Asra Brenok entered the room in the Military Hospital in Lakat, thinking that she had known what to expect. She had been told that her husband had been severely injured, that his ear had been cut off by a bat’leth and that the said bat’leth had sunk deep in his shoulder, severing his neck-ridge nerves and rendering his right hand not functional. They had told her that he would be covered by bandages and still unconscious.
Those were only words.
She had been completely unprepared for what she saw: a shape of a man laying on a biobed; the top of his chest and half of his head were indeed wrapped in bandages. His left cheek, the visible one, was sunk in and she could almost see the bone structure under his scaled skin.
She gasped and startled by the sound she’d made, she covered her mouth with her hand. Just then she realised that someone, an officer, was sitting by her husband’s bed, but before she had a chance to register his face, her eyes filled with tears and she could see nothing.
Some merciful hands led her and helped her sit down. Someone gave her a tissue to dry her tears. She looked at the officer. It was a woman. “Are you Gil Jarol?” she asked. Arenn had written her about his new friend.
“That’s correct,” the woman nodded. She looked tired, Asra thought.
“Analyst Brenok?” An elder medic stood on the other side of the bed and looked at Asra. “Your husband’s condition is very serious but his life is no longer in danger.”
The young woman nodded and felt tears filling her eyes again. “Will he be able to use his hand?” she asked.
“That is something I will have to discuss with him when he wakes up.” She paused for a moment. “You can stay with him for a few minutes, but after that time I will ask you to leave. Both of you,” she added looking at the officer. “We still need to perform many tests.”
“I...understand,” Asra sobbed. But she didn’t. She didn’t want to leave the fragile, broken man, whom she loved so much, alone in this cold hospital room.
Asra couldn’t believe her own ears. She tried to convince Arenn that the risks were too great but he wasn’t listening.
Arenn had agreed to some kind of experimental surgery that would bring the mobility of his right arm and hand back. The surgery was dangerous and there was no assurance it would succeed, but he was so stubborn. He would be the third person on whom the surgery would be performed and the two previous cases hadn’t been entirely successful.
“How could you have agreed to this?” she asked him. Again. And she would ask many more times.
“Asra, please understand. I can’t serve with one hand. What kind of soldier would I be?”
“What do you mean ‘serve?’ You are not returning to an active duty!”
“That’s right. Without this operation I’m not!” he shouted.
“And what if something goes wrong?”
“Then I’ll die.” He said like it was nothing.
“You can’t die!” Her voice shook and she tried not to burst into tears. She did a lot of that recently.
“If you loved me, you’d support me,” he hissed and then looked away.
That hurt. She loved him. She was worried about him. She didn’t want to lose him. She didn’t care if he would have only one fit hand. She would take care of him. She would be his right hand.
“Get out,” he growled. And winced. She knew he was still in pain, so she left not to cause any more suffering.
She wanted him to be healthy, she wanted him to be fit, she wanted all the best things for him; but she couldn’t stand the thought of risks he wanted to take. She knew living with only one usable hand would be difficult, but if the operation failed—they would have to amputate that arm completely! They wanted to fix his nerves, to stitch them back together, but if they didn’t succeed, the nerves would be so damaged that the only way of not leaving him in permanent pain would be removing the whole limb.
Did it make any difference? Having unusable arm or no arm at all?
Not for him.
The look on his face when he moved his finger for the first time was priceless.
“Did you see that?” His eyes shone with excitement when he looked up at her from his biobed and then back at his open palm—and moved his middle finger again.
“I did,” she confirmed.
They had removed the bandages from his head a day before and it was the first time she could see his ear in the day light.
Ear. There was no ear. His right ear was gone. It had been replaced by a raw, scale-less scar that stretched its tips toward his cheek, where his ear ridges used to be. They were gone too.
He caught her looking at his head. “Looks bad, I know,” he muttered.
“It’s the most beautiful scar I have ever seen,” she replied and she really felt that. Everything about him was beautiful and dear to her. “Does it hurt?”
“No. Sometimes it itches and I have to be careful not to scratch, but beside that it’s fine.”
“Can you hear well, as they promised?” she asked.
He smiled. “Yes. I lost the lobe but the inner ear was not damaged.”
At least some good news.
She sat next to him, looked around to make sure no nurse was in the room and then gently stroke his left neck ridge. He closed his eyes and a soft purr came out of his throat. She kissed him on the left cheek.
“Let your finger rest for a while,” she said after noticing that he kept moving his middle finger almost without a pause.
“I must practise.”
“Yes, but don’t overdo yourself. Or your finger.”
“All right,” he agreed.
Asra had prepared everything and now impatiently waited.
“Did you cook gofut?” her mother-in-law asked surprised.
“I did,” she confirmed proudly.
It was Arenn’s favourite dish and it was also a dish that required a lot of time and work. Asra had spent half a day in the kitchen cooking and she had enjoyed every minute of it. Her sweet, singing husband was returning home!
“I am sure he’ll appreciate that,” Arenn’s mother smiled.
Finally, they arrived. Asra jumped at the sound of arriving lift and opened the door to their apartment before the doorbell sounded.
And there he was. Tall. Thin. With his long nose. Black hair slicked back. Uncovering his scar. A smile on his face. His right arm supported by a sling. She had never seen a more beautiful thing in her life.
Gil Jarol smiled to Asra. “Please accept this soldier in your home and take care of his needs,” she joked. “The medics at the hospital have enough of his ‘success, I can move my finger!’”
“Come in,” the young woman grabbed her husband’s healthy hand and pulled him in. Jarol turned to leave but Asra stopped her. “Please, join us, Gil Jarol.”
“This is Atira,” Arenn said, emphasising his friend’s given name.
Asra glanced at the female officer. Would it be appropriate to call her by her given name? They had met only a few times and weren’t close enough; not forgetting that Gil Jarol was at least a decade older!
The officer stopped, unsure what to do.
“Please, I have cooked Arenn’s favourite dish and—” Before she had a chance to continue, her husband wrenched himself free from her grasp and quickly went into the apartment shouting ‘Gofut!’ Asra shook her head and finished, “And it would be a great honour if you would join us...” Her voice hung in the air, as she wasn’t sure how to address the woman.
“I’m not very fond of gofut...Asra,” Jarol said, giving the younger woman a clear sign of their current relation.
“All the better. More for him. Come in.”
A moment later both women entered the dining room to see Arenn getting ready to eat and singing a happy song about a zabu that had successfully hunted down a zobar.
“I missed his singing,” Asra said. It had been the first thing that drew her attention to him: his voice. He had still been at the Academy and had worn an eresh’s armour. She had been on her way home and he had stood just next to her in the crowded public transport vehicle. At first she hadn’t realised that the singing had been coming from that officer-to-be next to her, but then she had started to listen. And she had spoken to him. And when he had looked at her, into her eyes—she had fallen in love with him.
By now she knew that he always sang; happy or sad, worried or excited—a song accompanied him, a need of humming and expressing himself through sound and melody. She loved those sounds and even when he had been posted on that freighter, the Groumall, and she couldn’t listen to his singing, she knew that somewhere there, between the stars in the dark sky, he sang. She couldn’t hear but she could feel it.
“So did I,” Atira replied.
Arenn was reading when Asra entered the room carrying the most precious thing in their lives. It was shortly after breakfast and Asra could still smell the food from Arenn’s mouth when she leaned to kiss him. Then, she gently nestled their daughter on his lap, making sure he could safely support the girl with only one arm.
Tasara grabbed daddy’s nose and giggled. She pulled it, turning his head and shrieked. Asra’s heart stopped beating for a moment as her first thought was that Arenn had dropped the girl.
But no, she was still on his lap, crying and trying to run away. Had she forgotten him? But a moment ago it had been fine. What had happened?
“Take her,” he moaned, turning his face away. “Take her now!” he repeated in a stronger voice. Asra ran to him and picked Tasara. He leaned forward and she had an impression he would vomit but he seemed to overcome that. He only covered his eyes with his functioning hand.
She took the girl back to the baby room and left under care of her teenage cousin; then, she returned to her husband.
Arenn still sat in the chair, tears pooling in his eye ridges.
“What happened?” Asra sat on the floor by his legs and leaned on his knees.
“She...she turned my head and saw my scar,” he whispered. “It scared her. She was so terrified. I’m a monster to my little girl!” He jumped to his feet, pushing Asra away and ran out of the room.
She followed him.
She found him on the balcony. She stood behind him a little to the right, so she had a good view on his right ear. The scar was terrible. It’s unnatural red colour didn’t fade and the contrast between healthy grey skin covered by scales and the naked, deformed skin only drew more attention to it.
She turned and went back to the room. She retrieved his comb and returned to him. She turned him around to make him face her and then raised her hands to reach the top of his head. She divided his hair on the top, in the middle, and combed it down to the sides, not to the back, covering his ears. His hair was long enough to cover almost the whole scar. Then, she pulled him into the room and dragged to a big mirror in the corner.
“It’s not a regulation haircut,” he muttered.
“I don’t care. You look adorable.”
“I’d have to grow the hair longer to cover this thing completely.”
“Uhm,” she muttered her confirmation. “Want to try again?”
“Now?” He turned to her, panic in his eyes.
“There’s no time like the present. Sit on the balcony, some fresh air would do you both good.”
The trick seemed to work; Tasara enjoyed her time with daddy. Asra enjoyed their happiness.
“I can’t believe how fast your hair grows.” Asra really enjoyed their morning ritual of combing his hair and tying it into a queue at the nape of his neck. Every morning she made sure she covered both his ears and that the parting running along the middle of his head was even. “You know...I think it’s long enough for...” She started to braid it.
“For what?” he asked when she didn’t finish her sentence.
“For this.” She turned his head a little to present him the effect of her work: a braid.
“I look like having a tail.”
She kissed the top of his head and stroke his right neck ridge, the one with the healed scar.
“Don’t mess with my neck ridges if you’re not serious about it.” The smile on his face belonged to the ‘naughty type.’
“Who said I wasn’t serious about it?” she asked innocently.
A purr sounded deep in his chest and he used his right hand to grab her left, then pulled her back toward the bed.
It didn’t escape her attention that the less he thought about his injury, the more he used the healed hand. And then, her thoughts were nowhere near medical subjects.
Sometimes Atira came to visit. Her presence always improved Arenn’s mood—a mood that with each day was getting progressively worse.
“I just feel like...like an orphan.” Arenn, agitated, was pacing in the room when Asra entered with a teapot and cups on a tray. “Abandoned to die on a street.” He raised his fist and shook it. “I am not yet ready to die; I can still be useful.”
“Arenn, you were not dismissed from the Guard, were you?” Atira looked at him with her big eyes; she was so calm, so cool—completely opposite his hot frustration.
“No, but does it matter? Besides, it’s only a matter of time.”
“Your hand is fit. They probably wait for you to fully recuperate and then you will receive your new assignment.”
Asra left the room. She didn’t want to interfere in their ‘military talks.’
Her heart ached seeing him so discomfited. The healthier his body was, the more frustrated his soul grew. He waited to be recalled to duty; at first he mentioned it once in a while, then once a week and now he talked about it practically every day. He had no one to talk to, no important or powerful friend to ask for help. Only Atira, who was merely a gil, and that Damar fellow, who had a higher rank but wasn’t any more important than she. They both had promised to do something but with their limited options they weren’t very successful. Asra only hoped Arenn wouldn’t start to blame them—he had become very difficult recently and she didn’t want him to lose his friends because of his terrible behaviour. She could take it; they might not.
The truth was—she didn’t want him to return to duty. Her mother had warned her that marrying a soldier was not for every woman, that it took a lot of strength. He might return home wounded, permanently injured, or not return at all. Had Asra been ready for that? No. But she’d believed that her love was enough to fight her weakness. She wasn’t so sure any more. She had almost lost him and she dreaded a moment when he would be called back to the service and assigned to some warship to fight. The longer he was at home, the bigger her hope grew that he would not be recalled. And then he would stay with her here, in Lakarian City, and have a good, long, civilian life.
Asra worked in her study when she heard knocking at the half-open door.
“Can I talk to you?” It was Atira.
“Of course.” Asra put her padd away. “What can I do for you?”
“Actually, I wanted to ask if there is anything I could do for you. Is he always like this?”
“No, usually it’s worse. He gets better when you visit.” The younger woman smiled sadly.
“I wish I could come more often. I’ll try.”
“I understand that your duties keep you busy. And so does he. Don’t mind his harsh words; he doesn’t really mean them.”
“Harsh words?” So, Atira didn’t have to listen to ridiculous accusations and duck thrown objects. The gil observed her friend’s wife for a moment and then pulled a chair and sat closer to her. “Asra, is it really that bad?”
The analyst shook her head with resignation. “Sometimes I lose my patience and want to yell at him. To tell him to shut up. There are people with bigger problems. And he moans and moans about his duty, his service and his career...”
“He needs a purpose, something to do.”
“I understand that. My father found him a good job in his company. But Arenn doesn’t want to take it. He wants to be a soldier.” She said the last words sticking her chest out and mimicking the Lakat accent of a certain prominent legate. Atira smiled but her grin quickly faded. Asra continued, “I want to help him but I don’t know how. In the result my attempts only additionally irritate him.”
“He knows he is unfair to you. He knows you don’t deserve it. He loves you very much, but he can’t stop taking it all on you.” She put her hand on Asra’s and looked her in the eyes. “He needs you, now more than ever. You must be strong for both of you until he regains his strength.”
“I know. I will.” She was determined to be support for her beloved man. She would not give up on him.
“Let me know if you need anything. I’ll drop by with a visit soon.”
“You’re always welcome to our house.”
Atira left and Asra went to her husband. “Had a nice chat?” she asked him in a cheerful tone, hoping he wouldn’t detect that it was forced.
“Yes,” he muttered. “I can talk to her about things, of which you have no idea,” he growled and left the room.
She sat in an armchair and hid her face in her hands, sobbing.
It was one of the worst days. Even Arenn’s own mother was avoiding him—that’s how bad his moods were.
“Can’t you understand this is the only thing I know how to do?” he yelled at Asra, who did all in her power not to cry. She tried to block his hateful words and to remember that he didn’t really mean them.
“You can learn. You’re only twenty-six, you’re very young—”
“No! I’ve wanted to be a soldier since I was a boy. This is the only thing I want to do! Why can’t you understand that? It didn’t bother you when you married me, why does it bother you now?”
“You were almost killed!” she shouted. “If you return there, they could really kill you the next time.”
“I wish they killed me the last time,” he hissed shaking his fist. “I wouldn’t have to rot in this house and listen to your complaints.”
He was unhappy; she knew that. A part of her wished he had accepted her father’s offer and took the new job. That was the worried part. However, the loving part wished that the Central Command sent their orders with a new assignment for him. That’s what he wanted and if he wanted it, she wanted it too.
But she was so afraid that something would happen again and he would not return the next time. A soldier’s duties were not easy and safe ones. She had no idea how she could go on without him. How she could raise their daughter without him.
Her heart ached. It ached because she looked at him and saw his suffering. It ached because she had to listen to all ugly things he was saying to her. Sometimes he made her feel like it was her fault that he had been injured and that the Central Command didn’t see him fit for duty.
“You also wouldn’t have a chance to spend time with your daughter,” she replied quietly. “To see her grow up.”
The effect was immediate but not what she expected. In a split second he was right in front of her, anger twisting his handsome features, the hands clenched in fists, his heavy breath on her face. And then, suddenly, he deflated; a balloon from which all the air ran out. He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close, nestling his face in her neck ridge. She hugged him and cursed the Central Command for forgetting about him and abandoning him like that.
Asra shook her head. “No, Mom. He refused to get up.” Arenn’s mother lowered her head and returned to the family room. Asra wished she could help her but she had her own worry to deal with.
It was the seventh day that Arenn refused to get up from the bed. For seven days he had been staring at the ceiling or a wall. He barely ate. He barely spoke. He barely lived.
Asra had had an idea a day before. She had taken Tasara to him, hoping it would wake him up from his emotional lethargy, but all he had done was wrapping himself around his daughter. She had slept peacefully, he had brooded with her in his arms. Later, when she had come to take the girl to feed her, he hadn’t wanted to give her away and had fed her himself. Asra had decided to take it as a sign of change for better, but deep in her heart she knew she was fooling herself.
She had contacted Atira but the gil was away from the Prime. She had called Glinn Damar but so was he. She had tried to contact Kara Mossut but hadn’t even managed to talk to him. All Arenn’s friends were in the military and all were busy. Except for Arenn himself.
She feared he would try to harm himself. He had become withdrawn; sometimes stared before him without moving for hours. She wished she could read his mind to know what he was thinking and she feared that if she could read his mind she’d find nothing in there—emptiness, resignation, lack of hope, surrender.
He needed a purpose and his purpose was to don his armour and board a warship to fix things. He didn’t want to sit behind a desk and push padds around. It would be worse than death for him, wouldn’t it? He was not a material for an archivist, he was an engineer. A good one!
What was worse: seeing him deteriorating, or fearing for his life on a front line of another war that Cardassia fought against its enemies? For him it was not a choice; for him there weren’t any other options. Was she egoistic, wanting to keep him by her side? Was it love to demand from him to resign from his dream and tie him to a chair in her father’s company office?
There had to be something she could do!
Asra was relieved to see Atira.
“I’m sorry I didn’t notify you of my visit but—”
“You are always welcome here, Atira,” Asra told her.
“How is he?” The gil entered. She was wearing full armour, which was the best indication that she didn’t have much time.
“He stopped talking to me two weeks ago. Only barks orders.” Atira froze in place, listening to Asra’s words. “He only brightens when being with Tasara.” Tears shone in the young woman’s eyes.
Atira grabbed her hands. “I bring good news, Asra. Very good news. I know it’s not what you wanted, but it will make him happy again.”
“Is he going back to an active duty?” Asra’s eyes opened wide. A few months ago her heart would have sank and she would hate Atira for this, but now...it was the best thing she could hear. Yes, he would go away and visit home only when on a shore leave; yes, he would risk his life every day; yes, he could be injured again and yes, he could even die, but he would prefer to die than to live like this. And so would she. She would suffer and she would cry her eyes out mourning him, but she would know that he hadn’t suffered, that he would have died satisfied of fulfilling his duty, the highest duty to the state—to sacrifice his life for the Cardassian Union. And she would be proud of him. Still, she hoped he would live to his old age and retire, and then spend days with her and sing for her.
He had stopped singing many months ago...
“Yes. I convinced my gul that he could use a good engineer and that I know one. It’s a good warship with a good crew.”
The analyst squeezed the soldier’s hands. “Thank you, Atira. Thank you so much.” She really meant it. She knew what it would mean for her husband: he could live his dream life and she would welcome his happiness. She would be a good military wife—one that had faith in her soldier, was strong and always waited for her beloved to return home. She could do that. She would do that because that was what he needed. His need was an order for her, her duty—to him, to Cardassia and to their daughter.
“Don’t mention it.”
“I’ll tell him you came.”
She went to the room, where he was sitting, staring out of the window. “Arenn?”
“What?” His voice was harsh and unpleasant. He talked like that to everyone except for his mother and father. And Tasara. Asra hoped it were the last time she’d hear that voice; she hoped Atira’s news would change everything.
“You have a guest,” she told him.
“Tell him to go to hell.”
She didn’t expect any other answer. She sighed and returned to Atira, who waited in the kitchen.
“Please, he’s in the family room brooding, go to him. I’ll bring you some tea in a moment.”
Asra started to brew tea. She hoped that Atira’s news would really help him, that it wasn’t too late.
She entered the room to see her husband smiling for the first time in months. She almost forgot how bright his grin was and how the shape of his eyes changed when he smiled.
“This is the first time in months that I see him smiling,” she said. “I brought you tea.” She put the tray with a kettle and two cups on the coffee table by the window and left.
Atira left not much later. Asra wasn’t sure if she should go to the family room to see how he was doing. She feared he would be the same: bitter, angry, frustrated and full of hate to the universe. She was on her way to her study, when he emerged from the family room. Without a word he followed her and then closed the door to the study behind them.
“Is there any way I can make it all up to you?” he asked, hugging her.
“Don’t get killed,” she whispered.
“I am so, so, so, so, so sorry.” He kissed her left and then right forehead ridge. She knew she could lose him, she knew she would barely see him, she knew his duties went first even before her, but she also knew that her Arenn was back. And she hoped he would stay with her, even if he would be gone on a mission or die in war. He would be with her. He, not the bitter ‘old’ man, frustrated and angry, that had replaced her husband. “I know I had been a pain in the neck ridge. You didn’t deserve it, I know that, I knew that. I...”
“Sometimes it’s easier to take your frustrations on someone who loves you, because you know she would always forgive you,” she said looking into his eyes. “Always.”
He kissed her. And then he started to hum her favourite love song; the one that she insisted was their song.
It felt good to have him back.
“They promoted me too,” he whispered into her neck ridge. His warm breath tingled.
“I’m so proud of you,” she whispered back.
And she meant it.
Because she loved him.