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.
Honor rose with the sun the morning after the attack attempt. She was still not certain what she was feeling after the man had tried to get at her. She'd faced combat before of course, killed a few men so close she could see their sweat, like that asshole Young, then there were all of those on the ships that had died because of her commands. This time felt different though.
"Come on stinker, I think we have a visit to pay."
Nimitz bleeked in agreement and swarmed up her side to claim his rightful place on her shoulders, clearly eager to go with his adopted human. A wry look at his eager stance and she chuckled.
"I probably should have said thank you last night."
There hadn't been time though. Once the others had arrived and the would be assassin had been killed, she'd been whisked back to Harrington house while the grounds were searched for any accomplices. Word of what had happened had spread quickly, and she'd had to reassure Benjamin himself that she was safe and sound within a half hour of the attack.
By the time she'd been able to get away from the most urgent of those calls, it had been far too late for her to go thank the person who, if not saving her life, had saved her from something quite painful.
A soft bleek and a furry face pressed against her cheek called her back from thoughts of other wounds, and pain. With a surprisingly soft smile she ran her fingers through Nimitz's fur and headed towards the door. A smile that grew as she saw another six legged figure making its way towards them as she crossed through the gardens.
"Samantha, come to join us?"
The cat's tail twisted in answer, and Honor was once more struck by how intelligent their eyes were. Then the 'cat started down the path ahead of her and Honor started forwards again. The slight tinge of anticipation she felt was just the normal feeling of gratitude to someone who had put themselves at risk to help her, she reasoned. A tad uneasily at how strong that feeling of anticipation was though.
"I'm going to find out why you seem to be protecting her Nimitz."
The treecat simply purred in answer and Honor shook her head. Something was going on, she knew it, she wasn't certain what, but she was determined to get to the bottom of it. Admiral Whitehaven would be visiting shortly, and while she got him to take a serious look at the new weaponry plans, she'd ask a favor as well. He could get the Manticoran Office of Naval Intelligence to let her have a look at a certain file. She was interested to see what ONI had on Aeris Thornson. Hopefully the file would be waiting for her when she returned from the escort duty she'd been assigned to.
It would be nice to see Alister again though.
With a plan laid out Honor nodded in response to the salutes as she entered the security building. The faint heat she felt coloring her cheeks as she passed the workout room had nothing to do with anything.
She moves with a liquid grace. I'd like to spar her again, maybe learn some of her style.
Not that she had oodles of free time on her hands as it was.
After the second time she hit the admittance chime she was beginning to wonder if perhaps Andrew had been wrong and Aeris hadn't stayed in her room today. She was just about to leave when the room door slid open suddenly.
Startled green eyes met hers and Aeris took a surprised step backwards.
Past Aeris's shoulder Honor got a glimpse of tousled sheets lying scattered on the ground next to the bed in an otherwise immaculate room.
"What can I do for you My Lady?"
Honor realized, with a start, that she'd been staring. Aeris's eyes, for a split second, had seemed almost haunted. She wondered what haunted the other woman's dreams to give those green eyes such a tortured look.
"I wanted to come and thank you for what you..."
Honor trailed off as Aeris's attention shifted and she stopped paying attention to Honor. With amazement she watched the blonde woman's normally closed statement become one of joy. Honor watched in shock as Aeris's pupils dilated and she reached a tremulous hand forwards.
A gray dappled treecat's true hand reached out in return.
In front of her eyes Samantha swarmed into Aeris's arms. Dazed green eyes looked up over the large 'cat she was now holding, confusion and wonderment in them.
Aeris smiled in pure wonder as she watched Samantha sleep. The 'cat was resting after spending most of the day keeping track of her litter of kittens. Who, even though they were getting older, were still as far as Aeris could tell, bundles of curiosity and energy. It made her tired just watching them romp about the place.
They were undeniably cute though.
It had been a ten days since the 'cat had adopted her. Ten days in which Aeris had struggled to understand what had happened and try to learn everything she could about Treecats and what exactly she was supposed to do now. It helped a lot that she could turn to Honor for help when something didn't make sense. It helped even more that Samantha was being incredibly patient and supporting in her own way.
When Honor had shown up at her door Aeris had been trying to take a nap. Her dreams had filled what little sleep she'd been able to grab though, and she'd ended up curled up on the floor arms wrapped around herself.
There had been a yawning chasm in her chest where her heart used to be, and she was starting to wonder if anything was worth the constant pain she was going through. More and more she was beginning to wonder if anything was worth it, and had even started to think that death would be preferable to the constant endless dreams.
Then she'd gazed past the person who she had worried about enough to not do more than think about ending everything, and saw a treecat she'd not met before.
Gray dappled fur and intelligent eyes met hers and she was shaken. A part of her that she hadn't even known existed reached out and to Aeris's shock she'd felt another beings feelings. In a way that she'd never even known was possible, she'd felt Samantha's feelings.
Honor had told her later, after she'd more or less recovered, that the bonding was permanent, until death of one of them.
"She's adopted you now Aeris, which means your part of the family."
The words hadn't really sunk in then, but they were starting to now.
For the last ten days, even while Honor prepared for the upcoming visit from Admiral Whitehaven and her coming assignment with the RMN again, she'd always had time for Aeris. She'd resisted the suggestion that she take some time off from her duties, mostly because she couldn't stay close to the Salamandar all the time and not get burned. Still she'd seen Honor every day for the past week, had dinned with her every night, and talked with her in the Library after dinner about Treecats and the bond between them and their adopted humans.
Aeris had managed, barely, to keep her distance from the utterly charming and charismatic Honor Harrington.
How, she wasn't certain, but she had. Mostly.
There were moments when she'd smile in pure joy from the feeling of not being alone anymore, or stroking Samantha's fur. Then she'd look up and meet Honor's eyes unguarded. Those devastating brown hazel eyes that seemed to pull her closer.
More than once she had wanted to rise and go to her, hold her hand, tell her everything.
Impossible of course.
Nothing more than a barely formed dream.
She could be nothing more than a Guard to Honor Harrington though, for more reasons than she wanted to think about right there. Only one of which was that she was part of the Steadholder's guard, an employee.
Instead she turned her thoughts to the past few days, and wondered at how, despite the increased tension, she felt rested unlike she had in years. The dreams were still there, but somehow it seemed like there was another that joined her in the dreamscape. When it became too much to handle, a gentle nudge from Samantha would wake her and she'd hold onto the 'Cat, shuddering. She still awoke quite a few times each night, but at least it was not to disabling dreams and sadness.
"That's your doing isn't it Samantha?"
The 'Cat, of course, didn't deign to answer, merely flipping the tip of her tail in answer.
"I don't know why you choose me Samantha, but I think you might have made a better choice with someone else."
"Why do you say that?"
Damn she moves silently, she's the only one here who can sneak up on me like that.
"Stay seated Aeris, I see you've a 'Cat to scratch, wouldn't do to force Samantha to get up."
Aeris had to grin at the tail that flicked in what seemed to be annoyance this time.
"I think she understood that My Lady."
"They understand more than a lot of people give them credit for."
Honor took a seat across from the two of them, watching with a faint smile playing about her lips.
"Why did you say she might have made a better choice with someone else?"
Aeris's hand froze for a split second and then continued in its petting duties.
"She could have bonded with anyone here My Lady."
"That didn't answer my question Aeris."
"I'm only a Guard, My Lady."
That answer at least seemed to satisfy Honor, and Aeris relaxed marginally.
"They adopt you for who you are Aeris, not what you are. If she adopted you that means she thinks you are worthy, and that you are special. Question why if you must, but always treasure it."
"I will My lady."
Green and hazel eyes meet in perfect understanding, locking for an endless moment. Samantha's eyes slid open as she felt Aeris's feelings suddenly shift and intensify and she shared an amused look with Nimitz, her mate, who clung to the Honor's shoulders.
Humans were so dense sometimes.
"I should get back My Lady, my break is over."
Honor nodded softly, watching as 'Cat and newly adopted human left. Wondering why she wanted to go with that slender guard so much.
"What do you mean he's a Massadan?"
Andrew looked up quizzically at the near incredulous tone in Aeris's voice. The 'cat on her shoulder, and wasn't that a sight he wasn't used to, perked up as well. Samantha's tail slowly swishing back and forth.
"Here's his file, as you can see he was registered as a Massadan. We're still looking into how he got into the Steading itself."
The generally insane neighbors of Grayson, the Massadans, were more or less limited to their own planet now. Aeris scanned the report that Andrew had offered and mentally sighed.
She should have known that whoever was behind this wouldn't have left his file as was. The person whom she had seen talking to Joseph was now listed as Bernard Charis. When she had looked him up in the security net he had been listed as Mark Tangeir, a consultant of Moors shipping based out of the Mueller steading.
The head guard watched curiously as Aeris set down the report with a scowl, turned and left. He was rather disappointed with the background search on the would be assassin, but he wasn't that upset. They'd stopped the attempt after all, and the planetary security forces would be looking into how this Charis person had managed to get onto Grayson.
"I was so stupid! Father would laugh if he was still alive!"
Samantha watched with detached interest as her adopted human ranted. Aeris paced back and forth across her bedroom; scowling at the copy of the original background search she had called up only a few days ago on a Mark Tangeir.
Grinding her teeth she sat down on the bed and absently started petting Samantha.
"I should have gone after Joseph the moment I knew he was here! But no, I had to stay and spar the Salamandar."
Samantha closed her eyes and turned onto her back so that her human could scratch her stomach. The kittens had been more demanding than usual today and she enjoyed the relative quiet.
"So now I have evidence that there's a plot against Honor, and I know that one of the wet works people is in town, but I can't do anything with it."
The annoyed tone in her human's voice distracted Samantha. Lightly batting at the hands that were stroking her fur she claimed more attention, trying to calm her down.
"Your right Samantha. I need to think about what to do next. Ok, so what do I know?"
It occurred to Aeris as she paid attention to Samantha that it was infinitely more rewarding talking to the 'Cat than it was to her gun. It also left her feeling more relaxed, where as talking to her pulse pistol had often left her feeling with the urge to go out and kill something.
"One, I know that Joseph is here on Grayson. I saw him talking to this Mark Tangier a day before Mark tried to kill Honor. Both of them are somehow linked to this Moors shipping company, based in the Mueller steading."
Slender fingers paused, feeling the softness of gray fur sliding between them.
"So I should go pay a visit to this Moors shipping company."
It would be hard to pull off; she was still a very junior Guard. Still it bore thinking about. Aeris resumed her petting.
"Before that I can figure out how Joseph managed to get into Harrington Steading without anyone knowing about it. Oh, and find out who managed to change Mark's file on the security net. Anything else?"
Samantha playfully batted at a hand with her true hand, claws carefully sheathed.
"Oh yeah, where the hell is Priest? She hasn't gotten back to me yet."
For once Aeris was sleeping soundly. The warm 'Cat curled up on top of the blankets near the foot of the bed. The nightmares still came, but they seemed more distant ever since she'd bonded with Samantha.
The insistent beeping of the com console dragged her from the much-needed rest though.
Groggily she sat upright, fumbling under the pillow for the pulse pistol that hadn't been there since she started working at Harrington Steading. Sighing as her fingers encountered nothing but clean sheets, and ignoring the spurt of fear that not having the weapon close by always seemed to cause.
"Yeah, yeah, I'm coming."
Half stumbling she made her way over to the panel and irritably slapped the accept call button. She'd been having a pleasant dream for once, and whoever it was had better have a good reason.
Green eyes widened suddenly as sleep fled her system. The battered face looking at her out of the screen bore a faint resemblance to the woman she'd talked to a few days ago.
"Priest? What happened?"
"Just shut up, let me talk."
Priest coughed, and Aeris watched silently as she dabbed a bit of blood away with an already red dotted rag.
"I went looking for that information you wanted."
Aeris nodded, holding her tongue and listening.
"I got some information on this Vivik guy, and I'm disappearing. You got me Phoenix? I'm disappearing, and I think you should to. I don't know whom this guy works for, but they knew who I was. They found me, you understand?"
Aeris knew exactly what that meant. To have been able to find Priest would have taken quite a lot of resources and information. It also explained why Priest was freaking out.
"What did you find out?"
"I'm sending it to you now. Then I'm gone."
"Wait, you still have that old account we used that time?"
Confusion turned to understanding and Priest nodded.
"Good, I'm sending you what I've managed to save up this past little while working here. It's not much but it should help."
Understanding turned to thankfulness.
Aeris held up her hand.
"Don't say it Priest, just get going. See you old friend."
The screen went dark on a grateful smile, and Aeris leaned her head wearily against the wall.
"Just one nights sleep, why is that so hard to get?"
Aeris had the next day off, as the rest of the house began to prepare for Admiral Whitehaven's visit, along with Honor's pending trip. It had only just dawned on Aeris that her Lady would be leaving Grayson for at least a month. She had planned on taking a trip to the Mueller steading and seeing what she could find out about Moors shipping, but her sudden lack of funds ended those plans.
So she spent the morning trying to resist the urge to find Andrew Lafollet and explain to him and try to get a position on the Steading Guard team that would be accompanying Honor.
Which lasted right up until noon. Leaving Samantha with the kittens she made her way back to the Security building and tracked down Andrew in his office. He glanced up from the reports he was signing when she entered.
"What can I do for you Aeris?"
Swallowing she entered, unconsciously standing a bit ill at ease.
"Sir, I wanted to talk to you about the off planet guard assignment?"
The man watched her with an unreadable statement.
"What about them?"
That he wasn't going to help her at all on this one was obvious. She straightened her back and came to attention.
"Sir I would like to ask to be assigned to protect My, er, our Lady while she is off world."
If he noticed her near slip he made no mention of it.
"Request denied. Is there anything else I can do for you Aeris?"
"What? Denied? Sir..."
He cut her off.
"Aeris, I have some of my best and most senior guards going with me on this."
That she wasn't senior enough to go with them on this mission was clear. She wasn't certain what she had hoped for, but it wasn't this out of hand rejection. Straightening she allowed a sliver of anger to penetrate her carefully maintained shields.
"Sir, with all due respect, I am an excellent guard."
The hand he raised once more stopped her tirade before she said too much.
"Aeris you are indeed one of the best at hand to hand combat that I have ever seen. There are other considerations though. Would you really want to bring Samantha with you on this trip? What about the kittens?"
The head of the guard watched as she realized what he was saying was true. She'd nearly forgotten that she couldn't simply leave Samantha behind while she went to guard Honor. She couldn't take Samantha away from the kittens, not while they were still so young. Straightening once more she slowly nodded. It had been easier when she'd been completely alone.
Not that she wanted to go back to talking to her pistol though.
"Yes Sir, I see your point."
"Don't worry Aeris, we'll take good care of her."
As she left Aeris wondered why Andrew had seemed to think it was important to reassure her.
The gathering was mostly over by the time Honor found herself alone in the Library. She always liked the quiet peace that the large room seemed to encourage. The fireplace was an added bonus and she sat in a chair pulled close to it. She'd had a talk with Alexander Hamish, Earl of Whitehaven, Admiral of the Green for the RMN. It had been an unexpected discussion, one that she found her thoughts returning to as she studied the flames.
He'd gone along with her advice on the new weapons systems, the LACs and new long-range multi stage missiles. She'd been determined to get him to one way or another though, so that had turned out as planned.
What hadn't, was what Nimitz had shown her of the Admiral's feelings.
That he felt a strong attraction for her had come as a surprise, and she sighed, considering what to do about it. The Admiral was married, his wife crippled in a tragic aircar crash. She'd been one of the most famous holodrama actors in the entire star kingdom of Manticore.
Gently stroking Nimitz's fur she considered the flames, and finally, came to the conclusion that she could do nothing. Those feelings were just something that the Admiral would have to work out on his own.
Almost instantly her thoughts turned to another, one whose feelings she hadn't a clue about.
"The Admiral is going to forward my request to ONI, Nimitz. I'll know everything that the Office of Naval Intelligence does about Aeris when I get back from this escort duty."
The treecat drowsily turned over on her lap and she smiled fondly.
"Then we'll see what kind of human it is that would tempt Samantha to bond again."
A 'cat that adopted a human almost always bonded for life. Most chose to follow their humans into death if something happened to the adopted human. That Samantha hadn't chosen death when Paul had been killed was a sign of how strong she was. That she would bond with another human was unheard of though. At least as far as Honor could tell it had never happened before.
Aeris slipped into the Library, cloaked in the darkness of the late evening, almost early morning, hours. The darkness was a good friend to her, and even accompanied by the 'Cat she had no problems passing the last of the partygoers without notice. She'd been on duty all night of course, keeping a close watch on everything to make certain the dinner went without a hitch.
After the recent attempt on her Lady's life security had been tightened even more than normal. She was there, inside the Library, beautiful and almost fragile. Dark short hair framing a strong face and beautiful lips that Aeris felt a longing to brush her lips against.
I would tell her everything and stay forever if I could.
The thought was banished even as it formed and Aeris forced herself to step forwards into the light. Baring herself to her Lady's glance, and knowing as she did that she wanted nothing more than to be here with her Lady.
Samantha flowed down her shoulder, still an unfamiliar weight, and over towards her own mate. Greeting Nimitz by rubbing her head along his shoulder, a caress that the other 'Cat readily returned.
I wish I could be a 'Cat.
Her thoughts were disjointed; coming in random jumbles that made it hard to focus on anyone thing. She was almost afraid that she'd forget her cover if she stayed longer. Making her want to leave, but she couldn't, not while her Lady's eyes looked so sad. Instead she waited until Honor motioned towards the chair opposite her and sat down smoothly.
"Come to see if I'm alright, Aeris?"
"Just wanted to make certain you were comfortable, My Lady."
A slow smile spreads across her Lady's face. Neither the high-sculpted cheeks, nor the genuine warmth that spilled from her sometimes-commanding brown eyes ceased to catch Aeris's attention.
They watched the 'cats, each pretending to be more interested in them then the person seated across from them. As the silence stretched to the edge of comfortable Aeris found herself talking without meaning to.
"I wish I was going with you My Lady."
The crackling of the fire was the only answer she got for a long agonizing moment.
"You can't bring both Samantha and the kittens."
Aeris wondered if she imagined the note of sadness in her Lady's voice.
"Once the kittens are older you can come, if Andrew agrees of course."
"I know My Lady."
The both shared a wry smile at that. Andrew took his Liege's security as serious as Aeris would have. Once more the crackling of the fire was the only sound in the room other than the two 'Cats playing together.
"Do you always have to call me that Aeris?"
"What My Lady?"
Honor's lips curl into a grin.
"That. Why don't you just call me Honor?"
Time froze. Aeris could feel the sudden heat in her cheeks, and she dared not glance towards her Lady for fear she'd see even in the dim light from the fire. If she had she might have seen the astonished look that crossed Honor's face as she realized what she'd just said. Instead she concentrated on trying to say something that would sound somewhat intelligent instead of giving in to the sudden urge to cry.
"I can't My Lady."
Her whisper barely carried over the short distance between them.
"I'm just a guard."
The words hung heavy between them, and Aeris fought a loosing battle within herself. She couldn't keep who she was from the woman across from her much longer, not when those eyes watched her with such patience as they did now. Green met brown and both looked away at the same moment.
Aeris wished she could stay, talk with her Lady, but knew she couldn't. Not yet, not while she had something she had to finish.
I'll make certain Joseph isn't going to try to hurt you again, then I swear, I'll tell you everything My Lady. Even though you'll send me away when I do.
Rising she bowed and silently walked back into the darkness, leaving her Lady alone in the dim firelight.
Honor Harrington left the morning after her encounter with Aeris in the Library. It was supposed to be a simple enough mission, just a short escort duty to ease her back into command after the time she'd spent recovering. It was supposed to be a lot of things, none of which included her and her entire command flying into an ambush.
It wasn't supposed to be her making the choice of surrendering or getting all of her crew killed.
It wasn't supposed to be her getting captured.
But it was.
Aeris knew that she would always remember that day. Like others before it, it would be engrained into her very psyche and she would never escape those memories. She'd attended the fair well ceremony that was due to any Steadholder who was leaving his, or now her, Steading for any long period of time. It was only to be a few weeks, but even then it felt to her like an eternity.
Without Honor the world seemed a dreary place again, one where the old fears and regrets loomed around every corner. She'd met her Lady's eyes as she had passed on the way to the shuttle. Trying to memorize her face for the long suddenly empty days ahead of her. The warm weight of Samantha on her shoulder was the only thing that allowed her to smile slightly.
Then she was gone; her Lady was gone, into the shuttle and then off planet. Gone far out of Aeris's reach and out of her ability to protect her. She wasn't sure which one it was that worried her the most.
The moment she entered the room she knew that something horrible had happened. Summoned by a near desperate Samantha she entered the main living quarters to find Allison and Arthur Harrington clasping each other. Miranda was sitting nearby, her shoulders shaking, sobbing. Howard Clinkscales was staring at the holoviewer, his face completely white. Samantha flowed up into her arms, her body thrumming with tension.
A feeling of nameless dread caused her to choke.
"What is it? What's happened?"
Miranda was the one to answer, her words interspersed with gasping sobs.
Aeris's mind refused to understand what she was saying.
The days that passed felt like a nightmare to Aeris. One from which there was no waking up. She got up mechanically from what little rest she could get, went about her duties and returned to her room. Samantha wasn't much better than her, and together she and the 'Cat waited. Hoping, praying, that what was going to happen wouldn't.
Then the day came, and Aeris gathered with the rest of the sad and angry household to watch. To watch her people put the one person she had begun to think of as a friend and perhaps more, put to death for crimes that they had convicted her of in absentia years before.
To watch the People's Republic of Haven put Honor Harrington to death.
Aeris didn't know what day it was. She didn't know what month it was; she only vaguely knew what year it was. Her days had become a routine set in stone. She got up, went about her duties as the now second highest ranking guard at Harrington house and then went to her quarters. Working out when she had to, eating when she must, and going through the motions of living without really seeing anything around her.
They didn't know what had happened to everyone else who had been taken with Honor, but it was a safe bet that they weren't coming back. Still no one gave up hope that Andrew might be returned some day, somehow. That the best of the Guards were gone, no one mentioned. That the new recruits felt like they were children playing at being adults didn't have to be mentioned.
Samantha curled up on the bed next to her; Aeris stared at the blank wall across from her, sipping from the glass of whiskey. It was sometime in the late afternoon, she knew this because it was after her duty shift for the day. She'd been considering death, but both the fact that she couldn't get the energy up to do the deed, and Samantha, stopped her.
She'd considered leaving, but once more she didn't see the point anymore. Where would she go? Where could she go?
So she stayed, drank, and tried not to think.
The annoying chirp of the admittance chime was easy to ignore the first time. Somewhere around the fifth time it sounded it was getting harder though.
The chime sounded again.
Again it sounded, whoever it was appeared to be deaf.
"I said, GO AWAY!"
There was a pause this time, and Aeris thought she'd won, when the chime sounded again.
Aeris wondered if she could use her stun gun, or maybe her knife, on whoever was making that really annoying chime sound. Downing the last of the whiskey she stalked to the door and slammed her hand on the admittance button, scowling. Quite ready to rip whomever it was a new asshole for disturbing her when she just wanted to be alone and not think about anything at all.
Instead she found herself staring down at the rather diminutive form of Allison Harrington, Honor's mother. Who reached up grabbed her ear and hauled her down to her level.
Aeris yelped in pain and had no option but to lower her head.
"Now, listen to me young lady, because I only intend to say this once. You are going to snap out of it, and you are going to snap out of it now."
The mother voice, often known as the voice of god, left no other option. Aeris nodded hurriedly as the vice like grip on her ear kept up its pressure.
"Good, now you are going to come with my husband and me, and we are going to take a walk. Right?"
Aeris nodded again, wondering if the loss of blood flow would cause the amputation of her earlobe.
Later, she never was certain how later, she got a secure packet through the link she'd set up in her room. For minutes, hours, she stared at the com unit, at the reports scrolling seemingly endlessly across it. It was the accumulated reports from every body who was still in her network inside of Haven. All of those she had managed to get out during the terrible purges that had followed the supposed Navy assassination of president Harres.
The problem was that she didn't know what to do with it now that she had it.
Her lady was gone, so was her reason to read them.
After a long moment of hesitation her mouth twisted into what could have been a smirk. Samantha was spending time with her kittens, or else Aeris was certain the 'Cat would have purred in agreement.
A quick few clicks and a typed command a copy of the entire file was off on another trip.
She hoped the Manticoran and Grayson Offices of Naval Intelligence enjoyed the reading.
It took a while. Actually, it took months and endless attention from the Harringtons, Miranda and most of the other staff at Harrington house. In her own mind numbing grief it took her a while before she realized that everyone seemed to be trying to get her to snap out of it.
That none of them grabbed her ear was a rather large blessing. Since Allison's grab had left indents for hours. Somehow though, slowly, she began to feel again, to see something other than the gray drudgery that life had become. Color seeped back into her life, and throughout it all was the silent support of Samantha. The 'Cat was a constant companion, staying with her even while she patrolled on duty, almost as if the 'Cat sensed that if she were left totally alone for any period of time she might completely loose it.
Which wasn't to say that she didn't come close once or twice.
There had been the day that she'd been at the pistol range. She'd been ambushed by a scent that had triggered a memory of the night her lady had left. When she'd been in the library with Honor, and the quiet sadness in her Lady's eyes. Over and over she'd gone over that conversation, cursing herself for refusing to call her Lady by her first name, to even take that small step. Knowing that fear had stopped her. When she'd wanted nothing more than to put the pistol to her temple and pull the trigger. It had been a very near thing, and only the arrival of not only Samantha but also Honor's parents had stopped her.
Then there had been the time that night she'd started drinking. When she'd woken up the next morning the room had been in a shambles, and she'd broken two fingers in her left fist. She'd never remembered what had happened that night exactly, just blurry images of a near insane rage. Samantha curled almost on her stomach, purring for all she was worth.
Aeris had not drunk any alcohol since. Too afraid of whom else she might hurt.
Death had never been far from her thoughts throughout the long nights, or even the bright days. Still, slowly, and almost against her will, she was dragged back into life.
That others were helping her freely was almost as surprising to her as the concept that they hadn't kicked her out of the Guards yet. So it was that she found herself sitting in the formal gardens of Harrington house watching Samantha's not quite kittens playing. The young 'Cats still had a lot of growing to do, but one had already adopted Miranda, so she supposed she couldn't call them kittens anymore.
"I just realized it's spring."
The season had snuck up on her, and she looked about the garden with wonderment at the flowers. The scent of which hung heavy in the air.
"Amazing what you miss when you're holed up in a room for months."
Came the dry answer from the petite woman sitting not too far away. Allison Chu Harrington was a continual surprise to Aeris. The woman's humor was devastatingly sharp as was her mind. That she complimented the quieter Arthur Harrington nicely was obvious. That letting her out among Grayson's was like letting a fox loose in a hen house was not.
Allison had been born on Beowulf, a planet legendary for it's rather open sexuality and society. A view that had caused not a few Grayson's to go white with shock, or red with rage, when talking with Honor's mother. That Allison very seldom lost an argument didn't help matters much at all.
"It wasn't months."
"Oh really? There must have been a time dilation effect then."
Aeris grinned slightly at the snort and petted Samantha.
"It felt longer."
The quiet admission took them both by surprise, although it was hard to tell with Allison.
"I know my dear, I know."
The smaller woman's honest compassion was another thing that Aeris had found herself liking.
"My daughter liked you a lot."
It was the first time that Allison had ever mentioned her daughter around Aeris, a subject that both had avoided completely. Even the sound of her Lady's name still caused the bitter ache in the back of Aeris's throat to return. At least she didn't feel like screaming at an uncaring universe anymore, although that might have been because her throat had gone horse after the first few times.
"I liked her too, Mrs. Harrington."
Despite Allison's best attempts Aeris had stubbornly resisted calling the woman by her first name.
"You did more than like her."
The gentle admonition hung in the air, and Aeris's heart seemed to lurch inside of her chest. She couldn't force herself to meet the other woman's eyes, knowing how much the looked like her Lady's.
"I don't know what you mean."
"You can lie to others Aeris, but not me. Despite how you avoided me and Arthur like the plague, I saw how you watched her."
Aeris closed her eyes, hanging her head, swallowing against the pain that once more threatened to sweep her away. Samantha's buzzing purrs anchored her to the moment though and for once she didn't want to seek the sweet oblivion of death.
"What does it matter anymore?"
She hadn't realized Allison had moved until the older woman pressed a kiss to her forehead.
"We would have been happy to have you as a daughter in law."
Aeris stayed where she was as Honor's mother left, stunned by that comment and stared out across the gardens.
Honor and her walking through the gardens hand in hand, content to simply be in each other's company.
"Oh, and Aeris?"
Blinking away the images Allison's words had brought forth she focused on the small woman.
"Alfred and I are thinking about having another child."
Aeris swallowed and nodded in understanding. Not to replace Honor, nothing could do that, but as another addition to the family.
"Which means I should start doing my duty huh Sam?"
The 'Cat flicked its tail at her and rubbed her head along the side of Aeris's leg. Grinning Aeris petted the cat and nodded.
"Well, at least I can do that much for them after all this. I'll take care of Joseph and his little gang, whatever they're up to before they try to cause anymore trouble."
She hadn't done anything to try and track down Joseph during the last few months; she hadn't tried to do much of anything as a matter of fact. Sighing she got up from the bench. It would be so easy to just sit and wallow in misery, and she would again in the future. Aeris had a few things to do first though.
"Come on Sam, let's do some work."
Since she hadn't done anything at all that needed money since giving her first few paychecks to Priest, Aeris had plenty for what she was considering. First she changed from her normal black and green security uniform, to a more appropriate form of camouflage.
She rather hated wearing the full dress that was common for most women outside of Harrington Steading. The only good thing she could say for it was that the large dark blue gown gave her ample places to hide numerous goodies. Most of which had been liberated from the security building. Something that the green eyed guardswoman appreciate since she had no clue what exactly she was going to find when she reached her destination.
That Samantha was coming along was a foregone conclusion. She might not have been bonded to the 'Cat as long as her Lady had been, but she knew better than to ask Sam to stay behind. A short detour to the hotel where she had stashed her forged identities was in order before she went to Moor shipping.
The rather creepy little man of a door clerk was there, and she spared a sneer in his general direction as she slipped past his office. He'd been engrossed in a magazine, and from just catching sight of the title she could tell what kind of magazine it was. Thankfully her room wasn't currently occupied, and the door lock was fairly easily bypassed.
Quickly grabbing her stashed ID from underneath the floorboard, she slipped out just as silently and went to hire an aircar. On the long trip halfway around the world towards Mueller Steading she had time to think and remember. As always the sense of loss started to sweep up over her, as inevitable as the tide.
I wish I had called her by her name that night. My lady, forgive me, for not being there, for not being able to protect you.
It was going to be hard to be completely inconspicuous with Samantha of course, hard to hide hexapedal tree cat. Still at least she wouldn't completely stick out in the annoying dress.
I bet My Lady laughed the first time she saw these things. Wonder how she reacted to being told she had to wear one to formal events. Probable laughed again.
The thoughts of Honor were still drenched in a sadness that Aeris knew would never disappear. Pointedly she focused on her mission, setting memories of Her Lady aside as best she could with a whispered apology.
Mueller Steading, at least to her eyes was nowhere as impressive as Harrington Steading. That she was at least slightly biased she admitted with a wry smile. The aircar she'd booked a trip on banked sharply to one side and then the pilot, with the ease of one long accustomed to doing his job, slid the car into the docking platform.
"We're here Lady."
Aeris always wondered at why people felt the need to point out obvious things to her.
"Thank you. I'll be back within a day."
The man nodded, openly watching Samantha as the cat climbed up onto her shoulders. It had been a while since she'd walked the streets of Grayson openly, and she wondered if she would find a lot of changes.
She needn't have worried.
Despite whatever changes were sweeping through the rest of the planet, Mueller steading was stuck in time. As far as she could see she was one of the few woman walking the streets unescorted. The gray stone walls and dome above her were from at least a century or so before her arrival here, and certainly were out of date in a world were Alliance technology was beginning to see constant use.
So much for staying inconspicuous.
She'd forgotten how few women actually went about unescorted in traditional Grayson society. Sighing and ignoring the rather curious glances she was getting, Aeris moved forwards.
It took a bit, but she finally found the place she was looking for. Among the gray stone buildings the newly built prefab structure that housed Moor Shipping stood out almost as much as she did. The place was at least well lit inside, and Aeris had to admit that the clean interior had little resemblance to the den of thieves she had almost expected.
The good covers were never that obvious though.
"May I help you?"
The man behind the admitting desk was impeccably groomed and even wore a suit coat. Aeris slipped into her new roll and smiled widely.
"Why yes, thank you. I'm Inti Vasalon, an agent of Hauptman Cartel. I wanted to speak about employing a few of your firms merchant vessels?"
The name Hauptman did more than her smile to cause the secretary to quickly rise to his feet. His slightly disdainful tone of a moment before disappeared as the name of the most powerful of the Manticoran trading cartels was recognized.
"Please, just wait one moment, and I'll get one of our senior partners."
The name Hauptman was a powerful one and Aeris smiled very slightly to herself. She'd used the ID just to guarantee that very reaction, although it was too high profile for her usual tastes. Still it seemed to be getting results here.
"Ms. Vasalon, what a pleasure to meet you, my name is Patrick Moor."
The tall gray haired man took her offered hand in a firm handshake.
"I studied business on Manticore."
In reaction to her raised eyebrow at that gesture, most Grayson men kissed a woman's hand.
"Pleased to meet you Mr. Moor, might we talk somewhere?"
Moor, presumably one of the Moors for which the company was named eagerly held open a side door and shepherded her down the hallway. He kept on rambling about how much he had heard about the Hauptman cartel while on Manticore. Since she wasn't at all interested in his knowledge of a company she didn't work for, Aeris paid keen attention to her surroundings.
Offices were located off of the corridor, most picturing star charts and the positions of the Moor shipping vessels. People bustled back and forth, relaying instructions and talking to costumers on holo vid. It looked like a normal shipping company to her. The understated elegance of the office she was led into was consistent with the rest of the d»cor.
"Please, have a seat, did you want something to drink?"
"No thank you Mr. Moor, I ate before coming here."
"Well then, what can our humble firm do for you Ms. Vasalon?"
"First off Mr. Moor I want to make certain that you understand I am not here in any capacity related to my status with the Hauptman Cartel."
She had his complete attention, and that had gotten him wondering.
"I need to have a cargo shipped outside of my normal channels, and I was told you might be the people to see."
What she had just proposed could mean any number of things, most of them illegal. Aeris watched as Moor calculated the risk on what he knew, and then assigned a value to her based on what he thought were her links and how she was dressed. It must have outweighed the risks because he nodded ever so slightly, watching the tree cat curl up on her lap.
"What exactly did you need from me?"
"Hey Aeris, you gonna come along with us?"
Using her foot to casually push a stray piece of the dress she'd warn aside Aeris forced a smile. Staying in the doorway in case Vickie decided to come into her room the blonde smiled as easily as she could force herself.
"We're going into town, a few of the old recruits, and I thought you could join us for a drink or two."
The impish woman was really starting to annoy Aeris for some reason; the fact that she seemed to be around every time she turned around didn't help.
"No, I think I'm going to rest tonight."
"Oh come on Aeris, you know you spend way to much time alone in your room. Come on down, the company'll do you some good."
Judging from the glint in the shorter woman's eyes the company that Victoria was hinting at had nothing to do with the other recruits. Even to her self the smile felt strained.
"Maybe next time."
Closing her eyes in relief Aeris slumped back against the door as it slid shut and whispered a thank you to however might be listening. She'd only been back five minutes before Vickie had been at the door, asking her to go out with them. The blonde had barely gotten her dress and makeup kit hidden before she'd opened the door. Hoping that Victoria hadn't gotten too suspicious about the rather lengthy wait.
Patrick Moor had done everything in his power to impress her, after all when does a small shipping company get the chance to handle something for the might Hauptman cartel, even if it was for an unofficial cargo?
Samantha curled up on the bed, and tucked her tail around her body, relaxing. The treecat had been tense from the moment that Vickie had shown up and Aeris smiled fondly to her companion.
"Yeah, she gets on my nerves a bit too. But she's a good kid, just kind of, well, pushy I guess."
A non-committal flip of a tail was her only answer and Aeris grinned.
"Come on Sam, let's go see what Allison is up to shall we?"