Things with Eli just fit... in a way they hadn’t with anyone in my life before. Even Kip and my friends in high school – it had taken me years and vast amounts of effort to get them to see *me*. Not the Princess or the genius or the obnoxious kid... just me. And suddenly.... It was like Eli took one look at me, and she just knew.
She didn’t treat me as a freak or something special – she treated me like everyone else, and that was soooo.... I had never met anyone like her. She never asked if I was royalty or not – she didn’t care. To her I was just Arianna; I was just her friend. And that meant more to me than anything... even Papa’s approval.
The first couple months were hard... for everyone. There was a lot of adjusting on some pretty steep curves. But for Eli and me, it was like we had always been.
I should have seen it coming, I guess. After all, opposites attract, right? And it was... magical.
She grows silent, and though I know exactly where this is going, I need for her to tell me. She’s got to face this head on if we’re ever to get to where we need to be. I look at the clock. And we’re running out of time.
“What was? What was magical?”
“You have to understand – Eli was everything I wasn’t... except brilliant. She was brilliant... is brilliant, actually, just not in the same vein that I am. Her brilliance lies in her ability to see the big picture and make things come together so they fit like they should. I tend to focus on what *I* am doing, tuning out everything around me while she....” Arianna shakes her head. “But it wasn’t just her mind that was different – it was everything. And in that regard, it made us impossible from the start.”
I cup her cheek, bringing her eyes back to mine. “Arianna, assume I know nothing of what’s gone on. Give me the details.”
She nods again and bites her lip, willing the tears back. A deep breath then she starts speaking in a whisper and I strain to catch her words.
Eli was brilliant, but she was wild... untamed by the standards I had always known. She came from a place based on matriarchal societies; where people were governed by those they elected to office; where everyone was a warrior by choice and considered it an honor to serve thus. Consumption of flesh is an acceptable practice on her home world and people there are free to choose a mate they feel love for. It’s not decided by dowry or suitability or parental wish.
And being with her... being her friend... was a liberating experience for me. She taught me... so much, even in the first few months when we were all trying to adjust to functioning together in this new environment as a society.
Of course, she had to adjust to a non-meat diet, and that was probably my biggest contribution to helping her to adjust to the constraints of the project. After all, I had never eaten meat, so I knew how to make the best of what was available. And it made me happy to be able to provide for her that way – in a way I knew most of the others couldn’t. It made me special, and I liked that feeling... especially as it regarded her.
And she was so patient with me about... well, everything. I suppose I really should have seen it coming.
“I didn’t realize it was such a big deal. I had never....” She takes a shuddering breath and I wait. “I never considered.... And when she kissed me the first time, I was lost. I knew what it was to feel... really feel and I let myself fall headlong into feeling without stopping to consider the consequences... for anyone.”
“What sort of consequences?”
“The kind of consequences that end with me betrothed to a man I can’t stand. The kind of consequences that alienate the only person I have ever felt strong emotion for and cause her to not just hate me, but loath my very existence.”
I sigh silently. Finally. “Tell me the rest. Then we’ll see what I can do. Miracle Worker, remember? Have a little faith.”
“This is going to take more faith than I’ve got, Mary.”
“We’ll start with a little and build from there. Now tell me.”
The first few months were furiously busy – Eli and I passed one another coming and going most of the time. If we were in the room at the same time to sleep, it was fortuitous timing more than anything else. Aside from the labs and workstations that had to be established, there were domes to be built and common areas to set up and stock. It was a madhouse, but once it was decided where each discipline would be housed, it went rather smoothly. Because we knew it was going to take effort from everyone if we wanted to see the project succeed. Not that it was without argument, of course – we still had our few dissenters and all our egos, but mostly it was understood that we all stood a better chance if we stopped competing with one another and worked together.
Eventually, of course, things settled down into a less hectic, more human pace, and we were able to do more than work sixteen to eighteen hours a day. That was such a relief, and that more than anything allowed us to start becoming a family.
We had agreed that a twenty-four hour day was necessary at the beginning to ensure nothing got by us. Eli worked out a schedule that rotated hours on and time off. And since everyone involved was degreed in more than one science, she made it so we worked in more than our own area... allowing us to get to know not only one another, but the sheer magnitude of the intricacies involved in actually bringing things to fruition.
When we finally reached the place where twenty-four hour monitoring in every lab wasn’t needed, Eli reworked the schedule. We were allowed an entire day off every couple weeks and it felt like such an indulgence because our hours also got cut – we went from eighteen hour days to ten or twelve hour days. So we suddenly had the luxury of free time and it was wonderful.
Of course, some of that free time was spent ‘bonding’ as a group – watching movies; playing sports; cooking family style meals together. We even had game nights and card tournaments. It was fun and good for us too. It was relaxing, and that went a long way towards making life smoother.
It was during this time that Eli and I found time to spend together. It wasn’t deliberate... not at first. There were just opportunities to do more in our room than sleep and many evenings we found ourselves curled up in our beds just talking to one another. Not about anything important – not what you’d consider important anyway. We tried not to discuss the project or our work – we got enough of that when we were working. Instead, we talked about life and philosophy and music... things that mattered to us. She told me of her home and I shared about mine. I actually watched her gray eyes go completely black with anger more than once on my behalf and that did something to me – put a warm feeling in the pit of my stomach.
We probably did that for a month or two before we were really comfortable with each other. It took us a while, but we were finally friends.
We weren’t quite halfway through our yearlong tenure when we decided to add evening walks to our repertoire. Not exercise, mind you – we started our days with that. She was a runner; I preferred yoga. No, our evening walks were just that – walks around the compound. We’d visit the different labs to enjoy the fruits of labor our colleagues had produced – the scent of pine and citrus; the fragrance of flowers; even the food gardens weren’t to be missed. And we’d always stop and talk to whoever was about. Those who were working appreciated the chance to bring Eli up-to-date personally, and those that weren’t loved the chance to interact with her socially. I was included by default at first and then on my own merit; it meant so much more than I expected.
It was on one of these walks that she first held my hand... guiding me to something she wanted to show me. She simply neglected to release her hold once we reached our destination, and I saw no reason to change the situation. It was on another of these walks that she kissed me for the first time, and it was... it was everything.
I didn’t know then how much.
“You know,” she says softly, and I strain to hear her words. “You wouldn’t think anyone as exceptionally gifted as I am could be so ignorant. But it’s the truth – my sole defense rests in the fact that I was still ignorant of a great many things.”
She blinks and looks at me briefly, before dropping her eyes to her lap and shaking her head. “Everything that matters it seems.”
“Like what?” I ask again, pushing her for an answer.
She sighs, knowing I’m not going to let this one go. “Like what that kiss really meant. Like not realizing what sex with her would be like. Like not knowing how far Malcolm would go or what my father would do.”
“You need to understand something about the culture I come from,” she says, meeting my eyes and waiting for me to nod my agreement. When she gets what she’s looking for, she takes a deep breath and glances at her hands before returning to stare me in the eyes. Whatever she has to share is important enough to her that she wants to ensure I absorb the intent of her words. “On my planet, once a person reaches the age of majority and consent, they become sexually active. Interest is indicated by a kiss, and if it is returned and both parties agree, then sex follows as a matter of course. The idea is to gain experience with a multitude of partners before marriage so that you and your mate will have the knowledge and skill to make one another happy during your union. It is believed to make marriage partners more faithful to one another.”
My eyes widen, but I refrain from making any comments. She’s not looking for commentary and it’s not my place to judge anyway. I nod slowly. “Okay. I’m with you so far.”
“Right,” she says with a sigh. “This behavior generally continues for two to five years – until betrothal is arranged. After that, we are celibate until the wedding night, at which time we pledge ourselves and our fidelity to our new mate.”
“And how long does each liaison last... generally speaking?”
“Well, it depends on the people involved of course, but usually there are a few encounters before moving on to new associates. Most never last more than a few weeks; more than a month is considered long-term.”
“Uh huh,” I drawl slowly, rubbing my forehead in an effort to defeat the headache I can feel forming there. Seriously, who comes up with this stuff?? No wonder I’ve got a fubar of epic proportions on my hands now.
“I know you don’t agree with it,” she says softly, and I drop my hand to look at her again. “But until recently, it’s worked for us.”
“What happened recently to change that?”
“Eli – when I wasn’t looking.”
When Eli kissed me, it was wonderful. She had obviously been taught by those with considerable experience on her planet. And I was thrilled to return it enthusiastically. I wanted her to know I thought we would be well-matched in the sexual arena. So imagine my surprise when after a single kiss, she walked us back to our quarters... and said good night.
I was confused. Had I done something wrong? Was I too inexperienced for her? I would have asked, but aside from the embarrassment and humiliation I felt, she had already turned out her light and rolled over to sleep. I was completely unwilling to degrade myself further by waking her to ask.
I would have set it aside as a fluke, except it happened again – every single night for the next two weeks. And every night, I tried to adjust my kiss to convey my desire to have sex with her. Things progressed – our make-out sessions grew quite heated, but they never moved beyond kissing. Finally, though, I grew frustrated and demanded she show me what I was doing wrong. She looked at me like I was crazy.
“Angel, you’re not doing anything wrong.”
“Then why don’t you want to have sex with me, Eli??”
Her brow furrowed and she pursed her lips. “Who says I don’t want to have sex with you, Angel?”
I slammed my clenched fists into the sides of my legs. “You do! You have every night for the last two weeks. So I’m obviously still doing something wrong!” glaring at her.
The lines on her forehead relaxed and her lips creased into a smile. “Angel, you’re not doing anything wrong. I like kissing you. And I’m looking forward to making love with you as well. I didn’t realize we were on a schedule.”
I was flabbergasted. So I hadn’t done anything wrong and she wanted sex with me as well. The fact that she called it love-making instead of sex was something I put down the differences in our cultures. I had no idea how true that was, but at the time I missed the importance of her words. I was too focused on the fact that sex with her was not only still a possibility, but a likelihood... and in the very near future if I was reading the signs correctly. To say I was excited was an understatement.
I met her eyes and realized that she was waiting for a response, and I frowned as I tried to remember what she’d said that might require one. Her brows furrowed and her lips parted to speak. Then it occurred to me what she was looking for and I clutched at her arm. “OH!” my mouth curling up in a smile, causing hers to follow in reflex. “Sorry – I was so happy to hear you’d like to have sex with me that I almost missed the rest. We’re not on a schedule... except our own.”
“That’s good to know, Angel. Now c’mon... it’s late and we’ve got a long day tomorrow.”
“And an early start,” I grumbled, making her chuckle.
“And an early start,” she agreed.
“It was like that talk took the pressure off both of us and allowed us to move forward without the expectation of sex. I mean... we both knew we wanted it, and we were definitely looking forward to engaging in sexual activity together, but by putting it out there, it was as if it became less of a goal and more of an eventuality that we would get to in our time. We grew closer – which was an anomaly for me, but it was so welcome. Eli touched something within me.... I never knew....” She sighs and looks at me, willing me to understand what she can’t seem to articulate.
“You’d never felt like that before?”
“Exactly!” she exclaims, pointing a finger in my direction. It’s all I can do not to jerk away from her. “In my culture, feelings don’t come until after betrothal or marriage... if they come at all – it keeps things from getting messy, you know?”
“I can see where that could certainly be for the best. But how do you keep from feeling?” She looks at me like she doesn’t get what I’m asking and I sigh. She probably doesn’t. “When you choose your sexual partners, how do you do so? Aren’t there some kind of feelings involved? Like attraction or lust or desire?”
She looks at me like I’m stupid, and I guess by her standards I am. “Of course. But those are superficial feelings – things that can be sated in an encounter or two... something manageable.”
“And what you feel for Eli isn’t so transitory.” I make a statement, and the look it garners me from her should burn me to ash.
“What I felt for Eli....”
“NO. You can lie to your daddy and your fiancé and every single person outside of this room if you think it’s necessary to do so. But you don’t get to lie to yourself or to me.” She opens her mouth to make a rebuttal and I shake my head. “NO,” I repeat. “Despite what you think, I’m not stupid.”
“I never said....”
“You didn’t have to,” I cut her off. I take a deep breath. Now is not the time for me to lose whatever progress I’ve made. But before I can speak, she does.
“You’re right – oh... not about thinking you’re stupid. If I thought you were stupid, I never would have agreed to talk to you about this... even if it meant I went home tomorrow. But you deserve better than me lying to you, and lying to myself....” She shakes her head and gives me a tragic smile. “It hasn’t been particularly successful for me.”
“It never is,” I agree. I wait a moment, but when she doesn’t speak further, I prompt her. “So what happened?”
“We became lovers, and it was incredible.”
It was surprising when it finally happened and yet I felt as if I’d finally come home. It was one of our regular evenings – we’d eaten with a group of our friends and had a dance contest afterwards, which was one of the funniest activities we ever held in the bunker. Because let’s face it, most of us were far too involved in our work to do more than shuffle our feet occasionally and hope we did it to the beat. Practice makes perfect, however, so we were marginally better then when we started – but it was still highly entertaining to watch any of us try to do complicated dance moves.
It was a night full of laughter, and after we had our turn, Eli and I left to take our evening stroll through the compound. There wasn’t really anything notable about it... not really. We went through the gardens, and the scent of the flowers and the hum of bees was heady. She kissed me, and I wrapped myself up in her when I kissed her back. When she pulled away from me, she looked into my eyes for the longest moment, her gray eyes black in the shadows. She traced the skin on my face and gave me a tiny smile, then without a word, she pulled me out of the labs and headed towards our room.
She locked the door behind us when we stepped inside – something she had never done before due to her position in the community. The sound made me smile because I knew what it meant, and I was so ready to share that intimacy with her.
Her touch was slow and tentative at first, but I let her lead the private dance we had started together. She reached places in me I hadn’t been aware of before, and when I touched her in return, I did my best to return the tenderness and pleasure she’d shown me. When our first encounter was over, she cried in my arms. And I discovered I was her first. That was so humbling, but it made me cherish the experience even more. It brought us even closer together... which for me was unusual. I didn’t remember my first sexual encounter with any sort of fondness, but I felt protective towards her after hers.
And so we became more than sexual partners – we became lovers and it was wonderful... until I was removed from the underground portion of the project at Papa’s request. Then everything went to hell in a hand basket.
“Do you know what he told the Committee?” I ask her when the silence goes on for too long. “Do you know how he was able to get you removed from the underground facility without jeopardizing your place in the project?”
She shakes her head. “I never asked. I was ambushed the moment I returned home and by the time things were over, I really didn’t care.”
I’ve never seen or heard such defeat in her before and I wonder how her father can believe he’s doing what’s best for her. What’s best should never cause this kind of confusion or unhappiness. “Would you like to know?” I offer.
“Do you? Do you really know?”
I give her a lopsided smile. “I know many things. This is one I really do know.”
She gives me a sardonic look. “Let me guess – he claimed it was something necessary to my position as Princess.”
I nod my head, not surprised that she figured it out. “He did indeed. He refused to elaborate, and since the Committee doesn’t actually have a claim to you until you are chosen as part of the final selection, they had no grounds to dispute his words.” She nods but she doesn’t speak. “Tell me what happened when you went home.”
I managed a bare nod of my head towards the throne when I entered the room. I was still furious that I had been removed from my position – and from her – and I made no effort to hide my upset. I did have presence enough to note that Papa was scowling behind the beaming smile I could see; that Mama was nervous; and that Malcolm was present and wore the smuggest smirk I had ever seen on his face. I stood and waited, not at all happy to be home for whatever reason... especially since I could feel in my guts that I wasn’t going to be happy by the end of this.
Papa began to welcome me effusively, and in my anger, I cut him off. “Don’t patronize me, Papa. Simply tell me why you summoned me home so I can get back to work.”
“And her?” he sneered. “I know what’s been going on with you and that animal, Daughter.” It was an odd sensation – I could feel the blood drain from my face even as my fury rose. “I could excuse your curiosity about sexual intimacy with someone not of your species – after all, it’s not usual in our culture to be placed in such close proximity to someone so different and you’re a scientist. Curiosity is part of your genetic make-up. I could even excuse the fact that she’s a meat-eater and a warrior if you had adhered to the rules of engagement we utilize during sexual awakening and moved on after sating your curiosity. But despite knowing how things work in our society, you’ve been with the same individual for three months now. Obviously it is time to betroth you to your marriage partner.”
“NO!!” he roared. “This isn’t a vote. You and Malcolm are hereby formally betrothed to one another! He will accompany you everywhere you go from now on. Because of the rules made by the Committee, you cannot be married to one another until you return from this project. Therefore the wedding will take place when you return from your current assignment. Until then, you are betrothed to one another and I expect you to behave thus!”
“NO, Arianna! I have spoken. My word is final!”
“We were both sent back to the bunker to continue our work. Malcolm announced the betrothal the moment we re-entered the compound. Eli looked devastated, but she didn’t say a word. She simply left the common room. By the time I made it to the room we shared, my things were outside the door and it was locked against my entrance. She hasn’t spoken to me since the day before I left for home.”
“Is that all?”
“Is that all?” she laughs, though the sound is close to hysterical. “Isn’t that enough?
I take her hands and wait for her eyes to track to mine. “Arianna – Is. That. All?”
She takes a deep breath and shakes her head, but her eyes never leave mine. “I love her. I know I’m in love with her and I’d do anything to fix this. With her and with them.”
I nod. This is what I’ve been waiting to hear. “Go to sleep. It’s time for the Miracle Worker to do her magic.”
“You can fix this?”
“I can give you a chance. Now go to sleep.” She closes her eyes obediently and in mere moments slips into deeper sleep. I look at her enviously for a moment, then ease my hands from hers and standing. I cover her carefully and move towards the door. We’ve got work to do.
I open the door and Caleb moves from the end of the hallway where he’s been watching from for most of the night. Smoothly, the rest of the security contingent spreads out to keep everything covered while Caleb and I talk.
I rub my eyes and and sigh. “How’s everything out here, Caleb?”
“Quiet, Chief. Except for that little disturbance with Jacob and of course Arianna’s little episode, it’s been a fairly uneventful night.”
I give him a wry look. “Yeah, that was enough commotion to last me for a while. Thanks.”
Caleb gives me a sympathetic look. This job has been a logistical nightmare among other things, and this bump in the road is just the pinnacle of my frustration at this point. I rub my burning eyes again and he clears his throat to speak. “How is she, Chief?”
“Physically, she just needs some rest.” He glances at his watch and gives me a smirk. “Yeah, yeah – we could all use some rest right about now. Too bad there’s no time for it at the moment.” I sigh. “Otherwise... well, I’ve got to work pretty quickly to straighten this out before the Committee makes its final selections.”
“Can you make it right?”
“With enough time, I can give them the chance to fix it.” I yawn and stretch, smiling when Caleb clenches his jaw against the same thing. “Sorry,” I mumble when I finish; he just glares at me... then shrugs.
“S’okay, Chief. I’m not really sure how you’re still awake myself.”
I snort. “Years of practice being a mom. But I’m going to go get a shower and see if I can wake up a little bit before I have to meet with The Powers That Be.”
“You want me to have room service send something up?”
“Rocket fuel,” I joke, drawing the grin I expected.
“I’ll get right on it, Chief.”
I nod. “I should be back out here in fifteen minutes or so.”
“I’ll make sure the coffee’s hot and the biscuits are fresh.”
“You’re a good man, Caleb.”
He laughs and reaches for his comm unit. “Remember that when raise reviews roll around, will ya?”
“Do my best.” I push the door open and step back across the threshold. “I’ll be back.” Then I close the door before Caleb can offer a smart remark. I glance at the bed long enough to notice that Arianna hasn’t moved. I move to the closet and grab some clean clothes, then walk into the bathroom and close the door behind me.
I feel better when I step out of the bathroom – at least I’m awake and somewhat reinvigorated, though there’s no guarantee how long that will last. Arianna still hasn’t moved and I ease the door closed behind me when I exit the room. Caleb is as good as his word, and there is a stocked room service cart waiting for me. I pour myself a cup of coffee and prepare it to my liking, sucking it down as though it’s nectar. The team remains in their assigned places and I savor the bit of calm before the storm.
When the first cup is history and the second cup is made, I lean back against the closest wall and let my eyes wander the long corridor. Up and down its length and at the corners of the intersections, my security team stands carefully vigilant. Caleb arches his brow at me and my shoulders drop even as I nod slightly. He wouldn’t be asking if something hadn’t come up.
“Chief, we got word about five minutes ago that Arianna’s father intends to be here this morning to lodge a formal complaint against you for removing Malcolm from the premises. He claims you have neither the right nor the jurisdiction to take such action.”
The smile I give him makes him flinch instinctively even as he smirks. Caleb recognizes that particular smile and he knows it bodes no good for any number of people and things.
“I welcome him to try.”
“You know something more...?”
“I know many things. But mostly I know he doesn’t have nearly the leverage that I do, and he’s not as powerful as he likes to think he is.”
“I’m glad you’re on their side.”
I cock my head. “I would still like to talk to the other party involved, but I can shut him down without knowing their side. It helps that the Committee is looking for a way to rid itself of Fernando without losing Arianna’s knowledge or work in the process.”
“You think she would go against him?”
“If it gave her the chance to get rid of Malcolm and reclaim the one she truly wants... in a heartbeat,” I confirm. “She’s not particularly enamored with a lot of her realities right now and her father is at the heart of her biggest conflict.” I release a deep breath. “What time?” Caleb cocks his head in question and I arch my eyebrow in response. “What time is Daddy Dearest expected?”
Caleb looks at his watch. “His shuttle should touch down in three hours. We got word to postpone the interviews by an hour this morning, so the Committee will see him at the beginning of their business day and have allotted an hour for him to make his argument.” He gives me a knowing smile. “Are you going to be there?”
I smirk and nod. “Wouldn’t miss it.” I swallow my last mouthful of coffee, grimacing at the bitter, lukewarm taste. I set the cup back on the cart and grab a danish, knowing I will need the fortification if I’m not going to get any sleep in the near future. And thanks to Arianna’s father, I’m pretty sure sleep is going to be nothing but a pipe dream for a while longer as far as I’m concerned.
Caleb looks at me for a long moment, then pours me a glass of milk. I nod my thanks, chugging it like I haven’t had sustenance in days. Caleb takes the empty glass from my hand and refills it as I finish chewing and swallowing the remainder of my breakfast. It isn’t the first meal we’ve had on the run, and it won’t be the last. In our line of work, it’s as common as not. I take the second glass of milk from him and drain it a little slower than the first, but still quickly enough to leave a moustache. Caleb chuckles and offers me a napkin. I stick my tongue out at him, then wipe it away with a smile. Leaving it would certainly not make the impression I need it to make.
“Better?” I ask. He nods.
“Much. How do you feel?”
I pinch the bridge of my nose between my thumb and forefinger. “Like I’m getting too old for this shit,” I reply honestly. “I thought I gave up all-nighters when my kids moved out of the house.”
Caleb laughs, not even trying to contain himself. “You might have, Mary... if you hadn’t invited another hundred into your life once your kids were out on their own.”
I face palm. “What was I thinking?” I mutter. He smirks.
“Do you really want me to answer that?”
I snort. “Not if you’d like to see your bed anytime soon.” I look around and sigh. “I’m going to go get my Pad and review a few things before these kids start stirring. Let me know if anything happens I need to be aware of in the meantime.”
“You’ll be in there?” nodding towards my room.
“Yes. It’s not like there’s anywhere else much for me to go, and I’m not going to invade her privacy and use her room just because she fell asleep in my bed. It’s not like I read out loud or anything.”
Caleb grins. “Okay, just... keep the monitor close, will you? I’d rather not disturb her if we need you, and given the way the past few hours have gone, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear from at least a few more of these kids like we did from Jacob earlier – concerned about her in spite of themselves. I know they still care.”
I feel my gaze sharpen in the blink after his words and he does an admirable job containing his reaction. It’s nothing more than a widening of his own, but it’s there. I frown. “What have you heard?”
“Little things,” he admits. “Things that didn’t make much sense on their own – just random bits of information. But with what Jacob said tonight....”
“You heard that, did you?”
“You know I did. I was never out of listening range.”
I nod – it’s true. No one else would have believed Caleb was able to overhear our conversation, but I knew for a fact his hearing was superior to humans. He was among the best of his kind. “So what else have you heard?”
“There are a few who are angry at her, but most of those that are left are more hurt by her disregard of them than they are angry. The smart ones know that something happened when she went home, and they believe it was done against her will. But since her planet is not welcoming of outsiders as visitors, they really can’t imagine what it could be. And since she’s never shared much about her home world, there’s just a lot of rampant speculation.”
“Is any of it close?”
“Surprisingly, yes.” He nods his head towards one end of the hall. “Jacob has been particularly insightful about possibilities.”
“And the rest?”
“Of those we expect to make the Alpha team with her?” I nod. “Several agree with him; a couple have offered other viable options; a couple want to write her off as a snot; and one....”
“Yes?” I prod when he doesn’t continue. He sighs.
“One hasn’t said a word – not to offer an opinion or to participate in a discussion. When the subject comes up, she leaves the room. No excuses – she simply walks out. She’s actually caused them to stop talking about it when she’s around... mostly because the two or three who think Arianna is just being a snot told the rest she didn’t need to be hurt anymore and their conversation was doing just that.”
My eyebrows fly into my hairline. “When did that happen and why am I just now hearing about it?”
“About a week ago. And because I just now put the pieces together... mostly because of Jacob’s actions tonight.”
“I’m not following.”
“I only got bits of that original conversation – the one where they asked the group to please stop talking about Arianna. But after what Jacob said to you tonight – they still care... even the ones who are angry or discontent with Arianna. They want things to go back to what it was before Malcolm was dropped into the middle of their lives, so to speak – when they were all still a family.”
“She verified it?” He glances at the door. “She actually told you?”
“She told me enough.”
Caleb shakes his head. “She’s hard to get a read on, Chief. Keeps her own counsel and minds her business... plays things real close to the vest, if you know what I mean.”
“My father was a Marine, Caleb. I do indeed.”
He clears his throat. “I guess you would at that.” He looks around the corridor, noting that the agents are beginning to position themselves for the beginning of the day, and glances at his watch again. “I better get moving, Chief. The kids are going to start waking up soon and we need to be ready for anything today.”
“I trust your gut, Caleb. I’ll have the monitor nearby... just in case.”
I nod and re-enter my room, not at all surprised to see Arianna hasn’t stirred a bit. Aside from being up well beyond normal curfew, that kind of emotional confession tends to be draining. She could very well sleep until tomorrow morning.
I slip off my shoes by the door and padded silently to the bedside table where the Pad still rests. I slip my glasses on my face, then pick the Pad and the monitor up quietly and turn off the small lamp, letting my eyes adjust before I move to the rather uncomfortable chair that sits at an angle to the bed. I sit down carefully, curling my legs up under me and placing the monitor on the nearby table. Then I unlock the encrypted files I’ll need later for the meeting in front of the Committee with Arianna’s father, and settle down to read.
Some time passes before the monitor crackles to life, and my attention is instantly removed from my files as I wait for Caleb to speak. Instead, he taps out a code he knows I’ll understand, and without hesitation, I lock the files on the Pad and shift so my feet are touching the floor.
I curse my own stupidity – while curling up in this chair is the most comfortable way to sit, it is absolutely murder on my old bones when I have to unfold and actually pretend to some semblance of mobility.
I muffle the groan I feel clambering in the back of my throat as I shift forward, entirely conscious of the woman still sleeping in the bed across the room. I pick up the monitor and click back a brief missive to Caleb, letting him know I got his message and I will be there as quickly as I can restore the circulation to my lower extremities.
I do a few stretches, sighing unconsciously when I feel the blood rushing towards my feet. When the tingling subsides, I slowly stand and shuffle towards the door, knowing the movement will do more to promote blood flow than anything else. I slide into my shoes with a grimace, then realize I left the locked Pad on the table. I walk back the other way, glad that my steps are getting faster even if my brain cells are not. I grab the Pad and head to the door, dropping the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign in place before closing the door softly behind me.
I exit, fully expecting to see Caleb waiting for me. What I get is something totally different.
They are lined up like pins behind her, offering her their support while acceding to her authority as their chosen leader. In front of me stand fourteen of the fifteen scientists I expect to be selected as the Alpha team on this project. The fifteenth is still sleeping in the room I have just left. I tuck the Pad under my elbow and lean against the door, casually crossing my ankles. I’m not going to make this confrontational if I can avoid it.
“Where is she?” the blonde standing in front of the rest asks, her gray eyes boring into mine. I don’t move my gaze from her but I can see Jacob just barely shake his head in my peripheral vision. Before I can speak, she continues. “She missed breakfast – she’s never missed breakfast with us... even when....” She pauses but never drops her scrutiny. “So where is she?”
I jerk my thumb at the door closed securely behind me. “She was unwell last evening. I’ve been up most of the night making sure she recovers. She simply needs to rest now.”
“You’re certain?” she asks cautiously.
“I am. I had Malcolm removed for being disruptive,” I watch as every one of them sighs in relief, “and brought her to my room where she fell asleep after a bit of care. She should be able to return to the interview process tomorrow as scheduled.”
Eli stares at me hard for another long moment, before turning around and facing her teammates. I watch as she meets each set of eyes, waiting for a signal from all of them before turning back to me with a nod. “Thank you, Ms. Wellesly. We were... concerned.”
“I can appreciate that. Thank you for coming to me.”
“Mary?” This from Jacob and I turn in his direction with an arched brow. “If Arianna is not doing interviews today, does that mean the rest of us have the day off as well?” giving me a cocky smirk that reminds me so much of my Marine son.
“You’d like to think it works that way, wouldn’t you, Jacob?” I ask with a smile as I push off the door. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t. Each of you still have your interviews to complete, though I’ve been informed they’ve been pushed back an hour to accommodate some other business the Committee needs to address. So you’ve got an extra hour to rest if you’d like. The team will make sure you’re up and ready to go at the appropriate time.”
“Awesome!” Jacob exclaims and I wonder how he could possibly be from this planet using such antiquated expressions. On the other hand, it does seem to suit him, so I just smile. He looks around at his companions. “Anyone up for a game of Nuke ‘em Duke ‘em?”
The boys almost as a singular entity head towards Jacob’s room. By unspoken consent, the girls turn and head in the opposite direction. Only Eli remains separate. Before I can speak, she looks at me – her eyes sad and her smile melancholy.
“Hey Eli!” one of the other girls shouts down the hallway. “You coming?”
She shakes her head and waves them on. “Not now. Maybe later.” They nod as a group, as though they’d been expecting that sort of reply from her. Then they continue on their way, disappearing into one of the rooms at the end of the corridor. She waits until she hears the door close behind them, then turns to me.
“Can we talk?”
I nod and follow her down the hall.
Her room, like mine, is pretty standard for a luxury hotel – bed, chairs, table, nice sized closet and a decent bathroom. The only personal property I can see from my place at the door is her Pad that is on the bedside table much like mine had been. Otherwise, you wouldn’t know someone was occupying the room unless you opened the closet door.
She shuts the door behind me and motions me further into the room. I feel like an intruder, and if it wasn’t for the fact that Arianna was asleep in my room, I would have insisted we meet there instead. These kids deserve whatever privacy can be afforded them, and this to me is an unnecessary invasion... even if she did invite me. She chuckles as she walks around me and drops onto the end of the bed.
“You can come in, you know. I did ask you to be here.”
“Right... sorry. It’s been a long night.”
“Yeah... about that. What’s really going on?” I tilt my head in question and she stares at me for a long moment, trying to gauge my honesty. “Is Arianna really sick?”
“Arianna was unwell last evening, but I think we’ve resolved that issue. A little rest should take care of any lingering problems.”
“I don’t believe you.” She holds up her hands. “Oh... I believe Arianna is still sleeping, and that she’s doing so in your room for whatever reason. I even believe that you removed the ass known as Malcolm. But something about this whole story is off, and I want to know the truth.”
She blinks at me – gray eyes showing her confusion as blonde eyebrows crease her forehead. “Excuse me?”
“Why do you think something is off? Why do you want to know the truth? From what I have gathered in my observations of you two, you’re not friends. You’re barely colleagues at this point.” Truth as far as it went. But my actual observations and what I know as truth are two completely different things. “So why do you care? Shouldn’t it be enough that she’s being taken care of and should resume her normal schedule again tomorrow?”
She glares at me, but the sadness in her expression undermines whatever threat she is trying to convey. Finally, she speaks softly – so low I almost miss her words.
“Can I trust you?”
“Eli, I know things about each of you that you probably don’t know yourselves – things I haven’t shared with anyone and never will. But only you can decide if I’m worthy of your trust or not.”
She stares at me again, studying me, and I keep my eyes on hers, allowing her scrutiny. Eventually she nods to herself as though she’s reached a decision. “I’ll make a deal with you,” she says at last in her soft, husky voice. “I’ll tell you why, but then you have to level with me. You have to tell me the truth about Arianna.”
I can see the clock behind her and realize it’s going to be a bit of a race to get this done before I need to go meet with the Committee. But at least I will be going armed with both sides of the story. I nod.
“All right, Princess. You’ve got yourself a deal.” The look of startlement on her face means I’ve got her attention. This is turning out to be a hell of a night.
END PART ONE
PART TWO STORM WARNING
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