Characters: Dr. Kim Matsumoto, Billy Nichols
Inevitably with any undertaking someone was left behind. To keep things safe, to make sure there was something to come home to… and to worry. Billy was sick with it after four days. And angry. Mars was home ground and he could have at least helped.
No news was often said to be good news, but when it came to Mars, he had the scars and the memories to prove that people could disappear. That this time it could involve both Kim and Meg…. He couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t work very well either and Reece had seen to it he got compassionate leave, with no few cautious visits to make sure he didn’t do something foolish with the time off.
He was staring up at the ceiling sleeplessly when the door chimed. Glancing at his clock he figured he was about due for another one of those visits. As kindly as it was meant, he couldn’t muster anything above a growl. “Yeah, what?”
There was a long pause, and just before he ordered the line close for being a glitch, someone finally spoke. A quick mumble he only just recognized as Kim’s voice. “Sorry. I’ll come back later.”
“Kim? No, wait….” Billy floundered trying to get up, then dashed quick to the door.
Fast as he was, she was still a few paces down the hall before the door opened. Automatically Kim glanced back at the hydraulic hiss of the door pulling up. There were dark smudges under her eyes and the pack on her back looked too heavy with the way she slumped, but Billy suspected it was all more than just exhaustion. His anger was lost, for now.
“Sorry. Are you all right? Come in,” he said quickly, before she found some reason to bolt. She did hesitate, but after a moment turned back toward him.
“You don’t look it,” he said bluntly, and then added more gently, “Was worried.”
Kim shrugged and wouldn’t meet his eyes. “Everyone got out. It just didn’t work.”
Billy took her by the arm and drew her inside. When the door closed he did what he wouldn’t have dared for himself: he wrapped his arms around her in a tight hug. He didn’t know what had happened, but the result was enough reason. “I’m sorry.”
She was wooden in his grip at first, then the pack dropped from her hands and she held on, hiding her face. “It’s done with,” she said bitterly, tearless.
“Wish I could change it.”
“Yeah, well it won’t be by us. Nathan and his family programmed them too well. They’re lost.” Despite what Katia had experienced in the timeshift, and told to her, Kim couldn’t muster believe any more easily than Katia at this moment. After all, the future was fluid. She tried not to think about what else might have been lost to that instability.
“Doesn’t matter now,” she said, leaning back. “I shouldn’t have bothered you.”
Billy just held on tighter. “No bother. You’re welcome here any time. You need rest. We can talk about it later.”
Kim let out her breath slow, shakily. “I know… I was going to get a room.”
“And have you get lost?” he chided fondly and led her over to the couch.
“I’m not that out of it,” she protested with a small spark of life, but she let him nudge her down on to the couch and accepted the glass of water he collected and pressed into her hands. When he crouched in front of her, concern clearly on his face, she couldn’t look anymore, focusing unnecessary attention on the water glass.
“No,” he agreed, “but why go all the way there when you’re already here?”
Kim could have thought of a few reasons he’d prefer her elsewhere right about then, but she just said, “Thanks.” She claimed a few moments silence to think while she drank the water. When she was done, the best she could come up with was, “Do you have to be on duty soon?”
He shook his head. “No. Nothing today, and I’m off tomorrow.” He didn’t bother explaining why. Kim only nodded, holding out the empty glass. She still couldn’t bring herself to meet his eyes. Billy was finding it difficult enough to get her to talk as it was. “More?” he offered.
“No, thanks. I’m all right.”
Billy stretched and put the glass on the end table. Twitchy as she was, he didn’t want to move, afraid if she got out the door, it’d be for longer than a few hours sleep.
“You’re not asking any questions,” she said.
“So? I said it can wait,” he said gently.
“What now then?”
“Whatever you want. Or nothing. I can go get you something if you want.”
“Maybe I should just get some sleep.”
“Go right ahead.” He stood and reached around the back of the couch, producing a blanket and pillow. It wasn’t good fortune that had him put them there, but Kim didn’t even blink, incurious.
“Anytime. Bathroom’s the second door,” he instructed. For himself, he sat down facing her, leaning his back against the wall. It was uncomfortable for Kim, laying down there under watchful eyes, but once she’d settled her body made the decisions. Sleep came quickly, shutting off the useless turn of thoughts for a few hours.
Billy sat awake for a lot longer, oddly feeling like he was keeping guard, but eventually he dozed off as well, head resting on his knees.
Kim woke hours later to the low hum of thousands of lives packed around her, and for a moment she had no recollection of where she was. It could have been Mars, or Earth…? She opened her eyes and dreams untangled to reveal reality. Billy’s small rooms on Babylon 5, the man in question laying on his side on the floor, asleep.
Understanding apparently wasn’t a prerequisite for viewing reality.
Kim tried to scrub away the sleep and confusion from her face. Quietly she rose and stepped away to find bathroom, dragging her pack along with her. Mistakenly she opened the right hand door, confronted with a closet. Bathroom’s in the bedroom? She opened the only other door to find the latter, at least. Guilt found a new level as she realized the couch was his bed and bedroom. Sighing, she closed the door quietly behind her and wondered how she was going to make up a list of dues that were quickly becoming astronomical.
Quiet as she’d been, Billy did wake, to find the couch empty and the pack gone from where it’d been dropped by the front door. He struggled quickly to his feet, cursing himself for falling asleep. In his rush, the next step he took nearly tripped him. His foot had not come down on a fold of the blanket, but something much harder hidden underneath.
With a snap he pulled back the blanket to reveal a shoe. Kim’s. The other he found further under as he automatically pulled the blanket away to fold. He sighed, relieved, and began bringing order to the area while he waited.
He was awake and sitting on the couch when Kim came out again. He smiled.
“Yeah, thanks.” She straightened her shoulders. It was possible to meet his eyes directly now. Sleep had made it possible to fit her emotions behind composure masks once again. “You should have told me I was taking up your bed.”
“You needed it.”
“I could have slept anywhere.” She dropped her pack by the couch and with a long-legged stride stepped up to the vidcom. “Care for some breakfast? My treat.”
“If it’s no trouble.”
“Not at all.” Her fingers tapped quickly, accessing the restaurant lists. Billy watched the performance with a deepening frown. Controls were snapping back into place with an almost audible click.
Even as she punched in the order, she said, “I want to apologize for what I did. It wasn’t fair.”
“Sure you had a good reason,” he said mildly, more generous than had been feeling earlier.
“It was the only reason I could think of. And I had been planning to do it — after dealing with this thing,” she admitted. “I just didn’t expect my keeper to be checking up on me.”
Billy blinked, missing half the explanation. “Maybe you had better start at the beginning. You lost me.”
Kim finally turned at him, out of surprise. “Meg didn’t tell you why I went to Mars?” At Billy’s shake of ‘no’, she said as briefly as possible, “I went to help my sister-in-law get her daughters away from Nathan and PsiCorp.”
It explained lot, even without detail. It was also obvious how great the failure was.
“We did it. We got in, found the girls… we could have gotten away.” For a moment her masks threatened to crack. “But they didn’t want to go. The only thing that could have stopped us was them.”
Billy closed his eyes. “Sorry,” he whispered.
“Should have expected it, I guess. Can’t expect to knock down years of training,” Kim said tightly.
“Yeah.” He’d spent too many years on Mars to escape learning a few things about how it worked. “But still.”
She sat down at the other end of the couch, nails picking the edge of the upholstery. It was the only sound before she returned to the first subject. “I’d have told you if I could be sure you wouldn’t try stopping me… or worse, getting involved.”
Billy hesitated before saying, “Wouldn’t’ve stopped you. And… I can’t go back to Mars.” It hardly began to cover it, but if it needed explaining, he would later, when it couldn’t be used as a distraction.
And so Kim missed the depth of it. “Not safe for any of us, but it didn’t stop the attempt. I was worried.”
Billy was startled by that, but tried to act normal. “Could have given some tips,” he said with a weak smile.
Kim looked down at her hands. “Yeah, probably so.” The door chime chose that moment to ring, and Kim thanked her fortune silently as she got up. “Probably breakfast.”
Billy stood too, but his reasons were in response to an old paranoia.
They were both greeted with a fixed business smile, and Kim accepted the bag and cup carrier after the formalities. Door safely closed, Billy dragged the table around to the front of the couch, clearing off books.
“Tea, juice and bagels,” Kim announced, setting her purchase down.
Billy grinned. “A feast compared to how I usually eat,” he said, poking fun at himself.
Kim just shook her head and set the food and drinks out. It was enough, but she sighed regretfully as she picked up the wrapped bagel. “I already miss Earth.”
“Yeah?” Feeling like he should make an honest attempt since it’d been paid for, Billy reached for his own meal.
“Real food,” Kim replied between bites.
“Ah. Wouldn’t know – only was on Earth for training, and you know military food,” he said wryly.
“Might as well be rations.”
“Yeah. You have a good visit?”
“Yes, actually. Best I’ve known since I was a kid,” Kim admitted. It was the truth, just lost under the recent disaster.
Billy smiled. “I need to thank you for finding Peter.”
“I think he found me,” Kim said with a little amusement. “I wouldn’t have known if he hadn’t introduced himself.”
“Still, it was you there, and not anyone else.” That said, Billy put down his half-eaten bagel and turned to her. There was another conversation still left undone. “I was upset. But I understand now.”
Kim looked down into her tea. No leaves to read in this one, to help, just a murky bottom. “I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t.”
“Only wish I could’ve helped.”
“And as I’s said, I didn’t want to risk anyone else, especially you.”
Billy was taken aback again. She doesn’t mean anything by it, he told himself. “It would have been safe enough, since I can’t go back.”
“I know that now.”
“Thought you already did.” He turned up his left hand. There was a bit of scar seen, disappearing into sleeve.
Kim hadn’t noticed it before, unimportant until attention was drawn. “Someone… did that to you?”
He nodded and hesitated while making a decision. Even if it ruined his chances, he made his choice, and rolled up the sleeve further to show her. Where the scar ended, another of a different kind was further up. White and puckered, likely burns.
“Oh hell.” Kim had a few wounds of her own deep enough to make scars, but none like this. Anger flared for what he’d suffered. She touched his arm without flinching. “I’m sorry.”
Billy shrugged, but shivered inside. “Not all of it, either.”
“What did it?”
“PPG.” It was his turn not to look at her, embarrassed.
Kim let go, thinking she’d made a mistake. “I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable,” she apologized.
“You haven’t. It just…” He shrugged instead of finishing, and started to roll the sleeve back down. He found himself wishing she hadn’t let go.
“There’s not anything ‘just’ about it.”
“Hideous,” he declared.
“I wouldn’t go that far. I’ve seen a few, myself not excluded.” But that was as far as she argued. She turned instead to collecting up the remains of breakfast and took them to the disposal.
“Moot anyway. Nothing anyone wants,” he said without thinking, then flushed.
Kim turned to look at him for a long moment. “Was I being too subtle or am I just not in the running anymore?” she asked bluntly.
Billy stared at her as it sunk in. His chest felt tight. “I…. But you….”
Kim waited to see if he would find words, then perched on the edge of couch close by. “But what? You’re assuming… for the worst.”
“Well, yeah. Not worth it. Uneducated, a gambler, terrorist…”
Kim sighed. “If you’re going to measure yourself to that book then what am I? Why don’t we list what I’ve done just this past week, never mind the past decade.”
“But trying to save family.”
“So? We did start talking technicalities after all. What other people would think.”
“I don’t think less of you for it.”
“Then what makes you think I can’t afford you the same?” She cornered him.
“Um… ” Slowly he began to turn scarlet, unable to find a way out. Kim smiled briefly, for having won.
“Give me a little more credit, Will.”
Billy ducked his head, embarrassed. “But why me?”
“Why not? You care, you bother to listen to what I say, you laugh at my jokes.” She tossed him a crooked grin, then sobered. “You’re kind, and you aren’t afraid of what I am. If I walk away from that, I’d be a fool.”
“Just what anyone would do,” he mumbled.
“If anyone would do that, then why am I here?” she pointed out mercilessly. “And even if someone else did, someone else isn’t what I want.”
He blinked dumbly. “Want… me?” Old memories sprang up, to yank him back down with them.
“Yes.” She paused and then added, “Unless you don’t.”
“No! I mean, yes! I mean… Aw, hell. Just dug myself a hole, didn’t I?” Reluctantly his mouth turned up at one side.
“Six feet under if you don’t do something about it,” she agreed with a victor’s good cheer.
Billy looked at her a moment, collecting his thoughts and courage. “Haven’t been able to stop thinking about you since we met. And more recently.” Kim smiled and he pressed on. “Why do you think I let you in? Furious, until I saw. Then just sad.”
“Could have just been friendship. How was I to know? And even if it was that alone…. I could have lived with that.”
“I thought that was all you wanted.” He lay a hand on the cushion between them, offering. Kim took it without a delay.
“That can be corrected,” she said.
Billy smiled tentatively. It had never worked before, but he had just enough faith left to try again.
Kim was quiet for a time, thoughtful, and she let her guards down enough to finally say, “I’m very tired of being alone.”
“Me too.” He tugged gently on her hand, and she answered, shifting over to. The hug was more tentative than the night before, but after a while, it didn’t feel so strange.
“How long do you have?” he asked softly.
She sighed. “Not as long as I like. Until the day after tomorrow, at the very latest.”
Billy closed his eyes. He had hoped for more, but he should have expected some sort of hitch. “Sorry.”
“What I was going to say. It’s not going to be easy.”
“I know. Not going anywhere…” He sounded a little bitter. “… but no telling when you’ll be back.
Kim nodded, unable to deny it, as much as she would have liked to. “We could stop this here.”
Billy leaned back to look at her, then shook his head. “Should, probably, but….” He lifted his shoulders in a helpless shrug and smiled.
Kim answered with one of her own, relieved.
“So we haven’t much sense. I think I can live with that.”
(c) 1999 Leslie McBride and Alida Saxon. All rights reserved.