39. The Rose and the Pearl
It is quite late by the time Faction B returns to their suite. They spent most of the evening monitoring the nine captives they managed to take from the ILG, eventually sending the POWs back to Earth under escort from orbital security. It was a tedious, time-consuming job. Ema is dragging her feet now as she heads back to her personal cabin, feeling both physically and emotionally drained.
She passes an enormous picture window as she walks, a jaw-dropping portal to the stars beyond that makes its viewers feel as if they are tumbling into space. A small figure in gray clothing is seated before it, and Ema doesn’t recognize this person until she hears a familiar voice call out, “Hey, Ema!”
“Oh, Lai, it’s you!” Ema turns, her ponytail whipping out behind her. She and Lai haven’t been on friendly terms in quite some time. Ema assumed that this was because the resentment she’d predicted was beginning to set in on Lai’s side, but it seems that she was wrong, because Lai’s face holds no trace of jealousy or bitterness, just its usual vague smile.
“I’ve got a question for you,” she calls.
“Well, let’s walk and talk, then,” Ema suggests. “Our suites are right next to each other, after all. You can ask me your question on the way.”
Lai nods and scampers over. Despite the time of night, she’s energetic, even jumpy. This is odd in itself, as she’s never really been a “night owl.” But things get even stranger when she asks, “Ema, how can you tell if you’re attracted to someone?”
“You mean, romantically attracted to someone?”
Ema nearly stops up short, her eyes widening in curiosity. Lai has never shown the slightest interest in relationships before, preferring to engross herself in fictitious stories and daydream about adventures instead of paying mind to the one fantastic goal that might actually be within reach. Now that her friend has been thrust into a new, exciting lifestyle, Ema assumed that romance would be the last thing she’d be concentrating on. And yet…
“Well…it depends on a lot of things,” she answers carefully, trying not to channel her psychologist voice. “Are you asking this hypothetically, or is there actually someone you’ve got your eye on?”
“There’s this guy,” Lai admits. “We’ve been spending more time together lately, and I guess we’re pretty much friends now. But I don’t know if I like him, orlikehim.”
“Is he one of the Uniters?”
“In your faction?”
“Why don’t you ask him if he’ll go on a date with you once this mission is over? In my experience, a date is one of the best ways to judge your feelings for someone.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Why not? Does he already have a girlfriend?”
“No, but I don’t think he’s really interested in dating right now. And he’d probably think that it was really weird if I asked him out. Besides, like I said, I’m not sure if I like him that way. Maybe we’re really nothing more than friends, but because he’s a guy and I’m a girl, I keep jumping to conclusions and convincing myself that something is there, when really there’s nothing. You said that you tried to force yourself to fall in love before, so that’s why I wanted to ask you…how can you tell?”
Ema spins a loose golden curl around the tip of her finger. “Well, I don’t think thatyouhave to worry about forcing yourself, Lai. After all, you’ve never had much of an interest in love, have you?”
Lai shakes her head. “No. I’m still not sure if I do.”
“Do you get a funny feeling around this guy of yours? Or do you ever find yourself getting flustered at all?”
“No, not really.” She shrugs. “But you know me. I don’t really ever feel that way. I guess if nothing else, I am a little more open when I’m around him.”
“Well, that’s something, I suppose. From there, it all comes down to what you find attractive in a partner. For example, I like someone who’s gentlemanly, compassionate, attentive…”
“How about someone who’s intellectually stimulating?”
“Yes, that’s a good one.” Ema sniggers. “Have you been reading one of your old books again?”
“I was writing, actually. Don’t mind me, I’ve got words on the brain.” And indeed, Lai’s little Notebook Number Three is tucked securely beneath her arm. “But yeah, I guess I do like smart guys. And this particular guy…” Her eyes roam across the dim hallway pensively. “He makes me feel very unique, in a good way. Like I’m useful, like I’m fulfilling some role that no one else could ever replace me in.”
A knowing smile touches Ema’s lips. A rose is a fitting metaphor for Lai, she dcides, since normally rosebushes are nothing but clusters of thorns and dark leaves – you’d notice one if it suddenly appeared or vanished, but most of the time it’s nothing that anyone looks twice at. And then, when the conditions are right, a sudden change will come across it so that it is vibrant and blossoming, and onlookers cannot help but remark on the tenuous artistry of its curling petals, its blushing coloration. Lai has undergone a similar transformation. There is a crisp vitality to her now that was not present mere hours before. Her eyes seem less like cloudy skies and more like pools of calm gray water, and the contrast created by her hair and skin colors gives her a striking black-and-white beauty. After all, splendor is as much a product of the mind as it is of the body.
Ema wonders what her own analogy might be. Something smooth, something expected to be shining and unimpeded all the time. A diamond, maybe. Or a pearl.
“I think you like him,” she declares. “And by that I mean, youlikehim.”
“What do I do, then?”
“There’s no one correct action in a situation like this. You could get to know him a little better, or keeping being friends and just see how it goes, or just come out and ask him how he feels about you. My best advice for you is to not think too much about it, and to trust your gut instinct. Who is this mystery man, anyway?”
“Oh, this is my suite,” interrupts Lai abruptly, and sure enough, they’ve reached the temporary residence of Faction C. She clutches her notebook against her chest protectively and stands on her tiptoes in order to bring her face up to the eye-reader. It beams its little red light at her, then reluctantly allows the door to slide open.
“I take it that means it’s a secret, huh?” says Ema.
“Sort of. I’ll tell you who if it all turns out well, I guess. Anyway, good night, Ema. And thanks for the help.”
Lai slips inside without expecting or waiting for a response, and Ema sighs and shakes her head. Her mouth is still turned upwards in a knowing smile. She can so clearly recall being younger and infatuated, gradually ascending to the heights of cloud nine. She discovered that love was not a perfect defense against hurt, but that it could cushion the blow in certain situations, and that all of its trials and tribulations were worth it in the end if it only meant that she would be spending the rest of her life with the one she loved.
The one sheloved…
Her breath hitches as she realizes that past tense has becoming the ruling monarch in her head. But – no, that had to be a mistake. She was reminiscing about the beginnings of her relationship with Cade, so surely that was nothing but a mental slip. And yet, try as she might, applying that same thought to the present just doesn’t feel as natural.
I loved Cade. I don’t love Les…
She struggles to drive the treacherous truths away. Cade and Les are the same person, she knows that. After all, she’s repeated it to herself enough times.
But not enough times to be convinced of its merits, apparently.
“I’m still me on the inside.”
But I don’t think you are, Les. I don’t think you are…
Ema steps quietly over to the door to her suite. She lets it eye-read her, but doesn’t acknowledge the open door just yet. Beads of moisture settle in at the corners of her eyes. “I’m sorry, Les,” she murmurs under her breath. “I’m so sorry. I don’t want to hurt you, but I just can’t pretend anymore…”
Her conversation with Lai has unlocked a whole slew of unpleasant realities. As much as Ema detests causing pain to the ones she cares about, she loathes dishonesty even more. She knows that she will have to end this tonight, before she tricks herself into believing that this whole thing is a flight of fancy that will ease if she only waits a while. It won’t be a permanent thing, she assures herself. All she has to do is tell Les that she’s still reeling from all of this change and that she needs a bit of time to think. Surely he’ll understand that…
For the hundredth or thousandth or millionth time, she wishes that the ILG had just stayed in the realms of the impossible where they belonged. If they had, then Cade would still be here instead of Les, and she’d be together with him, free of these thoughts of separation. Her emotional side recoils in terror at the thought of being alone; her four-year relationship has eradicated much of her independence. But many other people in the world are also single. Surely she’ll grow accustomed to it.
All she can do is keep reminding herself that everything really does happen for a reason, and hope that the reason for the ILG’s rebellion will become clear in time.