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First, Learn to Love Yourself

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The compromise is one that Tengaar can live with.  She speaks politely, not letting herself slip into the coarse, masculine dialect she adopted years ago, matching her patterns to Hix's, and she's allowed to be Hix's intended.  It works: she'd rather have this than be separated from him, forced to be the wife of a man who would beat all desire to fight out of her.

But Hix hasn't made a similar compromise, because he's afraid.  Tengaar can see the hesitation in his face, the inability to move for those critical seconds when she's already stepping forward.  Hix's first instinct will always be to shy back; Tengaar's first instinct will always be to fight.

If I had the body of a boy, she thinks, not for the first time, I would stand between you and the world.  I would protect you so that you never knew you were in danger, and nobody would be able to stop me.

It can't be this way, of course.  The village has made it very clear that the time for Tengaar's childish fancies is past, that it's time for Hix to become a warrior in truth.  But it's Tengaar who recognizes what she needs to do first, as always, carrying Hix along in her wake so that he doesn't get left behind with everyone who would jeer at him and keep him from attaining what Tengaar knows he can.

Still, it gets frustrating sometimes, when Hix doesn't understand what he needs to do.  When Tengaar looks at her knives and her runes in frustration and wishes her hands were large enough to carry a sword.  When they get welcomed into another army and once more Tengaar finds herself wistfully watching the women of other countries, who carry swords and dress as men.

It's even more frustrating when Hix keeps losing to them.

"Hix," Tengaar moans, tugging at her hair, "you can't just throw the fight because Anita's got breasts!"

"I-I'm not!" Hix stammers, while Anita grins a syrupy, shark-like grin.

"He's really not," she said.  "Your cute boyfriend's trying hard.  I'm just that good, girl."

Tengaar grits her teeth.  "I'm not gonna be called girl by--" Shit; too late, she clamps down on the words, forces them back with effort until she's choking on them, until she can grind them out in the proper language.  "I mean, don't call me-- Please don't call me that."  Her eyes are watering with the effort by the time she's done; she sounds simpering and cowardly.

She can tell by the way Hix's eyes track her that he knows, that he's thinking of all those nights they snuck off together because neither of them could bear the words anymore.  But Anita still looks like a shark, delighted, the blood of Tengaar's too-strong heart pumping furiously into the water faster than she can staunch the wound.

"I'll call you what I like, girl," she purrs.

Tengaar could bear it from anyone else; she could even take it as a compliment, that she's learning the right way to blend in, that they all see what's in her face and on her chest instead of looking at her heart.  But Tengaar can tell by Anita's sharp-eyed gaze that she sees something, she's too close.

"Tengaar," Hix says, his voice pitching sharply upwards.

"You're the one who sounds like a girl!" Tengaar bites out at him, and then she's fleeing the training hall.  It could be a dramatic exit, except that she runs smack into a wall of flesh, and the wall of flesh casually scruffs her like a kitten.  "Let go of me!"

The wall of flesh is one of those bandits who joined the army, the woman, who was held captive by the Neclord same as Tengaar.  "Anita, you fucking won, stop beating up on helpless kids," she says.

Anita snorts, but when Tengaar risks a glance over, she's looking away.  "The kids are in the army.  They can look out for themselves."  Tengaar knows capitulation when she sees it, though, and Anita's lazy, casual stretch is exactly that.  She ambles away like the whole thing was her idea, and Hix steps forward to babble apologies in his own way.

"I'm really sorry, we didn't mean to make you--" he starts, and Tengaar closes her eyes.

You really do sound like a girl, she thinks, and in the privacy of her mind she can feel that helpless, hopeless affection rise up in her, the urge to cut him off and protect him from himself, before he says anything incriminating.

She's already said too much, so she kicks the bandit in the shin.

Lo Wen-- that's the bandit's name, Tengaar thinks, or something like that-- frowns and shakes Tengaar a little by the nape of the neck.  "Ow," she says.  "Don't do that."

"Tengaar," Hix says, his voice a muted wail, and Tengaar can hear the desperation.  In his own way, he's trying to protect her, too, but it's too late this time.  She glares at him to try to make him see that.  She also kicks Lo Wen in the shin again, harder this time.

"Ow!  Fucking brat!"  Lo Wen shakes her again, and Tengaar's teeth clack painfully.  "Okay, you're coming with me."

"I-I… I won't let you hurt Tengaar!" Hix declares, bringing his sword up, and Tengaar almost smiles.  He's doing it right this time.

But Lo Wen doesn't look impressed.  She shakes her head and looks down her nose at Hix.  "I'm not gonna hurt your friend," she says.  Tengaar's breath stutters as she tries to catch up to what she's hearing.  "We're just going to have a little talk."

"Wait," Tengaar says breathlessly, and she tries to twist in Lo Wen's grip, but Lo Wen's moving, now, out of the training hall and into the sunshine, past a group of kobolds and back inside again to the dim lighting of the tavern.  Lo Wen pushes her none too gently into a chair, and Tengaar yelps.  "Wait, you-- you said--"

Lo Wen throws herself into the chair opposite Tengaar and raises a hand.  "I need alcohol for this conversation."

There it is again, and Tengaar feels like a flower unfurling in the sun.  Lo Wen's speech is more rough and masculine than Tengaar's ever was.  "People just let you speak like that?" she breathes.

Lo Wen shrugs one shoulder.  "Who's gonna stop me?"

Tengaar bites back the automatic, bitter answer of, "everybody," and leans forward on her elbows as Leona sets a drink down in front of Lo Wen.  "What-- what about those other bandits?  They don't mind?"

Lo Wen raises the drink halfway to her mouth, then sets it down with a heavy clunk and a slosh.  She looks at Tengaar.  It's like with Anita; Tengaar can feel that gaze creeping in past her ribs, looking straight at the heart of her with its heavy, boyish beat.  But Lo Wen isn't Anita.  "Kid," she says, and stops.

Tengaar closes her eyes and unfurls a little more towards that word.  It feels like those dreams she had when she was younger and didn't know any better.  It feels like coming home.

Lo Wen sighs heavily, and Tengaar opens her mouth in time to see Lo Wen taking a heavy gulp.  When she speaks again, she sounds tired.  "Kid, stop being dumb about this.  Your boyfriend isn't gonna thank you for yelling at him all the time."

Tengaar bristles.  "What would you know?" she spits out.  "He needs me!"  Nobody was taking Hix under their wing at the village; nobody could be bothered to train up a boy who flinched at his own shadow, who wanted to be polite and do the right thing, who only blossomed when Tengaar stepped in to guide his path.

"Okay," Lo Wen says, placid.  "But I don't think you screaming at him that he's a girl is gonna help anyone."

Tengaar subsides.  She wants to defend herself, to point out that it's true, that he was-- but nobody knows better than she how soft Hix is, how much it hurt him to hear that from everybody else.  Nobody knows better than Tengaar how cruel she was to say it.  Still, it's nothing she's going to admit to Lo Wen.  She may be compromising, but she's not going to play the wilting flower.  She'll apologize to Hix later, in the dark, because it's easier for both of them to talk if they can pretend they don't have to be who they are.

"You speak like a man," she says instead.

"The fuck I do," Lo Wen says, but her tone is mild despite the harsh words.  "I speak like myself."

And it's true: Lo Wen looks nothing like a man, sitting there with her breasts too large to be contained by the bandages she's wrapped them in, her hair long, her robe loose and open.  She looks nothing like anybody but her.

For a wild moment, sitting there, Tengaar almost blurts out the truth.  Only years of experience keeping it locked away behind her teeth prevent her from saying it, from telling this near-stranger what she's probably already seen with those piercing eyes.  What harm could there be in talking about the man's heart that beats in Tengaar's chest?

But around her, she can hear coarse laughter and giggles.  Even at this early hour, the tavern isn't empty.  Tengaar curls her hands into fists and says in her most neutral voice, "I don't."

Lo Wen looks her over and nods.  "I figured."  She doesn't sound disgusted-- but she'd have no room to be disgusted anyway, when she speaks rougher than Tengaar ever did.  There's something soft in her eyes, almost sympathetic, and Tengaar's breath rasps too harshly.

Tengaar takes a deep breath to rattle that rasp loose and sits up straight.  She's not going to cower like she's supposed to, if Lo Wen knows the truth.  "I know how I sound," she says.  "I know I'm nothing like what a girl's supposed to be, but I have to do this for Hix."

"It's none of my business," Lo Wen says.  "But, kid, you know how fucked up that sounds, right?"

"I love Hix."  Tengaar can't talk about protecting him any more than she can the rest of her truths.  "And he loves me.  And we're going to get married."

"If that's what makes you happy!"  Lo Wen raises her mug in acknowledgement before tilting her head back and draining the last drops.

It's not.  It's not, it's not, it's not, and Tengaar squeezes her eyes shut.  "I should get back to Hix.  He needs my-- my encouragement for training," she says.  Then, more honestly, she admits, "I need to make sure he's okay."

Lo Wen leans forward as Tengaar stands, her hand curling around Tengaar's wrist.  "Hey. Kid. I don't make this offer to just anyone, so listen up.  If you want to talk again… I'd listen."  She grins.  "I'll talk back, too."

Tengaar breathes in the sound of that nickname.  She could lose herself in it, in everything that Lo Wen's not saying, and she feels warm all over.  "Yeah," she breathes, and for just one moment she's back at the Neclord's castle, staring straight at an escape from everything she's supposed to believe.