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Jim Hawkins knew he should be happy.  He had graduated from the Academy in record time, with flying colors, and-- most importantly to his mother-- without a single spot on his disciplinary record.  (This was somewhat less because he didn't ever goof off, and more because he was much better at avoiding being caught.  But she didn't have to know that.)  She was happy for him, just like all the rest of them at the Benbow that evening. . . B.E.N., Doppler, Captain Amelia, all his friends.  They knew he had done the right thing, that his life was now headed in the right direction.  That was exactly why he should be happy, too.

"I am happy," he muttered as he turned over in bed.

"Am happy, am happy!" a small voice chittered.  Jim opened one eye and looked up at his pet shapeshifter.

"Go to sleep, Morph."  He really was happy to be with his pet again.  He had tried keeping Morph a secret in his dorm room for a while, but it was impossible to keep Morph still, or quiet, for very long.  Jim's only friend in that unfamiliar place got sent home, and Jim was left to face the Academy on his own.

That's over now, he thought, keeping silent this time so as not to excite his pet.  Morph settled down on the pillow next to Jim's, flattening out slightly as he gave a sigh of contentment.  I can captain my own ship now.  I can take any mission, make my name, be a hero. . . .  His hand involuntarily drifted to the back of his neck.  I can grow my damn hair back out again.

Morph made a soft cooing sound and shifted slightly.  Jim glanced at him; the little blob was already asleep.  Animals were so lucky, even highly intelligent ones like Morph.  Sleep and peace came easily to them-- they didn't have to think.

Jim got out of bed as quietly as he could and tiptoed downstairs.  The inn was quiet; the guests were all in bed.  B.E.N. was supposed to keep watch at night, but Jim knew from past visits home that the neurotic robot would have drifted into standby mode in some secluded corner.  Jim suspected that his mother knew what a poor guard B.E.N. really made, a suspicion that was confirmed when he had to un-double-bolt the door to get outside.

Looking up at the stars on the way, Jim walked slowly down the pier that extended from the rocks near the inn.  Crescentia, Montressor's space port, was just beginning to "rise" over the horizon; Jim watched it wistfully as he came to a stop at the end of the pier.

That was where his future lay, to be sure.  But he seemed to see two paths in that direction.  One was the way everyone expected of him: clean living, modest fame, a good reputation.  The kind of future his mother wanted for him.

The other path was excitement, adventure, danger.  The same path his father had taken.

I can't do that to her, he thought as he remembered standing on that pier at another time years ago, watching his father sail out of his life as his mother sobbed in the inn.  It would break her heart.  Probably break his heart too; it had certainly cracked a few times during his one taste of that life, on the Legacy.

Still, thoughts of that shadow path nagged at him, telling him it wouldn't be the same as with his father.  You'll see her again; you won't just leave and never come back.  And there was some woman involved for him, had to have been.  You saw enough of his type at the Academy to know that.  There's no one making you want to leave, no one but yourself.

Maybe that wasn't entirely true.

You could see the stars, you and Morphy, a voice inside him murmured.   And then you could come back and do what you call the right thing.  Your mother can manage; she managed perfectly well while you were at the Academy.  You'll have the rest of your life to do what she wants. . . do what you want now.

"But I charted my own course," Jim whispered into the sea breeze, arguing with the allure of the shadow path.  "I chose the Academy.  I didn't pick this life because Mom wanted me to.  I chose for myself."

Maybe you chose wrong.

Jim's eyes traced the curve of the space port's crescent.  It won't hurt to have a look, he thought.  No one expects me to start working immediately-- I could take a vacation at least.  Stars know, I've earned it.

Yes, he decided as he turned and walked back towards the inn, he'd take Morph with him and spend a few days on Crescentia.  A working vacation, he could call it, a chance to check out the available ships, fish around for a crew and clients, and get used to not having to spend every spare moment studying.  Maybe that would silence the shadow that pleaded so prettily.  Then he could get on with the course he had charted.

The course that felt so wrong.


"But you just got here!"  It was the protest Jim had expected.  Sarah Hawkins delivered it even as she shoveled his plate full of eggs and bacon.  Jim had passed a mostly sleepless night and had gotten up early to have a bite in the kitchen. . . and to disclose to his mother his plan of traveling to the space port.  Sarah had insisted, however, that he sit in the dining room and let her serve him a real breakfast.

"I know, Mom, but. . . well, I've got to decide where I want to go from here, and. . . ."  He looked up helplessly at his mother, who was watching him with a half-amused, half-skeptical face, arms folded across her chest.

"And that's not a decision you can make here?"

"N-no, I have to see what ships are available, and crews, and, well, work. . . ."  In his agitation, Jim got up and started pacing back and forth in front of the table.

"Is that all that's bothering you?"

Jim stopped pacing and looked at her.  Amazing how well she could still read him, even after all his time away from home.  Should he tell her?  No. . . how could he?  How could he say that the time and expense spent on the Academy might as well have been for nothing?

"Yeah, Mom, that's all."  He made himself sit down and start eating his breakfast.  "I'm just excited."

"Well, that's understandable."  She gave him a little smile and went to take the orders of the first guests who had drifted down to breakfast.

Jim thought he was off the hook-- until he came downstairs an hour later carrying his bags, Morph riding happily on his shoulder.  He had already said goodbye to B.E.N. after breakfast; the robot had cried profusely and hugged Jim until he thought he would pop.  B.E.N. had then blithely gone back to washing dishes, the crisis apparently over.

Sarah met Jim at the door, wearing her skeptical face again.  This time, though, it was tinged with concern.

"Jim, can I speak plainly?"

Uh oh.  That doesn't sound good.  "Sure, Mom."

"Ever since you came back from that treasure hunt of yours, I've gotten the feeling that you're. . . looking for something.  Is there another treasure out there you haven't told your old mother about?"  She smiled, but Jim knew it was just to hide her worry.

"No, Mom-- at least not that I've heard of."  He matched her attempt at humor, "So if you had secret plans to add a new wing on the Benbow, you'd better hold off."

"I thought you'd find it, whatever it is, at the Academy," she went on.  "But. . . now I see that you haven't."  She reached up to stroke his cheek gently.  Morph studied the motion a moment, then pressed up against the back of Sarah's hand, cooing.  She gave the shapeshifter a watery smile.

"I'm going to miss you too, you little terror."

"Mom, we'll only be gone a few days.  You won't have time to miss us."  Inside of him, something cringed.  But it wasn't a lie. . . was it?

She seemed to think that it was.  Sarah blinked back tears and turned away.  "You'd better get going.  If you miss the morning shuttle, you'll have to wait until late afternoon."

"Mom-- why don't you keep Morph here with you?" Jim asked abruptly.  He didn't want to make the offer; he had already been separated from Morph, and from all that he stood for, for too long.  But Jim felt that he had to do something to make up for. . . running away.

"No, take him with you.  I'll get along fine with B.E.N. and the Dopplers around."  Sarah glanced back at him with a genuine smile this time.  "I know that little fellow is special to you.  And he missed you so much-- I wouldn't want to separate you two again."

"All right."  On impulse, Jim gave her a tight hug, as tight as those he had given when he was a little kid.  "Love you, Mom."

"I love you too."  She kissed his cheek, then gave him a little shove towards the door.  "Go on now, before I decide to put you back to work."

On the shuttle to the space port, Jim stroked Morph absently as he looked out the window at the planet growing smaller beneath them.  Sarah was right; Morph was special to him.  Jim felt a little guilty about it: as much as he cared about Morph himself, there was another reason he was so attached to the little shapeshifter.

Jim loved him because he had been a gift from Silver.  Not just any gift either-- Silver had given up the one companion he could have on his trip into exile.  The handful of gold and jewels that had rebuilt the Benbow was an impressive gift to be sure, but Jim knew that even every bit of Flint's treasure didn't matter as much to Silver as Morph did.

And he gave you to me, Jim thought, not speaking aloud to his pet since the other shuttle passengers might have thought that a bit odd.  I gave him his freedom, and he gave me the only thing he had to love.  As always, the thought gave Jim a warm feeling in his chest, a sensation that had gotten him through many a rigorous training session and lonely night at the Academy.

After the shuttle landed on Crescentia, Jim wandered around in blissful aimlessness, delighted at being a free man again.  No dormitory curfew, no chores at the inn-- just him and Morph and a hundred beautiful ships.  For the moment at least, the two paths he had imagined the previous night converged into one.  Whatever his destiny, he would find it in Crescentia.

Jim spent the rest of the day walking along the docks with Morph, talking very little but listening carefully to the chatter around him.  He used the same strategy that evening in the common room of the inn where he booked a room for the night.  By the time he went to bed, he had learned that jobs were few and far between at the moment.  There was an abundance of crews, a shortage of ships, and not enough work to go around.  Not exactly what Jim had wanted to hear.

Nevertheless, it wasn't all bad news.  A couple months before his graduation, Jim had heard that a previously unexplored planet had made interstellar contact for the first time.  It had turned out that the planet, called Spira by its inhabitants, possessed a fairly advanced civilization whose elaborate air ships had finally been outfitted for space travel.  The Spirans were reportedly rather surprised to find a bustling galaxy just outside their system.

Now, as Jim learned from his eavesdropping in the inn, regular flights were being made to Spira to work out the beginnings of a trade system.  There wasn't much in the way of employment yet in the industry since negotiations were in their first stages, but transport to the planet was almost constant.

"That's what we'll do, Morph," Jim murmured as he lay in bed, Morph on the pillow beside him.  "We'll go check out this planet-- there's bound to be all kinds of cool things to do there. . . things no one from this part of the galaxy has seen before!"

"Before," Morph agreed.

Then Jim remembered his mother.  He winced and turned over restlessly.  He had told her he would only be gone a few days, and although Spira was fairly close, it was still a two day voyage away.  He would have a day at most to explore the planet before he would have to head for home.

Unless, of course, he made his words to her a lie.

I'll just go for a day, he told himself firmly.  I'll take a quick look around to see what's there, then come home.  I can always go back if there's any kind of opportunity there.  Jim pushed away the intuition that he was lying to himself as well as to Sarah, and tried to sleep.

 

With some careful questioning the next morning, Jim found out that a merchant ship was starting out for Spira that day.  The captain was willing to allow Jim (and Morph) aboard as a passenger for a fee and Jim's assurance that he could help out if the ship ran into any trouble.

There was no trouble, however, and two days later the ship arrived at the newly-constructed space port in Spira.  The port was small, with room enough for only a handful of ships.  The captain told Jim that it was located just outside Luca, Spira's largest city.

As Jim and Morph disembarked, he saw a particularly handsome middle-aged man come forward to greet the captain.  He seemed to be human, although he was striking in appearance, with almost shoulder-length straight golden hair, tanned skin, and very green eyes.  Jim looked around the port, noticing several other people with the same coloring.  There were also a number of other humans, a couple elf-like creatures with pointed ears and wild hair, and quite a few short blue people who looked like anthropomorphic frogs.

Jim wandered out of the port into the city of Luca.  It was packed with people, most of them of the races Jim had already noted, although a few were from other worlds.  Many of the people seemed to be heading for a large stadium on the south side of the city, but Jim was more interested in finding a place to rest after his trip.

"We'll only have one day here," he told Morph as he threaded his way through the crowd, the shapeshifter clinging to his shoulder.  "We'll have to leave day after tomorrow to make it home in time."  Morph chortled and turned into a tiny approximation of one of the blue frog creatures.

Jim went into the first inn they came to.  Despite the crowds of people outside, the common room was deserted.  The only sign of life was a single girl at the desk, her back to Jim as she rearranged an assortment of ledgers and books on shelves behind the desk.  She had blonde hair of a lighter shade than most of the other people he had seen, arranged in two loops at the sides of her head that covered her ears.  When she half-turned to frown at the arrangement of books, he saw the profile of a pretty face with large hazel eyes and a pert, upturned nose.

"Uh, excuse me, miss."  She didn't seem to have noticed Jim when he came in, and she paid him no attention now.

"Miss?  Hello?" Jim tried, speaking louder.  When he still didn't get a response, he rolled his eyes and started to turn away.  Morph, however, had other plans.  The little blob floated over towards the girl, eyeing her adoringly.  After a second of apparent thought, he snuggled up against her cheek.

"Ahh!" she shrieked in surprise, taking a step backwards and throwing up her hands.  When she turned, Jim saw that they weren't hands at all; she had a tentacle growing from each shoulder instead of arms.

"Oh!" the girl sighed with relief when she saw Morph, whose tiny lower lip was quivering.  "You're just a little guy.  I'm sorry!"  She cupped one tentacle under him and stroked the top of his head with the other.  She had four pairs of suckers at the end of tentacle; Morph cooed and rubbed against the upper set.

"Sorry if he scared you," Jim said loudly, moving closer to the desk.  The girl looked at him with a small, embarrassed smile.  Her hazel eyes had oddly shaped pupils, horizontal bars.  An octopus' eyes.

"It's okay; I should have been paying attention.  I don't hear that well, so I didn't realize anyone had come in."

"Do you have any rooms free?" Jim asked the girl.  "I need one for a couple nights."

She gave Morph a final pat, then deposited him on the desk.  "Wow, you're really lucky.  Normally we're booked solid when there's a concert, but someone cancelled just a few minutes ago."  She turned to a computer of some sort on the desk.  "What's your name?"

"James Hawkins.  And Morph," he added with a chuckle as he looked down at his pet.  Morph was still giving the girl a love-struck gaze.

"All right, James Hawkins and Morph, you've got yourselves a room."  She gave him a quick smile and smoothed down a stray bit of hair with a tentacle.  "You going to the concert?"

"Concert?  I, uh, didn't know about it."

The girl's eyes widened.  "You must be from off-world if you haven't heard-- it's the first time Lady Yuna's given a concert in over a year!  That's why there are so many people in Luca today."  Before Jim could ask who Lady Yuna was, the girl sighed mournfully and went on, "I wish I could go, but the inn's owner is making an inspection today.  I don't know why he has to pick today of all days, but we all have to be here.  It's so stupid."

"I had no idea my staff was so unhappy with me," a deep, heavily accented voice said from behind Jim.  The girl looked up, eyes widening in shock and cheeks flushing a pretty red.

"L-Lord Rin!  I'm sorry, I didn't hear you come in!"

Jim turned to see the same man who had greeted his ship upon its arrival.  The blond man smiled at the girl and chuckled.

"It's all right.  I didn't even think about the concert when I scheduled the inspection."  He walked over to the desk, giving Jim a dazzlingly white smile as he passed.  He wore a yellow, lace-trimmed shirt left open to expose a toned chest, at which Jim tried not to stare as he passed.  "You can go on to the concert if you'd like, Tavia.  I'm sure our cook and the barkeep can handle me."

"Really?  Oh wow, thanks!"  The girl dashed out from behind the desk and threw her tentacles around Rin.  Jim saw the tips of more tentacles, these clad in leather sheaths, emerging in the place of feet from beneath the pale blue skirt of her dress and the ruffled white apron she wore over it.  After she released Rin, who was now the one to flush as the buxom girl embraced him, Tavia grinned excitedly at Jim.

"Leave your stuff behind the desk-- you're coming to the concert with me!  You've got to see Lady Yuna sing!"

"Looks like I don't have a choice," Jim chuckled, but he didn't really mind.  Tavia's enthusiasm was catching, and his exhaustion from the trip seemed to melt away.

He followed her outside into the crowd with Morph after securing his bag.  "Who's Lady Yuna, anyway?"

"Only the most famous person on Spira!  I'd never heard of her either before I came here, but she saved the whole world from some big monster, or something like that.  She's really pretty, and everyone says she sings like an angel!  The last time she gave a concert was before I came here, so I've never gotten to see her."

"Why did you come here?" Jim asked as they made their way to the stadium.  "There don't seem to be many off-worlders around."

She shrugged.  "I'm from a really small planet, Moana, and it's hard to find work there.  So my family sent me out into space to find a job somewhere else.  I came here because I figured there would be lots of work to do, with it being newly contacted and all."  She giggled lightly.  "Boy was I right-- I stopped at the inn for the night, and Lord Rin offered me a job as a maid right away."

"Who is this Lord Rin?"  They had reached the stadium, where Tavia insisted on paying for his ticket in addition to hers.

"Ia, you're full of questions!  Lord Rin owns a whole bunch of inns, all over Spira.  He calls them 'travel agencies.'  He's an Al Bhed."

"Al Bhed?  Wait, let me guess-- they're all blond."

"Yup!  They come from the desert.  We also have a Hypello working at the inn as a bartender-- they're the blue ones that look like frogs and talk with a lisp.  He actually used to work on Lady Yuna's airship!  And then there's the Guado. . . ."

Jim tuned out the chattering Octopid girl as they found their seats.  Because they had bought tickets at the last minute, the seats weren't the best; they were high up at the very edge of the stadium.  However, huge video monitors gave even them a clear view of the stage.  Morph had transferred himself from Jim's shoulder to Tavia's and was gazing up at her contentedly, occasionally mimicking a word or two.

Jim hoped there wasn't another major event planned for the next day; it was hard to get a clear impression of Spira when something out of the ordinary was happening.  At least he had a friend now who could tell him about the planet in more detail, and being an off-worlder herself, she was likely to be more objective than a native Spiran.

"So James, why are you here?" Tavia asked, bringing him back to the present.

"Call me Jim," he corrected automatically.  "I just graduated from school, and I'm looking for a ship and crew. . . and work," he added with a chuckle.

"Wow, you're a spacer?  That's so cool."  She started playing with Morph, juggling him from one tentacle to another.

"Well, I've only been on one real voyage," he admitted, "but I have the education for it, anyway.  I could have gone into the Navy, but military life. . . ick."

"Ick!" Morph agreed.

"Why'd you come to Spira then?"

Jim shrugged and grinned.  "Not many off-worlders have been here yet.  I like to be the first to know about a place."

Tavia started to reply, but a sudden roar from the crowd silenced her.  She looked up and pointed excitedly at the video monitor.  "There she is!" she screamed over the noise.

Jim looked at the monitor too.  A slender girl with short brown hair and a rat-tail that reached the ground had appeared on the stage.  When she looked up at the cameras filming her, he saw that one eye was blue and the other was the bright green of the Al Bhed.  She was pretty all right, but she seemed too meek to be a global hero.  Two other girls followed her onto the stage, one tall with platinum hair and the other a petite Al Bhed with a mass of golden braids.

Every single voice in the stadium fell silent when Lady Yuna began to sing.  Tavia was enthralled, tapping her foot-tentacles to the music.  Jim, however, was not overly impressed.  Yuna's voice was nice enough, but the songs were bouncy pop music with a thread of techno, definitely not his style.  He began studying the people around him instead of listening to the music, wondering at first which ones might be able to help him find a job.  Soon, though, his thoughts shifted to wondering which ones were truly happy.  Was there anyone in the crowd who felt like he did-- discontent and so very alone?

Jim's attention was finally drawn back to the girl on the stage when she began singing the last song of the performance.  It was slower and more heart-felt than the others, and to Jim, much more beautiful.

Life was a mystery until you came to me, with time unraveling and traveling on. . . .

He watched Yuna closely as she sang; the song seemed to have special meaning to her, as if she were singing it for someone.  Maybe she was the one who felt like he did; maybe Spira's heroine was as lonely as he.  Morph left Tavia's side and snuggled up on Jim's shoulder, cooing.

I will remember you taught me well, and every day the words you said will stay with me. . . .  I will remember you were my friend, and I believe the words you said will stay with me.

Jim's hand went to Morph involuntarily, cupping over the little shapeshifter as he felt tears prick his eyes.

"Wow, what a gorgeous song!" Tavia exclaimed after the applause for Lady Yuna had died down enough for her to be heard.  "Don't you think so, Jim?"  She looked more closely at him.  "Jim?  Are you okay?"

"Yeah."  Nevertheless, he looked away from her as he muttered, "It just reminded me of someone."

"I see."  Tavia gave him an eerily penetrating look through her slit pupils, then she stood up and wrapped a tentacle over his arm.  "I'd better get back to the inn before Lord Rin sends out a search party for me.  Why don't you come back too?  It's almost dinner time."

"Dinner time!" Morph cried happily, shifting into a spoon.

Jim chuckled, trying to push away the melancholy lingering over him.  "Looks like Morph thinks you have the right idea."

Most of the other concert-goers were still in their seats, watching the stage or video monitor, as Jim followed Tavia out of the stadium.  He glanced up at the monitor as they passed and saw a young blonde man, about his own age, approaching Lady Yuna with an armful of roses.  She ran into his arms, scattering the flowers everywhere.

So that's who she was singing for, Jim thought.  He looked away as the audience cheered for the couple, jealous of her happiness and almost sorry that she wasn't lonely like he had imagined.  What right does she have to sing a song like that, when she's so happy?

But then, what right did he have to be miserable and to wish other people's happiness away?  Telling himself firmly to snap out of it, he walked with Tavia back to the inn.

 

By the time Jim, Morph, and Tavia returned to the inn, a few other guests were gathering in the common room for dinner.  Tavia scooped up Jim's bag from behind the desk and started up the stairs with it.

"Grab yourself a seat-- I'll carry this up to your room."

Sarah had trained Jim far too well for him to allow a girl to carry his luggage.  "Oh no, you don't."  He snatched it away and gave her the most charming grin he could muster.  "You go take care of your guests!"

Tavia chuckled.  "Aye aye, captain sir."  She dropped his room key in his hand.  "It's on the second floor, first door to the left.  Number three.  But hurry up-- once everyone gets back from the concert, you'll have a hard time getting a table!"

Jim hauled his bag up the stairs with Morph tugging helpfully on the handle.  His room was small but very clean, decorated in the technologically-savvy style of Luca-- certainly a difference from the cozy, nautical-themed rooms of the Benbow.  Morph took to bouncing on the bed as Jim stowed his bag in a cabinet then went to wash his face in the bathroom.

Looking at his dripping face in the mirror, Jim noticed that he really didn't look any different than he had as a cabin boy.  A little older maybe, but not by much.  He still had the same slender build that had gotten him teased (and into a couple fights) at the Academy.  His regulation haircut helped, but nevertheless, he couldn't wait until his hair grew out again.

Jim glanced out the room's single window as he scooped up Morph and deposited him on his shoulder.  The streets were now packed with people leaving the concert, quite a few of them streaming into the inn.  As much as Jim liked the bustle of port cities, he wasn't exactly comfortable with Luca.  There were too many people, and they seemed too set in their own schedules and ways of life.  He wanted an ever-changing flow of people around him, not a business-focused routine.

Well, there's got to be more to Spira than Luca, he told himself as he and Morph descended the stairs back to the common room.  It won't all be just like this.

Tavia was right; the room was already crowded by the time Jim returned.  He took a seat at the bar, ordering only a glass of water when the Hypello bartender approached him.

"You're shure?" the blue fellow asked.

"Shure?"  Morph seemed fascinated by the Hypello's accent.

"Yes, thanks."

A moment later, Tavia came by to take his order.  "What would you like?  Tonight we have stew, fried Sallet claws, or Chocobo-Eater steaks."

"Uh, I'll take the stew."  Stars knew what was in it though, judging from the mysterious names of the other items on the menu.

Jim watched the crowd silently as he waited for his meal.  They were mostly humans, and all were dressed in the garb of Spirans.  Apparently, there really weren't many off-worlders on the planet yet.  Like Tavia had, Jim suspected that this meant plenty of opportunities for work.

"Tomorrow we'll check out a neighboring town or two," he told Morph, who was drawing pictures in the condensation on the side of Jim's water glass.  "Maybe there's a town nearby that'll need a merchant ship."

"Ship?"  Morph looked up at him and blinked.

"Good point."  Jim sighed and dropped his chin in his hand.  "It would help if I had a ship."

A few moments later, Tavia returned balancing a large tray full of bowls on one tentacle.  "Here you go, Jim."  She deposited a bowl of stew in front of Jim, then took a quick look around before setting a mug of the brown substance in front of Morph.

"Morph's is on the house," she grinned.  "Just don't tell Lord Rin!"

Morph floated up and gave her a noisy kiss on the cheek before attacking his meal.  Jim chuckled.

"You've got a friend for life now, Tavia."  He ate a spoonful of the stuff himself, then blinked.  It tasted oddly familiar.

"What's in this?"

"That bad, hunh?"  Tavia wrinkled her nose and switched her tray to the other tentacle.

"No, it's not. . . well, it's not great, but it's okay.  It just tastes like something I've had before."

The girl shrugged her tentacles.  "You'd have to ask the cook.  He won't tell us what's in it-- just says it's an old family recipe.

Jim felt as if all the blood had drained from his face.  "A what?"

Tavia set her tray down and peered into his face.  "An old family recipe.  Kind of a bad joke really.  Every time something really gross turns up in it, he says, 'That's--'"

"'--part of the old family,'" Jim finished as a grin spread across his face.  He jumped to his feet and mimicked Morph by planting a kiss on Tavia's cheek.  "Which way's the kitchen?"

". . . th-that way."  She pointed a tentacle limply in the direction.  As he dashed off, she looked down at Morph in bemusement.  "He's an odd duck, isn't he?"  Morph chortled and proceeded to eat Jim's stew.

 

The kitchen was set half a level lower than the common room and accessed by a few short stairs.  Jim clattered down them, pausing on the next to the last one.  In that elevated position, his head was higher than the doorway to the kitchen, and he couldn't see inside further than the floor just on the other side of the door.

Jim's excitement turned to nervousness.  Maybe it was just a coincidence-- it wasn't that brilliant of a joke, and surely there weren't that many ways you could make stew.  And even if it weren't a coincidence. . . was he really ready for this?

"Octavia Cephalia Flavia Seaforth, if that's ye loiterin' on the stairs, come make yerself useful and take these steaks up to the guests!"

It was Silver all right, and there was no way Jim could make himself turn back now.  Grinning, he slipped down the last two steps and into the kitchen.  Silver was at the stove, his back to the door, with two plates of steaks on his cyborg hand extended out to one side.  He appeared to be frying Sallet claws-- whatever a Sallet was-- with his organic hand.

Jim tiptoed over and scooped up the two plates.  "Sorry, I'll try to be quicker next time."

Silver let go over the pan he was tending and moved back as he turned to stare at Jim.  He hadn't changed much either, Jim saw.  He didn't even really look any older, which was a relief.

"Jimbo?"

"You were expecting tentacles?"  Jim felt a tremor in his voice when he spoke.  He set the plates down on the counter and took a hesitant step towards his old friend.

Silver bit his lip, as if he didn't even trust his own voice, then opened his arms to Jim.  Jim collapsed against him in as tight an embrace as he had ever given Sarah.

Neither of them spoke until Silver put his hands on Jim's shoulders and held him at arm's length to look him over.  "What in blue blazes are ye doin' here of all places?"

"Looking for work, mostly.  I finally graduated from the Academy, so I want to get on with a merchant ship."  Jim grinned up at him.  "What about you?"

"Same reason-- work."  The thought seemed to remind Silver of his duties, and he turned back to the stove just in time to rescue the claws from burning.  "Plus, I figure no one'll be looking for me on a little backwater planet like this 'un."  He flipped the claws onto a plate.  "So are they still lookin' for me?"

"Not really.  Captain Amelia launches into a rant about you escaping at least once a week, but other than that, no one seems too concerned."

"Well, that's a relief.  I was afraid ye might be out scoutin' for our dear captain.  Ye ain't gonna turn me in, are ye?"  Silver winked at him, then frowned.  "If that air-headed cephalopod doesn't get down here to get this food--"

Jim chuckled.  "I'll go get her.  And Morph too."

He all but floated up the stairs; all of his worries seemed to have dissolved.  He found Tavia trying to corral Morph, who was bouncing from table to table snatching bites of food away from the patrons.  Jim put his fingers to his mouth and whistled; immediately, the shapeshifter darted over to him, settling in on his shoulder.

"Whew."  Tavia came over to him, out of breath and smoothing down her hair with her tentacles.  "Next time you run off, take him with you!  I can't do anything with him!"

"He's just showing off.  C'mon Morph, I got a surprise for you," he cooed at his pet as he started back toward the kitchen.

"Oh no, the food!"  The girl cringed and darted ahead of them, tentacles a blur as she ran down the steps.  "He's gonna kill me--"

By the time Jim got back to the kitchen, she already had four plates of food balanced on her "arms" and was starting for the stairs.  She stopped and stared though when Morph caught sight of Silver and dashed across the room to him, chittering.

"Morphy!"  Silver held the shapeshifter to his cheek and stroked him lovingly.  "I never thought I'd see ye again, ye little barnacle. . . ."

"Wait, you two know each other?"  Tavia looked from Jim to Silver and back again.  "Did you know he was here?"

"No," Jim said happily.  "It was just luck."

"Hmm.  I don't believe in luck."  She reached over and tweaked what served as Morph's cheek, then drifted up the stairs with the food.

Morph pulled away from Silver long enough to look after her fondly, then snuggled into place on his old master's shoulder.

"I think Morph's in love," Jim chuckled, leaning up against the counter.

"Her attention span's about as long as his," Silver said gruffly, although Jim knew him well enough to tell that he was fond of the girl too.  "I know yer a guest, but do ye mind giving me a hand with these dishes?  The quicker I get done, the more time ye'll have to tell me what ye've been up to these past few years."

"Sure."  Jim would have been happy to peel potatoes all night if it meant he'd get to be with Silver.  They almost immediately fell back into the easy companionship they'd known on the Legacy before the mutiny.  They laughed and talked about inconsequential things, splashed each other with the dishwater, and chased Morph out of the stew pot repeatedly.  It was almost like they'd never been apart, except for Jim's feeling that it couldn't possibly be real. . . that it was all a dream from which he could awake at any moment.

The kitchen was in decent shape after a couple hours of work, and Silver hung up the dish towel with a satisfied sigh.  "Ye've still got it, Jimbo."

"Well, I did learn from the best," Jim smirked.

Silver clapped him on the shoulder.  "Let's go get us a corner up there, and ye can tell me all about the Academy, eh?"

Jim nodded, though a bit reluctantly.  Up until they, they'd hardly spoken of their time apart at all, as if those five years had never existed.  And Jim wanted it that way.  He felt almost as if talking about the Academy would spirit him back there and wake him from the dream.

Don't be stupid, he told himself as he followed Silver up into the common room.  This is real, but the past is real too.  I can't keep acting like none of it happened, like we've never been apart.

Apparently oblivious to Jim's concerns, Silver said over his shoulder, "Tavia does most of the entertainin', nights.  Got a pretty good voice for an Octopid."  He ushered Jim over to a small table in a corner of the room, dimly lit but still affording a clear view of the bar where Tavia was whispering to the Hypello.

Silver went on, "There's a few regulars who like to hear some of my stories, but I usually can get away without bein' noticed much."  He chuckled, a bit grimly.  "The less it gets 'round that there's an old cyborg camped out in Luca, the better."

Apparently, the guests expected a performance out of Tavia, for they began to urge her to begin.  She blushed and protested, but it seemed to all be part of the act, for a minute later she stood up, tentacles clasped neatly behind her back, and began to sing without self-consciousness.  Her voice wasn't what Jim thought of as clear, but it was pleasing enough, with a soft, high fuzziness to it.

It's hard to love and not to be loved, it's hard to please your mind, she sang.  You broke the heart of many a poor girl, but you will never break mine.

Unlike Lady Yuna, Tavia didn't seem to be singing to anyone.  Despite the song she had chosen, Jim had the feeling she'd never loved anyone, not like that.

Oh see that lonesome ship at sea, it sails from shore to shore.  If I was on that lonesome ship, I'd never come back any more.  Those lines struck a little too close to home for Jim, who already felt guilty enough for deceiving his mother into thinking he hadn't left Crescentia.  Of course, he was going to come back. . . but still.

When Tavia finished her song, Morph darted up across the room amidst the onlookers' applause and planted himself on her shoulder, nuzzling her neck adoringly.

"Morphy approves, anyway," Silver observed.  "It wasn't a bad song."

"No. . . but she's never had her heart broken," Jim muttered without thinking.

Silver looked at him closely.  "And ye have?"  He gave a slightly forced chuckle.  "What've ye been up to lately, anyway?"

It didn't happen lately, Jim thought.  Awareness of the past five years forced itself into his consciousness, along with the realization that perhaps he and Silver didn't know each other anymore.  He thinks I let some girl break my heart. . . .

"Can we go somewhere else?" he asked aloud.  "It's so crowded in here, and. . . ."  He glanced at the Octopid girl, who had begun another song but was eyeing them through her horizontal pupils.

"And ye don't want any tentacled busybodies interruptin' ye, eh?"  Silver chuckled and stood.  "Sure, Jimbo.  Let's take a walk.  I think Morph'll be able to take care of himself for a little while."

 

Luca was as bright at night as it was during the day.  Everything seemed to be lit in multi-colored hues: the buildings, the signs, the sidewalks.  Jim winced and squinted.

"Is it always this bright?"

"'Fraid so.  Makes me wish we were out in space somewhere nice and dark. . . and quiet," Silver added as a gaggle of Hypello walked by, chattering.  He put a hand on Jim's shoulder and guided him towards some stairs to their left.  "But we're pretty close to the outskirts of town.  It ain't so bad there."

Jim followed him along the winding walk and up several flights of stairs.  The crowds and buildings thinned then disappeared altogether.  At the top of the last flight, the ground was laid with paving stones for a few yards, then the stones were replaced by a wide dirt road leading out into the darkness.

"They call that the Mi'ihen Highroad," Silver explained.  "It's the main road leadin' deeper into Spira."

"Hunh."  Jim peered into the darkness, frowning.  That would be the road he'd have to take the next day, if he wanted to see more of the planet. . . .

He felt Silver's hand on his shoulder again as the older man chuckled.  "Turn around.  There's more to see the other way."

Jim duly turned, then drew in his breath abruptly at the view of the city.  The edge of the Highroad was on a cliff, hence the need for all the stairs, and Luca fell away almost beneath their very feet in a symphony of colored lights.  From there, out of the press of the crowds, it was beautiful.

"Not sure if I like it here or not," Silver muttered softly.  "Down there, I feel. . . trapped, like.  But then I come up here nights, and it's like the whole place is mine.  Same feelin' I got up there--"  He pointed up to the sky with his mechanical hand.  "--lookin' out at all the worlds.  Like I could pick any one of 'em, and it would belong to me."  He chuckled self-consciously.  "Crazy as it sounds."

"No, I've felt like that too before.  A few times."  Jim moved away from him, over to the railing that lined the edge of the cliff except where the stairs led down into the city.  "But. . . I haven't felt like the stars belonged to me in a long time."

"Oh?"  He heard the creak of the cyborg's pneumatic leg as Silver moved to a bench set on the paving stones, apparently for the use of travelers who wished to admire the city.  "For how long?"

Jim leaned on the railing and peered downward.  For some reason, he couldn't bring himself to look at his friend.  ". . . about five years.  Every time I looked up at the stars coming back from a late class or something, or every time I plotted them in a navigation course. . . they just got farther and farther away.  And I'd look at one, and I'd wonder. . . ."  He trailed off, not sure if he wanted to finish.  There was still that thread of mistrust of Silver, still the phantom ache of a breaking heart.

". . . and I'd wonder if that's where ye were."  The thread snapped when Silver spoke the words in Jim's head.  The young man turned sharply.  Silver wasn't looking at him either; he seemed to be watching something on Luca's skyline.

"Yeah," Jim said simply.  With those few words, his worries had dissolved.  Silver had missed him too.

Jim sat on the other side of the bench and leaned back to look up at the sky.  "Can you see the stars from anywhere near here?"

"Yeah, if ye go a little ways along the Highroad.  That Rin fellow has another inn several miles in with a good open sky.  Tomorrow night, we can rent a hover and ride out there if ye want to see it."

Tomorrow night would be Jim's only other night there.  He tried not to think about that; no sense in bringing it up now.  "Yeah, I'd like to."

"So tell me about the Academy, Jimbo," Silver went on, changing the subject.  "What kind of trouble did ye get yerself into?"

Jim laughed and told him.  He talked more in the next hour than he had spoken in weeks. . . and it felt wonderful.  As he finished his tale with his graduation, he felt that, for his part at least, the years apart had been squared away.  He kept nothing secret from Silver, including the pranks he had pulled as part of his hazing in his freshman year-- things he wouldn't dream of disclosing to anyone else.  And Silver laughed until he had to wipe tears from his organic eye.

"What about you?" Jim asked when he had finished.  "What did you do before you came here?"

Silver sobered noticeably, though he still spoke lightly.  "Eh, I ran, mostly.  Our lady captain was really after me for a while there. . . before she got hitched, I'm bettin'.  I did. . . uh, odd jobs for a while, didn't want to risk getting on with any ship.  I came here soon as I heard about this planet making first contact.  I've been here a few months now."

"No one here gave you any trouble?" questioned Jim.  "It must've been hard being one of the first off-worlders."

"Nah.  For one, I don't see many people down in the kitchen.  And Rin's pretty open-minded, so he was willin' to hire me right off.  Apparently a lot of people don't like the Al Bhed much, so he wasn't much on discriminatin' against other species."

"Are there other cyborgs on Spira?"

"Haven't met any, but I've heard of one-- some guy with a funny name.  Can't remember it.  He's some important leader of somebody or another, and he's got a cybernetic arm and leg too.  Not as good as mine, a' course," he added with a smirk.

Jim had one more question before he could feel completely comfortable.  Looking away, he asked, "Silver, have you been. . . alone all this time?"

"Every minute of it," Silver answered without hesitation.  "Made me really miss not havin' Morphy around."  When Jim glanced up at him with relief, Silver smiled slightly.  "And I even missed not havin' a cabin boy to keep an eye on my every waking minute."

"Now I don't know about that," Jim returned playfully.  "I didn't miss the potatoes, or Mr. Mop and Ms. Bucket, or scrubbing pots."  Silver gave him a curious look, tinged with apprehension.

"You didn't, eh?"

Jim hesitated an instant, then leaned against Silver's chest.  "No, but I missed you."

He had thought Silver might not respond, but the cook put his arms around his shoulders and held him.  "I thought ye might have grown up, Jimbo. . . not that ye ain't more mature and all that, but I figured ye would have. . . settled down by now."

"Not me-- just ask Mom."

Jim hadn't felt so protected since the Legacy had flirted with the newborn black hole, and Silver had shielded Jim with his body.  It almost gave Jim the same feeling now: that his old friend was the only thing keeping the swirling vortex of his future at bay.  Outside of that embrace lay the two paths he had seen on Montressor, the courses he had charted and ignored.  But for now, while Silver held him, he was safe.

He could have stayed there all night, but after a moment, Silver gave him an awkward pat on the back and stood, letting him go.

"Ye've had a long day, lad.  If yer here to look for prospects, ye won't be much good without some sleep."

Jim had to admit he was pretty tired.  He stifled a yawn as he followed Silver down the stairs back into the city.  "I thought I might check out some of the other towns," he explained.  "I'm not too crazy about Luca, but some of the smaller ones might be more my pace."

"Ye'll definitely need a hover then.  Rin owns the rental place too, so maybe ye can get a discount."  He grinned down at Jim.  "And if he's in a good mood, maybe I can get the day off to show ye around.  The bartender's wife, or whatever those frog fellows have, helps out in the kitchen sometimes, so she can do the cookin' instead."

By the time they got back to the inn, Tavia had disappeared, and most of the guests had gone to bed.  The Hypello bartender was wiping down the bar, and Morph was sleepily imitating the dishrag he used.  When he spotted Silver and Jim, he perked up a little and darted over, shaking off droplets of soapy water.

"Gah," Jim spat as the shapeshifter gave his face a soapy nuzzle.  "You want him for the night, Silver?  You two have got a lot of catching up to do."

Silver seemed pleased.  "C'mere, Morphy."  Morph hopped onto Silver's shoulder and settled there with a happy sigh.  Silver patted him, then smiled at Jim.  "Night, Jimbo.  Come down bright and early, and we'll go out on the hover before traffic gets bad."

Jim nodded.  "See you in the morning."

Despite his exhaustion from the day's events, Jim had a hard time falling asleep.  Luca's lights shone in brightly through the cracks even after Jim closed the shutters on the single window; he lay on his back and looked at the multi-colored stripe of light cast onto the ceiling from the window.

How am I going to tell Silver I'm only here for a day? he wondered.  I can't write Mom and tell her I'm staying longer, because she thinks I'm still at the space port. . . and anyway, if Captain Amelia saw the letter and found out that he's here, she'd have him arrested.  Jim decided that if he stayed on Spira more than a day, his only option would be to not tell his mother anything, even though he knew she'd worry.  He could hear her now, ranting about how she had thought he was mature, that he'd grown up. . . that he'd settled down.

Not yet, Jim thought with a little smile.  And he didn't really think that Silver had either.  He might be lying low for awhile, but Jim couldn't imagine him giving up life as a spacer for good.  Maybe he'll even come with me, once I find a ship.  I could rent a small ship of my own, and we could fly her, just the two of us and Morph.

Jim had always assumed that he would sign on to a merchant ship, but the thought of piloting his own very craft, possibly as a freelance courier, was exciting.  And we'll be together. . . .  That was the best part of all, and it was the last thought in Jim's mind when he finally fell asleep.

 

The next day, Silver took Jim along the Mi'ihen Highroad in a hover, and when evening fell, Jim was able to see the stars again.  He hesitated a moment when Silver suggested that they spend the night at Rin's rural Travel Agency-- there was no way he could catch an early ship out of Luca if he agreed.  Then he pushed the thought of leaving from his mind and said yes.  As he lay with Morph in one of the two twin beds in their room, and listened to Silver snoring in the other one, Jim decided that he had made the right decision.

Over the next few days, Jim felt bad every now and then for making Sarah worry, but most of the time, he was having too much fun with Silver to think of home.  On the days when Silver had to work in the kitchen, Jim either helped or wandered around Luca with Morph and occasionally Tavia.  On Silver's next day off, he and Jim went back to Luca's space port to look at the ships.  Jim paused to admire a beautiful little vessel at one of the docks.  She was just what he had imagined when he thought of running a small boat on his own.

"That one's perfect," he murmured to Silver, who had stopped to see what was holding Jim up.

"That's the Revolution.  She belongs to Lord Rin," Silver commented.  "Don't think he's actually flown 'er, though.  She's more of a trophy, like."

"That's a shame.  If she were mine, I wouldn't even get out of her to sleep," Jim said dreamily.

Silver chuckled.  "What would ye do with yer own ship, Cap'n Jimbo?"

"Well, I was actually thinking about that the other day," Jim replied a little shyly.  "Flying my own runs sounds like a lot more fun than being tied down to a merchant ship.  I could get work as a courier, or do small deliveries. . . ."

"Be yer own man, eh?"  Silver spoke quietly, thoughtfully as he regarded the Revolution.

Jim laughed a little, although it sounded forced even to his own ears.  "Yeah.  Someday when I'm as rich as Lord Rin."  He gave the ship one last longing look, then walked on.  Silver followed him a moment later.

Every evening, after dinner was through and Tavia was occupying the guests, Jim and Silver would climb the stairs at the edge of town and watch the lights of the city.  That night, almost a week after Jim had arrived in Luca, he said reluctantly, "I'm going to have to go back to Montressor soon.  Mom thinks I'm still at the space port."

"What will ye do then, once yer back?"

"Stars know," Jim grumbled.  "I left thinking I'd make up my mind. . . should've known it wouldn't be that easy."

"Sometimes it can take a lot a' thought to commit yerself to somethin', Jimbo," Silver replied.  "And then sometimes, ye just look at a thing, and know ye want it."

"Like the treasure, hunh?" Jim murmured.

"Yeah."  Silver's harsh voice was soft.  "Like the treasure."

 

The next morning, Lord Rin turned up at the inn as Jim was coming down to breakfast.  Jim was too preoccupied with worrying about going home to pay much attention to Rin; thus, he was quite surprised when the proprietor approached him as Tavia was clearing away the breakfast dishes.

"I have something I wish to discuss with you, Mr. Hawkins," Rin answered Jim's questioning look.  "Do you have some time to spare?"

"Um, all right."

Rin led Jim outside, then turned in the direction of the space port.  "Our cook tells me you'll be leaving us soon."

"Yeah, I need to get back home," Jim mumbled.  "This trip was supposed to be a lot shorter than it turned out."

"I do hope you'll come back to Spira soon," Rin replied.  "There's much more to see of our beautiful planet than Luca."

When they reached the space port, Rin stopped in front of the Revolution and looked at Jim expectantly.

"So, what's the big surprise?" Jim asked.

Lord Rin smiled proudly and gestured towards the ship.  "There she is!"

"Uh, yeah, she's really nice.  I looked at her yesterday," Jim said dismally.  "You're very lucky to own her."

"Oh, but I do not own her."

Jim frowned.  "But Silver said--"

Rin returned his frown with a smile.  "I owned her yesterday.  But you see, I have many business prospects here on Spira.  There is more than enough to do in Luca to welcome the new intergalactic travelers, without becoming one of them myself.  So I sold the Revolution."

"So that's what you wanted to 'discuss' with me?"  Jim's heart sank.

"No.  This is what I wished to discuss."  Rin handed him a rolled up piece of paper.  "She's yours."

"Wh. . . what?"  Jim unfurled the paper to find the deed to the Revolution in his hands.  Sure enough, the deed had his name on it.  "But. . . but how?  I didn't buy her!  Is this. . . real?"

"Indeed it is."  Rin seemed infinitely pleased with Jim's stunned delight.  "Someone bought her on your behalf.  Anonymously of course, but--"  He broke off as Jim started toward the ship with an excited step, then paused.  The young man spun on his heel and took off in the other direction as fast as he could go, the deed clutched in one hand.  Lord Rin smiled and shook his head.

 

"Silver!"  The cook looked up from his cutting board as Jim pelted down the steps and engulfed him in a hug.  "Thank you thank you thank you!"  Morph had been sitting next to the cutting board, "helping" by snatching and eating bites of carrot.  The shapeshifter, sensing Jim's excited mood, launched himself into the air, bobbing around and mimicking "thank you thank you!"

"Whoa, what's all this, Jimbo?"  Silver gently but firmly put the young man away from him.

Jim waved the deed around excitedly.  "The ship!  Thank you!  I never thought--"

Silver turned back to the chopping block and his carrots.  "When ye can put a whole sentence together, let me know."

Jim was too happy to be put off.  He flung his arms around Silver's back, giving him a hug that would have made B.E.N. proud.  "I don't know how you did it, but thank you. . . so much. . . ."

Silver finally relented and patted one of Jim's hands with his robotic one.  "I told Rin not to tell ye."

"He didn't, but I knew.  No one else here knows me. . . no one else would do something like this for me even if they did know me."  Jim let go and took an exhilarated spin around the kitchen.  "But how did you do it?  Where did you get the money?"

"It was the last of what I took from Flint's trove."

"But you already gave me so much to rebuild the inn!"  Jim stopped his celebration and leaned against the counter next to his friend.  "You shouldn't have spent the last bit on me. . . ."

"I can't think of a better use for it."  Silver smiled slightly and dumped the carrots into a pot.  "I don't need it, now that I have a steady job."

"And you'll have an even steadier one now!  Do you know where we can find a crew?  Hopefully they'll be nicer than your last crew, but--"

"Jimbo. . . ."  Silver moved away and busied himself with the potatoes.  "There ain't no 'we.'  I ain't comin' with ye."

"You. . . .  Of course you are. . . ."  Jim trailed off when the older man didn't respond.  "I-if you're afraid of getting caught, we'll figure something out.  I don't think anyone will know, as long as you stay away from Captain Amelia."  He tried a faint chuckle, but got nothing.  "Why not?" Jim finally burst out, darting forward to clutch at his shoulder.  "Why won't you come?"

"I ain't a spacer anymore, Jim.  This is the life I chose-- the path I charted."

"But. . . I charted a path too, and it was the wrong one.  So I changed it.  You can change yours too."

"Yer assuming that I want to change it."

Jim took a step back.  To his amazed horror, he felt his lip tremble.  "Y-you mean you'd rather stay here for the rest of your life, than sail with me?"  When there was no answer, a tear spilled out of one eye and coursed down his cheek.  Morph noticed the tear and immediately caught on to Jim's anguish.  The little shapeshifter stopped his dancing and floated over to Jim, licking the tear off his cheek and cooing worriedly.

Somehow, Morph's concern only made things worse, and the tears fell faster.  Morph tried to lick them up, then blot them with his gelatinous body.  This failing, he shifted into an umbrella.

All the excitement Jim had felt plummeted.  What good was the ship if he had to sail it alone?  That's not the path I wanted.  It wasn't a choice between respectability or adventure.  It was respectability or him.

Jim pulled away from Morph and stumbled up the stairs out of the kitchen.  He passed Tavia in the stairwell leading to the guest rooms and pulled his collar up to hide his tears from her.

"Jim?" she called after him, but he ignored her.  Jim reached his room and started throwing his belongings into his bag furiously.

I'll leave first thing tomorrow.  Go back to Montressor, see Mom and them, then register as a merchant ship.  That's the path I should have taken all along.

But then there was Morph.  If the shapeshifter didn't find his way up to Jim's room by morning, Jim would have to see Silver again to get him back.  Although maybe, Jim thought bitterly, he should just leave Morph with his rightful owner.  Silver doesn't want to be with me-- so why should I want to remember him?

Jim left his packed bag on the floor and collapsed on the bed with his head in the crook of his arm.  He fell asleep that way and didn't awaken until the room was long since dark.  Jim wasn't sure what had woken him until he heard a noise just above his head.  When Jim squawked and swatted at the source of the noise, his hand came into contact with something gelatinous.  Morph.

"Whew.  Thank the stars it's just you."  Jim cupped his hands around the little creature and brought him to rest on his chest.  He couldn't see the shapeshifter in the darkness, he'd know the resulting coo anywhere.  Morph crawled up his neck and snuggled up under his chin.

"Glad you came back," Jim murmured.  "If I'd had to come get you, I would have had to see him again."  Morph purred in response to the sound of his voice.  "I love you, little guy," Jim went on, fighting back a waver in his voice.  "I-I know I've got the ship now, but that doesn't mean what you do.  The ship's just to get rid of me, but you. . . when he gave you to me, he did it because he loved me."

"Loved me, loved me!" Morph chanted.  "Love you, Jimbo."

Jim smiled again.  "Yeah, I already said I loved you too, you little--"  He stopped, blinked.  "Morph?"

"Morph?  Morphmorphmorph."  There was a big yawn.  "M. . . orph. . . ."

Since when could Morph talk, other than to repeat what was said to him?  And since when had anyone but Silver ever called him "Jimbo"?

"Hey, Morph, wake up."  Jim tapped him.  "Did he say that?  Did he say he loved me?"  A faint snore came from the shapeshifter.  Jim sighed and scooped Morph up, depositing him on the pillow, then stood.  He wasn't sure what to do.  Maybe Morph was just stringing together words he had heard separately.  Or maybe Silver had said it, but a long time ago.

But Morph had never put together words on his own before, and his memory was short-term at best.

Jim took a deep breath and slipped out of the room.  The stairwell was kept lit all night, and he glanced at the clock that hung there as he passed.  It was only a little past ten o'clock; Silver might still be in the kitchen.

Jim could hear voices coming from the common room as he neared the foot of the stairs.  As he passed, he saw the Hypello barkeep serving drinks to a few lingering guests.  No sign of Silver there, which was something of a relief to Jim.  Still, his footsteps slowed as he walked down the short set of stairs to the kitchen.  As he had suspected, Silver was still there, peeling potatoes of all things.  Jim smiled in spite of himself.  No cabin boy to share the load this time.

Silver glanced up as Jim crept into the room.  For an instant, the cyborg looked relieved, then he turned back to his potatoes.  "Want a midnight snack, eh?"

"Yeah.  I missed dinner."  Jim relaxed a little and opened the industrial-sized icebox, peering inside.  "Anything good left?"

"There's some Flan."  Silver heaved himself to his feet and went to the sink to wash the starch off his hands.  "Make sure it's good and dead though."

Jim had already taken the Flan out of the icebox and was carrying it to the table, but he stopped short.  "D-dead?"

"Yeah."  Silver lurched over to the kitchen table and sat down again.  "There's a kind of monster around here they call a Flan.  They come in all sorts of colors, and each color tastes different.  That right there--"  He pointed at the white blob on Jim's plate.  "--is a Flan Palido.  Best kind.  Tastes like vanilla."

Jim looked down at the wobbly mess and swallowed hard.  Then his stomach growled and he shrugged.

"I'm hungry enough to eat anything."  He set the plate down on the table and sat across from Silver.  The Flan was pretty tasty, Jim discovered when he started eating it with a serving spoon.

"Dessert without a proper meal first.  Mom would kill me."

Silver chuckled.  "I won't tell, Jimbo."

"Morph found his way back up to my room," Jim murmured between bites.  "I think he's getting smarter."

That earned another chuckle.  "Oh?  How so?"

"He's making up his own sentences."  Jim licked off his spoon and set it aside.  "Told me he loved me, right out of the blue."

"Is that so."  Silver leaned back in his chair.

"Yeah. . . dunno if he knows what it means though.  He's probably just repeating something he. . . he heard."

"Well, even so, ye know he does love ye."

"Yeah."  Jim prodded the remains of the Flan and watched it jiggle.  "I guess someone can love you without ever saying it."

Silver leaned forward and touched Jim's chin.  Jim froze.  "Ye missed a bite," the cook commented as he wiped off the stray bit of Flan.

"Oh."  Jim started breathing again as Silver licked his finger off.

"Hmm, this one's a bit over-ripe.  Sometime I'll have to catch ye a fresh one.  They're much better."

"I dunno.  I might not ever be back this way."

That finally got a reaction out of Silver.  "What makes ye say that?"

"Well, Spira's just coming onto the scene, intergalactic-wise.  There probably won't be much cause for me to come here, whether I go into shipping or take work as a courier."

"But Jimbo, that’s all the more reason for ye to make runs here.  Get in on the action and get yerself a good spot before all the big companies move in!" Silver urged him.

"And then have to fight them to keep my position when they do show up?"  Jim shook his head and stood to carry his plate to the sink.  What was left of the Flan was almost exactly the size and shape of Morph, which was making him feel a bit ill.

"Ye ain't the type to let those corporate boys push ye around-- unless all that diplomacy spiel at the Academy’s turned yer head."

Jim slumped over the sink, clutching its edge in his hands.  "Oh, what does it matter to you, anyway?  You’re the one who wants to get rid of me."

There was a long silence, then Jim heard Silver’s chair shift.  "What gave ye that idea?"

"That’s the whole reason you bought me that ship, isn’t it?  So I’d leave."  Jim lowered his head, staring at the dishwater through the strands of hair that fell over his eyes.

He felt Silver’s hand-- his organic one-- rest on his shoulder.  "Jimbo, of course that’s not the reason.  I bought the ship because. . . ye deserve it.  And ye’ve got to get yer start somewhere.  No sense in the lad that found Flint’s trove having to work his way up through the ranks to earn his own boat.  Ye should start at the top, where ye belong!"  He squeezed Jim’s shoulder gently.

"If I'll be at the top, then why won’t you come with me?"

Silver sighed heavily, his fingers still lightly contracting over Jim's shoulder.  "I've been to the top, Jimbo.  I was there when I had that longboat full a' treasure in the center of old Flint's planet.  I won't ever get that high again."

"And you let it go because of me."  Jim felt the mutinous tears fill his eyes again.

"Yeah, I did. . . because ye'll go far higher than even that.  Yer just startin' out, even now."  Silver's mechanical hand joined his organic one on Jim's other shoulder.  "Ye don't need me weighing ye down."

"Yes, I do!"  Jim's chest heaved with a suppressed sob.  "I thought I'd never see you again-- that Morph was all I had left of you--"

"Sit down."  Silver propelled him back to the table, then went to the refrigerator.  "Yer just over-tired.  Rushing off on a new adventure right after all the stress of graduation. . . .  If ye want an old spacer's advice, ye need to take yer new ship home and take a couple weeks off.  Spend it with yer mum and that screwy robot pal of yers, and just relax."  Jim watched as Silver started heating milk in a pan on the stove.  "But first yer gonna drink this to put ye to sleep."

Jim started to protest that he wasn't a kid anymore, but the words died in his throat as he realized just how child-like he'd been acting.  "All right.  Thanks."

Silver brought the milk to him and stood over him as he started to drink it.  "Mom used to do this to make me sleep when I was little," Jim remembered with a faint smile.  "She's going to kill me when I get home.  I told her I'd only been gone a few days, and it's been a week already."

"I'm sure she'll forgive ye when ye turn up in that pretty ship."

Jim yawned; as always, the cure for insomnia had worked.  He stood and put his mug beside the be-Flanned plate in the sink.  "Thanks, Silver.  I'll. . . come say goodbye tomorrow before I leave."

"Make sure ye do," Silver muttered.  He picked up a rag and started wiping down the table.  Jim hesitated, considering a final attempt to change the cook's mind, then he gave up and started for the stairs.  He wasn't really angry anymore. . . just hurt.  But he could understand too.  Just because he means so much to me, doesn't mean he feels the same way. . . .

"Jim."

At the sound of Silver's voice, Jim stopped in the doorway and turned back.  The older man walked over to him and put his hand back on Jim's shoulder. . . then pulled him close and hugged him tightly.  Jim was frozen in surprise for an instant, then he wrapped his arms around his friend's shoulders and clung to him.

"I want to go with ye, Jimbo, I really do," Silver muttered.  "But I'd just hold ye back.  What kind of captain could ye be if ye were harborin' a fugitive?"

"A much happier one than I will be alone.  I need you-- I can't do it by myself."  Jim pressed his face against Silver's shoulder.

The cook was quiet for a long moment, his organic hand absently patting Jim's shoulder.  Finally, he muttered, "I can't keep saying no to ye.  Just promise ye'll keep me out of sight of our lovely former captain, all right?"

"You mean it?" Jim mumbled against his neck.  "You'll come with me?"

"If ye can chart a new course for yerself, I guess I can do it too."  Jim felt Silver lean his cheek against his hair for a moment as he added softly, "I'd spend the rest a' my life regrettin' it if I didn't."

"When can you leave?"  Jim pulled back enough to be able to look at him.  "If you need a few days, I guess I could go home and come back for you later--"

Silver chuckled a little ruefully.  "Rin already asked me if I'm going with ye, as soon as I told him I wanted to buy the ship.  He said the barkeep's wife has been askin' for full time work, and he's willin' to hire her to replace me.  So if ye still want to leave tomorrow, I'll be ready."

Jim beamed at him happily.  "So will I."

Silver smiled back and laid his hand against Jim's cheek.  Jim closed his hand over the older man's and pressed his cheek against his palm.  Silver curled his fingertips over Jim's jaw bone for a moment, then pulled his hand away abruptly.

"I'll see ye in the mornin' then.  First thing, mind-- I'd like to get out of here before that frog lady changes her mind about takin' over the kitchen."  He went back to cleaning the table.

"I'll be ready."  Jim went to the doorway, then paused and looked back.  "Silver. . . thank you."

Silver chuckled.  "Ye might not be thankin' me if Captain Amelia finds out ye've fallen in with me again.  Go on to bed, now.  We've got a long trip ahead."

 

Jim was awake the next morning before the sun had even risen.  Too excited to stay in bed any longer, he dumped his belongings into his bag, scooped up a drowsy Morph, and hurried downstairs.  No one was in sight save for Tavia, who was yawning as she laid out silverware on the tables.

"You're up early."  She eyed his bag.  "Shipping out already, hunh?"

"I've already been here a week longer than I meant to stay," Jim retorted as he perched on a barstool.  "Mom's going to freak when I turn up, with a boat no less."  He chuckled and scratched Morph under what served as his chin.  "She'll think we stole it, hunh, Morph?"

"What about when you turn up with an ex-pirate?" Tavia suggested as she finished setting the tables.  She giggled at the stunned look Jim gave her.  "Don't look at me like that.  Obviously, he's going with you; you two have been inseparable."  She sat down a couple stools away and rested her chin on one tentacle.  "It's sweet."

"But. . . how did you know he was. . . what he was?"  For some reason, the thought of Silver telling Tavia about the past made him jealous-- especially if Silver was telling her about their past.  Jim didn't want that shared with anyone.

"Well, when you see a former spacer walking around with half his body missing, you sort of start to catch on," Tavia replied, rolling her hazel eyes.  "And just because I can't hear all that well, doesn't mean I can't hear at all.  Some nights after I'm done singing and the guests have gone to bed, he'll tell stories to the regulars.  He's never actually said he was anything but a legitimate spacer, but it's not too hard to figure out."

Morph had finally roused himself enough to be playful; Jim watched him make faces at his reflection in the mirror behind the bar.  "Did he ever say anything about me?" he asked quietly.

"I know he never mentioned you by name.  Most of the stories are about when he was young, probably before you or I were even born," she added with a smirk.  "But don't be too disappointed.  He hasn't told a single story since you got here."

"Uh. . . ."  Jim didn't quite see the connection.

Tavia reached out and caught Morph in a tentacle, tickling him.  "He hasn't been spending any time in the common room like he usually does.  He's been spending it all with you."

Before Jim could respond, Silver himself appeared up the stairs from the kitchen carrying a single bag of belongings.  He chuckled when he saw Morph happily submitting to Tavia's attention.

"It's gonna be hard to take the little guy away from ye, lass."

"Are you leaving now?" Tavia carefully set Morph down and stood, smoothing down her skirt with her tentacles.  Morph floated over to Silver and settled in on his shoulder.

"Well, my replacement seems t' be pretty settled in down below," Silver observed.  "I'd like to get out of here before she changes her mind about takin' the job."

"I'll miss you," Tavia told him with a little smile.  "Even your yelling at me.  And I'll miss you too, James Hawkins."

"If you ever get tired of Spira, come to Montressor," Jim told her impulsively.  "My mom would probably love some extra help at the inn."

"I'll keep that in mind."

The Octopid girl watched as Jim gathered up his things.  Morph suddenly seemed aware that they were leaving, and he looked at Tavia with a quivering whimper.

"Make them bring you back to visit me, okay, Morphy?"  She went over to Silver and scooped up the shapeshifter.  Morph cuddled against the suckers on her tentacles with a loud sniffle as she lifted him to her face and kissed him just above his eyes.  Morph gave her cheek a little nuzzle, then flew back to Jim and pressed against his neck, refusing to look at her again.

"He'll be fine," Jim assured Tavia, who looked a little misty-eyed in spite of herself.  "And I'll come back to visit sometime, I promise."  He patted her on the shoulder affectionately as she smiled weakly and started towards the kitchen.

"Take care of yourselves.  All of you," was the last thing she said as she disappeared down the stairs.

Jim followed Silver outside and through the streets towards the space port.  It was still too early for most people to be out, and Luna was the quietest Jim had seen it throughout his entire time on Spira.  He and Silver did not speak as they walked, but it was a comfortable silence, not an awkward one.  Jim's slight sorrow at saying goodbye to Tavia-- mostly stemming from Morph's unhappiness-- faded almost immediately.  Finally, after all the years that had passed since he returned from the Legacy, Jim felt like he was on the right path.

By the time they reached the space port, even Morph had cheered up and was excitedly mimicking everyone they passed.  Apparently, Lord Rin had not told anyone that he had sold his ship, for the harbor master, a burly human who looked like he could break Jim in two, came running over and challenged them when they tried to board.  He only relented when Jim produced the deed to the ship.

And then, finally, Jim was able to step on board the Revolution as her master.  He walked from stem to stern in delight, feeling as if he could spend hours just going over every inch of her deck to convince himself that she was real.

"Are we going to sail this boat, or are ye just gonna make love to her all day?" Silver broke into his thoughts, watching him with folded arms and a smile.

"Sorry.  She's just so. . . I just can't believe she's mine."  Jim took a deep breath to calm his nerves.  "All right, I'm ready.  Let's get her in the air."

The ship handled like a dream.  Because she wasn't too much larger than the longboats they had taken out on the Legacy, Jim and Silver didn't have any trouble controlling her on their own.  Nevertheless, the task kept them too busy for more than a few brief words until they were safely out of Spira's airspace and away from what little traffic there was coming into the planet.

Jim didn't have time to really explore his new ship until they had been in flight for most of a standard day.  The galley was tiny, barely large enough for Silver alone, but it was well-stocked with provisions.  Lord Rin had apparently been intending to sail the Revolution, despite what he had told Jim.  There were also two cabins, one with a small bed and the other slightly larger one holding two hammocks.

When Jim went above deck again, he found Silver leaning against the base of the mast and admiring the view of the stars all around them.

"I take it we're on course?" Jim asked as he went to the side of the ship and looked out as well.

"Of course.  Jimbo, I'll be able to tell if we drift even an inch."  Silver stretched and leaned back against the mast.  "Nights like this remind me of my first love."

"Yeah?"  Jim scowled to himself and looked pointedly out at the stars.  The last thing he wanted was for the evening to be spoiled by some old conquest of Silver's.

"Yeah, she was such a beauty.  Never laid eyes on anything like her before.  She was my captain's though, way outta my reach."

"Unh hunh."

"Didn't stop me from dreamin' though."  Jim heard the thump of Silver's mechanical leg as the other man joined him at the side of the ship.  "Every night, I'd climb up top of her rigging and imagine she was mine."

Jim snorted with a mixture of laughter and relief.  "Stars, I hope you're talking about a ship."

"Of course I'm talkin' about a ship!  Ye think I had time for girls in those days?"  Jim looked up at him and got an amused, fond glance in return.  "No, all I cared about was sailin'."  Silver turned back to the sky beyond them.  "Although I guess maybe there was one thing I loved before that ship.  When I was a lad, there was a star'd always shine in my bedroom window.  Least I thought it was a star, back before I knew the difference 'tween them and planets.  I always promised myself that someday I'd become a spacer, and I'd fly right up to that beautiful light."

He leaned over Jim's shoulder, putting his cyborg arm around him, to indicate one of the points of light in the expanse before them.  "There she is, that bright yellowish one.  In a different spot a' course than she was on my planet, but she's in a system near yer own home system, so we can see her from here."

Jim recognized the yellowish orb as the planet Mau, one of the hundreds of world names he had learned at the Academy.  Still, the name on paper conveyed nothing of the loveliness of the planet's light as it shone on them now.

"She's beautiful," Jim breathed, slipping into Silver's personification of the planet inadvertently.  "Did you ever go there?"

"Yeah, I did."  Silver chuckled a little ruefully and lowered his mechanical arm so that it draped against Jim's chest.  "It's Captain Amelia's home planet.  Not near as nice in person as it was from my window."

"You're not a cat person, then?" Jim teased.

"Eh, our lady captain may be more than middlin' fair, but more finicky eaters than her race ye'll never find.  I cooked in an inn there for a week 'fore I lost all my patience with them and shipped out."

Silver's arm was still around Jim, and he leaned against the older man's side, relishing the sense of peace he felt.  "Are they all pretty then, like Captain Amelia?"

Silver chuckled softly.  "Not all.  I've never met an uglier chap than the landlord I worked for there, though he was good to me, young lad that I was.  His little girl was a beauty though, and smart as paint.  She was just a kid, maybe five years old, but she ruled that inn with an iron paw.  Had me bringin' her steamed milk at all hours of the night and tellin' her stories about the stars.  I used to think that if I ever settled down and had a family, I wanted a little girl just like her."  He sighed softly.  "That was before I'd charted my course, ye'd say.  Now I can't imagine thinkin' that's the life I want."

Jim was glad for that, but he didn't like the air of melancholy the thought had given Silver.  "What happened to her?" he asked as a distraction.

"Last time I was there, I heard she'd left the planet.  Her pap was an old man then, but he was still so proud of that little firebrand of a kitten.  Said she'd been chosen as the advisor to a queen somewhere."  Silver shook his head with a wondering little laugh.  "Never would've suspected that.  But smart and pretty ain't a combination ye find very often; I guess queens realize that sorta thing."

"What did she look like?"  For some reason, Jim wanted a picture of the little girl in his mind, a way of visualizing what Silver had given up when he chose the life he'd ultimately followed.

"She had hair as black as that sky up there.  It was curly, never'd been cut her mum said.  Her skin was pale, and she looked so fragile, like her little limbs'd break right off if ye picked her up.  She was strong though.  And her eyes-- bluest eyes ye'd ever hope to see.  And they were big, always open so wide. . . just like yers."

Jim looked up at him again, half-poised to rail at Silver for comparing him to a little cat girl.  The words died on his lips when he saw the tender expression on the spacer's face gazing back down at him.  Silver looked away as soon as their eyes met, and he let go of Jim's shoulders, giving him a final pat on the back.

"Ye'd better get some rest, Jimbo.  I'll take the first watch."

"I'm not tired," Jim protested.

"Ye will be soon enough with just the two of us sailin' this ship all the way back to Montressor," Silver returned sternly.

"Fair enough."  Jim cast one last look at the star fields, then started towards his cabin.  "Wake me in a few hours, okay?  You may have paid for the ship, but you gave her to me, so no fair keeping her all to yourself."

"All right, ye have my word."  Jim reluctantly left him there, gazing out past the rigging at Mau's glistening yellow light.

 

It seemed to Jim that he had barely lain down before a hand on his shoulder gently shook him awake.  He grumbled and swatted at it, only to have Silver bodily haul him up into a sitting position.

"Thought ye were worried 'bout me hoggin' yer ship," Silver laughed.  "Seems like ye'd rather sleep in her than sail her."

"How long was I asleep?"  Jim rubbed at his eyes with the back of one hand and slumped over drowsily.

"About five hours."  Jim glared up at him with a sullen look, making Silver relent a little.  "If ye really want t' go back t' sleep, I can give ye a couple more."

"No, it's okay."  Jim got out of bed, feeling more awake as soon as he stood.  "Get some rest yourself."

"I'll go stake out one of the hammocks then," Silver began, but Jim stopped him.

"No, take the bed.  We can both use it since we'll be sleeping at different times."  Jim rummaged around in his bag to find a clean shirt.  His fingers closed over something small and round; pulling it out, he discovered that it was the earring he'd worn before he went to the Academy.  He'd forgotten until then that he had brought it with him for luck.  He smiled a little as he carefully put it into the piercing in his left ear.

"Well, if yer sure. . . ."  Silver had already sat down on the bed and was pulling off the boot he wore on his organic foot.

"It's fine.  The only problem will be if we get sleepy at the same time."  Jim changed his shirt quickly, then stood with a smirk.  "I don't think it's big enough for both of us."

Silver lay back on the bed, cushioning his head on his organic arm.  "Yer pretty small.  Ye'd fit if need be."

Jim felt, for no good reason, his cheeks grow hot at the thought of the two of them sharing the bed.  "I'll wake you up in a few hours," he muttered, turning to the door.

"Get me sooner if ye need me," Silver called after him as Jim left the cabin.

Jim had no trouble steering the little ship on his own.  He was completely alone; even Morph had gone below deck for a nap.  Even so, Jim wasn't lonely because he knew Silver was just a few yards away.  It all hardly seemed real to him, that he had his own ship at the ripe old age of twenty and that Silver was back in his life, almost as suddenly as he had disappeared from it.

Jim was so caught up in sailing his ship and in his own thoughts that he forgot to wake Silver up.  Eventually, the cook emerged from the cabin, grumbling good-naturedly at Jim for letting him oversleep.  The rest of the voyage was as smooth as its beginning, and thirty standard hours later, they neared Montressor and its artificial moon, Crescentia.

"Where will we be pullin' in?" Silver asked from the wheel.  "The port or the planet?"

Jim looked out at both thoughtfully.  "We're small enough; why don't we just go straight home?"  He grinned.  "Give Mom a real surprise."

Silver chuckled and aimed the ship for the planet.  "Aye, Cap'n."

As he brought the ship into Montressor's atmosphere, Jim directed him towards the rebuilt inn.  Fortunately, they had come in on the Benbow's side of the planet, saving them some time.  Silver expertly brought the little ship down into the canyon near the inn, then scuttled her over to the pier.

"Maybe you'd better wait in the cabin until I get Mom," Jim mused worriedly as he glanced at the setting sun.  "Amelia or Delbert might be in the inn; they tend to bring their kids by in the evenings."

"Whatever ye think best, Jimbo."  Silver started for the cabin, then paused.  "Don't take this the wrong way, but. . . can I trust yer mum not to, ye know, let on that I'm here?"

Jim had secretly been a bit worried about the same thing, but he tried to act confident.  "I'll. . . uh, sound her out first, just to be sure."

Silver nodded and disappeared into the cabin.  He was none too quick, for the next time Jim looked up from the rigging, he saw his mother running down the pier towards him.  She stopped a few yards away and hesitated until she was sure it was he, then she covered the remaining distance in a quick stalk.

"James Pleiades Hawkins!  Where have you been?  You said you were going to be gone for a few days!  And where in the galaxy did you get this ship--"  She broke off as Morph pounced on her, kissing and nuzzling her face in an excess of delight.  Sarah's angry expression dissolved into a little chuckle.

"Morph and I, uh, ran into an old friend," Jim said hesitantly.  "I'm sorry we were gone so long, but some stuff came up, and. . . ."  He trailed off when Sarah gave him a little smile and hopped down onto the ship's deck.

"It's all right, I suppose.  We were just worried.  Delbert was talking about sending out a search party."  She paused.  "Although I think that may have been an excuse for him to go out spacing again.  That still doesn't explain the boat though."

"Isn't she a beauty?" Jim enthused.  "She's called the Revolution.  I'll take you out for a ride in her tomorrow."

Sarah folded her arms, not about to be distracted.  "Where did you get her?  I know you don't have enough money to buy your own ship."

"I didn't steal her, if that's what you're implying."

Sarah smiled a little.  "I should hope not.  What I am implying is that you're going to be making ship payments for the next thirty years."

"No, Mom, she's really mine.  All the way.  She was. . . she's a gift."

"A gift?"  Morph had returned to Jim's shoulder, and Sarah looked from one slightly guilty face to the other.  "Wait, let me guess.  This 'old friend' you ran into.  That's who gave her to you, right?"

"Um. . . yes."

"All right, where is he?"  Sarah started walking up the length of the ship, looking around.

"Wh-where's who?"

"Jim, you've only had one friend that I know of who isn't fresh out of the Academy and as broke as you are.  It's that old spacer you met on Delbert's little adventure, isn't it?  The one you wouldn't stop talking about for weeks, until you left for school?"

"Mom!"  Jim flushed hotly, hoping Silver couldn't overhear her.  "Y-yeah, it was him.  But what makes you think he's here?"

"You have the same expression on your face as that time you had a giant squid stowed under your bed."  Sarah walked back over to him and tapped him on the chest.  "And if he gave you a stolen ship, I'll--"

"I guess yer too smart fer the likes of us blokes, ma'am," Silver announced as he emerged from the cabin.  He gave Sarah the same doff of his hat that Captain Amelia had often received.  It had about as much effect on Sarah as it had on Amelia.

"So you're he, hmm?"  Jim cringed inwardly as his mother looked his best friend up and down.  He could just imagine the thoughts in her head: So you're the one who burned down my inn, who nearly got my son killed, who's been on the run for years from Captain Amelia and all the law she can muster.  Then she smiled and said, "So you're the one who gave Jim the money to rebuild the inn.  I'm glad to meet you."  She extended her slender hand which was all but swallowed when Silver shook it in his organic one.

"I'm much obliged, ma'am," Silver enthused, "and proud to meet the mother of this fine lad here."  Jim flushed for the second time in five minutes.

"Why don't you come in and have something to eat?  You both must be tired."  Sarah patted Morph on the head as she passed Jim on her way back to the pier.  "You too, Morph."

"Uh, Mom?  Captain Amelia and Delbert aren't here, are they?"

"No."  Sarah paused and looked back at the two of them.  "And it's a lucky thing for both of you that they aren't."

"Mom, you can't tell them.  Please!" Jim begged.  "If Captain Amelia knew that Silver was here, she'd. . . ."  He trailed off; the thought was too horrible to express.  He and Silver both looked at her miserably.

The corners of Sarah's mouth twitched in a little smile.  "Stars, as if one pleading face around here weren't enough.  You two look exactly alike."  She started back up the pier, calling over her shoulder, "Wait about five minutes, then come up."

"Wait?  Why?" Jim yelled after her.

"It'll take me that long to get B.E.N. shut down."  Sarah glanced back at them with a little smirk.  "If anyone would blab to the Dopplers on accident, it would be B.E.N."

Jim slumped against the mast and sighed with relief as she disappeared back into the inn.  "Thank the stars."

"She's a gem of a woman," Silver said admiringly.  He ducked back into the cabin to get their belongings, talking through the open door.  "Now I see where ye got yer spunk.  And yer looks."

"You think Mom and I look alike?" Jim blinked when Silver re-emerged.

"Yer the spittin' image of her."

"I know we have the same hair and eyes, but. . . she's so pretty!"

Silver hauled himself up onto the pier, pulling his bag up after him.  "Exactly."  Third blush of the day, Jim thought as he followed Silver up to the inn.

The common room was quiet and empty when Silver, Jim, and Morph entered.  Sarah was setting the tables and had already laid out sandwiches on one of them.

"Isn't anyone here?" Jim asked as he sat down and tore into his sandwich.

"Just a couple small families."  Sarah finished with the silverware and sat down by the window.  "I guess in all your time away you've forgotten what a slow time of year this is."

"Yeah, I hadn't thought about that."

"So what are you two going to do with that ship of yours?" Sarah questioned.

Jim smiled ruefully.  "I hadn't thought about that either.  I'd considered getting work as a courier, but that was before I got the ship."

"Is that still what ye'd like to do?" Silver asked between mouthfuls of his meal.  When Jim nodded, the older man went on, "Then that's what we'll do.  It's yer ship, Jimbo, so it's yer say.  I'd still be peelin' potatoes in Luca if not fer ye, so I'll follow ye in whatever ye want to do."

"Thank you," Jim murmured.

"But unless ye want to get started right away, I wouldn't be averse to puttin' in here for a few days," Silver added.  "Ye may not know it to look at me, ma'am, but I've been workin' myself to the bone lately.  I could use a rest."

"Well, I may put you to work in the kitchen," Sarah returned with good humor, "but you're welcome to stay.  In fact--"  A noise outside made her break off and turn to the window.  "Uh oh, it's the Dopplers.  I thought they weren't coming tonight!"  She stood and looked at Silver worriedly.  "You'll have to go upstairs and stay in one of the rooms until they leave."

"I'll take him to my room," Jim reassured her.  At his gesture, Silver rose and followed him to the stairs.  "Mom, I'll be back in a minute.  Thank goodness she shut B.E.N. off," he muttered to Silver as they went upstairs with Morph.  "He'd probably tell Captain Amelia about you the second she walked in the door."

"I'm sorry to put ye through all this trouble, Jimbo," Silver said as Jim herded him into his bedroom and shut the door.  "Ye and yer mum both."

"Hey, I was the one who made you leave Luca, remember?" Jim grinned.  "It's no trouble.  I'll get you the key to one of the other rooms and come back up as soon as I can get away.  Will you be all right here?"

"I'll be fine."  Silver plucked Morph off of Jim's shoulder.  "I'd better keep Morphy here with me though.  If he's pickin' up sentences as easy as ye say, they might catch on to me being here."

"Good idea."  Jim went to the door and opened it slowly, just in case one of the Dopplers had somehow wandered upstairs.  "Make yourself at home."

"All right, Jimbo.  Go on now, before they start wonderin' where ye are."

Jim quietly shut the door behind him, then started downstairs.  Normally he liked the Dopplers and enjoyed their visits, but tonight he wished they were on another planet altogether.

 

By the time Jim made it back downstairs, Sarah had settled the Doppler family down in the common room.  In spite of his irritation at their timing, he had to smile when he saw the basketful of assorted small Dopplers.  The triplets promised to be as pretty as their mother one day, and Delbert Jr. was. . . well, he looked just like his father.  Jim supposed they couldn't all inherit the looks in the family.

"I'm glad to see you decided to return to us, Hawkins," Amelia said wryly when she saw him descending the stairs.

Delbert wasn't quite so amenable.  "Do you have any idea how worried your mother was about you, young man?" he barked.  "Why, I was this close to going out after you--"

"Delbert, it's fine, really," Sarah interrupted placatingly.  "Jim explained everything to me."

"Sorry I worried you though," Jim apologized as he took a seat next to the kids and started playing with his favorite triplet, the brunette Tisiphone.  "All of you."

"Well. . . just don't do it again!" Delbert finished rather lamely.  He still seemed a bit taken aback every time Jim responded to criticism politely, rather than snap back as he always had before their adventure.

"So is that your ship out there?" Amelia asked, leaning forward in a slightly voracious manner.

"Yes!" Jim grinned.  "That's why I was gone so long.  Isn't she beautiful?"

"She certainly is."  Amelia glanced out the window at the ship waiting at the end of the pier.  "Perhaps sometime you could show me how well you handle her."

"Sure!  I'm actually planning on taking her to the space port soon to look for some freelance delivery work.  I was thinking, with a small ship like that I wouldn't need much in the way of a crew, so we could travel lighter and faster.  Fewer crew members and quicker jobs mean we'll each make more, and--"

Delbert cleared his throat.  "Forgive me for being blunt, but this sounds rather speculative.  I hope you haven't set your family back, ah, financially with this little venture."

"That's not exactly polite, Delbert," Amelia chided, then she cut her narrow eyes back to Jim.  "Although I was wondering how you paid for her."

As Jim was fumbling for a valid response, Sarah jumped in and saved him.  "He practically mortgaged himself body and soul; that's how he paid for her," she said wryly.

"Yeah," Jim added, giving his mother a look of gratitude.  "I'll be making payments until I'm old and grey.  But I don't mind."  He looked out past the Dopplers at the ship through the window.  "She's worth it.  It's all worth it."

Delbert was still frowning a little, but Amelia just smiled knowingly.  Even though he had dreaded seeing her the most, Jim felt grateful to her now.  She might be straight-laced, but she was still a spacer at heart.  She knew what it was like to love a ship.

A few of the locals turned up for dinner, along with the two families staying in the inn.  Sarah took a chance on reactivating B.E.N. after a whispered consultation with Jim; Jim agreed that since the robot never had a reason to go upstairs in the evenings, it would be safe to turn him back on.  Jim did feel a bit guilty telling B.E.N. that they'd had to deactivate him for maintenance, but the gangly robot seemed to buy the story.  He did, after all, require quite a lot of maintenance.

Still, with each minute that passed, Jim grew more anxious about the pirate hiding upstairs.  What if one of the guests heard something?  Or what if one of the Dopplers started wondering where Morph was?  Jim fidgeted, nearly dropped the dishes he was carrying for his mother, gazed absently at the fire instead of participating in the conversation.  Finally Sarah, on her way back to the kitchen with a load of dishes, said rather loudly, "Forgive your old mother for sending you to bed early, Jim, but you look like death warmed over."

"Sure you don't need help with the dishes?" he asked even as he stood, trying to keep from sounding too eager.

"B.E.N. can handle it.  You go get some rest."

Jim bid goodnight to Delbert and Amelia, placated the whimpering Tisiphone with a pat on the head, and headed for the stairs, stealthily picking up a key to one of the unused rooms on his way past the front desk.  Sarah stopped him when she passed by.

"Jim."

"Yeah, Mom?"

"You never did tell me-- he didn't steal that ship, did he?" she whispered.

"No, Mom, he didn't steal the ship.  He bought it with the last of the treasure."

She smirked.  "Well, in that case I don't feel quite so guilty about harboring a fugitive.  And Jim. . . ."  Her smile softened.  "You don't have that searching look anymore.  And that's worth harboring all the fugitives in the galaxy."

When Jim returned to his bedroom, he found Silver seated on the bed with Morph, both of them watching the book about Treasure Planet Jim had had as a child.  His original copy had burned up with the rest of the Benbow, but he had bought a replacement out of nostalgia a few weeks after returning from his trip with the Legacy.

"Hard to believe it's gone now, isn't it?" Jim murmured as he sat down next to Silver.

"Yeah."  Silver closed the book, leaving the room dim after its light was extinguished.  "So how is the lovely captain and her family?"

"Interested in my ship.  Mom helped me field the questions."  Jim chuckled and leaned back, fingers laced behind his head.  "I don't think they're too suspicious.  And it's not like they come by every day, just a couple times a week."

"There's the robot, though."  Silver sighed as he laid the book on Jim's nightstand.  "I guess we could always take out his brain like ol' Flint did."

"I don't think it's doing too much good where it is now, anyway."  Jim held out his hand to Morph; the shapeshifter nipped at his fingers then pounced on his chest, bouncing up and down.  "Oof, do I look like a trampoline?" Jim chided.  Morph chortled and curled up in a little ball.

"Glad to see ye've taken good care of him," Silver observed.  "I missed the little fella."

"Yeah, he's been pretty good company."  Jim stroked Morph above his eyes as the shapeshifter drifted off to sleep.  "It. . . really meant a lot to me, you giving him to me.  Especially when he was all you had."

"Well, I didn't know how long I'd last out there with the police forces of stars know how many worlds after me.  He was safer with ye than me.  But I also wanted ye to have him so that ye'd. . . ye know, remember me."

"Of course I'd remember you," Jim rebuked him drowsily.  The stress of the day was beginning to tell its toll on him, and Morph's faint, peaceful snoring didn't help.  "I couldn't forget you, Silver, ever."  Then he realized that he was forgetting the key.  He pulled it out of his pocket and handed it over.  "It's the room just across the hall.  You can take Morph if you want."

"Nay, he looks pretty comfy right there."  Silver reached out to pet Morph, then seemed to think better than to risk waking him.  He patted Jim on the head instead.  "I'll let ye scout things out in the mornin' and be sure it's safe for me to come down."  He rested his hand against Jim's hair, stroking it lightly with his fingertips.

"Okay."  Jim closed his eyes, relishing the sensation.  He wished Silver would just stay there with him.  His rebuilt room had never seemed as comfortable as his old one had before the fire, but having Silver there changed everything.  Even though the spacer had never set foot in the Benbow before that day, he seemed to belong there.

But Jim didn't know how to ask him to stay, and after a moment, Silver stood and stretched.  "Night, Jimbo."

"Good night."  Jim opened one eye and watched him go to the door, closing it gently behind him on his way out.

 

The next morning, Morph woke Jim in his usual fashion, by chittering in his ear until Jim awoke.  Jim dragged himself to his feet, giving the clock a baleful glance.  It was still early, so he decided he had time for a shower before "scouting things out."  By the time he had finished and made it downstairs, Sarah was already frantically throwing breakfast dishes on the tables.  After a moment, Jim saw the source of her agitation: the young Dopplers' basket resting on one of the tables.

"What're the kids still doing here?" he asked, peering cautiously in.  All of them were asleep except for red-haired Alecto, who blinked up at him sulkily.

"Not still-- they're back."  Sarah blew a strand of hair out of her eyes.  "Apparently Delbert discovered some new comet or other last night and insisted that Amelia fly him off to the registration office before someone else beats him to it.  We have to baby-sit today."

Jim raised an eyebrow.  "You mean like the last time he 'discovered' something because he had his almanac turned to the wrong page?"

"That," Sarah grumbled, "was before they had the kids.  I don't know what we're going to do with them all day."

"I have an idea."  Jim leaned over the basket to tickle Alecto a little.  "I wanted to take you for a ride in my ship anyway-- we could take the kids too!  You think B.E.N. could manage things here?"

"Jim, don't tell me you're suggesting we take those children into space at their age!"

"No, not into space. . . just up a little in the atmosphere."  Jim scooped up Alecto and held her out to his mother.  "See, doesn't she look like a budding spacer?"  Alecto scowled.

Sarah shook her head with a little smile and took the baby in her own arms.  "I suppose it will be all right, and I don't think Amelia and Delbert would mind.  Would Silver be coming too?"

"I think it's safer than leaving him here with B.E.N.," Jim said wryly.

"That's a good point."  Sarah set Alecto on her lap and regarded her slightly pessimistically.  "Between the two of them, they'd probably burn the inn down all over again."

Jim cringed at the reference to Silver's past.  He had told his mother almost everything about who Silver had been and how they had been thrown together on the Legacy; he had felt it would be lying to her not to reveal that the man he had come to love more than anyone except Sarah herself was also nearly the cause of their deaths the night Billy Bones had lurched into their lives.  He couldn't blame her for being mistrustful of Silver, but it still hurt-- mostly because it reminded Jim of how horribly Silver had betrayed his trust once before.

"Mom, he's different now," Jim murmured, looking down at the child on his mother's lap.  "He saved my life, and gave us the money to rebuild the inn better than before, and bought me the ship--"

"I know."  Sarah looked up at him, smiling faintly.  "If you trust him, Jim, then I trust him too."

Jim gave her a pained look in return.  "I trust him," he said softly, yet he added in his thoughts, But then you trusted Dad, and look where it got you.  If Silver does that to me-- if he turns on me again, or leaves me-- it'll kill me.

As she so often did, Sarah seemed to read his unspoken thoughts in that one look.  She reached out and squeezed his hand, then stood up with Alecto.  "I'd better get the little ones bundled up if they're going out.  Go wake up Silver and then see about packing us some lunch, will you?"

"Sure, Mom."  Jim paused on the stairs.  "What about B.E.N.?"

"I don't think he'll be a problem as long as we turn him off before the Dopplers return tonight."

"I hope not," Jim muttered as he went on upstairs.

He found Silver awake, and after explaining the new turn of events, they went to the kitchen to make sandwiches for the trip.  Upon seeing Silver, B.E.N. seemed more curious than anything else, and Jim placated his dozen questions with a promise to explain everything later.

The day was fair, and Jim had no trouble sailing the Revolution out from the pier with Silver to control the sails.

"You two work well together," Sarah commented from where she was seated in the bow with Tisiphone and her blonde sister Megaera on either knee.  Alecto and Delbert Jr. were playing with, or rather fighting over, Morph at her feet.

"I've trained him well, haven't I?" Silver grinned, earning a playful swipe from Jim.

"Trained me, nothing!  I keep you on your toes!"

"Ye do at that, lad."

They dropped anchor near noon to have lunch.  It was a hectic affair at first, with this or that young Doppler constantly crawling off or getting into the sandwiches, but finally Sarah got all but Tisiphone asleep for their afternoon nap.  The little brunette cried every time Sarah tried to lay her in the basket with her siblings, so Sarah resorted to holding her on her lap, cuddling and whispering to her.

"Mom, there's a bed in my cabin if you think she'd sleep in there," Jim offered.

"No, it's all right.  I don't mind holding her."  Sarah smiled down at her little charge, rocking the sniffling girl.  "You were the same way at this age, never wanted me to put you down for an instant."

"Mom," Jim groaned.

Silver chuckled.  "Let me see the little lass a minute."  He put out his arms, and Jim held his breath.  Sarah looked up at the cyborg, clasping Tisiphone protectively. . . then she lifted the child and placed her in Silver's arms.

Tisiphone's eyes widened when she saw Silver's mechanical arm so close to her, and her mouth opened for a wail of terror-- then closed again silently as Silver tickled her lightly with the fingers of his cybernetic hand.  The little girl giggled, then grasped at his metal fingers with her own tiny hands.

Jim watched Silver walk up and down the deck with his enemy's child in his arms, always with his organic arm tenderly clasped around her.  Tisiphone was asleep in minutes, and Silver carefully laid her in the basket next to her siblings.

"There," he said fondly.  "Just needed a bit a' extra attention."

"Do you have children?" Sarah asked abruptly.  Silver gave her a surprised look from where he was bent near the basket; she ducked her head a little and added, "You seemed so. . . natural with her.  Almost like she was your own."

Silver raised one corner of his mouth in a small smile.  "It ain't hard to treat the little buggers like they are yer own, is it?  But no, I don't have any."  He straightened up and walked to the edge of the ship, looking out over the water the way he had looked at the sky with Jim a few nights before.  "Don't suppose I ever will, now."

"There's still time, you know," Sarah pointed out.  Feeling increasingly left out of the conversation, Jim slumped against the mast and folded his arms.  The last thing he wanted was for his mother to convince Silver he needed a family.

"Time, maybe, but no inclination."  Silver glanced at Jim with a reassuring wink.  "I'll be too busy helping Cap'n Hawkins here run this ship to raise any kids."

"Then it looks like I'll have to count on Morph finding another shapeshifter if I want to be a godmother again," Sarah laughed.  "Oh well, once this crew hits puberty, I'll probably want to wash my hands of children forever.  Jim, that reminds me of when you--"

"Mom, don't you dare."

They returned home to find the inn still intact, in enough time for Jim to deactivate B.E.N. and for Silver to abscond to his room before Amelia and Delbert arrived for their children.  Thank the stars Tisiphone can't talk, Jim thought as he watched Amelia fuss over her daughters.  After the Dopplers left, Jim joined Silver upstairs.

"Yer mother's pretty attached to those little tykes," Silver observed.

"Yeah.  Although sometimes I think it's just a ploy to convince me to give her grandchildren," Jim smirked.

"Eh, ye've got plenty of time for that."

"I guess."  Jim sat down on the edge of Silver's bed.  "I don't want kids though.  I like being around them, but I don't want to be. . . responsible for my own, especially if I'll be out in space a lot."  He wrinkled his nose a little.  "And I'd have to get married first if I didn't want Mom to have a conniption."

"So ye've decided the married life isn't for ye, eh?" Silver chuckled.

"Well, just look what happened to Captain Amelia!" Jim grimaced.  "She got married, had the kids, and now she never takes long voyages anymore!  She's gone a couple nights at the most because she doesn't want to be away from her family.  I mean, there's nothing wrong with that, but. . . ."

"But ye want yer lover with ye, not back home on the docks."

Jim felt his cheeks grow hot.  "Y-yeah.  Not exactly what I was going to say, but you could put it that way."

"Well, Jimbo, there's plenty of women who sail; Captain Amelia's certainly not the only one.  And plenty who would go with ye, even if they weren't spacers themselves.  Tavia, f'rinstance.  She'd be capable as any man on a ship once someone showed her what to do."

"Great.  Morph can marry her then," Jim grumbled.

"I'm not sayin' it'd have to be her."

"I don't want it to be any girl."  Jim muttered the words without really meaning to.

"Oh," Silver said softly.  Jim scowled and started to get up, but Silver put a hand on his arm.  "Sorry, Jimbo.  Don't think I'm tryin' to rush ye into anything.  Just look at me; I've been around more than fifty standard years and still not settled down.  There's nothin' wrong with bein' alone at yer age.  Yer just what, twenty?  Twenty-one?"

"Almost twenty-one."  Jim looked down at Silver's hand.  "I don't want to be alone.  I just. . . ."

Silver squeezed his arm gently.  "Don't worry about it, lad.  Let's talk about somethin' else."

"Okay."  Jim managed a little smile.  "What about?"

"Tell me about those kids.  How old are they?"

Jim squinted, trying to remember.  "The triplets are about eight standard months, and Delbert Jr.'s six months older than that."

Silver chuckled.  "Just like the Cap'n, too efficient to waste any time in between."

Jim told him more about the kids, especially Tisiphone, although a thread of discontent remained under the conversation.  Does he really think I should have a girl? Jim wondered.  Is there something wrong with me that I don't want one?

Jim went to bed early but lay awake in the darkness for a long time, listening to Morph chitter in his sleep.  He kept hearing Silver's words: ye want yer lover with ye, not back home.  Who wouldn't?  Who wouldn't want with him the person he loved and needed most?

I'll have that, Jim told himself, closing his eyes tightly.  He just doesn't know it.

Jim had always been willing to acknowledge that he loved Silver, and he was pretty sure Silver knew it too.  What Silver didn't know, what Jim had never even acknowledged to himself, was the way he loved the spacer.  Not as a replacement for his father, not just as a friend.

I want him to be my lover.  Just thinking the words made Jim’s chest constrict with a sudden warmth.  It was hard for him to move any farther than the words, to actually imagine what it would be like.  How would it feel to lie with Silver in that narrow bed in the Revolution's cabin, to feel Silver’s hands-- both organic and mechanical-- on his body, touching him where no one had ever touched him before?  The warmth in Jim’s body was swiftly turning to fire.

But then his doubts promptly extinguished the heat with an icy chill.  What if Silver didn’t think of him that way?  He was more than thirty standard years older than Jim; he might not like younger men.  And that was assuming that he liked men at all.  Maybe Silver looked at him only as a surrogate son, a stand-in for the little Mauan girl and the children he'd never have.

Jim sighed and turned over on his stomach, pressing his cheek against his pillow.  At least I'll be with him again, he tried to encourage himself.  That's better than nothing.