The Phoenix, Part 2: The Last Twenty Meters
D. J. Belt

Copyright: Original story and characters, copyright D. J. Belt, September, 2006.
Sex/violence: No violence, no graphic sex. ALT, if labels are necessary. A little earthy language, but nothing too bad.
Comments: As always, I love hearing from you. If you feel inclined to write, please do. I can be reached at

Misc.: This is a sequel to the sci-fi story The Phoenix, and takes place in the year AD 2274, two years after the first story. Our girls Julie and Tink have left war behind them, and must now face another daunting prospect: re-adjusting to a normal life on Earth. It's not absolutely necessary to read the first story before one reads this one, though it does help. So, snuggle down, get a cup of whatever, and enjoy! I hope you like it.

"Look, Julie. Earth. Terra Firma. What's it been, over two years now?"

Julie lifted her eyes from the magazine through which she was flipping in boredom and glanced through the port-window near Tink's shoulder. "Yeah. Always glad to see it. Always hated to leave it." She looked at her wrist-watch. 2:30 pm, June 16, 2274. It was, as the old saying goes, the first day of the rest of her life, a part of her life which she never really expected to live to see. Until she met Tink, she hadn't really cared in years whether she'd see it or not. Tink changed it all.

"You won't have to leave it ever again, if you don't want to." Tink giggled, an infectiously happy sound that Julie had grown to adore, and added, "So, how's it feel to be retired?"

Julie looked down at herself. Above the gentle swell of her breast, the chest of her army dress uniform tunic displayed several rows of multicolored ribbons denoting awards and decorations. The topmost ribbon, alone in its place of esteem, told the world that she held the Medal of Honor, the highest award that Earth's government could bestow upon a soldier. She had nearly died on the occasion which won her that one. The sleeves covering her arms bore the sergeant's chevrons which had been a part of her since she could remember. The most impressive badge, however, was the one on her chest above her ribbons, an oblong, bronzed badge denoting that she was a soldier of Earth's famed Light Infantry, and one who had seen combat. It was a coveted badge, and the majority of those sergeants who wore that badge never lived long enough to see retirement. Julie had, and she still wondered how she made it this far. By her reckoning, she should have died many times over.

"Retired?" she echoed. "Jeez, I'm only thirty-four. What the hell am I going to do with myself?"

Tink placed a hand on her forearm, a reassuring gesture. "You've got a pension and medical disability pay. You don't have to do anything if you don't want to. You'll have enough to live on just fine. And don't go feeling all guilty about it," Tink added. "You earned it. Years of war on Earth's colonial planets, wounded how many times? Five? Hospitalized four times for battle-related psychosis? You've got the Medal of Honor, for Christ's sake. You're a hero, Julie. Let the government pad your pocket. It's the least they can do for ya."

"It's not about that, Tink. It's-"

"Yeah, I know."

Julie looked over at Tink and saw the understanding in the girl's eyes. Tink always understood. She was bright and very perceptive. The wide eyes studied Julie's face from underneath the spiky, short blonde hair. At twenty-two, Tink wore her own uniform as if she'd been born into it. That was ironic, Julie thought, since three years before, the girl had been conscripted into the army against her will, and had reported only because she was dragged from her parents' home by two police officers. The double chevrons of a corporal's rank decorated the younger woman's sleeves, and a single row of ribbons crossed her chest above her left breast. Above it, Tink proudly displayed her own Light Infantry badge.

Julie sighed at the sight of the badge. She remembered when Tink had won it, on a mission to a horrid, hostile colony planet. It had gone terribly awry, and Tink and Julie were the only two survivors, leaving behind them a trail of the bodies of their comrades. They had departed a sergeant and a young soldier, and had returned closer than sisters could be. Combat, it seems, forges deeper friendships than even family.

Not long after, that friendship had morphed into romance, then into love. The attraction was mutual and intense, and they had quickly arranged to share Julie's private quarters. That was almost two years ago; now, they were both released from the army to return to their former world. They were equally apprehensive at the return, but for vastly different reasons.

Tink said, "It's about purpose, isn't it?"

Julie huffed and ran her fingers through her head of brown curls. "Well, yeah. I mean, you have a purpose, Tink. You have a goal. I don't. I've been at war constantly since I was seventeen. I hated it, but I don't know anything else. What will I do?"

Tink spoke slowly, considering her words. "You'll do what you always do. You'll rise from doubt to certainty. You'll find a purpose, and you'll pursue it with a vengeance and be wildly successful at it."

Julie couldn't help but smile at that. "You really believe in me, don't you?"

"Don't you?" Tink asked.

"I trust you, and you believe in me. That's enough for me."

Tink smiled at the sentiment and squeezed Julie's arm in an unspoken gesture of thanks. Then, she leaned over in her seat and planted a quick, affectionate kiss on Julie's cheek. Julie raised an eyebrow, her look of question unable to disguise her delight at the impulsive act, and teased, "What was that for?"

"For believing in me, too," Tink responded. "For loving me. For wanting to help me chase my crazy dream. For wanting to be with me for the rest of my life."

"How could I not?" Julie asked. "Maybe you're my purpose now, Tink."

The craft hovered down at Toronto's airport, then slowly coasted to its berth to discharge its passengers. Eventually, carried along in the throngs of tired travelers which emerged from the gate, Tink and Julie strolled along the spacious corridors toward the central portion of the terminal. For some time, they rode the moving sidewalk in silence, fascinated by the sights and sounds of the busy air terminal and the hordes of people who moved purposefully along its arteries, their colorful, stylish clothing a stark contrast to Julie's and Tink's own dun-colored uniforms. Finally, Julie broke the silence with a soft question.

"I've never been here before. What's Toronto like?"

Tink shrugged. "Oh, like any big city, I guess. It seems very much like I left it." After consideration, she corrected herself. "Nah. It looks the same, but it's somehow totally different. Why is that, I wonder?"

Julie smiled. "The city hasn't changed. You have."

"Yeah, that's for sure," she agreed. "Hey, there's baggage claim. Let's get our trash, then call my dad. He said he'd come home early."

Julie snickered at Tink's use of the word 'trash' to denote their bags. It was an army expression; the army, it seemed, snaked its way into a person's psyche more than anyone wanted to admit, even for an irrepressibly free spirit like Tink. She quickly considered the second statement, then placed a hand on the girl's shoulder. "Think he can get free from work?"

Tink giggled. "He owns the company now, I hear. He does whatever he wants."

"Ah." After another moment of silence, Julie asked, "What's he like, your dad?"

"Huh? Oh, I don't know. Like every dad, I guess. Works all the time. A real take-charge kind of guy."

Tink's shrug at the question puzzled Julie. "Tink?" she asked.


"Does he know about me coming home with you?"

Tink's eyes met Julie's. For a moment, they locked in silent communication. Then, Tink voiced the answer. "Yeah. I wrote them."

"Does he know- ?"

She shook her head. "I want to tell him in private, in case he goes ballistic. I suppose he understands that we're lovers, though. I've put you in my letters enough. I guess he's okay with it. He hasn't blown up about it or anything."

"But?" Julie asked, reading the uncertainty in Tink's answer.

Again, she snickered. This time, it was a nervous sound. "He'll give you the third degree, probably. He's always been very protective of me."

Julie grinned. "Sure. He's a father. That's their job. Hell, if you were my daughter, I'd probably lock you in a convent." She leaned over and whispered in Tink's ear, "I sure wouldn't let you hang around the likes of me."

Tink giggled delightedly at the comment, then pointed. "Goof-ball! Come on, there's baggage claim."

A half-hour later, Julie and Tink were watching the expansive, shiny city speed by beneath the elevated mass transport as it slid along one of the many rails snaking across the top of the city. Tink tapped Julie excitedly on the arm, then pointed. "Look, there's the high-rise in the distance. That's where my parents live. The next stop is ours." The transport began slowing, and they rose, each grasping their single bag as they began worming their way forward through the long car to the exit. Slowly, they worked their way up the aisle, carefully stepping between the feet and bags of the commuters crowded onto the long bench seats facing the aisle. About half of the car was jammed with young soldiers, probably on leave. Julie noted the horde of brown uniforms ahead, but ignored them as she and Tink struggled along the narrow aisle, their bags by their knees, their free hands holding the railing above their heads.

About halfway up the car, a middle-aged sergeant looked up at Julie. Their eyes locked, and they both nodded the slow, almost imperceptible nod of greeting between warriors who had seen too much and lived, who had shared the brotherhood of battle. As the car slowed, she saw his eyes travel down to study the chest-full of decorations on her tunic, and the eyes widened. He quickly stood, then summoned a gruff, commanding tone and addressed the entire car, his voice silencing the buzz of conversation around them.

"Heads up! There's a Medal of Honor winner on the deck!"

A moment of stark silence filled the car. To a person, the young soldiers stood to attention and remained that way, respectfully, silently, their eyes fixed on Julie as the commuters on the car stared in puzzlement and question. Julie's gaze slowly traveled around the compartment. The countless pairs of eyes above the uniforms were all fixed upon her; the commuters regarded the scene with curiosity. When Julie's eyes reached the sergeant's face, she whispered, "Thank you."

"You bet," he replied. "You enjoyin' a little leave, Sarge?"

"I just retired," Julie replied.

"You made it all the way through, huh?"

Julie smiled. "Yeah. I never thought I would."

The sergeant nodded. "I know what you mean." In his eyes, she could see that he did. He extended his hand. "Good luck in civilian life."

She clasped the offered hand. "Thanks. I'll probably need it."

With that, and a mutual nod of understanding, they parted. Julie wormed her way to the door, followed by Tink, and they stepped off the transport car. As the mass transport began moving away behind them, Tink took the moment to study Julie. She saw her wipe a hand across her eyes and heard her sniff. Tink smiled painfully, then placed an arm around Julie's waist and said, "I have to warn you, Julie. Back here, nobody's gonna care."

Julie nodded. "Yeah. I know. That's what made that so special to me, I guess. Well, let's get goin'."

They slung their bags over their shoulders and walked the three downtown blocks from the mass transit station to the high-rise apartment building's door. As they rode the elevator up, Julie studied the upscale surroundings, then said, "Man, this is some place. Your folks must have it goin' on to live here."

Tink shrugged. "Yeah, they're pretty well off now, I guess. Wasn't always that way, though. I was actually born in the city hospital, downtown." At Julie's questioning expression, she hastened to explain, "That's for the poorer people. The rich folks go to the private hospitals."

Julie nodded. "That's why you don't have that rich-girl pretense about you, I guess. I never did figure you as coming from money."

Tink grinned at that. "We have the same humble beginnings, don't we? Except you're a farm girl and I'm a city girl."

"Remember, it's the farm girls that feed the city girls." At Tink's snicker, Julie looked over at her lover's face. It was a face full of character, with the sparkling, wide eyes and spiky hair, a face that she loved. Impulsively, she backed Tink into a corner and planted a kiss on her mouth, a lingering kiss into which they both melted and remained as the elevator rose, floor after floor. When the elevator slowed, Julie whispered something into Tink's ear.

That caused Tink to giggle in glee. "Ooh, you're so hot when you talk like that." She put both hands on Julie's shoulders and pushed her away. "C'mon, you slacker. Pick up your trash. This is our floor."

They left the elevator, wandered down a gleaming hallway, and stopped before a door. Julie studied the polished tile and shining metal trim in the hall, then looked down at herself. Her brown, faded uniform and worn boots stood in painful contrast to her polished surroundings. After Tink rang the buzzer, she looked over at Julie and softly confessed, "Man, I'm nervous. I wonder why?"

"You're nervous?" Julie said. "I'm about to pee my pants."


"I'm gonna meet your family."

"So? Man, you've faced down bad guys on a dozen planets. What's so scary about this?"

Julie forced a tight smile. "It's your family. I don't want to screw this up for us."

Tink snaked an arm around Julie's side and gave her a reassuring squeeze and a quick kiss. "You won't, doofus. You couldn't. I love you for a reason. Trust me, you'll do great." As she released Julie, she assumed a suddenly serious expression and said, "Maybe that's why I'm so nervous. I wonder if they'll accept me." After a second, she added, "Accept us."

"You're their daughter," Julie said.

"But I'm not the same girl that left, three years ago. I'm a lot different, Julie."

Julie did not have time to consider a reply. The door slid open with a quiet hum, and Julie was face-to-face with an attractive, middle-aged woman who could have passed for an older version of Tink. She stared at the two uniforms, then squealed with joy and hugged her prodigal daughter in a frantic embrace, calling her by her given name. "Matilda! Oh, Tilly!" she gushed. "Oh, my God! It's really you, isn't it? You're home at last!" Her embrace almost lifted Tink's feet off the floor as she squeezed her daughter in a desperate grip, laughing and crying at the same time. Julie stood aside in silence, nervously grinding the toe of her worn boot against the floor. After a very long moment in embrace, the woman released Tink and opened her mouth to speak. Tink took a step back and pulled Julie forward by her sleeve.

"Mom, this is Julie. Do you remember, I wrote you about her?"

Tink's mother turned her attention to Julie. "Oh, of course. Tilly spoke of nothing else but you in her letters to us. I'm so glad to finally meet you. And please, call me Carla." Julie hesitated, unsure of whether to offer a hand or not, and Tink's mother solved the dilemma by stepping forward and embracing Julie warmly. Then she walked back inside the door and motioned with a hand. "Come in, you two. You must be exhausted. I'll feed you a little something. Oh, and your father will be home soon, too. He'll be so glad to see you again. Here, let me show you your rooms."

They picked up their two bags and followed Carla through the immaculately-appointed and spacious dwelling as she led the way, chattering pleasantly. Julie followed Tink, and although she had noticed Carla use the plural of the word when referring to their rooms, she wondered if Tink had picked up on it.

"This is your room, Tilly, and we can put your friend-"

Tink laid a hand on her mother's arm. "Mom, it's okay. We'll both stay in here." At Carla's suddenly speechless expression, Tink hastened to reassure her. "We're a couple, Mom. I thought you understood that from my letters."

She blinked, then said, "Well, I certainly got that impression. But, ah-"

"We've been sharing a space for two years, Mom. It's okay, really it is."

Julie placed a hand over her mouth to hide her amusement. She was very glad that Tink was handling this particular situation, and she remained silent, just watching the scene play out.

"Oh, it's quite all right with me, dear, but what about your father? You know how he is about, um-" She hesitated, then finished, "Well-"

"Yeah, I know," Tink said. She pulled apart the front of her uniform tunic and reached inside, then produced a pocket-sized, official-looking plastic document. "He'll just have to get used to it. Y'see, Julie and I are married."

Several minutes later, Carla slowly opened her eyes. She was resting on the room's bed, and as her eyes focused, she realized that she was staring up at two very concerned faces above her. Her daughter was holding her hand on one side, the normally twinkling eyes considering her seriously. On the other side, Julie studied her.

She perused her daughter's face first, the wide eyes full of life, the short, blonde hair, the aura of barely-suppressed humor present even since childhood. It was the same face that left three years ago, but somehow it seemed older, very different now. The eyes were deeper, a hard-earned wisdom and sadness mixed with the emotion always present in them. The child she had known was gone, and in her place was a woman.

Then she blinked up at Julie's face. It was a pleasant, even attractive face, she immediately decided. This woman, she thought, seemed a little older than her daughter, but how much, she couldn't tell. The eyes, though, were squinted, sad, and filled with- what was it? A deep, restrained anguish. That's it, she thought. There's pain behind those eyes. There was, she decided, much within this woman that bore study, a deep story to be told. The long, healed scar over the left eyebrow, the wiry muscle beneath the open front of her uniform tunic and above the tee shirt which lay beneath it, told much about her. She wanted to know more. For the moment, though, she returned her attention to her daughter, who was speaking to her.

"Mom, are you okay?"

"What- what happened, dear?" Carla asked.

"You fainted, Mom. Julie and I caught you just before you hit the deck. You feeling better?"

"Oh, I think so." She slowly sat up, then looked around and blinked in embarrassment. "Just the excitement of it all, I suppose. How long have I been like this?"

"Just a couple of minutes," Julie reassured her.

"My, my. That's no way to treat my guests. Come on, I'll fix you two something to eat."

She made an effort and rose, Julie and Tink taking their places on either side of her. A little shakily, she led her guests back to the living area, then proceeded to begin fussing in the kitchen as she directed them to sit at the counter and began preparing hot tea for them. Tink nagged, "Mom, let me do that. You sit down."

Julie decided that it was time to act. "Yeah, Carla," she urged. "Let Tink handle that. You come and sit with me, why don't you? We'll talk about her in front of her." Julie grinned at her. "You can tell me all about how bad a kid she was. Don't leave out a thing, now. I want to hear all about it."

Carla welcomed the chance. She quickly relented and allowed her daughter to push her out of the kitchen, then seated herself next to Julie with a conspiratorial wink. "Well," she began, "Did she ever tell you about the time she and her friends went skinny-dipping in the downtown fountains?"

"Mom!" Tink shouted as she operated the wall oven. "No fair!"

Julie snickered at her lover's reaction, then leaned toward Carla as she lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "She didn't! Tell me later?"

Carla giggled, a giggle very similar to Tink's, and agreed with a delighted twinkle of her eyes. Quickly, she changed the subject. "So, Julie, where is your home?"

Julie shrugged. "Don't really have one. My folks are dead. The army's been my home for the last seventeen years."

"Seventeen years? You must have been very young when you joined."

"I got conscripted right out of high school, when I was seventeen." Julie could see the mental gears work in Carla's mind, calculating her age. When the bell rang, she could see the eyes widen a little. Carla, however, said nothing about the twelve years' difference in age between her daughter and her new daughter-in-law.

"So you were forced to serve, like Tilly?" At Julie's silent nod, Carla sympathized, "It must have been hard on you, so young like that. It broke my heart when they conscripted her. She was nineteen. I thought I would die when those police officers came and took her away. I mean, they had to literally drag her from our home."

Julie smiled. "Well, you don't have to worry any more. She did great and she's back, safe and sound."

Tink placed three small trays of food down on the counter, then asked, "Who's for tea?" At the two nodding heads across the counter from her, she produced three cups and filled them with hot tea, then hustled around the counter and took a seat next to her mother.

As they lifted their forks and began to eat, Carla said, "Julie, I notice that you call Tilly 'Tink'."

Tink answered, "Yeah, Mom. That's my nickname."

Carla raised an eyebrow in question, then asked, "How'd you get that?"

Julie snickered, then cast her eyes down toward the snack on her tray, saying nothing. Tink giggled, then explained cryptically, "Ah, it's short for 'Tinkerbell'."

"Oh?" was Carla's reply. She glanced over at Julie, who, still fighting to hide her amusement, added her own two cents.

"It's an affectionate nickname, really."

Tink said, "It's grown on me, Mom. I like it."

Julie quipped, "Yeah, you might say that it's a permanent part of her now."

"Oh, stop it!" Tink squealed in laughter, then reached over and slapped Julie's arm.

Carla regarded Tink with suspicion, then said, "Okay, young lady. Out with it."

Tink hesitated, then put her fork down and waved a hand in the air, speaking rapidly. "Well, it's like this: when I was in infantry training, they found out I'd studied ballet for twelve years. So, they started calling me 'Tinkerbell'. It got shortened to 'Tink'. I liked the nickname so much that, ah..." She took a deep breath and finished, "I got a tattoo of a fairy."

Carla raised her eyebrows in exclamation. "A tattoo? You have a tattoo?"

Julie jumped into the conversation in an attempt to defend Tink. "It's a tradition, Carla. They all get tattooed after their training."

Her expression became one of intense curiosity. "Really?" she inquired.

"Yeah. Everybody has one. Really."

Carla seemed fascinated with the topic. "And do you have one?"

Julie nodded. "Yeah."

She slid her tunic, open at the front, off one shoulder to expose an ornate tattoo of a phoenix on her upper arm, in full view because of her sleeveless tee shirt. Carla studied it, then exclaimed, "My, it's lovely. Why, it's almost a work of art, isn't it?"

"That's exactly what it is," Julie confirmed, as she pulled her tunic back over her shoulder. She decided not to tell Carla that soldiers got a tattoo to help identify their bodies if battle had mangled them too severely to identify any other way.

"And Tilly, what does yours look like?" Carla asked, her curiosity aroused.

"Um, you want to see it?" Tink asked, seeming apprehensive at the thought.

"Why, of course, dear. Can't your own mother see your tattoo? I'll bet it's a beauty, too."

"It sure is," Julie echoed, desperately attempting to stifle a laugh. "Go on, Tink. Show your mom your tattoo."

"Well, okay. Remember, you asked for it." With that, she stood, turned around, dropped her uniform pants and underpants, and lifted the tail of her uniform tunic, exposing her butt. There, prominent on one cheek of her ass, shone an exquisitely-colored tattoo of a fairy the size of her hand, the gossamer wings framing the lithe, willowy nakedness of the forest creature whose only modesty was the wisps of long hair which strategically covered a bit of her pelvis.

Carla's mouth fell open. She stifled a cry of shock, then exclaimed, "Matilda Anderson! You got a tattoo on your ass, of all places? Don't you dare let your father see that! He'll positively go through the ceiling! And a naked woman, too?"

"Fairy, Mom. A naked fairy."

Tink began sliding her pants up, but Carla stopped her with the statement, "Wait a minute, dear. I haven't seen it yet." She leaned down and studied her daughter's behind, humming in thought over the artwork, while Tink remained standing before her mother, her pants around her thighs. Julie dropped her fork and placed a hand over her mouth, desperately attempting to not laugh out loud at the ludicrous sight. "My goodness, it's really beautiful," Carla gushed. "I always knew that you inherited my affection for art. Have you seen this, Julie?" She caught herself and blushed, backtracking with the statement, "Silly me. Of course you have."

In reply, Julie didn't trust herself to speak. She merely nodded.

Tink pulled her pants up and fastened them, then resumed her seat as her mother asked, "So you've come home from the wars tattooed and married to Julie. What other surprises are you going to shock your mother with?"

"That's enough for today," Tink joked. "I'll hit you with something new tomorrow, okay?"

Carla saw the teasing look in her daughter's eyes and replied, "I can hardly wait."

They looked up in unison when the front door hummed open and steps echoed in the hall. Carla rose, said, "Oh, that's your father now," and bustled off toward the front hallway. Julie and Tink heard whispered voices, and then two sets of footsteps echoed across the polished floor. Carla entered, followed by a middle-aged man, who brightened as he saw Tink.

"Dad!" Tink yelled, and rushed to him, hugging him enthusiastically.

As he embraced her, he said, "Matilda! Thank God you came home safe." Then, he grasped her by the shoulders and lifted her away from him, looking down at her. "Let me look at you. My, you look fit. The army must have agreed with you, after all." He fluffed her hair with a hand. "And look at that short hair. When you left here, it was almost to your waist." He studied her uniform. "I see you've earned some rank and awards, too. You'll have to tell me what they mean."

"They mean that I'm a survivor," she said, then motioned toward Julie. "Dad, this is my-" She caught herself, and finished, "This is Julie. She's come home with me."

Julie stepped forward and accepted his hand. "Pleasure, sir."

"Please call me Brent. The pleasure's mine."

"Thanks," Julie said, as she shook his hand. His grip was strong, and she noted that his business suit was expensive and well-tailored. He had an air about him of assured dominance, and she saw that his smile did not completely extend to his eyes. Already, he was appraising her critically, and she guessed that he made many fast decisions about people based upon his initial appraisal of them. She wondered about his appraisal of her, and quickly decided that she only cared because she so loved Tink. "I appreciate you having me in your home," she added.

Carla hurried to take charge of the situation with her earnest hospitality. "Take your coat off, dear. Relax, and everybody have a drink. We'll eat dinner soon."

As he slipped his suit coat off, he noted the trays on the counter. "Oh, you're eating now?"

"I just fed them a little something because they've been traveling. They'll be hungry for dinner, won't you, girls?" At Tink and Julie's assured nods, Brent walked across the immaculate living area and took a place behind the bar.

"What will you gals have?" he asked. "I'm a whiskey man, myself."

Tink glanced over at Julie, who nodded. "Make it three, Dad. Mom?"

"Nothing for me, dear."

He quickly poured out three tumblers of whiskey, then set the decanter aside. After he passed out the glasses, he motioned toward Julie. "So, you were in the army with Matilda?"

"Yeah, at Aquarius."

Brent grimaced at that. "Nasty situation, that Aquarius," he said. "I hear that they've won their independence from Earth. Glad that little war is finally over with."

"Yeah," Julie agreed. "Me, too."

Brent nodded, then pointed at Julie's ribbons. "Career, huh? You've been around the block quite a bit, I see. How long have you been in?"

"Seventeen years," she answered. "I just retired."

His eyebrows raised at that. "You seem awfully young to be retired."

Tink joined the conversation, placing a hand on Julie's shoulder. "Julie started when she was seventeen, Dad. She got a medical disability, and she's out early."

"Ah." He sipped his whiskey, then pointed at Tink's chest. "I see you're both wearing the same badge. What is that?"

Nothing gets by this guy, Julie thought. He notices everything. Tink quickly responded, "It means we're both Light Infantry combat veterans, Dad."

His expression fell. He looked at her and asked, "You were in combat on Aquarius?"

"Yeah," she replied.

"Damn it, I pulled strings to get you into a safe job. What the hell happened, Matilda?"

Julie felt Tink go tense at the terse questioning. Julie didn't want Tink to reveal the fact that she had volunteered for it, so she quickly replied, "You know the army, Brent. They have a way of screwing up everything."

He focused on Tink. "But you told us that you had a clerk's job."

Tink quickly reassured him, "I got that after combat. Julie got me transferred to it."

He considered the reply, then looked at Julie. "I appreciate that," he said.

"She earned the badge, Brent. Then, she earned the job. She did great out there."

He nodded again, a look this time of relief and appreciation. He softened a little and said to Tink, "Well, I'm just glad you didn't get your ass shot off, young lady."

"Thanks, Dad. Us, too, huh?" She leaned against Julie and nudged her with a finger as she directed a twinkling smile her way. Julie nodded, her expression soft and pleasant and saying nothing else, but noted Brent's sharp eyes flicker between her and his daughter, watching their body language and facial expressions. He sipped his drink again, then posed another question.

"Are you, ah- married, Julie?"

Julie felt Tink's hand tighten around her arm at the question. She watched the intense, inquisitive eyes perusing her face and replied, "Yeah, actually I am."

"Where's home for you?" he asked.

"Don't have one. Toronto now, I guess."

"Oh? What about your husband? Where's he at?"

At that, Carla hustled into the room and announced, "Dinner's ready. Come on, let's eat before it gets cold." As she ushered everyone into the formal dining room, Julie noted her cast a worried glance at Tink, who replied with a raised eyebrow of her own and a finger over her lips in a gesture of silence. They seated themselves at the table, and polite, pleasant conversation began as they lifted forks and glasses and indulged in a very tastefully-presented meal. As usual, Carla proved herself an expert hostess as she kept the conversation steered away from marriage, politics, and war, and deflected Brent's probing questions toward Julie with gentle admonitions to her husband. Much to Julie's surprise, he seemed to obey her and restrain his inquisition, instead choosing to converse about Toronto, weather, and business.

After dinner, Brent excused himself from the table, stating that he had some business to attend to, and retreated into the room in which Julie's and Tink's bags rested on the bed. There, he pulled his telephone from his pocket and dictated a name to the little machine. In a moment, a face appeared on the screen and greeted him warmly. Brent got right to business.

"Bob, I need a favor. Can you help me out?"

The face was agreeable. "Sure, Brent. What's up?"

"I need a service record on somebody."

"Oh, man. That's highly irregular, ol' pal."

"Is it illegal, though?"

"Not really, I guess. Okay, who is it?"

Brent leaned down and examined the tag on Julie's bag. "Kapos, Julie, SSGT. Number two-five-seven-four-seven-seven-oh."

"Yeah. Can you hang on while I retrieve it?"

Brent shook his head. "Meet me in the bar downstairs, will you? We can talk better there."

"Yeah, sure."

"Thanks, Bob. See you there in a few minutes." With that, he clicked off the instrument and shoved it back into his pocket. When he returned to the living room, he found the three women talking around the dining room table and sipping coffee, and announced that he had to meet someone. "Just business," he said, adding, "I'll be back in a little while." At their congenial nods of understanding, he slipped on his suit coat, leaving his collar open, and left his dwelling to summon the elevator to the lobby.

In a few minutes, he was huddled at a corner table with Bob, who lived in the same high-rise building. After ordering two drinks, he leaned forward and said, "What did you find?"

Bob consulted the screen of his palm-sized computer. After a moment, he raised an eyebrow in silent exclamation. "What's your interest in this gal?"

"She's up at my place, right now," Brent said. At Bob's surprised expression, he explained, "She came home with my daughter, who's just returned from the army. They're friends, but there's something odd about it. Can't peg it, but I don't trust her completely. Something's going on that I don't know about. What can you tell me about her?"

"Well," Bob said, "she just retired. Service record as long as your arm. Man, she's seen one hell of a lot of combat. Wounded five times, and what's this? She's been hospitalized four times for battle-related psychosis."

Brent rolled his eyes. "Oh, great. She's a friggin' psycho? I've got a nut case loose in my home?"

Bob countered, "No, no. Not at all. It's all listed as battle-related. I saw a lot of it as an army psychologist."

"She didn't seem nuts to me when I met her. She seemed pretty together." He paused, then asked, "Does it come and go? What causes that kind of thing, anyway?"

"Years of warfare, Brent. Look, war's a horrid experience, soul-shattering. Earth's got so many wars going on right now that these folks don't get a break. They get sent from one meat-grinder to the next until they finally snap."

Brent cast Bob a cautious look. "What do you mean, 'snap'?"

"Oh, it's ugly. Paranoia, hallucinations, acute depression, suicidal tendencies. They have to be hospitalized for a while. Padded room, and all that."

"Shit," Brent said. "Is it curable?"

"Easily. The cure is simply to remove them from combat permanently, so they can start the healing process. Trouble is, the army keeps throwing 'em back into the meat-grinder. Then, they snap again." Bob looked at his little computer. "Yeah, this poor gal has been through the wringer, all right. Four episodes over the years."

"Is she dangerous? I mean, hell! For the last eighteen years, she's been killing people, hasn't she?"

Bob shook his head. "Nah, usually not dangerous. They do well if they can just stay away from the wars. Now that this gal is retired, she might do okay, eventually."

"Good God," Brent huffed. "Matilda picked a lulu to get chummy with, didn't she? Oh, which reminds me, does it list her marital status there?"

Bob nodded. "Sure. Hang on." He scrolled down, then stopped. After a moment, he looked up at Brent. "It says here that she's married. Hm. Got hitched a month ago, at the army chapel in a military transport ship returning from Aquarius."

"To who? Where is he now? How come she's not with him?"

Bob studied the screen, then paled. "Actually," he began slowly, "her spouse is female."

Brent slapped his fist down on the table. "I knew it!" he exploded. "That philandering psycho bitch is screwing my daughter. I'll put a stop to this right now." He made a motion to rise from the table, but his friend stopped him with the next statement.

Bob responded, "Um, I don't think so, Brent. You'd better sit back down."

"Why? Give me one reason not to throw her out of my home." His tone was defiant, but he seated himself as he awaited his friend's next thought.

Bob took a deep breath, then said, "Her spouse is listed as Corporal Matilda Anderson."

This time, it was Brent's turn to pale. He stuttered for a moment, then screeched, "What? They're- they're married?"

"You didn't know about this?"

"No. Hell, no. They didn't say a word to me about it." He wheezed, "I can't believe it."

Bob raised an eyebrow. "How long have they been here?"

"Just this evening. They got in late this afternoon."

"There's your answer. Your daughter was probably just waiting to talk to you privately about it."

Brent fumed, "Why in God's name couldn't she tell me over dinner?"

"I think 'privately' is the operative word here." Bob put down his palm-held computer. "Brent, you and I have been friends for a long time, haven't we?" Brent nodded. "You know I think the world of you, but I've got to tell you, you can intimidate the hell out of people. You're a very intense guy. You can rage sometimes. Your wife and kids walk on eggshells around you quite often. I've seen it myself."

"Are you saying that my daughter's scared of me?"

Bob nodded. "Yeah, Brent. That's exactly what I'm saying. She probably thought that you'd explode at the dinner table and cause a scene. After all, I'm sure she knows how you've always really felt about her sexual preferences."

Brent looked as though he'd been struck with a fist. He sat, speechless, for a long time as Bob awaited his thoughts. Finally, he gulped his drink, set the glass down on the table, and said, "I can't believe this."

"Do you remember," Bob began softly, "when she decided to go professional with her ballet? When she came home with the announcement that she'd auditioned for the Toronto company?"


"Do you remember what your reaction was? It was an ugly scene, Brent. If I remember right, she didn't come home for a week afterward."

Brent's voice rose. "Ballet's a shit career, Bob. She was making a lousy decision about her life. She's always been headstrong and defiant. She has to be handled firmly."

"Yeah, she's a free spirit, that's for sure," Bob agreed. Then he leaned forward and fixed Brent with a serious expression. "But it was her decision to make, wasn't it? I mean, it was her life, and not yours."


Bob smiled painfully. "Look, Brent. You're like a brother to me, so this comes from a brother, as well as from a psychologist. Can I give you a little advice?" He grinned, then added, "Hey, it's free, and I don't hand out free advice very often."

Brent sighed heavily, then nodded in resignation. "Sure."

"Your daughter is a grown woman now, with her own mind and her own life. Just love her for who she is, will you? 'Cause if you don't, she'll walk out of your life and you'll never see her again."

Brent shrugged. "You've lost me."

"Okay. Stop yelling and start listening. Tell her that she can come to you with anything, and that you'll shut up and listen and not pass harsh judgement upon her and condemn her."

"I do that?" he asked incredulously.

Bob laughed. "Man, what judgement did you just pass on this Julie Kapos gal? You were ready to throw her out on her ear. That was pretty harsh, wasn't it?"

"Yeah, I guess it was at that."

"Right. Look, I don't know Kapos, but I know your daughter, and she's a bright gal. I'll bet she's made a pretty good choice in a mate, all things considered." Brent looked at his friend skeptically, and Bob referred to his palm computer again. "For instance, did you know that Kapos was awarded the Medal of Honor?"

"No. What's that?"

"That," Bob explained patiently, "is only the highest award that Earth's government has. It's seldom given, and most people who get that award get it draped over their coffins. If you meet a living person who has that medal, you've met someone who's been to hell and back and lived to tell about it." He put his computer down and lifted his drink. "It means that somewhere, in some battle, she made a conscious decision to attempt an act which almost assuredly should have resulted in her death. She survived, by fate or luck or whatever. And do you know what causes someone to show courage of that magnitude, Brent? It's not glory or patriotism or any crap like that. It's self-sacrifice. Invariably, they do it to save their comrades. They do it because they hold their buddies' lives at higher value than their own, and for no other reason. To me, that says a lot about her character. Mark my words, she'll approach marriage with the same self-sacrifice. Your daughter's damned lucky to have a mate like that, in my opinion."

Brent sputtered, "But this chick is nuts, Bob. She's loco."

"She's not nuts, Brent. She is psychologically very fragile, though. After looking at her record, I think she has a damned good reason to be. Wouldn't you agree?"

Brent considered his friend's words, then nodded. "Yeah, I guess she does, at that."

"One more thing, Brent? This is your daughter-in-law we're talking about now. You can help her heal more than you know. Will you do that? Will you help her heal?"

"How? What can I do?"

"Accept their marriage. Welcome her. Give her your friendship, your respect. Let her know that she's got family in you. Love her, Brent. She's your daughter-in-law. After seventeen years of war, she's begging for a little peace, a little normalcy. Help your daughter to give her that. Don't let Matilda carry that burden alone, will you?"

Brent sat for a minute, considering the melting ice in the bottom of his glass. Then, he rose and said, "Thanks, Bob. I mean it. Thanks."

"You bet. Good night, ol' buddy."

"Good night." With that, Brent left the bar and headed for the elevator.

In their room, Tink sat next to Julie on the bed. She asked, "What's wrong? Come on, out with it."

Julie sighed, then turned to face her mate. "When are you going to tell your father about us?"

"I wanted to talk to him alone, tonight, but he's gone out. I'll talk to him soon, I promise."

"Tonight," Julie urged. "Tonight, as soon as he gets back."


"He deserves to know. Besides, I don't take well to hiding things from anybody. If you don't tell him, I will."

"He can fly into a fit sometimes. You don't know what he's like, Julie."

"Then stand back and let him. I've known guys like that. Trust me, he'll respect you all the more if you face him and be honest with him. Tell him tonight."

Tink studied the floor at her feet, then slowly nodded. "Yeah, you're right, of course."

In the moment of silence which followed, they heard the soft hum of the front door opening and closing, and heard Brent's footsteps in the hall. Julie urged, "There's your cue, love. Make yourself proud."

Tink studied Julie's face, then grinned. "Yeah. I can do this," she said. Then, she rose and left the room. Julie lay back on the bed, her fingers interlaced behind her head, and waited patiently for Tink's eventual return, even as she felt a deep stab of sympathetic pain for her.

Brent threw his suit coat over the back of a chair and walked to the bar. As he was pouring himself a whiskey, Tink walked into the room. She stopped, then softly said, "Dad?"

He looked up. "Hi, Matilda. I'm glad you're still up. You want a drink?" he asked.

"Yeah," she quickly answered, then added, "We need to talk about something in private."

Brent nodded. He poured another glass of whiskey, then emerged from behind the bar and handed one to his daughter. He smiled painfully, then agreed, "I was hoping that we could do that."

"You were? I mean-"

"Yeah. In the study is okay?"

She nodded, and together, they walked into the study and closed the door behind them. For half an hour, they remained behind closed doors. When they emerged, Tink impulsively hugged her father, then said, "Thanks, Dad. You have no idea how much this means to me."

"Matilda, I just want you to be happy. Is there anything else I can do?"

"Yeah," she said. Her face crinkled into a delightful grin as she said, "Call me anything but Matilda, will ya? I've always cringed at that."

"But that's after your grandmother," he said.

"I love the woman dearly, but I can do without the name, Dad."

He relented and said, "Okay. How's about Tilly?"

She countered, "How about Tink? That's my nickname, after all."

"Tink Anderson," he intoned. After a second's thought, he said, "I like it." Then, he corrected himself. "Or is it Tink Kapos, now that you're a married woman?"

Tink grinned. "Tink Anderson Kapos."

He nodded again. "It works for me," he said. "Is there a story behind the nickname?"

Tink giggled in mischievous delight, then said, "Oh, yeah. Ask mom. She'll tell you all about it."

"I'll just do that. G'night-- Tink."

"G'night, Dad." With that, she disappeared around the corner heading toward the bedrooms. In a moment, he could hear his daughter's exuberant voice exclaim, "Oh, yeah! Hey, Julie! Everything's okay! He's great with it!"

Later, Julie wandered out into the living room, dressed in her uniform pants and her tee shirt. She looked around the darkened room, then looked again. Sitting in a chair, contemplating the expanse of lighted city beneath the picture window, Brent relaxed, a drink in his hand. Julie thrust her hands into her pockets, wandered close to the window and said, "You've got a beautiful view of Toronto from up here."

"Yeah. I love it." Brent looked up at her and asked, "Can't sleep?" She shook her head. "Happens to me sometimes," he agreed. "Make yourself a drink, why don't you?"


Julie walked behind the bar, fixed a drink, and then wandered out into the living room. She chose a chair next to Brent and seated herself, facing the picture window. For a minute, neither one spoke. Then, he said, "Julie, may I ask you something?"

Julie softly replied, "Sure, Brent. What's on your mind?"

He paused, then whispered, "What was Aquarius like?"

Julie sipped her drink, then answered, "It's a miserable little hell-hole of a planet. It's not worth one life, let alone the fourteen of my soldiers that I saw die there." She sipped her drink again, then muttered, "And it was all for nothin'. They died for nothin'."

"But what was it like for you and Tink?"

"A bad joke from the start. They dropped us into a desert that was lousy with rebels. Sixteen of us went in. Two of us came back out." She sipped her drink, then added, "Me and Tink."

"She told me that she's alive today only because of you."

Julie shrugged. "Actually, it's the other way around." Brent looked over at her, and she continued talking in a low voice as her eyes gazed out over the city's lights. "We'd had a meat-grinder day. Fourteen dead. There was just me and Tink left, and I got messed up. Tink picked me up and carried me on her shoulders the last twenty meters to the rescue transport."

"My God," Brent whispered. "She never told me about that."

"She wouldn't," Julie agreed. "She's a hell of a gal."

"Yeah, she sure is," Brent whispered. A silence fell between them, a silence in which each one was alone with their thoughts. After a minute or so, Brent spoke again. "She wants to return to ballet professionally, you know. It was always her dream, her passion. I never admitted this to her, but she really was a damned good dancer."


"But she's been out of it for three years. It's gonna be one tough road for her. She's older now, and she's rusty. She'll have to work her ass off, and the chances are very high that she'll not make the cut to get into the Toronto company."

Julie looked over at Brent. "And you're opposed to this?"

"It's not the choice that I would have made for her." He sipped his drink, then added, "But it's not my choice to make, now is it? It's hers."

"What can I do to help her get what she wants?" Julie asked.

Brent smiled at that question. "That's the attitude I anticipated from you. Look, if she's gonna do this, she's got to train brutally hard, every day and all day. It has to be her life, her obsession. She can't be working some crap job on the side. I told her that I'd finance her training, but I can't support her, too."

"Let me support her, Brent. That's my job now."

He shifted in the chair, faced toward her and spoke intently. "You'll have to do even more, Julie. You may have to carry her that last twenty meters."

Julie tilted her head in question, and Brent's manner became animated. He spoke softly, but with emotion. "Look, this goal is a tough one. There will be times that she'll come home exhausted and hurting all over, that she'll suffer an injury that will set her training back, that she'll have a bad day, a bad performance, or some egotistical dance critic will lacerate her to the soul with his sarcastic comments. But nobody will be harder on her than she will be on herself. She'll come home some days in tears, figuring that she was stupid to think that she could ever dance professionally again, that she stinks, that she'll never make the grade. She'll suffer a kind of spiritual agony that visits all real artists, Julie. That's when you need to pick her up and carry her that last twenty meters."

Brent smiled for the first time that night, a little, self-conscious smile, as if he was embarrassed to have bared his thoughts so completely. After reflection, he chuckled and said, "I think that, next to Tink, you'll have the toughest job of all of us." He paused for a moment, then said, "But I think that you're more than a match for it."

Julie looked straight into Brent's eyes. "I'd die before I'd fail her, Brent. And I don't do this because I owe her; I do this because I love her."

"I know." He extended his hand to Julie. "Welcome to the family, Julie. I'm proud to have you for my daughter-in-law."

"Thanks," Julie said. She grasped the hand, then added, "We'll see her shine in this. After all, that's what family is for, right?"

"Damned straight."

Behind them, in the darkened hallway, Tink stood, listening to the conversation. She considered what she'd heard, then swallowed hard. After a moment, she wandered out into the darkened living room, stood between the two chairs, and placed a hand on Julie's shoulder. The other hand, she rested on her father's arm. "How's my favorite people?" she asked. "You two getting along out here?"

Julie looked up, then placed her own hand over Tink's. "Like two ticks on a dog," she joked. "What's up? I thought you were going to sleep."

"Nah. Can't sleep without you anymore, Julie."

Brent looked up at his daughter, then smiled. She was definitely all grown up. He coughed, then said, "Go on, you two. Get some sleep. I'll see you both in the morning, huh?"

Julie nodded, then rose from the chair. Tink bent down, placed a kiss on her father's head, and said, "G'night, Dad. I love ya."

"I love you too, honey." The words seemed strange, coming from him. He found, though, that he relished the sound of them. It had been too long since he'd said them to the impish little girl that used to scamper through his house. He watched Julie and Tink disappear into the dark, then returned his gaze to the city twinkling below his expansive window. Life could be very good, he decided, if one relaxed and didn't push so hard. Very good, indeed. He'd definitely learned a lot tonight. The thought of just how much he had learned humbled him a little.

In the bedroom, the light dimmed and shut off. Tink and Julie snuggled beneath clean sheets, sheets from which a pleasant fragrance wafted, on a bed which was soft and accepting. Julie stretched luxuriously, then felt Tink wriggle in next to her and settle in to sleep. She whispered, "Julie?"



"For what?"

"I heard everything," Tink said. "What you and Dad said to each other. You two were really getting on, weren't you?"

"He's a good guy, Tink."

"Yeah, I'm finding that out. How come I never saw that before?"

"You've both changed, I guess."

Tink leaned up on one elbow and gazed down at Julie. "Now we need a purpose for you."

"Nah. I have my purpose. You."

"I hope I don't let you down."

"You won't," Julie assured her. "You'll struggle and you'll win, and I'll be there all the way for you, cheering you on."

"And carrying me the last twenty meters?"

Julie smiled. "Yeah. Like you did for me, when all I wanted to do was lie there and die."

Tink placed a kiss on Julie's lips, silencing her, then whispered, "No more talk about that. Let's look to the future from now on."

Three months later.

Julie was in the kitchen of their tiny flat, washing the fresh produce that she prepared every day for their meals. Tink's diet was strict, although generous; the prefabricated, mass-produced food that many people consumed was inadequate for keeping her weight and body fat down and her energy at the high levels needed for her constant training. When Tink had begun her intensive dance training, one of Julie's first acts was to launch herself into a detailed study of her mate's dietary needs, then attempt to provide them with daily trips to the market.

In addition, Julie visited the nearby gym every morning and exercised religiously. Not only was it her long habit and invigorated her, but it helped keep the nagging voices of battle-induced psychosis away from her, voices which sometimes whispered just behind her at those moments when she was alone with her thoughts. Lately, the voices had not visited her much. She was grateful for that, and credited Tink with being the remedy. Slowly, it seemed, she was returning to normalcy, a state which those about her took for granted, and a state which she desperately craved, for both her sake and Tink's.

As she rinsed her hands in the spray of clear, fragrant water which coursed from the tap, she paused and studied the simple gold ring on the third finger of her left hand. Married. She smiled at the thought. Never did she ever think that it would happen. She had, for years, honestly thought that she would never live; that her next mission, the next war into which she was inevitably thrown, would be her last, and for that reason, never allowed herself to become close enough to anyone to consider marriage. None of them did; soldiers lived only for the moment, as the future held only a promise of a grisly death on some forgotten planet. Love was a luxury which they couldn't afford.

She and Tink had bought the rings in Toronto the day after they had arrived. They had gone downtown to shop for a few changes of clothes, as they had only their uniforms, and Tink found that her teen clothing no longer suited her or really fit her. The rings, hidden in the back rack of a little jewelry store in the shopping district, completed their sparse wardrobe and announced to the world that they were a couple.

The door hummed, and Tink wandered into the flat. Julie glanced up and smiled a greeting. Immediately, she noted the weariness about Tink's features, and asked, "Good day?"

Tink dropped her bag by the door, pulled her shoes from her feet, and flopped down on the low divan in the sparsely-furnished little flat. "Oh, man," she said. "They kicked my butt today. I'm sore all over. I thought that part of it was over with."

"What happened?"

"Oh, Tchaikovsky happened. Nutcracker Suite."

Julie attempted a joke. "Real nutcracker, huh?"

Tink giggled, in spite of her weariness. "Yeah. Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Guess I'm not the fairy I was at nineteen."

"I thought ol' Tinkerbell would have aced that one."

"Old is right. Man, those girls are fifteen, sixteen, some of 'em. I'm having a hell of a time keeping up with 'em."

"Well, you've got a lot of catching up to do. Buck up. It's only been three months, and you've been out of this for three years. You'll get back to where you were."

"Sometimes I wonder." She lifted herself from the divan and padded across the floor to Julie's side. "What's for dinner?"

"The usual. Hungry?"


Tink stretched, and Julie noted the frown of pain on her lover's face. "Take a hot bath after dinner, and I'll give you a massage."

"Now you're talking." She fished a piece of eggplant out of the bowl on the counter and popped it into her mouth as she hugged Julie, then walked toward the bedroom, stripping off her clothing as she went. Julie noted the girl's physique; Tink, as slender as she was normally, had lost some weight, and her muscles rippled as she walked. She was losing her curves and reacquiring her dancer's body. Julie decided that another compliment was in order.

"You're shaping up nicely. You look fantastic."

Tink stopped, then looked back over her shoulder. Her eyes twinkled at the compliment, even though she seemed skeptical. "Think so?"

"Oh, yeah." Julie pointed. "Even Tinkerbell there is getting some muscle on her."

Tink twisted around, looked down at her butt, then snickered. "She's gonna be sore tomorrow."

"Yeah, but I'll take good care of her tonight."

"You always do." With that, and in infectious giggle, Tink disappeared into the bedroom. Julie smiled as she set two places on the little corner table in the kitchen. Then, she popped the cork from a bottle of red wine and poured two glasses.

Tink reappeared, dressed in a robe, and took a seat. As Julie sat, the overhead lighting flickered, then went out. Julie muttered a colorful profanity, then slapped the wall above the switch. The lights flickered back on. "Friggin' circuits," she said. "They must be over a hundred years old."

"Kind of a dump, ain't it?" Tink observed.

"I thought you liked this flat," Julie teased. "Thought you said it had 'character'."

"That's just my way of saying it's a dump."

"Yeah, but it's a block from the dance academy, and the market's right around the corner."

Tink was quick to assert, "The location's great, and I love this part of town. It's really quaint and artsy. Don't listen to me. I'm just bitching."

Julie snickered. "Yeah, I know." She raised her wine glass. "To our neighborhood. It's a slum, but it's an artsy one."

A delightful giggle was Julie's reward. Tink clinked her glass against Julie's, then added, "All the starving artists of Toronto have to live someplace, don't they?"

After dinner, Tink soaked in a hot bath while she listened once again to the movement of Nutcracker Suite which concerned her, mentally recalling the choreography. She lay back in the tub, allowing the strains of music to flow through her, remembering how the soul of the piece would attempt to possess her as she danced. Yeah, that was the problem. Too much of a free spirit. She paid too much attention to the music's soul, and the fine discipline of ballet kept eluding her. It wasn't second nature to her anymore, like it was when she was nineteen. She was going to have to dance more dispassionately, more intellectually, with more concentration on the discipline of technique and less attention to the passion. After all, ballet was a precision art.

A metallic crash from the kitchen shook her from her thoughts. She sat up in the tub and called, "Julie? Everything okay?" There was no answer. She furrowed her brow in worry, then stood and stepped from the tub. After a cursory wipe across her body with the towel, she wrapped it about her hips and padded into the living area, her wet feet squeaking across the floor. Julie was not to be seen. She felt a strange fear well up in her chest. "Julie?" she called again, this time with a frantic edge to her voice. As she stepped into the little kitchen, her heart almost stopped.

A metal salad bowl lay on the floor. In a corner of the kitchen, Julie was curled into a tight ball, her knees drawn up against her chest, her arms sheltering her head. Her eyes were wide, unseeing, and she was gasping in panic and crying. Tink's face twisted into an expression of anguish, and she moaned, "Oh, no. Not again." She knelt by Julie's side and said, "Julie, snap out of it." When her words had no effect, she raised her voice. "Julie! Julie!" Finally, she screamed, "Julie! Snap out of it." Julie froze. Slowly, she looked up into the face above her. "Julie, it's me. It's Tink. Get a grip. Everything's okay. You're safe. You're all right. Snap out of it, will ya?"

The eyes, wide, horror-stricken, and unblinking, slowly eased into focus on Tink's face. Her chest heaved in a ragged sigh, and she blinked several times. Then, she looked around her, as if seeing her surroundings for the first time. "Tink?" she asked in a weak, squeaky voice.

"Yeah, honey. You're safe. Everything's okay, really." When she perceived that Julie was again under control, she knelt by her side and hugged her to her chest. Julie's arms snaked around Tink's back, and she buried her head in the wet chest and began sobbing. In between sobs, she tried to speak.

"I'm- sorry. I'm- "

"Shh. There's nothing to be sorry about. Everything's okay. It's all over now." For a long time, she knelt, holding Julie as she wept and purring comforting words. When Julie quieted, Tink lifted her chin with a hand and looked into her eyes. The eyes were wet and red, but had returned to normal. The horror was gone, or rather, had retreated into some deep part of Julie's scarred psyche. "Are you back with me?"

Julie nodded. "Yeah, I'm okay now."

"Do you know where you are?"

"Yeah," Julie whispered. "I'm good, really." Her eyes trailed over Tink's chest, then she asked weakly, "Got you out of your bath, huh?"

Tink smiled painfully. "Not a problem."

"I'm sorry." She blinked again, then asked, "Have I given you your massage yet?"

She hadn't. Tink blinked back a tear, then nodded. "Yeah, you have. It was wonderful, too. Now, come on. Let's get you up off the floor, huh?"

Julie nodded. Slowly, she stood, Tink supporting her. When she regained her feet, Julie asked, "Did I mess anything up?"

"Nah. We don't have anything worth messing up. You want a glass of wine or something?"

"Yeah. I'd like that," Julie said. "I need to sit down." Tink led her to the divan and helped her sit, then retreated back into the kitchen. In a moment, she was back with two glasses of wine. Julie accepted one, then winced as her hand shook. She grasped it in both hands and sipped at it gratefully as Tink sat next to her and watched her. After a moment, Tink spoke softly as she smoothed Julie's hair with a hand.

"Can I ask you something?" Julie looked up. "Is this the first time this has happened since we've come back to Earth?" Julie didn't answer. "Is it, Julie?" Tink pressed. She noticed that Julie was avoiding her gaze. That wasn't a good sign. Finally, Julie whispered her answer.


Tink felt her heart sink. "How many other times has this happened?"


"While I was at school?"


"Oh, honey. Why didn't you say something? Why didn't you tell me about it?"

Julie looked over at her. The eyes, normally squinted, were deeply apologetic. "I didn't want to worry you. I mean, it hadn't happened since-"

"Since Acquarius. Yeah, I know." Tink recalled it all too well. It had horrified her the first time she had seen her mate possessed by the demons of war, but she had quickly become expert at handling Julie during these episodes. Aboard the Aquarius base ship, she had seen it perhaps a dozen times in all, more frequently when they first became lovers, and then, after time passed, the episodes had all but stopped. She had hoped that Julie was healed.

"I thought I was finished with it. I thought I was stronger than this." She looked at Tink. "I wanted to be strong for you."

Tink rested her head against Julie's shoulder. "You're the strongest person I know. This isn't about being strong. This is about healing. It takes time." She struck upon an idea, and voiced it. "Maybe the veteran's hospice can help us with this. I'll bet they deal with it a lot."

Julie shook her head. "They'll lock me up. They'll throw me in a padded room, like the army did, or fill me full of drugs."

"They won't, Julie."

"Yeah, they will. I've been hospitalized four times. I can't do that again. I can't be away from you, Tink. I'll die. You're my life now, my sanity."

"Nobody's gonna lock you up, Julie. I'll forbid it. I'm your spouse. By law, I have the final say." Tink sighed, then said, "I have an idea. You sit here, and I'll be back in a minute." She kissed Julie's forehead, then rose and headed for the bedroom door. When she reached it, she paused and asked, "You okay?"

"Yeah. I'm fine now."

Tink nodded. "Back in a flash." She entered the bedroom, tossed her towel aside, and pulled a sleeping shirt over her body. Then, she found her telephone, held it in her palm, and spoke a name to it. In a minute, it lit up. "Dad?" she said. "Got a minute? I need your advice on something."

The next day, they emerged from their apartment building onto the busy, crowded street and began walking toward the dance academy, their bags over their shoulders. When they reached its door, Tink kissed Julie, then said, "See you this afternoon. Have a good workout."

Julie grinned. "You, too. Kick that sugar plum fairy's ass today."

"I will. I feel good about it." Then, she grew more solemn. "Call me if you need me, right?"

Julie's eyes grew pained. "Please don't worry. I'll be fine. And yes, I'll keep the appointment."

"I know. Bye." With that, she ducked into the front door of the dance academy. Julie watched her go, then hiked the two blocks to the gym and entered to begin her daily workout.

Two hours later, Julie strolled back up the street, still in her workout clothes, her bag over her shoulder, and stopped at the corner market to shop. When she returned home, she dropped the fresh food on the counter, then looked at her watch. She had time for a long shower before she caught the mass transit uptown. She really didn't want to keep this appointment, but for Tink, she would do it. For Tink, she would do anything.

That afternoon, Julie stood at the entrance to a towering downtown office building and studied the building's directory, then touched a name. The elevator doors hummed open, and she stepped inside. In a moment, she had ascended fifteen or twenty floors and stepped out into a wide hallway. She found the door, but hesitated before she stepped close to it. With a grim smile and the promise she made to Tink ringing in her ears, she approached the door. It hummed and slid back, and she walked in, her head high and her shoulders square in a posture which belied the uncertainty in her heart.

In the waiting room, a pleasant face on a screen greeted her. Julie approached the screen and replied, "Julie Kapos, two o'clock appointment."

The face remained motionless for a moment, then replied, "Noted. Please be seated." Julie sighed, then looked around. The waiting room was small but comfortable, and there was no one else there. Before she sat, a door hummed open and a middle-aged man stepped into the room and spoke her name. He seemed relaxed and at ease, was dressed casually, and had the same slightly nonconformist look about him that Julie had grown used to seeing in the artist-and-actor-and-dancer's neighborhood in which she lived.

He asked, "You're Julie, right?" She nodded. "Brent told me that you'd be around to see me," he said. "My name is Bob." He pumped her hand, then added, "There's something that you need to talk about, isn't there?"

Again, Julie nodded. She opened her mouth to speak, then found herself degenerating into a sudden outburst of sobbing. She quickly covered her face with her hand, sniffled, and apologized, "Damn, I'm sorry. I don't know what's gotten into me. I never do that."

"It's okay, Julie." Bob snatched a tissue box from a nearby table and handed it to Julie. She extracted a few and wiped her eyes as he ushered her through the open door. "Come into the office, make yourself comfortable, and we'll have a chat. Do you want some coffee?" As the door shut behind them, she nodded.

Tink collapsed against the wall of the dance academy's cavernous rehearsal room, closed her eyes, and breathed deeply. She wiped her face with the towel hanging around her neck, then popped the top from her water bottle and sipped it. She often rested alone, as many of the younger dance students retreated into their little cliques when they were on a break. Hell, she thought, almost all of the students were younger. She tried to recall when she had been that age, and shook her head. It seemed another life. In reality, it was.

One of the dance instructors approached her, then eased himself gracefully down into a sitting position next to her. "Tink, let's talk about that last piece," he suggested.

Tink looked up. "Sure, Kanu," she said cheerfully, although inside, she was dreading hearing what he would surely say. "Hit me with it." She snickered nervously at the joke, and he responded with a genuine smile. She liked the guy; he was upbeat, very complimentary, and lacked the drill-instructor mentality of some dance instructors. In addition, his smile set everyone at ease; set off by his dark Indian skin, it seemed brilliant.

"Well, I see improvement since yesterday," he said. Tink raised an eyebrow at that. "Really, I do. You're coming along very well. The amount of progress I've seen in your style is remarkable."

"But?" Tink asked, then grinned.

"Ah." He held up a finger to punctuate his thoughts. "Your attention to fine detail is still lacking. We have to work more on it. After all, ballet is a very exacting performance, not true?"

"Yeah, true." Tink echoed. "I'll work harder. I'll get it."

He smiled. "You had it when we danced together in the Toronto company. Do you remember those days?"

"Yeah," she mused. "It was a dream come true for me to be on that stage, even if it was only for less than a year."

"For me, too." He clucked his tongue in lament, then continued, "But your dream was taken by war. Mine was taken by injury. So, here we are. At least it's the foremost academy in Toronto, no? We're, ah, not hitting the gutter yet, as they say."

Tink giggled. "Give me time, Kanu. I'll get to the gutter."

He clapped her on the shoulder. "Ah, that is not the Tink I remember. Now come, let's work some more on the fine technique of your movements, shall we? Let's take our places at the barre."

Tink slowly stood and dropped her towel next to her water bottle. As she and Kanu took their places at the practice railing, they were watched by several of the teen-age students. They whispered and giggled among themselves as they watched Tink assume posture after posture at the coaching of her old friend, who gently tapped her arms and molded her hands to coax them into the gestures of perfection which, once upon a time, had come flawlessly to her.

That evening, Tink halted before the door to the flat, stretched, and grimaced as her aching shoulders protested. Then, she shouldered her bag, stepped through the door, and greeted Julie, who was at her usual place in the kitchen, preparing their evening meal.

Julie looked up. "Hey, doll. Hard day?"

"Nah. Piece of cake," she replied. "How'd your appointment go?"

Julie greeted her with a hug and a kiss, then shrugged. "Bob's a good guy."

"Yeah, he's an old friend of the family." She eyed Julie, then persisted, "But did it go good?"

Julie answered with another shrug, then slowly grinned. "Better than I had anticipated."

Tink stood next to Julie at the kitchen counter. "See? Told ya." She paused, studied the noncommittal expression on Julie's face, and asked, "So does that mean that you're going back?"

For a moment, Julie didn't answer. Then, she nodded. "Yeah. Actually, I'm going back tomorrow."

Tink leapt for joy, spinning in the kitchen. "That's my girl! You kick ass, do you know that?"

"Oh, stop," Julie muttered, although her eyes said that she clearly was pleased at Tink's reaction. "Really, it's no big deal."

"No big deal?" Tink repeated theatrically. "You, Miss 'I'm-a-rock-and-I'm-strong', actually asked somebody for help? It's a red-letter day in Toronto!"

Julie snickered. "Doofus," she muttered. "Dinner's almost ready. Go get washed up, will you?"

That night, a shared bath had led to passionate, unrestrained sex, a release of pent-up energy and emotion which exhausted both of them and allowed them to settle into a deep sleep, tangled in each other's arms. Julie snored softly, still and unmoving, but Tink stirred restlessly. Occasionally, a soft squeak escaped from her, and she muttered incoherently as her legs moved and an arm flopped by her side. Then, her entire body contracted in a spasm and she sat straight up in bed, her eyes wide in the darkness, her body covered in sweat. Her chest heaved as her breath came in gasps. She gazed about the room, then covered her face with her hands. "Oh, my God," she said aloud, then quickly looked over at Julie. Her mate was still, her breathing soft. Carefully, Tink rose from the bed and tiptoed to the bathroom. She washed her face and ran a towel over her face and neck, then returned quietly to the bed. As she eased herself down to sit on the side of the bed, she was halted by Julie's voice, gentle but firm in the night.

"Tink, what's wrong?"

"Huh?" She hesitated, then lied, "Nothing. I just had to pee."

"Bullshit," Julie intoned, a tone more in sadness than in remonstration. "You had a nightmare, didn't you?"

"Really, Julie, it was--" She looked around at Julie. In the dim light, she could see Julie lying very near, her eyes wide open and fixed on her face. They were knowing. Too knowing.

Julie raised a hand and touched Tink's back. "You're covered in sweat. I heard you call out. You had a nightmare."

Tink became defensive. "So I had a nightmare. Big deal."

"What was it about?" Tink didn't answer. "Come on, Tink. You're talkin' to the poster child for battle psychosis here. You can't fool me." Julie sat up in the bed. "Do you get 'em often?"

Tink shrugged, but remained silent. Julie scooted closer to her, then wrapped her arms around her. Tink relented and leaned against her, her clammy skin welcoming the soothing touch of Julie's warm body. For a minute, they sat that way silently. Then, Tink sighed and admitted, "I get 'em once or twice a month, I guess."

"Since when?"

Tink's voice held a hidden dread. "Since-- since Aquarius." She leaned her head against Julie's cheek and asked, "Will they ever go away?"

"Eventually, they tell me."

"Do you get 'em?"

"Mine hit me when I'm awake. Yours are only when you're asleep, right?" Tink nodded. "That's good. That's the mildest form." Julie sniffed, then said, "I had hoped that you would escape it. After all, you were in the really bad shit only once."

"Guess that was enough, huh?" Tink joked, then snickered nervously.

"Think you can sleep?" Julie coaxed.

Tink shook her head. "I'm afraid to go back to sleep," she confessed.

"Then just lie here with me. Come on, love."

Tink relented, then settled back in the bed, cradled in Julie's arms. They lay in the darkness, whispering to each other for a while, and then fell silent. Julie noted that Tink had lapsed back into slumber. She couldn't. She lay awake in the night, looking for the telltale signs of another nightmare on the face nestled against her chest. It didn't come. After a while, Julie closed her eyes and remembered nothing else until morning.

The next afternoon, Julie walked into Bob's office. Bob smiled, rose from his chair, and ushered Julie to a comfortable couch. He placed a cup of coffee by her elbow, then relaxed near her and spoke. "So, Julie, how are you today? No problems since we talked yesterday?"

"No. I'm peachy," Julie said. Her eyes said differently, though, and Bob noted it. She said, "Bob, Tink had a nightmare last night. She said she gets 'em about once a month."

His eyebrows raised. "First time you've seen that?"

"Yeah. She's been pretty damned good at hiding it from me, I guess."

"They usually are," Bob agreed. "Let me just see her service record." He spoke Tink's name into his palm-sized computer, then perused the data. After a few minutes, he said, "She has a decoration for valor from that one time she was in combat. Tell me about last night, then tell me about what happened to her on Aquarius."

They talked for half an hour, and then Bob rose. "Now, as to you: did you think about what I suggested?" Julie nodded. "Do you want to try the group? They're meeting in the next room right now. Remember, the way to exorcize these emotional demons is to talk them out of you." At Julie's skeptical look, he grinned. "Really, it works. Hey, trust me." Then, he corrected himself. "No. Trust the folks in the group. They've been there."

"I don't know, Bob. What the hell do I say?"

"Don't say anything, if you don't want to. Just listen. When the time is right, you'll know." When she hesitated, he urged, "Come on. Don't be a party-pooper."

Julie snickered at the remark. "Okay, what the hell."

She stood, picked up her shoulder bag and coffee cup, and followed Bob through a door. As it hummed aside, she entered the room to see several men and women of varying ages sitting on couches and chairs. Some of them looked up when Bob and Julie entered, and Bob quickly announced, "We have another member for our group today. Everybody, this is Julie." Pleasant nods and murmurs of hello echoed in the room. "You'll learn names soon enough, Julie."

As Julie's eyes traveled around at the faces, she noted one face in particular, one that she had seen on a mass transit car, the first day she had been in Toronto. The middle-aged man stood. In a soft but clear voice, he intoned, "Heads up, everybody. There's a Medal of Honor winner on the deck."

As all in the room stood for her, Julie felt a tear crawl down her cheek. She wiped it away, then whispered, "Thank you."

Tink felt the music well through her as she concentrated on the choreography upon which she had drilled countless times. Her movements flowed in perfect unison with those about her, and it thrilled her to the deepest part of her soul. For a moment, a brief moment, she was nineteen again, and the world was at her grasp. As the music welled and flowed and the instructor's staff tapped rhythm on the polished dance floor, she attempted to keep her attention focused on form. Then, the exercise was over, and the music stopped. She held her position, then relaxed at Kanu's voice. "Wonderful, all of you. That was a delight to see. Break time."

As the other students gathered in their little respective gaggles, Tink found her towel and water bottle. Kanu approached her. "Very well done, Tink."

"Thanks, ol' buddy. Guess you're a good influence on me."

He studied her intently, then noted, "I saw you dance with real passion just now. Did you feel it?"

Tink smiled. "Yeah."

"That's the Tink I recall," he agreed. "But still, we need more work on your form."

Her expression fell. "More? Shit." At his remonstrative gaze, she agreed, "Yeah, more. Let's get started. I'm gonna get this perfect."

He halted her with a touch on her arm. "Ah, I must tell you, there will be a dance recital in two weeks. The people from the Toronto company are coming to see what we have here. I want you to dance for them."

Tink felt as if a fist had struck her. "But I'm not ready," she said.

Kanu's eyes twinkled. "Then we shall have to work harder!" he exclaimed. "You will need two routines prepared. One is classic ballet; the other, a modern, interpretive piece."


"Yes, yes. Trust me."

"Okay, Kanu, but I don't think they want to see that stuff, do they?"

"Trust me, my friend. Just trust Kanu?" He tapped himself on the chest as he spoke. Tink relented, and she answered him with a nod and a grin. "Good," he replied. "Now, let's work on your finer points of technique."

The next two weeks passed in a blur as Tink drove herself to exhaustion nearly every day at the dance academy, and Julie melded into a regular, twice-weekly meeting at Bob's office and devoted herself to caring for Tink. She felt the demons of war slowly exorcizing themselves from her psyche; her mood was one of optimism. Indeed, she hadn't felt this good since-- since when? She couldn't remember. Yes, that was a good sign, indeed. She approached her workouts and her household duties with increased vigor, and felt a renewed joy in the simple acts of living. Was this what life might have been like for her, had not war interfered with her fate?

What wasn't a good sign to her was the condition in which Tink was returning from her training each evening. Although her torso and arms had become lean and rippled with dancer's muscle and her thighs thick with strength, and although her flexibility had become impressive to Julie, there was something unsettled about the girl. She spoke less and seemed preoccupied constantly. In addition, although Julie made sure that Tink retired at a proper time each evening, she was beginning to show dark circles under her eyes, and her face thinned. Most telling, her delightful giggle had all but disappeared. It hurt Julie to the soul to see this turn of events, and she decided that it was past time to act. One evening, after dinner, she confronted Tink and insisted on a soul-to-soul talk. Tink seemed puzzled and even a little annoyed, but readily consented, and they sat on the divan together. After a moment's awkward silence, Julie began.

"What's going on with you, Tink?"

"Nothing. I'm just under a lot of stress right now, that's all. You know about the dance recital, the day after tomorrow."

"Is it really this important to you?"

Tink huffed. "It's only a make-or-break thing, Julie. There's going to be people from the Toronto company there. I've got to be flawless. I'm not perfect yet. Try to understand, will ya? Careers are made or shot down on chances like this."

"I understand that you're exhausted. You look like shit. You're on the fast track to a breakdown, Tink."

"I'll be fine, really. After this, I can relax a little. I've just got to work harder until then."

"You can't work any harder than you are now. Look at you. Have you looked at yourself in the mirror lately?"

Tink exploded. "God damn it, Julie. I'm really trying here. This is my dream, and I've got to go all out for it. I can do this, I know it. I've got to be perfect, don't you understand?"

"I don't know much about dance, but I understand all too well."

Tink snorted in exasperation. "What does that mean?"

Julie replied evenly, "That means, 'watch out.' It's gonna come back on you and bite you hard, trust me."

"Yeah? What's gonna bite me?"

Julie sighed, then said, "Your nightmares."

"Shit, I haven't had one of those in a long time."

"That's what worries me. You're worn out, tied in knots. Look at yourself, for Christ's sake. That's when it'll get you worst, trust me. If you keep this up, they won't be just nightmares anymore. They'll knock you flat on your ass."

"You've been talkin' to Bob too much. I've got it under control, Julie." She pouted, then said, "I thought that you were gonna support me in this."

"I am!" Julie yelled. "I pay the rent, I wash your practice clothes, I cook your meals, I keep you to your diet, I rub the knots out of your muscles every day, I do support you. I want to see you succeed, but I don't want to see you snap under this strain."

"I'm strong enough to take it." Tink's glare was defiant. "I can do this. I've got to achieve perfection in this, or I'll fail, and I can't fail! Do you understand, I can't fail!"

"You've already succeeded, in my eyes," Julie said.

Tink blinked at that. She slowly shook her head. "But not in mine," she replied.

"Tink, you have to know when to push and when to let off. You're pushing too hard. You're gonna snap. Let off, please," Julie pleaded.

Tink's voice rose. "Damn it, Julie! I've got one more day of practice, and then it's show-and-tell time. Don't pull the rug out from under me now, of all times. I need your support now, more than ever." She rose to her feet, glaring down at Julie. "I thought you were with me in this. I thought you loved me."

Julie was stunned. For a long moment, there was silence. Then, she said, "I do love you, more than I can ever tell you. That's why I'm asking you to ease off."

"You want me to quit?" Tink's voice was frantic.

"No!" Julie stood, facing her. "No! I just want you to ease off a little before you-"

"Before I what?" Tink stared into Julie's face. "Before I what? Succeed?"


"Then what, Julie?"

"Before you burn out!" she yelled.

Tink's voice matched Julie's. They were almost nose-to-nose. "Then I'll burn out! But I'm gonna do this! Don't you understand? I've got to do this! I have to make it!"

"You are so scared of failing, aren't you?" Julie asked, trying to lower her voice to normal.

Tink's eyes watered, and then she sobbed as she screamed, "Yes! Yes, damn you. I am so scared that I'm not gonna make it, that I'm gonna fail in front of you, in front of my father, in front of me. Yes, I'm scared! Are you happy now?"

"No," Julie whispered sadly. "But I do understand you now." She held out her arms, and Tink collapsed into them. She held Tink as she sobbed, as she gripped Julie's shirt with her fists, as she pressed her face into Julie's chest. Then, Julie placed a hand under Tink's knees, lifted her into her arms, and tenderly carried her into the bedroom. It wasn't twenty meters, but to Julie, at that moment, it seemed like a whole lot more.

The next morning, Julie walked with Tink to the door of the academy. They kissed, and Julie said, "Try to pace yourself, right?"

Tink nodded. "Yeah. I will, I promise. See you this evening, love." When Julie turned to leave, Tink called, "Julie?"

She stopped. "Yeah?"

"I'm, ah--" Tink hesitated, then said, "I'm sorry about what I said last night. I didn't mean it. It was the stress talkin', not me."

Julie smiled. "I know."

"I never could have made it this far without you."

Again, Julie smiled. "Yeah, you could have. Call me if you need me, right?"

This time, Tink smiled. That smile was a welcome sight to Julie. "You, too. See ya later, you hot momma." With that, Tink bounced up the stairs and entered the door. Julie snickered, then began walking down the street toward the gym for her morning workout.

The day progressed much like any other. She had engaged in a frantic workout, dispelling some lingering frustration over Tink's situation, then shopped carefully and spent extra money at the corner market, attempting to supply some variation to their diet, although she had noticed that Tink didn't have much of an appetite lately. When she returned home, she indulged herself in a hot shower, then set about her daily duties.

Early that afternoon, Tink sat on the edge of the practice room's floor, leaning against the wall. She sipped at her water bottle, then sighed in frustration. When Kanu sat next to her, she looked up. "Hey, pal. What's up?"

He studied Tink closely, then asked, "Are you all right?"

She initially answered with a shrug, then confessed, "No. I still look like shit out there, don't I?"

The question surprised Kanu. He countered, "No, you look very good."

"But not perfect."

"Perfection is relative," Kanu said. "You look as perfect as I've seen you look yet."

Tink snorted. "In other words, I still look like shit."

"No, no. I watched you dance the interpretive piece this morning, before the others arrived. It was magnificent, flawless. You really danced with your soul, did you not?"

Tink smiled painfully. "God, I loved it. I was so into it. I felt on top of the world with that piece." She glanced over at Kanu and said, "But that won't get me into the ballet company, will it? My ballet technique will, and that sucks. I stink."

"Now is not the time to lose heart," he urged. "I saw only a few minor mistakes with your ballet piece. We can work on it and fix it; just say when you are ready to start."

Tink put her bottle down. "I'm ready right now. Let's do it."

"Are you sure?" he asked. "You look tired."

"I'm ready." She stood, and they both walked to the center of the floor. As many of the younger students watched from their little cliques around the edge of the floor, he coached her through several movements of the piece, then called for the music. As it began, Tink assumed her dance posture, then concentrated on her technique as the music enveloped her: the position of her feet, the fluid expression of her hands, the grace of her legs' movements, the flow of her body, the tilt of her head. Deeply, so deeply did she pour all the frustration, the emotion of the last weeks into her effort that she felt her heart begin to pound. Her body began to sweat profusely. Then, in her mind's eye, a scene of horrid import flashed. For a moment, she could feel the heat and dirt of Aquarius, smell the stench of decaying bodies, hear the shriek of artillery landing just meters from her, feel her face pressed against the sandy soil, feel her mouth dry from fear. She saw her hand reach out and turn a body over. It was Julie.

Tink staggered on the dance floor, then fell to her knees, her hands clasped to the sides of her head. She shrieked in anguish, then began sobbing uncontrollably. In a flash, Kanu was by her side, attempting to comfort her, speaking to her with concern. Tink wailed loudly, her body curled into a ball, her hands covering her head. Kanu looked up and called, "Stop the music." When it stopped, he leaned over her and kept repeating, "Tink, what's the matter? What's wrong?"

"They're all dead!" she sobbed. "There's pieces of 'em all over the place. Julie's messed up. Help me, God damn it. Help me get her home."

Kanu placed an arm around Tink. "Wake up, Tink. You're okay. Everything is okay." She continued to weep, then fell silent after a few moments. Slowly, she looked up, blinking into Kanu's face. After several seconds, she went limp and sat on the floor. Her face was wet with tears. Kanu asked, "Tink, are you all right?"

Tink mumbled, "What happened? Where am I?" She blinked again, and then looked around the room. It was deathly silent. Her fellow students were staring at her, their expressions shocked, their eyes reflecting a variety of emotions at what they'd just seen. She moaned, "Oh, shit. I'm sorry. I'm-- sorry, everybody."

"Can you stand up?" Kanu asked.

Tink's voice was thin and squeaky. "Yeah. I think I'm okay now."

Kanu helped her stand, and he ushered her toward his office. As the door hummed open, another dance teacher looked up, then grew concerned. "What's wrong?"

"Make her a cup of tea, will you?" Kanu asked. "Let her rest here for a while." Tink sat heavily on the couch, then leaned forward and rested her face in her hands. "I'll check on you in a moment, yes?" Tink nodded, and Kanu picked up his telephone from his desk.

Tink looked up, then pleaded, "Please don't call Julie. I don't want to worry her. I'm all right now, really." Kanu considered her skeptically, and she repeated, "Please don't call her. It'll scare her to death. I'll be fine in a few minutes, and I'll be ready to work some more."

Reluctantly, he nodded, then placed his telephone back on his desk. "All right. Rest for a while, though. I'll check on you soon." With that, he left the office and returned to the expansive exercise room.

When he stepped into the room, the students were chattering among themselves. Several of the younger ones' voices carried across the floor.

"What do you think's the matter with her?"

"She's crazy. I had a cousin like that once."

"What's she doing here, anyway? She's too old to be an understudy. They'll never choose her."

"She doesn't say much. Does anyone know anything about her? Does she even have any friends here?"

Kanu felt a slow burn pass over him. He picked up his cane, walked into the center of the studio, and rapped it pointedly on the floor. "Assemble," he barked. The students all rose, gathered in front of him, and stood expectantly. "Sit," he ordered, pointing at the floor. Obediently, they sat, looking up at him. "It occurs to me," he began, "that most of you know nothing about your fellow student, Tink. Most of you have made no effort to befriend her, either. And why? She's older than you. She didn't attend school with you. She's different than you. Am I right?" Silence greeted him. "Well, I will tell you this about her." He began slowly pacing, occasionally punctuating his words with a well-timed rap of his cane. "She danced professionally on the Toronto company's stage at the age of eighteen. I know this, because I danced with her. She was better than me, and was the best of the understudies, a rising star. Then, something happened to her, something that I hope never happens to any of you. She got conscripted. What you have witnessed today is the effect of war upon the human soul.

"She saw her friends die horribly around her while, for most of you, your major concern was dating. She was given the Cross of Valor for carrying her comrade to safety on her shoulders while the Aquarian rebels were trying to kill them. Three years, she was gone from dance. Now, she is attempting again to attain the dream that was taken from her by forced conscription. That's what she is doing here. That's why she is older than you. That's why her technique is rusty, and must be relearned. That's why she works herself to exhaustion every day, arriving before you and staying long after you go home.

"Do you help her? No. Do you befriend her? No. Do you mock her? Yes. For shame! Remember, she was once a professional dancer. With her passion, she will be again. Give her that respect. You can learn much from her strength of spirit." Again, he rapped his cane on the floor. "Now, places, ladies and gentlemen. We have work to do."

Slowly, in silence, the young dancers rose and took their places on the floor. As Kanu was about to order the beginning of music, one of the dancers began applauding. The others quickly joined her, and the applause became enthusiastic. Kanu puzzled at this, then realized that their eyes were fixed not upon him, but on some space beyond him. He turned around.

Tink was walking out onto the floor, the office door humming shut behind her. She halted, taken aback at the reception. After a moment, she bowed her head and wiped at an eye with her knuckles. Then, she looked up and said, "I apologize for the disruption. Now let's get to work, huh? We've got a big day tomorrow, and not a moment to waste."

That evening, she entered the flat and dropped her bag by the door. As it hummed shut, she kicked off her shoes, then entered the kitchen and hugged Julie. "Hi, honey."

Julie kissed her, then held her at arm's length and asked, "Hard day?"

"Yeah. You might say that."

Julie raised an eyebrow. "But was it a good day?"

"All things considered? Yeah. I learned a lot."

"Oh?" Julie returned her attention to the preparation of their dinner. "Like what?"

"Like how you were right about everything," Tink admitted, then allowed a grin to cross her exhausted features. "Everything."

Julie stopped and turned to consider Tink. Then she shrugged and joked, "I get lucky every so often."

Tink leaned forward and kissed Julie, then teased, "Me, too. I sure got lucky with you. Remind me of that the next time I start yelling at you, will ya?"

"Dork," Julie admonished with a chuckle. "Go get changed. Dinner's on."

In a few minutes, they were sitting at the corner table. Julie asked, "So, are you scared about tomorrow?"

"Nah," Tink said. "I'm just numb. I don't feel anything anymore. Strange, isn't it?"

"No. You've done everything you could, and now you're detached. That's a good thing. You'll kick ass tomorrow, I know it."

"Is that what your crystal ball says?"

"That's what my gut and my heart say," Julie replied. "Do you want me to be there?"

Tink paused, her fork halfway to her mouth. "Would you?" she asked.

"For you, anything."

She smiled at the sentiment. "It would mean a lot to me. Thanks." Julie nodded wordlessly, and then allowed Tink to resume her meal while she poured a little more wine into her mate's glass.

Late the next morning, Julie sat in one corner of the expansive dance floor, watching the bustle of activity. The dance students were stretching and engaging in their exercises, and the teachers were moving among them, offering advice and last-minute instruction. Tink was among them, and Julie noticed that several of the students were greeting her and talking with her. As she watched with fascination, attempting to make sense of the foreign world of dance, Kanu stood next to her. "Julie, I am so glad that you are here for Tink."

Julie looked up. "Hi, Kanu. Yeah, she asked me to come. Is that okay?"

"Yes, yes. A few of the families are here. Would you wish to join them?"

"Sure." Julie rose, and Kanu escorted her to a little gathering of people sitting in a group, with a view of the floor. As he turned to hustle away, Julie stopped him with a hand on his arm. He looked back at her. "Tell me something, Kanu. How's she doing here, really?"

Kanu smiled. "She is an inspiration to us all."

"But does she actually have a shot at a place in the company?"

He winked. "Keep your eye on her interpretive dance piece. That is her true strength." With that cryptic answer, he excused himself. Julie puzzled over the response, then shrugged, sought out an empty seat, and settled into it.

Soon, the representatives from the Toronto company arrived and took their places behind a table facing the dance floor. The students assembled, and one by one, the recitals began. The first piece was an ensemble performance; Julie immediately picked out Tink from among the other students. As the music swelled and flowed, so did the dancers. Julie did not understand what she was watching, but was fascinated nevertheless by the grace and flow of the dance. About halfway through the piece, the lady next to her leaned close and asked, "What are we watching?"

Julie grinned self-consciously and replied, "I haven't the slightest idea."

The lady giggled in relief. "Thank God I'm not the only one."

The piece ended, and the dancers vacated the floor. The Toronto company people conferred briefly among themselves, then returned their attention to the floor as a lone student took her place. Julie watched the progress of events. The dance pieces were each just a few minutes long, but Julie reckoned that, to the girl on the floor at the moment, it must seem like an eternity. After each performance, the people at the table conferred, made whispered notations into their palm-held computers, and then awaited the next performance.

Finally, Julie felt her heart pound in anticipation. Tink had taken her place on the floor and had assumed a dance posture, frozen and awaiting the start of the music. When it began resounding through the studio, she started her recital. Julie watched in amazement as the girl danced, not understanding the finer points of what she was seeing, but simply allowing the beauty and expression of the art form to encompass her. About halfway through, she wiped an errant tear from her eyes, then returned her attention to the performance. Soon, it was ended, and Julie saw Tink bow to polite applause and leave the floor. She quickly glanced over at the people behind the table, but could read no hint of approval of disapproval from their whispered conversations.

As the recitals progressed, Julie looked around the studio. Tink was not to be seen. She wondered at that, then returned her attention to the dance in progress. In a few minutes, she noticed Tink emerge from the back of the studio and rejoin her fellow students. Julie puzzled over the sight, for Tink was no longer dressed in the ballet attire similar to her classmates; instead, she wore a black, skin-tight body leotard, and her feet were bare.

Kanu edged close to Tink and whispered, "You are next, the final recital. Are you ready?" Tink nodded. "How do you feel?"

"I'm scared shitless."

Kanu chuckled at that reply. Then, he faced her and said, "Don't worry about the finer points of technique. You have it. Just dance this piece with your soul as well as your body. Remember that, above all things. Let your passion for the music possess you completely. Share it with all who watch you."

She nodded. "Thanks, Kanu. I'll do my best."

"Then you will shine." With that, he left.

As the recital in progress ended and the dancer left the floor, Kanu approached the table and the little group of relatives near them. "The final performance," he announced, "is by a star among our many stars. It is a modern, interpretive piece, if you will indulge us." As he left, Tink approached the center of the floor and assumed a frozen posture, awaiting the music.

The lady next to Julie leaned over and whispered, "I thought this was strictly a classical ballet recital. This won't help that poor girl get into the Toronto company, will it?"

Julie shrugged. "They must know what they're doin'."

The music began, Brahms' Hungarian Dance Number Five, a thrilling, rhythmic swell of sound. Tink began her recital, and within a moment, the low whisper of voices in the studio silenced as everyone's attention became fixed upon the lone dancer. Julie watched in rapt fascination; Tink danced with an energy, a strength, an assurance which was astounding. She absolutely possessed the floor; her performance exuded a commanding presence upon the assembled audience, a presence which held every single person still and silent. As the music crashed, swelled, and then softened, only to rise to fever pitch again, Tink dominated the moment. Julie, who admittedly knew nothing about dance, felt an incredible swell of emotion at the sight; it moved her to the depths of her soul. Not only was this obviously consummate, hard-won skill, but there was something more within it, something which reached out to all who watched and captivated them. It was a passion, a fierce, energetic passion, Julie decided. She was not surprised to find that it was making her cry. She wiped her eyes and glanced toward the table containing the representatives of the Toronto company. To a person, they were also still and silent, watching Tink. They did not whisper; they did not look away. They, too, were transfixed at the performance unfolding before them. Finally, she glanced at Kanu, standing to one side of the studio. He was beaming.

The recital ended. Tink held her final pose until the music faded, then stood and faced the table. For a moment, there was absolute silence in the huge studio; then, a resounding crash of applause thundered through the room, punctuated by enthusiastic whistles and shouts. Julie saw the students, assembled on one side of the dance floor, whoop and bounce as they cheered and called Tink's name. One of the Toronto company representatives stood as he applauded; the rest of the room quickly followed, and Julie rose with the audience and clapped until her hands hurt. She watched Tink execute a low, graceful dancer's bow, then quickly exit the floor.

When the noise died away, Kanu took his place in the center of the floor and announced, "The recital has ended. The representatives of the Toronto company will shortly announce their choices for understudy. Our students will retire to the locker rooms. Parents, relatives, and friends: thank you for coming today, and have a safe journey home."

The studio began to clear of people, and Julie followed the little crowd of visitors to the entrance. On the way, she looked about for Tink, but couldn't see her. She did find Kanu, though, and mentioned that she'd be waiting for Tink in the front lobby, to which he nodded understanding.

Soon, she was alone in the lobby, the other visitors having already taken their leave of the studio. Julie settled into a chair and pondered the street outside, watching the passers-by through the clear door. Often, she checked her watch, but the time seemed to pass slowly. After about half an hour, she heard a subdued chatter of voices in the hall. Several of the students passed by her, their bags on their shoulders. Many seemed tired; she imagined that it was just the letdown of after-recital jitters, or the disappointment of not being chosen for the coveted understudy spots.

The lobby quieted again, and Julie returned her attention to the street outside. A couple of minutes later, a hand touched her shoulder. She started, then glanced up. Tink was standing by her chair, her bag over one shoulder. Julie looked up into her face, but the expression was enigmatic; she couldn't quite tell what emotion Tink was displaying, although the weariness about her eyes was prominent and deep. Julie quickly stood, then hugged her.

"Oh, Tink. You were fantastic, really you were."

Tink's embrace was gentle, her voice noncommittal. "Yeah, I guess."

Julie held her at arm's length and studied her. "So? What's the verdict?"

Tink's wide eyes grew pained. "I didn't make the cut. I blew it. I failed."

Julie felt her heart drop to her feet. "Oh, I'm so sorry. I know that you busted your ass for this chance." In response, Tink merely shrugged, her eyes tearing as she looked down at the floor. Julie said, "There's always the next time, right?"

"In another year or two? Yeah, right. I'll be too old. This was my one shot, Julie, and I missed."

Julie desperately attempted to lighten Tink's mood. "I know that you're disappointed beyond words," she said. "I'll take you out to dinner. That'll cheer you up."

"Not hungry," was her muttered response. "I just want to go home and die."

Julie hugged her again, then placed an arm around her shoulder and led her toward the door. Just before they reached it, Kanu's voice stopped them. "Tink!" he cried. "There you are. I'm glad I found you."

They turned around. Tink said, "What's up, Kanu?"

He entered the lobby and exclaimed, "What's up? You ask me what's up? I tell you, I have someone here that wants to meet you."

Tink's eyebrows raised in exclamation. "Meet me? Who's that?"

A man stepped into the lobby and stood near Kanu's elbow. "You're Tink? Of course, I recognize you now." He stepped forward, then presented his hand. "I'm Robert McDonall, from the Toronto company."

Tink shook the hand, then nodded, her curiosity aroused. "Pleased to meet you," she said.

"And am I ever pleased to meet you," he said with in a pleasant tone. "So, did you make the cut? Did you get an understudy spot?"

Tink shook her head. "No. I didn't make the cut."

"Oh, thank goodness!" At her puzzled expression, he hastened to explain himself. "What I mean is that the Toronto company is in the process of forming a modern dance company. We want it to be stellar. We're on the lookout for exceptional talent, and I think I've witnessed some today. Thank God you did that interpretive dance piece at the end of the recital." Tink's mouth fell open, but she quickly shut it again as the man chattered on. "I was astounded by it. It was as if the music possessed you. You danced with a passion, a spirit, a free form that I've seldom witnessed on any stage, anywhere. It was thrilling to see. Kanu told me that I shouldn't miss it, and I'm sure glad he did."

"You came here just to see me dance?" Tink asked, her voice registering shock.

"Yes. Kanu called me and suggested that I come and watch you, and he's got a pretty good eye for talent." McDonall paused, then asked, "Would you be free to entertain an offer from us? I mean, if you've not got a better prospect, that is?"

Tink's eyes were absolutely sparkling. "Hell-- I mean, heck yeah! Talk to me."

"Well," he continued, "We can't pay a lot at first, as our grant is not huge, but you'd be studying and performing under Sarah Powell's direction."

Tink's jaw fell. "Sarah Powell? She's a legend. I watched her dance when I was a kid!"

He laughed, then advised, "Don't mention how long ago that was to her; she's getting a little sensitive about her age. Can you meet with her, say-- tomorrow afternoon?"

"I'll be there!" Tink beamed, then asked, "Oh! Should I come ready to audition for her?"

"She's already seen your performance. I had it video-linked to her home. I just spoke to her, and she's insistent that we sign you." Tink's eyes widened as he added, "And not as an understudy, either. As one of the principal dancers. Tomorrow, you'll just meet Sarah and talk, that's all."

"Where should I be, and when?"

He reached into a pocket and fished out a plastic business card. As he handed it to Tink, he said, "The offices of the Toronto company. You know it, don't you? How's two o'clock sound?"

"I'll be there with bells on! Thank you, Mr. McDonall."

As she shook his hand, he said, "Thank you, Tink, for a truly inspirational performance. We'll see you tomorrow. Oh, and the bells are optional." With that joke and a nod of his head, he turned and exited the lobby.

Tink stared down at the card, then looked up at Kanu. "You set me up for this. That's why you insisted that I prepare an interpretive dance piece, isn't it?" He flashed a winning grin in reply, but did not confirm or deny it. "You jerk, I love you!" Impulsively, she hugged him, and then turned to Julie. "Do you believe this? Isn't this incredible?"

Julie laughed when she noted Tink's nervous enthusiasm, then confirmed, "It's more than incredible, it's your dream. Looks like you're on your way, Tink. Thanks, Kanu."

In reply, he merely shrugged. "It was nothing. And Tink, don't come tomorrow. Take the day off, then come back after that, and we'll keep your skills up until you go to the Toronto company, huh?"

Tink nodded. "Thanks, Kanu. I owe ya one, big time."

"No, no. For an old friend, anything." With that, he excused himself and retreated back into the studio.

For a long moment, Tink stood in the lobby and stared down at the card in her hand. Then, she looked up at Julie. With a shriek, she dropped her bag, leapt into Julie's arms, and hugged her. Then, she looked down at her. "I made it, Julie! I did it! I actually did it!"

"I never doubted you, Tink. Neither did Kanu. We knew you'd do it."

Tink released Julie's neck and slid to the floor, lifting her bag to her shoulder. "Nah. We did it." She grasped Julie's hand, interlacing their fingers, and said, "I couldn't have done this without you. I know what you did for me, how you sacrificed yourself to me every day to help me chase my dream, how you put up with my crap. I'll never forget it, you know. This is your success as much as mine."

"Don't forget your dad. He financed your school."

"Oh, I won't. I owe him big time, too, and I'll sure tell him that when I talk with him." They walked toward the door, and it hummed and slid back for them. As they descended the steps to the street, Tink asked, "How can I ever repay you two?"

Julie smiled. "Oh, I'm sure that Brent and I would say the same thing about that."

"Which is?"

"That's what family is for, Tink."

Tink giggled delightfully at that, then observed, "Life is funny, isn't it? I mean, one minute, I'm in the gutter, and the next minute, I'm on top of the world." She leaned against Julie as they strolled up the busy street toward their flat. "By the way, have I told you lately how much I love you?"

"Not since this morning. I could do with hearing it again," she teased.

"Well, I love you, you dork. You're my passion, you know."

Julie looked over at Tink. "I thought dance was your passion."

"That's number two," she said, crinkling her eyes in humor. "Right behind you."

Julie didn't reply in words. She just squeezed Tink's hand as they walked. After a moment, Tink took her hand off the strap of her shoulder bag and slapped her forehead. "Oh, man! I've been such a selfish idiot! I've been so wrapped up in this thing, I haven't asked about you."

"What about me?" Julie asked.

"How's your group going? Okay? You haven't had any more incidents, have you?"

Julie smiled. "Nope. And I feel great."

"I want to hear all about it. Feel like talking?"

Julie smiled at the question. "How's about over dinner? My treat."

"It'll have to be. I'm flat broke. Starving, too!"

"You goof. Why didn't you say something? I'd have given you some money."

Tink giggled, a delightful, musical giggle. "So who needs money? I've got you, and that's enough for me." She looked over at Julie. "When's your next group meeting?"

"Day after tomorrow. Why?"

"Just wondered. Hey, how's about that neat little Indian restaurant right around the corner?"

"Works for me," Julie agreed.

As they turned the corner and headed toward the restaurant, Tink said, "Julie?"


"Thanks for carrying me the last twenty meters."

"My pleasure, you goof, and right back at ya."

With a mutual, shared laugh, they entered the restaurant, and the door hummed shut behind them.

Epilogue, two days later.

Julie gripped her cup of coffee and approached the door of the meeting room in Bob's office, pausing to allow it to slide open. When it did, she walked into the room, hearing the usual subdued buzz of conversation from the dozen or so people who were already there, sitting on the couches. Out of habit, her eyes traveled around the room, and they stopped on a very familiar but very unexpected face. Julie froze at the sight, and her jaw dropped.

Tink was sitting on a couch in the room, watching her enter. As the door hummed shut behind Julie, Tink stood and proudly announced to the entire room, "Heads up! There's a Medal of Honor winner on the deck." Immediately, the buzz of conversation stopped, and everyone in the room stood respectfully.

Of the dozen faces in the room, Julie noted only one. It was a delightful face, full of life, humor, and love, and was surmounted by a crop of short, spiky blonde hair. And the wide eyes were fixed on her and her alone.

"Thank you," Julie said, then added, "and thank you, Tink. For everything."

The End.
-djb, September, 2006

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