Both hands fell from the salute, and Michelle stepped past the BBOD, trying not to limp too noticeably as she found herself face-to-face with the tall, almond-eyed woman in the uniform of a full admiral and the cream and gray treecat riding on her shoulder.

            "Mike," Honor Alexander-Harrington said, very quietly, taking her offered hand in a firm clasp. "It's good to see you again."

            "And you, Your Grace." Michelle tried to keep her voice from wavering, but she knew she hadn't quite pulled it off, and Honor's grip on her hand tightened ever so briefly. Then Honor released her and stepped back a bit.

            "Well," she said, "I believe you said something about a message?"

            "Yes, I did."

            "Should I get Admiral Kuzak out here?"

            "I don't believe that will be necessary, Ma'am." Michelle had her voice back under control, and she kept her tone formal, aware of the spectators surrounding them.

            "Then why don't you accompany me to my quarters?"

            "Of course, Your Grace."

            Honor led the way to the lift shaft, and Colonel Andrew LaFollet, her personal armsman, followed alertly behind them in his Harrington green uniform. No one else accompanied them, however, and Honor personally pressed the button, then smiled faintly and waved Michelle through the opening door. She and LaFollet followed, and as the door slid shut behind them, she reached out and gripped Michelle's upper arms.

            "My God," she said softly. "It is good to see you, Mike!"

            Michelle started to reply, but before she could think of something suitably flippant, Honor swept her suddenly into a bear hug. Michelle's eyes widened. Honor had never been one for easy embraces, and even now, Michelle hadn't really expected one. Nor, she thought an instant later, had she ever truly appreciated just how strong Honor's genetically-engineered, Sphinx-bred muscles actually were.

            "Easy! Easy!" she gasped, returning the embrace. "The leg's bad enough, woman! Don't add crushed ribs to the list!"

            "Sorry," Honor said huskily, then stood back and cleared her throat while Nimitz buzzed a happy, welcoming purr from her shoulder.

            "Sorry," she repeated after moment. "It's just that I thought you were dead. And then, when we found out you weren't, I still expected months, or years, to pass before I saw you again."

            "Then I guess we're even over that little Cerberus trip you took," Michelle replied with a smile.

            "I guess we are," Honor acknowledged, then chuckled suddenly. "Although you at least weren't dead long enough for them to throw an entire state funeral for you!"

            "Pity." Michelle grinned at her. "I would've loved to watch the HD of it."

            "Yes, you probably would have. You always have been just a bit peculiar, Mike Henke."

            "You only say that because of my taste in friends."

            "No doubt," Honor agreed as the lift doors opened on the passageway outside her quarters. Spencer Hawke, the junior member of her permanent personal security team, stood guard just outside them, and she paused and looked back at LaFollet.

            "Andrew, you and Spencer can't keep this up forever. We've got to get at least one other armsman up here to give the two of you some relief."

            "My Lady, I've been thinking about that, but I haven't had the time to select someone," LaFollet replied. There was something odd about his tone, something Michelle had never before heard in it when he spoke to Honor. It wasn't a note of disagreement, or even of evasiveness — not quite — and yet . . . .

            "I'd have to go back to Grayson, My Lady," LaFollet continued, "and –"

            "No, Andrew, you wouldn't," Honor interrupted with a moderately stern look. "Two points," she continued. "First, my son will be born in another month. Second, Brigadier Hill is quite capable of selecting a suitable pool of candidates back on Grayson and sending them to us for you and me to consider together. I know you have a lot on your mind, and I know there are aspects of the situation you don't really like. But this needs to be attended to."

            He looked back at her for a few seconds, then sighed.

            "Yes, My Lady. I'll send the dispatch to Brigadier Hill on the morning shuttle."

            "Thank you," she said, and touched him lightly on the arm, then turned back to Michelle.

            "I believe someone else is waiting to welcome you back," she said, and the had slid open to show a beaming James MacGuiness.

            "Mac," Michelle said, reaching out to grip McGuinness' hand. Then she decided that wasn't enough, and swept him into an embrace almost as crushing as the one Honor had just inflicted upon her. The older man's eyes widened very briefly. Technically, Michelle supposed, a rear admiral wasn't supposed to go around hugging mere stewards, but she really didn't give much of a damn. She'd known MacGuiness for almost twenty years, and he'd become part of Honor's extended family — just as Michelle herself had — long ago. Besides, there were stewards, and then there were stewards, and there was nothing in the least "mere" about James MacGuiness.

            "May I say, Admiral, that it's one of the greatest pleasures of my life to welcome you home," he said as the strength of her embrace eased and he stood back a few centimeters. "Indeed, it's given me almost as much pleasure as it did to welcome someone else home, some years ago."

            "And who could that possibly have been, Mac?" Michelle asked, rounding her eyes innocently.

            The steward chuckled and shook his head, then looked across at Honor.

            "I've taken the liberty of preparing a few snacks, Your Grace," he told her. "I've set them out in your day cabin. If you should require anything else, just buzz."

            "Mac, it's the middle of the night," Honor pointed out with fond exasperation. "I realize Admiral Henke is still on a Nouveau Paris time schedule, but we aren't. So go back to bed. Get some sleep!"

            "Just buzz, Your Grace," he told her with a slight smile and withdrew.

            LaFollet did the same thing, leaving Honor and Michelle alone, and Michelle quirked an eyebrow.

            "Andrew is leaving me alone with you?" she asked quizzically as Honor led the way into her day cabin and waved her into one of the comfortable chairs.

            "Yes, he is," Honor confirmed.

            "Are you sure that's wise?" Michelle's voice was entirely serious, and Honor arched an eyebrow of her own as she settled into a facing chair. Nimitz flowed down from his person's shoulder and curled his long, sinuous body length around behind her on the armchair's upholstered back.

            "I just got back from a stint as a Havenite prisoner-of-war," Michelle pointed out. "I don't think their medicos did anything except take really good care of me and all my survivors, Honor, but Tim didn't think anything had been done to him before he tried to kill you, either. And given the fact that it was almost certainly the Peeps who programmed him, however the hell they did it . . . ."

            She let her voice trail off, and Honor's nostrils flared. She didn't — quite — snort, but her body language and expression gave the impression she had.

            "First," she said, "you aren't armed, unless they also managed to tuck some sort of weapon away inside you, and the scans aboard Andromeda would have picked that up. And, with all due respect, Mike, I'm not really concerned about your managing to kill me with your bare hands before Andrew gets back in here to rescue me."