“So,” he says, sprawling into a chair, “you’re going to drug me and keep me close as what . . . arm candy?”
I start to smile because, let’s face it—March is not arm candy. He’s big for one thing, bulky, not slim enough to wear clothes well. His black hair hasn’t been trimmed in a while, so it spills nearly to his shoulders. He’d hate to hear it, but apart from his eyes, his hair is his best feature. It’s silkier than it looks, and grown out, it has a touch of a curl.
He has a strong, rough-hewn face, more authoritative than attractive. His jaw says he’s pugnacious; his nose says he’s lost a few fights. But he has the most amazing eyes, fine sherry with gold and toffee flecks, fringed in glorious, ridiculous lashes that curl up on the ends. They’re even longer than they look because the tips have been bleached gold by the same sun that left his skin a burnished brown.
But my smile fades because he’s not joking. Does he see this as an imposition? Oh, Mary, would he prefer to leave? If it’s just a promise that keeps him here—and not the hope we can one day be together the way we were—then I don’t know if I can be the person who clings, insisting it’s for his own good.
“No.” My voice sounds soft, unsure.
For a few seconds, I can’t say more. I’m not the mind reader in our duo, so I can’t check to see if he’s just trying to drive me away for my own good, as I did to him when I was sick. The irony of that doesn’t escape me.
I learned one thing from Kai, one unshakeable truth. People stay together and stay true only as long as they both want to. And all the promises in the world don’t change the length of time. Nothing comes with a guarantee. Maybe I’m just lucky I have a few months with March to remember.
With some effort, I go on, “It’s just a temporary measure to help you cope. Unless . . . you want to go.” These words stick in my throat as if they’re spined. “If you do, then you can walk. Things have changed.”
He gives a sharp nod. “It’s not fair to you.”
That’s the last thing I expect to hear. Mary, we’re so alike in some ways—it’s frightening. But because I understand why he’s thinking along those lines, I won’t react as he did when I thought I might be terminal. I won’t let fear and hurt dictate my response to him.
This is also reassuring. If the March I love were entirely annihilated, he wouldn’t care whether it was fair or not. He wouldn’t care about me in any capacity. His vague guilt tells me that some of his emotions must be connecting on some level. Guilt is probably the hardest to eradicate, being the most wretched thing a person can feel.
I’m not the nurturing sort, though. So I poke at him. “Oh, is that your issue? Then we may as well call it. Because Mary knows, I can’t function without constant coddling. You’d better head for Nicuan, so I can latch onto the next poor sucker who will prop me up emotionally.”
“You think this is funny?” he demands.
I shuffle my feet. “A little.”
“It took Mair a turn to unscramble my brain,” he tells me in a dead whisper. “I spent three months tied because she knew I’d try to kill her—and anyone else I could get my hands on—because they wanted to help me, transform me. Do you understand what I’m saying, Jax?”
My knees feel weak, so I sink down into a chair at last, eyes locked on his. “You didn’t want to be fixed.”
“Now you get it,” he bites out. “And this . . . this is ten times worse.”
“Why?” I lean forward, elbows on my knees.
His face seems strange and sharp, new hollows that I don’t remember. It’s almost as though he’s turning into someone else physically as well. The longer hair adds to that impression. March was always neat, shaved, and shorn. His jaw bristles with black scruff this evening, two or three days’ worth at least.
He terrifies me.
“Because I don’t have voices driving me crazy anymore. I can block now. That makes me the perfect killer, no remorse, just the satisfaction of seeing the light leave somebody’s eyes. And I’m good at it,” he adds deliberately as if he wants to shock me.
“You’ve had practice,” I answer quietly.
“There’s no pain anymore. No fear. I don’t care about anything but what I want. I don’t have people hanging on me, asking me what they should do. Know what’s more? The longer I stay like this, the more I like it. This is freedom . . . and I could make a fortune on Nicuan. Live like a king.”
To hear March talking like this breaks my heart. Even if his body didn’t die, the hero I first admired, then later adored, perished on Lachion. The irony is that the old Jax probably would’ve had a hell of a good time with him. She didn’t care about consequences or promises; she didn’t care about anything outside her tiny world. She just wanted to chart beacons and have a good time.
I’m not that woman anymore.
Outwardly, I make myself shrug. My indifference is pure façade, a pretense he could dispel with a quick mental touch, but he doesn’t. There’s no telltale tingle on the nape of my neck, no chill that signifies his presence.
“The choice is yours. But if you’re so bad now, why haven’t you hurt me?”
His smile chills me. “Two reasons, baby. I haven’t been paid to, and you haven’t given a reason. Yet. If you were smart, you’d release me from that promise before I lose my patience. In the meantime, we can still have a physical relationship,” he goes on. “What was it you said when I was so desperate for you? Mary, I was so fucking pathetic then. Oh yeah. I’d just be using you for sex.”
“No thanks,” I say softly. “That’s not what I’m looking for.”
“That’s all I can give you.”
Right now. I don’t say it out loud because March is growing accustomed to his new state. He’s on the cusp of forgetting the value of who he used to be. In another month, he won’t even want to change. I’ll have to force it on him like Mair did. And that’s assuming I can correct those severed neural pathways.
When I think about everything that could go wrong here, I feel slightly sick. Worst-case scenario? I frag up the alliance and lose March for good. But that’s not going to happen; I won’t let it.
For now, I just need to buy some time. “If you want to go to Nicuan, we’ll take you after we finish here. I’d say you can go now, but no other ships will be landing.”
His eyes seem shadowed and smoky, as he studies me. “Fair enough. With the help of Doc’s mood-altering drugs, I’m sure I can keep quiet and stay out of your way long enough for you to do the job here.” He hesitates. “Even I know this is important, Jax. I don’t want to mess it up. Things will get ugly out there without this alliance.”
By “out there,” he means the deep, silent reaches of space. The Morgut are growing bolder, raiding human outposts just for the pleasure of our meat. We fought off a hunting party on Emry Station, purged the place, and only managed to save one little girl. I’ll do better here. I have to.
I don’t like to remember how bad it was there. Knowing there were monsters hiding up in the ducts, well, I can’t articulate how scary that was. And these monsters don’t just hide under the bed; they eat you. What we went through on Emry . . . that will be the fate of the whole galaxy unless we can convince the Ithtorians to side with us in the coming conflict.
So much depends on me. I can’t help but wonder how it came to this. I shouldn’t be in charge of something so important. But now that I am, I will give it my absolute best. I just hope I don’t have to make any real sacrifices.
“Thanks,” I say. “I hope it won’t take too long. Shall we go see if Doc has your meds ready?”
It costs me more than he will ever know to wear a face of quiet indifference. Who knows, I might even make it look effortless, but it’s never been easy for me to think about losing people I love. Not since I lost Kai—he taught me everything I know about devotion. And I still miss him.
In answer, March stands up. “Sure. Let’s take a walk.”
It’s as if those terrifying moments never happened. He’s pushed back the menace, reined it in. I can tell he’s got himself on a tight leash, and I hope it will hold. Whether I like it or not, our mission here is more important than feelings.
I take one last look around our quarters. This has never been home for us. As we pass through the doors, I’m not sure I’ll ever have a home with March. Sadness washes over me, endless waves crashing against a lonely shore.
I miss the way he used to touch me. I miss his smile. I miss the way he used to tease me, but now he’s just a man who looks like the one I used to love, a doppelganger who wears his skin.
We step out into the hall. The lights have been dimmed, telling us that the hour grows late. The crews are on half watch now; most personnel are enjoying some leisure time. So we pass only a couple of people on the way back to med bay.
Doc doesn’t look surprised to see us. “Just in time,” he says. “Based on his test results, I’ve whipped up a fine concoction that should keep him mellow, even if he’s surrounded by Ithtorians.”
“Pill or injection?” March asks.
“Injection, of course. I’ve prepared thirty days of meds for you. One shot a day should do it.” Doc does the honors, giving March his first dose.
I wonder if we’ll see an immediate difference. “Thanks, Doc. We should be getting back to council quarters.”
Doc regards me with a faintly worried expression. “Good luck, Jax.”
I have the feeling I need it.
Before heading back, we go looking for Vel. He’s in his quarters, doing some research on his terminal. I don’t think I read him wrong when I judge him pleased to see us. His mandible moves in a way that tells me he’s pleased about something anyhow.
“Sirantha, March,” he greets us. “Are you finished here?”
I answer, “I think so, you ready to go?”
It’s only after I speak that I realize he didn’t use his vocalizer. I understood his clicks and whistles thanks to the chip that’s obviously already starting to work. I’ve always had a thing against implanted cybernetics. Hell, I hated the thought of the shunt they put in my wrist, and I need that to jack in. But I have to say that this translation device is going to prove very useful; I just hope I can remember not to answer in universal when I hear the Ithtorians speaking.
Though I know that the translator doesn’t have anything to do with being able to interpret body language, I still feel better able to read Vel. No wonder he’s pleased, the device’s already working, and it hasn’t been quite two hours. Does that mean the installation went well? I hope so.
“Congratulations. The operation was a success.”
March glances between us, obviously realizing that we share a secret. I don’t know if I want to tell him; I’m not sure if we can trust him, not in his current state. He makes the decision, though. Not me.