There are certain general rules that every armed service in the world follows. Don't disobey a direct order. Don't subvert your CO.

Another basic tenet of the military is don't fraternize. Don't fraternize with the enemy because you might let something slip. Don't fraternize with another soldier's wife because he might miss 'accidently' and shoot you in the back during the next fire fight. Don't fraternize with your CO because it puts them in a morally dicey situation when they need to think rationally about troop placement, especially in desperate "sacrifice some to save many" scenarios.

Mithril is a military organization, yet it isn't a national army. Most of the rules apply, but the very nature of a super-secret organization that isn't officially acknowledged by ANY nation in the world puts certain stress on Mithril's agents. You can't tell anyone what you do, not even your folks or your wife or your kids. Most of us don't have that sort of thing to begin with, so that's not such a big deal. However, you can't go through life without any personal relationships at all. Because there is such a strict external fraternization policy, Mithril has an informal "don't ask, don't tell" code when it comes to internal fraternization. As long as you don't make a big deal out of it, Mithril doesn't really care about relationships between its members.

Take me and Tessa, for example. I know everything about my captain. I know how she eats those little chocolate candies in order by color and that she starts with red first. I know where she keeps her stash of smutty romance novels. As her subordinate, I shouldn't have a key to her quarters, but I do. We are way over the line of fraternization, but as long as Tessa and I act professionally when it matters, our make-shift sisterhood isn't a big deal. It also helps that she isn't directly above me in the chain of command. I report to Bel, who reports to Mardukas, who reports to Tessa.

Kurz, however, does report directly to me. That's a problem. In addition, I seriously doubt that either of us would be able to play it cool when we're stuck on a submarine for months at a time. Everyone would know about us in a week. That's another problem. Facts are facts, and the fact is that things get a whole lot more complex when you add sex to a relationship. Mithril tolerates close friendships between juniors and seniors, but lovers? Not so much. Problem number three. Last but not least, problem four is that most of Mithril's staff come from national military backgrounds, and it's not easy to put years and years of training to bed when you switch to another type of organization. Both Bel and Mardukas are products of decades of service in stricter armies than Mithril. While a commander like Tessa might go easy on Kurz and me, I wasn't counting on any favors from Mardukas. That guy is seriously uptight.

When I woke up next to a naked Kurz on Christmas morning, I wish that I could tell you that all I could think about was how cute he looks when he's asleep and how wonderful it felt to be with someone after my epic-long love dry spell. But I didn't think at all about those things. I thought about all the ways Mardukas could bust my chops for sleeping with Kurz and whether our relationship was worth it.

In the end, I couldn't decide if Kurz would outweigh the massive drubbing I would get from my superiors. Don't misunderstand me. The night before had been amazing. The dinner, the company, the kissing in the snow: all of that stuff was getting filled under "Mao's Most Romantic Night Ever" in my brain. What happened after the kissing wasn't bad either. We made it back to the hotel, eventually, after some serious detours in doorways along the way. By the time we got back to the room, I was about ready to break as soon as he laid hands on me. I had to wait until the second time to really show him what I could do. Judging by the way that Kurz was still sleeping even after I poked him a few times with my icy-cold fingers, I had done a pretty damn good job.

I tried to wait for him. I dozed off a few times as Kurz slept, but eventually, I was too awake and spooking myself with visions of Mardukas's punishments to stay in bed. I slipped out of Kurz's arms and headed for the shower to occupy my mind. I took my time, but he was still fast asleep when I was done. The clock in the room read close to noon, so I decided to make a food run. It only took five minutes to pull on some clothes and my boots. I leaned over and kissed Kurz on the cheek before I left. I felt bad about leaving him, but he was dead to the world. I didn't bother with a note because I didn't intend to be gone for long.

A whole lot of nothing was open on Christmas morning. I walked up and down Main Street and saw nothing but 'Closed' signs. Eventually, I figured out that the hotel would probably have room service or something for its guests even though the restaurant was closed. I put in an order for a ridiculous amount of food at the front desk, and the gal working the counter was a real treasure because she brought out a tray with a pot of coffee, cups, and all the other associated coffee stuff to tide us over until the food could be delivered. Getting the door unlocked and open while carrying the tray proved a little tricky.

As I opened the door, I could hear Kurz playing that sad song of his on Marie. He was sitting on floor by the bed, and he yanked off the headphones and gave me an odd look as I came in.

"Hey," I said.

"You're back," he said guardedly.

I suspected that he was waiting for the old "I was drunk, and it was a mistake. Can we still be friends?" letdown, so I set the coffee on the coffee table (because that's what it was made for after all), dropped to my knees, and kissed him fiercely.

He pulled me into his lap, his arms strong and possessive around me. Even though I had to compete with his precious Marie for space, Kurz let me kiss him for a long time.

When I finally pulled away, he was smiling again.

"This is unacceptable, you know. You're out of bed AND wearing pants. Fix this now," I ordered.

Kurz pushed out a long breath and kissed me on the forehead. "You had me worried," he confessed.

"I went to get you breakfast, and you think I'm bailing on you. What kind of person do you think I am?" I groaned. I lifted Marie's strap off his shoulder and pushed his guitar out of my way, so I could wrap my arms around my new lover. "I'm not going to blow you off. I like being with you, idiot."

Kurz sagged against my shoulder and dropped a kiss on my collarbone. "You want to call Mardukas and tell him the good news? Bet he'll be thrilled."

In a sad way, it was a relief that Kurz was worried by the same thoughts that had plagued me all morning.

"Let's just see where this goes. If we still want to graduate this from a vacation fling to the real deal, we can make the call at the end of the trip. Okay?" I offered.

"Why? You think you'll get sick of me?" Kurz asked jokingly, but my answer was serious.

"I don't know. I have no idea where this is going."

"Do you think you could love me?" Kurz asked in a small voice.

I smacked him in the head. "Dummy. How am I supposed to answer that?"

Kurz shoved me off his lap, and his temper flared up. I could see it in his eyes.

"Just tell me the truth!" he yelled.

"The truth is that I don't know!" I yelled back. I threw up my hands in surrender. "I don't know, Kurz. Really. I have no idea. I could love you already. How am I supposed to know?"

Kurz touched my elbow. "I'm sorry. I think I'm still having trouble believing that we're having this conversation. I never expected you and me. I mean, I always hoped, but..."

"Can we stop fighting and get back into bed now?" I pleaded.

"Yeah. I think I'm all about putting off Mardukas until the last minute," Kurz agreed after thinking it over for a moment. Then, he frowned. "The coffee'll get cold."

"Why do you care about coffee at time like this? I want make-up sex. Now. Fuck the coffee."

"You're right. Fuck it," Kurz repeated and reached for me.

The room service guy brought us a fresh pot with the rest of my order about 40 minutes later.

True to my promise, I kept Kurz in bed all Christmas Day, but you can't just lie around in each other's arms forever. The next day, Kurz took me skiing again. The day after that, we drove out to Crater Lake to snow-shoe around the park and see that amazingly blue water from as many angles as possible before frost bite set in. We enjoyed our vacation like normal people, and I fell asleep under Kurz's arm every night.

Being with Kurz brought out a softness in me. It wasn't a bad thing. I felt really peaceful. Kurz commented on it when we went for a walk through Lithia Park. The temperature had gone up to 40, and the snow was melting away fast. I wanted to see as much of it as possible while it lasted.

We were on one of the back trails without another soul in sight when Kurz got entranced by my ass and tried to grab it with both hands. Dating or not, that's seriously uncool, so I did what I always do when Kurz gets out of hand. I decked him.

To my surprise, he came up laughing.

"I've been waiting for that. You let me get away with just about anything now," he said.

"Oh, give me a break," I huffed.

Kurz hopped up and pulled me against him while I tried to shake him off.

"Leave off, Weber. You can't expect to be a jerk and then kiss it better," I complained.

Kurz succeeded in pining my arms against me, so he could hold me. I went as stiff as a board to show him true feelings about the situation.

"Quit that, will you?" Kurz sighed. "I'm not being a jerk. You seem happier now. Less angry. That's a good thing, right?"

"I guess," I said with as much ice in my voice as I could summon.

"I think you're sexier when you're angry," Kurz said in a low voice. "Why do you think I spent so much time trying to get under your skin?"

I kneed him for that one, but I helped him back to the hotel and made it up to him after that. I don't think he had reason to harbor any bad feelings over it.

The week passed quickly, and I kept waiting for a moment of divine realization.

My reasoning went like this:

If I loved Kurz, then it would be worth braving the retribution of Mardukas. However, the thought of telling that hard-ass about my sex life made my throat feel like it was closing. At the same time, I never got tired of spending every minute with Kurz. I wanted his every kiss, every smile, everything. I got jealous of this ski bunny on the slopes who commented on Kurz's skill and nearly took a swing at her. I would wake up in the early morning to touch him and reassure myself that he was, in fact, there, and that I hadn't dreamed up the whole thing. Even my famous appetite mysteriously disappeared, as if I could live on good sex and affection alone.

At the end of the week, I was no closer to figuring out what the heck I was feeling than when Kurz first kissed me on Christmas Eve. Kurz must have felt my hesitation and thought that I was going to call it off because I woke up in the early hours of New Year's Eve, our last day in Ashland, alone. It was almost pathetic. I reached for Kurz out of habit and woke up when I realized that the bed was empty except for me. I wanted to cry.

I flipped on a light and found his note on my nightstand.

"I'm sorry. I need to start think clearly. Meet me at the bar downstairs at noon. We'll decide then. - Kurz

P.S. Don't be mad, but I took the car."

Even though it was still black as soot outside, I wanted a smoke, so I got dressed and headed downstairs. The lobby was deserted except for Dolores, who was working the graveyard shift again.

"What got you up so early in the morning?" she asked.

"My boyfriend just left me, and I need a cigarette," I replied glumly.

Dolores frowned. "Not that cutie that I've seen you canoodling around with? He looked like he was about ready to pop the question."

"It's complicated," I sighed.

"Can I join you?" Dolores asked and held up her pack of thin Menthols.

I told Dolores the abbreviated version of events as we smoked out front. I half-expected her to give me some motherly advice, but Dolores just shrugged.

"I'm terrible with men," she explained. "Been divorced three times. You don't want to know what I think."

I hung out with Dolores until her replacement showed up because the thought of going back to an empty room was too depressing to handle. We wasted time playing "Kill Marry Fuck". Right before her shift ended, Dolores's eyes got wide.

"I just remembered," she gasped. "Some guy came by and left something for a Melissa, no last name, and I thought it might be for you."

"I doubt it. I don't know anyone here besides you and Kurz," I said. Still, I leaned on the counter and waited for Dolores to dig out the envelope in case I had acquired a secret admirer. I would need someone to catch me on the rebound if the thing with Kurz went belly-up.

The handwriting on the flat manila envelope looked like a fifth-grader had written it on the back of the bus on the way to school. I gave up on deciphering it and let Dolores take over. She had lots of experience from reading notes scribbled by impatient guests.

"I think it says 'Melissa, Thanks for the help with Ellie.' It's signed 'Tom'," Dolores said.

"It's Ted," I said and reached for the envelope. I remembered that I had mentioned where I was staying to Ted while we talked about photography at Table Mountain.

I tore into it while Dolores put on her coat and updated her replacement, who had just come in from the cold. Cindy must have written the note inside because I could actually read that handwriting. I didn't read it all the way through, though, because I got side-tracked by the pictures.

Ted really was an excellent photographer.

There was a great shot of Kurz sliding down the mountain on an inner tube with Ellie before her accident. Another shot captured me by the fire. I was making a face at Kurz while Ellie tugged on his hand. But the photos that made me sit down down on one of those overstuffed lobby armchairs were of Kurz and me alone.

It was actually a series of shots. The first one showed us at the top of the mountain. In the second, we are running and pushing the inner tube. The next was us sliding down the slope. I remembered that feeling of speed and the inner tube spinning underneath us. Then there was a shot of us colliding with the snow drift at the bottom.

The final shot captivated me. In it, Kurz and I are sitting in the snow after the inner tube had dumped us out. White clumps of snow cover our clothes and cling to our hair. We're looking at each other and laughing. We looked so happy.

I sat in that stupid lobby staring at that photo for a long time and thought about what I wanted to do.

I showed up fifteen minutes late to my meeting with Kurz, but it wasn't on purpose. The fucking boutique was supposed to open at 11, but that shop-girl slut didn't turn up until almost a half an hour later. Even though I knew what I wanted, it still took a ridiculously long time to complete the purchase. I wanted to get ready in our hotel room, but I ended up changing in the hotel lobby's bathroom to save on time.

The unintended effect of my tardiness was that Kurz was waiting for me when I got there. He got to see the full show as I walked from the door all the way to the bar in that slutty, blue dress and those stripper, snowflake shoes.

"You know I think can't straight with you in that dress," he told me as I eased onto the bar stool next to his. "I had to run away from the shop the last time you had it on because I almost took you on the floor right then and there."

"Good. Because I don't want you to think. I want you to listen," I said. I pushed the last photo from Ted's series over to Kurz. "You see that?"

"Am I supposed to answer? I thought I was supposed to listen," Kurz said.

I punched his arm. "Just tell me what you see."

"I see us," Kurz shrugged.

"And?" I pressed.

"And we look happy. That's all I got. You and that dress." Kurz shook his head.

"You did great," I reassured him. "So here's the deal, Weber. I don't know if we're in love or if we have a chance of making it in the long term or whatever. I don't know any of that crap. But I know that I'm happy with you. Like stupid happy. And I think that you're pretty happy with me."

"I am," Kurz agreed.

"So can't that be enough?" I asked.

"You tell me. That dress. Can't think," Kurz got out.

"I'm telling you that this is your last chance to bail on me before I call Bel and tell him everything. He'll run it to Mardukas by the end of the day, and we'll be flying back to a shitstorm. So this is it. You want me or not?"

Kurz was smiling at me like his face might break. "I want you. And even if I didn't, that dress."

I smirked. "I took out an insurance policy in case you tried to put up a fight. I like to get what I want."

"You have no shame," Kurz sighed.

"You love it," I grinned.

"Quite possibly, yes," Kurz grinned back before he kissed me.

In the end, Mardukas didn't flip out that much. Apparently, everyone thought that Kurz and I were hot and heavy long before Ashland. Go figure.

I got shifted back to electronic warfare full-time, but Kurz stayed on the Urzu team. I only put on my AS suit in dire emergencies now, but I don't mind at all because I'm too busy being happy with Kurz. It took me a few months to admit it, but I love that idiot.

You know how I know that I love him? Because when we're together and he gets that stupid-happy look on his face, I know in my heart that I would do anything, absolutely anything, to keep him smiling that way.

You know how I know that he loves me? Because no matter how cold my hands are (and I swear to God that I must have the worst circulation in the whole world), he never complains when I touch him. Never. And I touch him an awful lot.