A Hand Up
Andy realized long before I did that this marks a turning point and a plateau for our characters and that it's time to let things lie fallow and see what comes of it. I agree. Thanks, Andy!--Maer.
Tuesday, 01 Dec 2522
Christian's House, Lucifer's Landing
Angel (Xuan Wu) system
1155hrs, local time
Lunch had been served and eaten--or rather, inhaled by two of the three males present--and at the meal's close, Christian left to settle some business with the books and Lem dashed out the front to get back to Muleskinner's. He was in the middle of replacing a transmission package on a wheeled vehicle and had to be dragged away from the task to eat. The door banged shut, the porch steps thundered under his booted feet, and silence descended upon the house. I blinked for a moment, taken aback by his eight-year-old enthusiasm, and sat weakly down again. I eyed Joshua sitting opposite.
"Well." And after that, words failed. Had I ever been that intense over my first transmission? I doubt it. Then again, the promise I’d let him help repair Equinox when he finished the job might have had something to do with it.
"He's a bundle and a half, Rina. Not in a bad way, but I've seen full grown adults with less focus and intensity than Lem had going over that piece of gear." Was that normal for eight year old boys? Joshua realized he had no idea if Lem was unusual for his age. Maybe all boys were that way. He wouldn't know.
"I was four when my youngest brother was eight but I can remember what he was like. I'd say Lem's pretty much on par with the focus and intensity." I rose and started cleaning up the lunch debris. Christian had taken me aside earlier and shared his misgivings over Lem’s possible spectrum disorders, which had been in evidence even before leaving Summer's Gift, but were now apparently stronger, more firmly entrenched. I recalled Lem tracing the conduits hidden behind the bulkheads with his fingers and wondered again if the TSE or its cure had some bearing on his condition. Even so, he was healthy, inquisitive, and growing up well, and I tried not to lend my worries more weight than they deserved as I added, "His power utilization curve is still not the norm, though. He's either full on or full off. We barely made past the third page last night before he zonked on me."
"You're a good mom." He said it simply and without fanfare as he stood up and grabbed a couple of plates off the table. "I'll have to steal everything I need to know from you. Assuming we have kids."
I paused halfway to the sink on his comment and forced myself to move again. That conversation I'd had with Christian on the back porch over a year ago came back to haunt me as I got the water running in the sink: "Do you want your first child, with Mike, to be a boy or a girl?" At the time, I choked on my tea and told him truthfully I hadn't given it much thought, beyond the fact that Mike would have to be in the same room with me to start that ball rolling. Looking back on it now, it seemed cruelly ironic that the one man I had always thought would father my children was no longer in the picture and that another man would take his place. Suds rose to my elbows as I started on the dishes and picked up the conversation as if there'd been no lapse.
"I haven't any objection to the idea if you don't, but I don't believe in accidental or band-aid offspring. Any child I have will be wanted for itself. That much is a given. Everything else, we'll work out as we go along, okay?"
Joshua nodded as he slipped his plates into the soapy water in front of Rina. "I know." He paused for a moment, then started lightly rubbing Rina's shoulders from behind, something to do with his hands. "I have a lot of learning to do before I'd even think about it. I've always thought I wanted kids, but I'm realizing I'm grossly underqualified."
"Don't go there, Joshua." I turned under his touch and faced him, dripping water to the floor. "Do you know right from wrong? Safe from dangerous? Nuture from negligence? If you can say yes, you have what it takes. You just need to trust your judgment and go with what you know." Doctor, heal thyself, I thought but didn't say. It was advice I'd ignored for years before Miranda and an infected injury made me rethink my life strategy, and what I'd said to Joshua applied equally to me, if along different lines. I cupped his face in my hands and kissed him. "You will be a good father," I said softly. "Because in every way that matters, you are a good man. Remember that when you're holding our baby, and you'll see that it's true."
"I hope I'll be a good dad. I think I'll be a good dad. But I can't know until it happens, right?" Joshua smiled as he returned her kiss. "When I left Blue Sun, I hoped and thought life outside would be like the idealistic picture I had in my head. It's been nothing like what I thought it would be."
Joshua wrapped his arms around Rina's waist, picking her up to swing around the kitchen, an ecstatic grin on his face. "It's been more magnificent, more spectacular, more rich....more scary than I ever thought it could be. Trying to pretend you know what's coming just gets you in trouble, you know?" He set her back down and gave her another kiss. "Besides, we still have a wedding to plan sometime. Don't want to get ahead of ourselves."
My feet left the kitchen floor and I laughed as he spun me around. God, I love this man. The kiss he gave me was long and sweet, telling me everything his words could not, and I answered back in kind.
“Not too far ahead, no,” I said when we finally came up for air. I sent a pointed look up at the ceiling. “But maybe just a little?”
"Keep it in your pants, woman!" he laughed. "Who would've thought I'd be the restrained innocent, struggling to keep from being wrung out by the experienced seductress?" Joshua giggled a little as he poked her in the small of the back. Then he grew a little more serious as he looked her in the eyes. "Lem's a reminder to me that we're not ready to have kids, even if we were married, Rina. Who would get left behind?"
His words were a slap in the face and I blinked at his reversal, stunned, and was instantly angry. I set my chin and glared and let him know why.
"By that reasoning, Joshua, we could never have kids because somehow it means we're excluding Lem. And by that reasoning, we could never marry so long as Christian was alive, either. And as long as we're excluding people, why not add Mike to the list? Or Adrianna? Why not add everyone in the whole freakin' Verse who we didn't fall in love with because we fell in love with each other?" I modulated my tone and said as quietly as possible. "If I learned anything by loving you, it's that love multiplies the more you give it. It's not a zero sum game. We can have Lem and our own children. We can include Christian and Mike and everyone else. That's not to say it will be easy or neat or painless. It won't. The pain I have tomorrow will be the joy I have today. Everything has its price but I'm done cheating myself of making that choice, from paying that price out of fear of it. Do you hear me? I'm choosing you and I'm choosing this, because I believe that you are worth it."
I sagged against the counter and stared at him, wondering if I could ever make him understand.
His eyebrows raised. Where the hell did that come from? "I don't have any problem with inclusion, love. I was just saying that if we have a child that stays groundside, who would stay with them? I'm not ready to leave you to the Black yet." He looked at her closer. "Are you sure you're okay?" Lately, he had managed to somehow find a way to piss off every woman in his life, most of the time without even understanding why. Good to know the trend hadn't changed off duty.
And just like that my anger evaporated and gutted me where I stood, appalled at the hurt I'd dealt him. His solicitude only made it worse. I spun around and plunged my hands in the sink and scrubbed the first thing I touched. A plate. God I was an idiot. There was no way I'd make this work. Of course, I had completely taken for granted that Lem would come with me, that I'd have our children with us on our ship, that we'd live in the Black like countless other shipside families did. Even with Christian's stark example to the contrary staring me in the face, I'd refused to acknowledge the Black wasn't for everybody, that for some it would never be home, no matter how much I wanted it to be. I stopped scrubbing and clenched my teeth and swallowed the scream I could feel building inside me. Clawing for self control, tortured by frustration and need, sooner or later something was going to catastrophically break like an overstressed engine, and just that instant, I knew it was an even toss between my heart and my sanity. I dared not lose my hold on either, for the sake of the man I loved. But dear God, I wanted the release of one or the other.
Joshua saw her tensing as she turned around away for him and started scrubbing furiously at a random plate. He calmly walked up behind her. He then reached for a towel next to her and first pulled her hands out from around the plate, drying them carefully with the towel. Then he folded the towel in quarters, placed it in her hands, and moved them up to lightly cover her mouth. "Now, scream or bite down or do something, because you gotta let it out and stop taking everything to the extremes, Rina. So do whatever it takes to get it out. And then we can go for a walk."
I put my back to the sink and slid to the floor and hunched over the towel. It was soft and scented with lavender, a homey touch of Christian’s, and I breathed it in deep. One breath, two. Three. Common sense told me Joshua was right and pride kept me silent and I swallowed my upset. No tear floods nor sigh tempests move, or so the poem went. Joshua deserved better than that from me. I sniffed back the waterworks and made sure the towel sopped up everything I’d missed before lifting my face from it.
“Let’s walk. Dishes could stand a soak anyway.”
He nodded and lowered a hand. "Need some help up?" Joshua smiled as he looked down at the dark haired beauty he planned to marry. Rina could be a little emotionally extreme sometimes, but that was okay. They fit well together that way. Besides, it made sure his life was never dull.
There was pride and there was foolish pride and I’d indulged in too much of both. I gave him my hand and let him pull me to my feet.
“Lead on,” I said, too exhausted to even begin to chart a path out of the kitchen.
Joshua led them out of the kitchen and out of the house to the relatively desolate land that surrounded the house. Lucifer's Landing might be a lot of things, Joshua thought, but a local paradise would never be one of those things. As they walked, he let the always warm breeze blow across him for a bit before speaking. "So," he said calmly, "speak your piece out in the open air, out here away from everything. Say whatever needs to be said as loud as it needs to be said. I can take it."
“I’m not going to yell at you, Joshua. There’s no need for you to ‘take it’.” I swallowed and told him the truth. “At the risk of sounding terribly cliché, the problem isn’t you. It’s me.”
I stood there and looked at him and wondered how I could have found not one, not two, but three men who felt I was worth the time and effort to talk off the ledge. Oh get over yourself. You had a fit and you fell into it. He called you on it and you cowboyed up. Sure he helped but you’re nowhere near the edge like you think. So pull yourself together.
“Maybe I should explain,” I sighed.
It was December and winter had Lucifer’s Landing in its grip. For an arid hot planet such as Angel, however, that didn’t mean much in the way of cold. Jacket weather. A breeze off the flats made things chilly, nothing punishing, but enough to make us glad for our jackets and hats. So we walked and while we walked, I tried to put it into words.
“I meant what I said back there. You are my joy, Joshua, and I know I’ll end up paying for it later but I’m willing to do it. But I didn’t get to this point without dealing some damage to people who didn’t deserve it.” I stared at the desert landscape and thought of our bleak bivouac on Meadow. It had been a turning point, a crucible of character. Today was another and I wondered how I’d fare. “I’ve come a long way in the past few years. I’ve done things I never thought possible. They weren’t all admirable or right. I broke a promise I thought I’d never break. And because of that, I sometimes wonder if I should have chosen Mike—and gone off to die with him—rather than staying with you. But I keep coming back to the fact that Mike asked me to do something I thought he’d never ask. In asking me to kill for him, I realized I couldn’t die for him. And if I couldn’t die for him, then I couldn’t really be in love with him. Not in the way that mattered, the one that would keep us together, the one that would have me go to Miranda with him. But knowing that doesn’t remove the sin of having broken my promise.”
I took a deep breath and guilt sank its knives in my chest. I looked at Joshua.
“And stuck in the middle of that,” I said, “was you. All I could think when he asked for your head on a platter, was how to save you from it. From him. And though I don’t regret refusing to kill you, because I love you and don’t want you dead, I can’t forget the look on his face when he realized I’d come to say goodbye, instead of climbing into that two-seater with him. And when you mentioned leaving people behind, implying I’d be excluding someone who didn’t deserve it, it sent me right back to that moment.”
I took Joshua’s hands in mine. They were cold. I put them to my lips, blew on them, and my voice went thin.
“Mike’s gone. He’s lost to me. Even if he managed to stand in front of me now, nothing I could say or do would absolve me of what I did: I stabbed him in the back when he expected my support, after he killed a man to give us a chance at a life together. I have to live with that. Every damn day. I can’t go back. I can only go forward. To make better choices. To give myself permission to be happy. And I have so much to be happy for, Joshua. I have you. Because of you I have that chance to be better, to rise above it. Every damn day. And today, I failed to live up to that and I hurt you. I’m sorry.”
Mike's gone, huh? That was news to Joshua, since Mike, or at least the memory of Mike, colored everything Rina did. He shouldn't let him bug him when even her apologies to him somehow managed to involve Mike. Joshua knew Rina loved him. After all, she could've chosen Mike, just as she said. But he'd be dishonest with himself if he didn't wonder sometimes that if the super spy showed up at the door of the Equinox and forgave her (despite her insistence that he could never forgive) whether Rina would choose him again. But that was neither here nor there.
"I just wish everything with us didn't have to be a pronouncement from on high about who we are as people, Rina," Joshua said, his eyes wandering over the physical landscape as he tried to gather his mind from wandering through the emotional one. "I love you and I know you love me, but you gotta stop reading tons of extra meaning into everything I say. Means trusting that I love you and that I'm not looking to hurt you." The irony of asking her to trust him when he had just admitted to himself he wasn't sure whether she would choose him did not pass Joshua by.
He turned his gaze back to Rina. "We want our relationship to be a sanctuary, right? Which means that while I understand that your mind is constantly thinking about twisted plots and conspiracies, you gotta leave that at the door to us. Let the paranoia and the drama go when we're together. I trust you and you trust me. Deal?" If she could stop seeing his casual statements as a judgment of their relationship, then he could try to keep from feeling Mike staring over his shoulder.
The habits of a decade were firmly entrenched. I’d dug myself deep in the hole they’d made for me. And in just a few words, Joshua had built me the ladder I needed to escape. All I had to do was to start climbing.
“Deal,” I said. I pulled his hands around me, slipped my arms around him, and hugged him tight. Clung to him, to be honest, and began that internal climb.