VS Ch. 02


Bernard awoke at sunrise, still lightheaded from insufficient sleep, feeling a pleasant warm weight at his side. Karla was there, nude, one thigh overlapping his, an arm across his chest, her head resting on his shoulder. Not a dream, then. His right arm was pinned under her body; his fingertips could graze her hip, and linger on the curves of her ass. He stroked her there and felt her gradually wake up.

"Hey, Bernie," she said, sleepily. She leaned up and kissed him on the chin. He returned her kiss, on the lips, and felt the odd sensation of being recharged, of being fueled up as her lips lingered against his. "You keep touching me, you're going to start trouble."

"I guess I'm a troublemaker."

She climbed atop him, her ample breasts hanging above his face, close enough to lean up and lick her there. The air was already humid, and her breasts had a sheen of sweat: a new taste that he savored. He felt her nipples stiffen between his lips; he heard her long intakes of breath become irregular and fractured. Soon she was ready to yank off his boxers, and he was conspicuously ready as well. They made love, hesitant at first, still exploring and learning, but quickly growing more comfortable and confident with each other. After he came, she kept him inside until he was completely soft.

"I'd like to sleep here from now on," she said.

"Of course."

Something occurred to him, a thought he felt guilty for letting surface. Two days ago, when he awkwardly took her as she lay on the floor, she had been excited about a breakthrough in the research, and magnanimous about indulging him for a few minutes. It had been a fluke, honestly. But this morning was no fluke. This time counted. And if she wanted to sleep with him from now on...

She showered, dried off, and padded nude into her room, retrieving a green bikini top he felt he should have recognized. It was the counterpart to the bikini bottom she put on to walk into the village. He didn't know there had been a matching top.

"Yes, it's a complete set," she said, putting it on. "It's the backup suit, since the blue one's somewhere in the water. Maybe we could look for it on the way out. Don't swimsuits float?"

"I don't know," he said. "After we return, we could run an experiment in the natatorium, Collect all the cute undergrads, and..."

"You pervert!" she said, feigning shock. "I never knew that about you!" She leaned up against him, still bottomless, whispering conspiratorially. "So have you been sneaking peeks at me all this time? Naughty thoughts?"

"Ever since you started walking around in the buff. The thing is, you were sending out strong 'no' signals until two days ago."

"I was. It was fun teasing you, but I had no intention of, you know..."

"I can't complain about the new you."

She laughed and gave him a quick kiss.

The skies were clear and the sea calm as Demetrious piloted them out to where Karla specified. The guide was as docile as Christos had been on the return trip. Bernard shook his head, still puzzled at Christos's transformation. He had been chastened, cowed. Broken. Whatever Karla had said to him, it was not a good idea to get on her bad side.

They geared up and slipped underwater. She led him through the tunnel and into the grotto. He found the air dank and stale, but she was right: it was breathable. He took in the full scene around him: constellations of glowworms above, and a fantastic bestiary at the ground.

"This is unbelievable. Just as you saw yesterday?"

"For a moment, I was afraid we'd surface and there would be nothing here."

He unpacked the camera and flash from the waterproof case. "I wonder if we should take some sample bags, take one of the smaller ones back."

"I don't know. There are so few of each kind. Who knows how big the ecosystem is here."

He snapped a photo of what resembled a cupful of squirming pink spaghetti. "The biologists will go nuts with this."

"The tunnel seems to constrict right after here," she said. "I haven't looked further. But the most interesting stuff is in that room."

He looked skeptically at the low archway, not even as high as his waist. "A race of pygmies?"

"No, I told you. There's four to five feet of silt and muck." She stripped off her bikini, laying it on a damp but clean outcropping of rock.

"What are you doing?"

"This muck washes off the skin easily enough, but I don't know what it'll do to the fabric. You should strip yours too."

He looked back at the creatures, who continued ignoring him; but he didn't relish having his private parts dangling like bait as he crawled around. "I'll take my chances."

He lit the room with a torch and followed her in. "Holy shit."

"Isn't she beautiful?"

"It's like an idealized expression of beauty," he said. "Exotic, a universal blend... everything perfect." He gazed at the statue's dark hair, softly angular face, alabaster shoulders and full breasts, the bottom curves dipped in the muck. "So she's full length?"

"I think so. It could take forever to dig this out by hand and find out."

He noticed the walls for the first time and shone the torch on them. "There's writing!" Closely-spaced carved characters, with no breaks, covered the four walls, from ceiling to below the artificial floor created by the mud. He started taking overlapping photos. Back at the lab he would stitch them into a panorama.

"Linear B?" she said. "That would make sense for early Greek."

"I don't think so. Some symbols seem to belong, but many, maybe most... I don't recognize them." He pointed to several unfamiliar characters. "Did you see this yesterday?"

"I didn't notice. I know that sounds awful, but I was kind of off balance with what happened on the boat. I saw the statue, got a good look, then headed back. I was worried about a cut on my leg too."

"I didn't see that. Where was it?"

"Right above the knee, here" -- she raised her right calf awkwardly and pointed to it -- "but it's healed now."

He took several photos of the statue from all angles. "I think I've got everything. Is there anything more to see?"

"I want to dig a little bit. Bring more of the statue out."

Bernard was about to comment on the futility of that, without the right tools, but Karla had already dropped to her stomach, lying in the muck, and dug out wet handfuls from around the statue's breasts. Large nipples were painted with the same dye used for the woman's hair and eyebrows. Karla succeeded in uncovering the breasts, but could not expose more of the torso: brackish water started to seep in and fill the holes she made.

"I don't think we'll get far," he said. "There's probably not much to see until we find the pedestal."

"You're right," she said, getting up on all fours. Her underside was coated with the dark muck. "Let's head back."

In the grotto, she climbed nude into the water, holding her swimsuit above her. "Can you help clean me off?"

The sticky mud took some effort. He was thorough, washing and wiping it off her body, letting the water dilute and dissipate it. When he started cleaning her bottom, which had never been dirty, and returned to her breasts yet another time, she watched this with increasing bemusement and alarm. "I think I'm squeaky clean now, Bernie!"

He took her in his arms. "You're clean when I say you are." They kissed, and again he felt that shock, almost like touching the leads of a nine-volt battery with his tongue. Their kiss at the cottage hadn't felt this way. The kiss in bed had. Maybe it was the mood.

She looked warily at the creatures patrolling the cave floor. Bernard was in the mood for sex now, and the animals probably wouldn't bother them; still, she wanted more privacy. "Bernie, let's go back to the cottage, okay?"

They agreed to take the next morning off. There was enough evidence for them to spend the remainder of the trip simply correlating and studying what they had found. Karla ventured behind the cottage, intending to collect some wild lilies and irises. Brent settled on the futon inside with a paperback and a jug of chilled water.

Her scream jarred him out of the story.

He sprinted outside, where she stood holding her right hand. The fear he saw in her eyes knotted his stomach.

"Bee sting," she cried. "I'm allergic. I have to get to a hospital." On the back of her hand, below her ring finger, was a welt the size of a jellybean, angry yellow-white with a corona of red.

"You have medicine?" he said.

"No, I didn't bring anything!"

"Let me think," he said. There was no phone in the house; no directory; and even then, he wouldn't know who to call. It was something they had overlooked in planning the trip. And time was running out. "We have to go downtown. There's that clinic, on the way to the docks. If they can't help, they should know who can."

"God, I'm so stupid," she said. "All the way out here... dammit, it hurts!"

"You'll be OK," he said, taking her arm. "But we have to go, now."

He led her at a brisk pace, almost forcing her to trot to keep up. Her hand was still swelling. He wondered if the treatment would depend on what variety of bee had stung her. There was so little he knew. "Did you get a look at the bee?"

"No," she said. "I just felt it land, and then right away it stung."

They reached the intersection with the road leading down a gentle slope into town. "Halfway there," Bernard said. Karla was barefoot and nude; he hadn't thought to get her sandals or the bikini bottom she normally put on to go out in public. It was too late now. "How's your hand?"

"It still hurts." She showed him. The swelling had at least stopped; it wasn't getting any worse. Karla was looking a little more steady on her feet. The clinic was just a few blocks away.

"Let's keep moving," he said. "After this, we have to stay out of the back yard."

"It's not so bad now," she said, flexing her hand experimentally. The swelling was subsiding now, looking more like an angry mosquito bite, a uniform shade of red, skin swollen but no longer resembling a boil.

"Does that normally happen?"

"I don't know. The last time I was stung was when I was four. I went to the hospital. Mom said my whole arm swelled up."

Iannis was the physician, Illeana his sister and receptionist. They were going over some records at the front desk when Bernard and Karla rushed in. A tiny waiting room with two chairs led to a single office. Karla explained the sting and her allergic reaction, but felt increasing silly doing so; firstly, because she was standing there naked, with no decent explanation for that, and secondly, the bee sting had completely disappeared. There was no longer any sign of it.

"Perhaps a different reaction to bees in this part of the world," Iannis said, still skeptical. "Come into the office, and we will make sure you are well." He was young and dark-haired, with intense eyes and a sharp-ridged nose. Illeana shared those features; twins, perhaps. She raised her eyebrows as the doctor led the nude blonde girl into his office.

"Hop up on the table and lay back," Iannis said, closing the door. Her temperature and blood pressure were normal. He took her hand, confirmed that she had been stung there, but saw no sign of venom or a puncture. "Maybe you're allergic only to American bees."

"So I guess I'm OK, then?"

"If you are outside among flowers, you should wear at least something." He smiled, and allowed himself a glance at her ample breasts, her dusting of pubic hair, and pussy lips that were slightly open. "Otherwise, you could be stung in some sensitive areas."

Karla flushed. "I would hate to be stung here," she said, drawing a fingertip along the lower curve of a breast. "Or here," she said, pressing against a nipple that popped back up when she released it. "Or anywhere close to here." She traced down from her pubic bone to her labia.

In the waiting room, Bernard and Illeana had little to say to each other; both listened to the muffled voices of doctor and patient. Soon they couldn't hear much at all; perhaps the doctor was examining her, or looking something up. There was a giggle, then a sigh, both from Karla. Illeana looked at Bernard, questioning. Bernard shrugged. There were more muffled giggles; then Iannis saying something too softly to be heard; then unmistakable sounds of grunting, gasping and thrusting. Illeana glared at Bernard, blaming him for this, and then stared at her papers. Bernard threw up his hands. He had no say in this.

Minutes later, Iannis escorted Karla into the waiting room. He was dressed again; she was not. An awkward silence hung in the room among the four.

"Karla will be fine," he said finally. "No lasting reaction to the sting, and she is in good health."

No one said anything more. Bernard paid the receptionist and walked Karla out.

"What the hell was that all about?" he said.

She scoffed. "You're getting jealous?"

"It's a doctor's office! You don't even know him!"

"Bernie, you go to church, right?" She took his hand. "You remember the story of the vineyard, and the owner hiring people to help?"

"You're giving me a parable?" he said, incredulous.

"What I'm saying is, I'm not being unfair to you. It's not some zero-sum thing where this doctor -- who I'll probably never see again -- is taking anything away from you!"

"I'm not looking at it that way," he protested.

"Then it shouldn't matter," she said, clasping his hand. "I'm with you tonight, Bernard. And every night we have left. I'm so comfortable with you, just like this." She gestured at herself. "When we go back, all this goes away. Let's enjoy it while it lasts."

He shook his head. "It's just like I'm along for the ride." Or I am the ride, he thought.

"It's not just you or me. It's us."

He nodded. "Okay. It's okay."

"We're good?" She hugged him, looking into his eyes.

"We're good." He pondered these events, and they were silent the rest of the way home.

That night, they returned to their favorite cafe, the Eel's Fin. Karla left the cottage wearing sandals, but without the usual bikini bottom.

"Going casual tonight?" he said, smiling.

"Sure. I was naked downtown this afternoon, and the world didn't come to an end, so..."

"I'm not saying I don't favor it. We'll see if anyone else raises a fuss."

The service at their table, always extra attentive when Karla was topless, was now obsessive when she was nude. The server knelt beside her as he recited the night's specials, resting a hand on her shoulder and taking more than a peek or two at her body. She took it all in good stride. As they waited for their entrees, she took Bernard's hand and placed it between her legs. She was already moist, and he slipped a fingertip between her pussy lips.

"Not yet," she said, pulling his hand an inch away. "Just so you know how much fun this is." She let his hand rest on her thigh for the rest of the meal.

Starting that day, Karla spent eleven days in a row without putting on a single item of clothing, an incredible "streak" of sorts that Bernard counted backward to verify. "Next time I can pack a lot less," she said, with a naughty smile.

Brent called each night, and Karla professed her love and longing for him as if nothing were out of the ordinary. "No, there really isn't anybody here anyway," she said one night. "And Bernard's here to watch out for me anyway." Bernard chuckled; he was keeping quite a close eye on her. She was straddling him while talking to Brent on the phone; Bernard was still stiff inside her, not moving at first, but then caressing her tempting breasts, dodging her hand as she tried to silently shoo him away.

"Don't do that!" she scolded after she hung up with Brent. "You're going to get us both in trouble!"

"We have to keep better track of time. We can't be fooling around when eight o'clock comes by."

Bernard always remembered the morning of their return to the U.S. as somber, even melancholy. Karla lugged her suitcases out of her lightly-used room to the front door, now completely dressed, in long pants, polo shirt, panties and bra. It was unnatural and wrong. She would have looked no less out of place wearing a burqa.

"I know," she said, setting her luggage down. She picked at the waist of her shirt as if it were part of an unfamiliar, ill-fitting formal outfit, for an occasion she was unable to duck out of. "Back to the real world."

"Couldn't put it off forever," Bernard said.

She strode toward him and hugged him tight, her head on his shoulder. "Come on, Bernie. We had a great time."

"We did." He fought the urge to untuck her shirt in the back, reach inside, and unhook her bra; to incrementally reverse this disagreeable process that had led to her body being covered up like this.

"You know I won't see you after this," she said.

"I know." Back to Bernard. "I understand."

He didn't mention that he still held out hope, if not for a real relationship, then for the occasional tryst in the office, when work kept them up late and no one else was in. Surely they couldn't expect to press a giant Reset button, to erase everything that had happened the past two weeks. Things had changed. Karla said so herself.

Their last hug was immediately before boarding the plane. Karla's boyfriend Brent met them at the airport in Boston.

Their reunion made her fling with Bernard seem like ancient history. He stood with their bags while they embraced and kissed as any passionate couple who had spent a month apart. It was evident who she really liked. The last two weeks had just been an affair of convenience.

"Brent, this is Bernard, from the department." She was introducing them. Bernard shook his hand, matching his firm grip, and she was already saying thanks to him, for a good trip, and he shook her hand as well. Her face looked like a mask.

He took a shuttle home to Arkham and climbed into a lonely bed.

The next morning, Bernard returned to work. As he climbed the worn granite steps to the Armitage building, a feeling of somewhat requited homesickness surprised him. He did have some fondness for the place. The Mediterranean trip was the first time he had spent more than a week away from the department.

He was wondering if his first meeting with Karla would be a little awkward when the department head, Professor Preston Shea, ambushed him at the door. "Bernard, glad to have you back. Did you have a pleasant flight? Many of us are understandably quite eager to get caught up on your findings. Perhaps you can do a half-hour talk, say, at 11 this morning?"

Bernard chuckled. Shea's blitzkrieg style used to intimidate him, until he figured out that an answer was usually not needed right away. "Professor, I'll need at least a few hours to put something respectable together. Otherwise, I'd just be reading from my notes."

"That's fine," said Shea. "I'll work out a time this afternoon." So much for taking it easy the first day back. "Do you know if Karla's coming in?"

"She didn't say."

"I'll give her a call. Also, you have a new office mate."

"As of today?" There were two weeks left in the semester.

"She joined about two weeks ago. Here, I'll introduce you."

Shea escorted him to his own office and opened the door to reveal a slim woman with long black hair, seated at a vacant desk that had served as his temporary work area, and was now reclaimed for its original purpose. It was nice while it lasted, Bernard thought. All the offices were set up for two people, but he had enjoyed his own for nearly the whole year.

"Roz?" Shea said. "This is Bernard Sharpe, back from the trip. Bernard, this is Roswell Wing."

Roswell stood up and turned to face them. Bernard was taken aback for a moment; she was quite an attractive woman. "Hi, you can call me Roz, or Rose." She strode forward to shake his hand. She was nearly as tall as he was. "I've been following the dispatches from your trip. I really wish I could have gone along."

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