"I passed!" Tyler yelled, waving a piece of paper over his head as he bowled his way through the crowd at the Bartin Tikoosa Spaceport to hug Eph.
Shoe and its five occupants (Chase had offered Doom to anyone who so much as suggested they were toes) had returned to Bartin almost a month ago to watch the trial. Chase went to as much of it as possible, watching and gloating as best he could.
But for everyone else it was rather boring. So Geneen had gotten Tyler to finish one of his lessons, and then she had take the two of them back to Worlds End Station so Tyler could take the test needed to complete the lesson.
Things had been quite a bit quieter without Tyler around (not to mention Geneen), but Mallard knew how to make himself scarce, and Chase and Eph had taken shameless advantage of that fact, when Chase wasn't at the trial, at least.
Geneen, following Tyler's trail through the crowd in a statelier manner, reached Eph just as he'd gotten Tyler to let him breath again.
"I'm guessing he mentioned he passed?" she asked.
Eph pretended surprise. "What? He passed? Ace! Why didn't you say so?"
Tyler kicked his foot and Geneen snorted. "He did really well, too. So well we've got a discount for the next unit we buy him. We've just got to stop and pick up the official documents on our next trip past Worlds End." The results needed to be logged and catalogued (and flogged, for all Eph knew) before they were official, but a simple program was run on the results right at the station to remove the stress of waiting.
"It's too bad you had to go so far to take the test though," Eph said. Bartin's current education system was being looked into as part of the trial, and thus even the space-schooling tests had been suspended. "How was the flight?"
Geneen frowned. "I don't care how fast it was, I'm not flying commercial anywhere ever again. The crowds, and it was noisy and the smell, ugh, don't get me started." But apparently Eph had already, as she happily complained all the way back to their ship.
"Hey, back early?" Eph asked, a bit surprised to see Chase waiting for them.
Chase grinned. "They made the decision about political prisoners, and then adjourned for the day."
"Oh? Good news?"
Chase's smile grew. "The best. All prisoners captured in the previous rebellion are to be released. Tomorrow!" He grabbed and hugged Eph, who laughed and hugged him back; happy for his lover in a way he couldn't be for people he hadn't met.
When they pulled slightly apart to change angles and go for a kiss, Tyler shoved his paper in-between their faces. "I passed!" he said, which turned into a cry of disgust when Chase licked the paper in front of his face.
"Anything in front of my face needs to be prepared to get tongue," Chase said, and Eph had to let go and clutch his stomach from laughing.
Eph's laughing showed no signs of stopping, as the two chased each other around the ship. Finally he collapsed onto the couch, staring at the plants lining the ceiling dome and wondering at how far they'd come.
It had been nearly four months since they'd handed Tiffany over to Kellen, although they hadn't returned to Bartin until the trial started. Chase had intended too, of course. But when they were en route back from Worlds End, they had gotten a message from Captain Norse I'Gale, which said they were only waiting for Chase's return to attack.
Apparently, in their absence, Captain Norse had remained in charge of the rebels. He had convinced all of them that violence was the answer, and had planned out a rather elaborate attack.
Chase had flown into a rage at hearing this, and gotten into a huge fight with Norse, who told Chase not to return if he wouldn't fight. Chase had tried to contact the other rebels, but most of them agreed with Norse, and those few who didn't want to attack had been overruled. Cursing them all soundly, Chase had had Geneen turn the ship around.
He'd spent much of the next month watching the news and moping about the ship feeling guilty; after all, he'd more or less put Captain I'Gale in charge. It had taken weeks for Eph to finally talk him around. Even then Chase still refused to return to Bartin.
Instead they'd drifted out to the blockade and helped search ships traveling between the Friedmans and the planets of the IPA, looking for slavers. Chase and his crew hadn't personally found any slavers (just a few smugglers), but a depressing number had been caught throughout the blockade.
Kellen had kept them apprised of the situation on Bartin. Apparently the violent uprising, timed with a similar one on Gale, had allowed the Betas and Highest Regime to enter into the situation sooner than they'd expected. The slight good that it'd done didn't mollify Chase any, although hearing that his friends were all right came closer to doing so.
"Thinking about me?" Chase asked, shadow falling on Eph, where he lay sprawled across the couch.
Eph peered up at him, a slow smile spreading across his face. "Always." He glanced around. "Did you catch Ace?"
"Mm, locked him in his room," Chase said. "And Geneen went to go find Mallard."
Checking to make sure that, as usual, Tyler had locked Chase out of his room, and not the other way round; Eph let his smile turn suggestive. "So we've some time to ourselves?"
"Mm-hmm," Chase replied, staring into his eyes.
"And do you have a suggestion about what to do with this time?" Eph asked, licking his lips at a few of the possibilities he could think of.
"Ye-es," Chase said slowly.
"And what might those be?"
"I thought we could go shopping," Chase said, pulling away from a confused Eph.
Taking a moment to reorganize his thoughts, Eph laughed suddenly. "Don't think I'm going to talk you out of that."
Chase smiled at him. "I don't want you to. I know you hate most of what I have to wear, and I'm starting to get weird looks from people at the trial for my repetitious wardrobe."
"I don't hate what you have to wear, I just prefer you don't wear it," Eph said with a wink and a heated look.
"I thought you weren't going to try and talk me out of it?"
"No, but turn about is fair play," Eph said, standing up and rubbing carefully against Chase as he walked past.
Chase whimpered, but it was too late.
"I don't think I've ever been in a store that still required a card before," Chase remarked as they entered the Toma Corp Mall. He glanced at a few of the ads as they passed. "I don't think I can afford to look in their windows."
Eph tsked. "Neither can I."
"Then what are we doing here?" Chase hissed.
"Ever heard of 'Eternal Discounts'?" Eph asked, leading him towards the Toma Corp store.
Chase stopped dead in his tracks. "No way."
Eph turned to look at him. "Yes way. My family's one of the very select few in the universe who still have that lovely deal. And this week there's an extra fifteen-percent off; Toma Corp's usual sale." He smiled predatorily.
Chase shook his head. "I can't believe you."
"You will once you see the bill," Eph said with a shrug.
Eph let loose a quiet string of curses as Fraiser ran up to meet them.
"Would you quit mangling my name," he snapped when the man finally reached them.
"What?" Fraiser looked taken aback.
"The 'Del' goes on the last name. It means 'from the royal family of.' It's not some stupid title, and I'm not from the royal family of myself!"
"Oh, sorry." Fraiser looked crestfallen for all of a moment. Then he noticed Chase. "What is he doing here?"
Chase raised an eyebrow. "Shopping."
"Well, not here-here," Fraiser waved one hand vaguely to indicate the mall. "What is he doing with you?"
Eph considered his options. "I took your advice to heart. After all, my love is far away. So I hooked myself up with a handsome rebel leader." He grinned, slipping his arms around Chase, who cuffed him lightly on the back of his head.
"He's lying. Eph is part of the crew of my ship." Chase slid an arm around Eph's waist to indicate what else Eph was to him.
Fraiser looked stunned, but recovered quickly. "Superior-underling? Kinky."
Chase blushed slightly. "It's not really like that." He nudged Eph with his elbow, looking for support.
"No, sir," Eph said, sharing a smile with Fraiser.
Chase glanced at him, and saw the smiles, realized they were joking. "Right. And see that you remember it, or I'll have you swab the deck."
"Oh yes, sir."
Fraiser snorted. "You just want him bent over."
Once the snickering and the blushing had died down, Fraiser said, "I'm glad to see you're safe, Eph. I was rather worried that you'd disappeared after the rescue."
Eph smiled. "I'm sorry I worried you, but-"
"I think I can understand, if you were spying, and then spying on the spies as well."
There was a moment of awkwardness.
Fraiser sighed. "I had better let you get back to your shopping, then," he said, and then left.
Chase shrugged. "At least he wasn't affected by the fighting."
"I should introduce him to my youngest brother," Eph muttered.
"I thought you didn't have any younger brothers."
"My youngest older brother? The useless one." He started to lead the way into the store again. "Oh, and he maybe did manage to stay out of the fighting, but his family will probably loose all its money because of the restructuring. It's probably his last time shopping here."
"Oh. But you-"
"Oh, they'll manage, they've some family off-planet, and his mother's not in politics, so even if they get no help they won't go starve or anything. They'll manage."
The political prisoners from the first rebellion were released from prison the next day, although Chase's friends didn't arrive in Tikoosa until the morning of the day after that.
Chase had wanted to fly out to Cataconica and collect his friends there, but it hadn't been possible for a variety of reasons, and so they were waiting at the station platform for the prisoners to arrive and be unloaded.
"Chase!" Orchid called from across the platform. "It's so good to see you again! And for once under happy circumstances." He slung an arm around Chase's shoulder, giving him a side-hug. "I must say I like your new clothes as well. If you'd dressed like this before, well, Toorn might have had some serious competition."
Eph nodded amiably. "Thank you."
Orchid glanced at him for a moment before laughing. "You dragged him out shopping, didn't you?"
"Actually, he dragged me out shopping."
"And then you made me try on everything in the goddamn store," Chase grumbled.
Eph shrugged. "But you got a whole new wardrobe from Toma Corp for less than a month's pay. I don't think you can complain."
Orchid's eyes widened, and he tugged on Chase's shirt until he could read the tag. "It is Toma Corp. What did you do to afford it? Service the staff?"
Chase tried to struggle away, but Orchid was still holding his shirt, so Chase had to stop before he strangled himself. He tried to throw a glare over his shoulder, but the angle was too awkward, and it passed harmlessly by Orchid's shoulder.
Eph just laughed. "Nile's DelSommers family has been around since long before the Third Empire, and Toma Corp will be kicking themselves in the head for their 'Eternal Discount' plan until the day they finally go out of business."
Orchid started to say something, but then his eyes lit up and he let go of Chase. "There's the bus!" He slipped his way to the front of the crowd, while Chase and Eph hung back.
Only the prisoners deemed most dangerous had been kept at Cataconica, and there were less than a dozen of those. They all had family and friends waiting to greet them, and Chase was content to watch the happy greetings, knowing his friends would come find him once they'd greeted Orchid.
Finally the crowd parted and spat out Orchid, Star, Magenta and Regan. Or, rather Daniel, Toorn, Mia and Hikar, as Chase should probably be calling them now. Orchid-Daniel had his arm around Star-Toorn, and Chase didn't need to be Beta, or hear Eph's snicker to know what they were thinking about. Although, Magenta-Mia and Regan-Hikar probably weren't much better.
"Thank you, Chase," Magenta said. "Thank you so much." She hugged him tightly. Finally taking a step back, she brushed the tears from her eyes. Then she noticed Eph. "Ooo, is this your new toy?" She made a big deal of checking him out.
Eph just smiled gently. "You don't need to make a show of being normal," he said. "You're free, and your planet is working towards being free, and you're really not interested, so why get my hopes up?"
She laughed and smiled and hugged him, too. "Thank you for your part in this as well."
Regan had tried to take a more manly approach, and just clasp Chase's shoulder. Chase snorted at that and gripped his old friend tightly. "I think even a man can be emotional at a time like this," he said quietly.
Regan made a disparaging noise, for all that he held Chase just as tightly. "You probably just prefer emotional men."
Chase snickered. "I do prefer my men to be sensitive, yes. Life's more fun that way."
"I…don't think I wanted to hear that," Regan said, letting Chase go, albeit slowly.
"But at least you're free enough to do so."
"Thanks to you."
They grinned at each other, and then Chase turned to Star, who was leaning back against Orchid. Star opened his arms and started to step away to hug Chase, but Orchid just gripped him tighter around the waist, glaring at Chase. "Mine."
Chase raised an eyebrow. "What would I want with him? I've got Eph," he added, gesturing over to where Magenta was still tormenting his lover.
Star struggled a bit more, but he was always slight, and prison hadn't added to that. "It's me who should be jealous, not the other way round!" he said.
Orchid buried his face in Star's neck. "I can't let you go."
Star pouted, and so Chase came over to hug them both.
"You'll stay in touch?" Chase asked.
"We might even run into each other, if you stay in that part of space," Orchid said.
Chase sighed. "We might, but there are some things that Eph wants to do, and the family keeps reminding me that I haven't seen them recently. If I don't fix that soon, they'll probably come after me. And after that, I don't know where we'll end up; the universe is a big place."
"Well, we'll stay in touch, and see you when we can. You never know where new orchids might be, after all."
Chase let go and stepped back. "We'll be here through the end of the trial at least, or until I get bored with it, so we'll have plenty of time to catch up."
Star smiled. "Great! We'll see you around then."
That seemed to be the cue for everyone to leave, so they said their farewells, and headed off to their various rides.
"Better?" Eph asked Chase as they made their way back to the ship.
Chase gave him a half-smile full of more emotions than he could name. "Better," he said.
That's it. No more.
But, as I mentioned a few chapters ago, I expect everyone to actually review now that it's finished. arrogent of me, I know. I also know that it's hard to think of anything to say. So I've made a list of questions you can answer about the story. and no, just thinking of the answers in your head doesn't count.
1) Favorite character (and why if you have why). As the author I'm not suppo...oh hell, The Elrad Project, although I can't say why as it's Top Secret.
2) Favorite joke/pun (and why if you have a why). Personally I'm still snickering about the 'walking water' bit. I mean, c'mon; walking water?
3) Favorite scene/chapter (and why if you have a why). I liked... the morning on Worlds End Station. Because it wrote itself, and I'm always grateful to writing that does its own work.
4) Biggest problem/point of confusion. This can be anything from 'you don't have enough character descriptions' to 'why is there no apostrophe in Worlds End Station' to 'all of your secondary characters seem rather two-dimentional.' I may even tell you the answer.
5) Least favorite scene/chapter (and why if you have a why). Lucky for you, all of these were not included. But I think it was probably the original versions of chapter 19... Eph at the party/ball.
6) This is where you sing my praises. Oh Qui-ween of the Universe, the song of your praises shall be sung unto the dusk of Eternity, and yea, even beyond that until the stars of the night beyond the end of time doth fall into the sea... And you're very humble. I like that in a self. No, really.
7) And then you get to screech insults. Or anything else constructive (or not) that you might want to add.
Anyway, I'll be grateful if you review in any shape, and I'm glad you read the story even if you don't review. But answering these questions will help (or at least amuse) me.