Futures and Precedents
Props to Andy for enduring the length of this RP but our characters needed a long soak.--Maer
Sunday, 10 May 2522
Flotilla, New Melbourne
Red Sun (Zhu Que) system
1530 hrs, ship’s time
One thing you can say for spaceports, except for scale they weren’t all that much different from truck stops. Groundside vehicles and spaceside vessels all had pretty much the same basic requirements: fuel, food, repairs, a place to wash up and sleep. Trucks or spaceships, over a long haul both would have become too claustrophobic to stay in and people would be eager for a change of scene. The spaceports did their best to supply it: repair garages, retail stores, barber shops and tattoo parlors, bars, restaurants, hotels, laundry facilities, and my perennial favorite—bathhouses. Equinox might be a bigger ship, even a shinier ship, than our beloved Summer’s Gift, but one thing our current girl did not have was a tub to soak in. I missed it sorely, especially coming right off a frozen world like St. Albans, and craved a long hot soak to steam in. Coming off the nightmare of Meadow had seen me suffer the same thing and I had monopolized our guesthouse bath for a week before I could make myself give it up. I figured my relatively short stay on St. Albans could be dealt with in a single visit.
Our current port of call was a spaceport facility cobbled out of a group of ocean-going ships lashed together, much like Sampson Array on the Rim. As such, its offerings were lower key and the variety wasn’t as large or as elaborate as other spaceports. Even so, a bathhouse or two existed and I’d already picked one from a cursory search on the local Cortex. I just had to gather my things and go.
I’d just crossed the threshold of my quarters, my bath things bundled in a towel, when a nasty fact brought me up short. My wallet was bare of money and the bathhouses weren’t free. They weren’t expensive—not what I was looking to get, anyway—but they did require coin I didn’t have. So I did what anyone would in a situation like this. I went to find the person who held the ship’s purse strings. I strode off to find Joshua. With luck, I might convince him to part with a platinum or two and get that indulgent soak.
If you invited him along, you might get more than the platinum …
I turned for hydroponics, thinking if he were anywhere, he’d be there.
Joshua glanced back and forth between the ship’s ledger and the list of potential jobs he had scribbled on a piece of paper torn from the back of the book. In his eyes, it looked like they had gotten lucky when they had decided to land in New Melbourne. There were several jobs, including two cargo shipments to Boros. Space would be tight, but they could squeeze the overage into steerage if necessary. The Equinox’s funds were running low and two cargo runs to the same planet would definitely help their profit margin. But, he thought, the problem was that they really needed a stop-over between here and Boros. Fuel would be too tight otherwise. Now where can we stop that we won’t regret it later?
He was huddled over the paper, looking at the list of White Sun planets comparing them to his job list when Rina walked in. Joshua looked up too quickly and winced as stitches from the recent surgery complained about the sudden movement. “Ow,” he said ruefully. “Guess I need to be more careful.” He could see that purposeful look on her, the one that indicated an idea had hold of her and wasn’t going to let go until it was satisfied. Maybe she wanted to head out...she was looking better. Maybe he could convince her to take him with her. He didn’t want to spend dirtside time resting. Well, he didn’t want to spend it resting on the ship.
“What brings you to my domain, love?” He smiled at her to make sure she knew she wasn’t interrupting.
“Money. I need to hit a bathhouse.” Seeing him hunched over his paperwork and his pain as he straightened confirmed one thing: I was taking him with me. The hot soak would do him good. I came closer and wrapped my arms carefully around him from behind, giving him a delicate hug. “The papers can wait. Come with me. I’ll let you scrub my back,” I added.
Joshua gave her a wry grin. “As long as you don’t want me to scrub too hard.” He got up and went over to the safe hidden away in the hydroponics lab. The safe softly beeped as he finished entering the code on the keypad. After the door swung open, he reached aside past the ship funds to his own personal funds. He pulled out the small cloth bag and extracted 5 platinum from the container. He put the empty bag back into the safe and put the money in his pocket as he turned back around to face Rina.
“Lead on, love.”
“C’mon.” I gave him a quick kiss and tugged him for the stairs down. It was the work of a minute to get off the ship. Boards rang underfoot as we took the gangplank off the landing pad and our footsteps muffled again as we hit the steel of the spaceport proper. I consulted the monitor for our pad, pulled up a map to get my bearings. “This way.”
The wind off the ocean was brisk without being harsh and I could taste the salt in it. The day was bright and the sky cloudless. Rain didn’t seem to be in the forecast, which suited me fine. I’d left the ship without my customary cap and while I didn’t mind getting wet in a shower I disliked getting rained on. All around us, the business of maintaining a maritime vessel bustled on. Rust removal, painting, mopping, oiling, the works. Noisy stuff, leavened with the muddle of human speech: laughter, curses, shouts. And interspersed with shipside activities were the businessmen trying to make a credit or two: stalls selling street food, vendors selling clothes and sundries. There were even a few buskers and street performers drawing onlookers. A fire artist was one of them, swallowing and spewing flames to the admiring croons of her audience. I took in the act as I walked by and regretted I hadn’t the coin to spare for her hat. Instead, I tucked my bath things a little tighter under my arm and gave Joshua a smile.
“You didn’t bring anything. You planning to sit this one out?” I squeezed his hand, enjoying the weight of his fingers laced with mine.
“Five platinum should be more than enough to cover for the both of us.” He smiled. “And provide for lunch after.”
Joshua found it a continual source of amusement. He had never even had money of his own for the first 28 years of his life. And yet he had more clue as to its value than the crew. Well, except for Kiera, he corrected himself. She perhaps valued it too well.
As they continued walking along the docks, the sights and sounds washed over him like the ever present waves of the nearby ocean. And he was surprised to find himself happy. He hadn’t realized how infrequently he had been truly happy over the last few months, how much the plight of the ship and the trials of their voyages had weighed him down. But here he was, still recovering from surgery, aching all over and happy as a clam.
“I love you, Rina,” he said spontaneously, squeezing her hand gently.
We were negotiating a bottleneck in the crowd, so my eye was elsewhere when he said it. His tone, however, made me stop and look at him as my head caught up with his words. He was hurting, I realized. We all were, coming off a particularly hard run of luck. But he was also happy and something in me wanted to make it last as long as I could. I cupped his face and drew him down and kissed him, in front of God and everybody, and let him know how much I loved him back.
He let the kiss linger for a long moment. He smiled as he looked down on her. “We’ll never get to the bathhouse at this rate.” The words were serious, but his tone suggested he wouldn’t mind if it took them forever and a day to reach the bathhouse. At least not as long as her kisses were the reason for the delay.
“No, probably not,” I breathed and pulled away slowly as some spectators in the crowd hooted and jeered. A particularly ribald comment made itself heard over the noise and I deigned not to notice. A street brawl wasn’t how I wanted to spend my downtime here. I took up Joshua’s hand and gave him my special smile. “C’mon. It’s not far.”
He let Rina drag him along the dockfront until they reached a small building with an elegant wooden door with black iron hinges. Carefully hand lettered with white paint, the sign out front simply said “Bathhouse”. Joshua liked the simplicity of it. After all, his life felt pretty complex these days and some simplicity was a good thing every now and again. Rina pulled at his hand and he followed her inside.
It was dimmer inside but not by much. Translucent panels overhead let the light in while preserving privacy and steam curled and billowed against the rafters. The interior was wood, Asian rustic was the theme, and the air was delicately scented with flowers and soap. The woman at the counter took Joshua’s platinum and with a knowing lift of her brow led us down the corridor to the rear of the house. Curtained cubicles lined the left and wood paneling lined the right before the corridor gave out on a wider passage that ran to either side. Directly opposite was a row of sturdier cubicles, outfitted with doors and three shallow steps raising everything above the floor. Shoes waited for their owners at some of them and following our guide, she opened the door to the last one on the left.
“Tea will be along shortly,” she murmured and bowed us inside. She walked away, her step unhurried, ostensibly to get that tea, and I bent down to unzip my boots. I craned my neck to look into the cubicle and saw the tub had been partially sunk into the floor, the remainder enclosed in a simple platform, offering a broad lip to sit on. It sat already filled a hand-span from the top and steamed gently. I stepped further inside, the boards warm and dry on my bare feet and I saw a bench and coat hooks beside the door. I moved to let Joshua in and took in the rest of the room.
The walls did not meet the rafters overhead, instead rising to about 8 feet before stopping. They were faced with smooth wood, a contrast to the rough hewn finish outside, and a simple apron board ran along the perimeter, capped by a flat run of planks like a shelf. Potted plants sat on them, affording more screening from the neighboring rooms. The steam must have agreed with the plants. They were lush and vigorous, some trailing fronds and branches down the walls, some sporting flowers. I spotted orchids tucked in the green here and there, but they were the only plants I immediately recognized. I touched a leaf and turned to Joshua.
“I wonder where they got them? Place like this, covered in salt ocean, it can’t have been easy or cheap.”
Taken that way, I marveled at the sheer amount of water reclamation required to run a bathhouse and wondered how our fee—barely half what Joshua brought with him—could cover the cost.
Stop. You’re thinking too much. Just enjoy it.
I shrugged and got my hands on the edge of my shirt and paused, remembering what lay underneath. I wasn’t alone and dread spiked my gut as I finally caught up with the inevitable. A lot had changed since that morning on Greenleaf. It would the first time since then he’d see me naked.
Joshua unknowingly echoed Rina’s thoughts. “Does it really matter if we get to enjoy them?”
As he started to remove his own clothes, he noticed her hesitation and stopped halfway in pulling his shirt off. “Are you okay?”
He walked over to her. “Do you need me to help you with that?” While he was content just to enjoy the peaceful atmosphere of the bathroom, a little extra physical contact off the ship could never be a bad thing.
I closed my eyes and saw again the bomb going live under my hands, smelled the acrid smoke of the chemical fuse burning away. Remembered waking up in blinding agony four days later to find myself painstakingly stitched back together. Such a process did not come without its scars and that bomb had left me covered with them. Their extent wasn’t something Joshua had a chance to see before we got mixed up with that business on St. Albans and we’d had little time to stop and catch our breath since. Scars were nothing new on me and he’d already mapped my old ones. Still, I was reluctant to confront him with the new. Kiera had done wonders to efface them but there were a few surgical scars snaking across my torso that still had the power to shock me when I saw them. God alone knew how they’d hit Joshua. So I kept my hands on my shirt and shook my head.
“No. Just … turn around?” It was lame, but it was all I had. He did that to me.
She couldn’t have written a letter that would have contained as much information as that single pause before she asked him to turn around.
“What will you do if I say no, Rina?” He gave her a serious look. “Would you prefer not to look at me when I get undressed?”
After all, he was fresh off of some surgeries of his own.
“God, no. Is that what you think? That I—that you’re—?” Surprise yanked the words out of me before I could wrap my head around them. I took a deep breath and tried again, hoping I hadn’t ruined it. I stared at the floor and said softly, hardly louder than the steam. “It’s not pretty, but since you asked …”
I couldn’t look at him. I simply peeled out of my shirt and let it drop. And waited for … what? Dismay? Disgust? I knew it was how I felt every time I saw them. As much as I loved and admired Joshua, I didn’t dare hope for a more favorable reaction from him. I knew it was irrational, stupid even, but it didn’t change how I felt. A distant part of my head remarked tartly that I was being a self-absorbed ass, but I was too caught in the moment to listen. I kept my eyes on the floor and my hands at my side, refusing to cover up but wanting nothing more than to sink into the bath up to my chin and hide.
He looked at her and his first thought was to be reminded at how close he had come to losing her. If one of those shards had been coming in at a slightly different angle, then...well, he didn’t want to think about it. His second thought was to get a little angry that she was letting the scars bring her down. He looked at her and simply said, “Scars heal, Rina. Both physical and emotional. But you’re still the kick ass, take no prisoners girl that I fell in love with.” And he stepped in and hugged her close. “And you’re just as beautiful as you were when I first saw you.”
Then he stepped away and pulled off his own shirt, grimacing as he went a little too fast. Remember, you just had surgery, you fool. Don’t make Arden and Kiera have to put you back under. Take it easy.
“Now, get the rest of those clothes off and come help me get in. I could really use a warm soak.”
Rough words, but they soothed like no other. Trust Joshua to say the right thing. He has the knack, I thought, as I helped him strip and get into the tub. I saw him settled before taking the rest of my duds off. I did it quickly and efficiently, nothing shy or seductive about it. He’d made his position clear. I got our things folded on the bench and slid into the hot water with him, resting my back against his chest and leaning into him.
“You didn’t ask, but I owe you an answer. I just don’t know if I can explain it.” I took his hand and laid it on the scar that snaked across my left collarbone. “This one? I’ve got no problem with it. It was combat. I earned it. This one?” I moved his hand to my belly, where the worst of the surgery took place. “I was stupid and this is what it got me. Like it got me these …” Water splashed and ran as I raised a leg to expose my shin. Even after thirteen years, the deep grooved scars from my open fractures still had the power to sting ... to accuse and recriminate. I put it underwater again so I wouldn’t have to look at it. “I’m not proud of them, Joshua, and I don’t like being reminded why they’re there. Is any of this making sense to you?”
“I understand, but I don’t agree. You weren’t stupid. You were checking out a potential threat to the ship. But even beyond that...” He sat there in the warmth of the water, taking his time to find the words that would make his position clear.
“Those scars are living memories, Rina. Some you’re proud of why you got them, some you’re not. But you remember what they are, why you did the things you did. For much of my life, I didn’t have that choice.” Blue Sun had taken many of his choices, even the ones he hadn’t been aware he had. So he spent of his life now, making up for what he had been denied. Which perhaps those lack of memories, he admitted to himself, was why he pushed life to the point where Arden and Kiera ended up having to sew him up afterwards. “Cherish those memories - for good or for ill, they helped define the person you are and I love that person very much.”
It’s good advice. You should follow it. So suck it up and thank him, you idiot. I turned around, careful where I put my knees, and kissed him. Not the thanks he deserves, but getting there...
“So,” he said quietly, after the kiss, “minus the whole scar thing, how are you? We’ve not really had a lot of time to do anything other than bounce from place to place.” He and Rina didn’t get enough chances to talk. And besides, he needed to talk, to keep his brain alert. He wasn’t ready for the soap yet and without the conversation, it would be all too easy to fall asleep here in the comfort of the warm water.
I stroked his cheekbone with my thumb and settled in his arms as before, leaning my head back so I could see him as I answered. “Tired from all the bouncing. Grateful for the chance to rest.”
A discreet knock kept me from saying more and before I could lever myself out of the tub, a kimonoed arm slipped inside and left a tray on the floor: our tea order. The arm withdrew, the door closed, and we were alone again. I got myself over there and returned with the tray. The wide lip of the tub enclosure made a lot of practical sense then, letting me pour and serve the tea while in the water. I gave Joshua his cup and settled back in his embrace cradling my own. My brows rose as I sipped it. Jasmine, and a good grade, too. “I’d be grateful for a payday. Getting tired of doing without it. Liking this though,” I sighed, taking another sip and pressing closer into Joshua’s arms.
“The ship will generate pay once we get a job. And hopefully, I’ll be able to find us a job here.” They were about as broke as they could be right now, after refueling. So Joshua planned to fill the cargo hold and hopefully the staterooms too. A full ship meant a full purse. Or at least, a purse that isn’t as empty.
As he sipped his tea, he thought back to St. Albans and the crew of the Serenity. Talking to River had made him more confident in who he was. Or perhaps that it didn’t matter who he was, just who he is. And that reminded him of the cortex message from Captain Wise. He hadn’t been deliberately keeping it a secret, but circumstances had caused it to reach the point where he probably should say something.
“Rina, did I tell you I got a return wave from Captain Wise?” As he asked, he softly rubbed her arm, enjoying the feeling of her wet skin beneath his fingers.
Return wave. Captain Wise. My head parsed the meaning even as my body tensed at the news.
“No, you didn’t. And ‘return wave’ means it was in response to something you sent to him, something you didn’t tell me about either.” I set my cup on the tub ledge and turned around, bracketing him with a hand on either side. “What did you two say?”
I could feel the Universe reaching out to snare Joshua in yet another mess and I hated it, but I kept my tone as neutral as possible. I didn’t want to antagonize him. I wanted to know what was going on and I wouldn’t get far if he felt I wasn’t in his corner. And in truth, I also sympathized with the Commander. As a parent, I hoped to never get the wave from Christian telling me that something had happened to Lem and that my son was missing or dead. As a parent, I instinctively knew what lengths I would go to get my son back if I thought the chance existed. Joshua was that chance for Wise, and if Wise was poised to take Joshua, I wanted to know everything. So I could get Joshua back.
Hmm. Seems to me you tried that before with a certain guy and we all know how well that ended.
“What did he say?”
He hadn’t told her about the first wave? Well, it had been kind of crazy lately, he admitted. And it hadn’t been that long since he sent it, much of which had been spent trying to solve the mystery of St. Albans or sitting over Rina’s bedside after that horrible explosion, praying to whatever any gods who would listen to make sure she woke up.
“So I just sent him something apologizing for not being Rex. After we escaped.” Although escaped didn’t seem like quite the right word. “There were times...are times that I wish I could’ve been who he needed me to be. I never knew my father.” And Captain Wise had seemed like a good man. And a good father.
Joshua took Rina’s hand in his and squeezed gently. “I didn’t expect to get a wave back. But he sent me one. Hopeful that I had at least contacted him. Encouraging me to stay off the drugs to get my head clear. Continuing to make his case that I might be his son. I have to say, he makes a good argument.” And he quoted the line that had really started him thinking:
You’ve been taking Flomoxipan, a sedative, amnesic, hypnotic and hallucinogen. For how long, you can’t remember. You’ve been exposed to things that could send anyone over the edge. I don’t know who would set you on this course, but I do know that once afloat on this river, it could take you anywhere.
For all the surety that River’s comments had given him, Joshua realized that River hadn’t confirmed she knew him as Joshua. Just said he was okay. Hmmmm.
He shook his head a little to clear his thoughts. “And finally, he asked me if I really wasn’t his son, that would I help him find his son?” He squeezed Rina’s hand a little tighter. “Funny, isn’t it? Seems my full time job lately is going around reuniting other people with their families.” And when, he thought with a hint of bitterness, will it be my turn? When do I get to stop reuniting and be reunited?
Joshua had promised me he would never keep secrets from me or the crew and I allowed we’d all been too busy not-dying to pay attention to anything else. So I let the late notice slide. What I couldn’t let alone was his comment about reunions. Neither could I ignore his tone and the flicker behind his eyes when he said it. He’d held my hand and I could feel him tighten with the thoughts and feelings he wouldn’t show, and I brought his fingers to my lips and kissed them.
“Hey, just remember you’ve got family right here.” I eased back and pulled him upright with me. “Me, the crew, all of us. And you’ve got something none of those other people have. Can you guess what it is?”
“Oh, I know.” And Joshua did know. He hoped to start a family with Rina someday. And he loved the crew as the family he didn’t have. But they were like brothers and sisters, or what he imagined having a brother or a sister was like. They were family...but they weren’t a substitute for never really having known his mother or his father. But going down that road was just a long trip to the land of self pity and he didn’t want that. So he smiled at Rina and replied cheerfully,”But no, tell me what it is I have...I’m a lousy guesser.”
“Not as lousy as you think, but we’ve all got our blind spots,” I said, matching his tone and then sobering. “We’re all born into a family but unlike 99% of us, Joshua, the family you have right now is the one you got to choose. It’s not the same as a bio-family but I know choice is important to you. I hope you remember that when you go searching for yours.”
I uncurled his fingers and kissed his palm and curled his fingers over the kiss, then looked at him through my lashes.
“We’ll be here when you need us. Just don’t forget we’re here.”
“The crew has always been there for me. I could never forget that.” He grinned. “Not that any of you would ever let me.” The words teased but the sentiment was serious. His first real choice in his new life had been to help this crew and they had responded with love (some of it of the tough variety). He could forget that about as easy as he could forget how to breathe.
“No, we wouldn’t.” I bracketed him again and kissed him long and hard. “I wouldn’t. That’s a promise. Don’t make me regret it.”
Joshua shook his head. “I won’t. For as long you’ll put up with me, I am yours.”
“Put up with you?” I pulled back and looked at him. It was a phrase he’d used often enough and I’d let it slide before, but given our conversation, it rubbed me the wrong way. “You think that’s what I’m doing, here? Putting up?” I asked then, careful to keep my tone free of censure, despite my words.
Uh-oh. Now he’d done it.
“Just an expression, love.” He shrugged a little. “Just meant that I know I frustrate you at times. Hopefully those times are not in equal measure with the times I make you happy, but I love you for still loving me even when you don’t like me.”
“You do, but I know it goes both ways. Like now, probably.” I relented, cursing myself for a literal-minded idiot. “No, not probably, pretty damn surely. I’m sorry. More tea?” I asked, hoping to repair my misstep.
“No, but I’ll take another kiss before I lean back.” And he took it without waiting for a response. After the sweet electric taste of her, Joshua sunk back into the hot bath until he was covered up to his neck. The hot water felt amazing on all those surgical scars. After they healed more, he’d have to get Arden or Kiera to take the sonic caelum to them to help smooth them out. He didn’t have plans to Borrow anyone in the near future where the scars would be a problem, but why borrow trouble?
A small secret smile crossed his face as he realized the pun he had made. Thank goodness he was easily amused.
I saw the smile playing around his lips and eyes and I leaned back into his arms again. When we were settled, I asked, “Share the joke?”
“I’m just a punny sort of guy,” he joked, laughing until it quickly became too painful for his still healing wounds. When he got the laughter under control, he continued, “Sorry, was just thinking about getting the scars removed by Kiera and I cracked myself up with a bad witticism. Enter that thing where you put up with me.”
“‘Enter that thing …’,” I said, chuckling. “There’s a dirty joke in there somewhere.” I pulled his arm tighter around my waist and stroked his wrist lightly with my fingertips, enjoying the warmth of the water and the silkiness of it against my skin. I tipped my head back on his shoulder and closed my eyes and lay there listening to the sound of his breathing and the murmurs of the other patrons beyond the walls. Relaxing this completely was something new to me. On my solo trips to bathhouses in the past, I’d always sat with my back to the wall, my face to the door, and the bench pulled up against the tub with my gun hidden under the towels. Here? My usual suspects were across the room beside the door—a galaxy away and just as out of reach should the worst happen. The thought crossed my mind and I found I didn’t care. Having Joshua with me made all the difference. I nuzzled his neck and whispered, “You’re amazing, you know that?”
“Only because you give me the freedom to be that way.” She was his foundation, his ladder to the clouds. She enabled him to reach high so that he could lean down and pull her up. But he simply said, “Thank you for being who you are and letting me share.”
“You’re welcome.” I kissed his jaw and lipped my way to his ear. “And because of who you are, you make me want to be better than I was before we met.” Better than my past, my paranoia, my mistakes, I didn’t say. I didn’t need to. He’d already heard the litany.
He smiled. “We’re a pair, aren’t we?”
“Yes, we are.” I slipped my arms around him, wishing there were a way to get even closer. Buck naked and pressing up tight, there wasn’t much more I could do to make that happen … beside the obvious. “Have you thought about when we’re going to make that permanent? Legally speaking, that is. I may be an emancipated woman but clobbering you over the head and dragging you to the altar isn’t quite my style.”
“Do you want an elaborate ceremony or something small and intimate?” Joshua really wasn’t sure what she wanted. Or at least not sure enough to go ahead with plans without consulting her. Either way, it wouldn’t be a large ceremony. His entire family was the crew and Rina’s status wouldn’t allow her to invite her parents. That left Christian and Lem. Maybe the next time they were in Kalidasa system, they could take some downtime and have the wedding in Lucifer’s Landing. He was betting Christian would arrange one heck of a ceremony.
“Small,” I said, thinking of who I could invite and those I couldn’t. For a moment I imagined standing before Joshua’s family in Lourdes as his spouse, knowing I could never do the same with him and mine. It was bittersweet. To distract myself from it, I filled out the wedding list. “The crew. Lem. Christian, too. He’d kill me if I didn’t invite him. He’d do it oh-so-elegantly and I’d be the prettiest corpse ever, but he’d kill me. No, scratch that. He’d be hurt and just make me wish I were dead. That’s a hundred times worse. Have you ever seen him in a wounded snit? A single look from him could cut through steel.”
There’d been times when Christian’s Buddhist adherence to non-violence had run counter to our plans, spawning arguments and hurt silence. Yet, when the chips were down, he was one of the best shots of all of us with a hunting rifle. No doubt it was a skill a Companion trained for like everything else, in case a client took him game hunting. Thinking of Christian made me think of a conversation we’d had one a rainy morning during our layover at the turn of last year.
Do you want your first child, with Mike, to be a boy or a girl? he’d asked. I’d choked on my tea and when I got myself back to rights, I’d told him the gender didn’t matter. Any child I had would be loved for itself. Implicit in that statement was that any child I had would be Mike’s. That was over a year ago and since then the picture had drastically changed: Mike was no longer in it, exiled on Miranda. Memory sent me back further still, to another conversation with Christian on Meridian.
“What’s the worst that could happen?” he asked me.
“I’m not. What’s the worst that could happen?”
“Mike’s dead.” I hated saying it, hated giving the Universe even that much of an inch. Tempt her, and the bitch would take it and run with it.
“And?” Christian prompted.
“What do you mean, ‘and’?”
“Will the Universe stop spinning? Will the suns implode?”
“No,” I scowled, knowing where he was going with this. “I’ll just wish they had.”
“And if he’s been dead all this time? What then?”
“Seriously?” No, not liking the direction one bit. “What the hell do you think?”
“You’d mourn him.”
“More than,” I said from the bottom of my toes. “More than you could possibly imagine.”
“But would it kill you?”
“Only the best part of me.”
“Not at all.” Christian leaned in close again but made no move to touch me. “You’re not the same person you were a year ago. You’ll hurt, yes, and deeply, yes, but you’ll move on. You’re already moving. You’ve taken a lover, if briefly, and that’s a major component of building another life without him.”
“Excuse me, Christian, but I already have a life without him. I don’t need another one.”
“Yes, you do. You need the one that has him never coming back.”
Prophetic words. Or maybe it was just experience talking that night. Either way, Christian could predict what would happen better than I. Had he sworn I’d now be in the arms of another man contemplating marriage and children, I would have called him a liar to his exquisite face and quite possibly have hurt him. That was me then. Now? No. And yet … Mike was still out there. In the absence of his body, without proof of his death, was I free to do what my heart wanted and marry Joshua, bear his children, make a life without Mike in it? Or was I forsworn, an oathbreaker, damned? Mike and I had drawn up no papers, had exchanged no rings. All we’d had was a promise. One I didn’t think I could now keep.
Over a year ago on Angel, Christian said to me after I’d coughed up the last of my tea: You have to make your own decisions about life now. Your own mistakes and your own triumphs, too. I know you can do it.
I closed my eyes on the bathhouse and wished, just once, for a personal life that wasn’t so damned hard to navigate.
“Then, next time we’re in Kalidasa, we’ll make it official,” he said, echoing his previous thoughts. “Get Christian to marry us. Arden can be the best man, Nika the maid of honor.”
Joshua pulled out his left hand from underneath the water and stared at the empty ring finger. “Any thoughts about rings?”
“Rings?” I echoed like an idiot. Of course, rings. Married people wear them, you know. I nearly refused but caught myself in time as I wondered why no came easier than yes. Why not wear one? The woman I used to be would have immediately answered: give the enemy no clue as to leverage, no sign as to alliances, leave no trail back to Mike. But I wasn’t marrying Mike. I was marrying Joshua, a different man altogether, and that’s when it hit me. Mike no longer had a vote in my personal life. Marrying Joshua negated it. I could continue letting my old habits concerning Mike influence my decisions or I could do the sensible thing and leave him out of them. I just had to be willing to let him go. Whether he was alive or dead, it was immaterial. Mike wasn’t present and there was no hope he ever could be, therefore I couldn’t behave as if he were. To do so would cheat me and Joshua of our future going forward. So while I would have refused a ring had Mike been the man asking, I knew that I would accept a ring from Joshua. I also knew that it would have to be the last decision I made with Mike’s shadow on it.
Easier said than done … But I had to try.
“Plain, I think. No stones. Nothing that could get caught in tools or machinery.” I turned in Joshua’s arms and looked him in the eye. “I’m sorry if you wanted something more elaborate, but I don’t dare risk it. Ever seen what a caught ring does to a finger?”
Of course Rina would think of that and of course she wouldn’t think about taking it off before working. He shook his head. “It doesn’t have to be elaborate or expensive or any of that. All that matters is that is that when we look at them, we’re reminded of each other.”
Then Joshua smiled. “And I’ll get you a chain you can hang it from. Then you can put it on a hook or something while you’re working. I like you with all your fingers.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that a necklace was an even worse hazard than a ring. It was more important to get him involved in the matter than correcting him on it. Besides …
“I don’t need the reminder, love,” I said, caressing his face and smiling my special smile. “But I love the sentiment behind it.”
“And I love you.” He gave her a long, sweet kiss.”And I’ll let you pick the rings,” he said, running his hand over her fingers, spending a little extra time on the ring finger. Moments like this were the ones he used to build the foundation of his new life. He may not have his family, but he had a chance to make his own with Rina.
When he kissed me, the warmth of his lips sent mine to tingling, an electric glow that quickly spread all the way down to my toes. I twined my fingers in his and kissed him again, hot and deep, spilling over with love and hope for him, for us, and our future together. I put it all in my kiss and prayed he felt it.
When she kissed him for the second time, everything just faded away, leaving it all behind. No worries about family current or past, no frets about where they were going or where they had been. Just him and Rina together in each other’s arms. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.
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Go back to: Timeline Season Five, Jan 2522 to Aug 2522
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