After closing down com, I turn to face Olan fully, one eyebrow raised in mock anger.
He doesn't respond, and somewhere inside I feel like I've lost something. He's not looking at me like we're friends and equals, he's looking at me like everyone at the palace does, like he's waiting for me to - to issue some kind of royal order, or something.
I sigh. "Come on, everyone, pack your bags. If I know Michael, he'll bring pilots to take care of this crate so he can debrief us over there."
I pause, and look towards Tess. "Take Ander and Kyle to one of the cabins and wait there. Someone will come for you soon."
I feel a twinge of something as she nods and leaves the bridge, Kyle in tow, but there's nothing I can do about any of them or their situation right now. Taking a deep breath, I get up from my chair, a little shakily. I guess the tension and the beating the ship took didn't help my injuries any.
Immediately Olan is at my side, helping me. I can't help the flare of irritation I feel at the touch of his hand. I shake him off, a little angrily. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" I hiss like the field soldier I was trained to be, and he backs away, shrugging.
And still silent. Damn it, I think I hurt his feelings. I stare disbelievingly at the guy I've traded dirty stories with to make it through some long night watches, the guy I used to exchange ribald insults with during the occasional party on leave. I swear he was never this sensitive before. Drav's the sensitive one, Drav is -
Drav was the one who told us to knock it off when things got too heated. And now Drav is gone, and it must seem like he doesn't have me, the 'me' he knows, either.
"Just don't start that shit with me, okay?" My unusually gentle tone belies the harshness of my words. It's not the apology he deserves, but I'm scared that if he tries to take care of me, I'll let him. This isn't over yet. I still have to stay strong, to see it through.
He just nods and falls in behind me.
Michael flinches when he sees me.
"The medbay took care of the worst of it," I tell him. "Forget about it. We have more important things to talk about."
Nodding, he takes a moment to greet Olan, thanking him sincerely for his and his brother's invaluable service to the Alliance, and follows me back to one of the empty cabins.
"Did Khivar do that to you?" he asks immediately. "And worse?"
I wave it off. "But -"
"I'll kill him," he growls, and I know it's a gut reaction. He's not thinking.
"You're too late," I remind him impatiently, and then I decide to let him in on the real story why. "And I wasn't the one to do it. Tess beat us both to it. Did I mention that she's one of the three surprises? Her, her son, and Kyle."
Michael stands there blinking for a full minute.
"Tess is here?"
"Tess killed Khivar?"
I nod again.
"Max's son is here?"
Nod, nod, nod.
I start to nod, then frown instead. "He's not himself."
"What do you mean?"
"Khivar messed with his mind. His memory is shot."
"Holy shit," Michael says blankly, and sinks into a seat, struggling to take it all in.
"Yeah," I nod. Again.
I wince as Maria squeezes me for all she's worth. Maybe my ribs aren't quite ready for reunions yet.
"Watch it," Michael cautions, and if it wasn't taking all my energy to stay calm and, well, not scream or otherwise react violently to the unexpected body contact, I'd laugh at his protective tone. "Take it easy on her until the docs check her over, will 'ya?"
Michael knows me too well. Or maybe one of his psych guys clued him in that after everything I've been through, I wouldn't take well to being ambushed by a team of medical staff, well-meaning or otherwise. I told him I'd make it to the medbay just fine on my own, and he didn't argue. But I hadn't counted on Maria being on board.
Thankfully, she backs off. But she doesn't let go, trapping me at the elbows to get a good look at me. I don't say anything as she takes in the still-healing evidence of mistreatment, the sweat beading on my forehead, and the way I'm breathing a little raggedly.
Inwardly, it occurs to me that this is not the right reaction to the situation.
But Maria doesn't give me any time to think about it. "Come on," she says firmly, tugging me by hand, presumably taking me to 'the docs'. "Michael wouldn't let me come to the transport to get you," she complains on the way.
"Why are you here?"
I wince again. Fuck, Parker, your oldest and dearest friend risks her life - and, knowing Michael, their relationship - to come into a battle zone to save you, and those are the first words you say to her?
"I mean," I add quickly, "how did you end up on this ship? You're not military now, are you?" My head feels like it's spinning, and it's making it hard to think clearly.
Her expression clears, to my relief, but she doesn't really answer my question.
"Things have changed," she says, simply.
"What do you mean?"
"Ask Max," was all she would say, and suddenly I'm afraid to ask why he isn't here for me to ask. And why is part of me relieved?
But we've finally reached medbay, and everything else fades in importance.
It takes every ounce of self-control I have to force myself into the room, but I do. Inside, the medics are waiting, tools and instruments at the ready. The sight of them makes my mouth go dry and my knees weak.
And, irrationally, angry. "No drugs, needles, restraints, or sudden moves," I tell them harshly, and dimly I'm aware of Maria's shocked look as I drop her hand and step forward, head high and expression hard.
They just nod, and wait for me to come to them.
"So why are you here?" I ask Michael later, as we're sitting down to a meal. "Not that I'm complaining, but it's a little too convenient to be coincidence."
I'm speaking quietly, and I don't think anyone but Maria and Kyle can hear us. Olan is chatting quietly with some of Michael's officers, and Tess is in the brig, pending a formal hearing. Her son is in their quarters, under supervision.
When Michael told me that formal debriefing could wait until we were closer to Antarian space, I could've kissed him. I didn't, of course. But I definitely welcomed the reprieve.
I'd thought about staying in my rooms for the evening, maybe taking a few more gloriously refreshing showers because officer quarters are equipped with real ones, not just sonic baths. Then the silence started to get to me, and I escaped to the comforting noise of the mess deck for the Antarian equivalent of dinner.
Michael pauses with something resembling a fork halfway to his mouth. He cocks an eyebrow as he grins at me. "The trackers picked up your message."
"That was fast. Hell, I was counting on a traitor that I wasn't even sure existed. But you're saying it got through? And," I add, doing some quick calculations, "almost immediately? Wow."
He nods. "Well, we'd already had our eye on him. The guy on the dock, I mean. We've been monitoring his transmissions as a matter of routine."
I don't say anything, just look at him. Does he mean
"Yes, we knew the transport's course had been altered while still in dock," he admits. "But it seemed to work even better than our original plan, so we let it go through."
"What original plan?"
He stops and peers at me. I realize I've said something wrong.
"You don't remember?" His voice is neutral. "I thought the triggers were activated."
I shrug, getting a sinking feeling deep in the pit of my stomach. "I guess I forgot."
He's quiet for a moment. "The original plan was to have some kind of accident, leaving the transport drifting helpless and SOS-ing in Trejantisian territory."
"Good plan," I comment.
"You came up with it."
"Oh, right." I don't think I sound convincing.
"Listen, when we get back, you're going straight to the hospital."
"But I'm fine. Ask your own medics, I'm already mostly healed -"
"That's not what I'm talking about."
We don't speak for a while.
Then something occurs to me, something clicks, a hope so painfully fragile that part of me doesn't want to risk destroying it.
But soon I can't take it any more, so I make sure no one - meaning Maria - is listening in, and lean over. "What else did I forget? Michael - " I bite my lip, because I don't know what I'll do if his answer isn't what I want to hear. "Do I have any children?"
Slowly, very slowly, Michael meets my eyes. He's shocked and a little scared. But he nods. "A girl."
And something inside me twists. Painfully.
So I do have a daughter. I wonder if she has red hair and elfin eyes.
"We rendezvous with Max and Isabel in a week," he says suddenly.
I've avoided talking about them - about him - since I got here. I don't know why, but the sound of his name scares me.
I nod, staring down at my plate, and then push myself away from the table.
"I guess I'm not as hungry as I thought," I explain quickly, and I feel everyone's eyes on me as I flee.
The headaches begin in earnest that night.
The medics try every test they can think of, but they can't figure out what's wrong. They talk a lot about getting me back to the specialists on Antar.
Michael doesn't speak much, but his face is grim and every now and then I catch flashes of guilt and regret in his expression. He refuses to tell me anything more about my daughter, saying that I need to remember on my own, and I can't bring myself to ask Maria. She probably won't tell me either, and I can't bear the look she gets when I yell at her. So I've been finding reasons to avoid both of them, preferring to spend time alone or with Kyle.
Maybe it's because Tess and Ander are closed away right now, but for some reason he's started coming to visit me a lot, content to watch me do whatever it is I may be doing, happy that I let him speak as much as he wants. And I do, because it seems to quiet the noise in my ears and the light doesn't seem so painfully bright, and he stays with me until he gets restless and leaves.
I don't even care that he spends it telling me stories about the adventures he's had with Tess and Ander, disjointed stories that make little sense because he has trouble remembering things clearly. I just like the sound of his voice.
But he can't stay with me all the time. And when he's gone, I feel the panic creeping in, the growing anxiety that I don't understand but I just want to escape. I don't care how.
Finally, on the fourth night, I sneak into medbay and steal as much anesthetic as I dare.
The cool, soothing darkness of oblivion is such a relief. I never want to leave.
'Liz, wake up.'
'Liz, c'mon, all hell's breaking loose and we need you."
"Hold your horses, Olan. I'm here.'
"Liz! Don't ever shut us out like that again. You're just lucky the doctors told General Rath that maybe this was just what your mind needs to heal. He was he was upset.'
'Okay, okay. Relax, will you? And why are you so faint? I can barely hear you.'
'It's the distance; it makes this harder. Liz?'
'What are horses?'
'Not until you explain about the distance, buddy.'
I'm not in my bed. At least, I'm not in the bed I remember falling asleep in, on Michael's ship. I sit up and look around. I'm in a shuttle, that much is clear, and until now I didn't really believe Olan.
We'd had quite a long conversation in my head, while he explained things and I protested. I mean, why would Tess's son kidnap me? I've met him. I've connected with him psychically. Despite every expectation to the contrary, I have the hardest time believing he has an evil bone in his body - which makes this situation even more incomprehensible. Why would he take my unconscious body hostage? Ugh. It sounds really creepy when I think about it that way.
I take a moment to feel sorry for myself. My head's splitting, my entire body aches, and I'm beyond exhausted. I'm just ready for all the drama to end. Maybe that's why I'm more grumpy than frightened.
"Ander?" It's comes out like more of a croak, and I decide my first order of business is to find some water. Or the Antarian equivalent. Whatever.
There's a small sink in the wall, and the fluid it holds is cool and clear. Ambrosia.
I try to leave but the door seems sealed. I pound on it as hard as I can. It's not very hard. "Ander!"
After a moment the door slides open, and I find myself face-to-face with my latest captor - a boy with Max's face and Tess's eyes. Which are suspiciously bright. Crap; the little would-be thug is going to cry. Have mercy.
Apparently pain doesn't bring out my nurturing side.
"Mind if I grab a seat somewhere? I'm getting really sick of tiny rooms."
He nods, and follows me as I settle into a spacious couch in the 'lounge' area of the small ship. I take a deep breath and slip into hostage-negotiator mode.
"So, Ander, what's going on here?"
I thought it'd be hard to get answers out of him. It's not. Once we get past the empty threats, it's pretty clear: this kid wants to talk.
"Ander, have you ever told your mother about any of this?"
He looks at my, wide-eyed and shocked. I get his point. I mean, if I were him, I wouldn't want to tell his mother and step-guardian or whatever Khivar was that I'd rather be a farmer or a teacher than a warlord, either.
Talk about teenage rebellion.
"So why'd you do all this?" I ask, waving my hand around and trying to ignore the nausea all this talking and motion and light causes me.
He blushes, and I'm reminded unpleasantly of just how much Human DNA runs through his genes. "Yeah, I'm sorry about that," he mumbles, and suddenly I'm hit with a wave of homesickness, because except for his eyes he looks so much like Max.
"Ander, can I ask you something?"
He looks a bit apprehensive, and the weapon he's holding across his lap twitches slightly. "What?"
"Do you know what I am, or why I'm here?"
He blinks, taking in the unexpected change of subject. "Yeah, you're Zan's whore," he says confidently, then falters. "What's a whore?"
I just stare at him for a minute and then start laughing, although it hurts and I end up on my side, cradling my head.
I chuckle once more before getting myself under control. "I've heard what I do called a lot of things, but that's a new one on me. Although," I muse, remembering times when I certainly felt less than honorable in my profession, "maybe it's not as inaccurate as you'd think."
Ander just looks confused.
"I'm a soldier," I tell him, and the expression on his face is priceless. "I'm here, right now, because a few months ago I took some other soldiers and we wiped out some Trejantisian marauders. They'd killed an entire farming settlement on one of Antar's satellites. Not soldiers, farmers. And children. A lot of children, even younger than you."
The boy looks horrified, and I'll admit that I stressed the agrarian and civilian aspect of the community on purpose, to push his buttons.
"During that battle I killed someone important to Khivar. So he came after me. Plus, he thought that I had knowledge - military, maybe royal, I don't know - so he brought me here and mind-raped me. Repeatedly."
I deliberately keep my tone neutral, but when he flinches I know he's had intimate experience with mind-rape, and enjoyed it about as much as I did.
Mental note: talk to Michael. This boy might need therapy or something.
"I've always been a good soldier, Ander. I've taken orders, I've given them, I've done things I'm not proud of because they were for the greater good and I've done other things that I'm very proud of just because they were the right thing to do. But now," I confess, "I'm tired. I'm hurt and I'm sick and I want to go home, but more than anything, I'm tired. Can you understand that?"
He doesn't answer. Okay, change of tactic.
"Ander, you're worried about your mother, right?"
Now he nods.
"And you're probably a little scared about meeting your father."
He doesn't respond, but there's no mistaking the quiver in his chin.
"Well, I'm worried about my daughter. My head is so messed up right now," I say, lifting up one finger to tap myself on the temple, "that I don't even know her name. Or what she looks like. I don't want my daughter to grow up like you did, not knowing both her parents. And right now, you're the only one standing in the way."
I watch him fight back tears and wonder how it is that I've become so callous that I'd use every emotional manipulation trick I was ever taught in hostage training on a kid. But the thing is it's true.
"I'm sorry," he says, miserably.
"Yeah, me too," I sigh. "The question now is, what do you want?" I try not to make it sound too much like bargaining, although of course, that's what I'm setting him up for.
He looks me straight in the eye. "I want to know what's going to happen to my mother and to me."
"Fair enough. I don't know for sure, but I can tell you a little of what to expect and what I can do for you when we get back to Antar," I tell him, as if it's a given that he'll put down his weapon and take us back.
He waits for me to continue.
"Your mother will probably be tried for murder and treason, and you will probably have to live with her legacy. A lot of people died in this war, Ander, and their families will blame Khivar, and by extension, Tess, and even you. It's not necessarily fair, but it's the way things are."
His hands are shaking now, and I know he's afraid.
"Now here's what I'll do for you." I swallow, fighting to keep my expression neutral. "I'll ask that her life be spared. Maybe, after some time, she can be permitted to live normally, maybe under house arrest. There were," I admit grudgingly, "mitigating circumstances."
Again, it's true. From what we were able to piece together afterwards, Tess probably didn't mean to kill Alex, she just had no idea that his mind couldn't handle the stress of such extensive mindwarping. As for the treason part well, she was raised with Nasedo. God only knows where her loyalties were trained to lie. And in the end, she did kill Khivar, which I'll testify to.
Of course, I still hate her. I always will. I want her to die a slow, painful death. But I won't tell her son that.
"You?" I regard him steadily. "You are the son of the king of Antar and his past queen. You are, moreover, a child. If you want "
I swallow. Hard.
"You are Max and Isabel's family, and when I marry Max, you will become part of my family as well. If you want, you are welcome to make a life with us and your sister. And you can be whatever you want. I don't know how they'll decide succession, but if you want to be a farmer or a teacher or anything else, we'll help any way we can."
He looks up abruptly. "Sister?"
I bite my lip to keep from laughing; this isn't the time, our trust is too fragile. But it figures that's what he'd pick up on. He is his father's son, and Max and Isabel have always been devoted to each other. "My daughter," I remind him.
Ander stands in front of me, a study in indecision. Then, "How do I know if I can trust you?"
"You don't." I pause. "Well, I suppose you could scan me, if that's something you're capable of, but I'd really appreciate it if you wouldn't right now. I think my head might actually explode." My lame joke falls flat.
After a moment he steps over to me and holds up a hand. I sigh, and gesture for him to get on with it. Maybe afterwards he'll knock me out again and none of this will matter anyway.
But instead of the rush of images I'm expecting, I feel a lightening of the pressure, a lessening of the pain. It's not all gone, but it's bearable.
I look up at him and smile. Sincerely. "Thank you." Then, taking a chance and hoping I wasn't pushing too hard, "How about making that call to your Uncle Michael now?"
Obediently he turns to go back to the shuttle command area. I don't follow, but I hear him as he contacts the other ship.
"Uncle Mi - I mean, General Rath, we're on our way back. Permission to dock?" His voice reflects none of the fear I know he's struggling with. I can't deny that the kid impresses me. But my reluctant smile is short-lived as I hear the voice that answers his call.
"Come in. We're waiting."
That wasn't Michael.
That was Max.
Max is here.
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