Summary: In another galaxy, in another time, a man bred from birth to be a Protector must leave his lover in order to carry out his duty. However, before he leaves, he vows to meet him at Asphodel's Pit.

"I still say the young sir could be in on it, Protector. The woman is his sister, after all."

"And you think he would betray me like that, Hssa?" The man known as Protector glanced impatiently at the scaled, gray-green Brachian who strode at his side.

"And you think he would not?" He snorted, much to Protector's amusement. The sound was at odds with the muzzle from which it issued. "While you were whiling away the days in his bed, I did a little snooping around. It was the talk of the court, you know."

"Why? Being bedded by a Protector is considered an honor on many worlds."

"True. But Treyson Jax never before showed any inclination toward his own sex. In fact, he is known for his voracious appetite... "

Yes, he is quite insatiable. Protector's lips curled in a grin of sexual satisfaction.

Hssa snorted again. "When it comes to the ladies of his father's court," he clarified. He growled when Protector just shrugged and continued to the spaceport's infirmary. "Why not just look into his mind and see what's there?"

"Shouldn't I offer him a measure of trust?"

"Not when The Protector's fate rests on it."

"You're right. Personal feelings can't enter into it." He rested his hand on his friend's shoulder and looked up into the saurian face. "Have you so little faith in me, Hssa? I did, that very first night. I had to wait until he was asleep, he has an extraordinarily strong shield, and as I suspected, he was sent to distract me."

"As you suspected?" The vertical pupils of Hssa's eyes expanded until the yellow iris was just a thin ring around them.

"Come now, did you think I'd let a pretty face distract me?"

"It would have distracted me, had it belonged to a female of my race," Hssa grumbled. "Will you keep him once you've found The Protector?"

"You know I work best alone." Protector shrugged, shielding his thoughts, and as he'd hoped, his friend was too well-mannered to pry.

The two reached the infirmary and stood watching the sole occupant through one-way glass.

The captain of the Loolah was recovering from the gas that had flooded his compartment and killed his first mate. He sat on his cot with his head in his hands.

"He could have been in on it as well, Protector," Hssa murmured, not wanting to divert his attention from the task at hand.

"Perhaps." Protector's eyes went vague as he sent delicate probes into the captain's mind. After a few moments, he shook his head. "No. His grief is too real. And besides ... " He raised a hand to forestall the Brachian's next suggestion. "... he does not have the mind control to project such emotion. We'll question him and see what he has to say."

The captain looked up as they entered and gave a sour laugh. "This is great. Now they send a Protector?"

"For one who may well have cost Ymper The Protector, you're either very brave, or very stupid." Protector was pleased to note the mental flinch.

"D'you think I don't know why they picked me and my ship? It sure as scrag wasn't because I'm the best and she's the fastest. She's a good ship, but she's small, and something as important as this - transporting the bride of a Thresian princeling - who would suspect the Loolah would be chosen for such a task?"

"Tell me what happened."

"Run-of-the-mill run. Nothing to note. The woman seemed tense, but then, aren't all brides? And then we hit deep space, and I was unconscious for the rest of it. The gas that knocked me out... " His voice broke, and he scrubbed his hands over his face. "... killed my first mate. When I get my hands on whoever was behind this... " His fingers flexed.

"It was your cargo mate who betrayed you."

"Aul? Why? He's been with me for more than a dozen years."

"There are always those who don't want peace among the planets."

"But Aul isn't political. He's one of the stupidest..."

"Was one of the stupidest." They'd found his body outside the cargo bay. His head had been a few yards away, the smooth edges of the slice indicative of The Protector 's blade, something she would use when silence was a necessity. "He'd given your ship's codes to the mercenaries who would have taken the H'asean woman."

"The Protector stopped them?"

"Of course."

"But how? One woman... "

"She's The Protector. And now they've taken her."

Ymper produced many called Protectors, men who, from the moment of conception, were bred to guard and protect, linked together by a mental bond. Of each generation, however, there was only one destined to be The Protector. The sole female, nothing deterred her. She was more deadly and more relentless than any of her comrades, and would stop at nothing to shield whoever had been deemed worthy to be put into her safekeeping.

Why was it felt necessary - and who felt it was necessary - to have The Protector deliver the H'asean to her destination? Hssa sent him that thought. And how was it that a Thresian princeling, and a minor one at that, could afford to pay the price?

Protector shrugged. Once she's back safe, it will be her privilege to discover the whos and the whys and deal with them as she sees fit. And he would be at her back. His expression now was filled with restrained savagery. He, who had been dedicated to protecting The Protector from his earliest years, had failed.

"Why did the mercenaries take her instead of the H'asean woman?" the captain asked, fortunately missing the fury of Protector's expression. "Why not take both of them?"

"They couldn't get to the H'asean woman. She was locked into the most impenetrable cabin on your ship."

The captain blinked, confused. "Look, I love her, but impenetrable and Loolah don't go hand in hand."

"I believe The Protector had access to your ship for a number of days before you lifted off? She would have seen to it that the cabin walls were fortified and the lock on the door programmed to open only to her palm print."

Too much had happened in too short a period of time for the captain to be affronted at the thought of others tampering with his ship without his permission. "In that case, why didn't the mercenaries think to use her palm to open the door?"

"They couldn't. They didn't have her palm." She'd cut off her hand and disposed of it. "We're done here, Hssa."

"But... but... " The captain looked lost.

Someone else could console him. Protector had more important things with which to deal. He left the infirmary, the Brachian at his heels.

"I'll pilot you... "

"No. They'll be expecting a Ymperii ship."

"But... I am going with you."

"No. I have another task for you, my friend."

Protector and Brachian approached the small group - the captain of the ship that would take him on the search to find the one he was bound to protect above all others, the one he had come to care for above all others, and the H'asean woman who was at the bottom of this disaster.

She was as good as her brother at shielding her thoughts, Protector noted wryly, unprepared as she lunged at him, her fingers curled into claws that looked capable of doing serious damage.

"You ruined everything! You Protectors!" She spat the word as if it were a curse.

The captain caught her with casual ease before she could score Protector's face, and with strength that was equally casual tossed her aside. She landed heavily on the deck, the breath knocked from her.

Protector ignored her. Instead, he studied the fair features of her brother, knowing there was a very good chance he might never see them again. What would Trey do in that case, he wondered?

"I must leave, Treyson Jax."

"Yes." He glanced at his sister, then licked his lips. "Yes. I will get my things... "

"You will not be coming with me."

"What? No!"

Hssa watched the scenario that unfolded before him with flat, emotionless eyes, although inwardly he was concerned.

"I will meet you at Asphodel's Pit," Protector told the young sir, his fingers tight upon wrists that would bear the marks of his insistence come the morning. He sent Hssa an emphatic mental message. See he gets there!

Hssa gave the equivalent of a mental shrug in return. He would not commit himself to this madness. Protectors never stayed with their playthings very long. Like a ship's felix, they quickly grew bored and moved on. Protector had already kept this young sir for longer than any of the others Hssa could remember.

Treyson Jax clutched at the black shirt that covered Protector's torso like a second skin. "You cannot..."

Protector kissed the words from the young sir's mouth, swallowing the undertones of desperation that Hssa had no problem detecting.

"Please... " The young sir leaned his forehead against the shoulder of the man who held him. "Take me... " His voice cracked. "Take me with you."

"I cannot. The danger is too great." Protector stroked the long, pale fall of hair.

Was that part of the attraction? Hssa knew that although it was not obvious here, in the flat, artificial light of this spaceport, under their native sun, that hair reflected back a myriad of colors.

"Of course." Treyson Jax dropped his hands and stepped back, defeat clear in his eyes before he turned away.

"Trey... "

"Go, if you are going."

"Protector." The captain gripped his arm. "We must leave now."

"Hssa..." Protector turned to him.

"Protector! Now!"

With a last glance at the unyielding back of his lover, Protector left, quickly following the captain.

"What will you do now, young sir?" Hssa asked, taking a short knife from his belt and using it to pare the talons that were the most obvious of his race's natural defenses, the most visible, but not the most deadly.

Treyson Jax finally turned to stare down the deserted corridor that Protector had taken, rubbing restless fingers over his wrists. "Try to make my way home?"

"With your sister?" Hssa nodded toward the figure which had lain crumpled on the deck and which was now making an effort to rise.

"I will not go back!" she snarled, belying her delicate appearance. "We are a merchant race, but I will not be bartered off like so much merchandise, solely because some ugly, greasy Thresian princeling wants a H'asean to breed!"

It was not only because of the clever tongues and startling good looks of the H'asean, with their milk-white hair, warm flesh tones, and eyes the color of gemstones that they were a prize to be highly desired, but because of their longevity, which it had been learned they passed on to their offspring. They lived long centuries, keeping their youthful appearance, their exterior reflecting their chronological age only when death was imminent. The Thresians, who lived barely a century, hoped that by interbreeding with them, they would expand their life spans.

"You endangered The Protector." Not that Hssa cared much about that. He liked The Protector well enough, but she wasn't the one who had risked life and limb on a whim to save him, thereby gaining his everlasting loyalty and friendship. No, what concerned him was that his friend would either retrieve her or die trying.

"Then do as you will, Treylani." The cold words drew Hssa's attention back to the young sir. "It is because of you that the treaty has been broken. H'aseans would have been able to travel freely the space lanes between our galaxy and theirs."

"I do not care about that treaty!" she cried. She gathered up the flowing, diaphanous material of her gown and rose to her feet.

"Nor do I, truthfully. But you know as well as I that those of our house must often do what is distasteful to us."

"I did not see you volunteering to go in my stead. To have to endure that creature's touch, and bear his whelps... I did not even have his death to look forward to, for once he was gone I would be bred with another, and another, for the length of my life ... "

"You agreed... "

"Until I saw them. Coarse and hairy and... I could not bear it." She shuddered. "I was desperate, do you not see? Father knew. That was why he contracted for The Protector to see that I arrived at journey's end. The only way I could see to get out of it was by arranging for those mercenaries to appear to kidnap me. That would have given Father a valid reason not to go through with his side of the bargain, and the treaty would still have been honored."

"Do you really think so?"

Her glance was sulky. "You did not have to agree to help me. Why did you?"

"You are my sister, Treylani. You pleaded for help so desperately, how could I refuse you?"

But Hssa sensed something under that. Protector was right. This young sir's shield was very strong. Try as he might, all his mental probe yielded was an image of a naked Thresian female in bed - not a pleasant image - and a feeling of revolt and shame.

"Of course." His sister sneered at him. "The handsome, noble Treyson Jax, sacrificing himself for his spoiled, wretched sibling... "

Treyson Jax flinched and turned pale. His sister was fussing with her gown and didn't see, but Hssa did, and the pieces fell together. The young sir could face the prospect of bedding a Thresian no better than his sister could.

"If I had known what it would cost me... "

"What it cost you? What could it cost you?"

"My heart." His words were so low Hssa would not have heard them if not for the extraordinary hearing of his race, and his eyes sharpened, and his stance became alert. This might be more complicated than he'd originally thought.

"Tell yourself that if you like," she scoffed, "if that will reconcile you to the fact that you, who could have any woman you chose by the lifting of your little finger, went to another man's bed, gave yourself to him."

"Havoc was kind to me... " Treyson Jax's eyes grew unfocused, as if he were again reliving that time. "... gentle."

Her laugh was brittle. "How fortunate for you."

He went on as if she hadn't spoken. "Disconcerted is what I was. I have never felt that, not with any of the women I have had. Afterwards, after I thought he had actually fallen asleep, I scrambled out of bed and stood there watching him, watching as his unguarded back rose and fell with each slow, even breath. I could have thrust my knife into his back, but even as the thought crossed my mind, he asked me softly if I could. Yet how he knew my thoughts... " He shook his head, and Hssa realized he was unaware of the telepathic abilities of Protectors.

"You had the perfect opportunity to kill him, and you let it pass you by?" Her voice was strident. "What good did your sacrifice do me? I was still taken by that woman to be an incubator for Thresia."

"It gave you enough time to bribe the ship's cargo mate. He betrayed his oath to his captain... "

"That fool. As if I would have gone with him."

"You bribed him with your body?" He looked appalled and disgusted.

"Promises that would never have been fulfilled."

"He was killed because of you."

She hunched a shoulder, her face an implacable mask, and looked away. "The more fool he then, to think he could possess one of H'asea."

Hssa touched his arm. "Come. Her mind is locked on her own path, there is nothing you can do to change it."

"Where are we going?"

"To Asphodel's Pit. Didn't Havoc tell you to meet him there?"

"But I thought... "

"You thought what, young sir?"

"I thought he told me that simply so he would be free of me. I thought our time together was over."

"I thought so too."

"Yes. I could see you had no intention to take me there."

"I didn't... " Even if it had meant facing down an irritated Protector. "... but then you spoke his name."

"Havoc? Why would my speaking his name have any bearing in the matter?"

"Protectors do not give their names freely, only to those they trust, or love."

"What reason had he to trust me? As for love... "

Hssa grinned, an expression that bared the fangs in his long lower jaw, and which frightened most beholders. Treyson Jax swallowed and would have taken a step back from him, but stood firm. Hssa nodded in approval.

"I don't know why my friend chose to gift you with his name, but since he has, then take you to Asphodel's Pit I shall. Come."

"Trey?" The imperious H'asean was gone, replaced by an uncertain young woman. "I did what I felt I must. I meant no harm to either Protector."

"Know this, Treylani Jax. If any harm comes to my Protector because of your foolhardy actions - then blood or no, I will find you and make you pay."

She bit her lip, then gave a reluctant nod. "We will not meet again, I think."


"Fare you well, brother."

"Farewell, sister."

And without a backward glance, he followed Hssa to the small ship on which they had arrived.

* * *

The space station that swung in an orbit around Fortis 4 repaired, refitted, or restocked all manner of spacecraft, from Starclass liners and intergalactic battle cruisers, to the personal craft owned by galaxy lords, to smaller ships that didn't venture beyond their own solar system.

To serve those who did the repairing, refitting, and restocking, Dive Row sprang up, a series of establishments that offered food and drink, although mostly drink.

Asphodel's Pit was one of the oldest dives on Dive Row.

Sloff had been there for almost as long, first as a patron, and then as the divekeeper after the accident on a tramp space ship that had cost him both legs. He'd had no desire to join the dregs, those who lived homeless in the alleyways between dives, and since he'd a fondness for eating regularly, he went to Asphodel's Pit, where he'd seen a sign that a sweeper was needed.

His airchair had floated him into the Pit. The Ventruvian who ran it for his brother-in-law stood behind the bar, swearing in four languages and trying to mix a drink.

"I need a job." He'd placed the sign on the bar.

The Ventruvian had looked him over dispassionately. "I remember you," he'd said in his hollow voice. "You're a spacer. Were a spacer. I need a divekeeper more than a sweeper. Can you read Ventru?"

"Well... well, yes."

"Good. You're hired. Here's a book with recipes for mixed drinks. Most of the time you'll just need to pour grappa or skey, but sometimes we get bosses or ships' officers who like fancy drinks."

Divekeeper paid much more than sweeper, but, "Why?" Sloff had been curious. Others had turned him away without a second glance. "You see how handicapped I am."

"I'm not a fool like some I could name here on the Row." The Ventruvian had laughed. "Spacers are notoriously sentimental. Having a former spacer who has to ride an airchair will be good for business."

Not being a fool either, Sloff had accepted his offer of employment.

Surprisingly, he found that he was handy and inventive at mixing drinks, and he had a talent for listening.

The patrons appreciated both.

Bouncers, on the other hand, were another story. They didn't last very long at all, and Sloff was getting tired of calling in dregs to clean up the mess.

"Lost another bouncer last night, boss," Sloff told the Ventruvian when he came in to collect the previous night's credits.

"Damfool." the Ventruvian grumbled. "How many is this now? Eight? Nine?"

"Twelve." Sloff poured him a glass of grappa. He would have given him the more expensive stuff he kept behind a locked grill, but his boss had a fondness for the harsh bite of the wine that was brought up from Fortis 4.

"Damall." The Ventruvian took a sip and looked around. "Well, at least you got the place cleaned up."

"Yeah, I got some dregs in to mop up the blood."

"Is Morug dead?"

"Nah. Got his ass pounded on. Called the med techs in. They took him to infirmary."

"That will cost. Were the teenems notified?"

Sloff shrugged. "Had no choice. Mowph was just starting his rounds when things went to hell. Besides - his brother."

"Damall. It's going to cost some credits to pay blood compensation. Brother-in-law won't be happy." He stared into the pale lavender depths of the liquid in his glass, then tossed it back. "I've got to find a bouncer who knows enough not to make a threat unless he's willing to back it up."

Sloff poured him another glass of grappa. "I know someone who'd do a good job, long as you don't mind his looks."

"What, is he a pretty sir?"

Sloff gave a short laugh. "Not hardly. You can call Rinig a lot of things, but 'pretty' ain't one of 'em."

Not any more.

"Can he do the job?"

"Oh, yeah. Used to run security on a Starclass liner."

"'Used to?'"

"Yeah. A young sir with more credits than brain matter got himself into a damfool predicament. As security, Rinig was responsible for getting him out. The result was one live young sir, one unemployed security chief with... disfigurement."

"Hmmm... "

When Morug had been taken out by the med techs, Sloff would have done a jig, if he'd still had his legs.

This job would be perfect for Rinig, he thought. And besides, he wanted to keep his old friend around.

* * *

They'd been bunkmates for a time, back when Sloff still had two good legs and Rinig sa Bre was the prettiest security tech on board the Doseedoh. But he could fight! My, my. Sloff recalled the engine tech who'd tried to get in Rin's pants even after Rin had said 'no.'

Rinig'd carved him up pretty good. He'd had to leave the Doseedoh after that, and though they'd kept in touch for some time, their messages had gradually dwindled to none.

He thought of Rin on occasion, but never imagined he'd see him again. And then, a few nights ago...

Sloff wasn't really surprised when the dive suddenly grew silent. Without looking around, keeping his movement relaxed and easy, he reached for the blaster he kept behind the bar - he had no faith in Morug to keep whatever was going to happen under control, even if the bouncer was the brother of the local teenem - and swiveled his airchair around, to see the prettiest security tech he'd ever known right there in Asphodel's Pit, and his heart felt as if it was repeating his name with each beat.


Morug swaggered over to him. "We don't want no trouble in here."

Sloff's breath caught in his throat as Rinig turned, revealing the ruined half of his face. He gave the bouncer a bored look.

Morug seemed to shrivel at the sight of those scars, and he'd slunk away into a corner.

Rinig limped to the bar. "I heard there was an ugly, no-legged space tramp tending dive down this way, and I had to look him up to see if it really was you." His voice had an unfamiliar, gravelly tone.

"Dam. Dam, Rin. I be some glad to see you!" Sloff poured him a glass of the skey he remembered his friend liking. "You got a place to stay?"

"No." Rin downed the liquor in one gulp, and Sloff refilled his glass.

"You do now. That is, if you... if you don't mind sharing it with an old, no-legged space tramp. Only got one bed."

"This face don't scare you?"

Sloff cuffed his head.

"Kay. Thanks, Sloff."

"Don't make me hit you again." He was pleased when his friend smiled. "How long can you stay?"

"Until I find a job."

"We need a cook."

"Space, Sloff! You want to poison your patrons? You remember what my cooking was like!"

"Still that bad? Kay. I'll put the word out on the Row, see if there's anything available."

"Thanks. Appreciate it."

In the early morning hours, after shutdown and the Pit had emptied out, Sloff shared a drink with him.

"Rin... what happened to your face?"

"Young sir wanted to see Sedah."

"That hell hole?" Sloff made a commiserating sound.

"Yeah. He was told it wasn't a good idea, but he wanted to go. One of his forebears was a close friend of the owner of the line. Skipper had no choice. He asked me to go with the young sir. You know what the females there are like."

"Yeah. Lethal ain't the word for 'em."

"I told him not to... " He sighed. "Might as well have kept my mouth shut."

"Was the young sir hurt?"

Rinig shook his head. "I got him out of the way before the blast went off. The worst of it was, it didn't even hit me full on. I'd've been out of my misery then."

"Even the backflash can do you pretty good." But Sloff was glad his friend was still alive. He cupped Rinig's face in his hand and ran his thumb over the ridged cheekbone. "Come on. Let's go to bed."

* * *

"Security, huh?" The Ventruvian tugged on his lower lip. "What the hell. Have him come by. If his face is as bad as you say, I'll hire him for the shock value alone."

"He just happens to be here right now." Sloff gave a short, sharp whistle between his teeth. The curtain that separated the Pit's kitchen from the dive itself parted, and Rinig came out, a wich in his hand.

Sloff grinned as the Ventruvian got his first look at Rinig sa Bre, his sallow yellow face turning a sickly shade of ochre.

"You're... " he swallowed, then swallowed again. "You're hired."

As Sloff had known, Rinig didn't have to do much to keep order in the dive. Most troublemakers took one look at the twisting, glassy scars indicative of a blast injury and decided to either behave themselves or else move on to another dive.

Of course, there were those like the Canoog, who were as stupid as they were big.

"Why I be scared o' you? I be more scared o' man who put scars on your face." And it laughed, an irritating honk of a laugh.

The dive grew quiet, waiting to see how Rinig would react. Morug would have been conciliatory. He would have grinned weakly and tried to reason with it, but the stench of his fear would have been almost suffocating.

Rinig didn't argue with it. He cut it in two, looking bored as he did it.

The Ventruvian came out from his office behind the kitchen and frowned. "Damall, this is bad for business."

It was hard to tell through the scars if Rinig was grinning or sneering.

"And I'll have to report this. The teenems aren't going to be happy about it, not after the other night."

Sloff shook his head. "Report what, boss? Go back to your office and work on the books. I'll take care of this." The Ventruvian hesitated a moment, then disappeared, and Sloff rode his airchair to the door, pushed it open, and hovered a few feet above the pavement outside. "Hey! You! Dregs! Job."

Half a dozen ragged individuals, representative of as many planets, materialized from the nearby alleyways.

"What you want, boss?" They were willing to do any job that would give them credits for a drink or a meal, and they knew Sloff wouldn't try to stiff them.

"Get rid of this and clean up the mess."

Glances went from one to the other. "How much?"

"One meal, one drink, a place to stay the night."

"Forget place to stay night, we got that."

The dive was starting to stink. "Two meals, two drinks."

"Don't need more than one meal."

Sloff raised an eyebrow. "Three drinks."

Again glances were exchanged. "Kay."

Four of them began to gather up the body parts while the other two found a bucket and mop.

Sloff went back behind the bar and reached for a bottle. "Have a drink, Rinig."

"Thanks. Sorry about the mess."

"Don't worry about it. I never did like the Canoog. They stink even when they ain't dead." He filled a glass and slid it toward him. He kept the good stuff for those with the credits, or those he liked.

The others in the dive looked hopeful.

"Give 'em something. On me." Rinig threw a handful of credits on the bar.

Sloff put the good stuff away and poured out glasses of grappa.

Rinig raised his glass. "Slainte."

* * *

"Space!" Sloff swore. "Looks like we're in for trouble!"

Rinig sat across from him at the bar, reading an infosheet. "It's a little early in the evening, don't you think?"

"See for yourself."

Rinig turned, making sure the scarred half of his face was visible to whoever was entering the Pit, and he frowned and growled, "Just what we need." He studied the appearance of the young man who stood just inside the doorway, glancing around the dive as if he were seeking someone.

He was dressed in a buff shipsuit. His eyes were the color of rare green-fire opals, and his hair, tied back from his face, was pure white, although it was easy to see that had nothing to do with age. His skin was smooth and unlined.

"Odd. They don't usually stop here."


"That's a young sir, Sloff." He could tell from his bearing alone.

"That is odd. Don't usually stop anywhere on Dive Row. Slumming, you think?"

"Maybe. For whatever reason he's here, you're right. We're gonna have trouble."

A quartet of cargo techs had finished a triple shift earlier. They'd already been on the way to being drunk, most likely having hit other dives on the Row before they got to the Pit. One look at Rinig's face, and they'd reined in their boisterous drunkenness.

Now they were showing marked interest in the young sir.

Rinig could hear wagers being made as to who would have him first, and he had no doubt the young sir could hear them too.

Still, as if he had no reason to be concerned, he crossed to the bar. "Have you... "

"You sure you want to be here?" Sloff interrupted.

"This is Asphodel's Pit, is it not?"


"Then I want to be here."

Much as that other young sir had wanted to be on Sedah? Rinig sighed and shook his head. These young sirs always made life difficult.

There was a stir at the table in the corner, and the techs rose. They'd been egging each other on and weren't likely to be reasonable.

"Going somewhere, boys?" Rinig faced them, leaning casually against the bar, but his hand was close to the sonic stunner on his hip. After the incident with the Canoog, the Ventruvian had insisted he exchange his laser for the less lethal weapon.

"Toll here comes from a cloud planet, and he been sayin' as how since un's hair looks cloud white, it must be cloud soft. We just wanna see if it's as soft as it looks."

Rinig glanced at the young sir. He appeared totally unfazed. Well, either he was stupid or... stupid.

Rinig tugged a lock of the young sir's hair free of its tie at the nape of his neck and rubbed it between his fingers. "It is. Now sit down and finish your drinks, or head on down the Row."

Their expressions darkened, and as one, they took a step toward him. The young sir made no effort to back away or escape. He reached behind his back, and only then did Rinig notice the sheath he wore.

Rinig's hand dipped closer to his stunner. Behind him he could sense movement. Sloff was reaching for his own weapon.

Before the situation could explode, the door to the Pit opened again, and two and a half meters of scaled, fanged, and taloned Brachian stood there, his yellow eyes with their vertical pupils scanning the room.

"Mother of us all!" one of the techs breathed, his words not much above a whisper. He sat down heavily. His friends quickly did the same.

Rinig began to laugh.

The Brachian's gaze fell on him, and his long jaws parted in a grin. "Rinig sa Bre? Is that truly you?"

"Truly, Hssa. I didn't think to see you again."

"Nor did I you, especially when I had heard you were killed on Sedah."

"An exaggeration, as you can see."

"I'm glad, my friend." He turned to the young sir, and a scowl darkened his features. "Treyson Jax, I thought I told you to wait for me."

"You were taking too long, and to be finally here... "

"You know this young sir?"

"Aye. To my everlasting regret." But Hssa was grinning. "He is to meet someone here. I don't suppose you've seen a Protector lately?"

Rinig noted the young sir's hopeful look. "Afraid not."

"Are you sure?" the young sir pressed. "A hand or so taller than I, hair black as space when all the stars have winked out, eyes the color of old gold?"

"Protectors are hard to miss. You're to meet one here?"

"Yes. We have been months on our way here, and he should have arrived... "

Rinig shook his head. "As I said, they're hard to miss."

The young sir's eyes went to the Brachian's, tension in every line of his body. "We wait."

Hssa nodded. "We wait."

Treyson Jax blew out a soundless sigh.

"What's your pleasure, young sir?"

"Please do not call me that," he told Sloff. "I work for my living now."

"That's true, and he's become a fair ship's hand." Hssa gave his shoulder a fond pat.

"What is your pleasure?" Sloff repeated amicably.

"Wine, please." He put a credit on the bar.

Rinig noticed how Sloff's eyes narrowed. Would he even be able to make change for it? It was a vast amount for a ship's hand, but it was nothing for a young sir. "You might want to be careful throwing around credits like that. Hssa, you should keep him under better control. If trouble starts, my friend, who do you think gets the joy of cleaning it up?"

"I'll be here to help you, little man." The Brachian grinned, and the corner of Rinig's mouth twisted into a reluctant grin of his own.

Sloff turned toward the young sir, but not before Rinig heard his soft chuckle.

"Midnight Smoke, Treyson Jax?"

A pale eyebrow rose in surprise. "You stock H'asean wine?"

"Asphodel's Pit has something for everyone."

"That will be fine."

Sloff unlocked the grill at the back of the bar and took out a dusty bottle, uncorked it, and poured a measure of the deep purple wine into a goblet.

The young sir breathed in its bouquet, his eyes closed in bittersweet pleasure, and took a sip. "It has been a long time since I have tasted Midnight Smoke." He looked around the dive. "Will it cause a problem if I sit at a table, or should I stay close to Hssa?"

Ah. So, not stupid.

"I think it will be safe enough for you to take a table." Rinig watched as the young sir walked away. The techs studiously avoided looking at him as he found a table at the back of the dive and sat, facing the door.

The Brachian's muzzle parted in a toothy grin. "He may be a young sir, but I've learned he can be dangerous. We had a minor run-in with pirates three months back. They had a zeno-zoo in mind for me and intended to keep him for their pleasure."

"What changed their minds?" Sloff knew as well as any of them that nothing stopped pirates.

"That little toothpick he carries."

"Toothpick?" Rinig glanced at Hssa, an eyebrow raised.

"You didn't notice the sheath at his back?"

"Many carry weapons they don't have the skill to use. One doesn't think of H'aseans as being skilled with anything beyond their bargaining tongues."

"A belief they go out of their way to foster, I've learned. Treyson Jax has the skill."

Sloff's huff of laughter was warm on the back of Rinig's neck. "Well, dam!"

"Yeah. Not that I'm complaining, mind. Let me buy you a drink, Hssa. Are you still drinking that felix piss you developed a taste for on Ubasti?"

"You're just envious because every time we drank that skey together, you wound up under the table."

"Oh?" Sloff busied himself behind the bar, pouring out the Ubasti for Hssa and Andian for Rinig. "I'd like to hear about that." He poured a glass for himself.

"No, you wouldn't." Rinig felt heat rise in his cheeks. "I was very young. And besides, Hssa... "

"Don't say it, Rinig. I did not tamper with your drink."

"So you've always claimed."

"Because it was true."

Rinig bit his thumb at Hssa, then grinned at him and raised his glass. "To old friends."

"To old friends," the other two echoed, and touched their glasses to his.

"So tell me. What's the terror of Brach doing in this sector of the galaxy, nursemaiding a young sir?"

"It's a long story."

"The night is young, and we aren't going anywhere."

"No, that's right." Hssa stared across the room at the young sir. "You've heard, perhaps, that the H'aseans had grown tired of Thresians boarding their merchant ships?"

"Yeah. They wanted a treaty," Sloff murmured. Rinig exchanged glances with Hssa, noting the Brachian was as surprised as he. "What? A lot of spacers come by to see me for old time's sake, and a lot of information comes with them."

"That makes sense. And the more something is to be kept a secret, the less likely it is." Hssa grimaced.

"Please don't do that," Sloff begged. "I'll have nightmares."

The Brachian glowered at him.

One of the techs slid off his seat in a faint. The others sent sickly grins Hssa's way, then rose, grabbed their companion by his arms, and dragged him out.

Amused by Hssa's affronted expression, Rinig patted his shoulder. "Never mind, old friend." He gazed across the room at the young sir who was staring at the door, and not as if he were relieved that the techs were on the other side of it. "What does he have to do with it?"

Hssa's lips wrinkled back over his muzzle, and he shook his head. "His sister was part of the agreement. She decided she didn't want to be any longer and went to him, begging for help. He agreed to do what he could. That was the start of it."

* * *

Hssa talked for a long while. Whenever he stopped to take a drink, Rinig would glance around the dive, but everyone seemed interested in the story. The divekeeper filled one glass after another, and then filled them again.

"And The Protector really cut off her own hand?" Sloff looked as pale as a former spacer could, and Rinig reached over the bar and squeezed his shoulder.

Hssa nodded. "We found it - what was left of it - in the ship's trash disposal. How she managed to get it in there is anybody's guess."

"They ask... asked... a lot of us in security," Rinig remarked, "but I don't know that I could do that."

"You put yourself in front of a young sir, Rin. That cost you more than your looks."

Skipper had been apologetic about it as he'd handed him his severance pay. He'd felt bad enough about the situation that he'd twisted the owners' arms and got them to pay for Rinig's care and the work on his face, but once the med techs had done all they could, Skipper had had to cut him loose. It seemed the young sirs on his ship and their young madams complained that the scars on Rinig's face were... upsetting.

Not that he could blame them. He avoided looking in mirrors as much as possible, and sometimes wondered how Sloff could stand looking at him, much less waking up beside him.

He hunched a shoulder. "I've heard of Protectors doing a lot worse to themselves in the course of their guardianship."

"Which is why those who hire them are willing to pay the cost. They don't fail."

Sloff glanced up at the chrono at the back of the bar. "Shutdown in a quarter," he called out. "Last call."

Rinig looked across the dive at the young sir, who had sat with the one glass of wine, watching the door, all evening. "Doesn't look like Protector will turn up tonight, Hssa. What will you do?"

The Brachian followed his gaze and shrugged. "I'll take him to the digs I found. We'll be back tomorrow."

"And if Protector doesn't show up then?"

"We'll keep coming back until either he walks through that door, or I get word that he's dead."

* * *

It had taken them a long while to arrive at the space station where Asphodel's Pit was located, and Treyson Jax had been certain that his Protector would have had the opportunity to reach it before them.

But he had not.

Days flowed to weeks flowed to months. Each evening he would go to Asphodel's Pit, thinking that perhaps this would be the night his lover would arrive. Each night, last call would come - to find that Havoc had not.

"Perhaps we should try to track him down," he suggested to Hssa. The Brachian stroked his hair, an action he once never would have permitted from anyone.

"What did he tell you, Treyson Jax?"

"'I will meet you at Asphodel's Pit,'" he repeated, as if that was not the phrase that comforted him into sleep every night. "But how long do I wait?"

"As I told Rinig and Sloff, as long as it takes."

"You do not need to stay, you know." He regarded at Hssa steadily. "There must be much you would rather do..."

"Aye, and staying alive is one of them. Protector told me to see you got here... "

"Yes, but he did not tell you that you had to stay with me once you got me here."

"Some things do not need to be spoken aloud, young sir."

"Hah." He entered the Pit, knowing Hssa was on his heels.

It was crowded that evening.

"What do you make of this, Hssa?" Even his usual table at the rear was taken. "It is not payday, is it?"

"No, but Rinig told me that he'd learned from Sloff - who had it from the Ventruvian - that business has picked up since you've arrived."

"Since I have arrived?"


"But why?"

"Because the locals want to see you."

"Again, I ask you: why?"

"They're suckers for a happy ending, and they come by each night hoping to see one." His eyes widened, the vertical pupils expanding, and Treyson went very still.

A soft touch seemed to stroke across his mind, and he whirled to face the shadows.


The man who had been hidden by the shadows stepped forward, a woman at his side.

"So this is your Trey, Havoc?" The woman, her arm resting in a sling, smiled faintly. "He's done nothing but talk about you the entire flight here."

Treyson ignored her. He crossed the room in two long strides and threw himself into his lover's arms.

"Havoc!" he whispered and buried his fingers in hair that was no longer space black, but was now banded from the temples by streaks of white.

"I told you I would meet you at Asphodel's Pit."

Their lips met.

There were whistles and stomps and cheers.

Hssa was right, Trey thought muzzily, as Havoc raised his head, releasing his mouth, and allowing him to breathe.

They were suckers for a happy ending. And he was more than happy to give it to them.


Note: Many thanks to Gail for a marvelous beta.