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Damage Control

from a serial by Lexi Summer Hale

Livkir’s dorm is an impeccably tidy place. The aura of coziness and tranquility that it seems to give off is enough to subdue even Niltar, who’s curled up quietly on the sofa under a couple of fluffy blankets, only her reddened eyes and sodden handkerchief attesting to her emotional state. She barely reacts when Livkir sits down next to her and puts an arm around her shoulder, but he’s known her long enough to recognize the subtle little shift in her body language that tells him his presence is wanted.

Wordlessly, he hands her a slate, ruffling her hair as she takes it. Her eyes widen as she reads the text.

“You… you wrote my counselor?”

He squeezes her hand. “It didn’t look like you were going to. I couldn’t let Lisi get away with that, hon.”

Lif a til, Livcir-shevan.

Thank you so much for reaching out. You’re absolutely right: Comrade Lisuan’s behavior today was completely unacceptable and I’ve passed this note on to her own counselor. In the meantime, I’ll put in to have Niltar’s demerits vacated as you suggest — the last thing that poor girl needs to worry about right now is being disciplined for having a ceshvol attack. I’m sorry you both had to experience such mistreatment on top of everything else you describe. I’m very worried by Nili’s self-harm, so I’d like to drop by tonight and check up on the two of you; would you be comfortable with that?

Regarding Cassil’s apparent arrest, this is very disturbing news — all the more so for the fact that I was not informed — and I’m grateful that you thought to fill me in. I’m doing what I can to track her down and get in touch with the arresting agent, but as I’m sure you know the Shevran isn’t the most transparent agency when it comes to paperwork. I wish I had better news for you.

I hope I’m not overstepping by asking for this, but for Nili’s sake, would you be willing to informally fill Cassil’s role as her vartash until our young firebrand is home safe and sound? I would not ordinarily ask, but both women have spoken very highly of you and it sounds like you care deeply for Nili in your own right; in fact, it sounds like you’ve already shouldered some of her burdens on your own. No wonder Cas looks up to you!

Whatever the case, please take care of yourselves, and don’t hesitate to reach out if I can be of any assistance in what is obviously an incredibly difficult time. If I hear any updates on Cas’ situation, you and Nili will be the first to know.

Warmest regards,

Saluin-virtash

Lif a til, Saluin-virtash.

Absolutely, sir; come by whenever you wish. I’ll let Nili know you’re coming.

I am happy to make that commitment and I am humbled that you would place so much trust in me. You have my word I’ll do everything I possibly can to keep her safe.

With utmost faith and sincerity,

Livcir-shevan

Niltar stares numbly at the page for a while, then pushes the slate aside.

“You don’t look happy.”

“She always gets the last laugh.”

“What do you mean?”

She stares off into space. “You heard her. ‘You’ll just go crying to your counselor to get out of it.’ Just like always.”

“Nili, Lisuan just said that to fuck with your head.”

“Well, it’s true.” Niltar hugs her knees to her chest. “I’m supposed to be taking the Oath this year. And I’m still just… acting like a child. Running to my counselor every time something happens so I don’t have to grow up and face the consequences.”

“That’s a fucked up thing to say about yourself, Nil.” Livkir squeezes her hand.

“You saw the letter!” Niltar scowls. “He’s ‘very worried’ and he wants to ‘drop by’ to check up on me. He wants you to take care of me. Every fucking time something happens, I just… I just fucking fall to pieces and everyone else has to go out of their way to help me back up, and protect me from the consequences of my own fucking behavior, and I just—” She clenches her fists, gritting her teeth; Livkir sees tears glistening in the corner of her eyes again, and tries to hug her, but she pushes him violently away. “Is this all I fucking am? All I’m ever gonna be? I’m just a fucking burden and everyone would be better off if I was dead. Useless, stupid, broken, good-for-nothing—”

“Nili!” Livkir grabs her hand again and redoubles his grip when she tries to pull away. “That’s not— nobody thinks of you that way.”

“Lisuan does. Cas probably does too. And Saluin. And you. Let go of me!” She struggles to pull away, to no avail. “I’m just a broken fucking child everyone has to worry about—”

Livkir pulls her forcefully into his lap, gripping her hands and holding her there as she tries to pull away. “I am not letting go of you until you stop saying horrible things about yourself,” he replies, squeezing her tightly. “You are not a fucking burden, Nili; I’d be devastated if I lost you, and you know Cas would be too.”

Despite herself, she buries her head in his shoulder. “I wish I was dead.”

Livkir sighs. “Nobody else does. Nobody. You get that there’s a reason we’ve all been fighting so hard to keep you alive, right?”

Niltar shrugs, and Livkir feels her tears against his skin. “I’m tired,” she mumbles finally, the fight going out of her.

Livkir hugs her again, and softly strokes her hair and neck as she cries in his lap. “I know. Today has been horrible. This week has been horrible for you. But you aren’t alone. You are loved and you are wanted, whether Cas is here or not.”

“I don’t deserve you. Either of you.”

“Yes, you do.” Livkir rests a hand on the side of her neck. “You deserve so much more than that. After all the pain and loneliness you’ve gone through, you deserve to have comfort, and love, and companionship.”

“What if she never comes back, Liv?”

“That is a huge, huge assumption to make.” Livkir shakes his head. “I… I don’t believe the Shevran would do that. Would just… lock up a 17-year-old ward forever. That doesn’t make any sense.”

“I’m scared I’m going to have to fall asleep in an empty bed again for the rest of my life.”

“Nuh-uh, no. Not gonna happen.” He squeezes her neck gently. “I know I’m not Cas, but if you need to fall asleep in someone’s arms, I’m here for you.”

“…you’d really do that?”

“Only you could make cuddling with a cute girl sound like a hardship.” He ruffles her hair affectionately. “Of course I would, Nil.”

She sniffles, squeezing her eyes shut and hugging him weakly. “Thank you.”

“Least I can do.” Livkir looks up as he hears the door open, and Shalcas steps hesitantly into the room. “Shay!”

“Hey.” Shalcas smiles timidly, shutting and locking the door behind him. “I… I sent the message. I don’t know if they’ll respond, but—”

“Worth a try, at least.” Livkir pats the couch next to him, looking up expectantly. Shalcas glances around the room as he draws closer, and timidly perches on the edge of the couch. “So how’d you end up having a hotline to the Shevran, anyway?”

“Oh, it’s… it’s not really like that, um.” Shalcas clasps his hands. “When they moved us, they gave us all contact points just in case anything… happened, in our new homes. I wasn’t really sure why, maybe just to make us feel safer, but if that was all, well… it worked.”

Livkir tilts his head. “Us?”

Shalcas nods distantly. “Oh, yeah. They evacuated the whole rantal. It wasn’t just me.”

Livkir lets out a low whistle. “Shalar uoli — I’ve never even heard of anything like that.”

“Me neither, otherwise.” Shalcas stares out the window, toward the vast whitewater rapids rushing past far below. “It was… very bad.”

Livkir fiddles with one of his braids. “I’m sorry,” he murmurs. “I keep bringing this up — I shouldn’t keep dragging you back through these memories.”

Shalcas flashes him a grateful smile. “That’s very thoughtful of you, Livk— uh, Liv. Don’t worry about it.”

“What exactly did you say in your message, if you feel okay with sharing? —Relax, Shay; you look like you’re sitting at attention.” Livkir slaps the back of the couch with his palm. “Sol vali solte asha.”

Shalcas gives him an embarassed smile, and leans back against the cushions. “Sorry, I— I just— I’m… I don’t know.”

“You’re not intruding, Shay; really, you’re not.” Livkir gazes at him with both concern and interest. “You’re really worried about upsetting me, aren’t you?”

Shalcas bites his lip, and nods slowly. “You’ve just been so kind to me, and I don’t want to mess up the first friendship I’ve had in— in a very long time and I’m scared I’m going to do something wrong and piss you off—” He flinches at a quiet beep from the slate sitting on the table, muscles tensing, eyes darting back and forth for a moment before settling on the glow of the slate’s screen. “—s-sorry, what was I even saying? Probably nothing important—”

Livkir’s brow creases as he reaches for the slate. “You okay?”

“What? Yeah, yeah, I’m fine.”

“Do you want me to turn off the message noises?” Livkir glances momentarily at the alert before dismissing it and looking worriedly up at Shalcas. “I’m so sorry it freaked you out like that—”

“It’s fine, really. Anyway, you wanted to know about the message I sent, right?” Shalcas pulls his legs up onto the couch and turns to face Livkir, who nods slowly.

“Uh, yeah. Yeah, um, what did you tell them exactly?”

“I tried to really focus on, y’know, what it’s doing to Niltar to have her vartash yanked out from under her. Pretended we didn’t know who took Cassil. Shevran people, you know, they don’t really respond well if you challenge them, but if you frame it as more like, hey, here’s this problem with the system that you can fix — that gets their attention.”

“Thank you,” Niltar whispers, not opening her eyes or moving her head from where she’s resting against Livkir’s shoulders.

Livkir nods. “Okay. Right. That makes sense — we’re so lucky to have you, Shay. I don’t know what we would have done otherwise.”

“W-well,” Shalcas stammers, cheeks reddening, “d-don’t thank me yet, you two — I just hope it has some kind of effect.” He shakes his head. “They should never have done this in the first place. Do you have any idea what they took her in for?”

Livkir sighs, turning his gaze toward the peak of Mt. Serenity in the near distance; warm tropical rain is beginning to spatter against the windowpane. “I can probably guess. Cas has been getting in a lot of trouble lately. She keeps mouthing off at the wrong people, skipping classes, posting really insubordinate shit on the local subnets. I’ve lost count of how many times the Homeguard’s had her flogged or put to the wire, and every time it just… she’s just worse every time. Volatile and upset. Lashes out a lot. Especially toward her superiors.”

Shalcas winces. “That’s… not good.”

“I keep trying to tell her she needs to work on her temper. There’s appropriate channels for this stuff, you know? You don’t just go online and call the RSC a ‘diseased pack of meddling Old Worlds degenerates’ in front of half a dozen people.”

“Did… did she actually say that?”

Livkir nods. “She did. Among other things. She even tried to organize a discharge petition campaign after that latest rationing edict came down. I was surprised a flogging was all she got that time.”

Shalcas purses his lips, staring at the floor. “What exactly did she expect? The Valley is where most of our food is coming from still; the arability crisis is causing shortages throughout the whole continent.” He shrugs. “We can’t just not do our part when all the other regions are going to bed hungry,” he finishes quietly.

Livkir’s eyebrows rise. “You know a lot about that stuff?”

“Huh? Oh, I started an agronomy apprenticeship last year.” Shalcas laughs awkwardly. “I probably spend too much time reading the ag digests.”

“Agronomy, huh? They have me in Network Management.”

“Oh!” Shalcas’ eyes light up. “Like, learning to write systems code and things like that?”

“Yeah, exactly.”

“How’s it going—?” He interrupts himself. “That’s a silly question, everyone knows you’re good at everything—”

“Good at—? N-no, I’m— that’s just silly.” Livkir reddens. “It’s— it’s actually pretty complicated stuff.”

“Um, if—” Shalcas clears his throat awkwardly. “Well, if— I don’t know if it’d be any use, but— if you want— well, what are you having trouble with?”

“We made the switch to Symbolic just when I thought I was starting to get a handle on Wire, so now there’s all this—” Livkir gestures vaguely. “AST-rewriting and macros and stuff. It’s starting to hurt my brain. I thought I at least understood S-expressions before but now I feel like I completely missed a really important memo.”

“M-maybe—” Shalcas looks up at him hopefully. “Maybe I could tutor you?”

“Hang on, you know Symbolic?”

“Oh, yeah. I’ve been messing with this stuff since I was little. I was on the NM track too back… before.” His smile twitches and his eyes dart away from Livkir.

“But— they have you in agronomy?”

“Y-yeah, I—” Shalcas stares at his lap. “It was— it was hard being around that stuff again. Too many memories. I’ll be more useful this way, anyway. Probably for the best.”

Livkir frowns. “I definitely don’t want you to tutor me if it’s going to bring up, you know.”

“No, no, I think that’ll be fine. It’s just— mostly it’s just being around the net ops centers and all the equipment. I still write Symbolic now and then and it’s not like it gives me flashbacks or anything.”

Livkir puts a hand palm down on the couch next to Shalcas, ducking his head slightly to meet the boy’s gaze. “Hey, Shay? If you ever need someone to talk to, like — let me know? ’Cause I’m happy to, anytime.”

Shalcas’ eyes open wide. “That’s— I really— you’ve got so much else to worry about, I couldn’t—”

“I can worry about more than one person at a time, you know.” Livkir pats the couch. “It’s really okay. I know sometimes there’s only so much a counselor can really do — sometimes you just need a friend. And if you ever do, I’m here. No pressure.”

The other boy’s lips tremble in a fragile smile. “Thank you,” he says quietly, almost in a whisper, hesitantly reaching out to touch Livkir’s hand. “That’s really sweet of you. Especially since you’ve known me for—” He laughs quietly. “—what, two hours?”

“He’s always like this,” Niltar says. Her eyes are heavy-lidded and her cheeks are tearstained, but her voice is a bit more steady and the tears seem to have stopped coming. She makes a desultory effort to look up and meet Shalcas’ gaze. “He’s always… he’s always fucking Livkir.” She turns her gaze to Livkir. “This is nothing to compared to what he did for Cas.”

“D-don’t pay any attention to Nili, Shay,” Livkir stammers, looking away. “She’s just— you know. You know how people with ceshvol can be.” He glares at Niltar. “Especially the girls, I swear on my— ow!” he yelps as she headbutts his shoulder before leaning back against him.

“Uh. What d-do you mean, um, exactly?” Shalcas glances awkwardly between the two. “Sorry, I— I don’t really know anything about— about ceshvol, actually.”

“You ever get that feeling where like. All of your emotions are just fucking screaming at you and you can’t do anything to get away from the noise except—” Niltar makes a violent cutting motion with her hand, and Livkir winces.

“I… think I know what you mean,” murmurs Shalcas, absently squeezing his arm, and suddenly it occurs to Livkir that the boy’s wearing his armwraps slightly higher than most people do.

“Yeah, okay, well, it’s like that.” Niltar’s lips twitch. “Except all the fucking time. Like, not always in a bad way; sometimes it’s all super fucking happy and everything in the world just feels totally perfect, but then sometimes it’s—” She glances down at her bandaged arms, and trails off.

“I’m sorry,” Shalcas says softly. “That sounds… that sounds really… really hard. I can’t even imagine.”

“Well, when she’s in one of those happy moods—” Livkir pulls her close again. “—she’ll say all sorts of ridiculous stuff about how wonderful everyone is and how she doesn’t deserve any of us and it’s just—”

“Tell us then.” Niltar stares up at him. “Tell us yourself what you did for Cas, if I’m just a crazy liar.”

“I don’t even know what you’re talking about, Nili—”

“Yes you do. Yes you fucking do, you fucking dork. Fucking tell us.”

Livkir shakes his head, running a hand through his hair distractedly, “I— I called something in, that was all—”

“Called something in? Called what, in, dumbass?” Niltar punches him in the shoulder. Livkir sighs.

“I was in the right place at the right time, that’s all—”

Niltar glares. “What right place was that, Liv? What was it right for?”

“I was out for a walk and she was injured, okay? That’s it. That—”

“No. No!” Niltar sits up, punching him again. “She slit her wrists and she threw herself off a fucking bridge and you jumped in the fucking river, dragged her back to shore, and kept pressure on her wounds until medevac got there so she wouldn’t bleed out. That is what you fucking did, Livkir.”

For a moment, the only sounds are the distant cries of night-birds and the soft rustling of the trees in the breeze.

“T-technically it was a casevac—”

“Livkir Tirvali fucking Tegvari!” Niltar punches him hard enough to elicit a yelp this time. “Blood and fire I cannot fucking believe you! You saved her fucking life and that’s still not even it.” Niltar turns to Shalcas. “’Cause you know what she’d been doing for like the last year or so before that happened?”

“Oh, here we go—”

“Cas spent like a whole fucking year being a twat to him, pushing him around, making fun of him in class—”

“Really, now, that’s an exaggeration—”

“—and then, after all that, after all that fucking time— and you know, he never once defended himself, even though he has a red sash in UC already and she’s always been a fucking wimp; he could have laid her out on her ass without breaking a sweat but he never raised a fucking finger against her— and after all that bullying he went and fucking saved her life and sat by her all night in the CTC ’til she woke up the next morning.” Niltar waves an accusing finger at Livkir. “That’s what he fucking means when he says he ‘called it in.’”

“I really don’t get why it’s such a big deal, anyone would have—”

“No! Nobody fucking would have, because we were all like fucking fourteen and there wasn’t an adult in sight and nobody cared about her and that river is deep and fucking cold, Liv.” Niltar folds her arms. “And she jumped in right by the rapids. You coulda got killed, easy. That’s war hero grade bullshit and you were fourteen years old when you did that. There’s grown men couldn’t do the same.”

“Come on, it wasn’t that cold—”

Niltar looks away with an exasperated scoff, shoving a pillow in Livkir’s face to muffle him. Shalcas is sitting quietly, mouth half open, staring at the two of them, and Niltar waggles a finger at Livkir again.

“That’s who he is. That’s Livkir.”

“I had no idea,” Shalcas whispers. “I… I never heard about this.”

“That’s ’cause he never tells anyone. He never said a word about this. Not even to his own virtash.

Livkir shoves the pillow out of the way, grabbing Niltar by the shoulder and pinning her wrist behind her back when she grabs for another one. “Of course I didn’t tell my fucking counselor, the last thing I wanted to do was get Cas in even more trouble—”

“Bullshit. Bull. Shit. She was already in the CTC with slashed-up arms and half drowned.” Niltar grimaces as she tries to wriggle free of Livkir’s grip, to no avail. “They knew she was suicidal no matter what you said. Let go of me!”

“Do you promise not to smother me with a pillow again?”

“As long as you don’t do anything to deserve it.”

Livkir sighs and releases her. “Really,” he says, turning to Shalcas, “Nili’s just being melodramatic, she tells stories exactly the same way she writes fanfi—”

Niltar shoves a pillow in his face again. They’re still struggling for the upper hand when someone raps on the door.

“Should— should I get that—” Shalcas murmurs, as the two freeze mid-scuffle.

“No!”

Livkir, slightly bruised, is the one who finally opens the door. Outside is a slim-framed man just slightly taller than him, platinum-blonde hair cropped short save for his braids, only the faintest lines on his face attesting to his age. Saluin’s hands are clasped behind his back, and his expression is the picture of beatific patience. “Livcir-surin,” he says warmly, taking Livkir by the shoulder. “Sil a iur.

“S-s’aiur, san.” Livkir returns the greeting, bowing quickly as he steps back. “Please, come in, sir.”

“Solliv ashi vala aftare.” Saluin’s light voice carries the soft, melodic cadence of a languid Oldworlder accent, a stark contretemps to the quick, sharp rhythm of Livkir’s colonial dialect. The sound alone prompts Shalcas to stand hurriedly to attention when the virtash steps inside, the door closing automatically behind him. Niltar’s expression hardens, and she looks away as Livkir leads her counselor into the little den.

“Saluin-san, this is Shalcas.” Livkir clasps his hands behind his back, inclining his head towards the younger boy. “He’s been helping us.”

“Shalcas-surin. Honored to make your acquaintance.” Saluin claps him on the shoulder, but quickly lets go and steps back, holding up his hands, when Shalcas flinches at his touch. “Lahi narit vala risesh— forgive my intrusion, comrade. I did not mean to startle you.”

“Oh, i-it’s okay, um— sorry— I-I just—” Shalcas stops, clears his throat, and bows, far deeper than Livkir would have thought appropriate. “It’s good to meet you too, sir.”

Saluin offers him a gentle smile. “Please.” He waves a hand. “At ease, both of you — I’m supposed to be here to help, not cause you all even more stress.” He steps carefully past Shalcas and walks around the low table to where Niltar is sitting.

“Sil a iur, Nili,” he murmurs gently, sitting down on the couch on the other side of her. His motions all seem so easy, practiced, and confident; he moves with a marked smoothness and elegance, a bodily discipline that sets him apart from the colonials just as much as his accent.

“S’aiur,” Niltar mumbles after a long moment.

“I get the feeling you’re not too happy to see me, selin.” Saluin’s voice is soft and friendly; there’s an intimacy to it that wasn’t there before.

Niltar just shrugs. Livkir sits down next to her, stroking her arm.

“When Lisuan—” he begins. Niltar rounds on him.

“I can fucking speak for myself, Liv!” Her voice rises from an angry tremble to a shout as she says it, leaping to her feet and yanking away from him. Saluin’s eyes widen slightly, and he looks up at her, catching her gaze for a fraction of a second as she stands there, fists balled, breathing hard. Her cheeks tremble and she immediately looks away, staring out into the darkening sky.

With visible effort, she forces her hands flat again, clasping them behind her back as she takes several long, deep breaths. Finally she closes her eyes.

“I’m sorry,” she whispers, her voice cracking slightly.

Livkir reaches up and pats her on the back. Slowly, she sits down again, and he puts his arms around her, squeezing her tight.

“Can I tell him?”

She nods silently, resting her head on his shoulder.

Livkir looks up at Saluin. “The reason I wrote you,” he says quietly, “is Nili wasn’t going to. It was something Lisuan said. She mocked Nili because you’ve voided demerits for her, I guess. It was just grotesque, trying to fuck with her head—”

“She pointed out that I never face consequences for the shit I pull,” Niltar interrupts quietly. “That I use the dysfunction as an excuse to get out of everything. And she’s right.”

Livkir sighs, looking away. Saluin gazes levelly at Niltar.

“So what were you planning to do, Nili?” he asks softly.

After a moment, she answers, voice uncharacteristically distant, “present myself to the Homeguard when so ordered.”

“You were going to subject yourself to corporal punishment?”

“I was going to submit to it, yes.”

Saluin takes her hand gently in his. “And that’s why you’re upset Livkir told me?”

“Yeah.”

“You know what I’m going to say, right?”

“That I was trying to use the discipline process as self-harm? Yes.”

“Do you think it’s true?”

Niltar stares at the ceiling for a long moment. “What’s the difference?” she finally says with a shrug.

“The difference between discipline and self-harm is that one is constructive and the other is destructive.”

“Even if the actual act is completely, one hundred percent the same?”

“Tell me something.” Saluin sits back, idly crossing his legs. “If you were alone in the middle of a battlefield, and there was — I don’t know, gravel or something, debris from an explosion lodged in a wound you’re trying to patch up, what would you do?”

“I’d cut it out.”

“With a knife?”

“With a knife or a scalpel or something, yeah. Whatever I had at hand.”

Saluin squeezes her hand. “And then you’d bandage it up, wouldn’t you?”

“Yeah, sure.”

Saluin touches one of the seven white bandages on her left arm. “Like this?”

After another long moment of silence, Niltar curls up in Livkir’s lap.

“Livkir-surin,” Saluin murmurs, “would you forgive me if I stepped out for a moment to brew myself some tea?”

“O-oh, I’ll do it!” Shalcas hops immediately to his feet. “I’ll take care of it, sir. What blend would you like, sir?”

Saluin gives him a look of mixed gratitude and concern. “I— that’s very kind of you, comrade—”

“Think nothing of it, sir, truly.”

“…perhaps a Lowland Red, with one sugar?”

“I’ll fetch it right away!”

As Shalcas darts out of the room, Saluin turns back to Niltar. She’s trembling, and there are more tears in her eyes. He squeezes her hand again.

“You’ve just been retraumatized in a severe, severe way, Nili. You’ve had a couple of days filled with very dark and painful emotions, and while I know self-harm can produce some immediate relief or at least distraction, I cannot, cannot accept that piling more trauma on top is going to be good for you. That’s like fighting fire with napalm.”

“I feel like a stupid fucking child.”

“I know. We’ve discussed this many times.” He leans forward. “And I’m going to tell you what I always tell you: you are not a child. A child makes excuses instead of accepting blame, and for all your faults that’s something I’ve never seen you do. You make excuses for others — never yourself. More than that, a child would not feel the kind of guilt you’re describing to me; a child would not want to be punished. You are a young woman, a young adult, with a well-developed conscience—”

“I’m weak, is what I am.”

“Nili, what’s the first verse of the Oath?”

Niltar stares up into the night sky outside, eyes tracking the slow passage of a sky-serpent as its great dark body passes out from behind a cloudbank, momentarily silhouetting itself in front of a gleaming moon. “‘The defenseless I shall defend,’” she finally recites; “‘the wounded I shall comfort; the ignorant I shall teach; injustice I shall avenge.’”

Saluin nods. “A lot has changed over the last millennium and a half, but that oath has been with us since before the First Triumvirate took up their new names. That’s what we’re about, Nili — not showing off to the galaxy how tough we all are, not turning absolutely everybody into perfect fighting machines, not punishing and tormenting the weak. We speak for the voiceless, and we comfort the wounded.” He puts a hand on her shoulder. “That’s what a citizen is. You’re not being a burden or a parasite on us by being weak, and I will tell you this as many times as it takes: you are precisely what we are here for, the objective of the whole damned mission.” In a quieter voice, he adds: “And that, I believe, is what has slipped Comrade Lisuan’s famously disciplined mind. She will be reminded.”

“And what if I can never muster the strength to defend the defenseless and comfort the wounded myself?”

“That’s why it’s the Oath of Citizenship, Nili. Not everyone is cut out to be a soldier. And that’s completely okay. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves by making that kind of grandiose prediction right now.” Saluin glances up at the sound of the door opening, and cracks a smile as Shalcas enters with a steaming mug of tea.

“The tea nook was all out of sugar, I’m afraid, sir,” he murmurs as he sets the mug down in front of Saluin; the counselor waves him away.

“Never you mind. Thank you again, comrade.” Saluin turns back to Nili, who’s slumped over on the couch, staring out the window with heavy-lidded eyes. “You look exhausted, Nil.”

She shrugs. “Yeah.”

“Perhaps it would be better if I leave you to your rest. We can meet tomorrow to try and regroup. Would you be okay for the night if we did that? I know you’ve expressed a great deal of anxiety around sleeping alone—”

“Liv’s gonna let me sleep with him for now.”

“For as long as you need,” Livkir corrects her gently.

Saluin smiles. “That’s wonderful. I’m so glad you have such steady friends these days — I’m really proud of you, Niltar. I hope you know that.”

She looks up at him for a moment, then flinches away from his gaze. “I’m… thanks,” she murmurs uncertainly.

“No; thank you.” Saluin stands, taking a cautious sip from the tea mug. “Thank you for sticking it out every single time I asked you to. Thank you for never giving up. You just keep it up a little bit longer — just as long as it takes for us to get Cas back.” He glances at Shalcas and Livkir. “Thank you again for letting me intrude on your home and your time, comrades. Shalcas-surin — do me a favor and be gentle on yourself, alright?”

“Ah—? Uh, um, y-yes, sir?”

“Good lad.” Saluin favors each of them with a smile. “Pel a nil asharat; mir a uan, Nili.”

“Mir a uan, Sal,” Niltar murmurs finally, meeting his gaze for a brief moment. “…Sal?”

“Yeah, Nili?”

“Thank you for caring about me.”

He laughs quietly. “I couldn’t keep myself from caring about you if I wanted to. You and Cas are just alike that way, Nil.” He holds up a hand as Livkir starts to rise. “I’ll see myself out.”

Shalcas relaxes visibly when the door closes behind Saluin. Moments later, a slate near Livkir blinks to life, emitting a quiet chirp. Livkir glances at it; there’s a single message waiting for him when he unlocks the screen.

Livkir,

Thank you.

Saluin.

As Livkir sets the slate back down, he notices Shalcas staring, eyes wide, at a personal handset — an odd thing for someone to be carrying in the middle of perfectly civilized rantal, let alone his own dormitory complex. “…Shay?” he murmurs as Shalcas distractedly pokes the keypad with trembling hands. Shalcas doesn’t respond, breathing rapidly, eyes darting back and forth for a few moments as though he’s reading something very quickly — and then he lets out a cry of elation, thrusting the handset in front of Livkir.

“This just came in like half an hour ago!”

Livkir’s eyes widen — and then widen again as he snatches the handset, scanning through the contents with an expression of pure disbelief on his face.

“L-Liv? Sh-Shay?” Niltar whispers, glancing back and forth between them. “What’s—” She stops as Livkir turns and with a manic grin, holds out the handset.

Lif a til, Shalcas-surin.

We have processed your report regarding Tegvari wards Niltar and Cassil. Thank you for bringing this matter to Shevran attention. You were correct to do so. We commend your judgment and your concern for the wellbeing of your comrades. It is well-placed and well-worded. Our inquiry is complete and I have been authorized to report to you the following.

Comrade Cassil Tegvari is currently in Shevran custody. She is unharmed and will remain so. She has already been cleared for release, which is scheduled at M7H tonight; on this point, no action is necessary.

Comrade Niltar Tegvari’s safety is not a Shevran matter. Your concerns have been forwarded to the appropriate authorities with all due urgency.

The arresting agent asks me to convey her deepest sympathy and regret to Comrade Niltar for the emotional harm unintentionally inflicted upon her. She has filed this inquiry for administrative review, and it may be used to improve standard custodial procedures to reduce the likelihood of a similar event taking place in the future.

Please do not hesitate to report any further matters in need of intervention to this contact point. When in doubt, always err on the side of reporting.

Vigilance and strength,

Tenlis-mellas, Shevran

Niltar’s expression goes from confused to frightened to stunned in the space of a few short moments. The handset slips from her trembling fingers and she looks up, tears welling up in her eyes. The next thing Livkir knows she’s clutching him around the waist, sobbing with hysterical relief in his lap.

“See?” Livkir hugs her tight, running his fingers through her hair. “I told you we’d get her back.”

“Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

“I think she’s talking to you,” Livkir says to Shalcas.

“I’m t-talking to both of you, you fucking ass!” Niltar punches him in the shoulder again as she withdraws, and turns to Shalcas. “Can… is it okay if I hug you?”

Shalcas bobs his head and touches her on the waist. “Of course it is, Nili.”

She clings to him for a long moment, letting out a quiet, happy sound as he hesitantly rubs the back of her neck. “You’re really soft and you smell really nice,” she murmurs approvingly as she releases him, rubbing her bleary eyes. Livkir takes her by the shoulders from behind.

“Saluin’s right, you do look exhausted.”

“That’s because I am, dumbass.”

“Do you still want someone to sleep with tonight, or are you gonna be okay?”

Her shoulders sag and she leans back against him. “Yeah. I definitely still do.”

“Well, I guess I’ll— I’ll head out then—” Shalcas begins, stopping short as Livkir takes him by the hand.

“When Cas gets back— however that happens— do you want to come with us to meet her?”

Shalcas smiles. “I’d like that a lot.”

“I’ll let you know, then.” Livkir steps closer and gives Shalcas a tender hug. The boys stand there for a moment, arm in arm, cheek to cheek. As Shalcas draws back, he looks up at Livkir and murmurs, “I don’t remember the last time anyone ever hugged me besides you and Nili.”

Livkir’s eyes widen. “Shay—”

Shalcas clasps his hands in front of his chest. “I-I’ll see you tomorrow, then?”

“…yeah. Definitely. Thank you again for everything—”

“Don’t even mention it. Just glad I could help.”

“Look at that,” Niltar grouses when the door closes behind Shalcas. “Now we’ve got another you to deal with.”

“Another me?”

“Another insufferably modest boy.

“Come on.” Livkir takes her by the arm. “Let’s get to bed.”

“…yeah.” Niltar exhales raggedly. “Let’s.”