Alonzo glanced over at his best friend. Ali was sparring with his dad, the infamous Chenn Covalenti.
Something poked him in the side, jarring him back to the fight he was involved in. The blond-haired girl before him jabbed in with lightning speed, catching his unprotected upper arm with the blunted tip. She followed up with a stab towards his heart.
Grimacing, he swiftly knocked the blade aside, leaving her unprotected. He followed through on his parry with his own stab at her breast.
She tried to stop it, but it connected solidly with her breastplate.
A loud beep sounded, indicating that Alonzo had won.
She pulled off her mask, shaking out her blond curls.
He grinned at her. “I win, Hanna.”
“Yeah, you did.” She grinned back. “But next time, you won’t!”
Alonzo laughed at her enthusiasm. “Really?”
“Yeah! You’re lucky you won this time, ’Lonzo! You were pretty distracted with what my da and brother were doing! And that almost cost you the match! Keep that up, and I’ll start winning with ease!” She flipped her blond curls over her shoulder, giving him a superior grin.
He shook his head, grinning back. “Well, wouldn’t want you to win so easily, would we?”
Precisely! No free wins, Alonzo!” She gave him a stern look, but they both knew she didn’t mean it. “I have to win fair and square. You’re not allowed to let me win.”
He gave a hoot of laughter. “Me? Let you win? If you keep up the workouts you’ve been giving me, I’ll have to beg you to let me win once in a while!”
She gave him a gentle shove. “Nah. I’ll never be that good.” She tried to hide her resentment under a false of air laughter and joviality, but Alonzo could hear how bitter she really was. “You and Ali will always be better.”
How could they not? Da actually trains Ali, and he always leaves me out of the picture. Mum never has time to take to help me, and the only reason I’m able to hold my own at all against either Ali or Alonzo is because I train on my own. Why couldn’t I have been born a boy? Da would’ve liked me better then. He would’ve paid more attention to me. She shook off her mental conversation, trying to paste a smile onto her face.
Alonzo wasn’t buying it. “Hanna…” He raised a hand to stop her, but she walked off, her shoulders slumping slightly as though a heavy weight pressed on them. “You’re better than you think.” He whispered at her back.
She threw every ounce of determination and resentment into her fighting. It showed. She never backed down and didn’t seem to tire out like others did. She’d be even better if anyone bothered to actually teach her instead of leaving her to herself to learn from books and watching others.
She didn’t hear his whispered words, and she continued to leave. Her heart ached within her as she considered that, if she had been a boy, perhaps her father would pay more attention to her. Wishful thinking, though, and she shoved it away with fury.
Hanna sat down on her bunk. At last, she was alone to think and, possibly, cry. She spent so much time covering up her anger and pain that sometimes it became so strong that it overwhelmed her, forcing its way out in an unstoppable torrent.
Ali and Alonzo seemed to outpace her with everything. Da spent so much time training Ali, and Alonzo worked with the General himself. But she was left out. She spent lots of time at their chambers with Mum, but it wasn’t like she was getting much help in training.
Just then, her mother, Nari, walked into the room.
Hanna felt her heart sink. Her mother noticed everything when something wasn’t quite right with her or Ali. She wouldn’t miss the frown set into Hanna’s face.
“What’s the matter, sweetheart?”
Hanna shrugged, clamming up. So much for being left alone.
Her mom always pried for more than Hanna was ready to give, and it bothered her. Her mom wasn’t someone she felt she could say anything to. In fact, there was very little she felt she could tell her mom. “Nothing much, Mum. Just not having a very good day.”
“Because all the girls avoid you?” Her mom gave her a sympathetic glance.
“Nah. I’m used to that. Who cares about them?” Hanna tried to shrug that issue of with a weak smile. Yeah, that and the fact that Da never spends time with me, and Ali is too busy now to pay attention to his little sister who needs him to be there for her! She didn’t say what she was thinking though.
Nari sat down on the grey bed. She looked her daughter square in the face. Placing a hand on her daughter’s knee, she said, “Hanna, you’re obviously irritated about something.”
Hanna felt the old warmth trickle through her bones. Her anger had been a problem for nearly three years now. She couldn’t help it. Desperate to hold it back, she took a few deep breaths.
“Hanna? Honey, what’s wrong?”
Hanna pushed her mom’s hand off her knee with a gentle touch. She tried to quiet the strange fluttering and bitterness boiling in her belly. “Nothing’s wrong, mother. I told you, I’m just having a bad day.” She stood up, going to walk off.
Her mother’s hand came down on her shoulder. “Hanna, you never call me mother unless you’re upset. So what is the matter? Tell me, please. I want to help.” Her mom’s voice quavered.
Hanna shrugged her mom’s hand off her shoulder. She whirled around, tears sparkling in her eyes. “Mum, I really need to be left alone right now. I don’t want to talk about it.” Her voice dropped to a whisper as she spoke the last words. She tried to soften the blow with a small smile, but it was forced.
She saw the familiar twisting in her mom’s face that indicated she wasn’t happy. Her gut clenched with guilt. Her mom didn’t deserve such treatment. But then, her mom never understood, and her father didn’t take the time to. He was too busy grooming his precious son.
“Hanna!” Her mom’s tone was soft, and Hanna felt sick for being the cause of the pain she heard.
“What?” Hanna turned away.
“Please tell me what’s wrong. I want to help.” Her mom took her arm, and pushed her back down onto the bed with gentle insistence. “Now, what’s wrong?”
Hanna gazed into her mom’s face, palms and face hot, uneasy. She didn’t say a thing. Her mom was being too pushy, and Hanna didn’t care what was said, she didn’t intend to tell her what was wrong. It would hurt her mom too much, and she loved her mom too much to do that to her.
She caught her mom’s warning look.
She looked away. Her voice was tight and low when she finally responded. “Mum, you want to know what’s wrong?”
“Yes, I do. And when I do, we can talk about it. And work out a solution to it.” Her mom gave Hanna a warm hug.
Hanna nodded, her gaze dropping down to the concrete floor beneath her. “Fine... I’m really tired of keeping it in. It’s too much, and you push me so much. So I’ll just tell you. Please don’t be angry with me.”
“Hanna, honey, I’m not going to be angry with you. You’re my daughter. I love you, and I want what’s best for you.” Her mom squeezed her shoulder.
Hanna nodded again, squeezing her eyes shut as tears leaked out of the corners of her eyes. Fighting to control her voice, she whispered, “I’m tired of this place. It’s too oppressive. I don’t feel like I’m free to be me here. And I’m tired of being ignored by all the girls and bothered by all the boys! I’m sick of being ignored by Da, and I’m really, really sick of always feeling second-rate to my strong, brave, and oh so intelligent brother...” Her voice dropped even lower, and no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t suppress the tears as they leaked down her cheeks. “If I’d been born a boy, Da’d spend more time with me, wouldn’t he? But because I’m a girl and he didn’t want me in the first place, he just ignores me! That’s what’s wrong, and there’s nothing you can do to fix it, because you aren’t the problem.”
Her mom tried to put her arms around her, but Hanna shrugged them off, standing. “I told you what’s wrong, and I’m sorry if it upset you. I... I really need to be alone now.” She turned and walked out of the room, tears streaming down her cheeks now.
“Hanna!” Her mom called after her.
She didn’t stop. She broke into a run, running away from it all. She hadn’t meant to say those things. It hadn’t been right to say them. Her words couldn’t be taken back, and they’d hurt her mom. She’d seen the hurt in her mom’s face and heard it in her words. Would her dad hear about what she’d said? I hope she does tell him. Maybe he’ll come talk to me and we can fix things. Maybe he won’t ignore me anymore if he knows how broken it makes me feel. A tear slid down her cheek, splashing onto the gray concrete floor to be forgotten and uncared for.
She rounded a corner, not looking first, and ran full speed into her brother, Ali. He gave her a funny look.
“Hanna? What’s wrong? Why are you crying?” He put a hand on her arm, steadying her.
“I don’t want to talk to you right now, Ali. Please leave me alone.” She pushed him away from her, not meaning to shove so hard but pushing him off balance. But she didn’t stay long enough to see if he was okay. He couldn’t see her like this. She couldn’t talk to him about it right now. She had told her mom the truth. She needed to be alone to figure out what was wrong with her and why she felt the way she did.
Ali banged his head into the wall as she shoved him. He recovered quickly, rubbing his head and gazing after his sister. “What did I do this time? Honestly… I don’t know why I bother. She gets upset with me even when I’m just trying to help her.” He muttered still rubbing his head.
He continued walking down the hall, heading for his family’s quarters.
When he got there, his dad was rubbing the sweat and water off his face with a towel in the bathroom. He looked up when he heard his son enter the room. “What’s up, Ali? You look shaken.”
His mom walked into the small bathroom, gazing at Ali and Chenn. “Something wrong, you two?”
Ali shook his head. “I don’t know. Hanna just passed me in the halls.” He stopped, noting his mom’s strange expression. He cocked his head, giving her a narrow-eyed look. “Do you know something about that, Mum?”
“Something about what? Is there a reason your sister shouldn’t have passed you in the hallway?”
“No, but there isn’t a reason why she should’ve pushed me away and then told me that ‘she didn’t want to talk to me right then and to please leave her alone.’” Ali mimicked his sister’s high-pitched voice.
“She said that, did she?” His mom fidgeted.
Yeah, she did. And I’d like to know, since you obviously know, Mum, what is her problem?”
“Umm… Your sister is just a little worked up. It’s just that all the girls avoid her and she feels oppressed by this place.” His mom wasn’t telling the whole truth, and both men knew it.
Chenn gave her a look, and they had one of their private, instant conversations.
Ali rolled his eyes. “Come on! I hate it when you guys do that. Fine, don’t tell me why she’s mad at me. I’ll go find out myself.” He turned around and walked to the door.
His dad’s voice arrested him. “Ali, maybe you’d best give her time to cool off. Do some of the homework you got in classes, and take a shower. Then go talk to her.”
Ali shrugged. “Okay. If you think that’s best…” He shrugged out of his short sleeved, cotton outer shirt and headed for the bathroom. “I’m taking a shower first. I’m all sweaty thanks to you.”
His dad laughed. “Good! You should be. If you aren’t, that means you weren’t doing enough in the workout.”
Ali looked over his shoulder, grinning at his dad. “Yeah, well… The workouts are fun. Working with you is great, Da!”
“Glad you think so, son. Now go take your shower.” His dad walked out of the bathroom as Ali walked in.
Ali smiled as he shut the door. He stripped out of his sweat-lathered clothing and slipped into the shower.
A few moments later, the water was sluicing over him, and the aches from practice began to slide away.