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Honor lay facedown and sighed into the pillow as strong, skillful fingers kneaded her shoulders and worked down the hollow of her spine. She'd enjoyed her share of rubdowns and massages over the years, but Paul was one of the most skilled masseurs she'd ever encountered . . . even if his touch was a bit unprofessional.

She giggled at the thought, then arched with a soft, throaty purr as those delicious fingers dipped under to caress her breasts. Definitely unprofessional, she thought blissfully, luxuriating in his touch, and breath puffed on the back of her neck just before his lips touched.

"Feeling a bit better, are we?" he murmured, digging his thumbs gently into the small of her back while his fingers spanned and massaged her waist.

"Ummmmmm, lots better," she sighed, then chuckled deep in her throat. "You're really an awful person, Paul Tankersley."

"Awful?" he repeated in injured tones, and she nodded.

"Awful. Just look at the way you distract me from my duty."

"Ah, yes," he whispered, sliding his hands down over her hips and bending to kiss her spine. "Sweet distraction, that knits up the raveled sleeve of care."

"I don't think you've got that quite right," she said, turning on her back and reaching up her arms to him. "On the other hand, who cares?"

* * *

"Well, now." Paul poured fresh wine and handed her a glass, then lounged back beside her. She angled forward for him to slide his arm around her, then leaned back into his embrace. He might be shorter than she, but a lot of her height was in her legs, and at moments like this he was exactly the right height.

"Well, what?" she asked.

"Well, do you want to talk about a certain pain in the ass captain?"

She turned her head, eyes darkening, but his understanding smile softened the sudden stab of resurgent tension. She started to open her mouth, then paused as Nimitz hopped up onto the foot of the bed.

"I see someone else wants to put in his two cents worth," Paul said dryly. He hadn't ejected Nimitz from his bedroom since that first night, and Honor often wondered if he'd done it the first time more for himself or for her. Whatever his reason had been, he'd come further faster in accepting the 'cat for who he was than most people ever managed. Now he simply nodded to the newcomer, then grinned as Nimitz stalked delicately up Honor's sheet-covered body to sprawl across both their laps.

"Hedonist!" he accused, and chuckled as the 'cat bleeked in contented agreement. Then his smile faded and he looked back at Honor. "As I was saying before a certain party intervened, are you ready to talk about it?"

"What's to talk about?" Honor lowered her gaze to her fingers and plucked at the edge of the sheet. "He's here. I'm here. Somehow I have to put up with him." She shrugged. "If I have to, I will."

"So cut and dried!" he chided, and she looked back up with a wan smile.

"Maybe not entirely. But—" She shrugged again, and Paul frowned.

"Honor, does he still scare you?" he asked very gently.

She flushed, but she didn't look away, and Nimitz's purr of support vibrated into her lap.

"I don't—" she began, then sighed. "Yes, I suppose he does," she admitted, still plucking at the sheet. "Not of what he might try to do this time, so much as what he reminds me of, I guess. I had nightmares about him for years, and every time I think of him, it all comes back. Besides," she lowered her eyes at last, "it frightens me to know I hate anyone as much as I hate him."

"That's more or less what I thought." His arm tightened, easing her head down on his shoulder, and his voice rumbled in her ear. "On the other hand, you might want to think about how he feels right now."

"I really don't care how he feels!" she said tartly, and he laughed.

"Oh, but you should! Honor, Pavel Young has to be one of the most miserable officers in the Fleet right now—and it's your fault."

She sat up straight, sheet slipping down to cover Nimitz, and turned to stare at him in surprise.

"Believe it, Honor. Look at it. His career's been frozen since Basilisk, while your career's taken off like a missile. He's been off escorting merchantmen in the back of beyond or updating star charts, but you've been at the center of the action. Worse, everyone in the Fleet knows what he tried to do to you—and the way you shoved his face down in it. And where does he find himself now? Attached to a task group that you're flag captain of!" He shook his head wryly. "I can't think of anything he'd find more humiliating."

"Well, yes, but—"

"But me no buts." He covered her mouth with his fingers. "Besides, there's another side to it. Don't you realize what a coward he is?"


"Absolutely. Honor, I was his exec for damned near two T-years. You get to know someone in that long, and Pavel Young is a toad. He enjoys all the perquisites of his rank, but he'd never in a million years risk his career like you risked yours in Basilisk. And if he'd been in Yeltsin, he would've set a new hyper speed record pulling out. In short, my sweet, he's got the moral—and physical—courage of a beetle, and you beat the hell out of him when you were only nineteen T-years old. Believe me, his worst nightmare is finding himself in arm's reach of you for a repeat performance!"

Honor realized her mouth was hanging open and snapped it shut, and he laughed again at her expression. She stared into his eyes, trying to see how much of what he'd just said he really meant and how much was intended only to comfort her, and her expression slowly eased as she realized it was all true. He might be wrong, but he wasn't just saying it to make her feel better.

She snuggled back down against him, grappling with a vision of Pavel Young she'd never before entertained, and Paul left her to it. She studied the hideous memory of that night in the showers from a different perspective, and this time she saw the fear—the terror—under his hatred as she took him down. And she remembered other things, as well. Remembered Pavel Young avoiding contact sports, the way he backed down on the rare occasions when one of his social equals challenged his petty cruelties. . . .

It had never occurred to her that Young might be frightened of her. She'd certainly never been frightened of him after that night. Not in a physical sense, anyway. But if he was . . .

"You may be right," she said wonderingly.

"Of course I am. I'm always right," he said with studied pomposity, then oofed as a finger rammed into his ribs. "Maybe I should be scared of you, you violent woman!" he gasped, rubbing the injured spot, and grinned as she laughed. "That's better. Just remember that every time he has to look at you or take an order from the flagship he's going to be remembering what you did to him—and what happened when he tried to backstab you. Someone once said the best revenge is living well, so enjoy it."

"I'll try," she said seriously, then sighed. "But the truth is that knowing he's unhappy doesn't really make me much happier to have him around."

"There'd be something wrong with you if it did," he said, equally seriously, then bounced his hips to tumble Nimitz off the edge of the bed. The 'cat twisted agilely in midair to hit the floor on all six feet with a solid thud, and Paul's eyes laughed at Honor. "In the meantime, if you're looking for something that will make you feel happier, I'm game if you are," he purred.

* * *

"I believe we're all here now, so let's get started." Mark Sarnow nodded from the com screen at his assembled captains and flag officers. The terminal in Paul's quarters was too small to display all the others at anything like a normal image size, but it was big enough for Honor to tell who was who. The admiral's screen, of course, was big enough to show him every detail, and she was happy her uniform hadn't gotten rumpled last night.

"The first item, of course, is a critique of yesterday's exercise," Sarnow went on. "An exercise which, I might note in passing, seemed to go better for some of us than for others." His cheerful tone took the potential sting from his words, and Commodore Banton grinned wryly.

"What you mean, Sir, is that some of us got taken to the cleaners," she replied. Her eyes moved to Honor's image, and she shook her head. "That was some major league sneakiness, Dame Honor. You suckered me completely."

"I was lucky, Ma'am."

"Lucky!" Banton snorted, then shrugged. "Well, I suppose you were, but some people seem to make their own luck. Mind you, I intend to pin your ears back next time, but don't sell yourself short."

Two or three other voices murmured agreement, and Honor's face heated.

"I agree with Commodore Banton's assessment," Sarnow said firmly, "which brings me to one of the points I wanted to raise. We're already planning to use the parasite pods to thicken up our missile salvos. What if we used the EW drones in the same way Dame Honor did, as well?"

"You mean to sneak into missile range on a powered-down intercept while they look the other way?" Commodore Prentis said with a thoughtful frown. "Be a bit risky against a real wall of battle, wouldn't it, Sir? If they picked up our fire control before we let fly—"

"Hold it, Jack," Banton cut in. "The Admiral may be onto something. Even if they do spot us, at optimum missile range we'd have two or three minutes to bring our impellers up. If we hold them at maximum readiness, we can get them up in ninety seconds. Sidewalls, too—and we'd still get our launch off."

"True," Captain Rubenstein said, "but there's still—"

The debate was off and running, and Honor sat back, content to listen to the others. Personally, she liked the idea, at least as one possible option. Too much would depend on the actual tactical situation to lay detailed plans in advance, but she certainly approved of the way Sarnow involved his officers in his skull sessions. If his captains knew how he thought ahead of time, they were far more likely to react quickly rather than wait for detailed orders.

The discussion moved on to finer details of the maneuvers and ended with an update from Ernestine Corell and Commander Turner on the fire control modifications for the parasite pods. Things were looking good all around, Honor decided. There was still an undertone of anxiety, for the task group was only too well aware of how naked it was out here by itself, but it was taking its cue from Sarnow's battlecruiser skippers and digging in to do something about its situation.

" . . . that just about ties everything up, then," Sarnow said finally. "Captain Corell will have those new targeting patterns to all of you by lunch, and I'd like to go over the final version of the parasite firing codes with you and Commander Turner, Isabella. Can you screen me at, oh, thirteen hundred?"

"Of course, Sir."

"In that case, ladies and gentlemen, good morning. Go have your breakfasts." Faces smiled at him as people prepared to cut the circuit, but Honor paused, her finger already on the key, as he looked straight at her.

"Hold on just a moment, Dame Honor," he requested, and she sat back, eyes curious, as the other faces disappeared. Then they were alone, and she raised an eyebrow.

"Was there something special, Sir?"

"Yes, Honor, there was." He leaned back and brushed a finger over his mustache, then sighed. "I thought you should know that there's been a change in Commodore Van Slyke's chain of command."

"Indeed, Sir?" She managed to hang onto her natural tone.

"Yes. Captain Young is senior to any of his other COs. That makes him Van Slyke's second in command."

"I see," Honor said quietly.

"I thought you would." Sarnow frowned for a moment, then shrugged. "I'm not entirely happy about it, but there's no way to change it. I'm afraid, however, that it may involve us in helping Van Slyke bring him up to speed, and I wanted you to hear about it from me."

"Thank you, Sir. I appreciate that."

"Yes." Sarnow shrugged again, then straightened. "Well, so much for the unpleasant news. Will you join me for lunch? Bring Commander Henke with you, and we'll make it a working meal."

"Of course, Sir. We'll be there."

"Good." Sarnow nodded to her and killed the circuit, and she leaned back and gathered Nimitz in her arms.

"Time for breakfast before you go?" Paul called from the tiny attached dining cabin, and she shook herself.

"Always," she told him, "and I hope you've got some celery for a certain furry bandit."

* * *

Pavel Young stepped through the tube from his cutter into HMS Crusader's boat bay. Crusader was older and smaller than his own Warlock, but even Young could find nothing to fault in the sharpness of the side party or the spotlessness of the boat bay gallery, and he nodded approvingly, for a neat ship was an efficient ship.

"Welcome aboard, Lord Young. I'm Commander Lovat, the Exec. The Commodore asked me to escort you to his briefing room."

"Of course, Commander." Young took in the slender commander's intricately-braided chestnut hair and attractively curved figure and gave her a gracious smile. He wouldn't mind having her for his exec, and he let his eyes linger unobtrusively on her hips and nicely filled trousers as he followed her to the lift.

Lovat led him to the flag briefing room without conversation and pressed the hatch admittance key for him.

"Here we are, Sir." Her voice was pleasant but cool, and Young gave her an even more gracious smile as the hatch opened.

"Thank you, Commander. I hope we meet again." He brushed against her as he stepped past her into the briefing room, then paused as he saw not the commodore but another commander with the aiguilette of a staff officer.

"Good morning, Lord Young," the commander said. "I'm Arthur Houseman, Commodore Van Slyke's chief of staff. I'm afraid the Commodore ran into a last-minute delay after you were already in transit. He asked me to assure you that he'll be here as soon as he can and to make you welcome until he arrives."

"I see." Young advanced across the compartment and took one of the chairs at the table with a suppressed frown. It always irritated him to be fobbed off with some junior officer, but he supposed it wasn't really Houseman's fault. "Please, sit down, Commander," he said, indicating another chair, and Houseman sat.

Young leaned back, considering the staff officer from under lowered lids. Houseman. One of the Waldsheim Housemans from New Bavaria, no doubt—he had the look. Young curled a mental lip in contempt. The Housemans were notorious for their extreme Liberal politics, always whining about "the little man" and "social responsibility". Which, Young had noticed, didn't prevent any of them from enjoying every advantage their own lofty birth and wealth provided. It only gave them a smug sense of complacency when they looked down their noses at other people who did the same things without mouthing pious platitudes to proclaim their own worthiness.

"I imagine you didn't get much notice when they sent you out here, Sir," Houseman said in the tone of one making polite conversation.

"No, I didn't." Young shrugged. "But when the Admiralty cuts you urgent priority orders, you don't complain. You just execute them."

"So I've noticed. But at least your arrival spared you what the rest of us had to endure yesterday, Sir."

"Yesterday?" Young cocked his head, and Houseman smiled humorlessly.

"We were part of Commodore Banton's screening element," he explained. Young still looked blank, and the commander's smile turned even more sour. "Crusader got wiped out along with her battlecruisers when our gallant flag captain pulled her little surprise, Sir."

Young sat very still, mental antennae quivering at Houseman's acid tone. He wondered if the commander realized how much he'd just given away, and another corner of his mind wondered why Houseman hated Harrington.

And then it clicked. Houseman. 

"No," he leaned casually back, crossing his legs, "I missed the exercise. Of course, I've known Captain Harrington a long time. Since the Academy, in fact."

"You have, Sir?" The lack of surprise in Houseman's voice suggested his earlier revelation had been intentional, and his next words confirmed it. "I've only known her for a few months, myself. Of course, I've heard about her. One does hear things, you know, Sir."

"I do indeed." Young showed his teeth in an almost-smile. "I understand she's made quite a name for herself in the last few years." He shrugged. "She always was . . . determined, one might say. I always thought she was a bit hot-tempered, myself, but I don't suppose that's a drawback in combat. Not as long as you don't lose your head, of course."

"I agree, Sir. On the other hand, I'm not certain 'hot-tempered' is exactly the way I'd describe the flag captain. It's too . . . too mild, if you see what I mean."

"Perhaps it is." Young bared his teeth again. It wasn't quite the thing to encourage an officer to criticize one of his superiors, but Houseman wasn't just any officer. He was chief of staff to a commodore Harrington would have to deal with on a regular basis, and Van Slyke would have to be superhuman not to be influenced by his chief of staff's opinion of the flag captain.

"Actually, you may have a point, Commander," he said, settling in for a long—and profitable—conversation. "I remember back at Saganami Island she had a tendency to push people. Always within the letter of the regs, of course, but I always thought . . ."


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