Everyone, everyone, had work they didn't want to do. Work that they did because they must. Work they told their captain was ill-advised only to have her ignore that, which was easy for her because she didn't just have Achernar wrap his right arm around her hips.

He flashed perfect teeth at the two men across from where he sat at a battered table. Saavik wondered if either of the pale human men - who seemed to be scraped off the dingy, dilapidated walls – read the Romulan's disdain. His chiseled, weathered face, finely boned, could be eerily sinister under that head of silvery hair, despite or maybe equally matched with a pair of prominent, elegantly pointed ears.

Lauren Warfield had practically panted when she met him while Lynne Hoskins had hummed Me and My Bad Boy ever since.

Saavik had unexpectedly seen behind Achernar's mask once, twice, maybe three times. Once above Hellguard when he begged her to go with him; second, when watching a recording of his promise to do anything to help her survive the Romulan hybrids disease; and third when he presented his findings, a figure of dignity and respect.

So, no. The two human men probably had no idea what that was behind his smile. Achernar was much, much better than either of them in this game.

"My lady and I -" he grinned up where she stood next to him and stroked her hip. She considered rendering him unconscious. "- have better things to do. Much better."

This was Captain Stuart's fault.

"So, let's finish this," Archernar ended.

Saavik heard a stifled giggle in her one ear. She realized she had looked down when his hand moved. The disguised camera embedded in her white yoke-style collar picked up his gesture and transmitted it to her captain and two crewmates watching. She snapped her head back up.

"Don't kill him," Dannan Stuart ordered in a whisper with laughter in the words. "We need him. Wait 'til later."

Lauren Warfield spoke with a hot, "Who would want to kill him? Look at him!"

"Besides," Hoskins said, "it'd ruin those complimentary outfits you're wearing. That would be a bloody shame."

Saavik wished she could remind them that Achernar also wore a receiver in his ear, but then, the other women most likely hadn't forgotten.

Like a character in a holovid, he pulled out a pouch and hefted it in his hand. Not gold or anything like it: mylanicane. A narcotic illegal in the Federation, but they were in the Frontier. The rules and laws were different.

Saavik still didn't like the idea of the drugs, but she was outvoted. Again.

She shifted her balance when one of the men licked his lips and his hand dropped to his gun. The shift caused a natural swirl in her coat, built into her gray bodysuit and tan vest, that ran long on her right side and short on her left. Shifting exposed the previously hidden gun that stemmed from a cross body shoulder strap to her hip and secured to her thigh. It took up the width of her leg and ran to her knee, more of a short barreled rifle than gun. She laid her hand on the butt and played her part in full by shrugging so her sleeves rode up to expose the hilts of two daggers, one on each forearm.

Achernar smiled with real pleasure, including in his dark eyes. She caught the scents of soap, cologne, and him. "You can see why I love her. Ah, ah, ah! Hands on your side of the table and on the table. Now there's a little extra in here," he shook the pouch, "since you were so prompt."

Stuart sounded in Saavik's ear. "How do you know this guy again?" Then, since Saavik couldn't answer, "Oh, sorry. Tell us later."

Warfield plowed in, "In graphic detail!"

Saavik had been dead set against this plan. She'd argued there were several different ways to get this information that would work better. But Stuart had discovered how Achernar dug up critical info on the hybrids disease that no one else could get. She'd contacted Captain Uhura, since the woman had been the one to deal with Achernar back then, and learned her Rider had the one person on board that the Romulan couldn't resist. Even if that one person denied it.

From that moment on, the captain backed this plan.

Warfield complained, "Remind me why she got to go."

"Oh, come on," Hoskins answered. "That brain of hers."

Her multitasking brain that had Achernar and the hand that must be removed in the forefront, but equally catalogued the hole in the ceiling that brought the rain down the one wall, causing tracks of grime to run with it to the pocked floor; the diverse ways the humans gave away where they concealed weapons; the dreary music that was meant to be soulful in the bar's main room, and the traffic sounds outside, but no sound of anyone approaching by craft or on foot.

"That," Dannan reminded them, "and Achernar insisted. He'd only go if she was his partner."

His smile was meant for Saavik, but the traders took it to mean them.

One of the men handed over a padd with the information that was the sole purpose of this mission. Achernar dropped it in an inside pocket of his duster coat, brown were Saavik's was dark slate gray, so she matched his plated tunic. His forefinger and thumb stroked the closure and with no sign, the coat sealed around it, including a lining that would throw off most sensors.

Everyone got up except Saavik who was already on her feet. Somehow, the Romulan's arm stayed around her.

"Pay up!" the man on the left demanded.

"Of course." Achernar kept the bag dangling in the space between them as he and Saavik shifted around the table. They took a step backwards, the humans put hands on their weapons, and she drew hers, but kept it down by her leg.

The Romulan dropped the bag and the men scrambled for it. She and Achernar swiftly went out the back to the street. "All in hand!" he announced.

Stuart reminded them, "Don't bring anyone home with you."

They could see his grin because Saavik turned to face him as he pulled her down a narrow street. "I know better than that."

"Nobody," Lauren Warfield insisted, "nobody loves their job as much as me."

The streets were so filthy that the steady rain couldn't scrub them clean, as much as it tried. The city didn't have an uptown where everything was good; it had an upper layer where its citizens never came down. Just as exact, the middle class lived in the buildings' middle stories, and Saavik, Achernar, and the lower class were down here.

It didn't matter. Other than being jostled, people of several species gave them looks of arrogance, anger, fear, and indifference, the same as any city. Announcements for the upper levels drifted down like snide comments.

"A new life awaits you in the Ghazan Colony! The chance to start over in the real Federation! Begin again with a new identity empowering you to live by your own rules!"

"Not much further," Hoskins said, which was something they knew, "and then we finally get to play!"

They were enjoying this mission much too much. Saavik, on the other hand, calculated how much longer she had to deal with it all.

The good news was their ship, the Rider, escorted ranking members of the medical community including her good friend Rrelthiz and Leonard McCoy. So she had that to look forward to, although McCoy transferred to another ship after the conference.

She and Achernar walked, despite the rain working down their scalps and under their clothes, rather than taking a taxi or public transportation. If someone was on to them, a vehicle boxed them in.

It was how Saavik noticed someone at the mouth of an alley, waiting. She started to warn Achernar when she got a glimpse of the person's face.

"Continue," she told him. "I require one moment. The message is intended for everyone."

He didn't like it. He walked backwards, left hand on his gun, and when she headed for the side street, he stopped. She entered the alley so she faced the woman wearing khaki colored, baggy pants and a compact utility vest as a shirt. Heavy ship boots protected her feet and a knife's handle peeked out from her right side from where it was strapped across her lower back. Her hair was a medium brown as were her eyes, and she bore a few extra pounds giving her a rounder figure than Saavik. Unlike the Vulcan, she really was an independent spacer.

"Jdehn."

The other Hellguard survivor shoved a gun in Saavik's face, her own so twisted with disgust and anger that she was unrecognizable. "You went Rom." She bit back on the sourness of her rising bile and her finger tightened on the trigger. "I never thought any of us would and you do it."

Saavik made her voice low. "Think, Jdehn, undeniably I have not. I am on a mission. In a moment, you will see two humans approach Achernar. They are my shipmates. He is hired to retrieve information we could not discover on our own, as he did for us and the disease."

In another few steps, two women did become visible. Hoskins and Warfield went open armed towards Achernar. Lynne wore a short, thick, dark brown coat over a tan vest and beige top with a scarf inside the collar. Her blonde hair was dyed darker than Saavik's, but even so, she tucked it into a wide brimmed hat. Lauren wore a bodysuit that was such a pale gray, it barely wasn't white. A black cloak sat on her head and shoulders like a mantel and flowed down her back.

In fact, Achernar and Saavik were the only ones with bare heads – and ears, since she wore her dark brown hair in a ponytail. Romulans earned a wider berth here.

He threw his own arms wide for them, so they pressed to his sides and slipped their arms around his tight waist, playing a trio of more-than-friends. Lynne Hoskins had asked Saavik for provocative words in Romulan, "So I can whisper them in his ear. For authenticity's sake." Saavik had refused, but gauging by what she heard, the communications officer had learned it from the Universal Translator.

But they went no further, not without her.

Saavik spoke something else that would mean nothing to her shipmates, but it proved she gave the truth to Jdehn. "On T'Pren's name."

The woman who had been a mother to her on Hellguard; being murdered by the Romulans kept her from adopting Saavik and building a life for the time of them.

The tactic worked. All Hellguard survivors owed T'Pren a debt for getting a message to Vulcan, bringing a rescue team. Jdehn lowered her weapon.

"You gave me a heart attack! Can you imagine what it looked like, seeing you like this? With him?!" She gestured to Saavik's ears. "Go offline."

"The hell you will!" Dannan yelled.

"A necessary gesture," the Vulcan replied and turned off the ear piece and camera.

Jdehn drew closer. "Tell me, now that they can't hear you. Are they forcing you? Cause I'll get you out of here."

Saavik was impressed. "No, they are not." A beat. "I appreciate what you offered, Jdehn."

The other woman shoved the gun in its holster on the front of her vest. She shrugged. "We said we'd be there for each other. Hey," she stopped Saavik when she reached to turn on the comm equipment again, "how do you stand him, a Romulan!"

"I know," Saavik answered. "I know he is not of Hellguard and he has twice been of use. I remind myself of it when it becomes… difficult."

"Did you remind yourself he knows where Ejarh is?" The last living person of Hellguard's team that created the two of them.

"Yes." There was no more to say.

She went live again with her earpiece and camera to the clamor of her shipmates. "I am well. We know one another and she had concerns on my intent that I have answered."

"Yeah," Jdehn said, "starting with her not killing me when I pulled a gun on her." As a Romulan would, at least the ones they knew, and many Starfleet officers would have at least incapacitated her.

They quickly caught each other up on the other two Hellguard survivors still alive, after the other twenty-eight were murdered. Mekhai had showed up at the Aerfen asking Saavik to help the foster family they had in common; Captain Hunter had thought he was Saavik's brother (Jdehn shuddered in mock disgust), and she spoke with Arik periodically on his Vulcan studies. Jdehn murmured she should go see him and Saavik encouraged her.

"You know what?" The other half-Romulan's mouth curled up. "I'm glad to see you, even with the scare you gave me. Who'd have thought we'd ever say that?" She waved and then gave another one with a grin at the Vulcan's camera before she walked away.

Saavik joined the three waiting for her and that triggered a fourth coming out to them.

"Captain!" Achernar called out at the sight of Dannan Stuart. Her blue eyes narrowed beneath the brown hood covering her own blonde hair dyed black. However, no one would think he meant starship captain, but instead, the leader of their freighter crew.

"Who was that?" Stuart asked at the same time Achernar said, "So that's Jdehn."

"You know her?" Hoskins demanded. "How?"

"I know of her, as a name on a report," he soothed. "A list of people infected with the Romulan hybrids disease. You must have seen the same data."

Stuart chewed on that. "Yeah, we did. I didn't remember the name."

"I'm a businessman," he replied graciously. "I keep account of things in the event it proves useful."

"Yeah?" Warfield asked, "Or because Saavik was on it?"

The Vulcan ignored that and moved ahead of the group, retrieving her disguised tricorder from the pouch on her left hip. She signaled Stuart. "Human lifeform inside the ship's bay."

"Most likely the Harbor Master," Achernar suggested. "I'll go."

Stuart's voice firmed, "Saavik, stay with him. We'll be at the ramp in case we need to go quicker than we planned."

Of course, he loved that part about the Vulcan. "Thank you, Captain." He walked up to a man, human with hair as silver as the Romulan's but cut tight against his scalp.

The man pulled his eyes away from Achernar's ship: black on black, a shadow against space when in flight, wealth and power evident in every sweep of its light-absorbent lines. Wing tips spun out in filigrees of sensor webs; two needle-like nacelles streamed behind showing it had warp drive. Its sleek, expensive hull bore no name, no planetary registry, and no government ID. Scans would fine one high-end utility phaser, and that the ship had too much power and too many sensors for its size, but the same scans would miss a lot too. The ship had a single airlock with a wheel on its door; it was open now and the lowered hatch formed the ramp where Stuart, Warfield, and Hoskins lined up.

Once he managed to drag his eyes away, the Harbor Master, a nice title for extortionist, pretended he wasn't impressed and envious. "All right," he addressed them, "nice try, but you two ain't anymore Romulan than me and those three over there. I don't know what Neutral Zone fantasy you're playing out here, but you're not doing it in my port. You," he snapped at Achernar, "what's your business? I've been watching this ship for you for hours. You said you were going to be in and out."

Saavik wished her hearing hadn't picked up Lynne whispering to Warfield and Stuart, "Neutral Zone fantasies? I got a few now," that made them give quiet laughs.

"We didn't ask you to watch the ship." Achernar's smile held no light. He jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the three women. "In fact, they watched the ship. You tried to find something so you can charge us extra or report us to the authorities. We don't have anything like that."

"Everybody here has something like that."

Stuart muttered, "Someone's tiny amount of power went to his head."

Saavik saw the Romulan get a certain gleam and he started to say something, but he didn't. He negotiated their new bay fees and they were leaving.

She whispered as she walked past him, "You were going to tell him who you were. You have a reputation here."

He looked pleased she figured it out. "Yes, but I couldn't be sure which way it'd go. We could have taken him out, but that could hurt business in the end."

"Including the fact you are here yourself. You normally would send someone else, for this level, the way the one who had this information sent those two men. Is that not correct?" She didn't understand. "What game do you play?"

He only gave her a bright look and joined the others.

They all got up the ramp into his ship. Saavik started for the flight panel and began pre-flight procedures when Warfield watched Achernar go by into the personal area.

The interior was as amazing as the ship's exterior. Montgomery Scott had called it a delight and a regular palace inside; it was, and obviously custom-built with no expense spared. A single-unit transporter occupied the aft main deck, extravagant in so light a craft. Lavish elegance and workmanship that surpassed what many people would ever see in their lives. Pearl gray and chrome, plush furnishings, hand-tooled wood trim, and a sensor array that Spock told Saavik would do a starship proud.

She stroked the panel now with a professional hand; he was right.

Engines were ready, so she launched them towards space.

Achernar lifted the center deck plates revealing a cargo hold. He then touched a hidden control so a second bay opened beneath the first. Both sets of plates were very expensively scan-proofed. He took the padd from his coat and secured it in this hold. If they were boarded, no one would find it.

He then headed for the sleeping area. Evocative music started playing softly throughout the ship.

Warfield, meanwhile, said as she pulled her cloak off her head, "So, wait a minute, I can't believe you can actually hire someone to play - like the Romulan Centurion and the naughty freighter captain with you."

Saavik reigned in her disapproval. Barely. "How did you ever devise that scenario?"

Lauren leaned against a wall. "I've imagined a lot since Achernar showed up. It's the ears. It's always the ears. Them and the whole package. Same with the people who have fantasies about you."

Saavik almost spun around, but piloting them home would be tricky for a while, so she settled for grinding out, "Who has fantasies about me?"

Achernar plopped down in the seat next to her, that section of the controls not active. That quick, he had changed to simple black pants. He threw a black shirt laying over his shoulder to the back of his seat, revealing a muscled, tanned chest with a fine layer of hair traveling down and disappearing into his waistband. His feet were also bare and he stretched out his long legs as he toweled dried his hair. But at her question, he leaned over and tapped her on the shoulder. The corners of his mouth slowly went up.

"Do not involve yourself," she snapped and ignored the sonic dryer he had brought for her hair.

Stuart casually watched him while Warfield enjoyed the half-naked view unabashedly. Hoskins tore herself away from looking at him to answer Saavik, "Oh please, you're Vulcan and Romulan. You're all pointed ear fantasies in one blinding package."

The entire length of Saavik's spine stiffened. "You cannot be serious."

Achernar winked at Warfield, probably for what she and Lynne said about both him and Saavik. "Just remember one thing about your Neutral Zone fantasy, Miss Warfield. Who you hire won't be the real thing. On the other hand, I can get hold of a Centurion uniform if you'd like."

Lynne Hoskins muttered, "That will be in my dreams now."

"You and me both," Warfield mumbled back.

Saavik thought of ordering them to the aft of the ship, but that was Achernar's bedroom and she didn't want them totally out of control. "Captain? We are leaving the planet. We will need final clearance."

"That's me," Achernar stated simply. The controls in front of him came alive and he touched them as well as underneath. "Artoul Port Authority, this is the s'Sa'Av Ik Aeihr."

She didn't stop her reaction in time, but he stayed calmly talking, "You have our flight path, we're asking for clearance past patrols."

Saavik couldn't hope the others hadn't heard what he said earlier.

They had.

"That sounded like your name," Warfield noted. "Is that how the Romulans pronounce it?"

"Yes," was all Saavik said.

"What about the rest of it?" Hoskins asked.

He translated, "Star. The name in your language is Saavik's Star." Before she could decide what to do, he went where she didn't want him to go. "To be precise, it's Little Cat's Star."

Lauren Warfield practically jumped and down. "Your name means Little Cat? That's so cute!"

"She's right," Lynne Hoskins teased. She used the knuckles on her index fingers to put points on her ears. "A kitten, little pointed ears and all!"

"That," Dannan Stuart grinned, "explains why she's never told us."

Saavik slapped down the whole thing. "It does not mean Kitten, it means a small cat."

Warfield declared, "I like both," as if they were voting.

They got their clearance with the usual warnings and Saavik pretended to be unaffected by flying a ship named after her.

Stuart thought aloud, "So, what's worse? These two calling you Kitten or Savage?"

"Savage?" Achernar demanded.

Stuart glanced at Saavik. "Oops."

He flung out an arm to point to all three human women. "They get to call you Savage but I can't use your actual name?"

Saavik answered him with a sharp tone. "First, you are not them. Second, one is a fabrication and the other is my name revealed in public."

"Didn't you threaten me if I used it?"

She leaned over the controls separating them. "You know very well it was for something else."

He gave a sudden grin. "So it was."

"Although you did tell Uhura, Sulu, and the others. I did tell you to stop." She forced him to meet her eyes which he appeared happy to do. "After all, I have not given yours."

This smile was warm. "Noted."

Lynne shook her head, looking like she'd laugh. "I don't know which questions to ask first. Achernar naming his ship after you or this threat! Let's start with him and we need to emphasize this properly. You named your ship after her."

He got up, but stopped to peer in her face. "It needed a name. I had one like this that unfortunately is no more and I commissioned this one. It has several upgrades, the two flight stations instead of one, and a number of things are larger." He rumbled into Lynne's ear, "Including the bed."

Hoskins playfully put a hand on her chest. "My heart is going to explode by the end of this mission."

Achernar came back with boots, that he dropped on the deck as he fell into his seat again, and a beautifully cut bottle, clear and heavy, with an amber liquor inside. He fastened his shirt, to the tune of Lynne and Lauren's mumbled complaints, and then pulled on the boots. "Since it is a new ship, it had no existing name, and I was free to choose." He didn't look at Saavik; he didn't have to. Instead he reached past Lauren to snap up a set of glasses. "I believe it a nice one."

He began pouring the Romulan whiskey, offering it to her but she shook her head. She thought of pointing out they were on duty and decided such a fruitless action was illogical.

Achernar handed the drinks to the other women and raised his glass in salute. They took sips and turned them into appreciative swallows.

Dannan held hers up to the light. "Beautiful."

"Planetary patrols," Saavik announced.

Everyone quieted. These weren't Starfleet patrols, that would be later, but pirates given a legal contract to steal and kill in the name of security by Artoul below them, like so many Frontier worlds. The danger came from if they swarmed against Achernar's ship. Even a starship could have troubles then.

"They're scanning us," Achernar said. "As a reminder, Captain Stuart's very own uncle, one Mr. Scott, could not break the scanner proofing on the second bay and it took him a day to break the first one. Our friends out there will not take such time."

Dannan shot at him, "You got my file."

"I did. I am surprised you lack the Northern Scotland accent."

She replied with an edge, "I tend to have it only at home nowadays."

"Of course. I'm certain you read my file, my dear captain."

"It's too thin. I had to go with what first-hand accounts I could find. Like Captain Uhura."

Achernar was honestly pleased. "Ah! What did my lovely friend have to say?"

"That she never trusts anyone as good-looking as you, but she'd make an exception if Saavik was involved. She told me to make sure you knew about Saavik being part of the mission, because that, plus paying your exorbitant fee, would get me what I want."

He laughed heartily while Saavik pictured the beauty of her quiet cabin and meditating all this away.

Dannan never stopped watching him until he asked, "Captain, you make me wonder why the examination."

"I'm wondering if Uhura was wrong, because it suddenly hit me," she replied, taking the top strap off her pistol, "how much are four Starfleet officers worth to you on the black market. Saavik?"

Saavik had to turn again even with the patrols out there. "Zero, Captain."

"Impossible. A starship captain, with everything I know, with everything you know? Added to that information in his cargo hold!'

"The number remains zero, Captain."

Stuart cursed, but Achernar made a pacifying gesture. "I can answer your confusion, my friend. You asked her what is it worth to me and she's correct. Nothing." Those hands turned out in a shrug. "That was what the threat was for, my dear Captain. She told me that If I brought harm to the ship or to anyone aboard her, she'd come after me. And I quote, 'All the Universe won't keep you safe. I will hunt you down and rip your heart out.'"

Three sets of eyes and mouths opened.

"You said that?!" Hoskins squeaked out. "You'd rip his heart out?!"

Saavik thought over the best way to explain it. "I was young."

Lauren's forehead screwed up. "Young?"

"Yes, when I first made the statement. He is aware it remains in effect."

Stuart crossed her arms over her chest. "It's time for that story on how you two met."

An indicator flashed on Saavik's board. "Patrols are scanning us."

Nothing happened for a long moment. "That's good news," Achernar announced.

"While they're quiet," Dannan insisted, "you can talk. And no telling me it's classified! I am a starship captain with high level clearance."

"I was not about to say that, Captain, however-"

"Good. Let's hear it, Commander."

Achernar laced his hands behind his head. "It's easy enough. You know how your lovely, untainted Federation still has – skeletons in the closet? Things that you hear one word, one name, and everybody looks furtive. For example," he suddenly stood and whispered a word or two in Dannan's ear. She took great care in wiping everything from her expression. "Ah, see? No surprise, we have such things too, and it was one of those that caused my path to cross your first officer's. She was there for an official mission and I was there for an informal one. Warbirds showed up, starships showed up, we met, I gave her an offer she never could refuse, she refused it, and a planet blew up. Oh, and she made the threat about ripping my heart out."

"A planet blew up." Stuart rubbed at the bridge of her nose. "Saavik, what mission?"

The Vulcan kept her eye on the ships moving about. "You must have heard of the oxygen depletion weapon used against Starfleet Headquarters. I was part of the team to track down its origins and discover a way to defeat it."

"Is that the planet that blew up?"

"Yes."

"From what? Overload at its factory?"

"No. I threw an explosive as close to the planetary core as it could reach."

Stuart's mouth apparently couldn't close. She turned her attention to the Romulan. "Why were you there?"

He shrugged. "Friend of mine lost his money and I found it. We were meeting at the same world so I could get it back to him."

Saavik verbally rolled her eyes. "What he is not saying is, he found the money because he originally stole it."

He beamed at Dannan.

Hoskins couldn't hold back any more. "Was it a Romulan world?"

Achernar nodded.

Warfield asked, "What was its name?"

He inhaled in a near hiss. "That's where we find the skeletons in the closet. We don't talk about it and its name is still used to frighten children when they misbehave. Even adults equal it with nightmares and the ones who don't find their Honor Blades in their hearts."

Saavik thought of Centurion D'Rau, killed by Subcommander Cekula or Toreeth or their Commander, and his Honor Blade put out of his reach to show he wasn't worthy of it. Judged dishonorable by his superiors for his enjoying tormenting the half-breeds on Hellguard.

Saavik kept her eyes from Achernar and realized peripherally that he didn't look at her. Why not?

Because it would make her shipmates ask why he was.

Stuart decided, "We need another bottle."

He got up to fetch it.

"Star, this is Artoul Port Patrols." They could hear the man adding up how much he could get from them in his tone of voice. "We're reading three humans, a Romulan, and a Vul— nah, another Rom— what the-!" He muted the channel.

Achernar had his station active again; he glanced over to her. "Your life sign."

She had to agree, unfortunately. "It has happened previously, especially with the level of scanning equipment they most likely have. In such cases, they take it in context."

"Meaning If I wasn't here, they'd say Vulcan. If your lovely shipmates weren't here, they'd say Romulan."

Warfield slipped into the conversation, "But we're all here."

Hoskins grinned. "And they don't know what to say."

Stuart had a wicked gleam. "Let's take the offensive. Lynne."

Hoskins expertly opened the pirate's channel from their end.

"This is the Star," Dannan spoke. "You can tell our cargo is zip and we need to find ourselves some or we're not eating this week. Obviously, this bucket costs us a fortune. Are we clear to go?"

"They want visual," Hoskins informed her and received permission.

The captain of the patrol ship, Saavik thought, looked even more like something scraped from the dirty city streets and buildings below. She could also tell that he disagreed with that idea and thought of himself as ruggedly handsome. It showed in how he preened and smiled for them – with stained teeth: a rogue, the pirate chief of romantic lore that didn't exist in reality. Far from it.

"We got a call from below. The Harbor Master says you blew out on some fees. Cheats don't do well here." He flashed more of his brown smile at them. Warfield turned and made a quiet gagging sound. "Now you're saying you got nothing to pay with. I got a trade in mind. Like that ship and… other choices."

Achernar answered him. "What fee do we owe? The Master told me we paid in full."

"You're Achernar, aren't ya? It was after you launched."

Saavik looked down at her board but whispered for the Romulan. "The Harbor Master connected you with the ship and informed the patrols."

"Precisely," he agreed. "Their ships haven't closed off our path, but they will soon. Be ready." He shined strong, white teeth at the patrol captain and stretched in his chair. His voice changed. "Captain, you're smart. You recognize any one of the women is better than cash. It takes more than food and drink for a real man to live a man's life."

Lynne suddenly came up behind his seat and slid her hands under his shirt and down his chest. "Long story short, you're interrupting our good time."

The pirate leered. "All of you?"

Achernar tugged on one end of her scarf and slowly slid the length of the silk cloth away from her neck. He leered as well. "It's good to be Romulan at times. Now, our clearance."

Hoskins meanwhile whispered to Saavik, "Our usual Idiom of the Day exchange? Here's one."

The Romulan kept talking, "Check your coffers. I transferred the extra fees to you and our friend below."

Lynne hissed, "Floor it!"

"Saavik, go!" Stuart ordered at the same time as she and Warfield grabbed hold of something.

The small ship leapt and the Vulcan demonstrated just why Hikaru Sulu had picked her as his replacement for the Enterprise years ago. Lauren later said she could feel the pirates frantically looking everywhere for their black on black ship with its sensor-defeating array. Saavik took care in not crossing one of the big ships that would have made them visible against the gray hulls. She and Achernar spun and danced through the fleet as it tried too late to close in on them. In the middle of it all, the music's throaty heat sounded out of place.

"Warp speed!" Dannan commanded even as they already punched in the coordinates. They shot away.

Achernar made a satisfied noise and Saavik wondered for the first time why he had built two flight control stations, instead of keeping one when he traveled alone, as far as she knew. Did it have anything to do with the reason why he'd named the ship after her?

And why he emphasized the bed was bigger. That was only his teasing Hoskins.

It's what she told herself.

The humans let out long exhales. Saavik waited for Hoskins to breathe normally.

"Floor it," she said instead of asked.

She got a huge smile in return. "Thought you'd like it." Her hands were still deep in Achernar's shirt.

"Lynne, let go of him," Stuart remarked.

Lauren added, "So I can put my hands there."

The Romulan tipped back his head to make some quip when he suddenly peered deep into her eyes and then looked around the cabin. He grinned, big and very ready to laugh. "Is it a rule on the Rider that crewmembers must have blue eyes? You all do, which makes me wonder-" he turned to Saavik, "—how you got on board."

Warfield smirked. "She's taller than us too. You don't like blue eyes?"

"Blue eyes are lovely, all eyes are. I do admit to a preference for a certain shade of brown."

Saavik narrowed hers in mocking.

Lauren leaned over the top of his chair. "I'm glad you like blue eyes, it'd break my heart if you didn't. I'm sure you already figured out that I'm quite…"

"Promiscuous," Saavik offered.

Dannan's drink nearly came out her nose. She clamped a hand over it and coughed hard. "I told you to warn me if you're going to do something like that!"

"I only stated a fact, Captain."

Warfield complained, "I was going to say friendly! You make it sound terrible!" She had a second thought. She locked eyes with Achernar again. "Or maybe you like it. Saavik's just aggravated-"

"Untrue."

"Because we had a big argument not long ago. She came into my cabin and interrupted the – sleepover I was having. I told her she shouldn't treat a special someone in my life like that."

"I would not do so," Saavik insisted. "However, I was unaware that the person you referred to as your 'naked freak dance partner' was special."

Hoskins laughed, "She's got you there, Lauren. You couldn't remember the guy's name."

Stuart chuckled. "She probably never asked him for it. Achernar, we just cost you a port of call. I'm sorry."

"Don't be, Captain. They'll get over it once they checked to see just how much I put in their accounts. They will also receive an invoice that has an appearance of legitimacy in two days. Coincidentally, it is for the same amount I just paid to escape that planet."

Saavik half-looked at him. "And that payment is to a deceptive account for you."

"Correct! Now then, before this whiskey and empty stomachs make us of no use for our dear Commander." He gave Lauren instructions on working the galley.

Warfield asked Lynne to come with her and they mumbled something about poking their noses where they shouldn't. Stuart, however, gave him a pointed glance.

"Afraid of losing your seat? Don't worry, I was a pilot for years in the Border Patrol."

"I would never question your abilities, friend Dannan. I have a very good reason for sitting here, and not the one you think." His voice changed. It… gentled. "It is so I remain easily in sight."

Warfield made a wicked remark from the gallery that Saavik only heard with the back of her mind. The conscious part listened to his meaning and he was right: it wasn't what her crewmates thought. He stayed in her sight so she could keep easy track of the only Romulan here while she piloted. To keep that instinct molded in Hellguard's hands satisfied.

Before this, he only needed to be out of sight for seconds, including rushing changing his clothes; the galley would take longer so he stayed.

Now he rummaged around the food Lauren brought out and passed a plate to Saavik. She thought of telling him to place it down in a safe spot, but reached out a hand and took it. It would have been petty not to.

In the next second, she thought she should have told him to sit aft by himself but too late.

"I'm curious, Captain. You earlier said Saavik could not say the mission where we met was classified. You were quite adamant about it." He asked it without asking.

Lynne answered, "We played a game with her awhile back where you answer questions or perform an action. We'd ask her things and she'd tell us it was classified, so it's an inside joke now. She won the game though. She even almost did the dare. It took us by surprise, but it shouldn't have."

"What was the dare?"

Saavik tried thinking of a subject they'd be willing to abandon this one for.

Warfield told him, "You were one pair of pants away from doing it yourself just a few minutes ago."

His gaze landed on Saavik. A slow mischievous smile turned his lips. "And you almost did this?" He sighed. "Once again, I am not in the right time and place."

Perhaps I can get them all to go aft. That was dangerous except for Stuart who was in a committed relationship albeit long distance. She was scheduled to see him next week after their latest failed attempt to get him on the Rider.

Lauren plucked a few finger food items off her plate. "You think that's interesting, you should have been around a few months ago. Someone was interested in Saavik, but thought she might be with Spock. So, they asked Lynne and me."

Now Saavik's attention riveted to the answer as much as anyone else, more than anyone else.

"I don't know if you've ever heard of the Sitanis," Warfield continued. "They're a people who study body language the way we were all taught grammar in school. This someone said that once people have been lovers, their body language reflects it. Your body knows the intimate rhythms of the other and will react subtly in each other's presence from then on."

Achernar was deadpan. "And this someone saw this in our friends Spock and Saavik."

"Yeah, or they wouldn't have asked."

Damn.

Achernar spoke thoughtfully. "I did once tell friend Spock that he may find something worth trading for. Then, I said, even he would pay the price. Perhaps…?"

He watched her, quiet and waiting. They all did. Saavik made sure she showed nothing, as memory vividly brought back –

A cave, a storm, his eyes and touch, his fingers on her uniform, removing it, firing her own passion—

"Spock and I have known each other for 27.256 years. Clearly our body language would reflect such familiarity, and this person misread what he or she saw."

The look in Spock's eyes on Vulcan, in his family's garden, when they melded and relived it so he had the true memories… the taste of his breath on her lips, the kiss of his hand on hers that made them gasp, the rough depth of his voice, "It is something beautiful between us."

No one said anything for a heartbeat until Achernar leisurely smiled. "So when we know each other for twenty-seven years, we'll move like lovers?"

A younger Saavik would have snapped at him. But the person she was now spoke dryly. "You compare you and I seeing each other twice with my association with Spock?"

But he wasn't so easily defeated. "Anytime you want to see more of me, you only have to say so. Should I get rid of the shirt again?"

"Yes!" Hoskins and Warfield cried. He laughed, stood, and began opening his shirt.

"Sit down. Clothed," Saavik ordered, her tone still dry.

Stuart spoke as he redressed, chuckling, "You know, you ask a lot of questions."

The Romulan lifted a shoulder. "I answer them too, so if you have more." He waved for her to continue.

"All right, you said you made Saavik an offer. What was the offer?"

The weight of his stare on Saavik was heavy. "It was personal and genuine." His mockery died away as he looked at Saavik. "A sincere offer, one I still make today. You would only have to say yes."

He held her eyes, but when she made to answer, he shook his head. Not here, not now. It was the message she had been about to give him.

Back to playing the roguish smuggler, he turned to Dannan. "I offered wealth, her own Empire, and me. But as I said, I was firmly refused."

Lynne asked, "So then why do you still offer it?"

He grinned, big and bright, but Saavik spoke over him. "Captain, Starfleet patrol."

Stuart gave her ID and asked the other captain to make it look like any other smuggler's ship being let go. Part of the deal with Achernar was hiding they're being aboard and his working with them, so he wasn't labeled as a Starfleet agent.

Which was when hell broke loose.

The captain, golden brown despite a life in a starship, gave a bored speech about what the Star had to do or violate Federation regulations. He looked over his shoulder and ordered flight records saved for the official file before saying the Star knew what to send next.

Achernar's head swung sharply around that bridge and then he shot to his feet. His hands didn't curl into fists, but into talons. That hawk profile highlighted his gritted teeth and how his breath drew rapidly through his nose as his chest rose and fell in swells.

Sinister, McCoy had said.

Romulan.

"Another havam, another dha'rudh, who makes a deal and then pretends he never agreed to it! Put a red jacket on any of you with half an ounce of power and suddenly Federation ideals are for sale!"

Hoskins, Stuart, and Warfield stared for a nanosecond, taken off-guard by the man who had been a friend and now was - alien and enemy. They dropped their glasses as they drew weapons.

Yet Saavik did not. By the end of Achernar's speech, she picked up on the important points: they didn't have a deal with the starship and the Romulan knew it; what the Star was supposed to send next was a verification code, not money; Achernar never let his Romulan temper do something as stupid as bringing a Starfleet vessel down on him.

And…

… something, the trigger.

"You watch your mouth!" the captain shouted. "Don't you dare accuse me of being for sale!"

"Don't impugn my reputation with this act! Put that in your record!"

Saavik grabbed Hoskins from her station and whispered fiercely, "We finally get to play!" The same words they used when they first playacted with Achernar. She pushed the woman to the comm station before standing next to the Romulan. Now she drew her weapon and made a mask of her expression to match his.

"Don't think about boarding us either." Her voice was flat and deadly. "We'll make sure it won't be worth the price you'll pay with your people's lives."

"Bloody hell," Hoskins mumbled and attacked the comm station.

Stuart's curse was much worse; so was the other captain's. But Dannan figured out enough to follow Saavik's lead. She and Warfield tried to make it look like their weapons were always meant for the starship crew on the screen.

"Just live up to the deal," Stuart snapped, "and let us through."

The communications officer on the other ship grabbed hold of his board, sent Hoskins' decrypted message to a padd, and handed it to his captain. He went from it up to the main viewscreen, his lips still thinned.

Finally, he snapped, "Count yourselves lucky."

Achernar's breathing slowed and the bunching in his muscles ebbed away. He took control of himself and put that charming sheath over his Romulan talons again. His smile spread across his face as he took his seat. "We will. Good hunting elsewhere, Captain."

The other man said nothing, just slashed a hand across his throat to order the connection killed.

The Romulan smiled up at Saavik. "I told you before that no Vulcan could ever be so beautiful as you and, in this moment, you prove me right. However, I have to give your Vulcan side at least some credit for those quick wits."

She already had holstered her gun; she dropped into her pilot's chair and put them on course for the final leg of their journey. "It became obvious."

"It did?"

"Yes. Your reaction began when he ordered the discussion entered in the log. Anyone checking the log would see we were obviously working with Starfleet with at least a portion of the crew being from the fleet. In reality, the captain unconsciously did the opposite of what he was meant to do: prevent anyone from knowing you were aiding us in this mission. Your outburst corrected that."

He glanced out of the corners of his eyes at her shipmates. "My sincere apologies, ladies. I hope this doesn't sour our remaining time together."

When Saavik put away her weapon, the three humans holstered their guns too. Warfield blew out a breath. "I'm going to need that bottle again."

He bowed his head, gathered up the glasses – so thick and well made that they hadn't broken – and got clean ones. He poured again and, this time, downed his in one swallow. So did the humans.

Warfield perked up. "I have a question, but it's for you, Dannan."

Stuart snickered into her glass. "I knew this was coming."

"You're easy going, like Hunter." Their former captain on the Aerfen. "No harking on us about illegal Romulan whisky, drinking on duty hours, or other things."

"A surplus of other things," Saavik added, satisfied the question wasn't about her. She increased their speed; they were close now.

"So, General Order Thirty-Six. We can toss that off to the side, right?" Lauren clasped her hands together in an over-the-top pleading motion.

"Be a sport," Lynne played along.

Achernar was bemused this time. "General Order Thirty-Six?"

Dannan winked. "No naked freak dancing with the enemy."

Lauren muttered Spoilsports.

"Ah!" The Romulan winked. "I'm flattered. The Neutral Zone fantasies go both ways, after all." He used his index fingers to make his ears rounded.

Lynne cried out, "Are you serious?"

Saavik jumped in. She'd give a sigh of relief if she did that sort of thing. "We are in hailing distance of the Rider."

Stuart snapped into command mode. "Take us out of warp and set coordinates for the rendezvous."

This was another part of hiding Starfleet working with Achernar. The ship waited for them behind Orh'neon's fifth moon. Saavik skimmed the planetoid's surface, using the Romulan's impressive sensor array to watch everywhere her eyes couldn't and where they could. Over the crest of the moon and ahead, the first sight of the NCC-1846: the battlecruiser Rider. Their agile, tactical powerhouse.

"Hello, baby," Dannan Stuart crooned. "Did you miss me?"

"If she answers," Warfield said, "this whiskey packs a bigger punch than I thought."

Hoskins already passed on their ID and proof of who they were. She snapped a control so everyone could hear.

"This is the USS Rider. Welcome home, Captain."

Stuart glowed. "Thank you. Lower the shields and activate the tractor beam. Bring us inside."

"Yes, ma'am. Commander Saavik, you've got guests waiting for you-"

Guests? Plural?

"—and so do you, Captain. Someone who's a week early."

Her smile split her face. "Mal! Saavik, get me on my ship!"

The landing was textbook. Dannan, Lynne, and Lauren hovered at the airlock, hands nebulously ready to draw weapons, while Saavik lingered at the cargo holds. Achernar stacked two crates by the center plates and jumped down inside. After a moment, he handed the padd to her. She verified it.

"Confirmed, Captain." The Romulan hadn't swapped padds, removed or in any way tampered with the information.

"Figured it was," Stuart said, impatient. "Let's go."

Warfield and Hoskins peeked into the crates, but at this informal command, they went out but Saavik looked back. The cargo holds were empty, unlike the talk surrounding Achernar on the Enterprise when they met, and he held treasures that made everyone long for them. He saw Saavik's furrowed brow and, of all things, gave her a gentle smile.

She shook her head at it. "I ask you again, what game do you play?"

"Achernar!" Hoskins and Warfield ran back in. "What's taking you so long?"

He lifted the crates and they each took an arm to lead him into the Rider's shuttlebay. Commander Dimiter Mateo, in command of the Rider while they had been away, stood off to the side with a few yeomen and a Security team.

"Mal!" Dannan yelled.

That quick she was across the hanger bay and kissing Chief Malcolm Jakobs. Jakobs' body was barrel shaped, despite his having lost weight, and his black hair receded into baldness.

Saavik said in an aside to Lynne Hoskins, "I have never understood those who say it is unbelievable the captain chose Chief Jakobs. He is a good man with attractive points both physically and in personality. And yet, they say Captain Stuart is too beautiful for him."

"Humans, right?" Lynne asked and at Saavik's nod, she said, "You need to learn this lesson. People can be utter prats."

Mal's ordinary features shone with love for Stuart and it warmed his flat accented words.

"Hi, sweetheart." He couldn't stop smiling. "Got a surprise for you." He handed her a padd and watched her face as she read it.

Her head snapped up as she looked in his eyes. "You transferred here? How? We've been trying for so long!"

He bobbed his head at the Vulcan although he never stopped looking at Dannan. "Saavik. We took advantage of you signing whatever she puts in front of you without looking at it. So we could surprise you. I don't know how, but she took care of the red tape and Command, and here I am."

Stuart found her first officer with Achernar, Warfield, and Hoskins. "Thank you," she mouthed.

Lynne said, "Way to go, Savage. You can probably name anything you want and get it."

"Hey!" Warfield yelled jokingly to Dannan. "I helped! Can I keep him?!" She pointed at Achernar.

"Holy-" Jakobs started saying at the sight of the Romulan but Saavik stopped paying attention because she heard something else.

"Friend Saavik!"

"Rrelthiz!"

The Carreon bounded across the deck, the lights playing on her shining black skin striped with neon blue, the same as her eyes, that covered all her slender form. Behind her was Leonard McCoy.

"Leonard changed his plans," Rrelthiz said, tail swinging and with a light warble. "I told him this would be much more fun!"

The doctor pinpointed Achernar. "She was right. Look who's on board."

"Doctor McCoy." The Romulan picked up one of the crates and brought it over. He ignored Security drawing their phasers. "I thought I might see you, so I prepared for it."

He placed the crate at the doctor's feet. "I remember your tastes from the last time we met."

McCoy's brow furrowed as he reached down to open the crate. The creased forehead cleared and a bright grin came over his features as he withdrew another bottle of thick cut glass, but this one holding a liquid almost the same electric color of Rrelthiz's stripes and eyes.

The doctor pulled the stopper and moved the ale under his nose for a whiff. His grin got bigger. "This is excellent. Thank you! Is it still illegal if you give it to me?" He chuckled and then glanced over at the other crate. "Is that for me too? This is getting to be a lifetime supply."

The Romulan gave a small shake of his head, smiling. "No, not for you. Captain? Miss Warfield, Miss Hoskins." He scooped up the crate and crossed to them. Security, Jakobs, and Saavik kept careful watch. "You seemed to enjoy it, so I thought you might like some to take with you."

Dannan eagerly opened the crate and took out a bottle of the amber liquor. As she told Jakobs about it's great quality and went on a bargaining routine with McCoy to swap ale for whiskey, Saavik took Achernar aside.

"You will be leaving. I must speak with you first."

He looked ready to tease her on her first sentence, but the second left him open and eager. "You need to talk to me?"

Saavik thought she had kept her volume down, but there was a sudden shout: Warfield.

"What do you mean he's leaving?" She spun around to Stuart. "Dannan, come on. The mission isn't over. He should stay until it is."

"On the contrary," Saavik argued, "not only is his part accomplished, ours is as well. We only need to turn over the information to the Potemkin."

Stuart still played with the bottle in her hands. "Or maybe not."

"Captain," Saavik warned.

Dannan leaned in. "We do all the footwork for months and now we hand it off? Why? There's nothing about the Potemkin that makes it the reason they go. It doesn't make sense that anybody has to deliver information anyway, instead of transferring it."

"As you are aware, Captain, the Badrorians have a tradition that predates technological eras that maintains the physical delivery of files."

"Which we can do just as well as anybody else. Lynne, inform Command that we're completing our mission and then tell Potemkin thanks but no thanks."

Hoskins snickered. "It wouldn't be the Rider if we didn't regularly risk losing our jobs from Command."

Stuart found where Commander Mateo stood. "Dimiter, set a course for Badroria V. I want to be there before Command finds out what we're doing." She stared at the yeomen; so did Saavik and she was the one to demand:

"Where are our uniforms?"

Regulations stated that when an officer returned to their ship, yeomen had their regular uniforms so they may change out of field parkas or whatever they wore.

Mateo gave the yeomen a gesture saying he'd take care of it. "Captain, the crew's wondering if they can see your… costumes. Word's spread around the ship."

Stuart laughed. "Sure, of course. But hold on. Let's give them the whole picture."

She got her hood up as Warfield lifted her black cloak around her head and shoulders. Lynne replaced her scarf inside her collar and the wide brimmed hat.

"Saavik," Dannan half-suggested, half-ordered, "show the toys you're wearing."

"Captain, they are hardly toys."

"Come on, play along with the group."

So Saavik gave a signature snap of her arms, revealing the two daggers. She was about to move her duster when Achernar slowly flipped her coat away from the weapon on her hip.

Slowly so I was not alarmed. Although it apparently looked like something else based on her shipmates' vocal reactions.

"I could have done it myself," Saavik told him.

"I know. I'm your partner this mission. I'm only being helpful."

She caught McCoy's face split in two as he watched their interaction. Jakobs also caught the other man's big grin. "What's so funny?"

"I'm imagining the speed records Spock would set if he heard Achernar was here with Saavik."

Mal chuckled. "I hear that. It's hard to hold on to your sense of—how much of a guy you are with…"

"The Romulan's male definition of sex walking around," McCoy volunteered.

Warfield grinned. "I walked in on the last line and yes, he is. If he had been on a recruitment poster, I'd have signed up during puberty."

I need to interrupt this.

"Captain."

That was all it took. Stuart clapped her hands. "Right, back to work! Dimiter gets us on the correct course, we'll go to the bridge when we get near orbit. Doctor McCoy, Doctor Rrelthiz, I hope you'll be my guests in my office?" She smiled lovingly up into Mal. "We have to celebrate."

The Carreon nodded, but was distracted by Achernar, turning her head this way and that with low hums in her throat sac. Her fellow doctor accepted verbally for both of them.

Saavik said quite innocently, "I will escort Achernar out." So I may discuss what is necessary.

Lynne Hoskins went back and forth between him and Stuart. "I thought we agreed he's staying to see this through. It's a shame though," she aimed the teasing at Saavik "the crew missed out on those matching outfits."

Dannan nodded to herself more than anybody else. "He sees it through."

He bowed his head. "My pleasure, Captain."

"And afterwards, we'll drop you off Rencenah 3. Its rings are great for throwing off even visuals. You'll be able to get away clean."

"Especially my pleasure seeing as my Empire wanted the information I just gave you."

Heads snapped to him, including Saavik. It puts a death sentence on his life.

"What?" Dannan demanded.

He appeared honestly surprised. "You didn't know? I thought you did before you approached me."

Saavik's eyes widened. "Why place yourself in this danger?"

His lips parted at her concern and then he licked them. "Don't worry. A General D'Naq, a malicious man, called for it, supposedly out of patriotism, but in reality to rid himself of his enemies. He will get the information… with one slight difference. When it is discovered, they will blame my source and his enemies will be prepared. It buys me allies should I need them."

McCoy blew out a breath. "All of that for…"

Achernar smiled. "And my fee, of course."

The doctor called to Stuart, "I need that drink, Captain."

"I completely agree. Let's go."

Warfield waved over the Security team and held out her hand. They put a pair of cuffs in it. Her glance darted over the Romulan's. "You understand."

"Of course." He held out his wrists.

But Dannan cut in, "Lauren. It's all right."

"Yes!" and took the cuffs off with a real smile.

The Vulcan almost argued but it'd be fruitless as well. She did give the Security team orders to take the rear and put herself next to Achernar and then left a measure of space between the two of them and the rest of the party.

She had to admit, though, his behavior was perfect.

She resolved to spread the story through the Frontier that she dumped Achernar and took the padd shortly after they left the last patrols. She would also stress he hadn't known who she was until she was gone. That should take the danger off of him. With some convincing, Jdehn might help, especially if Saavik got what she wanted from the Romulan.

The whole group left the shuttlebay and found the crew waiting for them. Good natured whistling and comments went well with Warfield and Hoskins parading down the corridor to the lift.

A few people in the crew remarked that, "Whoever they got to play that Romulan is doing a great job. The makeup's amazing too." Only to be corrected by someone next to them. Achernar tended to wink at these people.

More greeted them as they exited the lift, all the way into Stuart's office. She gestured for people to find seats, something they barely had enough of, even with the couch. Security stood outside, flanking the door.

"We'd be more comfortable in my cabin," she said, "but this let's me stay by the bridge."

McCoy put a hand on Hoskins' arm and whispered. She laughed and said back, "I'll take care of it right now."

She went to the comm panel on Stuart's desk and spoke quietly. Saavik couldn't even make out what she said.

Rrelthiz didn't sit right away; she stood behind her seat, holding the top of it carefully in the seven talons she had on each hand. In the next second, her tail changed from its tight twitching to leisurely sweeps. She cocked her head as she spoke to Achernar.

"I remember now where I have seen you. Indeed, it was years ago when Friend Saavik and those like her where attacked with a disease. You retrieved information."

He waited and gestured for her to sit first. "Yes, I did. Miss..." He left it open.

Saavik corrected him. "Doctor."

"And Rrelthiz," the Carreon said. She gauged his proximity to Saavik, and perhaps that's what made her relax despite his sitting between her and her friend.

"Of course," the Romulan answered. "Captain Stuart said your name on the hangar deck."

Dannan handed out refreshments. The others sampled from the whiskey and ale, but she handed Saavik a cup of i'rtisi, a hot beverage of Vulcan herbs that humans usually called tea.

The breathing in Rrelthiz's throat sac picked up, accompanying the happy swishes of her tail. "You are also the one who says Saavik owes you a big favor for that hybrid disease information?"

He grinned at Saavik. "A good reminder."

"Lady Amanda had me promise not to let you collect it."

He stared at her and then threw his head back in a deep laugh as everyone else gawked. "This is the legendary Amanda, T'Sai of Vulcan?"

"Yes! And I laugh with you, because I imagine you trying to collect back then. You must face Lady Amanda to get to Friend Saavik!"

McCoy chuckled too and so did the Rider crew who had met Amanda a number of times.

Achernar shook his head and grinned. "I would have enjoyed that. It is my loss. It is," he whispered honestly to Saavik before raising his voice for everyone. He still talked to her though. "She would have been like one of those – Saavik, the creatures used to guard the family. We don't have them."

"Sehlats."

"Yes! She would have been like a sehlat with her charge."

But Rrelthiz informed him, "Amanda said Saavik is her own sehlat. Self-guarding."

The feeling of Amanda rose out of Saavik's memory, and she felt the light weight of the necklace she had inherited under her uniform. The women in Amanda's family had passed it down through the generations since the nineteenth century, and yet Amanda had given it to her.

Achernar murmured, "A perceptive woman."

Extremely.

She gazed at him and could physically feel the spark from thinking of the great lady. It burned away the edge of subdued quiet. "It would have been interesting, seeing you attempt matching her."

"I meant what I said." He sat back and then raised his glass in the air in lieu of Amanda. "The first toast of the night is to Amanda of Vulcan. It is my loss never to have met her."

Rrelthiz made a warble with her throat sac, a Carreon laugh aimed at Achernar. "Ambassador Sarek is still well. Perhaps you should take your challenge to him?"

Achernar's grin had a lot of laughter to it. "Only a fool throws down a challenge to Sarek of Vulcan. I'm no fool." He shot the liquor down his throat this time.

McCoy's chuckle was louder. "Wise man." He lifted his glass again. "Second toast of the night. To Dannan Stuart and Malcolm Jakobs, congratulations on turning that long distance relationship to a very short distance one."

The captain kept her glass in the air and in Saavik's direction. "And the person who made it happen."

Dannan gave off the air of someone who had everything she wanted. It made all the promises and deals to make tonight happen worth it.

Rrelthiz reached past the Romulan and tapped Saavik's chair arm. "You prove again that you are a true friend."

Mal used his drink to indicate the Carreon and the Vulcan. "I never quite got you two and this oath of honor."

Achernar perked up. "Oath of Honor?"

Jakobs went on, "What happened when you met that you needed some ceremony?"

Dannan chuckled. "Let's guess."

"Classified," she, Lauren, and Lynne said together.

"It is not classified," Saavik said dryly. "How we met has nothing to do with the oath either. Rrelthiz came aboard the Enterprise, the first of her people to live with aliens."

The Carreon's tail was comfortably idle. "I heard there was a Vulcan on board, besides the renowned Spock. I asked to meet her and interview her."

"So," Achernar drew out, "why the honor oath?"

Saavik gave him a quelling glance that appeared to have no effect. "It is not classified, but it is private."

McCoy surprised the room by agreeing with her. From what he knows by joining the same mission and having Spock's memories of it.

"They are protecting me," the Carreon said quietly. Her tail rustled in hard, twitching strokes.

"Rrelthiz." Saavik without thinking put a hand on Achernar's far shoulder, and swept him behind her. He moved quickly so they switched chairs. "No, you need not do this. It is a casual question."

"To them, yes. I will not give all the details, but why hide what you did for me." She laid her hand on Saavik's wrist. "We have an oath of honor between us because this is a friend."

"Rrelthiz," Saavik tried again, so did the others, but the Carreon carefully wrapped her fingers, because of talons, around the wrist.

"Indeed, I said, it nothing to hide." The neon blue eyes went back to the others in the room. Her tail stilled. "I did something wrong, an accident. People died. I went to make reparations. Indeed, I went to die too, through a suicide that would give me back some honor. You might not understand that feeling, but it's important to my people."

Out of the corner of her eye, Saavik saw Achernar nod in understanding.

"But Saavik came to me. She asked only that I listen to her before I ended my life. She told me how she understood, how she had faced such a moment, and that living to help save others should be my reparation. I sit here, alive and with honor again to my name because of her. I owe her an honor debt and I am proud to say that is why we have made an oath on it."

The Rider crew and McCoy weren't sure where to look, but Achernar looked at Saavik from the moment she entered Rrelthiz's story. She was aware of him; she couldn't miss him, even peripherally. But she focused on Rrelthiz.

The Carreon wound down. "I hope I did not make you uncomfortable. Don't be. I want people close to Friend Saavik to know what she did. I'm sure she has done such acts for you."

She kept her hand on the Vulcan, her tail swishing slowly. Saavik watched her, until she heard the Romulan speak. He surprised her.

His smile was warm and honest. "Doctor Rrelthiz, I've learned things in my wide and varied life. One of them is, never argue friendship or honor with your people."

Rrelthiz started coming out of her mood. "It is good you learned this." She held up her glass, asking McCoy, "Is this right?" When he agreed, "To friendship, something we are all lucky to know!"

People relaxed and drank to the toast. Still, Saavik thought she caught surreptitious glances at the Carreon.

Something must be done regarding it.

Saavik began, "In all her talk, Rrelthiz has left out important information regarding Ambassador Sarek and the events leading to the honor ceremony."

The electric blue eyes darted around her face and the throat sac stopped. Then it gave a series of hisses that were a Carreon's laughter. "Yes! I have so much to say on it!"

"Her father," Saavik said with mock chiding, "came to speak with me. He grew concerned I might have deprived Rrelthiz of her honor after all. And he did not know if I understood, or if I was even worthy of, the honor debt."

Rrelthiz laugh was becoming one long sibilant sound of escaping air. "In the Federation Council meeting areas, where he served as diplomat for our becoming a Federation member. He lectured—"

"He interrogated me."

"—for an hour! Then made her come to our world to take the honor ceremony!"

Saavik could tell McCoy knew she was leading them somewhere. "And how does Sarek come into this?" he asked.

Rrelthiz put a hand on Saavik's shoulder, barely able to get the words out. "I will tell it! My father did not know how to contact her. He knew she was a cadet and Vulcan, but that is all. So, indeed, he—" She couldn't go on as she gasped for breath around her laughing.

"Bbalsho, her father, went to Sarek – Vulcan's premier ambassador, Rrelthiz – to—"

"To fetch a Starfleet cadet! The great Sarek!"

Saavik gave her a calm look. "Rrelthiz, it is not humorous. And you will break your tail if you bang it on the chair again."

Perhaps the Romulan ale is detrimental to her physiology.

She saw the smiles, however, forming on her shipmates' faces.

"It is very funny!" Rrelthiz gasped. "And the ceremony!"

"Three hours," Saavik obediently filled in.

"Three Carreon hours! First alien to our world, in such a way at least, and you must do the whole ceremony with no translator!" Rrelthiz grabbed McCoy's arm. "Leonard, you should have heard her speaking my language!"

Saavik frowned at her as expected. "I am mammalian, not reptilian, Rrelthiz. I am not physiologically capable of speaking it in its full form. I have no throat sac and my vocal cords differ from yours."

"You have no tail either. It is not necessary to talk, I just make a comment." The Carreon popped out of her seat. "Come, Friend Saavik! We will show them. No, not the whole ceremony, only the core of the oath. And no translator so they hear how you sound." She ordered the computer to turn the translator off and started singing.

Achernar leaned forward. "You had to sing it?"

"Yes. You needn't be shocked by the idea."

Lynne Hoskins chuckled and Warfield demanded someone record this.

"And then," Rrelthiz cried out, snapping the translator back on, "Friend Saavik had to do this." She pushed her chair back and began a dance, her slim body undulating in rhythm to her song.

Saavik began to think she should not have started this. "I did not. Rrelthiz, you are lying to them."

The Romulan was right at her shoulder. She could feel his breath along her neck, but she couldn't afford to push him back. She could glare at him though. "There wasn't a dance?"

"There was, in the way of movement, but certainly not that."

"Saavik, join me. Let's show them."

For all her dry humor, Saavik listened. She moved her own chair back to give them room and ordered the music to play; that signaled everyone to shove chairs out of the way.

"Seriously," Lauren asked, "we're recording this, right?"

Rrelthiz stood face to face with Saavik and pointedly turned off the translator. In sync with each other and speaking Carreon, they made their oath of honor again. The song and movement came off as tribal and ancient, as well as light, joyful, and warm. Not the dire, solemn thing their talk might have sounded like, and despite Rrelthiz's earlier laughter and Saavik's protests, they performed it like they had back then. With Rrelthiz happily swishing her tail and the Vulcan smile in Saavik's expression.

Achernar bowed to Rrelthiz. "Obviously, a noble ceremony, but I might prefer your first dance."

She returned to laughing, with utter love for her friend. "Her accent though!"

Dannan got up from the sofa. "I'm getting in on this! Rrelthiz, is it okay if you show me?"

"I will make it so. Here, Captain, mirror my actions. If nothing else, I can laugh at someone besides Friend Saavik's accent."

Lynne Hoskins tapped on Saavik's arm. "Oi, you show me."

So Saavik did which led to Hoskins teaching Warfield and Stuart shouting, "Mal! On your feet!" and Rrelthiz chanting, "Leonard! Leonard! You too!"

He chuckled, but he stood up. "No one has asked it, so I will. What are we saying?"

Rrelthiz answered. "The usual. Friendship, honor, commitment. You understand. Did you fear you are promising to sacrifice yourself to my firstborn?"

"Now I am!"

Saavik chastised in mock disapproval. "Rrelthiz, this is a sacred ceremony of your people. And you treat it like this."

After that, Warfield announced she liked Rrelthiz's first dance better too. The three women and the Carreon moved around the table, happy in singing and twirling. "We have to show Hunter this one the next time we visit," Stuart said of their former captain. "She'll love it."

That left Saavik. With Achernar. He began to stand.

"No," she said.

He captured her eyes and stood up. She didn't look away, but she went no closer.

"Not me? Are you sure?" he asked, still with that suave exterior in place.

"Yes." Not damning, but firmly.

He took half a step. "You do owe me a favor."

Her eyebrows flew up. "You use it for this?"

"Maybe." He made a quarter step this time. "What would you say if I did?"

She softened her voice just a bit, to lull him. "That Rrelthiz carries a knife and you have turned your back on her."

The Carreon called over gleefully, "I have a promise made to Lady Amanda! You forgot already!"

His laughter was more of a breath. "Well done. But you said, you wanted to talk to me. You needed me." He hovered closer. "Something you want."

"Ejarh."

Even a Romulan can give stupefied blinks. "What?"

"We want Ejarh. You have her."

He squeezed his eyes tight. "Of course. I planned to have this conversation, but I forgot in the last hour."

Saavik at last understood. He and most likely everyone else wouldn't believe she did not want to cause him pain. When he had made that offer years ago, she had thought, Why don't I kill him? Now she wondered, Why am I bothered to have hurt him?

"Now then, Ejarh," he went on. "The scientist and only person outside of the four of you left from Hellguard."

"And the Romulan parents."

His voice dropped. "Of course. Before you ask, I never could find out who they were. As for Ejarh, she stupidly left the niche where I placed her."

Her earlier concern for him became second priority in this minute. "Why did you save her?"

"To keep her safe."

Saavik controlled her reaction. "She paid your fee."

"No." He leaned so they were practically nose to nose. "For you. I knew someday you would need her." He leaned away. "But I made a mistake. I never thought she'd be so desperate or so thoughtless to take off."

"Desperate?"

"You heard her on that recording. Desperate for information on you and the other three. I know this much. She hasn't crossed the Zone. I'll tell you if I find her, but you already know the Empire wants to erase the Hellguard team. They might get her before I do." Achernar started to touch her, but thought better of it. "You need to remember how much she wants you. Keep your starship and crew around you, and tell Sarek and Spock."

She shook her head. "I will not involve them."

Achernar bared teeth. "Yes, you will. There's a reason I said only a fool throws down a challenge to Sarek. Use that!"

She pushed back. "You will not give me orders."

He let out an audible exhale. "It wasn't an order. It was logic."

He took a beat. "Now then." Achernar made the rest of that step between them. His voice dropped to something only someone with their ears could hear. "Answer this. Just this. Is it only that I'm Romulan?"

Saavik started to maneuver around the question, but she would be wrong if she did. She lowered her voice to match his. "I cannot give you an answer. You are Romulan."

He studied her and she watched a swallow travel down his throat. "Or maybe it's that I'm Romulan. And not Spock."

She shook her head slowly and slightly. "Do not start what I will not finish."

"Right." She caught the same scents of soap, cologne, and him. "And I can't say you misled me."

She should go back to her seat, but she had wanted to say this since their beginning. "You must know you want me only because you cannot have me."

"Oh, lady." His voice sounded hoarse. "You greatly underestimate yourself."

Saavik started to walk around him. Whatever this was between them, they couldn't play at it anymore. But she stopped at his side. "Answer me this. What game do you play? This entire mission. What is this new act?"

"Don't you get it? You have it reversed. It's not a game anymore. Not with you. Those men in the bar, the Harbor Master, your shipmates. But not you. And this is me." He did touch her now, he brushed her shoulder with his. It made a sizzle in her nerves. "Something else. When I made that offer to you the first time, I said you didn't have to like me. Now you do."

"Saavik?" Stuart was looking over. "Everything okay?"

She looked away. "Yes, Captain. We are merely talking."

He conceded, gave himself one more look at her, and then spun around, the scoundrel's pretense in place. He escorted Saavik to her original chair. "We discussed just how much bodily harm did she want to inflict on me today."

A calm mask in place, she returned, "I did not consider inflicting bodily harm on you. I considered rendering you unconscious."

"Uh huh. You still thinking about it?"

"Yes."

The laugh came from deep in his chest as he gestured with his one hand to the group. "There you go. When I am here unarmed."

She calmly lifted her eyebrows. "Your Honor Blade is in your left boot, concealed by your trouser leg. It is why I sat on that side of you. It was a clever ruse, including the fact you disguise being right handed by keeping your dagger on the other side."

He chuckled while the Rider crew snapped to eyeing him again.

"He will not harm you," Saavik told them, "or I would not allow him to keep it."

She didn't get to sit, because Dannan pulled her aside. "Just need to discuss something with my first officer," she announced to the rest.

Warfield tapped Achernar's boots with her foot. "Kind of forgot about you already, Captain."

Stuart spoke in a near whisper. "Um… look. General Order Thirty-Six."

"Yes?"

Dannan glanced around to make sure no one listened. "I'll put it aside. All right? If you… need to."

Saavik had been ready to bite back in the first half of the statement; the second had her giving her captain deadly stares. But, she reminded herself, Stuart was trying to help. "It is unnecessary."

"I'm talking about-" Dannan clamped her mouth closed. She was getting loud making people look their way. "—I'm talking about you going into… you know. Seven years. He'll agree in a heartbeat."

Perhaps she should render Stuart unconscious. Saavik reminded herself again that her captain was trying to help. But the captain didn't understand; Dannan's one parent didn't put the other one into pon farr and then… took advantage of it. Saavik would never be like her Vulcan parent: manipulated, forced, in the hands of a Romulan.

The second biggest argument she ever had with Amanda. She didn't want to repeat it now.

"It is unnecessary, Captain, although I appreciate your concern."

"If you say so." Stuart worried, that was clear, and then the small frown grew into a smile. "Even I think you're crazy for turning him down."

You would not say so if you had a frame of reference.

Stuart's mouth curved. "You're thinking of knocking me out, aren't you?"

"Yes."

"The bodies are going to pile up in here. Come on." They returned to the group.

Jakobs talked leisurely with McCoy about their children; Mal's son entered his teen years and the doctor commiserated with stories of his daughter at that age.

Out of politeness, Jakobs asked the Romulan, "Do you have kids?"

Hoskins added, "Maybe – unofficial ones out there? Little Achernar Juniors running around?"

He smiled. "No, I've been careful. Can you imagine me as a father?"

Warfield flashed a wicked grin. "Does that mean you're looking for volunteers for the mother?"

Saavik believed they were all spared from this getting worse by a comm signal. She readjusted that thinking with Hoskins sharing a conspiratorial look with McCoy. Except her shipmate turned that focus on her.

"Saavik, it's for you."

The odds do not favor this being good.

Dannan turned the screen towards her and hit the control.

Saavik's attitude lightened instantaneously. "Spock! This is unexpected." And welcome. She caught his looking her up and down, but she missed the appreciation. "The clothes were for a mission. Is all well with your current assignment?"

An eyebrow lifted. "Quite well. However, I received a message from Doctor McCoy. We finished today's session, so this is the first moment I had to contact you."

Behind the screen, Leonard McCoy slapped Jakobs on the shoulder. "Told you," he whispered.

"He stated," Spock continued, not knowing what happened offscreen, "you have… company."

Saavik didn't get to answer, because Achernar responded as if on cue. He winked at the doctor, then pulled his chair closer to hers and leaned into her.

"My good friend Spock! Ambassador now! What a pleasure to see you again."

Spock's eyebrow came crashing down. On the couch, McCoy clamped his hand over his mouth to contain the sound of his laughter.

Saavik wasn't sure just what was going on, only that based on her shipmates and Rrelthiz's reactions, something was happening.

And then there was how deeply Spock frowned, which made no sense.

Achernar stretched out his legs and hooked his arm on the corner of her chair. "It's a shame that you are such a very, very, very long way away or you could join us. Instead, we'll just have to keep it… intimate."

Spock clasped his hands together quite tightly.