AUTHOR'S NOTE: And...we finally get to the romance of the story. This is the last chapter of this story arc...next comes Twycross.
Sheila and Max walked across a manicured lawn towards the 'Mech bays. The upper slopes of Mount Cyanide, the strangely-named peak that towered over Sentinel Base Grunwald, were hidden in cloud, and the entire sky was a leaden gray, promising rain later. On Grunwald, the old wag went, it was either raining or getting ready to. Neither Max nor Sheila said anything: Max was unsure of what, exactly, he should say, and Sheila was trying to fight down the urge to obliterate something.
Without warning, the skies opened and the rain came down. Grunwald was known for sudden summer showers, which were pleasant for the first hour or so. Some could last for weeks; Sheila could remember a time when it had rained literally forty days and nights. "My place," Max said over the deluge, and they ran for the small house where the Canis-Vlatas lived. Max's parents were out, and they dived into the house. Both were already soaked to the skin.
"Well, I needed to cool off, but that's not what I had in mind," Sheila laughed. "Any place we can dry out at?"
"Head on up to my room. There's some cold sodas in the fridge. I'll grab us some towels."
Sheila walked up the stairs to Max's small apartment, set above his parents' house. He had his own bathroom and a small common area off the entrance to his bedroom, so he was more or less self-sufficient. Sheila knew he was glad of it. Max's parents, Mira and Todd, had been married at the same ceremony as her parents had been, but their marriage had been considerably more rocky. Todd was always good for tossing a few back with his company, and then his battalion, but the alcoholism that had stalked Sheila's family for centuries came back with a vengeance on Todd. The Canis-Vlatas had argued viciously for years, staying together only for appearances and obstensibly for the "good" of Max, their only child. Sheila knew better: Max had been quite happy to attend the Nagelring and get away from the constant feud. Lately, Sheila had noticed that the Canis-Vlatas had been much kinder to each other, and Todd had not taken a drink since Persistence. It was possible that, in a world that was coming apart, two people had begun to come together again.
She reached into the fridge and set out two sodas, taking one for herself. Max came in as she plopped unceremoniously into an easy chair. "Nice place, Max. It's been redone since we went off to the Nagelring."
Max nodded. Imitation wood paneling covered the walls, except for a large window that overlooked Stykkis Field, the base's DropPort. Awards dotted one side of the room, mainly won at Grunwald's planetary fairs, for plastic model building, creative writing, and artistry, Max's true loves. He had become a MechWarrior more for the money and because, as the son of two MechWarriors, it was expected. It would probably never be the career that it was for Sheila. She got up and looked at a magnificent portrait of two Sentinel Stingray fighters making a low pass over some forgotten battlefield. She then studied a wall map of the Inner Sphere; Max had filled in planets they knew had fallen to the Clans. There were a lot of them. We're losing this war, Sheila thought. She wondered what would happen if the Clans struck Grunwald. The worry and fear was like an icy hand around her heart.
"Hungry?" Max's voice intruded on her thoughts. "I can nuke some eats."
"No…I'm fine." She took a drink of her cola. The buzz from the alcohol was fading, and she was glad, in a way, that the fight with Mary Scott had kept her from getting drunk. It was all too easy to see that as a form of escape. She looked over one of Max's models, a very well done kit of a Battlemaster, resplendent in olive drab camouflage, bright Sentinel sigils, and grayish armor plate. He had even added the whip antennae of a command 'Mech, and the mud caked on the legs. "'BLR-1G Battlemaster,'" she read from the brass plaque below the 'Mech. "'Major Mira Canis-Vlata, Command Lance, Sentinels 2nd Company, Battle of Shensi, August 3028.' Wow. Nice job. You've even got the battle damage."
"One of my better ones," he said softly.
Sheila turned around at his tone of voice, then remembered. "Oh, frak. I'm sorry, Max, I forgot." Max had been piloting this very 'Mech on Persistence, but a Clan Gladiator had shot it out from under him. It had not been his fault, the loss of such a prized 'Mech with a long and distinguished battle history, but Max felt it was.
"It's all right." He looked out the window, and sat down on his bed. "You know, Sheila, you're lucky. You got the Commonwealth Star fair and square. No one's going to give you crap for going back for a friend, no matter what happened to her. They gave me the Order of Steiner-Davion for Blackjack, and I wonder if I really deserve it."
"Max," Sheila said, exasperated, "you got the Order for doing pretty much the same thing I did, except you had brains enough to use your 'Mech to protect the pilot."
"And I didn't go one on one with two Elementals."
"Well, there's a fine line between bravery and idiocy. Get it right, you're a hero. Blow it, and you're a dork."
"Your medal wasn't paid for in blood."
"Oh, Max, please. Knock it off. You managed to get Kaatha and that Battlemaster jock out of there. That's got to be worth something."
Max went on as if Sheila had not said anything. "I could've done something more. I should have stayed and fought too. But I ran."
Sheila took another drink, feeling her temper building again. "Max, you have got survivor's guilt, really bad. You need to talk to someone—a priest, your mom, somebody. I'm obviously not getting through."
He looked up at her. "All right. What would you have done?"
Sheila shrugged. "The same thing you did."
"You would have found another way." Max looked away, morosely. "When I was growing up, I used to hear a lot about you, Sheila. You always seemed to be a brain, kinda popular, and athletic, too. I looked up to you like crazy. Hell, I still do."
Sheila sat down on the bed as well. "I don't know why, Max. I screw up a lot. And someone's been feeding you stories. I'm fairly smart, and I'm in pretty good shape. I could've made the Nagelring gymnastics team if it hadn't been for politics and the fact that my boobs got too big." She said the last to get a laugh out of Max—Sheila's breasts were not that large—but it failed. "Geez. Everybody hated me in school, Max, because of who I was. Mercenaries aren't real popular, you know. Even on Grunwald, people used to go out of their way to ruin my life. I was always teased for being too tall and too clumsy. I always seemed to be a few steps behind everyone else. I dreaded taking showers because the other girls would tease me because I wasn't developing much."
Max swallowed audibly. "Um…I think you've caught up."
Sheila sniffed a laugh. "Yeah, when I hit sixteen. The Nagelring was hell on earth for me, Max! The girls really went after me because I wasn't interested in bootlegging beer into the dorms, or getting laid with the next available jock who talked the loudest, or just because I wasn't from one of the nicer families in the Lyran Commonwealth. Gad, I wanted to go to NAMA so bad because I heard no one cared there!"
"Nagelring wasn't pleasant for me, either. People used to laugh at me because I was a MechWarrior who wore glasses. Like there haven't been MechWarriors who wore glasses thicker than mine!" He paused. "And at least you had a home to go back to, Sheila," he said bitterly.
"Things will get better, Max. Really," Sheila said reassuringly.
"Dammit, Sheila, how? We're losing the fucking war; my parents maybe have stopped ripping each other's head off, but for how long; I'm being put into commands that I don't want and watching people I don't even know get killed to save me! Who am I? I'm nobody! It's not like anyone cares! Kaatha's husband had shit to live for, man! Why was it him and not me?"
Sheila put down the soda can very carefully on the carpeted floor, then slapped Max hard across the face. The force of the unexpected blow sent him reeling across the bed, and he stared at Sheila in shock. "Stop it!" she yelled. "God, Max, don't ever say you're nobody or that nobody cares! Your mom and dad may hate each other, but they love you, at least! My folks think you're the greatest!" Unable to stop it anymore, she began speaking, barely taking a breath. "I know we're losing the war. I just look at the map, Max. I see that the Jade Falcons are heading right for us. I wonder if we can ever stop them, how many more are going to die, and if I can do anything but sit here! But I have to do something, Max! I can't just sit here and moan about how this all sucks."
She got up and began pacing. "When we were growing up, I used to hear a lot about you, too. How smart you were. How many prizes you got in school for being a genius. I wondered how I'd ever measure up. But you know what? I used to look forward every day to getting your letters, because I knew, even when Mom was gone doing her thing or Dad was riding me because he wants me to get the regiment someday, that there was someone in this effed up Inner Sphere that cared about me. 'Cause you know, sometimes I went to school and it felt like everyone, even the teachers, hated me, because I was a mercenary's daughter. But even though you were on Shensi, far away, you cared enough to acknowledge I existed, which was a hell of a lot more than most other people did. You did the same thing at the 'Ring. Sure, I had Mimi there, but Mimi wanted to raise hell and chase boys, and I just wanted to stay home and cool off. And you were always there, Max. You always hung out with me even when it was inconvienent for you to do so. You always listened to me.
"So now you listen to me, Max. Everyone always wants to know why it was the other guy and not them. I don't know. I can't answer it, you can't, no one can, except God, and He's not saying. And maybe, Max, you keep getting put into lance commands because you're good at it. And finally, Max, I care. I need you. All we've got left in this whole, sorry mess is each other."
There was silence in the room for a full ten seconds. Sheila blinked as if awakening from a dream; the words had always been there, but she had never been able to say them. Max slowly got up from the bed, walked over to her, and hugged her. She clasped him to her, both awash in emotions neither could fully express or even understand, and they cried. They had been thrust into a war that was not supposed to happen, fighting an enemy that was not supposed to exist. They were young, scared to die, and had no one else to turn to anymore.
Which, most likely, resulted in what happened next. Only in wartime could it happen; in any other time, the circumstances would never had arisen.
Max meant to kiss her cheek, in the way a brother might kiss a weeping sister, to let her know it was all right. Sheila completely misinterpreted it, and turned her head at the same time. They ended up lips to lips. Neither had been kissed that often, so for it to happen was at once frightening and exciting.
They remained that way for a moment, just enjoying the feeling. Then, abruptly, they broke the kiss, pulling away from each other a little. Both were breathing hard, sticky with the drying rain. Sheila felt her heart pounding as if it wanted to tear itself from her chest, and her face was flush, leaving her feeling faint.
Max was having similar feelings. His stomach seemed to flip in delicious desire, and his brain hurt. Oh my God, his thoughts kept repeating, it's going to happen. I don't know why, or how, but it's going to happen. Both of them hesitated a moment, standing on the knife-edge of turning away and laughing about it, or going forward and hurtling towards something neither could see but desperately wanted. They chose the latter.
The rain let up half an hour later, but for the two lovers now intertwined on the bed, it hardly mattered.
Calla Bighorn-Vlata watched as the rain picked up its skirts and blew itself out to sea. He watched the clouds for a moment, then looked down at his desk, and the orders there. They were to report to Sudeten with his regiment. He knew through the mercenary grapevine that similar orders had gone to Morgan Kell and Ariana Winston. His Sentinels were hardly the caliber of the Kell Hounds or the Eridani Light Horse, but it meant that the AFFC was no longer content with just holding the line. Blackjack had been a preview; the main performance was about to begin.
"Looks like summer's over," he sighed.
For the Sentinels were going back to war.