There is no talking as we come together; our coupling is hurried and desperate, our need too great.
Our first time always is. It’s as if we need to take the edge off of rediscovery and only then can we relax, and talk, and enjoy each other.
There’s something different tonight, though. I look into his eyes, and I breathe his breath, and I see and feel and smell his need, and I know he can see and feel and smell mine … but there’s something else. I can’t put my finger on it. There’s something in the air, a sort of energy crackling in the space between us. Once, twice isn’t enough to take the edge off. It’s almost … animal. Demanding. Like we’re punishing each other, but not.
And it’s so, so good. It’s exactly what I need.
Afterwards, we fall asleep in each other’s arms, utterly sated, completely exhausted. And I sleep better than I think I’ve ever slept in my life. I don’t need any dreams, just blissful dark warmth that curls around me, enveloping me like a cocoon.
It’s so peaceful here. When I’m here, nothing else seems real.
I wake first, as always, and as always his arm tightens around me, tries to keep me with him.
I get up anyway, and search for my clothing.
I know he is awake as I leave because I feel the heat of his gaze following my every move. He knows that I know, because I refuse to look at him, and he’s waiting for me to look up, to explain why I’m pushing him away like this.
I can’t talk to him, not now. Something has changed, something I thought was impossible, and I need to think.
It’s difficult to explain the role Max and I play in each other’s lives. I’ve only really seen him in person a dozen or so times in the past few years, and it was almost always for some official function that required my presence as an Ambassador and/or Court Advisor.
But we get around that with the dreams. It’s not unusual for me to drag myself back from a late night perimeter patrol only to find him waiting for me when I throw myself down on my bedroll. When I feel his presence hovering around me and reaching out for me, all I have to do is close my eyes and let my breathing even out and then we’re together for a brief eternity where nothing else matters.
Until reality jerks me out of it, anyway. Until my body remembers that we’re a world apart and betrays my mind. At times I truly loathe the sound of morning reveille.
We learned early on not to waste this time trying to further a relationship. The dream thing is just an outlet, no more. Once or twice I’ve used our link to pass along sensitive information, but by and large we leave work out of it. We can’t function at each other’s sides right now, not the way our best friends do; we don’t mesh well on practical ground. So in our dreams, it’s not king and soldier, not Zan and Parker, it’s Max and Liz.
Just Max and Liz. Because we’re the only ones who can bring each other peace, even when we’re at odds, even when I disagree with Royal bureaucracy or when he’s tired and frustrated about having a soldier for a … well, whatever I am to him.
I’m not a wife, because we never married.
Not that there was any real objection to it. Tess's legacy was a re-thinking of arranged marriages, and decades of war have knocked a lot of the purist conventionalism out of the Antarian ruling classes. They’ll accept an Earthling of no discernable political value for consort if it helps their King save their people. But I can’t be a field soldier and royalty at the same time, and I’m not ready to give up my chosen life.
Outside the palace walls it’s actually a commonly held belief that the day Max and I marry is the day Antar will finally know peace. It’s practically reached folklorian proportions, and there's a lot of speculation about how and when it will happen. But as embarrassing as it gets, it’s something I will never openly deny. If it gives the people around me something to believe in, another reason to work towards victory, then I can handle the discomfort. Besides, most of the time I'm out in the field and I can forget all about politics and social expectations.
But now I have to talk to Max about something important, because I just learned something about myself. And later I’ll have to talk to Michael, because something really has changed. Something that changes everything.
Something in me. Damn Antarian powers. It’s hard to be so self-aware at times.
And god, but it would have been nice if Kyle was here. Maybe he could have warned me ahead of time.
“You wanted to see me?”
His voice is low, sardonic, revealing more hurt than I expected. I turn to see him at the door, leaning against the frame as though he needs the support.
I nod and gesture to the space on the bed next to me. My quarters are not particularly large or comfortable, but I took this suite because it was situated for easy and discreet access to the nearby diplomatic facilities.
Max sits next to me, and we take a moment to study each other. Dreams and last night aside, I feel like we’ve been apart for eons, and I want to drink in the sight of him, memorize him, to be one with him again.
I can see the strain in his eyes; he wants it too. Under ordinary circumstances, we would have been naked seconds after the door locked. But these are not ordinary circumstances, and we need to talk.
Max might be sending me to my death in a matter of weeks, and he knows it. But he doesn’t know the worst of it.
I take a deep breath. “I think it’s time to talk about succession.”
His eyes widen as his mind processes my words. “You’re ready to be a family?” he blurts out, forgetting everything that’s happened, everything we’ve said, in one shining moment.
Part of me wants to cry at the way he brightens at the thought. He’s practically glowing at the thought of being together and raising children together and growing old together.
But I don’t cry anymore. I shake my head and a part of me dies along with the light in his eyes. “Not quite. It’s just … this mission. We need to make some arrangements.”
He doesn’t respond. Maybe he can’t.
“Max, I –”
“Don’t go.” He says it quietly, and all I can do is gape at him.
“What?” I’m too shocked to be angry; that'll come later.
“Don’t go. I’ll tell Michael to call it off. We’ll find another way.”
“No.” I don’t bother repeating all the reasons why. He knows them.
“Then what do we have to talk about?” he asks dully. “You’re so determined to go off and get yourself killed. Why bother making any plans at all if you’re never coming back?”
Ouch. I stare at him for a moment, then get up and sit down next to him. He doesn’t push me away, but he doesn’t move any closer either. “Max, that’s not fair. I don’t have a death wish. I just … this is something I’m uniquely suited for. Just like you’re the only one who can do what you do.”
I’m trying to be diplomatic. The truth is, I’m just not the person he thinks I am anymore, but I’m selfish enough to want my illusions and weak enough to let him hold on to his. And I do love him, I’m sure of it. I just can’t deny who I am, or be who he wants me to be. Maybe some day I can, but not yet.
He still won’t look at me, and it’s at times like this that I see the scared boy inside the capable king. “But the difference is, you don’t have to do it,” he points out.
“Well, neither do you.” I’m lying, but he needs to understand why on his own.
He looks at me, astonished, and I can see the words rising, see the arguments forming in his head, all the reasons proving exactly why that isn’t true. But then he closes his mouth, and I know he gets the point I was trying to make.
We are what we are, and there’s no fighting it.
“You’re a king, you’re the king, and you always will be. I might be a consort someday –”
“Queen,” he interrupts, although we both know that’s not entirely accurate.
“Maybe,” I concede, “someday. Right now, I’m a soldier. Just a soldier, but I do have a lot of people counting on me, and I’m not going to abandon them.”
He sighs, because we really didn’t need to have this argument. He knew from the beginning how it was going to turn out. But I guess he needed to try.
“So what are you talking about then? Isabel isn’t anywhere near ready to consider settling down, so she won’t be having children anytime soon.”
“Maybe not. But I’ve been thinking about this, a lot. And I’ve come to a conclusion: I want to have your child.”
Something in my voice must have alerted him, because he looks at me. Sharply. “I want that too.”
“So here’s what I propose, and bear with me because it’s a two-part question, okay?”
He nods, ambivalent but curious.
“Have you considered having someone else as Queen, to have your heir?”
He reacts with vehement suddenness, leaping off the bed so he’s standing before me, shaking with intensity. All he has to do is look at me, and I feel the hurt rolling off of him in waves. But I'm not surprised; after everything we’ve been through, it's not likely that either of us could or would settle for anything less than what we have with each other.
Oh god, it’s all I can do to keep going when he looks at me like this. It’s so much easier when the enemy is something you can just destroy and forget. I feel like I’m the enemy here, like I’ve betrayed myself somehow. And I can’t just shoot first and ask questions later.
I fight to keep my voice steady. “Okay, then. Here’s my plan: let’s have a child. Now.”
“Don’t play with me,” he hisses furiously, still upset. “You know damn well you’re not going to marry me until you retire.”
“I know.” I let that sink in. “What I’m suggesting is that we have the child now, privately, and then no matter what happens, you have an heir.” And like that I dismiss Tess and her child by Max. Because I can. “No one will care whether our child was born to married parents or not, as long as he or she is raised by the royal family, and not by the enemy. It might even give our side another reason to rally if things get desperate.”
I’m distracted for a moment by the strategic potential of the situation before I remember that this is a child I was talking about. Our child. A little disturbed but unwilling to dwell on this, on what it says about me, I continue. “And – and if something happens to me out … out there … I’ll know I’ve been able to do this for you. With you.”
I don’t think I’ve spoken this gently, this meaningfully, in a long time. It’s hard to push the words past my lips; they feel awkward and ungainly. But I do mean them. I want to do this for him, for us.
“You’d have a child, even though you won’t be here to raise it?”
“But you would be here. And maybe it’s selfish, but I can’t think of anything I want more than to see you as a loving, doting father before I leave. Just imagine what incentive that would be for me to come back as often as possible, just to make sure you don’t spoil her,” I joke.
“Her?” He echoes, and I can practically see the words in his mind. A daughter.
“Or a son.” In a way I do mean it. I do look forward to the day I can put down my weapons and enjoy the peace I helped create. And to make a safe home for a child, my child, our child … out of nowhere the image of a child’s toy in a boy’s hand flashes before my eyes, and I’m more certain than ever that I’m doing the right thing. My child will never have to face that kind of horror, not if I have anything to say about it.
Max is studying me, trying to read me. “You mean it, don’t you?” he asks, wonderingly. “And you think this is really the right way to do this?”
“Maybe not the right way, but would it be such a bad way, all things considered?”
He breathes out slowly and finally, takes my hand. “No. Not … not under the circumstances. I’d like to have something around here that’s a part of you when you’re gone.”
Again, his words are blunt and they hurt, more than I’d expected. I think they’re supposed to. But at the same time, I can’t deny that I’m happy to hear them. They’re the only reason I’m still here and not running away as fast as I can, away from this and toward the kind of mission I know how to deal with.
“Good. Because … Max?” I say, wanting to look him in the eyes as I say this. I pull his hand over and place it on my still-flat belly. His eyes widen in shock when it begins to glow.
I gasp as our connection flares up between us then, stronger than ever before.
Michael is livid.
“How could you? How could you agree to this mission when you knew?” he roars at me, at us, and I think I'm the only person in the room not wincing in pain.
Well, I can take Michael Guerin at his pissiest any day of the week. Besides, I know he’s just feeling guilty. It’s one thing to send a hardened career soldier on a suicide mission, it’s another to send a mother.
“I wasn’t pregnant then. But it doesn’t change anything. We can go ahead as scheduled.”
Maria finally speaks up then, shocked. “What do you mean? You aren’t serious?”
I nod. “I’ll have the child here. Based on what the doctors have figured out, hybrid/human children should gestate for a little longer than the one month expected for pure hybrids.” My nose wrinkles at such a ridiculously inaccurate term, but I get over it. “Which means he or she will be born at least a couple weeks before my leave is over anyway.”
“It seems a little too coincidental to me,” Michael snipes balefully. “It just happened, did it? Like that? I bet you planned it.”
Okay, now I’m angry. Slowly, very slowly, I push my chair back from the table and stand up so that for once I’m looking down at everyone.
“I’ll say this once more, and in small words so everyone can understand.” I enunciate the words with clipped precision, glaring at Michael so it’s obvious just whom I’m referring to. “This was not planned. Your own doctors told us Antarians don’t get pregnant by accident, remember? But it happened. I’m pregnant. Because like idiots, we forgot the human part of the equation.”
I stop for a moment to consider that, because really, it is sort of interesting from a scientific perspective. But again I shake it off and dismiss that line of thought with a wave of my hand. This is neither the time nor the place.
“None of it matters now. It doesn’t change a damned thing. There’s still a war going on, a war that the people in this room are supposed to be leading. That’s our priority right now.” It hurts me to say it, but it’s true.
“I don’t understand,” Isabel breaks in, plainly upset. “It – it doesn’t seem right. Shouldn’t we be planning a wedding at least?” She looks around, her expression vaguely hopeful.
Sitting down, I try to explain. “The window of opportunity is too narrow, Iz. People are already moving into place. And things can’t go ahead as planned if I have too much security and planners and Max around me. Not to mention, they want a military officer, not a royal figurehead. As consort –”
“Queen,” Max insists quietly. It’s the first time he’s spoken since we sat down; he knows this meeting isn’t for or about him.
I smile. I won’t deny it feels nice to be wanted, and I’m relieved that he’s being so supportive. If he wanted, he could make this very hard for me.
“As Queen I wouldn’t be privy to the kind of military information they want,” I finish logically. “Plus, even Khivar wouldn’t be so stupid as to kidnap a queen who’s just had a baby. The political backlash would be incredible. No, we have to let everything go ahead as planned.”
“But what about your baby?” Maria persisted. “Don’t you want to be here? Be a mother?”
“Of course I do. I just … Maria, I don’t want my child to grow up knowing only war. And if everything goes as planned, we can end this really soon, years before anyone thought it’d be possible. And then maybe none of our children will have to live this way.”
There’s silence, and now Maria won’t look me in the eyes. For one thing, she knows I’m telling the truth because she’d know if I wasn’t. That’s her gift. But just as importantly, she knows I’ve caught her. I know, and now everyone knows, that the first thought that crossed her mind when she heard my news was of having her own children some day.
But I won’t let this to turn into some sob fest. Then we’d never get out of here. “Michael, back me up here.”
Everyone turns to Michael then, watching the emotions flit across his face with interest.
“She’s right,” he finally agrees, working his jaw as if the words are painful to get out. “We may never get another chance like this, to end the war once and for all.” His voice betrays none of the guilt I know he is feeling. He might hate himself for letting me go, but he’d never forgive himself if we lose the war because he stops me. Hell, I wouldn’t let him.
“Something’s not right here,” Maria says suddenly, looking back and forth from me to Max to Michael. “There’s no way – no way – you two would let her do this, unless there’s something else. Michael, what aren’t you telling us?”
I’m glad she was the one who asked. I’ve been wondering about that myself, and of everyone in this room, she’s the only one he can’t and wouldn’t lie to, not to her face.
“Max?” she pushes when Michael doesn’t speak. “What is it he doesn’t want to tell us?”
Max looks at me, then at her. “Things aren’t going as well as everyone thinks,” he says finally.
“What things?” I encourage him, quietly. He looks at me then, understanding that I know something but not what. He’s probably wondering just how much I learned during that flash.
“A lot of things,” he prevaricates, but then sighs and keeps going. “Antar’s been fighting this war for a long time, and resources are running out. We’re losing too many people and too much ground and … and we’re losing more battles than we’re winning.”
“I’ve heard rumors,” I say, softly. “Word in the field is that Khivar’s intelligence is too good. He knows where we’re going to strike and when, and where our defenses are shaky and how to get past them.”
Max and Michael look at each other than at me. They’re shocked.
“What, you thought that by playing up the wins and keeping the forces diversified and on the move, that no one would notice?”
Max reddens slightly but Michael just looks belligerent. “So what would you have done – Lieutenant?”
I lean forward, interested to see what could have him so upset that he’d resort to pulling rank to try and shut me up. But as I study his face, I can see the telltale signs of sleepless nights and too many stimulants.
I relent. “Exactly what you’re doing, probably.” I don’t miss the surprised looks that go around the table then although I don’t really understand them.
“It’s still a good plan, Michael,” I say, and everyone knows I’m not just speaking to him. “Let’s give it a chance to work. I want to. Hell, I want to end this war so badly I can taste it. If there’s even a chance …” My voice trails off, sounding a little more wistful than I expected.
“Just promise me you’ll come back,” Max says suddenly.
I shake my head. I can’t promise that.
“Promise me,” he says, gently, like he’s forgotten there’s anyone one else here.
I sigh. “I promise.”
No one says anything for a long time after that. I try not to fidget, but silence unnerves me these days.
“Then it’s settled,” I say, relieved. No going back now. No more debate. We can just get to it.
I look around, suddenly wishing everyone would lighten up. Just for a minute, I’d like to spend some time with my friends and not mope about things we have no control over. I mean, I just told them I’m having a baby, and a tiny part of me that I didn’t even know existed is irrationally disappointed that no one congratulated me.
“Uh, you guys?”
They look at me.
“So is there a manual for this somewhere? They didn’t cover baby-making in training.”
They all look at me as if I’ve lost my mind.
I laugh lamely. “Gotcha.” No one else laughs, but I just can’t help it, I just start giggling. I know it’s not funny, really I do.
It must be the hormones kicking in. It’s the only reason I can think of to explain why suddenly, with no warning, I’m sitting here laughing and bawling my stupid head off.
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