I remain still and it goes on long enough that she reaches out to me again. “Mary? Hello?? Is anyone in there?” with a hint of playfulness in her voice. It’s the light laughter that brings me out of my brown study and I turn to find her gazing at me with a hint of humor and more than a bit of concern. “You all right?” she asks, her eyes searching mine for the truth.
“Yeah... sorry. Something just occurred to me and I was trying to make it fit into some of the questions we encountered when we were preparing your portfolio at the beginning of the project.”
“What?” Before I can respond, she continues. “Wait... I have a portfolio?”
I chuckle. “Among other things, yes. Did anyone try to claim your research for themselves?”
“Only once. Papa had him removed from the household so quickly he didn’t even have a chance to pack his bags. Someone came in after he was gone and took care of it.”
I nod, but I don’t comment. She has enough Daddy issues with her papa; I’m not going to add to them by telling her exactly how the man was removed or how permanent that removal was. “So he was the only one?”
“Yes. Being assigned to the Royal Court was considered an honor; no one wanted to lose their place. Especially since Papa could make certain that you never found a job in science again. And really – it wasn’t that difficult... as long as you didn’t object to taking orders from a child.” She rolls her eyes and I smirk in response.
“I can understand that – both sides actually. So,” I go on, reaching for the Pad that was on the nightstand. A few swipes and I have the information I need right in front of me, and I slide my glasses on again. “Your eighth grade science teacher. What do you remember about Mrs. Humphries?”
She scrunches her eyes closed in thought and it’s all I can do not to laugh. I’m sure she doesn’t mean to be cute about it, but she reminds me of Ian when he had to write essays in school – as though making faces would cause him to become smarter or something. It took until he got into the Academy to figure out all it was doing was giving him wrinkles prematurely.
I wait patiently, and in another moment her eyes pop open and she focuses her gaze on me. “Mrs. Humphries was a nice enough woman, I suppose, but she wasn’t very bright.” She flushes slightly and looks down at the bedspread covering her lap. “I’m sorry – I’m not trying to be rude; she was competent, and most of the kids liked her because she made class fun for them.” She sighs and shakes her head. “The only reason I was going to school was to be with kids my own age. It made Mama happy and parts of it I liked well enough. But most of it… especially the classwork....” She shrugs. “It was a waste of time for me, and I’m pretty sure Mrs. Humphries knew I felt that way.”
“Would you say she was jealous of you?”
She looks thoughtful before finally shaking her head. “I think she just didn’t know how to deal with me. After all, she wasn’t teaching me anything I didn’t already know. I was just there for the socialization.” She frowns. “What does this have to do with why Mrs. Humphries was transferred in the middle of eighth grade year?”
Instead of answering her, I ask another question. ”Do you remember the science fair that year?”
She growls impatiently and gives me a look. I simply wait and she huffs before answering. “Of course. But I didn’t participate.”
“You weren’t allowed to do so.”
“Excuse me?” Her eyes are wide with surprise and indignation. “I understood what you said, but would you mind repeating it? Or at least explaining it? Because you seem to think you know something that I distinctly don’t remember.”
“What do you remember... aside from not participating?”
“I remember my project was a reflection of the work we were doing in the lab - on combining the properties nuclear fission and nuclear fusion and how it could safely be utilized in our everyday lives. At that point it was still in the stage of relatively new theory. I remember doing my presentation for the class – I got an ‘A’ of course. My theory was sound as has since been proven out, but there wasn’t a lot of proof then.” She shrugs. “I remember Paul being thrilled about being chosen to participate in the school fair, and I was glad for him. He wanted so badly to be part of the scientific community on our world.”
“Of course,” I nod. “Scientific research is the most highly regarded profession there. Do you remember what his project was about?”
“Sure – the effect of light and darkness upon mental health.”
“And it didn’t once occur to you to question why that or any of the other projects were chosen over yours? Arianna, yours was clearly so much more advanced than anything in that exhibition.”
“I assumed Mrs. Humphries wanted something that the judges could understand. And my fission/fusion theory was well beyond most people’s scope – it still is.”
“And yet she gave you an ‘A’.”
The look she gives me can only be described as a sardonic smirk. “Would you have given me any less... really? Whether you understood the subject not?”
I snort. “No, probably not. But that’s not the reason you were excluded. Mrs. Humphries wanted the other kids to have a chance. So she refused to allow your project into the fair. The next week she was transferred to a school outside the capital.”
“That seems kind of harsh.”
“Nevertheless, it’s true.”
She looks thoughtful and I deliberate about what she’s thinking. Then she speaks. “I’ll have to look into that, because she was right. The others did deserve a chance to shine. They didn’t have the resources I did and none of them had my brilliance.”
“Perhaps, though you were quite upset about it at the time.”
She bites her lip and looks up at me before clearing her throat. “So what happened when I was eighteen that I am failing to remember the importance of at the moment?”
I don’t push. There’s no need for me to embarrass her further, and I think she’s starting to understand just how long we’ve been watching. “Nothing... and everything,” I say and she glares, crossing her arms over her chest and waiting for me to continue.
“You dated the captain of the Crunch team though it was never anything serious; you both knew it could never go beyond high school and friendship. You went to your senior formal with a group of kids in your performance group who you finally felt comfortable enough to call friends. It made your mother cry happy tears when she recognized you had finally achieved that level of socialization. A few of your classmates were actually security minders in disguise. You....”
I blink. “You didn’t know?”
She shakes her head. “I had no idea.” She tilts her head at me. “Are you serious? You’re not just making this up, are you?”
“Arianna, what would it gain me to make this up? Would you like to see proof?”
“You have it?” her brows shooting into her forehead.
I nod towards the Pad. “I have it.”
I see her hesitate. She wants to trust me, but her curiosity is nearly overwhelming. I can see the struggle, but eventually her maturity wins out. “I believe you,” she says quietly. “It’s definitely something Papa would do.” She gasps in realization. “Did they tell him...?”
“About your escapades?” her head jerking nervously at my words. “No. They figured you needed to blow some steam, and at least they were there to keep an eye out for you.”
“Ooookay,” she drawls slowly. “I don’t think I want to know. So what else?”
I glance at the Pad a moment, then look at her. “What do you remember now?”
“I remember all those things. Dating Kip was a lot of fun – I actually think that helped the most in my socialization. Mama never understood the trial that was for me, but with him I wasn’t the Princess and I wasn’t some sort of freak genius; I was just Arianna. And it made making friends easier for me. I think about what he might be doing – we fell out of touch after graduation. I was so busy in the lab and he was doing his scientific service.” She sighs. “That seems like such a long time ago.”
“In some ways it was. And in others, not that long ago at all. Do you remember anything else?
She sighs. “Yes – I remember my coronation... when my title became an actual responsibility.”
“Did it add to your work load?” knowing the answer but curious about what her reaction will be.
“Not really... at least not in the sense you’re thinking. It got me out of the lab more often, but Papa insisted. As anxious as he was for me to produce results with my nuclear research, he needed me to assume the reigns of responsibility that fell to me with my coming of age.” She giggles and I cock an eyebrow in question. She shakes her head, bringing her laughter under control and giving me a smirk. “That party... I don’t think Mama’s been able to look at a number of things in the palace the same way since.”
“Well... that eye opening. A lot of tradition and formality went right out the window because that’s not how my friends were raised. And I insisted they be invited to attend.” She giggles again. “That was probably the most fun the castle had seen in years.” She sobers. “Of course it didn’t last long.” She gives me a look. “The party only lasted a night.”
“Aren’t you glad you’ll always have your memories of it?”
“And lots of blackmail material,” she says with an evil grin. “I wasn’t allowed to drink to excess – I can’t say the same for everyone else.”
I laugh. “You’re a devious little thing, aren’t you?”
“Of course. It makes my life more interesting that way.” She tilts her head. “I think those were the stand out events for me that year,” she says, rubbing her eyes. “As you said... nothing and everything. But you’re right – I wasn’t looking for my one. Truth be told, in the back of my mind I was probably hoping that wouldn’t happen for a while. I already had so much responsibility and so much pressure on my shoulders....” She trails off and I wait. “I know that I have to produce an heir.” She rolls her eyes. “I get that reminder *every* *time* I hear from my mother. I’m just lucky it’s not allowed until after the marriage ceremony, and as long as I’m on this project....” I laugh again and she gives me a withering look. I bring my laughter under control, but it’s hard, and she is huffing impatiently before I manage. “It’s not at all funny, you know.”
“Oh, but it is. And one day – when you’re sitting on the other side of the equation – you’ll see the humor.” She gives me a disbelieving look and I smirk. “Trust me. I’ve been on both sides. It’s a lot funnier from where I am now than it was when I was where you are.”
“... and Daddy,” nodding my head. “They were both quite anxious to be grandparents. I seriously considered hiring a hit man at one point. I got it Every. Single. Day. Sometimes twice... if I talked to them separately at different times. And Edward was gone so much, I was left to deal with most of it alone.”
“What did you do?”
“Told them flat out that if they didn’t stop nagging me about it, there weren’t going to be any grandkids except those in their minds.”
Her eyebrows shoot into her hairline. “That worked?”
“Like a charm.”
She frowns. “Pretty sure that won’t work for me. I have an obligation....”
“You have an obligation to yourself first, Arianna.”
“I don’t think Mama and Papa are concerned with that. It’s certainly not their first priority.”
“Perhaps,” I concede. “But if you don’t do what is best for you, you’ll never be able to do what is best for anyone else.”
She peers at me and I can almost hear the gears turning in her mind. “Experience?” she finally asks.
I shrug. “Something like that.”
“Is that why your papa wasn’t immediately successful? Because you had an obligation to yourself?”
“Yes. Daddy thought I was being selfish, and I suppose I was in a way... just not the way he thought. I was selfish in that I wanted Edward’s attention without the responsibility that came with it. But I wasn’t selfish because I wanted some time to figure out who I was. I needed to do that; I needed to know what I had to bring into an adult relationship before I could be successful in one.”
“Is that what you told your papa?”
I laugh. “Not in so many words, no. I didn’t mention Edward. I was sure that if Daddy knew what I was doing with Edward... keeping him on a string while I did my thing... I would be pushed into something I didn’t want and wasn’t ready for.”
“Your papa would have forced you into marriage?!?”
“No. Daddy was stubborn and impatient, but he was never a stupid man. The result of that kind of action would have been explosive... and irreparable. But he would have made my tenure as a wanderer impossible. And I needed that.”
“So what did he do?”
“He became my friend.”
After we thrashed out our anger – his at me; mine at Edward – we took a few minutes to regroup. Neither of us wanted to damage a lifelong relationship in the heat of anger and a few misspoken words spoken in haste. So we went and got ice cream.
“Daddy and I went and got ice cream. It was our thing. When we needed to talk, we always went and got ice cream first. It gave us a little peace to collect our thoughts before we started any kind of serious discussion. Made things easier and a lot less volatile.”
“Perhaps Papa and I should have tried that.”
I tilt my head and frown. “You and your daddy didn’t really argue about much.”
“We didn’t talk about much either. I think I missed out on something very special.”
I couldn’t disagree. For all the ups and downs Daddy and I suffered through together, the one saving grace was that we could talk things out eventually. It’s something I learned to appreciate even more when I had children of my own, and memories I’ve treasured since he died.
“So what happened next... after ice cream?”
We talked – really talked – about school and life and what I was hoping to find wandering around the world with only a few possessions and a little currency. I made him understand that the trip... the experience... was for me. Something I needed so I could figure out who I was and who I wanted to become.
Of course, Daddy was less than thrilled. He felt it was a cop out, and I suppose in some ways it was. But he also recognized what I was doing. So he gave me his blessing, and told me to keep in touch. Then he left me to my own devices... and found a couple Marines willing to keep an eye on me.
“He just left? Did you know about the Marines?”
“Not at the time, no. Like a lot of this part of my story, I didn’t know of these events until well after they were over. Edward and I didn’t find out what Daddy knew or about the Marines that shadowed me until after Joy’s birth. And then only because of an off-hand comment Daddy made about learning what it was like to protect a daughter – from herself and others.”
“That must have gone over spectacularly.”
“Like oil on a fire,” I chuckle. “But it was well past by then – nothing we could do to change it and it worked out in our favor, so it was kind of difficult to get too upset about the tactics when the results were fabulously successful.”
“So what happened next? It’s got to be good, right?” Her excitement is so palpable, I don’t think she’s even realized she’s using that phrase anymore. Because I can’t find a hint of teasing – only eagerness to know the next bit of the story.
Before I can respond, a knock sounds on the door, and I hit the monitor that sits by the bed. “Caleb?”
“Sorry to disturb you, Chief. But we’ve had another issue crop up unexpectedly. Could I see you at the door a moment?”
I look at Arianna and she makes shooing motions at me. “Go on,” she urges. “I know you have a job to do that goes far beyond talking to me about love. If you need me to leave, I can go back to my room now... I mean with Malcolm gone and everything. In fact,” she continues, sliding towards the edge and sitting up, “maybe I should go anyway. It’s late; we can probably finish this conversation later, and....”
I am around the bed pointing my finger at her before she can end her sentence. “Not another word from you, young missy. We have as much time as we need to figure this out, but you’ve got to stick with me, all right?” waiting for her to nod. “Good. Now get comfortable – take a bio break; get some cold water; whatever. I’ll be right back.”
I had no idea what awaited me.
I am aware of the commotion in front of one of the other doors before I set foot into the hallway, and a glance tells me it’s coming from Arianna’s room. I exit and close the door behind me, not wanting the sound to carry. Caleb steps up beside me as soon as the door is shut and I look at him for a progress report. He sighs.
“We tried to get him to go back to his room, Chief, but he was starting to cause a ruckus. He demanded to speak to you. And we don’t want to attract any more unwanted attention, so....”
“Have any of the others been disturbed by this?”
“So far, no. We caught him fairly quickly – he banged on Arianna’s door and called her name once before we got to him. He agreed to sit quietly until he could speak to you, but he did demand to speak to you personally.” Caleb looks at me and gives me a tired smirk. “Suddenly this is less a security assignment and more like babysitting. Or something from those old entertainment programs – you know, the really unbelievable ones.”
I wrack my brain to recall the term he’s looking for before I remember my boys comparing them one day just for the sake of argument. “You mean soap operas? Or reality television?” I ask with a smile the memories bring. Caleb shrugs.
“It’s all about the same, Chief. Do you want us to wait?” he asks as we reach our target. I shake my head.
“Nah – I got this, Caleb. Thanks,” knowing they won’t be too far, but will give us a bit of privacy so I can talk to Jacob alone.
Caleb nods and accepts a chair from Martha, setting it down for me and then motioning everyone back to their posts. I take a seat and focus my attention on the young man in front of me. He returns my gaze for a moment, then drops his eyes to the clasped hands in his lap. I wait, like I have all the time in the world. It always worked with my kids, and it doesn’t take long for Jacob to cave.
“Where is she?” he asks me quietly, not wanting his voice to carry.
“Where is who, Jacob? There’s more than one female involved in this project.”
“You know who,” a hint of petulance in his tone.
“Jacob, you’re breaking a number of rules at the moment, any of which could get you kicked out of the selection process. I don’t mind speaking to you and answering your questions... even at three in the morning, but you need to be up front and straightforward with me. And you certainly don’t need to take a tone.” I pause and wait for him to reluctantly acknowledge my words. “The first rule in my job is to never assume. Now... why are you out in the hallway banging on doors at three a.m.?”
He sighs. He knows I’m right – on any number of levels. He reaches up and scratches his head, shuffling his hair back and forth to put it into some semblance of order. He obviously doesn’t realize yet that three a.m. bedhead isn’t going to get fixed except with a shower. After another minute, he lets his hand drop and he keeps his eyes fastened on them until he takes a deep breath. Only then does he look up to meet my eyes. Years of practice allow me to maintain my neutral façade, but I wonder what the hell has been going on under my nose and for how long to put that expression of sadness and pain in his eyes.
“Where is Arianna?”
“May I ask why you need to know?”
“Is she all right?” he counters.
“She’s a little under the weather at the moment. She’s currently staying with me so I can keep an eye on her.”
“So she’s not with that asshat Malcolm.”
“Not at all. She’s been with me for the last little while. Why?”
Jacob rubs his hand over his face and I smile at the raspy sound his unshaven skin makes. It reminds me of my boys and how much I miss having them with me. I school my features before Jacob looks up and wait for him to speak. He shrugs.
“I was concerned. Despite everything, she’s still my friend, you know? And I know he’s been making her uncomfortable lately.”
I cross my legs and lean back in my chair. “Can you elaborate?” He hesitates and I stay still. It has taken months, and in some cases years, for these kids to start forming cohesive, caring bonds with one another. It’s a necessary and vital part of this project, and not everyone has the same level of commitment or devotion to being a team player. I know that it’s important that they have each others’ backs and keep each others’ secrets, so I’m not going to push. He’s going to have to make the decision to trust me or not – I don’t have time to convince him otherwise.
Jacob stares at me for a long moment, taking in my measure before he finally gives me a brisk nod. “This stays between you and me – you don’t tell your staff and you definitely don’t share with Arianna or the rest of the people working on this project.”
“Anything you say to me will be held in confidence, Jacob.”
He stares at me another minute longer, then nods again. “Good enough,” he says. He takes a deep breath, then starts to speak. “When we were at dinner earlier.... Let me start over. Malcolm has been causing some discontent within the ranks of project members. It’s pretty much guaranteed that Arianna will make the final cut – after all, without her and her work, there wouldn’t be any project in the first place, right?” nodding to himself. “Well, Malcolm seems to believe that he will be included on her merit... since they’re betrothed and this project is going to take years more to bring to fruition. And he’s doing his best to exclude the rest of us from her life.” He growls and slaps his clenched fists on his knees, not even wincing at the force he used. “What pisses me off is that she’s letting him! Mary, I’m trying to give her the benefit of the doubt – Arianna’s been my friend for a long time, but she’s making it impossible! If she keeps it up, she’s not gonna have any friends left, and having her on the team will make things awkward and uncomfortable for everyone.”
I nod my comprehension. I’ve watched what he’s talking about happen in slow, steady increments. But I haven’t really been in a position to do anything about it until now. “Okay, I understand what you’re saying; I’ve seen it myself. But what does this have to do with why you were knocking on her door at three a.m.?”
“I’m getting there,” he replies quickly, but gives me a small smile so I know he’s not snapping. “When we were at dinner earlier, Malcolm completely cut us out of any conversation with her... all of us, not just....” He shrugs, and I speculate that perhaps more people have some inkling of what’s happened than I – or they - believe. It could make things much easier or unbearably worse, depending on what they know and what they suspect and how they feel about the entire situation.
“Well, anyway,” he continues, “Arianna just gave up trying, and when we got back here, I saw him go into her room. I didn’t hear anything for a while, then I heard her door slam. By the time I got to my door and looked out, Arianna was stepping into the lift, and the commotion that caused....” He motions around at the various agents now visibly present in the hall. “I was going to follow her, but Caleb told me they had it covered and to go back to bed. Given the look on his face, I decided to follow his instruction.
I must have fallen asleep, because when I checked the clock again it was almost three. I was kind of pissed off at myself – I hadn’t intended to wait so long to check on Arianna... to make sure she got back safe and sound from wherever she needed to escape to. I literally ran out the door and across the hall.” He shrugs. “You know what happened after that.”
“I do indeed.”
“Is she really all right, Mary? I know we haven’t all been particularly nice to her recently; I’m ashamed to admit it, but it’s true. But that doesn’t mean we don’t still care.” He pauses, and I wait. He releases a deep breath and meets my eyes. “I think maybe we care too much. She was a part of us once. And being pushed away....” He shrugs. “It hurts.”
I lean forward and pat his hands. “Jealousy takes all forms, Jacob, and portrays itself in many different ways.” I hold up a hand to keep him from arguing. I know jealousy – I have been on both sides of that equation as well, and it rarely ends well if it’s left to fester. “I promise you she’s with me, and I’m doing my best to make sure she’s all right.”
“He didn’t....” the anger growing exponentially in his eyes as the thought plays out unspoken.
“No,” I assure him hastily. “He wouldn’t have made it out of here alive,” I tell him, my own eyes full of dark promise. He shivers in uncontrollable reaction.
“You mean that, don’t you? You could actually do that, couldn’t you?”
“In a heartbeat... without leaving a trace. However,” I continue as I stand and stretch slightly, “it won’t be necessary. Malcolm will get what’s coming to him soon enough.” I reach a hand down and Jacob accepts it with alacrity, allowing me to help him up. He squeezes my hand lightly before releasing his grip and moves back towards his room. I stand rooted to the spot watching him. Only when he reaches his door does he turn to face me, giving me a rakish little playboy grin.
“Thanks, Mary. I’m glad you’re on our side, you know? And as far as I’m concerned, Arianna went directly to see you tonight.”
“Thank you, Jacob.” I smirk at him. “Do me a favor and try not to freak out my security team like that anymore, all right?”
“No promises,” he replies with an evil twinkle in his eyes. “Night,” he says with a wave before disappearing into his room once more.
I let my shoulders slump in relief and turn to walk back down the hallway. Caleb meets me halfway. “Everything okay, Chief?”
I nod. I know more now than I did even ten minutes ago, and while I had a pretty good idea of what was going on, things are now a lot clearer for me. I give Caleb a tired smile. “Everything’s fine, Caleb. His heart was in the right place. His mind wasn’t exactly running on all cylinders though.”
Caleb snorts. “At three in the morning, *no one’s* firing on all cylinders. Besides, I thought this was supposed to be the quiet shift.” We reach my door and I turn to give him a wry look.
“When was the last time you remember anything going like it’s supposed to?”
He holds up a finger and opens his mouth, only to snap his jaw shut and frown after a full sixty seconds of silence. I just cock my eyebrow at him and smirk.
“Exactly,” I say, and cross the threshold into my room once more.
Arianna has picked up the Pad I intentionally left laying in the bed. She can’t access anything but the image file I left open for her, but it seems to have her attention fully engaged. I decide to take a minute to splash some cold water on my face, hoping to revive my sagging alertness. Again, I am reminded of when my kids were younger. There were many nights I spent listening and talking to them as they went through the pains of growing up.
I wipe the moisture from my face, feeling marginally better if not much more awake. I really am getting old I think as I hang the towel up. Once upon a time I could have gone all day and all night and all day again with only vast amounts of caffeine to stimulate my senses. Not anymore.
I give myself a wry look and roll my eyes. Then I return to the room to find she hasn’t moved an iota, and I question what has her so enamored that she’s still not aware of my presence. I climb onto the bed, settling comfortably. When I turn my attention to her, I realize she has shifted to accommodate my movement without ever moving her eyes from the Pad in front of her. I bend towards her and smile as soon as I recognize the picture that seems to be the object of her consideration.
“Tell me?” she asks when I lean back against the headboard once more. Her eyes are sad again, and I can only speculate what’s gone on in her mind since I left. I hold out my hand and she places the Pad in it gently, as though loath to disturb the image frozen in time.
“It’s a picture of the day he returned from war... the second time.”
“Wait... he went to war more than once?”
I smile, though the sadness in my expression causes her eyes to tear. “He went to more than one war. He fought many, many times.”
“That’s not right!”
“Arianna, he chose that life, and he was exceptional at his job.”
She wants to dispute my words. I can see the argument forming in her eyes. I wait, but she surprises me. She takes a deep breath and wills her contention from her demeanor. Another breath and she looks at me again. “Tell me?” she asks again.
I glance back at the image frozen in time and nod. “I need to go back a bit first, though, and pick up the story where I left off. Otherwise, you won’t get the full impact of this,” motioning at the Pad.
She leans back and crosses her arms over her chest, and gestures with one hand. “So start telling already!” she demands impatiently, and I laugh. It’s good to see the unhappiness seeping from those brown eyes, and I turn my attention back to the picture in my hand.
I made sure to stay in touch with everyone – like I had promised Daddy. I talked to my folks at least once a week, and I wrote Edward even more regularly. There was nothing overtly personal in my missives, however; they were more like a journal of what was happening in my life. He reciprocated by doing the same, and in that way, we started learning about one another. It was good for me and we fell into a comfortable groove.
Then Edward came home for the first time.
“How long was that?”
I blink at her as I bring my attention back to the present again. “I’m sorry – how long was what? His visit home?”
She shakes her head. “No. How long were you corresponding before he came home?”
“Oh... hmm – let’s see. Daddy came to see me after three months; Edward came home six months after that, so....” I squint in memory, and she remains quiet while I think. “He had two weeks of leave, and he spent them with me traveling around.” I look at her. “I’d made sure I didn’t have to work those two weeks. I did like him... a lot... he just freaked me out on so many levels. I still don’t know if he figured it out on his own or if Daddy clued him in. That was one secret they both took to their graves. But he was my friend those two weeks.”
“I don’t understand.”
I sigh. I was afraid of that, though I had hoped.... “When Edward returned from off-world that first time, he came to where I was just to hang out. He met the friends I had made; shared some of his funnier experiences; played tourist and visited places with us. He never pressured me for time alone; never made me feel an expectation beyond what I felt comfortable giving him. And it was amazing. We were able to get to know one another without pressure.”
“And that’s when you fell in love?”
“I think I was falling in love the moment we met, but that was when I realized what he recognized from the beginning. We were good together. And when he left, I decided it was time to go home.”
“Did you find what you were looking for then?”
“I grew up enough to know that I couldn’t continue ‘looking for myself’. I had to be who I was – maturity would come with time and experience. I would grow and learn as I went along.”
“So what happened next?”
I cut my eyes at her and she giggles, and while I know exhaustion can be credited for some of it, part of it is just her trying to yank my chain. I growl and her laughter grows louder, but she claps a hand over her mouth to stifle the sound. I huff, but I can’t stop the smile that crosses my face. I look at the image in my hand and let my mind travel back again.
He had six months Earth side, and though we were on opposite sides of the planet, we continued to stay in touch daily... even if was only to say hi and chat for a few minutes before one of us had to go rushing off to our next task. It was a good time for us. We were still learning about one another, but now we were beyond the surface. We talked politics and science and religion like the rest of the world, but we also discussed our hopes and plans for the future. Where we saw ourselves in ten years; what we’d like to see for our children. Serious things like philosophy and morality and silly things like cooking styles and regional quirks. It was amazing.
Before he was shipped back off-world, he came to see me... to say goodbye.
“Did he kiss you?” she asks, eyes shining.
I grin. “Oh yeah,” I drawl. “Something to remember him by, he said. Although by that point, I seriously doubt I could have forgotten him. We promised to stay in touch again, and at least this time I was a little more prepared for the intensity of his attention.”
“So now you knew you were in love with him?”
“Not yet,” I reply and she snorts at me. “I knew I loved him, and that I would be unhappy if anything happened to him. But in love? I wouldn’t be certain of that until he came home again,” waggling the Pad in her direction
“Finally!” she grumbles and I laugh.
“Yes... finally,” I agree. “The funny thing is, despite everything, I was still caught by surprise when I realized the truth.”
She looks at me with disbelief. “Seriously, Mary?”
“So tell me.”
Before I could resume my story, she puts a hand on my arm. I look at her and she asks, “When did you ask your mama... you know, about being in love?”
“I need to back up a little for that.” She nods. “After our two weeks traveling together, I went home and Edward went to his assignment. Mother didn’t confront me about him, demanding to know what was going on.” I chuckle. “Instead, we talked about what I had seen and done; the people I’d met and the places I’d been. I suppose it was almost a month after I came home before Edward even came up in conversation – real conversation, I mean, and not just a passing mention. And even then, she was pretty subtle about the whole thing.”
“She talked about how glad she was that we were staying in touch; asked what he was doing; how he was enjoying being stationed back on Earth for a while. And not all at once, either – little mentions here and there mixed in with our other discussions. And it wasn’t like it was completely unexpected. After all, they knew we were in touch and spoke often.” I chuckle. “She never made mention of the fact that they knew often meant every single day. And I’m pretty sure she had more than one talk with Daddy about keeping quiet and letting me work out things for myself. I’m really not sure who was more surprised by my question when I did finally ask her about it.”
“She didn’t expect the question?”
“I’m sure on some level that’s true. But more, I don’t think she expected me to talk to her about it. I loved Mother, and she became one of my best friends when I finally reached adulthood. But for my whole life, I was Daddy’s girl – and with the exception of when I started cycling, I went to him with my questions whenever I could. And not just for the ice cream,” I add, getting a smile for my efforts.
“So why did you go to her about this? It seems about the most important question you could possibly ask.”
“That’s why I went to Mother. I knew how Daddy felt about Edward; he’d told me point blank the day he came to confront me about running away. Oh, not about coveting him for a son-in-law,” I say, waving my hand to dispel her confusion. “But I knew Daddy liked and respected Edward like he would one of his own, and that’s saying a lot coming from a Marine. If I went to him with this, he’d tell me whatever was necessary to get Edward and me together.”
“Your mama wouldn’t do that?”
I smirk. “I’m sure she would have if she’d had time to prepare. But she didn’t. I just sort of put it out there, and she was left trying to answer it on the fly.”
“So what happened?”
“I asked... just like you did. Mother’s eyes kind of bugged out of her head, and she swallowed hard a couple times before she cleared her throat and told me what I told you earlier... about it being too late if you had to ask.” She nods but doesn’t speak. “I nodded and we continued making dinner, which is what we’d been doing when I asked, but after dinner was over, I went out for a while.”
“Alone or with friends?”
“Alone. I needed some time to process what Mother had said and to think about what that meant for me. I got on my bike and just rode for a while, and when I got tired, I pulled off at a little out-of-the-way joint. I walked in and went to the bar and ordered a dirty martini – the barkeep didn’t even blink. Just poured my drink and took my money.”
“You were old enough for alcohol?” eyebrow raised in disbelief.
“I was a Marine’s kid. You think I didn’t know how to play the system before I was out of high school?”
“Point,” she concedes and I smirk.
“So how long did you sit there drinking?”
I shake my head. “Two completely different questions.”
I only had the one drink all night. But I was there for the better part of three hours. For the first little while, I sat quietly at the bar, sipping on my martini and watching the sports channel that was on. About forty-five minutes and halfway into my drink, this old man sat down next to me. He didn’t speak – just motioned the bartender over and in a minute, there was a cold beer sitting in front of him.
I don’t know how he signaled the bartender, but as soon as he gave the old man his beer, he went to the other end of the bar and stayed there until I left.
We sat there silently for a little while, watching the game and occasionally drinking, and I figured the old man just wanted to be near the screen to watch the game. It was only when he started to speak that I realized he had chosen that seat so he could talk to me.
“Did that not scare you?”
I look at her funny. “No... why would it? Arianna, I wasn’t unarmed. Daddy had taught us all self-defense from the time we were old enough to walk and know left from right. The only way the old man could have hurt me would have been if he’d pulled a gun... or if the whole bar had ganged up on me. But this wasn’t that kind of place.”
“How could you tell? Had you been in many bars at that point in your life?”
I pause, considering how to explain it. “You know, how when you walk into an interview, you get a feel for the room? How you can tell if the press is going to be hostile or if the interviewer is looking forward to talking to you?”
“Um... no, not really. I just assume they’re all hostile and hope I’m wrong.”
I cover my eyes with my hand. Given what I know of her history, I should have expected that. I sigh. “Well, when I walk into a room, I get a feel for it. I can tell if people are excited or hostile or ambivalent. It serves me well in my job.”
“I can see how it would,” she agrees. “So you had a feeling about this bar?
“And about the old man. And then he started talking and he had my undivided attention.”
“You remind me of myself... sixty-odd years ago,” he said to me by way of introduction and I turned to find his kindly eyes watching me with understanding and a hint of humor.
“Excuse me?” I was polite – Mother would kick my ass otherwise if she found I was disrespecting my elders... even if I didn’t know him. I looked to see if there was someone else he could have been addressing. Surely he wasn’t talking to me.
He smiled and I smiled back in reflex because he reminded me of my Grampa. “Don’t worry, young lady. You don’t know me, but I was talking to you. Because you remind me of myself a long time ago.”
I cocked my head. It wouldn’t hurt me to listen if he needed to talk and now I was a little curious too. “How so?”
His smile grew a little bit melancholy and his gaze went distant. “Believe it or not, I was once a youngster like you – had my whole life in front of me. I was going to school on a scholarship, involved in sports and clubs and working weekends playing in a band. And then I met this girl, and she knocked me for a loop. I mean really – she blew everything else clean out of my mind. She was all I could think about. I almost lost my scholarship because of her,” he said with a glance in my direction and I wondered what this had to do with me. “You think I’m crazy telling you about this, don’t you?”
“No sir,” I answered without thought.
He held my eyes for another moment, measuring my sincerity. I guessed he found what he was looking for, because he turned his head back towards the game and lifted his beer to his lips. After he swallowed, he spoke again.
“I wasn’t really sure how to deal with her – she was so far out of my league – and yet that was part of her charm. I was so taken with her. She was... amazing. And I decided I was going to do whatever it took to make her mine.”
“And how did she feel about it?”
The old man snorted. “She wasn’t particularly impressed. She thought I was barbaric.”
“I’m kinda inclined to agree with her… especially with that attitude.” He laughed.
“I am too... now. But then the only thing I could focus on was the fact that I wanted her in my life – no matter what.”
“And how did that work out for you?”
“Not at all to begin with. Like I told you, I almost lost my scholarship I was so focused on her. Then I realized that destroying my future wasn’t the best way to impress her. And once my focus was back on track, it was a lot easier for me to get to know her.”
“Did that help?”
“Immensely,” he laughed. “I was a much more interesting person when I wasn’t... how did she put it? Oh yeah – when I wasn’t acting like a stalker.”
I laughed. I could understand where the other girl was coming from, though I was certainly not going to tell the stranger who had introduced her to me. Polite meant I listened; it didn’t mean I shared. “What happened?”
“We went through college and we actually became good friends over the course of the four years we were there together. But when graduation came, she left. She had a dream, and she needed to be somewhere else to fulfill it. I wasn’t part of it – I couldn’t be.”
“So you let her go?”
He smiled, the sadness back in his eyes. “I had to. She wasn’t mine to hold onto.” He picked up his beer and drained it, setting the bottle back on the bar and pushing it away before he turned to look at me again... and waited. He knew he had me hooked.
“What did you do?”
He shrugged. “What I could. I kept in touch; supported her the best I could; I even comforted her through a couple broken hearts when her romances didn’t work out the way she wanted.”
“That seems like... I dunno – it seems kind of unfair of her to use you like that. Like she was taking advantage of you.”
“But was it really taking advantage if I allowed it to happen? Besides, she didn’t know how I felt.”
He waved away my objection. “She had no reason to think I meant what I told her when we first met. Remember, I went out of my way to become friends with her, and to do that, I had to let her think she’d slipped from my romantic radar. So the fact that at that point all she really thought of me as was her staunch best friend was completely my doing. I had to decide if I wanted to risk that friendship for the relationship I really wanted with her.”
“What did you do?”
He looked around the bar we were sitting at. “I came to a place like this and drank myself stupid trying to decide if it was infatuation or if it was love.”
“You decided you were in love?”
He shook his head and I frowned in frustration. “I decided I loved her, but I wasn’t sure if that translated to being in love.”
“My mother told me if I had to ask if I was in love it was already too late.”
“I don’t think that’s true. It’s very possible to love someone without being in love with them; and the fact that you’re questioning means there’s a definite possibility and that you’re open to it. But only you know if it’s something you can build a life on.”
“What did you do?”
“Aside from drinking myself stupid?” he joked and I nodded.
“I thought about her; I thought about me; I thought about us together and what she meant to me the way things were. Then I thought about how it would feel if she was no longer part of my life – I couldn’t breathe. THAT’S when I knew I was in love. And I realized that if I didn’t try, I would lose her anyway and that it was worth the risk to have her finally be mine.”
He grew quiet and waited. I swallowed the last of my drink, grimacing at the lukewarm temperature. Then I looked him in the eye and finally spoke. “So what happened?”
“She slapped me.”
“She slapped me... on the arm as it happened, but still. Then asked me what had taken me so long – that she’d been waiting for years for me to finally figure it out. We married less than a month later and were together fifty-one years before....” He trailed off, but I didn’t need him to finish to know what he meant. The expression on his face was telling enough. “My only regret is the time we missed being together, but I never regretted taking the chance to be with her.”
I was curious, but I hesitated to ask. After all, it wasn’t really my business. It obviously showed on my face, and he cocked his eyebrow in question, his expression letting me know it was all right to ask. “How long?” He tilted his head and I elaborated. “How long have you missed her?” not wanting to rub salt in what I could see was still an open wound.
He smiled, though there were tears in his eyes now. “Feels like forever,” he replied. “But she’s been gone from me for almost four years.” He dropped some money on the bar and stood, placing a hand on my shoulder as he stepped behind me. “I’m not saying you’re in love with your young man or woman – it’s not my place to make that call. You’re the only one who can decide that. But if you’re to the point that you are entertaining the possibility, let an old man give you some advice. There is no greater regret than the chance not taken. And even if he or she breaks your heart, it just means there is something better waiting.”
He squeezed my shoulder and made his way out the door, leaving me to my solitude once more. In another few minutes, I took a deep breath and rose from my seat, signaling the bartender for my tab. He shook his head and told me the old man had covered it. I thanked him and walked out the door. It was time for me to go home.
“I didn’t say a word to Mother when I got home, and she didn’t ask. Although she didn’t know where I had gone, she appreciated why I had done so. And she knew that if I needed to and when the time was right, I would talk to her about what I had discovered on my ride.”
“Tell her?” Arianna nodded. “No, not in so many words. But she knew, in the way that mamas seem to know.”
“How could you tell?”
“Little comments... actions – things that let me know she comprehended my unspoken indicators. Still, things went on much like they had been before I asked – I attended classes; my sisters went to school or work. Or as it was in the case of one of my sisters, they joined the military. I talked to Edward every day, and the conversations grew longer and more personal as time passed. Then he got his orders for his next off-world assignment, and he came home on leave very briefly to say goodbye.”
“Was it romantic?”
“Not at all,” I say with laughter in my voice. “We literally had about five minutes alone before his shuttle left, because as I later learned, he shouldn’t have been there at all. The stop was a special concession for him. He promised to stay in touch and so did I, but otherwise, there were no promises between us. Then he kissed me and boarded without looking back. He told me later if he’d turned around he would have stayed, and that would have gotten him thrown in the stockade or worse.”
“That sounds a little romantic.”
“In hindsight, yes – knowing that was the reason he refused to look back. But at the time, it hurt.”
“You thought he was dismissing you,” she says matter-of-factly.
“I did,” I agree. “And it made me a little angry.” I look at her. “Have you ever heard the saying, ‘hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’?”
“No, but I understand the implications.”
“That was me. Don’t get me wrong – I didn’t go out and do anything particularly stupid. But I did become more social... going out with groups of friends and spending time hanging out with girls and guys that liked spending time with me – trying to see if what I felt for him was real or just a fluke I could mark down to the attention he had paid me. Mother frowned at me a lot, trying to figure out what the hell was wrong with me. Only the month before I was wondering if I was in love, and now I was acting like it meant nothing. And not having heard from Edward in almost a month.... I knew what kind of pull he had – he’d shown me that at the beginning of our relationship. And now, when it actually meant something to me to hear from him, he was silent.”
“He realized he’d made a mistake leaving me the way he had... with things unresolved and me not understanding why. So he’d made a deal with the devil – if he took care of a certain assignment, he could come home for a week to take care of our situation. But to complete his task, he had to be out of communication until it was finished. It was the only way they couldn’t track him.”
“I take it he was successful.”
I grin. “Oh yes. And when he came home....”
“That’s when the picture was made?”
“That’s when the picture was made. Daddy had Mother bring me to the airfield... said something was coming in special delivery for me. I couldn’t imagine what, but I decided to humor them. After all, just because I was in a pissy mood didn’t mean I needed to take it out on the world at large. When Edward stepped off that shuttle, I went virtually dumb and mute – I couldn’t move and I couldn’t speak. He raced down the ramp before it was fully extended, jumping the last couple feet to the ground before kneeling in front of me. I did move enough to cover my mouth with my hand to keep from screaming. Daddy snapped this picture the moment I said yes.”
“So he came home and literally swept you off your feet with a grand romantic gesture.” I’m not really sure what to make of her tone, but there is a slight smile on her face and a little twinkle in her eyes.
“Kind of. I mean, I had already figured out I was in love with him. It didn’t take much for me to let him sweep me off my feet.” I give her a smile. “But we still had things to work out and lots of talking to do, and it would take us a little while to iron everything out. But at least we were finally on the same page.” She nods but bites her lip and I arch my eyebrow in her direction. “Go ahead and ask.” I instruct her. I don’t have the first clue what she’s thinking, but obviously it’s important to her.
“What about his parents?”
I blink. Surely I misunderstood, because that wasn’t even on my radar as a subject of conversation since they hadn’t come up until now. “I beg pardon?” trying to buy a little time to coalesce my thoughts into some sort of coherence.
The look she gives me should peel the plaster from the walls. “We’ve talked about your parents. I know that they accepted him in your life immediately.” She snorts. “They accepted him before you did.” I nod. “What about his parents? You haven’t said a word about either of them.”
“Not much to say. They didn’t like me at all.”
I snort. “Pick a reason. I was too young. I was too crass. I was a military brat. I was beneath them socially.” I look at her. “Shall I go on?”
She shakes her head. “What did Edward do?”
I smile in memory. “You have to remember that Edward had been on his own for over five years by the time we met – almost seven by the time he proposed. When they explained to him in front of me all the reasons I was unsuitable, he ushered me to his vehicle to wait. Then he told them explicitly how things were going to be, and what it would take for them to be part of our lives again.”
“He disowned them?”
“He did. They were never part of our lives from that day. They didn’t attend our wedding and never knew their grandchildren. When the kids were old enough to ask about his parents, we told them their father’s parents were dead.”
“Technically, yes. But in reality? No. They were dead to us and had been for years at that point.”
“And that didn’t bother him? Edward, I mean. He didn’t miss them in his life?”
I frown, trying to figure out what I’m missing. I bite my lip and search her expression, but her eyes are hidden from me, focused now on the hands she’s twisting in her lap. I shift so I can lay the Pad on the table beside me, and I can feel her relax now that my attention has been diverted. “We only spoke of it twice – once right after it happened and the second time after his father passed away. The first time he was full of righteous anger and hatred at their treatment of me. The second time....” I pause and clear my throat. “He was saddened by his father’s death, but he told me he’d do it all over again if it meant having what we had together... that it had been worth it.”
“Do you think he meant it?”
“I know he did. The fact that my parents welcomed him as a son contributed to that greatly because with them he had a family that loved him despite his parents’ actions. I know his parents hurt him by rejecting me because that meant they rejected him as well. But Edward was a strong man, and he had been on his own for a number of years by the time all this happened.”
There is silence for a few minutes and I let it linger. She obviously still has something on her mind. Maybe if she can unload whatever is still bothering her, we can get back to the real reason she’s here. Finally she looks at me. “If it had been the other way around, could you have done it? If your parents threatened to disown you if you stayed with Edward – because they disapproved of him for whatever reason – could you have walked away from them like he did for you?”
I look at her, covering her hands with mine and squeezing lightly. “Look at me,” I command softly. She hesitates for a long minute before raising her chin and allowing her brown eyes to meet mine. “When I first met him, at the age of eighteen, no. I knew nothing of the world or anything in it. And he really did freak me out on a pretty big scale when we first met – he was so intense. But as I got to know him - as I fell in love with the military man and the romantic; the graceful fighter and the clumsy dancer; the man who led men into battle and the man who wrote poetry – as I fell in love with all aspects of him, yes. It would have hurt to hell and gone because we’ve always been a close-knit family. But I would have left my family behind to be with him. And Arianna,” I say softly, letting one hand cup her cheek to wipe away the tears she’s permitted to fall from her eyes, “I fell more in love with him every day... even when we fought and yelled with each other. Every trial we suffered through together? It was worth it... because we were together. That was always reason enough Edward said.”
She looks away from me then, focusing her eyes on the far wall and her attention even further beyond, and I can feel her willing the tears from her countenance. I know the customs of her planet are similar to what they were on mine a century or two prior, and I can’t understand why tears are still considered a sign of weakness for anyone. We’ve learned that the strong become stronger when allowed to express their joy AND their sorrow instead of being forced to hide parts of themselves for fear of mockery and derision.
I don’t want to embarrass her with my scrutiny, however, and I slip from the bed and cross to the refrigerator to grab another bottle of cold water. I have adjusted to drinking it at practically any temperature while on this assignment, but I still appreciate that first feeling of cold sliding down into my belly. I turn to offer her another, but she shakes her head, keeping her eyes focused on the wall as she blinks rapidly. I cock my head, then come to the sudden realization that she’s waiting for my permission.
Without pausing, I drop onto the small space beside her, facing her and covering her hands with my own. I don’t move, waiting for her to acknowledge me, and after a long moment, she can’t help but. Her head turns, but her eyes shift to her lap. I still don’t move, nor do I speak. The ball is in her court now. If she’s going to share with me, she’s going to have to do it on her terms.
“You said you had files on me... on everyone who is being considered for the project?” I nod and her eyes flicker up at the motion before they drop back to her lap. “How much do you know?” I frown, not completely understanding the question. She looks up at me and though there are tears on her lashes and in her eyes, there is nothing in her expression to give away her thoughts.
“About?” I query, trying to get some sort of illumination on what exactly she’s looking for. She glares, then realizes I am truly unsure about what specifically she’s asking about. She shakes her head and sighs.
“I suppose that was somewhat vague, wasn’t it?” giving me a smirk when I arch an eyebrow in her direction. Her mien sobers and her eyes return to her lap as she sighs again. “Let me start over. How long have you been doing this... watching us, I mean?”
I move one of my hands from hers, rubbing across my forehead and eyes before letting it slide down my face. Of all the questions she could have asked, this is one of the most loaded. I go to remove my other hand, by she grabs on tightly enough to draw a wince. I pat her hands, and she looks at me almost involuntarily, and this time her façade isn’t nearly as solid. I let my free hand cup her cheek.
“Arianna, I’m not leaving, and I am going to answer your question. I was simply going to move back to my side of the bed so I could lean against the headboard.”
Instead of releasing my hands, she simply shifts over towards the middle of the bed far enough that I have room to sit beside her on the edge of her side of the bed. I wonder, but I’ve been around long enough to know when to take a hint. So I pull my hand from hers and turn so I’m leaning against the headboard, not at all surprised when she leans into me, recovering one hand to hold onto. I let the other wrap around her shoulders even as I consider if her mother has ever done this for her. I feel more than hear her sigh of contentment and decide she probably never did; it makes me angry on Arianna’s behalf. Still, there’s nothing to be done for it at this point, so I just smile and tip my head down to observe her profile.
“Better?” I ask softly, knowing it is on a number of levels. She nods.
“I miss being held like this. It seems like it’s been forever.”
My eyebrows jump in surprise. “How long?”
She shrugs. “Mama held me like this when I was little, but once I started training, it seemed to happen less and less. And not at all since….” She stiffens and then forces herself to relax, tilting her head briefly then settling back into a more comfortable position. “So... how long?”
“Well, what you originally asked was how long I’ve been doing this. Then you asked how long I’ve been watching all of you. Those are two different things – more than that, if I’m completely honest.” She taps the hand she’s holding, and I sense her impatience in the motion. I smile just the smallest bit. “I told you I started doing this gig when my daughter’s security was threatened,” feeling her nod. “She was seven, so close to twenty years I’ve been in this business.”
“Someone threatened your daughter when she was a seven-year-old child??”
“Um hmm.” My expression is serene, but I still growl when I think about the fucker that thought he could threaten what was mine. “And it only happened once. We were proactive after that – determining threats before they were ever allowed to blossom beyond the obsession stage. The reason my sons are still at an Academy is because they were part of my team and they were asked to stay and teach for their first term of service. Extending their scholastic careers in such a manner meant they were able to qualify in more than one field of expertise.”
“What happened to him?” I glance down at her and cock an eyebrow. “The man who threatened your daughter.”
“I found him, and Edward made certain he was never able to threaten another child again.” There is a note of finality in my voice and she nods her understanding.
“So you’ve been taking care of threats for twenty years. How long have you been working on this project?”
“I’ve been here since before the beginning. I was brought in when it was only in the idea stage.”
“But this idea has been around for....”
“Quite a while, yes. It’s been talked about since before you started playing with combining nuclear fission and nuclear fusion. But your brilliance in that regard spurred more serious discussion, which led to ideas. That’s when I was brought into the project.”
“To do what?”
“Our purpose was two-fold. We were to monitor possible candidates as well as to ensure your safety. We looked into your backgrounds; watched your progress; followed your success and failures; monitored your lives as well as your aptitudes. As prospects were dropped from our register, we were able to do more exclusive monitoring and research.”
“So you know everything?”
I burst into laughter – I can’t help it. She jerks her head back to frown at me, and I take a deep breath to contain the rush of humor. “Sorry,” I apologize. “I haven’t had a kid ask me if I know everything in a very long time.” I hold up a hand before she can protest. “I know you’re not really a kid nor is that what you meant, but it struck me funny. Cut me a little slack. It’s really, really late.”
She yawns, causing me to do the same. “Thanks for reminding me,” she grumbles at me with a glare.
“Sorry,” I return, wiping my eyes. “And no, we don’t know everything. We didn’t tap into comm devices or rooms nor did we wire each of you for sight and sound. We did allow you a modicum of privacy where we could, and we never shared more than was required and then only with those who needed to know. So you do still have some secrets... even from us.”
She sighs and I wait. “Do you know...?” She hesitates, and I keep waiting. I’m not going to give this to her – she’s got to do it on her own for it to mean anything to her. After another deep breath she speaks again. “Do you know about Eli?”
I blink – it takes me a minute to realize to whom she’s referring. I nod. “I know many things. Tell me what you think I need to know,” I encourage.
I feel her shudder and she shifts away, sitting up against the headboard beside me, though she retains her hold on my hand. “You know about my growing up,” smiling softly when I nod. “You probably know more about it than I do,” she adds with a smirk, “given what you’ve shared with me already. I was put into school at Mama’s behest, though I really didn’t like it much until towards the end of my scholastic career. My personality made it hard for me to make friends and my position made it nearly impossible.” She shrugs. “Still, it made Mama happy, so I kept my own counsel about it, and it wasn’t so bad at the last. I mean, I finally had friends and was allowed a certain amount of freedom to participate in school activities with them.”
I nod. I know all of this, of course and we’ve been over most of this already, but if it helps her, then I’m happy to listen to it again… especially if she continues to share details I haven’t heard before.
“As soon as school was over, I accepted the crown and my role as heir to the throne – that is when my work began in earnest.”
“That’s when you were pulled into the project.”
She nods. “Yes – even though I was spending less time in the lab, that’s when I was pulled into the project... with the caveat that I be allowed to remain at home until it progressed beyond my contribution. I knew everything else depended on my work.”
“Did that bother you?”
“What?” She snaps her head around to look directly at me. “No,” she replies before I can repeat my question. “I knew I could bring the reality of combining nuclear fission and fusion to fruition – it was just a matter of how long it would take. And I had other responsibilities beyond the project – there was no reason to remove me from them before it was necessary.”
“My request. As Papa pointed out, this project would take years regardless and there was no guarantee it would happen in my lifetime. There was no reason to put my entire existence into upheaval until we were sure it was a go.”
“So once it advanced into the selection process? How has this impacted your other responsibilities?”
“Papa is convinced it is a necessary evil.”
“I’m not following.”
She snorts. “Yeah... it took me a little while to understand as well.” She sighs. “The reason he hasn’t protested my participation – has in fact encouraged it – is because of the prestige it brings not only to our household, but to our planet as a whole. We’re being recognized as a first-world contributor and that’s important to him.”
“But not to you.”
She shakes her head. “No... not really. I mean don’t get me wrong – the recognition was kind of incredible to start with. But I did this – *I* earned this. Not him and not anyone else. And the responsibility for my success or failure lies on my shoulders. And as my work goes, so goes the project to a very great extent.”
I nod, because she’s absolutely correct. The success of everything lies in her work – she is the foundation everything else is being based from – everything is being tailored to utilize her energy source. She nods as well and resumes her telling.
“So, Papa expects me to be part of this project initially. As far as he’s concerned, it’s a done deal. For my work and my research to be included, I will be by necessity a part of this from the beginning. And he’s thrilled because of the distinction and respect it has garnered us. But he also believes that I will do my time and come home.”
My eyebrows shoot into my hairline. “Does he understand what kind of time is involved here?”
“No. And I’m not going to be the one to explain it to him.”
“And what of your responsibilities to the realm?”
She cuts her eyes in my direction. “Whose side are you on?”
“No side,” I reply, holding up our hands. “I just want to make sure I understand everything clearly.”
She squeezes my hand but returns her focus to the far wall. “If I was given my way, the monarchy would be replaced by a democracy. In lieu of that, I’d settle for a regent until such time as my work is complete and I return home. But for now, he and Mama are still in good health and firmly entrenched as ruling monarchs, so the point is moot as far as I’m concerned. Since most of my royal involvement in anything is currently of a ceremonial nature, he is willing to let my royal duties slide to ensure my participation in this project. Therefore I presently have no responsibilities to the realm, as it were.”
“Okay. So how does all this tie into Eli and Malcolm and...?” She’s turned to look at me with amusement in her eyes and I can’t help but smile despite the hand covering my mouth.
“I’m getting there,” she chides. “You have to let me tell it, though.”
I nod and she removes her hand. I grin evilly at her. “So what happened next?” I ask.
She narrows her eyes at me and huffs. I smirk and she can’t contain her grin, though it is brief. Then she starts speaking again.
“So Papa fully expects me to be part of the original team heading up this project – as far as he’s concerned, it’s a given. This,” motioning around us, “is merely a formality that must be observed for appearances’ sake so that everyone is seen to have been given a fair shake to be part of the Alpha team. Once this is taken care of I, and whatever other members of the team are chosen to join me – including Malcolm – will begin making the concepts we have been developing reality.”
“Your father does understand that he has no control over who is chosen, right?”
She cocks an eyebrow. “He likes to think he does. To that end, he betrothed me to Malcolm.”
I blink. “Seriously?”
“Do I look like I’m making this up?” Her voice is more than a little harsh and her agitation is clear in the way she’s squeezing my fingers sporadically. I make a mental note to get a therapy appointment – I’m going to need it on my hands before we’re done here. She releases a breath slowly and relaxes her grip on my hand. “Sorry,” she mutters. “Let me start over.”
“When I was approached by the Committee, Papa was thrilled,” she starts dryly. “Finally, we were getting the recognition he felt we deserved. And it was easy to negotiate the terms I wanted – allowing me to remain home until there were more candidates than just myself to consider. Papa tried to dictate.” She gives me a look. “You can imagine how well that went over.”
I snort. “Not at all?”
“Not at all. It almost ended my participation before it started.”
“Would you have let it?” I interrupt. She angles her head to one side as she considers my query.
“Maybe then,” she admits softly. “But it wouldn’t have stopped my work. And eventually, I would have sought out a way to utilize it on a bigger scale. That would have brought me back into the Committee’s purview. I just wouldn’t have been the basis for the rest of the work going into the project – I would have been an alternate.”
“I take it your father realized that and gave his blessing instead of continuing to make demands the Committee wouldn’t begin to entertain?”
Her smirk is more than a bit angry, and the nod of her head is sharp. “Yes. Instead he asked that other scientists from my planet be considered as well. The Committee agreed and things settled down for a couple years. I continued my work and carried out whatever royal assignments were handed to me. Then the Committee tapped me to begin this process and everything changed.”
She clenches my hand again, and it’s all I can do to keep from wincing. I give silent thanks for whole milk and the strength of my bones. I reach out with my free hand and loosen her clasp, rubbing my thumb over her hand to persuade her to relax. She looks at me with a myriad of emotions swirling in her dark eyes, and I give her a tender smile. “Tell me.”
She nods and closes her eyes, which causes a lone tear to trail down her cheek. She ignores it and takes a deep breath. “You know most of this, but.... When work progressed enough on every front, all the scientists were brought here from their home worlds and placed into an environment similar to the one we will be functioning in. The objective was to see how we fit together as individuals and as team members as well as to weed out any potential unworkable ideas. I probably don’t need to tell you how *that* went over.”
“Tell me from your side. I’m pretty sure you had a different perspective than we did.”
“There were a number of candidates that were under the impression that having made it to that point meant they were in. They weren’t at all happy to discover this was just another elimination stage.”
“Did it cause issues?”
“It could have... probably would have if Eli hadn’t stepped into the breach before it blew sky high.”
“So what happened?”
There was a lot of discontent as more and more scientists arrived in the relatively small underground bunker. It was easy to see we would be forced to share space – living and working. And most of us were loners... by nature or by necessity. It was going to be awkward, to say the least – downright miserable at worst.
The most disconcerting thing about the entire situation was no one seemed to be in charge. No one was there to greet us – handing out assignments or instructions. Instead, we were left to our own devices... which was a dangerous thing with all the egos in the room.
“Was that deliberate?” her eyebrow cocks in question.
I smirk. “What do you think?”
“So it was. I wondered.” She sighs. “It makes sense now, of course, but at the time it was just....”
“I know. But it told us a lot about everyone.”
She rolls her eyes. “I’ll bet. Besides, as Eli aptly pointed out, we weren’t going to be able to rely on outside influences to structure things for us when we got to the final project.”
“Tell me,” I say again, and she nods.
There was a lot of grumbling – some of it was downright nasty. Malcolm tried to put me in charge... pulling the royalty card, which only put people’s back up against me right from the start. Especially since most of the individuals participating were from democracies... not monarchies. They certainly didn’t recognize my right to rule anything. And to be honest, I’d lost a lot of my brashness and outspokenness in the intervening years since high school. I had to practice a certain amount of decorum in the course of my royal duties, and lab work tended to drive me towards reclusiveness because so much of my work and research I did alone.
The only thing Malcolm did was to unite all the malcontents against me. And unintentional or not, it was an uncomfortable position for me to be in.
Then from the back of the room, a husky voice spoke up, and Eli was making her way to the front of the room. I was entranced.
“Why were you entranced?”
She freezes... as though she’s never considered the question before. “She was....” The pause is thoughtful and I wait. “She was different – so different from anyone I had ever met.”
“In what way?”
Her smile is wistful. “In every way that matters,” she replies, her eyes focused on something beyond sight now. “She was confident without being obnoxious. And when she spoke, people naturally listened – even if they argued with her. She still had their attention.” She hesitates and I remain silent. “She stood up for me,” her voice a mere whisper of sound that I had to strain to hear.
“No one had done that before?”
“Not like that,” shaking her head. “She didn’t know me – she had no reason to.”
“So what happened?”
“All right... listen up. Here’s what we’re gonna do.”
“Who died and put you in charge, bitch?” a big man snarled from one side of the room. “Despite her supposed ‘royal pedigree’,” motioning towards Arianna, “we’re all equals here.”
“No,” Eli drawled slowly, staring at him with the slightest smirk on her face. “We’re really not. Some of us are actually intelligent outside our work specialties and a few of us even have the sense to get in out of the rain without being told. Obviously you’re not one of them. And if she’s really some sort of royal,” gesturing at Arianna in much the same manner her detractor had, “she’s probably got leadership experience. But she didn’t volunteer – some other dipshit put her out there. Why are you assuming he knows anything? Or that she *wants* to take responsibility for any of you?” It grew quiet and Eli looked around. “Now as I was saying, here’s what we’re going to do.”
“Again... who the hell left you in charge?” a woman in the middle of the room asked.
“You think you can do better? Please,” Eli offered with a cocked eyebrow, waving her hand for the woman to join her at the front of the room. The woman snarled at Eli, but didn’t move. “All right. Then sit down and shut up – all of you. The fact is we aren’t going to be able to rely on outside influences to structure things for us when we get to the final project. If we can’t work out a way to live together here, we’re not going to make it there. I’ll bet a place on the Alpha team that this is just another test.” There were groans heard throughout the room, but also a majority of heads nodding their agreement.
“Okay, so here’s what we’re gonna do,” Eli repeated for a third time... only this time there was no disparagement. She looked around the room and found a sense of expectancy. She nodded sharply. “We need to decide how we want to split living space first. We can figure out workspace once we’re settled. I’d like to suggest that we pair up with people we don’t know... especially if you won’t be working with them. Part of the purpose to this has got to be getting to know one another,” seeing heads in accord even as people started shifting around.
Malcolm headed towards Arianna, but a look quelled his progress and he quickly turned his steps elsewhere. Eli turned to Arianna. “Whaddya say, Angel? You and me?”
Arianna smiled. “I’d like that.”
“It really wasn’t that difficult,” she says softly, her eyes still fastened on a spot on the far wall. “Once we were all on the same page, we realized Eli was probably more right than she knew. And once we had pairs, it was easy to do a raffle to decide who ended up where.”
“There wasn’t any more grumbling?”
She snorts and I grin. “Not on that account anyway. There was plenty of grumbling, as I’m sure you’re aware. But Eli managed to get everyone settled into living quarters pretty easily, all things considered. Dividing up workspace was a different challenge, but surprisingly not difficult. I mean, a lot of it was a given simply due to the various specialties that were present. And Eli was always there to mediate a dispute on the occasion that it was necessary. After she took charge that first day, everyone just looked to her naturally for leadership.”
Her face hardens and her lip curls in disgust; I wonder why she’s still tied to him if she disdains him the way she seems to. She turns to look at me and I thank God for the years I’ve had to practice my stoic demeanor.
“Malcolm, despite Papa’s belief otherwise, has never been particularly bright... especially when it comes to dealing with people he’s convinced are his lesser. He was one of the disruptive members of the group – there were a few. Most of them have already been weeded out because their efforts were less than stellar.”
She doesn’t say it, but I know she is more than a little curious to understand how Malcolm has managed to maintain his status as a peered member of the project. Because she’s right – he’s not nearly as brilliant as the rest. She probably believes that her father’s influence has something to do with it – and she’d be right... just not the way she thinks. However, it’s not my place to reveal the truth to her. I will do that to the Committee when the time is right.
“So I take that as a no then?”
Her laughter lacks humor, and her reply is as droll and dry as any I have ever heard. “Take it as a no. He spent much of what little free time we had trying to undermine her authority – authority we had given her willingly and which she had accepted grudgingly because no one else wanted to step up into the leadership role we deemed necessary to be successful.”
“So what happened?”
Her head drops and I realize we must be getting close to the crux of the matter.
“It wasn’t supposed to be like this. None of this was supposed to happen!”
I cup my fingers under her chin and bring her head up until our eyes meet. There are tears in her eyes again, but I ignore them, searching her face before I whisper. “Tell me.”
“You have to understand – this was so far out of my experience....”
“Arianna, you don’t have to justify yourself or anything that happened to me. I’m not here to judge, all right? I’m here to listen... and maybe help.”
“I don’t think you can.”
“Let me decide that. Now tell me.”
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