Courting the Ice Princess

(Sequel to Breaking Protocol)

Custom Class Star Ship TSPKAST-0000 (16251582) The Ice Princess

Ekaitz Kai stepped off the transport pad and studiously resisted the urge to straighten his uniform. He had to at least appear to be confident and self-assured, and fussing with imaginary wrinkles wasn't going to help. Especially not now, when he had so much riding on this assignment.

He'd never even heard of the Ice Princess before being called in to the High Chancellor's office six days ago and being informed that he was going to be captaining it. A ship that didn't, officially, exist. A ship that had gone through six captains in three months, making Ekaitz the seventh since the ship had been built. Not a reassuring thought, in the least.

According to the High Chancellor, the problem stemmed from the ship's designer, architect, and primary engineer, a Gremlin by the name of Tau Ceti who was, to use the High Chancellor's words, 'difficult' to get along with. The entire crew roster had been replaced three times over in the first week and a half before things settled down, and now it was only a captain that was still problematic.

The High Chancellor's mission had been very simple. Captain the Ice Princess... and survive it.

Waiting for him was a single man dressed in the austere grey uniform of the Authorities, though it lacked any of the corresponding insignia. He was tall with dusky skin, his platinum-blond hair cropped short in the military style, and he managed to look completely at ease while standing perfectly straight. A pair of top-of-the-line In-specs rested casually on his face. This could only be Sigma Altair, his new Second.

"Captain Kai," Sigma greeted calmly, intense grey eyes regarding him with close scrutiny.

"Sigma Altair, correct?" Ekaitz returned, refusing to let the man get to him. He couldn't show any weakness.

Sigma's mouth quirked into a hint of a smile. "Correct. Welcome aboard the Ice Princess, Captain, for however long you might be staying." The hint of a smile shifted into a real one as Sigma stepped aside to allow Ekaitz full access to the door. "I will wish you luck and admit that everyone is hoping you do better than the last five captains Tau's run off."

Ekaitz frowned slightly. "Five?" he repeated. "I was told you'd had six captains..."

The human bared his teeth in a distinctly predatory grin. "Five that Tau ran off. Six total."

Knowing full well he was going to regret asking and yet knowing he needed to know if he was going to fulfill his promise to the High Chancellor, Ekaitz asked, "What happened to the sixth?"

The smile he got that time was so unnerving that Ekaitz found himself wondering if the lean man was fully human as listed or if he had some sort of wild animal blood in him. "That one made the mistake of trying to touch Tau in my presence," Sigma replied. "I hear he's still in recovery."

"Ah," Ekaitz murmured quietly, wondering if it was too late to tell the High Chancellor 'No.' "I will keep that in mind, then." He considered the doorway, as well as the fact that Sigma was standing less than half a meter from it, then firmly reminded his nerves that he could more than take care of himself and walked through.

It was like walking into another world. A very, very expensive world. Whereas the transport room had been very modernistic and blatantly technical, the hallway just beyond it looked like it belonged in the palace of some wealthy planet's ruling monarchy. The walls were a silvery iridescent etched with fantastical scenes that seemed as though they might tell a story if one studied them long enough. The floor was tiled in geometric patterns with a lavish rug running up the center of it, and the ceiling gave slowly shifted from sky blue to twilight purple as he watched, a few stars flickering into sight one at a time.

It was a hallway. A hallway. It led from one place to another, and yet it was drippingly lavish. Behind him, Sigma chuckled quietly.

"It gets worse," he murmured, gesturing to the left. "Bridge is that way, if you're up for it."

"How worse is worse?" Ekaitz asked dryly, setting out in the direction indicated and trying to reconcile the utilitarian blueprints he'd been shown with the fantasyland he passed through. If he mostly closed his eyes and squinted through his lashes, he could almost manage to blur out the decor enough to see where one might be able to see the similarities. Almost.

The main lift was clear plas-glass, allowing a blur of rainbow-hued lights and circuitry to go by as they were whisked up to the top level. Ekaitz spared a brief moment of relief that at least the hallways weren't different between levels before the bridge door whooshed open and he found himself confronted with his new domain.

It was a winter wonderland. Everything had been done to give the impression of snow and ice, from the walls, ceiling, and floors to the semi-transparent chairs to the blue and white control consoles. Faux icicles ringed the ceiling and there was a small set of pawprints winding their way through the 'snow' on the floor up near the main screen.

He turned to raise an eyebrow at his new Second. "Let me guess, 'Ice Princess', right?"

Sigma laughed quietly. "That is the theme, but as I understand it the reasoning is a bit more complex than simply staying in keeping with the name. You'd have to ask Tau to know for sure."

"Mmm." Ekaitz turned back to the glittering scene again, noting with some amusement that the crew clashed rather spectacularly with their surroundings. There were three currently present, two at the navigation and communications consoles and the last sprawled across what was properly the captain's chair. Or in the case of the Ice Princess, the throne.

The one sitting at Nav had the brilliant green hair and bark-brown skin of a Vrill, while the lanky, grey-skinned one at Comm was obviously a Fornarian. Both turned to look curiously at him, while the one in his chair - ears, tail, fur, had to be a Daneub Hellcat - lazily got to his feet.

"Well, well, well," the Hellcat purred. "Lucky number seven." His slitted eyes raked over Ekaitz, then he caught Sigma's eyes and smirked. "I give him four days."

"Mind your manners, Q'inn," Sigma said mildly, stepping around Ekaitz and gesturing at the Vrill and Fornarian. "Jayce and Dralikkzion, two of your four bridge crew. We work on a rotating schedule, so Meiki and Fe'yiv won't be here until later. I don't know how much information you got on us before Kavalerov sent you out, but all four can run anything in this room equally."

The Vrill, Jayce, grinned. "I dunno about equally, Sigma..."

The Fornarian snorted. "Your arrogance continues to astound, Jayce." He rose from his seat and walked slowly over to Ekaitz, perusing him lazily. "He's pretty, Sigma. I wouldn't mind playing with him before Tau Ceti kicks him off..."

"Nor would I," the Hellcat murmured, coming over as well and reaching out to run a finger down Ekaitz's cheek.

Temper snapping, Ekaitz had the man on the ground with his arm in a rather painful position before anyone else could react. "Until such time as the High Chancellor declares otherwise I am your captain and you will treat me with respect," he hissed.

There was a brief silence, then Sigma's dry voice rang out, "And the one you've got in an arm-lock is Q'inn'demaaksi, our Security Head."

"Hard to be head of a department of one," Jayce snickered.

"Care to clarify?" Ekaitz asked, waiting a moment longer before letting Q'inn up off the floor. He straightened his uniform as he stood, gazing calmly at the only one still seated.

"We're down one security guy after Q'inn here broke the last one's arm," Jayce explained with a shrug.

"And leg, pelvis, three ribs, clavicle..." Dralikkzion murmured.

Q'inn shrugged. "I said I was sorry."

"The good ol' Princess hasn't gotten around to sending us a replacement yet," Jayce finished.

Ekaitz frowned. "Princess?"

"Ignore that," Sigma snapped, shooting a dark look at the Vrill. "Just because Tau gets away with it doesn't mean the rest of you can ignore protocol. The next person to use that nickname will get double the training time with me and I will make it hurt."

Jayce and Dralikkzion both winced while Q'inn took a step back. "Yes, sir," the trio chorused.

"Resume your positions, please," Ekaitz ordered calmly, glancing at Q'inn and adding, "And yours is not in my chair."

The Hellcat arched a brow, looked up briefly at Sigma, then spread his hands with a grin. "Whatever you say, Captain." He tossed a lazy, half-assed salute in their general direction before sauntering off the bridge.

Ekaitz rubbed his head. "Please tell me there's only one of those on board."

Sigma chuckled quietly. "There's only one of those on board. Of our other two bridge officers, Meiki is Draconian and Fe'yiv is Half-Rubican. Our medic, Xalin, is Half-Yrivii, the cook who doubles as a nurse is Half-Drizelli, and the Secondary Tech is about three-quarters Oenala which is just enough to get her into trouble."

"Varied crew," Ekaitz mumbled, then blinked. "Wait, no humans?"

At Sigma's rather pointed look, Ekaitz winced. Wonderful. He was off to such a great start already, with insulting his Second Officer and the bridge crew placing bets on how long he was going to last. "Other than you," Ekaitz amended.

The dusky blond hesitated. "Tau Ceti is... not overly fond of humans. We've found it's usually just best not to have them aboard, aside from the half-bloods."

"Must be interesting to hate the race that controls the Infinitum Government," Ekaitz observed dryly.

Sigma sighed. "It isn't so much hate as... an intolerance for unintelligent people. Having grown up on Zero, the race he saw most often was humans."

Ekaitz's knowledge of Gremlins began and ended with the data file the High Chancellor had made him read prior to flying out to meet the Ice Princess, but based on what he'd read it sounded like a common prejudice amongst the species that this particular Gremlin had taken to all-new levels.

He glanced sideways at his Second. "All right, so if he dislikes humans so much, how did you get on his good side?"

There were dual titters from Jayce and Dralikkzion, though both shut up hastily when Sigma shot them a look. The human then shook his head slightly. "If I ever figure that out, I'll let you know. Tau is... unpredictable at best."

Wincing inwardly, Ekaitz drew in a slow breath. "Well then," he said, hoping he appeared half as confident as he was pretending to be, "Let's hope he's unpredictable in my favor."

"Braving the Gremlin already? Ooh, he's brave," Jayce quipped.

"Remind me to have him muzzled later," Ekaitz muttered beneath his breath as he turned to leave the bridge.

"It's been tried," Sigma murmured sympathetically. "Unfortunately, there's only one way to get Jayce to shut up."

"Oh?" Ekaitz asked as they stepped into the lift. "What's that?"

Sigma chuckled quietly. "Tau Ceti."

Ekaitz winced. "Is the High Chancellor aware of the... ah... eccentricities of this crew?"

A low ripple of laughter met his question. "Of course. Some of his other agents are worse, if you can believe that." A slight pause, then a rueful chuckle. "Not counting Tau, that is."

Privately Ekaitz found himself wondering if the High Chancellor had a death wish or was simply crazy, though he didn't voice that thought aloud. It wouldn't be polite to suggest such things about the man who had rescued you and given you your life back; Ekaitz was feeling guilty enough just for having framed the thought.

He was still musing over the sheer insanity of a supposedly elite crew of Internal Affairs agents being comprised of the strangest people he'd ever met when they turned a corner and Ekaitz stopped cold.

"You have got to be kidding," he muttered.

The entire wall had been done up in the overblown style of a bad vid-flick, with pitch-axes, stalactites, odd reddish tubes, and an old-style mining cart. Emblazoned in red paint and faux wood across the top in towering letters were the words "Keep Out - Or Else!"

Heedless of the ridiculous display and its dire warning, Sigma continued on past Ekaitz to the jagged-edged 'cave' mouth. He stopped there and turned to look back at Ekaitz. "Wait here," the blond man instructed. "He's got it rigged to keep out unwanted persons." With that, Sigma walked straight through what Ekaitz belatedly realized had to be a hologram of some sort and disappeared.

Several minutes later, after Ekaitz had come to the reluctant conclusion that it was a very impressively detailed hologram even if it was insane, a black-haired, green-skinned man wearing a frayed blue jumpsuit stepped out of the cave mouth. He crossed his arms and glared, staring at Ekaitz as though they were mortal enemies.

"Wonderful," the green man snorted, rolling his eyes. "The Princess sent me a fish."

"He's Elivin," Sigma corrected, stepping out of the holographic cave as well and standing just to the left of the irritable green man. "Which I believe makes him more of an amphibian than a fish."

"So he's some kind of freakish blue frog, then?" Tau Ceti asked dryly, prompting swiftly-muffled snickers from somewhere behind Ekaitz.

Lovely. So he had an audience as well. It figured, in some twisted, humiliating way that the crew would regard the initial meeting between the new captain and the resident demented Gremlin as prime entertainment.

Vivid violet eyes glittered as the Gremlin slowly stalked around Ekaitz in a tight circle, scrutinizing him in a manner that was entirely uncomfortable. "I wonder what possessed him to send me a deformed frog to captain my ship?" Tau Ceti commented casually. "Perhaps the Princess mixed up the paperwork and this one is meant to decorate the pool. I certainly can't see where he'd be of use for anything else..."

No one else was speaking, not even Sigma. There was almost a collective hush, as though everyone was waiting with bated breath for what the inevitable outcome of this meeting would be. That, more than anything, made him furious. He was good. He knew he was good. The High Chancellor wouldn't have brought him in, given him a place and a purpose, if it hadn't been true. He'd known the assignment wouldn't be easy; the High Chancellor had been certain to warn him of what he was getting into, but still.

"I won't lie to you. If you can't figure out how to get along with Tau Ceti this is going to be the most miserable tour of duty you've ever known. The Ice Princess's last captain ended up on a small mining station at the far edge of the fourth quadrant and had been there for months before we finally found and retrieved him. The only advice I can really give you is not to show any fear, and don't let him decide you're unintelligent. Beyond that, you're on your own."

Tau Ceti's intense eyes gleamed as he smirked at Ekaitz. "No response? Did the mean, nasty Gremlin hurt the poor little frog's tender feelings?" he mocked.

Summoning up every ounce of Regal Bearing he'd ever possessed as royal cousin, Ekaitz arched one brow at the Gremlin before him. "... nice to meet you too," he drolled. "I have to ask, were you born this rude, or did you have to work at it?"

If he'd thought the silence before was thick, now it was almost deafening. Tau Ceti regarded him slowly for several long moments, then reached into one of his myriad pockets to draw out an unfamiliar object and point it at Ekaitz. There was a brief line of fluorescent pink, then an odd wetness on his chest. He looked down to see a glowing pink stain spreading across his jacket and when he looked back up he caught the tail end of Tau Ceti returning through the hologram to the room beyond.

"I'll take that as the former," Ekaitz murmured, then turned around sharply and raised his voice. "All of you, get out here now."

Rather sheepishly, six people slunk into sight from where they'd been hiding. Three of them Ekaitz recognized from the confrontation on the bridge, while the other three were new. Behind him he heard a rather strangled sound, then Sigma exclaimed, "Xalin! The others I've almost started to expect, but you?"

The only male out of the group Ekaitz didn't recognize, a white and purple creature with four arms, smiled and shrugged sheepishly. "Would you believe me if I said I was here in an official capacity in case of bloodshed?" he asked.

Sigma snorted. "Q'inn and I are the ones who cause bloodshed, not Tau. Really, Xalin..."

The two women snickered and one patted Xalin on the shoulder before coming forward to flash knowing smiles at Ekaitz. "I'm Irinar," the one with flame-red hair and a serpentine lower body informed him.

"Also known as His Royal Grouchiness's protege, so don't forget to wear your body armour," Jayce quipped helpfully.

"And I'm Fe'yiv," the other one added, this one appearing mostly human but for the odd silvery color of her hair and the unusual striped pattern of her skin. "Contrary to appearances, we really do hope you succeed. The interregnum between captains gets hard on all of us after a while, and even Sigma can only go without sleep for so long."

"Very funny," the man in question muttered, coming up to stand at Ekaitz's right. "Jayce, Dralikkzion, Fe'yiv... I assume you three left Meiki on the bridge alone?"

Dralikkzion grinned ruefully. "It's Meiki. He can handle it."

Sigma arched a brow. "You do remember what happened the last time you three left Meiki alone on the bridge?"

Three faces suddenly paled, then there was a frantic dash down the corridor toward the forward lift. Q'inn and Irinar glanced at one another, then at the holographic doorway to Tau Ceti's workroom, and promptly took off on the heels of the bridge crew.

Ekaitz regarded the empty hallway for a moment, then turned to face the medic, Xalin. "What, you're not going to go tearing off either?" he asked dryly.

Xalin chuckled. "Meiki's mishaps don't normally require my services."

"Oh?" Ekaitz's brow arched. "Then why the rush?"

Xalin laughed softly. "Because inevitably Meiki damages something, which then requires our Master Engineer to fix, and..."

Ekaitz winced. "Ah. Right." He turned his head to look at Sigma. "You are a very brave man."

Both Xalin and Sigma laughed and exchanged a rueful look. "Maybe," Sigma admitted, "But I wouldn't trade him for all the universe." The faintest dusting of red had stained his dusky cheeks and he quite deliberately looked away from both of them as he straightened and cleared his throat. "Would you like to see your quarters?"

Ekaitz looked from one man to the other and summoned up a pained smile. "How bad is it?" he asked.

Two of Xalin's hands landed on his shoulders while a third rubbed at his back comfortingly. "You are allowed to customize the decor to suit your own personal tastes as much as you'd like."

Burying his face in his hands, Ekaitz moaned quietly. "Is there a reason the ship looks like this, or did he do it just to see how strange he could make it?"

There was a pause, and Ekaitz looked up to find Xalin curiously regarding Sigma who was frowning thoughtfully. "I know part of it is that he wanted to do something no one else ever had..." He ignored Xalin's snort. "But there were other reasons as well. Honestly, you'd have to ask him."

"To give the High Chancellor a heart attack when he saw the expense report?" Xalin suggested dryly.

Sigma shot him a look. "Very little IG finance went into the Ice Princess. It would be impolite to make a gift for someone and then make them pay for it."

Xalin blinked. "Gift?"

"Gremlin," Ekaitz said as comprehension flooded him. The two turned to him in confusion. "I know how he did it. He bought everything in raw mineral form, then built the entire ship from scratch, rather than assembling pre-made parts like any other ship. That would drop the construction costs down to a mere fraction of what it would normally require, but the trade-off would be a massive amount of personal labor invested."

Sigma's quiet smile was almost dazzling. "Now you know why he's so incredibly fussy about the people he allows on-board."

"That must have taken forever," Xalin observed, trying and failing to not sound impressed.

"Yes," Sigma agreed softly.

Ekaitz shook his head slowly, still calculating out exactly how much work had gone into the beautiful ship. For she was beautiful, seen in that light. Unique, elegant, and sophisticated beyond anything else he'd ever seen. Something to make others stare, envy, and covet. One man's dreams given form.

Dreams that had, apparently, been gifted to another. He opened his mouth to inquire further when the ship suddenly rocked, pitching them all into a wall. Sigma and Ekaitz recovered at the same time, both of them bolting down the hall and leaving Xalin behind.

"Report!" Ekaitz snapped as they lunged into the lift and punched in the code for the top level.

"Combat ship," Sigma replied, in-specs flashing with data. "Most likely pirates mistaking the Ice Princess for a rich man's pleasure toy." He grimaced. "Again."

"The reports I read didn't look promising in the way of weaponry." Ekaitz frowned. "Standard operating procedure?"

Sigma grimaced. "We don't normally let them get this close. The Ice Princess can outrun anything ever built, and her shielding is enough to withstand practically everything, though we've never actually tested its limits." He added something beneath his breath about shattering stars and supernovas, and Ekaitz felt it wisest not to inquire much further.

"So we can run. Other options?"

They both stepped out onto the bridge and Q'inn immediately vacated his chair. Ekaitz seated himself, Sigma standing just behind him, and snapped, "Status report?"

"Plasma shield was down, hence why we felt that last one, but it's up now," Fe'yiv responded. "They're gleefully blasting away at us and haven't yet figured out that they can't get through the shield."

"Meiki," Sigma called, attracting the attention of a rather beautifully colored Draconis who looked like he'd just stepped out of the setting sun. "Option A or Option B?"

The Draconis grinned. "Oh, A, please. Can I?"

"Option A?" Ekaitz questioned, drawing a bright smile from the young man.

"Yes!" The Draconis's hands flew over the controls with unholy glee, his in-lens shining as he called up the varying systems. "Fireballs, away!"

"The next time the High Chancellor gets it into his head to send obscure vid-films as a 'special treat,' I'm deleting them," Jayce announced, shooting a look at Meiki who gave him a cherubic smile. "I'm serious. Just because you look like a dragon doesn't mean you or the ship needs to be breathing fire."

"It wouldn't have been nearly so bad if Tau Ceti hadn't indulged him in the weapons configuration," Fe'yiv observed sourly.

On the main viewing screen there were several bright flashes of reddish light that struck the attacking ship, though they didn't seem to do any significant damage. Ekaitz frowned, drumming his fingers on the edge of his chair, then straightened. "Whichever one of you has Comm right now, find me the nearest Authorities ship."

Surprised, Jayce's fingers flew. "Uh, there are two, one about seventy-eight AUs closer than the other... the nearer one being just shy of 200 AUs away."

Ekaitz smiled tightly. "Set course. Stay ahead of our friends here, but don't pull too far away. We want them to follow us."

There was a collective murmur and at least two giggles as the rest of the bridge crew caught on. "Oh yeah! Fly my Princess, fly!" Meiki cackled, inputting the commands with a flourish. "Spread your wings and take to the skies!"

"No more vid-films," Jayce swore quietly. "Not a one."

"Transmitting distress messages tight-coded to the pirates' frequency," Dralikkzion announced. "And I think I've managed to screen the IG ship from detection, provided that this system still works the way it did yesterday and our green friend hasn't decided to 'upgrade' it again."

The pirates' ship fired several more times as the Ice Princess 'fled,' not realizing the danger it was in until the IG Battle Cruiser was within visual range. By then, it was far too late.

Meiki tossed off a cheerful thank you to their 'rescuers' ("Meiki, really. Kiss Kiss? You are an embarrassment to Internal Affairs," Jayce muttered.) and the Ice Princess resumed the course she'd been on before being unexpectedly waylaid. They all settled down, good-natured ribbing flying between the various bridge officers while Ekaitz watched them all with amusement.

It was fascinating to watch such a wide variety of species work and interact together as well as this crew did. Somehow the massive roster shuffling had resulted in a group of wildly eccentric people that managed to mesh together in an easy camaraderie far beyond any group he'd ever known before. He was tempted to call it too easy, but then, any group of people that could live and work in close quarters with the most temperamental Gremlin alive had to have phenomenal patience.

Ekaitz sat up as something occurred to him and he completely failed to stifle a laugh. Several pairs of eyes turned to regard him quizzically, and Sigma's voice carried from somewhere behind and to his left. "Something amuses?"

"I think I just figured out the fire breathing dragon comment," Ekaitz explained, catching his breath. There were a number of titters around him, then someone pulled up an external diagram of the Ice Princess on the main viewing screen. She didn't look remotely like any other ship in space, which was part of what made her such an attractive target to pirates, and also what made her so good for undercover work. No one in their right mind would expect IG Internal Affairs agents to fly around space in a giant bird of paradise.

"Where were your weapons originally, before someone made the mistake of giving vid-films to Meiki?" Ekaitz inquired, bemused, laughing quietly when it was predictably the Draconis that leapt up to show him.

"Two on each wing, two behind, and one at the nose," Meiki explained, highlighting the appropriate areas. "But now the nose one has been reconfigured and main power routed through it, making it a lot stronger and way cooler!"

"You do realize that birds don't normally breathe fire," Ekaitz observed with a laugh.

Meiki pouted. "Yeah, well, I couldn't get Tau Ceti to reconfigure the hull, so I just have to pretend it's a dragon. Or use the hologram emitters."

Ekaitz blinked. "Hologram emitters? That wasn't in the ship specs I was given..."

Several of the crew laughed. "The Ice Princess's specs are updated daily, if not hourly," Sigma informed him, voice thick with amusement. "The hologram emitters went on-line about a week ago, in part to get Meiki to quit pestering Tau and in part just because he wanted to see if he could do it."

Ekaitz looked at him, then Meiki, then up to the display of the Ice Princess still on the main screen. "So you're saying we can fly around space looking like a giant fictional lizard."

"Don't forget the fire-breathing part!" Meiki said helpfully.

One thing was for sure, Ekaitz thought in amusement. If, against all odds, he managed to remain on the Ice Princess, life would never, ever be boring.


Four hours later the ever-energetic Meiki was dragging him down to the galley to meet Volar, the half-blooded Drizelli that doubled as both ship's chef and Xalin's nurse. That combination in and of itself would have been interesting enough, but Ekaitz was increasingly curious to figure out how the man managed to feed such a wildly diverse crew.

He was hauled through the door and made to sit down at one of the two faux-wood tables before the Draconian darted off in search of their chef. Ekaitz spared a brief glance at the room decor - primarily faux wood, gold, rope, and canvas in a configuration that meant nothing to him but evidently something to Tau Ceti - then leaned back and waited. A moment later he was joined by the ruby-hued Oenala, Irinar, who propped her chin up in her hands, elbows resting on the table, and grinned at him.

"Your shirt is still pink," she observed.

Ekaitz shrugged idly. "Didn't have time to change. It wasn't important, as no one saw me today aside from the crew."

"Mmm," Irinar murmured, then sat up as Meiki returned with a hairless man with blindingly yellow skin.

"Volar, our new Captain," Meiki introduced, dropping down into the seat next to Ekaitz. "I like him, so hopefully Tau Ceti will let him stay a while before chasing him off."

Ekaitz rubbed at his skin, noting that it was starting to get that dry, flaking feeling that meant he hadn't been drinking enough water. A moment later a glass was plunked down in front of him, followed thereafter by a pitcher and a bottle. He looked up to meet Volar's steady gaze.

"The first step to staying healthy is to take care of one's body," the neon yellow Drizelli pronounced solemnly. "In the case of an Elivin, that means plenty of water. I will arrange to make certain there are fluids at hand in the places you most often frequent for the duration of your stay."

Downing the entire glass and pouring himself another, Ekaitz sighed quietly. "It's reassuring to know you all have such high opinions of my chances," he muttered, then drank the second glass.

"Aw, don't feel bad," Meiki said, patting his head. "So far, most of the bets have you lasting two whole months! Nobody's lasted that long before!"

"You all have," Ekaitz pointed out, pouring and drinking a third glass. He was starting to feel considerably better, physically at least. Emotionally there were still a few obvious issues.

Irinar laughed softly. "Ah, but there is a difference between us and you," she murmured, almost secretively. "You are the only person on this ship with the authority to give orders to Tau Ceti. It is understandable that he might be a bit more choosy about whom he decides to place that much trust in."

Ekaitz looked up at her, frowning slightly. "Sigma..."

"Does not count," Irinar said dismissively. "Sigma does not order Tau Ceti to do anything. He asks. Things are different when two persons are sleeping together. Especially when one of those persons is Tau Ceti."

"I think the entire universe is different when it comes to that Gremlin," Ekaitz muttered beneath his breath, then blinked as his little circle of hovering crewmembers abruptly left him. He looked up at Meiki, who winced, gave him an encouraging smile, and pointed at something over Ekaitz's shoulder.

Stomach sinking, Ekaitz slowly got up and turned around to meet jewel-bright violet eyes as they slowly looked him over, lingering longest over the fluorescent pink stain on his chest. For a moment neither spoke, then Tau Ceti's lips quirked up into what might have been considered a smile in another universe.

"Come with me." It was not, under any circumstances, a request. By all rights he should be catering to this man's every wish if he wanted to retain his position, and still Ekaitz hesitated.

Don't show any fear, and don't let him decide you're unintelligent.

"Are you asking or demanding, Master Engineer Tau Ceti?"

There was absolute silence as everyone held their breath, no one moving other than the Gremlin whose eyebrows slowly rose. After a long, tense moment during which Ekaitz was absolutely certain he'd just screwed up royally, Tau Ceti smirked.

"Will you come with me," the Gremlin rephrased, managing to still make it sound like an order, but Ekaitz was willing to take his small victories where he could get them.


Three sets of eyes stared at them as Tau Ceti retrieved a small packet of foodstuffs and walked back out the door, Ekaitz following a pace behind him. They made their way down one more level and past the crew quarters to what Ekaitz vaguely recalled on the blueprints as being a recreation room of some sort.

Of course, this was the Ice Princess. While there were the standard amusements one would expect to find in such a place, there were also things that had absolutely no place on an IG ship, undercover or not.

"You have a swimming pool." More than that, the entire room had been done to imitate an underwater scene, complete with the occasional holographic fish swimming by. It was both soothing and jarring, as being reminded of home also reminded him of why he'd never see home again.

"It was going to be a pond with fish," Tau Ceti replied with a shrug, "But the Ice Princess told me I wasn't allowed to conquer any more unsuspecting animal kingdoms. So I made it a pool instead." He walked over to peer down into the clear waters, then looked up with a faint, mysterious smile. "Which is not to say that I don't still conquer kingdoms, but I do make an effort to make certain they are not unsuspecting."

"The Ice Princess?" Ekaitz echoed, coming over warily to look down into pool as well. To his surprise he saw a number of plants, or at least reasonable facsimiles thereof, from his native planet.

Tau Ceti laughed. "You soar through the stars on her and yet you don't know who she's named for? Come now, little frog."

"I..." Ekaitz hesitated. Did he know? There had been those odd comments from the crew, from Sigma... "It's the High Chancellor, isn't it?"

"Very good!" Tau Ceti murmured, snickering quietly. "Now you know the proper form of address to use the next time the Princess calls."

Ekaitz's eyes widened. "Oh no. You are not getting me to call the High Chancellor 'Ice Princess.'"

One of Tau Ceti's dark brows arched upward. "No?" His lips curved into that secretive smile again. "Hmm... how about I make you a deal."

This couldn't possibly be good. Drawing in a slow, steady breath, Ekaitz asked, "What kind of deal?"

Taking his arm, Tau Ceti steered him around behind a dividing wall constructed to look like great fronds of seaweed and gestured to where Sigma and Q'inn were dueling. The hellcat had the natural speed and agility, but it was obvious to Ekaitz at least that Sigma far outstripped him in skill. He wasn't remotely surprised when the hellcat went down a few moments later and they both looked up to take in the watchers.

"You fight Sigma," Tau Ceti proposed nonchalantly, his violet eyes gleaming. "If he wins, you'll call the High Chancellor whatever I want you to."

"And if I win?" Ekaitz asked, fully intending on refusing this foolish game, getting on Tau Ceti's good side or not.

The Gremlin grinned darkly. "If you win, you can stay on the Ice Princess for as long as you like."

Ekaitz started, and he knew he wasn't the only one. Q'inn was staring at the Gremlin as though he'd lost his mind, while Sigma looked more speculative. All of them regarded one another for a long moment, then slowly Ekaitz shrugged out of his ruined jacket. "All right, Gremlin. You have a deal."

Q'inn winced and clasped his shoulder, smiling faintly. "I'd wish you luck, but it wouldn't do any good," the hellcat said ruefully, backing away and leaving the mat to Sigma. The human looked from Tau to Ekaitz and back again, then sighed.

"Must you use me for your schemes, Tau?" Sigma asked quietly.

"I'll make it up to you later," Tau Ceti promised, stepping up to wrap his arms around the taller man's neck and kiss him hotly. The slender length of his tail wound up and around Sigma's body teasingly and Ekaitz felt his cheeks burning as he watched.

When they parted it was reluctantly, and both were looking a bit flushed. Tau Ceti stepped off the practice mats and leaned up against a wall, his baggy jumpsuit managing to hide what Sigma's more form-fitting pants displayed rather prominently. Ekaitz took his time slipping out of his undershirt and boots, most carefully not looking at either of them as he tested his muscles, and by the time he looked back the problem had mostly resolved itself.

Physically, in every way, Sigma outmatched him. The human was taller, broader, more heavily muscled, and looked every bit the Authority he'd once been. By contrast Ekaitz knew he was so slender as to appear frail, with the willowy, graceful face and limbs of the aquatic Elivin. With his shirt off his delicate arm fins were more obvious, matching with the equally delicate fins of his ears and making him look ethereal enough that more than a few humans in his past had mistaken him for a woman.

Ekaitz smiled grimly and stepped onto the mat. If Tau Ceti thought he was going down easily, the Gremlin had a bit of a surprise coming.

Shifting into position, he waited for his opponent to make the first move. It was obvious from the man's slight surprise and a fraction of a second's hesitation that Sigma had been accustomed to fighting people who always took the offensive. Most likely, people far beneath his level of skill as well, to judge from the all too confident way that Tau Ceti had suggested this duel.

Unfortunately for Sigma, Ekaitz was more than willing to use that against him. He feinted twice before striking, then lashed out with a kick that was barely more than a beginner's trick. As they circled round the mat, trading and blocking blows, Ekaitz randomly shifted between apprentice tricks and higher level moves, determined to keep the other man off-balance. For several exchanges it appeared to be working, then a tight smile was the only warning he had before Sigma sent him flying.

Undaunted, Ekaitz twisted in midair and landed lightly on his feet just at the edge of the mat. He inclined his head briefly to Sigma with a wry smile for the unexpected maneuver, then launched himself forward to take the offensive. He moved almost without thinking, his world narrowing down to himself, his opponent, and the faint boundary ringing them that neither could cross. Sigma threw him again, but Ekaitz had his revenge a moment later when he swept the human's feet out from under him. Sigma was away and up before he had a chance to press the advantage, however, and they clashed again.

The part of his mind that wasn't occupied with fighting delighted in the feeling of testing his skills against a true fighter again. There were so few left who had any interest in unarmed combat that it had been years since he'd really had a chance to test his skills. Taking down criminals and ending bar fights just didn't cut it.

From the way Sigma was gradually relaxing in so many tiny ways, it seemed the human was enjoying their duel as well. It became almost a game to see who could come up with the most obscure, unusual counters without sacrificing his own position. They were so evenly matched in skill that there was no telling how long the battle would have gone on if Jayce's voice hadn't announced overhead, "Captain to the bridge. The Princess is calling."

Ekaitz and Sigma separated, putting space between one another before Sigma smiled apologetically. "Sorry."

Matching Sigma's smile with one of his own, Ekaitz spread his hands. "We'll finish this later." He turned and exited the rec room, heading up to the bridge. Perhaps his status aboard the Ice Princess was still in question, but he hadn't lost and there would be an opportunity to try again.

And, he thought wryly as he stepped onto the bridge, he didn't have to call the High Chancellor 'Ice Princess.'


Two weeks later found Ekaitz back in the transport room, though this time on the receiving end. Beside him stood security head Q'inn'demaaksi, as the man they were anticipating was to be filling the vacant security position. Contingent, of course, on whether or not he survived his first few days.

It really wasn't fair, he reflected, that Q'inn was so much taller than him. Hellcats weren't overly sizable as a general rule, but this one seemed to tower. Of course, it didn't help that Ekaitz himself wasn't particularly tall, but still. It got a little bit frustrating to have half the crew petting him like he was some pretty little doll put onboard for their amusement. Even Tau Ceti was taller than he was, though not by much.

So, perversely, Ekaitz was hoping their new security officer was short. Someone new and different to give everyone something to play with and allow Ekaitz to regain some of his tattered dignity. The pride he'd given up on when the 'prize' for one of the recent crew-wide contests had been declared to be 'winner gets to kiss the pretty captain.' He'd refused, but the fact that they'd done it at all still rankled.

And yet they did seem to respect him, in some twisted manner. His orders were obeyed promptly and without hesitation, he hadn't yet been 'gifted' with a humiliating nickname, (Even Tau Ceti only called him a frog on occasion) and the crew had actually started to come to him first with problems rather than to Sigma.

Ekaitz was counting that as the greatest victory yet. Although he still wondered why a man of Sigma's obvious skill was content being a mere Second when it was clear to anyone that he was more than capable of being a Captain himself.

His musings were cut short as a warning flashed across his in-lens just before the transport came to life. He scanned the data Sigma was relaying idly, noting particular skills and commendations, then made the mistake of looking up.

The man that stepped briskly off the transport pad and smiled was the most handsome, exotic-looking creature Ekaitz had ever seen. They were almost exactly of an even height, but this man so overflowed with ease and confidence that even next to Q'inn he didn't seem small. His skin and hair were a dark red-purple, irregularly striped with black. His eyes were a brighter red, but the thing that really caught Ekaitz's attention was a pair of leathery wings folded up neatly against the man's back.

Scanning the data file again, Ekaitz found what he'd managed to skip over the first time through. Race: Avarri. That was unusual, to say the least. Most Avarri hated being in space as the close confines of spaceships made the claustrophobic gliders go insane. The vast majority of those willing to travel at all did so under heavy sedation until they reached their destination.

"I'm Jei," the Avarri announced, scarlet eyes gleaming as he looked them over. Was it his imagination, or did Jei's gaze linger a little longer on him than it had on Q'inn?

"Welcome aboard," Ekaitz greeted, forcing himself to pretend he was back on Eliv at once of his aunt's formal affairs. "I am Captain Ekaitz Kai, and this is our security head, Q'inn'demaaksi."

"Hmm..." Jei mused, giving Q'inn a more thorough perusal. "Remind me to make sure my shots are up to date."

Q'inn bared his teeth in a wicked grin. "Scared, little birdy?" The very tip of his long tail twitched around his ankles.

Jei grinned back. "Nah, I just don't want to come down with something. I might break out in fur or sprout a tail or something equally horrible."

Ekaitz barely managed to stifle a snicker, covering it up with a polite cough. "Well, if you two are done insulting one another, I believe I should get back to the bridge. You can either come along and meet some of the crew, or Q'inn can give you the standard tour and show you your quarters."

"Oh, by all means, I'll come with you," Jei said cheerfully, eyes sparkling. "Best to know what I'm up against."

For a long moment Ekaitz fought the urge to blush, firmly telling himself that Jei couldn't possibly have meant it to sound the way it had, then firmly hit Q'inn in the arm when the Hellcat started snickering. "Very well then. Come along."

He turned and walked crisply out of the transport room; with the lush carpet muffling footfalls, he was halfway down the corridor before he realized that Jei and Q'inn had stopped. Ekaitz turned around, frowning, then hid a smile at the expression on the new security officer's face. Obviously he'd adjusted rather well in his two weeks aboard the Ice Princess if he no longer looked like a dying fish when confronted with the lavish excess that was worked into every inch of the ship.

"Somebody seriously needed to warn me about this..." Jei muttered, slowly making his way down the corridor.

"No matter how detailed the warning, it wouldn't do any good," Ekaitz told him sympathetically. "The Ice Princess is something you have to see to believe."

"No kidding..." Jei mumbled, trailing his fingers along one of the embossed silvery walls. "This is unreal."

Q'inn snickered darkly. "Is the little birdy having a magpie moment?"

Jei scowled and kicked him in the shin, prompting Q'inn to lash out with his claws. They glanced away at the last minute, as though encountering an invisible wall, and Q'inn took a step back. "What the fuck...?"

Crimson eyes glittered. "Careful, kitty, this birdy bites back," Jei purred, then turned and made his way down the hall to join Ekaitz. Q'inn stared after them for a moment, then followed more reluctantly.

Ekaitz frowned, in-lens flashing as he accessed the data. A moment later his brows shot up and he again looked at Jei in interest. "You're telekinetic. That's going to make the betting pool interesting..."

Jei blinked. "Betting pool?"

Both Ekaitz and Q'inn laughed. "You'll see," Ekaitz promised. "Trust me when I say that whatever you thought you knew about the IG and Internal Affairs no longer applies. The Ice Princess is a whole different universe."

A brief flicker of something passed across Jei's face, then he smiled. "Sometimes different universes can be good things," he tossed back.

Q'inn turned to meet Ekaitz's eyes, bemused. "Okay, so maybe he'll fit in after all..." The Hellcat's gaze shifted to Jei and he bared his teeth. "After I get even for that little TK stunt."

"Try it, furball," Jei shot back cheerfully.

"Not in my hallways," Ekaitz reprimanded. "If you two are going to have it out, go down to the rec room."

Q'inn rolled his eyes. "Yes, your highness."

He knew he flinched, and he could feel Q'inn's curious gaze, but Ekaitz firmly ignored him as he resumed walking toward the lift. There were some wounds time couldn't heal, it seemed; that which had cost him everything being one of them.

They were all quiet on the ride up, Ekaitz studiously refusing to look at either one of them. He spared a brief, whimsical regret that Meiki wasn't on duty to draw the attention away from Ekaitz, but Dralikkzion an Fe'yiv would have to do. The Fornarian glanced up curiously as they entered and Ekaitz went immediately for his chair, then his eyes lit up when he spotted Jei.

"Oh hello... Pretty toy..."

Jei arched a brow. "Toy?"

Fe'yiv finished the task she'd been working on and spun around to look as well, her eyes widening slightly as she spotted Jei's wings. "An Avarri in space. Now I've really seen everything."

Dralikkzion chuckled, getting up and walking over to more closely inspect Jei. "Not true, Fe'yiv. You've never seen the Captain kiss Tau Ceti."

Ekaitz could feel his cheeks heat even as he struggled not to look at Jei and Dralikkzion. "Zion," he reprimanded, "I've told you, leave me out of your fantasies."

"I can't help it," Dralikkzion smiled, undaunted. "I like pretty things." His attention again shifted back to Jei who seemed a touch overwhelmed. "Like you. You are definitely a pretty thing," the Fornarian purred. "I wouldn't mind kissing you at all..."

"I don't know," Q'inn murmured thoughtfully, "I think our dear Captain still has him beat, but then, I could just have an ear fetish..."

Gripping the arms of his chair tightly, Ekaitz reined in his temper. "Q'inn, you will take our new agent down and show him what he needs to know. Dralikkzion, you will go park your ass back in your chair and at least pretend to spend more time thinking about your job than getting laid, and no one is going to speak to me for the next twenty minutes or I will make certain that the next time something breaks Tau Ceti thinks you're responsible."

He noted with some satisfaction that everyone scrambled to obey, though the greater part of his mind was still occupied with seething and feeling sorry for himself. He had no idea why so many of his crew seemed to have hormones running rampant, and most days he could tolerate it to some degree, but he really wished they'd just leave him out of it. He didn't want the sort of casual fling they were offering; he wanted something more. Something special. Something he'd pretty much given up on the day he'd been exiled.

Q'inn didn't know how close to the truth he'd been when he'd mockingly called Ekaitz 'highness.' No one but High Chancellor Kavalerov knew that he'd once been second in line for the Elivin throne, and might have been King of Eliv had things gone differently. No one knew, and he was going to keep it that way. That part of his life was behind him now.

"Err... Captain?"

Ekaitz shot Fe'yiv a dark look, and the Rubican cringed gratifyingly. "Um, incoming call from the High Chancellor..."

Wonderful. That was just what he needed to make everything worse. He took a moment to smooth out his features so that his annoyance wasn't quite so evident, then nodded to Fe'yiv. "All right, put him on."

The pale, handsome features of the High Chancellor filled the screen and Ekaitz nodded courteously. "High Chancellor." Something of his internal commotion must have communicated itself through his voice, for Kavalerov regarded him oddly before speaking.

"Captain Kai. I'm glad to see that you're still on-board the Ice Princess. Is Tau Ceti actually behaving?"

Ekaitz snorted quietly. "He's not misbehaving, if that's what you mean."

Kavalerov chuckled softly. "Indeed." His expression turned more serious as he abruptly became all High Chancellor again. "I'm sending the data on your new mission now. We have suspicions that a number of IG officials may be involved with a known drug-running operation, but so far proof has been elusive. Most of the transactions appear to be being conducted at a private establishment and no one we've sent in so far has been able to infiltrate. Given the... unique nature of the Ice Princess and her crew, I'm hoping you'll have better luck."

"You mean no one in their right mind would suspect a flamboyant bunch of lunatics of working for IA," Ekaitz observed dryly.

The High Chancellor laughed. "There is that," he admitted.

"All right. We're on it." Ekaitz skimmed the data being transmitted to his in-lens, then looked back up at the screen. "Oh. And Jayce would like to request that you cease sending those antique vid-films you've been digging out of the archives."

Kavalerov's brows rose. "May I ask why?"

Ekaitz snorted. "Meiki and Tau Ceti took it into their heads to re-enact the final battle of Earth in the galley with pudding and miniature soldiers."

"Ah." The High Chancellor considered. "The latest one should be safe enough, and I'll try to remember to screen them from now on." He made a note on his console, then nodded to Ekaitz. "You have your orders, Captain. Good luck."

The call ended and Ekaitz frowned. Good luck? That didn't sound like standard IG protocol, which could mean only one thing. He was in serious trouble.


Planet 7824226 (Rubican), Palace of Pleasure

He was starting to understand why the entire crew, Sigma notwithstanding, had no problem following Tau Ceti's lead in insulting the High Chancellor at the slightest opportunity. While he'd been aware that the unorthodox configuration of the Ice Princess meant that they'd be assigned unusual cases, never in his wildest thoughts would Ekaitz have imagined the High Chancellor would send them to a brothel.

Or whatever it was. Exotic resort retreat, complete with multi-talented personal attendants. Somehow he'd managed to read the entire mission briefing, form a plan of action, and determine and assign the appropriate roles, all without fully comprehending what exactly he was walking into. Now, he was dearly wishing he'd stayed on board the Ice Princess with Sigma.

The lobby of the Palace of Pleasure was open, luxurious, and lavish enough to rival even the Ice Princess. That much he was mostly immune to, due to being surrounded by it daily on the Ice Princess. It was the... decorations... lying about that really got to him.

Beautiful, every one of them, representing a wide variety of some of the most magnificent species in the Infinitum Government and beyond. The ultimate in species perfection, displayed in the most provocative manner possible while still managing to cover up the bare essentials. Ekaitz had taken one look and stopped, unable to proceed any further.

Now he was trapped, with various sensual gazes turning toward him quizzically as he hovered in the doorway between freedom and disaster. Jayce, Dralikkzion, and Fe'yiv were already inside, waiting. Jei would follow him in, and Tau Ceti, much to Ekaitz's surprise, had also volunteered to accompany them. Though he had no idea where the Gremlin was at present.

A gentle hand landed on his shoulder and Jei's voice murmured softly in his ear, "You okay?"

Ekaitz swallowed, wondering what Jei was doing here already. It couldn't possibly be time for the Avarri to make it entrance; Ekaitz hadn't been wavering that long, had he?

"Hey, you're good. Follow my lead, okay?"

Before he could protest there was a firm hand on his back, leading him forward to the glittering reception desk. The Rubican staffing it didn't bat an eye as Jei leaned forward and smiled conspiratorially, merely looked as calm and professional as ever.

"Hello there," Jei fairly purred. "My friend and I are having a bit of a problem, you see. He's a bit... mmm... inexperienced, if you follow, and painfully shy. I was hoping a visit here would boost his confidence, but..." He spread his hands helplessly and gestured toward Ekaitz. "Well. I think you can see how far we've gotten."

Ekaitz wanted to pass out or die as the Rubican's gaze passed over him measuringly. He wasn't inexperienced! He'd been taken to a pleasure house on Eliv when he'd first attained his majority, and he'd dabbled a few times since. Just because he was unused to such... such blatant displays...

The Rubican's rumbling chuckles disrupted his thoughts. "I can't see why your friend would have any troubles at all," the man announced, licking his lips. "He could put some of our treasures here to shame, looking like that. Elivin, am I correct?"

Fighting the blush that was threatening to consume him, Ekaitz nodded once. The Rubican smirked and reached out to pat his shoulder in a manner that was probably supposed to be reassuring but felt far too much like petting for Ekaitz's peace of mind.

"Mmm, I think I know exactly which of our beautiful jewels to assign to your friend," the man said thoughtfully. "But what of yourself?"

Jei smiled and subtly passed a hand over the Rubican's, passing something between them. "I was thinking I'd just go along with him for support... provide a familiar face and all so he doesn't feel so lost."

For a long moment it didn't seem as though the Rubican was going to give in, then finally he shrugged. "Only one jewel, though." He placed a small cardkey on the counter.

"That's fine," Jei replied smoothly. "I think I'll be more entertained just by watching the progress." He nudged at Ekaitz, who somewhat reluctantly passed over his point card while Jei and the Rubican shared a chuckle.

Ekaitz wasn't sure what was worse, the fact that everyone seemed to think he was a blushing virgin or the idea that Jei would be with him, watching... He shook his head swiftly, turning away so that neither of them would be able to see his face heating. Mission. They were on a mission. He'd figure out some way to slip away from the 'jewel' they'd been assigned and that would be that. In fact, having the young security officer with him might actually make that a little bit easier.

Provided, of course, he could actually manage to meet the man's eyes without blushing furiously. He was thirty-eight years old, damn it! He'd been raised to be perfectly poised and dignified at all times, and the years after his exile had more than taught him how to fend for himself. He should not be turning into a blushing teenager every time a pair of crimson eyes glanced his way. The man was nearly sixteen years his junior!

Apparently, age didn't matter to his libido.

He jumped again as Jei's soft voice once more murmured in his ear, "You forgot something..." before the cardkey was pressed into his hand. Ekaitz fought the urge to shiver, instead concentrating on wrapping his fingers firmly around the hard plastic and making his feet move forward. One step in front of the other across the wildly expensive real-wood floors, through the shimmering curtain of synth-fabric, down the luxurious hallway, stopping short as he realized someone was waiting for him.

The man was kneeling, prismatic white hair pooled around him and offsetting his golden-bronzed skin. When he heard Ekaitz's approaching footsteps he looked up, his eyes a dazzling array of colors that were constantly shifting, changing, blending from one into another. He rose slowly to bow formally to Ekaitz, only a few layers of shimmering gauze and elaborately placed jewelry protecting his modesty. "Master, I am Ka'leth. I am yours for the length of your stay."

His mind shut down. Give him sleezebags, thugs, assassins, traitors, and murderers. Give him the scum of the universe. Those he could deal with. This, this he couldn't handle at all. Maybe the High Chancellor had been wrong about him after all. Maybe he wasn't fit to command the Ice Princess at all.

"The proper thing to do," Jei's voice interrupted, carrying a faint hint of amusement, "Is to inquire about the different services that are available and select one. You can also give your name if you wish, though it's not overly common."

"Um." Ekaitz reminded himself to breathe. "I..." He blinked, twisting to regard the Avarri in surprise. "Services?"

Jei laughed, the faint trill in his voice legacy of his heritage. He slung a casual arm over Ekaitz's shoulder and smiled at Ka'leth. "Why don't we start with a massage, hmm? I think anything else would be too much at this point."

Ka'leth bowed again and led them deeper into the complex, Ekaitz following and trying very hard to concentrate on the layout of the area and not on Jei's arm and hand still touching him. They were shown into a comfortable room with a long padded table that Jei pushed him towards, the Avarri's deft hands managing to strip him of his shirt and undo his pants before his mind caught up with him.

"What are you doing!?" Ekaitz exclaimed, trapping Jei's wrists in his hands.

"You can hardly expect to receive a massage with all your clothes on," Jei replied, momentarily surprised.

"I..." Ekaitz glanced at the waiting Ka'leth, then back to Jei. "You know an awful lot about how this sort of thing works," he muttered, his own voice sounding plaintive to his ears.

Something froze behind Jei's eyes, though it was gone again before Ekaitz really had time to focus on it. The dark Avarri shrugged calmly and met his gaze. "I think anyone knows more about this stuff than you do. C'mon, 'kaitz, it's not going to hurt you to get one nice massage."

Still doubtful, Ekaitz hesitantly stepped out of his pants and lay down on the table, flatly refusing to take off his thin undershorts. He glared balefully at the floor, feeling the cool air on his skin, and wondered silently how he'd managed to get himself into such a situation. Somewhere nearby he heard a faint shifting, most likely the slave-boy getting ready while Jei found himself a nice viewpoint to watch and snicker, then there were warm hands on his shoulders and he all but melted.

Whatever else he thought of this place, those hands were good. Better than good. They unerringly sought out every spot of tension, every knot of muscle with such exquisite skill that he couldn't help the soft moan that escaped his lips. It was as though all of the doubts and uncertainties of the last month just washed away beneath that deft, delicious touch.

When those hands finally left him he lay still for a long moment and basked in the warm contentment until a series of odd sounds finally made him sit up and take notice. The white-haired young man was slumped on the floor, unconscious, and Jei was standing over him with an unfamiliar device in his hand.

Ekaitz frowned. "Jei? What..."

Jei looked up at him, flashing a cheerful smile, then strapped the device to the unconscious man's wrist. He pressed something on the device, then suddenly there were two Jeis.

Ekaitz shot up quickly and slid off the table. "What are you doing?" he demanded.

"Getting us access to wherever we want to go," Jei replied, strapping a second of the peculiar devices to his wrist. A moment later he had taken on the appearance of their guide and appeared quite pleased with himself. "That Gremlin's toys work really well."

It was incredibly strange to hear Jei's voice coming from the pleasure servant's lips. Ekaitz shook his head slightly, frown deepening. "We can't just leave him here."

Jei shook his head. "No, but I think I know where your assigned room is. We'll just pretend that I passed out."

"Leaving the two of us free to sneak around," Ekaitz finished. "All right." He shrugged back into his clothes before helping Jei with the unconscious Ka'leth and between the two of them managed to make it to Ekaitz's room without incident. A little fishing around on Jei's part turned up satin ropes that they used to bind and gag the man, then the two of them slipped back out again.

Now, finally, Ekaitz was starting to feel in control again. He wasn't being flirted with or hit on, though there were more than a few people staring hungrily at him as they walked, and he wasn't expected to be touching any of the far too beautiful half-naked people that seemed to be a permanent fixture of the establishment.

"Jayce, Zion, Fe'yiv, report in."

He kept his voice pitched low, maneuvering Jei and himself into a less populated area while his team reported in.

"Man, the Princess isn't gonna like this one bit. Ol' green ears has been running idents for me, and so far five of 'em have come back IG." Jayce sounded uncharacteristically grim.

"We don't know that they're doing anything illegal yet, just that they spend far too much money on something that should be free," Dralikkzion corrected.

"Something under the board is going on. There seems to be an unusual amount of activity centering around one particular area, but I can't get close enough to find out what. Apparently it's for 'Premiere' members only." Fe'yiv sulked.

Ekaitz frowned, considering. He glanced once at Jei, then nodded to himself. "Alright. Send me the coordinates, Fe'yiv, and we'll check it out. Jayce, you and Tau Ceti keep running idents. Zion, you and Fe'yiv see if you can hack into their computer system."

A dry voice broke into his issuing of orders. "Already done. I'll give them credit for not being stupid enough to attach names or idents to anything, but unfortunately their attempts at keeping everything untraceable weren't as good as they thought they were. I'm backtracing now."

A slight smile twisted Ekaitz's mouth. "I don't think they ever expected to be dealing with a demented Gremlin."

"Eccentric, not demented," Tau Ceti corrected absently, "Though some would argue that the separation is minimal. If you want a look at that building of Fe'yiv's, I can trip the locks from here. They really ought to know better than to use centralized power systems."

Ekaitz chuckled quietly. Tau Ceti might be arrogant, but it was a well-earned arrogance. "Understood. Zion, around back. Fe'yiv, north side. Jei and I will go in through the south entrance. If you find anything relay your findings to Tau Ceti and make sure you don't get-"

He broke off as he heard footsteps approaching. They'd managed to find a secluded corner not far from the 'premiere' building in question, but unfortunately there was not much in the corner that would have drawn a genuine customer and one of the pleasure servants there.

Before he had time to snarl a muted curse, strong arms were wrapping around his neck and a hot mouth covered his even as he found himself being pulled forward, his body pinning Jei's against a stone facade. He made a muffled sound of surprise, then he couldn't do anything else. Couldn't think, couldn't breathe. Everything began and ended with Jei's lips, Jei's mouth, Jei's tongue, Jei's hands as they slid down his back and then up underneath his shirt, teasing his skin.

Somewhere in the depths of his brain he acknowledged the footsteps retreating back the way they'd come, but it was only of secondary importance. His own hands shifted down, caressing the strong lines of muscle beneath the thin fabric of Jei's shirt, sliding down to cup the Avarri's firm buttocks and pull him closer so their groins brushed together. Beneath his hands Jei shivered, moaning softly into his mouth and clinging tighter.

Ekaitz slowly broke the kiss, tongue flicking out to taste the line of Jei's jaw as he worked his way down the man's neck to suck lightly at the skin of his collarbone. He'd lifted his head back up to steal another kiss when a worried voice sounded in his ear.

"Captain? Are you all right?"

Biting back a scathing curse, Ekaitz pulled away from Jei and re-opened the communications line. "Fine. Unexpected interruption, no problems. We'll proceed as planned."

Ending the transmission, Ekaitz cautiously met Jei's eyes. The Avarri was looking somewhat dazed, though that could have merely been a trick of the hologram. Ekaitz smiled wryly. "You and I talk later."

Jei's familiar quirky smile appeared on the holographic face. "Hmm, is it later yet?"

Laughing, Ekaitz took his hand and led them back out and around to where his in-lens told him an entrance to Fe'yiv's building could be found. There were no guards, but then there was also no obvious way to open the door. He reached out for it, almost making contact when it abruptly slid open, allowing him access. With a slight nod to Jei, they slipped inside.

Compared with the more brightly lit outdoors, the interior of the building was almost murky. A whispered conversation revealed that while Tau Ceti hadn't located a floorplan he had used the electricity configuration in the walls and flooring to draw up a basic map of his own. That map was transmitted to all of their in-lenses, highlighted with 'possible points of interest.'

The first of the attendants surprised them from around a corner. He opened his mouth to call for help, then suddenly clutched at his throat and made quiet gasping noises. Jei, hologram deactivated and back to his proper red and black self, slipped up behind him and struck the man once in the back of the head. The man promptly crumpled to the floor.

They exchanged a brief glance and briefer nod, then resumed their journey with a little more caution. The first of the rooms they checked was empty, as was the second, but the third held exactly what they'd been looking for. Cartons upon cartons of Soul awaiting distribution, with a small, independently-powered computer system sitting in the corner. Ekaitz whistled beneath his breath and made his way over.

"Jei, keep guard. I'm going to see what our little friends have been up to..."

By having the system on its own internal circuit, the dealers had neatly avoided the possibility of someone breaking into it from the outside. The sophisticated locks and alarm systems on the building itself were state of the art, and Fe'yiv had reported the main entrance as being heavily monitored. Unfortunately, none of them had counted on a temperamental Gremlin with a fondness for lockbreaking.

It was almost sad, really, how easily Ekaitz was able to break through the encryption software and access the log files. All the effort put forth to keep people from getting into the building, then practically nothing once they were inside. Overconfidence. It would cost them.

He'd just finished sending copies of all the files to Tau Ceti when Jei's quiet "hsst" alerted him to the fact that they had company. Four of them this time, though it still didn't do them any good. Before any of them had time to do more than make a faint sound of surprise, Ekaitz and Jei had them lying unconscious on the floor. They dragged the prone bodies into the room with the drugs and closed the door. Obviously, they were going to need to alter their plans slightly from the simple recon mission they'd been on. Millions of points worth of Soul were sitting in that room, and Ekaitz was determined that it was going nowhere but an incinerator.

"Captain," Fe'yiv's soft voice said in his ear, "I've got visual confirmation of one of our targets completing a transaction."

"Just sent the log books to Tau Ceti," Ekaitz replied. "This is a bigger operation than was indicated. Anything else?"

"Great Cliffs of Fornar..."

The raw, pained disbelief in Dralikkzion's voice was something Ekaitz had never heard before. Not from the perpetually laid-back Fornarian. "Zion? What's going on?"

"How dare they pervert..."

"Zion? Dralikkzion!" Ekaitz started cursing beneath his breath, taking off through the narrow halls and triangulating on the Fornarian's position. "Zion, answer me!"

At the next intersection they met up with Fe'yiv, then all three proceeded down to the lower level. The dimly-lit hallway boasted several doors, one partway down standing open. A man's arm and upper torso could be seen lying half in the hall, human to judge by the coloration. Ekaitz sprinted down the tiled floor, bracing himself for a fight as he leapt inside.

Dralikkzion stood in the center of the stark room, holding a battered, bleeding body in his arms. His warm eyes had gone dark with a fury that almost seemed to consume him as he looked up to meet his captain's eyes.

"Zion...?" Ekaitz questioned quietly, reaching out to check the boy's - barely more than a child's! - pulse.

"Palace of Pleasure," Dralikkzion spat. "Palace of pain and torture."

Ekaitz drew in a sharp breath, hearing echoing gasps behind him, then retreating footsteps. He swallowed, then activated his comm link. "Tau Ceti." There was an absent acknowledgement.

"Lock down the entire complex. I don't want anyone going in or out. Then call the High Chancellor and get me an Authority ship here now. This isn't just a Soul operation, it's a slavery ring."

Only distantly paying attention to the Gremlin's fluent swearing, Ekaitz knelt down to pay cursory inspection to the man Dralikkzion had felled then stepped back out into the hallway. He was met with Fe'yiv's grim expression.

"We've counted at least twelve more on this level, Captain, and there's another staircase that descends further underground. Jei's gone to investigate."

Ekaitz nodded. "Jayce?"


"Keep an eye on things out there. I doubt it will take them long to figure out they're locked in. If things get too chaotic, get out of there. We'll meet you back on the Ice Princess as soon as we can."


Ekaitz turned to find that Dralikkzion had joined them in the hallway, his face still grim. "How can people pervert what should be a joyous and wonderful thing?" the Fornarian asked quietly.

"People like you and I will never understand," Ekaitz told him softly. "Never."


Custom Class Star Ship TSPKAST-0000 (16251582) The Ice Princess

The soothing blue-greens of his office were about the only thing Ekaitz wanted to deal with at the moment. He downed half the pitcher of water Volar had courteously left on his desk before slumping forward, forehead resting against the shimmering synthetics that comprised the desk's surface. It had to have been the longest two days of his life, and ranked up there with getting exiled as the most depressing.

In the end they'd wound up with thirty-four caged slaves, over a third of them children, and all of them broken in spirit. Seeing the blank, glassy stares of some had almost been worse than the ones that had screamed. Ekaitz doubted that any of them would ever truly recover from the experience.

All of the involved parties were now in custody aboard the Solar Flare, the incriminating documents and vid-files long transmitted back to Zero, and the cases of Soul burned. Nine IG officials, including two Fourth Quadrant Lower Councilors, had been suspended from duty and were being held on Zero pending their trial. With the bulk of evidence now sitting in the High Chancellor's hands, the majority of them wouldn't be leaving Rehab for a very long time.

It should have made him feel better. It didn't. Times like this made him consider taking up drinking, but all it ever took was a single glass to remind him of exactly why Elivin shouldn't consume alcohol.

A brief knock at the door interrupted his mental debate on the pros and cons of doing it anyway. He lifted his head to glare blearily at the door, contemplating telling whoever it was to go away for several moments, then reluctantly decided that wasn't a good idea. There might be more complications to deal with, trouble on the planet, or maybe just Meiki managing to break the communications grid and draw Tau Ceti's wrath. Again.

Thumbing the controls to unlock the door, Ekaitz was surprised to see a man he didn't recognize standing in his doorway. A few moments of frantic, startled thought later he finally noticed the glittering platinum bracelet on the man's wrist and relaxed.

"You realize you can deactivate that now, right?" he asked dryly.

The man blinked, then flushed. He touched a finger to the bracelet as he stepped inside, the door sliding shut behind him. His entire image flickered, then the more familiar visage of Jei was standing sheepishly before him. "Right. Forgot it was still on, actually."

Ekaitz chuckled quietly. He never forgot he had one of the holographic inducers active, as it never failed to make his skin dry out faster much to his discomfort and Tau Ceti's vexation. The Gremlin seemed to think he was being difficult on purpose, or at least that was the feeling he got every time Tau Ceti snatched it back from him.

It was unfortunate they were required at all, but the simple truth was that magics-capable were not allowed in the Infinitum Government. It would be too easy to abuse their special abilities in such a setting, and thus the prohibition had come into effect. That didn't make it any less difficult to do your job as an Internal Affairs agent when you technically didn't exist and certainly weren't a magics-capable being working for the High Chancellor himself doing covert operations that were usually a little on the shady side of legal.

Thus, every time they had to interact with 'official' IG officers like those of the Solar Flare, everyone donned one of several different identities specially crafted for just such a purpose.

"Ah..." Jei fidgeted, looking far less confident than Ekaitz had ever seen him before. "I was wondering if you felt like... talking..."

For a moment Ekaitz completely blanked on what the security officer meant, his mind having gotten lost in the tedious details of cleaning up after the scum of the universe, then the memory returned and his cheeks heated. "Oh. Right. Talking."

Neither of them quite managed to meet the other's eyes, which was understandable in himself but Jei was... Jei. It was hard to imagine that the same man who had handled the whole brothel issue with such casual ease would be having the same fluttering, uncertain feeling as Ekaitz. Had all that confidence merely been a ruse? Or had the Avarri come instead to ask Ekaitz to leave him alone? His stomach flipped.

Jei fidgeted restlessly, his wings shifting position every few moments as though he wasn't quite certain what to do with them. His hands were firmly clasped behind his back, though from the way his arms twitched it didn't look like those were holding still very well either. Finally he drew in a deep breath and wrenched his gaze up to meet Ekaitz's eyes.

"Where the stars did you learn to kiss like that!?" Jei blurted. "I thought..." He abruptly snapped his mouth closed and looked away in embarrassment.

Ekaitz felt his cheeks heating as well. "Ah, I guess I did give that impression, didn't I?" He cringed, hoping devoutly that Jei was the only one who had actually witnessed his deplorable behaviour. "I'm thirty-eight years old, Jei. I don't think it's actually possible to make it that far without..." His face flushed further. "Ah... at least some experience..."

"Thirty-eight?" Jei repeated, sounding a little surprised. "Huh. You really don't look it." The security officer contemplated that for a moment, during which Ekaitz did his best not to squirm. The Captain part of him was anticipating that the beautiful young Avarri would (rightfully) decide that the age difference was too great. The part of him that was just Ekaitz, however, was desperately hoping for just the reverse.

"So..." Jei leaned forward, his hands flat on the surface of Ekaitz's desk, those lovely crimson eyes far too close for the Elivin's peace of mind. "Back there... on the planet..." Why couldn't Ekaitz manage to look away from that hypnotic gaze? "You kissed me back."

Could a man get fired for kissing his junior officer in an effort to avoid detection while undercover at a whorehouse? Ekaitz's chest felt strangely tight. "Would you prefer I hadn't?"

"I, oh, Stars!" Jei's face twisted into a grimace and then suddenly he was halfway across the desk, one hand wrapping behind Ekaitz's neck, the other still on the desk to steady himself, his lips hot and demanding as they covered Ekaitz's own.

The heady rush was just the same the second time as it had been the first, wet and fiery and consuming as their tongues sparred. He didn't remember yanking Jei off the desk and into his lap, but he was quite aware of managing to get one hand up the back of the man's shirt as Jei positively keened when his questing touch brushed against the strong muscle where the planes of his back gave way to wings. The Avarri arched in his lap, their cloth-covered groins brushing together in a way that made them both moan and break apart, panting.

"That would be a 'no' then," Ekaitz observed, then yanked Jei back down for another bruising kiss. Deft fingers undid the fastenings of his shirt, reaching inside to caress his skin and tease his nipples, then abruptly those same hands were swiftly undoing his pants and Ekaitz had to force them apart again.

"Not..." He struggled to catch his breath. "Not here..."

Eyes to put the finest Fornarian ruby to shame pouted at him even as their owner sucked in long-denied air as well. "Why not?"

Ekaitz grimaced. "Because half the crew, if not more, knows how to manipulate the locks on this ship and they all consider my office to be free territory."

Jei winced. "Oh." He didn't move from Ekaitz's lap, if anything he wriggled closer, thinking furiously. "Is there anywhere private? With that Gremlin around..."

Ekaitz chuckled quietly. "Oddly enough, Tau Ceti is the least of my worries. He has his own feelings about privacy." He considered. "Enough so that he rigged all the doors in the personal areas to respond only to me, him, and their owners. How do you feel about seeing what the Captain's quarters look like?"

The response, though wordless, was entirely affirmative.


Ekaitz awoke feeling warm, sated, and deliciously content, if a bit on the dry side. He groped blindly for the bottle of water that he knew was on a side table somewhere, having to sit up and order the light intensity increased a little when it didn't immediately turn up. The water bottle had fallen to the floor at some point and he retrieved and drained it before twisting around to see if his restlessness had awoken his lover.

The bed was empty. Dropping the bottle, Ekaitz threw back the covers and retrieved his in-lens, searching for any priority missives that would have drawn the security officer away. Nothing. Undaunted, he yanked his trousers back on and ordered the internal scanners to locate Jei, tensing when the result came back. What was the Avarri doing in the transport room?

Not bothering with the rest of his clothing, Ekaitz bolted out the door and down the corridors to the lift, fidgeting impatiently during the minimal delay as the lift carried him up several floors. There was a reason Jei had crept out while he was asleep. There was a reason he was in the transport room when no orders had been given. There had to be.

He was through the lift doors practically before they'd finished opening, his heart pounding in his chest as he ran the rest of the way to the transport room, more alarmed than he cared to admit when the doors didn't immediately open. He punched in his override access code with slightly more force than was strictly necessary and stepped inside, stopping short at the sight.

Jei was there, but he wasn't alone. Sigma was there as well, on his knees and struggling futilely against some kind of invisible bonds, his eyes gone wide with alarm and a cold anger. He was still wearing the medium grey 'uniform' he tended to prefer while on duty, which most likely meant that Tau Ceti wasn't yet aware that there was anything wrong.

As Ekaitz stared, Jei's face went as pale as it could beneath his dark skin, the tips of his wings trembling.

"Jei..." Ekaitz managed to force out.

Jei flinched back as though struck, the trembling worsening. "Ekaitz, I..." He swallowed audibly. "It wasn't supposed to be this way. It was just... just another job... I never expected..." The Avarri bit his lip, taking two steps back so that he was standing just next to Sigma on the transport pad.

"I'm sorry," Jei whispered, then the transporter came to life and they were gone.

For several long moments Ekaitz could only stare in disbelief, his heart hammering in his chest as it attempted to wrench itself right out of his body. This couldn't be happening. It simply wasn't possible. No one but the High Chancellor even knew Ekaitz and the Ice Princess existed. Sigma was officially 'retired' on some obscure planet out in the middle of nowhere. There was absolutely no way that Jei had just kidnapped his Second officer.

Except that he had.

Ignoring the way his heart wanted to shatter into a thousand tiny pieces, Ekaitz swiftly called up the controls on the transporter, trying to determine where they'd gone. The Ice Princess should be in the middle of space, which could only mean... Yes. Another ship. Already out of transport range and moving fast.

"Not fast enough," he snarled and bolted back out of the transport room. "Meiki, Fe'yiv."

There was no response from either of the two who should have been manning the bridge. Ekaitz's blood chilled and he forced himself to run that much faster. "Jayce! Dralikkzion!"

A few moments later there was one, then two sleepy acknowledgements. "Meet me on the bridge, now," Ekaitz snapped, all but throwing himself bodily into the lift and wanting to scream at how slow the better than state of the art technology seemed to move when your entire world was falling apart.

Down yet another hallway - too long, far too long - Ekaitz was forced to come up short as the bridge doors didn't immediately open for him. Again he had to manually override them, and they were sluggish to respond when he did. His heart leapt into his throat at the sight of his two officers slumped over their consoles. They weren't... Jei wouldn't... He sighed in relief to find two sets of steady pulses, then reached over Meiki's shoulder to set a pursuit course. There was no ship ever built that could outrun the Ice Princess.

He'd just finished laying the course and sending the command codes to initiate when the pounding of footsteps alerted him that Jayce and Dralikkzion had just made their appearance. He spun, catching a brief glimpse of the two sleep-muddled, barely dressed men before there was a muffled boom and they were all knocked off their feet.

"What the fuck was that?" Jayce demanded, then a far more intimidating voice sounded over the speakers.

"What did you do to my ship!?" Tau Ceti screamed, the fury in the Gremlin's voice unmistakable.

"Tau Ceti, you are needed on the bridge right now." Ekaitz was distantly amazed at how steady his voice sounded. "That goes for everyone else as well. I want everybody up here in the next two minutes, decent or not. Xalin, bring a medkit."

Jayce and Dralikkzion were both staring at him, uncharacteristically silent. He snapped out orders and the two helped him get Meiki and Fe'yiv laid out on the floor. Dralikkzion was still kneeling over the two unconscious officers when Xalin arrived, though Jayce had slipped into one of the two control chairs and was running a systems check.

Q'inn and Volar arrived shortly thereafter, Volar going to assist Xalin while Q'inn went immediately to Ekaitz's side. "What's going on?" the Hellcat asked.

Ekaitz shook his head. "Not yet, I still need..."

Right on cue Tau Ceti appeared, Irinar just behind him. The Gremlin was absolutely livid, then the anger abruptly turned to shock as he spotted Meiki and Fe'yiv with the two medical officers bending over them. "What. Happened?"

"Jei was a plant," Ekaitz said flatly, feeling the startled ripple around him as the remaining crewmembers started at his words. "It looks like his primary mission on our ship was to kidnap a member of our crew."

There were several indrawn breaths, then Tau Ceti went nearly white. He twisted to look around the room, in-specs flashing as he frantically accessed the computer. "No... Sigma... where is Sigma!?"

Before Ekaitz had a chance to reply, Jayce began cursing fluently and pounded a fist on the edge of his control board. "The engines aren't responding. We're fucking dead in the water and those bastards are getting away from us!"

With an inhuman cry the likes of which Ekaitz had never heard before, Tau Ceti spun and sprinted off the bridge, no doubt heading for the engine room. Irinar took off on his heels to do the same, her eyes wide and frightened. No one else moved for a long moment, then Xalin's voice said quietly, "Meiki and Fe'yiv will be fine. Neither has suffered any permanent damage, though they'll both likely wake up with an impressive headache."

"How... how could something like this happen?" Q'inn snarled, his tail lashing furiously as his claws clenched and reclenched. "This ship doesn't fucking exist!"

"I don't know," Ekaitz said quietly. "Jayce, Zion, status of our communications systems."

The Fornarian slid into his seat while the Vrill slowly called up the appropriate systems. "Looks like they're still operational..."

"Put out a Locate and Detain on that ship that ran from us, Priority Zero." Ekaitz drew in a slow breath and ran a hand through his unbound hair. "Then get me the High Chancellor."

Jayce hesitated. "It's 03:30 Zero time..."

Ekaitz sighed quietly. Could this day possibly get any worse? He'd be lucky to end up on a Sardoran freighter once this mess was over.

"I'm aware of that, Jayce. Put the call through."

While he waited for the connection to be picked up on the other end, Ekaitz located Sigma's in-specs. The kidnappers' escape ship was still within range of their equipment and hadn't yet adjusted course. With the Ice Princess's enhanced systems, they had another forty-five minutes or so before things got ugly. If they had any luck left in this disaster, Tau Ceti would be able to get the engines back on line and operational before they reached that point.

If not, he was just going to have to hope they could track that blasted ship however far it decided to run. Though the longer it took to take up the pursuit, the slimmer their chances became. Especially if the kidnappers went through a light gate.

Shoving that thought firmly out of mind, Ekaitz evaluated the Ice Princess's systems. Whatever had taken out their engines seemed to have only taken out the engines. All other systems appeared to be completely operational, as far as he could tell. Nothing behaved quite the same as on a 'normal' ship, and he was still adjusting to the entirely custom-built systems.

"Got him," Jayce announced quietly, then the shirtless, slightly sleep-muddled image of the High Chancellor appeared on the main screen. He took in the similarly disarrayed status of Ekaitz and his crew and straightened, pale blue eyes going frighteningly intense.

"Captain Kai. What's happened?"

Ekaitz ran a hand through his tangled hair. "Our new security officer turned out to be a plant. We don't know how much he knows about the ship, but I don't think it's the Ice Princess he was after, as he took Sigma with him when he left. Our engines are crippled; Tau Ceti's down there now, but I haven't gotten any sort of estimate on how long it's going to take him to fix them. I've put out an L&D on the ship, and Dralikkzion is transmitting all the data we have on them to you now."

The High Chancellor went so still he could have been carved from ice. His expression betrayed nothing, the ultimate unreadable mask of a lifetime politician. His eyes flicked once, briefly, to the incoming data on his screen, then his lips narrowed the slightest bit. "The Ice Princess is Classified. Without access to my systems..." Those pale eyes flashed, and Ekaitz was abruptly extremely glad to have two quadrants between himself and the High Chancellor. "Keep me informed. I'll reroute every ship I can spare in the area."

Ekaitz nodded once, then the call abruptly ended. He dropped into his chair with a pained sound, rubbing at his temples. His skin was feeling dry again and the bottle next to his chair was empty. Until Tau Ceti got the engines working again there was practically nothing he could do except to go over every detail of every moment he'd spent in Jei's presence and look for whatever clues there might have been. He already had the man's file up on Sigma's in-specs, though it had most likely been faked, and there was nothing there to help him.

Hauling himself back out of his chair with a muffled curse, he grabbed the empty bottle and headed down to the medical room. Xalin had most likely relocated Meiki and Fe'yiv there while he was otherwise occupied, and there was always the possibility that Jei had said something to one of them before rendering them unconscious.

As he swore at the lift for the third time that morning, Ekaitz reflected that it was entirely in keeping with the rest of his life that he'd finally manage to find the one man who was absolutely perfect for him, only to have that man turn out to be a traitor. The cosmos was evidently having one enormous laugh at his expense.


Combat Class Star Ship 35471990 The Conquistador

Sigma paced slowly around the perimeter of his cell, sharp eyes missing nothing, and yet still he saw no options available to him. If he'd had Tau Ceti with him they'd no doubt already be free, but unfortunately humans weren't quite as deft as Gremlins at disassembling random lighting circuits and building useful escape objects. The ship, what he'd seen of it so far, seemed fairly up to date. Combat Class, probably a bounty hunter's. That would explain the excellent prisoner holding cells.

Giving up for the moment, Sigma sat down heavily on the one low bench built into the far wall. There was no way out that he could find. Therefore, his thoughts turned instead to how he'd gotten into this mess. It had all happened very suddenly; he'd been on the bridge with Meiki and Fe'yiv when the door had slid open. Meiki and Fe'yiv had almost immediately crumpled, while Sigma himself had at least had time to turn around to face his attacker.

Not that it had done him any good. Jei's telekinesis was formidable. So formidable, in fact, that he'd barely been able to do more than get out a single word before he'd found he couldn't move. No matter how hard he struggled with all the strength in his body, he couldn't move so much as a finger as Jei floated him along down the hallways to the transport room.

Then Captain Ekaitz had come. The intense pain, the look of absolute betrayal on his captain's face had taken Sigma off-guard. Only one thing he knew of could cause an agony like that, and he wondered how long the two had been together.

Not long, he decided, running over memories in his mind. Before the mission to Rubican, Ekaitz had been the same as ever. After he'd come back and they'd dealt with the Solar Flare... Yes, there had been some disjointedness there, but nothing overt. Nothing like he'd seen a few hours ago in the transport room. So they couldn't have been together more than one night.

He winced, hoping his captain was all right. The man could be so strong and so frail all at once. Something a long time ago had broken him, and he'd never really healed from it. Now, with this additional betrayal on top of that...

Grimacing, Sigma hoped that the man he'd seen underneath would triumph despite everything that he'd experienced. There was potential in Ekaitz. More than that. If the man would stop doubting himself, Sigma had no doubts that he'd be an excellent leader.

Fixing a glare at the unobtrusively glowing light on the wall, he leaned back against the wall. That light was capable of getting him out of this place, he just didn't have the knowledge or the skill to make use of it. Not like his temperamental lover. Sigma hoped Tau Ceti was all right, and spared a brief thought for the crew that were undoubtedly being driven mad by the furious Gremlin. They only thought they'd known what an angry Tau Ceti was like.

He smiled despite himself, chuckling quietly. There was so much fire, so much energy in that lean body that he was sometimes amazed that Tau didn't burn himself out. Until meeting Tau Ceti, he'd thought it impossible for someone to be that intense all the time. The Gremlin had proved him so very wrong, not that he'd minded.

Still. The fact that the Ice Princess hadn't caught up with the mercenary ship hours ago meant that Jei had somehow disabled her before kidnapping Sigma. Tau was undoubtedly livid and snapping at anyone who so much as looked at him if his precious toy ship had been damaged. And the longer of a head start the mercenaries had, the harder it would be for the Ice Princess to catch up.

Although she would. Of that, Sigma had no doubts. If Ekaitz managed to stay in one piece and not break under the strain, he and Tau Ceti would make a very, very dangerous team. It almost made him feel sorry for Jei and his mercenaries when those two caught up with them.

There were faint footsteps, coming nearer, then the door slid open. Jei walked calmly inside, and the mechanism slid shut again. They faced one another neutrally, neither saying a word, though Jei seemed faintly surprised that Sigma hadn't bothered to even get up. Sigma wasn't sure why. Jei had already proven he could overpower Sigma, so there really wasn't much point to repeatedly attacking the man. A physical offensive was not going to get him out of here.

"You... I wanted to come apologize," Jei said, eyeing Sigma cautiously and staying as far away from the man as he could. "I have nothing against you personally, or your ship, or the... the people on board." He swallowed slightly, shoulders drooping. "It was just business. I pick you up, deliver you to the people who want you, that's that. I didn't... I didn't think..."

He wrapped his arms around himself miserably, looking almost as agonized as Ekaitz had been in the transporter room. His youth was almost painfully obvious in that moment of such blatant uncertainty. He was only twenty-two, if Sigma remembered the personnel file right. Far too young to be involved in this sort of business, though obviously he more than had the skills for it.

"You didn't think anyone would get hurt?" Sigma asked quietly, keeping his voice pitched low to avoid startling the man.

Jei shook his head slightly. "People get hurt all the time. Sometimes I'm the one doing the hurting. It happens. But this time... You all were so different. Everybody was always laughing and smiling and even when they teased each other it was never really meant to hurt. Then there was the Palace of Pleasure and..." His face crinkled up into a study of abject misery. "Nobody ever cared before. Nobody ever cared about somebody they didn't know... just another forgettable face..."

Sigma studied him carefully, noting the way he held himself, the faint tremors, the way he wouldn't quite meet Sigma's eyes and flinched away when the human moved a little too quickly. Several pieces clicked into place and he found himself drawing an involuntary breath. "You were one of them once, weren't you?" Jei's head snapped up, ruby eyes wide. "One of the pretty, nameless dolls..."

"No!" Jei backed up against the door, hugging himself tightly. "No... Not... not like that... Not like... those cages... I could get out. Did get out. I just..." He shivered violently, his wings unfurling to wrap around his body as though for safety.

Deliberately adopting a casual, relaxed pose, Sigma watched the pained young man. It was always unpredictable, dealing with those children who had been denied affection all their lives. When they finally did encounter it they either rejected it completely or were completely overwhelmed by it. Jei, it seemed, was of the latter kind.

"That's why we do what we do, you know," Sigma said softly. "Me, Tau, Ekaitz... the whole purpose of the Ice Princess is to go in where the Infinitum Government can't reach to make the universe a better place for everyone."

Jei flinched again. "Ekaitz..." He swallowed and shivered. "I never meant... I never meant to hurt him... It was just a job, like any other..." His voice dropped to barely a whisper. From the expression on his face, Sigma had no doubts that Jei could remember every second of those moments in the transport room in painful clarity.

"Just like any other?" Sigma questioned gently.

A soft breath escaped Jei's lips and the Avarri sighed. "No," he admitted. "Not at all." He looked up then, meeting Sigma's eyes for a brief moment before turning away. "This... This was a mistake, to come here. I need to go." He pressed a thumb to the reader on the wall and the door slid open.

"You don't have to do this, Jei."

The Avarri stopped in the doorway, facing away from him. Sigma didn't move, just continued talking in a low, steady voice. "If you helped me now, you'd be in a lot less trouble. You could come with me... back to the Ice Princess..."

Jei shook his head violently, hanging onto the door frame for support. "I can't. Ekaitz..."

"Is hurting at least as much as you are. If you're both so miserable, then there must have been something strong between you if it's affecting you both this much."

Twisting to look at him, Jei's eyes were dark. "He'll never forgive me."

Sigma shook his head slowly. "You don't know that. When I first met Tau Ceti, we fought almost constantly. Now, he's the most important thing in the universe to me."

"I'm not like you," Jei said quietly. "I wish I was. Things would have been... different. But I can't help who I am, or the things that I've done. I can't change those. And that means I'll never, ever be good enough for him."

He stepped out of the frame and the door slid shut, leaving Sigma alone once more with only his thoughts for company. He had a lot to think about. Hopefully, he wasn't the only one.


Custom Class Star Ship TSPKAST-0000 (16251582) The Ice Princess

The monitor was blinking insistently, but neither of the two persons present paid it any mind. One was not in view of the screen and thus was unaware of the attempts to contact the engine room, Irinar having slithered down beneath one of the damaged booster units some time ago, while the other had long since dismissed it as unimportant. Time was crucial. Tau Ceti would allow no distractions in his frantic quest to repair the damaged systems.

He seethed, white-hot fury coloring his vision and making his movements jagged and rough. Sigma was gone. Taken away from him by some space garbage. The same space garbage that had had the nerve to set off charges in his engine room and cripple his precious gift to his only friend. He snarled, cursing furiously when his angry jerking snapped off the piece he'd been working on.

When the Ice Princess caught up to those flea-bitten mongrels he was going to electrocute them all to within an inch of death, then design a torture device the likes of which the universe had ever seen and strap them into it for the rest of their miserable, worthless lives.

Somewhere behind him came a faint crackling sound, then a muffled "Oh, hey, I think I got it!" and then the one voice he really didn't want to hear right now emerged from the overhead speakers.

"Tau Ceti."

The Gremlin sat up, scowling, and turned to regard the small message screen that currently displayed the familiar, sternly handsome face of High Chancellor Pyotr Kavalerov. One of the miscreants on the bridge must have figured out how to get around the quick lock he'd thrown on the terminal and patched the call through to the engine room. On any other day he'd almost be proud of them. Today, however, he wanted to wring their necks.

"Go away, Pyotr. I don't have time right now."

"Working yourself to death isn't going to bring him back any faster," Pyotr scolded mildly. "I thought you learned that lesson once before."

"I've only been up for forty-three hours, that pushy yellow man brought me food about eight hours ago, and I'll take a bath as soon as I get this stupid engine working again!" Tau Ceti snapped.

There was a brief silence, then Pyotr's voice came again, softer. "It's not your fault, Tau."

The wrench slipped out of his hand, falling to the floor with a loud clang. He spun around to snatch it up off the floor, hating the way his vision blurred, desperately hoping that the hot tears weren't visible at the angle from which Pyotr was viewing him. "You're wrong," he managed to force out. "I didn't anticipate... I should have planned for..."

"You can't plan for every contingency, Tau. There are too many." Pyotr sounded even more tired than usual. "This is as much my fault as anyone's. No one should have access to the Ice Princess's personnel files but me. No one should even be able to find the ship but me. If you're going to blame someone, blame me."

Scrubbing his arm across his eyes, Tau Ceti finally got up and walked over to the screen, staring blankly at the image of the second most important person in his life. "I set up your security systems," he pointed out sullenly.

"I don't think it was the system itself that was compromised." Pyotr shook his head. "I can't find any evidence of unauthorized access. My best guess at this point is that someone use the public log files to track when I was communicating with the Ice Princess and waited for the right opportunity to make use of what they knew."

"Infiltrating an imposter." Tau Ceti gripped the edges of the control board tightly. "That... That must have taken time. This is no random kidnapping..."

"No," Pyotr agreed. "Whoever set this up put a lot of effort into the attempt. Obviously they want Sigma for something. That something is what I'm trying to figure out now. He's not the type to make enemies, though he was never well-liked amongst the Authorities he worked with."

Tau Ceti scowled. "They were stupid."

Pyotr chuckled quietly. "Their loss is yours and my gain. But still... he may have been disliked, but nothing in my research shows any reason someone would harbor a grudge against him. He had no real friends or even close associates amongst those he worked with or schooled with, and he has only two family members left."

"Father, brother." Tau Ceti's face scrunched up in thought. "Younger brother."

"Delta," Pyotr provided. "His father is Tria Altair, and is the Governor of Xochimi in the fourth quadrant. Delta is..." He frowned slightly, looking thoughtful. "Secretary to the Lower Chancellor of that same quadrant."

Tau Ceti snorted. "I know that look. You're going to go interrogate the kid. Try not to scare him too bad, mm'kay, Princess?"

Pyotr rolled his eyes and snorted quietly. "You are telling me not to scare someone?" He laughed when Tau made a rude gesture at the screen. "But that aside, Tau, watch your temper. If you let it get the better of you, you're going to make mistakes."

Tau Ceti scowled. "I never make mistakes." At the High Chancellor's raised brow he amended, "Almost never."

"Just keep it in mind while you're working. How extensive is the damage to the Ice Princess?"

Sighing, Tau turned to look out over the engines and the nearby power reserves. "Bad enough. I'm having to rebuild most of the main engine from scratch, and one of the two secondaries got toasted pretty severely. The experimental drive wasn't touched, but it'd take me longer to reconfigure it for normal usage than it is to rebuild the entire main engine and its components." He scowled, sulking. "For a soon-to-be-dead space rat, he wasn't stupid."

One ice blond brow shot up. "Coming from you, that's high praise."

The Gremlin muttered beneath his breath and gestured again. Pyotr shook his head with a slight smile. "Would it help if I sent a few ships your way?" he asked.

Vivid violet eyes flashed him a sharp glare. "I am not having clumsy oafs anywhere near my ship and my engines. I have enough spare parts on board to fix this three times over. All I need is time." He shot the High Chancellor a pointed look.

Chuckling again, Pyotr sighed tolerantly. "All right. Just promise me you won't overwork yourself."

"Hmph" was all the response he got before Tau Ceti went back to work, but they both knew the promise would be kept regardless of whether or not the words were spoken. In forcing him to calm, the High Chancellor had given him the clarity of mind he needed to work at the efficiency he was accustomed to.

With renewed vigor and temper held firmly in check, Tau Ceti attacked the inner core of the engine. "En guarde, demons," he murmured beneath his breath. "For I shall be the one to vanquish you!"


Planet 0000000 (Zero), The Palace of Eternity

Pyotr Kavalerov watched silently for a minute as his long-time friend and surrogate little brother went back to working his Gremlin magic on the decimated equipment, then calmly cut the connection. Tau would be all right now. He was thinking again, if not clearly then at least not nearly so muddled. It seemed to be an inherent character flaw in all Gremlins that they could get completely consumed by a project to the exclusion of all else. It was one of the reasons the race was in danger of dying out; there were cases in his files that noted more than one Gremlin having literally worked himself to death.

That, Pyotr swore, would not happen to Tau Ceti. Not as long as he was around to play the role of elder brother and interrupt his friend's obsession whenever necessary. No matter what kind of fireworks went off as a result.

Sending the data files from his terminal to his in-lens, Pyotr rose and pushed away his chair. He had a task of his own to deal with now, and one that was going to require the majority of his concentration. Theoretically, a simple secretary wouldn't have all that much power in the Infinitum Government. Pyotr had several of his own, after all, and every one of them remained completely in the dark about his various 'special' projects. Still the fact remained that someone in the Palace of Eternity had managed to locate information that no one should know about. The fact that Sigma Altair's father and brother were both involved with the fourth quadrant in some manner could be a complete coincidence... or a well-laid conspiracy. He intended to find out which.

After the first three people who greeted him once he stepped out of his office took an uncertain step back at his response, Pyotr took a moment to pull up a neutral facade. He was well aware that he could be a bit intimidating to people on a good day. Obviously it got worse when he was upset. One would think that dealing with all the worst problems in space on a daily basis would have inured him to such stresses. This time, though, was different. This was personal.

Lower Chancellor Rana Eridani's office was wide open. Pyotr stepped inside, frowning a bit at the elevated levels of clutter that seemed to be everywhere, then caught the attention of one of the two persons both clustered around the Chancellor's desk. One looked up at first, blinked fuzzily at him, then the man's eyes widened and he prodded the other. That one also took a moment to recognize him, then they both shot to their feet.

"High Chancellor!"

They both looked tired. Exhausted, even. Pyotr frowned. "Where is Rana?" he asked.

"Um." The two exchanged hesitant looks. Pyotr could almost see their tired minds struggling desperately to come up with an answer - and not the one he wanted. Repressing a sigh and letting a little bit of his irritation seep into his expression, he looked at them pointedly.

They both flinched. "Lord Eridani... he... that is... um..." Now they looked almost miserable. The one on the left wrung his hands and looked up imploringly.

"We're not supposed to... We weren't supposed to know at all. I don't think they even knew, really, but it's obvious now and he made us promise not to tell and..."

Pyotr felt his patience wearing very thin. He pinched the bridge of his nose and counted slowly to ten. When he felt composed enough to deal with the two men without wanting to strangle them, he drew in a quiet breath.

"Did you find-" A harried voice called from behind him, then someone promptly smacked into him and nearly overbalanced him. Whoever it was had been in a considerable hurry, given the force with which they'd crashed into Pyotr. He managed to stay on his feet, but a thud behind him indicated that the other person hadn't been nearly so fortunate. He turned cautiously, brows going up to discover Lower Chancellor Rana Eridani, looking even more stressed and exhausted than his two secretaries.

He helped Rana get back to his feet, then took a step back to get out of the man's immediate vicinity to avoid another accident. Like his secretaries, it took Rana a moment to recognize Pyotr.

"Lord Kavalerov..."

"Is there a reason none of you look like you've slept in days?" Pyotr asked, frowning.

Rana went red, then white. He glanced around Pyotr to his two secretaries, who both shook their heads rapidly. The Lower Chancellor swallowed and cautiously met Pyotr's gaze again, flinching at whatever he saw there. "I... that is, we... we were..."

"Let's try another tactic," Pyotr interrupted, a little more impatiently than he meant to. "Where is your secretary, Delta Altair?"

While he wasn't sure exactly what he'd been expecting, Rana Eridani crumpling to the floor with a distraught whimper wasn't it. There were the sounds of someone scrambling around behind him, then Rana's two secretaries appeared from either side to kneel next to the Chancellor.

Pyotr felt a headache forming. He hadn't gotten nearly enough sleep last night after having been awoken by the Ice Princess's emergency call, dealing with Tau Ceti had taken more out of him than he'd thought, and now he had a Lower Chancellor practically in tears at his feet. Rana Eridani, of all people. The man on Zero most often accused of being emotionless. The one who never got upset, never got angry. The only IG official who could manage to be in the same room as High Councilors Torrik and Ramadanya without a fight breaking out.

"Someone is going to start explaining what is going on here," Pyotr said slowly, "Right now."

One of the two secretaries looked up at him, lips twisting into an unhappy grimace, then he sighed quietly. "Delta's missing," he admitted softly. "He's been missing for..." He checked his chrono. "Almost sixty-eight hours."

What? Pyotr stared at the secretary, then at Rana, doing some rapid re-evaluations. Almost three days would put Delta's disappearance at two days before Sigma had been kidnapped. That would make sense if the man had been their mole and was making certain he got away before anyone suspected him, but something still didn't feel right. Good moles were valuable because they remained in their places, undetected. Running so early was considerably more suspicious than merely continuing to do one's job.

"You have alerted the Authorities."

The secretary nodded dismally. "No leads. His things are all still in his room, his files are untouched, and there are no records of him leaving Zero. It's like he just vanished into thin air."

Pyotr frowned. A mole would have at least taken files with him. And how had the man gotten off Zero without detection? "When did you notice he was missing?"

"As soon as we got to the office. Delta's... well, he's very good at what he does, but he doesn't seem to know what sleep is for. He's always the first one in, and usually Lord Eridani has to make him leave in the evenings." The man awkwardly patted Rana's shoulder. "We used to joke that we should just set him up a cot in the office, if he wants to stay that badly..."

Apparently a fixation with work and duty ran in the Altair family. And speaking of-

"Did Delta have any... problems with his family?" Pyotr asked carefully.

Now both secretaries were looking at him in surprise. "Huh? No. He didn't really talk much about his family - hard to get him to talk about anything that wasn't work - but they were on good terms. He gets messages every now and then from his father and brother and it was always funny reading them over his shoulder because they all write the same way. Just the bare facts, no real pleasantries, that sort of thing." The secretary smiled faintly and shook his head. "It was like reading a report rather than a letter. 'These things happened. No serious injuries.' and such. What a weird family."

Delta and Sigma both missing, and from the sounds of it Delta was just as unlikely to turn against the IG as Sigma. A vendetta against the family, then?

"What do you know about Delta's father?" Pyotr asked.

The secretary that had been explaining things to him looked thoughtful. "He's a Governor of some planet in quad four... that was always funny because Delta was always so careful about making sure everyone got treated equally and his father didn't get any special treatment. We used to wonder if that ever bugged Delta's father, but then we got to read his letters and..." He laughed quietly. "I think that man would be more offended if Delta had tried to give him special treatment. Like I said, weird family."

And unfortunately for Pyotr's investigation, not the kind of family to make enemies. Yet still the fact remained that both Altair brothers were now missing, and the only lead they had was the ship identification that Captain Kai had gotten. Apparently it was time to go look a little deeper into Tria Altair's file. But first...

Pyotr knelt down next to the exhausted Rana, seeing in his mind a certain Gremlin frantically overworking himself in his quest to locate his lover. "Rana, look at me. Delta will be found, I promise you that, but if you keep on like this you're going to wear yourselves out. Tired eyes miss things. I suggest the three of you start working in shifts so that you all get some rest."

For a moment there was nothing, then Rana visibly pulled himself together and nodded slightly. "Yes, of course... Who knows how much we may have missed already." He rose slowly to his feet, both secretaries helping him keep his balance, then gave a shallow, formal bow. "Thank you, Lord Kavalerov."

Pyotr nodded. "Keep me informed. I need to know immediately if you find anything."

There were three faint expressions of surprise, then Rana's formal mask slid back into place. "Of course, Lord Kavalerov. I will let you know at once if we discover anything." He looked to the secretary on his right. "Tik, find the initial report the Authorities did. Perhaps that will be of some use to the High Chancellor."

"Yes, Lord Eridani." The man in question broke off to go do exactly that, and Pyotr thanked them all politely before excusing himself. He had a lot of work to do, and the situation had just gotten considerably more complicated.


Planet 5525685 (Kalakmul), A Small Complex

Sigma walked steadily over the uneven terrain, patiently ignoring the ache in his side where one of the bounty hunters had kicked him. He'd caught them off-guard when they'd shown up without Jei; apparently they'd assumed that just because he remained docile around the Avarri meant he wouldn't fight back given the appropriate opportunity. He'd put at least two of them out of commission before Jei had shown up to subdue him.

Interesting, though, that beyond the one kick and a particularly nasty blow to the head the bounty hunters hadn't retaliated. That meant that whoever wanted him also wanted him kept intact - at least for now. Unfortunately for his kidnappers, that gave Sigma the advantage.

Unfortunately for Sigma, they'd bound his hands. That would make fighting his way free considerably more difficult when it came to that point. Even so, it wasn't impossible. All he really had to do was get away from Jei so the Avarri's telekinesis wouldn't continue to thwart his plans. Magics could be extremely annoying at times like these.

He was led into a small complex that appeared to have been built into the side of a cliff. They were met by a group of five people, all of them the same species and one Sigma didn't recognize. They all spoke in hushed tones that he couldn't quite make out, then something was exchanged and Sigma was turned over to the new group. He was shoved roughly through a series of corridors that all looked alike - though he memorized the layout on the way in and would have no trouble getting his bearings if it came to that - before being stopped in front of yet another holding cell door. He was really getting tired of those.

A harsh shove knocked him off-balance enough that he hit the floor a little harder than intended, and in the background he could hear the door close. There was a brief moment of silence during which he shifted around so that he could sit up, then a shocked voice said in disbelief, "Sigma?"

Sigma's head jerked up to stare at the man who'd spoken. "Delta." The family resemblance was obvious in their dusky skin and blond hair, though Delta's was significantly longer and darker than Sigma's, having taken more after their mother. "What are you doing here?" He frowned, then shook his head. "Answer that in a minute, first, get these off." He twisted to present the grav-shackles to Delta.

A dark blond brow arched up as Delta moved to kneel behind his brother and inspect the bindings. "You immediately assume I still know how to do that," he commented blandly, bending down to get a better look.

"I taught you," Sigma replied with a shrug. "And you don't forget anything."

"Hmm," Delta said neutrally, all his concentration focused upon his task. A few minutes later there was a quiet click, then Sigma's hands were free.

Sigma smiled slightly as he worked circulation back into his arms. "So, back to my original question. What are you doing here? I thought you were still on Zero."

A faint glimmer of pain and worry flashed across his brother's face. "I was on Zero. I went back to my rooms for the evening, laid out everything I'd need for the next morning, and went to bed. When I awoke I was here and had the worst headache of my life." He grimaced. "I'm going to guess a tranquilizer of some kind, but that's more your field."

Considering for a moment, Sigma frowned. "Probably, but that part is less important than how you left Zero. Security on Zero is tighter than anywhere else in the IG."

"The necessary access codes alone..." Delta agreed, sitting down and folding his hands in his lap as he thought. "It's literally not possible to get onto or off of Zero without permission from someone on Zero."

Thinking of a certain Gremlin that was no doubt taking the galaxy apart right now in his fury, Sigma smiled grimly. Not completely impossible, but that wasn't relevant right now. As far as he could tell from his conversations with the High Chancellor, Tau Ceti was the only Gremlin capable of such a feat. Therefore, there was only one other possibility.

"Then someone on Zero planned this, or at the very least was an integral part of the operation." His smile turned dark. Whoever was responsible was going to seriously regret his involvement as soon as the High Chancellor caught up with him. If Tau Ceti didn't get there first. "I can only think of one reason why someone would want both of us, alive."

Delta frowned, then his eyes widened. "To blackmail father."

Sigma nodded grimly. "And father being father, he wouldn't have bothered to tell either of us if there were threats being made against him. I think he's more stubborn than you and I put together."

Delta laughed softly. "I wouldn't be so sure of that, Sigma. You weren't around to see how much it vexed him that you went into the Authorities without his permission. He still thinks you should have been a diplomat, especially now that you're retired from the Authorities and have all that free time."

"Free time?" Sigma echoed Delta's laugh. "You'd be amazed how little free time a retired officer gets." Actually, he reflected, some of the work he did now could technically be considered diplomatic. The missions where they weren't hauling someone off to Rehab, anyway.

"I still can't believe you're retired." Delta shook his head. "I would have sworn you'd be like father. Almost sixty and still driving himself to do better still. What happened?"

This was the conversation he'd been trying to avoid ever since High Chancellor Kavalerov had calmly rearranged his life. It was far easier for those of Kavalerov's 'pets' who had nothing in the way of family. To them, the crew was their family. "I... found someone who made me re-evaluate my life. Question just who I was and what I'd been doing..." He shrugged, as nonchalantly as possible.

Delta's brows shot up. "You? You're kidding. Must be somebody pretty special..."

Sigma smiled. "I'd let you meet him, but you'd probably need to be fitted for body armor first. He's... a little touchy."

"You're crazy." Delta shook his head. "Give me a calm, geeky, slightly-disorganized diplomat with a weakness for creme cookies and lemon tea any day. I don't know how you can be so focused and intense all the time. You're worse than father." He noticed the peculiar expression on Sigma's face and blinked. "What?"

"Creme cookies and lemon tea?" Sigma asked archly.

Delta flushed and looked away. "Nevermind."


His brother winced and stared fixedly at the wall. "Just forget about it. It's not important."

Sigma rolled his eyes. "Who likes creme cookies and lemon tea, Delta?"

"No one," Delta muttered.

"Mmm hmm..." Sigma considered. Delta spent all his time on Zero, as obsessive about his work as Sigma was about his own. As far as Sigma knew, Delta hadn't taken a vacation in six years. "So, no one who likes creme cookies and lemon tea is going to be worried that you've suddenly vanished from Zero."

Delta went absolutely rigid, his eyes wide. "Oh no..." he breathed. "Rana's going to..."

Sigma's brows shot up. "Rana? Lower Chancellor Rana Eridani? That Rana?"

His brother's gaze jerked back around to stare at him with alarmed grey-green eyes. "Rana gets... attached. Most people can't see it, but it's there if you know what to look for. He has... something of a support system. As long as all the pieces are in place, he's one of the best diplomats in the IG. But if one of those pieces breaks... or goes missing... he completely falls apart." Delta exhaled slowly. "I have to get back to Zero. We have got to get out of here."

"Believe me, I'd love to get out of here," Sigma said dryly, "But our options at the moment are limited. However, we know there are people out looking for both of us, and if the ones looking for you are even half as fanatical as the ones looking for me, it shouldn't take them long at all to find us."

Delta's worry-creased brow narrowed into a deeper frown. "They probably realized I was missing as soon as I failed to show up for work... but how would anyone know that a retired Authority had been kidnapped?" He regarded Sigma pointedly. "What are you not telling me?"

Debating several excuses in his head, Sigma sighed and shrugged. "My lover is a Gremlin."

Delta blinked. "I thought Gremlins were too technology-obsessed to remember to have sex."

Sigma laughed, then smirked. "Not this one. Tau Ceti is... unique."

"Tau Ceti?" Delta stared at him as though he'd suddenly turned green and grown a second head. "How did that happen?"

Laughing again, Sigma shifted until his back was against a wall. "It's a long story." He considered, then chuckled quietly. "But it's not like we have anything else to do, is it? All right then. It started with a group of rebels..."


Combat Class Star Ship 35471990 The Conquistador

All around him, the others were laughing, jeering, and boastfully seeing who could come up with the most outlandish thing to spend their reward points on. No one else noticed that Jei was the only one not speaking, the only one not celebrating. Once he had fulfilled his role in the job, he ceased to matter.

It was how it had always been, his entire life. He did what he was told to do, then faded into the background. None of the other mercenaries cared that without Jei and his special abilities the plan would have fallen apart. None of them ever acknowledged the fact that Jei had been able to control their prisoner when six of the others had failed. He wasn't a person, he was a tool.

No one else had bothered to ask what would happen to Sigma once he'd been delivered. It was none of their business. It didn't matter. They simply delivered their captive and got paid, and that was the end of it. The life of a mercenary.

Until now, he'd been fine with it. It was just the way life was. He hadn't realized until a week ago that things could be different. Until the Ice Princess. Until Ekaitz.

Jei wandered aimlessly through the narrow hallways of the Conquistador, unable to help the automatic comparison to the wide, beautiful versions on the Ice Princess. Like all combat ships, the Conquistador had been designed with the utmost efficiency. It had weapons, shielding, hallways, crew quarters, cargo holds, engines... all the standard ship parts. Some a little newer than others, some worth a few more points than was normal, but all in all it was just a sum of parts. Add them together, and they made a ship.

The Ice Princess was a lady. Her different areas were wildly different, yet still beautiful, and somehow there was a flow from one to the other so that you never felt the distinction. It was never jarring. Just an easy, smooth transition. There were all the standard areas, and several distinctly non-standard, but it was hard to think of her as merely a sum of her parts. That ship was almost a living entity, her various features working together like organs in a body, with the crew making up her soul.

In contrast, the Conquistador felt ugly, dull, and lifeless. Just a hunk of metal hurling through space. This ship would never soar on silver wings through a sea of stars, with a beautiful, dashing, delightfully unpredictable Elivin at her helm.

He groaned quietly and banged his head against the nearest wall. Ever since attempting to talk to Sigma he'd been doing his best to carefully not think about Ekaitz. He couldn't afford to think about Ekaitz. Couldn't mourn for what he'd never really had.

He'd known when he'd sought the man out in his office that it was a bad idea. Professional mercenaries could not afford to make attachments, especially not to enchanting captains of secret IG starships. But the memory of that one kiss wouldn't leave him alone, the lingering smell of the sea that had clung to the man, the feel of his body pressed up against Jei's. He'd thought if he could just experience the whole of Ekaitz, just once, then he'd be able to move on. Get it out of his system.

Instead, it was making him miserable. He'd never wanted anything so badly before in his life. All the old memories, the old pains, they all faded away to drown beneath the visions of glittering azure eyes and flowing blue hair. He could no longer remember what it had been like to work in a pleasure house. When he tried to picture those times, what came instead was the tingling feel of delicately webbed hands tracing every line of his body, a wet tongue mapping out every inch of his skin. The sensation of slick, satiny skin of the palest blue beneath his hands, softer than anything he'd ever touched before.

Touching Ekaitz, giving in to his desires, had been a terrible mistake. Now he could think of nothing else, and his entire body trembled in pain to think that he'd never be able to touch the man again. It wasn't fair. He'd had dozens, tens of dozens of lovers in his life. You met, you fucked, you went on your way. That was how it was supposed to work. A bit of fun to liven up the tedium of life.

Jei felt sick just thinking about it. How could he be with someone else when he knew without even having to think about it that all he'd be able to see was Ekaitz? Beautiful, magnificent, unconquerable Ekaitz.

Ekaitz, who most likely wanted to string him up and feed him to a space-larva before throwing him in Rehab for the rest of his life.

Jei bit his lip and tried not to whimper. He could still see the hurt, the pain, the utter betrayal on Ekaitz's face when the man had burst in on them in the transport room. It had shaken something fundamental in him, to see that expression on the man he l- ... on Ekaitz. He'd been planning on being well away by the time Ekaitz awoke. He hadn't expected the Elivin to wake, to find him. Anyone else he could have handled. Anyone but Ekaitz.

There must have been something strong between you.

A pained sound escaped his throat and Jei found himself wedged into the corner between a wall and a bulkhead, Sigma's words echoing in his head.

He's the most important thing in the universe to me.

There was no way Ekaitz would forgive him for what he'd done. Not a chance. But at least if Ekaitz rejected him there was the chance that Jei would be able to move on with his life without feeling like he was being torn in half. Maybe, maybe... if he tried to set things right... there might even be a chance...

Pushing away from the bulkhead, Jei turned and started moving swiftly through the ship. He had things he needed to be doing, preferably before his ommon sense reasserted itself.


Custom Class Star Ship TSPKAST-0000 (16251582) The Ice Princess

Finally, finally they were moving. The logical part of his mind recognized that a normal ship with a normal engineer would have been out of commission for weeks after a blast like that. The emotional part, however, was still despairing the delay. After so much time had passed it should have been nearly impossible to track the kidnappers' escape ship.

Ekaitz really needed to remember that 'impossible' was not a word that he should be applying to the Ice Princess or her deranged engineer. His eyes slid over to where the Gremlin was sitting on the floor, one of the control consoles partially disassembled beside him. When asked, Tau Ceti had informed him that he was 'upgrading' it. Personally, Ekaitz was of the opinion that the Gremlin just couldn't sit still without something in his hands.

On the main screen the stars outside were overlaid with a faint grid dotted with several glowing points of pink light. Every now and then one would fade away and a new point would take its place. Space breadcrumbs, it seemed, leading them on a wild chase through space.

"This seems to be going a lot easier than it should be," Ekaitz commented to no one in particular. "Shouldn't we have lost the trail a long time ago?"

From his position on the floor, Tau Ceti snorted. "One stupid merc ship? It's not like we're trying to find the Darkside." His lips curved up into a dreamy smile. "Now that would be a worthy challenge..."

Ekaitz arched a brow as he looked at the Gremlin. "The Darkside? Isn't that another of the High Chancellor's ships?"

There was a collective titter from his bridge crew, both those that were supposed to be there and those that weren't. It was predictably Meiki that filled him in, the Draconis's orange-gold eyes gleaming with admiration.

"The Darkside is the Ghost Ship," he explained. "Tau Ceti's been trying to figure out how to track it off and on for as long as we've known him. He'd probably have it figured out by now if he wasn't so obsessed with the Sweet Dream..."

Tau Ceti shot the Draconis a dirty look. "I am not obsessed with the Sweet Dream."

"What's the Sweet Dream have?" Ekaitz asked, bemused. There were several snickers.

"His brother," Jayce explained helpfully, holding his hands up in warding at Tau Ceti's sharp glower.

Ekaitz blinked and looked at the irate Gremlin. "I didn't know you had a brother."

"I won't, as soon as I figure out how to conveniently disable the Sweet Dream in an uninhabited region of space on the far end of IG territory," Tau Ceti muttered darkly.

There was a chorus of laughter from all around and Ekaitz shook his head slowly. "I'm glad I'm not a member of your family. It sounds like you're worse to them than you are to people you're trying to assert your superiority over."

"I do not assert superiority over people!" Tau Ceti exclaimed, completely giving up on the disassembled console to jump to his feet.

"No?" Ekaitz asked, amused. "Then why are you trying to track the Ghost Ship?"

Tau Ceti appeared honestly bewildered by the question. "Because no one else ever has."

Ekaitz laughed. "That would be my point. You have this strange need to show up everyone else, prove you're better than them."

Tau Ceti blinked. "I am better than everyone else."

"Thus your superiority issues."

"I do not have superiority issues!"

"Then name just one person who's better than you at something. Anything." Ekaitz paused as Tau Ceti immediately opened his mouth. "And Sigma doesn't count."

The Gremlin's mouth snapped shut. He stood still for several long moments, the tip of his tail twitching back and forth as he thought, then he sullenly muttered something that Ekaitz didn't quite catch.


Tau Ceti shoved his hands in his pockets before turning and walking firmly toward the door. "Never mind. I'm going back down to the engine room to make this bloody ship go faster." A few moments later he was gone, and the entire bridge burst out laughing.

When they finally caught their breath, Fe'yiv turned to regard Ekaitz with a mirthful smile. "I think he likes you," she pronounced solemnly, silver eyes gleaming.

Ekaitz arched a brow. "Really?" he said dryly. "How can you tell?"

"He likes you," Meiki confirmed with a confident nod. "He's been a lot nicer to you than to any of our other captains."

There were a number of snickers, then Dralikkzion offered, "Our very first Captain got into constant shouting matches with him over everything. Eventually, Tau Ceti zapped him with electricity and threw him, literally, out the Princess's primary cargo hatch."

Ekaitz blinked. "You're kidding. Is he alive?"

"I think so," Dralikkzion replied with a shrug, "Though I've been told he gets odd twitches every now and then as an after-effect..."

"Okay, so compared to that..." Ekaitz shook his head.

"The second one stormed off after telling the Princess that he couldn't take any more prima-donna Gremlin antics. Turns out Tau Ceti'd figured out the man was trying to kiss up to him and had him running pointless errands all over the ship." Jayce snickered quietly. "That was fun. And they call us Vrill stuck up..."

"The third one was arrogant," Q'inn explained, taking up the story. "He seemed to think that the Captain should have access to every part of the ship, including Tau Ceti's workshop. One day he actually tried to break into it." All of them winced. "That was the last time we saw him, though from a few things the Princess has said we're pretty sure he wound up trapped in a Sardoran zoo for a while..."

"The fourth one was really stupid," Meiki said, grimacing. "He figured he could get on Tau Ceti's good side by offering to sleep with him and he wouldn't accept it when Tau Ceti told him no. That's the one Sigma put in traction."

There were several murmurs and nods and one voice commented, "I think he's still there..."

Ekaitz swallowed, suddenly seeing what they meant when they said that Tau Ceti liked him. He would not have wanted that particular Gremlin angry with him. "And the fifth?" he asked, not sure if he wanted to know the answer.

Fe'yiv laughed. "Oh, that one was funny. Tau Ceti had it rigged so that the captain's security codes randomly changed, including the one to his suite! I think he spent three or four nights sleeping in one of the rec rooms before he finally gave up and left."

"And the sixth one got left on a mining station in the middle of nowhere," Ekaitz finished up. "Remind me never to get on that man's bad side."

Everyone laughed again, then Meiki patted his arm reassuringly. "See? So he does like you. We all like you. Maybe you'll actually be the one that stays."

Ekaitz smiled faintly. "Thank you, Meiki. I'd like to stay, but... after this..." His smile faded.

"It wasn't your fault," Jayce protested. "Nobody could have expected Jei would turn out to be a spy. I still can barely believe it. This is like the most secretive ship in space! There should be no way that could happen!"

Despite the murmurs and reassuring words, Ekaitz still felt miserable. The Ice Princess and her crew were his responsibility. He'd failed them. This was the ship where the impossible was not only possible, but likely. They should have planned for that to work against them as well as for them. He should have planned for it. There was no excuse. All he could do was try his hardest to set things right.

He was still going over all the different possible ways that the High Chancellor was going to fire him when Jayce's startled voice interrupted his thoughts.

"Captain! The merc ship, the one we're looking for! It's coming right at us!"

They all scrambled for information. Dralikkzion confirmed the identity of the ship, adding that it wasn't quite flying right. Ekaitz tried to get a call through to the engine room, but the buzzing static he got let him know that Tau Ceti had disabled the communication lines again.

"Meiki, get down to the engine room and let Tau Ceti know. Q'inn, Zion, transport room. The minute we get an opportunity I want you over there. Jayce, status!"

They all scrambled to comply, Fe'yiv's voice breathing disbelievingly, "It's not slowing down..."

"Get ready to turn around and pursue! Jayce?"

The Vrill blinked at his console, then blinked again. Finally he turned to gape at Ekaitz. "Incoming transmission... from that ship."

For a span of three seconds there was dead silence, then Ekaitz snapped. "Let's hear it."

Jei's nervous face filled the screen and Ekaitz felt a sharp pain in his chest. What he'd done already wasn't enough? He had to come back to finish the job?


The Avarri flinched. "Um, I know I'm the last person you want to see right now but believe me I have a reason and this ship is really a bitch to fly solo and would one of you please tell me how to make this thing slow down?"

The span of silence was shorter this time, then Jayce murmured quietly, "Combat Class..." A moment later he was rattling off instructions which they could all see Jei scrambling to obey. Two minutes later the ship had stopped half a kilometer away and they were back to the tense standoff.

"What do you want?" Ekaitz asked, forcing himself to keep his voice steady.

Jei flinched again. "I..." He drew in a deep breath. "I did something really stupid, and unforgivable, but I have to at least try to make it right. For..." He hesitated, his gaze seeking out and catching Ekaitz's. "I know you'll never be able to forgive me, but I can't just..." He exhaled sharply in frustration. "Please let me make it up to you." The last was barely a whisper.

"You realize we're going to turn you over to the Authorities at the first chance we get," Ekaitz pointed out coldly, wishing it didn't hurt so much when Jei lowered his head dejectedly.

"Yeah, I know. I guess I deserve that much. But first I want to help you get Sigma back. I know where he's being kept, and I know how to get into the complex." Jei's crimson eyes were pleading.

"How are we supposed to trust you, after what you did?" Fe'yiv asked softly, prompting another cringe.

"I don't know..." Jei sighed in despair. "I wouldn't trust me, so there's no reason you should, except that I really do want to help, and I owe it to... to Ekaitz and Sigma at least..."

Ekaitz considered. "Lower your shielding."

Jei blinked blankly. "Err... how?"

Again, Jayce walked him through it. A few moments later Q'inn and Dralikkzion emerged from the bridge doors and approached Jei with caution. The Avarri stood up and turned to look at them, nodding slightly. "I won't fight you. I really truly just want to help."

"Q'inn?" Ekaitz questioned.

"The whole crew seems to be unconscious, and most of 'em have grav-cuffs slapped on them." The Hellcat shrugged. "Looks like they'll be out for hours."

"Return to the ship." Ekaitz hesitated. "All three of you."

Two minutes later Jei was on the bridge of the Ice Princess and Ekaitz had absolutely no idea what to say. Seeing him on the screen had been painful. Having him standing right in front of him, being close enough that he could reach out and touch, that was agonizing. Before he quite figured out what to do, however, the bridge doors opened once again and Tau Ceti stepped through.

Jei went white. Tau Ceti hissed and snarled, "You..."

Between one blink and the next the Gremlin had crossed the bridge and punched the Avarri hard, sending Jei flying backwards into one of the front consoles. He stalked forward, standing over Jei threateningly, electricity crackling along his entire body. "Where is he?"

"Kalakmul," Jei managed to gasp out, blood streaming down his face from both nose and lip. "He's on Kalakmul."

For one long moment it seemed as though Tau Ceti would do more, then he turned and stiffly stalked to the other main console. Before he got there Jayce had already input all the commands and computed the course, leaping aside before the Gremlin was quite within reach.

"Tau Ceti," Ekaitz said quietly. For a moment there was no reaction, then slowly the Gremlin turned to face him. "Can you disable the mercenary ship so that they can't flee while we're away?"

He could see the struggle in the Gremlin's violet eyes, the desire to go tearing off after Sigma warring with the need to punish those responsible. Finally he nodded curtly and stalked back off the bridge again. Via Sigma's in-specs Ekaitz watched the transporter flare to life as Tau Ceti went over to the mercenary ship, then return a minute or two later. They all jumped as the Gremlin's voice came over the speakers.

"It's not going anywhere. Now get this bloody ship moving before I lose my patience and decide to test out the experimental drive and smear your atoms all across the cosmos. I'll be in my workshop if you need me, but I highly suggest you don't."

Jayce had the ship moving before Tau Ceti had even finished speaking.


Planet 5525685 (Kalakmul), A Small Complex

Commotion outside their cell roused Sigma from the light doze he'd indulged in. He sat up slowly, nudging Delta a few times until he was certain he brother was awake, then got his arms positioned correctly behind his back. No sense in their captors knowing he was loose until he wanted them to know.

The door slid open and a number of men flooded inside, hauling both brothers to their feet and shoving them roughly out into the hallway. Their captors were obviously highly agitated about something, though Sigma was having some trouble following the thread of the conversation as it jumped around, but the general problem seemed to be that someone hadn't reported in or answered a call and thus Sigma and Delta were being moved.

It was logic he could respect, even if it made things more difficult for him. If you think your first plan might be compromised, switch to your backup plan. If there's a problem with the backup plan, there's always plans C, D, E, and F. For Sigma, anyway. From the rather frantic sounds of things, there hadn't really been a backup plan and they were now scrambling to put one together.

Sigma rolled his eyes. On any given mission he usually had at least six different plans constructed, just in case. Given how much trouble it must have been to find Sigma on the Ice Princess and smuggle Delta off of Zero, he would have expected more from their captors.

He waited patiently, biding his time, but then at the next intersection Delta was forced to the left while Sigma was taken to the right. So much for waiting.

Dropping down to the floor, Sigma swept the nearest two captors off their feet, rendering them unconscious before they even had time to sit up. From them he retrieved two stunners and set about blasting everything in sight - concentrating heavily on the men around Delta. The bright flashes of stunner fire filled the air, the heavy ozone taste hanging heavy in the back of his throat. He had most of them down when one of their captors got the idea to use Delta as a shield.

Cursing beneath his breath, Sigma watched as Delta and the man backed away down the hallway and waited for a clean shot. He had no idea what level the enemy stunners had been set to and he wasn't risking harming his brother. Obviously, these people were counting on that.

A sudden sound from behind alerted him that there was a new problem. He spun and rolled, only barely missing the stunner fire that had been aimed at him. Now he had targets on opposite sides of himself to worry about. He dodged another stunner blast and started zigzagging back and forth toward the new arrivals. One went down before he got there. The second and third met up with his fists and he'd just started to reach for their stunners when Delta's pained cry made him turn.

Delta's face was white, his captor's smug. Delta's eyes widened around the faint glimmer of tears, then pain exploded in his head and Sigma's world went dark.


Custom Class Star Ship TSPKAST-0000 (16251582) The Ice Princess

There was one good thing about this whole disaster, Ekaitz reflected sardonically. The stress and agony it was causing made his deposing and banishment seem almost pleasant by comparison. Then, it had marked the end of his youth. He'd gone on, survived, and eventually wound up being offered a second chance by the High Chancellor himself. It had felt like he'd been given his life back. If he failed now... he'd have nothing to go back to.

Shoving the painful thoughts away for the fifty-seventh time in a row, Ekaitz looked out over the bridge. Meiki, Zion, and Q'inn were absent, having gone down to the rec room to work out their fears and anxieties and get some practice in at the same time. After all, as Q'inn had pointed out, if Sigma thought they'd been slacking while he was away, they'd all get their asses kicked when he got back.

That thought made him smile. As cold as his Second officer could be, it was obvious - except, he thought, to Sigma himself - that everyone respected him, if not outright liked him. That again begged the question of why the man wasn't Captain himself, especially if one took into account that he had to have gotten a lot of practice during the spans between Tau Ceti kicking one off and the next arriving. He made a note to mention it to the High Chancellor later, provided he was still in a position to do so when this was over.

Xalin had sent a message up not long ago stating that he and Volin had all the emergency supplies packed and ready, and Irinar hadn't been seen since they'd first lost their engines. Most likely she was still down there, making sure everything ran smoothly to avoid another Gremlin Incident. Tau Ceti hadn't been heard from since he'd stormed off, which Ekaitz was counting as a Good Thing. Jayce and Fe'yiv appeared to be absorbed in their consoles, but every now and then he'd catch a glimpse of one or the other sneaking looks at Jei.

And then there was Jei himself. The Avarri was curled up against a wall, leaning against one of the spare consoles, with his arms around his knees and his wings wrapped tightly around his body. He looked utterly miserable and more than once Ekaitz had had to stop himself from calling out, though he couldn't do anything about the near-overpowering desire to reassure the man. He looked so lost. So alone. It made his heart want to tear in half.

A slight sound drew his attention away from Jei and he looked back to find Tau Ceti standing in the doorway to the bridge. Ekaitz tensed at the way he was staring at Jei, preparing himself to deal with the imminent confrontation, then the Gremlin's vivid gaze flicked away and he went up front to speak quietly with Fe'yiv.

That had been... unexpected. Though welcome. As he watched Tau Ceti shook his head slightly, murmured something else, then went to sit down on the floor - as far away from Jei as the bridge dimensions would allow him to. Interesting. Odd. Ekaitz would have expected Tau Ceti to leave again, though he acknowledged that the Gremlin was a hard man to figure out even under normal circumstances.

Though, neither Sigma nor the High Chancellor seemed to have too many problems. Interesting, those. He wondered how in the stars either one of them had managed to learn to deal with the irritable Gremlin as well as they did, then chuckled inaudibly at the answer his mind immediately supplied.

A whole lot of patience.

The High Chancellor obviously had a high amount of patience simply by virtue of his position and having worked his way up through the Infinitum Government. And Sigma... well. He had the feeling the ship could be breaking up all around them and nose-diving into an airless moon in an unexplored region of space and it wouldn't ruffle the efficient human.

"Captain." Jayce's voice held a hint of surprise, as well as anticipation. "We're coming up on Kalakmul."

Ekaitz shot Tau Ceti a brief glance and raised eyebrows. The Gremlin shrugged and bared his teeth in an unsettling smirk. Obviously the man hadn't just been repairing their damaged engines, if they were nearly an hour ahead of schedule.


Fe'yiv's hands flew. "Kalakmul is a small, rocky planet with a light atmosphere and severe winds. Not reading any signs of... wait..."

Jei and Tau Ceti were both on their feet. Ekaitz gripped the arms of his chair and groped blindly for Sigma's in-specs. Suddenly the main screen shifted from a view of the approaching planet to one of a medium-sized ship rising out of the atmosphere. It was moving quickly.

"Weapons!" Ekaitz snapped.

"Range in four, three, two, one..." Jayce slammed a fist down on his console and several streaks of red flashed out toward the ship. It rocked, but continued to run.

"Follow it. Fire again." Ekaitz spun to face Tau Ceti. "All the fancy things on this ship and you couldn't have given us upgraded weapons?"

The Gremlin glared. "I don't like death."

"They're getting away," Ekaitz ground out.

Tau Ceti hissed, looking up at the screen where they were closing on the other ship. It was firing back, though the Ice Princess's shields were strong enough that they could fire until their power packs went dry and still not break through. That still left them at an impasse.

"I'm open to suggestions," Ekaitz muttered beneath his breath.

"I don't kill people," Tau Ceti growled, stalking up to Fe'yiv's console, "I cripple them." He leaned over Fe'yiv's shoulder and input commands almost faster than Ekaitz's eyes could follow. There was a soft intake of breath from the silvery Rubican, then she twisted around to stare at the Gremlin standing over her.

"Is that..."

"Legal? No." Tau Ceti didn't even bother to look at her. "Efficient, yes."

Fe'yiv's lips quirked into a faint smile. "I was going to say 'safe'."

The Gremlin considered. "As long as they're not caught in a gravity well, yes."

Ekaitz sighed. "Would one of you mind filling me in?" he asked.

Tau Ceti looked up at him and smiled darkly. "Ever seen what a focused, high-powered EMP wave can do to a ship before?" His teeth flashed ferally. Ekaitz blanched. The Gremlin's tail came up to make the final keystroke.

On the overhead screen, the stars seemed to ripple for a moment. The ripple narrowed, focused on the fleeing ship, then it rippled briefly as well before abruptly going completely dark. Inertia continued to carry it forward, though a few swift commands from Jayce's console solved that problem.

"No power signs at all in the other ship," Jayce's voice informed them, a note of awe and something else in it. "Engines, weapons, life support systems... nothing."

"I estimate they have about two, maybe three hours of air remaining, though the cold of space will get them long before then," Tau Ceti said calmly. "Perhaps it would be prudent to relocate our helpless friends."

Ekaitz found his voice. "Q'inn, Zion, get to the transport room and get over to that ship. Bring back everyone you find and throw them in the security cells." He hesitated, looking at Jei. "How far are you helping us?"

Jei met his gaze with a shard of his former confidence burning in his eyes. "As far as you'll let me."

Ekaitz nodded. "Then get down there as well."

He was surprised when Jei actually saluted him before taking off for the transport room. He wasn't surprised to find Tau Ceti standing next to his chair the moment the doors closed.

"Was that wise?"

"It isn't like he can run away," Ekaitz pointed out. "We're out of range of the planet and that ship isn't going anywhere for a long time." He eyed Tau Ceti pointedly. "If ever."

The Gremlin shrugged. "It stopped, didn't it?"

Ekaitz shook his head. "Now I know why people kept warning me about you."

Tau Ceti's brows shot up. "It wasn't for my sparkling personality?"

"That too." Ekaitz shrugged. "It's a good thing for the IG that you're on our side. The thought of what you could do if you weren't quite honestly scares me to death."

Quiet laughter met his words. "There have been rogue Gremlins before, who chafed under the restrictions placed upon them by IG law and found other, more appreciative audiences to build for. They were all dealt with, eventually. As for myself..." He gestured up at the image of the darkened ship on the screen. "Rules are meant to be bent, broken, or circumnavigated in whatever way possible. Why should I go elsewhere for my games when his highness the Ice Princess not only allows me my fun, but encourages it?"

Fe'yiv's silvery laughter sounded softly in the background, and Tau Ceti smirked. "Nothing about this ship or its crew is legal, nor are any of the ships the Princess has drafted into his personal service. He knows, as do I, that sometimes if you want to act for the good of all people you need to thwart a few rules."

Jayce snorted quietly. "Thwart?"

"Quiet, Vrill, or I'll reprogram all your personal grooming equipment again," Tau Ceti said calmly. Jayce promptly turned back to his console.

Ekaitz ignored the threats and mulled over what the Gremlin had said. "What happens in the future, if we get a High Chancellor that's not so... open-minded?" he asked quietly.

"I don't work for the High Chancellor," Tau Ceti replied, just as quiet. "I never have. Chancellor is just a title. A word. Like engineer... or Captain." He regarded Ekaitz pointedly.

He understood all at once what Tau Ceti was trying to tell him. He also understood why the Ice Princess's former captains had been unable to get along with the man. Why he could so easily have failed. All too often people allowed themselves to become defined by their positions rather than by who they were. Like his cousin, they believed that respect should be accorded them due to their rank rather than having to earn it like an ordinary man.

Tau Ceti respected Pyotr Kavalerov because he was Pyotr Kavalerov. Just as it seemed he, perhaps, respected Ekaitz for who he was as well, and was allowing him to prove himself worthy of his title as Captain. All he wanted in return was to be treated, not as a Gremlin or as one of the most influential engineers in the entire Infinitum Government, but as Tau Ceti. Himself.

Ekaitz felt himself smiling and started to respond, only to have the faint swish of the bridge doors alert him to new arrivals. Tau Ceti looked up first, his entire body going stiff with shock. When Ekaitz followed his gaze, he understood why.

The man standing there next to Dralikkzion and fidgeting nervously bore a striking resemblance to Sigma. A little shorter, thinner, his blond hair quite a bit darker and considerably longer than their Second officer's, but the dusky skin and general set of facial features were the same.

Ekaitz stood and positioned himself to face this mysterious new arrival. "Who are you?" he asked.

"Delta," the man replied, openly gawking at everything in sight. "Delta Altair."

"Sigma's younger brother." Tau Ceti finally found his voice. "You're supposed to be on Zero."

Delta grimaced and rubbed at the back of his neck. "I was on Zero, then apparently I got kidnapped and tossed in a cell someplace, and then Sigma showed up and got tossed in with me." He didn't seem to notice the way Tau Ceti tensed at the mention of his brother. "They hauled us out to take us somewhere and Sigma fought them. He probably would have been able to take them all down if one of them hadn't gotten the bright idea to use me as a shield." He grimaced. "I'm going to get my ass chewed out for that the next time he sees me."

"Where is Sigma now?" Ekaitz asked quickly, his gaze flicking to Tau Ceti. It would not be good if the Gremlin flipped out again.

"They took him on one of their ships," Delta replied. "I was kind of trying to put up a fight and he was unconscious by that point so his ship took off first. I don't know where it went."

Tau Ceti had gone rather pale at the word 'unconscious' and spun around to snap at Jayce. "Find it! Track it!"

The Vrill's fingers flew over the familiar controls. Lights flashed, readouts were displayed, and Jayce cursed in several different languages. "The trail heads right into an ionized electromagnetic storm. Even our Lady can't track something that's been scrambled from here to Bangkok." He cursed again, shifting fluently through half the common languages in space. Sailors, it seemed, could be extremely multi-lingual when it came to profanity.

"I..." All heads turned toward Delta, who was eyeing Tau Ceti with a peculiar expression on his face. "You're Tau Ceti, aren't you?" At the Gremlin's tight nod, he smiled faintly. "Sigma said you'd come after him. Looks like he was right." The man took a few steps further onto the bridge, looking around in amazement and shook his head. "No wonder he wasn't worried..."

Some of the frantic agony faded from Tau Ceti's eyes to be replaced by a faint smile. "He has a way of getting himself into trouble that I have to then get him out of," the Gremlin replied fondly.

Delta frowned. "I don't think he got himself into this one. We figure that the only reason someone would go to so much trouble to kidnap both of us would be to get at our father. I haven't gotten anything from him that might suggest trouble, but he can be as stubborn as Sigma sometimes." Delta shrugged. "Maybe it's time to ask him what's going on."

Ekaitz considered. "Sounds like a good idea to me. Where is he?"

"Xochimi," Delta replied. "Planet in the fourth quadrant, number-"

"9624464," Tau Ceti interrupted, watching as Fe'yiv calculated the course.

Delta's brows shot up. "How do you know that?"

Tau Ceti turned to shoot him a pointed look. "I'm a Gremlin. We think numbers are toys. I could recite every access code used on the High Chancellor's office and personal quarters in the past five years if I wanted to. Planetary numbers are easy."

There was a quiet snicker, then Fe'yiv's voice spoke up. "I know I'm going to regret asking this, but why do you have the access codes to the High Chancellor's personal quarters memorized?" She muffled a giggle.

Snorting, Tau Ceti rolled his eyes. "Because he has a very comfortable bed and I figure someone should get use out of it, since he barely ever touches the thing." He shook his head and added under his breath, "And he says I work too much..."

"You do work too much," Ekaitz pointed out mildly. "Fe'yiv, get us moving. Q'inn, get Sigma's brother settled in one of the guest quarters. Mr. Altair, my apologies in advance for Tau Ceti's idea of how to decorate a room. You get used to it... eventually."

Tau Ceti rolled his eyes again as everyone else chuckled, waiting until Delta and Q'inn were gone before heading out himself. "I'll be in the engine room with Irinar if I'm needed."

Ekaitz arched a brow. "If you make this ship move any faster you're going to start defying the laws of physics."

Violet eyes flashed in amusement. "I told you, laws are made to be broken," the Gremlin called over his shoulder. The last thing Ekaitz saw was a black-tipped green tail before Tau Ceti was out of sight. He shook his head in bemusement and turned back toward his chair, then stopped as he discovered Jei standing and watching him with a peculiar expression.


The Avarri drew in a slow breath, then carefully met his eyes. "I would like to speak with you, in private, if... if that's permissible..."

Ekaitz froze. He'd been hoping to put off this conversation until later, when he didn't have to be the captain. When he could safely fall to pieces afterward. He couldn't afford to break now. Not yet. "Jei..."

Pain-filled crimson eyes caught him in an unbreakable gaze. "Please," Jei whispered.

No. He couldn't do this. Not now. Ekaitz opened his mouth to deny Jei, and instead heard his own voice saying, "Jayce, keep an eye on things and let me know if anything unusual happens. I'll be back in a few minutes."

He watched in a stunned daze as his traitorous feet carried him off the bridge and down the hallway to his office, unlocking it via his in-lens just before they reached it and stepping aside to allow Jei to enter first. Once they were both inside he locked it behind them and drew in a slow breath. "Jei..."

A firm body pressed roughly up against his, fingers tangling in his hair and yanking his face forward so his lips could be claimed in a hot, bruising kiss. He gasped in surprise and Jei took the opportunity to deepen the kiss, their mouths meshing, tongues twining with almost desperate abandon. It was everything he wanted - and couldn't have.

It took every ounce of self-control Ekaitz possessed to grip Jei's shoulders and push the man away, though he couldn't quite convince his fingers to let go afterward. "What are you-"

"I'm sorry," Jei whispered breathlessly, his own hands still locked around Ekaitz's neck. "I had to... I couldn't... couldn't get you out of my mind. Couldn't think, couldn't breathe. Every time I closed my eyes, all I could see was you, watching me. Staring at me. I had to come back. Had to explain..." He stopped, shook his head. "No. Had to apologize. I never meant to hurt you, 'kaitz. Never. You were the one good thing... I got scared. Nobody's ever affected me the way you do. I thought if I could get away it would..." He shivered. "I couldn't think about anything else. I kept..." He swallowed. "Kept seeing your face, in the transport room. I couldn't bear to let you think..."

Jei's arms tightened around his neck. "You and me, that wasn't part of the job, Ekaitz. I couldn't see you without wanting you. Still can't. I've never..." His breath caught. "Never wanted anything so bad in my whole life. Not like this..."

Ekaitz's mind seemed to stop working. There was no other explanation. All his worries, his fears, his anxiety and dread all came to a standstill as he stared at the man clinging so tightly to him. He didn't understand what was happening. This couldn't be real. Jei couldn't be, couldn't want...

"I... Jei... I..." The words wouldn't come out.

"Jekandih," Jei said quietly. "My real name is Jekandih M'karr. Jei's just a nickname. It was saf..." He shook his head. "I don't use it much, these days. Haven't for a long time." His voice softened. "Wanted you to know, at least."

Ekaitz swallowed. "Jekandih, then..." Beneath his palms he could feel Jei shiver. "I... you know I have to..."

"You're the Captain. It's your job to deal with people like me, I know," Jei said softly. "I won't fight you. I'll go to Rehab, or wherever you want me to, I promise, but first..." Jei's hands slowly unlocked behind Ekaitz's neck, sliding across his shoulders and down his body, eliciting an involuntary shiver from the Elivin. "Let me touch you," Jei whispered, pleading. "One last time..."

It was wrong; everything was wrong between them. He an elite IA officer, Jei a known criminal, and yet, and yet... he still couldn't help the soft moan that escaped his lips as he leaned forward to capture Jei's mouth in a desperate kiss.


Planet 9624464 (Xochimi), Governor's Estate

It didn't really look like a Governor's estate. It had a little bit more land, and a shallow little creek running through, but for the most part it didn't look all that different from the other houses they'd passed on their way from the spaceport to Governor Altair's estate. Jei had spent most of that trip staring out at the lush countryside and wishing he could have flown instead. Xochimi was a beautiful planet, though even hotter than his own native Avarr due to the planet's close proximity to its dual suns.

Delta led the way up the walk and through the open door, confident despite the fact that Jei clearly remembered him saying he hadn't been here in years. Jei himself hung back a bit, letting everyone get a few paces ahead, partly out of the lingering feeling that he shouldn't be there - and he still wasn't sure why he'd been included - and partly because the greater the distance between himself and Tau Ceti, the better.

Every time the Gremlin looked in his direction he expected to get hit again, though so far it hadn't come. Jei couldn't understand why. If he'd been in Tau Ceti's position, if Ekaitz had been the one taken away, he knew he wouldn't be nearly so restrained. Considering the things the rest of the crew had told him about the tetchy Gremlin, he'd decided that the only explanation was that Tau Ceti was just taking his time to plan out a very detailed and painful revenge.

Jei let the distance between them increase just a little bit more. No sense in tempting fate.

They were met just inside by a tall, handsome man bearing an even more striking resemblance to Sigma than his brother had. His pale blond hair had silvered with age and he was at least two decades older, but the trim body and grey eyes that seemed to miss nothing were exactly the same. Hopefully Tria Altair wasn't as adept at reading people as his eldest son, or Jei was going to swiftly excuse himself back to the ship.

"Delta," Tria Altair greeted.

"Father." Delta smiled wryly. "You wouldn't, by any chance, be having... troubles, lately? Perhaps some people issuing threats?"

Tria's brows shot up, then he sighed in resignation. "You got pulled into it, didn't you?" he asked, sounding as though he already knew the answer.

"Just a little," Delta replied dryly, gesturing at Tau Ceti and Ekaitz who were standing nearest to him. "These nice people were out looking for Sigma when they happened to rescue me. Unfortunately, our captors still have Sigma and we have no idea where they've gone."

Governor Altair's expression went oddly blank. "Sigma's been kidnapped?"

Delta frowned. "You sound so surprised. He's not invincible, father, no matter what he's managed to convince you of. Throw enough people at him and eventually Sigma will go down. Now quit playing the Governor face and tell us what's going on so these people can get Sigma back."

With a resigned sigh Tria Altair led them into a sitting room and dropped into a chair. He seemed to be thinking carefully as the rest of them settled themselves, then began his tale once everyone was seated. "All right. I don't know how much you all know about this system, so I'm starting at the beginning. There are two inhabited planets in this star system, Xochimi and Huayna. Xochimi lies closer to the dual suns, Huayna farther out, with a large asteroid belt between them. From the very beginning the Xochimans and Huaynans were wildly different. Where the Xochimans put a lot of hard work and effort into tending the land and figuring out how to use the fluctuating sunlight from their binary stars to their advantage, the Huaynans instead relied more on geothermal heat from their planet, living almost underground at times. The Xochimans are a very peaceful, diligent people. Huayna's main strengths are industrialism and weapons manufacturing. They attempt to invade and enslave Xochimi at least once every twenty turns, sometimes more."

He paused as one of the locals brought in a tray with glasses of water for everyone, taking a long drink of his own before resuming. "As a result, Xochimi has barely been getting by. We export some extra foodstuffs and such, but no matter how many points are saved up, the savings gets wiped out again after every Huaynan attack. For a while we were trying to set up Xochimi as a vacation spot, you may have noticed that it's very beautiful and relaxing here, perfect for unwinding stressed individuals, but there are two problems. One is Huayna's insistence on attacking us, and the other is financial. Xochimi simply doesn't have the points necessary to set up all the facilities we'd need." Tria grimaced. "This is where the real trouble started. You see, the asteroid belt that separates Xochimi and Huayna is extremely rich in natural resources. It's probably one of the wealthiest asteroid belts in this quadrant. However, it's also one of the most dangerous asteroid belts in the quadrant. For centuries it's claimed thousands of lives of those who tried to plunder its riches. Xochimi had almost given up completely when about a turn ago I happened to mention the problem in a letter to my son, Sigma."

There was a quiet murmur from the crew of the Ice Princess. Apparently this was news to them. Most appeared faintly surprised, though Tau Ceti was frowning. Jei snorted inwardly at himself. When was Tau Ceti not frowning?

"Not long after that," Governor Altair continued, "A freighter dropped off a few odd pieces of machinery and a letter. Apparently someone Sigma knew had constructed a prototype long-distance mining drone that could be operated from Xochimi. It worked perfectly. We were able to mine the asteroid belt without any risk of injury, and against all expectations the drone didn't appear to take any damage at all during its trips. It was exactly what we'd needed." He sighed and sipped his water again. "Then Huayna found out. They demanded we give them the mining drone and began attacking Xochimi with a vengeance. We've been holding them off well enough, but lately they started making personal threats and..." He gestured helplessly at his audience. "Apparently those threats were not idle."

There was a long stretch of stunned silence, then Tau Ceti began swearing creatively and fluently enough to put even the worst sailors to shame. He'd gotten partway through a series of Bangkok curses, some of which even Jei didn't know, when Ekaitz interrupted him.

"Judging from your reaction, Tau Ceti, I'm going to take a wild guess and say that mining drone is one of your toys." Ekaitz drolled.

Tria Altair blinked and stared at the irate Gremlin. "Tau Ceti? He's real?"

"Real as you or me, and ten times as pissy," Ekaitz replied in exasperation, shooting a look at the Gremlin when Tau Ceti's rantings shifted from mere curses into threats of explosion and mass destruction. "Shut up and quit being a drama queen, Tau. Honestly. You couldn't have known your little toy would cause such a problem, and there's nothing we can do about that now. The question is, how do we get Sigma back?" His intent blue-green gaze shifted to Governor Altair. "Do you think they'd have taken him to Huayna?"

Tria hesitated. "It's possible, though I don't think that would have been their first choice..."

"It wasn't," Ekaitz said flatly. "We seem to have scared them away from where they were originally keeping Sigma and Delta."

"In that case," Tria said with a nod, "He probably is on Huayna. More secure, given how weapons-crazy the whole planet is." His face tightened. "It would take an army to get him out of there..."

Jei found himself disagreeing, though he didn't say anything out loud. An army was meant for large scale assaults and sieges. To rescue one man, all you really needed was a small, skilled team that knew what they were doing. A team like the crew of the Ice Princess.

Casting a glance at the arguing men, Jei smiled tightly and very gradually edged toward the door, a plan forming in his mind. He'd have to figure out how to convince the Ice Princess's crew, though he didn't think that would be all that hard. Getting Sigma back meant that Tau Ceti would calm down. Who didn't want that?

Nobody seemed to notice his departure. He slipped out of Governor Altair's estate and spread his wings, using his telekinesis to toss himself into the air where he could catch the breeze and ride it back to the spaceport. A little more judicious use of TK increased his speed and in no time at all he was back inside the bird-shaped ship.

"What're you doing back?"

Jei turned to find Q'inn glaring at him, ears flat and tail lashing. He didn't dare back down, not to a Hellcat, but he didn't want to push Q'inn too hard either. Not when he needed the man's help.

"Pretty sure I know where we can find Sigma, but getting him out sounds like it's gonna be interesting." Jei let the slightest smirk cross his face. "You up for a little danger, kitty cat?"

Q'inn snorted. "If you can do it, little bird, I most certainly can."

"Danger?" First Jayce's, then Dralikkzion's heads popped out from behind a corner. "What kind of danger?"

Jei stifled the urge to snicker. "Why don't you get everybody together and I'll explain what I have in mind."

The two pilots disappeared, and Jei turned to smile at Q'inn. "You coming, furball?" he tossed out, turning and sauntering toward the bridge. As he expected, Q'inn was right on his heels with a retort. They continued the banter all the way back up and onto the bridge, only stopping when Jei realized that it looked as though the entire crew was already gathered. There was that medic he'd only met once, the snakey engineer lady, the neon yellow cook, and-

With a pained cry Jei crumpled to the floor, his head feeling like it was about to turn inside-out. Distantly he was aware of a commotion around him, people talking rapidly, almost angrily, but he couldn't seem to think much beyond the pain in his head and the very brief glimpse he'd gotten of startled, orange-gold eyes. He wasn't sure how long it took before he was able to struggle into a sitting position and look around, but he was aware that every single person was staring at him in disbelief. Those that weren't being openly hostile, anyway.

"How dare you," Q'inn growled, his arms tight around a lightly-scaled body that reminded Jei of a sunset he'd seen once on Mars. On the man's other side was that medic, Xalin, three of his arms holding onto the sunset-creature while the fourth petted him reassuringly.

"What..." Jei's throat seemed to be too tight. "What just happened?"

Several glances were exchanged. Finally the female pilot, Fe'yiv if Jei remembered right, gestured helplessly. "How much do you know about Draconis?"

"Draconis?" Jei blinked, thinking. "Um, genetically-engineered species that half the IG's all worked up about for some reason. Why?"

Fe'yiv spread her hands, then gestured at the pretty red-orange-gold creature between Q'inn and Xalin. "Meiki's a Draconis. They, um..." She glanced imploringly at the medic.

"Draconis 'match' with other magics-compatible species, enhancing their magics considerably, but at the cost of their independence," Xalin explained briskly. "From the moment the match is made, both the Draconis and the one they've matched with are forever dependant upon one another. If they are separated, their magics cease to function."

Jei yelped, scrambling to his feet and backing up. "What? That's... I..." He shook his head rapidly. "He's not... I can't..." He stared down at the Draconis who was looking up at him with wide eyes. "But I can't be your match-thing!" he exclaimed, his wings half spread in distress. "After I help you get Sigma back I have to go to Rehab or whatever. I can't... That's not fair to you!"

There was a rather stunned silence after his vehement speech, then several glances were traded. Finally it was the Draconis himself that spoke. "Maybe... Maybe the Princess will make an exception... Maybe he'll let you stay with us..."

The surge of hope that went through him was almost painful. "But I... I..."

Q'inn scowled at him. "Lets go get Sigma first, then we'll worry about what we're going to do with the stupid bird."

Meiki blinked. "Without Captain Ekaitz or Tau Ceti?"

Dralikkzion rolled his eyes. "Do you want to be anywhere near Tau Ceti right now?" he asked.

The Draconis considered, then smiled sheepishly. "Oh. Right." He freed himself from Q'inn and Xalin's arms and bounced over to the left-side control console. "We'd better get going then," he announced cheerfully. "The faster we get there and back again, the less chance that Tau Ceti will figure out that we borrowed his ship and left him behind."

The brief lull lasted exactly two seconds - Jei was counting - before everyone scrambled madly to take up their places. Even in absentia, it seemed, Tau Ceti could inspire fear in the bravest of hearts.

With the first glimmer of hope he'd had in, well, as long as he could remember, Jei walked up to stand just behind Meiki's chair to explain where they were going. In what seemed like no time at all they were away, soaring through the stars to rescue their shipmate, and all of them hoping devoutly that they'd be back before anyone realized they had even gone.


Planet 9482962 (Huayna), Capitol City

Anyone who had ever met him would tell you that Sigma Altair had more patience than any ten men. He stayed calm and rational under pressure, impossible to ruffle, with a fuse that burned so slowly that glaciers appeared swift by comparison. However, when he finally did reach the limit to that seemingly-endless patience, things... were not pretty.

Ever since he'd awoken with a splitting headache to find himself quite literally chained to a wall, Sigma's temper had slowly begun to rise. It wasn't bad enough that he'd been taken from his ship leaving behind a no doubt frantic lover. It wasn't bad enough that he had no idea what had happened to his brother after being hit in the back of the head. No, now his captors seemed to find it immensely entertaining to walk by every five minutes or so and taunt him.

He'd always considered himself to be immune to words. His realm was the unspoken, the mysteries that lay beneath the surface that one could only comprehend by watching the tiny, insignificant signals of a living body. He'd never had a problem with barbed words before as the ones speaking them never failed to communicate in some tiny way how their own insecurities drove them to say the things they did. He saw, he understood, and he ignored.

But these people were different. Overconfident. Arrogant, even. They took sheer delight in the pain of others, even if that pain was only in their perceptions. They truly believed in their own racial superiority. With every foul word that fell from their mouths it only made him all the more sick with disgust.

And anger.

There were very few people who had ever actually seen Sigma Altair lose his temper. The guard that stopped to spit at him at 20:47 Zero time was one of those few. Unfortunately for him, he only got to appreciate the privilege for the three-point-five seconds it took for Sigma to lash out with his feet, trap the guard's head between them, and then crack his head against the wall.

Exactly sixteen seconds later he was free, having relieved the unconscious guard of his keys, and began prowling his way through the sprawling estate he'd been left in. Two left turns later a second native went down without a sound. Another left and a right and three more had been added to that total.

Interestingly enough, there were no windows. Yet the walls and floor were stone. A man less accustomed to life aboard a starship might have found himself confused by the featureless hallways. Sigma formed a map in his mind, detailing out several areas and nearby exits courtesy of Hapless Guard #12 who babbled out everything he needed to know, and quite a bit that he didn't, after he'd taken the liberty of lifting the man off his feet and slamming him up against one of those nicely sturdy stone walls.

Fifteen minute and eleven guards later he stepped out the front gates of the Veronta Estate on Huayna and gazed out at the harsh landscape. Mostly reddish-brown stone and dust greeted him, with more red in the sky overhead. Dwellings were cut into the ground, for the most part, though a few low buildings off in the direction of the setting suns swiftly gave way to the more significant spires of a decently sized city. A hard, unforgiving planet.

No, a stupid, overbearing, arrogant planet. Now that he had the planet's name he was beginning to match up facts, some relayed via messages from his father, others looked up himself after it became obvious from reading between the lines that there was much the too-proud Tria Altair was leaving out.

Calmly setting out for the city in the distance, Sigma was distantly amused to note that after the third or fourth group had tried and failed to overpower him most of the rest started giving him a wide berth. At least until he got into a new group that hadn't seen what he did to the last ones.

He was approximately halfway to his goal when there was a rather spectacular explosion two streets over. Sigma was already moving toward it before he was quite aware of what he was doing, fully aware that explosions usually resulted in injuries which meant that people needed help. Even people that half a minute before he'd been doing his best to cause injuries.

Emerging from around a stone wall, he discovered a man taking aim with a stunner. Sigma relieved the man of his weapon and his consciousness, then looked up to see what he'd been about to fire at.

Several pairs of rather astonished eyes stared back at him.

"Sigma!" came a chorus of cries, then he was abruptly surrounded by the majority of the crew of the Ice Princess, including a very bewildered-looking Jei. Sigma watched calmly for several moments as his shipmates babbled nonsensically around him, then carefully caught Jei's eyes.

"If I might ask, what are you all doing here?" he inquired, allowing no hint of emotion to creep into his voice.

Several looks were exchanged, then Jei smiled somewhat sheepishly and spread his hands. "Uh, rescuing you?"

Not so much as a trace of a smile made its way to his lips, despite the satisfaction that ran through him at the boy's words. Instead he simply arched a brow in his usual fashion. "Good. Report."

The looks flew back and forth again, then finally everyone just looked at Jei. The Avarri fidgeted beneath Sigma's steady gaze, then drew in a slow breath. "Um, well, after I, ah, passed you over to the people who were paying for you I started thinking about... stuff you said... and I incapacitated the rest of the crew and went back to the Ice Princess so I could show them where you were. When we got there Tau Ceti did this creepy thing that wiped out all the power on the ship that was trying to escape and we retrieved everybody from there but you weren't on it. Your brother was, though."

Sigma's brows shot up. "You rescued Delta?"

Jei nodded. "He figured that this all had something to do with your father so then we went to Xochimi and he explained that these guys here, the Huya-something, hate his planet's people something fierce and then lately you and I guess Tau Ceti sent over a mining drill thing to make it easier for your dad's people and the people here got all uppity and decided they wanted the mining thing so they started attacking and blackmailing your father. We kinda figured they'd be keeping you here so I asked the crew to come with me so we could rescue you." He paused, then smiled wryly. "Apparently you didn't need rescuing."

"Having the Ice Princess available when it's time to leave will make things easier," Sigma said absently, something else Jei had said floating back and forth through his mind. "You said the Huayna started this attack because of the mining drone I sent father?" When Jei nodded, he grimaced. "Which means this entire mess is completely my fault."

Jei snorted. "Hardly. From the sound of things these lunatics were just looking for an excuse to get into a fight. I've met their type all over the quadrant. Most of 'em end up in Rehab eventually. Idiots."

There were a number of snickers, then Q'inn pointed out, "Coming from you, that's rather amusing." A moment later he yelped as Jei telekinetically knocked his feet out from under him. "Uppity bird..." the Hellcat muttered as he got to his feet.

"You really need to quit calling me a bird," Jei observed idly, eyes glinting with muffled amusement. "I don't have feathers and I don't lay eggs."

Everyone laughed again and Sigma shook his head slightly. Looked like Jei was bouncing back just fine. Hopefully that meant Ekaitz was on solid ground again as well. He cast his gaze out over the lot of them, then nodded to himself. "All right. Jei, you're coming with me. Q'inn, get everyone back to the ship and send a message to let the Captain and Tau Ceti know we're all fine." He gave them a sharp look. "As I assume given that neither are with you they don't know where you've run off to..."

Several blushes and sheepish looks met his statement, then Jei cleared his throat nervously. "Um, Sigma, err..." He waved a hand nervously at the grinning Meiki. "He kinda needs to come too."

Sigma looked from Jei to Meiki and back again, his brows shooting up in surprise. "That will make things interesting," he commented blandly, noting the matching winces on both the Draconis and the Avarri. "All right then, Meiki comes. The rest of you, go. We'll meet you back at the ship when things have been dealt with sufficiently."

He watched them until they were out of sight, then turned to regard first Jei, then Meiki. "Matched?"

Meiki nodded and gave one of his all-too-familiar 'Oops, I didn't mean to, really!' grins. "It's actually kind of fun. I'm a lot stronger than I used to be, and you should see what Jei can do now!"

"I can only imagine," Sigma murmured, turning his head to look at Jei. "I'm sure you've already gotten this from the rest of the crew, so I'll only say it once. Being matched to a Draconis is an honor and a responsibility. You're going to have to work together and support each other, as well as keep one another safe. Do you think you can do that?"

Jei gaped at him as though expecting something entirely different, then his gaze flickered briefly to Meiki and he nodded firmly. "Yeah, I can. I really... I really like you people. All of you. And him?" The Avarri flashed a grin at Meiki. "He's just fun."

Sigma sighed quietly and spared Meiki a Look. "You are not convincing him to join Tau and you in the vid-film escapades."

Meiki blinked at him, wide-eyed and innocent. "I'm not convincing him of anything!"

"Yeah," Jei added cheerfully, slinging an arm and a wing around Meiki's shoulders, "I don't need convincing."

Looking from one to the other, Sigma sighed again. "Remind me to keep Jayce very far away from both of you," he muttered beneath his breath, then turned and began walking toward the tallest of the city spires. "Come on, the sooner we get this over with, the sooner we can go home."

Jei and Meiki exchanged a swift grin, then scrambled after him.


It would really be a lot easier if the Huayna would just learn that "Get out of the way" was not a suggestion. Granted, having Jei and Meiki along made things go a little faster, but it was still annoying to have to slow down every twenty feet to deal with the welcoming committee.

The guard he'd terrified after first getting free had explained that the plan had been the idea of the Huaynan Overlord, Maxin Veronta. While the guard hadn't known all the details of exactly how the kidnapping had been engineered, he had been able to give Sigma precise instructions on where to find Veronta. Getting into the Citadel had been a rather simple matter of Jei calmly yanking the doors off their hinges, much to Sigma's subtle disquiet and Meiki's energetic glee. After that, it had simply become a matter of politely inquiring the whereabouts of Maxin Veronta.

Twenty minutes and a hundred and twelve guards later (more or less, he'd lost count somewhere around the time Meiki had realized he now had access to Jei's telekinesis and started happily flinging things right and left) they found themselves outside a pair of heavy steel doors. Deciding to go the way of diplomacy, at least for the moment, Sigma had Jei manipulate the bolt and simply swing the doors open rather than their more forceful approach.

Inside, close to thirty armed men were waiting for them.

Cursing, Sigma dove to the side and took out the nearest Huayna, his heart leaping into his throat as he heard the familiar sound of weapons fire. A few moments later when he got the chance to take a step back and check on his companions, he was startled to notice them both completely unharmed with the air around them shimmering strangely. The Huayna had ceased firing and were gaping instead, and Sigma decided to use the distraction to his advantage.

In short order, there was only one Huayna left. Sigma had deliberately avoided him, as he was dressed differently than any of the others he'd seen thus far. That was a very good indication that this was the man they were looking for. Sigma smiled dangerously. "Maxin Veronta, I assume?"

Veronta eyed them all warily, his gaze shooting most often to Jei and Meiki, the latter of which seemed to be practicing using Jei's magics by floating a collection of stunners around his head.

"Who are you people?"

Sigma's smile darkened. "Oh, you know exactly who I am. After all, you ordered my brother and me kidnapped so that you could blackmail our father." Veronta's face paled, but Sigma went on before he could voice a denial. "What I really want to know, though, is how you did it. To get Delta off Zero, to even find me, you had to have access to classified files, Veronta. I want to know the name of your contacts on Zero."

The Huaynan started, then stiffened. "No," he said simply.

"No?" Sigma repeated, arching a brow. "That's unfortunate..." He gestured behind himself. "Jei, would you mind?"

A moment later Veronta was floating in the air, his arms and legs held out at an odd angle. His eyes had gone wide in real fear, darting back and forth between Sigma and Jei.

"Now then," Sigma continued calmly as though nothing had changed, "You're going to give me the name or names that I want, or else my friend here is going to block the air from getting to your lungs and you can gradually suffocate to death. I'm told it's a highly unpleasant way to die."

Veronta's eyes bulged. "You.. you're bluffing. You're IG. The Infinitum Government doesn't work that way."

Sigma shrugged idly. "Technically I'm retired, and Jei there is a mercenary. Besides, I don't appreciate being dragged all over the quadrant, threatened and insulted, while my friends are no doubt frantic with worry for me." His eyes narrowed dangerously. "For that alone, I should hate you."

Once again Veronta's gaze flicked to Jei and Meiki, though this time lingering a bit longer on Meiki as the Draconis had gotten two of the stunners in hand and was holding them up to test their aim with Veronta's head as his primary target. "I..." He swallowed, then looked away from them all. "Torrik. Zev Torrik."

One of Sigma's brows arched. "High Councilor Torrik? You have some interesting friends, Veronta."

Veronta glared at him. "He owed me a favor; I cashed it in and threw in some things to make the deal a little sweeter, that's all. We're not friends. A Huayna would never be friends with a weak human."

"No?" Sigma crossed his arms and adopted his favorite Authority stance. "That's too bad for you, Veronta, because you're about to become very good friends with a human. Governor Tria Altair of Xochimi, to be specific."

The man started. "Never," he spat.

Sigma sighed and signaled to Jei. Veronta choked and gasped helplessly for several moments, then Sigma signaled again and the Huaynan could once more breathe. He sucked in several deep breaths before panting and glaring sullenly at Sigma. "What do you want me to do?"

Smiling coldly, Sigma explained. "I am well aware that Xochimi has extended several invitations to work together with your people, and you have rejected them every time in favor of trying to enslave them. The next time the offer comes, which should be in a day or two, you're going to accept it."

Veronta's lips thinned. "Work together with those flighty weaklings?"

"It's that or you die, and we cripple Huayna's tech on the way out." Sigma shrugged. "Your choice. Just keep in mind that the three of us just took on half the fighters in your capitol city without much effort. It wouldn't be all that much of an inconvenience to call in a few waiting friends of ours to finish the job."

Swallowing, Veronta looked at each of them before slowly lowering his head. "Fine. We'll... work with the Xochimans."

Sigma smiled and gestured to Jei to let the man down. "Good. I'll be keeping an eye on you to make certain you uphold your end of the bargain. If not..." He shrugged idly. "You'll be seeing us again."

Ignoring Veronta for the most part, except for staying alert in case the man tried anything, Sigma turned to the waiting Jei and Meiki. "I think it's time to go home now, don't you?"

Two matching grins were his response.


Custom Class Star Ship TSPKAST-0000 (16251582) The Ice Princess

They could all see it coming, especially Jei who paled and took a step back, though he didn't otherwise do anything to defend himself. There was a very audible crack as Tau Ceti's fist connected with the Avarri's face, followed by a more muffled thump as Jei collided with the floor.

"If you ever run off with my ship without permission again," Tau Ceti snarled, electricity crackling along his arms, "You will die." He spun to cast a deadly glare over the rest of them. "That goes for the rest of you as well."

A long silence stretched out, during which Jei gingerly picked himself up off the deck yet again, then Tau Ceti made a noise that sounded oddly like a whimper and flung himself into Sigma's ready arms. "I don't care if you have duties or whatever," the Gremlin said, his voice muffled by the fabric of Sigma's shirt, "I'm handcuffing you to the bed so you can't leave again."

"Handcuffs can be picked," Sigma pointed out with a smile as he held his lover close.

"I'll build better ones," Tau Ceti promised, drawing back only far enough to tip his head up for a kiss that Sigma wholeheartedly gave.

"I really didn't need to know that about them," Q'inn muttered good-naturedly, prompting somewhat nervous laughter from the watching crew.

As the kiss continued on without so much as a pause for air, Sigma's hands drifting down to cup his lover and pull the Gremlin flush against him while Tau Ceti managed to wrap arms, legs, and tail around Sigma's body, Ekaitz found himself blushing and trying very hard not to look at Jei and wish he could do the same. It was taking every iota of self-control he possessed not to drag the Avarri into his arms and kiss him senseless.

He'd been utterly terrified when they'd first realized Jei had slipped away, thinking that he'd managed to make the same mistake twice and Jei had played him so skillfully. Then they'd discovered the Ice Princess missing and he'd had no further time for thought with all his effort going into restraining the most brilliant Gremlin in the Infinitum Government from doing something... drastic.

When the call had come in from the Ice Princess, Q'inn and Fe'yiv taking turns explaining where and why they'd gone, his knees had nearly buckled in relief. Probably would have, if he'd not had to physically restrain Tau Ceti. That was not something he wanted to have to do ever again, especially after the angry Gremlin had zapped him in retaliation. If he'd possessed body hair it would probably still be standing up.

Now, with Sigma and Tau Ceti apparently oblivious to the staring around them, Ekaitz was quite pointedly reminded that as soon as the High Chancellor gave the order Jei would most likely be on his way to Rehab and Ekaitz fully expected to find himself relocated to a barge somewhere.

One last time, they'd promised. One last memory. No matter how desperately they might wish otherwise.

"Not that I want to break up this very dramatic reunion," Delta commented dryly, "But I really would like to get back to Zero sometime soon."

Reluctantly Tau Ceti broke the kiss, twisting to glare at the younger Altair sibling. "Sigma," he asked calmly, "Would you mind terribly if I electrocuted your brother?"

Sigma chuckled quietly. "He does have a point you know, and now that everything's over we should probably report in to Kavalerov." His gaze shifted to catch and hold Ekaitz's eyes. "Don't you think, Captain?"

No, he didn't want to report in to the High Chancellor, but he didn't really have much of a choice. Ekaitz nodded slightly and shooed his bridge crew toward their stations. "One of you decide who's got communications and put the call through."

He watched in mild amazement and no small amount of disbelief as the four of them held a brief game of rock-paper-scissors to determine who got to make the call to Zero. Fe'yiv flashed a brilliant smile when she won and dropped into one of the control seats, efficiently working the console. A minute or so later her clear voice called out, "I have the High Chancellor."

Taking a deep breath to steady himself, Ekaitz clasped his hands behind his back and stood facing the main screen. "Put him up, Fe'yiv."

The ever-impressive visage of the High Chancellor filled the screen, looking composed and dignified in his black and silver uniform. "Captain Kai." His brows rose slightly. "Sigma."

Sigma nodded. "Chancellor Kavalerov." He didn't even try to salute. Not with Tau Ceti wrapped so tightly around him.

"Events occurred so swiftly that we didn't get a chance to update you, and for that I apologize," Ekaitz said as calmly as the butterflies in his stomach would allow. "As you can see, we have safely retrieved Sigma and apparently his brother Delta from their captors. We had... assistance in the form of one of the mercenaries that was hired to kidnap Sigma coming back to show us where he was located, and later leading an..." Ekaitz winced. "Unauthorized rescue mission."

"Convenient for me," Sigma interjected idly.

"And if he does it again I'll kill him," Tau Ceti muttered sullenly, though without any real heat. Anyone could see that the relief he felt at having Sigma back was temporarily overriding all other emotions.

Kavalerov's brows rose further, and his lips quirked. "I see."

Ekaitz drew in a slow breath. "I take full responsibility for everything that's happened and will understand if you choose to reassign me after this, as I-" He didn't get a chance to finish as Tau Ceti disentangled himself from Sigma to smack his captain upside the head.

"You didn't hear a word of that," the Gremlin rather pointedly said to the screen as Ekaitz rubbed the back of his head.

"Yes," Sigma agreed, gently drawing Tau Ceti away from Ekaitz, "If this is anyone's fault, it's mine. I had Tau Ceti design something for my father and in doing so accidentally escalated a war that's been going on for centuries."

"The Xochimi-Huayna confrontation." Kavalerov nodded slightly. "What is the status of the hostilities now?"

Sigma's lips twisted into a very strange expression. "There shouldn't be any further hostilities, sir. The Huayna have agreed to form a partnership with the Xochimans."

Kavalerov regarded Sigma carefully for a moment, then shook his head. "Send me the full report later."

"Yes, sir."

There was a brief lull, then Ekaitz steeled himself and ventured, "High Chancellor, about the mercenary..."

"Captain." Sigma held up a hand to forestall him, then looked up at the screen. "While IG law dictates that Jei be sent to Rehab, recent events have created some complications. As I'm sure you're aware, the Ice Princess had an unmatched Draconis aboard."

Kavalerov's brows shot up again. "Had?"

Ekaitz's head snapped around to stare at Jei, then Meiki. When had that happened?

"Yes, sir," Sigma continued calmly, gesturing for Jei and Meiki to come stand nearby. "Our Draconis, and our mercenary."

Tau Ceti was staring at the two as well, then he crossed his arms and glared rather pointedly at Meiki. "Is there anything on my ship that you haven't made a mess out of?" he asked.

Meiki considered carefully, then grinned. "I don't think so."

"I think you see the problem," Sigma finished, stepping aside to wrap his arms loosely around Tau Ceti once again.

"Like he'll see it as a problem," Tau Ceti grumbled. "He likes hiring mercenaries and convicts to do his evil bidding." The Gremlin gestured rudely at the screen. "If you're going to start laughing at me, Princess, please keep in mind that we're on our way to Zero to drop off Sigma's brother and I know all your access codes."

Kavalerov smiled patiently. "I wouldn't dream of it, Tau." His gaze shifted to Ekaitz. "Captain Kai, I'll expect a full report by the time you get to Zero. I'd also wish you good luck but..." He gestured at the various grinning beings standing around them. "I think that's a given by now."

"Oh, and Kavalerov..."

"Sigma?" The High Chancellor appeared mildly curious.

Sigma's grey eyes narrowed as he smiled tightly. "You might want to go have a word or two with High Councilor Torrik regarding how my brother managed to get from Zero to an uninhabited planet in the fourth quadrant."

Nothing in the High Chancellor's expression changed, but Ekaitz was suddenly seized with the impulse to back up a pace. From the slight shifting of bodies around him, it seemed he wasn't the only one.

"I will do that," Kavalerov replied coolly. "I'll see you all when you get to Zero." The call ended.

All around them was a rather stunned silence as everyone except Jei and Meiki stared at Sigma. For his part, Sigma had on his usual neutral expression.

"Lord Torrik..." Delta breathed slowly. "That's one I never would have suspected..."

Tau Ceti added something that wasn't quite audible but definitely wasn't fit for polite company. A moment later Jei cleared his throat nervously.

"So, um... Does that mean I can stay?" he asked hesitantly.

"Unfortunately," Q'inn muttered. "Whoever decided birds should be allowed on starships needs to be grilled and barbequed."

Meiki grinned. "See? Told you he'd let you stay with us."

Slowly, unsurely, Jei's crimson gaze sought out Ekaitz's. No one later could ever seem to agree on who moved first, and neither of them could remember much beyond a very hot, hard, demanding kiss that left them both a tangle of arms and wings and dizzy breath that hitched alarmingly as deft hands sought out sensitive skin and it wasn't until the entire crew began laughing, jeering, and whistling that they finally separated.

There was a swift whispered conference between Meiki, Xalin, and Q'inn, then the medic and the Hellcat stepped up on either side of Jei and Ekaitz and pushed them quite firmly off the bridge.

"Have fun!" Meiki called cheerfully as the doors closed. "See you in a couple of hours!"

Ekaitz considered, looked thoughtfully at Jei, then shrugged and slung the Avarri over his shoulder before making his way through the ship to his quarters.

The End