Month 5, Day 20
As the last few minutes ticked by before the game was to start, the door opened yet again, admitting Tall Bear and Ferguson. Both frowned as they looked at the crowd gathered in Capac’s living room, then strode over to where Bugalu sat on the sofa. “How could you let her agree to this?” Tall Bear asked.
Bugalu glared at the AmerInd. No, it’s not his fault. He shrugged in frustration. “She’s cranky. Wouldn’t listen.”
“She’s been cranky lately,” Bear agreed.
“Maybe she’s tired of seeing you every lunch,” Ferguson muttered.
“I don’t think so. When she isn’t cranky, she thanks me for creating a no-hassle place for her in the middle of her shift. Anyway, knowing her, it doesn’t make sense for her to be at one of these games.”
“She doesn’t know the rules,” Bugalu told him.
Tall Bear turned his gaze to seek out the host, chatting with others a few feet away. “Is that true, Capac? You didn’t tell Mac the rules of your poker game?”
Capac turned to face him, tried not to look uncomfortable. “Everybody knows the rules.”
Bear’s stare became calculating. “Even the captain?”
Capac swallowed. “Well, I haven’t personally-“
The door opened again, and Mac walked in, stopped short at sight of the crowd, irritation plain on her face. Meanwhile, the men all stared at her. To them, it probably seems like she’s only wearing a pair of coveralls, but I’ve seen that shirt before, and it matches her skin color. Not sure why she bought it, but- I hope she’s got that shirt on.
Catching sight of Capac, Mac shoved her way over to him. “Capac, it doesn’t take this many people to play a game of poker.”
Capac smiled nervously, white teeth flashing in his brown face. “Most of them want to watch.”
“Watch?” she repeated, and looked around again. She scowled when she caught sight of Bugalu, and pointedly turned her back to him.
Yes, I’m here, Mac. Right now, you’re wondering what about this game you don’t understand, but you’re too miffed at me to ask. You’ll thank me later. Or be thankful, even if you don’t say it. Sometimes, brothers get taken for granted. Bugalu stood between the two body builders. “I’m not sure how to get her out of this,” he admitted in a whisper.
Ferguson responded. “She won’t stay, once she learns the rules.”
“If she weren’t so stubborn,” Bugalu agreed. “But she sees it as having made a promise, so backing out won’t be an option.”
“We’re here to help,” Bear muttered. “But if somebody else wins-”
“Whatever happens, she can’t wind up in the brig,” Bugalu returned.
“Right,” Ferguson agreed.
Mac considered the table with eight chairs, as well as what and who was behind each chair. “Capac, is this draw or stud?”
“Is anything wild?”
“Jokers,” the Peruvian answered. “Just jokers.”
“Is there anywhere in particular you want me-?”
“In my bed,” someone uttered, loud enough that everyone heard it.
Mac turned red, which revealed the shirt under her coveralls. “-to sit?” she finished.
“Wherever you like,” Capac responded.
Mac pulled out the closest chair, and several men rushed to the table. Bugalu was moved forward by the two big men. “You’re in my chair,” Bear told Ryan, who had the seat on Mac’s left.
“Out!” Ferguson pulled Jones from the chair on Mac’s right, then shoved Bugalu into it. Bear had resorted to the same tactics, removing Ryan to claim that seat.
“Hey!” Ryan objected. “I told Capac I was going to play! You guys didn’t!”
“Didn’t get a chance,” Bear responded, while Ferguson took the seat next to Bugalu. “If anybody has a problem, we can talk later, but we’re playing.”
Bugalu glanced at the other four men at the table; Zaire, Peron, Capac and... he couldn’t remember the man’s name, but he was from physics. All of them know their math. And Mac always complained Poker involved too much math. “Mac, I have to-”
She turned to Tall Bear. “Poker’s a white man’s game, Tall. Are you any good at it?”
“I do okay.” He looked past her to Bugalu.
“She’s not talking, not listening to me. I said she was cranky.” Mac whirled around, eyes flashing, her mouth open to object, then she closed her mouth tight and faced forward. She is really mad. If we weren’t caught up in this nonsense, I’d pick a fight and get the air cleared between us.
“Oh, my, I didn’t realize these games were quite this popular!”
Monroe had entered Capac’s quarters, and was now posing just inside the door. Having made her entrance, she walked to the table. “Capac, I heard you were hosting a game, and I thought I might join it.”
“Maybe you need more tables,” Mac suggested.
Monroe turned her blue eyes in Mac’s direction. “Oh, are you here? I didn’t notice you.”
“Capac, get up,” Bugalu ordered. “Liz is playing.”
The navigator was horrified. “But I’m the host. I always play.”
“Be a gentleman,” Ferguson said, “and let Liz play.”
“Have a seat, Monroe,” Tall Bear suggested, his dark eyes staring at Capac.
“Thank you, boys,” the blond purred as she took the chair Capac reluctantly vacated. She smiled at Bugalu. “I expected another date, Bugalu.” Her gaze veered to Mac. “But I hear you’ve been... extra busy. Maybe you should have her move in.”
Mac jerked at the suggestion, and her chair grated back an inch. “Move in!”
“Well, it would be more private than your quarters,” Monroe explained. “No Della walking in at the end of her shift.”
Confused, Mac turned to Bugalu. Confusion wins over anger. Temporarily, at least. “She means my days off, when I spend them at your place.”
Mac rolled her eyes. “Oh, that. You two always wake me when she gets home, with all that talking.”
Somewhere in the crowd, Ryan asked, “You bother to talk to Della?”
That explains why he isn’t the great success with women he believes he is. Well, can’t put this off forever. The sooner we start, the sooner it ends. He picked up the deck of cards and started shuffling. “Mac, we can still do something else.”
Her eyebrows drew together in renewed anger. “Just deal.”
He sighed. “Don’t say I didn’t try to warn you.” He started dealing the cards, ignoring her thoughtful look.
Mac glanced at the table as she rearranged her cards. “How do we ante up? Where are the chips?”
“The fact that you’re at the table, ready to play, is your ante,” Capac told her. She frowned in confusion, but didn’t ask for more clarification.
Mac discarded four of the cards in her hands, and accepted replacements. After considering the additions, she grimaced. “I fold.”
“You can’t,” half a dozen men told her.
Surprised, she asked, “Why not?”
“It’s the nature of this game,” Bugalu told her. “Being ready to play is your ante, but you have to play the hand out. Each hand has a winner and a loser, and they can’t figure out your score if you don’t finish.” Bugalu collected the discards, added them to the unused cards, and shuffled. “You get one more draw,” he told her.
She sighed, picked up her cards and discarded 4 again. She hardly looked at her replacement cards before Peron stated, “I suspect I win this hand,” and laid down a hand that included 3 aces.
“That beats me,” Monroe declared, laying down a hand full of small numbers. The other men put down their hands, and none were better than Peron’s, nor worse than Monroe’s.
Bugalu held his breath as Mac put down her cards. Her hand was as bad as he’d feared. “Looks like Liz and I both lose.”
“No,” Zaire answered. “Monroe has a ten high card. Mac doesn’t even have that.”
“Fine, I lose.” Mac gathered the cards together to shuffle, then looked up, surprised that everybody was staring at her. “Now what?”
“You haven’t done it yet,” Peron observed.
Peron grinned. “This is strip poker.”
Cards went flying. Mac whirled to face Bugalu. “You knew all along!”
“I tried to tell you,” he returned, his own voice raised. “But you wouldn’t listen!”
She muttered in Gaelic as she turned back to the table. The scattered cards were removed, and Capac set another deck in front of her. She grabbed his shirt and pulled him close. “You’ll pay for this, Capac.”
The Peruvian swallowed. “But everybody knows my games are strip poker.”
“I didn’t,” she snapped, and pushed him away. “Get me a drink,” she instructed as she stood up. After removing her shoes, she briefly showed the footwear to Peron and sat down to shuffle. When Capac placed a brown bottle on the table, she cocked her head, trying to read the label. “What’s that?”
“Peruvian beer. You wanted a drink.”
“Yeah, but I don’t drink beer.” She returned to shuffling.
Bugalu gave the bottle back to the navigator. “She wants whiskey.”
“I don’t have any whiskey.”
“Here.” An arm appeared between Mac and Tall Bear holding a silver cloth bag that obviously held a bottle.
“I don’t think that’s your brand, Shorty,” Bear muttered.
“Brand doesn’t matter,” she replied, gently taking the offering. “Although there are a couple I drink only as a last resort.” She slowly lowered the bag from around the bottle, and stared at the embossed silver label. “Wow. This brand demands a glass.”
“Get the lady a glass, Capac,” Peron instructed. “Make it a big one.”
“Who-“ Mac began, turning in her chair, and stared at MacGregor, who stood behind her. Her face paled. “Et tu, Brute?”
Doc shook his head. “You told me alcohol helps you concentrate. When I heard you were playing poker, I thought you might need that. Even if you’re mad at me.”
“How many people are you mad at?” Tall Bear asked her.
She sighed. “The world. The universe.” Capac placed a water glass in front of her, and she opened the bottle. Bugalu watched, worried she might repeat the Horseless Carriage, but she poured less than a finger. Then she capped the bottle, slipped the cloth back up around it, and placed it on the floor before she sipped from the glass. “Thanks, Mac,” she tossed behind her, and rolled her shoulders before she began to deal.
“Can you focus now?” Bugalu asked her.
“I’m still mad at you.”
“I don’t care. We’ll talk about it later. Right now, play like you mean it.”
“You’re telling me what to do again.”
As Bugalu searched for words that might get through her anger, Bear softly said, “Please, Shorty, don’t wind up in the brig.”
She hesitated in dealing the cards. “You’re a lieutenant. You’re not in charge of security.”
“I’ve been so busy studying, I haven’t memorized the crew roster. Who’s head of security?”
“Definitely got to play like I mean it,” she muttered, and finished dealing.
Whether it was the realization that she’d be expected to strip, the alcohol, or the potential of landing in Winthrop’s home court, Mac was now paying attention. Monroe, on the other hand, seemed to try to lose. With the next two hands, Monroe removed her shoes and tunic. The men may have come to watch Mac lose her clothing, but having a woman almost as attractive in nothing but underwear made it hard for most of them to concentrate. When Peron dealt, Mac won the hand, Tall Bear lost. Instead of removing his shoes, the AmerInd removed his shirt. Mac choked on her sip of whiskey until Bear patted her on the back. That brought her close to his broad chest, and she abruptly turned to face Bugalu. As her red face began to fade, Bugalu saw beads of sweat on her forehead. Mac really is growing up.
Leaning forward, Doc muttered, “Thought you didn’t notice such things.”
She grimaced. “I’m my father’s daughter, but I’m not dead!”
“Glad to hear it,” Tall Bear told her with a smile, and turned back to the table. “Liz, it’s your turn to deal.”
Why couldn’t he have removed his shoes? Mac isn’t dead, and she is growing up, and now her concentration is shot. This is bad. She lost that hand. Absolutely white, Mac finished the liquid in her glass before she stood to remove her coveralls. Bugalu refused to watch - We don’t need lust complicating our relationship - but was aware of how slowly those coveralls came off. Probably seems like a strip-tease to everybody else. But she’s doing it so slowly because she wants so much not to do it at all. Maybe that’ll teach her to keep her mind on what she’s doing.
Eventually, the coveralls were off, and Mac sat down abruptly. Her shirt reached her upper thighs, so she was almost as dressed as she would have been in uniform.
“MacDowell,” Peron stated softly, his eyes glinting. “You’re mine tonight.”
“Peron,” Doc stated, claiming the officer’s attention. “Does the captain know you’re trying to get an underling into your bed?”
Peron grinned in response. “Does she know that you’re blatantly watching a direct underling lose at strip poker?” He indicated the blond nurse sitting beside him, who smiled invitingly at the Doc.
“Oh. Monroe. Checkmate,” Doc muttered. Monroe’s smile became a pasted-on thing, and her eyes flashed with anger.
While the cards were shuffled and dealt, Mac poured herself another half finger of whiskey. “I get the feeling I still don’t know all the rules of this game,” she whispered.
“The purpose of the game is to match a man and woman for sex.”
“Yeah, Peron made that pretty obvious. But how, exactly, does it do it?”
“It’s the last hand,” Bugalu told her. “The hand where somebody loses their last piece of clothing. The winner of that hand gets to claim the loser’s... affection for the rest of the shift.”
She picked up her first card while looking around the table. “Six to two. What happens if the winner and loser are the same gender?”
Surprised, Capac said, “It’s never come up. The women always lose.”
One corner of Mac’s mouth tipped upward. “Other women didn’t have my teachers.” She studied her hand. She sounds confident. Probably what she’s going for.
“I’ve been thinking,” Monroe suddenly stated. “It doesn’t seem like Mac’s been here before. I wonder if she’s here because she’s tired of you, Bugalu. She seemed pretty shocked by the idea of moving in.” Monroe leaned forward to enhance his view of her barely-contained breasts. “And she doesn’t seem eager to have you lose your clothing.”
“Me?” Mac asked, never taking her eyes from her cards. “I’ve got 8 brothers, Monroe. Bugs hasn’t got anything they don’t have.”
“Well, dearie, based on your reactions, that would imply that Tall Bear does have something your brothers don’t have.”
“He does,” Mac replied without hesitation.
“I do?” Bear asked. “What?”
“Visible muscles.” Mac regarded his face thoughtfully. “And a really nice tan.” She turned back to her cards. “Gaelunders don’t tan; we just grow more freckles until we look like we’ve got measles.”
“How many cards, Ferguson?” the dealer asked, returning attention to the game.
With this hand, Monroe lost her bra, which seemed to delight her. Now, that’s a strip-tease. The room’s temperature has raised 10 degrees, at least. She’s having the time of her life, with every man’s attention.
Tossing her lacy bra to the crowd, Monroe didn’t sit down immediately, but leaned across the table to get her face as close to Bugalu’s as she could. “You know, if she is tired of you, I’d be happy to take her place.”
Bugalu pondered several answers, from denying that kind of relationship with Mac to impolitely informing Monroe he wasn’t interested.
“What?” he responded, but still couldn’t decide how to answer Monroe.
Slim fingers took hold of his jaw, and his head was forcibly turned until his gaze landed on Mac’s green eyes. She flashed him a grin. “Remember shore leave? What we did?”
Nothing about shore leave struck him as particularly memorable, except- “We went dancing.”
“Before that,” she told him.
He drew a blank. “Day 2, I was aboard.”
“You played pool and had another argument,” Capak offered.
Mac cast a milli-second glare at the Peruvian. “Before that,” she urged Bugalu.
“You went shopping with some of the ladies.”
There wasn’t much shore leave before that. “You went shopping while I waited.”
“After that. We were walking and saw this cute little place. We went inside and spent 3 delightful hours-“
Phybu! And she blasted near beat me!
“You remember, don’t you?” He nodded. She leaned so close their noses almost touched. “Do you know how I got so good at that?” He shook his head, as much as her fingers would let him. She gave him a sweet smile, but her voice had a touch of harshness. “I learned to concentrate! If I have to focus on this game, then you do, too. Otherwise, Peron might wind up with you in his bed!”
“You’ll never convince me those two are just friends,” someone stated.
“Yeah, you could see steam rising off them. His days as a free man are limited.”
“You did that on purpose,” he accused. “When that gets around, you’ll make a serious dent in my social life.”
Mac smiled at her cards. “Thought I already had.” The smile faded, as did her voice. “Doesn’t look like I’ll be here much longer, anyway.”
Bugalu picked up his cards. Okay, that’s her problem today. Not that Doc called her in for a physical, or that I told him how badly she sleeps. She went through a lot to get here, but she’s given up on making the grade. And there’s no reason for it! Abdulla and Ivy both say she knows her stuff. And now that she’s in my life - again - I don’t want her gone. It’s bad enough only getting to share letters with my real family.
“Focus, Bugs,” she muttered.
“Yeah, yeah, I hear ya,” he returned, and shoved thoughts of her imminent dismissal away.
Time drug as 7 players concentrated on getting the best hand they could. Monroe spent her time posing, which made concentration more difficult for 6 players. But finally, the men started laying down their hands.
The physicist had 2 pair, jacks & eights; Ferguson had a 7-high straight. Bugalu felt lucky with a full house of jacks and tens, but Tall Bear’s full house of queens and fives beat him. Zaire had an eight-high straight, and Peron triumphantly revealed four aces.
Monroe tossed in her cards - again small numbers - and turned to face Peron fully as she stood to remove her panties. “Guess you’ve won me, sir.”
“No. He hasn’t,” Mac stated clearly, and put down her first card; the ten of clubs. One by one, she put down the jack, queen, and king of clubs. She paused before revealing the last card.
“She can’t have a royal flush,” someone muttered. “Peron had all the aces.”
“Ace of clubs,” Mac announced, and put down a joker. “I won this hand. And since the loser lost her last article of clothing, this game is over.”
Monroe angrily declared, “I don’t do women!”
“Good, because I don’t want you,” Mac returned and scooted her chair back to rummage under the table. “The game is over, so I get to leave.” Her tone said she would not allow anyone to contradict her. “Blast, where is my other shoe? Oh, here it is.” She stood up with her shoes in one hand and the whiskey in the other.
Bugalu started to get up, but her wrist on his shoulder pushed him down. “No, don’t let me interfere with your social life, Bugsy. Play another game. Maybe you’ll win Liz. I feel like I’m forgetting something.”
“Coveralls,” Doc told her, and draped that article over her shoulder. “Am I forgiven for daring to worry about your health?”
She grimaced. “I suppose, as long as you don’t do it again!”
“I absolutely will not do it again,” he stated.
“Men always make promises they can’t keep.” She regarded Peron. “As it turns out, I am not yours tonight. Nor any other night.” She briefly touched Tall Bear’s bare shoulder with the back of one hand. “Thanks, Bear, Ferg.”
“Lunch?” Tall Bear asked.
“Of course.” She turned back to Doc. “Escort me out, Unc?”
“Happy to,” he agreed, and they started for the door.
Halfway there, Mac stopped. “Capac!” The navigator jumped at the call. “You’re still going to pay,” she told him and left.
“She’s spicy,” Peron stated.
“What was that about?” Ferguson asked Bugalu. “She won the hand, and it was like a switch suddenly reversed inside her.”
“Relief,” he answered briefly. She didn’t think she was going to get out of here without things getting nasty. I wasn’t too sure of it, either. “Suddenly, I don’t feel like poker. Think I’ll hit the hot tub.”
“I’m going to call it a night,” Ferguson decided.
“I got things to do.” Tall Bear stood, and they left, each going his own way once outside.