“You’ve been keeping the President’s counsel quite a bit lately, sir,” Belzen remarked quietly, as he and Helena stood side by side in the CIC. It was late night with the skeleton crew, and they were drumming through some fairly uninteresting but necessary maintenance and inventory reports.
Helena barely looked up from the tablet in front of her. “And?”
Belzen paused, smiling his small, knowing smile. “And it seems to be helping to smooth your relations, in public at least.”
She glanced at him. He was giving her a significant look. Mildly irritated, she looked up at him. “What are you getting at?”
“Has your opinion of one another… changed?” he asked carefully.
“Gods forbid,” she retorted.
“Just, sir…” He set down the clipboard he was reviewing and stepped a bit closer, attempting to be discreet. “Your disposition has been a bit different as of late, and I wondered whether that change had something to do with it.”
“Are you asking me personal questions, Mr. Belzen?” She was pulling rank and she knew it, but her XO knew her better than most, despite the curiously formal nature of their relationship. Helena let few people in, and even fewer were made aware that they had gotten in. Belzen kindly continued the charade that she had not done this with him. It worked, as far as it went.
He straightened up and buried his nose back in his clipboard. “Of course not, sir.”
A few moments ticked by. Helena knew his approach. Silence. She sighed, annoyed. “And so what if it does, Mr. Belzen?”
That slow little grin crept across his face. “All to the good, I imagine, sir.”
"So...It’s just meetings.”
“What else would it be?”
“It would be strange if you didn’t take meetings with the President.”
"Yes, it would."
“And her hair is glorious.”
“Yes–” Helena began and stopped. “What did you just say?”
Belzen was not looking at her, but was grinning to himself. “Nothing sir.”
She glared at him for a moment. “You’re damned right, nothing.” She shuffled the papers in front of her. She’d forgotten now what she was supposed to be looking and why.
“It is, though. It’s a very nice red,” he whispered.
She smirked. “It is,” she agreed.
Belzen contained his victory lap, but she knew it was going on in his head.
“There’s nothing to speak of, am I clear?” she said sharply.
“Of course, sir.” He looked up at her earnestly for a moment. “I hope that that nothing–” He leaned on the word a bit. “–works out in your favor, sir.”
“You’ve been seeing an awful lot of Admiral Cain, lately,” Billy suggested gently, once the room had cleared. Laura sat with her head between her hands after another of the long administrative meetings that gave her headaches.
She didn’t look up. “And?”
He hesitated. “Well, I guess it’s good, if it’s helping you to avoid big public disagreements, but…”
“But what, Billy?”
“I don’t like her,” he said firmly after a moment.
“You’re not required to like her,” Laura answered with a weary smile. “Neither am I.”
“But… but you do,” he pressed on. “And it’s bothering me. I don’t like it. I don’t trust her. And she’s rude. And-”
Laura wanted to wrap him up in a hug and assure him that she knew what the hell she was doing, but she didn’t quite. Nothing more had happened between her and the admiral since the night she went over for drinks on the anniversary of losing her family, but their relationship had definitely changed. They sought each other’s counsel and company more often. She knew what Billy was getting at.
“Billy,” she sighed affectionately, “please don’t worry about me. I know what I’m doing. You know, there's more to her than you think there is.”
"That's exactly what I'm afraid of." His brow furrowed and he sat down next to her, handing her a glass of water. “Is there… is there something I should know?”
She managed to lift her head and look him in the eye. “Billy, if there is, I promise, you’ll be the first to know... because you’d have to help us keep it out of the press,” she joked.
Billy wasn’t terribly amused. He pouted, “How can you even joke about that?”
“Because I know what I’m doing,” she repeated. “And there’s nothing to worry about.” She fixed him with a stern eye. “There’s also nothing to discuss with anyone else, either. Do I make myself understood?”
Billy nodded, looking especially put-upon. “Please be careful,” was all he said.
Helena had given Laura a taste for scotch. She knew it wasn’t great for her, or as the doctor would say, “contraindicated for the meds” she was taking. But it was as good an excuse as any to spend time in Helena Cain’s company. They’d eat and drink and argue policy, reach uneasy compromises, laugh, drink some more. They’d play chess, drink, swear, debate religion, and flirt over verbal jousting about military history.
This particular evening, Helena was less buttoned up than usual. Laura had never seen her without her jacket completely buttoned, and was having trouble averting her eyes from the sliver of military-issue grey tank shirt peeking out from her loosened collar. This couldn’t be leading anywhere she had any business going.
“Billy’s fretting about our newfound friendship,” she sighed, stretching out in her chair. "I'm afraid he doesn't like you very much." Helena had been the victor on the chessboard tonight and Laura was gracious as ever, but she still reached out and gently knocked some of Helena’s pieces over. “Oh, pardon me, Admiral. I’m a little clumsy at the moment.”
Helena snorted. “Belzen’s been nosing around, too.” She leaned down and righted her queen on the board. “He commented on your hair.”
Laura inspected Helena’s face over the top of her glasses, incredulous. “What did he have to say about my hair?”
Helena hesitated. “I believe the word he used was… glorious?”
“Glorious?” Laura playfully fanned herself. “Maybe I should be playing chess with him .”
Helena fixed her with a stare that made Laura feel as though she was about to be grabbed and kissed. Laura half-wanted her to. More than half. Mostly, actually.
“Come here,” Helena said, not gruff, but with the tone of someone accustomed to giving orders and not having them questioned. She walked over to her bed and began tugging the blanket off.
Laura glanced at the bed and looked pointedly at Helena. “Excuse me? I’m not sure we know each other that well.” But I’d like to. But I shouldn’t.
Helena shook her head. “No no, just… just come here.” She took the blanket and spread it out on the floor.
Laura looked quizzical. “What’s this?”
“Come here,” Helena insisted again. She sighed. “Please.”
Laura stood, smiling, and walked over to where Helena was lowering herself down onto the blanket, taking off her jacket, rolling it up, and wedging it behind her head as she laid down. Laura’s breath caught at the sight of those arms, those toned shoulders, the place where the base of her throat became the top of her chest, and she briefly questioned how good an idea this was, whatever it was. Lousy, probably. But delightful.
Helena patted the blanket. “Lie down.”
Laura hesitated again.
“I know what you’re thinking, but it’s not that. I promise.”
“Billy warned me to be careful, you know,” Laura teased, slowly settling onto the blanket next to her.
“So did Belzen, in his way,” Helena retorted. “But I never listen to Belzen.”
“Yes you do,” Laura parried, kicking off her shoes and realizing how she probably would have had a much better time if she’d done it two hours ago.
“I do,” Helena acknowledged with a chuckle.
Following Helena’s lead, Laura doffed her suit jacket, rolled it up and wedged it under her head. She turned her head and looked at Helena, who was staring at some fixed point on the ceiling. She looked up. She saw nothing. She looked back. “So? What are we doing, exactly?”
Helena turned her head and faced Laura again. “We’re going to Persephone Lake.”
Laura was confused.
Helena turned back to her. “Close your eyes.”
Laura complied. “Alright.”
Helena began, with a tone that indicated she was just getting warmed up. “Near where I grew up on Taurus, there was a park with big lake that we used to go to. The lake was surrounded by low hills, that were green and grassy, and in the summer, we took picnics and sat under the shade trees, eating lunch, kicking a ball around, riding bikes around the lake. The damn thing was the size of a small town, and on sunny days, the sun was so dazzling on it, it looked like a giant gold coin.”
Laura pictured this as Helena described it.
“It was almost blinding,” she went on, “so we liked to wait until later in the day to go rowing on it. We had small rowboat, painted blue and white, and at dusk, we would push out into the water and row out to the middle of the lake.”
Laura imagined Helena’s arms, pictured the play of muscle beneath the skin of her shoulders in low early-evening light, the movement of her upper body, forward and back, propelling the boat along the vivid surface of the water that mirrored the dusky pink and purple of the sky. It became a bit of work to keep her breathing steady.
“A good vantage point meant you could watch the sun sink down between the steaming hills, watch the sky turn purple, and then blue, and then black. You could see the stars come out, a thousand of those little pinpricks twinkling in the clear sky. You could smell the cool of the earth and watch the silhouettes of birds winging home to their nests. You could lie on your back in the bottom of the boat, with your jacket wadded up underneath your head, and trace the constellations, and listen to the sounds of the water sloshing against the sides of the boat.”
Laura sighed. It sounded blissful. No wonder Helena had mentioned having a thing for rowboats. It seemed an oddly sentimental thing for someone like her, and, as it turned it, it was. “And that’s where you want to take me?”
“Beats the hell out of Cloud Nine.”
Laura couldn’t argue the point. Cloud Nine was a good simulation as simulations went, but it wasn’t the same as having real fresh air, real breezes playing through your hair. And more to the point, it wasn’t even as good as lying on a blanket on the floor in a cramped battleship cabin, having real rowboats on real lakes described in loving detail to you by the toughest Admiral in the fleet.
“I suppose it does,” she agreed after a moment.
Helena’s hand found hers, took it, and with both their eyes still closed, pointed upwards, drawing out the patterns of stars that she held committed to memory. “The Hunters,” she said, tracing the first. “The Maidens, The Judge…”
Laura lay quiet, picturing the stars and their patterns.
She turned her head, and opened her eyes, watching Helena’s face as she traced the patterns. There was a peaceful look on it, an unfamiliar look. She found herself captivated.
“...The Prophet….” Helena broke off, realizing Laura was watching her. She opened her eyes, glanced up at their entwined hands, still held aloft. “You’re supposed to keep your eyes closed so you can watch the sky,” she scolded.
“I can see it,” Laura answered softly. It was there, in Helena’s face, in the way she looked at her, fraught with loneliness and longing and nostalgia. Their hands lowered back down to the blanket and they gazed at each other for a long moment in silence. There was no denying it; Laura wanted to kiss her. Wanted to feel that hard, muscled body pressed against her own. Wanted those strong arms around her. “This is a terrible idea,” she whispered.
“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” Helena whispered back with a smile.
“I should go.”
“I wish you wouldn’t.”
Not an order. Just a hope. I wish you wouldn’t. “You know why I have to.”
“President, Admiral, fate of humanity, good of the fleet, et cetera… Did I cover most of them?”
Laura gave her a smile that looked like she was doing so through a punch in the gut, because it felt like she was. “That’s the general idea.”
Helena nodded. “Okay, as long as it’s that.”
“As opposed to what?”
“You not wanting to be here.”
Laura kept herself steady and squeezed Helena’s hand. “You know that’s not it.”
“Alright, well… Madam President, I’ll let you go, but… just stay a few minutes, more, alright? We don’t have to talk. We can just lay in the boat and look at the stars.” Their fingers were still twined through each other’s on the blanket.
Laura smiled, and closed her eyes, and faced up again. “Alright, Admiral. Just a few moments more.”