Rachel gasped. "Oh, God, no! Come here!" She enfolded Emry in her arms, and this time it was a profound relief. "No, how could I hate you?"
"It's my fault!"
Rachel pulled back. "Don't you ever say that, young lady!" she scolded. "Richard died doing what he believed in. He chose to face danger to help others, just as you do. What happened to him is not your fault, whatever that horrid woman told you."
"She loved him," Emry said in Bimala's defense.
"That's no excuse for making you a scapegoat. No one can know if he was careless that day, if he could've saved himself if he'd been more alert."
"Maybe," Emry said. "But however it ended, the last seven years of his life were miserable-because of me. And I can never make up for that, no matter how much good I do now."
Rachel gazed at Emry, shaking her head. "We are so much alike."
"Wha-what do you mean?"
"I mean I've said practically the same thing to myself so many times in the past two years."
Emry frowned. "You ... blame yourself?"
"Yes. Was I a good mother? No. When he needed me, when he lost Lyra and then you ... did I go to him? Did I comfort him, help him heal? Did I help him find you and try to heal you too? No. I didn't." She stood and began to pace around the room. "I just stayed here, caught up in my work."
Emry followed Rachel to her feet. "You had other responsibilities. Your other kids," she said, nodding at Rachel's womb.
"That didn't make him any less my responsibility! I should have gone to him!" She winced. "I should've tried harder, years before, to make amends. I should've never let the rift form at all."
"What ... how did it happen?" Emry could no longer believe that Rachel had simply been too obsessed with her work to care about Richard.
"We argued ... I couldn't accept that he wanted to leave the Vanguard, to leave me, so he could help outsiders. I was bitter at how they'd treated us, forced us to retreat from the world. I agreed with Eliot that we should build our own, better society."
She sighed. "I should've listened to Richard. I should've been proud of him for being so much more compassionate, so unwilling to give in to bitterness. And I did admire that about him, I did. But..." She met Emry's eyes again, a repentant look on her face. "I was afraid of what would happen. I didn't want to let my little boy go out into the big, bad world and put his life on the line. And I let that fear become anger. We kept fighting until I just gave up, told him that he should go, and washed my hands of the whole thing.
"After that, I threw myself into my work, into having more children, because ... well, as a distraction, I guess. By the time I was ready to make amends with Richard, I was too caught up in the work. And maybe too afraid to reach out and try."
"You should've," Emry said promptly. "It would've made a difference. If Daddy had kept trying ... if he'd come for me in rehab, instead of sending Bimala..." She lowered her head. "I said I didn't want him in my life, but I was really hurt because he wouldn't come himself. Because I missed him." She saw Rachel was crying again. "Oh, Goddess, no, I didn't mean to accuse you!" She hugged Rachel.
"It's all right, sweetheart. We've both got plenty of regrets to go around. We shouldn't hide from them."
"No," Emry said. "But we shouldn't wallow in them either. That just leads to more regrets. Worse ones."
She led Rachel back to the couch, and they sat quietly for a moment. Then Emry laughed. "Ohh, we're a mess, aren't we? What a screwed-up family."
"Show me a family that isn't," Rachel said with a slight smirk.
"Mine was great ... for thirteen years. I guess I should be grateful for that."
"Your father was a wonderful man, Emerald. And I'm sure your mother was wonderful too. I'll always regret that my stupid pride and cowardice kept me from ever meeting her."
"Hey, let's not start that again. We're only human, okay? More or less."
Rachel scoffed. "Only human. You know, I think it's the other way around. The more complex the system, the more chaotic it can get. There are some things we can probably never breed out of the species. Maybe, if we're lucky, we can remove the human capacity for war and murder and brutality ... but I doubt we'll ever evolve beyond the tendency to screw things up royally with the people we love."
"I wish I'd known that nine years ago," Emry said. "I thought Dad was perfect. That he could do no wrong. I felt so betrayed when he didn't save Mom. If I'd just ... forgiven him for being fallible, for not being able to save everyone in the universe ... maybe we could've healed each other."
Rachel stroked her hair. "Maybe that's so. But isn't that exactly why you should forgive yourself for being fallible? For being only human?"
"I don't know if it's really the same," Emry said. But after a moment's thought, she said, "Tell you what. I'll try it if you do too. Okay?"
"It's a deal." Rachel hugged her granddaughter again, and Emry didn't let her go for a long time.
"Rachel is, as usual, quite right," Eliot told Emry the next day as they sparred in his private gym. "You're not to blame for your father's fate, any more than she is."
"I'm starting to get that now," Emry acknowledged as she sized him up, awaiting his next attack. Every day since their race to the mountaintop, she and Thorne had been sparring daily. Emry consistently tried to get the better of him and failed at every turn. Even the judo moves that helped her against stronger sparring partners weren't giving her much luck. And it wasn't just physical. Thorne's confidence alone bore the momentum of a stroid; she could believe that nothing would move him without his consent.
"The real blame," he went on as they circled each other, "lies with the gangsters whose petty turf war brought such tragedy to you and Richard." He came forward easily, struck at her, let her block his blows as he spoke. "And with the lawlessness of Belt society, the lack of effectual mechanisms for bringing order and stability in an age of ever-increasing individual power." He caught her arm, spun her, pinned her in a full Nelson from behind. "That is what I intend to change with this alliance. By working together, we can bring peace and safety to our homes without needing to rely on a single large state to impose it unilaterally."
She relaxed in his arms. Being pinned by him wasn't exactly unpleasant, since they were both shirtless. "You don't need to sell me. Lotta folks won't go for it, though. Striders don't like outsiders telling them what to do."
"Which is why it must be a partnership," he said, releasing her but holding on to her hand. "Each partner having a role in governing itself, while still contributing to a greater, more potent whole."
"I've been wondering," Emry said as she got some distance and began to circle again. "Well, Zephyr's been wondering. If you want to bring everyone together, why are you only dealing with mods?"
He lunged, but she managed to dodge this time. "Only to start with. They would be more receptive to us. Besides-the rest of the Striders will have to accept the mods if this alliance is to work. And we mods will be essential to the peacekeeping process. We need to be a stronger, more numerous bloc than we were on Earth, or we risk being marginalized or ostracized again." He shot forward again, striking with an arm. Emry relaxed and yielded, using his momentum to fling him around and past her. He managed to retain his footing, though, and caught himself at the edge of the mat. "Impressive."
She nodded, accepting the praise, and went on, "Most folks out here don't have much problem with mods. Long as they aren't terrorists or something. But if you bring the mods together, don't include the rest, well, people might start to get nervous. It could backfire."
"Perhaps." He struck without warning this time, and had her pinned in seconds. "But first I must bring the more unruly mod nations in line if I wish to reassure the rest of the Striders. It's a calculated risk, but an essential part of the process. Trust me, Emerald-this has all been taken into consideration."
She gazed up into his eyes. "I do, Eliot. I trust you." She relaxed into his arms and kissed him. It lasted for a long time, and held deeper meaning than mere gratification. That simple acknowledgment-that she trusted this man-felt like a major step forward in their relationship. Perhaps in her ability to have relationships. All her s.e.xually mature life, she'd sought powerful men as lovers, but had always resisted getting too close to them-and now that she'd come clean to Rachel, she was beginning to understand why. Releasing her pain and guilt toward her father, reminding herself of the love and trust they'd once shared, made it easier to lower her defenses and let herself believe she could safely embrace a closer connection to this man.
Instead of trying to express that in words, though, she said it with her lips, her hands, her body. She and Eliot wrestled again, this time assaulting only each other's clothes. He dominated as usual, but this time she made no effort to jockey for position, instead trusting herself to his powerful, sensitive hands. Instead of trying to take from him, to assert her will, she simply gave joy, shared joy, experienced joy. It made it truly special and moving, rewarding her well beyond the pleasure his hands and mouth imparted upon her body with virtuoso skill.
After a long while, she lay relaxed atop him, gazing up at his face. "What was it like on Earth?" she asked him. "For you and the Vanguard? I mean, I know all the stories of what you did ... but not from your side. Except what my dad told me, and he was a kid for most of it. And the others I've met, they told me about some of their adventures, but didn't want to talk about ... what was really going on underneath it all."
So Eliot told her of how he had argued with the Vanguard leadership to let him and his peers go down to Earth and try to make a difference in a turbulent world. How their fear of backlash from a prejudiced population had made them unwilling to help. How Eliot had dismissed them as hidebound cowards and forced the issue, leading the habitat's most successful and powerful mods down to save lives in defiance of the leaders of both Vanguard and Earth. How he had kept them committed to their mission despite the controversy, the rhetoric, the hate mail, the death threats. Even despite the actual deaths of some of his peers-whether intentionally targeted, as Liesl Warner had been, or in defense of others like Liam Shannon. Eliot told her how their brave deaths had only inspired him to fight harder, determined to give them meaning.
"But I saw that what we were doing was only a stopgap," he told her as he absently caressed her back. "I realized that if we truly wished to make a difference, we had to do it in the political and social arena. Had to attack the causes of the turmoil as well as the effects. We were more than just crimefighters; we had the intellect to lead the way in finding solutions to the environmental woes, engineering new crops to fight the famines, building the new economy of the Molecular Age and the sociopolitical institutions that would rely on it. We were something greater than human, so we had to aspire to a greater goal than simply bringing the odd terrorists and rioters to justice."
"Isn't that a little arrogant?"
He studied her. "Arrogance is the assertion of a status or right to which one is not entitled. Is it arrogant to acknowledge an ability you actually do have? Would it be arrogant, say, for you to state that you can bench-press a tonne in one gee?" He stopped himself. "Never mind. I suppose we were arrogant, not in asserting our ability to make those decisions, but in failing to acknowledge that others had a voice in the process as well. That is not a mistake we will repeat again." He smirked. "I was young, c.o.c.ky, and heavy-handed. I hadn't yet learned the value of subtlety. When I tried to stave off the building tensions between Earth and the orbital nations, tensions we had helped to create, I did it by trying to dominate and bully both sides into compliance, and only made things worse.
"Once we relocated to the Belt, our goodwill squandered largely through my own excesses, I took much time to ponder my errors, to learn from them. Among my own people, I learned how to govern through consensus, to persuade through subtle diplomacy. I created an offspring who could fulfill that ideal, could be everything I am not, and much that I am. And now, she is helping me fulfill my ambition at last-but to do so in the right way this time."
He stroked Emry's hair. "And now I have you on my side as well, offering a merging of Vanguardian and outside perspectives. Like Psyche, you are a part of me, and yet you bring me more than I have on my own. You are the crucial bridge I need to unite the Vanguard with the Troubleshooters, and through them with the mainstream. Psyche may have a beauty and charisma to match your own, but even she cannot offer that symbolism."
Emry stared at him uneasily. "So that's what I am to you? A symbol? A tool?"
He smiled. "Far more, Emerald. You may be the key to achieving my greatest desire. I cherish you for that." His brow furrowed. "Perhaps it would be more romantic to say I cherish you simply for yourself. Do not doubt that I do, Emerald. But I am an ambitious man. My life has been defined by my goals. And so my feelings are defined in those terms as well." He stroked her cheek. "I only hope you don't feel slighted by that. By having to ... share me with my ambitions."
"Oh, no, Eliot!" She cradled his face in her hands and kissed him softly. "I wouldn't have you any other way. You don't know how amazing it feels to be with you, Eliot. I mean, people call me a celebrity, but I haven't done much to deserve it. It's mostly just the face, the tits, and the checkered past. But you ... I think you're the kind of man they still write history books about thousands of years later. You're a great leader, a visionary. In the past, you probably could've been a great conqueror. An Alexander, an Ashoka. You have that kind of power and will. But you chose to be a statesman ... a Jefferson, an al-Bayyari. I think you're gonna be the one who unites the Belt ... maybe the whole Sol System.
"I don't know," she went on a moment later. "Like I said, all this nation-building, this history-making ... it's way the vack out of my league. But the man who's able to do it all ... it's an incredible feeling to be around that man. To know that ... he thinks I have a place in his life, even in his goals, it's..."
She searched for words. Nothing seemed right ... until she had to admit that only three words would do, the ones that had been looming in the back of her mind for some time and that she finally felt brave enough to face. She prefaced them with one more deep kiss, fraught with meaning. "Eliot ... I love you."
He said nothing in return. He simply pulled her to him and took her once again. It was enough. It made her feel, more than anything else had made her feel in a decade, that she belonged. In Eliot Thorne's arms, she was home.
And she would be happy never to leave home again.
"I've never felt like this, Zephy!" Emry sighed as she floated in Zephyr's residential deck, feeling weightless in more ways than one. "At least, I never let myself feel it. Now I don't know what I was so afraid of!"
Zephyr's avatar studied her from the display wall. He was again in stallion mode, although he'd made it silver and added Art Deco wings which she quite liked. She didn't much miss the naked Greek God now that she had the real thing on a several-times-daily basis. "Being hurt, I suppose," he suggested. "Losing the one you love. That's usually the risk people run. And it's one you'd be understandably sensitive to."
Zephyr's words gave her pause. "I guess so. Also ... hurting the man, I guess. I didn't want to risk s.c.r.e.w.i.n.g it up for both of us. Again." She shook off her moment of melancholy. "But Eliot ... he's a rock. I can't imagine there being anything he couldn't handle, couldn't solve."
The stallion shook his mane. "High praise indeed. So you're confident that he can help us expose Tai and redeem the TSC?"
"I see. And how is that coming, exactly? If he's managed to make any significant progress, you neglected to mention it."
"I'd've told you if he had-you know that."
"Well ... I suppose I'm just feeling a little neglected. This is the first time you've been to see me in days."
"Aww, Zeph, I'm sorry!" She stroked his nearest bulkhead. "I've just been so caught up in Eliot. And Psyche, Grandma Rachel, the whole Vanguard!"
"I understand," he told her. "And of course there's your ongoing effort to contact Sensei Villareal. Right?"
"Wha? Oh, Zephy, you know I can't risk implicating him by contacting him myself! Eliot and Psyche are handling it."
"With little success so far."
"Yeah, that's weird. I would've thought Sensei'd be open to working with the Vanguard. But Eliot says he hasn't responded to our advances."
"Would you like me to try contacting him?"
Emry stared at his avatar. "You know that'd be just as bad as if I did it. What's this all about, Zeph?"
"I just want to make sure you keep your focus. I'm glad for you that you're so happy, but perhaps this isn't the ideal time to indulge in it."
"What else is there to do?" she asked. "Eliot just sent Psyche off to Mars to look for more dirt on Tai. They think he has allies there who could be turned. And Sensei's got some kind of business meeting on Phobos, so Psyche's gonna try to contact him there. Meanwhile I'm just laying low. Wanted criminal, remember? Take it from an old Freakshow girl-when the law's after you, sometimes it's best to duck in a hole and stay real quiet for a while. And it helps to have someone to keep you company while you're there," she finished with a saucy grin as she sorted through her s.e.xiest outfits, looking for something worthy of being ripped to shreds by Eliot tonight.
Zephyr morphed his avatar back into the Greek God, apparently so he could cross his arms at her and frown. "I defer to your expertise in fugitive living. Still, I'd be more comfortable if we were more in the loop. You're surprisingly content with delegating this to the Thornes."
"And why shouldn't I be? I'm no politician, no great strategist. I'm muscle. Point me at a bad guy and I punch him."
The avatar's gaze softened. "You underestimate yourself, Emry. You have Vanguardian intelligence, even if you've resisted cultivating it. And it puzzles me that you aren't asking more questions. That you aren't straining at the bit-pardon the equestrian metaphor-to get out there and fix this problem. It doesn't seem like you."
"That's 'cause before now, I was never this much at peace. I couldn't let myself relax and trust other people." She threw him a look. "Maybe you could try trusting a little more. Eliot has taken us both under his protection, and frankly you aren't sounding very grateful."
"Gratitude doesn't alter the facts. And the fact is, the longer we wait, the more entrenched Gregor Tai's control of the TSC becomes."
"I know that. Eliot is doing all he can."
"I'd prefer it if we could see the specifics of that for ourselves."
Emry sighed. "Why can't you trust him, Zeph? He's not the kind of human who enslaved and abused you. He's the kind who's fought against people like that his whole life!"
"And I respect that about him. But he is also a very ambitious and calculating man who values control above all else."
"You don't still think he's up to something?"
"A man like Thorne, by his nature, is always up to many things at any given time. He makes no secret of his goals. And he would use any means at his disposal to fulfill them."
This was getting ridiculous. "Including me?" she shot back. "Zephy, if you're trying to say he's tricked me into falling in love with him-well, that's the stupidest thing you've ever said! You know me, Zeph! You know I'm not that type!"
"I also know that Vanguardians are skilled at pheromonal control. Tell me-do you find he smells alluring even after extensive physical exertion?"
Emry sighed. "Ohh, yeah."
"Normal male perspiration contains a pheromone called androstenol, which is attractive to women. But within twenty minutes, it oxidizes to androstenone, which tends to be repellent to women. Parandrostenol is a synthetic variant, which resists oxidation. Thorne has apparently engineered himself to secrete it instead-thus intensifying his attractive power."
"So what?" Emry challenged. "You were the one who told me about the limits of pheromones. I'm not some mindless bit.c.h in heat. And don't you dare pick up that straight line!"
"I wasn't going to. Emry, I know you're not blind or foolish. But I also know you've resisted love for a long time, even with partners who would have been good for you. Now that you've made greater peace with your demons and finally feel free to love, I imagine the desire to give into the temptation must be very powerful. And that makes it easy to exploit."
Emry was too distracted now to focus on wardrobe. She just shoved a number of outfits into her duffel bag, deciding she'd choose one later. "You've got it all wrong. I'm not blinded by love or pheromones or anything. My head's clearer than it's ever been! I feel ... whole now. I feel like I'm finally a grown woman."
"And yet you're deferring to Thorne to make decisions for you. Are you sure you aren't trying to recapture the idyll of your childhood? Feeling secure in the arms of a powerful man, the company of a warm and affectionate woman?"
Emry grimaced. "Oh, don't go Oedipal on me, Rex! That's just creepy!" She pushed off the closet doors, aiming for the ladder well. "I don't know what kind of cyber mood you're in today, Zephy," she said as she pulled herself headfirst down the ladder, "but you're really getting on my nerves! And you're getting close to crossing a line."
"I'm sorry you feel that way, Emry. I'm just trying to look out for you."
"Well, when I need you to, I'll let you know!" She slapped the airlock panel.
But the door stayed closed. "Just let me say my piece, Emerald," Zephyr said over the intercom.
She sighed. "Make it quick. I'm running late."