Greetings! As always, a few words before we start this holonovel.
I owe a debt of gratitude to Motom79 at SimTrek, who not only allowed me to use his RPG character Aziz Taghmaoui (and Nadya, whom Motom also came up with) as well as his Aziz Sim, but also let me pick his brain about Aziz’s character. Many, many thanks, Motom!
Program complete – enter when ready!
The transporter room was empty. Almost; a startled-looking technician was standing behind the transporter console, but other than that, there was nobody there. Vice-Admiral Irina Ivanova frowned as she stepped off the transporter pad, absently muttering “as you were” to the technician. This certainly wasn’t the kind of reception the Chief of Starfleet Tactical was used to; granted, she had told Yelena that she didn’t want any pomp and circumstance when she arrived, but that didn’t mean she didn’t want to be met by anybody at all…
Irina was just about to go find a computer terminal that could direct her to the quarters of her daughter and son-in-law, when the door suddenly opened and a panicky and slightly dishevelled commander burst into the transporter room.
“Admiral!” he blurted, skidding to a halt and snapping to rigid attention. “I am so sorry! I’m Commander Jakob Niels, Executive Officer of Starbase 357; the Captain is away on a conference so I am temporarily in charge but nobody informed me you were coming and I had no idea-”
Irina raised a hand.
“Calm down, Commander.” It wasn’t quite an order, but Niels seemed to interpret it as such. For a second, he pulled himself up even straighter before he seemed to realise that was exactly what he had been told not to do, and deflated almost audibly.
“This is a completely unofficial visit,” Irina went on, ignoring the slightly sheepish look on Niels’s face as he with visible effort forced himself to look relaxed. “I’m here to see my daughter and son-in-law and their daughter, nothing else. I assure you I’ll do just fine without any brass bands.”
“Yes, ma’am!” Niels eagerly agreed, bobbing his head up and down. “Of course, ma’am!”
Irina’s response to that was a weary look. “I prefer ‘Admiral’, thank you, Commander.”
“Of course, ma- Admiral! I’m so sorry!” Trying to steady himself, Niels took a deep, tremulous breath. “W-would you like a tour of the facilities, or…”
The door to the transporter room opened anew.
“That won’t be necessary,” Irina quickly told the stuttering commander when she saw who the new arrival was. “You’re dismissed, Commander.”
Somehow managing to look both relieved and terrified at the same time, Niels fled from the room in such a hurry he would have collided with the newcomer if she hadn’t taken a quick step to the side to let him through the door.
“What did you do to that poor man?” Lt. Commander Yelena Taghmaoui-Ivanova, half amused, half exasperated, demanded of her mother.
Irina ignored that. “You’re late.”
Yelena grimaced. “Nadya decided that she didn’t want to eat her afternoon snack, so she threw it away. I think she meant to hit her Flotter doll, but unfortunately, her aim was a bit off.” She smiled. “I had to change uniforms.”
“She isn’t ill, is she?” Irina asked, immediately concerned.
“No, she’s impatient.” Yelena’s smile turned wry. “I made the mistake of telling her that her grandmother was coming before I tried to feed her; she couldn’t focus on anything else after that.”
Irina smiled proudly. “She’s a strong-willed little girl.”
That made Yelena raise an eyebrow. “I never thought I’d hear you approve of rank insubordination, Mother,” she dryly observed. “Well. We’d better not keep them waiting…”
And she gestured for her mother to exit first, even though it was something Irina would have done anyway.
“Did you have a nice trip?” Yelena asked by way of small-talk as they made their way towards the quarters of the Taghmaoui family.
“I came here on the T’Lau,” Irina said as if that explained everything – and in a way it did, since the ship was her old command. “Captain T’Sera was kind enough let me take the centre chair,” she added almost wistfully. “It’s good to feel space under one’s feet again.” She looked around, an ever-so-faint expression of disapproval on her face. “Even if it is on a starbase.”
That made her daughter frown, but when Irina didn’t say anything further on the matter, neither did Yelena. Instead, she smiled wryly.
“Poor Commander Niels is probably going to need therapy after this, you know,” she observed.
Irina snorted. “From what I saw, he should be there already. Your CO can’t be all that fond of his starbase if he leaves someone like that in charge!”
“Niels is a good officer,” Yelena quickly defended her superior, “and he really is an excellent XO. He just doesn’t do admirals very well.” She looked slightly askance at her mother. “Especially admirals who have a reputation of eating commanders for breakfast.”
“I eat oatmeal for breakfast,” her mother firmly told her.
“Right,” Yelena agreed with a sigh. “You have the commanders as a snack.”
Irina didn’t dignify that with a response, but instead nodded curtly at a passing officer who had stopped to come to attention with a slightly wide-eyed look. Irina grimaced; between this officer and Niels, it would probably be all of five minutes before the whole starbase knew the Chief of Starfleet Tactical was aboard.
They turned a corner and walked on for a few metres, and then Yelena stopped in front of a door. “Well,” she said, “here we are. Brace yourself,” she warned as she entered the keycode.
By right of rank, Irina entered as soon as the door to the quarters opened. She was just about to turn around and ask her daughter what she was supposed to brace herself for when she heard a delighted shriek followed by the patter of feet, seconds before a dark-haired toddler threw herself at her grandmother’s legs.
“Boosha!” she shouted happily.
Irina immediately swept her granddaughter up in a tight hug. “My sweet little Nadyushka,” she murmured fondly, ruffling the toddler’s hair.
“Look how big you’ve got! You’ve become a little lady, haven’t you?” She tickled Nadya’s nose, making the little girl giggle. Then she gave Yelena a questioning look over the toddler’s shoulder. “What does ‘boosha’ mean?”
“Babushka,” Yelena smiled. “Or at least we think so.”
“You’re teaching her Russian?” Irina asked with surprised delight.
“And Arabic,” a voice behind them said, “to cover both sides of her heritage.”
With a friendly smile for the admiral and a fond one for his wife, Lt. Commander Aziz Taghmaoui emerged from the dining area. “Welcome, Ira,” he greeted his mother-in-law. The flight here went well, I hope?”
“Thank you,” Irina said absently, her full focus on the toddler in her arms. “And yes, quite.”
“She commandeered the T’Lau,” Yelena told her husband with slightly forced gaiety as he came up to her to give her a quick peck on the cheek.
“I did no such thing,” Irina firmly told the toddler in her arms. “Your mother thinks she’s being funny.”
Nadya, on the other hand, seemed fascinated by her grandmother’s rank insignia. She poked it a couple of times with a small index finger, almost as if to see if it would poke back, before she resolutely grabbed it and tugged at it.
Irina laughed as she gently removed the chubby little hand. “Oh no, it’s supposed to be there,” she said, firmly but kindly. “I’ve worked quite hard for it. You’ll have to wait until you get your own.”
“Best to get them while they’re young,” Yelena murmured.
Irina ignored that. Instead, she let down the suddenly squirming Nadya who, as soon as her feet was on the floor, promptly grabbed her grandmother’s hand and started pulling Irina towards the nursery. Chuckling at the toddler’s incomprehensible but excited babble, Irina obediently followed her little granddaughter.
“Don’t be too long,” Yelena called after them, and Irina raised her free hand in what could be either an acknowledgement or a dismissal. Then she and Nadya disappeared into the nursery.
Frustrated, Yelena turned to her husband. “She could at least have said hello to you!”
“I don’t mind,” Aziz told her with a smile. “She’ll remember me eventually. Besides, she’s here to visit Nadya; you and I are secondary.”
Yelena rolled her eyes at that. “Story of my life with her. Why would this time be any different?”
Her tone was cheerful, but there was an undercurrent to it that brought a frown to Aziz’s face. “Is everything all right?” he asked quietly.
“Why wouldn’t it be?”
Which only made it clearer that something was wrong. “Yelena, what is it?”
“Nothing,” Yelena said flatly. “It’s nothing, all right?”
But she looked away from her husband, pulling up her shoulders and folding her arms tightly in a defensive gesture that Aziz recognised only too well, and it made his heart ache. He had thought that things had returned almost to where they were before, but now Yelena was withdrawing again, like she had done in the beginning when he had got too close to her physically or emotionally. He took a step back. Then he simply looked at her without saying anything until she was ready to speak.
Finally, Yelena met his eyes. “Could you get Nadya to finish her snack?” she asked.
At least she didn’t sound as hostile, Aziz thought, even though she still kept her arms tightly folded. He nodded. “Eventually,” he confirmed.
His wife looked impressed. “How did you manage that?”
“I’m a lawyer,” Aziz reminded her with a wry smile. “But I must admit, it did put even my skills at persuasion to the test…”
Yelena’s smile was faint, but it was there. “Mother called Nadya strong-willed,” she observed. “Coming from her, that’s…”
“A compliment?” Aziz suggested.
“Actually, the word I was looking for was ‘frightening’.” But now the smile on Yelena’s face was both wider and warmer. Then she glanced towards the nursery.“What are they doing in there?” she wondered with a frown. “I thought Nadya was just going to show Mother something…”
“I’ll check on them,” Aziz offered, and got a grateful look as a reward.
He was back in about thirty seconds. “You’ll want to see this,” he told his wife.
“What is it?”
Aziz smiled and reached out his hand. “Trust me,” he said simply. With a puzzled frown, Yelena took his hand and followed him.
In the nursery, Vice-Admiral Ivanova and her two-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter were sitting on the floor, surrounded by almost every toy in Nadya’s sizeable toy box. Neither of them noticed that they had an audience; they were both completely engrossed in playing with the little space station that was one of Nadya’s favourite toys.
In the doorway, Yelena gave her husband a sly look. “I wonder who’s having the most fun?” she murmured.
“It would probably be detrimental to my career to answer that question,” Aziz murmured back.
“You could always invoke the Seventh Guarantee,” Yelena suggested with a sly smile, earning an appreciative smile from her lawyer husband. Then she cleared her throat. “Let me guess,” she said in a loud voice, “Nadya is the Chief of Starfleet Tactical and you’re the Commander-in-Chief.”
Irina looked up with a snort. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she firmly told her daughter. “I’m Chief of Tactical,” She paused for a moment. “Nadya is the C-in-C.”
Hearing her name, the C-in-C looked up first at her grandmother, then at her mother, and grinned widely. Then she put a small doll clad in a Starfleet uniform into her mouth and began chewing on its feet.
Yelena couldn’t help laughing. “Well, I can see we’re in good hands.” She looked at her mother. “She’s missed you, you know.”
With a loving, almost tender look on her face, Irina leaned forward to ruffle her granddaughter’s hair, which made Nadya giggle around the feet of the hapless Starfleet officer she was chewing on.
“I could visit more often if you weren’t on a starbase in the middle of nowhere, you know,” Irina told the toddler.
“As you yourself so often have said, a Starfleet officer’s posting is subject to the requirements of the service,” Yelena returned. “You don’t get to pick and choose.”
Something about her daughter’s seemingly light tone made Irina look up sharply.
“I was merely making an observation.”
“Of course.” Yelena’s tone was acerbic. “You always are.”
Now Irina was starting to look angry.
“Just what do you think you-”
“Yelena, can I talk to you for a moment?” Aziz quickly stepped in before things could get ugly. “Over there?” He turned to point towards his immaculate office area, which incidentally also was on the other side of the hallway. With a slight frown, his wife nodded and followed him.
“I’m sorry,” Yelena said as soon as they had stepped behind the screens that separated Aziz’s office from the rest of the living area. She grimaced. “I know I shouldn’t have snapped like that in front of Nadya. I’m sorry,” she repeated, looking and sounding honestly contrite.
There was a deep frown on Aziz’s face as he looked at his wife. “Yelena, what’s wrong?”
But when he sought her eyes, she looked away and folded her arms tightly.
“Nothing,” she claimed.
Aziz sighed. “Yelena, I’m a lawyer; I can tell when somebody is lying to my face.”
For a few moments, Yelena kept looking away in hurt silence. Then, almost reluctantly, she darted a glance at her husband. She shook her head.
“Not if it makes you feel like this,” Aziz disagreed. “Yelena…” He took a step towards her, but she turned away again and wrapped her arms even tighter around her, warding him off.
“It is stupid,” she repeated in a low voice. “And I’m feeling terrible about it. But…” Turning her head ever so slightly, she gave her husband a miserable look. “Mother is so wonderful with Nadya; she plays with her and she makes her laugh and she reads her bedtime stories and she sings her lullabies – yeah, I know,” she added with a faint smile when Aziz grimaced. A sense of pitch wasn’t an Ivanov trait. “And I’m happy that she loves Nadya so much, and that Nadya loves her. But…”
“But she never did any of those things with you,” Aziz quietly finished the sentence.
Yelena nodded mutely. This time, she did allow her husband to get close enough to put his arms around her. For a moment, she tensed when he held her, but then she relaxed against him and sighed.
“I’m sorry,” she murmured into the shoulder of his uniform. “It’s just that… I don’t know why, but this brought it all back. And… it hurts.”
Aziz gently stroked her hair. “I know,” he said softly. “Seeing your mother with Nadya reminds you of the relationship you and she never had. It’s also a kind of loss, if a different kind. I don’t think it’s strange that it would remind you of…” He trailed off, not wanting to say the word out loud, but his wife’s leaning a little closer told him that he didn’t have to. Then he hesitated for a moment. He knew she wouldn’t like what he was going to suggest next.
“You need to talk to her, Yelena. She deserves to know.”
Yelena vigorously shook her head against his shoulder.
“It’s no use. She’d never understand; she’d just say I should shrug it off and move on, and tell me how futile it is to…” She swallowed. “She wouldn’t understand,” she repeated.
“I’m not so sure about that,” Aziz said quietly. “She’s changed, Yelena.”
“Not that much,” Yelena stubbornly maintained.
Now Aziz shook his head. “She’s changed more than you think. It’s difficult for you to see it because she’s your mother, but I can; I’m more-”
“What, perceptive?” Yelena snapped, taking a step back and pushing his arms away.
“Neutral,” Aziz said firmly. “Or detached. I don’t have thirty-two years of history with her; it can be a drawback, since it means I don’t know her as well as you do, but in this case, I think it’s an advantage. It means I don’t have any preconceived notions about how she’s going to react.”
“‘Preconceived notions?’” Yelena repeated, arching an eyebrow. “What are you, a lawyer or something?” But she did smile, a wry and slightly amused smile, before she leaned forward to give her husband a quick peck on the cheek.
“You’re prickly!” she declared with a grimace.
Aziz blinked. “Say again?”
“It’s that silly beard of yours,” Yelena clarified with a smile. “It’s like kissing a Talarian hedgehog!”
Aziz was just about to put his arms around his wife again and ask her how exactly she knew what it was like to kiss a spiny and ugly little animal like that, when the sound of a throat being very pointedly cleared on the other side of the screen made both the Taghmaouis jump.
“Is this a bad time?” Admiral Ivanova asked dryly. She was standing with her granddaughter on her arm and Nadya was curiously looking at her parents with her head slightly tilted, as if trying to figure out what they were doing.
“Absolutely not,” Yelena said cheerfully, casting a sly look at her husband. “Your timing is impeccable!”
Irina just shook her head at that. “I need a translation,” she said instead. “My granddaughter wants something that I think involves tykes?”
Nadya’s parents shared a confused look before it dawned on the father:
“Trike!” He grinned. “She wants to show off her newest acquisition.”
“A tricycle?” the grandmother repeated with a slightly disapproving frown.
“Oh, Nadya has excellent motor skills,” Yelena assured her. “Besides, the trike’s got inertial dampeners.”
“It has sensors on its front wheel,” Aziz translated when Irina looked as if her daughter was spouting gibberish, “that activate a set of motion stabilisers if the ride gets too wild. It was Yelena’s idea,” he added with a proud look at his wife. “She built the trike from scratch.”
“Of course,” Irina snorted, but she did look reluctantly impressed. Then she smiled down at the toddler in her arms who, bored by the adults’ talk, once again seemed intent on dislodging her grandmother’s rank insignia.
“It’s supposed to be there, sweetie,” she fondly told Nadya as she gently removed the toddler’s hand. “You don’t want to demote your grandmother to crewman, do you?”
Not quite listening to the conversation between his daughter and mother-in-law, Aziz turned to his wife with a thoughtful look on his face. “You know,” he said, “that isn’t a bad idea. The trike, I mean!” he quickly added when Irina just stared at him. “Nadya can come along on her trike when we show you the station.”
Irina sighed. “Are you sure you want to do that?” she asked Nadya as she gently pinched the little girl’s nose, making her giggle. “I wouldn’t want your exec to have a nervous breakdown on my behalf…”
“She met Commander Niels when she beamed in,” Yelena explained to her slightly puzzled husband. Aziz winced.
“He really is a good officer,” he quickly came to the commander’s defence, “it’s just that he-”
“Doesn’t do admirals very well,” Irina finished the sentence with a shake of her head. “Yes, Yelena told me.” Then she looked at Nadya. “Do you want to ride your trike?” she asked, her voice and face suddenly much softer. “Where is it? Show your babushka!”
With a delighted shriek, Nadya took off as soon as her grandmother put her down and ran across the room. Surrounded by plushies and toy bricks, a small pink tricycle was parked next to the room divider that separated Yelena’s workspace from the rest of the living area. For a moment, Irina smiled at her granddaughter’s excitement; then her gaze wandered to the cluttered space on the other side of the divider, and her smile faded into a frown as she turned to her daughter.
“I assume that’s your… office?”
“Yes,” Yelena confirmed with a cheerful nod.
Still frowning, Irina pointedly let her eyes sweep over Aziz’s immaculate desk and orderly bookshelves. Then she gave her son-in-law a sympathetic look.
“How can you stand it?”
“I try to pretend this part of our quarters is just a bad dream,” Aziz said with a wry but fond smile at his wife.
“You were going to sleep on the sofa tonight, right?” Yelena immediately quipped.
Aziz just rolled his eyes at that. Then he looked at his mother-in-law.
“Feel like a trike-tour of the station, Ira?”
Irina snorted. “I assume you have competent third-in-command who can take over in case your exec has a heart attack?”
“We do,” Aziz assured her with a smile. He cast a loving glance at his daughter, who under excited squeals – and her mother’s watchful eye – had climbed onto the tricycle and would have darted across the room on it if Yelena hadn’t held her back. “Commander Niels adores Nadya, though,” he added, “so hopefully, she’ll make him forget that he’s supposed to be scared out of his wits.”
“I’ll try not to take that personally,” Irina told him with a faint smile. Then she made a commanding nod towards the door. “All right, then. Let’s go.”
Bringing a toddler on a trike along for the tour turned out to be an excellent idea. Many of the officers and crew they met seemed a bit startled to find the Chief of Starfleet Tactical on their little low-profile starbase, but not even the most petrified crew member could keep from smiling at the sight of the happy Nadya on her little pink tricycle. Neither could the Chief of Tactical herself, even though an annoyed frown flickered across her face whenever somebody snappet to attention.
Except for a brief attempt at mutiny around dinnertime, when Nadya threw a tantrum because she would rather continue playing with her grandmother than sit down and eat, the rest of the evening went surprisingly and pleasantly well. The only snag came some time after dinner, when the adults had settled down on the living area’s sofa and settee to enjoy some tea and kaab el ghazal – a Moroccan dessert in keeping with the Moroccan couscous Aziz had treated them to earlier – while Nadya was building a tower of toy bricks in her play corner. Irina was complementing Aziz on his cooking when Yelena, just about to bite into her crescent-shaped cookie, froze mid-movement and gave her husband a horrified look.
“Did you talk to them? About the VIP quarters,” she added when Aziz looked puzzled.
Which only made Aziz look even more puzzled. “I thought we agreed you were going to take care of that?”
“I was, but I… well, I forgot,” she admitted with a grimace. “So I sort of hoped you would have seen to it anyway.”
“VIP quarters? For me?” From the settee, Irina frowned over the rim of her teacup. “Can’t I just sleep in Nadya’s room? You can fit a spare cot in there,” she went on when the two Taghmaouis looked as if she had taken leave of her senses, “provided that we put away some of her toys. Then I can take care of her tomorrow morning,” she added as she turned her head to cast a fond look at her granddaughter, whose brick tower now had reached an impressive and precarious height. “Give the two of you a chance to sleep in?”
Yelena and Aziz shared a look.
“If you really want to…” Yelena said, sounding a little sceptical.
“Nadya would be delighted,” Aziz pointed out.
“Good.” Irina nodded, obviously considering the matter settled.
Aziz got to his feet. “I’ll fix the cot right away,” he told the two women. “No, you sit and finish your kaab,” he added as Yelena started to get up as well. He smiled. “I doubt we need an engineer for this.”
“Aziz…” Yelena warned, knowing exactly why her husband wanted to leave her and her mother alone – but Aziz had moved quickly and was already halfway to the nursery.
“I’m quite sure Aziz can manage without your help,” Irina told her daughter with a shake of her head. There was a thoughtful look on her face as she nibbled on her kaab. “Is it my imagination,” she said, “or is his hairline receding?”
“Mother!” Yelena looked horrified. “Well, yes,” she reluctantly admitted, “but please don’t say anything to him; he’s a little sensitive about it.”
Irina snorted. “Trust a man to be vain.”
“He isn’t vain! He’s… just a little sensitive about his receding hairline, that’s all.”
“Like I said,” Irina noted with another snort, ignoring the annoyed look she got from her daughter.
At that moment, the subject of the discussion returned. “All set,” he informed mother and daughter. “I’m afraid it probably won’t be all that comfortable,” he added, making a somewhat apologetic grimace at Irina as he sat down next to his wife. “It’s a bit cramped in there.”
“I’ll manage,” Irina shrugged it off. “It’s just for one night after all. I’m not that old and frail,” she added firmly when her son-in-law still looked a bit dubious.
Aziz’s response was interrupted by a furious shriek from Nadya. The tower she had built so painstakingly had toppled, and Nadya was now protesting this affront by loudly and violently throwing and kicking her other toys as far as she could. Her parents shared a knowing look; they recognised the signs of an over-tired toddler all too well.
“She needs to go to bed,” Yelena said. “No, you sit,” she added as Aziz started to get up at the same time she did. “I’ll take her; it’s my turn anyway.”
Nadya seemed happy enough as her mother approached the little play area, but the moment Yelena picked her whining daughter up she let out a shriek shrill enough to shatter transparent aluminium.
“Boosha!” she demanded, kicking wildly. “Boosha!”
“I’ll take her,” Irina said, quickly getting to her feet to collect the wriggling toddler from Yelena. “Oh, don’t look at me like that,” she sighed to Yelena. “I have put children to bed before, you know. Yes, I have,” she told the blinking Nadya, who seemed much happier with the prospect of going to bed now that she was in her grandmother’s arms. Yawning, Nadya responded by contentedly snuggling her head against Irina’s shoulder, too tired to even poke at her grandmother’s enticing rank insignia.
“You’re a sleepy little girl, aren’t you, Nadyushka?” Irina cooed as she started to walk towards the nursery with the toddler already half-asleep against her shoulder. “We’re going to tuck you in, and then your babushka will read you a story…”
The two Taghmaouis watched as grandmother and granddaughter disappeared through the nursery door.
“I hope Mother doesn’t sing to her,” Yelena said with a wry look at her husband. “I’m not sure what that would do to structural integrity. Are you going to finish that?” she with slightly forced gaiety went on with a nod towards Aziz’s cup and small plate. “I’ll put it in the replicator otherwise. No, I’ve got it,” she fended him off as Aziz once again started to get up. “You sit.”
Aziz watched with a frown on his face as his wife went into the dining area and busied herself at the replicator. Maybe it had been too soon after all, he thought; even though she tried her best to hide it, her mother being there was obviously stressful for Yelena. Maybe they should have asked Irina not to come, but it had been hard to say no when she had been at a conference with the sector commander and practically would be passing by their front door on her way back to Earth. He still felt that his wife and her mother needed to talk, but he didn’t know how to convince Yelena. Even though he firmly believed that his mother-in-law had changed, his wife did not.
At that moment, Yelena peeked out from the dining area. “Do you think…I mean, could you check on them?” Looking a little embarrassed, she nodded towards the nursery. “It’s not that I don’t think Mother can get Nadya to go to sleep,” she added quickly when Aziz arched his eyebrows, “it’s just that…”
“…that you don’t think your mother can get Nadya to go to sleep,” Aziz finished with a wry smile. He got to his feet. “I’ll check,” he promised.
In the nursery, he found his mother-in-law sitting on a stool squeezed in between the cot where she would spend the night and the crib where her granddaughter was fast asleep with her favourite toy bunny beside her. The look on Irina’s face as she watched the sleeping toddler was very loving, very tender – and very unlike the usual stern visage of the Chief of Starfleet Tactical.
Irina’s senses, however, were just as keen as usual.
“Come to check up on me?” she murmured without turning around.
“No, I just… well, yes,” Aziz admitted with a smile.
“She was out like a light as soon as her head hit the pillow,” Irina told him in a low voice as she got up from the stool, moving carefully so as not to make any noise. “It’s been a busy day for a little girl.”
Still with the same tender look on her face, she bent over the crib to caress Nadya’s soft, brown curls.
“Sladkihk snov, Nadyushka,” she whispered. “Sweet dreams.” Then she pulled herself up and turned to face her son-in-law.
“You have a beautiful daughter. A beautiful family.” For a second, Irina looked almost wistful, but then her face changed as the admiral frowned at her son-in-law. “I did not approve of Yelena and Nadya following you here, you know.”
The look Aziz gave his mother-in-law was slightly apprehensive. The sudden change in Irina’s demeanour was an unpleasant reminder of the past, when she had assumed that Aziz was just some upstart paper-pusher only out to take advantage of her daughter and at best would cold-shoulder him. Aziz had never been afraid of Admiral Irina Ivanova, even though he knew that many officers were and some of them higher in the ranks than he – but right now, he was acutely aware of how easily an unfavourable word from the Chief of Starfleet Tactical could break his career.
“Engineering is a slow career track as it is,” Irina sternly went on, “and Yelena being cooped up on some rust-bucket starbase certainly doesn’t help. I also didn’t like how she obviously intended to let her own career be dictated by and secondary to yours.” She firmly held up a hand as Aziz started to say something. “Oh, she very thoroughly explained how it makes more sense for her to follow you than the other way around, since she as an engineer can be sure to find work anywhere you’re posted as a JAG officer but the opposite isn’t necessarily true. And I could understand her reasoning – but I did not approve of it. Even if you were her superior officer at the time, I do not believe that a wife should be subordinated to her husband.”
A frown had appeared on Aziz’s face as Irina spoke, and now it deepened considerably. But before he could open his mouth to correct some of the admiral’s most outrageous misconceptions, Irina raised her hand again.
“Let me finish.” It was not a request. “Now, when I see the three of you together…” She hesitated for a moment. “I realise I was in the wrong. This was the right decision. Nadya should get to grow up with two loving parents. She shouldn’t have to…” For a second, Irina’s voice caught as she closed her eyes. “She shouldn’t have to grow up like her mother did,” she finished. Her voice was low and husky.
“She won’t,” Aziz promised her. “Yelena and I are going to do everything we can to keep our family together. Even if it comes to one of us resigning their commission.”
“You mean even if it comes to Yelena resigning her commission,” Irina corrected. She overrode Aziz’s objection with a dismissive shake of her head. “Even if you were silly enough to try something like that – which I very much doubt you would be – Yelena wouldn’t let you, and neither would I. You’re too good an officer for that. But Yelena would be just as happy as a civilian engineer. But it won’t come to that.” It was said with absolute certainty. Then Irina hesitated for a moment, almost as if she wasn’t sure how to continue. “Aziz… I don’t think I’ve ever said how glad I am that… I mean, it’s obvious how fond you and Yelena are of each other. You’ve been good for her. She’s happy.”
“It’s mutual,” Aziz said with a smile. “In both respects.” His smile turned wry. “We have slightly different views on housekeeping, but other than that…”
Irina snorted. “I didn’t know Yelena had any views on housekeeping!”
“…very liberal views,” was the lawyer’s reply.
Irina shook her head. “I thought it was bad when she was at the Academy,” she sighed, “but it was nothing compared to… to…” She trailed off, gesturing towards the door and the desk on the other side of it as she searched for a word.
“Chaotic Space,” Aziz prompted. “That’s what she calls her office, Chaotic Space.”
The look on his mother-in-law’s face was both horrified and amused. “Apt,” she observed.
Before Aziz could respond, Yelena appeared in the doorway. Obviously expecting to find a howling toddler and two frazzled adults, she seemed quite surprised to find her daughter fast asleep and her husband and mother engaged in earnest conversation.
“She sleeping,” Aziz assured his wife in a low voice. “We were just…”
“…discussing astrophysics,” Irina filled in without missing a beat.
“Right,” Yelena said with a sceptical look at her husband who suddenly had to stifle a cough. Then she walked over to the crib to check on the peacefully sleeping toddler. She lovingly touched Nadya’s chubby little cheek before she adjusted the blankets a little. Then she turned to her husband and mother and made a commanding nod very much like one of Irina’s towards the door.
“Yes, ma’am,” Aziz murmured with a smile, and got a long-suffering look in return.
“Well,” Yelena said when they were back outside the nursery. She looked from her husband to her mother. “Maybe we should… or could…” She trailed off, obviously not quite sure what they should suggest to entertain her mother for the rest of the evening, now that the star of the show had made her exit. Hopefully, she glanced at Aziz.
Aziz was thinking very fast. “Actually,” he said, “I… just realised I have some paperwork to catch up on.”
“What?” Yelena exclaimed.
Her husband met her incredulous stare with a firm gaze of his own. He knew her well enough to see that as long as he was there, Yelena would never talk to her mother. She knew him well enough to understand exactly what it was he was trying to orchestrate, and she was obviously not happy about it.
“It’s just a couple of files I need for a meeting,” Aziz went on for Irina’s benefit when this apparent lack of responsibility in her son-in-law had brought a frown to the admiral’s face. “Nothing major. But then I should probably think about getting some sleep myself,” he added. “I have an early day tomorrow.”
“Aziz…” Yelena warned.
“What time are you leaving tomorrow?” Aziz continued to ask Irina without looking at his wife.
“1100 hours. Provided that we depart on schedule,” Irina added, her tone clearly stating that their not doing so was inconceivable. They were, after all, talking about her old XO and her old ship.
Aziz nodded. “I’ll have time to say goodbye to you tomorrow morning, then,” he noted. “Good. Well, I’m just going to get my papers; then I’ll leave the two of you alone. I’m sure you have plenty to talk about,” he added with a quick, meaning glance at his wife.
“Aziz!” Yelena hissed.
But Aziz was already heading to his desk to pick up a PADD, any PADD, and gave his wife a quick peck on the cheek on his way past.
“Talk to her,” he whispered. “See you tomorrow then, Ira,” he in a loud voice said to his still-frowning mother-in-law, an amicable smile on his face. “Good night!”
With that, he quickly grabbed his PADD and disappeared into the bedroom before anybody could object.
“That was… abrupt,” Irina observed, sounding slightly puzzled.
“Yeah,” Yelena agreed with a grimace. She cast a long, thoughtful look at the closed bedroom door before she turned to her mother.
“More tea?” It wasn’t really a question, and she interpreted Irina’s shrug as a yes.
While her mother took her place in the corner of the settee that she seemed to have claimed, Yelena disappeared into the dining area. She soon returned with two steaming cups, and passed one of them to her mother before she sat down in her corner, on the sofa.
“Hot chocolate,” she said by way of explanation when the beverage in her daughter’s mug made Irina arch an eyebrow. “I prefer it over tea in the evenings.”
“There isn’t any caffeine in rooibos tea,” Irina sententiously pointed out, and took a sip from hers as if to emphasize this.
Yelena sighed. “I know, but I still prefer hot chocolate.”
That made her mother frown over the rim of her cup. “Are you pregnant?”
The vehement reaction only made Irina’s frown deepen. “If you’re having odd cravings…” she began.
“I’m not pregnant!” Yelena snapped. “And I’m not craving hot chocolate,” she went on in a slightly softer tone, “I just like it.” She looked down into her mug. “No. I’m not pregnant,” she repeated.
“If you say so.” Irina both looked and sounded slightly offended, but Yelena didn’t seem to notice.
For a while, they sipped their beverages in silence. Then Yelena took a deep breath.
“So… what do you think of my starbase?”
“Your starbase?” Irina repeated with an arched eyebrow.
Yelena smiled. “I guess I can’t help but feel a certain proprietorship. It is my job to keep her running, after all.”
Irina snorted before taking another sip of tea.
“I… I don’t think I ever congratulated you,” she said after a moment’s hesitation. “On your promotion?”
“Thank you.” Yelena looked a little surprised. “I know,” she added with a grimace, “engineering is a slow career track; when you were my age, you were already a captain; and being Chief Engineer on a starbase isn’t at all the same thing as being it on a starship.”
“Yes,” Irina curtly agreed. “Well, at least you have the same rank as your husband now. Not that it will last very long,” she added almost as an afterthought.
“Sorry?” Yelena frowned.
But Irina ignored that. “Nadya really is a wonderful little girl,” she said instead. “You and Aziz have done well.”
“We like to think so,” Yelena beamed over the rim of her cup.
“So… is she going to get any brothers or sisters?”
Yelena looked away. “I don’t know.”
This brought a slight frown to her mother’s face. “Meaning you and Aziz haven’t decided, or-”
Hot chocolate splashed on the coffee table as Yelena violently put her mug down. “Meaning I don’t know, all right!?”
“Yelena!” For a moment, the vehemence seemed to stun Irina. Then gave her daughter a close, almost scrutinising look. “Yelena, what is it?” She frowned. “Has something… are you and Aziz having problems?”
“No! No,” Yelena repeated in a lower voice. “It’s just… we just…” Hesitating, she looked at her mother for a moment. Then she seemed to come to a decision. She took a deep breath. “I had a miscarriage.”
“What?” Irina stared at her daughter. “When did this happen?”
“About three months ago. Two months, three weeks, two days.” Her smile looked more like a grimace. “Not that I’m keeping track.”
Irina immediately made the connection. “I was supposed to visit two months ago. But you said you had the Benkaran flu.”
“Well, I didn’t. I know,” Yelena sighed at the look on her mother’s face, “I lied to a superior officer.”
“No, you didn’t,” Irina told her sternly. “You lied to your mother.” Slowly, she shook her head. “Yelena… why didn’t you tell me?”
Yelena grimaced. “About the pregnancy, or about the miscarriage?”
“Both,” Irina said firmly.
Yelena looked away. “I would have told you I was pregnant,” she said, “but I wanted to do it in person, so I was going to wait until you came to visit. You… you would probably have noticed it then, anyway.”
Irina frowned. “Noticed?” she repeated. “How far along were you when…?”
“Seventeen weeks. It was a knot on the umbilical cord,” Yelena went on in a low voice when Irina’s eyes widened. “They couldn’t… I mean, the doctors… there was nothing they could do.”
“There was nothing anybody could do,” Irina said. She leaned forward. “There was nothing you could do – but you blame yourself anyway.”
Yelena looked away. “Yeah,” she whispered. Unconsciously, she folded her arms over her stomach. “I kept thinking that if I had understood something was wrong sooner, if I had gone to Sickbay sooner, then maybe… maybe they could have done something. Maybe I wouldn’t have lost him.”
“It was a boy?” Irina asked softly.
Still looking away, Yelena nodded. “It’s stupid, I know,” she said in a low voice. “Mourning for someone who never really was. Who just… just…” She trailed off, swallowing hard.
“Of course he was,” her mother said firmly. “And of course it isn’t stupid.” The look Irina gave her daughter was filled with pain. “Is that why you didn’t tell me? Because you thought I’d say… that I’d think…” She shook her head. “Oh, Lenotschka…”
It was a nickname Irina hadn’t used since Yelena was a little girl. Maybe it was because of all the memories it brought back, maybe it was because of Irina’s unusually soft voice, but something snapped inside Yelena. She tried to keep the tears back, but she couldn’t. She took a couple of tremulous breaths; then she buried her face in her hands, and cried.
Yelena barely noticed how her mother moved from the settee to sit beside her, not until Irina put her arms around her. As Irina gently rocked her daughter back and forth like you would a small child Yelena buried her head against her mother’s shoulder and cried, for her son, for her childhood, for all the times she had needed Irina to be there and she hadn’t been – and because her mother finally was there now.
“I’m sorry,” Irina murmured into her daughter’s dark hair. “I am so sorry, Lenotschka.”
It wasn’t just for the baby. Yelena knew that.
They sat like that for a long while. When Yelena finally pulled herself up and wiped her eyes, she was surprised to see her mother furtively pass a hand over her own eyes before Irina flashed her daughter a quick smile.
“Now I think we both need some more tea,” she observed. “And some tissues.”
Before Yelena could object, her mother had already both brought their cups to the replicator and had returned with two new ones, along with a box of tissues. She carefully placed one of the cups in front of Yelena before she again sat down next to her.
“It’s Vulcan mint tea,” Irina said as Yelena frowned a little when the liquid in the mug wasn’t the dark rooibos red that she obviously had expected. “A Vulcan… friend of mine introduced me to it. It’s quite soothing.”
Yelena took a tentative sip. “It’s good,” she observed, sounding a little surprised.
Irina smiled slightly at that. Then she gave her daughter a searching look. “Yelena… are you and Aziz having problems?”
Yelena shook her head. “No. I mean, not really. Aziz has been wonderful. I know he’d tell you that we’ve been supporting each other through this, but that’s not true. He’s the one who’s been supporting me. And I’ve been leaning on him. Hard.”
Irina didn’t say anything. She just sipped her tea quietly as she thoughtfully watched her daughter.
Yelena looked down at the swirling liquid as she slowly turned her cup in her hands. “Some… things… haven’t been…” She frowned at the tea. “I know Aziz doesn’t want to push me, but I… well, it’s been difficult for me.”
“I’m sure he understands,” Irina said, placing a sympathetic hand on her daughter’s shoulder.
Yelena grimaced at her tea. “Maybe. I mean, he says so, but…” Now she looked up, a fraught, almost desperate look on her face. “I’m afraid I’m pushing him away.”
Now Irina smiled a little. “I don’t think it’s possible for you to do that. I’ll freely admit that relationships aren’t my forte, but even I can see how devoted your husband is to you. And you to him.”
“Yeah.” Yelena tried to smile back. “Maybe.”
“Trust me, Yelena,” Irina said firmly. “And trust him.”
Yelena’s smile was steadier this time. “I do,” she assured her mother. “Always.” She took a long drink from her cup. “You know, I don’t usually like Vulcan teas,” she said, “but this is really good.” She gave her mother a sly look. “A friend, you say? A male friend?”
Irina arched her eyebrows at that. “As a matter of fact, yes.”
“A good friend?”
Now Irina put her cup down. “What exactly are you implying?” she demanded.
“I’m not implying anything,” Yelena claimed, and quickly hid behind her cup. Then she peeked over its rim with a grin. “Should I be?”
“Don’t be absurd!” Irina said sternly.
If Yelena noticed the slight flush that crept across her mother’s cheeks, she didn’t comment on it. Instead, she cocked her head, giving her mother a thoughtful look.
“You seemed uncomfortable before. When we showed you around the station?” she added for clarification. “I thought you’d be used to people snapping to attention around you…”
“I am used to it.” Irina’s voice was as hard as her face. “And I’m fed up with it! Sometimes it feels as if my job is all about show – and for show. It’s as if I’ve become a dummy that you trot out for parades, and otherwise keep locked up in a gilded cage.” She shook her head. “Can’t have the admiral getting her hands dirty, now can we? And God forbid we let her do any actual work!”
She spat out the last word, slamming her palm into the table so hard both her and Yelena’s cups jumped. Yelena was too surprised to even flinch; she just stared at her mother with eyes as wide as saucers.
With a grimace, Irina quickly reached for a tissue to dab at the table where tea had mixed with the previously spilt chocolate. She sighed.
“We make a fine mess of things, don’t we?”
Now it was Yelena’s turn to place a sympathetic hand on her mother’s arm, slightly tentatively, and get a faint, wry smile in return.
Reaching for her cup, Irina thoughtfully studied the Starfleet Command insignia on it for a moment. Then she drained the remaining tea in one, quick swallow.
“I’m going to step down,” she declared.
Yelena looked as if her mother had sprouted a second head. “Step down?” she echoed. “And do what?”
Irina shrugged. “I’m not sure yet. Maybe become sector commander somewhere.”
“Going from department chief to command a sector?” Yelena frowned. “That’s a fairly significant downgrade.”
“I’d still have my rank,” Irina said with a dismissive shake of the head. “Despite my granddaughter’s efforts,” she added with a faint smile. “The only difference would be that I’d be in a position where I’d be able to get things done for a change.”
Yelena nodded slowly, but she looked a little doubtful. “You do realise you’d be serving on a starbase, right?”
“Unfortunately.” Irina sighed. “But at least it will be in space. That’s where I belong – not in some cushy corner office in San Francisco.”
Still looking at her mother, Yelena took a long, thoughtful drink of her tea. “You surprise me, Mother,” she said with a wry shake of her head. “Just when I think I’ve got you figured out.”
“You mean I’m not of quite so narrow and one-track a mind as you thought,” Irina translated with a little grimace.
“No, I just… well, yes,” Yelena admitted.
Just as tentatively as her daughter before, Irina reached out her hand and very lightly, very quickly touched Yelena’s cheek. “I… I mean, you… I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I wish…”
“I know.” Yelena smiled a little. “It’s all right. I know.”
Suddenly blinking hard, Irina looked away for a moment. Her eyes still bright, there was an odd look on her face when she turned back to her daughter.
“Aziz didn’t really have any paperwork to catch up on, did he?”
Yelena didn’t have to answer. Her slightly guilty look was all her mother needed.
“Clever,” Irina observed with a snort. “Do you want me to write him up for insubordination?”
She sounded so completely serious, her daughter almost started to object before she caught the ever-so-faint quirk on her mother’s lips.
“Nah,” Yelena grinned after pretending to consider it for a moment. “We’ll let him slide this time.”
Irina smiled back. Then she got to her feet and started to collect their cups.
“We should be getting to bed,” she explained at her daughter’s questioning look, “both of us. I assume you have work tomorrow, and if memory serves, my granddaughter is an early riser. Besides,” she added wryly, “I’m sure your husband is anxious to learn whether or not his little ruse worked. It’s all right, I’ve got this,” she quickly added before Yelena could say anything. “You go ahead. I’ll finish up here.”
Even though Irina’s tone sounded brusque, Yelena knew her mother well enough to tell when she wanted to be left alone. She got up from the sofa.
“Well. I’ll see you tomorrow, then.” She smiled. “Good night, Mother.”
“Good night.” Irina’s return smile was a little unsteady. “Lenotschka.”
Then she quickly disappeared into the dining area, clutching the cups.
In the bedroom, Aziz was lying on the bed, reading with his feet resting on the neatly folded bed blanket. He looked up over the rim of the PADD when the door opened and his wife entered.
“I put your slippers away,” he said in a slightly weary voice as she came over to the bed.
“Sorry,” Yelena murmured, looking but not for a second sounding it as she leaned down to kiss him on the forehead.
“Reading Aaron Satie again?” she more stated than asked with a glance at the obviously-not-paperwork PADD he was holding. “Isn’t there some commandment or something against that? Having more than one God, I mean,” she clarified with a grin when her husband looked bewildered.
“Says she who worships Noonian Soong,” Aziz countered.
“That’s different! Soong was a genius! Besides,” she added with a smirk, affectionately poking her husband’s nose before she pulled herself up, “I’m not Muslim; I’m free to worship whatever I want.”
Aziz gave her a long-suffering look at that. “It’s enough if you just put your slippers away.”
His wife rolled her eyes. “You’re worse than my mother!” she claimed. She didn’t wait for a reply before she ducked into the bathroom, already in the process of letting down her long, brown hair from its customary bun.
Putting down the PADD on his nightstand, Aziz sat up.
“Speaking of your mother…” he tentatively called over the sound of teeth being vigorously brushed. “How did it go?”
At least it had too few syllables to be “I want a divorce,” Aziz thought but didn’t say. “I didn’t get that?” he called instead.
Now Yelena poked her head through the bathroom door, toothbrush in hand and toothpaste foam around her mouth. “I shaid, in a minute,” she repeated firmly before ducking back into the bathroom.
Aziz couldn’t help smiling when she re-emerged and he saw her familiar nightdress. He didn’t understand how his wife could look beautiful in an oversized, neon green t-shirt, but somehow, she did. He watched with a certain trepidation as the seemingly oblivious Yelena first busied herself with getting a glass of water, absently kicking her neatly lined-up slippers out of the way in the process, and then spent what seemed like an eternity fluffing up her pillow. Just as Aziz was about to teasingly ask her if he should replicate her a new one, Yelena turned her head to give him a sly look under an arched eyebrow.
“My mother is on the other side of the wall,” she pointed out.
Aziz just rolled his eyes at that. He certainly hadn’t been thinking about anything you might not want your mother-in-law to hear – well, not much, anyway – but he had missed getting these kinds of looks from his wife, and it brought a quickly hidden smile to his face.
“Well?” he prompted as Yelena sat down on her side of the bed. “How did it go?”
Pulling her legs up under her, Yelena twisted on the bed until she was facing her husband, studiously and ever-so-slightly in spite not answering him until she was sitting in a comfortable position.
“Well, she saw right through your paperwork excuse,” she told him with a little smile, “so I wouldn’t try pulling that again. I talked her out of demoting you, though.” Then she became serious. “It went… well,” she said, a look of wonder on her face. “It actually went well. We talked about… well, about everything. And about Malik.”
Aziz reached out his hand to gently squeeze hers. It was the first time since the miscarriage his wife had spoken the name of their son.
“I cried my eyes out,” Yelena admitted with a grimace. “But it was all right. No, really,” she said with a wistful smile when she saw the concerned look on her husband’s face. “It’s all right. I am all right.” She frowned a little. “I think… I needed it. To let it out.”
Still looking concerned but also very relieved, Aziz squeezed her hand – for just as Yelena hadn’t said their son’s name before, she also hadn’t cried. Not since that terrible day when it had happened, when Aziz had got a call from Sickbay and had rushed from his office, only to be met by a sombre CMO who had explained that there had been nothing they could do to save the baby. Yelena had cried then, after the D&C when it had all definitely been over – but never again after that.
Again with a little smile, Yelena squeezed his hand back. “Mother really has changed,” she said thoughtfully. “You were right about that.” She grimaced. “You know, I really wish you’d stop it!”
Startled, Aziz had let go of his wife’s hand before he caught the gleam in her eyes. “Stop what?” he asked suspiciously “Being right?”
“Exactly!” Yelena gleefully agreed. “It’s infuriating when you’re right all the time! We should split the week or something,” she went on, still with a gleam in her eyes but sounding completely serious. “You can be right on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and I’ll be right on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. On Sundays, it’s a tie.”
“It’s a very good idea.” Being a lawyer meant you could say things like that with a straight face. “I only see one small problem with it.”
“Really?” Yelena frowned.
Aziz nodded. “What if I have a career-deciding court case on, say, a Thursday?”
“Tough luck, Ensign,” his wife said blithely.
Now Aziz had to bite his lip hard to remain serious. “Or if there’s a cataclysmic reactor malfunction on a Monday?”
Yelena seemed to ponder that for a moment. Then she glared at him. “See?” she complained, flinging her arms wide. “Now you’re doing it again! You’re unbearable! I really should make you sleep on the sofa…”
Aziz tried to look offended, but he didn’t quite succeed. This was the old Yelena, with her quirky sense of humour and that mischievous gleam in her eyes that held the promise of more than just bedroom banter, and he had missed her. He had missed her so very much. Aziz loved his wife more than anything and he would do anything for her… and if she wasn’t whole, he wasn’t, either.
Almost as if she could sense what her husband was thinking, Yelena leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek.
“Do you know how old I was the last time my mother comforted me when I cried?”
Aziz shook his head.
“Neither do I.” She made a face. “That’s how long ago it was. And I always felt like it was my fault that I cried – like I had failed her by crying, or just was a failure in general. But tonight… I didn’t feel like that tonight. She didn’t make me feel like that.” She gave her husband a wry look. “And it annoys me just a little that you obviously knew she wouldn’t, even though I did not.”
“I didn’t know.” Aziz smiled a little. “But I did hope.”
“It’s strange,” Yelena mused, absently stroking her husband’s hand. “I didn’t think it would mean so much to… to have her actually be my mother, instead of just my superior officer. There’s never been any difference between the two before,” she added with a grimace. “She’s always been Captain – or Admiral – Ivanova and I’ve always been just another grunt under her command.”
“She has changed,” Aziz said. He smiled. “The grandmother outranks the admiral now.”
Yelena looked a little sceptical at that. “I’m not sure I’d go that far.”
Suddenly, she leaned forward to give her surprised husband a tight hug. “Thank you,” she whispered. “For being sensible when I’m not. Even though it’s infuriating when you are,” she added with a little smile.
Aziz couldn’t help himself. “I can always split the week,” he suggested, his face completely serious. “I’ll be sensible on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and then I’ll be completely irrational on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Satur- ouch!” he protested with a chuckle when his wife boxed him on the arm.
“You’re unbearable!” she complained, but her grin contradicted her words. So did the kiss she gave him, lightly at first but then more soundly as she slipped her arms around him. Her husband was more than happy to return the gesture, only…
“Your mother is on the other side of the wall,” he murmured.
“So?” his wife asked, her eyes gleaming as she kissed him again.
“Just so we’re both clear on that.”
But he did return her kiss before he pulled the blanket over their heads.