Warlands of Song

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Chapter Thirty-Three: Saige

She padded into the kitchen, moving slow so Glen wouldn’t hear her just yet.

“Let me take care of you. Just for tonight.”

Somehow he’d gotten her to put her guard down with those nine words. Her body took his care and soft-spoken promise and shut itself down.

She didn’t like it. If she couldn’t trust anyone in the world, what was she doing letting him in just like that? He and Robert were the first two people she’d ever truly associated with, though. He’d saved her. But then he’d turned mean and cruel, and...

“Good morning.”

She jumped. Her thoughts had distracted her from the purpose of her entry into the kitchen. Glen was now turned around and smiling at her. She’d wanted to grill him on what he wanted from her. She’d wanted to give him a hard time. But now all she wanted was to smile back. So she did. Even though fresh tears welled up in her eyes and fell while she did it. When he started toward her on his crutches, she held out a hand. He stopped.

“I don’t want to trust you again,” she said. “but I can’t do this anymore.”

“I know—”

“No, you don’t.” She scrubbed at her eyes, but more tears replaced the others. “And I’m sorry I’m crying so much—”

“You have nothing to be sorry for—”

“Yes I do! I never got emotional on earth. I knew where my place was, I stayed in it, and I had no problems. I didn’t talk to people outside work, and I was perfectly happy. But as soon as I met you, my life started to fall apart. I can’t do it anymore.”

Glen had finished closing the space between them, and he dropped his crutches to hold her instead. She shook her head.

“I never cried. I never cared enough. But now I’ve met all these people and I thought I could trust them, but I can’t. And I’m worse than how I started. I just want to get out of here...”

He shushed her, and she let him hold her, despite her better judgment. But when her tears dried, embarrassment set in. She pushed to escape his hold.

“I have to go. I’m going to be late for practice.”

“You aren’t going to practice today. Or any other day. You quit, remember?”

“Well I have to go shower—”

“Stay here. Shower here. I’ll get someone to bring you clothes.”

He wouldn’t let her go, and wouldn’t let her leave.

“I... okay...”

“We can shower together,” he said.

When she tensed, he hurried to clarify.

“It’s a little embarrassing, but I’ve been ordered not to shower alone. I can’t support my weight on my own yet. So they say anyway. It’s not any different than the community baths. Even less awkward, actually. Since we’ll actually be bathing. There’s a purpose. I know it’s a new concept to you, but it isn’t here. Community baths and showers are the norm. Even with just two people.”

She didn’t respond.

“And I...” He hesitated. “I have a lot to tell you. To explain. I don’t want you to leave yet. I have to get this off my chest. And it would make me feel more comfortable.”

“Okay.”

Later, she found herself seated beside him on the built-in ledge in his shower. Her arms covered her chest and she crossed her legs. She half wondered about his supposed truth-telling. If he had this ledge, he wouldn’t have had to stand anyway.

“You can look at me, you know.”

“I don’t want to.”

“Typically, the whole point of this is to—”

“Typically, I wouldn’t have you in here to begin with, so why don’t you let me move at my own pace, and you can move at yours.”

She refused to even glance in his direction. But she thought about his words. The more she considered what he most likely expected of her, the sillier she felt, covering herself the way she was. So she slowly, carefully, lowered her arms away from her breasts, taking care to keep her eyes on the water flowing down the drain.

Glen didn’t speak, but she felt his eyes on her. It took everything in her not to shrink away from him or cover back up. The stress caused beads of liquid that were decidedly not water form on her skin. But the sweat was washed away as though it had never appeared at all.

“Didn’t you have something to say,” she asked.

His laugh was light, not mocking, but she still sighed in embarrassment. But when he finally spoke, his words were serious, not at all light as his laughter had been to begin with.

“I think I’ve only just come to accept what you are,” he said.

She frowned.

“When I met you I treated you like a Siren. I thought of you as a Siren, I distrusted you like one... Nothing you did made any sense to me. The way you saw the world. But still, I wanted to help you. Robert was one hundred percent against my actions, and looking back I can see how unacceptable they were. And my immaturity afterward...”

Her head tilted when he stopped. She wished she could look at him to see what he was thinking. Why couldn’t she? If she only looked at his face, she’d be fine.

“This is harder than I thought it would be,” he said at last. “I’m not used to explaining myself. A few months back in command does that to you. I don’t have to explain my orders, my reactions. Others explain to me.”

“Don’t expect me to explain my actions.”

“No, of course not.”

She stole a glance and caught his tiny smile. Then she was looking into his eyes, and his smile widened. Something in her mind made her almost need to look lower, so her eyes went even higher. Her head tilted back until she looked at the ceiling. Now Glen’s laughter filled the room.

“I promise I had noble intentions for wanting to do this,” he said, voice filled with chuckles, “but your struggles are very funny. I’m sorry to laugh.”

Her lips pressed together to smother her smile. She’d never heard him sound so relaxed and joyful. Her embarrassment was nothing compared to seeing—or, rather, hearing—him like this.

“I know it’s brave of me to ask you explain anything”—She rolled her eyes as he took a jab at her previous comment—“but would you tell me why this is so difficult for you? I really can’t understand your discomfort.”

“I already did.”

“Yes, but—really. You must have had a parental figure on earth as a child.”

“I did.”

“Surely you bathed with them at one time.”

“Yes.”

“Wasn’t that a time for bonding?”

“Yes, but that only lasts for so long. I told Carter this.”

“Really.”

She nodded. Forced her eyes back on his face. He paused for so long, she looked back at him. His grin caught her off guard, and the realization irritated her. That’s exactly what he wanted. Her eyes on him.

He turned toward her. She kept her eyes on his face. One of his hands made a sweeping gesture toward her frame.

“Because this is second nature to me, I’m looking at you and all I see is Saige. My student, a fellow soldier, and a cause of controversy to all who know her. Your body is just an extension of your personality. I’ve been bathing and showering with family and friends since I was born. You have not. That being the case, thank you for trusting me and putting your displeasure aside to let me speak the best way I know how.”

She dipped her head in acknowledgment.

“I hate to push you when you aren’t on the clock, but won’t you look at me?”

“No.”

Her answer was immediate.

“I expected that. But you should know that as uncomfortable as my looking at you makes you, the way you avoid looking at me makes me uncomfortable.”

Did it look like she cared? Supposedly not, because he sighed. And didn’t speak again.

“You’re really going to make me look at you?”

“This actually goes with what I was saying before. I only recently accepted what you are.”

“And what am I?”

“Xinaan. It’s not complicated. Except it is.”

“Great. I’m glad you finally accepted that.”

“You get defensive and sarcastic when you’re nervous. Might want to work on that—If I can discern it, so can your future opponents.”

Why was she in the shower still? He’d promised noble intentions and that he wanted to talk, but he hadn’t said anything worthwhile as of yet. But when she moved to stand, he grabbed her arm. She jerked away in a panic, but the movement sent her flying backward, her slippery skin not fully gripped in his hand. A wet slap echoed through the bathroom when she hit the ground, and she remained on her back for a long time. There, she tried to decide whether or not it was worth it to jump up and run. She couldn’t get any more exposed. It was all out anyway. So why freak out over it?

Glen leaned over her, holding out a hand. Everything was exposed without shame, and he even had a stupid grin on his face. Anger boiled in the deepest part of her being until she felt fear of losing control. So she took a few deep breaths, still on the ground, before standing on her own and staring him down.

“Are you happy? I’m naked, I’m in the shower with you, and I’m looking at you. Because apparently you need some sort of ego boost from me staring at you while you have no clothes on. Well congratulations! You’re a marvelous specimen of a man. In fact, you should be proud to look this good at your age. You’re pretty old, after all.” She put her hands on her hips and raised her brows. “Are you happy now?”

But he was no longer looking at her, and no longer focused on what she was saying. His grin had disappeared in favor of a few chuckles, and then he’d gone from chuckling to full-fledged laughter. Her sarcasm was lost in his overwhelming amusement. She spun to leave. She couldn’t believe she’d stayed long enough to subject herself to that humiliation.

A sheet of black stretched across the exit to the shower, and she slid to a stop. There was no option than to wait for Glen’s laughter to die down. Though her entire frame trembled with suppressed anger, she traveled to the bench and plopped down, crossing her legs.

Glen composed himself, eventually, and turned around from his position against the far wall. The sheet of black matter he’d thrown between her and the exit melted away and slid along the shower floor to absorb into his feet. His face was dark with blood and he panted, holding his stomach. She glared at him, but he wasn’t fazed.

“Believe it or not,” he said, “we just made great progress.”

Her glare didn’t fade. He sat beside her again, this time turned completely toward her. She looked at him from the corner of her eye, determined to make her anger clear.

“You aren’t uncomfortable anymore. Now you’re angry. And you’re looking at me. Which makes me feel better. Along, of course, with the ego boost you gave me. I wasn’t aware that I’m attractive for my... age.” He spat the final word out amongst a new fit of laughter.

“I should’ve never agreed to this. I’d like to go back to my room now.”

“But we just got to the good part. Raw emotion. You’re angry and embarrassed, and I’m having the time of my life provoking you. We couldn’t talk this way if we were together outside this room. This is why I wanted to talk to you like this. It’s just... It takes away the pressure. The secrets. Everything is literally out there, so we can relax.”

He sobered now, and his eyes softened. He genuinely looked worried.

“Please don’t be angry with me. I just didn’t know how else to talk to you. I’m very nervous, and it’s hard for me to be serious when I’m nervous.”

“What could you possibly be nervous about?”

“You’re a very intimidating young woman.”

She blinked. “What?”

“I knew I wanted to apologize, but I wasn’t sure how. Then I was reminded of this, so... it just seemed right.”

“I don’t understand—”

“I hated you, when you first got here.”

She fell silent at his admission. He didn’t look at her now, instead focusing on the ground. The water swirling down the drain.

“When we were on earth, I wanted to help you, as you know. So I broke every rule to get you here. I broke my friend’s trust for a while—Robert thought I’d lost my mind. But it was this need... I can’t even explain the need, to help you that drove me to ignore everything I’d been taught to get you off that planet and to safety. Even though I knew there wasn’t safety for you anywhere.

“Then we arrived here, and we had Aaron and Xenia and you’d found someone who’d known you and...”

He frowned now, swirling his toe in the half inch of water on the floor.

“At first, I’d thought you would leave me and Robert to go with them instead. But you didn’t, and I pushed the thoughts away like they were stupid. Which they were. I had no claim over you. But I knew I wanted to continue helping you. Not because I’d dug myself into a hole that would be impossible to escape without you, but simply because I didn’t want you to leave. I still don’t understand that feeling.”

He’d gone from serious, to playful, and now he was pouring out everything he felt without stopping to breathe, it seemed. So she listened and let him say his piece.

“Then Robert died, and I—everything changed. It almost felt like a game to me, I think, until then. I’m not used to being opposed, since I became commander. But Robert’s death made it real.”

“It really hadn’t been real before then?”

He shook his head, eyes going back to her. “I knew you were in trouble, but I thought they’d see that I was helping you and back off. I was naïve.”

“I certainly hadn’t done much to help.”

“You couldn’t. You didn’t know anything. You didn’t even know the people who were attacking you. Then you throw in the fact that you didn’t know what your Namai powers were, and you’d been separated from everything you should have known from birth, and you couldn’t have done one single thing.

“But after he was gone, I felt this new need. Before, I’d wanted to help you. Now I wanted to protect you at any cost, even my life. I was willing to die for you if it meant you could be safe. And I’ve been trying to figure out why ever since, because I barely knew anything about you. I barely knew you. I still barely knew you, because I’ve put so much distance between us.”

“But—”

“When I found out you’d sacrificed yourself for me, and then later when they told me you’d joined the military, I was angry.”

“I know.”

“No, you don’t. I’ve never felt rage like that before. Everything I’d done, and Robert’s death, mixed into one. I thought you’d thrown us away. I thought you were the monster they’d tried to convince me you were. For a moment I even accepted that you’d been controlling me and Robert both, because the feelings of goodwill I’d had toward you were completely and totally gone. But then, as the weeks passed and I was teaching you and watching you—I was always watching you. You couldn’t see me, but I was there. Every session you had with Carter, I watched. As you grew confident and strong, I got angrier and angrier. And scared.”

He laughed, and shook his head. Then he turned some more, so she focused on his face. She couldn’t look away, though the openness and vulnerability he was showing made her uncomfortable.

“When we met, you were just a headstrong young woman without the knowledge or confidence to control her destiny. You couldn’t help yourself, couldn’t make much progress on your own. You needed all the help you could get. But in this base, you’ve grown so much. You’re just fine on your own. You don’t need me anymore, and it’s terrifying. I liked it. Being needed. But that’s why this is so frustrating.”

Her mind spun with all the possible implications of his words. “Why what is so frustrating?”

“This feeling. A few weeks into your basic training, it started. And it’s grown to unbelievable heights. Even as my anger continued. The anger went down, and this feeling took its place.”

He smiled, looking her over. For the first time, she wasn’t nervous and didn’t want to cover up. He looked so in awe, it was impossible to shrink back from such a look. No one had ever looked at her that way.

“I went from regretting your very existence in my life to this undeniable pride in who you are and what you’ve accomplished regardless. All of the cards are stacked against you right now. You’re Xinaan, you’re female, you’re just learning about this world, you have no family and no friends... No one to help you through training except your instructors. The rest of the world, as far as you know, wants to kill you. And yet you’ve gone from the scared young woman I carried—unconscious—from my cabin on earth, to a young woman to be feared. During your test you nearly killed me. You would have killed me had they not stopped you. That was all you. I was fighting as hard as I could, and you still managed it. Not many have been able to do it.”

Her heart swelled at his praise. After months of hard work and not a word of positivity from him, he’d given her all she’d ever wanted. And the way he looked at her warmed her from the inside out. There was nothing else she could say. No words came to mind.

But as it turned out, she didn’t need to. Glen moved even closer, and she found herself unable to move. His hand touched her chin and nudged her face up.

“I am so, so proud of you,” he said. “And I don’t want to treat you the way I’ve been treating you all these months. It was wrong, and I can’t do it anymore. I want to help you get better. I know you don’t need me but it’s okay. I’ve accepted it. I don’t have to be rescuing you in order to be a part of your life. I just hope you’ll allow me to be involved.”

“I’ve felt horrible since Robert... You two were the only ones who cared about what happened to me. I never got to thank you, but I figured that even if you hated me for the rest of my life, if I worked hard to be strong and capable of rescuing myself and others, it would be thanks enough.”

“You made me feel horrible. Like I was child again, pouting because you were attempting to make a difference and a life for yourself instead of hiding away and giving up.”

An uncomfortable ache started up in her chest. She rubbed at the spot and took a breath. Cleared her throat. His eyes were too close. His whole face was too close. She couldn’t focus. She turned away and leaned back against the tile.

“What did you mean when you said you’d just come to accept what I am.” She asked. “I don’t understand.”

His smile faded.

“When we were on earth, I treated you like a Siren. All the way up until you joined the military—even afterward—I didn’t get it. It wasn’t until I saw your reaction to one of the news streams that it finally hit me. The couple that was sentenced to execution.”

He paused, but she dipped her head in acknowledgment for him to continue.

“There were a lot of soldiers in the room that day, but I was able to watch you. It hit you so hard.”

She continued to nod. The memory filtered back into her mind, though she’d done her best to purge it. Water pushed at her eyelids, but she felt her anger also rising to counter it.

“They could’ve been my parents.”

She heard his slight intake of air, and even that tiny sound threatened to make her break down. But she huffed, opening her eyes to stare at him. His expression was soft, but he didn’t touch her.

“I’ve had to watch every one of those announcements and wonder if my own parents were killed that way for loving each other and giving birth to a monster. A freak of nature.”

“You’re not—”

“I am. Why couldn’t I be born Namai or Siren? If they knew this would happen if they gave birth to me, why would they go through with it? It was selfish and stupid. I’m suffering—”

“because they loved each other,” Glen finished for her. “You do stupid things when you fall in love. It’s uncontrollable.”

He touched her hand when she didn’t respond, holding back tears again.

“Hey.”

She sniffed, keeping her eyes down. One look at him would burst the dam she’d build behind her eyelids.

“Maybe they were killed. I don’t know what happened to them. But I know they were content, no matter what happened.”

“How?”

“They had you. Even if you were taken from them. If they loved each other any less, the tiniest bit, and if they weren’t crazy for each other, you would not exist. They wouldn’t have been stupid enough in love to risk everything—including you—to love each other. And I think that’s a beautiful thought.”

Her fingers wove through his, and he smiled.

“My parents love each other,” he said, “but they aren’t crazy in love. They wouldn’t risk their lives or ours to be together. It must be amazing to love someone that much. I hope to experience it one day, if I’m lucky.”

His thumb stroked her skin in a soothing rhythm. She looked to their hands and noticed the contrast. His hand dwarfed her own, and then there was the difference in color. Near-white against near-black. Beautiful in the difference, but scary too. Stark and obvious. She removed her hand from his, slowly, and shook her head.

“I don’t. I couldn’t imagine putting anyone’s life—my child especially—in danger for love. Just because I couldn’t keep my head in a moment of passion...”

“What is love if you don’t act a little crazy?”

“I decided when I was young that I wouldn’t fall in love. I decided never to involve myself romantically with another person. There isn’t one person I could love who wouldn’t be in constant danger for being with me.”

“What if they didn’t care and wanted to be with you anyway?”

“I wouldn’t let them.”

If she didn’t know any better, she would swear he looked sad.

“I’m afraid it isn’t up to you who falls in love with you. I can guarantee what if they love you despite the danger and your warnings, they won’t leave your side.”

She sighed. “Well hopefully I’ll never have to go through that. Hopefully everyone in the world will continue to see me as a monster, so I don’t have to hurt anyone’s feelings.”

Now he sighed.

“Trust me, Saige, most here love you right now. And I hate to break it to you, but I already know of a soldier who—despite everyone’s warnings—has fallen very much in love with you. So no, you can’t control it.”

Her head snapped up, but he stood and prepared to wash himself. He moved directly under the spray and started on his hair as though she wasn’t there.

“What? Who?”

“Like you said, it’s not what you want. I’ll break it to him gently.”

“But—”

“We should hurry and wash before we turn into prunes. Help me up.”

She did, and he insisted she was herself first. Thankfully, he didn’t watch her. When it came time for her to assist him, she sighed in relief when all he wanted was for her to hold him steady while he did all the work. She kept her eyes elsewhere, ignoring his chuckled.

He spoke while they toweled off.

“I’m taking you off base today.”

“Off—But why?”

“It’s your first day off since you joined. You quit. I thought you deserved a treat.”

“This is what you wanted. I forgot.” She frowned. “But... it’s not safe for me off base. The people don’t know I exist.”

“Don’t worry, I have an idea. I’ll explain before we leave.”

She didn’t move, so he reached out and nudged her toward the door. So she went, fretting the whole way.

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