Chapter 7: Confessions
They were home. Safe. In zero danger of Teenesee’s wrath. No, instead the Warden saw something in Lena and demanded he bring her back—to talk.
Tarek had told her what Teenesee said as soon as they were safe in Exemplar’s capital, amongst the monotony of high evolution. He thought she’d be relieved, excited.
He thought wrong.
Maybe that information changed her. But more than likely, the lie Cassondra forced them to tell had done it.
Regardless of the reason, Lena faded. Her color dulled, almost matching the vapid citizens they passed on the way to their dorm rooms. Others well into their third or fourth lives. Others who functioned instead of lived.
Silent. Lena became so, so silent after her tears and pain and clutching to him.
She had refused his reassuring, hollow words, and when they reached her dorm, she had refused his company. “No,” she told him, breaking her silence. “With you, I keep feeling, and I don’t want to for a while.”
So there he lay, on his floating bunk, pissed off and with no one to take it out on. Oh, he had tried. Mateusz was lucky he’d left for the night, now safe in his home away from here, with Kendal and their happiness. The kind of contentment one used to coat ugly truth, burying it under fluff and nothing.
No worries. He’d find his friend tomorrow, and if the bastard hadn’t gone to the elders, Tarek would—once he smashed those absurd glasses into the older man’s face.
His comp system tick, tick, ticked in his ear, never quiet, always on, driving him insane. Food he had hydrated, pasta or something, sat in the machine’s chamber untouched; it steamed and reeked of spices and tomatoes. That smell made his stomach roil.
He turned to his side, flopped to his back, roared in his soundproof room so loud the ticking became invisible. He yelled and yelled and yelled, reaching out to punch the wall behind him, one arm draped over his closed eyes, his bed swaying.
Her pain. It ate at him, gnawed his insides until everything felt raw. Yes, they had to lie. Yes, lying to someone like Teenesee made him feel dirty and sick, but more so for Lena, whose moral compass surpassed his by leagues.
Her depression…like a rebirth.
“Sorry,” he said to the vacant room. “I’m so fucking sorry.” His hoarse voice was no match for the comp system, its droning tick outlasting his yelling with steady assuredness.
If only he could protect her from everything, especially this world and its cold rules.
Tarek lifted his hands in the air, those tiny scars littering his fingers stark white against his tan skin. He’d fought when protecting Roderick, killed in dangerous worlds when his Guide needed him to. Physically, he could take on so much. Fend off most people and most things. But what hurt Lena at this moment he couldn’t shield her from, making him feeble and useless.
If she’d let him help, talk to him, may—
A yellow light flickered above his door, followed by a click and the screen above it flashing on. His comp’s tinny, false voice announced, “You’ve a loiterer outside your chamber, Protector Tarek Montigue. Shall I alert floor authority?”
Floor authority was like the older, weaker grandfather of the Synod’s authority. A joke, really. They roamed the dormitory halls looking for infractions that never occurred.
“No, not necessary,” Tarek said. He shifted to get a better look at the grainy feed, and his heart expanded, pushing against his ribcage. “Shut down for the evening.”
“As you wish,” his computer replied. Soft clacking filled the room as his system booted down into sleep mode, only leaving behind the incessant ticking. It went ignored.
His mouth dry, his body rigid, he zoned in on the screen.
Open the door.
Tarek wouldn’t open it for her; the decision had to be hers. But… Please. Press your hand to the panel.
He didn’t breathe, didn’t move, his gaze cemented to her hesitating form as she stared at the access panel, looked around, and stared at it again, her hands folded in front of her.
Finally—finally—her palm lifted. In seconds, his door swooshed open to her standing there, face pale and mouth quivering. Her robes swallowed her thin body, trapping her in fabric. Maybe that was the reason she just stood there, watching him with her haunted sherry eyes. His body wouldn’t listen, either, when he demanded it to get up and go to her. Just as her robes held her captive, the sorrow on her face imprisoned him, crushed him.
Her body twitched, and she backed up, shooting a quick glance down the hall.
No. No, he wouldn’t let her go. But his damn legs, as if his brain were demanding he let her leave, running through all the reasons why she couldn’t stay with him. Alone. In his dorm. So he did the only thing he could manage.
He reached his arms out to her.
A sob escaped her throat, slaying him, as she rushed to his bed, the door closing silently behind her. She tripped over her hem, almost falling, but he caught her around the waist and lifted her to his bunk, nestling her against his side. Her tears burned his bare chest as she burrowed her face against his flesh, her fingers kneading his skin, as though she attempted to crawl inside him. And if it were possible, he’d have allowed her. Allow their bones and muscle to meld together.
She didn’t try to speak as she wept, and he didn’t force her. He used his arms and hands to convey what he couldn’t say aloud.
I love you, I love you, I love you.
Hours had to have passed, centuries, before her heartrending cries softened to spasms, her thin shoulders jerking with involuntary movement. His hold tightened, his thumb rubbing, soothing as each tremor attacked her.
“I felt them, Tarek.” Her raspy whisper brushed against him.
He continued to glide his thumb, up and down, up and down, as he stared at the ceiling. “Who?”
“Those souls. I…I felt their fear and sadness, heard their memories, their dreams.” She paused after her voice hitched. “The woman I sent to Andor…she was a grandmother who knitted her children socks and told them stories and loved them with everything she had. And I sent her to live a life of suffering in spite of all that.”
“I’m sorry. I…” Such an empty, fruitless word. Empty, empty.
She clung tighter to him. “I can’t go back to Empyrean, look Teenesee in the eye, and have her believe I… I’m… I’m not different. I’m a monster.”
“No, you’re not.” He tilted her chin with his free hand, needing her to see the conviction in his gaze. “You’re light and color and feeling. You’re everything that is opposite of a monster.”
Tears welled in her eyes again, but she closed them and rested her cheek on his chest. “I don’t deserve you. I don’t.”
Deserve him? He laughed, a quick, short snarl at the absurdity. “Now you’re being ridiculous.”
He felt her smile against his skin, so much better than the tears. “That’s not exactly the most encouraging thing to say, Protector.”
“Well, it’s the only thing you’re going to hear after saying ridiculous things.” He grinned toward the ceiling after she snorted and rubbed her nose on him before using her sleeve to dry her face.
“But…” Her voice quieted, back to serious. “I never want to do that again. I can’t. That woman, her memories will follow me now. They’ll chase me wherever I go…be there every time I close my eyes.”
And this was why he loved her. No other Guide he knew allowed an energy to affect them as she had. She felt. She cared. People to her weren’t a commodity. His thumb stilled on her arm. “Then stay away from the archives rooms, Lena. Do as you’re told, and she won’t punish you.”
She didn’t respond, telling him what he didn’t want to hear. Her trips into those rooms to dig wouldn’t end, not unless the people who assisted her break-ins no longer helped. Perhaps that was his next course of action: find her conspirators and threaten them with both bodily harm.
At least her tears dried and the tremors abated. He’d give her silence on the subject to prevent more sadness; he’d give her anything just to have her color bloom with its usual luster.
His eyes snapped open, the first indication he’d been drifting to sleep—with her in his room. She possessed that magic: the ability to make him whole, give him peace simply by occupying the same space. “Yes?”
She snuggled closer. “Teenesee’s beautiful, isn’t she?”
He smiled, taking his hand from her arm to settle on her waist, too relaxed to remember decorum. “She is, but it’s not a good thing. Her beauty has killed people.” Other Wardens were deadlier, like Andor’s. The man could force a person to live their greatest fear with a touch.
“And her daughter?” Lena’s body tensed. “She’s beautiful, too, yes? And not deadly…just gorgeous.”
He wavered, and then simply said, “Yes.” Before, he wanted Calian’s attention to affect her, but after her crying, the last thing he wanted was for her to feel anything but relief and comfort.
“I saw the way she looked at you.” Lena’s body remained stone, except for her fingers splayed on his stomach. She nervously pressed against him, causing his entire body to catch fire, ignite from the inside out. Calian’s looks didn’t have that kind of power, not over him.
He slammed his eyes shut—and gave her a piece of his truth. “The same way I look at you.”
Her hand stopped, and she gasped, a tiny sound full of surprise and…and something more.
Tarek wanted to bite back his words. Intimacy of the present made him forget the past. Forget his place. Forget how elders frowned on a Paired couple becoming romantic. Forget they lived only to be a cog in Exemplian’s cause.
“Say something.” His voice whispered into the room, pleading with her.
She remained quiet, the silence stabbing him in the gut, ripping him apart. Then her fingers resumed their delicate, beautiful torture along the ridges of his abdomen, calming him and scorching him at once. “I want to pretend.”
Not good enough.
“I want to pretend I’m allowed to love you.” Her fingers pressed and pressed, as if she were committing him to memory. “And I want to pretend you love me.”
Tears burned his eyelids, surprising him. He swallowed. “You don’t have to pretend that, Lena.” A confession, but not quite, his cowardice too strong to allow more truth to fill the room.
She let a sigh escape, hot against his skin, and he felt her sorrow wet his chest. Her warm tears forced him to purse his lips, curb his own misery. What should have created happiness only amounted to regret, and he had known it would. Exemplian “privilege” came with too many stipulations.
But Lena didn’t acknowledge what he’d said; she just continued pretending. “I want to pretend we have a little cottage in Shalen, beside Nan’s stone in the orchard. I want to…to pretend I wake up next to you, and we live only for us.” Her hand moved from his stomach to his thrumming heart. “For this.”
Now, more than ever, the urge to hide her away, love her like he needed to, wrested him. “I want that, too, love.” He couldn’t tell her he loved her, but calling her what ingrained in his very essence dripped from his lips as natural as breathing.
This moment, now, she was his—all of her. And he was hers, as he always had been.
Lena lifted her cheek to find his gaze, her color flowering her face. Her bright eyes shimmered with love and a tinge of sadness. Her love. He wanted her to look at him like that forever. Until the day he died. Longer. “And I want to pretend I know the feel of your mouth on mine. I want to pretend I know…”
She didn’t finish.
She didn’t have to.
Tamping down all the warnings booming through his head, he pulled her up until they were face-to-face. He refused to say a word, not wanting the fragility of this newfound bond to disintegrate to dust, leave it unexplored.
He leaned up, his eyes locked with hers. The first touch against her lips was tentative, asking, but even that tiny connection sent wave after wave of heat and fire and power through his body. As if he hadn’t really lived until his mouth found hers. And when she moaned and demanded more, her lips insistent against his and her salty tears mingling with her taste, he weaved his fingers through her hair and brought her closer, absorbing her. Taking all she gave, and giving everything he was in return.
This was love, all-consuming, unpretending.
Too soon, she broke away, leaving him yearning and ready to beg for more. She searched his eyes, traced his bottom lip with her index finger, and let her tears fall in heavy drops against his cheeks, his swollen mouth. “But it can only be pretend, can’t it? They won’t let us, not while we’re Paired.”
“Lena, please.” Her name was a plea. A promise. To hell with those bastards. They controlled everything, but they couldn’t have this.
She shook her head and slid from his bunk. “If they found out, our punishment would be worse than what Cassondra did to us. Much worse.”
She was right. So absolutely, frustratingly right. But he didn’t care.
Tarek swung his legs over the side of the bed and jumped to the floor, stalking the few feet to her. “I would protect you. I’ll always protect you.”
She smiled a sad, soft smile and cupped his cheek. She then reached on her toes, kissed the corner of his mouth, and whispered in his ear, “But I’m not strong enough to protect you.”
He gathered her into his arms and held her close, screaming inside his brain, crying inside his heart. “I don’t need you to—”
“Yes, you do.” She pulled away and palmed the access panel. As the door opened, she turned to him. “In my room, one thought repeated in my mind, scaring me. And I had to come here to—” She bowed her head. “I needed you to know, to understand…you’re my heart; you have been my entire life. And if anything happened to you…because of me…”
“Nothing will happen.” His words were desperate, grasping at something this world would never let him have.
Lena released a quiet sob. “I know.”
And then she was gone.