Taking It One Piece at a Time

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The gift was all Andy's idea and it fits on so many levels, it's really quite clever. But that's Andy all over. Thanks, Andy!--Maer

On board the Equinox
23 Mar 2522
2115 hours

Joshua should've known better, really. He sat on the bed of their room, Rina's brightly wrapped birthday present sitting in front of him. He had planned to surprise her when she came back to the room. And really, he probably still could, but he wasn't sure when that would be. He knew it was partially his fault. Yes, some of it was her getting lost in the work. Nothing new there. The ship's cooling systems were a big puzzle to solve and she loved solving mechanical problems.

But it was more than that. The physical portion of their relationship was nearly nil and that problem belonged to him. He, and by default, the entire ship were trying to solve that problem, but it wasn't something that was going to be solved immediately. Maybe not for a long time. Would the lack of intimacy drive her away? It seemed to him like she might be putting a little distance between them already. Long nights working, less time to see him and be reminded how things weren't working right.

Joshua knew she loved him, but he also knew that sometimes love wasn't enough.

It hadn't been with Mike, after all.

He shook off the dark thoughts and stood up quickly and with purpose. No point in sitting here like a lovesick puppy dog waiting for its owner to come home, he thought. Go find her, you fool. The box happily rattled as he picked it up and headed out the door to find Rina.


I'd sent Beglan off to his quarters half an hour ago. He and I had crawled through nearly half the ship tracking down the glitch in the heat sink loop. Nothing turned up in the search, but that didn't mean there wasn't something to find. I wiped my brow with a sleeve already damp and tapped the schematic again. The machine shop was just forward the engine room and though the temps weren't unpleasantly hot, they were warm and unless we found that glitch, they would only get warmer from here. I squinted at the screen, tracing a line with a finger. It left a smear and I scrubbed it off with my thumb and kept looking.

What if ...? Oxy output ventilation shaft goes to ...No. Not it. Evap? No. Backtrack. The water goes here and down there's the first sink in the Atmo loop ... I tapped the screen and magnified the path, flicked it to the side to move it along, looking ... looking. Dammit, it's got to be here somewhere ...

I blinked as sweat threatened my eyes and I wiped my forehead again, feeling the slick slide of grease painting a swatch across my skin. I frowned with distaste but kept looking.


Joshua had been expecting to find her in the engine room, but he found her one room forward in the machine shop. Sweat was dripping off of her. The ship was definitely warmer, and Rina wasn't helping her own cause by working until she dropped. He loved that dedication in her, but she needed to stop sometimes. That, of course, was what he was for.

He entered the machine room, putting the package behind his back. He used his free hand to knock on the inside wall to get her attention. "I was just wondering," he said with a bit of a tease in his voice, "where my fiancée had gotten off to..."


I looked up at the sound of his voice and nearly knocked over my mug of tea. I grabbed it before it could tip off the console and sipped it without thinking, surprised at how good it felt going down. An advantage tea has over coffee. It’s less temp dependent for taste. I knocked the remaining inch of it back and stood.

“She didn’t go far,” I said, trying not to notice how appealing the sweat beading on his neck was, or how many buttons he’d undone at his collar. I needed a distraction. I checked my watch. “Did I miss dinner again?”


He nodded. "Normally I would've forced you into dinner, but you were having fun down here. And I wanted to let the birthday girl have as much fun as she could have."

He pulled the present out from his back. "Happy Birthday, Rina. If you want to go take a shower and cool down, you can open this in your room. I'll even have dinner waiting for you." Joshua had wanted to offer to take a shower with her, but that would have only taunted both of them. Just thinking about it was causing problems. So as the thought of a naked Rina glistening in the shower gained strength, he pushed it into the back of his mind.


Surprised by both the man and the present he held, I put my mug on the console and nearly missed the surface, causing me to lurch to right the cup before it could fall. I bit my lip and approached carefully, eyeing what Joshua held. About the size of a shirt box and wrapped in my favorite colors of red and gold, it really was a present. I looked up and saw the smile flickering in the corner of his eyes and wondered what he was thinking.

“When did you …?” I tried to think when I told him when my birthday was, my real birthday as Irina and not the Marina I showed to the Verse. Nothing came to mind. I’d completely forgotten the day, my personal concerns buried by the problem at hand, and seeing Joshua standing there holding that present out to me like a kid offering a bouquet of flowers to his girl … damned if I didn’t flush with giddy pleasure and I had to suppress a simper. A simper. Me. I stepped closer, brushed my fingertips across the glossy wrapper, and looked up through my lashes at Joshua. “What’s in the box?” I asked softly.


"Uh-uh-uh," Joshua smirked. "You're not spoiling the fun of you opening it." He held the box up a little, letting it rattle as he did. He motioned towards the hallway. "You go take a shower, I'll go fix dinner."


“Yes, sir,” I said, taking the box from him gently and, bouncing up on tip toe, I kissed him lightly on the nose.


He let her wander off with the box, trusting she wouldn't open it before the right time. But she would, of course, dissect every view of the box, every sound and rattle, and every twist and turn of the ribbon. That's why he loved her.

He wandered back to the kitchen and threw together a quick salad with some cold cuts on the side. Considering the warmth of the ship, she didn't need a hot meal. He worked hard on the presentation (quick to fix didn't mean it couldn't look good) and then took it back to the room and waited for Rina to finish her shower.


I shook the present carefully as I walked across the crew lounge to our quarters. It rattled and I tried to determine if it was something with a corner or a curve. Corners suggested books, curves were more variable. Tools, maybe, or duct tape. Something rustled dryly inside. Tissue paper? For all I know, I thought as I got my door open and stepped inside, it’s a ladle from the galley just to tease me and he’s got something else in mind. I grinned at the present in my hands and put it on the bed. Ladle or laser calipers, I would wait until we were together before I opened it. Part of the joy of a present was receiving it, but there was also the joy of seeing the pleasure the giver gained by its reception. I wouldn’t cheat Joshua of my delight nor deny me his by opening it early. I grabbed my shower kit and bathrobe and hit the showers.

I didn’t linger under the spray. The memory of the sweat on Joshua’s skin only made me crave it next to mine, soaped up and slippery, getting dirty as we got clean. The idea refused to go down the drain with the grime the day put on me and I raced through my routine—head to toe—and got out of there. I returned to our quarters toweling my hair, bathrobed and barefoot, too hot from the shower and the atmo to wear more.


When Rina came in from her shower, Joshua had her dinner and a glass of ice water sitting waiting for her on the desk. He smiled at her from his seat on the bed next to the present. "The food is cold, so you can eat first or open the present first, whichever suits, without having to worry about dinner," he said.


“Food first. It’s cold now but it won’t be for long.” I palmed the door shut and stowed my things in my locker before sitting down in front of my dinner. It was salad, a pleasing mixture of greens from hydroponics and tossed with shavings of carrot and onion. Raisins and cubed canned pears added a note of sweetness to the vinaigrette. Peanuts lent their crunch. Joshua had arranged a selection of cold cuts on the side: turkey and ham, with a slice of salami tucked in as an extra. My appetite woke and urged me to devour it quickly, but I paced myself. It was obvious Joshua had made a special effort and I wanted to appreciate it. It was light enough not to feel heavy, yet substantial enough to feel full when I finished. The water was the perfect touch, refreshing and cleansing between bites. I polished off the last lick of dressing and sat back with a sigh of contentment, unaware of how hungry I’d actually been.


I opened my eyes and looked at him. He’d said nothing but simply watched me as I ate, taking in everything with those eyes, that mind of his. Not for the first time I wondered just what he saw in me: battle-scarred obsessive paranoid twitch? Or someone worthy enough to love and cherish? Both, you goon. Going hungry in this heat’s making you stupid. Get a grip.

“Thank you. I needed that.” I hauled out of the chair and joined him on the bed, putting the present between us. I picked it up and gave him a little secret smile. “And now I get to open this ... ”

I trailed off as I considered how best to do that. I didn’t want to rip into it. Like the meal Joshua made me, this was another creation he’d put together with care and I wanted to savor it. He’d used cloth ribbon instead of the more customary plastic and it was sheer, red with a gold edge. There were twists to it where it ran over the sides and the bow had multiple loops. I delicately set my nails into the knot and pried it loose. The ribbon had some spring to it and it slithered silkily onto the bed. I grinned and on a whim, wrapped it around my wrist like a bracelet and started on the paper. It was taped and folded meticulously at the corners and I peeled the sticky stuff off hoping not to tear it. Throughout the operation, I snuck glances at Joshua, aware that my slowness was tantalizing but that was part of the pleasure of opening a present—drawing out the suspense before receiving the pay off of the surprise. I got that box unwrapped and the paper smoothed out and set aside to enjoy later. I put my fingers on the lid and stopped, my thoughts spinning over what could be underneath it. I flicked another glance at Joshua and at his nod, I whisked the lid off before my nerve could fail and looked inside.


Joshua wasn't sure what Rina would make of the gift. The box was lined with tissue paper and filling the box to the brim were hundreds of hand crafted puzzle pieces. He had studied the engine room of the Equinox for a while on Boros, memorizing it so he could draw it when and where he wanted without Rina noticing. He had then spent many hours on the sly in the hydroponics bay taking the detailed color drawing and gluing it carefully on a thin piece of wood he had picked up back in Boros for the express purpose of making the puzzle. The hard part had been making sure the drawing stayed completely flat with no wrinkles. After that, it had been easy. Dry it out and carve into fun jigsaw shapes. Sneaking machine shop time hadn't been easy, but Beggar had helped by keeping Rina busy on several key occasions.

Joshua hoped she liked it. It combined two of her favorite things, solving puzzles and ship engines. He sat there with a wry look on his face, hoping his surprise didn't fall flat.


He’d packed it with tissue at top and bottom and sides, to keep the pieces from rattling too easily and giving the game away. I carefully picked up a piece at random and saw it had an irregular shape, unlike the expected key pattern jigsaws normally came in. Looking closely, I realized each piece was different, individually sawn. I gently sank both hands into the box, sifting the pieces through my fingers in a slide of color and texture, bright and smooth. Looking a little closer, I thought I saw a hex nut drawn incredibly fine on a deck plate and in a flash I knew just what it was. The investment of time and skill and love that went into it floored me.

“My God, Joshua …” I breathed, eyes filling. I blinked the tears back, afraid of dripping on the pieces and ruining them. I picked up the lid to examine it for a picture and found none. I picked up the box and peered at its underside. Same result. I started to laugh, my tears conquered by the whimsy of it. I sniffed deeply and looked at him through wet lashes with an admonitory grin. “No picture. You beast.”


"It was a one of kind Joshua Drake that got turned into that puzzle," he said with a smile. "I could sketch it out for you so you'd have an outline. But wouldn't it be more fun to try and figure it out? I'll give you a hint - it's a room you're very familiar with." She joked with him about not having a picture, but he was willing to bet she relished the extra challenge of trying to figure it out.

Joshua leaned forward across the box and gave her a kiss, just long enough to let his body tingle with the pleasure of it. "Happy Birthday, Irina my love."


His lips were firm and warm and his beard tickled, sending thrills down my neck. My eyes fluttered closed and my shoulders went slack and I sank into the kiss without thinking.


As she leaned into the kiss, Rina's robe started to slip down, giving him a clear look at those beautiful breasts of hers. Funny how no matter how much or how often he saw them, getting to see them unintentionally always provoked an intense reaction. Combined with the kiss and it was all he could do not to pull her into an embrace. But the memory of what happened the last time was still fresh in his mind, despite it having been a month ago. That memory plus a very deep breath allowed him to stay in control.

When he leaned back, he said quietly, "Not that I don't appreciate their beauty," and he motioned with his eyes to where her robe had slipped, "but I'm not sure I can take the temptation for much longer. Take that as a compliment."



I blinked and pulled my robe to rights and tightened my belt. I hadn’t meant to tease him. I knew our arrangement, both self-imposed and otherwise, wasn’t easy to bear when both parties were more than willing but I well remembered the reason for it, and understood why it was necessary. Taking a deep breath, I trailed my fingers through the puzzle pieces again, thinking how apropos they were to our current situation, on far too many levels. So what are you going to do about it? Whine? An idea glimmered through my recrimination and at its prompting I started hunting through the pieces with a purpose. My fingers found it before my eyes did.

“Ha!” I crowed and held up my prize: a piece with a straight edge. I looked up at Joshua then, my smile taking on the curve of a challenge. “Help me find the rest? Once we get them all, we can map the boundary and work on it from the outside in.”


His smile quirked wide as Rina started pulling pieces out. Solving the puzzle of the Equinox and Joshua's pain might take a long time, but in the meantime they could work on solving the puzzle of the engine room. And maybe by the time they had finished that one, they'd be farther along in the first one. I hope so, anyway, he thought as he started helping the woman he loved sort through the jumbled mess of his creation, putting order to chaos one piece at a time.

Go to Joshua's Crew Page or to Rina's Crew Page
Go back to: Timeline Season Five, Jan 2522 to Aug 2522