“So it’s a date then?” Colleen asked, though the tempo of her phrasing made it clear that it was not so much a question as a reservation.
“It is,” Zeke answered. He felt the smile peeling back his lips even before he saw the one on her muzzle. “As long as you allow me to reciprocate.”
“I would like that,” she said, chocolate-brown eyes widening in delight. “See you soon.”
She left in a flash of copper-red fur and Zeke turned back to go inside. He scooped up his coffee mug and refilled it before leaning his head against the overhead cabinet door and sighing.
“You all right, there, Sarge?”
“I’m fine,” he replied automatically as he turned to see who had invaded his space. His first instinct on seeing the subdued bars on the collar of the captain was to snap to attention, but those days were long past.
“I was in the neighborhood,” Captain VonHogan said. He gestured toward the coffeemaker. “Got any left for me?”
Zeke poured a fresh mug for the captain and jerked his chin toward the couches. Together they sat down, both claiming a drink before they spoke. VonHogan set a thin briefcase aside and scratched at his chin, grinning as he asked his first question of an old friend.
“Who’s the pretty little setter that just wiggled past me? She looked mighty pleased with herself.”
“Her name’s Colleen,” Zeke said. He fought for a second against the smile but let it win in the end. “She and I have been seeing each other.”
“Gann’s balls! Zeke Sharn’s got a mate on the hook? Alert the media!” VonHogan said, leaping halfway to his feet. Zeke laughed and waved him into the chair once more.
“Not a mate, Tarlen. Just someone who cares.”
VonHogan reached out and slapped Zeke on the side of the head.
“That’s what mates do, dumbass. They care about you when everyone else thinks you’re a waste.”
“Great! So now I’m a waste?”
“Just of air. And food. Oh, and whiskey.”
“Ah. Nothing important, then. Good to know.”
“So is it serious?” VonHogan asked after a moment. The lanky cheetah was leaned forward, paws wrapped around his mug.
“We’ve just talked and gone to dinner a couple of time. Feels like it could get that way, though,” Zeke said. “I mean, I’m no expert.”
“No one is.”
“I’m going to meet her family tonight.”
VonHogan let out a soft whistle. “Meeting the family and you think it ‘could get’ serious. You’re about clueless, aren’t you?”
Zeke nodded. “When it comes to this, yeah. I don’t think things through real well.”
“So what’s the plan?”
“Tolenacht Feast. She’s taking me along.”
“You’re going to a home full of Toleans? You?”
VonHogan threw back his head and howled with laughter. Zeke sipped at his coffee and waited for the cheetah to calm down.
“Has she told them what you do?” VonHogan finally asked. Zeke shrugged and shook his head at the same time.
“I don’t think so.”
“Hmm. Well, you are supposed to take something for a Tolenacht gift. I recommend against going in with a necklace of ears. They might frown on that.”
VonHogan raised his coffee mug in salute.
“Got a new op to discuss,” he said, changing the subject. “I need a sweep team and you’re gonna be my lead.”
“Let me get some more coffee,” Zeke said. “When you start off with a phrase like that and that evil grin, it’s gonna be a day.”
Two hours later, the cheetah had departed and Zeke had a pile of papers on his desk to study. The op was a simple one and he already had a few Folk in mind for team members, but right now he had a more pressing engagement. He stripped off his uniform and jumped into the shower, hosing off the stink of the day and the yellow dust that stuck to everything. He toweled off slowly, mind whirling with thoughts of how to act. He played scenarios over in his mind by the dozens. Years as a tactician had him anticipating outcomes that even he knew were far-fetched, but he also knew if he was prepared for the most outlandish, that the mundane would be no surprise.
He chose the white dress shirt from his closet, one of only a half-dozen items he owned that were not uniform-related. It had full sleeves with generous cuffs and a split at the neck that tied across the chest in a crisscrossing pattern of white cord. Over the tails of the shirt he wrapped the soft material of his kilt, buckling it over his hips. Predominantly black, with grey lines making up a traditional pattern, it gave him his dressiest look as well as his most comfortable. Long woolen socks and heavy boots rounded it out. He took a few minutes to tap a bit of a shine onto the boots.
He looked at his equipment belt, coiled and ready for him on the counter. Protocol demanded he be armed as a member of the security force, and yet the Tolean religion as practiced by Colleen and her family was one of pacifism. Arriving with his carbine slung across his shoulders, or even his holstered sidearm, would be a slap in the face. He unclipped his combat knife and connected it to the belt of his kilt, hanging at his left side as always. He had carried that blade since early in his career, and as a follower of Gann a knife was a required accessory to everyday wear. They might not like it, but he was making an effort to work with them in respecting their beliefs. They could afford him the same courtesy.
When at last he was prepared, he checked the clock. Under an hour to go. That was good. It allowed him time to stop by the exchange and find a suitable gift. Gifts, he corrected himself. It would be in poor taste not to take something for both Colleen and her mother, as well as a household gift for Tolenacht.
At the front of his kilt rode a hide bag on chains that wrapped through loops on the belt. He made certain that his wallet was there and exited the home before he could think of something else he had missed and obsess over more small details.
It felt strange to him to be walking the streets of the colony in civilian dress. He was used to being uniformed and armed, acting not only as a military protection but as an ad hoc police force. Now he was just one of a number of Folk strolling about. He waved and nodded randomly to the others he saw, and while he was glad to see Folk waving back at him, he was in some ways disturbed at their lack of response. He had never been seen like this since landfall and yet no one even looked at him twice. An infiltration of their society was always a possibility.
The exchange itself was situated just to the north of Four Winds, the bar established by the pair of self-described ‘chuckleheads’ who brought their love of wine and spirits to Z262 and made a thriving business from it. Zeke had spent a few nights in there, and he smiled as he heard the lively sounds from within.
He entered the exchange, the tiny bell over the door announcing his presence before his feet had even crossed the threshold. Shelves of items, some in very distinct order while others seemed random, filled the store. Zeke turned left and nearly walked into the bulky turtle that stood there, examining a rack of cheeses.
The turtle looked over at him, a smile lighting his face. “Sergeant Sharn.”
Zeke waved a hand. “I’m off. Call me Zeke. I hate all the protocol crap.”
“Ain’t seen you looking like this before.”
“I… I have a date.”
“Well, that’s good, then. You clean up good.”
Zeke chuckled. “Feeling naked without the sidearm at least.”
“I was noticing. What’s the occasion?”
“Her family. They’re Toleans.”
Duggan’s eyes bugged out and his mouth peeled back into a grin. Zeke raised a paw to forestall any comments.
“I know. Me in a house of pacifists. Ha ha ha. Yeah.”
“Aw, hell, Sarge. This is some funny shit.”
“Yeah. That’s me. Funny shit is my specialty today.”
“Welcome to my world. I’ve usually got that all covered,” the turtle said. He reached into a pocket and withdrew a matte-black rectangle of metal. As he extended a tattooed hand it became clear to Zeke that the device was a firearm of some sort. It was smaller than most he had seen, barely filling the turtle’s hand.
“Take this. It’s my fallback. It’ll damned near break your wrist to cook it, but it pops four rounds at once. With what I put in her, she’ll put anything down that gets called up, you know? Plus, you ain’t gonna be unarmed.”
Zeke hefted the weapon, testing the weight, and then smiled around sharp teeth. “I’m trying to respect their beliefs, Duggan, but thanks.”
“Safety’s right here,” Duggan continued, ignoring the comment and pointing at a button behind what was the trigger. “Crossbolt, right handed. Push it and then squeeze. Put it in your bag, Sarge. Bring it back next time you see me.”
“Look, I appreciate –“
“I ain’t saying your party’s gonna turn into a firefight. Just humor me and take along something that goes bang, okay?”
Zeke slipped the little block into his bag and then slapped the upraised palm with his own. “Since it’s you,” he said. He pointed to a block of pale cheese. “And this is the one.”
“Yeah. Extra crab. She’ll like it.”
“Hey, it’s not like that,” Duggan protested. His eyes were growing wide.
“Me and Lissa. We aren’t –“
“Oh, I know. Hell, the whole unit knows,” Zeke said. “You two are like brother and sister. Then again, everybody heard the fight you had. Get the cheese. Apologize. Tell her you’re stupid and boneheaded and all that noise. And hey…stop by Four Winds. Tell Buck that I sent you to get my bottle. It’s the good stuff. Don’t do this shit by half.”
Duggan’s scarred head shook. “I can’t go taking your liquor.”
Zeke patted at the bag with its hidden cargo. “You’re looking out for me, right? Seems fair I do the same. I need you and Lissa working together, not wanting to kill each other. Take her a drink and some cheese.”
“Okay,” Duggan finally said, his head dropping a bit.
“After that, both of you come see me tomorrow. I’ll give you your weapon back when I tell you about the new assignment I’ve got that I need you and Lissa on.”
“Oh, yeah? Something good?”
“I think you’ll enjoy it. I’ll tell you about it tomorrow.”
“Thanks, Sarge. We’ll be there.”
Duggan took his cheese and headed for the cashier area, leaving Zeke alone to ponder just what was appropriate for a Tolenacht ceremony. He settled on a bottle of wine and a bag of seeds. The wine would be a standard greeting but the seeds spoke of rebirth and newness, a concept precious to Toleans.
He spent a bit longer in the exchange before stumbling on the gift for Colleen. After that, he grabbed some paper and a small packet of tape. He took all the items with him to the cashiers’ counters, adding in a small bag of candied nuts from the stack of impulse purchase items near the register. Seeing what he had in mind, the cashier allowed him to use the edge of the counter to quickly wrap the items. Everything went into a cloth bag and soon he was walking at a relaxed pace to the Goodwin home.
Like most every home on the colony, the Goodwin house was built on the frame of a shipping container that had ferried supplies to the planet. Prefabricated panels had been added and further supplemented with local timber and stone. It appeared that theirs was a slightly larger than normal home, and Zeke recalled that Colleen had come to Z262 with a sister and brother, as well as her parents. As opposed to his single-bedroom box, they would have far more rooms needed to allow for any form of privacy.
He approached the door and was surprised to feel his heart racing. His paws had a slight tremble to them as well, and he laughed at himself in observation of the irony. A hundred-plus battles behind him, but he was nervous about meeting Colleen’s parents.
He rapped on the door with his knuckles, taking a step back from the door afterward so as not to crowd anyone who might emerge. A moment later it swung open on well-oiled hinges. There was not even a hint of a creak to the door. Standing in it was a tall setter wearing the high-necked blue shirt and black trousers commonly seen on a Tolean acolyte. Coffee-toned eyes peered at Zeke from behind thin-lensed eyeglasses.
“May I assist you?” the dog asked. The voice was deep and pleasant to the ears, and the question came in a tone that spoke of friendly intentions.
“Zeke Sharn, sir. I’m here to see Colleen.”
“Ah! Pleased to meet you at last, mister Sharn. I’m Sean Goodwin.”
Zeke smiled and extended the bottle of wine. “Thank you. I thought this might be a nice addition to the evening.”
“Well that was thoughtful of you. Welcome. Please come inside.”
He turned sideways in the door and extended an inviting arm back into the depths of the house. Zeke took the invitation, stepping past the big dog and into the residence. His eyes swept the interior in a second, noting the rear exit into the kitchen and the hallway that led deeper into the home. The windows were covered with tasteful curtains in the same blue color as Sean’s shirt. The walls were a pale grey in tone, with a low-pile carpet of golden brown on the floors. A look into the living room reminded Zeke that the things he called ‘couches’ in his office were little more than padded benches. The Goodwins had brought wide, low couches that looked luxurious and indulgent. They were upholstered in a rich red color, and a matching recliner took up space in one corner. Small tables occupied space between and before the furniture. The lighting was soft but distinct enough for Zeke to make out every detail. A fresh smell drifted on the air – a neutral scent that was pleasing without being thick or cloying.
“Have a seat,” Sean invited further, gesturing toward the nearest of the couches. Zeke swallowed and took a tentative step toward it.
“It’s been a few years since I saw one that looked this nice,” he said. A gentle touch with one outstretched paw confirmed the buttery softness of the cover, and he gingerly lowered himself into the heavenly embrace of the cushions. It was like being slowly wrapped in silk.
“Nice, huh?” Sean said, sitting on the edge of the next one.
“Very,” Zeke answered, reveling in the sensation for a moment. He had forgotten what it was like to experience comfort on this level.
“Well, well,” Colleen spoke from the hallway. “I thought you came to see me, but apparently you’ve been seduced by the couch.”
Zeke shot bolt upright, wheeling to face the setter. His eyes bugged as he took in the sight of her standing in the doorway. Her dress was a green so rich it seemed to steal the light from around it, ending with a hint of ruffles just above her knees and extending up to a few inches above the middle of her chest. A soft cream-colored cardigan wrapped her, dropping to her waist. Tiny clear beads sparkled across the chest and shoulders, trapped bits of light that teased at the eyes. A golden glint reflected from a delicate chain on her neck and the diminutive pendant that hung from it. Her fur had been gently teased to produce a soft, wavy look. Her eyes glittered as they fixed on him.
“And he has been struck dumb,” she commented, shaking her head in mock sorrow. She heaved a sigh. “Daddy, I think he’s broken.”
Zeke shook his head and looked at her again, unable to stop the smile that spread across his muzzle. The heat that rolled through his body was pleasant. The rational part of his mind told him he was developing tunnel vision as everything around him faded to nothing in comparison to her.
“You look stunning,” he said. His voice was a near-whisper.
“Why, thank you,” she said, curtsying. She took a pair of slow steps toward him, iridescent blue pumps swishing on the carpet, and he found himself in motion, turning around the end of the couch and walking to embrace her.
“Looking mighty fine yourself,” she whispered into his ear. He felt the heat rush to his cheeks.
“Take your paws off my daughter, sir!” called an angry female voice. Zeke leaped back a pace and looked past Colleen to see the narrowed eyes of her mother. She wore a black sheath dress with matching heels, and golden hoops hung from her ears.
Before he could speak to defend himself, Colleen burst into laughter.
“Mom, please. Leave him be,” she called. A slow smile crept across the face of her mother as she advanced into the room. She held out a paw.
“I couldn’t resist,” she said. “Maureen Goodwin.”
“Zeke Sharn,” he replied, taking her paw in his and bowing over it.
“Well, you have lovely manners, Mister Sharn.”
“Please, ma’am. Just call me Zeke.”
“Then you absolutely must call me Maureen. Ma’am makes me feel old,” she added in a conspiratorial whisper, seasoning the comment with a wink.
“Maureen it is, then.”
“Call me Sean as well,” Sean said as he passed by them. “You do quite a job of monopolizing the attention of the ladies, Zeke.”
“We have good taste,” Colleen said. Her arm slipped through his and she snuggled up close to him. She was wearing an earthy, subtle scent that tantalized his nostrils.
“Fiona and Rory will be here shortly,” Sean announced. “They decided that it would be a good idea to visit a few friends before settling in for the night.”
“They took cookies for the gifting,” Maureen added.
“Tole asks that we gift things to our friends on this, the night of his birth,” explained Sean. He was in the kitchen, and Zeke heard the cork pulled free of the wine bottle he had brought.
“Ah! Speaking of,” Zeke said, bending to pick up the bag he had dropped upon seeing Colleen. He stuck a paw inside and came out a moment later with a thick grey paper packet.
“Maureen, this is for your home. May it bring you joy in the coming years.“
Her brow arched as she took the packet. Nimble paws opened the thin paper wrap and her breath caught as she saw what was inside.
“These are…” she paused, swallowed, and waved Sean over to see the bag she held.
“Hackberries?” he asked. A smile split his muzzle.
“I thought maybe you would enjoy seeing them return year after year,” Zeke explained. “They grow pretty fast, too, and before long you’ll have more berries than you know what to do with.”
Colleen squeezed his paw while the two setters looked at the seeds. A quiet but animated discussion erupted for a few seconds as they decided where to plant them.
“Good choice,” she whispered. Zeke smiled and withdrew a rectangular object from within the bag, also wrapped in paper.
“This one is for you,” he said.
She took it in a cautious grasp, looking at him rather than the gift. “You didn’t have to –“
“I know. I did, though.”
She worked the tip of a claw in under the edge of the tape and lifted it free, peeling away the paper wrapping. A moment later, the paper was cast aside to reveal a grey book twice the size of her paw. Colleen’s eyes widened as she opened it to see blank page after blank page. A ribbon of the same soft grey hue as the cover was attached and could be used to mark her place.
“You got me a book with no words?”
He grinned. “I’m not taking that bait.”
She flung her arms around him again, the remains of his wrapping paper flying. Their muzzles met and he used the edge of a thumb to caress the sensitive area behind her left ear as they kissed. He was still astonished by how she quivered at this simple touch.
“Hey, now,” Sean interrupted. They separated, Colleen holding her gift up to show it off.
“He got me a new journal, Daddy!” she crowed.
Maureen brought a tall glass of red wine over to where Zeke stood. “Thank you for the hackberries,” she said, handing him the glass. “I take it Colleen told you they are my favorite?”
“She may have mentioned something,” he lied smoothly. The wine was thick and mildly sweet, with a distinct tartness to it that left him smacking his lips.
“Well, between that and finding her a journal, I’d say you chose your gifts well.”
“I screwed that up, then,” he said. He leaned over and continued in a whisper, as if sharing a deep secret. “How am I going to top it with my next gifts if I got it right the first time?”
“You keep putting thought into what you do and that’s all that counts.”
“Thank you,” he said.
The door opened and a moment later two more setters strolled into the living area. One was thin and rangy, with his head shaved on one side in an affectation Zeke had noticed growing in popularity among the younger members of the colony. He was wearing a letter jacket from whatever school had been his alma mater before the flight to Z262. A large ‘R’ was sewn on the breast of the crimson jacket. The second was as curvy as Colleen, but the curves here were muscle. Her eyes were bright and sharp, and settled immediately on Zeke. Her lip curled up in response to the badger’s presence. He noticed she wore the standard cargo pants of a miner, and her build suggested she was indeed employed in that capacity. Had he not known it from his talks with Colleen, Zeke knew he could have identified her profession with ease.
“Who’s this?” she asked. Her voice had a rough edge to it.
“Zeke Sharn,” he said, cutting off all attempts by the family to introduce him. He stepped forward, extending a paw and smiling.
“Colleen’s friend,” she said with a snort. She ignored his gesture until Zeke retracted it. In response, he ignored her and extended the same paw to the thin male.
“Zeke Sharn,” he said again. “You must be Rory.”
“Umm, yeah,” Rory said, surprised that his sister had been so casually dismissed. He shook the offered paw, though his own grip was weak and his pads clammy.
“Nice to meet you. Colleen didn’t tell me you were lettered, though. What in?” he asked, pointing to the jacket.
“Running,” Rory said, smiling a tiny smile. “I get out there and just don’t stop.”
“Aw, that’s cool. I’m jealous! I’m good for short bursts but the long stuff? Not so much.”
Fiona snorted again. “Short bursts, huh? Sorry, Col.”
Colleen stiffened, her jaw dropping at the insult. Sean snapped his head around in response to it, his nostrils flaring.
“Fiona Rhiannon Goodwin! You were not raised to insult guests in my home. Apologize at once.”
She looked at Zeke, eyes narrowing to dangerous slits. Her voice was cold and emotionless when she spoke. “Sorry I made fun of you.”
“It’s okay,” Zeke said. The friendly smile on his muzzle stayed for as long as it took for a look of triumph to drift across her face as he apparently accepted her statement. It twisted then and his gaze became predatory while his tone was openly mocking.
“No one expects decorum from a little girl,” he said, speaking to Sean but keeping his eyes fixed on Fiona. It was her turn to cope with a jaw drop, and at his side, Colleen tittered.
For a moment, silence reigned in the house. Fiona struggled to speak, her muzzle working as Zeke stood in a relaxed stance, watching her with casual awareness. He lifted his wine and took a long sip.
“This is an excellent vintage,” Maureen said, holding up her own glass and breaking the tension. Sean agreed and the others turned to be part of the fresh conversation. Fiona shot a glare at Zeke, getting a grin in response.
Things progressed smoothly as the family and their guest spread out around the large kitchen table. Zeke took a position between Colleen and Sean, which put him opposite Rory. To her brother’s left, Fiona was still staring daggers at Zeke. Maureen and Sean stood from their positions at either end of the table, holding their paws up with the pads facing forward. The other three setters raised their own paws in like fashion, although they kept their seats. Zeke mimicked them.
“Oh, benevolent Tole, we thank you as always for watching over us,” Sean began. He was looking upward as he spoke. “Your love and warmth support us and uplift us always, that we might be greater Folk, sustained in your grace.”
“This is your day of birth, loving Tole, and even so far from our home, we call to you and celebrate your presence in our lives,” Maureen said. “We know that distance to you is as nothing, and your compassion surrounds us wherever we may be.”
Rory stood, his paws still upraised. “As the youngest, I stand before you, Tole. I thank you for the blessings you have brought us. I am unfocused, and ask that you guide me to improve.”
Fiona rose next, her guttural voice now tinged with respect. “I stand before you, Tole, to thank you for your grace. I can be difficult and I ask that you help me to grow more patient.”
Colleen stood. “I stand before you, Tole, and thank you for the blessing of love, that you bestow upon all the Folk. I find myself at a crossroads and ask that you guide me to discover my path.”
There was a moment of quiet and Zeke realized that everyone was looking at him. Clearing his throat, he stood from his chair.
“I stand before you, Tole,” he began, having picked up on the pattern that was in use. “I thank you for the moments of peace I have known. It is not my place to ask you for anything, but if I may, I would like more of those.”
“I stand before you, Tole,” Maureen said. “I thank you for having brought us to this new place in safety, and I would ask that you watch over my family when I cannot.”
Sean’s voice boomed in the room. “I stand before you, Tole, and I thank you for gracing our home with your presence – not only this night, but every night. I ask only that you continue to bless us, here and in this settlement.”
Everyone lowered their paws, and Zeke lowered his as well. Around the table, smiles were on every muzzle. Sean made a gesture over the table and then spread his paws wide.
“Blessings be upon you all,” he said. “Let us eat.”
Plates were lifted and filled from various platters across the table. Zeke was kept busy passing one food item after another to members of the Goodwin family. For the moment, at least, even Fiona had forgotten the angry words exchanged before. The good mood continued through the main course and into dessert.
“Why are you carrying a knife?” Rory asked around a mouthful of pie.
“I am a follower of Gann,” Zeke answered. He had rehearsed this part, knowing the question would rear its head at some point. “Gann demands that His followers be armed and ready to battle at all times.”
“Are you familiar with the doctrine of the Original Folk?” Sean asked, his powerful voice cutting off any follow-up questions on the part of his family.
“I am. I also think that it’s an obsolete viewpoint.”
“What’s the doctrine of the Original Folk?” Maureen asked.
“They are followers of Gann as well,” Zeke explained. He took a sip of his wine. “They interpreted His teachings to mean that Folk should use nothing but the weapons He has provided for us: Claws, fangs, teeth. That we’re supposed to be above the use of technology.”
“No guns would be good,” Fiona said.
“If you like rats.”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you think if we stopped using firearms that the toothies would?”
“That term,” Sean interrupted, sucking air past his teeth. “We don’t like words like that.”
“My bad,” Zeke said, rubbing at his snout. He used the pad of a thumb to rub a tooth. “If Empire Rodentia knew that we had disarmed, what do you suppose are the chances that they would do the same?”
“Someone has to take the first step to peace,” Fiona said.
“Let us not start a discussion like this on this holy night,” Sean said. His tone left no doubt that he was serious. “It can go nowhere.”
“Again, then, I will offer my apologies,” Zeke said. “It was not my intention to offend you or the celebration.”
“You’re not going to stand up for your beliefs?” Fiona asked, her eyes narrowing.
“On the contrary,” Zeke replied. “Showing respect for a host is one of my beliefs.”
Ignoring the glare of her father, the miner pushed onward. “You know what I mean.”
“I do. I also know I live my values on a daily basis, and even if you do not understand them, I will continue to do so. I’d be happy to discuss them with you later, but right now we’re offending your father…on Tolenacht. Let’s not.”
Fiona leaned forward again, a fire in her eyes that guttered as his words sunk in. She nodded and bowed her head in the direction of Sean. He smiled and winked at her.
“I’m getting more wine,” Maureen said. “Does anyone want anything while I am up?”
Everyone declined. Colleen gripped Zeke’s knee beneath the table and he smiled at her. So far things had gone better than he expected. He had half-jokingly figured on being thrown out before this much time in the room.
He kept his guard up a bit through the remainder of the meal, but it appeared that the impression he had made was a good one. Even Fiona graced him with a smile as he told a story of his youth and how he had been a clumsy child, prone to knocking over the pottery collection of his mother.
“So you learned agility?” Sean asked.
“You’d think so, wouldn’t you? Not me, though. Instead, I learned how to glue stuff together really well,” Zeke said. Raucous laughter erupted at the table.
Then it came.
“So what is it you do, Zeke?” Maureen asked. “Are you a miner?”
At his side, Colleen stiffened. Zeke let a thin smile drift across his muzzle. This was the moment he had dreaded. Her parents were strict followers of Tole, and his position on the colony was in direct opposition to many of their beliefs.
“I’m a sergeant with ArCorp Security.”
The words were simple, and yet for a second he didn’t know if they would come. Then they were there, splashing the meaning behind them across the table as clearly as if it were a shattered squirrel carcass. He lifted the glass of wine to his lips as the rest of the Goodwin family fell silent.
Fiona recovered first. “Told you he wasn’t good enough for you, Colleen,” she said.
Colleen bristled. “I’ll tell you what, you little –“
“You deserve a lieutenant, at least,” Fiona continued in a teasing tone. She turned a grin on Zeke and he saw her paw come up in a thumbs-up gesture. His brow arched.
“Rory. Fiona. Please excuse us,” Sean said, the words patterned as a request but the steel in his voice belying that appearance.
Rory stood from the table, his eyes fixed squarely on the long blade that hung at Zeke’s hip. The orbs threatened to bug out of his head. He muttered a quick, “good night” and made his way out of the room in a streak of motion.
“Be proud of who you are,” Fiona said to Zeke as she stood. “At least you own up to it, right?”
“I can’t be anyone else.”
“Sorry we got off on the wrong paw. I figure nobody’s good enough for my sister, but I’ll give you a chance.”
“Fiona!” Sean snapped. His fist slammed onto the table, making the utensils jump in a clatter.
“Love you, Col,” she said, blowing her sister a kiss as she vacated the area.
“I love you, too,” Colleen said, surprise coloring her features at the protective revelation from a sister that she feared hated her.
Once the two younger members of the family had left the room, Sean turned his eyes to Zeke. It was a dark, unfriendly look, but Zeke just met his gaze and waited. Frightening looks were no stranger to the badger.
“Daddy,” Colleen began, but Sean raised a paw to silence her.
“Why did you come here, mister Sharn?” he asked.
“You mean Z262 in general, or your house tonight?”
“My house,” Sean said, his teeth gritted.
“Your daughter is important to me. She makes me feel something other than anger and hate, and if you knew me, you’d know how rare that is. I came here tonight to meet you and Maureen, because I think you’re going to be seeing a lot more of me – If Colleen wants that, I mean.”
“You know I do,” she said with a grin.
“This is Tolenacht.”
“It is, and I came here respecting that.”
“Is he who you want, Colleen?” Maureen asked, speaking up for the first time.
“I’d like the chance to find out. I’m not going to say Zeke’s perfect, and I figure I’m not perfect in his eyes either, but damn, mom. I could spend days just sitting with him and be happy.”
“And what about when he gets killed on one of his missions?” Sean asked. “Will you be happy then?”
“No, Colleen. He’s right,” Zeke said. “You know what I do. You’ve seen what can happen. I could get zapped out there.”
“Which makes the time you have now more important than ever,” Maureen said. She patted Colleen’s paws. “If it’s going to be, then let it be. If not, at least you’ll know.”
“Thank you,” Colleen said.
“I don’t approve of what you do,” Sean said, as his lips peeled back from his teeth.
“Good thing I wasn’t asking you to, then, isn’t it?” Zeke said with a low shrug. A growl escaped from Sean’s mouth and he began to rise.
“Easy there,” Zeke cautioned. “Some might say you were planning some violence on Tolenacht.”
Sean slumped in his chair as the badger’s words struck home.
“Tole, forgive me,” he whispered. Maureen moved to wrap her arms around his shoulders. Zeke leaned a hip against the table and scratched at his chin.
“Here’s the thing,” he said. “I meant it when I said Colleen is important to me. It’s my intention to continue seeing her. I would be thrilled to have your blessings but know this: I’m not here to ask permission, and I don’t need it. I don’t grovel or beg, and I damned sure won’t apologize for keeping Folk safe for the past oh-so-many years. As to my position here? Yes, I am a merc filling a spot in a shield wall. Yes, I kill. I use violence on a daily basis. I do things that would make Tole turn His face from me in a heartbeat, and I will continue to do so. Doing so means I come home, and my troops come home, and I’m pretty okay with not coming back in a bag, if you know what I mean.”
Applause came from the next room.
“Fiona!” Maureen shouted. A yip of surprise, followed by running feet that faded was her response.
Sean stood from his place at the table, staring at Zeke. His eyes had softened and the snarl had left his lips.
“Will you treat her right?” he asked in a low voice.
Zeke smiled as he found victory on yet another battlefield.