Well, those were some heavy sections, weren’t they? Time to lighten things up.
As they rounded the corridor to her quarters, Ellie reached out and took Todd’s hand, sighing happily as he squeezed it gently. The past couple of days had been full of hand-holding and quick kisses in the lazivator and a couple of not-so-quick kisses in the lazivator. In between, there’d been hours of conversation about the janbots, the programming on the Impulsive, and ways to improve the firewalls not just on the janbots but the replicators. The way he could grab the details of one system and then jump them to another left her starry eyed, and when she finished his sentences, she saw that same sparkle of admiration in his. Best of all, they’d secured the ship against the cybervirus at least a day ahead of schedule.
Finally, she’d be able to talk to Enigo and the captain about what Janbot had said before it faded away. Todd, too. She was sure he’d know how to find out if the message was true and help them with a plan.
She could almost sing, except that would probably put everyone on lockdown again. Instead, she pranced into her quarters and spun to face him. “I can’t wait until tomorrow when the ship gets the All Clear!”
“I can,” he said with a boyish pout. He took her hands and pulled her close. “It’s that much sooner that you’ll be leaving.”
She leaned against his chest. She fit just perfect, with her head snuggling under his chin. “Maybe not. Captain Tiberius things we all deserve some time to relax. Our last shore leave was on Rest Stop, and it was anything but relaxing.”
“So you think you’ll get time off? Real time off?”
The eagerness in his voice made her heart skip. “I may have to do some shifts on the Bridge.”
“Why? When my mom pulls into port, she just locks up the ship and gives everyone a week off.”
“Every time a Union ship gets left unmanned in a dock, some fringe element claiming to be making repairs tries to take it over. When the captain was a first officer, it happened on his ship. If he hadn’t been going back for his saddle and hat, they might have gotten away with stealing the dirty unobtanium generated by the engines.”
“Wow.” He kissed her head and moved to her neck. “Saddle and hat?” he murmured.
She found it hard to think past the glorious tingles. “Something about needing them to ride a horse like a proper Texan. I don’t know. I grew up on Europa.”
Then she gave her full attention to his kisses.
Too few blissful moments later, his stomach growled, and she pulled away laughing.
“I’m sorry!” he chuckled. “It’s been a long time since lunch.”
When they’d settled in with drinks, bread, and plain, hot, tomato soup, Todd asked, “So who was that guy in the hall with the two ladies. Looked kind of like family.”
“Mmm? Oh, that must be Enigo. Lieutenant LaFuentes. He’s our chief of security. His daughter and her mother are here for the Miss Universe Human competition. Apparently, there’s a segment of the competition where they have to do a certain number of variety shows on Union or HuFleet stations.”
“So that wasn’t his wife? Did you and he have a thing?”
Ellie spat out her soup. “With Enigo? Why would you even think that?” She dabbed at her face and table with her napkin.
“It’s just the look he was giving us, like his head was going to explode.”
“Really?” She put a fresh napkin on her lap and realized this was the first time she’d worn a miniskirt uniform on the Impulsive. They’d been in the corridor, so she’d been off duty and thinking about dinner with Todd in her quarters, and he’d been telling her about his little nephew, and it was so sweet.
What must she have looked like? What did Enigo think of her?
What did this mean for the ship’s pools?
Todd interrupted her thoughts. “Are he and I going to have a problem?”
Her mind snapped back from the odds she was calculating. “What? No. he was in love with Loreli. He was going to propose and everything. No. He has this motto for security. We’ve all adopted it. The Ship is Family. I guess I’m more like a little sister.”
The relief on his face melted her heart. “Okay, then…but how protective is he going to be of his ‘little sister.’”
“Doesn’t matter,” she said, moving to sit in his lap. “Little sister is an adult.”
She wrapped her arms around him and kissed him. Then, inexplicably, she burst into tears.
“Whoa, hey.” He pulled back and cupped her face in his hands, wiping her tears with his thumbs. “What happened?”
“I don’t know. I mean, I do, but I…”
“All right,” he soothed. “Take your time.”
They stood, and he led her to the couch. She blew her nose a few times, and when she was able to speak, she sat staring at her feet and playing with a fresh tissue while she tried to explain. “It’s just, Loreli’s dead and I couldn’t save her and Enigo’s so heartbroken and angry. And I feel so guilty.”
He face quirked in a dubious half-grimace. “Leslie said you guys were trying to teleport two people through shields and during a firefight. It was crazy odds, Ells. Leslie said the teleporters were going to blow up, but you saved them.”
Ellie started to shake and sniffle. She fought back the sobs. “You don’t understand. I saved the ship…by telling the captain to let them go. Worse – to reverse the beams. I sent them to their deaths.”
“You saved the ship. I know you. But even more, the people on this ship know you. If there had been any other way, you’d have thought of it.”
“I suppose, but does it matter? Enigo lost his True Love and now I’m so happy and I just feel like it’s not fair. I know it sounds silly, especially…” She bit off the rest of her sentence. She wouldn’t say anything until she was sure the ship was clear, not even in this circumstance.
Todd rubbed her back. “Yeah, that’s hard. But it wasn’t your fault that she died and punishing yourself won’t make it better. But if you need to cry…”
But somehow, telling him, and hearing that not only did he not blame her, but her crewmates had told him they understood her actions had eased the pain, another layer of scar tissue on a healing wound. She took a deep cleansing breath. “No. I’ve been crying off and on for weeks. You think I’d be past it now.”
“She was your best friend, too. Grief comes in waves. It’s okay.”
“You’re such a good man.” She changed positions so she could snuggle against him. Again she leaned against the chest, taking in his strength, enjoying how he rubbed her shoulder, first to comfort, then with a slightly different intent. She tilted her head, and they kissed.
His stomach growled.
Lips still touching, they burst into giggles.
She pushed away playfully. “All right! I give up! Real food time. Can you pull up the main course on the replicators while I change? I’ve got tears and tomato on my uniform.”
A few minutes later, she emerged in a simple tunic and tights to find the table cleared and set with the casserole she’d planned. They settled down to eat.
“So,” he said after a couple of quick and appreciated bites, “I was thinking. If you actually do get some real time off, what is your idea of a restful shore leave?”
“It’s not that. I mean, I did feel really guilty for a while, but I know there wasn’t anything I could have done. But he lost his True Love and now I’m so happy and in love and I just feel like it’s not fair. I know it sounds silly, especially…” She bit off the rest of her sentence. She wouldn’t say anything until she was sure the ship was clear, not even in this circumstance.
But Todd was staring at her shocked and starry eyed. “You’re in love with me?”
Biting her lip against a smile and more tears, she shrugged.
“I love you, too!”
“Seriously?” Sudden joy made her squeal. “Omigosh! Pulsie, mark the time!”
“You go it!” the ship’s computer replied.
Todd leaned back against the couch, his expression now reminiscent of Enigo’s earlier. “I’m a little confused. Shouldn’t what I just said have made you feel even more guilty?”1