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Chapter 57[]

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A Warrior's Family[]

New Years Surprise[]

Federated Suns
December 31st, 3029

Kelly stood on the dais in the Dropship galley turned pub, "Quite down so I can say a few words before this year ends, and the new one begins. It's been quite a year for the family. We've had some good jobs and some bad. I see a few empty chairs among us." He paused and glanced to the wall that held the photographs of the departed family members.

Hap glanced at the wall and his eyes fell on the picture of David and the silver urn on the shelf beneath it. It had been roughly two weeks but the loss felt fresh every time he was reminded of it. Anastasia was leaning on him and holding his hand. He felt her give his hand a reassuring squeeze.

Kelly lifted his pint glass to the wall of fallen heroes, and the rest of the company followed his gesture. He finished drinking and dabbed the corner of his eye. "Yer never forgotten."

There were a few scattered, "gnó teaghlaigh" in response from around the room.

After a moment he turned his gaze to the Coyote's table, "And we've had a few new hires, Hap, Anastasia, Joker." He shifted to look at the pilot's table, "And Ms. Kate Berlin. Welcome to the family." He gave another salute with his pint glass and everyone drank.

Kelly smiled broadly, "and I cannot forget all the new little ones that were born into the family."

Hap turned around to see the pub was packed with most of the company or "family" members. There were a few young children that had been born to some of the support staff that Hap rarely interacted with. Hap appreciated the way that Kelly made everyone valuable, and he knew it took hundreds of people to put one 'mech and MechWarrior on the field. Kelly was doing it with significantly less, which meant sometimes Hap would have to help out patching his own armor, or cook a meal, or pull a duty in Ops or as part of the flight crew. Hap even appreciated that Kelly had some second generation MechWarriors in his employ right now like Mags, Conrad and Noah, but even so Hap was bored as Kelly talked about the new babies. Hap did notice Anastasia smiled at each of the "new" mothers.

"I have thirty seconds, Commander." Fletch said just loud for Kelly to hear.

"Oh aye. So we've got a few moments left in the year." He motioned to the table in front of him, "Now our tradition is, ye should start the year doing what ye hope to fill the next year with. I've got yer bonus checks if ye'd like to receive them as the year ends, but as for me-" He reached for Elinor and pulled her to her feet and close to him. "I always like to start my year the same way."

Several of the company members started to make their way to the table. Joker stood up but Mags pulled him back down. Fletch started the countdown, and as everyone joined him Hap looked to Anastasia. Without a word she nodded and leaned in, as the countdown finished they kissed. They got lost in the moment, and were only reminded that they weren't alone by the surprising pop of champagne corks from around the room.

Hap glanced over as Kelly, with a blushing Elinor still next to him, held up a filled champagne flute. "Now dear family, fill yer glasses and lets have the first toast of the new year."

Joker already had opened the champagne and was filling the glasses. Hap took on and passed to Anastasia before claiming his own.

"To the new year. May it be profitable, and may the roof above us never fall in."

"And may the family below it never fall out." Patrick answered as everyone drank.

"More like walls never decompress." Joker said.

"Now before we break fellowship, won't ye join me in song?" Kelly called out and started to sing Auld Lang Syne. Hap got comfortable and sang along, as they sang multiple instruments were brought out and before the song ended it was a complete Irish themed orchestra. When it finished John and Mark started to sing The Parting glass. Hap and Anastasia enjoyed the song while they finished their champagne.

As Hap and Anastasia started to leave Kelly and Elinor met them at the door. "I almost forgot, I have a note that I was told to give to you, Hap, but it's addressed to Anastasia." Kelly said as he passed Hap an envelope with the ComStar logo emblazoned on it.

Hap pulled out the letter and Anastasia read over his shoulder. Before Hap could finish Anastasia looked up, "Oh my, Mother is coming here. She was in New Avalon for business and heard that our current contract was keeping us here till the end of January, so she intends to visit us."

"When does she think she'll be visiting us?" Kelly asked.

"Well, she sent it the day before she left which was just over three weeks ago." Anastasia said, "According to the letter she expects to be here on the third or fourth of January."

"I don't think a message from New Avalon should take more than a week." Hap said.

Anastasia shrugged, "I was notified about this weeks ago while you were on the raid, but I decided to wait till you got back so we could go together. I didn't want to go to the ComStar office alone, and now it's out of the question."

"Aye lass, we'll discuss the particulars of accommodating a countess in the morning. Now ye should get some rest." Kelly told her as he and Elinor turned to leave. "We'll have much to do before she arrives."

Three days later Hap found himself standing in the reception area of the star port. It had been decided he would meet the countess and her entourage and try to say as little as possible about Anastasia until he could get them back to the Company area. Mark had accompanied him to help out and drive the van. Anastasia had warned Hap that her Mother would travel with two or four bodyguards and a personal assistant, so they needed one of the larger vehicles.

Hap found a good spot near the security barrier where he could see into the customs area. He was near the baggage claim and he could see some of the ground crew bringing out pallets of suitcases and trunks. Hap wasn't sure how a countess moved through customs, but he figured between the baggage and the offices she would be sure to come through here.

"So she looks exactly like Anastasia?" Mark asked.

"Almost. She looked a little different, but when you see her, you'll know she's Anastasia's mother."

"I heard countess and all I can think of is this real nasty piece of work we had for a nun when John and I were going through Catechism. She really put the fear of God into us." Mark said.

"She's nothing like that, or at least when I saw her on the holovid. She seemed nice." Hap said.

"I hope so man, for your sake. Because she's going to be mother-in-law someday."

"Yeah, someday. I probably should have met her before I agreed to marry Anastasia."

"Don't be too hard on yerself. I can't tell you how many times I agreed to some stupid thing I thought would help me get laid or after I had slept with a girl she gave me those eyes and I couldn't say no.. Of course, I never agreed to marry one of them."

"Thanks, Mark."

"Well, you'd better get your head in the game." Mark said. Hap glanced at him, but before Hap could speak Mark pointed to the crowd, "No seriously, get your head in the game."

Hap looked to where he was pointing and saw the countess flanked by four large men dressed in black dress suits. She was also accompanied by a younger woman with a large satchel purse slung across her body. Hap thought he made eye contact with the countess and started walking toward her. As he approached one of the men put his hand on Hap's shoulder and said something in French. Hap wasn't sure if it was a threat or a command to step back.

"I'm here to see the countess." Hap said motioning to the woman.

The men stepped closer to the countess and Hap saw one of them reach into his jacket to grab what Hap was sure was a weapon. Hap held up his hands to show he wasn't a threat. "No. I'm here to-"

The countess stood on her tiptoes so she could see over the shoulder of her bodyguard. She smiled when she recognized Hap. She pushed her way through her bodyguards and put herself between her guards and Hap. She spoke in French and the men seemed to slightly relax. She smiled at Hap, "Pardon my bodyguards, Captain Harold Calahad, they are doing their jobs, but sometimes they do it too well."

Hap nodded, but before he knew what was happening she gave him a hug, and kissed him on the cheek. She stepped back but lightly held his hands, and seemed to be inspecting him. Hap could see she was a little taller than her daughter and she wore thin cats eye glasses. She had a stripe of gray hair that further distinguished her from Anastasia. Still, the resemblance between Anastasia and her mother was uncanny. After a moment she smoothed his collar and smiled at him. Her smile gave Hap the sense he was the most important person in the star port at that moment.

She looked past him at the crowd and then looked around. "Harold, where is my bebe?"

"We need to get back to the company." Hap answered hoping she wouldn't insist on being told more.

The young woman that accompanied the Countess pushed past the bodyguards. "My Lady, I told you there was a good chance that Anastasia wouldn't be here-"

"I want to see my daughter, you have given your advice and I have made my decision." The Countess said. She spoke with a definitive tone of absolute authority. Hap was reminded of Major Braun's comment about how the countess was like a 'mech fist in a velvet glove.

The young woman gave Hap a strange look that he couldn't quite understand. It seemed somehow apologetic. Something about her seemed odd to Hap. She looked about the same age as Hap and her fashion sense made her look like a professional office worker, it was something he had seen before, but he coudln't put his finger on it.

One of the bodyguards saw something and whispered to the man that had stopped Hap. Hap looked over his shoulder to see a palette with several suitcases, a large trunk, and what were unmistakably weapon cases. A rep from the loading company was standing with the palette. The countess saw the cases and looked at the leader of her security detachment. She spoke to them in French. She said as she put her arm through the crook in Harold's arm and stood close to him. She looked up at him and explained, "I told them I would be safe with you while they collected our things."

As the men walked toward the weapon cases Mark came by and after a quick introduction he told Hap he would bring the van around. The security detachment moved their cases to a corner away from everyone. Hap, the countess and her assistant started to walk toward them.

Hap was surprised as they opened up the long weapons cases and each man pulled out a needler pistol from a concealed holsters. They exchanged the pistols for submachine guns. A pair of security guards saw the men were loading and concealing submachine guns. The security guards cautiously started to approach the countess's bodyguards.

Hap glanced down at the Countess she was watching her security guards. Without looking away she said, "Ashley, go and speak with the port security, assure them these men are protecting me, and authorized to carry and conceal weapons and use deadly force in the protection of my person."

"Yes, My Lady." The young woman answered and walked toward the station's security guards. As she walked she pulled out paperwork from her large purse. The purse reminded Hap of the purse that the ComStar ROM agent had at the gourmet grocery store.

When Ashley was a good distance away the countess spoke quietly, "Now tell me why my daughter is not with you."

"Let's get out of the crowd." Hap said. The Countess nodded and they moved to a spot near her body guards. They watched the security detachment sling or holster their guns under their jackets and then conceal other assorted weapons, restraints, and tools. Ashley, for her part, seemed to act as if this was normal and was showing various forms to the starport security guards.

The countess spoke quietly "Harold, when my husband was killed one of our security detachment died as well, plus a third man that the best detectives of Hazelhurst cannot explain. I do not believe it was an accident. I was given a brief by our nation's intelligence experts that has confirmed my suspicions. Now, I come to see my daughter and she is strangely absent. I want your assurance that she is well."

Hap gave her a very deliberate and slow nod then added, "My Lady, I'd feel better if we waited until we got to the company area to talk. We need privacy." Then he whispered "but the thing you're talking about is part of the reason why she can't be here now."

The countess seemed to understand and replied, "Very well". She stayed close and looked like she was tempted to whisper more, but she just stood close to him. He watched her men and realized she was paying a lot for security. These men were either ex-special forces, or she had poached the best of her planet's militia, likely both. The odd thing was she didn't seem afraid.

"Harold, I would prefer you not address me as 'my lady' or 'the Countess'. Please call me, Je'anne."

"Yes, Ma'am." Hap answered not feeling comfortable with calling the countess by her first name.

She glanced up and Hap and smiled, "Oh Harold, you are precious. You are exactly as Anastasia described you, and I imagined you. I cannot tell you how happy I am that you and my daughter are together. We will be family soon, and you mustn't speak to me so formally."

Hap's face flushed and he hoped the Countess didn't notice. He glanced around for something to talk about. The Countess's personal assistant seemed to be lecturing the starport's security guards. A pair of the local police officers approached. They seemed equally concerned that there were several men arming themselves like they were going to war but concealing it all under dress clothes. Ashley motioned to the police and seemed to have the situation under control.

"Your personal assistant, Ashley was it? She seems pretty competent."

"Ashley is remarkably competent. For over 20 years I had a personal assistant that my mother had trained. When that woman retired a year ago, it took me two personal assistants before I found Ashley. She was nearly perfect from day one. The only issue I've had with her, is she tried to prevent this visit."

"She didn't want you to take this trip?"

"No. She was concerned we'd Miss Anastasia." The Countess said. "She tried to convince me this would be a fool's errand. She told me we would waste our time and I would be disappointed."

"Anastasia's been pretty excited to see you. I think if the Commander had tried to send us off-world she would have gone AWOL."

The countess smiled, "In some ways I have gone AWOL to be here, except when one is a countess one can generally give herself leave." She looked up at Hap, "Have you guessed why I desired this trip?"

"I thought it was to see your daughter." Hap said.

The countess shook her head just like Anastasia often did with Hap. "Non. Or you are half right. I did come to see Anastasia, but I also wanted to see you, and see you both married."

"That makes sense." Hap said, then he realized what she had said, but before he could say anything Ashley approached them.

"My Lady" Ashley said, "I believe I've satisfied the local police and security forces, but they'd prefer we leave soon." She looked around for a moment, "Except, I was hoping-" She spied two ComStar adepts robed in yellow approaching them, "By your leave my lady, I believe we have messages."

The Countess nodded, but noticed Harold's questioning look, "Ashely insists that we use ComStar's 'forwarding and delivery' services. I had never heard of it until Ashley suggested it, and I am hesitant to inform them of my comings and goings, but having them deliver messages to you when you first arrive on a world has advantages when you rule a planet."

Hap watched as the acolytes handed Ashley a large bundle of documents. She exchanged a few words with the acolytes and they passed her a plain envelope. She pulled a single sheet of paper from it and her eyebrows raised in surprise as she read it.

"Harold, would you help my guards with our luggage?" The Countess asked.

"Yes, Ma'am." Harold said, turning his attention back to the Countess.

"Oh Harold, Je'anne please." She smiled knowing that he was struggling with her request.

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