Carina flew home on Wednesday night relaxed and happy. She had spent three days with her family, talking, eating and laughing. The trip had been wonderful; the one downside had been seeing how much her father had aged since she last saw him. Her brothers had told her that Dad had started to get dotty in the past year and it was obvious they were right. Still, he adored Katie and the boys were there to help if he needed anything. Carina knew that she would have to do something about it eventually, and wondered how long it would be before she could no longer ignore Dad’s issues.
Since Zordar’s dreadnought hadn’t
On Wednesday morning she had loaded a refrigerated crate
with fresh fruits and local foods and gotten ready to return to
“Don’t you have snow yet?”
“No, and I have a friend with a little brother your age who’s never seen snow. I told him I’d bring back pictures, but I think the real thing would be better, don’t you?”
Kate grinned. “Is it your friend Maaark’s little brother?”
Wow, she thought. Did I talk about him that much? Well, she had spent most of the previous week with him, and to be honest, she missed him. It made sense that he would dominate her conversation. Ignoring her sister’s implication, she said, “Yes, and I told him that you and Jordy should play together when you come out next summer. You guys will like each other.” That redirected Kate’s interest, and she began questioning her sister about the boy. Carina smiled. She was on the hook now – Kate and Jordy had better hit it off.
After having breakfast with Dad and Katie at the airport,
Carina slept through the flight home. It
was late at night on
She dragged herself out of bed early Thursday morning to unpack. When she took another look at the fresh produce she had brought home, she realized that her eyes had been bigger than her stomach. She would never be able to eat all of it herself. She had a shift at HQ today, but it was early enough to do a little cooking, and she was looking forward to seeing Mark… she decided to bring him breakfast. He probably hadn’t had a good American meal in years.
She entered his room with an attitude of false cheer, hoping to get his goat. “Breakfast time, Mister Venture!” She stopped, shocked, when she saw him. “Holy cow!” she exclaimed before she gained control of herself. He looked like a completely different person. He was sitting in a wheelchair, wearing a standard-issue Earth Defense pilot’s outfit instead of the hospital pajamas she was used to seeing him in. His color was markedly better than it had been a few days ago, and his hair looked damp and ruffled, as though he’d had a regular shower, rather than the awkward grooming provided by the robot aides. He smiled broadly, happy to see her. “Sorry,” she grinned, “just surprised to see you in your civvies. You look phenomenal, Mark. You made so much progress while I was gone – I should stay away from you for good.”
He blushed at the compliment. “Don’t you dare. If it weren’t for you, I’d still be sitting in that bed feeling sorry for myself. Besides, I missed you.”
It was Carina’s turn to blush. “Well…
Thanks,” she said awkwardly. She
remembered the bag of food in her hand and held it up enticingly. “Hey, I brought you a hearty
His eyes lit up and moved to the bag. “Really? For me?”
“Yeah… Well… My family loaded me up with local foods, and
I thought I’d share the wealth. Because
I missed you, too,” she explained as she unpacked the insulated boxes from the
bag and arranged two place settings on the room’s desk. Mark rolled himself to the makeshift table,
and she filled their plates: fresh blueberry muffins she had made that morning,
maple-cured bacon, hydroponically grown strawberries and sliced apples,
fresh-squeezed orange juice and a pot of tea.
Nothing fancy, but all foods that were difficult to find on
“Wow – I’m speechless. It looks wonderful,” he said hungrily. “Thank you so much. How was your trip?”
“Oh, it was great. I’ve already got my sister excited to meet Jordy, so you can’t renege on your promise of a play date next summer.” She told him about her visit as they ate. He listened to her talk about her family as he ate greedily, only interrupting to comment on the food (the look he gave her when she told him she had made the muffins from scratch that morning made her blush from head to toe. She had to admit, it was nice to have a good-looking man pay attention to her.) He laughed at her stories of her siblings, and offered sympathetic support for her concerns about her father and sister.
When he had finished eating, he leaned back with his cup of
tea and patted his stomach, sighing. He
asked her how reconstruction was progressing in
She nodded. “It’s getting there. My brothers flew me out to see the expansion. The human population is concentrated in the cities, as it is here, but they’re planting more acreage in the hills and, as you can taste, cultivating more farmland every day. The land is starting to reseed itself naturally, as well. There are saplings and wild plants sprouting up everywhere. And I saw families of white-tailed deer, and tons of squirrels and chickadees while I was there. The planet is starting to heal.”
Glancing at the clock, she began to collect the remains of their feast. “And so are you. I can’t get over how much better you look.”
He took a final sip of tea and put down the cup. “Yes. I can get myself out of bed now, and my legs are mostly doing what I tell them to. I can’t put much weight on them yet, but I hope to take a few steps soon. It’s strange, having to learn to walk again.”
“I’m sure. Listen, Mark, I’ve got to go to work, but can I come see you later?”
“Please do.” He reached over and squeezed her hand. “My nights have been lonely this week.”
His flirtation sent a disconcerting thrill through her body. She squeezed back quickly and let go of his hand, picking up his teacup so she could wash the dishes in the cafeteria at Earth Defense. “Good to hear,” she joked, flustered. “Hey, have you been outside yet? It’s a beautiful day. Maybe we could go out and walk the grounds tonight.”
“I’d love to,” he smiled. “I’ll see you tonight.”
“I’ll come by after your supper time.”
She made her way to Earth Defense Headquarters, feeling that all was right with the world. She had gotten quite a bit of work done when she was in America – jet lag was good for some things – and felt that she was actually ahead of schedule for the week, hoping to be able to take it easy today. The expression on Col. Okajima’s face when she walked in, however, told her she would have no such luck. The Old Man looked disgruntled, and she knew that usually meant long meetings and fruitless arguments were on her calendar.
Today was no exception. She attended a Council meeting with the colonel in the morning, although he cautioned her not to speak. He wanted the Council to know who she was, he said, but he didn’t want her to get in trouble. The Council didn’t like smart girls. She had been in regular communication with Stephen and had passed his ideas regarding the automated fleet along to the colonel, but the Council wasn’t willing to hear any of it yet. Carina spent most of the morning biting her tongue.
The afternoon brought crisis after crisis, as the young Earth Defense trainees struggled to learn to use the system. At least helping them kept her busy, she conceded. When she was idle, her thoughts kept returning to Mark. His mood had improved so much in the few days she’d been away… It almost seemed to her as though he was putting on an act. They’d had a good time this morning, and she looked forward to spending more time with him tonight. She’d get to the bottom of it when she saw him.
By the end of the day she had a headache and was cross-eyed from debugging the cadets’ mistakes, and she couldn’t wait to get out in the fresh air. She grabbed a snack in the cafeteria and headed over to the hospital.
Mark was waiting for her in his wheelchair. He greeted her, looking a little uncomfortable. “Listen, Carina, I was thinking. You know there are photographers hanging around outside the hospital, hoping to get photos of the Star Force members who are still here.” She nodded. “If you take me outside, there’s a good chance they’ll snap some pictures of us together, and your name could be linked to mine in the rumor mill. I don’t want you to have to go through that – if you’d rather not go out for a walk, it’s fine with me. I can always get my parents to take me out.”
At first Carina was amused. To be linked romantically in the gossip rags to one of the world’s great heroes? It would make life interesting, to say the least. But then it occurred to her that he himself may not want any speculation about a romance – real or imagined – to be published. Or was he worried that she wanted something more than friendship from him? She hadn’t meant to give him that impression, but maybe bringing him breakfast this morning had been a step over the line.
“Mark,” she began carefully, “I think you’re a wonderful guy. Really wonderful. But you know that I’m not looking for any romance in my life, right? I think we’ve talked about that.” He nodded, and she went on. “And, correct me if I’m wrong, but I have the sense that romance is the last thing you want right now, either.” He nodded again. “So I guess my feeling is, as long as we both know that there’s nothing like that going on between us, I don’t care what anyone else thinks if you don’t. But if the idea makes you uncomfortable, we can stay in.”
“No,” he looked relieved. “It’s fine with me. You hit the nail on the head. Carina, I think you’re wonderful, too. But… Like a sister, you know? Family.” He faltered at the end, blushing a little and rubbing his head. “Uh…” Carina imagined he had the same thought that she had: that comparing her to a sister was a little… creepy. Neither one of them may want a relationship, but she could tell he was attracted to her, as she was to him. She couldn’t come up with a better analogy than the family one, though, so she simply squeezed his shoulder. “I know what you mean.” He smiled at her gratefully, relaxing again. “Shall we go?” he asked, and she nodded.
As they traveled down the hall, Carina cleared her throat briskly. “Well. I’m glad we got that awkward conversation out of the way.”
He chuckled and looked up at her. “Do you ever not say whatever you’re thinking?”
She smacked the back of his head playfully. “Watch it, space jockey. I could switch your meds, you know.”
He laughed out loud as they passed the nurse’s station, and the night nurse looked up, startled to hear the sound coming from him.
The fresh, cool air felt better than Mark could have imagined. Moving from the circulated air of the Argo directly to the circulated air of the hospital probably hadn’t done him much good, he thought. It was nice to be outside with the land green and growing. He had been in space, on the incredibly dull assignment of piloting transport ships between bases, for the better part of a year after returning from Iscandar, and had barely been home from that assignment when they had taken off for Telezart.
Carina led him along the trails that had been built on the hospital grounds, helping him by pushing where the ground was uneven. They stopped at the furthest point from the hospital and she turned him to face the sunset, sitting beside him on a bench. The sight was beautiful, the low clouds glowing crimson and orange beneath the blue sky, and it was peaceful and quiet. He took a deep breath, inhaling the sharp scent of the evergreen trees, and sighed contentedly. He noticed Carina staring at him, and turned to her. “What’s up?”
She shook her head. “I just – I can’t get over how cheerful you are,” she spoke with her usual candor, reaching over to touch his arm. “Are you sure you’re really as well as you seem? You’ve turned around so quickly.”
It was a little disconcerting, the way she saw through him. “Maybe I’m exaggerating it a little,” he admitted. “I realized I had been taking my problems out on my friends, and I decided to make more of an effort.” He covered her hand with his. “But I am only exaggerating a little. I promise. I really do feel much better.” She nodded, and they sat in silence, watching the sunset. He worked up his nerve to talk to her about something very personal. “Carina, can I ask you something?”
She looked at him, surprised. “Of course. You know you can.”
“Do you think…” He paused, watching a bat fly overhead as he organized his thoughts, and started again. “One of the reasons I’m feeling so much better is that… my dreams… they’ve become…” he searched for the right word, but couldn’t come up with it, so he filled it in lamely. “Good. Every night, Trelaina comes to me and we – we talk, for hours, it seems. I couldn’t even tell you what we talk about, but we’re happy together. She kisses me goodbye at the end of the night.” This was where it started to sound crazy, he knew. He hoped – he trusted – that she would take him seriously. “Carina, it feels like she’s really there with me. It doesn’t feel like a dream. Do you think… Do you believe our loved ones can communicate with us after they’re gone?”
She nodded solemnly and looked him in the eye. “I do, Mark. Absolutely. I had similar dreams about Daniel for months after he died. I still have them sometimes, when I’m feeling especially lonely or worried about something. I believe he watches over me from Heaven, and comes to help me when I need him. I had those dreams about my mother after she died, too. I think God gives them to us as a way to stay in touch with the people we love.” The corner of her mouth pulled back. “And if I’m wrong, and it’s just my subconscious trying to make me feel better? That’s OK, too.”
He had known she would understand. “Oh, yes, that’s exactly what it feels like. Not like she’s still alive, but like she’s been given a chance to make up for the time we didn’t have. I know Trelaina is in Heaven, too. I guess she’s my guardian angel.”
“I’m sure she is. She’ll do what she can to watch over you.” She gave him her most gentle smile, the one that always made him feel better.
“I believe she will. But…” He paused. This was difficult to admit, as though he was betraying Trelaina. “I’m starting to have a hard time remembering what Trelaina looked like. She’s there in my dreams, but when I wake up, it’s like her face is right on the edge of my mind, and I can’t quite make it come into focus, no matter how hard I try.” He felt himself becoming upset and closed his eyes, inhaling deeply.
“Mark… I don’t know what to tell you about that. I think it’s normal, unfortunately. You don’t have any pictures of her, and you really didn’t have a lot of time together. I guess… it’s part of moving on.”
He felt tears sting his eyes. She was right, he knew, but that didn’t make him regret it any less. “I guess so. And I’m trying to move on.” He looked up at her face. “But this part of it is hard.”
“It’s all hard. I know that. But it does get easier, I promise you.” She reached over and brushed a lone tear off his face. His nerve endings seemed to jump to life as her fingers trailed across his cheek, and his heart beat more quickly. He blinked heavily. How was it that she made things simpler and more complicated at the same time? He shook his head to clear it, and noticed that the light had almost disappeared from the sky. “We’d better get back, hadn’t we?” He asked.
“You’re right,” she answered, looking up. “They’ll have my head if I still have you outside after bed-check starts.”
They moved slowly and in silence back toward the hospital. Carina seemed lost in thought. Mark was distracted by the reaction he’d had to her touching his face, but he didn’t want to talk to her about it. Not after the conversation they’d had earlier. He hadn’t lied to her – he really didn’t want a romantic relationship. He wasn’t sure that he’d ever want one, and certainly not so soon. But he was drawn to her physically; more so than he could remember ever being with any other woman, even Trelaina. They had grown very close very quickly, and he supposed it was easy to develop feelings for someone when your time together was always so intense and emotional. Plus, they were always touching each other, holding hands. He wasn’t used to that. As they entered the hospital, he resolved to try to keep their friendship on a lighter, more professional level.
He offered to go back to his room without her, but she insisted on bringing him upstairs, saying that she wanted to try to find IQ-9. The nurse nodded at them as they passed, telling Carina that she didn’t have to rush; as long as he was in his room in time for bed check, she could let the nurse know when she was leaving and they’d get him settled for the night.
In the end Mark was glad she had brought him upstairs, as he couldn’t get out of his chair without help. She pulled his arm around her shoulder, put her free arm around his waist and hoisted him to his feet on a count of three. His free hand gripped the bed rail, and he found he was able to put some weight on his legs. He stumbled toward her, catching the scent of her hair – her light, fresh shampoo combined with the crisp December air – and felt another jolt of the electricity he had felt when she touched his face. He inhaled but fought his sudden, irrational urge to bury his face in the soft red mass. She was very quiet – he hoped she hadn’t picked up on what he was thinking.
She stood still for a moment while he gained his balance. He was taller than she, and when he straightened, his hand slid down and settled on her breast. He both heard and felt her sudden intake of breath, and felt heat spread through his belly. Without thinking, he slid his hand slowly over her flesh, caressing her through her uniform. The arm around his waist tightened and she rested her head against his shoulder. He felt his breath catch in his throat and moved his hand to her shoulder, pushing gently to turn her to face him. She lifted her head and took one step toward him, but then she tensed, and it suddenly struck him what he was doing. He pulled his hand away quickly, swiveled himself toward the bed and sat down.
“Carina, I’m sorry,” he said, horrified with himself. What had come over him? He would never do such a thing. “I didn’t mean to—“
“It’s all right,” she interrupted him shakily. She had her back to him, moving his wheelchair out of the way for the night, but he could see her take a deep, ragged breath. “It happens.” It happens? She turned around and approached the bed, her cheeks flushed and her eyes downcast. He couldn’t read the expression on her face.
“No, it’s not,” he insisted. “I don’t know what… I would never…”
“Mark,” she said shortly. “Please – forget it.” She was helping him to remove his shoes, but she still wouldn’t look at him. “I’ll have the nurse send the robots in to help you get ready for bed. Maybe I’ll see you tomorrow.” She stood and turned toward the door.
Desperate, he grabbed for her hand. “Carina, please, wait. Look at me.” She turned and faced him, looking anguished, but didn’t meet his eyes. “Carina, I’m so sorry. I’m not sure what came over me. I promise you it won’t happen again. If you feel you should report me, I completely understand. But please, don’t look like that. I’m sorry.”
She sighed and sat beside him, her face miserable. “Mark, please stop apologizing. I’m not angry with you. It wasn’t your fault – it was mine. I’m the one who should be put on report.”
That didn’t even make sense. “What are you talking about? You didn’t do anything. I’m the one who – “ he was too ashamed of himself to finish, and looked down. “I’ve never done anything like that before. To anyone. Really.”
“I believe you,” she said resignedly, and finally made eye contact with him. “I trust you completely, Mark. I do. But I’m the one with the power in the situation.” She looked at her lap. “In nursing classes, they caution you over and over again against developing personal relationships with patients. It can lead to very awkward situations. The caregiver needs to avoid emotional involvement, or the risk of unprofessional and inappropriate behavior is too high. I’ve been behaving very unprofessionally. I need to apologize to you.”
That was probably a good rule in general, he conceded, but he didn’t feel that it applied to them. He spoke gently, but firmly. “Carina, I’m a big boy. I’m capable of controlling myself. You’re in no way to blame for what just happened. You’ve never been anything but professional with me, and as far as I’m concerned, our personal relationship has been nothing but positive and helpful. I’m the one who stepped over the line, not you.” Her expression had softened, and he tilted her chin so she was looking at him again. “And I’m pretty sure we’re already emotionally involved, so it’s too late to avoid that.” She smiled faintly. He thought he was getting through to her. “Carina,” he added softly, “I don’t want our time together to end.”
“I don’t want it to end either.” She looked at him shyly. “I feel like our friendship is really special, Mark. Does that sound crazy?”
“If it is, then we’re both crazy. That’s how it works sometimes: you meet someone and you know right away they’ll always be an important part of your life, right?”
That made her smile, finally. “Thank you, Mark,” she said quietly.
He was still worried. “Are we all right?”
“Yeah. We’re good,” she sighed, then paused, thinking. “But we can’t go on the way we’ve been going. Certainly not while you’re in the hospital. We touch each other a lot, have you noticed? Hold hands? I think we need to put the kibosh on that. And Mark, you know word can’t get out about this, right? We could end up in hot water. Both of us.”
“I know. Believe me, I’m not going to shout to the world that I molested you,” he said angrily, still ashamed.
“Please. I’ve gotten worse from IQ-9.” The corners of her mouth twisted slightly, and he thought that things would be all right between them.
She stood up again. “It’s past your bedtime. I’ll tell them to send in the robots.”
“Hey -- tomorrow?” He asked hopefully.
“Sure. See you then.” He watched her go uneasily, knowing he wouldn’t sleep that night. What had he been thinking? Well, he hadn’t been thinking, he knew that. Not with his head, at least. He wouldn’t have blamed her if she never spoke to him again, but somehow she still thought their friendship was “special.” She was a special girl, all right, but he was afraid she’d change her mind about him after a good night’s sleep. Until he saw her tomorrow – if he saw her tomorrow – he wouldn’t trust that he hadn’t completely blown it with her.
Carina couldn’t sleep. She tried to read, but she couldn’t focus on the page. She turned on a movie, but her mind was racing and she couldn’t focus on that, either. Her mind kept replaying the moment tonight when Mark had touched her.
The problem, she knew, wasn’t that it had happened, but rather that she hadn’t wanted to end it. She worked in the military section of the hospital – she’d been groped by obnoxious space marines and self-important fighter jocks since she’d entered the academy. The nurses considered it just one more unfortunate symptom of the misogyny of Earth Defense, joking bitterly that the men didn’t even know why they liked breasts so much; that they probably subconsciously reminded the men of food. Carina knew what a deliberate grope felt like, and she knew that Mark’s hand landing where it did was accidental. She also knew that she should have moved it away immediately, and that would have been the end of it, probably after an embarrassed apology from him.
She hadn’t anticipated her reaction, however. She blushed as she remembered the warmth that had erupted through her body at his touch, and how she had lost her power of judgment. It was only when he had started to guide her into an embrace that she had realized what they were doing. If she hadn’t stopped herself, she would have kissed him, and that would have been supremely unethical. The man had just been mortally wounded and had his heart broken, and she’d been offering him aid and comfort. It was only natural for him to create a romantic attachment to her in his mind as a substitute for Trelaina. The attachment would most likely go away as soon as he left the hospital; certainly it would go away when he left on the Argo’s training mission.
Her own feelings, however, weren’t so easy for her to dissect and discard. She adored him as a friend and did believe their friendship was something special. She hadn’t lied about that. She also hadn’t lied when she told him she didn’t want a romantic relationship. She had been contented to be alone for more than a year. Love opened you up to a tremendous amount of pain, and she didn’t want to go through that again.
The problem there, she admitted to herself reluctantly, was that she did want him. She had male friends, and certainly there were men she found attractive. She had never felt this sort of chemistry with any of them. Even when Daniel had been alive – she supposed she had been younger and more innocent then, but her physical feelings for him had been sweeter, less intense. She might still be innocent, physically at least, but in the time since Daniel had gotten sick, about six months after the Star Force had left for Iscandar, she had seen more horrors than a person should see in her lifetime. That would destroy anyone’s innocence, she thought.
But none of that mattered, because a physical relationship was out of the question for her, anyway. Attraction was something you couldn’t control, but acting on it was a choice. She believed that sex belonged within marriage, and if she never married, then so be it. She and Daniel had drawn a line and had never crossed it, no matter how tempted they had been. And temptation hadn’t been even a remote problem since he had become sick.
She sighed. Okay, it wasn’t difficult not to sleep with someone. But her brain kept taking her where she had stopped him from going tonight. Over and over in her mind, she didn’t resist when he moved her into his embrace, but instead slid into his arms and kissed him. He would be a phenomenal kisser, she had no doubt. He was sensitive and considerate when they talked, and gentle when he touched her. She was sure he would be an equally gentle and sensitive lover.
Finally, she gave in and allowed herself to think about kissing him for a while – she would put the incident behind her tomorrow. When she eventually dozed off she dreamed of Daniel, whom she faced guiltily. She was relieved when he smiled at her.
“No one expects you to live a cloistered life for the next 60 years, sweetheart,” he told her.
“I know that, but maybe I expect it of myself. I still love you. I don’t want to be with anyone else.”
“I still love you, too. I always will. But you shouldn’t feel guilty. He’s a good man. Neither of you is ready yet, but he’s a good man. The kind I would have chosen for you.”
“I don’t want you or anyone to choose anything for me! I don’t want to date him. He’s a friend – we’re just spending too much time together.”
Daniel grinned at her. “I’m just saying. He’s a good man.”
Now he was teasing her. Two could play that game. “He’s gorgeous, too. Did you see him?”
He smiled broadly at her and kissed her forehead, putting his arms around her. “That’s my girl.”
“Always,” she sighed, as she leaned her head against him contentedly.