0923 OUTSIDE BRIDGET'S CABIN

Tsing presses the entrance bell again and looks to Stinger.

He shrugs.

Swearing to herself, she remembers he wouldn't know why she's not answering the bell or messages, would he? Punching in the lock override, she prepares for the worst.

First in the room, Stinger finds Bridget passed out in a chair and covered with a half-finished honeycomb pattern afghan with a baggie of little handmade bees and a huge sack of yarn. On the coffee table sits an almost empty box of kleenexes and close by is a small trash can, full of wadded up tissues and chocolate wrappers. A hook type tool is on the ground a few feet away from her out stretched hand. Her chin is tucked to her chest and bobs a bit as she breathes.

Messaging Stinger via neural net so they don't wake the sleeping Bridget, Tsing explains what she thinks happened. 'She told me she was working on a surprise for Kiza's birthday next week. But was worried she wouldn't finish it in time. This must be it.'

'But we don't celebrate birthdays,' Stinger protests.

'She knew, but she wanted Kiza to feel special. Kiza made her feel so welcome,' Tsing continues.

'Hard to remember she was living with us... no memory of it.'

'We should let her rest, Old Man. I'd bet she was up all night working on it. But let's get her into bed so she doesn't wake up with a terrible neck ache.' Tsing starts to move the project out of the way.

Stinger gently lifts her out of the chair and totters a little off balance as he carries her dead weight to the bed. Stirring slightly, she snuggles into his chest, and sleepily whispers, "You coming to bed too?"

Tsing quickly pulls back the covers as he sets her down and helps her find her pillow. When he looks up again, Tsing's disappeared.

His mouth goes dry. Bridget's not awake enough to process the events of the last few days, but her face and eyes are puffy. His thoughts start to plague him, 'Selfish Old fool, Look what you've done - made her cry. What makes you keep pushing her away? Feel like you have no choice? … At one point you must have let yourself be ensnared by her.'

Unable to answer her directly, he moves a few locks of hair out of her face. "Rest now."

Stinger zips out of Bridget's quarters and almost crashes into Tsing who's leaning against the bulkhead, arms crossed and one boot against the wall.

Wisely, Tsing opts to keep her mouth shut about the incident. It's a matter of such delicacy that she's afraid that bringing it up might spoil any possibility. Fervently, she hopes that Bridget can once again be a shining jewel in Stinger's life. Because watching them endure this is dreadful and she doesn't want to have to decide between their two friendships if they can't find a way to patch things up.

She offers, "We'll chat about the findings when our Marshall wakes."

The silent dip of his head and his speedy departure tells her that she chose correctly.

1330 TSING'S PERSONAL CONFERENCE ROOM

Her left leg is crossed over her right and the toe of her boot taps away at the table leg in the empty conference room. Bridget hates waiting and wonders to herself, 'Tsing you're always punctual, what's keeping you this time?' Stinger had taught her to never sit with her back to the entrance of a room and she remembers that lesson well. Every few seconds, she glances at the door.

The door slides open and her head automatically jerks up. Noticing it's not Tsing, her face falls slightly, but she tries to recover just as fast.

"Would you rather I not be here?" Stinger asks and gestures toward the hall.

"Stay. I was just wanting to tell Mika something. It can wait." She pats the chair next to her. "We can watch her fidget as she tries to not sit in the vulnerable spot. It's become a game between us."

He plops into the swivel seat, shoves back a bit, and puts his heavy Skyjacker boots up on the table.

"You're never gonna give up that pair of boots, are you?," she mentions off handedly.

"Earned 'em." His hands go behind his head as he leans back. "Did Mika say why she's late?"

"Nu-uh."

Silence descends like a wet blanket and Stinger closes his eyes. Bridget thunks the table a few more times until Stinger asks, "Do ye mind?" and she huffs.

When he hears a squeak from her chair as she bobs her leg distractedly, Stinger opens one eye but doesn't move otherwise. "Out with it."

She fiddles with the sleeve of her jacket as she debates what to say. "This is another one of those, are you sure you wanna know kind of things."

Giving her his full attention, he motions for her to continue.

Her jacket cuff is twisted pretty tight now, so she lets it go. "Well… I dreamed about you last night. But it didn't fit in with anything else."

"Oh?" he prompts softly.

"I dreamt that you tucked me in last night."

"Was Mika in your dream too?"

"Huh? No. Just you." She scowls, clearly puzzled.

"When you didn't answer your door, Mika and I thought the worst. We found you buried under some project, so she told me what you were working on."

"Oh…" The memory clarifies in her mind and she pales. "Oh my! Y.. you aren't upset that I well... propositioned you?"

He chuckles softly. "Now you remember what you said."

She blinks, unable to find a come back.

"On a different subject," he enquires "Do you know who might help me access a set of messages I don't have the password for? It's been nagging me all day that there's more messages and I can't read 'em."

"Try 'hurricane'. If that doesn't work, I'll contact a friend who's an encryption expert."

"You read my messages?" The accusation is clear enough.

"Ugh. No. That was our password when we sent encrypted messages. I just got in the habit of sending them that way. Sent you several the morning you were kidnapped."

"Oh…" and "That was it," are his replies. No 'sorry'. No 'thanks'. But she knows him well enough not to expect those words very often.

Catching the movement out of her peripheral vision, she sees one of his hands cover his face and his ears turn a deep shade of crimson as he mumbles, "Blimey..."

"You aren't listening to them now, are you?" Her suspicion is strong.

"I don't dare to listen to any more in public." He peeks out from between his fingers, chagrinned.

One choked snort, then a fit of laughter so hard it brings her tears. When she can breathe again, she pants, "Gods, I wish I could get away with taking a picture of you looking like that."

He mutters, "At least *one* of us can laugh."

Tsing's impeccable timing kicks in, as she enters the conference room to see Stinger beet red while Bridget wipes her eyes with the cuffs of her coat and sniffles. She stiffens visibly.

Stinger holds up a finger before she can give him 'the look'.

Seeing the issue, Bridget pipes up, "I was laughing.. really hard."

"I won't even ask what that was about." Tsing is so relieved, she settles down right in front of them.

It causes his embarrassment to turn to childish sniggering as Bridget gives a knowing nod. Stinger whispers, "She'll figure it out."

Looking around, it dawns on her where she sat and she groans. "Grow up you two. If a Marshall and former Marshall can't watch my back, then there's a real problem."

"Killjoy," Stinger gets one last jab in.

Tsing clears her throat. It's going to be one of those in need of eternal patience days, isn't it? "Getting down to business, the update from the deal with the kidnappers is the coordinates where they were to rendezvous with their employer. It's in the Centurion system.

You two will be dropped off on Earth with plenty of discreet security, since Stinger is likely still a target.

Jack'll be stationed with a friend of Stinger's and mine, Her Grace Chouli Risa, for his protection. Chouli's a champion for splice rights, just so you know Brid.

Sting, the bad news..."

He pulls his boots from the table and sits at attention.

Reluctantly proceeding Tsing grimaces, "The coordinates are a facility with last records showing ownership by your splicer, Marceline Calhoun."

It causes him to bite his lip and frown. Bridget scoots closer to put a hand on his arm.

"It's not proof positive, of course," Tsing tries to comfort.

"It can't be her." Stinger slaps his palm on the table and states with conviction, "She'd summon me."

"I hope so, Sting." Tsing isn't as confident. "And now that Stinger's not acting like a cactus, maybe we'll have less drama."

"Cactus?" he sputters.

Bridget interjects, "I was thinking porcupine."

"Even better. They're prickly when they're moody."

"Porcupine? Moody!?" An outraged scowl appears on his face. "You're ganging up on me!"

"We've been going through withdrawal because we couldn't pick on you." Bridget gives his arm a squeeze.

"And why did I ever let you two near each other?" he laments.

"Nothing you could do. It was inevitable." Tsing winks and gets up to go.

"I try to make it up to you afterward," Bridget whispers in his ear. "I'd stay for a while, but I need to finish that blanket and pack. See you later?"

"Sure," he accedes. When he's completely alone again, he listens to *that* message again. Gods, he was one lucky blighter before the memory wipe.

1610 HOURS

Stinger neural net messages Bridget from outside her quarters, "Mind if I come in?"

The door opens for him and his breath catches as he steps in, then freezes - gobsmacked.

Hearing a muffled,"Hey," he finds her doing some crazy exercise pose with her elbows and hands on the ground, body extended into the air and toes almost touching her head. Gracefully she returns to her hands and knees, then rests in a kneel before him.

"Are you just gonna gawk while I finish up my yoga routine?" she ribs him. "You could have a seat instead of making me feel like an awful hostess."

Wordlessly he removes his jacket and plops into the chair with the best view.

"Silent treatment?" she pokes verbally.

"Just enjoyin' the view," he confesses.

"You could join me."

Scrunching his face, he pshaws, "I can't do that."

"I'd start you on beginner poses." She tilts her head to urge him to come over.

"Nah."

"Well, I don't think I can concentrate with you staring…" She gets up. "I'll clean up," she yawns as she says the last few words. "No offense. Hopefully, I can stay awake to keep you company and work on the blanket again."

"Should I go?" he suggests, leaning forward about to get up out of the chair.

"Oh, no. I'm thrilled you're here. I'll hurry. Be right back." She pats his shoulder on her way to the shower.

Drumming his fingers on the arm of the chair, he goes through the last of her messages as he waits.

Toweling her hair dry, she chooses a seat across from him. "So what brought you by?" She tries to figure out why he's studying her every move.

"Finished listening to your messages. Think I'm as caught up as I'm gonna get." He's leaning on his elbow, head resting on his knuckles.

"Did they help you feel a little more grounded?"

"Aye," he replies cautiously. "Listened to several repeatedly."

"Any in particular?" She wonders would he listen to the steamy ones or the sweet ones or the everyday ones again?

"I decline to answer that at the moment." He can't meet her gaze.

Must have been at least a few of the steamy ones. It brings her smile back, like a ray of sunshine and she takes his free hand. She makes a note to go back through their messages to remember what all she said. "Well, I'm glad they were helpful as you piece everything back together. I was feeling so helpless and so unsure of what I could even try to do to help you through this." Then a treacherous yawn sneaks from her mouth.

"You're short on sleep. Get some rest." The tenderness she saw in him before has finally returned.

"I want to stay awake with you," she protests but her body declares otherwise with another yawn and she absentmindedly rubs her eyes.

"Come on sleepy head," he pulls her up with him and guides her over to her bed. "We'll talk more on the transport. 2230 hours isn't long now."

Her objections have turned to whining. "I don't wanna sleep…"

"Shush," he puts a finger to her lips.

"Will you stay? I'd just lay next to you." She tries to bargain.

"I should be looking over my ship specs and crew names, but aye," he gives in. Taking her face gently in his roughened hands, he haggles, "IF you'll try to sleep." When she agrees, he pulls back the covers for her. He sets an alarm on his note sheave before taking off his clunky boots.

Crawling over to the far side, she makes room and offers him her pillow as he slides in with her. Laying on his back he nestles his head into it and holds his arm out while whispering, "Come here."

She tucks her head into his shoulder, puts her arm around his chest and snuggles in as closely as she can as if it's all completely natural.

Just as he's about to close his eyes, he hears a little sniffle. He sighs, "What is it?"

"I was so afraid you wouldn't want me anymore," she sobs and clenches his shirt tight enough to become a little uncomfortable over his chest. Her warm tears soak into his shirt and onto his skin.

Pressing his cheek into her hair and wrapping his arms around her, he whispers, "I'd be a fool not to."

Her grip loosens and her crying softens.

A few moments later, with a giggle amidst her tears she recalls, "This is so completely the opposite of when I was in bed with you the first time, you know. I remember, after I gave you an intensive massage, you told me we had on too many clothes,"

It makes him chuckle with her. "We're here together. That's what's important, no?"

She nods into his shoulder and gives him a squeeze, "I guess you just have to do things your own way. What made you change your mind?"

"You giving me space and all those messages we left each other. So what was different in you this time? You haven't been as sassy," he contemplates.

"You can't see it? Back then it was a small risk; I'd go on my way if you said no. But this time, everything was on the line. It had me second guessing every move I made. Truly awful!"

Running his hand tenderly through her hair, he whispers barely audible, "Rest now, Love."

It seems to settle her and soon he feels the rhythmic rise and fall of her chest and shoulders. In the calm darkness where the only lights he can see are the stars outside her window, he realizes for the first time since he remembers meeting her, he's not mentally cursing. The peace here with her is good for his weary soul and he soaks it up - the feel of her against his side, the smell of her damp hair, the tickle of her breath on his neck, her contentment as she sleeps next to him.

Before he too drifts off, he ponders. 'Old Fool, falling isn't that hard is it? Your presence is enough to make her happy and it's been decades since you had anything like it. This *might* just be give as much as is it is take. When you get back to the house with her, then you can worry about just how buggered you are.'

2200 HOURS

Bridget reaches over Stinger to shut off the alarm and message the ship presence to turn the far lights on very low. Leaning on her elbow she watches his tranquil visage for a moment more. It's so rare to see him this relaxed. Why spoil a beautiful thing?

As with all perfect snapshots in time, they are replaced with a new moment. There's a small hesitation as she's about to reach over to his heavily stubbled cheek. What will he think of her waking him? Mentally she shakes it off. They have to get up. Gotta do this.

With the most loving and soft caress on one side of his face and over his lips, she places her lips in a feather soft touch against the other side. It startles him, until he realizes where he is. She murmurs in his ear, "Time to wake up, my dear Old Codger."

"Alarm didn't go off," he notes groggily and rolls over to face her and pull her to him. "So we have time."

Sympathetically, she taps his nose and corrects, "It did. I turned it off before it got too loud and woke you up. The darn thing always makes you so grouchy."

"Damn," he pouts. Kissing her forehead then stretching and rousting, he prompts her to get moving too, "We'd better not keep the shuttle waitin'. Don't wanna be on Tsing's bad side again."

"True. She'd also be the type to have no compunction over barging in and dragging us down to the shuttle whether we're fit to be seen or not. She has a schedule to keep, you know," Bridget adds with a bit of sass.

"She's done it, actually," Stinger shrugs and smooths down his shirt and trousers before putting on his jacket.

Bridget helps him adjust his collar and tries to tame the worst of his bedhead hair. "Do tell. This is a you and Tsing story I haven't heard yet."

Taking a breath before he plunges in, he reminds himself that she may not want to know all of his past. But she does seem to know about he and Tsing nearly a century ago. "Very well. But it's not what you think."

Her eyebrows raise and he runs a hand over her cheek before continuing, "We were co-commanders of a brigade with a mission that day. She'd just kicked me out of bed after the alarm went off. Within 10 ticks we were waiting for the troops at the shuttle and the greenest pair of them was late. Storming off, in three more ticks she was dragging those poor buck naked buggers by the ears. She'd at least allowed them to grab their fatigues. I'd never seen two privates dress so fast. Nor, had I ever had such a hard time keeping a straight face."

Wrapping her arms around his neck, she lets him know how much she loves his stories. "I'd give most anything to have seen your expression then."

"Might happen someday," he suggests before drawing her up into the first kiss he can remember. It catches him off guard how quickly and passionately she responds and it only makes him want her more. Putting his forehead to hers he lowly rumbles, "Better go."

Reluctantly she frees him, "Yeah. You, know, we have to find someone for her…"

"Don't think she'd appreciate that. I suspect there's someone she has her eye on. And she loves the chase."

She pulls on her boots and grabs her bag, "And who might it be?"

"If I'm right, it's Jack. It'll be a very long chase with him, considering what he's been through."

"Really? I thought she said she was through with 'drone drama'," Bridget lets that sink in.

"He's been asking her advice right and left and she takes the time for him, beyond the babysitting she'd had to do for us. Ready?" He offers his hand and she slips her's into his. Feeling the doubts start to creep in anyway, he asks, "You sure you don't mind staying with us at our run down old shanty?"

"Not at all. You and I had started planning renovations and ways to help the bees through the transition."

"So it's 'home'?"

"Yes, my love. I think you finally felt it was 'home' to you too, and worth fixing up."

Walking nonchalantly with hands entwined, they make their way to the shuttle. The happy looks and thumbs up from everyone as they pass make them both feel self conscious. But since Stinger's carrying both their bags, he doesn't have a free hand to stuff into his pockets in his usual shy manner. To help him feel more at ease, she shifts to put her arm around him so he can if he wants. Instead of shoving his hand in his pocket though, he wraps his arm around her, tucking his hand in her back pocket and she leans in as he exhales under his breath, "In for a penny, in for a pound."

"Whadda you mean by that?" She has an inkling, but she wants to be sure.

"There's no halfway. We're lovers, or we're not." He tries to talk himself out of this bashfulness from all the attention.

"Could be worse…" She teases using words she's heard him say time and again, as she tightens her grip on his side.

With his trademark half grin, he nuzzles his cheek into her hair and concedes, "Aye."

STINGER'S HOUSE, 1100 HOURS LOCAL TIME (0300 AEGIS SHIP TIME)

Entering the kitchen, they see Kiza with an ice pack on her hand and Gage, the farm boy neighbor lifting the heavy pressure canner over to a cold burner on the stove.

Bags dropping from his hands, Stinger rushes over to his daughter, "Kiza what happened?"

"Gage and I were trying to put up the last of the tomatoes before you arrived. In my hurry, I forgot to use a potholder to remove the lid. I've never done that Da! My pride hurts more than my hand, but Gage insisted that I cool the steam burn down and if it's bad, he'll take me in to get it looked at." Kiza purses her lips in frustration.

He nods thanks to the black haired, blue eyed, lanky young man.

She prompts as he looks over her hand, "You and Bridget ok?"

"We'll be fine." He winces as he sees the angry blistering on his daughter's pale skin. "Kiza we've got to deal with this right away."

"Da. I just said…"

Stinger interrupts, "Gage, be a good lad and …"

"Da! He's my fiance! You're not going to shoo him off!" Kiza's indignant, but then it dawns on her and she softens. "You don't remember, do you?"

Stinger's taken completely aback and his head droops. "Beeswax, what else happened that I can't remember?"

Motioning for Gage to follow, Bridget quietly drifts into the other room to give these two some semblance of privacy.

'Engaged? As in a contract with him?" his concern is evident Stinger finds a seat, he's not sure he can stand up right now.

Kiza takes his hand and squeezes, "As in - in love with him and he and I want to spend the rest of our lives together. He asked me. Before I would answer, I made him ask you. It's old fashioned even for tercies, but you and I are so close. When you gave your consent, is when I said yes."

Stinger rubs her uninjured hand, not taking his eyes off his precious girl, who - what seems like just yesterday - was tottering across this very floor to bring him flowers. But that was 35 years ago.

"He treats me like his queen, Da. Our wedding day is set for 3 months from now," she gives the deciding blow. Thier eyes turning to that honey yellow for both of them.

Kissing her forehead and blinking back a few tears, he forces himself to be logical about the situation, "Does he know about us?"

"Enough to know we're not fully human and I'm not a teen anymore. He trusts that I'll tell him anything he needs to know. And it's been A LOT of trust extended to us. You wanted me to wait to tell him most things," she explains.

Encompassing Kiza in his arms, his voice is a bit choked, "Then it's time."

When he gathers himself and lets Kiza go, he hollers in his parental tone to the other room, "Mr. Brownning, I'd like to have a word with you."

Kiza gives his arm a playful shove."Da! Be nice!"

Quickly scampering in, the young man has a worried look on his face as he answers, "Yes, Sir?"

Stinger's fatherly expression says he likes the sound of that. But he resists the urge to taunt his future son-in-law further, for now. "Gage, since you're about to join our family, there are a few secrets you should be privy to."

Gage visibly relaxes and his head bobs eagerly, "You can trust me, Sir!"

"Kiza said we could. So, come with me," he ushers the young man into his back room.

Whistling at all the much higher tech than he's seen before, Gage stands at attention.

"No need to stand there like a new recruit. Sit." Stinger waves to the chair across from him before he gets into the details. 'First off, I understand you are aware that Kiza and I aren't fully human. Correct?"

"Y...yes, Sir." Gage opts to sit on the edge of the chair, still not a ease and not sure of what he's about to hear.

"Kiza and I are splices. When we were made, bee DNA was spliced together with human genomes to create us."

Stinger hears a "So that's why her eyes…". Then Gage raises his hand and Stinger stifles a chuckle before he nods his go ahead. "Sir, so are there only bee splices or are there others too? And are there humans beyond earth? And other races?"

"Others too. One of my most trusted friends is part Lycan - like a wolf. Yes, and yes."

Stinger decides he likes the curiosity in this tersie. If the whole planet is as understanding as this bloke and Her Majesty, then maybe it'll make a good member of the council in a century or two.

He goes on to explain that he was Marshall over Earth until Jupiter Jones came into possession of the planet, blowing Gage's mind. So, Stinger gives him some time to adjust to the idea and shoves a glowing tube in Gage's direction. "I'll explain this later. It'll be even harder to understand. But spraying some of it on Kiza's hand will heal the burn." He waves dismissively. "We'll talk again. Go now, and be useful to my daughter."

Gage obediently scurries out to Kiza.

Noticing Bridget's fist covering a smirk as she leans on the doorjamb, he reflexively asks, "What?"

"You enjoyed that. Admit it," she challenges and moves behind him to knead his shoulders so he'll let his defenses down a little more.

He looks back at her with a scowl. "And you're manipulating me with those ministrations, woman."

Wrapping her arms around his middle she admits "Only enough to get you to talk, dearest Old Codger. I'll do what it takes to get more than one or two word answers out of you,"

"I'm buggered, aren't I?" he half heartedly gripes but pulls her around to face him.

"Is that conceding defeat or playing hard to get?" She taps his nose, calling his bluff.

Putting both his hands into her back pockets, he waggles his eyebrows, "Wouldn't you like to know."

A throat clears behind them and Gage is shuffling expectantly with the glowing canister. Stinger grumbles but holds his hand out for it and ever so carefully puts it away.

"It must be about lunch time," Bridget claps her hands and sashays out of the room. "Staying for lunch, Gage?"

"No Mam. But thank you. Need to run an errand with my folks." Turning to Kiza he asks, "Wanna go with us?"

Glancing at Stinger and Bridget first, she returns, "Catch up with ye later, ok?"

Gage kisses her cheek before leaving, "No prob. I'd need to spend time with my family after all of that too."

Despite it being early afternoon, the jetlag has Stinger and Bridget worn out. Kiza said she'd be heading out to catch up with Gage.

"Nap with me," he tugs her into his room and she follows willingly.

"Why did I call you Trouble?" He queries as he untucks his shirt and sits on the bed.

She scoots behind him to start working on his shoulders and that painful area in his back. "Because that's what you thought I was at first. Well, maybe you thought it most of the time..."

He hunches over a bit so she can reach that spot. Unsure if it's a reflex or some buried memory, she shrugs and continues to knead deeply.

"I must not have put up much resistance," he mumbles into his chest.

"Actually, you did. You're a stubborn, salty old git most of the time. But you show your caring through it somehow."

His upper body jerks with a snort, "That's a hell of a way to tell a bloke you care about him."

"Weren't you just asking me to stay for a nap?" she challenges and works his neck and scalp. "If you're fussing about what I say already, I'll go sleep on the couch."

"Woman…" he gripes until he hears her giggle. "You really are your namesake."

"I won't argue with that," she snarkily confesses and smooches his cheek as she finishes the mini massage.

Wanting more than that little token of affection, he returns her kiss with ferocity pushing her back into the bed, and she welcomes the first lusty attention from him since the attack by wrapping her legs around him.

They hear footsteps, then Kiza's exasperated voice. "Jeez! You two could at least close the door!" Hearing it slam, they both sheepishly laugh before being absorbed in the passion once more. Having lost each other once, there's much to make up for.

Despite just cussing them out, Kiza's happy to give these two renewed love birds some space. She whistles to herself as she slips down the stairs and out the door..

END PART ONE

(To be continued…)