Resisting Maxu: Chapter 17


Music floated through the gorgeous cylindrical room, melting Meg’s stress away. Many of the cities she’d been to hadn’t played music when they had gatherings like this, feeling it was distracting to conversation and connection. But she loved it. The soft, sultry melodies sounded as if they were created with an odd mixture of wind and string instruments.

Meg missed very little from Earth, but lately she’d been missing music more and more. She’d even resorted to singing when she was on her own. She sang quietly so no one would hear since she had a terrible voice, but it made her feel more normal.

In the last few days, the songs that had bloomed in her mind had been sappy love songs, and she knew exactly why, though her feelings were more confused than ever.

“I think our interviews went very well today,” Kel, one of the Queen’s representatives, said once again. Why was he so interested in confirming that? She studied his eager expression as he nodded toward the group of Adenelese surrounding her, as if hoping they would nod back.

The interview had been successful. Meg and the other humans had finally found their footing, knowing which answers were most helpful and which weren’t. They’d also figured out how to include harder truths about what reactions humans might have to aliens, while still leaving the people satisfied and hopeful.

“I found Meg’s description of ballallies particularly interesting. Could you tell us more, Meg?” Kel stared at her with an expression so keen it almost looked panicked.

Meg had half a mind to hand him her drink so he could calm the fuck down, but she wouldn’t call out his weird behavior and embarrass him in front of this group of nice people. “Bowling alleys,” she corrected slowly with a polite smile. During the interview, she’d been asked again about how courting worked, and in her explanation of dates, she’d listed a few common activities, including bowling. No one had ever asked for elaboration on bowling before, but the concept of the game seemed to fascinate the Adenelese. “So, at a bowling alley you have lanes and heavy balls.” Meg’s focus drifted to Daunet, who’d halted two impatient men standing on the periphery of the ten-person group she’d been escorted to.

The appearance of the men wasn’t what had her stomach somersaulting, though. In the background, leaning against a wall in a quiet corner, sipping an electric-blue drink and staring, was Maxu. The gentle glowing pinks, blues, and oranges of the wall anemone lit the side of his face, casting the other side in shadow.

The men Daunet had halted joined the group, replacing the ten others who had been there. Whoever they were must’ve been important, but Meg couldn’t focus on anything but the dark, heated expression oozing from Maxu.

When Kel asked her something she didn’t catch, Meg held up a finger. “I’m so sorry. I’ll be right back.” She smiled, dispersing polite nods, then maneuvered past the group.

Her palms sweat as she got closer. He looked unbearably handsome tonight, his skin tinged bronze from the sun. His shirt was a style she’d seen often in Adenelas. A long piece of fabric wrapped across his chest and shoulders asymmetrically, allowing a sliver of his right pec to be seen before cinching at his waist.

Meg smoothed the intricate pleats of her dress as she approached. His eyes never left her, and when she was within a few feet, he finally lifted from the wall.

“Hey” was all she could manage to say.

“Hello,” he answered back. They stared for a few awkward seconds.

She wanted to bring up what had happened and ask how he felt about it. Maybe knowing would help her make sense of her own thoughts. But what was she supposed to say? I’m terrified of being in a relationship with someone because I’m just now finding out who I am and if I’m with you, I might lose that again.

“What are you doing over here?” she asked instead.

He glanced around the room and then took a sip of his drink. “I’m doing what you asked.” His words were a little tight, rough. So different from the gentle way in which he’d whispered to her in his room. Her heart took a step back.

She pushed past his tone. “Would you like to join us?” She gestured to the waiting group of Adenelese, and her focus caught on them for a moment. They all studied her while leaning to speak to each other. Gossips existed on all planets, it seemed.

Maxu frowned at the three men. His green eyes were fixed in place, but she could see his mind working, his jaw clenching and unclenching. He was bothered again, upset, and closed off.

“Is everything alright?” she said after building the courage. “Last night—”

He cut her off. “You better get back to them before your handler keels over.”

“Handler?”

He stepped toward the group, waiting for her to follow in a detached sort of way. Her chest hollowed, but she plastered a smile on her face and trailed him, promising herself that after the party was over, she’d force him to sit down with her and have a genuine conversation.

They were greeted by wide smiles and enthusiastic congratulations from the taller of the two Adenelese men as if she and Maxu had announced their engagement. Both newcomers gave her and Maxu a dramatic sweep of their hand, the Adenelese version of a wave hello or a handshake. Meg returned the gesture, while Maxu gave a halfhearted flick of his wrist before stuffing one fist into his pocket. Her brows knit. Was she imagining it, or was he hiding his hand?

“Hello, Meg. Calm seas and luck are with us. My name is Galuvin.” The taller man with curly red hair, long sideburns, and kind peach-colored eyes said. He pointed to the other man, who could have been Galuvin’s much shorter twin, except for the violet freckles covering every inch of exposed skin. “And this is Abrin. We were hoping to ask a favor of you.”

“Calm seas and luck are with me as well,” she said, almost forgetting to use the preferred greeting in her attempt to ignore Maxu’s imposing presence. He was just behind her right shoulder, posture as rigid as a statue. He couldn’t have been more distracting if he were doing jumping jacks.

“I’m sure Meg would be happy to grant you a favor,” Kel answered for her. The corners of Meg’s mouth twitched, almost curling into a frown. She hated when people did that.

Maxu shuffled behind her, and she inched over so he wasn’t at her back anymore. She had enough to stress over at the moment without being distracted by his body heat leeching into her spine as he hovered behind her.

“We’re part of the Adenelas team who researches fertility, and we were hoping to get a few samples from Meg before she leaves to expand our investigation.” Abrin held out a pad with scrolling script. “Perhaps you could have someone read this to you. These are the samples we’re hoping to take and what we’ll be using them for.”

Her fingers were rising when Abrin extended the pad not toward her but toward Maxu. Meg’s hand dropped like it had been zapped, her entire body stiffening. An irrational lump inflated in her windpipe.

This wasn’t the same as on Earth. They hadn’t given her Clecanian version of a husband a medical information sheet because they didn’t value her. They did it because they weren’t expecting someone from a Class Four planet to be able to read their writing yet. It was a perfectly logical assumption.

Knowing this in her mind did nothing for the tears threatening to spring to her eyes, though. She breathed through her nose, trying to get her emotions under control so she could explain she didn’t need anything read to her without her voice cracking.

Maxu snatched the pad out of Abrin’s hand. Meg’s heart shriveled a little more.

But then, without a moment of hesitation, Maxu handed the pad to her, glaring at the two men with a stare cold enough to freeze. “She can read it herself.”

Maxu spared her only the briefest of glances when she took the pad. She couldn’t look away.

“Apologies,” Abrin croaked. “I didn’t realize.”

“Yes, I…I…” Meg stammered, tearing her gaze from Maxu. She cleared her throat. Would they be able to see her pulse beating through her body? Because she felt like she was vibrating in time with her heart. “I can read Clecanian.”

It took her a while to comb through the lists of tests they wanted to run and samples they wanted to take, but it wasn’t because she had trouble deciphering the words.

Finally, her concentration kicked in and she truly assessed what they were looking for. It seemed alright. A little invasive, maybe, but it was for the good of the planet. It might be a frustrating few hours of answering questions and being prodded, but how could she say no when the information might help?

“I’m interested to hear your thoughts,” Galuvin pressed gently.

Meg was about to agree, but then she glanced at Maxu again. The image of Jeremy standing there and theories about how he’d react in the same situation turned her stomach. What would her mate say about this? It was her decision either way, but she was so curious to know what it would feel like to decide with a partner rather than having things decided for her.

“What do you think?” she asked.

Maxu gave her a funny look, as if he were confused who she was speaking to.

“I’d like to know,” she urged, holding the pad out to him.

He took it silently and read through the information on the screen. His jaw remained welded shut. When he was finally finished, he handed the pad back to her. “I don’t see anything that could harm you. I feel the way they asked was disrespectful, and it would be appropriate to offer you compensation for your time as they would any participant in a medical study, but otherwise…”

“Disrespectful?” Meg questioned.

Galuvin, Abrin, and Kel all huffed in agreement. “I’ve seen no disrespect, Meg,” Kel announced with a serious look at her.

Maxu let out a muffled growl. “Of course you don’t. You’re clearly using this as an opportunity to keep the cities satiated. I wouldn’t be surprised if you or the Queen offered the humans up for testing and then made a show of asking permission.”

Meg whirled on Kel. His pale face was growing redder by the second. “Is that true?”

“They asked you at the last minute, hoping you’d be pressured into agreeing. Why else wouldn’t they have asked the first day? And this contract?” Maxu continued, tapping on the screen with his finger and releasing an ominous chuckle. “If you believed she couldn’t read this, then why didn’t you bring a translation glass along with you?” He leveled Kel with a cold, accusatory glare. “And why don’t you know she can read? Shouldn’t you have some knowledge of the humans you’re traveling with and what skills they possess?” Maxu crossed his arms over his chest, dipping his head to Meg and cutting everyone out of the conversation. “I think what they’re trying to do isn’t without merit, but the way they went about it is disrespectful. If you want to do this, you should, but don’t let yourself be pressured into it.”

Meg looked at Maxu, really looked. Past his dark scowl and bruised knuckles. He was possessive and controlling, but not in the way she’d expected. He was on her side. She blinked at the ground for a moment, working out what she should do with the inexplicable knowledge that her mate was ready to support her decision. A wave of confidence had her lifting her chin toward the researchers. 

“Have you asked any of the other humans?” She handed the pad back to them.

Galuvin’s gaze flicked to Kel for an instant, and Meg knew Maxu had been right. She’d need to deal with that problem later. “We were going to speak with them next.”

Meg didn’t know whether to be offended by that. Had they approached her first, thinking she’d be the easiest to convince? Maxu was at her back again, and before she could stop herself, she’d backed up a step closer to him. “I’ll do it. But I want you to guarantee that if any other humans in my group are approached, you’ll give them a reading glass and you’ll offer them the same compensation as any other volunteer would get.”

With a slight grumble, the men agreed and gave her a much less enthusiastic swirl of their wrists as they left. She locked eyes with Daunet and found a restrained smile on her face, her eyes landing on Maxu for a moment. Meg could hear her telepathically issued, “I told you he was a good male,” as if Daunet had screamed it into her ear.

“We’d better get some more groups in to speak with you before you leave,” Kel said, clapping his hands together as if nothing had happened.

“She’s done enough tonight,” Maxu rumbled, tugging Meg away from the man.

She pressed a hand over Maxu’s, peering up at him. “That’s alright. I can handle a few more.”

His eyes locked on her fingers draped over his. Maxu remained still for a few tense seconds. A slight incline of his chin was his only response. He stepped back.

Kel let out a relieved breath and retreated, gathering a new group.

“You could have asked to be paid as well,” Maxu grunted when Kel was out of sight.

Meg shrugged. “I could have.” She leaned against the railing dividing the walkway from the enormous coral sprouting through the center of the building. “Honestly, though, I owe it to them. Each city gives us clothes and food and lodging. They throw us beautiful parties. I’ve been able to see amazing things like this.” She gestured to the fossil. “I feel dumb for not offering samples to every city. It’s the least I can do.”

“How noble,” Maxu grumbled, resting both elbows on the railing.

She chuckled. “You say that like it’s a bad thing. Won’t doing things like this be good for your planet?”

Maxu downed the dregs of his glass and licked his lips, staring out at the coral. “I’m not interested in what’s good for the planet. I’m interested in what’s good for you.” His eyes slid closed for a moment, as though he’d regretted saying that.

Since he refused to look at her, she grinned into the distance instead, swiping glances at him every few seconds as silence stretched between them. “It’s incredible, isn’t it?” Meg nodded toward the coral. The fossil itself was white and spotted with starburst patterns, but the light from the anemone and the bright moonbeams streaming in from above cast it in an otherworldly glow.

“I don’t see the appeal.” Maxu tipped his glass at it. “It’s useless. Millions of years ago, it may have been a home for countless sea creatures, but now? Nothing more than a rock.”

“Useless?” Meg breathed. “It’s beautiful, but more than that, it’s meaningful. These people built a shrine around this rock. It’s a shared treasure that bonds them.” When Maxu remained unmoved, she clicked her tongue. “I read that every five years the whole city comes together for a holiday, the Zoalin Week. They bring in a bunch of levitation platforms and this special sealant they make from the bones of all the creatures they’ve caught over that time. Then each citizen coats their hands and they work together to cover the fossil in that paste, to protect it. The youngest put their prints at the bottom to signify their position as the new backbone of the population, and the eldest place theirs at the top.” Meg grinned and pointed to the bottom of the fossil. “See. You can tell where the thick, sloppy bits made by children are.” Her grin faltered when she caught Maxu staring not at the coral but at her. “What?”

“Before I joined you, you were speaking to a male and his father. They described the Zoa and its history, and you didn’t stop them. Why didn’t you explain that you already knew?”

Meg eyed him. “How did you even hear that? You were so far away.”

“The mating bond has changed many things about me.” He stared into his empty glass. “Why let them ramble on about something you already knew?”

Meg chuckled and shook her head. “It wasn’t rambling. Didn’t you see their faces light up when they were talking about it? Just because I’ve learned about something or read an entry about it doesn’t mean I really know it. Listening to that old man try to point out where his son’s prints were…” She searched for the right words. “It’s like he transferred his love and enthusiasm into me.” She shook her head again. Memories of her shabby bookcase back on Earth flooded back to her. Worn-out library-sale encyclopedias and outdated coffee table books full of places she’d known she’d never get to travel to. “Believe me, you can read and read and read all there is to know about a place, but it will never come close to experiencing it.”

Brows furrowed in thought and head tilted ever so slightly, Maxu considered the fossil.

“If you really believed dead things like this don’t matter,” Meg began, voice dropped low, “you wouldn’t have collected all those pieces of junk and kept them in your room. To anyone else, my eating glove would be no more than trash.”

She held her breath, waiting for her words to settle. At length, the harsh crease between Maxu’s brows softened and he faced her. They stared at each other, the air pulsing around them. Say something, she wanted to scream.

His mouth opened, then closed. Meg leaned forward.

A group of Adenelese, led by Kel, swarmed, and her attention was torn away. By the time she looked back, his mask of indifference had returned.

Meg spent the rest of the party answering questions, chatting, sharing stories from Earth and listening to stories about the city. She marveled with her visitors about how similar some things were and how very, very different others were. All the while, Maxu remained silent and sturdy by her side. He’d refused to join in the conversation when she’d prodded, but she’d caught him smiling absently down at her a few times, though he always quickly looked away.

Eventually, Rita, Camille, and Tara approached, their guards trailing behind them. “We’re supposed to collect you and go to the Med Bay,” Tara explained.

Meg turned her back on the women and put a hand in the crook of Maxu’s arm. His attention flashed to her. She tugged until he finally bent forward, brows drawn in confusion.

“Thank you for tonight. Really, thank you.” She kissed his cheek, then joined her friends. When she looked back, his neck was still bent, frozen in place, and staring after her. With an embarrassed glance over his shoulder, he cleared his throat and straightened, a light blush on his cheeks.

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