Diana Santee # 7: Xanthia

Chapter One

The liner we were taking to Sansome Orbital Station arrived on time, so Val and I got aboard. Just a few minutes earlier I'd been delighted at the idea of leaving Esmonia Orbital Station - and the planet Esmonia - just as fast as possible, but the delight had faded quite a bit. I still felt glad to be leaving, but where we were going and who we'd be meeting when we got there… That made all the difference.

Val and I had been made part of an assault team, and we'd be meeting the rest of the team on Sansome O.S. From there we would be taking a military transport to Benelle, where a Branton fortification was waiting to be taken down, but being part of an assault team was not likely to be the only action coming my way.

"Are you brooding about having to travel as a minor again?" Val asked suddenly, pulling me out of my thoughts. "You've hardly said a word since we got the shuttle."

I looked around to see that we'd reached our cabin on the liner, and I hadn't even noticed the process of getting there. Great. There's nothing like being aware and alert, but when Val was involved in things there was nothing like it at least for me.

"Being quiet doesn't necessarily mean brooding," I pointed out as he closed the door. "But if I am unhappy, will you give me my majority certificate? Thirty is too old to enjoy being treated like a kid."

"But you look and register as fifteen, so you'll just have to put up with it again," he countered with a shrug that was supposed to be casual. "Besides, this time it was Ringer's idea. He wants you to stay off that leg as much as possible, and we'll get that done more easily if I'm in charge."

"Meaning you intend to keep babying me," I stated, folding my arms as I looked up at him. "These claw marks on my thigh are scratches compared to some of the things that have happened to me over the past twelve years, so why don't you give me a break? If the leg starts to bother me again I'll get off it."

"You're claiming you'll be reasonable?" he scoffed with a short laugh. "If I didn't know better than that by now, I'd be mindless. Uncle Val will see to it that little Diana does what she's supposed to, so pick a chair and get into it - while you still don't mind sitting down. You won't be walking all over the ship and you won't be disappearing on me, so you'd better get used to the idea."

The look in his black eyes was completely unwavering, the sort of bottom-line refusal to argue that I'd seen any number of times before. If I didn't do things his way he wasn't above spanking me again, and I still wasn't fit enough to stop him - even if I were able to hurt him. But since I couldn't hurt him even to save myself from his idea of punishment, all I could do was turn and walk to a chair before sitting in it.

"That's much better," he said with satisfaction, ignoring whatever my seething expression looked like. "Doing something that's good for you for once won't make the universe collapse, but you always act as if it will. And I'm getting hungry, so I'll be ordering lunch in a couple of minutes. What would you like?"

"I'd like to get out of this cabin," I responded, watching him sit down on the couch near the visiphone. "You know how I feel about being cooped up."

"We only just got here," he came back with exasperation and a shake of his head. "It won't kill you to sit in one place for longer than ten seconds. If you stay off that leg, we'll go to the dinner dining room later."

"You're always so good to me," I remarked dryly as I crossed my legs. "I suppose there's no chance of a little diversion between now and then? Of course, I'd hate to rush you into anything. It's only been about two weeks since the last time you granted me your favors."

"You're not the only one who's suffering, but you're the one who deserves it," he countered in a growl, adding a glare. "You're the one who started that argument between us, and you're the one who got into the fight that earned those claw marks. If you'd listened to me we wouldn't have to be waiting for you to heal now, so if I hear another word of complaint out of you I'll do some complaining of my own."

That look was back in his eyes again, stronger than before and showing that he was not in the least happy with me. I felt the urge to point out that the argument between us hadn't been my doing alone, but that would have just pushed him higher onto his already high horse. We had a three-day trip together ahead of us - with an unpleasant revelation for him due at the end of it - so I decided it was time for a bit of finessing. That ought to make the situation a little more to my liking.

"I - was only trying to tell you how much I missed you," I said as I looked away from him, deliberately "hiding" my "misery." "It's kind of obvious you don't want to hear it, though, so I won't mention it again."

I half-curled up in the chair facing away from his couch as I sighed, and the maneuver worked like a charm. He hesitated only seconds, then got up to walk to my chair and bend to brush some hair from my eyes.

"Don't look like that, brat," he said gently, his touch the same. "I didn't mean to make you think I don't want to hear things like that from you. If you'll give me a smile I'll order lunch, and then we can renew old memories until it comes. How about it?"

"Hurry up and order that lunch," I answered with the smile he'd asked for, quickly meeting his gaze again. "My memory has been getting terrible lately."

"It'll only take a minute," he assured me with a laugh of amusement as he straightened and turned back to the 'phone. "I'll be right back, so don't disappear."

"I don't disappear every time you turn your back," I pointed out as he sat on the couch again and reached for the cabin menu. "I think you're starting to get paranoid."

"You're enough to make anyone paranoid," he answered while he checked the menu. "When you're not getting kidnapped or taking off on your own, you're picking up a dozen new admirers. Most of the time I feel like locking you up in a box somewhere."

"You have no complaint coming," I told him firmly. "Half of the things that happen to me happen because of what I look like now, and you're the one making it impossible to go back to Dameron's base to have my looks changed back to what they were. Chew on that the next time you start to think about locking me up."

Rather than answering immediately, he first called to place the lunch order. Once he'd switched off he came back to where I sat, pulled me out of the chair before settling into it himself, then sat me on his lap.

"There, that's better," he said as he put his right arm around my back and his left hand on my left knee. "Now we can talk about this business of changing you back to your original features. I know you didn't start out being a red-haired, blue-eyed beauty, but are you going to try to tell me that men ran screaming at the sight of you when you were a brown-eyed brunette?"

"Okay, so maybe they didn't," I grudged, unwilling to go any farther than that. "But they also didn't come after me in droves the way they do now. The least you can do is teach me to change myself the way you do, then I'd have no need to go running back to Dameron's base."

"I wish I could, but you don't have the right genes," he said with a smile of amusement. "We'll both have to wait until the end of the standard year of our deal. Now, about those memories… "

His arms circled me completely, so I put my own arms around his neck and joined him in remembering what it felt like to have our lips touching. Unfortunately we were interrupted when the lunch was brought much too soon, but we mostly kept our eyes on each other while we ate. Once we were through we went back to the chair and our remembering, and I had really high hopes. I could tell that Val was weakening rapidly, so the chances were good that he'd change his mind about waiting until my leg was all healed before joining me in bed for more than just sleep. Our kissing heated up to the point where I knew he was just about to give in - but that was when he stood up, put me into the chair alone, then went all the way back to the couch.

"I think you ought to leave the room entirely," I snarled into his calmly serene expression. "I hate to be watched when I'm having hysterics."

"I'll close my eyes," he came back, sympathy conspicuously absent. "When you regain control, you can tell me what an assault team does."

"I'd rather show you," I muttered, then raised my voice again. "Val, you can't be serious about calling a halt now. Can't we - "

"No, we can't," he interrupted without even hearing what I had in mind. "What does an assault team do?"

"Well, first they find a girl and grab her," I said, deciding to try some subliminal cues. "Then they - "

"Diana," he interrupted again, sounding even less friendly than he had. "Would you like me to show again how much I care about you, specifically the way I did last night?"

He meant the spanking he'd given me, something I still hadn't come to terms with. I hated when he did that to me, but the reason he'd done it … He hadn't been joking about the caring part, and that had never really happened to me before. When I shook my head the denial covered more than one point, but he took it in the most obvious way.

"Wise decision," he said, settling himself more comfortably on the couch. "Now answer my question the right way."

"Sure," I agreed neutrally, temporarily dropping the whole previous topic. "An assault team is called in by regular Federation troops when they run into something too tough for them to handle. I don't know the details of the trouble on Benelle, but you can be sure it won't be easy to take care of. The size of the problem usually determines the size of the team, and there will be six of us."

"Ringer said you know most of the rest of the team," Val mused as he digested what he'd heard. "What are they like?"

"As I said, I've never met the new agent, Larry Mason," I said, turning in the chair to put my feet up and get more comfortable. "I've worked with Rob Leesing and Harvey Windom a few times, and they're good agents and very interesting men. Harvey and I were stuck on Kreedone for more than two weeks once, and Kreedone is the sort of planet that would roll up its sidewalks at dark - if it had sidewalks. It would have been boredom squared and cubed if we'd let it bother us. Instead we went up into the hills and - But that's another story. You were asking about the assault team."

"That's right, I was," he returned calmly, refusing to rise to the bait. "You can tell the rest of that other story when we both have more time. Who's the last member of the team?"

"Jeff Kelner," I said, this time showing absolutely nothing in the way of reaction. "Jeff's also a hyper-A, and we've known each other for years. You just missed meeting him at the training academy. He was on his way out the day we arrived, and he only had time for a quick hello."

"I remember now," he said with a nod. "That was his class you took over. What was Ringer saying about you two deciding on who would be assignment leader in the usual way?"

"Oh, that's nothing much," I said with as much casual dismissal as I could generate, adding a gesture. "Since Jeff and I hold the same rank, he and I have to decide who will be assignment leader this time. It's a set routine, and we've taken turns the various times we've worked together."

I didn't quite hold my breath while Val thought about what I'd said, but only because he might have noticed. If he asked even a single question about that "set routine" I'd have my hands full, and not in a fun way. He'd had a fit over the fight I'd gotten into when I got the claw marks on my leg. Once he found out what the "routine" involved…

"What about the rest of the team?" Val finally asked, veering only a small distance from the subject I wanted dropped completely. "Don't we get a chance to be assignment leader?"

"Most regular agents don't bother to try," I improvised, adding a small yawn first. "Special Agents usually have more experience with leading assault teams. And if all you're prepared to do is hold a conversation, I'm going to take a nap. We've hardly begun the trip, and I'm already bored."

"You go ahead and nap," he agreed as he got to his feet. "I think I'll take a short walk around the ship, and if you aren't up by dinner time I'll wake you."

I gave him my own nod of agreement, then watched him leave. As soon as the door closed I took a deep breath and let it out slowly, feeling exquisite relief. For now the topic of choosing assignment leader was forgotten, and I'd have to see that it stayed that way. I'd also have to figure out a way to lose Val long enough to settle the question with Jeff once we reached Sansome O.S., and that one could wait only a short while.

As could the question of what to do about Jeff himself, an equally pressing matter. He and I usually enjoyed each other when we worked together, and that was another thing I didn't quite know how to mention to Val. Or how to handle with Jeff. He was closer than a brother and I wasn't about to ruin our relationship, but … Well, something would come to me, just as it usually did. Right now I just had to concentrate on lying down and pretending I was trying to sleep while I thought.

By the time Val came back, the only ideas I'd been able to come up with were totally useless. Because Val was attuned to me getting rid of him had never been easy, but these days it was becoming downright impossible. He really had started to believe I'd disappear if he turned his back, or that something horrible would happen and he would not be there to help with it. Under those circumstances, diverting him even for a few minutes would take a major campaign.

I kept my eyes closed and my breathing even as Val came quietly closer to the bed, intent on making him believe I was asleep. He watched me for a moment before running a gentle hand over my hair, and then he circled the bed and sat down on it. When he put his feet up and leaned back, I decided to wait a few minutes and then "wake up." If I caught him sleepy enough, he couldn't blame me for what happened…

I waited what seemed the right amount of time before casually turning in his direction, but it turned out I'd waited too long. His breathing was regular and he snored very softly, which made me feel like tearing my hair. When he shifted position and threw an arm around me, I sighed and gave up my plans. It seemed I was destined to do nothing more than nap, so I decided I might as well nap.

Forcefully ignoring the clothes I still wore, I closed my eyes and tried.