Dishonor (Book 1 of the In Search of Honor series)

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Chapter 11: Festival

“What are ya? Demons? Ghosts? Radioactive waste walkers? Whatever ya are ya go back to where ya came from ya devils!” The leaves fell away to reveal an old man with crazy wild gray hair and an impressive beard and mustache that looked untrimmed.

I looked at Roderick, then Kevin and saw that both had their hands on the hilts of their swords. This could turn ugly. I held up my hands to show that they were empty. “My friend, we come from the city.” I pointed back into the waste and suddenly realized that I couldn’t see the city or its giant pink dome.

The man looked at me like I was crazy, “Only demon beast live in da radiation. Ya a demon beast? Then leave or I shoot!”

“No!” I forced myself to take a deep breath and continue, “There is a city in the wastes that has technology that protects its’ inhabitants from the radiation. We were sent out from the city to see if there was something beyond the radiation. We were sent to find your civilization because we have a problem with overcrowding. We’ve only been in the radiation for about four days. We aren’t beasts or monsters or demons or devils. We’re just human like you.”

The man shook his head, “I guard this border to protect from da beasts.”

Another man stepped out of the bushes, but this one was younger, maybe close to my own age, “Papa, they dona look like no beasts. Maybe we kin give ’em a chance.”

He had curly brown hair with a few scraggly pieces of facial hair and a scar cutting through one of his eyebrows. He smiled up at us and I noticed he was missing one of his front teeth, “Ya’ll friendly folk righ?”

“Yes. We’re friendly. We have just come out of the city to see if it’s safe enough to take some of our population out of the city. We are very honored by the city for taking this mission and you will receive honor for speaking to us.” I tried to use my best noble speech and act to help further what I said in their eyes.

“Waz honor?” The old man asked and then spit to the side as if warding against a curse or something.

“Honor is… everything. It’s how you act. How you treat others. It’s taking up a hard mission and seeing it through. To lose your honor… to be dishonored is the worst fate.” I tried to explain the concept and suddenly realized how hard it is to explain honor.

Both people looked highly perplexed by this idea of honor. The boy glanced at his father and then said, “Dona understand none of da stuff.”

The old man nodded in agreement, “My son here got it. So whatcha doin on this here property?”

I shrugged. “I have nothing more I can convince you with except my honor and my word, and without honor my word does not hold, but if you trust me, please, do you have a place to stay? We are hungry and tired and will pay with labor.”

The old man shrugged, “We got a place. We’ll take ya to da village head. He’ll know what to do with ya.”

The old man turned and walked into the forest and I pushed Kingston to follow while dodging braches from on top of him.

Suddenly I realized the young man was walking next to me. “What’s your name,” I asked.

“I’m Dan. What ’bout ya?” He looked up at me with a cheeky grin.

“Me? My name’s Elizabeth, but many people call me Liv.” I figured he couldn’t say my full name correctly.

“Eli-za-beth. Dona see no Liv in El-i-za-beth. Wheres da Liv from?” His speech patterns were so strange and different. And his face so innocent and eager to learn more about the stranger in his world.

“My father used to call me Lively Liz which at some point became Liv. I don’t remember exactly how it happened. I… I don’t really know. It doesn’t make much sense, but that’s the way of the world I’ve started to realize. Nothing makes much sense.”

“Lively Liz. Its pretty. Ya know how to use ya sword?” He pointed at the sword hanging at my hip.

“No. Girl’s don’t learn to fight. A friend insisted I carry it though.” He frowned as if I had said something weird.

“Why dona girls learn to fight? All our women fight. They’re some good fighters too amongst ye women. No sure why ya would not fight.” He shrugged his shoulders as if unsure how to convey his thoughts better.

I didn’t know how to reply to that either. The idea of learning to fight scared me. I wasn’t sure I wanted to ever be in a fight, but I might not have a choice. Maybe it was best to go ahead and learn to fight. Fighting didn’t necessarily make a person bad. Bryan wasn’t bad. “Would you be willing to teach me to fight?”

The guys would be mad at me for not asking them to train me to fight, but this would help build relations with these people. I had a feeling we would need better relations before bringing the rest of the people who were dishonored out of the city.

His smile became extremely big and stretched to both side of his mouth. “I’d love to teach ya! That would be great fun!” Then he became quiet, and for a while he walked quietly next to my horse.

“And if ya dona fight how’d ya get ya scar?” He pointed at the brand on my face.

I reached up and fingered the rand on my cheek. I had almost forgotten about it. “I burned myself.”

“Looks like a mark to me. Like a letter or some thin’.” He was perceptive. More perceptive than I had originally given him credit for.

“Its…” What did I tell him? It was the mark of a traitor, a murder, a criminal about to be executed or exiled. “It’s a mark of honor.” I reached up and touched the brand I had almost forgotten about. The brand Kevin and I shared. But Roderick didn’t have one. I had to have a story… Some reason Kevin and I alone had it and not Roderick.

But he just nodded. “Some people get stuff inked on ’emselves. Guess a burn ain’t so different.”

It was so strange how he simply accepted that. And people putting ink on themselves or something? Why would anyone want to do that? Well, at least he didn’t question me anymore about it.

We walked out of the forest and I could see fields with people working in them. I also saw lots of small white animals and a person in the middle of them. In the middle of the fields was a place with high wooden walls made with logs stood upright.

We came up to the sturdy wall. I could see little columns of smoke riding up from inside the wall. A guard stood on top of the wall looking down at us, “Watcha drag in this time Richie?”

The old man smiled up at the guard, “Folks who say they are travelers. Dona no if I rightly believe ’em myself, but I figured best ta bring ’em in.”

I suddenly found myself wondering if we were just being brought in so they could take our horses from us. Maybe horses were rare and they wanted them. If that was the case I wasn’t giving Kingston up unless they killed me. Of course, I couldn’t really put up that good a fight since I couldn’t fight. This might have been a really bad idea.

We walked around the wall until we came to a gate, and once we were there the gate quickly opened up. We walked through and I looked back at the guys and saw Roderick reaching out and touching the gate with a look of longing on his face. He missed the wall, and there was nothing I could do to help him with that problem. He had left it from his own free choice.

Inside the wall there was a double circle of houses with a giant wooden house or building in the center and a fairly large open space around it. I estimated there were about fifty or so houses in this village. They were fairly small houses, but only one or two of the houses looked new.

I dismounted and looked back to see that the two men had already dismounted. “Where do you want us to put the horses?” I asked as loudly as I could so that the old man could hear me.

“Put ’em in da barn. That building on da left with da fence.” I looked over to the left and realized the building I had thought was a house there was in fact a barn.

Kevin was the first one to start walking over that way. He seemed quite excited to being putting the horses up and going in. And it was getting cold outside. It hadn’t been this cold yet while we were out here. In fact, it was never this cold inside the city. Guess the big bubble also worked climate control magic.

We led the horses into the barn from a small side door that a woman was standing near. She was wearing brown trousers that looked like they were made of a soft leather and had an unsheathed sword hanging at her hip tied by a strip of a leather to a similar looking belt. Were women like her why Dan thought it was strange that I couldn’t use a sword? A matching leather vest was tightly laced over an undyed cream colored woven blouse. The sun caught on strands of bright platinum blonde hair pulled back into a pony tail like some of the middle caste women used to wear in the city.

Right about when I was almost out of sight I saw Dan walk up to her and wrap his arms around her hold her for a second, and then he leaned back a little and kissed her in public. This was such a strange place.

And suddenly I wished someone cared for me like that. I remember Bryan holding me and how much I had been afraid of his very touch. But he hadn’t loved me. He cared for me yes, but that was because he cared about people in general. I remembered how he had spoken of my sister, and suddenly I realized the truth.

I realized I was staring and ducked my head leading the giant Kingston into an open stall. He made the stall look small. I closed the door and then stared at him. How did I get his tack off? It was tickling my memory, but I couldn’t quite remember. I looked out the door and realized that the guys had their stuff in a pile outside their stall already. I would figure this out myself. I didn’t need their help.

I stared at Kingston again and he sat there just mellow and looking at me waiting for me to decide what to do. Thank God he was such a patient creature. I decide to start with the packs and saddle. That was the easy part. I unclipped the balancing strap that helped balance the load, the harness that went over the butt and around it to keep the saddle and weight from shifting forward and the harness on the chest that kept the weight from shifting back. I undid two buckles that connected the strap around the belly, the girth, to the saddle, and then I dragged the saddle and its straps and packages off the back of my horse. He looked at me as if rebuking me, but I had gotten the saddle off and that’s what mattered.

I dragged the stupid saddle and all its’ gear to the front of the stall and dumped it in a heap. Now time for the head stuff, or the bridle as my memory supplied. Why was it that I could remember the name but not how to take it off?

I just started undoing straps until I had enough of it unbuckled to pull the bridle off the head. As soon as all his gear was off Kingston ambled over to the water trough and drank thirstily from it. He seemed to be enjoying not having rationed water anymore.

I grabbed my water bag from the pile of outside his door and gulped down what was left. No need to conserve water anymore.

He looked so content as he swished his head around in the bucket that I couldn't help smiling, and I left him to drink his water in peace. I took the bridle out and dumped it in the pile with the saddle. I realized that both the guy’s piles had disappeared. Where had they taken them? I looked around but I couldn’t see anyone.

The blonde girl that had been at the door of the barn walked in. “Hi, I’m Sandy. Dan told me he met ya in da woods.” She looked at the pile of tack and smiled in a happy and carefree manner, “Need help with that? Ye man Rod told me ya didn’t actually know much ’bout ’em horses ya have. Now there’s an interesting lookin man. What with his curious white looks and pale almost colorless blue eyes… Do ya know if he has trouble seein in da day cause of that? Just curious.”

Boy could she talk, but I hadn’t ever wondered if he had trouble seeing. Now I felt bad for never wondering if the sun hurt his lovely pale eyes. And she was calling him Rod. I normally didn’t give people nicknames unless they introduced themselves with the nickname. Rod, I liked it.

“Ya there Liv?” She was waving a hand in front of my face.

“Oh, yeah. I could use help. Just really tired. We've been riding for a while,” I felt my face heating up in embarrassment that I had ignored her.

“Mmmm, you were thinking about that yummy man of yours weren’t ya?” I was surprised she didn’t think Kevin was cute, but then again ‘Rod’ was the different looking one.

“He’s not my man.” And he wasn’t. I didn’t have a man. I mean, technically we were dating, but not really? But that didn't make him mine.

“Coulda fooled me. That look in his eyes… mmm. Such a yummy look. If he’s not ye man, mind if I dona try for him meself?” Her smile was still there but I thought I saw something of the predator in it and suddenly my heart sped up slightly.

“No!” I forced myself to calm down. Rod, God I loved that nickname she had given him, was able to take care of himself, and he wasn’t my man. I needed to be reasonable, “I mean, aren’t you with Dan?”

She shrugged. “For now I am. Nothings permanent round here. A woman goes to da man she wants and shares her body with him went she wants his child, and when she tires of him or he mistreats her she leaves him for a better man. She chooses to keep or leave da child with da man. I’m with Dan now, but notin bout later.” She patted her stomach, “And he hasna put no child in here yet. My last child I left with da man, and Dan himself was raised by his papa. He would understand if I moved on cause his seed failed. Of course, ya brother… he’s pretty cute too, n’ he carries his weapons like he knows ’ow ta fight…”

I shuddered. I couldn’t imagine moving from man to man. I wanted to find a man I loved and stay with him. “Don’t you ever feel a need for the security and love of staying with one man? Having his protection and love for the rest of your life?”

Again she shrugged, “Not right now. Maybe later. Some women settle early and stay with a man, but whats da fun in that? Nah, I wanna keep trying out men while I’m young and pretty, and then, when I’m old I might look for a man to settle in with.”

What a strange way to live. It was like they were selling themselves except they chose who bought them and for how long. In the city any woman who lived like that carried dishonor for letting multiple men use her. Only lower caste women would sell themselves. And fully dishonored women had no choice in the matter, but it was considered digesting and low.

And Rod was so innocent. Kevin on the other hand… I knew for a fact he had used those women before. Kevin would sadly probably enjoy her type of woman. Of course, he did have that girl back in the city he had been planning on marrying, but that was probably just politics. And Sandy was his type with her bright blonde hair and bubbling personality.

“Whatcha do to ya tack? Just take every buckle ’part or somtin?”

I looked at the pile of leather she was holding up and shrugged, “I knew it had to come off so I just started undoing buckles.”

She sighed, shook her head and threw it to the side. “Ima goin to start with da saddle. I’ll get thata beast later."

She unclipped one pack and threw it at me, and then another, and another till I had them stacked up in my arms. “Now, ya go take all that stuff to da main house. Its da house in da center. I’ll sort out da rest of this, and hang it up for ya, but tomorrow ya and I are goin to learn how to work with ya horse.”

I nodded about to tell her thank you, but it felt like a rasp was taken to my lungs, and a fit of coughing hit me.

“Mighta also ask for some hot water ta ease ya throat. Sounds like ya got yaself a cold.”

A cold? I guess this was part of the trouble with leaving the city. No one in the city got sick anymore. It was one of the nice things about the city, sickness was wiped out. As a child we were often reminded about the good things the city did, like wiping out sickness, which none of us understood at the time.

“Thanks. I’ll do that.” But it wasn’t my throat that hurt. It was my chest that ached.

She nodded as if to herself and then frowned at my gear and started pulling out pieces of leather here and there muttering something about ignorant people, but I couldn’t make out the rest of it.

I turned away to leave, and right as I was almost at the door she called out, "Oh, and a warnin' to ya, der is a festival in da main house tonight. It's da pre-harvest celebration in hopes of a good harvest!" She laughed as she said this.

Why would she need to warn me about a festival? I shrugged and exited through the door I had entered from. The sun was gone but it was that state where it wasn't quite dark yet.

I hurried over to the central house and knocked while carefully holding my packages. A red haired woman opened the door and dragged me in shutting the door behind me. The dim room was packed with people dancing and eating and singing. A festival. I didn't have the energy to face this.

A fire was lit in an alcove on one of the walls warming the room just as the bodies of people warmed it. There were couches along the walls of the room for people to sit.

The woman grabbed my hand and I looked back at her smiling and happy face, “Come with me. I will show ya ye room.” She laughed and pulled me around the outside of the crowd. In the mix I could see Kevin dancing with a dark haired girl as if he was a natural at their energetic and high stepping dancing. Of course, Kevin was a natural at dancing so why not their style of dancing?

Off to the side I could see Rod sitting on a couch looking uncomfortable surrounded by giggling girls. I would have to save him later from his flock of giggling girls.

As we went I could see two girls kissing in the corner. I had never seen two girls kiss before. I dragged for a second staring at them, and then hurried along with the woman leading the way.

We came to a door and she pulled me in and shut the door. “This will be ya room. The bed isna much, but itsa place to lay ya head. Put ya stuff down and lets get ya dressed for da party!”

I was expected to attend this party? I started laughing and found that the laughter seemed to spin my brain above the exhaustion.

The laughter bubbled out of me as all the days of worry over dying out in the waste lands fell tumbled out of my mouth and were lost on the floor of the room. I set my pouches down and smiled. The joy of laughing lingered in my belly and it felt good. I hadn’t felt this good in years.

Suddenly the other woman was there, kissing me on the mouth, and I was surprised by it. She pulled back and asked, “Do ya no like girls, or do ya? I saw ya starring at Eva and Liz. They like men and women. Women for fun and men for putting children in ya belly.” She proudly patted her own belly. “I got meself a child no more than a week ago.”

She looked so happy to be with child and I couldn’t help but wonder what this cultures fascination with children was. I hadn’t seen any children in the room, but maybe they were all already asleep. “Where are all the children?”

Suddenly her joy became a look of sorrow, “So many die while birthing, or the child dies soon after, and ’em that survive go to bed early before festivals. None of mine have survived yet. If dis one don’t… I might no put another in me.”

Such a hard life, but better this than a dishonored life. There was joy and happiness in these people, and they worked for themselves not another person. They weren’t beaten when they didn’t work hard enough.

She kissed me again but this time on the cheek. “No more talk of sorrow. Only joy at night. Lets dress ya for ya pale man that waits outside for ya.”

She pulled at my jacket and I pulled it off. She spun me around and loosened the laces and unclasped the collar, so I quickly pulled the corset and collar off. I pulled off the boots and the leather pants as she was holding dresses up to me and whisking them away. Finally she chose a navy blue Grecian style dress. I was surprised these people would have a dress in this style, but they all seemed to have one nice dress.

“Every woman must have a dress. This one is ya’s now. Ya wear it for da festivals. It was a simple dress so she just pulled it over my head and I was ready to go, but she wasn’t ready to let me. She pulled me to the side of the room and put some heavy make-up on my face, muttering things to herself as she worked. She finished, and pulled a brush through my hair.

“If ya need me, ask for Fire. Ya’ll have to get yaself ready from now on though for da rest of da festivals. Now ta party!” She laughed and danced out of the room sucking all the joy out with her. I took a deep breath and went to the door. I pulled it open and forced myself out into the merry crowd. The youngest of which was maybe twelve or thirteen. I had to push and slip through opening to make my way over to where I had last seen Roderick, or Rod as I preferred what Sandy had called him. It fit him so well.

For a second Fire was in front of me and she winked and kissed me quickly on the lips before being whisked off by her laughing partner. This was such a strange place.

Finally I saw Rod, but he wasn’t sitting anymore. He looked slightly scared as he was being swung around from one girl to another in their high stepping dances, and he clearly had no clue what he was doing unlike the other men bouncing around on the floor constantly changing partners. I got myself close to him, and as he was swung by I grabbed him and extricated him from the mass of dancing people and pulled him back over to the couch with him holding on to me tightly even as another girl tried to pull him back into the dance, but I tugged him away.

We got over there, and he sat down before I did. As soon as I was sitting he leaned against me and held me tightly. “Hold me.” He growled into my ear while pretending to lean on me.

I wrapped my own arms around him and then asked, “Why?”

“Because to keep these crazy women off of me I might have told them that I was your guy. And you just acted like a jealous woman in their eyes.”

A jealous woman, me? I started to pull away but he clung to me tighter, “No, please don’t. I’m grateful. I’m glad you came in and saved me. I didn’t want to be clung to and to give them children as they keep talking about.”

I looked around and I could see a couple of the girls were still focused at us, glaring at me, and I suddenly had an idea. I pulled back just enough to kiss him on the lips. He stiffened obviously surprised and unresponsive. I pulled back and glared at him, but this time it was him who initiated the kiss. When we pulled apart I looked around and none of the girls looked interested anymore. I caught Fire’s eye and she winked at me. I could see Sandy dancing with Kevin and not even glancing our way.

And Rod pulled me back to face him and kissed me again. I liked his touch and I liked kissing him even better. It was just days ago when I was rejected. What was wrong with me? Was it this festival thing making me go crazy? Maybe it was. Maybe it was relief of leaving the wastes. Whatever it was I didn't care. I let it embrace my mind.

I suddenly had an idea and after our kiss finished I leaned a little more till my lips were brushing his ear. “Let’s take this to my bedroom where there aren’t as many prying eyes.” A place where he was safe from all these village women.

He nodded unable to say anything that would be heard over the noise of this place. He held onto me as I made my way back through the crowds and back to the quieter room. I pulled him in and shut and locked the door. We could still here the noise, but it wasn’t as loud.

“That’s better.” I smiled at him, but he wasn’t smiling. I reached my hand out till it was touching his face, and suddenly he was holding my hand against his face.

“Did you… Were those kisses real or for show? I mean… knowing you I was surprised. I don’t know what they did to you when you were dishonored. For all I know… I mean you said you weren't quite ready.”

I shook my head trying to tell him no, but he seemed so frantic so I just leaned forward and kissed him which quickly shut him up.

I was crazy. I shouldn't be doing this. I was using him.

The itch in my chest suddenly made itself know and I turned away to cough into my hand. The coughs tore at my chest and hurt. I turned back and realized that Rod looked worried.

“What’s wrong?”

It’s just a minor cold. That’s to be expected after living in the isolated city.” But that didn’t seem to make him less worried.

“That’s the problem… our immune systems. There are diseases out here and our immune systems aren’t as strong as these people who have dealt with sickness their whole life. We are as likely to die as any of their children!” He started pacing obviously agitated.

I grabbed him and pulled him close to me, “We’ve survived this much. Hell, you survived a gaggle of girls tonight. I think we can survive any nasty little cold.”

He frowned down at me with worry, “Elizabeth, this isn’t something we can beat with stubborn pride. It takes medicine, and all that’s left of that is back at the wall. I hadn't even thought about the diseases that used to exist before we retreated into the Wall.”

“Well, if I get deadly sick I will ride back to the wall and get medicine to get better and be a hero to the city for finding this place of safety beyond the wall."

He shook his head, “No Elizabeth, anyone not on the radiation medicine would get radiation poisoning or something from that much radiation exposure. I wouldn’t let you go back there unless you are about to die.” He fingers were gently combing my shoulder length honey blonde hair. “I like your hair this length.”

I couldn’t help but laugh, which led into another coughing fit. He was there with his hand on my back. I looked at him and his face was lined with worry.

“Don’t worry Rod. I’ll be fine.”

He started to shake his head and then he realized what I had called him, “Rod? Where did you hear that from?”

“From Sandy. I don’t know. I kind of like it. It fits you, ya know…”

He laughed, his deep voice rumbling against me.

"So why did we come in here?" He asked.

"To be free of the craziness out there. I'm tired and I'm am fairly certain Fire who dragged me out to the party won't complain if I avoid the festival with you." It was so strange being close. He'd sat next to me and sometimes had reached out to touch me, but we'd never just stood like this before.

"Well if this is an acceptable excuse to escape their weird celebration I don't mind.In fact-" He yawned mid sentence, " Can we just lie down on that bed and take a nap.

The strange energy that had filled me when I went out into the main hall was draining away leaving me an exhausted shell. A nap sounded wonderful.

It felt strange to lay down on a bed next to Roderick, and I remember my strange night with the guard Bryan. That night seemed like a lifetime ago.

Warmth pulled me from the comfort of sleep and I realized that at some point I had become tucked up against his side. I wanted to stay here forever tucked against his side in my party dress. He wasn’t muscular, but I suddenly realized that even though he didn’t have the dark colors and muscles as Kevin had, he was still really cute in a different sense.

I loved him. I wasn’t sure why. I has sworn to myself I would only feel this way about Kevin, but maybe Kevin was right. Maybe I hadn't loved him. Maybe this desire to curl up against Rod was what love actually was. These emotions that ripped through my body just like the damned coughs.

I turned away from him as, if on cue, I was hit by another spate of coughing. When I finished coughing he pulled me against him and kissed the top of my head. “I should go search for my room. Who knows what people will think of us now.”

“Mmm, don’t leave. I don’t care what they think. Let them speculate as long as they stay away from you.” I leaned back against him enjoying the comfort of his arms holding me against his body.

“So maybe you don’t mind, but I am kind of scared about what Kevin might do to me for sleeping with his precious sister.”

I groaned, “I'm guessing that means you heard that whole conversation.”

He laughed, "Parts of it. That's what gave me the courage to say something to you the next day. I knew I couldn't get rejected worse than that. I honestly hadn't expected you to be willing to do more than hold hand and chat for a long time since you just got rejected by Kevin."

I felt my cheeks getting hot, "I uh. I didn't plan to move so quick. I just realized that maybe I did like you when I saw you with the other women."

"Who knew I needed jealousy to get you to return my feelings!" His voice was light and jovial.

Was I jealous? But didn't jealousy mean love, so that was further proof.

"I should still go get ready for whatever these crazy people throw at us today, and I should probably do so before Kevin comes knocking to check on you."

“It’s already too late. He’s probably waiting outside that door to ambush you. Stay with me.” His arms loosened on me as he started to detach himself from me, and I rolled over and grabbed him, pulling him down toward me, but he was stronger and simply picked me up instead.

“You should get dressed in your leathers today. We will probably all have some task or another to help the village. And I don’t think you can work in this pretty dress.” Damn it. He was right.

“Don’t leave yet, I will need your help.” I started to pull of the dress forgetting how sensitive he was, and he turned bright red and spun away quickly. It was strange how touch had bothered me for so long, and I was so worried about my honor, and at the same time standing naked in front of someone didn’t bother me. God I was a person full of contradictions.

I pulled on the pants and the loose corset. “Alright, now turn around and help me tighten this up.”

“Yes, ma’am” I sighed as he laughed. I could feel his hands working down the laces,, and it was pure torture having to stand there while he did the laces. He started to pull the collar up, and then suddenly kissed me on the neck making my knees feel kind of weak.

And then suddenly the collar was pulled up around my neck and latched tight. “Rod!” I spun around to face him, “You don’t tease a girl like…”

His mouth was on mine quickly shutting me up. He pulled back, “There, is that better now?”

I glared up at him, “No.” And then I pulled him down and kissed him. “Now it might be a little better.”

He smiled, “Third times the charm?” He leaned down and kissed me again. I didn’t want him to leave.

“I guess. I’m coming with you to find your room. I don’t want any of those crazy girls to think they can have you.” I pulled on the leather jacket and boots that went with the exile outfit. The whole thing was caked in sweat, and I really wished I had something to wear other than just this outfit or the dress.

Rod through his hands int he air, "I have to change out of these party clothes they put me in. Unlike you I am not comfortable being naked."

“I won’t watch while you change, but what if Kevin is out there? I can help protect you from his wrath...” I offered the only protection he seemed to care about

He seemed to take a second to think about it then nodded. “Deal. You can come with me, but no turning around.”

I gave a small and quiet cheer making him laugh. “Well come on, let’s go.” I grabbed his hand and walked out of my room holding his hand.

The main room was quiet with only a few people scattered and asleep around the room. I could see now that there were what looked like pottery cups all over the place and the place stunk like… like alcohol. Did these people have a drinking habit at their wild parties?

I could see Kevin sprawled on a couch with Sandy leaning on him. Maybe he hadn’t noticed that we had left. I motioned toward Kevin and Rod nodded. We crept past him and again it struck me just how handsome Kevin was, but there was no other feelings attached with that thought now. Had all my feelings attached themselves to Rod instead? Was I that fickle of a creature?

Fire was curled up with another a brown skinned woman on the couch. She lifted her head for a second, winked at me and lowered her head back down with her eyes closed at if asleep. How much did she see and know? What was Fire’s role in this society?

In a corner I could see Dan leaning his head on another man’s shoulder with the other man head leaning against his head. Next to them were lots of cups, and I figured tonight had been about drinking away their sorrow or something.

A hand clasped my wrist and I turned back to find Rod frowning at me and shaking his head. He gently led me toward his room, opened the door and quickly pulled me in before shutting it. “And remember you promised not to look while I changed.”

“Hmm, maybe I remember that promise…” the look he gave me just set me off laughing, and soon his frown disappeared and he was laughing too. “Oh fine, I won’t look, this time.”

I turned away from him, and I could hear him moving around as he got dressed, and I was so tempted to turn around and embarrass him to get that lovely red blush, but I stuck to my promise. “Hurry up. I’m getting tired of waiting…”

I shut up as his arms wrapped around me and I spun in his arms to face him. I hadn’t seen what he was wearing under his black cloak, but now I could see and feel the strange black mesh fabric that made his long sleeve shirt and pants.

“What is your shirt made of?” I ran my hands over the strange fabric and tried to lift part of it and found it surprisingly heavy.

“It’s woven with Kevlar and metal a long time ago in a time when war and fighting were common place. I found these in the one of the storage closets in the wall and figured that this mission of yours was as good a use as any.” He leaned down and kissed me gently, and then pulled away.

“Come on. We should leave before your self-appointed protector wakes up and realizes he’s been sleeping on the job.” We were only inches apart, but it felt like too far when standing so close.

Suddenly the door burst open, “What did you do to her you dishonorable worm? How could you use her? She is innocent and honorable and you just…you… you dishonorable little worm!”

I started laughing and Kevin sputtered to a stop. “We did not do anything dishonorable I swear dearest brother.”

He tried to say something and simply couldn’t. His face started to turn red and then he stormed off.

Rod smiled down at me, “Well that wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.”

I nodded and pulled him close. He was too far away and now that we had gotten Kevin’s brotherly objections out of the way, I kissed him quickly, and then pulled away marveling at how easy this had become once I was touching someone I loved and cared about. The unexplainable feelings it built inside of me must have been why I could accept this now.

He held onto my wrists and rested his forehead against mine. “Come on beautiful. We should go get our assignments.”

“Mmmhm,” I reached up and stroked his fine white hair. Neither of us wanted to move. I knew it was necessary. I knew I had work to do. But I just wanted to sit there in his company. I remembered how Bryan had tried to get me used to company, but I had only analyzed it. Now I understood, sometimes it was nice just to take a second and stand there with someone beloved.

I pulled back till our arms were outstretched and eventually he had to let go of my hands. “I don’t want to go, but you are right. We need to go out there.”

He nodded and held one of my wrists as we walked out into the main room where people were beginning to wake up. It was time for a new day and a new job, and I could face anything with Rod at my side.

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