They had showered and were being dried off. Lili approached Melissa, “I want you to know, I'm not angry with you.”
“Oh. I guess you've got a right to be,” Melissa said.
“Well, I was before. But I'm not anymore. It doesn't seem heh, productive,” Lili found her clothes and put them on, “Melissa, can I ask you something?”
“You are, he hasn't hurt you, has he?” Lili asked quietly.
“No. Lili, was he hitting you?”
“No. Oh, no. It's during relations. Has he injured you?”
“I don't get it.”
“I don't want to be drawing a map but, he's, uh, there's a lot there. And he's not always good with control or, or being careful.”
“Ohhh,” Melissa paused to put on her dress, “I'm fine, at least so far, although the first time did hurt quite a bit. But no injuries.”
“Hmm. Maybe he's holding back somehow. I don't want you to get hurt, is all.”
Back in the cell, Lili listened for the men. This time, Doug didn't swear at Malcolm. Progress, perhaps.
Malcolm was pushed back in. She handed him a tube, “Dinner is served.”
“Uh, thank you.”
They sat down on the mattress – the only place to sit.
Lili spoke, “I wanted to talk to you some more about your department's gift.”
“You already thanked me for that. No reason to do so again,” he said, between downing bits of paste.
“I know. It's not about that, not specifically. I'm quite sure I've figured out the real meaning behind it.”
“Meaning? There is no meaning. It's a wedding gift to you and Doug, nothing more.”
“No,” she said, “That's just the cover story.”
Chip and Yimar were running out of tricks to show Joss. Chip had made paper airplanes, done the folded napkin mouse trick and had produced Denobulan coins from behind both of Joss's ears. Every time a new trick was begun, it would hold Joss's attention for a little while, but then his mind would wander and he'd alternately suck his thumb and call out for his mother. The intervals between the calls were getting shorter and shorter, and Yimar was beginning to really get panicky.
It was the cafeteria, and she couldn't just keep feeding him. Finally, Chip said, “Look, I'm pretty much tapped. I'm sorry. I'm just not a kids' performer. And I don't think you want me to be telling him any dirty jokes. I hate to leave you in the lurch like this, but I need to get some sleep. With no Hoshi,” he paused for a second, as he did miss his boss, “I'm doing double duty even before I hit the Borscht Belt here.”
“What's a Borscht Belt?” asked Yimar.
“Uh, never mind. It’s too much to explain. All I'm saying is I gotta be fresh to do my work. Entertaining him is taking too much outta me. I gotta go,” he departed.
She sat there with Joss, who was sucking his thumb and staring out the window, “'Ommy home?”
She sighed, “Not yet.”
He went back to crying.
“Cover story? What the devil are you on about?” asked Malcolm.
“Yes. It's hidden in plain sight, really,” she said, “The box – it's from a big British store.”
“Well, I'm the Department Head. So?”
“Yes. That part's understood. But, you see, the rest of it. Now, I'm sure that Karin picked out what she gave us. And Lucas and Ethan and the others did as well. All of that works totally on face value and that's it.”
“Well?” he turned away slightly.
“It's the rest of it,” she said.
Brian came out, wiping his hands on a dish towel, “Dishes are all done. Hey, buddy, what's the matter?” he bent over to talk to Joss.
“The usual,” Yimar said, “I'm getting to the end of my rope.”
“Hmm. Wanna go see a puppy?” he asked, his voice brightening.
“What's a puppy?” she asked.
“It's a baby dog. The dog isn't a baby but, well, close enough. The Captain has a little dog, and he's staying in Sick Bay until things are resolved,” Brian explained.
“Oh. Is this animal tame?”
“Very. Just make sure Joss doesn't pull his tail.”
“Hmm. Okay. Joss, wanna see a pretty puppy?” she asked, widening her eyes and smiling and trying to make it the most interesting thing to do, ever.
“Puppy?” Joss asked, stopping the crying for a second.
“Yes. Bring the stegosaurus,” Brian said.
“What's that?” Yimar asked.
“Oh, his toy, the dinosaur. It's a stegosaurus.”
“Huh,” Yimar said, “See, this is educational,” she said to Joss, “Let's go see the pretty puppy.”
“Somebody,” Lili said cautiously, “uh, somebody was really careful. They picked out the things that weren't wrapped, and those things were all either British or from the old British Empire, like the nuts.”
“The sun used to rise and set on it,” Malcolm said, “That's hardly meaningful,” he said, protesting a bit too strongly and turning away some more.
“No argument here. The canisters – the tea isn't labeled, but I know for a fact that it's English breakfast. And this, this person knew that I would know, and that I wouldn't have to be told.”
“Everyone knows you're a professional chef.”
“Again, that much is understood. But then there are the napkins. They aren't just an okay blue, or a great blue. No. They are the absolutely most perfect shade. It’s a dark royal, almost indigo. That person knew that that would be the right shade, and it probably took a really long time to find them. And the canisters – stainless steel with a little turquoise inlay on the clamps – that person knew that, even without ever seeing a picture of my kitchen, that person, he knew that the kitchen would be blue and green.”
“You, uh, wore those colors a lot,” he pointed out, but his argument was failing.
“I definitely telegraphed the colors. But there's the card, too. Somebody knew I would love a handwritten card, something to hold and look at, again and again. And while everyone signed it, one person – that
person – wrote out the original greeting. I don't know people's handwriting for sure, but I can make an educated guess about whose writing it is,” she paused.
She took a deep breath, “It's not a set of candlesticks that someone bought quickly because they didn't know us. It's not a gift card purchased at the last minute. It's not a tablecloth I'll only use once or twice a year. It's not a book I'll read maybe a few times and then put away on a shelf to gather dust somewhere. It's food and it's a card and it's napkins and canisters and by themselves those really aren't a lot of things. But put it all together and, well, this, uh, the cover story is that this gift was to remind Doug and me of home. And it does. It succeeds there, admirably. But the real hidden meaning is, because the kitchen is my
domain, the gift is really to remind me
, every day
, every single day
, of the person who gave it.”
“Can I ask you something, Doug?”
“Sure, I guess.”
“Are you holding back?”
“Well, I'm trying to,” he admitted, “I think the reasons should be kinda obvious.”
“Is it possible that you could hurt me?”
“Melissa, you'll tell me if I'm hurting you, right?”
“Sure. It, uh, it did hurt the first time, but I kinda figured it would.”
“What? Oh, no. No blood,” she smiled, “And last night was not too bad at all.”
“That's hardly a ringing endorsement.”
“Well, I don't have comparisons,” she said, “But, I did, uh, do you wanna hear this?”
“I guess so – not too much else to talk about, is there?”
“I had a, um, it was, uh, good,” she said.
“Really? Huh. Why are you asking me about holding back?”
“I'm not making any suggestions or anything. Don't misunderstand me,” she said, “But we're stuck here and this is, well, it's kinda the only really pleasant thing going on.”
“Yeah,” he admitted.
“So maybe don't hold back. Uh, if you think that's a good idea.”
“I don't want to hurt you,” he said, “And I can. I have done it before. Not my finest hour,” he looked away a little.
“I'm built like a tank,” she said, “I can take it.”
“Yeah. I'm not, uh, not telling you to do it now or anything, Doug.”
“I'm just sayin'. Don't, um, don't worry so much.”
Malcolm really turned away this time, and squeezed his eyes shut and pinched the bridge of his nose with his fingertips and braced himself for impact. Whatever she had to say next was not going to be good, he could tell.
“And, uh,” she said, “that person is, is you
He just sat there quietly, and then finally spoke, “I, you were, you were never supposed to know. And you wouldn't have, but the damned Witannen have brought it all up to the surface.”
She stared at his back as he gathered up the courage to continue.
He said, “It was, it was a few years ago. You were, it was when you were first making contact with, with Doug. And something in you turned. You became, well, noticeable. This is not to say that you were, well ....”
“I was a drudge until then,” she said, “All I did was work, eat and sleep. I spoke to almost nobody. I wasn't close to anyone,” she stated.
“And then, suddenly, you were kind of, well, switched on
. I suppose that's the best way to describe it. And I felt something. But I could see where you wanted to be, and who you wanted to be with. And, and when your, when everything finally fell into place, I stepped aside. Even though Doug said I was sweet on you, I said I wasn't. But that was not true. And you, you hugged me when you were in Sick Bay, do you remember? It is, I suppose, nothing to you. But for me it was a lot. It meant something.”
“I wouldn't have, would not have, if it didn't have meaning.”
“Still, I doubt somewhat that it meant to you just what it did to, to me,” he swallowed hard, “For a moment, I could believe it wasn't me you were kissing off – that it was, that it was him
He took another deep breath, “And then you left the Enterprise, and you began your life away. And there were letters. I knew they weren't just being sent to me, but I could, I could believe they were, if I felt it hard enough. And there were photographs! If I squinted just right, I could, I could believe that it was you and me in front of your new business venture, you and I standing on a beach, and you and I holding our, our son,” he stopped.
“I don't, I don't want you to go through a divorce. I don't want your home broken up. I don't wish your, your husband dead. It's not that. Not at all. I told you – unattainable women. And you are, you became unattainable almost immediately and now, suddenly, you're attainable. But it's all due to this damnable gas they give us to breathe. It is what I want, it is my, my love
, yes, that's the right word – it is my love. It is what I dreamt of, and not just chastely, but for you, it's forcing and it's not you really wanting to do it. As you close your eyes, I imagine you think of, of him. And that hurts so much, so much more. I have waited for, for this. But it's not what I truly desired. The Witannen have perverted it. For so long I've wanted to be close to you. Now all I want to do is crawl away and die.”
“See? Pretty puppy!” Yimar said, “Pet nicely, Joss.”
“There are lots of animals to see here,” Brian said, “Doctor Phlox, can we bring him here tomorrow, maybe look at a different animal? If it's not, uh, too much trouble. He's really lonely without Lili.”
“That's understandable,” Phlox said, “Hmm, the Derellian bat will be coming out of its two week hibernation cycle. He can feed it a few pellets, assuming there's no medical emergency tomorrow.”
“Thank you. You're a lifesaver,” Yimar gushed.
“I have been told that before,” Phlox smiled, “But it's still nice to hear.”
They were silent for a while. Lili turned and put her hand on Malcolm's back. Edge of a cliff, she thought to herself. But it was not necessarily such a scary cliff. She moved in closer and pushed her arms through and around his waist. She leaned her mouth on his shoulder and held it there a while.
Finally, she said, very quietly, “Please. Can you turn around? A little? Please? Because, uh, I'm getting tired of, of kissing your shoulder, Malcolm. I'd really rather kiss your mouth.”
He turned to face her, “Are you certain?”
She nodded vigorously, “Lili-Flower, right?”
“Yes. You weren't supposed to hear that, either. I've made quite a hash of things.”
“Heavenly hash is a great ice cream flavor.”
“No ice cream for me, thanks,” he said, “Maybe something sweeter.”
They kissed until the gas started, then rapidly moved onto other things.