LB - Oooh, a new reader, how exciting! Thanks so much for your comments. The interactions and pairings are really fun to write, so I'm glad you're enjoying reading them!

B.L.A the Mouse - I always have to restrain myself from adding more narrator!Trance; I want the ending to come as a surprise! I will say, though... there's a very good reason this isn't the universe she chose.

Chapter Twenty-Five

When Beka returned to the Shining Path with Trance and Harper in tow, she realized that her time at Miqo Drift had been a break. A sort of vacation, really, from the madness that would soon engulf her ship and the people around her. She could feel it in the ship's atmosphere, like a humming just outside of her hearing range. Tension. Things were changing.

She had hoped that Charlemagne would welcome her back, not only because of her feelings for him but mainly so he could reassure Harper that his services would be valued. Instead, one of the Jaguar Nietzscheans opened the hangar from Command and Dominique greeted her when the Maru docked.

"Rebecca, I'm so glad to see you," Dominique began. Her restrained words were belief by a warm smile and her grip on Beka's hands when she descended from the Maru. "Charlemagne would have liked to greet you in person, but he left early this morning to consult with his Matriarch about the Alpha's attempt on your life. You may be amused to hear that rumors of your demise were already circulating when we received your message."

Beka snorted. 'Amused' was one way to put it. "To tell you the truth, I wouldn't have noticed the explosive without her help." She nodded at Trance, and the girl stepped shyly forward. "Dominique Mayae, this is Trance Gemini. It seems that Trance here is my lucky charm. Even if I had spotted Sheroky's lackeys, I might not have found the bomb without her help. Apparently it's the latest tech, invisible to most bomb sweepers."

Trance dipped a lopsided little curtsy under Dominique's curious gaze. "Trance Gemini," Dominique repeated, a bit less warmly but very politely. "I must thank you for keeping Rebecca alive. I hope you shall continue to assist her in such a precarious venture, especially with so powerful an enemy."

Trance offered a confused smile. "Um, you're welcome? I'll do my best." Her smile broadened. "Are you the one Beka told us about, the lady who's getting married? That's so sweet, I've never been to a Nietzschean wedding."

Dominique laughed. "Nor will you likely have the occasion again. Most Nietzschean weddings are... substantially less formal affairs."

Out of the corner of her eye, Beka could see Harper leering openly at Dominique. She suppressed an urge to smack him the way she used to smack Rafe when he ogled girls like that. "And this is Seamus Harper, who is tasked with keeping Charlemagne alive, considering his track record so far with weddings." She sent Harper a hard glare and prayed that he didn't say anything too embarrassing.

"It's a pleasure," he said in the oiliest tone Beka had heard from him. "I can see why the man's in such a hurry to marry you." If he undressed Dominique with his eyes any more aggressively, she'd be standing in her skivvies. "Rest assured, madame, you will be in the best of hands while Seamus Harper's in charge."

Dominique cocked her head to study Harper like he was an exceedingly simple biological specimen who had just performed far beyond her expectations. Like a dog who had done mathematics, perhaps. "Very curious."

She looked at Beka with a thoughtful expression. "All of the human males I've encountered have been Castalian, and therefore quite hostile. I had honestly wondered whether human men were genetically capable of attraction to Nietzschean women."

Harper blinked at this, for once at a loss for words. His annoying flirtations had probably never been dissected so scientifically. He glanced at Trance, who just shrugged and smiled.

Beka rolled her eyes. "Some of them are capable of attraction to anything remotely female with a pulse. Harper, down. Come on, I'll show you guys to your quarters, and then we can get down to business, if you can contain yourself. Dominique, are you free right now?"

The other woman nodded. "I came aboard specifically to meet you and your colleagues." A grin flitted across her face. "The Matriarch was very displeased with my decision; she feels I have been away from home and my people too much already."

Beka winced. The last thing she needed on top of the Jaguar Alpha's wrath was the irritation of the Volsung Matriarch. Nietzschean politics, ugh.

As they walked through the smoothly rising and falling corridors of the Path, Beka could not help remembering what the ship's crew had looked like the last time Harper and Trance were here. It was a motley selection of races, mostly her personal security retinue... and Tyr had been her First Officer. A glance back at Trance showed the girl in a dreamy-eyed reverie of her own. Leave it to Harper, of course, to break the quiet.

"So, boss... uh, bosses, where are you planning to hold this shindig?"

"Last I heard," Beka replied, addressing Dominique rather than Harper, "you guys were trying to decide between the Volsung platform, one of Castalia's moons, and a nearby Jaguar Alliance world."

Dominique nodded. "Yes, we considered all of those locations, but none were satisfactory. Charlemagne is wary of holding the ceremony on unfamiliar territory, and I confess that I do not relish the idea of delivering myself into the Jaguar den if the Alpha is wroth with Charlemagne. Had we months to negotiate, I do not doubt one of us would concede, but as it is... there was one location which we found mutually acceptable."

Beka paled. That glint in Dominique's eye could not be a good sign. "The Path," she said flatly.

"Precisely. It is the nearest we can find to neutral ground. Though it is Charlemagne's residence for the time being, it is more importantly captained by the Volsung people's champion. There will be objections, to be sure, but Charlemagne and I have agreed that we both feel secure here."

Harper gave Beka a funny look, but she was not quite ready to get into 'Volsung people's champion.' Besides, she had much more important things to worry about right now. Dominique's cool explanation of the decision made sense, but the thought of several dozen more Nietzscheans running around on her ship made Beka dizzy. She had come to know Charlemagne's loyal band of followers, how to ignore their inevitable arrogance and self-conceit, how to get them to listen to her, and she thought she could deal with about that many Nietzscheans and retain her sanity. But Dominique would need a band of her own, and the Matriarchs would doubtless bring attendants, and they might require additional security personnel...

Her head started spinning before Dominique had finished speaking. "But I don't know anything about hosting ceremonies or parties or whatever exactly this is. And I gotta say, champion though I might have been, a lot of your people – on both sides – are going to object to holding this big strategic affair on not only a human's ship... you know, my ship in particular." She didn't want to repeat that consort conversation in front of Harper. He didn't need to be reminded of it.

Dominique, that irritating woman, only grinned like a lunatic. "You think it will be seen as flaunting your relationship with Charlemagne? You're right – some people will take that as an insult. That is our hope. The Jaguar Alpha has all but declared war on Charlemagne by attacking you, and anything less than flaunting you would be to appear to cave to him."

All the double and triple deceit and strategy of Nietzschean politics gave Beka a headache. "Okay," she relented. "Fine. I guess I should be flattered that you're so protective. It's weird, but nice."

"And hey," Harper piped up, "I already know the Path inside and out. By the time I'm done, you won't be able to carry unauthorized butter knife aboard this ship."

The mental image of Nietzschean battling to the death with butter knives made Beka smile, and she felt herself relax.

-o-

While they could accept that their leader had taken a human consort, Charlemagne's Nietzschean retinue were much cooler toward the human Security Chief and his mysteriously purple companion who divided her time between Medical and Hydroponics. Beka checked up on the two of them more than was probably necessary and found that, while they were doing their jobs just as well as she had expected, there was absolutely no camaraderie between them and their Nietzschean colleagues. Harper was probably enjoying his position of power over them a little too much, but dammit, they should have seem that he was competent at their job.

"Really, Beka," Charlemagne informed her when she complained about the cool relations between their crew, "you should consider that much something of a minor miracle. As far as I know, not one of my people has called your lucky friend a purple monkey to her face." His tone was laced with sincere wonder. "It's remarkable. And the current feeling toward the Drago-Kazov on this ship is so hostile that I doubt anyone has said anything patronizing toward our security chief about this home world."

"I'm sure it helps that they'll be leaving in a week," Beka replied. She hated that they would be leaving so soon – and was surprised at how much she wished they could stay. As much as she would love to install Harper as Chief Engineer and Trance as Chief Medic, Harper had not failed to make clear that this job was temporary. He liked Beka and even got along with Charlemagne for entire half-hours at a time, but she could see how tense he was most of the time, even if she could dismiss all his half-jokes about how glad he'd be to get the smell of genetic perfection out of his hair.

Charlemagne treated her to one of his genuine, warm smiles. "I do believe you've forgotten that you're a rather stark anomaly in the history of human-Nietzschean relations. Since the fall of the Commonwealth, my people have very rarely served under a human. We have enslaved them much more frequently."

She glared, but she could not argue with his logic. He was probably right; Harper's experience with Nietzscheans was more characteristic of the average human's experience with Nietzscheans that hers. "Yeah, yeah. I'm just gonna miss 'em, you know? Not that you aren't scintillating company, and I expect that any day Dominique is going to ask me to do her nails as we watch trashy holonovels and talk about boys, but..." She sighed.

"And you," she continued as she poked Charlemagne in the chest, "you're getting married. I still insist that she's perfect for you, but... things are gonna change." She swallowed and couldn't meet his eyes. "Between us. If you two are going to try to ally the Volsung and the Jaguar prides with Tyr's movement, you'll be appearing together. A lot."

He wrapped an arm around her, and she heaved another deep sigh into his shoulder. The worst part was, she had known all along that this would happen. Sometimes she could not remember why she had decided to take their relationship to this level, but the warmth of his arm and the solidity of his chest under her cheek reminded her of how happy she was when she could steal a moment alone with him.

"At this point," he said softly, his voice rumbling in his chest, "I cannot tell you that I would be content to call of the wedding at your word. Plans have progressed too far for that."

With a blench of her stomach, Beka knew he was right. She would not have asked, not not dreamed of asking when he had so offered in the past, and yet... that choice had always been available. Now it was gone, and Beka felt strangely bereft.

"But my dear," he continued, his warm breath ruffling her hair, "you shall always be welcome at my side, and for my part, I will endeavor to be at yours, as often as I may, so long as you desire me there. You're perfectly right that our relationship will change, but consider this."

He adjusted his position and gently pulled Beka up to look at him. Deep currents stirred behind is blue eyes as he smiled faintly at her. "You shall have a family, Rebecca. Perhaps not the usual human sort, but you shall have two people, possibly one day more, who will cherish you and defend you to the utmost of their capacity."

Beka could only stare back at him as his words echoed down the passages of her brain. A family. People who loved her. Was it worth losing Harper and Trance, to gain a strange little Nietzschean family? She didn't know, couldn't say, but she knew she had to give this thing Charlemagne was describing a try. She reached her hands up to stroke his handsome face, still disbelieving in spite of everything that this was happening to her. His eyes fluttered closed, and they sat that way for some time, memorizing this quiet moment before the universe swept them once more into the fray.

-o-

On the pretext of checking on Harper's progress, Beka was getting in some quality human time with the skinny little mudfoot. She realized that she wouldn't be getting much of it in the future. She'd had to brush away a teetering stack of Sparky Cola cans to perch on the stool in the Machine Shop where Harper was modifying some of the Path's nanobots to detect something or other. As he worked, he regaled her with fantastical tales of his short-lived job with a high-stakes casino, which she had no doubt he was exaggerating hugely.

"It had to be worth ten million thrones, easy. Worth more than my life, at least to its owner. So I'm up for three days straight tryin' to find it, scared outta my mind that someone walked off with it and he's gonna blame me."

Beka laughed. "Can you blame him? Guy entrusts the place with a family heirloom older than this ship, and you kept it under your pillow!"

"Hey hey, it's never failed me in the past! Anyway, so... come on, come on you little bot, come to daddy... so I'm seriously considering smuggling myself on the text ship outta here with Trance – she's looking out for me while I'm freaking out, you know, feeding me and stuff – she's tryin' to clear some room cos I got all these cans on the floor, and something rattles inside one of 'em." He paused for dramatic effect. "She dumps it in the sink, and it falls right down the pipe! She says, 'Harper, that thing you're looking for. Is it shiny?' and I dove for the sink and ripped the pipe outta the wall."

He bent over his table for a few seconds, poked something and caused a shower of iridescent pink sparks, then glanced up again and downed half a can of Sparky Cola. Beka felt her gut twist at the sight of it.

"It was covered in sink crap, you know, hair and saliva, but it was there. I had to clean it myself cos no way in hell I'm trusting anyone else with it, and when he shows up at the front desk, it's as good as new. My boss, though, she knew it had gone missing, and-"

The chime trilled, and a moment later, Dominique picked her way through the mechanical refuse toward Beka. She inclined her head to Harper in greeting but did not waste time with small talk. "He agreed to hear us," she announced without preamble. "He refused the invitation to my wedding, as we had expected, but he desires an audience with you, Charlemagne, and myself the day before."

The story Harper had been telling her flew out of her head in an instant. "Here?" Suddenly, the pounding of her heart was the loudest sound in the room. "He's coming here?"

Dominique nodded and handed Beka a flexi with the message. It was terse, the tone not quite annoyed but extremely busy, and contained nothing of his personality, his intensity. She felt disappointed but also relieved; if he wanted a short, business-only kind of meeting, she thought she might be able to meet his eyes coolly.

Harper looked between them, eyebrows raised and forehead wrinkled in obvious confusion. "Um, hello? Do I get a secret decoder ring, or is somebody going to tell me what's going on? Who's coming here?"

Beka looked up from the flexi and gave Harper a thin, wry smile. He shook his head. "Oh no, no way. Boss, come on, I was there last time he was here."

"So was I," she said, more brusquely than she'd intended. "Fortunately for all of us, so was Charlemagne. This time we have warning, Harper. How far along are your preparations?"

He glanced around the machine shop, wild-eyed. "Well, uh, internal defense is beefed up about a zillion percent, but right now it's keyed only to respond to me. I figured it's easier to tinker when I don't have to worry about confusing with conflicting signals. But the contraband nanobots are still in the early stages, and-"

Beka cut him off. "Internal defense is all I need. And... keep the controls to yourself, for now. I don't expect we'll need it, but I would like to have a surprise or two up my sleeve." She took a deep breath and released. When she spoke again, the tension had left her voice. "Hey, it's not like he's coming tonight. Keep at it, Harper."

He nodded at her, eyed Dominique for another moment, and then swiveled back to his work, muttering to himself.

Dominique watched him for a lingering second before turning her gaze back to Beka. "Then you agree. We shall meet with Tyr Anasazi."