Games of Command Deleted Scene
Best Kept Secret by Linnea Sinclair
This was originally written in July, 1997, when I was just getting to know Kel-Paten and Sass. FYI, it is not completely accurate to Games of Command at this time. But it is accurate to the character of Kel-Paten.
Below is part of a longer story, badly in need of rewriting. To set the stage, this predates Tasha's arrival on the Vax, predates even her knowledge she'll be transferred to Kel-Paten's flagship. Branden Kel-Paten is in a house he maintains, dirtside on Sellamaris, near the Kel-Tyras' own estates. Ralland Kel-Tyra has recently become engaged to Fyoni 'Yoni' Kel-Nardeen. The obligatory parties are being scheduled. Ralland has ducked away for a while, escaping to Branden's.
Readers may have wondered how Ralland Kel-Tyra found out about Branden's feelings for Sass. Here's how...
The smoke from the Keshrian cigars was pungent, curling upwards, a thin trail of white against the night-dark sky. Sellamaris' only moon was in its waning phase, providing little light for the two men reclining on the balcony's cushioned chairs. But little light was needed, as nothing of interest was before them, either in physical space or time. What held the interest of the younger man was a few miles away in this expensive and exclusive neighborhood known as Grotto Isaria. Kel-Tyra's interest would just now be finishing dinner with her family which included, no doubt, a discussion of their upcoming engagement parties.
What held the interest of the other was not as easily accessible nor had Kel-Paten any idea who she would be dining with at that moment. It had been ten years since they'd first met and a little less than two since he'd last had any contact with her; direct contact, that is. His position with the Fleet had allowed him to quietly keep track of her - as best as his sources could which was, in his opinion, far less than adequate.
So it was times like this, with a full bottle of Excelsior, a handful of excellent cigars, and the blessedly companionable silence of his friend, Ralland Kel-Tyra, that he allowed himself to feel her presence most - in his mind where he could call up at will the timbre of her laugh, the tilt of her head, the deep emerald glint of her eyes.
He took another sip of the pungent liquor. It eased the familiar pressure in his chest that always accompanied these times as well; these times where the line between reality and fantasy became blurred as he called up memories, reliving them, reinventing them... This time, he would reach for her, draw her against him, feel her tension yield to softness against his chest. This time he would hold her and finally know the feeling of her moonlight hair against his face.
Involuntarily, he drew a slow, deep breath. Once, maybe twice, he had gotten close enough to her to inhale the sweet muskiness of the perfume she wore - sandalwood, perhaps? He had far more experience with hyper-light drives and military tactics than with the subtleties of women. He didn't know.
His exhale was also a sigh of frustration.
The sound drew the younger man's attention. "I'm boring you," Ralland said.
"Hmm?" Kel-Paten turned and looked at his friend in the darkness, having caught only the last few words of his question.
"I said, I'm boring you. I've been droning on about Yoni and her family and I realized you haven't heard a word I said, have you, Admiral?"
Something about the formal use of his rank signaled that Rall was a touch irritated with him. And with good reason. He had not been considerate company of late. Not for almost two years.
"No, I was listening, a bit," he conceded. "Yoni's family is not overjoyed with your choice of career is what I believe you were saying."
"That was ten minutes ago."
"Sorry. I ... I was distracted."
"I know." Rall puffed on his cigar, the tip glowing brightly. "You've been distracted a lot lately. It's been mentioned..."
"Has it?" Kel-Paten's voice was deceptively bland, but his left hand, now lacking the cigar, clenched reflexively.
"Yes," Rall admitted. "And it's been getting worse. When's the last time you took some serious time off?"
Kel-Paten chuckled mirthlessly. "Time off? I've had time off for over two years now."
"I'd hardly call running the First Fleet having time off."
"Kel Prime is not the Vaxxar," Kel-Paten answered. There was no comparison with command on board his ship with his current position as Fleet Admiral on station. The promotion had only brought more paperwork. And more spare time with nothing to fill the hours with other than memories. And emptiness. And thoughts of what could have been, if only....
If only he had acted upon his instinct that first time he had faced her, on the bridge of that dilapidated freighter, the Sarna Bogue. Take her with you, something inside him had prompted. But he had ignored it. The Kel were not known as kidnappers. So he had left her there, her eyes blazing green defiance at him, burning her face and form into his memory....
"Hmm?" At least the first name was back.
"I think you need some time off."
"No!" he replied harshly, then more calmly: "I'll be fine. I just have to sort through a few things. That's all."
"What kinds of things?"
"Oh, you know, the usual." He had chosen another cigar and busied himself for the moment with the process of lighting it. "Some new ship designs I've been playing with."
"Fine. So take some time off and lock yourself up with some design sims and go at it. What's wrong with that?"
What was wrong with that? Everything, Kel-Paten knew. There was no new ship design on his mental horizon, though if hard-pressed he could probably come up with some sketchy ideas. But the only way he could act on them would be to go out to the shipyards on the edge of the Drifts. Near the Zone. And he knew once he got there, slipping over the border with the chance of finding her would take precedence over any technical toy he might find.
And he couldn't risk that, couldn't risk that final confrontation that would put an end to the dreams which were the only things that kept him company anymore.
"You didn't answer my question," Ralland reminded him, "about taking time off."
"I didn't think it required an answer. You know me well enough that if it were necessary in the opinion of the C.M.O., I'd have taken it. All diagnostics show me to be in perfect functioning condition."
"Screw diagnostics, Bran. Something's been eating at you for a long time and I know you well enough to see it. Even if you won't admit it."
"I think your impending nuptials have made your over-sensitive. I assure you I'm fine." He tapped the lengthening cigar ash into the stone urn at his feet. "Has someone complained about the performance of my duties?"
"No, you're overly efficient, as usual," Ralland said in a lightly sarcastic tone.
"So I fail to see the problem."
"Well, you may not, but I do. And Timm does," he said, referring to Kel-Paten's former First Officer. "You don't talk to us anymore, and when you do, you're somewhere else."
Kel-Paten closed his eyes briefly, thankful for the darkness. He hadn't realized Timm had noticed. Gods' feathered asses, he was getting lax then. Ralland, well, Ralland had known him for over thirty years; there was a lot of history and a lot of leeway with Ralland. But Timmar Kel-Faray - theirs was mostly a professional association. He thought he had always been extraordinarily careful not to let any emotions slip through around Kel-Faray, or any other of his officers or crew. Only Ralland, but then Ralland had been there since the beginning, in the hospital. Ralland had only been a child, but he'd seen the pain, listened to the whispered fears of the young man being made into a biocybe.
But this one fear, this destruction of his dreams, he had never been able to share with Kel-Tyra. Not in all the years it - and she - had haunted him.
"I think you and Captain Kel-Faray have more valuable things to worry about than my lack of social graces," he said lightly when he realized the silence between them had grown too long. "I thought I was rather famous for that."
"You are. But not like this."
"Well, then, we'll just have to add it to the list, won't we? How does it go? I believe it's been said I'm the most annoying, overbearing, pompous, arrogant, cold-hearted son-of-a-bitch in both civilized and uncivilized space."
"Really?" Ralland's surprise was genuine and Kel-Paten applauded himself at changing the direction of the younger man's thoughts. "Damn accurate, Bran," he said, then laughed. "Who said that?"
"Damned if I remember," he drawled. "A whole collection of people on both sides of the Zone, most likely." He leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes again. It was a lie. He knew quite well just who had called him that and when she had said it. And he had almost told her, right then, how much he loved her, too. She would have taken it as sarcasm. But it would have been the truth; a truth he had never spoken. Another "if only..."
"Well, that narrows down the field considerably, I guess."
Kel-Paten opened his eyes. "What field?"
"Of who you'll be escorting to the parties."
"The -? Oh, those." He remembered now. The ritual engagement parties. Ralland was getting married.
"It's almost midnight," Ralland was saying. "Yoni should have shaken free of her parents by now. I've got to call her and she's going to ask, again, if you've said who you're bringing. Guest list and that kind of thing," he added with a shrug.
"No one. I'm not bringing anyone."
"Frankly, I'm not even looking forward to going. You know I'm not good at those kinds of things."
"Bran, cut me a break on this, will you? You know how these parties have to work. Gods, there must be someone, some nice female officer or techie you can tolerate for a couple of hours."
"Who can tolerate me, you mean? No. Tell Yoni to invite an extra dowager aunt or one of her parents' corporate colleagues. I don't intend to stay that long at any of these parties, anyway."
"Someone from the Vax, maybe? Or someone you know from on station?" Ralland pressed. "She doesn't have to be Fleet."
Or even Kel? He wondered what the reaction would be if he strolled into what would no doubt be one of the Grotto's social events of the season with her on his arm, her short cap of pale hair signaling a definite lack of Keltish heritage. He wondered if the society matrons would notice that first, or the lethal Ryker she usually wore strapped to her thigh. Or the Grizni daggers on her wrists. He doubted if the Grotto would find her acceptable company, but the scenario certainly would fuel a few of his own fantasies for quite awhile.
Ralland lit a new cigar. "What's her name?" he asked as he puffed on the dark cylinder.
"Hmm?" Kel-Paten's smile disappeared, replaced by a frown. "Who?"
"You were smiling, Bran. I asked you to think of someone to take to the parties and you said there was no one until I said she didn't have to be Fleet and all of a sudden you smiled. That means you thought of someone and it was obviously a pleasant thought. So what's her name?"
"I didn't-" Had he? Had he slipped again, allowed her illusory presence to go from fantasy to reality, permitted himself an outward physical reaction? "Kel-Tyra, you're being ridiculous."
"Ah, and now you're angry."
That warranted a warning glance. "I am not!" he barked.
Ralland chuckled. "Gods, you are. You're angry; defensive. There is someone, isn't there?"
Kel-Paten turned away, looked for the bottle of Excelsior on a nearby table. "I don't know what you're talking about."
But even the harshness of his voice couldn't disguise the undercurrent of tension. Nor could the dimness of the night hide the trembling of his hand as he poured the rest of the golden liquid into his snifter. Kel-Paten downed the contents of the snifter in one mouthful.
"You want to talk about it - about her?" Ralland asked after an uncomfortable silence.
Kel-Paten was twirling the empty snifter again. "This is getting tedious. Perhaps you'd better leave."
Ralland sighed. "If what's happening is what I think is happening, you're going to have to talk about this - about whoever she is - to someone you can trust, sooner or later. Or you're going to lose your mind," he added emphatically. "I know. I've been there."
The snifter continued to twirl, small droplets clinging to its sides glinting in the pale moon's light.
The answer came after a half hour of silence.
"There's nothing to talk about. It's an impossible situation. Please, just let it be," Kel-Paten added wearily.
"It can't be that impossible."
"Because of what you are?" Only someone like Ralland, who had been through hell with Kel-Paten in more ways than one, could ask that question. And live.
"I think that's an obvious part of it," Kel-Paten replied flatly.
"She's said so?"
A tired sigh. "Not in so many words, no. But she doesn't have to."
"Not that I know of." Not the last time he checked, anyway. Though his sources had been known to be wrong.
"Involved with someone?"
"That's always a possibility. I honestly don't know."
"Then she's not on station, you don't see her-?"
"On the Vax?"
"She's not Fleet, not on any Triad station. She's not even in the godsdamned Triad. So please, Ralland, let's dispense with the twenty questions. It's not going to solve anything. I told you. If you want me at the parties, I'm coming alone. And that's it." And he moved as if to drain the rest of the liquid but the snifter had already been emptied. He'd forgotten and reached for the bottle but that, too, offered no solace. "Bloody hell," he mumbled and let his head drop back against the high cushion of the chair.
The tense silence lasted a few minutes more. Then Ralland cleared his throat. "Tasha Sebastian," he said.
Kel-Paten willed his body motionless, fearful the slightest movement would give him away. But the secret was already out, his silence a loud admission.
"She has no idea how you feel, does she?" Ralland asked. "Or she would have used it against you when you thought you'd trapped Edmond's battle squadron by the Drifts."
That had been their last confrontation - the undefeatable Kel-Paten versus the unorthodox Tasha Sebastian - and, of course, two other ships from U-Cee's Third Fleet. The Triad was determined to quash the U-Cees, whose efforts were garnering far too much support lately with the Rebashee, not to mention others in the more remote regions of the empire. Previous ultimatums had been ignored and the powers-that-be had come to the realization that there was simply no easy answer when it came to that collection of worlds and stations that refused to recognize military superiority when they saw it. It was no surprise to anyone that Kel-Paten, recently made an Admiral, had been again chosen to issue the final warning and, if he so deemed, take the necessary "corrective action" should that warning be ignored.
He remembered her pixyish smile on the vidcom screen as he reeled off the litany of offenses and demanded her ship's immediate capitulation - a capitulation that was neither acknowledged by her, nor expected by him.
So he did what they both knew he had to do. "Fire," he ordered his weapons officer, but not before he had quickly tapped in a code that activated an untraceable transporter lock on the woman just now fading from the vidscreen.
He didn't give a damn about her ship or her crew. But her own life was sacred to him.
The Regalia took immediate evasive action, avoiding his fire, almost as if she had known what he would do before he had ordered it. But the Vaxxar managed to score a hit on one of the other U-Cee dreadnoughts and while the rest of the small squadron pulled back to regroup, the Regalia stayed behind to defend the helpless ship, as Kel-Paten knew she would.
Just as he knew she would also drop her shields to transport the crew of the damaged ship to hers.
He had used that brief vulnerable interval to simultaneously transport Tasha to the ready room just aft of the bridge on the Vax.
He strode in, just moments after she had materialized, catching her eyes widening in surprise before she turned on him like a disapproving school teacher, hands on slender hips ringed by two utility belts containing ammo packs and emergency tech tools. The sleeves of her dark green fatigues were rolled up almost to her elbows, revealing the ornate Grizni dagger cuffs on her wrists. And the Ryker - the ever present Ryker - strapped to her right thigh was just a short move from her hands. A short, deadly move.
"I really don't have time for this, you know," she said evenly but something in her large eyes signaled caution. Or perhaps it was his own trepidation he was sensing; she was here within reach and in spite of all the weaponry she wore there was still the beckoning softness of her mouth and enticing curves beneath her form-fitting shirt that pulled at him like an oasis would a parched and dying man. Her skin was pale, luminous; her short, tousled hair a silvery, starlight blonde that gave her an air of fragility in direct opposition to the deadly toys she was bedecked with.
He stepped towards her. "I'm sorry, but I felt it was necessary."
"You felt it was necessary, oh, I see!" She did nothing to hide the sarcasm in her words, nor did she retreat from his physical presence, as most people would have. She did, however, change position and brought her arms up over her chest when he stopped only inches from her. Evidently she felt she no longer needed immediate access to the Ryker. The Grizni cuffs, however, were still available with the merest flick of a wrist.
And then she smiled that trademark, sexy smile of hers, a small chuckle escaping before she spoke. "And I sincerely doubt that you are. Sorry, that is."
"You know me well." His voice contained none of its usual flat hardness for he was no longer able to hide his emotions on the rare occasions when he talked to her privately.
"I doubt that too, Kel-Paten. So what is it now?" she asked. "Why this rather unusual maneuver on the Empire's part? Do you really feel kidnapping me is going to affect anything?"
The Empire had given him no specifics as to how it defined "necessary corrective action." Bringing Tasha on board the Vaxxar was wholly his idea and wholly for personal reasons. Though he couldn't now find the courage to tell her so.
And would later damn himself for it. His repetition of the Empire's demands sounded lame even to his own ears. The best diplomats in the Empire and the Conclave had been unable to come to terms for decades, and there was no reason to believe this time would be any different. Perhaps if he told her the real reason why she was here, her own curiosity would delay her a bit. He despised nothing more than being viewed as a freak, but he would have willingly and gladly put up with her scrutiny if it meant keeping her with him for that much longer.
But once again his fears had convinced him that this was not the proper time and so they spoke only of political matters, her interest waning.
"We've been over this a hundred times," she warned him. "You've presented me with no new reasons to believe in the Triad. Our position stays the same. Surrender and a mutual peace are the only acceptable answers."
"That's not within my power-"
"But it is. I have great faith in you, Kel-Paten," she said, the look in her eyes causing a familiar tightness in his chest. "Don't disappoint me."
And then she touched a small tab on her tech belt and was gone.
Right through the Vax's impenetrable shields and infallible signal scrambling systems, she was gone.
Obviously, the U-Cees had secrets almost as well-guarded as the one he held in his heart.
And he knew his report to HQ detailing the former had been an impetus towards peace on the part of the Empire.
He hadn't disappointed her. He wondered if she would ever understand just how much that had cost him.
He realized Ralland was waiting for an answer, some acknowledgment that he had ferreted out the truth.
"I've trained you well, Kel-Tyra," he said softly. "Utilization of available clues and process of elimination, eh? Well...." and he let his voice and thoughts drift for a moment. "No, I don't think she knows. I hope to hell she doesn't, actually. I think she laughs at me enough as it is."
"I really don't think she's ever laughed at you."
"You might be surprised. She's sure as hell not afraid of me." Not like the rest of civilized space was. In all their personal confrontations, she had never pulled the Ryker on him once. Nor unfurled the daggers.
"Should she be?"
Kel-Paten thought, then answered quietly. "No. I'm the one who's terrified of her."
"Because you're in love with her," Ralland asked, though it was a statement, not a question.
"Am I?" The question was followed by a sad bark of laughter. "My programming is not capable of acknowledging those emotions."
Ralland ignored his attempt at belittling the situation. "You've been in love with her for quite some time."
"Your statement contains some factual errors, Captain." The note of bitter harshness was back underlying the clipped words.
"Don't go 'cybe on me, Branden," Ralland said slowly. "And don't pull rank on me. I know you too well."
It was a dangerous moment, a moment that tested their friendship and their loyalty, and they both knew it.
"I'm only trying to help," Ralland added after several tense minutes, and Kel-Paten knew that, too was true. Had he been more in control of his reactions, had he been more in control of his emotions, Ralland would never have noticed that something was wrong. The fact that he did told Kel-Paten he was in deeper than even he thought he was.
"Your factual error," he told Ralland, a false lightness now in his tone, "is that you have omitted the word 'hopelessly' in that statement. Try adding 'hopelessly' to 'in love' and you just might be getting it somewhat right."
And he looked over at Ralland, wanting to cap his words with a "what-the-fuck" kind of smile but it wouldn't come because his mind wouldn't stop playing over the words his mouth had just uttered: hopelessly in love. Hopeless. It was an admission he had never made before, an admission of defeat. No, worse than defeat. He would have gladly accepted defeat because it would have meant that at one point his existence in her life had been a possibility. No, this was an admission of an impossibility - not of victory - but of even being considered to exist.
And then suddenly he stood, and with a fierce violence threw the snifter against the cold stone floor of the balcony. It shattered with a tinny pop. He crunched over the thin slivers and braced his outstretched arms against the low wall. He was breathing heavily, the tightness in his chest now threatening to tear him apart.
"I'd say it was time for me to leave, but this is my house, so perhaps you'd best make your way to yours," he said roughly.
The chair scraped behind him. "Branden, I-"
"Go! For the gods' sake, Ralland, just go!"
The lights of the hovercar played in his peripheral vision moments later as it moved over the long driveway to the street. He was aware of it only momentarily. It signaled that Ralland had left and that he was once again alone with his dreams of her, of his hopes, of all the possibilities that had been shattered like the glass behind him, by that hard touch of reality against them.
He had thought, he had hoped he could talk to Ralland but he had been wrong. Even his meager attempts to explain the unexplainable had ripped open his dreams and exposed them for the frail and weak fantasies that they were.
She would never love him, could never love him. His only function in her life had been that of a nemesis - two huntership captains playing the game of the Triad versus the U-Cees. But he was no longer that captain, though she still commanded her huntership, and it had been two years since he'd seen her or heard her voice.
He pushed himself away from the rough hewn wall and turned back towards the house. There was still another bottle of Excelsior stowed behind the chrome and glass bar and losing his pain inside it would be easy, damned easy. Too easy, he knew.
The pain, at least, was a reminder that he could feel something.
He stood before the bar for a long time, waiting until the cutting sharpness inside him had begun to dull before he permitted himself to enter his gray-carpeted bedroom. He stared at his own reflection in the mirrored wall that fronted his closets and drew several deep breaths, trying by pure force of will to call forth that sheer, icy coldness that he had been told was his true essence. He looked for the cybernetic warrior, the indefatigable soldier in the mirror but saw only a man in his forties badly in need of a shave.
He relaxed his shoulders and abandoned his military mien. Most people were surprised that biocybes shaved, ate, slept, or aged. But he was half-human and that human half looked decidedly worn and tired right now. A good night's sleep would do something about the shadows around his pale eyes, he knew, but the premature silvering of his dark hair at his temples was a permanent reminder of the almost forty years he had seen in the empire. And of the strain of the cybernetics on his body.
And then he refocused his eyes to the wall shelf behind his right shoulder and let her own green gaze meet his. Her holo-image, silver tinged as they often were, had been taken on Panperra Station, just before the peace treaty was signed. She had been leaning her elbows against the Promenade's railing, her right hand toying with the Grizni dagger which she flipped reflexively in and out of its jeweled sheath around her wrist. He knew that as long as he stood in that spot and watched her image, she would look directly at him. But were he to turn and move to her left, she would look away, eyes downcast, her long lashes sooty against the blush of her cheeks. It was all of the holo-clip he had been able to get and it had cost him plenty. So he turned and moved now, as he always did, directly towards her, his gaze on hers.
"Goodnight, Tasha," he said huskily. He stepped to the left as her image turned and looked downward with that shy but knowing smile on her lips.
And so her image would stay, "asleep" with him until the morning.