Alex’s preference is to speak on the phone. Because Alex’s preference is not to be touched. Blame his proper British upbringing. Blame his distant father and his absent mother. Blame boarding school. Blame the first boy he kissed, who never spoke to him again. Blame the first girl he kissed, who started signing her name Mrs. Alexander Dane the next afternoon. Blame a devotion to his craft. Blame Alex, he would not argue. He may well take it as a compliment.
Alex holds the world -- the universe, for Alex knows the universe is far wider and more populous than just this world. Our world. His world. Earth. Earth is very small, it turns out. Too small, Alex would say. Alex does say: The Earth is too small for all the personalities that inhabit it. It requires far too much touching.
Alex holds the world, the universe, at arm’s length. Or, preferably, out of arm’s reach entirely. Gwen worries, sometimes or often or once in a while, when she thinks of it, Gwen worries he must be lonely. He doesn’t have a family, except for her, and her’s. He doesn’t have friends except for her, and her’s. Gwen worries, sometimes, or often, he doesn’t have enough.
But Alex does not worry. Alex is an old soul and he has been since he was twelve or eight or five or perhaps since was born. Alex is a philosopher. And a scholar. And an artist. Alex has books. Alex has Shakespeare. Alex has the stage. Alex, though he would be loathe to admit it to anyone except maybe Gwen, once in a while, when he wants her not to worry, has Galaxy Quest.
At the height of the show’s popularity Alex could have anyone. And he did. Girls, mostly, vapid and silly and simpering, mostly, named Candy or Jenni-with-an-i or, memorably, Bitsy. He was nearly certain Bitsy was the name she decided was most British sounding even though it hardly sounded British at all to Alex. And he didn’t like British women anyway, not since Mrs. Alexander Dane. It may sound unfair, to dislike an entire country’s worth of women based on one clingy eleven year old, but there it is.
Boys, too, some, few, but they were more discreet. No Bitsys with her made up name and pretend accent.
Alex doesn’t know any of their last names. Not now, not then. He prefers not to know. Alex is very clear about his preferences.
Some things changed, after the incident, as Alex describes it. When he describes it, which he doesn’t, often, but does, sometimes. Gwen would say, and she would be right, he became more closed off than ever. He became, strangely, more alien. His work as Dr. Lazarus improved. He was, strangely, or not, who knows with Hollywood, even more popular than before. He was older, but as a man, and British to boot, it leant him gravitas. Or no, he'd always had gravitas. It made him sexy.
He could have anyone, again. And did, again. But anyone wasn’t who he wanted. Anyone was who he used to avoid wanting. After the incident some things changed. Gwen and Jason were suddenly, strangely, Gwen and Jason. Alex wanted to be happy for them, and he was, sometimes, often, sometimes. But Alex also wanted.
When Matthew was born something changed again. Gwen belonged to Jason and Jason belonged to Gwen and Matthew belonged to them both and Alex… Alex vowed to never have a son. Before Matthew it was a preference. After Matthew it was a promise.
When Matthew was three, Jason left.
When Matthew was nine, Alex’s phone rang.
“You’ve heard about the new film.”
Yes, of course he had. Against all logic Galaxy Quest was returning again. Again again. And not with the oft discussed spin-off series that never quite made it into fruition but with a big budget action movie extravaganza. In 3D in all likelihood. And IMAX and digital… whatever. A movie. A Galaxy Quest movie.
“Yes,” answered Alex. “Of course.”
“It’s an exciting project.” The caller said the word exciting as if it were an exciting word to say!
“Exciting,” Alex repeated. Alex said the word exciting the way he said the word napkin.
Alex hoped there was a purpose to this call beyond reminding him why he’d retired. “I expect so.”
“We have a great kid to play Lazarus.”
Alex hoped the purpose of this call was not to force him into appearances endorsing the Galaxy Quest movie he’d intended to ignore. He had retired. “Kid?”
“We’re starting at the academy, early on in the timeline, before the series begins.”
“I see,” said Alex though he didn’t. He also didn’t care.
“Look, it’s a really exciting script.” Exciting!
“Yes, you said so.” Napkin. Napkin holder.
“I want you to read it. I’m sending a courier now.”
Alex raised an eyebrow. It was the first interesting thing he’d heard. “Are all of us expected to weigh in?”
“All of you?”
Alex frowned at the phone. “The original cast.”
“Oh, no, no, no.” The words tumbled out of the phone as if over a waterfall. “No. Ha. I shouldn’t be so coy!”
Alex said nothing.
“Read the script. There’s a part for you.”
Alex said nothing.
“It’s a great part.”
Alex shook his head, momentarily forgetting he was on the phone. Momentarily forgetting he preferred it. “I’ve no interest in playing the ‘kid’’s father or teacher or --” Or whatever embarrassing role they wanted to give him! “-- I’ve no interest.”
“Read the script. Then we’ll talk.”
“I’m retired,” Alex protested.
Alex was still, considering. He could hang up. He could reject the package. He could flee the country.
No, no he’d never do that.
Gwen would tell him to read it. He could hear her, in his head, telling him to read it. And beneath her voice, another, quieter and louder at once. Far away but always there, when he wanted to listen, which he didn’t -- ever -- except when he did.
It said, with a smile that came through in the inflection, The show must go on.
Damn you, he told the voice in his head.
“Very well,” he told the voice on the phone.
“Great! Talk soon.”
“Great,” Alex repeated but he’d already hung up.
One side of Alex wanted to ignore the script, and the phone, for at least three days. To make them work for him. Another side of Alex wanted to read it and reject it quickly so he could move on with his life. In the end, that side won. At least the read it part.
She was his first call, always.
“I need advice.” He took a breath, intending to start the story with the phone call out of the blue but Gwen interrupted with an answer.
“You should do it.”
“How do you know--?”
“I’ve read the script.” There was satisfaction in her voice. Gwen loved to surprise him.
“I was under the impression it is all very hush hush.”
“It is,” she answered, still satisfied, still surprising: “I have a vested interest.”
Alex frowned. “As the widow?”
She paused before answering. “No.” Her voice was as flat as it had been animated just seconds before.
“I didn’t take it that way,” Gwen answered, lying, because it was easier.
“All right,” Alex agreed, because it was easier.
“You should do it.”
“I’m retired,” protested Alex, as if he hadn’t called her to talk him into it.
“An actor never retires,” countered Gwen, the smile returning to her voice.
Gwen took a breath. “I want you to do it.”
That was a tactic Alex was not suspecting. “Why?”
“They want Matty for Laredo.”
“That’s why I got to read the script,” she explained. “They want my son to be in their movie.” There was a distinct edge to her voice now, but it was not directed at him. “Well, they want Jason’s son to be in their movie.”
Alex wished, briefly, he didn’t prefer speaking on the phone. He wished he could see her. “Does he know?”
“They approached him first.”
“Bastards.” It was the only polite response.
He wished he could see her. He wished he was there. “Gwen, I’m so sorry.”
He heard her take a breath. “He wants to do it, Alex. He’s desperate to do it. I’d feel much better if you were there, too.”
Alex was quiet a long moment. He’d called her to talk him into it. To get permission to be the only original cast member in the Galaxy Quest movie. Now his sense of validation was tainted. They want Jason’s son to be in their movie. Alex was, again, always, second best.
“Of course.” There was no question. “Gwen. Of course.”
Silence grew between them, as it often did. In the silence he imagined touching her. As he often did.
“Does Tommy know?” he asked to kill the silence.
“I don't know.”
Alex frowned. “Are we worried about controversy?”
Gwen laughed. Alex smiled to hear it. “Often.”
“I mean... whitewashing the cast,” he explained.
“Well, they're flipping Tawney's race, too.”
“Tawney?” That was unsuspected.
“Really.” He couldn’t quite wrap his head around it. Tawney was Gwen. Laredo was Tommy. Now, Laredo would be Matty and Tawney will be...
“Yes. Tawney will be black.”
“Isn't that ironic,” Alex answered, on cue. It was an old joke between older friends, at Jason’s expense. He’d loved Alanis -- unironically, ironically -- and threw the phrase around the set constantly.
“Only if you understand the word,” Gwen countered, on cue. They’d decided neither Jason nor Alanis did. And all these years later it still made them laugh.
The kid -- not Matty, the kid playing Lazarus, the kid playing him -- did not immediately remind Alex of himself. He looked like him, maybe, superficially. But there was none of the gravitas that Alex held even all those years ago when the show first started. The kid was -- well, he was a kid.
The kid’s name was Blake, which is a name Alex hadn’t realized real people had. Blake was a soap opera name and soap opera was something Alex counted even below science fiction in terms of acting. Blake was twenty three, which seemed ridiculously young, though Alex realized Gwen had been that young when they began and Tommy, of course, had been a child. But Alex was ten years older than Gwen. Twenty three was ridiculous.
And he wasn’t British. He was from Oklahoma. Alex had lived in the United States for forty some years but he wasn’t entirely certain he could place Oklahoma on a map. Twenty three year old Blake from Oklahoma was to be the new Dr. Lazarus. Alex wondered what that said about the role that had defined his acting career. Alex wondered what that said about the role that had defined his life. Alex wondered what that said about Alex.
“It's an honor to be... Well to be you, sir.”
Alex glanced at Blake’s outstretched hand and eager smile. No, not eager. Earnest. He pursed his lips. “Hardly.”
Blake looked confused. And desperately young. “No, I... I mean it. Sir.” The hand started to droop. Blake started to droop. Alex was reminded, very suddenly, of another young man with an odd name who was desperately young and desperately earnest. He caught Blake’s hand in his own and placed his other on Blake’s elbow, to steady him.
“Thank you,” he answered and shook his hand. Blake smiled and looked nothing like Alex but even more like Quellek. “I will endeavor to live up to the honor.”
Chloe was also not much like Gwen. She was darker, yes, but that wasn’t it. She was tiny. Gwen was a head taller, at least, and Chloe was all angles where Gwen was all curves.
“Why don't you have any kids?”
Alex blinked, not certain he’d heard correctly. “Hm?”
“Kids.” Chloe smiled. “You're good with Matt.” She’d been watching. “Or ...is he enough?” She’d been watching.
Alex blinked again. It wasn’t a question he was accustomed to answering. Or pondering. He didn’t have relationships, how would he have children? Children would require a great deal of touching.
But Chloe was still watching. And still smiling.
“I suppose I never got around to it.”
Chloe waited, hoping for an answer to her addendum. Alex frowned and attempted to change the subject.
“Never got around to a lot of things.”
Chloe laughed and her whole face lit up. Alex raised an eyebrow. He didn’t think he’d said anything particularly funny. More along the lines of self-pity. Hm. Perhaps she was right to laugh at him.
“Eh, you're still young.”
Alex laughed and Chloe’s whole face lit up again. “Thank you for saying so Miss Winter.”
“Chloe,” she insisted.
“Chloe,” he accepted.
She laughed again. “I mean it. All that British charm.” She rolled the rrrs. A purr. Alex found it -- frightening.
“Are you flirting?”
She bounced up on her toes and still he had a full head of height on her. “Absolutely.”
Alex stood completely still and silent.
Chloe giggled. It was brighter even than the laughter. “You're adorable.”
“Utter confusion is cute?”
She shook her head, still bouncing. “Adorrrrrable.”
“I see,” said Alex, though he didn’t.
Chloe giggled. Alex pursed his lips, unable to answer, afraid to move. Chloe touched a finger to his arm. He thought he should flinch, but he didn’t. Maybe she was not so different from Gwen after all.
“Someone locked your heart up a long time ago, huh?”
Alex frowned, startled. But she was called to the set before he could answer.
Bill was beautiful in a way Jason had never been, not even when he’d been young. Jason had been manly. Bill was pretty. Pretty and also cocky, which was very Jason like. Peter was the main character Lazarus Prime, as Alex’s role was referred to, interacted with. Alex would have preferred to work with Blake or Chloe. Or Matty. But the show must go on.
“Is it weird?”
Alex raised an eyebrow. “Weird?”
Bill knocked his head in the direction of the set. Blake and Chloe and the director were going over the scene where Lazarus and Tawney are revealed as a couple. Chloe was being directed to invite an embrace, slowly pulling Blake into her space. Although the relationship was to be already established, it was important that Tawney initiate the contact. Dr. Lazarus does not like to be touched.
“The love story. Tawney and Laz. Was that ever a thing?”
“I…” Alex blinked, more disturbed to hear him referred to as Laz than anything. “No.”
“Yeah, I didn't think so.” Bill dropped his voice. “How about you and Gwen?”
Alex blinked again. “What? No.”
“I believe I would remember.”
Bill grinned. “Remember, sure. Admit it? Maybe not.”
He winked. Alex’s eyes grew wide. Behind Bill Chloe tipped her lips up toward Blake, inviting. Alex turned away with deliberation.
“If you'll excuse me.” But he got only steps away.
“Oh, hey, hey.” Bill planted himself in front of Alex. “Hey, sorry.” Alex moved to walk around but Bill moved with him. “No, really, sorry. I just... I thought I saw something.” Alex wanted to be anywhere else but Bill was more in his space than the script required Tawney to be in Lazarus’s. “I was wrong. I get it.” He clapped Alex’s shoulders. Alex flinched. Bill dropped his hands and took a step quickly back. “And I overstepped my boundaries. I, uh, I ... I do that.” Alex said nothing. “Frequently.” Bill held a hand out. “Apology?” Alex glanced at the hand, still and strong with all the confidence Blake lacked. He shook it, eyes up to meet Bill’s eyes. They twinkled. “Accepted! Great. Thanks.”
Alex had no idea how to respond so he didn’t.
“Look.” He nodded toward the set again. “We won’t be needed for a while. You want to get some coffee?”
Alex had no idea how to respond so he didn’t.
“I kinda want to pick your brain.” Alex said nothing. Bill blew air over his teeth. “A lot of this script is really... Well, the whole show, really... It depends on the central relationship between Dr. Lazarus and Captain Taggart. Do you know what I mean?”
Alex sighed. “I follow.”
Bill’s face lit up. Alex sighed again and motioned toward the cafe. “Right! So my question....”
Four hours later, Alex was pounding on Gwen’s door. Worry filled her eyes as she opened the door.
“Is everything okay?”
Alex stopped pounding and started pacing. “Bill wanted to know about -- about Lazarus and Taggart -- and Alex and Jason.” The words tumbled out between gulps of air. “He wanted to know about Jason.”
Gwen looked him up and down, taking in the Lazarus prosthetic, the uniform shirt tucked under a cardigan, the red rimmed eyes. “Have you been drinking?”
He shook his head. “Not enough.”
Gwen motioned him inside and sent him to the sofa. He dropped into it and willed the room to stop spinning but it wasn’t listening. Gwen placed a tumbler in his hand. Scotch, he imagined and gulped. It was at least more comforting than the air.
“Alex, what’s wrong?”
He met her eyes. “He said there were rumors.”
Gwen laughed, or at least attempted to. “There are always rumors.” Alex said nothing. “It’s a hundred years ago, it doesn’t matter.”
“I googled,” he croaked.
Gwen laughed again, more genuinely than before. “What did you find?” Alex dropped something that looked like pages from a script in between them. Gwen picked it up. “What is this?” She scanned a few lines. “Fanfiction? You printed out fanfiction?” Alex said nothing. He looked miserable. Gwen flipped through the pages, reading sentences here and there. She realized something. “Alex, this isn’t about Taggart and Lazarus, it’s about…”
Mischief started to overtake the worry in her eyes. “Is it good?” Alex made a face. “Is it dirty?”
“Alex!” she mimicked. He shot her a glare and she shot it right back. “You show up on my doorstep with a file of smut about my ex-husband and my best friend and I’m being improper?” Alex looked pained and downed the rest of his scotch. Gwen’s eyes softened. “I think you should -- be pleased! It’s expression. It’s art. It’s fun. It’s--”
Gwen blinked. “Sorry?”
Alex swallowed. “This -- this account -- it happened.”
Gwen shook her head. “What do you mean ‘happened’?”
“I … it was like reading a page from a diary.”
“You….” She looked at the pages in her hand. “You….” Her hand shook and she dropped the -- account -- suddenly, violently, as if it threatened her. It did. “My ex-husband and my best friend?”
“Yes!” Alex shouted. “Yes, catch up.”
“Catch up?!” She stood, her hands balled into fists. He wondered if she would hit him. He wondered if he wanted her to.
“Gwen! You’re missing the point!”
She shook head and fists and body at him. “I really don’t think I am! I think the point is someone owes me an apology!”
“It wasn’t --” Alex stopped and took a breath. “It was before the incident,” he explained as calmly as he could. “Before… you.”
Gwen held his eyes for a long moment. Finally she dropped back next to him, sinking into the cushions as he had when he’d first arrived. “Oh.”
Alex took another breath. He reached for her hand. “However. I apologize.”
She shook her head and he didn’t push it. She gave his hand a squeeze. “So what’s the point?”
Alex leaned in, to whisper, as if the answer threatened her. It did. “It’s from Jason’s point of view.”
It took all night to convince her but he did.
“This is insane.” Mostly convince her.
“I know,” answered Alex, because she was right.
“This is the most insane thing I have ever agreed to doing.” She was pacing between the edges of the domed parking area and the open parking area; the light danced around her body.
She stopped pacing long enough to glare. “Fine.”
Silence grew between them as it often did.
“Thank you.” He spoke so quietly she wasn’t certain she hadn’t imagined it. But Bill arrived before she could answer.
“Hey! Tawney Prime! You coming too?”
Gwen raised both eyebrows. Bill was a lot to take in. “...No.”
“Just seeing us off?”
Bill grinned. “Cool.”
“You….” Gwen stopped. Maybe she wasn’t sure how to end the sentence. Or maybe she thought she shouldn’t.
“...are very well cast.” Bill’s grin widened and he winked at Alex. Alex did his best not to roll his eyes. Gwen looked between them, worry growing. “Alex, I don’t have to tell you--”
He met her gaze directly. “You don’t have to tell me anything. Discretion is my middle name.”
“Alexander Discretion Dane?” asked Bill. “Hey! A-D-D!”
Alex and Gwen stared but were saved from coming up with a response by the arrival of Blake.
“Ms. DeMarco, I was not expecting you.”
“I’m not going. I’m just … here.” She brushed her hair back with a weary hand. It had been a long night. “Are we waiting for anyone else?”
“Me! Hello!” Chloe answered brightly.
Gwen blinked. “Hello.”
“Chloe. I’m you!” Gwen blinked again. “You’re really tall.”
“Or you’re really short,” suggested Bill with another, annoying, wink.
Alex clapped his hands for attention. “Everyone. Please. Thank you for coming at such short notice.”
Blake nodded. Chloe gave a little salute. Bill slapped his back.
“Are you kidding? I’ve always wanted to be pulled out of bed in the middle of the night to meet in a parking lot for a super secret mission.”
Gwen pursed her lips. “You wanted to be a spy when you grew up, didn’t you?”
“It’s 10:30,” Chloe pointed out. “AM.”
Bill shrugged. “That’s the middle of the night if you go to bed at 7. AM.”
“People,” Alex said again.
“Right!” Bill clapped his hands, like Alex had. “Where’s the van?”
Blake and Chloe looked to Alex expectantly. He turned to Gwen.
“Alex… I’ll do this but… I want you to promise me something.” Alex frowned. He assumed she wanted a guarantee he wouldn’t bring up her son. Or ask Jason to come back. And he wasn’t prepared to agree to either. “Come back. Okay?” She stepped into his space, pressed her hands to his cheeks, cupping his face. He could feel her breath on his skin when she repeated, entreated, “Come back.”
Gwen nodded, stepped back, and pulled out the communicator. The three younger actors looked on with curiosity and some confusion, that amplified as she spoke. “This is Lieutenant Tawney Madison calling the SES Protector.”
The transport tubes were just as wrenching and gooey as he remembered. It was really an awful way to travel.
“Gwen!” Alex heard him before he saw him. “Gwen?”
Alex raised his eyes from the floor. Jason stood before the transporter stage, a wide smile on his face. He looked exactly the same as when he’d left. Almost exactly. His hair was shorter and there was less tension in his shoulders. As Alex watched, Jason realized who stood before him.
“Alex? Alex!” Jason pulled his old friend into a bear hug. Alex went very still, but he didn’t flinch. “They told me she asked for four pods but I wasn’t expecting you…” He took in three people behind Alex. Two men and a woman, three identical expressions of shock. “Any of you.” He looked back to Alex. “Where’s Gwen?”
“She has other things to attend to.”
Jason frowned. “Okay.” He nodded behind his friend. “Who are they?”
“Is that…” Bill started. “Are you…”
Jason smiled. “Commander Peter Quincy Taggart, at your service.”
“Peter Quincy Taggart isn’t real,” protested Chloe, though she didn’t sound entirely convinced at this moment in time.
“You got me.” Jason winked at her. Bill barely contained his glee. “Jason Nesmith.”
Chloe shook her head. “Jason Nesmith is dead.” She was starting to sound a bit hysterical right now.
“Well, not yet,” countered Jason.
Alex cleared his throat. “Jason, they’re doing a movie. Galaxy Quest, the movie.” He motioned Blake forward. He stepped off the transporter stage with some hesitation. “This is Blake Bell. He’s playing Dr. Lazarus.”
Jason looked from one Lazarus to the other and nodded approval as if he’d decided that was why they were there. Alex motioned to Chloe.
“Chloe Winter, our Tawney.”
Jason looked startled but kissed her hand. Alex motioned to Bill.
Bill jumped down from the stage and held a steady hand out to Jason, a wolf’s grin on his face.
“William Levine, sir. Hi.”
Jason looked him up and down. “You’re…”
Bill nodded. “Commander Peter Quincy Taggert, yes, sir.”
Jason glanced at Alex. “Wow.”
Chloe shook her head, suddenly, as if she thought he was the last one allowed to say ‘Wow’. “Is this a spaceship?” she screeched.
Jason nodded, smiling. Chloe looked at Alex.
“Yes,” Alex confirmed.
“We’re on a spaceship. In space.”
“Is that an alien?” She pointed behind them to a Thermian, though he wore the illusion of a human. Alex hadn’t noticed they weren’t alone. Jason tended to suck the focus of a room. And now there was Bill, too.
“Yes,” he answered Chloe.
“We’re on an alien spaceship!”
“Technically…” Jason started but when he caught Alex’s eye he nodded instead. “Yes.”
Chloe crossed her arms over her chest, hugging herself, and took a deep breath. “I need someone to explain.”
Jason nodded again. “No problem.” And he walked away from the four other humans to speak with his alien subordinate. Chloe watched with disbelief that turned to indignation as she looked to Alex for an explanation.
“Is this for real?”
Alex considered many different answers but settled on none and simply repeated, “Yes.”
“Okay!” Jason clapped get their attention. It was far more commanding than when Alex did it. “Bip here is going to show you three around, give you the nickel tour and a history lesson on Thermia.”
Bill clapped his hands in a reasonable imitation of Jason. Blake and Chloe looked to Alex for direction. He nodded and they followed Bip, if not without hesitation.
Jason motioned for Alex to come along and led him to a meeting room. Alex recognized it, from the show, from the last time he’d been on this ship. But Jason had personalized it in the meantime. There were plants and ...yes, fish. A painting of ...yes, fish again. And photographs. Alex recognized Gwen, and himself, the whole crew, the ship, Brandon, and Matthew, age three.
“Alex.” It didn’t sound like his name. It sounded like a recitation. “Alex! It is so good to see you.”
“It is so good to see you, too.”
Jason shook his head. “Really?”
Alex frowned. “Really.” This time Jason appeared to believe him.
“I’ve missed you.” He sat down at his desk, in front of the wall of photos. “All of you.”
Alex answered the unspoken question. “She’s well. As is Matthew. He’s in the movie.”
“The Galaxy Quest movie?” Alex nodded. “That’s amazing. That’s amazing, Alex!”
Alex said nothing. Jason waited.
“Yes,” Alex agreed.
Alex took a seat. “Bill has some questions.”
Alex nodded. He thought it should be obvious but he also thought Jason used the word ironic incorrectly. Therefore. “I thought he should meet you. I thought they should see ...this.”
Alex knew how it sounded. A four letter demonstrative pronoun could never fully encompass the meaning of the situation.
“You never did like ‘this’ as much as the rest of us did.”
Alex was caught entirely off guard. He’d forgotten how perceptive Jason could be when he wanted to be. “That’s not --- I don’t know.”
Jason nodded. It was enough of an answer for him. And he had other questions. “Why’d you come, why didn’t she?
Answers floated through Alex’s mind. Because he was in the movie and she wasn’t. Because she had a child and he didn’t. Because he wanted to and she -- she tried to talk him out of it. Because she’d moved on and he still had questions. All true, none right.
“You’re dead,” he answered. “On Earth. You know that? Dead and buried.” Jason sat back, but didn’t look away. “Fans… make pilgrimages to your grave.” Jason raised an eyebrow. “Gwen got a letter from one girl claimed she lost her virginity there.”
“On my grave?” Alex nodded. “Wow.”
Alex glanced at the photos. “It’s better for them, you know? For you to be dead.”
“For the fans?”
Alex shot him a look. “For Gwen and Matthew.”
Jason looked suddenly, finally, hurt. “He thinks I’m dead?”
“Aren’t you?” shouted Alex. Two words that dripped with six plus five plus eighteen years of anger. Jason’s hurt grew. Doubled.
He took a breath. “Do you want to come back?” Alex didn’t know what answer he wanted.
“I can’t now. It’s been…”
“Almost seven years.”
“Wow.” Alex pursed his lips. Jason turned to look at the picture of his son. He was a whole different person now. “Did you come here to bring me back? For my son?”
Answers floated through Alex’s mind. Yes. No. Yes. No. Yes. No. No. Yes. All right, none true. Tell the truth.
“I came here to see you.”
Jason shook his head. “See?”
Alex looked around the room, really looked this time. Everything here came from Earth. Everything except the ship itself. “You’re … happy.”
Jason watched Alex take in his surroundings. “Here? Yeah. Yeah, I am. I…” He shrugged. “I uh, belong here.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Sure you do. Alex.” Jason opened his hands wide. “You of all people understand.” Alex shook his head. “When you’re on stage, right before the lights go up, how do you feel, in that moment?”
“I don’t know, I don’t want to play--”
Jason touched his hand. “Alex. How do you feel?”
Alex glared. He knew the answer and he resented the question. “Free.”
“Free!” Jason threw his hands in the air. “That’s how I feel here. Nothing can stop me.”
Alex shook his head. It wasn’t enough. “But you had a family --! A wife, a son, friends. Fans! You had--” Everything. Everything Alex wanted. “--it all.”
Jason shook his head. “No, I didn’t have this.” There it was. The truth. “I want this.” And it was enough.
Alex sat back in his chair. He was tired and ready to go home. “You are a selfish bastard.”
Jason nodded. “They’re better off without me.”
“We…?” It was a question and not a question at once.
Alex sighed. “Do you remember your first kiss? As a boy?”
“…No.” Jason answered truthfully though he didn’t understand what it had to do with anything.
Alex nodded. Jason still didn’t understand the question but he was curious. “Do you remember yours?”
Alex nodded again. “I remember everything.”
Alex, Bill, Blake and Chloe spent 18 hours on the SES Protector. Chloe spent the time trying to meet every single Thermian on board. Once the initial shock wore off she couldn’t get enough of them.
Bill gleefully shadowed Jason through his daily routine.
Alex took Blake to crew quarters and told him about Quellek. They recited a “Mak’tar” poem of remembrance Alex had -- anonymously -- commissioned from a fan ten years before when he’d decided it was what his protégé deserved.
Gwen was waiting when they returned. She welcomed Alex with a hug. He closed his eyes, breathed in the scent of her hair, and returned it. Chloe giggled. Bill winked. Blake simply watched.
Gwen stepped back, smiling, the sun making her hair brighter than ever. “Did you get what you needed?” she asked, including all four. Chloe and Blake nodded. Bill clapped his hands in a perfect imitation of Jason. Gwen laughed before raising an eyebrow toward Alex.
Gwen nodded. “How do you feel?”
Alex took a deep breath of Earth air. He stepped into her space, pressed his hands to her cheeks, cupping her face. She could feel his breath on her skin when he answered, “Free.”