Fayla had spoken the truth when she told Harry she took no pleasure in her actions, but too much depended on her. She had learn what was hidden in his psyche.
And well hidden, she was forced to admit, for though she’d delved into his memories with relative ease the previous night at Ankhar, today she found she had to push, as if against a particularly heavy door, before she stepped into a tavern crowded with inebriated students, most of them human.
“No,” Harry said, turning away from the crowds, away from the odors of spilled liquor and sweat, to face her.
“Yes,” she said as a student staggered past, beer sloshing over the rim of his glass and onto Harry’s shoes.
He shook his head and turned away, only to spy himself in a wall-sized mirror hung at the back of the bar.
“You were so young,” she said as he stared at his past self.
He blinked, met her eyes in the mirror. “Not for long.”
Then he turned to where a massive young man leaned against the wall near the bathrooms.
Likely, the people nearest the man assumed he was just propping himself up or trying not to vomit, and so no one was looking at him.
Which was why no one noticed the young woman being crushed between the young giant and the wall.
No one saw he had one hand over her mouth and the other groping under her skirt.
No one knew a rape was within seconds of happening, mere feet from where they stood tossing back flat beers and telling lies about their test scores.
No one but Harry, who was already slicing through the raucous crowd without causing so much as a ripple in the tide of celebrants.
Then he was behind the giant, one hand on his shoulder, another on the elbow.
But even as he made his move, the young woman’s head slammed forward into the giant’s nose, and Fayla got a flash of brown skin and amber eyes, gilded with fury, before Harry twisted the man’s elbow, forcing the would-be-rapist to the floor.
Harry’s boot pressed on the behemoth’s shoulder.
The young woman’s foot landed somewhere much more tender.
Fayla watched the girl lean over and whisper something in the fallen man’s ear, saw the shade of green the student became.
She watched Harry release the arm he still held and, leaning down, deliver a sharp punch to the man’s temple, knocking him senseless.
Harry straightened, and so did the young woman.
“Thanks for the help,” she said.
“I’m not sure you needed it,” Harry replied.
“I think I did,” she admitted. “If you weren’t here, I might have done a lot worse.”
They both looked down, where the man lay in a pool of spilled beer, blood streaming from his nose. Then both looked up, and their eyes met, and held.
And Fayla’s breath caught, even as the bar, and the people in it, dissipated into a mist, only to re-form into a darkened building with rows of seats and a huge screen at the front.
A moment’s scanning showed Harry seated in one of the rows, the woman at his side.
Both were slightly less young, her hair shorter, his face sporting a few days’ growth of beard. His arm was slung around her shoulders as both sat, entranced by a highly improbable space battle occurring on the screen. The music blared with brass, soaring as the little ships attacked the giant station, and the audience cheered when the rebels won the day.
The young woman turned to Harry, her eyes shining with passion for the victory. She didn’t understand—though she should have—such victories only ever happened in stories.
Fayla remained where she was, observing the two young people as the credits rolled.
A happy time for them, happy enough Harry did not try to leave it, but as the couple walked past Fayla, his eyes landed on her, and the memory came to its inevitable conclusion.
“Stop this,” he said, even as the theater swirled away, becoming a restaurant that was little more than a counter and with one long row of booths, redolent with the smells of frying food, coffee, and something he remembered called apple pie. “Please.”
“I can’t,” she said. “I wish I could, but I—”
Harry turned away from Fayla. “I’m not handsome,” he said, adjusting his coat to better hide the shoulder rig in which his ISM-issue Colt was holstered.
“I’m the one looking.” The woman from the bar and the vid dropped a kiss on his cheek before they both slid into opposite sides of an empty booth.
Her dark, coiled hair was windblown, and her cheeks deeply flushed. “Sorry I’m late,” she added, her eyes brimming with excitement. “But the thing is, I’m late.”
“I know,” he replied. “But you’re here now, so . . .”
“No,” she cut him off, one hand falling over his, where it rested on the table. “Harry—I mean, I’m late, late.”
Fayla felt his heart skip, and hers with it. “Late, as in . . . ?”
“As in,” she filled the expectant blank.
He stared, and then his jaw dropped.
Fayla wanted to look away, but she couldn’t.
“I know it’s unexpected,” the woman said, “not what either of us—”
But by then Harry was out of his seat and into hers, and whatever else she might have said was swallowed by his kiss.
She was laughing when he finally pulled away, but there were tears falling as well.
“Esprezi . . . What is it?” he asked, brushing at the dampness. “Are you worried they’ll find you? Because this is why I went into the ISM, so I can protect you.” He lifted her hand and kissed it before resting both their palms over their child-to-be. “Both of you. We’ll get you into WitSec and—”
“Oh, Harry,” she murmured, the joy dimming visibly. “It can never be that simple. They’ll never stop looking. As long as I’m alive, they won’t stop.”
No, Fayla thought, they won’t.
As she thought this, the odor of burning intruded on Harry’s memory, followed by choking clouds of smoke, and soon the diner and the young woman were gone.
All that remained was Harry bursting through the door of a cabin.
His eyes teared, and Fayla heard the timbers creaking overhead and the mutter of fire crawling up the walls and across a kitchen ceiling.
She watched him clear the kitchen and hit the great room at a run when a voice called from upstairs.
He made it to the first tread before the entire stairway collapsed.
The noise of it almost drowned out the woman’s voice, calling his name.
As Fayla watched, Harry dropped to his knees while the cabin burned to ashes around him.
It was then, as Fayla stood in the midst of the ruin, eyes narrowed to the memory of heat, that the cabin reformed around her, the fire receded back to its earlier stages, and once again, Harry came bursting through the kitchen door, his eyes wild, his voice harsh with desperation as he again raced into the great room, heard the young woman’s cries, and started for the stairs just as they collapsed.
She let the scene play through three more times before she had what she needed, and on sixth playback, after the stairs collapsed, while Harry was kneeling on the floor, his body wracked with the loss of his woman and the child he would never see, Fayla knelt in front of him.
“Harry,” she said, placing a hand on either side of his head.
“I failed.” He looked up, eyes red from the smoke, soot, and burns speckling his face and hands. “I had one job, and I failed to keep them safe.”
“Actually, you didn’t,” she said. “Not entirely.” Then she said. “I’m sorry.”
“For this,” she said, and as she spoke, the flames which continued to mutter around them coalesced into a ball, a small sun of fire that, at her direction, dropped down to engulf them both.
* * *
It was bad.
Not only the burning, for he’d burned before.
He’d burned with the Judon, and on Ceres, and just last night, with Neishi.
Fire followed him like a muttering shadow, always present, always scorching.
It was a constant barrier and a ceaseless torment and diminished even the most determined attempts to uncover the secrets he protected.
An irony, that, for it had only ever been meant to protect the one.
So yes, the burning was bad.
But not the worst.
The worst was that, as he burned, the memory of her dying pulled away from the illusion, cracking and peeling like burning paper, before crumbling to ash to reveal the truth.
“Stop.” His voice cracked through the flames, which continued to eat at him, long after there shouldn’t have been any him left.
“I can’t.” And as Fayla spoke, the last wall of the illusion collapsed to embers, and both bore witness as the truth he’d protected for over twenty-five years rose from the ashes.
* * *
Inside the fully reconstructed cabin, Harry and Fayla knelt together on the plank floor, watching the younger version of Harry Finn kneeling on the rug.
Perched on the chair in front of him was the young woman, her belly swollen with pregnancy, her eyes streaming with tears.
“Are you sure?” she was asking him.
“I wish I weren’t.” He looked down at their linked hands. “But you were right. A sniffer program hit the WitSec database, rooting for females matching your age and description.”
“But I’m not in the database,” she countered, her voice thick.
“No, you’re not, and no one in WitSec knows I’ve hidden you off the books, but that’s just the first level of activity. There’s comm chatter, coded, coming from some hotels down in New Hope—tourists who aren’t tourists.” He looked into her eyes as he added, “I made a pass—at least one of them is Rasalkan.”
“Goddess,” she whispered.
“I think,” he said, then he paused, as if exhausted, or in great pain, “I think it’s time for your failsafe—the czozprjz andi.”
“Harry, esprezi . . . I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay,” he said, though Fayla’s heart twisted as he said it. “It’ll be okay—you’ll be okay. You and our daughter . . . I always said I’d do whatever it takes to keep you safe.”
“You did . . .” She paused and swallowed, and then drew him close, and he held her with the intensity of one who knows they are saying goodbye.
“I love you,” she said into his shoulder.
He pressed his face into her hair. “Sarah . . .”
“Wait,” she murmured, drawing away, looking him in the face, “Just this once . . . call me by my name. My real name.”
An odd sound escaped his throat before he did as she asked and uttered the name Fayla had been waiting to hear since she first found the picture in Harry’s bag.
“I love you . . . Siane.”
* * *
On the floor of the gym, Fayla, kneeling at Harry’s side, watched him shudder to waking but waited until his eyes opened, fixed on her, to speak. “It was a terrible thing you undertook.”
His eyes closed again, then with a curse he shoved himself to his feet, stumbled, caught the sparring dummy, and cursed again. “You should stay away from me.”
She unfolded herself from the floor. “Harry . . .”
His eyes flashed up. “I said stay away.”
It said something of the force of him that she came close to doing as he ordered. “No,” she said at last, “I will not. Not until you hear what I have to say.”
“What could you possibly say that will make up for this?” He poked a finger at his temple. “It was the only way I could protect them. Twenty-five years I’ve lived with her death, because if my memory didn’t match Sarah Brennan Finn’s death, some wandering Rasalkan might figure out she hadn’t died, and if they figured out Siane hadn’t died, they’d keep looking for her and for our daughter, no matter how many aliases she came up with. You’re one of them, you know that—and now the memory of that fire is busted, and I still don’t even know if they’re alive, but if they are, they’ll be—”
The psionic slap did what no words could, and she stepped up to face him, though she had no doubt he’d happily strangle her just now. “That is what I am trying to tell you. Your daughter did survive.”
“You can’t—” He shook his head. “How could you possibly know that?”
“Because, you idiot, she is here.”
“Here.” He stared. “Like, here, here?”
“A few doors down, in fact; in the lounge, with Mr. Slater.”
“Here,” he said again, running a hand through his hair, mussing it hopelessly. “My daughter. Sarah—no, Siane’s—daughter. Our . . . daughter?”
“Yes, yes, and yes.” She looked at him, waiting for the proverbial credit to drop.
His eyes, eyes of a blue so familiar, yet not, rose to meet hers. “Holy shit,” he said.
Then he raced out of the gym and to the left.
“Wrong way,” she called after him, then followed as he raced back in the other direction, all the way to the lounge, to see him burst in on Jessyn and Ray who split apart, expressions of surprise, joy, and guilt on their faces.
“You, I’ll kill later,” Harry said to Ray.
“What?” Ray asked, but Harry was already turning to Jessyn.
“Harry?” Her head tilted with curiosity.
Fayla, watching, felt Harry’s wonder—how could he not have seen this softer version of Siane’s features, or his own eyes staring from them?
“Okay.” He took a breath. “I have a sort of good news, bad news scenario for you, and the thing is, it’s all the same news.”
“Very well?” Jessyn smiled, a bit uncertainly.
“Jessyn,” Harry said, his lips twisting into a rueful grin, “I am your father.”
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