I get that. “You defied your heritage to be an artist, just like I did in becoming a jumper. My parents expected other things from me, too.”
“It was, perhaps, a little more complex.” At last he moves from the window, seating himself in a movement that seems more hinged and alien than when he wears faux-human skin. I still marvel at that ability; his people can excrete a substance they shape into the ultimate camouflage, giving them any appearance they wish.
He goes on, “When I was betrayed—as is inevitable—my behavior so shamed Nok that her existing rank was stripped from her. By my transgressions, I stole two turns of work from her.”
I wince. “And they removed her colors?”
“Yes.” The stark response illuminates how much the impact of that still resonates with him across the turns.
“Oh, Vel.” I can only imagine the shame.
“Nok told me then—I could go into politics as befitted my station—or she would have me killed. She made sure I understood that she had plenty of other males to carry on her genetic legacy, which is officially propagated through her female offspring.” The chip can’t begin to encompass the intensity of what he’s relating, so the toneless translation that echoes in my head underscores the somber moment.
“Is that when they arranged a match for you with Sartha?”
“Partnership,” he corrects. “But yes. It was decided I needed a female to guide me, as my judgment was so clearly debased. I went into politics, as they wanted. I climbed the ranks, but I was forbidden to have my carapace imprinted with my achievements for twenty turns.” He considers this for a moment. “It was a light penalty, all things considered. They could have judged me a lunatic and sent me to the mines. Without Nok, they doubtless would have. If I had disappointed her again, she would have disposed of me quietly.”
Ah, Mary. I want to hug him, but I’m not sure if he would take comfort in it. To hell with it, I tell myself. Customs and proscriptions don’t apply between friends. He can push me away if he doesn’t like it.
I leave my seat silently and wrap an arm around him. There’s room for me to sit beside him, so I perch there. If he wants to put some distance between us, I won’t resist. The problem is, I’m just not sure what he needs.
“I’m so sorry, Vel.” Maybe words can make a difference, this once.
“So you see,” he goes on, as if I haven’t spoken, haven’t moved. “I am not a model of my species. I am the worst they have to offer, and I was so . . . other among my own kind that when the first human delegation landed—when I was on the cusp of being named Grand Administrator—I ran rather than face a lifetime of quiet desperation.”
I think about how to respond for a moment. “Maybe you’re not what Nok wanted or expected in her offspring. Maybe you’re different from other males, but that doesn’t mean you lack value. I’d be dead many times over if I wasn’t lucky enough to know you.”
Is that enough? This kind of stuff doesn’t come easily to me. I don’t like talking about my feelings, and it’s hard for me to tell people they’re important to me, sometimes until it’s too late. Then I can only whisper into the great beyond, hoping they can somehow hear me through aching dark, saying:
I miss you.
I cared about you.
I hope March knows that, if nothing else.
“The stench of failure will cling to me always.” There is a bleak finality to those words, as if he can never forgive himself for what he is not, no matter what the grace or beauty or strength of what he has become.
The dark binds us and hides our sins. I do not ask him to go away when I curl up on my lonely bed. Tonight Vel is a celestial body whose light yields no warmth. As I stare, sleepless, into silence, I see us trapped together across the turns in tents and caves and starships, two together . . . alone. He sits vigil beside me, distant as a glimmering star.
The dark breaks wide in fragile rays. Dawn on Ithiss-Tor is more subtle than other sunrises. I have lost count of the worlds where I have stood and watched the light rise, peeling away the sky, sometimes in quiet colors, and sometimes in raw, violent slashes, as if the goddess I don’t believe in has cut her veins. And sometimes, as on Gehenna, the sky changes not at all, just endless night, or endless brilliance—and after a time, the constant uniformity makes you feel as if you are the thing that must give way.
I feel like that now.
I sense a breaking point fast approaching, and then things will be different ever after.
Vel left at some point. I must have slept, although I have no recollection of doing so. I wish I knew how to comfort him for the failure he wears writ in invisible ink on his bare chitin. His lack of color shames him as scars from prison manacles might a human. Yet he seems so sure and confident in most regards, so maybe it’s just the strain of being here. There’s an argument for wrapping up quickly. The last thing I want to do is cause Vel more pain.
In a few hours, I will have obligations. I’ll be expected to answer questions, allay doubt, and make myself amiable to our supporters. Right now it’s time for me to do something for myself.
So I cross to the door that connects my quarters to March. I haven’t passed through since our arrival on planet, too afraid of the worst, but really, the worst has already happened. There is nothing left to fear.
He can’t remember how it feels to love me. And each time, that awareness hits me in a deep, raw place, too bleak for tears. It’s an ache for which I have no name because I have never lost a love like this before.
Jumpers aren’t equipped to deal with loss. We’re wired for the thrill of exploration; we’re not known to be steadfast. And yet I find my palms pressed against the smooth veneer of the door, longing for my lover with a ferocity that does not ebb.
I want him back. If I have to tame him like a savage beast, I will find the patience. And if I have to teach myself to perform some mysterious mental surgery, then I will do that, too. So I gather my courage; it hangs in tatters after our last encounter, not because he hurt me but because I know deep down it damaged him more. He is a creature gone feral, having forgotten the scent and direction of home.
The door between us slides open when I touch the pad. It gives me hope that he hasn’t keyed it against me yet. Maybe he hasn’t altogether accepted the notion he’s broken beyond repair.
Like me, he cannot sleep. He does not turn when I step through, but I sense his awareness in a subtle shift of his posture.
“How bad is it?”
That much has not changed at least. I can still taste his meaning from a sparse handful of words, based on my knowledge of how his mind works.
I shrug. “No permanent harm.”
“Not this time. That’s why we need to stay away from each other, Jax.” He pauses, fingertips tapping some quiet pattern against his thighs. The low tone of his voice hides a wealth of despair, like dark water over jagged rock. “There’s no coming down from the ledge this time. And I don’t want you caught in the blast radius when I blow.”
My smile feels taut and uneasy. “You talk like you’re packed full of timed explosives.”
“That’s not a bad analogy.”
“No? I happen to disagree. In my opinion, it’s terrible.”
He looks so weary that it breaks my heart. I can tell he’s not sleeping any better than I am, though for different reasons.
“What do you want, Jax?”
You. I don’t say it aloud, but this is March, which means I don’t need to. An icy prickle tells me he’s brushed my thoughts with a helpless compulsion he cannot control any more than I can stop longing for him. We’re like magnets with an opposite charge. No matter how we fight it—and I did in the beginning because I wasn’t nearly ready for him—we can’t resist the pull.
I remember our first time, the impassioned tension of his face as I rode him. If I close my eyes, I could find all his scars with my fingertips. I remember my fierce euphoria at finding him whole in the Gunnar-Dahlgren underground. We took each other with teeth and tongues and ravenous relief.
A shudder rocks through him. “I swear you’re trying to drive me crazy . . . and it’s a short haul. Remind me how great the sex was, then tell me we can’t have any unless I can say ‘I love you’ and mean it.”
Put that way, it does sound cruel.
“I used to have no problem with meaningless sex,” I say quietly. “But then I fell in love with Kai, and he taught me there could be more. Then . . . too soon after I lost him, I met you. I didn’t want to want you. I didn’t want you to fit me.”
He stares at me silent as a stone.
“I just wanted to grieve, but you kept pushing until I realized that I’d never stop aching unless I opened up to you all the way. So here I am, begging—” My voice breaks, so I try again. “Begging you not to give up. Begging you to keep trying. Because I don’t think I’m strong enough to survive losing you. I’m at the wall over this, and I don’t have anything left.”
There it is, my soul laid bare. It’s a raw, ugly thing, covered in half-healed wounds, and I’ve placed it at his feet. Now he can stomp me into nothingness, get his own back for the way I nearly broke his heart once before. But if he does that, we’ve lost everything, and I will have no choice but to admit it.
March says nothing.
I’d rather crawl over broken glass than admit this stuff to him, particularly when his face in profile offers as much softness as a titanium pylon. I struggle onward, drowning in his silence.
“Go on and read me. I know you said I’m the strongest person you’ve ever known, but even durable metal has a breaking point. There’s too much riding on this mission, too much weight, and I need you—”
“Shut up, Jax.” Does his tone sound tender or impatient? I’ve lost all ability to judge. He sits forward then, elbows on knees. “Can you say you’re not afraid of me?”
“I’m not,” I answer promptly. “You didn’t mean to hurt me. No matter what nightmare had you trapped, you weren’t fighting me in it.”
His teeth glint like bone in a smile that holds no sweetness or joy. “Is that a hint? Would you like to take a walk through my nightmares and plant flowers along the way?”
“You don’t know me very well if you can say that with a straight face,” I bite out. “No, baby. I’d like to wade in there with my steel-toed boots on and kick the shit out of anyone or anything that hurts you.”
“That’s my girl.” The words slide out of him with a sound so faint I might have imagined them.
But I didn’t. Unbelievable joy rockets through me. He said it, and now he’s looking at me dead on with a question in his eyes. The answer will always, always be yes.
“Mother Mary,” he breathes. “How you shine.”
I shake my head. “The light is yours. Right now you can’t see it because you sit in shadow, but all I do is reflect you.”