Maxwell stared at them both across the expanse of his desk, his expression one of slack-jawed shock.
“It can’t… it’s not possible.”
He was so distraught Keely was tempted to ease him gently with her power, make him feel more at peace, but she didn’t dare. He had to come to terms with this on his own. They all did. She herself felt gutted now that the shock had begun to wear off.
“I just don’t understand,” he finally finished, opening his hands in a gesture of helplessness.
West looked at him evenly. He still looked pale and wan, with dark circles under his eyes. His hands shifted against each other in his lap. They were trembling.
“I don’t, either,” he said. One hand rose hesitantly to his chest, rubbing there as if it were sore.
“Are you sure this memory wasn’t implanted somehow?”
West nodded. “I’m sure.”
Maxwell’s gaze swiveled to Keely, a raised eyebrow requesting her opinion.
She made a helpless gesture, not quite a shrug. “If it was implanted, why would it have been put behind such a solid barrier? If it had been put there as part of a frame-up, you’d think the person who implanted it would have wanted it to be easily accessible.” She hated the truth of her words, hated that she had to say them. More than anything else, she wanted a reason not to believe what she’d discovered. The truth that had nearly killed West. The truth that felt like it could kill her, tear her to pieces, if she let it touch her too deeply. The truth that made everything she had ever believed into a lie.
Maxwell’s frown deepened. He rubbed a hand over his face and sighed. “I have no choice, then.”
Keely said nothing. West was fading; his skin looked almost transparent. He wavered in his seat, and she reached out to steady him. His hand closed over hers in a desperate grip, clutching at her. Anger flared, unexpected, and Keely turned to Maxwell.
“Unfortunately, we won’t be able to help, not this time.”
Maxwell nodded. He could make no protest, she knew, not face-to-face with West’s weakness. He needed her now, needed her to help him heal. They could be no help to Maxwell now, not given what he had to do.
They could be no help against Pandora.
* * *
She put it out of her mind as best she could, helping West back to his room. He was still shaking, having insisted they go immediately to Maxwell without resting or waiting. It had been the right thing to do, of course, given the circumstances, but Keely knew he’d suffered for it.
He half-collapsed onto his bed with a gasping moan that sounded like pain. Keely sat next to him and gently removed his shoes and socks, unfastened his trousers, unbuttoned his shirt. She eased him out of them, leaving him lying on the bed in just his boxers.
“Feeling better?” she asked, hard-pressed to keep her voice light, but managing.
“A bit.” His hand moved, reaching, and she took it in hers. “I just… I can’t believe it.”
“I know.” She laid her other hand on top of his, holding him tight, anchoring herself to him. “I keep wanting to ask you if you’re sure.” She gave a bitter laugh. “But I know you are. I was there.”
He nodded. “And I’m still not sure.”
She looked at him, frowning, seeing the deep pain in his eyes, the pain of someone forced to betrayal where he had always intended loyalty. “What do you mean?”
“I don’t know. It just… it seems so wrong. Maybe that’s just because it’s so hard to believe.”
She nodded. “It’ll be okay.” She didn’t believe it. Nothing would ever be the same. Nothing could be okay, if Pandora had betrayed them.
“I don’t see how it can be.”
Blinking away tears, she looked into the deep emptiness in his eyes, let the emotions wash over her, accepting them as she would her own. Leaning forward, she brushed a soft kiss over his lips.
To her surprise, his arm rose to wrap around her, and he pulled her against him. She stretched out in the bed next to him, pressing against his bare skin. His mouth found hers, his kiss hesitant. Still, his lips moved against hers, promising passion she wasn’t sure his body could deliver.
He silenced her with another kiss, seeming to regain his strength with every moment he held her. His shaky hand rose, pulled at the buttons of her blouse, finally unfastening them. His fingers found her breast, the trembling in them easing as he cupped it.
“West… you’re hurt.”
“Hush.” He kissed her again, more firmly, as he moved her bra out of the way, one thumb pressing into her nipple. She made a small, demanding sound.
Then they heard it. A piercing wail of despair, filling every psychic channel, intense, pervasive, like a fist to the breastbone.
“Oh, God,” Keely breathed, and West pulled her close to him.
She could feel what was happening. She had no doubt anyone in the world with even a hint of telepathic power could also feel it. They had done what they had to do—incapacitated Pandora in the most straightforward way possible. Keely could feel the horror, the absolute despair as she was telepathically overcome. They would have had to have sabotaged her somehow, weakened her, to overcome her so thoroughly.
“West… God.” She couldn’t stand it—the pain and despair felt like her own. Images flashed over the emotions of bereavement, abandonment. They had tampered with the atmosphere in Pandora’s inner sanctum, diluted the necessary gases just enough to weaken her. She hadn’t realized what was happening until it was too late. Now the cadre of local telepaths, some from Applewood, some employed by local government agencies, moved in on her, bringing her powers under control, ruthlessly blocking off her mind, enclosing her in an isolation so complete –
The images and emotions cut off, leaving Keely weeping. Her own surroundings slowly came back to her, West’s hands caressing her, his lips against her skin.
“God…” Keely could still feel the broken anguish, the sense of complete isolation. How could Pandora possibly endure that?
West stroked her hair, quieting her. “Don’t. We both saw the same thing.”
His mouth moved against her neck, and she focused on the sensation. He was distracting himself this way, she knew. Distracting them both. As she turned her attention to him, everything else fell away.
He pushed her shirt back, nearly off her, his hands finding her breasts, caressing her with still-trembling fingers. She let him roll her closer to him, her bare skin pressing against his. As his mouth again covered hers, as she moved against him, fingers digging into his back, the pain and fear faded.
She could feel him strengthening by the second, both physically and mentally, his body moving against hers with firmer certainty. His breath came quick and labored at first, gradually settling to a more normal pattern.
Soon they were both naked, warm and needy in each other’s arms. The intrusive wide-band signal from Pandora had faded. Keely didn’t want to think about what that meant; only that it left her in peace.
West seemed to be healing moment by moment under her touch, each second bringing him closer to wholeness. Reaching toward him with her powers, she could literally feel his mind stitching itself back together. Certain he was on the mend and no longer in need of her monitoring, she drew back, focusing her attention on herself, on enjoying his touch and prompting his arousal, rather than on trying to use her abilities. She could be normal for a time; a normal woman in her lover’s arms.
He rolled her to her back and braced himself over her, elbows trembling. Her legs opened beneath him, his hips moving forward between her thighs. His face as he looked down at her still seemed haggard, gray under the eyes, his lids red-rimmed. Glimmers of the pain he’d experienced still lingered all around the edges of his consciousness, a sort of background ache. She reached up to stroke his face, bringing with the gesture a tacit offer to soothe his pain.
He bent to kiss her deeply, and she could hear his unspoken answer—no. He wanted just to be human right now, with no hint of the powers they each held or the consequences of having and using those powers. Just man and woman, coming together in a primal dance of need.
His hand moved between them, fingers pressing against her mons, then down, sliding over her clit. She gasped at the contact, gasped again as his fingers probed deeper, sliding inside her. West broke off the rough kiss, and he whispered next to her ear, “I love you.”
She mouthed the words back to him, sincere but not quite able to vocalize her feelings. He didn’t seem to mind. His tongue traced the edge of her cheekbone as his fingers slid free of her vagina and his hard cock moved to take its place.
He slid inside her, sweet and deep, a glide that took him all the way to her womb. Her head tipped back, a throaty exclamation coming from her. West’s body settled against her, and he began to thrust, taking her harder and deeper with each movement, yet touching her face with such gentleness she thought she might weep.
She came in a white-hot fire of sensation and felt him reach the edge only moments later. His hand closed tight on hers, there on the mattress, as he emptied himself deep inside her.
She held her powers back, but could still sense his emotion; strong, pure love pouring over her like water. At the touch of the deep emotion, tears sprang to her eyes, then she felt them roll hot down her face.
“It’ll be all right,” West said gently, kissing her.
She nodded, but he was wrong. They had taken Pandora into custody, for acts of sabotage and deception the likes of which no one had ever seen before in the aberrant community. She had betrayed her people.
It would never be okay, and nothing would ever be the same again.
Pandora’s People 3: Pandora
Accused of masterminding a plot to eliminate aberrants from society, Pandora struggles to find out who is actually behind the dark, covert operation and clear her own name. Along the way, she’s reunited with an old lover and uncovers secrets about the origins of the aberrants.
See the full posting schedule of the Pandora’s People series here. (Subject to change due to Horrible Illness, excessive involvement in the Stanley Cup Finals, or deadlines from other publishers.)
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