"So, what's next?" Maria asks.
We're sitting in her office, and she and Isabel are helping me plan my wardrobe. I think it's ridiculous. I mean, I'm getting married in my dress uniform and I just need something nice for the coronation, right?
Wrong. Apparently, 'nice' doesn't do it when it comes to matters of historical importance. There have been alien consorts before, of course. Antarians have been mating with off-worlders for thousands of years. But this is the first time a reigning monarch has married a commoner and with the matter of succession already decided. It will all have to be dealt with delicately and with as much decorum as possible.
Interestingly enough, it was Ander's idea to publicly announce his intention to remove himself officially from the direct line of succession. He's his father's son, all right; he's adored his sister from the moment he laid eyes on her, and there was no way he was going to deny her anything, let alone a throne he's never wanted anyway. He's young, but Maria decided that he was being completely honest with us and with himself, and of course I vouched for him.
Ander's a smart kid. He knows what he wants and what he doesn't, and he knows what's important. Anyone can see it, actually. There's a shot of him holding his baby sister up so everyone could see her royal seal, and it's the most commonly reproduced image on four planets.
One of the few things Tess and I ever agreed on was to let him live with us. He and Kyle visit her regularly, but he's still an Antarian prince and he needs training that he can only get here at the palace - and I don't care if she has been resolved of all war crimes, I absolutely refuse to let her live here. Not that I've gotten any arguments about it from anyone else, not even Tess. She was eager enough to return to her childhood home in one of the Outer Provinces, and aside from assigning her a few guards that report back to Michael, the rest of us were happy to let her go. Her son is a different story altogether, and Max and I are determined to make him part of our family.
Ander still prefers to use me as go-between if he thinks something might upset Max, but they're getting more comfortable with each other. He comes with me to healing sessions, too, because I've talked him into neural therapy to cleanse the residual effects of Khivar's particular brand of household discipline. Some day we're going to sit down and he's going to tell me exactly what that entailed, but for now I'm giving him his space.
I do think he needs to talk about it, but I won't push. More than anyone, I know better.
The time we're spending together has been really good, I think, and we are coming together as a family. I know Max has never been happier. More often than not, he goes to bed knowing that his entire family is together under one roof, and the war is over, and we're all safe. He likes that. He's relieved it's over. Well, he's still having nightmares, but that's a whole other matter. I wonder if -
I look up, re-registering Maria and Isabel's presence. "What was that?"
Isabel eyes me for a moment and then turns deliberately to Maria. "So, I was thinking a sort of berry-rust color for during and a deep blue for afterwards."
"During what?" I ask guiltily, feeling as though I should know that much.
They ignore me.
Maria nods at Isabel. "I agree, but tell the tailors no frilly stuff. She's too short for it."
"Hey!" I protest. "I'm right here, you know."
"True," Isabel agrees -- with Maria. "Here, take a look at this. I've gone through some history books and I was thinking that maybe a variation on this," she says, offering Maria a picture that I can't see from where I am, "topped with something like this, will work nicely."
Maria gives a low whistle in response, and despite myself I almost break my neck craning to see what has her eyes bugging out. But Isabel closes her book before I can, and I fall out of my chair instead. Picking myself up amidst their poorly disguised amusement, I decide that I've had enough. So I take my self and my wounded dignity and decide to get back to the office.
I have more important things to do, anyway. Like paperwork. Lots of it. Important paperwork. Because some people respect and depend on me.
I don't look up when I hear the knock on the door. "Yeah?"
It opens and Michael pokes his head in. "Got a minute?"
I jump up and pull him inside. "Sure! A minute, hour, day, whatever you need. What is it, a mission? Somewhere distant? Just tell me when and where."
Eying me like the insane alien I've become, he shakes his head. "No, nothing like that."
"Why not?" I whimper, and suddenly he's laughing at me.
"Let me guess, lunch with the wedding planners went as expected?"
"Oh, yeah. They had a grand old time," I grumble, put out by his cavalier attitude.
He winces sympathetically but not quite sincerely. I give up.
"So what can I do for you, General?"
"Michael. I'm not here on official business."
I don't bother hiding my surprise. Michael? A social call? Two more mutually exclusive concepts never existed.
"It's about the wedding," he says, and to compound my shock he's squirming.
"What about it?" I ask curiously.
He takes a deep breath, and despite myself, I'm impressed. This is obviously something he feels strongly about, and if I could just understand what he was saying, I'm sure I'd be even more impressed.
"I said, I could ... give you away. You know, if you wanted."
"Give me away? You mean, walk-me-down-the-proverbial-aisle giving me away?"
"Did Maria ask you to do this?" It's the only explanation I can think of.
He shakes his head and makes sure that the door is completely shut. "No. I was just thinking that ... well, since your dad can't be here ... I thought ... and I figured: hey, I've worked at the CrashDown, and I'm good at bossing you around ..."
We both grin at that, more because he doesn't. Boss me around, I mean. Not really. We both know I work better if I don't have someone looking over my shoulder all the time.
But, I have to admit that I'm touched. I hadn't expected this at all. "We aren't really having a traditional ceremony, you know."
He shrugs. "Maybe you aren't. Max already asked Ander to be his best man and Kyle and me to be ushers, and he's checking in with Isabel and Maria every day just to keep up with whatever they're planning. And he keeps finding ways to combine Earth and Antarian rites and stuff, so I'd say this is going to be as traditional as it gets."
I stare at him, ignoring the slight whine I can hear under the 'manly' bitching. "I didn't realize all that was so important to him."
Actually, I haven't talked with Max about getting married at all. Aside from agreeing to do it, I've been happy to let everyone else worry about the details, and it's not like there'll be many surprises afterwards. It's strange, really, that we're so in tune with each other emotionally that we don't spend much time just talking.
It's my fault, probably, but it's something else I can work on. I guess it's too late to start with the wedding plans.
Michael shrugs. "Guess so." Fleetingly, I wonder if he can read minds. "So?"
Evidently, I can't read his. I shake my head, still trying to process everything. "So, what?"
His expression bespeaks long-suffering pain. "So, you want me to walk you down the freakin' aisle, or what?"
I think about it for a moment. It's true, I had been thinking about my parents a lot lately, and it's no secret that I miss them and wish they could be here. It's really rather sweet of Michael to offer. "Thanks, Michael. That'd be great."
I fully expect him to bolt after that, duty done, but he doesn't move. Well, he's moving, just not out of his seat. Instead he's looking at his hands, and at the walls, and at just about everything in the room except me.
"Michael? Was there something else?" I prompt teasingly and raise my arms. "Aw, does someone need a hug?"
Predictably enough, he flushes and shrinks backwards, like he thinks I'm going to hurl myself at him or something.
I laugh and settle back into my chair to wait him out. But as he looks at me, solemn and not a little sadly, I forget the games and give him my full attention. "Michael, what is it? Is something wrong?"
He nods slowly, swallowing hard, and suddenly I'm seized by irrational anxiety.
"What? What is it?"
My head jerks up, and I'm captivated by the look on his face. I've never seen him like this. "What? Why?"
"The life, the mission, Khivar, the ... the diary thing, the ..."
My mouth quirks. I can't believe he's bringing that up after all this time. "Michael, you're babbling." When he doesn't get angry or laugh or anything, I get serious. "You don't have anything to apologize for."
"Yes, I do. I shouldn't have let you do any of it."
"What are you talking about? You didn't let me do anything. I did my job, Michael. That's all."
"No, that's not all!" he protests hotly, his fist slamming down on my desk, making it shake. "I could've gotten you and Max and Kyla killed, and I'm supposed to protect you, damn it! I screwed up. I won't do it again. I can't."
Suddenly a memory surfaces --
//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 my 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 anything less?"//
... and I know what's bothering him.
"Michael?" My voice sounds uncharacteristically small, but firm. "Michael, it's okay. I'm not queen yet."
He looks right at me, and I could swear I see tears in his eyes except that I respect him too much to see anything of the sort. But before I can say anything else, before I can even think of some way to convince him it really is okay, he's up and halfway out the door.
As it closes behind him, he says something. It's muffled, but I hear it.
"Sure you are."
It's a long time before I can get my mind back on the papers before me.
"Okay, I admit it," I say, peaking through the curtain, "it's perfect. You two do good work."
Isabel and Maria smirk at each other and then at me. It's scary how well they do that. But it's true.
We're in the reception tent right now, because the wedding itself will be outdoors and Maria insisted that Max couldn't see me beforehand. It's given me the opportunity to see all the preparations, and they are truly stunning. Right now, for instance, everything from the table settings to the long carpet outside is coordinated with the deep russet-wine color that just happens to pick up the deepening reddish tones of Antarian dusk. Even the silvery-gray of my dress uniform seems to turn a warm pale-gold hue that's really quite fascinating. Some day I really must find out exactly how they achieve that chameleon effect; it's practical out in the jungles and deserts, but it's also intensely beautiful.
"But of course," Isabel says snottily, and then laughs. She leans down and gives me a hug, careful not to muss my uniform or my hair, a simple but elegant combination of curls and twists, her most obvious concession to Antarian fashion. Antarians, as a rule, have straight and sparse hair, and cosmetic scientists have spent a long time figuring out how to give it lift. Since I wouldn't let Isabel go nuts on my make-up, I let her do something nice with my hair instead.
Nice? Try fantastic - in every dictionary sense of the word.
I can't see Max yet, but I can pick Kyle and Ander out of the crowd. They're standing next to Olan and his date, and I can see that Olan has Kyla.
Isabel cocks her head and smiles at Maria. "That's our cue," she says. "Time to go light the candles."
Maria nods and with one last hug for me and a brilliant smile, heads out.
For some reason, Isabel's words strike me as important. Candles. I'm getting married at dusk, with candles. Candles are important. Candles are crucial. Except, there's something more crucial ...
"I'm getting married," I squeak, panicking, suddenly having trouble getting enough air but needing to hear it.
Isabel must have heard me too, because she ducks back into the tent. "Liz?"
I stand there and breathe, trying to smile, to relax, to convince myself that in mere minutes I will become Princess Elizabeth Evans, soon to be crowned Queen Elizabeth I of Antar in three days' time, and that this is a good thing.
My smile fades. Oh god. I'm going to throw up.
Isabel takes a long look at my face and her eyes narrow. She looks around to make sure no one is nearby, and comes all the way back inside. "Okay, Liz, what is it? Cold feet?"
She's sort of joking, but I can't make myself laugh. I take another deep breath and start coughing instead.
Immediately Isabel's at my side and patting me on the back, and I feel a warmth that soothes my painfully dry throat.
I hold up a hand, and she stops. "I'm good, I'm good," I tell her, and she studies me carefully before nodding and pulling away.
"Michael will be in here in a minute," she says, and somehow it sounds reassuring but also menacing. "And just in case you're thinking of pulling a Running Bride, I'd like you to know that I would track you down and cut you into small pieces for leaving my brother at the altar. Just," she finishes, smiling brightly, enjoying my stunned reaction, "ensuring that you make an informed, carefully thought out decision."
It's perfect, and finally I can laugh, because of course I'm just being an idiot. For once, I hug her first, and she grins back in understanding.
"I'm glad you're presiding," I tell her, and it's true, I am. Antarian bonds being what they are and pointless to fake, very few marriages require legal contracts. So anyone in a trusted capacity can act as moderator, as long as there are witnesses present to confirm the exchange of vows-of-intent and the couple can prove they've bonded.
Her smile gentler now, she nods. "I am, too. Thanks for asking."
We beam at each other, and then she heads out to help Maria with the candles.
"You look good."
I jump, a little surprised to hear a male voice after being surrounded by women all day. "Jeez, Kyle, you scared the crap out of me."
He laughs. "And there's the elegant Miss Parker we all know and love."
I roll my eyes, but I can't help but smile. I'm doing a lot of that these days, especially around him. Intellectually I know it took months of hard work and dedication by an entire team of doctors to restore his memories and personality, but it still seems like a miracle. "Whatever. Did you come back here to congratulate me or what?"
He cocks his head thoughtfully. "Or what, actually."
I falter. What does that mean? Oh god, I knew it was all too good to be true.
"Clairvoyant Boy strikes again," he jokes, but I can't help but notice how serious he looks. "I saw something I thought you'd want to know about."
My heart's going to burst out of my chest and ruin the decor if he lets the tension build any more. I stand perfectly still as he leans down to whisper in my ear.
"I'm not going to tell you."
"You're not? Why not?"
He smirks at my plaintive expression. "Prime Directive," he quips. "Can't pollute the timeline."
I groan. He's making Star Trek jokes now? Maybe we shouldn't have given him back everything. I'm sure he wouldn't have noticed a missing mental cache of bad jokes.
Regardless, he relents slightly. "Let's just say ... married life suits you."
My mind is immediately caught up in all the possibilities, in all the possible ways to interpret that, and the next time I look up, he's gone.
I smile. It's good to have him back - so to speak, and for some reason, I do feel better. I guess I needed to hear that marriage wasn't a mistake for me.
"Ready for this?"
I spin around at the sound of yet another male voice. Michael. It takes me a moment to regain equilibrium, but when I do, I nod. And I mean it.
"Well?" he asks, one arm cocked.
I take it, smiling sincerely up at him. "Thanks for doing this. To be honest, I am feeling a little jittery. And," I ask whimsically, although my heart's pounding, "a little nauseous, kind of worried about all the work piled up on desk, and absolutely terrified that I'll fall flat on my face in front of all those people."
"You worry too much, Parker." I'm ridiculously happy to hear him call me that. It sounds so blessedly normal. "Your staff can handle everything at the office and I won't let you fall flat on your face -- much. Other than that, you'll just have to bite the bullet and take a chance that everything will turn out okay."
Strangely enough, it is comforting, and when we hear our cue, we step outside.
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