Mark awoke to the sound of the curtain in his room being pulled back. The dim light the windows admitted hurt his head. He turned to look and saw Carina standing by his desk in an Earth Defense sweatshirt and khakis. "Good morning, sunshine," she chirped in her most irritating tone. Ugh. Was she deliberately trying to punish him? What happened last night? He had a quick flash of a memory and groaned. Yes, she probably was punishing him. He put his hand over his eyes to block the light. At least the sun wasn't shining.
"Uh… Hi. What's going on? What time is it?" he asked groggily. His mouth tasted terrible and his head was pounding. Well, that was his own fault.
"It's 0900," Carina said more gently. "Nova let you guys sleep in, but I brought you some breakfast. Nothing too gooey," she added, "just tea and toast. Homemade bread."
He tried to nod, but the motion hurt his head. His stomach was churning as well, but toast would probably be okay. "Thanks. I don't know what I was thinking last night. Any chance you brought aspirin with you?"
"As a matter of fact I did bring something for your head. I had a bit of an issue myself this morning and had it on hand." She gave him her arm to help him out of bed and led him to the desk, where she had laid two place settings. He swallowed the white pill from his plate with a sip of tea and closed his eyes. When he did, an image came to him of holding her and refusing to let go, of trying to talk her into kissing him… Had that really happened, or was it a dream? He'd had a lot of strange dreams last night, about both of them: Carina and Trelaina. He'd better find out. "Carina," he began, "last night, did I… Did I try to…" This was awkward.
She nodded, looking as embarrassed as he felt. "Yes. But don't worry about it. Nothing happened. Don't go out of your way to try to remember – I think we'll both feel better if we forget the whole thing." Without looking at him, she added, "I'm going to toast this bread. I'll be right back." She hurried from the room.
While she was gone, he closed his eyes again and thought about what had transpired. Most of it was fuzzy – he couldn't remember the details of what they said or did, and that was probably just as well – but he had a sense of what had happened, and what had put a stop to it. Trelaina. He'd been looking at her picture right before he embraced Carina, and she probably assumed that he'd been thinking of Trelaina when he tried to... Wow, he found a new way to alienate this girl almost every time he saw her. If it had been him, he probably would have blown a whistle in her ear to wake her this morning.
When she returned with his toast she acted cheerful enough, but he thought it seemed forced. He ate a few bites in silence while she straightened the room, then took a deep breath. "Carina, I'm sorry about last night."
She topped off his cup of tea and wiped a crumb off the table before answering him. "It's fine, Mark. Nothing happened." Still standing, she filled her own cup and then fussed with the tea cozy, avoiding his gaze. Frustrated, he grabbed her hand.
"Hey, sit down and talk to me, will you? I'm serious." She sighed, and when she finally sat and looked at him, he could see that she was nervous. Her eyes looked a little tired and bloodshot, too, but he imagined his own were much worse.
"Mark," she said, "we both screwed up. Again. We've been through this before – can't we leave it at that and forget it?"
No – it was different this time, and he wanted to talk it through. He shook his head and dove in. "Listen, I shouldn't have gotten drunk. I know that. I certainly shouldn't have let you come in here alone with me when I was drunk. You're so beautiful, and – and I don't have a lot of self-control with you even when I'm sober." She blushed and looked down, but he thought he saw a hint of a smile on her face. Good. He pressed on. "I apologize for putting you in that situation, but what I'm sorry for is hurting you. Carina…" He took her hand in both of his and waited for her to look him in the eye again before going on, struggling to find the words he wanted to say. "You know that I'm not… That I don't wish you were her, don't you? Trelaina? You know that I'm not thinking of her when we're together, or pretending that you're her? Because I'm not. At all." He could tell from the look on her face that that was exactly what she had been thinking. He suddenly found himself becoming emotional. Maybe it was because of his lingering hangover. "You're so special to me – I hope you know that. I don't regret what happened last night. If the circumstances were different –" but she stopped him with a look and the slightest shake of her head.
Her eyes were glistening, and she had a tight grip on his hand. "You shouldn't apologize, Mark – you didn't 'put me' in any situation. I'm a big girl, and I'd had more to drink than I should have, too. It's not as though you tried to force yourself on me." Her eyes darkened as she reached across and put her free hand on top of his. He felt his heart skip a beat. "Mark, you have no idea how special you are to me, too. And I hope you don't think I'm being a… a tease, because I'm really not. Or – I don't mean to be. Nothing I've said or done with you has been anything but sincere. But… We've spent a lot of time together this month. It's an artificial situation. We don't know what's going to happen when you go away and we don't see each other every day. You're my b– you're one of my best friends, Mark. I won't let anything happen to jeopardize that."
He wanted to object, but he could see how it could damage their friendship if they stepped over the line. Women seemed to have an instinctive understanding about emotions. Nova had always been smarter than he was about the personal things, too.
"I see what you mean. And Carina, I would never think of you as a tease. Don't ever feel that way," he said, feeling himself blush. This wasn't the sort of conversation he normally had with women. "But I'm not going to be away forever. In a couple of months…"
She held up a hand to stop him. "Let's think about that when we get there, OK? No expectations."
He nodded and held her gaze for a few more seconds, feeling tremendous affection for her, then squeezed her hand and let it go, returning to his tea. Clearing his throat, he asked, "What's on your schedule today?"
Looking relieved at the change of subject, she glanced at the window. "I thought we might take a walk in the snow, unless you have something else planned."
Snow? His head whipped around and he was surprised to see white flakes falling from the sky. He had been so preoccupied, he hadn't even noticed it. "Wow. I haven't seen snow on Earth since…" How long had it been? Years – probably since before he'd entered the academy. "I'm not sure I have the right clothes."
She assured him that they could borrow whatever he needed, and they relaxed as they finished eating their toast. It was cold by now, but he didn't mind.
He brought his cane outside with him for safety, but as soon as they began to walk he discovered that it was actually more dangerous for him to use the cane on the slippery ground than to walk without it. Carina ran it back into the hospital lobby and offered him her hand for support in its place. He was more than happy to make the exchange. They walked the hospital grounds hand-in-hand slowly for over an hour, catching snowflakes on their tongues and throwing snow in each other's faces like children. Mark couldn't remember when he had felt so carefree, and wished that the day would last forever. As they neared the end of the trails around the grounds, however, his hips and knees began to ache. It was the longest he'd been on his feet without a break since he'd been in the hospital, and he imagined the cold and damp weren't helping.
He limped along without saying anything to Carina, although she seemed to sense he was having trouble, letting go of his hand and offering her arm for more solid support. By the time they left the manicured trail for the paved path back to the hospital, he had stiffened enough that he stumbled badly. She caught him around the waist and looked at him with alarm. "Are you all right? Do you need me to get a wheelchair?"
After a moment he regained control and put his arm around her shoulder. Wincing, he said, "No, I'll be all right if I can lean on you until we get inside."
She looked at him doubtfully but nodded and tightened her grip around his waist, carrying as much of his weight as she could. "We need to get you into some dry clothes ASAP. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have kept you out in this weather. I wasn't thinking."
"No – it's my own fault," he grunted as they hobbled along. "I knew we should have headed back a while ago, but I was being selfish. I wanted to take advantage of the time we have left."
She grinned up at him, pausing to adjust her grip. "Good to know you can still turn on the charm when you're in pain." Her cheeks were flushed pink from the cold and exertion, her hair had curled softly and was crusted with snow, and there were snowflakes melting on her eyelashes. She looked adorable. He couldn't help himself – he leaned in and kissed the bridge of her nose. He thought she would reprimand him, and was pleasantly surprised when instead she pressed her face into his neck in a brief embrace. He held her for a few seconds before letting her go and said, "Come on. We're almost inside."
She helped him through the entrance and brought him his cane. They stopped at the nurses' station on his floor, where Carina asked Nova for some pain pills and ordered a fresh pot of tea and some soup from the cafeteria. In his room, she helped him collect a dry uniform and ordered him to take a hot shower, after which he found her a pair of pajama pants and a shirt and ordered her to take a hot shower of her own and send her wet clothes to the laundry to dry. She could develop pneumonia as easily as he could, he argued against her protests. While she was showering, he sat on the bed. She had raised the head, and he noticed that she had turned the warmer on for him. The heat, combined with the pills from Nova, made his legs feel better almost immediately.
Carina appeared in the bathroom door, trying to tie his flannel pants tightly enough around her waist that they wouldn't fall down. He found himself staring at the creamy skin of her exposed belly, and looked away. Her arms were dwarfed by his shirt sleeves, and her damp hair curled around her freshly-scrubbed face. "No hairbrush, eh?" she questioned him. "Just a comb? This is not the right setup for a girl. How about some socks?"
"Sorry," he grinned. "I should have stocked up on styling products. Socks are in the top drawer." As she slipped them over her feet, a knock came on the door and Nova poked her head in.
"Your lunch is here. Carina, the robot will take your clothes to the laundry. They'll bring them back ASAP." She opened the door wider and one of the hospital's service robots wheeled in a cart of food: a pot of tea, a tureen of chicken soup and a loaf of fresh bread. Carina exchanged their wet clothes for the food and thanked the robot, and Nova smiled at them and exited.
The bed was comfortable and, more importantly, warm. Even after a hot shower Mark felt chilled from the walk through the snow, and the heat was soothing his aching joints. Not wanting him to move to the desk to eat, Carina wheeled the tray of food within reach of the bed and took her spot at his feet. When Mark swung the bed tray around into its locked position, they discovered it was much closer to him than it was to her. She would have to perch in the middle of the mattress to eat, with nothing to support her back. "Uh," he said uncomfortably, "there's plenty of room here if you want to share the tray." He moved over as far as he could to one side of the mattress. She looked at him for a moment, then shrugged and moved to sit beside him. There was enough room on the bed for them to sit with a few inches of space between them, and Mark was careful not to touch her as they ate in silence, both ravenous.
After she had eaten two bowls of soup and half a loaf of bread, Carina sat back, hugging her knees to her chest. "Oh, gosh, I had forgotten how hungry being out in the snow makes you. And how sleepy, too," she added with a yawn, leaning into him. She smelled of fresh soap and shampoo, and he put his arm around her. She snuggled against him and sighed contentedly. "I'm going to miss you."
He kissed the top of her head. "I'm going to miss you, too."
"Yeah, but you'll be on a mission with plenty to distract you," she whined. "I'll be here pining away. What am I supposed to do every night? Throw myself into my work?"
He chuckled and rubbed her arm. "That wouldn't be the worst thing you could do. You enjoy your work. Or you could sing every night."
"I guess. Not as much fun as hanging around with you, though." He pulled her closer, touched, letting her go a few minutes later as she sat up straight. "I'd better gather my stuff together," she said regretfully, standing. "I'll have to leave as soon as my clothes come back from the laundry. I have a rehearsal tonight and I need a nap."
He raised his eyebrows and tapped the bed beside him. "Plenty of room here if you need it," he said. Where did that come from?
She smiled indulgently at him and patted his head like he was a child. "Didn't we just have this conversation? Not a possibility."
"Can't blame a guy for trying," he smiled with a shrug, surprised with himself for being so bold. There was a knock on the door and IQ-9 entered with their clothes, cleaned and folded. Mark swung his legs off the bed. "IQ, they have you on laundry duty now?"
"It's humiliating," the robot said. "A robot with my experience and intelligence should be assigned to much more challenging projects, Venture. I am looking forward to our upcoming mission."
"I'll bet you are." Mark separated his own clothing from Carina's and added hers to the basket she was using to carry her Christmas gifts home. "You can wear that home if you want," he said, indicating the shirt and pants he had loaned her. She nodded and thanked him, and he helped her bring her things to her air car.
Back in his room, he crawled into bed. Carina was right – being out in the snow was exhausting. He sighed. Something had changed between them in the past couple of days, enough that he couldn't define exactly how he felt about her anymore. He wanted her – God, he wanted her – but it was so much more than that. And yet, he still loved Trelaina, didn't he? Of course, he chided himself. He hadn't had the chance to develop the kind of friendship with Trelaina that he had with Carina, but that didn't mean his feelings for her weren't real. Then what is it I feel for Carina? He didn't have an answer.
Nova chose that moment to check on him. She frowned when she saw his face. "What's wrong, Mark? You look like you have something on your mind. Didn't you have a nice day?"
"Huh? Oh, yeah, it was great," he said, distracted. Maybe she could help him sort this out. "Nova, can I ask you something?"
"Of course." She had been checking his pulse, more to satisfy hospital protocol than out of medical necessity, and now she looked up. "What's up?"
He wasn't sure how to ask delicately, so he came right out with it. "Do you think it's possible to love more than one person?"
She considered him for a minute before speaking. "I think… I think that when you've lost the person you love, your heart feels like it will never move on. But if your heart has the capacity for great love, then it's not fair to keep it contained. Your heart has that capacity. I've always known that. That doesn't detract from how much you loved Trelaina, but it does mean you need to be careful that no one gets hurt, including yourself." Nova hesitated. "She has legitimate reasons for holding back from you, Mark, not the least of which is the fact that she's your caregiver. She's being cautious for both of you. Give it time."
He supposed he shouldn't be surprised that she knew exactly why he had asked the question. He nodded. "Sure. Thank you, Nova." She turned to go, and he called to her again. "Nova? Don't tell anyone we talked about this, okay?"
"Talked about what?" she asked with a wink as she exited the room.
When he was alone, he thought about what she'd said. Nova hadn't thought he was horrible for having feelings for a woman who wasn't Trelaina. It was complicated, to be sure, but all right. If they couldn't be together romantically right now, and he thought he understood why they couldn't, then he would be content to be her friend during the limited time they had left together. He could wait to see if something more developed between them. It had only been a few weeks, after all.
New Year's Eve came quickly for the Star Force amid preparations for the events surrounding their release from the hospital and the training mission. General Stone and Commander Singleton himself met daily with the officers of the Argo, briefing them on the scope of their training mission, providing them with the names and backgrounds of the new cadets. Wildstar met privately with Mark and Sandor every afternoon, planning the details of their training strategy.
Carina also visited Mark every night, sometimes with Sandor as well. She brought the specs and plans for the automated fleet; they made corrections and suggestions that she brought back to Earth Defense. They were wrapping up the design phase, and she told Mark his suggestions were considered very valuable. The two of them worked side-by-side at his desk, reviewing papers with their heads bent together. The electricity continued to flow between them, but they were behaving themselves. More or less. He had gotten in the habit of occasionally running his hand over her back while they talked, and once or twice she had emerged from the bathroom to rub his shoulders and put her arms around his neck (relaxing his shoulder muscles but stirring other feelings in him,) but the evenings ended with nothing more than a quick hug and a chaste kiss on the cheek
They had begun preparations the Sunday after Christmas, and after four straight days of such meetings, Mark was glad to have New Year's Eve off to prepare for his departure from the hospital. His mother and Jordy brought storage boxes for the Christmas decorations and helped him dismantle the room. "How long are you going to going to be away, Mark?" his brother asked.
"Should be just about six weeks, Jordy. Then they'll decide what to do with me next."
"I hope they let you stay on Earth for a while."
"It would be nice to have you around longer than a few weeks," his mother agreed. "We've gotten used to seeing you."
Mark nodded. "I wouldn't mind staying on Earth, if there's an interesting assignment. I don't want to go back to flying transport ships, that's for sure."
A young nursing cadet poked her head in. "Do you need help with anything, Commander Venture?"
"No thank you, Melissa," he smiled. "Lieutenant Clark is going to help me finish getting organized tomorrow."
"OK. I'm going to help Ensign Glitchman pack, then. Let me know if you need me." The girl smiled and turned away.
"The nurses do love Homer," Mark said as he wrapped a string of lights.
"Not all of them, Mark." His mother was giving him that look again.
"Mom –" he began, but she cut him off.
"Don't worry, I'm not trying to run your life. And I'm not asking you to rush out and start producing grandchildren right away. I just want you to be happy, and for the past few weeks you've been happy." She smiled. "And that's all I'm going to say about it."
Mark nodded uncomfortably. What would Mom say if she knew that being with the girl who was making him happy would prevent him from ever producing grandchildren? He never thought about Carina's condition when he was with her, but he did wonder – was it his duty to consider the future of Earth over his own happiness?
His thoughts were interrupted by his little brother. "What are you guys talking about?"
"Nothing, Jordy. Hey, do you want to take the popcorn and cranberries from the garland you made and feed them to the birds outside?"
It was a beautiful day. The early winter snow had melted in a day or two, and the sun was warm. They scattered the remains of the garland along the wooded trails, after which Mark helped them load the car with the Christmas decorations and retreated to his room to get ready for the party. They had been asked to wear their dress uniforms – the press would be there, and there were to be presentations and dancing. He found himself wondering what Carina would wear to play a formal "gig" with her band.
He sighed. Mom's comment about grandchildren had thrown him, although he knew it shouldn't. Whatever it was that he felt for Carina, and it had only grown since Christmas Day, the truth was that they had known each other less than a month and had never exchanged so much as a quick peck on the mouth. He hadn't told her how he felt about her, although he was sure she had a pretty good idea; nor had he asked her how she felt about him, although he thought (and hoped) he had a pretty good idea himself. It was ridiculous to think about the future, especially right before he flew off into space again.
This less-than-happy rumination was cut short when Wildstar and Nova knocked on his door. He smiled at his friends. "Hi, guys. Ready in a minute." Nova looked lovely in a fitted black dress, and after he put on his shoes she pinned a boutonnière on his jacket. "Happy New Year, Mark. The flowers are a gift from the nursing staff to our heroes."
"Thank you, Nova." It reminded him of another boutonnière she had given him, when he went to meet Trelaina. The memory made him smile, and he realized what a long way he had come from when he couldn't think of Trelaina without tearing up.
The three of them went across the hall to meet Sandor, who was tying the ascot on his olive green army uniform, and finally stopped to pick up Homer, who wore the same uniform as Mark and Derek, minus the officers' coat. They made their way to the function room, where Dash and Eager were waiting at their assigned table: the bridge crew had been placed front and center in the room. Two more tables were occupied by Dr. Sane with the remaining life group and navigation group members, and by the survivors from the engine room, gunnery and science group. Twenty-two survivors in total. The number had been bad enough in the abstract, but seeing all of the remaining crew members gathered in this small space drove home the tragedy of the war. Mark closed his eyes for a moment and prayed for the souls of the dead.
Behind the tables were rows of chairs, occupied by Council members, EDF brass, politicians and, Mark was surprised to see, family of the surviving Star Force members. He scanned the crowd until he found his parents, smiling at him. He turned to Wildstar to ask him what was going on, but Wildstar looked as confused as he was.
The Commander stood in front of the band to speak. After thanking the attendees for coming, he addressed the audience. "We all owe a tremendous debt to the Star Force," he said. "Without these heroes, Earth would now be under the command of Prince Zordar and the Comet Empire. Although we will never forget the brave men who fought and died defending our freedom, we are here tonight to honor these men, and woman," he added, nodding at Nova, "who lived to fight another day.
"These soldiers deserve our deepest respect and gratitude. While we cannot fully express our thanks to them, at this time I would like to personally present each of them with the United Earth Government's highest award, the Federation Medal of Honor." Medal of Honor? Mark and Derek looked at each other, stunned.
He called each soldier up, beginning with Dr. Sane, Nova and Wildstar and moving on to the wounded, from the lowest in rank to the highest. Sandor and Mark were the last to be called, and Mark stood at attention while the Commander pinned the medal to his jacket, saluted him and shook his hand. His eyes sought Carina at her spot behind the piano. Her shoulders were wrapped in a black shawl against the function hall's chilly air, but her face was radiant. She smiled at him proudly and gave him a discreet salute as he joined the others in rank behind the Commander. He felt the corner of his mouth pull back and winked at her, grinning more broadly when he saw her blush.
Commander Singleton spoke again. "I ask you all now to stand and join me in saluting these brave soldiers as well as those who were lost in the fight against the Comet Empire, including Trelaina of Telezart." Mark bowed his head for a moment, then stood straight and faced the audience.
The guests stood and saluted the Star Force, open hands against foreheads, as a lone trumpet played a melancholy rendition of "The Scarlet Scarf." There were tears in many eyes, and when the salute ended, the applause lasted for several minutes. The commander invited the families to stay for a reception of cocktails and hors d'oeuvres, and the band began to play as a team of robots cleared away the chairs and set up tables for the formal dinner which would follow when the families had gone.
"Son, we're so proud of you." Dad approached, shaking Mark's hand and clapping him on the shoulder.
"Thanks, Dad. It was quite a surprise. I wasn't expecting to see you and Mom here tonight." He looked for his mother and found her hugging Wildstar, who was alone since Nova's parents had closed in on her.
"Derek, I know your parents are bursting with pride looking down on you. We owe you so much, for saving Earth and for bringing Mark back. You deserve the best of everything. I'm so happy for you and Nova."
Derek looked slightly embarrassed and Mark grinned at him. "Thank you, Mrs. Venture. I hope my parents are proud, wherever they are."
"I'm sure they are." She turned to Mark. "As we are of you, Mark." She kissed him.
"Commander Singleton told us you'd be receiving a medal and asked us not to let you know we were invited to the ceremony, but we didn't know you were going to receive such a high honor," Dad told him, and Mom nodded.
"We might have tried to bring Jordy with us if we had realized."
When a waitress approached with a tray of food, Mark realized that he should let his parents relax for a few minutes. "Come sit down and have a snack," he said. "Can I get you something to drink?"
He settled them at the bridge crew's table with a selection of appetizers, beer and wine. Mark stood in silence for a few minutes, giving his seat to Homer's mother, until his father spoke. "The band is very good."
He wasn't talking to him, but Mark realized that he had been lost in the music. He could understand why Carina loved this style so much. "Yes. I've never heard them before."
His mother looked as though she was going to say something, but changed her mind and instead asked him, "Is there anything else at the hospital that you'd like us to bring home while you're away?"
"I don't think so, thanks, Mom. If I need you to take anything, I'll let you know."
"Can we take you to breakfast the day you're released? Jordy would love to spend time with you once more before you take off again."
"Sounds good, Dad."
There were several couples on the dance floor, and when the band began a slow song Mark's father asked his mother to dance. Mark watched them with a smile. After all these years, it was obvious that they still loved each other very much. I hope that someday… He found himself glancing at Carina. She was completely absorbed in the music, swaying to the beat and occasionally sharing some sort of silent communication with the drummer and the bass player: they would look at each other and laugh or nod simultaneously. He was fascinated watching her – it was as if the music was a physical part of her.
Before he knew it, ten minutes had passed and the family members who had stayed for the reception were beginning to clear out so that the military dinner could begin. His parents returned from the dance floor and gathered their things. Mark lingered with them at the exit, and when he turned to make his way back, he noticed the style of the music had changed. A solo guitar was playing, and he heard Carina's voice:
"Kiss me once, then kiss me twice,
Then kiss me once again.
It's been a long, long time…"
He stepped through the crowd to watch, and stopped short when he saw her. She was sitting on a stool, lit by a spotlight. Her shawl was gone, revealing a form-hugging black dress with straps for sleeves and a low neckline. Sparkles on the dress danced as she moved to the music. She felt his eyes on her and turned, and Mark swallowed hard as she sang directly to him.
"You'll never know how many dreams I dream about you,
Or just how empty they all seem without you."
Their eyes locked, and he saw her cheeks turn pink before she turned away from him to finish the verse. Mark sat down heavily. When the spotlight shifted to the guitarist for her improvised interlude, Dash turned to him. "Wow, Venture. You're a smooth operator."
Mark bristled as the others laughed. "We're just friends, guys."
"Don't believe him," Homer said. "Those two have spent the entire month together."
"Because we're friends, Homer."
"Uh huh." Homer nodded, and Mark couldn't help but smile as the light focused back on Carina and she began to sing again. He saw Nova glance at him and whisper something to Wildstar, but he stopped paying attention – he stopped breathing – when Carina sang to him.
"Haven't felt like this, my dear,
Since I can't remember when.
It's been a long, long time."
Her eyes bore into his, making him feel that she was singing the words specifically for him, and the rest of the room seemed to disappear. He wondered whether he looked as dumbstruck as he felt as she turned away to sing the bridge, and decided that he must look that way when her eyes crinkled with humor as she turned back to him for the ending.
"It's been a long, long time…
Long, long time."
During the applause, it was Eager who turned to face him. "How do I get a friend like that?"
Dash threw a peanut at him. "Yeah, Venture, you go right on telling yourself that you're just friends."
Mark grinned sheepishly. "Listen, guys, she's a nice girl, OK? Nothing's happened between us."
Nova jumped in to rescue him. "He's right, guys. Carina and I are old friends. Don't say anything about her that you wouldn't say about me."
That shut them up. Mark smiled at her gratefully and took a long pull from his beer. The next song had begun, anyway, a drum joining the guitar, and he sat listening as Carina sang to the room. He told himself there was nothing different between the way she sang to him and the way she sang to the general audience, but when she turned and faced him, the room around him disappeared once again.
"You go away and my heart goes with you.
I speak your name in my every prayer.
If there is some other way to prove that I love you,
I swear I don't know how.
You'll never know if you don't know now."
When she finished, he had tears in his eyes, and he thought she did as well. She looked at him for another moment, making him feel uncomfortably warm, then turned to face the room. "Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen. If you'll return to your seats, dinner will be served in just a few minutes. The EDF string quartet will play for you while you dine. Enjoy your evening." She bowed once more and exited the stage. Mark noticed that the majority of the band was already gone – they must have cleared their things during the final two solo numbers. He also noticed that everyone at his table was staring at him. Embarrassed, he stood up, giving them a look that dared them to comment.
"I'm going for another beer before they serve the food. Does anybody want anything?"
Once again, Nova came to his rescue. "I'll help you carry, Mark."
A line had formed at the bar – all the patrons wanted to refill before the food was served – and Mark took advantage of the wait to talk to Nova privately. "I'm not sure I know what to think anymore, Nova. Carina acts like she wants to be with me, but she backs off every time I get too close. You know her pretty well. Do you think the guys are right?"
She put her hand on his arm. "Honestly, I suspect she's as confused as you are. She's not playing games with you, I can promise you that. But I think she's nervous. She doesn't want to admit that she cares for you because she worries that your feelings will change when you're not spending so much time together, and she also feels a little guilty because she's afraid she's betraying her fiancée. The two of you should have a long talk after we get back."
Mark nodded. "Yeah. Thanks, Nova." He felt another feminine hand on his back and his heart leapt.
"Buy me a drink, Sailor?"
He turned to Carina with a smile and put his arm around her shoulders. "My mother warned me about girls like you."
"And yet, here you are." She reached up and kissed his cheek. "Congratulations doesn't seem like a strong enough word for the Medal of Honor. I'm so proud of you. And you too, Nova. All of you," she added.
Nova smiled. "Thanks, Carina. The band sounded wonderful. I loved the two songs you did at the end."
"Absolutely beautiful," Mark agreed softly, smiling when he saw her cheeks redden.
After they got their drinks, Carina followed them to the Star Force's table to talk to Sandor. She hugged him, offering her congratulations, and he thanked her. "Would you like to join us? We can fit another person at our table."
Shaking her head, she motioned toward the side of the room. "The band has its own table." She turned to Mark. "We'll be here all night. Promise you'll dance with me so I'm not a wallflower?"
"Of course." She said good bye and went to join the band, and he sighed. Nova leaned into him. "It'll work out, Mark. You know it will."
"I hope so," he responded.
As dinner was served he relaxed, although he found his eyes frequently drawn to the band's table. He knew, of course, that Carina had a life of her own separate from her time with him, but he had never been witness to it before. She laughed and talked with the other musicians, completely free and unself-conscious. The fact that she had no idea how stunning she was astounded him.
He was distracted enough that, after having to repeat questions or comments to him several times, his friends finally gave up, exasperated and amused. He shook his head apologetically. "Sorry, guys. I'm not sure where my head is tonight."
Sandor chuckled at him. "We all know where your head is. You've got it bad, Venture. It wasn't what I had in mind when I asked Carina to befriend you, but I think it's a good thing."
Mark rubbed the back of his head, embarrassed at being so transparent but secretly pleased that he had the blessing of his friends. No one was judging him for moving on from Trelaina too quickly. They knew his heart had been broken, but it had been nearly three months since they thought she had been killed when Telezart was destroyed. Although she was still in his heart, he knew – he knew – that she wanted him to be happy. He hadn't been looking and he wouldn't have thought it possible a month ago, but Carina had shown him that he could love again.
Now, if only he could be sure she felt the same way about him. He turned to Sandor and spoke privately. "Thanks, Sandor, but I'm sure she'll forget all about me by the time we get back."
"I don't think so." Sandor shook his head.
"Neither do I," Nova interjected quietly. "I haven't seen Carina this happy since we were at the academy." At Mark's look, she added, "I know nothing's happened between you. I also know that your faces light up when you see each other. Mark, you once told me that when two people find each other, they shouldn't wait because they can never be sure there will be a tomorrow. You should understand that better than anyone. After we get back, tell her how you feel."
Mark started to nod, but stopped short when Wildstar, who had been listening, joked, "What's the worst thing that can happen? That your kids will look like you instead of like her?"
Letting out a groan, he reached for his beer. "It's complicated," he said, taking a drink. "Anyway, I don't need to figure it out tonight. When are you two getting married?"
He sat back, pleased at having successfully directed the conversation away from himself. Sandor laughed as Wildstar and Nova looked at each other. They were spared having to answer when Eager, who had been eyeing the band's table much of the night himself, broke in. "Hey, Venture, do you think some of those lady band members might like to dance with us tonight? Maybe you could put in a good word for us with Lieutenant Clark."
"I don't know any of them, Eager, but it couldn't hurt you to ask. I'm sure they'd be glad to dance with Earth's greatest heroes."
Dash slapped Eager on the shoulder. "You'd better hurry, though. There are twenty of us and only fifteen of them. Looks like only a couple of those girls are shorter than you, Eager."
Eager grinned. "That's why I want Venture to speak up for me. I thought that drummer was kind of cute, and it looks like she's friendly with Lt. Clark."
"All right, Eager, I'll see what I can do." Mark chuckled.
His beer was gone, and so while the waitresses cleared the tables in preparation for coffee and dessert, he went to the bar and picked up a pint for himself and a martini for Carina. When he approached her, she looked up, surprised.
"Hi," she said, accepting the drink he offered her and then putting her hand on his arm. "Everyone, this is Commander Venture of the Star Force." She stood as the women in the band greeted him, smirking and nudging each other. Mark, not sure how to deal with this sea of females who were apparently sizing him up, hesitated awkwardly until Carina prompted him, "Did you just come by to get me drunk?"
"Actually, I'm here on a mission," he grinned and addressed the table. "Some of the Star Force members are here alone this evening. They thought if I put in a good word with Lieutenant Clark, you might consider dancing with them after dinner."
The musicians told him they would be happy to dance with his friends, and Mark turned to Carina. "Specifically, I was asked to find out whether your drummer would dance with our assistant pilot, Chris Eager."
"Oh! Jenny," she turned to the woman sitting next to her, who stood. "Commander Venture, this is Sergeant Jenny Greenwood. Commander Venture tells me that Ensign Eager would like to meet you tonight. Are you interested? He's the cute little guy with the freckles."
The sergeant looked at the bridge crew's table and smiled. "Really? Sure, I'd love to."
"There you go," Carina turned back to Mark with her most charming smile. "Mission accomplished."
"Only half of it," he grinned with a wink. "You're still sober." He found her blush enchanting and wished he could stay here with her, but in addition to the waitresses now serving coffee and dessert, fourteen women were staring at them. It was time to return to his own table. He put his hand on her back and murmured, "Don't forget, I'm on your dance ticket tonight."
She leaned into him and whispered seductively. "Who else am I going to dance with – General Stone?"
He knew he had a goofy smile on his face when he returned to his friends, but he couldn't help himself. Their good-natured teasing made him feel surer of his position. Whatever happened while he was away, he was determined to make the most of his time with her tonight.
It wasn't until later in the evening when the pop band was playing and Eager started getting antsy that Mark worked up the courage to approach the band again, but his friend gave him a reason to do so. "Anyone else?" he asked as they stood. They were joined by Dash and Homer, along with a number of enlisted men from the other tables.
Having fulfilled his task of introducing Eager to Sgt. Greenwood, Mark offered a hand to Carina. "Lieutenant? May I have the honor?"
"Of course, Commander." She gave him her hand and allowed him to lead her to the dance floor. He slipped an arm around her waist, trying to ignore the way his nerve endings were humming in anticipation of being close to her. She looked a little flustered, too, as she slid her hand up around his neck. He held her at a respectable distance and made awkward small talk as he looked into her eyes and they began to move in tempo with the music.
"It's been a nice evening."
"Yes, it has."
"The food was delicious."
"Uh huh. And the Commander's presentation was really very moving." She broke eye contact with him and her eyes flitted to the medal on his chest. "I know I said it before, but I'm so proud of you, Mark."
"Thanks." He smiled sadly. "I only wish the others could have been here with us."
"You know they're all smiling down on you, cheering you on. Including Trelaina." She looked in his eyes uncertainly as she mentioned Trelaina's name, and his heart melted.
"I know. She'll always be a part of me. All of them will. And the best way we can honor their memory is to work for peace… and to go on living." He tightened his arm around her waist and inched closer, keeping his eyes on her face.
She sounded distracted as she adjusted her hold on him. "I hear the new memorials at Heroes' Hill are beautiful. You should have a good day for your gathering."
He struggled to keep his voice steady. "It sounds like we will. I think it will be a wonderful way to launch our new mission – to say good bye to the old crew and prepare us to welcome the new crew."
"And then you'll say goodbye to Earth again." Her voice was breathy. "Have you met any of your new crew? I haven't heard of them hanging around the hospital."
"Not in person." He was trying to focus, but since he had pulled her closer he caught her scent whenever they moved, and her breasts kept brushing against him. It was becoming difficult for him to play his part. "We have the roster and we've gone over their backgrounds so we know what we're getting," he said hoarsely. "Wildstar and I have organized the first few days' activities, but we'll have to figure it out on a daily basis after that. See how we feel about things." He had danced her to a shadowed corner of the floor where no one would notice them. Stepping back slightly, he raked his eyes over her, taking in as much of her as he could: her eyes, burning with intensity, her red hair curling around her face and shoulders, the creamy white skin of her neck extending down, beginning to swell before being covered by the low-cut fabric of her dress. As his eyes lingered there, watching her chest rise and fall, he saw a blush creep up toward her neck. He could feel his heart pounding. Dragging his eyes back to her face, he edged closer again to slide his hand up her back to her bare skin and drew a ragged breath. "Carina," he whispered, pulling her to him. "You're so beautiful."
"Mark…" She was trembling as she nuzzled his neck, breathing deeply. He ran his fingers up and down her back and rested his chin against her forehead, clasping her hand to his chest, feeling the heat that radiated from her body, mimicking his own body's betrayal of his desires. He wasn't sure how long they stood rocking back and forth in each other's arms, keeping up the pretense of dancing, but finally she choked out, half-laughing and half-crying, "You're leaving in two days."
"I know," he groaned, kissing the side of her head. "I know, love, and I didn't mean to –" he stepped back and took her face in his hands. His voice sounded remarkably calm. "I didn't set out to do this tonight, I promise. But the idea of leaving – Carina, I just –" he wasn't sure what to say.
She stroked his cheek, taking a deep breath. "I know. But you won't be gone forever. You'll be home in a couple of months and we'll see what happens."
He nodded, sighing. "As long as you're here when I get back." It wasn't until he said it that he realized a part of him was afraid that she would disappear as Trelaina had.
She took his hand and smiled at him softly. "I'm not going anywhere. I promise."
They were interrupted by a fanfare from the band. Mark startled – he had almost forgotten there were other people in the room. It was nearly midnight and the waitresses were passing out champagne. As the countdown began, he led Carina back into the light, where they joined in the toast. "Here's to a happier 2202 for both of us," she said.
As the band played "Auld Lang Syne," they swallowed their champagne. Suddenly he realized there was a lot of kissing going on. Even Eager had his lips on Sgt. Greenwood's. He turned to Carina, who was looking at him oddly. "It's good luck," he murmured. She nodded and stepped toward him. It was hardly more than a peck, lasting less than three seconds, but the kiss set his senses reeling. Her lips were soft and she tasted of champagne and strawberries, and his heart pounded as he pulled her tightly to him for one more embrace, closing his eyes. "Happy New Year," she whispered in his ear.
The next afternoon she arrived to help him finish packing as the family was leaving, taking home piles of books and other things they had brought to help him pass the time while he was hospitalized. His mother hugged Carina.
"I'm so glad we had the chance to see you today, dear," she said. "We wanted to thank you again for all you've done for Mark. Everyone at the hospital has been wonderful, but I'm especially happy that the two of you have become such good friends."
Carina smiled at her. "I'm happy about that too, ma'am. Mark is a very special man." She looked at him and he felt his cheeks redden. "I'm glad I got to know all of you."
Mark's father stepped forward and shook her hand. "If you need anything at all while the Star Force is away, please don't hesitate to call us."
"Thank you, Mr. Venture, Mrs. Venture. And if you need anyone to watch this guy," – she reached out and rubbed Jordy's hair – "please let me know."
Jordy hugged her around the waist. "When will we see you again?"
"I'm not sure, buddy. Hopefully soon, right? But after Mark comes home, for sure." Jordy straightened to salute her, and after saying goodbye the family left. Mark watched Carina's eyes follow them out. "I might miss Jordy more than I miss you," she said. "You never salute me."
He raised an eyebrow at her. "I do outrank you, you know. Technically you should salute me."
"Maybe in your navy, but not in this man's army," she retorted, kissing his cheek. "By the way, your friend made a very good impression on Jenny Greenwood last night. She talked about him all the way home, and I think they may be going out to dinner tonight."
"Really? Good for Eager. She still likes him, huh? Even though he's leaving in two days?" he teased.
She grinned ruefully at him. "Mark, you understand why I can't – why we can't – right now, don't you?" She looked down, embarrassed. "There's too much at stake."
He took her hand and spoke gently. "I know. I do understand, and I'm glad one of us is able to keep her head. But Carina, promise me… If I come back and you don't want to… to be with me, promise me that we'll still be friends."
She looked at him, surprised. "Of course we will. Don't be ridiculous." She hesitated for a moment, then covered his hand with hers. "I guess I'd like you to make me the same promise, Mark, but I'd like you to promise me something else as well. You know about my… situation, with having children. I'm worried that if we rush into something, somewhere down the line you'll realize that you made a mistake. Promise me you'll give it some real thought – don't just get caught up in the moment when you get back. I don't think I could live with it." By the time she finished, she was speaking very softly.
He opened his mouth to protest, but he knew she was right. "I promise. On both counts." Reaching out to tuck a stray hair behind her ear, he smiled at her. "How did you get so smart? You think of everything."
"I've told you, I'm an analyst. I lie awake at night thinking of ways to complicate my life. It's just what I do." She looked at him for a long moment, then squeezed his hand and changed the subject. "Now let's figure out what to do with all your stuff."
He wouldn't have thought he'd collected so much in a month, but it had certainly built up. His mother had brought him the suitcase he'd bring aboard the Argo, and he loaded it with his socks, underwear and pajamas. He would pick up his navigator's uniforms tomorrow after the gathering at Heroes' Hill.
Mom had also left a spare key to his apartment in the EDF barracks. Carina agreed to return his spare dress uniform and shoes there, along with a blanket his parents had brought him to make him feel more at home. The photos on the desk would come with him into space; the knick-knacks would stay on Earth.
"Do you want me to take these plants home while you're away? Or I can take them to your place, but then I'd have to go in all the time to water them. I don't know if you want me poking around your quarters every other day."
"I wouldn't think twice about it – I really don't have much there. But why don't you take them, if you don't mind? It will be less of a bother for you."
"Sure." By now it was past suppertime, and she left to drop off a load at his apartment and pick up some food. One last time, he realized with a hint of sadness. He wasn't sorry to be leaving the hospital, but his nights were going to be lonely. He hoped that working with the trainees would keep him busy enough that he wouldn't notice her absence, and as Wildstar's official second-in-command for the mission, there would be plenty of discussions and planning sessions to keep him occupied. Still, it was going to be a long six weeks.
By the time she returned he was tired and hungry. She set two places at his desk and they sat side-by-side in silence, the less-than-healthy sandwiches she bought her concession to his imminent release from the hospital. He leaned back when he finished and put his hand on her back. "That was delicious. Thank you."
"Wait, there's more," she said. She reached down and picked up a freezer bag. "To bring us full circle." She pulled two dishes from the bag and waggled them in front of him. "Yum, yum."
"Delicious ice cream?" He grinned, taking the bowl she offered. She was amazing. "Did Sandor make you bring this to me again?"
She nodded. "I didn't really want to, but he's been paying me to be your friend and he offered me a bonus."
"Well, it's my gain," he said as he settled back with his dish. She grinned at him, giving him that now-familiar warm feeling, and he patted her hand. "I'm lucky Sandor was able to convince you that I'm not always as rude as I was that first night."
"Mmm-hmm. Everyone kept telling me what a wonderful guy you were. I wasn't so sure at first, but I guess you're all right."
He leaned over and bumped her with his arm, making her smile. "I'm glad I meet with your approval."
She watched him speculatively as they ate, and when he finished she took his dish with a sigh. "I'm going to miss you so much, Mark."
His heart swelled when he noticed tears in her eyes. Although he knew he shouldn't, he slid his hand under her hair, rubbing the back of her head and her neck, and moved his chair against hers. There was so much he wanted to tell her, but what he said was, "I'll miss you, too, love."
She leaned into his hand and rested her arm on his leg. "How is it possible that a month ago we had never met?"
"I don't think it is possible. Haven't I known you forever?" She sank against his side, her body warming him and the scent of her hair and skin surrounding him. Her fingers were idly tracing circles on his leg, and he wondered whether she could hear his heart pounding through his chest.
They sat in silence. He didn't want to let her go, but as the night stretched on he knew he would have to. "I have to put on a good show for the press tomorrow. You'd better go soon." His voice was little more than a whisper.
"I know. You're right," she responded reluctantly. Slowly she began to pull away from him.
"You're welcome to join me and the family for breakfast tomorrow," he began, but she shook her head.
"No, you should spend time with them. You don't need me to intrude." She was standing, and he did the same.
"It wouldn't be an intrusion. My family loves you."
"Thanks, but I really should get some things done. And I'd rather not get caught in the hubbub, to be honest." That was understandable – the press would be everywhere tomorrow. He nodded and she put her hand on his cheek. "I guess this is it."
"Yeah." He wasn't sure what to say. After looking at her for a few moments, he pulled her into his arms, closing his eyes to set the moment in his memory: the warmth of her body pressed against his, the softness of her hair against his face, the heady way her scent made him feel. When he knew it was time to let go, he took one last deep breath and ran his hands over her back, tears stinging his eyes. "I'll see you soon," he said lamely, feeling a shiver pass through her as he whispered into her ear. "I'll call you if I have the chance, OK?"
"I'd like that. If you have the chance. Otherwise I'll see you when you get back." She stepped back to look at him, and he saw tears in her eyes as well. "Be careful, sweetie. Try to avoid exploding gun turrets this time."
He smiled. "I'll do my best. You be well, too, love. Take care of yourself"
She nodded, pulling him close one more time. "I love you, Commander," she whispered, kissing him on the cheek.
"I love you too, Lieutenant. And I'll be back soon. I promise." He kissed her forehead and let her go. She gathered her things and his plants and left, looking back once more as she exited the room.
Mark stood in place for several minutes after she left, thinking. He felt her absence already but knew that focusing on the new mission would help to fill that hole. She was right that the hospital was an artificial place for a relationship to develop – it would probably be good for both of them to be apart for a while. He needed to work his feelings out within his normal routine and not in this vacuum. Work would make him feel better.
He sighed as he dressed for bed. Knowing he wouldn't be able to sleep, he pulled out the roster of cadets who were being assigned to the Argo and studied their backgrounds to calm his mind. It worked like a sleeping pill and he soon found himself dozing off. When he slept, he dreamed of Trelaina. She was standing on Earth, in a broad open field. He approached her guiltily.
"Trelaina… I still love you. You know that, right?"
"I know, my love. But that does not mean you should be alone. I want you to be happy."
"I'm sorry. I feel like it's too soon. But I haven't forgotten you. I never will."
"And I will always be a part of you, my darling. Our love for each other will enrich the love you have to offer now. Please know that this is what I wish for you." She turned him around and pointed across the field to where Carina was standing with a young man, who was in turn directing her toward Mark. As Trelaina kissed him and pushed him gently toward Carina, he woke up. His eyes stung with tears, but his mind was calm. He knew it was time to let her go.
At the memorial service at Heroes' Hill, they honored their dead. Wildstar led a tribute to their fallen comrades, followed by a moment of silent prayer. Mark closed his eyes, thinking of Orion, Knox, Conroy and Hardy, and finally of Trelaina. He had been unconscious, of course, but he had a clear image in his mind of her floating away from the Argo toward Zordar's dreadnought, transforming herself into a ball of energy to bring peace to the galaxy. It hurt him to think about it, but he accepted that she was gone, and that it had been for the greater good. When Wildstar declared the prayer over, he looked sadly to the heavens, sending up a final message.