Excerpt for Mask of Ashes by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Mask of Ashes



by K. E. Ireland

***



This book may be used in the following manner:


Attribution -- You must attribute this work to K. E. Ireland at www.keireland.com.

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***


Playing the Hero


Chapter 1


Taking Lisha’s hand, Vathion twirled her to face him before dipping her low. Lisha's long blue hair hung just inches from the floor. He gazed down at her as she slowly closed her eyes and puckered her lips.

He had already destroyed several other scenes in the play by improvising when he forgot his lines. Destroying this one too could bring down the wrath of the entire class that had helped modify the play. Lisha herself had insisted on this final kiss, though.

Deciding that he had waited long enough, Vathion closed in - for the sloppiest kiss on record before abruptly releasing her. Lisha collapsed to the floor in an undignified heap. He wished he could take a moment to admire his work as she sat up and used her sleeves to wipe her face in disgust.

Quickly, he swept out his command baton and grinned at the audience. "Onward mates! For the Empire!"

The crowd went wild.

Finally, the curtains closed.

If he had been given the choice, Vathion would have remained behind stage. If denied that option, he would have picked a different character to play. However, he had been firmly overruled by the female contingent of his class. His own best friend, Mirith, had started it too. She knew his dislike for being the center of attention, but she knew how to get him to go along with her schemes.

The problem was that he hated Natan.

Well, that wasn't exactly true. He hated playing Natan.

Vathion enjoyed acting, but it was mildly insulting to have to play the part of his own father, Ha'Natan, the charming daredevil Hero of Gilonnia.

Giving that irresistible Natan grin, Vathion offered his hand down to Lisha. She accepted, with a dark look, as the curtain opened for the bows. Lifting their joined hands as he and Lisha stepped forward, Vathion bowed in unison with his co-star, retreated as the other actors came forward to bow, and finally all of them took a final bow and the curtain closed again. His pinned-on grin fell from his lips.

"What was that?" Lisha demanded, jerking her hand loose. She was slender, with fairly large breasts for a Gilon girl, stuffed into a skimpy blue dress that left little to the imagination.

Shrugging, Vathion said, "Hey, you got the kiss like you wanted, and that drop was in character. Which hurts more, your butt or your pride?" He sheathed his baton in a practiced move as he turned away from her. Giving a nonchalant wave of his hand, Vathion strode off the stage and out into the hall that ran beside the school's auditorium. Lifting his hands, he began to pull his blue contacts out, putting them away in the case he had snuck into his coat pocket. Natan had blue eyes, not green. They had forced him to paint his Bondstone too, since Natan's bond, Paymeh, had blue eyes too. All of this had been just so that he would look like the real Ha'Natan. He scratched at the paint on the glassy coin-sized organ in the center of his forehead.

:That was pretty funny,: Jathas, Vathion's Bond, sniggered mentally, :You didn't do bad with the ad-libs either, they were a lot funnier and more natural than the lines you forgot. Sorry I wasn't quick enough with them for you.:

Giving a slight shake of his head, Vathion thought back at his Hyphokos friend, :Not your fault, I can't rely on you to remember everything for me. Otherwise tests would be a measure of how much you retained rather than how much I did.:

Jathas laughed softly. :Okay.:

The audience filled the hall near the doors to the auditorium, blocking easy exit. Vathion paused as he pondered how he was going to find his mother and get out before Lisha caught up to him; or worse Paire, her boyfriend.

"Vathion," a voice called out. He looked back to see Paire, the drama teacher's pet and the one who had been stuck with the unfortunate role of Ma'Gatas, coming up behind him. Paire was nice enough when not provoked, but Vathion was glad that in another week Paire would be graduated and gone.

Grinning, he dropped an arm around Vathion's shoulders, which only he could do, since they were of comparable height; somewhere around five feet and seven inches. "You did a great job!" Paire said with a glint in his eyes. They were cousins on Vathion's mother's side, but that didn't mean they had to like it, or each other.

Vathion shook his head slightly. "I think you would have done better," he said honestly.

Paire removed the amber wig and fluffed his sweaty cyan hair, some of it falling into his sleepy ocean blue eyes. The stage makeup, simulating Ma’Gatas scars, gave him a slightly older look for the moment. He picked at it, "This stuff smells terrible," he muttered, then turned back to the topic at hand. "I just don't fit the part of Ha'Natan. He's rather energetic." He prodded Vathion's ribs. Vathion squirmed, uncommonly ticklish. "Besides, you look just like him - and do that line so well," Paire concluded.

He rolled his eyes. "You're a passable look alike too, and senior in the class. I shouldn't have gotten the role."

"You've got the hair, though."

Vathion shoved his dark violet hair out of his face. He'd had it cut just before the play into the shaggy, slightly wavy mop that Natan had made quite popular. The twin locks framing his Bondstone were the most annoying part about it. "Quite by accident, I assure you," he deadpanned.

Giving a slight shrug in return, Paire grinned and ruthlessly poked again as he guided Vathion towards the crowd gathering at the end of the hall.

Clearing his throat, Vathion said, "I think you did a really good job as Gatas. I think everyone was actually sorry to see him go."

The real Ma'Gatas was alive still. The students of the senior level drama club had decided that someone needed to die and they had, of course, picked Gatas. He was glad that Paire was at least trying to appear as if he was not mad about Vathion getting to play the highly-coveted lead role. Vathion had tried to give Paire his moment by making a show of mourning the loss of his second in command before bouncing back to hit on Lisha briefly before getting distracted by the plot line of the play.

A laugh, and Paire let Vathion go. "Of course, they were!" he said, lifting his hands in a flippant wave that was, admittedly, one of Natan's gestures though generally done with a lot more energy than Paire did it. "I believe every character has a good and bad side, even if they are griping cowards, and it helped that you played along so well!" He lowered his arm again, pushing lightly on Vathion's shoulder, keeping him aimed towards the crowd that was steadily growing larger at the end of the hall. "Come now, you should go talk to your fans! They loved your performance!"

Leaning closer, he whispered sharply, "You really pissed Lisha off, you know."

Stopping abruptly, which forced Paire to halt as well, Vathion shook his head. "She ticked me off, pushing for that kiss. Ha'Natan hasn't played around like that in years. Besides, she's your girlfriend. I don't poach."

Before Paire could comment, they were rushed by the audience. "Wow! You really look just like him!" the mate of the drama teacher enthused, "You ever thought of becoming an actor for real?" She was just as rabid about acting as her mate.

Flushing, Vathion shook his head. "I've got other plans," he said enigmatically, cursing how much he sounded like his father, even just speaking normally; especially in these last few years since his latest growth spurt.

A strange man dressed in flamboyant lime and pink pushed forward then, inflicting himself on Vathion's vision. If he had not known better, Vathion would have mistaken him for a Wilsaer, given how terrible his fashion sense was. The man extended a gold-ring encrusted hand and grasped Vathion's firmly before the young Gilon could get away, pumped a few times. He did not let go afterwards. The intense smell of perfume wafted over Vathion, making his eyes water.

"Hello! Hello! Hell-OH young man! Vathion Mayles, correct? Yes, yes! You're sure you've got other plans? Like... what? Perhaps service in the Navy?" he leered, pulling Vathion off balance and down several inches, his ruby eyes glittering. He rudely sniffed Vathion's personal scent, which was quite strong after two hours of running around in black under hot stage lights. "Or maybe a privateer? Own your own ships and kite about the Empire for Justice?" He grinned knowingly. His short hair was bleached, and may once have been red but was now pink and frizzy. His Bondstone, set between his deep red eyebrows, was clear. Vathion wasn't surprised.

Vathion fought to free his hand from the man's. "Sorry, but I don't know you." Just as he got free, his wrist was grabbed again and turned over to expose the calluses he had acquired over the years of training in the use of the baton that hung at his hip.

"The name's Hiba," the man said as he flicked a card out of his sleeve, slapping it into Vathion's hand, then grinned again. "Call me if you're ever interested in setting anything up."

Shaking his head, Vathion turned and reached across with his left hand, grabbing Paire's sleeve, "Here, Mister Hiba - this is Paire Danton, my cousin, he's looking to be an actor and is graduating in a week. Didn't he do such a wonderful job playing Ma'Gatas? Absolutely tragic, wasn't it?"

He shoved the startled Paire between himself and Hiba and stuck the card into Paire's hand. Vathion grimaced frantically over Paire's shoulder though the expression ended up looking just like one of Natan's silly grins.

Paire's eyes widened with surprise. "Mister Hiba you say?" He grinned and immediately began his pitch.

Breathing a sigh of relief, Vathion turned, only to encounter Lisha. Lifting a hand, she swept it out to slap him, but he ducked back and caught her hand in his with a loud clap. Grinning, Vathion pulled her in to tuck her under his arm.

"You were so great! Wonderful acting, Lisha! Really!" He tugged her closer and turned towards the audience members who immediately pulled out their cameras. Lisha was forced to smile for the pictures and Vathion leaned close and purred in her ear, "Really, quite amazing work with the writing too."

Her expression changed and a light blush touched her cheeks as she looked up at him; he gave that seductive little smirk Natan always did, eyes half lidded. As he had expected, she lost her claws in the face of the inherited charm. He turned back towards the cameras with a grin and raised his other hand behind Lisha's head, two fingers poking out from behind her hair. There was even someone from the local paper taking pictures. Vathion grinned all the broader when the flash went off. Lisha was sure to see that one.

Releasing Lisha, he propelled her towards her groupies. They probably wanted to ask the obnoxious girl if Vathion was a good kisser.

A hand grabbed his arm, and Vathion looked down to find his mother's large emerald green eyes and long matching hair. "Here you are!" she said and huddled next to him, in danger of getting swept away by the crowd. Smiling, she took advantage of an ebb in the crowd to wrap her arms around his shoulders and pull him down to kiss his cheek. She was only five feet tall, and looked tiny next to his over-average height. His father was even taller at five nine, but Vathion was not done growing yet.

Drawing back, Hasabi grinned, still restraining him to her eye-level, "Oh, you look just like him! I recorded it all so we can send it to your father." Thankfully the noise of the crowd covered her soft voice and only he heard. "He'll be so proud!" she kissed his cheek again. Flushing, he hugged her back.

"You think he'll like it?" Vathion asked, unsure.

Hasabi nodded. "He'll love the end. That was funny!" She kissed his cheek again. "Come on, let's get home and get some dinner."

Grinning, Vathion nodded. "Okay!"

Standing back slightly, Hasabi dusted off his shoulders and straightened the short jacket and panel of cloth with red tassels that rested on his shoulders. "You look so good in that uniform." Leaning up on her toes, Hasabi whispered, "I think he'll be getting you into one when you graduate." She winked, eyes flicking towards Hiba - who was still talking to Paire but looking at Vathion.

Vathion shook his head. "Only if you come too." He fiddled with one of the hanging ends of his Tassels.

A sly smile crossed his mother's lips and she whispered, "Edict from the Emperor couldn't stop me! Come on, I'm making your favorite tonight!"

In an inadvertent mimic of his father, Vathion pumped his fist, "Yeah!" Vathion glanced around, flushing at the eyes on him.

Hiba leaned over and asked loudly, "You sure you're not the son of our dear Hero Ha'Natan?" He grinned from ear to ear.

"What's wrong with you?" Vathion snapped, flushing even darker as an uncomfortable pocket of silence fell around them. People looked at Hiba accusingly.

Paire cleared his throat and murmured to Hiba, "His dad's dead."

Hiba briefly looked uncertain, glanced at Hasabi, then smiled again.

Thankful that Paire had inadvertently covered for him, Vathion turned away. Flailing his fist, he began forging his way through the crowd, "Come on, Mom. Let's get dinner!" he crowed like a call to arms.

"For the Empire!" Hasabi chimed.

Cringing, Vathion eyed her over his shoulder and sighed. It wasn't a fight worth starting - especially not in public. Catching up to him, Hasabi latched onto his arm and pulled him out the doors, ditching the after-play cast party. Parties just did not interest him; all he did during them was sit silently brooding in a corner. There was just too little he had in common with his classmates and too much he could not say for fear of having his life completely ruined by Ha'Natan's fans and followers.

Besides, Natan was probably going to talk to him about the play tonight, and he was sort of looking forward to bragging to his father about upstaging Paire and Lisha. They were not his favorite people in school.

Outside, the night air was cool and Vathion ran his other hand through his hair, fluffing the violet locks before picking at the paint on his Bondstone. Eika, Hasabi's Hyphokos Bond was waiting atop the car. It was the only way the exceptionally small Hyphokos could avoid getting trampled or run over other than being merged with Hasabi. When Hasabi came close, she leapt and landed gracefully upon his mother's shoulder.

"Quit picking at it, you're going to hurt yourself," Eika admonished as she tucked her shiny black braid back behind her long flexible ear. She had painted green designs up her hands and feet, the color a bright contrast against the deep red she had acquired with age. Only a small stripe of yellow remained down her spine.

Hasabi unlocked the car doors and they climbed in. "She's right. We'll take something to clean it off when we get home."

"It's just uncomfortable. Jathas can't see."

The trip home was uneventful, and thankfully short. Stepping out of the car, Vathion reached in to help his mother from the car and Eika scurried out afterwards. the car doors locked automatically behind them.

Hasabi hurried inside, "I'll get dinner in the oven," she said.

Stepping in through the front door after her, Vathion peered down the front hall to find that his mother was already in the kitchen. Taking off the belt that held his baton, Vathion dropped it over the back of the couch on his way to the vidphone in the far corner of the room. A link was already open and sending a file. He glanced at the destination; his mother's parents, the old Gannatet couple next door, and his father.

His ankle-high boots clacked on the hardwood of the floor as he pulled the chair out from in front of the desk and took a seat. The vid blinked with a call. Vathion pressed the icon on the screen to answer.

"Heyla!" Ha'Natan shouted in surprise, "Kiti! I said call Hasabi, not gimme a mirror!"

Unlike Vathion, Natan was not wearing his coat and Tassels. Vathion suspected that otherwise he and Natan probably did look incredibly alike. They both had mops of violet hair, pointed features, and tall, thin builds. Natan grinned, showing the faint wrinkles at the corners of his eyes and around his mouth.

Paymeh, Natan's Hyphokos bond, sat on the desk beside his Gilon and slurped something from a teacup. Cocking his long tapering ears, Paymeh blinked his dark blue multifaceted eyes. Being an older Hyphokos, he was mostly red with only a thin stripe of yellow down his back.

Sighing, Vathion shook his head. "It's just my costume."

The icon in the bottom of the screen flashed and popped out of existence, announcing that the files were sent. Odd how just a comment like that from his father could put him in a bad mood.

"I think mom just sent you the play." Lifting a hand, he picked at the paint on his Bondstone some more, but it wasn't coming off and he began to wonder what the people doing the make-up for the play had used.

Grinning, Natan nodded. "Yep! Can't wait to see it! I bet you blew their socks off." He pumped his arms above his head, then looked down at Paymeh and sniffed. "Hey, gimme some of that." He took the cup from the Hyphokos and gulped a swallow before handing it back.

Putting his elbows on the desk, Vathion rested his chin on the heels of his hands, "Yeah, Dad, they thought it was you on stage," he said sullenly, eyes half lidded.

Shifting, the violet haired man on the other side of the wallscreen dropped his smile briefly. "Oh, come on," he kicked his feet under the desk with a loud klong of the metal toes of his boots against the already dented wall, audible over the vid. "You're not looking at it the right way. Just think of all the girls you could hook up with!"

Scowling at his father, Vathion said, "Did it ever occur to you that I'd like to make my own way instead of hanging off your coat tails for everything?"

Natan paused and sat back, folding his arms on his chest.

"Is that your father?" Hasabi called from the kitchen, and then leaned out the door briefly, "Oh! Vath - watch the oven for a minute?"

Getting up, Vathion gladly surrendered the chair to his mother. Once in the kitchen, he kept as quiet as he could so he could listen. "Oh, what'd he say this time?" Hasabi asked once Vathion was out of sight.

Sighing, Natan said, "Nothing he's not entitled to think. Am I pushing him too hard? I just want him to lighten up some. He always looks like someone kicked his pet!"

Vathion pursed his lips as he walked over to the oven. :I don't, do I?: he asked Jathas.

:Eh... you do. You should lighten up some, Vath. And you really should quit comparing yourself to Natan too.:

They had been Bonded since Vathion was seven, a very young age for them both to have done so, but Vathion would not trade it for the world. Jathas was the only one who knew all Vathion's secrets and desires, and the only one who understood them.

:You're just fine as yourself,: Jathas concluded.

Crouching, Vathion rested his elbows on his knees and stared at the casserole that sat behind the tinted glass of the oven door.

"Natan, he's all right, he's just busy all the time." Her voice lowered and Vathion stood again and snuck closer to the kitchen door to hide against the pantry and eavesdrop on his parents, "I think he's just mad about never getting to meet you."

"I'm working on it, Hasabi!" Natan said immediately, "I don't like it either, but things just keep happening and... maybe next year." He sounded defeated, "Things out here on the border are heating up again and though it doesn't sound like we're doing much, there is something I'm working on that I can't just..."

"I know," Hasabi interrupted. "You don't have to tell me."

Silence fell for a moment. Then Natan said weakly, "It's not excuses..."

Closing his eyes, Vathion folded his arms across his ribs, fingers tucked under. He hated those three words with a passion. Usually Hasabi's answer had been "okay" but lately, it had just gotten harder, what with all the reports of defections, like Kimidas station, and the destroyed fleets, Vathion feared every time he turned on Interstellar News that the next story up would be the destruction of the Natan Fleet.

Then, as if that were not enough stress, Vathion was nearly an adult, and while their family had managed to stay alive this long, Vathion was terrified of the change in his scent that would trigger his mother's decline into Widow Syndrome, followed by death.

It was this stupid war. It had been going on for far too long, but there really was not much anyone could do about it, other than continue to fight. It had all started back a generation ago when Gelran - the current emperor's uncle - had killed a noble for some minor infraction. Murder just wasn't done in Gilon society. As a result, Gelran had been publicly dressed down, stripped of his title, and disowned, his little brother Armalan put in his place. Gelran had then enlisted the ex-head of the Navy, Ha'Likka, to assist in taking over. She had been recently discharged for medical reasons, and it was whispered that she was scent-deaf and that she had murdered her own mate.

Vathion did not know whether that was true or not, but either way, it was disturbing. Regardless, due to the associations Gilons naturally made, when Gelran left and Ha'Likka went with him, many others left as well and the empire was ripped in two. Whether anyone really wanted to defect or not was not up to them, fear and loyalty kept the war going on both sides.

Hasabi shifted, making the slightly wobbly chair thump on the floor as Vathion skittered back across the room to check the oven and make sure dinner wasn't burning. He got back to the door just in time to hear his mother's answer, "I know. It's just getting hard to believe you even exist anymore. Natan, I love you, Vathion loves you, but, we're lonely. Can't you come for a day? I need you." Her voice lowered again, "I don't know if I can last much longer without you."

"I'll send something," he said, sounding distraught.

"I don't want something! I want you!"

"But... I can't just visit. I'd never be able to leave."

Vathion jumped slightly as Hasabi slammed her hand on the desk. Raising her voice, she said, "Then why not take us with you? Vathion's out of school in a week, and I talked to the Dean just the other day. Vathion really doesn't need to stay for two more years. He's got all his credits to graduate, he's wasting time there, and I'm tired of being alone!"

Risking getting spotted, Vathion peered around the corner, spying his father sitting with his shoulders slumped, head bowed. "Hasabi - it's dangerous out here..." Natan objected, though not strongly.

Surging to her feet and blocking his view, Hasabi shouted, "I don't care! I want to be with you, Natan! That's all I ever wanted! You're playing with our lives! It was risky enough for you to leave back then, but it's been so long - it's starting to wear on me and I doubt it's done you much good either!"

Silence fell again as Hasabi sank back down into her seat and Natan looked up past her at Vathion. He winced at his son's expression even as the boy ducked back out of sight. Lips pulled in a long line - not quite a frown, Natan remained silent, thinking, and finally sighed. "A week? And he's out?" he asked, "get it settled, Hasabi... I'll send a transport."

Hasabi lifted her head, a smile coming to her lips beneath her tears. Vathion peeked out from the kitchen once more, expression open and a spark of excitement coming to his eyes, and Natan sighed, lips unable to stay in anything resembling a frown for long. "You two really know how to manipulate me," he said, "I love you so much." He looked first at Hasabi, then his son, who had not ducked back again.

"I love you too," Hasabi said, wiping her tears with the corner of her sleeve.

Shifting out of the kitchen door completely, his Tassels slightly askew, Vathion played with one of the ends as he offered faint smile, then looked down when Hasabi turned to eye him, "I love you too, Dad," he admitted and retreated into the kitchen to check the stove.

For a moment longer, Natan was silent, staring at the kitchen door, then closed his eyes, as if imprinting that moment into his mind. Vathion rarely said those words. "One week, then. I'll see you in a week."



Chapter 2


"Hey Vathion!" Mirith called as they got off the bus, "Quit ignoring me!" she demanded, catching up to him. Stopping, he looked towards her, then glanced behind her as the bus started off again, leaving them alone on the corner of the street. Mirith was his best Gilon friend, and in a class of her own when it came to females of his species.

"What's wrong with you?" she asked, "After the play, you ran off before I could talk to you, and today your improv' in class was terrible. You didn't say a word to me at lunch, and now on the bus, you just sat there staring off into space like there's somewhere else you'd rather be. C'mon! Lighten up! It's nearly summer and Mom and Dad are planning another trip to the mountains. You're invited of course."

Vathion took a breath and summoned a smile for his best friend. She was shorter than he - but then, most people were. Her large brown eyes were currently pinched at the corners as she stood leaning towards him, fists on her hips. The way her backpack hung from the straps over her shoulders made her shirt pull tighter across her breasts. As for the rest of her body, it was a fine shape, and did interesting things with flowers to enhance her natural scent, which the other young men in her grade had noticed.

"Sorry, got something on my mind," he said, deciding to tell part of the truth. It had been a long day at school. At least it was the last day of classes for the year before summer break, and the last day of classes for him at all. Tomorrow, he would be leaving Larena, flying to Ika station, then heading to the Serfocile-owned Baelton station where the Natan Fleet was currently parked, and finally meeting his father.

"Oh, come on! I'm your best friend! If you could tell anyone other than Jathas about something bothering you, I'd hope it would be me," Mirith dropped her head to the side, her hair falling across her shoulder. She'd dyed it blonde some time back but was letting her natural green return. She was right for the most part. However, he still had secrets from even her; such as who his father was and what he really did with his spare time.

Today, it had been those multitudes of things she didn’t know that had been weighing on his mind. It had been the realization that he was leaving and probably never coming back that had distracted him so terribly.

The realization had hit him that he would be giving up everything he had grown up with, including Mirith, just to meet his father. Out of all his friends, he would only be able to bring Jathas. He might see some of the spacers that hung out in the Café, but they were adults and not the same. Those he went to school with would completely freak when they found out who his father really was and that would be the end to his attempts to be normal. No one would ever treat him the same again.

It was Mirith's opinion he was really worried about.

She had been his best friend since he started school. Very much a tomboy, she held a firm belief in justice and standing up for the weak. As a result, she had been his protector when he was little. By the time he'd started standing up for himself, she had hit puberty and had started hitting on him in obvious attempts to get in his pants. Unfortunately, despite being of the proper age now, Vathion had not developed the hormones to allow him to be the least bit interested in her. Though he knew that was a lie, he was a little interested, but any thoughts of such things were quashed as quickly as possible. Those kinds of scents were dangerous in his house. If his mother died, it would be his fault because he'd grown up.

At least, once they met his father, Hasabi would be safe from Vathion's oncoming adulthood. Then, if Mirith was still interested, he would make a move on her. That was his plan anyway.

Taking a breath, Vathion shook his head, then looked up at the sky to keep his cool and not get choked up, "Dean Farlis called me into his office today," he admitted, "Gave me my diploma." 'And thanked me for not being like my father. Makes me wonder what Dad did to the man.'

"What?" Mirith demanded, stepping forward as her hands went to his shoulders, "But why?"

Vathion managed another smile. "I've got all the credits I need to graduate."

"Two years early!" Mirith said, "Why didn't you say something about this earlier? This is great news! We're going to graduate together now!"

He shrugged. Mirith was only a year older than he, seventeen, but she was brilliant in a school full of overachievers and geniuses. Of course, Natan would never have his only son in a school that did not give the best education available anywhere in the Gilon Empire.

"You should be jumping for joy! Not looking like - like someone kicked your pet!" She bounced on her toes.

Drawing himself up, Vathion snorted. "I don't have a pet," he said haughtily. "I just didn't get much sleep last night."

Mirith shoved her hands into her hair; which made her breasts look like they were going to pop out of the flattering square neckline of her shirt, "You! You - don't make me tickle you! I'll find out what's wrong! Sooner or later, you know that, don't you?" Mirith shook a finger at him. "Possibly over cookies?"

"Cookies?" Vathion mewed. Mirith's cookies were even better than Vathion's mother's and it was difficult to resist.

:Would it really be that bad if you did tell her?: Jathas suggested, having been silent for most of the day.

Vathion shifted his book bag on his shoulder, hoisting it up higher. He'd cleaned out his locker, so the bag was uncommonly heavy.

"If you tell me what's wrong?" Mirith begged, hazel brown eyes widening even further as she leaned in towards him. He suspected that she'd noticed his occasional glances towards her breasts and was now trying to use her limited leverage to get him to agree.

Finally, he shuffled a foot and looked aside, "All right."

Sly grin breaking across her features, Mirith looped her arm with his and latched on, heading him towards her house. "So, did you see the latest episode of the Fleet Show?" she asked conversationally.

Vathion rolled his eyes. "Filler," he said.

"Yeah. Still funny though!" Turning her head, she peered up at him as she continued, "What with his saying he named one of his ships after a squished pet fish?"

Pulling a face, Vathion declined to comment; as he had plenty to say about that episode, but since Mirith did not know, and possibly would not believe him without proof of some sort, there was no point. Especially considering that the only form of proof she would accept was his calling up Ha'Natan personally and introducing them.

The rest of Natan's fleet were named after his zodiac and people in his family. Unexplained names of his two ships, Hasabi and Vathion, were a subject of much debate. This question was only exacerbated by the previous night's Natan Fleet Show episode where Natan's actor, Mayban, had claimed that Hasabi was his mother's Hyphokos and Vathion was a pet fish he'd had as a child and accidentally killed. There had been speculation on the news for years that Ha'Natan had hidden his child somewhere - as well as speculation for how he'd managed to do it. This was considered a very crackpot theory, though, even if a few scientists had gotten together and studied the possibility of such an occurrence.

Their conclusion had been that Natan had to have artificially inseminated a woman to avoid contact with her scent. They had expressed extreme pity for a child born of such a union. So of course, there were nutcase fans scouring every planet in the Empire for him or her. Interstellar News had not been called about Vathion. Yet. A few other candidates had been offered. However, after background checks, they had been tossed out. Vathion's identity was safe enough, since no one knew Natan's last name. All the information on Natan's family had been "lost" by the Imperial government some time ago. Not even Vathion knew his paternal last name. Instead he and Hasabi used his mother's family name; Mayles.

He missed catching Mirith's sly glance at him. She knew he had a slight dislike for the show. She even teased him about it sometimes, saying his railing against it sounded like jealousy.

"Besides, what was with that girl?" Mirith continued.

"Oh, the Six, Gold, Doughnuts, and Alcohol?" Vathion said, using the woman's stats, since he did not remember what the character's name had been. She was a one-shot, probably looking for her start in show business, and playing a partying, egotistical bimbo on the Natan Fleet Show was as good a start as any.

Mirith snorted. "Reminded me a lot of Lisha," she said. "What with her whole 'KISS me, Ha'Natan!'" Mirith spun away abruptly to face him and he stopped, watching as she flung her arms up into the air gleefully.

Finally breaking into a laugh, Vathion shook his head. Mirith, overbalanced on her toes, swayed forward and landed against his chest. Lifting his hands, he caught her.

"You did really great in the play, you know?"

Startled by her tone and the nearness, her body pressed against his as she stepped closer, Vathion stared into her eyes. "Promise me," he said, the words slipping free before he could stop them.

She stared up at him, waiting for him to continue.

"Promise you'll always be my friend, above everything else?"

Her own expression sobering, Mirith's lips curved into a gentle smile. "Of course."

On impulse, Vathion leaned down, pressing his lisps to hers in an awkward and unpracticed kiss. Mirith melted against him in a way that made his heart beat faster.

:Maybe it'll be all right to give in just a little bit?: he reasoned to Jathas, then realized that his Bond was cheering in the back of his mind and trying to be quiet about it.

A passing car honked at them, and Vathion, flushing to the roots of his violet hair, pulled back to stare wide-eyed at the vehicle as it continued down the road. Mirith remained where she was, grinning like she just got first prize. Staring down at her in confusion, Vathion wondered if it was possible to be any more embarrassed, and found out when she stood on her toes to whisper into his triangle-shaped ear, "I got you horny!"

Realizing she was right, he could do little but stumble after her as she stepped away and dragged him down the street towards her house. :But I can't! Not yet! Have to meet Dad first! Then Mom will be fine and everything will be fine!:

:Calm down,: Jathas ordered, :I doubt she'll make you do anything you don't want to.:

Reaching Mirith's house, she pulled him down the white-pebble path to her front door. Her house was like most others in the neighborhood, the short fence surrounding the front garden was painted sunshine yellow, the flowers within the garden were arranged in a pattern and planted so that they would bloom at certain times to make different patterns. Mirith's mother was good at selecting flowers like that.

Getting her door open, Mirith pulled him inside and shut the door behind. "Mom and Dad won't be home for another hour," she offered.

"Miri," Vathion swallowed, leaning back against the door, something in his bag poking him uncomfortably in his back, "My mom," he said, voice cracking.

As if he'd thrown ice water on her, Mirith's eyes widened, then dulled and her shoulders sank. "Vath... I'm sorry... you've tried really hard, I know you have, but... Nature is just cruel sometimes. You can't stay a kid forever."

"I know, but..." Staring at her face, Vathion took a breath and cleared his throat, "I won't be able to go on the trip with you. Mom and I are going to go somewhere. We're leaving tomorrow. And... After that - everything will be okay with Mom. I'll be able to do what I want then."

Straightening, Mirith stared at him for a long moment. "Where?" she asked.

"Baelton," Vathion admitted finally. He really did not want to lie to her. He would have told her too, if she would have believed it. "I... probably won't be able to see you for a while though."

She turned away, pulling her backpack off to set on the floor under the coat rack to the left. Her house was built on similar plans to Vathion's, with the living room to the right and a hall straight off the front door. "So, you want cookies still?" Mirith asked, looking towards him and managing a smile.

"Yeah," Vathion answered. 'I hate these secrets.'

:Then why not tell her?: Jathas asked.

Vathion ignored him.

Setting his bag down, Vathion followed her into the kitchen.

"So, you got your grades from the finals back today, didn't you?" Mirith asked as he took a seat at her dining table while she got the cookies out and brought him a glass of milk.

"Yeah," Vathion sighed, "I got a B in language. Gonna catch hell for that one."

Mirith snorted, "What? Someone going to spank you?" she teased.

Looking towards her, Vathion snorted. "He'd have to catch me first!" Her reply was to grin mischievously; apparently she was over his rejection.

She quirked a brow at that but thankfully didn't ask.

"It was barely a B anyway. Aola's just a stickler for pronunciation!"

Mirith sat down beside him and picked up a cookie, shoving it into Vathion's mouth as he opened it to continue griping. Mirith continued speaking, "Sheh is a Linguist. Of course, sheh is snippety about proper grammar and punctuation. We're very lucky to have sheh teaching at our school. Even if no one knows where the hell to find Humans. What exactly did you call her, anyway?"

Vathion swallowed the mouthful of cookie and said, "An honorable scallop. I meant to say scholar!" He lifted a hand to catch the crumbs he accidentally sputtered on the table, trying to not waste.

Breaking into a laugh, Mirith said, "No wonder sheh looked so pissed!"

"Come on! Those words are really close in Terran!" Vathion defended after swallowing, then picked up his drink to wash it down. Mirith just continued to laugh at him. "Not like I'm planning on being any sort of translator or anything. Certainly can't be a Linguist like her." Instead of studying, Vathion had been working on his father's birthday present, a hack code for standard AI's, as well as memorizing his lines for that stupid play, and studying for the rest of his finals. There was also a little recreational hack he had done on the video game his father had given him, Battle Fleet, involving the Graviball graphics and the characters he did not like; such as his second in command and a few Imperial fleet captains and admirals. Honestly, though, Vathion figured his father could really use something like the AI hack to reap information from Rebels directly. So, he should be glad!

Lifting a brow, Mirith blinked, "Her? Oh, I guess sheh would have told you sheh's gender. You're Aola's pet after all."

"What do you mean by that?" Vathion demanded, turning to look at Mirith, reminded once again that she smelled rather good when she leaned in close to answer.

"Only that you've been taught by sheh since fourth grade and sheh's always making you translate stuff for the rest of the class, and sheh interrogated you the longest during the exams."

"Oh, so you mean that I'm her pet because she torments me the most?" Vathion said, leaning towards her in return.

Drawing back suddenly, Mirith turned away to take a bit of her own cookie, leaving Vathion to lurch forward in surprise. :Oh, now she's getting back at me by teasing,: Vathion observed to Jathas.

His Hyphokos suddenly disengaged, dropping to the floor, then climbing up onto the table to get a cookie of his own. "Hello Jath," Mirith greeted the lizard-like creature. "Decided to join the conversation?"

"Abandoning him," Jathas said cheerfully as he pointed a stubby finger at Vathion, his long ears up and facing towards the two like exclamation points, "And getting cookies of my own. They're too good to enjoy vicariously!"

"Why thank you!" Mirith said.

***


Meandering towards his house, Vathion balanced on the curb, arms out. Lifting his eyes, he gazed around, taking this moment of solitude to actually look at things; how often it seemed that he just rushed through life, from one thing to the next without noticing the scenery. It made him feel a bit empty.

His neighborhood was a well-kept one, consisting of a main street with cul-de-sacs on either side. Association groups regularly lived together in one of these rings and each had neatly trimmed gardens surrounding the houses. Gardening was an age old Gilon and Hyphokos pastime, dating back to the dawn of history when they had first discovered how to do it. Some historians believed that Gilons had become intelligent not just because of Hyphokos influence, but because of their love for collecting pretty flowers in one place, which had led to farming, and from there, industry.

"Vathion!" called Mrs. Ameda Gannatet from her front garden on the left side of his house. She was getting on in her years with gray hair kept short in an almost military no-nonsense style. Her stormy blue eyes were surrounded by wrinkles, as was her wide mouth, set in a triangular face that had always seemed vaguely familiar to Vathion, though he could not place why. She waved at him and Vathion stopped, turned, and headed towards her.

Smiling as he came up, he dropped his bag briefly to give the old woman a hug, closing his eyes as her scent wafted over him. "Hi Missus Gannatet," he greeted, breaking into one of his rare true grins, "Guess what!" His time with Mirith had lifted his mood, which was nice, considering that it had been pretty black by the time he got off the bus.

Holding him back at arm's length, she smiled at him, eyes lighting in a way that truly made him think that she was using him as a replacement for someone; just as he was using her. Not that Vathion minded if she did use him, it was mutually beneficial to them both and Hasabi approved of his spending time with the old woman and her mate.

"What dear?" she asked.

"I graduated today! Two years early," Vathion announced, but refrained from telling her why other than, "Mom and I are going to go see Dad finally!" She at least had been told, by Hasabi, that her mate was still alive, just elsewhere. A breath of excitement washed through him again, but it turned cold as he caught the old woman's expression.

She looked pained and upset, but managed to smile at him, though he could tell there were tears in her eyes. "That's wonderful news, darling," she said, voice strained.

Confused, Vathion hugged her again, "I'll call, if you want," he offered, trying to make it better somehow.

"Yes," she whispered, petting his hair, "Yes, I would like that. Please call."

"Missus Gannatet? Is something wrong?"

Sniffling, Ameda fished a smile out from somewhere and managed to make it look genuine, "I'm just overwhelmed - how fast you grew up, Vathion!" she patted his cheek lightly, then touched his hair, and he felt as if she was not really looking at him, but someone else, "Already graduated and going off to space. Be careful out there. Try to keep your father out of trouble. Now run along, dear, before your mother gets worried about you."

Reluctantly, Vathion picked up his bag again, then gave the old woman another hug before turning and heading back to his house where he stepped onto the white pebble path to the front door. It was a Gilon's dream home, and the only thing missing was his father, and it made Vathion wonder why Natan had bothered choosing to have a child if he had not wanted to be with them. He sighed, unlocked the door, and glanced back towards his neighbor's house to find Mrs. Gannatet gone. Sighing again, he stepped in.

A strange, strangled noise startled him, and he paused, waiting to hear it again.

Hasabi's strained voice called. "Vathion, come here..."

Kicking off his shoes and dumping his heavy bag on the floor next to the door, Vathion continued into the living room and over to the corner where they had their wallscreen set up to take calls. A man sat in view on the other side of the screen, wearing what was unmistakably the Natan Fleet uniform. That man was Ma'Gatas, Ha'Natan's second in command on the flagship Xarian. Ma'Gatas looked grim, the scars on the left side of his face pale against his slightly yellow tinted skin, his excessive weight made his jowls heavy and chin, which had never been strong even in his youth, double and sag down his neck. He had thinning amber hair clipped close to his scalp, and large, nearly bulging, cyan eyes. Vathion was only familiar with Ma'Gatas' portrayal on the Natan Fleet Show.

Hasabi was seated in front of the screen, heart-shaped face in her hands, shoulders shaking, and it had been her stifled sob that had stopped him at the door. Vathion rushed to his mom, putting his arms around her shoulders, not registering the look of shock on Gatas' face.

"Mom, what's wrong?" Vathion asked gently, all thoughts of Mrs. Gannatet's confusing behavior driven from his mind.

Shaking her head, Hasabi wrapped her arms around him in a hug, "Talk to him," she said, gesturing at the screen and let go, getting up and stumbling off into the bathroom, he could still hear her sobbing. Looking back towards the screen, Vathion reluctantly took a seat.

"I am Ma'Gatas," the man introduced needlessly, "Second in command of the flagship Xarian," he hesitated, "I'm sorry, but... Ha'Natan is dead. He has named you his son, and heir." Vathion felt the blood drain from his face, and all he could do was sit there with a blank look, unable to respond. Tears stung his eyes as Ma'Gatas continued, "A transport is already on its way. It should arrive in twenty-six hours."

This shook him out of his numbness and into shock, "Wait - wait - what?" he asked, leaning forward, placing both hands on the desk in front of him to brace himself, "you mean..."

The man repeated, "You've been named Ha'Natan's heir and will be inheriting his possessions." Mentally, Vathion went through the math, realizing that an entire fleet of twelve battleships was an incredibly large financial burden to suddenly take on, especially at sixteen.

He did not recall falling out of his chair at that point, but apparently he had, for he had to climb up off the floor and straighten the seat before retaking it. The man had a small smirk on his lips. "I... okay," Vathion said finally, unable to think of anything else to say, clutching the edge of the desk.

Ma'Gatas nodded slightly, his seriousness returning. "I'm sending the files Ha'Natan wanted you to have now."

Nodding, Vathion watched as the man's face disappeared and the swirling envelope logo replaced it, meaning that it was receiving mail.

Jathas stirred in the back of his mind and finally murmured to his Bond, :Truly amazing! You should be excited! You own the Natan Fleet.:

Glowering, the boy opened the first document, "Not quite the right attitude here, Jath, my father had to die to give me that!" Just saying it made his eyes water, and Vathion blinked rapidly in an attempt to clear his vision. The Hyphokos fell silent, not quite understanding this view of death. Hyphokos had ways of taking the memories of a fallen member of their people and incorporating it into their own, so in essence, the body could die, but Memory Lived On. Too bad it was impossible for them to do it with Gilons.

Vathion sniffled and typed in the password to open the protected files, then began to read, eyes widening as it turned out to be the autopsy report on Natan's death. Crushed by a crate in cargo bay four?

"What the hell was he doing there?" Vathion knew well enough from his Battle Fleet game, a gift from his father when he was younger and remained his favorite game, that cargo bay four was always used for spare parts, mostly for the Ferrets in the shuttle bay one deck above. There was nothing interesting at all in there, but the report said he had been found at the beginning of first shift when the crew came in, so it could not have been a late shipment.

Getting up, Vathion flipped on the wallscreen and scoured through the various channels, looking for some mention of Natan's death. There was nothing. Apparently, it had not hit the news yet. Hopefully it would not. It was distressing enough to his family. A sickening thought hit him: that busload of school kids raving about the filler episode in the show learning about Natan's death multiplied across the Empire. He paled and shivered.

Sitting back down, Vathion saved the file to a disk and uploaded the update on Battle Fleet that was his father's parting gift, his eyes stung. The second document was apparently Natan's autobiography - quite an extensive file - but Vathion did not read past the first few lines to see what it was, then closed it. The third was a letter to Vathion and Hasabi. Saving those to his disk too, Vathion told the house's AI to print out the letter. Lastly, was Natan's will; he printed that too. Taking both, he headed to the bathroom door and sat beside it, listening to his mother sob.

"Mom, Dad wrote a letter," he said gently, trying to coax her out of the bathroom. He knew she loved Natan, everyone loved Natan, but Vathion also knew that Natan loved her, otherwise he never would have agreed to have Vathion. There were no accidental Gilon children, despite Vathion's occasional gloomy thoughts otherwise.

She did not open the door, but quieted her sobbing a little.

"Dear Hasabi and Vathion," he read out loud, throat tightening and tears making his eyes blurry.


***


If you are receiving this, then I'm dead. I know that sounds rather casual of me to say, but then, I've been dodging the Great Beyond for the last thirty years of my life and it's not quite so scary anymore. I just wanted to tell you both that even if I haven't been a very big part of your lives, I love you, and think of you often. I'd hoped that I would get to visit you sometime soon, but it always seems that every time I try to take a bit of time off, I end up in the midst of some new Adventurous Emergency that hits the news the next day and gets made into a Vid episode.

Hasabi, I just wanted you to know that I miss your cinnamon rolls. I experimented in making some for myself, but when my attempts don't end in charcoal, they just don't taste right without you there, smiling at me over your tea. Those three weeks we spent together were the best of my life... I bless you for putting up with me. I was a wreck back then - rude, inconsiderate, losing my faith, and losing my will to fight. You gave me a reason to live and to clean up my act... and gave me so much more. You gave me a son, and I wish that I could have stayed with you. I wish that I could have been there to see him born and grow up. I'll always feel like I let both of you down by not being there.

It was my dream to have a family in a society that wasn't war-torn and on the edge of fear and panic - I wanted to sit in the garden and drink tea with you while our son played with his Bond and I'd teach him all about model ship building.

Vathion... I'm sorry for not being there for you when you needed me - for playing the bad guy about your grades, and just all out never being there. You can't know how much I wanted to be. I wanted to.

Over the years, I've watched you grow - through pictures and calls, and it hurt how much you looked like me - you must have gotten hell at school; pestered with 'Do the pose!' and 'say it! Say "Onward Mates! For the Empire!" like that stupid Vid show...' which I really do say, but not as often as that hammy actor Mayban does. I've never laughed so hard in my life - watching someone else pretend to be me. Or am I really that crazy and stupid? Paymeh says I am, but I can't help it. We're up here, so far away from what we want; even if we're next door to it - we just can't ever reach it... Peace, order... That's what we want, but it seems that no matter how hard we try, we're always a step away from it. Just one step, and then another.

It seems hopeless from this end, but I keep trying, for you, for Hasabi, for all the other children and wives of this bloody war. Honestly, I've been miserable. I'm torn between wanting to be with you and wanting to play the Hero and save the day so that everyone will have hope and dreams for the future, so that they'll keep on fighting. And I'm sorry, but, the ugly truth of it is that my feelings don't matter in this wide universe and if I want my dream to come true - even if I die - I have to play the part...


***


Vathion sniffled and lifted a hand to wipe his face with his sleeve and blinked a few more times as he came to the end of the first section. Hasabi still had the bathroom door firmly closed and he could hear her sniffling still. From there, Natan had gone on and on about his favorite conversations with his son and Hasabi, and Vathion could hear his mother giggling from time to time, sounding strange amongst her sniffles. Natan had apparently been unable to let his beloved and son sit and cry for long - he had to go out with a laugh and pose. So like him.

He paused and swallowed, licking his lips to wet them as he resettled against the wall beside the door. "Hasabi, I've got everything set up for you, and I'm really sorry," the boy flushed, reading that out loud to his mother. "Vathion - you'll do fine. I'll watch out for you both, wherever I am."

Reaching the end of the letter, Vathion folded it up and sat silently staring at the wall opposite of the bathroom door. Kitty-cornered to it was the door into the kitchen with the afternoon sunlight streaming in through the window over the sink and making the dust dancing in the air visible in the shafts of light.

"His will," Hasabi said from the bathroom, "Did he send that?"

Licking his lips, Vathion said, "Yeah." Flipping through the printouts, he came to the last page and read out loud, skipping past the mailing address stuff which had been dual sent to the Imperial Agency for their records as well as the Mayles house when it went through the Xarian's AI, and a third line indicated that the message had also been forwarded to an anonymous mailbox.

"First - my money goes to Hasabi Mayles. She knows my account numbers and whatnot. Second - I, Natan Gannatet, acknowledge Vathion Mayles as my son, and declare him heir for my title as Earl of Teviot with right to wear my Tassels. Third - Vathion Gannatet receives all my possessions."

Vathion noted that Natan had wasted no time in changing his name and handing him the Tassels denoting a member of the Gilonnian nobility. Gatas had already told him that he owned his father's fleet, which meant that he had final say on who was hired and who they got repairs from, but that did not mean he had to be on the fleet. Odd about that last name though. Taking a breath, he shook his head and honestly had not believed it before, but there it was in writing; he really did own his father's fleet. He read the next line and stopped, staring with his mouth open.


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