After a few hours of fitful sleep, Carina rose and decided to go for a walk to clear her head. There was a park a few blocks from the barracks, and she headed over, enjoying the early-morning quiet. She relaxed, as always, when she entered the park’s wooded trail system. She had never gotten used to living in a city, with people piled upon people. She needed space. She knew it was only a matter of time before housing became available to the general public in more rural areas, and there were more important projects for the reconstruction committees to work on first, but she was impatient for it.
She looked around as she stepped deeper into the woods. Although it was still fairly dark outside, especially under the canopy of the trees, she knew that robotic security guards were posted regularly along the walking trails and wasn’t concerned. There had never been so much as a pick-pocketing in this park. The morning air was chilly enough that her breath appeared in clouds in front of her, and she walked until the blue-gray shadows were replaced by the chilly light of the late fall sun, listening to the waking songs of the birds and the rustling of the small animals emerging from their holes to find breakfast. After a year, she still marveled at how easily the animals had reconditioned themselves to living outside, when they had been in captivity underground for so long. And she could tell that their numbers had increased. It gave her hope for the future.
Smiling, she headed for home. She knew she would regret it after lunch when she could barely keep her eyes open, but for now, the walk had invigorated her. She felt like she could face the world again. What had happened last night wasn’t the end of the world. They had both lost control for a minute, but no harm had been done, and it did feel good to know that such an attractive man found her attractive, too. The entire incident had barely lasted 10 seconds. They would simply be more careful going forward. As long as Mark felt the same way, there was no reason they couldn’t go on as they had before. Minus the touching. Even though, she knew, she would miss the touching. A lot.
She had walked farther than she expected. When she got home she took a quick shower, and then ate two slices of toast over the sink while she applied her makeup. She didn’t have time to dry her hair and decided to let it air-dry, which would leave it wavier than she normally wore it. She couldn’t remember the last time she had worn it down for work, but why not? She fussed with her makeup, as well. With her pale complexion, dark circles under her eyes tended to stand out, and she’d barely slept last night. A little mascara and bright lipstick would also make her look more alert. She told herself that none of these things had anything to do with holding the attentions of a wounded young commander.
Carina drove to her office humming to herself. When she walked through the door, however, she froze, an alarm going off in her head. Several of the boys were standing in the coffee area, and they had stopped talking when she entered. Most of them looked at the floor, but Paul, her little buddy, grinned at her goofily. “Clarkie! All dolled up for your new boyfriend?”
She felt her stomach drop, and her hand flew to her hair. “What new boyfriend is this, Paulie?” she asked, keeping her voice light. “As far as I know, I’m still single.”
“Oh. Uh… You might want to go talk to Jim,” he said, obviously confused.
“Right.” She dropped her work on her desk and continued down the hall to speak to Paul’s supervisor. She had trained Jim when she had gone to work for the colonel, and they had a good rapport. She hoped whatever information he had for her would calm the butterflies that were threatening to erupt from her stomach.
“Hey,” she said, stepping into his office. He looked up and grinned at her. “Heeey!” Oh boy, she thought, this can’t be good. Lt. Jim Gilman was a little rough around the edges – his cologne was a little too strong, his hair was a little too stiff with “product,” and his mannerisms had carried over from the streets of the city he had grown up in, but he was a good guy with a good head on his shoulders. She knew that he would be up front with her.
“Want to tell me why your men were gawking at me just now?” She suspected she sounded a little hysterical.
His expression was still amused, but he sobered up a bit. “You didn’t stop at the news stand this morning, huh?”
“No,” she said, confused. “Why – “ but then it hit her, and she felt herself go pale. It was a good thing she’d only had toast for breakfast. “Oh, no.” They had talked about the photographers on the hospital grounds, but she hadn’t spotted them last night and, assuming they weren’t there, had forgotten about them. “How bad is it? Do you have it?”
He opened a drawer. “It’s not that bad. Well, I guess that depends on your perspective. But I don’t think it’s that bad.” He tossed the paper on his desk, and she picked it up and unfolded it.
On the front page of the Lifestyles section was a series of pictures of her and Mark. The photographer must have had a very powerful magnifying lens. The pictures had to have been taken from quite a distance, but they were sharp and clear. Most were pretty innocuous – they showed the two of them laughing together as they set out from the hospital, and talking more seriously at the spot where they had stopped to watch the sunset. They had their hands on each other’s arms in a couple of those shots, but that was fine.
The largest and most prominently placed photo, though, showed them looking into each other’s eyes, their heads leaning in together and her hand on his face. She had been wiping a tear from his cheek, of course, but the picture certainly made it look as though they were having a very intimate conversation. The photographer was extremely lucky in his timing to have caught this precise moment – their eyes were locked together as though they were gazing at each other. Carina felt her heart sink. This could mean trouble for one or both of them.
“You okay there, Chief?” Jim’s voice startled her. She sighed and put down the paper.
“Yeah. Thanks, Jim. Is the Old Man in yet?”
“Haven’t seen him.” She nodded and stepped back, ready to go to work. “Good luck,” he said.
“Thanks.” Carina sighed again as she returned to her office. It was going to be a long day. She logged on and tried to focus on reading her messages, but she found herself reading the same sentence over and over without comprehension. She suspected – she hoped – that the colonel wouldn’t be too upset with her. She was sure he would give her the chance to explain, at least.
When Colonel Okajima finally arrived at work, he poked his head into Carina’s office. “Hey, Lieutenant, can I talk to you for a minute?”
“Yes, Sir.” The knot in her stomach tightened as she followed him down the hall, and tightened even more when he asked her to close the door to his office.
“Sir, those pictures are misleading – “ she began, but he waved his hand at her.
“I’m not worried about it, Carina. I know how those gossip papers work, and anyway, what you do on your own time is your business.” She began to relax, but it didn’t last long. “But I did get a call from the Director of Nurses this morning. She wants to meet with you this afternoon.”
This day kept getting worse. “Major O’Malley? She hates me,” she groaned. The major didn’t care for her, and also resented the fact that Carina reported to the colonel and not to her.
The colonel smirked at her. “I don’t think she hates you,” he teased. “She’s just better than you.” He’d had his share of run-ins with Major O’Malley, too, and would be sympathetic.
“No, it’s hate,” she answered. “She’s going to tear my unprofessional hide to pieces.”
“Well, then you can come work full-time for me and forget about the hospital.” It was his favorite topic to bring up with her, but he knew her hospital work was important to her. She rolled her eyes at him. “Maybe,” she said.
“She wants to see you at three o’clock,” he told her. “Do what you can until then, and don’t worry about coming back after your meeting. Call me if you need anything. And just try to keep your head down until this guy is out of the hospital, okay?”
No problem there. Being plastered all over the paper was not as fun as she had anticipated. “Yes, Sir. Thank you, Sir.” She saluted and went back to her desk, relieved.
That wasn’t too bad,
she thought. And she had a note on her
computer that the space navigation analysis office in the
She settled in and had begun to look at
*Yes. What’s up?*
*Major O’Malley is on the warpath. Thought you should be warned.*
Nova must be working the day shift at the hospital. *I know. I’ve already been told that I have to meet with her at 3. Thanks for the warning, though.*
*Sure. Good luck. Actually, I might just mention that meeting to Dr. Sane, if you don’t mind. Venture is his patient, and he’s very happy that the two of you have… “connected.” He’ll help you out.*
*Wow – that would be great. I can use all the help I can get. Thanks.* She reread Nova’s last message and decided she needed to clear things up. *Also, FYI: he was telling me about Trelaina and I was wiping a tear off his cheek. The camera may not lie, but sometimes it stretches the truth a little bit.*
*Just teasing. Hussy.*
Carina grinned. *It’s not so easy to be a seductress when the guy is crying over his dead girlfriend, you know. It takes skill.*
*No doubt. Oops – got to go. Talk to you later!* Nova signed off.
If the Doc was on her side, Carina thought, this could blow over fairly quickly. She wouldn’t count on it, though. Ugh. The whole thing was ridiculous, really. She needed to focus on work.
The morning passed quickly. Carina thought she had worked out in her mind all the speeches of explanation she would need, although the knot in her stomach refused to go away. Before she knew it, it was time for lunch and Jim poked his head into her office. “Hey, we’re getting food delivered from the cafeteria. Want anything?”
She should probably eat, she supposed. She quickly clicked on the cafeteria’s daily specials menu, scanning it for the lightest thing available. “Split pea soup? Thanks.”
Jim gave her the thumbs up and continued down the hall. A few minutes later, she heard the deliveryman from the cafeteria and joined the boys in the break room. She braced herself for the comments she was sure would come, and wasn’t disappointed. She was greeted with applause and wolf-whistles as she walked through the door, and she grinned and bowed theatrically. Maybe the situation was funny. Several of the boys remarked as she sat down. They had probably spent the entire morning thinking of clever things to say.
Paulie went first. “Are you sure your boyfriend won’t mind you eating with us?”
He was followed by Alexei, a tiny Russian analyst who was always overflowing with energy and tended to shout rather than speak. “Lieutenant, can I have your autograph?!”
Finally Jim spoke up. “So what do we have to do to get you to stroke our hair?”
“First of all, I was stroking his FACE, not his HAIR, but hmmm… Let me think,” she said. “If you go into space for an extended period of time to save Earth, TWICE, get mortally wounded and lose the girl you love because she sacrifices herself to defeat the enemy, then maaaayyyyybeeee…”
The boys laughed. “Don’t worry, Clarkie,” Jim said. “You didn’t do anything wrong. It’ll all blow over by tomorrow.” Carina wasn’t so sure, but appreciated him saying so.
The boys seemed to have gotten the teasing out of their systems, and conversation turned to other matters. By the time they filed back to their offices, Carina realized there wasn’t much time left before her meeting. She tried to work, but was growing more and more nervous. At 2:45, she shut down her system and checked in with the Colonel. “I’ll see you on Monday, Sir.” She saluted him.
He returned the salute. “Relax, Lieutenant. Nothing to worry about.”
“I hope not.”
The Director of Nurses’ office was roomy but unwelcoming under the best of circumstances. All of the nurses resisted visiting the room unless they absolutely had to. Carina approached the door nervously, taking a deep breath in an attempt to settle her stomach. When she reached the door, she felt a touch of relief. Doctor Sane was sitting beside Major O’Malley, looking extremely disgruntled. The two of them were angled slightly away from each other, the major focusing on her computer and the doctor with his arms and legs crossed and a scowl on his face. This could be good for her today, although it may cause the DN to resent her and cause problems in the long term.
She knocked on the door and walked in. “Sit down, Lieutenant.” The director seemed irritated and continued to focus on her computer screen, but Doctor Sane gave Carina a quick wink. She stifled a smile and sat in the chair opposite the director’s desk. After a moment, O’Malley turned her attention to Carina without looking at Doctor Sane. “I assume you know what this is about?”
Carina nodded. “I believe so, Ma’am. You want to talk to me about the pictures that appeared in the paper this morning?” She hoped her voice would stop quavering soon.
“That’s right. Lt.
Clark, you know
“Yes, Ma’am, I do. And I apologize for the misunderstanding those photos have caused. If I may explain, Cdr. Venture has been confiding in me about his relationship with Trelaina of Telezart. We have become friends, which, correct me if I’m wrong, is not in violation of the hospital’s fraternization policy.” From the corner of her eye, she saw the doctor smile. “Last night I took him on the grounds for some fresh air. He’s still confused about a number of things, and he asked my advice. He became emotional, and I touched his arm and wiped a tear from his face to comfort him. That’s all.”
The director scrutinized her face, trying to see whether she was lying. “You look more than friendly in this picture,” she said, indicating the large picture of Carina with her hand on Mark’s face, the two of them seemingly gazing into each other’s eyes.
“The photographer caught us at just the right moment, Ma’am. The picture is misleading. There was nothing inappropriate, I assure you.”
“You know,” the director said, “if there are any complaints, this is the sort of thing that could get you transferred to another department. It might be better to put another nurse on Cdr. Venture’s case.”
Carina’s heart sank, but then Doctor Sane cleared his throat. “Lt. Clark, do you believe Cdr. Venture wants to date you?”
“No, Doctor. Cdr. Venture still loves Trelaina.”
He nodded. “And do you want to date him?”
“No. He’s my patient, and anyway, I still love my late fiancée.”
“Then I don’t see that there’s a problem. Maj. O’Malley, Cdr. Venture suffered from severe depression when he awoke from his coma. Lt. Clark was the first person he would talk to, and I’ve watched him make tremendous progress both physically and mentally as they’ve spent time together. Not only do I insist that Lt. Clark remain on his case, but I’m going to ask her to continue to visit him after hours. I couldn’t prescribe a more effective treatment in this case.”
Major O’Malley’s jaw clenched. She couldn’t go against the doctor’s orders. “All right. But I don’t want to see or hear of anything else that could sully the reputation of this hospital, Lieutenant.”
“My behavior will be beyond reproach, Major. Thank you.”
“You’re dismissed. Please close the door behind you.” Carina saluted and left the office, half wishing she could be a fly on the wall for the argument that was about to ensue. She decided she’d better go up to ICU and see Mark.
She took the elevator to the top floor and saw Nova sitting at the nurses’ station. Nova waved her over. “I figured you’d come up, so I stuck around. How did it go?”
“Okay, thanks to you. I think Doctor Sane saved my neck.” She winced. “He’s still in the dragon’s lair – she wasn’t too happy with him. But thank you for talking to him.”
Nova nodded. “He was outraged when I suggested the DN might want to separate you and Venture. I know they battled it out before you met with them. I guess they’re still at it.”
Carina glanced toward Mark’s room. “How is he?”
“He’s been pretty wound up all day,” Nova said. “I think his mother and brother are in there now, but he’d probably appreciate seeing you.”
Carina’s eyes widened. She hadn’t considered what Mark’s family would think. “Is his mother –“
“She’s fine,” Nova interrupted. “I was able to waylay her when they came in, and explained the situation.” She smiled. “I think she was a little disappointed when I told her you and Mark weren’t secretly in love.”
“Oh, boy. That’s just what I need.” Carina sighed. She liked Mark’s mother and didn’t want to alienate her. “I guess I’d better go talk to them. Nova – thank you for everything. Really.”
“Anything I can do in the fight against the Dragon,” Nova said.
Carina waved and walked down the hall. She wondered if Mark had been harassed as she had been today.
Mark Venture was having a rough day. It had started first thing this morning, when Sandor had burst into his room. “Venture, are you awake?”
Of course he was awake. He had barely slept all night, beating himself up over what had happened between him and Carina. When he had managed to drift off, his dreams had been confused and upsetting. They focused on Trelaina, as always, but alternated between her telling him it was time to move on and chiding him for not behaving like a gentleman. When Sandor had come rushing in at 0630, he had blinked at him, alarmed, his eyes feeling gritty and bloodshot. “Sandor. What’s wrong?”
“I wanted to give you a heads-up, before you saw anyone else today,” Sandor said, moving to sit beside the bed. His browless eyes looked concerned, and the knot in Mark’s stomach tightened. Sandor dropped a section of newspaper in his lap. “I was awake and decided to get a little exercise. I walked by the nurses’ station and picked this up. I thought you should see it.”
Mark raised the head of his bed and looked at the paper. When he saw the pictures on the front page, he felt the blood drain from his cheeks. “Oh, no.” If Carina had been ready to forgive him last night, she wouldn’t be now. He looked at Sandor wildly. Sandor had been Carina’s friend first, and Mark felt the need to explain himself to him. “Sandor, nothing happened out there. We were just talking. I became emotional thinking about Trelaina, and Carina… She comforted me. That’s all.”
“I believe you,” Sandor nodded. “All your friends will believe you, but it’s not us you have to worry about. There are still people at Earth Defense who are bitter about the Star Force taking off for Telezart against orders. It’s possible they’ll strike out at Carina to get back at you.”
He was right. Carina had said it last night – she was the one who was considered to have the power in the situation. But would they really punish a competent employee for something she had done when she was off-duty? Sadly, he thought he knew the answer to that question, even if he didn’t like to admit it. He had lost a great deal of his faith in the leaders of Earth Defense. He nodded at his older friend, feeling sick to his stomach. “Thanks for letting me know, Sandor. I guess there’s not much I can do at this point to help her, is there?”
“Just tell the truth to anyone who asks you. You know I’ll stand behind you, and Nova and Doctor Sane will as well.” Sandor changed the subject. “How are your legs feeling?” Sometimes it was nice having a friend who was more concerned with engineering than with emotions.
“I was able to put some weight on them last night,” Mark said, blushing when he remembered what had happened when he had tried to stand. “I’m doing all right. Have you spoken to Homer? It’s been a few days since I’ve seen him.”
“He’s coming along as well. I think he’ll be ready to go by Christmas.” The two men chatted for a few minutes, and Sandor retreated to his room.
Sometime after breakfast, Nova had come in to see Mark. She, too, was concerned. “Mark, we all know that nothing happened. But the Director of Nurses is a follower of General Stone. If she can discredit a member of the Star Force, she will.”
“What can we do about it, Nova?” Mark was feeling more helpless as the day went on. He needed to stay away from women. He seemed to ruin the lives of the ones he got close to.
Nova had been taking his temperature, and smoothed his hair comfortingly. “I’m going to talk to Dr. Sane. He should be able to straighten things out.” Mark nodded, hoping she was right.
Physical therapy had helped to take his mind off things, but he had been nervous and distracted there as well. The therapists hadn’t said anything, but he saw them glance at each other several times behind his back. The good thing had been that it had irritated him enough to make him push himself harder. He had actually managed a couple of small, quick steps on his own.
Wildstar had stopped by at lunch time, offering him more words of encouragement. He appreciated the thought, but by that time he had wanted to be left alone and had sent Wildstar away as soon as he could.
And now Jordy was here. His mother had called and asked whether she could leave him while she went to a doctor’s appointment. Mark wasn’t in the mood to babysit, but he couldn’t refuse his mother. He had been teaching Jordy to play backgammon, and while the boy was setting up the board, he spoke quietly to her about the photos. She understood, she said, but then asked him if he was sure that he and Carina were “just friends.” When he told her he was, she had let it go, although Mark suspected she wasn’t convinced. The thought that even his family believed what was printed in the paper didn’t help his nervous stomach. As the afternoon went on he became tenser, wondering whether Carina would come to see him or had reached the end of her patience with him. He found himself jumping every time he heard footsteps in the hall, although he knew her shift at Earth Defense Headquarters wouldn’t end until 1600.
To distract himself, Mark tried to focus on Jordy and the game they were playing, sitting with his back to the door so he wouldn’t be tempted to stare into the hall. Now that his brother was here, Mark had to admit that the kid helped take his mind off things. He was always so optimistic. He was also getting good at backgammon. He had beaten Mark handily in their first game, and Mark hadn’t even gone especially easy on him. He supposed the fact that a nine-year-old could beat him was a sign of how wound up he was.
At the sound of footsteps entering the room, Jordy suddenly stood at attention and Mark’s heart leapt into his throat. A voice, mock-serious but also quiet and nervous, came from behind him: “As you were, Mister Venture.” Mark turned around and smiled uncertainly. Carina looked like he felt: exhausted, stressed and a little nervous. And yet, she somehow managed to make even her olive-drab EDF uniform look pretty good, he thought before he caught himself. When she returned his smile with a shy one of her own, his stomach settled and he relaxed a little. They looked at each other awkwardly for a few moments, until finally she said “hi” in a small voice. “Hi,” he responded gingerly, but it took Jordy to break the ice.
“Carina,” he said, looking between them confusedly, “come sit with us.” She smiled at the boy. “Sure. Are you playing backgammon? I love backgammon!” She moved around to sit at the desk’s empty seat and watch them play. As she sat, she squeezed Mark’s shoulder, nodding at him to let him know that things were all right. He smiled at her more naturally this time, and turned back to his game.
The three of them sat companionably for a while over the game, Mark eager to talk to Carina, but not in front of his brother. He noticed that Jordy was fidgety and kept stealing glances at her. She must have noticed as well, because after a few minutes she said, “What’s up, Jordy?”
The boy blushed and looked at the floor, then looked at her and asked, “Are you going to marry my brother?”
Mark blanched. He couldn’t believe he had just heard that come out of his kid brother’s mouth, and wished he could crawl under the table. He wasn’t sure whether he should apologize to Carina or yell at Jordy. Both, probably. But when he turned to her, she didn’t seem upset. She was looking at the boy kindly.
“Jordy, listen,” she said. “You have friends at school who are boys and friends who are girls, right?” He nodded, watching her. Mark felt himself watching her, too. She was so good with his brother. “But you don’t feel like you want to marry all the girls you’re friends with, do you?”
“No,” Jordy said firmly, shaking his head. “I don’t feel like that about them. They’re my friends.”
Carina shrugged at him. “Well, that’s how Mark and I feel about each other. We’re good friends. I love your brother very much, but…” She faltered and glanced at Mark, her cheeks suddenly bright red. “But wanting to marry someone, well, that’s different. It’s a different kind of love,” she added.
She looked to Mark for support. He heard himself stammer something – “She’s right, Jordy,” something useless like that – but he was hung up on what she just said. He’d never had a woman say she loved him. Even Trelaina had never used the word. It was… nice, he thought lamely.
Carina was still speaking to Jordy. “The pictures you saw in the paper weren’t really real, Jordy. I mean, they were real pictures, but they printed all the ones that made it look like Mark and I are dating each other, instead of the hundreds they probably took that make it clear that we’re not. Sometimes the newspaper prints things to get people excited about a story, even if it’s not true. Does that make sense?”
“Yeah, I guess so. I mean, I don’t really get why they would do that, but I understand.” The boy looked disappointed, and Mark realized that he felt vaguely disappointed himself. “As long as you’re still friends with us after Mark gets out of the hospital. Maybe you’ll change your mind someday.”
“Jordy!” Mark snapped at him this time, embarrassed, but Carina looked amused.
“I can’t speak for your brother, but I plan on being his friend for as long as he wants me around. And if we change our minds, you’ll be the first to know, okay, buddy?” She had been fiddling with a rubber band as she spoke, and she now shot it at him playfully. “Now finish your game.”
As they were playing, Mark’s mother returned to take Jordy home. She seemed pleased to see Carina – too pleased, Mark thought, but maybe he was just being paranoid. After the two women greeted each other, Mom looked at her critically. “Are you all right, dear? You look tired. I hope you’re not getting sick.”
“I’m fine, ma’am. Just a long day, as you can imagine. But everything has worked out.”
“That’s good to know.” Mom put her hand on Carina’s arm. “We’re glad you’re here for him,” she said seriously, and Mark felt himself blush again – didn’t his mother know he was sitting right here? – but he was pleased to hear Carina reply, “I am, too.” The women made small talk for a few minutes, until his mother made an excuse to go, leaving him alone with Carina.
“I’m sorry about my family,” he said as soon as they were out of earshot. “Mom means well and Jordy’s just a kid… I hope you don’t feel like they’re out of line.”
“Mark, they’re great. You need to stop apologizing for them. I actually enjoy having someone fawn over me, although I suspect it’s not just your brother who has us married off. Your mother has that look in her eye.”
He chuckled wryly. “Yeah, I told her the story in the paper wasn’t true, but I’m not so sure she listened to me. You were wonderful with Jordy, though. I wouldn’t have had the first idea what to say to him.”
It was her turn to chuckle. “Sweetie, I’m an analyst. I over-analyze everything, and I also have a nine-year-old sister. I spent the entire morning scripting out the speech I’m going to have to give her when she calls me tonight. Which she will.”
Suddenly remembering how worried he had been, he became more serious. “You told my mother that everything has worked out. Is that true?”
Sighing, she sat on the bed, opposite him in his wheelchair. “I think so. My boss at Headquarters was fine. Or – not really fine, but he didn’t give me a hard time. I got a severe talking-to from the Director of Nurses just before I came to see you, though. Thank Heaven Dr. Sane was there to smooth things over. If he hadn’t come to the meeting, I think I might not have a job at the hospital anymore. At the least I would have been reassigned to another floor until you were released.”
“That’s crazy. Did you get written up?” Although it seemed she didn’t blame him, Mark would feel terrible if her record had been blemished because of him.
“No. Dr. Sane really spoke in our favor.” She looked at him intently. “You have a good friend in him. And in Nova – she made sure he knew what time I was meeting with the director.”
“Yes,” Mark nodded. “The Star Force is like a family. We take care of each other. The doc kept you out of trouble?”
“Mmm. The doctor told O’Malley in no uncertain terms that our friendship is ‘good’ for you, whatever that means.” She smiled, but looked down. “He sort of ordered me to spend as much time with you as possible.”
Mark couldn’t help himself. “Really?” He must have sounded too enthusiastic, because she snapped her head back up to look at him. He tried to recover, rubbing the back of his head and laughing, embarrassed. “I’m glad you’re not on the hook for anything. The doctor is smart. He always looks beyond the surface and sees the truth.”
It was nearly time for supper, and an aide came in to take his order. She snapped to attention when she saw Carina. “Lieutenant. Would you like to place an order as well?”
Carina turned to Mark. “What do you want to do? I can run out and get you something if you’d like. Tired of institutional food?”
Was he tired of it? Please. “I would love for you to bring me something. Is that all right?” he asked the aide.
“Sure, I guess so, if the lieutenant says it’s okay,” the girl replied. When Carina nodded and assured the girl she would buy only healthy foods, she saluted and left.
After a brief discussion of their options, Carina headed out to buy supper. Mark had a thought as she was leaving. “Carina?”
She turned and looked at him expectantly.
“After we eat, do you think we could go out and walk the grounds again?” As he said it, he realized it might not be a good idea. He was about to tell her to forget it when she grinned wickedly.
“Do you think you can keep your hands to yourself?”
That was when he knew that things really were fine between them, and any remaining nervousness he felt dropped away. He grinned back at her and raised an eyebrow. He wasn’t the one whose hands were all over her on the front page. “Can you?”
“Touché,” she said, trying not to smile. “I’ll be right back.”
Mark sat back, smiling. Even after the tension of the day, they had talked and joked easily with each other. He had to admit it to himself: he had a serious crush on her. He could talk to her about anything, and she made him laugh. They also had remarkable chemistry, although she didn’t seem to realize how beautiful she was. He briefly wondered what would have happened if they had kissed the previous night, then pushed the thought from his mind. It wasn’t possible, and anyway, it was much too soon. Even he himself realized that he must be – what was the word? – projecting his feelings for Trelaina onto her. It would be good for him to get away on the Star Force’s upcoming training mission. If he still felt this way after they came home, then maybe he would think about approaching her...
She wasn’t gone as long as he had expected; she soon returned with a delicious crock of soup and a fresh loaf of bread for him. He ate ravenously, realizing that he’d been too tense earlier in the day to eat much. Carina seemed to have a healthy appetite, too – he imagined she’d been even more tightly-wound all day than he had been.
He was satisfied and relaxed when they finished eating, and when they went outside, the fresh air felt wonderful on his face. They headed to the same spot they had occupied last night and turned to watch the sunset. The low clouds flamed bright red tonight, which Mark thought was an indication of good weather to come. “Red sky at night, sailors’ delight,” he murmured. Carina didn’t respond, and they sat in silence for a few minutes. The late fall light made the grounds glow in shades of red and gold, and Mark sighed. “I wish Trelaina could have seen how beautiful Earth can be,” he said. “I know she would have loved it here.”
“I’m sure she would.” After another moment of silence, she spoke. “Mark? What was it that made you fall in love with Trelaina?” He looked at her, surprised at the question. “I don’t mean to intrude,” she continued hastily. “I’m just curious. I’ve read the reports, and from what I understand, the Star Force’s communication with Trelaina was pretty limited until you landed on Telezart. Did the two of you just connect over the radio?”
Mark nodded, smiling at the memory of the flight to Telezart and trying to think of how to explain it to her. “We did,” he finally said. “It wasn’t… rational, what happened between us. I know that. At first, I would talk to her to try to get a fix on her location, but it gradually became more than that. I looked forward to hearing from her every day, and she seemed to feel the same way about me. By the time we reached Telezart, I was smitten.” He ducked his head, embarrassed. “That probably sounds silly.”
She shook her head. “I think it’s sweet,” she said. “Your spirits reached out to each other, and that was all you needed. You didn’t have to see what she looked like before you fell in love with her.”
He responded quietly. “But she was so beautiful. I felt so lucky. I couldn’t believe that a woman like that could be interested in me.”
“Really?” She sounded surprised. “I’d have thought you’d leave scores of broken hearts behind everywhere you go, don’t you?”
Scores of broken hearts everywhere he went? He didn’t think he’d ever left one broken heart behind anywhere. If the question had come from anyone else, he’d assume they were teasing him, but he was getting used to her habit of blurting things out, and he knew she was serious. He was flattered, and answered her honestly. “Thank you, but hardly. Women have never really noticed me. I was pretty awkward around girls when I was a kid.”
“But what about at the academy? I don’t remember you being awkward. Not that I knew you, but you didn’t seem it.”
She remembers me from the academy? He looked at her closely, thinking. Now that she mentioned it, he did remember a quiet, red-haired girl who had been in a handful of his early classes. He had noticed her but never spoken to her. Was Carina that girl? “We had a few classes together, didn’t we? I’m sorry I didn’t remember until you just mentioned it.”
She smiled. “I’ve had a couple of extra years to remember you. The Star Force were celebrities when you took off for Iscandar. There were tons of biographical articles and even books written about all of you. We had just recently graduated, and I made sure I knew which of you I’d taken classes with. Bragging rights.”
That made sense. He probably would have done the same thing. “Well,” he said, “if you didn’t think I was awkward, then you obviously never saw me try to talk to a girl. I never knew what to say, and anyway, I was always pretty serious-minded. Most of the girls I met were looking for smooth-talking fighter jocks who would give them a thrill and then break their hearts. I wasn’t ‘exciting’ enough for them. Nice guys finish last, I guess. But I couldn’t have acted the way those guys did. I was raised to treat women with respect, and to be honorable. I believe that if you love someone, intimacy can wait until marriage, and if you don’t, it’s not even an option.” He stopped himself, realizing he had run off at the mouth. “Sorry. Too much information.”
As usual, though, she took in what he said without laughing or rolling her eyes at him. “I’ve never understood young girls,” she said. “Everything you just said makes you more appealing to me, not less. As far as I’m concerned, it was their loss.”
There was that disconcerting frankness again. He felt himself blush and cleared his throat. “Anyway, Trelaina wasn’t like that. She loved me for who I was, and never tried to turn me into someone else.” He felt himself becoming emotional, and turned the question on her to distract himself. “How about you? Were there long trails of crushed male hopes when you got engaged?”
She chuckled. “Not exactly. Those fighter jocks who were breaking the girls’ hearts? They weren’t interested in the nerdy ‘good girls’ who weren’t going to give them what they wanted. And most of the boys studying analysis and development weren’t exactly dateable. If they were, they already had girlfriends.” She smiled, thinking of her classmates. Mark knew what she was talking about – much of Sandor’s group on the Argo fell into that awkward category. She went on. “They were always telling me I was ‘one of the guys,’ like that was a compliment. I didn’t think I’d ever meet someone who saw me as anything more. When Stephen introduced me to Daniel, it was like a light went on. I knew right away that I wanted to marry him. He never expected more from me than I was willing to give, and he didn’t mind that --”
She had stopped herself mid-sentence. He waited for her to go on, and when she didn’t, he prodded her gently. “Didn’t mind what, Carina?” She looked at him as if she was trying to make a decision. “Carina, you can trust me.” He had bared his heart to her more than once. He hoped that she felt she could do the same with him.
After another moment’s hesitation she spoke. “Do you remember how old we were when the planet bombs started to hit? Just entering adolescence, right? Eleven or twelve?” He nodded, and so did she. “The radiation caused different problems for different people. With girls that age who absorbed a certain amount of radiation, the effect was internal and they didn’t develop properly. I was one of those girls. My ovaries sort of… dried up before they’d even started functioning properly. The bottom line is, I can never have children.”
“Oh.” He felt as though he’d been punched in the stomach. He knew that, since the Gamilon war, there had been a tremendous amount of pressure on young women to raise large families. He could only imagine how devastating it was for her. “Honey, I’m so sorry.” He began to reach for her, but pulled away when he remembered about the cameras. She waved him away, anyway.
She had sounded nervous when she spoke, but her eyes were calm. “I came to terms with it a long time ago. The fact of it doesn’t bother me, honestly, but I don’t want anyone to know. They’ll either pity me” – he flinched inwardly – “or they’ll treat me like a pariah. Women without children are considered worthless in our society.” Mark wanted to comfort her, to tell her it wasn’t true, but he knew she was right. She continued. “That was part of what made Daniel so special. He knew I couldn’t have kids, but he loved me anyway. He wanted to spend the rest of his life with me despite the fact that I’m not ‘whole.’”
He could tell that she was bitter, and he found himself becoming angry on her behalf. “Carina.” He spoke more sharply than he had intended. “Tell me you don’t feel that way about yourself.”
She looked startled for a moment, not expecting his response to be so vehement, but then she shook her head. “No, I don’t. But if you hear it often enough, it sticks in your head, you know?” Taking a deep breath, she went on. “You can’t imagine what it was like here when you went to Iscandar. People got more and more crazy. By that summer, there were blatant campaigns going on against childless women. The government sponsored ads encouraging men to have their girlfriends ‘tested’ before marrying them, and some extreme fundamentalist religious groups popped up in favor of polygamy, or preaching that it was a sin for infertile girls to marry. Most people didn’t believe what they taught, but still it was a rough time. The president refused to speak out against those groups… The united government isn’t exactly sympathetic to women’s causes now, but it was a thousand times worse that year.”
Mark was horrified. “I heard rumors, but I couldn’t believe they were true. The Star Force was sent out on PR tours right after we got back, and I think they kept a lot of things from us. I’m sorry.” It seemed inadequate, but it was all he could think to say.
She smiled faintly at him. “Thanks. I certainly don’t hold it against any man if having children of his own is important to him, but so many girls have been made to feel worthless. There are thousands of war orphans who need homes, too, but if the girls aren’t married, they stand very little chance of being approved for adoption. Anyway,” she said more brightly after a pause, looking at the sky, “we’ve stayed out past your bedtime. We’d better head back.”
He wasn’t satisfied that the conversation was over, but she was right – it was completely dark. Reluctantly he turned his chair toward the hospital. They moved slowly and in silence down the darkened path, the occasional lamp throwing dappled shadows on the ground through the trees. After a minute she spoke again. “Mark?” He stopped his chair and turned to her. “Listen, nobody knows about what I told you tonight, OK? I mean, Dr. Sane knows because he’s my doctor, but nobody else. Even Nova doesn’t know.”
“I won’t say a word – I promise. You can trust me.” He was honored that she had chosen to confide in him.
“I know. Thank you,” she responded, with a tilt of her head. She held his gaze for a few more seconds, making his heart beat faster, before suddenly dropping her eyes. Those eyes… So gentle and sweet, but every time he looked into them the air between them became dangerously charged. Flustered, he began moving toward the hospital again and took a deep breath of the fresh, chilly air.
Both lost in thought, they returned to his floor in silence, where a stern look from the duty nurse made Carina shrug sheepishly. “Sorry,” she said. “We were out on the grounds and lost track of time. I know we’ve thrown you off schedule – I’ll put him to bed.”
The older nurse nodded tersely. “Let me know when you decide he’s ready. I’ll bring his meds.” Carina thanked her and turned toward Mark’s room. “She’s not crazy about me,” she whispered conspiratorially with a wink.
“I gathered that,” he said with a grin. “I don’t think I’d want to cross her.”
As they reached his room, IQ-9 rolled by. “Mark Venture, do you need help getting ready for bed?”
“No thank you, IQ. I can manage the restroom by myself, and Lt. Clark will get me settled.”
“Very well.” IQ-9 began to roll away when Carina called to him. “IQ, could you come back in a few minutes and stick around? I need to talk to you about something. Just business,” she added at Mark’s questioning look.
He left Carina in his room while he showered and brushed his teeth. The bathroom had been fitted for someone in his situation, with strong arms but limited use of his legs. There were rails and platforms set so that he was able to manipulate himself in and out of the shower, and the sink was at a level that was convenient for him in his wheelchair. It had been chilly outside, and the warm shower felt good.
Carina had given him a lot to think about tonight. He had never considered what it would be like to fall in love with a girl and then find out that she couldn’t have children. He supposed he had always assumed he would have kids one day, but he had never given it much thought, really. How important was it to him? Trelaina had been from a different planet. Would they have been able to have children? They hadn’t gotten far enough for it to be a concern, true, but what if they had? His immediate instinct told him that love was more important to him than procreation was, but then how would the family and his friends react? Was it fair to make such a decision without considering Mom and Dad? It was a complicated issue, all right. A lot for a man to deal with, but he could only imagine what it was like for the woman.
While he was thinking, he had managed to get his pajama pants on, but now he looked around the bathroom and realized that the top wasn’t in the room. Embarrassed, he draped a towel around his neck to cover part of his chest, and opened the door back into the main part of his room. “Uhhh…” he began with a chuckle.
She was facing away from him, fussing with the Christmas tree, and when she turned, he couldn’t help but notice her eyes flick over his bare chest and arms, nor the quickly stifled but unmistakable look of appreciation that crossed her face. He felt himself blush and rubbed his cheek. “Have you seen my pajama top? I seem to have lost it…”
She was already walking toward him carrying it, however. “It fell off the bed. I figured you wouldn’t appreciate me walking in on you.” Her tone was carefully light, but she looked slightly flushed and seemed to have a hard time keeping her eyes on his face. He smiled to himself. This was not an unpleasant situation to be in. He knew he had to be careful, though – even though the door to the hallway was closed for privacy, after the day they’d had, he didn’t dare tease her about it. It seemed the walls did have ears. Instead, he thanked her and quickly donned the shirt, watching her from the corner of his eye as she watched him from the corner of hers.
He stretched when he was done and rolled the chair to the side of the bed. The awkwardness of the situation struck him when she approached to help him out of the chair. “I might be able to do this myself tonight. You don’t have to –“
“No, no,” she interrupted. “Don’t be silly. It’s fine.” She put her arm around his waist and lifted, keeping a firmer grip on his hand than she had last night. He was able to balance more easily tonight, and backed up to sit on the bed. His legs weren’t strong enough yet for him to lift them from the floor, so she picked up his feet and swung him around. He noticed that while he had been showering, she had set things up for him. The head of the bed was raised so that he could sit and read comfortably, she had turned on the sheet warmer for him, and there was a glass of water on his bedside table. She also had his meds. “The night nurse dropped these off while you were in the bathroom,” she said with a grin. “I think she wanted to make sure there was no hanky-panky going on.”
He grinned back at her as he swallowed the pills. “Will I see you tomorrow?”
“Maybe,” she nodded. “I have to do some work to make up for leaving early today. But I’m on hospital duty on Sunday, so I’ll definitely see you then. Good night,” she said, reaching out to tousle his hair before she turned toward the door.
It was a strange and funny gesture, probably meant to disperse any romantic tension between them. A wave of friendly affection washed over him as she turned to go, and he grabbed for her wrist. “Carina?”
She turned back to him, her face expectant.
“I love you, too,” he said quietly. It had been several hours since she had told Jordy that she loved him. He hoped she knew what he was talking about. She sat on the bed beside him, smiling faintly, kissed his cheek and whispered “thank you” in his ear, but her voice was shaky. He pushed her shoulders back gently to look at her face, and saw her eyes brimming with tears. “Hey,” he said softly, pulling her into a hug, “what’s wrong?”
She wrapped her arms around him and buried her face in his shoulder, shaking with silent tears. He moved his hands awkwardly, trying to comfort her, unsure of what to do. She seemed to calm down when he stroked the back of her head… As she leaned into him the scent of her hair wafted toward him, causing his breath to catch in his throat. Although he knew he shouldn’t, he moved so that his cheek was against hers, his nose in her hair, and breathed deeply. Her arms tightened around him, her breasts crushing against his chest, and pleasant warmth spread through his midsection. It felt good to be this close to her; he wanted to be even closer. For a brief moment he considered dipping his head further to nuzzle at her neck, but then his sense kicked in and he realized that was a Very Bad Idea. Instead he loosened his grip on her and pulled back, taking a deep breath and chiding himself. Why couldn’t he control himself with her? “Shhhhh. What is it?” he asked gently.
“I’m sorry,” she sniffled, pulling away and avoiding his eyes. “This day was just… it was horrible. I was hoping to hold it together until I got home, but then you… You’re just…” She put her hand on his cheek, still teary but smiling weakly at him. “You’re the best, Mark.”
The best. Would she feel that way if she knew how close they had just come to having a repeat of last night? He took her hand from his face and squeezed it. “Thank you, Carina.” His other hand was still on her shoulder and he pulled it away, trying to lighten the mood. “If I see you tomorrow, we might have to work a little harder on... uh…” he looked at his hand pointedly.
She chuckled, wiping her face. “Yeah, we almost made it through tonight, but we failed pretty miserably in the end, didn’t we?” She kissed his cheek again, gave his hand a quick squeeze and stood. “I really should go so you can get some sleep, and IQ-9 is probably waiting for me. The weather is supposed to be beautiful all weekend. If I don’t see you tomorrow, I’ll take you out again on Sunday.”
“I’ll plan on it. Good night.” He watched her leave. Things were certainly complicated with this girl. He did love her as a friend; the problem was that he also liked being physically close to her a little too much, and he was pretty sure she felt the same way about him. He couldn’t do anything about it, at least not now, but he was pretty good at hiding his feelings – he didn’t think anyone knew how he had really felt about Nova during the trip to Iscandar – and he thought he’d be OK until he got out of the hospital. But then what about the idea that he could approach her when he returned from his next mission? The knowledge that she couldn’t have children had complicated that, too. What would he do if he had to choose between being with her and having children, assuming she even wanted to be with him? He sighed. Why couldn’t his love life be easy, like Derek and Nova’s had been? They had met, fallen in love, and were now going to get married. Shouldn’t it always be that simple?
At least he would have plenty of time to work things out while the Argo was in space, he decided as he reclined his head. He might even find that time apart would help him to get over this infatuation and allow them to be good friends. In the meantime, he’d gain some control over himself and be satisfied with her frequent visits and her company.