At the cold tone of her voice, Kain flinched. He raised one of his hands, but dropped it before he touched his hat. For once, the sight of that familiar, nervous tick of his didn't amuse her. Actually, it only served to deepen her irritation. If he was having such trouble explaining himself, perhaps it should have been a hint to stop talking.
"That's not it," he muttered. "I just don't think you should be here."
Kain seemed determined to keep his foot in his mouth.
"Because that's so different," she snapped.
He put both of his hands up. "Iliana..."
"You should know better than anyone how much I hate stuff like that," she cut in.
That single detail was what pissed her off the most about his words. Kain knew.
He was the sole person she'd told everything. The fears and nightmares that plagued her sleep had made secrets impossible. Well, without blowing off his numerous offers of a willing ear. All of this meant he was far from ignorant of her feelings on being forced onto a path for no other reason than her sex.
It'd nearly gotten her killed, once. Never again.
"I do know--" Kain began.
"Then why say it?"
"Look," he sighed. "I didn't mean to upset you. I probably could have worded all of that a little bit better... Just... let me restart, will you?"
Kain clasped his hands together, his expression pleading for a chance. She gave a small shake of her head and drew in a slow, deep breath in an attempt to calm her fraying nerves.
"Fine. Start again. No guarantees, though, that I'll stick around to hear everything if I don't like what I hear."
"Fair enough," Kain agreed. "As I was saying... I really don't think that you staying aboard is a good idea."
Iliana opened her mouth and Kain put out his hand to cover it.
"Let me finish. I don't think you staying aboard is a good idea, no matter how much I would love if you could. It's just not realistic to think that things can continue how they are," he pointed out, dropping his hand. "Do you really think you can continue living here without someone eventually finding out?"
Unfortunately for her, Iliana knew he had a point. It wasn't a matter of if someone would find out, but when. She was just lucky it'd been Kain who'd walked in on her changing shortly after she'd joined. He'd been willing to hear her out and even willing to help her keep it a secret. Kain was probably the sole reason that she'd lasted as long as she had.
Still, knowing he was right was a completely different matter from being willing to admit it. So, she stayed silent. Iliana had gotten far while ignoring that obvious flaw in her dream, it took no effort to continue doing so. Kain must have been expecting such a response because he only paused for a few seconds before continuing.
"It's better to just make a clean break, isn't it? This is your best chance to do that."
He paused again. That uncomfortable, almost nervous edge returned to his expression. Despite her irritation having yet to fade, Iliana felt curiosity began to bubble to the surface of her thoughts, overtaking the anger curling in the pit of her stomach. What could possibly have him so nervous at this point? She was pretty certain he'd already said about everything that could possibly tick her off in this situation.
"I've been thinking about all of this a lot recently," he added, his tone far quieter than before. "And... well... you miss your sister, don't you?"
How could Kain possibly know that? It wasn't like Iliana ever talked about it.
There was no point in whining about a person she'd never see again. Sure, at times it felt as if a portion of her heart had been shredded when she left Mara behind to face the darkness alone, but the rest of her was simply glad to be free. Mara made her choice, Iliana's suffering be damned. They might have been sisters, and once upon a time the only good thing each other had, but there were more important things in the world than blood.
Living, for example.
"What does that have to do with this? Even if I leave... it's not like I can ever go back there. I'd just be back in the same situation," she pointed out.
He hesitated. Both of Kain's hands went back to tugging on his cap.
"I mean... you could."
"You... you could go back... If you were married, that is. They couldn't trap you, then."
Iliana could only stare at Kain. His words had struck her speechless. If anything, he grew even more nervous than before. He shifted from one foot to another and turned his head away to stare out at the darkened sky.
"We could get married. That'd fix everything, wouldn't it?"
For a full minute, Iliana's mind refused to comprehend the words. When they did sink in, her cheeks grew warm.
"Get married?" she echoed, voice cracking. "You... And me... Get married?"
Kain's gaze returned to her, embarrassment etched into his face.
"It... it's not a bad idea," he said.
"But... get married?"
Her mind wouldn't move past that single word.
"Hear me out," Kain urged. "Please."
"But I'm not..."
Many emotions flooded through her mind at that moment--confusion, embarrassment, irritation, and disbelief among the strongest. Fear. Even as she attempted to sort them out, however, one thing became clear.
She couldn't accept his proposal. Not like this.
So, Iliana drew in a deep breath and met his eyes.
"I'm not in love with you."
Perhaps she was being too blunt, but Iliana didn't want there to be any confusion. Until that moment she'd never considered falling for Kain even a remote possibility. From the day the two of them had gotten to know each other, she'd felt like she'd met a reflection of herself. They were similar in so many ways that friendship had been inevitable.
She couldn't see it happening.
There was no spark. No desire to touch in any way more than family. The fates had handed her a brother, not a lover. She could only hope he'd understand her refusal, and whatever awkwardness it might leave between them would be brief.
Silence consumed the air for several minutes. Then, Kain laughed. The sound felt so strange in this situation that, once again, Iliana could only stare at him.
"I know," he said. "I don't love you either."
"I mean, not like that. Of course I love you, but, it's not... well, you know. Hearing you tell me the same with such,... utter conviction hurt a little," Kain continued. "But, I mean... I don't blame you. You're not my type, either."
Iliana was so confused. Kain wore an embarrassed smile. There was nothing in the expression to help her sort out the mess. Was he lying? Had she injured his pride with the blunt rejection, leaving Kain feeling the need to say the same? It would make sense. But, it didn't suit him. Kain wasn't the type to lie for something like pride.
If that wasn't it, though... Then why, in the name of the bloody gods, were they having this conversation in the first place?
"I don't understand," she grumbled.
"Of course you don't."
She grew tense at the amusement in his tone. If this was a joke, it was a shitty one.
"If you laugh again, I'll punch you," Iliana warned.
Kain put his hands palm out as if to ward off her anger.
"I won't laugh," he promised. "I just... I'm sort of relieved."
"Relieved?" she echoed.
"I mean, yeah. I didn't think you liked me... but there was always the chance. And it'd make my suggestion a little awkward..." he said. "It's sorta... well, really great to hear you don't."
Was that why he'd been so nervous?
"Kain," she said, tone ice cold. "If you don't start explaining yourself, I think I just might skip the punch and move to shoving you out of the nest."
"So explain," Iliana snapped.
"Right... Well... Like I said, I've been thinking about all of this recently. If you leave here and live as a girl again... Well... they can't force you into a marriage if you're already married, can they? In that situation, you'd be able to go back home and see your sister without worrying about what might happen. Plus, I imagine work would be easier. Men aren't as interested in harassing a girl with a ring on."
He had a valid point. No one wanted to risk upsetting the god of thought, bonds, and emotion, Aion. Rumor said that he gave out particularly nasty punishments to those who broke up a healthy home. Even if it was unlikely he would see a random flirt, most didn't want to take the chance.
"You've been thinking about me a lot," she muttered.
Kain shrugged. "I've been looking out for you since we met. Why should that change just because you're leaving?"
"You don't have to."
"But I want to."
Iliana fell silent, rolling the matter over in her mind. She was still irritated, but her practical side had begun to realize the potential in the situation.
At some point in the last three years, marriage had become a foreign concept. Her past made it something... frightening. If it had been anyone else, she probably would've rejected them outright. But it wasn't.
"What would you get out of this?" she asked, studying him with a narrowed gaze. "If you aren't in love with me... Why marry me?"
She wouldn't be a good partner.
Memories sprung of families she'd seen in the past. For the most part, those women didn't flinch away from affection. They didn't get angry in place of emotion that couldn't be placed. They could probably share a bed with someone without fear they'd wake up swinging.
"It'd be convenient for me as well," Kain explained.
She forced herself to focus. "How so?"
"I mean... I'm like you. I'm not interested in settling down somewhere. Gods, I'm not interested in ever leaving this ship. I plan to live, and die, on the ocean."
That much she knew to be true, even if his assumption of her was slightly off. Whenever they docked, Kain was always the one to stay on the ship. She could count the number of times she'd seen him walk on dry land with a single hand.
"If I were married, no one would try to make me do otherwise. I could point at my ring and the pressure to go to a bar and... uh... other places would disappear. The situation would be convenient for both of us."
"What if you ever fell for someone else," Iliana pointed out. "Or I did? What would we do then?"
"Get divorced," Kain replied with a shrug. "I mean, unless we end up changing our minds about loving each other, I don't see a reason we couldn't. There'd be talk, but it'd be no worse than the rumors that would come from having a partner no one ever sees."
It was so reasonable--and appealing--an idea that Iliana hated him for it. If she didn't stay abroad it would solve all her problems. She could go home and see her sister. Perhaps even he would be content to let her live her life, unharassed. At the same time...
"I don't know," Iliana muttered.
"You don't have to answer right now," Kain pointed out. "Captain gave you until we arrived in Eol to think over his offer, right? I'll give you the same. Think about it when we're on land. I'm not your brother-in-law. I won't force you either way. If you stay, I'll help you keep your secret as long as possible. If you leave... I'll help you."
Iliana scoffed. "You know, if you did want to get married, I bet there are some girls out there dying for a chance at a guy like you."
"The humblest," Kain agreed.
And just like that, the conversation ended. The two of them once again descended into comfortable silence.
Even as her options tumbled over each other in her mind, Iliana decided to push the matter aside for now. At least, she decided to try. Both Artemios and Kain had given her time to think, and it was far too late at night for her to be making such important decisions. So, she just looked to where the stars had become visible above them.
Mental and physical exhaustion eventually prompted Iliana to close her eyes to the sight. Her fingers idly picked at the four, intertwined red strings that formed the anklet she was never without. The action was soothing, as something about the anklet always took the edge off her day. She let her head rest against Kain's leg and he--in what felt like far too natural a reaction--brushed his fingers through her hair.
It was a soothing feeling. One that tugged a wistful smile to her lips. She may not have loved him, but she could certainly appreciate him. Even after the conversation they'd just had being next to him felt about as far from awkward as she imagined possible.
"You know what...?" she murmured.
"I think... had life gone differently... I'd be one of those girls."
His hand stilled in her hair.
"Iliana," he began, then stiffened.
She opened her eyes. Moon and starlight had replaced the dying sun, giving Kain's face an almost eerie glow in the night. There was a faraway edge to his smile that she couldn't place.
"Can you hear that...?"
Iliana frowned. "Hear what?"
She strained to pick up on whatever it was that had stolen Kain's attention. It took a bit of time, but soon she could faintly make out a voice in the wind. Her brow knitted, tired mind having difficulty figuring out how that was even possible. Even with as little as she could make out about it, she instinctively knew the voice was beautiful. No one on the Airlea sounded like that.