Hana and Xeliana were quiet for awhile, just enjoying each others’ presence and trying to sort out their thoughts. Hana couldn’t quite believe how stupid she’d been. She had been trying to convince herself that she hadn’t been paying attention to Xeliana because she was trying to keep everyone at arm’s length so that she wouldn’t get hurt again if somebody she cared about died under her command. But if she was going to be honest, she had to admit that she’d been keeping her distance from Xeliana because of jealousy.
Which was stupid, because it wasn’t as if she’d ever cared about her looks. Even when she was in college, she’d been too busy, first with her classes, and then with revolution, to pay any attention to how she looked. Her best friend at Imperial University, Veshryk Jilorin, had often joked about how she would have been pretty if she’d ever bothered to brush her hair. Her usual response had been to roll her eyes and ignore him. There was too much work to be done to worry about being pretty. That had been true in college, and it was certainly true now. So why did she feel so threatened by Xeliana’s beauty?
Suddenly it dawned on her that it wasn’t even just Xeliana. She’d been keeping Vedregela at arm’s length for years as well, and for the same stupid reason. Not that Vedregela looked anything like Xeliana, but she was beautiful in her own way, and certainly more beautiful than Hana. And as she reflected on this further, she realized that it wasn’t even just Xeliana and Vedregela. Hana had kept her distance from every woman who’d ever been through the ranks of Starfengt.
“Do you remember Megoren?” Hana asked Xeliana in a quiet voice. A smile spread over Xeliana’s face, and her eyes lit up.
“Remember her?” Xeliana exclaimed. “I still get together with her every chance I get! Every time I have shore leave on Hechelen, Megoren and I paint the town red!”
“I see,” Hana said in a small voice.
“Why?” Xeliana asked, a thoughtful frown replacing her smile.
“Just…just curious,” Hana said, shaking her head dismissively.
“Wait,” Xeliana said, her eyes narrowing suspiciously. “You don’t mean…? That’s what happened with you and Megoren? You were jealous of her looks too?”
“No, don’t be ridiculous!” Hana said, not looking Xeliana in the eye. Xeliana just looked at her, with a firm expression on her face and her arms folded across her chest. “Okay, fine! I admit it! I kicked Megoren Vigoral out of Starfengt because I felt threatened by her beauty! Happy now?”
“Hana, I don’t understand you,” Xeliana said, shaking her head. “Every man that has ever passed through our ranks has been smitten with you. Every woman wants to be you! Heck, despite the fact that we’re the most classified unit in all of Fangalin, half the people in Fangalin know who you are and are jealous of you! You’re a hero! I just don’t understand what you of all people have to be jealous about!”
“I know!” Hana moaned. “It’s stupid! I can’t even explain it. I’ve certainly never cared about being beautiful. But maybe that’s just because I was so convinced that I wasn’t beautiful that it seemed like a waste of time and effort to even try. And then I look at you, or Megoren, or Vedregela, and I just think, what would it be like to just be beautiful?”
“Okay, first of all, you are beautiful,” Xeliana said with a sympathetic smile. “So I don’t want to hear any of this nonsense about you trying to be as beautiful as me, because you already are, whether you believe it or not.” Hana gave a skeptical snort, but Xeliana ignored her. “Second, even if you were as ugly as you seem to think you are, what do you think you’d gain by being more beautiful?”
“Yeah, I know,” Hana said, rolling her eyes. “I already told you that I know it’s stupid. You don’t have to convince me.”
“I just want you to think, Hana,” Xeliana said. “And I want you to know that I care about you, and that you can rely on me, and you don’t have to feel threatened by me in any way. You need a confidant, somebody you can trust and lean on and rely on. And it doesn’t have to be me, if you don’t think you can trust me. But I want you to know that you can trust me, and I will always be here for you, no matter what happens.”
Hana was quiet for a moment, processing this. Finally she said, “Thank you, Xel. I mean it. That means a lot to me.” Xeliana looked at her with a winsome smile on her face for a few moments, and then she stood up, walked around the table, and wrapped her arms tightly around her commanding officer. Hana’s body seemed to melt, and tears poured from her eyes, as an entire lifetime of tension and worry seemed to bleed out of her. For a long time, they stayed like that, Xeliana’s presence reminding Hana that there were still people in the galaxy who cared about her, and that even if some were lost, that didn’t mean they all were.
“Well, I suppose I oughta listen to your orders and get to bed,” Xeliana said as she let go of Hana and stepped back.
“Yes, it wouldn’t do for the XO of the unit to have to be disciplined for insubordination,” Hana replied, wiping tears from her eyes and grinning at the same time. Xeliana returned Hana’s smile, and walked toward the door.
“Xel?” Hana called, just as the door slid open.
“Yes?” Xeliana replied, looking back.
“Thank you,” Hana said, her voice heavy with emotion.
“You’re welcome,” Xeliana said with her typical winning smile. “Just promise me that you won’t shut down like that again. Everybody in this unit cares about you, Hana. Even the dumb ones.” As she turned to go, Hana found herself laughing like she hadn’t laughed in a very, very long time.
To be continued…