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“You’re walking,” Seth said before the door slid shut behind him.
Char looked down at her feet, which were in some kind of boots that were soft as slippers. “Yeah. They have magic bone-healing things, it seems.”
“Magic. Fun.” Leander dropped onto Char’s bed. “Nice digs.”
Char sighed and swung her gaze around the little apartment. It was as Spartan as her quarters in Fort Situk. She had a narrow bed made of the same material as the ones in the healer’s room. It looked like stone and then molded to her body. There was a smaller room off to the side where Char had found a toilet—she knew the hole in the floor with the lid was a toilet because Jezeen had told her—and a what was essentially a shower. She pulled the lever and suddenly rain fell from the ceiling. Warm rain.
“Apparently since I’m ‘Leader Char,’ I get special treatment,” Char sighed. “Listen, I told Taig—that’s the female that’s in charge—that we wanted to make a trade agreement.”
Leander’s eyebrows shot up. “Oh?”
“Yeah,” Char said. “I know I’m above my pay grade here, but we need to get home safely and we need to be allowed back into Kaa.”
Leander nodded tightly.
“So, here is what I figure. We say we want to set up a meeting, bring in our superiors. We’ll gather as much information as we can. Seth, you and the scientists can keep gathering data. We’ll go back to Greta and give her the goods and hope to heck she cooperates.”
Seth folded his arms across his chest. “I don’t like this at all.”
“Well, Erwell wouldn’t put it in the protocol,” Char snapped. “I’m improvising.”
“No,” he said wearily. “Splitting up Kaa like it’s Czechoslovakia.”
Char paced away from them. “I’m just trying to get us home.”
“Yeah,” he said softly. “I know, Char.”
She told them that Taig would be contacting her superiors in Eskalon.
“We’ve got six days,” Leander said. “How long will that take?”
“They can regrow bones. You’d think they’d be able to send instant messages back and forth.” Char ran her hand through her hair. “I don’t know, Leander. I’m making things up as I go.”
“You’ll work it out,” Leander said. “I guess I’ll go back and tell everyone else.” She grinned. “I have semi free run of the place now, and I’m going to use the heck out of it.”
“You do?” Char glanced over at Seth.
He gave her a half-smile. “We’re both second in command, apparently.” He turned to follow Leander out the door.
“Wait,” Char said softly. “Seth, can you stay for a moment?”
He turned, and so did Leander.
Leander met her eyes and gave her a dirty look before backing out and shutting the door.
Char rolled her eyes. Seth stood rigidly.
“You okay?” Char took a step toward him. He had dark circles under his bloodshot eyes.
He met her gaze. “I didn’t sleep much. I was just… wondering where you were.”
“Seth,” she breathed.
He closed the distance. Their bodies collided, and he wrapped her tightly in his arms. His lips pressed into her neck and then against her mouth.
“You scared me,” he muttered against her mouth. “When you were deployed, I knew you were in danger, but I never got to see it. I…”
“I’m fine, Seth.” Char pulled back gently and laid her palm against his cheek.
“I know, but I—“ his mouth followed hers.
Char turned her head. “Seth, I don’t know if we should…”
Seth leaned his forehead against hers. “Char, I—“
She gazed into his eyes, so close to hers, and felt the weight of his hope fall on her shoulders. With it came the seize of anxiety.
Seth straightened, and Char thought she saw the sting of rejection in his eyes. Still, he encircled her with his arms and rested his chin on her shoulder. “I’m sorry,” he sighed. “You must be exhausted. I’ll go so you can rest.”
“No, stay,” she blurted. With one hand she gripped his shirt, her nails scrabbling over his skin. With the other she grasped his face and pulled it toward hers.
Char lay with her arms wrapped around Seth, spoon-fashion, their legs entwined. She stroked his loose hair away from his face and wrapped it around her finger. She was warm, deliciously comfortable.
“You promised me we’d talk about this,” Seth murmured.
Char’s hands stopped.
She drew a shuddering breath. “I’m going to put some clothes on. I don’t trust these Na’odani not to barge in.” She started to roll onto her back, but Seth caught her hand and kept her there.
“Hey,” he said. “Relax.”
Char licked her lips and tucked her arm around him again. He tipped his head back against her shoulder.
“This reminds me of when you would spend the weekend at my apartment by the hospital in Juneau,” he said.
“The small bed?”
Char laughed under her breath and wiggled into the pliable platform. “I think it was harder than this one.”
“My back was always sore when I had it. I brought it from home.”
“It was the bed you had at home?” She laughed again.
He nodded. “I doubt Mom and Dad bought it new.”
Char tucked several dark strands of his hair behind his ear. “Your parents were good people.”
He nodded, his hair tickling her face. “They were happy when they died. They’d gotten their trees back.”
She could imagine the unsaid “no thanks to you” in there.
She could [N2] remember his tired, red eyes after coming home from surgery in Vancouver. He’d been working almost around the clock patching up soldiers who’d been shipped in from Japan. He’d lie beside her in bed doing surgery in his sleep. In the middle of that, he’d gotten a call from his parents. Could he come plant trees? They’d finally got the go-ahead from the state.
He’d asked her to come. She said no. He’d asked again. She said she was busy.
“I want some time with you,” he’d said. “Time away.”
She’d barely looked up from her paperwork and said, “We’re at war, Seth. It can wait.”
He’d dropped it after that, and at some point she’d felt bad and asked him if he was upset she wasn’t going with him. He said no, but generally she knew when Seth was lying.
Somehow that had been his last straw.
The lights in the room suddenly shut off with a faint buzz, and Seth’s face was swallowed by darkness.
“This happened yesterday too,” Seth said.
She felt his breath on her face. She relaxed.
They lay in silence for a moment.
“What are we going to do?” Char whispered.
“About…?” he rasped.
A long, dark moment passed.
“Char?” Seth’s voice cracked. “I know I love you. I just don’t know if I trust you.”
She took a deep, shuddering breath. It seemed more than reasonable. Reasonable would be neither loving nor trusting her. It still hurt, though. “Alright,” she said.
“I don’t know what we should do. I probably shouldn’t be here in your bed.” He laughed ruefully. “But I’m just a man.” His fingers emerged from the dark and ran through her sweaty hair. “And I guess I wanted to pretend you still loved me.”
“I don’t…” Char swallowed. “I don’t not love you, but we did this once and you know me. I’m a fucking wreck, Seth. A wreck and a workaholic. Why are you bothering with me?”
The pads of his fingers circled her ear. “The people who love you, love you. You don’t have to be anything for anyone.” His warm thumb traced her bottom lip. “Your mom is dead, Char. She can’t yell at you anymore.”
Char choked suddenly. She sat up, dislodging Seth’s hand and the blanket. The air was ice cold on her bare skin. She cleared her thickened throat. “They turn off the heat when they turn off the lights?”
“I’m putting on some clothes.” She got up and fumbled around on the floor for her pants.
“Char, you’re strong.” Seth sat up behind her. “You’ll see this mission through, and when you do, I hope it’s enough.”
Her hand connected with fabric. Char fumbled around until she found a neck-hole and pulled it over her head. The shirt was baggy. Seth’s.
“You want me to go back to the others?” Seth asked softly.
Char sat for a moment with her hands in the depths of the oversized sleeves. The warm bed and the relative safety of Seth’s arms beckoned to her from the dark bed.
“In the dark?” she said finally. She dropped back onto the mattress and fumbled around for his hands. They found her and encircled her waist. She nestled in the curve of his body.
“We can sleep on it,” he murmured
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