They returned to find Goynee, their servant, waiting. Madame Ambassador had decided Ellie needed to return home to do her homework and extra assignments. She hoped ‘Shree’ would be fine for the evening. Goynee gave her a paycard and told her of some of the events happening in town. Natalia apologized for leaving Shree in the lurch; unfortunately she and Hiro would be tied up assisting in preparations for the Ball.

“What are you doing tomorrow night then?” Ellie asked her younger self. “It’s just, I heard you say you’re not attending.”

“She’s too young,” Goynee said.

Ellie rolled her eyes. “I’m as old as the girls in my class. But no, it’s a Chatawayan thing. Fat Little Humans like me would only spoil their fun.”

“You’re not fat,” Goynee said. “You are beautiful. Your corset is too loose.”

Ellie snickered and kissed Goynee on the cheek. “You’re so sweet. But I could tighten my corset until I popped, and it wouldn’t be enough. They’d just make fun of my pinch eyes. That’s what they call humans when they think we’re not listening: pinch eyes.  Anyway, Shree, I don’t want to go. You know that this isn’t just a party. This is where all the girls and all the boys pick their life mates. I mean, if the whole point is to find your True Love, it’s a waste of my time. I have so much else to do with my life first.”

That’s right, Ellie thought. I didn’t want to go. I hadn’t been thinking about HuFleet, and I was hurt that I couldn’t attend, but I hadn’t wanted to crash the party, either.

She felt a weight lift slightly off her. Maybe she’d succeeded, then. Still, “Well, how about we do a sleepover tomorrow? We can eat more tarts and stay up all night talking and you could show me the constellations.”

“Maybe you can show me where your ship might be,” Ellie said. “That’s a great idea. I’ll arrange it with my parents and contact you tomorrow. I’m so glad we met!” She hugged her, then asked Goynee to let her drive, saying that the best thing she could do after an accident was to get back behind the wheel before her fears had a chance to grow.

Jorseen had left her a message that he had late rounds at the local hospital, but to make herself at home. He, too, left some suggestions of local events. One of the things her mother had loved about Chatway was that there was always something happening, even in the smallest community. “Their lives are celebration,” she would enthuse.

Ellie’s life was more mission, and she liked it that way. So she made some notes in her personal log, and tried to remember what happened the next night and what they talked about. She remembered the stargazing. Had she done her hair? Asphira used to when they had sister-sleepovers.

Finally running out of things to do, she stretched, did her mental exercises, and took a shower. Her uniform was unsalvageable, so she was stuck with the dress again. She rearranged the buckles and ties to something simpler and forewent the corset altogether. She left the wig resting on the vanity as well.

When Jorseen came through the door, she was snuggled on the couch with the leg elevated reading (or rereading) a romance novel her younger self had been raving about but which she’d completely forgotten.

“You didn’t go out?” he asked as he hung up his cloak. That was one thing she’d liked about Chatway: cloaks. She’d loved how their swoosh and billow.

“Low temporal footprint, remember? It was actually nice to relax, anyway. Are you hungry? I made dinner. I figured it was the least I could do after all your hospitality.”

They talked as he ate, just small talk lest she divulge anything that might alter the timeline, but it was nice. He told her a little about his patients, for whom he cared a great deal.

“And speaking of patients,” he said. “I would like to examine you. You had more exertion today than I would have normally prescribed someone who had been in a severe accident. You are favoring one leg.”

“I’m fine. It’s just sore.” But she returned to the couch and let him wave his scanner over her. “Before the, uh, teleporter incident, I got bitten by a venomous reptile, but I was cleared for duty.”

He shook his head. “You have had an adventurous life, Ensign Shree Crane. I had seen the injury when I was taking care of your more recent wounds. I brought something from the hospital that might help.”

He pulled a flat container from his kit, then kneeling in front of her, opened it and spread the salve over her ankle and calf.

It was smooth and smelled like Kera fruit, and his touch was gentle. Ellie was suddenly very aware of what her younger self had said about humans feeling things more intensely.

Then he met her gaze and realized it wasn’t just humans. 

They both glanced away at the same time.

“I should get some sleep. The Ambassadors have invited me to lunch,” she said, hoping she sounded casual and not like her heart was racing. Please let him have turned off his scanner!

“Yes, of course,” he said, suddenly fussing over his equipment. “Apply the salve again in the morning and evening for the next few days.”

He set it on the table and bid her a hasty good night.