The usual: The character of Honor Harrington is the property of David Weber. I just took her out for a day on the town. Constructive criticism or just a friendly note is very welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A big thank you to L and L, both of you were a tremendous help in keeping this story on track and correcting my grammar and spelling snafus. This story is a direct result of a challenge offered to me by Nic, who I hope enjoys reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. As always dedicated to my Angel.
Clutching at her ruined shoulder, she leaned heavily against the smooth steel wall behind her. She could feel the blood soaking through the heavy fabric of her blast vest, and dribbling down her now useless right arm. Her fingers were numb, so she didn't feel the blood dripping from them. The bundle she held tightly against her chest with her still good left arm barely stirred.
"Not much further now."
She whispered to the deadly still form she was carrying. Biting her lip against the pain until she tasted blood again, she forced herself to stand upright and stagger forwards. Just a little ways further and she'd reach the shuttle. From there it wasn't that far to the hotel, and then she could disappear. Leave this world behind and all that it represented. After she took care of Samantha that was.
Stumbling she nearly went down, the blood loss making her weaker than she'd thought it would. Her shoulder brushed up against the bulkhead, and she gasped in pain, nearly doubling over.
She was so very tired.
There was nothing that she wanted more than to lay down, cradle her shoulder and weep, waiting for death to come. It would be welcomed after all this time, a release from this pain that had been a constant companion for so long. There was a part of her that refused to give up though. Joined to the part that those long dark years of training had created in her psyche, was the concern for the wounded being she held to her chest.
Somehow, she wasn't certain where the energy came from, she got moving again. Ignoring the hot bitter tears that left clear trails down her mud and blood covered face. It had all gone so wrong.
She was a dozen feet from the shuttle doors when the figure stepped between her and her freedom. Her heart lurched as she recognized the tall slim body, dark hair, and angry brown eyes. The pulse pistol aimed at her was remarkably steady.
"Stop right there."
Since there hadn't been much other than forward momentum that was keeping her on her feet, she sank down to her knees. To tired to even fight gravity on what suddenly seemed like a minor issue. She at least managed to cushion the fall for the injured 'cat she carried.
The part of her that had kept her going quietly lay down and surrendered.
She watched the world spinning below her. An elegant long finger tapped thoughtfully against her seat rest, as she watched what would become her home. At least, that was the plan. Once more she felt more than a sliver of doubt about coming here, but she had rapidly run out of options. The small shuttle shivered around her, as it was released from the starliner that she had come here aboard.
"All passengers please tighten your acceleration straps and make certain they are attached correctly. We will be commencing our decent to Grayson in just a few minutes. Once there, please wait until we have come to a complete stop before gathering your belongings. Thank you for flying with us, and I hope you have a pleasant visit."
She smiled at that; it would be a bit more than a visit. Well, she hoped it would be. If not_ best not to think about that. There was no were left to go after this, short of going all the way to the Solarian league, and she didn't want to risk that. Too far away and too much chance that she would be caught en route. No, this was the best choice, short of going to the Kingdom of Manticore itself.
That held it's own problems though. Maybe the Silesian Confederacy would have been a good idea after all. If things didn't work out here, she'd think about it.
"Ma'am, make certain your straps are tight."
With a bit of a forced smile she assured the very helpful flight attendant that she was indeed strapped in correctly. She'd done this a few times after all, and this wasn't going to be a combat drop. Her lips curled at that, as memories of the last time she'd been strapped in like this, waiting to land on a planet, came rushing back.
The flight attendant took one look at that smile and hurriedly decided to go help another passenger.
My name is Aeris Thornson; my name is Aeris Thornson, my name_
That was her mantra on the short shuttle ride. It was essential that she believe that name with every fiber of her being. That she become the person that her papers proclaimed her to be. She'd only settled on the name at her last stop, after her previous alias had been compromised. She couldn't trust any of the other false identities she'd created for herself, they were probably all compromised by now.
This one though, this one They didn't know about.
At least that was what she hoped.
Customs were a universal occurrence, something that was constant from one place to another. Oh, the amount of weapons being publicly displayed changed, and they were friendlier in some places than others. The basic set up though that pretty much never changed.
She submitted to the scanning, nice and high tech she noted. Grayson was taking advantage of its inclusion into the Alliance, and rapidly catching up technology wise. In a few more years, a decade at tops, they'd be as technologically advanced as Manticore itself.
"Welcome back to Grayson, Ms. Thornson. What was the reason for your trip?"
The painfully young looking customs officer smiled what she supposed was supposed to be a charming smile and began sorting through her papers. Those papers proclaimed her to be a citizen of Grayson. They also showed the customs officer that she had been gone from the planet for just over six months, on a technical training mission on Manticore.
She'd done no such thing of course, but he didn't know that.
"I was being trained on some new security procedures."
The smile disappeared and he studied the documents more intently. Aeris, my name is Aeris Thornson, shifted her weight onto the balls of her feet. It was a trained response, and she had to fight to keep from adopting anymore of a defensive posture.
Remember, they treat women as things to be protected and cherished. There aren't many who are guards. Just smile, look relaxed, don't fidget and watch his face. You'll do fine Mira, now get going. Shit, don't even think that name again, she doesn't exist, she died.
"You're training to become a Guardsman?"
She just couldn't resist.
"Well, a Guardswoman."
The scowl she got from that was worth it.
"Thornson? I don't recognize the family name."
By which he meant you aren't a powerful or influential family. No wonder your parents allow you, a woman, to go into such a dangerous position.
"My parents are dead."
She dared him to say anything to that. That it was the truth only added to the anger flaring in her green eyes. The customs agent had the good grace to drop his eyes and encode her passport.
"Welcome back Ms Thornson." His eyes were already searching out the next person in line behind her. "Next!"
She was shaking when she walked out of the customs area into the rapidly expanding spaceport. It was one of a dozen or so on Grayson, and even more were going to be built, she recalled. Using the trivial facts to try and calm herself down as she moved towards the storage lockers. Her small travel satchel was the only luggage she'd brought with her, so she gladly avoided the baggage claim area.
That was another thing that was universal, the chaos and waiting for baggage to be unloaded.
The ID chip had the number 1295 engraved on its surface. She traced the inset lines with her thumb as she searched, trying not to look like she was as lost as she felt. Her eyes tracked the security guards as they passed her without a second glance. She was tall for a woman on this planet, but with the amount of strangers coming and going through Grayson these days, it didn't seem to matter much here.
It might be a problem once she got out towards more remote regions though.
A quick check to make certain she wasn't being followed, and she slid the chip into the slot. The click of the lockers lock disengaging was loud to her ears, but she resisted the urge to look around worriedly. Acting as if she had every right in the world to be there, she opened the door and reached inside. The black duffel bag had been stuffed inside on end, the only way it would fit into the medium sized locker.
Just as she'd left it after her last visit to this planet, what was it now, three, no, five years ago. She hoped everything was as she'd left it; she was counting on that equipment for her future.
It wasn't a good idea to look through it in the middle of the spaceport though. Hefting the heavy bags strap over one shoulder she made her way outside, glancing upwards at the dome that separated the city from the toxic atmosphere outside.
She didn't have the money to afford the taxi, so she walked the few blocks towards the hotel she'd chosen for her temporary base of operations. Ignoring the occasional twinge of pain from the half healed wound on her right side.
The Refuge was one of a score of hotels that had recently enjoyed the booming influx of travelers to and from Grayson. It was definitely on the lower scale of hotels though, and Aeris sighed as she suffered through the hotel clerk openly admiring her body. Upper class proper ladies did not come here unescorted, she remembered.
"How long will you be staying with us, Ms Thornson?"
The way he stressed the Ms part set her nerves on edge. As short a time as possible you little pig. Which of course wasn't the answer she gave him, as much as she wanted to. She was trying to keep a low profile, and as much as she wanted to smack the leer off his face, that probably wouldn't have been good for getting him to forget she existed.
"Maybe a week or so."
She snatched the proffered key card and ignored his not so subtle attempt at getting her to go to dinner with him. She also ignored his suggestion that maybe they could just skip dinner all together.
Muttered under her breath as she took the antique lift up to the tenth floor and found her room. A single bed, one chair, and a table along with a mini refrigerator that could probably keep things luke warm. Not much, but she had and probably still would, sleep in worse.
At least the small communal shower at the end of the hallway was clean enough, and the toilettes looked fairly hygienic as well.
"Alright, first things first."
Aeris shook her head and started sort through the contents of her black duffel bag. Speaking out loud was not a good idea in her business, but she'd gotten so tired of being alone. Speaking to anyone, even if it was just herself, had staved off the desperate loneliness and served to remind her she wasn't just a ghost. That she actually existed among people who laughed and had normal jobs.
The false identities were set-aside in four neat piles, one per identity. She would have preferred having more, but she'd tossed the others as soon as she realized then been compromised. The totally illegal pulse pistol was set aside as well, along with the four magazines of spare ammunition. The slightly more legal stun gun was put into the satchel. The long monomolecular edged knife found a home in her right boot.
Which left her with the shirt and very specialized communicator.
She hesitated over that last one. She should probably do away with it as soon as she could, They'd find her if she used it. Then again it might be useful in the future. With a shrug she set that aside as well. With a wince she pulled the deep green shirt she had been wearing up over her head.
The bandage wasn't red anymore, which was about the only good news she'd had since the entire thing had started. Too bad she hadn't been able to find a good doctor, the street hack she'd dug up had put in stitches for her. Stitches! Might as well use leeches!
"Better than bleeding to death I guess."
The wound was still red and ugly, a long red slash from the base of her ribs almost to the top of her right hip. With a sigh she stripped off the bandage, careful not to tear freshly healed flesh.
There was a small mirror in the room and she critically eyed her new face. The plastic surgery had been a bit spur of the moment, and they hadn't been able to change much, but she liked her new look. She had short shaggy blond hair over an oval face now, through which tired green eyes. She was tall for a Grayson woman, but fairly average by most standards at around five seven.
When did I start looking so haunted?
She knew the answer to that of course.
"Shower, then sleep. Then we find a place to get some money. Great, now I'm talking to my gun."
Rolling her eyes at the way she'd apparently lost her mind, Aeris crouched down next to the bed. Using the knife to carefully prod the baseboards.
"Where are you, come on_ Gotcha."
With a quick flip, the board under the bed flipped up.
"Right where I left you."
The false documents went inside, along with the pulse pistol and the spare ammunition. She didn't dare bring that outside, not unless she had to. Grayson had surprisingly strict regulations about unregistered women carrying illegal weapons around. After a second of hesitation the armored shirt and communicator were placed inside as well.
A quick shower, and thankful that it was still early morning Grayson time; she collapsed onto the bed in her room. Barely having the energy to drag the covers up over her body, not even caring that she hadn't changed into anything to sleep in.
The dream came, like it always did. It started the same as it always did, she couldn't change it, no matter how hard she tried.
"General, what are you doing!?"
"Preparing to deal with the Enemy, unless you've forgotten who that is?"
She pointed at the mob of cowering refugees.
"Those are not the Enemy!"
"Get out of my way Major, this isn't your decision."
"Get out of my way Major."
This time the soldiers on either side of him leveled their weapons in her direction. Not quite aiming, but enough so that she understood that accidents could and did happen on the field of battle.
The last of the refugees was rounded up into a huddled circle. There were a few thousand of them, screaming infants, weeping mothers, angrily defiant men. A young girl was holding onto her mother's hand, only a few hundred feet from her. She could see the expression of trust on the young girls face. The innocence, the belief that her mother would protect her from anything, and that the world would soon be right again.
The butt of the rifle slammed into her stomach before she could say anything else, dropping her to her knees in the dust.
"Get up and I'll shoot you myself."
She should have gotten up, should have found a way, anyway, to stop what came next. Instead all she'd been able to do was watch in sick fascination.
The screaming tore through her soul, shattering it. The shards tinkled into the darkness as the explosive pulsar darts tore bloody explosions through the shrieking mob. Nothing could be worse than those helpless pleading screams of pain and fear, nothing except for the silence that followed.
A soldier spat on the ground not far from her, clearing his mouth. Another was casually picking through the pile, taking a trinket for himself.
The young girl she'd seen earlier was still alive, shielded by her mother. Whimpering and crying for a mother that would never answer her again, the only sound that seemed to come from that pile of dead.
She clawed herself upright, fighting the nausea and pain in her mid section to take two staggering steps forwards. Her hand reaching down towards the girl, only to be knocked aside by the General as he stepped past her. The pistol in his hands aimed down, at a crying face.
Gasping, clawing at the sheets around her, she came awake. The smell of dust and blood still clinging to her as the dream faded. Leaving her shaking and covered in sweat.
The image continued though, even as she covered her eyes with both hands and tried to force it to stop. The young girl looking up towards the man who stood near her, still crying for her mother.
"No, please make it stop."
The pulsar firing, and the small body jerking.
She had barely enough time to get to the bathroom before her stomach rebelled.
It was seventeen hundred local time when she gave up looking for the day. It was hard to get a job without references, and she hadn't thought to forge any. It was doubly hard to get a good job as a woman, though that was starting to change. There was a woman Steadholder now, after all.
Aeris chuckled under her breath, as she joined the stream of human traffic walking and riding their way through the city streets. Honor Harrington, she'd seen the name quite a few times today, and the woman herself on a few holo vids in the main markets and in a few shops. They'd been showing her latest exploits, and her accepting the position of Steadholder at the hand Benjamin Mayhew himself. The Planetary Protector and Head of State for Grayson. She was causing uproar, Aeris noticed, having even fought another Steadholder in the Keys, the local form of parliament.
Honor Harrington, Aeris had decided quite a while ago, was very good at causing an uproar. That and turning up where you least expected her to be, something which Haven had learned quite to their peril in the last few years of the war between themselves and the new Alliance.
Sighing Aeris watched as the flow of traffic ahead of her came to a complete stop. She could just barely hear the sound of sirens up ahead as well. An accident then, just perfect, her first day here and she was stuck wandering around looking for a job on a foreign planet she hadn't been to in a decade. Now her side was hurting and all she wanted to do was get back to that little hole in the wall hotel, avoid the clerk, take another shower and go to bed.
Apparently that was too much to ask for.
Mentally calculating how much funds she had left, she reluctantly came to the conclusion she still couldn't afford to hire a cab to take her around the accident. Which meant she was stuck walking. A glance around and she found the nearest ally way, sandwiched between two high rises.
It wasn't the cleanest ally way she'd ever been in, but the asphalt under her boots was still a good deal cleaner than at home. There she wouldn't have dared to walk down an ally looking as relatively well dressed as she did today. Not without a pulsar at her hip.
She went south, then headed east, trying to make a loop around whatever accident had snarled traffic on her original route. Aeris was just about to head north when the sound of something heavy hitting flesh came from up ahead.
Cautiously skirting forwards, she drew the stun gun from her satchel and flattened herself against the dirty crumbling concrete wall. Peering around the corner of the ally she spotted the source of the sounds.
A woman dressed in somewhat torn and tattered green and black livery was being held up by two thugs. A third was systematically trying to beat her face into a mangled mass of flesh, every so often expanding his horizons to include a kidney punch.
"Huh, you like it bitch? Huh? You work for that she-devil, don't you? We'll teach you_"
Aeris tuned out the rest, her eyes watching the way the man moved and the leers on the two others. She had no doubt about where this was going to go in a moment. They'd probably try to take her right there on the asphalt, then it was even odds as to whether they killed her of just left her there as a warning to others.
She should leave, go around them, stay to the shadows and leave. They'd never see her, she was far too good for the likes of these idiots. The woman's low cry of pain as the man slammed his paw into her kidney again settled it though.
She whispered and slid up along the wall, staying hidden until she was just a few feet behind the man using the woman as a punching bag. Then she moved, long years of training and adrenalin making the world seem to slow around her. The stun gun in her right hand came up and out, pressed against the base of the mans neck. A twitch of her finger and his body shuddered, convulsed and started to drop. The two men holding up the woman had enough time to start to look surprised.
A spinning kick and one of them slammed into the wall next to him. The other was just starting to let go of the woman and try to grab at a weapon on his belt when she grabbed his arm. A twist and she slammed him head first into the very solid brick wall next to them, then let go of his arm to let him slide to the ground unconscious.
The first man stopped convulsing, and lay on the ground, his breathing shallow, but he was breathing.
"Hey, can you hear me?"
Aeris dropped to her knees next to the fallen woman, wincing at the broken nose and swollen face. A moan was all she got in answer.
"Come on, we better get you to a hospital."
Aeris had just slipped her hands under the woman, who was thankfully smaller than she was and started to lift her up when the entire ally way was flooded with light.
"You there, with the woman, set her down!"
The amplified voice echoed off the buildings on either side, and Aeris winced at the sudden light, squinting and looking away. The police skimmer drifted lower, its engines kicking up dust and swirling it around her feet.
"This is the Grayson Police Force, set the woman down and step away!"
There was movement behind her and in front of her now. A dozen or so police, she'd guess. Probably armed and ready to take her down if she did something stupid.
She had no intention of becoming a red smear on the wall today though. Gently she set the bleeding woman down, held her hands up high and stepped away. Moving very gingerly, and making no sudden moves.
"Who is she?"
"Her name's Aeris Thornson, she comes from Beltan province. Her family had a little residence out there, under Steadholder Marcus."
Andrew Lafollet watched the woman on the video screen intently as the officer in the cell went over her story with her, again.
"You want us to hold her?"
He shook his head, thoughtfully.
"No, I don't think she had anything to do with the attack on my guard."
The slightly balding chief nodded in agreement, taking another bite out of the apple he was munching on.
"We'll let her go, get the usual information and get her to sign a statement. The three men are part of a local street gang, we'll charge them with aggravated assault."
"Thank you, can I speak with her first though?"
"Sure, I'll just get my detective to finish up."
The woman in the holding cell was doing her level best to look calm and in control. He recognized that look, and the slight tremor in the hands from the aftermath of battle.
"You here to question me also?"
The voice was dry had an edge of humor to it he found his lips curling in response to. He drew up a chair across from her.
"Why do you think that?"
She nodded towards the uniform he was wearing.
"Your wearing the same uniform she was."
He didn't have to ask whom she was referring to.
"Her name was Victoria Caissie. She's one of the my trainee's to become Steadholder guards."
Green eyes studied him intently.
"And you are?"
"Andrew Lafollet, I'm the head of my Steadholders guards."
"Any particular reason she was being used as a punching bag?"
Lafollet smiled thinly.
"Some people don't like my Steadholder."
That made a certain amount of sense she allowed, and nodded.
"I'd like to thank you for saving her from something worse than just a beating."
"How is she?"
He noted the concern in her voice, for someone she barely knew.
"Doing well, she'll have to have surgery, they broke her jaw in three places and her nose. But she'll recover."
The silence stretched and she raised an eyebrow as he continued to watch her. She laced her fingers together and leaned forwards.
"Something else I can do for you?"
"I checked on your papers."
When that didn't get anything other than a curious look, he continued.
"You just did security training in Manticore?"
She nodded; the curiosity in those green eyes sharpening.
"You aren't listed as employed anywhere."
The curiosity changed to confusion.
"What exactly are you asking me?"
"I'm still setting up my household guard. I saw the end of the fight that the skimmer recorded while they were getting into position. You move well, and you handled yourself even better."
Confusion changed to dawning understanding.
"You're offering me a job?"
"On a trial basis, see how you do, then we'll talk again."
She sat back in her chair at that, clearly stunned. Andrew smiled slightly, as much as he ever did and waited. He could almost see the gears turning.
"As a security guard?"
"A house guard, yes."
She hesitated, and he almost expected her to say no. Then she seemed to shrug and smiled. It was the first smile he'd seen her give, and it took a decade, easily, off her features.
"Good, we'll get you started as soon as you want. Tomorrow morning?"
She nodded, the smile dimming, but not disappearing entirely. Her eyes sparkled. Just before he left though she called out.
"One question though?"
"Who's your steadholder?"
Andrew laughed at that one.
"You don't know?"
"Lady Harrington of course. I'll see you tomorrow morning at Harrington House."
Aeris stared at the doors long after the surprise visitor had left the room. Her mouth working as if she wanted to say something, but nothing came out. Finally she laughed and shook her head.
Since the police background check hadn't turned up anything, Aeris felt fairly confidant that her assumed identity was holding up under scrutiny. That helped ease the feelings of fear and excitement that vied for control. She was alternating between happy and scared by the time the airbus she'd gotten a ride with made its final approach to Harrington Steading.
The land that was part of the Steading stretched for quite a distance, and Aeris squirmed in her seat to try and see the few fully constructed domes. Others were springing up, seeming to blossom from the earth, half done, all across the landscape. Using the new Manticore technology and building materials each of those domes was far larger than had been possible before, and cheaper to construct.
With a slight shudder the airbus slid into the docking platform.
Licking lips gone dry, Aeris slid from the safety harness, snagged her satchel from the overhead compartment, and was the first in line by the exit. She never felt safe in these civilian models; the lack of armor and the reassuring bulk of pulse laser turrets always worried her, almost on a sub conscious level. Like going out in public without the reassuring weight of at least a stun pistol within easy reach.
The false identities, pulse pistol, and extra magazines had been left in the hotel room. She'd used another chunk of her rapidly shrinking funds to rent the room for a month. Then, resisting the urge to make the clerk swallow his teeth, she'd used the last of her money to pay for the ticket. A two way ticket, the return chip was tucked securely in her satchel.
If things went wrong here, she could cut and run. Get her gear and find something else.
Strangely she was almost hoping things would go wrong. Then she wouldn't have to be nervous at least.
"I always hated the unknown."
The old man getting off the shuttle behind her looked at her oddly. She really did have to remember not to talk out loud. With an apologetic smile, the blonde straightened her back and headed for the reception area.
It had only just occurred to her that she had no idea where to go, when a young man stepped forwards as she approached. He was impeccably dressed in the same green and black uniform that Andrew LaFollet had been.
At her silent nod he continued.
"I'm here to escort you back to Harrington house to meet with Her Ladyship and Mr. LaFollet."
The urge to turn around and bolt back to the airbus and leave was surprisingly strong.
"Do you have any baggage to gather?"
She could still disappear. Let's be reasonable here. My background is still holding, and I really do need a job. I can't re-establish contact with the others for another few months yet. This is the last place anyone would look for me. Besides, I certainly have the training for this.
The kid was looking at her a bit worriedly now.
"Yes, I mean, no. No baggage, I've only my satchel here. Let's not keep them waiting then shall we?"
"We've a car waiting, please follow me."
One last glance over her shoulder, then Aeris nodded and followed. If only she were as self-assured as she was pretending to be at the moment.
The ride was shorter than she hoped, but long enough for the uncertainties to return in full force. Instead of dwelling on a decision she'd already dedicated herself to, she peered up ahead.
Harrington House was beautiful. Rambling and elegant were the two words that sprang to mind at first. Her first glimpse was of the ornate gardens and fences, which enclosed the main building. It was beyond anything she'd ever seen in her child hood, like something out of a fairy tale.
Smoothly the car pulled up before a smaller building next to the gates. Even here Aeris could recognize a security building when she saw one, no matter how many pains had been taken to blend it in with the rest of the buildings.
"Welcome to Harrington House."
She followed the youngster out of the car and came to attention as she spotted the silver haired LaFollet waiting for her.
There was a faint sparkle of amusement in his eyes as he nodded in response.
"You can relax Aeris, your not one of my Guards yet."
She was nervous, when she was nervous she tended to get formal.
"Well, come with me Thornson, we'll see about introducing you to the Lady. She wanted to meet all of the new recruits."
Aeris followed him though, slinging her satchel over her shoulder.
"Yes, Lady Harrington. She's here, for a while at least."
Aeris swallowed, hoping that no one else could spot how much more nervous that made her. Working for The Salamander was a lot different than being interviewed by the Salamander.
"Leave your bag here if you please, Aeris."
Aeris knew an order when she heard one, and she politely handed her satchel over to another liveried guard. She was under no illusions that everything in it would be searched thoroughly. Crossing her fingers that her background check would come up as clean as that satchel, she kept up with Andrew.
"This is all part of Harrington House?"
She looked around her with amazement at the beauty and peace through which she was walking. That was just the gardens leading to the entrance of the house itself.
"There are more gardens in back, as well as a stable and some ponds."
So this was how the so-called repressive elite of the enemy lived. It looked surprisingly like how some of the Legislative elitists had lived on Haven. That was before the revolution of course.
Michele coming to her in the night, terrified. The others were only a few minutes behind her. There wasn't time to grab anything but the essentials and leave. That had been the easy part.
Deliberately Aeris steered her thoughts away from those dark moments.
"What will my duties be?"
"We'll discuss that after you talk with Lady Harrington."
Aeris was afraid of that.
A low alto voice that resonated up and down her spine called from the other side of the oak door in response to Andrew's discrete knock. With a nod to Aeris, he slid the door open and stood aside.
The woman inside was a stranger to Aeris. Her past was not.
Steadholder Honor Stephanie Harrington, the newest, and only woman Steadholder in the history of the planet Grayson. The fact that she wasn't even a Graysonite by birth was secondary compared to that small fact.
She was beautiful. The thought ambushed Aeris the moment dark brown eyes looked up from the report she was reading and fastened on her. If someone asked Aeris at that moment where she was, and what was around her, she would have been hard pressed to answer.
"Ms. Thornson is it?"
The voice was compelling, nearly as compelling as the woman who owned it.
This is a person I would die for.
"Please, take a seat."
Aeris watched, fascinated as the woman waved towards a nearby high backed chair with her left hand. That hand was artificial, a prosthetic, as was the left eye. It looked as real as her own hands though, and Aeris found herself wanting to touch her skin. See if it was as warm and smooth as it looked. Her body was wiser than her mind though, and she found herself sitting down before she did something supremely embarrassing.
"Andrew tells me that you're the one who saved Vickie?"
Victoria, the one who was being attacked in the ally way. The part of her mind always keeping track of the small details supplied helpfully.
"The police were only a few moments behind me, Ma'am."
A sleek furry shape flowed down from the back of the chair that Honor was sitting upon. The six-legged tree cat moved with the agile certainty of all his kind. She'd been so taken with Honor herself that Aeris hadn't even seen him until he moved. Then she focused her attention as the tree cat came to a smooth stop at her legs.
Nimitz, his name was Nimitz. He shared a bond with his adopted human that only death would sever. Some had called the bond empathic, others had called it by other names, in the scant literature that Aeris had been able to find. Treecats came from Sphinx, one of the three first worlds of the Star Kingdom of Manticore.
The intelligence in his eyes was unmistakable. The first two of his limbs were actually hands that came to rest on her knee as he peered up at her. Whiskers twitched as if he was sniffing the air. His fluffy tail curled upwards.
Unbidden Aeris smiled at the close examination.
"Do I pass?"
The tree cat bleeked and quickly returned back across the distance to his perch on the back of Honor's chair. Surprised brown eyes were studying Aeris with interest as well. Valiantly she pushed aside the oddest sense of being off balance and let her smile die as she met those brown eyes.
"I think you do."
Honor's voice was quiet, and there was an odd tone to it that Aeris couldn't decipher.
"Tell Andrew to get you settled."
Honor stayed where she was, watching as the doors closed behind the young woman. Her new arm itched, and she was still having occasional problems with her new eye. She reached up and ran her fingers through Nimitz's fur; smiling at the feelings of approval she got from that.
"Now, why didn't you let me see any of her feelings?"
The 'cat kept on purring, flowed down from his perch on the back of the chair and into her lap. She chuckled at his hedonistic attitude and kept petting him. As far as she knew, she was the only person bonded to a treecat who could sense other peoples feelings through her 'cat. It wasn't anything she herself could do, but somehow, Nimitz was able to show her the feelings others had. They'd always had a link between themselves, and she always knew he could sense her feelings. Being able to sense others through the link she shared with him, that was a new development.
The young woman that had just left had been the first that Nimitz hadn't show her feelings to Honor. Even when she'd tried to probe Nimitz for them, the 'cat had simply sent back feelings of reassurance.
"I'll take your word on this one, eh Bleeker?"
The 'cat had no objections as long as his human kept on lavishing attention on him.
With a cry she half fell, half tumbled out of bed. Blindly she grabbed for the pistol that should have been under her pillow, and came up empty handed. Confused and disoriented she instinctively put her back to the nearest corner, shaking as she tried to focus on the room around her.
The sound of her own breathing, harsh and quick, and the sound of her heart pounding, was the only noise in the suite. Shaking she edged forwards, kicking open the door to the bathroom, then collapsing against the wall when she was certain it was empty. Sobbing she slid down the wall, curling into a fetal position on the floor and slowly rocking back and forth.
"Aeris Thornson, my name is Aeris Thornson."
Over and over she repeated it.
In a different part of Harrington House another woman sat by the fireplace. Sleep had abandoned her quite a while ago, and her arm itched. She did her best to ignore the images, the memories of battles she'd been in. The people she'd lost. The friends, loves.
Another cat joined her, this one dappled gray. Samantha was her human given name, and she flowed up the side of the chair and claimed a spot on her lap. Adding her purrs to the quiet one's from Nimitz perched behind her.
Her second day was spent working out with the other recruits in the security building. They did everything from hand to hand combat, all the way up to using the standard Manticoran Marine pulse rifles. It was a grueling day, designed to push them, no matter their physical readiness, to the edge.
Aeris was hot, sticky, covered in sweat, and ached in more places then she could count.
She felt more alive then she had in nearly a year. Actually humming as she showered in the locker room.
"Hey, Aeris, save some hot water!"
Aeris grinned, dunking her head under the water and washing away the soap.
"Hold your horses Peter!"
Turning off the water she wrapped the towel and emerged, actually winking as she passed the large man.
"What was that you wanted me to hold again?"
"Don't make me hurt you."
Mock threatening him with the towel she had been using to rub her short hair clean. The man, who easily had eight inches on her, held up both hands and backed into the shower stall.
"Eh, Aeris, you ever need someone to hold you, you know where I am, I'll do a lot better than Peter there."
A universal finger signal in direction of the second voice and she headed for her temporary locker. Temporary until she was officially accepted of course.
Or tossed out, don't forget, that's a possibility here.
She managed to finish dressing just in time to look up at the call from the doorway.
"LaFollet wants to talk to you."
She tucked her shirt into her pants and got up off the bench.
"Be right there."
Andrew LaFollet looked up at the polite knock.
He watched as she entered, those pale green eyes sweeping across the room automatically. He would have bet a years pay that at least a part of her knew exactly what items, and where they were, in his office.
"Take a seat Aeris."
She sat primly, green eyes watching him with interest.
"I watched you train today, interesting style."
Since it wasn't a question Aeris just continued to watch him curiously.
"You also managed to take down every student, and quite a few guards."
Green eyes continued to watch him steadily.
"Your security checks came back today."
That got a flicker of interest.
"I was sorry to read about your parents."
"Thank you Sir."
The flicker of interest was gone as quickly as it had come. If anything that comment had only served to make her face even more shuttered than usual.
"Tomorrow I want you to start with a senior partner. You'll be starting out helping with perimeter patrol. We'll see from there. Any questions?"
"Very well, see you in the meeting room at oh five hundred tomorrow."
Her partner turned out to be a man slightly smaller than your average mountain. It rapidly became apparent to her that, while he didn't have much going on upstairs, he was good at what he did.
This was the sort of guard that she used to hate. The one's that mixed up their schedules, random patrols, kept a sharp eye on their surroundings, and missed damn little. Her questions were generally met with monosyllabic answers at best, but usually with grunts.
Marcus, which was his name, tended towards the show them how to do it method of teaching. Which was fine as far as Aeris was concerned. She feared she wasn't great company at the moment anyway.
After the training session yesterday she'd prayed for a good nights sleep, and all she wanted to do was crawl into a bed somewhere, burry her face in a pillow and sleep for a few months. What she'd gotten was a night of tossing and turning, of images flashing through her mind that she desperately did not want to remember.
Blood, red and steaming, splashed across the snow. The young girl's body jerking as the General pulled the trigger.
A grunt from Marcus pulled her back from her own private little hell and into the relative safety of the present. He took her around the large compound, which made up Harrington House. Showed her the outer security perimeter, and the paths, which the Guards mostly used. The sensors, and which sectors they were responsible for.
She gladly focused all of her attention on his short clipped explanations, and followed his large bulk through the gardens and buildings. She still hadn't set foot inside of Harrington House itself, except for her brief interview with The Salamander. Something she had no problems with at all. The farther she stayed away from Honor Harrington, the better for the time being. The woman made her feel off balance, and that could be deadly.
Thus the days passed for Aeris Thornson. She trained during the mornings with the other new recruits, under the ever-watchful eye of Andrew Lafollet. Then she'd take her shift with the ever-silent Marcus, and patrol the outer limits of Harrington House. In the evenings she, and the others, were taken through different sections of the Harrington Steading.
In the nights she'd wake from sleep drenched in sweat, and shaking. Aeris was often thankful that the bathroom was so nearby. Sleep began to become her enemy. She feared the dreams and the images they brought, hated the helplessness she was forced to relive again and again.
The anniversary of her fourth month at Harrington House brought with it changes. She was officially accepted as a Guard, along with a handful of the recruits that had passed Andrew's strict training. She was given two days of leave before the official swearing in ceremony, in which each of the new Guards would swear personal fealty to Honor Harrington herself.
Aeris was having trouble deciding how she felt about that. On the one hand she was proud to have succeeded in the training. This was the first time she'd been asked to defend against intruders, usually she was on the other side of that little equation. Then there was the Salamander herself.
She scares me, it's almost like I think her touch will burn me_
A knock on her door drew her out of her pensive musings.
"Hey, Aeris, you coming?"
Blinking, she gathered her thoughts and looked at the smiling imp in the doorway.
"Coming where Veronica?"
The young woman had recovered surprisingly quickly from the beating she'd undergone. She'd taken up her training again with Aeris's group of trainee's. Despite herself Aeris found herself liking the impish red head.
"For leave of course! A few of us have got a shuttle waiting, we're gonna split the cost. Wanna join us? We can drop you off in Beltan Province if you want?"
"Beltan? Why would I want to go there?"
"To go visit your family?"
Victoria was looking at her a bit strangely, and Aeris mentally winced. She'd forgotten that her family was supposed to have come from that province.
"I don't have any reason to go back there Victoria, go on, I'm just going to stay here."
Eric, another of the recruits, yelled from further down the hallway.
"Come on! They're waiting for us!"
"Just hold it Eric, sheesh, you sure Aeris?"
"Go on, have fun, I'll be fine here. See you in two days Victoria."
Victoria wiggled eyebrows, laughed and dashed out, calling over her shoulder.
"See you in two days, Aeris!"
They were good people, these recruits. Even the rather macho Peter was a pretty good guy. As long as he managed to overcome his hormones once in a while he could sometimes be surprisingly sensitive, and she had the oddest feeling that he listened to a lot more than he pretended to.
Besides, Aeris had other things to do. It had been long enough that she dared risk reopening the communications channels she had set up prior to her desperate self imposed exile. She'd slowly start getting news from inside the Republic of Haven at last. Maybe she'd find out what had happened to her friends, although she doubted that would be publicly known.
Maybe I can even find out what Joseph is doing here. Although the odds of any of my people knowing anything about him are low.
Those of her people who were still alive that was.
I lead them into a trap and they all died because of me. They were counting on me to get them to safety and instead what happens?
Resolutely ignoring the memories that tried to surface she set to work. It wasn't as difficult as one might assume to rewire the personal com centers that were in each of their rooms. Making it so that no one would notice her occasional burst transmissions was a bit harder though. The signals would be copied automatically and carried out system by any ship going in the direction she needed. It was risky, if anyone caught the transmissions, but she'd made certain to limit her carriers to freighters. Less chance of someone being on the ball enough to spot the extra data being piggy backed on their star chart updates.
It took a few hours of tinkering before she was satisfied that no one who didn't know what they were looking for would stumble across her set up. Then she sat back on her haunches and eyed her workmanship with a small smile pleasure. The smile faded as Aeris's thoughts turned towards the swearing in ceremony that was going to take place.
Look at me Papa, your little girl's about to become a Guard sworn to protect the Salamandar. Bet you're turning over in your grave, aren't you?
She shouldn't be thinking like that, the past was best left buried. Standing she grabbed her ID and headed for the doors. She might not have any other place to go, but if she stayed in her room alone the memories might take over. That she feared more than anything else in the world.
There was quite a settlement already bustling with activity inside of the same dome that contained Harrington House. There were at least a half dozen major business's working out of this dome alone, with even more spread throughout the Harrington Steadholding.
She's probably one of the richest Steadholders on Grayson by now.
It was through this bustling atmosphere that Aeris wandered. Gladly loosing herself in the early afternoon bustle. There was one thing that she really enjoyed about Grayson. She'd noticed it the first time she'd been to the planet, over a decade ago now. No matter where it was, a large or small settlement, they always had a market. A central market square where you could get nearly anything you wanted, a place that wasn't only for shopping, but for gatherings as well. Where neighbors could gather and chat, eat and drink in the sidewalk restaurants, exchange news.
Aeris wasn't part of them, these people. She walked through the crowds, watching with a detached feeling as people talked with one another. Children, recently out of school, rampaged through the market, laughing and chasing one another. It was like watching life flow around her. It was oddly comforting to know that normal people still existed.
Slightly confused Aeris found herself in front of one of the sidewalk café's.
She was hungry after all, and she'd been getting a paycheck for four months now. She could probably treat herself to tea.
Tea consisted of cookies, an odd green tea, and fruits. It was close to a small meal in and of itself. She winked to the girl at the next table with a smile. This was as close to normal as Aeris had managed to feel in a very long time.
A feeling that lasted just long enough for her to finish off her last cookie.
She'd been watching the crowds on the street out of the corner of her eye. A figure she hadn't seen in five years demanded her full attention though. Thankfully the figure in question was deep in conversation with another man across the street, so he didn't see the startled shock on her face. See her face at all for that matter.
As he started to turn, she ducked her head, quickly turning away. Watching carefully as he moved down the street away from her, until she was certain he hadn't spotted her. Then she paid and slipped out onto the street, following a good distance behind the man.
Joseph, what are you doing here?
She didn't know his real name of course. He'd been assigned to her team the last time she'd been on Grayson. Theoretically he'd been under her command, in reality he'd answered to people above her level. He'd been assigned as part of her support personnel. His real function had been much darker than the title suggested.
That he was here, now, could mean nothing but problems.
Aeris had to jog to keep up with him, wherever he was going, it was in a hurry. She wasn't that surprised to find him leading her right to the public air car landing area. In the busy crush of people she got delayed though, and no amount of strategically placed elbows got her clear in time. She reached the air car area just in time to see him duck into a car, close the door, and the car take off. Cursing she turned and headed back the way she had come. At least she knew what the man he had been talking to looked like, and she could try to look for him.
Aeris had a problem now.
To alert anyone to Joseph's presence would give away her own presence here. Something she dearly wanted to avoid. Yet, she couldn't just forget she'd seen him. Whatever he was up to, it was a good bet it wasn't anything pleasant.
What if he's after Honor?
The thought came unbidden as she moved down the street, heading back towards the café she had just left. Scanning the crowds of people as she went. The streak of panic that flowed through her at that thought was unbidden as well. She'd seen enough death in the past to easily picture Honor being shot. The twisting ache in her stomach at that mental picture was new though.
So letting her Lady get shot wasn't an option.
She didn't have a problem with that. For some reason Aeris thought she might want to be more scared about that then Joseph's appearance here.
The rest of that day she spent searching the city for a glimpse of the man she'd seen talking with Joseph. She crisscrossed back and forth, doing a grid search as best as she could on her own, all to no avail. By the time night fell she was tired, hungry, and her feet hurt.
She returned to her room at Harrington House, wearily took a shower and collapsed into bed. Groggily managing to pull the sheets up over her naked body before sleep claimed her.
The dream came, as it always did. This time it was different though. Instead of leading the refugees out of the city into the ambush, she was leading Honor. The Steadholder moved alongside her with a sense of purpose that she found herself envying.
Those compelling hazel eyes held trust in them, and Aeris shuddered realizing who that trust was for.
Then they were outside the city, and no matter how much she wanted to scream for Honor to leave, she couldn't force herself to. Then the General was there, shoving her aside and striding forwards. The dream merged with the one she'd been having every night for what seemed like forever now.
The pulsar pistol fired and she saw Honor and the little girl jerk, then crumple, convulse and go still. The white snow stained red with blood.
Aeris didn't have time to make it to the bathroom, so she dry heaved what little had been in her stomach into the waste can. Sobbing she collapsed on the floor, her head pressed against the cool metal of the can itself.
Aeris was using the sparring mats by the time that Honor managed to get away. Her morning had been filled with preparing for the swearing in ceremony tomorrow. Even if Howard Clinkscales and Miranda Lafollet had managed to set most of it up, she'd had to sign off on all of it. Andrew had insisted on a security contingent as well. Then there had been the usual paper work, and quite a few reports to read for both her position as an Admiral of Grayson, and Commodore of the Royal Manticoran Navy.
Samantha's kittens had kept her company all through the morning at least, as had Samantha and Nimitz. The physical therapy had helped a lot, and she had been doing some Kata's by herself. But she felt edgy today and wanted to clear her head.
Her arm ached once in a while, and she was still learning the muscle coordination to make the new eye do what she wanted. Honor had come to the reluctant conclusion that this was as good as it was going to get. Which led her to the sparring mats in the security house. It was still early in the morning so she wasn't expecting to see anyone there.
What she did find stopped her at the door.
Aeris had been a puzzle; there were little things about the new guard recruit that refused to add up. In anyone else she would have removed the woman from the guard program.
Except for one little thing.
Whatever it was, her treecat companion trusted this woman. That was obvious enough, why was a complete mystery though.
So she stayed, as Honor kept on trying to figure out why this woman was different.
As she stood there though, watching her move, Honor forgot about the nagging doubts. Not completely of course, they stayed in the back of her mind, but right then all she did was watch.
Aeris Thornson moved with a fluid grace that was utterly natural to the shorter woman. Flowing through forms of a martial art form that Honor didn't recognize. Which was saying a lot, considering that she'd been trained since she was young, and held a 7th degree black belt in Coup de Vitesse.
Whatever this form was, it was fluid and perfectly controlled. Toned muscles showed under the loose gi she wore, shining with a sheen of sweat. In mid form green eyes opened, as if sensing her presence, meeting brown eyes for a drawn out eternity.
Her voice was quiet, subdued as she remembered it. Polite, smooth and polished, revealing nothing. The eyes though, they were curious, and Honor found herself stepping into the work out room.
"Did you want the room, My Lady? I was just about done."
Honor raised her hand to stop Aeris from leaving, she had the oddest thought that the blonde would flee if given a chance.
"That's an interesting Form you were using just now, Aeris. What was it?"
Again the slight hesitation before she answered.
"It's called G'Quan."
That Honor had heard of, although she'd never seen it practiced.
"They practice that in parts of the Salisian Confederacy don't they?"
"Yes, My Lady."
Aeris tensed, hoping that Honor didn't know that it was practiced elsewhere as well.
"I haven't sparred since_"
She trailed off, a glance down towards her left hand, which balled into a fist. Aeris waited, quietly, for her to get control of herself once more. Her voice, when she spoke up, was low and surprisingly soothing. What she said surprised both of them.
"Did you wish to spar, My Lady?"
"I don't know much about G'Quan."
Honor protested, even as she moved towards the changing rooms at the rear of the workout area.
"That's fine My Lady, I know very little about Coup de Vitesse."
They bowed to one another after Honor had changed into a gi. Then cautiously tested one another, exploring not only the differences in style and Form, but in each other. They were silent as they traded feather light blows and holds, building the confidence in each other that was required for a true sparing match.
The two forms were nearly perfect opposites of one another.
Where as Coup de Vitesse stressed crippling blows, and taking down an opponent as quickly as possible, G'Quan was a softer art. It stressed the redirection of force, and the manipulation of an opponent's own strength. Turning that strength against the opponent.
Both were aware of the other on a level that they hadn't been before. Slowly they increased the tempo, seeming to dance around each other as they sparred. It was the most fun either of them had enjoyed in a while. For a few precious hours there was nothing but the sparring, the block and attack, poetry of movement and form. It was with surprise that they both realized almost three hours had passed since they'd begun.
Unaccountably, as the sparing came to an end for the day, Honor felt like the awkward teen she had been. Aeris seemed to feel it as well, since she was doing her level best to look anywhere but at the Steadholder. Whatever Honor would have said though was interrupted as Mira Lafollet bounded into the room.
"My lady, the latest courier from Manticore has arrived. There's a secure message for you."
The image that stuck with her as she left was the sadness in Aeris's eyes.
"Stupid, Stupid, Stupid!"
Aeris couldn't believe how stupid she'd just been. She should have just turned and left when Lady Harrington had entered. Instead, what had she done, she'd offered to spar.
Then, when they'd been done, she'd been acutely aware of Honor. For a split second, while they'd stood watching each other, she'd wanted to tell her. To tell the Salamander everything and throw herself on her Lady's mercy.
It was insane of course. The shortest way to, at the least, get herself fired, and most probably get sent off to ONI's tender care. She was rather positive she wouldn't enjoy a stay with the Office of Naval Intelligence.
"I should have been out looking for Joseph, but no, I had to stay and spar Lady Harrington herself!"
Aeris shook her head in disgust at her own weakness and grabbed a towel. She'd made her way back to her own rooms for a shower. Tomorrow would be the swearing in ceremony, and she wanted to find out what Joseph and the man he'd been talking to had been up to. To that aim, she was going to have to find out a bit about the man that she'd seen talking with Joseph.
Clean and still invigorated from the spar, Aeris headed towards the Security control office. It was tied into the worldwide security net, and with a quiet hello to the guards on duty, she started going through the database.
It was easy enough to recall the other man's face from her memory; she'd trained to remember such details after all. Then, it was simply a matter of putting what she remembered into the computer and drawing the man's face as best she could. The computer sorted out the features she'd listed and then compiled a list of possible matches. That was where the grunt work started. She would have to sort through all of the matches and see if any of them were her man.
Almost predictably the man she'd seen was nearly the last in the computer-generated list.
"Why does it always have to be at the end?"
The computer chose not to answer.
I really have to stop talking to myself.
A few taps of the keys and she brought up the man's file.
Mark Tangeir, five foot eleven, listed as a consultant for the Moors Shipping Firm. Based out of the Mueller Steading. Huh, he hasn't officially been checked into Harrington Steading. Odd.
A small frown and she tapped in a few more commands.
Mueller Steading, the current Steadholder is Samuel Mueller.
Scanning down the screen she grimaced at the picture of the rather rotund old man.
Now I'll just see what name Joseph is here under. At least I remember his ugly mug pretty well.
It didn't take as long as her search for Tangeir had. Within a half hour she was studying Joseph's newest alias.
Vivik Weir, that's a new one. Well, well, well, what do we have here? Listed as a consultant for Moors Shipping firm out of Mueller Steading as well.
"Aeris, what are you still doing here?"
A flick of a button and she returned to a screen showing the current steadholders of Grayson. In the same motion she turned to regard Andrew Lafollet.
"I didn't feel like going home for two days, Sir."
"Are you ready for tomorrow's ceremony?"
She'd diligently studied the ceremony as well as the oath of fealty that they were expected to say.
"I was just about to go and put some time in the workout room, care to join me?"
She rose smoothly from her seat and shook her head.
"I've just come from there Sir, I was just reading up on the current Steadholders to better understand Lady Harrington's situation."
That he'd seen what she was reading she had not doubt.
"Very well, I'll see you tomorrow for the ceremony at noon."
The second he was gone, Aeris grabbed a copy of the information she'd called up, and headed out. It was time to call in a few favors and find out what was going on. There was still time before the ceremony tomorrow at noon.
Thankfully she didn't even have to leave the Steading to call in those favors.
Cracking her knuckles she got to work. Back in her rooms she tapped a few commands into the communications unit. A few more and the signal was as hidden as she could make it.
The woman picked up after ten seconds of calling.
"What the Hell do you wan_ Oh shit."
Aeris smiled at the stunned look on her face.
"Hey Priest, how you doing?"
"Jesus, Phoenix, what the hell are you doing back here?"
Aeris ignored the question.
"I need some information."
"Hey, look, I'm out of that business. I just fence goods these days. You know how hard it is to just do that now? I mean, Grayson is not a great planet for me."
"Still trying to save up to get off world are we?"
The thin woman sneered in answer.
"Screw you Phoenix, I would have had the money if not for your stunt five years ago."
"That wasn't your money Priest."
Aeris had to struggle to stop from grinning though. That had been one of the few missions she'd actually had fun with.
"Look, Priest, I need some information_"
"Wait! Didn't you just hear me? I'm out of that business."
"Sure you are. I need some information on two men. Vivik Weir, and Mark Tangeir, as soon as possible. The whole kit."
When the other woman started to object once more, Aeris held up her hand.
"Priest, you still owe me, remember? I'm calling in that favor now."
"Fine, but this is it, you understand me? I don't owe you anything after this."
"Sure, just get me the information. I need it before tomorrow morning, send it to this terminal address."
The screen went dark on Priest's cursing, and Aeris grinned finally. It was always so much fun to watch Priest's stress level ratchet up.
Priest hadn't gotten back to her by the next afternoon.
Aeris would have been more worried if she wasn't surprisingly nervous and busy getting ready for the ceremony. For nearly an hour before the recruits were supposed to gather, she paced back and forth in her rooms.
This is it, after this I'll have sworn my fealty to Her. No going back after that.
Stopping before the mirror she ran her fingers through her hair, scowled at the result, and picked up a brush.
"Oh who am I kidding? There wasn't any going back the second I agreed to come here."
She was glad when it was time to go, anything to take her mind off the butterflies in her stomach.
The ceremony itself was being held in the formal garden of Harrington House. A large chunk of the people from Harrington Steading was in attendance, and all of the staff from the House itself was there. Not only the new guards would be swearing in today, but a few of the newest appointees to the House staff would be as well. Aeris watched with interest as a short diminutive woman and a taller man walked in behind her Lady.
The part of her mind that kept track of things like that prompted. If she concentrated she could call to mind the file she'd seen on both of them.
Allison Chou Harrington, genetic surgeon, born on the planet Beowulf. Arthur Harrington, Neurosurgeon, retired Surgeon Commander RMN, born on the planet Sphinx, part of the Star Kingdom of Manticore.
The diversion let her get past the introduction of the Steadholder, and the beginning of the ceremony. A ceremony that was centuries old, and was being presided over by the ever watchful Howard Clinkscales. A man who had once been the Grayson minister of Security, he served as Regent of Harrington Steading when Honor was away.
He stepped aside, and Aeris realized she had no idea what he had just said. She sat down with the other recruits, abstractly aware of the crowds of people on either side and behind them. This was quite the social event it seemed.
Honor Harrington stepped forwards, and everything else faded as she met her Lady's eyes.
Honor wasn't ready for the small thrill of excitement when she met Aeris's eyes. Her eyes were a clear light green today, she noted absently. Nimitz had gone still on her shoulders and she could feel his happiness through her link with him. The cause of that happiness she had no time to question at the moment though.
Howard was looking at her a bit oddly as she paused before beginning her part in the ceremony. It was unlike Lady Harrington to be uncertain in anything that she did.
Her thoughts flicked back to the last time she'd felt that particular thrill of excitement, even as she began her roll in the ceremony. It was with surprise that she realized that even with Paul she hadn't felt that sudden jolt. With him it had been a more gradual affair, something they'd slipped into.
She'd had every intention of staying with him though, and maybe starting a family.
Then he'd been killed and she'd set aside love. That searching for it was for those who were not in quite as dangerous a profession as hers. Especially during a war, one to which she'd be returning to shortly.
The first of the recruits stood and came forwards to go down on one knee before her. Honor watched coolly as he went through the Oath. She felt incredibly silly standing before all these people in the formal dress that Howard and Miranda had insisted she had to wear. Most of the time she managed to get away with wearing either her Grayson or Manticoran uniforms, but this time she'd been stuck.
The amusement from Nimitz as he had watched his human get stuffed into a dress hadn't helped. A corner of her lip quirked upwards as she remembered his soft bleek of laughter at the sight of her trying to deal with the long dress. At least it was better than when she'd first started wearing them to formal functions as a Steadholder. That hadn't been fun at all.
Then the recruit, what was his name, oh yes, Paul, rose and saluted her. Andrew stepped forwards and offered him the rapier that was part of the ceremonial dress uniform for the guards.
The next recruit stepped forwards and they started the entire process all over again. At least she wouldn't have to do this for the servants that they had hired, those would just recite the Oath at the same time.
The feudal aspects of Grayson society, even after these past few years, still were a bit disconcerting. She could feel her Mother and Father's amusement through her link with Nimitz, and she didn't have to turn around to know that her mother was trying hard not to laugh. To her this was positively barbaric. Still, there was a tinge of pride to both their thoughts that she basked in. It was good to see them both.
She was glad they were here, and would be glad to get back from the upcoming convoy mission to spend more time with them.
The second recruit stood, saluted, and was given his rapier.
Aeris was next.
Once more she realized that Nimitz was blocking the slender woman's feelings. For the first time though, Honor didn't care. She could read Aeris's feelings from her eyes clearly enough.
Those green eyes shined with nervousness and something else. It was that something else that caused a pleasant sense of anticipation to flood through Honor's mind and body. Her fingers tingled as she watched Aeris lower herself gracefully to one knee, dressed in the green on black Harrington Steading uniform. Aeris said the Oath carefully, as one might a rehearsed speech, her eyes never leaving those of Honor's as she swore herself to Honor's service.
It was only as she rose and started to salute that Honor knew something was wrong.
Nimitz, who had been radiating contentment and happiness, went stiff on her shoulders, his tail fluffing out and his head coming up to scan the crowd, urgently. Even as she turned towards where he was watching, she could feel the emotions of the man he had picked out. Hatred and disgust coiled into a glowing ball of pure darkness that had devoured the man's soul.
The pulse pistol in his hand was remarkably clear. From where she was Honor could see every detail in stunningly sharp clarity.
I always thought I'd die on the bridge of a warship.
Then a solid weight slammed into her midsection and sent her and Nimitz tumbling. The pulse pistol fired, and Honor could feel the dart as it whizzed past her face. Then there was shouting and screaming, Andrew and the guards were jumping into the crowd after the man.
Honor barely paid any attention to it though.
Instead she found herself looking up into concerned green eyes.
"My Lady, are you alright?"
Those green eyes were dark with worry and a sudden adrenaline rush.
She answered absently, her body very aware of the warm length of Aeris's body pressed against her. Then Howard was there, along with a very worried Miranda, and Aeris got up. A sheepish smile as she realized she'd almost been pinning the Steadholder to the ground.
Nimitz was there as well and Honor found herself sitting upright then standing with a hand from Aeris. In the resulting turmoil as the Guards were forced to kill the would be assassin, she lost track of the lanky blond.
The sensation of Aeris's body pressed against hers stayed with her for the rest of the afternoon.
Aeris leaned her head against the tile, and let the hot water cascade down her back. The shower felt incredibly good after the past few tense hours. All of the guards, new and old, had scoured the Steading for possible accomplices. None had been found.
She really would have preferred that they had taken the man alive. Mark Tangier hadn't left them any choice though. He hadn't been carrying any identification, of course, but Aeris had easily recognized him.
It's hard to forget a man who was aiming a pulse pistol in your direction.
She shuddered again and turned up the heat of the water. In her mind she kept on replaying it, watching, as if in slow motion as the man raised the pulse pistol. There had been_ something_ that had drawn her attention that way. She wasn't certain what it was, but she'd reacted the instant she'd seen him.
Aeris had grabbed for the pulse pistol that she no longer carried. Costing her a precious split second. The man could have killed her Lady in that moment, and she cursed her stupidity. Her first move should have been to tackle her lady and get her out of the way, but she'd gone for a weapon she hadn't carried since her exile.
Then there was the feeling of her own body pressed against Honor's. Those intelligent brown eyes darkening as they looked up into hers.God, if we were alone I would have kissed her. I almost did anyway_
Thoughts best just forgotten, or buried so deep she never visited them again. There was nothing but pain and heartache down that path. There could never be anything between them. Honor was a Steadholder, and a flag officer in both the Manticoran and Grayson navies. Aeris was_ not a person that someone like Honor would, or should, even spend time with.
Angrily she shut off the shower and grabbed a towel.
Best to forget it. To pretend she'd never even thought about it.
Burry them, if she couldn't forget the feelings.
Resolutely she promised herself to be more careful from now on and turned her concentration to more important things.
Like why Priest hadn't answered any of her recent coms, or gotten back to her with the information. Then there was the troubling fact that the man's identity, fake, as it most certainly was, had been deleted from the planetary security database. The name Mark Tangeir no longer existed as far as Aeris could find out. The only evidence it had ever existed was the hard copy she'd made for herself the day before.
Which created its own problems.
Andrew would, she hoped, be able to figure out the man's identity soon enough. If he didn't though, or if he got sidetracked by whatever cover story whoever was behind this had concocted in case things went wrong, then what would she do? Should she come to him and give him the information?
That would raise a lot of questions, many of which she wouldn't be able to answer. Wincing she tested the still slightly red scar along her abdomen, it was a bit tender, and her sudden tackling of Honor hadn't helped much. Forcing herself to forget the feeling of that long lean body pressed up against hers, she readied herself for bed.
With her thoughts in chaos, it was a long time before she slept that night.