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Honor Harrington floated on her back, one toe hooked under a rung of the pool's ladder to hold her in place, and let welcome relaxation soak through her.

The last five weeks had been more than merely hectic. She'd never served as a flag captain before, but she'd held squadron command in her own right, and she'd thought she'd known what to expect.

She'd been wrong. Of course, her "squadron" had been a more or less ad hoc affair, thrown together by the Admiralty for a single operation, whereas the Fifth Battlecruiser Squadron was a permanent formation. It also dwarfed any force she'd ever commanded, and Admiral Sarnow's unending drive to correct its defects accounted for her present weariness.

The fact that she'd had to feel her way into her new role hadn't made things any more restful, and she'd been leery, at first, of stepping on Captain Corell's toes. The relationship between any chief of staff and flag captain was critical, but the Royal Manticoran Navy drew a clear distinction between staff and line responsibility. It was Corell's job to plan, organize, and advise—even to make policy decisions in Sarnow's absence—but it was Honor's job, as his flag captain, to serve as Sarnow's tactical and executive deputy.

It was also up to her to decide which decisions were hers to make and which had to be passed to her admiral and his staff, and in a way, she was almost glad Nike had been disabled. When the squadron's operable units weren't engaged on actual maneuvers, they spent at least four hours a day tied together by their computers, carrying out simulated maneuvers. From Honor's viewpoint, that was all to the good. However wearing, it had given her a chance to discover exactly what Sarnow expected of her, knowing he was watching every move but without the added strain of actually throwing seven battlecruisers (now that Defiant had joined) around in space.

On the whole, however, she was deeply pleased with her new position. Aside from Houseman, she'd had no problems with any of the admiral's subordinates, despite the occasional need to act as his hatchet woman when some outstanding snafu blew up in everyone's faces. And Sarnow himself was a genuine pleasure to work with. Serving under him could be exhausting, for he was like a fusion plant—crackling with energy and bristling with ideas—and he expected his officers to keep up with him. Some of his captains seemed to find that irritating, at least initially, but it was fine with Honor, who held flag officers to the high standards Raoul Courvosier had instilled into her.

Mark Sarnow met those standards. He was one of the finest tacticians she'd ever met, but she'd known other good tacticians and many of them never learned what was perhaps the hardest lesson of all: when to stand back out of the way.

Honor had seen graphic proof of what could happen when an admiral didn't learn that lesson. HMS Manticore had been Home Fleet's flagship when she served aboard her, and Manticore's captain, one of the best Honor had ever served under, had been driven into requesting a transfer from his prestigious post by an admiral who'd insisted on controlling every detail to an extent which had made him little more than a passenger in his own ship. But once Mark Sarnow had given an order, he left it up to Honor to execute it. They'd only worked together in the sims so far, but his style was already becoming clear, and he relied upon her in a partnership that freed him to consider future tactics while she and his other captains executed the ones he'd already formulated.

He was also an able administrator, always fully informed yet capable of delegating with an ease and confidence Honor could only envy. She'd learned more about squadron command from him in five weeks than in her entire previous career, and she knew it.

Of course, there was another side to him, as well. Honor smiled wryly and stretched in the water. The admiral radiated charisma, but she wouldn't want to be the person who failed his standards. He didn't rant or rave; he simply looked at the sinner with disappointed eyes and spoke softly, almost gently, as if to some raw middy he shouldn't have expected to get it right. He wasn't even sarcastic, but she'd never seen anyone make the same mistake twice.

Something plopped into the water near her, and she frowned. There was another, closer plop, and she opened her eyes . . . just as the third tennis ball hit her squarely in the midriff.

Honor oofed, and her toe lost its anchorage. Her head went under with a splutter before she could spin upright and tread water, and a chitter of delight echoed in the gym. She turned indignantly to face it, and Nimitz hopped back and forth on his hand-paws and true-feet on the end of the diving board and launched a fourth fuzzy sphere at her.

The ball splatted into the water in front of her nose, and she shook a fist at the furry bombardier as he picked up yet another.

"Throw it and you're bedroom shoes!" she told him. He only chittered and bounced a ball off the crown of her head, and she went under again with a fresh splutter as she snatched at the rebounding missile. She managed to catch it and kicked her way back to the surface, and it was Nimitz's turn to oof as she pegged a quick, straight shot back at him. The ball caught him dead center, and his oof became a squeal as he went over the edge of the board and hit the water in a sprawling splash.

He bobbed to the surface like an Old Earth otter, but treecats were arboreals. They disliked swimming, however good at it they were, and Nimitz's disgusted expression wrung a peal of laughter from his person. He ignored her unseemly delight and swam quickly to the edge of the pool, then climbed out of the water with a bedraggled, splattering flip of his normally fluffy tail. It was rat-tailed and dripping, and he sat with a sniff of disdain for her unbecoming snickers, gathered it in true-hands and hand-paws, and began to wring it dry.

"Serves you right," she chuckled, swimming to the side with a few brisk strokes, and he gave her a baleful look as she heaved herself easily over the edge. "Oh, don't worry! You won't shrink. Here."

She sat on the pool's raised lip and picked up her towel. He took the cue and hopped up into her lap, and his disgust quickly gave way to purrs as she dried him.

"There, Stinker. All better now?"

He looked up at her consideringly, then flipped his ears in agreement and patted her thigh with a true-hand, and she laughed again, more softly, as she gathered up a double armful of still-damp 'cat and hugged him.

"Am I interrupting?" a voice asked, and she looked up quickly. Paul Tankersley stood just inside the gym hatch, smiling faintly.

"No, not really." She gave Nimitz one last swipe with the towel and shooed him out of her lap so she could stand.

"Fell in, did he?"

"Not exactly." Honor gave another chuckle as the 'cat flirted his tail in fresh disdain and headed for his perch on the parallel bars. "He decided to play ground attack with tennis balls, and the dastardly enemy's return fire shot him down." She pointed at the balls still floating in the pool, and Tankersley followed her finger in brief puzzlement, then laughed out loud.

"I never realized treecats could be such devils."

"There's no limit to the deviltry he can get up to." Honor grabbed a fresh towel to dry her own short hair. "You ought to see him with a frisbee," she went on through its enshrouding folds. "There's not enough room for him to show his true mastery in here, but join us in the main gym some day when he's at the top of his form. Only don't forget a helmet."

"I'd like to. Mike tells me she still doesn't believe the things he can do with one of them."

"Neither do I," Honor said darkly. She finished drying her hair, draped the towel around her neck, and changed the subject. "How are we coming on Fusion Three? I just got back from the Admiral's latest exercise, and I haven't really checked in with Mike yet."

"We're doing better than I thought we would, actually," he told her with a satisfied air. "Commander Ravicz's suggestion that we come up from below is going to chop at least a couple of weeks off my estimate. We have to cut through more decks, and repairing all the circuit and service runs we're breaking is going to be a nightmare, but avoiding the armor's really speeding things up." He shook his head. "I know The Book insists on coming in from the side to avoid the control runs, but that part was written before the new alloys came in. I imagine we'll see some quiet procedure changes once BuShips digests our reports, because this is not only faster, but it's going to let us put things back together more quickly, even with the need to rewire."

Honor nodded in agreement. The R&D types' latest armor—a complex ceramic and metal alloy unbelievably light for its volume and toughness—was formed in place as part of the basic hull matrix, not added on later. That gave it vastly improved integrity against damage but meant there were no convenient sections to pull in the event of repairs. On the other hand, armor, however light, still used mass. No warship had that to waste, and since a warship's impeller wedge protected it against fire from above or below, BuShips' designers armored the inner areas of its top and bottom lightly or not at all in order to maximize protection elsewhere.

Nike was no wall of battle ship, but leaving her top and bottom unarmored let her flanks carry twelve centimeters of side armor over more critical areas and as much as a meter over her vitals—like her fusion rooms. That much battle steel could stand up to a near-miss from a megaton-range nuke . . . and sneered at the best efforts of a standard laser cutter. Indeed, getting through it was a nightmare job even with chem-catalyst gear.

All of which explained why she'd been delighted by Ravicz's suggestion, and she was equally, if quietly, pleased by Tankersley's reaction to it. Yard dogs weren't noted for responsiveness to recommendations from shipboard officers. As a rule, they were too concerned with keeping interfering busybodies out from underfoot while they got on with their jobs to consider whether or not a suggestion had merit, but Tankersley had embraced the idea enthusiastically. He'd praised Ravicz generously in his reports, too, and that couldn't hurt the engineer's chance for promotion down the line.

"How did the exercise go?" Tankersley asked after a moment.

"Quite well, actually." Honor frowned thoughtfully. "We're getting the rough edges smoothed off, at least, but I don't think Captain Dournet was too pleased when Admiral Sarnow announced his intention to form Agamemnon with Nike as the first division."

"Too close to the flag?" Tankersley chuckled, and Honor's frown turned wry as she shook her head.

"No. I think he's more concerned over the way Nike's missed all the live-fire exercises. We're doing well in the sims, but he's afraid we're going to get rusty and make him look bad once we join the rest of the squadron."

"Fat chance with you and Mike running things!" Tankersley snorted.

His tone was so sharp Honor glanced at him in surprise. She'd decided weeks ago that she'd been utterly unfair to regard Paul Tankersley with reservations simply because he'd once been Pavel Young's exec, but he was still a yard dog. A ship was a work project for yard people, not a living, breathing entity. Very few of them ever identified personally with the vessels they worked upon, yet he sounded almost angry at the thought that Dournet might have any reservations about Nike. 

Or was it because Dournet might have reservations about her captain?

Her face felt suddenly hot at the thought, and she raised her towel to burnish her almost dry hair. She and Tankersley had been sparring partners for five weeks now, and she'd come to regard him as a friend, as well. It hadn't hurt any that they were surprisingly well matched. She had the advantage in reach and reaction speed, but his chunky body was surprisingly powerful, especially for a native Manticoran. The capital world's gravity was barely three-quarters that of Sphinx, and Honor was accustomed to the advantage that normally gave her against its denizens, but the first time she'd taken a liberty with Tankersley, he'd thrown her clear across the mat.

She'd sat flat on her backside, looking up at him in such astonishment he'd burst into laughter. She'd found herself laughing right back at him—and then she'd gotten up and shown him a little trick she'd picked up aboard her last command from a Marine sergeant-major with more experience in the coup than she and Tankersley had between them. He'd gasped in surprise, then whooped in shock as he landed belly-down on the mat with her kneeling on his spine, and the final awkwardness had gone out of their relationship from that moment.

But she hadn't realized what might be replacing it, and she examined her own feelings with care and no small amount of shock.

"Well, we'll just have to show Captain Dournet he's wrong, won't we?" she said at last, her tone light, and lowered the concealing towel as she felt her flush fade. She smiled at him. "Which, of course, we can't do until you yard dogs get us put back together."

"Ouch!" He threw up a hand like a fencer acknowledging a hit. "We're doing the best we can, Ma'am. Honest. Cross my heart."

"Well, for a bunch of idle lay-about yard types, you aren't doing too badly," she allowed with a grin.

"Why, thank you! And while I'm thinking about it, you wouldn't happen to have time for a little sparring match with an idle lay-about, would you?" He smiled menacingly, and she shook her head.

"Sorry. I didn't even check in with Mike when I came back aboard. I just headed down here to soak, and now that I've done that, I've got about three megs of paperwork waiting in my cabin computer."


"Merely industrious," she assured him. She gave him an airy wave and turned to leave, but he reached out and touched her shoulder.

"If you don't have time to spar," he said, his voice suddenly devoid of all teasing, "would you care to join me for supper tonight?"

Honor's eyes widened. It was a small thing, barely noticeable, but Nimitz sat up abruptly on the parallel bar, and his ears twitched.

"Well, I don't know—" she began almost instinctively, then stopped herself. She stood there, feeling awkward and uncertain, and looked into his face intently. She'd gone to some lengths to convince Nimitz not to link her to others' emotions without warning, but just this once she longed for the 'cat's ability to read the feelings behind Tankersley's expression. For that matter, she wished she understood her own feelings, for her normal cool detachment seemed frazzled about the edges. She'd always avoided anything that even looked like an intimate relationship with a fellow officer—partly because it was a professional complication she could do without, but even more because her experiences in general had been less than happy—yet there was something in his eyes and the set of his mouth. . . .

"I'd be delighted to," she heard herself say, and fresh surprise washed through her as she realized she meant it.

"Good!" His smile wreathed his eyes in laugh wrinkles, and Honor felt a strange, answering bubble of silent laughter deep within her. "May I expect you around eighteen hundred, then, Lady Harrington?"

"You may, Captain Tankersley." She gave him another smile, then stepped across to the parallel bars, scooped Nimitz up, and headed for the dressing rooms.


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