A Penny For Your Thoughts

Characters: Dr. Kim Matsumoto, Billy Nichols

Two days passed more quickly than Kim thought possible, or wished. What had gone on beyond their own company had been reduced to a vague murmur, gladly ignored, until time dropped them in the middle of customs, watching the crawl of departure notices on the overhead screens. Traffic broke around them like water around a stone as she stopped with Billy before the departure gates.

Kim didn’t look any different than the other passengers, except for her Isil’zah at her shoulder, the one mark of her following she’d not sent ahead of her before the rescue mission to Mars. Billy however was in the dark uniform of a station security officer, an unhappy reminder of where he had to be after seeing her off. Where he should have been right then, if not for a little leniency.

“Five minutes till last call, it looks like,” Kim said, subdued.

Billy grimaced. “Not near enough time, lass.”

There was a quirk at the corner of her mouth, but it held more sadness than humor. “Our luck.”

“Yeah.” He slid and arm around her waist, pulling her close, away from the lines. Shyness was derailed for more important things for the time being.

“I might get more time off with things changing….” but saying it, she didn’t sound very hopeful. The postwar mess didn’t change much for giving out a few new names and promises. The true work was yet to come.

“You won’t,” he said bluntly and smiled a little sadly. “But I’ll take what I can get.”

“Crazy, of course,” she replied, about whom was left up to interpretation. She wrapped her arms around his shoulders.

“That’s me. Hopeless too.” It was not saying as much as he wanted to, and he even tried to keep it out of his thoughts. It was difficult enough without that.

“Ever think of taking some vacation time off at Minbar?” she asked suddenly.

“Vacation? What’s that?” he asked sarcastically, then his tone softened, half-apologetic. “I’ll let you know if I can ever manage it.”

“Right…. Well, I’d better board.”

When she began to let go, Billy clutched tighter for a moment before releasing with a murmured, “Sorry.”

“Don’t apologize.” She stepped back, too tempted to linger otherwise. “You’ve got my code, so I expect to hear from you.”

“Often as I can.” Made daring with desperation, he suddenly stepped back again, for a brief kiss. It didn’t remain so for long, and it was a wrench to finally break away for both of them. Eyes too bright, he said in a whisper, “Be careful.”

“You too.” A couple steps backward, and then Kim turned and hurried to catch the shuttle. Billy watched her go, first losing sight of her. Then the light touch of her presence in his mind. How there could be both silence and unbearable noise at once in that loss, he didn’t know. He leaned against the wall, trying to collect himself for duty. It was a few minutes before he could turn away, step dragging.


 

Three days since seeing her off, Billy flopped down on his couch after another shift of patrols, tired and depressed with more than just the monotony. It didn’t get any easier for time passing, and it wasn’t helped by the fact he could still feel an echo of her in the room. She was probably at least on Minbar already, or maybe to the Phoenix, returning to duty, he estimated.

When the door chime sounded, pulling him out of a doze, for a moment he thought time had somehow rewound itself. His heart jumped. “Huh? ‘S it?”

The voice was most definitely not Kim’s. “Special Package Delivery.”

Billy blinked, head clearing from a flood of sleepy hope and disappointment. “Oh. Just a minute.” He got up and opened the door.

For a moment Billy stared as if it were a carnival circus that had made a detour through his hall. Dressed crisply and badged by the Earth Alliance Postal Service, the man standing there was easily recognizable, but why he was there at all was a surprise. The mail had never stopped for war or raiders (and some joked even a First One would have met it’s match in the EAPS), but Billy couldn’t recall the last time he or anyone he knew had reason to make use of it.

“William Nichols?” the man asked briskly. He pulled a long, narrow package out of his carry-bag.

“Yes?”

“Your identicard please.”

“Um. Yeah.” Billy fumbled it out of his uniform pocket and handed it over. In quick order it was scanned and the vid ID checked. It was given back, along with the package.

“Thank you. Have a good day.”

“Ah, you too,” Billy replied distractedly. He stepped back in, letting the door close, and turned the package over in a hunt for the sender.

While it hadn’t been Kim at the door, she had still managed to make it at least because of her. It brough a brief smile to his face. Sent from an unfamiliar address in Spain, on Earth, her name was marked at the top with her flourishing script. At first he could only stare, hesitant for some reason, then opened it.

Inside there was an even narrower box of wood finished with brass hinges and lock. Billy dropped the plastic shell and ran his fingers over the smooth wood, unable to guess what it could be. Very cautiously he opened the latch, and tipped the lid back.

Nestled inside a sandwich of padded velvet, an antique penny whistle gleamed. Age and dents hadn’t dulled it’s beauty, and he was afraid to touch something so old he’d only ever seen in pictures. Instead, he pulled out the folded note that had been tucked between it and the velvet.

    Will, I saw this in a shop when I was about town.  
    
I hope you enjoy it, and use it like it's meant to be.  
    
               Yours, Kim

Billy felt his eyes prickle, and he blinked quickly. He moved to sit on the couch, staring at the whistle a long time before he took it out of its box. It had been years since he’d played one, but his fingers found their right places and he lifted it to his lips.

Sounds came hesitantly at first, too disjointed for melody, but slowly he relaxed, pleased with the sound as he ran through the scales, testing it and his own memory. It wasn’t a terrible reach from there to the old songs, filling the silence that had held since he was solitary again.


 

Kim couldn’t muster herself to be impressed when she walked through the doorway to her new quarters. Potential for the place was lost behind boxes and crates of her belongings, and it suited her fluctuating mood just fine. Dropping her single bag on the floor, she was about to turn and leave again, when the comm system chirped cheerfully.

“Computer, can it wait? Where’s the call from?”

The computer responded in it’s default of Adronato, “Babylon 5. Do you wish to recieve?”

Kim blinked, for a moment wondering if wishful thinking had been giving new translations to the language. “Put it through.” She paused long enough for the connection to link, then, “Hello?”

Instead of a voice, musical notes reached her ears, a high, sweet Irish lilt. She frowned with puzzlement at the empty screen. “Am I on hold?” she muttered to herself. “Good music for once….”

The music died in a very human laugh. “Thanks, lass. I think.”

Kim suddenly grinned. “Will!” she cried, and understanding dawned. “You got it finally.”

Billy stepped into range of pickup, smiling. “Yeah. Thanks.”

“I’d been hoping it would get there before I did, not after, but… I can’t really complain.” She smiled. “You like it? I wasn’t sure if I remembered right on which you could play.”

“You did. It’s wonderful. Haven’t had one since…”

Kim leaned next to the screen, the closest can be even if just to a transmitted image. “Glad you like it.”

“Yes.” His voice softened, warm. “Didn’t have to, didn’t expect.”

“That’s why it was perfect. I know it’s only been three days, but how are you?”

“Same old, except…. Miss you.” He couldn’t lie.

“Me too. I wish it could be easier than this.”

“Can’t not, if that makes sense. But…”

“What?”

“I thought I was lonely before.” He smiled weakly at himself. “Everything feels empty now.”

“I know what you mean.” She shook her head and leaned out of the way so he could see the boxed room. “It’s an important job, and a nice place, but all the same, there are times when I’d rather not bother and just go back to Babylon 5.”

“Really?”

“Absolutely.”

Billy laid a hand on screen, trying to pretend he could touch her. Kim was silent a few moments, her resolve wavering even more than it had in the docking bay when she’d been about to leave. He would never know how hard it’d been to keep moving when she’d gone beyond her range to sense and touch his mind. She did her best to make sure he didn’t know about now, either.

“Only be careful, hm? So you can come back,” he said.

“I will.” She found a smile for him. “I haven’t heard the details about the next assignment yet, but I hear it’s to Abbai territory. It shouldn’t be too much to deal with.”

“Except maybe boredom,” he teased.

“Boredom, I can live with,” she laughed. They shared a grin, and she added, “Who knows, we may not be out there long. Maybe the engines fall off this thing and we’re towed right back to drydock.”

Billy laughed a little at that.

“Don’t tell the Minbari I even wished that,” Kim said. Silence stretched then, and her eyes flickered to the timer reluctantly. “I should probably let you go.”

“‘Sall right. What else would I spend it on?

Kim shook her head at him, and her hand lifted to mirror his touch on the screen. His fingers curled in response, if he could hold hers across so much space. They remained like that, until the jarring sound of a waiting call jolted them. It was from Kim’s terminal.

“I’m keeping you,” he said, contrite. “Take care, hm?”

“You too,” she returned, and said firmly, “I’ll talk to you again soon.”

“Good-bye, lass.” It was a struggle, but he reached with his free hand, the other still there as he cut the link.

“Love you,” Kim murmured to the dark screen. She allowed herself a slump against the comm’s frame for a few moments, indulging her depression, then she pulled herself straight. Whatever it was like now, it was better than being alone. She would make it work somehow, like always. Opening her mind a little, she let the familiar presences of her friends and the soft song of the living ship cheer her.

Millions of miles away another song, shaped by wind and metal, also made the night a little less empty.


(c) 1999 Leslie McBride and Alida Saxon. All rights reserved.