"Dragons by Starlight"

"Dragons by Starlight"

So, after Elaine goes to bed that night, or, at least, after she retires, she feels a weird pressure feeling in her head, and it occurs to her that she's getting a trump call.

Benedict shimmers into view. "Elaine. Your presence is required here. You will need to be gone from your home shadow for only one hour, according to that time flow."

"Of course, Uncle." She looks faintly curious but does not question. He holds out a hand. "Take my hand, and step through."

She is standing in a very dull, very gray sort of room. It's large; there is an enormous table with seating for twenty, in a curving V shape. There are three doors. The room seems to be triangle shaped. The bottom of the triangle has an enormous, flat, glowing star-map on it. There are two doors to the left, and one to the right. The walls seem metallic. The floor has flat, gray carpet on it.

Benedict is wearing a gray uniform with no ornamentation but for five silver strips on the left shoulder. "Elaine," he says as warmly as Benedict can. "There's been a bit of an accident. Two of your cousins foolishly got themselves injured. You have been requested to oversee their recovery." He gestures to the door on his left. "Captain Destry will see to anything you need. You hold the rank of Fleet Commander here, so there will be no political problems." He pauses. "Your charges, incidentally, are Midshipmen, First Class. I will fetch you when it is time. As I said, no more than an hour will pass in your home. Thank you." And he leaves.

Elaine's observant enough that during her time in Amber, she learned as Benedict says, you do, so she will go to the indicated door, and look for Captain Destry. It's another dull, grey room, again. Again, triangle shaped, again with one flat wall of star-map. This time, the furnishings have three large consoles, with chairs, and various flat, colored markings. A woman in gray uniform, with three stripes on her shoulder, stands from the center console, and gives you a crisp, militarily precise salute by pounding twice on her flat belly.

"Commander Madar."

"Captain Destry," Elaine nods slightly. "If you would be so kind, I would like to see these midshipmen I have suddenly become responsible for..."

"Right away, ma'am." Destry leads her out of the second room into a corridor, and then down to a small, sterile, completely white room, with two beds. Harlan, wearing a splint on his leg, and multitudinous bandages, lies on one; a figure swathed almost completely in bandages is on the other. Both seem to be asleep.

Elaine surveys the battered forms. She inclines her head to the bandage swathed one. "That one is?"

"Ensign John Q. Barimen," Captain Destry says.

"Thank you, Captain," Elaine says moving over to stand between the two beds. "That will be all for now."

Elaine sits on the edge of Harlan's bed. "Harlan..."

He twitches, slightly, and then his eyes open, suddenly. They don't seem to recognize her for a moment, then he says. "Elaine."

She looks at him sternly. "What exactly have you gotten yourself into?"

His eyes dart over to the form on the other bed. "We decided to kill a dragon," he says slowly.

She sighs, and shakes her head. "And which of you instigated this... adventure?"

Harlan's answer is unhesitating. "Keir." He looks over at Joaquim again.

"However, we deemed it best that Keir be deterred. And then we went to kill the dragon."

She looks him over critically. "You seem to have come out of it a bit better than Joaquim..."

He shrugs. "We'll both live," he says. "Joaquim got a bit more of the blood on him."

She laughs lightly. "Well, Uncle Benedict has put me in charge of the two of you for the duration of your recovery."

"That was kind of him," he smiles.

She again attempts the stern expression, but the smile is still there. "I somehow do not believe Uncle Benedict would wish me to be entirely 'kind' to the two of you." She pats Harlan's hand.

He shakes his head, agreeing. "I know." He looks around. "This is some place, eh?"

"Quite so," she says. "Far beyond anything I've ever experienced or imagined."

He nods. "During the move, Benedict informed me this was a space ship."

"Space ship?"

"A large enclosed boat that flies between the stars."

"I see." She shakes her head. "I suddenly feel very backwards and provincial," she says with a wry smile.

"This kind of thing does the same to me," he nods. "The doctors are amazing, though."

"A good thing," she comments, "since you both look quite battered by your adventure." She gives Harlan a long look. "Whatever possessed you to go after a *dragon*?"

"It seemed the best way to keep Keir from risking *his* neck."

"Perhaps," she says, "but I am sure there was a much safer way than you and Joaquim going off to do so by yourselves. However did he talk you into it?"

"Keir was rather enthusiastic about the whole prospect. Joaquim seemed to think it was a bad idea, so after we bluudgeoned the Crown Prince into unconsciousness..." he trails off. "That part was not my idea, incidentally. Anyway, after that, Joaquim pointed out that when Keir woke up, he was probably going to head off and face it alone to spite us. Honestly, it seemed like the logical choice, at the time." He shifts slightly, and groans.

She looks suddenly concerned. "Is there anything I can get for you, Harlan?"

"The doctor gave me pills, in a little white cup, but I don't see any cups, pills or doctors." He smiles faintly. "You'll probably want to see the doc anyway, if you're in charge of us."

"Indeed," she says, patting Harlan's hand again. "I'll return shortly." And she'll go looking for Destry or someone else who can direct her to the physician. This is all quickly accomplished. She returns with an older woman, in her late forties, a gray uniform with three horizontal stripes on her shoulder (rather than vertical). She has a small box-shaped device with her; she places Harlan's finger in it, presses a few buttons. After a moment, his face relaxes, and he leans back.

"That should let you walk around, a bit," she says, and then goes over to Joaquim, and peels back a bandage. "The artificial skin grafts seem to have done the trick. We will stop the continuous feed of anesthesia, and allow him to awaken on his own."

Elaine nods. "Thank you, Doctor."

Harlan smiles, swings his legs over the bed, and stands. He seems to be ok for a moment, and starts to wobble. Elaine quickly moves to his side to support him before he falls over.

He smiles down at her. "Thanks. I think I want to find some food."

"Well, let us do that," she chuckles. "Then we can return here and wait for Joaquim to awaken."

He nods, and slowly, they proceed out into the corridor. Harlan looks both ways.

"Where do you think food is?" He slowly leans into the wall, favoring his one leg.

"That," she frowns faintly. "Is a very good question." She looks about, then points to the wall. "Wait there." And she goes to find out.

Trekking down the hallway, there are many doors. In order, she enters: the command and control room, a bedroom, a bedroom, a bathing room, a toilet room, and workout room, and finally, a place with tables and chairs. There is one young gray-uniformed fellow with one stripe eating watery noodles with a slotted spoon.

She returns to Harlan and helps him down to that last room. By the time they arrive, the young man is gone. Harlan sits down heavily in the first available seat. He points out a small, darker grey depression on the wall as the best place to start in getting food.

She will investigate said depression in the wall. It pops out a horizontal bar, and has several small nooks and crannies. Each nook seems to have something-- a can, a bottle, a covered bowl, so on.

She will take a bottle, and one of the bowls, etc, to Harlan. Harlan says, "Thank you for coming, Elaine."

"As if I could say no to Uncle Benedict," she teases gently. "You're welcome, Harlan. It is the least I could do for you."

He looks up from his bowl, and into her eyes. For a moment, all sound fades away, and she seem to be trapped by his eyes, which are almost black. It's a very weird, timeless moment, and when she next has a concept of time and sound, she sees that his hands are in his lap, he has paled considerably, and he is looking down at his hands.

She shakes her head a moment, as if to clear it, but her eyes widen in concern when she sees Harlan's reaction. "Harlan, what's wrong?' She rushes to the other side of the table, next to him, thinking him in pain from his wounds. He seems to have put the tines of the fork into his hand.

He looks up when she comes around the table, and takes the fork and puts it on the table with a plastic clatter. He takes a deep gasping breath, and wraps his hand in his shirt-tail.

"Harlan!" Looking shocked, she will take the kerchief from her sleeve, and pry his hand away and wrap it gently with the piece of cloth. "Harlan, why?" She sounds confused and quite worried. "Did I say something...?"

He doesn't answer for a moment, merely watching tend to his hand. "No, you didn't say anything, Elaine."

"Then why?" She looks at him pleadingly. "Why did you do this?"

"Sometimes... things happen to me. And this is the only way to make it stop."

She finishes wrapping his hand, but does not release it. "What... things?"

He looks up at the ceiling for a long moment. "Sometimes I'm not myself."

She grimaces slightly. "Harlan, what are you talking about?"

"I don't know if you really want to know, Elaine... It might be best to just let it go."

"Harlan," she says in an even tone, but there is an edge of impatience and frustration there. "Benedict brought me here to oversee your recovery, and I will be damned if I have to make up some story for why you have attempted to mutilate yourself. Since I have been made responsible for your well being, do not expect me to just let this go..."

"Elaine, this isn't about my encounter with the dragon."

She taps his wrist. "But it is affecting your recovery from that, damn it."

He closes his eyes. "Do you like me, Elaine?"

That seems to derail her anger. "I... well, yes, I do."

"Well, I like you too. And I'd like you to keep liking me, Elaine."

She sighs, trying to curtail her exasperation. "Harlan. I have had far too many surprises in the last day. I'd prefer not to have more down the road. So will you just tell me? I'm not going to stop liking you..."

"Oh, you will," he says, nodding soberly. "Everyone who knows has. Why do you think I'd put up with the crap in Amber, except they don't know about it?"

"I am not everyone, Harlan," she says simply.

He stands up, creakily. "I know, Elaine, and that's what makes this all the harder."

"Harlan..." She looks at a loss.

He overbalances on his bad leg, and begins to fall.

Swearing in a most unladylike manner, she rushes to his side and tries to catch him. With her help he sits down suddenly on the bench behind him again. "Ow," he says in a small voice.

She sighs, sitting next to him. "Are you quite done trying to injure yourself further?"

"For now," he says evenly.

Biting absently at her lower lip, Elaine just watches him for a moment. "Harlan, I'm sorry. It's just that I'm concerned."

He looks down at his hand. "Thank you."

"Harlan, please," Elaine lifts his chin so he looks at her. "You've done so much to help me, let me return the favor."

He looks at her a long moment, helplessly. "All right," he says, finally, sounding faintly hopeless. "I'll tell you.

"I don't know who my parents are. Fiona says that Oberon is my grandfather, and it is likely that Harla was my grandmother. She insists there is an intervening generation, but as to their identity..." he shrugs. "I was raised in a place where everything was rationed; air, water, space, food, children. There was a war on; disaster threatened our world at every turn. The air was poisoned, sometimes, usually with things we couldn't see, that would kill in a few weeks; sometimes with green gas that killed you in a matter of minutes. We went around always with masks on our faces.

"I spent my childhood in a camp full of other young boys, training for war. I had a mentor in the camp's chaplain, but otherwise, because I had no family of influence to back me, my life was made far worse than it could have been by the instructors and the administrators. This was a training camp for the sons of the wealthy; we would be officers and administrators, we would have the best of equipment, we would have every opportunity not to die, when we went into battle.

"It was known I was an orphan; my family name-- Bar'en-- was not distinguished. I also had--" he holds up his hands "--five fingers on each hand. Something of a genetic fault, to not have six, where we were. People called me a mutation, said that my parents had passed on mangled genes.

"I persevered in my training, only because I had no choice. Every day, they beat me down; every day I got back up. A full two years too early, they made me the captain of my barracks. It was not a blessing. Every day, I had to wake up and convince the others that I deserved it. Some days I succeeded, and their resentment of me grew; some days I failed, and I would have another broken bone to add to my list." He stops, looking for water.

She will get him some, not saying a word as she hands it to him and retakes her seat next to him. He looks into the bottle for a long time before beginning again. "So, that was my childhood, and my training. Upon graduation, I entered the war, as an officer. Nothing particularly remarkable happened for the first few years; it was hard, but not impossible, and I had good luck in combat-- and ability." He looks at Elaine. "The army was a little different than in most places. There was standard issue equipment for the grunts; and then there was specialized stuff that you could buy, if you were wealthy enough, to keep you from being canon-fodder on your first day out. Some of it was even legal. But even the stuff that was illegal, the army turned a blind eye towards, because it gave us an advantage.

"It went beyond that, too. You had to purchase your commission. Highest wealth equaled highest rank. You had to be wealthy enough to outfit your soldiers better, too, or they'd die off quickly, and you'd die too, outmanned, or else you'd have a commission and no one to command.

"I had a bank account, in my name, and it was always full. Just at the right amount; it filled just enough to buy me each new commission in the standard progression; it filled just when a bad day came and blew away half my unit and their equipment. Since I always had enough, people bought into my company all the time... better and better people. By the time I made it to the rank of Fifth Office, I was in charge of the best unit around.

"It was hard, knowing I was advancing off of someone's charity, and not even knowing whose... I made up all kinds of stories about perhaps being the bastard son of the President, or one of the First Officers." He shrugs, drinking some water. "I can't really explain how we fought the war. It wasn't just with guns and gas and bombs. We used our... minds, too. It was a kind of magic, I guess..." he trails off. "I wasn't very good at it then. But I made do. There were ways around it. Drugs, for example."

He takes another drink. "Then, one day, all the little inquiries I'd made every so often apparently made their way to the source. It was a dark time. They told us that the end was inevitable. Our side was going to lose the war. The First Officers had vetoed surrender, so we were preparing to die. First, it was two years left, then one, and then, mere months. And we would be out of resources. Out of men, out of chemicals, out of metal, out of everything but the fake currency that floated around the ethers. This is what we knew, from First Office down to the runners."

"What happened?" Elaine asks.

"It was a lie. It was all a lie, to make us look weak. Even to ourselves. I was called into the First Office, and I was told that all of the troops that would be 'retiring' in light of the surrender were to be led, by me, in a sneak attack of tremendous proportion-- we were invading a whole continent. I was very honored, at the time. I left the First Office feeling like the best soldier that ever lived. I worked on the plans, day and night. And when the day came, we invaded. And almost half of our army was destroyed. And almost half theirs was, too. It was so horrible that words cannot even convey it.

"But that wasn't even the end. We had a foothold on the continent, and we pressed forward. The orders from the home office became harsher and harsher regarding our policies towards the native population. Think someone knows something? Torture them, kill their children, and their fathers, and maybe they'll talk. I obeyed orders, of course. I'd been trained to, I told myself, never mind that with an army like ours, autonomous decisions are encouraged. I kept going. We kept going. The whole army marched through the continent, heading towards the final battle, and sowing the land with salt and blood. We were destructive beyond any destruction that world had known before. That world." He laughs hollowly. "*My* world, as much as I don't like to admit it.

"We went on. And on. I took more and more drugs, a lot of us did, to be more effective on the field. To kill with our minds, when all else failed. To sense where the enemy was.

"I won't tell you about the last battle. Surrender was unconditional because we left only twelve-year-old children alive to speak for their nation-- children that had been trained to fight, of course, but children nonetheless. And the night of our victory, the Head of the First Office came to me. I hadn't known the First Officers were even on the continent, let alone so close to the war zone. He came, and brought a bottle of wine in his hand, and something in his pocket. He poured us both a glass, and toasted the victory. And we drank. And then he pulled the handcuffs out of his pocket, and told me how I had been tested as a child for my aptitude at this sort of thing-- ruthlessness, and warfare, among other more common things like intelligence and mental power. And that in spite of the fact that my scores were incredibly high, I had far outstripped their expectations. And that the First Office had been funding my career all along, knowing I'd someday have the ability to destroy our enemy. And he thanked me for winning the war, and started to cuff me. I was too dangerous, you see, I was certainly a liability now that peace was inevitable, and it would ease the surrender of the other side considerably if they saw me tried for war-crimes."

He drinks water, and sighs gustily. "So, I killed him. Stripped his rank badges off his uniform, declared myself Head of the First Office, and took over the world. And that was only the beginning, really. I never personally killed so many people again, and I never even directly, through my orders, killed so many again, but I built a brave new world on the bones and blood of my detractors, and that's all there is to it. At the tender age of thirty-five-- which on my world is well on the way to old age-- I had an undefeatable empire at my command. And there was no way out."

Elaine sits silent for a long moment. "Then how did you end up in Amber?" She finally asks.

He doesn't answer for a moment, having leaned back against the wall and put his hand over his eyes. "There is a cousin of ours," he says, taking the hand away. It's shaking slightly. "You wouldn't have met her. She's never in Amber. She was riding through shadow and spotted me, and told Fiona. Fiona is a persuasive woman. I came to Amber. It seemed like a way out."

Another long moment of silence. "Was it?"

"I don't know yet." He sits up.

"I..." She stands suddenly and paces a few steps away. Dead silence from behind her.

She turns back. "I'm sorry, Harlan, for dredging that up, for making you uncomfortable."

His expression of defeated resignation doesn't really change. He shrugs.

She sighs deeply, and returns to her seat at his side. Carefully, she takes his injured hand, double-checking the bandage before meeting his eyes. "I only know the Harlan who has been a friend and companion to me since he found me. Who has gone out of his way to assist me, and who earlier today helped protect me."

She smiles softly at him. "Your story doesn't change that, nor does it make me dislike you. In fact, cousin, perhaps I respect you more, for rising above what they tried to make you into."

He looks at her in minor disbelief. "Elaine, I didn't rise above it. I didn't even try."

"It depends on how you look at it, Harlan. Yes, you did run away from it, to come to Amber, but there, at least from what I have seen, you tried to be something different." She shrugs. "Or perhaps my perceptions are just flawed, cousin." "In any case, it is not something you should dwell on right now," Elaine sighs. "This is quite likely not conducive to your recovery. I fear I am failing in my commission to properly watch over you by having brought this up."

"I have been told," he says in a weary voice, "that I will feel better about all of this when I also feel that my guilt has been expiated. Part of expiation is supposed to be about telling the story, as hard as it is."

"Do you?"

"Feel better?" He looks troubled. "I don't know. Maybe."

Elaine just looks at him. "Are... are you angry with me, for dragging it out?"

"No," he says, "I'm just afraid of your reaction..."

She takes his other hand, so that she holds both between hers, and looks into his eyes. "I do not hate you, Harlan. Nor do I dislike you now. I feel sympathy for you, as I would for anyone who grew up in a world such as yours. But knowing your past does not change who you are now, does not suddenly make you a different Harlan than the one I would like to think is my friend."

The sound begins to fade out around you again when you look into his eyes, but he drops them.

"Thank you. You're quite amazing."

She shakes her head. "No, I just have no illusions about myself or the person I am. How could I hold you as wrong for what you were forced into as a child, when I have spent the last few years of my life using people, even those I care for, manipulating them to preserve my family name and honor? Perhaps it is not as graphic as what has happened to you, but it is not always a respectable occupation. And I can be very good at it," she finishes quietly

Sometime later...

Harlan asks her to accompany him to the observation deck.

She will do so. "How is your leg?"

"Better," he says. "Much better, in fact. How are you doing? It's rather dull around here."

She smiles. "You and Joaquim make a rather amusing distraction at times, and I brought some embroidery with me to occupy myself when you both are asleep."

"Ah." You two approach the observation deck, and look out at the stars. "I just wanted to say thank you, Elaine."

She looks from the stars to him. "There is no need to thank me Harlan, but, you're welcome."

He nods. "And I also wanted to fully explain the incident with the fork."

"I hadn't wanted to pry more than I have," she says, "but I must admit to wondering..."

"Sometimes, I have moments, where the drugs, which are still in my system, kind of... open a doorway in my mind... and all of a sudden, I'm making mental contact with a person. It's the prelude to killing. Sometimes I can break off. Sometimes I have to distract myself very quickly and very efficiently."

She carefully takes the hand he had stabbed and examines it. "Then thank you."

"Don't thank me," he says unevenly. "I've already thanked myself." He smiles slightly as he says, "In addition to the extreme guilt I would have over injuring you in any fashion, I would feel the lack of your company extraodinarily much."

Her eyes widen just a tiny bit. "I... well, thank you."

"And now you are welcome."

She seems almost flustered, and looks back out at the stars. "Perhaps you would take a similar sort of view into account before you go off and become heroic again."

He smiles. "And what would you do to me if I were injured in such a scheme again, my lady? Would you take care of me again, or this time forsake me, to teach me my lesson?"

She turns back to him with a most dangerously sweet smile, but laughter dances in her eyes. "I'd never forsake one who has done so much for me, but perhaps I'd make sure my care-taking was a lesson in and of itself..."

"So noted," he says, grinning slightly. "Since I have no particular love for pain, I shall endeavor to please you."

"You are, as always, the perfect gentleman, Harlan," she smiles.

He coughs slightly. "I fear meeting the less perfect gentlemen of your acquaintance then."

She laughs softly. "There is always Joaquim for comparison."

"He is a gentleman in his own way."

"I will conceed that to a point."

He pauses, looking out at the stars. "So alien. I find I cannot make up any constellations."

"I'm sure we could find a dragon if we put our minds to it," she teases gently.

He snorts slightly (it sounds like he's picking up Jero's bit). "Oh, thanks... a whole constellation to remind me of my folly."

She smiles up at him. "Don't worry. I'll eventually stop teasing you about it."

"Perhaps... but by then, there will likely be something else."

She laughs lightly. "At least I know being around you will never be boring."

This seems to strike a chord in him, and his expression falls swiftly.

Elaine looks suddenly concerned. "Harlan? What's wrong?"

"Nothing," he says, looking at the stars again.

She sighs heavily. "The look on your face says it is more than nothing, Harlan. Perhaps my company has become less than agreeable..." She turns away.

"No!" He touches her shoulder. "Elaine, that's not it."

She slowly turns back to him. "Harlan, above most things, I value honesty," she says quietly. "If you do not wish to speak of it, then that is all you need say. But please do not lie when I can quite obviously tell otherwise."

He looks down at you, a frown peaking his eyebrows. "I wasn't lying, exactly, Elaine. It was nothing. Depending on how you look at it."

"It obviously upset you to some extent."

He nods. "How about this... something upset me, but the person who did is nothing to me now. I'm only concerned that I don't repeat the same mistakes..."

Elaine nods. "What mistakes do you hope not to repeat?"

He's quiet for a long moment. "I was going to be married once. To a woman I didn't really know, who didn't really know me. But I thought, 'hey, how often is someone going to want to marry me?' So, I kept quiet around her, afraid I'd scare her. And she thought I was pretty damn boring, I'd guess. Except sometimes, my mind would open, and I'd almost kill her. Which isn't very boring, is it? But disturbing. It is disturbing." He pauses, his voice tight. "I just... don't want to bore anyone else. Or disturb them, either..."

"Well, if it is any consolation, I find you neither boring nor disturbing. Perhaps a bit foolhardy and exasperating, but that is not so bad," she teases gently, hoping to lighten his mood.

"Thanks," he says, a little embarrassed-seeming. "You're rather exasperating yourself," he adds in a complimentary tone. "If you could but see how sweet and innocent you appear right before the shark inside you strikes..."

She laughs brightly. "I've heard descriptions of it in the past, usually from a disgruntled Jero or Randy. But I don't see why that makes me exasperating."

"It wouldn't be so bad, but that I can't seem to tell when you really are being sweet."

She looks faintly sheepish. "My apologies. I have spent so long endeavoring to make sure people underestimate me, I forget that those who have not known me all my life don't know me well enough to see through my demeanor." She gives him a very genuine smile. "I hope you do not think badly of me because of that. For in fact, you have seen a side of me no one has since I was very small."

"And what side is that?" he asks gently.

She looks away, out the window. "I was only 7 when my mother died, and I took it very hard. But my father was utterly devastated, and I swore even then I'd never burden him with my grief again. And when he died, and I took the House, I knew that I could show no signs of the weakness the others were expecting of me. Since then, I've never wept in front of anyone. Until..."

"I'm honored," he says quietly.

She glances down at the floor. "I was afraid you'd think me nothing more than a silly girl."

"No, Elaine, I wouldn't think that about you."

She glances back up to him. "Perhaps I hide it too deeply most times, but there is something other than the shark in me."

"The shark must be protecting something," he agrees.

"Perhaps," she says. "I hope though, that the shark does not frighten you away."

"You have been all too forgiving of what is inside me," he reminds her. "That I shall feel a coward if I do not look past the shark."

He sits down slowly on the yielding gray matter of the floor.

She will, a moment later, settle herself down next to him. "Is your leg bothering you?"

"Not really. But I thought I'd stay for a while, and therefore, might sit."

"If you wish to be alone..."

"No. I was hoping you'd stay as well."

She settles her skirts about her and sits beside him. "Then I shall."

He looks at the stars for a while, a small smile playing about his lips.

"You find something out there amusing?"

"No... I think I might just be happy, though."

She just shakes her head in something akin to amusement and turns her gaze back out to the stars.

After a while, he holds out his hand in front of her. After a moment, she takes it.

"Thank you."

She glances over at him. "For what, Harlan?"

"Holding my hand while we watch the stars," he says with a wolfish grin.

Eventually, he'll stand and walk her back to her room. At her door, she says, "Thank you."

He stands there for a long moment, looking at her. "Good night."

"Good night," she smiles softly up at him before she begins to turn for the door. He puts out his hand again, as he did before. She pauses, then takes it. Once she does so, he pulls her close, leans down and kisses her lightly on the lips. She returns the kiss, cheeks flushing just the slightest bit.

He pulls back, smiles, and touches her nose. "Good night."

"Indeed," she says with another soft smile.

He stands there, grinning goofily. She smothers a laugh at his expression. "I can just imagine what Joaquim's going to say to you when he sees that look on your face," she chides with gentle affection.

"I have no doubt I shall come away completely embarrassed," he says manfully.

"Good night," she says again, softly. He's still standing there, watching her. "Yes, Harlan?"

He half grins. "Sorry. I got distracted. Good night."

"Good night," she says yet again, smiling, and turns to go into her room.

return