Somewhere in a time long-forgotten, now, psychics began a practice known colloquially as Bonding. It is a marriage, but it is also more than that. It is a binding together of two minds and two souls. It is for some the fusion of a soul with its better half. The practice, however, is never undertaken lightly. That is because Bonding, for better or worse, is for life.
— Robert Channing, Customs of the Psychean Guard c. 5072 PD
7 Octem, 5249 PD
“I gave one of your subordinates a direct order a couple days ago. I hope you don’t mind.”
Her voice still made his skin prickle, even after all these years. It still caused a physical reaction, even though it had been easily ten years since they’d been together—ten years and more. Adam Windsor swallowed quietly, trying not to betray what he was feeling as he slowly turned away from the holographic topographical maps he was studying to look at Rachel Farragut. For a moment, he wondered who’d let her in here, then remembered that she could get anywhere she set her mind to getting to. For a heartbeat, he considered giving orders to the people who watched the front to not let her back here again without telling him. Another look at her dispelled all notion of that.
“That depends, Rachel,” he said carefully. His eyes drank in the sight of her. Had she worn those tight pants because she somehow knew how much he still wanted her? God, she’s still beautiful. Age had only heightened the attributes she’d been born with, the ones that had drawn him to her like a moth to a flame. “What order did you give and who did you give it to?”
“I told Brendan to start teaching his cadets like the war Lindsay saw starts tomorrow.”
So she did see a war in our future. It must be imminent, then. He licked his lips. “Is that what she saw?”
Rachel inclined her head, a dark curl brushing her cheek. His hand ached to brush that curl back behind her ear. “That’s what she told me she saw, anyway.” She moved to his desk and perched on the corner. “Brendan was worried you’d tell him to go easier on the kids.”
“If there’s a war coming, I’d rather he run them ragged and get them the training they need to survive the war.” He rubbed his jaw, then exhaled, shaking his head. “How bad, Rachel?”
She shrugged. “I didn’t want to push her for too much detail. You saw her after the swarm. Would you have pushed her?”
He held his tongue, only because he knew that Rachel wouldn’t have liked the answer he gave. He would have pushed her niece—their niece—for more information. Maybe it’s better that she and I never… He suppressed a sigh, convincing himself yet one more time that it was better that he and Rachel hadn’t stayed together the way they’d planned all those years ago.
She sighed and looked away from him, at the maps. Adam swallowed, knowing that she’d read him like a book again, with a look rather than ability. She’d always been able to. It was foolish to try to stop her, to try to trick her.
“I’m sorry,” he tried quietly. “But you know what I’m about, Rachel.”
“Yes,” she said quietly, forestalling further explanation. “I know what you’re about, Adam.” She looked up at him, eyes hard, expression cold. “She’s my niece, Adam.”
“I know,” he said hoarsely, wondering why he felt choked up all of a sudden. Could it be that her disapproval still cut him to the bone? “And you love her. I love that girl, too, Rachel. But she…we…” He broke off, thoughts in a tangle, shame only growing. Hellfire and damnation, she’s mine, too. “I’m sorry.” It was all he could think to say.
“You should be.” Her eyes were still on the maps, but he knew the look in them without a glance. She was ice again, ice hiding the fire.
By god, did he want her. “Commander Cho has my blessing in busting tail,” he said finally, coming up with no better option, no other way to try to melt the ice, to break down the wall that had suddenly sprung up between them—again, for perhaps the hundred thousandth time. “You’re right. It’s necessary to get those kids trained up for whatever may or may not happen.”
Her voice was deceptively quiet. “It’s going to happen, Adam.”
“I know.” It’s a matter of when, and how. And who’s going to hit us. He exhaled, moving slowly toward her. “Rachel, I…”
She finally looked at him. The ice was gone, but so was the fire. She looked tired. Lost. “I’m sorry, too, Adam,” she said softly. She took his hand. He squeezed it, feeling lightheaded for a moment. “Neither of our lives are easy.”
He shook his head. “I think they’re both about to get harder.”
She just nodded, closing her eyes. “I think you’re right.”
He wanted to hold her, wanted it so badly he could taste it. He could still taste the tears on her face when she’d curled against his chest ten years ago, telling him it wouldn’t work, that they couldn’t keep living the way they were living. He could feel her nervousness and his that first time they’d been together, the night before Mimir fell, in her apartment in the capital. He loved her still, the same way he loved her then.
“She’s a grown woman, now, Rachel,” he whispered, one hand drifting toward her arm. “We don’t have to…to worry about what anyone’s going to think. What she’s going to think.”
“It was never just about Lindsay, Adam.”
“I know that.” It had been about a lot of things, including having a family together, about his work, about her stubborn refusal to give up on impossible revenge on whichever conglom had attacked Mimir first. They still didn’t know. He was convinced that not even the conglom responsible knew anymore, given the chaos of the wars that hadn’t ended until only a short while ago.
“This is a terrible time to think about it.”
“Eaglet, when is there going to be another time?” He squeezed her arm. She didn’t pull away, just looked down toward the floor.”
“You haven’t called me that in eleven years.” Her voice was quiet, almost broken.
It was true. He’d almost forgotten. He tucked fingers under her chin, tilting her face up so he could take a long look into her eyes. “I don’t want to suddenly turn around and figure out that it’s too late to be with you, Rachel. We’ve been apart for so long, people don’t remember us ever being together.”
She flinched. “That was by design, Adam. If they didn’t know we’d ever been together, no one would ever accuse you of any impropriety. It was for your career.” She bit her lip. “You couldn’t give it up and I…I know I shouldn’t have asked for that. But I did. And you said no. You were right to say no, as right as I was wrong to ask.”
He felt a pang of regret. Part of him would’ve given it up for her, if not for the fact that he was terrified that he would have walked away from his calling only to lose her anyway. “You wouldn’t give up revenge.”
A weak, wry smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. “I wouldn’t have, either, if Aidan hadn’t managed to convince me we’d never figure out who did it.”
I don’t know that Aidan will ever realize how big a favor he did me when he managed that. Adam tucked a curl out of her face, behind her ear. She blushed a little, smiling.
“You always used to do that.”
He smiled weakly. “I knew you meant it when you said we couldn’t keep going the way we were because you cut your hair.” She’d gone military short with that cut—no more curls. It had signaled their end as a couple. He’d been sick at heart for days. They’d fought about it. He’d left, gone to set up a base across Oceana, Fort Solace. He’d moved into the barracks when he came back, four weeks later, and left Rachel alone with Lindsay. He still regretted it.
He was afraid he’d always regret it.
“It was the only thing I could do. If I hadn’t, I’d have kept feeling…” She broke off, looking away again.
His heart wrenched, twisting into a knot. “Rachel…” His hand fell away from her face. She was crying. He knew she was crying, even though there was no sound, no change in her posture, nothing. But still he knew.
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He gathered her into his arms, holding her against his chest. Brick by brick, the wall that had separated them for the past decade and more began to come apart, to crumble. He could feel her again.
“I missed you,” was all that she said.
He laughed as his own tears gathered in his eyes. “I missed you, too, Eaglet. I missed you, too.”
● ● ●
Somehow, they ended up tangled together on the floor behind his desk, as furtive and giggling as they’d been almost thirty years before, when he’d been a young officer on Mimir and she a wild-eyed diplomat’s daughter, a teenager cut loose and out for a good time. He’d loved her then and still loved her now—more than anything.
She grinned at him a little. “What are you thinking?” She whispered. She was half on top of him, one leg draped over one of his, her knee against the soft part of his thigh.
He grinned, almost boyishly. “That I was a fool to let you walk away. This takes me back a few dozen years.”
“Me too.” She smiled, nuzzling his cheek. “Except we’ll scare the living crap out of anyone who comes looking for you. It’ll be terrible for your image.”
Adam laughed, realizing he didn’t care. “Let the tongues wag! Who cares what anyone else thinks now? We’re adults. You’re a big girl. I’m a big boy. We’re both capable of making rational decisions on our own.”
“And we’ve been Bonded for almost thirty years.”
Even if for the past ten no one would’ve suspected it. He smiled wryly, brushing stray curls out of her face again. “There’s that.” He stretched, one hand resting against the small of her back. “Besides, I’d be more worried about your career, were I you.”
She arched a brow. He smiled wryly.
“The Speaker is looking to retire from public life soon, Rachel. Go back to his farm and enjoy his grandkids for the rest of his life. Word around the Council is that he’s eyeing you to replace him.”
Rachel laughed at that. “You can’t be serious, Adam.”
He blinked. “Why not? That’s what’s been said. Almost everyone’s said it.” He frowned. “Except for D’Arcy, but I’m not sure he really likes you that much.”
“He doesn’t, but the feeling is mutual.” She rested her head on his shoulder. “I can’t be Speaker, Adam. I’d muck too much up. It’s the same reason why I refused to play ambassador to NeCom.”
“The New Earth Commonwealth is a joke, Rachel. It has no teeth to keep the peace. It’s not going to last.” They had, for a time, wished and hoped it would. A futile hope, a wasted wish.
“They said four hundred years ago that the Foundation was a joke, that it couldn’t possibly succeed. Look at us now.”
Adam grimaced. “Yeah. Relying on NeCom’s Colonial Office to make sure no one tries to claim anything in this system.”
She smiled wryly. “Well, that’s why we’ve got our military, right?”
“Such as it is.” He stretched, then sighed. “If anyone shows up in major force, we could be in deep trouble, Rachel.”
“I know,” she sighed. “But what can we do about it, Adam? You and the other Guardians have never…don’t look at me like that! You’ve never made noises about needing more than what we have.”
He sighed, thumping his head slightly against the floor. “We’d always talked about it in private, behind closed doors. The Council…most of them are pacifists, Rachel. They put up with us because we keep their precious dreams safe and keep the world ‘pure.’ There’s a bare handful that would agree to what we’d ask for if we could. So why create the ruckus? We haven’t really needed much more than what we have, no, not until someone, someday shows up in-system with a couple of frigates and a carrier, maybe a few troop transports. The day that happens is the day we’re in some very, very serious trouble. It’ll be too late.”
“So what do we do?”
He frowned. “I don’t know,” he said finally. “But we’ll figure it out. We always do.” Aidan and I will have to talk. We’ll come up with something.
She was quiet for a long moment. “We should get off the floor, Adam.”
He laughed. “Suddenly uncomfortable?”
“I think my hip fell asleep.”
“I wasn’t aware hips could do that.”
She punched him, gently, then grinned as she started to untangle herself. He chuckled and started to get up off the floor, offering her a hand up after getting to his feet.
“One big difference between then and now,” he said, pulling her up to her feet.
“What’s that?” She leaned into his chest for a moment, smiling wryly. He grinned back.
“My joints creak now when I stand up.”
She laughed and poked him in the belly. “They do not, you big ox. Now where’s my shirt?”
“Probably under the desk with my shoes. Want me to help you get it?” He leered at her a little. She swatted him again.
“Awful,” she murmured, crouching to retrieve her shirt. “You have work to do, Adam. Do you want me to call Aidan, or are you going to do that?”
“I’ll call Aidan and Daciana myself.” Daci won’t be happy to get the call, but it’s high time she pry herself away from her secret projects to come up here and have a good, long chat with Aidan and I. Hopefully she’s come up with something down there at Urgathe that’ll help us fend off an attack—or twelve.
“Oh, so she’s still alive?”
Adam winced and nodded. “No one actually thought she was dead, did they?”
Rachel shrugged. “I’m sure more than one or two did, to be honest. There was some question about her sanity, too, when Frederick died.”
He held his tongue and kept a tight rein on his thoughts. That was the larger secret, in fact, and he was shocked that it had been kept for this long. Frederick Rose wasn’t dead. He was hiding at Urgathe and letting his supposed non-existence shield him from the hunters he most assuredly would have brought to E-557 from New Earth space had his survival even been rumored. If there was anything that was a bigger , more closely guarded secret than Lindsay’s status as the Oracle, it wasFrederick’s survival of the several attempts on his life that supposedly killed him—and very nearly succeeded in doing so.
“You’ve got that look, Adam.”
He tried not to look sheepish. “I have it for a good reason, Rachel.”
“It’s need-to-know and I don’t need to know? I would’ve thought we’d outgrown that.”
“I wish we had,” he sighed, sliding his arms around her waist and kissing her jaw, then her cheek, then her eyes. “You said you had work to do.”
“I do,” she admitted, looking up at him as she straightened her shirt. “More than I’d like to think about.” She kissed him gently, then stepped back from him. “When do you want to move back in?”
His brows went up. “What? That fast?”
She shrugged. “No reason for you not to, Adam, and I’m tired of living alone. And it’s bloody hard cooking for one.”
He smiled at her. “I’ll bring the first load over tonight. Do you want me to bring dinner, too?”
“That depends. Are you cooking, or is someone else cooking?”
She grinned. “Then you’re bringing dinner.”
He grinned back. “Good.” He kissed her again. “Go on, get out of here. We’ve both got work to do.” He watched her go, unable to wipe the smile off his face, even as he turned back to his desk to start figuring out how he was going to pry Daciana Rose away from her projects and her husband.