Chapter 22: Warhorse Part 5—The Fifth Year
Date Point: 9y 3d AV
London, England, Earth
First Contact Day had come and gone without much in the way of incidents for Sean. He’d had quite a lonely Christmas and New Year, too—the former had been spent playing EVE Online. The latter was forgotten – he’d woken up in Ava’s bed at her place, with Charlotte and Ben in the other room, a Homerian hangover, no clear memory of anything after about six pm the preceding year, and no Ava.
There was Ava now, though, dusting snow off the shoulders of the expensive blended wool coat that Adam had splashed on for her during his first winter visit as Sean let her in.
She gave him a warm grin. “Hey lover!”
Sean managed the first genuine smile he’d been able to produce in a couple of weeks. “You’d better stop calling me that, you know.” he replied. “We don’t want you to accidentally use it around Adam.”
If the suggestion put a dent in Ava’s mood, she didn’t show it. Instead, to his surprise she kissed him with a smile and brushed past him into the living room. “Well, I’ll keep using it so long as it’s true.” she asserted, lightly.
”…How long is it going to be true for?” Sean asked.
“Oh come on, you’re going to lay the heavy stuff on me right after I get back?” Ava teased. “Come on, how was your new year?!”
“I, uh…woke up in your bed with a splitting headache.”
“Not for the first time!”
“Yeah, but you weren’t there and I wasn’t naked.”
She tutted. “See, I know what you’re doing wrong there. You should have picked somebody up, had a good time.”
“In your bed?”
“Sure!” she nodded, casting herself down on the couch and tugging her scarf out of her collar. “Just change the sheets, you know?”
“Let me guess, you got laid at New Years.”
“Oh yeah.” She nodded, and her eyebrows emphasised the point. “He’s…very physical, you know? He likes to rough-house, and hug, and tickle, and…”
“Fuck your brains out?” Sean asked, in his best dry tone.
“You said it, not me!” She sat forward, concerned. “I’m sorry, are you…okay?”
Sean sighed. “Look. I love you. You know that, I’ve said it before. Seeing you so happy with somebody else is…”
Her expression fell, and so did her gaze, so that she was looking at the carpet.
”…It makes me really happy.” Sean finished.
Ava frowned at him “…That’s not how I expected that sentence to go.” she admitted.
Sean shifted seats and sat next to her. “I think if anybody’s going to get how that feels it’s you, though.” he said. “Being both…really happy for somebody, but also hurting at the same time because you know their happiness is coming at the expense of your own?”
She nodded, eyes downcast again.
He stood to make her a cup of tea, and was nearly to the door when she spoke again. “You know I love you too, right?”
He hadn’t been expecting that at all, and just turned to give her the very reference image of a bewildered stare.
“I mean it!” She added. Having unbuttoned her coat, she left it behind as she stood up and slipped her arms around his waist. “I love you, Sean. I owe you everything, how could I not?”
Sean blinked a bit as that sank in, and then wrapped her up in his own arms and held on, fighting back tears.
Sure enough, Ava had turned on her own waterworks, but this time it was a kind of happy cry, not the misery he was so used to seeing. “I guess I’ve got a thing for selfless guys.” she said.
“I’m not selfless.” Sean disagreed, shaking his head against the side of hers. “I still wish you’d choose me.”
“But you’re going to let it happen?”
“Yeah” Sean didn’t even hesitate on that one. “If it’s what you want.”
She sighed, and kissed him, gently, on the cheek. “Lover, in some ways you’re more of a man than he’ll ever be.”
Sean let her go, not knowing how to respond to that. “Cup of tea?”
She laughed. “Okay fine, be all British.” she teased. “I just want you to know that…I’m sorry. I know this is cruel on you.”
“C’est la vie.” He shook his head, forgiving her. “We’re not calling it off just yet though, are we? There’s still a little while.”
“I think we’re past the point where I need somebody to carry me, now.” Ava said, and his heart sank a little. “So…let’s just enjoy each other, okay? No more drama, no more…heavy stuff. Just love. Can we do that?”
“Nothing would make me happier.”
They kissed again, a deep and affectionate one that was a marked contrast to the unregulated release-valve for pent-up emotions that had been their relationship so far, and left them both smiling.
He felt warm and alive.
“So…” Ava said. “Cup of tea?”
Date Point: 9y 2m 1w AV San Diego National Memorial, San Diego County, Southern California, USA, Earth
The part Gabriel had trouble with was how clean the destruction had been.
A nuke the same size as the antimatter blast that had destroyed his home, his friends and his life would have thrust a spear of radioactive fallout deep into the heart of the USA, maybe even as far as Denver. Certainly, nobody would have been able to visit the Grand Canyon or Las Vegas again for centuries.
While the antimatter had created some very strange ionization effects at ground zero, these had faded inside minutes. It had, in its way, been a very clean wound. Buildings had been smashed apart, flattened or just plain vaporised. The crater had filled with sea water, creating a plume of steam that had been visible from space and which had altered the local weather. The wildfires had burned for months.
The whole city had been written off. There were only some sixteen hundred survivors or so, most of whom had moved on and tried to keep on living. They had lost a few—a cancer patient who’d been out of town visiting a specialist in Los Angeles, several suicides, and a young married couple who’d died somewhere up Mount Everest a year after the blast—but most of them were now established in getting on with the business of just being alive, and with new cities now being built on planets other than Earth…
Well, resettling San Diego would have just felt like walking on peoples’ graves.
Nature, naturally, had no such qualms, and in five years the debris field had overgrown with hardy shrubs like Creosote Bush and Manzanita, plus ferns and grasses. A few young trees had even found a home among the rubble, but by and large the ruins of San Diego belonged to wildflowers and delicate flowering bushes, the perfume of which was carried up the hillside by clean sea air.
It was beautiful.
The memorial planning had taken five years, and was intended to involve every one of the survivors, or somebody on their behalf. The idea was simple—an eternal flame had been set up, an elegant silver teardrop with holes around its equator that, when lit, should send flames flowing up and around the metal to lick off the top. It was mounted atop a five foot pole on a hillside overlooking the downtown crater.
The participants had all been asked to find a flat stone from wherever they had gone on to live, preferably as heavy as they could comfortably lift, and send it to the artist for preparation.
Adam’s slab of Cimbrean green slate, with its lone alien fossil, had caused quite a stir. He’d taken some of his precious leave time in order to deliver it, on the grounds that the artist might not believe that anybody could comfortably lift it, and Gabriel would have paid good money to see the look on the guy’s face when his boy walked in cradling an enormous chunk of alien geology in his arms.
That Cimbrean fossil now took pride of place. The artist had carved a groove to fit half the flame’s supporting pole and Adam’s contribution now sat at the heart of the tribute, peeking out of the top with the little spidery, whiskery thing that had once died in those ancient layers of extraterrestrial silt just peeking out of the top.
Everybody’s stone was visible, though. Even the very smallest one, a tiny palm-sized thing contributed by a little boy who had been just three months old at the time of the blast, visiting his grandparents in New Hampshire.
It was amazing hearing what some of them had got up to over five years. Moving off-world and joining the military seemed to be almost tame next to some of the stuff a few of the others had got up to. A beat cop that Gabriel had never met but shared SDPD history with had gone into the FBI and had talked down a hostage situation in Mississipi. There was a man from Linda Vista who’d become a monk, and a doctor from Alvarado for whom this was the first time setting foot on American soil since the tragedy.
For Gabe’s part, standing up for a long while was finally becoming less of a challenge. Five years of exercise and physiotherapy hadn’t repaired the nerve damage in his leg, but the muscles were stronger and steadier, his arms had strengthened to cope with resting his weight on his stick, and he no longer shook when standing upright for any length of time. It still hurt a bit, and always would, but he was spared the indignity of needing to sit down when so many others were standing respectfully.
There wasn’t a ceremony, exactly. They just circled the memorial, touching it, examining it, finding their stone and then, watched by the news cameras, the little boy stepped forward with a lit taper on the end of a pole, and touched it to the teardrop at the top.
It lit, flared, flickered, stabilized, and they watched the heat brown the metal.
Then, in ones, twos and threes, they turned away and left behind, having finally said goodbye.
John “BASEBALL” Burgess
“Okay, it’s a fucking sauna in here.”
WARHORSE had always struggled with the heat. He was just so big nowadays, and so dense, that he actively struggled if the temperature crept above seventy or so. Hell, ALL of the Operators were like that, but Adam had it worst.
A busy restaurant in LA during a heatwave was really not his environment at all.
“If you need to step outside to cool down a minute, it’s okay Grillsteak.” Ava told him.
John nodded his agreement, out of equal parts concern for his friend’s comfort, and seeing an opportunity to have a private word with Ava.
He’d been suspicious from the moment her forgiveness email came in after the move to Folctha. Even sitting down the deck of a C5, he’d been able to hear her shouting, and it had been FAR from the first such instance. It seemed like every letter or contact between Adam and his girl had gone tense or angry at some point, even when she’d sent him an envelope full of pictures of herself in pin-up poses wearing some of his old T-shirts—an event that Adam had been forced to endure much whooping, whistling and good-natured teasing about.
And then suddenly…all was forgiven? And there hadn’t been a single angry word since? Not so much as a bitter comment or a terse email?
John was certain he knew what that meant. Been there, done that, with two or three different girls in his life.
The problem was, he had no proof, which was why he’d been planning to talk to her very carefully and gently without going as far as an actual confrontation. Deep inside, he was a long way shy of impressed with her, even if he wasn’t quite ready to commit to angry just yet.
But, he had no proof.
Adam nodded, and gratefully excused himself to get some cool air, leaving Ava sipping at her Mojito opposite John.
“So…” he said, the moment his friend had awkwardly shouldered his way past the astonished diners and out of earshot. “Things are going way better with you two.”
She nodded happily around her drinking straw but didn’t comment.
That hadn’t gone as he’d planned it.
“I’m glad. Y’know, he was…off his game there for a while, after the move to Folctha.”
“Yeah.” she agreed. “I wasn’t exactly fair on him.”
That hadn’t gone as planned either.
Fuck it. Direct approach it was.
“Look…Ava, call me paranoid, but when things go from that bad to that good overnight, it makes me suspicious.”
“Are you a naturally suspicious person?” She asked, helping herself to a bread stick.
“If something seems too good to be true…” John replied, keeping eye contact.
She stopped chewing, and frowned at him as she swallowed. “What are you driving at, BASEBALL? Don’t dance around, put it out there.”
”…Have you found somebody else?”
She did something wholly unexpected and giggled. “Are you out of your-? Where would I find somebody to replace Adam?”
“Well…speaking from experience here, but maybe anybody who’s there might have been better for you, for a bit. Just to tide you over. Am I near the mark there?”
The couple of rapid blinks she managed and her slightly too neutral expression told him that he was. “Yeah? Speaking from experience, are you?”
“So you’ve cheated on your girls.” She stated.
“Once or twice.” he agreed.
“Young, dumb and horny. What’s your excuse?”
“I haven’t done anything to excuse.” She replied.
John saw right through that one—it may have had the words of a denial, but he knew an evasion when he heard it. “What, you think it’s okay?”
“Yeah, actually. I do.”
Things went off-script for John for the third time. “Uh…”
“Look, you said it yourself, he was off his game without me.” Ava told him. “Well, he’s still got me. And yeah, okay? It’s because I found somebody to ‘tide me the fuck over’. You want to talk about what’s okay? Is it okay to yank somebody around by their heart for four years? Is it okay for you to shove your nose in and suggest that my whole life should be about Adam?”
She leaned forward, and the only other person that John had ever seen wear a steel glare like that was Major Powell. “Especially when you’ve done it yourself? Fuck you! I don’t owe you or Adam a goddamn apology.”
A nearby diner cleared his throat and looked away, and she lowered her voice again. “Maybe you should stop thinking of me as ‘Adam’s girl’ or ‘the thing that keeps him going’.” she added, allowing the word ‘thing’ to freeze solid with contempt as she said it. “I’m Ava. I’m not his, I’m mine. And if I do whatever it takes to back him up and help him, it’s because I want to! You understand?”
“And I’m not just some meathead grunt.” John shot back. “I’m his brother, okay? I’m looking out for him. I’m not gonna let anybody hurt him.”
“You and me both.” she retorted, then sat back and picked up her Mojito. “We done?”
John paused, then nodded slowly and extended a hand over the table. “…it’d hurt him if we weren’t friends.” he pointed out.
“Yeah, it would.” she sipped her drink, not returning the gesture. “You proposing a truce?”
“Are we cool?”
“We’re not cool, no.” She replied, but leaned forward and shook his hand. “But you said it, I’m not gonna let anybody hurt him.”
By the time Adam returned with a waiter bearing a pedestal fan, he was delighted to find them getting along like old friends.
Date Point: 9y 2m 2w AV
HMS Sharman, Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
James “Legsy” Jones
“Fair play, boys, I’m impressed…but for the love of fuck, why and how?”
“Come on, Legs. Both our Protectors are away, we wanted to surprise them.” Stevenson told him.
“Hell yeah! They put those fuckin’ stupid Feet of theirs on everything, it’s our turn to leave our mark!”
“So the four of you painted a castle on our water tower.” Legsy put a hand to his brow to shade his eyes and get a better look at it.
“Only fair.” Sikes drawled. “They put little feet on everything, we put a frickin’ huge castle on ONE thing.”
“Quality over quantity.” Vandenberg nodded.
“That the motto of your love life, Rebar?” Price asked, and accepted a high-five from Murray.
“What can I say, your sister’s the best.”
“Oh, you fucking didn’t-!”
Rebar tried to scoot away and hide behind Titan as Price made a friendly grab for him, but Aggressors were, by training and vocation, so much faster and nimbler on their feet than Defenders. There was pretty soon a good-natured brotherly scuffle in the dirt, with Price grinding his fist painfully against Rebar’s head and both men laughing.
“Okay, you lot are way too full of beans.” Legsy commented, bringing the rough play to an immediate halt. “Tell you what. If you’re all so eager to prove that you can climb as well as our PJs do, there’s a load of windows on the main office building that’ve never been washed. I reckon the Major’ll be fuckin’ impressed if they’re all nice and sparkling clean at the end of the day, and he might give Admiral Knight the nod for letting that castle you put on his water tower stay there…”
“Aww, Legs!” Titan complained.
“What? I’m just making a suggestion.” Legs folded his arms and grinned. “Because otherwise you’re going to have to go back up there anyway and strip that nice castle you worked so hard to paint right off it again, aren’t you?”
The Defenders exchanged glances. “We’ll…go get the climbing gear.” Vandenberg said.
“Fuck aye.” Legsy nodded. “Have fun.”
He let them get on with it, and made a mental note to get the drone footage that Sikes had definitely taken, even if he’d deny it at first. It’d put the Major in a good mood to watch it, he knew.
“And won’t Adam an’ BASEBALL have a surprise when they get back…” he asked of nobody, turning back to admire the impromptu mural once again. Considering it had been done in the dead of night by four men in climbing gear fifty feet in the air, it was remarkably good. They must have been sneaking up there for days pencilling in the outline.
Adam and BASEBALL, meanwhile, would be back from leave in two days.
He gave it three days before there were Feet somewhere on that castle.
Date Point: 9y 2m 2w 2d AV London, England, Earth
“Hey. I saw you on the news. That’s quite a memorial they built.”
Sean smiled as Ava hung her coat up and kissed him, then frowned at the door. “No Charlotte or Ben?”
“Tonight’s…not really appropriate for them.”
Her tone of voice finally got through to him, and Sean sighed. “You’re calling it off, aren’t you?”
“You always knew I was going to sometime soon.”
“Always kind of hoped you wouldn’t.” he replied, but his heart wasn’t in it. He’d known there was no changing her mind.
”…Come to bed.” She offered.
“I thought you were calling it off?”
“I am.” she agreed. “So let’s make the last time special.”
”…Alright. Grab your coat.”
“I want more than just ‘come to bed’, duck. It’s a nice day out – let’s use it.”
Bemused, Ava put her coat back on and he took her hand.
It wasn’t a lavish date—at the best of times, Sean barely had enough money coming in to keep on top of his bills, council tax and student fees, meaning that any romantic notions of paying for expensive romantic moments like horse-drawn carriage rides in the park or whatever were out.
Mostly, they walked, held hands, talked and just enjoyed one another’s company. Sean’s fitness had improved hugely over the years, from daily walks with her. Previously he would have been sore and tired after a mile—now, a three hour gentle stroll down Archway Road and through Holloway to the City and onto Garden Bridge didn’t trouble him at all.
Sunset was staining the day’s few high clouds a brilliant pink and purple by the time they stood together, looking out over grey waters and Soho, surrounded by the scent and hissing of plants in the breeze.
“You’re right.” Ava commented, after they’d been silent a minute or so. “This is…right.”
Sean put his arm round her waist. “It’s going to be hard, you know.”
“Being just your friend.”
She looked down at her feet, blinking, then hugged him. “Please try.” she pleaded. “I’d hate to lose you.”
“You’re not losing me duck.” he promised, stroking her hair. “I just said it’d be hard, not that I couldn’t do it.”
She let go again, wiping her cheeks dry. “You’re a lot tougher than you look, you know that?”
“You seem to bring out that quality in people.”
She didn’t answer, just sighed and nuzzled up against him until the sun went down.
They caught the tube back, still not saying anything. They just held hands on the walk back to Sean’s house. Only once they were inside and the door was locked did Ava break the comfortable silence.
“Come to bed.”
Sean took her hand, and for the last time she led him up the stairs.
Date Point: 9y 5m AV Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
“THREE! *TWO! ONE!*”
Cheers erupted as gravity settled on everybody like a comfortable warm coat.
Jess and Gabe both shared a sigh of relief. There was just something about low gravity that the human body never quite adapted to. No matter how familiar it became, no matter how good you got at adjusting your preconceptions on how big such a small difference really was, there was just something in the bones and muscles that hankered for good old nine-point-eight meters per second per second.
The engineers who had installed Folctha’s new gravity generator shook hands or exchanged high-fives, and then got on with the business of tidying up all of the generator’s functional bits into the pedestal of the sculpture that had been selected to house it.
It was just a modified warp engine really, and therefore disarmingly small—Jess could have easily held it in one hand. It could have lived hidden away in any basement or office in Folctha, but public opinion had been that it should be somewhere that they could visit, and so by far the longest delay in installing it had been the wait while a sculpture had gone through the process of being commissioned and built, starting with approaching several different artists, then putting the matter to public opinion via Cimbrean’s burgeoning colonial internet.
The winning design was equal parts sculpture and water feature, an angular slate funnel named “Well” that echoed both the artificial gravity well that it would house, and also a source of water, for which purpose it caught the predictable nightly Cimbrean rains and allowed the very gravity it was generating to draw the rainwater through a filter, dispensing it via drinking fountain.
It now formed the centrepiece of New World Plaza. What had once been just a field amidst the temporary buildings of the early Folctha colony was now a brick-paved area with flower beds and market stalls that sold everything from clothing and blankets, books to hyper-modern gizmos like stasis fridges, solar-powered drone quadcopters and holographic TVs. There was even an e-tattoo artist, plus an assortment of missionaries, street preachers and pamphlet-dispensers.
Folctha, in short, had grown up. There was nothing left of the frontier huddle of little chalets and dirt roads. Nowadays everything was paved, the roads designed so that the utilities that ran beneath them could be serviced without disrupting traffic.
Nowadays, the buildings were three, four, five stories tall and a pale grey that looked white in the height of the day, hung with lights and banners of fibre-optic cloth.
Nowadays, the Faith Centre was just the first of many, the original Folctha Medical Center was now dwarfed by the Sara Tisdale Memorial Hospital, Delaney Row was a wide avenue lined with young silver birch trees and full of government buildings.
Everything was inspired by the alien palace that had once stood at the top of the hill, now rebuilt and permanent home to the Thing. Its looping geometric lines and rounded rooms had come to define Cimbrean architecture. Nobody seemed to mind that it was originally Corti architecture—the opportunity to riff on alien themes had been too good to pass up, and in many ways the coldly mathematical underpinnings of the original owner’s vision had been hugely exceeded and improved upon.
And now, finally, they were under Earth gravity again.
“You okay?” Jess asked Gabe. He squeezed her hand—despite his improving fitness, she never did quite manage to not worry about him. She knew he found it mostly endearing, but she’d rather irritate him sometimes than miss a moment when he genuinely needed help. He was good about admitting to those, when they came along.
“That actually feels better.” he told her quietly.
“Are you sure?”
“Mmhm.” he nodded.
Cimbrean Colonial Security was Gabe’s success story—a modern, trim and professional police force whose high-vis yellow jackets were a familiar sight patrolling the city in pairs on foot, on bicycles, and in sturdy electric SUVs. Gabe had admitted in private that he would have preferred they be armed but Folctha was, after all, a British colony and the citizens had largely expressed a preference that their police force not be armed during their normal duties, reserving the firepower only for when it was needed.
“Bit of a disturbance down in the Alien Quarter, sir.”
Jess gave his hand a squeeze, kissed his cheek and pointed a thumb towards home with a wry smile. “I’ll see you later, ‘chief’.” she promised.
Gabe gave her a grateful smile and limped alongside Bailey towards the waiting CCS SUV.
Jess took in the dispersing crowd, and then headed for home.
She had to politely navigate a gauntlet of parents wanting to discuss their child with her. Despite the known detrimental effects of low gravity on a child’s growth and development, enough families had stuck it out, making do with trusting the small gravity generator that hummed gently to itself under Jess’ desk and the ones in gyms to make up the difference.
It wasn’t entirely clear if that trust was well-founded. None of the kids seemed to have anything wrong with them, but they were all growing up tall. Whatever the truth, the concerns had been enough to discourage anybody from trying to raise infants and toddlers in Folctha. Ever since the Tisdales had gone back to Earth, every new conception had been grounds for slight communal sorrow, knowing that one of their neighbours was leaving for however many years.
Hopefully, the gravity generator would change that. It would certainly save Jess’s job—if the current generation had finished growing up and no new youth had come along to replace them, the school would have been completely redundant.
Now, though, there was hope that some of those young parents might return, and that Folctha could move on with the business of becoming a real, permanent place for families.
All in all, the future was looking bright.
Date Point: 9y 6m AV London, England, Earth
”…so between your online portfolio and your material already being used by CAUD, you’ve popped up on our radar as somebody to watch. Would you mind-?”
“Is this guy bothering you, baby?”
The guy in the suit damn near swallowed his tongue when he turned around and came face-to-face with Adam.
“Adam!” Ava had learned not to throw herself too hard into hugging him nowadays. It was an awful lot like shoulder-barging a wall. Still, it was difficult to resist. “Oh my God, I didn’t think you had any leave left!”
“Just two days.” Adam agreed. “So, I’ve got a flight to catch in ten hours, but…come on, I wasn’t going to miss your graduation!”
She gave him a huge kiss. “Did you see the speech?”
“Yep, on the screen in the lecture hall upstairs. Saw you getting your scroll, too.” He beamed. “Who’s this guy?”
“Oh! Uh, Levaughn Thomas, this is my boyfriend Adam.”
“Staff Sergeant Arés, I believe.” Thomas shook Adam’s hand, regaining his composure.
“Uh…yeah! How’d you know?”
“I’ve got a working relationship with your father.” Mr. Thomas revealed. “He’s such a pleasure to work with.”
“Ahh, you’re the Byron guy.” Adam nodded. “You offering Ava a job?”
Levaughn managed a smile that was microscopically less confident than usual. “Well…I was just getting to that.” he confirmed.
Ava inclined her head with a ‘go ahead’ smile, and Levaughn cleared his throat and handed her a card. “My contact details.” he declared. “Please, call me whenever you’re next on Cimbrean and I’ll be happy to pencil you in for a little chat.”
“I’ll be glad to!” Ava agreed, shaking his hand before slipping the card into her handbag.
“Damn.” Adam commented, watching Thomas leave.
“Nothing, I’m just…not used to guys like him.”
“You mean you’re so used to drowning in testosterone you forgot that camp dudes exist.” Ava teased, and grinned all the more when a blush darkened his face. “So oh my God, you’ve got two days leave and you flew over here just to see me and you’re going to have to fly straight back out again?”
“You didn’t have to, beef stock.” She kissed him. “But I really appreciate it.”
“And look at you! Getting job offers from the Byron group!” Adam retorted, and gave her an affectionate one-armed squeeze.
“Oh!” Ava pointed and raised her voice. “SEAN!”
To his credit, Sean apparently had genuinely not noticed them, and to his even greater credit, upon spotting Adam he didn’t show any sign of nerves or steeling himself—he just excused himself from his current conversation and trotted over.
“Hey.” He greeted her as they shared a chaste cheek-kiss. “Congratulations on the First.”
“So you’re Sean.” Adam stuck a hand out. “Heard a lot about you.”
“All good, I hope.” Sean winced a little at Adam’s grip, but kept his dignity on pure height. He was nearly half a foot taller than Adam, and while he easily lost out on mass, he won back in altitude.
“So good it’d almost make a guy jealous!” Adam boomed, and gave him a friendly, very gentle knuckle to the upper arm. “We’ll have to have a drink sometime, you and me.”
“Dude, you’re Ava’s best friend, that means you’re automatically, like, one of my favourite people.”
Ava hid a smile behind her hand and mouthed the words ‘*he is such a puppy*’ at Sean.
Sean laughed, and genuinely relaxed for the first time in weeks. “A drink it is, then.”
“So what are you up to, now that you’re a graduate?” Adam asked him.
“Oh, my uncle’s an investigative journalist.” Sean revealed. “I’ve always wanted to do what he does, and he promised to take me under his wing so long as I did well on my course.”
“Well enough.” Sean looked forgivably pleased with himself. “Mostly I’m going to be carrying the bags and managing the phone numbers, but it’s all good experience.”
“You’re getting paid, right?”
“Please, I wouldn’t do an unpaid internship if you paid me.” Sean joked.
Adam chuckled. “I knew I’d like you.” he said.
Ava tapped him on the arm. “We need to go do the cap-toss and turn the caps and gowns back in. Are you okay waiting here?” she asked.
“I’ll be over there, under the aircon.” Adam pointed to an out-of-the-way corner.
“Okay.” she gave him a light kiss and tilted her head toward the doors, looking at Sean. “Shall we?”
Sean nodded. “Good to meet you, Adam.”
“You too, buddy. Take care.”
Ava made sure the door was closed before asking him. “So…what do you think?”
“You could do a lot worse, duck.” Sean told her.
“You think so?”
“Look.” Sean stopped. “It’s obvious you two just…light up around each other. I get it, It’s the Ava and Adam show. And I’m happy for you, he really does seem like a great guy.”
“I hear a ‘but’ in there.”
”…Just…he seems so earnest, doesn’t he?” Sean chewed on a bit of loose skin on his lower lip as he thought. “I have this feeling like he’s the kind of guy who makes a plan and sticks to it and maybe doesn’t think through the consequences of that plan so very well.”
“Whatever gave you that idea?” Ava drawled.
Sean chuckled, but quickly became serious again.
“Just…be certain that he knows who you are and you know who he is. Okay?” He pleaded her. “Don’t rush in now that you’re on the last leg and fall at the final hurdle.”
“I think you’re mixing metaphors there.”
She held up a peaceful hand. “I hear you, I hear you. And I promise, I will. I want to be happy with him, after all.”
”…And if you can’t be?”
“Sean…” she glanced back to make absolutely certain that there was no sign at all of Adam, then stole a last and tender kiss with him. “I know somebody else who’d make me just as happy.”
“The only difference is…he needs you more.”
“He does.” She agreed.
”…Alright.” he nodded. “Let’s go do that photo and get rid of these things, and then you can go be a hero.”
They followed the shouting and gestures out onto the steps in front of the building, lined up as directed by the photographer, and unpinned their caps ready to throw.
The countdown started, and Ava couldn’t resist one last gesture—just before they threw their caps into the air, she took Sean’s hand.
Date Point: 9y 7m AV London, England, Earth
“Gosh. We really don’t have a lot of stuff do we?”
They really didn’t. Ben had sold off his course textbooks now that he no longer needed them, and between them their clothes and assorted possessions, carefully packed, worked out to two suitcases each and a half-dozen cardboard boxes.
“It’s just settling in, isn’t it?” Ben asked. “We’re graduates.”
“Yeah…Grown, responsible adults.” Charlotte laughed nervously, and raised a fist to face height with a scared smile. “Go us!”
Ben blinked at her, then put down the box he’d been carrying and rubbed her arms. “Are you okay?”
”…I don’t know where we’re going or what we’re doing.” Charlotte told him. “We kept forgetting to talk about it. Are we going up north, or over to Southampton, or…?”
“Oh!” Ben turned and dug through the box he’d just set down. “I had an idea there, actually…”
“Yep!” He replied. “Bear with…here it is!”
He handed her the kind of slim pamphlet so beloved of tourist attractions and the enthusiastically religious. She frowned at it. “Folctha?”
“Look, see?” Ben tapped the page, and his tattoos, with their usual immaculate sense of timing, chose that moment to animate the moon changing phases as it orbited the Earth. “They finished installing this big city-wide gravity generator last month, which means the whole of Folctha is constantly under Earth gravity now.”
“I don’t know…I mean, it would be nice to be close to Ava, but do we have any skills they’re going to want?”
“Well, I’m a civil engineering graduate, and you’re a midwife.” Ben pointed out. “Now, A: they’re building new structures and roads and stuff all the time out there, but more importantly…before that gravity generator was built, nobody in Folctha could have babies because of the low gravity being bad for child development.”
Charlotte blinked at him, then at the pamphlet. “But now it’s turned on…they’re going to need midwives!”
“Sounds like a plan?” He asked.
“It sounds like an excellent plan!”
“Well, there’s one more part to it…”
Ben was already on one knee, and Charlotte’s hands flew involuntarily to her mouth.
“I love you, Charlotte. Will you marry me?”
The word “yes” needed a full two minutes to finally find its way out of her.
Fortunately, she remembered how to nod long before then, and by the time it arrived, she was already wearing the ring he’d sold his textbooks to buy.
Date point: Christmas Day, 9y 11m 3w AV Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches.
“So…Here it is! Merry Christmas!”
There were a couple of options here. Either Adam had gone completely nuts, or there was something special about the building that he was standing in front of and beaming about. Either way, it wasn’t immediately apparent what the big surprise he’d been talking about all day might be.
She examined it as his proud smile wilted slightly. It was a four-storey new build, clad in the distinctive local pale grey stone that Folctha’s architectural planning board had settled on to play an important role in their vision for the city’s aesthetic. The whole of Folctha was going to look clean and shiny, and mercifully characterful, with its organic nest of curves rather than straight, bland lines.
This one was on Demeter Road, which hadn’t even existed when the pair of them had left Cimbrean. Now it was one of the town’s major thoroughfares, leading in one direction toward Delaney Row and Palace Hill, and in the other towards an outlying agricultural town called Demeter, which in turn had road connections on to Big Bay and New Bristol.
The ground floor was all windows, and plainly unfurnished, but the sign was in place: “The Dog House.” and below that, in slightly smaller letters: “Strength, Nutrition, Fitness.”
“A gym?” she asked.
“Yep! Titan’s always wanted to have one, so I chipped in the money to buy the building alongside him.”
“You own a building?!”
“Well, we both had that big homesteading grant to draw on and, y’know property prices are so cheap round here right now we figured we’d probably be able get something else each, too if we joined forces on this one…” Adam shrugged. “So, he owns the gym and the basement, and I own the rest.”
“Holy shit Adam!” She looked up and down the street calculating. “You realise that by the time you’ve paid the loan off this thing’ll be worth, like, triple what you paid for it?”
“Yep.” He beamed that big puppy smile. “It’s an investment.”
“So what’s the rest?”
“Come and see.”
He led her round the side of the building, to a well-lit parking area and a door with a number pad. “Code’s three-three-eight-six.” he said, entering it. The door buzzed and admitted them into a clean stairwell with a nice tiled floor, plus the fire exit from the gym and the door down to the basement.
Ava shrugged and followed him as he bounded up the stairs, to the top floor.
“Penthouse suite!” he announced, unlocking it with a key.
“Holy…Adam, this is gorgeous!” Ava stepped into it and looked around. The penthouse was a studio apartment, with the bedroom partitioned off from the open-plan kitchen and dining area by means of the bathroom. Adam must have accidentally intimidate the contractors or something, because the fittings and décor were amazing—white counters with dark wood surfaces, wood flooring, and warm indirect lighting throughout. It was maybe missing a few personal touches like artwork and furniture, but other than that…
What was more, it had stairs leading up to the roof which Adam rushed to unlock with a grin, beckoning her to follow.
“And the view from the roof…” he said, gesturing out across it.
It took Ava’s breath away. She could see the Palace, and the still-lit smart fabric spike of the Thing hall, currently pulsing through festive green, white and red. The alien quarter, protected from harmful Deathworlder diseases, pollens and spores by a triple layered dome of filter forcefields that glowed very faintly in the dark and dominated by the Gaoian enclave slash monastery. She could see the New World Plaza where this year’s Christmas tree was a beacon of warm light, and from which music could still be heard drifting over the streets and rooftops.
“You can see the lake from here too during the day, and: good news. From what I heard, it’s going to be getting a clean bill of health from the Reclamation Project pretty soon.” Adam told her, then turned to her. “What do you think?”
“I think…wow, you really got this right. You’re going to have a tidy fortune in a few years…What’re you going to do, rent this out, or…?”
“The two apartments downstairs, yeah.” Adam said. He took her hand and put something small, metallic and jagged in it. “The penthouse is yours.”
Ava was so surprised that she almost dropped the key. “You’re-? Adam, you’re kidding?!”
“Nope. You need somewhere to live, right? So, live here. If you want to pay rent on it, I can shove it in a savings account or something, whatever.”
He took her hand and gently towed her downstairs again—she was so stunned that she followed him automatically.
“Furniture’s coming day after tomorrow.” he said. “Sorry, I’d hoped to have it all in, but the timing…”
“It’s…don’t apologize, I…Adam, are you sure?”
“Totally sure.” he told her. “And, um…I was thinking…y’know, I’m back here now, you’re back here now, and I thought we could…” He brought his hand into view. It had a little black cube in it, which split down the middle. “…make up for lost time.”
It was a beautiful ring. A delicate moebius loop of white gold, spun back on itself so that it was almost two rings, joined by a blue diamond. It was exquisite, and she stared at it sadly.
The moment attenuated until Adam finally inclined his head slightly and asked, in a vulnerable tone she hadn’t heard since he’d asked her on their first date, “…Ava?”
She had to wind up into her question, her head moving in a slow shaking movement before she tore her gaze off the ring and looked at his face. This was all so amazing that part of her was sorely tempted to just hold her hand out, say yes and have done with it.
But Sean had still been right.
”…What am I to you, Adam?” she asked.
He frowned, lowering the box unconsciously. “I don’t…uh, what do you mean?”
“What am I to you?” she repeated. “What do I mean to you?”
“Well, you’re…” he began, then seemed to trip mid-thought. “You’re my-”
“I’m your? Your what?”
He shook his head again. “No you’re…you’re you.”
“I’m your me?”
“No, you’re your you!”
She nodded fiercely. “And what. Am. I?”
He spread his hands helplessly. “I don’t know what you want from me.” he confessed.
She spelled it out for him. “Do you love me?”
She could see his instinctive response coming and snapped up a hand to stop him. “I know you do!” she added. “But there’s…look, over the last five years we’ve barely seen each other, and that ‘barely’ was mostly getting together every few months to…to screw as much as possible between your training sessions!”
“Can you stand there and honestly claim to love me, really love me, if that’s all we’ve had for so long? Do you even know who I am any more?” She waved her hand up and down him, gesturing to everything that had changed about him since they had been seventeen. “I mean…Do I love you or a memory of you? You’ve changed a lot, and so have I. If we’re going to work, if we’re going to be together, then we both need to know that we love each other for who we are now.”
His mouth closed, and very, very slowly, he looked away. Ava deflated. “Then…Adam, corazon, I’m so sorry, but…this is all amazing, but…no. I can’t marry you. Not yet, not until…” She trailed off, knowing that she had to leave that door opening, but not knowing what more to say.
Adam pocketed the ring. “I’ll, uh…” he coughed. “I’ll…stay on the base tonight, I guess.”
She nodded, and stepped aside. Adam squeezed past her and out the door.
“You, uh…this place is still yours, for as long as you want it.” he told her. “I’ll…see you around I guess.”
Ava nodded. “Yeah.” she croaked. “See ya.”
He turned away and creaked unsteadily down the stairs, so she shut the door then leaned against it.
That done, she let go and slid down to the floor in tears. He’d looked so broken.
“GONE!! It’s all gone! All of it’s gone bye-bye WOOWOO seeya!”
*“What happened to you?”*
“One minute you’re defending the whole galaxy, and suddenly you find yourself suckin’ down darjeeling with Marie Antoinette and her little sister…”
Movie night for the Operators was frequently an exercise in cramming ten men onto a single oversized three-seat couch, custom built to SOR requirements by Rebar and crew. It was huge, strong, and comfy, with plenty of room for even their massive frames to sit and spread out.
At least, on a normal day. Movie night, on the other hand, taxed even its over-engineered limits when ten Spaceborne Operators crammed onto it in a tangle of limbs, using each other as pillows, sitting on each others’ laps, and thinking nothing of being so wrapped up in the puppy pile that it would once, in their younger civilian years, have made them deeply uncomfortable.
Nowadays? It was fraternal, and comforting. All of their training, the constant physical closeness, the team-building and the end result of all they had been through together meant they were entirely comfortable with almost too high a degree of physical intimacy.
This created occasional problems.
“Whose legs are these? Yo Titan, these yours?”
“How the fuck are they mine, I’m all the way over here!”
“Well one of you assholes needs to move his feet, I gotta piss!”
A few of the guys wiggled their feet experimentally while a crazed astronaut ranted on the screen. “You see the hat? I am MRS! NESBITT!!”
“Oh. Shit. Sorry bruv.”
“Man, get off me!”
The knot untangled enough for BASEBALL to squeeze out from under it and roll over the back of the couch, and they collapsed back inwards as the guys found new comfortable spots to fill the void.
“But…the hat looked good? Tell me the hat looked good…the apron is a bit much but-“
“Man, even Toy Story isn’t cheering him up.”
Adam sighed. “Nah, it’s…helping.” he promised.
“Pull the other one, pal.” Legsy admonished him.
Adam just snuggled into the couch a bit further and tried to watch.
”“I just…can’t figure it out.” he said. “I was away from HER for all those years as well, you know? It wasn’t like being away from her for that long was easy for me either.”
Akiyama spoke up. “Women are high maintenance, man.” he shared.
Price snorted. “Fuck off, you’ve got less experience with women than WARHORSE does.”
Akiyama took the insult with a smile “You wanna talk about getting laid, little man?”
Price shrugged.“Okay, what d’you want to know?”
There was a collective “WOOAH!!” and a round of high-fives.
“Nah, boys, fuckin’…” Legsy tried to chime in as it died down, but Adam plainly wasn’t in the mood. He lifted half the guys off him at once, slithered out from under them, and stood up.
“I’ll…be in the gym.” he announced.
There was a long moment of silence after he’d gone. Nobody was paying attention to the movie anymore.
“He’s real tore up, ain’t he?”
“They were together a long time.” Legsy said. “This shit’s not helping, he doesn’t need a puppy pile, he needs advice.”
“You’re the one to give it then, Legs.” Price noted. “Go be big brother.”
”…Yeah. Think you’re right.”
Legsy waited until the movie was done before he intruded in the gym. Adam was casually swinging a bulky jerry can around one-handed like a kettlebell, working up a good sheen of sweat.
“Going kinda light aren’t you?” Legsy asked him. The gravity was set at 1G, Earth Standard, and if that can was full of water then it was far below Adam’s potential.
“You think so?” Adam asked. “There’s a spare right there if you want to join in.”
Legsy shrugged. His own fitness regime focused on speed and explosive force as a rule, but this wasn’t about him, right now. He picked up the can.
Or at least, he tried to. It wasn’t full of water, that was for damn sure—he barely rocked it when he tried to grab it, and he didn’t get it off the ground until he stood over it properly and treated it as a lift.
“Fuckin’…CHRIST!” he dropped it again. “What’s in that?”
“Buckshot.” Adam’s trademark goofy grin put in a cameo reappearance, a good deal more melancholy than usual but at least it was - finally - a break in his bad mood.
“You little shit, there’s no way you’re swinging THAT around like that, put it down let me…”
Adam shrugged and did so. Legsy had been half-right—the one he had been using was a bit lighter, but still far heavier than Legsy could have used for endurance training like that.
“Two thirds full.” Adam revealed. In the meanwhile, he’d picked up the big can and was now slowly and deliberately performing stiff, one-armed shoulder raises. The motion was much like a kettleball swing, but without the use of momentum to aid the lift, making it a much more difficult exercise. Legsy watched in silent admiration as, in the space of about a minute, he went from merely sweaty to dripping.
He set the can down, huffing with a satisfied expression. “I’m not heavy enough to swing the the big one without the suit. Not yet, anyway. Hell, even in the tighter and heavier midsuit ‘Base and I switched to, and even with the added armor plating we wear now, and even with a full combat load, swinging it is tricky. The momentum just throws me around, man. Which…y’know, hurts.”
“Aye,” said Legsy. “Seems to drain you right quick, too.”
“Uh huh. Liftin’ really heavy makes me sweat so much I can get dehydrated in just a couple of minutes if I ain’t careful. But that’s only when I ain’t wearin’ the suit, and only if I do something big like this. So without the suit I work intervals and switch off between the two cans.”
“You been at this since the movie?”
“Yup. This is my eighth set.” He picked up the lighter can and start swinging again. “Slowly gettin’ better. A few months ago? This woulda practically killed me. Now it’s just a good workout.”
Legsy said nothing for a long moment, then made a disbelieving little noise and shook his head. “Fuckin’ Christ mate, just how fuckin’ strong ARE you?”
Adam shrugged, put down the can, then burrowed around in his open locker and produced a little hand-sized notepad. When Legsy flipped it open, what he found pencilled in was a list of exercises, and numbers. They were all crossed off.
“World records.” Adam shrugged again. “It’s the Crude, man. Thanks to that shit, I’m probably the strongest person in the galaxy.”
“Yeah, maybe. Probably. I met that Saunders bloke we learned about Cruezzir from in the first place. He looked about as big as you, but taller. Longer bones, less mechanical advantage.” Legsy mused, then handed back the notepad. “And he din’t train like you, neither.” He added. “Is this…wise?”
“Probably not.” Adam conceded. “But, how long have we got until the resistance kicks in? I guess if Ava thinks I gave up on her for this, and maybe she’s right. Maybe I did…”
He trailed off, then reset. “I guess if she thinks that then maybe that’s all I have right now, is getting the best out of this stuff before I start to become immune.”
“Fuck me, you’re a stupid twat sometimes, pal.” Legsy shook his head. Adam frowned at him—it hadn’t been the typical laddish insult between brothers-in-arms, but had sounded like a genuine appraisal of his intelligence.
“If she thinks you gave up on her, then that means she wants you to start workin’ on her again, doesn’t it!”
Legsy sighed and laughed, shaking his head. “Siddown, Adam.” he said. “Let me tell you the ways of the women folk.”
Adam frowned at him, but obeyed, perching atop the same can he’d just been training with.
Legsy sat opposite him. “What exactly did she say to you?” he asked.
“She asked me…’what am I to you?‘. Uh…what is she to me, you know?”
“And then, she, uh…she told me to tell her honestly that I still love her after all those years going away and…that kind of thing.”
“Well that wasn’t exactly fair of her…” Legsy opined. “But alright.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well…okay, gut response here, one word, first one that springs to mind…” Legsy suggested “…DO you love her?”
“Good. Right. but here’s the next question: What IS love? And none of that ‘Baby don’t hurt me’ crap.”
“Eh, that’s maybe a bit before your time.” Legsy allowed. “But go on, try and answer it.”
“Well, it’s…” Adam thought about it. “Love, it’s an emotion, right?”
“Half right. You can feel love, and you can love, right? You can do love, not just feel it.”
“A verb.” Adam nodded.
“Fuckin’ right. You’ve got love the, uh…” Legsy clicked his fingers as he searched his memory. “Whatsit, the noun?”
“So….yeah. You love her, but you don’t love her, see? Noun love versus verb love.”
“You’re saying she needs both?” Adam asked him.
“Secret one about women, mate: A lot of the time, the verb counts for more with them than the noun, like. And, secret one about blokes: by and large, we’re the other way round.”
“Come on!” Adam protested. “They’re more complicated than that. SHE’S more complicated than that!”
Legsy shrugged. “How d’you know somebody loves you?” he asked.
Adam scratched above his ear. “Well…I…I guess you…”
Legsy just raised an eyebrow at him, waiting.
Adam deflated. “I guess because they…show it. They do stuff for you.”
“Fuckin’ right! And ANY woman, complicated or not, needs to KNOW that you love her. Needs to have it SHOWN. Because blokes, y’know, we’re stupid buggers, we feel it and we’ll just go ahead and fuckin’ assume that they feel the same way, and carry on. Women, though? They think about love, a lot. They…a lot of the time, they love you so much they worry that they’re loving you more than you love them. See? They don’t just assume it.”
“Ava’s not insecure, though.”
“It’s not insecure, mate. It’s…” Legsy’s gaze flickered about the room and he spread his hands, marshalling his words. “They don’t want to get ripped off. Right? That’s actually smarter than how we do.”
“They want to know they’re getting a good return on their emotional investment.” Adam translated.
“Right! You got it!”
Adam sighed. “Yeah…I got it.”
Adam frowned. “…So…what?”
Legsy looked down and rubbed his forehead. “How fuckin’ dense ARE you?” he asked. “I’ve just told you that what she wants is to be SHOWN that you love her.”
“But she broke it off!” Adam exclaimed. “And…she’s right, we hardly know each other any more! It’s not going to be as simple as…as flowers and chocolate!”
“So start. Over.” Legsy suggested. “Get to know her again, let her get to know you again. Go on a new first date! If that relationship’s over, then start a new one with her!”
”…You think we can do that?”
“Adam, pal…I reckon that’s what she wants more than anything.” Legsy told him, gravely.
He let Adam sit and think, until the younger man finally nodded. “I’ll…give it a few days. I need to work up my courage and…figure out what I’m gonna say.”
“Good idea. But if we get to Saturday and you’ve still not done it, I’m draggin’ you down there myself. Fair?”
Legsy stood up. “I’ll let you get on and think, then.” he said.
Legsy just clapped a hand on his shoulder and left him alone.
“Ava!” Jess’ expression fell on seeing her former student’s downcast expression and smudged makeup. “Oh…honey, what’s wrong? Or is this one for Gabe?”
“This is…” Ava sighed, entering their apartment. “I don’t know” she said, simply, and shrugged. “Adam proposed.”
“He did?” Gabe asked, emerging from the kitchen.
“Yeah. Didn’t he tell you?”
“Madre de Dios, mi hijo es un idiota a veces…“Gabe sighed. “No, he…Are you okay?”
“Just…drained.” Ava sat down at the table. “I tried to leave the door open, but…I don’t think he really knows why I said no, or if he got that I really do WANT to marry him, I just…”
Her hair bunched up as she planted her elbows on the table and raked her fingers across her scalp, then threw her hands down on the table. “Five years, you know?”
“Sounds like you both need some advice.” Gabe noted.
“What’s to advise? We need to start over. But if it’s going to work, he needs to…God, this sounds so selfish, but he needs to focus on me a bit, right? Is that selfish?”
“No, that’s a marriage.” Jess replied.
“It feels selfish. I just…you know, I…I…”
”…Can you promise me that this will never, ever get back to him? Ever?”
Jess and Gabe exchanged glances, but nodded.
“I, uh…” Ava took a cleansing breath and looked up at them. “I cheated on him.”
Gabe sat down, expression unreadable and creating a vacuum that she just had to fill.
“I…God.” Ava sat back and looked around the kitchen as she gathered her thoughts. “That sounds terrible…”
She wiped her eyes. “…I came this close to breaking up with him” she said, finally. “The only reason I didn’t is because this…friend…of mine, he helped me stay on top of it. He helped me feel…”
She cleared her throat, leaned forward and made eye contact again. “The one thing Adam told me time and again is that I’m what kept him going when things got tough. Right? But he wasn’t keeping me going, you know? All of that energy, all of that love, it was only going one way, and I guess I just…I ran out. And, and I needed somebody else to send some of that energy to me for a while. That’s half of it.”
An uncomfortable half-minute ticked out on the wall clock, during which Jess surreptitiously blew her nose.
“And the other half?” Gabriel prompted.
Ava spoke to her own hands rather than look at him. “He’s a special operator now, you know? I have to get used to the idea that…that maybe one day he’ll go on a mission and only a flag will come back. That’s how it has to be, you know? And…What happens then? If I’m- if my feelings are so tied up to him, and that ever happened…I mean, if I’m not me first, if I’m all about him and he dies, then what does that leave me with?”
Behind Gabe’s back, Jess nodded. Gabe himself was just still, and a little old and damaged and attentive, leaving an intolerable void where his part of the conversation should have been.
“This…this is all coming out wrong. I’m making it sound like I, or…Dad, I’m sorry.”
Gabe just reached over the table and took her hand. “Don’t.” he said, gently. “Do you regret it?”
The answer seemed to be the opposite of what Gabriel had wanted and expected to hear. “…You don’t?”
“I…learned a lot. About how to let go and, and…and how to…” she took a breath and started over. “I love Adam. Come on, how many guys are there in the world who’d go through what he has all so he can throw himself in harm’s way to protect other people? He’s my hero! And…If there’s such a thing as a soulmate, he’s mine, I know it. But I had to learn that I can’t afford to love him that much if I couldn’t live without him. Does that make sense?”
Gabe’s ability to just listen kept pulling her forward. “And…now I know I could. And knowing that I could keep going even if he died tomorrow…it kind of frees me to be able to love him as much as I want to. Please, does…does that make sense?”
Gabe finally looked down, and squeezed her hand gently. “I…guess it does.” he said, finally. “I don’t like to think about him getting…” He trailed off, unable to finish the sentence.
“I never thought about…mama and papa, or my school friends, or whatever.” Ava replied. “I didn’t like to think about death at all. But you have to, Dad. You have to think about death. They died, when I accidentally poisoned myself that one time I thought I was gonna die, I saw you nearly die when that guy shot you…Sara…and now Adam’s a soldier.”
Jess shut her eyes and looked away, but Ava surged on. “You’ve got to think about it, and you’ve got to have a plan, because there’s no if involved. There’s just…there’s when. Isn’t there? And I had to know I was strong enough to keep going without him. I had to know…I had to know he wasn’t everything. I don’t think I’d dare to love him if he was everything.”
There was an eternity where the only sound was the buzz of the lighting and fridge-freezer, before Gabe finally deflated. “…Entiendo.” he murmured.
“I’m sorry, Dad.”
“I thought you said you don’t regret it?” Gabe asked.
Ava stumbled. “Well…no, I don’t.” She agreed.
“Then don’t apologise. It’s not…” He sighed, then looked back at Jess, who gave him a weak smile and took his hand over his shoulder. “It’s not something I’d have done, and I don’t know if I think it’s ever justified, but…we trust you, Ava. If you think you needed to do it…I wasn’t there, I can’t judge.”
Ava produced a weak smile of her own. “Thank you.” her voice was full of relief and true gratitude.
“You need to work on your communication, though.” Gabe continued. “There’s no way he’ll figure it out himself. You should have spelled out the problem, rather than just turning him down.”
Jess nodded. “Adam’s a remarkable man.” she said, addressing Ava. “But…you’re the only girlfriend he’s ever had. He won’t know how to figure out what you’re feeling, nor how to cope.”
“I can’t tell him what I did, it’d totally break him!” Ava protested.
“Jess is right, though.” Gabe told her. “Even if he never learns……what you did…he still needs to be told that it’s got to be a real relationship, not just two survivors putting each other on a pedestal and not really having a whole lot in common.”
Ava relaxed. “I knew you’d think of how to phrase it.” she said.
“Well, you’ll probably think of something better if you give it time to think.” Jess replied. “But…just make sure you tell him sooner rather than later, okay? He’s going to need to be told that you want to start over.”
“And tell him to come talk to us!” Gabe added.
“I can do that.” Ava promised. “I’ll talk to him, when I know what to say.”
“Probably sensible.” Jess agreed. “Like you said—you never know what’s going to happen.”