Meeting His Maker

by Mylochka and Cheryl Petterson

(Standard Year 2238)

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Jeremy Paget had worked hard to make Noel DelMonde's debut as a maker as painless as possible. As was to happen at several other junctures in their long friendship, it seemed as though the Cajun was determined to make his generosity as challenging as possible. Normally if Jer ran across someone who wanted to work on needles, he'd just introduce them to Cal and send them toddling off to play happily in one of the Clave's hangar bays. DelMonde, however, had made it clear that he had no intentions of A) doing anything that would leave him indebted to Ruis Calvario, or B) working for free.

Even at this point, Jer was getting enough bad vibes about Cal's relationship to Sulu that he didn't feel the need to push NC in that direction if that's not how the Cajun wanted to go. Insisting on getting paid was a little more problematic. There would be no problem in lining up clients willing to handsomely reimburse him for his services as a repairman. There was always a shortage of mechanics skilled and experienced enough to deal with the many complex problems that could easily develop in these relatively simple spaceships. When it came to ship-making and design, however, the Clave always seemed to be blessed with an overabundance of enthusiastic amateurs (or as NC would say, "ignorant motherfuckers struttin' 'round callin' theyselves makers when they not know porthole from asshole") willing to freely share all the aid and advice at their disposal (which DelMonde typically evaluated as being worth "a good slap upside th' mouth.")

Needles were 'born' one of two ways. They were either 'strips' or 'builds.' A build was constructed from the ground up of new or used parts. A strip was converted from a salvaged (or stolen) military or civilian vessel of roughly the right size and proportions. In the beginning of Clave history, all needles were strips. Races frequently had a more 'demolition derby' feel. Racers would use patched up junkers for high speed joyrides as well as for creating spectacular crashes. A heavy duty jettison pod was standard cockpit equipment in those early days.

There was a wide range of vessels from a variety of sources that were considered good candidates for strips. The most attractive vessel that made into the fastest needle was a Martian Mining Authority patrol cruiser. The least desirable craft that tended to make the slowest ship was a light cargo drone used by DaltCorps to make mail runs to supply stations just beyond Pluto's orbit. The very worst of these 'mail cows' were those sold by an Andorian everyone at the Clave called Fast Eddie - despite the fact that neither he nor his ships were exactly swift and his name was definitely not anything like "Eddie."

Jer (after calling in a few favors and doing a couple of strategic lap dances) rounded up three racer-wannbes and enough cash to buy seven mail cows from Fast Eddie in hopes that his Cajun protegee would be able to make three workable needles from the clutch of clunkers. His team of would-be racers were devoted campfollowers who had neither the money to commission a decent ship, the skill to build one of their own, nor the charisma to attract a sponsor willing to foot the bill.

Jer's thought had been that if this first set of needles turned out to be less than stunning (and frequently first attempts at needle creation were not that impressive) then there were plenty of places to put the blame other than on the shoulders of their fledgling maker. The mail cows were notoriously slow and his pilots were already thought to be better at partying than flying. Paget never mentioned his strategy to the Cajun; however NC had, after being introduced to his clients, sighed, shook his head and grumbled, "If you get expectations any lower, son, I may as well fall into a coma."

Since DelMonde was at the beginning of his love affair with the drug sapphire, comas were a concern, but the Cajun had smiled approvingly at his herd of rusty mail cows when they were delivered by Fast Eddie, rolled up his sleeves, and produced three funky, sporty needles in short order as if he had been making them all his life. He called them his "lip ships" after a chrome protuberance each had on the bottom of its nose. The ships were named Lizard Lips, Chicken Lips, and Hot Lips respectively. Not only were they sleek and fast, they were the sort of cheeky, fun design Jer retrospectively wished NC had done more of. The three strips recalled a past that none of them had actually experienced, a time before the Havens and bored playboys had entered the scene or the first racer had become a Starfleet admiral. The lip ships were the type of freewheeling, impudent design common before needle racing had become a blood sport for the amusement of a very select coven of the very, very wealthy and a super secret proving ground to test the nerve of those who had the skill, courage, and drive it took to become the very finest leaders of military and industry.

To a degree of surprise Jer dared not express, Anthony Olivero, Lizard Lips' pilot (who Jer had known oh so intimately since the young man had been a Groupie who called himself Tonio - after he got his ship, of course, he became Lizard, Liz, or Lizzie) began to win races right away. Of course, these were heats populated by crappy, beginner pilots, but Lizard Lips was soundly beating them all. His fellow lip ships were never too far behind, although neither ever managed to cross a single finish line first.

NC was undismayed by the inability of Chicken Lips and Hot Lips to rack up victories. "Mais, they gonna do better," he'd said of the pilots, "soon as they figure out they not have t' keep lickin' an' suckin' on th' joystick to get th' ship t' do like they want."

He'd been equally unmoved by Lizard Lips' string of victories. "Get me a pilot," was all he'd said to Jer. "Then I gonna show you somet'ing."

Of course he had. And of course pilots had lined up for the privilege of commissioning one of the Cajun's creations. Even these first, experimental lip ships had the nearly magical quality DelMonde's designs had - that of perfectly matching their partyboy pilots' personalities.

Jer believed that this was the reason why racers fell so deeply in love with NC's ships. Needles had to be fast. They needed to be reliable. The Cajun's ships were wondrously swift and impressively durable. However (although NC himself would not concede these points) there were other Makers who created vessels equally speedy and just as solidly constructed. In addition to a technical prowess that rivaled (and DelMonde would say exceeded) any other ship designer building winning vessels, the Cajun brought the insight of an empath and the eye for beauty of a poet. Each of his ships was uniquely tailored to the pilot who commissioned it. He customized elements of the design that no other Maker had ever considered customizing. Everything in a DelMonde cockpit was arranged to be accessible in the particular way that its pilot's body naturally tended to move. The look and feel of the ship was fine-tuned to make the racer excited to even be near it. The Cajun's needles always managed to capture the feelings that motivated each individual to race. If you did not want to win when you were inside a DelMonde-designed needle, you simply did not want to win. Racers always identified strongly with their needle. Their needle's name became their name. During NC's reign as the Clave's favorite Maker, however, this fusing of identity between ship and pilot reached unexplored heights. Each of his creations was a portrait in duranium and chrome, a psychoanalysis traveling at the speed of light.

Makers before DelMonde believed that economy was the key element in the equation of achieving maximum speed. NC believed customization was equally important. They asked, "What equipment can a pilot do without and still win?" DelMonde asked, "What idiosyncratic configuration of equipment does this particular pilot need to have in place to create the best environment for winning?" 'Old School' Makers complained about how 'heavy' and/or 'gaudy' the Cajun's ships were --- particularly after they'd been soundly beaten by one. Racers fell head over heels in love with them.

It was not uncommon for the owners of NC's ships to use the same sort of language to refer to their vessel as one would use to describe a paramour. One did not simply sit in the cockpit of one of DelMonde's ships; a racer was welcomed into the needle's embrace. A flight was the perfect joining of bodies. The ship surged and flowed between the racer's legs as he or she caressed its control points. Everyone who had ever been inside of one of DelMonde's creations spoke of them in this reverent, breathless sort of manner - everyone except, of course, NC.

Jer remembered hearing one racer wax particularly rhapsodic one night at the Clave, describing a flight in his needle in somewhat graphic detail as a tryst with his willing vixen. While aficionados of the Cajun's designs smiled and nodded at this encapsulation of the delicious compatibility they also felt with their ships, NC had snorted and crossed his arms.

"Sound like th' ship overclockin' in th' turns," he'd growled. "An' like you not been laid in a month."

Another time when a racer had responded to an upbraiding from the Cajun with an overly effusive proclamation of his love for his vessel, NC had coldly responded, "Hump th' tailpipe all you want, but if I catch you not maintainin' that rear servo array like I done told you, I gonna take th' damn t'ing back an' melt it fo' scrap."

There were some who claimed that DelMonde created some needles whose engines would not ignite for anyone other than the racer they were built for. As the Cajun's favorite test pilot, Jer could attest to the falsity of this claim. Although they seemed magical, NC's ships existed solidly in the physical universe and could be operated by anyone who had the same configuration of limbs in roughly the same scale as the intended pilot. Paget did have to admit, though, that no ship ever suited him quite as perfectly as his own little darling, Cobra, and no one else could pilot her as perfectly.

Racers were obsessive about DelMonde's needles and would pay dearly to get one. And pay they did. The Cajun's flair for the dramatic and attention to detail led to astronomical price tags. Within a month of debuting with three mail cow strips built for less than the price some racers paid for a new control system, NC was setting new records for priciest commissioned needle builds. Jer had even seen Loki Monolem (whose family DelMonde liked to say had "invented money an' was still workin' on defendin' their patent on makin' th' stuff") blink when the Cajun quoted the estimated price tag on the ship she'd commissioned. Paget still believed that NC had purposefully chosen the costliest route possible just to have the evil delight of seeing her reaction and saying, "Or is that too much, Miss Monolem?"

For his own use, though, the Cajun used a portion of his profits to keep himself supplied with a stable of Fast Eddie's mail cows. He used them test new design ideas. These ships were named after a combination of flowers and historical American leaders that seemed random until Paget figured out they were also the names of New Orleans streets near where DelMonde had grown up. NC's small fleet of experimental needles drove some of the Haven bookies crazy. The Cajun liked to 'hot test' these ships in races. DelMonde was not a bad pilot, but thought nothing of dropping out of a race if one gauge on his panel was not giving the reading he was expecting --- even when he was winning. This tendency made odds-making challenging, to say the least. He frequently lost races where he was the odds-on favorite and easily won heats where he was the longshot. This led some gamblers to call for the Cajun to be banned from racing and temporarily gave rise to the phrase, "as risky as betting on a pretty flower or a fat president."

Feelings were strong enough for the move to have him banned to gain some traction, when NC began work on Kamikaze, the needle that he built for Sulu; the ship that would change everything...


The build had gotten off to a rocky start. Most Makers just asked a few questions before starting work on a new needle. Many didn't even do that. When you commissioned a design from the Cajun, however, he required you to perform what he called a 'diagnostic run' for him using one of his ships.

It seemed like a reasonable request, so Sulu hadn't thought twice about agreeing... that is until he stood in the hangar facing the Cajun's all-too-knowing dark eyes. There were rumors that this hot new Maker was a telepath... Rumors that were easy to dismiss until that unnerving black gaze settled on you.

"This here is Buttercup." The Cajun patted the side of a portly, mustard-colored needle. "Treat her nice. I gonna be watchin'."

Racers who had been through this process swore that the worse the ship you tested in, the better the ship that would be built for you. If the looks of this walrus-like monster were any indication, Sulu was sure he was going to get the best ship ever built.

"Buttercup?" he laughed. "Who names his ship Buttercup?"

The corners of the boy's finely shaped mouth turned downwards into a warning frown. "I do."

The Cajun was so handsome that Sulu had assumed that Jer had just picked him up for his decorative value. Jer tended to always bring a stray home with him when he traveled these days. Jer was lonely. A fool could see that. Like a spinster accumulating beautiful cats for company, Jer was collecting quite an entourage of pretty runaways at the Clave.

Sulu breathed a silent promise to make some time for his neglected friend and sealed it with another promise to really do it this time.

"You want people to call you Buttercup?" he teased the Maker.

The boy rolled his expressive black eyes impatiently. "It th' ship name. People jus' call me Cajun."

He was tall but probably not as tall as he was going to get. He still had a childishly thin neck and oversized puppy paws for hands and feet.

"You win a race in this and people are gonna call you Buttercup," Sulu warned, just to see more of his pretty frown.

The Cajun snorted. "Not nobody gonna be winnin' not'ing in this ol' girl. She Buttercup 'cause she yellow." His mouth curled into a mocking smile as he patted his amber-colored needle. "You like yellow, non?"

"Like you like blue," Sulu returned acidly.

The boy hit the button that opened the cockpit. "Jus' get in an' fuck off."

Sulu paused as he put his foot on the bottom rung of the access ladder. "They say you have people do these test flights so you can get inside people's heads." He matched the fire this suggestion lit in the Cajun's eye with a stone-cold chill from his own. "Stay out of mine."

"Believe me, I got no interest in lookin' at what you got 'tween your ears," the boy drawled.


"I can smell shit from here," the Cajun sneered picturesquely as he pulled on the headset he'd use to monitor the flight. "I not need t' sit an' stare at it."

Biting off the remark he could have made about sitting and staring, Sulu closed the needle's canopy. "Let's just get this over with."


As soon as Sulu settled into Buttercup's cockpit, some of the practical mechanics of the Cajun's magical ability to suit ship to pilot became apparent. Buttercup's controls were arranged in a non-standard configuration. Nothing too exotic, just enough to make you constantly aware of where your hands and feet were and where they'd rather be.

Sulu dutifully began to report what he felt were the most significant differences only to be curtly informed that the computer was recording his keystrokes and reaction times. When he attempted to keep the Maker informed of awkwardness that he didn't think the computer could observe, the only reply he got was a string of absent, "Uh-huh"s - as if the Cajun wasn't really listening... at least not with his ears.

Sulu was too busy compensating for Buttercup's odd setup to get properly worried or irritated over this possible intrusion into his thoughts. Another maddening thing about the test ship was that the Cajun had obviously installed a series of governors on the engines that regulated its speed - a sensible precaution when knowingly sending a pilot out in a ship with an unfamiliar control configuration. However, if it was not in the typical racer's nature to go slow, it was doubly or triply not in Sulu's nature.

After his third attempt to circumvent the governors failed without eliciting any comment from the Cajun, Sulu realized that this rebellion was probably telling the Maker volumes about his nature, skill, experience, and knowledge as a pilot.

"Damn you, you black-eyed bastard," he grinned ruefully before trying a different tactic to access the full extent of the power he could hear hints of in Buttercup's big engines and taste in the responsiveness of her frustratingly arrayed controls.

The Cajun made no reply.

Neither did he comment when Sulu finally succeeded.


"So?" Sulu grinned as he climbed down from the cockpit of the big, yellow needle.

The Cajun removed his headset. "You a pilot, man," he admitted grudgingly.

"Why so surprised?"

"Pilots, th' really good ones -- like you is," the boy replied as he pressed the button that would retract the access ladder, "is usually smart."

Sulu grinned and crossed his arms smugly. "Not shit for brains, huh?"

The Cajun spared him a narrow side glance as he opened up a panel in Buttercup's port side. "Not like you."

Sulu grasped his arm warningly. "I told you to keep out of my head."

"An' I tol' you, I jus' lookin' at th' way you fly." The boy shook off his grip coolly. "I like a doctor. I jus' look at what I s'pose to an' ignore ever't'ing else."

"Really?" Sulu retorted, surprised at the acid in his own voice. He couldn't quite understand how sick/angry/desperate the thought of a telepath sorting through his thoughts made him... however there was no denying that he did feel that way. "No temptation to look around? Make some evaluations? Form some opinions?"

"I not got no opinions," The Cajun insisted, making a series of minor adjustments to the panel with his laserwrench. After a moment of silence, he had to add, "Th' mess in your head do tend t' raise a question though."

"Which is?"

The boy turned and faced him, compassion, pity, and revulsion clear in his expression. "What th' fuck, man?"

Sulu found he could only laugh. It was a bitter, hollow laugh, but it seemed a much more dignified response than the agonized tears that were just behind it. "I think I'm gonna like you, Cajun," he said. "What the fuck -- That is indeed the question."

"You better'n all this." With a gesture, the boy encompassed the Clave, Cal, the hotel, the penthouse, and a thousand things no one was supposed to know about. "You better'n you let folks do to you. A lot better."

"Like I said, I think I'm gonna like you..." Sulu gave the Cajun's arm a rough pat. "Though I don't right now. I know I like your ships... even this big, stubborn, yellow cow. I know you can build a great ship for me. And I think, even though you're an arrogant, foul-tempered son of a bitch, I am gonna like you... because you can see through all the bullshit. But right now what I need is a fast ship, not a lecture on morality from a fourteen year old sapphire addict."

"I fifteen," the boy protested automatically, although Sulu could tell that he realized he was giving up the rhetorical high ground as he did so.

Sulu smiled. "Nearly."

The boy's frown confirmed his guess. "An' I not no addict."

"Because you can give up sapphire...?"

"Hell, yeah."

"...For a month?"

"Shit," the boy conceded reluctantly.

"Make me a ship, Cajun," Sulu ordered, turning his back and making a triumphant exit from the hangar before he was tempted to flee. "And I'll make us both kings."


Jeremy Paget was waiting for Noel DelMonde outside the work bay the Cajun had claimed as his own. "So what did you think?" he grinned.

"I t'nk I need a drink," the Cajun growled, heading for the tool pod he'd converted into a walk-in liquor cabinet.

Space in the Clave was shared communally... except by Noel DelMonde. Of course, he, like all newcomers, had been informed that shared occupancy was the rule in the breezy, laid-back manner in which such things were customarily handled. Then he was informed in a kindly but firm manner... then in a polite but adamant manner... then in an exasperated but civil manner... Finally there were occasional bouts of yelling, but usually only from a distance since with each iteration of community expectations - no matter how sweetly delivered - DelMonde became more ferociously intimidating in his fierce intransigence. On more than one occasion, he had annexed further acreage in retaliation and mined the space with insidious electronic booby traps to discourage trespassers.

Finally the Clavists gave up and just took to saying, "He's very... territorial" in the same puzzled, alarmed, resigned, yet lingeringly aggrieved tone they would have used if a large predatory cat had inexplicably taken up residence in one of the hangar bays.

There were some hardy souls who used small corners of the Cajun's work bay. They were like gazelles drinking at the favorite watering hole of a lion. They did so knowing full well that at any time any one of them could end up a bloody pulp being chewed on by the King of Beasts.

"He's as good as I told you," Paget asserted, pouring his friend a large whiskey. "Isn't he?"

"He pretty good," DelMonde conceded grudgingly.

"How did he handle Buttercup?"

The Cajun scowled. "Like she a li'l baby bunny rabbit."

Despite the needle's whimsical name, Paget considered Buttercup to be the most diabolical of DelMonde's diagnostic needles. She was designed specifically to expose and magnify even the most minor failures of coordination and reflexes in her pilots. It took extraordinarily nimble fingers as well as an exceptionally agile brain to keep that hefty lady flying straight.

NC claimed that he only used the ship to look for specific workflow pattern problems. However Jer had noticed that the Cajun tended to pull Buttercup out for pilots he felt needed to be taken down a peg or two. Paget, who usually helped DelMonde monitor these diagnostic runs, had seen more than one hot shot racer humbled by the big yellow lady. The results could be quite hilarious to watch.

For this flight, however, DelMonde had banned Paget from the control booth. "I not need a stage door mama cryin' over th' keyboard if your baby boy stalls out," he'd said.

"He beat the governors, didn't he?" Jer speculated gleefully, pouring himself a gin and tonic.

"Spanked they bottoms but good," the Cajun confirmed sourly.

The speed limitation system was not supposed to be a test. When knowingly putting a racer in a ship designed to induce pilot error, it would have been irresponsible to not to have that sort of safety feature in place. However, many Clavists took measures for their protection as a challenge. Precious few, however, had come close to defeating the puzzle-box of interlocking systems the Cajun had designed to guard and control Buttercup's maximum acceleration.

"So?" Paget asked expectantly.

DelMonde turned and headed out onto the bay floor. "So what?"

"So why the long face?" Jer asked as the Cajun hit the controls that would bring Buttercup up from the flight deck below them. "Aren't you happy?"

"What th' fuck I got t' be happy 'bout?" NC asked, punching a command into his keypad that would lower refueling gear into place over Buttercup.

"Because he's more than good, isn't he?" Jer took a seat atop a tool caddy. "He's the one. He's the pilot you've been waitin' for so you can build the kind of ship you've been wantin' to build."

"Who say I waitin' fo' not'ing?" The Cajun gave him a narrow look as he plucked a laser wrench from the caddy. "'Sides, he up to th' eyeballs in that Ruis Calvario bullshit that I done swore I not gonna go nowhere near."

Paget was silent for a moment in respect for the troubling truthfulness of that statement. After a while, though, the happy thought of his beloved's successful demonstration of his formidable skills as a pilot had him smiling again. "But..."

DelMonde blew out a long breath and shook his head as he opened up the fuel port in Buttercup's side. "He a pilot, I give you that."

"The best you've ever seen," Paget prompted proudly.

The Cajun shrugged as he connected the refueling rods. "The best here fo' sure."

"The one who you can build a needle for that will - and I quote - make the angels cry and convince the devil to buy a racing helmet?"

DelMonde sighed as he stepped back and watched Buttercup's gauges start to rise. "He got th' need fo' speed an' I got th' cure fo' sure, but..."

"But what?"

NC shook his head and opened a panel in the needle's nose. "I not gonna get sucked down into that mess. I done said it an' I not gonna do it."

"You're not," Paget assured his friend as a solemn promise. "This isn't about Cal. Forget Cal. This is about workin' with the best pilot you've ever met. And all you're gonna do is make a ship that will be - and I'm still quoting - sweeter than sugar, finer than a gnat's eyelash, and hotter than Satan's sitting room."

"He can fly anyt'ing I can make," the Cajun admitted quietly as he flipped the switches that activated Buttercup's self-maintenance subroutines. "As much power as I can pack in... As sensitive a control structure as I can come up wit'."

Jer grinned. "And you're gonna make him a ship that is - as the bard would say - so sharp just thinking about it will make folks bleed out the ears and so fast it might arrive on the scene two days before it's even built."

DelMonde stepped back from his needle and shook his head. "Sweet Mary, Jer... What am I gonna do?"

Paget hopped off his perch and draped his arm around his friend's shoulders. "You gonna build that ship, son," he answered in his best approximation of the Cajun's accent. "Build that ship!"


There was no shortage of funds for parts, a fact that would normally have delighted the Cajun. But the knowledge of just where those funds came from was a constant irritation just beneath his skin. He kept repeating to Jer, "I done tol' you I not gettin' sucked into Calvario's bullshit," and he scowled ferociously with each new influx of credit - but he took it and got the finest systems available. Which he then modified to suit his needs, using brand-spanking new tools which his generous commission enabled him to buy.

His discomfort at the source of his monetary fortune wasn't helped much when Sulu would come to watch the build. DelMonde would have preferred it if the older teenager had kept his distance, but even his most foul temper didn't seem to do the trick. Under other circumstances, the occasional - the occasion being infrequent - presence of the racer he was building for was an aid to fine-tuning the design of the ship - the tidbits of flotsam and jetsam he got from their brains flowed naturally into his customization.

Sulu's brain was another matter.

To be sure, he got the wisps of emotional and psychic color he needed, but he also got a heavy and confusing miasma of fear and despair and horror - and worse, spots that were solidly shielded, not only from his gifts, but from Sulu's own thoughts. And those places were surrounded by anguished misery, a terror of discovery that was yet covered in cold determination. It was like looking into a hurricane, but being unable to get past the eye-wall to see what was at the center.

Being from New Orleans, Del was well aware that the eye of a hurricane was ordinarily a place of calm and blue skies, a respite amid the torrential wind and rain. He was, however, quite certain that that would not hold true for Hurricane Sulu.

"I not wanna know," he muttered to himself, as the young pilot craned his neck to get a view of the engine modifications the Cajun was currently working on.

"I didn't say anything," was Sulu's quiet comment.

At least the boy always kept his voice an appropriately reverent hush when he was in Del's bay.

"What you here fo'?" DelMonde growled.

He heard the answer form in the other's thoughts and snarled.

"Oh hell no, he cannot come an' see how his damn money bein' spent!" he spat. "You tell him he gonna trust me or I done an' you can go get someone else t' finish her up!"

To his surprise, Sulu gave a toothy grin. "I was hoping you'd say something like that, Cajun," he said.

Del's eyes narrowed. "Whyfo'?" he asked.

Sulu leaned close, his voice a chilling whisper. "Because the last thing I want is that motherfucker's thoughts going into my ship."

It was a statement so at odds with the boy's usual thoughts of Ruis Calvario that Del blinked. He was just about to ask what had happened to cause this change of heart - completely forgetting his own vow not to get sucked in - when he felt the eye-wall coming down in Sulu's brain.

"He won't be happy about that," Sulu said as though the last few moments had never happened, "but he does want me to have the finest build available." He grinned, this time a charming, flattering expression. "And we both know there's no one better."

Del "hmmphed," and went back to work. I not gonna get sucked in, he repeated to himself.

And don't think I'll forget it.

He jerked, startled, bumping his head on the engine casing, but when he looked up, Sulu was walking away.


"I know it's hard to get a sense of someone's personality when they're so shy and retiring," Paget said, sliding comfortably beside Sulu on one of the large sunken couches in one of the Clave's many observation decks. "But what did you think of Cajun?"

Sulu snorted. "I think that if his talent and good looks ever turn around and get a glimpse of the size of that giant ego they're being asked to support, they'll panic and his head will implode."

Jer laughed and picked up a pipe from one of the perpetually stocked racks on the low table in front of them. "So love at first sight?"

"He's gonna be a bit of an acquired taste, but..." As abrasive as the young Maker was, Sulu still had to smile at the thought of the magnificent ship that was already being constructed for him inside the Cajun's fertile brain. "What did he think of me?"

"That you were the best pilot he had ever met." Paget automatically refilled Sulu's pipe from the large bowl of fragrant Rigellian before filling his own. "And he's gonna build a ship for you that racers will still be tellin' stories about when we're all old and gray."

"Really?" Sulu lifted an eyebrow as he accepted the pipe. "He told me he thought I had shit for brains."

"Oh, that. Well..." Paget put an arm around him sweetly. "His accent is a little tricky to make out at first..."

Sulu had to smile. It was clear that Jer was not going to let anything stand in the way of the perfect partnership he had planned between his favorite Maker and his favorite pilot - Not even the fact that they currently couldn't stand each other.

Just another example of Jer trying to take care of him, whether Sulu wanted that care or not. As he always did when he was near Paget, he felt cocooned in Jer's love. Not that he'd ever done anything to merit such tenderness. It was just always there for him whether or not he wanted or deserved it. Even now, he knew that if he were to decide to seduce the attractive young Cajun, Jer would accept the liaison without any hint of jealousy. Paget was much more likely to be pleased that his protegee had delighted his insatiable and easily distracted beloved than to be at all bitter that he'd once more been passed over in favor of a new lover.

Sulu sighed. He always wondered if his relationship with Jer worked as well as it did because Paget was a masochist or if Jer, determined and adaptable as he was, had become a masochist so that their relationship could have any chance of working at all.

With a warm smile designed to make up for his habitual inattention, Sulu rested his head on his friend's shoulder. "When's the last time I told you how lucky I am to know you?"

"It's been awhile," Paget admitted without rancor. "But I've been puttin' the time to good use."

Sulu's smile turned into a salacious grin. "Really?"

"Really," Paget assured him with a firmly attention-focusing caress. "And I sure hope you're about to tell me. Because after you tell me, you're gonna love the celebration I've spent all this time planning for just such an occasion..."


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