The rest of our trip passes in silence.
Ander may be the one with the weapon, but I'm the one in control here. And I don't feel like talking anymore.
He's still scared, I think, and he has reason to be. But he also seems calmer. Whatever it was he was looking for from me, I think he got it. Hell, maybe some alone time was just what we needed to clear the air between us before life and everyone else got involved.
I have to admit, I think we've crossed some crucial step in our relationship. We will have one, of course. I have no doubt that once Max meets his son, he'll want him with us. There's so much of the father in the son, how could he not? And it's not like Tess is going to have much of a say in the matter; I think I might end up being around Ander a lot more than she will in the foreseeable future.
I can live with that. I told Ander as much when I gave him that little speech.
The funny part is that when I composed it in my head, it sounded a little slick but persuasive. When I spoke it out loud, it rang with unexpected truth. And the truth is, I think I can accept Ander as a part of my life. On some levels I think we've already bonded, and I can't help but believe it's a good thing we did so before meeting up with Max -
Max. Max is here. Max is here.
How long was I out of it anyway? It must have been a couple days at least, if Michael was right about the schedule. No wonder Olan said he was upset, if Max was coming and I was still self-medicated into something approaching a coma.
As the name echoes in my head, I admit to myself just how scared I am. I love him. I love him so much that I don't think love adequately describes the way I feel when I think of him. Knowing him is what got me through the past couple weeks - hell, the last half of my life. And from all accounts, he's the father of my child. I love him even more for that, if it's possible.
But I think I've changed. It's been over two weeks now, two long weeks where we haven't been connected, and I can't feel him and I know he can't feel me. I don't feel like the old Liz anymore, the one who shared her life and a child with him. What if he doesn't love the new Liz? What if he can't love her, the Liz who doesn't even remember the child they had together?
My reunion with Maria had proved to me just how changed I was, just how awkward it was to fall back into old roles. And I've been best friends with her forever. I couldn't bear to feel that awkward around Max, like I don't know what to say or do around him.
And what the hell is wrong with me? Why couldn't I just let them heal my body, my face, completely? Do I want him to see me like this?
Maybe I do. Maybe I want him to look at me and see what I've gone through and -
Oh, god, he is going to look at me. And then he'll know, he'll look at me and be able to see what a monster I am, a mind-invading, manipulative monster.
I mean - I've killed people. A lot of people. On purpose. I'm a killer. Oh my god, I'm a murderer. And the evidence of my guilt is written all over my face.
No wonder I couldn't kill Tess, I identified with her or something.
What's going to happen when he sees her? She seemed like she didn't care about him anymore, but I never exactly asked what her intentions were, did I? I was happy to leave her to Michael, so I could put her out of my mind. Just like before; Max and I never discussed what happened between them, not really, not so I understood it.
What if he sees her and some genetic-level thing pops up where they still want each other? They have a son together. Don't all men want a son to carry on the family or something? What if he'd rather have a son with her than a daughter with me?
Tess was doing what she was taught. Me, I went after this. I chose to be a monster. I chose to leave him. She never tried to drive him away, she always made it clear that she wanted him.
He's going to leave me.
Wait, he's already left me. When I was captured, he was supposed to be in contact with me. From what I remember and what Michael's let slip, that was the basis for the entire fucking plan. Why wasn't he? Where did he go? Was he looking for a reason to cut me loose? Did he hope I would die with the Trejantisians, or at least go so nuts he could have me put away somewhere? So that he didn't have to think about me, worry about me, waste time on me, anymore?
Oh god, my head is spinning. Oh god. Oh god oh god oh god -
I don't think I can do this.
Something jostles my shoulder, and I realize, through the dim haze that seems to have enveloped my senses, that I'm lying on the floor, arms curled protectively around myself.
So much for that illusion of control.
It's Ander. I don't want to answer, but there's a note of fear in his voice that compels me to open my eyes, to see him hovering over me.
"Liz? We're docking. You have to get up. I can't go in there alone. Please, Liz."
He's still calm, remarkably calm. It's a poise built of years of living in uncertain conditions, I know. But his fear is palpable, and his logic unassailable. He can't go back there alone; if I don't stand up for him, he'll be treated as a criminal.
"Liz? Please tell me what's wrong."
"Max is here," I say without thinking, and wince. That didn't come out right.
Suddenly we both hear the quiet whoosh of an airlock opening.
A sudden rush of adrenaline has me on my feet so fast I feel a little dizzy, but amazingly it is Ander who steps in front of me as the door opens, Ander who stands between me and the man who enters when it does.
"Leave her alone," he says, and if I weren't so touched by the protectiveness in his tone and in his stance, I'd be laughing at the expression of utter shock on Max's face.
Still in something of a dream haze, I drink in the sight of him. He looks older than I remember, more gray - no, silver - in his hair. His tailored suit hangs on him, like he's lost too much weight in too short a time. There are dark shadows under his eyes, under his cheekbones, and I know he hasn't been eating or sleeping well. And there's this look on his face, like he can't decide whether to laugh or cry.
Instantly I know my fears are ungrounded. This is Max, my Max, and he would never do any of those things I imagined.
But how would he handle meeting his son?
"Back away," Ander says, low and dangerous, and I know he's holding a weapon defensively. A wave of - some emotion, I don't know what, I'm not thinking clearly enough to know what - washes over me, and I reach out to lay a hand on his shoulder.
"Ander," I say, gently, although I'm still looking at Max, who still hasn't said anything. He's looking at the boy between us in stunned amazement. "It's okay. It's Max."
The boy turns to look at me, and I make a point of looking him in the eyes, trying to let everything I'm feeling show in my face, in my eyes. I don't know if I can do that anymore so I use my newly awakened power to connect with him, to let him feel what I'm feeling, the fear and uncertainty but also the joy and the need to be close again to the man he's holding at bay.
I lean in to whisper in his ear. "He'll be your father, if you let him. He wants to."
Ander's eyes widen and then drop, and I can see him wavering because I really do know how to push his buttons. I know the moment he gives in, because his arms fall limply to his sides, letting the weapon in his hand thud to the ground.
With one foot I push it out of the way and pull him into a hug, all in one motion. It's strange, in a way, to be comforting someone who's tall enough that he has to lean down to rest his head on my shoulder. He's shaking, and I know he's hiding tear-filled eyes against me, terrified at showing weakness before someone he's lived in awe of all his life but unable to stop.
Despite everything, he's just a kid. A powerful kid, but lonely and vulnerable nonetheless.
I look up, and in less than a second there is another set of arms wrapped around us, someone else crying with shuddering release as he takes his cue from me.
The air around us crackles with electric emotion, and for the first time in weeks - in an eternity - I feel I feel
I feel good.
I look up at the sound of approaching footsteps. It's Isabel, and even now, even though I know better than to believe the façade she usually puts on, I'm amazed to see signs of stress on her face.
"Liz?" She slows to an uncertain halt a few feet away from us, clearly loathe to interrupt but unwilling to hold back now that she's here.
Despite some resistance from both Max and Ander, I pull away from the hug and throw myself at Isabel, and we cling to each other for a moment.
Reuniting with Michael and Maria and even Kyle has been wonderful; they really are like family, and in their own way, each understands or has known me on a level no one else in the universe ever will. I love them all. Even Michael, which still surprises me sometimes.
But these three people here - these are family. I may fight with Isabel. I know we've treated each other badly over the years. I may still have issues when it comes to Max; actually, I know I do. And it remains to be seen whether I can forge some kind of enduring relationship with Ander.
But here and now we're family.
Sniffling a little, I raise my head. "Isabel, meet your nephew, Ander."
We turn to where Max and Ander stand, alternately watching us and then eyeing each other, both looking slightly shell-shocked. I suppose we all do.
"Ander, meet your Aunt Isabel."
He doesn't say anything. Maybe he can't.
Isabel smiles, trying to put him at ease. "It's nice to meet you, Ander. Why don't you come with me and we'll get to know each other better?"
In a flash of understanding, I realize that she's trying to give Max and me some privacy. I smile gratefully at her, and encouragingly at Ander, who looks torn.
After a moment he nods, and turns to Max. Neither says anything, but then Max holds out his hand for an Earth-style handshake. A little confused, Ander does the same, visibly startled when Max connects with him physically and, I think, psychically.
Backing away, Ander allows Isabel to lead him down the corridor, obviously reassured by whatever Max conveyed to him through their new bond.
And finally I'm alone with Max.
I have so many questions. But they can wait. Right now I want I want
He must want the same thing. So fast it makes my head spin, he scoops me up in his arms
(oh, these arms, I missed these arms)
and we're moving swiftly down a mysteriously but thankfully empty corridor
(and that smell, I missed that smell)
and a door opens and we're inside and there's a bed.
The universe has shrunk down to this moment, to this room, to the circle of warmth created by our friction and the sparks that fly with every point of bodily contact.
Max gasps. "I - I need -"
I nod, and he uses the opportunity to plunge his head into the hollow of my neck.
I know. We need to connect again, on so many levels. I feel as though I'm seeing him, really seeing him, for the first time in years, not weeks. And maybe I am.
With a wave of his hand we're laid bare before each other, naked for each other, to each other. We roll together, and I use the momentum to push myself against him, and I feel the second the universe explodes because he's so open, he's pulling me in -
//"She's really gone." Max breathes, face slack with comprehension as he sinks into a nearby seat.
Isabel walks over to stand behind him, leaning down to wrap her arms around his neck, placing her cheek on top of his head. It's an obscurely comforting gesture, reminding him of their mother. "You did the right thing."
"Did I? Did I really? What if what if " His voice cracks as he imagines all the things that could happen - that would happen - to her out there.
"She chose this, Max. She chose this life, chose to be with you, chose this mission."
"I don't know. I don't think she felt like she had a choice."
"She did. And she made hers. We have to respect that. And it's not like we're powerless here. You're going to contact her every day, right?"
"Yes." His tone is firm.
"I've been talking to Michael. The doctors tell me that when you take the psychic residue from her mind, that we can share the pain with her the way we did when she was in labor."
He smiles gratefully. "Thanks, Iz."//
"You were all going to share my pain? All of you?" I ask, awed by the depths of the bonds that hold our family together, but also because this is nothing like what Khivar did to me.
Khivar invaded; he forced himself upon and took from me. Max shares himself through the connection, and it makes all the difference.
He nods. "All of us."
His next words are muffled against my lips, but I hear them.
"All of me."
//"Okay, let's do it," Max tells them, leaning back along the medbay bed. He's determined to do this right. Liz's transport disappeared off Antarian scopes a few hours ago, and it's entirely possible that she's already in Khivar's custody. He's eager to contact her and only a little afraid of what he'll find in her mind.
Michael just nods, while Isabel and Maria smile reassuringly down at him.
The doctor steps forward as he prepares the injection that will allow Max's mind to relax, letting him open it wider than he ever had before, to reach across the incredible distances involved. Behind him, a medic prepares the injection that will buffer the tenuous link between the lovers, a link so strong it's formed a distinct chemical trail along certain neurons in Max's hybrid brain.
The scientists had created a substance to protect these neurons, a neurotransmitter of sorts designed to ensure safe and consistent synaptic activity during the connective process. By keeping certain brain chemicals sheathed and appropriately polarized, the doctors explained, they could control the flow and consequences of mental intercourse.
"A brain condom?" an amused Michael had quipped. "Cool."
Max smiles at the memory as he feels the first injection take hold, feels his mind ballooning with heady power as Michael and Isabel enter into the link, bringing Maria with them.
As instructed, he allows his body to relax but keeps his mental focus tight, allowing the power within him to fold in upon itself, banking in preparation for release in an easy, continuous stream that would reach out to Liz without causing further damage to an undoubtedly already battered mind.
The first doctor moves back and a colleague steps in to administer the next infusion.
Max takes a deep breath, waiting for the chill in his head the doctor had told him to expect. It will feel odd, he understands, but is necessary. He must not fight it.
Sudden a beeping noise breaks into the hushed silence.
Max's eyes fly open as he feels not a chill but instead poisonous warmth.
The doctor rushes around, checking readouts and then, ignoring all protocol, forms a connection with his patient in his haste to discover what has gone wrong.
Max doesn't hear the head doctor's report, but he watches through a red haze as Michael grabs the second doctor and shakes him, roaring with anger. The sound of a traitor's spine snapping before the medic's body falls to the floor affords little satisfaction.
"What's happening?" Maria asks repeatedly as Isabel stands helplessly, hand raised defensively in reflex. "What's happening?"
Max can't respond. But he knows exactly what's happening.
He can feel his connection with Liz, the tangible part of his consciousness that comforted him during days and nights and weeks and months spent without her, dissolving. It feels like he's losing a part of himself. Frantically he tries to hold on to it, tries to will it back into being, inadvertently opening his mind wide as he calls for her, for his other half, desperate to feel her touch.
There's no answer.
He tries again, harder, without success.
Later, he would discover that an entire planet heard his anguished cry.
But it doesn't ease the dark silence that tells him she did not.//
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