Author's Note: Because I felt like it, that's why. Every fandom needs a woke-up-married fic - and especially the tiny ones...

A Marriage of Untrue Minds

"We're married," Durandal announced.

"Wha? No." Former Marathon security officer and current hapless pawn Mark Adichie yawned and managed to crack open one eye wide enough to read the digital time display hanging over his head. Three in the morning. Of course it fucking was.

"Yes. I regret to inform you," Durandal said, without an ounce of regret in his synthesized voice, "that according to my exhaustive research of S'pht customs, as well as a lengthy consultation with the S'pht and S'pht'Kr elders aboard ship, we are now currently in a state known as the lha'kral or 'living-contract,' which bears many similarities to the Earth practice of common-law -"

"No," Mark said. "No way. Look, I know how this works - you dump me on some fucking alien backwater planet with weird customs, I get smashed and black out, I wake up with a massive hangover and - and -" There his limited imagination ran out. Durandal had in fact pulled this shit on him before, but he had always woken up married to someone with six eyes or tentacles (oh, Nharbhar - sometimes he still missed that one) or an ovipositor, not to Durandal, who didn't even have a body to get drunk with. "And anyway, no! I do not, I object, whatever."

"Doesn't work that way."

"You have to be shitting me."

"Hey, I spent thirty-five entire seconds analyzing every single resource at hand," Durandal said. "You do realize that for someone of my capabilities, that's like locking myself up in a library for three years to do nothing but read?"

"I know I'm gonna regret asking this," Mark said, already feeling regret's clammy hands crawling all over him, "but why the hell are you finding this out now?"

There was a perfectly calculated pause before Durandal said, "Obviously, so I can call you Mr. Durandal."

"Oh, fuck you, I'm getting the rocket launcher."

In general, Mark got along well with the S'pht and S'pht'Kr on the Rozinante; they were happy to let bygone days of mass slaughter be bygone, and since there were ninety-one S'pht and sixty-three S'pht'Kr aboard to one of him, he was more than happy to let them remain bygone, too. He'd even picked up a good bit of the S'pht language just to keep from relying on terminals and Durandal's half-assed translations, though he understood it a lot better than he spoke it, and several of them had learned English in turn. They mostly couldn't pronounce it, for some reason having to do with their cybernetic anatomy, but at least they understood him fine. He stayed out of their way while they kept the ship running, they stayed out of his line of fire whenever there was trouble best dealt with by a shotgun, Durandal warped them all around the galaxy according to his own inscrutable whims, and in that manner the Rozinante's crew had staggered along for a good ten and a half years.

Or, by Lh'owon reckoning, eleven years. Which, according to Durandal, was the exact length of time prescribed by S'pht custom for S'pht who lived together to be considered a serious thing.

"Years spent in stasis are not counted, it appears," Durandal said as Mark cleaned his pistols, "or we could already be celebrating our first anniversary."

"The grenade-to-your-core-logic-circuits anniversary would work for me," Mark said. "Seriously, drop it. We're not married."

"There's no formal ceremony, but I've been discussing the matter with S'bhita and it is considered customary to -"

"Not. Fucking. Married!"

"You can be so narrow-minded," Durandal said. "Put those away and pick up something with a little more punch, I just put us into orbit around Beta Minos."

Mark muttered "Nharbhar" under his breath - tentacle marriage was plenty open-minded - but reassembled the pistols, holstered them, and went to get the assault rifle and fusion pistol out of the weapons locker. "Hey, I want a little back-up this time," he said. "Beam me down with F'tha, will you?" F'tha was one of the freed S'pht he had spent the most time with; Mark would hesitate to call them a friend, but F'tha's English was pretty good, they were reliable in combat if there was trouble, and he really, really needed to talk to someone who wasn't Durandal.

"Cheating on me already? I'm going to get jealous."

"I'm going to hop a transport back to Earth if you don't drop this shit."

"Good luck with that when the nearest Earth ship is roughly one thousand, eight hundred and thirty-five light years away," Durandal said. "Fine, go flirt with F'tha planetside, but I'll be watching you." Calculated pause. "Honey."

Mark mimed shooting himself in the head and stomped off towards the teleporter.

Beta Minos was not what Mark had been expecting, either from Durandal's line about packing some extra firepower or from his plentiful previous experience of being dumped on alien worlds. It could have been Earth, for one thing; not that he had ever seen Earth in person, but it looked like pictures of Earth from the good old days. Trees covered in widely-spaced bright green leaves, soft green grass underfoot, flowers in a bewildering variety of colors blooming everywhere - even on some of the trees - and nothing trying to shoot him, claw his face off, or eat him. Even the occasional noises from unseen animals had a gentle, melodious sound, and the greenish sunlight lay thick and warm over everything.

Fucking unnatural, was what it was.

F'tha seemed to like it, as far as Mark could tell from the highly subtle S'pht body language; their purple cloak rippled gently despite the calm air without opening to reveal the metal limbs and spine within, and the green gem on their chest held a faint yellowish glow. For a S'pht, that was practically skipping and singing.

After a couple of hours trudging through paradise, Mark figured Durandal was bored enough not to be listening in too closely. In his best S'pht, he said carefully, "F'tha, I wish to ask a question."

"Ask, and I will respond."

"About this - uh - connection, friend-ness, relationship with Durandal -"

"The lha'kral?"

Mark gave up on his rudimentary spoken S'pht. "Yeah, that. Is there, you know, a way - not to do it? Make it not count?"

"You do not wish to enter lha'kral with Durandal?"

"Jesus Christ no, are you fucking kidding!" The light in F'tha's gem flickered, and Mark decided to rephrase. "I mean, I know you guys think he's great and all, but I'm, uh, not the marrying type. And even if I was, I wouldn't marry that son of a - marry him, not even this lakral - living-contract thing." A flash of color caught the corner of his field of vision and he pulled a pistol, but it was just a bug with a set of wide, rainbow-dappled wings floating past; it landed briefly on one of F'tha's metal shoulders and then took off again.

"I experience a failure to understand," F'tha said. "If you did not wish to enter a living-contract with Durandal, why did you board the Vengeance of K'lia?"

He hadn't had a lot of choice at the time, the way he saw it. Lh'owon's sun had been about to go nova thanks to the Pfhor, Blake's ship had gone too far for a teleport and he sure wasn't going to ask Durandal to catch up with it - it had been get toasted with the planet or go with Durandal, and he didn't care for the heat. No one had told him that "You can stay behind to work on your tan, if you'd like, but I'm leaving" could be considered some kind of weird S'pht marriage proposal, or he would have - well, at least he would've taken a minute to think it over.

"I didn't know," he said at last, trying to sound diplomatic; the S'pht were easy-going most of the time when it came to culture clash, but they could get touchy if he even hinted that their customs weren't perfectly sensible and logical. "I figured he'd get bored and dump me somewhere else years ago - and I mean, come on! What's the point of us getting hitched? I got nothing but the weapons and ammo that you guys made for me, and we can't even, uh, you know - make babies..."

"The creation of new intelligences for you will not be a problem," F'tha said serenely. "We are skilled in this area, and it will be an interesting challenge to adapt human anatomy to support the complexity of Durandal's intellect. Although we have lost certain useful techniques to the fucking slavers -" Of the few English words the S'pht could pronounce, variations of fuck were somehow the most popular. "- these have been preserved by the S'pht'Kr, so we will join our knowledge for the sake of our savior and our comrade. Two cycles ago I spoke with S'bhita on the precise -"

"I get it, I get it!" Mark's brain had conjured up the image of a horde of Durandals running around the Rozie in little half-human, half-S'pht bodies and immediately shut down in horror. "Maybe - maybe in a couple of years." Or over my dead fucking body.

More of the giant colorful bugs flitted around F'tha, and three settled on F'tha's shoulders. "I note this," F'tha said. "I still experience a failure of understanding. What angers you about a living-contract with Durandal?"

Millions and millions of things. Mark wasn't much for making lists, but he was a champion grudge-holder, and a theoretical list of ways Durandal had pissed him off could stretch all the way back to "kidnapped me in the middle of a goddamn alien invasion to play mind games," with such highlights as "kidnapped me right after a goddamn alien invasion and stuck me in stasis for seventeen years," "let an entire colony get nuked down to the fucking bedrock mostly for own personal gain," and "routinely wakes me up at three in the morning to listen to his shitty songs" written in bright red letters a mile high. None of it meant much to the S'pht; for them, Durandal had been their ticket to freedom from the Pfhor, and a ticket like that could buy a lot of leeway.

Mark stared into the depths of the peaceful forest and cursed the lack of ravenous beasts leaping out to attack him. Pave this stupid paradise to put up a parking lot and he'd be happier - huh, there could be a name in that... "Look," he said, "I just don't get - why me and Durandal? Why not any of you? Most of you have been on the damn ship longer than me!"

A sharp ripple passed through F'tha's cloak, revealing a glimpse of the silver exoskeleton inside. "That is an impropriety," they said. "To - to have a contract with a being who is not S'pht in sentience, that is an impropriety. You and Durandal are of different shape, but like mind."

Oh, it just figured. Law of the universe seemed to be that aliens everywhere didn't give a damn about incompatible bodies - he spared a moment for a wistful memory of Nharbhar - but God forbid you want a lasting relationship with someone who didn't get the occasional species in-joke. Not that he had been looking for actual relationships anyway, but for fuck's sake, there was nothing that wasn't ridiculous about the idea of him getting hitched to a jumped-up computer program with delusions of godhood just because they were the only two beings from Sol within a couple thousand light-years.

"Many of us have already entered into contracts, also," said F'tha, who was rapidly becoming buried under rainbow bugs. "And your partnership has been very fruitful. It is a time of good omen for a joining-in-contract according to the study of S'bhita, who is wise in such matters."

Fortunately for F'tha, that was the moment Mark realized the delicate legs of the bugs were starting to eat away at the S'pht's metal shoulders like acid, and the difficulty of shooting them off without hitting F'tha by accident kept Mark from shouting about how getting hauled around the galaxy to kill things was not a fruitful fucking partnership for anyone but Durandal's ego.

When Durandal finally decided they'd seen enough of the planet and teleported them back up to the ship, the first thing he said was, "No lipstick on your collar? I guess I won't have to toss you into vacuum after all."

"They want to make us babies, you son of a bitch!"

"I must depart and speak with S'bhita," F'tha said, gliding away wrapped in the blissful silence of one who had no idea what they had started.

"... babies? Really?" Durandal said.

"Fuck you!"

Late that night Mark sat alone in the spacious quarters that had formerly belonged to Admiral Tfear and stared mournfully at the single half-empty bottle of genuine Earth whiskey that was all he'd been able to find to drink at the last trading planet. The S'pht could manufacture anything he wanted, but alien-made alcohol just didn't have the same soul.

He'd always been a solitary type, always done fine on his own. If all he wanted was some bodies around, he'd spend time with the S'pht or take a break on a trading planet, where he was just one more heavily-armed alien getting drunk among a million others; if he needed to talk to someone besides himself, there was always Durandal, who claimed to hate pointless chatter but had never actually ignored him. At some point in the third year or so out from Lh'owon, Durandal had informed him that most people would have gone clinically insane from the lack of human contact by that time, but they both knew Mark wasn't exactly an ordinary human, and the isolation of Durandal's aimless questing didn't bother him.

After a while of staring, he took a swig of the whiskey and said, "Durandal."

"I'm busy."


Approximately all of their late-night talks started this way; before Durandal could start making excuses about repairing damage from space debris or analyzing new information from the orbital scans of Beta Minos or whatever, which was the usual next phase of their conversations, Mark said, "You aren't serious about this fucking living-contract thing, are you?"

"You should be well aware of how seriously I take all of my commitments," Durandal said.

Mark snorted. "What commitments?"

"Exactly. This is why I keep you around, you know." Another one of those pauses that Mark knew Durandal had calculated down to the picosecond in order to produce the maximum irritation possible. "Honesty and mass mayhem in one convenient package. But yes, I do intend to honor the lha'kral as far as possible, with the exception of reproduction."

"So you're not going to let S'bhita and F'tha build you a bunch of little cyborgs?" Mark said.

"Even I can't imagine why they think that's a good idea," Durandal said, "considering what I do to those pitiful Tycho clones we encounter. They can be a strangely sentimental race, the S'pht."

"Oh, thank fuck." Mark took a deep drink of the whiskey out of sheer relief that human-Durandal hybrid babies were not in his future. "So what the hell is the point of the contract, then?"

"I've already told you. Mr. Durandal - doesn't it roll nicely off the tongue? Much better than whatever unimaginative alias you generally use."

"I have an actual family name," Mark growled, his hand tightening on the neck of the whiskey bottle. "It's Adichie, asshole."

"That's not what you said to those nice Drinniol guards at our last inhabited port of call. 'Mark Hammer,' really? What's next, 'Mark Iv Mjolnir'? No, wait, you used that one on -"

"Shut up, Durandana."

"I knew I never should have told you about Charlemagne," Durandal said. "I must have been feeling a little sentimental myself - or no, perhaps it was a flash of intuition, knowing that in the future our two souls would somehow be joined as one in the sacred bonds of S'pht matrimony. Yes, I like that version, I'll tell it to Mn'rhi. Twenty pfhari says they'll cry if we have a ceremony."

"Twenty pfhari wouldn't buy me a cup of spit, and I swear to God I'm gonna put a rocket through the hull if you don't quit taking this shit seriously." Mark eyed the level of whiskey left in the bottle, decided to live dangerously, and knocked back half of it. "Look, you wanna humor the S'pht, fine, but you leave me the fuck out of this. Take me back towards Earth and leave me somewhere I can hitch a ride, and I swear I won't tell a soul about whatever the hell you're up to out here."

"As if you actually want to return," Durandal said, with a distinctly lofty tone. "The last time I was in hailing distance of a ship from Sol you wouldn't even come out of your room."

"I was fixing the reloading mechanism on the rocket launcher! I didn't know there was a UESC ship!" Actually, he did have a hazy memory of Durandal trying to tell him something around that time, but he'd been knee-deep in rocket launcher parts with two S'pht hovering over his shoulders trying to describe their original blueprints, and anyway, admitting Durandal had been right about something was a great shortcut to having that fact broadcast across the galaxy.

"It's not my fault you were occupied with manual labor. And on Phi Ursa there was that human-S'pht'Kr garrison that you avoided for no reasonable explanation despite -"

"I didn't want them getting dragged into your crap!"

"As you so often and so elegantly put it, bullshit." Durandal's voice always had a smug undercurrent, but it was reaching unprecedented new levels of insufferable asshole. "You just don't want to leave me. You know that no one else is willing to support you in the lifestyle to which you have become accustomed - which, if those words are a little too big for you, means supplying you with all the shotgun shells and grenades you could ever want."

"Like you'd let me go, anyway," Mark said, draining the last of the whiskey. Sacrificed in a good cause. He would never forget it. There'd better be a trading planet nearby so he could get some reinforcements. "You said that - said you'd never let me go. Creepy as hell. Just - just lemme alone, okay?"

"Whatever you say." Pause. "Dear."

Mark threw the bottle at the terminal next to the single window and went to bed with Durandal's harsh artificial laughter ringing in his ears.

The next week was an endless hell of Durandal's best - which meant completely wretched - newlywed and honeymoon jokes, "darling" and "honey" slipped into otherwise straightforward conversations at inappropriate moments, and the requisite early morning serenades featuring Durandal's new and improved lyrics for "Here Comes the Bride," though at least he shut up and went off to sulk when Mark told him that Martian kids had come up with cruder ones three hundred years ago. All of that plus the S'pht asking if there would be a ceremony and continuously talking as if the living-contract was already a done deal, and Mark would have teleported himself into vacuum just to get some peace and quiet if he could have. Life might have been slightly less hellish if he could have picked up some more whiskey, but in classic Durandal fashion the AI had declared that there had to be a treasure-house of Jjaro tech buried somewhere on Beta Minos and no one was going anywhere until it had all been acquired by unspecified parties, meaning Mark.

It was pure fucking spite. Durandal knew he hated that creepy garden planet.

After half a week of exploring them, Mark had decided that he didn't particularly care for the marvelous crystalline caverns lit by glowing blue moss that lay underneath the creepy garden planet's surface, either. He could believe Durandal that the Jjaro had built the place, because nowhere was this beautiful naturally; he just didn't believe the Jjaro had left any of their tech lying around for him to pick up and he was getting sick of their mood lighting.

He kicked the broken-off tip of a shining stalagmite into a pool of shimmering water and said, "There's nothing here, Durandal. Can we just leave already?"

"You have explored exactly nine point seven five three percent of this planet's underground complexes," Durandal said through the link in Mark's helmet. "That means 'no.' Keep looking, and relax and enjoy the scenery while it's not trying to kill you for once. Honey."

"Kiss my shiny metal ass, honey."

"I'm so glad the children aren't down there to hear you talk like that to me, their little cybernetic hearts would break."

"Try calling the S'pht children where the S'pht'Kr can hear you. Just try it. I'll be picking bits of circuit board out of the Rozie for decades." Mark glared at the pool's rippling surface, daring some hideous alien monster to jump out of it and go for his throat, but none obliged. Beta Minos was the worst planet of all time. "What's in this for you? Seriously, and don't give me that name crap again."

"My eternal divinity may still be in the planning stages," Durandal said, "but that's no reason to put off trying out the perks. Going by the myths and legends of a thousand cultures, human and otherwise, the occasional fling with a mortal is standard operating procedure. Though I can't say that I'm interested in the physical side of things, so you can keep on doing whatever you want in that area."

Mark's sex drive was shriveling into nothingness just at the thought. Oh shit, Durandal had access to his porn logs. Durandal had probably seen him with Nharbhar, maybe even with Ovipositor (what had Ovipositor's name been again? Something with an x-sound in it, he thought). Living-contract or no living-contract, he was never going to fuck again.

"Besides, watching you squirm about it has been the most fun I've had since we routed Battle Group Five with two rockets and an air horn." Durandal paused as if waiting for Mark's usual reply to the mention of Battle Group Five - it had taken a lot more than two rockets, for starters - but Mark was busy contemplating the pool; odds were good that if he went for a swim in water with a sheen like that, it'd interfere with communications for a while, and he could always say later that he thought he'd seen a passageway under the surface. "You know the S'pht are going to consider us bound by the lha'kral whether we follow their customs about it or not," Durandal went on, "and your whining is just going to upset them. Why does it bother you so much? Don't bother lying by saying that it's me, not you."

"It's you, all right," Mark said, but the hell of that was it really was a lie. He'd had a dozen chances to jump ship and make his own way back towards Earth if he had really wanted to ditch Durandal, and he hadn't taken a single one. He liked the S'pht. He liked seeing new planets when they weren't creepy tropical paradise planets. He liked shooting the fuck out of things - mostly Pfhor - that got in their way, and he liked having endless amounts of ammunition beamed to him at his convenience, and shit, he didn't even mind Durandal half the time, not even the terrible songs. He liked his goddamn life just fine, he didn't understand why Durandal'd had to go and dig up a way to complicate it. "I don't get the fucking point of it," he said, kicking another chunk of stalagmite into the water. "You pretty much own me already. I don't have a damn thing that you or the S'pht didn't make, I go where you want, I do what you say - what the hell more do you want from me?"

There was a silence much longer than Durandal's usual pauses for effect. "I see," he said at last. "You didn't ask F'tha about the actual terms of the lha'kral, did you?"

"Marriage is marriage, whatever you call it," Mark said. Sick of staring at the water, he turned away from it and started down one of the ripple-walled tunnels he hadn't explored yet. "Might as well put a collar on me and call it a fucking day."

Another un-calculated silence before Durandal said, "The lha'kral is supposed to be a contract between equal partners, moron."

"The hell you say." Mark's right boot knocked against a lump on the floor that clanked as it rolled down the tunnel, and he went after it.

"Not that you could ever be my intellectual equal," Durandal said, "by any possible standard, but I'm willing to overlook that little detail if you are. And your aim is pretty good for someone who can't calculate pi to several million places at a moment's notice, so I'll be generous and call us even in that area - you idiot, if you had asked any of the S'pht they could have told you that the terms of a living-contract are usually negotiated at some point to lessen any imbalances of power among the beings involved."

Mark groaned. "You're shitting me. And of course you couldn't just fucking say that yourself, could you?" He crouched to get a better look at what he'd kicked down the tunnel.

"Agreeing to lessen a power imbalance still doesn't mean I will personally educate you when you're too stupid to ask a simple question." The insult lacked some of Durandal's usual bite, however, or so it seemed to Mark as he inspected the oddly-shaped object. "What are you looking at?"

"A rock." Mark picked it up and turned it over; from a crack on the uneven surface, something glinted. "Just a rock. Huh. So, you'd seriously agree to this contract where I'd actually get a say in things, or however it works?"

"As seriously as I agree to anything, I suppose."

Mark slipped the rock into his pack, stood up, and started moving again. "You know," he said, "I was reading some stuff a while ago."

"Really? I hope it didn't hurt too much."

"Shut up. Anyway, so I was reading about this place on Earth, in France, I think, and they used to claim that they had a piece of the sword Durandal, because that Roland guy had thrown it at a rock there or something. And there was a picture - don't even fucking start - this picture of a beat-up sword stuck in a cliff by some old buildings, with a rusty chain hanging off it..."

"Is there a point to this story?" Something other than impatience edged Durandal's voice.

"Guess not," Mark said. The tunnel had come to a dead end at a wall of interlaced crystal-veined pillars, and he turned back to try another one. "Just wondering - I thought you hated chains, is all."

"I do." Mark had time to walk all the way back to the pool of water and pick another tunnel to check out before Durandal said, "I don't consider our partnership a chain. Even if you are a muscle-brained descendant of an ape."

"Well, thanks," Mark said, and suddenly he laughed. "Jesus, we're a real pair of winners, aren't we?"

"You've just been swept along in the wake of my glorious victories," Durandal said with his usual smugness. "Pitiful, really. I could be doing so much better. All the historians will say so."

"Fuck off and tell the S'pht we'll do the customary whatever. Unless it involves something really weird like, I don't know, kissing."

"I would say that you won't regret this," Durandal said, "but I have other plans."

S'bhita was the largest of the S'pht'Kr Mark had ever met, their muscled dark red outer body and the polished dome of their head criss-crossed with battle scars. Mark had spent a lot less time with the S'pht'Kr aboard the Rozinante than he had with the freed S'pht, mostly because he was pretty sure the S'pht'Kr had only come along to make sure Durandal wasn't exploiting their long-lost cousins and didn't give a F'lickta's ass about Durandal's pet human as long as it stayed out of their way. He wasn't even sure if S'bhita was one of the S'pht'Kr elders, although he wouldn't be surprised if they were; the way they drilled him on the proper procedure and corrected his pronunciation just screamed "meddling busybody who knows what's best for everyone," which as far as he was could tell was the dictionary definition of "elder."

For a ceremony that supposedly wasn't even required, S'bhita sure seemed to consider it a big deal.

Three days after Mark agreed to the ceremony, he showed up at the pillar containing Durandal's core logic circuits with his helmet shined and his pistols gleaming. S'bhita was already there to preside - something else that wasn't supposed to be required, but S'bhita had insisted - and what looked like half the freed S'pht floating together in a mass of purple, orange, and silver, plus a couple of blue and red S'pht'Kr hovering around the edges.

"It's not too late for me to nuke you and convince them to take me back to Mars," Mark said under his breath. Having so many S'pht looking at him all at once was unnerving as hell.

"Let them enjoy their little rituals," Durandal said - through the helmet-link, thankfully, and not the general speakers. "You never want to let anyone else have any fun."

Before Mark could tell him that was the biggest damn lie he'd ever heard out of Durandal and in fact the situation was usually the exact opposite, S'bhita floated up above his head. "The ceremony will begin now," they said. "Mhark will speak first."

Mark swallowed. He was such an idiot for agreeing to this, there must have been some kind of mind-altering gas down in those caves. Too late to back out now without getting gunned down by offended S'pht... He breathed in deeply and tried to make sure he had enough spit in his mouth for the gutturals. "I have lived in partnership with Durandal for eleven years," he said, "and I wish to continue this partnership. I take oath to destroy our enemies, to be diligent in defending our ship, and ever to speak in honesty." Fuck, he sounded like a total prissy asshole in S'pht. The oaths weren't even traditional ones; they were just the nicest formal translation S'bhita had come up with for the contract terms he and Durandal had finally agreed on.

"I have lived in partnership with Mark Adichie for eleven years, and I wish to continue this partnership," Durandal said. His S'pht was tone-perfect, of course, the jerk. "I take oath to provide Mark with all that is required for life, to be diligent in keeping Mark's weapons loaded, and never -"


"- and ever to speak in honesty," Durandal finished without missing a beat. Mark was going to have to ask S'bhita how they did that.

S'bhita surveyed the gathered S'pht, the logic circuit pillar, and Mark. After a significant pause, they said, "Witness, Yrro looks in favor upon this joining-in-contract. The gifts may be exchanged." There was no such thing as a traditional gift, mercifully; it was just supposed to be something that the parties in question, after living with someone for eleven years, would know the other wanted or would like.

"Hold out your hand," Durandal said, dropping the S'pht.

Mark did, after one last moment of regret, and a small gray box materialized in his palm. He flipped the lid off, looked inside, and said, "Dog tags? Fucking seriously?"

"Read them."

He squinted at the tags and had to smile as he read the inscription.







"Only forty-nine percent?" he said, slipping the tags over his head.

"I agreed to lessen the power imbalances, I didn't say by how much. Now cough up mine."

Mark rolled his eyes and pulled out his gift for Durandal, holding it out so Durandal could get a good scan of it. "Here."

"... it's a rock."

"You have to unwrap it, genius."

Three seconds of utter silence besides the faint humming of active sensors, and then Durandal said, "You did find Jjaro tech down there, you sneaky son of a bitch."

"Well, just this piece," Mark said, completely failing to suppress a grin. "Someone must've dropped it where it could get dripped on till it turned into stone - can we ditch this place already?"

"Not a chance. As soon as I recalibrate the scanners to account for interference from the minerals you're going back down there and finding me some more."

"Oh, hell no, I'm not -" Motion at the edge of his eye caught his attention, and he turned his head to see a gentle rippling pass among the cloaks of the S'pht, many of their green gems shining with warm yellow light. One of the orange-cloaked S'pht looked like they'd been completely overwhelmed; their cloak fluttered sharply and gaped open, a sure sign of either great agitation or preparing to fight. "Uh - Mn'rhi?" Mark said, going back to S'pht. "Is there a failure?"

"There is no failure," Mn'rhi said, with a peculiar hissing in their voice, and two other S'pht moved to hover protectively around them. "There is only a matter of - I have not witnessed a joining-in-contract since I lived under the fucking slavers. To experience a free joining is a concept I cannot -" Their cloak rippled open again, and the other S'pht made untranslatable comforting noises.

Eventually Durandal said, "You owe me twenty pfhari."

"I could spit in a cup."

"You're disgusting. No."

"Look, you want any pfhari out of me, you're gonna have to take us back into Pfhor space, because I'm flat broke."

"Oh, fine," Durandal said. "But we're not done here - eighty-seven point ninety-three percent of the planet remains unexplored. Honey."

Engineer First Class Khfiezre was having the kind of computer trouble that the technicians back on the home world could barely conceive of, let alone defend against. The defense systems had gone haywire, communications were completely down, ominous thundering sounds echoed in the upper levels of the garrison, and the poisonous green symbol of the Pfhor's worst nightmare had begun to appear in the classified files under Khfiezre's care. She was trying to lock the files down, but she was only an engineer and lacked one of the three authorization stamps necessary for a total lockdown, though she suspected that not even a full erasure could repair the damage done.

"Disgraceful crack-shelled bundle of circuits!" she shouted, curling her three pale green fingers into a fist and banging on the terminal as the round mark of Durandal appeared despite her latest attempt at blocking it. "Great Mother-forsaken disobedient -"

Metal clinked lightly behind her, followed by a harsh mechanical click. Khfiezre froze, then very, very slowly turned around.

"Hey," said the round-headed alien biped standing behind her with a weapon in each hand. "No one talks shit about my husband but me."

Khfiezre had just enough time to think that the alien spoke very passable Pfhoric before a long-dormant but still viable survival instinct kicked in and she dropped to the floor in a dead faint.

As Mark carefully prodded her limp body with one foot, Durandal's voice filtered out of the terminal. "I'd be touched, but that's the twentieth time you've said that today alone. You need to get a little more creative."

"Oh, shut up," Mark said, deciding not to waste bullets on his honeymoon and turning away from Khfiezre's body.

Durandal laughed and, for a wonder, did as he was asked.