CHAPTER FORTY-TWO: LETTING GO
The rest of the “negotiations” were more demands that Jace had. They were both simple and complex. But his mother was nothing if not eager to keep Haseon safe. She wasn’t stupid and Jace’s show of power had told her that--for now, at least--she had no choice but to do what he wanted.
First, there would be a dozen Saber-class and fifty Paladin-class ships that would remain behind to guard Earth. A Colossus-class would be sent from Haseon through the gate.
“I recommend the Knossos,” Khoth had suggested.
His mother’s eyes had widened a fraction. The Knossos was their newest and best Colossus-class ship after the Ashaton.
“The Knossos is--”
“One of fifty Colossus-class ships in Haseon’s star system,” Khoth had cut his mother off. “You are lucky that the Pilot is not asking for more than one. But if we are to have one protecting Earth, it will be the Knossos.”
Jace’s eyebrows had lifted at his cold tone. His mother’s lips had flattened. Khoth had known that both were thinking he was acting out of anger and hurt towards his mother due to the exile. He was not.
I serve the Pilot. Not the Alliance, he thought and that had his fractured Xi icing over almost pleasantly.
The next demand was that humanity be allowed to join the Alliance just as every other species had been allowed to.
“You will sponsor them. My mother will be ambassador,” Jace had told Nova. “You will be humanity’s biggest cheerleader and facilitate this.”
“I do not have the votes on the Council to get humanity into the Alliance even if I am their greatest fan,” Nova had objected.
“You do if you call in all of your favors,” Khoth had countered.
His mother blinked. “How will I affect Jace’s other desires if I use all of my favors for this? My understanding is that Jace is to be a neutral third party and not a representative of Earth so--”
“The Pilot,” Khoth interrupted her.
“Not Jace. The Pilot,” Khoth corrected her. “Humanity will be trained and then have access to Altaeth technology from ships to weaponry. Are you really claiming that the Alliance wants an unallied species with such advantages for itself?”
His mother’s expression had stilled. “The ships here are Alliance, not Earth’s own--”
“I intend to have ships and weaponry sent to Earth as soon as possible. I may not be representing Earth, but it is my home and its people are my people. I won’t have them left unguarded and defenseless,” Jace said quietly, his fingers tracing figure eights on the table in front of him. “Earth will have its own defense force. I won’t allow it to be dependent upon Alliance largess since, as you’ve made clear, you don’t see humanity as worth saving.”
“So, basically, Nova, you let us in or we just start our own club,” General Intoshkin grinned.
“They don’t know how to use the tech!” she cried.
“They’ll be trained. Humans are… adaptable. They thrive on difficulties. Change, though challenging, spurs humanity on to greater heights,” Jace explained and spread his hands wide. “I truly wish to see humanity as part of the Alliance. I think they could learn much from the other species. But if you won’t make them a part of it, I have to put other safeguards in place. So… I say again, humanity will be part of the Alliance or--”
“Humanity will be part of the Alliance,” she agreed tightly.
“Good,” Jace said.
The third demand was for access.
“The Osiris and whatever armada I put together will have free access to all of Alliance space,” Jace had said. “But we will not be bound by its laws.”
“Ah! You truly are human in your outlook by asking for that!” she had scoffed. “You want all the benefits, but none of the rules applied to you.”
“We’re going to honor your laws. What I mean is no surprise inspections. No obscure laws being used to impede our progress. That sort of thing,” Jace explained.
“We will have all gate codes,” Khoth said. “We simply don’t want Alliance ships getting in the way of our mission.”
“And what is your mission exactly?” she demanded to know.
“To stop the Khul in whatever way possible,” Jace answered. “It’s the only way to save everyone.”
“Anything else?” she snapped, clearly thinking they had asked for way too much already.
“High Councillor Voor,” Khoth said coolly, “you could have been executed for your acts against the Osiris and Earth. The crew of the Ashaton and every other vessel under your command could have been spaced. The Pilot could have simply taken all of the ships around Haseon and all Alliance worlds away and given them to those who would ally eagerly with him, such as the humans you despise so much.”
“That might not be such a bad idea that last bit,” General Intoshkin stated with a chuckle. He wasn’t getting all he wanted, but he was getting a lot and he’d had to do little for it.
Khoth leaned forward, his eyes narrowed to slits, as he looked hard at his mother. “You have been given the gift of a second chance. Treat it as such or prepare to be removed.”
Mother and son regarded each other. She saw the truth in his eyes. He would not only advocate for this if she betrayed Jace in any way, he would be the one to enforce it. She knew this. He wasn’t one of those pathetic exiles that begged and pleaded to be recognized once more by family. He had chosen to leave the Alliance because of her wrongful actions. As he had listened to Jace negotiate with her, he had come to see that Jace was right that he wasn’t the one who should skulk about and act ashamed. He was loyal to Jace.
And maybe he was a little angry.
But just a little.
“I understand the Commander’s position,” she said softly.
Was there hurt there? It was petty and foolish to want her to hurt. But he did. He wanted her to regret her actions. But would she? She was never one to look back. Ever forward. She used to tell him that regret only slowed one down. The past could not be undone. It could only be left behind.
“I think that’s all from me. General?” Jace asked as he turned his head towards the general.
But General Intoshkin lifted his hands as if in surrender. “I believe that this is acceptable to us.”
“Then let’s adjourn. For now,” Jace said as he rose from the table. Khoth did as well. “Flight-Commander Thammah and Gehenna will escort you back to your ship, High Councillor Voor. You are free to return to Haseon, with the appropriate ships remaining behind of course, to prepare the Council for what’s to come. I will be escorting the human contingent to Haseon once we’re settled here.”
She stood and gave a sharp nod. “I will keep you apprised of my progress.”
“There’s no need,” Jace told her with an easy smile. “I’ll know everything that happens. If you need something in particular… well, I’ll know that too. But you may contact the Osiris.”
She nodded more slowly this time. Gehenna already was clanking towards them, but Thammah held back for a moment. She caught Khoth’s eye as a message popped up on his comm.
We need to talk, she sent. After I train Jack? Meet me in the hanger when we return, yeah?
He gave her a brief nod. Unless Jace needed him, he knew that they should speak. He wasn’t sure if he could repair their friendship. He assumed that’s what Thammah wished to speak about. But as she escorted his mother from the room with barely a look at her former leader, he wondered if that was correct.
“You did good, Jace.” Jack clasped his son’s shoulder and they embraced. “I can’t believe how you got her to agree to all of that.”
“Ah, yeah, you know when you negotiate with kids who are stealing porn mags all day you can totally handle galactic commanders.” Jace grinned, but then added a little sheepishly, “I wasn’t just learning how to fly for the past decade. Gehenna was running me through war simulations, not to mention every political gambit there could be. So… today was easy in comparison.”
“Easy?” Jack shook his head. “I need a drink just from listening to you! If I wasn’t flying after this, believe me, I would be suggesting one.”
“Well, I’m not flying and I wouldn’t mind a little something,” General Intoshkin said as he and Diane came up from their table.
“You did so well, honey.” Diane kissed Jace’s cheek. “You got everything we wanted and you wanted.”
“He didn’t get us on the Council, Diane,” General Intoshkin said but then let out a chuckle. “But that’s all right. We’ll get there on our own merit. Though it seems like you’re already creating a different Council, Jace.”
Khoth wondered if General Intoshkin would be so pleased once he found out that the Osiris had faked orders from his command. Khoth imagined that it would be smoothed over since humanity really had gotten most of what it wanted. Besides, with Jace being the one truly in charge now, Khoth doubted that the general or his superiors would complain too much.
“While Thaf’ell are superior,” Jace shot him an amused glance, “there really are plenty of species that are not being used to their best purpose right now.”
“I’m sure. If the Alliance doesn’t see the benefits that humanity brings to the table, I’m guessing there’s a lot it doesn’t see,” General Intoshkin said loyally.
“We just need to show them who we really are, General,” Diane said evenly. “Right now, only a limited amount of Alliance personnel have been exposed to us. That will change. Speaking of which, we need to mobilize those who will be on the ambassadorial staff.”
“I also have some potential crew members for you to consider, Jace.” The general poked Jace in the chest.
“Dad, you and the Osiris should review these potential crew members and give me your recommendations,” Jace said.
“It will be done. But I have to run to training. Am I excused, Pilot?” Jack stood up very straight.
“You are excused, Flight-Commander Parker,” Jace said with an amused lift of his lips.
Jack smartly saluted, which Jace responded to with a similar salute. Then with a nod to Diane and General Intoshkin, Jack hurried from the room.
“Your mother’s right. We need to get moving on our side so that we have all the right people to bring. But let’s have that drink later, yeah?” General Intoshkin suggested. “I knew you were bright, Jace. I knew you were chosen for a reason. But today… well, today you exceeded all expectations.”
“Not every day you entrust your fate to a store clerk,” Jace said with a shrug.
“Whatever that training was you had for over a decade, I think we all could use some,” the general said and turned smartly on his heel to go to the door.
“Let’s talk later as well, Jace?” Diane touched Jace’s left bicep.
He nodded. “Yeah, for sure, Mom. Dinner?”
“Absolutely. See you later.” Diane turned to Khoth then. Her expression was sad for a moment, but then she touched his arm, too, just like she had touched Jace’s. He froze, unsure how to react to this. “I know that had to be hard even for a Thaf’ell with an iron will like yours. I just want to say…” She lowered her head for a moment as if considering her words very carefully. She then met his eyes. “I just want to say how grateful I am that you’re by my son’s side. I know you’ll keep him safe.”
“Mom, I’m going to keep Khoth safe. And you and the general and Dad and--”
“Thank you, Khoth,” she said quietly, ignoring Jace’s protestations that he was going to be the one saving everybody.
Then she, too, left, and he and Jace were on their own. Jace sank down onto the table, swinging one leg.
“Well, that went… smoothly? Maybe too smoothly?” Jace raked a hand through his hair.
“High Councillor Voor will honor her promises, but she will look for any opportunity to betray us,” Khoth said crisply.
Jace nodded, nibbling at his lower lip. “I wanted to win her over to our side. But I couldn’t. She won’t see that we are allies. She sees us just as--”
“Weapons to be aimed and fired. She doesn’t want a weapon that thinks for itself,” Khoth agreed.
“How are you?” Jace asked carefully, searching Khoth’s face for something.
Khoth’s expression was bland. “I am quite…” He stopped. He did not want to lie to Jace. They were… they were close. Friends. Lovers. More? “I do not know how I am. I will have to spend some time meditating to bring my Xi and Xa back into balance. My mot… High Councillor Voor did not do this after Daesah’s death. She believed that she could… leave it in the past.”
“You can’t… can’t do that.” Jace struggled to understand this.
“No, you cannot. And attempting it causes damage,” Khoth admitted.
“Yeah, yeah, I can imagine that,” Jace said. He put a hand on Khoth’s arm. “What can I do for you? To help you?”
Khoth stared down at Jace’s hand and covered it with his own. Blue over pale. He stroked the back of that hand.
“I do not… not know what I need,” Khoth admitted.
“Well, if you do want something--need something--that I can help with, even in a little way, please let me know,” Jace told him, squeezing his arm.
Khoth nodded. Emotions were like glass sticking in his throat.
“C’mon, you didn’t eat. You need to eat something and we can just be quiet together,” Jace said.
Khoth looked carefully at Jace’s expression and his body language. “You are tired.”
“What? No! I’m good!” Jace yawned.
He lifted an eyebrow. “Really?”
Another yawn. “I--I maybe could close my eyes for a minute. Just a minute.”
“Yes. Just a minute.”
“I mean I didn’t do anything physical here.” Jace flapped his hands. “Yesterday, you and me handled a Hive and--”
“You have not fully recovered from everything you have gone through. And now, you have faced a great opponent and won,” Khoth said.
Jace nodded, his shoulders dipping a little wearily. “Yeah, that was harder than I thought. I feel like I’ve run a marathon.”
“Then come. We will both rest and eat after.” Khoth offered a hand to Jace.
Jace took it and Khoth helped the lithe, young man stand up. The two of them walked together--still holding hands--out of the negotiations room. When they entered the hallway, there was no one there but them. The Osiris was a huge ship and it did not have its complement of crew yet. But still Khoth wondered what the rules should be about them when people could see.
“Jace?” Khoth asked, using the Pilot’s name to indicate that he was speaking to the man and not his higher officer.
“Yeah?” Jace rested his head against Khoth’s shoulder, humming a little happily as he did so.
They walked down the hall like this towards the lift and Khoth found himself loath to ask what he was about to. It might stop the touching, the comfort, the sweet humming that seemed to vibrate through him.
“What’s up?” Jace asked as the lift doors closed behind them.
Jace had turned and taken both of Khoth’s hands in his and was gazing up at Khoth with an eager--if slightly exhausted--smile on his face. Khoth didn’t want that smile to fade one iota or for more tiredness to seep into that expressive face.
“I… we… should begin as we mean to go on,” Khoth said.
Jace tilted his head to the side and blinked. “Ah, okay? I’m not tracking.”
“I believe you call it… PDF,” Khoth said uncertainly.
“PDF? You mean like the file type? Wait… no, you mean PDA! Public displays of affection!” Jace grinned, amused at his mistake.
“I thought it was public display of feelings.” Khoth frowned. Both seemed appropriate.
“Both works,” Jace agreed then he looked down at their clasped hands. “Ah, you mean should we do this when we’re out in public?”
Khoth nodded. “You intend to have many different species onboard the Osiris. Some will not understand such a relationship between us. Others will judge it. Others might approve, but I believe that discipline could be affected because--”
“We can’t have one rule for us and another for everybody else?” Jace filled in.
Jace sighed, but then nodded. “You’re right. We should keep it strictly professional outside of private areas.”
Khoth was surprised that Jace was so agreeable to this. He said as much, “I thought you would not agree as humans are…”
“Ruled by their Xis?” Jace grinned again.
Another nod. “And you are far more physically affectionate species than Thaf’ell.”
“I think you’re plenty affectionate,” Jace contradicted.
“Indeed, in private with our loved ones we are very affectionate for… for Thaf’ell,” he qualified.
He wasn’t sure exactly what the sliding scale was of affection between humans and Thaf’ell. He hoped that his discussion with Thammah led to their friendship being restored if only for the selfish reason that he could ask her about this and much more.
“My parents worked together most of their professional careers and also my mom was my dad’s boss for many of those,” Jace said. “So this isn’t weird to me to divide things like this.”
“Your parents work quite well together from my observations,” Khoth noted.
“Yeah, they do. They respect each other tons and love each other even more,” Jace said and a small, fond smile appeared on his lips. “I am sorry to part them. But I think my dad is going to be way too involved in his other love--flying--to mind too much. And Mom has to represent humanity so… yeah, they’ll both be busy.”
The lift doors whooshed open and the hallway to Jace and his quarters was straight ahead of them. Jace released both of Khoth’s hands and made to step out ahead of Khoth. Khoth felt like something had been ripped from him. A limb. An organ. Something essential. He immediately reached for Jace’s nearest hand and linked their fingers together. The moment their skin touched that terrible feeling of losing something eased. He was shocked by how his heart was thudding loudly in his chest. Jace’s eyes widened, but didn’t draw away. He knew that Jace wouldn’t. If he needed the young man, Jace would be there even if it caused people to think them unprofessional or worse.
Jace said, “I thought we were going to keep it professional outside of--”
“No one else is here yet,” Khoth found himself rushing out. “And I…” His head felt light again, freed of the selchilite, freed of any connections whatsoever.
“It’s okay, Khoth. You’re right. No one is here and--”
“I do not want to be a detriment to you,” Khoth said.
Jace blinked. “What? You’re not--”
“What we discussed in the elevator is wise. But I…”
Jace seemed to read more into what he felt than his inadequate words were getting across. He reached up and drew the back of his free hand down Khoth’s cheek.
“We’re alone. The Osiris is all ours. No one will disturb us,” Jace promised him. “You don’t have to control yourself. You don’t have to be strong here. You can be whatever you need to be.”
Khoth leaned down and rested his head against Jace’s forehead. His breathing was ragged. His heart was beating as fast as if he had been running. He felt ragged.
“I know I did the right thing,” Khoth whispered, “and I could not be happier than being here with you.”
Khoth swallowed. There was no judgment or disappointment in Jace’s expression.
“So why does it hurt so much?” Khoth asked and felt his eyes burn with tears.
Jace’s arms wrapped around him and the young man held him tight. “Because you love your mom and your dad and your people. I’m sure you loved your life, too.”
“Not like this. This feels right.”
“Change is hard, because there’s loss as well as gain,” Jace said as he stroked a hand down Khoth’s back, which was trembling. “Let yourself experience both, Khoth. Only then will you be able to go forward.”
Khoth’s eyes shut tightly. Tears slid down his cheeks. He held onto Jace. Jace held onto him.
And he let go.