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If This Is Love

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University of Southampton

Kristin felt her stomach twist and turn as she scanned her identification card to enter the lab. As she waited for the doors to unlock, she felt her nerves prickle. She was wound up tighter than a drum, and it wasn't even nine in the morning. She frowned and took a few deep breaths, willing her stomach to settle as she walked through the double wooden doors. She absolutely hated the feeling of dread she had every time she went to work lately. She couldn't exactly blame herself for it either, though.

The sad fact of the matter was the lab was in jeopardy. Funding was always difficult to come by in the scientific research field, but it seemed doubly so now. She'd thought she had a difficult time with funding on the seaQuest, but she had no idea what a walk in the park that had been. The UEO had the market cornered. Sponsors were more than happy to offer funds to projects with UEO backing. Everyone else got slim pickings, and such opportunities were becoming more scarce these days.

Kristin had been working with Southampton since she'd received her marine biology degree. Southampton was just one of her alma maters, but it had been a constant in her life, even when she was on the seaQuest. After she and the UEO parted ways, the university offered her a senior research position, and she gladly accepted. Things had gone so well for a while, but all good things must end at some point.

"Good morning, Doctor."

Kristin turned towards her assistant, Vanessa, and gave her a forced smile. "Morning," she replied, trying to sound cheerful but sure she failed at it. It was difficult to be cheery these days.

She tried to ignore the two empty work tables as she walked towards her own; they were an ugly reminder that two scientists were let go just a week prior. Out of a group of twenty-five, only ten of them were left now, pulling a disheartened sigh from her lips. She fleetingly wondered who would be the next to go and then felt a twinge of guilt for it.

"Before you get settled, Dr. Ellis wanted to see you," Vanessa told her.

Kristin's heart sank, and her stomach flip-flopped again. Dr. Martin Ellis was her department head, and him calling anyone to his office lately usually came with bad news. "D-did he say what it was about?"

Vanessa shook her head. "But he also said we should continue with the reef experiments, so I think that's promising news, don't you?" She reached out and gave Kristin's hand an encouraging squeeze. "You've been working with this university longer than I have, so if anyone were to be let go, it'd be me or one of the others, not you. I wouldn't worry."

"Right," Kristin said with a nod. "I'm sure it's not as bad as I think. Thanks for the encouragement." She gently pulled her hand away and started towards Martin's office at the end of the corridor, trying to keep her composure. It was just that the last several people she'd seen get called to his office never returned to work the next day. She looked at the two empty stations again and then at her own. Perhaps hers would be just another empty station by tomorrow.

If she had to be honest, though, she was less concerned with her own position; her worry was for everyone else. Though she didn't exactly revel in the thought of having to look for another job, she had options. She could probably walk into any hospital right now and be hired on the spot. Why she hadn't yet was another matter entirely, but the simplest answer was that it was a way for her to stay close to the ocean, something she still longed for, even without the seaQuest.

Once she reached Martin's door, Kristin stood there for several moments, trying to mentally prepare herself for what could be coming. If he asks me not to return, I'll be okay. It's not because of you, it'll be because the lab just doesn't have enough work for everyone. You'll be fine, Kristin. You can do this. She gave a nod, confirming it to herself before finally knocking. You'll be okay, she told herself again and waited until she heard him say, "Come in," before turning the doorknob and walking inside.

"Ah, Kristin," Martin said with a smile. "I'm so glad to see you." He motioned to the empty chair in front of his desk. "Have a seat, please."

She hesitated. "If this is about the field study delays, we've just had a little trouble organizing a dive, seeing as we're a bit shorthanded now, but we just need a few more days, and then I'm sure-"

"Kristin, the work you're doing here is just fine. We've got a month before the field studies need to be finished, so I'm not worried in the least, and you shouldn't be either." He motioned for her to sit again. "Contrary to what you might think, this is actually good news, I promise."

She eyed him warily, but she finally did as she was told. "I'm sorry, under the circumstances, I just assumed..."

"And I don't blame you for that. I probably would have done the same thing, but I want you to know I've been trying to do something to save our little piece of the scientific community. I realize I haven't been very forthcoming with you about that, but I didn't plan on standing idly by as it crumbled beneath our feet." He paused and folded his hands in front of him. "You look at our lab now, and no one would ever guess that we were in our heyday a mere five years ago. But of course, that was before the UEO came into play."

"Things seemed so much simpler back then, didn't they?" She sighed, feeling a slight ache in her heart for days gone by. "But the UEO isn't all bad. I just don't think they quite realize what they're doing. I had no idea how it was for the rest of you when I was on the seaQuest. It wasn't until I came back here that I learned the truth."

"Admittedly, we didn't really feel it then. Considering the UEO allowed you to share with us, there wasn't much of a problem at that time. In fact, it really wasn't until after you..."

Though he didn't finish his sentence, Kristin knew what he was going to say. She lowered her gaze, guilt settling on her shoulders like dead weights. "I suppose I messed that up, didn't I?"

He waved a hand. "No, it was just bad timing. You certainly weren't the reason the boat was destroyed. None of this was your fault, so please don't blame yourself."

"All I know is I didn't have to fight so hard to keep my head above water then, no pun intended." She set her elbow on her armrest and cradled her chin in her hand. "Now, I feel like I could drown at any moment...and take the rest of you with me."

Martin nodded. "Almost makes you wish you never left there, hm?"

"Sometimes," she admitted quietly, moving to sit up straight once again. "But I hope you don't think that means I'm unhappy here."

Martin shook his head. "Not in the least. We've known each other for nearly two decades, so I'm pretty sure I know how you act when you're unhappy," he said with a wink. "Also, I agree with you. The UEO had no idea that their research endeavors were causing issues for anyone else...until now, that is. You see, I've been speaking with Secretary General Noyce, and he's very sympathetic to our current situation...so sympathetic that he's decided to help us."

"He...he has?" she asked, her brow furrowing in confusion. "He never used to be particularly sympathetic to scientific efforts before."

Martin shrugged. "Well, I can't say how he felt before, but he at least seemed genuinely concerned over the fact we could end up having to close our doors if our current projects fall through and we can't get any more funding for the future. That's why he proposed a deal with us, and I had little choice but to accept it."

"Oh, I see. Well, you're right, that does sound like very good news, but I don't quite understand what that has to do with me. You certainly don't need my approval, especially if you've already accepted," she told him, "but I'm very excited to see what we can do now that we have UEO involvement. That should make things a bit easier for us."

"Actually, it has everything to do with you," Martin explained, pushing his dark-rimmed glasses up on his nose. "I'd mentioned to the secretary general how things were better for us when you were able to serve as a connection, so he offered you a guest position there. You go there, work with their science team, gather new research, make connections for funding, and you come back here and save us from destruction. Sound like a plan?"

Kristin suddenly felt the icy claws of panic rip through her, her breath suddenly coming in short pants at the mention of her returning to seaQuest, all logic and reason escaping her. "No," she blurted out, but when she saw the stunned look on Martin's face, she quickly covered her blunder. "I...I mean, I'm just not sure I'm the one who should go. Vanessa, David, Rachel, or any of the others, really, are just as qualified. I really think they should be given a chance for it as well."

"That may be true, but I'm afraid none of them will do. The secretary general asked for you specifically, since you know the ropes."

"Of the old boat. I know nothing about the new one," she protested. "Maybe...maybe I should speak with the secretary general and explain..." She trailed off. Explain what exactly? she thought. Explain that facing him again would just be too painful? That it's just better if the captain and I don't go near each other? She sighed. Then again, Bill must know exactly what happened. Why in the world would he ask for me specifically?

"Explain what, Kristin?" Martin asked gently.

She snapped back to reality and cleared her throat. "Uh, well, I...I just feel a bit guilty, like I'd be stealing from the others. That's an opportunity any of them would kill for, and I'm just not sure I deserve it. Shouldn't they be given a fair chance too? Couldn't you ask him if one of the others could go instead? Please?"

A brow rose. "Funny, I thought you'd be excited to return to your old stomping grounds for a while. I know you were quite close with the crew there. When you'd introduced me to Captain Bridger at one of our conferences back in 2018, he spoke very highly of you, and you two seemed like you were great friends. I thought you'd want to see him after so long...and the others as well. However, I suppose I could see if the secretary general be willing to change his mind. Though he didn't say it directly, he did imply that without you, there might not be a deal, so I can't make any promises. We really can't afford to pass this opportunity up."

She ran a shaky hand through her hair, suddenly feeling as though she'd been tossed into the water without warning and she had two choices: sink or swim. Drowning had never been her forte, but swimming wasn't at the top of her list either. I need to find that ladder and get out, she thought. "I...I would love to see the crew." Most of them anyway; there's just one person in particular... "And I would do anything to save this lab. It's just that..." She fidgeted nervously in her chair. "I..."

"What?" he asked with a frustrated sigh. "I just don't know why you're suddenly selling yourself so short. You're a brilliant scientist...brilliant enough to have landed the chief science officer and chief physician's position on the first seaQuest, so I don't quite understand the resistance now." He paused and eyed her carefully. "It really isn't that you think you don't deserve it, is it? It's something else."

She nodded without thinking. No, Kristin, why did you do that? she chastised herself. Now you'll have to come clean...or at least think of another lie. "I-it's just that..." Oh, think, think, think! She placed a hand to her forehead and rubbed gently, as if it were going to help. Surprisingly, it must have, because it finally hit her. "It's just...the torpedoes."

"The torpedoes?" Martin repeated, blinking in surprise.

Her eyebrows knitted together. "Didn't I ever tell you about that?" A flimsy excuse, sure, but it was all she could think of at the moment. If this is going to work, you better sell it like your life depends on it.

He shook his head. "I don't think so. Surely, I would have remembered something like that."

"Well, when I was the CMO on the seaQuest, there was a small island that was going to be destroyed by a volcano if something wasn't done about it. Captain Bridger, Commander Ford, and Commander Hitchcock were all away, so I did what every good science officer would do," she said with a light laugh. "I took command of the bridge and insisted the weapons officer fire all the torpedoes at the sea floor in order to cut a vent and draw the lava away from the island, thus saving it and everyone on it."

"See, brilliant," Martin said. "Just like I told you."

Kristin grinned, more for the believable lie rather than for the compliment. "Maybe so, but the military brass wasn't too happy with me, since it was four torpedoes too many. Therefore, they wanted to know who was going to pay for those four unauthorized torpedoes. It was a long ongoing debate between the secretary general and me, and I don't think he's ever forgiven me for it." She wrung her hands together for effect. "I just... I don't want him upset with me."

Martin laughed. "Oh, Kristin, I think you're worrying for nothing. That was what? Nearly three years ago now?" He shook his head. "I highly doubt the secretary general is bringing you all that way to debate ancient history. I also don't think he'd have asked for you specifically by name if he was angry with you, do you?"

She shrugged. "No, I suppose not. I was just being paranoid, I guess." Don't suppose I'm going to be able to talk myself out of this one now.

"I agree," Martin said. "So, are you accepting?"

"I..." Say no, say no! Her teeth sank into her bottom lip as she tried to come up with another excuse, but she really couldn't think of anything Martin would believe. "I..." You could try the truth. Tell him you and Nathan didn't part well; he might understand.

She considered it for a brief second and then thought better of it. Though she and Martin had known one another for ages, she really wasn't keen on sharing matters of the heart with him. "It's a yes," she said, feeling the invisible shackles and chains tighten around her limbs. There was no backing out now. Ugh, I hope you know what you're getting yourself into. "When do I leave?"

•❤•.❀•ǝʌol sᴉ sᴉɥʇ ɟᴉ•❀.•❤•

Southampton

By the time she arrived home that evening, Kristin was exhausted, but she hadn't time to relax just yet. She had to pack, since she'd be leaving on a launch first thing in the morning. Just the thought of getting ready for the next morning made her feel nauseous. It felt as though her stomach was doing jumping jacks and her nerves were on edge yet again. Had she eaten, surely, she'd be emptying the content of her stomach this very instant, but after her talk with Martin had killed her appetite.

After the others had caught wind of what was happening, the attitude of the lab changed dramatically. Everyone had found renewed enthusiasm, and they all made significant progress on their projects. Kristin really hadn't had time to worry about how she was going to handle her impromptu reunion with Nathan before now. At the sudden thought, her heart started racing and she found herself gasping for breath. Oh, great, now you're having a panic attack, she thought to herself. She shut her eyes tightly and tried to calm herself, but to no avail.

How can I possibly face him? She flopped down on the sofa and buried her head in her hands. This was a terrible idea. Maybe I can call Martin and tell him I'm not feeling well?

She shook her head after a moment. You tried that one already, remember? He'd just talk you out of it again. Anyway, the lab is depending on you. If you don't go... She sighed in frustration. She really was between a very large rock and an extremely hard place, and there was no way out. Maybe it won't be as bad as you think? But as she felt her bones tremble at the thought of seeing Nathan in person, she knew she was kidding herself. She bit her bottom lip. Maybe... Maybe...

As if the universe knew she needed a distraction, the vid-phone rang. She practically jumped for it, hoping it was Martin telling her there was a change of plans, but the reality was far from what she expected. Her jaw dropped open when she saw Bill's face on the screen before her. "S-secretary General," she muttered in surprise. I...I..." She ran a shaky hand through her hair and cleared her throat in an effort to regain her composure.. "I'm sorry, I didn't expect..."

"I know, and I'm sorry if I've caught you off-guard. I hope this isn't a bad time? I know it's a bit late there, but I didn't think you'd gone to bed yet. From what I remember, you weren't one to retire early."

"No, not at all," she replied, absentmindedly wringing her hands together. "I...I mean, I still have packing to do. I wasn't-"

"Maybe we should start over?" he said with a sigh. "Since I can see how nervous you are. I didn't call to make you upset. My reason for calling you was to help put your mind at ease. I can imagine you're a bit confused about the situation."

Kristin instantly felt a stab of guilt when she noticed the kind look in his eyes. Bill always had kind eyes, even when he was angry. Now that she took a moment to really look at him, she noticed he had a few more lines around his eyes than when she'd last seen him, but then she guessed she was no different. Perhaps she'd been a little quick to judge the reason for his call, but given past events, she couldn't help herself. She took a deep breath and forced a weak smile. "You could say that, Secretary. It certainly came as quite a surprise."

He nodded. "But let's get one thing out of the way first. You don't need to be so formal. I've been Bill to you for years. Well, at least I was before.." he said with a slight grimace. "There's no reason to change now."

"I..." She shook her head and lowered her gaze. "We haven't seen one another in a few years, and I thought... Well, after Nathan and I..." She trailed off, almost afraid to say the words.

After a moment, Bill said, "You think I must hate you?"

"Well, y-yes," she replied with a slight nod. "That's why I don't quite understand this. Why would you ask for me, of all people? And not only that, but how did you even find me? I didn't exactly leave a forwarding address..."

"Yeah, I know. Why do you think it took me nearly three years to find you as it is? You didn't make it easy for anyone to find you. You have a post office box, and your home isn't even in your name."

"For a reason," she replied with more irritation than she intended. "I didn't want to be found. It's not that I didn't... I loved all of you, but when I left, I told myself all ties had to be cut. Had I left any loose strings, Nathan would have tracked me down, and I didn't... It was just better this way."

Bill shook his head. "Better for who, Kristin? When you left... It was such a shock to all of us."

She shifted uncomfortably in her seat. "I...I know."

"Nathan said he didn't even know there was a problem. He'd said you never brought it up."

"I know," she said again, her voice catching in her throat. She was too afraid to continue for fear she'd break down right there. She apparently wasn't alone because Bill was quiet too.

What seemed like a small eternity later, he finally spoke again. "I know it's not my place to ask, and you can refuse to answer if you'd like, but... Why? You and Janet were good friends. You spoke often; you shared intimate details with one another. But she hadn't even a clue as to why you just left without a word. Nathan had said you two didn't even argue in the weeks prior."

"I...I know, and..." Kristin frowned upon hearing the slight tremor in her voice, realizing she didn't have the control over her emotions she thought she had. She then sighed and stood up, feeling the strong urge to move, to distract her mind a bit in order to avoid breaking down. Yes, she and Bill were friends...or rather, they used to be. What they were now, she wasn't sure, but she wasn't keen on him seeing her that way, at least not right now. She paced back and forth, ensuring she never stepped out of the camera view. After a few moments, she took a deep breath and spoke again. "It wasn't Nathan's fault at all. It's just that at that time, he was terribly busy with the inquest and the build for the new boat, and I... I felt like I was in limbo. We kept making plans for the future...for after all that was finished, but we never knew when these things would take place." She stopped pacing and turned to him. "And it wasn't that I wasn't patient. I really tried, but my own situation was uncertain. Yes, the plan was for me to return to my CMO position when the new boat launched, but again, no one knew exactly when that would be. I was going between the UEO labs and the hospital, but I was running myself ragged in the process. I decided I couldn't wait anymore, so it was best to go before things became more serious between us than they already were."

Bill pondered on that for a few moments. "And you never thought to at least explain this to Nathan before picking up and leaving?"

"Of course I did. Bill, I never..." Despite her efforts, she felt tears creep up, her voice becoming shaky and strained. She did her best to swallow them back, but she could hear the tension in her voice as she spoke again. "I loved him with all my heart. I still do, but had I mentioned it beforehand, he just... He would have tried to talk me out of it, and even if I still insisted on going, he'd have suggested we try a long-distance relationship."

Bill's brow furrowed in question. "And what's wrong with that?"

"Everything!" she cried. "Not everyone has the luxury of having the perfect relationship you and Janet have. Long-distance relationships never last, at least not for me."

"Our relationship is far from perfect," he scoffed. "We have our ups and downs like everyone else."

"That's not exactly what I meant," Kristin replied, softening a bit. "I mean, whatever happens with you two, you work through it. You're married. Nathan and I... Well, quite the opposite, and I just saw the potential for so many more problems. The longer we stayed together, there was more and more at stake. At least this way, I figured it would hurt far less. I know it might be difficult for you to see, but I was trying to protect him. This was really the only way I could do that." She sat down again and then reached over to the box of tissues she kept on the coffee table, took one, and began dabbing at her eyes.

Bill seemed to know she needed a few moments to recover. "I see," he finally muttered. "I didn't mean... I know this is painful for you, but you can't blame me for wondering."

She shook her head. "But I certainly didn't expect you to call and ask me about it either."

"I had said you didn't need to answer me," he pointed out.

She waved a hand. "Well, it's apparent I'm going to have to talk about it sooner or later, given the circumstances." She paused as a thought hit her. "But you still haven't answered my questions. Why me again? And just how did you track me down?"

He gave her a sheepish grin. "Sorry, I sort of skirted the issue, didn't I? Well, you can blame Janet...or thank her?" He shrugged. "Eh, it all began a few months after you'd left; after the initial shock had worn off, she was on the Internex every chance she got trying to find you. She even enlisted Lucas to track you down, but he had trouble, too. You covered your tracks very well."

"I've already explained-"

"I know, and I'm not asking you to justify it. Just listen, please. Well, when Janet's efforts came up empty, she began kindly suggesting I help in the matter."

Kristin quirked an eyebrow at his word choice. "Kindly suggesting? That doesn't sound like Janet, at least not when she really wants something."

"I was trying to be kind," he said with a grin. "Fine, Janet was nagging me to use my pull with the brass to try and find you. She was convinced you might be in danger, that you were somehow forced to leave, that you'd never go without explanation..."

A hand rose to her mouth, a sticky swirl of guilt bubbling inside her for having worried Janet. "Oh, my, I had no idea she'd think that. I'm so sorry."

He waved off her apology. "There's no need for that. That just shows you how much she cares about you, you know. Well, I explained to her I couldn't exactly put our projects on hold just to track you down if we had no concrete proof you really were in danger, but I did do what I could in my free time."

Kristin sighed. "And what did Nathan think about all this?"

"He didn't know. That goes along with the why, but first, let me finish telling you how I found you." He took a breath. "But truthfully, there's not much to tell, as the case ran cold, at least for a while. I'd even tried to track down your daughter, thinking she'd be able to tell us your whereabouts, but she's just as difficult to find as you are."

"Like mother, like daughter," she muttered.

"Indeed," he said with a nod, "but then there was a light at the end of the tunnel. Your daughter contacted me several months ago."

"Cynthia?" Kristin's brow furrowed. "But why would she... She never mentioned..."

"Funding," he simply said. "I'm sure you know she's still very involved in humanitarian efforts?"

She nodded. "She doesn't tell me everything, and I don't think she's smuggling humans any longer, but I know she travels the world, trying to help the less fortunate...refugees mostly."

"Yes, that's exactly what she told me. Well, she was hoping the UEO would want to lend their financial support, and we did. And in exchange, she gave some information about you."

"My own daughter sold me out for money?" she asked in shock.

Bill laughed. "You don't need to make it sound so sordid, and it wasn't quite like that. It's not as if we gave her an ultimatum. We were giving her the donation no matter what, but while I was handing her the check, I casually asked about you. I think she expected me to do so anyway. She knew about our past. She told me you were living here in Southampton and working at the university. I'm not sure why I hadn't thought to check there before, but I felt better finally knowing that you were alive and well. I didn't seek you out right away, though. I wasn't sure how you'd take to me just calling you up out of the blue."

"I may not have been too happy," she admitted. "At least, not initially."

"Exactly what I expected. That's why I didn't even tell Janet what I knew."

Her brow rose in question.

He held up his hands. "I know, I know, but had I told her, she'd have shown up there uninvited months ago. I know you love her, but I wasn't sure how you'd handle that either. That's why I was going to contact you on my own. Or I planned on it anyway. I tried so many times to write you..."

"I'd never received any letters," she said quietly. "If I had, I would have... I'd like to think I'd have at least given you a reply, even if I didn't want to be found."

"I appreciate you saying so, but you didn't receive any letters because I never sent them. I just... I was never sure how to put it into words. Every time I tried, I sounded accusatory. I'd wanted an explanation, felt that was the least you could do, but I also knew sending you an angry letter wasn't the way to go about it." He shrugged. "And even now, I don't mean to sound accusatory. I admit, it is difficult to understand what you've told me, but I am trying to see your side of things."

"And I thank you for that, but...it still doesn't explain how we got to this point."

"I know, and I'm getting to that," he replied with a smile. "Well, I decided to let it rest. We'd originally began trying to find you for two reasons. The first was obviously for Nathan. We felt he deserved to know. But the second was for you, because we care. Contrary to what you might think, we don't hate you. We're a bit hurt and confused, but we don't hate you. We still love you after everything."

"Bill, I...I don't see how..." She shook her head, feeling tears sting her eyes. "You can't."

"Don't try to contradict it, please. We love you, and there's little you could do to change that. That's why I didn't act on the information I had in the first place. That's why I decided it best to let you come to me."

She dabbed at her eyes again. "And just how did you know I'd do that?"

"I honestly didn't, but I'd hoped. It wasn't until earlier this week that that hope finally became a reality."

She narrowed her eyes at him, a sudden surge of anger coursing through her. "Wait a minute. You're not telling me that you had anything to do with the non-UEO lab struggles, are you?"

His mouth fell open. "Do you really think that I'd stoop that low? In case you do, please know I would never. We honestly had no idea we were causing such a problem for the rest of you, and I assure you, the Southampton lab is just one of many we'll be helping. We're not going to leave the others high and dry, but the fact Dr. Ellis called me up seemed like a twist of fate, and that leads us here. That's the how."

"I'm sorry for the suggestion. It's just-"

"It's all right; I understand. The UEO isn't always the most trustworthy organization, and I know you witnessed that firsthand. Please know that under my watch, though, I do my best to make sure it stays mostly on the good side."

She smiled softly. "Well, I wouldn't expect anything less. Uh, so the why?"

"The why," he repeated. "Well, dual reasons. First, because I know your qualifications, and you know the boat."

"But I don't..."

"Well, perhaps not this particular model," he replied, "but you do know the basic layout. You know at least some of the crew, and you're trustworthy. We don't need to worry about you blabbing about classified projects, and it was much easier to get security clearance for you rather than someone we've never dealt with before." He then folded his hands in front of him. "And second, closure."

Confusion marred her brow. "Closure? But I just told you..."

"Not for me. I mean, I appreciate you explained it, but I also have a feeling that might not be the whole story." He held up a hand. "Now I don't expect to know any more. I think that's between you and Nathan, but surely, he deserves to know the truth, doesn't he?"

She lowered her gaze. "So this was all an elaborate trick to get Nathan and me to talk?"

"Don't you think he deserves it?" He slammed his hand down on the table before him. "My God, Kristin, you weren't here. You didn't see..."

"I know I hurt him," she replied, no longer able to hold back tears. "It hurt me too, but I told you..."

"And now you need to listen," Bill told her, his words gentle but firm. "It took everything in our power not to let him go back to that damn island of his. He was devastated after you left. You were the first woman he loved after Carol, and he still loves you. Oh, believe you me, he's healed, but I know he still loves you. I'm not expecting you two to rekindle anything, but I figured if you two were forced into a situation like this, you'd eventually talk. If anything else, keep your friendship. I think it's clear he needs it, that you both need it."

Kristin let out a few pained sobs. "I really never..."

"Shh," Bill soothed. "I know, I really do, but...why don't you take a few moments?"

She nodded quietly, wiping at her eyes and taking several deep breaths. After several minutes, she was able to speak again. "Thank you," she muttered. "Do...do you really think that's the wisest plan, though? It's a small boat. Well, I assume it still is anyway; the crew may be more focused on us rather than their work. You know how quickly people glom onto gossip there."

He shrugged. "As for the crew, they'll become bored rather quickly. You should remember how that works. And you and Nathan managed to keep things professional last time. I trust you can do it again."

"And I'm sure he was absolutely thrilled to find out I'm going to be there for a month," she said dryly. "He's probably as excited to see me as I am to see him."

"Actually, he doesn't know."

Her mouth fell open, shock crashing over her in waves before irritation took over. "E-excuse me? Are you mad? You came up with this little plan and didn't think to spring it on him first?"

"Well, he does know a guest scientist will be working there for a time, but he doesn't know who. I told him the university was still deciding who to send."

"So absolutely no one there knows about me?" She crossed her arms over her chest. "You said you called to ease my mind, but that's not really working. What do you expect me to say when I see him?"

"I find hello is a nice greeting."

She gave him a look. "You really think this is a joking matter?"

"Sorry," he muttered, "I was just trying to lighten the mood. But I really think you're worrying for nothing. For starters, not everyone is in the dark. I told the one person who should know just who is going to be working alongside her, and that's Dr. Wendy Smith."

"My replacement?" Kristin guessed.

He nodded. "She's actually very excited to meet you. I asked her not to tell anyone else as a surprise, and she agreed to keep it to herself. As for Nathan and the others, that's all you need to tell them as well...that you wanted it to be a surprise."

"And you don't think he'll be angry when he finds me there?" she asked, biting her bottom lip. "You'd just said how broken up he was..." She sighed. "I don't think this reunion will be as happy as you think."

"Well, that's up to the two of you, isn't it?" He paused. "You're not going to back out now, are you?"

"Don't think I haven't thought of it, but no... I think Martin would kill me if I did, and he said you weren't keen on bringing anyone else but me on."

"Not really," he admitted. "I know this puts you in an awkward position, but I think that by the end, you'll be glad you did this."

"I still have my doubts, but I suppose it will be in fate's hands." She shrugged. "Though if you hadn't arranged this, the thought wouldn't have crossed my mind."

"See, aren't you glad you have me then?" he asked with a wink.

She smiled softly. "I don't think you want to know my answer right now." Her smile then quickly faded. "I just hope you know what you're doing."

"Always," he replied. "Just try not to worry."

"Easier said than done, but I will try." She ran a hand through her hair. "Are you going to tell Janet now?"

"Soon. If I tell her now, I can't promise she wouldn't show up on board herself," he said with a laugh.

Kristin laughed with him. "Well, we can't have that, can we? But maybe I could help you out with her. Once I get settled on board, I could give her a call."

His brow rose in surprise. "You're ready to face her wrath?"

She sighed. "Well, I hope it wouldn't all be wrath, and better me than you. I have missed her, and I suppose if the idea is for me to rebuild bridges, she's included in that."

He nodded. "She'd like that, and I think she'll forgive you fairly quickly." He paused, folding his hands. "If you have any problems at all, you call me, night or day. I don't think you will, but in case, I don't want you to think you're on your own."

"Thank you, that's good to know."

"I am sorry about throwing you into this situation unexpectedly."

She shrugged. "Well, it's for the good of the lab, and I am starting to think you might be right on the rest."

"I'm glad, but I think I've kept you long enough. You said you still needed to pack, and I want you to try to get some sleep tonight."

She nodded. "Thank you, and I'll try. I am glad you called."

"Me too. I hope we can see each other in person soon. I'm sure Janet would love to have you visit very soon."

"I'll see what can do," she promised.

"Goodnight, Kristin. Sleep well."

"Goodnight," she replied before cutting the link.