Professor Juliette Gauthier had just tidied away the last of the dirty plates from the dinner party when there was a knock at her door. She’d spotted Marc’s jacket left over the back of an armchair and assumed he’d returned for it, so answered with an easy smile on her face entirely unsuited for her ex-wife appearing uninvited late at night.
‘Before you slam the door,’ said Lopez in a rush, hands raised, ‘I’ve got news.’
Juliette gave her a level look. ‘You went to see the wizard and he gave you a heart?’
‘Close. I went to see Gardner and he gave me a ship.’ The news stunned Juliette into silence enough that she dropped her arm, and Lopez took advantage of the opportunity to walk past her into the apartment. ‘What do I smell?’
‘I had the faculty over for – the Admiral gave you a ship?’
‘Only because he’s desperate,’ said Lopez, waggling a finger as she headed for the kitchen. ‘Coq au vin? You must really like your new colleagues.’
Juliette glared at nothing as she shut the door, then took a deep, calming breath before she followed. ‘I’m happy for you, Nat, but this doesn’t justify you barging in here at gone midnight and… helping yourself to leftovers. Really?’
‘It was a long shuttle ride and my body thinks it’s about 1800 hours,’ said Lopez, caught at the pot on the stove with a spoon in her hand. ‘I thought you’d want to know.’
‘About your jet-lag -’
‘That I’ll be shipping out.’ Lopez turned to face her.
Self-conscious, Juliette pushed a lock of mousy brown hair behind her ear. She should have been angry, she knew. It was easy to be angry with Lopez when she was irreverently helping herself to her kitchen. Harder when she looked at her with that serious, level expression. All she could ask, at length, was, ‘When?’
‘Ceremony to take command and then we’re off.’ Lopez hesitated. ‘I know we don’t see a lot of each other, but I reckoned I should say goodbye.’
Juliette dug deep and rediscovered her icy control. ‘On a Warp 2 ship you’ll be back monthly. This will hardly be different.’
‘Wow. If I didn’t know you better, I’d be real hurt. We’re at war, Julie. I could fly right into a warbird and be dead in a few days. And even the older ships are serving on more and more long-range assignments. Besides.’ Lopez shoved her hands in her pockets, the way she did when she was pretending to be self-effacing but was actually quite pleased with herself. ‘It’s not a Warp 2 ship. I got the NX-08. So. All the hottest assignments.’
‘You got -’ Juliette had to bite down on the surge of excitement and pride. ‘Is it that bad?’ she said instead, like she was an ingenue who didn’t understand space travel and the war, and not a regular consultant at Starfleet.
‘I got the job because we lost another ship. People on Earth like to pretend that because we won the Battle of Sol, it’s over. It ain’t over, cariño. Nowhere close.’ Lopez took a step forward. ‘I’m shipping out tomorrow on one of our toughest ships to pick the toughest fights against an enemy that’s got us outclassed and outgunned. So I thought you could forgive me for showing up late, unannounced. To say goodbye.’
Juliette had to crane her neck to look Lopez in the eye as she drew close, heart thudding in her chest. ‘Is there a particular reason you’ve not said anything until now?’
‘Would you believe me if I said I hadn’t dared?’ But Lopez wore that lopsided grin, small and smug and all the more insufferable because she knew how charming she was. ‘That telling you and saying goodbye makes it all real?’
‘Nat…’ But Juliette didn’t know what tone to use; to encourage or to dismiss, though she knew what would happen if she dithered. So she knew she had no right to be surprised or indignant when Lopez took another step, closed the gap, and kissed her.
They’d done it a thousand times; before they were married, when they were married, all too many times after. Juliette knew Lopez inside and out, every inch, every thought, every feel and smell and taste. Which was why, after long, thudding heartbeats, she put her hand on Lopez’s chest and firmly pushed her back. ‘You’ve been drinking.’
‘I’m not drunk.’
‘You certainly aren’t sober. We said we weren’t doing this any more.’
‘What, on what might be my last night on Earth I’m not allowed to visit the one person who -’
‘“Last night on Earth,” don’t be so bloody dramatic and stop trying to pull lines like that on me. I know you too well. I know I’m the person you leave on Earth.’
‘It’s a war, Julie; you’d have me leave Starfleet -’
‘Again, don’t play me like that, Nat. You’ve been on Earth the better part of six months and you’ve almost never visited. Why; afraid that without a ship you’d be too tempted to stay, that I’d have nailed you to solid ground forever?’ Juliette put her hands on her hips. ‘But now you come here with this news and this “one last night” routine so you can pour your feelings out at me because you’re all clear. Shipping out – out of port, out of the commitment zone.’
Lopez wrinkled her nose. ‘What the hell is the commitment zone?’
‘It’s the thing we made vows about over a decade ago, Nat. The thing you wriggled out of the moment your career changed, the wind turned, and the stars beckoned. The thing you’ve been terrified of since the Sojourner. No.’ Juliette moved to the living room and pointed at the front door. ‘I’m not your pit-stop. The stars are calling again.’
‘Duty calls -’
‘You don’t give a damn about duty, Nat. You’re in the uniform for the adventure and you’re in the uniform so you can waltz in, be loved, and waltz back out again – of parties, of missions, of distant worlds, of people’s lives – before you get stuck. The war’s just another feature in the ticker-tape parade that is your life. Live big, shine bright, burn out hard. I told you ten years ago: I’m not here to live with your shadow and a pile of your ashes.’
Lopez opened her hands with that innocent shrug of hers. ‘Calm down; I came to say goodbye.’
‘I keep telling you to stop playing me.’ Juliette pointed at the door again. ‘Goodbye.’
Lopez worked her jaw for a moment, then shrugged again. ‘Okay. I’ll write you, I guess.’
Juliette walked her to the door, and only when she was about to close it on her did she hesitate. ‘Wait.’ Her hand moved to grab a fistful of Lopez’s leather jacket, and Juliette stepped in, cupped her cheek, and kissed her. She tried to fight the faint thrill at her ex-wife’s palpable surprise, the surge at turning the tables for once; that was an intoxicant and a drug she knew from bitter experience to not chase, and she didn’t let it linger for more than a couple of thudding, fizzing heartbeats before again she let her go and pushed her away. ‘Don’t die.’
Nat Lopez’s stupid, smug grin was back as she stepped into the corridor. ‘You know me, darling. I’ve got a lifetime’s experience of that.’
Then she left before the door could be shut on her, leaving Juliette in her quiet Parisian apartment, tastefully decorated, so close to her excellent job at the Sorbonne with some of Earth’s greatest minds, and all still, somehow, less bright and less colourful for Lopez she was gone again.