against Silver's, relishing the feeling of the spacer's arms, both organic and mechanical, around him.  "Not if we're together."

Silver's organic hand crept up to rest against the back of Jim's neck, fingers lightly stroking his skin.  Goosebumps broke out on Jim's arms at the sensation, making him laugh and tilt his head back.

"That tickles--" he began.  He was cut off when Silver bent his own head and caught Jim's mouth in a kiss.

"All right," Silver said after he drew back his head back, leaving Jim surprised and blushing.  "I'll trust ye on that.  No more pushin' ye away-- I don't think I could've kept it up much longer anyway."

"Yeah?"  Jim felt himself smile involuntarily as he looked up at Silver.

"Like I said in Luca, I can't keep tellin' ye no."  His mechanical hand slipped from Jim's back to rest possessively on his hip.  "I'd be a fool to, when ye look at me like that. . . ."

"Silver--"  Jim rose up on his toes to kiss him again.  Silver's hand tightened on his hip, holding the lower half of Jim's body against him as they kissed.  Jim rubbed against him half-consciously with a soft moan.  Silver dropped his organic hand from Jim's neck and gripped his right thigh instead as Jim drew it up against his leg.  Silver's hand was large enough to reach halfway around Jim's slender thigh; Jim felt strong fingers massaging his outer leg through the cloth of his pants as Silver's thumb slowly moved back and forth along his inner thigh.  The sensation was tantalizing and torturous at the same time.

Jim finally broke off the kiss to catch his breath.  He was profoundly disappointed when Silver let his thigh go and moved both hands up to rest on his shoulders, but then, Jim wasn't sure how much more he could have stood before he begged Silver to go further.  He heard Morph stirring awake on the bed behind them, which made letting Silver go a little easier.  Jim wasn't sure exactly how much Morph could comprehend, but he didn't want even a shapeshifter watching them.

"I. . . I guess I should go see about getting that third crewman," he panted slightly.

"Good idea."  Silver squeezed his shoulders gently, then let them go.  "Back at the inn, eh?"

Jim nodded.  "C'mon, Morph."  The shapeshifter drifted drowsily up to his shoulder.

If this works, tonight will be our last night alone, Jim thought as they left the RevolutionIf I could distract Morph for a little while. . . .  He felt a shiver of anticipation move down his spine.  At the moment, the mission to Coronis was the last thing on his mind.

 

On the way back to the inn, Jim told Silver about his conversation with Camille Ownby that morning, after all.  He omitted the slightly mistrustful feeling Ownby gave him, however; Jim had an idea that it would only make Silver even more apprehensive about the trip to Coronis.  By the time they reached the inn, they had decided that it would be better for Jim to make the proposition to Ownby alone.

Jim watched for Ownby as they ate dinner in the common room, but there was no sign of the Octopid.

"Maybe he found a crew today," he fretted over a bowl of soup.  "He could already be gone."

"In that case, we'll find someone else," Silver reassured him.  "Or maybe we can convince Merle that Morphy here's a very small third crewman."  Jim chuckled in spite of his worry.

After he finished his meal, Silver stood and stretched.  "I'm gonna make myself scarce in case he turns up.  Will ye be all right down here by yerself?"  He gave Jim a tender, concerned look.

"I'll be fine."  Jim made himself speak more confidently than he felt.  "I'll come up to the room in a little while if I can't find him."

"All right.  C'mon, Morphy."  Silver arranged Morph on his shoulder, then gave Jim's shoulder a squeeze.  "Don't drink too much, lad," he chuckled as he left.

Jim watched him go rather wistfully, then moved from the table to take a seat at the bar.  There weren't quite as many patrons as on the previous night, but the loud raucousness of those who were there made Jim nervous.  He managed to get a seat away from everyone else and ordered a ginger ale.  He wasn't sure if the bartender would remember him from the night before, but he didn't feel like arguing over whether he was old enough to buy a drink or not.

He was engrossed in his drink when he felt something brush the back of his neck.  Jim jumped and turned to find Ownby standing behind him, his thin lips in a slight smile.

"Evening."  He took a stool next to Jim and flicked a tentacle at the bartender.  "Gin.  Straight."  Jim cringed slightly, remembering the previous night.

"I thought you couldn't afford to drink.  Did you find a crew?"

"Not yet."  Ownby took a long drink from his glass without even twitching.  "Which is the main reason I'm drinking.  I'll skip a couple meals tomorrow-- drinking now is more important than eating later, eh?"  Before Jim could confirm or deny the question, Ownby went on, "What about you?  Find any work?"

"Actually, I did.  I. . . wanted to talk to you about that."

"Me?"  Ownby gave him an amused look and rested his chin on one tentacle.

Jim took a deep breath.  "Yeah.  There's a lawyer here who needs runners.  He wants to hire my. . . crewmate and me, but he wants us to find a third crewmember first."

"There're only two of you?"  Ownby took another drink and turned on his stool to face Jim head-on.  "So you're offering me a spot on your crew then."

"Yes, but. . . there's something I have to tell you first."

Ownby raised a delicate eyebrow.  "That sounds serious."

"Our first run is to Coronis."  Jim waited for Ownby to refuse immediately, but he only continued to look at Jim with a faintly amused expression.

"Is that all?  I thought you were going to tell me something bad."

"You've heard of Coronis, right?  I hadn't until today, but--"

"Yeah, I've heard of it.  Assassinations, civil war, et cetera, et cetera.  Doesn't bother me."

"Oh."  Jim was surprised; maybe Silver was worrying about the place for nothing.  "So you'll join?"

"Well. . . I just have one question."  Ownby had finished his drink, and Jim had to wait while he ordered another before he continued.  "Who's this crewmate of yours?"

Jim wondered why it mattered.  If the man was willing to sail right into a war, why was it important who his crewmates would be?  "He's a cyborg, an older guy-- but he's the best spacer I've ever met.  And there's Morph, our shapeshifter. . . so I guess you'd better not mind pets too much."

Ownby didn't seem to have even heard the second sentence.  His pale green eyes had moved from Jim's face to focus on his glass.  "A cyborg, hunh?"  He paused just long enough for Jim to wonder if Ownby expected him to say something else, then the Octopid went on, "All right.  I'm in."

"Oh. . . well, good," Jim said diffidently.  Ownby tossed back a third of his drink, then raised his dark head and gave him that thin smile.

"When do we leave?"

"Tomorrow.  The ship's ready; we just have to go see Merle-- that's the lawyer.  He wants us to sign a contact saying we'll do the run to the best of our ability, and we'll have to pick up the stuff he wants us to deliver.  Oh, and he's paying us half in advance."

The Octopid's sardonic expression brightened a bit at the mention of payment.  "Well, I'll be down here bright and early then.  Looks like I'll be able to eat tomorrow after all.  Can I buy you a drink to celebrate?"

"Ah, no."  Jim finished the rest of his ginger ale and stood up.  Something about Ownby made him nervous, and considering that they would be spending quite a bit of time cooped up together on the Revolution, he wanted to see as little of the Octopid as possible for now.  "I'm going to turn in early.  I'll see you in the morning."

"Right."

Jim left him there with his drink and retreated upstairs to his room where he found Silver packing his belongings and Morph "helping."

"I found Ownby," Jim told him as he sat down on his bed.  "He's in."

Silver glanced at him.  "Ye don't seem too happy about it."

Jim looked down at the floor.  "He's. . . sort of weird."

"Think we can trust him?"  Silver sat on his own bed, facing Jim.

"I think so, for now anyway," Jim replied after considering a moment.  "From what he said, he needs money pretty badly, so I bet he'll go through with this run at least.  After that, we could replace him if we need to."  He frowned and finally looked up to meet Silver's gaze.  "He didn't seem concerned about going to Coronis at all.  The only thing he asked was who else was on the crew."

Silver shrugged.  "If he's that desperate for money, he might not care what danger he goes through to get it.  Stars know I've been in that position myself," he added with a little smirk before turning towards the shapeshifter.  "Hey, Morphy."

Morph emerged from where he had been rifling through Silver's belongings and blinked up at him curiously.

"Why don't ye go keep an eye on our new shipmate?  Make sure he's not talkin' to any suspicious characters and the like."  Morph shifted into the same giant pair of eyeballs he had used to "keep an eye" on Jim on the Legacy.

Jim chuckled.  "That's a little obvious.  Try to blend in."  As he got up to open the door for the shapeshifter, who changed back into his normal form, Jim explained, "He's the one with the tentacles.  Like Tavia."

"Tavia!"  Despite his usual short attention span, Morph obviously remembered the Octopid girl.  He chittered a bit wistfully, then drifted downstairs.  Jim looked over the edge of the landing down into the common room, where he saw Morph shift into an empty stein and sit inconspicuously on the bar.  Ownby was still there with several empty glasses before him.  He was leaning towards a spacer on the stool next to him, gesturing with his tentacles.

"Morph's pretty good at this," Jim commented when he rejoined Silver in their room.  "You had him spying on people before now?"

"Well, some of my past. . . associates weren't exactly trustworthy," Silver replied with a smile.  "Morphy does come in handy at times."

Jim was suddenly aware of being completely alone with Silver for the first time in quite a while.  Morph was almost always with one or the other of them; even when he was quiet or sleeping, Jim was constantly aware of his presence as a sentient being, more like a small child than an animal.

Silver had stood again and was putting the last of his few articles of clothing into his bag.  "Guess I'll be seein' a lot of this place from now on, if we'll be workin' for Merle."

"Maybe we should get a flat or something."  Jim looked out the window as he started folding his own clothes.  "It would be cheaper than staying in an inn every time we have to spend a night in Crescentia.  Unless we're gonna spend all our nights on the ship."

Silver chuckled indulgently.  "Let's be sure we're gonna make it through this run before we start makin' living arrangements."

"We're going to make it."  Jim looked over his shoulder with a grin.  "Trust me."

"Ye know what, lad. . . I think yer right."  Silver sat down on his bed and leaned back comfortably.  Jim shoved the last of his clothes into his bag and dropped it at the foot of his own bed, then moved towards Silver.

"I am, hunh?"  Feeling so nervous that it seemed as if his heart was about to pound right out of his chest, Jim sat on the edge of Silver's bed.

"This time, anyway."  Silver reached out his organic hand to touch Jim's cheek, then curled his fingers over Jim's jaw and pulled him closer.  Jim leaned forward and kissed him breathlessly; immediately, Silver's mechanical arm was around him, drawing Jim into his lap.  He moved his other hand from Jim's face to his back, embracing him tightly as they kissed.

Once again, Jim was reminded of the Legacy's encounter with the black hole, of being pressed against Silver and engulfed in his arms.  Jim had been too terrified to think much of it at the time, but now, having that sensation recalled in a much safer setting, he realized he'd begun to love Silver on that day.  Maybe it hadn't been the kind of love he felt now, but it had been love all the same.

Silver pulled his mouth away from Jim's, leaving the younger man disappointed until Silver pressed his lips to his neck.  Shivers ran through him repeatedly as Silver caressed the sensitive skin of his throat.

"Ohh!" Jim moaned as he tilted his head back.  Silver chuckled softly and gently pulled Jim's skin between his teeth.

"Ye like that?"

"Y-yes!"  Jim gripped his shoulders and closed his eyes, savoring the sensation of Silver's mouth against the pulse just under his jaw.  Silver's hands moved up and down his sides, then came to rest on his hips.  Jim rocked them forward to rub against his body, making Silver dig his fingertips into his hip bones.

"Stars, Jim," he gasped as he pressed back against him.  Jim wrapped his arms around Silver's neck and kissed him again hard.  Silver drew his hands down to Jim's legs, moving both his organic and mechanical thumbs along Jim's inner thighs as he had done earlier.  Jim whimpered with pleasure into his mouth and rubbed against him harder.  It felt good, but Jim could only think about making it feel even better.

"Please," he panted when he broke off the kiss to catch his breath, "touch me!"

"Ye sure?"  He couldn't tell whether Silver was teasing him or if he were really concerned, but Jim had no patience for either motive at the moment.

"Yes!  Please, Silver--"

Suddenly Silver's mechanical arm clamped around Jim's waist as the spacer attacked his neck again with a low moan.  Jim felt Silver's organic fingers swiftly unfasten his pants, then Silver's hand was on him.

"Aah--" Jim whimpered, then pressed his mouth against Silver's shoulder to keep from crying out too loudly.  He felt Silver's hand wrap around him, then begin to stroke him swiftly.  Nothing before had ever felt so wonderful as Silver's firm grip, sending a solar flare of pleasure from Jim's groin to his chest.  He thrust into Silver's hand almost involuntarily as the older man touched him, at the same time kissing his way down Jim's throat to caress the hollow between his neck and his shoulder.

Still clinging to Silver's neck with one arm, Jim hesitantly slid his other hand between them to touch him.  Silver hissed softly and pressed against his hand.

"Ye don't have to--" he began, but the protest dissolved into a moan as Jim rubbed him firmly through his pants.

"Maybe not, but can I?"

"Yes--"  Jim slipped his trembling hand inside the waistband of Silver's pants and closed it around him.  Silver drew in his breath sharply and gripped Jim harder, at the same time biting lightly at his shoulder.  Jim had never touched another man before, but his nervousness disappeared almost instantly.  He was obviously doing something right, judging from Silver's moans and the way he pushed against Jim's hand.

Jim felt himself about to climax far too soon for his liking.  "S-silver--" he gasped as he clung to the spacer, seconds before he came.  He leaned heavily against Silver for a moment, shuddering, then kept stroking Silver quickly.  Breathing rapidly, the older man wrapped his arms tightly around Jim and held him as Jim touched him.  Finally, Jim felt Silver tense against him and groan as he came.

They lay in silence for some time with Jim leaning against Silver and their arms about one another.  Silver lifted his mechanical hand to Jim's hair and stroked it gently.

"I guess I should go take a shower," Jim finally said with a slightly abashed smile.  "I'm kind of a mess."

Silver bent his head and kissed his forehead.  "All right."  Jim reluctantly got up on unsteady legs, blushing as he rearranged his clothes as best he could until he got to the bathroom.  He shed his clothing and stepped into the shower once the water he ran had warmed.  He was unprepared for how tired he felt, tired in a pleasant way.  He washed quickly, trying to make himself think about the impending journey they would begin the next day.  Jim knew he should be concerned about it, should even worry-- but he couldn't.  All he could think about was being with Silver.  Nothing bad can happen if we're together, he thought, even though he knew it was a foolish belief.

After he finished showering, he pulled his pants back on and left the bathroom to Silver.  As he changed into clean clothes, Jim suddenly remembered Morph.  He went out onto the landing and looked down into the common room.  It was almost empty now, and Ownby was gone.  The Morph-stein was still on the bar, though.  Jim crept down the stairs and snatched it up when no one was looking.

"Psst, Morph!" he hissed as he carried the stein back upstairs.  He was beginning to be afraid he had gotten a real glass after all, when Morph finally shifted back into his normal form, yawning profusely.  Jim had to wonder how much he had really seen.

"You notice anything weird, Morphy?" Jim asked once they were back in their room.  Morph shook a portion of his body in a negative motion.  Jim patted him and set him on his pillow, where the little shapeshifter curled up and immediately went to sleep.

Silver emerged from the shower a moment later, chuckling when he saw the sleeping Morph.  "Didn't see anything, eh?"

"Apparently not."

Silver stretched out on his bed, then glanced at Jim, who was sitting on the edge of his.  "Ye know, he's had a hard night. . . .  Ye might wake him up if ye lay down over there."

Jim felt himself start to smile.  "Yeah, I might.  And we wouldn't want a cranky shapeshifter on our hands, right?"  He stood and went over to Silver's bed.  The spacer put an arm around his waist and drew Jim down to lie next to him.  The bed wasn't all that big; there was just enough room for Jim if he lay against Silver. . . which was exactly what he wanted.  He turned off the light, then pressed close to the spacer with his head on Silver's chest.

"Thank ye, Jimbo," Silver murmured after a few moments.

"For what?"

"For comin' back to me."

It was easier to be honest about how he felt in the dark, without having to look at Silver and judge his reaction.  "I wouldn't have been happy without you."

"I feel the same way, lad."  He didn't speak again, and Jim eventually drifted to sleep, listening to Silver's heart beat.

 

Jim awoke the next morning to find himself draped across Silver's chest.  The spacer was still sleeping, his organic arm resting against Jim's back and his mechanical one flung to one side.  What's more, Morph had joined them and was curled up on the pillow next to Silver, apparently unconcerned about why they were all in the same bed.  Jim smiled to himself and got up as quietly as he could so as not to disturb Silver.

As he combed his hair before the mirror in the bathroom, Jim was pleased to notice that it was almost long enough to pull back into a short ponytail.  I'll finally look like myself again, he thought happily.

When he went back into the bedroom, Silver was sitting up and yawning.  "Up early, eh?" he mumbled when he saw Jim.

"It's not that early."  Jim sat on the floor and started pulling on his boots.  "And we have to meet Ownby and go see Merle before we can get started."

"Okay, okay, I get yer point."  Silver chuckled and climbed out of bed.  "Let's get goin'."  As they gathered their belongings, he rested his organic hand briefly on Jim's shoulder, giving it a slight squeeze.

Despite the early hour, Ownby was waiting on them when they came downstairs.  He had a single, well-worn bag beside him as he perched on a bar stool, eating a thick slice of bread.

"I hope you were serious last night," he greeted Jim around a mouthful, "because I just spent my last coin on breakfast."

"I was serious."  Jim gestured to Silver.  "This is the other member of the crew, Silver."  Morph chirruped and darted from Silver's shoulder to investigate Ownby's toast.  "And that's Morph."

"Shoo."  Ownby pushed Morph away with a tentacle, then glanced at Silver.  "Nice to meet you, and all that."

"Same to you."  Jim could tell from Silver's tone of voice that he already didn't think much of the Octopid; Ownby's careless treatment of Morph probably had a lot to do with that.  Oh well, it's just for this one run, Jim told himself.  Then we can find someone else.

He and Silver ate hurriedly, then the three of them and Morph started for Merle's office.  Ownby walked beside Jim; out of the corner of his eye, Jim observed the movement of his leg-tentacles.  Tavia's long skirt had hidden most of her motions, but Camille's short pants  wouldn't have even reached to his knees, if he had had any.  Jim had to wonder how Ownby kept his tentacles from getting tangled as he walked, as each seemed to move independently from the others, yet each set of three also shifted as a group with each step.  Watching him made Jim slightly dizzy.

When they reached Bertrand Merle's office, they found the Coronid even more agitated than he had been the day before.  He had three crates in the small outer room of his office and was pacing back and forth.  As Jim, Silver, and Ownby entered, Merle stopped and turned gratefully to them.

"I thought you weren't going to come," he said, slightly out of breath.

"Well, here we are," Jim replied.  "This is our other crewman, Camille Ownby."  Merle glanced at Ownby quickly, as if prepared to dismiss him as inconsequential, but then his grey eyes fixed on the Octopid and stared.  Camille's apparently perpetual bored expression didn't change until after he had extended a tentacle in a perfunctory greeting.  When the gesture got no response from Merle, Ownby narrowed his eyes and glared at the other man.

"What, haven't you ever seen a tentacle before?" Ownby snapped.  The Coronid flushed brightly and grasped Ownby's "hand," shaking it quickly before withdrawing his own hand and shoving it in his pocket.

"S-sorry," Merle stammered,  "I wasn't expecting, uh. . . ."

"Forget it," Ownby sighed with a roll of his eyes.  "So where's this contract I've heard so much about?  I want to get out of here."

"Right here, it's on my desk. . . ." Merle muttered as he stepped into his back office then returned with a piece of paper.  It shook slightly in his grasp.  "Now, are you three sure you want to embark on--"

Before he could finish, Ownby snatched the contract out of his hand and growled, "If we weren't, we wouldn't be here.  Gimme a pen."  Merle ruffled his feathers in a huff as he handed one over.

Ownby signed the contract without even reading it.  Jim did read it, and he found that it said exactly what Merle had promised it would.  After he and Silver had both signed, Merle did as well, then stuck the paper in a file so full, Jim doubted the contract would ever see the light of day again.

"I'll help you carry the supplies to your ship," Merle offered.  "Then I'll give you your. . . instructions."

"Hold your Equinians," Ownby growled.  "The way I hear it, we're supposed to get paid half in advance."

"Oh, right."  Merle sighed and raked a hand through his wild, copper-colored hair.  "I forgot."

"Sure you did," Ownby muttered as the Coronid rummaged through a drawer and produced a large wad of cash money.

"Here," he said, handing several bills to each of them.  "I'll give you the rest when. . . or if you come back."

"Oh, we'll be back," Ownby snarled, giving a challenging glare to Merle, who only flushed more deeply and looked back.  "I don't quit when there's money involved." To Jim's surprise, the scrawny Octopid then lifted one of the heavy crates all by himself and muttered, "Hawkins, where's your ship?"

"I'll show ye."  Silver picked up another crate, leaving the third to Jim and Merle.  Jim was forced to lag behind due to the difficulty Merle had in carrying his end of the box; if not for the additional balance his wings provided, the Coronid probably would have tipped over.

"You know, I'm surprised you're that freaked out by an Octopid," Jim chuckled as they trudged through Crescentia towards the docks, lagging several yards behind the other two.  "Maybe the tentacles are a little weirder than a giant pair of wings, but not by much."

"I-it's not that," Merle panted as he heaved his end of the crate along.  "It's just. . . he's. . . his pants are rather short, don't you think?"  Jim glanced at him and saw that the lawyer was blushing again and staring resolutely at the pavement beneath their feet.  Jim barely managed to stifle a snicker.

When they had reached the Revolution and carried their cargo on deck, Merle looked around approvingly between gasps for breath.  "Very. . . fine. . . vessel," he wheezed.  "Looks like she'll make good time."  He sat on one crate and appeared to be trying to look dignified.  "Now, your instructions.  These crates contain food and medical supplies; from what I've heard, both have become scarce on Coronis-- unless you're one of the aristos hoarding supplies."

"Aristos?" Ownby interrupted, folding his arm-tentacles across his chest sullenly.

"Aristocrats-- the royalists who support the monarchy.  They can afford to buy up supplies; the common people cannot."  Jim exchanged skeptical glances with Silver.  It was pretty obvious which side Merle was on, and Jim had heard enough about wars to know that neither side ever told the complete truth about the other.

"I want you to deliver these to my family," Merle went on.

"Your sister, right?" Jim asked.  He regretted it immediately because of the pained look that crossed Merle's face.

"No, she. . . I think she has enough.  These are for my parents.  Now, this is the important part: take note of who appears to be in charge when you land.  Last I heard, the royalists had retained control of the major space ports.  If that's still the case, do not tell anyone why you're there, and do not, under any circumstances, mention the name of Merle.   Understand?"

"Yeah, sure," Jim said, puzzled.  For the first time, he started to wonder just what they were getting into.

"So yer on the rebels' side," Silver observed.

"I'm not," Merle retorted, although Jim wasn't convinced.  "But my sister is.  She. . . ."  He took a deep breath and looked down.  "She's the rebel leader.  Her name is Garnet Merle, but she calls herself Lead Crow now.  If the royalists find out you're connected to our family, you'll probably be arrested, or at the least, thrown off the planet, and my parents won't get the supplies.  You must wait until you're in the company of the rebels, then find out where my parents are."

"If your sister's so great, why doesn't she take care of them?" Ownby sniffed.  He pushed a wayward strand of dark hair out of his eyes with a tentacle.

"They don't agree with what she's done," Merle replied, "and she refuses to speak to them.  She won't allow anyone to harm them, but she won't help them either-- and neither will the royalists.  You could say my parents are neutral in this-- and it's the worst place to be."  The lawyer sighed heavily and took off his glasses, polishing them with a wingtip.  "If only they'd leave Coronis, but they refuse.  They say it would be abandoning their home."  He glanced up with a faint, mirthless smile.  "But I guess they're right.  It's what I did before any of this even started."

He looked so miserable, Jim felt intensely sorry for him.  What if this were happening on Montressor, where Sarah was?  Jim knew that she too would never leave, no matter the hardship.

"We'll do our best," Jim assured Merle.  "And we'll report back to you as quickly as possible."

"Thank you."  Merle shoved his glasses back on and stood.  After smoothing his wings a moment, he seemed to have regained what little composure he possessed.  "You're off, then?"

"I need to post a letter first," Ownby said abruptly.

"I could do it for you," Merle offered.  He looked at Camille straight on this time, although his high cheekbones reddened.

"It's private," the Octopid said loftily, already moving past them towards the gangplank.  "We passed a box on the way here; I won't be long."

Merle watched him go, then looked back at Jim and Silver.  "Do be careful, all right?  If anything happened to you because of me--"

"Nothin'll happen," Silver replied reassuringly, rather to Jim's surprise.  "We'll be there and back before ye know it."

Even more surprising was the fact that Merle seemed to feel encouraged by the cyborg.  "Thank you," he said again, "for everything.  Hopefully, I'll see you within the fortnight."

Camille returned a few minutes after Merle had left the ship, and after stowing the crates below deck, they began to prepare the Revolution to set sail.

"Glad he finally left," Ownby muttered as he and Jim secured the rigging.  "Racist bastard.  A crow like him probably thinks octopi are for eating."

Jim tried not to smile.  "He's not racist.  He was embarrassed because he's attracted to you."  He gave up the attempt to keep a straight face when he saw the incredulous stare Camille gave him.  Jim burst out laughing, and a second later, Camille joined him.

"Holy mother of Cthulhu," he sniggered.  "I'll have to remember that.  Might come in useful."

"If ye two can be bothered, I'd like to get this ship in the air soon," Silver called pointedly.

"Yeah, yeah, we're ready," Ownby replied.  He was still smirking as they took their stations.

The launch went perfectly, and soon they were engulfed in the permanent dusk of space.  Jim felt a slight thrill as the Revolution's small solar sails unfurled and he steered the vessel towards Coronis.  With their light cargo, they made excellent time.

"If we keep this rate up, we may make Coronis in under three days," Silver observed as they ate a quick lunch on the deck after being in the air for a few hours.

"Under three days?"  Jim was surprised at the slight note of consternation in Ownby's voice.  He and Silver both looked at the Octopid, who frowned.  "I've never heard of anyone making that good a time."

"That's just 'cause we haven't tried it yet," Jim retorted with a grin.  However, Camille still seemed oddly unnerved for some time.

After nine hours in the air, Silver went down to the galley with Morph to prepare a simple dinner, leaving Jim and Ownby on deck.  Jim checked their bearings, then he joined Camille at the side of the deck.

"With the autopilot on, I don't even have to steer her," Jim observed proudly.  "That'll make it easier tonight when we take shifts on watch.  All you'll have to do is check every hour or so to make sure we don't get off course.  And with three of us, we'll only have to stay up for about three hours apiece-- that way we'll get six hours of sleep each."

"Where do I sleep?" Camille asked idly.

"Turn left when you go below deck.  Hope you don't mind a hammock," Jim replied with a smile.

"What about you two?"

"Us two?  Me and Silver?

"No, you and that pink blob," Camille said sarcastically, rolling his eyes.  "Yes, you and the cyborg.  You're lovers, aren't you?"

"What?"  Jim felt his cheeks grow hot.

The Octopid raised an eyebrow.  "Well?"

"That-- that's kind of personal!"

"There's my answer then."  Ownby smirked.  "I thought so."

"We're not-- I mean we haven't. . . much. . . ."

"Look, believe me, I'm the last person who would care."  Jim gave him a curious look that made Camille laugh outright.  "And not because I'm not interested.  If you don't understand, don't worry about it, kid."  He stretched his tentacles and gazed idly out at the cosmos.  "It's cute how innocent you are."

Jim blushed once again, partially out of irritation, and glared out into space.  "So you are interested then?" he muttered jealously.

"Oh, not in him.  And I know enough to keep my tentacles off you if your lover's a gun-toting cyborg three times my size."

My lover. . . . Jim thought.  He forgot all about the Octopid's bizarre conversation in pursuit of that pleasant thought.  Is that what Silver is?  My lover?

He was relieved when Silver called them for dinner soon after, and when they were too busy preparing the ship for the "night" to talk after they ate.  The thought that Camille was even remotely attracted to him made Jim nervous.

Jim took the first shift on watch with Morph at his side.  The hours that passed were completely eventless, but Jim's pleasure at being in space, and in command of his own ship, kept him from being bored.  Morph helped as well for the first hour, but the little shapeshifter was dead to the galaxy after that, sleeping curled up in a coil of rope.  At the end of three hours, Jim left him there and went below deck to wake Silver, who was sleeping in the bed in the main cabin.  After Silver left, Jim crawled into the bed, which was still warm from the cyborg's body.  Jim smiled to himself and snuggled down under the blanket, where he soon fell asleep.

He was awakened three hours later when Silver returned.  Sleepily, Jim peered in the semi-darkness to see Silver pulling off his boot.

"Anything happen?" Jim murmured.

"Nope."  Silver glanced at him apologetically.  "Sorry if I woke ye."

"No, it's okay."  Jim raised himself up on one arm.  "I'm glad to see you.  Are you going to sleep here?"

"If ye want me to," Silver chuckled as he sat down on the side of the bed.

"Of course I do!"  Jim shifted to lay his head against Silver's thigh with a yawn.  Silver's organic hand drifted to his hair and stroked it.

"That Octopid of yers didn't seem too keen on gettin' up fer his watch."

"He's not my Octopid," Jim retorted, remembering his earlier conversation with Camille.  "He, uh, knows. . . about us."

"Does that bother ye?"

"No."  Jim leaned his head back in Silver's lap to look up at him.  "I just didn't think it was that obvious."

Silver curled his fingers along the side of Jim's jaw.  "Well, I don't mind if ye don't."

Jim grinned and raised himself enough to put his arms around Silver's neck and kiss him.  Silver wrapped his own arms around Jim and kissed him hard, then pulled back.

"Ye'd better not start that if ye want to get any more sleep."

"Who needs sleep?" Jim rejoined playfully.

"Ye do.  If yer gonna captain yer own ship, ye need to take better care of yerself.  Ye won't be this young forever."

"Then I should enjoy it while it lasts, right?"  He leaned up and kissed Silver again.  "Unless you can't keep up with me."

"Ye want to make a bet about that?"  Silver held him with his organic arm and kissed him firmly while drawing his mechanical hand up Jim's leg.  Jim whimpered and pressed against him as Silver kissed his neck and shoulder.  Silver chuckled at his reaction and nipped his skin lightly.  "Ye'd better be careful, lad-- this might be one bet ye'd lose."

"I-I'll risk that."  Jim reached down with one hand to touch the spacer, earning a moan from Silver.  Encouraged, Jim unfastened the older man's pants and slid his hand inside to stroke him.  Silver kissed his neck almost ferociously as he pushed up the back of Jim's shirt to stroke the bare skin of his lower back.  His organic hand felt warm on Jim's cool skin.

Jim withdrew his hand and leaned back long enough to pull off his shirt.  Silver ran both his organic and mechanical hands over Jim's chest and sides.

"Stars, yer beautiful, Jimbo," he murmured.  Jim felt his cheeks grow hot.

"You really think so?"

"I've always thought so."  Silver leaned back and pulled Jim almost on top of him, kissing him deeply and holding him by his thin sides.  Jim felt the fingertips of Silver's large hands, both warm flesh and cool metal, slide under the waistband of his pants, then his organic hand moved to Jim's stomach to unfasten them and slide them down past Jim's hips.

The cool air of the ship on his body made Jim shiver, but he kicked his pants off and pressed his naked body against Silver.  Silver's organic hand moved between his legs to pump him almost roughly, making Jim gasp and rock his hips forward to push into his hand.  Silver half-turned on his side, laying Jim on his back on the bed while continuing to touch him.  Squirming with pleasure, Jim began touching Silver again, this time with both hands.

"Aah, yes, Jim," Silver groaned.  He pushed his pants down past his hips, one only partially organic, to allow Jim more room to move his hands.  Hearing Silver's hoarse breathing and faint moans was almost more exciting to Jim than the sensations he felt himself when Silver touched him again.

Silver's mouth moved from his neck to his chest, caressing and biting at his skin, as he gripped one of Jim's hips with his mechanical hand.  Jim felt his whole body tense as he came close to climaxing.  He gripped Silver tightly and cried out loudly as he came hard in the spacer's hand.

"Guess I won the bet," Silver panted.

Jim grinned weakly.  "I'm not quitting yet!"  After he caught his breath, he leaned down and put his mouth on Silver as he continued to stroke him.

Silver exclaimed a word Jim had never heard before or since when Jim's mouth engulfed him.  Jim was far from sure what he was doing, but he figured there weren't that many ways he could screw it up.  Silver moaned and stroked Jim's hair roughly as Jim sucked and licked at him.

"J-Jim, I'm gonna come," Silver gasped after a couple moments.

"Yes!" Jim breathed before putting his mouth over him again.  Silver started to say something else, but his words dissolved into a hoarse cry as he came hard in Jim's mouth.

Jim lay back on the bed, breathing heavily-- but not nearly as heavily as Silver.

"Jimbo, ye. . . yer amazing.  That's all there is to it."  Silver chuckled weakly and turned to face him.  "Have ye. . . done that before?"

"Never."  Jim pressed close to his side with a yawn.  "Never wanted to do it to anyone else."

Silver stroked his hair back, then murmured, "Get some sleep, now.  We'll have to be up again in a couple hours, and unless ye want to be the one to explain to Tentacles why we overslept--"

"No thanks."  Jim rested his head on Silver's shoulder and closed his eyes.  Just before sleep overtook him, he felt Silver's lips softly brush his forehead.

 

Silver was already gone when Jim awoke a couple hours later.  A little disappointed, Jim got up and dressed, then wandered into the galley.  Silver was there frying something, and Camille was sitting at the room's tiny table downing a mug of coffee.

"Nice of you to join us," the Octopid said acidly.

"Are you so cranky because you missed three hours of sleep last night, or because you missed your evening gin?" Jim retorted.

"Touché."  Ownby got up and poured himself more coffee, then surprised Jim by fixing him a mug as well.

"Thanks," Jim muttered.  A moment later, Silver served them all, including Morph, fried eggs with toasted bread.  Jim ate rapidly, eager to get back to controlling the ship.

"You need any help cleaning up?" he asked Silver as he drained the last of his coffee, hoping that the answer would be no.

Silver chuckled.  "No, go on, lad.  I can handle it."  Jim flashed him a smile and darted above deck.

Jim felt like the hours flew by.  Although the flight was going smoothly, there was always something to be done what with only three of them (and occasionally Morph, who was usually more trouble than help) to work.  As Silver had predicted, they made excellent time, and after consulting the digital charts and their position, Jim suspected that they would reach Coronis early the next "morning," a little less than two full days after they left Crescentia.

Between the day's hard work and his missed sleep the night before, Jim was exhausted by the time his watch was over that night.  He trudged down to the cabin to wake Silver and lay down on top of the covers after taking off only his boots.  Jim didn't even wake up when Silver came back in after his own watch, but he finally stirred some time later.

Jim was under the blankets now; Silver had apparently covered him up when he came to bed.  The spacer was sleeping next to him with Morph curled on his chest.  Jim smiled and got out of bed as quietly as he could, then he went back above deck after pulling his boots back on.

When he emerged from the stairwell, he saw Camille standing at the edge of the deck, looking at something below the ship.  As Jim approached, he realized that it was Coronis.

Although Coronis was only about the size of Montressor, it appeared huge as they neared it.  From a distance, Coronis was primarily a dusty red, though Jim could already make out large brownish-green blotches where the planet's sparse vegetation grew, along with the world's darker red seas.

"So that's Coronis," Camille muttered when Jim joined him.  "Hope we make it-- doesn't look like the kind of place where I'd wanna die."

"You have such a cheery outlook on life," Jim grumbled.  He turned when he heard Silver's heavy, uneven footsteps on the deck behind him.  "We're here," Jim told him, unable to keep a note of excitement from his voice.

"So I see."  Silver patted his shoulder and turned to the rigging.  "Guess we'd better bring her in, then.  Breakfast'll have to wait."

As they drew closer to what the Revolution's navigational computer identified as Coronis' capital and major spaceport, Beaulieu, something seemed wrong to Jim.  He couldn't put his finger on it until they were in the process of landing: there was no other traffic.  They were the only ship coming in, and there were none leaving.  What vessels did rest in the port, appeared to have been deserted for some time.

They had barely dropped anchor when a raucous clatter sounded from the dock.  Jim ran to the edge of the deck to see five Coronids approaching the Revolution, each brandishing a different weapon.

"Oh, shit," Camille said succinctly.

"Are they rebels or royalists?" Jim asked, squinting at them.

"I'm bettin' rebels.  Look at how they're dressed," Silver replied.  Jim realized that not only were their weapons all different, their clothes were as well, and all of their attire seemed a bit the worse for wear.  The only uniform things about the lot were their glossy black wings.

"Even so," Silver added, pulling his new gun from his belt, "it can't hurt to be prepared."

"Who are you?" one of the Coronids yelled up at them when the group had neared the ship.  He raised an obnoxiously large gun and rattled it in their direction.

"It depends," Silver answered, with a notable lack of concern in his voice, "on who ye are.  We're under strict orders."

"Well, so are we!" another of the soldiers retorted.  "Lady Lead Crow said--"

"Shut up!" the first one hissed at him.  Jim had to wonder how they'd managed to rebel against anything at all.

Silver chuckled.  "This is the side we need to talk to."

"That's not exactly comforting," Camille muttered.

"We need to speak to your commander," Silver called back down to them.  "We were sent by her brother."

"You know Bertrand?" the second soldier yelled hopefully.

"Shut up!"  The first one whacked him on the arm.  "They could be lying!  If you want to speak with her, you'll have to come with us," he responded to the Revolution's crew.  "And leave your weapons on the ship."

Jim looked at Silver questioningly.  The spacer thought for a minute, then nodded and laid his gun down.  "They're too scared of screwing up to actually hurt us."

"They'd probably shoot their own wings off trying to hit us."  Camille stalked over to let the gangplank down.  "The whole planet's probably as incompetent as that lawyer."

The motley group of Coronids led the three of them, with Morph clinging to Jim's shoulder, away from the docks a few blocks into the city.  What Jim saw of Beaulieu didn't impress him.  The planet's rusty color apparently came from an abundance of red clay dirt, which he saw on the sides of the paved road and which seemed to be tracked on every foot.  The buildings were mostly brick of the same color, with a few dark iron elements which he supposed were meant to serve as decoration.  Even the sky was a faint, dirty pinkish red.

The people interested Jim more than the city.  There were no other off-worlders that he could see; all seemed to bear wings upon their backs.  A few had darker skin like Merle, but most were pale, with hair ranging in hue from strawberry blonde to a violet-black that rivaled the darkest heart of space.  He couldn't tell if there were royalists or rebels or both in the groups they passed; all seemed to be of meager wealth, but in a time of war, he decided, that probably meant little.

Their escort stopped in front of a residential building that was small but decorated ornately with iron.  As he was ushered inside, Jim noticed that the building's brick was crumbling, and the iron was spotted with rust.

"Wait here," the soldier who had first spoken commanded when they were just inside the door.  He left them in a large room which stretched the width of the entire house.  Camille sighed, folded his arms across his chest and tapped one tentacle on the ground; the Coronid soldiers glared daggers at him.

"My lady?" Jim heard the first soldier ask from another room.  There was a low murmur which might have been a reply, then the man went on, "We have three spacers who say they must speak with you.  We saw them land their ship a short time ago."

"What do they want?"  The voice was feminine but husky and harsh.

"They claim that Mr. Merle sent them."

Immediately, Jim heard the sound of a chair being scraped against the floor as it was pushed back.  "Bertrand sent them?"  Before the soldier could reply, Lead Crow appeared in the doorway separating the two rooms.

She was easily the most beautiful woman Jim had ever seen.  She wasn't nearly as old as he had expected, probably several standard years younger than her brother.  Yet, they were obviously related: her skin was the same rich brown as his, and her long, straight hair was the same rusty red.  A pair of richly feathered black wings sprouted from her shoulder blades.

The similarities ended there, however.  Acutely aware of Silver just behind him, Jim tried not to stare at her clothing. . . what there was of it.  Her long legs, clad in brown leather boots that reached her upper thighs, were the most covered parts of her body.  She wore only a leather bodice, laced in front, and a collar the same shade of brown with bunches of black feathers over her shoulders.  Jim swallowed hard and looked at her face instead.  That was easier, for although her features were pretty, they were hard.  Her mouth was rather wide but thin-lipped, and her eyes were so dark, Jim couldn't be sure of their color.  She wore a string of golden beads, one star-shaped, draped over her forehead; a single ink-black feather was stuck through them.

She's how they managed a rebellion, he thought.  She was nothing like her scatter-brained soldiers.

"I see good looks run in the family," Ownby said archly.  Lead Crow's dark, shiny eyes cast him one incredulous, slightly bewildered look, then she ignored him.

"Bertrand really sent you?"  She looked at Silver as she spoke, apparently judging that he was in charge.  He nudged Jim's arm a little, urging him to speak instead.

"Yes.  He sent us with a shipment of supplies for your parents," Jim explained, forcing himself to meet her eyes.  She was tall for a woman, and he had to look up to do so.

"I see."  To his surprise, Lead Crow was the first to break eye contact, glancing down at the floor.  As she did so, Jim noticed her chafing her left wrist in her other hand.  She wore a wide golden bracelet, set with five gems, on each arm.

"Come in here," Lead Crow went on after an instant.  She motioned for them to follow her into the inner room, then turned to the first soldier who still waited there.

"I need to speak with them alone."

He didn't seem too pleased about it.  "Are you sure they can be trusted?"

"Do as I say!" she snapped.  "I don't need your help, Edgar-- I can take care of myself!"  The soldier meekly withdrew.

There was a large desk, rather reminiscent of Merle's, in the small room; Lead Crow seated herself behind it after closing the door.  Jim and Silver found chairs facing her, but Ownby leaned against the wall by the door as if he wanted as little to do with the whole affair as possible.  The small room was cluttered with decorative objects, most of them shiny; Morph darted from one to the other in blissful abandon.  However, when Jim looked closer at the collection of things on her desk he saw that they were mostly worthless, some even junk: cheap jewelry, broken pieces of machinery, even a crumpled wad of the reflective foil used on older solar sails.  What nicer things there were-- figurines of birds for the most part-- appeared tarnished and brittle.  The only item in good condition was a leather whip coiled on one corner of the desk.  Jim had a feeling Camille would have a comment about that later on.

"Where are the supplies?" Lead Crow asked brusquely.  She leaned back in her chair and picked up one of the pieces of flotsam on her desk to fiddle with as she talked.

"They're on our ship, at the docks.  Your men made us leave everything behind," Jim replied rather pointedly.

"Mmn."  Lead Crow rubbed her wide lips together, then glanced back at Jim sharply.  "I'm afraid you came here for nothing.  Our parents are dead."

Jim stared at her.  "Mr. Merle. . . he doesn't know?"

"There was no way to get the word to him," she said with a little shrug.  "No mail ships will come here anymore; we have no contact with the outside galaxy."

"Ye couldn't send someone in one a' yer own ships?" Silver asked, speaking to her for the first time.

"Our ships are worthless," Lead Crow pronounced in a hard, brittle voice.  "They've rotted in the harbor-- they're falling apart."  She looked down at the golden cuffs on her wrists and repeated in a lower tone, "Everything's falling apart."

"We'll leave the supplies with you then," Jim told her.  "I'm sure he'd want us to.  And we'll tell him when we return."

"Thank you," Lead Crow said, her husky voice crisp again.  "Is he paying you?  If not, I will."

"He--" Camille began, but Jim interrupted firmly before the Octopid could try to wring more money out of the situation.

"Yes, he's paying us."

"If ye don't mind me askin', ma'am," Silver interjected, "how did it happen?  He'd want to know."

Lead Crow's wide mouth twisted into a mirthless smile.  "I'll show you."

She stood and led them to a small, steep staircase in one corner of the larger outer room.  Lead Crow climbed the stairs briskly, and Jim only followed her with his eyes firmly fixed on his own feet after a glance up revealed that she wore nothing but a bright red bikini bottom under her bodice.

The stairs led to a little door that opened out onto the roof of the building.  Lead Crow pointed to the north, towards a hill upon which was set an enormous, elaborate building.  It was not beautiful to Jim in the least, being made of the same rust-colored bricks as everything else in the city, but it was palatial.

"Coronis Castle," Lead Crow pronounced.  "We've taken the rest of Beaulieu, but the royalists still hold it.  A few weeks ago, my parents went there.  They came to see me first, and they told me they wanted a truce between us and the royals."  She shrugged with a hard, bitter laugh.  "I would have been satisfied with that.  I only want one thing, really-- to get to that soldier who calls herself Coronis.  Everything else is secondary."

She stalked to the edge of the room and clenched her fists over the iron barricade that fenced it in.  "I let my parents go, to talk to her.  They thought they might get her to meet with me.  Some of my soldiers went with them and waited at the gates-- we didn't want to look threatening, of course.  And you know what?"  She stood completely motionless except for a slight trembling of her wings.  "That bitch had my parents shot as soon as they entered the gate."

Chapter Text

When Lead Crow sent several of her soldiers to collect the crates of supplies from the Revolution, the ship's small crew went along to retrieve their weapons.  It was Lead Crow's idea that they spend the rest of the day on Coronis and set out on their return voyage to Crescentia the next morning.  It was also her idea that they should be prepared to defend themselves.

Lead Crow seemed pleased with the supplies, which mostly consisted of food.  There was also a letter from Bertrand to his parents which she did not read but instead placed in a drawer of her desk.

The soldiers around them seemed to be involved in the last stages of some intricate plot.  After the evening meal, which Silver had offered to help prepare, the Revolution's crew sat with Lead Crow's men in the large front room of their headquarters while the lady worked in her office.  The soldiers wouldn't reveal any details of what was going on when Jim hinted around at it, but he couldn't blame them.  They all seemed understandably enamored of Lead Crow, and even more understandably afraid of annoying her by revealing sensitive information.

Since they didn't want to talk about their leader, Jim decided to find out more about his new employer instead.  "So when did, uh, Mr. Merle leave Coronis?  He said it was before the war started."

"Yeah, it's been several years now," said the captain of the soldiers, the one Lead Crow had called Edgar.  "Most of us were pretty close friends with him, and Gar-- I mean, Lead Crow was just his kid sister."  He sighed softly.  "That was before the recession hit.  When that happened, things started to go bad."

"Like what?" Jim asked.

"There was a drought that lasted for a couple years, and that made the price of food rise," Edgar explained.  "Then the aristos started hoarding what food there was, and the rest of us just kept getting poorer.  That's about the time Bertrand left, although it was more because of losing his girl than going hungry."

"His girl?" Ownby snorted.

"He was engaged to a lady named Deimos," Edgar replied.  "Pretty girl-- one of those pale, quiet ones with black hair down to here and big purple eyes.  But one day she and her twin sister just. . . left.  Bert never told us what happened, but Lead Crow said that a princess had come from another world and chosen the girls as her guardians."  Edgar's deep brown eyes narrowed slightly as he went on, "Deimos left with her sister instead of staying here with her betrothed.  Bert never blamed her for leaving, of course-- even said he was glad, because she'd have a better life than anything he could give her.  But I think it hurt him a lot more than he said, because he left Coronis for good after that."

"Guardian for a princess, hunh?" Silver murmured.  Jim suddenly remembered the child the spacer had known on Mau.

"So he ran away."  Ownby leaned back in his chair and stretched his tentacles.  "I can believe that."

Edgar glared at him, slightly baring small white teeth in a grimace.  "He didn't run away."

"Sounds like it to me."  The Octopid sat forward again, resting his arm-tentacles on the area that would have been his knees on a person with legs.

"Camille--" Jim began, but Edgar cut him off with a snarl.

"You don't know us, Ownby, and you obviously don't know Bertrand.  Just because he didn't choose to stay on this rotting planet of ours, doesn't mean he ran away."  The Coronid jabbed a finger at Ownby menacingly.  "He's done more for Coronis than any of us except for Lead Crow herself.  When all this first started, back when the aristos were civilized enough to fight us in court instead of shooting us on sight, Bert came back here four times to represent us-- for nothing.  He's been sending us supplies for years, and he's been more help on the outside than he ever could be trapped here."

Camille just looked at him, his pale cheeks flushing slightly.  Edgar folded his arms and leaned back once more, grumbling, "He's the bravest man I've ever known-- even if I've never seen him lift a hand against anyone."

They went to bed soon afterwards.  The Revolution's crew were given beds in the makeshift barracks Lead Crow had erected for her soldiers, located behind the house.  Jim shifted in his uncomfortable bed for a while, then gave up on trying to sleep.  He wished they were back on the ship, safely on their way far away from Coronis.  More than that, however, he wished he could be alone with Silver.  The whole situation-- the Merle parents, Bertrand's lost fiancée, even the bedraggled soldiers-- made Jim feel sad.  He knew that talking to Silver about it would make him feel better, but the cyborg seemed to be sleeping soundly in his bed on the other side of the room, amidst Lead Crow's winged guardians.  Jim didn't have the heart to wake him.

Instead, he got up and wandered back into the house, hoping there would be some leftovers from dinner-- not because he was hungry, but because he wanted any distraction from his thoughts.  He was rummaging around in the tiny kitchen at the back of the house when he heard footsteps approaching.  He turned to see Lead Crow leap into the doorway, whip clutched in one brown hand.

"Damn," she hissed in relief when she saw him.  "I heard something-- you scared me."

"I scared you?  I'm not used to being jumped at with a whip."  Jim turned away from her, a little embarrassed.

"I guess you couldn't sleep either," Lead Crow observed.

"Too much on my mind," he mumbled.

"Bet it's not as much as is on mine."  She leaned against the doorjamb, tapping her whip idly against her thigh.  "I heard you asking the guys about our plan."

"They wouldn't tell me anything," Jim retorted quickly.  He didn't want to get the troops in trouble with her-- and for that matter, he didn't want to get on her bad side either.

"I know."  The corner of her mouth twisted in a smirk.  "It's okay though; I think I can trust you."  She paused, then said almost proudly, "We're doing it tomorrow."

"Doing what?" Jim asked, curious in spite of himself.

"Storming the palace.  Tomorrow I'm going to kill Coronis."

Jim felt an involuntary shiver go down his spine.  "Are you sure that's the right thing to do?  I know what she did to your parents was terrible, but--"

"It's not for that.  I was going to kill her from the very start, even if she hadn't done a thing to us."

"Why?"  Jim turned back to her, his discomfiture at her appearance forgotten.  "What is killing her going to solve?"

"I told you that everything-- the revolution, the fighting-- it's all secondary."  Again, Lead Crow fiddled with the bracelets on her arms as she talked.  "I have to take something from her."

"What?" Jim said in disgust.  "What do you have to kill her to get?"

Lead Crow flicked her eyes, obsidian-black in the dim light of the kitchen lantern, up to meet his.  "Her soul."

She's completely insane.  The thought chilled Jim far more than Lead Crow's plans.  I'm standing here talking to an insane woman with a whip.  Aloud, he said in as steady a voice as he could manage, "You can't take a person's soul.  That's impossible."

"Hmph.  See these?"  She held up her arms and rattled her bracelets.  "I can't take her soul. . . but they can."  Lead Crow dropped her arms to her sides and stroked her wing tips idly with her fingers, a movement that reminded Jim strongly of her brother.  "A visitor named Galaxia came to our planet years ago, in the middle of the famine.  She gave me these bracelets and told me that they would give me the power to take Coronis' soul, the seed of her life force.  Once I had this seed and gave it to Galaxia, I would become Coronis.  If I kill her, I can take her place once I fulfill all of Galaxia's commands."

"And you believed her?  This is insane!" Jim exploded.  "You can't take a person's soul, no matter how much jewelry you have!  And even if you could, why would you want to take Coronis' place?"

"I could fix things," Lead Crow said in a low voice.  "Coronis is our planet's guardian.  She's supposed to be good, perfect-- but she's one of them.  The rich ones, the lucky ones like that little bitch who broke Bertrand's heart."  She cast her eyes at Jim.  "Did he tell you about that?"

"No, but Edgar told us some of it."

Lead Crow nodded slightly.  "Those twins were from the upper class.  Not aristos, exactly, but far wealthier than our family.  I don’t know why Deimos chose my brother-- I should have known from the beginning that it would never work.  I almost thought I was wrong about those girls, and that they had hearts after all. . . and then she came."  The Coronid paused and started pacing the length of the kitchen, speaking almost as if to herself.

"She was the princess of a planet called Mars, far away from here, and she chose those two to be her guardians.  Of course she would pick two privileged girls-- not one of us with dark skin but pale ones who looked like her.  Those two minxes agreed to leave their home and the people who loved them to go to this place on the other side of the galaxy. . .   and the royal family, the ones Coronis shoots innocent people to protect, condoned it."  Lead Crow's hand clenched around her whip.  "When I am this planet's guardian, nothing like that will ever happen again.  I'll take everything the aristos have and give it to the rest of the people.  I'll fix everything."

She obviously believed what she was saying.  Jim looked down at the bracelets on her slender wrists.  Surely it was impossible, and yet. . . .

"Is that why you've done all of this?  For a chance to fight Coronis?"  When Lead Crow nodded, he pressed on, "But if she's so powerful, how can you expect to win?"

"Galaxia is more powerful than Coronis, or any of the petty soldiers guarding planets like this.  She gave me part of that power when she gave me these bracelets.  It's taken years for it to build in me, but the longer I wear them, the stronger I get.  I'm stronger than Coronis now, I know it."

"What kind of power is it?" Jim asked.

Lead Crow laughed mirthlessly.  "That's the lovely part.  You see what our planet looks like-- everything rotting to pieces and falling apart.  That's the power Galaxia gave me, the power of rot.  That's why I can't quit now; if I don't gain Coronis' power soon, things will be too far gone to fix."  She tossed her rust-colored hair back and looked at him again.  "Galaxia's clever all right-- and she's done this to other girls, on other planets.  We've all become so dependent on her power, we'll die if we so much as take off the bracelets."

"You could still stop!" Jim protested.  "If Coronis' power can stop the rot and restore your planet, you two could work together and--"

"She'd never work with me.  You know what happened the last time we Merles tried to see her."  Lead Crow straightened up and turned to the door.  "You should leave tomorrow morning.  Go back to Bertrand and tell him what's happened, then get your money and forget about this world.  It isn't your war."

 

When Jim awoke in the early morning, after finally falling asleep late the previous night, Lead Crow's soldiers were already gone from the barracks.  Ownby and Silver were still there, sleeping, but every Coronid was gone.

They must have sneaked out without waking us, on purpose, Jim thought grimly.  He jumped out of bed and crossed the room to where Silver slept, shaking him.

"Hey, wake up.  Everybody's gone!"

"Jimbo?  What is it?" Silver muttered, opening his organic eye with a yawn.  Morph, who had been sleeping on his chest, floated into the air with a chitter.

"The soldiers are all gone.  I think they're on their way to storm the castle!"

"Good for them," muttered Camille from a bed behind him.

"You don't get it!  Lead Crow told me last night, she's going to try to kill Coronis.  We can't let her go!"

"And why not?"  Camille sat up and glared at him, rubbing at his bare chest with a tentacle.  "What's it to us?"

"I have to say I agree with him, lad."  Jim looked at Silver incredulously as he clambered out of bed.  "We've done our part of the bargain."

"But Lead Crow could be killed!  I don't want to be the one to tell Merle that Coronis killed his parents and we let her kill his sister!  And even if she wins. . . ."  Jim trailed off, unsure of how to put his feelings into words.  The other two would probably think him insane for believing Lead Crow's wild story, but what if it were true?  What if she really had the power to take souls?

Finally, he just said, "Even if she wins, things will just get worse.  Coronis is the protector of this planet.  Lead Crow thinks she can take her place, but even she admits that the world is falling apart under the limited control she has now."

"And I'll say again, what's it to us?"  Ownby got up and pulled his shirt on, then tied a white sash of cloth about his waist.  "It's not my planet, and she's not my sister.  If she wants to hang herself, I say let's give her the rope to do it."

Jim shot him a look of disgust, the turned to the cyborg.  "Silver, don't you know that we can't just. . . just run away?"

Silver sighed and started putting on his boot.  "Jimbo, I honestly don't think it's a good idea, and I don't know how we're gonna stop her even if we try.  But. . . ."  He stood up and smiled at Jim faintly.  "Yer the captain, and if ye want to go after her, I'll go with ye."

"Just 'cause I'm captain, hunh?" Jim said, although he smiled back at Silver gratefully.

"Maybe not just," Silver replied, causing Camille to roll his eyes and stalk to the door.

"Cthulhu fhtagn!" he swore.  "If we're going after her, quit flirting and let's go."

Jim had some small hope that Lead Crow would still be in the house, but it was deserted when they entered.  He dashed out through the front door and looked toward the hill where Coronis Castle sat.  The streets leading to it were obscured by other buildings, but he started down a road pointing in its general direction with Silver, Ownby, and Morph following him.

As they got closer to the castle, Jim heard a growing murmur, laced with the clatter of weapons.  Terrified that they would be too late, he quickened his pace into a near run, choosing streets that brought them in the direction of the noise.

Finally, Jim emerged from between two blocks of buildings onto a wide drive that led up the castle's hill.  Looking up, he saw Lead Crow's army-- only about twenty soldiers-- at the barred gates to the castle.  Lead Crow was before them, pounding on the heavy iron doors; Jim could hear her harsh screech even from a distance.

He ran up the hill as quickly as he could, completely forgetting that Silver couldn't move nearly that fast on an incline.  Out of breath and panting, Jim pushed his way through the soldiers until he reached Lead Crow.

"Please, don't do this!" he all but yelled at her.

"I told you to leave!" she snarled hoarsely.  She took a step back, then threw her whole body against the gate.  "Let us in, you coward!" she screamed through it.  "Are you afraid to fight us?  You'll only kill unarmed people?"

Camille had reached them and was watching her with an expression of disdain.  "You look like a bird trying to fly through a closed window.  Wait'll your brother hears that."

She stopped and stared at him.  "What?"

"So is this what we're supposed to go back and tell him?"  Camille raised a tentacle in a faint gesture at the soldiers.  "That after everything he's done to help you, you just threw it all away on a suicide mission?"

"Suicide?  You fool, don't you know how powerful I am now?  Besides, Bertrand would rather me fight than cower down in the city forever, like you apparently think I should do."

Silver finally joined them, serving as a guilty reminder to Jim that he had left the cyborg behind.  "Bertrand would want ye safe," he said quietly.  "He loves ye, just like he loved yer parents."

For the first time, Lead Crow's dark yet brilliant eyes softened faintly, but her voice was as cold as ever.  "None of us will be safe until she's dead."  She turned back to the gate and pounded her fists against it in a renewed effort.  As her flesh came in contact with the iron, her bracelets did as well; a harsh metallic clatter sounded in Jim's ears.

"Coronis!  Let me in!"

Then, finally, she got a response.  There was a small, horizontal window in the gate at eye-level, closed with a sliding iron plate.  This slid aside with a loud grating noise, then Jim saw a pair of amber eyes regarding them through the window.

"Lead Crow."

"Coronis," Lead Crow hissed, glaring at the eyes.

"Please. . . I want to talk to you, not fight with you.  I'll let you in, but without your army."

Lead Crow laughed in a harsh caw.  "So you can have your army murder me like you did my parents?"

A flicker of pain crossed the golden eyes.  "I didn't give that order!  They fired without permission.  I never even wanted an army; the king had put them in place.  After. . . after that happened, I sent them away.  I am alone here now."

"You expect me to believe that?"

"Look for yourself."  The eyes vanished as Coronis stepped away from the door, but her voice came again once Lead Crow moved up and peered through the window.  "You can see the courtyard is empty.  Even if they were inside the palace itself, you can also see that all the doors and windows are barred.  You could easily escape before they could do any harm to you."

Lead Crow stepped back once more and looked down thoughtfully at the bracelets on her wrists.  When Coronis' eyes reappeared, Lead Crow said, "All right.  I will come talk with you on one condition-- that you let them in too."  She gestured at Jim, Camille, and Silver.

Coronis' eyes peered out at them.  "Off-worlders?  Why?"

"They were sent by my brother.  I want them to be able to bring him news of what has happened here."  A small smile curled over Lead Crow's wide mouth.

"All right," Coronis agreed.  "They may enter if they leave their weapons outside."

Lead Crow nodded at the Revolution's crew.  "Give your weapons to Edgar.  If you want to come, that is."

Jim immediately handed his knife to the soldiers' captain.  Camille frowned but gave over the harpoon-like gun he carried as well.  Silver gave Edgar his gun, then scooped Morph off his shoulder and put him on Edgar's.

"Wait out here, Morphy," he told the shapeshifter.  "Just in case."

Morph chirruped unhappily and huddled down in a small lump on Edgar's shoulder.  The Coronid swallowed hard but tolerated it.

There was a clank as Coronis unlocked a smaller door in the large gates, only big enough for one person at a time to pass through.  Lead Crow stepped towards it, then turned her tight smile on Jim.

"Well, you wanted us to talk.  So.  Let's talk."

When the four of them were inside the courtyard, Coronis relocked the door.  She was a thin girl of average height with white skin and dark brown hair that brushed the backs of her knees.  Unlike Lead Crow, she wore a simple dress with a flowing skirt that reached her mid-thighs, and she carried a gold-toned sai in her left hand.

"Well, Coronis."  Lead Crow moved to stand several paces away from her, arms folded and her whip curled around one hand.  The three men remained to one side as Coronis faced her, slowly flexing her wings.

"Lead Crow, please. . . I'm sorry."  Her voice was more musical than Lead Crow's, and her amber eyes gleamed much more softly than the other girl's shiny dark ones.  However, there was a haggard look on Coronis' face that made her decidedly unbeautiful, despite what Silver had heard about her.  "I never meant for the king's army to harm your parents."  She clenched her hands at her sides and said desperately, "I never meant for any of this to happen.  I only want to protect this planet!"

"Oh, you've done a fine job of that," Lead Crow snarled.  "While you sit in this palace, right where the king and his sniveling princess sat, your planet's people are starving!"

"Then tell me what you want me to do!" Coronis begged.  "I--"

The grating noise of a key in the iron door's lock made her break off; all five of them turned to stare at the gate.  Jim felt Silver put a protective hand on his shoulder.

"Who's that, you little traitor?" Lead Crow snapped, raising her whip and taking a step towards Coronis.  "None of my men have a key to that door!"

"No!" Coronis breathed.  She started for the door, but it opened before she could reach it.  A man came through it, old but with more ferocity on his lined face than Jim had ever seen on most younger people.  He shoved the door shut behind him and turned his key in its lock.

"So you finally came out of hiding!" Lead Crow hissed.  She had turned away from Coronis and now had her whip raised to the man.  "This," she said to Jim and the others, "is the king of Coronis-- the one who let Deimos fly to the other side of the galaxy, the one who's letting his people starve!"

At her words, he spread and lifted his wings, black feathers shot through with white and grey.  However, he didn't acknowledge Lead Crow, only looked at Coronis.

"Why are you trying to speak with her?  These people don't know how to listen."

"Please," Coronis said for the third time in ten minutes, "let me try--"

"Is it true, what she said about the army?" Lead Crow interrupted.  She stepped between the other two Coronids to snarl at the king.  "It was your army who shot my parents?"

"It was."  He finally turned his fierce face to her.  "I gave them the order to shoot any rebel who passed through that gate."

"They weren't rebels!" Lead Crow shrieked.  "They wanted a truce!  They came to talk to her!"  She gestured wildly at Coronis with her whip.

"We'll never talk to you," the king announced with an icy dignity.  "Discussion is for civilized beings-- not trash."

Lead Crow moved so fast, Jim saw only a blur of feathers as she struck out with her whip, wrapping it around the king's throat and yanking the two of them together.  When he looked again, she had her arm about the old man's neck.

"Stop it!" Coronis shrieked.  She raised her sai, but Lead Crow jerked the king in front of her so that Coronis could not attack without wounding him as well.

"Trash?  That's what Galaxia called this galaxy-- a trashy galaxy filled with junk star seeds!  And yours is just like all the rest.  You're the trash, old man-- not me."  In a deft motion of her wrist, she freed his neck from her whip and pushed him away from her.  He stumbled then straightened, grasping at his throat.

Jim thought Lead Crow was going to let the king go, in spite of everything-- until she raised her arms.  Lead Crow brought her wrists together, and a burst of wind emanated from her bracelets, twisting into a swirling funnel like the water spouts he had seen in his practice runs on water at the Academy.  The tornado hit the king head on, pushing him backwards.  At first, Jim thought the attack was weak; it didn't even knock the old man off his feet.  But then. . . the king began to scream.

Years later, Jim still sometimes woke at Silver's side, shuddering from a nightmare where he once more saw the king of Coronis die.  When the wind from Lead Crow's attack hit the old man, his flesh began to dissolve, falling away as a corpse's must, only at a rate thousands of times faster.  It was over in an instant, the screams cut short and nothing left of the man's body, not even a feather.  But it was among the most terrible instants of Jim's life.

"Father!" Coronis screamed.  She threw herself at the spot where the man had stood, collapsing into a sobbing heap upon the ground.

"What the fuck," Camille gasped.  His already pale skin had turned completely white, and he looked like he was about to be sick.

That's the power Galaxia gave me, Lead Crow had said, the power of rot.

"So that's who you are-- the princess of Coronis," Lead Crow spat at the weeping girl, wings bristling.  "I should have guessed, but then, we look different in our uniforms, don't we?"

"There is no 'we'!" Coronis sobbed.  She raised her head, shrouded in dark hair, to look up at Lead Crow in horror.  "You're not one of us-- you're not a guardian soldier!"

"But I will be.  Galaxia-- the strongest soldier of all-- promised me she'd give me that power too. . . if I give her your soul."

"You can't do that!"  Jim heard himself scream the words at Lead Crow as if his body had spoken without his permission.  He ran past her and crouched in front of the crumpled warrior on the ground.  "You already killed her father.  Why do you need to hurt her anymore?"

"Jim!"  Jim didn't look at Silver when the cyborg shouted at him; he knew that if he did, he'd lose his nerve.

Lead Crow gave him the look of blank incredulity she usually reserved for Camille.  "What are you doing, you idiot?"

"I can't let you hurt her again!"

"I've only hurt her as much as I've been hurt.  And as for the Galactica Tornado. . . ."  She shrugged and smiled a terrible smile.  "It won't hurt long."

"You said you would talk."  Coronis' voice was mixed with accusation and hurt bewilderment.

"Hmph.  I could never talk to you."  Lead Crow turned her dark eyes back on Jim.  "Get out of the way."

"No!" Jim cried.  "This isn't going to make things any better!  Even if this Galaxia of yours makes you the guardian of this planet, your power can't make food grow!  You only destroy everything you touch."

"Galaxia will fuse this girl's soul, her star seed with mine-- her power for creation will heal mine for destruction," Lead Crow declared.

"My star seed. . . my soul."  Coronis rose to her knees behind Jim.  "You want to kill me so you can have my soul?  So you can fix our planet?"

Ignoring her, Lead Crow said to Jim, "Get out of the way."  She raised her arms.

"No!"  She won't do it, he thought.  She's still only doing what she thinks will help her planet, and killing me won't--

Before he could finish the thought, he realized he was wrong.  Out of the corner of his eye he saw Silver start towards him as the swirl of wind sprung from Lead Crow's bracelets once more.  I should move, Jim thought dimly, but his limbs felt frozen.

Then Coronis' arms were about him.  She embraced him and threw him to the ground with her body between him and Lead Crow.  Coronis let go of him and raised her broad wings over them both; Jim stared up at her just in time to see her amber eyes go wide with agony as the blast hit her.

"Coronis--"

She was strong in spite of her appearance; while her father had succumbed to the attack immediately, she was able to speak.

"If she can save this world. . . with my star seed--"  She drew in her breath sharply and tried to smile.

Jim squeezed his eyes shut and screamed.  If she touches me, if I feel her rotting--  But he felt nothing.  When he opened his eyes again, Coronis was gone.

Almost.  Something lay on the ground where she had been, a tiny sparkling thing the color of a chunk of amber.  Jim reached for it, but Lead Crow struck out with her whip, coiling it around his wrist and yanking his hand away as she leapt forward and snatched up the gem.

Jim yelped and rubbed at his wrist, where a welt was already forming, when she freed him.  "That's it?  That's her soul?"

"Yes."  Lead Crow held it up to the light and looked at it an instant, then closed her hand over it.  "Her star seed.  Every living thing comes from one of these, and every planet and every star.  Even humans like you and I have one, but the strongest ones come from the soldiers who guard the worlds."  She tucked the star seed into her bodice, then looked down at Jim.  Her eyes looked completely black, no light in them at all.

"I'm sorry," she said, "for Bertrand's sake.  You came here for him, so I didn't want to hurt you.  But. . . ."  She shrugged.  "You're just lucky she was as foolish as you are."  Lead Crow spread her wide black wings.

Jim scrambled to his feet.  "What are you going to do?  Now that you have. . . that."

"Jim, let it go," Silver snarled.  He had finally made it to Jim's side, and he clutched at the younger man's arm with his mechanical hand.

"I'll take it to Galaxia," Lead Crow answered.  "Then after I get the others, she'll fuse it with my own star seed-- and I will be Coronis."

"The others?  What others?"  Jim tried to move closer to her, but Silver grabbed his arms firmly and held him still.  "You're going to do this to more people?"

"Galaxia must have the star seeds of the guardians of the Sol system-- the place from where the Mars princess came.  I will get them for her-- and those of little Deimos and Phobos as well."  Lead Crow laughed huskily.  "Galaxia can do without such puny star seeds as theirs. . . but I'll enjoy crushing them."

"Damn you, can't you see this won't fix anything?" Jim yelled at her.  "It won't bring your parents back, it won't make your brother happy, and it won't heal your planet!  And if Galaxia says it will, she's lying!"  He jerked his arm away from Silver's organic hand, but he couldn't break free from the grip of the mechanical one.  Even so, he shouted, "I won't let you!"

"I said I didn't want to hurt you.  Don't make me."  Lead Crow flapped her wings, launching herself into the air, then hovered a few feet above the ground.  "And even if you could stop me, you can't stop her.  I told you there were other girls like me.  If I quit or fail, it wouldn't change anything.  Already the guardians of the planets Chuu and Mermaid are dead, and the girls who killed them have left for the Sol system.  And at this very moment, a revolution is beginning on Mau.  Even if I stopped now, they would take my place-- and my planet would die."

Jim tried again to break free of Silver's grip, but the spacer folded an arm over his chest, forcing him to remain where he was, glaring up at Lead Crow.

"Tell Bertrand I'm sorry," she said as she propelled herself higher into the air.  "And tell him. . . tell him I'll see him again someday, in the place where the stars are born."

Then Lead Crow disappeared.  She didn't fly away; she seemed to simply wink out of existence.  Whoever Galaxia is, she must be ungodly strong to teleport a person like that, Jim thought as he stared up at the spot where she had been.

"Let me go," he said dully to Silver.  Silver did, but then he grabbed Jim's shoulder in his mechanical hand and spun the smaller man to face him.

"Ye fool!" Silver yelled at him.  "Do ye know what nearly happened to ye?"

"At least I tried to stop her!"  Jim felt himself stupidly near tears.  "She just killed two people who weren't even threatening her!  And she. . . she took that girl's soul."

"And she could've taken yers just as easily!"  Silver shook him by the shoulders.  "What do ye want now, to follow her across the galaxy?"

"It would be better than not caring!"  Jim pulled away from him and staggered backwards a few steps.  "You're as bad as he is!" he yelled, gesturing towards Ownby.  "You don't even care that people die, if trying to stop it would be an. . . an inconvenience to you!"

"Leave me out of this," Camille snapped as Silver glared at Jim in fury.  The Octopid stalked over to the door in the gate and turned the king's key, which was still in the lock.  He opened the door upon Lead Crow's stricken army.  "She's gone, boys.  You might as well go home."  When they only stared at him, he groaned.  "And you lot probably think we killed her, right?"

"No.  I was watching through the window. . . .  I saw what happened."  Edgar pushed past him into the courtyard, looking around wildly.  "I. . . Jim, she never told us-- who's Galaxia?  And what did she do to her?  That wasn't-- that wasn't Garnet!"  His voice quavered and broke.  "She never would have done those things--"

Jim shook his head.  "I don't know.  I don't think we'll ever know."

He was dimly aware of Edgar turning away and the sound of the disheveled soldiers moving away from the gate.  Camille remained in the doorway, looking back at Jim and Silver, who hadn't moved.

"Well," said Camille, folding his arm-tentacles, "this is awkward."

"Would you shut up for once?" Jim snapped.  He started for the door, but Silver reached out and grasped his arm in his mechanical hand once more.

"Jim," he said in a low, hard voice, "that was low, and ye know it.  I care if you die."  He let go of Jim's arm and stalked out of the courtyard, not even looking when Camille scrambled out of his way.

 

"So I guess you'll want to stay for a while and help them," Camille commented as he and Jim followed the soldiers down the hill from the castle a few minutes later after retrieving their weapons.  Silver had gone on ahead, apparently taking Morph with him.

"No," Jim muttered.  "I just want to get out of here.  I couldn't stop her, so what good could I do staying here now?"

"That doesn't sound like you," Camille retorted.  "After all that about trying to help, you don't want to stay a couple days to help them start. . . cleaning up?"

Jim glanced at him.  "And that doesn't sound like you."

"Oh.  Because I don't care about anyone but myself, right?"

Jim winced.  "I'm. . . I'm sorry.  I didn't mean that you didn't care about. . . anyone."

Camille shrugged.  "Don't worry about it.  It's not far from the truth.  But I still think we should stick around for a little while."

"No," Jim said softly, "I don't want to stay.  I've had enough of this place-- I want to leave today."

Ownby was silent for a moment, then he said with what Jim thought was feigned lightness, "Well, you're the captain."

When they reached the house, they found Silver and Morph waiting on them.  "So, are we leavin'?" Silver asked gruffly, giving Jim one piercing look, then looking away.

"Yeah," Jim replied just as gruffly.  "We're leaving."

"I'll be on the ship."  As Silver turned and stalked towards the docks, Morph gave Jim a puzzled look and a questioning chitter, then followed.

Jim and Camille found Edgar in the doorway of Lead Crow's office, looking in at her things with an utterly lost expression.  He loved her, Jim realized suddenly.

"Edgar, we're leaving," Jim told him gently.  "We'll tell Mr. Merle what. . . what happened."

Edgar nodded absently, then he looked at Jim.  "What are we going to do now without her-- without either of them?  I thought. . . I thought she wanted to save our planet, but she. . . she just left us."

"I'm sorry," Jim said.  He started to turn away, but Edgar put a hand on his arm.

"Would you do one other thing?  Will you take something of hers to Bert?  I know he'd appreciate it, and. . . and that way he won't have to come back here, ever again."

"Sure, we'll do it," Jim promised.  "But he's going to want to come back, from what you've said--"

"Then don't let him."  Edgar gave him a pained look as he went to rejoin the other soldiers.  "There's nothing worth coming back for.  Not here, not anymore."

Jim walked slowly into Lead Crow's office with Camille close behind him.  "I don't know what he'd want," Jim said, looking at the clutter all over the room.

Camille went around the desk and opened its drawer to rummage inside.  "Nothing but junk in here.  She was one hell of a packrat."

Jim looked over the collection of bird statuettes on the desk and finally selected the one that was the least worn, a small raven carved from onyx.  He supposed that even Lead Crow couldn't rot stone.  He looked up, about to tell Camille he was ready to leave, and found the Octopid reading something.

"What's that?"

"His letter," the Octopid murmured, his green eyes fixed on the paper.  "The one he wrote to their parents."

"Camille, you shouldn't be reading that!" Jim protested.

"Why not?  They're dead, she's gone. . . no one else is gonna read it."  Jim watched the tips of his tentacles curl slowly over the back of the letter.

"Well?" Jim asked after a moment.  "What does it say?"

Camille looked over the top of the letter at him with a thin smile.  "Admit it, you're as nosy as I am.  He says he loves them."  He lowered his eyes and slowly folded the letter.  "And that the day he wrote it would have been his. . . anniversary, if she hadn't left."

"Deimos?"  Jim thought about Silver as he said her name.

"Yeah.  He still loves her."  Camille stood, still folding the letter into smaller and smaller squares, then he suddenly spat, "The fool."

"Let's go," Jim said tiredly.  Camille shoved the letter into his pocket and followed him towards the docks.

 

As Coronis fell away beneath them, Jim steered his ship with one hand and fingered the onyx raven in his pocket with the other.  As much as he wanted to get away from the planet, he didn’t want to go back to Crescentia, didn’t want to have to give Merle that bird.

Who cares about the money, he thought morosely.  I wish we’d never get back.  Later, he would regret that wish intensely.

Once the Revolution was on course, Jim turned on the auto-pilot and stepped away from the ship’s wheel.  Camille had disappeared from the deck, but Silver was standing at the stern of the ship, looking down at the diminishing red planet with Morph on his shoulder.

Jim approached him slowly.  He was still a little angry at how Silver had reacted to the whole Lead Crow fiasco, but he couldn’t be angry at Silver himself.  I hurt him, Jim thought, and he just wanted to protect me.

"Silver?" he asked quietly.

"Yeah?"

Jim joined him at the side of the deck.  "I. . . I'm sorry.  I didn't mean--"  He broke off and tried again.  "I know you care about me; I just. . . ."

"Jimbo."  Jim looked up at him in relief when Silver put his organic hand on his shoulder.  "It's all right.  Just that. . . ye could have said that to me a few years ago, and it would've been true.  Might even still be true, 'cept where yer concerned.  But lad. . . ."  His grip tightened on Jim's shoulder.  "I thought sure ye were gonna end up like that old man-- that I was gonna have to see it happenThat's why I was angry at ye. . . 'cause I thought for sure I was gonna lose ye."

He surprised Jim by pulling him closer and embracing him.  Jim hugged him tightly, and Morph, unaware of the intricacies of the situation but delighted that things were all right again, chirruped and nuzzled Jim's cheek.

"Lad, I--"  Silver broke off, then said in a changed voice, "Jim?  There's a ship following us."

"Hunh?"  Jim raised his head and looked over his shoulder.  Silver was right; there was a small lighter coming towards them from the direction of Coronis.  "Is it the Coronids?  Maybe they want us to turn back--"

"No, I don't think so."  Silver gently put Jim away from him and squinted at the vessel.  "Their ships are all in pieces, remember?  This one's in good shape."  Jim realized that he was magnifying the ship's image with his cyborg eye.  "No, that's a new one. . . not from Coronis."

As Jim watched, the small craft gained on them even more.  "Should I slow down?" he asked.  "Or speed up?"

"Go get Ownby," Silver said with a grim note in his voice that startled Jim.  "He went below-deck, said he wanted a drink.  But we might need him."

Jim hurried down the narrow stairs into the galley.  The Octopid was there with a bottle in one tentacle, staring morosely at the surface of the table where he sat.

"Camille, we're being followed," Jim told him breathlessly.

"Followed?"  Camille looked up at him sharply, an unreadable expression in his pale eyes.

"Yes, a small ship-- a lighter.  It's coming from Coronis, but Silver says it's not one of theirs."

Camille set down his bottle and got to his "feet."  "All right, I'm coming.  Just let me get my gun."

By the time Jim came above-deck, the ship had drawn even closer.  However, she appeared to be holding a steady distance between them now.

"I don't know what she's doin'!" Silver cried in frustration when he saw Jim.  "She hasn't hailed us or anythin'-- she's just followin'.  Where's that useless Octopid anyway?"

"He went to get his gun."  Jim looked at the pursuing vessel another moment, then darted for his own ship's wheel.  "I'm gonna try to get away from it."

"Sounds like a good idea to me.  Still, I don't know that we can, lad-- she's so small, she can probably keep up."

Jim gave him a grin as Silver went to the rigging.  "She may be faster than we are, but let's just see if her pilot can out-maneuver me!"

Jim increased the power stored in the ship's solar sails as far as he could and spun the wheel, banking sharply to port.  The Revolution responded almost eagerly, turning even more quickly than he had expected.  However, as Silver had suspected, the smaller lighter made the turn easily and followed, even gaining on them.

"Oh great, now I've made 'em mad," Jim grumbled.  He made another turn, this time to starboard, but the lighter followed right behind.  Then, suddenly, the whole of the Revolution shook violently.

"What the hell was that?" Jim squawked.

"She fired on us!" Silver yelled back.  "Some kind of small cannon.  It's struck the hull!"  Jim looked over his shoulder to see Silver leaning over the side of the Revolution, looking down at the hull.  "No major damage, but--"  He broke off and fairly leapt to Jim's side, moving faster than Jim ever thought he could.  Jim realized why when the ship shuddered again.

Silver pushed him out of the way with an apologetic look.  "Sorry, lad, but I think I need to handle this--"  As Silver took the wheel, leaving Morph to cling to Jim's shoulder, Jim looked back at their pursuer.  She was too far away for Jim to see the cannon firing on them, and the vacuum of space between the two ships prevented him from hearing the shot until the projectile pierced the Revolution's atmosphere barrier.  However, he could see another cannon ball flying towards them.  Before he could even open his mouth, it pierced their barrier with a bang and ripped through one of the solar sails.

"What can we do?" Jim cried to Silver.  The Revolution didn't have any weapons, and Silver's own gun was far too small to reach the enemy ship.  He suddenly remembered Camille's harpoon gun.  "Do you think Camille's gun could hit it?"

"A harpoon won't damage the ship, and her pilot must be under cover-- I couldn't see anyone flyin' her," Silver growled as he struggled to control the damaged Revolution.  "Unless he could hit a person on her, it won't do a lick a' good.  And he can't hit anythin' hidin' below deck!  Where the hell is he?"

"I'm right here!" Camille snapped as he emerged from below deck, carrying his harpoon in one tentacle.  "Jim, give me your knife!  I've got to cut the line; it'll never reach that far."  Jim handed his knife over, and Camille used it to slice through the line connecting the loaded projectile to his gun.  He dropped the knife and dashed to the stern of the Revolution.  Jim watched him, amazed that the Octopid was bold enough to stand in full view of the smaller ship.  He's so concerned about saving his own skin, but he'll stand in front of a cannon? Jim wondered.

Camille took careful aim with his gun, then fired a harpoon at the lighter.  The projectile sailed through the vacuum between the ships, its inertia carrying it smoothly through the frictionless space and into the artificial atmosphere of the other ship.  Jim couldn't see where it landed; only Silver's mechanical eye could have clearly seen that far, and the cyborg was too occupied with keeping the Revolution steady to be paying any attention.

Then, miraculously, the lighter fell back.  Jim stared as it drew farther away from them, then actually turned and accelerated in another direction.

"What-- what did you hit?" he cried to Camille.  "She's leaving!"

"Leaving?"  Silver risked a glance over his shoulder.

"Probably just an especially cowardly pirate," Camille declared, withdrawing from the stern.  "I've seen 'em before-- they give up and move on to easier prey if anyone actually fights back."

"I've known the type myself," Silver muttered, then he looked up at the ripped solar sail.  "Jimbo, we can't stay in the air much longer without some major repairs.  Can ye find the nearest planet and set the auto-pilot for it?"

"Sure."  Still reeling with adrenaline, Jim jogged below-deck to consult the navigation computer.  He blinked in surprise at its reading, then set the auto-pilot and returned to Silver.

"The closest planet is Spira," he told the cyborg, who had let go of the wheel when the auto-pilot took over.  "We could reach it in an hour at top speed, but I wasn't sure the ship could hold together going that fast.  It'll take a little more than two at this rate."

"That's fine, lad.  Spira, hunh?"  Silver slumped against the side of the ship and wiped his forehead.  "Didn't think I'd be seeing it again this soon."

"I hope we don't run into Lord Rin," Jim observed, patting Morph absently.  "He might not be too happy when he found out what I let happen to his ship."

Silver chuckled.  "It wasn't yer fault, Jimbo.  If ye hadn't sped up, she probably would've followed us until we docked somewhere.  Eh, Ownby?  That how those pirates work?"  He cast what Jim thought was a slightly suspicious glance at Camille.

Camille didn't answer.  Instead he started below deck, calling over his shoulder, "Come get me when it's time to land."

"We'd better stay on our toes, just in case that lighter turns up again," Silver muttered when he was gone.  "And anyway, landin' this ship'll be tricky with the damage.  I just hope someone down there knows how to fix her."

 

Landing the damaged Revolution proved to be more difficult than even Silver had expected.  Despite the protective barrier generated around the ship, the sudden force of the friction they experienced upon entering Spira's atmosphere buffeted it violently.  It took both Jim and Silver to hold the wheel steady while Camille watched over the bow and yelled directions.

"I wanted to land in Luca's port," Silver yelled over the creaking of the ship, "but now I think we'd better land her as soon as we can!"

"We're over the water now, but there's land up ahead!" Camille called back.  "Bring her down, quick."

"Hope that hole's high enough up not to take on water," Silver muttered, "or we may be fishin' her up from the bottom."  There was a jolt as the ship splashed down in the ocean and fairly skipped like a stone towards the land, which seemed to be approaching them altogether too quickly.  Silver and Jim hauled sharply to starboard on the wheel, turning the ship just in time to keep it from grounding entirely on the beach that rushed up to meet them.  The ship finally came to a halt just far enough out to keep from being grounded.

"Whew."  Jim sank to the ground with a faint moan.  Morph collapsed in a gelatinous heap beside him.  "That was too close for me."

"I wonder where we are."  Silver looked out over the side of the ship at the beach just beyond.  "There's a dock there, so there must be people nearby."  He returned to Jim and hauled him to his feet.  "C'mon, lad, let's ease her over to the dock.  No need in us getting wet when we hop off."

When they finally had the ship positioned at the dock, they dropped anchor and disembarked shakily with their weapons, "just in case" as Silver put it.  It was unbelievably hot, much hotter than Jim remembered Luca to be.  As they were trudging up the beach towards a clump of trees, the only direction inland that wasn't blocked off by cliffs, Jim heard a commotion coming in their direction.

"If that's more soldiers--" Camille began sourly.

"Shut up, and get yer gun ready," Silver replied.  He and Camille took aim at the edge of the trees, but when the source of the commotion-- which proved to be about a dozen bewildered-looking people, many of them men wearing similar clothing-- appeared, Jim grabbed the muzzles of their guns and pushed them down.

"Wait!" he hissed at them and relief.  "They're not hostile.  I don't think."  At the front of the crowd was a slender girl with short dark hair and a gun in each of her hands.  She stopped when she saw the three newcomers and looked at them curiously, then slowly approached them with the others behind her.

"Lady Yuna?" Jim asked slowly when she was within hearing range.

The girl blinked with an almost comical look of surprise.  "Er, yes.  How do you know my name?  You're not from Spira, are you?"

"No, but I saw you singing in Luca, a few weeks ago."  Had it really been so short a time?  My whole life has changed since then, he thought.  "My name's Jim Hawkins."

A young man pushed through the crowd to Yuna's side; Jim realized he was the same one who had given Yuna the flowers on stage.  "Are you guys all right?  That was a pretty rough landing!"  He looked closely at the Revolution.  "Hey, isn't that Rin's ship?"

"It was, until we bought it," Silver interjected.

Jim cringed.  "We sort of, um, had an accident. Just don't tell him, okay?"

The young man chuckled.  "Deal.  I'm Tidus, by the way.  Yuna's husband."  He stuck out his hand cheerfully for Jim to shake.  "So what happened?"

Jim introduced Silver and Camille-- and apologized for Morph, who was fawning over Yuna-- and explained what had happened.  "Can anyone here help us fix the ship?  We were gonna land in Luca, but I don't think she can make it."

Yuna beamed.  "Don't worry about that!  I know who to call.  You just come with us!"

"Where are we, anyway?" Jim asked as they walked inland with the rest of the crowd.

"Besaid Island.  It's where I grew up; I moved back here after Tidus and I got married," Yuna explained.  "It's pretty small; these people are most of the other villagers."  Jim looked over his shoulder at the crowd, who were gathered so tightly around Silver and Camille they could hardly walk, and chuckled.

"They seem to be especially interested in my crewmates."

Tidus laughed again.  "Besaid is pretty rural.  They've probably never seen an off-worlder before."

"Why are all the guys dressed alike?"

"They're all on Besaid's Blitzball team, the Aurochs, with me."

Jim blinked.  "Blitzball?"

"Don't get him started," Yuna chided.  "Blitzball is Spira's most popular sport.  Tidus has been playing all his life."

When they reached the village, Silver managed to shake off the curious Blitzball players and join Jim with Morph.  Camille, on the other hand, seemed to be enjoying the attention; when Jim looked around for him, the Octopid was occupied with letting them paw his tentacles.

"Come over here," Yuna beckoned Jim and Silver as she walked over to one of the large tents which comprised the village.  "We can call my cousin to come fix your ship.  She'll know just what to do!"

They followed her towards the tent, then stopped in surprise when she crouched down on the ground in front of a small, dome-shaped object about the size of Jim's two hands put together.

"What's that?"  Jim knelt down too and peered at it.

"It's a CommSphere," Yuna explained.  "It transmits video and sound from one place to another.  This one's connected to my cousins' airship, the Celsius."

Yuna touched the surface of the CommSphere, causing it to emit a crackle of static.  Intrigued by the noise, Morph darted over and peered down at it.  An instant later, a shriek issued from the object.

"What in the Farplane is that?" a feminine voice yelped from within the CommSphere.

"Morph!"  Jim grabbed the shapeshifter and yanked him out of the way.  Yuna giggled and leaned over the CommSphere instead.

"Rikku, it's me."

"Yunie!  But what was that. . . thing?  Was it a fiend?"

"No, it's an alien."  Yuna motioned for Jim to look into the CommSphere.  When he did so, he saw a small image of an Al Bhed girl gazing up at them.  "Rikku, this is Jim.  He's an off-worlder, but his ship crashed near here.  We need you guys to come fix it.  Can you spare some time to come by?"

Rikku looked at Jim and grinned.  "Ooh, for a cutie like you, sure!"  Jim flushed brightly as he heard Silver laugh heartily behind him.

"You sure Aniki won't mind?" Yuna asked.

Rikku rolled her eyes.  "If it's for you, he won't.  We're just over Luca, so we'll be there in two shakes of a Chocobo's tail feathers!"  She winked at Jim, then her image disappeared.

"She's your cousin?" Jim asked Yuna.  "You two aren't, uh, very much alike."

Yuna smiled.  "Her dad and my mother were brother and sister."  She stood and stretched.  "They'll be here soon; we aren't far from Luca at all.  But you three must be tired; would you like to rest a little while?"

"Actually, ma'am," Silver began, falling into the overly-respectful tone he used around women when he wanted to stay on their good sides, "we haven't eaten anything since yesterday, if--"

"Oh goodness!" Yuna cried before he could even finish.  "Of course, we'll get you something to eat right away!  Tidus, you don't think Wakka and Lulu would mind if they used their tent, do you?"

"Course not."  As Yuna scurried off, Tidus ushered them into the large tent near the CommSphere.  "My best friend and his wife live here, but they've taken their son on a trip to Luca for a few days, so you can stay here.  I know they wouldn't mind."  A moment later, Camille joined them, looking slightly disheveled but pleased with himself overall.

As they ate the sandwiches Yuna brought them-- Jim had no idea what was in them, but they were delicious-- Tidus pelted them with questions about life beyond Spira.  Jim was more exhausted than ever by the time Yuna stuck her head back in the tent's doorway.

"I just saw the Celsius pass over," she told them.  "They'll land at the beach, if you're up to walking back down there."

The three off-worlders went back to the beach with Tidus and Yuna, sweating in the heat; to Jim's relief, Yuna exhorted the rest of the villagers to stay behind this time.  When they arrived on the beach, Jim saw a massive ship resting in the water on the opposite side of the shore from their own.  It was a Spiran airship, not made to leave the planet's atmosphere, and it looked nothing like the space-going ships Jim was used to.  It was bright red and built more like a motorbike with two front wheels than a ship, in Jim's opinion.  Electric blue flames decorated its wheels and sides.

"That's the Celsius," Yuna explained as they moved towards it and the four people who were walking down its ramp.  "It belongs to Rikku's brother, Aniki."

"Yunie!" Rikku screeched as she pelted down the ramp and across the sand towards her cousin.  She was young and petite, with a mass of blonde hair, some of it in beaded braids, flying out behind her.  Following her came a tall girl, young but with white hair.  Both of them were rather scantily clad, which seemed to be a trend with the girls Jim had met recently.  After a moment, he recognized them as Yuna's back-up singers from the concert.

"Jim, this is Rikku," Yuna said after nearly being knocked off her feet in an exuberant hug, "and Paine.  The two guys are Aniki-- he's Rikku's brother-- and Dachi."  The men were both Al Bhed.  Dachi had dark skin and goggles and seemed sensible enough, but Aniki was another story.  He was paler than the tan Rikku with shockingly blonde hair in a mohawk, and his bare chest and muscular arms were completely covered in elaborate, flame-shaped tattoos.

"Wow," Camille muttered next to Jim, drawing in a sharp breath as he eyed Aniki.

"So is that your ship?" Rikku asked, pointed at the Revolution.  "Wow, looks like you really tore her up!"

"Someone attacked us," Silver explained.  "There's two hits to the hull, and that big rip in the solar sail.  Should be the extent of the damage, but it's more than enough."

"Ahh, this'll be a cinch to fix, right guys?" Rikku grinned.

"Of course!" Aniki declared in a heavily accented voice.  "There is no ship the Gullwings cannot repair!"

"The 'Gullwings'?" Jim asked as the three Al Bhed returned to their own ship for tools and plating to fix the Revolution's damaged sides.

"The name was Aniki's idea," the girl called Paine said in a husky, rather sarcastic voice.  "It's the name of our group.  We hunt spheres-- they're devices with data on them, like video, sound, or other information."

"I used to work with the Gullwings until I got married," Yuna told Jim.  "Now there's just the four of them, but they're doing just fine without me," she added with a little smile.

"Easy for you to say," Paine retorted.  "We might be doing fine if I didn't have to listen to Aniki and Rikku fighting all the time-- or getting along for that matter.  Dachi's the only one left with any sense."

Jim spent the rest of the day with the Al Bhed on the Revolution, figuring that the more he learned about repairing his ship, the better.  Fortunately, it was cooler below deck than on the beach itself.  Camille had retreated to the village with Yuna, Tidus, and Paine, but Silver stuck around for a while.  Rikku was enchanted with Morph as well as with Silver's spacer stories, and she wouldn't have gotten much work done at all if Dachi hadn't casually mentioned that Aniki was doing a much better job than she was.  After that, sibling rivalry kicked in, and Rikku went to work with a passion.

Soon after, Silver went back up to the village with Morph; he was going to prepare a massive dinner for the entire village to at least partially repay their kindness.  Jim stayed behind with the others until it was nearly completely dark.

The holes in the hull were by then completely repaired, but after an inspection of the torn sail, Aniki announced, "We do not have the materials to fix that; I will have to go to Luca tomorrow to find the fabric."

"All right," Jim said reluctantly.  He hated to be put an entire day behind schedule, especially with Merle waiting for news from Coronis, but there was really no other option.  He rubbed the onyx bird in his pocket as he watched Rikku put a final rivet into the new panel she had installed.

"There!" she declared brightly.  "Better than new!  C'mon, let's go get some grub!"  As they headed for the village a few yards behind Aniki and Dachi, Rikku glanced up at Jim curiously.

"Where are you from, anyway?"

"A little planet named Montressor," Jim told her.  "It's not really very far from here."

"I'd like to go to another planet someday," Rikku said wistfully.

"Well, if we didn't have ships trying to shoot us down, we could take you," Jim chuckled.

Rikku smirked.  "Well, I couldn't leave the Gullwings now anyway.  We lost a bunch of crew members around the time Yunie left.  We do have a couple guys who work with us part time since their own boss got married and quit sphere hunting, but they're not always around."

"Sounds like getting married really puts a cramp in everyone's style," Jim teased.

"Not me!" Rikku declared.  "When I get married and have a family, we're all gonna keep hunting spheres!"

"You must have everything figured out."

"What, don't you?"  She smiled up at him.  "I even know who I'm gonna marry.  He hasn't asked me yet, but he will!"

"Actually, I don't have much of anything figured out," Jim admitted.

"Don't you have a girlfriend?" Rikku pressed him.  "A hot guy like you must!"

Jim tried not to laugh at that.  "Not exactly."

By the time they reached the village, night had fallen, although the day's intense heat had not abated.  Silver had prepared the largest pot of stew Jim had ever seen, and most of the villagers were already eating.  The Blitzball players had encircled Camille and were inhaling their stew, which he only picked at.  After Jim had been there a few minutes, the players got up en masse for seconds (or maybe thirds); Jim saw Camille take advantage of the distraction and slip away.

The Al Bhed ate almost as much as the players.  Jim sat next to Rikku and watched her devour three bowls of stew despite her tiny frame.  Still, it was quite delicious, much better than Silver's regular recipe.  Must be something about the ingredients here in Besaid, Jim thought.

While they ate, the Gullwings entertained them with stories of past sphere hunts.  Aniki and Rikku took turns telling their tales (and interrupting one another) with some input from Yuna; Paine and Dachi kept quiet except for the occasional sarcastic remark to each other about their more excitable companions.  Jim found the stories amusing and sometimes exciting, especially when they talked about their encounters with the strange wild creatures who populated Spira, whom they called "fiends."  Still, compared to what he had just witnessed on Coronis, it all seemed rather banal.

Then Jim remembered what Tavia had told him about Lady Yuna: She saved the whole world from some big monster, or something like that.  Looking at Yuna now, laughing and leaning against her husband, it seemed hard to imagine, but he believed it.  Whatever had happened on Spira, Yuna had succeeded where Coronis failed; she had protected her planet and survived.  Something terrible must have happened here once, as bad as what happened on Coronis-- or worse, Jim thought.  They have every right to talk about inconsequential things now.

After the Al Bhed siblings had exhausted their source of tales, for the moment anyway, Silver began relating some of his own adventures, including a few that involved Jim on the Legacy.  Jim listened for a while, but the stories were so familiar, and yet seemed so far removed from his life now, that he got tired.  Besides, the heat was still oppressive, especially with so many people crowded in the village's center area.  Jim slipped away from the group and wandered back to the star-lit path that led down to the beach.

There was a slight breeze there which made it a bit cooler than the town; nevertheless, Jim stripped his shirt off after a moment and carried it, enjoying the feeling of the air on his bare skin.  When he reached the ocean, he pulled off his boots and socks, and left them with his shirt on the edge of where the dock met the sand.

Jim walked out onto the wet sand, jumping a little when the surprisingly cool waves raced up and licked at his feet.  The water felt wonderful, and he rolled his pants legs up past his knees and walked out a little farther.  He was considering taking off his pants altogether and going for a swim, when a pale shape in the water near the base of the Celsius made him stop.  Something was swimming there, barely visible in the dim light that came from the stars over Spira.

Do sharks swim in such shallow water? Jim wondered, squinting at the shape as it moved away from the ship and crossed a few yards in front of him.  Do they even have sharks here?  Then the thing raised out of the water, and Jim realized it wasn't a shark at all; it was Camille.

The Octopid's wet hair was loose, the first time Jim had seen it so, and when he tossed it backward it nearly reached the waist-high water he stood in.  He was even thinner than Jim had believed; his ribs were prominent between the three gills he bore on each side.  He looked bizarre, almost supernatural emerging from Besaid's tranquil waters.  If the Spirans saw him like this, they'd think he was one of their fiends and shoot him, Jim thought.

Camille noticed him then and looked at him for a long moment before slowly walking towards him.  As the Octopid moved into shallower water, Jim realized Camille was completely naked.  Jim had seen other young men unclothed before, of course, in the showers at the Academy, but he had never seen one like Camille.

Besides the arms and gills, Camille was humanoid in every respect from his head to about three inches down his thighs; at that point, each leg split into three tentacles.  His body was completely hairless, something of a surprise considering the amount of hair on his scalp, and Jim found himself staring at Camille's bare groin more than at his legs.  Finally, he forced himself to focus on the Octopid's face instead.

"Going swimming?" Camille asked, stopping a short distance away from him.

"No, just taking a walk."  Jim swallowed hard, hoping the dim light hid the hot flush he felt in his cheeks.  "I didn't know you were down here though.  If I'm disturbing you--"

"Of course you're not."  Camille rolled his eyes and stretched his arm tentacles.  "I just wanted to get away from those ball players for a while.  The attention's flattering at first, but they talk so bloody much!"

"I don't know; you seemed to be enjoying yourself earlier," Jim retorted.

"It's really not that much fun when they just jabber and grope my tentacles.  It would be a different matter entirely if they were groping me somewhere else," Camille smirked.  "And what's it to you, anyway-- are you jealous?  Not getting enough attention from your boyfriend after you compared him to me?"

Jim scowled.  "You are so weird.  No, I'm not jealous of you.  Or of them, for that matter."

"Hmm.  Well, Silver certainly hasn't paid much attention to you today."  Camille reached back to wring out his hair with his arm tentacles, apparently totally unconcerned that he wasn't wearing a stitch of clothing.  "Left you down here with the Al Bhed this afternoon while he went to cook with those girls."  He paused thoughtful.  "Not that I would have minded being left with that one with the tattoos. . . ."

"Actually," snapped Jim, "I stayed down here.  And I was with Rikku the whole time, so it's as much my doing as his."

"Yeah, sure, if that's what you want to tell yourself."  Camille moved a couple steps closer to Jim and looked at him intently.  Even in the faint starlight, Jim could see his odd, horizontal pupils clearly.  "What is it with you two, anyway?  How did you end up together?"

"I was his cabin boy for a while," Jim muttered.  "We met again here on Spira after a few years."

"Wow, he was sleeping with the cabin boy?" Camille laughed.  "By Cthulhu, how old were you?  Twelve?"

Jim felt himself blush all the way to his shoulders.  "We weren't sleeping together then!  And I was fifteen!"

"Unh hunh."  Camille looked up him and down.  "Still, not a very nice way to treat you, the way he did back on Coronis."

Jim looked down.  "That was my fault.  I shouldn't have tried to cross Lead Crow.  Silver was just protecting me."

"By yelling at you and calling you a fool?  That didn't seem very protective to me."  Jim jumped when the Octopid curled the tip of one tentacle under his chin and tilted Jim's head up to meet his gaze.  "You deserve better than that."

For one brief instant, Jim wondered if he were right.  Maybe I shouldn't have apologized; maybe I didn't do anything wrong--  Then he shook his head and pushed the tentacle away.

"Camille, stop it.  I love him, okay?  Maybe that's hard for you to believe, but it's the truth."

"You love him?" Camille asked faintly.

"Yes, I do!"  Jim backed away from him, retreating from the water onto the sand.  "Haven't you ever been in love?"

Camille slowly left the water, keeping several feet of distance in between himself and Jim.  "I don't know.  Maybe."  Then he shrugged and walked towards some rocks on the other side of the beach, where Jim now noticed he had left his clothes.  Jim looked away and scooped up his own belongings, then he walked up the dock onto the Revolution to give Camille time to get back to the village first.

Jim could feel a faint breeze once he had mounted the gangplank onto the Revolution's deck.  He perched on the edge of the ship facing the sea and looked out at Spira's ocean, relishing the somewhat cool air on his bare chest.  He had been there for some time when the sound of heavy footsteps on the ship's ramp made him turn.

To his relief, it was Silver.  Jim smiled as the spacer came over to him.

"I was wonderin' where ye went off to," Silver commented, leaning on the side of the ship behind Jim.  "Heard the stories one too many times, eh?"

"Yeah.  And it was so hot up there."

"So that explains this."  Jim shivered pleasantly as he felt Silver's mechanical fingers trail down his back.  "That tattooed lad said he'd be able to finish the repairs tomorrow, provided he can find some solar canvas in Luca."

"Yeah, that's what he told me."  Jim sighed softly.  "I just hope they have some there.  I don't know how much call there is for supplies like that here, yet."

"If anybody has some, it'll be Rin," Silver chuckled.  "He might be the first person to check with.  Say Jimbo, ye mind goin' with Aniki tomorrow and takin' Morphy, in case ye do get a chance to stop by Rin's place?  Right now he's up there tormentin' Yuna, but I know he'd like to see Tavia again."

"Sure." Jim glanced over his shoulder at the cyborg.  "Don't you want to go?"

"No, I think I'd better stay here."  Silver spoke rather evasively, making Jim frown.

"Why?  Is something wrong?"

"I don't want to be tellin' ye anything to worry ye, lad."

Jim made a face.  "You saying that worries me more than anything else could, because now I'll be wondering."

Silver smiled faintly.  "All right, all right.  It's just that. . . to be blunt, I don't trust the Octopid."

"Camille?"  Remembering his earlier conversation, Jim flushed and felt slightly ashamed.

"Yeah.  Somethin' 'bout the way he handled that lighter today. . . .  It took him so bloody long to come up, and I know it don't take that long to load a harpoon gun.  And then the lighter just-- gave up.  Like whoever was flyin' her took off, right after they saw him."

Jim stared down at his lap and murmured, "I didn't even think about that.  He. . . ."

When he trailed off, Silver prodded his arm.  "He what?"

"He's just said some things that. . . that I don't like."

"Well, try not to let him get to ye, lad.  I don't think he's a threat long as we keep an eye on him."  Silver squeezed his shoulder.  "Do ye mind takin' him with ye too tomorrow?  I might do some snoopin', so to speak, just in case."

Jim smiled faintly.  "All right.  He seems to like Aniki, so maybe Camille'll bother him for a while instead of me."  He relaxed as the spacer continued to rub his shoulders gently.

"There's. . . one other thing on my mind," Silver said after a moment.

"What?"

"I keep thinkin' about what Lead Crow said, right before she left.  At the time, I was too worried about ye to pay much attention to it, but now I remember. . . she said something about Mau."

For the first time, Jim remembered too.  "Yeah, she did.  She said the same thing was starting there too. . . .  Do you think she was telling the truth?"

"I don't know."  Silver's hands stopped their motion and merely rested on Jim's shoulders.  "Maybe ye'd better talk to the Cap'n 'bout it when ye get back home."

"If it's true, I don't want to tell her."  Jim clenched his hands into fists against his thighs.  "She'd go rushing off to Mau, and if the girl there is anything like Lead Crow--"

"Aye," Silver said grimly.  "I wonder if Luna knows. . . ."

"Luna?"

"The little girl I told ye about-- although I s'pose she's grown up now.  She left her planet, just like those poor girls Lead Crow talked about.  If Lead Crow's goin' after the twins, Luna might be in danger from whoever's doin' the same thing on Mau."

"Oh. . . ."  Jim clenched his teeth.  "Dammit, I hate this.  These terrible things are happening, and there's nothing we can do."

Silver reached around him and laid his own hands on top of Jim's.  "Yes, there is. . . .  We can have faith in the guardians of these planets.  Coronis didn't make it, but then ye look at Spira.  From what that chatterbox of a Rikku said, I gather this planet's been attacked twice in the past five years, and those weren't the first times.  Lady Yuna stopped 'em both.  We can't be on every world that's in trouble, Jimbo, but there's people like Yuna and Coronis all over the galaxy.  We have to believe in 'em."

Jim nodded, but he still thought of what else Lead Crow had said, about the guardians of two other worlds being dead.  What about Chuu and Mermaid? he thought.  They couldn't stop Galaxia either.

Silver seemed to sense his concern, and sighed deeply.  "I'm sorry, Jimbo.  I shouldn't've brought it up-- I hate to see ye upset."

"It's okay."  Jim managed a smile.  "I'd rather you talk to me about it than not.  After we see Mr. Merle, I'll go back to Montressor for a day and tell Captain Amelia about it.  Even if she does go running to Mau, I can't not tell her."

Silver squeezed his hands.  "Whatever ye think is best.  Now, let's talk about something else, eh?"  When Jim nodded, he went on, "Ye want to stay on with Merle when we get back?  Since we did deliver the cargo, he's gotta hire us on if we want it."

"It's fine with me," Jim shrugged.  "I like him all right, and we probably won't ever have another run this hard again," he added with a faint chuckle.  "It should be downhill from here."

"Stars, I hope so."  Silver slid his hands to Jim's sides and squeezed them gently, making Jim shiver and laugh.  "We deserve a vacation after this run."

"Maybe we could come back here," Jim offered as he leaned back against Silver's chest.  "This is a beautiful planet. . . .  Heck, maybe Mr. Merle would come too.  I bet he could use a vacation."

Silver's hands moved from Jim's sides to his stomach, the heat of his organic hand contrasting sharply with his cool metallic fingers.  "Long as ye don't run around half-clothed like this all the time. . . ye'll get far too much attention."

"I can't make any promises," Jim teased.  "It depends on how hot it gets around here."

Silver's organic hand slid farther down his abdomen.  "And I think that depends on what yer wearin'."  Jim felt his cheeks grow even warmer as Silver bent his head and kissed his bare shoulder softly.

"Y-you know, it was cooler down below deck than up here when the Al Bhed were working," Jim pointed out.

"I'd imagine it takes a while for the artificial climate to wear off down there.  Ye suggestin' we move?"

"Well there is less chance of Camille or one of the Spirans turning up down there."  Jim looked up at Silver backwards and grinned.

Silver chuckled and stood.  "That's enough motivation for me."  They went down the narrow stairway to the galley, where Silver examined their store of supplies in the mini-bar, which Jim suspected had been a special commission by Lord Rin.

"Well, I was gonna suggest we have a drink," Silver commented, "but it looks like Tentacles already got to most of the liquor."

Jim smirked.  "It's okay.  I'd rather have ginger ale anyway."

Silver handed him a bottle, then continued to rummage through the galley.  "We're still doin' pretty well, supply-wise.  Might need to replace a few things on Crescentia, but not much."

Jim perched on the table by the mini-bar to drink his soda.  "If you need me to pick up anything in Luca tomorrow, let me know."

"Hmm, there is this."  Silver held up a small glass bottle half-filled with an amber-hued, viscous liquid.  "Cephalotus seed oil.  Ye can only get it on Spira."

"Cephalotus?"

"It's one a' them fiends they're always talkin' about.  Rin said the only way to get its seeds is to get it to attack ye, so this stuff's pretty expensive to buy," Silver chuckled.  "Unless ye wanna go harvest 'em yerself."

"No thanks."  Jim finished his drink and set the empty bottle aside.  "Is it worth all that trouble?"

Silver laughed again and handed him the flask of oil.  "Taste it and see for yerself."

Yuck, thought Jim, but he uncapped the bottle and ran his finger along the rim.  He was pleasantly surprised when he stuck his finger in his mouth.  The Cephalotus oil tasted a bit like the olive oil Sarah used to make vinaigrette for her salads, but with a slightly sweet flavor that made it much more appetizing.

"Hey, you're right.  I dunno that I'd fight a killer plant for it, but it's really good."  Still sucking on his finger, he glanced up at Silver, then blushed at the expression on the cyborg's face.  "What?"

"If it makes ye go 'round with yer finger in yer mouth like that, I'll buy ye a gallon of the stuff."  Silver moved closer to him and pulled Jim's hand away from his lips, then replaced it with his own mouth.  With a faint, startled moan, Jim put an arm around the cyborg's neck and kissed him back hard.  He set the bottle down behind him, but Silver picked it up again with a smirk.

"Ye know, yer givin' me all kinds a' ideas about what to do with this stuff besides cookin'."

"Y-yeah?" Jim panted.  He leaned back a little and grinned.  "But it's so expensive.  You don't want to waste it on me."

"Eh, we'll make the Octopid go seed-huntin' tomorrow."  Silver unfastened Jim's pants with his mechanical hand and pulled them off while pouring out a little of the Cephalotus oil into the other.  He then wrapped his hand around Jim and pumped him slowly.  Jim yelped incoherently at the nearly frictionless sensation of Silver's hand gliding over him.

"Aah-- Silver--"  Jim closed his eyes and arched his back, pushing his hips forward against Silver's hand.  "I. . . that. . . ."

Silver leaned forward to kiss his neck, making Jim shiver.  He felt the cyborg's mechanical arm wrap around his back to support him as his organic hand's motions quickened.  Jim clung to Silver's shoulders, whimpering.

"Yer so beautiful," Silver breathed as he caressed Jim's shoulder.  "I'd do anythin' for ye, lad. . . anythin'."  Before Jim could speak, Silver suddenly let go of him completely, nearly causing Jim to lose his balance and fall off the table.

"Hey!" Jim cried.

Silver grinned and just as suddenly scooped Jim up in both arms, along with the bottle.  "But ye'll be a lot more comfortable in the cabin, I'll wager."  Jim found himself being carried through the short hallway outside the galley and into their cabin, where he was unceremoniously deposited on the bed.  Silver shut the door-- Probably a good idea just in case Camille comes back for the rest of the liquor, Jim thought-- then sat down on the edge of the bed.

Jim grinned and pounced on him, kissing him hard as he pulled at the cyborg's clothes.  "Let me do it to you too," Jim hissed between kisses.

Silver chuckled at his eagerness, but his laugh trailed off into a moan as Jim rubbed oil on both his hands then began to pump the cyborg with them.  Jim leaned down and put his mouth over Silver as he touched him; after an instant, he felt Silver's hand on his erection again, groping him firmly.  Jim pressed against his hand and sucked hard on Silver's cock.

"Aah, yes. . . ," Silver groaned, stroking Jim's hair roughly with his mechanical hand and pushing a little deeper into his mouth.  Jim's heart raced at the hoarse sound in Silver's voice, which he found almost as exciting as the feeling of the cyborg's hand pumping him firmly.  Finally though, Jim had to sit up to catch his breath and rest his aching jaw.  Silver pulled him to straddle his lap and kissed him deeply, his mechanical hand pressed against Jim's back.

"Y-you said you'd do anything for me, right?" Jim panted.

"Of course. . . ."  Silver began caressing Jim's neck again; the younger man tilted his head to the side with a whimper, relieved he didn't have to look at Silver when he asked his next question.

"Will you. . . will you fuck me?"  He felt his cheeks catch fire just saying the words.

Silver's metal fingers tightened on his back.  "Y-yer sure ye want--"

"Yes," Jim interrupted him, pressing against him ardently.  "Please, I want you. . . ."

"And ye think I'd ever say no to that?" Silver murmured hoarsely.  He slowed the motion of his hand on Jim's erection and asked more steadily, "Lad, have ye ever done it before?"

"No, I. . . ."  Jim drew in his breath slowly.  "I always wanted it to be with you."

"So did I," Silver said in a low voice, making Jim's rapid heartbeat grow even faster.  He let go of Jim long enough to pour even more of the Cephalotus oil into his hand, then he slid his fingers farther back between Jim's legs.

"Aahhh!" Jim gasped as Silver gently pushed one finger inside him.  Jim had done it to himself a few times in the past out of curiosity, but the feeling of someone else touching him, and the knowledge that the someone else was Silver, made the sensation a thousand times more exhilarating.  Jim moaned and rocked his hips back, trying to impale himself farther on Silver's fingers.

"Ye like that, then?" Silver asked in a humorous yet lust-tinged voice.  He pulled out his finger for an instant, then thrust two into Jim's body.  Jim yelped at the feeling of being stretched open to accommodate both of Silver's large fingers; it hurt slightly for an instant, but then the pain dissipated into a rush of adrenaline as Silver slid his fingers in and out of him.

"Y-yes!" Jim cried as he squirmed in Silver's lap almost frantically.  After only a moment, he was used to the sensation, and all he could think about was wanting more.  He pressed back against Silver's hand and clung to the cyborg with one arm so that he could grope himself with his free hand.

Finally, Silver withdrew his fingers completely and leaned back slightly, nudging Jim forward with his mechanical hand.  Jim raised up on his knees, heart racing as Silver shifted beneath him, then pushed down on his hip once more with his cyborg hand.  Jim obediently lowered himself, then gasped sharply as he felt the head of Silver's cock against him.  He gritted his teeth and continued to press downward; as he did so, he felt Silver tremble slightly beneath him, and he realized that the spacer was resisting the temptation to thrust up into him forcefully.

Jim lowered his full weight onto Silver, causing the cyborg to penetrate him.  His cock was even wider than his fingers, but even though Jim had been prepared for it to hurt, all he felt was a throbbing pleasure that took his breath away.  Once the head was inside him, Jim's body met no resistance, and he slid down onto Silver's shaft easily.

"Stars, lad, yer tight," Silver panted.  He clutched Jim's hips in his hands and pulled back slightly, then thrust deeply into the younger man, causing Jim to moan incoherently.

"S-silver. . . ."  Jim wrapped his arms around the cyborg and began raising and lowering his hips in time to Silver's slowly thrusts.

"Go on," breathed Silver in what was almost a growl, "tell me how it feels."  He closed his organic hand over Jim's erection, so hard now that it quivered with an aching throb, and stroked it firmly.  That sensation combined with the feeling of Silver's cock buried inside him was almost more than Jim could stand. 

"Wonderful," Jim managed to whimper.  "You feel so big. . . ."  Even as he spoke, he pushed back against Silver, trying to impale himself even farther.

"Aahhh, yes--" Silver groaned.  He gripped Jim's hip tightly with his mechanical hand as he thrust up into him.  Jim pressed back against the spacer's body, rocking back and forth on his lap and earning a dizzying burst of pleasure in response.

Then, without any warning, Silver wrapped his mechanical arm around Jim's waist and swept him down onto his back on the bed with his hips lifted into the air, all without pulling out of him.  The new position forced Jim's legs upward towards his head until he felt the muscles in the backs of his thighs straining, but he immediately ceased to notice anything but the stabbing surge of pleasure inside him when Silver began to thrust rapidly in him once more.

"So ye like bein' fucked by yer crewman, eh, Cap'n?" Silver chuckled hoarsely.

"Stars, y-yes--"  Jim closed his eyes and tilted his head back.  "Please, Silver, fuck me harder!"

Silver growled in response and grasped Jim's thighs in his hands.  He pulled them farther apart, exposing Jim's groin and allowing the cyborg to penetrate him even deeper.  Each time Silver thrust into him, Jim felt a throb of pleasure so intense, it was almost painful.  Jim arched his back and pushed back against the cyborg, crying involuntarily, "Please, harder--"

Silver gripped his thighs more tightly then drove into him so hard, the bed shook.  Jim shrieked with ecstasy, clutching the sheets in his fists as Silver let go of one leg to grip Jim's cock in his organic hand and pump it rapidly.  He coerced a loud cry from Jim with each thrust into the younger man's body.

"Come for me, lad!" Silver hissed.

Jim didn't want to come; he didn't ever want the ecstasy he felt to end.  However, Silver seemed to be determined to drive him to an orgasm right then, and he pulled on Jim's cock all the harder.  Finally, Jim's whole body tensed, and he screamed once more as he finally came on Silver's hand and his own chest.

He collapsed and lay still except for an uncontrollable trembling as Silver moaned hoarsely and continued to fuck him for a moment; then Silver thrust into him a final time.  Jim felt the cyborg's cock throb, buried deep in his body, as Silver came.  Finally, Silver pulled out of him and lay back next to him, breathing heavily.

"Are ye all right, lad?" Silver asked quietly after a moment.

"I'm wonderful."  Jim looked at him with a slightly embarrassed grin.  Silver smiled back and stroked his cheek with his organic hand which still shook slightly.  Jim slid his arms around Silver's neck and snuggled against him as the cyborg wrapped his own arms around Jim's back.

"We're going to have to get a lot more of that Cephalotus seed stuff," Jim mumbled.  "I feel like I'm covered in it."

"Yer covered in more'n that," Silver said with a chuckle that dissolved into a yawn.  "But we can wash off in the mornin'.  I'm too wiped out now."

"Mm.  I bet they're gonna wonder where we are, up in the village."

"Let 'em wonder."  Silver kissed Jim's forehead, then leaned his cheek against the younger man's hair.  "Jimbo?" he murmured.

"Yeah?"

Silver was silent an instant, then he said quietly, "Lad, I love ye."

Jim had thought his heart had calmed down for the rest of the evening, but it began racing again all the same.  "I love you too, Silver," he said in a shaky voice.

Silver's arms tightened around him, but all he said was, "Get some sleep now.  Ye've got a lot to do tomorrow if yer goin' to Luca."

"Yeah.  And maybe we can leave Spira by tomorrow night, if Aniki can fix the sail," Jim murmured tiredly.  "I didn't want to go back to Crescentia at first, but now. . . ."

"I know what ye mean."

 

Early the next morning, Jim and Silver managed to slip back into the village of Besaid Island undetected.  No one was awake save for a lone dog who wandered up to them, looked them over with a bored gaze, then trotted off again.

Camille was in the tent belonging to Tidus' friends, sleeping with one tentacle-arm draped over his eyes.  Jim was relieved to see that the Octopid had put his clothes back on.  He stirred after a moment and raised his head to look from one to the other of them accusingly.

"Where'd you come from?" he asked, then immediately amended, "Never mind.  I don't want to know."

Soon afterwards, the rest of the village sprang back to life.  Rikku brought them breakfast, which consisted of the largest mass of scrambled eggs Jim had ever seen.

"They're Chocobo eggs," she said with a grin.  Jim vaguely remembered seeing some of giant, yellow birds on the Mi'ihen Highroad, where Silver had told him that some people actually rode on their backs.

Morph had reappeared with Rikku; she revealed that he had fallen asleep after an exciting evening of tormenting Aniki and had spent the night in the tent she'd shared with Paine.

"Guess where we're going today, Morphy?"  Jim scratched Morph under his "chin."  "We're going to visit Tavia."  Morph chirruped excitedly.

"Who's Tavia?" Camille mumbled around a mouthful of eggs.

"Another Octopid.  She lives in Luca, where we have to go to get new canvas for the sail.  Why don't you come with us, Camille?" Jim asked, hoping he didn't sound too suspicious.  "You might know some of the same people."

Camille rolled his eyes.  "Moana isn't that small.  We don't all know each other."

"Moana?  Is that where you're from?" Rikku asked him.  "What's it like?  Is it all water?  And does everyone there look like you?"

"Do you have a mute button?" Camille retorted.

Rikku shot him a look that was slightly hurt, but mostly annoyed.  "Well, I was gonna come to Luca with you guys, but I don't think I can stomach you and my brother at the same time."

"I'll handle your brother.  You can keep Jim here entertained."  Camille gave Jim an unreadable look.

"Well, ye kids can work it out yerselves," Silver broke in, much to Jim's relief.  "I'm goin' down to look over the ship."  He squeezed Jim's shoulder surreptitiously as he left.

"You really should come with us, Rikku," Jim offered.  "Just ignore Camille."

"Well, if you insist!" Rikku declared brightly.  "I'll go tell Aniki we're ready!"

A few minutes later, Jim, Camille, and Morph followed the two Al Bhed siblings down to the beach.  Jim glanced hopefully at the Revolution as they splashed through the shallow water on their way to the other ship, but Silver was nowhere in sight.

Jim was amazed at the inside of the Celsius.  Although there was no way it could survive a trip into space, it seemed infinitely more impressive than even the Revolution.  Aniki was justifiably proud of it and would have been content to spend half the day showing off every knob and button of the thing, had Rikku not threatened to pilot the ship herself if he didn't hurry up and start for Luca.  Aniki grumbled in his native language but climbed into the pilot's seat all the same.

The bridge of the ship was made up of three sets of controls, plus a terminal where Rikku said she monitored the ship's computers and could access any of the data they'd gathered on their long travels.

"You can sit there," she told Jim, pointing at the left-most of the three control panels.  "That's the navigation panel.  Usually Dachi handles it."

Jim climbed into the seat with Morph clinging to his shoulder and looked down at the computer screen in front of him.  "What do I do?"

Rikku giggled.  "That's easy!  All you have to do is touch the place you want to go, and it'll load the directions into the auto-pilot.  The Celsius can fly to any place in Spira, all by herself!"

"So, uh, what exactly does your brother do, then?" Jim whispered to her, glancing up at where Aniki was sitting.

Rikku shrugged.  "Yells a lot and tries to make himself look important?  Every once in a while he'll have to steer or land in a tricky spot. . . but usually he just punches the button that tells the ship to start.  Overall, he's pretty useless."

She directed Camille into the third seat in the front of the bridge, then perched in her own chair at the terminal.  "Okay, let's go!"

Jim touched Luca on the map shown on his computer screen, then a loud hum reverberated through the bridge as Aniki started the ship's engines.  Jim felt the ship lurch forward, then upward as it lifted out of the shallow water.

It took less than twenty minutes for them to reach Luca, and Jim thoroughly enjoyed every second of the trip.  He and Morph peered over the edge of their seat through the clear window below them and watched the waters of Spira race by.  Suddenly the water was replaced by land as they swept over the coast and slowed as they approached Luca.

Aniki brought the ship down at a regular dock near the stadium where Jim had first seen Lady Yuna.  As they disembarked, Jim told him what Silver had said about trying Rin first for the solar canvas.

"Hmm. . . that is actually a good idea," Aniki said thoughtfully.  "If he does not have any, he will know someone who does."

"Yup yup, Rin knows where you can get just about anything!" Rikku chirped.

"So does everyone in Spira know him, or what?" Jim wondered.

"Pretty much!" Rikku replied with a grin.  "He's probably one of the richest men in the whole world.  Plus our father has known him for a long time, so we've seen a lot of him."

"How long is this going to take?" Camille grumbled from a few feet behind them.  "I want to get back to Crescentia."

Jim wasn't in any mood to listen to the Octopid's griping.  "Would you make up your mind?  First you want to hang around Coronis longer, and now you want to go back?"

Camille was quiet a moment, then he muttered, "I don't like this planet."

"Well, this planet does not like you either!" Aniki retorted haughtily.  Rikku covered her mouth to hide a giggle.  Camille didn't say anything else, but Jim had the feeling his interest in Aniki ended with that comment.

As they walked through Luca to the inn, Jim noticed that the city hadn't changed in his absence.  It was still as crowded as ever, although thankfully it wasn't as hot as Besaid.  When they reached the inn, Jim went in first with Morph.  There were still a few people in the common room finishing breakfast, served by a harried-looking Tavia.

As soon as he saw the buxom Octopid girl, Morph chirped and bolted across the room.  He pelted into her full tilt, nearly making her drop the tray she was carrying, and nuzzled her cheek.  Tavia yelped, then gave a little squeak of surprise.

"Morph?"  She looked up and spotted Jim, followed by the other three.  Tavia grinned and and darted across the room towards them.

"Hey!  What are you doing here?" she asked Jim as she tickled Morph with a tentacle.  He cooed and clung to her neck.

"Looking for Lord Rin actually," Jim replied.  "Silver and I had a bit of an accident with our ship, so we need some solar canvas."  He gestured at his traveling companions.  Rikku was beaming and Aniki was looking appreciatively at Tavia's low-cut dress, but Camille didn't seem to be impressed.  "By the way, this is Rikku, Aniki, and Camille.  Camille's on our crew now."

"Oh!"  Tavia smiled at the Al Bhed, then looked Camille over.  "Wow, I haven't seen another Octopid in ages!  Did you just come from Moana?"

"No," he said rather scornfully.  "I haven't been there in years."

"Oh. . . ."  Tavia pursed her lips, then turned back to Jim.  "Well, Rin isn't here.  He and his partner have been spending a few weeks at their home out on the Highroad.  I'm sure they wouldn't mind if you dropped by though!"  One of the patrons yelled for a second serving of coffee, making her wince.  "Oops.  Why don't you sit down, and I'll talk to you soon as this crowd's through?"

"Great," Camille grumbled as he slumped at one of the tables, drumming on it with a tentacle.  "Where's this Highroad?"

"Just outside Luca," Rikku replied.  "Rin has a place in a settlement on down the road, but it won't take us long to get out there if we take a hover."  She paused and gave her brother a curious look.  "What's this about a partner, though?  Did he get married?"  Aniki only shrugged, apparently as clueless as she.

"Actually, I have a list of supplies we need to buy for the ship," Jim told Camille.  "If you want us to get done faster, you could go do the shopping while we go see Rin."  Jim tossed the shopping list and money Silver had given him across the table.  Camille muttered something involving Cthulhu, but he shoved the items in his pocket and stood up.

"I'll meet you at the Celsius," he muttered as he left the inn.

"You trust him with your money?" Rikku asked with a smirk after he was gone.

"Well, he can't leave Spira without us, and he won't get paid for the mission if he can't leave Spira. . . so I think we're safe," Jim chuckled.  "The worst he can do is spend the money on booze."

The last breakfast guests finally departed, and Tavia returned to their table with a sigh.  "We've been super busy lately," she commented as she sat down between Jim and Rikku.  "Jim, did Silver come with you?"

"No, he stayed in Besaid with our ship."

"Aww, too bad.  I sorta missed his griping at me," she giggled.  "So I guess everything's working out for you two.  You got a job and everything?"

"Yeah," Jim told her, unable to keep a hint of pride from his voice.  "We were coming back from our first run when some other ship attacked us."

"Ouch.  Well, I hope Rin can help you."  Tavia picked up Morph in her tentacles and petted him.  "Would you mind too much if I kept Morph here while you went out to see him?"

Jim grinned.  "Be my guest.  I know Morphy won't complain."

Tavia insisted on packing a lunch for Jim and the Al Bhed, then they set off for the Mi'ihen Highroad, leaving an extremely content Morph behind.  As the three climbed the stairs on the outskirts of  Luca, Jim remembered the evenings he'd spent there with Silver just a short time before.  If somebody had told me then how things would turn out, I'd never have believed them, he thought with a little smile.  Despite the terrible things that had happened on Coronis in the stretch of time connected by his two visits to this place, Jim was still happier than he had ever been before.

At the start of the Highroad, Rikku rented for them what she called a hover.  It was a small vehicle that she said could carry them to Rin's dwelling much faster than the other option: riding on the backs of the large yellow birds known as Chocobos.  Jim quickly agreed and climbed aboard.

Aniki took the controls and drove the hover down the Highroad at a breakneck pace, causing Jim to cling to the side with all his might.  However, after they had only been traveling for a couple minutes, Aniki braked so hard, Jim was nearly thrown from the vehicle.

"What the heck are you doing?" Rikku cried, slapping her brother in the back of his shaved head.

"Fiend!" Aniki yelled in response, pointing into the road ahead of them.  Jim looked past him eagerly; in spite of what he assumed was some amount of danger, he was excited to finally see a fiend.  In the middle of the road stood a supremely ugly creature which reminded him vaguely of his old crewmate Moron in that it had no neck or head, only a face on its torso.  Two hulking arms outfitted with gigantic claws slumped towards the ground from its sides.

"Whoa, what is that?" Jim asked.

"A Chocobo Eater," Aniki declared.  Jim didn't ask for a further explanation; the name told him everything he could possibly want to know about the monstrosity.

"So, uh, what do we do?"  The creature seemed to be sizing them up.  Now that his initial excitement had worn off, Jim realized that he was ill-prepared to fight the thing.  Even though he had his knife, he doubted he could get close enough to stab it without meeting those claws.

"We fight!" Aniki crowed, starting to stand up-- until Rikku whapped him in the head again.

"We aren't fighting anything!  You're staying right here-- and don't cast any spells!"  Glancing at Jim with a roll of her bright green eyes, she said, "One time a fiend attacked me, and Genius here hit me with a thunder spell instead of it."

"Spell?"  Jim looked at Aniki in surprise.  "You know magic?"  To his embarrassment, Rikku laughed.

"You've got a lot to learn about Spira.  Everyone here knows magic.  In fact. . . ."  She grinned at him and climbed down from the hover.  "Watch this."

Jim stared as Rikku took a few steps towards the fiend, apparently not worried in the least.  She reached into the small belt pack she wore around her waist and pulled something out.  From where Jim was, it looked like a ball small enough to fit into her hand.  Rikku produced a small metal plate from her pack as well, then fit the ball into an indentation on it.

Jim wasn't really sure what happened next, but as far as he could tell, every piece of clothing Rikku was wearing changed.  The bikini top and mini skirt she had on seemed to morph into a short, fuchsia dress.  A long staff appeared in her hand, then a hat materialized on her head.  Jim looked at Aniki for an explanation, but the Al Bhed apparently didn't see anything unusual about his sister's sudden change of attire.  Jim turned back to Rikku just in time to see her raise her staff.

As he watched, a beam of energy directed at the fiend emanated from the top of the staff.  When it drew near the Chocobo Eater, it split into a dozen tongues of flame.  The fiend roared and drew back.  Rikku clutched her staff, breathing heavily, then raised it again.  This time, the fiery attack seemed larger, and it engulfed the fiend completely.  The creature howled and collapsed on the dirt road, then to Jim's amazement, began to dissolve into myriad flickers of light.  When its whole body had dissipated, the lights swooped upward into the sky and disappeared.

"Not bad, hunh?" Rikku crowed as she jumped back up on the hover.

"What. . . what just happened there?" Jim asked.

"Duh, I kicked its butt!"  She giggled.  "You mean when it died?  Everything living on Spira is made up of what we call pyreflies.  When a fiend dies, those pyreflies are released-- those were the lights you saw."

"Oh, well. . . what about you?"  Jim looked her up and down.  "What are you wearing?"

"I told you, Rikku!" Aniki snapped at her.  "You dress too provocatively for a young, unmarried girl!"

"You're starting to sound like Pop!" Rikku retorted.  "Like you can talk anyway; those pants of yours barely cover your--"

"Let's go," Aniki interrupted as he started the hover again.  "Rikku can explain on the way."

"This is what does it," Rikku told Jim as they continued down the Highroad; she held up the objects from her pack.  What Jim had taken for a ball was actually a translucent red sphere with a softly glowing center.  "It's called a dress sphere.  There're all different kinds of 'em, and they're one of the things sphere hunters look for, because they contain lots of information.  For instance, this is a Black Mage dress sphere.  These clothes and the spells I can control-- all that's stored in this little thing.  When I activate it, I become a Black Mage.  The more I wear it, the more spells I learn-- and they're all saved in the sphere when I take it off!"

"So how do you activate it-- with this thing?"  Jim tapped the metal plate on which the sphere rested.

"Yeah, it's called a garment grid.  A kid who used to sphere-hunt with us, Shinra, invented 'em to make it easier for us to use the dress spheres.  You just pop the spheres on, and you're good to go!"  Rikku detached the Black Mage sphere from the grid, and her witch-like attire dissolved back into her normal, albeit skimpy, clothing.  Jim eyed the taut bikini top that barely covered her small breasts, then he looked away with a slight flush.  The memory of his previous evening with Silver left him feeling a bit guilty for checking out girls.

"Hey, we're almost here!"  Rikku pointed at a small gathering of tents up ahead.  "About a year ago, Rin built a house out behind the settlement-- although I didn't know anyone was living there with him.  I just hope he's at home so we didn't come all this way for nothing!"

Fortunately, Rin was at home, which proved to be the largest house Jim had ever seen-- the guy really was loaded.  He seemed a bit surprised to see visitors, especially Jim.  Jim figured there was no way around revealing why they needed the solar canvas, but he was careful not to mention the rest of the damage to the Revolution.

"My ship is already falling apart, eh?" Rin asked, though he spoke with a smile.  "You are in luck.  I do have quite a large quantity of the canvas stored away; I had to go off-world to get it, but I decided it would be worth being the only person on the planet with it when ships started visiting us."

"No one else on Spira has any?  Wow, good thing we came to you first," Rikku remarked.

"It is stored at my warehouse in Luca," Rin told them.  "The assistant at my office can let you in and see that you get what you need.  And," he added with a chuckle, "I will let you have it for what I paid for it, since it is for a good cause."

"All of that, just to be told the stuff's back in Luca," Rikku grumbled as they boarded the hover once more.  "Good thing that whiny friend of yours didn't come, or we'd never hear the end of it."

Fortunately, they didn't run across any more fiends on the return trip to Luca.  The three ended up eating Tavia's lunch on the benches overlooking the city, then they found Rin's warehouse and purchased the canvas from his assistant, a rather harried-looking woman with hair the color of flame.

"This should be more than enough," Aniki panted as he started back for the Celsius, carrying a large folded stack of the heavy fabric.  "You can keep some extra on board, in case this happens again."

"It'd better not happen again," Jim muttered.  He and Rikku returned to the inn to collect Morph, who whimpered miserably at having to leave Tavia a second time, then they returned to the ship as well.

Jim was relieved to find that Camille was there, and that he had purchased everything on the shopping list.  (Jim decided to overlook the bottle from which he was currently drinking, which most definitely hadn't been on the list.)

"Yeah, I got everything," Camille said sourly as Jim pawed through his purchases.  "Dunno why that insane cyborg wants some of it though.  What the hell does he need three bottles of cooking oil for?"

Jim turned away before Camille could see his vivid blush.  "Just be glad we didn't make you go harvest it yourself."  Jim chuckled most of the way back to Besaid Island over that.

Silver was waiting for them on the Revolution when they returned.  Together, he and Jim hauled down the torn sail, and Rikku began to patch it with the canvas they'd bought.

"You'll need to replace the whole sail eventually," she commented as she stitched the sail with heavy thread, "but this should last you for a while."

Silver took the supplies from Camille, then said casually, "Ye mind goin' up to the village and tellin' Yuna and them we're fixin' to leave?  I'd go myself, but I need to get this stuff stowed 'fore we take off."

"Yeah, sure," Camille replied with his usual eye-roll, but he didn't complain further.  Silver watched him trudge across the sand towards the path, then glanced at Jim.

"Lad, could ye come below and help me?  It'll go faster with two of us."

"Sure."  Jim left Rikku and Aniki with the sail and followed Silver into the galley.  The cyborg closed the door, then looked down at Jim with an unusually serious expression.

"I think we gotta problem, Jimbo."

"What?  What's wrong?"  Jim set down the bag of supplies and gazed up at him worriedly.

"Well, while ye were gone, I took the opportunity to. . . investigate Ownby's stuff.  He don't have much with him, but I did find somethin' pretty unusual fer a spacer-- paper."

"Paper?  Uh, what's so weird about that?"

Silver smiled wanly.  "We don't usually have the time or inclination to do much writin'.  Still, I didn't think much a' him havin' a notebook and whatnot, 'specially since it was empty.  But then, I remembered somethin' an old cap'n of mine taught me.  When ye write somethin' on a pad a' paper with a pencil, it makes. . . an impression, like, on the page beneath the one yer usin'.  If ye rub a pencil over that blank page, the dents'll show up white."

Jim chuckled.  "So you tried it?  Sneaky."  His smile faded when he saw Silver's serious expression.  The cyborg pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and handed it to Jim.  Its jagged edge proved it to have been torn from a bound book, and its surface was covered with graphite that smudged Jim's fingers when he took it from Silver.  Jim looked down and read the few white words, written in a large scrawl, visible through the smudges:  Couldn't keep them on Coronis.  Wait for us on Crescentia.

"What. . . I don't. . . ."

"When he took so long to get his gun ready-- I think he was writin' this."  Silver took the paper from Jim and secured it in his pocket once more.  "An' somehow, he fastened it to that harpoon-- wrapped it around the shaft probably."

"So. . . so he knew the boat that was shooting at us?"  Jim felt as if all the blood had drained from his face when Silver nodded grimly.  "Then that's why she backed off-- the pilot realized Camille was with us.  And they'll attack us when we get back to Crescentia?"

"I dunno, lad.  I don't think anyone'd risk an outright attack anywhere near the space port, too many witnesses.  But I think we better be awful careful once we land."

"What. . . what could they want?" Jim cried.  "We don't have anything valuable!  If they're going to rob us, why didn't they do it on our way to Coronis, when we had those supplies?"  To be honest, Jim couldn't care less about the would-be pirate's motives.  Instead, he was thinking about Camille, the way the Octopid had touched him and spoken to him.  You deserve better than that, Camille had said.  Yeah, Jim thought, I deserve to be set up by an alcoholic octopus who likes getting felt up by Blitzball teams?

"I'm gonna kill him," Jim said abruptly.  To his surprise, Silver chuckled heartily.

"Now don't go murderin' anybody just yet.  We just gotta stay on our toes, so to speak, when we get back.  There could be an innocent explanation for it."

Gazing up into Silver's face, Jim could tell that he didn't really believe that.  Nevertheless, he nodded.

"Okay.  I won't say anything to him about it."

Silver put his hands on Jim's shoulders and squeezed them.  "Good lad.  We'll be okay, I promise."  Jim smiled back as best he could.

By the time they went above deck, Rikku had finished repairing the sail.  At Silver's direction, Aniki stowed the leftover canvas under the bed in their cabin.  Soon after, the rest of the Gullwings, past and present, emerged from the woods with Camille and made their way over to the Revolution.

"I wish you didn't have to leave so soon," Yuna said.  "I'd love to hear more stories!"

"I'd love to go with you," Tidus grinned.  "Someday we gotta make the Celsius space-worthy so all of us can see the rest of the galaxy."

"Don't push it," Paine retorted sardonically.  "We have a hard enough time keeping that bucket of bolts in the air as it is."  Aniki squawked in protest and flapped his arms wildly at the insult to his ship.

"Thank you," Jim told them.  "For everything."

"Don't worry about it!" Rikku chirped.  "It was fun.  Just come back soon, okay?"

Jim grinned back, in spite of his worries.  "Oh, we will."

The Revolution's crew started up the ship's ramp amid a chorus of goodbyes from the Spirans, then Rikku darted forward and grabbed Jim's arm.

"Hey, I just thought of something."  She dug through her pack and produced a dress sphere and garment grid, both of which she pressed into Jim's hand.  "I found an extra Black Mage dress sphere the other day, so I want you to have it."

"Really?"  Jim looked down at the softly glowing sphere in his hand.  "You're sure?"

"Yup yup!  We all already have one.  And the garment grid's an early one Shinra made that only holds one sphere, so it's not really much use to me."  Rikku grinned at him.  "Who knows, it might come in handy!"  She squeezed his hand, then backed down the ramp.  "And you've gotta come back now and show me what you look like in it!  I've never seen a guy wear a dress sphere before!"

"That's not very encouraging," Jim teased as he put the sphere and grid into the pocket opposite the one that held Lead Crow's figurine.  "But thank you, Rikku.  That means a lot to me."

The small group on the beach waved goodbye as Jim took his place at the Revolution's wheel.  The repairs to the ship were sound, and the crew had no trouble scuttling it away from the dock.  Jim looked back at Besaid Island one last time as his ship pulled away and lifted into the air.  He could just make out the tiny figures of Yuna, Tidus, and their friends next to the shining red hulk of the Celsius.

"Bye," he murmured.  "I'll come back. . . someday."  As he turned back to his wheel, he noticed Camille at his post, activating the artificial gravity on the ship.  The ten words the Octopid had written echoed in Jim's head, giving him a tense feeling in the pit of his stomach.

I hope we make it to come back, Jim thought.

Chapter Text

The return trip to Crescentia was uneventful.  They made it in about thirty-six hours, and although both Jim and Silver watched Camille intently, the Octopid did nothing to arouse suspicion.  Nevertheless, Jim couldn't relax, even when they were safely docked in Crescentia's harbor.

"Should we try to see Mr. Merle now, or wait until morning?" Jim asked as they secured the ship.  Artificial evening had fallen over the space port, and he thought that Merle might have left his office for the night.

"It can wait," Camille replied.  "Why don't you two go out for a drink and relax or something?  You look like shit."

Jim glanced at Silver suspiciously.  "You mean without you?  I've never known you to pass up the chance for a drink."

"I'm not in the mood."  Camille leaned against the Revolution's mast, and Jim noticed that he had his gun with him.  "I'll stay with the ship."

"No, I don't think so," Silver said coldly.  "We're all stayin' here 'til mornin'."

Camille looked from one to the other of them, then shrugged.  "Whatever, then."

Silver surreptitiously motioned for Jim to follow him below deck.  They went into their cabin, Morph trailing after them, and when Jim had shut the door, Silver turned to him with a grim expression.

"He's tryin' to get us off the ship.  Ye think he's gonna turn it over to his friend in the lighter?"

"Could be."  Jim paced up and down the cabin, which, due to its size, didn't take long.  "But if they wanted the ship, why did he drive them off when they attacked before?  With those cannons, they could've had us right there."

"Stars, I don't know."  Silver sat heavily on the bed and rested his forehead in his mechanical hand.  "I don't know what to do with him, either.  We can't leave him alone with the ship, but I don't know how to get rid of him.  If we just--"

A thump above their heads made him break off and look up.  "What was that?"

"I don't know. . . ."  Jim started for the door, but Silver grasped his arm.

"Wait."  More noises followed, like the sound of heavy footsteps scuffling above them.  "Ye don't think he's actually lettin' 'em on board now--"

Then there was a hoarse shriek that made Jim's heart pound.  "That was Camille!  Whatever happened, he's hurt--"

"Or else he wants us to think that."  Silver drew his gun.  "C'mon lad, there's nothin' to do but go up there.  But be careful."

Jim pulled out his knife, then looked down at Morph, who was cowering on the pillow.  "Stay here, Morph," he murmured.  The shapeshifter chittered miserably and didn't show a sign of wanting to move.

Jim realized that he was shaking as he followed Silver slowly up the stairs.  The doors opening onto the deck were shut; Silver cocked his gun, then flung them open.

Jim had thought that he could never experience anything like the confrontation between Lead Crow and Coronis, that he could never feel such a sense of horror as he did when he watched the king of the planet die.  But when Silver reached back and put a hand on Jim's chest, trying to keep him below deck, a thread of fear snaked down Jim's spine.  This is going to be worse, he thought, without knowing why.

Nevertheless, he couldn't let Silver face it alone.  He pushed the cyborg's hand aside and squeezed into the doorway just behind him.  The first thing he saw was Camille's back; the Octopid was just in front of the door facing away from them, his left tentacle held to the side of his face.

The second thing he saw was a ghost.

"Scroop," Silver breathed.  Jim only stared.  It wasn't Scroop; it couldn't be.  He's dead! Jim's befuddled brain insisted.  I kicked him out into space!  He can't be alive--

A thousand other possibilities flitted through his head: a twin brother or some other relative, or just another member of his species with an uncanny resemblance to--

No, he thought.  It's him.  No one else could have looked at Jim with such hatred in his yellow eyes.  It was Scroop, and he was aiming Camille's harpoon gun at where the three of them stood in a knot.

Camille looked over his shoulder at Jim and Silver.  "I told you idiots to leave," he snapped. Jim barely heard; he was too busy staring at a stream of blood trailing from where Camille's tentacle was pressed to his jaw and soaking into his shirt.

"Camille," Scroop spoke for the first time.  The rasping voice pressed a finger of icy fear to the back of Jim's neck.  He hadn't been scared on Coronis, but he was terrified now.  "C'mere."

"No!"  Camille turned his head to face the spider-like creature again.  "I told you, I'm not going to--"

"Ye tentacled bastard," Silver growled.  "I should've stuck you when I found that note.  All of that-- just to give us to him?"

"He doesn't have that much backbone," Scroop growled with a wheezing, mirthless laugh.  "He tried to tell me you weren't here.  What made you change your mind, Camille?  Did they fuck you too, you little whore?"

Jim was shocked to see a shudder go through Camille's shoulders.  Slowly the Octopid started walking towards Scroop.

"No, they didn't," Camille said in a low voice, "because they love each other.  That's what made me change my mind, Scroop."  Scroop stretched out one claw, but when he was just out of reach, Camille leapt for him.  Jim fully expected Camille to end up with a harpoon to the guts, but Scroop didn't even expend the effort to fire the gun.  He caught Camille by the throat in his claw and spun in a half-turn to fling the Octopid against the side of the ship.  Camille's head hit the edge of the deck and he slumped over, motionless.

Before Jim or Silver could move, Scroop had the harpoon trained on Jim.  "You were right, Silver," he said, though he kept his gaze focused on Jim.  "'All of that' was supposed to give you to me.  He wrote me that you were going to Coronis, but you had already left that waste of a planet by the time I got there.  Then when I attacked you, he told me to wait for you here.  So I sit and wait, and when you show up, surprise-- the slut's gone all noble."  He cut his yellow eyes towards Silver.  "Slide that gun over here, or I shoot your precious little cabin boy."

"Fine."  Silver laid his gun down slowly and shoved it towards Scroop with his organic foot.  Scroop bent and picked the gun up in his free hand then aimed it at Silver, all without shifting the harpoon from Jim.

"So you two 'love each other,'" Scroop spat.  "That's a nice way to put it.  So did it start on the Legacy, eh, Silver?  Were you already fucking him when you told me not to fight him?"

Jim couldn't keep still any longer.  "What do you want?" he yelled.

"I want the cyborg to tell me where he's hid Flint's treasure," snarled the arachnid.  "And I want you for collateral, until he does it."

"There ain't any more treasure!" Silver protested.  "Yer lookin' at it-- I bought this ship with the last of what I took.  Most of it melted when the planet--"

"You expect me to believe that?" Scroop spat.  "Maybe you'll feel like telling me in a minute."  He glared at Jim and barked, "Drop the knife and c'mere."  Jim gritted his teeth; he had no choice but to comply.  Even if he could move more quickly than Scroop could fire the bulky harpoon gun, the arachnid could still shoot Silver easily.

Jim took a step forward, but Scroop looked at him sharply.  "Wait.  Turn your pockets out."  Jim shoved his hand into his right pocket and pulled out the onyx raven, turning his pocket inside out at the same time.  He set the raven down on a barrel beside him then reached into his left pocket. . . and his hand closed over the dress sphere Rikku had given him.

He slowly removed it and the garment grid from his pocket and set them on the barrel.  "Well, is that good enough?" he asked, trying to keep his voice steady and his fingers on the dress sphere.

"Fine.  Now get over here."

Please, Rikku, please have been telling the truth, Jim thought.  He took another step forward, rolling the sphere under his fingertips onto the garment grid.

He wouldn't have known anything had happened except for two things: Scroop was staring at him, and he suddenly had a large stick in his right hand.  That seemed to be all that had happened, but it was enough.

Jim grasped his stick in both hands and swung it forward, cracking it sharply against Scroop's claws.  The arachnid yelped in pain; Silver's gun went flying in one direction and Camille's in the other.  As Jim moved, he caught sight of himself long enough to realize that like Rikku's, his clothes had changed.

"What the hell--" Scroop yelled as he swiped at Jim with his claws.  Jim didn't know what to do other than hit Scroop again with the stick, so he did that with the fervent hope that it would hurt him.  When the end of the stick came in contact with the arachnid's head, Jim saw that it wasn't a stick at all: it was a staff like Rikku's, but with a different, ring-shaped head.  As Jim drew the staff back, it hummed then shot a beam of energy at Scroop.   It was much smaller than Rikku's attack, and it looked more like lightning than fire, but it apparently hurt.  Scroop howled and drew back.

I don't know what I'm doing! Jim thought wildly, staring at the staff.

Think.  The response came from within his head, yet he almost thought he had heard the word spoken.  The staff will respond to your thoughts.  Jim realized that the "voice" was the dress sphere itself, the knowledge that Rikku had said was stored in it.

Hurt him! Jim thought.  I don't care how, just hurt him!

He could hardly control the staff once he gave it the emotion-charged thought.  A series of short attacks emanated from it; as they issued forth and struck Scroop, Jim realized that he knew the names of them: Fire, Blizzard, Thunder, Water.  There were stronger versions too, ones that he didn't know-- and the ones he had weren't enough to stop Scroop.  They knocked the arachnid back, wounding him, but he moved forward again as soon the elemental attacks faded.

Silver was scrambling to reach his gun, but Scroop got there first, closing his claw over the pistol.  As he raised it towards the cyborg, Jim realized that Scroop wasn't going to just point it; he was going to shoot. . . and Jim didn't have a spell strong enough to prevent it.

Please, stop him! he screamed inwardly at his staff.  Please!

Another beam of energy shot from the staff's head, but this one didn't transform into any element.  It struck Scroop full in the chest, but didn't seem to hurt him.  Then Jim realized that the arachnid wasn't moving anymore.

What-- he began, but before he could finish the thought, the dress sphere replied, Stopga.  The strongest paralysis spell.  Even I never learned that one.

Who are you? Jim wondered for an instant, but he had more important things to deal with.

"Stars, lad, what did ye do to him?" Silver yelled as he snatched his gun from Scroop's hand.

"He's paralyzed," Jim replied breathlessly, drawing from the information he had gained from the dress sphere.  "But it'll wear off soon, unless. . . ."

"Unless we kill him."

Jim knew it was what they had to do, and an instant before, he would have done it without compunction (for the second time).  Still, the arachnid was unarmed, helpless--

"Jim."  It was Camille's voice, behind him.  Jim turned to see the Octopid standing, though he weaved slightly from side to side.  Blood ran from a deep gash on the side of his jaw down the front of his shirt and pants, and he was holding his harpoon gun.  It was aimed at Jim's heart.

"You. . . you bastard," Jim said helplessly.

Camille rolled his eyes.  "Are you just going to stand there, or are you going to move so I can shoot him?"

What Jim knew to be a very stupid grin spread over his face.  "Camille--"

"Move, damn you!"

Jim stepped back, and Camille aimed his gun at Scroop's thorax.  Jim suddenly felt exhausted and would have collapsed if he hadn't been able to brace himself on his staff.  Silver moved to his side and wrapped his organic arm around his shoulders, supporting him.

"Jim?  With that spell-- can he feel anything?  Is he awake?" Camille asked.

"I. . . I don't--"  But he did know.  "Yes.  He's aware of everything."

"Good," said Camille, and he fired.

The force of being fired at close range drove the harpoon cleanly through Scroop's chest.  The momentum carried the arachnid over the side of the ship, and his body tumbled into the abyss over which the ships were docked.  Camille was shaken with a jerk when the line on the projectile was pulled taut and Scroop's body fell loose off the harpoon, then he slowly drew the line back in until he dragged the gory weapon back over the side of the ship.

Camille dropped his gun, then slumped down into a sitting position on the deck with a shudder.  Jim left Silver and went over to the bloody Octopid, kneeling beside him.

"Saved the harpoon," Camille muttered.  "S'pose you wanna use it on me too."

Jim reached down and untied the sash Camille wore about his waist, then ripped off a strip of cloth from the cleanest part.  "I won't need to if you bleed to death."  He tied the cloth tightly around Camille's head to stem the bleeding.  "What did he do to you?"

"Snuck up on me. . . I knew he'd be coming, but I forgot he could crawl. . . didn't have to use the ramp. . . ."  Camille blinked rapidly and seemed to get more control of himself.  "He just about jumped on top of me.  When I told him you two weren't on board, he clawed me."  A look of intense hatred passed over the Octopid's pale face, then he swayed and would have collapsed if Jim hadn't caught him around the shoulders.

"Silver?  He's hurt pretty bad.  Can you help me get him to his cabin?"

Silver slowly approached, then knelt and scooped up the limp Octopid in his arms.  "I'm tempted to throw him overboard," the cyborg grumbled, but he carried Camille below deck all the same.

Once Camille was installed in his hammock, Jim replaced the bloody makeshift bandage and was relieved to see that the gash was clotting.  "It's not bleeding much now.  You'll be okay."

"That's debatable," Silver responded from where he was leaning in the doorway of the cabin, "unless ye start talkin'.  I want to know everything."

Camille kept his eyes closed, but he began to speak slowly, cringing from time to time at the pain it caused in his wounded jaw.  "I met him almost a year ago.  It was soon after I'd left Moana, and I was looking for work.  We met in a bar, and he told me he'd pay me whatever I wanted if I'd help him track somebody down."  He opened one pale green eye and looked at the two of them.  "You two.  He said he'd been part of a mutiny but the leader'd thrown him over, figuratively-- and the ship's cabin boy'd done it literally."

"Well, the second part's true anyway," Jim mumbled.  "But how-- how did he survive?"

Camille's eye closed again.  "He got picked up by a ship."

"A ship?" Silver exploded.  "No ship could've picked him up before he asphyxiated!  That's impossible!"

"Not impossible."  A very faint, sardonic smile, crossed Camille's thin lips.  "Just highly improbable.  Have you ever heard of the Heart of Gold?  It's a ship, a very powerful ship from another galaxy."

"I've heard of it," Jim said breathlessly, "at the Academy."  At Silver's questioning look, he went on, "It had an engine that doesn't use solar power-- it's called the Improbability Drive.  The Heart of Gold was stolen a long time ago, and the engineers swore they'd never build another one.  You're not saying that that ship picked Scroop up--"

"They'll never make another one, all right," Camille murmured, "for that exact reason-- the effect of the Improbability Drive.  Wherever the ship goes, the most improbable events imaginable happen-- and that includes miraculous rescues of asphyxiating arachnids.  The ship's computer picked Scroop up all by itself."

Silver made a grumbling noise.  "Dunno how much a' that I believe, but it don't matter now.  Tell me how ye ended up. . . 'workin'' for him."

"I wanted the money," Camille said faintly, "so I started looking for you.  I wasn't the only one, you know; he had a whole network of spacers watching for you.  I just happened to be the one to find you-- and you just happened to be together."

"If you did it for money, why are you so poor now?" Jim asked.

Camille sighed heavily.  "He just said he was going to pay me.  He didn't ever give me more than what I had to have to survive."

"Yeah?  So why'd ye keep working for him?" Silver snapped.

"He told me you had a treasure, and that when he got it, he'd give me part of it.  I quit believing that after a while.  But get this." Camille turned his face away from them with a bitter smile.  "I thought I was in love with him."

Silver swore under his breath.

"The first night I reported back to him, to tell him I hadn't found you, we-- well, you can guess."

"Oh yuck," Jim blurted out.  Camille flipped a tentacle at him and went on.

"He never said he loved me, but he. . . let me think that he did.  And I thought I loved him too, until. . . until I met you two."  He took a deep breath.  "I was trying to split you up.  I thought that if he could get the treasure out of Silver, he'd let you go, Jim.  But that night on Spira, I realized you'd never leave him-- even if it meant your life."

Jim glanced back at Silver, but the cyborg was watching the side of the Octopid's bloody face.  Silver didn't seem surprised or even angry to hear that Camille had wanted to save Jim at his, Silver's, expense.  That's because he would have let him, Jim thought wonderingly.  He would have given in to Scroop if it would have saved me. . . .

"On that beach at Besaid, I realized something," Camille whispered.  "If that's love, I didn't love him, because I'd never do that for him.  And I knew he'd never do it for me either."  He raised his voice a little when he said sardonically, "And then he sliced my face open and nearly broke my back.  That about cinched it."

"I'm sorry," Jim murmured.

"Don't bother feeling sorry for me.  It probably saved me a lot of trouble in the long run."  Camille exhaled sharply, then turned his hazy green gaze back to the two of them.  "So what're you gonna do with me?"

Silver looked down at him in silence for a long moment, then he said, "Keep a very, very close eye on ye.  And if ye so much as move one tentacle the wrong way, I'll slit yer squiddy throat."

Camille cast him a surprised, exhausted look.  "Yeah?  I can live with that."

"Go to sleep if ye can," Silver grumble.  "We'll have to go see Merle early in the mornin'."  He left the cabin, and Jim slowly got to his feet.

"Jim?" Camille asked faintly.

"Yeah?"  Jim looked down at him.  "Do you need anything?"

"No, just. . . ."  The Octopid closed his eyes.  "Don't tell Merle what I did, okay?  Please."

"Sure," Jim said, surprised.  "Why?  Don't want to ruin your sterling reputation?"

"What they said about him on Coronis. . . ."  Camille's long lashes trembled on his cheeks.  "I don't want someone like him knowing who I really am."

"Actually," Jim said slowly, "I think who you really are is a lot better than you think."

 

When Jim trudged back above deck to retrieve Lead Crow's raven, he found Silver morosely regarding the splatter of blood where Scroop had stood.

"It seemed too easy," the cyborg muttered as Jim scooped up the raven and dress sphere, then came to his side.

"Easy?" Jim snorted.  "You think using this thing is easy?"  He rattled his staff, making Silver glance at him with a little smile.

"Well, yer pretty impressive with it.  And in that outfit."

For the first time, Jim looked down at himself closely.  His outfit bore a few similarities to Rikku's, but it was not, thankfully, a dress.  It consisted of tight-fitting short pants and a vest over a clingy midriff-baring top, along with arm and leg covers.  To Jim's sudden horror, he realized he was wearing a hat as well.

"Great," he groaned, feeling it.  "Now I look like a witch."

"Nah, ye look. . . really, really good."  Silver looked him up and down.  "In fact, if ye weren't wiped out from all that spell-castin'--"

"I'm not that tired," Jim interrupted with a little smile.  It was a slight lie; he did still feel weakened from both the magic use and the sheer terror of the encounter with Scroop.  But he also didn't want to think about the arachnid, or Camille, or anything that had happened.  I just want to be with you, he thought.  That'll take my mind off of everything.

Silver caught him under the chin and tilted his head back.  "Ye sure?"

Jim felt a startling surge of desire at that simple touch.  "Oh yeah, I'm sure."  He pulled back and darted away with a smirk.  "But shouldn't we check on Morph first?  He probably thinks we're all goners."

"Ye little tease," Silver growled with a smile.

Jim clattered down to their cabin ahead of Silver, where he found Morph hiding under a pillow.  Jim scooped him up and squeezed him gently.

"Morph, it's okay.  Everything's all right."

"All right?" Morph chirruped, looking up at him hopefully.

"Yup."  The shapeshifter made a happy little "squee" noise, then darted over to Silver as he entered the cabin.

"Hey Morphy, why don't ye go find somethin' to eat in the galley?"  Silver patted the shapeshifter and nudged him toward the door.  Morph, oblivious, chittered at the mention of food and darted away.

"That was kind of mean," Jim smirked as Silver shut the door.

"Ye don't want him watchin', do ye?"  Silver put an arm around Jim and pulled him close.  "That would be lovely, him decidin' to give Merle a replay of what he saw--"

"Okay, okay, good point.  Which reminds me--"  Jim leaned his staff in a corner before snuggling against Silver.  "I don't know who it is, but there's. . . somebody in that thing who can hear my thoughts when I touch it.  I don't want them involved either."  He took off the ridiculous hat while he was at it and set the dress sphere on the small bed-side table.

"And I don't want ye accidentally fryin' me with it if ye get too excited," Silver responded.  He scooped Jim up and laid him on the bed on his back before kissing him deeply.  Jim wrapped his arms around the cyborg's neck and kissed him back as Silver put his organic hand between Jim's legs to rub him through his tight pants.

"Ohh," Jim moaned as he pressed against his hand.  Silver looked down at him and echoed the moan.

"Stars, ye look good in that thing.  Are the girls' costumes that tight?"

"Tighter," Jim panted, squirming against Silver's hand.  The cyborg reached down with his mechanical hand to unfasten the three straps holding Jim's vest closed, then trailed his metal fingers over his (rather scantily-clad) chest.  He bent and kissed Jim's neck roughly as he pulled Jim's pants down and off his legs with both hands, along with his boots.  Jim forgot all about everything that had plagued them as Silver began to pump him quickly with his organic hand.

"Hmm, I think I'm gonna leave ye in the rest of it," Silver chuckled as he unfastened his own pants with his free hand.  "It looks too good to take off."

Jim felt himself already close to climaxing, so he pushed Silver's hand away and sat up dizzily.  "I-I hope you didn't leave all that oil Camille got in the galley."

Silver snickered.  "I'm better prepared than that, lad.  I stuck it in the canvas under the bed."

Jim found it and poured some of it into his hand with a grin.  "Lie back."  Silver complied, breathing heavily as Jim slowly stroked him, then drew his hand back and licked the excess oil off his finger tips.

"This stuff tastes better every time," he commented with a teasing smile.  "Maybe you should start cooking with it more often."

"If ye like it that much, I can think of a much better place for ye to taste it," Silver growled.

"Hmm, really?"  Jim leaned forward and licked his cock with what he hoped was excruciating slowness.  Silver drew in his breath harshly as Jim drew his tongue over him.

"Aah, yes, lad--" the cyborg moaned as he watched.  After a moment, Jim sat up and straddled Silver's lap.  He lowered himself onto the spacer slowly, inhaling sharply as he felt Silver penetrate him.  Jim tilted his head back with a groan and a slight shudder once he was resting in Silver's lap.  Silver put his hands on Jim's hips, then clenched them when Jim rocked slowly back and forth on him.

"Ye'll drive me mad, doin' that," Silver panted.  "Ye feel so damn good--"

Jim leaned forward and braced himself on the bed with his hands, then started moving up and down on the spacer.  Silver rocked his hips up each time Jim moved down, thrusting deeply into him.

"S-silver!" Jim moaned.  "Please, do it harder!"

Silver clutched his hips even tighter and pulled Jim down onto him roughly as he thrust upwards, causing the younger man to cry out repeatedly with the jolt of ecstasy he felt shoot through his body every time Silver moved in him.  Jim pushed back against him as hard as he could.

"Stars, Jim, yes--" Silver groaned and slammed into him a final time as he came.  Jim felt the spacer shudder under him, then relax his grip on Jim's hips.  Jim pulled off of him reluctantly.

Silver reached up and caught Jim around the shoulders with his mechanical arm, then pulled him down and kissed him hard.  Jim felt the spacer's organic hand wrap around him once more, causing him to whimper lustfully into Silver's mouth and thrust into his fist.

"I should make ye wait," Silver growled in between kisses, "to pay ye back for teasin' me like that."  He stilled the motion of his hand a moment; Jim writhed against him.

"No, please," Jim begged, "don't stop!"

"I do love hearin' ye beg," Silver hissed as he started pumping Jim again rapidly, "but I love hearin' ye come even more."

"Aaahh--"  Jim clutched Silver's shoulders convulsively.  "S-silver--"  He shuddered against the spacer as he came hard.  After he finished, Jim collapsed against the cyborg, trembling.  Silver kissed his forehead softly with a little chuckle.

"If ye ain't tired now, I don't know what will tire ye."

"N-no, I'm. . . I'm tired," Jim panted.  He raised his head weakly and looked at the table.  "Can you hand me the sphere?"

Silver reached over to pick it up, then gave it to him.  Jim pulled the dress sphere off of the garment grid; as he did so, what clothing he was still wearing dissolved along with his staff in the corner.  Jim found himself dressed in his usual shirt, and his normal pants were lying on the floor where Silver had tossed that part of his Black Mage outfit.

"Hunh, that's good to know," Jim said with a little smile.  "I was afraid I wouldn't get my clothes back."  He leaned over Silver to put the sphere and grid back on the table, then lay down with his head on Silver's chest.

"Ye could wear that outfit every day as far as I'm concerned," the spacer mumbled.  "But then I'd get jealous of everyone else starin' at ye."

Jim blushed even as he snickered.  "Well, you're the only one who gets to do more than look."  His smile faded as, for some reason, he remembered Scroop grasping Silver's gun, aiming it at him.  Sex had been a fine diversion for a while, but Jim couldn't completely forget the horror he'd felt when he thought Silver was about to die.

"Silver," he mumbled, hugging the spacer tightly.  "I love you. . . so much."

Silver stroked his hair gently with his organic hand.  "I love ye too, lad."  He sounded a little surprised, and after a moment asked, "Are ye all right?"

"Yeah.  I'm all right."  Something in Jim's voice obviously told Silver he wasn't being completely honest.

"Jimbo, he's gone now.  Yer safe."

"I wasn't worried if I was safe."  He raised his head and looked at the cyborg fretfully.  "I thought he was going to kill you, and there wasn't anything I could do.  Silver, if I lost you again, I--"

"Hush, lad."  Silver stilled his lips with a mechanical finger.  "Ye ain't gonna lose me, I promise.  Ye did stop him, and that's the important thing."  When Jim nodded, Silver withdrew his finger and kissed him gently.  "I love ye more than anythin' else in this universe, Jimbo.  It'll take more than the likes of him to keep me away from ye."

Jim smiled, feeling slightly better, and laid his head down again.  "I'll hold you to that."

 

The next morning, Jim awoke before Silver.  Morph had somehow found his way back into the room during the night, and he chittered happily as Jim got up rather stiffly.

"You are way too chipper in the morning," Jim muttered to the shapeshifter as he gathered some clean clothes and went to shower.  To his dismay, Morph came with him and spent the next ten minutes turning alternately into the soap and Jim's wash cloth.

Afterwards, they went into the galley.  Jim was surprised to find Camille there.  "How are you feeling?" Jim asked as he started a pot of coffee.

"Like shit."  The Octopid had apparently showered, or at least washed off the blood.  His hair lay in a limp, damp ponytail down his back, and a fresh strip of cloth was tied around his jaw.  "It hurts to move my mouth."

"Wow, so you can't complain or drink?  Sucks to be you."

"And to think everyone thinks you're so nice," Camille grumbled.

Silver joined them a bit later, after Jim had already finished the coffee and cooked one of the Chocobo eggs they'd gotten in Spira.  Camille took one bite, then winced in pain and refused to eat any more.

They started for Merle's office after they had finished breakfast.  Jim carried the onyx raven in one pocket, and his knife and dress sphere in the other.  If this keeps up, I'm going to need more pockets, he thought.

The busy streets of Crescentia seemed tame after everything that had happened since they were last there.  After what he had been through, Jim felt as if he could have dealt with any of the coarse spacers they passed.

When Jim opened the door to Merle's office, he found the small anterior room empty.  "Mr. Merle?" he called.

"Yes, come in," he heard the lawyer respond absently from the inner room.  Jim walked in with Silver and Morph behind him, while Camille hung back in the waiting room, out of sight.  Merle glanced up when they entered, then jumped to his feet.

"You're back!"  He darted around the desk, wings bristling.  "It's sooner than I thought-- but then I thought maybe you weren't coming back after--"  He took a deep breath and gripped a wing tip in each hand, fiddling with the feathers.  "What happened?  Did you deliver the supplies?"

"Y-yes," Jim hedged.  He glanced up at Silver, then back at Merle.  "We, uh. . . we met your sister."

"You did?"  Merle took an eager step forward, then drew back slightly at the sight of Jim's sober face.

"Yes, she. . . ."  Jim clenched his hand over the figurine in his pocket.  I don't want to do this, he thought.  "Mr. Merle, she killed Coronis, and the king."

"She what?"  Merle let go of his wings and stared at Jim.  "H-how?"

"Something happened to her; someone came to your planet and gave her new powers.  She had these bracelets and they-- they killed them."  He couldn't bring himself to tell Merle how, that his sister had rotted the living flesh from their bodies-- or that she had stolen Coronis' soul.

To his relief, Merle didn't ask.  He leaned back on the edge of his desk, clenching his large hands into fists at his sides.  "What happened to her, after that?"

"She left Coronis.  She said she had to go after other people, in another system, for the woman who gave her the bracelets."  Merle was staring at him, but Jim had the feeling his dark grey eyes, almost the same color as Lead Crow's, were seeing nothing.  "She said to tell you that she'd see you again, in. . . she called it the place where stars are born."

"What?"  The grey eyes met Jim's, then flickered away.  "What does that mean?"

"I don't know.  Except. . . I think she's gone for good."

"What system?" Merle asked dully.  "Where was she going?"

"It was called Sol."

"Sol?"  Merle's hands unclenched, then he gripped the edge of the desk.  "That's where Deimos--"

"I know."  Merle looked back up at him questioningly, and Jim added uncomfortably, "Lead-- Garnet and Edgar told me about her."

"I'll have to go after her--" Merle began, but Silver stopped him almost immediately with a mechanical hand on his shoulder.

"Ye can't," Silver said gently.  "Neither of 'em would want ye to.  That girl a' yers made her choice when she left ye-- and frankly, I think it was the wrong one.  Yer sister did the same thing when she put on those bracelets.  Ye have to let 'em chart their own courses."

Merle glanced up at him miserably, then to Jim's relief, he nodded faintly.  "What about my parents?  Did you give them the supplies?"

Silver backed away from him and looked at Jim, who swallowed hard.  "They. . . they're dead," Jim said.  "They were going to see Coronis, and the king's army shot them."

"They're. . . dead?"  Seeing the look on Merle's face was almost worse than witnessing his sister's attacks.  He stared at them both for a long, terrible moment, then he dropped his head into his hands and began to sob as helplessly as a child.  Morph chittered unhappily and sniffled.

Jim had never seen an adult male cry before, but he could imagine how it felt.  If someone told me that had happened to Mom--

"I-I'm sorry," Jim stammered, but he didn't think Merle even heard him.

"Oh, for Dagon's sake!"  Jim jumped and turned as Camille pushed into the room past him and Silver.  If he says one sarcastic word about this-- Jim began to think.

But Camille did one of the last things Jim could have expected.  Standing next to Merle, he curled his tentacles around the Coronid and held him.  Merle clutched at him convulsively, oblivious as to who was embracing him.

Finally, Merle's sobs lessened, and he pulled off his tear-splattered glasses and laid them on the desk.  He looked up myopically at Camille, then drew back, flushing brightly.

"O-oh, I--"  He broke off and stared at the Octopid's jaw, his tears ceasing completely.  "What happened to you?  Did someone on Coronis--"

"No, I got into a fight last night," Camille muttered, stepping back from him and turning away.  "It's nothing."

Merle stood, still sniffling slightly, and wiped his glasses on his wing before shoving them back on.  "Let me see."

"No!"  Camille took another step back and swatted at him with his tentacles.  "I'm fine!"

Jim almost laughed in spite of himself as Merle cornered Camille against the wall.  Apparently having someone else to worry about was helping the lawyer forget his own distress, for he insisted on untying the bandage from Camille's head.

"Who did this?" Merle exclaimed as he gently touched the now swollen area around the gash.  Camille winced, then shot a warning glance at Jim and Silver.

"An old boyfriend.  Now leave me alone!"

Merle looked at him a moment, then tied the bandage back around Camille's head with surprising gentleness.  "Come on.  I'm taking you to a doctor."

"A what?" Camille yelped.

"You need stitches."  Merle picked up a jacket draped over his chair and put it on; Jim noticed with some amusement that it had two slits down the back from the collar to accommodate his wings.

"I'm not going to a doctor!" wailed Camille.  "I hate doctors!"

"Actually, ye are goin'," Silver said.  Jim could tell that he was trying hard not to laugh.  "Jimbo ain't gonna lose one of his crew to gangrene, just 'cause yer a stubborn git."

"Yeah," Jim put in.  "As captain, I order you to go."

"Or else?" Camille muttered.

"Or else you're off the crew."  Jim gave him a pointed look and thought, And I tell him how you really got that wound.

Camille looked at him a long moment, then sighed.  "Fine.  Whatever."  He followed them to the door, then added to Merle, "But you'd better remember to pay us when we get back."

Merle took them to a surgeon's office nearby.  Camille slumped in a chair in the waiting room, arm-tentacles folded until the nurse called his name.

"If any of you think you're going in there with me, forget it."  He stalked after the nurse and disappeared into an exam room.  Morph watched for a moment, then turned into an imitation of the nurse's hat and plopped down onto Jim's head.

Silver snickered as Jim swatted Morph off his head.  "Havin' to follow orders for a change will do him good."

"Is that really how it happened?" Merle asked softly.  "His. . . lover did that to him?"

"He's not his lover anymore," Jim replied after hesitating.  "But yeah."

"Who. . . who was it?" murmured the lawyer.  "Will he do it again?"

"He won't be doin' much a' anything from now on, if ye get my drift," Silver replied.  "Tentacles saw to that."

Jim didn't think that was the best thing to be telling a lawyer, but Merle sat back in his chair and muttered, "Good."

Camille emerged some time later, without the bandage but bearing a row of black stitches in his jaw, now less swollen.  He seemed to be in much better spirits as well.

"Doesn't hurt anymore," he marveled.  "He gave me some kind of shot in it before he sewed it up, and he gave me some painkillers.  Maybe I can actually eat now."

"You haven't eaten today?" Merle asked as he stood.

"Not since yesterday morning.  It hurt too bad."

Merle just shook his head and went over to the receptionist.

"He's asking a lot of questions," Jim whispered to Camille.  "You might want to get your story straight."

"It's none of his business," Camille muttered sourly, although his normally sharp gaze was softly quizzical as he glanced across the room at Merle.  "What. . . what did he ask?"

"If your 'ex-boyfriend' would do it again."  Jim smirked a little.  "We said no."

"Don't tell him anything," Camille growled.  After a moment, Merle turned away from the receptionist and rejoined them.

"We'll have to go back to the office so I can get you your money," he told them, "then I'll buy you lunch.  You've certainly earned it."

"Hey, don't I have to pay for this?" Camille asked as Merle started for the door.

"I already did," the Coronid replied without turning around.

After retrieving their payment from his office, Merle took them to a tavern that overlooked the docks.  As they waited for their food, the lawyer asked, "Have you decided if you want to stay on with me?  I don't have another run for you yet, but something will probably come up soon."

Jim looked at Silver, who gave him a slight nod.  "I know Silver and I would.  Camille?"

The Octopid had been staring moodily into his glass, which was filled with water for once.  "Yeah," he muttered.  "I'll stay."

Merle nodded.  "Good.  I have to admit that you three. . . well, four," he added, eyeing Morph, "are the best crew I've found.  Only a couple of my runners have actually gone to Coronis for me, and they've never stayed on with me afterwards."

"Well, it takes a lot to get rid of us," Jim chuckled.

The serving girl brought them their food, which looked surprisingly palatable.  Jim tore into the sandwich he'd ordered, trying to keep Morph away from his fried potatoes with one hand.  Camille had ordered some kind of shrimp, which he tasted hesitantly, then began to devour with a look of surprised pleasure.  Merle watched him eat with some satisfaction, then began his own meal.

"Do you have a place to stay here on Crescentia?" Merle asked around a mouthful of bread.

"No, we hadn't talked about it," Jim told him.

"The boarding house where I live has some vacant rooms."  Merle gave them a sheepish look.  "I've sort of been ordered by the landlady to drum up some business, but honestly, I think it might work for you."

"You've been here this long, and you don't have a real place to live?" Camille scoffed.

Merle's high cheekbones reddened.  "Since I live alone, there really isn't any point in my having a house or even an apartment.  One room is sufficient for me.  But if you don't want to--"

"If he doesn't want to, he can sleep on the ship," Jim interrupted.  "But I know I'm interested, Mr. Merle."

"For Heaven's sake, stop calling me that," Merle retorted.  "You can give me a title if I ever get to be a judge.  Until then, I'm Bertrand."

"I wouldn't mind takin' a room either," Silver added.  "Although it seems sorta a waste for us both to pay fer one, lad-- maybe we could share."

"Yeah," Jim said, hiding a smile, "maybe we could."

"And I never said I didn't want to," Camille grumbled.  "But I'm not sharing a room with you two.  You were loud enough last night in your cabin on the ship; I'll never get any sleep if I have to hear Jim here shriek every time you. . . ."  He trailed off and looked at his crewmates, who were glaring daggers at him.  "What?"

"Erm, well, I think Mrs. Ufford can accommodate you," Merle muttered, blushing profusely.  After that, he focused on his plate and refused to look at any of them for the rest of the meal.

Afterwards, the Coronid showed them to the boarding house.  "Mrs. Ufford" proved to be a matronly (and not a little corpulent) walrus-like creature of the same species as Jim's astronomy professor at the Academy.  She mournfully explained that an influx of condominiums being built on the outer edges of Crescentia had depleted her supply of boarders.

"Thank goodness Bertrand found y'all," she exclaimed in the drawl typical of her planet.  "I was startin' to think I'd have to close down, but he's been such an angel, findin' me new boarders.  Why, if it wasn't for Mr. Ufford, I'd've snapped up Bertrand here ages ago!"  Poor Merle's cheeks turned almost as red as his hair as Camille muffled a snicker with one tentacle.

The room he was to share with Silver seemed quite spacious to Jim after their small cabin on the Revolution.  Morph appeared to be pleased with it as well, judging from the careless abandon with which he began bouncing on the bed.  Camille took the cheapest, and therefore, smallest room Mrs. Ufford had, but even it seemed quite comfortable.

"I need to get back to my office," Merle told them once they had decided on the rooms.  "I have some things to do."  Jim could tell from his expression that the distraction of Camille's injury and their relocation was already wearing off.  There was a look of abject misery in Bertrand's grey eyes that pained Jim to see.

"I. . . have something for you first."  Jim dug the onyx raven out of his pocket and handed it to Merle.  "Edgar asked me to bring you something of your sister's.  This was on her desk."

Bertrand looked down at it, biting his lip.  Jim was afraid he was going to start crying again, but he only closed his hand over the figurine, then smiled faintly.

"Thank you.  It. . . means a lot to me."  He touched Jim's arm briefly.  "Will you all be having dinner here tonight?"

"As far as I know."

"Then I'll see you in a few hours."  He walked slowly down the stairs, still clutching the figurine.

"I hope he'll be all right," Jim murmured when he was gone.  "He's lost everybody he cares about. . . ."

"He'll be okay," Silver assured him.  "It'll just take a while."  Jim glanced at Camille, but the Octopid said nothing.

As they carried their belongings from the Revolution to their new rooms, Jim told Silver, "I think I should go down to Montressor tomorrow and talk to Captain Amelia.  She should know what Lead Crow said about Mau."

"I think yer right," Silver sighed.  "And I'd better stay here.  No sense in me riskin' gettin' spotted."

"Yeah.  It'll only take a few hours anyway."  Jim watched Camille walking ahead of them, his bag in one tentacle and his gun in the other.  "Maybe I should take him with me.  He'd probably get into less trouble than he would here."

Silver chuckled.  "Good idea."

Camille disappeared into his room and didn't re-emerge for the entire afternoon.  At one point, Jim knocked on his door out of curiosity, then tried the knob.  It was unlocked, and when he peered into the room, he found the Octopid sprawled on his bed, deeply asleep.  At least he's not drinking, Jim thought with a little smile as he quietly closed the door again.

Jim's own room had two beds, which was probably just as well; he wasn't sure how Mrs. Ufford, nice as she was, would react to the real reason that he and Silver were sharing the room.

"I'll have to be quieter from now on," he commented to Silver as he stretched out on his bed.  "If Camille could hear us in the other cabin--"

Silver laughed heartily from where he was sitting on his own bed.  "Maybe we should just spend more time on the ship.  Ye can screech as loud as ye like, and ye won't bother anybody there."

"I don't screech," Jim muttered indignantly.

"I dunno.  That first time, ye were pretty vocal.  Not that I'm complainin', mind."

Jim let his eyes drop closed.  "If I do screech, it's your fault," he mumbled.

He didn't even realize he had been sleepy until he woke some time later.  Crescentia was rotating to a position that situated its "ground" between it and Montressor's sun, causing long evening shadows to fall.  The light coming through the window by Jim's bed was dim.

As he yawned and sat up, he saw that Silver had fallen asleep on the other bed.  Guess we're all wiped out, Jim thought.  He scooped up Morph, who had been curled up next to his pillow and tapped him on the head.

"Wake up, you little barnacle.  I bet dinner's ready."

Morph was awake instantly with a cry of "Dinner!"  He dashed to the door and hovered there as Jim leaned over Silver.

"Hey, wake up."  He bent down and kissed the spacer, who suddenly darted his mechanical hand up to the back of Jim's head and held him there to kiss him back hard.

"Didn't think ye could sneak up on me, did ye?" Silver smirked in response to Jim's surprised expression when he finally let him go.

"If that's what I get for it, I'll keep trying," Jim replied, blushing.

Camille's door was partially open when they passed his room.  Jim stuck his head in.  "You coming to dinner?"

The Octopid was standing at the small mirror provided in the room, combing out his hair.  "Yeah, I'm coming."  He tied his hair back once more and joined Jim and Silver in the hallway.  "My damn jaw's hurting again though," he went on with a grimace.  "Those painkillers aren't as good as the doctor said they were."

Merle had not returned from his office by the time they joined the Uffords and their other boarders (all two of them) at the dinner table.  Jim was a bit surprised to see Mr. Ufford; he had expected the stereotypical skinny, hen-pecked husband to go with the effusive missus.  On the contrary, Ufford was the same species as his wife, and every bit as large.  He had a bushy mustache that reminded Jim of a Montressan actor who had in recent years been doing advertisements for a medical supply company that catered to diabetics.

"Where's Bertrand?" Mrs. Ufford asked as she carried in the last dish, a steaming bowl that looked, to Jim's dismay, to be filled with a cabbage-like vegetable.  "Don't tell me the poor dear's gonna miss dinner again."

"He said he had to go back to the office," Jim shrugged.  "We haven't seen him since."

"I bet it's that case he's workin' on," Mrs. Ufford fretted, sitting down at the foot of the table opposite her husband.

"I told that boy taking cases for free was a bad idea," Mr. Ufford blustered.

"For free?"  Camille, who had up until then been staring at his plate, glanced up at them.  "He doesn't get paid?"

"Not for this one," Mr. Ufford replied.  "Course normally he gets paid like anyone else, but ever' month or so, he takes one of them pro bono deals.  I like the boy, but he's never gonna get anywhere workin' like that."

"And he works so hard on them too!" Mrs. Ufford put in.  "Harder than he does on the paid ones, I think."

"He doesn't need parents," Camille muttered to Jim.  "He's got those two."

The conversation ended when Merle himself came in, in a tempest of feathers.  "Sorry I'm late," he apologized to Mrs. Ufford as he sat down on the opposite side of the table from the Revolution's crew, across from Camille.  "I lost track of the time."

"It's all right, dear," the landlady said soothingly.  As Merle began to fill his plate, Jim looked at him critically.  Maybe he had been working on a case, but his eyes were suspiciously red.

After dinner, Silver and Jim sat on the house's small porch with Merle; Jim fed leftovers to Morph, who had been banned from the table by Mrs. Ufford.  The house had a surprisingly pleasant view of Crescentia's one small park, which boasted a few scrawny trees grown in artificial dirt.  The Uffords joined them after a few minutes, then Camille stalked past, headed down the steps leading the street.

"Hey, where're you going?" Jim called after him.

"Out," Camille muttered, although he paused.

"Oh, come on.  You're gonna go sit in some bar all by yourself?"

Camille walked back up onto the porch and leaned against one of the posts, tentacles folded, to glare at Jim.  "That was the idea."

Mrs. Ufford shook her head and interjected, "Child, you need someone to take care of you even more than Bertrand does!  The last thing you need is go off all alone somewhere an' feel sorry for yourself."

"I don't feel sorry for myself!" Camille said indignantly, but he stalked over to an empty chair between Jim and Merle and slumped in it.  "Fine, I'll stay here if it'll get all of you off my back."

"I needed to talk to you anyway," Jim told him.  "Tomorrow I need to go down to Montressor to see a. . . a friend.  I thought you might want to come."

He half expected Camille to respond with a resounding "Why would you think that?", but the Octopid only nodded faintly, then looked at Merle.  "I guess you don't have anything else for us to do yet."

"No."  Bertrand glanced at him, then quickly looked away.  "I think you need a break anyway," he muttered.

"Okay, I'll come," Camille said to Jim, then he looked sharply at Merle again.  "And don't you start trying to tell me what to do too."

Finally, Bertrand met his gaze.  "I'm your employer," he said coolly.  "That's my job."  Camille stared at him a moment, and Jim was amazed to see the Octopid's pale skin flush slightly.

"In that case, I only have to listen to you when I'm working," Camille finally returned.  "So if you want me to sit around on my ass and rest, you'd better be prepared to pay me."

"If that's what it takes to make you take care of yourself," Bertrand said, "I'll do it."

The faint color in Camille's cheeks turned to a definite blush as he looked away and slouched farther down into his chair.  "Who's this friend you have to see?" he asked Jim.

"She was the captain on my first voyage," Jim told him.  "She's from Mau, where. . . where a revolution's starting."  He had started to mention Lead Crow, then decided it was better not to around Merle.

"Oh.  Bet she won't be too happy to see you, then," Camille muttered.

Jim was afraid he was right.

Chapter Text

The next morning, Jim and Camille set off for the shuttle station early, intending to catch the first flight down to the planet's surface.  Camille didn't ask why Silver and Morph weren't coming along, but Jim decided he would have to tell him.

"When we see Captain Amelia, whatever you do. . . don't mention Silver, all right?" he asked the Octopid as they flew towards Montressor.

"Why not?  Don't tell me she's after him and that supposed treasure of yours too," grumbled Camille.

"Well, she's after him all right, but it's not because of any treasure.  She. . . ."  Jim took a deep breath.  "She was the captain on the ship where he mutinied."

"Ouch."  Camille looked at him, one eyebrow raised.  "So I take it she doesn't know that you two are--"

"She doesn't know that I've so much as seen him in three years," Jim said rather dejectedly.  "My mother's the only person on Montressor who does know that."

"Does she know that you're--"

"No," Jim said firmly.  "And you'd better not tell her.  I want to go see her first, but it's probably too early to visit Captain Amelia yet anyway."

"Cthulhu, I have to meet your mother too?"  Camille rolled his eyes and looked out the window.  "You'd think we were planning on getting married or something."

Camille's mood lightened considerably once they reached Montressor.  As they disembarked from the shuttle, the Octopid looked out over the small lake that met the rocky coast there.  There weren't many large bodies of water on Montressor, mostly deep canyons; however, the lake had been one of Jim's favorite spots as a child.

"This is beautiful," Camille said softly.  "I'll have to come back here and swim sometime."

"How does that work anyway?" Jim asked, looking him over.  "Can you breathe on land and in the water?"

"Yeah.  I can get oxygen from the air just like you can, but I also have these."  He lifted up the side of his dark green shirt to display the gills in his side that Jim had noticed on Spira.  Jim wasn't especially interested in seeing them a second time, but he nodded politely.

Camille sighed and let his shirt drop, then tucked it into his sash; he had replaced the one ripped up for bandages with a fresh piece of cloth.  "I wish more planets were water-based," he muttered.  "I hate walking everywhere.   We look stupid on land."

"No, you don't look stupid," Jim protested.  ". . . well, a little confusing, maybe.  But you and Tavia both are very attractive.  Or you would be if you weren't underweight with a gash in your face."

"Yeah, whatever.  That Tavia girl's attractive because she has these."  Camille gestured at his chest in an imitation of breasts.  "The only thing anyone likes about me is the tentacles."  He smirked humorlessly.  "Try to imagine what it's like being somebody's fetish."

"Oh, come on.  Mrs. Ufford's right; you do go around feeling sorry for yourself," Jim retorted.  "If the only reason anyone likes you is. . . is those, you've been hanging around the wrong kind of people."

"And I suppose you lot are preferable."  Camille was silent a moment, then he said in a low voice, "Although you're right.  I've never been with anybody but the wrong kind of people, and all it ever got me was this."  He flipped a tentacle at the stitches in his jaw.  "You and that cyborg of yours are different."  He took a deep breath and muttered quickly, "Thank you for giving me another chance."

"Mr. Merle's different too, you know," Jim said lightly.

"Hunh.  He's a mess, that's what he is.  What kind of dippy lawyer takes cases for free?"  Camille shoved his tentacles in his pockets and stalked on in silence.

Sarah was surprised but pleased at Jim's unannounced visit.  After being introduced to Camille, she insisted that both of them eat a second breakfast before starting for the Dopplers' house.  She eyed Camille's wound but said nothing, to Jim's relief.  He wasn't sure he was ready to tell her about Scroop. . . or about Coronis for that matter.  Jim knew that his mother would only worry about him if she knew what had happened on Lead Crow's planet, particularly if he did end up having to go to Mau too.  Instead, he told her that they were doing runs for a lawyer, and left it at that.

It was mid-morning by the time he and Camille reached Dr. Doppler's observatory, which now doubled as home for him and his family.

"Your captain lives here?" Camille asked, peering up at the telescope's dome.

"She married an astronomer," Jim chuckled.  He walked around the observatory to the more house-like addition Delbert had had built after his marriage.  Jim pounded on the door several times, with no response.

"Great," Camille grumbled.  "Don't tell me they're not home after we came all this way."

Jim was about to give up when Amelia herself finally opened the door.  Despite the early hour, she looked as pulled-together as ever.  "Ah, Hawkins," she said, sounding rather surprised.  "I thought you were off looking for work."

Jim grinned.  "I was, but I found it.  This is Camille Ownby, one of my crew mates."

Amelia nodded at Camille with polite curtness and shook his tentacle.  "I'm Amelia Doppler."  Turning back to Jim, she went on, "Delbert just took the children out for a walk, but if you wanted to talk to him, he should be back in an hour or so."

"Actually, I wanted to talk to you," Jim said, his smile fading.

"Oh."  She blinked, then nodded.  "All right.  Please come in."

It was obvious which half of the happy couple maintained each part of their home.  While the observatory was filled with a mountain of books, papers, and other academic clutter, the library where Amelia took them was impeccably tidy.  She gestured for Jim and Camille to take chairs, then sat behind her desk.

"So, what brings you here?"

"We. . . ran into some trouble on our first run," Jim began.  He briefly told her what had happened on Coronis.

"Goodness," Amelia murmured when he had finished.  "I had heard there was trouble there, but nothing that bad.  A single rebel girl actually killed the king and the planet's strongest soldier?"

Jim nodded.  "It was those bracelets she had.  They were. . . I don't know, they were some kind of weapon.  I'd never seen anything like it."

"And she claims that she stole Coronis' soul."  Amelia pressed her fingertips together in a pyramid shape in front of her face.  Jim could sense that she didn't really believe it.

"She stole something," he replied, deciding to speak in moderation rather than argue with her.  "Coronis' body did disappear-- Camille saw it, and so did the captain of Lead Crow's soldiers.  And when it disappeared, there was something left."  He held his fingers apart to indicate the size of the star seed.  "It was only this big, and it looked like a. . . a jewel of some kind.  Lead Crow took it."

"And then she flew away?  Hmm."

No, Jim thought, she didn't fly away.  She disappeared.  But he knew there was no point in pressing the fact to Amelia.  "What happened on Coronis isn't what's important now," he went on.  "It's something Lead Crow said right before she left.  She told us that two other planets had already been attacked the same way, and that another revolution was starting-- on Mau."

"Mau?"  Amelia's green eyes widened slightly.

"Yeah, she said there was another girl like her, doing the same thing there."

"But Mau is nothing like Coronis!  It's a democracy, not a monarchy-- and we don't have a guardian like that," Amelia frowned.  "Who is there to attack?"

"Maybe you do have a guardian, and you just don't know it," Camille suggested suddenly.  Amelia cast a look at him, then ignored him and turned back to Jim.

"Are you sure she said Mau?" she asked.  When Jim nodded, Amelia went on, "She could have been bluffing. . . but I don't suppose I can take that risk.  I'll see what I can find out."  The captain sighed heavily and looked out the window.  "I haven't been back there since we married, but I wanted to take the girls someday.  Looks like that may have to wait."

"I'm sorry," Jim murmured, "and I hope it isn't true.  Maybe she was lying.  She mentioned two other planets I've never heard of, Chuu and Mermaid--"

"Chuu?"  Amelia cut her eyes at him without turning her head.  "Chuu was all but destroyed in a nuclear war a year ago.  Their scientists had been developing an atomic bomb to use in defense against a world that wanted to colonize them, but it was stolen and deployed on Chuu itself.  The rumor is that it was actually stolen by. . . ."  She trailed off and slowly turned her head towards him.  ". . . by a young woman."

A chill ran down Jim's back.  "What about Mermaid?"

"I've never heard of it, but I'll find out."  Amelia got to her feet and began to pace back and forth behind her desk.  "Delbert will know where it is."  She stopped abruptly in front of Jim.  "Jim, if this is true-- will you take me to Mau?"

"Me?"  Jim looked up at her in bemusement.

"I may need to leave in a hurry, before I could book a ship normally.  And after what you saw on Coronis, you'd be the most valuable crew I could have."  She gave him a look unusually plaintive in her normally stern face.  "I'm sorry that I might put you through all that again, but--"

"It's all right," Jim told her.  "We'll take you.  I'll give you the address of the lawyer we're working for on Crescentia.  If you need us, go to him."

"Thank you," Amelia murmured as Jim wrote out Merle's address for her.  "I hope. . . I hope it won't come to that, but I do have family there.  If they're in danger, I couldn't just sit here and do nothing."  She took Jim's hand as he gave her the piece of paper, startling him.  "I'll know within a few days.  If I don't need to go, I'll write to you."

When Jim nodded, she went on softly, "Hawkins, at the risk of sounding old and trite, you've turned into a fine young man.  I saw that potential in you on the Legacy but. . . I have to admit, I didn't think you would turn out this well.  I don't know if it was that voyage, or the Academy, or both, but something shaped you into a wonderful person."

Jim felt his cheeks grow warm at the unusual praise, but he made himself meet her green eyes.  "It wasn't the Academy, and it wasn't just the Legacy."  You know what it was, he added silently.

Amelia looked at him a long moment with a slightly sorrowful expression, and he knew that she understood exactly what he meant.  "I'm sorry, Jim," she murmured as she released his hand.

As they walked back to the shuttle station, Camille muttered, "So now we have to sit around and wait until Captain Catbabe decides whether she needs us or not?"

"I have a feeling she's going to need us," Jim said with a sigh.  And how am I going to hide Silver from her then?

 

When they returned to the boarding house on Crescentia just after noon, Jim found a note from Silver stuck to his door.

"Mr. Merle's in court, arguing that case of his," Jim told Camille as he read it.  "Silver went to watch him.  You want to go too?"

Camille shrugged.  "Might as well.  It's not like we have anything else to do."

There was only one courthouse on Crescentia, and the cases heard there were primarily concerned with shipping regulation violations-- as Crescentia was under the jurisdiction of Montressor, all criminal cases were tried on the planet itself.  The small building held two courtrooms; Jim and Camille quietly slipped into the only one being used at the moment.

Another lawyer was addressing the judge, but Jim easily spotted Merle at the defendant's table at the front of the room.  Not only were there few people in the room, most of them rather poorly dressed, but Merle's bright hair and his wings made him stand out.  Jim found Silver in one of the back rows and slid in next to him with Camille on Jim's other side.

"They're makin' their closin' arguments," Silver whispered.  Morph was hovering above his shoulder, watching the proceedings in fascination.

When Merle got up to speak, Jim was surprised at how composed he seemed, especially in contrast to his usual disheveled state.  Jim gathered that the man he was representing was a small merchant visiting Crescentia for the first time; he had failed to receive proper permission to import the produce in his cargo.  It seemed like a fairly minor case, but a look at the merchant on trial clearly showed that it was anything but minor to him.  Jim knew from his criminal justice class at the Academy that the fines for shipping violations were astronomical; having to pay them would probably ruin the man.

Merle's argument seemed to be that as the merchant's cargo had since been cleared, and the proper paperwork filed, he should be granted clemency for the oversight.  He pulled out all the stops in his closing argument, including mentioning the merchant's family back on his home planet in a move which Jim found rather trite but that seemed to have a good effect on the judge.  The merchant was even, Merle said, prepared to pay the court costs for the proceedings as a sign of good will.  Jim was impressed with the emotion with which Bertrand argued his case.  He couldn't have been more passionate if he had been arguing for his client's life instead of his money.

Jim wasn't surprised when the judge ruled in favor of Merle's client and issued the merchant a warning rather than a fine, though with an order to pay the court costs as Merle had offered.  He was surprised when the shabbily attired lookers-on applauded the verdict; a few even cheered.  Merle was apparently well in their good graces.

After the court was adjourned, Jim and the others made their way over to Merle, who was talking to his client.

"I told you I'd take care of it," Bertrand was saying.

"Yes, but I will pay you back, I promise," the merchant enthused.

"No, it was my idea and--"  Merle broke off with a faint blush when he saw the Revolution's crew; the merchant used the opportunity to get in an emphatic last word about paying him back, then escaped.

Bertrand sighed.  "I told him I'd pay the court costs.  It was my suggestion, so he shouldn't have to."

"That was some pretty good lawyerin'," Silver chuckled.  "Congratulations."

"Yes, well."  Merle gathered up some papers and stuffed them into the case he carried.  "They had absolutely no right to harass the poor man that way.  Hundreds of richer merchants get away with much worse every month."  He paused and added darkly, "I should know."

"You should go celebrate," Jim suggested.  "Come on, we'll buy you a drink."

"I really should get back to--"

"Oh come on," Camille interrupted.  "Who are you trying to impress, anyway?

"I'm not--" Merle began indignantly.

"First you take the case for free, then you actually win it and offer to pay the costs yourself, and now you're too good to take the afternoon off?"  Camille threw his tentacles into the air and glared.  "Cut the bloody martyr act before you make us all commit suicide out of inadequacy."

Bertrand just stared at him with his mouth slightly open for a moment, then the Coronid scooped up his case in a huff.  "Fine!  Although I suppose next you'll want me to go do something terrible, just so you can feel better about yourself."

"You couldn't do something terrible if your life depended on it," Camille snapped.  He turned and stalked towards the doors, leaving the others to trail after him.  Jim had to bite his lip to keep from laughing.

They went back to the tavern where they'd eaten the day before, although this time they sat at the bar instead of a table.  Jim and Merle sat on either side of one corner with Silver next to Jim; Camille slouched onto a stool between Merle and the wall.  Before they could so much as order, a couple of the patrons cornered Merle.

"We 'eard ye won Owen's case for 'im," one of them, a particularly rough-looking character, enthused.  "I did business with 'im back on me 'ome world."  He thumped Bertrand on one shoulder with what looked like painful force.  "Thank ye kindly.  I always said ye was a good fella, di'n't I, Frank?" he added, turning to his companion, who nodded profusely.

"Erm, well, you're quite welcome," Merle stammered.

"'ere, Barkeep!" the man yelled, pounding on the bar.  "Get a round for 'im and 'is friends!"

"I'm impressed," Camille said wryly as Frank and friend returned to their stools further down the bar.  "We should hang out with you more often."

"We'll buy you your next one then," Jim grinned after the bartender had taken their order.

"One's plenty," Merle muttered.

"You can buy me one then," Camille told Jim.  In one swallow, he drained a third of the gin the bartender brought him.

"We already bought ye plenty," Silver retorted.  "Ye drank almost every drop we had on the ship-- every drop that we paid fer, mind."

"Well, you weren't using it," Camille retorted.  "You were too busy running off to your cabin together every time you got a free moment."  Merle nearly choked on his whiskey sour, and Jim gave Camille an indignant look.

"Do you mind?"

"What?"  Camille rolled his eyes.  "He probably doesn't have any idea what I'm talking about.  Do you?" he challenged Merle, who glared at him almost as hard as Jim did.

"I know perfectly well what you're talking about!" spluttered Bertrand.  "I just happen not to be interested in my employees' romantic lives!"

"More's the pity then."  Camille gulped more of his drink.  "But you'd better not fly anywhere with us if you don't want to hear every single--"

To Jim's profound relief, Camille was interrupted by Merle, who looked at the tavern door with a groaned, "Oh no."

"What?"  Jim turned and saw a tall humanoid man entering.  "Who is it?"

"One of my clients."  Bertrand appeared to be trying to make himself invisible, which was rather a lost cause with his wings.

"What, yer clients have a problem with ye visitin' taverns?" Silver smirked.

"It's not that."  The lawyer slumped down on his bar stool miserably.  "It's just that every time he hires me, it's for a shipping violation more unethical than the last one."

Merle's attempts to hide proved unsuccessful, for the man was already walking towards them.  He was thin but wiry with an aquiline nose and black hair streaked with white and pulled back in a severe, short ponytail.  He was also wearing the most expensive-looking suit Jim had ever seen grace a tavern.

"Bertrand!  Fancy meeting you here," the newcomer crooned as he came to stand next to the little group.  "I didn't know you were a drinker."

"I'm not," Merle muttered, despite the half-empty glass before him.

"Ah well, this saves me a trip to your office anyway," the man went on as if he hadn't heard-- And he probably hadn't, Jim thought.  "I just heard that you won that little case you were working on.  Is that so?"  When Merle nodded, the man said, "Excellent, excellent.  Congratulations.  Now I also heard that you have a new crew working for you."

"I do."  Merle gestured to the others.  "This is they-- Jim, Silver, and Camille.  This," he added to the three with a look of infinite resignation, "is Claredon Reyn, my best client."

"Oh, really now," Reyn chuckled.  "I just happen to be in trouble all the time, is all.  Which is why I use the best lawyer on Crescentia."

"You must want something," Merle said with what seemed to be an attempt at humor.  Jim had the idea that it was just barely masking his irritation.

"Actually, yes.  I need to borrow this stellar crew of yours."

"You what?"  Merle turned suddenly on his stool to face Reyn, nearly whapping Camille in the face with his wings.  "Don't tell me you need to ship something that you can't get anyone to take--"

"No, no, it's not that at all," Reyn said soothingly.  "I'm just in rather a hurry.  I need something delivered to Seven tomorrow, and all the couriers are booked by now.  I assumed that since you had just finished a case, you wouldn't need them for a couple days."

"You'll have to talk to them."  Merle turned back to the bar and motioned to Jim.  "I don't have any work for them right now, so they're free to take the job if they want."

"What do you need shipped?" Jim asked, a bit apprehensive over Merle's comment about "something no one else would take."

"Oh, it's legal, believe me," Reyn assured him, "and I have all the necessary papers.  I need it shipped out tomorrow to my home planet, Seven.  I'll be going myself on the transport, but it's still too large a crate for me to take with me."

"How far away is Seven?"  Jim hesitated, then added, "I'm. . . expecting someone to look for us here on Crescentia in a few days."

"Seven ain't too far," Silver murmured to Jim.  "We should be able to make it there in eight hours or so."

"I will make it worth your while," Reyn all but purred.  "Bertrand can attest to that."

"Then by all means, let's do it."  Camille swallowed the last of his drink and set the glass back down on the bar with a crack.  "You up for it, Jim?"

Jim wasn't quite sure that he was-- the cargo sounded suspicious, and he was afraid that Amelia would need them before they returned.  Still, if they did have to take her to Mau, it would mean at least several days without pay, so some extra money ahead of time would come in handy.

"Silver, is it all right with you?" Jim asked.

"Is Amelia comin' after us here?" the cyborg asked in a low voice.

Jim nodded.  "Probably.  If she needs to go to Mau, she wants me to take her.  She said it would be a few days before she knows, though."

"We can make it in time," Silver assured him.  "I'm up fer the trip if ye are."

"All right," Jim told Reyn, who was beginning to look a bit impatient.  "We'll do it."

"Excellent."  The man actually rubbed his hands together.  "Now Bertrand, when you get there, I'll want the cargo taken straight to my--"

"When I get there?"  Merle stared up at him.  "You want me to go too?"

"But of course!  Not that I believe your crew is anything but impeccable, but I would like the assurance that you'll be there to keep an eye on things.  I'll pay you too, of course."

"But. . . I. . . ."  Merle's wings drooped and he sighed.  "All right.  Fine."

"Perfect!" Reyn went on.  "As I was saying, I'll want it taken to my museum tomorrow afternoon upon your arrival.  After that, do come by my home-- I'm having a little party tomorrow evening, and I would love for the four of you to attend.  It's high time I introduced my magnificent lawyer to my patrons."

"Well, considering how much of their money has gone towards my fees, I suppose it's natural," Merle said.  Reyn laughed uproariously.

"Of course, of course.  Now, the cargo is on the Constitution, down at the docks.  After your crew is done here, perhaps they could--"

"Yes, we'll pick it up tonight," Merle interrupted, apparently eager to get rid of Reyn as quickly as possible, "and start out first thing in the morning."

"Terrific."  Reyn gave them all a rather superior smile.  "I'll see you tomorrow afternoon, then."

"This is excellent," Merle muttered sarcastically after Reyn had left for his own table.  "I feel bad enough defending him in court-- not that his shipments are illegal, exactly, but they border on it.  And now I'm aiding and abetting."

"What are his shipments?" Jim asked.

Merle took a long swallow of his drink.  "Don't ask.  Trust me, you don't want to know."

"If it makes ye that uncomfortable, why d'ye keep working for him?"  Silver raised the eyebrow over his organic eye.

"He's the wealthiest man I've ever met, and he pays me twice as much as he'd have to.  I can take a pro bono case for every one of his I argue, and have money left over besides."  Bertrand glanced at Camille with a challenging, yet oddly abashed look.  "And you said I couldn't do anything terrible."

"For Cthulhu's sake," Camille muttered.  "So you stretch your morals a little and take a rich guy's money so you can represent the poor ones for free.  Yeah, real terrible."  He leaned forward and tapped Bertrand on the chest with a tentacle.  "One day, I'm gonna make you do something really bad-- and you're going to love it."

Merle recoiled from him as if he'd been shocked, hurriedly downed the rest of his drink, and stood, ruffling his feathers.  "Jim, I trust you can find the Constitution on your own?  If I'm going to be gone for two days, I have some things I must get done this evening."

"Sure, we'll find it," Jim murmured.

"Thank you.  I'll meet you at breakfast in the morning."  Merle hurried out of the tavern without a look back at them.

"Tentacles, yer gonna give the poor man an aneurysm, makin' him blush like that," Silver commented.

"Don't call me Tentacles," Camille muttered, then ordered another drink.

 

It took two more straight gins to convince Camille to go pick up Reyn's cargo, and even then, he protested the whole way that they could wait and do it in the morning.  Jim and Silver, and even Morph, ignored him, and eventually the Octopid fell silent except for the occasional, slightly slurred, mutter.

The captain of the Constitution seemed quite happy to hand over Reyn's lone crate.  "I don't know what's in it," she declared, "and I don't want to know.  If you're going to start shipping for the man, you'll learn it's safer not to ask."

"I wonder what it is," Jim mused as he and Silver transferred the crate, which was quite light weight, to the Revolution with Camille trailing after them.

"Well, considerin' that it's sealed, I don't s'pose we're gonna find out."  Silver backed slowly up the Revolution's ramp with his end of the crate.  "Probably stolen goods or somethin'. . . t'wouldn't be illegal to ship, just to possess," he added with a chuckle.

"Oh thanks, something else for me to worry about," Jim griped playfully as they secured the crate.  When they rejoined Camille on deck, he was leaning against the side of the ship, yawning.

"How's your jaw doing?" Jim asked him.  "Doesn't look like it hurts too much."

"S'fine when I'm drunk," the Octopid smirked.  "Gin's better'n painkillers any day."

Jim had secretly hoped to get rid of Camille and have some time alone on the ship with Silver, but he reluctantly decided that keeping the Octopid in one piece until the next day's voyage was more important.  "Come on," he told Camille, "you're going home."

Camille made a face at him.  "You suck."  He paused.  "Probably literally."

"I've about had it with you," Jim muttered, hauling on one tentacle until Camille followed him towards the dock.  "If I didn't think you'd turn up tomorrow too hung over to fly the ship, I'd leave you right where you are."

Silver snickered as he followed them.  "We should just lock him up in his cabin so we don't lose him."

"'M not that drunk," Camille grumbled.  "Unfortunately."

In spite of his complaining, Camille fell asleep in his room almost immediately after they arrived at the boarding house.  Glad to be rid of him for a while, Jim joined Mrs. Ufford on the porch, along with Silver and Morph.

"All of y'all missed dinner," Mrs. Ufford lamented.

"We had some business to take care of," Jim replied.  "We have a shipment to deliver tomorrow, so we'll be gone until the next afternoon."

"Then y'all'd better eat you a good breakfast before you start out tomorrow!  Heaven knows what kind of food y'all eat out there in space."

"Actually, Silver's a pretty good cook."  Jim grinned at the cyborg.

"Not as good as you of course, ma'am," Silver put in, making Jim smile all the more.  Apparently Mrs. Ufford was another woman on Silver's "stay on her good side" list.

Jim was just starting to think about going in to bed when Merle appeared and trudged up the steps.

"Ye get yer work finished?" Silver asked him.

"Yes, more or less."  Bertrand sighed and sat down in a vacant chair.  "Although I really can't afford to be gone for two whole days. . . .  Claredon seems to forget that he's not my only client."

"You're goin' too?"  Mrs. Ufford shook her head.  "Y'all are gonna leave me with an empty house!"

Merle gave her a little smile.  "I'm sure you'll manage."  He glanced at Jim.  "Where's Ca-- Ownby?"

"Passed out in bed," Jim smirked.

"That's a relief," Merle muttered.  "I was afraid he was still at the tavern."

"He probably would be if we hadn't dragged him off to the docks to pick up that cargo of yer client's," Silver responded.  "Jimbo managed to get him home to bed 'fore he got too drunk, anyway."

Mrs. Ufford made a tsking noise.  "That boy needs himself a wife to look after him.  'Course I been tellin' Bertrand that for as long as he's lived here, and he still hasn't listened."

"But if I got married, I'd have to get my own place, and then I wouldn't have the pleasure of your company," Merle said sweetly.  The landlady laughed heartily over that.

"Now see, if you said that kind of thing to the single ladies, you'd have a line of 'em at your door," she retorted.  "But I don't s'pose there's any hurry.  Me and Mr. Ufford met pretty late in life, and I'd never have been this happy if I'd rushed into things with anyone else.  You'll meet somebody else someday, dear-- you've just gotta be ready for it."

"Ready for it?" Merle said softly.

"Yep.  I know it's hard to. . . let go of certain things, but after a while, you gotta know when to let 'em be."  As she spoke, Jim realized that she knew about Deimos, probably more than he did.  "And you gotta let yourself go too-- let yourself fall in love when the time comes."

Yeah, but it's got to be hard to get over it when your girlfriend leaves you, and your sister goes off to kill her, Jim thought.  Apparently Merle was thinking the same thing, for he stared down at the floor dejectedly.

"You might not know when the time does come, though," Jim said after a moment.  "Sometimes it just. . . happens, and you never see it coming."

Bertrand glanced up at him and Silver with a slight smile.  "Yeah?"  He stood, stretched his wings, and changed the subject.  "I'll be completely useless tomorrow unless I get some sleep.  I'll see you in the morning."

"I'll turn in too."   Jim got to his feet then glanced at Silver in what he hoped was a casual manner.  "You coming?"

"In a few minutes.  I think Morphy here's a bit peckish-- we might scrape together some dinner 'fore we come up."

"Dinner!" cried Morph joyously, making Jim smile.

As he and Jim reached the top of the stairs, Merle looked at Camille's closed door.  "Do you think he's all right?  Maybe we should check on him."

"I think he's fine," Jim smirked.  "He was insulting me as usual last time I saw him."

"He's good at that," Bertrand muttered, even as he went to Camille's door and opened it slightly.  He looked in, then closed it gently.  "He's asleep.  I'm afraid he's not taking care of that cut though.  It's going to leave a scar as it is, and if he doesn't keep it clean--"

Jim tried not to sound too amused.  "Really, he can take care of himself."

"He can. . . but he won't.  I've dealt with spacers long enough to know the type."

"Well maybe Mrs. Ufford's right then, and he needs someone to do it for him," Jim suggested, hiding a smile.

"Not if they take care of him the way that one did the other night."  Merle walked over to the hall's small window which faced the house's small, bleak backyard.  "How could anyone do that to someone he. . . he loved?"

Pretty easily if it meant getting to someone he hated, Jim thought.  Aloud, he said, "I don't know that he ever did love Camille.  I. . . knew the guy a long time ago, and I can't imagine him loving anybody.  Maybe he did, but. . . mostly I think he just used him."

Bertrand was silent for a moment, then he asked, very softly, "It's not always like that, is it?"

"What isn't?"

"Love.  Does it always. . . have to hurt?"

Jim started to say no, of course it didn't. . . then he remembered crouching in the barrel of purps in the Legacy's galley, hearing Silver tell Scroop that Jim meant nothing to him.  Even years later, even knowing for sure that it had been a lie, the memory of those words felt like a dagger in Jim's heart. . . the way Scroop's claw must have felt rending Camille's jaw.  The way the sound of the Benbow's door slamming must have felt pounding in Sarah's ears as Leland Hawkins walked out of his family's life forever.

"Maybe not always.  But for most people. . . yeah, it hurts sometimes.  Maybe both people, or maybe only one.  But Bertrand. . . ."  He walked over to stand next to the Coronid.  "It's worth it.  If. . . if Silver and I had always gotten along. . . if he had never hurt me, we might not be here today, together.  Sometimes you don't know you love someone until they do something that makes you almost hate them.  And sometimes, like with Camille, that's what makes you realize you don't love them. . . and sets you free to love someone else."

Merle looked fixedly out the window.  "You think he'll love someone else someday?"

"Of course," Jim said matter-of-factly.  "And so will you."

Merle seemed about to speak again, but he closed his mouth at the sound of Silver's footsteps on the stairs.

"Everythin' okay?" Silver asked as he joined them.  Morph was snuggled contentedly on his shoulder, apparently full.

"Yes.  I'll see you both in the morning," Merle said as he turned toward his room.  "Try to be up early, all right?"

"Sure.  Night."  Jim watched him disappear into his room, then shook his head.  "I hope he doesn't keep this up the whole trip to Seven."

"Keep what up?" Silver chuckled as they went to their room.  "Broodin'?"

"That, and asking me about love."  Jim pulled off his boots and started to undress.

"Yeah?  And what'd ye tell him?"

"That sometimes it's hell, but it's worth it in the end."

"It is, eh?"  Silver slipped up behind him and caught him around the waist with his mechanical arm.  Jim yelped in surprise, then pressed back against him.

"I think so."  He eyed Morph, who was curling up on Silver's pillow.  "Although it's difficult when you have a shapeshifter watching you at all times."

Silver bent his head to caress Jim's neck.  "How about I send him down to breakfast early tomorrow mornin'?  Or else I'll wait to have ye on the ship-- let Merle hear all the screechin' Ownby's been tellin' him about."

Jim bit back a moan.  "I-if you don't stop, they're going to be hearing it tonight."

Silver gave him one last kiss and let him go.  "As temptin' as it sounds, it'll have to wait."  As Jim reluctantly climbed into his own bed, Silver added, "Ye know, I bet if we locked those two up in the other cabin, they'd end up doin' some screechin' of their own."

"I thought of that."  Jim pulled his blanket, which was deliciously soft, up to his chin.  "If it'll keep them from talking to me for a while, I'm all for it."

Silver was still chuckling as he turned down the light.  "Night, lad."  He paused, then added softly, "I love ye, Jim."

"I love you too."  Jim closed his eyes and thought happily that yes, it had all been worth it.

 

When Camille awoke, the slightly fuzzy feeling in his head told him that he was still drunk, but not by much.  The second indication of impending sobriety was the stab of pain he felt emanate from his jaw after a moment of consciousness.

"Damn," he muttered aloud, rolling over on his back then slowly rising into a sitting position.  he laid a tentacle against his throbbing jaw and found the flesh there hot to his touch.  Camille glanced at the clock hanging on one wall of his small room-- a clock whose loud ticking he cursed nightly-- to find that it was just after one in the morning.  Unfortunately, sleep now felt far away.

Groaning to himself, Camille hauled his tentacles out of bed, hoping that a shower would put him to sleep again.  As he slipped from his bedroom to the hall, he saw a band of light leaking from the cracked door of the room next to his.  He couldn't remember whose room it was until he peeked through the crack and saw Bertrand Merle seated at a desk inside.

The Coronid had his back to the doorway, but although couldn't see his face, it was obvious that Merle was still working.  He wrote busily, bent over a piece of paper with his dark wings hunched against his back.  Camille could glimpse brown skin between the feathers, and he realized Bertrand was shirtless.  The Octopid drew his tongue over his thin lips slowly, gazing at the lawyer's bare back.

"Hey," Camille said abruptly.  Merle jumped with a low cry of surprise and turned in his chair toward the door.  He wasn't wearing his glasses, and Camille saw his clear grey eyes widen slightly before Merle scooped them off the desk and shoved them on.

"Y-yes?" the lawyer stammered, his high cheek bones flushing a deep mauve.  Camille had found his appearance striking from the first, but the heightened color in his face made him look positively handsome.

"You got any painkillers?" Camille asked carelessly.  "My face hurts."

"Erm, no, I'm sorry."

Camille's eyes drifted downward to Merle's exposed chest.  The Coronid's body was thin, though not as thin as Camille's, and Bertrand lacked the muscle tone Camille had developed from working as a spacer.  Still, as Camille eyed Merle's pectorals, he decided that the lawyer had a pretty nice body for a nerd.

"Did. . . you want something else?" Merle asked after a moment.

Camille dragged his eyes back up to Merle's face, wishing he were either drunk enough to come on to Bertrand, or else completely sober, in which case he wouldn't have entered the lawyer's room at all.

"Nah," Camille finally said with a smirk.  "I'll live."  As he half-sauntered, half-stumbled out of the room, he heard Merle call a tentative "good night."

Camille locked himself in the bathroom and started running the shower before stripping off his clothing.  As he stepped into the hot spray of the shower, he thought about Bertrand sitting alone, still working long past midnight.

"He needs a life," Camille muttered.  He looked down at his own pale body and wondered what it would look like pressed against the lawyer's dark skin.  And so do I if I'm getting hot over him.

Telling himself it was only because he was drunk, Camille drew a tentacle down his abdomen and curled it around the base of his cock.  It grew harder immediately, then came nearly completely erect as Camille thought about the other man in a room just a few yards away.

Merle was obviously a total prude-- what would it be like to make it with someone like that?  It would be hot, Camille decided as he leaned against the shower wall and pumped his erection.  He imagined Bertrand's fingers closing over it, stroking him firmly, as the tension built in his body.  Camille slid a sucker over the head of his cock and pulled at it, his thin chest heaving for breath.  He visualized Bertrand going down on him, and the very idea of him, the lawyer who blushed at the very mention of sex, sucking Camille's cock cause the Octopid to come, gasping, after only a few moments.

When his head cleared after his orgasm, Camille drew in a deep breath and washed as quickly as he could.  As he went back to his room, pulling his damp hair back as he walked, he glanced at Merle's door.  The light within was now extinguished, but the door was still ajar.  Camille slipped closer to it and paused outside, listening.  However, he heard nothing except what might have been the rustling of wings as Merle turned over in bed.  Camille sighed and returned to his own room where he soon fell asleep, having completely forgotten about his wounded jaw.

 

When Jim awoke early the next morning, he and Silver were already alone.  The cyborg was sitting on the edge of his own bed, yawning.

"How'd you get rid of Morph so quick?" Jim asked sleepily as he sat up.

"Actually, the dear lady did that.  She came in a few minutes ago to ask what we wanted fer breakfast."  Silver laughed at him fondly.  "Ye didn't even stir, but Morphy was off like a shot."

"She's already making breakfast?" Jim said in disappointment, which quickly disappeared when Silver stood and moved to his bed, pushing him back down on the pillows gently.

"Yeah, but I think we can be a few minutes late fer it."  Silver kissed him as he started unbuttoning Jim's shirt.  "It can be somethin' of a challenge-- how fast can I make ye come, and how quiet can ye be while I do it?"

"Y-you're on," Jim stammered as the cyborg began trailing kisses down his chest.

"Although, I've never done this before," Silver went on as he made his way lower.  "Ye'll have to tell me how well it works."

"Done wha-- aah!" Jim yelped as Silver took him in his mouth.  He had to clench his teeth to keep from making any more noise as Silver sucked hard on him.  Even so, he moaned faintly through his teeth at the sensation, which was completely different from anything he'd ever felt before.  He tried to thrust his hips upward to push deeper into the cyborg's mouth, but Silver gripped his hips in both hands and held him down on the bed.  The feeling of being restrained make Jim all the more excited.

"Are ye tryin' to choke me?" Silver growled when he lifted his head.  He licked Jim teasingly, making the younger man squirm.

"P-please--"

"Now this is exactly what ye did to me last time," Silver retorted.  "Yer gonna have to learn to take what ye give."  Nevertheless, he engulfed Jim in his mouth again almost immediately.  Jim closed his eyes and whimpered softly, trying to make himself stay still.  A moment later, he felt Silver push his thighs further apart, then thrust one organic finger into him roughly.

Jim moaned as a jolt of pleasure made him twitch.  He drew in his breath sharply as the cyborg almost immediately added another finger.  The combination of them inside him and Silver's mouth on him was more than Jim could stand.  "Silver, I'm gonna come," he gasped.

In response, Silver twisted his fingers in Jim's body, sending what felt like a lightning bolt of ecstasy through him.  Jim bit down on his tongue to keep from screaming as he came violently in the spacer's mouth.

When he was able to think straight again, Jim sat up shakily, panting.  "That. . . that worked just fine."

"Yeah?" Silver asked huskily.  "Then why don't ye experiment on me, now?"

Jim leaned over him to lick at him roughly before putting his mouth over the spacer's cock.  After a moment, Silver placed his hand on the back of Jim's head and gently pushed it lower, forcing the younger man to take more of his erection into his mouth.  Again, the sense of confinement excited Jim, and he moaned around Silver as he sucked on him.  He felt like Silver's cabin boy again, obliged to do whatever the cyborg wanted-- and it was a feeling he loved.  If only he'd made me do this back then instead of swabbing the deck, Jim thought.

Silver's hand clenched in Jim's hair, and he felt the spacer tense in his mouth.  Jim sucked on him as hard as he could, then swallowed rapidly when Silver came hard in his mouth.

"Stars, Jim, yes--" Silver moaned as he came.  After he had finished, Jim sat up again, then leaned tiredly against him.  Silver put his arms around Jim and held him tightly for a moment.

"Come on, lad," he said, kissing Jim's forehead lightly.  "We'd better go unless ye want the landlady and the lawyer to come lookin' fer us."

Camille and Merle were both already eating when Jim and Silver made their way downstairs.  They finished breakfast quickly then started for the docks with Morph, who, despite the "no pets at the table" rule, had been well-fed by Mrs. Ufford.

"I don't suppose you have any nice clothes," Merle commented to the others on the way.  "You need to dress up for this party we have to go to."

"Great," Camille muttered, kicking at a piece of trash with one tentacle.  "Now you tell us."

"Well, you can easily rent formal attire," Merle returned.  "I just brought my own because it's hard to find anything to accommodate my wings."  He held up the bag he was carrying.

"And you think it's easy to find pants that fit these?"  Camille paused and raised one leg, tentacles waving.

To Jim's relief, Camille quit griping by the time they boarded the Revolution.  By now the routine of getting the ship out of the docks and into the air was second nature to all three of its crew members.  Bertrand stood by the mast, watching as they each went through the motions of their duties.

"You three do work well together," he said to Jim, wandering over to the wheel once they were out of Crescentia's artificial atmosphere.  "But I guess you haven't been a crew for all that long, have you?"

"Nope," Jim confessed.  "I've only known Camille for a few days, actually.  Silver and I met several years ago though.  And considering how much we've all been through together recently, I guess we'd better get along pretty well by now."

"Well, I do hope that this run will be easier than the last one I gave you," Merle sighed.  "I don't believe we'll have any trouble, now that we're away from Crescentia.  They're much more lenient with the regulations on Seven, especially where Reyn is concerned."

Jim looked at him suspiciously.  "How much trouble could we have had on Crescentia?"

"Plenty," Bertrand said grimly, then he added quickly, "But there's no need to worry about it now.  Everything will go smoothly.  I think."

Jim wasn't exactly comforted by that, and his apprehension was greatly increased when Camille came pelting above deck a few hours later.  Merle had retreated to the spare hammock in the cabin thanks to a sudden bout of airsickness, much to his humiliation and Camille's amusement, and the Octopid had apparently taken the opportunity to snoop.

"Jim," Camille panted as he raced up to where Jim and Morph were idly watching the stars go past.  "I think you'd better come see this."  Before Jim could respond, Camille coiled a tentacle around his wrist and dragged him down the stairs.

"Camille, what the heck are you on about now?" Jim cried as he was pulled through the galley.  Silver, who was there preparing lunch, looked up at them in surprise.

"What's goin' on?"

Camille let Jim go and pointed at the low doorway leading into the storage area where they had stowed Reyn's cargo.  "You will not believe what that man is shipping."

"Ye opened it?"  Silver looked like he was about to smack Camille with the spatula he held in his organic hand.  "Ye fool, yer gonna get us all fired!"

"Getting fired is better than ending up like that!" Camille yelled, pointing again emphatically.

Jim's curiosity got the better of him and he ducked into the crawl space and peered into the open crate.  At first, all he saw in the dim light of the storage area was packing material, then he was able to make out what looked like several large glass jars.  He reached in and pulled one out, peering at its contents.

"What is it?" Jim asked as he studied the unidentifiable mass.  "It looks like some kind of pickled food.  What are you so upset abo-- oh yuck."  He nearly dropped the jar, then hastened to shove it back into the crate as quickly as he could before he scrambled back into the galley.

"Well, what was it?" Silver asked impatiently.

"It. . . I think it was. . . an ear."  Jim felt like he was about to get as sick as Merle.

"Ye mean like pigs' ears or somethin'?"

"No, a person's ear."  Jim clapped his hands protectively over the sides of his head.  "It looked like mine."

"That's not the worst thing that's in there either!" Camille yelped.  "There's five jars in there, and they all have body parts in them!  What the hell is this psycho doing, shipping body parts?  And where the fuck does that psycho lawyer get off letting us--"

"Letting you what?" the psycho lawyer said weakly as he stumbled into the galley, still looking a bit green.  "What are all of you yelling about?"

"You're going to get us all killed!" Camille shrieked, flying at him and grasping him by the shoulders.  "Who is that in those jars?  Who did he kill?"

"For Heaven's sake, I told you not to look," Merle sighed, allowing himself to be shaken.  "It's not anyone he killed.  Or that I killed for that matter, which you seem to think from the way you're looking at me."

Camille stopped shaking him but leaned forward until their noses were nearly touching.  "Then.  Who.  Is it."

"I don't know!" Bertrand spluttered.  "Someone who anonymously donated her body to science.  Trust me, neither of us killed her."

"Then what is she doing in jars on our ship?" Jim asked, still feeling slightly ill.

"Reyn purchased the. . . pieces the researchers on her home planet couldn't use."  At their skeptical looks, Merle protested, "Really, they would have just been discarded, and the money he paid can fund a great amount of further research."

"Okay," Camille said slowly.  "I'll assume for the moment that that's true.  If so. . . why the hell did he buy human leftovers?"

Merle finally extracted himself from the tentacles' grip and walked over to the storage area, fiddling with the feathers on his wingtips.  "They're for his museum."

"His museum," Silver said flatly.

"Yes."  Merle carefully closed up the crate again and shut the hatch to the storage area.  "On his home planet, he owns a museum of human organs.  It started with just his own, but now he's expanded to include those of other sentient species."

"His. . . his own?" Jim asked shakily.

"Yes, he's had everything extraneous in his body removed. . . appendix, tonsils, one kidney, et cetera.  There's also living tissue he's had grown from his own cells."  Merle shrugged.  "It's quite ingenious really, and the research he privately funded to allow it to be possible has ended up offering several new cures for ailments of his species."

"That," Camille said quietly, "is the most fucked-up shit I have ever heard."

"Look, I have the papers to prove it," Merle retorted.  Jim could tell he was beginning to be annoyed.  "Everything about this woman's donation and the transaction is documented, and I have all the proper permits needed for you to carry organic tissue.  The only reason Reyn wanted you to get off of Crescentia with this in a hurry is that had the authorities challenged him, it would have taken weeks in court to uphold his right to transport.  But they would have upheld it, eventually."

Jim sighed.  "It's okay; we believe you.  Just. . . I hope this isn't going to be a regular thing."

"It isn't.  Trust me," Merle almost growled.  "Especially since I now know I can't trust you not to violate the privacy of anyone who ships with you."

"Hey, it wasn't us!" Jim retorted.  "It was Camille's idea."

"Yes, but you're the captain, and your crew's behavior is your responsibility."  Merle started to stalk out of the room, but then he stopped by Camille, who was smirking slightly.

"That said," the lawyer hissed at the Octopid, "you have a responsibility to your captain not to get the whole crew fired because of your indiscretion."

Camille's smirk faded rapidly.  "Indiscretion?  That me was covering my ass, and theirs.  When you want to see indiscretion, just let me know-- I'll show you things that'll blow your mind."

"And end up with another hole in your head?" Merle returned acidly.  "From now on, keep your tentacles off my clients' cargo, and keep your mouth shut."  He stormed out of the galley before Camille could reply.

"Are-- are you just gonna let him talk to us like that?" the Octopid exploded to Jim, gesturing wildly with his tentacles.

"Unless you forgot, he's our boss," Jim replied.  "And furthermore, I suppose he's right.  I should have been watching the cargo more closely-- and you should follow orders."

"But. . . ."  Camille trailed off of his own accord.  "Oh, forget it."  He slumped down at the galley table with his forehead resting on one tentacle.  "Maybe you're right."

"Wow, there's a first," Silver said wryly as he went back to the preparation of their meal.

Jim swatted him with a dish towel.  "Hey!  I'm right a lot of the time!"

Silver chuckled.  "I meant, it's a first that Tentacles admitted it.  But ye ain't right all the time, either."

"I guess not-- but that's why I have you around, to tell me when I'm not," Jim said sweetly.

"By Dagon, do you have to do that in front of me?" Camille griped.

"Do what?"  Jim had been leaning up to give Silver a kiss, thinking Camille wasn't watching, but he stopped guiltily.

"Flirt and be all romantic.  You're just rubbing it in that you're getting laid, and I'm not."

Jim felt himself blush, but before he could give an appropriate come-back, Silver replied, "If ye apologize to the lawyer nice enough, that might change."

"I hate you," Camille mumbled.

Nevertheless, he followed when they carried lunch, consisting mostly of some sort of root vegetable Silver had sliced and fried, above deck to eat under the stars.  Merle was sitting next to the mast, his wings half-hunched over his back.

"Ye up to eatin'?" Silver called to him from where they sat down in the ship's stern.  "I made extra."

"I'm not sure."  A little shudder moved through Merle's wings as he folded them more tightly against his back.  "It sort of smells good."

"Well, there's plenty if you want any," Jim told him.

Merle didn't make any effort to move.  After a moment, Camille got up again with his plate and went over to him.

"You'll feel better if you eat," he mumbled, crouching down next to Merle and setting the plate down next to him.  "At least that's what that landlady of yours tells me."

Bertrand gave him a surprised, oblique look, then speared a vegetable slice with the fork Camille had brought.  "That is what she says.  Frequently."  He ate a small bite hesitantly.  "Well, it tastes good anyway.  Compliments to the chef," he said wryly to Silver.

"I'm sorry," Camille muttered abruptly.  He lowered his head and stared down at the deck, refusing to meet Merle's eyes.  "I'll keep my tentacles where they belong from now on.  And my mouth."

"I. . . thank you."  Merle looked up at his averted face.  "And. . . I didn't mean what I said, about not trusting you.  After what you did for me on Coronis, I'd trust you with my life.  All of you," he hastily included Jim and Silver.

"You can thank our illustrious captain for that," Camille replied with a bitter edge to his voice.  "You should trust him, but not me."  He stood and wandered to the edge of the deck, where he leaned with his back to the rest of them.

Jim glanced at Merle to see his reaction and was surprised at the look of undisguised longing on his face as he watched the Octopid.  "Eh, don't listen to him," Jim said loudly.  "He's just being modest."

"There's another first," Silver smirked.

 

The late afternoon sunlight was slanting into evening on Seven when they docked.  Jim managed to secure a dolly from another crew, which made unloading their macabre cargo much simpler.  Merle had apparently visited the planet before, for he led the way decisively through the streets bordering the docks.

Seven was a small, oxygen-rich planet similar in composition to Montressor.  Reyn resided in its capital city, incidentally also called Seven, which was built on a sandy, balmy coast.  As they wound their way through the undulating streets, Merle pointed to a cliff in the distance.

"See that house up there?  It's where Reyn lives."

Jim squinted in the angled, golden light of the setting sun.  The "house" was more along the lines of a palace; Jim had never seen a private dwelling as large as it appeared to be.  "Is that where this party of his is?"

Merle nodded.  "And that’s why you have to dress up."

Reyn's museum was located in a granite marble building overlooking the ocean.  Claredon himself met them in the foyer which, Jim was thankful to note, was free of "exhibits."

"Ah, you made excellent time-- perfect!" Reyn exclaimed.  "Did you have a nice flight?  I had a rather rough time of it myself on the transport last night."

"It was fine," Merle said a bit shakily.  "Now if you don't have further need of us for a while--"

"Actually, I thought your fine crew might like to tour the museum," Reyn said with a barely-detectable smirk.

"We need to see about getting some clothes for tonight," Jim said quickly.  "Maybe some other time."

"Oh, then by all means!"  Reyn seemed perturbed at the implication that they might show up improperly attired.

"I have my clothes on the ship, so I'll come up to your house a bit early if you don't mind," Merle told him.  "I need to discuss some business with you."

"Ah, certainly.  I'll look forward to the pleasure of your company, all of you."

When they were safely back out on the street, Merle directed them to the nearest shop that rented formal clothing.

"I'll dress on the ship and see you up at the mansion later," the lawyer told them.  Jim was pleasantly surprised when Merle handed him some money to hire a cab.  "Just tell the driver you want Reyn's place-- everyone knows how to get there."

"If we weren't gettin' paid so much, I'd blow this whole thing off," Silver remarked once Merle had left them.  "I don't exactly take well to social events."

Jim had actually been looking forward to the party, but he tried to hide his anticipation.  "Well, we are getting paid for our time.  And hey, maybe there'll be food."

"Hell, what there had better be is drinks," grumbled Camille.

The formalwear shop they visited proved to be very accommodating where Jim and Silver were concerned, even when Morph decided it would be fun to play hide and seek among the boutonnieres.  Camille, however, was another story.  After taking measurements twice and disappearing into the back of the shop several times, the proprietor finally directed him into a dressing room.  Camille emerged a few moments later carrying a package and looking rather disgruntled.

"I knew I wouldn't find any pants that fit," he muttered after they had paid the deposit on their clothes and left the shop.  "This will have to do."

"Don't tell me they gave you a skirt," Jim teased.

"No, praise Cthulhu.  But you'll see soon enough."

By the time they returned to the ship to dress, Merle had already left.  Jim was fairly pleased with the fit of his rented suit, although he would have preferred his white dress uniform from the Academy.  Best of all, he discovered that his hair was finally long enough to pull back into a short ponytail.

Even Silver looked considerably more debonair than usual.  As they waited for Camille to emerge from his cabin, Jim looked up at the unfamiliar pattern of stars hanging over Seven's ocean.  Morph had been relegated to their cabin for the evening, as Jim had no intention of chasing after a rogue shapeshifter at the party.

"This planet's almost as pretty as Spira," he commented.  "Someday I'd like to come back to all these places and see them on my own time-- not just passing through."

"Yeah, it's hard to see the sights when yer tryin' to save the world or get yer ship repaired," Silver said wryly.  He rested his organic hand on Jim's shoulder and squeezed it gently.  "At the rate yer goin', ye'll be able to retire 'fore yer thirty.  Then ye can go see everythin' ye want to."

"Only if you come with me."  Jim looked up at him with a little smile.

"Ye just try to see if ye can leave me behind."

"All right, let's go get this over with," Camille muttered from behind them.  Jim turned to behold the Octopid clad in an ordinary navy suit jacket and tie, and some very extraordinary pants whose legs flared out widely from the knees.  His hair was loose on his shoulders, and he would have looked quite attractive if not for the stitches in his jaw and the look of sullen irritation on his face.

"Those pants are interesting," Jim said with a raised eyebrow.

"They're the only thing I could fit my tentacles into," he grumbled.  "And I still can barely move.  They're way too tight."  He tossed his hair back and stalked stiffly towards the ramp. "Come on, before I change my mind about going through with this."

"They are pretty tight," Jim muttered as they followed Camille off the ship.  "I can see a lot more of him than I ever wanted to."

Silver snickered.  "When we get there, we can just pretend we don't know him."

True to Merle's word, they easily found transportation to the mansion, where Reyn himself let them in.  Jim had expected that he would have had servants or something, but the only people Jim saw seemed to be guests, all of them humanoid.  He noticed Merle talking to a short young man near a table bearing the drinks for which Camille had been hoping.

There were fewer people there than Jim had expected, and most of them looked quite wealthy.  Reyn greeted them briefly, then abandoned them for a tall, aging woman whom Jim assumed was a more important personage.  Jim hung back a little as a small band began to play and a few of the suited men, including Reyn, and bejeweled women began to dance.

"So, uh, what are we supposed to do?" he whispered to Silver, who shrugged.

"I know what I'm going to do," Camille declared as he headed for the champagne table.

"Seems as good an idea as any," Silver observed.  They followed the Octopid across the room to where he was pouring himself a drink at the opposite end of the table from where Bertrand was conversing.  Merle glanced at Jim and Silver as they approached the table, then motioned them over.

"Let me introduce you," he said to the young man with him.  "This is Jim Hawkins and John Silver, two of my runners.  And this is Juste Bishop-- he's a reporter here in Seven."

"Mn.  Nice to meet you," the short man said curtly.  He looked extremely young, perhaps even younger than Jim, with a mass of exceedingly fluffy brown hair tied back somewhat messily.  "I didn't think you were friends of Reyn's when you came in."

"No, we hardly know him."  Jim looked Bishop over; despite the rather nice suit he was wearing, something about him looked out of place.  "Uh, are you his friend?"

Bishop laughed shortly, and Merle explained, "Juste has been working on a story about Claredon.  It seems that he wants to expose him, though I'm not quite sure what he's going to expose him of doing.  I've just been telling him that Reyn's doing nothing illegal."

"I know that," Bishop retorted.  "It's not that I think he is.  It's just that. . . well, have you seen this museum of his?" he asked Silver and Jim.

"No, and we don't intend to," Silver replied with a slight shake of his head.

"Good.  I wish more people had that attitude."  The reporter sighed.  "No one seems to understand that the place is just a symbol of everything that's wrong with the galaxy today.  Here's a man who has enough money to change the whole world of Seven, if not worlds beyond, and what does he use it for?  Showing off his kidney in a jar!"

"But I told you," Merle protested, "he has done good with it.  He's funded cures, and--"

"That's beside the point!" Bishop interrupted.  "Reyn couldn't care less if he helps anyone or not; the fact that he did is just a byproduct of his selfish actions.  He could just as easily cause severe problems for everyone this project involves."

Thinking about the legal complications they could have encountered on Crescentia, Jim had to admit that Bishop had a point.  "Well, good luck with your story," he told the reporter.

"Thanks."  The current song had ended, leaving Reyn unoccupied for the moment.  Bishop eyed him, then excused himself and started towards him.

"The lad seems pretty serious," Silver observed.

"I'm wondering what his motives are, frankly," Merle responded.  "I met him on my last trip to this planet, about a month ago, and he was working on the same story then.  Since the story hasn't broken in a month, I'm beginning to think he just likes following Reyn around."

"If his stomach can handle it, more power to him then," Camille said, having appeared behind Merle with a glass.  "Personally, I'd be afraid I'd end up in a specimen jar if I followed Reyn around."

Merle turned to reply to him, then quickly shut his mouth again as he eyed Camille's attire.  The Octopid was too engrossed in finishing his glass of champagne to notice, but Jim followed Merle's gaze and immediately blushed when he realized where it was directed.

"So can any of you dance?" Camille asked as he set down his empty glass.  "I want to, but I'm not asking them."  He gestured at a group of Reyn's female guests, who were eyeing the four off-worlders with obvious disdain.  "I might could deal with the racism, but not some bitch who thinks she's better than me because I'm poor."

"Sure, I can dance," Jim replied, "but there's a little problem-- I'm not a girl."

Camille looked him over.  "You'd pass for one in the right kind of dress.  Pity you rented a suit instead."  Then he looked back at the quartet of gossiping women and smirked.  "You know what?  Screw the dress.  C'mon."  He grabbed Jim's wrist and dragged him toward the open center of the room.

"What's he doing?" Jim heard Merle exclaim in consternation as Camille hauled him away.

"Camille, you're not really going to dance with me. . . in that!" Jim hissed.

"Afraid you're not good enough to keep up with me, hunh?"

"Of course I can keep up with you!  But all the other guys are dancing with women, and--"  Camille just smirked at him, until Jim sighed.  "Okay, okay.  You're on."  Fortunately, Jim was somewhat prepared; at the Academy, he had had to take a series of dance lessons meant to train him for the formal affairs military officers had to undergo.

"So do you want to lead, or should I?" Camille purred.

"I will.  You look more like a girl than I do with your hair like that," Jim retorted.  He clutched one of Camille's tentacles in his left hand and put his other hand to the Octopid's waist.

"Hmm, I don't know about that.  One look at these pants should convince just about anyone that I'm not a girl."

As he began walking Camille backwards in a box step, Jim muttered, "Trust me, I'm not looking at anything below your waist."

Jim did truly enjoy dancing, even with Camille, and he managed to forget about Reyn's snooty guests.  The music moved more quickly than what he was accustomed to, but he adapted to it easily.  He grasped Camille's left tentacle in his right hand and the Octopid spiraled out from him, then spun back into his arms.  Jim dipped him with a flourish, causing the blood to rush to Camille's pale cheeks as he flung his head back in a cascade of dark brown hair.

"Wow," Camille panted as he snapped back up into a standing position and they began another box step.  "You are pretty good.  Maybe I'll buy a dress, and we can do this more often."

"No offense, but no thanks," Jim said emphatically with an apologetic look at Silver.  The cyborg just smirked at him.

As they finished the dance, Jim was hoping the whole thing had gone unnoticed, but that hope was dispelled when he looked around and saw almost every eye in the place staring at them.  "Oh boy," he muttered under his breath.

"Bravo!" Claredon Reyn suddenly announced as he started clapping.  Jim thought he was taunting them, then he looked at Reyn and realized he actually seemed to be impressed.  The other guests, upon seeing their host applaud the renegades, began clapping as well.  Jim felt his cheeks grow hot, but Camille bowed with a flourish.

"Now," he muttered to Jim as they withdrew from the center of the room, "I really need a drink."

 

Bertrand had retreated to a small balcony overlooking the twilight-shrouded ocean when Camille and Jim began to dance; one of the last things he wanted to watch was Camille in the arms of another man, even if it were Jim.

This probably isn't a good idea, he thought glumly as he lowered himself into a chaise deck chair.  There was no one else outside, and therefore, nothing to distract him and keep him from thinking.  And he definitely did not want to think.

Bertrand had been trying not to think for years, since the day Deimos left for the Sol system in the company of her sister and a violet-eyed princess named Mars.  His practice kept him busy enough so that the only time he was free to remember Deimos was at night, as he tried to fall asleep.  Then, he traced her features over and over: her indigo eyes, hair as black as his sister's onyx raven, skin so pale it was almost paper-white.  When he finished, he'd start over with her eyes again, because if he quit thinking of how she looked, he would start thinking of what she had done to him.

Of course, the war occupied Bertrand's mind as well.  He tried not to think about that much either, but the suffering it brought his family on Coronis stayed in the back of his mind.  Now, it seemed the war was over-- and he would have given almost anything to have it back at its heights, because then his parents had still been alive, and Garnet had still been. . . sane?  Unpossessed?

Now I have nobody, Bertrand thought every time he stopped work for even an instant.  No family, for he believed wholeheartedly that he would never see Garnet again-- and no friends either, not really.  The Uffords were nice, of course, and he got on well enough with the other borders and his clients.  But they weren't his friends.  He was as close to the Revolution's crew as to any of them, and he had only known the odd trio a few days.

They aren't my friends either.  They work for me-- I pay them, and that's the only reason they're concerned with me.  He forced this reminder through his mind in the same way he had forced himself to focus only on Deimos' hair, her eyes.  I can't start caring for them, because someday they'll take other work, and I'll never see them again.

The thought was painful, but it seemed necessary because they were so eminently. . . likeable.  Even Silver, who had scared the daylights out of Bertrand when they first met, was affable.  Bertrand had to remind himself not to get attached to him, much less to Jim.  And then there was Camille.

Bertrand drew in his breath sharply at the very thought of him.  He had forced the Octopid from his mind even more violently than he had banished Deimos' leaving.  In fact, every time Camille threatened to occupy his thoughts, Bertrand concentrated on her instead, recalling each detail of the girl's face to keep from thinking about the man's.  Bertrand's sole serious experience with romance had been a chaste engagement to a female of his own species; he had no idea what to do with a sudden, crippling desire for another man.

He wanted Camille; he knew that much from the way he had felt when he saw the Octopid's attire for the evening.  But that had nothing to do with the pain which had cut through his own grief when he saw that Camille was hurt-- or the shocking fury he felt towards the unnamed man who had hurt him.

Camille doesn't care, Bertrand thought sternly.  He doesn't care what happens to himself, and he certainly doesn't care about me, or that he drives me absolutely crazy every time I'm close to him. . . .

He closed his eyes and made himself think about Deimos.  When she had left him, he'd promised that he would be true to her, always.  She'd promised too that she'd never take a lover.  He'd believed her, and he still did, really.  Her life would be consumed with guarding her princess; he could imagine her kneeling at Mars' left side as Phobos crouched at her right, ready to defend her with their lives.  Once he'd even dreamed that they were birds, diving upon her enemies with sharp beaks as she cast fire from her fingertips.

No, Deimos would have no lover, no companion save her sister and her mistress.  While he, he longed for Camille, who swore and drank and slept with men who hurt him.  It was sacrilege to the pure maiden Bertrand had once loved, for him to desire someone like that.

Once loved? Bertrand thought dimly as he traced the strands of her hair in his mind.  Don't I love her anymore?

"Nice night, isn't it?"  Bertrand jumped at the words, spoken in Camille's voice.  He slowly opened his eyes; the Octopid, having seemingly appeared out of nowhere, was leaning over the low railing of the balcony with a glass of champagne in one tentacle.  "Although this kind of party isn't exactly my scene.  I can't get drunk off champagne."

Bertrand's eyes were drawn from Deimos' hair in his mind to Camille's, just a few feet away from him.  He'd never seen it loose before, but it was absolutely beautiful that way, curling over Camille's shoulders and down his back.

"Hello?  Are you asleep?"  Camille glanced over his shoulder at him, meeting his eyes.

"No," Bertrand muttered.  "And you shouldn't try to get drunk here.  If you do something stupid, Claredon might fire me."

"Mn."  Camille drained the rest of his glass and moved back to the glass doors that opened between the balcony and the ballroom.  Bertrand thought miserably that he was going back inside, but Camille only set his glass down by the door then turned back to the balcony.

"He's absolutely nuts; you know that, right?"  To Bertrand's horror, Camille sat down on the end of the chaise, next to his legs.  Bertrand scrambled up into a sitting position, wings twitching.

"Erm, well, I suppose.  That much money would probably make anyone crazy.  But then," Bertrand added grimly, "I don't know that any of us are particularly sane."

Camille laughed.  "Maybe not."  The wounded side of his face was away from Bertrand, but the Coronid saw him bring his tentacle up to pick at it.

"Stop that!"  Bertrand grasped the tentacle and yanked it away.  "It'll never get well if you keep messing with it."  Camille looked at him a moment with a curious little smile on his thin lips, then he stood.  Bertrand felt the suckers on the tentacle mouth his hand before drawing away.

"I want to go swimming," the Octopid announced, then a moment later he was climbing over the balcony's railing.

"What?  Here?"  And he calls Claredon insane! Bertrand thought as he jumped to his feet and darted over to the railing.  Camille was already over and picking his way across the large rocks on the cliff face that dropped down to the coast.

"Yes, here."

"But how will you get back up?" Bertrand all but wailed.

"I'll worry about that later."  Camille skittered down a rock, then looked back up at him.  "Well?"

"Well what?"

"Are you coming?"

Bertrand looked over the railing, bemused.  "Me?"

"Yes, you."  Camille began to descend once more.  "Unless you want to sit up there moping.  If we're not going to drink, I don't see any point in either of us staying."

He's going to fall if I don't go help him, thought Bertrand.  And. . . he asked me to come.  He wants me to come with him. . . .  Maybe they were all insane, because Bertrand found himself hopping over the railing with the aid of his wings and following Camille.

He caught up to the Octopid, who had stopped at the edge of one rock.  Bertrand peered over, then had to spread his wings to regain his balance when he saw the sheer drop of about twenty feet to the next rock.

"I didn't know that was there," he muttered, shoving his glasses further up his nose.

"Cthulhu, you're dense," Camille sighed, flipping his hair back with a tentacle.  "You have wings, you dope.  You can fly down."

"Well, yes, but how would you get down?" Bertrand said, slightly affronted.

Camille rolled his eyes.  "I'm not that heavy."

"Y-you mean you want me to carry you?"

"It's either that, or I jump," the Octopid shrugged.

"I haven't flown in a long time-- and never with anybody. . . and--"

Camille raised an eyebrow.  "Do you want me to jump?"

Bertrand swallowed hard.  "No.  I suppose I can manage."  He took a step towards Camille, who smirked rather triumphantly.

"I think you can carry me a few yards at least," the Octopid confirmed.  He curled his "arms" around Bertrand's neck, then wrapped a leg-tentacle about each of his calves.  As Camille pressed against him, Bertrand was certain his pounding heart was going to give up the ghost and fail right then and there.

"Are you that afraid you'll drop me?" Camille murmured.

"Wh-what?"

"You're shaking," the Octopid whispered as he rested his chin on Bertrand's shoulder.

Bertrand slowly put his arms about Camille's waist, then tightened them against his back.  This is the closest I've ever been to him. . . to anyone, he thought, closing his eyes briefly.  He spread his wings, then propelled them both into the air with a little hop.  To his relief, even with the added (though negligible, considering his thinness) weight of Camille, it was easy to stay aloft.  In fact-- it felt really good.

"Cthulhu fhtagn!" Camille breathed against his neck.  "Go higher!"

Although he had intended to just flutter down to the ocean, Bertrand couldn't resist obeying that breathless command.  Clutching Camille against him, Bertrand beat his wings against the air to raise them higher as he flew away from Reyn's house and towards the ocean.  Camille curled all of his leg-tentacles around Bertrand's legs and clung to him; that feeling of the Octopid against him was even more exhilarating to Bertrand than the feeling of flying, really flying, again after several years.

Bertrand sailed higher, then tried a little swoop.  Camille squealed like a girl and turned his head to look down.

"Bertrand," he murmured, tilting his head back and looking up at the Coronid.  Bertrand very nearly dropped him.

Bertrand's wings were already tired after the years of disuse, and he was forced to land; otherwise he would have been content to stay in the air all night since it meant he could hold Camille, and even more, make Camille happy.  He stumbled a bit as his feet came in contact with the sand at the edge of the ocean.

"I'm out of practice," he muttered apologetically as Camille untwined his tentacles from his legs.  Bertrand reluctantly let him go, and Camille slipped away from him.

"I wish I could do that," Camille sighed.  "I'd give anything to be able to fly."

"Well, you get to swim instead."

"Yeah, but anyone can swim."  Camille sat down on a rock and began pulling off the glove-like coverings on his "feet."

"I can't."

"You can't swim?"

"No."  Bertrand was sorry he admitted it when he saw the incredulous look Camille was giving him.  The Octopid stood and pulled off his suit jacket.

"Well, you can learn.  I don't think I can learn to fly."  He started unbuttoning his shirt; Bertrand looked away when he realized that once it was off, Camille would be left only in the impossibly tight pants.

"I don't want to learn."

"Yes you do."  Camille dropped his shirt on the rock next to his jacket.  "Come on, I'll teach you."

"What?  You mean. . . here?"

"Yup.  Take your clothes off."

"No!  I'm not--"  Bertrand made the mistake of looking at Camille then and ended up staring helplessly at him, stripped to his waist.  Camille saw his gaze and folded his arm-tentacles over his sides protectively.

"Say word one about the gills, and I'll throw you in and leave you here."

"I'm not going to take my clothes off!" Bertrand protested.  "Th-they'll get messed up!"

"They'll get more messed up if you swim in them."  He unbuttoned his pants and started pulling them off.

"Camille!" Bertrand yelped, looking away again quickly.

"Contrary to popular belief, I do wear underwear," the Octopid retorted.  "You can look at me without defiling your virgin eyes, I promise."  He stalked into Bertrand's line of vision-- he wasn't wearing much underwear, the Coronid noticed-- and tugged at Bertrand's jacket.  "C'mon.  Off."

Bertrand weakly let him take off the jacket as he himself gazed down at where Camille's thighs split into tentacles.  He might have expected the sight to be grotesque, but instead he thought Camille was the most beautiful creature he'd ever seen.

Camille was also unbuttoning his pants.

"Hey, I can do that myself!"  Bertrand jerked away from him, finding that Camille had already disposed of his shirt.

"Well if you're just going to stand there daydreaming, we'll never get anywhere!" Camille snapped.  "Stalling won't help!  I don't care how scared you are; you're getting in that water!"

"I am not scared."  Blushing darkly, Bertrand stepped out of his pants and shoes.  He carefully laid them with his other clothes, then was left glaring defensively at Camille in his shorts.

"Sure.  Like I can't see through the whole 'But my clothes will get dirty!' thing."  Camille rolled his eyes and stalked over to the ocean.  "Come on."

Bertrand took off his glasses and laid them with his clothes, then slowly approached the surf.  He had expected the water to be cold, but instead it was as warm as bath water as it rushed over his bare feet.

"See?  It doesn't hurt."  Camille actually stuck his tongue out at him, then waded out past the point where the waves broke, until he was almost waist-deep in water.  A swell rose above his waist and dampened the ends of his hair, then receded.

"Come on, before I start making chicken jokes," Camille yelled over the sound of the waves.

Bertrand trudged slowly out to him, jumping a little each time a wave touched a new part of his body.  He finally reached Camille, clenching the tips of his wings in his fists.

"Now what?"

"The first thing you need to learn is how to float," Camille declared.  "If you can float, you won't drown."

"You aren't very comforting."

Camille prodded his wings with a tentacle, frowning.  "I guess you can still float on your back with these.  Oh well, we'll find out."  He laid his tentacle against the small of Bertrand's back.  "Lean back and push your feet off the bottom."

Immediately, Bertrand froze.  "I-I can't!"

"I'll hold you up.  You won't sink, I promise."

"B-but--"

"What, don't you trust me?"  Camille smirked up at him, appearing slightly blurry to Bertrand without his glasses.

"No, I don't!  You told me not to, remember?"

"Oh.  Yeah."  The Octopid's smile faltered slightly.  "Well. . . trust me this time," he decided as he tightened his tentacle around Bertrand's waist.

"A-all right."  Bertrand closed his eyes and leaned back, shaking once more.  Finally, he shoved his feet off the ocean floor.  It was all he could do to keep from thrashing as he felt the water come in contact with his back and wings.

"Don't let me go!" he growled at Camille through clenched teeth.  He felt his feet rise even as his back lowered, until they were level with his head and he was floating on the surface of the water.

"I won't," Camille murmured, "ever."

Bertrand forced himself to open his eyes and found himself staring up in a deep, navy blue sky.  He relaxed slightly, making himself breathe evenly, as his body shifted gently up and down with the motion of the water.

"See?"  Camille leaned blurrily into his line of vision.  "You didn't sink."  He put his other arm-tentacle across Bertrand's stomach; the Coronid drew in his breath at the feeling of the wet suckers against his skin.

"I bet you could even swim on your back if you used your wings," the Octopid went on.  "Just flap 'em and kick your legs-- but not too hard or you'll hit me.  I'll steer you."

"Y-you sure?"  Camille nodded and started moving farther out from shore, towing Bertrand along with him.  Bertrand drew in his breath, then gently moved his wings in the water as he kicked with his legs.  They both were instantly propelled several feet forward.

"That works better than I thought!"  Camille slowly withdrew his tentacle from Bertrand's stomach.  "Try it on your own; I'm afraid you'll clobber me with a wing.  But don't freak out-- I'll be right with you."

"O-okay."  Bertrand felt the tentacle against his back withdraw, leaving him floating on his own.  His disappointment at losing Camille's touch was enough to keep him from worrying about staying afloat, and he began to "swim" farther out without any trouble.  He couldn't see Camille anymore, which worried him slightly until he felt a tentacle brush his side lightly as the Octopid swam past.

I want him to touch me again, Bertrand thought breathlessly as he swam.  I want him to touch me all over--  The thought of those suckers on him sent the blood rushing to Bertrand's groin, leaving him supremely thankful that Camille wasn't watching him anymore.

Bertrand righted himself in the water to hide his sudden arousal-- and then realized that his feet couldn't touch the ocean floor any longer.  He gave an undignified squawk as he started to sink, thrashing his wings.

Then he felt Camille's tentacles around his waist as the Octopid's head emerged from the water right in front of him.  Bertrand yelped and grabbed at him frantically.

"Calm down!" Camille snapped, pulling him closer.  "You'll drown us both!"

"But I can't reach--"  Bertrand looked anxiously at the shore, which seemed very far away.

"You're fine.  Just hold on to me and move your legs.  It's called treading water-- it's like swimming in place."

Bertrand nodded weakly, wrapping his arms around Camille's shoulders.  Camille drew his tentacles along Bertrand's sides then curled them about his waist once more.  Bertrand managed to breathe evenly again, then almost lost it once more when he looked into the sea-green eyes regarding him from less than a foot away.

"You okay?" Camille murmured.  Bertrand stared at his mouth, the slightly-parted thin lips glistening with salt water.

"Y-yes."  Bertrand beat his wings once, which nearly lifted them both out of the water entirely.  Camille clung to him and laughed.

"Those things are pretty useful."  He laid his head on Bertrand's shoulder and stopped moving his leg-tentacles.  "See if you can keep us up."

"Y-you shouldn't make me do all the work," Bertrand stammered, delighted.  By barely twitching his wings, he could easily keep them both from sinking; he was able to concentrate instead on the feeling of Camille in his arms.  He tentatively pressed his lips to the Octopid's wet hair, so softly that he hoped Camille wouldn't be able to feel it.

The tip of Camille's right arm tentacle trailed slowly up and down Bertrand's back as they floated.  Bertrand hesitantly moved his fingers against Camille's own back; the Octopid's skin felt cool even in the warm water.

"So do you forgive me for prying into your cargo?" Camille murmured after a moment.  Bertrand could feel the Octopid's lips brush his neck as he spoke.

"I suppose," Bertrand said, trying to sound facetious, although he felt that right then, he'd forgive Camille anything.

"So from now on, you'll tell me what to do with my tentacles. . . and my mouth?"

Bertrand trembled and tried to think of how to reply, then a light in the corner of his eye caught his attention.  He looked back towards shore; the light was coming from the blur that he knew was Reyn's mansion, up on the cliff.  As best as Bertrand could tell, someone had turned on a light on the balcony.

"I think they're looking for us," he muttered, squinting.  For the first time, he wondered if they could be seen from the mansion.

"Let 'em look," Camille mumbled.  "For all they know, we left early."

"But I didn't say goodbye to Claredon.  That's rude--"

"You worry too much."  Camille lifted his head and looked back up at him.  "And what're you gonna do about it now?  Turn up dripping wet?"

"I. . . guess you have a point.  Still, it must be nearly over now, and Silver and Jim won't know where we are."

Camille sighed.  "Let's go back to the ship then.  They'll look for us there."  He pulled away from Bertrand except for a guiding tentacle on his back.  "Try swimming back face-down."

It was harder that way without the help of his wings, but Bertrand managed to make it back to shore.  He stopped for breath as soon his feet could touch bottom again, but Camille swam on and waded out of the water.  Bertrand wished for perfect vision more than ever before as he watched the blurry shape wring out his hair.

Bertrand finally joined him on the beach and gingerly gathered up his clothing, trying not to get it wet.  Camille had his suit in a crumpled, dripped-upon ball.

"They're not going to take that back," Bertrand observed, putting his glasses back on.

Camille shrugged.  "I'll keep it then.  I might want to wear it to torture myself someday.  Too bad the deposit was highway robbery, though."

"I'll pay for it," Bertrand said as they started walking along the coast towards the docks.  "You did it for me, anyway."

"Well, I would have gone swimming even if you hadn't-- but if you want to pay for it, I won't stop you," Camille smirked.

Bertrand didn't trust his tired, sodden wings to carry them both, so they walked all the way back to the docks, pausing when they were mostly dry to redress.  This was an immense relief to Bertrand, who had been worried about what Jim and Silver would say when he and Camille turned up on the Revolution in their underwear.

Jim was frantic enough as it was.  When they trudged up the ramp to the deck, he met them halfway.  He had apparently been back from the party for some time, for he had changed out of his dress clothes.

"Where were you?" he cried.  "You just disappeared, and--"  He stopped and looked over their bedraggled appearance.  "Uh, did you fall in or something?"

"We went swimming," Camille announced.  "Did you know he couldn't swim?"

"No, but--"  Jim followed them back up to the deck, where Silver was watching with something of a smirk.  "Bertrand, if you can't swim, how did you--"

"I taught him," Camille interrupted.  He dumped his suit jacket on the deck and stretched.  "Is there anything to eat around here?  I'm starving."

"There's leftovers in the galley," Silver told him.  Camille disappeared below deck without another word, leaving Bertrand to watch after him sadly.

It didn't mean anything to him, he thought.  He's back to not even speaking to me.

He was suddenly aware that Jim and Silver were looking at him curiously.  "I'm going to take a shower and go to bed," Bertrand muttered.  "I'll see you in the morning."

Bertrand left his clothes in the cabin he would have to share with Camille, then showered as quickly as he could.  As he emerged, relieved to be free of the salt that had dried on his skin, he could hear Camille banging around in the galley.  Bertrand forced himself to turn the other way and go back into their cabin.

He fell asleep with surprisingly little difficulty, but he woke some time later when he heard Camille slide open the door to their cabin.  Bertrand was lying on his stomach with one wing draped over his face, affording him the chance to peek through his feathers and watch Camille without the Octopid knowing he was awake.

Camille had obviously been doing more drinking than eating; he stumbled slightly as he dropped his crumpled suit on the floor.  He had a towel wrapped about his waist, apparently having come from the shower as well.  He stubbed a tentacle on the wall, swore softly, then rummaged through a bag until he found his nightshirt.  Bertrand expected him to pull it on then remove the towel, and was understandably surprised when Camille let the towel fall to the floor first.

Bertrand bit his lip, feeling terribly guilty but unable to stop watching.  Still, he couldn't see very well due to the combination of the dim glow from the room's nightlight and his own poor vision.  Camille stretched and finally pulled his nightshirt on over his head.  He tied his damp hair back messily and started to sink down onto his hammock, but to Bertrand's surprise, he abruptly stood again and looked over at the Coronid.

Bertrand clamped his eyes shut, even though he knew Camille couldn't have been able to tell that he was awake.  He heard the Octopid trudge closer, then stop next to him.  Apparently, he had crouched down next to Bertrand; the Coronid could smell the alcohol on him, mixed with the more innocent smell of soap.

"Hey," Camille whispered.  "You awake?"

Bertrand wanted to say yes, but he didn't dare move because Camille might realize he had been watching.  After a moment, Bertrand felt cool air on his face as Camille gently pushed his wing back to look at him.

He's actually checking to see if I'm asleep, Bertrand thought, hoping the prickles of heat he felt on his face weren't noticeable.  He forced himself to keep his eyes shut and the breaths from his slightly parted lips steady.  Camille laid a tentacle along his cheek; Bertrand felt the four suckers on it move independently against his skin.  It was all he could do not to lean his head into that touch.  Then, suddenly, Camille bent his own head and put his lips to Bertrand's.

He's kissing me-- he's kissing me! Bertrand thought wildly.  He could taste gin on Camille's tongue as the Octopid thrust it between Bertrand's parted lips.  He's obviously drunk, so he doesn't mean it-- but still. . . .

Camille moaned faintly, holding Bertrand's head still with his tentacle as he probed his mouth, then he finally drew back.  Bertrand could hear him breathing heavily as he crouched there, then scrambled backward almost frantically.  There was a creaking sound which Bertrand presumed meant Camille had gotten into his hammock.  When he finally risked opening one eye slightly, Bertrand saw the Octopid lying on his side in the other hammock, his back to him.

As he waited for sleep to return, Bertrand earnestly tried to think of Deimos, and failed completely.  Her dark eyes constantly shifted into light ones with horizontal pupils, and her delicate mouth became Camille's, not kissing him lightly as she had always done, but deeply, hard.

 

Jim woke early the next morning and went above deck to check over the ship before their departure from Seven.  He found Camille already up, leaning over the side of the ship and watching the sun rise.

"I never would have guessed you were an early riser," Jim commented as he joined the Octopid.

Camille cast him a disparaging look.  "I'm not, usually.  I just woke up early and couldn't go back to sleep."

"I'm amazed you're not hung over, as much as you drank last night."

"I don't get hangovers.  At least not very often."  The Octopid seemed to want to change the subject, and he nodded out towards the ocean.  "It's sort of pretty, isn't it?"

Jim looked out at the water; it was reflecting the early sunlight luminously.  The waves were an almost iridescent mixture of pink, yellow, and blue-green as they beat against the side of the Revolution.

"Yeah," Jim said, "it is."  He glanced at Camille, profiled against the light sky, more carefully.  "Are you all right?"

"Sure," Camille said without hesitation.  He was quiet for a moment, tapping his tentacles against the edge of the deck, then he asked abruptly, "So what are you going to do?"

"Hunh?  Do about what?"

"How are you going to keep your boyfriend a secret when Captain Catbabe turns up?"

Jim sighed; he'd forgotten all about Captain Amelia.  "Oh, that.  I. . . I don't know.  I guess I'll have to tell Bertrand about the whole situation, because she'll be coming to his office."

"Let's hope she doesn't turn up at the boarding house," Camille snorted.  "I'd like to see you tell Mrs. Ufford that she can't mention Silver because he's a pirate."

"Ugh," Jim agreed.

Later, he and Silver returned their rented suits while Bertrand visited Reyn at his museum; the lawyer had been fretting all through breakfast that his sudden departure from the party would be considered rude.  Jim had a feeling that Reyn hadn't even noticed, but he didn't say anything.  Camille disappeared on his own, promising he'd be back by the time they were ready to leave.

"Ye'd better," Silver retorted as they separated, "or we're leavin' ye."  As he and Jim walked with Morph towards the formalwear shop, the cyborg said grimly, "I still don't trust him.  What's he goin' off by himself fer?"

"I don't know," Jim muttered.  He really didn't want to be worrying about Camille too, on top of his concerns about Amelia.  "He said he got his suit wet last night, so he wouldn't get his deposit back. . . guess he didn't see any point in coming with us if he's going to keep it."

"He'd better not try anythin'," was Silver's only reply.

However, Camille returned to the ship soon after they did, carrying a carton of bottles and something wrapped in paper.

"Since you keep griping about me drinking all your liquor," he said sharply, "I bought you some more."

"Yeah, and ye'll probably just drink all a' that, too," Silver returned, folding his arms.

"No, I'm trying to cut back.  Cross my heart."  Camille duly set the carton down to draw a tentacle in an X over his chest.

"Unh hunh," Silver said skeptically.

"What else did you buy?" Jim asked, more to forestall further argument than out of curiosity.

"A shell, from a souvenir shop."  Camille unwrapped his package to reveal a seashell about the size of Jim's palm.  It was smooth and curved on one side, but hollow on the other, with a thin partition of shell over one half of its underside.  "It's called a 'lady's slipper.'"

"Hunh."  Jim poked it.  "I guess it does look sorta like a shoe."

"I used to keep live ones as pets when I was a kid," Camille said thoughtfully, looking down at the peach-mottled shell.  "They always died though."  Jim tried to imagine Camille as the kind of child he himself had been, the kind who would keep pets. . . and he failed miserably.  Camille shoved the shell into his pocket and carried the bottles down to the galley.

He was still below deck when Bertrand returned to the ship looking even more flustered than usual.  He refused to discuss his visit to Reyn, other than to mutter that he should have known such a man would have no sense of propriety; the lawyer then shut himself in his cabin before their launch in the hopes of avoiding air sickness.

Once the Revolution was in the air, and Silver and Camille seemed to have things under control, Jim went below deck for the unpleasant task of explaining the Amelia situation to Bertrand.  He knocked gently on the cabin door, at first receiving no response.  Maybe he's asleep, Jim considered before trying another slightly louder knock.  This time, he heard Bertrand's voice quietly telling him to come in.

"Uh, are you okay?" Jim asked nervously as he poked his head in the room, half expecting that the lawyer was sick again.  However, he seemed to be all right; he was sitting in his hammock looking down at something in his hand.

"Yes."  He looked up as Jim came into the room.  "Did you know that he had this?"

"Had what?"  As Jim walked closer, he realized that it was the letter to Bertrand's parents, which Camille had taken on Coronis.  "Uh, yeah, I thought. . . he was going to give it back to you," he half-lied.

"Oh."  Bertrand looked down at the letter, now considerably more crumpled than when Camille had first found it.  "He must have dropped it; it was lying under his hammock."  He bit his lip a moment, then refolded it and, leaning forward, laid it under Camille's hammock once more.

"I need to talk to you about something," Jim said slowly once Bertrand had straightened up again.  Jim sat in Camille's hammock, facing the Coronid.  "You know I told Reyn that I was expecting someone to look for me on Crescentia?"  When Bertrand nodded, Jim went on, "Well, it's. . . it's about her.  She's my former captain, and I think she'll want me to take her to her home planet."

"Well, it's all right with me," Bertrand shrugged.  "You don't have to ask me every time you--"

"That's not it," Jim interrupted.  "It's just that. . . she's going to look for me at your office, so when she comes to talk to you about it, I need you to do something for me."

"What's that?"

"Don't mention Silver, whatever you do," Jim pleaded.  "I-- I can't tell you why not; just don't say anything about him.  As far as she's concerned, Camille and I-- and Morph, she knows about Morph-- are the only crew on this ship."

Bertrand gave him a long, searching look, making Jim feel nervous around him for the first time.  It also made Jim fervently hope that he wouldn't ever be in a position to be cross-examined by the Coronid.  "Is it because of something like Reyn's shipments?" Bertrand finally asked.

"No, not exactly."  Jim looked down at his feet and swallowed.  "It's. . . worse."  He risked another glance at Bertrand and knew immediately that he was going to have to say something more convincing.

"You said we were the best runners you'd ever had," he said more strongly.  "If you tell Captain Amelia about Silver, that'll be the end of that."

"Just tell me what he did," Bertrand countered.  "Obviously, this captain of yours is pursuing him for something."

"He saved my life, probably more than once!" Jim retorted.  "He bought me this ship, and gave up almost everything for me.  That more than makes up for anything--"

"Jim, please.  What did he do?"

Jim finally relented, scowling at the lawyer to hide his apprehension.  "He led a mutiny on Captain Amelia's ship."

"He what--"

"And," Jim went on, "Camille's lover-- the one that sliced his face open-- was one of the mutineers."  He hated that he had to play on Bertrand's already strained emotions, but he had a feeling it would be the only way to keep the Coronid on his side.  And better his emotions than mine, for once, he thought guiltily.  "If you tell Captain Amelia about Silver, I'll have to tell her that Scroop's turned up again too.  Camille will just love being interrogated by her about that."

Bertrand gave him a wounded look that made Jim feel acutely aware that what he was doing amounted to emotional blackmail-- but then he reminded himself that he was doing it to protect Silver.

"I thought you said Camille killed him," Bertrand said slowly.

Jim shrugged.  "He shot him, but we never found his body.  She'll want to look for it, at least.  And if he's not dead. . . he won't be happy to see Camille, or any of us, again when we find him."  But of course he is dead, he added silently. He has to be.  Almost immediately a part of him responded, Yeah, and you were so sure he was dead the first time, too. . . .

"Dammit," Bertrand muttered, the first time Jim had ever heard him swear.  He clutched his wingtips so tightly, his knuckles turned white despite his dark skin.  "Fine," he finally said resignedly.  "I won't tell her about Silver.  I'll consider it repayment for you moving Reyn's cargo.  But after this, we're even-- I don't care how good you are as runners; I can't keep doing you favors."

After we risked our lives going to Coronis for you, then moved practically illegal cargo for your insane client, you can't do favors for us? Jim thought angrily.  I bet you'd say something different if Camille were the one who was asking.  Still, he didn't voice any of his thoughts; fighting would only make the situation worse.

"Fine," he returned brusquely as he stood up.  "We're even."

Chapter Text

They reached Crescentia around mid-afternoon, thanks to the difference in local time between there and Seven.  Jim was exhausted by the time they had docked; making the eight-hour trip twice in two days left him feeling as if he had been on his feet for a week instead.

He had hoped that despite his premonition on Montressor, Amelia wouldn't turn up, or at least that she would wait a few days before doing so.  However, he was to have no such luck.  As he was putting out the gangplank that led from the Revolution's deck to the dock, he noticed a crowd passing, freshly disembarked from the afternoon run of the Montressor-Crescentia shuttle. . . and Amelia was right at its head.

"Oh great," Jim groaned, ducking down behind the side of his ship.  Fortunately, Amelia didn't seem to see him; when he risked another look, he was just in time to see her disappearing into the throngs of people headed deeper into Crescentia.

If he had thought there was any chance Merle wouldn't go to his office that afternoon, Jim would have kept his mouth shut about seeing her; it would have bought him an evening's peace at least.  However, he knew there was no way the lawyer would just go home with hours left in the working day, so he slumped against the side of the ship and announced his news when the others approached the gangplank to disembark.

"Captain Amelia's here," Jim told them.  "I just saw her get off the shuttle, so I guess she's going to the office now."

"Dagon, I thought she was going to take a few days," Camille grumbled.  "I don't care what's happening on her planet; I'm not leaving for Mau tonight."

"I thought you were the only one going, Jim," Bertrand said sharply.  "You didn't say--"

"Well, I can't fly the ship by myself!" Jim snapped.  He was at the end of his patience as far as the Coronid was concerned.  "And you know Silver can't go, so Camille has to.  If you need anything done while we're gone, Silver can handle it.  Right?"  He glowered at the cyborg, who chuckled softly.

"Calm down, Jimbo."  He patted Jim's shoulder with his organic hand.  "Course I can take care a' things here.  And Tentacles, I'm sure the cap'n won't make ye leave tonight.  She's strict, but she ain't heartless."  Jim managed a smile at him; as always, Silver made him feel better.

"One look at ye lot, and she'd see yer all over-tired anyway," the cyborg went on as they disembarked.  "Ain't no way to fly a ship.  Merle, can ye tell her that they'll take her first thing in the mornin'?  And for the stars' sake, keep her away from the boardin' house.  Put her up in a nice hotel if ye have to, and take it outta my pay."

"Maybe I should go with you--" Jim started to say to Bertrand.

"I believe I'm competent enough to handle the situation," the lawyer retorted, making Jim scowl.

"I didn't mean that.  I meant--"

"Lad, I think ye'd better come on home with me," Silver interrupted.  "Ye too, Tentacles.  She can't make ye fly out tonight if she don't see ye, after all."

"That's an excellent plan," Bertrand muttered.  "Frankly, I've had enough of you to last me for a while.  All of you," he finished with a dark look at Camille, then he stalked off with his suitcase towards the business district of Crescentia, not looking back again.

". . . wow," Jim said dimly.  He looked at Camille, but before he could open his mouth, the Octopid held up a tentacle to indicate his innocence.

"Don't look at me.  I haven't spoken to him all day.  I thought he was just pissed at you."

As they walked towards the boarding house, Jim told him, "He found that letter of his you took on Coronis.  Maybe he's mad about that."

"Damn," Camille muttered.  Jim wondered why he still had the letter at all, but decided not to ask.  It would probably just start another fight, he thought resignedly.

"Like I said, I think we're all just tired," Silver suggested.  "Don't worry 'bout the lawyer; I'll sort him out while ye two're gone."

"Good luck," Jim grumbled.  He had told Silver about Merle's reaction to the mutiny with some trepidation, but Silver had shrugged it off.  Nevertheless, Jim didn't think the Coronid would react very well to being "sorted out" by the former mutineer.

As soon as they reached the boarding house, Silver all but drove Jim upstairs to bed.  "Yer takin' a nap whether ye like it or not," he ordered.

"You're acting just like Mom," Jim griped playfully even as he pulled off his boots.  "But fine.  Don't let me sleep through dinner though."

"I'll leave Morphy with ye; there ain't a chance he'll sleep through a meal."

Even with the shapeshifter alarm clock, Jim was a bit late for the evening meal.  As he took his place at the table between Silver and Camille, he noticed that Merle still hadn't returned from his office.  Ordinarily it wouldn't have concerned Jim, but now he worried that there was some problem with Amelia.

There was still no sign of the lawyer when Jim went to bed, early despite his nap.  He felt like he had just dozed off when Silver came in to their room with Morph, shutting the door quietly.

"Ye awake, Jimbo?" the cyborg asked softly.

"Yeah.  Sorta."  Jim yawned and sat up as Silver rested on the edge of his bed.  "Everything okay?"

"Yeah.  The lawyer's back; he said the cap'n wants ye to meet her at his office first thing in the mornin'."

"Oh boy."  Jim leaned his head on Silver's shoulder in an exaggerated display of exhaustion.  "Does Camille know?"

"Yeah, he was still up."  Silver reached up his organic hand to stroke Jim's messy hair as Morph stole his spot on the pillow.  "Go back to sleep, lad.  Ye need yer rest."

"I wish you could go too."  Jim impulsively put his arms around the cyborg.  "I'll miss you."

"It'll only be fer a couple days, I'm sure," Silver told him, his hand still in Jim's hair.  "Just. . . promise me ye'll be careful, Jimbo."

Even though he spoke lightly, Jim detected the concern he was trying to hide, and he hugged Silver all the more tightly.  "I will.  I won't jump in front of any crazy girls with bracelets this time, I promise."

Silver chuckled faintly, but he sounded serious when he said, "Stars, I hope it don't come to that."  He put his mechanical arm around Jim and embraced him.  "Maybe it's soon enough that it won't be that bad there."  He held Jim a moment, then gently made him sit up.  "Now get some sleep."  He surprised Jim by bending his head and kissing him hard.

"Aww, do I have to?" Jim sulked somewhat breathlessly afterwards.

"Aye."  Silver got up and went to his own bed after giving Jim a smart tap on the head.  As Jim reluctantly lay down next to Morph, the cyborg asked, "Do ye still have that sphere thing a' Rikku's?"

"Yeah."

"Good.  Take it with ye to Mau."

"I will," Jim promised, adding silently, I just hope I won't have to use it.

 

Although Jim and Camille went down to breakfast early the next morning, Merle had already left for his office.  After they ate, they said goodbye to Silver on the porch.

"Ye want to take Morphy with ye," Silver asked Jim, "or leave him here?"

"I think he's better off here with you.  Just in case."  Jim patted the shapeshifter, then looked up at Silver.  "I'll see you in a few days."

"Yeah.  Take care of yerself, lad."  Jim hugged him tightly, then reluctantly moved away from him.

"Come on," Camille grumbled.  "We're already late."

Carrying his luggage, Jim obediently followed him down the steps and out into the street.  When he looked back at the house again, Silver and Morph had already gone back inside.

Amelia was already at Merle's office when they arrived, carrying their luggage.  She had been sitting in one of the chairs across from the lawyer's desk, legs crossed and one foot shaking impatiently, but she jumped to her feet when they came him.

"Captain Hawkins," she said with a wry smile, although Jim could see a hint of distracted concern in her green eyes.

"Was it true then," Jim asked, dispensing with a greeting, "what we heard about Mau?"  Immediately, her expression grew grim.

"I don't know for certain, but there are rumors of civil unrest.  Delbert knew, but he didn't tell me-- he didn't want to worry me."  She sighed heavily.  "The poor addle-brained man.  I promised him we'd be back four days from today, so that only leaves us two days on Mau-- but I think that will be enough."

"What do you need to do there anyway?" Camille asked, folding his arm-tentacles.  "What can you do?"  Jim saw Bertrand grimace from behind his desk, obviously thinking of Coronis.

"See if the rumors are true," she shrugged.  "And if they are, I need to find my family and evacuate them, if they're still there.  Only my aunt and uncle remained on the planet at the time I left.  They may have moved off-world already, but I need to make sure."  She looked down at her gloved hands and slowly clenched them.  "I suppose the girls will never see Mau after all."

"They might," Jim protested.  "It might not be as bad as--"  He broke off guiltily.

"As Coronis?"  Merle spoke for the first time.  "Amelia told me about the other planets my sister mentioned-- Chuu and Mermaid.  They've both been all but decimated.  Chuu is practically uninhabitable.  Let's hope Mau is only as bad as Coronis."  He sounded angry, but Jim only saw resignation on his dark face.

"Well, let's get started," Jim said.  "It should take us a full twenty-four standard hours to get there, if conditions are good."

Bertrand finally stood up.  "Captain Amelia, if you don't mind-- I'd like to speak to them alone for a moment."

Oh great, Jim thought. He's probably going to yell at us again.  He gave Amelia the kind of pleading look she had quickly learned to ignore on the Legacy.

"Certainly," she told the lawyer, not even glancing at Jim.  "I'll be outside."

As soon as she left, Bertrand walked around his desk to them.  "I. . . I want to apologize for how I acted yesterday," he said, startling Jim.  "I'm sorry, and I don't want to be rid of you.  Any of you.  So be careful, all right?"

"Sure," Camille said lightly.

"I'm sorry too," Jim told the lawyer abruptly, "for what I. . . that I'm making you keep Silver a secret.  And for how I'm making you--"

"It's all right," Bertrand interrupted, his cheeks flushing.  "I would do the same thing for someone I. . . I love."  He took off his glasses and concentrated on rubbing them with his wing.  "And I didn't breathe a word to her about him, or even about the boarding house.  He's perfectly safe."

"Thanks," Jim said.  Bertrand nodded and shoved his glasses back on as Jim turned to leave.

"Wait a second," Camille said suddenly.  He stuck a tentacle into his sash and pulled out the shell he had bought on Seven.  "I was gonna take this with me, but there's no point in lugging it around."  He tossed it at Bertrand who barely was able to make a scramble to catch it.  "Keep it for me, will you?"

"What is it?" the lawyer asked, blushing again.  Camille moved closer to him and prodded it, resting in Bertrand's hand, with a tentacle.

"A shell.  I bought it 'cause it reminded me of my childhood, and it wasn't until later that I wondered why I wanted to remember that in the first place."  He smirked and touched Bertrand's fingers with his tentacle, closing them over the shell.  "Maybe it'll make you happier than it does me."

The lawyer looked down at the tentacle resting on his fingers, then suddenly clutched it with his free hand and looked into the Octopid's face instead.  "Please be careful.  You're acting like you're not coming back."

"Trust me; I wouldn't die for my own planet, much less someone else's."  Camille grinned up at him.  "Tell you what.  I'll come back if you'll take me flying again when I do."

Jim watched the exchange with surprise and some amusement as Bertrand nodded and murmured, "A-all right."  Camille brushed his tentacle over the lawyer's thumb, the way he had done to Jim when they first met, then let go of his hand.

"Come on, 'Captain Hawkins,'" he said facetiously.  "Let's get this over with."

 

As Jim had predicted, it took a full "day" and "night" of flying to reach Mau.  Despite his protests that she was a passenger and shouldn't have to work, Amelia took a shift piloting the Revolution while the other two slept.  When Jim got up from his bed, which felt miserably empty without Silver in it, Mau was in view, though they still had a couple hours of flight to reach it.  He joined Amelia in the bow, where she was watching the approaching golden light.

"You know, when I asked you to show me how you handle your ship, I didn't expect it would be in this situation," she said dryly.  "But still, you've done an excellent job.  You're a credit to the Academy."

"Well, I don't know about that," he murmured.  Not if they knew where the ship came from.

"Where did you dig up the Octopid?" Amelia asked.  "He doesn't look exactly stable."

"He's all right-- he's proved that," Jim promised her.  "He does drink a lot, but it just makes him even more sarcastic than usual."

"And what about your lawyer friend?"

"He was the first person who would hire us.  That's how we ended up on Coronis-- Lead Crow is. . . was his sister," he murmured.

Amelia stared at him.  "The rebel girl?  Goodness.  No wonder the man's such a mess.  Well, I'm grateful to him then.  I wouldn't have known about Mau otherwise."

Once Camille was awake and on deck, Jim went below to check the readouts from the ship's computer.  Amelia followed him out of interest in seeing the technology the ship possessed, some of it unique to Spira.  Jim hoped fervently that nothing in the galley, where the computer was located, would give away Silver's presence.

"It looks like the weather's clear over Bastet," Jim muttered, referring to the planet's capital, the city where Amelia's relatives lived.  "It's mid-morning there.  The moon will be right over the city when we reach it."

"Moon?"  Amelia pushed past him to stare at the computer.  "Mau doesn't have a moon!"

"Well, there's something there."  Jim pointed at the monitor.  "Look, there's a huge mass orbiting the planet."

Amelia squinted.  "It must be a ship."

"A ship?  That big?"

"Unless Mau has gained a moon since my last visit, it has to be," Amelia said sardonically.  "I suppose you should try to hail them."

"All right."  Jim sent out a hailing signal on all frequencies, although he still wasn't positive that the mass the computer had detected was a ship.  It's bigger than the largest trading vessels! he thought skeptically.

But then his hail got a response.

"It is a ship," he breathed as he opened the communication channel.  As he watched the computer's monitor, Amelia looking over his shoulder, he found an impeccably dressed, dark-skinned man's face looking back.  He appeared to be partly Mauan: he had slightly pointed ears and sharp teeth, though his features were not as wholly feline as Amelia's.

When he spoke, however, it was in a definite purr.  "Hello there," he said seductively, making Jim start until he realized the man was looking past him at Amelia.  Jim glanced up at his former captain in time to see her glare.

"Who are you?" she snapped.  "And why are you orbiting this planet?"

"I'm your dream come true; can't you tell?" the man replied with a charming smile.

"Cat, let me talk to them," a rather impatient male voice said before Amelia could reply (which was probably fortunate, Jim decided).  The face which replaced the Mauan seemed to be of Jim's race, though still with darker skin than his.

"We're the mining vessel Red Dwarf," the new man told them.  He spoke in a heavily accented voice with a dialect similar to Silver's.  "Who're you?"

"The Revolution," Jim replied.  "We're--"

"Wait a second," the man from the Red Dwarf interrupted.  "Are you a cat?"  He was talking to Amelia as well; Jim was beginning to feel ignored.

"I'm a Mauan, yes," Amelia said coolly.  "Now, why are you orbiting my planet?"

The man sighed.  "This is gonna take some explaining.  Maybe you'd better just come aboard when you get closer."

"Are you daft?" Amelia snapped.  "Or do you think we are?  We're not coming anywhere near you until you explain who you are!  For all we know, you're working for Galaxia!"

"Eh?  Who's that?"

"Never mind," Jim said as he finished running a scan with the computer.  He told Amelia with some amazement, "I think they're the only two people on the ship.  The computer couldn't find any other signs of life."

"Only two people on that huge ship?  Let me see!"  Amelia bent over Jim's shoulder and glared at the readout in the corner of the monitor.

"Yeah, me and the Cat are the only livin' beings left," the man confirmed.

"What happened to everyone else?" Jim asked.

"They're, uh. . . well, dead.  I'll have to explain that too.  Look, I promise we won't do nothing to ya.  There's room in our docking bay for your ship," he added enticingly.

"I think it's all right," Jim told Amelia.  "Lead Crow only mentioned girls working for Galaxia, and obviously neither of them are girls."

Amelia folded her arms.  "It's up to you.  It's your ship after all."  She said it in the same way Jim's mother had always said "Well, it's your money" when he wanted to buy something she thought frivolous.  However, Jim decided to ignore her disapproval and make contact with the Red DwarfIt's probably safer than landing on Mau if the situation on the planet is anything like Coronis, he thought.  Maybe we can at least get some more information.

"Okay," he said aloud to the man from the other ship.  "We'll board."

"All right then.  I'll have Holly send your computer the coordinates of the docking bay."

"Holly?" Jim asked.  The Mauan didn't look like a Holly.

"She's our computer," the man explained.  "You shouldn't be too far away now.  We'll meet you down in the bay."

"I hope you have some kind of functional weapon," Amelia muttered once Jim had ended the communication with the other ship, and they had started up the stairs to tell Camille.  "I don't trust them, especially not that. . . that creature he called a cat.  He's certainly not Mauan."

By the time Jim explained the situation to Camille, the Revolution had drawn near to the mining vessel.  It was disturbingly big and looked nothing like the elegant merchant ships and luxury liners Jim had seen.  Instead it was boxy and metallic, more like a floating hunk of metal than a ship.

"You know," Camille commented as he craned his neck to look up at it, "I don't think they're from around here."

The coordinates from the Red Dwarf's computer directed the smaller ship to the docking bay as promised.  The door to the bay, several times the size of the Revolution, was open, but the glimpse of its dark interior was anything but welcoming.  Jim wondered if he were making the right decision as he steered the Revolution into the bay.

There were two other identical ships parked there, both much larger than his own and resembling nothing so much as metallic green ants.  Jim docked the Revolution near them and lowered the ramp, then looked at his two companions.  "Ready?"

Camille rattled his harpoon gun with an unnerving grin.  "Oh yeah."

"I imagine the only thing you could shoot with that contraption is your own tentacle," Amelia grumbled as she brushed past him, a pistol ready on her own belt.

"Wanna bet?" Camille muttered under his breath.

As they disembarked from their ship, Jim looked up to see a small party watching them from a catwalk at one end of the bay.  He recognized the two men he had spoken with earlier, but to his surprise there were four figures standing there.  As they drew closer, he realized one was a robot-- an android much more humanoid than B.E.N. but with a rather angular head-- which explained why it hadn't shown up on the life-signs reading.  However, the fourth person appeared to be human.  Why didn't the computer detect him? Jim wondered.

"Hi," the man Jim had talked with the most said when the three ascended the metal staircase that led up to the catwalk.  "Welcome to Red Dwarf."

"Lovely décor," Camille said with a sardonic glance at their industrial metal surroundings.

"Yeah, thanks," the man retorted just as sarcastically.

"I'm Jim Hawkins, captain of the Revolution," Jim said quickly before Camille could pick a fight with their new acquaintances.  "This is my crewmate, Camille Ownby, and our passenger, Amelia Doppler."

"Oh, we've already met," crooned the Mauan-like one as he took a step towards Amelia, who recoiled.

"I'm Dave Lister," the other man said, grabbing the back of his jacket to stop his advance, "and this is the Cat.  The other two are Kryten and Arnold Rimmer."

"It's a pleasure to meet you, captain, sir," said the android, who was apparently Kryten.  The fourth member of the welcoming committee seemed to be giving Jim some kind of bizarre salute.

"An honor, sir!"  Then he looked Jim over more carefully.  "Erm, aren't you a little young to be a captain?"

Jim studied him in return.  Unlike the others, he was wearing a uniform and appeared to be wearing a capital letter "H" on his forehead.  "Um, well, I own the ship.  So I guess that makes me the captain, Mr. uh. . . Rimmer."

"What's going on here?" Amelia broke in, glaring at Lister who seemed to be in charge despite all of Rimmer's regalia.  "Our computer read that you and the. . . Cat were the only living beings on this ship, but clearly there are three of you."

"Ah, but Rimmer here ain't livin'," Lister said with a grin.  "He's an hologram."

"A hologram?"  Jim turned to the rather affronted-looking Rimmer with new interest.

"Yeah, that's why he's got the goal-post on his head," the Cat said helpfully.  "Doesn't explain his choice of wardrobe though."  He shuddered slightly.

"I suppose that's one question answered," Amelia said grudgingly.  "But it still doesn't explain what you're doing here, or what happened to the rest of your crew."

"Ya know, we could ask you the same thing," Lister retorted, folding his arms.  "If you're a cat, what are you doin' sailin' in on some yacht from the opposite direction of the planet?"

"And what the hell happened to your arms and legs?" the Cat asked Camille with a grimace.

"Excuse me, sirs and madam," Kryten put in somewhat fussily, "but if I might make a suggestion, I think we would all be more comfortable discussing matters on the bridge, instead of down in the docking bay."

The ship was so large, there were hundreds of decks separating the bay from the bridge, requiring them to take a lift to it.  As they waited for the lift, Jim looked Lister over.  He looked pretty scruffy to be the leader of anything, especially with the worn jacket he had on.  However, Jim did admire the long rat-tail of dreadlocks trailing down his back from the top of his head.

"Nice hair," Jim said with a little grin.

"You too."  Lister grinned right back.

Once they were seated on the bridge, Lister pointed out a monitor of Holly, the Dwarf's computer.  Jim, who had never even heard of a computer with a name, was surprised to see her manifest herself on the monitor as a floating human head-- a rather pretty blonde in fact.

It was she who explained a lot to the Revolution's crew.  "The crew's been dead for about three million years," she told them in a voice almost as heavily accented as Lister's.  "Dave was in cryofreeze so 'e survived the accident that killed everyone else--"

"The accident that Rimmer here caused," Lister added pointedly, despite the hologram's protests.  "Holly brought him back as an hologram to torture me."

"It wasn't to torture 'im," Holly told Jim with a roll of her simulated eyes.  "It was to keep 'im sane.  Anyway, Dave had a pet cat who survived; the fashion plate 'ere evolved from 'er descendents."

"A pet cat?" Amelia said with a curl of her lip.

"Terrible, ain't it?"  The Cat shook his carefully groomed head.  "Although I wouldn't mind being your pet, gorgeous."

"For your information," Amelia said coldly, "I am married."

"Don't you have a name?" Camille asked the Cat disdainfully.  "If they went around calling me 'the Octopus,' I'd be pretty pissed."

"I'm thinking about callin' you dinner," the Cat retorted.  "And why do I need a name?  I'm the Cat, the epitome of cat-dom!"

"And this is what we're trying to save?" Camille muttered to Jim.  "If that's what Mau looks like, I say let the revolution come."

That reminded Jim of their mission.  "But why are you guys here?  If the Cat evolved on the ship, he can't be from Mau. . . ."

"No, but he is the reason we're here."  Rimmer had been fidgeting throughout the whole conversation; Jim now realized it was because he wanted to be in control of it.  "You see, he has this. . . medical condition," the hologram said distastefully, "that requires a cure from another cat.  We tracked down this planet, where apparently most of his race has settled."

"Although now that you're here," the Cat purred at Amelia, "we won't even have to land there."

"Wait, what do you mean 'where his race has settled'?" Amelia challenged Rimmer, ignoring the Cat entirely.  "I'm from Mau, and we are not the same race.  Look at him, then look at me!"

"Aww, don't worry about it, babe-- we can't all be perfect," the Cat said.

"You're not telling me," Amelia went on, still ignoring him, "that the people of Mau evolved on this ship!"

"That's exactly what 'appened," Holly told her.  "Most of the cats left the Red Dwarf a long time ago and settled several planets, includin' Mau, but a few of 'em stayed 'ere.  Cat's the last of those.  That's why you and 'e look different; you've evolved slightly differently, but you're still the same species.  The cure should still work."

"I don't believe this," Amelia muttered.

"What's this 'cure' you keep talking about?" Camille asked, raising an eyebrow at Holly's monitor.

The computer looked uncomfortable, then she looked at Rimmer.  "You brought it up.  You tell them."

"I'm not telling them!" the hologram spluttered.  "It's disgusting!"

Lister heaved a sigh.  "He has to have sex with another cat.  It's a congenital condition of the species to ensure reproduction."

"What?" Amelia bellowed, half-standing from her seat.  "It is notI've never--"  She colored visibly and sat down again when Camille started snickering.

"But I thought you said you're married," Lister pointed out.

"I didn't marry a Mauan," she muttered.  "Anyway, that's complete rubbish."

"Actually, ma'am, it is true," Kryten said apologetically.  "I've run medical scans on him to confirm it.  Perhaps it developed only among the cats who stayed on the ship, which would explain why you do not suffer from it."

"And another thing," Amelia went on, jabbing a claw in the direction of the Cat, "I am not going to be the one to 'cure' you, so you'd better be finding a landing site on Mau."

"Which reminds me," Lister said, "you lot still haven't explained why you're here."

Jim looked at Amelia, hoping she would explain, but she was glaring at a spot on the wall, apparently too furious to speak.  He sighed.  "We have reason to believe that this planet is under attack.  Several other worlds have been threatened by a group of young women working for someone named Galaxia, and we've heard that this one is next.  Since this is Cap-- Amelia's home planet, she wanted to come see if there was anything she could do."

"A-attack?" Rimmer stammered.  "Erm, ma'am, with all due respect, are you sure you won't, erm, help us so we can be on our way?  I really don't think we should be landing if--"

"Shut up, Rimmer," Lister interrupted with the air of having said the words many times before.  "So there's like an army of girls down there?  Where's this Galaxia gettin' 'em?"

"It's not really an army," Jim tried to explain.  "On the last world that was attacked, there was just one, with a few male soldiers working for her.  And apparently. . . the women are attacking their native planets."

Kryten exclaimed, "So a Mauan could be down there, trying to kill her own people?  Oh, how dreadful!  We must try to help as well!"

"Now wait a minute!" Rimmer snapped.  "I'm not helping anyone if--"

"Aw, c'mon Rimmer, just 'cause you're a coward don't mean we shouldn't try to help," Lister interrupted him with a glare.  "What about the Cat?  If he don't make it with a girl cat, he'll die!"

Rimmer spat, "Fine, then we'll drop him off and he can sleep with as many girls as he wants!"

"That'll work," the Cat offered.

"We're not just leavin' ya here," Lister told him firmly, then he turned to Jim.  "Look, me an' the Cat'll go down to the planet with you.  Rimmer the Brave can stay here with Kryten-- who can make sure Rimmer don't take off with the ship and leave us down there."  Lister glared at the hologram, who looked affronted all over again.

"Listy, I would never. . . ."  He trailed off as Lister continued to look at him skeptically.  ". . . how did you guess?"

"Come on," Lister said to the three visitors.  "Back to the docking bay.  We'll take you down in one of the Starbugs."

"What's a Starbug?" Jim asked as he and the others followed Lister and the Cat back to the lift.

"They're the green ships in the docking bay," Lister answered.

"The ones that look like bugs!" the Cat added brightly.

"We use them for exploration since the Dwarf's too big to land on most planets," Lister went on.  "Holly has a link to 'em though, so we'll be in constant contact with the ship."

"Do you really think it's all right to leave that hologram with your ship?" Camille whispered to Jim as the lift carried them back to the docking bay.  "The robot looks like he has about as much backbone as a squid."

"I don't think he'd really leave his crewmates," Jim said.  He looked at Amelia who was pressed up against one side of the lift with her claws extended, snarling at the Cat, who had tried to rub up against her.  "I think keeping her from killing Cat is going to be the real problem."


As Starbug drew near to Bastet, Jim looked down at the city over the shoulder of Lister, who was piloting the craft along with the Cat.  Jim occupied one of the two seats behind the pilots, and Amelia had taken the other.  Camille leaned against the wall of the cockpit, grumbling from time to time about various instruments that were poking him in the back.

"It doesn't look like there's a war goin' on," Lister commented as he searched for a landing place big enough for their ship.  They had passed over the city's spaceport, but it was set up for craft built like the Revolution, not the squat Starbug.  "All the buildings are intact, and I don't see any fightin' or whatever."

"Maybe we got here in time then," Amelia said hopefully from where she was seated behind the Cat.

"I hope I get down there in time," the Cat commented.  "I don't feel so good."

"Ah, there's a spot," Lister murmured, steering Starbug towards what appeared to be the center of town.

Sure enough, Amelia snapped, "You can't land there!  It's the city square!  It will be full of. . . people. . . ." she trailed off as she half-stood to look past the pilots.  The paved, open area was completely clear, devoid of beings.

"I don't understand," she muttered as Lister began to lower the ship into the open space.  "The square is always crowded."

"Maybe the war has begun and they're all dead," Camille suggested.  Amelia gave him a withering look, and he rolled his eyes.  "What did I say this time?"

"Only thing to do is get out and check," Lister said matter-of-factly once he had landed Starbug.  He turned to look at one of Holly's monitors, mounted on the wall just over and behind the Cat's head.  "Everythin' seem all right out there, 'oll?  There's not a plague or somethin' gonna get us, is there?"

"It seems all right, Dave," the computer replied, though she sounded as puzzled as Amelia.  "I'm not detecting anything dangerous, but. . . I am detecting life forms.  There are people 'ere, but it's like they're all. . . ."  She stopped, then finished lamely, "'iding," as a faint roar came from outside the ship.

"Uh oh," sighed Camille.  "That doesn't sound good."

Looking out of the window, Jim saw a mass of Mauans, all of whom looked more like Amelia than like the Cat, emerging from where they had been concealed in buildings and alleyways.  As they bore down on the ship, Lister muttered, "It's like. . . they knew we were comin'."

"I didn't inform anyone on Mau that I was coming here," Amelia protested.  "And even if I had, why would everyone in the city come to meet me?  I'm not well-known here at all."

"I'm not detecting any weapons," Holly reported.  "And they look. . . well, 'appy.  I don't think they're 'ere to attack us."

"Unless it's a trick."  Camille folded his arms.

Amelia turned on him with another glare.  "My people are not deceitful, if that's what you're implying.  If they were going to attack us, we'd know it!"

Any question of whether or not they would disembark was answered when the Cat spotted several females at the front of the crowd.  "Look-- girls!" the Cat cried joyously as he leapt to his feet and raced out of the cockpit towards Starbug's exit.

"Well, looks like we don't have a choice," Lister sighed as he got to his feet.  "Come on."

They caught up with the Cat as he was opening the door of the craft.  As the door creaked open and the gangplank extended, Jim peered out at the inhabitants of Mau.  They did indeed look happy, and a few were even carrying what looked like garlands made from pale lavender flowers.

Amelia and the Cat began a slow descent along the gangplank with the other three following them; they decided that it was a good idea to let the Mauans-- or almost-Mauans in the Cat's case-- go first.  As they moved downward, three figures emerged from the crowd and began to walk up the gangplank towards them.  Two of them were rather large men, but in between them was a girl who could be no older than twelve or thirteen.

As the two parties drew closer together, Jim saw that the girl's eyes, with vertical pupils like Amelia's, were reddish-brown, almost burgundy.  Although she was young, her hair was a soft grey, pulled into two short pig-tails on either side of the crown of her head.  She was apparently someone pretty special, judging from the bodyguards and the fact that half of the Mauans' eyes were turned on her instead of on the visitors.

Thinking of Coronis, Jim wondered, Amelia said Mau was a democracy, so she can't be a princess-- but could she be their warrior, that young?

The two groups met midway up the gangplank.  Both Amelia and the Cat opened their mouths at the same time to speak, but the grey-haired girl stepped between them, looking past them to Lister who had followed them between Camille and Jim.  Then, to Jim's amazement, the girl knelt before him.  As soon as she had dropped to the ground, her bodyguards knelt as well, followed by the rest of the crowd.

"We welcome you to our humble city," the girl said in a surprisingly rich voice for her age.

"Uh. . . you mean me?" Lister stammered.

The girl went on as if she hadn't heard him.  "It is an honor to be bestowed with a visit from the progenitor of our race."

"Not this again," the Cat groaned.  "Look, kid, he's not--"  He broke off in a yelp as Amelia elbowed him sharply.

"Shut up!" she whispered.  "I don't know who she thinks your friend is, but this will make it easier for all of us!"

"I know exactly who she thinks he is," the Cat muttered.

Whatever was going on, Lister seemed to have gotten a handle on the situation.  "Thank you for the, ah, hospitable welcome.  We've come on a-- well, on two important missions," he amended with a glance at Amelia.

"Yes, I am aware."  The young girl stood; after an instant, her bodyguards and the crowd drifted to their feet as well.

"You are?"  Jim had intended to keep quiet and let Lister do the talking, but the kid was starting to make him nervous. Could she be the girl working for Galaxia? he wondered. She seems to know so much. . . .  "How do you--"

"I will explain everything to you," the Mauan girl responded in a low voice, evidently to keep the crowd from hearing.  "Please, come with me," she said more loudly.  "I will escort you to the lodgings that have been prepared for you."

Jim looked at Amelia questioningly as Lister and the Cat followed the girl and her guards down the gangplank, apparently unconcerned with the strange turn of events.  "Do you know who she is?" he whispered to her.  "Or what's going on?"

"I haven't the slightest idea, on either count."  Amelia looked after them bemusedly.  "Those two seem to know, though.  I suppose it's safe to go with them."

"I dunno," Camille muttered.  "I don't like the way those guards were looking at me.  Cats are especially fond of seafood, aren't they?"

"Oh please."  Amelia stalked after the others, leaving Jim and Camille no choice but to follow.

The crowd parted to let them pass, though it closed again and followed them as the girl led them across the square towards an elaborate building.

"That's Bastet's finest hotel," Amelia murmured to Jim as they approached it.  "Very few people can afford to stay there.  I can't imagine that this little girl has gotten us lodgings there."

Apparently Lister had the same thoughts.  "Uh, excuse me, but who are you?" he was asking the girl as they walked.

"My name is Rosmunda Grigio."

"Are you a priestess or somethin'?"

"No," she said with a slight giggle, the first sign that she really was just a young girl.  "I'm a singer.  I told you, I'll explain everything when we're alone."

Unfortunately, no one seemed to want to leave them alone.  The crowd followed them right up to the entrance of the hotel, and although the guards held it back to allow them to enter, they were immediately greeted inside by what appeared to be the hotel staff.

"It is. . . such an honor, sir," one exceptionally well-dressed Mauan, whom Jim assumed to be the hotel owner, enthused as he bowed to Lister.  "When Miss Rosmunda told us of your impending arrival, many did not believe her-- but I, I always had faith.'

"Erm, yes-- thank you, very much," Lister replied expansively.

The man escorted them upstairs to what he assured them was his finest suite, only leaving when Rosmunda pointed out that the travelers must be tired.  When he was finally gone, she turned to her own bodyguards and asked them to wait outside.

"Are you sure?" one of the two asked with obvious concern in his voice.  Jim was amused to see two large, strong men so worried over a girl who was little more than a kitten.

"Yes.  I will be perfectly safe, I promise."

After the guards left, Rosmunda shut the door, then turned to her five guests.  "I'm sorry for all the formalities," she said slowly.

"Never mind that," Amelia responded.  "What's going on?  Who do you think we are?"

"They think I'm a god," Lister answered before Rosmunda could say anything.

"What?  You?"  Camille snickered.  "You're kidding.  I hope."

"No, it's happened before," Lister insisted.  "Because the cat race evolved from my pet cat, they see me the way she did, like. . . some deity or somethin' magically dispensin' the tinned cat food.  But I'm not," he protested to Rosmunda.

"I know you're not," she said softly.  "You're just a man like anyone else.  But we can't tell the others that, or things will be much harder for all of us."

"Wait, wait."  Amelia took a step towards the girl.  "You're not telling me that he's. . . ."  When she trailed off, Rosmunda nodded.

"Yes.  He's Cloister."

"Cloister?" Jim asked.

"The god Mauans worship," Amelia said slowly.  "I suppose it's just a corruption of Lister's real name.  I was never very religious, but to think that my parents took me to church every week to worship. . . to worship you," she finished with an incredulous look at Lister.

"Sorry I didn't live up to your expectations," Lister retorted.

"But how do you know so much about us?" Jim asked Rosmunda.  He was a lot more interested in that than in the idea of Lister being a god.

"I have some power of premonition," the girl said softly.  "Sometimes. . . I can see things that are going to happen."

"You expect us to believe that?" Camille snorted.

"How else would I have known you were coming?" Rosmunda replied, frowning slightly.  Despite her unusual degree of maturity, Jim could see something of a little-girl pout in her expression.  "I told everyone I could.  A lot of people don't believe in me-- but because I'm a celebrity, a lot of them do.  That's how I got so many people to come meet you, and how I got you these rooms."

"But why would you do that for us?" Lister asked her.  "If you know I'm not really a god--"

"It's because of why you're here."

"You, uh, know about that?" the Cat said, looking slightly embarrassed for the first time since Jim had met him.  "Ain't you a little. . . young?"

"I wasn't talking about you," Rosmunda said, although she blushed vividly, "I do know why you're here too, and you won't have any problem finding a. . . a girl.  Like I said, some of the people in this city do believe me, and they think you're the companion of Cloister.  There will be plenty of girls willing to. . . you know."

"Of course there will," the Cat purred.  "One look at me, and they won't be able to resist, Cloister or no Cloister."  Then he paused.  "Wait a minute!  What do you mean, you weren't talkin' about me?"

"I was talking about you."  Rosmunda turned and pointed at Amelia.

"But-- she can't be more important than me!" the Cat protested.

"You're here to help us, aren't you?" Rosmunda said to Amelia, ignoring him.  "You want to stop Galaxia.  You too," she added, taking Jim and Camille in with a glance.

"You are psychic," Amelia breathed.

Rosmunda flushed again, more delicately this time.  "Just a little.  I only get visions sometimes, and just of the future.  I saw the five of you here, and you three fighting. . . her."

"Galaxia?" Jim asked.

"No."  Rosmunda lowered her rust-colored eyes.  ". . . Tin Kitty."

"You've got to be kidding," Camille exploded.  "That's an even stupider name than 'Lead Crow'!"

"It might be a silly name," Rosmunda said, flashing an almost-glare at Camille, "but she is very strong."

"Do you know who she is?" Jim asked quickly.  "She's the one we came here to find!"

"No.  I'm sorry, but I have only seen visions of her in battle.  I cannot see her civilian form."

Remembering his earlier theory, Jim murmured, "She isn't you, is she?"

He expected the girl to get annoyed, but instead she gave him the saddest look he had ever seen.  "No.  I do know that much.  I cannot be Tin Kitty."  Somehow, Jim was inclined to believe her.

Almost immediately, Rosmunda regulated her expression and clasped her small hands in front of her.  "I must leave you now.  My father is making-- is asking me to give a concert this evening in your honor.  I need to practice."

"Your father?" Amelia asked.

"Yes.  He's my manager."  Rosmunda gave her odd little giggle again, so strangely child-like in such a serious girl.  "He's also the only one who believed in my visions for a long time.  As soon as I told him that Cloister was coming to Mau, he insisted that I would sing for you."  Rosmunda started towards the door, then paused and looked back at them.  "Someone bring you some different clothes soon, then I will come for you later to escort you to the amphitheater."

"What do you mean, different clothes?" cried the Cat.  "I'm not changing my clothes!"  He folded his arms over his bright red suit coat protectively.

"Well, yours are all right. . . but I think your friend at least needs something more worthy of a god."

"But what's wrong with this?" Lister asked plaintively and quite seriously, holding out his arms to display his worn, scruffy jacket.

Rosmunda's eyes widened slightly.  "Someone will be here very soon."

 

At that moment, it was still early morning on Crescentia.  Bertrand had woken even earlier than normal, and he was sitting on the porch waiting for breakfast, Camille's shell cupped in one hand, when Silver wandered outside, yawning.

"Mornin'," the cyborg said as he stretched his organic arm.

"Mornin'," Morph mimicked from his shoulder.

"Good morning," Bertrand murmured.

"What ye got there?" Silver asked, nodding towards Bertrand's hands.  "Ain't that the Octopid's?"

"Yes, he. . . he gave it to me."  Bertrand looked down at it.  "He didn't want it."

Silver sat down in another chair and patted Morph absently.  "Ye miss him, don't ye?"

Bertrand felt his cheeks grow hot.  "Wh-why would I miss him?"

"Yer not answerin' the question," Silver said, giving him an amused glance.  "But never mind.  I hope they're all right," he went on, gazing out at the street.  It was still quiet at that early hour, although Bertrand knew the traffic would pick up quickly before long.

Silver's words worried him; they reminded him of his own apprehension at Camille's behavior the day before. . . the feeling that he might not be coming back.  The fact that the cyborg was concerned, however lightly he might voice it, meant that there really was danger involved.  Bertrand already had the idea that Silver didn't worry about much unless the situation was serious.

"You think they might not be all right?" the Coronid asked slowly.

"Well, no, it's not that," Silver protested.  "It's just that Jimbo gets a little too. . . involved sometimes.  He seems to think that this Galaxia lady's his personal problem to solve.  He promised me he wouldn't do anythin' stupid this time, but knowin' him. . . ."  The cyborg shook his head.

"Did he do 'something stupid' on Coronis?"

Silver was quiet a moment, then he said, "When yer sister killed that lass, Jimbo tried to stop her.  She almost killed him too."

A sick sensation of horror washed over Bertrand.  "I'm-- I'm sorry; I didn't know--"

"I didn't really want ye to," Silver said with a shrug and what Bertrand thought was feigned lightness.  "I'll tell ye somethin'," the cyborg added, leaning forward and gesturing at him with his mechanical hand.  "The things yer sister did ain't yer fault.  Ye'll be a lot happier if ye keep that in mind."

"But I sent you to Coronis, and if you hadn't gone, you wouldn't know about Mau.  So if something happens to them there--"

"By the stars, yer just lookin' fer somethin' to feel guilty about, ain't ye?"  To Bertrand's embarrassment, Silver laughed.  "Jimbo's goin' on this trip fer Amelia, and Camille's goin' 'cause he's part of the crew.  Ye don't have to worry about him, believe me.  He ain't gonna put himself in any danger.  In fact, I've only ever seen Tentacles stick his neck out once, and that was--"  The cyborg broke off with an almost guilty look.

"When was that?" Bertrand said carefully.

"Eh, it's not anythin' ye'd be interested in," Silver said, abruptly getting to his feet.  "I'm gonna go see if our gracious landlady's got breakfast on the table yet.  I think I could eat an Equinian."  He chuckled as he lumbered back into the house.

There's something they're not telling me, Bertrand thought unhappily.  He remembered Camille's words on their way to Seven: You shouldn't trust me. . . those two can tell you why.  Bertrand clenched his hand around the shell.

But they won't tell me why, because he doesn't want me to know, he thought as he looked down at it in his dark hand.  He won't even tell me things that he'll tell them.  Why should I trust him if he doesn't trust me enough to be honest with me?

Bertrand shuddered slightly, his wings quivering.  Because I've fallen in love with him.

 

Rosmunda returned for the visitors early that evening.  They had been served lunch, which consisted of some sort of roast bird that made Jim glad Bertrand hadn't come with them, in their rooms.  Later Lister had been brought new clothes as Rosmunda had promised; looking over the rather ridiculously ornate robes, Jim was relieved that the rest of them were allowed to keep their own attire after all.

"I feel like a complete idiot in this," Lister sighed as they followed Rosmunda and her bodyguards to the elevator.

"Hey, at least ol' Goal-Post Head can't see you," the Cat pointed out.

"There is that," Lister agreed morosely.  "Rimmer'd never let me hear the end of it."

"Rosmunda," Jim began once they were downstairs in the lobby, "do you know how we can find Tin Kitty?  Amelia promised her husband she'd be back home soon."

"I do not know," Rosmunda replied softly, "but you will find her.  I saw you with her, remember?"

"Yes, but--"  Jim found himself drowned out by the roar of a crowd as they exited the hotel.  Said crowd was considerably smaller than that which had attended their arrival in Bastet, but there were still a good many Mauans ogling them.  Some still had the garlands Jim had seen earlier; as Rosmunda's bodyguards, who seemed to have multiplied into several men, tried to hold the crowd back, one young woman tossed hers about Lister's neck.

"Hey baby, how about one for--" the Cat started to say, then he stopped, sniffing the air.  "Mmm, cat nip!"  He leaned closer to Lister and sniffed again.  "Hey, for once, you smell good!"

"Hre, you can have it."  Lister squirmed away from the Cat and dumped the garland over his head.

"Waste of good cat nip," Amelia muttered.

As Rosmunda moved towards a self-powered vehicle which was apparently intended to carry them to the amphitheater, a sharper yell broke over the voices of the crowd.  Jim turned to see several Mauans, most of them female, pushing past the other onlookers.  They made a rush for the visitors, but the bodyguards caught them and held them back by the arms.

"Please, ladies, there's enough of me to go around," the Cat purred, but from the angry looks on their faces, Jim didn't think they were pleased to see him.

"Get off our planet!" one of them screamed.  She was a few years older than Rosmunda but still young, with two black braids tied together at the ends and flashing yellow eyes.  "We don't want you here!"  It was such a difference from how they had been treated since their arrival, the visitors were shocked into silence.

"We know you're not a god!" another of the girls shouted at Lister.

"You're a fake!" the braided girl yelled.  "Go home!"

Amelia was the first to get a response out.  "This is my home," she said coldly as she stepped in front of Lister to regard the girl.  "I'm Mauan."

"You're an off-worlder now!" the one with the braids spat back.  "You left Mau-- you abandoned her just like so many others did!"

"Her?"  Amelia blinked down at the shorter girl.

"Come on."  Rosmunda tugged at Amelia's arm, pulling her towards the vehicle where Lister, the Cat, and Camille had already been herded.  "They're just protesters."

Amelia followed, but Jim saw her look strangely at the braided girl as they passed.  The girl glared back, her nostrils flared.  She seemed to be smelling for something, the way the Cat had smelled the cat nip garland.  Her golden eyes flicked to meet Jim's gaze for an instant, then she apparently dismissed him and looked back at Amelia instead.

"What was that all about?" Camille asked distastefully once they were safely installed in the passenger area of the vehicle, which was separated from the cabin with an opaque divider.  When the vehicle began to move, Jim assumed that one of the bodyguards was in the cabin, driving it.

"Protesters," Rosmunda said again.  "There've always been some, ever since people started believing in my visions.  They think I do it for publicity, but I just ignore them.  I can't please everybody," she finished with a shrug.

"These seemed angrier about us being here than about your prophecy," Jim said thoughtfully.  "Rosmunda, who was that girl-- the one with the braids?  Do you know her?"

"She was pretty cute," the Cat contributed.

"Yes, I know her," the girl said softly, looking down at her hands with which she was clasping her knees.  "Her name is Felina Inbal.  She grew up in the same neighborhood where I used to live, before I became famous.  I remember her playing with me, when I was little. . . but lately, she's been leading the protests."  Rosmunda looked so sad, Jim felt intensely sorry for her; she was just a little girl after all.  "I don't understand it.  I thought she liked me."

When they arrived at the amphitheater, they were escorted to the best seats by one of the bodyguards while Rosmunda disappeared backstage to dress for her performance.  Jim looked around curiously; the large amphitheater was already packed even though the performance wouldn't start for another hour.

"She must be pretty famous," Jim commented over the din of the crowds to Amelia, who was sitting to his right.  "But you've never heard of her?"

She shrugged.  "She probably wasn't even born at the time I left Mau.  I've been back a few times since then, of course, but not long enough to become particularly informed about pop culture here.  I can't imagine she's been performing very long anyway, as young as she is."

"She's a strange kid," Lister commented, leaning over from where he was seated on Amelia's other side. (She had insisted that someone sit between herself and the Cat.)  "You think she really has these visions or whatever?"

"I think she's telling the truth," Amelia replied slowly.  "I just wonder. . . ."

When she didn't go on, Jim prompted gently, "You wonder what?"

Amelia gave him a curious look, as if she were lost in her own thoughts and not really seeing him.  "She looks at me sometimes, the way you look at a person you know but can't place.  I know I've never met her before, though."

"Maybe it's because she saw you in that vision, fighting Tin Kitty with us," Jim suggested.

"But she doesn't look at you or the Octopid that way."  Amelia shook her head briskly, as if trying to clear it.  "Maybe that is it.  It must be."

"This is such a waste of time," Camille grumbled from Jim's left after they had been seated for a quarter of an hour.  "Amelia could be finding her family right now, and we could be off this rock tonight if it weren't for this stupid concert in honor of him."  He glared past Jim and Amelia at Lister who was playing up the god act for a trio of female Mauans seated behind them.

"Why are you in such a hurry to get back?" Jim asked with a smirk.  "Miss your bar stool?"

"As a matter of fact, yes!  Getting drunk is certainly preferable to listening to little cat girls sing."  He sighed and rested his chin on one tentacle.  "Don't tell me you want to be here.  I thought you'd be pining for your cyborg."

"Hush!" Jim hissed with a nervous glance at Amelia.  Fortunately, it was too noisy for her to have heard.  "Of course I miss Silver," he retorted in a whisper, "but this is. . . well, exciting.  I want to find out who Tin Kitty is."

"So she can barbecue you like the last warrior babe almost did?"  The Octopid folded his arm-tentacles indignantly.  "I bet you anything the kid is Tin Kitty, and she's just waiting to fry us."

"I don't think she is," Jim said softly, but Camille ignored him.

"At least it doesn't sound like she has much of a family to tear up over it," the Octopid went on.  "Her father must be a jerk."

"What makes you say that?"

"Didn't you hear how she talked about him?  'He's making me,' she said.  Celebrity parents, bah.  He'd probably too self-absorbed to get himself shot like Bertrand's parents did."

"You don't know that," Jim said reluctantly, but it was tempting to believe. . . especially because he kept imagining Rosmunda's father as being like his own.

"I wish he'd have come with us."  Camille's murmur shook Jim from his thoughts.

"Who?  Rosmunda's father?"

"No, stupid.  Bertrand."

"Yeah?  Why?"  Jim looked at him closely; the Octopid's cheeks colored very faintly.

"So he could see this epic battle we're supposed to end up fighting, provided the kitten wasn't making it all up."  Camille scowled.  "I still don't think he really understands what it was like on Coronis-- what his sister did.  He needs to see what she was really like."

"I think he understands too well," Jim replied, remembering his late-night conversation with Bertrand at the boarding house.  "It scared him to death."

"Scared him?" the Octopid snorted.  "What's he scared of?"

"Same thing we're all scared of," Jim said somewhat bitterly.  "Getting left.  Even if it only happens once, it screws you up for years-- and everyone he loved left him."

"Hmph," Camille said, although he wouldn't look at Jim.  "He never said anything to me about being scared of that."

"Maybe he's afraid you'll leave him too."

"Not likely, as long as he keeps paying me."  Camille glanced at him then, but looked away almost as quickly.

You know that's not what I meant, Jim thought, but he didn't say anything else.

When Rosmunda finally appeared on the amphitheater's stage, the crowd roared so loudly, Jim felt like covering his ears.  She's just a kid, he thought incredulously.  He had heard of planets where celebrity worship was rampant, but he'd had no idea a city could idolize one little girl that much.

He understood the obsession a little better when she began to sing.  She had the most beautiful voice Jim had ever heard; it was deeper than when she spoke, yet feminine all the same.  What will she sound like when she grows up? he wondered, amazed.

Despite the beauty of her voice, Rosmunda looked utterly unhappy as she sang.  The words of the song were as sad as her expression: Alive because it's not alive, the good that died implores me to die. . . .

"I told you her father's a jerk," Camille hissed in Jim's ear, "if he makes her sing that."

No, thought Jim, not bothering to reply over the loud music, I think she chose that song.  He looked at Amelia and found her watching Rosmunda intently.  Then, slowly Amelia began to frown, and she squinted slightly.

"How did she do that?"  Jim could hardly hear the words over the music, until Amelia looked at him and said more loudly, "Do you see that?"

Jim looked at the stage, saw only the girl singing.  "See what?"

"The other one-- the other girl singing."

"What other girl?"  Jim blinked, then looked up at Amelia again.  "There's no one-- Rosmunda's the only one there."

"No, there's another girl there, behind her!"  Amelia turned to Lister and spoke to him urgently.  Jim stared at the stage once more, but Rosmunda was alone.  To die because I do not die, she was singing, alive because it's not alive. . . .

"They can't see her either," Amelia said desperately as she turned back to Jim.  "I must be going daft-- but I swear another girl appeared behind her-- I hear her singing--"

She gestured with her hands in frustration, and her arm brushed Jim's.  For the instant they touched, Jim saw her-- there was a second Mauan girl there.  She was no older than Rosmunda, with the same soft grey hair pulled into four buns on the sides of her head.  But when Jim's arm no longer touched Amelia's, the girl disappeared.

"Amelia."  Jim had never called her by her first name to her face before, but he did it now without thinking.  He put his hand on her slender arm, and immediately the second girl reappeared, and a second voice joined Rosmunda's.

"I see her," Jim breathed.  "When I touch you, I see her."

Amelia looked at him, bewildered, then back at the stage.  Jim watched the two girls sing, Rosmunda apparently unaware of the stranger behind her.  Then the second girl raised her hands and placed them on Rosmunda's shoulders.  Rosmunda half-turned, still singing: Dark, I walk with the lost.

When the other girl sang back to her, Jim wondered if he and Amelia were the only ones in the audience who heard: We do not die.

I die because I do not die.

Somewhere, in someone's heart, the stranger answered, we live.

I walk with the lost.

We live.

As the music faded and Rosmunda looked away, the stranger disappeared, simply faded as the music did.  Jim looked at Amelia.  "Do you see her?"

"No," Amelia murmured.  "She's gone."  As Jim slowly let go of her arm, she asked, "You did see her?"

"Yes, I saw her.  Maybe. . . maybe it was some special effect.  A hologram, or. . . ."  He trailed off.

"No," Amelia said again.  "No one else reacted.  No one else saw her.  Hawkins, what--"  She broke off and pointed at the stage.  "Look!"

Jim turned back to see another girl scrambling up onto the stage, but this one was real, and judging from the shocked gasp from the audience, everyone saw her.  It was Felina Inbal.  Jim half-rose from his seat as the lithe figure darted across the stage.  Bodyguards poured from the wings, but not before Felina reached Rosmunda.  The smaller girl drew back, but Felina grasped her shoulders.  Jim was sure she was going to hurt Rosmunda, but she only seemed to be whispering to her frantically.  A moment later, the guards reached her, grabbing her roughly and dragging her forcibly away from Rosmunda.  Even from a distance, Jim could see that the little girl's face had gone completely pale.

Felina struggled against the guards but was unable to break free.  Rosmunda watched her for an instant, then covered her face with her hands and ran from the stage with an audible cry.

"What the smeg was that all about?" Lister exclaimed.  "Poor kid!  Protestin's one thing, but makin' a little girl cry. . . ."

"At least we won't have to listen to any more singing," was Camille's only comment.

He was right about that; the commotion in the audience was stilled when an older man came on stage and announced that the rest of the concert was canceled.  Jim wondered if he was Rosmunda's father, but the Mauans all looked too similar to Jim for him to tell.  Almost immediately after, one of the ubiquitous bodyguards appeared in their box to escort them back to their vehicle.

Jim was surprised to find Rosmunda waiting for them in the vehicle; he had expected that she would have gone home.

"Are you all right?" Amelia asked her gently once they were inside and moving back towards the hotel.

"Yes."  Rosmunda nodded slowly, although Jim could see that she had been crying.  "She didn't hurt me."

"What did she say?" Jim prompted.  The girl looked up at him.

"She told me to leave Bastet.  She said I should go tonight, that I wouldn't be safe here."

"What, you mean she was threatenin' you?" Lister asked.

"No, not like that."  Rosmunda shook her head emphatically.  "More like. . . warning me.  Like she wanted to protect me."

"Then what are you doing here with us?" Camille muttered as he leaned back in his seat and folded his arm-tentacles.

"Father wanted me to go home, but I told him that, ah, 'Cloister' demanded that I stay with you."  She gave Lister a little smile.  "So if any of my guards ask, please play along."

"Right," Lister replied.  "I could get used to this god thing, if everyone does whatever I say," he added with a grin.

"Why don't you command some girls up to my room then?" the Cat asked pointedly.  "Don't forget why we came here."

"Impossible, you won't let any of us forget," Amelia muttered.  Jim looked at her questioningly, wondering if she were going to ask Rosmunda about the other girl who had appeared on the stage.  Amelia glanced at him, then shook her head slightly when he raised his eyebrows.  She seemed to want him to wait.

"There will still be a crowd at the hotel," Rosmunda told the Cat.  "I'm sure that there will be some girls there who will. . . come to the room with you."

"What'd they do with that little show-stealin' friend of yours?" the Cat asked her.  "She was pretty cute-- I like 'em feisty."

"They arrested her for assault," Rosmunda murmured, "even though she was trying to. . . to help me.  I told them I wasn't going to press charges, but they wouldn't listen."  She sighed, then gave the Cat what Jim thought was an extremely forced smile.  "You wouldn't get very far with her anyway.  She doesn't like men."

"Ohh, one of those.  That's okay; I don't mind watchin'."

"Lay off, Cat," Lister groaned.

"I didn't mean like that!"  Poor Rosmunda blushed and looked down at her feet.  "Her father walked out on their family when she was a little girl, so she hates men now.  She used to tell me to trust only girls.  But. . . I don't have a mother, and I don't know any other girls.  Except for you," she said abruptly, looking up at Amelia.  Amelia looked back at her with a surprised expression, but the vehicle reached the hotel before she could reply.

As Rosmunda had predicted, the Cat had an easy enough time finding a "date."  Lister at first fended off the advances of several eligible-looking female Mauans, but ended up taking one pretty blonde up to the suite.

"I can't believe you!" Amelia hissed at him as the girl sauntered to his room.  "There's a child here!  As much as I hate to admit it, the Cat has an excuse but you--"

"Listen, I've been drifting in space with two other guys and a robot for far too long to pass up the chance," Lister replied.  "We'll keep the noise down, promise," he finished with a grin.

With the Cat and Lister thus occupied, the others sat in the living room of their suite.  Even though two of Rosmunda's bodyguards were posted in the hallway outside, Jim still felt apprehensive.  Felina thinks something's going to happen to Rosmunda, he thought. Will Tin Kitty attack tonight?

"Rosmunda, why did you want to stay with us tonight?" Jim asked the girl.  She was seated next to Amelia on a couch.

"I. . . think you might need me," she said slowly.

"What, you think we're gonna need entertaining?" Camille said sardonically from where he was slouched in a chair.

Amelia glared at him, then put a hand on Rosmunda's shoulder.  "I'm worried about you.  Did Felina say why you wouldn't be safe here?"

"No."  She looked up at Amelia.  "But it must be because of my vision.  It must be Tin Kitty."

"Then Felina's gotta be her," Camille replied.  "Or else working for her-- how would she know otherwise?"

"But she wouldn't try to protect me then!" Rosmunda protested.  "She-- Felina can't be Tin Kitty.  She can't."  She slumped down miserably.

"Rosmunda," Amelia said gently, "when you were singing, I. . . I saw something.  Jim saw it too."

"Only when I touched her arm," Jim added.  "We saw-- another girl, singing with you."

"What?"  Camille gave them a weird look.

"You saw her?"  Rosmunda clutched Amelia's arm, ignoring Camille.  "No one else has seen her before!"

"You mean she was real?" Jim stammered.  "Who was she?"

"I know this sounds crazy, but. . . I think she's me."  Rosmunda's eyes flicked to Jim once, then focused on Amelia again.

"You?" Amelia asked softly.

"Yes.  Once I had a premonition where I was her.  I've seen her a few times since then, but no one else has ever been able to."

"Or maybe this is a mass hallucination, and you're all losing it," Camille suggested.

"No!  She's real," Rosmunda insisted.  "I believe she's my future self-- who I will be reborn as after I die.  I hope so," she went on in a whisper.  "This life can't be my only chance."

"You're far too young to be worrying about dying," Amelia told her as she patted her on the shoulder.  Rosmunda looked back up at her with an expression so miserable it surprised Jim.

"No," the girl said, "I'm not.  I'm going to die very soon.  When I saw you three fighting Tin Kitty-- I also saw her killing me.  That's what Felina was trying to warn me about."

"But why would she want to kill you?" Jim protested.  "On Coronis, Galaxia's soldier attacked the royal family.  I know you're famous, but you don't have any political power--"

"I just know what is going to happen," Rosmunda murmured.  "Please, I don't want to talk it right now.  There is nothing I can do to change the future, and I'd rather not think about it.  I've. . . I've thought about it enough already."

"It's all right," Amelia said quickly.  "We can talk about something else."

"Do you have a family?" Rosmunda asked, looking up at her.

Amelia looked rather nonplussed, but she said, "Yes, I do.  My husband and I have four children."

"Are they Mauan?"

"My three girls are.  I married an Alponian though, so our son looks like him."

"You have three daughters?"  Rosmunda smiled wistfully.  "Wow, I wish I had sisters.  That must be fun.  Sometimes when I see my future self, she's with three other girls. . . maybe they're my sisters."

Over her head, Camille looked at Jim and moved the tip of his tentacle around in a circle next to his temple, in a She's crazy gesture.  Jim gave him a warning glare, but the Octopid just rolled his eyes in response.

"Are you married?" Rosmunda asked Jim abruptly.

"Me?"  Jim started, feeling his cheeks grow hot.  "No.  I'm, uh, way too young."  He looked at Camille sharply, praying that he would keep his mouth shut about Silver with Amelia around.  Camille just smirked at him, then looked down at Rosmunda.

"Don't even bother asking about me, kid," he told her.  "I'm not the marrying type."  With surprised relief, Jim realized that Camille was changing the subject before Amelia noticed Jim's embarrassment.  He does have some tact after all, Jim thought gratefully.

Rosmunda's interest returned to Amelia, and she continued to ask the captain questions until Rosmunda's rust-colored eyes dropped shut and she dozed off.

"Should we put her to bed?" Jim whispered.

"I think we should stay right here," Amelia replied, surprising him with the grim tone of her voice.  "I'm worried about these visions of hers."

"You don't really believe all that, do you?"  Camille stretched his tentacles.  "I'm sure it's all some adolescent ego trip-- you wouldn't believe the fantasies I had at that age."

"We probably wouldn't believe the fantasies you have now," Jim retorted.  "And. . . I think Amelia's right.  It's more than that.  I mean, that Felina did tell her something--"

"It could have all been scripted.  They probably paid her to do it, just to give the kid more publicity."

"Well, you can go to bed if you want," Amelia snapped at the Octopid, "but I'm staying here.  I'm not going to let anything happen to her."

"Jim?"  Camille looked expectantly at him.

Jim gazed down at the sleeping girl; unconscious, she looked even younger than before.  "I. . . I think Amelia's right," he said slowly.  "I'm worried about her too, and I think she has something to do with what Galaxia's going to do here."

Camille didn't look convinced, but he nodded and leaned back in his chair.  "All right then."

Amelia gazed at him in astonishment.  "You're going to stay up with her too?  Just because Jim said so?"

Camille shrugged.  "Yeah.  He's the captain after all."

She continued to give him a startled look, then she turned to Jim with an amused smile.  "Hawkins, if you can command this much respect already, you should consider enlarging your crew."

"Well, the more crew members I have, the more trouble we'll get into-- and we get into plenty as it is," Jim told her.  And I wish the rest of the crew was here now, he thought longingly.  Silver would know what to do if Rosmunda were right and Tin Kitty did show up-- but Jim had no idea.  He stuck his hand in his pocket, closing it around his dress sphere.

I should have practiced with it so I'd learn more, like Rikku talked about, he thought regretfully.  It might have worked against Scroop-- but how much good could it do against someone with Lead Crow's powers?

Still, it was all he had.  Camille's harpoon gun and Amelia's pistols were close at hand, which was comforting, but Jim didn't think he could count on Lister or the Cat for help.  For one thing, they didn't seem like they'd be particularly reliable with weapons-- but more importantly, Rosmunda hadn't envisioned them fighting Tin Kitty.  And despite all his logical senses telling him not to, Jim believed in what the girl had seen.

Chapter Text

Jim hadn't meant to fall asleep, but he found himself awakened by a noise early the next morning.  Dragging his eyes open, he was relieved to see that Rosmunda was safe and that Amelia and Camille were sleeping as well.  Amelia was drooped over the arm of the sofa with Rosmunda curled in her lap, and Camille still slouched in his chair.

At least I'm not the only one slacking off, Jim thought with a little smile.  There were no windows in the room, but according to a clock hanging on one wall, it must have been no later than dawn.

He wasn't sure what had woken him until he heard female voices whispering down the short hall that led to the suite's bedrooms.  Jim realized that it must be the girls who had spent the night with Lister and the Cat.

"So how was he?" he heard one whisper.

She was answered with a repressed giggle.  "Better than I expected!  What about yours?"

"Well, Felina was right about one thing-- he's no god," was the dour reply.  "But he was all right, I guess.  Except he called me by some other girl's name.  'Rim' something, I dunno."

More than I wanted to know, Jim thought, wrinkling his nose, then the comment of Lister's companion struck him.  She knows Felina-- but if she's a protester, why would she come up here with us?

"Are they all asleep?" the first girl murmured.  Jim quickly closed his eyes, hoping he could overhear more by pretending to be asleep.

"Yeah."  The answer was still whispered, but much closer.  Jim opened one eye slightly, just in time to see one of the girls, the dark-haired one, leaning towards Camille.

What's she doing? he wondered, then he saw her hand close over the muzzle of the harpoon gun he had leaned against his chair.

"Hey!"  Jim sat up abruptly, deciding that stopping her was more important than witnessing anything else.  The Mauan girl yelped and drew back.

"You said they were asleep!" the blonde girl cried shrilly from the hallway.  It was actually her voice and not Jim's that awakened the others.

"Camille, she's after your gun!" Jim cried as Camille's eyes fluttered open.  Immediately, the Octopid swept it up in one tentacle and turned on her, instantly wide awake.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" he snapped.  Amelia drew her own gun as she put her arm protectively around Rosmunda's shoulders, the young girl blinking sleepily.  However, before she could aim, the girls pelted for the outer door to the suite, flinging it open and stumbling outside.

"Felina!" the blonde shrieked.

It didn't register with Jim what they stumbled upon; he was too preoccupied with the knowledge that Felina was outside, that she was involved after all.

"You fools!" he heard Felina's voice reply.  "What did you--"

Amelia jumped to her feet and raced for the door, aiming her gun.  "Stop, or I'll shoot!" she yelled at the girls, who paid her no attention whatsoever.  Jim saw them dash down the hall as Amelia leveled her gun and fired.

Jim knew that Mauans were quick on their feet, but he didn't think anyone could move as fast as Felina Inbal did.  She appeared in the doorway just after Amelia fired her gun, arms raised and crossed at the wrists.  Jim was certain that the bullet would strike her, but there was only a ringing metallic noise.  It took him an instant to realize that the bullet had ricocheted off the large metal bracelets she wore-- bracelets identical to Lead Crow's.

She was Tin Kitty, despite Rosmunda's doubts.  He might not have recognized her if the blonde Mauan hadn't called the warrior before him by Felina's name.  She was now clad completely in black, wearing a hood over her hair and ears, a short pleated skirt, and a collar like Lead Crow's.  Still, the braids trailing from behind either ear were familiar.

"Captain Amelia!" Jim yelled.  "Watch her bracelets--"

"Felina!" Rosmunda cried in what was almost a wail.  "I thought. . . how can it be you?"

"I knew those visions of yours were worthless!" Tin Kitty spat.  "I tried to warn you, you little fool.  I told you to leave."

"I can't leave-- you know I can't!  I can't abandon Mau!"  Rosmunda stood behind Amelia, then stepped around her.

"Rosmunda, stay back!" Amelia snapped, moving in front of her again.

"Oh, fine time for you to protect her now," Tin Kitty hissed at her.  "I told you out there, you're a traitor-- you left her!"  At Amelia's puzzled gaze, the warrior went on, "You abandoned her when you left this planet.  Every one of you with a star seed who leaves, abandons her."

"A star seed?" Jim breathed.

"What's that?" Amelia asked harshly, never taking her eyes from Tin Kitty nor lowering her gun.

"Coronis had one," Camille said before Jim could reply.  "Lead Crow said star seeds are the souls of those who guard planets."

"But I don't guard a planet.  You're insane!" Amelia leveled at Tin Kitty.

"Oh you have one-- I can smell it."  The braided girl took a step forward, her wrists still crossed and raised.  "There were two others with them who left-- left this world of equality to serve princesses," she snarled bitterly, "just like those rotten twins on Coronis.  But at least they had a reason.  You. . . you just ran away."

For the first time since their voyage began-- and for one of the few times in her entire life-- Amelia's composure cracked.  Jim saw her face falter for an instant, and he realized that Amelia believed what Tin Kitty said, at least in part.  She did believe that she had run away.  Then the older woman's face hardened again.

"I'm not running now.  You won't hurt this child."

Amelia must be Mau, Jim thought suddenly.  If she has a star seed, she's this world's guardian-- and we have to protect her.  He glanced swiftly at Camille and found the Octopid's sea green eyes gazing back.  Jim blinked at him, hard, and prayed he had reached the same conclusion.

A faint smile twisted one corner of Camille's mouth, then in a blur of motion, he swung his harpoon gun at Tin Kitty and fired.  She never even took her eyes off Amelia, only moved her right arm, bent at the elbow, towards him.  The tip of his harpoon struck her bracelet, and the steel missile actually bent.  It clattered to the floor harmlessly, the head twisted at a right angle to the shaft.

"Fuck," Camille hissed.  Jim knew he had only carried one harpoon, and if Amelia's bullets were useless--

It's up to me, he thought.  I told Silver I wouldn't do it, but I have to fight her.  He shoved his hand into his pocket.  At least this time I have the dress sphere--

"Move," Tin Kitty spat at Amelia.  She didn't so much as glance as Jim as he pressed the dress sphere into its grid, then felt his staff materialize in his free hand.

"No."

"You've already screwed up; do the right thing this time," Tin Kitty returned.  "You can't protect Rosmunda now, but once I kill her, Galaxia will be satisfied, and she'll leave this planet alone.  Let me have this child's soul."

"Don't listen to her!" Jim shouted at Amelia.  "She's trying to trick you-- she wants your soul."  He raised his staff, feeling the knowledge it bore moving in his mind, whispering to him in what wasn't quite words.

It won't be enough, was the message.  Her powers were given to her by the strongest warrior in the galaxy-- we can't stop her.  Jim tried to ignore it.

"My soul. . . ." Amelia breathed.  "But why--"

"You're Mau!" Jim cried.  "You're this planet's guardian!  You have a star seed--"

"She's not Mau."  Rosmunda spoke in barely a whisper.  "She does have a star seed-- that's why she could see the vision of my future self, and why you could see it too when you touched her.  But she isn't a soldier."  She moved from behind Amelia, pushing the woman away gently.  "Please, don't get in her way-- let her take my soul and go.  You need to stay alive for your family."

"But-- why does she want you--" Amelia protested.

"I am Mau."  Rosmunda reached into the collar of her dress and pulled out a small locket on a chain.  "My mother left this for me when she died.  The crystal inside it allows me to transform."  She smiled softly and whispered something Jim couldn't hear.

Something about Rosmunda changed, and he wondered if it was akin to what happened to him when he put on the dress sphere.  Her clothes altered-- she now had a collar like the other warriors, and she wore a dress similar to Tin Kitty's though it was a soft grey instead of black-- but it was a change greater than her attire.  She was no longer an adolescent girl, though her body was still that of a child.  Now Jim could see the ancient shine of her star seed beyond her corporeal being.  It was the same thing Coronis had had-- and what Lead Crow and Tin Kitty did not.

It doesn't matter what Galaxia promises them, he thought.  They will never be guardians like these.

"Felina," Rosmunda said, calling the other girl by her old name despite her transformation, "why did you warn me?  If you want to destroy me-- why--"

"I don't want to destroy you."  Tin Kitty spoke in a tight voice, though it was softer than before.  "She's making me.  If I tried to turn and walk away-- I wouldn't be able to move."

"You think we'll believe that?" Camille snarled.

"I don't care if you believe it."  She focused her yellow eyes on Rosmunda-- Mau-- and Jim realized that to Tin Kitty, she was the only one who mattered.  "The moment I put on these bracelets, I gave her control of my body, whenever she wants it.  And she's beginning to get my mind."

"Why?" Mau cried.  To Jim's horror, she ran forward to Tin Kitty and clasped her black-gloved hands tightly.  "Why did you put them on?"

"She said I could bring back Mau's lost ones-- the ones who were supposed to protect you but who abandoned you instead."  Tin Kitty's mouth twisted bitterly.  "I'll be able to bring them back all right. . . she's going to make me take their star seeds.  After I take yours."

"I don't believe this-- any of this!" Camille shouted.  "Whoever this woman is, she can't make you kill a little kid if you don't want to!"

"There is nothing I can do.  Try to kill me again-- she will move these bracelets and stop you.  I wish you could kill me!" she said suddenly, her voice wavering.  "Before she takes my mind--"  She tore her hands away from Rosmunda's and pressed them to her temples, cringing in apparent pain.

Mau turned from her and looked up at Amelia mournfully.  "I'm sorry-- I'm sorry you came here.  No one should see her planet meet this fate--"

"But you saw this happen, in your vision," Amelia murmured.  "You saw us here, and you saw her. . . .  Why did you let us come here to fight her, if you knew it wouldn't do any good?"

Mau gave her a small, sad smile.  "You would have come anyway.  This drew you."  She raised her little hand and laid it over Amelia's heart.  "Your star seed-- it led Jim to you years ago, so that one day he could tell you about Tin Kitty. . . and so it could lead you here.  Star seeds call to one another, especially those from the same star."

"But if I'm not a warrior. . . why do I have one?"  Amelia looked at her as if she were the child, and Mau the adult.

"I know who you are now," Mau whispered.  "When the crystal gave me its power and I transformed just now, I saw-- you're their mother."

"They. . .?"

"The other girls I saw in my vision, the ones who will be with my future self.  Their star seeds gained their shine from yours.  Mine will be reborn, also from those who left Mau.  Even though your daughters and I will be a galaxy apart, we'll find each other, and we'll come back to Mau.  We'll come home."

Jim didn't know if it were true, or if Mau were as insane as Tin Kitty.  He rebelled against the girl's words because of one part of what she had said: that Amelia's star seed had brought him to the Legacy.  He thought, If that's true, that means I met Silver because of her.

And then he wondered if Mau had only spoken to distract them from the inevitable, for he, Amelia, and Camille were all watching her and not Tin Kitty when the girl with the braids raised her bracelets and stabbed Mau in the back with a beam of greenish-yellow energy.

Mau's body did not disintegrate, for which Jim was thankful; he didn't think he could stand to see her young form fall to pieces as Coronis' king had.  She didn't even cry out, only flung her grey head back with eyes and mouth wide as crackling, yellow bolts surrounded her body like a knot of lightning.  Just in time, Jim saw it creep up her outstretched arm towards Amelia, who was paralyzed with shock.  He thrust his staff between the two and shoved Amelia backwards with it just before the energy spread to the captain's chest.

"Rosmunda--" Amelia cried, but Jim was now looking at Tin Kitty instead.  Her hands were clenched in fists before her, and she was staring at her bracelets as if she wanted to tear them from her wrists.  What shocked him were the tears streaming down her cheeks.

"I'm sorry," she hissed at Mau, although Jim doubted she could hear.

Isn't there anything I can do? he thought desperately at his staff.  Before it even had a chance to respond, Mau collapsed, her small body twitching, then like Coronis she disappeared.  Again, only a small gem was left, this one a purplish grey.

Amelia had been pushed back against the sofa by Jim's staff, and though she leapt for the gem, she was too far away to reach it before Tin Kitty swiped it up in one black-gloved hand.  Amelia tried to pounce on her, but Tin Kitty drew back, leaving the captain crouched on all fours, glaring up at her.

"She shouldn't have said that about your daughters," Tin Kitty muttered.  "If Galaxia heard, she may send me for their star seeds.  You should go to them as soon as you can-- and pray she didn't hear."

"No," Amelia whispered.  "Not them-- she can't--"  Before she could finish Tin Kitty, like Lead Crow, disappeared.

"Come back!" Amelia shouted.  Logical as ever, she didn't seem to believe that Tin Kitty could have just disappeared, despite the evidence of her own eyes.  The captain ran to the doorway and looked out into the hall.

"Oh no," she murmured, crouching down suddenly.  Jim joined her and found that she was looking at what Felina's accomplices had stumbled over: the bodies of Rosmunda's two guards.

"Are they dead?" Jim asked hoarsely.

Amelia had put her clawed fingertips to the throat of one of them.  "No, praise Cloi-- thank goodness.  He's just unconscious."  Jim was able to find a pulse on the other man as well.

"Tin Kitty must have knocked them out," he muttered, "and she was counting on those girls to steal our weapons and let her into the room."

The captain looked at him sharply.  "What did they do with Lister and the Cat?  Surely they would have tried to help--"

Jim jumped to his feet and hurried back inside.  Camille was already moving into the hallway of the suite; he flung open Lister's door as Jim reached him.

Lister greeted them with an "It took ya smeggin' long enough!"

"Wow," said Camille as they looked in at the so-called god, who was tied to the bed with some rather uncomfortable-looking ropes.  "And I thought I had some kinky ideas."

"It wasn't like that."  Lister sat up shakily after Jim and Camille untied him; Jim was quite relieved that the captive was clothed.  "She must've done it while I was asleep-- I woke up this way.  What I wanna know is why.  And where'd she go, anyway?"

"Let's see what state that cat of yours is in first," Camille muttered as he stalked across the hall to the other room.  "I don't want to have to explain this twice."

The Cat was in a similar condition; he had been handcuffed to the bed.  Fortunately, the cuffs utilized buckles and not a key.  "Why'd she do it when I was asleep?" he complained once he was free.  "I didn't even get to enjoy it!"  He stopped and looked Jim up and down.  "And what the hell are you wearin'?"

"Never mind," Jim said wearily.

"Now will you tell us what's goin' on?" Lister demanded when they were all gathered in the living room of the suite.  Amelia was sitting on the edge of the sofa, staring blankly ahead.

"That girl with the braids was Tin Kitty, and your little girlfriends were working for her," Camille said brusquely.  "They tied you up, tried to take our weapons, and let her in-- and she killed Rosmunda."

"She what?"  Jim felt considerably better about Lister when he saw the pained expression on the man's face.  He regulated it a second later, but Jim realized that he really was upset.  "Where's the-- the body?"

"It disappeared," Camille said flatly.  "Don't ask how."

"But how could she hurt a little kid like that?" Lister said bitterly.

"Rosmunda was this planet's guardian," Amelia murmured.  "That's how-- her age didn't matter."  She suddenly turned and looked at Jim.  "Hawkins, we have to get back to Montressor.  If she goes after the girls--"

"What girls?" the Cat asked; at the same time, Jim asked her, "What about your aunt and uncle?"

Amelia had already gotten to her feet.  "I don't think they're in any danger now.  Tin Kitty got what Galaxia wanted, and I'll wager she's already gone."

"Mau certainly got off easier than Coronis did," Camille muttered, then he gestured at the prostrate bodyguards.  "What about them?  And how are we going to explain what happened to the kid-- and Tin Kitty for that matter?"

"I say we don't explain," the Cat declared.  "I say we do what Goal-Post Head would do."

"And what's that?" Camille asked, folding his arms.

The Cat and Lister looked at each other.  "Run like hell."

"I didn't even think about that," Amelia said with a pained expression.  "We can't just leave-- Rosmunda's father--"

"--will never believe that some other kid waltzed in and zapped his daughter out of existence, then disappeared," the Cat finished.  "He'll have us all arrested!"

"But they think Lister's a god--" Jim began.

"They'll find out I'm not pretty soon if we stick around," Lister said with a shudder.  "Even if those two guards out there can tell 'em anythin' about Felina when they wake up, that still don't prove we weren't helpin' her."

"Well, Captain Hawkins?" Camille said sardonically.  "What do you think?"

Jim cringed; he hated how it always seemed that he was the one who had to make the tough decisions.  But I am a captain now, more or less, he thought.  I guess it comes with the territory.

"I. . . I hate to say it, but I think the Cat's right.  Even if we can convince them that we didn't do anything to Rosmunda-- or Felina for that matter-- it will probably take days.  And we. . . may not have that long," he said reluctantly, glancing up at Amelia.

"You're right," she admitted in a flat tone.  "Tin Kitty would get to Montressor first."

"Why're you so worried about her gettin' to this Montressor?" Lister asked.

"My daughters are there," Amelia told him in a low voice.  "She said that she might-- go after them."

"She 'might'?"

When Amelia didn't respond, Jim explained, "Tin Kitty claims that Galaxia made her attack us-- that she's taken over her body or something.  She said that Galaxia might force her to go after Amelia's daughters."

"That's rubbish," Amelia spat.  "No one can take over another person's body like that-- but it doesn't matter who's in control; we must reach Montressor before Tin Kitty does."

"If it helps any, I think it's what Rosmunda would want us to do."  Jim hesitated, then put his hand on Amelia's arm.  "She believed that your daughters will be her friends someday, and she would want them protected at all costs."

For the first time in what felt to Jim like a long while, Amelia smiled faintly, then she stalked to the door.  "It's still early.  We might be able to make it back to the ship without being noticed, if we hurry."

"Not with him dressed like that."  The Cat pointed at Jim.

"And you might want to put on some pants," Jim retorted.  "I've seen enough of your underwear as it is."

While the Cat and Lister went back to their rooms to pull on their clothes, Jim picked up his staff and dress sphere, which he had abandoned in the excitement.

Sorry I couldn't help.  Jim started and looked around before he realized that the thought had come from his staff.

It wasn't your fault, Jim thought.  We all should have been more careful-- me more than any of them, after Coronis.  He was a little sorry when he disconnected the sphere from the garment grid, and his staff disappeared.  The loss of its presence left him feeling very alone.

The unconscious guards were still breathing when the fugitives left a few moments later; Jim hoped that they would live.  Is this how Silver felt when he left the Legacy? he wondered as the five of them took the elevator to the hotel lobby. Did he feel this guilty for. . . running away?  As much as he cared for Silver, Jim didn't think that he had.

The paparazzi had apparently given up at some point during the night, for the only Mauan in the lobby was the night clerk, asleep at the front desk.  Jim peered out through the glass doors of the hotel but saw no one.

"I think it's clear," he whispered as he cautiously opened the door.  Mau's sun had not yet risen, and the streets were only dimly lit with the hazy grey light of pre-dawn.  They crossed the square to Starbug quickly, and although they didn't see another person, Jim didn't feel safe until they were sealed inside the craft.

"You there, Hol?" Lister called to the computer as he and the Cat jumped into the two front seats on Starbug's bridge.

"What's up, Dave?" Holly asked from her monitor.

"Get us outta here, fast," Lister commanded.

"Oh lovely.  What trouble did you get into this time?" she muttered as Starbug lifted off the pavement where it had landed.

"It wasn't our fault," the Cat protested.

"I'll tell you about it later," Lister promised.  He half-turned in his seat to look back at Jim, who had taken the seat behind him.  "Do you have a computer on that flyin' boat of yours?"

"Of course," Jim retorted.

"Can Holly get the directions to Montressor from it?"

"She should be able to," Jim replied, a bit puzzled.  "But why?"

"The Dwarf can get you there a lot faster than that little raft you flew in on."  Lister glanced at the Cat.  "Now that you've been 'treated,' I assume you don't mind takin' a side trip?"

"Wait, what do you mean you can get us there faster?" Jim exploded.  "The Revolution's tiny compared to that floating planet you call a ship!"

"Yeah, and our floatin' planet's got a helluva lot more powerful drive," Lister growled.  "But if you don't want our help--"

"Of course we do," Amelia interrupted.  "He's right, Hawkins.  Your ship might be able to maneuver more quickly, but theirs will make the trip in much less time nevertheless.  Thank you for the offer, Mr. Lister."

"It's nothin'.  Not like we have a particularly pressin' schedule or anything."

Jim was still a bit miffed at the insult to the Revolution, but upon reflection he had to admit that Lister was probably right.  And the sooner we can get back, the better, no matter how we get there.

When Starbug was safely docked inside the Red Dwarf, Holly set the ship in motion towards Montressor, having found the coordinates in the Revolution's computer.  Lister related the previous hours' events to the rest of his crewmates once everyone had gathered on the Dwarf's bridge.

"Being helpful is all well and good, but are we ever going to get back to our own mission?" Rimmer complained.

"What is your mission, anyway?"  Camille folded his tentacles and glared at the hologram.

"We're trying to get back to our home planet," Lister said softly.  "At least, me and Rimmer's home.  But since it's taken us this long, a little detour won't hurt," he added with a grin.  "Holly said we should get to your planet in a few hours."

"Is there somewhere I could lie down for a bit?" Amelia asked abruptly.  "I'd. . . like to be alone for a little while."

"Certainly, ma'am," Kryten assured her.  "I'll show you to one of the unused sleeping quarters."

Jim watched them go worriedly.  He was concerned about Amelia's almost total silence since they had left Mau, but he had the feeling that trying to talk to her would just make things worse.  I hope she'll be all right, he thought dismally.

"I think we all need a drink," Lister declared after they were gone.  "I'll show you to the bar."

"That," said Camille, "is the best idea I've heard all day."

"Isn't it a little early?"  Jim made a face.

"It's never too early for a drink," Camille replied.

"I think I'll pass," Jim said anyway.  "Would you guys mind if I take a look around the bridge?  I'd like to see how things work here-- might give me some ideas for my ship."

Lister shrugged.  "Sure, we don't mind."

"I'll show you around," Rimmer told Jim with a glare at Lister.  "Some of us are more interested in piloting the ship than in guzzling beer at every opportunity."

"Oh, smeg off, Rimmer," Lister retorted, then motioned for Camille and the Cat to follow him to the lift.

"So do you two ever get along?" Jim asked Rimmer with a faint smile once the others were gone.  Focusing on someone else's problems took his mind off Mau and Amelia.

"It isn't my fault," the hologram sniffed.  "If you had to live with a slob like Listy, you'd fantasize about chucking him out into space ten times a day too!"

"He can't be that bad," Jim said as he began to study some of the controls on the bridge.  "We got along with him well enough on Mau."

"That's just because you didn't have to put up with him doing the same things over and over for years," Rimmer retorted.  "Do you know that out of the last 365 days, he's had curry for dinner 360 times?"

"What about the other five?" Jim asked absently.  Rimmer wasn't doing much to convince him that Lister was hard to live with, but it certainly seemed that the opposite was true.

"He never washes any of his clothes," the hologram railed on, "and what's worse, he wears the dirty ones over again.  He wore the same underwear five days in a row, and--"

"And 'ow d'you know that?" Holly put in, making Jim jump.  He'd forgotten all about the computer's presence.

"That's not the point!  And I'll thank you to keep out of conversations that involve human beings."

"But you're an 'ologram, not--" the computer began, but Rimmer switched off her monitor feed before she could finish.

"I'm sure it's hard being stuck alone on a ship with any small group of people for a long time," Jim responded to the tirade.

"Oh yes, it's hard.  And it's bloody smeggin' impossible if one of them is Lister!" Rimmer exploded.  Jim winced; apparently the hologram had been waiting for a new victim to listen to him rant.  "Do you know what the most annoying thing about Lister is?"

Jim supposed that answering him was the quickest way to get the conversation over with.  "No."

"The way he says my name when he's mad.  Not Rimmer, but Rimmah.  It's so-- so smegging sexy."

"It's what?"  Jim finally looked up from the panel he was examining.

"I mean, it would be if it were coming from anyone else.  Like a woman.  But instead, he has to say it like that."  Rimmer jabbed a holographic finger in Jim's direction.  "I bet you he does it just to annoy me!"

"No wonder you turned Holly's monitor off.  You like him, don't you?"  Jim smirked and turned back to the controls.

"What do you mean, 'like him'?  You mean, fancy him?  Fancy Lister?  Ha!"  Rimmer took a few steps toward Jim, then glared down at him.  "You're not going to tell him about this, are you?"

"Tell him what, that you don't 'fancy' him?"  At Rimmer's indignant splutter, Jim sighed, "No, of course not.  And I'm sure he doesn't do things to annoy you on purpose.  I don't know either of you very well, but I think you're just very different from each other.  So it's hard for you to get along."

"Which is exactly why I do not fancy him."

"All right, all right."  Jim gave up on both the argument and trying to make any sense out of the Dwarf's controls.  "This is all way too different from my ship.  And besides, I don't like leaving Camille unsupervised in a bar for this long.  Can you show me where it is?"

Jim had to promise to keep quiet about their conversation at least five times on the trip to the bar, but they finally reached it.  He had thought the mini-bar Rin had put into the Revolution was excessive, but it was nothing compared to the full blown pub that the Red Dwarf boasted.  Lister and the Cat were seated at the bar, but the Octopid was nowhere in sight.

"Okay, where's Camille?" Jim asked Lister impatiently.  "He hasn't passed out already, has he?"

"Listy would be the first to go, so if he's still vertical, your friend is too," Rimmer muttered.

"You're a smeg-head, Rimmer," Lister said automatically.  "And Kryten took Camille to the medical bay to take those stitches out of his chin."

"Uh, is that a good idea?"  Jim raised an eyebrow.  "Especially considering that Camille's been drinking, and no offense to Kryten, but his hands don't look exactly. . . fine-tuned."

"Oh, Kryten's nanobots'll be doin' the work," Lister said in a reassuring manner.

"Uh, nanobots?"

"Yeah, microscopic mechanoids.  Kryten's got billions of 'em.  They can take out the stitches and repair any scar tissue in minutes.  He'll be good as new-- or maybe better," Lister added with a snicker.  "You sure you don't want a drink?"

Jim started to refuse, then decided that maybe it would ease the depression he felt every time he thought about Mau.  "Okay," he gave in as he sat next to Lister.  "Nothing too strong though."

The Cat mixed a drink for him-- Jim never figured out what was in it, but it was delicious-- then said casually, "Maybe I better go check on Amelia.  She might be lonely all by herself."

"Cat, she wanted to be by herself," Lister retorted.

"Well, maybe she changed her mind.  Can't hurt to go check!"  He headed for the lift before anyone could stop him.

"I think it can hurt, judging from those claws of hers," Rimmer said grimly as he sat down on Jim's other side.

"So what's this I hear about her havin' daughters?" Lister asked Jim.

"Don't get too excited," Jim said wryly.  "They're just babies.  She has triplet girls and an older son.  Rosmunda said that the girls have star seeds, like she did, so we think Tin Kitty might try to attack them too."

"She'd kill children?" Rimmer said skeptically.

"She already did," Jim muttered.  "Rosmunda was a lot older than the triplets, but she was still a little girl.  Maybe," he went on more optimistically, "she won't be able to find them.  I think she left the planet before we did, so unless she was hanging around to follow us--"

"There aren't any craft near us," Holly put in from another of her monitors.

"That don't mean she won't find 'em if she's anything like our Cat," Lister said grimly.  "I hate to rain on your parade, but Cat can smell other cats through space.  If she has that kind of sense of smell, there's a good chance she can find those kids."

"Is there anything we can do to help?" Rimmer asked.  When Jim looked at him hopefully, he quickly qualified, "That doesn't involve us getting out of the ship and fighting her."

"Oh. . . no, I don't think so.  Thanks for the ride though-- that's a big help.  If we can get to Montressor before she does, then we have a shot at protecting them."

"Sorry Rimmer's such a smeggin' coward," Lister said acerbically.

"I am not!" Rimmer retorted.  "I'm just practical!"

"It's all right," Jim told them.  "You've already helped us a lot."

"Maybe I should just go with you," Lister muttered.

"That would be fine with me!" responded Rimmer.

"Calm down, both of you," Jim groaned.  "I've got enough to worry about without you two fighting.  Look, maybe you get on each other's nerves, but if one of you really did leave-- I bet you'd miss each other."

"Oh, come on."  Lister rolled his eyes.

"I mean it," Jim protested.  "No matter how mad I got at some of my crewmates on my first voyage, I really missed them after it was over.  Especially. . . some of them."

Lister looked at him thoughtfully, but before he could reply Camille returned.   "Well, what do you think?" he asked Jim with a smirk.

"That's. . . that's amazing," Jim said in amazement as he studied Camille's jaw.  The pale skin was smooth and unbroken without even a scar.  It was as if it had never been wounded.

"My nanobots were just doing their job, sir," Kryten said modestly as he followed Camille into the room.

Camille perched on the empty stool next to Lister.  "Jim, Kryten says those little things can even rebuild whole limbs.  You think Silver would be interested?"

Jim started slightly and stared at the innocuous-looking android.  He tried to imagine Silver not as a cyborg, but as a completely organic being.  "No," he said slowly.  "Not with everything he can do with his mechanical parts."  And he wouldn't be Silver without them. . . .

"Who's Silver?" Lister asked.

"Our other crewmate, who's a cyborg," Jim said slowly.  "Amelia doesn't know about him though, so don't say anything, okay?"

"Why not?"  Rimmer's tone was suspicious.  Jim didn't think that it would be such a good idea to tell him that Silver was a pirate; Lister would probably find the situation amusing, but Rimmer seemed like the type who would go straight to the police of whatever world was closest.

"He's Jim's boyfriend," Camille said before Jim could come up with a response, "and she doesn't go in for that kind of thing."

Jim felt his face grow hot.  "Camille!"  Still, it was better than blurting out that Silver had led a mutiny.

"Whoa, sorry I asked," Lister chuckled.  "So you're. . . wow."

"So am I, so I hope you don't have problem with it," Camille announced.  "Otherwise I guess I don't have much chance of getting another drink."

"Of course I don't have a problem with it."  Lister leaned over the bar and got a bottle for Camille.  "It's just. . . always seemed a bit weird to me.  I mean, why do you want to do it with another guy when there're so many girls in the universe?"

Camille glanced at him.  "How many details do you want to know?"

"It's not like I chose," Jim interrupted before Camille could get into the "details."  "Sometimes you just. . . fall in love with somebody, and it doesn't matter what gender they are.  Or even what species.  I mean, Captain Amelia married a dog."

"Oh goodness," Kryten murmured.  "Please don't tell the Cat.  He'd have a fit."

"Can we please talk about something else?" griped Rimmer, who had been fidgeting throughout the whole situation.

"Yeah," said Jim, glad to get off the subject of Silver in case Amelia should join them.  "Let's."

The Red Dwarf did make the trip to Montressor considerably faster than the Revolution could have, and a few hours later, Holly announced that they were approaching the planet.  Everyone began making their way to the docking bay, with Lister and Jim trailing behind the others.

"You know, I was thinkin' about what you said," Lister said slowly.  "I guess. . . maybe you have a point."

"Hunh?  About what?"

"The bein' in love thing.  I mean, all my girlfriends have been human-- and girls-- but I guess if I cared about someone enough, it wouldn't matter what he-- what they were."

Jim grinned slightly.  "Yeah, you'd be amazed at how much quits mattering."

Amelia met the others in the docking bay, looking more pulled-together than she had earlier.  The Cat was nowhere to be found, although Kryten had reported seeing him skulking away some hours ago with rather conspicuous claw marks on his face.

"Thank you for your help," Amelia told Lister.

"Sorry we couldn't do more.  And good luck with everything. . . the kids and all."

She nodded brusquely, then turned to board the Revolution.  Jim glanced up at the nearest of Holly's monitors.

"Holly, are we right over Montressor?"

"That's affirmative.  The bay should open towards your side of the planet if I understood your computer correctly.  Bloke was a bit 'ard to follow."

"Thanks, Holly," Jim told her.  "And thanks to all of you too."

"It was an honor meeting you, sir," Kryten enthused.

"If we're ever in the neighborhood again, we'll look you up."  Lister shook Jim's hand and grinned.  Rimmer gave him the same complicated salute he had given upon their first meeting.

"I'll be glad to get away from here," Camille muttered a few moments later when he and Jim were on the Revolution's deck and the Dwarf's crew had retreated.  "I think they're all positively batty on this ship.  Especially that robot-- I'm amazed my face is still in one piece."

"You have to admit though, he did a good job," Jim pointed out.  "There's not even a bit of a scar."

"Well, I am relieved.  Wouldn't want my gorgeous looks compromised," Camille replied sardonically.

When the door to the docking bay was raised, Jim found himself looking almost straight downward at Montressor's surface.  Amelia stood near the stern as Jim and Camille piloted the Revolution out of the docking bay and into space.  Jim glanced back at the huge, hulking body of the Red Dwarf.

I wish Silver could've seen it, he thought.  A ship as large as a planet. . . he would have loved it.

"I hope they find their home," he said aloud as he turned back to the ship's wheel.

"I wouldn't count on it," said Camille.

 

True to Holly's word, the Revolution descended upon the Benbow's hemisphere of Montressor.  It was raining when the ship broke into the planet's atmosphere, and soon even the hulk of the Red Dwarf was concealed in clouds.

Jim left the gravity barrier on for as long as he could in order to shield them from the rain, but the wind was blowing the falling water almost horizontally by the time the ship had landed at the Benbow's dock.  Even with the umbrellas Amelia found below deck, the small crew was soaked the instant Jim took the shields down.

Despite the heavy rain, Sarah had seen the ship's approach, and she was waiting on the dock under a large umbrella when Camille lowered the gang plank.

"What are you doing back so soon?" she was asking Amelia when Jim joined them after dropping anchor.  "I didn't expect you for another two days!"

"Have you seen Delbert and the children today?" Amelia asked without answering Sarah's question.

"Yes, they were here just a little while ago," Sarah replied; her expression was bemused but she seemed to realize from Amelia's tone that something was wrong.  "They just left on the Crescentia shuttle--"

"What?" cried Amelia.  "Why?"

"He said he had to speak to an acquaintance there about some research he's doing, so he was going to take the kids up a couple days early and surprise you."

"Hawkins--"  Amelia turned and looked at Jim, who nodded.

"Camille, get ready to launch again," he said.

"Mother of Cthulhu," the Octopid muttered as he went to the rigging.

"Jim, what is it?" Sarah asked sharply.

"I don't have time to explain now, Mom," Jim told her as he began hauling the anchor back in.  "I'll tell you later."

She's going to worry, he thought ruefully as they rushed through the preparations of another launch.  I wish I could tell her I wasn't in any danger-- but if she knew who was in danger, she'd probably worry even more.

The distance between Montressor and Crescentia had never seemed so far before.  The Red Dwarf was gone when the Revolution broke out of Montressor's rainy atmosphere and hurtled towards the other side of the planet where Crescentia was currently located.  Finally the crescent-shaped structure came into view.  Amelia paced to the bow then back to the stern where Jim was steering.

"Do you know who Dr. Doppler might be visiting?" he asked her, figuring that they would save time if they could determine Delbert's location before landing.

"No, he has several friends here.  Damn it, I should have paid more attention when he told me about his current work," she hissed in self-recrimination.  "Then I'd know whom he went to see."

"Did you tell him where you would be staying?" Jim tried.  "Maybe he would get a room there."

"No, I didn't even know myself," she said desperately.  "I left him the address of that lawyer of yours, but that's all."

"Then we'll go there first.  Maybe he went there to find out where you're staying."  Jim tried to sound more confident than he felt.

Cthulhu or Cloister or somebody was watching out for them, Jim decided, because when they entered the outer room of Bertrand's office some time later, he heard Delbert's familiar drone coming from the inner chamber.  The three of them burst into the room with Amelia in the lead; Jim got a glimpse of an intensely bored expression on Bertrand's face, coupled with a wary glance at the basket of assorted young Dopplers which was resting on the chair not occupied by their father.

"Delbert!" Amelia cried, though she gravitated to the basket containing her sleeping children.  "They're all right--"

"Of course they're all right!" Doppler retorted.  "I'm perfectly capable of caring for them myself for a few days, and-- what are you doing back so soon anyway?"

"We have to take them some place safer," Amelia muttered, scooping up the basket.  "Someone from Mau is after them-- an absolutely bloody madwoman--"

As she seemed more intent on rescuing the triplets than explaining, Jim hurriedly told Delbert, "It's the girl we thought might be threatening Mau.  She killed a child there and said she might come after your daughters.  Captain Amelia's right; we need to take them to where we can protect them."

Delbert, as Jim might have expected, began to freak out.  Bertrand of all people ended up asking the sensible questions.  "Was she following your ship?  How can she find them here?"

"She's a cat," Camille said, twitching his nose in disgust.  "Apparently she can smell them.  Through space."  His expression clearly said that he didn't believe the claim.  Jim wasn't sure he believed it either, but after seeing what Tin Kitty was capable of, he wasn't about to take chances.

"I don't know this port very well," Amelia said as she lugged the children outside.  "Where's the safest place for them?"

Jim hadn't seen enough of Crescentia to know, despite living "next door" to it for most of his life, and Delbert was reduced to a babble of worry.  Jim looked at Bertrand, who said softly, "We should take them to the boarding house."

"What?" Jim hissed at him.  "We can't!"

"Jim, he can protect them," Bertrand said in a low voice.  "He's the only one who could, if this woman is like-- like Garnet. . . ."

"Who?" Amelia asked sharply.  "Who can protect them?"

Jim glared up at the lawyer in fury.  He's getting back at me for making him keep my secret, he thought irately.  He knew in his heart that it wasn't true, that Bertrand was right-- but how could he sacrifice Silver, even for the sake of three innocent little girls?

"Is this the best you could do?"  The shrill voice felt like an ice cube trailed down Jim's spine.  She found us.  "Standing in the middle of the street, waiting on me?  You're pathetic!  No wonder Mau is dead."

Tin Kitty was standing at the end of the street where she had just rounded the corner from the docks.  The few other pedestrians on the small street were staring at the confrontation as if unsure whether to laugh or run.  Amelia didn't even turn to look at her; instead, she shoved the handle of her children's basket into Bertrand's hands.

"Take them," she hissed.  "Whoever can protect them, take them to him."

Jim wouldn't have thought that the Coronid would even be able to lift the basket containing the weight of four living bodies, yet as he watched, Bertrand spread his wings and launched himself into the air with his cargo.

I have to get to Silver before Amelia does, Jim thought irrationally, tell him I'm sorry--

"I'll meet you there!" he yelled up at Bertrand and broke off in a run down a side alley that would lead to the boarding house most quickly.  Bertrand would reach it first through the air, but Jim could make it before Amelia-- or Tin Kitty.

 

"What kind of mother are you?" Tin Kitty screeched at Amelia as Bertrand carried her children sky-ward.  At the same time, the braided girl started down the street towards them at a run.

Camille was dimly aware of Jim pelting off in the other direction, but he was more concerned with Tin Kitty.  She's nuts, he thought, abso-fucking-lutely insane-- or else Galaxia really is controlling her body.  For the look on the girl's face was horrified even as her slender legs propelled her towards her target.

She started to raise her arms, crossing her bracelets before her.  In his mind, Camille saw the laser-like beam of energy that had stabbed Mau in the back-- literally-- emanating from those innocent-looking golden cuffs.  She was aiming that power at the girls.

No, Camille realized with a sudden, sickening horror, she's aiming it at him.

He had often cursed his tentacles, which both fetishized him and made him ungainly on land.  But now, had he actually believed in Cthulhu, Camille would have thanked him for them from the bottom of his soul, because he was able to cover the distance between himself and Tin Kitty faster than any biped could.

"Bertrand!" he screamed.  The Coronid paused in midair and looked back at the moment Camille collided with the Mauan girl and coiled his tentacles about her ankles.  She crashed to the paving stones as the yellow-green energy beam shot from her bracelets, now aimlessly.  Camille landed on top of her, pinioning her limbs. . . . or so he thought until one of her patent-leather boots connected with his mid-section.

It took all of Camille's will-power not to just curl up into a ball at the feeling of agony that shot through his body-- that and the thought that he was all that was keeping Tin Kitty from killing Bertrand.  At least she didn't aim lower, he told himself, which cheered him considerably.  He pounced on her again, holding all of her limbs this time.

"Camille--" he heard the Coronid wail; he managed to raise his head to glare up at Bertrand.

"Get out of here, you feather-brain!" he shrieked.  "I can't hold her for long!"  As if to prove his point, Tin Kitty screamed at him inarticulately and almost jerked one arm free.

Bertrand hesitated an instant longer, then he turned and flew off towards the boarding house.  Just a few more minutes, Camille thought, until he can get to Silver.  First my face and now this, all because I keep falling in love.  Not being a selfish bastard anymore is hazardous to my health.

 

Jim reached the boarding house just after Bertrand, despite the Coronid's faster mode of travel.  He ran across the porch and inside to find Bertrand in the foyer with the children, yelling for Silver.  Jim wasn't sure if it were due to the flight or the yelling, but the babies were bellowing like banshees.

Jim almost collapsed in relief when he heard Silver's voice and the sound of his cyborg leg thumping on the stairs.  "What in blazes is goin' on-- Jimbo!" Silver broke off when he saw Jim and hurried down the rest of the stairs.

"It's Tin Kitty," Jim panted, not even considering that Silver might not know who he meant.  "She's after the triplets-- they have star seeds--"

"Stars alive," Silver growled.  "Where's Amelia?"

"At my office-- she may follow--" Bertrand gasped.  "Silver, I'm sorry, but you're the only one strong enough to protect--"

"I don't blame ye," Silver said in a low voice.  He gave Jim a pained look, then opened the door into the parlor and gestured at Bertrand.  "In here.  There's only the one door; we can guard it better."

Bertrand hauled the basket of wailing children into a corner of the parlor then fretted over them, obviously with no clue as to what to do with them.  Jim crouched next to the basket and spoke to them softly; at the familiar face and voice, they calmed somewhat.  Then Tisiphone looked up at Silver with a coo and raised her little arms.

"She remembers you," Jim said with a shaky smile.

Silver started to speak, but the bang of the front door being flung open silenced him.  Jim turned to face the parlor door, shielding the children as best he could, as Silver moved towards the noise.

Jim reached into his pocket and pressed his dress sphere into its garment grid.  We need all the help we can get, he thought grimly.  He heard one of the girls squeal in amazement as his appearance changed, and Bertrand gave him an exceedingly strange look, but there wasn't time to explain.

"I know they're here!" Tin Kitty's screech echoed through the house.  "I smell them--"

"Yer not gettin' anywhere near 'em!" Silver bellowed at her as she burst into the room.

Momentarily, Tin Kitty was surprised; she stared at Silver in bewilderment and breathed,  "You!"  Before she finished, he rammed his shoulder into hers, knocking the much smaller girl halfway across the room and into a wall.

If she shoots at us, can you block it? Jim asked the dress sphere.

We can try, the staff answered.  It "spoke" none too soon, for Tin Kitty raised her bracelets from where she was half-crouched against the wall and fired at Jim and the children.

Don't think about it; just move me.  The staff's command was in Jim's mind instantly, without words, and he obeyed automatically.  He swung the staff's ring-shaped head up, feeling an adrenaline-like burst of magic as it reflected Tin Kitty's beam harmlessly into a wall.  The wall emerged unscathed; apparently the bracelets only worked on living beings.

"What did you do to Camille?" Bertrand yelled at the Mauan, apparently out of nowhere.  He pounced on her before Silver could reach her, striking her across the face.

"Get away from her, ye fool!" Silver shouted.  He yanked Bertrand off of the girl and flung him aside; the result was that the beam she had aimed at the Coronid only singed his feathers.  She got off another shot at Jim, which the staff again deflected, before Silver grabbed her wrists and pinned them against the wall.

Tin Kitty freed her right wrist from his organic hand briefly but even her Galaxia-enhanced strength was no match for the cyborg hand that held her left wrist.  Silver grabbed her right arm and pinned it once more, leaving her helpless.

"What do we do?" Jim panted, wanting to help Silver but afraid to take the staff's protective power away from the children.

"Kill me," Tin Kitty hissed, even as she struggled to free herself.  "Please.  Galaxia will send me after Lead Crow, to Sol-- she wants the star seeds of the other two who abandoned Mau.  Even if you save these children, you can't protect them, on the other side of the galaxy--"

"I don't care about them," Silver growled at her.  "But ye aren't hurtin' these kids."

"Don't you care?"  Tin Kitty raised her golden eyes to his, one organic and one mechanical.  "Do you know who those two traitors are?"

Suddenly Jim remembered Rosmunda's last words: Mine will be reborn, also from those who left Mau.  "They're her parents," he murmured.  "They'll be Rosmunda's parents when she's reborn--"

"I know you," Tin Kitty went on to Silver, either ignoring or not hearing Jim.  "When Galaxia showed me those two, I saw that one was once a little girl who was friends with her father's cook.  He was a lot younger then, and he wasn't a cyborg yet, but--"

"Luna," Silver whispered.

"If you want to save her, kill me now, before Galaxia stops you!"

For the first time in years, Jim saw a look of pure fury on Silver's face.  He hated that expression, the thought that the man he loved could look so cold-- but this time, he was grateful for it.  Silver might not have killed Tin Kitty for Amelia's children, but he would do it for Luna.

However he didn't get the chance.  For the second time in five minutes, a Mauan stumbled into the parlor and was frozen with shock at seeing John Silver.

"You--" Amelia gasped, breathless from running after Tin Kitty with Delbert wheezing behind her.  Camille, who had led her to the boarding house, slumped to the floor just behind her, panting and clutching his stomach.

Silver only glanced at her for an instant, but it was long enough.  He drew back his cyborg hand, switching its fingers to the knives he used for chopping as he did so, and plunged it at Tin Kitty's breast.  Yet the second he had looked at Amelia was all Galaxia needed to gain full control of the Mauan girl's body, and as before, she disappeared.  Silver's knives plunged into the wall and stuck there, useless.

"Damn ye!" Silver roared; Jim didn't know if it was directed at Tin Kitty or at Amelia.  The cyborg drew his hand back, freeing the knives from Mrs. Ufford's toile wallpaper, and rotated his fingers back into position.

"Silver--"  Jim stumbled to his feet, shaking now that the danger to Silver's life was past, and ran to the cyborg.  Silver embraced him tightly, his organic hand in Jim's hair.

Jim momentarily forgot all about Amelia as Silver whispered, "Are ye all right, lad?"

"I'm all right."  Jim pressed his forehead against Silver's chest, then gazed up at him.  Silver gave him a weak smile that faded when he looked towards the corner of the room where the children were.

Jim turned as well.  Amelia was crouched over the basket with Megaera already caught up in one arm.  As Delbert joined her, she looked up at Silver and Jim, who was still pressed against the cyborg.

"You. . . ." she said again, softly.  Her green eyes rested on Jim; he saw utter incomprehension in them.  She had no idea, he thought, then he realized, judging from the way Silver was holding him, that she probably now had every idea.

I don't care.  He looked away from her and rested his head on Silver's chest again.  I don't care what she thinks, or what she does.  If she calls the police, we'll run away or I'll go to prison with him--

Amelia murmured, "You saved my children."  Jim felt Silver's organic hand clench in his hair, but he said nothing.

"But where did she go?" Delbert asked.  When Jim finally brought himself to look at the Dopplers again, Delbert was holding his son and Tisiphone, who was tugging blithely on her father's ear.  "What if she comes back?"

"She won't come back," Silver said hoarsely.  "Galaxia won't waste her here.  She wants. . . Luna."

"But how do you know--"

Silver finally let go of Jim and sank heavily into a floral-patterned arm chair.  "Same thing happened on Coronis.  The girl left for the Sol system.  That's Galaxia's goal."

Jim had had enough of being a Black Mage for a while, and he removed the dress sphere from its grid to return to normal.  No one even noticed this time, but after a moment, Amelia looked at him.

"Is he right?  She won't come back?"

"No," Jim said softly.  "She's gone."

"Hawkins," she said abruptly, "I don't understand.  Does your mother--"

Jim was saved for the moment by the appearance of Mrs. Ufford in the doorway, back from a shopping trip.  "Well my goodness!" she exclaimed, looking over the motley assortment of guests in her parlor.  "What's all this?"

"Erm, they're some. . . friends of my family," Jim said slowly.  "Captain Amelia and Dr. Doppler. . . and their children."

"Yes, we're, ah, visiting friends," Delbert said quickly as he stood up, still burdened with the two children.

"Oh, how lovely!  I'm Jim's landlady, Mrs. Ufford.  I do hope y'all are plannin' to stay for dinner," she enthused.  Then she noticed Camille, still slouched on the floor.  "Don't tell me you've gotten in another fight."

"You could say that," he muttered weakly.

"You boys are gonna be the death of me!  Just wait until that 'un gets a little bigger, honey," she said confidentially to Amelia with a gesture at Delbert Jr.  "He'll drive you crazy!  Like I don't have enough to do fixin' dinner--"

"I'll take care of Camille," Bertrand assured her.  "You can go. . . work on dinner."

"The two of you together don't amount to half as much sense as a single woman has," Mrs. Ufford declared, "but I don't have much choice.  Do you bunch have a place to stay?" she asked the Dopplers abruptly.

"Yes, we have a room at--"

"Well, that's good, but y'all are welcome to rest in one of the empty rooms if you want.  Dinner won't be ready for a couple hours."

"Thank you," Amelia said as she stood slowly.  Mrs. Ufford nodded in a distracted manner and bustled off to the kitchen.

"Good thing she didn't notice the knife holes in her wall," Silver muttered.  He got up and edged his chair over to cover the spot before sitting down again.

"Do you. . . want me to show you where an empty room is?" Jim asked Amelia hesitantly.

"I think," she replied, "that we need to discuss a few things first.  All of us," she added sharply with a look at Delbert, who seemed to be looking around for an escape.

"Right," Jim sighed.  He looked at Camille and Bertrand, who was standing awkwardly next to the Octopid's spot on the floor.  "Uh, you probably don't want to be here for this."

"I suspect you're right," Bertrand muttered as he crouched down next to Camille.  "Are you all right?"

"Except for having a boot print on my stomach, sure."

"Come on."  Bertrand put his arms around the Octopid gingerly and helped him to stand, then led him towards the door.  "I'll get you some ice for that."

When they were gone, Amelia sat down on a sofa even more floral than Silver's chair.  "Hawkins, how. . . how did this happen?"

Jim told her.  He left out the small fact that he and Silver were lovers-- although he had a suspicion that Amelia had already guessed-- but he told her and Delbert everything else, from Spira to Coronis and from Camille to Scroop.

"And Sarah knew all of this?" Amelia said in a tight voice.

"I didn't tell her about Coronis or Scroop," Jim replied, forcing himself to keep a calm tone, "but she knows about Silver."

"I can't believe she would let you--"

"Amelia," said Delbert abruptly, "Jim's an adult now-- as hard as it is to believe-- and he can make his own decisions.  Sarah knows that."

Amelia gave him an astonished and somewhat amused look.  "Why Dr. Doppler, you're saying you agree with this?"

"N-no," Delbert stammered, "I don't exactly agree with his choices, but Sarah must believe that it's best to let him make them for himself.  You know she'd interfere if she didn't."

"That's fer sure," Silver muttered, nudging Jim with a wink.  Jim managed a smile back; he never would have expected it, but things were looking more hopeful thanks to Delbert.

"Jim," said Amelia, then added with a frank look at Silver, "and you too.  Please try to understand my position.  I know Silver has more than made up for any wrong he's done in the past, but. . . how can I condone allowing a mutineer to escape punishment?  How can you condone it," she pursued, turning her gaze on Jim, "if you mean to take the responsibility of being a captain?  Part of that responsibility is laying aside personal feelings and doing what's right."

Jim's hopes fell, then slowly turned to anger.  He tried to regulate his voice, but his words still came out harsher than he intended.  "Then shouldn't you be willing to do the same thing?"

She blinked at him.  "What?"

"Maybe what's right isn't what the law says, but what ordinary people would say.  Most people I know would say that it's not right to lock up a man who gave up all the treasure he had for his friends.  He went to Coronis in the middle of a war to help Bertrand, he forgave Camille for betraying him, he saved my life, and he saved your children's lives.  I bet almost everyone in this space port would say that letting him go is what's right.  It's only your personal feelings that say it isn't."

"My feelings?" Amelia asked softly.

"Yeah.  Your wounded pride that he led a mutiny on your ship and got away with it."  Jim felt guilty as soon as he said it, but he could tell from Amelia's expression that his words had hit home.  I'm sorry to hurt you, he thought, but Silver's more important.  "What do you think Rosmunda would have done?  Wouldn't she have forgiven him?"

Amelia was quiet for a long time, then she said slowly, "Yes.  But even if I do have a star seed, I'm not the person she was."

"Amelia--" Delbert began in what he probably meant to be a sharp tone of voice, but he fell silent immediately when she held up her hand.

"I can't forgive you," she said bluntly to Silver.  "Maybe it is just wounded pride, but I can't.  Not yet."  She took a deep breath and looked down at her now sleeping children.  "But I can't turn you in either.  Every time I looked at them, I'd feel like I'd betrayed them."

"That's all I ask," Silver said after a moment.  "I already got all the forgiveness I need."

Amelia looked at Jim with an intensity that made him squirm.  "I'm sure you do."

 

After the long, laborious process of getting Camille up to his room (which involved much swearing and invoking of Cthulhu), Bertrand returned downstairs to get some ice, wrapped in a dish towel, from the kitchen.  Mrs. Ufford praised him considerably for his prudence and promised to come check on Camille once she had her casserole in the oven.

Bertrand went back upstairs and gingerly entered Camille's room.  The Octopid was sprawled on his bed, propped up on a pillow.

"Every time I do a good deed, I get half-killed," he griped.  "It's safer to be a misanthrope."

Bertrand sat even more gingerly on the edge of the bed next to him, then looked at the Octopid more closely.  "What happened to your stitches?"

"A robot took them out," Camille said with a slight snicker.  "Or rather his little tiny microscopic robot friends.  And don't look at me like you think I'm drunk," he added accusingly.  "It's the truth; you can ask Jim.  They even fixed the thing so there's not a scar!"

"That's amazing. . . ."  Bertrand brushed his fingertips against the curve of Camille's jaw and sure enough, felt only healthy skin.  He drew his hand back quickly but was only faced with further embarrassment when he realized he would have to remove the Octopid's sash to get to his injury.  He untied the knotted cloth as quickly as possible, wondering why Camille bothered wearing it anyway, then pulled his shirt him free of his shorts with shaking hands.

"I should have let Melba do this," he muttered.

"Dagon, no.  She'd smother me to death with mothering."  Camille reached down and pulled his shirt up to his chest, then craned his neck to look down at his stomach.  "How bad is it?"

"Well. . . you were right about the foot print.  It's just started bruising though, so it won't be too bad if we put ice on it now."  The problem with that plan was that only the top part of the bruise was visible above Camille's waist.  Bertrand steeled himself, then started unlacing the Octopid's pants.

"You sure you want to do this with kids in the house?" Camille asked teasingly.

Bertrand felt himself blush vividly, but he had no choice to do anything but pull Camille's pants farther down his abdomen.  As soon as the bruise was completely exposed, Bertrand covered the hairless skin with the pack of ice.

"Yow!  Damn, that's cold," Camille gasped.

"Serves you right," Bertrand muttered without really meaning to speak aloud.

"Hmph.  Maybe it does."

The Octopid sounded so suddenly unhappy, Bertrand looked up at his face in concern, already feeling guilty for speaking sharply.  Camille looked back at him with a smile, but it was a rather sad one.

"Camille, thank you," Bertrand murmured.  "I know you were protecting the children, but-- you saved my life."

"I'll tell you a secret."  Camille looked down at the ice pack.  "I didn't even think about the kids.  But don't tell Captain Catbabe that; she'd probably throttle me."

Bertrand stared at him.  "But-- she could have killed you!"

"Well, I don't know that she'd kill me for admitting it but--"

"I meant that-- that Tin Kitty."  Bertrand drew in his breath sharply.  "Camille, you risked your life for me."

"I know," the Octopid said flippantly.

Bertrand leaned forward and touched Camille's cheek again.  "Please, you've got to take better care of yourself."

Camille gave him another smile, this one a little less sad.  "I dunno.  It's nicer making you take care of me."

Bertrand's fingers trembled slightly against Camille's cheek before he drew back his hand and stood up.  "Melba's going to check on you soon," he said brusquely.  "Try to rest until dinner."

"Aye aye, captain," Camille murmured as Bertrand left.

 

Dinner was awkward.  Amelia was quiet throughout the meal, and Jim could tell that she wasn't satisfied with the situation.  But he also knew that she wouldn't go back on her word. . . as long as Silver didn't break any more laws, of course.  Camille hobbled in a few minutes late complaining that he had frostbite in sensitive places thanks to his ice pack.  He was promptly scolded for crudeness by Mrs. Ufford, and to Jim's surprise, he fell meekly silent without so much as an eye-roll.  Bertrand refused to look at him and left the table early, saying he had work to finish up at his office.

Amelia and Delbert took the children to their inn after thanking Mrs. Ufford for dinner.  The landlady asked if they would come for dinner the next evening as well, but to Jim's relief they politely refused.

"Your mother's probably worried about you after this morning," Amelia told him before they left.  "I'll let her know you're all right, but perhaps you should visit her soon."

"I will."

"Thank you for taking me to Mau," she said in a lower voice.  "I'll reimburse your expenses when you come to Montressor."

"I'm sorry," Jim said, pitying her suddenly.  "I'm sorry things turned out the way they did.  Rosmunda--"

"I believe her now," Amelia murmured.  "After what Tin Kitty said-- I believe her.  She'll come back."  She glanced behind her at the basket of her dozing children at Delbert's feet.  "Perhaps they can protect her better than I could."

After the Dopplers were gone, Jim slumped in a chair on the porch next to Silver, exhausted.  It wasn't until then that he realized he hadn't seen Morph since he'd returned.

"Eh, I think he's got a cold," Silver said when Jim asked him about the shapeshifter, "or whatever his species gets.  Keeps randomly changin' into things-- some of 'em kinda embarrassin'.  I decided it was best to keep him in the room for the day."

Jim snickered in spite of feeling sorry for Morph.  "It's probably for the best.  He could've gotten hurt today."

"So could ye, for that matter."  Silver leaned over to cover Jim's hand, resting on the arm of his chair, with his organic one.  "Thought ye promised not to get in the way of them bracelets anymore."

"Well I didn't exactly expect Tin Kitty to follow me back here and shoot them at Amelia's kids," Jim retorted even as he curled his fingers around Silver's.  "But really, I'm fine.  I think. . . Amelia got the worst of it this time."

Silver looked at him sharply.  "Did she get hurt?"

"Not physically, but. . . there was this little girl there-- well, not really little, but still just a kid.  She got sort of attached to Amelia, and then we found out she was Mau's guardian and. . . Tin Kitty killed her."

"I'm sorry, lad.  For ye and the cap'n both."

"Well, some funny stuff happened too," Jim went on, trying to lighten his own mood.  "We met a mining vessel-- you would have really gotten a kick out of it.  Almost the whole crew was gone, and--"

"And what was left was completely psycho," Camille interrupted as he trudged out of the house and collapsed on the porch swing.  "That android was neurotic, and I think Lister likes to drink more than I do."

"I wouldn't go that far," Jim replied.  "How are you feeling?"

"Sore, but okay."  Camille pushed against the porch with his tentacle tips, propelling the swing back and forth.  "Figures she'd have been wearing heels."

"So what'd ye do to scare the lawyer off this time?" Silver asked as he settled back in his chair.  "He went runnin' back to his office mighty quick after dinner."

"Why does everyone assume that it's always me who pissed him off?" Camille griped.  "It's not my fault he's a workaholic."

"He was worried about ye-- thought ye wasn't comin' back from Mau.  I told him ye never stuck yer neck out but once, but I dunno that he bought it."

"You didn't tell him about Scroop--" Camille began furiously, half-rising from the swing.

"No, course not."  Silver gave him an odd look.  "Why ye so worried about that?  If yer concerned 'bout yer reputation, ye ain't makin' it look all that sterlin', the way ye act around him."

"It's different," Camille muttered, staring down at his lap.  "Drinking's not like selling out your crewmates to the guy you're sleeping with.  He'd hate me if he knew what I did."

"Camille, he wouldn't hate you," Jim retorted, having reached the end of his patience with Camille's ongoing melodrama.  "When Tin Kitty turned up here, he actually jumped on her yelling, 'Where's Camille?'  If he's crazy enough about you to do that, I don't think anything could make him hate you."

Camille looked up at him slowly.  "He did that?"

"Hit her in the face too," Silver contributed.

"Here I thought he was a coward, and he nearly gets himself killed twice by the same girl."  Camille's thin lips twitched in a half-smile.

"Did you see Camille's face?" Jim asked Silver after a moment.  "The so-called 'neurotic android' took out his stitches, and there's not even a scar!"

"I didn't notice," Silver admitted as he focused his mechanical eye on Camille's chin.  "Impressive work there.  Ye say a robot did it?"

"He has nanobots that do the medical work," Camille explained, squirming slightly under Silver's scrutiny.  "They can even replace limbs apparently. . . but Jim said you wouldn't be interested."

Jim looked up at Silver worriedly, but the cyborg only smiled.  "He's right, for the most part.  Sometimes I do get to missin' my leg, but all in all, I think I'm a lot better off than I would be with a normal body.  I couldn't've stopped that cat girl today, fr'instance."  He turned away from Camille to look down at Jim with a tender expression.  "Long as Jimbo here doesn't mind."

"Of course I don't," Jim said reprovingly.  "I like you the way you are.  You wouldn't be. . . you any other way."

"Ugh," said Camille.  "You two are nauseating."

"Did ye bring any of the nanobots back with ye?" Silver asked, disregarding the comment.  "Ye might need 'em for yer stomach."

"Not unless they stowed away on my clothes."  Camille pulled up his shirt and examined his abdomen.  "It's not too bad, just sore.  You should've seen me the last time I got into a bar fight.  That was a lot worse; my gills were bleeding."

Jim was saved from a more vivid description of that injury by Bertrand's arrival.  Camille quickly pulled his shirt down again as the lawyer came up the porch steps.

"Get yer work done?" Silver asked him.

Bertrand smiled wanly.  "Oh, I'm never done.  I'm certainly glad you're all back now-- I'll need your help just to keep up with everything I have to do here."

Camille moved over to make room for him on the swing.  Bertrand looked at it a bit nervously then sat down beside the Octopid, who asked, "So you're saying we have to run errands for you tomorrow?  Great."

"Better than almost getting killed again," Jim declared.  "And the weekend's nearly here.  We do get weekends off, right?" he added with a suspicious look at Bertrand.

"Of course.  I work then, but you don't have to."

Camille looked at him.  "You really have no life, do you?"

"I'm just busy," Bertrand muttered defensively.

"You know, I just realized something," Jim said suddenly.  "In all the excitement I'd forgotten all about it, but my birthday's this weekend."

"So ye'll finally be an adult, eh?" Silver chuckled.  "No more lyin' to the bartenders."

"Great!  I'll have to think of a good place we can go to get you drunk," Camille said, quite seriously.

"Uh, sorry to disappoint you, but I really think I should go home for the weekend," Jim replied.  "Mom will probably expect me.  And Captain Amelia said she'd pay us next time I was on Montressor."

Camille had scowled, but he brightened at the mention of money.  "Well in that case, by all means.  Am I invited too, or are you turning me loose for the weekend?"

"Of course you're invited.  As long as you promise not to do anything embarrassing around my mother."

"Oh, I have to promise but your boyfriend here doesn't?"  Camille gestured at Silver with a tentacle.  "He's a lot more likely to. . . to grope you in public or something!"

"And you're a lot more like to get drunk and tell her and/or Captain Amelia that I'm sleeping with him!" Jim charged.

Silver looked from one to the other with an amused expression.  "Maybe I'd better stay on Crescentia.  I dunno how much the cap'n will like seein' me again so soon anyway."

Jim smirked up at him.  "Mom's the boss at the inn, so you don't have to worry about Ame-- the captain.  And I wouldn't enjoy myself without you and Morph."  He looked over at Bertrand.  "You should come too."

"Me?"  Bertrand looked horrified.  "But I just told you, I have all this work to do, and. . . well, I wouldn't be any fun."

"You would be if you knew how to have any fun," Camille interrupted.  "And you'll never learn if you don't take the weekend off for once."  He paused.  "If I can't get Jim drunk, I'll get you drunk instead."

Bertrand looked even more horrified.  "You will not.  And Jim, it's very kind of you to offer, but really, you don't have to be polite--"

Jim grinned.  "I'm not being polite.  I want you to come.  Now that you've met the Dopplers, you have to meet Mom-- oh, and B.E.N."

"Stars, I don't think he's ready for B.E.N.," Silver muttered.

"Wh-who's B.E.N.?" Bertrand stammered.

"Yeah."  Camille gave Jim a distrustful look.

"A robot.  He, uh, likes to hug people."

"Hey, I met a robot like that once," Camille said, looking relieved.  "Some kind of screwed-up Standard-issue Information Retrieval unit.  All it did was hug me and talk about pigs.  Is he one of those?"

"No, he's a Bio-Electronic Navigator who's had his brain ripped out a few times too many," Jim replied with a slight wince.  "He's just. . . really friendly.  But I'm sure you'll like him, Bertrand."

"I'm certain I would, but I really--"

"He'll come," Camille announced.  "This inn of yours does have a bar, doesn't it?  I didn't see one when we were there before."

"No, but you'll be able to get a drink, I promise," Jim assured him with a chuckle, followed by a yawn.  "If we're going to have to work tomorrow, I'm going to bed.  This is the worst ship-lag I've ever had."

"I'll come with ye and check on Morphy."  Silver stood up when Jim did, squeezing his shoulder with his mechanical hand.

"Try not to be too loud," Camille muttered.  "I know you've been apart for a whole two days or whatever it's been, but--"

"Bite me," Jim said cheerfully as they went inside.

When they reached their room, Jim found Morph asleep on one of the beds-- or rather, he found a yellow tensor lamp lying on its side, but since it had a face he assumed it was Morph.

"Dunno where he got that one from," Silver shrugged.

"Hey Morph," Jim murmured as he patted the lamp.  It stirred and lifted its head, then suddenly shifted back into Morph with a pop.  The shapeshifter chortled and nuzzled Jim's hand, then gave a high-pitched sneeze and transformed into a purp.

"Poor fella, you look like you need some more rest," Jim chuckled.  "So do I, for that matter."  He sat down tiredly on Silver's bed to pull his boots off.

"I do want to hear more about what happened on Mau," Silver told Jim as he sat down beside him, "but it can wait until tomorrow."  He sighed heavily.

"Something wrong?"  Jim looked up at the cyborg in concern.

"I guess I'm a bit worried about the cap'n," Silver responded slowly.  "Do ye really think she'll just. . . let me go?  I'm thinkin' I might find a police escort waitin' for me on Montressor."

"I don't think she'd go back on her word," Jim answered after considering a moment.  "And I also think she would've arrested you already if she were going to."

"I suppose yer right.  Think I'll keep one eye open though, just to be on the safe side."  He patted Jim on the head and smiled at him tenderly.  "At least ye won't have to keep me a secret anymore."

"Yeah, just some things about you."  Jim grinned back, then leaned up and kissed him.  "All the good stuff."

"Mmn," Silver replied distractedly as he cupped his organic hand under Jim's chin and kissed him back hard.  "Y-ye'd better not do much more of that if ye want me to let ye sleep tonight."

Jim pulled back reluctantly.  "I guess I can wait.  But can I sleep over here?  I don't want to catch whatever Morph's got-- and besides, I've missed sleeping beside you."  He gave Silver his best pleading look, earning a chuckle from the cyborg.

"'Course.  How could I say no to that face?"  He lay down, pulling Jim down beside him with his mechanical arm.  "The bed's a bit narrow for two, but I think we can manage."

Jim curled up next to him with his head on Silver's chest.  The cyborg yawned, then mumbled, "Be thinkin' what ye want for yer birthday, lad.  Although ye didn't give me much advance warnin'."

"I know one thing you can give me," Jim purred.  "Are birthday spankings a tradition where you're from?"

"Stars, Jimbo, I shouldn't've asked.  Now I'll never get to sleep."

"Really though, you don't have to get me anything," Jim asserted.

"If yer gonna be all modest about it, then I guess I'll just have to surprise ye."  Silver tightened his organic arm around him in a hug.  "Night, lad. . . my love."

Jim couldn't think of a single gift that could make him any happier.

 

"You shouldn't have said I'd go," Bertrand muttered dismally after he and Camille were left alone.  "He didn't really want me to come; he was just being nice."

"You need a self-esteem injection," Camille retorted.  "He wouldn't have asked just to be nice.  And besides, you have to come.  Having the cyborg fawn over Jim all the time is bad enough.  I can't stand a whole weekend of him being the center of everybody's attention."

For the first time all evening, Bertrand laughed.  "So that's it, you're jealous of Jim?  How is me being there going to help with that?"

"You'll have to pay attention to me instead of him.  And I'm not jealous," Camille added.  "Just tired of him always getting to be the hero with his magician's outfit and his pirate lover and his nauseatingly cute little pet."

"And that's not jealous?"

Camille leaned back in the swing.  "Well, maybe a little, but I'm not serious about it.  Believe it or not, I actually like Jim."

Bertrand was quiet for a while, then he murmured, "I should get some sleep.  If you insist on me coming with you this weekend, I'll have a lot to do tomorrow."

"Then get ready, because I'm insisting."  Camille pushed off of the porch with his tentacles, sending the swing careening back and forth.  Bertrand gave a little yelp of protest and clung to the chain that supported it.  "We've been all over the galaxy for you, so it's the least you can do for us."  When the swing slowed down, he stood, and Bertrand all but jumped out of it, giving it a reproachful look.

"How do you feel?" Bertrand asked him tentatively as Camille followed him inside.

"It's not as bad as I thought it would be.  The ice helped.  Still, it's good I didn't have any plans for the evening."  His abdomen ached as he started up the stairs, causing him to wince.  He hoped Bertrand wouldn't notice, but the lawyer stopped and put an arm around his waist immediately.

"Let me help you."  Camille fully intended to refuse, but he found himself climbing the stairs at Bertrand's side, pressing against the arm at his back.  It reminded him of being on the beach on Seven and the way it felt to have the Coronid's trembling arms about him.

"Oh, your shell's in my room," Bertrand said when they reached the landing at the top of the stairs.  "If you'll wait a minute, I'll get it for you."

"It's okay.  You can keep it."  Camille stopped outside his door and looked up at Bertrand.  "If you want it."

"Yes, I. . . I do.  You're sure?"

"Yeah.  If I want to remember Seven, I've got that suit."  Bertrand blushed vividly.  Camille tried not to smile too wickedly as he added, "Maybe I should wear it for Jim's birthday party."

"But he said he didn't want you to embarrass him."

"Ouch.  You can be surprisingly mean when you want to be."  Camille didn't want to leave him, but he figured that any more stalling would make him look desperate.  "Night," he said reluctantly.  "See you at breakfast."

Bertrand nodded, then murmured, "If you need anything, come get me."

"Thanks."  Camille gazed up into the Coronid's dark grey eyes.  He means it, he thought, amazed.  He really does care about me.  The realization made his heart race in a way he had been dreading.  And I really have fallen for him.

Camille wanted simultaneously to cling to Bertrand and to flee.  He finally compromised by leaning up on the tips of his tentacles and brushing his lips against the lawyer's cheek, then pulling away swiftly.  Bertrand stared down at him, blushing more than ever.

"Night," Camille mumbled again as he fumbled with the knob on his door, then escaped into the safety of his bedroom.  He threw himself on his unmade bed with his tentacle tips curled into fists.

Stupid, he thought.  He deserves someone a lot better than me.  Even so, after a moment he rummaged through the pile of clutter on his nightstand until he found the letter Bertrand had written to his parents before he had even met Camille.  The Octopid had kept it at first because he had thought it might be useful in figuring out his new employer's weaknesses in the hopes of extracting a larger paycheck from him.  However, by the time Bertrand had accompanied the Revolution to Seven, Camille was rereading the scrawled handwriting for an entirely different reason.

If Deimos hadn't left, today we would have been married three years, he now read.  He glared at her name, now smudged like the rest of the letter from frequent handling.

"Stupid bitch," he muttered.  "I'd never leave him."  He drew the tip of a tentacle over the Coronid's signature, then tossed the letter back on the nightstand.  Reading it always made him feel worse, since it reminded him that Bertrand still loved the fool girl after all that time-- and that she was the type of person he wanted.

The farthest thing in the galaxy from me, he thought.  Even if he never finds out what I did to Jim, he already knows I'm an alcoholic slut-- he could never love me.  But he cares if I'm hurt; at least there's that.

Camille sat up long enough to strip off his clothes and extinguish the light before collapsing back in bed.  He prodded his stomach tentatively, then winced at the flare of pain.  Fortunately though, the damage didn't extend very far below his waist, and his sensitive gills were unaffected.  He trailed the suckers of one tentacle-arm over his abdomen, remembering Bertrand's hands there earlier that day.

If I hadn't made that crack about the kids, he might have kept them there longer, he thought morosely.  Too bad he's such a prude.  But then, I probably wouldn't want him this bad if he wasn't.  He slowly slid his tentacle lower, wishing it were the Coronid's hand instead.

Chapter Text

When Jim woke up, Silver was gone.  As he rolled over and peered blearily at the clock, Jim realized why; it was already mid-morning.  He pulled on his clothes as quickly as he could, then collected Morph and raced downstairs.

He was somewhat relieved to find Camille still at the breakfast table, slumped over a bowl of oatmeal.  Mrs. Ufford came in with a pot of tea as Jim guiltily sat down at his place.

"Y'all must've had a rough trip for you both to oversleep like this," she chuckled as she set down the teapot.  "Bertrand and Silver left for work hours ago."

"Ugh," Jim muttered.  "Was Bertrand very mad at us?"

"Actually, he was in a better mood today than I've seen in a long time," the landlady shrugged.  "Guess he's glad y'all are back."

Morph was allowed to eat at the table for once, and Mrs. Ufford insisted that he stay home to fully recover.

"I'll take good care of the little fella," she assured Jim.  "I have to admit, I've gotten kinda fond of him."  Jim reluctantly left Morph in her flippers and followed Camille to Bertrand's office.

Camille motioned for Jim to be quiet as they slipped through the outer door, then the Octopid tip-toed-- Tip-tentacled? Jim wondered-- into the inner office.  Jim stuck his head around the door to see Bertrand so immersed in reading something that he didn't even notice Camille.

"Boo!" Camille shouted suddenly, thumping the desk with his tentacles.

"Shit!" Bertrand yelped, nearly falling out of his chair.  He turned red as Camille burst into laughter.

"Ha, I knew I'd make you swear one of these days!"  Camille sat on the edge of the desk.  "Sorry we're late.  We overslept."

"I thought you might need the rest."  Bertrand leaned to one side in his chair to look past Camille's torso at Jim.  "Uh, morning, Jim."

"Where's Silver?" Jim asked, taking the more conventional approach to sitting and lowering himself into a chair.

"Shopping for office supplies," Bertrand said with a faint smile.  "He said he needed to pick up some things himself, so I told him he could do it all at once.  I need you two to deliver some documents for me.  There are quite a few, but at least you won't have to leave the port today."

"Sure."  Jim was slightly less enthusiastic when he realized that the foot-high stack of manila envelopes on the corner of the desk was what they were to deliver. Still, it's what we're being paid for, he thought. And at least no one will try to kill us this time.

"You're probably going to have to make another run to Seven next week," Bertrand continued.

"More jarred ears?" Camille asked, making a face.  "Makes me glad I don't have any."

Jim stared at him.  "You. . . don't have ears?"

"Not those weird sticky-out things you have," Camille retorted.  "We just have tympanic membranes, but most of us cover them with our hair.  Didn't that blonde girly of yours tell you?"

"Well, she said she didn't hear very well, but. . . ew."

Camille raised an eyebrow.  "You're fine with the tentacles and gills, but the lack of ears bothers you?  Trust me, I have the parts that matter."

"I know," Jim groaned.  "I've seen."

"What?"  Bertrand had been staying silent until the argument wore itself out, but now he stared at Jim.  "You--"

"He was swimming without any clothes on, and I saw him by accident!" Jim insisted.  "It certainly wasn't intentional."

"If you're done being disgusted by me, can we get started on that stack of envelopes?" Camille interrupted.  "I'd like to finish while there's still daylight."

Jim sighed and scooped up the stack as he stood.  "Okay, okay."

"One more thing," Bertrand added, looking much appeased.  "Jim, since I wouldn't know what kind of present to get you, I'd like to buy you dinner tonight for your birthday."

"You don't have to get me anything, really--" Jim began, but Bertrand silenced him with a motion of his hand.

"Please, I want to.  Camille, I want you and Silver to come too."

Camille raised an eyebrow.  "It's not my birthday, so are you still buying?"

"Of course.  You can get anything you want."

"Mmn.  Be careful what you promise."  Camille hopped off the desk.  "C'mon, Hawkins, let's get this over with."

It took all day, minus a thirty-minute break for lunch-- or a drink in Camille's case, to deliver the documents.  Jim half-suspected that Bertrand had been saving up every bit of paperwork he had for the express purpose of putting them to work.  After two straight days of Camille, and none of Silver, he wished that the cyborg had been given delivery duty instead of the Octopid.  In fact, he didn't see Silver all day until he and Camille finally returned to Bertrand's office in the late afternoon, where Silver was waiting on them.

"My tentacles are about to fall off," Camille grumbled to the lawyer as he collapsed in a chair.  "I hope you're happy."

"Very, if you got them all delivered."

"Yeah, yeah.  So what about dinner?"

"You three can go ahead," Bertrand told them.  "I'll catch up as soon as I'm through here."

"I hope yer not tryin' to get outta payin'," Silver chuckled.  "Where to, Jimbo?"

Jim chose a tavern nearby, where they found a relatively secluded booth.  "Whew," he mumbled as he slid in.  "I need a couple days off.  Did he make you go all over town too, Silver?"

"Aye, pretty much."  Silver sat down next to Jim and patted his hand.  "Dunno how the lad used to manage by himself."

"Eh, I think he just makes up crap for us to do," Camille grumbled from the other side of the table.  "Did he tell you we have to deliver more body parts next week?"

"So I heard.  Well, maybe gettin' away fer the weekend will lighten him up a little," Silver smirked.

They ordered drinks while they waited on Bertrand, who didn't show up until Camille was about to start on his third martini.

"I was startin' to think you really were gettin' out of payin'," Silver chided the Coronid when he finally appeared.

"Sorry, I. . . took longer than I thought."  He sat down next to Camille nervously, setting his briefcase between them.

"We decided to leave first thing tomorrow morning," Jim told him, "and you're not going to your office first, or we'll never get out of here.

"You're leaving this at home, too," Camille declared, prodding the briefcase.

"But I have to--" Bertrand began, then was silenced when Camille clapped a tentacle over his mouth in a slightly drunken manner.

"No.  You're gonna be as lazy and shiftless as the rest of us."

"Mmph," Bertrand conceded.

Jim took advantage of the situation by ordering the most expensive steak on the menu.  Camille switched to white zinfandel and proceeded to inhale more fish than Jim had ever seen in one place before.  "Whose celebration is this anyway?" Jim teased him.  "I've never seen you eat this much before."

"You've got to learn to save your appetite for when someone else is paying," Camille declared.  He downed the rest of his glass, then poked Bertrand in the shoulder.  "Consider this an example of the way I unashamedly take advantage of my friends' generosity.  I use everybody.  Unapologetically."

"Ye also talk too much when yer drunk," Silver grumbled.

"I don't mind," Bertrand said with a little smile.  "On either count."

"You should," Camille pronounced.  "If you give me a chance, I'll swim all over you.  Er, walk.  Or whatever I'm doing on land."  He slumped back in his seat and glared at his empty glass.  "I hate land.  When're you gonna take me flying again?  You promised."

"You should wait until you're sober," Jim snickered.  "You won't remember much like this."

"Oh, I always remember everything," Camille retorted.  "Even when 'm drunk.  Hey, can I get dessert?"  Bertrand ordered him an ice cream sundae, along with an extremely strong cup of coffee.

"I wish Morph could've come," Jim said as he started to eat his own dessert, an especially delicious slice of chocolate cake.  (He had ordered it only after making everyone else promise not to tell the waitress that it was his birthday.  He had a not-altogether-unfounded fear of being sung to in restaurants.  Camille tried to drag the anecdote out of him, but he only shook his head and glared fiercely at Silver whenever it looked like the cyborg might explain.)

"Eh, I'm sure he's enjoyin' bein' coddled," Silver assured him.  "Miz Ufford seems to've taken a shine to the little barnacle.  He just has a way with the ladies, I guess."

"How's dessert?" Bertrand asked wryly as he observed Jim devouring the cake.

"Wonderful.  You should've gotten something besides that."  Jim nodded at the cup of tea Bertrand was drinking.

"You can have some of mine," Camille told the Coronid, shoving his bowl towards him.  He sounded somewhat less slurred thanks to the coffee.

"No, that's all right.  I don't usually eat sweet things."

"You must be punishing yourself for something really awful," Camille observed as he thrust a spoonful of chocolate-syrup-drenched ice cream at Bertrand.  "Eat it.  You paid for it."

"But that's your spoon," Bertrand protested rather weakly.

"So now not only am I gross for not having ears, I have germs too?"

Silver gave him a bewildered look.  "You don't have ears?"

"I didn't mean it like that.  I just thought you might not want me eating after you," Bertrand said with an air of desperation.

"The ice cream," said Camille, "is melting."

Bertrand sighed and finally ate the proffered ice cream.  "Yes, it's very good.  Are you satisfied now?"

"For now," Camille answered cryptically as he licked the back of the spoon.

After they had finished, Bertrand paid the considerable check without so much as a wince, leaving Jim to conclude that his busy schedule must be paying off financially.  The four walked back to the boarding house, but Bertrand hesitated at the stairs.

"Don't tell me yer goin' back to work," Silver groaned.

"No, I. . . think I'll take a walk in the park.  I haven't been outside very much in quite a while," Bertrand said, smiling faintly.  "If any of you'd like to come, you're welcome to."

"Thanks, but I wanna check on Morph," Jim said.  "I hope he'll be well enough to travel tomorrow."

"We'll see ye in the mornin'," Silver told the lawyer.  "Can ye be ready to leave right after breakfast?"

"As ready as possible, I suppose," Bertrand replied wryly, then he bit his lip and looked at the Octopid.  "Camille?"

"Yeah, I'll come.  Night, mateys," he said sardonically to the other two as he started across the street towards the park, leaving Bertrand to keep up.

"Do you come out here a lot?" Camille asked over his shoulder as he ambled up a path languidly.  "I've never even looked around."

"No, not much.  I'm usually too busy."  Bertrand stopped to look down at a flower in the artificial dirt.  "None of it's natural of course, but it's better than anything Coronis had."

Camille looked at the flower too, then reached down and plucked it.  "Hey, you shouldn't pick--" Bertrand began, then he trailed off when Camille leaned over and stuck it in a button hole in his lapel.

"Whoever's in charge of the simulated nature around here can plant another one," Camille announced.

They walked in silence a few more minutes until they reached a treeless area in the center of the park.  "You can see the stars well from here," Bertrand murmured.  "Even Coronis' star."

"Where?"

"That reddish one."  Camille looked in the direction Bertrand pointed, then plopped down on a nearby bench to regard the star.

"Must be old."

"Yeah.  They say it will probably burn out in a few thousand years."  Bertrand timidly sat down beside him.  "I actually used to worry about it when I was young-- I'd think about my descendents being forced to leave Coronis because the star was dying.  But then I was the one who ended up leaving, and it doesn't look like I'll have any descendents anyway."

"You sound pretty sure about that," Camille said, his thin lips twitching.

"Well. . . erm, I guess I am.  I. . . know I won't ever marry a woman."

"Hmph," Camille muttered.  "Who knows, you might already have some you don't know about."

Bertrand felt himself blush vividly, making him curse the nearby streetlight that illuminated them.  "N-no, I. . . I've never-- it's impossible," he finished lamely.

Camille turned to stare at him.  "You've never fucked anybody?  How old are you?"

Bertrand clenched his hands over the handle of his briefcase and glared at the graveled sidewalk beneath his feet.  "I'm 31.  Extramarital affairs aren't customary on Coronis."

"In case you haven't noticed, you're not on Coronis anymore!  Are you that caught up in her that you won't even--"

"Caught up in whom?"  For an instant, Bertrand honestly had no idea what Camille was talking about.

"Her.  Deimos."  Camille seemed almost angry as he gestured with a tentacle and added, "She's not coming back, you know.  She's gone."

"I know that," Bertrand said tensely.

"Then why are you wasting your life waiting on her?"

Bertrand looked back at the ground again, trying to quell the sudden anger he felt.  "I'm not waiting on her.  I'm just not the kind of person who--"

"Who what?" Camille snarled.  "Who fucks people he doesn't care about?  The kind of person I am?"

"That wasn't what I was going to say!" Bertrand all but shouted at him, turning to glare at the Octopid.  "But I will say that I'm not the kind of person who criticizes other people's lifestyles!  Just because I don't live the way you think I should, doesn't give you the right to. . . to hurt me like this!"

Camille's light eyes widened slightly.  "I. . . hurt you?"  His anger seemed to dissolve as he bent his head to look down at his tentacles resting in his lap, muttering, "Sorry.  I. . . didn't mean it like that."

"Fine."  Bertrand was planning to stand up and stalk off in a fit of righteous anger, but Camille's voice stopped him.

"Please, d-don't be--"  The Octopid broke off but not before the unfamiliar waver in his voice made Bertrand turn back to him.  "Don't be mad at me," Camille finished in little more than a whisper.  He glanced up at Bertrand briefly then looked down again, but not before the lawyer realized that, for the first time since they had met, Camille was crying.  There were only two tears on his pale face, but they were tears.

"Camille--"  Bertrand put his arms around the Octopid before he had time to think about what he was doing.

"I'm sorry," Camille mumbled again.  Bertrand felt the Octopid's tentacles curl around his back and hug him tightly.

"I'm not mad; just please, don't cry," Bertrand murmured.

"'M not crying," Camille contradicted, even though Bertrand could feel the Octopid's wet cheek pressed against his neck.

"Okay," Bertrand said helplessly.  He closed his eyes and stroked Camille's tousled ponytail with one hand, wishing he would never have to move again.  However, Camille shifted after only a moment and sat up, although he drew his tentacles slowly over Bertrand's neck as he did so.  Bertrand politely looked away as the Octopid wiped his eyes.

"I. . . had a reason for being late to dinner," Bertrand said awkwardly, deciding to pursue the original purpose for the walk, once Camille had had time to compose himself.

"I assume you weren't meeting a mistress," Camille said facetiously, though a bit shakily.  "What's the big secret?"

"Well, there are a few shops between my office and the tavern, and I. . . saw something in one of the windows that. . . that reminded me of you."  He opened his briefcase and fumbled around in it until he produced his purchase.  "I think it's supposed to be a scarf, but it looks like that sash you always wear, and. . . well, it has green edges, and you wear green a lot. . . ."  He trailed off and thrust the embroidered silken cloth at Camille.

"You. . . bought it, for me?"  Camille took the silk in his tentacles and stared at it, then at Bertrand.

"Yes, I-- you're not going to undress out here, are you?" Bertrand said in alarm as Camille stood and unknotted his old sash from his waist.

"No, silly.  I'm just putting it on."  The Octopid wrapped the new material around his narrow waist and carefully tied it at one hip.  "I've never seen embroidery this detailed before," he marveled.  "Must've taken hours."  He flicked a tentacle at the trailing ends of the sash, then struck a pose with his hips cocked.  "How does it look?"

"Beautiful," Bertrand said hoarsely.

Camille looked down at it again, stroking the material with one tentacle, then he sat down beside Bertrand again and clutched the tentacle around his hand.

"Thank you," Camille whispered.  "No one's ever given me anything this nice before.  You really. . . thought about me when you saw it?"

I'm always thinking about you, Bertrand answered silently.  "Yes."

"Thank you," Camille said again.  He let go of Bertrand's hand and suddenly draped his old sash over the lawyer's head.  "There.  You can wear that one."

"Uh, thanks."

Camille grinned and tied it under his chin.  "Hey, it'll come in useful if you get a toothache.  And you look cute.  Especially when you blush like that."  He tapped Bertrand on the nose with his tentacle, then stood up.  "C'mon, I want to go tell Jim that I got a present and he didn't!"

Bertrand followed him back to the boarding house, discreetly unknotting the sash from his head as he went.  I don't suppose I'll ever understand him, he thought as he eyed the slender form in front of him.  One minute he's crying, and the next he's decorating me.  Camille reached the porch ahead of him, where Jim and Silver were sitting with the apparently recovered Morph.  The Octopid paused at the steps and looked back at Bertrand.  It was only an instant before he turned away and started taunting Jim, but the look on his face made Bertrand's heart race.

 

Jim was awake so early the next morning, no one but Mrs. Ufford was up when he clattered downstairs with Morph.  He had even managed to extract himself from under Silver's mechanical arm without waking the cyborg, though there was some temptation to stay where he was.

The landlady was just starting to prepare breakfast when Jim peered into the kitchen.  "You're up early," she observed.  "How's the pet?"

"He's better."  Jim patted Morph on the head; the shapeshifter chittered, then darted over to investigate the bacon Mrs. Ufford was flying.  "He turned into a pineapple while I was getting dressed, but I think the worst is over."  He caught Morph just before he dove after the bacon.  "We're going to Montressor for the weekend, so you don't need to cook for us tonight."

"Is 'we' just y'all two?"

"Erm, no.  Silver and Camille and Bertrand are coming."

She chuckled.  "Somehow I didn't expect you'd leave Silver behind.  Y'all are thick as thieves."

Jim felt himself blush and turned to take some dishes down from the cabinets so she wouldn't notice.  "We've, uh, been through a lot together."

"It'll be good for all of y'all to take a little vacation anyway," Mrs. Ufford declared as she took the bacon out of the pan and started cracking eggs in its place.  "You've all been workin' too hard."

"You can blame Bertrand for that," Jim smirked.

"He's the worst of y'all!  If he's goin' too, it'll be the first time he's taken a weekend off since he moved in."  She clucked in a motherly fashion and scrambled the eggs with a fork.  "It's all because of that girl that left him, you know.  He just don't understand that wearin' himself out ain't gonna make him forget her."  She looked at Jim and jabbed her fork in his direction.  "Now don't you ever let a girl do you like that.  Anyone ever hurts you, you just tell me about it, and I'll take care of her."

Jim had a sudden, hilarious mental image of a throw-down between Silver and Melba Ufford.  "I don't think that'll be necessary, but I'll keep you in mind," he promised, barely managing not to laugh.

By the time he helped her set the table and finish cooking, most of the other boarders had gathered for breakfast.  Camille teased Jim for helping with breakfast, but stopped abruptly when Jim got twice as much purp jam on his toast as a reward.

They had decided to take the shuttle instead of the Revolution down to Montressor to save both time and effort.  Camille grumbled at having to pay the shuttle fare when they could have taken their own ship for free, but when Jim reminded him of all the work required to fly it, he relented.

"Now I remember why I'm not fond of public transportation," Bertrand muttered as he wedged himself into one of the seats on the shuttle.  "It's not designed to accommodate wings."

"At least yer thin," Silver chuckled from the seat in front of him.  Jim settled in next to Silver as the cyborg went on, "It's harder fer some of us."

Camille eyed the remaining half of Bertrand's seat, then flopped down in it and leaned against the Coronid's wing.  "Quit whining, you big snob," he scolded Bertrand as he turned to him and pressed his cheek against his feathers.  "You should have to see how the rest of us live every once in a while."

"Does that include providing seat cushioning for the proletariat?" Bertrand replied with a little smile.

"Only if I decide to sit in your lap."

Bertrand blushed and looked out the window for most of the trip.

"It seems silly that I've lived on Crescentia for years and never come down here," he told Jim as they neared the planet.  "I should have visited long before now."

"There's not much to see."  Jim made a face.  "Except for the Benbonians, almost everyone there is a miner, and once you've seen one mine, you've seen them all."  He grinned slightly.  "They make for some great solar surfing though, if you're interested."

"I have a hard enough time controlling my own wings when I fly, much less one of those contraptions," Bertrand shuddered.  "I would be interested in seeing one of the mines, though."

"You're kidding.  It's just metal ore and stuff, nothing exciting."

"I know, but it makes up a lot of what's shipped from Crescentia," Bertrand explained.  "I'd like to know just what it is I'm arguing about in all of those violations cases I take.  And I'm sure there are all kinds of lawsuits involved with the mines.  If I wanted to expand my practice--"

"Don't even think about it," Camille interrupted.  "You make us do enough work as it is."

Once landed on Montressor, they walked to the Benbow.  The rocky planet's brief summer had ended, and while the cool autumn breeze was pleasant just then, Jim knew that it would already taste of winter by nightfall.

It doesn't look any different than when I was a kid, he thought as he glanced around at the unchanging landscape.  And to think I could have been stuck here for the rest of my life if Billy Bones hadn't turned up that night.

When Jim pushed open the door to the inn and peered inside, he found his mother occupied with sweeping the common room.  He motioned for the others to keep silent, then tiptoed up behind her and engulfed her in a hug.

"Hello, Jim," she said sardonically, apparently not surprised in the least.

Jim drew back with a playful pout.  "What, I can't even sneak up on you anymore?"

"I had a feeling you'd come by today."  She turned and gave him a real hug, then looked over his shoulder towards the door with a smirk.  "I see you brought most of Crescentia with you."

"He insisted," Camille declared as the other three and Morph came all the way into the room.  "Something about us being fun.  I don't know."

"Mom, this is my boss, Bertrand Merle," Jim said, gesturing at the Coronid.

"Pleased to meet you," Sarah nodded at him.  "So Jim really is working, and not just flying around in that ship of his?"

"Yes ma'am, he's certainly working," Bertrand assured her.

"That reminds me."  Sarah turned to Jim with a critical look in her eye that he knew all too well.  "The Dopplers came by last night after they got home from Crescentia.  Amelia had a few words for me about your coworker here."  She gestured at Silver, who winced in a self-effacing way.  "You could have warned me that you were going to tell her about him, so I could come up with an excuse about why I was keeping your big secret."

"I didn't mean for her to find out, Mom, really," Jim protested.  He collapsed in a chair and proceeded to explain Tin Kitty and the danger to Amelia's girls, though in the least alarming terms possible.  He thought he was finished until he realized that he had never told her about Coronis or Lead Crow, which led to even more explanation.  Almost an hour had passed-- during most of which Camille fidgeted restlessly-- by the time Jim finally told her everything about Galaxia.

Sarah sighed.  "So you've been chased by mad women all over the galaxy, and I'm just now finding out about it?"

Jim shrugged and tried his most charming grin.  "Hey, I didn't want to worry you."

"How considerate of you."  However, she finally smiled a little.  "But I don't have anything to worry about now, right?  No other big secrets you're keeping from me?"

"Erm, well. . . ."

"I'll rephrase that," Sarah said wryly.  "No life-threatening secrets?"

"Right," Jim said with some relief.  "And nothing that Captain Amelia's going to come beat down the door over."  He wasn't about to tell his mother about sleeping with Silver, and as for Scroop. . . .  That's not my secret to tell, he thought, glancing at Camille.

"I hope not, since I invited the Dopplers over for your birthday tonight," Sarah told him.

"You really did know I was coming," Jim smirked.

"I knew you wouldn't pass up the chance for a free meal.  In fact, I should get started on it."  She stood and straightened her apron.  "I hope you have some kind of entertainment planned for your friends because I'm going to put all of you to work if you just sit around here much longer."

"She's been doing this since I was five," Jim grumbled to Silver.  "My friends quit coming over because she'd make them clean."

"Actually," Bertrand said quickly, "I was hoping to look at least one of the mines around here, if you can spare Jim."

"I suppose I can, but only since it's his birthday," Sarah chuckled, jabbing her son on the arm as she walked past towards the kitchen.  "Any other weekend he comes home, he'll be out of luck."

"You guys coming?" Jim asked Silver and Camille.

"No thanks," Camille declared with a disgusted expression.  "Going underground and getting dirty's not my idea of a good time.  At least not getting dirty literally."

Bertrand looked disappointed, but Silver only laughed.  "Well, ye can stay here and help with the cookin'.  Jim, me and Morphy'll come with ye instead."

After promising Sarah that they'd be back in time for his birthday dinner, Jim led the others back outside.  "The closest mine's down there," he said, pointing towards a valley off a sheer cliff nearby.  "We'll take Mom's motorized cart since it would be a long walk on foot.  There's a lot of winding paths down the cliff, even though it's only about a kilometer as the. . . erm, crow flies."

Bertrand smiled wryly.  "A cart sounds like a good idea, since this crow probably couldn't carry all of you."

Because of the treacherously steep paths, it took them nearly an hour to reach the mine even with the aid of the cart.  The mine, named the China Pit for reasons Jim never discovered, was one of the smallest on Montressor.  However, it was also one of the few that was constantly in operation, year-round.

"Most of the others have real funding problems," he told the others on the way down as he explained.  "Big off-world corporations own them, and they're always buying and selling them.  They close down every time they change hands, and the management's terrible even when they are in operation.  The workers are always going on strike and stuff."

"Hmm."  Jim could almost see the wheels turning in Bertrand's mind.  "Maybe I should look into expanding my practice."

Jim chuckled.  "I really don't think you'd want to get involved.  It's an awful mess.  The China Pit's different though-- it's owned by a local Benbonian family, and it's small enough that they keep it well-managed."

"Benbonians?" Silver asked as they drew near the mine's entrance.  "Them those frog creatures?"  He gestured towards some of the amphibious beings bustling about just inside the China Pit.

"Yeah.  They're the only sentient species native to Montressor.  The rest of us are second-generation off-worlders at best."  Jim looked around for the foreman as they walked into the mine.  "I doubt they'd mind if we look around, but we'd better ask just in case."

"Mr. Hawkins?"  Jim turned to see a Benbonian in his early teens looking at him curiously.  "Hey, it is you!"

"Erm, yes?"

"Remember me?" the kid grinned.  "Ethan?"  Before Jim could reply, Ethan looked at Silver, Morph, and Bertrand excitedly.  "Wow, are these your friends?"

"Yup.  Guys, this is Ethan; he lives near here."  Jim chuckled as he looked the frog-like kid over.  "You've grown-- I didn't recognize you."

"Yeah, I work here with Dad now on the weekends!"  Ethan beamed proudly; obviously his father was still his biggest hero.  "Did you know, he's foreman now?"

"Great, he's just who we need to see," Jim told him.  "This is my boss, Bertrand-- he'd like to tour the mine if it's okay with your dad."

"Oh cool, maybe he'll let me show you around!" Ethan enthused.  "C'mon, we can go ask!"

Ethan's father seemed more than willing to let his son show the visitors around the China Pit.  (Despite the elder Benbonian's good natured attitude towards his son, Jim got the distinct impression that Ethan was really more trouble than he was help in the mine.)  After Jim assured the kid that he really didn't have to address him as "Mr. Hawkins," they set off on their tour.  Ethan was knowledgeable about the workings of the mine, and he was able to answer Bertrand's increasingly detailed questions as they walked through it.  Jim was relieved that he didn't have to pay particular attention; he was much more interested in surfing through the mine than in understanding how it worked.

The day had waned into late afternoon by the time Bertrand's curiosity was satisfied.  Jim invited Ethan and his father to dinner at the inn that night, figuring that he owed them at least that much for their hospitality.  The visitors finally emerged from the mine, soot-covered and tired, and began the trek back to the Benbow.

"I was beginning to think you'd gotten lost down there," Sarah scolded when they trudged in.  "And I hope you're planning on cleaning up before dinner," she added, folding her arms.  "You've only got an hour, and there are only two showers, so you'd better get started."

Camille emerged abruptly from the kitchen, as covered in white powder as they were in black.  "And you're going to have to race me upstairs if you want one of those showers first," he grumbled as he started up the stairs.

"What happened to you?" Jim snickered.

"Flour," the Octopid muttered.

"Don't tell me he actually helped ye with dinner," Silver chuckled.

"It's a surprise," Sarah replied firmly.  "Now go get washed!  And Jim, let them take whatever rooms they'd like," she added as she handed him the skeleton key that opened all the inn's doors.  "There's someone in five, but the rest are free."

"How many rooms do you have here?" Bertrand asked as they followed Jim upstairs.

"Just five that we rent-- the other two bedrooms are mine and Mom's.  That door down at the end of the hall is one of the guest bathrooms, and the other one's right here."  He pounded on the nearer door, only to hear a loud "Go away!" in Camille's voice from the other side.  Jim smirked.  "Looks like you two'll have to fight for the other one-- unless, uh, you want to use my shower, Silver."

"From the look on yer face, I'm assumin' ye mean at the same time yer usin' it," Silver observed, causing Bertrand to blush vividly and look everywhere but at them.  "Might be a tad risky with yer mum around.   But I just might come visit yer room after she's gone to bed."

"You go first," Bertrand said quickly, probably more to end the conversation than out of politeness.  "Jim, do any of the rooms have two beds?  There's no sense in making more work for your mother, so Camille and I could. . . share a room."

Jim hid a smile as he unlocked one of the doors.  "Sure, this one has two beds.  Just tell Camille when he gets out."

By the time they reassembled downstairs, Ethan and his father had arrived, along with the Dopplers.  At the sight of Amelia, Silver absconded to the kitchen, ostensibly to help Sarah with dinner.  When Jim realized that the cyborg was still concerned that she might turn him in, it put a slight damper on his good spirits.

Ethan, on the other hand, seemed to be having a good time.  He devoted himself to helping Morph entertain the young Dopplers while his father talked to Bertrand about the mine.  When Silver and B.E.N. finally brought in dinner, everyone gathered around the inn's largest table.  Sarah had prepared one of Jim's favorite pasta dishes along with steaks and steamed vegetables.  Jim devoured the meal eagerly; as good as Mrs. Ufford's cooking was, in his opinion, nothing could compare to his mother's.

As the meal drew near its close, Camille got up from the table and slunk to the kitchen.  "What's all that about?" Jim asked his mother with a little smile.

"Well, your friend said he couldn't afford to get you a birthday present, so he asked if I'd let him bake you a cake."

"Camille knows how to cook?" Bertrand blurted out.

"I wouldn't say that," B.E.N. put in.  "He almost set himself on fire, and then--"

"He managed," Sarah interrupted firmly.

Camille reappeared a second later, bearing a decidedly lopsided, unevenly frosted cake.  "Happy birthday," he grumbled as he set it in front of Jim.  "And remind me never to go near an oven again."

"Hey, it looks. . . good," Jim said awkwardly as the Octopid slumped back into his seat.  He was able to praise Camille more sincerely once he had actually cut and tasted the cake; despite its dreary appearance, it was delicious.

"Thanks," he said more brightly amid compliments to Camille.  "This is really good!"

"It better be," the Octopid muttered.  "I burned one of my suckers on the oven."

As the night wore on, Jim managed to forgot all the painful events that had happened recently to him, and to all of them.  Amelia was showing Ethan how to feed Megaera spoonfuls of mashed carrots, and Bertrand was listening with obvious delight to Camille tell Sarah about life on his home planet of Moana.  Even those who had undergone more trauma than Jim himself seemed happy.

"I guess this beats getting drunk on Crescentia," Jim said facetiously to Silver as he sat down next to the cyborg before the fireplace.  Sarah had recently acquired a couch to place before the fire for guests who wanted a restful place to sit, and Jim was grateful for it now.

Silver squeezed his hand surreptitiously.  "Not a bad meal either.  Yer mum's a fine cook.  Although I'd prefer a bit more privacy right now."

Jim blushed slightly and assured him, "They'll go home soon.  The Dopplers'll have to put the kids to bed, and I think Ethan's about to crash too."  The young Benbonian was yawning prodigiously.

"Good.  I still haven't given ye my present yet."

"I told you, you didn't have to get me anything!" Jim protested, secretly pleased.

"And ye knew perfectly well that I was goin' to," Silver responded.

As Jim had suspected, the guests began to drift away soon after.  The Dopplers left first without any altercation over Silver, although Jim did see Amelia give him a dark look before she followed Delbert out into the darkness with her children.  Eventually, Ethan and the other guests left as well, leaving the temporary inhabitants of the Benbow seated around the fire with Sarah.

"Whew.  That's twice we've had the whole neighborhood over in a standard month," Sarah breathed.  "I hope you don't plan on doing any more celebrating soon, Jim, or you'll be on your own."

"I think that's enough parties for me," Jim replied.  "Although I might have to make Camille bake another cake before long."  Camille had been silent for some time, and now he only scowled and slumped down further in his chair.

"I'm bushed!" B.E.N. declared with an exaggerated yawn-- his hundred years alone on Treasure Planet had caused him to mimic human actions, even those that were unnecessary to a robot.  Jim had tried to break him of the habit at first, but had long since given up.  "Jimmy, if you're gonna be up for a while, I think I'll go catch forty refresh cycles."

Jim smiled indulgently at the robot.  "Sure, I'll keep an eye on things."

"I suppose I'd better turn in as well," Sarah said once B.E.N. had ambled off to his favorite napping corner.  She stood and stretched.  "Jim, you shouldn't stay up too late.  From what you've been telling me about your schedule lately, you could use some extra sleep."

"I won't be too late, Mom.  Good night."

"Night, ma'am," Silver said gallantly.

"You can quit calling me that, you know," Sarah pointed out as she ascended the stairs.  "Good night, you scallywags."

When she had disappeared, Silver said, "Ye know, this reminds me of winter on Spira, settin' in front of the fire nights and tellin' yarns to the guests."

"Don't get too used to it again," Jim chided.  "I don't want you to quit on me so you can sit around by a fire instead."

"Don't worry, lad."  Silver put his organic arm around Jim's shoulders.  "I wouldn't leave ye fer all the comfortable inns in the galaxy."

"Cthulhu fhtagn!" Camille swore abruptly.  "Can't you at least wait until you're alone before you start that?"

"What's the matter with you?" Jim retorted.  "You're more grouchy than usual-- and I even said I liked your cake!"

Camille glared down at his lap for a moment, then muttered, "You're all so bloody-- happy!  Sorry I'm not the fucking ray of sunshine you are."  He got up and stalked to the front door.  "I'll go brood somewhere else if that's what you want."  Bertrand looked as if he wanted to follow him when the Octopid went outside, but he didn't move.

"I didn't know he got that cranky when he couldn't drink," Jim grumbled.

"Jimbo, I think there's more on his mind than that," Silver said gently.

"Yeah, yeah, I know."  Jim sighed.  "I'd be more sympathetic if he weren't such a drama queen though."  He looked questioningly at Bertrand.  "Has he said anything to you?"

"No, he's hardly spoken to me," the Coronid said softly.  "But. . . I think he's a little jealous of you.  He said as much last night.  Maybe being around here and seeing you with your mother makes him wish he had a family too.  I can certainly relate to that," he murmured.

"Why don't ye go talk to him?" Silver asked.

Bertrand immediately flushed.  "I'm sure he wants to be alone."

"I'm sure he doesn't," Jim retorted.  "He wants attention."

"But--"

"The lad's head over tentacles in love with ye," Silver said bluntly.  "I bet ye a hundred drubloons that he went out there hopin' ye'd follow him."

Bertrand turned even redder than before.  "He-- he's not. . . ."  He trailed off, then swallowed hard and stood, refusing to look at them.  "You know, if you two want to be left alone, you can just say so instead of embarrassing me.  I'll see you in the morning."  He left in a huff-- but he did follow Camille outside instead of going upstairs to his room, Jim noticed.

"Finally," Jim muttered.  He leaned into Silver's shoulder and put one arm across his chest.  "So what about this birthday pres--"  He broke off when he heard the stairs creak under someone's foot.  Jim scrambled to sit up, and Silver quickly removed his arm from the young man's shoulders just in time as Sarah appeared, making her way down the stairs.

"I forgot to tell B.E.N. to make extra tea tomorrow morning," she sighed.  "Bertrand mentioned that he prefers it to coffee."

"Uh, I can tell B.E.N. when he wakes up," Jim said quickly; he certainly didn't want an awakened B.E.N. butting in on him and Silver.

"All right, but don't forget."  She paused at the foot of the stairs, her hand on the banister.  "Wake him up when you go to bed.  He doesn't actually need to rest, and I don't like it when there's not somebody on watch."

Jim groaned.  "Mom, I promise I won't forget.  Now go back to bed-- you do need to rest."

Sarah gave him a slightly suspicious look, coupled with a little smile.  "Whatever you're up to, try not to do any damage."  She finally went back upstairs, to Jim's relief.

"She's getting way too suspicious," he sighed.

"Ye think she'll come back again?"

Jim chuckled as he leaned against Silver once more.  "Nah.  We should be safe."

"Now, about this present a' yers."  Silver felt in his pocket with his organic hand, then pulled it out slowly.  "Happy birthday, lad," he said as he held out his hand.

Jim's present was a new earring to replace the one he wore in his left ear.  Even though it was only a couple millimeters wide, Jim had never seen a hoop earring so intricate before.  It had a tiny blue stone set in the part of the hoop that would face outward when worn, and the metal all over was etched with an elaborate woven design.  Best of all, unlike his old golden earring, this one was silver.

"The stone's a sapphire," Silver told him as Jim breathlessly took the earring between his fingertips.  "I dunno what yer birthstone would be on yer home planet, so I just picked one that suited ye."

"It's beautiful," Jim whispered, clutching the earring tightly in his hand and hugging Silver even more tightly.  "Thank you so much."

"Well, it's yers on one condition," Silver laughed as he put his arms around Jim's slender torso.  "I want yer old one-- it reminds me so much of ye, I couldn't bear to part with it."

Jim nuzzled the cyborg's chest, then let go long enough to remove his old earring.  "Sure, here."  He placed it in Silver's organic palm, then carefully pushed the post of the new earring through the piercing in his ear.  "I can't wait to see what it looks like!"

"Seems to me that there's a mirror in yer room, if I remember correctly," Silver said with a barely visible smirk.  "And I'll wager yer mum ain't gonna come in there lookin' for the robot, neither."

"You know, you're probably right."  Jim kissed him on the cheek, then jumped to his feet.  "Lemme go wake B.E.N. up before I forget, then I'll be right back."

It took a good five minutes for Jim to "awaken" the robot and make him understand Sarah's message about the tea.  After enduring a final combination happy-birthday and good-night hug, Jim finally escaped B.E.N.'s spindly clutches and rejoined Silver in the common room.

"Let's go before someone else tries to interfere," he muttered as he started up the stairs.  "I'm going to be alone with you if it kills us."

"If yer mum finds out," Silver observed unencouragingly, "it probably will."

Fortunately, Jim and Silver made it upstairs to the safety of Jim's room without further interference, where they found Morph conked out on a pillow.  He had disappeared around the time most of the guests left, apparently still rather weak from his recent "cold."

Jim carefully scooped the pillow up off the bed and set it on his dresser.  "I don't think rolling over on the little guy would be good for him," he said as he sat down on the bed and pulled off his boots.

"So ye expect we'll be movin' around on the bed a lot, eh?"

Jim felt himself blush even as he began to unbutton his shirt.  "Well, I love the earring, but I did hope I'd be getting more than that for my birthday."

"Ye did, did ye?"  Silver knelt on the bed next to him and grasped Jim's shirt, pulling it off slowly.  "Never satisfied, are ye?"  He put his mechanical arm around Jim's back and held him as he caressed his neck and pressed his organic hand between Jim's legs.  "I might be convinced to come up with another present for ye."

Jim rubbed against his hand with a faint moan, feeling himself getting hard.  Silver groped him firmly through his pants, then gently pushed him down on his back.  "But we'll have to get these out of the way first," he murmured, pulling Jim's pants down.  Jim lifted his hips off the bed long enough for Silver to finish removing his clothing, desperate for the spacer to touch him again.

"I've missed ye, lad," Silver whispered as he drew his organic hand slowly down Jim's chest.  "No more goin' off on missions by yerself, all right?"

"R-right," Jim managed to reply as he tried not to squirm too eagerly under the cyborg's touch.  "W-we'll stay together."  He started to reach for Silver, who pushed his hand away firmly.

"No, yer gonna lay right there and enjoy yerself.  I'm gonna do all the work."

"But-- aah!" Jim yelped as Silver closed his hand around him.  "O-okay. . . ."

Silver leaned over him and kissed him, hard in contrast to the almost infuriatingly slow motion of his hand.  Jim whimpered and wrapped his arms around the cyborg's neck as he kissed him back.  After a moment, Silver transferred his mouth to Jim's neck, nipping at his skin as he increased the speed of his hand's stroking.

"Yes, faster!" Jim panted as he thrust his hips up against Silver's hand.  Silver complied, pumping him rapidly until Jim was sure he was about to climax.  However, just as his body tensed involuntarily, Silver let him go.  Jim groaned miserably as the cyborg sat up, smirking.

"Please," Jim begged, "don't stop--"

"Oh, I ain't gonna stop," Silver assured him as he unfastened his pants.  He caught Jim's ankles and lifted them up onto his shoulders, then clutched his thighs.  "Ready?"

"Yes, please," Jim panted as he squirmed in Silver's grip.  "Put it in me!"

"Now what would yer mum say if she heard ye talkin' like that?" Silver teased.  Jim glared up at him from where he lay and started to give him a less than civil reply, but his words were cut off in a gasp as Silver thrust into him forcefully.

"Stars, yer tight," Silver moaned huskily as he pulled back slightly, then penetrated Jim completely so that the younger man's hips were pressed against his thighs.

"I-it's been a while."  Jim clenched handfuls of the sheet and closed his eyes, fighting the urge to come just from feeling Silver inside him.  It subsided after a moment, and Jim relaxed slightly, only to have Silver start moving in him again.

Jim had to struggle to keep from crying out with pleasure every time Silver thrust forward, but the thought of his mother overhearing was enough to keep him silent.  Silver reached down with his organic hand to grope Jim again, sending shivers of ecstasy through him repeatedly.  The spacer continued to grip Jim's left thigh with his mechanical hand in a strong grasp that aroused Jim even further.  He tensed his leg muscles as he wantonly tried to spread his thighs even further apart.

"Ye like it, don't ye?" Silver growled.

"Yes!" Jim gasped as he arched his back and pushed his hips back against Silver.  "Please, Silver, fuck me!"

"Ah, yes, Jimbo--" Silver panted.  "Come for me, lad!"  He pumped Jim rapidly as he thrust into him, not stopping this time when Jim's body tensed.

Only by clenching his teeth shut did Jim avoid "screeching" as he came hard on his chest.  Silver moaned as Jim's muscles contracted around him, and he moved his hand back to Jim's thigh to hold his legs apart as he slammed into the younger man through his orgasm.  As Jim's body finally relaxed, he felt Silver coming inside him, still thrusting into him until he finished.

Jim collapsed back against his pillow, breathing heavily as Silver slowly pulled out of him.  Silver leaned over and kissed him gently, stroking his hair back from his face.

"Ye get better every time."

"But you were the one who did all the work," Jim teased tiredly as he returned the kisses.  "Best birthday present I've ever gotten."

Silver chuckled.  "We'd better get cleaned up though."  As he helped Jim to sit up, he asked, "So am I allowed to spend the night with ye, or will ye send me back to my room?"

"You can stay," Jim smiled, standing on somewhat wobbly legs.  "Just be sure to go unmake your bed before breakfast so Mom doesn't realize you didn't use it."

Silver swatted him lightly on the hips as he got up and followed the younger man to the bathroom.  "Trust me, keepin' this from yer mum ain't somethin' I'll forget about."

After a second shower, once he was in bed curled up against Silver, Jim drowsily wondered just what Sarah would think if she knew-- and how much she had already guessed, judging from the look she had given them earlier that evening.  Who knows what Amelia might tell her, he thought.  She might already know.  But Mom wants what's best for me-- and surely she'd be able to see that he's what's best.  She knows how unhappy I was before, and she must know how happy I am now.

Still, the thought of his mother knowing that he was having sex with anyone, much less another man, was somewhat disturbing.  As Jim snuggled against Silver's shoulder, he decided after all that the longer he could keep it a secret, the better.

Chapter Text

When Bertrand stepped outside, the day's pleasantly cool breeze had turned into a downright chilly wind.  He shivered and raised his wings slightly to block what he could of it as he looked around for Camille.  The only light came from what leaked out past the blinds in the inn's windows, and it took him a moment to make out the Octopid sitting on a rock near the edge of the pier.

Maybe he really does want to be alone, Bertrand thought.  Why would he want to talk to me now, if he's been avoiding me all day?  Still, he couldn't stop thinking about what Silver had said, that Camille was "head over tentacles" in love with him.  He wouldn't just say a thing like that if he didn't believe it. . . would he?

Finally the Coronid walked over to Camille and tentatively put a hand on his shoulder.  "Are you all right?"

Camille jumped and looked up at him, then nodded, though he didn't look very happy.  "Yeah."  When he turned back to the bleak view of the empty pier, Bertrand decided that Camille didn't want to talk to him after all, and he started to pull his hand away.  Then the Octopid abruptly reached up with a tentacle and clamped it over Bertrand's hand to keep him from leaving.

"You got a minute?  I. . . need to tell you something," Camille said slowly.

"Yes. . . sure," Bertrand replied, bemused.  Camille let his hand go just as suddenly and folded his tentacles in his lap.

"Sit down.  And don't say anything until I'm finished."

The intensely unhappy look on his face gave Bertrand a dismal feeling, but he sat down next to Camille and looked at him expectantly, though the Octopid kept his eyes on the pier and didn't once look at Bertrand as he spoke.

"I didn't want you to know-- I made Jim and Silver promise not to tell you.  But I can't stand it, because every time I see you, all I can think about is how you'd hate me if you knew.  And-- get this, I've never felt guilty about anything before in my life, but I feel guilty around you because I'm keeping it from you.  I can't stand it."

What could he possibly have done? Bertrand thought.  What's so terrible that he thinks I could hate him for it, when Jim and Silver obviously don't?

"How much do you know about Scroop?" Camille asked suddenly, despite his order that Bertrand not speak.

"I. . . Jim told me that when Silver mutinied, Scroop was one of his men.  And I know--"  Bertrand had to force himself to say the words.  "I know he was your lover, and that he hurt you.  That's all."

"Hmph."  The noise was almost a laugh, but without an iota of mirth in it.  "All that's true.  He tried to kill Jim after the mutiny, but Jim almost killed him instead.  I met him a lot later, and before we started fucking--"  Bertrand winced.  "--he hired me to try to track down Jim, or Silver, or both if they were still alive.  That's how Jim and I met-- I was looking for him."

Bertrand remained silent, waiting for the rest of it.  Camille was quiet for a long time, then he said more rapidly than before, "I wrote Scroop and told him where Jim and Silver were.  It took him a while to catch up to us because we went to Coronis for you, but he finally got to us on Crescentia, the night we came back from that trip.  Because of me, he knew right where they were.  I led him right to them!"  Camille's tentacles were clenched in the equivalent of fists as he stared down into his lap.  "By the time he caught up with us, I realized. . . that I was wrong, and I tried to keep him away from them.  That's when he-- when he cut my face, then he knocked me out.  When I woke up, Jim had paralyzed him, and I. . . ."  He fell silent.

"You what?" Bertrand said hoarsely, unable to keep quiet any longer.

"I shot him," Camille whispered.  "And it wasn't just to keep him away from Jim. . . it was because he used me."

That's all, was the primary thought in Bertrand's mind.  I've been so worried-- and this is all?  He knew logically that aiding a madman in the assassination of your crewmates was not a minor matter in any way, but it was nothing compared to the terrible things he had imagined.  To his way of thinking, Silver's mutiny was worse: at least Camille had been loyal to the person who had had his allegiance first.  Before Jim, before Silver. . . before me, Bertrand thought, and hated Scroop more than ever.

"Why didn't you want me to know?" the Coronid asked aloud.  "All this time, I thought. . . I thought you'd done something horrible and--"

"I did!" Camille all but screamed at him, finally facing him again.  "Isn't lying to people who thought I was their friend horrible enough for you?  They could have been killed!"

"But they weren't, because you protected them," Bertrand protested.  Camille looked away from him, obviously not letting himself listen.  "And I still don't understand.  If Silver and Jim forgave you, why did you hide it from me?  It affected them, not me."

"Because you're a good person," Camille whispered.  "After the way they praised you on Coronis, I couldn't stand the thought of someone like you knowing what I did-- because I knew you'd hate me for it."

Bertrand hesitated, then slowly put his own shaking hand over one of the clenched tentacles.  "Camille. . . nothing could ever make me hate you.  And this, it. . . you did it for someone you-- cared about.  And when you realized you were wrong, you tried to fix it.  There's nothing shameful in that."

"But it was so stupid-- it was for nothing."  Still, his tentacle relaxed slightly; Bertrand curled his fingers under it and held it tightly.

"Garnet used to tell me something, when she was just a kid.  She said nothing in the universe is wasted.  Just like matter always comes from somewhere and ends up somewhere, she thought that the things that happen to us always had a cause and an effect-- a purpose.  So nothing happens for nothing."

"What greeting card did she read that from?" muttered Camille dourly.

"I believe her," Bertrand went on, unperturbed.  "All the bad things that have happened in my life-- if they hadn't happened, I would be somewhere else.  And if you hadn't met. . . met him, you wouldn't have ended up with Jim and Silver.  And that was a good thing for you, wasn't it?"

"Well, I think Silver has secret plans to fry me up for calamari. . . but I guess so, otherwise."  He looked down at Bertrand's hand.  The Coronid flushed and tried to withdraw it, but Camille wrapped his tentacle around Bertrand's thumb before he could let go.  "Do you really believe it though?  All the shit that's happened to you-- do you think it's for the best?"

If Deimos hadn't left me, or Garnet hadn't become Lead Crow-- I wouldn't have met you, Bertrand thought.  "Yes," he said.

"I'm not happy like those two--"  Camille jerked his free arm-tentacle back toward the Benbow.  "--but as long as we're talking about greeting card crap, I'm happier than I've ever been before.  Especially now that I have you to pester."  He looked obliquely at Bertrand, the corner of his mouth turning in a slight smile.  "I do pester you, don't I?"

"You drive me absolutely insane," Bertrand responded shakily and quite truthfully.

Camille snickered, then immediately sobered as he murmured, "You really do forgive me?  You. . . trust me?"

"With my life."  Bertrand took a deep breath, then forced himself to say, "But. . . can I ask you one thing?"

"Yeah?"

"Do you still care for him?"

Camille gave him an amazed look.  "Are you kidding?  I wouldn't have harpooned him if I did, even to save Jim's scrawny hide."  He squeezed Bertrand's hand in his tentacle, then let it go as he stood.  "I wonder if those two are still hogging the fireplace."

"Probably.  I think they wanted to get rid of me."

"Let's go somewhere else then."  Camille suddenly turned to face him again.  "Take me flying!"

Normally Bertrand wouldn't have gone off flying in the dark on an unfamiliar planet, but as usual, Camille completely overruled his better judgment.  "O-okay.  Where do you want to go?"

"Up there!"  Camille pointed a tentacle towards a slowly pulsing orangish light in the direction of the mine.  "There's a tower there; I saw it when we got here.  You'll be able to see all over that mine you're so interested in.  Well, you would if it weren't dark."  Before Bertrand could reply, Camille added, "Wait, can you fly that far, with me?"

"I think so.  Jim said it's only a kilometer and. . . well, I've been practicing," Bertrand admitted shyly.  "When you left for Mau, you said you wanted to go flying again, so. . . ."

"Great!"  Camille unceremoniously grasped the front of Bertrand's shirt and hauled him to his feet, then wrapped his tentacles around Bertrand's shoulders.  Bertrand clutched his waist and launched into the air as the Octopid curled other tentacles about his legs.  Camille's body was startlingly warm in the cold atmosphere, and Bertrand could feel his passenger's every breath on his neck as they flew.  His eyes adjusted to the dark fairly quickly once they were away from the Benbow's lights, and he was now able to discern the outline of the tower on which Camille wanted to land.  As they neared it, he felt one of Camille's tentacles moving against his inner right leg, its tip traveling over his calf towards his thigh.  It stopped just above his knee, but Camille kept it there until Bertrand landed at their destination.

It seemed to be an observation tower of some kind set into the ravine where the mine was located; the tower's top was only slightly above the level of the surrounding land.  Bertrand thought that it might be intended for a watchman to oversee the transference of freshly mined ore to the vehicles that would transport it to Crescentia for shipment.  Camille pulled away from him once they landed and ran to the edge of the tower's platform, which to Bertrand's relief was fenced in to prevent accidental falls.

"I wanted to come here in the daytime so I could actually see something, but you were gone so long," Camille complained as he squinted into the darkness.

Bertrand looked over the edge nearest him.  The China Pit was closed at night, although Ethan had mentioned that some mines were kept running at all hours.  Still, Bertrand could see a few lights in the ravine below them near the mine's entrance.  The amber light he had seen from the Benbow was mounted on a post in the middle of the platform, where it flashed intermittently.

His legs were beginning to ache from spending most of the day on his feet, and he sat down on the floor of the platform and leaned against the bordering fence as he watched Camille appear and fade each time the light flashed.

"I'll bring you back tomorrow before we leave, if you want me to," Bertrand said.  "The mine will be closed, so I don't think anyone will mind."

"It's okay.  I think. . . I like it like this."  Camille paced around the perimeter of the platform, then sat down beside him.  "I like the dark."

"I don't mind it.  And it's only dark every few seconds," Bertrand added with a little smile.

"Stupid flashbulb, it ruins the atmosphere."  He was quiet a moment, then he said abruptly, "It's freezing up here."

"Here, I'll take you back--" Bertrand began, but Camille shook his head.

"No, I don't want to go back.  I'm just cold."

Bertrand raised his wings slightly to block the wind.  "Is that better?"

Camille slid closer to him and leaned against his chest with his head on Bertrand's shoulder.  "Yes.  You're warm."  Bertrand felt his arm-tentacles curl around his waist as he folded his wings around Camille somewhat awkwardly and held him.

He almost fell asleep with Camille in his arms.  Despite the cold, he felt more comfortable and content than he had in years, and it was some time before he realized that he was resting his head against Camille's with his eyes closed.  Camille was shivering against him, even wrapped in his wings.

"You're freezing," Bertrand murmured.  "We should go back."

"You think they've gone to bed by now?" Camille asked through chattering teeth.  "So we can have the fire to ourselves?"

"Probably, we've been gone awhile."  Bertrand stood up stiffly, pulling Camille up with him.  "Come on, you'll get sick out here."

"'S not true," Camille muttered even as he clung to the Coronid.  "You don't get sick from being cold."

Bertrand stretched his wings.  "Hold on," he told the Octopid, then gasped slightly as at least six tentacles clenched tightly around him.

"You don't have to tell me twice," Camille snickered.  "I'm not about to let you drop me."

When he and Bertrand returned to the Benbow, Camille made a dash for the large fireplace and held his tentacles out to the dimly glowing embers.

"Damn, I'm freezing," he swore with a shudder.  "I should've listened to you."

"You'd stay warmer if you wore longer pants," Bertrand observed as he sat down on the couch behind Camille.

"If I wore longer pants, I couldn't move my tentacles," Camille objected.  "Like you trying to fly with a coat over your wings."  He left the fireplace to sit down next to Bertrand and leaned against the back of the sofa with his eyes closed.  His usually pale face was slightly flushed from the warmth of the embers, but Bertrand noticed dark circles under his eyes that made him look unhealthily tired.

"Maybe you shouldn't go to Seven with the others next week," Bertrand said abruptly.

"Hmm?  Why?"

"You. . . well, you got hurt recently."

"I'm all right."  Camille tilted his head back.  "Still a little sore, but I can live with it."

"But. . . you look so tired," Bertrand said softly.

"I'll sleep better from now on," Camille said with a wry twist of his mouth.  He opened one eye to look at Bertrand.  "Besides, you don't want the others to think you're giving me preferential treatment, do you?"

"Well, I'm the boss, so I can do what I like," Bertrand said, smiling slightly.

"In that case, I certainly hope you like me," Camille murmured.

"Of course I like you.  I wouldn't be worried about you if I didn't."

Camille chuckled faintly.  "Never mind.  But. . . thanks for worrying about me."  He stood up and stretched his tentacles.  "So we're sharing a room?"

"Yes, I thought it would be less work for Mrs. Hawkins.  I hope you don't mind."

The Octopid grasped his wrist and hauled him up off the sofa.  "Of course not.  C'mon, let's go before I fall asleep down here."

Up in their room, Bertrand sat down on his bed to take off his shoes while he watched Camille surreptitiously.  The Octopid pulled off the glove-like things he wore on his leg-tentacles to serve as shoes, then untied the sash Bertrand had given him and folded it carefully before stripping off his shirt.  Bertrand cringed when he saw the bruise on Camille's midriff; although it wasn't as bad as it could have been, it still looked painful.  When Camille started to untie his shorts, Bertrand looked away quickly and concentrated on unbuttoning his shirt.

"Hey, do you have an extra shirt?" Camille asked abruptly.  "I forgot to bring anything to sleep in."

"Er, I think so."  Bertrand was, as usual, drastically over-prepared, and he took a clean shirt from his suitcase.  He took it to Camille, still trying not to look at the Octopid as Camille kicked off his shorts, apparently unconcerned that he was naked except for some very small underwear.

"Thanks."  Camille shrugged into the shirt and started trying to button it, fumbling at the small buttons with his tentacle tips.  "Shit. . . I hate buttons," he muttered.  "They're bad enough when I don't have a burned sucker.  Whoever invented these things was prejudiced against tentacles."

"Here," Bertrand mumbled, blushing as he pushed Camille's tentacles aside and started buttoning the shirt for him.  He hesitated when he neared the lower buttons, then bit his lip and fastened them as quickly as he could.

"You're going to have to help me take it off later, you know," Camille pointed out.  "I won't be able to get it unbuttoned by myself."  He turned to rummage through his bag until he produced a comb, then he pulled his hair tie loose and started combing his hair roughly.  "Are you really going to make me stay behind when the others go to Seven?"

Bertrand's heart sank a little at the way he said it.  "No, of course not."  He sat down on the edge of Camille's bed to finish unbuttoning his own shirt.  "I was just worried about you, but if you want to go, I certainly won't tell you that you can't."

Camille turned his comb over his tentacles slowly, looking down at it.  "I can't afford it.  I still haven't paid Mrs. Ufford any rent yet.  And Jim and Silver would never shut up about it you gave me the week off."

"Camille, you know I'll pay your rent for you if you need me to," Bertrand said, trying not to sound too irritated.

"And you know that would give those two even more to talk about."  Camille tossed his comb back into his bag and stared into the small mirror over the dressing table.  "Or does Jim not tease you as much as he does me?"

"I. . . I don't. . . ."  To say he didn't know what Camille was talking about would be a lie.  Bertrand clenched his hands over the tips of his wings nervously.  It was the first time either of them had acknowledged what Jim and Silver both seemed to think about them.

"Exactly," Camille said cryptically.  "I'm not going to slack off 'cause you feel guilty that I got hurt.  It would be different if you wanted me to stay with you."  He scowled and started to pull his hair back again.

"Wait," Bertrand murmured.

Camille stopped and half-turned to him, blinking.  "What?"

"I. . . like your hair down."  It was the first thing he could think of to say; although it was true, he was more concerned with what Camille had just said than with his hair.

"You do?"  Camille took a step towards him.  "It's usually a pain because it gets in the way, but. . . you think it looks nice?"

"Yes, it. . . you look beautiful."

Camille's green eyes flickered downward, and his pale cheeks reddened slightly.  His unexpected demureness encouraged Bertrand enough for him to stand and move closer to the Octopid.

"Camille, I don't worry about you because I feel guilty.  It's because I. . . I care about you."  Camille looked back up at him, somewhat incredulously.  It took every bit of his resolve, but Bertrand lifted his shaking hands to the Octopid's face, brushing his long hair back from his eyes.  "I can't stand to see you hurt," Bertrand whispered.  He cupped Camille's jaw in his hands, stroking the Octopid's cheek with one thumb.

"Bertrand. . . ."  Camille covered Bertrand's hand with a tentacle.  "I don't deserve that.  After the way I treated you when we first met. . . .  And last night, I didn't mean to hurt you.  I just-- thinking about her always makes me jealous."

"Deimos?  Why?"

"Why do you think, feather brain?"  Camille leaned closer to him until their bodies were pressed together and his lips brushed Bertrand's neck.  "Because you've kissed her," he breathed, "and held her, and told her you loved her."

"I don't love her now, any more than you love him."  Bertrand drew in his breath sharply as he felt Camille's mouth tilt up to press against his jaw.  "Camille, I-- stars, I want you!"

Camille leaned his head back enough to look up at Bertrand.  "Then for Cthulhu's sake, do something about it!"

Bertrand trembled slightly as he bent his head.  The Octopid turned his face up towards him, parting his lips invitingly until Bertrand brushed them with his own.  He felt Camille's arm-tentacles wrap around his neck in an embrace as Camille stood on the tips of his others and pressed his mouth hard against Bertrand's.  Bertrand held the Octopid against him as he tentatively pushed his tongue between Camille's lips.  Camille gave a faint, pleased moan and reciprocated eagerly.

It all seemed rather unreal to Bertrand: the idea that he was kissing Camille, and even more that Camille liked it, gave him the impression that it was really all happening to someone else.  This can't be me, he thought.  Things like this don't happen to me.

Camille finally broke the kiss to catch his breath, then almost immediately he began caressing Bertrand's neck, open-mouthed.  "Dagon!" the Octopid panted as he pushed Bertrand's open shirt off one shoulder and started nipping at his collar bone.  "I haven't been with anyone since Scroop, because I wanted you--"

Bertrand was now almost positive that it wasn't real.  "You. . . you waited, for me?"

Camille put his "hands" to either side of Bertrand's face and looked up at him impatiently.  "Yes.  I was starting to think you were going to be permanently celibate."

"But. . . I'm not. . . why would you want me?" Bertrand asked helplessly.

"Do you have no self-esteem at all, you idiotic prude?  You're the most gorgeous man I've ever seen.  And the nicest.  When you fly with me, I feel. . . I feel like you're saving me," Camille finished in a whisper.  He leaned up and kissed Bertrand again, softly this time.  "Bertrand, I--" he began, then apparently changed his mind and just kissed the Coronid again.

Bertrand wrapped his arms around Camille's waist and kissed him back, harder than before now that he was getting the hang of it.  One of Camille's arm-tentacles drifted back to his neck, where Bertrand felt its suckers mouthing his skin, and the other slid under Bertrand's shirt to stroke his back.

"I want you," Camille whispered again between kisses.  "Is it against the rules for you to be intimate with your employees?"

"W-well, generally--"

"Then I quit," Camille declared.

"You what--"

"But," he murmured, "I expect you to rehire me, first thing in the morning.  Sit down."  He gently pushed Bertrand towards his bed until the Coronid gave in and sat.  Camille knelt next to him on the bed, returning his mouth to Bertrand's neck as he fumbled with his shirt.

"How do I get this damn thing off?"

"Here."  Bertrand swiftly unfastened the buttons that held his shirt closed above his wings and pushed the garment off.  Camille drew a tentacle down his bare back, breathing heavily.

"Cthulhu fhtagn, you're beautiful."  He employed one of his leg tentacles in stroking the feathers of Bertrand's nearest wing.  "Your skin, and your wings. . . your eyes. . . ."  He kept stroking as he began to kiss Bertrand's chest.  "Your feathers would fall out if you knew half the things I've imagined doing to you."

"Aah--" Bertrand panted as Camille nipped at his skin.  "Why didn't you tell me?  All this time I thought. . . you didn't like me. . . ."

Camille trailed kisses down his breastbone, then looked up at him.  "You know I was afraid you'd hate me for what I did.  It would have been even harder for me if we were. . . lovers," he whispered.  "If I had you, then lost you. . . ."

Bertrand trembled so hard, his feathers shook violently.  "Camille--"

The Octopid laughed softly before Bertrand could say anything else.  "You shake every time I'm near you."

"I-I shake when I'm nervous," Bertrand stammered.

"What do you have to be nervous about?"  Camille went back to his task of caressing Bertrand's torso.  "I've already seen you cry and get air sick.  That's gotta be your worst."

"Yes, b-but--"

"Relax, sugar."  Camille slowly drew his tongue across Bertrand's stomach, making him shudder even harder, this time with pleasure at the alien sensation.  Bertrand leaned back, bracing himself with his hands, and tried to breathe evenly as he watched the Octopid nuzzle and caress his skin.

However, a fresh wave of nervousness washed over him when Camille began unfastening his pants.  "Wait, what--"

"So that's what you're nervous about."

"No one's ever--"

"Good.  I'd be insanely jealous if they had."  Camille unzipped his pants without further discussion and pushed them down past Bertrand's hips, then slid two tentacle tips under the waistband of his shorts and pulled them down as well.  Bertrand cringed and closed his eyes.

"Ia!" Camille swore an instant later.  "What the fuck were you worried about?"  Bertrand opened one eye, though he felt himself blush deeply as he watched Camille curl a tentacle around his erection.

"You really do like me if you're this hard already," Camille said as he stroked him slowly with his tentacle and he pressed his other "hand" between Bertrand's legs to fondle his balls.  Bertrand felt a stab of pleasure move through him when Camille's suckers pulled at his flesh.  "Kissing turns you on, hunh?"

"Everything you do," Bertrand breathed.  "Even if you just touch me. . . .  When you showed me how to swim and had your tentacles all over me--"

"So when you nearly drowned us, you were hard for me?  Dagon, if I'd only known.  I wanted you so much. . . ."  Camille slid off the bed and crouched on the floor between his feet, then coiled his tentacle tighter around Bertrand's cock and pumped it with rapid strokes.  Every movement sent a stab of pleasure through the Coronid's body.

Camille bent his head and kissed Bertrand's inner thigh, slowly caressing his way upward as he talked.  "I-- I kissed you while you were asleep in the cabin," he whispered, casting his eyes up at Bertrand with an uncharacteristically abashed look.  "I wanted to know what your mouth felt like-- so that when I jerked off thinking about you, I could imagine it on me."

Bertrand felt his blush grow deeper, even as he got harder in Camille's tentacle.  "I. . . Camille--"

The Octopid loosened his tentacle's grip and leaned forward to draw his tongue slowly up Bertrand's erection.  "I never imagined you'd be this big though," he murmured.  He licked at Bertrand more roughly, then put his mouth on him and sucked gently.

All Bertrand could manage was an inarticulate noise of sheer ecstasy.  He had never felt anything like the warm, wet sensation of Camille's mouth engulfing him, which made him forget all about being nervous.  Camille kept one arm-tentacle between Bertrand's legs but curled the other over his thigh and gripped it tightly.  Bertrand reached down and stroked Camille's long, tousled hair, pushing it back from his face so that it wouldn't obscure his view of Camille's mouth on him.

Camille moaned faintly and leaned forward to move his head up and down on Bertrand, taking more of his erection into his mouth each time.  When Camille's lips neared the base of his shaft, the sensation of the Octopid's throat muscles around him was too intense for Bertrand to stay still.  He thrust his hips forward involuntarily with his fingers laced in Camille's hair, holding his head still.  Camille moaned again, more loudly this time, and moved his arm tentacle from Bertrand's thigh to his waist, embracing him.  Bertrand was dimly aware of some of Camille's other tentacles coiling about and caressing his legs, but most of his attention was focused on the Octopid's mouth.

"Mmmn," Camille groaned, his throat vibrating around Bertrand's erection.  Bertrand shuddered, already close to climaxing.  He felt Camille's teeth scrape him lightly as Camille pulled his head back, then completely engulfed Bertrand again.  The slight pain brought on Bertrand's orgasm even sooner than he had expected.

"Camille--" Bertrand gasped.  The Octopid quickly drew his head back until only the head of Bertrand's erection was in his mouth, then pumped the Coronid's shaft with a tentacle.  Bertrand clutched at Camille's hair, shuddering as Camille swallowed rapidly.  When the Coronid finally finished, he relaxed his hold and flexed his aching fingers sheepishly.

Camille leaned back and looked up at him, breathing heavily with his tentacles still curled around Bertrand's legs.  "You liked it?"

"Yes. . . ."  Bertrand's hand was shaking again, from exhaustion this time, as he laid it against Camille's slightly flushed cheek.  "I've never felt that good before."

"Told you I'd make you do something bad one day," Camille teased, though his flush deepened slightly.

The thought that next occurred to Bertrand was so surprising, he spoke it without thinking.  "I don't think it was bad.  Not with you."

Camille raised an eyebrow.  "You mean that's the one thing you don't feel guilty about?"

"If it had been anyone else, I would, but being with you. . . I don't think it could ever feel wrong."

Camille stood shakily, putting his arm tentacles on Bertrand's shoulders then sliding them around his neck.  "You know, I think that's the nicest thing anyone's ever said to me."  He straddled Bertrand's legs and sat on his lap, then kissed his forehead softly.  Bertrand put his arms around him and held him tightly as he kissed the Octopid's lips.

"You sure you want to kiss me?" Camille asked facetiously.  "You did just come in my mouth."

"I don't care."  Bertrand kissed him again, and this time Camille parted his lips under the Coronid's and thrust his tongue into Bertrand's mouth.  The Octopid whimpered and squirmed as they kissed, rubbing himself against Bertrand with his tentacles writhing around his legs.

Bertrand timidly ran his hand over Camille's hip, then over his groin.  Camille's whimper turned to a definite moan as he rubbed the hard bulge between his thighs against Bertrand's hand.  The Coronid groped Camille awkwardly through his underwear until the Octopid climbed off of him suddenly to sit in the middle of the bed, thin chest heaving.

"Please, I want you to jerk me off," he begged.  He pushed up the hem of the shirt he was wearing, then hooked his tentacles over his underwear and pulled it off.  Bertrand stared at him lustfully; despite the gills and his lack of body hair, Camille was otherwise humanoid there.  His cock was slender but long, and so hard it pressed flat against Camille's bruised abdomen.

"I-I've never done this before," Bertrand stammered as he moved beside Camille.

"You'll figure it out."  Camille gave him another hard kiss and snaked his leg tentacles around Bertrand's body, pulling him close.  Bertrand lay back on the bed with Camille in one arm, then wrapped his free hand around the Octopid's erection with some uncertainty.  Camille's breathing grew more rapid as Bertrand stroked him.

"Ooh, yes," Camille moaned, burying his face in Bertrand's shoulder.  "Just like that.  Don't stop. . . ."

Bertrand kissed the side of Camille's pale neck as he drew his fist up and down the Octopid's cock.  Camille squirmed and writhed against him, thrusting eagerly into his hand.  "Just like that," he panted again.  "Do it hard!"  Bertrand pumped him rapidly and kissed his neck open-mouthed, tonguing his soft skin.  Camille's tentacles clenched around his body as the Octopid breathed harder.

"I'm gonna come," he panted.  His erection throbbed in Bertrand's hand as he climaxed, splattering both himself and Bertrand.  "Bertrand!"

Bertrand wrapped both arms around Camille and held him tightly, feeling the Octopid's body quiver against him.  Camille's heavy breathing finally slowed as he clung to Bertrand.

"I think," he said after a moment, "there's a box of tissues on the nightstand.  Sorry if I got you sticky."

Bertrand blushed all over again.  "I-it's okay.  I. . . was it. . . all right?"

"You were great," Camille whispered.  He stroked Bertrand's cheek with his tentacle tip, giving the Coronid an unreadable look, then kissed his lips softly.  "Do you want to sleep alone?" Camille asked as he lowered his head to rest on Bertrand's shoulder.  "Or will you. . . stay with me?"

"Of course I want to stay with you."

"Most people don't-- they just kick me out of bed after I get them off," Camille muttered, though without much rancor.

"Camille. . . ."  Bertrand turned so that he could fold one wing over the Octopid.  "I want. . . I want to be with you.  Even if you never touched me, I'd be happy just being near you."

Camille curled his tentacles even more tightly around Bertrand, huddling against him.  "Oh, I'll touch you, believe me."  He tilted his head back to smile up at Bertrand faintly, then he gently removed the Coronid's glasses and reached over him to lay them on the nightstand.  "You cold?"

"A little.  I'm, uh, not wearing as much as you are."

"That's a first," Camille snorted.  He grasped the bed spread with one leg-tentacle and drew it up over them.  Bertrand managed to reach the lamp and douse it.

"Night, sugar," Camille murmured sleepily after a few moments.  "Oh, d'you mind if I call you that?" he went on in a slurred voice.  "'S either that or 'feathers,' an' since Silver calls me fuckin' 'Tentacles' that'd be too much the same. . . ."

"I like it," Bertrand whispered.

"Mmn," was all the reply he got.  He laid his cheek against Camille's soft hair and felt the Octopid's chest rise and fall as he breathed.  His feeling of unreality clung to him; Camille wasn't even drunk, and here he was asleep in Bertrand's arms.

"I love you," Bertrand whispered to the sleeping man curled up under his wing.

 

When Bertrand woke up the next morning, he couldn't move his left wing.  After a moment, he realized that this was because Camille was lying on it.  The Octopid was curled against his side with an arm-tentacle draped across Bertrand's chest and various others tangled about his legs.  Bertrand turned enough to put his arms around Camille and kiss his forehead.

"Mmmn," Camille mumbled.  He shifted slightly against Bertrand, then tightened the hold of his tentacles in an embrace.  "You awake?"

"Yes-- did I wake you?"

"Yeah, but I'm glad."  Camille tilted his head back and looked up at him.  "I can't enjoy you if I'm asleep."  He planted a kiss on Bertrand's chin, then nuzzled his neck.  "Dagon, I love making you blush.  Good thing it's so easy."

"I wonder what time it is," Bertrand mumbled.

"Who cares?"

"W-well," Bertrand stammered, somewhat distracted by Camille's mouth on his neck, "if we're late to breakfast, they'll get suspicious."

"So I guess that means we're not gonna tell them."

"I. . . didn't think you wanted to.  You were talking about Jim teasing you--"

"Oh, I don't care if he teases me as long as we're actually doing something."  Camille sat up abruptly and grinned down at Bertrand.  "But if you don't want anyone to know. . . ."

Bertrand pushed himself up into a sitting position using one arm, wincing slightly as the blood finally flowed back into his numb wing.  "I think they'll figure it out. "

Camille leaned over and gave him an abrupt peck on the lips, then hopped up before Bertrand could say anything else.  "I'm gonna get a shower.  I'd suggest we go together, but I don't think Mrs. Hawkins would appreciate that if she caught us."  He pulled on his short pants, then snickered.  "Cthulhu fhtagn, she wouldn't care about us if she only knew what that cyborg was doing to her little boy."

"I certainly don't want to be the one to tell her about that," Bertrand murmured.

"You mind unbuttoning me, since you're the one blessed with fingers?"  The Octopid paused by the bed long enough for Bertrand to unfasten his shirt.  "Thanks. . . sugar," he said, cupping Bertrand's chin in a tentacle briefly before he left the room.

 

Jim went down to breakfast early with Silver following him a discreet amount of time later, after the cyborg had spent some time making his own room look slept in.  B.E.N. had just wobbled in with a huge stack of pancakes when Camille sauntered downstairs.

"Morning, sunshine," Camille said as he passed Jim, giving him a smart tap on the head with a tentacle.

"Ow."  Jim rubbed his head ruefully.  "What are you so happy about?"

"Wouldn't you like to know."  The Octopid slouched down in a chair.  "What's for breakfast?"

"Jimmy's favorite-- pancakes!" B.E.N. said cheerfully.

As he served them, Sarah came over from where she had been taking care of the Benbow's other guests, and sat down with a mug of coffee.  "So what's on the agenda for you this week?" she asked Jim, with a glance at Silver and Camille to include them as well.

"I don't know much," Jim replied, deftly catching Morph in one hand just as the shapeshifter was about to dive into Jim's plate of pancakes.  "Just that we're going to Seven for the second time-- it's a planet not too far from here.  If you want to know more than that, you'll have to ask Bertrand."

"Ask me what?" the lawyer in question mumbled as he wandered over to the table and sat down between Sarah and Silver.  He looked like he hadn't gotten much sleep.

"Why're we goin' back to Seven?" Silver said before cramming half a pancake into his mouth.

"Oh, that."  Bertrand smiled at B.E.N. gratefully as the robot poured him a cup of tea.  "Another shipment of Claredon's should arrive on Crescentia by tomorrow morning, and he wants you to deliver it, then stay for a couple days to help him with some loads that will be coming in from other planets."

"As long as we don't have to look at it," Camille muttered.

"Do I want to know what's in these 'shipments'?" Sarah asked wryly as she sipped at her coffee.

"No," Jim said.  "Not while you're eating, anyway.  I'll tell you after breakfast."

He told her as he helped her with the dishes so that she would be through with the chores in time to accompany them to town to catch the shuttle early that afternoon.  Sarah had put the rest of Jim's little crew to work as well, doing various repairs and cleaning tasks.  Camille, who was given a dust cloth or mop for every tentacle, complained loudly.

"This is exactly why I decided to stay on Montressor," Sarah sighed after Jim had described Claredon Reyn's museum to her.  "This may be a backwater planet, but the rest of the galaxy is insane."  She said it humorously, but Jim noticed that she wasn't smiling.

After a few moments of drying plates in silence, Jim finally asked, "Mom?  Is something wrong?"

Sarah regarded her reflection in the glass she was wiping.  "I'm just thinking."

"About?" he prompted.

"How to have a certain conversation with you without embarrassing either of us."

"Uh oh."  Jim nudged her, trying to lighten her mood.  "This one of those motherly talks you feel obligated to give me every now and then?"

"Yes, and seeing as how you're now an adult in the eyes of the law, this is going to be the last one-- so I've got to make sure it's a good one."  She gave him a little smile but he could tell from the look in her eyes that she was serious.  It worried him.

"Jim, sit down a minute," Sarah said, sitting at the kitchen table herself.

"Mom, what's this about?" he blurted out impatiently as he sat across from her.

"Well, like I said, you're officially a grown man now, and it's not my place to tell you what to do anymore," Sarah began.  Jim recognized the conversation already; his mother had been using a variation on it ever since he turned thirteen, minus the "officially" bit.  He knew that it meant he was doing something of which she didn't approve, and she was about to tell him to stop it.  And, grown man or not, if he didn't stop it, he was going to pay.

"But I'm still your mother, and I still worry about you," she went on.  "I don't want you to be hurt, and with what you've been doing--"

What have I been doing? Jim wondered, then almost instantly the answer came to him: Silver.  He remember his mother surprising them the night before and felt the blood drain from his face.

"Mom--" he began, anything to cut off her words, but she held up her hand and gave him a warning look.

"Hear me out, Jim.  Last night after dinner, Captain Amelia told me some things.  She's worried about you too."

"I don't need her worrying about me!" Jim snapped, folding his arms and slumping back in his chair.  "She doesn't understand."

"Jim, of course she understands!  She feels partially responsible-- that's why she talked to me, not because she wants to interfere with your life."  Sarah leaned over and put her hand on Jim's arm.  "Neither of us wants you to end up getting hurt.  And I know your new friends mean the best for you, but I don't want them to influence you to do anything. . . foolish."

"You mean Camille and Bertrand?" Jim asked, beginning to get too confused to be angry.  "I guess Camille might be sort of a bad influence, but Bertrand's practically a saint."

"Didn't he pay you to do it the first time?"

Jim's mouth fell open slightly.  "Uh, Mom. . . why don't you just tell me what you're advising me to do?  Because. . . I don't think I understand."  At least I hope I don't, he added silently.

"I want you to stop getting involved with this Galaxia person."

It was all Jim could do to keep from laughing-- partially at himself, and partially in relief-- when the sentence didn't end with "with Silver."  Oblivious, Sarah went on, "I know how you are, Jim, and you want to save the galaxy from her, but from what Amelia told me about how things were on Mau, I don't want you anywhere near any of these soldiers of hers."

"Mom," Jim said as he stood and leaned down to hug her tightly, "I can promise you I will never get involved with Galaxia or any of her girls in any way, shape, or form.  Cross my heart."

Sarah patted him on the back and gave him a slightly bewildered smile.  "And here I was afraid you were going to accuse me of trying to run your life.  I think I'll take a chance and even make you promise not to get yourself cut up and put into this Reyn person's museum."

"I promise that too."  Jim kissed her forehead and turned back to the sink.

"Is that a new earring?" Sarah asked as she joined him, picking up the dishcloth.

"Oh. . . y-yeah.  Birthday present from Silver," Jim mumbled, scrubbing at another plate with the towel.

"Which reminds me of something else," Sarah added.  Jim cringed, but before he could get too worried, she went on, "From now on, take him with you on these voyages of yours, all right?  I feel better knowing that he's with you."

Surprised, Jim asked, "Why?"

"I think you're safer with him along."  She gave him a sideways smile.  "I know you're the captain, but he's the one with all the years of spacing experience.  And you need someone besides that octopus of yours to help you fly."

"Camille didn't make a very good impression yesterday, then?" Jim chuckled.

"Well. . . he seems like a nice enough young man, but a little clumsy.  And pretty sullen when things don't go his way."

"That's Camille all right."  Jim put up the last dish and hung up the towel with a relieved sigh.  "Thanks for worrying about me, Mom."

Sarah arched an eyebrow.  "What, no sarcasm?"

"No, I'm serious.  After some of the people I've met recently, I realized I'm lucky to have a family to care about me."

Sarah smiled at him tenderly.  "That means a lot to me, Jim."  She dropped the dishcloth in the sink with a plop and dried her hands briskly.  "But before I get too misty-eyed over my little boy growing up, let's go see how much trouble those friends of yours have gotten into."

Fortunately, nothing was broken or damaged, and the Benbow was at least somewhat cleaner.  After a quick lunch, Sarah left B.E.N. in charge of the inn and walked with the others to the shuttle station.

"Remember what I told you," Sarah said with a chuckle when Jim hugged her goodbye.  "No more Galaxia."

"Don't worry," Camille grumbled before Jim could reply.  "I'm not letting him take us anywhere remotely dangerous."

"Goodbye, Mom," Jim said pointedly, smirking slightly.  Still, as they boarded the shuttle, he felt a little wistful.  The feeling grew as he looked out the window once he was seated.  Sarah spotted him in the window and waved goodbye, then turned and started towards the small collection of shops clustered around the shuttle station.

Who knows when I'll have time to visit again, he thought, wishing there were someone besides B.E.N. there for his mother.  Not that she wasn't capable of taking care of herself, and of course the Dopplers visited frequently. . . but still.  When he thought about his life compared to Sarah's, hers began to seem awfully lonely.

For the first time in a long while, he wondered what things would have been like if his father had stayed on Montressor.  Mom wouldn't be alone. . . but then I probably wouldn't be where I am now, either.  As selfish as it seemed, Jim was glad things had worked out the way they had.

 

When the Revolution's crew returned to the boarding house, Claredon Reyn was waiting on them.  They found him in the sitting room where Tin Kitty had attacked the young Dopplers only a few days before; he was talking to Mrs. Ufford and apparently had been for some time, judging from the rather desperate look she gave them as they entered.

"I told you they'd be back soon," she said to Reyn, sounding much relieved. "Now I've got to go start supper."

"Ah, Bertrand!" Reyn said pleasantly, standing to greet them as Mrs. Ufford made her escape.  "Just who I wanted to see."

"Hello, Claredon," Bertrand replied, although he sounded less than thrilled.

"We're not moving your body parts this afternoon, if that's what you're after," Camille interrupted, jabbing a tentacle in Reyn's direction.  "We don't work on weekends."

"Oh, I wouldn't dream of asking you to, my dear," Reyn cooed.  "But I do need to discuss the terms of your work for me with your employer."

"If it's about our work, shouldn't you be discussing it with us?" Jim asked sharply.

"Merely a few technicalities.  Normally I wouldn't mind you tagging along, but I also have a private legal matter to confer on.  I'm sure you trust Bertrand to represent your best interests?"

Jim looked at Silver questioningly.  It wasn't that he didn't trust Bertrand; it was that he didn't trust Reyn.  The tall humanoid was looking at the three crewmates with an expression of tolerant amusement, as if they were some kind of robots or pack animals meant to be ordered about.  Maybe it's because he's rich, Jim thought sullenly. Or else he's just a jerk.

Silver shrugged in response to Jim's look.  "I s'pose so," the cyborg growled at Reyn, "long as it don't involve puttin' our lives in danger.  I think we've all had enough a' that fer a while."

Reyn's amused look grew.  "Nothing like that, I can assure you."

"All right," Jim finally said.  "Just don't forget to let us know what our job is."

"Of course," Bertrand assured him with the air of trying to placate everyone.  "Claredon, we can go to my office."

Camille glared daggers at Reyn as he and the Coronid left.  "I don't like that guy," he muttered when they were gone.  "What's he want with Bertrand that's so private?"

"Don't tell me yer jealous, Tentacles," Silver chuckled as they started upstairs.

The Octopid turned the glare on him.  "Bite me.  And you can't say that you like the idea of that rich snob deciding our fate for us without us even being there."

"Bertrand won't agree to let us do anything dangerous or illegal," Jim replied, trying to sound firm.

"Bertrand," Camille muttered, "isn't going to be there on Seven."

Bertrand also did not return to the boarding house within the next few hours.  Camille continued to gripe, his complaints about Reyn growing worse until he finally went to bed muttering something about finding a new line of work.

Jim didn't see the lawyer again until breakfast the next morning.  "What happened?" he asked Bertrand with a chuckle when he, Silver, and Morph joined him at the table.  "We were beginning to think you weren't coming home."

"So was I," Bertrand said dismally.  "He apparently doesn't trust my knowledge of the law-- or else he thinks I was lying to him when I said he didn't have a case."

"What did he want?" Silver asked before cramming an entire piece of toast into his mouth and earning a scolding from Mrs. Ufford.

"He wanted to know if there was any legal action he could bring against Juste Bishop."

It took Jim a minute to place the name.  "The reporter?  Reyn wants to sue him or something for writing that story about him?"

"No, not for that."  Bertrand gave them a bewildered look.  "He wants to threaten legal action if Bishop doesn't hurry up and publish the story.  Reyn says he wants the publicity it will bring."

"Even negative publicity?"  Silver raised an eyebrow.

Bertrand smiled wanly.  "Once you know Reyn a little better, you'll realize that he thinks any attention is good attention."

"I've noticed that," Camille said acidly, appearing in the doorway to the dining room.  "I'd have a few things to say about him if there weren't a lady present."

Mrs. Ufford beamed at him.  "I knew you'd pick up some manners eventually, sweetie."

Bertrand gave him an embarrassed look as the Octopid slumped down in a chair as far away from him as possible.  "I'm sorry he was so rude yesterday--"  Camille cut him off with a dismissive flip of a tentacle and set to eating without even looking at him.

The lawyer looked so hurt, Jim said to divert his attention, "What did he have to say about our jobs?"

"Oh, yes.  There was that.  He said he's expecting a lot of shipments in the next week, and Seven's harbormaster has insisted that Claredon find his own crew to unload them all.  He wants you three to do it."

"Forget it," Jim grumbled.  "We work for you, not him, and we're runners, not dock hands."

Bertrand looked more embarrassed than ever.  "I. . . uh, already told him you'd do it."

"What?" Camille exploded before Jim could even respond.  "You bloody moron!  How dare you?"  Bertrand stared at him with an expression that made Jim fear he was about to burst into tears.

"Camille!" Jim and Mrs. Ufford both snapped at the Octopid simultaneously.  Morph looked from one person to another worriedly.

Bertrand threw down his napkin and stood, now looking more angry than hurt.  "I told him you'd do it because of what he offered to pay you."  When he told them the amount, Jim's jaw dropped.

"Stars," Silver breathed.  "Jimbo, ye wanna reconsider now?"

"Maybe so.  Hauling a few crates doesn't sound that bad after all," Jim chuckled, hoping it would cheer the others up.  He had no such luck.

"And for that matter," Bertrand went on as if they hadn't spoken, "you do work for me, and if I say you go to Seven, then you go."  He looked away from Jim to scowl at Camille.  "And if you disagree, I'll consider your resignation the other night on Montressor to be permanent."

"Bertrand, honey--" Mrs. Ufford protested as he stalked away from the table, but the Coronid ignored her.

Jim stared at Camille, who was now the one with his mouth hanging open.  "What resignation?  Did you quit and not tell us?"

"No, I-- it. . . ."  Camille's cheeks turned uncharacteristically red.  "It was a joke.  We--"  He glared at the three curious faces staring at him, then shoved his chair back from the table.  "Ia, I'm going to pack."

"Jimbo," Silver said slowly when the Octopid had stormed out, "maybe I'm gettin' old, but I have a feelin' I'm missin' somethin'."

"It's not just you," Jim muttered.

"Boys," said Mrs. Ufford philosophically.

Bertrand had already gone to his office by the time Jim and his crew were ready to leave, so they were forced to go there to find out where Reyn's cargo was being held for them.  Camille was unusually silent on the walk there, and after he crept inside behind Jim and Silver, he hung back in the doorway to Bertrand's inner office where the lawyer was rifling through folders in his filing cabinet.

"The harbormaster's name is Lee Palmer," Bertrand informed Jim brusquely after telling them which ship held the cargo.  "You're to find him when you reach Seven, and he'll tell you where to place the cargo and when to expect Claredon's next shipment.  You should probably be there for around a standard week-- or as long as Claredon needs you.  He'll pay you when he's through with you."

"Right," Jim replied, trying to sound less put out than he felt.  He and Silver turned to go, but Camille took a hesitant step towards the Coronid.

"Bertrand?"

The lawyer stopped filing, clenching his hands over the sides of the drawer.  "What."

"I'm sorry," Camille said in a small voice.

"It's fine," Bertrand replied shortly, although he didn't move.

Camille narrowed his eyes, then moved towards him in what would have been a stomp for someone with legs.  To Jim's amazement, Camille caught Bertrand's chin in one tentacle, turned his head, and kissed him firmly on the mouth.

"I'm not leaving from this spot until you say that and mean it," he murmured.

"I. . . ."  Poor Bertrand's face turned as red as his hair.

"Uh, we'll be outside," Jim muttered.

When he and Silver were gone, Bertrand said weakly, "You can't. . . you can't talk to me that way and expect me to just. . . just. . . ."  He broke off and started over.  "Camille, sometimes I think you like hurting me, just so you can. . . can play with me."

Camille stared up at him sulkily.  "What kind of a sadistic bastard do you think I am?  And you can stop the emo routine, because you hurt me just as much."

Bertrand didn't think Camille had room to be calling anyone emo, but he decided it wasn't worth pursuing.  Instead he asked, "How did I hurt you?"

"Are you kidding?  You sleep with me on Montressor, but then as soon as we get back here, you run off with that rich bastard and stay out all night!" Camille snapped.

"This is about Claredon?"  Bertrand blinked at him.  "But. . . I told you, he was trying to get me to file a suit for him.  And I wasn't gone all night-- you had just gone to bed before I got back."  Camille seemed unconvinced based on the belligerent look he gave the Coronid, but Bertrand saw his lower lip tremble slightly before he bit down on it fiercely.

"You're actually jealous of Claredon?" Bertrand asked more gently.

"Dammit, yes!" Camille cried.  The furious look on his face made Bertrand happier than any smile could have.

"Camille, you don't have anything to be jealous about.  Not of Deimos or Claredon or anybody."  Biting back a wave of nervousness, Bertrand wrapped his arms around Camille and held the Octopid against his chest.  "You're the only person I care for, I promise."  He kissed Camille's forehead fervently.  "And I don't know how I'll stand to be away from you for a whole week."

Camille clenched his tentacles around Bertrand's back.  "Remember, you've promised."  He tilted his head back to look up at the Coronid.  "Kiss me.  Like you mean it."

Bertrand swallowed hard, then bent his head and kissed him, first lightly caressing Camille's thin lips, then thrusting his tongue between them.  Camille moaned faintly and tightened his hold around Bertrand's chest.  He rocked his hips forward against the Coronid's as he kissed Bertrand back deeply.

"Dagon," Camille breathed when their lips finally parted.

Bertrand whispered, "I'll miss you."

"I'll be back before you have time to even notice I'm gone."  Camille stroked his cheek with a tentacle tip, then reluctantly pulled away.  "Tell Mrs. Ufford I'll give her the rent I owe when I get back with all of Reyn's money, 'kay?" he added with a little smile.

"All right."  Bertrand impulsively caught one tentacle in his hand and kissed the suckers.

"Mmm.  You know I can taste with those, right?" Camille smirked.

Bertrand stared at him.  "You what?"

Camille leaned in and brushed his lips against Bertrand's again, then darted to the door before Bertrand could react.  "I'll give you a week to think about that," he grinned before he disappeared outside.

As he sat down at his desk rather shakily, Bertrand decided that he probably would spend the next week thinking about Camille being able to taste him through his suckers.  At any rate, he spent the next hour blushing.

 

Camille looked immensely pleased with himself by the time he finally emerged from the office, and Jim decided that he wasn't going to cater to the Octopid by asking him what was going on.  They didn't have much time for talking anyway once they began moving Reyn's cargo to the Revolution from the ship on which it had arrived; the cargo consisted of ten large crates that forced them to take several trips back and forth.

"Wonder what's in 'em this time," Silver mused as they stowed the boxes into every available nook on the ship.  "Must be more than one person, or else somebody pretty big."

Jim gave him a pained look.  "Can we not talk about it?  I really don't want to know."

Silver chuckled.  "Whatever ye say, lad."

Once again, it was late afternoon when they arrived on Seven.  The small harbor wasn't crowded, so Jim had no trouble in maneuvering the ship into a spot by the dock.

"So where's this harbormaster?" Camille muttered.

"I wish we at least knew what he looked like."  Jim looked around as he slowly walked down the gangplank.  "I'll go find him; you stay with the cargo."

"I seriously doubt anyone would want to steal it," Camille called after him.

Jim looked up and down the dock, trying to find someone who seemed to be in charge of the place.  His search proved fruitless; there wasn't a single person in sight.  However, he did spot a little office building to his right which seemed the likeliest place for the man to be.  Jim walked toward the office, which sat just on the edge of the dock.  On his way, he passed two ships which were obviously made for water travel only; their sails were made of canvas instead of solar fabric.  Apparently, despite being the capital of the planet and therefore quite large, Seven was not a spaceport city.

As Jim approached the building, he noticed that the several windows on the front of the building, as well as those facing the water on its side, were shuttered from the inside.  That's weird, he thought.  If the harbormaster is in there, shouldn't he be able to see the ships coming in?  Under other circumstances, Jim might have suspected that no one was home, but Claredon Reyn was expecting the Revolution.  Jim had a feeling that the harbormaster wouldn't leave the port unattended knowing that Reyn's cargo was coming in.

The first sign of life appeared only after Jim was within a few yards of the building.  The front door opened, and a young girl came out, slamming the door behind her and stomping down the four steep steps that lead up to it from the dock.  She was a little older than Rosmunda had been, perhaps thirteen or fourteen standard years.  Her dark brown hair with reddish highlights must have been extremely long when it was loose; as it was, swept up into a bun from which a braid trailed, it reached her mid-back.

The girl came up to Jim and looked up at him with a haughty expression.  Her eyes were exactly the same shade of blue as his.

"Are you from the Revolution?" she asked in a high, sharp voice.

"Yes.  I'm the captain, Jim Haw--"

"You're to take Mr. Reyn's cargo to his museum.  You do know where that is, don't you?" the girl sniffed, sounding as if she didn't think he did.

"Yes," he returned indignantly.  "But who are you?"

She stared at him as if he were crazy.  "I'm Lyonette Palmer."

Jim waited for further explanation but received none.  He tried not to smile at her proud manner but couldn't keep from smirking a little.  "And who is Lyonette Palmer?"

The smirk did not have a good effect on her temper; she glared at him and folded her arms.  "My daddy is the harbormaster!  He told me to tell you where to take the cargo."  She glanced toward the ship with a look of distaste.  "More dead people probably.  Yuck."

"Uh, maybe I should talk to your dad, just to make sure," Jim said.  "Is he in there?"

"You can't go in," Lyonette snapped.  "Spacers aren't allowed, only important people like Mr. Reyn."

"And you, I suppose," Jim chuckled.

Her eyes narrowed in a way that reminded Jim of his own behavior when he was younger and felt insulted.  "He told me you couldn't come in!" she reiterated.  "Quit arguing and go do your job!"

Jim laughed outright as he turned back towards his ship.  "Okay, okay.  We'll get going.  Tell Daddy that we'll be back for our next orders when we're done."

"He already said there won't be anything else tonight," Lyonette called after him.  "But you're to report back here first thing in the morning!  Mr. Reyn's expecting a shipment from Warren."

Jim just nodded and gestured over his shoulder to indicate that he had heard.  When he was close to the Revolution, he glanced back.  Lyonette had climbed the steps to the harbormaster's building and was sitting on the top one facing the sea with her legs, tan and slightly chubby where they protruded from her loose Capri pants, hanging over the side.

What a brat, Jim thought, though with tolerant amusement.  Then his eyes drifted up to the shuttered window just above her head.  Guess the harbormaster's up there. . . looking out at the people who aren't good enough to come in, or to even talk to him.  He made a mental note to talk to Silver about the guy.  What kind of harbormaster refused to see spacers and made his kid act as go-between?

Although, he realized as he boarded the ship where Silver, Camille, and Morph waited, everyone on this planet could be crazy if Claredon Reyn's any indication.

 

It took the rest of the afternoon to unload Reyn's cargo from the ship onto the dock, and the sun had almost set by the time the small crew reached the museum with their first load of one crate each.  Reyn met them in the foyer, accompanied by a woman on the far side of middle age.  Judging from her dress and jewelry, she was almost as rich as he was.

"Ah, you made it," Reyn observed.  "Excellent."

"Where do you want 'em?" Camille growled at him before Jim could speak.

"Straight through to the back of the large room on the other end of the foyer.  You won't need to unpack them; my volunteers can take care of that."

"Damn straight I'm not gonna unpack them," Camille grumbled once they were out of ear shot.  He set down his crate in the back of the room and arched his back, rubbing at it.  "Cthulhu knows how many jars are in that heavy thing."

"I can't believe he has volunteers," Jim grimaced as he looked around the room.  It did not hold many displays, despite its size, but what was there was grotesque.  Nearest to Jim was a tall clear cylinder filled with a mass of flesh.  It did not form any organ that Jim could recognize; instead, it seemed to be merely a shapeless sheet of skin.  "Who would offer to look at this stuff?"

"Us, apparently," Silver said wryly.

"Yeah, but we're getting paid for it, at least."

"All the money in the galaxy isn't worth doing this, or dealing with him," Camille spat.  "If it wasn't Bertrand who wanted us to do it, I'd quit right now."

"You've got it bad, don't you?" Jim observed, then smirked as he darted away from the tentacle Camille flung at him.

"Like you can talk!" the Octopid retorted.

"Ye know, lads," Silver said pointedly, "if ye keep scufflin', we'll never get the ship unloaded."

That got them moving again, although it took two more trips to shift the rest of the cargo from the Revolution to Reyn's museum.  By the time Jim and Silver tugged in the last, largest crate between them, Reyn and the woman from the foyer were examining the contents of one of the first crates.

"This is simply fantastic," the woman said, lifting up a jar containing a humanoid but four-fingered hand.  It was, Jim noticed, in considerably better shape than her own; hers was bony and laced with prominent blue veins.  She was seated on one of the other crates, which couldn't have been very comfortable in the sequined, navy blue cocktail dress she wore.  She didn't seem to care though; her brown eyes were focused on Reyn's face over the top of the jar.

If Camille thinks it's gross when I flirt with Silver, wait'll he sees this, Jim thought.  Sure enough, when the Octopid followed him and Silver in, he took one look at the couple and grimaced.

"Marla, this is barely the beginning," Reyn crooned, though he seemed to be crooning more toward the crates he was counting than towards her.  "I'm getting a shipment from Warren tomorrow-- the people there look like rabbits."

"Ugh."  She set down the jar and stood, fluffing her short, grey-streaked dark curls with one hand.  "Those anthropomorphic races are so grotesque.  No offense, dear," she added to Camille; until that point, Jim hadn't been sure that she was even aware of the crew working around her.

"Reyn, is she one of your volunteers?" Camille asked, flipping his hair back with a tentacle and regarding Reyn with what Jim thought was a suspiciously innocent expression.

The corner of Reyn's wide mouth twisted in a suppressed smirk.  "Hardly.  Boys, this is Marla DeFortier, one of Seven's richest and most beautiful citizens."

Well, he's nasty, Jim thought, but he's nasty to everybody.  And she doesn't even realize he's mocking her.  That much was obvious from the haughtily adoring expression Marla wore as she looked at Reyn.

"Hunh, coulda fooled me."  Camille put a tentacle tip to his lips and looked from Reyn to Marla and back again.  "She certainly seems to be volunteering for something."

Reyn gave a choked cough and politely turned away from the others, although Jim noticed him looking Camille up and down as the Octopid sauntered back toward the foyer.

"What a rude little thing," Marla sniffed.  "Claredon, are you finished here?  We'll be late for dinner."

"Yes, quite finished."  Reyn turned back to Jim.  "The Warren shipment should be in around mid-morning.  The harbormaster will direct you to the ship."

"But he--" Jim began, but Reyn had already taken Marla on his arm.

"Come on, now," Reyn said to Jim and Silver over his shoulder.  "I'm sure this is quite fascinating to you, but you need to leave so I can lock up."

Jim looked at Silver and shrugged as they obediently filed out of the building.  "Guess we'll just have to hope that the harbormaster will deign to see us tomorrow."

"And if he won't, it ain't our problem," Silver added with a wink.  "C'mon lad, let's go get Morphy and find some dinner ourselves."  They had left Morph on the Revolution to prevent him from interfering with their work; that was probably for the best, Jim decided, considering that Marla DeFortier didn't seem to be the type who liked pets.  After they retrieved the shape shifter, the crew walked through the streets near the docks looking for a place to eat.

"None of these look especially cheap," Jim commented.  "At least not the ones I'd feel safe walking into."

"You've still got a lot to learn about spacing, dearest," Camille said facetiously.  "In ports, you don't usually find cheap and decent together."

"Well, we can always eat on the ship after tonight," Silver said, patting Jim on the shoulder with his organic hand.  "And it sounds like we'll be gettin' paid plenty-- so let's find somewhere nice."

"Easy for you to say.  You're not the one who's behind on his rent," grumbled Camille.

Nevertheless, they found a small tavern a few streets back from the docks.  It looked clean enough, and Jim decided that the clientele didn't seem too dangerous. In fact, as they walked inside, Jim spotted a familiar face at the bar.

"Hey, there's that reporter," he murmured.  "Maybe he can tell us what's going on with the harbormaster."  Camille shrugged, but he and Silver followed Jim over to the bar, where he sat down next to the reporter.

The short man didn't seem to be in a very good mood judging from the expression on his face, but Jim made an attempt to be friendly.  "Hi.  Juste, isn't it?"

"Yes."  Juste raised his head from his drink (mostly untouched, Jim noticed) and looked at Jim, then past him to where Silver and Camille had sat down.  "You're that crew working for Claredon, aren't you?"  He jumped slightly when Morph darted over to him, chittering.  The shapeshifter looked him over and apparently found him uninteresting, for he returned to hover between Jim and Silver.

"Yeah, for now, anyway."  Juste didn't reply, so after Jim and the others ordered their food he went on, "We were kind of curious about this job, actually.  What's he shipping in that he needs a whole crew to unload?  He says it's just stuff for his museum--"

"That's probably all it is.  'Just' body parts," Juste muttered.  He turned on his stool to face them, narrowing his pale grey eyes slightly.  "Apparently he's made a deal to get a lot of bodies from someone on a planet called Warren.  He doesn't have any. . . exhibits from there yet, so he's in a hurry to get them unpacked."

"Oh goody," Camille groaned, then turned to the bartender to order what Jim assumed was the first of several drinks to accompany his meal of fish.

"How long are you here for?" Juste asked Jim with a kind of detached curiosity that Jim supposed came from his occupation as a reporter.  A tendril of very curly light brown hair had escaped from the ponytail that trailed down Juste's back; he shoved it behind his ear impatiently.

Jim shrugged.  "Our boss, Reyn's lawyer, didn't know.  I guess just Reyn's through with us."

Camille leaned past Silver and Jim to point out, "And that's gonna be a while if you're any indication.  Bertrand told you've been following Reyn around for more than a month."

Juste's cheeks flushed indignantly.  "I'm not following him around!  It's-- it's just that every time I get ready to break the story, he does something even more insane.  I want to be sure I've researched enough."

"Uh hunh."  Camille turned back to his meal with a smirk.

"Something else I was wondering," Jim said before Camille could harass Juste any further.  "Do you know anything about the harbormaster?"

"The harbormaster?"  Juste gave him a truly curious look then.  "As much as anyone else, I guess.  Why?"

"We haven't see him," Jim explained.  "He was holed up in his office when we arrived, and he sent his daughter out to tell us what to do."

Juste shrugged.  "Maybe he's busy."

"I don't think so."  Silver leaned forward on the bar to look past Jim.  "Not with only a couple ships in the harbor."

"It is strange," Juste admitted.  "He's not usually. . . secretive or anything.  I've seen him plenty of times."

"What do you know about him?" Jim persisted.

"Well, his name's Lee Palmer.  He came here. . . oh, about ten years ago with his wife and daughter, but I don't know from where.  His wife died a couple years later.  He raised the kid himself. . . sort of."

"Sort of?" Silver asked.

"From what I hear, he didn't spend a lot of time with her.  They're pretty well off, but you know the cliché about parents parenting with money instead of love."

"I never had that problem," Camille put in as he started on his second drink.

"You're lucky.  Money causes more problems than it fixes," Juste said somewhat bitterly.  "Just look at Claredon."

"I'll leave that to you," Camille replied smugly.  Jim had had more questions about the harbormaster, but the Octopid was apparently bored with the topic.  He got up with his drink and moved to sit on Juste's other side where he could be heard more clearly.  "So tell me something-- who's Reyn banging?"

"What?"  Juste stared at him.  "How should I know that?"

"You're a regular little font of knowledge.  And if you've done that much research on him, you'll know."

Sensing Juste's discomfort, Jim interrupted, "He's afraid Reyn's interested in Bertrand-- the lawyer."

"I am not--" Camille began.

"Of course not.  Claredon sleeps with women."  The reporter gave Camille a challenging look, then took a long gulp of his drink.

Camille looked relieved in spite of himself.  "Women, hunh?  Like that uppity bitch with him at the museum today?"

"Marla DeFortier?" Juste asked flatly.  When Camille nodded, Juste muttered, "Yeah.  Women like that."  He looked down at his glass morosely.  "She's only interested in his money-- like she doesn't have enough of her own.  That's all any of them care about. . . including him."

Jim tried to think of something heartening to say, but Juste got up before he could.  "I'll be around," the reporter told them.  "Let me know if something happens with Palmer-- there might be a story in it."

"Sure."

Juste gave Jim a small smile, then left the tavern, his small hands shoved deep in his pockets.

"Poor lad," Silver said sympathetically.  "Wonder if Reyn knows how infatuated he is."

"Reyn is probably too full of himself to notice," Jim muttered.

Camille snorted indignantly.  "Ha.  The bastard knows it perfectly well."  He shrugged and finished off his latest drink, then continued in a slightly slurred voice, "But long as he's not after Bertrand, I don't care."

"What's this sudden obsession with Bertrand?" asked Jim, nudging Silver.

"'S not an obsession," Camille retorted.  "I'm just not about to let that rich bastard screw it up."

"Screw what up?"

"Wouldn't you like to know," Camille said smugly.

"Actually, I probably wouldn't."  Jim returned to his meal, disappointed to find that most of it had gotten rather cold.  Morph didn't seem to mind though; he was happily gnawing on a piece of the roast meat Jim had ordered.

The sky was fully dark by the time they left the tavern and walked back to the Revolution.  Jim was surprised that Camille hadn't stayed behind, but the Octopid just shrugged when Jim questioned him.

"I had three drinks. . . or maybe it was four.  Anyway, it's enough."  He flapped a tentacle at Jim.  "And 'sides, I'm tired."

"We've all got reason to be," Silver said.  "An eight-hour voyage followed by haulin' crates fer that lunatic."  He chuckled.  "Still, the thought of what we're gettin' paid fer this is keepin' me goin'."

"Yeah, I guess it's worth unloading boxes of rabbit parts tomorrow," Jim chuckled.  "I feel sorry for the rabbits though."

Back on board the ship, they worked together to secure the Revolution for the evening.  After all the enemies they had encountered over the past few weeks, Jim didn't think he could sleep on the ship without first making sure that they were alone-- and he certainly didn't trust Lee Palmer to have kept an eye on things while they were gone.

While Silver took Morph below to check their supplies, Jim and Camille went over the deck.

"Toldja there's nothing here," Camille scolded when they were finished.  He leaned over the side of the ship so far, Jim half expected him to tumble over at any moment.

"Well, considering how many people hate us now, I don't want to take any chances," Jim said dryly.  He held up his hand and counted on his fingers.  "There's Tin Kitty, Lead Crow, probably Galaxia if she's heard about us, and--"  He broke off suddenly.  He had been about to add Scroop to the list, but he caught himself just in time.  Even if he wasn't fully convinced that Scroop was really dead, there wasn't any point in worrying Camille about it.

"You might as well add that De. . . whatever-her-name-is woman," Camille snickered, apparently not having noticed Jim's hesitation.  "And for all we know, that harbormaster's up to something too.  And I bet Reyn isn't gonna like us for long either."

"He likes you well enough."  Jim smirked and looked out over the water.  "If Juste is right about him sleeping with women, I don't think that's all he sleeps with."

"Well, I'm taken," Camille sniffed haughtily.  "If he wants to screw a long-haired brunette, he can have the reporter."

"Taken, hunh?"

Camille grinned at him semi-drunkenly.  "You are curious, aren't you?"

"No," Jim retorted automatically.  "I just. . . erm, as your captain, it's my duty to. . . ."  He trailed off and returned Camille's look reproachfully.  "If I say yes, will you tell me?"

"Maybe."

"Okay, I'm curious," Jim finally admitted.  "What happened?"

"He took me flying on Montressor, and when we got back, he said. . .  he said he wanted me.  Me, the most worthless piece of space trash ever," Camille said incredulously.  "And then he kissed me and I went down on him and he jerked me off and we went to sleep."

Jim cringed.  "Stars, you didn't have to go into that much detail."

Camille was too wrapped up in himself (as usual, Jim thought) to acknowledge the comment. "Then when Reyn showed up, I thought. . . well, I know it's ridiculous for me to be jealous of him, but. . . ."  He trailed off and looked down into the water somberly.

In spite of himself, Jim asked gently, "But what?"

"What I figured out on Spira, about you and Silver, about how real love works.  Now I know how you feel, because I would have let Tin Kitty kill me if it meant Bertrand would get away.  I. . . Jim, I love him.  I don't just want to fuck him; I really and truly love him.  And dammit, I'm so afraid I'm going to lose him."  He clenched his tentacles over the side of the ship.

"You big dork," Jim said before he could stop himself.  "The last thing you have to worry about is Bertrand leaving you for Claredon Reyn, or anyone else for that matter.  He loves you; I think he's loved you ever since you turned up in his office with a hole in your face."

Camille cut his eyes sideways at Jim.  "You know, you could be a little more reassuring."

"I don't mean because you were hurt, but because you tried to make him feel better even though you were hurt."

"Well, that was just. . . I. . . he looked so unhappy.  And after the way I'd treated him, and the things they said about him on Coronis. . . I knew even then he deserved better than that.  Better than me for that matter."

"And would you shut up about not being good enough?" Jim sighed.  "He obviously likes you just the way you are.  We all do.  Yeah, you've screwed up a whole lot, but so has everyone else in the galaxy.  I mean, look at what Silver did-- and me."

Camille snorted.  "What have you ever done wrong?"

"Only about, oh, say eight years of my life, from the time my dad left to the time I joined Captain Amelia's crew."  Jim smirked.  "Then I met someone who pissed me off so much, I ended up loving him."

"Yeah, that sounds familiar."  The Octopid sighed and stretched his arm-tentacles upward.  "So you think Dad's the reason you screwed up?"

Jim was sorely tempted to say yes; it was what he had told himself all through those years and through most of the voyage on the Legacy. . . and even sometimes afterwards.  "Well, I. . . I can't blame my failures on anyone else, and. . . uh. . . ."

"So you think Dad's the reason you screwed up," Camille repeated, this time not as a question.  "Look, you don't have to be all noble around me.  And sometimes it helps to have someone to blame."

". . . yeah," Jim said slowly.  "For a long time Mom was the one I blamed; at least I know now how wrong that was.  It wasn't her fault that he left, and it wasn't mine.  So yeah, I can blame him for leaving.  But I can't blame him for how I reacted to it."

"You know," Camille said, "sometimes when I'm in a really pissy mood, I imagine that all the people who've hurt me just. . . turn up, and I get to tell them off.  Maybe you should try it."

"Does it make you feel better?"

The Octopid shrugged.  "Not really."

"I don't know what I'd say to him," Jim murmured.  "I missed him for so long, and I used to think that everything would be all right if he came back, or if I found him again.  But now I realize that it wouldn't fix anything-- and it would probably make it worse.  Even if it was just the chance to tell him off."

"Yeah, I can see that."  Camille patted him on the arm in an unusually tender gesture.  "Well, you're not gonna get the chance, and neither am I."  He turned away from the water with a sigh.  "You go cheer yourself up with your cyborg, and I'll go fantasize myself to sleep.  But no screeching, okay?"

"I won't screech if you won't," Jim smirked as he followed Camille below deck.  "Bertrand's a nice guy and all, but I don't especially want to hear you. . . fantasizing about him."

"Fine, it's a deal.  Night, Hawkins," the Octopid said as he went into his own cabin.

"Yeah," Jim murmured, turning to his and Silver's.  "Night."

"How do we look on supplies?" Jim asked when Silver came into their cabin a few minutes later.

"Pretty good.  We won't need to restock 'til we get back to Crescentia. . . provided Morphy don't eat everythin' in the galley tonight.  I left him in there; probably a mistake."  Silver sat down next to Jim on the bed with a tired sigh.  "Stars, I ain't as young as I used to be. . . all this haulin' stuff about is takin' a toll."

"Oh, quit complaining," Jim teased.  "You'll be fine after a good night's sleep."  He leaned on Silver's shoulder and put his arms around the cyborg.  "In fact. . . bet I could cheer you up right now."

Silver chuckled and slid his mechanical arm about Jim's waist.  "I wager yer right, lad.  But ye sure yer up to it?"

Jim wriggled out of his grasp and slid off the bed, moving to crouch between Silver's legs.  "Of course I am!  Besides, from what Camille told me, I'm going to have to start working harder to keep up with him," he commented as he began unbuckling Silver's belt.

"Hmm, I have a feelin' I don't want to hear any more details about tha--"  Silver broke off in a choked moan; Jim had already unfastened his pants and was slowly licking him.  "Y-ye don't waste any time. . . ."

Jim only mumbled a reply as he put his mouth on Silver and sucked hard.  The cyborg put his organic hand on Jim's head to hold him in place as Silver thrust up roughly into his mouth.  Jim found himself forced to take Silver's erection into his throat, a situation that was most awkward until he made himself relax.  Once he began to concentrate on Silver's groans of pleasure instead of what he himself was doing, Jim was more aroused than uncomfortable.  He braced himself on Silver's mechanical leg with his left hand and began fumbling at his own belt with the right until he was able to shove his hand in his pants and grope himself.

After a few moments, Silver abruptly let Jim's head go and pulled out of his mouth.  Jim looked up at him belligerently, panting and with a slightly sore throat.

"Why'd you stop?"

"'Cause," Silver growled, grabbing Jim's shirt and pulling the younger man up into a standing position, "I'm gonna fuck ye senseless, ye little tease."

Jim felt himself blush deeply, even as he scrambled to completely remove his pants.  As soon as they were off, Silver pulled him down into his lap and kissed him hard.  Jim returned the kiss, then pushed Silver down to lie on his back on the bed.

"We'll see about that," Jim grinned.  He lowered himself onto Silver quickly, biting back a gasp as he felt the spacer's erection penetrate him.  Silver moaned and thrust his hips upward, but Jim thrust back against him with equal force.  He leaned back, bracing his hands on the bed, and moved his body up and down as rapidly as he could.  He was determined to make Silver come first, a resolution which grew much more difficult to uphold when the cyborg wrapped his organic hand around Jim and pumped him rapidly.

"Ahhh--" Jim panted, simultaneously trying to thrust upward into Silver's fist and push backward to impale himself on the cyborg's erection.  He had to will himself not to come as he rode Silver as hard as he could.

Then finally, after several minutes, Silver gave a choked cry and shifted both hands to Jim's hips, forcing him down hard on the cyborg's erection and holding him there as Silver came in him.  Jim squirmed in pleasure at the feeling of Silver throbbing inside him, and he came an instant later without Silver even touching his erection.  Only by biting his lip did Jim manage not to break his "no screeching" promise to Camille.

It felt as if every muscle in Jim's body ached when he finally pulled off of Silver and lay beside him, panting.  Silver moved onto his side and leaned down to kiss Jim deeply, placing his organic hand on the younger man's trembling thigh as he did so.

"I don't think yer quite senseless yet," the cyborg hissed between kisses.  He slid his hand up to Jim's groin and began rubbing him firmly.

Jim shuddered at the touch on his sensitive flesh.  "S-silver, I can't--"  He broke off in a slight gasp as he felt himself start to get hard again under the persistent groping of the cyborg's hand.  "Th-that's not fair. . . ."

"Yer the one who said ye were up to it," Silver chuckled.  He kissed Jim again, then began pumping his renewed erection firmly.  As tired as he was, Jim involuntarily twitched his hips upward against the spacer's hand.  Almost immediately, Silver let him go, then thrust what must have been three fingers into Jim vigorously.

Jim did screech then, promise or no promise, "S-silver!"  He arched his back and pushed against Silver's hand, writhing on the bed in ecstasy.  Silver drove his fingers into Jim repeatedly, moving them inside him until Jim felt like his whole body was as tense as a sail in a solar flare.

Silver caressed and nipped at Jim's neck as the younger man whimpered and squirmed against him, grinding his erection against Silver's organic thigh.  Finally, he felt himself nearing a second orgasm, and he clung to Silver as he thrust against him hard.  Silver pulled his fingers out of Jim, then shoved them back in firmly.  Jim squealed, and his body tensed as he came for a second time.

After he had recovered enough to speak, he panted, "I-I'm senseless now. . . trust me."

Silver wrapped both arms around him and kissed his forehead.  "Ye'd better be.  Although, now I feel older'n ever, witnessin' that."

"Oh, I think you kept up with me pretty well."  Jim cuddled close to Silver and yawned.  "As long as Reyn doesn't work us too hard, I don't think you have anything to worry about."

 

The next morning, the small crew of the Revolution rose early.  Even though Reyn had said his shipment would not come in until mid-morning, Jim wanted to be prepared just in case it arrived sooner.

"The last thing we need is to miss the shipment!" Jim announced when Camille whined about having to get up so early.  They, Silver, and Morph were eating a breakfast of oatmeal in the galley.  "Remember that us getting paid depends on keeping Reyn happy."
 
"I wish I could forget," grumbled Camille, then added with a glare at Silver, "I also wish that my breakfast was less lumpy."
 
"Be grateful yer gettin' any breakfast," Silver returned.  "Yer lucky Morphy was good enough to wake ye up; otherwise, ye'd've slept right through it."
 
"'Lucky' isn't quite how I'd describe getting licked in the face."  Camille grimaced.  "I still feel like I have germs all over me."
 
"His mouth is cleaner'n yers," retorted Silver.  "In fact, I'll wager most mouths are."
 
Despite Jim's apprehension, the shipment from Warren did not arrive early.  Neither did the harbormaster; once again, Jim did not see Lee Palmer at all.  Instead, Lyonette appeared out of the harbormaster's small office after the crew had been waiting on the dock for a couple hours.  The girl marched over to them.
 
"Is this the rest of your crew?" she asked Jim as she looked them over critically.  She frowned at Morph and gave Silver a somewhat apprehensive look, but strangely enough, she seemed to approve of Camille.  In fact, she continued to stare at him even when Jim spoke, although Camille only glared at her.
 
"Yes-- Morph, Silver, and Camille.  So where's the ship from Warren supposed to dock?"
 
"It'll have the spot right next to your ship," Lyonette replied, although she was still turned to Camille instead of Jim.  Jim folded his arms and looked at the girl in irritation for seemingly ignoring him in favor of the Octopid.  "It will only be here a short time, so its crew is going to unload the cargo onto the dock.  Then you're to take all the crates to Mr. Reyn's museum.  Daddy said it will probably take you all day."
 
"How exciting," Camille grumbled, flipping a loose strand of his hair back over his shoulder with a tentacle.  "So how long do we have to work here before we're worthy of being ordered around by the harbormaster himself?"
 
"I don't know," Lyonette replied.  She shrugged dismissively, but Jim thought she looked truly puzzled for a moment.  "He's busy, I guess.  He told me to come give you your orders."
 
"And does that mean you'll be the one paying us?" Camille persisted, interested in money as usual.

"I don't know anything about that either."  Despite her apparent admiration of Camille, Lyonette acted irritated by his questions.  "Look, just do your job, okay?  You'll get paid if Mr. Reyn has anything to do with it.  He has oodles of money, and he's never cheated anyone."

"I'll wager he's cheated on a few people," Camille said as the girl flounced off, then he chuckled in amusement at his own wit.

"That's neither here nor there," Silver muttered.  "Jimbo, I'm startin' to agree with ye on this Palmer bloke.  In all my years a' spacin', I never saw a harbormaster that sends anyone else out to do his job, much less a little lass like that.  Maybe we'd better check with Reyn that everythin's on the up-and-up."

"Good idea."  Jim frowned at the harbormaster's office after Lyonette had disappeared into it.  "Let's talk to him after we finish with his cargo."  Forcing himself to cheer up, he turned to Camille and gave him a playful jab in the shoulder.  "At any rate, looks like you've got another admirer to add to your list.  Little miss harbormistress-in-training seemed pretty impressed."

"Ugh," said Camille succinctly.

When the shipment finally arrived, it proved to be much larger than the last the crew had carried to Reyn's museum.  It took Jim, Silver, and Camille into early afternoon just to unload the crates onto the dock.  The ship then departed, leaving the crew to begin transferring the crates to the museum.  Reyn had provided them with a dolly which helped to some degree, but it was still strenuous work; Jim's back and arms ached after only a few trips between the dock and museum.

"Give me a minute," he panted to Camille after they lifted a particularly heavy crate off the dolly and placed it on the floor in the back of the museum.  Jim sank down on the floor next to the crate tiredly.  "I've gotta rest."

"Wimp," Camille scoffed, although his thin chest was rising and falling rapidly for breath as well.  He went over to another crate they had delivered earlier whose lid had been removed by the volunteers who were unpacking the "cargo."  Camille peered into the box curiously.  "I want to see what these rabbit people look like."

"Well, I don't," Jim muttered.  Camille ignored him and pulled out a jar containing a distinctly lapin foot, though it was as large as a human foot.  The fur covering it was an oddly bright shade of brown, and it wafted gently in the fluid inside the jar.

"So much for these things being lucky," said Camille.  "At least, it didn't bring much luck to its original owner."

"Actually, the people of Warren are very lucky."  Jim started at the sound of Reyn's voice and quickly stood on unsteady legs lest he be chided for slacking off on the job.  The museum owner was leaning in the doorway to the room, watching Camille with an amused expression.

"Tell that to Fluffy here," Camille grumbled with a gesture at the jar as he put it back in the crate.

"I've never even heard of Warren," Jim said quickly, before Camille could get in a fight with their temporary employer.  "Where is it?"

"Quite far from here, on the fringes of our galaxy.  That's why getting this shipment was such a coup," Reyn crooned, eyeing the crates with an expression that was uncomfortably close to lust.  "There's a cluster of systems there known as the Aniverse; it is inhabited by mostly anthropomorphic races.  Much more bestial than you though," he added to Camille.  "I met an octopus from the area, and he was quite unappealing, physically."

"And I'm sure he thought exactly the same about you," Camille retorted in a tone of false sweetness.

Reyn chuckled.  "Careful, dear, you're beginning to sound like Juste.  Anyhow, there was quite a violent war between some factions a few years ago-- mostly amphibian and reptilian versus mammalian and avian.  The amphibians were attempting to take control of the others' planets, but they were stopped primarily through the efforts of a Warrener and his crew.  So yes, Warren is quite lucky-- it came painfully close to becoming a permanent swamp."

"How'd you end up with bits of the prevailing race, then?" Jim asked with a little smile.  Reyn was beginning to grow on him, in spite of-- or perhaps because of-- his wry brand of unshakeable arrogance.

"Having the right connections," was all Reyn answered.  "Now, back to work with you two!  There are still plenty of crates left to move."

"He probably killed the damn rabbits himself," Camille muttered as they walked back to the dock.  "Or else he made some deal with the amphibians to get the bodies they left when they killed the rabbits."

"I don't care how he got the things," Jim replied, "as long as I don't have to look at them."

The sun had set before the crew finished moving all the crates to the museum, but Jim was still proud of the day's work they'd put in.  All three, with Morph's "help," carried the last crate to Reyn's building, where they found the proprietor arranging rabbit parts in a display.  Morph shifted into an imitation of the foot Camille had examined earlier and began hopping around on the ground.

"That's the last of 'em," Silver told Reyn, stretching both his organic and mechanical limbs.

"Excellent!"  Reyn turned away from his grotesque work and faced the crew, clasping his hands together.  "I shan't have any other cargo for you myself tomorrow, but while you wait for my next load, I do have an arrangement for you which you might find beneficial."

Jim and Silver looked at one another skeptically.  "What sort of arrangement?" Jim asked.

"Palmer asked me if he might borrow you lot on the days when you aren't working for me."

"Wait a minute!" Camille snapped.  "Just how long are we expected to stay on this planet, anyway?"

"My last shipment will arrive within three days," Reyn replied, unperturbed.  "I will pay you after it's moved, then you will be free to go.  And as I was saying, Palmer has offered to pay you to work for him tomorrow and any other time this week that you aren't moving cargo for me.  It would mean extra money," he finished cajolingly.

"First, we wanted to ask you something about that harbormaster," Jim told him.  "We haven't seen him since we got here."

Reyn looked vaguely surprised.  "Oh?"

"Yeah, he sent his bratty little kid out to deal with us," grumbled Camille.

Jim glared at the Octopid for stealing his thunder, then turned back to Reyn.  "We just wanted to be sure that. . . well, that everything is all right.  It just seems sort of odd."

"Hmm.  It is a bit strange.  Palmer's always kept to himself, but he usually meets the ships that come in."

"That's what Mr. Bishop told us," Jim said.

A faint smile moved across Reyn's lips at the mention of the reporter.  "Oh, you've talked to Juste again, then?  Well, I suppose he can be trusted, at least on matters concerning the harbormaster.  But don't believe a word the man says about me.  He can't stand me, you know."

"He sure spends a lot of time around you, for all that," Camille muttered.

"Anyhow, as I implied, it's not unusual for Palmer to behave oddly at times, so I wouldn't let it worry me if I were you," Reyn said, apparently not hearing Camille.  "If you run into any real difficulties with him, let me know.  Now, what about moving the additional cargo?"

Jim conferred with his crewmates a moment, then turned back to Reyn.  "All right, we'll do it as long as you can assure us that we'll be paid."

"Oh, of course."  Reyn beamed at them.  "Excellent, I'll stop by and tell Palmer on my way home-- and I'll mention this little matter of his not appearing and see what he says."

"I hope we're not making a mistake," Jim muttered as they left the museum and started back for the Revolution.

Camille shrugged.  "Hey, it's extra money.  That's never a mistake.  And I'm sure Mr. Personality back there is right; Palmer's probably just weird."

"Ye realize this means takin' more orders from yer new admirer, eh, Tentacles?" Silver pointed out with a barely disguised smirk.

The Octopid winced slightly, but he said bravely, "Money is money."

 

All of Camille's joy at the prospect of extra money had vanished after five days of hauling crates for Palmer and Reyn.  Part of the problem was Lyonette Palmer: her crush on Camille had deepened to the point where she followed him everywhere in attempts to "help" him with his labor.  She got in the way more often than not, resulting in several spectacular fights between the two of them.  At least, Jim thought, she wasn't the type to let attraction get in the way of her sense of self-righteousness.

"Sounds like someone else I know," Silver teased when Jim mentioned this to him.

However, the real issue was not Lyonette but her father, and more specifically, his money.  Claredon Reyn's last shipment came in as scheduled, and once it was unloaded, he paid the Revolution's crew-- quite handsomely, Jim noticed.  However, despite Claredon's promises, they still had gotten nothing for the work they did on Palmer's behalf, and they still had not seen the harbormaster.  On the sixth morning after the Warren shipment's arrival, Camille sat down cross-tentacled on the dock and refused to shift another crate.

"I'm not doing anything else for that bastard!" the Octopid declared.  "At this rate, he might never pay us."

"Yeah, and we're stuck here until he does," Jim sighed as he slumped down next to the Octopid.

"Unless we leave without taking the mon--" Silver began, but Camille cut him off with a glare.

"Not on your life.  I haven't worked my ass off this week for nothing."

"Nothing!" Morph declared with an indignant chirp.

"Well, Claredon did pay us pretty well," Jim pointed out.  "But you're right. . . Palmer owes us a lot more."  He looked up at Silver.  "Did you try to talk to him today?"

"Aye, just like every mornin'," the cyborg muttered.  "He either sends the lass to the door, or he don't answer at all.  And I don't s'pose Reyn's gonna anythin' about it neither."

"Stars," Jim groaned, rubbing his forehead with his hands.  "What're we gonna do?  What's with this guy?"

"I know how to get Reyn to do something about it," Camille said suddenly.  When the others looked at him curiously, he said, "Get Bertrand on his case.  If Reyn depends on him as much as he claims, he won't risk pissing Bertrand off-- and he'll get us our money."

Silver chuckled.  "Ye sure ye ain't just lonely, Tentacles?"  Camille replied with an expletive Jim had never heard before, but he could guess its meaning pretty easily.

"Okay, I'll write Bertrand a note and send it in the mail today," Jim said quickly to thwart a potential fight.  "He'll get it tomorrow, and maybe he'll write Claredon or something.  At least this way, Bertrand won't think we've run out on him."

Later that day, Jim wrote a brief letter explaining the situation, then gave it to Camille to post before that day's mail shipment left Seven.

"I guess now all we can do is wait," he told Silver as they sat staring at the harbormaster's office.  Not even Lyonette had appeared that morning, and the building may as well have been deserted.

Silver nodded and patted Jim on the shoulder with his organic hand.  "Aye, lad."

Chapter Text

Bertrand had indeed been wondering what had happened to his crew, although he never considered that they might have deliberately abandoned him.  Instead, he tried to placate the worried Mrs. Ufford with descriptions of how flighty Claredon Reyn was.

"He probably just came up with more work for them to do," he told her one morning about a week after the Revolution's crew had departed.  Nevertheless, he was beginning to get worried.

He was both relieved and concerned when he received an envelope from Jim at his office that morning.  Bertrand ripped it open and scanned the note inside:

Bertrand,

We finished with Reyn's cargo, but we've run into some trouble with the harbormaster-- we moved some stuff for him, but he hasn't paid us.  We haven't been able to see him since we got here.  Any advice?

-Jim

Bertrand's heart sank in spite of the encouraging news that the crew was safe, for there was nothing from Camille-- or so he thought until he folded the letter to return it to its envelope.  Then, he noticed something scrawled on the back of the piece of paper.

Sugar, get us out of here.  I miss you.  ~C

Bertrand blushed even though he was completely alone.  Then he stuffed the letter back into the envelope and began rummaging through his filing cabinet, looking for the schedule that would tell him the time of the next transport to Seven.

Ten hours later, he disembarked at Seven's dock with his suitcase and looked around, half expecting to see something amiss.  However, it appeared to be a normal day in Seven, and the Revolution was docked peacefully nearby.  True to Jim's word, the harbormaster was nowhere in sight.

Jim himself was, though.  Bertrand spotted him and Silver hauling an uncomfortably large crate across the dock.  Oddly, a tiny crate was sitting on top of it.  What in the galaxy would be shipped in a crate so small? Bertrand wondered.

"Jim!" he called.  "Silver!"  They looked up as he propelled himself across the dock using his wings and a little hop.

"Bertrand?"  Jim set down his end of the crate and pushed his hair out of his eyes.  "What are you doing here?"

Bertrand landed in front of them, stumbling slightly.  "Your letter-- I can't just let you stay here forever, can I?" he explained with a little smile.

"Yeah, but I thought you'd just write Claredon or something."

"Well, uh. . ." Bertrand stammered, too embarrassed to tell them that he had come solely because of Camille.

"Anyway, we're glad yer here," Silver broke in.

"Glad!" chirped the nearby tiny crate.  It suddenly jumped up from its perch and shifted into Morph.

"Yes, well, I do need you back home."  Bertrand rubbed the back of his neck and squinted at the harbormaster's office.  "What's this you're moving now?"

"Another shipment for Claredon," Jim rolled his eyes.  "But at least he's paying us.  There were only two crates in the lot, and Camille took the smaller one, the bum."  The young man looked carefully at Bertrand with a suppressed smirk.  "He took it on to the museum if you want to go see him."

Bertrand blushed.  "F-first, I'm going to try to talk to Lee Palmer, if he's in there."

Silver shrugged.  "Good luck figurin' it out.  We already tried knockin' a couple times today-- don't know if he's gone, or just not answerin' the door."

Bertrand nodded and set down his suitcase, then started for the office; Jim and Silver paused by their crate to watch him.  The Coronid mounted the steps and knocked on Palmer's door, first politely then with a more insistent pounding-- all to no avail.

"No use," he told the two as he returned to them, frowning in bewilderment.  "This certainly is quite strange.  I've only met Palmer a couple times, but he's always been readily available."

Jim sighed heavily.  "What're we gonna do?"

"I'll go talk to Claredon," Bertrand declared, "and demand that he either get your wages from Palmer, or pay you himself.  I assume he's at the museum?"

"Far as we know," Silver told him.  "We'll bring this crate on and find out what he says when we get there."

Still lugging his suitcase, Bertrand walked the few blocks to Claredon's museum and went inside.  As always, it was much colder in the black-and-white marbled foyer than outside, and the Coronid shivered slightly, bristling his wings.  Or maybe I'm just shivering because I'm in a museum of body parts, he thought wryly.

He was greeted by the museum attendant who stood in the foyer, waiting to welcome new guests.  Bertrand found Claredon in the next room, the main exhibit hall, admiring his collection from Warren.  The older man glanced up at his entrance, then smiled.

"Ah, Bertrand!  What a delightful surprise.  I do hope I'm not in any legal trouble."

"No," Bertrand told him, trying not to look at the rabbit parts just to his right.  "Not yet anyway."

"Oh dear.  That doesn't sound promising," Claredon chuckled.  "What is this about?"

"My crew."  Bertrand gave him the sternest glare he could manage.  "They tell me that Palmer hasn't paid them for their work.

"Oh. . . yes, they did say something to me about that," mused Claredon.

"And did you talk to Palmer about it?"

"No, not yet. . . it completely slipped my mind.  I will speak to him first thing in the morning."

"Why not now?"  Bertrand actually glared at him.

"My dear boy, I really am very busy, and I hate to bother him this late in the day."  He smiled at Bertrand patronizingly.  "You have my word, your crew will have their wages tomorrow.  Which reminds me, I'm going to owe them some more myself.  Tell you what, why don't the four of you have dinner with me tonight?  We'll discuss the Palmer matter, and I will give them their earnings for their work for me."

Dinner with Claredon was not tops on the list of Bertrand's favorite activities, but he didn't see any polite way to decline.  "All right.  Shall we come to your house?"

"No, no, let's meet at the hotel, the Mercury.  Their restaurant is divine."

"And rather expensive, if I remember correctly," Bertrand said pointedly.

"Oh, I'll pay for everyone, of course."  Claredon patted him on the shoulder in an absent way, then started for the museum's exit.  "Now, I must go-- I promised Marla I'd drop by this afternoon.  I'll see you around nineteen, Bertrand!"  Bertrand sighed as the older man sauntered away, then he heard a squeal from behind him.

"Bertrand!"  An instant later, he was pounced on from behind, and two tentacles wrapped tightly around his waist.

"Camille. . . ."  Bertrand turned and took the Octopid in his arms, pressing his lips to Camille's dark hair.  When Camille lifted his head from Bertrand's shoulder, the Coronid bent to kiss him. . . then saw the harbormaster's daughter, scowling, appear in the doorway that led to the back room.

"Erm, hello, Lyonette," Bertrand gulped, putting Camille away from him gently.

"Oh Dagon," Camille groaned under his breath.

"Hi Mr. Merle," the girl said grudgingly.  "What're you doing here?"

Children had always made Bertrand nervous, even when he hadn't showed up to extort money from their fathers.  "Uh, Captain Hawkins wrote to me about some business I needed to take care of for him.  I'll only be here a day or so."

"I didn't expect you to actually turn up," Camille interrupted, deliberately turning his back on Lyonette.  He looked up at Bertrand with an extremely tempting smile.  "Of course, that doesn't mean I'm not glad to see you."

"Well, when I saw what you had written. . ." Bertrand murmured.  "I. . . I wanted to see you."

"You mean you came here just for me?"  Camille blinked up at him, surprised.

"Of course, I--"

Before Bertrand could finish, they were interrupted again by the appearance of Jim, Silver, and Morph with their crate.

"Hey, what'd Claredon say about--" Jim began, then he saw Lyonette and stopped short.  "Erm, about our problem?"

"He'll take care of it tomorrow," Bertrand said carefully.  "But he's asked us to have dinner with him tonight at the Mercury Hotel."

"Oh great," Camille groaned.

"He's paying," Bertrand added.  Camille brightened considerably.  "We're supposed to meet him at nineteen-- erm, that's seven o'clock in standard time.  That should give you three time to get cleaned up."

Lyonette, apparently annoyed at being ignored, came over and stood very close to Camille.  "Can I come?"

"No," Camille snapped, earning a glare from her.

"I'm sorry, Lyonette, but this is about some legal matters," Bertrand told her, trying to convince himself that it wasn't a complete lie.  "It's private."

"Oh, all right," the girl sighed.  "I'll see you in the morning, then.  If I feel like it," she added with another scowl at Camille.

"Don't put yourself out!" the Octopid growled after her.

Jim snickered once she was gone.  "Camille, you really shouldn't fight with little girls."

"You didn't have to put up with her all day!" Camille cried.  "If she's not getting in my way, she's standing there telling me I'm doing my job wrong!  I don't know why she had to fall in love with me."

"Apparently yer just irresistible, Tentacles," Silver chuckled with a glance at Bertrand, who promptly blushed.

"I need to go see about getting my hotel room," the Coronid said quickly.  "This suitcase is getting heavy."

"Whaddya mean, a hotel room?" Camille grumbled.  "Aren't you gonna sleep on the ship with us?"

Bertrand flushed more.  "Well, actually Claredon always pays for my lodging when I have to stay overnight here."

"Oh."  Camille folded his tentacles and said sulkily, "You'd better not be about to tell me that he's staying there with you."

"Of course not."  Bertrand hesitated, looking from the frowning Octopid to the smirking Jim and Silver.  "Um, could you two-- er, and Morph-- excuse us a minute?"

"Yeah, yeah," Jim grinned.  "We've got a lot of cleaning up to do before we'll be presentable, anyway."

When they were finally alone, Bertrand turned back to Camille.  "Actually, I. . . thought you could stay at the hotel, with me."

"Really?"  Camille looked up at him, his scowl replaced with a delighted smile.  "Reyn won't think it's too scandalous?"

"Reyn would probably cheer me on after the things he said about you and me after his party," Bertrand said wryly.

"Oh?  Like what?"  Camille leaned against him slightly, making Bertrand's heart beat faster.

"J-just that we disappeared together rather suddenly.  And with the way you were dressed, he thought that instead of going swimming w-we. . . you know."

"He's probably jealous," Camille smirked.  "If he weren't so crazy about that little reporter of his, I'd say he wants you."

"Of course he doesn't," Bertrand said, blushing all the harder.  "And. . . you mean Juste?"

"Yeah."  Camille rested his cheek against Bertrand's shoulder.  "Isn't it obvious?  And that little pipsqueak's obsessed with him.  Reyn'll end up banging him before long, I bet."

"Camille!"  Bertrand tried not laugh, deciding that that would just encourage him.  "You're terrible."

"Hey, it's the truth.  I've seen the way they look at each other."  He reached up a tentacle to stroke Bertrand's cheek.  "Same way I look at you."

Bertrand slowly put his hand over the tentacle.  "H-how's that?"

The Octopid pressed his lips to Bertrand's neck, then nipped at his skin slightly.  "Like I want to get you in bed and make you do terrible things to me."

"O-oh."  Bertrand swallowed hard, then brought Camille's tentacle to his mouth and kissed it gently.  "Well, erm, th-that's. . . . that's-sorta-what-I-have-in-mind," he finished quickly.

"In that case, I'd better go start getting presentable myself," Camille said with what was almost a giggle.  He leaned up on his tentacle tips and brushed Bertrand's lips with his own.  Trembling slightly, Bertrand kissed him back rather chastely, not trusting himself to kiss the Octopid like he really wanted to.

"I'll see you soon," Bertrand murmured to him.

"Mm."  Camille embraced him, then reluctantly started for the museum's exit.  "Not soon enough."

 

After a shower, Jim dressed in the best clothes he had with him.  They can't compare to my officer's uniform, but they'll have to do, he thought as he looked down at his dark blue button-up shirt and khakis.

As he left his cabin, Morph started to follow.  Jim looked at him sternly and pointed back into the cabin.

"Morph, stay.  I'm not gonna have you screwing up dinner-- not when our paycheck is involved."

Morph slumped in the air, then turned into a viscous liquid and splattered onto the floor in a sad puddle.  He whimpered at Jim sadly, then slunk back into the cabin.  Jim had to work hard not to give in; he did feel sorry for the shapeshifter, but he also knew that Morph could mean big trouble in a fancy restaurant.  Jim shut and locked the cabin door, then went above deck where Silver was waiting for him.

"How do I look?" Jim asked the cyborg, holding out his arms for inspection.

"Ye cut a dashin' figure, as always," Silver said with a smile.  The cyborg wasn't dressed any differently than normal, although his clothes seemed a bit cleaner.

"Yes, great, can we go eat now?" Camille grumbled as he followed Jim on deck, wearing the same clothes as always.

The three found the appointed hotel without much trouble; in fact, they arrived a few minutes early.  Bertrand was already there, however, and had gone so far as to wear a suit.  Despite that, he still managed to look rumpled with his messy hair and crooked tie.  Nevertheless, Camille responded much more favorably to that than to Jim's attire.

"You look nice," he smirked, going over to Bertrand to straighten his tie.

"Th-thanks."  Bertrand smiled down at him in a way that confirmed for Jim the real reason he had come to Seven.  The Coronid glanced at Jim and Silver and went on, "I imagine that Claredon will be late-- he always is.  We might as well go on and get a table."

The Mercury's restaurant was located on the ground floor adjoining the lobby.  Jim looked around the restaurant in nervous awe as they walked in: he had never dined in a place that nice before.  It even held its own against the fancy restaurant where he had eaten on the planet of Kinmoku years ago while traveling with the Legacy.  Bertrand seemed to know what he was doing, however.  He spoke to the maître d' and procured the best table in the house for them, although Jim suspected that Reyn's name had been dropped for Bertrand to achieve that accomplishment.  They were seated at a table for six, Jim and Silver on one side, and Bertrand and Camille on the other.

"You didn't bring Morph?" Bertrand asked after their server had brought them ice water and left with drink orders, including an order for Claredon put in by Bertrand-- and very specific instructions for alcohol from Camille.

"Praise Cthulhu," Camille muttered.

"No," Jim answered, giving Camille a sharp look.  "I decided it would be too risky. . . and besides, I don't think Claredon is the type who would like pets."

Bertrand started to laugh, then looking towards the entrance, he quickly regulated his expression.  "Here he comes. . . with the reporter," he added with surprise.  "I was afraid he'd bring that DeFortier woman."

A moment later, Reyn joined them with a very sullen Juste Bishop in tow.

"I hope you don't mind if Juste joins us," Reyn said with his usual suspiciously charming smile.  "I found him loitering outside and invited him to dinner."

"Of course we don't mind," Jim said quickly, seeing Camille smirk and open his mouth to say something.  Probably something tasteless, Jim thought as he shot another warning look at the Octopid.

"What a coincidence that you just happened to be here," Reyn went on to Juste as he sat down beside Bertrand (and earned a grimace from Camille).  Juste took the chair beside Jim and across from Claredon, although he didn't look as if he wanted to be there.

"The Palmer kid told me you'd be here," Juste muttered.  "I thought Jim here might give me a story if I hung around."

"Me?" Jim protested, flushing.  The last thing he wanted was for Claredon to think he was giving Bishop private information, especially when they needed Claredon to get them paid.

"Well, you told me the other day about your trouble with Palmer," Juste said.  "I assume that's what this is all about."  He looked sharply at Claredon.  "Isn't it?"

"Direct as always, Juste," Claredon said with a small but appreciative smile.  "I suppose that means we should get down to business as soon as our drinks arrive."

Camille leaned forward to look past Bertrand at Reyn.  "That's the first sensible thing I've heard you say since we met you."

A few minutes later, they had their drinks and had placed orders for food (the prices of which made Jim extremely grateful Claredon was paying).  Sipping at his red wine, Claredon told them, "I went by the docks after leaving Marla's today."

"Hmph," grumbled Juste.

"There was no answer when I knocked at Lee's office," Claredon went on, unperturbed.  "The little girl was coming home just as I left, and she told me her father had gone out for the rest of the day.  If he is really avoiding you, he seems to be avoiding me as well."

"Aye," Silver said carefully.  Jim noticed that he was giving Reyn a highly suspicious look.

Reyn must have noticed it too, for he said firmly, "You have my word, though.  I'll come by again in the morning, and if he won't see me, I'll pay you myself for the work you did for him.  I can get the money back from him later, and I'm sure Bertrand needs you boys more than I do."

Even Juste looked impressed at Claredon's offer.  "You'd really take that risk on for them?" he asked, his voice less harsh than normal.

"Of course.  It's my fault you're in this situation," he said to the crew.  "And besides, I know I won't lose my money.  This behavior is highly irregular, and I can swear to you, I trust Leland Palmer to the edges of the galaxy."

Jim nearly choked on his glass of wine, resulting in a faint red splatter on the pristine linen tablecloth before him.  He felt his cheeks grow hot as everyone stared at him.

Camille sniggered.  "Good one, Hawkins."

"I-- I thought you said the harbormaster's name was Lee," Jim said to Claredon.  His voice was hoarse from coughing, and even to his own ears, he sounded accusatory.

"Well, yes.  Everyone calls him Lee, but it's a nickname."  Claredon gave him a puzzled look.  "His full name is Leland."

"What is it, lad?" Silver asked him quietly.  Jim glanced up at him and saw real concern in his organic eye.

"It's nothing."  Jim looked down at the table and edged his glass over, trying to cover up the stain he'd left.  "It's. . . just that Leland was my father's name too."

There was an awkward silence, even from Claredon who knew nothing about Jim's history.  Fortunately, servers arrived an instant later with the first course of their meal, and the uncomfortable moment passed for everyone but Jim.  Then he felt Silver's organic hand close over his, squeezing it gently.  Jim didn't look at the cyborg, but he clutched his hand gratefully.

The hotel's food was delicious, and Jim felt much better once he began to eat.  He was surprised to discover that he actually trusted Claredon-- in spite of all the man's bad qualities, Jim got the feeling that his intentions were good.  We might even be back on Crescentia this time tomorrow, Jim thought happily.

The others seemed to be enjoying themselves as well, especially Camille, who was alternately shoveling food into his mouth and arguing good-naturedly with Claredon.  Only Juste seemed to be discontent; Jim realized that the reporter had hardly spoken since their food arrived.  He cast belligerent looks in Claredon's direction every few moments, but Reyn paid him no attention.

After they had been at the restaurant for about an hour, Juste got up and left the table, mumbling an excuse.  Jim thought he was the only one who noticed, but ten minutes later, he glanced at Claredon to find the older man regarding the reporter's empty chair thoughtfully.

Claredon realized that Jim was watching him and said quietly, "Maybe I should go see if he's all right."

"No," Jim murmured quickly.  He suspected that if Juste weren't all right, Claredon would be the reason.  "I'll go check on him."

As Jim might have guessed, Juste was not in the restroom after all; Jim spotted him sitting on a small patio off of the lobby.  The reporter was leaning back in a chair, staring up at the dark sky.  Jim hesitated, then went outside and approached him.  Juste looked up as Jim came near; understandably, he seemed surprised.

"Are. . . you okay?" Jim asked.

"Yeah."  Juste looked away again, and Jim frowned and sat down beside him.  Even though he didn't know Juste very well, he hated to see him so obviously unhappy.

"He's worried about you," Jim told him.

"What did he say?"  Juste didn't even bother pretending he didn't know who Jim was talking about.

"He wanted to come check on you."

"Hmph."  The reporter folded his arms and slumped farther down in his chair.  "He doesn't care about me.  He doesn't care about anybody but himself."

"I don't think that's fair," protested Jim.  "He's helping us."

"Probably because he thinks he'll get something out of it," Juste grumbled.  "Look, I've been around him a lot longer than you have-- I know what he's like."

"No, you don't," Jim declared.  "I know it's none of my business, but you're trying so hard to pretend you're not in love with him, you ignore everything good about him!"

Juste looked at him indignantly and opened his mouth to retort, but then his eyes moved past Jim and his mouth closed into a petulant frown.  Jim looked over his shoulder to see Marla DeFortier drifting towards them.  She nodded faintly at Jim, but she seemed far more interested in Juste.

"What are you doing here, working on a story?" she asked him.  Her tone was pleasant enough, but her expression was antagonistic.  She apparently liked Juste as little as he liked her.

"Actually, no," Juste responded shortly.  "I'm just having dinner."

"Here?"

"Yes.  Here," the young man glowered.  Then he added, "I came with Claredon."

If he had been trying to make Marla jealous, it didn't work.  Her face instantly relaxed, and she smiled.  "Oh, are you.  You know," she murmured, leaning towards Juste conspiratorially, "you need to work on your cover-up story if you're going be here snooping.  No one's going to believe you."

"That's a shame, since it's true," Juste spat.  Something about the woman seemed to make him lose all of his usual self-restraint.

Marla glared down at him, no longer pretending to be polite.  "Now why would you be here with--"

"With me?"  Jim looked up to see Claredon standing behind her, a very smug expression on his face.  "Good evening, Marla," he added facetiously before turning to Jim and Juste.  "Aren't you two coming back to the table?  Your lovely tentacled friend wants dessert, and I would hate for you to miss out."

"So you are here together?"  Marla looked from Claredon to Juste and back.

"Of course."  Claredon moved past her to stand next to Juste and rest a hand on his shoulder.  The reporter flushed and for the first time ever, Jim saw him smile.  "What, didn't you believe him?"

Marla stared at him, her heavily lipsticked mouth twisted in irritation, then she turned on her heel and stormed off.

"I visited her this afternoon to tell her we'd been seeing far too much of each other," Claredon commented, shaking his head.  "I had no idea she'd get back at me by harassing my friends.  I'm quite sorry about all this, Jim," he continued with his hand still on Juste's shoulder though he looked at Jim.  "Between her and Palmer, I'm afraid I've been rather more trouble than I'm worth."

"It's all right," Jim assured him, though he added playfully, "As long as you pay us tonight like you told Bertrand you would."

Claredon finally dropped his hand from Juste as they walked back to their table, although the reporter's cheeks remained flushed for several minutes.  Claredon kept his word and as they finished dessert, he handed Jim a handful of cash for the crew's most recent work.  Camille impatiently held out his tentacle until Jim gave him his share of the money; the Octopid then counted it gleefully and stuffed it in his pocket.

"Now I can finally pay Mrs. Ufford all that rent I owe her," he declared with a grin.  He celebrated by ordering a second coffee liqueur to continue his dessert.

"Since I don't have your stamina, Camille, I think I'm heading back to the ship," Jim chuckled.

"Yeah, well, don't wait up for me," Camille told him with an extremely suggestive smirk at Bertrand, who tried to ignore it.

"We never do," Silver retorted before Jim could answer him, then he patted Jim on the leg.  "I'll come with ye, lad."

"Thank you for the dinner, Mr. Reyn," Jim said as they stood.

"It's the least I could do after the trouble I've been," Claredon replied, although he looked quite pleased with himself, trouble and all.  "I'll force myself to get up at a decent hour in the morning and come speak to Lee.  You'll have your money tomorrow, one way or another."

Jim thanked him again and nodded goodbye to Juste, and he and Silver left the other four behind and started back for the ship.  Jim felt quite content as they walked, particularly when he slipped his small hand into Silver's much larger organic one.  Silver slowly drew his thumb back and forth over the back of Jim's hand.

"So what was wrong with that reporter lad?" Silver asked as they neared the docks.

Jim shrugged.  "He's about as melodramatic as Camille, just in a quieter way.  He's got a thing for Claredon, is all."  He looked up at the stars; only the brightest ones shown through the glare of the city, and those he could see seemed unfamiliar.  It'll be good to get home tomorrow, he thought.

"Speaking of Camille," he went on aloud, "I hope he can mellow Bertrand out some.  I really could use a day off."

"Aye."  They had reached the ship, and Silver sat down on the deck.  "Go rescue Morphy, lad-- I slipped away some leftovers fer him."

Jim grinned and jogged below deck to release Morph from their cabin.  All seemed to be forgiven as far as the shapeshifter was concerned, especially when he darted above deck and found Silver with several pieces of food for him.

Back on deck, Jim sat down next to Silver and leaned against his left side.  Silver tossed Morph one last bite of bread, then put his organic arm around Jim's waist, holding him close.

"Know what I'd do with a day off?" the spacer asked.

"What?" mumbled Jim into his shoulder.

"Get a long boat and go sailin' with ye. . . just the two of us and Morphy."  Silver brought up his hand to stroke Jim's hair slowly.  "Like we used to do on the Legacy, not goin' anywhere in particular."

"I'd like that."  Jim put his arms around Silver and hugged him tightly.  "Those were some of the best times I ever had. . . that first time you asked me to come with you. . . ."

"Funny, that," Silver went on.  "Before I'd always liked bein' alone the best. . . well, alone except fer Morphy, once I rescued him.  And that day I started to go by myself, just like always.  But then, I realized it wasn't what I wanted at all."  He held Jim a little closer to him.  "I wanted ye with me, lad.  And when I left that ship fer good, even though I did it to save my own skin. . . it was the hardest thing I'd ever done, leavin' without ye."

"You'll never have to leave without me again," Jim promised him as he clung to him.  "In fact, I won't let you leave me."  He grinned up at Silver.  "I'll follow you closer than the stubbornest space barnacle."

The cyborg just smiled at him and stroked his cheek with a finger, then leaned down and kissed him softly.  Afterwards, Silver stood, pulling Jim up with him, and started below deck.

"Well, lad, it looks like we've got the ship to ourselves tonight," he said over his shoulder as Jim followed him.  "Let's make the most of it."

 

Halfway through the meal, Bertrand had felt something brush his ankle.  He jumped and started to draw his foot back until he realized that it was one of Camille's tentacles.  It snaked around his ankle, then its tip slipped under the cuff of his pants leg and coiled over his calf.  For the rest of the evening, Bertrand tried to remain outwardly calm despite the sensation of Camille repeatedly groping and massaging his leg.

After Jim and Silver left, Camille happily sipped at his liqueur while Bertrand tried to think of something coherent to say to their dining partners.  He felt uncomfortable enough around Claredon as it was without a slightly drunken Octopid feeling up his leg under the table.  To further complicate matters, Juste was behaving even more oddly than normal; he seemed about to speak several times, but each time he remained silent and only looked back down at the cup of coffee he had ordered.  Bertrand assumed it had something to do with his earlier disappearance from the table.

Finally, lack of anything else to say drove Bertrand to ask him and Claredon, "So have you two worked out some arrangement on this news story?"

Juste seemed to have been jolted out of his private thoughts; he looked at Bertrand blankly.  "What?"

"Well, I assume Claredon doesn't mean to sue you anymore."

"Oh."  The small man's light grey eyes flickered to Claredon somewhat accusingly.  "I wouldn't know.  I can't understand him in the least."

"No, I've decided to let Juste take his time," Claredon said with a chuckle.  "After all, he'll leave me once he has his story."

"Fat chance," Camille grumbled.

"You're going to ruin my story," Juste said abruptly.  "You're being a halfway decent human being tonight."

"Well, I honestly do feel bad about this business with Palmer.  Bertrand, make sure your dear little captain knows that, won't you?  Your crew is entitled to their wages."

Camille declared, "We certainly are."  He had finished his drink; he set down his glass, then curled his tentacle over Bertrand's hand, resting on the table in plain view of the others.  Bertrand felt himself blush, with pride as much as with embarrassment.  "So now that dinner's over," the Octopid went on, looking up at Bertrand with a small, teasing smile, "do you show me to our room?"

Claredon chuckled before Bertrand could respond.  "I wondered if you'd be staying in this lavish place by yourself this time."  When Bertrand turned to him indignantly, Claredon explained, "I've discovered that your Octopid is quite possessive of you, so I assumed he'd be accompanying you."

"Yes," Camille said primly.  "I will be."  He uncoiled his tentacles from Bertrand's ankles and stood, tugging on the Coronid's hand.  "Starting now, I believe."

"Thank you for dinner," Bertrand said to Claredon weakly as he obeyed Camille and got up.

"My pleasure.  I was going to ask you all if you'd like me to escort you on a walk through the hotel gardens, but I suppose that will have to wait until some other time."  Claredon smirked at the impatient Camille, then turned to Juste.  "Unless you still wish to join me."

Juste looked at him suspiciously, then relented.  "All right."

They left together while Bertrand took Camille to the room he had been given.  Although it was not among the hotel's grandest suites, it was still quite spacious with an enormous canopied bed and attached bathroom.

Camille looked around in amazement.  "This. . . I can't believe this is a hotel room," he murmured, hesitantly touching the bedpost with a tentacle.  "I've never stayed in a place this nice before."

Bertrand spoke before he even thought about what he was saying.  "Someday, I'll give you a home nicer than this."

Camille gave him a surprised, puzzled look before murmuring, "That's sweet," and looking away again.  Bertrand bit his lip as the Octopid went back to investigating every nook of the hotel room.  Apparently, he wasn't interested in having a real home.  At least not with me, anyway, the Coronid thought sadly.

"Hey," Camille called from the bathroom, to which he had made his way.  "There's a hot tub in here!"

"Yeah."  Bertrand followed him into the large bathroom, where he found Camille already starting the water in the tub.  "All the rooms here have one, but I've never used them.  It's so wasteful--"

"Ha!"  Camille made a face at him, then stripped off his shirt.  "I love these things, but I haven't been in one in years."  He sat down on the edge of the tub and pulled off his "shoes" before hopping up again and tugging at Bertrand's tie.

"What are you--" the Coronid began.

"You're coming in with me!"  Camille yanked the tie off and tossed it aside, then pushed Bertrand's suit jacket off his shoulders.  "It's no fun by yourself!"

Bertrand reluctantly began undressing, and Camille went back to removing his own clothes.  He slipped out of his shorts and underwear in one motion, then sat on the tub again, impatiently tapping his tentacles on the floor as he waited for it to fill.

It was the first time Bertrand had seen him completely naked, and it was all he could do not to stare.  Bertrand slowly pulled off his own shirt as his eyes moved over the Octopid's body: his thin chest, gills, bony hips, and narrow thighs that each split into three unexpectedly sensual tentacles.

"Hurry up; it's almost full," Camille griped, shaking Bertrand out of his trance.  The Coronid slid off his shoes and pants, then found Camille staring at him expectantly.

"What?" Bertrand asked, feeling himself flush.

"Go on; take your shorts off," the Octopid urged him with a rather lascivious grin.  He reached back with a tentacle and shut off the water without taking his gaze from Bertrand.

"A-aren't you going to turn on the jets?" Bertrand stalled.

Camille reached back again and switched them on, and the hot tub came to life with a roar.

"There," the Octopid said eagerly.  "But I'm not getting in until you do."

"All right, all right."  Blushing even more, Bertrand looked down and took off his glasses first, then quickly pulled down his shorts.  Still without looking at Camille, he stepped into the roiling water of the hot tub, which was a lot hotter than he expected.  But since it was either get in or keep standing in front of Camille naked, he gritted his teeth and sat down in the water with his back to the side of the tub and his wings outside of it so they wouldn't get too wet.  The turbulent heat engulfed him up to his chest, flushing his skin to a reddish tint almost immediately.  Still, the longer he forced himself to stay in the water, the better it felt.

Finally he looked up at Camille indignantly.  "There, happy?"

Camille leaned down and touched his cheek with a tentacle, smiling with unusual tenderness.  "I'll cure you of being a prude yet."  He sat up and pulled his hair tie loose, shaking his long brown hair free, then slowly lowered himself into the water across from Bertrand.  The heat made his usually pale face color somewhat, and Bertrand thought he looked more beautiful than ever.

Camille slid down into the water up to his chin and closed his eyes.  "This is the next best thing to being back in the ocean," he murmured.  The tub was small, meant for no more than two people, and it felt like most of it was now filled with tentacles.  One curled around each of Bertrand's calves as they had at dinner, and Camille started gently massaging his leg muscles.

"Relax, sugar," the Octopid said lazily.  "I locked the door; no one's gonna walk in on us, so you don't have to be so damn tense."

"I know, but. . . that's not what I'm afraid of."

Camille opened one eye.  "Then what are you afraid of?"

Bertrand looked at him as best he could-- even at that short distance, Camille appeared slightly blurry.  ". . . you," he finally answered honestly.

"Me?"

"Yes.  You still. . . make me nervous."

Camille smiled slightly.  "So that's why you're always shaking.  There's a cure for that, you know-- being nervous, I mean."

"What is it?"

Bertrand felt two more tentacles brush his thighs as Camille purred, "You're nervous from lack of experience.  So we'll just have to do everything-- then you won't be nervous anymore."

"Wh-what 'everything'?"  Bertrand laughed shakily.  "You're making me more nervous than ever."

Camille lifted his arm tentacles out of the water and laid them on the sides of the hot tub, using them to push himself into a more upright position.  He then gave Bertrand a smile that was absolutely predatory.  "We are going to fuck each other in every way physically possible."

Bertrand's mind went absolutely blank for a moment.  "Tonight?" was all he could manage to say.

"You're seriously underestimating my creativity if you think we can do it all in one night," Camille smirked.  "But we'll make a damn good start-- beginning right now."  The tentacles around Bertrand's calves tightened, and the ones near his thighs curled over them as Camille gently pulled his legs farther apart.  Bertrand squawked and instinctively resisted.

"Bertrand," Camille said in a low voice.  "You said you trusted me with your life, right?"

"Y-yes. . . ."

"Then you can trust me now to make you feel better than you've ever felt before.  Right?"

Even without his glasses, Bertrand could see the pleading expression on Camille's face-- pleading not just from lust, but from the desire to have Bertrand trust him.

"Right," Bertrand whispered.  He closed his eyes and tilted his head back against the edge of the tub, then relaxed his legs-- although he couldn't keep from trembling a little.

"Mm," Camille cooed in response.  He tugged on Bertrand's legs again with the four tentacles, spreading them apart, bent at the knees, until they touched either side of the tub; its ceramic walls felt unnaturally cool after the warmth of the water.  Camille continued to massage Bertrand's calves and thighs with his suckers with a motion that really had become relaxing in combination with the hot water swirling against the Coronid's skin.

In his self-imposed world of darkness, Bertrand waited for what seemed like an eternity, wondering what Camille was going to do next.  Then out of nowhere, a tentacle brushed the head of his cock, making him jump with a faint moan.  He heard Camille giggle, then the tentacle curled around him, half stroking and half pumping him.  Bertrand got harder with each motion of the tentacle, but he came fully erect instantly when Camille covered the head with a sucker and pulled.

"S-stars, Camille," he panted, with his eyes still closed and his head thrown back.  "You're. . . I'm going to come if you keep doing that."

"Oh no, you're not," Camille challenged.  Bertrand heard him shift in the water, then suddenly another tentacle-- possibly one of his "arms"-- coiled tightly around his balls and the base of his cock.  Bertrand gasped and felt his hips jerk forward involuntarily.  Camille pumped him harder, driving him painfully close to an orgasm.  However, when he felt sure he was going to come, the tight grip of Camille's arm-tentacle kept him from climaxing.  It was torturous, but it also felt wonderful.

"You like that?" Camille murmured when Bertrand whimpered with pleasure.  He felt the Octopid lean forward against him and nuzzle his neck.

"Y-yes," Bertrand panted.  "It. . . it feels so good."

"Mm."  Camille stroked him faster and kissed his neck open-mouthed.  "Dagon, it must. . . you're so hard."  Bertrand felt Camille's mouth move across his throat and jaws, nipping and caressing him.

"Camille--" Bertrand groaned.  He lifted his head and opened his eyes, finding the Octopid's lovely face inches from his, the sea-green eyes gazing at him in a way no other eyes had looked at him before.  He's looking at me like he loves me, Bertrand thought.

He wrapped his arms around Camille and held him tightly, pressing his lips to the Octopid's damp hair even as he thrust his erection into Camille's coiled tentacle.  Camille kissed his neck and curled his other arm tentacle around Bertrand's back, clinging to him.  Bertrand had thought all the Octopid's tentacles must be occupied, until he felt yet another one between his legs, its suckers mouthing his balls.  He shivered in pleasure, but the tentacle was already moving lower.

Bertrand realized then that he really did trust Camille, for he knew exactly what Camille intended to do, yet he didn't resist.  He felt the tentacle tip stroke him lightly, then push against him with a gentle pressure.  Bertrand bit down on a mouthful of Camille's hair to keep from crying out as the tip of the tentacle penetrated him.  To his surprise, the sensation was extremely erotic despite its alien nature, and his cry turned into a moan as Camille slowly slid the tentacle deeper inside him.

Camille stopped after what felt like a few inches and began sliding the tentacle out, then back in as he continued to fondle Bertrand's cock.  The Coronid moaned once more and involuntarily spread his legs even further apart, pressing them hard against the walls of the hot tub.

"I knew you'd like it," Camille whispered teasingly.  "You want more?"

"Yes," Bertrand heard himself moan.  Camille immediately pushed his tentacle farther into Bertrand, its narrow tip widening considerably after the few inches marked by suckers.  Bertrand gasped and arched his back as an intense twinge of pleasure shot through his body.  Camille began thrusting his tentacle slowly in and out in response; Bertrand wanted to both push back against it and thrust forward into the coiled tentacle surrounding him.  He awkwardly tried to do both, though most of the sensations he felt came from Camille's movements and not his own.

The Octopid stilled the motion of his tentacles and slowly uncurled the one gripping Bertrand's erection.  Bertrand moaned faintly in protest, but Camille only smiled.

"You know the good thing about gills?"

"Wh. . . what?" Bertrand asked dizzily.

"I can breathe under water."  Bertrand had no idea what that had to do with anything until Camille suddenly ducked under the surface of the hot water swirling around them.  An instant later, Bertrand felt the heat of the water on his erection replaced with the even greater heat of Camille's mouth.

"Aahh--" he squawked, breaking off with a choked noise when Camille renewed the motion of the tentacle still inside him.  Bertrand could only grip the sides of the tubs, his chest heaving for breath, as Camille went down on him and thrust into him simultaneously.  The sense of constriction he felt-- partially from Camille's mouth and throat around his cock, and partially from his own muscles tensed around the tentacle-- was nearly overwhelming; he hadn't believed such intense pleasure could be possible.

Without Camille's tight grip to prevent it, Bertrand was close to coming after only a few moments.  He tried to hold back, but Camille only sucked with more insistence.  Finally, Bertrand gave in and thrust back in response, driving his erection into the Octopid's mouth.  He felt Camille's throat vibrate around him as he moaned, then Camille nearly withdrew his tentacle entirely before shoving it deeply into Bertrand.

Bertrand cried out as the most ecstasy he had ever felt coursed through his body and he climaxed violently with several repeated shudders.  He collapsed against the side of the tub, hardly conscious of Camille withdrawing both mouth and tentacle from him.  The Octopid emerged from the water after a moment, pushing his wet hair back from his face and panting.

"Wow," he said weakly, leaning against Bertrand.  "I don't think I've ever made anyone come like that before."

Bertrand wrapped his arms around Camille as his head cleared slightly.  "What-- what about you?  You didn't. . . ."

"I think you came hard enough for both of us," Camille teased, but Bertrand shook his head.

"Here."  He gently drew Camille up out of the water, pushing him to sit on the edge of the tub.  The Octopid shivered slightly upon leaving the warm water for the much cooler air.

From the tub, Bertrand looked up at him lustfully; Camille was fully erect and squirming slightly as he looked back.  Bertrand wrapped his hand around the Octopid's erection and stroked him slowly, causing Camille's breath to quicken.  He spread his thighs farther apart and curled his leg tentacles around Bertrand's waist affectionately.

Bertrand was still afraid of doing something wrong, but he wanted desperately to please Camille.  He leaned forward and caressed Camille's thigh just above where the tentacles emerged, then put his mouth to the Octopid's erection.

"Cthulhu!" Camille swore, shuddering as Bertrand licked him tentatively.  "Y-you. . . you don't have to. . . ."

The note of lust evident in his voice was encouraging enough for Bertrand to look up at him with a little smile.  "Don't you want me to?"

"Fuck, yes," the Octopid gasped.

Bertrand drew his tongue over Camille's cock again, then took the head in his mouth and sucked on it slowly.  It felt extremely awkward, but Camille's whimpers of pleasure made it worthwhile.  He continued to pump the Octopid's shaft with one hand; he didn't think he could handle taking the whole thing in his mouth like Camille had.

Not yet, anyway, he thought with a blush.  But I'm going to learn. . . .

He sucked harder, teasing the flesh with his tongue as Camille put a tentacle to his hair, stroking it rapidly.

"Yes, suck me," he whimpered as he rubbed against Bertrand's tongue.  "That feels so good. . . . y-you're gonna make me come soon."

That promise made Bertrand suck all the harder, even taking another inch of Camille's erection into his mouth.  Camille grew more and more vocal, moaning things that made Bertrand blush all the more.  Finally, he felt the Octopid tense and clutch at his hair.

"I-I'm gonna come," Camille panted. "Bertrand--"  His cock throbbed in Bertrand's hand as he climaxed in the Coronid's mouth before Bertrand could move away.

The taste was surprising to Bertrand, bitter but strangely not unpleasant.  He lifted his head and swallowed as he continued to pump Camille, who finished coming on Bertrand's chest.  He sank back down into the water after he had finished, then tiredly lifted a tentacle to rinse off the blushing Coronid's chest.

"You. . . you're a lot kinkier than I ever expected," Camille finally said.  He curled his tentacles around Bertrand's shoulders and hugged him tightly.  Bertrand held the Octopid's slender body against him, stroking his wet hair.

"It's because you make me want to. . . to do things to you," Bertrand admitted.

"And I hope you'll want to do a lot more to me, too."  Camille finally stood on trembling tentacles and climbed out of the tub.  "But not tonight.  Believe it or not, you've actually worn me out."

After they dried off, they lay together in the room's large bed, Camille's back to Bertrand's chest and a tangle of tentacles about the Coronid's legs.  Camille's hair was still slightly damp, but Bertrand didn't care; nothing could detract from his joy at knowing the Octopid was really his.  He draped his arms across Camille and held him.

"Tell me about the house," Camille said abruptly, breaking the long silence that had grown between them.

"The house?"

"The house you'll give me," the Octopid whispered.  "Where will it be?"

"Wherever you want to live."  Bertrand tightened his arms about Camille, as if that would keep the Octopid close to him forever.  "You could stay on Crescentia, or. . . or live here, or move back to your homeworld. . . anywhere."

"Tell me more about it.  What'll it be like?"

"Well. . . ."  Bertrand was caught off guard; he had never really allowed himself to dream of a life with Camille, or of what he would give the Octopid if Camille would accept it.  Still, he found the question easy enough to answer; he knew what Camille would want.

"It would have a hot tub to start with, since you like those so much.  In a  large bathroom, I think-- but no shower, just the tub so you'd have an excuse to use it all the time.  Then your bedroom. . . it wouldn't be as big.  Not much in there except for a large bed."

"Mmm," said Camille.

"And that would have the best linens I could buy.  And then. . . ."  Although he wasn't typically imaginative, Bertrand was struck with inspiration.  "And then there would be a room-- a huge room-- with nothing but water, like a giant indoor pool.  Then you can swim whenever you want."  He paused, considering.  "Other than that. . . I guess a kitchen.  And a wet bar."

Camille shook with laugher.  "You know me pretty damn well, sugar."

"And I suppose that's all.  I don't think you'd want a lot of extra space."

Camille was silent a moment, then he murmured, "What about you?"

"What about me?"

There was another, longer silence, then Camille said tentatively, "What would you want in the house?"

Bertrand's pulse quickened at the implication: Camille did want to live with him.  "An office," he said as lightly as he could manage.  "I wouldn't want to work all the time from. . . from home, but it would be nice to have a desk."

"Yeah."  Camille placed an arm tentacle over Bertrand's hand, caressing it with his suckers.  "And then I could come bother you while you were working, and push all your stuff off the desk. . . and then we could make love on it."

Bertrand shivered.  "Which is why I can't work from home. . . I'd never get anything done."

Camille snickered wickedly.  "You'd get me done-- that's what matters."  He brought Bertrand's hand to his mouth and kissed it, then remained still.  Bertrand thought he'd fallen asleep until Camille suddenly shifted, rolling over to face him.  "Bertrand?"

"Yes?" Bertrand whispered.

"Why?  Why would you do all that for me?"

Bertrand's mind ran through a list of viable excuses in an instant, but then he looked down at the Octopid's pale face.  Camille had never looked so worried before, or so frightened.  Bertrand could tell him nothing but the truth.

"Because."  He couldn't make his voice rise above a hoarse whisper.  "Because I love you."

There was no change in Camille's face save for a slight widening of his green eyes.  "Say it again!" he hissed.

"Camille, I love you."

Camille closed his eyes, and after an instant, Bertrand saw tears edging his lashes.

"I love you too," the Octopid whispered.  He coiled his tentacles about Bertrand and clung to him, pressing his lips to the Coronid's neck.  "Promise me it'll come true-- we'll live together someday."

Bertrand was glad Camille couldn't see how stupidly he was smiling.  "We can live together starting tomorrow night if you want to.  We just won't tell Mrs. Ufford we're sleeping in the same room."

"I'm corrupting you," Camille mumbled against his neck as he curled up against the Coronid, his head pressed to Bertrand's chest.  Bertrand realized that sleeping with another person wasn't as comfortable as he'd thought it would be, but it was an inconvenience he was willing to overlook.  He kissed the top of Camille's head, then laid his cheek against his damp hair until he fell asleep.

 

Jim's mood was still bright when he awoke the next morning.  Silver was already up frying eggs for breakfast; Jim devoured several of them in the galley, hungry despite the previous night's large meal, and he narrowly missed spearing Morph with his fork at one point when the shapeshifter mimicked an egg.

After breakfast, Silver, Jim, and Morph went up to the deck where they found Bertrand and Camille waiting for them.  Bertrand seemed especially perky, although more rumpled than ever, but Camille was slumped drowsily against the mast, eyes closed.

"It's too early," he mumbled when Jim nudged him with the toe of his boot.

"Rough night?" Jim began to tease him, but he broke off when he spotted Claredon approaching across the dock.  "Hey, there's Reyn," he pointed out.

Camille's eyes flew open and he scrambled to stand on his tentacles.  "Come on then, let's blow this purp stand."  He and the rest of the crew followed Jim down the gang plank to meet Reyn.

"Lovely morning," Claredon greeted them, as smarmy as ever.  "Did you sleep well?"

"Excellently," Camille said in a rather facetious tone.  "Now, what about our money?"

Claredon chuckled.  "I'm going, I'm going.  I take it you haven't seen Palmer this morning?"

"No," Jim told him.  "Or Lyonette."

"They'd better be in there," Silver muttered.

"At this hour, I'm sure they are," Claredon placated him.  "I'll be back directly."  He mounted the steps and disappeared into the small office, leaving the crew members and Bertrand with nothing to do but wait.

Several minutes had passed before the door to the office opened.  They looked toward it expectantly, but Lyonette was the only one to emerge.

"Well, what's the deal, sprout?" Camille asked her when she had wandered over to them.

She cast a bewildered look up at him.  "I don't know.  Daddy just told me to go outside while he talked to Mr. Reyn."

Before anyone could respond, Jim saw Juste Bishop coming towards them from the city at a slight jog.  He arrived out of breath and brushing curly tendrils of light brown hair form his face.

"Did I miss anything?" he panted.  "Has Clare-- Reyn already talked to Palmer?"

Jim pointed at the office.  "He's in there now.  You think there's a story in this?"

Juste shrugged and looked slightly embarrassed.  "You never can tell."

"So where'd you two go off to last night?" Camille asked Juste teasingly.  At Jim's curious look, Camille explained, "When Bertrand and I went to bed, Juste here was about to take a romantic walk with Reyn."

Juste colored indignantly.  "I was not!  We just walked around the hotel's grounds."

"Did you make out?" Camille asked eagerly.

"Camille!" Jim scolded, although he was hiding a smile.

Camille pressed on, unperturbed.  "If you tell me what you did, I'll tell you what we--"

"You will not."  Bertrand clapped a hand over the Octopid's mouth, blushing as much as Juste.  Camille looked more pleased than ever and brought up a tentacle to caress the Coronid's hand.  Lyonette glared up at them jealously.

Claredon finally emerged from the harbormaster's office about ten minutes later.  He was carrying a sack that clanked promisingly, but the expression on his face concerned Jim.  He had never imagined that the man could look so serious.

"Lyonette, you can go back inside now," Claredon said to the girl, hardly looking at her.  She gave Camille one last belligerent stare before turning a more concerned look to Claredon.  He ignored her, and she finally trudged back to the office.

"Here."  Claredon handed the sack to Jim.  "Your wages in drubloons."

". . . thanks."  Jim studied him, then blurted out, "What's going on?  Why did he take so long to pay us?"

"It doesn't concern you," Claredon replied with some of his more familiar haughtiness.  Juste recognized it and narrowed his eyes.

"What do you mean, it doesn't concern us?" Jim snapped.  "We've been working ourselves to death for him with no pay."  He glanced at Silver and Camille for support and found their faces reflecting his feelings.  Encouraged, Jim went on, "I'm going in there to talk to him."

"No."  Claredon suddenly gripped Jim's shoulders with surprising strength in his wiry hands.  "Just let it go.  You've got your money-- and I won't ask you to come here again."

If they had been meant to placate Jim, those words only incensed him further.  "Let me go!" he snapped, trying to jerk free.

"No--" Claredon began, until Juste clapped his small hand over Claredon's larger one and plucked it off of Jim's shoulder.

"I was starting to change my mind about you," Juste hissed, his pale eyes blazing and every inch of his small form bristling.  "Whatever's going on, you can quit being a deceitful bastard for once-- or you can tell me I was wrong to give you a chance."

Claredon gave him a surprisingly unhappy look, then he lifted his hands in submission and stepped away.

"Fine."  He shook his head and sighed.  "Juste, I had no idea you could be such a tyrant, especially in a case where you can only make things worse."  Juste stared at him but looked down suddenly when Claredon muttered, "But you know I'd do anything for you."

Jim shoved the sack of drubloons at Camille, then stormed towards Palmer's office.  Silver followed him, not needing to ask if Jim wanted him to come: he already knew.

Jim marched up the steps and flung open the door.  Only Lyonette was before him, facing to the right and apparently in mid-whine.  She turned and glared at Jim and Silver indignantly when they entered the office.

"Hey, I told you that you can't--"  Jim ignored her, even as he thought, Poor kid.  She's always ignored.  He stepped past the open door and looked in the direction she had been facing.  To Jim's right stood a desk, and at that desk was Leland Palmer.  He half rose until he looked at Jim, then he sat down again heavily.

"Jim," he said flatly, with an air of resignation.

"How do you know--" Jim began, poised on the brink of a tirade until the harbormaster's individual features-- grey-streaked brown hair, dark eyes chiseled with lines, prominent chin-- clicked into place.  He had not recognized them at first, perhaps because they were more than a decade older than he remembered-- or perhaps because they were as familiar as his own face.

Jim took a step back, bumping into Silver, who stood just behind him.  The cyborg put his organic hand on Jim's arm to steady him, then apparently he felt Jim's trembling.

"What is it, lad?" Silver asked, his voice harsh with concern.

Ten seconds passed before Jim could speak.  "He's my father."

Jim heard Lyonette give a faint squeak, then fall mercifully silent.  Leland-- Palmer?  Hawkins?-- only continued to watch the other two men.  He looked exhausted, resigned: all things, Jim believed, he had no right to feel.  Both of Silver's hands shifted to rest on Jim's shoulders, protective and possessive, and Jim loved him more than ever before.

Leland seemed to be still waiting for the rant Jim had prepared to speak upon entering the office.  Jim hesitated, however; despite all he had ever imagined saying, he now wanted to say nothing at all.

Finally, Leland spoke, his voice exactly like the familiar rasp Jim remembered from his childhood.  "Jim, I'm--"

"Don't say you're sorry," Jim snarled, speaking without even intending to.  "You left us and came here and replaced us-- with some other woman and her--"

Leland stood then, leaning forward across the desk.  "Jim, you've done just fine without me-- better than you ever would if I'd been there."

It was far from what Jim had expected to hear-- not a half-witted apology or explanation, but almost a counter-accusation.  Leland glanced up at Silver, then back to Jim once more.

"And haven't you replaced me?"

Jim choked out a laugh of derision.  "You have no idea, Dad."  He felt trapped, even set up, as if everything he said would be wrong.  Because if I were a good person, I'd forgive him.  I asked forgiveness of Amelia, Mom, and Silver-- but I can't give it to him.  The thought only made him angrier at his father.  He pulled out of Silver's grasp and pushed past the cyborg to the door.  Jim was aware of no sound at all, of whether the other three called to him or not.

The others waiting outside stared at Jim as he stumbled past.  He thought Camille spoke, but he still heard nothing until he was on the deck of the ship, his back pressed to the mast and his chest heaving with the sturdy wooden column between him and the docks.  Silver must have emerged from the office, for Jim heard a shrill ". . . the hell's going on?" from Camille, answered by an indistinct rumbling from the cyborg.

Though he felt safer on his ship with the comforting solidity of the mast against him, Jim still wanted to escape: the tumult of guilt, fury, and betray would not cease until Seven was far behind him.

And not even then, a part of him thought.  You can put the whole galaxy between yourself and him, but it won't change things.  Nevertheless, he turned back to the docks and glared down at his crew and the Seveners.

"We're leaving," Jim said harshly.  "Come on."

He was amazed when the crew did not hesitate, only nodded and boarded the ship with Bertrand and Morph following them.  Claredon watched them, then turned his gaze up to Jim, looking surprisingly unhappy.

"I'm sorry," he called from the dock.  "I didn't know."

Jim knew it was the truth, but he was still angry, still felt that somehow, it was all Claredon's fault.

"Yeah," he said shortly.  Claredon frowned until Juste tentatively took his arm.  Apparently, Claredon was much more interested in Juste's forgiveness than in Jim's, for his frown immediately melted into a smile.  He pulled his arm from Juste's hand, then wrapped it around the reporter's waist.  Juste looked as if he had just received an electric shock.

Camille, Silver, and Jim set about their duties wordlessly as Bertrand watched them, and Morph, not sensing anything amiss, chittered and played in the rigging.  Jim kept his eyes on his work, not wanting to see the other three's faces looking at him with questions or with pity.  Finally, though, he had to raise his head when they were ready to set sail.  Claredon and Juste were gone from the dock, but in their place, appearing as if she had been conjured, stood Lyonette.

Jim wanted to scowl and dismiss her, but he could not look away from the blue-grey gaze that mirrored his own.  Instead, he found himself crossing the Revolution's deck to look down at her.  Her eyes, the color of her hair, even her nose-- all like his, only disguised by her gender and the features she had taken from her own mother, whoever that was.

But why should I have recognized her, he thought, when I never expected to have a sister?

"Are you really my brother?" Lyonette blurted out.  She might as well have been reading his thoughts.

He wanted to say no, to disown every cell of his father's blood and his own relationship to this immature, desperate, lonely little girl.

"Yes," Jim told her.  "Can't you tell?"

Her next words stunned him.  "Then can I come with you?"

"Oh Cthulhu," Camille groaned, breaking his unnaturally long silence.

"Why?" was all Jim could say.

"All he's ever talked about is how great you are," Lyonette charged.  "I don't believe him.  You have to prove it to me."  Jim felt as if he should say something like, "I don't have to prove anything to you"-- but he didn't want to.

"Not right now," he told her, then he turned back to his crew.  Lyonette stood there on the dock, staring belligerently at them even as Silver and Camille hoisted the anchor and the Revolution began to move.  Camille relented enough to wave a tentacle at her in a half-hearted farewell, but she barely moved her hand in response before looking at Jim once more.  Even though he did not speak to her again before the ship launched into the air, she was the last thing Jim saw of Seven, and the image of her stubborn, wounded face stayed before his eyes for much of the voyage home.

About three hours after taking off from Seven, Jim went below deck to his cabin, wanting to escape the infinite expanse of space for a while.  The others had not spoken to him about his father yet, but he felt certain their questions were coming.  How could he answer those when he had so many of his own?

When did he recognize me-- how soon did he know who I was?  How long did he plan to keep us on Seven without seeing me?  Can I really just run away and let that be the end of it?

What am I going to tell Mom?

He sat slumped on the edge of the bed he shared with Silver, staring at the hair that hung in front of his eyes.  Through the straight, dark strands, he saw the door to the cabin open slowly after he had been sitting there alone for some time.

"Lad?"  Silver's voice came quietly from the doorway.  "Ye want to talk, or should I leave ye be?"

Jim raised his head and saw the cyborg looking at him nervous but tender concern, the same look he'd given him sometimes on the Legacy.

"Don't leave."

Silver came and sat beside him on the bed.  "If it makes any difference. . . Reyn wasn't lyin' when he said he didn't know.  Yer. . . Palmer told me he was the one who suggested Reyn hire us.  Apparently Reyn mentioned yer name to him at some point as bein' the captain of Bertrand's crew, and he. . . got the idea."

"Mn."  Jim looked down again.  It didn't make a difference, not really.

"He wanted to see ye," Silver went on slowly.

"Maybe," muttered Jim, "but he didn't want me to see him.  He was going to keep us there stars know how long, watching me. . . watching us."  He glanced up at Silver.  "He thinks I replaced him with you.  But. . . you don't think that, do you?"

"No, of course not."  Silver gave him a faint, sympathetic smile.  "I know there ain't nothin' that can fix the place he left in yer life, or in yer mum's fer that matter.  I don't want to take his place anyway. . . I'm rather fond of the place I fill right now."

To his own amazement, Jim found himself smiling a little at that.  "So am I."

"Remember, Jimbo, you ain't got to do nothin' about him.  Nothin' at all.  Ye never have to say word one to any of us about it. . . or to yer mum.  And ye never have to see him again if ye don't want."

"I don't want," Jim said emphatically.

"I know ye don't now."  Silver put his organic hand on Jim's shoulder.  "But ye never know."

Jim narrowed his eyes.  "Oh, I know.  I don't ever want to be on the same planet as him again."  He was annoyed by the "I'm older, and I know better" expression on Silver's face, but he tried to ignore it since he knew Silver was trying to help.  "The only thing," Jim went on aloud, "is Lyonette.  She. . . I feel sorry for her.  I don't like her, but. . . well, it's not her fault.  She shouldn't have to know what he's really like."

Silver squeezed his shoulder and let it go.  "She's a stubborn lass; she can handle it.  In some ways, she's a lot like ye are."

"I was afraid of that," grumbled Jim.

The cyborg chuckled lightly.  "And I reckon yer father'll have a worse time of it than she will these next few days.  She won't let him rest, I'll wager, until she has every word of the truth out of him."

"Good."  Somehow Jim felt a little better knowing that his father would have to suffer punishment at the hands of at least one of his offspring, even if Lyonette was a strange avenging angel.

Silver stood and went back to the door.  "We'll be back to Crescentia in about four hours," he said over his shoulder.  "I'll call ye back on deck when it's time to land."

As the cyborg started through the door, Jim felt a rush of shame for how he was behaving.  What kind of captain am I, leaving my crew while I go sulk?

"Silver!" he called, leaping to his feet.  "Wait, I'm coming now."  When Silver turned and looked at him, surprised, Jim managed a real smile.  "This ship can't fly herself, now can she?"

Silver grinned back, then turned to Jim and cupped his face in his large hands.  "That's my lad."

"Silver. . . ."  Jim put his own hands over Silver's, one resting on flesh and one on metal.  "I love you."

Silver tilted Jim's head back, then bent his own and kissed him.  "I love ye too," he whispered.

"Yeeeee-uch!"  Both jumped and turned to the doorway, where they found Camille making fake gagging noises and pointing down his throat with a tentacle.  "I come down here to find out why you two are shirking your duties, and this is what I have to witness."

"Mind your own business, Tentacles!" Jim snickered.

"Don't call me Tentacles!"  Camille stuck his tongue out at Jim and started back up the stairs to the deck.  "Now come fly your damn ship so I can take a break and go make out with my boyfriend."

He did just that, sneaking up behind Bertrand and enveloping him in tentacles and kisses as soon as Jim and Silver were back on deck.  Bertrand gave a squawk which apparently delighted Morph, and the shapeshifter darted about cawing like a crow for most of the rest of the voyage.  In those happier hours that followed, Jim managed to relegate Leland Hawkins to the back of his mind, but he knew it wouldn't be for good.  His father was like a ghost once laid to rest, who had risen to haunt him all over again.

The End