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21. Reevaluation - The Conover Saga Revisited

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Reevaluation



(A Conover Saga Revisited Story)

by Denise Felt 2010

Dedicated to Dragon, who – like the dragon in this story – is one of a kind.


Chapter 1

Email sent 6/22/2010 from srf@secure.net to eas@secure.net:

My dearest Dragon,

I talked with Mumsy this morning, and she still insists that she never slept with you, which means that I can’t be your daughter in disguise. Total bummer. Oh, and Daddy just laughed and said if I wanted a paternity test, he’d be happy to oblige. Which doesn’t bode well, does it?

But truly, I feel much more your daughter than theirs. Why is that, do you think? Maybe it’s because they still treat me as a little girl, while you treat me as a grown woman with a brain. You flirt, you!

Not much happening here at the port. Yesterday, we had two Andorians hoping to vacation on Earth for a bit. They were fun. It took a little explaining to get them to see that they couldn’t just mingle with the rest of the folk while wearing blue skin and pointed antennae. Sheesh! How did they ever get the technology to space travel anyway? Total idiots!

Intercepted an odd communication from the Eagle Nebula again. Am attaching it for you to play with in your spare time. Did you ever get the last one deciphered? I don’t know why it makes me nervous to not know what they mean. Are you nervous, my dragon? Because if you’re not, then I’ll try and relax a bit more. Maybe add a few dozen reps to my workout in the morning. Or get a new lover. That usually takes my mind off other things – at least for a bit. (Are you blushing? Did I fluster you? Don’t worry. You’ll always be my one true love in all the world.)

Yours forever,
Sheila Roo

***

Capt. Podvodnik powered down his ship for lunar orbit and answered the hail from the spaceport on the moon. "Yeah?"

"Unmarked vessel, bearing 573 mark 4. Please state your registry number, pilot’s name, and reason for docking."

He sighed. Bureaucracy was the one constant in the universe, he had found. He toggled the comm switch. "Terellian scout ship Venturer, registry number 5897-356. Capt. Podvodnik at the helm. Reason for docking? Hmmm. I need a break. Will that work?"

"One moment, please."

Soon the voice returned. "Please proceed to Dock 7. Do not use engines. Thrusters only in space dock."

He grunted in reply, shutting down his engines and taking her in slow. From above, the port looked efficient. Not a beautiful structure, but a sturdy one, sitting firmly on the lunar rock as if it had every right to be there. Hell, it almost smirked at him. The captain sighed. It must be nice to be so sure of your place in the larger scheme of things.

When he disembarked, he was met by a security official. He didn’t need the uniform to tell him. He could see it in the man’s face. He saw something else, as well. "Aren’t you Rigelian?" he asked, handing over his papers for inspection.

The security officer blinked at him for a moment, then checked his papers. When he handed them back, he said, "Yes, sir. We’ve assigned you a room during your stay. Right this way." He led the captain down a corridor. "Will you be traveling on to Earth?"

Chucho’s heart gave a lurch at the thought. Earth. Dare he go there? He’d come this far. Could he take that final step? He didn’t know. He would have to consider further. ‘Fools run to their destruction.’ Timon’s maxim ran through his head before he shook it out. He’d run this far. Would that final step lead to his destruction?

The security officer looked closely at him, and he realized that he hadn’t answered the question. "Don’t know," he said gruffly to hide his emotion. "I just need a break, is all."

"Yes, sir. We have many relaxation areas in the port. Feel free to check the directory in your room for details." The man gestured to the open door of a small room, utilitarian and spare.

Well, the captain thought, he’d had worse. He held out a hand to the official and said, "Thanks. What’s your name, friend?"

"Carlin, sir. Major Edward Carlin."

The name rang a dim bell, but for the moment, Chucho shrugged it off. "Appreciate the accommodations, Carlin," he said, then went into the room to unpack.

***

"Lt. Foster?"

She looked up over the top of her comp and saw the sexy young major in the doorway of her office. She grinned. "What’s up, Cuz?"

He blushed and glanced around before entering. "Come on, Roo! It’s hard enough working here. Don’t make it impossible for me."

She chuckled. "Okay. Okay. I promise not to tell anyone that we’re sort of cousins. I won’t even mention that I know who you are. Will that do?"

He tugged at his ear, a sure sign that he was embarrassed. "You don’t have to go that far. It’s just . . ."

She sat back with a grim smile. "I know what it’s just, Eddie. Think I didn’t have it rough when I started working here? I still get the occasional fool asking me if I’m related to the last commander. Or worse, to the last head of security at the port."

When she rolled her eyes, Ed grinned. They still told tales around the base about how Aunt Jo had run things here at the port. And the rather public fights she’d had with her commander husband when he disagreed with her methods of handling security. "Okay. You’re right. You had it worse. But my dad is the current commander, so it makes it harder sometimes to do my job."

"You’re doing great, Eddie," she said sincerely. "You have the nose of a bloodhound. Col. Morrison was lucky to get you. How many troublemakers have you caught a whiff of before they could do any damage in the past month? You’ll be given a medal for it, if you’re not careful."

He shook his head. "I was just doing my job."

She chuckled. Like his father, he was one who preferred to merge into the woodwork rather than take the spotlight. But since he also had many of his father’s talents, he was as doomed as his sire to be a leader. Eventually. And probably – like his dad – entirely against his will. "So, what brings you to my little corner of the base?"

He hesitated before speaking, but finally said, "I’m not entirely sure. We got a ship in today."

She sighed, leaning back in her chair. "Six, actually. Which one bothers you?"

"It’s not ‘bother’, exactly," he corrected. "The Terellian ship. The captain seems to be alright. He was polite, at least."

That, she knew, was a big plus in dealing with some of these races that came and went at the port. "So what’s the problem?"

"Well, he knew I was Rigelian, for one thing," he said, his blue eyes meeting hers.

She lifted a brow. Not many races had the talent for discernment that the Rigelians possessed. "I take it that he’s not Rigelian himself," she said.

"No." Ed frowned. "I don’t think so. I’m not sure what he is. I’d almost say Thoelian, except . . ."

"Thoelian!" she exclaimed, then saw his hesitation. "What, Eddie? What is it?"

He shrugged finally. "I don’t know. That’s just it. He doesn’t look or act like any Thoelian I’ve ever encountered."

"Not even the ones on Earth?"

"Not even those. Listen," he said, running a hand through his hair. "I don’t want to get him in trouble when he hasn’t done anything. He says he’s just here for a break. He doesn’t look like the kind of guy that stays in one place too long, if you know what I mean. So it may be nothing. I can’t even be sure that he is Thoelian. I’ve never read anyone quite like him before."

If the guy had Eddie confused, he had to be unusual indeed. Eddie’s skills were exceptional, even in a family of discerners. "What do you want me to do, Eddie?" she asked quietly.

He shook his head again. "I don’t know, Roo. Maybe I just needed someone else to know what I was feeling about him. So that it wouldn’t just be me who was keeping an eye out."

"Okay. I’ll check him out. I’ll let you know what I find. Will that make you feel a bit better?"

"You won’t let him know you’re watching him, will you?" Then he held up a hand at her expression. "Sorry. I forgot for a moment who I was talking to. Thanks, Roo. I appreciate your help."

After he left, she went back to finishing her report. But first she started a search through their universal database for anyone named Podvodnik.

***

In the small dorm room provided by the base, Chucho initiated a search of his own. But the search revealed very little data he didn’t already know. And when he tried to dig deeper, he hit walls that refused to give him any more information. He wasn’t sure what ‘Classified’ meant, but he had an idea it wouldn’t be smart to ask anyone here for help.

He sighed, shutting off the comp. There were twenty-seven established ways of taking down a tarka beast. If one way didn’t work, there were always others.


Chapter 2

Email sent 6/23/2010 from srf@secure.net to eas@secure.net:

My dearest Dragon,

I was devastated to hear that you haven’t been able to decipher those communications yet. Where is my omnipotent dragon when I need him? It’s your own fault, you know, for being so amazing. Everyone expects it of you all the time. Should I give you a break? Take it easy on an old man?

Naw! Not a chance! Figure it out for me, Dragon. I’m counting on you.

Got an interesting visitor at the port yesterday. He hasn’t been out of his room yet, so I haven’t had the chance to catch a glimpse of him. But your namesake can’t tell what race he is, which should alarm you as much as it does me. Especially since the race he thinks the guy might be is Thoelian. What I wouldn’t do for a visit from Aunt Em just now! Is she still in New Malora with Uncle John? When do they get back? Wasn’t it Ceddie’s coronation or something that took them there? I can’t keep track of it all from up here. Let me know when they’re expected home, will you? It may not matter in the end. This guy may be long gone by then. But just in case, it’d be nice to get an expert to check him out.

Meanwhile, I’ve been looking into vacation spots for my next furlough. Gonna run off with me to the wilds of the Amazon? I’d love to see you in a bush hat! Don’t ask my aunt for permission; just come with me! You know you want to! I can promise you a terrific time.

Yours forever,
Sheila Roo

***

Chucho tried the food. It had some interesting spices added that reminded him of when his mother had been alive and cooked for them. The container called it the Cajun Meal, which meant nothing to him. But he’d remember it for future reference. It wasn’t half-bad for a prepac.

He glanced around the cafeteria as he ate, taking in the various peoples that were present. A couple of Andorians, probably on a sightseeing trip across the quadrant. Three Solarians that kept to themselves. Hmmm. Somehow he didn’t think they were here to negotiate with Earth. He wondered for a moment just what their agenda might be, then dismissed it with a shrug. Not his business. He was just passing through.

Several Earthers who chatted while they shoveled in their food. Chucho shook his head at them. That way led to indigestion. He looked up as the door to the cafeteria opened once more.

And froze.

By the love of all that he held dear! Who was this?

She waltzed by his table, not even acknowledging his presence, leaving the scent of moonflowers in her wake, and it took all his training not to turn and follow her movements across the room. But he didn’t need to see her. She was already firmly implanted in his mind’s eye. Dark chestnut hair that fell down her back. Large brown eyes that warned of a keen intelligence – and a wicked wit. How was a man to fight such a potent combination?

And should he bother trying?

When she came back by with a loaded tray, he kicked the chair across from him out from under the table. She flashed him a smile and took the seat.

"Thanks. It’s rather crowded in here today."

He swallowed his bite of food and took a drink from his cup before answering, not once taking his eyes off her. "You work here?"

He had a gravelly voice that suited his rough features. Sheila thought he might actually be handsome if you got rid of the beard and mustache. And cut his hair to a decent length. He certainly had beautiful eyes. Like the darkest chocolate, they were, and deeper than the ocean. He . . . intrigued . . . her. Surely such a giant of a man wasn’t a Thoelian? They weren’t really known for their height, were they?

"Yes," she answered, holding out a hand. "Sheila Foster. Which ship are you with?"

He took her hand and held it firmly for a moment before gently caressing it as he let it go.

She blinked in surprise at the way her pulse leapt, but kept her face calm with an effort.

"Chucho Podvodnik. I’m the pilot of the Terellian scout ship in Dock 7."

"Really?" she asked as she dug into her food. "But you’re not Terellian, are you? Aren’t they albino?"

He grinned, and her pulse spiked again. Down, girl! she told herself firmly. Not this one. You’d be in way over your head.

"I won the ship in a game of canasta."

"Canasta? Are you kidding?" she asked incredulously.

His grin turned wicked, and she nearly groaned. "I guess you haven’t played canasta with Terellians," he said. "It’s an experience."

She was staring at his mouth, so it took a moment for his words to register. She met his eyes as she sat back and said, "Oh, yeah? Well, it’s pretty boring the way I’ve always played it."

His gaze settled on her mouth, making her have to remember to breathe. "Mayhap I can teach you the way they play it. You might find it fun."

Oh, hell! She needed to get up right now and walk out of here before she did something extremely stupid. Like ask him to show her how to play. The expression in his dark eyes was unmistakable, and she really needed to put a stop to it immediately. But her limbs wouldn’t obey her and kept her in her chair.

When he stood and offered his hand, she took it without any hesitation and left the room with him, inwardly cursing herself the entire time.

***

When he finally slept, it was almost dawn. Well, according to Earth standard time, not the moon’s. Sheila had to force herself to let go her hold on him and slide from the bed to search his belongings. He was an incredible lover, taking her places she’d never been before during their enjoyment of each other. And she had always considered herself widely experienced. But he’d definitely taught her a new thing or two. She found herself watching his chest rise and fall as he slept, wondering what other delights he might have in store for her. With a huff of exasperation at herself, she wrenched her eyes away from his body and pulled out his ID.

Captain Chucho Podvodnik, she read. Purveyor of rare artifacts. Shit! He was a smuggler. Hmmm. No date of birth. No race of origin. Who was this guy?

"I have always found that papers only tell you so much," he said, moving his powerful arms to support his head and gazing calmly at her.

She jumped guiltily and dropped his ID. But she kept her head, coming back to the bed and running a slender hand down his muscled torso. "How do you find out the rest?" she asked sassily.

He grinned at her, admiring her spirit. "I ask."

She straddled him, leaning forward to kiss his sexy mouth. "I suppose that’s one way," she admitted, then took his mind off the subject completely.

***

Much later, he ran a hand through her gorgeous hair and said quietly, "Ask me your questions. I will try to answer them for you."

She was almost purring under his stroking hand and had to stop and think before she could even come up with a single question to ask him. She lifted her head from his chest and met his eyes. "Where are you from, Chucho?"

He thought about that for a minute. Then he said, "Everywhere and nowhere. I have no home, my sweet delight."

She couldn’t stop her heart from thrilling at his description of her, but she tried to keep her mind on the topic at hand. "Everyone’s from somewhere, Chucho. Where were you born? Do you know?"

He gave a great sigh. "Yes. But it was not my home."

She frowned at him. "Where is home then?"

He shrugged. He wasn’t about to tell her that home to him was Earth. A place he’d never been. A place he was afraid to visit.

"I’m still looking for it," he said. And it was nearly the truth.

"But you know where it is?" She couldn’t imagine not knowing where home was.

He shrugged. "I suppose I’ll know it when I see it."

She settled back onto his chest, her arms going around him in a gesture of comfort that almost undid him. She had a sweetness to her that spoke to the deepest part of his nature, a part that had been silent a long time. He wished he might keep her. She was as balm to his aching soul. But he knew the time for ties of any kind had passed. He had to finish this out – alone.
 

Chapter 3

Email sent 6/24/2010 from srf@secure.net to eas@secure.net:

My dearest Dragon,

It’s not going to do you any good to try and talk to me in that tone! You know I won’t listen. I’m fine, my dear worrier. I haven’t been disemboweled, nor have I had anyone try to take over my mind. So stop worrying!

Chucho is a really nice guy. I doubt very much if he’s Thoelian, but I think it might just be possible that he has it somewhere in his background. He seems to be quite the mix of races, if you ask me, and isn’t even sure where he’s from. Maybe that’s why Eddie can’t place him. I have to tell you, though. He’s so gentle for such a big man. And he has the saddest eyes I think I’ve ever seen. Even sadder than yours, which takes some doing! (Oh, I don’t mean any way I’ve ever seen your eyes, my darling dragon. But the way they look in some of the pictures Mumsy has in her scrap album of you. Before you met my aunt again.)

Anyway, I have evaluations to do today, so I’d best get to it. Behave yourself and stop blowing smoke at your greatest fan. I’m not in any trouble.

Yours forever,
Sheila Roo


P.S. If you want to worry about something, worry about those damn transmissions! Please decipher them soon! No one here can make heads or tails of them.

***

"What were you thinking?"

She glared at him over her comp. "Listen, it’s none of your business what I . . . !"

"It is when I’m the one who got you into this mess!" he interrupted fiercely. He ran a hand through his white blonde hair, disheveling it. "Damn it, Roo! What am I supposed to tell Dad when he asks? – and make no mistake. He will ask! Or your dad, for that matter!"

She shrugged, trying not to see his side of it. "Just do what I do. Don’t tell them anything."

Ed came closer to her desk, his blue eyes worried. "Roo," he said quietly. "I wasn’t asking you to . . . well, you know. I wouldn’t have. You know that, right?"

She grinned at him. He was such a sweetie. She often thought his namesake would have been just like him at that age. It gave her such a unique perspective on her favorite person to have Eddie around that she wondered if anyone else ever saw it – other than her aunt, who seemed to always see everything.

"Look, Eddie. I didn’t go to bed with him to pump him for information. It had nothing to do with you, or even with keeping an eye on him."

He gave her a bewildered look. "Then why . . . ?"

"Because I wanted to, you idiot!"

He just stared at her for a time, his expression gradually growing harder. When he exploded, it was no less fierce for being quietly said. "Damn it, Roo! I was worried about you! And all you can think about is sex!"

She wanted to yell back that sex was a perfectly reasonable topic to think about! After all, wasn’t it a proven fact that men thought about it at least once every five minutes? But she held her tongue. She knew she was in the wrong, for one thing. And for another, he had always been her favorite of the Carlin cousins, and she didn’t want to be on his bad side. But how did she explain what had happened without making him worried all over again? She had enough worry about the situation herself for them both!

Finally she said, "I’m sorry, Eddie. I wasn’t trying to give you a hard time. He sort of blindsided me." She shrugged when he merely raised an eyebrow. "There’s something about him. I don’t know. He doesn’t come across as a man with an agenda. I think he’s lost. Not geographically, but . . ."

The major sighed. "Yeah. I got that impression too. He doesn’t seem like anyone we should be worried about. Except . . ."

Sheila nodded. "I know. Except that he’s possibly Thoelian somewhere in his ancestry, plus he also knows how to tell other races at a glance. Not your usual talent. I could be wrong about him, Eddie, but I don’t think I am. He seems so . . . alone somehow. Cut off from everything and everybody. I really don’t think he’s up to anything."

He met her eyes hesitantly. "Would you be able to tell? I mean, can you be objective enough about him to be aware of it if he tries anything?"

She wanted to get pissed at him for doubting her, but she knew from his expression that it wasn’t a personal question. He was asking as one member of the security force of SHADO to another member of that force. She sighed. "I can do my job, Eddie. No matter what it asks of me. I think I’ve proven that in the time I’ve worked here."

He nodded. She hadn’t achieved her rank by virtue of being the last commander’s daughter. She achieved it by being the best at her job. "Okay. Then I won’t say anything else about it. Just . . . be careful. Will you?"

Her smile was a little grim, since it was just a bit late for that warning. "Sure, Eddie."

***

"You do not!"

He grinned at her as he laid down his cards. "I’m just telling it like it is, sweeting. This is the way they play the game on Terell."

Sheila shook her head, trying not to match his grin. "I think you’re full of shit. Nobody does that in a card game!"

"Pay up or shut up," he said calmly, but the wicked twinkle in his eyes denied that.

She threw down her cards and stood up. "Forget it! You’ll have to . . ."

The rest of her words were swallowed as he grabbed her and kissed her. She wanted to be shocked at how quickly he’d moved. But her thoughts went out the porthole as his mouth worked on hers and her arms came around his neck. God, he was a great kisser!

At one point, she surfaced enough to say, "I still think it’s a load of shit."

Chucho just grinned back at her. "Got you where I wanted you, didn’t it?" he said unrepentantly.

She looked at him in stunned surprise . . . then pulled his ornery mouth back down to hers.

***

When she woke, he was looking at her wall. Working at the spaceport could get pretty lonely at times, so Sheila kept her family with her through photos that covered one entire wall of her room. She laid in the bed, admiring his gorgeous backside as he stood checking out her photos.

After a few minutes, he turned to her and said, "This photo. Who are they?"

She tore her eyes off his buttocks and glanced at the photo he indicated. It was a close up of her grinning happily between two elderly people. "That’s my aunt and uncle."

His dark eyes searched hers, then he said, "You are related to them?"

She shrugged. "Not through blood. I guess you’d have to know our crazy group to understand. All us kids grew up together, in a way. Our families got together on a regular basis, and so we all just think of ourselves as cousins, and the parents as aunts and uncles."

"And these two. They are married?"

She frowned at something in his tone, sitting up and eying him closely. "Yeah. Why?"

He stared at the photo for a moment longer, then turned to her with a shrug. "No reason. I guess I wondered why you were between them."

She grinned, relaxing. "Oh. Well, you have to understand. I’m named for that aunt, and we’ve sorta had a constant battle between us since I was a kid as to who will end up with my uncle. It’s nothing serious or anything like that. It’s just that I’ve always adored him, and while she gets that, she refuses to share."

His brows lowered slightly as he looked at her. "You wish to take him from her?"

"No! I told you, it’s not serious! He’s . . . he’s such a great man, you see. And he was my first crush. I would never try to take him from my aunt Sheila. Not that it would do any good if I tried. He still looks at her like she’s the sun and the moon, and they’ve been married nearly twenty-three years!"

"And how does he feel about this . . . crush you have on him?"

She grinned. "It tickles him. See, my mom and he have a sort of . . . hmmm . . . interesting relationship. They almost had sex once a long long time ago before he married my aunt. Who is best friends with my mom, if you can follow that. It gets pretty twisted up in there. Anyway, it drives my mom batty that he and I get along so well, but we always have. So, long story short, that’s why I was standing between them in that picture. It was to show my aunt that he’s more mine than hers."

He glanced back at the photo. "She does not appear to be unduly worried about it," he said, studying the woman’s smile.

"Of course not!" she said with a snort. "He thinks I’m hilarious. He loves her."

"And you? Do you also love her?" he asked, nearly certain of it from her tone.

"Of course! She’s my namesake. I grew up wanting to be just like her." She sighed, giving a half-shrug. "But I think I’m too much my mother’s daughter for that."

He came back to the bed and drew her into his arms. "I think you are perfect just as you are," he told her in his gravelly voice.

"Gee, thanks!" she said flippantly to hide how much his words moved her.


Chapter 4

Email sent 6/25/2010 from srf@secure.net to eas@secure.net:

My dearest Dragon,

You need to stop worrying about me! I don’t know who told you that Chucho and I are lovers, but it’s not important. Really. Chucho Podvodnik is not a threat to Earth. He’s been here three days now and hasn’t so much as looked at Earth out the viewports. He seriously is just passing through, like he says.

Thank you so much for figuring out those transmissions! If you’re certain that they’re not really some secret military code, I’ll write up my final report and let it go. Thanks, my dragon! I knew I could count on you.

Listen, Chucho and I were talking about the ‘family’, and I got this wild idea in my head. You tell me if you think it’s stupid. But he’s such a lost soul, and I thought it might be fun for him to be a part of a family for a day. Just to see how it feels, you know? I haven’t spoken to him about it, but I think he’d be game. He likes to have a good time and even plays a mean game of chess! I’d love to see you two have a match! Anyway, I know that you guys are planning to be in Boston for a while longer. Can we crash the party?

Let me know, okay? In the meantime, I’ll broach the subject to him. Please say yes, dragon! You’d like him. I know you would.

Yours forever,
Sheila Roo

***

Chucho woke gasping for breath. He knew his medicine wasn’t with him; it was back in his own room. He was too worried about his lover finding it for him to dare to bring it to her room when he was with her. She was with security, after all, and it was a banned substance on most known worlds. Trust him to fall for the wrong girl. He still didn’t know what he was going to do about her. But he thrust that thought aside. He couldn’t worry about that now. He had to get to his medicine.

He tried to climb out of her bed, but managed to fall out instead. It was worse. Much worse than he’d dealt with the last time. He shook his head, trying to clear his mind to think. He could barely see around the spots that were forming in front of his eyes as he fought to breathe. He was finally able to get into a sitting position by holding onto the sheets, but knew that he’d never be able to get to his feet and make it to his room like this.

Something, he thought suddenly between heaving breaths. Yes. He needed something to focus on. Back on Phicis 3 when he’d been in that holding cell and an attack had come on without warning. He’d been able to keep the worst of it from taking him by focusing on something else. Yes. He remembered now. He’d thought about a loving smile . . .

He used his hands to grab at the rug on the floor and pulled himself over to the wall where Sheila had all her pictures. He raised his hand shakily and tore one of them off, falling back from the momentum as he did so, knocking other photos down as well. He laid on the floor and lifted the photo to his face, staring at it. Focused. Focused through the pain. Through the constriction in his lungs. Focused . . . focused . . .

***

"Hey! I want to talk to you!" she said as she cornered him near his room.

He turned and met her eyes, guilt all over him. "Listen, Roo. I mentioned it to Dad is all. I was worried about you, and I thought someone higher up should know what was going on. I didn’t know he’d go tell Uncle Ed!"

"You should have!" she said, skewering his chest with one long finger. "Commander Carlin always seeks advice from the man who recruited him. Damn it! Even I know that!"

"I didn’t mean to get you in trouble," he said miserably. "I was worried. I didn’t know what else to do."

She sighed. Eddie never had made a very good subject for harassment. He too easily understood where you were coming from, and sympathized with you. He was just so damned reasonable! It made it hard to yell at him for any length of time.

She settled with giving him a glare, although it wasn’t quite as potent as her first one had been. "Warn me next time. Got it?"

"Sure, Roo. Absolutely."

She turned on her heel and stomped to her quarters, still pissed, but without a worthy target for her wrath. As she got closer to her room, though, she wondered if maybe Chucho would still be asleep? Maybe she could put all this pent-up energy to good use? She grinned as she opened her door . . .

. . . then sprinted across the room, her heart in her throat. "Chucho! Chucho!"

She shook him vigorously, and finally his eyes slowly opened. He looked at her, and she could see him trying to bring her into focus.

"Sheila?"

She sat back on her heels with a shaky sigh. "Are you okay?" she asked. He looked like death warmed over.

"Yeah. I think so. What happened?"

She lifted a brow at him. "You tell me! I came in to see if you were up and found you here on the floor." She looked around. "And it appears that you took a few of my pictures down with you when you fell."

He quickly released the photo he had been holding and sat up. His head felt like a granza had gotten loose inside it and was ramming against the walls. "Hell!"

She left off picking up her photos and helped him back into the bed. "Here," she said, handing him a glass of water.

"Thanks."

He drained it, then laid his head back against her headboard as if it took too much energy to hold it up on his own. She sat gingerly on the bed and ran a hand down his cheek, feeling for fever. His skin felt clammy and cold to the touch. His dark eyes met hers, and he said, "Sorry to be such a bother. I should go back to my room and sleep it off, I think."

"Are you sick?"

He wearily shook his head. "It must have been something I ate," he said, closing his eyes. "It doesn’t do to always be eating alien food. Sometimes I find that my stomach isn’t as rock hard as I like to think it is."

She helped him to his feet and held his arm all the way to his assigned room, even though he seemed to do better once he was walking. Before leaving him at his door, she said, "Listen. If you need anything for it later, just let me know. Okay? Surely we can find a pill or something that will work with your physiology. Will you do that? For me?"

"Sure." He laid a large hand against her face for a moment and stared into her eyes. Then he slowly leaned forward and kissed her very gently on the lips. "Thanks," he said softly in his gruff voice, then he went into his room and let the door close behind him.

***

She went back to her room and made the bed. Finished picking up the photos and tacking them back onto the wall. One of them, the one where she was with her Aunt Sheila and Uncle Ed, had gotten crumpled, and she had to straighten it out before she tacked it back up.

But all the while she was working, her mind was busy. Because he had been sick; that much was obvious. But in spite of his explanation, she didn’t think it had been a problem with food. She’d seen people from other worlds dealing with the aftereffects of spaceport food before. And it usually included an awful lot of vomiting. Which Chucho hadn’t done.

She sat on her bed and stared at her wall of pictures. If he’d gotten sick in the bed, why had he ended up over there? She stood up and walked closer, trying to see what he might have been doing. But other than the single photo that had been crumpled and wouldn’t lie completely flat anymore, there didn’t seem to be anything unusual about her wall. It was odd, she supposed, that it was the one photo that he had commented on before. But it didn’t mean anything.

How could it?

***

By the time her shift was over, she was exhausted. She headed for her room, stripped off her uniform, and padded to the shower. She closed her eyes under the hot spray, enjoying the feel of the water. It was a pretty measly shower by Earth standards, but it still felt wonderful after a long day. She would have loved to stay under it for hours. In fact, whenever she was Earthside, she made a habit of spending a great deal of time in the shower. But things were strictly rationed here where water was so precious, and showers were timed to go off after five minutes.

When she’d toweled off and dried her hair, she came back into the main room. And found that she had a visitor.

She dropped the towel and smiled. "Hi! Feeling better?"

Chucho had to swallow. The sight of her beautiful unclothed body was almost too much for him to take at the moment. He gave her a warm smile, then continued to lay out the food on the table.

She came over to him. "What’s this?"

"I wanted to thank you for your help this morning," he said gruffly. "So I looked up your favorite meal on the comp and got it for you."

Her smile grew, and her eyes wanted to tear up at his gesture. But she blinked it back. She refused to be mush at his feet. "That was very sweet of you, Chucho. How could you tell it was my favorite?"

"Didn’t I get it right?"

"Oh, yeah. You’re right. But the comp in the cafeteria doesn’t keep a record of who orders the food. So I guess I’m just wondering how you knew."

He gestured to her desk. "I used your comp. It has the meal starred, underlined, and italicized. I assumed that meant that it was a favorite."

"My comp?" Her face drained of color, and she ran to the small desk, scrolling through the programs to see if anything had been changed. After a minute or two, she realized how silent the room was. She turned and met his eyes.

He was standing next to the dining table, staring at her, one brow raised arrogantly. And she felt suddenly ashamed of herself. It wasn’t as if she didn’t trust him. She’d left him alone in her room, after all. It wasn’t even as if she kept anything classified on her personal comp – because of course, she didn’t. It was just . . .

"I’m sorry, Chucho. You did a very kind thing, and I don’t want to make it seem to you as if I’m not grateful."

"But?" he asked, because he knew more was coming.

She took a deep breath. "But. Earthlings are a bit territorial when it comes to their comps. Don’t ask me why. I really couldn’t tell you. We just are. It’s never been an issue before when I’ve had other guests in my quarters, probably because they’ve all been Earthlings too and understood that unwritten law."

His brow raised even further. "Then I’m your first alien lover?"

She had no trouble understanding that statement or the cocky look that went with it. She stood up and came over to him, running a teasing hand down his shirt. "Yeah, big boy. What of it?"

He grinned, and giving into his feelings, grabbed her close for a passionate kiss. Then he put her firmly from him and pulled out a chair for her. "Shall we eat?"

Sheila had to take a few breaths to settle her system. Damn, he could kiss! Then she smiled and went to her closet for her robe, putting it on before taking the seat he had pulled out for her.

"Don’t tell me," he said as he took the seat across from her. "Earthlings don’t eat naked either."

She grinned wickedly. "Well . . . not when they’re hungry."

He found that statement so odd that he didn’t have a comeback.

***

"And this one here?"

She glanced at the photo he was pointing to. "That’s Uncle Alec and Aunt Dee." She was silent a moment, looking into their faces. "He died several years ago. It hit us all pretty hard; Uncle Ed the worst, I think. Anyway, he retired shortly after that. Refused a promotion. Went away with Aunt Sheila for a while. Actually, I think Aunt Dee weathered it the best of any of us. But she always says that she has her memories of him, and that’s enough."

"And this one? I think I recognize this guy. Doesn’t he work here?"

"Yeah. That’s Eddie Carlin, along with his whole gang."

"Gang?"

She grinned. "All the Carlins. See? Here’s his dad. He’s our current commanding officer at HQ on Earth, and a very good one. And his mom. She’s got to be the sweetest person I’ve ever met. And there’s Ceddie, who just succeeded to his grandfather’s throne in New Malora. And Noah, Seth, Leila. They’re a great bunch."

"Malora?" he asked, a little bemused. "Like the planet?"

"Yeah. You’ve heard of them?"

He shrugged. "Only in passing. I thought their planet exploded or something. A long time ago."

"That’s right. But some of them survived here."

"Really?"

"Yeah."

"And these people – this family – are Maloran?"

She frowned at him. "Yeah. Why?"

He grinned at her. "It’s just so cool. I wondered when I met him why he didn’t read as strictly Rigelian. But I’d never met a Maloran before, so I couldn’t place his other lineage."

"You can do that then? Read people just by meeting them?"

He shrugged again. "Yeah. Comes in handy in the Great Out There. You never know who you’ll meet along the way. It pays to be one step ahead of the game, if you know what I mean."

"Do you know why you’re that way?" she asked. "Were your parents like that?"

He shook his head. "My parents were poor simple folk who lived as best they could. And tried to protect our land from our enemies."

She laid a comforting hand on his knee. "I’m sorry. Are they gone?"

He nodded, staring at her wall instead of into her compassionate eyes. His eyes landed on another photo, one that was lower down on the wall and had been missed before. "Is this the Carlin guy again? Eddie?"

She glanced where his finger was pointing. And grinned. "No. That’s my dragon."

"Who?" he asked in surprise, unnerved not only by her term but by her tone. She sounded almost . . . worshipful.

"Earth’s first commander. Commander Straker. Otherwise known as Uncle Ed. You know, the one I told you about. Only he’s much older in the other photo of him. That picture was from his days in the Air Force. Long time ago. Doesn’t he look sexy in uniform?"

His lips twitched, but he didn’t make a comment. He merely stared into those piercing blue eyes for a long moment, then turned away. "Is Eddie his son then?" he asked.

"No! Of course not! Oh. You’re thinking of the name. And the resemblance. Well, see. Uncle Ed is Maloran too. So they look a lot alike physically."

"Really? He’s Maloran too?"

She grinned. "Yeah. Pretty cool, huh? Would you like to meet him?"

"What?" He looked at her in shock.

And she laughed, smacking his knee. "He’s not a real dragon, you know. He doesn’t breathe fire. But he and my aunt are having a get-together, and they tend to think ‘the more, the merrier.’ So I wondered if you might like to come with me to visit them?"

He stared at her in utter horror, his heart in his throat. "No! No, I can’t!" And he quickly got to his feet and hurried from her room as if worried that she might force him to go with her if he stayed a moment longer.

And Sheila stood staring after him, her hands on her hips, wondering what the hell had just happened here?

 
Chapter 5

She put away the remains of their meal, seething all the while. By the time she had the room set

to rights, she was livid. Swiftly she changed into casual clothes and went after him, ready to give him a taste of her mind.

She used her override to get into his room without knocking – since she didn’t think he would voluntarily speak to her – but found his room empty. Her heart sank when she realized that even his toiletries were gone. Damn him! He wasn’t getting away that easily!

As she hurried down the corridor, she almost ran into her cousin. "Out of the way, Eddie!" she said.

"Wait!" he said. "I just came to find you. Your mom’s here."

"What?"

He met her horrified gaze, and swallowed hard as he nodded. "Just docked. Wants to see you."

"Hell, no! Damn it, Uncle Ed must have sent her! Thinking I’ve gotten myself into trouble up here."

"Have you?" he asked diffidently, and was seared with her dark glare for his pains.

"No, I have not!" she said between her teeth. "And that’s what you’re going to tell her."

"What?"

She headed on down the hallway, turning back to say, "Say whatever you want. Just keep her away from me for the next half hour. Got it?"

And with that, she was gone – leaving Major Carlin standing alone in the corridor, knowing that he would have to face Aunt Jo by himself. Oh, man. Family or no family, Aunt Jo had no qualms about shooting the messenger of bad news. He headed for Dock 2, feeling as if he was going to his execution.

***

Sheila ran for Dock 7, pulling out her radio and calling up traffic control. "Connie, it’s Sheila."

"Hey, girl!" the lovely operative said in welcome. "What can I do ya?"

"I need to know if the Terellian ship has left port yet. Dock 7."

"Nope. Requested clearance, though. Problem there?"

"Yeah," Sheila said between her teeth. "Don’t give him clearance to leave, okay?"

"Sure. No problem. Need back-up?"

Sheila rounded the corner and headed for the dock. "No, thanks. I got it. I owe you one." She stuck the radio back into her pocket and ran up the ramp into the ship. Once there, she leaned over, her hands on her knees while she got her breath back. Then she flipped her hair back over her shoulder and went to beard the lion in his den.

***

She found him at the pilot’s seat, setting his controls. She struck a pose against the doorjamb, arms crossed, hip cocked, and said, "Going somewhere?"

He looked over in surprise . . . then sighed heavily as he sat back. "Planning to," he said flatly.

She raised a brow at him. "In a bit of a hurry, aren’t you? Not running scared or anything like that, are you?"

He shook his head, but it was such a weary gesture that she couldn’t tell if he was denying her accusation or merely tired of the need to run. "It’s time to go." His dark eyes met hers for a moment, then he added, "Past time."

"Because I asked you to come and meet my family? Not even my family, but my friends who are like my family? Where’s the harm in that? How could that make a grown man cut and run?"

His lips compressed at the insult, but he kept himself from a hasty retort. "I have enjoyed my stay here. You have made this time bearable for me. And much more. I wish that I could offer you more than my thanks, but I cannot. I have nothing to give you."

"It’s not like I’m asking for marriage," she said waspishly.

He ran a hand over his face. "I wish it were possible to marry you. But I cannot stay. And where I am going, you cannot follow."

She sauntered closer, more certain than ever that she had to get to the bottom of this now. If she let him out of her sight, she knew she’d never see him again. "Then don’t make me follow you. Let me go with you."

"No!" His look of horror lessened after a moment, and he said with a weary sigh, "You do not know what you ask. Please. I must go."

"Do you have to go now?" she asked around the lump in her throat. "Or can you stay a while longer? If I promise not to ask you to any family get-togethers or anything like that?"

Chucho sighed. "It wouldn’t matter. In the end, I would still have to go. Perhaps it is better for me to go now, before I beg you to let me stay with you."

She reached out and ran a shaky hand down his long hair. "Would that be so bad?"

He met her eyes, a look of such regret in his that she almost cried out. "I would not burden you with that. Please let me go."

She blinked back her tears and nodded. "Yes. Okay. You can go, Chucho. I won’t force you to stay. Will you tell me where you’re going? So I can think of you there, enjoying yourself and having a good time?"

He looked out the front window at the stars, wishing he could keep such a wonderful woman by his side always. How he wished he had met her years ago, when his whole life lay open before him! Oh, the adventures they could have enjoyed together! It seemed so cruel of fate to bring her across his path now, when they had so little time together. But he well knew how cruel fate could be, so he didn’t bother to rail against it. Instead he said quietly, "I need to do something before I go. Something on Earth I must see. But I do not know my way around on your planet. If I take you with me, if I let you help me find what I need to find there, will you afterward let me go in peace?"

"Yes," she said, her heart giving a great bound at this unexpected reprieve.

"Without questions?"

She frowned, meeting his eyes. "I’ll . . . try not to ask any questions. But I can’t promise, Chucho. My job may require me to ask."

He gave a short nod. "Very well. I will agree to those terms. Are you free to leave now? Or must you report to duty?"

She thought of her mother waiting for her in the port and said hastily, "No, I’m good. I can leave now. Tomorrow is my day off anyway. If we’re gone for more than a day, I may need to call in and extend my leave though."

"A day will be more than enough time," he said, and gestured for her to take the copilot’s seat as he finished prepping the ship for take-off. She watched him in silent admiration for a time, until he turned to her and said, "Will you tell them that I am free to leave now? Or was there something else you wanted done first?"

She grinned sheepishly . . . and got on her radio to tell Connie in traffic control.

***

True to her word, she asked no questions about where they were going. He was a capable pilot and flew his ship with the ease of long practice, so instead she relaxed in her seat and talked to him about her own pilot’s training. He chuckled over her escapades, acknowledging that she truly knew how to get into trouble. Then she teased him until he told her his own adventures with flying. She marveled that he had seen so much and visited so many worlds. But he spoke of it all with a shrug, as if it were no great deal. And she supposed to him it hadn’t been. If a man had no home, then nowhere to him would really matter.

They landed just west of a forested area in the early morning. She knew from the time frame that they must be in the Western Hemisphere, and from the cool breeze that they must be somewhere in the north, probably near a large body of water. As he closed up his ship, which mercifully had a sort of cloaking device that rendered it invisible to any stray observers, he brought his small hand tracker with him. They set out for the coordinates on the tracker in silence, his mood turning somber now that they were on solid ground. But she was pleased that he took her hand and held it as they walked.

She was incredibly curious about what he was here to see. The area they had landed in was scarcely inhabited, with scattered houses to be seen here and there as they came down. But once on the ground, they headed into the woods, where there were no houses at all. She wondered what he’d be looking for here?

Eventually they came out into a meadow full of wildflowers, mostly daisies, and something tickled the back of her mind. She’d seen this place before. Somewhere.

He scarcely noted the flowers, following the tracker closely as it led them through the field and near another set of trees. These were more widely spaced, and there was actually a small fence with a gate that they went through into the shade. Sheila gasped when she saw the tombstones, memories flooding back in with a rush. She and her cousins running through the daisies to get to the cemetery. Climbing over the fence rather than using the gate. Running inquisitive hands over the cold surfaces of the tombstones; reading the words, the names, the dates.

They were in Boston. At the Straker family cemetery. The house would be just over the hill to the east. She looked at her companion, unsure which of the million questions that tumbled through her mind to ask first. Then she remembered that she had promised to ask none of them. Well, shit.

Chucho’s face seemed harsher in the dim shade of the trees. Drawn. Almost like a stranger’s. He dropped her hand as he focused on the coordinates, winding his way around the trees and the tombstones to get where he wanted to go. She wanted to grab his arm, ask him to stop and turn back. She was suddenly terrified that he might become someone totally different once he’d found what he sought. As if she might not know him anymore.

"Chucho!" she whispered, and he stopped.

But he hadn’t noticed her. He lowered the tracker and looked at the grave in front of him. Just stared at it for a long time, saying nothing. She watched the tears track down his cheeks, but didn’t know why or what she could say to make it better. What did this grave mean to him? How could it mean anything to him?

Then a voice spoke from nearby.

"I wondered," it said meditatively.

And they both turned to see who stood there. Sheila blinked in surprise at the sight of her favorite uncle. His face wasn’t wearing its normal smile, the one she was used to seeing whenever she visited him. He looked almost stern, his eyes piercing as they took in the man who stood at the grave.

Chucho stared at him in return, then looked swiftly at Sheila as if to ask a question.

"No," Straker said in that same measured tone. "She didn’t tell me you were coming. Well, actually she did. But she wasn’t aware of it. You see, we email each other on a daily basis. And just yesterday, she sent me an email with your full name. Chucho Podvodnik. An interesting surname, wouldn’t you say? My wife has spent the past twenty-odd years teaching me Tuataran. It’s an intriguing language with many beautiful-sounding words. One of which is ‘podvodnik’."

"What does it mean?" Sheila asked when it became obvious that Chucho wasn’t going to comment.

His smile was rather grim when he answered. "It means ‘one who wears a mask.’ Which made me wonder why any Tuataran would come here in disguise. They have nothing to fear from us. We consider them allies, even though we’ve never signed a treaty. So tell me, Chucho, why you come wearing a mask?"

"Is this true?" he asked, completely disregarding Straker’s question. Chucho pointed a shaking hand to the tombstone and said, "Is what you wrote here the truth?"

"Of course, it is," Straker said.

The captain shook his head. "He was not your son. He never bore your name. He could not be a junior to your senior, because he was not your son!"

Sheila was bewildered by his ferocity and concerned by the way he stood shaking, his hands clenching and unclenching at his sides. She almost said something to him, but her uncle spoke first.

"He was my son, because I wanted him to be. And since I was told that he wanted it as well, I saw no reason to deny either of us the pleasure."

Chucho’s breath began to hitch and his trembling worsened, but he did not take his eyes off the older man. "He’s a monster! And the son of a monster! That’s all he is! That’s all he ever was!"

Straker stepped up to him and laid his hands on his arms. "Eddie," he said softly, his blue eyes looking directly into those haunted brown ones. "You’re Sheila’s son. How could you ever be a monster?"

With a great cry, Chucho buried his face against her uncle’s chest, sobbing incoherently. Straker closed his arms around him and held him, murmuring words of comfort to him.

Sheila stood nearby, her eyes wet with tears, realizing who it was that she had brought here. She looked at the tombstone, at the words that were carved there: Edward Straker, Jr. Born 1977. Died 1982. Beloved Son. Only he hadn’t. He hadn’t died. Somehow he stood here after all these years – alive. Eddie. The Straker sibling they’d always talked about late at night at sleepovers when they were supposed to be sleeping. The one who they all considered a hero, because he’d died fighting against the bad guys. The one they all wanted to be like when they grew up.

It was almost too much to take in.

Eventually Chucho quieted, lifting his head and gazing at the man he had dreamed about all his life. "Father?" he asked hesitantly.

And Straker smiled mistily. "Welcome home, son. We’ve missed you."


Chapter 6

"Your mother will want to see you."

Chucho met those blue eyes. "She’s here?"

Straker nodded. "We all are. We’re having a get-together at the house. Did Sheila invite you?"

"Yeah, I did," she said, coming closer to where they stood. "But he ran like a scared rabbit when I mentioned it."

Chucho flushed. "I did not mean – it was not my intention to see any of you!"

"Why not?" his father asked sternly. "You should have known you were welcome here, Eddie. You should never have doubted your mother’s affection."

His head came up at that. "I didn’t! At least . . . I found out nothing from the comp at the port from when she returned to Earth. I was afraid at first that she hadn’t made it home. But then I saw her on Sheila’s wall of pictures. Smiling like she always did. And I learned that she had married you and had a family. It was good. I was glad for her. That was what I’d always wanted for her. But it just seemed best to leave it at that. To not bring up the past and throw it in her face. She was happy. And that was what was important."

"But she’s not," her husband said. "She’s not entirely happy. Because in her heart she is still mourning the son she lost so long ago. Why, Eddie? Why did you do it? Why did you let her think you were dead?"

Chucho swallowed hard. "I had to. If you’d seen her . . . She was so unhappy there. And so in danger – every day I woke with a start, wondering if she had survived the night. The enemy was on every side, and I lived in constant terror of losing her. I spoke with Timon about it, and he agreed to help me. I knew that she stayed because of me. I may have been a kid, but I wasn’t stupid. I knew she couldn’t bring me here, no matter what lies she told me. So we arranged it so that she was free of me, so that she could come home and be where she belonged. Where she was safe. Where she could be happy."

Straker laid a hand on his shoulder, his eyes wet. "That was a very foolish and wonderful thing you did, sending her home. I cannot thank you enough for the sacrifice you made."

"But I don’t understand," Sheila said. "You told me your parents were simple folk."

"They were," Chucho said with a small smile. "Timon and his wife raised me. They were resistance fighters too; but truthfully, we could not do much aside from our occasional raids. Although eventually we got help from an unexpected source."

Straker grinned. "The Solarians."

"Yes. We did some damage then, I can tell you!"

"We heard that Mireya died," Straker said. "Is Timon still alive?"

Chucho shook his head. "He died in his sleep nearly ten years ago. I lost my taste for Tuatara after that. I stole a craft from the Thoelians and left. There were so few of them left to stop me. I haven’t been back since, but I’ve heard from others that we have our home back now. The Thoelians are all dead. Tuatara is free once more."

"I’m glad. Why didn’t you come here then, Eddie? When you left Tuatara?"

Chucho gave him a haunted look and shook his head. "I’d had a child of my own by then. I knew how strong those ties could be. I did not wish to make my mother’s life difficult for her by coming here. I did not want to put her in a position where she would be forced to choose between me and the life she had made for herself here." He laughed harshly. "I knew who would lose."

"You were wrong," his father said fiercely. "You should have trusted her. You should have trusted me."

"You were a dream!" Chucho shouted. "A childish hero who always comes to the rescue in the nick of time. You weren’t real to me! And I wasn’t real to you. You didn’t even know me! And I could never be sure that you would ever want to know me."

"You’re my son."

Chucho just looked at him with tortured eyes. After a moment, he glanced back at the grave and its carved words. Gruffly, he said, "I looked you up on the comp when I couldn’t find anything else on my mother. I didn’t find much that wasn’t labeled classified, but I saw another Edward Straker listed as well. And that one wasn’t classified. He was a junior – your son. Only it sounded like me. The dates were right. I finally decided that I would check it out before I left. See if it was me. Because it couldn’t have been. Not really."

"Do you believe it now?" his father asked drily.

Chucho closed his eyes for a moment, then said softly, "I suppose I must."

"Good. Then please come and see your mother. She’s been kept waiting a long time."

"I cannot."

Straker’s lips thinned in a way that his niece recognized as a dangerous sign. "Why not? Surely you don’t still think she would reject you? That I would reject you? You’re a part of this family whether you want it or not, and you will come and say hello to your mother. Understand?"

Chucho met his eyes, braving his anger, and said, "I can’t stay. I don’t want to have her open her heart to me again when I can’t stay."

"Why can’t you stay? Does your family need you to return to them?"

"No. My family is gone. Long gone. My wife died giving birth to our son. And he lasted a mere few hours. I have no ties to return to. I have nowhere to go."

"Then why can’t you stay?" his father asked quietly.

Chucho met his eyes. "Because I am dying."

Sheila gave a choked cry that she quickly muffled behind her hands.

But he heard and glanced at her sadly. "I am sorry, my delight. I knew I could not keep you. Perhaps I should not have begun what I could not finish with you, but somehow you made me forget that my time was short."

She came forward and took his arm, holding his gaze in hers. "I don’t care how short our time is together. I want every minute of it! And my aunt will feel the same. She’ll want every memory she can get with you. Don’t deprive her of that, Chucho. Don’t deprive us of that."

He drew her into his arms and held her close. Finally he raised his head and met his father’s eyes with a wry look. "Is there a man alive who can best a woman’s logic?"

Straker grinned in relief. "No, Eddie. There isn’t."

***

Straker let them walk ahead of him as they headed to the house. His niece looked so happy as she talked with Eddie. As they walked arm in arm. As an uncle – as a father – he couldn’t be more pleased to see them together. They suited each other so well.

He wished they had thought to invite the Foster family over when Sheila’s Thoelian relatives had been visiting over the years. Perhaps if his niece had ever met the Lord Mayor of Traya she would have been able to recognize Eddie on sight. He was the spitting image of Sheybal. Except that he had his mother’s eyes.

He looked up as they neared the house. His beautiful wife stood out on the deck, watching for him. He could tell when she recognized the man walking with her niece – saw the look of shock, of wonder, steal over her face. Then she was running, off the deck and across the grass, screaming his name and crying.

"Eddie! Eddie!"

Chucho caught her as she threw herself at him, holding her as tightly as he could as fresh tears fell down his cheeks. "Mother! Mother!"

Straker’s niece came over to him where he stood and took his hand, smiling through her tears as she watched the reunion. "Men are such idiots," she told her uncle. "This is what he wanted all along. Just couldn’t bring himself to go for it."

"It’s a sorry fact," Straker said solemnly, "that men are cowards."

She chuckled, nudging his arm. "We all are, my dragon. When it comes down to matters of the heart, we’re all cowards."

***

"Don’t you ever do anything like that again! Do you hear me?"

Chucho grinned and drank his tea. "Yes, Mother."

Alex laughed and slapped him on the back. "That’s the way, Eddie! Get used to saying it. We all know that phrase by heart."

Sheila gave her son a glare, then tempered it with a grin. "Shut up, you!" Then she turned back to her eldest. "Why did you wait so long to come? You were at the spaceport for days!"

"I . . ." He looked at her, still in awe that he was even here, sitting across from the woman he’d adored as long as he could remember. And he couldn’t say the words, the words that would make her cry again.

Sheila Roo came over just then and laid a hand on his shoulder. She turned to her aunt and said, "He’s dying, Aunt Sheila. He was afraid to come see you, because he’s not going to be able to stay with us long."

There were several gasps in the room as the other siblings heard what she said. But Sheila just looked at her son, her mouth going firm. "How? What’s wrong? Have you seen a doctor?"

Chucho sighed. "Yes, I’ve seen a doctor. I’ve seen tons of doctors! There’s nothing they can do."

She leaned forward, taking his large hand in hers. "Tell me. What is it?"

"It’s called Jaborrum Disease, so named from the planet where the outbreak occurred. I was only there two days, but it was long enough to catch it apparently. I figured at first that I was lucky, since it didn’t kill me right off. I assumed that I only got a mild case of it. The doctors there thought so too."

"When did you find out differently?"

He ran his free hand over his face. "About a year later. I’d just landed at a port on Hogos 7 when it hit. I don’t remember much about the next few days, but I woke up in a hospital, and the doctor told me the bad news. I was glad that it hadn’t happened before I’d landed! That was one adventure I was quite happy to miss."

"And that prognosis was confirmed by other doctors since?"

"Yeah. Oh, yeah. I mean, every planet has its own medical base, right? I thought I might get lucky and find somewhere where they knew how to stop it from killing me. But I never found one. The best I could do was find a medicine that keeps it at bay. But even that isn’t working so well anymore."

"You had an episode at the port, didn’t you?" Roo asked him. "That morning in my room?"

He sighed, laying his hand over hers on his shoulder for a minute. "Yeah. Sorry. My medicine wasn’t with me. It was in my room."

"Well, there’s only one thing to do then," his mother said firmly.

Everyone in the room looked at her with varying degrees of concern on their faces. When Sheila got determined, everyone who knew her got nervous.

"Darling . . ." her husband said, hoping she wasn’t thinking what he was pretty sure she was thinking.

She waved a small hand at him. "Yes, Ed. I know you don’t want to go there. But they might be able to help him. You’ll just have to get over your absurd fears about the trip."

"Woo-hoo!" yelled Kathy, jumping up from where she’d been leaning against the kitchen counter while they talked. "We’re going to Rigel!"

The room erupted into chatter, and for a while chaos reigned. Finally, Straker brought them all back to reality by rubbing his wife’s shoulders and saying quietly to his son, "We’ll take you to Rigel, Eddie, and see what the doctors there can do for you. Your mother’s right. They have medical knowledge there that’s unparalleled throughout the galaxy." Then he looked around the room at his other children. "But no one else is going. Understand?"

"Dad!" Several loud protests bombarded them from all sides.

Sheila ignored them all, but merely sat smiling at her eldest son. He grinned back at her, glad that he hadn’t hurt her again. And desperately relieved that she knew how to help him. He’d forgotten what that felt like – to be able to turn to another for help.

"Thanks, Mom," he whispered.

Her smile widened as the noise around them continued unabated. "Anytime, Baby."

 
Epilogue

She turned to him in the night, needing the feel of his strong shoulders to remind her that it hadn’t all been a dream.

Chucho murmured his love to her as he caressed her, overwhelmed with everything that had occurred since they had landed that morning. He had a family once more. A mother – his own dear sweet mother. The father he had dreamed of for so long. Siblings too. Who seemed to just accept him as if he’d been there all along. It was more than a man could handle all at once.

He swallowed his lover’s cries of ecstasy by kissing her, then let her do the same for him as his passion crested. They were not alone in the house, after all. Afterward, he held her close, one large hand smoothing her hair down her spine. He said softly, "I wish I could keep you."

Sheila Roo chuckled sleepily. "Try and get rid of me, buddy. Face it. You’re sunk."

He turned and met her sparkling eyes. "I don’t want to chain you to me when I don’t know how long I have. If the trip to Rigel is successful, perhaps we can talk of this again."

She grinned at him. "Doesn’t matter what they find. I’m sticking to you like glue. I want every minute with you, Chucho. I wasn’t kidding about that."

He sighed. "I may be an invalid for some of that time. I cannot ask you to . . ."

She laid a finger against his lips, silencing his words. "I don’t care," she said firmly. "You’re mine, and you might as well get used to it. I waited a long time to meet my mate. I’d begun to believe that he didn’t even exist. But damned if I’m going to let him slip away just because he’s got problems!"

He chuckled in spite of himself. "Problems? Is that what you call it?"

"Yeah," she said, grinning back at him. "And like any other problem, sooner or later it gets solved. What excuse will you use then, huh?"

He huffed, stung on the raw. "It’s hardly an excuse! You think I fear to take you to wife?"

"Prove it, big boy! Prove that you’re man enough to take me on."

He glared at her for a moment, then chuckled and rested his forehead against hers. "You are a very foolish woman. You think you can dare me to marry you?"

She shrugged, her eyes laughing at him. "It was worth a try. Almost had you too. Admit it!"

He shook his head, still chuckling. "I admit nothing of the sort!" He stared at her for a minute, then said seriously, "We will marry, if that is what you want, my delight. I am not proof against your insistence. But I would prefer to spare you from what may come."

"Yeah, well," she said, unimpressed by his nobility. "You’ve seen how well we appreciate your desire to spare us from your presence. I would have thought you would have learned your lesson after this morning. Especially after both my uncle and my aunt laid into you!"

He sighed, acknowledging her point. "It is just that I am used to being alone," he said apologetically.

"I know," she said softly, leaning forward to kiss his shoulder. "But you’re not alone anymore. Not unless you want to be."

It was a question even without the inflection, and he knew it. He pulled her into his embrace, burying his face in her hair as he murmured brokenly, "I don’t want to be!"

Sheila Roo held him tightly, swallowed her tears, and said briskly, "Good. I’m glad we’ve got that settled. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m not one for long engagements. So when shall we get married? I think it should be before we go to Rigel, don’t you? I wouldn’t want any of your nurses there to get the wrong idea and think you’re available."

He kissed her fiercely, effectively silencing her for the moment. As her arms came around his neck once more, his kisses deepened, rekindling their passion into white hot heat. He didn’t know what the future held for him. But for the first time in a very long time, he had a future to worry about.

And it looked as though it might be a rather wonderful future indeed.