I taste the flood of tears before I feel them, the salt of our grief mingling as I learn why I suffered through session after session of brutal interrogation alone, my mind steadily eroding before the onslaught of Khivar's mind and will.
It only took one carefully placed, opportunistic traitor.
"I'm so sorry," I sob, not really knowing what I was apologizing for except that no one should have to go through the depths of pain and guilt Max and the others did. He'd wanted to die when he realized I was up there somewhere, facing Khivar on my own. Only the knowledge that I was still up there and needing his help kept him going, kept pushing him past his own need for sustenance or sleep.
He shakes his head, denying my apology. "They told me we'd need physical contact to re-establish our connection," he tells me, eyes haunted. He breaks down in tears, and it takes a moment before he can speak again, his low, deep voice shaking with emotion. "I will never leave you again."
He kisses me, hard, and I get a flash of one of my own memories from him, letting me know he's seeing what I went through too.
"No," I tell him, "I'll never leave you again."
I kiss him back, hungrily, wanting more. Needing more.
// "What do you want?" he screams, as the knocking on his door continues.
Michael opens the door and makes his way over and around the path of destroyed furniture that stands testament to Max's grief and fury.
"I thought you'd want to read these," he says, the tightness around his jaw belying his seemingly calm state.
"Fine. Now go away."
"Do you want to know what they say?"
Max feels impotent rage building. "No."
"Good, I'll tell you," Michael continues, as though he hadn't heard.
"Antar has mobilized itself overnight. There are reports of uprisings against Trejantisian forces everywhere in the quadrant. Billions of citizens are working with the military, side by side, and in the past three days they've retaken more ground, destroyed more enemy strongholds, than the Alliance has in a year."
Max looks up in surprise to see his normally stoic second in command choking back tears.
"Look at this, damn it," Michael yells, throwing something at him.
Max catches it reflexively, eyes widening as he realizes the import of what he held in his hands. It's the Antarian equivalent to a flag. He's seen thousands like it before, usually adorned with an artistically enhanced image of his own face - or Isabel's, or Michael's, or in the beginning, Tess's. This one features a stylized representation of Liz's profile, and above it, an ancient symbol that Max recognizes immediately, one he'd hoped but never truly expected to see fly over Antarian soil.
"They're fighting for their queen," Michael says, softly now, aware of the significance of their actions, of his words. He walks back to the door and pauses.
"Can we do any less?"//
"I .. I "
I can't speak, I just hold onto Max as hard as I can. I think my heart might burst. For the first time, here in his arms and mind and soul, I really do feel like a queen.
"They won the war?"
"They won the war for you," my king affirms, his eyes worshipful.
I shake my head. "No, they won it for you. Because you let them see what I see in you."
Max's smile lights up his entire face, sending warm tingles through me. "But what they saw in me was you."
I have to laugh at his logic. "I love you," I tell him, needing to say the words.
His smile trembles slightly as his eyes moisten with emotion. "I have always loved you. And I always will."
I shake my head, giddy with joy. "You just have to have the last word, don't you?"
He rolls us over to pin me down under him. And just before he engages my lips again in a soul-searing, mind-blowing kiss, I hear him say:
// "Yes! We have a hit. Two, actually."
Max eyes the files Michael threw down in front of him with controlled excitement. "Two?"
"I've already got two ships waiting. I figure we split up, cover more ground. First one to find her contacts the other, we meet part way."
Max is already opening the door. "Let's g -"
He steps back as two figures tumble through the entrance to land at his feet.
"Not without us," Maria says firmly, jumping up to stand by Michael.
Max shakes his head at Isabel, who somehow manages to rise with dignity. "No. It's not safe -"
"She said, not without us, Max."
He wants to smile as he takes in her appearance. The princess was decked out in a delicately tailored flight suit, her hair fastened back in a severe yet fashionable knot that screamed functionality. Definitely serious, then.
When he doesn't speak right away, Maria jumps back in. "She's our friend too, Max."
"Sister." Isabel corrects her in an even tone. "And I'll blast anyone who says otherwise. Even you."
Max doesn't even try to hide his smile when she raises her hand and cocks her head, as if to aim.
"Okay. Let's go."//
I gasp, an expression of pleasure but also mirth.
Max grunts, but it sounds like laughter.
"Yeah - " pant " - she did. Now - " pant " - can we not talk about my sister right now?"
I have to laugh at his peevish tone.
"Sorry. Here let me make it up to you."
A beat of silence.
He peers down at the readouts in front of him, frowning, fighting to hold back the panic.
There was supposed to be a hidden enemy base here, damn it. What if their intelligence was wrong? What if they'd been sent on some wild goose chase to get them out of the way while something else went down?
When he looks up, his scowl drops instantly as he takes in his visitor's eager expression. "They found her?"
The Antarian captain nods, proud and thrilled to be the bearer of glad tidings. "We can be there in seven days."
He jumps up, knocking piles of charts and notes off the table in his hurry. Not caring. "Let's try for six."
"We're already underway, sir."//
I sniffle a little; I can't help it. He'd felt such hope yet didn't dare to believe in it, because to take it away would kill him. He'd really believed it would. He still does.
I know this, because the soul doesn't lie.
"No," he whispers, capturing my eyes in his deep, hypnotic gaze, eyes black with passion. "It doesn't."
And when he kisses me I know he's seen something else in me, some dark truth.
"What did you see?" I ask, half-dreading his answer.
"Just me?" I'm a little bewildered.
"No," he says, shaking his head. "Not just you. You."
I stare at him wordlessly. What am I supposed to say to that?
"Nothing. Don't say anything."
So I don't.
I don't use any words at all.
Here, with him, none are necessary.
Later, we lay in the bed, not touching, just watching each other.
"Does it hurt?" He asks.
He taps me on the nose, and I duck my head self-consciously. I forgot that I hadn't completely healed yet. I'd gotten used to living with the pain.
"A little," I admit. Then, knowing he needs more of an explanation, "I'm having a little trouble being around doctor types right now."
His entire body tenses. "Can I ?"
Suddenly my mouth is dry and my stomach unsettled, but I nod. I can see how much he needs to do this.
I keep my eyes open as he runs a finger along every scar on my body, lays his palm lightly over every bruise and ache minor enough that the doctors couldn't persuade me to accept healing for them. A soft, tingling warmth follows his touch, and I bite my lip, hard, to keep from moaning in pleasure.
"Stop that," he chides me, trying not to smile as he runs a gentle finger along my bottom lip. "You're just giving me more to do."
"Maybe that's the idea," I counter, and he laughs.
God, I love that sound.
Still smiling, he finishes, and I take his hand in mine, kissing it and then holding it between us.
Suddenly he looks at me seriously. "Did you mean what you said to Ander?"
I'm a little amazed at how smoothly the name rolls off his tongue. But I'm feeling too good to let any of those old insecurities resurface. "Sure." Then, "What did I say again?"
He chuckles, and I glory in the velvety sound of it.
"That when," and I catch the emphasis on the 'when', "you marry me he can come live with us."
He holds his breath until I nod. "I like him. He's a good kid," I say, diplomatically omitting the part about 'despite who his mother is'.
"And I think he knows a little too much about - about what I went through - from a first-hand experience." I can't stop the tears from coming now. "He's going to need help. Jesus, Max," I scoot forward and lay my head on his chest, needing contact, craving his warmth, "he's just a kid. How could anyone do that to a kid?"
Max's comforting arms surround me and I feel him tuck me closer, feel his heart beat faster in anguish. For his son and for me.
"Thank you," he says, almost inaudibly. Then, almost as quietly, "What about the other part?"
I search my mind, drawing a blank. "What other part?"
He laughs softly, and it's good to hear even though I know from his breathing that he's still crying. "You mean, you weren't even going to ask me? I think I'm feeling a little taken for granted."
I can tell from his tone that he's joking. "Max, what are you talking about?" His arms loosen and I pull back, wanting to see his face.
He just looks at me with this strange light in his eyes, and suddenly I get it.
"Oh, right." I wait a beat to clear my throat. "Max Evans, will you marry me?"
He pauses as if to consider the offer. I smack him lightly on the arm, and then melt at the look in his eyes.
"Yes, Liz Parker, I will."
I grin delightedly. If I'd known how good this felt, I would've done it years ago.
But I've done it, finally, and it does feel good. Right now, there's only one other thing to take care of, and then I'd like to sleep in my fiancé's arms for a long, long time.
"Tell me about our daughter."
Our connection is smooth, a balm on my soul.
I'm reminded of one of those "Baby's First" albums my mother used to give people for gifts, those books where everything from the baby's first pictures are lovingly maintained next to anecdotes about the baby's first words and steps and so on.
I think Max has been waiting for me to ask, because he doesn't even have to think about what he wants to show me.
Every memory he has of feeding our daughter, of changing and dressing and holding and singing to her, he gives to me. He lingers on the few but intense memories he has of watching me with her, showing me how the sight affected him, and I fall in love with him all over again.
In the early days, when Max was torn between spending time with me before my mission and watching over her, the others took their role as godparents very seriously.
They watched her in shifts, unwilling to leave her entirely in the care of nannies.
Maria sang to her every evening, and through Max I know that she got the idea to compile an archive of Earth and Antarian traditional lullabies. She also, I'm touched to know, spent a great deal of time playing recordings of me for the baby and telling her stories about our childhood.
Michael was busy with the war, of course, but he came by every night. Max liked to listen at the door when Michael was there, because Michael cooed and baby-talked with the best of them when he thought there was no one around to hear. And, after swearing the staff to silence, he even learned how to change diapers - using his powers, of course - so that he could dismiss them and be alone with her.
Isabel watched her every day. The princess had designed the nursery to very exact specifications for optimal safety, resource allocation, and light usage, picking colors soothing to both Human and Antarian eyes and furniture to accommodate visitors and staff of all sizes and species. Max was deeply grateful, but also fascinated by the way his sister held the baby. Together, they marveled at the wonder of her very existence.
Only the immense protective streak they all felt convinced them to leave her behind to come look for me, and I suspect that Max wasn't the only checking in regularly for reports on her well-being.
Princess Kyla, I am pleased to learn, is a deeply loved child.
"Kyla? For Kyle," I muse, letting the name roll over my tongue.
Max rolls his eyes. "I don't know how you talked me into it," he teases, as if still plagued by the insecurities of youth. "As it is, the council still believes her name is Antarian."
"Really? Does it mean something in Antarian?"
"Well, duh," he teases, "you named her." Suddenly his smile fades as he takes in my expression. "Liz you don't remember do you."
It's not a question. I break eye contact, more than a little ashamed.
He pulls my chin up so I'm looking straight in his eyes. "In Antarian," he says, pronouncing the words slowly and deliberately, "Kei L'ha is an ancient phrase meaning 'promise of unity'. That is her common name. Her formal name, the one she will take on upon reaching adulthood, is Oren d'Zan. Oren after the founder of the current ruling dynasty, a queen that united Antar thousands of years ago, and d'Zan, because she's a princess. When she becomes queen she'll drop the last bit and just be Oren."
We're both silent for a moment.
"Oren means 'tree' in Hebrew, I think" I say suddenly. "Grandma Claudia told me that once and I remember thinking it would make a pretty name."
Max nods. "That's what you said."
I think about for a minute. "Oren d'Zan, huh? I can live with that."
He cocks an eyebrow. "I'm ever so glad," he drawls sarcastically.
Suddenly I start giggling, because I just remembered something else. "Right, I'd forgotten that Vilandra was really Vilan d'Ra," I say, trying to imitate an Antarian accent, "and you were Zan d'Ra!"
Max winces. "Yeah, well, if Michael calls me 'Sandra' one more time, I may have to hurt him."
I laugh. He grins, evidently willing to sacrifice a little dignity to regain the good mood.
"Hey, Ra was a lovely name for a queen, and you should be proud to be named after your mother," I tell him loyally. "Just like Kyla will be proud to be named after you and Kyle, and Ander will be proud to be named for - for Alex."
Max watches me carefully, trying to gauge how I'm taking all of this.
"Don't worry," I tell him. "I'm fine. In fact, I feel better than I have in a long time."
I take a moment to snuggle in as close as I can to his comforting warmth.
"I think everything'll be better now."
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