Even though she knew the mixer was well underway by now, Yoshino paused before leaving her quarters to go there. She felt more than a little odd, standing in front of her mirror and looking again at the elaborate gown she wore.
Mira Trassano’s aunt and uncle had created a sleeveless bodice that had no back at all and a front that was molded tightly to Yoshino’s figure in the classic Centauri fashion. The gown was mostly dark grey, accented here and there with purple and scarlet. From the upper half of the breast to a broad band around her neck was made of a translucent, gauzy material that, against Yoshino’s colorless skin, appeared near invisible.
All in all, she thought, it seemed something she ought to wear to a formal ball at the Emperor’s palace … not a mixer aboard a fighting starship. She scooped Kuri off the floor and held her in the crook of one arm. The cat purred as Yoshino slipped a lightweight harness over the cat’s neck and fastened it across her shoulders.
“Doesn’t matter a bit to you what I wear, does it, Kuri-chan?” Yoshino murmured.
Kuri planted her front paws on her mistress’ collarbones and licked her nose.
Yoshino laughed, partly at the cat and partly because she had just realized that in wearing this crazy outfit, she could add another bit of schoolchild memory to the theme of Mira’s party. “Welcome to show and tell,” she said to herself as she headed toward the galley, still carrying Kuri.
Darquin was completing his second circuit of the main dining area, stopping now and then to say hi to people, trying to look like he was mingling instead of patrolling. From the many times he looked around to take the place in, he knew that the place had been filling up at a steady pace as the evening went on. Laughter punctuated the gentle rumble of conversations rushing together. He recognized one of Roland DeVries’ pilots from Storm Squadron folding out a keyboard, probably a Franke & Roth since those were the models that struggling musicians often swore by even this far from Earth, off in a corner that was notorious for its good acoustic delivery throughout the rest of the dining hall. Darquin nodded to him, gave him a smile before moving on. Everything felt okay, but that didn’t mean much. Darquin was a pilot himself, so he was used to potentially nasty patrols that started on a dull note.
As he was about to take up his station by the main door again, Yoshino entered, carrying her cat Kuri. She was wearing a Centauri gown — a different one than the one he’d seen her in at the last party. He recognized the elaborate tattoos on her bare arms, but as she turned to move toward the center of the room, he saw that this dress revealed another tattooed tapestry completely encompassing her back like an etching of gold and flame on a porcelain vase. Darquin reminded himself to breathe. So this was the new dress Doctor Trassano was talking about.
Yoshino smiled as she saw him approach. “Good evening, Chief. I’m glad you could come.”
“I was gonna be here regardless,” he said, raising his hand with a dismissive wave, “but seeing you in that is worth a little guard duty. You’re all set to break hearts ‘n’ take names!”
At that, she seemed to wither from inside out, starting from her soul and working its way to the brief smile that was now in fast retreat. There was a cold desperate light in her eyes that Darquin hadn’t seen except in the eyes of the dying… and the walking wounded.
His tongue pressing at the back of his teeth, he thought quickly. “Konbanha, Kuri-chan. Not too annoyed with the smoke off those joss sticks, I hope?” He carefully reached out and ran his fingertips over Kuri’s shoulder, then worked his way up to the back of her head, scratching behind her ears. The cat craned her head toward the ceiling to accomodate him, trilling and purring as she threw her weight against the edge of his hand.
“She’s very pleased to see you,” Yoshino said gently with a smile.
“Nah. To her, it’s just a hand that talks funny.”
Kuri turned her head enough to sniff his nose. As he and the cat were nose to nose, he looked up at Yoshino whose smile had returned and grown ear to ear.
“There’s a plate of prime temshwee breast in your future,” he whispered to Kuri. Then he turned his attention back to Yoshino. “I was gonna get a drink. Want one too?”
“I–Yes, thank you. Excuse me, I was about to say that I didn’t know you spoke Japanese.”
Darquin led them to the nearest end of a buffet table that seemed to stretch from the ship’s fore to aft. “I was assigned to Japan to finish my creds.” He filled a pair of silver metal cups from a jug that resembled a cascading waterfall. The rushing stream fell over a miniature terrace of polished stones forming the base of the jug, caught by either the last plateau of stones or the cups in Darquin’s hands. He looked around and lowered his voice before continuing. “The… Earth-Minbari War cut my training at Earthforce Academy a little short. Kind of crowded, but I liked it there.”
“Did you visit Japan when you were on Earth?”
“Afraid not. I didn’t have enough time.”
“Really? Where did you go?” Yoshino grinned sheepishly. “Well, it is in keeping with the theme of the evening, after all.”
Darquin chuckled. “Okay, let’s see. Family business, mostly. I went to see my folks, missed my sister so I had to leave her a vidcom, and visited with Kim and her folks.” He stopped to think, looking into the beverage in his cup. “Did some errands… then met up with a few of our people and made it back to Minbar by way of Babylon 5. It was a bit of a trip down Memory Lane, hanging around Tuzanor again. I’m surprised I didn’t see you down there.”
“I was still working on the Phoenix, I imagine.”
“Yeah, I know,” Darquin said, grinning between sips, “but they let you get out for good behavior, didn’t they?”
“There were many upgrades as well as reconstruction. It required a great deal of organization. We did our best to integrate suggestions made by the entire command staff for every section.”
“I know, you guys did a real nice job on my office, the Station House, and everything–”
“You’re quite welcome,” she said eagerly.
“No, uh, wait. Are you saying you never left the ship?”
“Of course not. Only the construction workers were allowed inside until the reconstruction was finished. I helped supervise from inside the drydock.”
Darquin held his tongue, waiting till his annoyance passed. He gave his drink a quick sniff to make sure it hadn’t been spiked after all. “You’ve been working on the ship all this time? And nothing else?”
Yoshino frowned, confused. “Oh no. I got this dress for one. You could say I owed it to Doctor Trassano to wear this, especially given the theme she set out for this gathering.”
“She got it for you?”
“It was a gift from her family to me, actually.” Yoshino set her cat on the floor, looping the leash around her wrist as she continued. “I don’t entirely understand the circumstance, but apparently several members of her family were enslaved. She didn’t have enough money to set them free, so I … found it for her.”
Darquin let his eyes wander across the room while he pondered over her tale and broke into a wide, evil grin as he read between the lines. “You… found it?”
Yoshino blushed, then nodded slowly. “Yes. I got into Centauri Prime’s com-nets, found someone with money they really didn’t have a right to, and transferred enough to Mira’s accounts for her to buy her family’s freedom.” She leaned in slightly. “I believe she still thinks I got the money from my own funds … and maybe it’s best that it stays that way.”
“Plausible deniability, always a plus. Chief Yoshino, I didn’t know you had it in you.” He raised his metal cup and winked at her. “Remind me to carry cash from now on.”
She raised her alabaster hand to her lips, a girlish laugh bursting from behind it like a soap bubble. “Thank you. Actually, I’ve been meaning to speak to you about the Thunderbolts.”
“Oh, right! How’s the training going?”
“Better than I thought,” she said. “I’m… familiar with two-handed swordfighting techniques, so it feels almost natural to use both control sticks at once. But they’re much more sensitive than the old Starfury.”
“Yeah, takes some getting used to if you trained on the Aurora-class. And there’s data at your fingertips since they have better sensors. So if you’re not careful, either your brain goes numb from all the info, or you focus on one thing too much and miss out on the big picture.”
“It does feel intimidating,” Yoshino said with a nod.
“You could try this.” Darquin put down his cup and spread his fingers out. “Before you start a simulation, reconfigure the sensor readout. The sensor functions you’re not used to, shuffle ’em out of the way, put ’em to sleep, whatever. Put the ones you’re sure about where you can see ’em right away. That’s your main set. Then go over every sensor function there is, learn what each one does, how it works. As you get more comfortable, shuffle a new function into the main set. You’ll get it all pegged before you know it.”
Smiling, she gave him a grateful bow. “Thank you. I’ll try to remember. You must have done very well in your Ranger training.”
“You kidding? I was held back for an extra training cycle.”
“Held back?” Yoshino was reaching for a glacier-like jar full of thick me’teen twigs when she stopped and turned her attention back to him. “Why?”
“Disciplinary actions. C’mon, it’s me–what else is it gonna be?” said Darquin, laughing.
Yoshino smiled, a sympathetic melancholy passing briefly across her eyes, before she moved to refill her cup. “Somehow, from what little I can gather, I suspect those penalties were not entirely necessary.” She sighed. “That sounded bad, didn’t it?”
“Nah, not really.”
She smiled warmly, the relieved smile of a prisoner given a reprieve. “Thank you. I really should get to know–Excuse me, please. I think I see more of the command staff coming in. But I’d like to come back and continue if you don’t mind.”
“Sure. Uh, I can keep Kuri busy if you want.”
“Yes, please!” Yoshino quickly unlashed herself. “I would be grateful,” she said quickly, handing Kuri’s leash to him.
As Yoshino left to greet the others, Darquin sauntered toward the start of a trail of bowls and dishes full of food. He looked around and, snatching a cooked breast of tewshwee, knelt to meet Kuri. “Deal’s a deal, Kuri-chan. Happy ship-warming party.”
(c) 1999 Jamie Lawson and Joe R. Medina. All rights reserved.