Returning To Your Roots
by Fur and Fantasy
NC-17 for M/M, M/F
full contents and notes located at the bottom of the file

"Target planet within visual range," the Galactic Alliance scientific ship's Digital Sentience reported, drawing the first stage of their mission to a close after nine months of exploration.

"On screen, Star," General Nathan SwiftClaw spoke evenly despite his excitement. "And alert the prime team members."

"Done General," she replied smoothly.

The Tiger Felsin watched in silent wonder at the small orb, like so many others, but said to be the world of origin of his race, lost over three thousand years ago.

Three thousand years, he thought, what might the ancestors have become in those years? He looked at the small orb wondering, and decided that this was not the time to be careless.

"Scientific and Military teams begin detailed sensor scans, but keep to high atmosphere and above. We need to get an idea of what might get thrown at us if our peaceful contact gets misinterpreted.

"Scientific, we'll also want some idea of general tech level and scan the electromagnetic frequencies for broadcast communications. If they're in the middle of a major planetary war; we do not want to walk into it.'

"*DarkStar, wide system scan. See if they've got any space going capability, and more importantly ... is any of it armed.*" He thought to the teams most experienced military DS.

The Tiger leaned back in the Command chair of the SilverStar and listened to the flow of information pick up as the teams shifted in to high gear.

"Begin," Nathan smiled as he sat down. Despite the serious and official nature of this mission and briefing, everyone there was either family or close friend.

"They clearly have respectable near-space capabilities," DarkStar, appearing as a Black Lab Camen, began the briefing. "There are numerous operational satellites and significant evidence that they have been to their moon several times.

"While some transmissions I translated make me doubt it, they do not appear to be capable of easy inter-planetary travel, and certainly not interstellar.

"At least some aircraft are combat worthy, and remarkably advanced for a pre-interstellar civilization. They are almost assuredly capable of near-space combat as well." DarkStar nodded to a large Panther Felsin.

"If there's a conflict down there, they're being damn good at hiding it." Commander Ebon SwiftClaw reported to his son. "I'd say there hasn't been a shot fired from any real weapon in at least forty or fifty years, maybe longer. From the readings, at least certain areas are still heavily armed, and possibly as advanced as us."

"There are several TechnoMages of significant power down there," a White Tiger Felsin with leather wings picked up, "numerous DS, and Morin sensed several True Mages." The teenager nodded to a silver Dracon female across the table.

"What I've gathered indicates there is a stable world government that has been in power for some time, likely a generation or more, and a fairly stable world-wide culture and language. While the initial scans did not indicate the infrastructure to support this, more detailed scans found power signatures indicating teleportation tech, vehicles that do not need roads, and significant underground construction.

"Lifeform scans indicates three common sentient species, and perhaps two or three score with only a few representatives.

"The most common species is likely the Felsin ancestor," SilverStar brought an image up of a male that looked much like a half-way form between the Felsin standard and war-form. "Called a 'Kat'. There seems to be a wide phenotype range among them.

"The second most common are canines, both Camen and Lupo types, though they seem to consider all canines to be of the same race, 'Kantin'.

"The third is fairly rare, but common enough that it is likely a native, or at least long-term resident." She brought up a Ferrin-looking creature. "They are called Mustelid locally."

"Okay, have we identified the who and where of this world government? That will be who we should talk to ... unless intelligence indicates some sort of highly corrupt or otherwise unsavory establishment." The General started.

"It centers in an undersea facility called Margrin." Silver provided. "With a second capitol, likely a military/ research one, in the mountain facility of Cathedral."

"Intelligence hasn't found much out past a peaceful surface." Ebon nodded. "I don't trust it."

Nathan nodded and turned to the White Tiger. "Storm, I want you to work with Scientific, especially Silver on this. They've had a stable world government for a generation, teleportation tech and some armaments comparable to ours. So why haven't they developed at least system space travel? There's a missing piece here, and we'll probably need to know what it is."

He switched to the frequency for the DS. "*Silver, Dark, Raven ... despite how tempting it may be, do not try to establish contact with the local DS population until we figure out how the political structure down there works.*"

The Tiger turned to Commander SwiftClaw. "Dad, start planning for an infiltration mission. See how much contact they've had with non-native sentients from what shows on the local communication and datanets. And have Cazi see what he can get from the local datagrid, if they've got world government they should have world-wide networking.

"Any concerns, additional observations?" He said, opening the meeting up to a more general discussion.

"I got some names from news broadcasts." Raven dropped in, in his typical form; a six-foot tall black and silver feathered Avar with blue eyes that mimicked his namesake in build. "Jake, Chance and Felina Furlson-Feral are in defense and high ranking, as are Razor, T-Bone and Artimis. I'm pretty sure they're connected to each other, and to something call SWAT.

"Pakitra Dyne, Jake Furlson-Feral, Greg Witheram and Callie Briggs are heavy hitters in politics." He sat down next to Storm. "And from what I've scrounged from the unsecured news files, they have a very long history of contact with non-native sentients, and they fall into two categories.

"It seems like those that show themselves to the general populous first have a history of trying to blow things up, but I've scanned a lot that says they have good relations with a lot of non-natives, including several in positions of significant authority, even defense."

SilverStar nodded. "I'm still running comparisons and translations, but there is a 98.99% likelihood that the local primary language and Felsin diverged from a common root roughly three thousand years ago."

Nathan considered. "Okay, they're going to great lengths to project a unified and peaceful front. But they still maintain a fairly impressive military force, despite no shooting for a generation. Okay. Scientific get on history and background of this world government; specifically how it came into existence and how it took power."

The General considered for a moment. "We're going to hold at sensor edge for 24 hours and see what goes on. At twenty-five hours we put the infiltration teams down, and see what surface surveillance tells us. Something about this 'peace' doesn't make sense, and I don't want to find out 'what' during formal talks.

"Unless anybody has anything else, we'll go with the usual operating arrangement; follow your instincts, play hunches, but don't expose us to observation with letting me know first."

"Okay, what else has the last twenty-four told us?" Commander SwiftClaw handed the infiltration briefing over to SilverStar.

"The current world government is forty-three years old by local time, which translates out to just under 50 Alliance years. According to their public and low security records, it came into power as the result of a global conference that included not only the leaders of most of the current City-State governments, but heads of many of the major super-corps and other people of influence.

"It was called by Pakitra Dyne, the CO of Cathedral, a major R& D/ large projects corporation, who is the current head of the government. Details are sketchy, but the net result was the world government that exists today, and an all out war on all non-peaceful factions, including over thirty 'super-criminals' with names such as Dark Kat, PastMaster, Dr. Viper and Crimson Wing and a few governments, organizations and corporations that didn't go with the plan.

"By all indications, it was done with complete ruthlessness on both sides, though the current government appears to have made at least some attempts to minimize collateral damage to their people and territories, and did a rather spectacular job of putting the planet back together when it was over.

"They are a democratic republic, with most leaders, including Council members, elected by popular vote, and the world leader elected by those in the Council from their own. Ms. Dyne and Ms. Callie Briggs have been trading off the position every election or two, though which is in charge does not seem to make much of an impact.

"The defense leaders are more military, and the top posts haven't been questioned or replaced since this government came into power, so it's uncertain just how that will work if significant numbers of them were taken out at once.

"On the sexuality front, they do not have a legal gender bias, or on pairings. While pairings greater than two are legal, they do not appear to be common. Socially, it's harder to tell, but it seems to be the same.

"The main change the happened in The War of Law, as they call the post-takeover conflict, is that cities don't exist anymore outside of a few highly secured industrial locations such as Cathedral.

Despite this, inter-continental travel seems very common through aircraft, sea craft, teleport, and underground trams.

"The most difficult part appears to be getting you to the surface. They have put a ridiculous amount of effort into scanning and sensor systems. Once you are on planet, the main point will be to avoid getting in trouble. They have a very lenient legal system, but if you get into serious trouble, you probably won't live long enough to be rescued.

"Fortunately those are common sense: don't kill, seriously injure, rape or kidnap anyone. Theft is also a no-no, but unless it's of high security info or items, you'll live to see us again.

"Weapons are allowed to civilians, but the paperwork and cross-referencing is significant, so you aren't getting much. You shouldn't be getting into serious fights anyway.

"Questions?" The silver Dracon solid holoprojection swung her head around the group.

Cazimir, the urban specialist, looked perplexed. "If they don't have cities ... where do they put all the people?" He asked curiously.

"The population is fairly low, and except for the two capitols, it is spread out in towns of a few thousand." SilverStar explained.

"Do we have an approximate duration for the 'War of Law', and is there any evidence that nuclear, chemical or biological munitions were used? The low population is incongruous with an advanced society unless something is suppressing population growth, either environmentally or deliberately." Darisk Cohntar, one of Kamelen intelligence officers asked, he was currently wearing the form of medium height black on gray tabby Kat. His world had suffered a horrific war just before the founding of the world government, but 50 years after it they had been exploring the limits of their solar system and making the first inroads to hyperspace theory.

"Duration was less than a year according to their records, and there are no indications of any NBC agents. It seems to be mostly a conventional weapons war with very high usage of Special Operations teams and Assassins." SilverStar shook her head slightly. "The population seems to be limited by the government. They have a system of economic bonuses and penalties for those with children, geared toward encouraging those with education and ability to breed, and discouraging most others."

"Do we have any idea what the population of the capitols is, and more importantly how open is access to them?" Cazi asked as he tried to figure out how to infiltrate such a distributed population. Villages were tough to work with, people tended to be too quick to recognize outsiders. He had picked a fairly average calico Kat form for the mission.

"Margrin, the undersea capital and where the Council meets, has a estimated population of four thousand. Cathedral, the second capitol and what seems to be their military headquarters, has an estimated population of forty to fifty thousand." SilverStar nodded. "Cathedral is by far the largest population on the planet."

Ebon shook his head. "I don't like this, the largest 'city' on the planet is essentially a military complex housing around fifty thousand. That means probably five to ten thousand troops and the remainder being research and support mostly. Unless those five to ten thousand are entirely commando-level that's a fairly small military."

"SilverStar, is they're any indication what or who they're watching for with all this sensor equipment of theirs? They're deliberately maintaining a small, talented and highly distributed population, and a high tech military which is large relative to the size of the population." Commented Randy Masterson, a Doberman Canem with experience in urban warfare and tactics. "Sounds like they're still at war with someone, probably someone they can only run defense against."

"They have two primary sets of sensor systems that we have found." She shifted to face the Camen. "One is a low altitude, including underground, and geared towards an energy frequency we have not determined the significance of. The second is aimed into space in all directions and seems to be more for the detection of foreign objects than identifying them. Long range, low resolution. We have the technology to avoid detection, but not by a lot."

Randy nodded. "Still sounds like a very generalized defense strategy, probably against a not fully identified adversary."

Ebon nodded. "Good thinking Randy." He tapped his wristcom. "Infiltration to Command."

"Command here, go ahead Ebon." Nathan's voice came back.

"Looks like we may be dealing with a siege crisis here, suggest you have Raven run a patrol sweep of the system. There may be a hostile non-native force nearby. And you may want to have Sciences do an in-depth study of the sensor nets, especially the low-level one."

"Good thought, you still planning to go with infiltration?"

"We still need to know what's going on. We'll shift to moving on the largest towns."

"Towns?" Nathan's voice was a little incredulous.

"Yeah, it appears they lost anything resembling a city about fifty years ago."

"Right. Well, be careful."

"Will do."

He turned to Silver. "Identify three towns with the highest populations and the most traffic to and from Cathedral."

She concentrated for several moments, shifting through the mass of data they had accumulated. "The three largest non-military towns are called MegaKat City, Green Harbor and Kykuulu. MegaKat City and Kykuulu seem to be tourist areas. MegaKat City as a memorial site and trading location due to a fine harbor, and Kykuulu is a 'tropical paradise'. Green Harbor is a trading city.

"The highest traffic with Cathedral is Margrin. Of the accessible locations, MegaKat City has the marginally higher traffic. A large tropic island, Kykuulu, with a registered population of five hundred and seven also sees high traffic, but most is between Cathedral and a handful of similar, though much smaller, facilities that circle it."

Ebon nodded. "Thank you, Silver. Okay, my team will take Green Harbor; Cazi's team will take MegaKat City since that sounds like it had a higher population not too long ago; and Sandy Vasken's team will take the tropical paradise since Kamelen prefer the tropics anyway."

"Okay folks, remember there's a very solid defense footing here so play it quiet. This is strictly information gathering, no conflict except in self-defense, and even then try to defuse it. Our main objective is find out who they're guarding against, since that force may pose a threat to us. Teams to your dropships."

On the bridge, Nathan contacted Raven. "*Raven, I need you to do a reasonably detailed system patrol sweep. There may be hostiles present and we need to know.*"

"*Understood.*" The newest member of their team responded smartly.

Then he reached out to Morin. "*Morin, coordinate Scientific and Military analysis of those sensor-nets, full detail particularly aiming for 'what' they're looking for.*"

Having put things in motion, he leaned back, closed his physical eyes and opened his mind to the ebbs and flows of the 'Force'. He gradually blanked out his own people and ships, so he could focus on the enigmatic planet below. His Mentor had taught him that often the Force already understood things that he would want answers to, though he never was entirely sure how that worked. He worked in a radiating pattern, just as a precaution since a focused study could pinpoint his ship to a Force sensitive of equal ability; assuming there were any on the planet, of course.

Bright to his senses three individuals stood out as Jedi, two in Cathedral, one in the middle of a wilderness area on one of the southern continents. The planet was rife with disruptions in the Force, swirls and eddies unlike anything he'd seen before. It reminded him a little of when he'd looked at Draconea like this, with all the powerful individuals that lived on the Dracon homeworld.

"*Local space clear, General.*" Raven reported.

"*Thank you, Raven. Keep a careful 'eye' out, the locals have a lot of resources dedicated to spacewatch, there must be a reason.*" He thought calmly.

Nathan gave considerable thought to the significance of the two Jedi at Cathedral, and the fact that they hadn't felt 'dark' to him. It was an encouraging sign, but he needed to wait for the surface teams to return. Part of him wondered if the Jedi below had noticed his search, and if so what they made of it.

Then he remembered that those who had left this world, had left from a southern continent. And there was a Jedi there as well, well he'd just have to wait, since there were two senior officers headed planetside already.

He remembered a way his Mentor had taught him to 'introduce' himself, when entering a territory that appeared to have a Jedi protector already. But it seemed prudent to wait for now, besides he hadn't actually entered the planet's atmosphere yet.

A midnight black Panther Kat lead two dark Canem to the edge of a port city, that on a pre-industrial world, would have been a thriving metropolis. The only thing out of place was the obvious high tech construction of the ground-effect and hydrofoil vessels docked and the moderness of the buildings.

Simon looked the port city over. "Looks like one of the resort marinas on the Sea of Rozar back home. If this is supposed to be a major trading city, this planet is weirdly under populated."

Randy bapped the Lab. "We know the population is way too low for a high tech industrial world. We're supposed to be finding out why."

Ebon cleared his throat. "Enough you two, lets take a careful look round, and stay clear of any area that looks restricted until I tell you otherwise."

"Right, sir." The pair nodded at him before the three split up.

Randy stuck to the waterline, and had a hard time shaking the feeling he was in a resort, not a busy trading port. It was too clean for starters, and far too friendly. Twenty minutes into walking around, and he'd yet to see a single ruffian, be challenged, insulted or see anything but friendly smiles and the occasional appreciative look for his fit body.

The Doberman decided to keep looking trying to get a better feel for the level of shipping traffic. He also kept his eye out for whatever passed for local law enforcement, since a strong police presence might explain this very weird behavior for a trading port.

He chuckled quietly to himself, wondering what the fleet counselor would make of him being disappointed by the lack of aggression normally found in trading ports.

"Looking for something?" A tall, elegantly lean Kantin with silky long fur that made it impossible to tell where hair ended and fur began.

Randy turned casually. "Oh, not really. Just getting a feel for a new place." He said easily, and it was even true since the Doberman was still convinced there was something 'wrong' that he was missing. He sized the Afghan up professionally trying to determine whether he was talking to some sort of security professional, and decided the multicolored male probably wasn't, and likely wasn't in any kind of physically demanding profession either.

"I'm Soquise," he extended a hand. "Care for a tour? I know the city fairly well."

Randy shook the hand. "I'm Randolph, but Randy's what most use, and I'd appreciate that, if its not an inconvenience." He said politely, careful not to appear too eager. Actually, one corner of his mind was a bit suspicious about someone who just out of the blue offered to give a stranger a tour.

"Do you have a place to stay?" The smile and manner range a bell, but one Randy couldn't place just yet.

The Doberman figured it was probably safe enough to be friendly, but he was still a tad suspicious. "Actually, no. But most ports have lodging establishments so I figured I'd find one while looking around." He said casually, hoping that was true on this planet. Randy was grateful that he was enough of an empath not to fall for the more obvious tricks, even if that was about all his empathy was good for.

"Quite true," Soquise nodded with a smile. "Are you looking for work?"

Randy thought about the question. From a general cover concept, he probably should be since that was one of the major reasons people visited port towns. He even had experience working waterborne vessels, since he'd been with the water navy back home before joining the Alliance military.

Randy smiled. "I figured I would in a day or so, any suggestions?" He said in a friendly manner, keeping his empathy open for any signs of entrapment. He didn't plan on getting caught in any sting ops, or worse yet any of the illegal activities that often occurred around port towns.

Soquise studied him critically for a while. "Dock work pays well, and if you have sea legs, the Sonder, Daughter of Dawn, and Pandora's TK need a few more hands at the moment." He motioned to one of the big ground effect freighters docked nearby. "If you've got any skills of note, there are other jobs." He paused, then chuckled. "I work for Green Harbor's Hospitality Unit, in case you were wondering."

Randy chuckled. "Was it that obvious?" He said laughing quietly. "Sounds like there's a fair amount of options, but I'm not in a rush really. I prefer to get a feel for a place first." Randy figured the Hospitality Unit must be like a cross between the Department of Commerce and the Tourism bureau back home. Certainly wasn't what he was thinking at first, though.

"Not that obvious," the Afghan Kantin chuckled back softly. "I just remembered I wasn't in uniform." He motioned along the dock and started to walk at a leisurely pace. "I love my job, and this city.

"The nearest hotel is The Green Water. It's a nice two and a half paw with free breakfast, and it's reasonably priced. Samma's and Par's Port are both three paws. I would recommend The Gay Sky, but it's full.

"We have two main shopping districts, one for bulk goods and one for normal folks." He suddenly shifted his attention to the Doberman. "Have you eaten yet?

Randy shook his head. "Nope, that was something else I was planning to get to. What's a good, reasonably priced place for that?" He asked smiling. There were worse people to connect with than a friendly member of the tourism bureau, he thought.

"If you like seafood, I definitely recommend Aberith's." The elegant canine grinned and changed direction. "She make's a truly delicious Talli-Tail fillet. I can answer any questions you have while we eat."

"Sounds like a plan." Randy said as he followed the Afghan. His urban survival instincts were distinctly weirded out, civil servants were not supposed to be so personable off-duty. Actually, this town just weirded him out because he couldn't figure out how you'd manage to suppress the aggression factor to such a low state.

He shoved it to the back of his mind, figuring he'd leave it to the experts in behavioral psych-med.

The headed inland six blocks as warehouses changed to small businesses. Soquise took a seat at one of the outside tables and waved at a dark brown shekat. "The usual, Cathy."

"Of course Se, who's the newcomer?" She smiled warmly at the Doberman.

"Randy," the Afghan inclined his head.

"Welcome to Green Harbor, Randy." She smiled brightly before she turned to walk into the building.

"So, any questions I can answer?" Soquise leaned back.

The Doberman thought for a little while, trying to get the right questions, that wouldn't arouse suspicion. Then he remembered that every planet has its backwater regions, those out of touch, that sort of thing. He'd been born in one on his own world.

He smiled, looking a little overwhelmed in the classic 'country pup in the big city' way. "Guess I'm still trying to get used to how quiet and peaceful everything is. It's nothin' like my old man described the big port cities to be." He said in a way that sounded like he was more than a bit out of his depth.

Soquise smiled in amusement and understanding. "A lot changed after the war. That kind of disorder and waste just couldn't be afforded any more, and that's where my job comes in. When everyone has what they need, and work that suits them, the city stays friendly and united. Just like the way the small towns take care of their own, it just takes more organization to make it happen on this scale." He chuckled. "Fortunately, our Councilors are good at organization. Ms. Dyne and Briggs have the mind for it."

Randy didn't have to fake being amazed and a tad bewildered 'cause he was. "Wow, so did that get rid of all the crime my old man said cities are just rife with?" He asked wide-eyed, encouraging the perception that he was probably from some isolated village that had kind of missed the last fifty years.

He nodded with a proud smile. "It takes a lot of work to keep up, but we haven't had to use the jail more than a hand of times in the last twenty years. And only once for a serious crime."

Randy really was amazed. The only places he'd ever seen with that little use of jail facilities, were military facilities. For some reason, this added to his suspicion that the planet was a military facility.

He looked at the Afghan, and shook his head smiling. "Gee, I shoulda made my way here sooner, if I'd known all the ugly stories my pa told were this badly out-of-date." He paused as though uncertain.

"Don't suppose you know of anybody around here who can use a talented mechanic and tinkerer." He asked hopefully, figuring his frequent duty as field mechanic would hold him in good stead, along with his knack for making parts do what he needed, as opposed to what they were originally designed for.

"Quite a few," Soquise chuckled. "A good tinkerer is always in demand. Ship or land?"

"Land preferably." Randy said easily. "I've been on boats a few times, but I feel more confident with solid ground under me." He said a little eagerly, since they had to be here for 2 or 3 days gathering intel, it made sense to blend in as much as possible.

"I'll come by your room in the morning with the open positions and a good map, then." He smiled as Cathy arrived with their food: a large plate with a steaming fish filet, vegetables and two glasses with a bubbling dark brown liquid.

"Sounds good." He said appreciatively, before inhaling the aroma rising from the food. "If it tastes half as good as it smells ..." He said quietly, somewhat amazed that he thought it smelled good; he wasn't usually big on fish.

"It does," Soquise smiled as he sipped his drink. "Do you have any more questions about the area?"

Randy dug in pleasantly surprised that it did taste as good as it smelled. He took a sip of his drink, and smiled. "It is good." He said approvingly. "At the moment not really. You've been a really big help, and I appreciate the fact that you're doing it on your own time." He said, before returning to his meal.

"You're welcome," he smiled. "Duty and love know no hours."

Simon headed inland at a good clip, skirting the edge of the town to check out what the wealthy areas were like, assuming he could get into them.

He keep track of the condition of things as he passed, noting that while it wasn't hard to figure out what areas were poor, middle class and wealthy, all apparently enjoyed a good standard of living, and not a single soul deemed destitute, homeless, or in any other wretched state.

He'd seen a fair number of worlds in his military career, and this was the first world that lacked the truly poor. Of course, it did seem to be the lowest population pre-starflight world that he'd ever seen. But it still felt 'unnatural', as though he was inside somebody's experiment in social engineering.

The Lab didn't mind the fact that there was a lack of those in a wretched state, since he hated seeing sentients like that. He wondered what the 'price' of gaining this semi-utopia was, there always was one.

He decided to keep exploring to pick up as many details as he could without going anywhere he shouldn't.

Ebon walked carefully into the town itself, seeing a very high standard of living even in the poorest areas he passed through unchallenged, though many Kats and Kantin were out on the street. He received friendly nods and smiles as he passed instead.

He decided to start by observing to make sure their assessments on the appearance and use of local currency were correct. The last thing he wanted to do was to get arrested for possession of hard currency or some stupid law like that.

It took him less than five minutes to find a suitable location: a crowded, open establishment with alcohol, exotic dancers of both genders and food.

Ebon smiled, figuring this it would be a very good place to determine the behavior of local currency. And people tended to talk in the presence of alcohol, and he was nearly immune to the intoxicating effects of it. He put on his best barhopping mannerisms and walked in.

He found a spot in the corner to watch and listen for a while, more than a little surprised that the staff left him alone, though they clearly recognized his presence and smiled at him as they passed or he caught them looking his way.

The first few minutes told him their assessment of currency was accurate, and that in at least some regards, something things are a universal constant.

"Would you like something?" A pretty gray shekat with black tiger-stripes and bright blue eyes drew his attention.

Ebon quickly ran through all the Kats he'd seen to figure out if she was staff looking to take an order, or clientele possibly looking for company. It took a moment, but he finally placed her as one he'd seen delivering both drinks and food to others. He smiled in the charming manner Cazi pulled off so well. "What d'you recommend?" He said in the manner of travelers on dozens of worlds.

"We have a fine cream fish soup, and the local ale is the best available." She smiled pleasantly, honestly believing what she said.

He nodded appreciatively. "I think I'll have both then." He said pleasantly.

"Coming up sir." She smiled a little more warmly than was strictly necessary and gave him a good view of swaying hips as she walked off, a move she definitely hadn't done for others.

Ebon chuckled mentally, thinking it was a good thing there was a long established understanding regarding mission 'activities.' Of course, it had taken almost thirty years before he had started noticing females as potential bed partners, without Cazi along to point them out.

She returned a few minutes later with a heavy tray and gave him a decent view down her blouse as she served him. Not a single move was too unusual, but it wasn't how she treated her other customers either. "Anything else, sir?"

He sipped at the ale, finding it to be quite good. He smiled charmingly. "When do you get off of work?" He asked casually, thinking some pleasant person-to-person talk might be quite productive.

"In two and a half hours," she purred.

"Would you be interested in spending some time with me afterwards?" He said, leaving enough opening that she could read it whatever way interested her more. He began to wish he'd paid more attention to how Cazi handled this sort of thing. Ebon had never been one for bars, except when necessary.

"Yes, I would." She smiled seductively. "I'm Kim."

He smiled warmly. "I'm Ebon." He said quietly. "Two and a half hours? If I happen to wander off for little while, don't worry, I'll be here when your shift ends." He said trying to be a little mysterious. Cazi said it always worked for him. He glanced at the 'watch' equipment division had issued him, and made note of when that would be.

She nodded with a last smile before turning to deal with the rest of her shift.

Ebon finished the meal, which he was pleased to find very good, and then paid for it, remembering to leave a somewhat extravagant tip for Kim. He figured he probably still had almost two hours to recon the area around the bar and still be back before Kim's shift ended.

As he walked through the streets he couldn't help but notice the unusual lack of apparent law enforcement, and how relaxed everyone was. The many small shops, catering a wide variety of goods he recognized, and more than a few he didn't, were still open and doing reasonable trade, despite it being close to midnight.

"Are you lost, sir?" A young voice asked from near Ebon's right hand.

Ebon turned to look at the speaker and smiled at the small panther kit. "Lost? No, but thank you for asking. I'm merely looking around while I wait for a friend's work shift to end." As a parent, and grandparent, he was slightly bothered by a kit this young be so relaxed around a stranger this late at night. Fortunately, he was practiced enough to keep any sign of that from showing.

"Oh," the little male smiled uncertainly before dashing off to tackle a calico Kat about the same age.

As Ebon watched for a moment, his gaze fell on a ginger shekat with graying fur that all but had 'mother on guard' stamped all over her and smiled, remembering that look on Nareena both as a mother and grandmother, before he continued on his way. He figured there was no sense giving her any reason to think the wrong thing. It did explain the kit's friendliness though.

He decided to head back toward the bar, still 'sight-seeing', but going to some effort not to look 'lost'. There was a bit too much eagerness to jump in and help floating around.

Kim was waiting for him outside, wearing light blue shorts and a white t-shirt and waved as he walked up. "Hi, Ebon."

Ebon smiled warmly. "Hi, Kim." He said as he walked up. "So what's interesting for two to do around here?" He asked openly, figuring she'd know the town better then him, and probably already had ideas.

"The forest is a lovely walk this time of year, and there's my home." She offered an arm. "My car's this way."

Ebon smiled, and took her arm warmly. He'd always been partial to forests; it had been a big factor in choosing the Lake Maxwell base. "The forest sounds wonderful." He said as they walked to her vehicle, a small, sporty black hovercar.

"Are you planning on staying long?" As she asked conversationally as the quiet engine hummed to life and they rose to just over the roofline, some two stories up.

"Haven't decided yet, I'm still getting a feel for the place. I don't like to rush decisions, but a couple of days at least." He said, which was true since information gathering would go on for between 2 and 3 local days; unless something important was discovered before then.

"Well, I hope you decide you like the local feel," she purred as her fluffy tail traced up his leg.

"I'm beginning to." Ebon rumbled in a pleased fashion and thought to himself that if he didn't have two LifeMates already he might be tempted to something longer than a night or two.

"Any particular interests?" She smiled.

"Aside from present company?" He asked with roguish grin, and a teasing gleam in his eye.

She chuckled softly and set the hovercar down in a squared grassy area outside of town at the edge of a great expanse of trees and leaned over to kiss his cheek. "Yes, other than present company. Surely there are things you like other than attracting attention in bars."

Ebon chuckled and returned the kiss similarly. "Oh, a fair number of things though I guess decorative woodwork, and tinkering with machines would be the two big ones." He said with a grin, thinking that he'd been rather surprised to discover how good he actually was with elaborate woodcarving. "I actually hadn't been trying to attract attention, glad I did though." He said quietly looking around at the trees.

"Well, a Panther has handsome as you doesn't come along every day." She purred and stepped out into the night breeze. "And I think maybe you're more than just handsome."

He stepped out to join her, looking a bit curious at her last statement. "Well, thank you. You're quite attractive yourself, though I'm curious, more than just handsome?" He asked casually.

"Well, there are pretty toms who are good for bedmates," she smiled sweetly at him and began to walk, clearly familiar with the area, "and there pretty toms who are make good fathers and mates." She paused to trail her tail along his body. "I think maybe you're the second kind ... and they are rare."

Ebon smiled. "I'm flattered that you think that." He said sincerely, discretely omitting the fact that he was a father, as he walked along side her. He looked around drinking in the smells of the forest and the sight of his companion. "I can see why you like it here." He said quietly, standing close to her.

Kim shifted to lean against him and sighed in pleasure and a little sadness. "Not many appreciate the forest as anything more than a necessity." She spoke softly as her tail trailed up the inside of his leg to caress his crotch and wined around his own tail. "You're very nice, too."

Ebon began playing with her tail using his own gently. "I've always found forests relaxing, a refresher for the spirit. A necessity? I've rarely heard people describe them that way. It has such air of forced tolerance to it." He said quietly, putting his arm gently around her shoulders as she leaned against him.

"Forced tolerance? Yes, that sounds about right." She sighed. "I think most don't want to think about what will happen, that they may have to live out here without all their luxuries if the plan and SWAT ever fail." She shivered slightly, but not from cold, and pressed back against him a little more. "I wouldn't mind it, but few are on such good terms with the wilderness."

He held her close, in a comforting fashion. "Guess it's easier for me, coming from such a small village as I do. But sometimes I think we miss what's really going on, being so insular." He said softly, as though trying to understand something that he hadn't really heard of before.

"I don't think I've heard of this plan before, not surprising ... we don't hear about much." He said quietly, as though embarrassed about being from somewhere so backward.

"Oh," she closed her eyes. "Well, it wouldn't have affected you much, probably. Keeping the population small, all the effort into making sure everyone has work and necessities, breeding restrictions." She shrugged. "The oldest remember before the War of Law, and say we had a lot more freedoms back then, but there was crime everywhere and powerful enemies destroyed the cities often. They say this is better, most of the time, at least. At least they don't fear for their lives every day. Now their kids just fear to loose that peace and security, that the system won't survive when our leaders and defenders die. The heroes are getting old."

Ebon looked up into the sky. "Heroes arise when they are needed. If the situation remains, then new heroes arise. The universe looks after things, most of the time." He said with a strange surety, born of over a century of watching the wheels of fate turn. He kissed her gently on the cheek. "Unfortunately, peace and security are not the breeding ground for heroes. Heroes are born in adversity and insecurity."

He thought about the fact that whoever these heroes were, they were probably somewhere in their 70's, maybe even 80's by now. He doubted they were the same ones, barring the development of reverse aging treatments, or heroes who were stabilized genetically engineered people like the NightBlades.

"Yes," she smiled softly. "I don't suppose you're actually available?"

Ebon blinked as he lost the train of the conversation. "Hmmm. Available?" He asked feeling a little confused, since he rather doubted she was that interested on a first date. The early compliment not withstanding.

"To be courted," she smiled up at him with a soft chuckle. "A tom as good as you doesn't come along very often."

Ebon considered for a moment. Strangely enough, he found the idea somewhat appealing; Nareena and Cazi had pretty solidly undone any reservations he'd ever had about females. She was attractive, seemed intelligent and thoughtful. From a Triad perspective he figured Cazi wouldn't object, like the Lion would object to anyone attractive. Nareena would probably find additional female company welcome, and handy in keeping Cazi busy when she wanted Ebon for herself.

He looked at her. "Oh, that." He said as though a light had suddenly come on. "I really am flattered that you think I'm worth your attention, so I don't see any reason why not. I haven't entirely decided if I'm staying, but it's beginning to seem like I may." He said sincerely, figuring he could bring up the larger details if things last longer than the recon mission.

"It's not like I have great attachment to the area," she chuckled. "Want to see something special?"

"Sure." He said considerately, as well as curious to know what she had in mind.

She smiled secretively and headed deeper into the forest, angling towards the river. As she moved she picked up the pace, always checking that he was keeping up as it took on the feel of a lovers hunt.

Ebon took to the 'game' quite avidly, as it brought back some of the interesting games of hide and seek he and Cazi played early in their relationship. He was sure there was some sort of game being played, though he wasn't sure about the rules or the objective.

He kept up with her easy, though she displayed some skill it was no match for his training and design. The rush of a waterfall soon removed sound and most smell from his tracking tools, but it hardly mattered until he broke out of the forest not fifty feet from the base of a fair sized waterfall.

Ebon looked around, and not seeing Kim began a detailed investigation of the ground on his side of the water looking for footprints or other evidence of her passing. The panther commando had over a century of experience to work from. It would be most surprising if she hadn't left something for him to find.

Where the rock of the waterfall's cliff met muddy grass he found what he was looking for; a single dim, barefoot track pointing at the rock ledge that led under the curtain of water and easily traversed the slick path with a smile. For a recon mission, this was a great deal of fun.

Half way across the waterfall a cavern opening tall enough to walk through. He looked at the cave, and after a moments hesitation followed his instinct and entered. He kept carefully against one wall, just in case he'd managed to let himself get set up. It had happened in his lifetime, and he'd deal with it as necessary, if it should turn out to be the case.

A glowing light drew his attention to the right hand passage when the cavern split, and again he followed his instincts, carefully stepping into a crystal walled cavern with thick moss on the floor, a lagoon-like pool on the far wall towards the middle and Kim lounging in only her fur on the side of the water, the crystal's glow making her light gray fur nearly white with stripes of pastel striping overlapping the thin black markings there.

Ebon looked around at the cavern. "Amazing, this is quite special." He said in honest wonder, pleased to see that there was some truth to the statement that every world had its hidden beauty. Though it didn't ease his nagging suspicion that this one was hiding something else entirely.

"Legend says that Razor created it before the war, as a place to sooth his soul when his duties weighed too heavily on him." She said with a kind of reverence.

Ebon nodded and sat down next to her. "Legends are good, they give us something to believe in, and some times to lift us up." He said smiling mentally, at the similarity to his DarkRazor handle he didn't use all that often.

He carefully relaxed his mind, and gave the one psychic talent he had free play. No one was quite sure why but it had turned out that Ebon was a fair psychometrist, if there was some element of similarity. In this case he was working from the name coincidence, seeing if perhaps this place actually had meant something to this Razor, who Ebon needed to know more about. He was impressed though, fifty years and already legends were springing up.

It wasn't long before he saw the echo of a despondent tomkat staring with blank eyes into the pool. He was remarkable mostly in his similarity to the form Ebon now wore, except Ebon was gloss black, and this Kat was a ruddy cinnamon wearing a rather odd looking blue flight suit with a red harness.

"Ebon?" The concern in Kim's tone snapped his attention back to reality rather abruptly. "Are you okay?"

Ebon looked at her. "Sorry about that. Sometimes when I'm near places that meant a great deal to someone, I get 'impressions' of them and sometimes I get over involved." He said quietly, wondering if things had got any better for the despondent Kat he'd seen. "It's weird, and more inconvenient than anything." He said quietly.

"Oh," she stood uncertainly and picked up her clothes from a nearby pile. "I'm sorry. I didn't ..." her voice trailed off as she pulled her shirt on.

Ebon put his hand on her shoulder. "It's all right, you couldn't have known. It's past now, and not really a bad thing. It's always interesting to get a sense of the Kat behind the legend." He took his shirt off and started to get comfortable. "I'd like to stay, if you don't mind. I think the legend could use our company." He said cryptically.

Kim nodded, still uneasy, and pulled her shirt off before settling next to Ebon. "What did you see?" She asked softly, the arousal and desire fading from her scent as uncertainty took over.

Ebon put his arm around here. "I saw a lean cinnamon colored tomkat, with a build not unlike my own. He was wearing a blue and red flight suit, and it seemed as though he was carrying the world on his shoulders alone. When he looked into the pool I could feel an emotion best described as despondent, coming from him. He seemed very lonely, and yet not alone at the same time."

"Razor," she nodded softly. "Some of the eldest who escaped MegaKat City said he was like that, that even though he had a mate who loved him and a partner anyone would want at their side, he never let them share his burden."

He turned to look at her. "Sorry about ruining the mood you'd gone to such effort to set up." He said apologetically.

"It's okay," she shrugged, her throat tight. "It happens."

"I guess it does, but in the future warn me before we visit any legendary places, but at least that won't happen here again." He said kind of hoping he hadn't just completely scared her off.

"This is the only one for a few hundred miles, but you might want to stay out of MegaKat City then." She spoke softly. "The whole valley is said to be rich with such places."

Ebon made a mental note of that, and nodded his head. "I hadn't planned to go there, but thank you for the warning." He said quietly.

The awkward silence lasted as Kim shifted forward to hug her knees with her chin resting on them. "Am ... did I completely misread you?"

He put his arm around her gently. "Misread me about what?" He asked, still a little haunted by the lean tom's eyes.

"That you're interested in me?" She glanced up for a second. "Or even females? My brother is more frisky ..."

Ebon laughed quietly. "I'm sorry, I guess I get a little carried away trying to not come on too strong." He sighed. "And yes, I'm interested in you, which should answer the question about females. I rushed things before with someone I was very interested in, and ended up driving her away ... I didn't want to repeat that mistake." He said softly, as he brushed his tail up her leg.

"You had me wondering there." She smiled a little shakily and ran her hand up his arm. "I'm not used to having that little reaction to that offer." She shifted, brushing her breasts against his hard chest and kissed him lightly on the mouth, lingering there with her lips parted.

Ebon eagerly claimed a more passionate kiss. At the same time one arm held her close, while his free hand ran teasingly down the inside of her leg and found them parting to give his fingers access as she raised her right knee to rest on his.

With a low groan as her body keyed up she slid her loose arm down to undo his pants with skilled fingers.

As Ebon slid out of his pants, he rolled slightly so Kim was on top of him. He roughly nuzzled her neck while his hand played teasingly on the inside of her thigh as her arousal filled his nostrils and she seemed to animate with certainty as she worked her way down his chest, not even hesitating before taking his erection down her throat.

Ebon moaned in pleasure and stroked Kim's hair, which was all he could reach. He was enjoying this mission a great deal, even if it was weird, and he was more than a little worried about what was going on at MKC.

He blinked as cool air hit hot, wet skin as she let him go ands slipped from his loose touch to roll to her back with her knees bent and spread. "Please?" She looked at him with blue eyes dilated nearly black.

Ebon was more than willing to oblige her, and he didn't even have to worry about unintended effects, since he was only a month into the preventive shot he'd been taking since the mission started. Cazi, Nareena and he had decided that deep range exploration missions were not the place to be having newborns.

He gently got on top and slowly penetrated her, only to freeze when he felt resistance he wasn't expecting.

"It's okay," her voice was nervous even as she tried to assure him, "last heat was two months ago."

Ebon nodded, reassured himself that everything was fine, since she said it was, and pressed forward slowly until her entire body tensed as she cried out in pain, two short trails of tears rolling down cheek ruff despite that her eyes were squeezed shut as he felt the resistance give way.

He gently brushed the tears from her cheeks. "Are you okay?" He whispered quietly, concerned because this pain response was not one he was familiar with. It seemed different somehow than anything, and the tears made him worried.

She nodded, unable to make her voice work at first. After several deep breaths she managed a weak "haven't done this before."

A distinct "oh" expression crossed Ebon's face. He waited a moment a little confused, things seeming to be temporarily derailed. He was definitely still interested but he'd leave the 'what next' to her.

Kim took several moments to gather her wits and steady herself for the reality of what 'loosing her virginity' actually meant and stroked Ebon's back as he watched her, waiting. She took a final deep breath and smiled at him. "One hard thrust, get it over with. It won't hurt much past that."

Ebon nodded, and thrust in up to his balls, feeling something tear inside her, leaving jagged skin to catch on his barb-hairs as he withdrew the first few times and forced himself to think of enticing things, to stay hard long enough to pleasure her.

As her pain reaction subsided he moved into a very concerted effort to bring pleasure to replace the pain. This was a decidedly strange experience, but then the planet was a decidedly strange experience.

The next time her body tensed under his her voice held the much more familiar pleasure in it, and it's impact sent him over the edge, and he came as waves of muscular spasm surge through his body. As the last surge past he rolled off, so that he was holding her tightly in his arms, and then gave her a gentle lick behind one ear.

She smiled at him as she balanced between drawing deep breaths and snuggling against him. "Next time won't be nearly so traumatic."

Ebon smiled happily. "That's good to hear." He said in a slightly tired, yet thoroughly pleased tone.

She chuckled softly. "Sleep here, or in my bed?"

The panther smiled lazily. "Whatever you prefer, I'm equally comfortable in either place, as long as you're next to me." He said quietly, beginning to feel that something right was happening, but uncertain whether she'd be up to handling the larger realities of the Alliance. He certainly wasn't going to settle down here.

She smiled and settled against his side, one arm curled over his chest to scratch his jaw lightly as she slowly drifted off.

Ebon settled in to a position holding her close, like he did with Cazi when they went camping with just the two of them. It allowed him to be protective, like he felt he was supposed to be.

It wasn't long before his nose snapped his brain fully awake with a scent he knew only meant trouble -- blood. He first checked Kim, even though nothing should've gotten that close without him noticing; he was a definite 'one-eye open' sleeper when on the ground, and found her bleeding slowly between her legs; matting and staining the gray fur of her thighs a sticky brown.

Ebon started to panic, and then did the more reasonable thing; he reached along his link with Nareena and asked her about such things. In a sleepy mind-voice, she explained that it was not an unheard of occurrence for females the first time they were penetrated, and that him panicking would not help.

"*Lay back down, and go to sleep, love. It's what I'm trying to do.*" She said in an amused, but very sleepy voice.

"*Sorry for waking you, 'Reena.*" He said affectionately.

"*That's okay, just don't be surprised if she gets a little upset, some do.*" She said patiently. "*Just be careful, first times are often quite significant emotionally.*"

"*Oh that's great. She was already looking at me as Joining material.*" Ebon grumbled, things trying to move too quickly on the personal front.

"*Really?*" There was distinct curiosity in her voice. "*Well, our little group could certainly use another female.*" She said in the same teasing voice she used for 'Males', when Cazi and Ebon did something rather foolish.

"*Nice to know you approve, but let's not rush things.*"

"*Funny thing for you to say now.*" She chuckled. "*Night, love.*"

"*Night, 'Reena.*"

The panther relaxed grateful that it was normal, and not something he needed to find a medic for. He sure as heck didn't think his first aid training would've helped.

Approaching the edge of a ruined metropolis that once must have been grand enough to fit in on any Alliance world Cazimir SunFire, as a short, stocky calico tomkat called a halt to his two teammates.

Mark, a light furred Golden Retriever, looked a bit dismayed. "What the hell happened here?"

"Their 'War of Law', I would guess. I wonder what the cost in lives of this peace was." Samson asked out loud, as a Life-oriented Mage he tended to be very sensitive to events which cost heavily in sentient lives. "Were our mission not one of stealth, I would ask the spirits of this place what their story is." The Lynx shook his head sadly.

"Would it be that obvious?" Cazimir looked over his shoulder.

The Lynx nodded uncertainly. "It might be, depending on the nature of the Mages that Storm and Morin detected. To anyone else it will simply look like a Lynx Kat playing a feathered drum."

The calico nodded. "Pity, it could answer some of our questions if you got the right spirits." He looked out over the dead landscape, trying to figure out where the traffic and tourism SilverStar indicated was without much luck. The entire delta valley looked burned out.

"Agreed, but where are the living who are supposed to be here." He asked.

The golden retriever lounged against the shuttle. "Guys, SilverStar did say it was a port city; maybe the population is along the ocean shore." He grabbed a pair of high-tech, high power binoculars from the shuttle and began looking further out.

When a scan of the shoreline reveled nothing but sand and the remains of four major ports he turned to the team leader. "Cazi, there is nothing but the remains of four ports along the shoreline. There is something really wrong here, its almost like the ports have been eliminated since Star compiled the data."

The Lynx looked around. "This is a dead place, and I feel nothing that tells me that it will ever be otherwise. Whatever burned it out was not a conventional weapon."

"No kidding." The Lab said with a snort. "Even areas totaled by a volcano start recovering after five to ten years."

"Back in the shuttle," Cazi turned on heal, suddenly very worried for his LifeMate. "If a low level lifeform scan doesn't reveal anything, we need to check in with the others, pronto."

As they got back in the shuttle, the Lynx sat down at the medical station. "I'm going to do a low-level decontamination sweep of us and the interior of the shuttle, preceded by a detailed bio-scan, just in case the lack of recovery out there is due to some lingering bio-weapon."

The Lab cringed, it took hours to get the smell of decon out of his nose. "Beginning detailed low-level lifeform scan of the valley. Estimate 30 minutes to completion." He coughed as the decon sweep went through. "Lovely, just lovely." He grumbled.

The Lynx shifted up from medical to the pilot seat, since he was doubling as pilot and medic on this mission. "We are now at standby, for immediate launch. Course plotted for minimum intercept time to SilverStar."

Cazimir nodded and focused on his bond with Ebon. "*Love, you okay?*"

Ebon seemed a little distracted when his mind-voice came back. "*Just had a brief psychometric encounter with 'Razor', an attractive cinnamon tomkat, with very haunting amber eyes. Also looks like he has reputation for trying to carry the world by himself.*" He grinned mentally. "*Sound like anyone we both know?*" He chuckled broadly mentally, since their son tended to do the same thing. "*Aside from the haunting eyes, his build is rather frighteningly similar to my DarkRazor form. Any developments with MegaKat City?*"

"*It's as big as Felsinor's capital and completely dead. We deconed ... just in case.*" Cazi couldn't keep the worry from his mind-voice. "*Just wanted to know you were doing better.*"

"*Better let Nathan know, he'll want to put your team through full quarantine and decon when you get back, you know. Completely dead? I thought they didn't use bioweapons, or maybe that's just the official history. Take care of yourselves, unless you've got a good reason not to, I want you three back to SilverStar. We don't need to be coming down with the leftovers of 50 year old war; and no giving medical a hard time.*" Despite the firm tone, there was also a great deal of concern in his mind-voice, he'd thought he'd lost Cazi once and that was more than enough.

"*We're running a full low level lifeform and detailed bio-scan.*" Cazi replied. "*SilverStar said there was a lot of life and travel here, if that's true, we're not in danger. If it's not, we need to get at least that much for her to work with to find out why her results were that far off.*"

"*Agreed, but don't take any unnecessary risks. There is something very 'weird' about this planet. As paranoid as it sounds, people are just too friendly especially when it comes to complete strangers. I've got one shekat who decided I was mate material within hours of meeting me, possibly less.*" Ebon chuckled mentally, using the same teasing tone that Cazi did when some tom hit on him.

"*I take it you're enjoying your mission more than I am mine.*" He muttered good-naturedly.

"*You could say that.*" He said, and his mind-voice briefly washed out in pleasure as Kim took his erection in her mouth. "*Rather more lively.*"

"*Who'd have thought you'd be the one getting lucky instead of me.*" He laughed and shook his head. "*Have fun, love. Just don't let her follow you home.*"

"*I will, you take care.*" Ebon thought quietly. The commando had a large dislike for NBC weapons, as being too indiscriminate and too long lasting in after effects.

"Well, at least Green Harbor is something like expected." Cazi shook his head when he found both his teammates watching him.

Samson cocked his head. "Then you have mind-spoken Ebon? There has been nothing out of the ordinary?" He asked hopefully.

"Other than they're being disturbingly friendly, he hasn't run across anything too unusual." Cazi shrugged.

Mark chuckled. "Figures we'd drawn the mission that's missing a city. How could they lose a city this size so completely in a war that supposedly lasted only a year and involved conventional weapons only? That sounds like propaganda turned into history to me. Either that or a third side in the war that isn't mentioned in the low security files."

"Given even what we do know, I'd be willing to bet we're missing a lot of the story." Cazi shook his head and turned to skim what had come in of their scans.

"Probably." The Canem said casually. Then he started checking radio and electromagnetic emissions on the passive sensors, figuring that maybe the life and activity was concealed beneath ground. If it was there should be some signal leakage, especially at this close range.

Samson just kept his eyes to the sensors looking for any activity that would necessitate immediate departure.

"Well, we have humanoid life," Cazi frowned. "Less than a dozen several miles south of the city perimeter." He turned to Mark. "Anything on your scanners?"

"Nada," the Black Lab shook his head. "I do not like this."

"Neither do I," Cazi regarded the scans one last time as orders, curiosity and pride warred with each other to determine his next action.

"Okay, guys. We need more data on those humanoids, but its risky, which Ebon is not going to like. Mark, take over piloting from Samson. Sam I want you to have those spirit drums of yours on standby in case we get attacked by something 'weird'. And I'll have my magic ready as well. Mark do a fast pass by of the humanoids in solid sensor range, but outside the range of normal handheld firearms. Try to maximize the time we're in sensor range, I want to get as much data as possible."

The Lab shifted into the pilot's seat, as Sam now in his native grizzly-morph form and sitting in the middle of the shuttle holding a pair of feathered drums. Cazi sat at the co-pilots station and coordinated the sensors to work through the co-pilot station.

"Go when ready, Mark." Cazi said nervously, as he prepared defensive magics in addition to the sensor ones.

They met no resistance as the shuttle passed over more orderly piles of mostly scrap metal and two story building that seemed to have been spared the worst of the damage, or the Kats inside and under it's territory were keeping it up to a minimal extent.

Cazi and Sam conferred briefly and decided that there wasn't anything unusual about the building and that it probably fell into the 'memorial' category SilverStar had mention.

"The traffic is probably just daily visitors, like you'd find at a museum." Mark commented from the pilot's seat.

"An entire city converted to a memorial? That's the kind of thing you see from the losing side in a war." Sam commented quietly, even his passive awareness could sense many unhappy spirits among the ruins, too many for much of the city's population to have escaped whatever happened.

"Set course back to the SilverStar." Cazi ordered. "We can hardly mingle with that few without a much better cover than we have."

Mark nodded, and turned the sleek craft's nose spaceward taking the quickest route possible back to the SilverStar. He'd seen war zones before, but nothing on that scale of devastation and loss of life. He shuddered to think of all that was lost, and thought that if that was required to establish their world government, then they'd tried to force the concept too early.

Cazi carefully felt the other end of his LifeBond with Ebon, and found his mate in the one-eye-open sleep typical of a night camping. "*Ebon,*" he nudged gently, "*we're headed back to SilverStar.*"

"*Problem?*" Ebon asked simply.

"*No population to mingle with.*" Cazi shook his head. "*Just a few museum guards. They've converted the whole city to one from the look of things, and there's no traffic today.*"

Ebon nodded mentally. "*An entire city as a museum ... that's disturbing as your memorial sites go. I've seen it once or twice before, but only where the vast majority of the population was lost during a war that went badly. Sounds like there are bigger holes than we thought in the local history.*" He paused. "*Might be good to take a look at the 'museum', when traffic picks up. Might be some indications as to what happened.*"

"*Agreed.*" Cazi sighed off.

Ebon drifted awake several hours later to Kim's weight sprawled halfway on top of him and the scent of blood very strong in the air.

He became concerned, since this didn't seem to match. He quickly checked vital signs the way 'Reena had taught him and found them slightly depressed, even for sleep, but within normal range. Then he gently nudged the link to wake his mate up again, since this wasn't something covered in first aid.

"*'Reena, it's been several hours now and she's still bleeding. Is that normal?*" He asked in a worried mind-voice.

"*Absolutely not.*" The Healer's mind-voice was fully alert. "*How much blood has she likely lost, and is she awake?*"

Ebon made a rough estimate of blood loss based on what he saw on both of them, and sent it. "*No, she's asleep. Should I wake her up?*" He asked in a tell-me-what-to-do voice that no one heard very often. Ebon SwiftClaw wasn't a medic and he knew it.

"*Yes, and get her to medical care quickly.*" She replied almost instantly. "*She is likely a hemophiliac, and will be anemic with that much loss.*"

Ebon gently but insistently nudged Kim awake, and then helped her get dressed. Then he got dressed himself, then realized that they had come some distance from her car through the woods. He gently picked her up, despite objections and carefully double-timed it back to the hovercar, since he could make better time carrying her, then he could with her following him.

"I cudda called it." Kim muttered as she dug in her pocket awkwardly for the keys and unlocked the vehicle. "What's the big deal?"

"Didn't know that." He said simply. "You've lost an unhealthy amount of blood, and should see a doctor, right now." He said in a worried, but firm tone of voice. "Does this vehicle have an autopilot that can take it to the closest medical facility? You shouldn't be driving." The worry on his face was quite clear, but worry in the sense of deeply concerned not panic. Ebon didn't panic when there was something he could do that was productive.

"Yeah," she nodded as he settled her in the passenger side and he sat in the driver seat. "AP activate: Hospital. Blood loss." She said when the door shut and drifted off again.

The hovercar powered up and lifted off, heading back into town much faster than they had left.

"Is anyone conscious in there?" A professional female voice asked from the dashboard.

"Yes, ma'am." Ebon responded promptly to what he hoped was a Healer's voice.

"Is Kim Bramble the one injured, and what is your name?"

"Yes ma'am, Kim's lost a fair amount of blood. My name's Ebon." He said simply.

"What happened, Ebon? What are both your injuries?"

"Umm." He hesitated, more than a bit embarrassed. "We had sex, and it was her first time, and she started bleeding and it just didn't stop." He said with a very serious note of worry in his voice as the hovercar landed on a light blue roof with a blood red X on it.

Several medical personnel were waiting for them. Two quickly got her on a stretcher and carried her inside with a third, and older female Jaguar, checking Kim as they moved.

A Lioness smiled professionally at Ebon as he got out. "I'm Dr. Kyrrin. She should be fine. It is serious, but not fatal thanks to your actions."

Ebon nodded, relieved. "Will she be in the hospital long?" He asked easily falling into the worried boyfriend role.

"Assuming she responds to medication and the transfusion, only twenty-four to forty-eight hours for observation." She smiled gently. "We'll alert her workplace that she won't be in for a few days."

"How soon can I see her?" He asked genuinely concerned. Intellectually he knew he hadn't done anything wrong, but it was hard not to feel a little responsible.

"As soon as she is stable and in her room," Dr. Kyrrin smiled understandingly and motioned him to follow her inside the building as the hovercar lifted off. "Probably in an hour or two. You can stay in the waiting room if you'd like, and we have shower facilities if you'd like to clean up."

"Shower sounds like a good idea. I'll stay in the waiting room after I clean up, thank you." He said calmly, though he was clearly stressed.

A gray tabby tomkat in his late teens greeted them as they walked inside.

"Get Ebon some clean clothes and show him where the showers are, Jason. He's Kim Bramble's mate."

"Yes, ma'am," he nodded quickly. "If you'll follow me, Ebon."

Ebon nodded and followed Jason quietly. He was glad the mission was slated to last two or three days, since he wanted to stay at least till Kim got out of the hospital. What he really wanted was to have Nareena taking care of Kim, but that wasn't really an option. Besides, the local doctors would be more familiar with Kat physiology, which probably did have some differences that were important.

Ebon wasn't quite finished with his shower when he heard Dr. Kyrrin speaking in a hushed, worried tone outside the shower room where Jason was waiting for him.

Ebon turned off the water, and focused his entire senses on hearing what was being said as he moved silently nearer to where the voices were talking. He wasn't one of the top Alliance covert agents for nothing.

"You're clean," the doctor said, and there was an audible whoosh of relief from the young tom. They paused, then she spoke again, loud enough for him to hear if he hadn't been listening. "Ebon, Dr. Kyrrin is out here."

Ebon quickly dried off and slipped into the clean clothes that had been provided and stepped out.

"I need a blood sample," she said simply.

Ebon blinked. "Hmmm. Blood sample? Why?" He said looking confused and a bit worried. If they did any sort of genetic workup, they'd discover things he didn't need them knowing. He quickly shot a message to Nareena. "*Local doctor's decided she wants a blood sample from me. Better tell Nathan, we may have a complication in progress.*"

"Kim has a rather serious viral infection, which is why she didn't stop bleeding." She explained calmly, though he'd spent enough time around Healers and Medics to read the nearly panic-level tension behind it. "We're screening everyone she has come in contact with for it."

"Oh, okay. No problem. How serious is serious?" He asked maintaining a well-practiced calm. Though he wasn't really that worried between his own immune system and the Alliance's regimen of immune system reinforcers designed for first contact teams, it was highly unlikely that he'd catch anything, or carry for that matter. He was worried about Kim though.

She didn't answer until she'd drawn a small sample and inserted it into a testing device, then spoke very quietly. "It seems to be a relative of the Bleeding Plague."

He wasn't acting when he looked completely stunned, but he maintained enough presence of mind to shout to Nareena. "*Love, if you're not already up you should be, looks like there's something called the 'Bleeding Plague' down here. Looks like Kim caught a relative of it somewhere, and I've probably been exposed. Better brief Nathan, and max decon the other teams, when they get back.*"

"*On it.*" Her calm voice replied.

He looked at the doctor. "Bleeding Plague?" He asked in that tone of voice that people in denial often use.

She nodded and didn't meet Ebon's gaze. "It seems less aggressive than the strain in EverGreen and Equith last year, but I'm going to have to insist that you remain here and under observation until we have it better isolated and a vaccine ready. Kim should live, she's strong, young and you brought her in early. Her organs haven't begun to dissolve yet. How long it will take her to recover, I'm afraid I don't know. If you will come with me, please."

Ebon nodded and followed her reluctantly. He quickly threw the additional information bits up to Nareena. "*At this point my recommendation is to recall the teams, this looks like it may be planetwide, and sounds like we may have a mutating bio-weapon at work. Infiltration is no longer a good idea, we made need to go to direct contact with leadership.*"

"*Understood,*" her soothing mind touched his gently.

"*Keltin's Claws, I hate being in the hospital.*" He grumbled mentally. It wasn't like they could keep him if he didn't want to stay, but he'd at least give them time to determine if he had it, since he didn't want to accidentally expose others.

"Touching down, area clear." Cory, as a black and white shekat reported from the first of the landing craft.

Sandy nodded. "Damping all EM emissions to background, and engaging holographic camo. Everybody remember where we parked." He quipped as he opened the hatch for the first breath of warm, humid tropical night air.

Morgan groaned and shook his head. "Do you have to quote century-old terran comedies, Sandy?"

"Seemed appropriate." He said grinning.

"Come on, you two. Let's see what's going on out there." Cory said impatiently as she pushed past Sandy to stand on the soft grass covered ground under a brilliantly stared sky. "Wow," she couldn't help the soft whisper as a sight long lost on most civilized worlds.

"Yeah," Morgan spared a long moment for the sky before turning his attention to their scanners. "The nearest group of natives is a mile and a half northeast." He pointed in the direction. "The largest, around a hundred, is on the northern edge of the island."

Sandy nodded. "How many in the nearer group, approximately?"

"4, maybe 5." The gray on white tabby nodded. "They have primitive life-forms with them, probably ridings beasts."

"Okay, that's probably a group of tourists out riding. Let's head for the population cluster, and keep your eyes open and forms stable. Suddenly dropping into our natural forms is not advisable."

"Right." The other two chorused, as they followed Sandy through the tropical vegetation, only missing various mating pairs, and a few groups, by careful listening.

"You guys lost?" A light, child-like voice asked from their right.

The three commandos managed to avoid combat stances with great effort as they turned to see who, and more importantly what, was addressing them as a deep gray kitten with black tips and full mask stepped out from the bushes. Her dark shirt and shorts were loose and ragged from wear, but clean.

"You don't look like you've gotten to your rooms yet." She said with innocent helpfulness.

Sandy chuckled sheepishly. "Is it that obvious? I guess we did get a bit turned around." The other two didn't have to try too hard to look lost.

"Know where you're staying?" She smiled in the friendly fashion of a child well accustomed to helping lost strangers.

The three very quickly conferred in that manner that confused people seeking an answer often do. After a minute or so, Sandy turned to the kit. "It would seem that our travel plans have gone awry, it would seem that we don't know where our reservations were supposed to be." He grinned, feeling somewhat foolish. "What might be the nearest place to stay?" He asked seeming entirely like a tourist caught in a runaway vacation.

"Oh, that's my house." She grinned in absolute delight. "As long as mom likes you, anyway. Come on, you're still in time for supper, and we've got room to spare. Are you mates?" She spoke excitedly as she lead them off.

Sandy decided two males and a female made a fairly common arrangement. "Yes, we are. And thank you."

"You're welcome, we're always happy to have company." She chatted happily as they came up to a simple wood framed thatch building with a fire pit before out front.

The deep gray shekat with black tips and face looked up from her bubbling pot and smiled at the four of them. "Who'd you bring home this time, Lara?"

"Ooops," she ducked a little in embracement and turned to the commandos. "I'm Lara BlackMask. That's my mom, Rissa."

Sandy smiled back. "Pleased to meet you both, I'm Sandy Vasken, and these are my mates Cory Tamlen and Morgan Silvermane." He said in friendly, open manner. "I hope our presence is not an inconvenience, ma'am." He said with polite deference to Rissa.

The female turned to face them, showing the traces of gray in her black mask and smiled. "No inconvenience, Sandy. Dinner will be ready in a bit, Lara can show you where you can sleep, and show you around the island." She chuckled softly as she turned back to her preparations. "You won't find a better guide than my daughter, if you can stand her chatter."

Sandy smiled. "Thank you." He said simply and followed Lara inside, thinking that the chance encounter might prove most useful indeed. Chattering guides tended to reveal extra information.

"The bathroom is in there," she pointed towards the other door, covered only by a heavy piece of mutely pattered fabric. "I hope you don't mind going a little native," she grinned at them nervously as she strung three more hammocks up. "They are comfortable."

Sandy smiled. "Isn't the whole point of a vacation to do things differently? And they do look comfortable actually." He said in a friendly manner, since he was used to hammocks as they were quite popular back on his homeworld.

Lara smiled back. "Anything you want to see or do in the morning?"

Sandy nodded. "We haven't seen much, what are the more interesting places to see?" He asked, deliberately leaving an opening for Lara to chatter.

"Well, there's some of the best reef diving in the world, swimming in the lagoon, the only black sand beach in the world, we've got all kinds of unusual animals I know where to find," she started to warm up to the subject as they left the basic two-room building and sat around the fire. "There's also beachcombing, fishing, sunbathing, the stables have good quality horses, iber and catac." She paused for a breath and to think. "We have just about everything worth doing."

Sandy rather wished he could've come in his natural shape, since the Kamelen base form was amphibian, almost more at home in the water. He noticed the other Kamelen was thinking the same thing, but they both carefully concealed it. He looked at Lara. "Black sand beach? Sounds like a fascinating place to start." He said with genuine enthusiasm.

"It's beautiful at dawn," she smiled with a dreamy look as her mother handed each of them a bowl of the stew, which smelled of fresh fish and a myriad of fruits.

Lara didn't waste a moment before tipping the bowl to her mouth, bringing it level as she found a chunk to chew.

"I imagine it is." He said, as he and the others followed their hosts' lead on local eating etiquette. Sandy paused between mouthfuls to nodded appreciatively to Rissa. "This is very good, ma'am." He said genuinely, since the Kamelen came from a planet were fish and fruit were two major components in the diet.

"Thank you." She smiled, clearly delighted at the complement.

The rest of dinner passed quietly, and Lara picked up their bowls when they were empty.

"If you are to see dawn on the black sand, we should be to bed." Rissa spoke with the firm gentleness of a long-time mother.

The three nodded agreement and turned in for the night. Before he went to sleep, Morgan gently floated along the LifeBond he shared with Jackson, a Husky Canem in Medical. "*Night, love.*" He thought on the tightly shielded frequency.

"*Night, everything going okay?*" Jackson asked quietly.

"*No problems, but its kind of weird. These Kats are almost too friendly. We're staying in the home of some local folks, at their invitation.*" There was genuine surprise in his thoughts.

"*That is rather weird, want me to put that into the intelligence system for you.*" He offered, it was something they'd started doing on early missions.

"*Yeah, just make sure its flagged routine.*"

"*Of course, I wouldn't make the same mistake twice.*" Jackson's mind-voice chuckled. "*Sleep well, Morgan.*"

Sandy snapped awake at a sudden change in the motion of the hammock.

"Wakee, wakee," Lara's cheerful voice broke through the darkness. "Breakfast is ready."

Sandy smiled and hopped out of the hammock with the ease of one used to them. "Good morning, Lara."

He turned to his slowly rousing partners. "Okay, come on you two. Breakfast, and we have a sunrise to catch."

The other two slowly got up, with Morgan managing to fall out of the hammock. Fortunately, he'd been reasonably low to start with. He waved up at the kit. "Morning, Lara." He said, with a look on his face that said he meant to do that.

The kitten smiled at him and went along with it.

As the three follow Lara through the lush vegetation before dawn, she barely paused to breath in her descriptions of the plants and their uses, and the small animals and birds even they hadn't noticed.

As they felt the earth under their feet change to a more sandy mixture she fell silent. The palm trees and bushes gave way to an open, nearly deserted beach that glittered in the minimal light available.

Without a word Lara sat down about half way to the barely discernible waterline. The three commandos sat down quietly near her, and waited for the dawn.

As the golden sun stained the sea a rainbow of silver all three of the commandos watches beeped insistently. All three tapped their watches once to put them into silent mode, and Sandy looked at the face of his, where the digits where in red instead of their normal white. He sighed watching the sunrise of the sea. He stood up reluctantly, if Command had put the team on a red recall, something big was up.

The other three looked at him, and he nodded. He looked down at their guide. "I want to thank you for showing us this, but we have to get back to work. It seems the boss needs us for something important. Thank you for your hospitality and please convey our thanks to your mother." He said, not really wanting to leave. He'd rather looked forward to two or three days of 'infiltrating' this island.

The three of them quickly determined the fastest way back to the ship, and headed out quickly.

"What's up?" Morgan asked as they prepared for liftoff.

"Don't know yet, all I got was the code red recall." Sandy said tapping the security codes to access the communications system. He read then re-read the encrypted data squirt. "Oh, hellfire. Looks like Ebon discovered that there's a fairly virulent plague loose on this planet. Might be a mutating bio-weapon. We all have full decon to look forward when we get back."

Groans emerged from the other two as their response to the thought of that procedure.

Sandy chuckled as the shuttle lifted off headed for SilverStar. "Could be worse. Ebon's stuck in a local hospital for several days of 'observation.'"

Morgan shook his head. "Poor guy, that means several days of ~yuck~ hospital food."

"Begin report." General SwiftClaw's holographic form requested as the two teams on board waited out the six hours full decon would take.

"Not much to report really." Cazi said slightly frustrated. "What used to be MegaKat City has been converted entirely into a museum or memorial. The entire delta basin is burnt out and doesn't appear to be recovering, though after forty or fifty years it should have. In my opinion, I think we should disregard the statement that the 'War of Law' was entirely conventional, at least until we have more conclusive evidence.

"The only Kats present in the area were a group of 'museum' guards, at what appeared to a salvage yard that they've turned into the museum center. I'd say that any traffic observed in that area was simply museum visitors. Examination of the museum proper might be useful, after we've made some determination regarding the 'plague'." He finished quality, still concerned about his mate.

"Not much to report on the island since we'd only just begun our investigation." Sandy added. "The inhabitants are exceedingly friendly, willing to invite total strangers to share dinner and spend the night. It may be a custom unique to this island or may be representative of the larger culture."

"Ebon reported that the population in general where he was was also very friendly." Cazi added quietly.

Nathan nodded solemnly. "Anything else?"

Samson nodded. "Whatever the cause of the city's death, most of the inhabitants were lost as well. There are the spirits of too many dead, mostly unhappy dead, for it to be otherwise." He said with complete surety. "The Ritual of Departure would be appropriate when such openness becomes feasible."

"Understood," Nathan nodded. "We'll do our best." The Tiger Felsin turned to the rest of the ranking officers present in the real briefing room and focused on Nareena. "What have you found?"

"The first set of tests indicates that no one on the returned teams has been exposed to anything unusual." The tall tigress inclined her head. "All samples and readings we have from the surface back up the official records that they did not use NBC weapons."

Nathan nodded to his mother before shifting focus to his LifeMate. "Anything, Morin?"

The broad chested, wine-red Dracon Prince shook his head. "The cavern Ebon and Kim were in was not the point of exposure. While there are some unusual background radiations there, and it is likely a Node or Caern, there is nothing I could recognize as dangerous, even with long term exposure.

"MegaKat City I'm not sure what to make of, but I was able to determine there is extremely powerful Time magic involved in what happened, and flashes of every other Sphere. Given that, it is likely that a battle of power leveled the city, which would explain the odd condition of it."

"Storm, Star?" Nathan turned to the science team leaders.

"We had much more luck." The leather-winged White Tiger leaned back. "They apparently do a lot of home education, because as soon as I thought to look up 'education' in their net, we got flooded."

"I'm still sorting through it, their on line database is significantly more than we expected, but I got a lot on the Bleeding Plague, and still finding more, including a full scientific and genetic workup on it. All in the unsecured access areas.

"For best comparison, it is like Ebola of Earth and Lixxis of Felsinor, including some strains that are airborne." SilverStar added. "They have a very effective system of control and obliteration according to public record, though it is also recorded that they have lost several 'cities' to various strains, and they make no claim to have the entire situation resolved. Given what I understand, it is unlikely Ebon or anyone from the first contact teams would become infected, even if exposed."

"The situation with Kim and Ebon is also on the net, though their names are not." Storm picked up. "I did a little more digging in the hospital they are in, and they have confirmed it is a strain of this Bleeding Plague, Ebon is not infected though still under observation, and they expect Kim to recover, crediting early detection."

Nathan nodded. "Okay, so we could probably put infiltration teams back, though I think Ebon's team in Green Harbor is probably sufficient given the low population. Did the information of the Plague include a date of first recorded occurrence?"

"Still searching it out," SilverStar nodded, "but it definitely predates The War of Law by several centuries, and has flared to plague proportions somewhere on the world once or twice a century. Which would make them due for another round."

"Star, set up one of the bio-labs for containment sufficient to handle a virus similar to this Plague, including double-walled force fields with one of the auxiliary generators set-up as a dedicated backup. The Alliance has beat a number of viral outbreaks like this or worse, and it looks like these folks could use the help. Also set the holographic system up so the Medical Science staff can use solid holos to do the research tasks, if you need the assistance that is." He said, remembering that SilverStar was fully qualified as a Research Medic, among other things.

"Reconfiguring now." The silver Dracon holo nodded.

"Morin, would you coordinate with Research on getting a sample aboard safely using the Correspondence probes? Probably check that education network Storm and Star found for a reasonably isolated location with a recent outbreak."

"Of course." He nodded. "It should not be a problem."

"Is there anything else?" He asked looking around at the senior staff that wasn't in quarantine or still planetside.

"This is a Nexus World." A striped gray HyenaTaur spoke up for the first time.

Nathan looked at her. "Nexus? That's not a term I'm very familiar with, except that Xander sometimes calls himself Nexus. What do you mean by it here, Lyrra?" He had long ago learned that while her Profiler talents were difficult to understand, they were very reliable, once you figured out what everything meant.

"It is a nexus point, a center of gates and paths and mistakes." She closed her eyes and sighed. "When a ship vanishes in TLD space, it reappears in a Nexus point. It was such a Nexus that drew me into Alliance space from my world. They are what they sound like ... the center and convergence place for disturbances."

Nathan nodded. "I see, that explains at least partially how things got the way they are. Are these Nexus worlds common, and is there anything to be gained by controlling such a world?" Nathan asked, still feeling that the defense set-up observed on this world indicated a continuing outside threat.

She scrunched her long face up in confusion before answering. "Common? Not sure, is one or two a galaxy common? Value of such a world ... I'd think they'd be a pain, you never know what's going to show up, or when, or what mood it may be in or what capability it's going to have." She shook her head. "But I'm not a military mind. I'm sure someone could find a value in it."

Nathan thought about it for a while. "One or two a galaxy is rather rare, as most things go. Okay, so we need to be prepared for just about anything to happen at anytime? Would that be an accurate assessment?" He asked trying figure out how to develop a strategy to deal with pure randomness.

Lyrra nodded. "Yes."

Nathan chuckled quietly. "The current situation is probably not unlike the 'Time of Catastrophes' mentioned in the old writings as the cause of the Ancestors fleeing the world of origin. Maybe this time around we can keep an evacuation from being necessary." He said distantly.

"We certainly have better technology then they did." Storm nodded.

"Anything else anyone wants to add?" Nathan said smiling quirkily, expecting something truly absurd to come waltzing into the war room.

"We'll know a lot more when I've had time to process their publicly available databases." SilverStar nodded. "It will likely take a week or more, even between the three of us."

"Okay, right now Sciences has priority on resources unless we hit a combat situation. See what you can determine about that low level sensor net using one of the Correspondence probes. Other than that I think everyone knows what to do. Dismissed."

He opened a private channel to his mother. "*Mother, I'll leave bringing Dad up to speed to you and Cazi, since your LifeBonds give you a secure channel to him.*"

The Tiger General got up and left the conference room, headed for the bridge since Morin would be occupied with the Science team for a while.

"*Nareena, Cazi ... update?*" Ebon nudged his LifeMate's minds after the local night fell and he felt them relax slightly.

"*Not much on the intelligence front, though we've got the okay to put the infiltration teams back down. Though Nathan doesn't think we need more than one, given the low population. I was in quarantine during the main body of the discussion though. Nareena, would you handle what went on there?*" He asked tiredly.

"*Morin determined that Kim wasn't exposed to the Bleeding Plague in the cave you were in, and that magic was probably responsible for what happened to MegaKat City. We're still sorting out information Star and Storm got, but I've got more than enough on the disease to deal with it, and it's not a bio-weapon, it's a native disease, like Lixxis. Lyrra said this is a Nexus World, a place where lost travelers end up. Anything could show up at any time. Fun place.*"

Ebon nodded mentally. "*So this world doesn't need NBC weapons, they have enough other problems. Well, I'm going to stay down here until Kim's ready to go home, Doctors want me to stay anyway. But let me know if I'm needed, it's not like I'm here except that I choose to be.*"

Cazi chuckled. "*Sounds like you're getting pretty serious with someone you've known less than a day.*"

Ebon mentally bapped him. "*That coming from the tom who declares he's discovered another true love every other week. It isn't anything serious yet, but she's been really nice to me and I want to make sure she's okay.*" There was a strangely tender quality to the commando's mind voice, though Cazi missed it.

"*Let me know if I can help out.*" Nareena smiled at how Ebon's feelings were showing through that rough and ready mentality. "*Have you found out anything of interest?*"

"*Kim told me a bit before she got sick. Apparently, the reproduction controls, the low distributed population is all part of a well-orchestrated plan to maintain order, and to maximize the efficient use of what resources remained after the War. Apparently though the younger generation is starting to worry what will happen when the leaders and defenders get too old to hold things together. If its the same group of leaders who lead the war, then I'd say they're already old ... if its the same group.*"

"*We're fairly sure it is, at least for the most part.*" Cazi yawned.

"*Apparently, there's some sort of backup plan to move from the 'cities' into the forests to survive, though Kim didn't really get into the details. What's clear to me, is that these people are defending against something. The government's done a decent job of maintaining order, but this kind of order can lead to stagnation if you hold it for too long. I also don't think that they're going to get any new heroes until things actually do collapse. You don't get heroes out of peace and serenity. They aren't needed.*"

"*Seems like a fairly reasonable siege response.*" Nareena commented. "*I doubt the government is looking for heroes, or thinks they are. At least not any more.*"

"*That's what I've got. Oh, you might want to suggest that Storm or Nathan check that cave out. I got a little on Razor from psychic impressions, and they're both much better psychometrists than I am.*"

"*I'll pass that on,*" Nareena promised, then switch to a private line. "*Get some rest, love. Fretting won't help her.*"

"*Okay, "Reena.*" The black tom yawned on the private channel. "*You get some rest too, sounds like things are going to be busy even for us. G'Night, Love you.*" He said tenderly.

He switched to private channel with Cazi. "*Night, love. Look after Nareena, this is medical crisis and you know how she gets.*"

Cazi mentally patted him on the head. "*Don't worry, get some sleep. I'll look after her, I always do.*" He said quietly playful.

"Am I going to live?" Kim asked, her voice full of fear as the Jaguar that had been tending her since her arrival injected another mix into her IV. "And Ebon?"

"Yes, kitten." Dr. Jaykan spoke as comfortingly as she could through the full environmental suit she wore. "He is not infected, and you haven't been seriously injured by it yet."

"Bleeding Plague ..." she whimpered in denial.

"A very mild strain of it, dear." Jaykan spoke firmly. "You must not give in to depression. You will recover with no ill effects."

"Except I won't be allowed kits." Kim closed her eyes and rolled to her side away from the doctor, crying softly.

"That is not yet certain, Kim." Jaykan put her gloved hand on the shekat's shoulder. "This is a new strain. It may not be categorized the same."

"Don't want to get my hopes up," she mumbled.

"Would you like to see Ebon?" Jaykan spoke gently.

"If he wants anything to do with my now." Kim whispered. "I like him."

The Jaguar nodded and turned to go through the decon process so she could eat a late breakfast, and check on Ebon.

"Good afternoon, Ebon." Dr. Jaykan smiled at the lean black tomkat lying on his back in one of the observation rooms. "How are you feeling?"

Ebon chuckled. "Same as I did the last few times somebody asked. I feel fine, though I'm not used to being this stationery for this long." He said amiably. "How's Kim doing?"

"She is conscious, and responding to treatment well." The doctor smiled. "She can have visitors in a FES suit now, if you'd like."

His green eyes brightened. "Of course I'd like to, thanks Doctor."

"Than you, Ebon." The Jaguar's smile bighted as well. "It will do her a great deal of good. Please come."

Ebon got up and followed the Jaguar quietly; it felt good to be doing something, anything instead of just waiting. Besides, he hated being watched, reminded him too much of the lab where he was created.

"Have you ever put on a full environmental suit before?" Jaykan asked as they passed through a set of doors with bright red and yellow biohazard markings.

"No, can't say I that I have." He said, because the persona he was using certainly wouldn't have, even though Ebon himself had a couple of times. This was neither the time nor the place to be revealing who he really was.

"All right," she nodded easily and took out a thick black belt. "Put this on first." She put one on herself. "It is the last line of defense, a low grade force shield. If the suit rips and liquid is forced in, it will protect you for a few minutes."

She pulled a full body suit out, including clear head bag with the back open and helped him step into it. "After we pressurize the suit, if you get a rip in it, the air will force contaminated air and most fluids out for long enough to get out of the room.

"Please don't be too concerned by all this ... Bleeding Plague is usually very contagious, though we don't think this strain is, it's better safe than sorry. I wouldn't want to see her survive just to loose you because we weren't cautious."

"No complaints here, Doctor. I don't wanna catch it." He said sounding concerned though in truth he wasn't at all, at least not for himself.

She nodded and dressed in a suit of her own, clearly very well practiced at it, and led him into a sterile looking light cream room. The central feature was a small double bed with Kim on her side, facing away from them. An IV was slowly feeding blood into her. Though her ears flicked back at the sound of their entrance, she didn't move.

Ebon padded quietly around to where she would be able to see him. He looked down and smiled. "Hi, Kim." He said quietly, and a little awkwardly.

She cringed before looking up with wet blue eyes. "I'm sorry."

He looked genuinely confused. "What are you talking about Kim? There's nothing for you to be sorry about." He said sincerely, wanting to hug her and make things better; but the suit made it kind of awkward and artificial.

She looked at him, equally confused. "I have the Plague ... what good am I? I can't ... you deserve better."

"So you have the Plague, you'll get better. It doesn't change who you are." He said with complete sincerity. "I'm not sure I deserve you, but I want to be with you all the same. Your being sick doesn't change anything, it really doesn't." He said tenderly. He'd heard of worlds were illness's were viewed as judgments of a person's worth or character. The panther had always thought that a pretty stupid way of thinking about something that was simply a temporary malfunction of body processes caused by a foreign substance or organism.

She looked at him in shear amazement. "You ... you don't mind I can't have kittens anymore?"

"No, I don't mind." He said gently. "It's only a part of who you are, and not even the important part." He said quietly, wishing that he could tell her about who he was, and that there still was a way.

He thought along the shielded channel to Nareena. "*Reena, while you're researching this 'Bleeding Plague' ... could you see if the sterility effect on shekats can be reversed or something. I don't think they can, but we've got them beat on medical science. Kim's rather upset, and I'd like to help her somehow.*" He said in quiet mind-voice that was truly indicative of how upset he really was.

"*Of course, love.*" Her mind-voice held an understanding smile.

Kim stared at him, too stunned to really speak. When she got some control of her reactions back she hugged him as best she could. "Knew you were special, Ebon. I never thought you were that special."

Ebon hugged her back to the extent the suit would allow. "Guess some Kats just bring that out in me." He said quietly. "I just want you to concentrate on getting better. There are more interesting places for us to be together than a hospital." He said smiling. "But they said I could stay until you're ready to go home, so no pressure."

She smiled and settled back on the bed, tired. "Tell me a story ... something to pass the time."

Ebon smiled, and pulled over a chair. "Okay, but I'm not much of story-teller."

"Hardly matters," she smiled and extended a hand towards him.

He worked through the stories he did know as he placed a gloved hand over hers. He decided to go with the one about Keltin, Caito and how the blue warrior became immortal. He'd always been partial to that one, and it was a 'love story' to boot. He figured she wouldn't notice if he got it wrong, since it was new to her, and beside she'd probably fall asleep midway through.

"Ebon?" Dr. Jaykan entered his room after dinner. "Kim has been moved to a low risk isolation ward. You can stay in her room if you wish now."

The dark-furred commando looked up. "I can? I'd like that." He said eagerly, though he'd rarely left her room since she woke up, except when the medical staff made him leave to eat or sleep.

The Jaguar smiled and led him out. "Your devotion is doing wonders for her, you know."

He looked at her with little surprised. "I stand by those I care about, that's all." He said, not sure why the doctor was acting like he was doing something unusual.

She nodded and smiled softly. "You two are going to make me believe in true love yet. I know you've known her not even two days."

Ebon smiled. "True love exists, we just don't always see it when its there." He said cryptically, since he couldn't hardly explain that he'd found his first mate when they were both stealing plans from the same safe. "Long two days though." He said smiling to indicate that he didn't mind.

Jaykan chuckled. "I bet." She led him to a different section of the hospital, which seemed much bigger on the inside than outside, until they reached room 413 and she knocked. "Kim?"

"Come in." Her voice almost sounded normal, and she was looking their way as the pair walked in. "Hi, Ebon."

Ebon smiled warmly. "Hi, Kim. They said I can share a room with you now, if you feel up to company." He added the last bit himself, so he didn't seem to be forcing himself on her. He knew sick people didn't always want constant company.

"Always up for yours." She smiled a seductively, though she was still a little pale, and hooked to an IV.

Dr. Jaykan rolled her eyes and shot a look at Ebon with a chuckle. "Try to keep the activity level reasonable, okay?"

He nodded acceptingly, and then grinned. "The IV would get in the way after all." He said as though he been seriously thinking about an unreasonable level of activity.

"If you need anything, you know how to call." The Jaguar chuckled and gave the pair a last smile before walking out.

He walked over to Kim, bent down and kissed her tenderly. "Nice not to have the suit in the way." He whispered lightly, as he brushed her hair back. "Missed being able to touch you." He said quietly as she arched appreciatively into the light contact.

"I've missed smelling you." She purred weakly, though her smile was brilliant.

Ebon nodded agreement and wrinkled his nose. "Scents get so messed up in the hospital, with all the antiseptics and such. Sort of like having a blindfold on your nose." He said quietly, and then chuckled at the image that conjured.

She chuckled softly with him. "It was hard to sleep without feeling your warmth." She shifted on the double bed to give him room, then shook her head. "Sandy's going to get a real laugh out of this. I haven't even spent a full night with you, and I already miss your touch."

Ebon lay next to her, careful of the IV. "Who's Sandy?" He asked curiously.

"She works at the tavern, a friend of sorts. She always said I was a hopeless romantic and it would get me in trouble one day."

"It was hard sleeping alone too." He said quietly, thinking that it had been a long time since he'd actually done that, since he usually had Cazi, or Nareena, or even just one of the other NightBlades to lie with.

She nodded and shifted to lie against him, her right arm over his chest to scratch his jaw and her left arm, in deference to the IV, over her head. "Hell of a first date, hu?"

He held her close. "It's one that neither of us will forget I expect. And to think, all I was looking for that night was dinner and a drink." He said smiling happily. "And I chose that bar pretty much at random, must've been fate."

"Yes," she smiled softly. "Fate likes to play on this world."

Ebon gently stroked her hair with one hand. "This time I don't mind being played with, one different turn and I might've missed out on being with you." He said quietly, with happiness cleanly tingeing his scent.

"Why did you come to Green Harbor, anyway?" She looked up at him from his chest. "You've come a very long way, from wherever you are from."

He looked down meeting her eyes. "I wanted a better understanding of how things really are, and I thought some place as big as Green Harbor was a good place to start." He said simply, and it was even true as much as it said. "What makes you think I've come a very long way?" He asked genuinely curious.

"Little things," she smiled at him. "Things you didn't know, the way you walk and talk ... you're not quite comfortable with it. You're very good at faking it, but ... ummm ... you see, sometimes I see past the surface of things, to what they really are. When I first saw you, I thought you were of Razor's bloodline ... you share a 'look' with him ... now ... now I think you are from further away than that."

Ebon smiled slightly. "From what I saw in the cavern, I can see why you'd think that I share a 'look' with him." He sighed, he was running up against the wall of keeping cover or lying to someone he'd come to care about a great deal. He couldn't remember it happening before, and didn't like it.

He looked at her and smiled. "You're right, I am from further away. But it's not something that'd make any sense if I try to explain it here, but I will explain it ... once we get out of the hospital." He said quietly.

Kim smiled with an understanding in her eyes and spoke softly. "I doubt it is something suitable with an audience." She ran a light finger over his lips to silence him and whispered. "This world is alien friendly, Ebon, and so am I."

The commando smiled, and kissed the finger gently. "Not as alien as you might be thinking." He whispered so only she could hear. "I just wasn't sure you'd believe me." He said softly.

She only nodded and relaxed against his warm, strong body with a sigh. "It's going to be a long week."

Ebon nodded silent agreement and held her close, just enjoying the warmth, feel and scent of her. Right at that moment there was only one place he'd rather be, and the contentment showed in both his relaxed body, and scent.

Cazi, Nathan and Samson carefully made their way through the caves, taking the path Ebon had described to the cavern of glowing crystals and a moss floor.

Nathan took a deep breath of the fresh, wet air as he took in the crystals, mossy floor and lightly rippling pool.

"This is a place of great power." Samson, standing as a Lynx Kat, commented nearly in awe.

Cazi nodded in agreement. "This is definitely a node of some sort, probably a Life node based on the feel."

Nathan simply walked around the room until he found the strongest sense of 'person', that was both 'male' and 'not his father'. In theory, that presence should be Razor. He sat down at that spot, and began to focus drawing on the Force present in all things to enhance and focus his psychometric abilities.

He looked up to see Cazi standing watch at the cave entrance, and Samson sitting down on a rock with his drum in front of him.

"You will need someone to guard you against evil spirits when you open yourself to speak to the spirit of Razor. Spirits are what I was trained to understand, even though I chose to walk the path of Life later on." He said, noting the Tiger's curious look.

Nathan nodded, and slowly submerged himself into the power flows of the cavern, seeking to hear what the cavern would tell him. In the background, the Lynx beat a reassuring rhythm on his feathered spirit drum.

"*Who are you?*" A soft voice both asked and challenged.

Nathan was mildly surprised; he'd never had a psychometric impression talk to him. He decided to go with the 'him' that connected strongest to the spirit world, the name his Jedi Master had thought was his true name. "*I am Jedi Skyfire*", he said in quiet response.

"*Why have you come, Jedi Skyfire?*"

"*I seek to understand what is and has happened on this world, and one called Razor seems to be at the fulcrum of it. His presence is strong in this place, so I came here seeking to understand him better.*" He said feeling like he was dealing with the Jedi Council again, trying to find the right answer without being sure there was one.

There was silence for a long moment before a shade, a translucent image of the one Nathan recognized as Razor without his mask, sat down in front of him, hovering on the clear, black water.

The shade looked up and burdened amber eyes met bright green ones.

"*I'm here.*" Razor-Jake spoke without life.

If Nathan hadn't been aware of the Lynx drumming in the background he might have been concerned. He'd done psychometric scans more times than he could remember, and never before had he encountered a shade, a spirit that spoke to him. It set him back slightly, because he was used to sorting through floods of images, not trying to question a spirit.

As he looked into those amber eyes he realized that his father had been right, they were haunted. He decided to go with politeness first. "*Thank you for choosing to speak with me, Razor.*" He said evenly. "*You seem to be carrying a great many burdens for one spirit to bear, perhaps some of them relate to what has become of the world. A burden spoken is a burden eased, or so it is said. Why do you carry them alone, surely there were those who would help?*" He asked, sincerely trying to understand the spirit's pain, but not being entirely sure how to voice it. He chose not to shield his emotions so that the spirit would be able to sense his sincerity.

"*The saying lies.*" His voice was listless, though a trace of pain creped into it. "*A burden shared is a burdened doubled. I will not do that to my friends.*"

Nathan sighed quietly. "*I did not come to argue with you, Razor.*" He said, his voice quiet and sympathetic. "*I merely seek an understanding of how this world got to be the way it is, and perhaps some clue as to what still threatens it. All I can offer in return is understanding, and I thought a way for you to ease your burdens.*" The Tiger's sincerity was clear and open. He gently open his empathy to try and 'see' more clearly, this seemed a safe path since it was a passive sense.

"*You wish to understand how hell came about?*" The shade cocked it's head. "*I was not yet born when it started, much less on this world. Evil is drawn here. It grows strong in the world that was. The cities too great to know.

"*We are the Black Phoenix. Our fire cleansed the world in blood. My Mistress knew how to turn our fire to rebuild what evil destroyed, and protect the survivors from the new evils that came, seeking power.

"*I carry this burden so the rest of my soul can do what must be done for this world to survive. It is not a great price to pay.*"

Nathan nodded having suddenly understood that he was facing a sort of spiritual psychosis, or perhaps MPD. In any case, Razor's spirit was in two places simultaneously, from what Nathan understood of things that was not a healthy situation. The soul was meant to be one, in one place, not divided like this.

He was also sure any further discussion would lead to an argument, since the spirit would not understand that there was a difference between surviving and living. The world survived most assuredly, but it was losing the feeling of being alive as it teetered on the edge of stagnation.

He looked at the spirit-Razor. "*My thanks for your time and attention, Razor. This has been most insightful.*" He said as he carefully shielded his psychometric abilities and released the Force he had drawn in. As his perception of the world returned to normal he looked to see if he could still see the shade. The Lynx's drum could still be heard in the background.

Razor stood as a flash of comprehension danced across his eyes. "*You would understand in the terms of your world.*" His voice echoed in Nathan's mind as the shade became more solid and walked up to him.

Nathan turned, somewhat amazed that the shade remained. "*That was what I was trying to reach, though I could think of no good way to explain it.*" He replied as he watched the approaching shade with an equal measure of curiosity and unease.

Razor almost smiled as he knelt to bring their eyes even. "*Be strong, Jedi Skyfire.*" His mind whispered as their mouths touched, then their minds, and Nathan felt the cold fire of nearly a century of frantic devotion to a people and the agony of choices and mistakes made flood through him.

With a low cry muffled by the cinnamon Kat's mouth, Nathan's world blacked out.

Cazi looked at Samson still drumming. "Enough with the drum already." He said as he bent down and check Nathan's vital signs, and then carefully checked the bond they shared and found it stable, the mind behind it was simply overwhelmed in raw data.

"Okay, Sam he's just passed out, apparently the spirit of Razor decided to dump a load of info on him at high speed. Drop the Lynx act and carry him to the shuttle, please?" He asked as he led the way out to where the shuttle was concealed. As they came into view of it, they came face to face with a short, lean tomkat in jeans and a dark blue t-shirt leaning against it.

"I don't think so." The cinnamon male with fiery amber eyes challenged them. "The Tiger stays."

Cazi started and then Sams large bear paw gently held him back. The bear smiled at him. "Be calm, Cazimir."

The bear then turned to the cinnamon Kat and regarded him with deep brown eyes. "Perhaps if we knew the reason for your request, we might be able to consider it." He said in a deep calm, tranquil voice that belied the nine-foot tall grizzly morph it came from.

Jake quirked an eyebrow at them, then nodded. "He's got more classified information in his head than I can permit off planet."

Samson looked at the Kat, and shook his head. "They we are at an impasse, since we can not permit his imprisonment on this planet. And were we to return without him there would be serious repercussions, most likely far worse than that information going off-planet in his head." The bear continued to hold the Tiger protectively. "It is imperative that we find a solution to this problem, that does not lead to violence."

Cazi concentrated on his link with Nareena. "*Code 11 'Reena, tell Morin to prep those retrieval rotes, we may need them.*"

"*Code 11, someone's holding or trying to hold Nathan prisoner?*"

"*Trying at the moment, we're discussing the matter.*"

"*Understood. I'll inform Morin. Be careful, love.*"

"*I will.*"

Cazi looked at the slightly taller tom, sizing him from a combat perspective. He didn't want it to come to that, but no way was he letting his son get stuck on this backwater excuse for a planet.

"I don't see an impasse, but I don't know why you came here, or why he sought that information." Jake didn't move from where he was leaning against the shuttle.

Samson nodded. "He sought understanding of a key player in a confusing situation, a perfectly normal thing. He was looking for an understanding of how things arrived at where they are, simple enough. Any 'classified' information was not sought, or even particularly helpful."

"Then he has no need to keep it."

Cazi leaned against a tree. "As for why we came here, well if you mean here, this planet, that's easy ... our research into our own origins revealed this to be the planet our distant ancestors fled during a period of catastrophes. There was a natural curiosity to see where everything started, and to reestablish contact with those who had remained."

"What kind of contact?" The first real traces of combat-tension appeared in his frame.

Samson smiled. "Diplomatic contact and the usual things that follow: social, cultural and technological exchanges. Though I'm not Felsin, I know them fairly well and there's always been a cultural fascination with the lost homeworld."

Cazi chuckled. "Felsin is what Kats are called in the Alliance, actually the physical appearance has changed a little over the three thousand years of separation. And somewhere along the line, we picked up a natural shapeshift ability though it's only an active trait in about 30-35% of the population."

Nathan pushed himself up out of Sam's arms and brushed himself off. "As for not keeping it, someone should of thought of that before they dumped the fileroom into my head. Like I needed or wanted that much extra stuff to keep track of. At any rate, I'll save your telepaths the trouble and headache of trying to remove it. It can't be done, and it's been tried by the best." He said calmly. "Besides I can't have anyone poking around inside all the classified stuff that belongs in my head."

"I see," the Kats ears were nearly flat, though the rest of his posture was neutral. "Rather unusual way of starting peaceful relations, don't you think?"

"Rather unusual planet." Nathan said calmly. "Population unusually low for the technology level, major unreclaimed disaster area, enough unusual energy sources for a couple of planets and the largest population center is military complex. We were trying to make sure we weren't walking into a war zone or other disaster in progress, or at least we wanted to know what we were walking into.

"Caution on first contact is fairly normal, especially since without a little footwork you can never be sure how to open relations." He said easily, no trace of aggression in his stance or scent.

"So ... just who on your side will I be talking to when we sort out relations?"

"Our chief diplomats are Charles Goldson, Alliance Diplomat and Marsa Blackpaw, Mr. Goldson's assistant. As the mission commander I'm part of the diplomatic triad, but mostly in an observer/advisory role." Nathan said evenly.

"And how much longer before you were planning on just asking for answers?" Jake asked cautiously.

"Later on today actually, we'd decided we knew enough. One of my people just suggested I take a look here." He rubbed his head. "Rather wish I hadn't, I was figuring on maybe a few useful impressions. Overly informative shades were not expected, in fact that'd be the first one I've ever encountered." Nathan said shaking his head.

"Ebon?" Jake regarded them.

Sam looked back toward the cave. "One would not expect to encounter a shade of the living." He said cryptically.

Jake shrugged. "World's full of surprises. Stick around and you'll find much stranger." He focused fully on Nathan. "Now, just what would you suggest I do about you?"

Nathan looked back at him unflinching. "I'm not sure there is much, given that removing the unwanted information isn't possible and I'm not taking up residence here. Honestly, I'd say you're going to have to hope I'm friendly as I claim to be. I'm kind of an expert at keeping secure information secure in my head; nobody reads my mind, just doesn't happen.

"See if we're friendly like I claim, then you've got no problem at all 'cause the information is really of no interest to me. So it'll fall under all the other classified stuff and get buried. Now, if we're not friendly, then you've got much bigger problems than what's in my head.

"In any case, I don't think you need to do anything about me." He shook his head. "Really this has been a most unfortunate start to things, and I think it would be best for all concerned to get past it." He said, sincerely regretting the mess things had turned into.

"So do you have a problem staying planetside until diplomatic relations are settled, one way or another?"

"I don't see a problem with that, since I can handle mission management from planetside as easily as I can from shipboard." He said before Cazi could voice an objection. Besides, it wasn't like Morin couldn't pull him out at a moments notice if needed.

Jake nodded. "Then shall we relocate this discussion to a more formal location?"

"Agreed, the forest is not really the proper setting." Nathan said somewhat casually.

Jake nodded. "Then follow me in to Margrin." He rolled easily away from the shuttle as a glossy, almost metallic black lioness-like predator the size of a riding beast walked out of the forest. "Oh, and just for reference, your ship isn't exactly spaceworthy at the moment.

Cazi walked up to the hull, and laid his hand on it accessing the full computer diagnostic, while his own magic swept the craft for damage. "I see." He said simply before reconfiguring the structural shields to prevent further damage, though it was unlikely. As crippling as the missing part was, it was an expert removal. He thought on a shielded channel to Nathan, not hiding his irritation. "*Sabotage and one guess who the stinkin' saboteur is.*" There was a mental growl in Cazi's mind-voice.

Nathan nodded. "*Extent of damage?*" He replied evenly.

"*Still good for atmospheric and high altitude work, but we'll have to stay atmospheric until I finish 'making' the replacement part.*"

"*Emergency option?*"

"*Yeah, I can create enough shielding to make it safe if needed, but I'd rather not.*" Cazi thought irritably.


"*Smug bastard.*"

"*Cazi, we did kind of flub this first contact, he's within his rights to be annoyed with us. At least he didn't shoot first, ask question second.*"

"*You just think he's cute.*"

"*How did that enter into things?*"

"*You're just your father's son, that's all.*"

"*Take Sam and board.*" He said firmly.

Nathan watched as the others boarded, and then nodded to Jake as his eye flicked over the glimmering feline as it flowed into a more traditional jet fighter configuration. "We'll follow, lead on." He said casually, before boarding the shuttle.

Kim gave up on pretending to rest and rolled over to grab a remote control to flick the TV in the room on as she maneuvered into a sitting position to watch. She settled on a channel airing something about big predatory felines that lived in the mountains.

"This okay?" She glanced at the tom who had settled behind her and was now watching the screen with his chin on her shoulder and both arms wrapped around her. "I like watching the critters."

"No problem," he tried not to be as interested as he really was. You could learn all sorts of things by how a society treated animals, and such programs, even if xenobiology wasn't his specialty.

They barely noticed a ginger tomcat nurse that entered until he spoke. "Kim, you have a visitor."

"Really? Who?" The gray tabby blinked in surprise as she muted the TV.

"A Miss Agee Green."

"Cool, show her in already." Kim's grin widened to a smile as a heavily built Puma fem wearing a surgical mask and civilian clothes was shown in. "What's up?"

"Besides that you actually have a real boyfriend?" The newcomer chuckled as she pulled a chair over. "Captain figured you'd be stressing over missing the meeting so I got elected to fill you in."

A tension Ebon barely realized she was carrying suddenly vanished.

"Thank him for me." Kim nodded as she snuggled back and licked Ebon's cheek. "He's Ebon."

"He certainly is," Agee chuckled at the pair. "You may have waited forever, but it looks like you got a good one."

Kim just grinned at that. "So what's new?"

The Puma sighed a little. "Mostly bad. We got updated to WSA 3 this morning after several incursions from space. No fighting yet, and their mothership hasn't been found, but somebody's put agents on the ground, and probes in our air. I just hope it's not another Chi-A-Kata." She shivered. "You might be getting out of here early. Captain's not happy about you being out of commission." She dropped her eyes. "Might want to get what time you can together while it's an option."

"Thanks," Kim's voice was very soft as the Puma stood to leave.

Agee waved before she shut the door. "Good luck you two, and congrats."

Ebon waited until his sensitive hearing could no longer discern the Agee's footsteps. Then he looked at Kim. "I take it waiting tables isn't all you do." He said curiously. "Looks like our professional lives may be meeting up." He said quietly.

She cringed slightly. "I was rather hoping it was only you. I don't suppose your commander has actually contacted the government?"

"I'm not sure. We were going to, and then we ran into one too many enigmas. So we had to take a look, and make sure we weren't walking into a war zone, or some other unpleasantness. Running into the plague kind of changed the approach, because our science needed to be sure there wasn't a mutating bio-weapon loose down here.

"Hardly," she muttered dryly. "That's about the only thing we've avoided."

"We've got to keep this from getting unpleasant. Keltin's claws, we're all from the same planet, originally."

Kim raised an eyebrow at that, but didn't comment.

"*Reena, what's happening?*" He asked on a shielded channel.

"*I just got a code 11, from Cazi. Under negotiation, stay on alert.*"

"*Acknowledged.*" Ebon leaned back and closed his eyes. "Oh, hellfire. This is not starting well."

"No ... I don't doubt it is." She shifted to face him as she sat up. "Flat truth, why are you here?"

"Goes back to what I said about us all being from the same planet." He started quietly. "Actually, that's true for the Felsin among our crew. Basically, according to our oldest records a group of Kats fled Aristal during a period of catastrophes about three thousand years ago. Those evacuees would eventually settle another world and become the Felsin.

"A few years ago our astrophysicists managed to figure out roughly where the evacuation ships had come from, and we came out to see what the place we came from was like, and to reestablish contact with the descendants of those who stayed behind.

"Summary, we're a first contact / diplomatic mission. Probably would've gone better if there weren't so many things that didn't make sense at first.

"I'll skip to the next logical question. No, my mission had nothing to do with my involvement with you. In fact, I've kind of let things slide since we met. It's never happened before, but for the first time I met someone I was more interested in than doing what I was supposed to."

"I kind of figured that last part." She chuckled slightly. "There are much better targets than me in this city." She shifted crossing her arms and thinking. "If you're trying to establish diplomatic relations, you need to talk to the government in Margrin. What don't you understand yet?"

"Actually we'd pieced together most of what we needed to decide whether to make contact, or simply leave. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of suggesting that one of our people who specializes in reading impressions from places and objects take a look at that cave you showed me. Razor seems so central to everything we thought understanding him better might make sense of things. The team that was doing that seems to have run into some problem with local security forces near the cave. I don't have all the details."

"That I might be able to help with." She stepped off the bed and touched the wall. She began to type when a compact terminal appeared.

"Since we're in the open, I can ask the one thing we haven't been able to figure out. Who are you defending against? Everything here is a kind of siege mentality, and your largest city is a fortress, and despite no deep space flight, you have a very active spacewatch. "Those are what we trying to make sense of, 'cause we didn't want to get caught in the crossfire without knowing who the bad guys were."

"We're defending against whatever decides it wants to take over the planet next." She glanced at him as information began to come in. "I take it your world doesn't see an invasion or super-mage every few years?"

Ebon shook his head. "No, our big problem is an on-going conflict with a race known as the Mephits. But then again we're more than one world, so we've got a larger pool to draw things like our own mages from. So, is it the same group of super-mages repeatedly or different groups? If its one group, that might be a solvable problem." Ebon said, as his mind began to work strategically.

"No, SWAT and Cathedral take out each invader when they show up." She looked back at the terminal. "It's not security that has your friend. It's not even an alert."

"Hmmm. well I was right about siege conditions. That's a good short term solution, but never fight a war reactively; it lets the enemy have too much control." He said making observations absently.

"*Nareena, who's Nathan having a problem with?*"

"*Umm ... looks like it's that Razor you described, only no costume.*"

Ebon looked back at Kim. "I thought it was security, apparently its just one tom who showed up and tried to tell the team they couldn't leave. Fellow looks a lot like me, only a cinnamon color with real intense amber eyes, and he's not wearing a uniform or anything ... just civilian clothing. Description sort of sounds like the image I saw of Razor."

Kim stared at him very suspiciously. "You want to make friends, and you don't know who our leaders are?"

Ebon chuckled. "Diplomatic team probably does, but I wasn't supposed to make contact with anybody of significance, and I'm sure the investigation team wasn't expecting anybody to be out there." He looked at her curiously. "You mean that's one of your leaders out there?"

"Sounds like it," she said, still a little wary. "You're friend did just mess around someplace he very much shouldn't have. It doesn't pay to pry into Jake Clawson's life."

Ebon sighed. "Nathan always wants to understand the people who are central to things, bad habit born of usually having access to them." He said shaking his head, then peered at her curiously, with a teasing gleam in his eye. "Let me guess, you're actually Ms. Dyne in disguise?" He asked with a wry chuckle.

"If I was, I wouldn't have to worry about the Plague." Kim looked away. "She can afford the other options."

Ebon sighed. "Sorry, I was trying to be funny. Didn't realize ... what other options, for what?" He asked confused.

"For having kittens," she spoke softly. "There's technology to get around the problems the Plague creates, but it's an expensive process. I'm not that important."

Ebon smiled gently, and stroked her cheek. "Kim, we developed the tech for kittens where one or both parents aren't capable some time ago. Generations ago actually, but I couldn't say anything while I was pretending to be local."

She almost flinched and refused to look at him. "And you'll go home soon, and it won't matter anyway."

Ebon sighed. "I keep forgetting about that. But I wouldn't be happy staying here, and I guess you probably wouldn't want to leave." He said quietly, wishing he had some solution.

"My sight is still useful, and we need every edge we can get." She swallowed. "I don't know if I'd mind leaving, if it was an option, I never thought about it before."

Ebon nodded. "Well, I don't think we need to rush things. After all, I think they're keeping us in the hospital for what, another 6 or 7 days? And I figure discussions will go on for a while. I think if we can get past this awkward stage, the Alliance might be able to improve your edge some."

He chuckled. "I noticed when I was reviewing the social data we have that most Kats go for couples in terms of relationships. Felsin, on the other hand, mostly form long-term threesomes, or triads, and not uncommonly larger. What's your thought on such things?" He asked awkwardly. "That was clumsy, wasn't it?"

"I take it you already have a mate or two?" She forced herself to look at him. "Can't say I object in theory, but you're the first I've every been even remotely serious about thinking of past next week. I don't really know."

Ebon nodded. "Yes, I do. But from my perspective that doesn't make me unavailable, so I wasn't lying when I said was available."

Kim nodded, and tapped something into the terminal.

He smiled. "Two of them actually, One shipboard and one with the cave team. Hopefully, I'll be able to introduce you before too long. Assuming those in charge can straighten things out."

"We'll probably find out before your mates do." She sighed and lay back down. "You can play on the net if you want."

Ebon looked at the computer briefly, and then decided he really didn't feel like it. The only time he used computers was for mission related things, and right now he really didn't want to deal with the mission. He lay down quietly next to Kim, trying to figure out how to clean up the mess that this was turning into.

"Ebon ... what's the Alliance like?"

Ebon thought about a good summary for a while. "Hmmm. The Alliance currently consists of a core group of a dozen systems, plus some not-so-core systems, and the colonies of the member worlds. The last total I recall hearing was 120 worlds across some 70 systems."

"That sounds pretty big, I'm sure, but with hyperdrive it's not so big. Interplanetary travel is well-developed, and most people visit a few worlds during there lifetimes, if only on vacation. Internally, it's pretty peaceful with no internal war in its history, about 250 years. Not perfect, as we do have the occasional pirate gang or criminal syndicate that causes problems until the Alliance shuts them down. Our main problem is with a neighboring power, the Mephit Unity, who are a group of thoroughly unpleasant individuals we've had off and on hostility and the occasional war with."

"There really isn't an Alliance culture exactly, since each world maintains its own cultural identity. The Alliance is mostly about promoting trade and security for the member worlds. Keeps certain behaviors from existing; slavery is banned across the Alliance for example. The Alliance also handles defense, through the Alliance Military Command and a unified military/civilian medical approach through the Alliance Medic Corps."

"There are a dozen major races, and scores of minor ones, but everyone gets along for the most part. Some of the minor races are a little bit insular and that's okay, but no one's outright hostile to aliens. Well, you can run into individuals who are but the societies aren't."

He paused. "Anything you wanted to know specifically?" He asked quietly.

"Umm, not really, just wondering what you're going back to." She shifted to snuggle against him. "What I'd be getting into." She closed her eyes and tried to relax. "What's your life, your mates, like?

"It's never dull that's for sure." Ebon said easily. "I work with a group of specialist problem-solvers for the Alliance. We handle a lot of things; mostly things that require highly trained people not afraid to get their hands dirty. We do what needs done when it needs doing in the most efficient way possible. This mission is kind of an oddball, but it was our team that unearthed the data that finally uncovered where the evac ships came from.

"When we're on a mission, we work hard and get the job done. There isn't any group in the Alliance, except maybe ExCRU Alpha, who can match our success record. But we also make sure to have time to have a life; we play as hard as we work though not always as often. We're more like family than a team really, and there isn't anything we wouldn't do for each other.

"My one mate, Nareena is a healer both of mind and body. She's one of the best, and is a truly compassionate soul. She has this uncanny talent for calming things down just by being present.

"My other mate, Cazi is what we call a CyberWizard ... some places call them TechnoMages, though they're not exactly the same. He's skilled, and brilliant and he's a real imp to boot. Keeps us from taking ourselves too seriously, which given how driven we get on a mission is important.

"When we're not on a mission, we have a valley to ourselves on Draconea. It's really beautiful, large stately evergreens hundreds of years old, a clear river that runs through. There are mountains perfect for climbing, if one enjoys that, and wide open fields for kits to play in. To say nothing of the various games the team plays when we're home."

He smiled. "It's a good life; family, excitement, a job that makes a difference in other people's lives even if they never know it. Some times the job is a bit dangerous, but most of us thrive on that kind of challenge."

"Oh," she fell silent for a long moment then spoke softly. "Sounds like you have your bases covered, team-wise."

Ebon looked at her. "We've got the important stuff covered, but we often discover specialized areas that we don't." He smiled gently at her. "And no team ever has enough smart, perceptive people." He thought a moment. "Just curious, what do you do here? If you don't mind my asking."

"Mostly I keep an eye open for newcomers, offworlders that got stuck here and aren't aggressive, like you appeared to be." She spoke softly. "My True Sight is very clear, it lets me ID those that probably need a friendly introduction to the world. "We've found a lot of trouble can be avoided by making sure everyone has the basics of life, and a few luxuries. I'm part of the system that makes that happen, so we only have the true sociopaths and megalomaniacs to worry about."

Ebon smiled. "Well, you were right. I'm not aggressive, at least as far as this world goes. But that's a very intriguing talent, sounds like it's on the edge of either the psi-talents or possibly the arcane regions. Not that I know enough about either to figure it out, I leave those to others."

"I come by it naturally," she explained a little. "It runs in the family. Both my parents had good True Sight, and I was trained as soon as I started to show signs of it."

Ebon sighed, quietly frustrated. He'd known Kim all of two days and already he didn't want to leave her, but he couldn't stay and he didn't see how he could ask her to give up a job she enjoyed for an uncertain future just because he wanted her with him.

"How ... just how far away is the Alliance?" Kim asked hesitantly.

"Well, it took us a little under a year. But we were exploring, charting the systems along the way, taking the occasional shore leave." He grinned. "But SilverStar thinks it's about two to four weeks at nominal Trans-Luminal cruise speed." He caught the questioning look. "It's in another galaxy, but with the TLD its not a one way trip like it would have been under standard hyperdrive."

"Oh," she started at the ceiling for a while, then took a deep breath. "Does ... does 'Stargate' mean anything to you?"

"Long-range ship level teleportation using fixed portals? Its one of the Institute for Advanced Starship Design's research projects, about five to ten years from prototype. Or did you mean something else?" He asked, wondering where she would've heard about the project.

"Ship level?" She looked at him, a little confused.

"The idea is that they're these space-station sized portals that connect two locations in space, across large distances. Ideally they should cut the travel time way down for the starship that enters the pathway created by the two portals. Down to days at least, maybe as low as hours or minutes."

"Oh, no, not that." She hesitated again. "But similar, sort of. Just wondering if you knew of the system. It doesn't really matter. Tell me about this technology that allows anyone to breed. Please." She added with a hopeful smile.

Ebon nodded. "Someone once called it the 'dumbed down' version of genetic engineering. Why or how it was developed isn't really clear, but one of the early applications was in allowing couples rendered infertile by a disease called Lixxis to have kittens. The geneticist takes genetic material from the prospective partners and develops the embryo from that. If the female can't carry, for whatever reason, then the embryo develops to full term in what's known as a gestation tube or G-tube. The G-tube provides all the protection, nutrients and other requirements of the developing kit.

"It's fairly common in medical practice now, and is even used in some emergency cases where the mother requires some emergency surgery, which would previously resulted in the loss of the kit, but with the G-tube the kit can be safely transferred and neither life is lost.

"Mated toms also make use of it to have kittens, which was previously impossible." He smiled. "Our team has a geneticist fully qualified in the procedure."

"Oh," she smiled a little dreamily, "what a useful technology." She shifted to look him in to the eyes. "How common are your kind?"

Ebon shifted a little. "Umm, that would depend on exactly what you mean. I get the impression you just looked through me again." He said smiling. "Not dodging the question, just want to make sure we're on the same page."

"Genetic creations, with such a gorgeous true form." She smiled seductively and purred. "You're an attractive Kat, but your real shape suits you better."

Ebon chuckled. "You are perceptive."

"It's my job," she smiled at him.

"Okay, Genetic creations as complicated as myself aren't common because detailed design from raw genetic data is a fairly complicated procedure and doesn't always work. I know of almost a dozen across the entire Alliance, and it's possible there are others I don't know about but I doubt there are two dozen total. Actually, the shapeshift was something I was going to show you once we got out. I'd really prefer not to have an audience." He said quietly.

"I understand," she smiled and moved up to kiss him tenderly. "I can see it just fine. How many forms do you have?"

Ebon kissed her gently. "Four. Kat, Felsin, which I'd guess is what you're seeing as my true form, a combat form, and a quadruped panther form."

"What's the difference between Felsin and the combat forms?" She gently began to unbutton his shirt to trace lazy patterns in his chest fur.

"Oh, about a foot and a half in height and 150 lbs approximately. Felsin form is about seven feet tall, same fur color and more muscular than my current form. Combat form is about eight and a half feet tall, about 400 lbs and far more primal claws and jaw design. The muscular structure is heavier, and the senses are more acute. It's also got back-hinged legs, like a big cat."

"Then I'm seeing your combat form." She chuckled and lowered her head to licked one of the exposed nipples as his shirt fell open. "Any questions for me?"

Ebon purred happily at her attentions. "Not right away, but I'm still getting used to the idea that with all the alien problems this world has; my being one doesn't seem to bother you." He said in quiet amazement, while he gently ran his hands through her fur where he could reach.

"Same reason you don't judge everyone because of the Mephit Unity." She smiled up at him before returning to her exploration of his chest as one hand trailed down to slide a finger under his jeans. "There are nice aliens and enemy aliens and a few that just want to be left alone. It's dangerous to judge all by the actions of a few."

Ebon smiled. "More enlightened then I've seen on other worlds attacked by aliens in the past, but I'm glad." He purred quietly at her attention, and continued absently tracing patterns in her fur. "So, I don't recall the doc defining what reasonable activity was exactly, do you?" He asked with a teasing, amused tone in his voice clearly not trying to discourage.

"Anything that doesn't hurt?" She suggested with a low rumble.

"Hurt or pull out the IV ... I've known enough healers to know they get cranky about those. Anything else is fair game I think." He said in a low seductive voice. "Have any fantasies you've wanted to try?" He asked suggestively.

"Something that doesn't happen," she purred softly. "To be seduced."

Ebon nodded, and bent down to kiss her. "Anywhere but a hospital, I'd be willing to oblige. But hospitals always make me feel like I'm being watched." He sighed.

"Because you usually are," she chuckled softly.

"Growing up a genetic creation makes one somewhat uncomfortable with surveillance." Ebon said quietly. "Not that I mind being here with you. Seriously though, you mean it hasn't happened to you?" He looked surprised. "I'd think you'd have lots of toms trying to, as attractive as you are." He said quietly.

"I've always made the first move," she shrugged slightly. "Always had to. By local standards, I'm not much to look at. Not feline enough, really."

Ebon reassuringly stroked her hair. "Hopefully, we'll have some time after we get out of here. I'd like to do things right." He kissed her gently. "As for not feline enough, I didn't notice." He said with honest openness.

Before Kim could form an answer there was a quick knock on the door and Dr. Jaykan walked in, looking thoroughly displeased. Without a word she stepped up to the bed and handed Kim a thin brown folder.

"You will be on conditionary discharge as soon as transportation arrangements can be made." The Jaguar growled, her tail flicking in irritation. "If you are careful, you life is not at risk, but I do mean careful."

Kim nodded in mute acceptance, her eyes locked on the simple one page document in her hands.

Ebon looked at Kim. "What's wrong?" He asked quietly.

"Not wrong ... just ... I'm ... these are transfer orders ... to the Treaties and Exploration Team in Margrin ... the world capital." She stammered, then looked up at the Jaguar. "Why?"

"Their Seer is on maternity leave, and you're the next strongest." She sighed. "Captain Targrin will be here shortly to brief you and take you there." She glanced at Ebon. "You ... you're going to have to jump through a couple hoops to stay with her, but I will back you as much as I can."

Ebon reached out to Cazi. "*Where are you guys, right now?*"

"*On the way to the capital, Margrin, why?*" Cazi answered in a slightly miffed voice.

"*Just checking, using one of our shuttles?*"

"*Yeah. Got sabotaged by one of the locals.*" The lion replied in a very irritated tone.

"*Calm down, Caz.*" Ebon thought soothingly. "*No use getting all fuzzed-out.*"

Cazi grumbled something incomprehensible.

Ebon turned to the Jaguar. "What kind of hoops?" He asked, already putting together a backup plan.

"Fingerprinting, retinal scan, we already have your DNA profile, and a medium-level telepathic scan to make sure you are not a threat if granted access to the capitol with her, and put up with carrying an ID care with you everywhere." Dr. Jaykan watched him carefully.

Ebon nodded easily. "Standard security procedures, no big deal." He said, thinking that the first two only applied to the form he was in, the DNA profile was probably generating a lot of discussion, and as for the telepath ... well, he was no threat to these people ... in fact, he was trying to figure some way for the Alliance to help.

Kim rolled to her back and tried to relax and hold still as Dr. Jaykan removed the IV and handed her her clothes back, freshly cleaned and free of bloodstains.

"Since you won't be on IV, you'll have to take several medications, and take extra care of yourself."

She nodded, still mostly in shock.

Dr. Jaykan shifted her focus to Ebon. "Pay attention. I'm holding you responsible as well as her, and she'll need help with the cream."

She held out a white tube as Kim got dressed. "This needs to be spread along the wound in her vaginal wall once a day, and any time it feels uncomfortable, for at least the next five days. It will keep scar tissue from forming, and keep the skin flexible and nerve-dense.

"These," she held up a container with capsules in it, "are antibiotics. Take one every twelve hours, with food.

"This," she held up a much larger container full of capsules, "is a blood clotting agent. It is very important to take on time, two every eight hours.

"I also want to you check in with Dr. Hathin once a day, and immediately if you start to bleed from anywhere." Dr. Jaykan locked eye with one, then the other. "Understood?"

"Yes," Kim nodded.

"Are you going to behave?"

"Yes, ma'am." She nodded again, still stunned.

"Yes, she is." Ebon added quietly in a firm, caring voice.

"Two other things," the Jaguar held out a small paper box. "These are your painkiller patches. Try to use them sparely, but don't let yourself be in pain." She then locked eyes with Ebon. "And avoid vaginal penetration for at least forty-eight hours, preferably a full week."

"I was wondering about that." Ebon said meeting the doctor's gaze evenly.

"It is important not to antagonize already damaged skin, not to mention it would hurt like hell." She nodded. "If you'll come with me, we'll start getting your records updated to an acceptable level."

"Right." He said following her, thinking that is was a good thing things had gotten interrupted when they had.

Ebon patiently went through the scanning and printing posses, which was quick and neat, even by his standards.

"Next form, please." The splotchy tri-colored canine asked as if it was perfectly normal.

Ebon switched into panther mode, and looked up at the canine as Kim and Dr. Jaykan watched.

"Paws on the pad, please." He said efficiently. "The procedure is the same for all four forms."

Ebon chuckled mentally and complied, though he was a little disappointed since he'd been hoping the throw the canine at least a little.

As he switched to his combat form, he couldn't help but hear Kim's merr of approval, and notice a slight shift in Jaykan's posture as she regarded him with real interest. He wasn't really surprised at the interest, most people were fascinated the first time they saw the war-form, unless they simply got frightened. He preferred interest to fear.

By the time all four forms were scanned to satisfaction a fifth individual had joined them; a strongly feline ginger tabby tomkat in a clearly military dark blue dress uniform with red highlights.

"Captain Targrin, Ebon." Kim introduced them. "What next, sir?"

"We have a little time if you want to stop at your house to pick up anything, clean up, get dressed ... alphas for this mission." He spoke with a measured tone.

"That would be good, sir." Kim nodded.

"I'll wait for you," Captain Targrin sat down on the couch in her living room and flicked on the TV.

"Yes, sir." Kim nodded and smiled at Ebon as she snagged his tail and walked further into the single story, middle class home.

Ebon decided to interrupt the snag as 'follow' and did so. Besides he'd rather follow Kim then wait in the living room with the Captain. The layout was simple: livingroom in the front, basic kitchen and small office on the left and a bedroom suite on the right in back.

She twisted behind to close the bedroom door after he'd entered and dropped his tail to embrace him for a hungry kiss.

"Think I can get a little better look at your trueform?" She purred softly.

"Sure." He said, shifting into the war-form that she viewed as his true form. He then picked her up into a passionate kiss and held her close, relishing in her eager response.

"Gods that is a handsome form," she breathed as they parted, eyes fixed on his face.

"Thank you." He said sincerely. "Most people find it somewhat frightening."

"Most people aren't from around here," she rumbled low in her throat. "Maybe better go back to Kat, or we'll never get out of here."

Ebon chuckled and shifted back to his Kat form. "True enough, I was wondering how long we should keep the Captain waiting." He said quirking a smile.

"Not long enough to come looking for us." She smiled playfully. "Which means we should probably take our showers together. We both need one." She wrinkled her nose.

"Being in the hospital will do that." He said chuckling. "I definitely like the showering together idea." He said with lusty gleam in his eye.

She smiled playfully and quickly stripped, tossing her dirty clothes in a small pile in the corner of the bedroom before entering a glassy blue bathroom and turned the water on in a large, glass brick shower.

Ebon stripped out of his clothes, set them down and pressed a tab that activated the field cleaning function. He then quickly joined Kim in the shower, feeling strangely exhilarated despite the fact that he was totally slacking on assignment.

She posed seductively for him as the warm water trailed down her thin, pale bodyfur, now matted flat to the soft curves of her body, and embraced him, claiming a deep kiss as she worked shampoo into his short hair and the thick fur of his neck.

They parted for him to rinse and she slipped behind him. "Tell me how your tom makes love to you," she purred throatily in his ear and she began to explore his body in earnest while rubbing shampoo into deep black fur. "I stop when you do."

He purred deeply at her attention. "How my tom does?" He asked curiously. "Okay. We'd come back from a mission, and as soon as the door shut he tackle me, and we'd land on the bed, him on top locked in passionate kiss." He said, closing his eyes and visualizing him and Cazi together as Kim's touch turned teasing as much as cleansing.

"As we get excited, we strip each other out of our clothes, our hands caressing everywhere." He closed his eyes as Kim's body echoed his words in action. "When we're naked, he slides down between my legs and begins sucking me," his breath caught as the warm wet of her mouth replaced the warm wet of the shower. "He's very talented that way. Once he's gotten me really excited and hard, he rolls over on to his hands and knees," he barely realized he whined as she let his erection slide from her mouth and he was breathing hard. "He lubes himself and asks me to fuck him."

"Fuck me, Ebon." Her sultry voice drew his attention down to where she was kneeling, hands braced against the glass brick wall, her slicked down tail a thin line of black wrapped to the side of her leg out of the way and eager blue eye looking up at him.

Ebon looked at Kim on the shower floor, eager and willing. "Remember what the doc said about penetration." He panted between breaths, his experience with females had been that they didn't like or want anal penetration like toms did.

"Only the one that's hurt," she breathed softly. "Fuck me like your male-mate."

"Tell me if it hurts." Ebon nodded, and gently used two fingers to loosen her up and found her ready, and slicked. He kissed her neck gently before pushing the tip in. "Then I enter him gently, unless he's in one of his 'rough' moods, moving slowly in and out, varying speed and depth of penetration." He said breathlessly as he pushed in slowly, gasping slightly as the first ring of barb-hairs were pressed down and back by the ring of muscle.

The panther then began thrusting deeper then shallow, and altering from slow to fast. At the same time, he began caressing her with his hands, seeking the places that she responded most to his touch and found one guided to her breasts, the other to her neck, as she slide her own fingers between her legs.

"Eventually, we both come, usually very close together, sometimes even at the same time." He managed to groan as she captured one of his fingers and suckled it, just as she treated his cock only moments before.

He closed his eyes and fought to control himself, to hold back until she was at the pinnacle of the orgasm he could feel begin deep in her body. His control lasted until she began top contract around his moving barbs and she cried out softly in pleasure as he began to ram hard into her, coming in powerful spurts deep in her body.

Finally Ebon rolled to the wet tile floor, sated and tired as he pulled Kim down against him without pulling out and gently nuzzled her. "You are wonderful." Ebon said, purring deeply.

"So are you, handsome." She purred, deeply contented. "At least we don't have to clean up much now."

Ebon chuckled. "True, there are advantages to the shower for sex. And we can still probably get back before your Captain comes looking." He said grinning.

"I am so looking forward to being able to spend the night in your arms like this." She purred softly and stretched as he softened enough to slide out of her easily. She rolled over easily and kissed him passionately before standing and making quick work of cleaning up with him.

"I'm looking forward to it too." He nuzzled her gently. He then went to work drying off as the blowers turned on, to be dry enough to be dressed before anyone came looking for them.

Kim chuckled as she walked out of the glass brick enclosure and pulled a unisex black uniform with blue, red, gold and gray highlights, a shinny gold bar on one edge of the upright collar and an open silver eye on the other half.

After slipping into the slacks, white shirt and tailored jacket she turned to the mirror to braid her hair into an intricate wrap of braids to keep it above her collar.

Her appearance in place, she turned and pulled a bag from under the sink and walked back into the master bedroom and pulled a dress uniform traveling case from the closet and looked up at Ebon.

"Ready to see the capitol?" Her voice and stance were completely unlike anything he'd see her display before. She was utterly the professional officer.

"Sure. You look very good in uniform." He said appraisingly as he got finished dressing. Ebon personally went to great lengths to avoid dress uniform occasions, despite being told by numerous people that he looked good in it. He just felt too confined.

"Thank you," she smiled without breaking the facade and hooked the bag she brought from the bathroom to its matching clothing case and walked out with perfect military poise with it following her, hovering upright just above the ground.

Ebon smiled at the well-behaved luggage, and followed the parade out of the room. They'd done a lot of things with anti-grav in the Alliance, but he couldn't remember anyone making follow-me luggage.

"Feeling better, Lieutenant?" The ginger tabby grinned at the pair as he turned the TV off and stood.

"Yes, sir." She answered in a perfectly neutral tone.

The Captain chuckled again and led them out to her car, where he got in the driver seat as she stored her luggage in the trunk. "Have fun with the briefing," he chuckled and handed her a thin set of VR glasses as she settled in the front seat.

"I hate these things." She muttered very quietly as she put it on and relaxed back.

Ebon got in back, and relaxed to enjoy the ride, and keep an eye on everything. He'd long ago mastered the art of watching alertly, while seeming inattentive.

They transferred to a small aircraft, which would have been a corporate executive jet if it wasn't in military colors, in silence. Ebon watching and Kim covering extreme stress as the Captain waved them off.

Then the two were alone in the eight-seat passenger compartment, separated from the pilot by a closed door.

"Kim, what's the matter? Something has been seriously bothering you since you put that visor on." Ebon asked concerned.

"Treaty talks between the Alliance and Aristal are beginning in the morning." She sighed. "I'm to be the Seer for it."

"Well, at least they got past that initial problem." Ebon paused. "So what's the Seer's role, if you don't mind my asking?" He asked curiously.

She hesitated to sort out what she was allowed to say from the full explanation. "I'm a second opinion to the leaders, mostly about whether anyone is being deceitful."

Ebon nodded. "Oh, like our empaths then. I think everybody likes to know if the other side is being honest with them."

She nodded. "It's just a first rate headache at the best of times, and with something like the Alliance on the other side, my eyes'll take weeks to recover."

He moved over next to her, and gently rubbed her shoulders comfortingly, trying not to rumple the uniform too much. "Shapeshifters cause headaches?" He asked quietly.

"Not really," she closed her eyes and leaned into the touch. "It's being that keyed up for so long."

"Well, maybe they'll work out, whatever they're working out reasonably quickly." He suggested, trying to put a positive spin on things.

"Which will end our time." She said softly.

He sighed and nodded. "Doesn't work well either way does it? If takes long, then we get more time together but you're uncomfortable because of the strain, but if it works out quickly we don't get as much time, but you're under less strain."

"I'll take the longer time." Kim murmured. "Eyestrain I can deal with."

"As long as you can deal with it, then I'm in favor of the longer time." He said quietly. "It's not going to be easy going home, this time."

"You have your family," she smiled softly at him. "It won't be all that bad."

Ebon nodded, and was silent for a bit. "I just wish there some way for it to be better." He said wistfully as he watched the water under them with one eye and Kim with the other.

Ebon kept his eyes and ears open and his mouth shut as a Captain gave them a very VIP tour of the visitor facilities, then left him in the quarters assigned to them and led Kim to a meeting with the rest of her new team.

He decided to see if Nathan and Cazi were close by. The panther wasn't much of a telepath, but his son and mate had taught him how to gauge distance off the link, by slowly reaching out till he reached one of them. He decided to check with his mate, since their link was stronger.

"*What's up?*" His mate's distracted voice came back from only a few hundred yards away.

"*Guess we all came to this get together. I'm technically a guest of one of the Aristal negotiating team. Kim turned out to be a lot more than just a pretty barmaid.*" He said with a great deal of affection when he mentioned Kim's name.

Cazi groaned inwardly. "*Did you manage to learn anything of value while you were playing with her?*"

Ebon mentally poked Cazi playfully. "*Somebody's jealous.*" He said with a teasing tone that wasn't common for him. "*Mostly that these people have no problem with 'aliens', in fact they're very 'alien-friendly'. Though that seems limited to small groups of aliens or individuals. Large groups seem to have been a problem in the not so distant past.*"

"*So what's a barmaid doing on the negotiation team?*"

"*That's what she does off-hours. She's actually military, something they call a 'Seer', which is like an empath. Big difference is that she can see the 'truth' of things, she could see my war-form when I was in Kat mode.*"

"*Damn,*" Cazi whistled softly. "*Do they consider shape-shifting a 'bad-faith' item?*"

"*No indications that they do. They didn't even blink when I did it. You might want to keep to a dozen or so forms though, just to be polite.*" He teased, feeling playful.

"*Very funny,*" the Lion groused. "*Just how common are these Seers, and do they know you're with us?*"

"*Common enough that they have a standardized training program, but not common enough to be taken for granted. And Kim does know, though I can't be sure if the rest do but I'd be surprised if they didn't.*" He said evenly. "*So did you manage to smooth out the misunderstanding with Razor?*"

"*Razor?*" He paused a second. "*The guy who challenged us, more or less. Nate agreed to stay planetside until the negotiations are over.*"

"*I still think there's something weird about the similarity in appearances and call-signs between him and my Kat form. Not that that makes sense, across intergalactic distances.*"

"*Weird yes, but it's hardly the weirdest thing here.*" Cazi snorted, then teased. "*When are you going to introduce your girlfriend?*"

"*When we get a chance, things haven't been conducive to such niceties, between hospitals and negotiations. Hopefully negotiations won't go too quickly.*" He thought quietly.


Ebon sighed mentally. "*Cause when the negotiations are over, we go home and Kim stays here. The longer the negotiations take, the longer I get to be with her. I'm going to miss her.*" He said in an uncharacteristically soft mind-voice.

"*You really have fallen for her.*" Cazi's mind softened. "*Maybe we can talk her into coming.*"

"*Yeah, I have.*" He thought quietly. "*Maybe, but she feels needed here. Haven't figured how to work around that.*"

"*Official personnel trade?*" Cazi plotted out loud. "*A Seer could be useful, she's already got contacts, and it's not that unusual for new alliances to trade a few officers.*"

"*So any signs of Nate being interested in Razor?*" Ebon asked in a father to father banter they'd had more than once over the years.

"*I think so, he's denying it.*"

"*Of course he is. Fortunately, he's just advisory to the negotiators. Sometimes, he gets a bit soft when he first falls for someone.*"

"*Just like his father.*" Cazi snickered.

Ebon chuckled. "*Both of them.*" He retorted, bringing up images of the various toms and fems Cazi had 'fallen' for over the decades, usually only for a week or so.

"*Yeah, but *I* never let it get in the way of a mission.*"

Ebon grinned and flopped back on the large, soft bed. "*So far it hasn't, I've gotten at least as much solid information as your team did, and that was with being confined to a hospital.*" The teasing was a friendly, banter born from over a century of familiarity.

"*And you gave away our presence.*" Cazi retorted back with a smirk. "*By the time Jake encountered us, he knew you by name.*"

"*Ah, only as a case study though, nobody knew who I was until you guys went digging in the cave.*" He jibed back.

"*Which you suggested we do.*"

"*I suggested it, 'cause it made sense. How was I supposed to know Razor stored half his soul in a cavern. One more weird thing on a planet full of them.*"

"*Yeah, including Ebon SwiftClaw falling for a female first.*" The was a bemused, slightly disbelieving edge to the tone.

"*You're the one who's been saying I need to pay more attention to fems, in fact you've been telling me that for the last century.*" He thought chuckling. "*Guess I finally listened. I think you'll like her, she's very inventive if you know what I mean.*"

"*Oh?*" Cazi gave his full attention to his mate.

Ebon smirked mentally. "*You'll just have to find out for yourself.*" He teased, mimicking a statement Cazi had made about several partners of his.

"*You're about to have company, you realize.*" The Lion warned teasingly.

"*I can heard the footsteps as soon as they approached the door.*" The panther smirked back. "*I think hostility unlikely, but I'll deal with it if necessary.*" He thought, all business. He was aware of the room, and checked the sound of the footsteps to see if they were familiar, and smiled at the newly familiar cadence of his girlfriend.

"*Talk to you later, Cazi. Kim's back from the briefing.*" He said directing familiar affection to his mate. "*Don't be jealous, love. It's not like anyone could ever replace you.*" He sat up and looked around, waiting for Kim to come into view.

He heard the door open, then a soft thud of her back hitting the wall with some force, and a miserable groan, but no other sounds.

At the sound of the thud, Ebon came running out. He put a comforting hand on her shoulder. "What's wrong, Kim?" He asked softly.

"There are days I hate this job." She muttered as she pulled her black hair loose of its bindings with careless force.

Ebon was very concerned. "The briefing went that bad?" He asked sincerely concerned.

"The briefing, no. It's pretty normal." She shook her head. "I just hate being on negotiation teams. Good at it, just hate it."

"If you hate it, why do you do it?" He asked curiously, since he'd always enjoyed what he did. "Is there one thing that bothers you, or is it just the whole experience?" He asked trying to get her to let out the tension, rather then bottling it in.

"Because I'm needed." She shrugged. "I wouldn't have been called if there was a better option, they don't like having a grouchy Seer any more than I like being here." She started unbuttoning her jacket. "As for why ... I don't like being this tied into a chain of command, and I don't like having to always look for the worst. My real job keeps both to a minimum."

Ebon smiled slightly. "I can understand not like being tied into a chain of command. I've never liked it myself, but my current arrangement is good cause my commander keeps our unit insulated from the other ranking idiots. And he doesn't insist on uniforms, I hate uniforms." He said moving behind her so he could gently massage her shoulders.

"I don't mind them, they look good," she chuckled and leaned into his touch. "I bet you'd look killer in dress blues."

Ebon chuckled, as he massaged out the tension. "I've been told I look good in our dress black. I just find them too restrictive, they hamper my movement." He said smiling. "Dress blues?" He asked, curious as to why he'd be wearing anyone's dress uniform, except his own.

"Well, it's the dress uniform I know." She smiled, "and you might not mind it, if 'restricting your movement' is your only problem with them. They were designed by a warrior."

Ebon nodded. "Perhaps not at that, but I don't expect to be wearing a dress uniform on this mission, regardless of who designed it." He said with some surety.

She got a daring look in her eyes and smiled sweetly before whispering with a kiss. "Even if I asked nicely?"

"If you asked nicely, I'd probably even wear my dress uniform. But I'm not part of your military, would it be appropriate for me to be wearing that uniform?" He asked concerned about regulations and such, since some worlds had very strict laws on wearing of uniforms.

"Murrr ..." she purred, tracing a finger down his chest. "As long as it doesn't have rank on it, it's not considered a 'real' uniform. Though 'dress blacks' on that combat form ..." she shivered as a raw spike of lust ran through her, "sounds delicious."

"I'll have to have them send it down." He rumbled seductively, before claiming a deep, passionate kiss she shivered under as he returned it.

"Bed," she whispered needely as they parted.

He smiled and swept her off her feet and carried her to the bed as she giggled and did her best to distract him with increasingly passionate kisses and moans that only broke slightly as he lay her down and slowly unbuttoned her shirt. He paused undressing her to gently caress her breasts and lick the exposed nipples as she arched into his touch, willingly loosing herself in his scent and touch.

Cazimir SunFire almost reconsidered when no one answered the door, but his curiosity about his LifeMate's new love got the better of him and he eased the door open with a touch of magic and slipped inside.

He chuckled softly to himself when he heard the reason for the lack of greeting and slipped into the smallest feline form he could to watch the noisy pair. With a secretive smirk the four-leg form padded to the opened bedroom door and peaked in, and stopped dead.

He blinked several times before believing what he saw: Ebon's war-form mounting a gray tabby shekat with his cock in her ass and tail in her cunt ... she was clearly having as much fun as he was, and Ebon ... Ebon was in love. Do doubt about it.

Cazi nearly jumped when she roared; then Ebon's deeper voice drowned hers out as he came. They held the pose for a long moment before he pulled out of her and collapsed to his side, pulling her on top of him.

"You are truly something else." Ebon's deep voice rumbled from the war-form as he pulled her down for a kiss.

"So are you." She purred, even as she shifted slightly and reached forward. "Whatever you are, do not move." Her growl was all business as she spun around, off Ebon and to one knee on the bed with a blaster aimed squarely at Cazi-the-cat.

Ebon rolled around quickly, and blinked as his nose recognized his mate immediately. "Cazimir, what are you doing in here?" He asked the cat, shaking his head. He looked up at Kim and her blaster. "He's no threat Kim, that's just my mate, Cazimir."

"That is your mate?" Her tone was one of incredulous disbelief and the blaster didn't waver. "What is it?"

Ebon chuckled. "He's a shapeshifter, only a very talented one. He was attempting to be inconspicuous. He's going to take a more normal form, so don't shoot him when he changes."

"*Cazi, enough with the housecat routine.*" He thought amusedly as she lowered her weapon slightly.

"*Right, love.*" He said, as he shifted to his calico Kat form. He smiled warmly at Kim. "Nice to meet the fem who managed to steal my mate's heart, to say nothing of his attention."

"Kim, this is Cazi. I told you about him earlier. Cazi, this is Kim. I take it your curiosity got the better of you, love." He said grinning at the calico.

"Well, yes." The calico grinned impishly. "You did ask for it, you know."

"Cazi, do my eyes a favor and go to what you consider your natural form." She sighed and set the blaster down. "You're giving me a headache."

"Sorry, Kim." Cazi said sincerely, allowing his form to slide back to his Lion form. "Old professional habit."

"Professional?" Ebon chuckled at the muscular lion. "You shift forms, even when you're at home."

"Okay, now you can look like whatever you want to." She shook her head and crawled behind Ebon to put the blaster back it it's hiding hole. "Did you enjoy the show?"

Cazi smiled impishly. "Well, since you asked, yes. I actually was just curious as to why Ebon didn't answer the door. Haven't been here very long."

Ebon shook his head. "Was there some urgent reason you couldn't wait till later?"

"Not really, but Nathan's busy trying sort of some memories he doesn't want, and won't tell me about. Something about a promise he made Jake." Cazi said shrugging. "This is my best effort at behaving myself."

Ebon flopped back on the bed. "In other words, you got bored and decided to see if I was doing anything more interesting?"

"Yep, and you were." He said grinning.

"So now you can pay me back for not putting a hole through your head." Kim smirked and flopped on her stomach on the far side of the bed from Ebon and watched the two males. "With a show for me."

Cazi smirked. "Kim, I like the way you think." He said shedding his clothes quickly and thought privately to Ebon. "*Top or bottom, love?*"

Ebon considered for a moment. "*Bottom, but be a little inventive.*" He thought seductively.

"Good ... I understand you're part of the package." She purred softly as she took in the details of his golden furred, body-builder frame.

"*Ohh, a dare to impress your girlfriend.*" He chuckled and slipped into his Kat form and smiled at her. "I rather hope I am."

Ebon decided there'd been enough talking, and pounced Cazi. He suddenly grabbed the smaller tom, pulled him on top and started teasing the Kat's slowly emerging penis with his rough tongue.

"*Now I thought you wanted me to be 'inventive'?*" Cazi teased as he twisted to return to favor. "*Shorter form, love ... or not.*" He rumbled with a deep laugh as his form shifted once more to take on the brilliant golden scales of his sire and took Ebon's half hard cock and balls into his long jaws sideways.

Ebon chuckled, and shifted to his Kat form. "*You wanted shorter.*" He moaned from the attention from his mate, and reached down to stroke the Dracon's hardening erection.

"*Even better.*" The shifter rumbled in pleasure, then suddenly moved off his mate and the bed, pulling Ebon up with him so the midnight black Kat was facing him for an intense kiss and quickly ensured the tom was loose enough for this form with his tail.

Ebon purred deeply, while holding the kiss and enjoying the sensation from the tail. "*Tail sex? That's a good start on inventive.*" He teased gently.

"*Oh, this is just to make sure you're ready, love.*" He smirked mentally and physically and spread his wings as a glowing golden red mist began to form around them. "*I have something special in mind.*"

Ebon felt a very pleasurable tingle run across his body, which elected a louder purr. "*I think I like this already.*"

"*This is only the beginning.*" Cazi breathed deeply of the pheromone and magic rich mist as he lifted Ebon's smallest form above his waist. Still facing each other, he eased the Kat down, using hail, wings and arms to guide Ebon onto the thick, smooth erection and roared as his flesh was welcomed into his lover's body.

The pheromone and magic combination made Ebon feel decidedly intoxicated, something that was rare for him. The sensation of all his pleasure centers coming alive at once was beyond words, and he moaned loudly as he was leaned back to give Kim a first-rate view of her mate in pleasure overload as he was slowly fucked by his mate.

With each breath their bodies keyed up one more notch until Cazi felt his body begin to loose control. With the last of his coordination he wrapped his thick tail around Ebon's barbed cock and began to pump it, willing his mate to come before he did.

Ebon held back as best he could, savoring the sensations and teasing Cazi a bit too, until his control was completely overwhelmed. He began coming harder then he ever remembered. He roared as the muscle spasms surged through his body. Just as the second spasms passed, he felt Cazi's first spurt, which made him shoot even harder, nearly splashing his own throat.

He was trying to remember to breath as his back hit the bed with a thump and Cazi the Dracon pulled out and landed on his side beside him, only half on the bed.

"*That was fun.*" Cazi's orgasm muddled brain murmured.

"That it was." Kim purred, her arousal nearly as intense as theirs had been.

Ebon was still regaining his breath, but he managed to look up with a distinctly inviting look in his eyes.

"Three times in half an hour?" She chuckled and claimed an upside down kiss. "You're either a glutton for punishment, or that's not quite a Kat body."

"The genetic design did include improved endurance." Ebon grinned. "But I'm sure they never intended this application." He pulled her into a passionate kiss.

"It is more fun than the other applications though." Cazi the Dracon smirked from the side of the bed.

"Mmm, I bet." She shifted around to face him properly and grinned. "Now ... just what haven't we done yet?"

Ebon looked over at Cazi, who had shifted back to the Lion. "Don't suppose you brought any of the toys?" He asked.

"Now why in Felsira's name would I bring those on this mission?" Cazi chuckled loudly as he fell of the bed.

"It's good to be prepared for anything." The midnight black Kat smirked.

"How about Nareena?" Kim suggested.

Ebon smiled. "I like the idea, but unfortunately she's still onboard the SilverStar, and given the sensitivity of things I don't think another shuttle coming down is a great idea. Someone might get the wrong idea. Too bad we didn't think of it before the diplomatic team came down." He grinned. "She could've brought the toys."

Cazi smacked the tom with a pillow. "You and the toys ... and to think it took me almost a decade to talk you into trying them, to say nothing of the handcuffs."

"Now that we can get." She arched an eyebrow at the pair.

Cazi looked at her. "I don't suppose you've tried bondage, have you?" He grinned.

"Some, mostly light stuff." She settled down on Ebon's chest. "Never found anyone I trusted enough to get very serious into it."

Ebon nodded. "The handcuffs are about as serious as we get, it's a turn-on if the mood is right." He kissed her gently.

Cazi smiled. "Well, there was that time with Nareena, the dildo and the blindfold."

The black tom chuckled. "And neither of you will tell me whose idea that was."

"You guys really do stick to 'light'." She smiled playfully as an idea formed. "I'll go a litter further than that. Want to see what we can do with my toys?"

"I'll try anything once." Cazi smirked.

Ebon grinned at the Lion. "I thought you had tried everything once, with someone."

He turned to Kim. "Sure, after all we covered the indoor stuff without toys. At least as far as this room goes." He smiled suggestively.

"Well, not all," she merred at him before rolling off Ebon to fetch a bag from her luggage, "but all that's allowed at the moment."

"I see you came prepared." Ebon smiled approvingly.

"Never leave home without them." Kim snickered. "I like my toys, even if the best ones can't be used for a couple days."

"A fem with her own toys, you found a real jewel, love." Cazi turned and kissed Ebon.

"You must not get out much ... or the Alliance breeds prudish females." She shook her head with a laugh as she upended the bag on the bed, spilling several different kinds of dildos, a very feline strap on with a dildo for the wearer, butt plugs, leather straps, shackles, two pairs of handcuffs and a package containing several feathers. "Anything look interesting?"

Cazi smirked. "Maybe its cause I haven't been with the right females." He said looking at the selection approvingly. "*Wha'dya think love?*" He asked Ebon quietly.

Ebon handed Kim the strap on, and smiled. "Me on the bottom, both of you top." He suggested in low voice, arousal beginning to build.

Cazi smiled. "Like before?"

"Uh huh."

The Lion smiled and shook his head. He picked up the cuffs, and handed the shackles to Kim. "I knew he enjoyed it before, but I never thought he'd be willing with anyone but Nareena and me." He said in wonder as she skillfully secured Ebon's ankles, and removed the inner dildo from her strap on.

"Now what exactly do you have in mind?" She regarded Cazi.

He skillfully put the cuffs on his mate's wrists. "*Still okay, love?*"


Cazi quickly darted to his clothes and pulled out a length of cloth from a pocket. He came back and gently blindfolded the bound tom. Ebon shivered excitedly.

"Just what he suggested, we both fuck him at the same time. The combined stimulation drives him wild." Cazi explained roughly mussing his mate's hair.

"Both in the ass, or one on each end?" She asked as she slid along Ebon's back and nipped his scruff.

"One on each end, the strap-on seems to get more response in the ass." He suggested, as he moved in front of Ebon. He traced the edge of Ebon's muzzle teasingly with his hardening cock as Kim skimmed down his back.

With teasing care she moved his tail to one side as she knelt between his spread legs and blew across his well-stretched ass, then ran the slick side of her tongue across it.

Ebon moaned in pleasure and flipped his tail over his back. His moan was cut off by the tip of Cazi's cock entering his muzzle. The Lion reached under the Kat, and gently teased his cock with one hand as Kim thrust into his as, leaning forward to cover him as much as she could and brushed against Cazi as she began to move as her breathing quickened.

Ebon suckled expertly on Cazi's hard pink flesh, keeping it hard, yet not pushing his mate over the edge. Between Kim pumping his ass, and Cazi in his mouth, and the hand underneath he was beginning to bliss out. Cazi began to fuck against Ebon's sucking, and stroked his mate's cock more deliberately. He was trying to hold off, until Ebon came first.

Kim suddenly growled deep in her chest and bit down, using the black Kat's ruff to help pull him back against her thrusting hips. She shuddered as she gave up control and began to whine, a high, desperate sound of too much stimulation and not enough friction as she thrust harder.

Ebon shuddered approaching the point of no return between the two, and then went over coming in violent spasms. Cazi lost it soon after, coming in waves in the black Kat's mouth, and down his throat.

Cazi expertly released the restraints and Ebon turned to Kim. He gently undid the strap-on and applied a willing tongue to pleasure her as the Lion gently whispered in Kim's ear. "You want to be the center of attention, now?" He asked seductively.

"Mmm, yes." She closed her eyes and let her head roll back.

Ebon continued his skillful tongue work, while Cazi slid around behind Kim. He gently teased her ass with a finger to see what response he'd get. He was always cautious with a new partner, even one he'd watched in action.

She gave a rumble of approval and flicked her tail up along her spine as she spread her legs and slid forward to straddle Ebon's face, her hands kneading his hair and ears.

Ebon purred deeply, as he gently tongue fucked Kim. Cazi needed no further hints, and after gently working two fingers in, slid his cock in Kim's ass. At first, only up to the barb hairs which played back and forth just inside the first ring of muscle. Then he pushed all the way in, and began a slow-fast thrust pattern, sometimes shallow and sometimes all the way to his balls.

The panther reached his hands up, and began caressing Kim's breasts, which were just within reach as she began to tremble. Both males felt her body begin to convulse as she cried out and her fingers tightened around Ebon's head, pressing his muzzle against her crotch hard enough to force him to breath through his mouth as he continued to work her clit.

Kim's convulsions pushed Cazi over the edge and he began coming in violent spasms. Kim's orgasm combined with the sensations across their link from Cazi, pushed Ebon over the edge again. As the three finished convulsing, they collapsed sideways with Kim lying between Ebon and Cazi.

The spent panther weakly moved around so he was face to face with Kim. He smiled weakly. "Aren't you glad you didn't shoot him?" He grinned.

"Yeah," she whispered as another shudder passed through her frame. "You two are amazing."

Cazi gently licked Kim behind one ear. "You're pretty amazing yourself." He whispered cuddling up to her.

Ebon smiled, and then kissed her as she snuggled close. "Agreed, it takes a special fem for it to be that good. Never thought we'd find a second one."

"Do all Felsin have that kind of repeat endurance?" Kim murmured as her body began to calm down.

Ebon smiled. "'Fraid not. Though I've got eight siblings who do."

Cazi chuckled. "Only those Felsin with very unusual backgrounds."

"So what's yours?" She looked over her shoulder at Cazi. "You're not created like Ebon."

Cazi nodded. "Nope, though I'm surprised you picked up on that. Actually, the unusual background is that my father was a Dracon shapeshifter who fell in love with a female Felsin shapeshifter. My parents both had more than the average form library, and well, I don't actually use a form 'library', only real limit is what I can visualize, though I prefer mammals smaller than about 8 or 9 feet tall."

"Oh?" Her eyes glittered as the beginnings of a new game formed. "This could be significant fun."

Cazi's eyes shone with interest. "Do tell, what interesting new fun do you have in mind?" He asked seductively.

"Nothing yet ... it just sounds far too interesting not to explore." She chuckled and settled against Ebon again and closed her eyes. "Bad morning, worse afternoon, very good evening. Thanks."

"I look forward to it. And it was my pleasure." He looked at the two of them. "Actually, I should get back and let Sam and Nathan know that I wasn't up to mischief. Commander gets worried when I'm not visible for extended periods."

"Now why ever would that be?" Kim laughed as he quietly got out of bed, and got dressed.

"We've got to do this again, soon." He grinned. "I think I agree with Ebon, I hope these talks drag out for awhile." He silently slipped out.

Ebon gently nuzzled Kim. "Well, you've certainly made a favorable impression on Cazi." He chuckled quietly.

"He made a pretty good impression on me." She smiled and kissed him gently. "The end of the restrictions on sex definitely can't come soon enough for me."

"Definitely, given how wonderful things are with the restrictions. Once they're gone ... wow." He grinned blissfully.

She laughed and bapped him gently on the rump. "And folks say I'm a sexaholic."

Ebon grinned. "Being mated to him, I'm just trying to keep up. Heck, he's the one who got me interested in females in the first place." He smiled remembering the early days of their relationship. "Glad he did."

"Me too." Kim smiled happily and closed her eyes with a yawn. "But if I want to be in any shape to be useful tomorrow, I better get some sleep."

"Yes, you should." He said quietly, just holding her. "Sleep well, love." He whispered, as he waited to be sure she was sleeping soundly before allowing himself to drift to sleep.

Nathan sighed as he flopped down on the bed in his guest quarters. He had to give them some grudging respect, they gave him a suite befitting his rank, and with almost every convince he could want, even communications.

He made the small effort required to settle his mind and began to sort through his new memories in earnest.

The first exploded across his mind in a wash of guilt and pain that dragged him almost fully into the experience.

Heat, humidity, the smell of blood and swampy decay was thick in his nose and soaking his pelt as the world came into focus. First it was just a wash of greens, then brown and gray, a face and part of a uniform came.

"We have to keep moving." His own voice, Jake's voice, full of urgent command and fear, opened the giant brown Kat's yellow eyes for a moment.

"*I can't, go on.*" The big tom's mind was almost at the peace of death accepted. "*We both know I won't make it.*"

"*You will. We will.*" The desperately frightened snarl came back. "*Just ...*"

"*Jake ... husband ... it's my time.*" A large brown hand, caked in bloody mud, trembled as it reached up to caress Jake's face. "*We knew it would come.*"

"*I won't leave you, Uly.*" Jake knelt, resting their foreheads together. "*I won't loose another.*"

There was a long silence, physically and mentally, before Uly reached for the pistol on Jake's hip.

"*You will, because you promised.*" Uly thought with the authority of rank tempered by understanding, as the weapon was unlatched. "*Let me die the way I was meant to. The way I want to.*" He spoke with a soft plea.

Jake put a hand over his husband's and the weapon, and froze.

"*I'll always be with you.*" Came a reassuring promise from a dieing mind. "*Let me go, because you love me, as I love you.*"

A low sob stuck in Jake's throat as his body moved without his control, lifting the pistol to the most fatal location and pushed the power all the way up. As strong yellow eyes meet his, his finger moved ... and the world dissolved in pain.

Only the strictest of control learned as a Jedi allowed Nathan not to cry out, even so he stiffened until his mind shook the pain from the memory. Mercy killing wasn't unknown in Felsin society, but Nathan felt sure there had been a LifeBond and it amazed him that the lean tom had survived that.

He'd been intrigued by the tom from the start, but this memory only added a layer of respect to the intrigue. It wasn't 'classified', but he could understand why Jake wouldn't want it in the head of a complete stranger.

The tiger stood up, shook off the phantom pain and began going through a series of exercises that his Master had taught him to sharpen his focus. He figured he'd need all the control and clarity he could get if the rest of the memories were like this one.

After completing the exercises he lay back down, and let the next memory flow, so that he could put it away.

When the memory opened with the energy of a combat-aroused mind and the back seat of a reasonably advanced fighter aircraft what little hope Nathan had for a 'calm' memory vanished.

In a disjointed slideshow a fierce battle progress in the air and on the ground of a huge post-industrial city Jake considered home.

Suddenly it became a slow motion movie as the cockpit exploded, every detail etched in perfect detail as Nathan found himself the one ejecting from the crippled craft, his pilot a fraction of a second behind him and Amerith checked in from the Raven far above.

All safe.

An enemy jet dives through the defense his teammates are giving their leader and opens fire.

Power erupts as his fifth LifeBond is lost.

In flames and rage and pain all who challenge are turned to cinder, adding to the pain as death consumes him.

Three minds, all female, lock on to him and the world goes dark and calm once more.

Nathan breathed heavily, better prepared after the last but still shocked by the thought of losing that many LifeBonds. The tiger drew in Force energy to buttress himself, as he carefully put the memory away and whispered. "Blessed Mother, he still survives after that. A most remarkable person, but no wonder he was so defensive, this isn't classified but it is very personal."

The tiger decided to bring in Force energy to strength himself in advance this time. He couldn't imagine what could be in the next memory as he opened it and was still nearly overcome with guilt.

He fought to wade through the emotion without apparent cause or resolution and picked up bits and pieces. Here and there were flashes of images and events that made little sense, but were clearly memory-triggers for the emotion.

Nathan carefully fought to contain the guilt and put it away. "And people say I carry a lot of guilt around. Wonder how much of it, is for things that weren't really his fault. Something tells me a fair portion."

Nathan shook his head and launched into the next one, hoping it would make more sense than the guilt.

It opened to a child's bedroom from the previous age: post-industrial but not yet modern. A pure white shekat just barely past puberty, with brilliant blue eyes and short white hair, was lying naked on her bed with a hand extended in command and welcome.

He nodded and approached, uneasy and unsure even as she pulled him down for a clumsy kiss and adolescent hormones and obedience to his mistress urging him on.

She groaned and arched her back up as his fingers explored between her spread legs, then growled. "Inside ... mate."

There was another hesitation before he shifted to comply, awkward in his attempts before he found the correct place to push inside her body, the slick, tight walls feeling good as he pressed forward, only to stop when he met resistance.

"All the way," she demanded softly. "Up to your balls."

He nodded and pressed forward, biting his lip as he shifted to put his full weight behind the motion and broke through, instinct moving his hips back out as she screamed in pain.

"Pat?" His voice was higher, lighter, clearly from his early adolescence. And he was terrified as the memory ended.

It took Nathan a little longer to recover, and he was beginning to wonder if there was any trauma Jake hadn't experienced. He wished he could just forget the whole lot, or shove them away unviewed. But that wasn't how his memory worked, to be stored a memory had to be viewed.

He got himself a glass of water and spent minutes slowly sipping at it, using the time to find his center. When he felt ready, he lay back and calmly pushed on.

Before another memory was actually opened, the door chime rang.

It took Nathan a moment to refocus before he stood up, straightened his clothes and opened the door to go face to face with Jake, still dressed as a civilian, and concealing his unease fairly well.

Nathan couldn't recall a meeting that he was due at. "Hello, Jake. What brings you by? Has there been a change in the meeting schedule?" He asked since it was the only reason he could think of the Kat coming to see him.

"No, I wanted to talk to you, privately, and off the record." He said quietly.

"Certainly, come in." He said easily, stepping aside to let the lean tom enter.

"Have you gotten very far in sorting out my memories yet?" Jake asked as he sat on the bed, braced on backward stretching arms.

"Far enough to see why you got defensive about them. I really wasn't expecting or looking for anything this detailed or personal." He said apologetically, leaning against a wall opposite Jake.

The lean tom nodded. "What you'll see are the events that hampered my ability to protect this world. And one is a state secret. One two people living know what really happened to Commander Feral ... my husband Uly ... and they are both in this room. He lived a hero, he died a hero in battle against the Xiticix, and I will kill to keep history that way." Despite the words, there was no aggression behind it.

Nathan nodded. "Jake, nothing I see in these memories is going anywhere, but into a secure storage space in the back of my mind. If I could put them there without seeing them, I would but my memory doesn't work that way." He said sincerely.

"I realize my opinion probably doesn't matter much, but I think even in the private history your husband died a hero. It takes uncommon strength of character to accept death as he did. That strength is one of the common defining traits of 'heroes'." Nathan said compassionately.

Jake nodded as a few silent tears trailed down the fur of his face. "Thank you." He murmured as he stood to leave.

"You're welcome." The Tiger said sincerely. "From what little I've seen, you're something of a hero yourself, still protecting this planet after all you've been through." He said with honest admiration, standing near the door.

"I'm no hero," Jake shook his head. "I just do what I have to so the heroes can win."

Nathan quirked an eyebrow. "You don't think so? I guess we can just agree to disagree on that. It's pointless to argue something that can't objectively be proven or disproven." He said lightly.

Jake shrugged slightly and hesitated before he tagged the door open. "I'll see you tomorrow."

"Jake, was there something else? I can see you hesitate but I'm not sure how to interpret it." He said cautiously, sure there was something he was missing.

He let the door slide shut and faced the much taller Felsin and frowned. "Still trying to figure out why I didn't have Amerith put a bullet through your head in the first place."

Nathan looked at him curiously. "Well, I don't know that I have that answer. However, I do appreciate your restraint, bullets are such an inconvenience." He said cryptically. "But maybe some part of you recognized that I might be more helpful alive then dead."

"Maybe, and maybe ..." his frowned deepened. "And maybe I remember you, Nathan SolGardin."

Nathan's brow furrowed. "Then you have me at a disadvantage, I'm quite certain we hadn't met before today." He paused. "And I haven't used that name in fifty years, so how do you know it?" He asked intensely curious.

"No, we haven't met, but you knew a woman named Ashley Terrell." Jake stared at Nathan in sudden comprehension. "I didn't think the Galactic Alliance was in the same dimension."

"Ashley Terrell, a Black King Cheetah Felsin Medic? Yes, I knew her about sixty years ago. She disappeared rather suddenly about five years later. So she ended up here? That's a remarkable coincidence, have you seen her recently? My parents knew her about a century ago as well." Nathan asked, thinking that his parents would be interested since Ashley had served in the NightBlades for some time.

"Seen her, no." Jake shook his head. "But she is here." He tapped his head. "You'll get to a few of her tortures eventually."

Nathan looked at the tom curiously. "Just how did Ashley end up in your head?" The tiger asked perplexed, doubting that anyone else had the problems he'd had with Marquis.

Jake sighed and dropped back down on the bed and watched Nathan. "That is a long, convoluted and fairly unbelievable story. The short version is Ashley, among others, became me."

Nathan nodded. "If you don't mind, try the unbelievable story. You'd be surprised what I'll believe." He said seriously, pulling up a chair.

Jake regarded him with a strangely cold look in his eyes before looking like himself again. "Three thousand years ago, by someone's calendar, a race called the Darshar were a significant power. Then their Queen, their soul, was killed by her sister, a monster in a nobles skin named Tartirin.

"Instead of gaining the crown, her race and empire fell apart, and she set up shop to start over again. Fast forward a couple millennia and she's discovered that it's much easier to custom design servants using genetic engineering than magic.

"Fast forward a little more and her labs have a spectacular success. A shapeshifting creature with significant abilities called V'Feri. He served her, in many forms and places, until she punished him for a failed mission by arranging for him to kill his 'pet', and the only creature he had a LifeBond with.

"When he came to, he was insane. But the personas he had lived as were not so badly effected, and they directed his rage and power towards killing their creator and fled to a world far away to have a life and make their own choices.

"To be free of their training, they created a new mind, all but blank, and set it loose to figure things out. Once a personality was established, the others began to meld into it, creating a single mind."

Nathan nodded, the story was unusual but considering what he did know about the Darshar, it wasn't so unbelievable. "The new mind became you, right?" He hypothesized quietly.

Jake just nodded.

"Ashley was one of the earlier 'missions', wasn't she?" Nathan asked softly, as comprehension began to dawn, though he wasn't sure what she'd been doing in two different time frames, that had only himself as the common element.

Jake nodded again.

Nathan shook his head, and tried to figure out the connection. "The only common element in both timeframes is me, yet I somehow doubt her mission had anything to do with a one year old kit. She served with my father's NightBlades the first time; I suppose the second time she might have thought I knew where they were. But that doesn't seem likely, wouldn't taken years to figure out that I didn't know."

He looked at Jake. "Well, I guess whatever the mission was it's not an issue anymore, so I'm not going to try too hard to figure it out. I considered her a friend, and I know my parents did as well. It's good to know she still survives in some fashion." He said, thinking his father was going to be really dubious about this story.

"That's another bit of info I'd rather you not pass around." Jake said quietly. "If you're half as smart as you seem to be, you'll have figured it out by the time you get through those memories. There wasn't a mission any of us went on that didn't contribute a memory or two to that file."

"Jake, I don't expect I'll be passing the details of what I see to anyone, but I'll make sure not to mention what Ashley's mission was in any case. But it's not an unbelievable story, if you have the right background, that is."

Jake nodded and sighed. "It does figure we'd meet again, and like this." He shook his head and stood. "I expect this will be an unusual negotiation."

"It does, though I can't say I'm totally surprised. Ashley made repeat appearances in my dreams for almost a week before the mission got underway.

"As for 'like this', that's due to my mistakes, and I'm sorry, for what little that's worth." He said sincerely. "Unusual, I don't doubt it. Nothing's been usual since we entered orbit." He said while standing.

"It seems pretty normal for around here, really." Jake chuckled and walked towards the door. "Aristal is an odd planet. You get used to it after a while."

Nathan chuckled as well. "Oddness I'm used to, it's just a little more concentrated here than I've seen previously. But according to Lyrra that's normal for Nexus worlds." He said easily, feeling more relaxed then when Jake arrived.

"Have fun with my nightmares." He paused before opening the door. "I hope you can bury them easier than I could."

Nathan sighed. "I dealt with my own nightmares, dealing with ones that aren't mine won't be nearly as difficult, at least that's the theory." He said uncertainly, standing off to one side of the door.

Jake nodded as he palmed the door open and stepped out. "Good rest, when you can."

Nathan nodded. "I will, and see you tomorrow. Should be an interesting day." He said with slight smile as the door shut, leaving him alone again. He sighed and shook his head before settling back on the bed to get more of the errant memories put away in what remained of the day. He carefully centered himself mentally, drew in Force energy to buttress his strength and closed his eyes to let another memory play.

"So what's she like?" Nathan asked idly from the couch in the main room of the suite he and Cazi shared and muted the TV.

Cazi stretched a bit. "Smart, and very perceptive. I'm not sure I understand this how this 'Seer' thing works, but she can see right through shapeshifting. She's even a pretty good judge of which form is 'true', at least that's what Ebon said. She's also very quick with a blaster." The Lion said cryptically.

Nathan laughed heartily despite his tired eyes. "See anything interesting before she noticed you?"

Cazi chuckled. "Oh, nothing that'd interest you. Just Ebon fucking her like she was a tom, well except for where his tail was that is." The shifter laughed, then he noticed his son's fatigue. "So how's the memory processing going?"

"It's going. That Kat's had a hell of a life." He sighed and shook his head. "It's amazing what he's endured."

"Not surprising, this is one hell of a planet." Cazi shivered still remembering the ruins of the city. "I can see why Ebon's not happy about leaving Kim behind when we go home. I think she'd make a good addition to the team, if she'd be willing to leave this planet that is."

Nathan raised an eyebrow. "Dad's really fallen for her that bad?"

The Lion nodded. "I'd say under normal circumstances, he'd have asked Nareena and me for permission to propose. As it is, he'd appreciate it if you could find a way to drag the talks out." He grinned broadly. "Actually, if we can't work out a way to bring her with us, I wouldn't mind a little dragging myself. She's nearly as inventive in bed as I am."

"Oh, brother." Nathan rolled his eyes. "I'll see what I can do about getting her to come along. Did you find out why she doesn't want to leave?"

"Combination of feeling useful here, and not sure where'd she'd fit in on the team, from what Ebon said. We didn't actually talk much aside from discussing toys, and who was going to fuck Ebon where." The Lion said bluntly, just to see Nathan's reaction.

Nathan shook his head in bemusement. "Figures. Try to get a little more detail on what stands between her and leaving with us, and get Ebon to check too. I've got a couple ideas, but it depends on her issues."

Cazi nodded. "It'll have to wait, till after the negotiation sessions tomorrow. We should get Nareena down here if possible, just so she can meet Kim. I think they'll get along fine, but it's important."

"As our CMO it shouldn't be too hard to get her down here under an official capacity. They do have at least one serious plague we could look into helping them solve." Nathan considered out loud. "Of course, doing that means she might not come out of the labs long enough to meet ... Kim, isn't it?"

"Yes, though I suppose given that Kim's had the plague in question, Nareena might take a look at her to see the after affects?" Cazi hazarded, not being very strong in the biological sciences.

"True ... though you know mother and finding cures." The Tiger Felsin chuckled. "Look at does not equate to meet, and she needs to meet Kim." He shook his head and rested it on spread fingers. "I'll handle getting mom down here, you two figure out how to get her and Kim to actually socialize."

Cazi looked at his son. "Shouldn't you get some sleep before the session tomorrow? I know you're just advisory, but snoring isn't proper negotiation etiquette. Probably wouldn't make a good impression on Jake, either." The Lion teased gently.

Nathan scowled at his father and stood, shaking his head and muttered to himself as he walked to his bedroom. "Just because you have someone to sleep with ...."

Cazi shook his head. "Somehow I don't think any of this was quite what the diplomatic corps had in mind when said we should 'open relations'." He said quietly to himself, heading to his bedroom.

"*How's it going, love?*" Morin's mind touched Nathan's as the Felsin readied for bed.

"*I have a headache from a century of bad memories that I don't need. My fathers have fallen in love with a local fem, and they want me to find a way to bring her on to the team. And on top of that, I think I've got a crush on a local tom.*" He thought tiredly. "*On the plus side, I finally found out what happened to Ashley Terrell. Did I ever mention her before?*"

"*Yes, love. I know of her.*" The Dracon smiled. "*She is here?*"

"*Umm, after a fashion. Apparently, she was one of number of previous entities who share a common 'soul' that eventually joined to become Jake Furlson, the tom I've got a crush on.*" He thought quietly. "*It's his century of bad memories that I've got too, some of them probably spilled over our bond.*"

"*Yes, I was rather curious who had the misfortune of those experiences.*" The Dracon murmured. "*He is still alive, after that?*" There was a trace of respectful awe in his mind-voice.

"*Yes, remarkably enough. Understandably, he's not happy about the memories being in my head. Thank Felsira, he doesn't know you got them too. If you got one about a big tom dying in a swamp, don't mention it to anybody. Actually, it's probably best not to mention any of them to anybody.*" Nathan asked, sincerely. "*Would you believe, he doesn't think he's a hero?*" The tiger paused. "*I guess maybe the real ones never do.*" He thought, a fair amount of admiration in his mind-voice.

"*No, they don't.*" Morin replied with a great deal of affection.

"*Of course, Cazi thinks my crush is just hilarious. Last time I had anything close to this feeling was when I first figured out that you wanted more than friendship from me. At least that made sense, this doesn't. He came to my room earlier, to talk about some memories he didn't want me mentioning to anyone. He hesitated when he was leaving, and I was hoping it was because he was interested in me the way I am in him.*" Nathan said, frustrated. "*I feel like a teenager, only I never felt like this when I was a teenager.*"

Morin hesitated, then made up his mind. "*He probably does, love. If Ashley is part of his makeup, he'll be drawn to you as a mate just like she was.*"

"*How'd you know that? I just got through that memory, but I'm not sure it's that simple. I think that was some sort of mission programming, the attraction might be there ... but I don't think it'll be anything like Ashley. Which is just as well, the level of attraction Ashley had was kind of frightening to watch, much less relive.*"

"*I believe the word is 'obsession'.*" Morin supplied. "*And I know because I saw her attempts to court you for years. I'm fairly certain a good portion of the Alliance was well aware of her desires, and your lack of them. It was a rather sad thing to watch.*"

"*I know. I feel guilty for not noticing now that I've gotten to live them to a certain extent. Hard to believe I missed something like that.*" The Tiger thought, with distinct guilty overtones to his mind-voice.

"*You were focused on other things, love.*" Morin hugged his mate mentally. "*It is not your fault you are what you are.*"

Nathan smiled in his mind. "*At most it'll be a pleasant one time thing. We're both solidly part of worlds that are completely separate.*" He said quietly. "*Besides, it's not like I need another mate, I'm happy and satisfied with the one I have.*" He thought with great warmth and affection.

"*Would you like me to come down?*" He offered pleasantly.

"*As much as I'd love that, until things are more certain I need to know you're up there ready to pull us out. If we had another Correspondence mage of your skill it'd be one thing, but we don't. Safety of the team is more important then my wanting to snuggle.*" He thought sincere both in protecting the team, and in wanting to snuggle.

"*You can come up, and be back down with none of them the wiser.*" The Dracon rumbled. "*Sounds like you've had a rough day. Sleeping in your own bed would be good for you.*"

"*Love, that's a truly tempting offer.*" Nathan sighed mentally. "*But I promised Jake I'd stay planetside until these talks finished one way or another. Just because they wouldn't know doesn't change the fact that I'd still have broken my word.*" The tiger said very sincerely. "*I don't think things will go bad overnight, maybe you could come down, magic way, for the night, and go back up before talks start?*" Nathan suggested, not really wanting to sleep alone.

"Easily done." Morin's eight-foot tall wide-red form shimmered into existence next to the bed. "And if you have company, Lyrra will be pleased." He leaned forward to kiss his LifeMate.

Nathan gently pulled the Dracon down toward him, claiming a deep kiss. "I think I feel better already, love. So Lyrra thought I needed you here too, huh?" He rumbled quietly.

"*Lyrra gets edgy every time you go near a Nexus, and this one has her completely unsettled.*" Morin rolled over Nathan to lie on the bed and pulled the Felsin close. "*But what I mean was she'd be pleased if you found local company, so I'd stay with her. She hates to sleep alone too, you know.*"

Nathan snuggled up against the Dracon's broad chest. "*This place has all of us unsettled, one way or another. And I know she does. Fortunately, there's enough of you for one of us on each side. As for local company, I'm not really expecting that to happen. It'd be nice if it did, but I really don't expect it to. I think I make him uncomfortable.*" The tiger thought quietly. "*Not that I'm surprised.*"

"*Loosing control is always uncomfortable for those who command, love.*" He wrapped his wings around his mate as Nathan began to truly relax, secure in the Dracon's arms. "*I expect between the memories and what you probably draw of Ashley out, he's not sure what to do about you.*"

"*At least he's past the 'shoot me' solution, which was apparently his first instinct.*" The tiger mumbled as his mind drifted off to sleep.

Cazi lay back on the bed and concentrated on reaching the more distant of his LifeMates. "*'Reena, you awake?*" He asked quietly, not sure if the ship was synchronized to local time or not.

"*Yes, dear.*" The edge of her mind-voice hinted that she was working on something. "*How are things going?*"

"*They're going interesting. Ebon's fallen very hard for Kim, and after an evening with her I begin to see why. We'd both really like you to meet her, and see if the two of you get along. It seems to be spreading since Nathan's got a pretty serious crush on a local tom named Jake Furlson. What'cha working on?*" He asked curious.

"*On the sterility issue with the Bleeding Plague.*" There was more than a touch of professional stoicism in the thought. "*I've seen bio-weapons that were less nasty than this thing, and we've all but confirmed that it's a natural indigenous virus.*"

"*Natural? I guess that's not surprising with this planet, nothing else makes sense or works as it should.*" He said a little tired of this planet of horrible discoveries. "*Do you think Kim will be okay, long term?*"

"*Okay as in surviving it, definitely. Okay as in the reproduction issues, I'm not so sure. This thing doesn't cause sterility like it's relatives as I first thought. It causes a combination of hemophilia that makes childbirth almost always fatal, and genetic alterations that lead to a nearly 90% chance of serious birth defects. That much I confirmed on my own, but their records indicate that a few strains of it don't take hold like that, and survivors are completely normal outside of their memories. The sterility is something they do, to prevent death and birth defects.*"

"*Genetic alterations? Isn't that kind of weird for a naturally occurring pathogen?*" Cazi asked, trying to work from a limited understanding of such things.

"*It's not common, but the changes it makes aren't exactly uncommon among some of the particularly nasty strains.*" Nareena sighed. "*It's just a virus, and they're damn near impossible to wipe out, or even control.*"

"*I was kind of hoping for a bioweapon, at least then there'd be somebody to get mad at.*" The Lion sighed. "*Getting mad at a virus is totally unsatisfying.*" The Lion said in mock anger. "*In any case, I think Nathan going to try to get you down here. I'm not sure what the official explanation is going to be, but it's really so you can meet Kim.*" He thought quietly.

"*So you like her as well?*" She asked with a mixture of amusement and curiosity.

"*Once she put her blaster down. But now that I've met her, I can see why Ebon fell for her. She's smart, perceptive and a lot of fun in bed. And I think seeing Ebon that much in love is kind of contagious. The two of them together kind of reminds me of when I was first courting Ebon.*"

"*She's agreed to come with us then?*"

"*We haven't worked that out yet, and it's really tearing Ebon apart inside. I think she wants to, but she feels useful and needed here, and isn't sure how she'd fit in on our team. I know the technology that would give her a new chance at being a mother interests her, from what Ebon said.*"

"*Well, it sounds like you two have your work cut out for you, and I'd love to meet her.*" The tigress paused. "*Do you know if she is interested in females?*"

"*Well, when we trying to figure out what bed game to play next, she did suggest inviting you down ... so I'd say she very well might be. Wouldn't surprise me, she's pretty open-minded and it's almost as normal as on Felsinor. She actually seems to prefer Ebon in war-form.*" He observed dryly.

*Really?*" Nareena's curiosity peaked. "*Just how tall is this female?*"

"*About 5'9" give or take. It was an entertaining show, watching the two of them. When she spotted me, she made me pay for the show by putting on one for her with Ebon. That was a total blast.*"

"*I like her style already.*" Nareena laughed delightedly. "*She might even be enough to keep you under control.*"

"*Me? Under control? Now what fun would that be?*" He chuckled mentally. "*Oh, when you talk to Nathan next don't be surprised if he seems a bit mopey. He's falling for a local tom, only he's trying to pretend he isn't.*" He added in a parent to parent information mode.

She sighed. "*And who is this tom?*"

"*His name's Jake Furlson AKA Razor, you'll find him in our research on this planet under important Kats. He looks a lot like Ebon's BlackRazor form, only he's a cinnamon color. I won't deny that he's attractive, but I think Nathan's got something along the lines of a crush on him. Isn't he a little old for that?*"

"*In years? Possibly. In experience? Hardly.*" She shook her head. "*And this one has next to no chance for a good ending. Getting a planetary leader to come with us isn't likely.*"

"*I know, and I think Nathan knows too. It's probably why he's in denial. Doesn't help that he got a huge load of the Kat's memories dumped in his head, and I think they were unpleasant ones. I can't be sure though, 'cause Nathan won't talk about them. All he'll tell me is that he promised Jake he wouldn't.*"

"*I'll check on him in the morning.*" She promised quietly. "*This won't be a mission to forget anytime soon.*"

"*No matter how it works out. Honestly, what these people need is relocation. Nobody should be living on a Nexus this active, does explain why our ancestors left though.*" Cazi thought tiredly.

"*Indeed.*" She agreed thoughtfully. "*The trouble will be in convincing them of that. I can't shake the feeling we're still missing a major piece of this puzzle. Get some rest, Caz. At the moment, we have time.*"

"*I think a good share of the puzzle is missing, but you're right we have time, for now. Good night, love.*" Cazi said, letting himself drift off to sleep.

Ebon woke as Kim quietly got out of the bed and made her way to the bathroom. He lay on his stomach watching her. "So when do things get started?" He asked curiously.

"In a couple hours for me." She smiled apologetically at him. "I didn't mean to wake you."

Ebon smiled back. "If you don't wake me, then worry. Part of the design is that I sleep light; it's saved my neck a couple of times too. So how busy a day do you have in store?" He asked, honestly interested.

"Well, there's a major briefing before the talks, and they'll probably last without a break well into the afternoon as long as nothing really important is being discussed, then it'll go on till it's settled. After the meetings are over, there's another major briefing. At least these first few days I should be home for dinner." She turned the water on in the shower and tested the temperature with one hand. "You can check with the computer, it'll know where I am, and if we're expecting to run overtime."

Ebon stretched. "Diplomats can talk for hours about nothing at all." He said lazily. "But then diplomacy isn't my area of expertise."

"Well, around here the negotiations are not run by diplomats." She chuckled and ducked under the water.

"Should prove interesting for our diplomats then." He chuckled.

"Jake leads the team, along with Pat, Callie and Sheir Khan." She said over the shower. "Callie was a politician, but these days ... let's just say the record that didn't end in war is twenty eight days. Most of the time it doesn't last two weeks."

"Well, ending in war isn't a concern. We'd leave well before that, if war comes into the picture, the mission's already failed and we go home. I know we've got two of the Alliance's top diplomats with us, and Nathan sits in as an advisor. They may or may not add a fourth to keep the teams even."

"I hope your team is good enough to catch it." She said almost too quietly to be heard over the water. "Everything around here moves fast ... and if you believe what you're saying, you don't know what you've just walked into."

"The negotiators are good at their jobs." Ebon said fairly confidently. "As for not knowing what we've walked into ... we've been trying to figure that out all along. As for believing what I'm saying, I wouldn't lie to you." He said just loud enough to be heard over the water.

Kim didn't answer as she washed, dried off and brushed her fur out under the hot air blowers, but when she stepped out, she was nearly radiating a combination of fear, curiosity and misery as she pulled on a clean pair of underwear and went to work braiding her long black hair into a tight set of loops above when her uniform's collar would be.

Ebon rolled of the bed and walked over to her. "Kim, what's bothering you so much? It's more than something giving you eyestrain." He asked genuinely concerned.

She sighed and slumped a little. "I already said a little too much. You'll find out, one way or another. I just hope it's not on you." She looked at him over her shoulder and leaned against his chest. "Mates or not, you're still on the other side of these talks. There are things I just can't tell you about."

"I understand, Kim." Ebon said nuzzling her gently. "And I hope things go well, but if they don't ... I'll miss you a lot, and I'll never forget what we had." He said with an air of quiet agitation, and frustration.

"*Nate?*" His mother's soft query nudged the tom after he'd bid goodbye to Morin and turned to getting his uniform perfect.

"*Good morning, mother.*" Nathan said casually, as he examined his dress uniform. First impressions were always important, even if he had blunder badly with Jake already. "*Something the matter?*" He asked calmly, figuring that if something were truly wrong, Morin would already have told him.

"*No dear.*" She chuckled. "*Just rather curious what you had in mind to get me to the surface, and how you're doing.*"

Nathan grinned. "*Things are better than they were, since Morin spent the night with me. That always improves my mood. As for getting you down, I'm working on it. Though I'd think their plague is probably the best reason for our CMO to come down. Made any progress on that front?*"

"*Some.*" She sighed in professional irritation. "*Cures and fixes I haven't had any more luck than they have, but we have several technologies and procedures that would significantly lessen the impact in survivors, and increase survival rates even with the most destructive strains. Explaining those to the locals would probably work, and should make a few points with them as a gesture of friendship, perhaps?*"

"*Don't see how it could hurt, and we could use a few points. Especially after my incredible blunder.*" Nathan said, still a little edgy from less than comfortable dreams. "*I'll make the offer, when there's an appropriate moment.*"

"*And how are you doing?*"

"*It's been a long twenty-four hours, and frankly I'm tempted to get just as far from this planet as possible. Nothing makes sense, and the absurd seems commonplace. No wonder our ancestors migrated.*" He said in a slightly grumpy mind-voice; one that Nareena was all too familiar with. It was as close to whining as Nathan would get.

"*And walk away from indulging in a little Kat and Felsin play?*" She asked with teasing disbelief in her mind-voice.

Nathan sighed. "*Mother, as uncomfortable as I make him, I don't see that happening. Besides, it's just setting myself up. I'd be better off staying away from him. It's not like anything real can happen.*" He said quietly.

"*Nathan,*" she sighed softly. "*There is value to short relationships. Just because you probably won't be LifeMates is not a reason to avoid it.*"

Nathan sighed. "*Maybe, I guess I'm just afraid of becoming to attached. I hate the feeling of missing someone, would you believe I still miss Rhy now and then?*" He thought quietly. "*Besides, it's not likely, he's uncomfortable with me. I don't expect that will change.*"

"*I believe it.*" She replied softly. "*But remember, he won't even have a chance to get over his discomfort is you don't give him the opportunity.*"

"*Well, I guess I'll just see what happens. Maybe I'm just being paranoid ... I'm just not very good with relationships, personal ones at any rate.*" He said, thinking maybe he should give some thought to dating a little, like Morin had suggested.

"*Dear, you've only had two, and one is doing very well, unless you are having troubles you haven't told me of?*" She asked quietly concerned as both a mother and CMO.

"*No, it's just fine, mother.*" He grinned. "*It was really Rhy I was thinking of. I guess when you've only got two examples, having one a miserable failure kind of sticks out.*"

"*Then I'll let you in on a little secret most adults find out the hard way.*" She thought in a conspiratorial tone. "*Most of us have to have dozen or more relationships before finding a LifeMate. You've got a remarkable track record, really.*"

Nathan sighed. "*Somehow I don't think I'm going to get away with moping.*" He grinned mentally. "*Guess this planet just makes me edgy, and having my first serious crush isn't helping matters any. Who would've thought I'd be having to deal with teenager problems at my age?*"

Nareena chuckled fondly. "*Take heart in the fact your father is in worse shape.*"

"*Yeah, I know. But at least in his case the feeling is mutual. The person he has a crush on, wasn't considering shooting him at one point.*"

"*Nathan, you are being a pessimist.*" She sighed in exasperation. "*How do you know Jake isn't interested in you?*"

"*Okay, maybe I don't know.*" He conceded reluctantly. "*But I think I would've sensed ... something, if that was the case.*"

"*You mean the way you sensed Morin's interest in you?*"

"*I wasn't looking for it then. I barely understood friendship at that point, sex and love were completely beyond me. I think I've made a little progress since then.*" He said defensively, he still felt like an idiot for having missed the Dracon's intentions for fifteen years.

"*Relax dear,*" she smiled affectionately at him. "*I was merely trying to point out that judging the sexual interest of others is not your strongest skill.*"

Nathan sighed and shook his head. "*Maybe not, and maybe his discomfort was keeping me from seeing any interest. I don't know, I guess I just find the thought of being in a conference room with him for who knows how long ... a little ... intimidating.*" He thought quietly.

"*You'll do fine, Nate.*" She sent a wash of affection and certainty. "*You probably won't even have to talk.*"

"*I certainly hope not. I'm being completely silly about this, I regularly face off against ten foot tall Dracon generals, and I'm letting one 5' 6" Kat unsettle me. I really need to calm down.*" He thought quietly. "*I think maybe a nice hot shower is the way to go.*"

"*Take care of yourself.*" She sighed off with motherly concern.

"*I will.*" He thought as he headed for the shower, eagerly looking forward to the hot water.

Ebon was fidgeting nervously when Cazi came by his quarters after the meetings had started.

"What's up?" He regarded the calico Kat form of his mate with barely contained unease.

"Just edgy, I guess. Not sure any of us should be alone, in uncertain territory." He said quietly. "What's up with you, I think is more the question?" He shifted to the muscular Lion, and hugged Ebon impulsively. Sometimes he just felt a need to hug, which had surprised Ebon when he first did it.

"I just realized I have no idea what I'm doing." He admitted very quietly. "Last time I did this, I completely screwed it up."

"Last time you did what, love?" Cazi asked gently.

"Courted a female ... seduced someone I actually love." He looked down nervously, really for anything.

Cazi gently nuzzled his mate. "Seduction has never been your style, love. And I wasn't aware of any female, besides 'Reena, that you'd gotten this interested in." He looked curiously at the black tom. "You already know she loves you, so that should make it easier."

"I chased the other one off." He explained simply. "Kim wants to be seduced ..." he looked at his mate with an open plea. "How?"

Cazi smiled warmly at the nervous tom. "Well, there's the basics: flowers, dinner out, pretty trinkets and doting attention." He regarded Ebon critically. "Do you know what she likes in any of those categories?"

Ebon looked up sheepishly. "No, we never really discussed that. Things moved kind of fast." He said quietly, before he looking at his mate. "But I pay her a lot of attention anyway."

"Well, what colors did she decorate her place in? Wear out of uniform?"

Ebon realized with some embarrassment that he couldn't really recall her place that clearly. But then again, he'd only seen it once and most of the time he wasn't worrying about the decor. "Only got a brief glimpse of her place, and out of uniform, she was pretty casual."

"Go see what you can find in her luggage, I'll see what the computer has to say." He moved for the consol. "And Ebon, those aren't things you ask about, they're things you pay attention and pick up on. There is little less romantic that asking what someone wants. It's sweet and courteous, but not romantic."

Ebon very carefully and precisely looked. Keeping one ear out for approaching footsteps. He'd been trained in how to search without leaving evidence of a search, which is what he did. He figured Kim might not appreciate the apparent nosiness.

"Well?" Cazi poked his head into the bedroom.

"Nothing." The black Kat growled in frustration. "She doesn't have an jewelry, or anything personal except for a black shirt, white T-shirt, miniskirt and jeans. Plus the toys we saw before. It's all uniforms and such."

"Okay, she's dark gray with black stripes, dresses sexy in black, doesn't wear much jewelry and takes sex very seriously." Cazi ran what he knew and had learned from the computer through his head. "She'd look good in silver, a pendant or very low profile ring, perhaps even an armband, but not earrings or bracelets."

Ebon nodded, and then shook his head. "It's a good idea, but jewelry is something you buy or have made. Did the computer give you the location of somewhere nearby for such purposes? We did bring a fair amount of local currency." He said, going into planning mode.

"There is a jeweler a couple levels down, in the shopping level." Cazi nodded. "System also came up with several flowers that are considered lover's gifts and romantic in general, and some interesting info on her, including favorite foods ... which were under her medical profile of all things."

Ebon mused a moment. "You sure they weren't favorite foods that she's allergic too?" He asked with a mixture of seriousness and humor.

"Quite sure. They were listed under notes, as 'ways to bribe her into cooperating.'" He chuckled. "Apparently your girlfriend has quiet a rep around Medical."

"Rep for what?" He asked curiously.

"Being damn near impossible to keep in bed." He snickered. "Apparently she doesn't like being 'lazy,' even under medical supervision."

Ebon chuckled. "I never had any trouble keeping her in bed." He said feigning an innocent look.

"But not resting." He snickered back.

He looked at the Lion. "Put your Kat back on, we're going shopping." He said with the same expression he used for a field mission.

"Ebon," he warned with a trace of amusement as the calico stood where a Lion once was. "If you go down there looking like that, they're all going to hide."

Ebon looked at himself, and shifted back to his black Kat appearance. "Forgot I switched." He said as he got dressed quickly. "You got the list of favorite foods memorized? She'll probably want something after a long day of eyestrain." He said as he headed for the door.

"Of course," he took his mate's arm affectionately. "But it sounds like you need breakfast while we're out." He pointed at a section of wall. "The delivery will handle dinner."

"But of course, love." He kissed Ebon's cheek. "And a good understand of the menu as well."

Ebon kissed him back. "Excellent. Let's get going, you know how I hate shopping." He grinned resignedly. There weren't many things that could get Ebon to 'go shopping'; it was a major display of affection for him to.

"It's won't be all that bad." Cazi smiled at his mate.

"Welcome, gentlekats. I'm Abi. Can I help you?" A perky, teenaged black shekat greeted them as they entered the only jewelry shop.

"Yes, ma'am." Cazi gave her his most wining smile. "We're looking for a gift, for a very special shekat. She's a gray tabby with black stripes, and not too fond of dangly things, we think."

"Are you looking for anything in particular?" She asked attentively.

Ebon looked at the shekat. "I was thinking something in silver, a pendant perhaps." He said quietly, trying to suppress his fear of picking the wrong gift.

"All right," she smiled and nodded as she made several selections on a touch screen. "Silver, pendant ... if you'd give me her name, I can show you what each would look like on her."

"*Cazi, while you were looking up her info. Did you happen to get her last name? I don't recall ever hearing it.*" He asked, suddenly realizing what he didn't know.

"Lieutenant Kim Bramble." Cazi answered easily. "*Shame on you ... ready to propose and not even sure of her full name.*" He teased.

"Ah, the new Seer." She smiled and tapped several more selections. "There are several pendants that would look beautiful on her throat." She said as a solid looking hologram of Kim's head and shoulders appeared over the glass counter. "Is this for any particular occasion?"

Ebon thought about it for a moment. "Courtship gift." He said simply, unable to think of a better word for it.

The back shekat brightened even more, utterly delighted. "Oh, there are several excellent selections in pendants, and several rings I can recommend that would look just stunning on her, and fall within uniform regulations. What kind of price range were you looking at?"

Ebon felt a little out of his depth. "*Umm ... Cazi, are there any good guidelines for how much one spends on a first gift?*" He thought clumsily.

"*Depends on how serious you are ... I'd give it two months pay here, almost an engagement gift. I know you would barely miss that much.*"

"*Given how little I spend out of my Alliance pay, no kidding. Good thing we got enough local currency. You happen to have any idea what that equates to here? I'd rather not display my ignorance in front of the clerk.*"

Cazi did a fast calculation and looked at the clerk. "Nine and a half, maybe ten thousand."

Her smile brightened again. "In that range, perhaps a custom piece?" She tapped several keys and brought up some more information. "Are you interested in incorporating her service, or something strictly civilian?"

Ebon thought about it. "Strictly civilian, I think." He said, figuring she worked out of uniform frequently. At least that was the impression he got.

Abi nodded and brought up the image of a lacy winged phoenix pendant that nestled in the hollow of Kim's throat. "If you like something, just say so and we'll work from there."

Ebon kept looking for a while, being very anxious about getting just the right design. Eventually, he ended up back at the phoenix. He recalled some myth about the phoenix symbolizing new beginnings, and that seemed about right. "This one, the phoenix."

"All right." She nodded. "Is it the design itself, or the symbol that you like? There are quite a few phoenix designs available."

"The symbol." He said simply, not sure the lacey wings were quite right.

She nodded and began brining up different designs, ranging from heavy to light, realistic to so stylized they barely looked like birds.

Ebon looked carefully, sticking to the more realistic ones. Eventually, he found one that to him looked strong while still feminine, which he felt matched Kim. "That one."

"A very lovely bird." She smiled as several variants of the chosen design appeared. "Now, we can use any gemstone type for the eyes and tail tips, though I would recommend brilliant blue sapphire, to bring out the blue in her eyes."

"Sapphire sounds good." Ebon replied, thinking that the blue would look good on Kim.

"There are also several color enhancements available with various golds and silver." She brought up a selection of the design with sapphires and patterns of gold, green, rose, blue, and a different silver showing off various patterns and parts of the design, as well as the simple platinum one.

Ebon decided that he thought the simple platinum looked best with Kim's fur. "I think the simple platinum works best."

"It is gorgeous against her fur." Abi agreed as she tapped a few more things into her terminal. "Is there anything else you are interested in?"

Ebon smiled. "I think that'll do for today. Though there may be something else in the future."

She smiled back in pleasure. "Would you like this delivered to your quarters?"

"Yes, please." He said feeling relieved. "How soon will it be ready?" He asked, knowing that custom jewelry took time.

She glanced at her displays and smiled at him. "Three days, guaranteed."

He nodded, concealing a little disappointment but figuring he could go with maybe flowers or something for tonight. The negotiations wouldn't be over that soon, he was sure.

"How will you be paying, sirs?"

"*Cazi, is it gonna draw attention if we drop that much in cash? But then again I guess we don't have any other options.*" He asked, figuring that dealing with new cultures was Cazi's specialty not his. He snuck in, took care of business and was gone before anyone noticed.

"*They already know we aren't locals, love.*" He chuckled mentally. "*And somehow, I just don't think pickpockets or muggers exist in this place.*"

Ebon chuckled mentally. "*Sorry, love. Professional habits are hard to break. And I agree about the minor criminals.*" He looked at the clerk. "We'll be paying cash." He said, pulling the appropriate currency out of his wallet and felt a touch of relief when she didn't even blink.

"*Cazi, could you ask Morin to magic some more local currency down.*"

"*How much?*"

"*Well, if I end up wanting to get her an actual engagement gift, that'll be even more expensive than this one ... won't it? Though he should send it to you and Nathan's room, wouldn't want Kim to see things appearing out of thin air ... not yet, anyway.*"

"*You're right, and I'll just have him bring it down when he comes to snuggle with Nathan tonight.*" The Calico smirked.

"*Assuming Nate doesn't bring Jake back from the meeting with him.*" The black tom chuckled mentally.

"*I doubt tonight.*" He shook his head fractionally as Ebon handed the cash over. "*Our son's seriously mixed up over this one. Even Nareena couldn't get him to see much sense. Though *I'll* be talking to that Kat if they don't spend at least one night together before this is over.*"

Ebon nodded slightly. "*He does seem to be drawn toward and running away from Jake. Very strange behavior, though not surprising given that he hasn't dated in the last fifty years. He really needs to get out more, its not like Morin would be upset if he did.*"

"*Last fifty years?*" Cazi raised an eyebrow. "*When has he made a real date?*"

"*I thought he and Rhymar actually dated.*" Ebon thought simply. "*At least that's the way he described it.*"

"*Hardly counts. Rhymar did all the work, Nate just went along with it.*" Cazi chuckled as they left. "*Okay ... I dealt with the flowers, and dinner, you just dealt with her gift, even if it will be a couple days late ... want to get her a little gift for tonight?*"

Ebon nodded. "*What kind of things make good little gifts?*" He asked, not wanting to get into something as elaborate as jewelry selection again, at least not for a little while.

"*Well, flowers do, and sweets, though you have to be careful with those. Not all females appreciate them, even if the sentiment is.*" He thought as they walked along the shop fronts. "*Do you actually know anything about her besides her mating habits?*"

"*I know she wants kits, and she works as a barmaid some of the time. I know she's very alien-friendly, and that's in general, not just the current specifics.*" He smirked at Cazi. "*I know she enjoys being in the woods.*" He paused trying to think of something that translated into a gift idea, as he remembered why he hated shopping, he wasn't very good at it.

"*Hmm, I'm going to ask Morin to send something down I think she'll like.*" He took Ebon's arm and steered him back towards their quarters.

"*Okay, thanks Cazi.*" He said kissing the Calico's cheek.

"*You're welcome. I like her too, you know.*" He smiled indulgently at his mate. "*And anyone that can make you like this is worth every effort.*"

Ebon grinned. "*That she is.*" He agreed simply.

As Nathan followed the three other members of the Alliance Diplomatic team in the conference room the Aristal Council had assigned for the meetings he tried to shake his nerves at facing Jake in closed quarters all day.

As he sat down on one side of an oval, black glass toped table his attention drifted to the only thing of real interest, the view of the underwater ocean outside the clear wall.

The Alliance team took a quiet moment to synchronize and tightly shield a temporary group link that would be needed during the negotiations for private communication. The Lion Felsin exchanged a glance with the female Golden Lab Canem, who nodded. Sam, the bear-morph, sat in unconcerned as the fourth team member, like Nathan he was present as an advisor.

They had long enough to get comfortable, but not long enough to become agitated before the Aristal team came in. A short, silver-white shekat in a severely cut pale blue dress suit lead them in, and took the center seat across from the Lion. Jake, now wearing a comfortable looking dress uniform of midnight blue with red trim and a fruit salad rivaling Nathan's unofficial one, sat on her left, across from the Canem.

A White Tigress in Jedi robes and a Master's air settled across from Nathan on Jake's left, and a pale skinned blond shekat looking further into her years than the others settled across from Sam at Ms. Dyne's right.

Last in was Kim, dressed in the same dress blues as Jake, but with a much smaller ribbon selection, and a gold eye on her collar as opposed to his starburst. She settled in a chair facing the window with a full view of all of them, but away from the table itself.

"I am Pakitra Dyne, leader of the Council." The white shekat began. "This is Calico Briggs," she motioned to the blond, "Commander Jake Furlson," she indicated the short tom, "and Master Sheir Khan." She nodded to the gray tabby shekat. "She is Lieutenant Kim Bramble, our Seer."

The Lion, wearing a dark gray tailored business suit, nodded. "I am Tythan Morell, Chief Felsin diplomat." He started. "This Sandra D'kenye, Alliance Representative." He indicated the female Lab, who was wearing an equally tailored dark blue business suit, "General Nathan SwiftClaw", who was wearing his Medic dress whites.

He nodded to Sam who had moved back away from table to a position similar to Kim's. "That's Samson TallTree, our Seer." The addition of Sam had been a last minute decision, and use of the title of Seer was the Grizzly-morph's suggestion. He was wearing dark green robes similar to a Jedi's but embroidered with symbols of life, nature and healing.

"*Jedi trained, SwiftClaw?*" Nathan felt as much as heard the Tigress ask across the Force.

"*Yes.*" He answered back the same way, a little surprised that she noticed since he wasn't really doing anything, except a small mental exercise for maintaining calm.

"*Does the Alliance know the Republic?*"

"*The Alliance doesn't, but I do, or perhaps more accurately I did.*" He thought quietly. "*There was time travel involved.*" He explained simply, leaving room for detailing if asked.

"*I understand.*" She nodded fractionally. "*Perhaps one evening you will join us for meditation?*"

Nathan nodded fractionally in return. "*I would like that. It has been a long time since I've spoken with another Jedi. Well, excepting my son, who I trained.*"

"*I am in a similar situation.*" She consented. "*Coruscant trained company is most welcome.*"

"There are two issues to deal with before we begin actual negotiations." Pakitra drew their attention back to the proceedings. "First, if you wish to magic, teleport or otherwise move anything from ship to surface, please let us know first. We do not object to mates spending the night, but the unexpected arrival set off half the alarms before we traced the who and why of the dragon's arrival last night in General SwiftClaw's quarters."

It took a great deal of effort on Nathan's part not to look sheepish, he hadn't figured on them noticing. He winced, figuring he'd just gone and screwed up again.

The Lion on the other hand didn't miss a beat. "I'm sure that was simply an oversight on the part of the General's mate. For future reference, who should be notified? I'm expecting that only the General's mate will be doing that." He said with calm professionalism.

"It had not been discussed yet." She inclined her head in acceptance. "Please have him contact Margrin's Central Control if he wishes to visit the General's quarters or leave from there. Anywhere or anyone else will require command authorization. Control will know who is on duty, but will take a little longer."

"The other issue is monetary." Ms. Briggs picked up without a beat. "We realize your agents were sent down with manufactured local currency, and while we understand the reasons for it, if you could instruct them to use the provided accounts," she handed over several credit cards, "it would be appreciated to keep our economy as forgery free as possible."

"We can certainly appreciate that." The Lion said handing them to the Lab who handed them to Nathan. "And we had planned to bring up the issue in due course, as well as a way to cover such expenditures through trade or some similar avenue." He said easily. "Our apologies if any transactions in manufactured currency occur before we can contact the agents, to notify them of the change."

"It has been minimal to date." Ms. Briggs nodded. "The rest can be dealt with when we have a better understanding."

"Now, perhaps you can give us a better understanding why you have come?" Jake requested in a fairly neutral tone.

The Lion nodded. "The simplest explanation is curiosity. The Felsin, felines like myself and the General, are not native to our homeworld. We were evacuated there millennia ago, due to an impending catastrophe on our world of origin. There has been a longstanding fascination with the world we call Origin. About five years ago, a team of scientists managed to trace the path of the evacuation ships to region of space with a high likelihood of containing Origin."

He paused for a moment. "It turns out that Origin and Aristal are one and the same. Genetic evidence is conclusive, that Kats and Felsin share a common genetic heritage, separated by between three and five thousand years of development.

"The other part of the mission was to establish diplomatic contact with the descendents of those who stayed behind, if any survived. It was hoped that the possibility for science, technological and cultural exchanges might be found thereby benefiting both peoples. Our intentions were, and remain, peaceful." The Lion finished sincerely, he had made sure to maintain eye contact with the three leaders, though he shifted from one to the other to avoid staring.

"Our records from that period, such as they are, concur with your conclusion." Sher Khan stated evenly.

Jake leaned back slightly and folded his fingers in front of them. "Just out of curiosity, do you have any idea what you are getting into allying with us?"

"That was what our agents were attempting to determine, however it was decided that that line of investigation was going to be counterproductive to long-term relations." He said crisply. "Perhaps if you gave us a better idea of the situation, as it stands." He requested politely.

Pakitra, Jake and Calico exchanged glances before Pakitra nodded. "This world is an exit point for many of the stranger phenomenon in the universe, and draws a lot of attention from the more aggressive factions out there.

"You've probably noticed we have a rather unusual political and population system in place. Up to sixty years ago, this world looked much more normal on the surface. Then the frequency of attacks increased until they reached their peak some forty years ago. That frequency has not increased recently, but the intensity of them has."

"Fifty years ago we restructured the government and society to have some hope of surviving and holding this world until we developed the technology to protect ourselves without such drastic measures." Jake picked up without missing a beat. "So far, we have managed, but ..."

Jake and Pakitra exchanged glances as they both suddenly went tense.

"General, have your ships move outside the solar system, on the far side of the sun from here." Pakitra's voice brooked no argument. "And quickly."

"Xiticix fleet." Jake answered Ms. Briggs raised eyebrow. He turned to Tythan and Sandra as she controlled a shudder. "Care for a personal view of what we deal with around here?"

Nathan quickly connected to Morin. "*Move the fleet into Trans-Luminal at station keeping, you need to be out of sight but I don't want you any farther away. Have all ships drop advanced-cloak surveillance probes. I want as much data on the incoming ships as possible, have probes relay data by tachyon-scramble to both fleet, and Cazi's mage-comp.*"

He switched to Cazi's frequency. "*Get the mage-comp out Cazi, you're going to have incoming battle data momentarily.*"

He went to the bear-morph's frequency. "*See if you can hook into the planetary consciousness here, like you've done with other worlds. A 'Gaian' perspective on the attackers wouldn't hurt.*" The bear nodded fractionally, and began seeking the living mind of the planet, the sum of its non-sentient bio-forms.

The two diplomats nodded, but looked to Nathan since this was clearly a military situation. "Of course, we need to get an idea which of our combat ships will be needed." He said without hesitation.

Pakitra flicked her ears back and shot Jake a look, but he just shrugged as Ms Briggs focused and the nine of them appeared in the planetary control room.

"Report." Jake called with quiet force as he and Pakitra sat hard in the twin command chairs at the center of the upper level, all but twins in their motions and minds as they reached out to cement their coordination and control of the area.

Nathan felt an almost oppressive amount of traffic on a technology psi band he couldn't quite pin down until Cazi sent him the frequency. It took every ounce of Jedi control for him not to gasp when it registered he was 'hearing' coordinated traffic from many planets, and the activation of some kind of massive weapon system inside the solar system. But he simply watched in silence, absorbing as much information as possible. He could sense Cazi adjusting several of the probes to watch the various planets.

As the main screen in the room came to life with a tactical display of the solar system and dozen of red dots representing the incoming fleet the verbal traffic increased.

As they watched yellow triangles came to life, corresponding to planets, asteroids and a few in empty space, and including the former location of the three Alliance ships.

Then the triangles began to link together in a web as the enemy fleet entered the outer edge of the solar system. Then the last detected ship entered the outlined area.

"Fire." Jake's voice was very quiet, but his mind-voice carried the order across space ... and the screen lit up.

Nathan caught the momentary look of shock on the diplomats face, which he presumed was from the death cry of whatever had crewed the attacking fleet. Cazi quietly reported the loss of the probes, and that he was correlating data with the fleet.

Nathan looked at Jake. "You can stop them cold like that, and they still come back?" He asked quietly, amazed that anyone could be that stupid.

"That is just the space fleet." Ms Briggs answered as she scanned the data. "The real danger these days is what comes by portal. Though until today, they hadn't faced that particular weapon."

"Portal? Then they deploy troops by long-range teleport?" He asked quietly, thinking the Mephits had pulled that trick on occasion until the tele-scramblers had been developed. "Do you expect another space fleet right away, or can I bring my ships back?" He asked quietly.

"It is closer to the magic equivalent," Sheir Khan added. "Though it seems to be a natural ability in the 'higher ranking' ones to open such gates."

"Best leave your ships out of the way until the energy disperses." Pakitra said in a somewhat distant voice. "We don't know when that will be."

Nathan reached up his LifeBond to Morin. "*Love, looks like whatever they just did has some long-term effects. Better take the fleet out to system edge and begin a survey, better start on the far side of the sun. Just be careful, I don't think this weapon was carefully researched.*"

"Magic huh? Sounds like the Mephits back home. Though if the mechanism is similar it's jammable. But I'll have to wait for my mage contingent to be available to find out."

"That would be a major asset." Ms. Briggs nodded at him before turning back to assess what the displays were telling her.

"Don't know when it will disperse? It hadn't been test fired beforehand I take it." He asked curiously, as he assessed the situation.

"No." Sheir Khan inclined her head. "Estimates indicate a few days, but there is no reason to put your ships in danger unnecessarily."

"I wasn't planning on it." Nathan said calmly, trying to maintain the air of glacial calm that his father usually did without trying.

"NO!" Jake's strangled scream was cut off as he shoved whatever had happened to the back of his awareness and focused on the battle even as Calico cringed.

"Of all the times ..." she muttered under her breath as she types several things into a nearby control panel and the main display changed to a tactical display of over two dozen bases with their names under them.

Nathan's eyebrow went up at Jake's scream, but he would have to wait to find out if the Kat was all right. He looked at the displays, not recognizing any of the names. "Something separate from the space attack just happened, right? One of those Portal incursions?" He asked quietly, trying to keep to yes/no questions so as minimize the distraction he might cause. But seeing as he had people on planet, he wasn't just going stand silently by.

"Yes." Ms Briggs growled softly as Sheir Khan walked out of the control room at full speed.

Nathan hated feeling this out of control in a situation. Unfortunately, there was little he could do with his ships out of system along with the majority of his people. He decided it couldn't hurt to make a polite offer, and it was somewhat traditional between Jedi or at least it had been in his time.

He used the same Force communication they'd used before to speak to Sheir. "*If another Jedi can be of assistance, please do not hesitate to ask.*" He thought sincerely, Jedi to Jedi, with no concern for the politics.

There was barely a heartbeat's break before she replied with the directions to a room in one of the lowermost levels. "*Your assistance would be most welcome. You are cleared to join me. Do you have your lightsaber?*"

Nathan quickly had Cazi 'pass' the laser sword to him, as he moved to join Sheir at full enhanced speed. "*Something very much like one, there weren't the right crystals in Alliance space. It serves the same purpose.*"

He stopped and blinked at a great metal circle with symbols inscribed on it's surface, and a shimmering water like surface in the middle.

"FarCrest is in the most trouble." She told him before stepping through without hesitation.

Nathan made note of the strange language coming from the portal on a machine band, so he could study it later. He then stepped through, figuring it was simply another variation on the gate principle.

He came out slightly shocky to Master Khan's hand around his upper arm.

"Focus, Jedi. There is little time." She said as urgently as any Master he has known. "They have penetrated the outer defenses."

Nathan quickly composed his concentration to the pinpoint focus he needed for combat, while tapping the Force to expand and enhance his awareness. He drew his laser saber, completed the psi-link to power it, and ignited it. The bright golden blade illuminated the room with warm glow, a counter to the stark white of his companion's.

Nathan made one last adjustment and carefully focused on the fact that these invaders were threatening the world his fathers were on, which allowed him to step past the kill-barrier in his mind. At the edge of his mind it also occurred to him that Jake was threatened as well, and that was important to him.

Nathan shook his head, as his concern for why Jake screamed started to disrupt his focus. He quickly pushed the thought back, and refocused to follow the tigress out at enhanced speed, blurring past Kats and Kantins in gray patterned military fatigues.

They came out thirty feet up on a cliff face to full view of an invading, insectoid hoard, reminiscent of winged, humanoid ants, overriding the outer parameter some half mile out.

Nathan decided that perhaps drawing the extra power now was best, and he quickly shifted to the combat designed war-form. He was grateful that he had taken the time to practice his Jedi skills, including the lightsaber, in the larger form. He turned to Sheir. "*Master Khan, you are more familiar with this enemy. What is the best way to engage them.*" Hoping that there were perhaps leader-types they could take out to disrupt the advance.

"*As far as we have determined, you just have to take them all out. They're a hive-mind controlled from elsewhere. No one has been able to disrupt the control ... or even if it would help to do so.*"

"*Straightforward then. Any unusual tricks they try, or are they pretty simple about combat?*" He asked quietly, taking the little time available to understand the enemy.

"*Just don't get hit by their blasters.*" She replied as she settled her focus and power. "*Not even you'd survive a direct hit.*"

"*Always sound advice.*" He said. In the back of his mind, the thought occurred that this situation didn't really need SkyFire emerging in rage. It would eliminate the horde, but there might be collateral damage ... a lot of it. He tuned his focus, and concentrated his power.

"Where'd your General go?" Ms Briggs asked over her shoulder to the Alliance diplomats.

"To FarCrest." Jake answered her. "He fights with Ka."

She nodded and turned back to her own coordinating.

The two diplomats carefully stayed quiet and out of the way. A full-scale invasion had not been figured into the diplomatic instructions.

The grizzly touched the crystal in the pendant he wore, and prayed silently to the Great Bear to strengthen the spirits of all those present. Though he was trained as a warrior, it was not the path the spirits were leading him on.

Almost as suddenly as it had started, the entire room relaxed into an uneasy quiet as final reports came in, flashing across the main screen. Dozens dead, their names in red; over a three hundred injured, in yellow; and all bases held, though three were listed as critically damaged.

"They're getting better." Ms Briggs sighed as she slumped against one outstretched hand.

Sandra carefully scanned the list of names, to be sure the General's wasn't on it, and relaxed fractionally when it was not. Sam released the pendant, and said a quiet prayer for the spirits of the departed to guide them to their proper destination whatever that might be.

"If you'll excuse me." Jake nodded to the Alliance team as he stood a little shakily. "The meeting will resume in an hour."

The diplomats nodded silent agreement. Sam, however, was more concerned about the lean Kat's condition. He carefully enhanced his strong natural empathy so as to get a clearer picture of the situation, but he kept his telepathy carefully reined. It would be inexcusably rude to actively read, but simply observing was normal.

"*General, the meeting is in a one hour recess, at Commander Furlson's request. He just left, and he seems a bit shaky, I'm still uncertain why.*" The DreamSpeaker thought on a tightly shield channel.

"*Thanks, Sam. I'll be back as soon as things are stabilized here.*"

"*Are you alright, Nathan?*" The bear asked, concerned about the pain he heard in the Tiger's mind-voice.

"*Just a blaster graze to the upper arm, it's not serious but it hurt like hell, still a bit sore. I'll be fine.*"

"*Very good, I'll see you soon.*"

As he closed the channel, Nathan felt a little worried about Jake. That scream had seemed familiar, too familiar perhaps. Maybe it was just one memory too many, but that didn't help.

He turned to Sheir. "*Are things secure here? I'd like to get back if they are.*" He said, frustrated that his wounded arm kept him from helping with the wounded as he wanted too. He tried to shield the underlying urgency for getting back, without complete success.

"*The facility is secure.*" She nodded and moved to walk with him. "*We can return now. If your arm is still bothering you tonight, come by my quarters. My daughter is a skilled Force Healer. She will have returned by then.*"

"*Thank you for the offer; I'll keep it in mind if my own skills are insufficient. Do they usually attack like that, in hordes?*" He asked still feeling a bit of a combat high, which wasn't helping his agitation any.

"*Yes ... though when there are only a few it is time to worry. They have something like Special Forces, and they are nasty to take out. I lost my last Padawan to one, when he was a Knight.*"

"*My sympathy for your loss.*" He thought sincerely. "*Hopefully the tele-scramblers will be adaptable to cut off this avenue of invasion.*" He said fervently.

"*I hope so as well.*" She sent quietly as they entered the Gateroom as the StarGate settled into its liquid surfaced status. "*This was one of the worst attacks recently, according to the preliminary reports.*"

Nathan looked at the StarGate curiously. "*Any maximum range on this form of teleportation?*" He asked studying it, while wondering if it could be scaled up in size.

"*None we've found.*" She sort of chuckled. "*The only catch is that there has to be another StarGate to link to. If negotiations go well, you'll return to Alliance space with the crew and supplies to build at least one.*"

"*I sincerely want them to, hopefully in spite of less than stellar beginnings.*" He said with a bit of inward directed anger.

"*Your anger has no benefit, Jedi.*" She reprimanded gently as they stepped through the portal. "*Direct that energy to more useful pursuits, such as loving your mate.*"

"*I know, I know.*" He chuckled, stepping through the portal. "*My Master never did quite cure a lifetime of self-criticism. But then I was almost twenty-two when I started training.*" He said directing the emotional energy into healing the wounded arm.

"*I can see why he bent the rules. Who was your Master?*" She asked with underling approval and curiosity.

"*Master Haskari Vorshan.*" He said with a combination of great respect and fondness for the little fox-morph. "*Bending the rules was a well-established habit of his, probably the reason he never made it onto the Council.*"

"*Much like my Master's friend, Qui-Gon Jinn.*" She replied with equal fondness. "*Though we generally agreed he bent the rules as much as he did to avoid being on the Council. Every generation seems to have a few.*"

"*Yes, I think those few are what keep things from getting stale. After he passed on to join with the Force, I did my best to continue that in his place.*" He said quietly. "*At least till I was returned to my own time, much to my displeasure.*"

"*True.*" She replied as they walked back to the control room at a more leisurely pace. "*Though that led to your Bonded LifeMate.*"

Nathan smiled. "*True.*" Then looked surprised. "*You can tell we're Bonded?*" He asked while following her.

"*Your bond with him shines very brightly in the Force.*" She smiled. "*And it radiates in everything about you that you love him deeply. Not many are so lucky.*"

Nathan smiled. "*Guess I never thought about it that way. But I am lucky, that's for sure. Took twenty years for me to realize how much I loved him, and he's never begrudged the wait. As my mother reminded me, I can be a little slow figuring out that sort of thing.*" He chuckled, thinking it strange that both his mate and his mother had very similar views on his confusion regarding Jake. Probably meant he was being dense again.

"*True love never begrudges time.*" She thought with a ting of sadness as they walked into the choreographed chaos of the post battle main control room.

"General SwiftClaw," Pakitra Dyne walked up to him with a smile despite her strained state. "I wish to thank you for your assistance. Commander Rell says that FarCrest would have likely fallen without your courage."

Nathan nodded politely in acknowledgement. "I'm glad I could be of assistance, Ms. Dyne." He looked around, and not seeing Jake present stepped closer so as to speak without the room in general hearing. "Is Commander Clawson alright, he seemed to be struck by something just as the land assault began. Indeed, I was concerned that some sort of psychic assault might have occurred." He asked quietly, with a completely professional air of concern, not betraying his personal worry in any physical manner.

"His LifeMate was injured. They share a mental bond that passed some of that pain along to him." She spoke quietly, and stood steady despite her clear exhaustion. "She survived, and will be fine. He'll probably be with her until he's convinced of that."

Nathan stepped close to offer someone to lean on should she choose, and to be close enough to catch her, if any more balance was lost. "I understand, being similarly Bonded." He said sympathetically. "Are you alright?" He asked softly shifting to his Medic / Healer voice and mannerisms, as he discretely assessed her condition by sight and through extended Force senses which he'd learn to apply to healing.

"Just exhausted. That kind of work is draining." She said simply and patted his shoulder as she walked past. "It's nothing half an hour in the reactor core won't cure."

"Half an hour in the reactor core?" He wondered very quietly. "Must be local humor." As he found a chair and dropped into it, the combat high retreated and his energy levels dropped. He turned to Sam. "Wake me in time for the meeting." He said as he grabbed a quick catnap.

"Right, General." He smiled at the sleeping tiger. What Sam was amazed at is the amount of energy the tiger would recover in half an hour of sleep.

"*Ebon, calm down.*" Cazi sighed and watched the agitated Panther war-form pace in the quarters he shared with Kim like a caged animal.

Ebon forced himself to sit down on the bed, since pacing wasn't something he did normally. "*Between the battle I was aware of, but couldn't be in, and worrying if I got everything right for tonight. I guess I'm a little edgy.*" The panther shifted back to the black Kat hoping the lower energy state of the smaller form would help calm him down.

"*I know, love.*" He smiled as he sat next to the black Kat and nuzzled him. "*Morin will be porting a few things over for tonight. It's going to be as perfect as mortals can make it.*"

"*Just make sure you clear the teleport first, we don't want to make Nate look bad.*"

"*I'm sure Morin will do everything by the book.*" Cazi chuckled. "*He'll be the last one to mass up Nathan's standing any more.*"

"*I think he scored some definite points by helping out with the battle.*" He thought quietly, as he nuzzled the Calico. "*Good thing Morin practiced long-range ports.*"

"*Yes.*" He twisted off the bed, pulling Ebon up with him. "*But you have a new dance to learn, and you'll be leading tonight.*"

Ebon raised an eyebrow. "*Another one? Won't one of the sixteen others you taught me work?*" He sighed quietly. He was reasonably good at dancing, but it wasn't really his idea of a good time. He did it to make his mates happy, both of whom enjoyed the pastime. "*Let me guess, her profile included that she likes to go out dancing.*"

"*Not specifically, but it is culturally romantic here, and you need to learn one she would know. A night of seduction should not including dancing lessons for her.*"

"*I couldn't agree more, dancing lessons could definitely ruin the mood. At least most of the time.*" He smirked, thinking of one dancing lesson that had gone distinctly horizontal.

"*You are incorrigible.*" Cazi laughed and shook his head as a slow, waltz-like music started. "*I doubt it will be hard to pick up. It's not that different from your favorites.*"

"*I learned from the best.*" He grinned broadly, listening to the music. "*Yeah, sounds familiar.*"

"*Cazimir, I have sent the things you requested to your quarters.*" Morin's mind-voice said quietly. "*Good luck with her.*"

"*Thanks Morin.*" He grinned back. "*It's a real help.*"

"*You are welcome. You and Ebon are family, after all.*" He chuckled before breaking the contact.

"*The things I asked for are here.*" Cazi grinned conspiratorially at his mate. "*Shall we get them?*"

Ebon smiled. "*Yeah, I want to see just what you came up with.*" He said, as he grabbed a quick kiss. "*Don't know what I'd have done without you, love.*"

"*Gotten an ulcer by now worrying about it, probably.*" He snickered as they walked out of the room and down the hall.

"*Physically impossible.*" He chuckled. "*But I probably would've worn out the carpet.*" He said as they walked into the suite Cazi, Nathan and Sam were sharing. "*Still wish I could've gone to that fight with Nate, I could use a good fight.*"

"*Be careful what you wish for, love.*" Cazi went a little tense as he led the way to his room. "*Those ... things ... will be back, and probably before we leave.*"

"*Yeah, I know. Actually, what we need to do is get some serious fleet firepower in here, locate the homeworld of these critters and teach them a serious lesson in payback.*" Ebon thought with a low growl in his throat. "*Hopefully, the tele-scramblers will work. They'll never be able to secure the situation, as long the enemy can appear when and where they want.*"

"*Too true.*" Cazi sighed as he picked up the box on his bed. "*This would be the supplies. What little I got before the probes were vaporized, this Xiticix are at least as bad as the Hive. I don't look forward to another round of it.*"

Ebon opened up the box to look inside. "*Well, we handled the Hive, we'll handle these guys. There's a big difference between beating on a planet when you have space superiority, and fighting a real fleet.*" He said with complete confidence. "*Yeah it was unpleasant, but we won. Besides, driving off an enemy is always a good way to get somebody to trust you.*"

"*True.*" Cazi chuckled. "*Or at least respect you enough to act that way. Looks like he got everything. Let's get it set up, and I'll explain as we go.*"

"*Right now, respect would be good.*" He thought as they walked back to Kim's quarters. "*Preferably before Nate does something foolish trying to impress Jake, which is at least part of what his going into battle was.*" The panther commented. "*Hope he noticed.*"

"*Unfortunately, not likely.*" He sighed and shook his head. "*Jake's LifeMate was injured early in the battle. I doubt the Kat noticed much after that except what was absolutely required.*"

The panther shook his head. "*Unfortunate for all involved.*" He thought quietly. "*I just hope he doesn't find something more dangerous to do, to try and prove himself. That's really what he was doing, you know.*"

"*Well, the Jedi on their Council was impressed enough to put a comment on the tech-waves. We can hope it comes up before Nate does something truly stupid.*" Cazi shook his head as they entered Kim and Ebon's quarters. "*It'd be too much to hope he could just ask Jake to bed, like normal people.*"

Ebon chuckled. "*Way too much. He's convinced he has to make up for what happened. It was pretty lousy first impression, and unfortunately Nate doesn't like to give himself second chances. Not sure where he got that from.*"

"*Oh, I have no idea.*" Cazi snickered and set the box on the main table and began to unpack it. "*Now, let's see. Your uniform, her dress, holo system, Chimra, massage and sundry supplies, and her gift for tonight, a panther crafted in ebony.*"

"*The dress uniform, well she did want to see me in the dress blacks. Chimra's always good, and I think she'll like the panther.*" He said approvingly. "*Wha'cha got in mind with the holo system?*" He asked curiously.

"Something soft, romantic, and blue." He grinned as he started to set the system up. "*She won't recognize the place ... assuming she doesn't see through the projections at least.*"

"*Blue? Why blue?*" He asked curiously.

"*It feels right, for her.*" Cazi shrugged and cocked a grin. "*Part of seduction is an artform, love. Going with your gut feeling.*"

"*Oh, that must be where I get into trouble.*" He grinned. "*The only art talent I have is martial. Blue feels right, I think.*" He thought trying to figure out what his gut feeling was, other than nervous.

"*Some people have it, some don't, love.*" He stood and put a comforting hand on Ebon's shoulder. "*Nothing wrong with not being good at everything.*" He grinned. "*Besides, you have me, and I'm a master at this game.*"

"*That you are, love.*" He said kissing the Calico gently. "*I'm just accustomed to being good at everything. Unfortunately, it seems Nathan takes after me in the romance department, and not you.*" He chuckled quietly. "*Do you think the war-form is a bit much for seduction? She does seem to like it.*"

"Stick to the Kat through dinner, but when you move on to dancing and moving, physical contact, it's war-form time.*" He smiled at the black Kat. "*And from that look you got the times she saw it, she is much closer to lustfully fascinated by it than just 'likes' it. Really, her reaction reminds me of when folks see a sex symbol or supermodel. Something so sexually attractive you almost can't believe it's real.*"

"*That takes some getting used to. I've gotten a lot of reactions to the war-form, but that's not one I've gotten outside of the unit.*" He chuckled. "*Even you were surprised by it, the first time. Not surprising considering how few have three or more two-leg forms.*"

"*It might be worth looking into why ... the Jaguar doctor had the same reaction, judging by your memory.*" He considered as he picked the foot long statue up and began to wrap it in soft, iridescent silver cloth. "*We may be looking at a cultural thing. It's be useful to find out what part has them so worked up.*"

"*At least it's a positive worked up, not like the 'demon' crap you take on some planets for shapeshifting.*" He thought remembering a couple of less than pleasant encounters. "*When's a good time for the gift?*"

"*You're getting ahead of yourself love.*" Cazi chuckled as he put the finishing touches on the package. "*First, greet her with a warm hug and kiss when she comes in. The guide her to the bedroom for a relaxing massage and get her out of that uniform.*" He picked up the small bag and pile of clothes and headed for the bedroom. "And a massage only. Don't touch her so she'll get that turned on, just relax her.*"

Ebon chuckled. "*Gettin' tricky already, she seems to get turned on really easy.*" He smirked. "*Massage only.*"

"*As if you don't have a huge part to play in that.*" He shook his head and smirked. "*Control your hormones, Ebon. It'll be worth it.*"

"*I think I can manage self-control, love. There just wasn't a reason to before.*"

"*Okay, get her undressed, thoroughly relaxed, and then show her the clothes and be the gentleman and leave the room so she can change.*" Cazi continued as he laid out the simple blue and gray dress and accessories.

"*When she comes out, complement her and offer her your hand.*" He mimicked what he was instructing. "*Guide her to the table and kiss her hand before sitting her down and taking your own seat. Pay attention to her over dinner, make small talk, ask her about herself, try keep it light, or at least romantic and loving.

"*After you've eaten, stand and shift to war-form and offer her a hand to lead her to the dance floor. If she wants to lead, let her. Otherwise, you lead her through the ones we learned. If it seems like something she'd enjoy, ask her if she'd like to dance a few from the Alliance. When you feel her starting to get board or tired, then start to work on turning her on. I think you can take it from there.*"

"*Where does the gift come into the sequence of events?*" He asked operating in 'mission briefing' mode.

"*When she notices it.*" He chuckled. "*Actually, there is one other thing; once you're in bed, you lead. Be aggressive. Cater to her and her pleasures, but you shouldn't be asking what she wants. Use your empathy to catch when you're doing something right, or when she wants more. If you want back-up, I'll do a light scan for a couple fantasies if you'd like.*"

"*That might help, the one time I asked about fantasies, she told me being seduced. Something she wants, that we haven't done would be nice. I've got a pretty good idea of what she likes normally.*"

"*Being treated like a tom.*" Cazi snickered. "*You did pick an unusual one.*"

"*She likes it the normal fem way too, but that's not allowed for a week.*" He chuckled.

"*Urr?*" He cocked an eyebrow at the Panther. "*I'll keep that in mind ... but why?*"

"*She's still in recovery from the Bleeding Plague and there was some injury inside. Doc said no penetration for at least 48 hours, better to wait a week.*" He explained.

"*Pity.*" Cazi shook his head. "*At least she likes it other ways.*"

"*She's not happy about the restriction, and neither am I.*" He agreed. "*But I don't want to do anything that might lead to another hospital visit. I hope we can get Nareena down here, I'd feel better if she checked Kim over.*"

"*You know, since Morin's expected to come each night, why not have her come with him?*" Cazi suggested.

"*Not a bad idea, better clear it with Central Control, they said someone in Command would have to approve anyone but Morin coming down.*" He agreed. "*Good thing he can do two people at that range.*"

"*I'm sure he will.*" Cazi nudged the Dracon's mind politely.

"*Yes, Cazi?*" The Dracon responded promptly. "*How are things going with Operation Seduction?*" He smirked mentally.

"*I think Ebon will get the hang of it. The supplies are perfect, and I'm not even going to ask how you got your hands on that statue. It's too perfect.*" He chuckled. "*We were wondering if you could bring Nareena down tomorrow night, to take a look at Kim. Come to think of it, it'll be a perfect opportunity for them to talk.*"

"*An excellent idea, I can accommodate the extra mass. The statue is courtesy of Storm, he didn't explain more than that.*" The Dracon smiled. "*I expect Ebon will do things exactly as you describe, he's very good at following mission instructions.*"

"*And hopefully she'll go for the basics and not require much improving.*" The Calico smirked. "*Of course, that would get me a first rate view of the games if he needs the help.*"

"*Be careful Cazi, she might not appreciate being group-seduced.*" The Dracon cautioned. "*I seem to recall she pulled a blaster on you the last time you peeked in.*"

"*Yeah, yeah, but that time she didn't know who or even what I was. Besides, I wouldn't be here physically this time, just watching through Ebon's eyes.*"

"*Just be careful, we still don't know just what her 'Seer' ability is capable of exactly.*"

"*Morin, I'll be careful already.*" Cazi shook his head. "*I haven't survived this long without a good feel for what I can get away with.*"

"*Sorry, Cazi. Nate's injury unnerved me a little. He managed to avoid yelling out loud, by yelling psychically.*" He apologized. "*Have fun, and good luck to both of you.*" He smirked.

"*Nate was what>!*" The Calico jumped right out of his Kat form.

"*I presumed you had been informed that Nathan took a blaster hit to his right upper arm during the battle. The injury is healing well, though it still hurts more than a little. He is going to great efforts to not let anyone see that it hurts.*"

Ebon looked at Cazi's sudden change of form and agitation. "*Something the matter, love?*"

"*Nate was injured pulling that stunt.*" He forced himself back to the calico Kat. "*Thanks for the update, Morin.*"

"*You're welcome.*" The Dracon said quietly. "*I'm surprised you hadn't been informed.*"

"*I'm not.*" He grumbled lightly and signed off.

Ebon shook his head. "*I'm not surprised.*"

"*Given what he can do, it says something about these Xiticix.*" Cazi shook his head. "*Not good.*"

"*But remember, he wasn't entirely focused. Also, he may have wanted to get injured. He gets injured fighting to protect Jake's people, he might have thought that a good way to improve the impression Jake has of him.*" Ebon said quietly. "*Still, it was an awful risk. This planet doesn't need SkyFire's presence.*"

Cazi shuddered. "*Definitely not.*"

"*Of course, Nathan doesn't need the transformation effects either. I just hope he keeps that in mind, with any future stunts.*" Ebon said sensibly.

"*Knowing our son, probably not.*" The calico shook his head. "*If the Kat's LifeMate hadn't just been injured, I'd be talking to Jake tonight.*"

"*I don't know Cazi, you think parental meddling so soon is a good idea? Of course, if Jake doesn't see any clearer than Nate, it might be necessary. This one I'll leave to you, you're much better at handling people than I am. Unless handling means beat them up.*"

Cazi shook his head and chuckled. "*If we wanted to get into 'parental meddling' I'd stick 'Reena on them.*"

Ebon chuckled broadly. "*Oh yeah, give her a chance she'll have them dating.*"

"*Well, she is coming down anyway ...*" He considered thoughtfully.

"*Well, I guess that assumes that the Kat isn't happily monogamous with the LifeMate he has. That brings up an interesting question, do we have anything on him that says he has sex with toms? I haven't read his profile, but I figure you probably have.*" Ebon chuckled broadly.

"*He's happily married to a tom and fem, has a long time female lover, and is well know to date outside his triad.*" The calico rolled his eyes. "*Yes, he beds toms. He prefers them from the info we have. Felina and Pakitra are the odd ones.*"

"*Well, there's that at least. I was half expecting to discover that Nathan had fallen for a solidly het and monogamous Kat. Given the way this mission has gone, it would've fit right in.*"

"*True. Jake's even know to date aliens ... like the Darshar and dragons they have here.*" Cazi chuckled softly. "*That part isn't an issue either.*"

"*Well, that just leaves the issue of how they met, and whether Jake can get past what happened. Hell, if Nate can get past it for that matter.*"

"*Nate's probably having more problems, knowing our son.*" He shook his head, then grinned. "*Now, back to your dating problem.*"

"Still want anything to do with us?" Pakitra asked the Alliance contingent after everyone had settled back down in the conference room.

The Canem diplomat nodded. "We aren't going to change our decision, just because of an invader. It's a situation we've dealt with before." He said simply, exchanging a quick glance with Nathan, who nodded.

"They are our biggest concern right now." Jake said quietly. "We know there are at least three of their strike bases are that we can't reach right now."

"We've also confirmed that none of those bases are their homeworld." Pakitra added.

"You have an interstellar power of unknown size that's decided to move in and take over." Nathan summarized quietly. "Are any of the strike bases in this system? If not how far away are they?" He asked beginning to formulate a plan, as well as a Task Force request to the Alliance.

"This system is ours." Jake took a breath. "As is one other. One base is in the same system as FarCrest. The other two are in systems we haven't tried to establish bases in."

Nathan nodded, not bothering to point out the insecurity of their claim. "How are the bases situated, on planet, orbital, or on smaller bodies such as moons or asteroids?" Nathan was still a little puzzled how you could establish control of a system without any space fleet.

"The one facing FarCrest is likely in the asteroid belt of that system." Pakitra explained. "We're not sure about the other two, they may control the system, or just the planet we have access to."

"How far away are these systems, roughly?" Nathan asked, as he considered scout missions.

"We don't actually know." Jake admitted quietly. "We pulled what little information we have from the Gate system. We know on their coordinate system, but it's nothing we've managed to translate into real space."

"That complicates things, but I've seen worse." Nathan said as he reorganized his thinking. "This Gate system, how much can it move matter-wise, from point to point? And is FarCrest an automated station or is it manned?"

"It can move anything that can go through the gate itself." Jake explained, his curiosity growing. "And FarCrest was where you fought with Master Khan. It's staffed."

Nathan chuckled. "I thought the gravity seemed different." He said quietly. "I'm thinking a little reconnaissance of the enemy base in that system would be useful. A Long Shadow Mark 18 stealth recon probe is designed to locate and analyze systems for enemy facilities, and then analyze the facilities themselves. They can be disassembled for easy transport, and launched from a planetary surface." He suggested.

"Can one be flown? Launched here and directed through a Gate?" Pakitra asked, immensely curious.

"The Mark 21 Vanguard probe can be live-piloted. And any probe can be directed through a Gate." Nathan said, as he began to wonder if he'd need Cazi called in for technical reference. "The Vanguard has the same stealth capabilities as the Long Shadow."

"If it can be directed through the Gate, they can be sent into the heart of Xiticix territory." Jake was now fully focused on this concept.

Pakitra and Callie both shot him very curious looks.

He shrugged. "It's too convoluted a rout to be of any use without scouting missions."

Pakitra raised an eyebrow, then burst out laughing. "Only you could have a World Gate get a crush on you."

"I should point out that the Vanguard is not a heavy combat unit, so sending a manned one into the heart of enemy territory would be exceedingly hazardous for the pilot." Nathan said warningly. "Since stealth has its limitations, especially if the exit point from the Gate system is watched, which I would imagine it is."

"You said any of them could be sent through a Gate without a pilot." Callie regarded Nathan critically.

"We can send something ahead to distract them too." Jake added. "What kind of information could it bring back, and how?"

"Yes, I did, and they can. In fact there designed to operate without pilot. But I felt that needed mentioned considering the question about them being piloted had been asked." He clarified. "What it brings back is dependent on what its told to look for. How is a little trickier ... how are these gates activated?"

"TechnoMagic and Psi," Pakitra indicated herself and Jake. "Force," she nodded at the White Tigress, "and a control system for others."

"They can also ask each other to activate. The network's a society, of sorts." Jake added.

"Well, if the probe had a way to activate the Gate it came out of, it could simply gather the data and return."

"She's your girlfriend." Pakitra chuckled.

Jake rolled his eyes and relaxed back for several minutes. Slowly he came back to the room. "They've agreed to open for the probe. Seems the Gates aren't very fond of the Xiticix either." He chuckled. "Something about being an ignorant plague."

Nathan chuckled. "Sounds like one of the descriptions of the Hive. Though I always thought they were a bit devious to be ignorant."

"Well, this is a Gate description." Jake smiled indulgently. "Anything that doesn't figure out how communicate with them is ignorant. Anything that doesn't at least use them is a plague keeping more interesting creatures away."

Nathan chuckled. "Well, at least these Gates are nominally friendly." He smiled. "I'll have one of our shuttles load up a couple of probes and bring them down. May take awhile since we didn't have the milspec probes readied. We were using the sciences ones for the mission so far." He said as he relayed the data back to Morin, so the Dracon could send down the equipment.

"Is there anything you would like to discuses before be break for the day?" Callie prompted with a considerate nod for Nathan.

"I think today has been sufficiently productive, and nothing is pressing enough that it can't hold until the next session." Nathan said evenly.

"Good," The blond nodded with a smile. "Baring further excitement, shall we convene at the same time tomorrow?"

The Canem lead diplomat nodded. "Barring further excitement." He agreed.

"*She's on her way, love.*" Cazi calm mind touched the agitated black Kat in Alliance Dress Blacks.

"*Right.*" Ebon thought as he started reviewing what he was supposed to do, and then in full mission mode started trying to put time estimates on everything.

"*And Ebon, relax.*" The shape-shifter chuckled softly. "*This isn't a mission, it's showing her how much you care about her.*"

"*I know, it's just remembering to do things in the right order and all.*" He thought quietly. "*I've never really thought it through this much before. Ummm, first step was getting her changed from the uniform to the dress, right?*"

"*No, the first step was to greet her warmly, then get her out of the uniform for a nice, leisurely back rub to relax her. Then you point her to the dress and leave the room so she can dress in privacy.*"

"*Oh, right.*" The Panther said trying to his mental notes back in some semblance of order. He waited quietly in the living room watching the door, and forcing himself not to pace.

"*You'll do fine, love.*" Cazi tried to reassure him. "*She's just outside. Call if you need me.*"

"*Thanks, Cazi. I probably will.*" He said as he focused on calming himself. He didn't have nearly long enough before the door slid open and Kim stepped in, her perfect military air holding until after the door had shut.

"How was your day?" She smiled with real affection through her exhaustion.

Ebon smiled warmly. "Productive." He grinned, as he embraced her warmly. "So how did things go?" He said giving her a gentle 'welcome home' kiss.

"Bloody, but the negotiations are doing very well. Your son's doing very well." Kim shook her head before smiling playfully. "Now what brought the uniform on?" She crooned as she slid her arms around him.

"You mentioned you wanted to see me in it." He said easily, as he slowly moved around behind her, and gently massaged her back. "Rubdown?" He asked gently.

A low, grateful groan was the only verbal response as she all but melted under his touch.

Ebon smiled and continued a gentle rubdown, as they slowly moved toward the bedroom. He was careful to massage to relax, without going into moves that led to other things. As they reached the bedroom door, he deftly reached around and opened it as she worked the heavy dress jacket from her shoulders and toed her shoes off.

He continued the massage as they entered, pausing as he turned the lights on, to reveal the outfit laid out on the bed.

"What's this?" She glanced up and back at him in surprise.

"A little play, after your hard day of work." He said with a smile. "I'll let you get dressed." He said as moved to step back into the living room.

She frowned for a moment in confusion, then chuckled and shook her head in affectionate amused. "The sweetie." She smiled and made short work of changing into the shimmering blue dress. She took a moment to double-check herself in the full-length mirror in the bathroom before stepping out into her transformed living space.


"I couldn't have put it better. You do wonders for that dress." Ebon said as he walked up to her.

Kim blushed under her dark gray fur and ducked her head shyly.

Ebon gently offered Kim his arm. "If you're ready, dinner is as well." He said with a gentle smile.

"Sounds, and smells, delightful." She smiled and accepted his arm. "You look stunning yourself." She pressed close to his side and sighed in pleasure.

"Thank you." He said with a smile, as he led her to her seat. He gracefully pulled the chair out so she could be seated. Once she was seated, he properly uncorked the wine bottle with simmering blue liquid and filled both glasses, before seating himself.

"My, you learned a great deal more than infiltration and combat." Kim said with amused delight as she lifted her glass in a toast. "To the future, near and far, that we may enjoy every moment we have together."

He gently touched his glass to hers. "To the future." He smiled as they sipped.

"Most unusually pleasant." Kim raised an eyebrow at him. "Something from the Alliance?"

"Chimra'shen." He nodded. "A specialty of the Dracon homeworld, Draconea."

"Your son's mate is one, right?" She asked curiously.

"Morin Kar'Dranor, yes he is." He acknowledged. "Probably the best thing to ever happen to my son actually." He said with a fondness for the Dracon.

"Are you a grandfather, then?" She smiled back.

"Yes, I am." He said with a fond smile. "One of my grandsons is with the fleet."

"One?' Kim cocked her head. "You have more than one?"

Ebon nodded reluctantly, wondering if he was getting into trouble already. "Yes, Nathan's my oldest son, not my only kit." He said gently.

"Must be nice, having a big family." She smiled softly, and with almost no trace of pain. "Have they all done well?"

"Nice usually, though it can get rather hectic at times." He smiled. "Yes, they have. All professionals with solid careers, most of them with mates but not all." He said proudly.

"How many kits, grandkits?" She focused on him with a rapt fascination.

"Seven kits, including Nathan. Twelve grandkits."

"Wow." Kim's eyes went wide. "They let you have that big a family?"

"There aren't any population controls in the Alliance, aside from the common sense ones like don't have kits that you can't take care of. Most families are smaller than ours, but I've got 8 brothers who like to help out and who are only starting to have kits on their own."

"Oh." Kim blinked as she tried to digest that concept before even noticing the meal laid out. "Oh, you ... just who did you bribe to find out what to have?" Her eyes twinkled in amusement and appreciation.

Ebon smiled broadly. "I haven't bribed anyone ... at least not on this planet." He chuckled. "I'm glad you like it."

"How could I not?" She smiled and stood to kiss him on the cheek. "With such care behind it."

Ebon smiled pleased, as she sat down. He thought about the gift, and the fact that it didn't have a precise position in the arrangement. But he figured it was still too early, so he went back to eating, slowly, as the meal disappeared in comfortable silence, and affectionately exchanged looks.

As the last of the meal disappeared, and they continued to exchange affectionate looks over sips of Chimra, Ebon discretely used the remote he'd palmed to change the music to something that was appropriate to one of the local dances that Cazi had taught him. He stood, walked around to Kim and made a short bow. "May I have this dance?" He asked with formality that he usually reserved for the required Alliance Military social events.

"It would be my pleasure." Kim's military prim was broken by a playful giggle and broad grin as she easily slipped into his arms and the steps of the dance with well practice familiarity.

Ebon winced internally, as the contrary music randomization picked the dance that he'd found most difficult as the next selection. Much to his own relief he actually managed to remember the steps so he could lead properly. Buoyed by this success, he kissed her gently on the cheek as they moved gracefully about their private dance floor.

"I never thought I'd enjoy dancing." Kim murmured softly after the fourth song as she snuggled as close to his chest as the music allowed. "I guess it really is the company that makes the difference."

"That's been my experience." Ebon agreed quietly, holding her close as the music stayed in the slow dance selections he and Cazi had picked. He carefully kept track of her responses looking for any sign that she was tiring of dancing.

"Close your eyes, and wait right here." Ebon said gently. "I have a surprise." He said walking over to where the gift was hidden once her eyes were closed.

He placed the intricately wrapped gift in her hands. "Okay, you can open your eyes now." He said smiling as she looked curiously up at him, then down at the large, shimmering, fabric wrapped object.

She walked over to the table and set it down before loosening the silken and carefully unfolded the wrapping strands to reveal a finely crafted ebony and ivory male panther stretched along a tree limb in all the races sleek, strong grace. His bright emerald eyes, the same shade as Ebon's, seemed to glow with an inner light. Even the black rosettes were visible in his black fur.

"Oh, my." Kim whispered in awe as her fingers took in the gift as much as her eyes.

Ebon was sure she liked it, but he decided to let her enjoy it a while before saying anything. Before he chose to move she turned around to embrace him tightly around the neck.

"It's gorgeous," she smiled brightly before kissing him. "And magical, I think." Kim brought one hand forward to brush his cheek. "Thank you ... love."

"You're welcome, love." He said with warm affection, as he gently kissed her. "It wasn't easy finding a gift worthy of you."

Kim blushed deeply and dropped her eyes in a mixture of embarrassment and wonder. "Thank you." She closed her eyes and hugged him tightly. "Thank you."

Ebon put his arms around her and held her close. "If it makes you happy, that's all the thanks I need." He said with warm affection.

"You make me very happy, just being yourself." She purred against his chest as the last of the day's tension and frustration melted away.

"Moments of happiness that make it all worthwhile." Ebon said quietly, as he held her close.

"Yes," she smiled to herself and relaxed in contentment. "Do you think I could meet Nareena before you leave?"

"I was planning to introduce you, but I guess there was some big energy weapon discharge and they have to wait a little while before sending anyone down from the fleet." Ebon said easily. "She wants to meet you as well."

"Yes, the bug killer." She nodded with a sigh. "At least there was enough warning for your ships to get out of the way."

"Yes, though they don't need much warning. Impressive weapon, but not a solution. The bugs were the missing piece." He said quietly.

"Urr?" She looked up in confusion.

"When we were looking at the data on your world, there were a lot of things that didn't make sense. But with siege being conducted by the bugs, they do. The bugs were the missing piece in the analysis." He sighed.

"Oh." She nodded without really understanding. "What kind of things didn't make sense?" She asked curiously.

"For one, your population is much lower than would be expected of a world with your technological development. The two big exceptions; being a recent colony of an advanced world and recovering from a population devastating plague didn't seem to apply.

"Another, you've got the technology for space flight, but there's no sign of it. That's very strange, considering that there was no evidence of a culture bias against space. Especially when coupled with the large amount of equipment you have monitoring space.

"The population controls didn't make any sense either, since your planet isn't anywhere close to overcrowding."

"Ah, yes, I can see how it could be strange to someone who isn't from a world under siege." She nodded and relaxed against his chest. "But enough of the war, it can consume your life too easily."

He put his arms around her, holding her close. "You don't have to explain that to me." He said with quiet empathy.

"Ebon ... can your people really free us?"

"I think so." Ebon said quietly. "We've fought an enemy like the bugs before, and won. But we've got to iron out the politics, and then it's a matter of research, strategy and tactics." He nuzzled her reassuringly. "The bugs have space superiority, and that's their big advantage on you in this war. My people can take that from them, make this a fight, not a siege. I'm not promising a quick fix, but I think it's possible."

"That's worth a lot to the commanders." Kim said softly. "It's all anyone alive has known, but a solid plan would all but guarantee an alliance, whether they trust you or not."

"That's Nathan's department." Ebon smiled. "I'm a ground commander, space theater strategy isn't something that's ever interested me. But if we can get a real space fleet out here, it'll make a serious difference."

Kim cocked her head, clearly planning as she slid her arms around Ebon's neck and met his eyes. "Tell your son, if he wants this to go as fast and cleanly as possible, to offer two things when the time comes, and the plans to make then happen. Kill the bugs, and the breeding technology everyone can use."

"I'm sure the first is already in the works." He said easily. "I take it there's a lot of interest in breeding technology." He asked curiously.

"With what the plague's done, yes." She nodded sadly. "That it allows game-gender blood parents will make it extremely attractive."

"I'll have to let Nathan know that." He said making a mental note. "Actually, with the plague damage, he'll probably offer it independent of any other discussion. He may wear General's stars but under it all he's a Healer." Ebon said proudly.

"That'll earn him serious points with Jake, among others." She smiled slyly. "And as long as you're talking to him, do mention Jake's relationships are open. Many more days of watching those two try to pretend they aren't exchanging lustful looks and I'm going to loose my composure."

Ebon chuckled deeply. "You mean Jake's doing it too? To hear Nathan talk, you'd think it was entirely him and that Jake doesn't see him beyond the professional presence."

Kim rolled her eyes. "Perhaps I should just whack them both across the ears for being dense." She chuckled. "As a Seer, I can actually get away with it."

"It might help." Ebon chuckled. "Nathan is unfortunately suffering from what is generally known as a crush." He shook his head, not quite believing that he'd just used the term 'crush' in reference to one of the Alliance's top military personnel.

"Oh, brother." She shook her head in mock despair. "How did he manage to get a mate and to that age and not understand dating?"

Ebon shook his head in amusement. "That's okay, Morin's his second mate. First marriage ended in divorce." He sighed a little. "But truthfully, Morin pursued him and they never really dated. They were close friends for over fifteen years, and then several things happened and he ended up marrying Morin. I've only heard stories, I wasn't actually there." He said quietly.

Kim raised a simple black eyebrow. "Perhaps I should just push them into bed. It'd certainly be simpler."

"It'd be simpler, but I don't know if it'd work." Ebon said quietly. "Nathan's still trying to understand the concept that brief encounters are worthwhile."

The stunned shock on her face couldn't be faked. "You're kidding."

Ebon shook his head. "Not at all." He said completely serious. "He's never dated outside his Joining, even though his Mate has encouraged it. Nathan's never felt a need for anyone besides his Mate, until now. And like most 'firsts', it's a pretty intense feeling."

"Oh, my." Kim murmured, then considered. "Morin is that eightish foot tall red Dragon-kin, correct?"

"Yes, the one who was setting off the alarms by teleporting in and out without telling anyone." The panther grinned.

"Well, if he's game to help out, it wouldn't take much for him to convince Jake to a night in with his mate." She raised an eyebrow, seeing if Ebon had caught the idea.

"Well, Morin's always game when it comes to helping Nathan. And if you're suggesting a threesome I'm sure he'd be game for that too, given that Jake fits his preferred partner description rather well." He paused. "Did I jump ahead in this plan?" He wondered aloud.

"You caught it perfectly." She smiled brightly.

"There is one problem." Ebon sighed. "As willing as he is to help, he can't suggest a threesome to Jake. Dracons have a strict cultural and legal prohibition against larger males initiating intimate relationships with smaller ones."

"Could he say his mate is interested in one, but isn't willing to say it?"

"I'll have to ask, it's never come up before. But I'm sure it's in a gray area at best. The Dracons are real sticklers for that rule. I've never heard of, much less met one who broke it. Though that could be that they just cover the mistakes really well."

"Even if he just said Nathan wanted a night with him, minus Morin or something." She shook her head. "Those two aren't going to do it on their own."

"Oh, he could certainly say that Nathan was interested. It's only a rule about initiating relations for himself." He chuckled.

"Well, that's at least one avenue." She nodded.

"Given that we're talking threesome, do you think Jake would be interested in eightish foot tall Dragon-kin?" He asked curiously.

"Most likely." She chuckled. "He's extremely fond of the Gargoyles around, Morin isn't that different."

"Gargoyles? You actually have Gargoyles here?" Ebon asked intently curious.

"Nine of them I think, all from the Darshar clans."

Ebon looked puzzled. "Wrong clan, which is hardly surprising. One would hardly expect to find members of an Earth Gargoyle clan all the way out here." He chuckled.

"Mmm, I think a couple have mentioned Earth. Not that it's an uncommon name." She shrugged. "Two of them are here, if you'd like to talk to them."

"Probably a good idea at some point." Ebon nodded. "Before Nathan's complications get complicated by something else."

"Such as?" She regarded him in a mixture of concern and curiosity.

"Well, the short version is Nathan's an adopted Gargoyle."

"So how's that an issue?" She looked at him in confusion. "Unless he's considering a conflict."

"More of something else to distract him." He said quietly. "He got separated from his clan, and he's always looking. Not conflict, Void no." He said, quietly. "I don't suppose any of these Gargoyles ever mentioned the name Wyvern."

"Let me check." Kim said quietly as she moved from his embrace to a well-concealed computer terminal. After several minutes she looked over her shoulder at him. "Wyvern as in both castle and resident clan?"

"More specifically the clan, but the Castle relates." Ebon said, as he moved up behind her to look at the middle of a large file, mostly in text.

"Well, none of them are from the clan, though one female, Hazzura, claims to be a blood mother to them circa 1200, their time. This is mostly racial history stuff."

Ebon thought about it. "1200 would be too late. Nathan knew them circa 1000, little before I think."

"I take it time travel was involved in his trip."

"Yes." He said simply. "Actually, if you're looking a racial history there might be a reference to a umm.... 'Spell of Living Stone', or a Gargoyle named Goliath."

"Oh, yes. Their great leader, lord Soron's lover." She nodded with a chuckle. "Everybody gets to hear about him."

"Goliath is the one who adopted Nathan." Ebon said simply.

Kim frowned. "But he's from the end of the 20th century."

"Not originally, I guess. Nathan met him and his clan around 1000 Earth Calendar in a place called Scotland." The Panther shrugged. "I guess there was some stasis magic involved, probably wore off in the 20th century. But honestly I don't know, neither does Nathan. He still thinks the Clan is stuck in stone."

"Mmm, they were released in 1996 by David Xanatos, a major industrialist of the time." She read off the screen.

"Earth's official history omits them apparently, since I know Nathan found no reference to them. He hasn't actually been to Earth since his time travel episode." He said quietly. "Afraid to go, I think."

"Well, according to Hathor, by 2000 they'd made peace with Xanatos, Goliath was formally mated to both his first lover, Lord Soron, and the new Darshar Queen. A formerly human woman named Elisa Maza. I'd guess that's why they weren't mentioned; they weren't technically on Earth for long. Do you know the Darshar?"

"The name isn't familiar, so I don't think so." Ebon replied. "Who are they? Another clan of Gargoyles?"

"That's still under debate, even among the Darshar." Kim chuckled. "But the current theory is that the Darshar are the original species, and the Gargoyles like Goliath are a subspecies. Depending on the individual ... some of them are rather ... unpleasant about the status of those clans."

"Don't like the younger species, do they?" Ebon observed.

"It's a discussion I never really got into. There are only Darshar here, so it's not like it was ever very important for me to learn." She said. "I know enough to know which Darshar to contact if I meet a non-Darshar, but not much more of that set of politics."

"Are they similar in appearance?" He asked curiously.

"Some." She nodded a brought up several images on the screen. "Darshar are like most species we know, you can generally tell one at a glance. They hatch from eggs with pitch black skin and hair, with a single tattoo on their wings that represents their formal name. As they age, various black to gray to silver color shifts occur, as well as more tattoos. With enough knowledge, you can know a Darshar's name, age, power level and major experiences just by looking at them with their wings spread. They're very magical creatures.

"From what I understand, Gargoyles are not nearly so standardized in appearance, turn to stone during the day, and lack the natural tattoos and color changing. I've gotten the impression that that last part is the real bone of contention."

"I could see that." Ebon said quietly. "Guess I don't have to worry about Nathan being distracted. They won't really look like the kind of Gargoyle he's looking for. Thanks, Kim." He said, giving her a gentle kiss on the cheek.

"You're welcome." Kim smiled and twisted to stand, sliding directly into Ebon's arms. "I thought you were special when we met," she purred softly. "Now I realize just how special you are." She reached up to kiss him. "You even asked for help when you needed it. Do thank Cazi. He must really love you to help set this up for us."

"He does, and he knew how much it meant for me to do this right." He said, bending down to claim a romantic kiss. "You're very special yourself."

"I'm going to ask to be on the team that goes to the Alliance with you to set a WorldGate up." Kim murmured. "It will give us at least a couple years, if an emergency doesn't come up here."

Ebon smiled. "I like the sound of that. More time together, and you could meet the rest of the family."

"And if I can make a place for myself there." She murmured and snuggled close. "As much as I love you, I need to do something important. And this is still home. I don't know if I could really leave, and still be happy."

"I understand, Kim. Home is something it took a long time for my family to finally find. We lost one, and had to look again. It's not something easily left behind." He said holding her close. "And I understand the need to do something important, I have a son who's spent his whole life pursuing that."

She smiled gently up at him. "As good as you look in that uniform, I'd like to feel your fur."

Ebon smiled and gracefully took off the jacket, and set it neatly to one side. He then realized the long-sleeved white shirt underneath wasn't any better, so he slipped it off. "Better?" He smiled seductively as she led him back into the bedroom.

"Much." Kim smiled as she turned to walk backwards for a few steps, running her fingers through his dense, soft fur. "Though this time you're the one getting a rubdown." She smiled affectionately playful.

"I like the sound of that." Ebon rumbled playfully. "You have such nice hands." He smiled, as he grabbed one and kissed it as she ducked her head with a blush.

Then she wrapped her arms around his neck and stretched up for a soft, loving kiss. "If nothing else, we shall enjoy the time we have together, without regret."

"Life is too short for regrets." He said as he pulled her into a close embrace.

"And too long not to enjoy it." She smiled against his black fur.

"Your ride is here." Ebon shouted back playfully to Kim as he let Morin in. There was no missing her appreciative look for the large scaled male, or that it was for more than just his body.

"Greetings Morin," she smiled and approached him.

"Hello, Kim." Morin said politely. "Have you ever traveled by translocation before?"

"I can't say as I have," she smiled, eager and relaxed about it.

"It's perfectly safe." He smiled encouragingly. "Though some find it disorienting the first few times. If you'll just come over and stand next to me, we can get you up to the ship."

"Have a good time." Ebon said with a smile, kissing her briefly before stepping back out of range.

"I'm sure we will," Kim grinned at him with a level of excited exuberance he wasn't used to seeing.

Morin extended his wings, and an aura of power surrounded them in glowing flames that obscured the room from sight for a brief moment before they died down to reveal a open room. The room had a strangely ancient feel to it, from the light brown rug on the floor to the red brown walls. A large fire burned in a copper brazier in the middle of the room, and the ceiling was painted in a mixture of blue and white that looked like the sky on a summer afternoon. "Welcome to the SilverStar, Kim." Morin said with a smile.

"Thank you," she smiled up at him. "Your quarters?"

"Meditation room. It's the easiest place to do translocation to and from, on board." He smiled back. "Other places will work, but I get the best results here. There's time for a brief tour, before dinner, if you're interested." He offered, as he cloaked his wings back.

"Understandable, and I'd love to see things a bit before dinner." Kim's smile widened as she let her Sight have full rein, taking in everything in this utterly alien and familiar environment.

"So, is there anything you'd be more interested in?" He asked, as he led the way into the hallway. The hallway was a distinct contrast to his quarters being very 'high tech' mostly in light blues with chrome. The odd thing was that in many places where the eye would expect to find square corners, there were curves and rounds, in fact there were very few square corners at all. "Engineering, Bridge, Recreation areas, Science, Medical, just to name a few." He offered, as they passed various crew members. In the space of a few minutes they passed a mixture of feline, canine and avian crewmembers.

"The recreation areas, I think." She smiled softly. "I'm not on business, after all."

"This way then." He smiled, and led the way to a nearby elevator. "Recreation." He said, once they were on board, and the elevator began moving smoothly, yet quickly.

"Welcome back, Captain." A pleasant female voice that came from a speaker grill said.

"Thank you, SilverStar." Morin said with a smile. "SilverStar is the Digital Sentience currently residing in this ship." He explained easily. "SilverStar, this is Kim. She's visiting from Origin."

"Welcome aboard, Kim." The pleasant voice said in a casual, yet honestly friendly tone.

"Thank you SilverStar," Kim smiled back despite not having a team body to smile at. "It is a pleasure to finally see a little of what Ebon has spoken so much about."

"Some parts of being a commando are just second nature." Morin said easily.

"Recreation." SilverStar said softly, as the elevator stopped and the doors opened. "Recreation actually takes up an entire deck." Morin explained as he led the way out of the elevator. "Though considered a luxury by some military planners, it was considered a necessity for the long missions SilverStar is often employed on." He said as they walked. A pair of male Black labs wearing running shorts and sneakers jogged past them. "This is very casual deck." He commented with a smile.

"Casual is good," she smiled at the pair. "Like Ebon, I've never cared much more the formalities of service."

"That he actually talked about it, is unusual." SilverStar chuckled softly. "He's usually so quiet."

"Some parts of being a commando are just second nature." Morin said easily.

"He talks when I ask." Kim chuckled softly. "And I haven't found him to be quiet at all."

"The NightBlades organization has just enough formality to stay efficient and functional." Morin nodded. "But no more than is necessary, since the core officers have no more use for formality than Ebon does. It makes dealing with the Admirality fun, but the NightBlades are both unique and unmatched in ability and success rate, so the Admirality has learned to deal with the lack of formality." He explained as they entered an area with a lack open floor divided into a number of combat practice areas. "This is one of four sparring rooms on board, it's a very popular activity."

"I expected so," she nodded and watched the activity with a lack of personal interest, but keen social one. "I got the distinct sense this was more a military mission than the ambassadors like to let on."

"Deep space can be a dangerous place." Morin said simply. "And there are few teams with the breadth of talent and experience to match the NightBlades. But that makes it mostly a military mission, since the NightBlades are the premier commando squad. The diplomats weren't thrilled, but honestly we had no idea what we would find on Origin." He said simply. "Though few thought it would still be inhabited by the original species."

"Kats are stubborn creatures," Kim replied. "Frequently beyond any sane level. But it's the only real way to survive a world like ours. We've likely lost everything, taken back to the stone age almost, a dozen times or more in history. It's not a nice place, but it's what we have."

"Nexus worlds tend to have that problem." Morin nodded. "It's why most of them are uninhabited." He said, consulting what the Library knew of such places. "Though they are fairly uncommon occurrences."

"I would hope so." She shuddered at the thought of too many of them. "One is too many for me."

"Dracon records have mention of six, counting Origin." Morin said quietly. "Three were evacuated with our help, one was a dead world when we found it, and the other was a very strange place indeed." He said with a shudder as he scanned the record summary.

"Worse than Aristal?" She asked softly, not sure which answer she'd prefer."

"Significantly." Morin nodded. "And disturbing in that the native population accepted the awful things, for the most part. There were a few rebels, and dissidents who didn't but they were a small minority. They were also the only ones we could help, the rest refused. It wasn't that they didn't know things were bad, but that they were convinced that they deserved everything that happened."

"That is ... disturbing." She shuddered at the thought of such a place. "Even the time before law sounds better than that."

"It probably was." He nodded. "It was the first religion I'd encountered that had as its base the assumption that they were condemned souls serving out their time of punishment in order to move on to the next stage of spiritual development. Most religions with a place of punishment don't have you start there."

"I've heard of a few, but not usually quite like that." Kim said softly. "It was more common before the War to think like that. I don't believe it was ever a true religion, just what some people believed." She shook her head fractionally. "The ones who believe it now ... I don't understand, but it seems to bring them some peace. They're the calmest people in the world, but it's disturbing to talk to one about their beliefs. They don't seem to mind that though. It's like a personal faith that doesn't feel the need to go further."

"Perhaps." Morin allowed as the walked from the sparring area into the large room that housed the pool. "It's just disturbing to read reports of people being so accepting of occupation, slavery, and brutal mistreatment."

"I can imagine." She nodded. "I have met some from those kinds of conditions, but they are never accepting of it. It's kind of odd to have people who know the problems we have and think it's a great improvement because we make sure everyone has what they need and don't beat them regularly."

"I have encountered those before, and it is somewhat odd." Morin nodded, as a powerfully muscled Tiger wearing only swim trunks walked up to them. "Hello, Samson." He said with a smile.

"Hello, Morin." He smiled back, before noting Kim's presence. "Well, we have guest. From the surface I presume?" He asked Morin.

"Yes, this is Kim." Morin smiled. "Kim, this is Samson who more often goes by his callsign of Rifleman."

The Tiger smiled as he realized just who Kim was. "A pleasure, ma'am." He said politely. "Welcome aboard."

"Thank you, Samson." She purred with an equally welcoming smile. "I see Ebon's siblings are equally handsome."

"Our designer was something of an artist." Samson smiled. "I see Ebon's good taste continues." He added with a warm smile. "If you'll excuse me, I've got a meeting in Engineering shortly. It was good meeting you." He finished, and took off running, shifting to quadruped tiger form as he did so.

"Schedules and Rifleman do not work well together, unless he's on a mission." Morin chuckled, as he watched the departing Tiger. "But few teenagers can handle schedules particularly well."

"Schedules and the gifted rarely work well together," she chuckled knowingly. "It's no surprise there."

"Very true." Morin nodded, as he opened the door into another large room. The room had an actual breeze, and instead of a ceiling it appear to be open to blue sky. In place of the usual floor was a large expanse of what appeared to be fairly short cut grass. "This is our outdoor room, and it's the largest single room on the ship. It actually extends upward through several decks."

"For the flyers and outdoor types," she nodded mostly to herself with a smile and deep breath of air. "I expect I will spend a lot of time here."

"And for the outdoor sports." Morin added with a smile. "Team contact sports are quite popular, and several of the more enthusiastic crewmembers insist that they can only be played properly on natural grass. We usually set up a second outdoor room when one is being used for sports."

"The ship is quite flexible in design then?" She looked more closely at the walls with her Sight.

"Completely reconfigurable, within certain limitations." Morin nodded. "We ask Star for changes and she figures out how to make them without compromising integrity or function."

"That is truly impressive," Kim murmured. "How many ships did you bring?"

"Three" Morin said easily. "There's also the Raven and the DarkStar, but they're more conventional technologically speaking. SilverStar is the most experienced of the three, as well as being the real capital ship."

"Capital ship?" She looked up at him uncertainly. "I'm not familiar with that term."

"Its a hold over from when many races had navies on water instead of in space." He smiled. "The capital ships were the large ships that held the center of battle groups. They carried the bulk of the firepower, and also represented the greatest investment of resources. I believe that is why they were called capital ships, because of all the capital, or resources, that went into building them."

"That makes sense, from a system that could afford such investments," she nodded thoughtfully as they walked. "It is not a luxury we have had in a long time, if ever."

"For many races, that was a choice they made during the period before the planet was unified." Morin said simply. "Many races went through long periods of warfare between the differing cultures that occupied their homeworlds. Even Draconea had such a period, though it was a far more restrained kind of warfare."

Kim nodded, thinking back over the history she knew. "We had such wars, long ago. So very little was reliably recorded about them though. It's rather sad, how much history we have lost, even recently."

"Being in a state of siege will do that." Morin said quietly. "Keeping records becomes secondary to surviving. People uncertain of there being a future, are often not worrying much about the past."

"Very true," she nodded sadly. "Particularly when the past is of little help understand the present troubles. If we faced the same enemy, we may have paid more attention to it."

"Well, things will be improving now." Morin said confidently. "Perhaps people will take time to try and find history that has been lost."

"Much like the Felsin are now." She nodded agreeably. "It has to get better."

"It will." Morin said, reassuringly. "The NightBlades have developed personal attachments to seeing that things get better. That has a way of making a difference." He smiled softly, as they crossed into an area that smelled of paints, clay, inks and other craft-related things. "This is the creative section of recreation for those interested in creative pursuits like painting, sculpture and the like."

"You really do have something for everyone here," she murmured in surprise and appreciation.

"We try." Morin nodded. "Crewmembers who can relax properly during their off-time, are much more alert and productive during their on-time. And everyone relaxes a bit differently."

"True," she nodded, still thinking it a little odd that one would want time off like that. "What does Nathan do in his spare time, or does he not give himself any?"

"He gives himself time-off, at least partially because his mother will if he doesn't." Morin chuckled. "It is a trick though getting him to not spend it reading medical journals or in intensive combat exercises. But some of it we spend together wandering in the Great Library." Morin said fondly. "But many of his preferred hobbies aren't really available, since they are mostly wilderness activities like camping, hiking and such. But probably the most popular one, is his cooking." Hardin grinned. "He usually manages to do a special meal for someone at least once a week."

"Now that I would not have guessed," she smiled in delighted surprise. "It is so rare to find a tom who can cook, much less enjoys it. He must be an incredible delight when he's not so moody."

"He's not usually so moody." Morin said quietly. "But he's still feeling guilty about what happened. He has very high standards for himself, and violating someone's memories like that is something he would never allow. That he's taken a serious liking to Jake, doesn't help the guilt any."

"Yes, those two." She rolled her eyes expressively in exasperation. "I really should just push the pair into bed or something. They both need a little release."

"That actually wouldn't help." Morin said quietly. "Nathan doesn't really understand the concept of 'dating' well, or the idea of a short-term relationship. He married the first tom he ever dated, and fell pretty much from the break-up of that relationship into his Joining with me." The reddish Dracon explained quietly. "I think Jake is the first 'crush' Nathan's ever had."

"Things can never be simple, can they?" She sighed softly. "Many more days of their lustful looks across the table while they're pretending nothing is there and I will burst out laughing at entirely the wrong moment."

"Yes, and Nathan is quite oblivious to Jake looking at him." Morin shook his head, as they walked through a large arboretum that looked out into space. "He's quite convinced that it's completely one-sided on his part."

"He doesn't believe you when you tell him otherwise?" She asked curiously.

"Well, I haven't actually been in the room when it was happening." He chuckled. "But he can be quite stubborn, especially when it comes to seeing his own faults. He's really quite unforgiving of his own failures. Of course at least part of that is because as a Healer, failures often have a very high price." Morin said quietly. "And partially because, its safer for him if its one-sided. At least the way he thinks about the situation it is. If it's one-sided then there's no danger of anything actually happening. His mother's tried to explain the value of short term relationships to him, but she hasn't had much more luck than I have." Morin sighed.

"Perhaps I should try," Kim said quietly and quite seriously. "I'm not sure it could hurt the situation any."

"Probably not." Morin agreed. "About the worst that could happen is that he gets a bit more confused about things. Just be careful, the closest he's had to a 'short term' relationship was a Joining that lasted about five years before ending in a painful divorce."

"Ouch," she winced slightly. "At least Jake understands the concept quite well. Both sides of it. Of course, with the WorldGate, it hardly has to be a one shot event either."

"I don't think that's really figured into Nathan's thinking yet." Morin shook his head. "I know that the concept of the WorldGate has the Greater College of Magic just buzzing with interest."

"I expect so, just as long as they realize it's sentient and treat it accordingly, they'll be welcome company."

"I imagine they'll figure that out right quick." Morin smiled. "They've adapted to the AI's and the Digital Sentience fairly well, so sentient WorldGates shouldn't be a big problem."

"Good, because there is little more frustrating than trying to get any upset WorldGate to cooperate and send you to the right place." She shook her head. "And gods help you if you actually piss them off. It's a really fast way to get in a lot of trouble."

"I imagine so." Morin nodded. "Kind of like pissing of your ship's DS. You really don't want the computer system mad at you."

"No," she shuddered in the memories of four days of pure terror.

"Something the matter, Kim?" Morin asked, as they walked through seemingly random corridors as the Dracon steered them back in the direction of Nareena's quarters. His limited biological empathy was strong enough to pick up on the terror behind the shudder, even if he didn't know the source.

"An entity took over Suliki while I was there," she explained briefly. "It took four days to get it out, all the while it was hunting those of us inside with our own equipment. I was one of three survivors, all of us Seers." She shuddered again. "We made it because we could see it coming, and we were lucky it didn't think we were all that dangerous. The mages and technicians were higher up on the kill list."

"Such a disaster was the reason we had laws for a long time that forbade giving AIs control over weapons or vehicles. Even now only certified Digital Sentiences are allowed to control such systems." Morin nodded understandingly.

Kim paused, thinking that over and not really making sense of it. "It was a Digital Sentience like creature that took over. AI's are incredibly useful to us in such places."

"Our experience has been that AIs tend to destabilize, go insane as it were, when exposed to the really big, real world interacting systems." Morin explained. "Digitals haven't had that problem."

"Mmm, interesting distinction." She nodded absently. "It's not really my field though. I've about exhausted my knowledge on the subject."

"Then I'd better stop." Hardin chuckled. "It's one of my specialties."

"Yes, a TechoMage would have to know it well." She nodded easily. "I focus on people, the kind that get dropped in on us, a little too much to know that much about technology."

"People are more Nathan and Nareena's end of things." Morin said easily. "I handle technology and politics."

"And Ebon handles problems," she chuckled fondly. "It is quite a family I've been drawn into."

"Ebon handles a lot of things." Morin grinned. "But being the person charge does lead to that. And yes it is. I was most surprised when they all turned up after being thought dead for well over fifty years. Nathan was in shock for a good week when he abruptly went from orphan to overrun with family."

"I can imagine," she breathed sharply at the very idea. "That had to have been traumatic, even if it was in a good way."

"Yes, it was." Morin nodded. "There was also the matter of properly introducing our families to each other. Fortunately, Father isn't as hung up on rank and station as some of his peers."

Kim paused a moment, placing the meaning of the statement that really had no equivalent in her world. "That is a good thing," she nodded.

"Very good." Morin chuckled softly. "I really dislike family arguments."

"And I can imagine just how ... explosive ... such a one as that could have been." She shook her head slightly. "I don't expect that Ebon would have taken it kindly."

"I expect not." Morin nodded. "I would not have taken it kindly, and I'm not afraid to argue with Father when necessary. It took fifteen years to get Nathan to realize I wanted to be more than just friends, I certainly wasn't going to lose that to some old traditions concerning rank and heritage." He said with a bright fire showing slightly at the edge of his gold eyes. "But fortunately it didn't happen."

"Sometimes Fate is kind," she smiled slightly. "We do get payback for the grief we go threw in her name."

"I asked Grandmother about her once." Morin chuckled slightly. "I was assured that there isn't actually any individual entity as such. It's mostly just the result of random coincidence and the meddling of various Powers." He said with a slight smile. "I was kind of disappointed, I wanted someone to yell at, on a one to one basis."

Kim regarded him curiously for a very long moment, placing the unsaid pieces of the statement together into a picture she had difficulty believing.

"I can't say I ever believed that Powers are real." She finally said softly. "Not as anything more than powerful individuals at least."

"Well, I'm not entirely sure they are more than powerful individuals. Very powerful in some cases, and about as varied as mortals as far as personalities and motives." Morin said simply. "Some even were mortals once, or so I'm told. And some are very hard to understand. But I guess being millions of years old, will do that."

Kim regarded him for another long moment as they walked, correlating that to her own believes and understanding of the universe.

"They do not claim to be a race, then?"

"None that I'm familiar with." Morin said after thinking about it. "Some are more closely connected than others, but most of them seem to be descended from something called the Primal Source. As far as I understand it, the Primal Source is basically the initial energy of the universe. The reason they're Immortal is because of their connection to that energy, or at least that's one of the more widely held theories."

"So what is a God to you, when you know they are just people?" She asked softly, trying to work two very different concepts into a cohesive whole.

"Honestly, I've never really had a concept of a God, at least as some people do." Morin admitted. "But then I'm on good terms with the Power that created my people."

"I can see how that would make a difference," Kim nodded softly. "It's very different from how things are around here."

"It does usually. Having a Power that cares, can make a big difference." Morin said simply. "Though not as big a difference as some people might think."

"I meant knowing the Power active on your world personally would make a difference in how you think of them." She smiled slightly. "It's no longer an abstract set of rules passed down by mortals when you can ask the one responsible in person."

"That's true." Morin smiled. "Though actually, StarFire has given us very few rules. Most of them we created, and we know that."

"So very few religions seem to acknowledge that." She said softly, slowly realizing that she did believe in the abstract notion of 'God' and outside the casual debate with co-workers, here talking to someone who knew his God personally, it was hard to deal with.

"Just try attributing statements to someone who's likely to show up and pointed out the ones she didn't say." Morin chuckled lightly earning a matching one from Kim. "And we did have a few leaders early on, who tried that." He added as they entered the residential area of the ship.

"Sounds like the press from before the war." She giggled, grateful to have a distraction from the thoughts of Gods and the nature of reality she though she was long past.

"Kind of." Morin smiled. "There's a very popular story of one clan leader's attempt at a holy book, bursting into flame as all the stuff he wrote was deleted."

"That's one reality check that won't soon be forgotten." She snickered.

"StarFire doesn't intervene often, but no one forgets when she does." Morin grinned, as he stopped in front of a door. "Ah, we've arrived."

"I bet," Kim smiled and tried to relax, unaccountably nervous.

Morin knocked on the door, and after a few moments it opened. Waiting inside was a tall, female Tiger with flame red fur between the thin black stripes. Even dressed as she was, in casual slacks and a blouse, she seemed regal. "Hello, Nareena."

"Good evening, Morin." She replied with a smile. "This must be Kim." She said with a warm, welcoming smile for the much shorter female that was returned even as Kim's eyes did a major workup on the Healer that had changed so many lives.

"Yes, Nareena this is Kim. Kim, this is Nareena, Ebon's second mate and Nathan's mother." Morin said by way of introduction.

"A pleasure to finally meet you, Kim." Nareena said, stepping forward and extending a friendly hand. The smell of good food cooking wafted in from the next room.

"Yes," she smiled back and accepted the handshake. "It smells very good in there."

"Yes, Storm takes after his father in the kitchen." Nareena smiled. "Dinner's not quite ready. Please, make yourself comfortable." She offered, indicating the comfortable chairs, in what appeared to be the living room.

"Thank you," Kim smiled and accepted, selecting a spot with a good view of as much as possible while still being social.

"If you ladies will excuse me, I have a rugby match to referee." Morin said, departing after a polite short bow.

"Thank you for bringing Kim up, Morin."

"My pleasure, Nareena."

"I expect he will be having an energetic evening." Kim chuckled softly, even without knowing exactly what rugby was.

"Not as much as some referees would." Nareena chuckled. "Being able to hover above the field has certain advantages. It is one of the NightBlades favorite pastimes."

"I can imagine," she nodded and relaxed back into the wonderful smells and the friendly company. "Somehow, I can't see you playing it much, though."

"No, not really my style." She smiled easily. "For one thing I don't have the Warform to play in. Actually, I was referring more to the original NightBlades. The team was almost forty years old when I got involved."

"Ebon and his brothers," she nodded with a smile. "You changed him quite a bit, I think." She added softly, curious about the contradiction she sometimes saw in him.

"With Cazi's help." Nareena smiled fondly. "He was very different when I first met him."

"Tell me about him, back then." Kim asked softly. "I'd like to hear about the tattered remains I see now and then."

"He was very much the professional commando. What the target or mission was, didn't really matter. He got his instructions and acted on them. Right and wrong were never an issue, never even considered. But then it was the way he was made, and the way he'd been conditioned since birth. It was the way all of them were, completely professional and unemotional about their work, but complete teenagers when they were off-duty." Nareena explained, closing her eyes to remember the very different Panther that Cazi had first introduced her to.

"He wasn't on the right side then, was he?" Kim half guessed, half hoped.

"No, he wasn't." Nareena nodded. "But that also wasn't something he ever considered. That there were two sides wasn't really something he thought about. There was just the target, and people who'd try to keep him from achieving his objectives. They very rarely succeeded, since he was very good at what he did, even back then. He set standards back then that people still find hard to meet."

"I'm not surprised," she smiled faintly. "He is exceptional in so many ways."

"That's very true." Nareena smiled fondly. "What surprised me, was how well he took the idea of children. Well, once we got past his little difficulty." She smiled with slight amusement at Kim's curious look.

"A little too fixated on toms, was he?" She half guessed.

"Far more complicated than that." Nareena shook her head. "Part of his design was that he couldn't respond to a female on a sexual level. Even thinking about it, could cause him to lock up. And the psychological response was mirrored on the physical level. He could be completely turned on by a hot tom, but throw a picture of naked fem in front of him, and you might as well have doused him in ice water."

"That's cruel," her face tensed. "I know people naturally like that, but to design it into someone ...."

"The designers didn't want the NightBlades reproducing." Nareena said softly. "They weren't sure what would happen if a Generation 0 had offspring, and felt it better to avoid the issue entirely."

"Still ..." she protested softly, then paused. "He's older than I thought."

"Probably a good deal older, depending on old you thought he was." Nareena said gently. "Side effect of his origin, as far as I can tell."

"He mentioned the reproductive technology was two generations old," Kim explained. "If they were only concerned with females, then he's older than that."

"Well, not exactly. They weren't so concerned about the reproductive technology because of all the safeguards in it." She said easily. "Natural reproduction is far more unpredictable."

She thought about that for a while, then nodded. "This tech, how ... natural ... are the kits?" She fumbled for words to get the question that had been nagging her since she learned of it.

"You can't tell the difference." Nareena smiled. "The only real difference is before their born. We don't do any genetic manipulation that isn't medically necessary."

The shekat chewed on that for a silent moment.

"So the ... randomness ... of what traits are passed on is still there?"

"The good ones, yes." Nareena nodded. "But we screen for the various genetic negatives, and can correct them before birth. Of course, that's true for the natural way as well. We've pretty much eliminated the birth defects that parents used to worry about."

"You don't loose many kittens, do you?"

"Not any more thankfully." Nareena nodded. "There are enough dangers after birth, without losing them to birth defects." She said softly. "But once in a while, something slips the screening process. No process is completely perfect, no matter how badly we want it to be."

Kim nodded, thinking hard about that. "It's going to be amazing what that does to my culture." She said softly. "After so long having such strict controls and dangers, to even let the guys have kits ... it's going to be a revolution."

"It was at home." She smiled. "And it did bring our birth rate back up to where we wanted it. Population control is one thing, but negative population growth is just not sustainable."

"Not indefinitely," Kim nodded. "It's good when it's intentional to keep things under control, but too long and you've got a problem surviving as a race."

"Exactly, we're at a stage where we're trying to keep growth at half a percent, or maybe a full one percent." Nareena said simply. "We're not to a population level where 0 growth is needed, and certainly not in the desperate straits where negative growth is needed."

"Plus you have other worlds to expand to," she pointed out. "It's not like here, where colonization is a very serious problem to make work."

"True, colonization without spaceflight can be dicey. Even with these WorldGates I've heard mentioned. But our scans indicated that large areas of your world aren't inhabited yet. I figured that was a restriction based on defensive needs."

"Yes, for this world," she nodded. "But we've tried to colonize threw the WorldGates. The chaos always seems to follow to the new worlds, no matter where they are."

"That's odd." Nareena said curiously. "Perhaps its some odd effect of the WorldGate. If so, we'll have to be on our guard when one gets installed in Alliance space. In a worst case scenario we might have to ask StarFire to do something about the problem."

Kim thought about it for a while, and what she'd seen the few times she'd been to their off world bases. "From a Seer's perspective, it is the people that bring it." She said carefully, working threw something she'd never considered too much. "It is all we know, so it is drawn to us when there is a convenient path, because it is expected on some level."

"Well, that may be something that can worked on." Nareena said thoughtfully. "It may require some high-level players, but it maybe possible to keep the chaos from following."

"It might not happen. We know it's not like that in the Alliance, so it won't be an expectation." She paused. "Or at least I hope not. If it's an infection ..." she shuddered. "Might be best to just quarantine us and let things run their course."

"We do not give up that easily." Nareena said determinedly. "And at this point, Nathan will take the issue to StarFire directly, if necessary." She said with a fond smile.

"That ... that is going to take some real getting used to." Kim admitted softly. "Powers are not something we see much of, and they tend not to be the friendly type when we do." She chuckled nervously. "It's strange to think that Felsinor has three as guardians, and they actually interact regularly."

"Well, Draconea has one and she's actually the nominal head of the government. Not that she really gets involved in day to day governing, but she's there. I'm not sure exactly how it works out, but Morin is her grandson." She said quietly. "Or maybe great-grandson and they drop the great in normal usage."

"That would be StarFire?"

"Yes." Nareena nodded. "He rarely mentions the relationship, because he feels its too much like name dropping. However, since you're getting involved with this family, you should know just who you're getting involved with."

"More rank than my brain knew existed," she chuckled in quiet bemusement. "A General for a son is one thing, but a God for a Great-Mother-in-Law is something else."

"I was bit surprised when I found out myself." Nareena chuckled. "That's okay. Cazi also happens to be minor Dracon nobility, so there's just lots of rank to go around. Not bad for a group that started out with nine members with no family, and one who'd been disowned." She shook her head in amusement.

"Did your family ever accept you back?" She asked softly.

"No, even after my father passed away, my brother was just as unreasonable." She said quietly. "They were horrified that I'd have kits by someone who'd been created from scratch in a lab. They can be horribly old-fashioned, and closed minded. But father was a brilliant Healer, I learned a lot from him." She said quietly.

"At least some good came of it," Kim said gently. "And it doesn't look like your family has suffered any for it."

"Not in a long time." Nareena said quietly. "I made the mistake of trying to introduce Nathan to his grandfather once. I thought maybe father would soften when he saw his grandson. That was a big mistake." She sighed softly. "It took awhile to smooth the hurt my father's words caused."

"That is sad, that he was so closed mined that he did not take pleasure in seeing his own grandkit." Kim said softly. "They are such a treasure."

"That they are." She smiled. "I was overjoyed when I discovered that not only was my son still alive, but that I had a grandson as well."

"The one who is creating those unreasonably good smells?" She smiled.

"Yes, that would be Storm." She smiled. "And apparently he's just finishing putting dinner on the table, so we can move to the dining room." She added, as she stood, Kim happily on her heals, taking in everything as they passed from one room to the next.

When the Dracon-winged White Tiger in his late teens came into view, Kim paused, her Sight more than a little amazed at what it saw in him.

"Kim, this is my grandson Storm. Storm, this is Kim." Nareena said warmly.

"A pleasure, ma'am." Storm said with a smile, as he set an ice bucket, with a bottle chilling in it down on the table. Once he'd done that, he extended a friendly hand. "Grandfather hasn't been this excited in years."

"It is a delight to met you as well, Storm." She accepted his hand, pausing for a moment. "You ... chose ... the panther sculpture Ebon gave me." She smiled warmly.

"Yes, I did." Storm smiled back.

"Enough modesty, Storm." Nareena smiled. "You didn't just choose it. It's one of the ones you did on the trip out here." She grinned.

"Well, I did choose it out of the ones I'd done." He grinned back.

"That is an incredible talent," Kim smiled, honestly impressed and pleased. "Mixed with your magical gifts, it must be fascinating to look at the world."

"It usually is." Storm admitted. "Especially this trip, Transluminal travel provides some really exciting images to work with."

"I can only imagine," she smiled, faintly jealous for a moment of the Felsin who looked only a few years younger than she was. "At least for the time being. You seem to have quite a few talents. The meal smells fantastic."

"My father is a very good teacher." Storm smiled. "Thank you. My father would've done the cooking himself, but he's down on the surface, so I'm filling in. Everything is done, so I'll leave you two to dinner. Castir is expecting me. It was good meeting you." He said with a smile for Kim and his grandmother as he left.

"Not that I can't cook." Nareena smiled. "But both my son and grandson are better at it." She said, and then chuckled quietly as she looked at the shining blue bottle sitting in the ice bucket. "I see my son-in-law had a hand in setting up dinner."

"Chim'ra," Kim smiled at the vividly warm memories of the night Ebon had introduced her to it.

"Yep." Nareena smiled, as she poured two glasses. "As close to alcohol as I ever get, and I've yet to find a meal it didn't go with." She added as she handed Kim a glass. "To good company, and new friends." The Tigress said, as she raised her glass.

"And a bright future," Kim added to the toast before taking a sip.

"And a bright future," Kim added to the toast before taking a sip, letting the slightly familiar warmth and sensations of pleasantness flow threw her.

"Well, let's see what Storm's been up to." Nareena grinned after taking a sip. She casually lifted the cover to the center dish, and took a sniff. "Chervali Parmesan." She chuckled. "He's been mixing worlds in his cooking again."

"It smells wonderful," Kim drew in a deep breath of game bird, cream sauce and pasta. "Colorful too."

"He's very creative." She said as she handed Kim the serving spoon. "Given we're short serving staff, its self-serve." She grinned, as she opened the other dishes to reveal a dish of colorful mixed fresh fruit, and a basket of garlic bread.

"I prefer it anyway," she smiled and took a generous portion for her plate, not missing plenty of the deep green noodles. "I'm too used to being the serving staff to feel normal about having someone else do it."

"I actually grew up with the whole serving staff routine." Nareena smiled, as she helped herself. "And we do have them back home, but we didn't bring any of the Taurin along on this trip. They really don't care for space travel, and the synthesis equipment works well enough. And SilverStar can provide kitchen facilities for those who want to cook." She said easily.

"Sounds like you've got it quite well covered." Kim smiled and relaxed with another sip of Chim'ra.

"Just one of those things involved in planning long duration missions." Nareena said easily, as she sat down. "Crew morale is critical, and the longer you're away from home port, the more difficult it is to maintain. Though with NightBlades, it is a bit easier."

"How so?" She asked, honestly fascinated by the entire concept of long missions into space.

"Mostly because NightBlade morale runs higher than normal to start with." Nareena smiled. "And because most NightBlades are mated to others inside the organization, which means they don't have to leave loved ones behind."

"That must have made it doubly hard on Ebon, before I said I'd be coming back with you."

"He was quite beside himself." Nareena admitted softly. "He doesn't give his heart easily, or often. But when he does, it's pretty much without reservation. After Ebon and Nathan, I'm half expecting Cazi to call and tell me he's fallen for someone down there." She shook her head.

"At least it can't turn out any worse than Jake and Nathan's situation." She shook her head. "That is just a mess any way you look at it."

"No kidding." Nareena shook her head. "But I can't say I'm that surprised. Jake probably reminds Nathan of Rhymar in more than a few ways." She said softly. "And despite everything that happened, he never stopped loving Rhymar."

"I don't think you ever stop loving your first boyfriend, no matter what happens," she nodded slightly. "Including nothing."

"No, I don't think so." Nareena agreed. "But things ended very badly in this case. Did Morin mention anything about it?" She asked gently.

Kim paused, finishing the bit she had on her fork and thought about it. "I don't think he did, but Ebon mentioned it ended in divorce. Not pleasant all the way around."

Nareena sighed. "The divorce was never official." She said softly. "Nathan had been planning to ask for one, because of some simply irresolvable conflicts. But before he could the Mephits attempted to kidnap Nathan, and while the attempt failed, Rhymar was killed during the battle, despite Nathan's best efforts to save him." She explained softly. "There are few things more painful than a Joining broken by a violent death."

Kim winced as she realized it was a statement from experience. "I am sorry for your loss." She said softly, the words from tradition more than any intended to really make sense. "Yours and your son's."

"I was lucky, the loss I thought I'd felt turned out to not have happened." Nareena said quietly. "But it gave me a personal understanding of what its like. It's not something that's commonly know, but it's important to understanding where Nathan's coming from emotionally." She added softly. "Though he probably doesn't even know it."

Kim nodded solemnly. "This is not going to be easy for anyone." She murmured. "They've both suffered such pain around their hearts."

"No, probably not." Nareena said quietly. "Out of curiosity, do you know if Jake has any background in air combat?" She asked wondering just how deep the coincidences would run.

"A very strong one," she nodded easily. "He still flies as a gunner sometimes. The best on record."

"Sweet Felsira." Nareena shook her head. "And I'm quite sure Nathan knows that too." She said softly, though she didn't explain herself right away.

"Most likely," Kim nodded. "It's common knowledge in his records. What is the connection?"

"Nathan was kidnapped from us when he was very young." Nareena said softly. "And made part of a program known as the Kitten Commandos. One part of this program involved Nathan being the pilot in a pilot /gunner pairing. His gunner, and probably the first friend his own age he'd ever had, died in a training accident. That would've been bad enough, but those in charge of the program were very careful to make sure Nathan thought the death was his fault." She said softly.

Kim couldn't hide her horror or disgust, or the rage it sparked in her normally mellow mind.

"He has turned out remarkably well for it." She said eventually. "I see he has not had a kind life in many respects."

"No, he hasn't." Nareena nodded. "Though it has been much better since his Joining with Morin." She said with a fond smile. "I couldn't have asked for a better son-in-law."

"Yes," she smiled softly. "He is a particularly fine person, and a very good balance to your son. Patience ... I did not see much in Nathan, at least not towards himself."

"That's very true." Nareena nodded. "He sets very high standards for himself, higher than he'd ever set for anyone else. And he's always had a very strong need to prove himself, even when he already has." The Tigress explained. "And I think right now at least part of it is trying to impress Jake, after what Nathan sees as a horrible first impression."

"Yes, even from what I know, that was a particularly ... unpleasant ... way to meet." She shook his head slightly. "It would just be too much to ask for them to just open their eyes and see the other desires him, isn't it?"

"If Jake's even half as stubborn as Nathan, yes it probably is." Nareena shook her head. "Neither of them would make things that simple. Of course, getting Nathan to believe that short-term relationships have value would probably help. Nothing to keep the eyes closed like the expectation that opening them will hurt."

"That is one I'm still working on making any sense of," Kim admitted with a slight shake of her head and another sip of Chim'ra. "I have known those who see no value in long term relationships. Up to two weeks ago most thought I was among them. But to not find value in sharing mutual desires? It's very strange to me."

"My guess is its a product of his not having what could be called a normal kittenhood." Nareena said quietly. "He was a Kitten Commando until he was sixteen, though for many years he only thought he was eight. He was always small for his age, and is a bit short as Tigers go. And he was always focused on his next goal; pilot's certification, medic certifications, making full medic and so on. Somehow he was so driven, that he simply missed that period of raging hormonal urges that most kittens go through." She explained. "So he never did any of that mutual desire satisfaction that most teenagers do. He didn't even date until Rhymar asked him out, and then he married Rhymar." She said quietly. "He's almost a century old, and he's had two mates, and is working on his first crush." She shook her head. "Cazi's nearly as frustrated trying to figure out how to help."

"That is ... most unusual." She murmured, trying to think of anything similar she had encountered and coming up blank. "We do have one advantage however." She chuckled weakly. "Jake definitely understands the concept, and as a ranking Seer, I have an extraordinary level of liberties I can take when speaking to him." She chuckled with a grin for the Tigress. "Much like medical personnel have with senior officers."

Nareena grinned back. "Something that Nathan's more familiar with than I am. Though I'm part of the NightBlades, I've never really had a rank. I'm a Healer not a Medic, and it would be inappropriate for me to do so." She said simply. "I realize that sounds like a strange distinction, but its been one the Felsin have always had."

"You do not have any authority over your patients, even when they insist on doing things that harm themselves?" Kim regarded her curiously, making sure she understood it right.

"As Healer, yes." Nareena explained. "But it has no relation to any sort of rank structure. Medics have a rank, and therefore there are issues about superior officers and such. Healers simply deal with patients, and rank is irrelevant. But you find very few Healers traveling with military units. I do so, because the military unit is also my family."

Kim chewed on that while she worked threw a few more bites of the game bird and pasta dish, trying to remember if such a distinction existed on Aristal.

"I don't think we have Healers," she eventually admitted. "Everyone has rank, even if it's not used by ninety percent of the population."

"Only the military has rank in the Alliance." Nareena explained. "No one else has a need for it, but then the Alliance is not in a siege situation. I suppose everyone is somewhat military in such a situation." She added thoughtfully.

"You probably don't all go through the military, either." She added with a light chuckle. "Everyone born on Aristal has."

"No, we don't." Nareena nodded. "There hasn't been a universal draft since the last Hive War."

"Which was some time back, I take it?"

"About a century, give or take a few years." Nareena nodded. "It ended a couple years after Nathan was born."

Kim could only shake her head. "That's still pretty hard to conceptualize, living so long. Much less looking as young as he does afterwards."

"That's part Dracon heritage and part whatever reason the NightBlades aren't aging noticeably, and he's only just reaching middle age, even for Felsin standards." Nareena explained. "Felsin lifespan is about two hundred to two fifty, give or take."

Kim choked on the bite she was chewing, too shocked to do anything but stare for a long time. When she remembered to swallow, she nodded. "Does Ebon know I'm unlikely to see forty?" She asked just barely above a whisper.

"I very much doubt he does." Nareena said gently. "And if he did, I suspect his reaction would be to insist that I give you a thorough checkup to see if that's something that can be helped. I don't him accepting that as an unalterable fact."

It earned another shallow nod. "I'm beginning to think that revolutionary is going to pale in comparison to the results of these talks. To live that long ...."

"Seems almost impossible." Nareena finished quietly. "Changes your perspective on things a bit too."

"I ... can't even imagine." She admitted quietly.

"I'm not surprised." Nareena said gently. "It's a big leap to have something so fundamental change."

"Probably more fundamental that being on the loosing end of the war." She whispered, still largely in shock. "A five to eight fold leap in life expectancy ... makes our leaders no longer so old."

"It's possible that your lifespan was long at one time, and something about the war has shortened it." Nareena suggested gently. "Your leaders may simply be from the last generation to have a normal lifespan."

"Casualty rates are part of it." She drew her wits together, trying to remember everything that went into that figure. "Between combat, pl... disease ... and everything. Maybe." She nodded, thinking hard.

"High casualty rates can seriously distort life expectancy figures." Nareena nodded. "Epidemics can have a similar effect if they last. But that's when life expectancy becomes a questionable statistic."

Kim nodded again, a slight tremor at the idea of living so long that was frightening. "And I thought my parents were simply very long lived." She said quietly.

"They probably just didn't suffer from those things that have altered the life expectancy statistics." Nareena said gently. "It can frightening to suddenly have more years than plans."

"They're almost fifty," she said softly. "I've always thought that was a long time. They do too."

"Under current circumstances it probably is." Nareena acknowledged. "But circumstances can change, and will be changing."

Kim nodded again, trying to access the implications of what she was being told. Abruptly she chuckled. "We're supposed to be getting to know each other, not figuring out the social implications of first contact fallout."

"Oh, I think we're doing them both." Nareena smiled. "But we're both involved in some very complex situations, so its hard not to talk about them. Especially with Nathan and Jake driving you to distraction with their mutual blindness."

"Oh, kats, that is an understatement." She couldn't help but laugh. "Ebon is a wonder for helping out afterwards, though."

"Yes, he can be very good for stress." Nareena smiled. "I know I always find him a joy after a long day of surgery. Cazi's pretty good too, but in a different way."

"Mmm, yes. One is seriously sweet, the other seriously playful." She chuckled fondly at various memories. "Between them, I rarely have the energy to feel less than wonderful until I fall asleep. You managed to find two real gems in that pair."

"That was mostly luck on my part." Nareena smiled. "A mutual friend set me up on a blind date with Cazi. And for our fourth date, he invited me to a threesome with his boyfriend, which turned out to be Ebon. Actually, they were already pretty much mates at that point."

"Why do I expect that was a dare of some kind between Cazi and Ebon?" She chuckled softly, remembering the earlier comments about Ebon and females.

"From what they've said, it was some sort of odd game of Truth or Dare." She chuckled. "Though what a super hacker and a black ops assassin were playing truth or dare about, I can only imagine."

"I'm not sure I want to." She giggled, suddenly feeling very much her lack of years compared to Nareena.

"I've never really pressed them about it." Nareena grinned. "But I'm convinced I won the game, and I wasn't even playing."

"That's boys for you." She chuckled softly and sipped a little more Chim'ra. "I will give the Dracons this, they make a fine drink."

"Definitely." Nareena smiled and sipped a little herself. "More fun than alcohol, and it doesn't muddle the brain."

"Or freak the senses," she added with a truly appreciative smile. "I don't think it's nearly as likely to cause anger or depression either."

"It doesn't cause depression." Nareena said easily, between bites of garlic bread. "Quite the opposite actually, and it doesn't seem to aggravate aggressive tendencies either. It can however, make one quite silly and a bit oblivious to bad things, if used in excess."

"Not a bad side effect, for overindulgence." She chuckled slightly.

"Depends on where you overindulge." Nareena chuckled. "Roofs of high buildings are a bad place for fearlessness."

"Unless you have wings, that is certainly true." She sobered almost instantly, far too aware of the consequences of such actions.

"But aside from that sort of thing, it's probably the safest form of intoxication I'm aware of." Nareena said easily. "And I've never heard of anyone overdosing on it."

"You probably get too giddy to care to drink any more." Kim chuckled softly.

"Something like that." Nareena grinned. "The only thing it really shares with alcohol, is that it does tend to 'loosen' people up a bit."

"Make for a useful first date drink, I expect." She grinned, thinking of all the advantages it had over the popular choice.

"If it was more common it probably would be." Nareena smiled. "But unless you have Dracon connections, it can be expensive to come by."

"Difficult to make, or they just aren't much into exporting?" Kim cocked her head curiously, thinking about just how useful this stuff would be on Aristal.

"Difficult to make, I think." Nareena said thoughtfully, though she wasn't entirely sure. "Morin would probably have a better idea. It could be that their just trying to not put the alcohol industries out of business."

"I honestly can't say it would be a bad thing to replace it with," she considered honestly. "Though I doubt it could happen. Too many enjoy the drunkenness that this does not create."

"Very true." She nodded. "And Chim'ra will never be as cheap as beer." She shook her head. "Intoxication by the barrelful." She snorted.

"And so easy to make, I gave up counting the number of base ingredients you can start with."

"As did I." Nareena chuckled. "Though beer has never been popular with the NightBlades. But then the core NightBlades couldn't get drunk on beer even if they wanted to."

"If there's something out there that can get Ebon drunk, I expect it would kill most of us outright." Kim shook her head. "I have never seen anyone with that kind of constitution before."

"I haven't seen anything yet." Nareena smiled. "And it's part of what he's designed to be." She added simply. "The designers were pretty good at getting the traits they wanted. What's surprising is how much of it was inherited by the kits."

Kim thought about that a bit. "Why? He is their biological father. One of them at least."

"With that level of genetic engineering you can never be sure what will hold." Nareena said simply. "Sometimes nature doesn't care for that much tinkering."

"Given what I see in Nathan, nature seems to approve of him a great deal." She smiled softly, the words bringing to mind a few visions of what her kits by him might look like.

"Yes, it does." Nareena nodded. "Nathan's younger siblings are similar." She smiled proudly. "Though they've had easier lives, for the most part."

"I would dearly hope so," Kim shivered, both from what she knew of his life, and the realization that 'her kits' were now a very unlikely dream. "It scared him very deeply, and he is such a good person."

"You want kits by Ebon, don't you?" Nareena asked gently, clearly quite at ease with the idea. It was something that was natural to expect in any pairing, or Joining, after all.

"Yes," she nodded, more than a little saddened by the thought. "Very much. I knew when I first saw him he was special. I've only grown to appreciate that more as I've come to know him better."

"But you don't think its possible?" She asked gently, fairly sure that was what she was sensing, but passive reading was always less certain with another talented individual.

"It ... is much less likely," she nodded slightly. "Even with your technology ... I am sorry, but I do not know if I can accept that way yet. It goes against so much of what my mother taught me of when she was pregnant. Of what was important for their health and gifts. I do not object to it, I just do not know if it is something I can accept for myself, even for kittens."

"I understand." Nareena said gently. "But medicine may be able to make it possible the natural way. Regenerative techniques can now heal injuries once thought permanent, even nerve damage is no longer the incurable thing it once was." She explained encouragingly.

"Where there is life, there is hope." Kim nodded, understanding that well used phrase on an entirely new level. She smiled very slightly. "That Ebon enjoys being a father will actor in as well."

"He's like a new father every time." Nareena smiled fondly. "And the other NightBlades make wonderful uncles, both protective and indulgent at the same time."

"I did notice, though, your kittens are so widely spaced." She half asked, half stated, uncertain of just how to phrase the real question.

"We enjoy being able to give each kitten our full attention." She smiled softly. "And there's never been a hurry, or a shortage of other kits around for them to play with. Besides, if I had kittens as often as some do, I'd have a full division of them by now." She chuckled lightly.

Kim thought about that for a long time before she nodded. "To have such a long fertile life," she shook her head in amazement. "It is rare for a mother to manage to have more than two or three litters, even when she is encouraged to breed. It is so different."

"It does leave the potential for a lot of kits." Nareena nodded. "Though we rarely have what you'd call litters. The usual is single births with the occasional double and rare triples."

"You are not talking about how many survive." She blinked in surprise.

"Same thing normally." Nareena said gently. "There are occasional tragic losses, but far rarer than they once were."

Kim could only fall silent, the realities of just how bad things were .... She'd always known Aristal was in bad shape. No one contested it. But now, knowing this ... it was enough to make the Seer's heart bleed for all the kittens that would not have died on another world.

Nareena gracefully stood and walked around to put a gentle hand on Kim's shoulder. There were no good words to express sympathy between worlds, and Nareena had little experience with loss on such a large scale. "Perhaps with these talks, we can make those deaths a thing of the past." She said gently.

"I ... I can only hope." Kim nodded and took a long, slow drink of Chim'ra. "To think of it as normal ...." she shook her head in something akin to shock and let the shimmering blue liquid work it's magic on the worst of her mood.

"Things will be better." Nareena said reassuringly.

"And until then, we shall simply have to believe and work for it." She managed a smile. "I am not usually so morose."

"You've had a sudden exposure to something that contrasts starkly with what you've lived with you're entire life." Nareena said gently. "And the contrast is not a favorable one. A little moroseness is to be expected."

"Even if it is annoying." She sort of chucked and tried to turn her attention back to her meal. "You have a remarkable family so far."

"Yes, I do." Nareena nodded, as she returned to her chair. "And I think you're going to fit in just fine." She said confidently. "But then, Ebon wouldn't fall for just anyone."

"So I have noticed," she chuckled softly. "His mates are as remarkable as he is."

"Remarkable people tend to attract and be attracted to remarkable people." Nareena replied with a smile.

"And raise more of the same," she lifted her glass slightly.

"If we pay attention." Nareena nodded and a slight smile. "Parenting is most definitely an art, not a science."

"If it were a science, everyone would come out exceptional," she chuckled slightly, though there was a trace of old pain there too.

"Except that if everyone is exceptional, than that becomes the average." Nareena chuckled. "Or at least that was one of my mentor's opinions on the concept of genetic engineering to make everyone exceptional."

"There's that too," she nodded in agreement. "Funny to think of that as not a good thing, but it's been a week like that."

"It has been a very unusual week." Nareena agreed easily. "One of the most unusual first contact missions I've ever been on."

"If it wasn't, I think I would be very frightened of whatever was stranger than this place." She chuckled softly and shook her head. "If it beats a nexus world, I don't want to know."

"Neither do I." Nareena chuckled lightly. "And certainly don't want to go their. Probably half the team would end up seriously involved." She smirked teasingly.

"Well, it's one way to build the team up," Kim chuckled softly, unable to abandon her mindset of gathering the best together.

"That depends on how many of them see what's going on, now doesn't it?" Nareena chuckled playfully.

"Gods, your oldest is precious, even when he is being a total pain." She chuckled. "I do hope he listens to someone. Though I expect he'll only actually hear it is Jake tells him."

"I expect so." Nareena nodded. "Fortunately, he's a total pain very rarely. Usually he's solving other people's problems." She said fondly. "I'm just grateful you don't seem to have any Gargoyles hanging around." She said with a bemused shake of her head.

"I wouldn't be surprised if there were, but it's not a race I'm familiar with off the top of my head."

"You can't miss them." Nareena grinned. "They turn to stone during daylight. Aside from that they vary greatly, more so that a lot of species. But as far as I know, they're native to one planet and they haven't done any colonization."

"Definitely don't have any of those known then," she nodded easily. "I'd have gotten called in from anywhere at that showing up."

"Good, nice to know that at least one tragic event failed to get dragged." Nareena shook her in wry amusement. "Most of the others seemed to be getting included."

"Mission's not over yet," Kim warned with a low chuckle. "They still might show."

"Sweet Felsira, I hope not." Nareena shook her. "Things are quite complicated enough as is."

"That they are," she relaxed back with a sip of Chim'ra and regarded the Tigress evenly. "So, are you as bi as the boys?"

"Certainly not as much so, as Cazi." Nareena chuckled. "And not in a long time." She said thoughtfully. "I prefer males, which has worked out well, considering I was the only female in the group for a long time."

Kim nodded, still thoughtful. "We have that much in common, though I expect I've have a few more female playmates recently." She paused, thoughtful on the sip of shimmering blue liquid. "Would you come to be introduced to my parents, before we leave?"

"Certainly." Nareena smiled warmly. "Seeing as you're the only one of the four of us, who has parents that are still talking to you."

Kim winced slightly at the reminder. "And I'm the one who's leaving." She shook her head with a bit of a chuckle. "At least with the StarGate it won't be hard to visit."

"We just have a bunch of kits and grandkits back home." Nareena chuckled. "Who will probably throw one huge party as soon as we get back home."

"That is so going to take some getting used to." Kim chuckled a bit. "Big families are not something I'm used to by a long shot."

"It can be something of an adjustment." Nareena nodded. "But they're all pretty friendly, once you get accepted by a few of the core group." She smiled encouragingly.

"Hay, it's not like I'm going to let relatives scare me off." She countered firmly. "I'm crossing galaxies for this."

"Very true." Nareena nodded. "And no one who scares easily, would stay involved with NightBlades for long."

"I don't expect so," she chuckled softly. "Though the ones I've met so far are nice guys."

"Oh, they are." Nareena chuckled fondly. "It's the stuff that tends to go on around them. It's never dull."

Kim couldn't help but laugh, a playful sound as much as amused. "I doubt I'll even notice, with what my usual day is like."

"That I can believe." Nareena grinned. "Six impossible things before breakfast, probably."

"Well, maybe not impossible," she consented with a grin. "But definitely not normal if you aren't a field qualified Seer. It's an unusual day that I don't introduce someone new to Aristal and help them out. Ebon was a real treat that way, he actually knew the language and everything. A lot of times, I have to calm them down without a common reference to use." Kim smiled fondly, remembering just how many assets she had brought into the system over a decade of active service.

"I've done that sort of work myself." Nareena nodded. "Valley of Guard has attracted a few unusual arrivals in the years we've been there."

"I bet that mind-talk you do is a big help there," she grinned a bit playfully, absently wondering if she was already 'drunk'.

"Being able to learn a newcomers language in under thirty seconds is a big help, as is being able to teach them ours just as quickly." Nareena nodded. "But sometimes it's still a trick calming them down enough to do so."

Kim suddenly giggled. "I've got this image of Ebon and the boys in war-form sitting on somebody to calm them down."

"It's happened." Nareena chuckled broadly. "Though that's easier than the 'invasion of the mini-pumas' was." She giggled playfully.

"Oh, my." Kim's eyes glittered, her natural reaction to the statement countered to amusement because Nareena was. "Do tell."

"One evening around dinner time there was a sudden bang in the middle of the main plaza of Guard Central like a large amount of explosives going off." Nareena began. "When we got there we discovered that a couple dozen three foot tall Pumas had appeared out of nowhere. Unfortunately, the sudden arrival of a good dozen NightBlade members, all over seven foot and a few over eight panicked them and they scattered." Nareena continued with a chuckle. "This wouldn't have been so bad except for their natural camouflage ability, and lightning quick speed." She laughed deeply. "Do you know how difficult it is to calm someone down that you can't find?"

"Can't say as I do," she chuckled and shook her head. "But I can guess fairly well."

"It took quite some time for one to calm down and make an appearance. They were convinced that we were the 'giants' from their ancient past." Nareena explained. "Which was why they panicked ...apparently these 'giants' had been barbaric on multiple levels. And spotting one the boys in warform didn't exactly reassure them."

"I bet," she nodded easily and nibbled on a piece of garlic bread. "I can imagine their reactions too."

"It took quite a bit talking to calm them down." Nareena nodded. "That and keeping the Dracons out of sight."

"Oh my, I would bet so." Kim's eyes widened slightly. "They sound really cute, though."

"Very cute." Nareena smiled. "And friendly too, once they accepted the fact that we weren't their 'giants'. The Dracons found them a nice sheltered valley to call home while the Dracons try to figure out how to get them back to their homeworld."

"It must be nice to have that kind of resources to call on." She smiled softly, a wistful note in her voice.

"It's been essential." Nareena said simply. "If it wasn't for Dracon backing, we'd probably still be working on getting recognized by the Alliance as legit." She shook her head. "Unfortunately the guys built up one hell of a rep working for the wrong side, and the Alliance wasn't easily convinced that they'd changed sides."

Kim had to chew on that one for some time, working it over in her mind with what she knew and various parties before simply shaking her head in surrender. "I expect that is something born of not being about to be sure of what they see." She said slowly, softly. "But we are in such need of assistance, that a Seer and Mind-reader would have been called on and the matter settled that day."

"Mind-readers are unreliable with the boys, with the exception of those of us bonded to them." Nareena explained. "And I'm not sure we have the equivalent to Seers, though we may and just call them other things." She said simply. "The actual title of Seer hasn't been used since antiquity, and ours were either precognitives, or people who were really talented at faking it." She explained.

"It's not exactly a unique title," she chuckled a little self-consciously, but regarded the Tigress with a fascinated look. "How can they be that difficult to read? I know my gift works differently, but I've never heard of a telepath having problems, sort of another telepath, or occasionally something so alien that it's just not comprehensible."

"It's because of the way they were put together." Nareena explained quietly. "They were designed to be difficult to read, though I'm not sure how it was done. But with the exception of someone they're bonded with, or with someone they trust enough to be bonded with...they're very difficult to read, and almost impossible to be sure of."

"That puts the likelihood of my gift being all but unknown in the Alliance quite high," Kim murmured thoughtfully. "Kind of a surprise, really. It's not the rarest one out there."

"Maybe among the major powers." Nareena said thoughtfully. "The Dracons may very well have something similar, and some of the minor races may as well." She said quietly. "What does a Seer do here, exactly?" She asked curiously.

"Mostly we keep an eye out for new aliens that stumble in and need help getting settled." She considered her full duty roster. "And what I'm doing now, which is truth-seeing, making sure we aren't getting lied to too badly. I've been called out to figure out what various things are or do. A little bit of everything, really. If it would be useful to see the truth of something, one of us gets called."

"Depending on how you're determining what truth is, the talent falls into one of about five categories." Nareena said thoughtfully. "Reading people to determine truth, as in truth versus lies, we handle with telepaths or talented empaths. Reading objects is either psychometry or cybertelepathy depending on the intelligence of the object." She said and then paused. "And then there's the more mystical approach which presumes that truth can be divined from the universe itself; this is the realm of what the Dracon's call 'Eye of the Dragon', or the Ursans call 'Stormheart'." Nareena explained quietly, though less certainly. "Magic is not my strong suit, Morin or the Ursan member of Nathan's party are more versed in it."

Kim settled back and considered it for some time, running the various versions threw her mind. "I know I'm not a telepath, or anything similar. I've heard that Psychometry is a distant relative, but I'm not sure if they were talking as a gift relation, or as in how we operate, since both are sight based to a great extent." She cocked her head slightly, trying to remember back threw her experiences. "If it's one of the three, it'd probably be the mystal one, but I'm not magic trained. No gift for it at all." She took a sip of her drink and considered. "But it does sound close. I simply see what is really there. Even when the individual doesn't know it or realize it."

"Similar but different." Nareena nodded thoughtfully. "Of the five major races in the Alliance only the Dracons have anything like it, and they already believed the NightBlades." She smiled. "The Canem and the Lupo have no talents so subtle, even if they do have some fairly impressive magical abilities. The Felsin have subtlety in spades, primarily the psi disciplines like telepathy, but telepathy can only tell you what an individual perceives as the truth. True mysticism is not really our strong suit, as real magic only began to reappear less than two centuries ago." She said softly. "And Humans rarely have either magic, telepathy or the like. Though it can be quite spectacular when they do." She chuckled, shaking her head in amusement. "Seems you have one of those talents we just haven't seen often enough to classify properly."

"Not too surprising, given where and when it appeared." She nodded a bit. "The first recorded Seer was known only a few years before the War of Law. We may be something unique to Nexus worlds, where reality is so in flux we're actually necessary on some level."

"That makes a certain amount of sense." Nareena nodded. "If reality fluctuates too much, you have to have some way to sort it out. That would suggest that the flux is actually getting worse, if the talent is that recent an appearance." She said thoughtfully, passing the theory to Morin to let him work on the magic theory end of it.

"From what little of history that survives, I wouldn't contest the idea." She nodded sadly. "For all the improvements we've made to day to day life for most, the big picture is getting very much grimmer."

"Well, hopefully we can make some improvements in the big picture." Nareena said quietly. "Maybe get a few specialists in to study the really big picture." She added thoughtfully. "Assuming, of course, that we can find them."

"I'm starting to think you had the right idea on the last round." She murmured softly, almost not believing what she was saying. "That getting out is the real answer."

"That may turn out to be true." Nareena nodded. "But that's a big step, not to be taken lightly. Even with the WorldGate, it's still a major endeavor, but it can be done."

"Evacuation is easy." She shook her head. "We've learned not to be attached to places, as strange as it may sound. Convincing the leadership to give up ... now that may be more difficult than protecting the world ends up being. We are very stubborn people, and led by the most stubborn of all."

"That much hasn't changed." Nareena chuckled softly, though there was a sad note to it. "The ancient records say that's why only part of the planet was evacuated the first time. The same trait that makes a leader good at keeping in a fight when it seems almost hopeless, is the same trait that makes it difficult for them to see the need to pull back."

"Especially when it's well accepted to be the trait that's kept us all alive so far." Kim nodded grimily. "Though if ... when ... the siege is lifted, they might be able to see more clearly."

"Yes, there's no if about it." Nareena said confidently. "Even if we have to drag a Dragon or two in, though I expect that won't really be necessary."

Kim couldn't suppress the shiver, despite knowing better. "Just don't talk like that much around the locals, okay? We've got some issues with big powerful things suddenly showing up. Powers are not our friends around here." She added apologetically.

"That's cause somehow, this world lost its friendly Power." Nareena said quietly. "It's hard to imagine a world without at least one friendly Power." She said softly.

Kim looked at her a little funny. "I don't think I've heard of more than one or two that had friendly Powers. At least the kind that actually existed."

"Draconea has one, and Felsinor has three, even if they are lesser Powers." Nareena said thoughtfully. "Canemora Prime has one, as does Luporia. Ursandra has several minor ones, and even Earth has one, though she doesn't get much attention these days." She finished. "There are others, but those are the ones that come to mind."

"A very different reality from what's around here," she motioned, encompassing not only Aristal but the space around it. "Between visitors and explorers, it's a rare thing for us."

"Different galaxy, different rules I guess." Nareena said acceptingly. "But I can see where the lack of good experience would make one uncomfortable with them."

"Or something like that," she nodded. "I think it comes with the feeling that we're the universe's punching bag. Makes you nerves when somebody new like that shows up. Might be friendly, but most of the time they aren't." She shook her head slightly. "It'll be good to learn about the other side."

"We'll try to keep the high powered types as discrete as possible." Nareena said quietly. "At least till the siege breaks and things have a chance to calm a little."

"From what you've said, I kind of expect they'll do that anyway." She smiled softly. "They don't sound like the type that would ruffle fur for the fun of it."

Returning To Your Roots

NC-17 for M/M, M/F
Het Level is MediumHet Smut Level is Medium
Slash Level is Slash Smut Level is Low
Femslash Level is None
Herm Level is None

415 KB, Story is Closed-Unfinished, Series is Closed-Unfinished
Written January 16, 2004 by Rauhnee Ranshanka and Todd McCall

Setting: Galactic Alliance, SWAT Kats

Primary Races: Felsin, Kat

Contents: Furry. Het (M/F). Slash (M/M). Death, Violence

Pairings: NightBlades, Ebon SwiftClaw/female, Others

Notes: This is set 50 years after the attempted kidnapping of Nathan SolGardin, and reality is much different for that failure.

While unfinished, this is still one of my favorite of all the stories we've written. I can reread it often and still enjoy it.

Blurb: When Astrophysicists from the Galactic Alliance discover what they believe to be the coordinates of the Felsin world of origin in another Galaxy, a scientific and two scout/ defensive TLD ships are dispatched to reestablish contact, if such is possible, and find out what really happened.

Disclaimer: All things taken directly from the sources listed under 'Fandoms' belong to the owners of those shows. No harm is intended and we're definitely not making any money. Now, the things we created are ours, and if you see 'Non-FanFic' up there, it's probably all ours.

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