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Our Homecoming Hero

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"I see the rumors of your death have been greatly exaggerated."

Why, did you come expecting to be attending a reception hosted by the deceased? Rhis thought, turning. Hoping his face would show nothing but distant politeness. "Dasja Malika."

Jankova had reminded him that as the party was his, so was the guest list. Pointedly. Several times.

Once, Rhis would have yelled at her the second time - if not the first. Or actually, he wouldn't even have needed to, as she'd only have seen fit to ask once, accepting his answer as her command.

As well she should.

Trilby would probably tell him that hosting a reception was hardly the same thing as running a battleship. She would be entirely right, of course.

On the Razalka, nobody had expected him to not shoot at his enemies.

"Captain Tivahr. I must say, you were quite the talk of the town. Such a tragic loss to the Empire."

Rhis could well imagine.

"There was even talk of a promotion," Malika said. Her smile added that, now that he was proven to be alive, that talk would probably remain just that. Talk.

"Sorry to disappoint." He could not pretend he cared one mizzet's ass about what rank he held. Especially not now, with a fresh treaty signed between the Conclave and the Empire, and the threat of the 'Sko all but neutralized.

"You look well," Malika told him, after a once over that he knew would have stirred something in him. Lust. Hate. Not love - that was an emotion he now knew to have never experienced regarding Malika, thanks to his air sprite.

The wave of relief he felt at that realization surprised him.

"As do you," he said. She did, too, even if her beauty paled next to Trilby's, being only skin deep.

"You are too kind." Malika inclined her head, her smile pleased.

Yes. I am. He wondered if she mistook his words for some sort of admission, a sign of weakness. If so, she would find out just how mistaken she was soon enough, he supposed.

"I suppose peace will do that to people," he said. "Well, to some people."

"Peace ... or something else, perhaps?" She looked past him, to the buffet. Where Trilby was.

"Perhaps." Rhis didn't quite know what Malika would make of Trilby. He didn't quite know if he wanted to be around to find out.

It would hardly do for a host to go around punching one of his guests, no matter the provocation.

"Your poker face is still terrible. So. Tivahr the Terrible has finally fallen in love, has he?"

Yes. "If you'll excuse me, I'd like to talk to Rafi." He'd promised it to himself, by way of a treat. Get the confrontation with Malika over with first, then catch up with Rafi.

"Rafi." Malika chuckled. "I think he was the only one who was actually upset when it was rumored you had died on some secret mission."

I think that perhaps you don't know me as well as you think you do anymore, to seek to wound me with that sort of statement. He'd never sought popularity.

He hadn't particularly sought friendship either, but Rafi hadn't seemed bothered by that.

Rhis didn't think he'd ever quite understand Rafi, or Rafi's motivations. That hadn't stopped him from eventually waking up to the fact that he did, indeed, like Rafi, and was both pleased and proud to call him his friend.

"Another drink? I saw who you were talking to just now," Rafi explained, gesturing with both his hands, a glass in each of them. "I figured you might need one."

"Thanks, I'm fine," Rhis said.

Rafi looked at him sharply, then shrugged and emptied one of the glasses. "Good to hear. Now then, I don't know if those rumors about you are true but - "

"I was captured, I escaped. It wasn't fun - " well, some parts of the escape had been, rather, especially at the end " - but I survived."

"And brought back an angel," Rafi said. "So I surmise Heaven does exist, after all."

On consideration, Rhis decided a drink might be very welcome, after all. If only to keep him from doing or saying something he might regret later.

Rafi would be Rafi. There was no reason at all for Rhis to take offense - especially not since Rafi would no doubt only speak of Trilby in the most respectful, flattering way possible. She was a woman; that was enough for Rafi. It was nothing for Rhis to get worked up over.

He did, though. Every admiring glance Rafi sent in Trilby's direction made Rhis want to hit him.

"She saved my life." Not everyone here would want to thank her for that - at least, not sincerely, but Rhis knew Rafi would.

He also knew Rafi would understand what it meant to Rhis, to owe his life to someone. To have met someone who would save the life of Tivahr the Terrible. "She didn't know who I was at the time. I ... didn't tell her right away."

"You and your paranoia," Rafi said absently. Fondly. Still looking at Trilby.

"I love her," Rhis said, having fortified himself with half a glass of wine.

That got Rafi's attention, sure enough. Wide-eyed and slightly worried. Rhis didn't feel insulted by that last thing; he vividly remembered some of the things he'd said and done during the time he'd thought himself to be in love with and loved by Malika.

"I love her," he repeated.

To Rafi's credit, he didn't look at Trilby again. "She doesn't look like someone who's going to be happy about having been lied to."

Didn't you just say she looked like an angel? "She wasn't, but she got over it. Eventually."

"Well, she must have, if she's here now. Congratulations, by the way."

"On?"

"Your promotion to admiral?" Rafi turned to grab a fresh glass off a waiter's tray. "It's all anyone's been able to talk about these past days."

"Oh." Thank you, Malika. "Well. Not much point in being an admiral when there's nobody to fight." The pay would be better, presumably. He might be able to buy Trilby something nice and shiny for her new ship - assuming she'd let him.

Assuming he'd accept the promotion, instead of resigning the Fleet altogether.

An admiral's duties might not be particularly arduous in peace time, but it would still be a time-consuming job - especially if they let him keep the Razalka, which he was fairly sure he would be insisting on.

Assuming the Razalka would be kept in the lanes, rather than put into a dock somewhere.

It's generally not a good idea to make too many assumptions in sequence. Or any at all.

"They say the Emperor himself is coming to pin the extra stars on your chest," Rafi said.

Rhis grimaced. He had nothing against the Emperor himself, but the sort of people who tended to travel in his company tended not to be the sort of people Rhis would voluntarily share a ship with. Or a station.

On the other hand, it might be fun to watch the expression on Kospahr's face when 'the Emperor my cousin' handed Rhis his promotion. If indeed there was going to be one.

"Perhaps I should invite him to my wedding instead," he said, thinking out loud.

Rafi blinked only once. "If that's the plan, may I suggest you ask Dasja Trilby before you send out the invitation? I'm aware it's a mere detail - and one that might, therefore, easily slip your mind, occupied as it is with the bigger picture, but I assure you it's of rather vital importance. She's not going to say 'no', is she?"

Rhis looked at Trilby, talking to Malika. Beaming. "No," he said. "I don't think she's going to say 'no'."

"Well, that's all right then," Rafi said. "Would you like me to hunt down a ring for you?"