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First Step in Forever

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Branden Kel-Paten sat in the center of an oasis of space in the Regalia's lively wardroom. It was neither meal break nor shift-change, so the separation wasn't as glaring as it could have been, but it was noticeable. And to be expected, he reminded himself.

Sass had known it would happen, had argued fiercely that they should have some of Kel-Paten's crew members if Admiral Edmonds planned to send them on a long and isolated weapons development tour.

"Ace, I worked with them. I know there are a lot of damn good officers in his crew, and you know I would have died without Eden on the Vaxxar with me." She'd squeezed Kel-Paten's hand below the pickup range of the camera in needless apology for her words. "At least let us bring Kel-Tyra."

Edmonds had shaken her head. "Sorry, Sass. No can do. We need a stable vortex generator developed yesterday, and none of the rest have a furzel to vouch that Psy-Serv hasn't left any unpleasant surprises." Her expression softened. "We'll get as many of them shipped out to you as we can, once they're cleared. In fact, Admiral, we're going to ask you to get us a list of who you want and in what roles as soon as possible."

Kel-Paten shook his head and snorted softly. All his life monitoring himself for Psy-Serv programming and he was the only one from his entire pre-Alliance world who could be certain he hadn't been reprogrammed. Yet another miracle from Lady Sass.

The slightest shift in the flow of people through the wardroom drew his attention to the door where Perrin Rembert was entering at the tail of a small group. Kel-Paten nodded a greeting, and Rembert raised a hand in a brief wave before he joined the line for the galley dispensers. Kel-Paten turned his attention back to his salad, which he really should finish so he could get back to his work. He speared a bite deliberately, ate it methodically, and blocked out the rest of the room.

So he nearly jumped when Rembert dropped his lunch onto the table. He was out of practice if he let himself be startled so easily.

Rembert nodded to his salad. "No work today?"

Kel-Paten offered a small smile. "I was told that Captain Sebastian would lock me out of my laboratory and Sass would dismember me if I continued to bring my work with me to every meal." The words Sass had actually used had been 'keep hiding behind work', but Rembert could read between those lines perfectly well, and Kel-Paten did have his pride. "It would take a braver man than me to defy her."

Rembert snorted a laugh. "Don't think you'll find a man that brave anywhere on this ship. Hell, there’s probably not one anywhere in this quadrant." Kel-Paten inclined his head in agreement, and they ate in silence for a few moments before Rembert broke it again. "Not to risk the wrath of the captain, but what made you start studying vortex travel? You mentioned you'd been working on it even before the current mess."

Kel-Paten nearly frowned before he remembered that his version of the expression probably wasn't suitable for a lunchtime conversation. Rembert had had ample opportunity to inquire about Kel-Paten's lines of reasoning in the laboratory as they went through the assumptions and calculations underlying the primitive vortex generator, hammering them into clarity for the U-Cee experimental base that they were traveling to meet. Why should he ask now, away from their fellow researchers and their notes and memo pads?

He paused, replayed the words. 'What made you start' wasn't a technical question, and Rembert was just as good a science officer as Sass had said, back on the Vaxxar, when Kel-Paten had been too wary to see the U-Cee officers she'd brought with her as anything but threats. Rembert therefore must not be seeking a technical answer. The dual realization came to Kel-Paten that he had been silent far too long and that Rembert was asking about his interests, as though he were a normal person. It was an odd thought.

"McAbian residue," he answered finally. "It seems somewhere between true radiation and physical residue. Levels detectable with standard instrumentation only appear with vortices, but the residue appears in any number of places that have nothing to do with space." Rembert seemed interested, so Kel-Paten shrugged minutely and continued. "I've always been interested in unusual forms of energy," and there was the expected flicker of eyes focusing on Kel-Paten's eyes as objects rather than a part of him, followed by Rembert's unexpected return to an ordinary conversational focus, "so I chose to pursue it." He paused. "The first time I ever hiked was with one of the scientists monitoring the flow of molecules with McAbian residue attached in the air." The memory was an amusing one, though shadowed by his ignorance over what had since happened to that other scientist.

Rembert's lips quirked. "Well, clearly there's something interesting about that. You can't stop there."

The smile Kel-Paten felt on his lips this time wasn't deliberate. "Before I was permitted to accompany him, I had to wash in a solution of his making, dry off with towels that were then donated to another project, and then wash again in purified water and dry with fresh towels, and wear fresh clothing of his choosing. He would come nowhere near me until I did. I had been through enough vortices to," he mimicked the frustrated researcher's tone, "absolutely ruin his data, you see."

Rembert stared at him for a moment, then laughed aloud. "And just who did he expect to have an interest in McAbian residue?"

Kel-Paten raised his hands briefly, palms upright and bare of answers. "I believe he vastly preferred the ministers who read his reports and avoided his experimental apparatus."

Rembert leaned in and asked, eyes dancing, "Did you ever brave the hassle to go back again?"

As Kel-Paten replied he reflected that perhaps Sass had made a good point when she forbade research notes outside the lab.

---

Sass laughed as she tripped Kel-Paten onto their bunk and he let her do it. "Coordinated rest shifts and nowhere to be!" She frowned ferociously. "Unless you've scheduled any play dates without telling me?"

Branden's pale eyes gleamed with ordinary happiness. Happiness that looked extraordinarily good on him, she thought for the millionth time since they'd arrived at the research station three days out of HQ Varlow with the bland official designation of WD4190. She had watched Remy introduce Kel-Paten to the scientists with a hard smile on his face that dared them to treat him with any hint of disdain and seen a number of people swallow hard--at Remy, rather than Kel-Paten. No one had taken his dare.

Now, she resolved as she climbed on top of him, she would have her cake and eat it, too. Branden having friends and getting along with his coworkers didn't mean she couldn't have him all to herself sometimes.

"Well?" she demanded. "No play dates?"

He actually grinned, a broad, happy expression. "Only with you."

She had to bend and kiss him for that. He kissed back, hard and satisfying. "Way too long," she mumbled against his mouth, and felt the rumble of his agreement under her palms.

The comm chimed.

Sass groaned and rolled off of him. "Right. Next time we have a free shift, we are taking it off of the Regalia." The chime was ordinary-priority with no alarms, so it wasn't anything ship-threatening. But it wasn't low priority, either, so she did have to answer.

"No room in the schedule this time," Branden said mildly. "We did think about it."

"I know." Sass dragged herself up and hit the acknowledge button, audio-only, just as the comm chimed again.

"Captain," Lieutenant Lucari said, "message from Admiral Edmonds."

Sass breathed deeply and tried to keep her exhale even enough to avoid broadcasting her frustration. From the comforting brush of Branden's hand against her back, she hadn't entirely succeeded, but hopefully her irritation hadn't been transmitted through the audio pickup. "Give me sixty seconds and I'll take it in my main cabin," she said.

Once Lucari murmured her acknowledgement, Sass thumbed the quarters comm off and finger-combed her hair into submission. Branden similarly picked himself up off the bed, and they both straightened their clothes in the few seconds it took to reach the main part of the cabin. Not even clothes off, she thought mournfully.

She tapped the deep-space link and didn't give Ace Edmonds time to do more than open her mouth. "Your timing sucks."

Ace grinned. "Well, I could have let you be blindsided in about," she looked ostentatiously at an offscreen clock, "four hours, give or take a couple, but I figured you might like to know."

Sass stared hard, but Ace just waited. Gods only knew how an admiral could afford to spend time tweaking a captain's tail, but Ace was going to wait for her to ask, and Sass couldn't exactly hang up on her. "Fine," she sighed, "I'll bite. What is it?"

"The docs finished with Ralland Kel-Tyra three days ago and we got him dumped on a ship with a couple of your other requested personnel: Dona Kel-Maden and Logan Kel-Fora. I'm afraid Timm Kel-Faray is still in rehab."

Sass shot a glance at Branden, who looked completely blank, as though he didn't quite understand what was being said. She looked back at the screen, where Ace was looking knowing, even though there was no way she could see Kel-Paten herself.

"They commed confirmation that they were approaching their last jumpgate a couple hours ago, so they should reach you very soon. I'll let you wrap up," she paused for half a breath, "whatever you were doing so you can make plans to greet them. Good talking to you."

Sass smiled back at her quickly. "Good talk," she agreed. "We'll have to try a longer one where you aren't springing anything on me, but thanks."

Ace waved slightly before the screen blanked, and Sass turned to Branden. He blinked once at the U-Cee logo before a sort of stunned joy broke over his face. "They cleared him."

Sass nodded. "Made good time, too." She sidled closer, and he took the hint and hugged her.

"We've made so much progress," he murmured into her hair, "and I'll get to update him on all of it." He squeezed her quickly. "And it will be my turn to threaten everyone I know and work with if they don't welcome him properly."

Sass sputtered just a little. She finally settled on, "I'm sure he'll appreciate it."

Branden half-laughed and when he spoke his voice was dry. "I almost wish she'd let him surprise us. Rall would understand and now I'm not sure what to do with the hours until they arrive."

Sass grinned wickedly. "We have two hours at least. Give me fifteen minutes to fire off some preparatory orders. We'll need half an hour to make ourselves presentable, but there's a lot we can do with over an hour."

Branden smiled slowly back at her. "I will leave you to it, then," he said, low and liquid, "and get started on my own," he paused, "preparations." He kissed her once before sauntering back towards her sleeping cabin and stripping off his shirt, just to make sure subtlety was not at all on the menu. Sass gave herself a moment to watch appreciatively before she turned and jabbed her comm. Maybe she could finish those preliminary orders in ten minutes.