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Silent Partners

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The first time he holds his foster-son, Terrence feels a surge of warmth in his breasts, and his womb, which he doesn't have. Of course, he has longed more ardently for motherhood, as Janine, than he ever did for fatherhood, as Terrence.

This one is Ethan's, and Quinn's, he tells her. But ours will come.

Silly, she says. He's ours enough.

Terrence once spent some time in the mind of a man who had lost an arm in battle. It had been fascinating—he had felt no difference between the left arm, which was solidly there, and the right arm, which wasn't. Ethan says it's a common enough phenomenon in amputees, and that it's called a phantom limb. Millisor, at the time, had been mostly interested in the question of whether and how torture might be applied to the missing part.

Terrence has a whole phantom person. She was his other self for so long, her pathways in his brain are so well-worn—he knows she's dead, of course. But telling himself that her presence in his mind isn't real is about as useful as telling himself, after an hour of telepathy, that he doesn't have a headache.

Ethan doesn't think that Terrence is crazy, or speaking metaphorically, when he talks about Janine. Ethan always takes things in his stride. "I wonder if it's a product of your peculiar circumstances," Ethan said, the first time Terrence tentatively brought up the subject, "or something all of our descendants will have to deal with? I should have made sure we got some good theoretical psychologists in our cultures. Or some good priests."

The idea that women might make good priests—or that any galactic might, the true religion only being found on Athos—is probably five kinds of heresy. Terrence didn't point that out.

The baby has a tuft of black curls, and his nails don't sit quite flush with the ends of his fingers, as if they've been bitten to the quick—a coincidental resemblance, surely. It's too soon to trace resemblances in the lines of his face, but Ethan's been collecting holos to send to Quinn on the next census ship practically since two cells became four. The petty crime doesn't bother him much, anymore, now that he's had a taste of the stronger stuff.

Terrence doesn't speak his fear aloud—his fear that the painstakingly collected holos, the carefully cryptic message, will be delivered to Quinn's grieving father instead. Will he be able to puzzle out their meaning? Will it bring him any comfort, if he does?

Terrence worries about Quinn out in the wide galaxy, pursued by Cetagandans and Bharaputrans and God-the-Father-knows-who-else, by this point. And he worries about small Eli, who will never know his mother, but who may have already inherited too much of her impetuousness, and not enough of her brilliance, or his father's good sense.

They spent a couple of months on Beta Colony, Terrence and Ethan, buying ovarian cultures that would never, Terrence thought at the time, be used. The scientist in Ethan was as fascinated by Betan culture as the prude in him was horrified, but Terrence didn't find much to like. The endless corridors reminded him of his childhood on Eta Ceta, and Beta Colony quickly took second place to Cetaganda on Terrence's list of Societies That Should Never Have Telepaths. They feel far too entitled to your personal business as it is.

But—the four of them, and their children, could have been a real family, on Beta Colony. If Ethan weren't quite so Athosian, and Quinn weren't addicted to danger, and Janine weren't dead.

Janine snorts, mentally. And the first two are about as likely as the last. She says it wistfully, because she's also felt the pull of that bright vision. She likes Ethan; of course she does. Terrence couldn't share his life with anyone whom she didn't. Let it go, she says.

Lost in his thoughts, and hers, Terrence doesn't notice Ethan coming up behind him until Ethan's arms are around his waist. Terrence startles, his heart races, his hands clench. Small Eli squawks, snuffles, and shifts. "Don't do that," says Terrence. "I might drop him."

Ethan rests his chin—still smooth, though not for long—on Terrence's shoulder, his cheek against his neck. Terrence slows his breathing and settles back against Ethan. "I've seen your reflexes in combat, remember?" says Ethan. "You won't drop him."

Terrence laughs. It's the most amazing thing, that Ethan can make him laugh. "It's just—he's so wonderful," says Terrence.

"Of course he is," says Ethan. "He's ours."