Third in the Return to Antar Trilogy. Maria, Michael and Isabel settle into life in Antar. However, the atmosphere of the new planet is slowly taking its toll on Maria. And someone from Isabel's past is threatening the fragile happiness that Maria and Michael have attained. Can Isabel save them all? M&M. I&X. Finished 6/24/2002
Xian's narrowed eyes followed them whenever necessary. Both Maria and Michael were too involved with each other to notice. Every morning they would enter the dining area together, fingers entwined, staring into each other's eyes and pressing kisses when they thought nobody was looking. But Xian was, and he saw each and every gesture that inflamed him further. Sometimes his gaze would stray to Isabel, the human that Zan had tried to pass off as Vilandra, and once again he would try to tamp down the fury boiling inside him. How could he, of all the people in Antar, be fooled by a fake Vilandra?
While Xian watched the king and queen with hawk like intensity, Isabel often observed him from the corner of her eye. She could not place where she had seen him before. Still, she was aware that they had to watch themselves around him. He seemed out to prove that Maria was not Vilandra, and Isabel could not let that happen. Michael and Maria's happiness was too hard earned for one man to ruin.
Often Isabel would catch him in a room, surveying Maria's movements, whenever Michael attended to his duties. On those occasions she would tap him on the shoulder, and he would flush guiltily at first. But he would recover at once and would excuse his behavior as his responsibility to guard the queen.
Isabel smiled fondly at the two arrivals. She could not express just how relieved she was that Maria finally made her way here. Michael was no longer half the man he was when he coldly and calculatingly won the war for Max. True there were still loose factions out there, especially in the areas far from the capital, but Michael was dealing with them strategically, and more importantly, he was dealing with these rebels without removing himself from the process.
Xian stood abruptly, overturning a glass of wine from the palace cellars. "Sorry." He hastily made his exit with a curt bow to Michael and a kiss on Maria's fingers.
Maria frowned at the soldier's retreating back. "What happened?" she asked Isabel.
Isabel shrugged. "Let him be. He's confused, disturbed. Kinda like Michael was when you first met him." Michael smirked at the beautiful girl he owed so much to. Isabel had given up so much so that Michael and Maria could be together. "There, sit there." She motioned to the seats in front of her. At once, servants appeared to set places before them. "So how are the monarchs?"
When they were alone, Maria reached for Isabel's hand and squeezed it tightly. "Isabel, I have not told you yet how… how much…"
Isabel held up a hand to stop her. "You don't need to tell me anything. I did it for me, you know. I can't be burdened with the man." She pointed to Michael, who was regarding Maria from beneath lowered eyelids, like he was sleepy. Isabel hid a chuckle because that had become known to her, in all the time she had seen those two on earth, as Michael's sexy inviting stare. "Hard to make that work at the moment when she's not looking at you."
Michael grinned at her. "Gotta try."
Only catching on what they meant, she smiled up at her husband. He opened his mouth to ask her a question, but someone came in with a plate of pungent green circles that Isabel told Maria were eggs. Maria pushed her chair back and stood up abruptly. "Excuse me," she apologized. "Don't get up. I'll be back." She briskly left the table.
Isabel seemed concerned. "What's with her?"
"I'm worried," Michael admitted. "She's terribly homesick, I think. Her smiles don't reach her eyes anymore. And I miss the sound of her laughter. She's happy to be here with me, she said. But I can't help but notice how left out she feels."
Isabel nodded. "You're often away in meetings, Michael. And she would never think of blaming you. She knows it's part of who you are now. But she has to have something to do to keep her mind away from the life she left. She can't sit and wait for you to come back after you attend to everything else."
Michael shoved several spoonfuls of food that he still couldn't remember the names of. They never looked the same, but the taste was the same here and on earth. Of course usually there was somewhat built-in Tabasco in them.
"Where is she?" she wondered.
"She's probably gone to the bathroom. She's been having some bladder problems lately, you know. Maybe you can ask Dr. Cuces for a remedy."
"I'll do that." She noticed the two men who walked into the dining room, and motioned to Michael to look at the back.
He turned and saw two of Max's… his, he corrected himself, advisers approaching. "Oh great. That's a record of twenty minutes free time before they came," he muttered. To the two, he greeted, "Morning. What can I do for you, gentlemen?"
"We need you in the Junis Conference Room to finalize the arrangements of the Alliance with the head of the Kitza."
"If possible, sir."
"And if it's not?"
"Well…" The shorter man glanced uncertainly at his companion. "We intend to make it possible, sir."
Michael glared at Isabel's stifled laughter. "All right then. I'll be along shortly." He turned back to Isabel. "Could you tell Maria? Tell her I'll be with her as soon as I can. I'm sure this won't take long."
"Remember what I said, Michael. She needs to be with you right now."
Michael nodded and proceeded out of the dining area, in time to meet Maria at the doorway. "Where are you going?" she asked softly.
He leant to place a kiss on his lips. "I just need to talk to someone."
"You need to talk to me," she offered half teasingly.
"I will, Blondie," he whispered against her lips. "This will just take five minutes." Her eyebrow arched at the promise. "All right, maybe not five. But I'll be with you as soon as I can. Is that okay?"
Maria took a deep breath and grinned up at him. She reached up and ran her fingers through his hair. "As okay as it was when you double booked me with your security guard friends at the bowling place."
"But be sure to be back in time for dinner. I have a surprise for you."
Michael smiled at her, puzzled with the look in her eyes. She looked like she held the most precious and exciting secret in the universe. He was intrigued. He placed his hands on either side of her waist and pulled her close so that they were pressed together closely. "Will I like this surprise?" he inquired, knowing even as he asked that he would.
"I think so," she promised. "Okay now shoo. If you talk to whoever it is quicker you'll get back to me faster." With one more kiss he strode away.
Maria soaked her feet in the viscous crimson fluid, warmed especially to fight off the chill of the Antarian winter. She sighed in relief. The water felt good. It was refreshing. After all, she had not felt good for a while now. She didn't want to say anything to Michael because there was nothing he could do. And she didn't want to worry him.
Since waking up in this planet, Maria's body had known that she was not home. Day after day, the nausea rose to frightening levels. At first she thought it was because of the baby, but after a couple of weeks she realized that the discomfort that came with pregnancy was not this severe.
She felt lightheaded often, and even the blood in her veins felt like acid to her. Maria wanted to give herself about a month to adjust before she voiced her concern to anyone. But at the rate that her strength was falling, Maria knew she had to tell Isabel. Michael had too much to worry about without her adding to it.
Michael had been working so much lately that Maria never knew when the best time was to tell him about the baby. But seeing the worried glances that he threw her way, Maria knew she should give him something… something to stop him from thinking she was not happy here.
Because she was. She was more than happy. She may be thousands, millions of light years away from what was once her home. But here, in a strange new world, with her husband, is home. And they were going to have a family of their own. Complete with a mother and a father and a baby. Just like she always wanted.
Maria placed her palms on her stomach and closed her eyes, wondering if they were going to have a boy or a girl. She had always wanted to have a daughter. Every little girl has dreamed of dressing up her own daughter like her dolls. But looking at Michael, practically raising him from the brooding and alienated boy he was to the responsible and loving man of today, made her want a boy to raise.
"Vilandra." He stared down at her peaceful face and waited for her to acknowledge him. "Lady Vilandra." When she didn't even open her eyes, he knelt beside her and placed his hand on her shoulder. "Vi—Maria!"
Her eyes snapped open and regarded him in surprise. "Xian."
"You all insist that you be called by your Earth names when your Antarian name is a great and ancient one."
Maria licked suddenly dry lips. He was so close. And he made her nervous. "I'm more comfortable with Maria. I've known nothing else."
"I know that you've lost all the memories of your past when you were sent to Earth, Vilandra."
"My name is Maria now," she whispered.
"Fine. But only until you remember. Being here will help you. And when you remember your past," he leaned closer, and Maria held her breath, "I will be here waiting for you."
Maria stared deep into his eyes. He looked so fervent and sincere, but the only thing that she could think of was, "Stay away from me."
He stood up abruptly and walked away. And then bumped into Isabel. "Was it necessary to frighten her to death?" she demanded.
"Maria doesn't frighten easily."
"How do you know that?"
"Because I know Vilandra more than anyone else in this universe."
The pitcher slipped from Isabel's fingers. She looked back at him open-mouthed. "It's you," she whispered.
But Isabel didn't have time to answer anymore. A thud from the pool area made them both turn. She gasped when she saw Maria unconscious at the side, her hair matting red from blood or the crimson water.
"No!" The stark terror on his face threw her. Xian ran towards where she Maria had fallen. A while later, Isabel ran towards them as he cradled the unconscious girl close. "What are you waiting for?" he screamed at her. "Call Rath! Tell him that my lady is hurt!"
Isabel rushed out, wiping at the tears falling down her cheeks and willing her heart not to break at the tender way he held her friend and how he stressed the possessive in my lady.
His head was pounding. So many demands, so many leaders talking all at once. Michael wanted to get out of the conference room so much but he knew he had a responsibility now. Suddenly he realized how much trouble he must have caused Max back on Earth whenever he just would not listen. He'd give anything to have these men shut up and listen to him for once.
"If you would all—" The voices around him were raised, and he took a deep breath. "This is what I want to—" They wanted to speak all at once. Michael fisted his hands in an effort to control his temper. But his nature got the better of him, and he slammed his palm on the metal table and half of it turned into hot fluid before their eyes. Those seated at that end rose and jumped out of the way. Everyone quieted. Michael took another calming breath and spoke, and this time, nobody interrupted. "I need twenty each of your best men to fortify the place for the Alliance Convention," he stated, brooking no disagreement. "I need you to provide those men with their own protective gear and ammunition. The last war took its toll on our finances and I can't provide for them. This scarcity won't last though. We do expect some yield from the Western Fields and the profit from the merchandising ship that went to planet Kilatis by the end of the month."
The glass doors swung open to reveal a panting soldier holding on to the handle. "Sir. General, sir. Your highness…"
"Speak up," Michael snapped. "We're having a state discussion."
"It's—It's Lady Vilandra, sir. She's ill."
[I]Isabel.[/I] "What?" He stood up and turned to look for his right hand man. "Where's Xian?" he asked of no one in particular.
The soldier, still gasping for breath, informed him. "He's the one who found the lady unconscious by the poolside, sir. He's with her now."
Michael pointed to another of his advisers. "You continue this. I'll check on what's happened to Lady Vilandra and then I'll be back." Michael strode out of the room, followed closely by a few of his other advisers.
He turned at the corner and bumped into the soft body of Isabel. He caught her in his arms and hugged her. "Isabel, what happened to y—"
Her eyes held so much fear when they met his that his breath caught in his throat. And immediately he knew. "I don't know what happened! She's—"
"Maria." He let her go and stalked to the bedroom. He pushed the door open, and met Xian's terrified gaze. "What's happened?!" he demanded from his right-hand man. Xian stood from the bed and watched his leader sit on the place he had vacated. Michael picked up Maria's pale hand on pressed it to his lips. "Maria," he called softly to her. He held his fingers to her cheek. "Wake up, Maria. I'm here now."
Xian's lips curled at the sight. He turned to leave. At the door, he met Isabel's questioning face. "I'm getting out of here. If he needs me, have someone page me. I can't watch this, Isabel. I don't know if he's taunting me…"
Isabel shook her head. "He loves her."
"He never did before," Xian argued. He looked back at Michael. When he bent to kiss her forehead, Xian shook his head. With pleading eyes, he regarded Isabel. "Update me on how she is."
Isabel nodded, and watched him leave the room, his soldier's back slumped in defeat. She walked towards Michael speaking to the physician. She put her hand on his shoulder in support. "This is odd," the doctor was saying. "She should have adapted back by now."
"Adapted back?" Isabel repeated. "What do you mean?"
"Our atmosphere is only slightly different from Earth's. But she seems overly lacking in oxygen, which should not matter. We don't really need it."
"She's lived on earth a long time," Isabel offered.
"But we equipped them to adjust to both atmospheres. Only those who didn't undergo the treatment won't survive the change. Such as Queen Ava's child." The physician nodded at Isabel. "I'm surprised you're holding up so well, young lady. But then you appear strong."
Michael finally cleared his throat and asked his own question, "So humans [I]can[/I] survive our atmosphere?"
"With adjustment usually."
"What can we do for Maria?"
The physician considered this while rubbing his chin absently. "I suppose I'll have to think that her physiology is more human due to her time there. Although it shouldn't be like that. Oh well, I'll have to treat her as a human then and see if that works. It's going to be costly for an experiment though."
Pushing the lack of funds for military equipment off his mind, he gritted out, "I'm king."
The man before him nodded. "We'll install oxygen in the rooms she will be in. She can't go out of those. The queen will more or less be imprisoned in those places we've conditioned."
"We'll do it for the entire palace," Michael stated.
"Oxygen is hard to find."
"We'll do it, doctor," Michael told him coldly. The physician nodded slowly. "Can we do this for the outdoors? I can't let Maria be trapped in here."
"I'm sorry, sir, but that's impossible."
After the meeting with the physician, one of his advisors asked Michael if he would be returning to the committee discussion. He shook his head and asked them to leave. Isabel sat at the other side of the bed and peered at Maria. "She doesn't look like she's hurting or anything," she commented. "I think she's just sleeping off the shock of the air here." Isabel kept her tone light, because she knew how vulnerable Michael was when it came to this subject. If only Kivar went this way, she thought. He would have defeated Michael through this slip of a girl. She was happy Kivar never got his hands on Maria. Xian on the other hand…
"Isabel, could you—"
Isabel stood up and patted his hand. "I'm out of here. You don't even have to finish that sentence." She opened the door. "It's going to turn out just fine, Michael."
Michael shucked off his boots and laid down next to Maria. He drew her into his arms and whispered, "If you'll just wake up, Maria, the entire world…" Isabel heard his words as she closed the door.
"Who are you?"
Isabel started. She glanced up at Xian who was leaning so close to hear she knew he could hear her heartbeat. "I'm a waitress in Roswell, New Mexico. Or rather, I was. Zan thought it'd be fun to take me along for the trip, and here I am," she stammered.
Xian shook his head. "You're not human."
"Why would you say that?"
"Because, Isabel," he told her slowly, dragging out the words, taunting her, "Vilandra is in there suffocating on our air while you, the supposed human, walks freely."
"She's weak. Look at Max and Michael. They didn't suffocate either."
Xian frowned, looking surprised at her reasoning. "They're male. Men are supposed to be strong."
"If you're to be believed, you are the alien now. Tell me, why did you come here?" He leaned closer to her, if that were even possible.
"I thought that my destiny was here," she whispered. Just a little closer, he could kiss her.
"I'm beginning to think so." Since he won't give just that short distance more, Isabel leaned forward and caught his head in her hands. She pulled him down for a searing kiss.
He pushed her away. "You're here to seduce me and throw me off my course! I was meant to be with her!"
"No." Isabel shook her head wildly. "She's meant to be with Michael. Can't you see that? She's so happy."
"You don't understand." He took her head in his hands and flooded her with memories. She saw him and herself, or rather Vilandra, in all the times they were together. It wasn't Kivar after all. It was Xian. It was Xian's soul that called out to her from the stars.
Xian took off after that. And Isabel stared after him.
Maria reared up from the bed, sucking in gulps of air. Michael watched the pale cheeks suffuse with roses. From the corner of the room, Isabel walked ran forward. Even Xian, who had been at Michael's side the past week due to the impending Alliance Convention, stepped closer to the bed.
"How do you feel?" Michael asked solicitously.
"Fine," Maria smiled. "I'm just really dizzy."
"What happened?" She lay back down on the pillows.
"You were out for a few days," Isabel informed her. Seeing Maria's shocked expression, she hastened to explain. "The atmosphere shocked your system."
Maria remembered what happened with Tess. She glanced frantically at Michael, biting her lip. Her hands protectively folded over her stomach. "Is my baby okay?"
Michael's lips parted, and his mouth dried.
"Oh!" With a flurry of golden curls, Isabel threw her arms around her friend. "You're going to have a baby? Maria, I'm so happy for you!"
Maria was enveloped by Isabel's arms. She smiled at the feel of her embrace. "Yes, Iz, I am," she answered, giving back the hug. From above Isabel's shoulders she watched Michael's face for a sign of what he was feeling, but until now she could not read anything in his eyes except for shock.
Isabel finally pulled away from Maria to give the couple space. Her dancing eyes fell on Xian. When she saw how intense his gaze on Maria was, she cleared her throat to get his attention. Meanwhile, Maria opened her arms to her husband. Michael promptly moved into them and she cradled his close, his face pressed in the crook of her neck. He never said a word. Instead, his hand rested on her stomach in a silent gesture.
Both Maria and Isabel blinked up at the man. Isabel could see from the way Maria's brows furrowed that she did not immediately pick up on Xian's suggestion. And then her lashes fluttered and fear crept into her eyes. Isabel knew that Maria was remembering whatever it was that Xian told her before she collapsed the other day.
Xian stepped close to Michael and Maria. He took Maria's hand and raised it to his lips. "You're fulfilling your destinies to the letter," he said. "I'm sure your child will be healthy and beautiful, Vilandra. Your son will take after Rath—Michael, I meant."
Michael raised his head for the moment and nodded at Xian in dismissal. The man turned and left the room quickly, glancing back at both Maria and Isabel once. And then Michael looked at Isabel, who smiled at him. "I'll leave you alone. Congratulations." She squeezed Maria's hand, quietly extending her reassurance that Xian should not worry her.
Finally they were alone. Maria extricated herself from Michael's embrace. "Hey."
He hated not being in her arms after a long time of worrying if she would wake up or not. "Maria, I need to be with you. I need to hold you," he stated clearly.
"We'll get to that in a moment," she answered. "But you haven't told me how you felt about the baby."
"Not in so many words."
His lips curved for the first time since she became ill. "Then let me show you." He placed his hands on her cheeks and leaned close. He brushed his lips across hers. Maria caught her breath at the rush of warmth and tenderness that overwhelmed her. Without words, Michael communicated to her. And it was more sincere than any words can impart. But also, because he knew she also needed to hold on to something verbal, he whispered against her lips, "The face of both my worlds has changed, Maria, when first I heard the footsteps of your soul."
And then reverting to the Maria he had always known, she laughed. "You ripped that off from Elizabeth Barrett!"
"Glad you listened in English, Deluca!" he replied, grinning. "I keep seeing you dozing off there."
"Oh I was listening, Michael," she threw back. "And it's Mrs. Guerin to you!"
Their laughter floated outside, following Isabel down the corridor. She smiled at the sound. She was happy that Maria seemed all right now. Michael could finally breathe freely again. Knowing that her family was fine, she turned her concern to Xian. Although he tried to mask his feelings when he left earlier, she knew how shattered he was at the news he heard.
As expected, she saw him leaning against the wall, eyes closed. She moved close. Before she even touched him, he muttered, "I need to be alone, Earth girl."
"How did you know I was here?" she asked softly.
"I can sense you a mile away from me, who knows why."
"Doesn't that tell you something?"
He turned his gray eyes at her. "Yeah. Tells me that you're screwing with my mind."
"I don't have any powers."
"How can I be sure who's telling the truth and who's not anymore?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that I haven't seen you or Vilandra use any, Isabel. And that doesn't mean she's not got powers, because I know how much she has."
Isabel stood beside him, almost brushing against his arm. She leaned back against the wall too. "If you would only just accept everything, Xian, and drop the matter."
"I can't do that."
"Why not, Xian? She's so happy."
Xian took a deep breath. "She is," he admitted, and his hurt was apparent in his voice. "That's all I ever wanted for her. Kivar used her. He manipulated her. And Rath… she never loved him. He never really cared much about her. That's why I don't believe this… this incarnation would be this much in love with her," he explained. "I can't let this just go at that. I love her too much to do that."
Isabel could not swallow because of the lump in her throat. She turned her face to him and saw how lonely he was. She leaned close and pressed her mouth to his. At first he did not respond. Her hand rose to the back of his head and pressed his head to hers.
"Michael," she whispered as his lips trailed down her collarbone. She closed her eyes tightly as though she were in pain. "I—Michael…"
Her hands moved restlessly on his back. He felt them rest at the small of his back, and move down to his buttocks. "Maria." Her lips were hot on temple. "Don't scare me like that. You're doing it too often."
"Michael, is the baby going to be all right?"
He raised his head to look her in the eye. Her arms fell down to her sides. He could see the worry on her brow. "Yes."
"Are you sure?"
"As long as you stay inside the palace, Maria. You're both going to be fine."
"What?" she demanded. "I have to stay in here. I can't go out?"
He shook his head. "The air, Maria. Tess' baby couldn't survive on Earth because of the atmosphere. And you can't survive here because of the same reason. That's why the palace has been sealed in air-tight, and oxygen-treated."
"I'm going to be a prisoner here?"
Michael opened his mouth to deny it, but then realized that this was what he thought all along. Maria would be a prisoner inside the palace. "There's nothing we can do. I don't want to risk losing you, Maria."
She stood up on shaky legs. She had not walked for a while. She waited for her legs to adjust before walking to the window. Maria pulled the cord and opened the curtains. The window was glass, and she saw the lining at the edges that sealed the room from the outside air. "Your planet is poisoning me, Michael," she said. "But you have a beautiful skyline."
Michael stared at his wife against the window, and knew that Antar would kill her yet. A beautiful flower always wilted without sunshine.
Xian pushed her away firmly. He panted and stared at Isabel's flushed face. "Damn you," he whispered. "How dare you."
Isabel licked her lips. She could still taste him there. "Out of love, Xian," she told him.
"You lied to me all along!"
"No! I didn't know until you showed me. I didn't remember any of it. And by then it was too late. I won't let them get hurt, Xian. And I trust you enough that you won't ever tell."
Xian shook his head. "You keep f-cking with my life, Vilandra. First you run off with Kivar. Now you warp my mind by letting me watch those two and think that I've lost you again." He pulled her, not so gently, towards him and bent to catch her lips. "Your passion's always been your weakness," he murmured.
Isabel melted into him. "You won't do anything to hurt them, Xian?"
"I love you, Vilandra."
The map unfurled on the white desktop in the king's office. Michael carefully surveyed the galaxy chart where Antar was situated. He flipped on the overhead light and plotted lines to neighboring planets under the Antarian empire. Beside him, Isabel frowned at the computer screen.
"What are the coordinates again?" Michael repeated the numbers, and Isabel plotted them on axes. "How about the other one?" Again, Michael provided the coordinates, and she spotted the planet.
After about a dozen possibilities, Michael drew a chair to him and typed in the names of the planets. He cursed at the features running up his screen. "This is impossible," he muttered.
"You have to face it, Michael. She will have to learn to love this palace. There's no going out."
Frustrated at the results of their search, Michael leaned his head back and massaged his own temples. "You ever gone to one of those field trips in grade school, Iz? The one where they hauled the kids off by some bay far from Roswell?"
Isabel glanced at Michael, who had his eyes closed. She wondered what made him ask. "You know I have."
He nodded, still not looking at her. "I got enough money from Hank then to get one of those painted little birds they sold there."
"The ones in the tiny wooden cages? I couldn't bear to get one of those. Poor birds."
"Yeah. I got a nice blue one with yellow feather tips. The thing died within hours. Couldn't live like that. The old lady at the other trailer told me pretty things like that don't last in cages."
Isabel sighed. "My mom warned me about those birds. Notoriously short lives in captivity. I wish someone would tell the vendors to stop selling them. But I guess lots of kids enjoy seeing them, and they don't really care that they're killing those birds."
"I don't want Maria to die in a cage, Isabel, just because I wanted to bring her home with me."
The blonde head snapped back to her friend's shuttered face. The sudden shift in conversation caught her. It wasn't that huge of a leap, but she hadn't been paying much attention until that last statement. "God, Michael, don't think like that! She's fine. You took care of everything for her. You're being morbid. Even now she's probably still exploring the palace. She's pretty excited about how beautiful it is."
"Have you seen her eyes when she looks out the window?" was his simple response.
Isabel knew that Michael was right. Maria wouldn't last long cooped up in this place. If she didn't just walk out of here in frustration, she was sure that Maria would go insane seeing the same walls every single day. It didn't help that they should expect emotional imbalance from her carrying the baby.
At that moment, there was a soft knock on the door and it swung open to reveal Maria smiling at the doorway. "Spaceboy, I was wondering if you wanted to have lunch with me in our room?"
"I'll be right there," he told her. Maria nodded and slipped away silently.
Isabel watched Michael watch his wife. He had changed so much since that September at the Crashdown. Who knew someone who'd been so negligible all their lives was the only one who'd get under his skin like that? She became determined all the more to find that one planet that Michael needed.
"Go on," she told her friend. "I'll continue working on this and have fun with Maria. You look beat."
He wanted so bad to finish this, to find a planet that's sufficiently like Earth and still close to here that he can come back and forth if needed. He had to find a planet that's close enough that the half-charged ships can travel there safely. "Thank you, Iz. You don't know how much this means to me."
Michael entered their bedroom without knocking. It was ablaze with dozens of lighted candles. His wife was standing at the center of the room, reaching out her hands for him to take. It reminded him of the night they made love for the first time, with dinner just a few feet away unnoticed because they were too wrapped up in each other.
"I thought we should have a celebration dinner. We should welcome the new addition to our family," she told him lightly.
He walked over to her and wrapped his arms around her waist. "I'm open to that," he murmured against her hair. "Why don't we start with a slow dance?"
"I thought you didn't know how to dance," she teased.
"That's easy." He drew her up, and she squealed in surprise. Michael swung his wife into his arms and swayed. "Put your arms around my neck." Maria happily obliged, loving the feel of being carried like this, knowing he was hers. It's been too long since she'd been this assured.
"Promise me you're mine tonight," she requested.
"And nobody would come take you away tonight right? I'm tired of sharing you with Antar, Michael. I need you to be less of a king and more my husband, even if it's just for tonight," she said seriously. "Please."
"You and me. And the baby. This bedroom is our world. I don't care about the rest." He promised. Michael dipped his head to catch her lips.
"Ummm…" Maria tightened her arms around his neck and drew closer to him, pressing her breasts against his chest. "God, Michael, how did I ever live without you?" she whispered. She was drowning in him, and she never wanted to breathe again.
"How could I have ever thought I can live alone after knowing you?" he countered. He must have been insane to agree to leave Earth and Maria. Even burdened with all the duties that Max had left him, he was thankful that he abandoned Antar to see Liz, betraying himself and Isabel by taking the only remaining ship available for that distance. Max's selfish mission brought Maria to Michael, and for that he would always be grateful to his brother.
The imagined music still playing in his mind, Michael walked over to the bed and placed Maria at the center. Her smile was an ancient one, that powerful woman's smile that told a man that she knew what he wanted and she knew how to fulfill him.
She reached for the hem of her nightgown, but he still her movements. Michael dropped a kiss on her mouth and said, "Let me." With reverence, he ran his hands over the smooth silk, sending shivers racing down her body. Michael carefully drew up the gown, showering each inch of skin revealed with nips and kisses. "I missed you."
"I was right here all along," she breathed. "Even when I was asleep, I heard everything you said."
He reached the bare tight skin of her stomach and placed a kiss on her abdomen. He closed his eyes. "Love you love you love you. I don't know what I would've done if I'd lost you."
Maria took a deep breath and ran her fingers through his hair. She cradled him between her legs. "I promise I won't do it again," she said lightly. "I won't let a silly thing like alien air kill me off and leave you free to live like a bachelor. Not when you're committed to me."
"That's right." He moved over her and freed himself. Poised above her, he pressed his trembling mouth against her forehead. "I've got all the woman I need right here in my arms." Looking deep into her eyes, he didn't break eye contact as he sank into her.
Maria's breath left her body when he filled her. Her lips formed muted words of love as their body joined, pulsing together again and again. Her eyes remained open when she came, and her sight was filled with his face enshrouded by brilliant bursting stars, aflame with passion and tempered by those feelings they won't name too often.
The lovers on the bed were wrapped in a cocoon that blocked out the outside world, and so Michael didn't hear the rapidly approaching footsteps. Normally, because of his experience in the war, he had a hyped sense about the disturbance in his surroundings. But there he was in bed, lying beside his wife, hands resting on her stomach where their baby slept, so all his attention was focused on the peace that enveloped him.
The silence was shattered when the door of their bedroom burst open. Automatically, Michael moved to shield Maria from the alien presence.
"What's the meaning of this?" he demanded. His eyes moved carefully over the armed guards that burst their way into their room.
The file parted to reveal Xian. The man strode in tight-lipped. He regarded Michael with a coldness he had never exhibited before. "I beg your pardon for the intrusion, sir, but we are here to deliver justice."
Maria clutched at Michael's upper arms. She had no idea what was happening. One moment they were resting and the next, Xian stormed in. She recognized him at once as a threat.
"What justice? What right do you have to enter our room forcibly."
"We have the right to protect the throne, and the Queen of Antar."
"As you can see," Michael retorted, "the queen is safe with me."
Xian shook his head. When he looked at Maria, his eyes slitted. "That human is not the queen. The real Lady Vilandra admitted it herself. I cannot allow this to happen."
Someone was pushing her way through the guards. It was Isabel, still breathless. "What are you doing?" she demanded in a harsh whisper. "Leave them alone, Xian!"
"I can't do that. I've been sworn to protect the Royal Four, and I've failed in protecting Queen Ava. I swear I will not let you be cheated out of your birthright."
Isabel's fury was a sight to behold. She turned to the armed men behind her and commanded, "Leave us. And shut the door behind you!"
At once the men obliged, recognizing Vilandra in Isabel's manners and stance. Behind Michael, Maria finally spoke up. "Will you give us the privacy of getting dressed alone?"
"I can't." He didn't even look at Maria. Instead, he spoke to Michael, as if a human was not worth his time. "You've committed treason, sir. I am not allowed to leave you alone."
"We're not going to escape," Michael gritted out. "If you've forgotten, my wife can't survive outside the palace walls."
With a nod of acquiescence, Xian stepped out of the room, leaving Isabel inside. She didn't bat an eyelid when Michael stood up naked, picking up his pants and stepping into them. She helped Maria pull on a dress. With his shirt still unbuttoned, Michael walked over to his wife and pulled her close. He kissed her forehead and murmured, "It's going to be okay."
She looked up at him tearfully. "I've put you in trouble again, haven't I? I always seem to do that."
"Yeah, that's your role in my life," he teased. Isabel couldn't understand how those two could continue to joke like this with the situation they now believed themselves to be in. "Keeps me on my toes."
Maria smiled and held on to his waist tightly. "I'm kinda scared."
"What've you got to be scared of? I'm here."
"Right. And you're going to be charged with treason for lying about me."
Isabel sighed in exasperation. "Pack up your bags. Quick!"
Michael looked at Isabel askance. "I doubt they're going to allow us to be imprisoned with all our stuff, Iz. I can't believe it. Why did you tell Xian? And what's up his butt?"
"Look, he found out okay? He's not the bad guy here. Someone else heard. So this is a set up. The two of us are getting you out of here before the council does."
Maria nodded, and moved to get a few clothes for herself and Michael. Michael however didn't budge. "We're not leaving, Isabel. I don't care what they do with me, but I'm not spiriting Maria outside where she's going to die!"
"No!" Isabel drew a piece of paper from her bra, and Michael's eyebrow arched. She handed it to him. The paper was still warm. "Oh stuff it, Michael. Look at it! Those coordinates will take you to a neighboring planet that's a lot like Earth. When he found out, Xian helped me search through the archives. He knows a lot about this galaxy, Michael. Within minutes, we found the perfect match. But we need to make it look like you and Maria were caught, so the Council won't search you out for the treason."
Michael's heart soared with renewed hope. A new planet, where Maria and their baby can run free without fear that they'll be poisoned, without the taint of war, without the burden on him as king. His features darkened when he remembered the situation here.
It was Maria who voiced the protest nagging at him. "We can't leave you alone here, Iz. Not when we know these are dangerous people."
"I'll be okay, Maria. I'm their queen." She strode towards the slighter girl and embraced her. "Just take care of my niece or nephew. And take care of Michael."
Maria wrapped her arms around Isabel. "I don't know what to say. First you told them I was you so Michael and I can be together. And now this. God, Iz, and when we met I thought you were a monster!"
Isabel chuckled. "Yeah. First impressions never last!"
They pulled away from each other and wiped away their tears. "So how are we going to do this?"
"Just go along with us."
A rapid knock on the door, and it swung open to reveal a hard-faced Xian. "The transport is prepared." Maria swallowed when she saw the men behind this soldier who had scared her since she first arrived here. Isabel surreptitiously nodded at Xian, and he continued. "General, you have been charged with treason, because of marrying a human and placing her in Lady Vilandra's rightful place as Queen of Antar. You and the human are punishable by execution. But by the queen's decision you will be sent to Tyrone, and never allowed back on Antar in your lifetime. Do you have objections to this judgment?"
Michael reached for Maria's hand. He felt like his soul was being propelled to heaven, and he fought not to let it show. "I admit to the charge," he said slowly. "And although my heart will forever be with Antar, I will go peacefully to the planet you've chosen for us."
Xian nodded, and led them out of the bedroom, with his men carrying the bags that Maria had prepared.
The Queen of Antar watched the blonde girl twirling around and around, her head thrown back and arms wide open, laughing up at the sun. She grinned at the sight. The purple grass reached the girl's thighs; she was so small. That hybrid was a spitfire, she knew. So much like the last king.
Bearing the silver-clothed bundle high on her chest, she looked up and saw the little girl's father standing still, looking over the cliff. Michael was still, surveying the vast land that had become his home for the past seven years.
Xian, her king, waited in the humble but efficient house just below. He would have preferred to come with her. Xian didn't like leaving her by herself now, with her six month belly easy target for any terror elements of the universe. But this was a job she had to do alone. And it was better that Xian and his men remain in the house. They can't leave them unprotected. Seven years and you'd think that the advisors in Antar would let go. But there were still some eyeing Michael's family for the kill. They didn't let traitors off lightly, they informed Queen Vilandra.
Sometimes she wondered about her brother. Was Max's trip back to Earth worth it? Or did he give up a throne, his sister and his best friend for nothing? She hoped that he found some semblance of happiness back there. If not with Liz, then hopefully with somebody else. But he was another story.
The baby cried in her arms, reminding her whose story this really was.
"Hush, baby. You don't want to have your first meeting with daddy with you all red-eyed and creased, do you?" she cooed softly.
In the meantime, Michael's thoughts were gray. This land, this planet, was so different from Earth, and Antar. Seven years here and still he wondered if he would wake up to the yellow-white moon of Earth or see the bright blue sky.
When he first watched Maria run through the orange fields and breathe in the fresh air, his qualms subsided. For a little while.
Even after they settled, he questioned his decision to leave Antar. They were his people, after all. And after the war he found out just how much they needed him. It wasn't Max who saved them. It was he. His strategies brought down Khivar, and his sweat and blood brought him to stand trial and suffer execution. So each night, even in the warm embrace of his wife, he asked. He gave up a kingdom, but he gained something so much better. And then when their little angel Nara was born, he knew that there could be no regrets. Maria wanted to name the baby Jahanara. Michael asked her what it meant, because he had never heard it before.
"It means 'queen of the universe,'" she told him tearfully, almost apologetically. She gave him Jahanara, because she knew how bothered he was about trading in a kingdom for her.
"You're all I need," he assured her. And it was true. On that very day there was no question about what really mattered. He had Maria, who would forever be his heart's sovereign. And together they created Jahanara, queen of their own private universe.
But there was one thing left unsettled. In the uncontrollable rush of events, he had forgotten that dream that started all this. The dream of Isabel, of destiny, of the cliff and the son that would complete his heaven. He felt an overwhelming urge to take Maria and Nara and hide them, so nothing could touch them. Was Isabel and destiny still a threat to all of them?
Now that Maria was giving birth to their second child, he was that much more afraid of anything that would ruin them.
He had been so tense that he was advised to take a walk. Usually, a brisk walk through the planet calmed him. Maybe because breathing in the air and seeing the lushness reminded him that Maria was now safe, that she was now free to dance and sing and stroll without fear that she was slowly dying of poison.
A movement a few feet away caught his attention, and he turned to see the image he had feared for so long—Vilandra standing before him with a kicking bundle in her arms, her eyes full of affection when she smiled.
"Maria's sitting in bed waiting for you. Nara just ran home to see her mom. I brought you your son. Maria said you would want to introduce him to your world." And her arms extended to him a wriggling bundle that gurgled and kicked. He accepted it and looked down at the infant, whose eyes were so much like his own. His throat tightened at the feel of life held within his arms. "I'll leave you to get acquainted." She watched him kiss his son's forehead almost reverently. "Destinies, Michael. You've fulfilled yours."
Isabel walked down towards the house where Maria waited. Soon, Michael would be on his way to his wife and daughter, after that special moment reserved for him and his son. Isabel's footsteps were light at the hope that soon, she would have what those two had. It wasn't impossible. She was queen, after all.
One last time, she glanced back at Michael. He was talking to his son, quietly, seriously, acquainting him perhaps with the responsibility to take care of Maria and Nara, telling him that this planet was theirs to love and cultivate, introducing himself as a father and a friend.
Finally, he found what he was looking for, where he belonged. Home.