Personal journal. Day after yesterday’s entry. I must be getting lazy. That or I’m sick and tired of keeping track of time.

We’re making a deviation in our course back to Veloria. I’m sure T’zran hired guns to come after us, but I can’t understand why he’s gone that far for revenge… All I did was best him in a competition. A stupid little tournament, and he wasn’t even a council member at that point… Maybe it was for embarrassing him in front of his fiancé? Doesn’t matter - if someone has a problem with me, they’d best take it up with me. When they endanger my friends and family, the gloves come off.

It will take about a day and a half more to get to Donami… Maybe a little less. From there, I should be able to catch Khristofer before he leaves. He always goes to Council sessions by way of the big spaceliners. I know there’s enough shuttle bay space in any one of those things to hold six of this ship, side by side, plus their usual fare of parking. The only problem is getting in there if he won’t help. Could always let Bee hack their systems… TBIA-EDIT: I don’t hack. The term itself, ‘hacking,’ has no grace. What I do is like… a delicate surgery procedure. I’m the scalpel to a normal hacker’s blunt club.

Well, we can burn that bridge when we come to it. What’s getting to me at this point is Tarioshi… She’s made it painfully obvious that she’s trying to catch my attention in a personal context. I don’t know why I listened to Bee last night. It didn’t help the situation to let her wake up next to what she’s trying to catch. Avoided her all day. I just can’t shake the warning my mind has posted, and I’m lost for how to tell her… I think I’ll sleep on it all, figure something out in the morning.

Jadyn sat quietly in the cockpit, watching the points of starlight passing outside the ship. The low hum of the air recycling system was the only noise around him, even above his own slow breathing. Indicators blinked and shifted around on the consoles around him, mindlessly reporting the various statuses that each system passed along.

A touch of ozone reached his nose and he looked over his shoulder. The AI’s avatar was leaning on the door, watching him.

“Yo,” she volunteered.

“I’d ask if you’d been there long, but it’s a rhetorical question. You’re everywhere.”

T’bia smiled lightly, sitting across from him. “Want to talk about it?”

He glanced out the forward viewport again, letting out a slow sigh. “I don’t know.”

“Is it about her, or about…”

“That’s what I don’t know. Too many concerns to sort through all at once…” He stared at his hands, patting them together as he let his mind work. “I’m concerned why Ceth would try to have us blown out of existence. I’m concerned that I’m going to hurt Tari when I tell her what that damn flag is doing in my head. I’m still concerned that I made a mistake and should have just left her back there on Terra…”

T’bia gently took his hands, holding them together. “One. You can’t know what that feldaran is thinking. I can’t even fathom a reasonable guess as to why something so insignificant would set him off like this. There has got to be something else going on that we don’t know about. Two. You’ve now avoided Tari for two days. I managed to keep her distracted today with a ship’s systems primer, but this really isn’t my responsibility to maintain or resolve. You’re hurting her by staying at arm’s length, and you’re hurting yourself more trying to keep her there. You’ve been doing the same damn thing for the last two hundred years. I really think you need to try and open up completely to someone who isn’t me for a change.”

“I’ve told plenty of -“

“I don’t mean just telling a few friends some random stuff about the past before changing the subject. I mean, you need to let someone in to your life. Sure, you have friends that you trust - you never let them get close emotionally. Even the ones you’ve slept with. The question of leaving her behind is history. You brought her here. Now, whether it was because you liked what you saw or because you didn’t want to leave her injured in the cold, I don’t know. I’d lean to your thinking both, myself.”

He smirked, shaking his head. “I think I should add a concern to that list that you know me too well.”

“It’s obvious that you like her. I’ve told her as much in the last few days, adding the caveat that you might be a little hesitant because of being focused on figuring out the attack. She’s intelligent and as sharp as a pin, she’s open to change, she’s very interested in you, and she’s a beautiful lady both outside and in. I have the medical scans to prove that. Explain what’s going on in your head at the very least. She absolutely needs to know before she does get hurt.”

Jadyn gazed into the skunk’s violet eyes, then dropped his head down. “I’ll think about it.”

“That’s all I can ask… For now.” She let go of his hands, standing up slowly. “I did some more analysis of that last blast that snuck through the shields. Our happy rewiring job saved our asses.”

“How so?”

“Near as I can tell, had we been fully stock, we’d be dead in space. That blast was tailored specifically to disable us. I’d be offline along with Aerin and every single terminal and console from bow to aft. If you really worked at it and had two or three of the Kshorah smiling upon you, you might have been able to restore power after a week with the help of my backup copy. And that’d just be life support.”

“Makes no sense… There’s just no way they could have known how to do that.”

“Yeah. We were lucky, though. The surges got tripped up in the inorganic power relays and were mostly burnt off into EMI. On the downside, we’re down to forty-seven percent power efficiency across the relays. I can increase the flow to compensate, but we already know how this drill is going to end. Everything is getting ripped and rebuilt when we get home. Toy’s the first person on my contact list.” A console chimed; T’bia glanced over and nodded to herself. “We’ll be in the Donami system in ten minutes, another five to get to the homeworld. You ready for company or are you going down?”

“Safer to bring Khris here. He’s probably in his office, but tap their systems and find out, if you’d be so kind…”

“Will do. What are you going to tell him?”

“What we know.”

A lone figure stared outside through the window of an eightieth-story Council office, looking over the capitol city of Haran. Streetlights on various stores, cineplexes, arenas, and hotels blinked and flicked far below, all trying to draw some part of the population inside. Hovertrams in the sky far above shuffled people from place to place, some going home, others going to work, and still others just going in circles. Past them, on the tops of buildings far above, the planet’s great Parks sat neatly on top of the city, replacing nature back to its rightful pristine state - though far above where it used to preside.

The Council was to meet in two weeks time on the dedicated space station in Velorian territory, Terac Lun. He really wasn’t sure he wanted to go. He didn’t need to go. Why risk it? He fingered the data crystal on his desk idly, smiling to himself.

No one had found him out.

He sighed, spinning around in his chair a couple of times, entertaining the idea that if he made himself sick he might be able to weasel his way out of ‘his’ obligation. On the third revolution the room blurred in a green haze, quickly shifting to a transporter room on an unfamiliar ship.

He stopped abruptly, looking around at the greenish-black walls. “What in the name of… What’s going on?”

A hand squeezed his left shoulder and he turned to look at it. Four digits, dark blue fur, a single silver ring adorning the middle finger. He followed the arm up to its owner, the face immediately clicking in his head. The surprise was genuine, though in retrospect he was certain it would be misinterpreted.

“What…? What are you doing here?”

“We need to talk, Khris.” The raccoon stared at the fox’s face, seeing the concerned look in his eyes. “There is a leak in the Council.”

Jadyn stared at the cup of tea in his hands, shaking his head. “That’s all I know. I can’t prove it, but I know it’s him.”

The raccoon nodded. “I can understand the reasoning. There just doesn’t seem to be any solid proof. If we could get a communications log from his office, we might have something. Otherwise it’s a generally respected Captain’s word against a generally respected Councilor’s.”

“I don’t know if he’s smart enough to erase the logs or not. In light of everything that’s happened in the last week, I don’t think I’ve given him enough credit in the past.” Jadyn took a drink of his mint tea, then set it down on the common room table. “There is no way to check the pirate ships for logs - I know I can’t even have meaningful scans done on the dust that’s left of them. What I really wanted to ask of you was if we could get a lift back to Veloria. You are going via the Tamar when it leaves in a few hours, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I have a reservation. It’s easier to take one of the spaceliners than having my own shuttle and keeping a maintenance crew to keep it up and running all the time. Cheaper too, as little as I travel. I think your ship will just fit in a private bay… You want me to have them lock down the area?”

“It would be best if we did that. Just tell them you’re bringing aboard classified cargo on Council authority. Non-hazardous, non-toxic, just classified… If T’zran reports me as dead we’ll know it was him. No one was left to report my lack of being blown to bits because they went up too. He probably didn’t have to pay them that way.”

Khris nodded and stood up. “I hope my assistant didn’t come looking for me. They’ll be searching my office by now.”

“I left a note in your place saying you’d be back in a half hour. You’ve still got five minutes.”

The raccoon smiled. “You are far too good at kidnapping, my friend. I’ll see to it immediately that the Tamar has room for you.”

“Tap this twice when you’re ready and I’ll pull in under cloak.” He tossed a small commlink to Khris. “Aerin, send Khris back to his office. With his chair, please.”

The transporter cycle ran and the raccoon disappeared from the common room. Jadyn leaned back in his chair and stared at the ceiling for a moment in thought.

“You sure you can trust him?”

“I’ve known him for forty-three years, Tari. If it was him, I’d know.”

The Kitsune dropped her invisibility and sat down next to him. “Is your life always this complicated?”

“No… Sometimes it’s worse. Come on. I’ve got to get changed.”

Tarioshi sat patiently on Jadyn’s bed, waiting for him to come out of his bathroom. “What are you doing in there, anyway?”

“You’ll see.”

She sighed, watching the planet floating outside the window. It was strange, seeing a populated world that wasn’t Earth hanging against the black backdrop of space, but still intriguing. The shadow of night covered most of the planet’s face, various city lights twinkling over the dark surface. “What was this place again?”

“Donami,” Jadyn replied.

“Aren’t there any oceans?”

“Yeah, but the part in the light is probably small enough that it’s all land. A lot of their fresh water supply is underground. There’ve been horrible environmental problems here… They cleared so much of the vegetation that people began to suffocate. Not enough plants to process the carbon dioxide back to oxygen… They’ve pretty much moved nature to the top of most cities now. Huge forests over every town… If we had more time I’d show you around.”

“Are all the Donami… raccoons?”

“Their race is called ‘Lotoran,’ but yes.”

“So that’s felines, raccoons, and foxes so far -“

T’bia coughed politely from nowhere at all.

“And skunks. Sorry.”

No prob.

“What else makes up the galaxy?”

The quiet tink of a glass jar being placed on a counter drifted from inside the bath. “Oh, let’s see. Some lizard-like species, wolves, rabbits, bears, ‘taurs of a handful of mammalian races, some avians… a few marine species… There’s one, a race of dolphins… They look exactly like those of Terra but they’re dry skinned and get around in the air using telekinetics.”


“Yeah. Mind over matter stuff. Freaks a lot of people out. Even some of the more conventional land mammals have winged variants, though. Makes me wonder if this galaxy isn’t just someone’s science project.” The door opened and Jadyn stepped out, his fur glossy and black. His hair remained silver-gray, as did his eyes, but those were the only parts of his image that had been kept the same. The coloring looked completely natural - not wet, not clumped together with colorant. Tari stood up, staring at him.

“What did you do?”

“It’s special dye for fur. Blue isn’t common at all - I’d stand out like… like… Well, like a blue fox, and I’m the only one I know of within a thousand lightyears of here. Black’s the easiest color for me to change to that is common enough to be ignored. I hate bleaching my pelt. Besides, if I’m going to show you around a spaceliner, black nicely contrasts your white.” He pirouetted around slowly. “Did I miss anywhere?”

“No, you look fine… I could almost not recognize you.”

“Let’s hope that other folks miss the ‘almost’ qualifier on that.” He smiled and picked up a silken pair of pants, colored vividly with oranges and blues. The pattern swirled around itself, not actually moving but seeming to dance across the cloth. After pulling on the pants and buttoning them he took a matching vest and pulled it on. The front flap fused with the other side when he touched them together, giving the whole thing a seamless look. The final piece was some sort of emblem he put over his left breast.

“Wow… That’d even look good on you normally, Jay.”

“Thanks.” He smiled, adjusting the pants around his tail and checking himself in the mirror.

“Pardon if this is obvious, but… What keeps the pants up? With your build, they should fall down around your ankles after a couple of steps.”

“Technology. The waistband does a sort of velcro and static-cling thing. Otherwise, I’d need suspenders. A lot of uniforms are full-body for that very reason, all the support for the pants comes from the shoulders. Standard ship uniforms are even more novel, they’re self-fitting.”

“Like that workout outfit, then.” When she’d first put on a jumpsuit during her workouts, it was baggy and too large for her frame. The seam in the back was self-sealing after the collar was closed. A little twisting to keep her fur out of the way and it closed right up. T’bia had then pointed her to a small bulge in the collar; after pinching it, the entire outfit contracted to form-fitting perfection. “Wonder if I should change…”

He looked her over through the reflection, then shook his head. “That blue silk robe looks good on you. The dragon is an interesting touch as well… Beauteous, I must say, as well as unique.”

She flushed lightly. “Thanks.”

Sorry to interrupt,” T’bia cut in, “but that homing signal you gave Khris has been activated. Shall I take us into the bay?

“Yeah, Bee. After the engine shutdown, transport us out.”

Tari saw the planet shift outside the window as a large wall came into view. Unfamiliar symbols and letters moved past before the ship thumped quietly against a solid surface.

Have fun on your tour. I’ll find something to do. Maybe I’ll burn out a couple of those in-ear UT’s for Tari’s sake.

The transporter beam grabbed them; Tari found herself standing in some sort of hangar. The Serin was nowhere in sight. Only a large open area with some sort of electronically-generated fence hinted at the location. The acidic twinge of bile crept up her throat; she swallowed it back and leaned on Jadyn’s arm for balance.

“You okay?”

“Not as bad as the first go, at least.” She took a deep breath and rolled her shoulders. “It gets easier?”

“Some people never get used to it. Others look forward to every time they travel by transporter. I think some folks get off on it.”

“Mm. I think I’m happier having my molecules in one piece. That where the ship is?”

“Yup. She’ll stay cloaked for the duration. I don’t want word getting out that we survived.”

“So… Why isn’t T’bia coming with?”

“Oh, she could if she wanted. There’s other stuff she wants to get done. She may still sneak out while we’re out and about, too.”

He smiled, offering his arm. They crossed the bay to where the lotoran - Khris, she remembered - was waiting. He looked at Tari curiously; Jadyn spoke briefly in a language she couldn’t comprehend. Her name was among the jumble of words - an introduction. Jadyn switched back to English for her. “Tari, this is Khristofer Galan, the Aligned Council representative for Donami.”

Khris offered his hand and Tari shook it firmly. He spoke with Jadyn for another minute before giving back the transmitter and leaving them in the bay.

“Don’t you have any of those universal translator things?”

“Not that are set up for any Terran language.” He shrugged and led her out of the shuttle bay. “Aerin provides that service ship-wide on the Serin, but throughout the Alliance there isn’t a need for your dialects since you haven’t been formally contacted. The temporary models that we have back on the ship for portable use… They’re nearly hard-wired and it takes some time to reprogram them. That’s what Bee was going to try to work on.”

A pair of guards saluted him in the corridor; he returned the gesture and spoke something to them. They nodded quickly; one made a comment and they all laughed. Tari frowned, looking up at Jadyn again.

“They promised not to shoot you.” He smiled, said a few more things, pressed his palm against some sort of tablet, then led her off along the corridor.

“Would they normally be there?”

“No. Khris or any other Councilor says something coming in is to be classified and things get locked down pretty quick. No one can get by that point unless they check in first - it’s the only way into the bay.”

“And how did you get your checkpoint clearing abilities?”

He stopped in front of a door, touching a light on the wall. “I hold the rank of Captain in the Aligned fleet. Officially, I’m listed as retired with honors. Since I’m still doing work for the Council on the side, I have some extra lean and a security clearance that gets me places I’d rather not know exist.”

“But you’re incognito and supposed to be hiding. How did they know who you were?”

“They didn’t. The palmprint pad only reveals an ‘allow’ or ‘deny’ to the guards, and this emblem is a rank symbol.” He touched the item he had placed on his chest, smiling lightly. Tari glanced over her shoulder, noticing the two guards had something similar.

“Okay… Won’t the pad… check in somewhere? To scan you in or out?”

“I know this lady who proclaims she’s an expert on most things technological. Trust me, we’re covered there too. There was a small emblem in the corner that told me she’d already commandeered the device.”

A chime sounded and the doors parted with a gentle hiss. Jadyn moved inside, waiting for Tari to join him. She looked around carefully at the interior as she entered; it seemed like an elevator of some sort. Several lights decorated a panel near the wall; she guessed that it was a list of destinations. The doors shut quickly behind them as Jadyn poked one of the lights.

“Onward to the Laitu Promenod,” he spoke. Tari felt the floor move slightly underneath her. Lights blinked by transparent panels in the wall, moving from bottom to top as their room dropped with increasing speed.

“A speedy elevator?”

“Kind of… Goes laterally as well.”

She shook her head. “Just how big is this place to warrant an elevator?”

Jadyn grinned. “Think of a really, really big cruise liner, with permanent residences as well as hotel space and multiple commercial sectors. The best way to picture it is a city of two hundred thousand that can travel through space. Other than refuel stops, it’s almost completely self-sustaining.”

Without warning the lift slowed and started moving sideways. It dropped a few more floors after that before coming to a stop. The doors opened once more and the incognito blue fox led Tari out into what sounded like a shopping mall. It took her eyes a few seconds to get used to the brighter lighting; her gaping at the scene didn’t help.

Creatures of every shape, size, species, and color milled about on their deck and the deck below them, some shopping, others just looking around and enjoying themselves. Various stores lined the lower deck while the level they stood on had a railing where one could simply stand and watch if one so desired. She glanced up, noticing there were a few more levels above them, but only on the one side of the area.

“This feels like the Mall of America…”

“Yeah, a little bit, now that you mention it. That was an interesting place to spend a day.” He leaned on the rail, looking down at the crowd. “The carnival is in a separate section of the ship, though. They run it in a holoarena so they can manipulate the rides at will.”

Large windows across from their level and above showed the scene outside: the void of space had been changed from the starry black to some sort of plasma storm. Red clouds swirled, occasionally releasing yellow bolts of energy from one to the next. Where there wasn’t red, there was only the darkness of a starless void.

“Is that dangerous out there?”

Jadyn looked where she was pointing, patting her arm lightly. “Like I said, some races have found other ways past the light barrier. This vessel uses a hyperspace window, dropping the ship into another level of reality to quickly cross the distance. There’ll be multiple stops in normal space to adjust trajectory and relay communications traffic, but other than that it’ll be a smooth ride.”

“Oh, of course. I knew that.” She giggled, shaking her head lightly. “I just can’t imagine it - you grew up with this kind of thing?”

“Yeah. I’ve always wondered what it’s like for someone like yourself, seeing all this for the first time.”

“It’s flooring. I mean, not counting the technology, I never dreamt that other intelligent races would be so similar to creatures on Earth. Hell, I didn’t even think there was anything out here.” She scanned the crowd below them curiously. Bears, foxes, wolves, cats, raccoons, rabbits… all sorts of familiar creatures in humanoid varieties. Even a few snake-people were slithering around. She tapped him lightly on the arm and discreetly pointed at some sort of bipedal winged reptilian on their level, wanting to confirm her suspicions. “Whazzat?”

“Eh? Where?” He followed her finger, smiling when he spied her target. “Drekiran. I think from your mythology they’re comparable to dragons, only with a better disposition. Actually… Damn. I think I know her. Come along?”

“I’m sure not staying behind in this crowd. I’d get lost.”

“I’d just ask where the pretty two-tailed white vixen went. You’re getting more looks than you might notice. Might start a new fashion trend with the pair of tails.”

She smiled, enjoying the compliment, walking close to him as they picked their way through the crowd. Jadyn slowed as they got closer to their target, then nodded affirmatively.

“I’ll be… It really is her. What’s she doing out this way? Pakar!”

The drekiran’s head snapped up from the railing, looking around before seeing the fox. She smiled broadly after a moment of confused study, jogging over to him. They traded a few words then hugged each other. Her wings encircled them both, effectively giving them a bit of privacy in the busy area.

Tari had thought Jadyn was tall, but the dragon lady had an extra foot and a half on him at the least. She was quite pretty - tiny emerald green scales covered her body and wings, reflecting the light as though she was in some sort of chainmail armor. Tight denim-like shorts and a halter-top made to fit around her wings were her only dress, both garments as black as the view outside the ship. A long reptilian tail stretched out behind her and curled back to her taloned digitigrade feet, easily as long as she was tall.

She folded her wings back carefully, stepping slightly away from Jadyn with a grin on her face. Jadyn’s ears were clearly red and he had a rather silly look on his muzzle. He seemed flustered as he introduced Tari; the drekiran made a comment that didn’t seem to help his composure.

“Tari, this is Pakar Tubor, Councilor of Drekira. Another good friend of mine…”

“You seem to know a lot of people in high places,” she commented, returning the handshake the drekiran offered.

“It’s nice to have someone to fly with when you get up there.” He grinned, leaving Tari to wonder what he meant by the comment, then turned his conversation back to Pakar for a little while. Tari listened carefully, straining for any comprehension in what was being said, but their language style was too fast paced to grasp. It was far different from what he had spoken with the lotoran; there were more hisses and clicks that sounded serpentine in nature. She silently scolded herself for not taking the time to learn a translation spell from her mentors back in the Courts. At the time, it wasn’t necessary. Japanese and English were all she’d needed to know.

As the dragoness and fox spoke, her mood grew visibly agitated. Her tail lashed, nearly tripping a few bystanders; steam - or was it smoke? It reeked of sulfur - puffed out of her nostrils. Even her skin… scales… Her flesh coloring darkened to a deeper shade of green. She spoke a phrase very softly; Jadyn replied to it, and the dragoness stormed off into the crowd.

“What was that about?”

“She’s got as much distaste for Councilor T’zran as I do. She agreed to come talk about it later on the Serin. It’s probably the most secure place on this craft right now.”

“Aren’t you worried that someone else may have overheard you?”

“I had soundproof wards set while we spoke. You were within the radius.”

“That’s why she was standing so close?”

“That and she thinks of me as her personal plush toy.” He offered his arm again. “Care to have dinner with me, ma’am?”

She smiled, taking hold of his arm. “Can’t think of anyone I’d rather dine with, good sir.”

“If you thought for a little while, you might just be able to.” He grinned, leading her off into the crowd to one of the restaurants with a large view of the area. They chatted quietly about things on the ship, what various species were as they walked by, other questions that came up about space travel. Tari seemed to enjoy the non-Terran food, but had some trouble figuring out how to eat some of the more exotic dishes placed before them.

They wandered around for a time after eating, looking through stores and watching others having a good time. Finally, they made their way to a lift and up to one of the sections of temporary rooming. Jadyn tapped in the key code for their provided quarters, allowing Tari inside first. “We can either stay here or back on the ship. I don’t mind either way, really. There’s a bit more room here.”

Tari walked through the suite, studying everything in sight. Jadyn stood back and watched her curiosity unfold, smiling lightly to himself.

“You have a talent for understatement. Much roomier than the Serin, indeed… What the… Is that a bathtub or an olympic pool?”

“Did they put a diving board on it?” He padded to where she was standing, glancing in the adjoining room and seeing the twelve-foot-wide tub she was speaking of. “Wow, that is big. It’s a whirlpool bathtub, especially made for those of us with fur… I think they’ve got similar things on Earth, don’t they?”

“Yeah, minus the fur compatibility. I keep thinking that a space ship should be tight on space.”

“So did a lot of people, at first. Later on they realized they weren’t comfortable and designed ships like these. These companies are in it for the profit, even in our ‘advanced’ societies, and people ride less if they aren’t comfortable. They make double from having all those stores here as well. Rental property, plus a commission on sales.”

Tari nodded, glancing up at him. “I’m afraid to ask if this is a small room or not.”

“This is a fairly normal suite size for couples, as I remember. Maybe a touch on the larger size, but they have to work for a wide range of species. There are smaller singles, though, and much larger suites for honeymooners and dignitaries like Councilors. The ship is about two hundred and fifty decks tall, probably over four kilometers long, though T’bia would likely correct me on the conversion I’m making in my head.”

She nodded, opening another door and looking inside. “There’s only one bed…”

“We can have another one sent up -“

“No!” she said, a little too quickly, then added, “I mean, we haven’t had any problem the times we’ve shared one so far.”

“That’s been once.”

“Still, there wasn’t a problem.” She smiled at him, then walked back over to the bathroom. “I think I’m going to try out that tub.”

“I’ve got to meet Pakar in the shuttle bay in ten minutes… You going to be all right staying here for a bit?”

“I’ll be fine. Have fun.”

He nodded, leaving the room and locking the door behind him with a new code. The time it took to get to the shuttle area on the lift gave him a chance to think. He wasn’t going to be able to keep his distance from the kitsune forever, regardless of what his senses were telling him to do. T’bia was right - he shouldn’t try to kill off his own feelings… It just seemed to be the easiest way to avoid the situations. Especially with the apparently drunken alarm that kept going off in the back of his mind.

The drekiran was waiting by the entrance when he arrived, extremely upset. “J.T.! I was beginning to wonder… These two clowns won’t let me in.”

“Funny, they aren’t dressed like clowns… Are you a clown, lieutenant?”

The puma who’d promised not to shoot Tari saluted him sharply. “Not today, sir!”

“See, Pakar? He’s not a clown.” He looked at the guard closer, recognizing him from another tour of duty. The puma had been an ensign at the time. “When was the last time you were a clown?”

“Three weeks ago for my son’s birthday, sir.” He smiled, a knowing gleam in his eye. “I’ve got the suit on board, if it would please the Councilor.”

“Not necessary,” Jadyn replied. “Have Councilor Galan join us as soon as he can, if you would. I doubt he’s far off.”

The guard nodded and held out the handprint scanner for the drekiran. She snorted as it chimed softly and logged her entrance. Jadyn logged himself through as well. Pakar chuckled to herself as she walked into the shuttle bay. “The things I do for peace. I swear, you might have more pull than the Council does.”

“Hardly. Khristofer had them posted there.”

“Well, that’s a relief. I thought I might be out a job. At least you’d be a cuddleable ruler.”

“Why thank you, you scaly subservient serpentine… Hrm, ran out of polite ‘s’ words.”

She stuck out her tongue, walking with the grace of a dancer towards the fencing. “Black is a nice color for you, by the way. Almost didn’t realize it was you.”

“That’s sort of the idea.”

“It works. Should we wait for Khris?”

“Doubt he’ll be long -“

The doors opened behind them. “Hello, wait for me… Pakar? Good to see you!”

“Been a while, Khris.” Pakar pirouetted smoothly on her toes, her tail curling around herself like a hula-hoop. “If only I had some music.”

Jadyn chuckled. “Plays better inside. We can have a good old bash. Litter the floors, get drunk… Well, you two can get drunk, anyway. I just end up awake for a week. What’s it like, being drunk?”

“Ask a cup of coffee,” Pakar commented. “Now, if you question me about being eaten, I’m an expert.”

He exchanged an amused glance with Khris, tapping his bracelet. “Honey, I’m home.”

“Think that just about brings Pakar up to speed… Missing anything you can think of, Khris?”

“Pretty sure you’ve covered everything you told me.”

Pakar stared out the window in silence, the end of her tail flicking in annoyance. Jadyn noticed a wisp of steam rising from her nostrils. Drekirans could indeed breathe plumes of fire for short times, though there was a rather noxious mineral they needed in their diets to maintain the ability. It didn’t replicate well.

“I don’t like this one bit,” she finally spoke. “I can’t quite put my talons on it, but something is just not adding up. Either way - there isn’t anything formal we can do until we have something concrete. It’s your word against his for now.”

“I know.” Jadyn drummed his fingers on the common room table, thinking. “Suppose it will help to see if he hands in any sort of proof of my ‘death.’”

Pakar sighed. “That may not even be solid enough. It could help your case, though. When we get to Velorian space I’ll log in and start checking security reports to see who pulled your flight plans… As far as I know only Ness knew anything about where you’d be, since you spoke to him about it before leaving. I pulled them after I’d found you left, since you didn’t bother to tell me.”

“Sorry about that.” The fox tapped his index fingers together. “I suppose we won’t have anything we can check over before Veloria. So, that leaves us a week and a half of twiddling our thumbs?”

“Would seem that way.” Khris shrugged. “Well, I suppose we shouldn’t keep you from your friend.”

“I’m sure she’s all right for a while. You guys want to snag a sandwich or something?”

Tari eased into the steaming water of the tub, letting the jets work through her fur as she settled down. The warmth was relaxing as the water pulsed through her thick winter pelt. She soaked in the heat for some time before dipping her head underwater and swishing her hair around. Jadyn had been right - the tub had been made with a furred occupant in mind. A normal bath or shower just didn’t work well unless she shifted to her human guise.

A bottle of shampoo had been placed next to the tub - to her surprise, it was a full-sized one, not one of the tiny things hotels usually provided. Climbing out onto the warm tiles level with the tub’s edge, she made no hesitation to use as much soap as needed for her entire coat. By the time she finished getting the scentless goo through all her fur and both her tails she thought she very much resembled a soapy wet dog.

Giggling, she barked at her reflection in the mirrors a few times, then leapt back into the tub to rinse off. The froth on the surface thickened with the suds coming out of her fur but swiftly disappeared into filters along the edge. For a while afterward she simply laid in the tub, listening to the bubbles swarming around her in the heat of the water. There was no sound of a pump or any mechanical part of the unit - just water flowing in through the jets.

Some time later she heard the door open out in the main room, three distinct voices speaking and laughing together. She’d left the bathroom door open to keep the steam from building up but had neglected to shut it once she found out that the mirrors didn’t fog over.

“Hello?” she called, sinking into the water so only her head was showing.

“Just us, Tari.” Jadyn peeked into the bath, smiling gently. “Enjoying yourself?”

“Extremely… I don’t want to get out. It’s marginally better than those full-body showers on your ship. Should get one installed somewhere.” She grinned, floating over so she could lean on the edge of the tub. “What gifts did you bring to appease me?”

“Nothing spectacular. A decent brush and half a translator.”

She eyed him curiously. “Half a translator?”

“T’bia burnt out three of them during reprogramming before she managed to get a working one. You’ll be able to understand what’s being said, but it won’t translate what you say for others.”

“Well, that’s a start. Gives me a reason to learn the dialect. Mind handing me a towel?”

He glanced around, spying the rack and grabbing the largest terrycloth towel from it. Holding the towel up for her, she stood up and wrapped it around herself carefully.

“You seem smaller,” he observed.

“I poof out when I get dry. If you didn’t have company, I’d ask you to help with that.” She smiled, pushing him out into the main room and closing the door.

“How did you happen across such a unique creature, Jay?”

The drekiran nodded her agreement. “She’s very pretty. I’m envious.”

Jadyn glanced at his friends, knowing he couldn’t tell them the truth about his companion and knowing they could tell when he lied. “It was… sort of by accident,” he replied slowly. “She needed some assistance with a problem and I helped her out. Having her travel with me was something of an unexpected bonus.” He smiled lightly, sitting down near them. The best lie was the truth, albeit abridged.

Pakar was reclining on the couch, her tail lolling all the way along its length and well over the armrest. Khris nursed a cup of hot something or other in his hands from the comfort of another chair.

“What world is she from? I can’t remember any vulpine derivatives that have two tails, unless that’s a graft.”

“I’m not really sure of any out here myself, Khris. I haven’t pressed her for much information, but I can tell she’s lived a sheltered life. A lot of what she’s seen with me seems to be a new experience for her. I can’t say I’m not curious to find out more of her background, though.”

The raccoon nodded, placing his cup on the glass coffee table between the couch and chairs. “The indigo gentle fox. Well, black gentle fox.”

“Makes me curious,” Pakar commented. “Was it on the way there or back that you met?”

“The only things I met going there shot at the ship.” He smirked, shifting in his chair. “I don’t know what I’m going to do, though… I just don’t feel it’s right for her to stay on with me permanently.”

“Why not? You make a lovely twosome. At least you did on the Laitu. Even in your normal hue, you’d be a good contrast.”

“You’re the second person to tell me that, probably the third to think it. Don’t try and set me up, scaly.”

She smiled pleasantly. “I know what it is… I spoiled you for all other females, right?”

“Is that ego, or just wishful thinking?” Jadyn laughed.

Khris blinked. “You? And her?”

“A few times. And no, Pakar, It’d take more than what you’ve got to spoil me permanently.”

She feigned shock. “I’m hurt, J.T… We’ll have to try again sometime soon… We do have a week and change to burn on this crate. Anyway, I’m late for supper. I’m supposed to be dining with my brother’s family tonight.”

“He’s here too?”

“No, just his mate and her clutch. The kids would probably love to see you, but it may be better if we kept your non-death between us three for now.”

Jadyn nodded. “Can’t argue there.”

“I’ll walk with you to the lift.” Khris stood up, stretching as he followed the drekiran to the door. “I can’t imagine you and him -“

“Don’t try,” she interrupted, a grin splitting her face from ear to ear. “You might have nightmares.”

“Oh, Jadyn,” the raccoon noted, pausing at the door. “Probably won’t catch up with you again until the end of the week. I’ve got a pile of reports to sift through and some remote meetings I have to attend every time we get a comm window.”

“Figured so. You work too much. Have a good night, both of you.”

“Later, fluffy. I’ll swing by tomorrow morning… Hum, maybe I should make it afternoon, instead?” The drekiran winked, then left and shut the door. Jadyn snickered quietly, staring after them for a minute after they left. He stood up, glancing in the bathroom and seeing Tari’s things missing. The tub had been drained and the towels were back on the racks. Damp footprints led out and across the thin carpet to the bedroom.

Shutting the bath’s door he stripped off the steelsilk clothing and folded the garments neatly onto one of the counters. Glancing over the tub’s controls he found them to be simple enough: a pictorial diagram of the tub, nothing language-dependent. He tapped on the area for the drain stop to close it then filled the tub with hot water. It took a few minutes for him to ease all the way into the heat, but it helped to clear his mind as he soaked. The dye keeping him black was bonded to his fur with the Art and wouldn’t come off without the counterspell. He idly watched the water around him darkening as some of the excess coloring bled away, but soon shut his eyes and let the heat work at his mind.

He heard the door open some time later, wondering briefly if he had fallen asleep. The light scent of pine reached his nostrils. He wasn’t sure if it was a perfume or a natural scent about the kitsune, but foresty smells seemed to follow her wherever she went. “I can see why you stayed in here so long, Tari… It’s really comfortable.”

“Quite relaxing. I figured you were going to come in the bedroom after they left, but since you didn’t… I want to talk to you about a few things.” He heard her kneel down next to the tub, not bothering to open his eyes.

“I’m all ears. What’s on your mind?”

The kitsune hesitated for several seconds before whispering her reply. “You.”

He opened one eye slowly, turning his head to carefully study her face. Her gaze was locked on his, trepidation and a touch of confusion in her teal pools. Fear… of rejection, I’d bet… Light, this is not going to be good. “What do you mean?”

She sighed, staring at the bubbling water. “I don’t understand it myself… We’ve known each other all of two weeks. I can’t figure out why I’m finding you so damn… so…”

“Fluffy?” he submitted, quite sodden.

“No… Handsome. Appealing. Lovable. Something. I… I just can’t find the right words for this. At first, I figured it might have been the fact that you saved my life - that hero crush complex thing, you know? Then I thought it was because you were so… exotic. That beautiful blue fur… Maybe the fact that you’re taller than any kitsune I’ve ever been interested in… Maybe because you’re not from my world… Maybe it’s just your general ambience. You don’t think you’re better than everyone else, like they do…”

“‘They’ being…?”

“Other kitsune. Right now, I don’t know what it is. I look at you, and I can’t help but think about what it would be like to have… to have… damn it anyway…” She closed her eyes, taking a few slow breaths. “Don’t know why it’s so damn hard to say this. I’ve been thinking about you and I… together…”

Jadyn blinked at her a few times, letting what she said sink into his mind and meshing with what he felt for her. “Tari… I don’t know what I can say to that.”

Tari nodded, lifting her gaze to his eyes. “I know. I just… There aren’t words. I want to be near you. I want to be close to you, enjoying your warmth near me just like when I woke up next to you a few days ago. Every time you come into the room, it’s like I feel completed… Kitsune aren’t supposed to get involved with outsiders who know about us, but that’s normally humans… It’s one of our social taboos.”

Jadyn let his thoughts drift, her words in tow. The euphoria from her presence had peaked, carrying his mind along on a wave of endorphins. He found himself considering Terran history, seeking a comparison. “Like it was taboo for the so-called ‘white’ people in your world’s 1800’s to feel anything towards the ‘blacks’? Look at humans today. There are actually quite a few couples like that. I don’t know if you noticed or not, but on the Laitu there were a large number of cross-species couples. It’s not unclean at all. Just different. It seems to be a common Earth notion that ‘different’ is dirty or substandard.”

Then a realization came to him: he had just dug himself a pit, a pit lined with large wooden spikes and starved wolverines.

“It shouldn’t be looked down on, I know… It just seems to happen. I don’t know what they’d think about it if it was an alien… I don’t know what to think either. You just don’t seem all that alien, really. None of my people have ever come across an ET before - at least, none have said anything - and I don’t know how it would be looked at since we’re both foxen. The more I think about it, the less I care what they think about it.” She stood up, dropping her robes to the floor in one smooth motion and kicking them aside. Jadyn swallowed as he watched them land, folded neatly next to his own clothes.

His gaze came back to her body, as she stood before him beside the tub. Her fur covered everything perfectly, just enough detail to tease the eyes but not quite enough to shatter Terran modesty. Not that modesty was on her list of concerns at that moment… He followed her curves upward and stopped at her eyes, finding nothing but desire in the teal pools. Rational thought finally beat back the euphoric glee as she stepped in next to him and sat on his lap, running her fingers through the normally-gray stripe of fur spilling down from his neck.

“Uh… Tari…”

“Don’t you dare try and get out of this. I know you want it as much as I do.” She leaned forward, holding him down with her arms and a bit of magic. He could have shaken the restraint without any effort, but let it be for the moment - there had to be a graceful exit. It was just a matter of finding the right -

“Why have you been shying away from me, anyway?” Tari whispered into his ear, nibbling the edge of it. “T’bia even told me that you were looking at me as much as I’ve been looking at you. Kudos for not letting me catch you doing it.”

“Well…” Jadyn sighed. “It’s difficult for me to explain this, in light of everything you’ve said, but -“

“Damn it, anyway… You don’t see me that way, right? Not in it for the long term? You and every one of the males I’ve met.” Her ears drooped as she slid to the other side of the tub, staring at the wall in frustration. “I don’t get it… I mean, the first guy I had any sort of feelings for was a complete jerk after I got to know him. Everyone else after that has turned me down when I’ve asked… White kitsune are typically more rare than others, but with my own people since I’m part mortal… I’m an outcast, in some of their circles…”

Okay, we resolve this now. “Tarioshi, you are one of the most beautiful fems I have met in my life. The first time I saw you in the form you’re in now, I had a flash of fear… On an inner level I thought I was finally dead. Other than a few small differences - very few - you look exactly like the image of the Goddess my people worshipped… I mean, think about it. What would you do if a deity was sitting on you when you woke up?”

“I’m partly a spirit already…”

Jadyn nodded. “Bad example. What if… What if… Ah, to the Void with it. When I realized you weren’t an apparition or a hallucination, I was a lot more at ease… And, after you’d been with us a few days, I wanted to ask you if you had anyone else you cared for…”

She looked up at him slowly. “So why didn’t you?”

He twitched his whiskers slightly. “Simplest way to explain is that you have a ‘do not open’ label.”

Tari blinked in confusion. “Huh?”

“Well, I get these… these feelings, that usually turn out right… They’ve led me astray from time to time, but not listening is usually bad mojo. I don’t know how to explain them, because it’s not quite a premonition, and it’s more than a simple feeling. Something pushed me to accept this Earth study. Something pushed me to abandon rational thought, go walking in a blizzard, and accept a ride from a stranger. Something pushed me to get off that semi at the intersection near where I found you in that trap. Something kept nagging me that you couldn’t be taken away from Terra at the moment I had to decide whether to abandon you or bring you along for medical care. Morally, I couldn’t just leave you there, so it shifted when I brought you up anyway, insisting that you go back after you were healed. The only way I could silence that one was promising myself that I’d take you back there after a year. The feeling submitted to that, but didn’t leave. It’s still there, yelling at me occasionally to remind me that this is temporary. I don’t know why it happens, but it does, and things tend to turn out better when I listen.”

“So… That’s why you don’t want to get involved with me?”

“Light, it’s not that I don’t want to. I can’t. Every time I think about you and I, these alarms go off in my subconscious ordering me to stay away. The only thing I can think of that might do it is that there’s someone better for you out there… Someone who will likely be able to give you more love and caring than I ever could with my bouncing around space doing the weird and dangerous stuff I keep doing.” He slid to her side and took her hands gently into his. “If it weren’t for that, I’d ask you to stay with me in less than a heartbeat.”

Her fur had long since lost any trace of fluffiness in the humidity of the tub, but she still looked beautiful as she spoke. “I can’t say I really understand, Jay… Does T’bia know about this?”

He nodded slowly. “She’s seen it at work before. We’ve… I really don’t want to get into the past occurrences of it right now. Ignoring it… The consequences weren’t pretty, to say the least. I can’t begin to guess what would happen if I ignored it altogether this time. It could be a minor consequence, or it may not be. The only thing I’m certain of is that it’s telling me you’re meant to meet someone else. I can’t say who, or when, or why them and not me… But it’s someone you apparently need to meet.”

Tari closed her eyes, sitting silently for a few minutes. “Well then…” she finally spoke, squeezing his hands. “What would your little security system say to just exploring what we do have, or what we could possibly have if you weren’t being yelled at by your inner demons? I mean, if there’s someone else for me out there, great, fine, dandy. They aren’t here right now.” She smiled gently; he felt a tail brush against his legs under the water. “You are. If our relationship is destined to have a time clock, so be it… There was no rule at the outset that we agreed to saying how we could or couldn’t spend our time together.”

Jadyn sighed, considering her argument and ignoring her tail. Presenting her line of thought and adding the firm resolution that she would go back to Terra no matter what resulted in complete cessation of the alarm. It was still out there, somewhere, serving as a reminder; the constant nag was no more.

“I do wish I knew what that… thing taps into. Maybe I’ve got a psychic symbiont or something.”

“Survey says?”

“If you want to see what comes of the two of us I don’t think there’s a problem… No matter what happens between us, you have to go back to Terra when Bee tells us it’s time for you to go. There is no discussion on that point. You have to be given the opportunity to meet whoever this other person is. Okay?”

“I’ll consider that a fair warning.” She smiled, hopping back onto his lap and pinning him against the wall of the tub. “Here’s fair warning for you, my blue plush birthday fox. You still need to get washed, and I intend to do it.”

“I hope you’re planning on using soap - Err, birthday fox?”

“It’s January fifth.”

Jadyn shook his head. “I don’t understand? My birthday was months ago -“

“Bee and I talked before we got here… Apparently, the day you were born on your homeworld coincides with January fifth on Earth. Therefore, today is your birthday, and I fully intend to give you a suitable present.”


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