Night after night, I watch over him as he sleeps.
Sometimes I just want to see what his face looks like at peace. It's soothing, and it helps me to relax myself. Other times, like now, something will jar me awake, a flailing arm or violent tug on the blankets, and I know he's in the throes of another one.
In his mind he struggles with something I can't see, his sweat staining pillow and sheets alike. "Liz ... no ... no, Liz, it's a lie, it's not real ... Liz, no ..."
I wait for it.
He shoots up from his pillows, arms in front of him, shield extended, trying to protect the woman in his dreams from herself.
I ignore the light show, grasping his arm to get his attention. "Max, it's okay. It was just a dream."
His brow furrows in confusion but after a moment his hand falls, and the room falls dim. "Liz?"
I pull him to me, blinking as my eyes adjust, wincing at the feel of damp, clammy skin as he holds me too tightly.
My eyes are dry as he clings to me and breathes raggedly against my shoulder. Soon he's relaxed enough to fall all the way back asleep, but I'm awake now, and I follow the shadows of Antarian moonset/moonrise as they creep across the ceiling.
"Morning, everyone," Michael greets his staff.
We all look at each other in surprise; he doesn't usually make small talk.
Today's meeting is short and Michael's not in a bad mood, exactly, but I can tell he has something on his mind. He keeps looking at me when he thinks I can't see him doing it, and his hand keeps snaking into his hip pocket, as if reassuring himself that he hasn't lost whatever's inside.
He makes a few announcements, asks if anyone has any questions, and sends us off to our respective posts. Those 'calling in' from remote locations sign off and I reassure a colleague from the military college that I haven't forgotten about speaking to his class next month before heading back to my office.
It's a comforting routine, and I don't resent it as much as I'd expected.
I'm temporarily in charge of coordinating veterans' services and, when I'm not doing that, establishing curriculum for some courses I've been asked to teach myself, on field training and strategizing. The war may be over, but there are still battles to be fought and borders to maintain, and the military academies are still in business.
"Hey," Michael says casually, as I pass him on my way out of the conference room.
"Hey," I respond easily, knowing he'll wait until he can talk to me in private - and more importantly, that my being calm will frustrate him when it's patently obvious that he's excited about something.
I love pushing his buttons. It's so much fun.
A second later I hear footsteps behind me and I know he's 'casually' making his way back to his office. To the untrained eye, I'm sure, it seems like mere coincidence that his path happens to cross with mine. After all, his office is only a few doors down from mine - my new one, about twice as big as my old one, with a much nicer view - and he always heads back to his after morning meetings.
As we draw parallel to my door, I tense as he veers a little closer to me. But I know what's coming, so I relax and let him shove me into my office. He's right behind me and makes a point of closing the door as soon as we're inside.
I start to laugh. I can't help it; he looks exactly like a young boy who's just pulled off some clever little plan.
His head whips up. "What?"
I shake my head, knowing he wouldn't appreciate the insight. "What is it, Michael?" I ask instead, sinking into my new office chair and waving him to another one across my desk.
He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a datachip, and suddenly I understand why he's so excited.
He nods, grinning in amazement, and for the first time I realize that he's had his doubts that this could work. But they are all pushed aside as we study the innocuous looking d-chip, the Antarian equivalent to a computer disk but a hell of a lot more efficient, enduring, and capacious. Based on the same crystal technology that contributed to the security of space-going vessels everywhere, it's a little worn around the edges and to one side there's a dull depression that suggests both age and use. It certainly looks legit.
"Here it is," he breathes, slumping back into his chair and running a hand through his hair. "The 'evidence' that proves Tess was a spy."
I nod distractedly and swivel slightly to take a battered blue folder out of a locked drawer. "We should double-check the dates and times," I suggest. "Just so there are no surprises later. We can't afford even the appearance of impropriety."
Solemn now, Michael inserts the d-chip into my desktop reader, and we each take half of the papers I shake out of the folder.
An hour later I'm placing the folder back into my drawer, along with the d-chip. Michael watches me confirm that the lock is secure, and lets himself out into the hallway.
He's not smiling anymore. This is no game. On Antar, matters of allegiance are deadly serious.
"Good day, Lieutenant-Commander," Olan calls out as he places a folder on my desk.
I look up, scowling. "I swear, if you start pulling that rank crap with me again --"
He just laughs.
It's so welcome that I barely bother with a withering glare before relenting. "Yanking my chain, huh?"
He looks confused. "What?"
Now it's my turn to laugh. "It's an Earth saying. I was just asking if you were joking."
He nods in understanding. "Then yes, I was. You looked like you could use a laugh."
I breathe out and lean back in my chair, gesturing for him to sit down. "So how's life down in Admin?"
"It's an adjustment," he says simply, and a familiar twinge of guilt and grief squeezes something in my chest because I know he's not just talking about his job.
I'd gone to pull some strings to get him a promotion but Michael was two steps ahead of me. Not only did Olan get several commendations and promoted to Lieutenant First Grade, but he and his parents received the same honors (posthumous) for Drav as well as full death benefits and a public graveside ceremony conducted by General Rath himself. And Olan didn't take much convincing to get out of the field and into an office; unlike me, he and Drav had always looked forward to 'retiring'. It was easy to find him a niche at the nearby military academy.
On a more selfish note, it's been really good for me. Without Drav to watch out for, Olan's 'adopted' me, and we get together regularly to talk about the things that we have trouble talking to everyone else about. He tells me about how hard it is to deal with his parents and with living without his best friend, and I tell him about my difficulties integrating into my new life.
Sober now, sensing that he's in the mood to listen, I find myself sighing in agreement. "Yeah."
He smiles sympathetically. "How are you adjusting?"
I open my mouth, ready to tell him how 'fine' I am, but I can't lie to this man. We've been in each other's minds too much and too often; we have a link now, an empathy that expresses more than words ever could when we're in such close proximity. "It's ... it's not too bad. I just need time ..."
There's nothing else to say, really. I know he recognizes my grief and pain because it mirrors his in so many ways. But we don't comfort each other with words and platitudes, just the knowledge that we are here for each other.
I change the subject, kind of. "Will you be at Tess's hearing tonight?"
He nods. "I might have to testify."
"Right." I'd forgotten, probably because as a committee member I already knew that he wasn't going to be called. "I'll see you there."
He nods again as he opens the door to let himself out. "Good day, Liz."
Addressing me in such a familiar manner is an obvious ploy to distract me, to cheer me up, and it's working. Despite everything, despite the unshed tears that burn in my eyes, I have a smile on my face when I get back to work.
It's so good to be able to talk about these things with someone who understands.
As is proper, I take a seat to Michael's right, two seats down from the center of the dais. On the other side, Maria and Isabel exchange solemn nods with the two of us, and when we hear our cue we stand along with everyone else as Max enters and takes his seat.
In a matter of weeks, there will be another seat next to his, and I will sit in it. His eyes catch mine and I know he's thinking the same thing. Neither of us smile - it would be inappropriate - but I feel the warmth of our connection envelop me, too briefly for anyone else to notice me redden but enough that I need a sip of the cool water as I sit back down.
Max makes the usual introductory speech in Antarian, announcing that since this hearing is being conducted according to military law, it will henceforth be held in English. Translators, of course, have been made available for civilians. Then he takes a minute to introduce all fourteen members of the official committee convened to resolve this matter.
It has actually been resolved for a lot longer than anyone knows, but there are formalities to observe, and as I'd told Michael, the appearance of impropriety must be avoided at all costs. As King and de facto judge, Max couldn't serve on it, so we'd handpicked ten qualified high-ranking Antarians with unimpeachable reputations that were loyal to the monarchy and unlikely to question the veracity of the evidence we'd put together, not without good reason.
I do feel a twinge of ambivalence about the whole thing; on one hand, I feel like I'm in over my head here, playing politician and only pretending I could ever be anything other than a soldier. Or for that matter, objective. On the other, I'm the only person on this committee with extensive field experience, and I suppose I tacitly represent segments of society that no one else here can. Besides, I'm still a decorated war hero (a phrase that makes me cringe every time I hear it) and a witness to some of the events under scrutiny. My Human instincts are to disqualify myself citing conflict of interest, but according to various tenets of Antarian military law, I belong here.
It's a convoluted logic, really, and one that could only work in a dedicated monarchy. I'm still not sure how I feel about that, but no one here seems to have a problem with it.
Speaking of which, we're all subdued in manner, and I can't help but compare the atmosphere to that of the meeting that started this all, the meeting I'd called the day after waking from my coma.
In the beginning, it was just myself, Max, Michael, Isabel and Maria. The door was locked and barricaded because I didn't want anyone else to hear what I had to say and I couldn't wait until I could get back to my office. As per Max's request, Michael had stopped to pick up the blue folder from my files, and I can't imagine what self-control it required for him not to read its contents on the way.
I made my case and we hashed it out for hours. We all took turns yelling and crying and then being rational while the others yelled and cried, and in the end, we'd decided on a course of action designed to help the planet - planets - to heal.
"-This is not a trial," Max's voice booms out, and I force myself to pay attention. "This is a hearing, to release to the public the findings of a special committee in regard to the case of Lady Ava, of the House of Hardhinh, in the matter of her actions during the War."
His face stern, he pauses for emphasis and then turns to Michael with a stiff nod as he sits.
Michael stands and faces the audience impassively. In short order, he summarizes the anecdotal and physical evidence gathered to document Tess Harding's actions as a spy during the war, and, introducing Maria as our resident interrogations specialist (what with her own built-in lie-detector and everything), expounds on what level of danger to the community a release of the spy would present, if any.
By this point everyone in the audience can see where this is going, and there's considerable excitement as Tess is brought forward to stand before the council.
She listens to the charges against her gravely, nodding at parts, a dry smile passing over her lips at others.
Finally Max stands again, the only person present with the authority to pass judgment on a royal personage, trial or not. "Tess Harding, also known as Ava d'Hardhinh of Antar, you have heard the evidence presented today. Do you challenge any aspect of it?"
Solemnly, she shakes her head. She does not. "I accept the decision of the Committee."
Turning to the crowd and the Antarian version of telecommunications technology, Max gives his summation in stiff English, speaking slowly for the translators. I've heard him practice this speech before; I'm more interested in the reaction of the crowd.
"-That Tess Harding, also Ava d'Hardhinh, did act to protect and preserve Antar by providing Allied Forces with information as to Khivar of Trejanti's tactics and intentions during wartime. And in doing so, that she did act to keep Ander d'Zan, a prince of the royal house of Antar, and Kyle Valenti, a prisoner of war, safe under conditions of prolonged danger. Furthermore, I would take this opportunity to confirm that she did risk herself mind and body to assist in the rescue of Council Member and Ambassador Elizabeth Parker, Lieutenant Commander Allied Ground Forces -"
I force myself not to respond in any way. It's very important that I appear neutrally appreciative right now, and since I haven't the slightest clue how to do that, I can at least not grimace or vomit or anything more honest. I feel for Max, though. As my 'intended' his job is a little more complicated; he must somehow project an air of impartiality while acknowledging a personal interest in my safety and well-being. He's doing wonderfully, of course, and I'm already thinking of ways to reward him later.
"-Play a significant role in the defeat of Lord Khivar of Trejanti and ending the war."
Tess bows her head in acceptance and I listen dispassionately as the crowd lauds her as a fellow war hero.
And so we usher in a new era of Antarian diplomacy.
"I feel dirty."
Poor Max, still American at heart, it makes him ill to think about what he's done with the powers at his disposal.
"I know," I commiserate, although I refuse to examine my own motivations for making him feel better. Of course, it was my idea in the first place, to concoct some bullshit story about how Tess was actually some sort of Deep Throat for the Allies. I'd taken what I'd said to Ander to heart, and I was determined that he not suffer more than he had to. So even before I'd set foot back on Antarian soil, I'd started putting together a tentative dossier - one that Michael could fill in with names and dates and other particulars - that made it look like Tess had purposely infiltrated Khivar's operation on our behalf, to leak and plant information at crucial points in the war.
At least we didn't have to lie about her killing him in the end.
Max sighs mournfully. "I just never thought I'd ever be a part of a monarchical conspiracy."
"Max," I remind him gently, "your entire life has been a monarchical conspiracy."
He smiles despite himself. "You might have a point," he admits, and I know he's tired of moping and is willing to let me cajole him out of his latest mood.
It's a personal goal of mine, actually, to laugh more. I consider it therapeutic, and privately, I've decided that I'm not the only one who could stand to develop a better sense of humor.
The real kicker, of course, is that everyone (meaning, outside our little conspiracy) thinks that Tess and I worked together all along, taking advantage of the kidnapping to fool and kill Khivar, rescue Ander and Kyle, and end the war. Oh, the irony. I truly do laugh at it sometimes, because what else can I do? I don't do it around other people, though. They seem to find it disturbing.
I guess I do too. It's been ... well, kind of nauseating at times, actually, but it's worth it to see Ander relaxed enough to venture outdoors without an escort. And I don't think any of us had realized - really, truly realized - just how much people needed to believe in the Royal Four again. Resolving the infamous Betrayal has been the best thing for Antarian unity since the first Queen Oren brought the ancient Antarians under her government millennia ago.
I widen my eyes dramatically. "Of course, you're king. You can't be prosecuted. But what about me?" I pout coyly, or try, anyway. It feels a little odd, but I'm nothing if not determined. "What happens when I get caught and thrown in the dungeon?"
He looks a little confused, seeing as how Antar doesn't have any dungeons, but I give him a moment and an encouraging look, and he catches on quickly. "Oh! Right. Um ... don't worry, milady," he says impressively, brandishing his noble countenance to good effect, "upon my honor, I shall keep you safe from the forces of darkness."
My mouth quirks. It's a tad disconcerting that he pulls this off so well, but it sure is sexy. "You'd save me from captivity, kind sir?" I still feel like an idiot, but even idiocy has its rewards at times, right?
I squeal in surprise when he swoops down to pick me up, instinctively reaching around his neck to help steady him when he staggers slightly on our way to the bed.
"No way," he says, lowering his head to nuzzle me. "Consider yourself caught. I just won't let anyone else torture you. That's my prerogative."
I laugh outright as he drops me on the bed and ogles me with his best 'sleazy' leer.
"Oh, I'm glad Isabel took Kyla tonight," I sigh as he climbs up next to me.
He nods, smirking devilishly. "There are some things that just shouldn't be rushed," he says, promises really, and I get a feeling that we're going to laughing quite a bit tonight.
And then, with any luck, we'll both get a little rest. A good night's sleep. It doesn't sound like that big a deal, I know, but some rewards are worth jumping through a few hoops for.
Just a little peace and quiet, that's all I'm asking for. Is that so much?
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