By your side

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Romance  |  House: Booksie Classic


She was the one who chose to pursue me.

At that point I was still in my final year of university, uncertain of the direction I wanted to take with my life. She, on the other hand, despite being only a year older, already seemed incredibly driven and self-assured.

"So you're Jaina, right?" she said, extending her hand. "I'm Alex. Alex Vander."

"Uh, yeah, hi." I smiled awkwardly and returned the handshake, more out of politeness than anything else. "I've heard of you. You're a trainee at the Stellaris Corp's security division, right?"

"That I am." she said. "So, how are you finding your field study here?"

"A little early to tell. Still getting a feel for the place."

As part of our final semester thesis, everyone in my class had been tasked to do a field study at a corporation or non-profit of our choice. I ended up picking Stellaris Corp mainly because I was a little slow on the uptake and all the other options on the menu got snatched up. Not that Alex needed to know.

"Yeah, I get that." she said. "I did get a brief on Gale University's plans when we got picked as an option, and from what I understand your assignment's pretty open-ended. It must be a challenge trying to figure out how to make sense of it."

"It is." I said, deciding there was no harm in being frank. "But I think I'll manage."

"I'm sure you will." Alex said, and then she took a seat beside me. "But I would like to help you out. Mind if I tag along?"

"Are you sure? Don't you have other commitments?"

"Well, as it happens, being a trainee is pretty open-ended too." Alex smiled cheekily. "I've basically been given free reign to understand the organization and take up assignments as I see fit. So you see, I'm not just helping you out. I'm also helping myself."

"Well, in that case, why the hell not?" I said, returning her smile. "Welcome aboard, Alex."

 

The two of us clicked almost immediately. I could tell that Alex really did enjoy my company as she showed me around the place, and I couldn't help but be taken in by her infectious enthusiasm. I saw a girl full of passion and confidence, someone who may not know exactly what she wanted, but was nonetheless determined to make something of herself.

She was also someone I deeply envied. Though I had managed to work my way into what was widely considered a fairly prestigious higher-education program, I was for the most part going through the motions, still unsure of where I wanted to end up, and terrified of thinking about it. For all I knew, I could graduate and end up with nothing to show for it, which would be a terrifying position to be in.

In the beginning of the field study project, I put on a cheery, unflappable front. It was never easy for me to open up to strangers or new acquaintances, and many of my relationships had been shallow and transactional as a result. Though Alex was a fun girl to be around, I expected my time with her to end the same way.

That is, until she saw right through me.

It was about halfway into my final semester when she made a demand of me completely out of the blue. She wanted me to share a draft of my report with her.

I was utterly baffled that she would ask this of me, given that she'd seemed so easygoing until now. Or at least, that's what I'd wanted to believe.

The truth was that the signs were always there. She'd noticed me dodging her questions when they got too personal. She'd noticed me looking at her with jealousy as she bragged about moving up in her career. And she knew that I would never give her a straight answer whenever she tried to understand me better.

So this was her way of putting me on the spot. Her way of forcing the difficult conversation of how I was keeping her at arms length. 

And sure enough, when she did see my report, she used it as a pretext for what she really wanted to talk about.

"I'm disappointed, Jaina. This looks so...generic. Like, facts and figures you could get out of any online search. Canned, uncritical statements about Stellaris without any further examination. Come on, you can do better than that!"

"It's just a first draft." I said. "I'll revise it later."

"Well, even if you do, I don't think it'll reach its full potential with the way you're doing things now." she said. "I've noticed a pattern in your way of working, Jaina. You're treating this whole assignment like a glorified checklist. Just trying to tick off a bunch of boxes without really thinking about what you're trying to accomplish."

"Come on, that's not fair, Alex."

"Oh, I disagree. I think I'm being very fair, and more importantly, accurate, in describing your approach. I mean, I get that you need to do this for your graduation, but this can be so much more than that! I want you to be brave, Jaina! This is a golden opportunity for you!"

"An opportunity for what? Finding out the meaning of life in a fucking megacorporation?!"

Alex looked at me in shock. I too, was horrified at my outburst.

"Oh my God, Alex, look, I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to-"

"Relax." she smiled and gently held my hand. I didn't mind. "I'm not mad at you."

"But still, this was so unprofessional of me, and-"

"Tell you what, Jaina? How about you stop caring about being 'professional' around me? This front you're putting up is part of the problem."

"Problem?"

"Yes. I've been watching you over the past few weeks. And I think you've been holding yourself back, Jaina. You're too concerned about getting everything right, ticking off all the boxes and meeting everyone else's expectations of you. But that's not what I care about. That's not why I became friends with you."

"Then why? Why did you?"

"Because I see someone beautiful in there. Beneath all the self-doubt, the apprehension and the fear, I see a girl who can really, truly shine, Jaina. And I don't want that girl to wither away, to just become a puppet of everyone else's agendas. I want you to be free."

"Alex, I..."

"It's okay. You can take your time with this. Living up to your full potential is a process. It'll take time, and it'll take work. But I believe in you, Jaina. I know you can matter. And I want to be there, by your side, when you make it happen. Will you let me in?"

"I...I will. I'm so glad you care about me, Alex. Thank you." I smiled, as I felt my chest tighten up. I hadn't planned on it, but Alex had left me defenseless. Vulnerable. And it was one of the best days of my life.

We tore apart the draft I'd prepared, and began a new one from scratch. And less than a week later, we kissed each other for the first time, and began to date.

As time went on, Alex became a more and more inseperable part of my life. She was always there, guiding me, comforting me, pushing me. By the time the semester ended and I submitted my final report, I was head over heels for her. She was the first person I called up to share the good news with when I finally got my grades and was cleared for graduation.

And that night, we celebrated by getting dinner together, just the two of us. And I could tell where things were headed almost immediately when I saw her in that alluring black dress.

When she broached the matter of us making love to each other for the first time, I accepted without hesitation. 

 

I moved in with her less than a month later. There were so many unanswered questions in my mind, but I knew that I wanted Alex by my side as I worked my way through them. As much as she'd said that she wanted me to be free and whole, I couldn't imagine carrying on without her. She had become so irreplacable as the woman who held onto me at night, who listened to all my fears, and who helped me past my doubts.

Alex didn't complain. She indulged my neediness without any hint of annoyance or frustration. Even when I felt that I was imposing too much on her, she reassured me that she would always be there for me. That she would always believe in me.

And to my amazement, I did slowly become stronger. More resolved. More conscious of what I wanted out of my life.

I noticed that beneath the comfort and privilege I'd been raised in lay a brutal, horrific world where a minor misfortune could doom someone to a harsh, unforgiving existence. There were so many people utterly left out in the cold to fend for themselves because the powers that be could not deign to care.

But I could change that. I could use my power to help them.

I joined the Lightwardens, an independent militia and support group that dedicated themselves to improving the conditions of the downtrodden. They served as the peacekeepers to the impoverished areas, and in fact offered a lot of non-combat related support as well, such as ferrying supplies and negotiating with corporate security teams and federal law enforcement.

I was so happy when I surprised Alex with a dinner and broke the news to her.

But her reaction conveyed to me, in no uncertain terms, that life could never be so simple.

"You joined the Lightwardens?" she said, sounding shocked and agitated. "Didn't you know they've been stonewalling the expansion efforts I've been tasked with coordinating? Why didn't you consult with me?!"

That reaction single-handedly took the wind out of my sails. I didn't know how to respond.

Of course I wasn't aware of any hostilities between the Lightwardens and Stellaris. Nothing like that was ever mentioned in my job description, and Alex didn't talk about her work all that much anyway. I was aware, however, that by joining the Lightwardens, I would be butting heads with corporations every now and then, but wasn't that all for the greater good? I didn't know it'd affect Alex so personally!

"Alex, I'm sorry, I didn't know. I just..."

"No." she said, cutting me off. "No, I'm sorry, Jaina. I shouldn't have acted out like that. The Lightwardens have been causing me a lot of trouble back at my job, it's true. But..." she smiled and caressed my cheek. "That's no excuse for me to rain on your parade. I know the people there believe they're doing the right thing. That's why you joined as well, isn't it?"

"Yeah, it is. Alex, I..."

"You don't have to explain yourself to me. You are your own woman, aren't you, Jaina? That means that sometimes you'll make choices that other people, even those you love, may not take so well. But so long as you believe you're doing the right thing, don't let anyone, not even me, convince you otherwise."

I held her hand. "I just don't want to hurt you, Alex."

"I know you don't." she lowered her voice to a comforting whisper, the way she often did when she saw me getting stressed out. "Again, I'm the one who should be apologizing. Now that I think about it, this is what I've always wanted from you. Taking bold action, deciding to make a difference. This is what it means to live to your full potantial."

"Okay." I was still in tears, but I could smile through them now. "Thank you, Alex."

I kissed her hand. "And since you're apologizing, I want you to make it up to me. Comfort me, okay? I'm going to make full use of you tonight."

"I'd be happy to, Jaina." she said, as she leaned in for a kiss.

But that night, even though the sex was sweet, and Alex was so loving and warm as she held me, I still couldn't completely erase my memory of the anguish I'd seen in her eyes. I couldn't let go of that fact that I had hurt her, even though she herself had said that doing so would be inevitable as I became my own woman.

I still took solace in the fact that ultimately, she wanted me to be free. She wanted me to be happy. But I could feel the doubt stirring within me. The very same doubt that Alex had tried so hard to free me from.

 

Throughout our relationship, I'd been the more needy one. Aside from the emotional support Alex had provided for me, she also owned the house that we lived in, and earned far more at Stellaris than I could ever hope to earn working for the Lightwardens. And aside from the occasional offhand comment, she never made any mention of the tensions between Stellaris and the Lightwardens and went out of her way to be supportive towards me.

My time working for the Lightwardens, as well as my increasing awareness of this world, had made me rather resentful of the dispropportionate control corporations held over our city-state. They had a long history of manipulating Governments to serve their own agendas, and their security teams were effectively military contractors that muscled their way into domination when merely signing checks would not work.

Alex, but virtue of becoming Chief of Security at Stellaris, was perpetuating a lot of what my colleagues at Lightwardens would consider thuggery, and even borderline terrorism.

Of course, I strongly disagreed with those assessments, mainly because I wouldn't dare question Alex's motivations or villanize her. I saw absolutely no evidence that someone like her would ever knowingly want to hurt innocent people.

And yet even though I had the utmost faith in her intentions, I couldn't deny that Stellaris was causing considerable harm to the marginalized in practice. They were incredibly aggressive in acquiring lands to mine them for minerals, or for constructing proving grounds for their newer technologies. And this land was often seized from dwellers trying to eke out a modest living.

I never allowed my judgment to be clouded by irrational outrage, however. The truth behind a lot of these problems was immensely complex, and often the best of intentions couldn't compensate for the harsh realities of this world. So whenever I did critique Stellaris when talking to Alex, I was sure to be respectful and open-minded in the way I put things.

Alex recognized my restraint, and often praised me for it. She was in fact subjected to much harsher and unsympathetic variations of my criticisms on a regular basis, so talking things out with me actually allowed her to consider the substance of the issue without feeling defensive or combative.

"I'm so lucky to be with someone like you." she whispered one night, as we cuddled together after a particularly satisfying romp. "You keep me grounded, Jaina. You keep me sane. No matter what I have to deal with, I know I can talk it out with you if I need to. That means so much to me."

"Thank you." I smiled and felt a tear run down my cheek. "I've leaned on you so much all this time. To know that you can lean on me too, it feels wonderful, Alex. It really does."

She gently wiped the tear off my cheek and kissed down my neck. "I love you so much, Jaina. I want to stay like this, forever."

"Yeah." I smiled. "Forever and ever. Just the two of us."

I could see myself becoming more and more her equal, more dependable, more kind. It made me so happy.

"I want to stay with you." I whispered. "For the rest of my life. Marry me, Alex."

"That's just a formality." she said. "As far as I'm concerned, we're already bound for life, Jaina. As partners, in every sense of the word."

"I know. But I want to commemorate it. Make it memorable."

"Sure, we can do that." she smiled as she kissed me on the lips, and we drifted off to sleep in each other's arms.

We never did get our grand wedding, though we did become legal wives for practical reasons when I failed to secure health coverage when working for the Lightwardens. The second I told Alex, she rushed me over to the courts and got us married, and the next day changed her health plan at Stellaris to get me covered.

Part of me did wonder if there was some sort of conflict of interest at play because of this, but Alex emphatically told me not to worry. She said that when push came to shove, I would always come first for her, and I trusted her. I believed her.

It was on our fourth anniversary that Alex finally followed through on her promise to make our relationship memorable. She told me to come to the Ahnerbe amphitheatre, but I had to be there alone. She'd go on ahead to make "preparations" and we'd only see each other when they'd been "completed".

So I spent most of the day alone at home, pondering over what she was planning, until the appointed hour came and I drove on over, still clueless.

As soon as I walked into the theatre, I saw the lights dim, and a spotlight shine on me. And that's when I saw it.

A majestic figure in imposing armor walked towards me, the face cloaked, and its voice booming and harsh in tone.

"The princess has arrived! And so I must declare to her my oath!" it screamed.

"Princess, what princess?" I muttered in shock, and as if to answer my question, the figure in armor whisked me into its arms and flew me out of the amphitheatre.

"Hey! Hey, let me go!" I screamed in panic, but the figure replied in a low, soothing voice. "Do not be afraid. I will never let any harm come to you. Protecting you is my solemn vow. My one oath above all else."

It was then that the realization dawned on me.

"Alex, is that you?"

"Indeed, it is I! Alex, the knight of Vander, here to serve you!"

Alex flew me over to the surrounding city, all the while breaking into a grandiose monologue.

"Only a beautiful world could have given rise to a princess as fair as you. But where there is beauty, there is also decay. Where there is love, there is despair. Only by protecting what is beautiful can we hope to rise above the horrors that surround us. Only by nurturing and caring for my princess, can I truly find my purpose in this world."

Alex flew me back into the amphitheatre and set me down. She then knelt before me.

"And so I swear to protect and care for you princess. Now and forever. On my oath as a Vander, I promise that I will be your faithful knight, always by your side."

It was then that the mask she was wearing got retracted, and I got to see her smile. Her smile which was so reverent, so devoted...all for me.

I had my own knight in shining armor. Right here and now. This was her gift to me. Her idea of making this moment memorable.

She took me hand in hers, and it felt cold because I was holding steel. She then rose up, and pulled me in for a kiss.

And that didn't feel cold at all.

"Happy anniversary, my love. My princess."

"Alex, I..."

I could feel the contours of her armor as she held me close and kissed me again. It wasn't bulky, but I still felt the the coldness of the steel, the firmness of its strength. This was no mere costume. This was the real deal.

She didn't give me much room to speak, hungrily kissing me over and over again. I didn't mind, although it certainly was a little tiring to be closely embraced by an armored figure. I could feel the weight pressing down on me.

Finally, Alex stopped indulging herself and pulled back, her face wearing an expectant smile. "So, how was it?"

"It...it was amazing. I never thought you'd go this far Alex. And all this...just for me. Thank you so much!"

"I was just affirming my duty to you, that's all." Alex said, with a warm smile. "Did you know that knights of Vander were a real thing?"

"Huh? Really?"

"Yup. I'm descended from a long line of knights from the medieval and Victorian eras. They were tasked with protecting the nobility and royalty of their lands, with their lives if need be. Of course, stories of love between the knights and princesses were more frequent in chivalrous legends than in real life, but I'm happy to say that our love story is very, very real Jaina."

"I know. I know it is. I love you so much!" I said, and this time I was the one who pulled her in for a kiss.

This was so amazing! She did all of this for me! Recounting her family history, going back to her chivalrous roots, even bringing this fancy suit of armor!

Wait, a suit of armor...?

That's when it hit me.

"Hey, Alex." I said, pulling back. "This armor. Where did you get it?"

"Oh..." her exuberant smile faded. She knew what I was getting at, didn't she?

"They're..." she stammered, immediately losing the showy eloquence she'd been displaying. "This is armor for our new elite ops team. It's a team I'm heading."

"Elite ops...what for?"

"Tensions have been on the rise, Jaina. Stellaris is planning something major, and for that we need all the resources we can get. And unfortunately, that means we're under pressure too. We can't keep letting all these militias stall us anymore."

"B-but Alex, then..."

"Hey, I know." she pulled me in for a hug. I knew she was trying to calm me down, but I didn't feel calm. The cold steel of her armor only heightened my anxiety. "I'm not saying we're going to mow them down, okay? That's not what Stellaris does. That's not what I do. But the stakes are high, Jaina, and we need to take decisive action. This elite unit will be a show of strength, and I can negotiate a lot from a position of strength. You understand me, don't you?"

"Alex, were you going to tell me, if I hadn't noticed...?"

"I...I don't know, Jaina. I just wanted to impress you for our anniversary, give you something to remember. But I meant every word of my oath. Every word of what I said. That's all that was on my mind, I swear to you."

"I know, Alex. I know." I felt my fears melt away as I smiled and kissed her. "I know you love me. I know I'm your princess. And I know that it's a knight's duty to protect the realm no matter how hard it gets. That's why I'm worried about you. As any princess would be."

"Jaina..."

"Alex, I know how hard it must be to be a knight. I know the burden of your duty is immense. That's why I have one small request for you, as your princess."

I caressed her cheek.

"Don't let it become too much, okay? I'm glad you're protecting me, but I don't want to lose my precious knight out in battle. No matter what. The moment it becomes too dangerous, the moment you can't handle it anymore, I want you to come right back to me. I'd be so sad if I couldn't see my knight again. I don't know if I'd be able to take it, Alex!"

"Jaina..." I could hear her voice crack. "I...I promise you! No matter what happens, I will always come back home to you! You don't have to worry about being alone! I'll never leave you alone! Never!"

She was crying now. This was the first time I'd seen her cry. For so long, she'd been the one to comfort me. The one to bear my burdens. Even now, she vowed to be the knight who would protect me.

But right now, as of this moment, it was my turn to care for her. To bear her burdens. 

To be the princess she could lean on.

 

Love was just as much about enduring the bad times as it was celebrating the good. I really couldn't describe what I had with Alex in words. It wasn't that she always made me happy. It wasn't that she always made my day better.

But I now knew that even with all the hurt and pain she put me through, that I put her through, we wouldn't have it any other way. Because we cared about each other in a way that we never could about anyone else. That was a truth that I did not expect to ever change.

And so it was that even in the face of the greatest betrayal I had ever faced, I would still never leave her side.

 

It happened eight years into our relationship. While my time with Alex was in many ways more fulfilling than ever, my professional life as one of the Lightwardens was falling apart. The federal and local laws were increasingly being weighted against our operations, forcing us to relinquish hard-won victories as corporations continued expanding their hegemony. While Stellaris was turning out to be our biggest adversary in this regard, they were far from the only ones.

More and more communities were lost to oligopolies where they found themselves at the mercy of corporations that had agreed to mutually split territories between them. In fact, Alex herself had been a major proponent of these oligopolies, arguing that they minimized the need for violent takeovers, and frankly I agreed with her. Seeing her conscience ease up during our nights together was the biggest comfort I felt in these times. Even if I was losing me own battles, as long as Alex was staying strong, I hadn't lost everything.

Alex never truly bought into my cynicism of corporate intentions. She firmly believed that Stellaris was fundamentally a force for good, and that the people in charge meant well. Though that did mean that she would never turn against her employers, it also meant that she remained incredibly open to my feedback, no matter how harsh it got. She consistently gave me credit for providing her a fresh perspective that she could then report to her superiors, even though I couldn't shake my cynicism of how much of it would be seriously considered.

Nonetheless, I agreed with her point that neither of us could truly know what the people in power believed. It was perfectly okay for one of us to believe the best of them, and the other to fear the worst. The world was full of these ambiguities, so you couldn't really draw a line in the sand about these matters.

Alex was also incredibly considerate in recognizing that I needed to lean on her once more, and she frequently threw across opportunities my way that I could latch onto in the event my time with the Lightwardens truly fell apart. It did sort of wound my idealistic pride to consider becoming another corporate worker after spending so many years pushing back against them, but I couldn't fault Alex for her sincerity.

"We need to go on vacation." she said one night, as we cuddled together.

"Huh?" I said. I was feeling rather drowsy, and close to drifting off to sleep.

"We need some time away from everything, Jaina." she caressed my hair and kissed me. "I think it's times when the world gets too crazy that you really need to pull back. Get some perspective. There's just so much chaos just waiting to suck you right in, you know."

"Yeah, you're probably right." I said and brushed by cheeks against her breasts. "But where would we go?"

"I haven't thought that far. But when we do go, we'll disconnect. No wi-fi, no work emails, none of that crap. It's just going to be me, you, and the breeze. And when we come back, the world will still be there. None of these great big problems matter as much as we think they do. What matters is how we take care of ourselves and each other."

"You're right." I said, kissing up her neck. "As long as we can keep snuggling like this, I'll always have hope. You're my hope, Alex. I love you."

"I love you too." she smiled and kissed me as I drifted off to sleep.

 

I really wanted that vacation, but for the next week Alex made no mention of it. She seemed increasingly preoccupied, and I was getting somewhat frustrated that she wouldn't be clear with me as to what was going on.

At the same time, the Lightwardens had grown increasingly tense. One of the settlements under their protection had just retaliated against corporate pressure, though a lot of the details weren't clear. Nonetheless, upper management had decided to fully support this settlement's efforts, and I understood their reasoning. If we couldn't protect vulnerable people when they needed us most, who could we protect? We knew that the system was rigged against us, but we had to fight back. Whichever corporation it was.

It seemed a good way to channel my frustration as well. All this time, I'd seen the people in power turn against us, marginalize us and essentially try to exhaust us into giving up, and the most supportive voice I'd come across was herself a corporate loyalist. I absolutely hated the idea of confrontation, especially given my relationship with Alex, but if a gentle approach would get us nowhere, I was ready to push harder.

That is, until I learned just what it was I'd gotten myself into.

That day, like every other in the week, Alex said she'd be working late as she kissed me on her way out. I'd been instructed by the Lightwardens to stay at home and stand by. Apparently, it was getting rather dangerous since a corporate security team was about to make their move. By keeping more of us at home, the Lightwardens wanted to minimize making targets out of us.

Then I got the call.

"We're under attack!" Johan, my commanding offer yelled. "All units, mobilize in defense of the settlement! We're getting rounded up. Those who resist are getting shot! This is an emergency!"

An abject terror seized me. Never in all my years of working for the Lightwardens did I ever anticipate getting mobilized. I'd deliberately avoided the front lines when picking my assignments. I'd wanted there to be room for me to tend to this home. To spend time with Alex. I had resolved, from the very beginning, not to let this work consume me. It was something I took great pride in, as it allowed me to help Alex out from her own obsessive tendencies.

But none of that mattered now. The one situation that I'd feared for the most, but never ever believed would come to pass, had happened. I was being mobilized.

There was no time to think. The future of the Lightwardens, of the people I was protecting, was at stake!

I loaded up my firearm and got into my car, heading straight for the coordinates they sent me. I had my gun loaded with rubber bullets, of course, since the thought of taking another life still horrified me to no end. Nonetheless, I could switch my chamber to live ammunition with the press of a switch if it came to that.

I dearly hoped it never came to that.

As soon as I reached the destination, I could see that a war had broken out. And the Lightwardens were being hopelessly overrun.

I ran up to the collapsed bodies and checked on them. They were wounded, paralyzed, but most of them weren't dead, or anywhere close.

Most, but not all.

Two corpses lay in front of me. Once man, and one woman. I could see their arms had been blown off, still clutching the steel knife and pre-21st Colt Revolver respectively. Lethal arms.

"It's over..." I heard one of the men cry. "They overran us! It's all over!"

Anger burned up inside me as I grabbed my gun and marched forward to survey the scene. But that anger quickly turned to despair as I heard the gunfire die down and the smoke clear.

"All targets down!" I heard a voice say. "Sweeping for stragglers."

Stragglers?! That would include me, wouldn't it? What would they do to me if they saw me? Would I get shot too? Lie down on the ground in agony, like-

"Don't move a muscle!" a figure yelled as it pointed its weapon at me. A figure...in combat armor.

No...

"Back off!" I pointed my gun at it. "Back the fuck off!"

No, it couldn't be them, this couldn't be happening!

"Lay down your weapon, or I will shoot!"

"No...no it can't...it can't be...."

Why? Why did you do this?! HOW COULD YOU DO THIS?!

"Last chance, miss...oh." the aggression in his voice completely disspiated as he seemed to recognize me.

"Go away!" I was crying now. The gun was still in my hand but I didn't know where I was aiming. "Go away damn you, go away, go away, go away!!!!"

"Yes, I understand." the voice said. "Ma'am, I'm just going to take your weapon now. Please, no sudden movements."

"No, no, no, no! You wouldn't, you wouldn't..."

The weapon was swiped out of my hands in an instant. It was over. It was all over.

All because...of her.

I fell down to my knees and burst into tears.

I didn't know how much time had passed, but it seemed like an eternity to me. It hurt so much. So, so much.

The pain wouldn't go away. Couldn't go away. Not after what she'd done to-

"Jaina!"

"Huh?" I looked up, and there she was. Still in her armor, but unmasked. Her look only that of concern.

"Hey, are you alright, babe?" she knelt down and reached for me, but I flinched and crawled back.

"Jaina, I..." she seemed at a loss for words for a bit, then extended her hand. "Come on, get up. I'll explain everything, but you need medical attention right now."

"Why, Alex? Why...why did you...?" the tears were still clouding my vision.

"Commander, should we tranquilize her? I think she's too unstable right now."

"No." she said firmly. "No tranqs. She'll come around, let's be patient."

"Oh, Alex..."

"Hey." her voice was a whisper now. That whisper, whenever she wanted to calm me. Comfort me. 

"I know, alright? I know how this looks. And we will talk, Jaina. I promise you. But let's get you checked up, alright?"

"Damn it, Alex! Damn it all!"

"I know, Jaina. I know." still a soothing whisper. Still trying to comfort me. Even after all this?

"Come on, Jaina. You'll be safe, and we'll discuss everything, alright? Just come with me."

"O...okay..." I said, and took her hand.

 

There were no physical injuries, though the EMT did recommend I be further examined for signs of PTSD. The on-site psychiatrist could not come to a conclusion, but I stablized soon enough that I was allowed visitors.

It was strange, waiting all alone in that dark room. I felt like absolute rubbish, but I didn't want to leave either. I didn't want to face the truth, even though it was burned within me.

I'd stopped keeping any track of time. I had no idea what time of day it was.

That is, until the door opened, and she came in.

Alex Vander. The commander of the Stellaris team that mowed down the Lightwardens I'd been working with.

I'd figured it out, of course. That's why it was so painful. That's why the very sight of her brought back the horror. The anger. The tears. The despair.

"Hey, Jaina."

"A...Alex..."

"Look, I told you I'd explain everything, and that's why I'm here. I know you've got a lot on your mind, but hear me out first. After that, you can say whatever you want to say, okay?"

I felt defeated. Powerless. Of course there was no other way to do this.

"Okay." I murmured.

"As you're probably aware, one of the settlements under the Lightwardens' protection retaliated against Stellaris earlier this week. As a result, we decided to quell this uprising by apprehending and dispersing both the residents of the settlement, and any Lightwardens who would come to their defense. The operation was meant to be forceful, but with minimal lethal casualties. There were two fatalities, however, among the Lightwardens. They attempted to use lethal force on our agents, and were dispatched in self-defense."

"Self-defense, huh..." I muttered.

"The original plan was simply to retake the settlement and scuttle the Lightwardens in the process. I was under strict orders of secrecy, and so I couldn't discuss this with you. When I saw you staying at home on the day of the operation, I'd hoped you wouldn't get involved. However, the Lightwardens did issue a mobilization order that we didn't anticipate, and I'm guessing that's why you showed up."

I slowly nodded my head.

"Aside from the two fatalities, every Lightwarden who was subdued is being given medical attention. While the leadership will be charged under domestic terrorism laws, Stellaris has decided to release all lower-level operatives, including you, without charges. As of this moment, you're free to go, Jaina."

"And what if they did charge me, Alex?" I said. "Would you go along with it. Let them charge me as a domestic terrorist?"

"Jaina, I...I was the one who negotiated with board. Their original plan was to make an example out of all of you, but I pushed back. I wanted to minimize the number of people who got hurt in all this. They wouldn't budge on charging the leadership, but at least I got to protect everyone else! At least I got to protect you!"

"Protect me?!" I spat. "You killed two of my comrades! You ran us all over with riot pellets and batons because we dared to stand up for the little guy! You call that protection?!"

She didn't seem too shocked at my outburst. I could tell she fully expected it.

"I know, Jaina. I know what I did was harsh. Brutal, even. And I'm not asking you to forgive me. I've even made arrangements for you to get your own housing until you can get back on your feet. I know you care for the people who lost their homes, the people you were trying to protect. But I have to look at the bigger picture. I have to understand the consequences of letting these acts of rebellion slide."

"Yeah, of course you need to look out for your precious well-meaning megacorps!"

"It is hard to look at them that way after what just happened, isn't it?" she smiled ruefully. "I'd be lying if I said it didn't bother me how aggressive they are. How quick the board is to crush their opposition. How so many people in Stellaris seem proud of flaunting their wealth at the expense of others. But I didn't stick with this job because I condone any of that, Jaina. I stuck with it because I truly believe that Stellaris is our best hope in spite of it all."

"How?"

"We're providing order to this world, Jaina. You and I both know that with so many people having such divergent agendas, anarchy is inevitable unless we can prioritize things. Someone needs to step up to the plate and decide what truly matters and what doesn't. And I don't think there's anyone out there who can excel at such a responsibility all the time. Everyone in power will be flawed, severely flawed even. Stellaris is no exception to that. But when I think about everything the organization has accomplished, what we hope to accomplish, I know we're making lives better, Jaina. I understand that's hard for you to believe right now, but it's true!"

"And that makes all of this okay? Driving people from their homes, crushing them when they fight back?"

"That's the calculation I have to make as Chief of Security, Jaina. At what point does criticism become enough of a threat to our order? At what point does the spark of rebellion threaten to burn down everything we've worked so hard to build? I believe that what the settlers did this time was a threat to our order. If left unchecked, it would have sparked off a rash of revolts that would've ended in anarchy."

"So if you had another chance, you'd do this all over again?"

"I would."

"Just...just what was the point of it all, Alex?" I said, breaking down in tears. "You told me to be free, to be my own woman! I chose this path! I chose it, and I trusted you to stand by me! And you took it all away, Alex! You took it all away!"

"I know I've hurt you, Jaina. And I'll always have to live with that. I'll do whatever I can to make it up to you, but I can't abandon my principles. I'm sorry."

"I...I loved you, Alex! I loved you!"

"And I still love you, Jaina. I understand if you no longer believe me, but I do! I'm not abandoning you, not now, not ever. I'm just ready to accept that you might not want to be with me anymore."

"You...you'll only hurt me again. You'll tell me I can be my own woman, and then you'll crush me if I go too far. How...how can I ever..."

I felt her arms wrap around me as she held me in her embrace. 

"No, don't say that." her voice was cracking. "I...I never wanted to crush you, Jaina. Please, don't say that!"

"A...Alex..."

"I'm sorry..." she was in tears too. "I tried to keep my cool, to let you walk away, but I can't take this, Jaina! I...I never wanted to hurt you, why don't you see that?!"

"But you did hurt me..."

"I know, and I'm sorry! I'm so sorry I put you through this! Even though I saw no other way. But I love you, Jaina. That hasn't changed. Even when I saw you , kneeling down, crying, I wanted to make sure you were okay. That's the only thing I care about now."

She kissed me on my forehead, and pulled away.

"No matter what you do from now on, I'll keep on rooting for you. I'll support you however I can. Even if you...rebel against us again, I'll do everything in my power to protect you. I just....don't want you to see me as your enemy. Is that too much to ask?"

"Y-you're not my enemy, Alex. I know you're not, but..." I paused and took a deep breath, "Why does it have to be so hard? Why did you and I have to see things so differently? Why did all this...all this violence happen, Alex?! And why didn't you tell me? I....I've been so blindsided...by everything...."

"I was just doing the best I could, Jaina. Staying true to my values. Doing right by Stellaris. Maintaining order. I was just hoping you'd never find out like this...but that was foolish of me. Even if I was sworn to secrecy, maybe I could've done something more to protect you. I'm so sorry I didn't..."

"Alex, I..." I wiped my tears but they kept flowing. "This is still going to sting, you know that, right? Even if I stay with you, what you did...will still leave a mark..."

"I know, and I'll live with it. I know things can't be the same between us, Jaina. But do they have to be? We're always changing, and growing. And sometimes we fuck up. We hurt each other even when we're trying to do the right thing. But I promise you, Jaina, I will do everything I can to make it up to you, to make sure I don't make the same mistake again. You can stay with me, or you can leave, but I will always love you."

"Yeah..." I murmured, and finally smiled again. "I know you will, Alex."

And I caressed her cheek, and leaned in for a kiss.

She hesitated at first, before returning it, and we lost ourselves in the moment, realizing that we hadn't lost each other at all. We were still here. Our love was still here.

"Thank you." she whispered. "Thank you for giving me another chance, Jaina. I promise you won't regret this."

"I trust you." I said, holding her close. "Maybe not to always make the best decisions, but I do trust you to always care about me. Always look out for me. And I trust that you'll always be true to yourself, and do what you think is right."

"Then I'll whatever I can to live up to your trust, Jaina. So, how about we go home now?"

"Yeah." I kissed her. "Let's go home."

 

It took some time for us to fully heal, and indeed things were never quite the same between us. I knew now that Alex was firmly loyal to the corporate hegemony, and while she still respected my feedback and efforts to change things from within, she made no secret that she would put down any efforts to truly dismantle the system as it stood.

For my part, I too made an effort to avoid confrontation as much as possible, and though I never ended up as a corporate drone, none of the other initiatives I worked on had the ambition or aggression that the Lightwardens did. We had all essentially accepted that Stellaris and their ilk would rule over us.

However, Alex did surprise me by how much more proactive she was being in taking care of my needs. Very rare became the days when she worked too late anymore, and I could see how determined she was to keep coming home and spend some time with me. And on occasions where she did end up cracking down on protests, she made it a point to discuss the entire event with me, asking for my complete, unfiltered feedback, which she forwarded to her superiors.

As a result, some interesting changes did happen. Alex got a lot more autonomy in how she handled her job, which led to a decrease in the brutality of operations across the board, as the more sadistic elements of the security forces were reigned in. However, the fundamental purpose of her job never changed, but neither did Alex's fundamental nature as a woman determined to do right as much as she could, so I wasn't too bothered by that anymore.

As for me, while there were certainly limits on the kinds of actions I could push for, there was no filter on my speech. Alex made it a point to support me in that endeavor as much as she could, even when I was viciously critical of Stellaris and other corporations. She never once cracked down on people simply for speaking out, and while that may have been cold comfort to those who's more aggressive revolts were crushed with an iron fist, it was a compromise I was happy to live with.

Alex had a point when she said that the great problems of the world didn't matter as much as how we took care of ourselves and each other. Eventually the chaos and tragedies that engulfed our society, as well as our roles concerning them, always took a backseat to having an intimate dinner, making love to each other, basking in each other's warmth as we planned our next getaway.

The world was always there. Shifting, changing, and ultimately impersonal. But I knew now that every moment I spent with Alex was a gift tailor-made just for me. And every moment she spent with me was a gift just for her.

"I think that's what love really is for me." she said as I lay on her lap, euphoric from our lovemaking and snuggling close to her as she played with my hair. "It's the feeling that someone matters to me. And not in a generic, impersonal sense. You matter to me precisely because of who you are, Jaina. The way you look, the way you speak, the values you hold, how it feels to be close to you. All of these add up to you, and that's what is precious to me."

"I understand that, Alex." I smiled. "Looking back on everything I've been through with you, I wouldn't change a thing. Because all these moments are what made you, you. And I will always treasure you, because of who you are."

She continued to pet my hair as she kissed down my neck, and fondled my breasts. This too, was love.

I snuggled closer to her, until I was up to her ears, and whispered, "So let's go on another vacation. Soon." and she smiled and kissed me in response. This too, was love.

Finally, as I grew drowsy and began drifting off to sleep, Alex whispered to me, in a voice fraught with emotion. "So on my promise of making it up to you, I'm doing well right? You're happy right?"

I opened my eyes wide open, gently brushed her cheek with the palm of my hand, and said, "I am happy. You're doing amazing, Alex."

That too, was love.


Submitted: December 28, 2020

© Copyright 2021 Pulak Km. All rights reserved.

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