Sam was holding our daughter, Samantha Eleanor, in her arms, sleeping soundly on the bench, braced against the wall.
Elle emerged from the bathroom, and I gave her an arm to steady on. “Come on,” she said, “we should go for a walk.”
“You sure you should be on your feet?” I asked.
“We don’t have to go far, I just…”
“I get it,” I said. There was something in the air; I wasn’t sure if it was what she’d said, earlier or not, but the question had certainly lingered for me. “You never did tell me what your most painful moment was,” I said, as she wobbled down the hall towards the caf. “I imagine that machete you took to the clavicle had to make the top ten.”
“Nine,” she said. “I think the fourth is a tie. I got shot in the chest, once, a double-tap, the first of which weakened my armor enough the second bolt burned through; I took part of the shot in the areola. Parasites from the squid planet; similar pain, more diffuse, and coming from inside, where you don’t usually feel that kind of pain.”
“Okay,” I said, “but you’re going the wrong way.”
“I know. Because I’m not sure I can handle going the other way. Worst pain I ever felt…” she paused, and I could tell it wasn’t for effect, she really was having trouble saying the words, “was seeing you with Sam. Knowing… knowing that was it. You stopped looking at me like you look at her a long time ago.”
“Like what?” I asked, because I’d been taking flack from everyone on ship since we left our home solar system for the way I looked at Elle.
“Like, like a girl, I guess.”
“You’re not a girl, Elle. And you haven’t been for a long time. Hell, it’s hard to remember what that was even like.”
“You sure know how to flatter a lady.”
“That’s not what I meant. You have been the most competent person I’ve known my entire life.”
“And ‘girls’ can’t be competent?”
“You know that’s not what I meant, either. We were both young and naïve in the beginning; I thought of you as a girl then. But we had that innocence burned off us, in a way… Sam can’t. I don’t know if it’s a species thing, or if it’s just a part of who she is, but… there are parts of what we’ve been through, and what we’ve yet to, that she’ll never really intuit. She’ll support us, love us, help us through it; with the imprint she’ll even understand it on an intellectual level, maybe even an emotional one. But there will always be a softness to her, maybe even a naivete.” I was struggling to articulate the idea. “Like,… she never hated Jacob. It’s not just- it wasn’t only her trying to protect me from myself, when the two of you tried to distract me from what he’d done to her. He hurt her, violated her in ways that are hard to even fathom-”
“No they aren’t,” Elle said, touching my arm; “we’ve both imprinted with her.”
“Right. My point was she didn’t hate him. Maybe even couldn’t. And that’s probably healthier. Saner. And likely a recipe for a better, less violent world. And I know that’s… it’s not fair, or even as binary as it sounds. But Sam is… the way things ought to be. And you, you’re the way we have to be if we ever have a hope of getting there.”
“I don’t like hurting people,” Elle said, her voice halfway to a sob.
“I know,” I said, moisture sliding down my face. “I wouldn’t love you like I do if you did. And it really isn’t a competition. I’m not saying you’re the pragmatic one and she’s a naïve peacemonger, or the reverse. Without security, there can be no peace; without the hope of peace, security can’t be maintained. They’re all part of a whole.”
“I really wish I could be enough.”
“And even saying it aloud I feel like an asshole, because it is both so much more complicated than that, and so much less so. If we’d hooked up before you met her, or if you knocked me up after your relationship ran its course, I don’t think any of this would be complicated. And I’ve imprinted with Sam, I know… I’ve felt her in a way that no other person in our species could understand, and in the oddest way that makes me closer to you, too. And through her I know I’ve seen you, felt you, known you deeper even than I ever thought possible. That’s why I have no interest in your Drone; he isn’t the you I fought beside, nearly died with, fell in love with, or know down to my core through Sam. He isn’t you.” Her breath came out ragged, and I stroked her cheek. “She’s practically a part of our relationship, too. So I know what you mean, when you say it’s like trying to separate pieces of you. But I think there will always be a part of me that’s hurt that I couldn’t be enough.”
“Could I?” I asked.
“Just, hypothetically. Let’s say, Samantha gums her way through Sam’s throat in the night. You and I go back to a vanilla, human existence. There’s no way to maintain the level of intimacy we’ve had, without imprinting; there’s nowhere for our relationship to go but down. Maybe that’s enough- maybe. But it would always be less. Could we still make each other happy? Probably. You were always really bendy, and, sweeter than anyone really ever knew- when you choose to be. But it would always be wanting, missing that subtle bit more.”
“Fuck,” Elle said.
“I’m pretty sure that’s what got us into this whole mess,” I said, realizing we’d circled back into the medical wing.
“This whole mess being your daughter?” Elle asked, as we both stared lovingly down at her.
“She takes after her mother.”
“She really is beautiful, isn’t she?”
“Sure,” I said, “but I wish she could be a bit more humble about it.”
“Nice legs. Pretty face. The whole package, really.” “Nice save.” Elle rested her head against my shoulder and sighed, looking at Sam holding our daughter. “They look good together. Like they belong like that.”