I never imagined myself getting involved in this war. I’d planned to throw myself into my political career after I finished with school and steer clear of my people’s conflict with the volucri, but of course, I hadn’t anticipated falling for Septima.
We’ve been acquainted since childhood, as our parents ran in the same social circles. I remember chasing her up the stairs while our parents sat at the dining room table discussing business, or maybe how humanity should’ve had a tighter claim to Electra than the bird-men known as the volucri and how these beasts wanted us all dead to reclaim the land they’d had to themselves before our people arrived. I remember eyeing with awe how meticulously pristine she kept her toys while mine had suffered breaks and scuffs from overuse. I didn’t understand how anyone could be so careful and still manage to play.
Then one evening, she tripped over a model spaceship I’d left lying on the floor and tried to steady herself by grabbing onto one of her shelves, and the impact sent one of her delicate porcelain figurines–We can’t play with those, she’d said, they’re too fragile–crashing onto the hardwood. I should’ve known from the size her eyes swelled to that something horrible was going to come of this, but I tried to calm her, to tell her that her parents would understand that it had been an accident. I ran down the hall in search of a broom to sweep the mess away, but I froze outside her door on my way back at the boom of her father’s voice from within, sliding back to flatten myself against the wall and avoid being seen.
“Stupid girl! Do you enjoy breaking things or are you just incapable of paying attention?”
I’d never heard the air go silent after a hand smacked flesh, and it wasn’t until her father had gone and I hurried into the room, broom in-hand and heart thudding like a bird’s wings against my ribs, that I understood that was what had happened when I took in the tears streaming down Septima’s cheeks and the scarlet imprint of a hand on her pale face.
It was in my third year at the Electran Arts Academy–her second–that I realized I was completely in love with her. I was running late to class already, but I paused to hold the ladder that had started to sway as she descended from hanging a poster for the upcoming dance, bits of glitter flecking her face and her smile unwavering even as the ladder wobbled. She beamed at me.
“It’s all coming together, Leo. I’ve been going crazy trying to get everything organized–we’ve gone through three different catering companies, but I think this one will work. I can’t wait for you to see all of it.”
She’d found a way to give herself some form of control over her life–she’d thrown herself into the dance preparations completely and given her whole self to them, and gods, I almost didn’t recognize her. I’d never seen her so happy, and I’d never realized how beautiful she looked when she smiled, even with her makeup smeared from sweating and her nose peppered with glitter. I realized then that I’d hardly ever seen her smile since our playdates had decreased in frequency after her father and mine had disagreed about something I couldn’t recall, and I knew I wanted to see this expression much more often. She deserved happiness, and I planned to make sure she had it.
“I can’t wait to see,” I told her. “Are you going with anyone?” She shook her head, and before I had time to second-guess the impulse, I blurted, “Want to go with me?”
Her smile brightened, and I knew I was trapped by my need to keep it in place, but I didn’t mind. If she was happy, I would be.
“I’d love to,” she said, and her blush mingled with the gold of the glitter.
Though we’d known each other for so long, I was still somewhat surprised that she agreed. I had no idea at the time that I would become so entrapped within the war effort, but my plan to ascend to the Electran Senate wasn’t something I bothered to hide, and I feared someone who disliked conflict as much as Septima would find little appeal in moving anywhere near the cutthroat world of politics. When I finally managed to ask her to dinner, however, my hands trembling behind my back as I walked her home from school the week after I’d spent the entirety of the dance unwilling to let her leave my arms, she just smiled her crooked smile and asked “What took you so long?”
I’ve always considered myself to be strong. She’s the only one who’s ever managed to bring out the cracks in my armor.
A few months ago, I was in the middle of a debate with one of my enemies in the Senate when a thunderstorm started to rock the building, and I let the man believe he’d won the argument so that I could rush home, where I found Septima exactly where I knew she’d be–curled in a ball on our bed, her hands pressed to her ears as she muttered that the storm would pass. The other Senator went on to brag about my concession, and I couldn’t find it within myself to care, despite how embarrassed I should’ve been, because at least I’d gotten home in time to hold my wife through the worst bouts of thunder.
Storms and her father are the only things I’ve ever known her to fear. I, on the other hand, have always been deathly afraid of the volucri.
The day the volucri bombed our high school, we’d been together for less than a month. I followed the masses out onto the lawn and immediately began to scan the area for her. For what couldn’t have been more than five minutes but felt like the sum of several lifetimes, I had no idea whether she’d escaped, and I’d just shoved my way through a group of teachers in my charge back toward the crackling, smoking building when I felt her hand on my arm. I can’t recall a time before or since that I’ve felt such indescribable relief, like I’d finally reached shelter after being stranded in a hurricane.
“You’re all right,” I breathed, pulling her close.
“I’m fine, Leo,” she assured me, tears shining in her eyes. A glance at her hands told me otherwise; her skin was covered in deep cuts and scrapes, blood caking her pale flesh. I reached for her wrist to lift it gently and examine her injuries, my brow furrowed. Septima sighed. “A few people were trapped under rubble. I couldn’t just leave them.”
“You could’ve been hurt. Badly. Or–”
“But I wasn’t,” she snapped. “Are you telling me you wouldn’t have helped them?”
“Of course I would’ve, but…” I paused, attempting to determine the best way to phrase my disagreement. Yes, I would’ve done the same. Yes, I knew she’d done the right thing. But the idea that she’d been in danger charged through my mind like a livid hornet, leaving my thoughts a jumbled, buzzing mess. I could handle danger, but the thought of losing her… “You could’ve been hurt,” I said again, lamely.
She stared at me for a long moment, and then her face softened and she wound her arms around me. “I’m okay,” she said.
But I wasn’t about to allow any harm to come to her again while I was breathing.
I missed our third date to volunteer for a covert group led by Lieutenant Commander Moore. He called it the Human Liberation Army, and at the time, I believed liberation was truly the goal. I thought we’d finally be fighting the volucri in the open. I thought there would be a full-on war and then this would end. I didn’t realize then that I’d signed up to become a shadow in the night, gaining information by force and disposing of those who could offer no further assistance.
Now, a little more than a year into our marriage, I’ve admitted exactly where I’ve been going after the Senate adjourns and before I stumble in covered in injuries worse than those she sustained in the bombing–a broken clavicle, a few shattered ribs, my finger cut to the bone.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have told her I’ve killed. It was a weak moment, admittedly, but I had to tell someone, to unburden myself, and she’s the only one I trust.
“How could you do this?” she demands, her fists clenched so tightly her arms tremble and shake her shoulders violently. “How could you agree to help him with something so–so insane? This isn’t you, Leo. This isn’t the man I married.” Her lips are pressed into so tight a line they’ve started to drain of color.
“Septa…” I reach out for her shoulder, but she draws it back so quickly I flinch. I let out a frustrated cry, throwing up my hands in surrender. “Don’t you get it? This is all for you!”
“For me?” She rolls her eyes and shakes her head, scowling. “That’s–”
“It’s true,” I say through gritted teeth, my fingernails biting into my palms. This time, I’ve come back with my chest aching, and I’m afraid another rib is broken, but I ignore it, for now. I need to focus on Septima. “For you and the family we’ve always wanted. Do you think I feel safe in a world where the volucri could wipe us out at any second? Do you think I want to bring our children into that world? If I can stop the volucri before they have the chance, then–”
She laughs shortly and turns away, toward the wall. “Oh, so you’re perfectly fine with throwing yourself into the line of fire. How the hell am I supposed to sleep, knowing you’re out there risking your life?”
I sigh and lay my hand on her arm, and she doesn’t pull back, though she still doesn’t look at me. “I can only sleep,” I tell her, “because I know that if I’m doing this, you won’t have to.”
“You’re ridiculous,” she says, and though her tone is hard, I catch sight of a tear sliding down her cheek. “You want to protect our future, but at what cost? I’d never have asked you to go this far.”
“I… haven’t scared you away, have I?” My heart thuds against my ribs, and I’m not sure I can bear the answer. I can’t begin to imagine my life without her.
She’s still for a moment, and then she lays her hand over mine on her arm. There’s pain in her eyes, and I hate myself for causing it. “Someone has to help fix you when you come back like this,” she says. “You’re an idiot if you think I’d let it be anyone else.”