Chapter 5: Understanding (Wash it All Away)
"You could have died because of that stupid girl!"
"Feb, cut her some slack. She doesn't have any idea what's going on here!"
"Which means she's just more of a nuisance! She needs to go!"
She drifted in and out of consciousness, not really caring about where it was exactly that she was shooting through. She heard familiar voices, then some she didn't recognize. She felt herself drifting back into the darkness and was oddly grateful. She didn't want to deal with any of this right now.
Saiph! That was Saiph's voice! Was he okay? Had he gotten better?
Stirring alone brought aches and pains to her attention. Her leg muscles cramped, telling her just how much she had overtaxed them, and she dare not move her ankle. She moved her arms experimentally, finding them, too, full of bruises. If she was in this condition, that meant that Saiph must still be in his former state. She'd been hoping that there was some sort of healing magic that could be performed, like in the movies.
But this wasn't a movie. It was reality, and a harsh one at that. He had to be fine. Saiph was too strong to go down without a fight. Wasn't he?
"There. She's waking up," someone said. She thought it was Nash. He sounded relieved. But maybe that was because she couldn't really focus on things yet.
The bickering in the room died down a bit, and she fluttered her eyes open. The light that shone into her eyes brought on a huge headache, but she welcomed the pain. It reminded her that she was, indeed, alive. And it helped her focus on something other than her poor, throbbing ankle.
The faces that stared at her seemed ominous at best. There was Nash, a relieved, washed-out look on his face. There was Feb, ready to throw her out, Ara was sure. There were three faces she didn't recognize, and then ... Saiph.
He didn't look too bad, she thought, but she couldn't tell, what with the clothes he was wearing. His shirt was black, but new words were scratched on it. "I was only my own teacher." Interesting, she mused to herself, then skipped it and looked at his face. It was cold, almost like ice, except the color was too dark for that exact definition. He wasn't looking at her. That was good. She wanted to be able to think. Maybe she'd be able to if he kept his gaze averted.
Feb spoke. "She needs to go. Now."
Nash clenched his teeth. "She doesn't understand what's happening. And if she leaves, she'll die!"
"So be it!" Feb shrieked. "She almost cost Saiph his life. If Deneb hadn't arrived on the scene when he did, Saiph wouldn't be standing here right now! Dammit, Saiph, this stupid bitch almost got you killed!"
"Enough!" he snapped, taking a step forward. "That 'stupid bitch' saved my life. I hadn't been prepared for an attack. It was she who created a long enough distraction for me to call Orion."
Ara blinked twice in surprise. Orion? The constellation? Actually, Alphard had said something about Orion being Saiph's sign. And he'd called Saiph 'Hunter' ... which was what Orion was, after all. A legendary hunter. Nash was right. She had no actual idea of just what the hell was going on here.
"However," another said, and this time it was one of those whom she didn't recognize, "you must realize that you never would have been in that vulnerable position if she hadn't run off in the first place."
"It doesn't matter," she murmured, her eyes lowering. Everyone turned to her, waiting for her to continue. She didn't disappoint. "I'm just getting in the way here. It would be best if I left." She bit her lip. "I'm not wanted here."
"You're damn right!" Feb growled, but Saiph stepped in front of her, halting her next words.
"I had no right to make such a statement," Saiph said, "and it wasn't true. I do care if you die, Ara." Her eyes focused on his, shimmering with hope. His own stared back, showing her that he truly did care, that he was speaking the truth. "I know that nothing has been occurring between you and Nash, despite lewd comments made recently." Saiph glared at Nash, who just smiled innocently. "I don't want you to leave."
Ara was at a complete loss for words. What? But hadn't he been screaming at Nash about the exact opposite? About not caring about her at all? She was so lost. And with all these faces gazing at her, she wanted to sink into the floor and become a puddle of nothing, then sink through the cracks, into the drainage, and be dumped into the river. She really didn't want to be here, that's for sure.
Nash stepped forward, ever helpful in a crisis. "These are the guys we were going to have you meet yesterday," Nash told her, and she smiled to tell him her gratitude. So, she'd been out for only a night or so, then. Good. "This guy-" Nash pointed to the one who had spoken earlier, who wore his so-blond-it-was-almost-white hair to his waist, "is Baham - a real pain in the ass." She smiled shyly at him, noting his oddly dark eyes. She'd expected them to be light, like his hair. "This guy is Regulus, our own little weirdo," he said, pointing to a man with fire-red hair that almost touched his shoulders, reminding her oddly of a lion's mane. His eyes were amber. She studied them for a time, noting his extremely large muscles beneath his tan shirt and pants, then looked over to the last man.
He looked only a couple inches taller than her at most, and his hair was a light brown that he wore in a traditional cut, only his bangs longer than a couple of inches. They fell into his eyes, which were a simple brown color that seemed warm and friendly. She took to him as quickly as she had Nash. "And this guy is Deneb, the artist I've told you about."
Deneb stepped forward and took her hand. "A pleasure." He raised the back of her hand and gently kissed her knuckles. Her cheeks burned in embarrassment.
"Y-Yes," she managed, then breathed a heavy sigh of relief when he let her hand go and stepped away. Her eyes tracked their way to Saiph, who was watching her steadily. She couldn't clearly read his gaze.
Thankfully, Nash stepped in once again. "Hey, Deneb, could you heal this poor girl? Saiph said her leg was broken, after all."
"We are not helping her!" Feb raged. "Not after what she did!"
Saiph glared at her menacingly. "Don't be ridiculous. She's in pain. We have to help her."
"Why?!" Feb screeched, getting up into Saiph's face. "She's just a stupid human!"
Everything in the room just stopped. No one breathed after Feb's outburst, all eyes staring either in horror or chagrin at either Ara or Feb.
Quietly, so quietly Ara herself had trouble hearing it, she asked, "am I missing something?"
The tension in the room only seemed to blaze higher, and Ara found herself feeling very uncomfortable. She wanted to stretch and roll over and return to oblivion again, but the pain in her ankle really was killing her, and she'd have to be knocked out to get to sleep through both that and this ... thickness in the air.
She looked at Saiph, who refused to meet her gaze. Nash, too, didn't look her in the eye. Finally, she turned her head to Feb, who was glaring at everyone, then turned and glared at Ara. "What?" she snapped, almost growling in her rage.
"I don't know what you're talking about," Ara said, "and I don't know if it's in my rights to ask, considering everything I've put you all through. But, if you aren't human, then ... what exactly are you?"
Feb sniffed, as if Ara were a peasant and she a princess, then lifted her nose in the air. "A worthless human like you doesn't need to know."
"Feb," Nash said almost pleadingly, "stop it. We're here to protect these humans, after all."
"Ha!" Feb scoffed. "I'm not here to protect their sorry asses. I'm here to collect my reward - freedom. I don't need to worry about those pathetic low-lives on this planet. I-"
"Stop it!" Nash shouted, and Ara's gaze finally turned away from Feb. "Humans aren't all worthless. They're worth fighting for! So just ... shut up!" Nash's eyes fell to the floor, and Ara knew that he was upset. She tried to stand to comfort him, but a gently firm hand kept her in place.
Her eyes traveled up the length of the arm to the face and held still when she realized it was Saiph holding her down. He gave her a look that was meant to keep her still and went over to Nash. "Don't listen to her," Saiph told his friend softly, then turned to everyone. "This isn't a show. Get to your posts." To Ara's surprise, everyone obeyed, moving past Feb. She saw one give her a look of distaste - Regulus, she thought his name was - and then they were gone.
A couple of silent moments passed before Saiph exploded. "Don't you ever start something like that again!" he ordered to Feb, his arm still wrapped around Nash, his hand still rubbing his back. "You're only here because the forces thought you'd be useful. If you outlive your usefulness, we send you back, and your freedom is denied. And, quite frankly, none of us would give a rat's ass at this point. So I suggest you check your behavior from now on. Now," he continued, and his voice just fucking dared her to interrupt, "we are going to pretend like this never occurred. I will get Deneb to heal her and alter her memories, and-"
"The hell-" Ara started, but one harsh look shut her up.
"And not another word will be spoken of this. She saved my life before I brought her in, I saved hers later on. It was my fault for not truly explaining what could occur out there. Therefore, her stepping out was understandable. My leaving without proper defenses up was my mistake, and I nearly paid for it with my life. She saved me. We're even. There will be no more of this nonsense today; I'm not in the mood for it." He started leading Nash out of the room. "I will be back shortly with Deneb. If you fight, I'll throw the both of you into the dungeon. Is that perfectly clear?"
"Yes," Feb said meekly, and they both watched the door shut behind him.
Feb didn't wait the few moments that Saiph had. "You listen to me, you damn human bitch," she snarled, "Saiph is mine. I don't give a damn how good you are on this god-loving planet, but I will tell you one thing: you won't be getting Saiph. If you go anywhere near him, or even think about telling him what I've said, I'll slit both of your wrists, and bathe in your blood. Is that understood?"
Ara saw the feral gleam in the woman's eyes and dared believe her words true. Who was she? And why did Saiph and the others let her out? And from where? What was going on?
She wouldn't have to worry about all this for long. They were going to erase her memory. How much? Just the bit about them not being human, or everything? Would they leave her somewhere? Would she forget Saiph?
No! She wouldn't let them! If she had to fight them all, she wouldn't let them take her memory! Why would they need to? If they merely explained things to her ... What made them think that she wouldn't go with whatever they said? Right now, she was ready to believe almost anything. Things were just too weird for her. Odd armors, assassins arriving in the night, then able to disappear in the blink of an eye.
And she had to see if Saiph was all right. What if he was really hurt? What if he still had wounds and was just ignoring them? No, he'd said Deneb had healed him, or had at least hinted at it. That meant ... that meant that he was okay, right? But she needed to be sure. She needed to know for certain that he was all right, despite what she'd gotten him into. She'd almost gotten him killed. Feb was certainly right about that. Saiph would be dead right now, if her luck had had its way. He would have died ... because of her ... because she hadn't been quick enough, or smart enough. Just like back then...
She leaned back into her bed, closing her eyes and trying to blank everything out. Damn it. She wore the scars as reminders, stains that blackened her innocent mask. She'd lost the last of her innocence that night. Rigel ... She'd been too weak to help him, too.
"Hey, bitch, I asked you a fucking question!" Feb roared, and she realized that she hadn't said anything to Feb. Oh, shit! Her eyes scanned Feb's outraged face, her ice blue eyes glittering dangerously. "What the hell are you doing around him, human?!" Feb continued, her body taut with apprehension and hate. "You don't belong with the Fallen. No human does!"
"That's enough, Feb!"
Both women turned towards the door, Saiph glaring at Feb. Deneb had already stepped inside, and he wisely closed the door behind them, ceasing the chance of someone overhearing easily.
Feb trembled in hardly suppressed rage, and Ara knew she had to do something to break this off before things got too out of hand. She struggled to sit up, her muscles protesting under the strain. She ignored them, as she was used to doing, and bit her lip when she moved her ankle.
Saiph was beside her in an instant, gently pushing her back down. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" he whispered harshly, and she flinched at the ice in his voice. It instantly melted. "Don't move. You'll only injure yourself more." He turned and nodded silently to Deneb. The artist stepped forward.
"No!" She started struggling all over again, this time for different reasons. It was a simple thing for Saiph to grab and bracelet her wrists, then straddle her on the bed to hold her still. Not only because she now couldn't move, but she wouldn't have if she truly could. His chest was merely an inch away from hers, and teased the tips of her breasts. She shuddered in reaction to his touch. She'd never been in such a position with a man. Hell, she'd never even been kissed on the mouth. This was like running before you learned to crawl. Or something like it, at least.
She could feel his calves placed carefully around her legs, mindful of her ankle. His hips held hers fast beneath them, and his crotch was so close to hers she could lift her hips just a bit and come into full contact. She shivered again. And she could lift her head only a tiny fraction and seal their lips together. She could imagine how demanding and yet gentle he would be. She could see him as he traced his way down her jaw, then her neck, then finally as he-
Ah! What thoughts were these? She shouldn't be thinking about this now! She had to make sure that-
"You ready?" she heard Saiph ask, and Deneb nodded once in affirmative. He stretched his hands out, and it was only then that she noticed that he wore armor just as Saiph had. She couldn't see it too well beyond Saiph's shoulder, but she could make out the clear ice color that shimmered in the light.
"No! Saiph, let go of me!" she cried, and she did attempt to struggle now, though she could feel his body as she moved hers against it, and it was driving her mad. "Saiph, get off! I won't let you!"
"Dammit, I'm trying to help you!" he cried, and she could hear his palpable frustration. She felt herself stilling immediately, then found herself trying to comfort.
"Shh," she soothed, "it's okay. I just don't want to forget all of this. I can't ... I can't... please don't force me to forget all of this ... I just don't want to forget ...' You. It was on the tip of her tongue, but she quickly shied away from it. Emotions hurt, and this one was sure to rip her wide open. She couldn't afford to open herself like this, not in front of Feb and Deneb. It would be painful enough if he broke her heart privately. She still had her pride, if nothing else. "Shh, Saiph, hon, it's okay. We're fine." She didn't think before she spoke, and she didn't even realize she was stroking his hair until it was too late to stop. She could still feel him trembling, and right now helping him through whatever nightmare was running through his mind was most important. "You're okay. You protected me, just like you said you would." She leaned up and placed a kiss on his cheek without thinking.
She froze when she caught what she'd just done. She'd just way overstepped whatever boundaries there were in relationships, if you could even call their situation a "relationship." Good Lord, what had she just done? She'd condemned herself. Feb was still in here, too. What would she do? And Deneb! What he must be thinking! She shook her head and hugged Saiph to her, feeling a trembling take her up as well. But no, she had to be strong. She couldn't cry. She had to be the rock. She couldn't afford to break. Not then, not now. She had to be strong enough to survive this. And she had to save Saiph. She had to. And then, maybe, she could forgive herself for letting Rigel die.
She just then grasped the knowledge that her hands were free. He'd let them go to wrap his own around her. He held her to him, and she did the same. God, he was alive. Alive and well, dammit. He was okay. He was. He was. She knew he was, he was right here, holding her. But she'd seen him dying, had watched as he struggled to remain on his feet. And now here he was, his chest on hers, his legs straddling hers, his chin on her head, his back beneath her hands. Her face was in the cleft between his neck and shoulder, and she tenderly kissed it, more in a maternal motion than lover's. More to comfort than to arouse. They were alive. God, thank you, thank you, you kept us both alive.
"Excuse me, but do you want us to leave?"
They both jumped guiltily when Deneb spoke, and he chuckled. "I'd like to think that she'd like to have her ankle healed before you two started getting too hot."
Saiph leaned up, and her hands slipped down onto the bed again. She was suddenly very, very cold. She wanted to reach back for him, but decided that, in the end, that most definitely would not be the most brilliant thing she had ever done.
So, almost painfully, she smiled at Deneb and slacked off beneath Saiph, telling him that she wouldn't fight him. Yet.
Reluctantly, Saiph backed away. She turned to Deneb. "Are you going to make me forget?" she asked, and hated herself for the quiver in her voice.
"Just the earlier conversation," Deneb assured her. "I can be very specific with memory."
"Then ..." She wanted to run, and she knew Saiph could tell. That was the only reason she didn't try. "But I swear I won't ask again ... I don't want to-"
"Sorry, but it's SOP," Deneb told her.
"Does standard operating procedure demand you force this against someone's will?! I can understand an enemy, but ... I can't even really be called ... dammit, don't do this!" she cried suddenly, and she turned her head in shame. The emotions coursing through her were volatile and really, really painful. She hated this. If she was supposed to be with Saiph and the others, shouldn't she know the truth? Wasn't that owed to her, at least? Damn! She couldn't understand anything, and she was getting pissed off with it all. Her life was in danger. Didn't that mean that she should know exactly what position she'd put herself in?! She thought so.
She refused to look them in the eye as she felt a warmth go through her. That's what they always say occurs in the books, but they didn't mention how damn bright it was, like they really had reached the end of the tunnel and were staring right at the light. And it glowed a bit, like the same ice-blue of Deneb's armor. She could literally feel her body forming together, her ankle falling into place and sealing up. She felt an itch in her ankles, then up her legs. Suddenly, he stopped. The warmth was gone, leaving her feeling incredibly cold. She shivered and opened her eyes to stare at Deneb. Saiph had moved away during the healing process. Feb was close behind him.
Deneb's eyes were a bit wide, and they stared at her with an oddly ... she couldn't even place the emotion. A little like awe, some fear and worry. She couldn't name it, but it scared her. She feared whatever he was about to ask. "Those wounds ... on your legs. Where did you get them?"
She shook her head emphatically. "They're nothing. Old."
Saiph's full attention was on her. She squirmed uneasily under his gaze.
"They still hold a great amount of emotion. A great amount of suffering. Physically, they have healed, but not everything was. You still hurt from them."
"It's not those wounds that hurt me," she said before she could stop herself. She looked down. "Look, are you going to erase my memory or what?" She found herself beginning to hyperventilate and struggled to control it. She shouldn't be getting so ... emotional over this. It just seemed like a waste of time. No. No, that wasn't the reason she didn't want to forget.
If Saiph wasn't human, then ... what was he? And better yet, was he from Earth? Would she remember Feb calling them the 'Fallen?' Should Ara tell Saiph and Deneb that she'd said that? But Saiph had stepped in right after the announcement. Surely he already knew. And if he didn't, she certainly wasn't going to tell him. She wanted to know. He wasn't human? That meant that they couldn't be together. Well, of course. He didn't love her. He just wanted to protect her. He had a good heart, and that's why he couldn't bear the thought of her being injured. It would be his fault, at least in his eyes, and he wouldn't be able to forgive himself. That was why he watched out for her ... right?
But he'd held her just a little while ago, hugging her, shuddering as he struggled to hide his tears within. She'd almost felt his pain. Had he been worried about himself dying? It hadn't seemed like it. It had seemed more like he'd been crying for her. For almost losing her. He'd needed to know she was alive and safe. He needed to feel it, just as she had. They had held each other, feeling them beneath their fingers, hearing each other's heartbeat. That ... that could only be done in love. Love. Did he love her?
If he did, he wouldn't be making her forget. Unless he wanted her not to know, so that she would come to him-
She was getting fanciful. Daydreaming, as always. She'd always had her head in the clouds. That was something all of her teachers had agreed on. She kept her eyes on the sky ... and her mind trapped up there. Her friends laughed at her for it, too. Oh, well. She was smart enough, at least, to see the fruitlessness in it all. She knew the difference between dreams and reality when it came to men - a knowledge that not many women possessed. She'd heard all the stories of broken hearts. She was thankful that she had none of her own to tell. Well, hadn't. She supposed that, no matter what happened next, her ending wouldn't be the romantic, joyous ones that occur in the books.
"It hasn't healed," Deneb said again, and his eyes when she looked at him were very, very sad. "You still hurt inside. The scars remind you."
"Well, if you want to know so badly, why don't you just rape my mind and find out?" she demanded, but immediately saw what she done. "Oh, no, I-"
"It's all right," Deneb told her, but she knew it wasn't. She opened her mouth to speak, but he turned away. His back was rigid. "I'll be downstairs. Her memory will be left alone until later."
That was what she wanted, right? At least a little? Oh, but not like this. Not at the cost of his sadness. She couldn't let him leave like this. Deneb turned to tell Saiph one last thing, but she was the one that beat him this time. "I'm sorry! I didn't mean that! I said it without thinking; I just wanted to ... I want to ..." She struggled to say the words. "I want to stay here. And I want ... I just can't imagine not remembering something because someone purposefully made me forget. I don't want to forget any of this. And ... I ..." She couldn't say any more. She didn't know how to say that she didn't want to take the chance she'd forget Saiph, even for one second or one hour. She wanted to know everything about him. His shirts, his armor, his favorite book. And, yes ... whatever race he was.
But not with this as the sacrifice. She didn't want to hurt Deneb. He was nice, a real sweetheart. He reminded her of Rigel. Nice, kind, considerate. Sad. Always sad for others. Rigel had been everything to her. Everything. "Please, Deneb, don't hate me for this."
He smiled for her. "Do not worry," he murmured. "I understand. And no," he told her, "I didn't search for the knowledge."
She watched him leave and started to stand. The world spun crazily, and she ended up on the bed again, eyes closed. But that was only worse, and she had to keep her eyes open. Saiph's concerned face popped into view. "Are you okay?"
She smiled reassuringly for him. "I'm okay. I just tried to get up too fast." She carefully turned her head and looked around the room, trying not to meet his gaze. "I'll be fine in a minute." Probably not true.
"Your scars. We ... saw a couple of them on your legs when you were in your nightgown. They looked like burn scars."
"Saiph, she obviously doesn't want to talk about it. Give the girl some space." Feb ushered them both out of the room, much to Ara's relief. However, as soon as the door closed, Feb rounded on her. "You slut!" she hissed, and Ara could only watch as two or three of her swirled their way over to her. She sat up and managed to hold back the fingers that quested for her neck.
The fingers slipped out of her grip - she couldn't hold on - they squeezed unmercifully into her jugular. She couldn't breathe! She groaned, then decided to save up the rest of her air. She couldn't move too well; Feb kept herself at an angle that was difficult to reach ... she lifted her hand up and poked out both of Feb's eyes. She screeched and let her go, and Ara grabbed her neck, gasping and panting, feeling a cold pain wash through her. She felt water in her eyes and weakness in her limbs and had to struggle to turn her head. She watched Feb rub at her eyes, then saw the rage on the woman's face. She tried to get up, shaking in the aftereffects of her strangulation. She got out of the bed and stumbled over to the door before Feb was able to see again, and tears of pain were streaming down the woman's face; she eagerly twisted the knob, then realized that she was still in the bloody clothes that had been soaked by Saiph's ... when Saiph had been ...
The sudden nausea overwhelmed her, and thoughts of escape fled. She bent over herself and tried to control the retching that governed her body. Feb came up behind her and shoved her to the ground, where she sprawled out spread-eagled and promptly lost control over her wayward stomach.
She struggled to her feet, but was kicked to the ground again. "You're pathetic," Feb hissed. Ara looked up at her, wondering why there was no one here. Deneb must have dragged Saiph away. Or maybe they were hungry. Or maybe just tired of dealing with her. Either way, she was alone with Feb. "I don't want you anywhere near Saiph ever again," Feb growled in warning, "or I'll give you a beating you won't ever forget."
Ara glared her defiance at the woman and stood. It was a simple matter for Feb to kick her weary body back down, but she stood again despite herself. She may be a masochist, but she certainly wasn't a coward, and threats wouldn't frighten her off for anything. "Go ahead," she murmured, "give me fresh marks. And when everyone asks me where they came from, I'll tell them. You can't threaten me here, Feb." She felt blood in her mouth and prayed she hadn't lost a tooth. She quickly checked, assuring herself that all thirty-six were safely in place.
Feb's rage was more than readily apparent. The girl practically growled in her anger, then stamped back into her room, slamming the door behind her.
If it weren't for what she was wearing, Ara would have been thrilled to be away from that hateful bitch. As it was, she almost had a panic attack. She had to get out of these clothes. All she could see was Saiph, clutching his stomach, pulling his sword out, the sick sound of wet metal and moving organs, the dead crunching of ribs.
She promptly vomited once more onto the marble floor.
When she was certain she was quite finished, she looked up and smiled grimly. The bathroom was in her view, a tiny little door in the distance. She looked at the vomit on the floor, grimaced, and pulled herself around it. She would clean that up after she changed. After she was sure that she couldn't see the blood, the guts, the sword protruding from somewhere it should never have entered. She didn't want to see his hunched form, his mouth wide open like his eyes, his glassy, once-beautiful cobalt eyes. She couldn't bear seeing the blood drip from his lips, watching it splash into the pool at his feet-
She had to race to the bathroom, holding her hand over her mouth.
She had changed and cleaned up the hallway until the floor shone. Now, she didn't know what to do with herself. She had found that she wasn't feeling grubby, then she had realized that she'd been given a bath when she'd first been brought here. Then she found out that, though she didn't feel grubby, she sure as hell still felt dirty, and she could still see Saiph's blood all over her. So she'd gone hunting for towels, found a few in a tiny doorway by which she was sure Nash and Saiph had fought, and had quickly retreated to the bathroom and started the shower before anyone could stop her, trying to erase the blood from her memory more than her body. And failing.
She had finished washing he hair when the tears finally fell.