“That’s a good sign,” Gel said. “So let Ellie know we’re glad she’s awake and some of us will drop by later. Good luck.”
Todd entered the patient area to see Ellie sitting up, her body still wrapped in medical equipment, but her hair brushed and her face washed. She held a fan in her hand and was sighing and rolling her eyes with mock exasperation as her mother manipulated her wrist. Her father stood to the side of the doorway, watching them with a fond smile. He caught Todd’s eye, and Todd moved to stand beside him.
“Apparently,” Hiro said to Todd, “we cannot leave until Ellie has mastered the right-handed coquettish peek.”
“She almost has it,” Natalie responded with some impatience toward her husband. “Really, I think she just needs the correct motivation—and here you are, Todd. All right now, Ellie, together. One, two, three!”
The two flipped open their fans with a gentle snap of the wrists and peered at their respective men over the lacy curves. The gaze Ellie gave him was full of amusement and love and desire. Even recovering from major surgery, her hair lank, her skin pale, she was mesmerizing. He felt a surge of love wash over him.
Hiro sighed and clapped him on the shoulder. “And now, you, too, are doomed. Welcome to the Brotherhood.”
Todd smiled. He was doomed, trapped forever by the pull of those big brown eyes. He was going to find his steel, somehow. They would find a way to make this work. Until then, he would be the supportive fiancé.
He managed for awhile, too. He laughed with her and her friends when they joked about her need to properly accessorize her gown with a phaser. He didn’t freak out when he learned that the medical device around her middle was generating a holographic liver until hers could be regrown. When the surgery came, and Lt. Sisco tried to distract him with a new project, he made himself focus on their latest theories concerning the kuricrearrogance code they’d managed to copy from the KatHack program. And he tried—oh, how he tried!—not to think about what those subroutines had cost the crew.
He prayed. He worked. He sat at Ellie’s bedside and made light conversation about crew gossip or what he and Sisco were learning. At least that went easily. Sisco and his team might only see kuricrearogance as an edge against the Cybers, but he was fascinated by the potential, and Ellie shared his excitement.
He moved back into guest quarters and avoided Enigo—and tequila. He sent messages to his family to keep them appraised but didn’t give details. And when he was alone, thoughts and fears swirled around like stars being destroyed in the pull of a black hole. Her parents were right; he hadn’t taken advantage of the opportunities he was given. He didn’t regret it; he loved his sibs, and he liked programming the janbots. If it hadn’t been for that, he would have never met Ellie. But had he gotten so comfortable that he’d disqualified himself as her ideal mate, despite how much they loved each other?
Days passed, but it felt like weeks.
Then he arrived in Sickbay after a difficult shift trying to unravel a pernicious subroutine and found Ellie sitting in a chair, dressed in a loose tunic and tights.
“I’m cleared for light duty starting tomorrow. Take me home?” She gave him a look best suited for over the top of a fan.
Suddenly, Doc Sorcha appeared. Todd almost yelped in surprise. “‘Light duty’ applies to recreational pursuits as well,” she reminded them in a scolding tone.
Ellie moved at less than her usual brisk pace, and when they got to the lazivator, she leaned back against the wall. Maybe tonight was better spent talking. Still she sighed contentedly as she gave the command to officers’ quarters. She tapped her fingers as she worked out some complex equation. She was so cute and sexy when she did that.
“What are you calculating?” he asked.
Her fingers did not slow as she answered. “My parents called. They’re heading home. Mission successful, I suppose. Whatever their mission was. I’m trying to figure out the odds of them being attacked on the way home, but I’m not sure I have enough information to make an accurate determination.”
“I know the feeling.”
Suddenly, she shook out her hand. “There are too many unknowns. Besides, the Kikas is taking them home, along with the other ambassadors on the way. My head is overfull. Even the lights feel too bright. I need a good night’s sleep in my own bed and to do my mental exercises in the morning.”
“Early night then.”
She smiled at him. “Not too early.”
They walked arm-in-arm down the empty corridor. Everyone not on duty was either relaxing in their quarters or in the mess at this time of the evening. When they entered Ellie’s quarters, she ordered the lights to low, then snugged herself into his embrace.
Her lips were warm against his, compelling him closer. She fit so neatly against him, every curve in the perfect spot, and when those talented fingers tickled at his hairline…
Forget it. They could talk tomorrow. He pulled her urgently against him.
She hissed with pain.
He jerked away. “I’m sorry! Are you all right!”
“Easy,” she soothed as she leaned against him. “I’m all right. Just…more gently, is all.”
But the moment had shattered, and through the cracks, his worries had raged back in. “We need to talk.”
Even in the dim light, he saw the disappointment on her face, but she let him lead her to the couch. As they sat, she opened with, “Todd. I’m fine. Really.”
“Sure. Maybe. This time. But what about next time? Ellie, I’ve known you for six months, and you’ve almost died three times! What are the statistics around that?”
That was the wrong thing to ask. He saw her eyes flick and her fingers start to move. She rallied herself to respond. “Todd, it’s just been a weird year. I promise, I’ve never been almost killed ever before.”
“No,” he replied, sarcasm escaping into his tone despite his vows to have a calm conversation. “You’ve just been turned into puppets. How do I deal with that, Ellie? How do I help our children deal with that? I know you thought I’d be worried that you’re the kind of person who can make life-or-death decisions even with someone else’s lives. But that’s not it. I know you’d do anything to save the people you love, the people you are responsible for, including sacrifice yourself. In fact, you’ll choose that between sacrificing someone else. You said that! How do I explain that to our children if you die?”
“Who told you about the puppets?”
“But it doesn’t even have to be a decision. Stuff happens in space on an almost episodic basis. How do we… Wait. What?”
“Who told you about the puppets?” Her face burned with anger.
Well, he was angry, too. “I’m talking about you getting killed. About leaving me widowed and our children motherless, and you’re asking about the puppets?”
“Who told you?”
She had a murderous, almost manic, glint in her eyes. Her fingers jittered at a furious rate, doing who-knew-what calculation. He had the urge to storm out. Or was that fleeing?
He changed tactics. He leaned forward and set a hand on her knee. “What if my mom reached out to some of her contacts? With your experience, you could be a captain in a year. We could get married even before then.”
She laughed, more appalled than delighted. “Todd! I… No. No offense to your mother or her work, but that’s not what I want.”
“But I thought…”
She stilled her calculating fingers to lay her hand over his. She entreated him with her eyes to understand. “I’d love to be a captain, I would. But out here, where things are new and unknown.”
She winced. “If necessary, yes. This is where I’m challenged. I could stay an operations officer my whole career and be happy. But if I took a job as a freighter captain, I’d be bored within a year. Eventually, I’d resent you. I’m sorry. It’s who I am. I’m…”
“Built for warp.”
She shrugged in reply.
He looked at their entwined hands. She still didn’t have her ring on. Her parents had invited him to the family reunion on Viventium, and he’d thought about proposing to Ellie again then.
They’d talked about raising their kids. She’d wanted them built for warp, too. They couldn’t do that on a space station with Mom gone for weeks at a time. He could see them, adorable little Doall-Ahndmors, looking up at him with eyes like Ellie’s and asking a million amazing questions while their little fingers worked math problems. He could see her in uniform with captain’s rank on the sleeves, grinning at them with pride and amusement.
Then she’d leave on some mission, and they’d not see each other for months. Would their kids start calculating on their fingers the chances that they’d never see their mother again?
How would he survive if he had to tell their kids that she’d died light-years away in some weird subspace phenomena? Or lost another liver in a knife fight? Or contracted some alien sickness? Or…
“Todd, who told you about the puppets?”
Abruptly, he stood. “I have to think, Ellie. I’m sorry.”
He turned and left before he lost his resolve.
Every series has to have a puppet episode, don’t you think? Or at least reference to one. Ah, but the best fun of this was coming up with an idea for the Q analog. bwahahaha!