STAR BLAZERS, SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO, and all related names and elements are copyright by Voyager Entertainment and Leiji Matsumoto. Star Blazers is a registered trademark of Jupiter Films, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Huge shout-out to Annie and Eva, who gave me the courage to let strangers read my writing!
December 3, 2202
It was still dark when Mark opened his eyes. It took him a moment to figure out whether he was awake or not – coming home after a deployment was always confusing – but his arm was draped over the warm body next to him and after a few seconds when that warm body didn't disappear, he smiled. He didn't want to wake her, but he couldn't resist bending his head to nuzzle into the nest of her hair. She murmured in her sleep and snuggled back against him, and he breathed in the warm scent of her skin. Last night had been so much more than he had anticipated: the way she had trembled at his touch; the satin skin of her inner thigh, growing warmer as his hand slowly made its way higher, and also... Carina, you're soaking wet, he had whispered in wonder. Mark, she had replied, don't you know how I want you? Her hand had trailed down to the waistband of his pajama pants; he had gently urged it lower and then moved his hand away, wanting it to be her decision. After the slightest hesitation her hand had closed on him, and then...
The memories stirred him; he shifted his position a little and was surprised when her hand slid over his, her fingers lacing through his fingers. She was awake. Gently kissing the sensitive spot behind her ear, he whispered, “Good morning.”
She purred and rolled toward him, her eyes half-closed but smiling. Her voice was softly teasing as her hands moved over his chest. “Still respect me?”
At some point during the night she had gotten chilly and put his pajama top back on, and he chuckled as he slid his hand under the shirt and over her belly. “I think I respect you more, love. You have skills I wouldn’t have guessed you had.”
It was too dark to see, but he had no doubt she was blushing. “I wouldn’t have guessed so, either.” His hand had been inching up toward her breast, and when it closed on her flesh she inhaled deeply. “But then, you’ve always brought that out in me.” Her hand closed over his. “Ever since that night I was helping you to bed in the hospital and we ended up in this same position, remember?”
It was Mark’s turn to blush. “Ugh – why would you even bring that up?” he groaned. “You know how I beat myself up over that.”
“And you know it was more my fault than yours. All I had to do was this:” – she pulled his hand away and moved it to her waist – “but I didn’t want to.” She moved his hand back to her breast and kissed him, then murmured, “I still don’t want to. Do you know, I lay awake half that night reprimanding myself and the other half dreaming about… Well, basically about this moment? Only with more clothes,” she added with mock seriousness.
It was gratifying to think that she had fantasized about him so long ago. He kissed her tenderly and asked in a whisper, “Was that when you knew?”
“It’s when I admitted it to myself,” she said softly. Her fingers had moved lower and were now tracing patterns on his abdomen in a very distracting manner. “But I was drawn to you right away – you were never just a patient. I think I knew on some level that first night we talked.”
“Me too,” he said, his breathing becoming unsteady as she kissed his neck, “although I wouldn’t admit it to myself either. I couldn’t get you out of my mind from that night…” He didn’t finish the thought as she reached up to kiss his mouth. Well, he thought with a smile, if she‘s going to insist, I guess I’m forced to comply.
By the time he lay quietly with her in his arms, holding her tightly to his chest, the sun had risen above the horizon. The early morning light that came through his window was cold, but snuggled together they were warm and cozy. He kissed the top of her head and sighed contentedly. “How long does it take to plan a wedding?”
Again she absently moved her fingers over his chest. He could get used to starting every morning this way. “To be honest, I always wanted to get married in the fall when the leaves have turned, but I don’t want to wait that long. How about in May, when the trees are blossoming? Six months is a reasonable amount of time to plan.”
Six months? He tilted her chin up to look at him. “Really? I was kind of hoping you’d say three weeks or something.”
She smiled. “We could probably get Father Dave to do it, too… But sweetie, unless Wildstar gets his act together pronto, you’ll be the first Star Force officer to get married. It’s going to garner international attention, and it can’t be thrown together.”
She was right, but still… “Do you ever not overthink things?” he grinned.
“No. Have you met me? And anyway, we went through a lot to get to this point. We deserve a beautiful wedding, and I deserve to be a stunning blushing bride. With delicious cake.”
“I can’t argue with that.” Mark kissed her nose. “OK, but May 31st is my absolute cut-off date. On June first, I reserve the right to bring Wildstar in to –“ he was cut off by the sound of his alarm clock, which he had forgotten to turn off. He groaned and reached over to hit the switch. “I’d love to stay here all day, but I have to be at the press conference at 1030. Sandor and I will be standing behind Wildstar as he speaks. Are you coming? It’s only 0700 now. We could walk over and get breakfast on the way.”
“Of course I’m coming – I wouldn’t miss the opportunity to watch you standing there all pretty.” He thought she was going to get up, but when he ran his hand over her back she curled more deeply into him. “I just need half an hour to shower and dress. If we have time we should stop at your family’s house before the conference, too. I did once tell Jordy he’d be the first to know if we ever decided to get married.” She kissed his chest with a grin. “Now if you’ll let go of me, I’ll see if I can find the willpower to stop touching you.”
He didn’t think there were enough words in the world to express how much he loved this girl. “What makes you think I have the willpower? Besides, it will only take me five minutes to get ready. I think the impetus is on you.” She lay still for another moment and then groaned and rolled away from him, and he reached for her. “I’m sorry, love, but if it’s left up to me, I’ll never let you go. Maybe having you stay over wasn’t the smartest idea – I have a taste for it now,” he continued, nibbling at her shoulder. “Do you think we should go cold turkey until the wedding?”
“Probably. But…” Suddenly she was blushing brightly. “I was kind of hoping you’d stay at my place tonight after the party. We can go back to real life on Monday. I want to be with you every minute until then.”
“Sounds good to me,” he said, giving her one last kiss before releasing her.
“I’m telling you, they had a bet going. Or a – a pool or something.” They had called Carina’s family from the Ventures’ apartment, and Jordy and Katie had kept looking at each other suspiciously after Mark and Carina told them of their engagement. Carina was convinced there was meaning behind it.
“Well, everyone seems happy, at least.” They were walking through the park on their way to Earth Defense Headquarters. He smiled and took her hand. “Now I only have to worry about your brothers’ approval.”
“Please. I have to worry about the approval of the entire Star Force, which is far more intimidating. Will you still marry me if Homer doesn’t give us his blessing?”
“I can handle Homer. Are you going to tell Nova this afternoon?” Carina was planning to help Nova set up for their welcome home party tonight.
“I’d rather wait until tonight, although she might figure it out on her own. I’ll have to hide the ring. Which, by the way --”
A sound on the path ahead of them interrupted her and they looked up to see a woman walking slowly toward them with a young boy in a wheelchair and a service dog. The boy stopped and looked at Mark with wide eyes, then tugged on his mother’s arm and whispered something to her, pointing at Mark. This had happened to him more than once, of course. The members of the Star Force were highly recognizable, especially in uniform. He stepped forward, smiling at the boy and extending his hand. “Hi there. I’m Commander Venture. What’s your name?”
The boy’s face lit up and his mother beamed at Mark. “My name is Jacob,” he said, awkwardly lifting his arm. Whatever was wrong with this kid, it must be serious.
“Glad to meet you, Jacob.” Mark made small talk with the boy, noticing that Carina watched them for a few seconds and then stooped to pet the dog. By the time he signed an autograph and shook Jacob’s hand again, they appeared to have become fast friends. She kissed the dog on the head and dusted her hands on her uniform pants as she stood. Jacob’s mother spoke to Mark.
“Thank you, Commander. You’re very kind.” She turned to Carina with a smile. “And thank you for sharing him with us, Captain. You must be glad he’s home.”
“You can’t even imagine, ma’am,” Carina said, nodding. Mark was surprised for a second before it occurred to him that the two of them as a couple were recognizable, too. Their quiet lifestyle ensured that they weren’t exactly tabloid fodder, but their picture had occasionally shown up in the papers and magazines last summer. It made sense that the woman would know who Carina was to him.
When they made their goodbyes and continued on their way, they could hear Jacob chattering away excitedly. Carina glanced back over her shoulder with a sad smile. “That was nice. Kids love you, Mark.”
Uh-oh. He recognized that tone. He stopped and reached for her hand. “What’s wrong?”
She hesitated for a moment, mouth open, then shook her head. “It’s nothing.”
“Carina.” He turned her to face him. “Talk to me. Say it.” Her counselor had told him it was important for him to get her to open up.
“I know I’m being ridiculous, Mark. It’s just –“ she sighed. “Are you absolutely sure this is what you want? It’s not too late to change your mind.”
Part of him wanted to shake her in frustration; the rest of him wanted to hold her tight and comfort her. In the end he compromised and took her by the shoulders, pulling her to him and kissing her forehead. “It was too late the second you waggled those stupid bowls of ice cream at me that night Sandor made you come talk to me. What can I do to make you understand that?” She smiled, but she didn’t meet his eyes. He tilted her chin up. “Hey. Look at me, and listen to what I’m saying. I love you. I want to spend the rest of my life with you – I can’t begin to imagine life without you. And someday, if we both decide it’s what we want, we can explore adoption. No agency would turn down two war heroes.” She nodded sheepishly. “But honestly…” As he spoke he realized that what he was saying was true. “Honestly, I don’t think I want to share you. Maybe that’s incredibly selfish, and maybe it will change someday, but for now I want us to be just us. You and me. OK?”
“Just you and me. I like the sound of that,” she murmured, relaxing into his chest as he stroked her hair. “I’ll never understand what I did to deserve you, Commander Venture.”
“Hey – where is all this coming from all of a sudden?” He pulled back to look at her and spoke to her sternly. “Are you still talking to Dr. Nakamura?”
She rolled her eyes at him. “Yes, dear. Every week. But this marriage thing... It’s still a little scary, you know?”
“It shouldn’t be. I’m going to prove that to you if it takes the rest of my life.” She smiled softly and kissed him and he took her hand to lead her forward, a little concerned. After a few moments, though, she gave him a sideways glance and deliberately bumped into him.
“How do you feel about dogs?”
He relaxed and put his arm around her shoulder, relieved. “Who doesn’t love dogs?”
The press conference was blessedly brief. Wildstar answered questions regarding the Star Force’s specific situation, but since the war had been over for several months most of the important details were already public knowledge. After the conference Mark stopped briefly at the office, went grocery shopping and did a load of laundry, and found he still had time for a much-needed nap before picking Carina up for Nova’s party.
He slung an overnight bag over his shoulder and walked toward the women’s barracks, grinning to himself. He was glad she’d thwarted his attempt to “be good” when he told her he thought they shouldn’t spend the night together until they were married, and he loved the way she had blushed when she asked him to stay with her. They were both still a little shy talking about that aspect of their relationship; he supposed they would become more relaxed as time went on.
He knocked at her door, still smiling, and chuckled when she opened it. He was wearing a light grey sweater with dark grey pants; she was in a dark grey sweater with a light grey skirt. “Matching outfits? Really?”
She grinned and pulled him inside. “Technically they’re complementary outfits.” He followed her into the kitchen as she went on happily. “You know, in the old movie musicals, when the hero and heroine wore the same colors it meant they were destined to fall in love.”
“Is that why you wear so much green?” She cocked an eyebrow at him with a crooked smile and he backed off. “Do you need me to carry anything? Did Nova figure anything out?”
“Maybe, yes, and no,” she said, kissing him and handing him a stack of food containers. “Nova was too goo-goo-eyed over her reunion with Wildstar to think too much about us. It was ‘Oh, Derek’ this and ‘Oh, Derek’ that all afternoon.” Carina grinned. “And she accuses me of being gaga over you.”
Mark loved this happy, playful side of her. “Are you? Gaga over me?”
“You know I am. As to whether I broadcast it publicly, though? You’ll have to ask Nova.” She changed the subject as they left her apartment and headed toward Nova’s. “How was your day? Did you get everything done?”
“I did. I even stopped by the office…” He hesitated. “Did you know… Have you heard who they hired as the primary executive assistant over at the control tower?”
She looked at him blankly for a second, and then her expression hardened and he watched her jaw creep forward. “Are you kidding me? Chrissie? Whose brilliant idea was that?”
Mark held up his free hand. “Not mine. Don’t kill the messenger – I just wanted to make sure you were aware so you didn’t hear it on the streets.” It was true that he hadn’t been looking forward to delivering the news.
“Sorry – I’m not blaming you. Ugh.” Carina took a deep breath. “At least when she smirks at me, I can subtly wave my left hand in her face.”
“I don’t think she’s interested in me anymore, anyway. She was pretty rude to me when she cleaned out her desk last spring.”
“Hmm.” Carina still sounded disgruntled – she didn’t trust Mark to recognize when a woman wanted something from him. “She’ll probably come after Orion next, especially since he proved himself so well on this mission.”
“You can warn him the next time you see him. He’s off visiting his sister tonight, and Yamazaki is home with his family. Everyone else will be here, though.” They had reached Nova’s door and Carina brightened as Nova greeted them, motioning them inside. They had arrived earlier than the others to help her finish getting ready, so that Nova and Wildstar were the only ones there. After he set down the food he had carried over, Nova threw her arms around him. He picked her up and gave her a brotherly squeeze.
“Oh, Mark, it’s so good to see you!” Nova’s eyes were shining. “Derek told me you kept him sane while you were in space without me.”
“It’s good to see you too, Nova. You look wonderful,” he said with affection. “And Wildstar helped me as much as I helped him. It was a rough trip for both of us, all alone up there in the sea of stars.” He stepped back and put his arm around Carina, who had been greeting Wildstar. That’s more like it, he thought. Nova always felt so frail to him – he liked the way Carina fit in his arms.
Taking Wildstar’s hand, Nova said, “Well, everything’s as it should be now.” She smiled at them, and then peered more closely at their faces. Mark felt himself grin stupidly, and when he glanced at Carina she wore a similar expression. Nova took Carina by the shoulders and pulled her left hand out from around Mark’s waist. With a broad smile, she looked back and forth between them. “When did this happen? Why didn’t you tell me earlier?”
“You were too distracted,” Carina grinned, “and anyway, we thought we should all be together when we told you.”
“Fair enough.” Nova continued to look at Carina for a couple of seconds, then hugged her as they both gave girlish squeals. Mark had never heard either of them make such a sound, and he felt his smile broaden as Wildstar shook his hand and then pulled him into an embrace as well.
“Congratulations, space jockey,” he said, patting Mark on the back. “It’s wonderful news – we’ve been hoping for it.”
“Thanks, Wildstar. I guess it’s not much of a surprise, is it?” Mark couldn’t wipe the smile off his face as Nova came to hug him and Wildstar kissed Carina’s cheek.
“Not exactly,” Nova smiled, kissing him, “but that doesn’t mean it’s not exciting. Have you set a date?”
“Not exactly,” he retorted happily, “but we’re planning for sometime in May. Carina figures that’s enough time to plan something that will wow the media. She thinks it will be the first Star Force officer’s wedding, since the chance of Wildstar getting off his behind and making an honest woman of you is pretty slim.” He added, “Ouch,” as Carina backhanded him in the stomach.
“That’s not quite what I said, and I’m not actually interested in ‘wowing’ the media,” she said sardonically. “But I do think attention will be paid, unless you jump in there and take the spotlight off us.”
They looked at Wildstar, who squirmed uncomfortably until Nova said with a laugh, “We’re not in a rush.” She kissed Wildstar on the cheek and squeezed his hand, and he smiled at her gratefully before stepping away.
“We’re cooking outside tonight, Venture. Come on out and help me start the grill.”
“Sure,” Mark laughed at his friend’s graceless exit from the conversation. “Just let me grab a beer and I’ll join you.”
He took two beers from the refrigerator in the kitchen, then paused to listen to what Carina was saying to Nova.
“I don’t want to step on your toes. If you’re thinking about having your wedding soon, we’ll back off. We just really don’t want to wait, and I thought six months would be enough time to get everything ready.”
“No, don’t be silly. We’re waiting for a period of stability before we finalize our plans. Derek doesn’t want to be called away for an emergency and have to leave a family behind…” Mark shook his head as he went outside. On some level he could understand Wildstar’s reasoning, but life was too fragile to wait for happiness. He and Carina both knew that first-hand.
It was chilly outside but not too cold, and Mark opened one of the beers with a gloved hand and passed it to Wildstar, who was watching the early winter sunset.
“Thanks. It’s good to be home, isn’t it?”
“You can say that again. I don’t think I’ve ever been so glad to see terra firma.”
“Well, you had a big night last night.” Wildstar grinned. “Congratulations, Venture. I’m so happy for you. Really.”
“Thanks, Wildstar. I’m happy too – I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so certain of anything. It’s pure contentment, you know?”
“I know.” Wildstar was quiet for a few moments. “I love
Nova, Mark. I do. And I do want to marry her.”
Mark turned to him. “I know that. I’m just teasing you about delaying your wedding, Derek. It’s none of my business.”
Taking a deep breath, Wildstar said, “The thing is, I can’t stand the thought of being called out into space and leaving Nova behind, especially if we have a baby. I just learned how hard it was to face an emergency without her. If we were married and she was pregnant… I don’t think I could handle it.”
“That’s understandable, Wildstar, but the thing about an unexpected attack is that it’s unexpected. I know you want to wait until you think Earth is safe, but we’ll never know for sure.”
Wildstar closed his eyes. “I know. If we can go even a year without a major crisis, I’ll feel secure enough to do it. That’s our plan. We have everything ready to go, you know.” He chuckled. “It would be impossible not to have everything planned, with Nova’s mother the way she is. Once we hit nine months without an emergency, all we have to do is book the church and the reception hall.”
“I didn’t realize that. It does sort of leave you both hanging though, doesn’t it? I would take Carina to City Hall and marry her tomorrow if we didn’t want a church wedding.” He took a sip of his beer. “I guess we just have different philosophies. As long as you’re both happy, like I said, it’s none of my business.”
“And I could say the same to you.” Wildstar grinned. “I won’t make an issue of your shotgun wedding if you won’t make one of my calm, reasoned approach to the altar. Deal?”
“Deal,” Mark chuckled, and they clinked their beer bottles together. “We’re both going against character, aren’t we?”
“Yeah. Who’d have thought?”
It was then that Nova called them to come in because the other guests were beginning to arrive. Realizing they hadn’t lit the grill, they started the fire and headed back inside.
Homer, Dash and Eager had arrived while they were out, and Eager had Jenny Greenwood by the hand. Mark knew the other two didn’t have serious girlfriends. Homer had dated one of the nurses from the hospital for a while, but he was convinced that he’d know it when he met the right girl and was waiting for that day, and who was Mark to tell him he was wrong? Dash had a couple of girls he saw casually, but no one he felt comfortable bringing into the fold of the Star Force.
As Mark was greeting his friends, Sandor arrived with Doctor Sane and IQ-9 in tow. Mark walked over as Carina hugged Sandor. “Stephen, welcome home,” she was saying. “I’m so sorry about what happened with Sasha. It must have been so hard for you.”
“Thanks, Carina. It was tough, for sure. She was with me less than a year, but I watched her grow up. We told everyone she was my niece, but she was more like a daughter to me. I miss her every day.” He shook his head and lightened his tone. “I’m glad you came through everything, though. It’s good to see you looking so well.”
“Thank you. I feel pretty well – not much bothering me but the occasional twinge. I don’t like sleeping on my back, though. I’ll be glad when I can lie down comfortably without getting stuck.”
“Hmmm.” Doctor Sane had been looking at her intently and now adjusted his glasses. “You look all right, but I want to see you in my office first thing Monday morning. Russo is a fine doctor, but he’s not me. I won’t be satisfied that you’re safe until I’ve examined you myself.”
“Sure, Doc. Thanks.” She smiled as Mark approached her. “My instincts do tell me that I’m healthy. Healthy and very, very happy,” she added as he slipped his arm around her waist.
Sandor gave them the eye. “Is there something you’d like to tell us?”
Mark grinned as he felt Carina squirm against him, and turned to the room as he said, “Actually, there is. Everyone, could I have your attention for a second?” He couldn’t stop smiling. “Carina and I would like to announce our engagement. We’ll be getting married in the spring.”
There was a wave of congratulating cheers and hugs that left Mark feeling a little bit dazed; the thing he later remembered the most clearly was Carina’s voice cutting through the happy chatter, steely as a knife: “Don’t even think about it, tinwit.” Mark glanced over in time to see IQ-9’s hand, which had snaked under Carina’s skirt, retract back into his arm. Wildstar and Nova quickly corralled the robot and sent him outside to grill the food, and when Carina laughed good-naturedly the crowd settled in, looking for seats in the small living room.
Carina found the attention from the announcement of their engagement vaguely overwhelming; she was glad when only Mark, Nova and Jenny stood by her and the rest of the Star Force turned its attention to teasing Mark. Homer especially couldn’t wait to pick on his boss.
“Captain, what’s a beautiful girl like you doing with this two-headed space jockey?” he asked with a grin.
Homer and Mark didn’t always get along as well as they might, but Mark’s spirits remained high and he chuckled as he put his hands on her shoulders. “Don’t give her any ideas, Homer.”
Carina decided to play along. “Wait… You mean I could have gotten someone better looking? Maybe I need to rethink this.”
“Don’t you dare,” Mark laughed, pulling her toward himself. “It would kill me.”
“Well, if you’re going to lay that on my shoulders, then OK. I’ll stay. Anyway,” she continued, addressing Homer, “he’s seen me looking pretty scary, thanks to Nova” – she shot her friend a dirty look – “but he stuck by me. I owe him for that.”
Nova smiled. “I told you Mister Honorable wouldn’t care that you didn’t look your best right after you woke up from a coma.”
“I still think he was just looking for the most honorable way to dump me.” She grinned back at Mark. “Fortunately it took him too long to come up with a believable excuse, and by the time he got home it would have been too awkward.”
Mark’s eyes were tender. “Dumping you was never an option.” He leaned over and kissed her, making her melt against him, but stopped when Dash groaned.
“We’re happy for you, Venture, but come on. You’re giving us all diabetes,” he said.
Eager nodded. “My teeth ache,” he said, but he was silenced by the look Jenny gave him.
“Sorry, guys,” Mark laughed and backed away from Carina, keeping one hand on her shoulder, and she blushed and looked at the floor. “Give us a couple of days to get used to it.”
Dash, always kind, said, “Sorry, Captain Clark. We were just teasing – we didn’t mean to embarrass you.”
“No, not at all,” she said. “But I wish you all would call me Carina when we’re off duty. Make me feel like less of an outsider.”
Mark’s hand tightened on her shoulder protectively, and Sandor stepped forward and put his hand on her arm. “I didn’t tell you – you’re an insider now. I told the Commander today that I want you on my team on the Argo going forward. I’ll file the paperwork on Monday, and you’ll be a member of the Star Force.”
“Sandor,” Mark said, “You didn’t tell me you were going to do that.”
“Well, you know we’ve discussed it enough and we had planned to make it happen. I’m just making it official. Consider it a wedding present.”
Carina took his hands as IQ-9 brought the food inside. “Stephen… Thank you, although I have to admit it’s a present I hope I never have the opportunity to use if it means Earth is in danger again. You know I’ve always regretted that I didn’t join you on the trip to Iscandar. I appreciate you giving me a second chance.”
As Nova directed them to sit she said, “I regret that you didn’t come to Iscandar, too. It would have been nice to have a woman around to talk to.”
Carina had always wondered. “Nova, how did you end up the only woman on the Star Force? There were quite a few when you took off, weren’t there?” She settled into a chair, and since space was at a premium, Mark sat in front of her and leaned back against her, draping his arm over her leg. Carina grinned as she watched Homer and Dash exchange an eye-rolling look.
“There were.” Nova sighed. “They were nice enough, but for the most part they never should have been onboard. As soon as we started getting into combat, most of them requested to be allowed to use the suspended animation sleeping tubes. They would come out to work occasional shifts in the kitchen or the sick bay, but when it came down to it they weren’t terribly helpful.”
Doctor Sane spoke up. “There were some older nurses who stuck it out, but unfortunately most of them were lost in the battles in the Rainbow Galaxy and on Gamilon. Those young girls… I never understood what some of them were doing there in the first place.”
“No,” Nova said. “I’m afraid a lot of them joined the Star Force with the idea that they’d find husbands. Men were becoming scarce, and toward the end of the Gamilon war there was so much pressure on women to get married and have babies. Do you remember, Carina?”
Mark glanced back at her and squeezed her knee. “It was worse on Earth while we were away, wasn’t it, honey? Everyone did their best to shield us from the worst of what happened that year, but Carina told me about it. Those girls may not have been cut out for life in space, but they were probably better off than they’d have been if they’d stayed down here.”
Carina leaned forward, slid her hands over his chest and kissed his cheek, grateful to him for seeing to it she didn’t have to discuss this topic. She was more grateful when Jenny punched Eager playfully in the arm. “When are you going to fight to get me assigned to the Star Force? You must need more communications officers, right?”
“Ow!” Eager joked, rubbing his arm with a smile. “I guess we do. I’ll be sure to look into it.”
Wildstar said, “Listen, guys, if we’re lucky the Star Force will never have to regroup again. But if it does, you’re welcome to make any staffing recommendations you see fit. We certainly can’t keep staffing the ship with cadets.”
The veteran crew members nodded in agreement when suddenly Homer piped up indignantly. “Who were all these girls who were looking for husbands on the trip to Iscandar? I never met any of them.”
“Homer,” Nova laughed, “their mothers probably warned them against men like you. Remember that last time we spoke to our families before we left the solar system? Orion was in the com room with me. My mother thought he was the one I’d fallen in love with, and she nearly had a heart attack. Poor Orion – he really got an earful. At least he was good-humored about it.” She smiled wistfully. “I wonder whether I’ve ever told Pat that story. I’m not sure he saw his father’s softer side too often.”
“I’m not sure any of us did, except apparently for you, Nova,” Sandor said. “He was a tough old bird.”
Mark chuckled softly. “He sure was. I miss Orion. He and I butted heads constantly on the way to Iscandar, but he was always right and he always used it as an opportunity to teach me a lesson. I learned so much about space travel from him. All the stuff they don’t put in the books.”
“And now you’re passing that knowledge on to his son. I’m sure he appreciates it,” said Dr. Sane, taking a swig from his bottle of sake. “It’s like the Star Force’s own circle of life.”
Wildstar said, “I think the person I miss the most is Conroy. He was a great pilot, and an even better friend.”
“And fiercely loyal,” Dash agreed. “Remember how many times we had to stop him from fighting the Space Marines on the way to Telezart? He just about exploded every time he thought they were being disrespectful to the Star Force.”
Nova chuckled. “He was ready to take on the entire mess hall full of them over their lack of manners, and after you left me to them, Derek. As if you guys were any better – I remember an awful lot of food and bottles on the mess hall floor after the little party you had welcoming Conroy and Hardy aboard, but I guess he considered that ‘our’ mess; while what the Marines did was ‘their’ mess. Either way, I ended up doing the bulk of the cleaning That’s why I will be more than happy to have you join us next time, Carina and Jenny.”
There was a round of protests from the men, and Carina and Jenny looked at each other. “I’m not sure that’s what I signed up for, Nova,” Carina said. “I feel pretty strongly that these lugheads can pick up after themselves.”
Jenny nodded nervously. “Yeah, and anyway, have you seen my barracks? I don’t think I’m the person you want on your clean-up crew. Even Chris here does a better job than I do.”
IQ-9 had been silent, sulking over his banishment to the yard earlier, but now he spoke. “Nova, I am more than happy to help you with anything you need. I will always be here for you.”
“Thank you, IQ,” Nova said with a twinkle in her eye. “You can start tonight by collecting and washing the dishes.”
It was late by the time the party broke up. Mark and Carina walked out with Jenny and Eager, relaxed and happy after a long night of food, drink and good conversation. At the turnoff toward the barracks belonging to the enlisted personnel, Jenny turned to Carina. “Congratulations again – I’m so happy for you. See you at rehearsal next week?”
“You know it, and thanks!”
Eager paused awkwardly. He didn’t know Carina well enough to hug her, and it seemed he wasn’t sure what the protocol was in this situation. He finally settled on shaking her hand and congratulating her, but when he turned to Mark he was more relaxed. “Congratulations to you too, Venture, and by the way, thanks for putting the pressure on the rest of us!” He put on a nervous expression, looking significantly at Jenny.
“Now Eager,” Mark laughed, putting his arm around him, “I’m sure Sgt. Greenwood won’t let our relationship affect your relationship.”
“Easy for you to say. I’m the one who has to face the music as soon as we walk away from here!”
“Hey,” Jenny protested, “Stop making me sound like a harpy!” She laughed as she said it. Carina knew that Jenny loved Eager and he loved her, but they were less hopelessly romantic than Carina and Mark and neither one of them was ready for marriage yet.
After they parted Mark turned to her. “If they had gotten engaged last night and we hadn’t, would you be pressuring me?”
She gave him a disbelieving look. “Heck, yeah! Pouting, whining, passive-aggressive silence, the whole nine yards. You’d never hear the end of it. But Jenny won’t do any of that. She’s happy with where they are – she thinks taking your time is a good thing. Go figure.” She hadn’t had a lot to drink tonight, but she suddenly realized she’d had enough to loosen her tongue a little.
“I guess not everyone gets the lightning strike of instant certainty.”
They had reached her apartment and she turned to him before she unlocked the door, smiling sweetly and kissing him. He tasted beery, and apparently she’d drunk enough to lower her inhibitions a bit as well – she normally had pretty strict personal rules about public displays of affection. “We’re lucky, aren’t we?” She kissed him again. “So lucky.”
She had found a filmy nightgown that fit her well and flattered her figure, and after she had washed up and changed she admired her reflection in the bathroom mirror. Despite the drink her head was pretty clear and so was Mark’s, but she knew they’d both have to be careful tonight. It would be easy to let things get out of hand. When she entered the bedroom he was there, his pajama shirt unbuttoned. “I couldn’t decide whether to put the shirt on or leave it off,” he confessed with a grin, and she smiled and approached him.
“You’re good the way you are. Have I ever mentioned to you how very much I admire your chest?”
His eyes slid pointedly down the low-cut neck of her nightgown. “I could say the same thing to you.”
She blushed but looked down at her full breasts and sighed. “It’s the one thing about me that the men admire,” she said, batting her eyes, rubbing up against him and sliding her hands up his chest and around his neck.
His arms went around her and he slid his hands down until they cupped her bottom. “I don’t know – you have a pretty good can, too.”
Carina gave a yelp of laughter and pushed away from him playfully. “Yikes! Slip a ring on my finger and Mister Honorable turns into a pig!”
“Hey, I’m just calling it as I see it,” he said, pulling her back and giving her a long, tender kiss.
Her mind started to go blank, but something in the conversation reminded her that she’d been meaning to ask him something. “Hey, Mark, about the ring…”
He stepped back, suddenly serious. “What about it? If you don’t like it, we can find you a different one.”
“No, no; that’s not it. It’s perfect – I love it. I was just wondering… You landed yesterday morning, and you proposed to me last night.”
“Right…” His expression was blank.
“Well, when did you have time to go to a jewelry store?”
“Oh.” He stroked her cheek. “Do you remember, before the attack, we had a special dinner date planned? My mother was going to watch the kids.”
“Yes… Oh. Really?” She felt tears sting her eyes and blinked them back.
Mark nodded and brushed her hair back over her shoulder, taking the opportunity to trace his fingers lightly over her skin, making her quiver. “The ring is actually a family heirloom. I had gotten it from Mom earlier that week. And that music I played last night? Jenny helped me put that together. I wouldn’t have had the first idea which songs to use.”
She slipped her arms under his open shirt and around his waist and rested her head on his bare chest, chuckling exasperatedly. “So everyone has known you were going to ask me all this time, and no one told me?”
“Well, only Mom knew, really. All I told Jenny was that I wanted to put together some music you would like. I knew a couple of song titles, and she helped me find similar stuff.” He thought for a second as he nuzzled at her ear, his breath hot. “And I’m sure Mom must have told Dad, but apart from that I swore her to secrecy in case you turned me down.”
Carina looked up at him in disbelief. “In case I turned you down? Seriously?” Her voice was shakier than she had intended.
“Hey, you have no idea what it’s like. Proposing to you was probably the scariest thing I’ve ever done, and I’ve done some pretty scary things.” His words were light but his voice was soft and his eyes burned darkly. Heart pounding, she pulled him gently toward the bed.
“Sweetie, there was only ever one possible answer. You know that.” She slid his pajama shirt over his shoulders and as he discarded it, he leaned in and kissed her. The heat from his body warmed her to the core as he pulled her down to sit beside him and a small whimpering sound escaped from her throat, prompting him to respond with a moaned sigh.
“Oh, love, I hope so.”
He kissed her again, and there was no more need for words.
That night she had the nightmare for the first time.
He’s dying. He’s dying, and there’s nothing I can do but watch. All he had to do was ask for help, but instead he made the choice to let himself go. Doesn’t he know I need him? Doesn’t he know there are other people who could have launched the ship, who would have allowed him to save himself? But now it’s too late. No… No…
She awoke with a gasp, tears streaming down her face, when he shook her, but she was still disoriented. Was it real? It had felt so real. Mark’s arm curled around her, however, and he whispered comforting words in her ear. “Shhh. It’s OK, baby. It was just a bad dream.”
Relief flooded her body and she turned to face him, pulling him close to her. It had felt so real. She found that she couldn’t stop shaking and burrowed as tightly into him as she could, wanting nothing more than to feel the strong warmth of his body engulfing her. “Mark,” she whispered as hot tears began to flow over her face again, “Mark, please don’t leave me.”
He hesitated a moment, confused, then apparently decided the details of her dream didn’t matter right now. His arms tightened around her and he kissed her tears away, stroking her hair. “I never will, love. Never. I promise you that with all my heart.”
She thought she would be able to sleep again in the solid comfort of his embrace, but her mind wouldn’t let go of the image of him, pale and cold in his seat on the bridge of the Argo, allowing his life to slip away. When her exhaustion began to overtake her anxiety, a thought came to her as if from a half-remembered conversation. “You have more than the power to make him happy. You have the power to save him.” Who had told her that? Was it true? Was it possible that Mark’s life was in danger, but that she would be able to help him after all? She wracked her brain trying to remember who it was who had given her the advice, but she was too tired to think straight. Still, the thought comforted her and she began to drift off to the sound of Mark’s slow, even breathing, feeling his chest rise and fall against her back where she was curled against him. She would think about it tomorrow, and she would make sure the words were true. Nothing would take him from her. Not before they had grown old and grey together. Her eyes closed and she fell into a deep, restful sleep.