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Enterprise wasn't due for another day, but she was docked when Jack arrived, and her repairs underway. That suited him fine; Jack wasn't expected to report in until morning, which gave him all night to collar a techie, get into a lab, and get his data. With luck, he could  finish the mission and get out  without ever having to explain himself or his credentials.

He found his way down the chilly docking spire to Enterprise's berth. She was in for hull work, the reason Jack had tracked her to this timepoint; one of the starbase's big pressurized cradles extended out over a section of her primary hull. Jack leaned against a cargo crane and watched the outside crews triage the hull plates. They were fast and methodical and, considering the ship was only months away from refit, hugely profligate—or, from Engineering's standpoint, hugely conservative; the crew chiefs thumbs-upped the removal of whole modules that looked utterly pristine to Jack's eye.

The plates came off, the plates got chucked over the gravitocline and into the free-fall section of the dock, the plates got rounded up and bungeed together and went... somewhere. With all the identical little cargo pods it was seventeen-card monte in the free-fall zone. Jack's full command gold would look even more conspicuous there than here, but none of the red-suited tech crews had paid him any attention yet. He hefted his satchel, wrinkled his cuffs so as to flash some braid but obscure the exact number of stripes, and set off like he knew where he was going.

He failed on both counts. A crewman—no, a junior officer, with an academy pin on his voder but no stripes—pushed off a strut, curled up around a soft underbelly, and dropped neatly into the artificial gravity field at Jack's feet. Kid was a bit of a show-off; Jack liked it already.

"May I help you, sir—excuse me, Captain?"

Change it to him; the synthesized voice was tenor but definitely male, and sparkling with youthful earnestness. The carapace was pretty sparkly, too—looked like mica and garnet in some kind of silica matrix. Whatever species he was, he was a long way from home.

"You might. Captain Jack Harkness." He flashed an ID—the real thing, much more robust than psychic paper, but it locked him into a single cover. "Starfleet Intelligence."

"Welcome, Captain," the ensign said—to the whole sector, Jack supposed, since that was an Enterprise badge, not a base one, on the voder. Heavy cruiser crews did get proprietary about their patrols. "We're always glad to see Intelligence take an interest."

"Are you now."  It was hard to tell with a voder, but he didn't think the ensign was joking.

"Oh, yes sir! We'll be very pleased to get an intra-service perspective on the Romulan movements. Or, well, I'm sure the captain will." He shuffled awkwardly, and though Jack couldn't see any eyes, he could feel the kid's attention slide downward. "It's not actually my field."

Romulans. Of course. He loved working the Federation timeline—they were all so goddamn trusting. "Above your pay grade, Ensign—Ensign...?"

"Naraht, sir." He drew himself up—no, snapped to attention. The posture brought him barely past Jack's knees.

"Listen, about the Romulans," he said. "I need to run some tests on your cast-off hull plates there."

"Ah," Ensign Naraht said knowingly. "Plasma-gun shielding. Will it be available for our refit?"

"Need to know, kid. Sorry. Right now, I just need you to point me to the right lab."

"I'll show you, sir. Follow me, please," he said, and spun in place with a noise like a millstone. The ensign moved fast when he wasn't shuffling nervously, and people got out of his way. Jack shrugged and followed.

~*~

It was Agency routine for time-traveling vessels from before the Temporal Registry—get a spectrum of the hull's artron radiation, so the ship could be ID'ed and tracked when out-of-period. Jack had started ten years later at the Starfleet Materials Archive, where some cast-off parts should have been kept for forensics and study. He'd come up blank—oh, there were bits and pieces labeled Enterprise, but all the hull plates and structural members, the parts that gave a really clear chronospoor, had either been removed at the shipyards before her maiden voyage, or were late replacement parts; none of them had ever undergone temporal flux.

And that was both interesting and very, very wrong, because no one in this timezone should have been interested in—should have even known how to detect—artron signatures, and yet someone had made away with every scrap that might have carried one.

This was her last major repair before the refit, but if anyone was smuggling parts away right now they were being discreet about it. The walls of the lab Naraht led Jack to were stacked five deep with tagged and labelled hull plates, their three-meter curves looming precariously over Jack's head. Two techies—Enterprise people, not starbase staff—were wrangling in another pod-load and marking off their serial numbers against a much-modified and highly non-regulation schematic.

Jack waved his ID at the techs and told them to keep doing what they were doing. They'd talk, of course, but he ought to be able to get what he needed and get out before the talk got to anyone in authority. His equipment came together quickly—Naraht quivered with interest, asbestos-like filaments pricking up along the edge of the carapace. "Yes, it's brand-new; no, I can't tell you anything more than that," Jack said. The artron detector was at least fifty years ahead of even the most classified tech of the time and Jack thought Naraht could tell, but he accepted Jack's restrictions and contented himself with close and longing attention.

Earnest, observant, and obedient. Jack loved this timezone.

The detectors all pinged at once when they came on line, every indicator at the top of the dial—and that was wrong, too, because routine hull maintenance should have removed plates of varying ages and exposure levels.

This wasn't routine. This was—Jack looked again at the schematic. The tags were color-coded by install date—and every plate removed or slated for removal had been installed before the ship's last known temporal event.

Jack laughed—mirthlessly, once, and then with genuine amusement.

"Is something funny, Captain Harkness?"

Poor kid; there was no way to let him in on the joke. "Your Commander Scott is a clever, clever man," Jack said, because there was no way that could be news.

Clever and paranoid. He'd figured it out—with ship-based facilities, fifty years before the first detection of artron energies and five hundred years before the theory, with no data but his obsessive monitoring of every aspect of his ship, he'd independently discovered temporal fatigue.

And he'd replaced every plate that showed a sign of it, in a provincial starbase with no dedicated materials science staff, so the Earth-based refit crews couldn't find it and scoop him on the paper. Jack was tempted to recruit the man, but that had been tried, and the Agency had barely survived to right the timeline.

Well, Scott had done half the work of righting this one, with his secrecy about the evidence. It remained only to have the paper classified indefinitely—both easy and not Jack's problem—and to collect the data that Scott had so inconveniently kept out of the materials archive.

Jack skimmed the sensor over one of the most-stressed pieces; the indicators flat-lined. Just how much artron stress had this ship taken? Even the newest hull fragments were well into his detectors' error margins.

The error lights flashed, and Naraht seemed to come to a decision. "Captain Harkness, sir? Am I correct in thinking you want the radiation signatures of the shocked tritanium along the stress lines?"

Ooh, observant and smart. "I might. Think you can help with that?"

The kid had nothing to smile with, but Jack swore he was beaming. "Leave it to me." He reared up—and, wow, he had some serious mass and some amazing balance—and draped himself against the plate; it rocked back gently under his weight. "Or would you rather cut a sample from the edge? My acid will leave a trace—" Acid?— "but since of course I will be reporting your visit to the captain and Mr. Scott...?" He sounded apologetic—trapped between a Fleet Intel badge and his chain of command, poor kid.

"Of course," Jack said. "Are the acid traces likely to affect Mr. Scott's tests?"

"Not if he knows to control for it."

"Then... at your discretion, Ensign."

What at his discretion, Jack didn't even know; but Naraht undulated against the plate and a few wisps of acrid steam hissed out between the fringe of filaments.  "Fascinating," Naraht said. "The decay products are associated with the areas of lowest radioactivity."

Fascinating was right. "How can you tell that?"

He bristled—literally, the spiky bits along the edge of the carapace going even spikier. "The taste is very clear, Captain. Unique, but clear. The stressed areas are almost entirely made up of stable isotopes—which is very odd—but they're still emitting gamma rays and neutrinos. Or, at least, they're..." he pressed his whole body against the plate, wafting more acrid fumes into the air. "They're suffused with decay products. I can't say with certainty whether they're producing them." He rippled apologetically, almost in a shrug. "I'm sorry, Captain, but it would be like asking you whether the carbon dioxide bubbles in an organic liquid were the result of natural fermentation, or a deliberate addition. If the radiation levels were higher, I might be able to tell, but—"

Jack's mouth was suddenly dry. "That's amazing," he said. "Can—can all your people do that?"

"I could do that much as soon I was hatched," he muttered; Jack would have thought that would be a point of pride, but  Naraht sounded almost embarassed. He wriggled against the plate again, within arm's reach, but that sense of attention was gone, focused anywhere but on Jack. Or focused on the plate; despite his discomfiture, the ensign still moved with easy deliberation, almost sensually— No. No almost about it.

Taste, he'd said; and the first analogy he'd leapt to had been one of criticism—of appreciation. This wasn't just a metallurgical sample to the kid; it was a gourmet meal, or a box of truffles. And Jack was  staring at him while he ate and demanding the recipe. No wonder Naraht didn't want to look him in the eye.

Naraht settled his bulk against the metal, poised—draped, even—for maximum contact. "This is the part that took some practice," he confided, shyly. There was a pause and a series of low scraping noises, just at the edge of audibility, that the voder didn't render, and then he said "Titanium-48, 65.579834 percent. Titanium-50, .000463 percent. Titanium-49, .000878 percent," and on and on, every constituent to six decimal places, the frequency and intensity of every type of radiation, a fair estimate of the steepness of the stress curve—better data than any of Jack's sensors could have given him. Naraht bristled with concentration, absolutely intent on the taste of the metal, and the whole litany was punctuated with little noises of enjoyment that the voder mostly ignored, but they didn't need translation. In his whole career Jack had never done anything so personally revealing while in uniform.

He watched, and swallowed, and then he took down Naraht's figures and gave him another panel to analyze. They did two more after that, once the techs brought in a new pod-load—Jack shooed them out, probably too hastily, but the fewer eyes the better. For more reasons than one. Jack waited until he was packing up his equipment and closing up the lab to say "They have no idea what that's like for you, do they? Your chain of command, I mean."

"Captain?" Naraht said, stressing the rank—and, okay, it was a pretty personal question, but that was just the point.

"You seem like a fairly... reserved sort of guy. And from where I was standing, that looked like a pretty intense sort of experience to be having in public."

Jack felt Naraht's attention focus on him again, uncanny and intense. "You're very perceptive, Captain Harkness."

"About some things."

Naraht shuffled, making more noise than Jack thought he needed to. "Please don't mention your insights to my superiors. I'm afraid they'd be somewhat—"

"Mortified?" Jack said. "Shouldn't they be?"

"No," Naraht said firmly. "And neither should you. My... I've never been asked to do anything I shouldn't be able to do with equanimity."

"Okay, whoa, hold on." They were blocking the corridor; Jack steered them down the hall back toward the busy maintenance decks, where a conversation would fade into the general din. He found a freight pallet and sat on it, bringing his eye level almost even with Naraht's carapace. "One, you do not have to beat yourself up for, for having a sensuality. That's not a failing, and don't let anyone tell you it is. And two, you do not have to keep making yourself uncomfortable just to keep from making your superiors uncomfortable. That's not what the stripes are for."

Naraht shuffled silently.

Jack sighed. "Look, kid, if you keep quiet, the next—what species are you, anyway?"

There was a long enough pause for Jack to realize a native would probably have known that. "Horta, sir."

"—the next Horta ensign after you," Jack went on, undaunted, "is just going to go through the same thing."

Naraht shifted his weight, straightened up. "There's a logic to that that my department head should find persuasive." Jack didn't ask, but at his blank look Naraht explained, "I report to Commander Spock. He has some experience with being a minority species in Starfleet."

And from Naraht's tone, he hero-worshipped him—which was only reasonable, but Jack thought it explained rather a lot. "I hope he doesn't expect you to be a Vulcan. Or even act like one."

"No, sir," said Naraht. And that scrutiny was back. "Sir. If you can find your own way back up to the main concourse, I do need to report in."

"Of course," he said. And this was the point at which if he were smart, he'd take his findings, go back to his ship, and run like hell, because as soon as Naraht made that report, someone was going to come and subject his credentials to a lot more scrutiny than he thought they'd stand.

But this was not Jack's day to be smart, because instead he said, "Are you off duty this evening?"

"Captain?"

"I'd like to talk to you some more," and boy that was the wrong thing to say when you were wearing a Fleet Intel badge, no matter how trusting the timezone. He smiled, not the thousand-watt one but whatever came out naturally. "Over dinner. If you wanted to."

There was no way to misinterpret dinner, not after the conversation they'd just had. Naraht went so still his carapace didn't even glitter. "Captain Harkness. Are you propositioning me?"

"Call me Jack," Jack suggested. "And we're not in anything approaching the same chain of command."

Naraht made a noise that the voder took a long time to render as laughter. "That... that's your first concern. Of course."

"Well, Command takes that sort of thing pretty seriously."

"Captain—Jack—I'm silicon-based. I secrete acid that could dissolve you whole in a matter of seconds. I have nothing you would even recognize as a sexual organ, and any part of my body that's safe for you to touch has the texture of stone."

"So we'll have to get creative. If you're interested, we can work around all of that."

"My species is semelparous; we spawn once and die. I—I don't even know what the desire for that is like; absent the proper pheromonal cues, I never will.  I don't—I don't understand what you could want, Jack. With me."

"I'm not asking you to spawn," Jack said. "I'm asking if you'd like to have dinner with me." He leaned down and spoke low. "I want to watch you enjoy something else as much as you enjoyed that hull plating," he said, "and I want to know you're letting me." Just the thought was making his heart pound, and he was pretty sure Naraht could tell.  Anyone watching should have been able to tell, should have seen in his face what a wonderfully, filthily carnal proposition he'd just made to this sweet young thing, and yet people were walking past as though their conversation couldn't be anything but professional. "That's what I want," Jack said. "But only if you want it, too." 

Naraht considered, for a long and heart-stopping moment, before that attention was back on him, focused and sharp, though the voder rendered his next words tentative. "Can you wait until 21:00?"

~*~

They planned a rendezvous by the public transporter terminus, and Jack returned to his ship and read up on Hortas. He had an Agency loaner in the skin of a local-era long-range shuttle. It was crammed and dusty with the detritus of Jack's and several other occupants' previous missions in-period, but the library computer had the goods. And, wow, things you never thought you'd need to know.

He'd gleaned some of it: silicon-based, petrivorous, from a mineral-rich environment—specifically, the deep caverns of Janus VI; in fact they'd been discovered early on in the Enterprise's last exploration mission. Which meant, Jack realized, when he got to the part about their completely bizarre reproductive system—semelparous didn't even begin to describe it—that Naraht couldn't have been any older than ten standard.

Fortunately, the next paragraph clarified that Hortas reached puberty at three, so, given Academy timetables, Naraht probably was just the age he seemed: still young, terribly young, but adult by all his people's standards.

He had to be one of the first Hortas in Starfleet, too. Maybe even the first. Brave kid. Brave, earnest, smart, obedient little budding epicure. Oh, this was going to be fun.

Fun, but a logistic challenge. Jack got the starbase's catering computer to tell him what Hortas ate, but finding a place to do it was a problem. The Starfleet dining hall would serve rocks, but offered no privacy; the privately-run restaurants didn't get enough silicon-based clientele to cater to it, but they'd charge you a usurious corkage fee if you even thought of bringing your own granite.

And coming back to the ship was out of the question; it couldn't possibly pass muster from inside.

In the end, Jack spent five minutes booking a hotel room and ordering himself a nice room service meal, both of which he could expense, and spent the next three hours and most of his last paycheck shopping for what he was determined would be the best dinner Naraht had ever had.

The machine shop at the commercial docks supplied some basics: steel bars, ingots of this and that, a spool of copper wire, a selection of rare-earth magnets, petroleum from down-system in various stages of refinement—ruinously expensive, but a delicacy—and a liter of powdered graphite industrial lubricant, a potent intoxicant to silicon biology.

Jack knocked on the door of the Facilities office and, with a lot of vague smiles and flashes of his Intel ID, finally got shown the tailings pile from the latest excavation into the asteroid that housed the station and was allowed to take a clean, new core of richly veined nickel-iron.

After that, he had to get creative. The shopping arcade had a kitchen-supply store that supplied a marble rolling pin and a bag of glass pie weights. Jack wasn't even sure what a pie weight was for, but they were green and smooth and made of silica, so he bought them. There was an interior design business which happily gave Jack a stack of sample tile chips when he explained was thinking of redoing his bathroom: another marble, a pink one this time, and slate, and two kinds of travertine. They also told him where he could check out an anti-grav pallet for his shopping bags, which were getting awfully heavy.

His best purchase came by lucky accident. Jack detoured to pick up a few things at a paper stationery shop near the end of the shopping district. Across the way was a sporting goods store, with  one corner of it given over to a trophy shop. Display models crammed its window, cheap pot-metal statues of fencers and gymnasts—on polished granite bases. Jack went in and asked the price of a blank trophy base. 

The clerk peered over the counter at Jack's shopping in the floating pallet. "Putting together a rock collection?"

"Sort of," Jack said. "Actually, I'm having dinner tonight with a friend—a silicon-based friend; he eats rock and metal. Granite is supposed to be kind of a delicacy—I'd really like to make a good impression…" He smiled hopefully.

"Huh," the clerk said, but this was a starbase; she'd heard it all. "Well, if it's granite you want, I've got something nicer than that. Wait here." She ducked behind a curtain and rummaged noisily, and came back with an immense—at least fifteen kilo—disc of polished stone, with a handle affixed at the top and a spiderweb of fractures marring one side. "Curling club broke this last year—don't ask me how—and I always thought I might cut it down for trophies, but it's too big to fit into my good plasma saw, and with that crack down it I haven't wanted to try breaking it down with anything else." She turned it over easily, despite its heft, to display the smooth running surface underneath "That's twenty kilos of Aldebaran blue granite there. I'll sell it to you wholesale."

Jack had no idea of the wholesale price of Aldebaran blue granite or even whether such a thing existed, but he was too happy to even try to haggle. "Deal."

~*~

The hotel kitchen staff frowned at Jack's request for some extra dishes and serving bowls with dinner, until he revealed it was for a companion whose specialized dietary requirements they couldn't meet, whereupon the chef himself came out to apologize, and assured Jack that in future, they could certainly meet his friend's request if given advance notice. Jack upped the wine order to a full bottle and resolved to tip very, very well.

He changed into civvies—he wasn't going to do this with stripes on his sleeves, not even borrowed ones—and then there was nothing to do but wander down to the main concourse, and pace, and think about how very foolish he was going to feel with his boxes of rocks—terribly expensive rocks—if Naraht stood him up.

But Naraht materialized on the personnel transporter promptly at 21:00, and scuttled down the pad almost awkwardly, fast and then slow, as if trying to conceal his eagerness, and Jack thought his face might crack from smiling. "Naraht."

"Jack," he said, very deliberately. Jack would have bet anything he'd practiced leaving off the 'captain'."

"I like how you say my name," Jack said, because that sort of diligence should be rewarded.

Naraht rumbled beside him in a pleased sort of way. "And I'll be moaning it later, I suppose?" Jack wrong-footed himself and almost tripped over him. "I'm not entirely naïve, Jack. You—I've been thinking about this, about you, and you've either got a fetish for non-humanoids or a fetish for clean-cut young males that transcends species. And I don't mind. Being a fetish object. I'm—I am interested." He stressed interested as though being interesting was the highest praise he knew how to give, and that made Jack's heart skip a beat. But the rest—he steered them through the hotel door and to a bench in the lobby.

"Hey," he said. "Don't call it a fetish—or, no, don't say fetish like that, reductively, like it means that's all you can ever be." Jack reached out and laid a hand on Naraht's carapace. Naraht had said he would feel like stone, and he was as solid and as smooth, but there was nothing brittle about his shell: it was barely warm, and gently yielding, and vibrating with tension and strength. "Maybe I do have a type; you wouldn't be the first to say so. That doesn't mean the type is all I see. Or all I want." He patted the carapace, reassuringly he hoped. "You don't have to sing for your supper. Whatever happens this evening, it's all up to you." Naraht slumped a little—relaxed, maybe, or else just not buoyed up by false bravado.  Jack gave him a sharp look. "And that means you can ask me to take charge at any point, too. If that's what you want."

And that got Naraht's attention again. "No," he said thoughtfully. "I don't think so. But I find the offer strangely heartening." He leaned briefly against Jack's thigh, a friendly weight like a big sheepdog, and straightened up. "Shall we?"

Jack led him up to the room. The desk clerk caught his eye on the way through the lobby and indicated by a complex series of nods that room service would be on its way momentarily, and Jack made a mental note to recommend this hotel to every field agent he knew.

Jack had washed and dried all the stones and bits of metal and wrapped them in the clean kitchen towels he'd begged; the room service waiter came in and plated them all deftly, hiding them again under polished covers and stacking them next to the courses of Jack's meal on the sideboard. He spread a cloth, laid the table, pulled up the ottoman for Naraht in place of the second chair, opened the wine, and lastly set out two small plates and an array of little bowls. "A selection of salts—" Jack kicked himself mentally; salt was a rock, dammit— "and an amuse-bouche, with the chef's compliments." The amuse was a menagerie of origami animals. "Rice paper, and aluminum foil. Enjoy your meal." He wheeled the serving cart out.

Naraht settled on the ottoman with the forepart of his body draped over the table, fringes trailing—neatly—around his plate, and regarded his origami swans with amusement. "Jack. How many people did you enlist in seducing me?"

Or maybe it was Jack he was amused by. "I only said I wanted to make a good impression."

"In that tone?" Naraht rumbled, too low for the voder pickup, but it was the same sound that had been rendered as laughter. "I will resign myself to being the object of gossip." And now there was no doubt he was focusing on Jack. "Perhaps it will advance my career," he deadpanned, and one of the swans vanished under his carapace.

"How is it?"

"It's very delicate—oh, and there's a burst of magnesium sulfate inside! That's unexpected. What about yours?"

Jack's giraffes had a mint chutney filling, and the frogs were stuffed with tamarind.  Naraht's elephants—or possibly geese; it was hard to tell—were filled with a very exciting mixture of sodium bicarbonate and potassium bitartrate. "Baking powder," said Jack. "Clever."

"Clearly I need to pay more attention to carbon-based cuisine," Naraht said.

"Well, I hope the rest of the meal lives up to the starter," Jack said. "I could find plenty of information about Horta nutrition, but not so much about Horta gastronomy. I tried to get things that would at least be wholesome, but you'll have to tell me what goes well together."

He cleared the plates, leaving the salt, and began setting out serving dishes on the table. "So. For an aperitif, we have graphite."

"You did do your research," Naraht said, though not meanly. "I'll take a little of that now." Jack poured some into a shallow dish, and Naraht draped a fold of his fringe over it.

"Now, allow me to present a local iron-nickel matrix with a rich vein of iridium—"

"Oh, my."

"Ingots of carbon steel, lead, iron in a delicate crust of its own oxides, and arsenical brass. And quenelles of copper." He'd wound the wire off the spool and twisted it into little bird's nests. And he'd wrapped the necks of the petroleum jugs with colored ribbon. He opened them each with ceremony and wafted the bouquet toward Naraht, wondering where his olfactory organs were—in his fringes? They were certainly quivering, and the Horta's whole body leaned toward the smell of the crude petrocarbons.

"Jack, this is positively sybaritic."

"That's the idea. Moving on to the stone courses—"

"There's more?"

"—we have a white marble. And pink marble, slate, two kinds of travertine. Glass—I'm not sure what's in these things besides silica."

"Most likely iron oxide. That's good," Naraht reassured him, but he was still shrinking back on the ottoman.

"Good. And the piece de resistance—" There was no room left on the table; Jack pushed the curling stone, on the bread-board the kitchen had found for it, to the front of the sideboard and whisked off the tea-towel covering it—"granite!"

"Where did you ever find—is that Aldebaran blue? Jack, I—this must have cost a fortune."

And it had shot right past 'impressive' and into 'intimidating.' Damn. Though at least the kid had dropped the air of worldly sophistication. Jack shrugged. "And how often am I ever downside to spend my pay? Relax. You don't owe me anything."

"I know. And I know you believe that. I'm still—it's still rather overwhelming to be the recipient of this sort of largesse." He leaned over the table again, determinedly, though there wasn't enough room for him to sprawl out this time. "But I'm very pleased. That you went to this trouble. That you wanted to."

"Good." Jack took his seat again—he almost swayed when he let go of the chair back; his blood sugar was tanking, fast enough to feel it go down. He hadn't been this nervous with a new lover in years; but then, he'd never been this uncertain of pleasing a new lover. "Where do you want to start?" He remembered the rare earth magnets then—he'd wrapped them like chocolates and arranged them in a red pasteboard box—but those could wait for dessert.

"What are you starting with?"

Jack had barely even thought about his own meal. "Uh, soup. Gingered green pea."

"Then I believe I will start with a bowl of those lovely petrocarbons, and some of this iron. Is there a plasma knife?"

There was, and Naraht let Jack scrape some iron shavings into a shallow serving dish. He refused help with the petroleum, pouring out a little of each kind, a dollop at a time, until he'd achieved a promising blend. Jack couldn't tell how he managed the jugs—whatever handling apparatus he had under the carapace was obscured by the fringe and the frilly edges of barely-glimpsed underparts.

He leaned over the bowl, letting most of it disappear under him, and undulated around it. There was no scent of acid, but level of liquid slid down, leaving a slick on the white china. "Oh. Oh, that is very nice."

This was actually going to happen. "Tell me—" Jack had to take a spoonful of his own soup to wet his mouth. "What makes it nice? How'd you come up with the recipe?"

Naraht took another sip—he didn't seem to need acid to consume liquids; Jack wondered what sort of mouthparts he had—and curled hungrily around the bowl, considering. "The light crude would be rather sulfuric on its own, but the sulfur is just right to cut the heaviness of this bitumen." He rumbled happily and the liquid sloshed lower in the bowl. "It is a very good bitumen—lots of heavy aromatics, not just all napthalene." The oil quivered and began to lower again, while Naraht's voder kept speaking—of course, he could talk and eat at the same time. "And the refined kerosene intensifies all of the flavors. It's wonderfully rich and complex." Jack caught a whiff of acid. "And the iron is—comforting, more than anything, but it adds texture. It's very good; I don't think I'm describing it well—"

"No, you are!" And determined to have performance anxiety about something, poor kid. "I can only—I can't imagine what it would taste like to me, but you've told me exactly how it must taste to you. It sounds like this thing I used to eat when I was a kid, this soup, everyone's grandparents made it a different way but it always came down to vinegar and wine and this fermented fish paste. Local specialty; on its own it was just salty and pretty nasty—we used to dare each other to eat it straight—but you put a couple of spoons of that into this thin, sour broth and suddenly it had all these layers of flavor, one after the other. We always ate it with noodles, because you needed something to chew to give your tongue time to taste everything. And it tasted to me just like that does to you."

Naraht was very still, his glittering facets unmoving—were those his eyes, all those tiny sparkling bits? But the liquid in the bowl rippled, oily surface refracting, for a long moment. "Now I understand what you have in mind," he said.  He arched his back and drank another draft of petrocarbons, silently appreciative. Jack sipped his own soup and watched him. It had gone cold. It was good that way.

"Where was this place?" Naraht said finally, pushing the bowl away. "Your home?"

"Long way away," Jack said. "No one around here has ever heard of the place."

"I wondered," Naraht said. "You sounded homesick." He dropped it there, before Jack had to lie to him outright any more than he already had. "I think I'd like some of that bronze next, with a bit of the copper. And maybe a few of those glass pieces, to cleanse the palate."

"Bronze on its way—you know, if I'm going to cut this with a plasma knife, I should really wear a mask. Hold on." He had a breather in his satchel—standard Agency emergency kit—but before he could put it on, there was a knock on the door.

"I'm not expecting anyone," he said. "Are you?" That wasn't really true; he'd been expecting the Intel officer or base security or someone to drop by ever since he'd checked in. He thumbed the comm. "Who is it?"

"Captain Harkness?" The voice was familiar, and Naraht's sudden and panicked rigidity told him why. "May we come in?"

"Kirk?" he mouthed, and Naraht made a vaguely affirmative motion with his anterior carapace.

Jack keyed the door. There was the famous captain in the flesh—and Commander Scott with him. Fantastic. "Captain Kirk? Captain Jack Harkness, Fleet Intel. And of course you know Ensign Naraht."

"Captain." Kirk gave Jack's hand a perfunctory shake, and Naraht a much more cordial nod. "Ensign. Sorry to interrupt your dinner. Mr. Scott and I just have a few questions for Captain Harkness." Scott had calmly abstracted Jack's ID from the dresser and passed it to Kirk, who scrutinized it and handed it to Jack without a trace of apology.

Jack took it. "Whatever you need to know."

Kirk caught his wording. "A lot more than I've heard. I've just been ordered to afford you and your research every access to  my ship. What I haven't been told is why."

Jack offered up a silent benediction to Saint Expedite; it was always easier when the orders actually came through. "I've already got the data I came for, thanks to your Ensign Naraht. I'll be out of here tomorrow, and out of your hair."

"That's not good enough."

"Captain, this really is need-to-know—"

"If it involves my ship and my officers, then I do need to know. The sector Intel officer will read me in on anything I haven't been briefed on."

And she would, if only she knew any of it herself. But he couldn't very well tell Kirk that.

Some of the truth, then; the parts that wouldn't jeopardize his cover. "Mr. Scott," Jack said. "Those odd radiation traces in the stressed hull plates. You're right about them."

The belligerence lifted from Scott's face like a curtain. "Am I now?" Naraht was suddenly and conspicuously still—afraid the senior officers would notice him. No worries; Jack was glad of the excuse to answer at least a few of the kid's questions.

"Right, Scotty?" said Kirk. "Right about what?"

"We-ell," Scott began, "I hardly liked to say before I could get a look at them all in the lab, but our hull plating has been showing unusual  levels of radiation, in areas that have already decayed down to stable nuclei. It's as if the metal has aged, but the radiation is still catching up with it." Which was as succinct a statement of the theory as Jack had ever heard.  "Now I dinna understand it all, but I can tell you that it's associated, somehow, with materials that have traveled in time."

Naraht stirred; Jack could almost see the lightbulbs going off above his head. Kirk was still frowning at Scott. "Somehow?"

"Well, either the rate of decay products is the strangest curve I've ever seen…"

"Or?"

"…or else it's a simple geometric progression, and the Enterprise has been through more temporal stresses than are reported in any of our logs. You can even plot where they ought to have occurred, but—well, the numbers say we should have experienced multiple temporal events at Space Station K-7. And you know as well as I do that we stayed right in our own time."

"I see," said Kirk. "And you were going to write a report…?"

"Aye. After I'd run some more tests. Just to be certain." Kirk's regard was unchanged. "And there's a paper in it," Scott added, bouncing on his heels. 

"That paper's going to stay classified for a long time, Mr. Scott," said Jack. "You'd never get it through review."

Scott's face fell—it would have been comical, if Jack hadn't felt so bad for him. "I see." His eyes narrowed. "Who else have you kept from publishing this?"

"No one." He deserved to know that much, at least. "Just our own people, and we… had some help. You're the first person in the Federation to work it out on your own."

"Well. That's something." The engineer looked torn between preening and crying. He turned away to compose himself, and his gaze fell on the granite. "Captain Harkness! You're not feeding that lad a curling stone?"

Of all the ways Jack was corrupting the youth tonight, that was not the one he'd expected to be called on. Naraht leapt to his rescue. "It's cracked, Mr. Scott."

Scott had already discovered this for himself. "Aye. Pity—that's Aldebaran blue granite. Where'd you find it?

"Lady at the trophy shop told me the base curling team busted it up last year."

Scotty settled the stone back on its flat side and straightened up. "Did she now." He shared a look with Kirk, somewhere between calculating and murderous. "Here on the base?"

"Yeah." Whatever he'd just walked into, it was nothing to do with him, Jack decided. Good. "Is that a problem?"

"Possibly for us," Kirk said, rubbing the back of his neck—and just like that, there was the famous charisma, on like a light switch. He must have decided Jack wasn't the enemy. "We've been invited to put together a team for a friendly pick-up game. No experience necessary."

"Aye," said Scott. "To celebrate the new ice. And it sounds like they're long overdue for celebration." He nodded to Jack and to Naraht. "You'll excuse us, gentlemen."

"Going to adjust the odds, Scotty?"

"Och, no, Captain. I'm going to find this ice of theirs and get it ready for a practice! If we can get a few ends in tonight, and maybe a few more tomorrow, we can beat those blatherskites on their own terms." The suppressed research had been, if not forgotten, then forcibly repressed; Scott was a man with a mission.

There was no answer to that determination but to give in, or to pull rank. "You'll… have to haul Chekov out of that dive he likes, first."

"Aye," Scott agreed grimly.

"Go on, Scotty. I'll round up Spock, meet you there." Scott nodded once to Jack, civil and cold, and left, bent on self-distraction. Kirk rubbed his neck and turned to Jack with a put-upon expression.

"Tell Scott I'm sorry we can't let him publish.  Trust me, there is a good reason."

"I believe you," Kirk said. He looked over the spread of food, for both metabolisms, as though only now noticing it, though Jack had seen him scan the room when he walked in.  "Though I'm wildly curious how Intel got hold of it."

"Sorry, Captain. You really don't need to know that."

Kirk looked from the granite, to Jack—a warning look, that bypassed Naraht entirely. Jack braced himself for the corrupting-the-youth speech, but Kirk just turned to the Horta and said "I'll leave you to your dinner, then. Ensign Naraht."

"Sir?" he said, in such a tiny voice Jack thought he might actually have turned down the volume of his voder.

"I hope you're not planning on leaving us, Ensign. We like having you out in the light of day."  Kirk nodded to Jack and let himself out.

Jack threw himself back into his chair and stared at his plate. What a farce. At least he'd been able to confirm Naraht's guesses about the artron signatures—and really, that kind of validation would be a better memory for the kid to take away than anything else Jack could give him. It wasn't a total disaster.

A rasping noise penetrated his self-pity. Naraht was bent over himself, shuddering with what Jack and the voder belatedly processed as laughter.

Well. That could mean a lot of things—but when Naraht finally spoke, he didn't sound mortified. "He thinks I'm being recruited," he said.  "He thinks you're wining and dining me on the clock. A man of his reputation," Naraht marveled, "and yet all he saw here was… work." He sounded proud, proud and truly confident for the first time all evening—as who wouldn't be, finding out he had a broader erotic imagination than James T. Kirk.

"And this isn't?" said Jack. "Work?" Jack had been working for this all day, working harder than he had in a long time.

"No. It's just difficult. That's not the same thing."

Brave, brave lad. Jack must have gotten a silly look on his face, because that intense regard was on him again—and, yeah, those sparkly bits were definitely the eyes. Jack hadn't had a drop of wine yet, was already floating without it, but he suddenly craved it, needed to tie this giddiness down to something physical, sensual.  Silently, he topped off Naraht's glass and filled his own, lifted it in salute. "Bronze?" he said. "Or something richer?" 

Naraht answered the toast with a swirl of graphite. "Why don't you cut me a slice of that granite?"

Jack fumbled the breather on, tested it mechanically. "Does it matter how thick?"

"Just there." Jack cut a six-centimeter slab and plated it with ceremony, cut pieces of everything else, to Naraht's direction, while he had the breather.  He knew he ought to keep it on—the fumes of Naraht's acid couldn't be good for him—but he settled for turning the room's air cycling to max. The table was almost too crowded with mineral samples for Jack's own entree; he made room, and forgot about it immediately when Naraht settled over his plate and curled his shell in around the polished granite.

His back arched, his whole body cradling the stone, and Jack could see the carapace pulsate as he drank it in. Even the fumes of his acid were swallowed up; only the faintest scent of it escaped. Jack watched, unmoving, until Naraht's body slowly flattened out, with a deep rumble the voder ignored.

"Good?"

"Oh, Jack." It might not have been a moan, but it was close enough to go straight to Jack's gut. "You have no idea."

"No, I think I kind of do." He leaned over the table, elbows jostling the salt. "Go on. Eat up."

"I don't know what else to try first." Naraht pulled back from his plate, contemplatively. A good three-quarters of the granite was still there; he was taking his time. Savoring it. A few pinpoint craters pitted the plate, but the ceramic was almost undamaged.

"You must have incredible control over your acid secretion," Jack marveled.

"Hardly incredible," Naraht said. "Think how finely you're manipulating your own mouthparts to talk to me. Will you pass me some of the lead? I rarely indulge—" he said, confidingly, as Jack served him a few foil-thin shavings—"it's terribly rich—but if there were ever a time…"

"Indulge all you want," Jack said. "Please."

Jack barely touched his own dinner. It was real food, grown station-side—a silver-skinned fish over mushrooms and greens, and baby eggplants with basil in a pungent sauce— too good to eat without tasting, but Jack couldn't concentrate on his food and Naraht's at the same time. He ate while Naraht was between courses, or when Naraht exhorted him, but mostly he watched while  Naraht ate two whole slabs of the granite—topped with metal shavings, layered with stone tiles, and alternating bites with nickel-iron, dipped in oil or salt or both, and finally plain again.

His back arched when he ingested, and his whole carapace rippled, astonishingly fluid for its solidity and bulk. His low scrapes and rumbles of appreciation became louder, overlain at times by words—"Oh my," and "I wish you could try this," and a few times, simply, "Oh, Jack" in a tone that made Jack's toes curl.

Jack never sought out sexual novelty for its own sake, and he didn't understood people who did:   how could sex ever not be new, when every time was different? But this time was different in really fantastic ways. Jack was at once frantically eager to touch Naraht and astonishingly turned on that he couldn't. Though, if he were careful enough…

The thought died—any thought died, while Naraht pulled the last sliver of the granite under his carapace, his body wrapping in on itself and his eyes glinting in every direction, unfocused. His fringes fluttered, barely perceptibly; the glittering shell rippled, a shallow pulsation alternating with a deeper convulsion, a small jet of acid and a long, greedy swallow. He was savoring the last bites, reaching for every last fleeting flavor—"It's so good," Jack breathed. "Even though you know in a moment you're going to go from sated to sore, but it's just too good to stop. I know just what you're feeling."

At first Naraht showed no sign of having heard, and Jack didn't repeat himself; he didn't want to distract him, not now. Not when he was—Jack rubbed his palms on his thighs, heartily distracted himself—when he was stretching high enough to show the seams of his carapace, and settling back languorously and slow. It was nothing like an orgasm—if anything, that was earlier, when Naraht first got his mouthparts on the granite. This was a different kind of satiety. "It's a good feeling, isn't it?" Jack said. "Having enough, of everything. Enough richness, enough sweetness. Enough pleasure."

The shining eyes zeroed in on him again, a few at a time, the quality of the gaze softer this time. "Yes," Naraht said. "You do know what I'm feeling, don't you?"

Anyone would, watching him, really watching. But just anyone didn't get that chance. Jack circled the table and got down on his heels beside Naraht. "Can I touch you?" He wanted that grounding—he was still floating, arousal sparking through him with no sensation to tie it to. Which was not to say it was all in his head; he was hard enough to pound nails, but that didn't seem to matter.

Naraht fastidiously tucked himself up, then reconsidered. "No, here." He slid off the ottoman and over to the foot of one of the beds. "The acid residue takes some time to dissipate. But you can touch my upper carapace. If you want."

Jack sprawled over the bed and draped his arms over Naraht's stony back, rested his chest and chin there. He was warmer than he was before, and his carapace vibrated gently—still rumbling, below the threshold of Jack's hearing. Though Jack could hear a lot, with his cheek against Naraht's back—the quiet grinding and settling of a silicon body chemistry, slower and less urgent than a heartbeat, mesmerizing.

"Do you actually work for Starfleet Intelligence?" The synthesized voice seemed to come from elsewhere—the words didn't resonate in the Horta's body—and for a moment Jack was too disconcerted to respond. Before he could say of course, Naraht went on, "Or has it become something else in your time?"

Jack didn't ask how he'd figured it out; he knew exactly how many times he'd slipped up today, how he'd given himself away. Though he'd slipped up worse than that before, without being caught. "A lot of federations have come and gone," he said. "And empires. And dark ages in between." From this close, he couldn't tell which facets were the eyes—it must be movement that revealed them. "Are you going to report me?"

Naraht stretched, almost silently. "I should. Though I suspect that any investigation will reveal that Captain Jack Harkness has a perfectly innocuous set of records right up through the academy and a career so classified even he's not allowed to see it."

"What about the part where I just admitted it?"

A ripple went through him that might have been a shrug. "A tall tale, to pique my interest. A last attempt to recruit me into Intel. Though," Naraht admitted, much quieter, "if that's what you'd really been after, you'd have had me long before that."

"I could still recruit you," Jack murmured.

"And if it were still for Starfleet, I would have been tempted." Naraht shuffled under Jack's folded arms. "I'm tempted now, truthfully. But I've taken oaths."

 Jack patted Naraht's shell, not knowing whether the gesture gave any comfort, but trusting the intention would come through. What an agent the kid would have made. "Oh, hey," he said, "dessert!" Not, admittedly, the best segue ever, but effective enough.

"You've got to be joking," protested Naraht. "I couldn't possibly."

"No?" Jack got up and fetched the magnets. "They're small." He opened the box—he was really quite pleased with the effect, wafers of alloy wrapped in foil and nestled in squares of colored tissue. "The red ones are samarium-cobalt, and the blue ones are neodymium."

"They do look awfully tempting," Naraht admitted. "What are they wrapped in?"

"Aluminum, I think."

Naraht's carapace wrinkled fastidiously. "Maybe with the samarium…"

"Not a good combination, huh? I'll get a plate." Jack got his own dessert, a plate of petit fours, from the sideboard while he was at it. He stripped the coverlet off the other bed and draped it along Naraht's side so he could curl up right next to him, leaning against his broad back. The rumbling vibration, almost a purr, went straight to Jack's bones. "Oh, that's better." He pried a handful of magnets away from each other and peeled them out of their wrappings—undoing all the work he'd gone to to wrap them in the first place, but he didn't mind; dessert was all about the ritual. Naraht scuffed a little, with interest and impatience; Jack grinned and handed over the plate. "Couldn't possibly?"

"Well. Maybe a few." One neodymium wafer disappeared under the fringe. "Oh, that is nice." He wriggled with pleasure—decorously, but all over. "How's your dessert?"

"Don't know yet." Jack's little cakes were hardly bigger than the end of his thumb; he popped one in his mouth whole. "Well, that one was good. Green tea."

"You've scarcely eaten," Naraht said sternly. He took another magnet, as if in rebuke.

"More fun watching you." But he ate another cake; cardamom and orange, very nice,  and so light it practically sublimated on his tongue.

Naraht arched and stretched, deliberately exaggerating his ingestion of the sweet, and his pleasure in it. "Precisely." He pushed the plate away and curled his body around Jack. "I'd like the same pleasure."

"To watch me eat the rest of these?" Jack said, though he didn't think that was what Naraht had in mind.

Naraht did that whole-body shrug again. "To see you sated," he said. "One way or another."

"Yeah?" Jack settled back against Naraht's side and spread his legs, feeling Naraht's attention on him from either side, wondering what he must look like to that 180-degree array of pinpoint eyes. "You have any preferences?" He trailed his hand up his thigh, lazily.

Naraht made an amused noise, too low for the voder to render. "At your discretion, Captain." His eyes glittered in Jack's peripheral vision.

That attention was all the persuasion Jack needed; he'd always been an exhibitionist. "All right then."

His first touch to his cock was almost painful, he'd been hard for so long, but it snapped him right back into his skin, made him feel everything stronger, better—Naraht's low vibration purring against his back, the warm solidity of his back, and the gritty roughness that scraped through Jack's shirt when he planted his heels and pressed back. And that was good, that was all Jack needed, that connection; he took himself in hand and went for it.

That was all Jack needed; but usually, when he did this, more touching, different touching, was in the offing, at least potentially. And usually, when he did this, Jack was showing off with that in mind: putting his body through its paces, showing off his hands, his mouth, whatever, to best advantage. Advertising.

This time, there was nothing to advertise: Naraht's interest in his body began and ended, not with what it could do for him, but with what it could do for Jack. Do you like what you see was a purely aesthetic question, and on that level, too facile to ask.

So he arched back against Naraht and stretched until he found just the right spot, with a smooth fist-sized burl rumbling right between his shoulders, magnificent—and concentrated on what he knew he liked: slow, firm strokes, his left hand gliding light against his balls and up to his navel, and harder, with nails, down his side and over his thigh. He let his head roll until he could stretch out and lick Naraht's carapace—rough against his tongue, the barest ozone-and-sulfur scent, like a lit match. And that was it, what he'd been reaching for all night, the engagement of every sense: he breathed that tang deep into his lungs, held it on his tongue, and came hard and sweet.

Naraht thrummed audibly, and stretched his shell to curve as far around Jack as he could. Eyespots glittered on all sides. Jack slid down until he could grin up at the unbroken curve of Naraht's back.

"You really like having an audience, don't you?" Naraht said, fond and amused. "I'm very happy to oblige you."

"But not surprised, huh?" Jack was still enjoying Naraht's regard; even a simple stretch felt indulgent, under that sharp attention.

"At you? No." Naraht leaned in, pressing back against Jack's back, a sturdy sort of embrace, and Jack sprawled against him contendly. "I am surprised," Naraht observed "at how much I  enjoyed it. Performing like that, I mean."

"No?" said Jack. "You were quick enough to accept my invitation."

"I was curious."

Naraht said it like curiosity was all the justification he needed for anything. "I like that about you," Jack said. He sat up straighter, before he could get sleepy reclining there, and put his clothes to rights. "So are you going to talk to your chain of command? About… privacy?"

Naraht made an amused noise, almost a snort. "I'd suspect that was what all this was about, if your other motives weren't so transparent."

"So are you?"

"Well," Naraht said, with a pensive rumble. "After this…" Jack expected his next words to be that he couldn't not, but instead Naraht said, "I think I'm going to find it much easier, keeping my own reactions professional from now on. Now that I know just what the alternative is." His gaze slid away, shy again. "But I will drop a word to Mr. Spock, or to the Captain. For the sake of other Horta who may not have had my experiences."  The last word came out rather smugly; Jack couldn't suppress a friendly leer. Success.

"Good lad," he said. "You're thinking like a commander."

Naraht shuffled at the compliment. "Talking of…"

"Of?"

The coverlet around his fringes had slipped; he tugged it back into place with many careful motions of his lower plates. "Do I remind you of someone? In your time, in that place you're homesick for?"

Talking of others who'd had his experiences, Jack supposed; and then caught the question beneath the question: Naraht wanted to know about other races like the Horta, other stony petrivores unknown in this time.

"You remind me of lots of people," Jack said, because that was certainly true, "but that's not why you're here." And then, because he couldn't tell Naraht about the Pyroviles, or the K!aa!ah of the Calabar Cluster, or the Deep Intelligences of the Sabrella Mantle, he said "You do remind me a lot of this guy I went through the academy with. Human guy—well, mostly; his people were high-g pioneers and they spliced in a lot of robust australopithecene DNA. Couldn't stand not knowing things-- you'd have liked him…"

Jack told the stories he could tell; that much was like any one-night stand, that, and touching as much as they could. Jack killed the wine; Naraht nibbled his way through most of the magnets; and all too soon, it was morning. The wee hours, at least; but Enterprise was running ahead of station time. "And I've got experiments running in the lab," Naraht said regretfully. "I really do need to look in on them." His carapace shifted, eyespots glinting. "And you probably need to be on your way, too."

"It'd be a good idea," Jack admitted, and climbed reluctantly to his feet.

Naraht looked up at him, considering, and then came to a decision and said "Stand still a moment." And then he surged up on end, climbing Jack just like he'd climbed the hull plates in the lab, and leaned into him with his full and substantial mass.

His underparts were yielding, not organically soft but fibrous, like an asbestos mat, rough and complex against Jack's chest and arms; the fringe of filaments wove around Jack's neck, delicate as spun sugar. "Acid?" Jack murmured, leaning into the embrace anyway.

"Neutralized. Mostly. At any rate, you're clothed." Where he wasn't, on his neck and arms, Naraht's rough edges stung, but not dangerously. Jack ignored the scrapes, and the sharp prickle that they raised, and clasped Naraht's carapace, holding on as long as he dared.

"Best of luck, kid," he said, when Naraht finally dropped back to knee-height. "Don't forget me."

"I won't," Naraht said simply. "And Jack—my people are very long-lived."

"If I'm anywhere near this time," Jack assured him, "I'll look you up."

When Naraht had gone, he rattled around the hotel room, picking up the magnet foils for lack of other occupation. And then he had an idea.

The red box that he'd packed the magnets in was still pristine; and he still had tissue paper, and ribbon. Jack put the breather on and sliced most of the remaining granite into thin sheets, and then into squares. He wrapped them in paper—loosely, so that a simple jostle would free them—and arranged them neatly in the box, along with the remaining magnets and some of the glass pie weights—and he tied the box up with a few big flourishes of ribbon, and went downstairs to check out.

For most of the station shops, it was still night, but the hotel's gift shop had a stasis case full of hydroponic flowers, and the clerk sold Jack a massive spray, roses and quite a few things he couldn't name, and a simple card to go with it. Thank you for a lovely night, Jack wrote, and signed his name. He didn't bother to fold or seal it.

The local-traffic post office kept longer hours than the shops; Jack stopped on his way to the docking spires and sent the box and the bouquet to Naraht on his ship. It should reach him around the beginning of shift, Jack calculated; the ship would be bustling.

He started up the long line of docking spires and grinned at the blank walls. It was a silly, public, ridiculously romantic gesture. He thought Naraht would be touched. And, okay, exasperated, but in a fond way. He hoped. But Naraht's shipmates—everyone who'd been overlooking and underestimating him—they'd get the message, too.

Shipmates, and captain, Jack thought, remembering how easily Kirk had leapt to his—reasonable, admittedly, but utterly wrong—conclusions. Because a man of Kirk's reputation should really  know better than—

Speak of the devil; that was Kirk's voice, shouting, from a few doors down. Jack followed the din to a disused spire, a few down from his own, its other end cut off by the line of approach to the newer berths around the station's curve. He hung back in the doorway and peered inside.

Kirk was there, far down at the end of what looked like a spill of water ice, crouched on his heels and shouting at a round of Aldebaran blue granite, as it slid over the frozen surface. Scott slid behind it on one foot, and two more Enterprise officers were running ahead of it, frantically scrubbing the ice surface with something like mops.

"Harder, Spock!" Kirk bellowed. "All the way, all the way, hard! Hard, Spock; come on!"

Jack shook his head, and hurried on toward his ship before Kirk could see him laughing. Reputation wasn't everything.

Still, as he uncoupled from the docks and made his acceleration, Jack watched the mail pod chuffing out toward Enterprise, and had to let out a giddy smile. He really did love working this timezone; you met the most amazing people.