ʞ / fiction / Spirals / War /

Eyes of the Storm

from a serial by Lexi Summer Hale

“Rei?”

“V-Vi…”

“Rhea.” Lena takes my arm gently. “We have her on ventilation. She’s gonna be okay.”

I look up blearily, my shattered brain seizing on the last word. “Vi… she’s… she’s not gonna…?”

“She is going to survive.” Lena squeezes my arm. “With exorphine overdoses, it’s the respiratory arrest that kills. It stops the breathing, and that stops you getting oxygen to your lungs, and that starves the brain and stops the heart. Do you see that mask on her mouth?”

I nod.

“That’s substituting for her lungs right now. It’s pushing air in and out. See?” He taps a small screen displaying a jagged, pulsing red line. “Her heartbeat’s coming right back. She’ll be back to normal in no time.”

“She’s gonna be okay?”

He gives me a little hug. “She’s gonna be okay, Rei.”

“Silo vade,” comes a brisk voice from across the room. The woman, Lena’s partner, is standing up, holding a vial in one gloved hand and aiming some kind of… miniature galvanic torch at it. It’s the pill vial, I realize.

“Hali div?” Lena replies, reaching for the syringe.

There’s a pause. “Tan,” comes the reply.

“L-Lena?” I ask, as he jabs the syringe into a bottle and begins filling it.

“She took five whole pills, on top of however much opium was already in her system.” He carefully eyes the markings on the syringe as he fills it; beside him, the woman is already wrapping a tourniquet around Vi’s arm, moving with the unerring accuracy of someone who’s done this many times before. “Those pills are four milligrams each, that’s an absolutely massive dose. A single one would knock me out. We’re gonna give her some antifent to revive her, get her body working on its own again.” He hands the syringe to the woman, who immediately plunges it into Vi’s arm — into one of the few veins that hasn’t collapsed already — and begins to slowly squeeze the plunger.

“Th-thank you so m-m-much,” I stutter.

“No problem. Keeping you two safe is what we’re here for, remember?”

“How did you— how are you— what is all this? How did you know how to do all this?” I whisper.

“Seli here’s a medic. She’s trained in saving people from much worse than a little overdose.”

“S-Seli?”

Seli glances at me. Her face is expressionless.

“Thank you,” I whisper hoarsely, trying to wipe the still-flowing tears from my eyes.

She nods and turns back to Vi, slowly sliding the syringe out. She passes it back to Lena, plunger first, and removes the tourniquet with one hand as she swabs the injection site with the other. Lena holds the syringe to a small metal case; there’s a snap and the needle comes off. He puts both back in the briefcase.

“Seli doesn’t talk much,” Lena says, patting me on the back. “Language was never her strong suit, and she’s always been very… focused.”

Suddenly, coughs — Vi’s chest is moving suddenly; she’s convulsing, hacking and coughing and gasping for breath. “Wr-Wren…?” she chokes out, voice full of terror and confusion as she desperately calls my name, curling her body up into the fetal position.

“Vi!” I grab her by the shoulders, kiss her frantically on the forehead. “Vi, I’m here; I’m right here, babe. Oh thank God, oh thank God—”

“Wren? I… I mean… Rhea?” Vi mumbles, blinking up at me, disoriented, her pupils still tiny pinpricks. She can’t hardly keep her eyes open. “Wh-what— happened?”

“You fuckin’ overdosed again, you fuckin’ idiot.” I hug her tightly, tears streaming down my cheeks. “I told you— I told you to be careful—”

Seli pulls a small black band out of the briefcase, and takes Vi’s hand. Vi yelps, tries to pull away, but Seli ignores her struggles, wrapping the band snugly around Vi’s wrist. There’s a faint click and the ends latch together. She tugs on the bracelet experimentally; it doesn’t budge.

“She wear this until she learn self-control,” Seli declares, in the tones of a woman who doesn’t intend to be argued with.

“Wh-what? Whassat? Why?” Vi mumbles, looking back and forth between us in confusion.

“We call it a taicon,” Lena murmurs, holding up his own wrist and showing me one latched there as well. “Helps us stay in touch in the field when we’re in plain clothes. And it’s got electrodes underneath that press up against the skin and measure your vitals.”

“If her oxygen saturation drop, then I know,” says Seli. “If her heart rate drop, then I know. If she fall, then I know.” As if to demonstrate, she taps Vi’s bracelet and hers and Lena’s both light up. “So this no happen again. Two more minutes, all it would have took.” She holds up two fingers as if to emphasize. “Two. Then she would died. Incredibly lucky was this. Luck will no save her next time.”

“That’s… that’s a radio? So small?”

“It is, yeah,” Lena confirms.

“Can I have one?” I blurt out. Seli immediately takes my hand and latches a band around my wrist, before snapping the case shut.

“I’ll show you how they work tomorrow,” Lena tells me, gently but firmly seating me on the bed. “And we’ll get your new gun set up. Right now, you both need to rest. It’s three ‘til dawn.”

“I—”

“We’ll keep watch. If anything happens, I’ll wake you first thing, you have my solemn word.” Lena ruffles my hair again, beginning to stow the medical gear. “You can rest easy knowing we’re standing guard.”

I’m too tired to argue — and he’s probably right. I lay back, holding Vi close to me and pulling her head in under my chin. She murmurs sleepily. “If any… a-anything happens,” I murmur, “there’s a— in the back of the wardrobe, um, there’s a false back; the code—”

“Rei. Rest.” Lena closes up the last case, hefting it off the bed. “We’ll talk strategy tomorrow, all right? Right now you both need sleep.”

“O-okay—” I mumble, my eyelids drooping—

—I sit bolt upright, heart pounding, reflexively shielding my eyes against the sunlight blazing in through the window. Morning. It’s morning. I’m in bed — my bed… I blink rapidly, violently rubbing my eyes, taking in my surroundings. It’s near noon, by the angle of the sun. I’m alone in here, but there’s the telltale impression on the mattress says Vi was curled up next to me not too long ago. And there’s some camo-green metal cases on the floor, marked with a strange, blocky script I’ve never seen before—

…oh, God. It wasn’t a dream.

With tired hands, I splash cold water on my face in the washroom to wake myself up, staring at my dissheveled hair in the mirror as I pat my skin dry with a towel. I make some desultory efforts to brush some of the tangles out before giving up and slipping out of my nightgown. As I pull it over my head, I smell fresh linen, Vi, sweat… and a scent that’s new to the household, light and sweet with a hint of lavender, one it takes me a moment to recognize.

Lena.

I examine my bare body critical-like in the mirror, turning this way and that, noting a few bruises that weren’t there this time yesterday, and giving my taut, sturdy biceps a glare of betrayal. No real wounds to anything but my pride, and I don’t see nothing to worry about—

—except the little tremor in my hands.

That’s… new.

I pour a bit of my usual perfumes and soaps in the ceramic water-vessel and hold it under the port as it fills. I dip a cloth in and dab at my cheeks, the hot water on my face and breasts doing as much as the fresh cherry-blossom scent to soothe my lurking anxiety somewhat. Satisfied that I’m not going to walk out of the bedroom looking and smelling like a pien şai that’s been rutting in a dumpster, I dress myself. A ţue giem-style skirt at my waist, a soft tan şiang wrapped snugly ’round my bosom, and a layered silk cardigan draped over my shoulders — just the right balance between classy, comfy, and conservative. Finally, I pluck a peony bloom from the sháng Vi always keeps so well stocked and slip the stem into my dark red curls — pink blossoms above the left ear is a bit much for a woman of my low birth even if it’s not technically against çe Zia, but with society falling slowly to bits I can’t imagine anyone will demand I bare my back for inspection. May as well enjoy the decline in what little ways I can.

z

I know I shoulda let Vi dress and wash me. I know how much she craves a real, respectable life and our circumstances are cruel enough on her already without me keeping her from her zèņ tsí — but I don’t mean to dishonor her; it’s just one of those things I gotta do for myself now and then, tradition be damned. Especially after last night — I’m feeling the need to take some charge over my own body. If Vi feels denied over it, I got no shortage of ways to make her feel mine again.

I pad softly out into the kitchen, where Vi is perched at the bar, steaming mug in hand. She gives me a fragile smile when she sees me, proffering a coffee pot. If the sight of me fresh-washed and clothed hurts her, she doesn’t let it show.

“Seli made kie giang!” she calls, a little note of excitement in her voice.

“Morning to you too,” I say quietly, yawning hard and glancing up at the clock. It’s only two hours ’til noon, Empress’s tits—

—oh.

Right.

It’s all real.

It all happened.

I flop down on a barstool, putting an arm around Vi, and she snuggles up against me. “I’m so sorry about last night—” she babbles.

“Shh. ’S okay.” I rub my eyes blearily. “I’m too tired to be angry at you, babe.”

“Oh — oh, I thought— because you—”

“That’s nothing to do with you, love. I’m sorry.” I kiss her behind the ear. “You can help me get cleaned up tonight, alright?”

She nods, looking relieved. “Okay. Th-thank you—”

I pat her on the back. “You don’t gotta thank me for letting you do me a kindness, love.”

“I just— it’s not— we’re not—”

“Damn the law. You’re mine. God and the ones who matter know it, and that’s what matters true. ”

“I’d ask you if you slept well, but from how you look I guess I already know the answer,” Lenshal says sympathetically, shutting the oven and setting a fresh-cooked bowl of bai shang on the countertop. I stare at him.

“You cook, too?”

He laughs. “Sure. Back home everyone learns to cook. We all spend time on kitchen duty now and then.”

“Well, ain’t you handy.” I nudge Vi. “Looks like I won’t have to inflict any more corner-store shie kien on us when you’re too strung out to cook, babe.”

“Lena’s gonna teach me how to make Society food,” Vi tells me proudly. I glare at him.

“You didn’t waste a second to start indoctrinating my girl, did you, wonder-boy.”

He flips me a lazy salute. “Not a single second, ma’am. How big a bowl would you like?”

“Big, please. I’m starving.” I pour myself a mug of coffee, and take a cautious sip. It’s sweeter than I expected, sweet and strong. Seli makes a decent cup.

Lena’s in plain clothes this morning, a light, half-sheer summer-robe with a freedman’s cap to conceal his golden hair. I catch the outline of a pistol at his thigh as he bends over to turn off the oven.

“Your clip is showing, soldier,” I murmur, taking another sip of coffee.

“…whoops.” Lena adjusts his robe, smiling ruefully at me. “Thanks; that would not be a good thing for a man to get caught with on these streets.”

“Let your hair down and that won’t be a problem, tomboy,” I observe innocently.

“Yeah, yeah, I get it, you think I’m cute,” Lena replies levelly, grinning as I feel my cheeks start to burn.

“He is, isn’t he,” Vi stage-whispers conspiratorially. I glare at her.

“I never said—”

“She’s cute when she’s flustered, isn’t she?” Vi says to Lena.

“She really is,” Lena agrees. “I mean, she’s always cute, but she’s especially cute when she’s flustered.”

I pinch Vi’s thigh and she lets out a little yelp. “Little traitor, you,” I mutter. “Ganging up on me first thing in the morning, that’s totally fair.”

“You started it,” Vi returns innocently. “If you can’t stand the heat…”

I polish off the rest of my coffee, resting my aching head against the kitchen wall. “You win. You win! Have mercy, I beg you.”

“I can’t tell if she’s saying that because she actually wants us to go easy on her,” Violet confides to Lena, “or if she’s just trying to egg us on. I bet she’s secretly enjoying it. She does that, you know.”

“Believe me, I’ve noticed,” Lena answers, and I bury my burning cheeks in my arms. “You should have heard the noises she was making last night.”

“Nope. Nope! Going back to bed.”

“‘Oh, please, Lena-san,’” Lena continues, imitating my voice, “‘Don’t go easy on me — I’m a big girl — I can take it~’”

Vi giggles gleefully. “Ohhh, so it’s like that now, is it? Couldn’t resist the girly little Green, could you, babe?”

“We didn’t— I— it’s not—” I feel Lena’s hands on my shoulders and trail off in a whimper.

“She just needed some comfort, was all,” he says gently, rubbing my back slowly. “Isn’t that right, Rei?”

“‘Rei!’ Ohmigod that’s so cuuute,” Vi coos, nuzzling up to me. “You’re adorable, Rei.”

“I swear to God I didn’t fuck the help.”

“She actually didn’t,” Lena admits, patting me on the back. “That part’s true.”

“…well. There’s still time.” Vi actually sounds disappointed. She kisses me on the shoulder, then leans back on the stool, turning to rest her feet on my lap. “What did you do to her to get her so flustered, then?”

“Really I just I gave her a backrub, but you’d never guess it from how vocal she got.”

“Ooh! Luckyyy,” Vi says coyly. “A backrub sounds real nice right now~”

Lena laughs. “See, Rei? Now there’s a girl who knows how to ask for what she wants.”

“She’s always been completely shameless like that,” I agree, fixing Vi with a glare as Lena takes her by the shoulders. She grins cheekily at me, and I let out a surprised yelp as she rubs her toe up against my clit through my skirt. I yank her foot away and squeeze my legs together. “You little shit.”

“She really does make such wonderful noises," Vi says dreamily.

I take a deep breath, and shake my head. “How are you two doing this?” I ask quietly, staring between them.

“Doing what?” asks Lena innocently.

“Last night I found out the Shadows blew up the Heavenly Empire. That the worlds are about to come apart at the seams. That twenty billion people are dead and one of them is the God damn Empress herself. I murdered a ghost in my nightclothes, some handsy Green fuck tried to throttle me, and my girlfriend damn near died of an overdose.” I look down at my coffee. “And you’re making me feel like…”

“Like things are gonna be okay?” says Lena. “That’s because they are, Rei. What we’re doing is caring about you. Being your comrades. Showing you you have something real, something that matters, and this storm won’t take it away. That you have a home.”

“A home, a great cook, and an adoring housewife,” Vi coos, nuzzling up to me. “En’t that right, Lena?”

“Then which one of you is the cook and which one is the housewife?”

“Wow.” Lena whistles. “Is she always such a smartass?”

“Oh, you have noooo idea.” Vi nips me on the neck before drawing back; I shiver at the tiny little rush the bite sends through me. She leans back into Lena’s grip, resting her head against his chest and looking up at him slyly. “You just gotta know how to handle her. —Mmh, God, you give the best backrubs.”

“Don’t worry, I learn fast,” says Lena lightly. She shivers, closing her eyes as he presses his knuckles into her spine, massaging down to the small of her back. “I’ll figure her out soon enough.” I feel a small pang of jealousy — at both of them — and turn away, digging my chopsticks into my food.

“So what’s the plan for today?” I ask, trying to shift the subject away from my ritual humiliation.

“Well, I figured first things first, I’d get you up to speed with your new gear. —Oh! Speaking of gear,” Lena adds, “Seli and I set up in the guest bedroom last night; is that okay by you?”

“Yeah, that’s fine. All I ever use it for is holding prisoners I’m not supposed to have, anyway.”

“Ah.” Lena nods. “That’ll explain the bloodstains.”

“Dammit, I thought we got those all scrubbed out.”

“Seli got the rest, don’t worry. She’s kind of a neat freak — if you come home and find anything suddenly reorganized, it’s probably her fault.”

“How long have you two served together anyway?”

“My whole life,” says Lena, as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world. “Well, my whole life as a citizen, anyway. Right, sorry, you don’t know how that works, do you.”

“How what works?”

“We all join a local unit when we come of age, and it’s supposed to be for life.” He sighs, a note of uncharacteristic sadness in his voice. “That part worked out a lot a lot better when it was just… disorganized pirates, slavers, and primitive profligates who fought with each other as much as with us, not… armies of bloodthirsty imperialists who breed like pien şai, can’t be reasoned with, and want every last one of us dead or enslaved.” He looks down. “Anyway. Seli was my mentor when I joined the Sixth. They were the only T-zero unit in Casvar back in those days, and with war on the horizon, my cohort’s vote was damn near unanimous.”

“Cohort? Vote?” I wrinkle my brow. “S-sorry, I— I don’t think I understand.”

“Ah— it’s… kinda hard to explain. A cohort… maybe you’d think of it something like a ‘family?’ Or a ‘generation,’ maybe? It’s the thirty or so of us that was raised together. Anyway, when your cohort comes of age, you take a vote on which unit to join up with. Back in those days, there was usually only one T-zero unit per rantal—”

“T-zero? Sorry, I’m completely lost here.”

“Sorry, I keep forgetting this is all new to you.” Lena pulls up a stool next to me. “T-zero means active duty, even in peacetime. Your military role is your primary one — you’re the ones out there fighting off raiders trying to hit our shipping routes, or burning out slaver bases on our worlds. If your cohort doesn’t choose active duty, you get a different tier depending on how essential you are — the idea is, you have to hit a pretty high ‘oh fuck’ threshold before a scientist is worth more in armor than researching atomics deep behind friendly lines. Things like that.”

“Ah. That makes sense. Like how the Houses don’t want to use perfectly good scribes as cannon fodder when they took so much time and work to train?”

“I… suppose?” Lena laughs awkwardly. “Except we don’t use anyone as cannon fodder, Rei.”

“Right. Your leaders aren’t hiding behind a mountain of your comrades’ dead bodies or anything.”

Lena flinches like he’s just been slapped, and I realize I’ve said something deeply, deeply wrong. After how kind and selfless he’s been to me, too — tits of the Seven, I’m an asshole sometimes. “S-sorry— I’m so—” I begin. He waves me away.

“It’s fine, Rei. You didn’t know.” But it’s not fine — his voice tells that plain.

“What… what happened?” I ask cautiously. “If— if you don’t mind my asking, Lena; I don’t mean to pry—”

He looks away. “Seli and I are pretty much all that’s left of the Sixth and that’s all I really feel like saying about it right now.”

“…oh. —Oh.” The full significance of his words takes a moment to hit me, and suddenly I want to slap myself. “You— you lost—”

“Damn near everyone I knew and grew up with, yeah.”

“…you poor thing. I’m so sorry. I had no idea.” Hesitantly, I touch a hand to his shoulder and he turns his head, looking at me with surprise. “Lena, you have every right to strike me for what I just said to you — that was outright cruel and wrong of me, and I won’t raise a hand in my defense.” As if I could stop him — but the sentiment still has to count for something.

“It’s okay.” He takes my palm gently in both hands. “I’m not angry at you, Rei. That was a while ago. We’ve been well taken care of, and we’re… we’re reintegrating.”

I nod slowly. “I’m… glad to hear it. Just… just hear I recognize and respect it, what you’ve suffered, and you have my ear and my compassion, for what it’s worth. That’s damn close to the high water mark for bad.” God, how my whining must have sounded to him last night—

He nods, biting his lip. “I… yeah. Thank you, Rei. Going through something like that changes you, I won’t deny it.”

I squeeze his hand. “Is that why Seli’s so…?”

“I think so. She was always a little… quiet, but not like this. Not before Diamond. We’re both coping how we know how, I suppose, and it’s getting better, slowly. We were lucky enough to be on the right side — the People have been there for us every step of the way, made sure we didn’t wind up isolated out in the cold. I’d feel worse for a Rosie gone through the same, to be honest with you.”

I raise my eyebrows. “You make it sound like your state cares about your social life.”

“You make it sound like there’s a difference between the two.” He gives me a faint grin. “We don’t leave anyone behind and we don’t leave anyone to suffer alone. That’s what being true comrades means.”

I gaze into his sparkling green eyes with renewed interest. I never would have imagined the warm, open, gentle man I met last night could have possibly been such a deeply battered soldier. I took him for an idealist, maybe — a kid who’d never seen the truth of war, who’d bought the propaganda hook, line, and sinker, and just hadn’t had a chance yet to be let down by the state he thought so high of. But this?

This… don’t quite fit with my picture of the world. Assuming he’s not just lying for my benefit… but something in Lena’s eyes makes it hard for me to believe he could lie to me about something like this. Spies and thieves can and will say anything to get what we want, but soldiers — they’re a different breed, lucky enough to still have the luxury of honor. Am I a fool for assuming a Green might be so similar?

Well. Another data point to file away, at least.

“Thank you,” I murmur. “For sharing this with me.”

A fragile smile. “Thanks for listening, Rei.”

I nod, smiling back. “Any time, Lena.”

“Right back at you.” He punches me lightly on the shoulder. “See? You’re getting the hang of this ‘comrades’ thing.”

“There you go ruining the nice touching moment again!” I beckon absently to Vi and she scampers to her feet, grabbing the coffee pot and pouring me a fresh mug. I grab her by the hair as she sets the fresh mug down in front of me, kissing her deep on the lips and squeezing her rear before I let go; she nuzzles me and gives me a few teasing bites to the neck in turn. I swear to God she gets off on making me squirm in front of guests — but then I guess it’s mutual.

“Would you like more coffee too, Master Lena, sir?” she asks, hovering at his shoulder.

He laughs as he holds out his mug. “Just Lena’s fine, Miss Violet,” he replies in Khmaira. She blushes, nodding.

“Forgive the girl, she’s as traditional as they come,” I tell him, blowing a kiss at Vi. “My fault for trying so hard to raise her right, I s’pose.”

“Really? You’re the reason she’s so prim and proper?” He tilts his head slightly. “Can’t say I see the resemblance,” he says teasingly.

“That’s it exactly,” I reply. He catches the sincerity in my voice and his expression shifts quickly. “I wanted to be damn sure she didn’t turn out like me.” More quietly I add, “I know too well what it’s like not to have a mother to raise you.”

He touches my leg, patting me just above the knee. “You didn’t turn out so bad, Rei.”

“Don’t say that so confident. You ain’t read my dossier.”

“I don’t need a dossier to know when I admire a woman,” he replies warmly.

“I wish I was so clairvoyant.”

“Tell me something then, Rei.” He gives me a lazy grin. “What do you feel about me?”

I open my mouth.

I shut my mouth.

“Wwwhat else is uh on the agenda for today,” I babble, staring red-faced down into my coffee. Lena giggles, petting the scruff of my neck roughly enough to force my head down for a moment before withdrawing. I grit my teeth in humiliation.

“Later today we’re heading in to the safehouse,” he replies, “so you can meet your new handler and get started figuring out the right role for you in our operation.”

“…I thought Rose was my handler.”

“Rose?” Lena laughs. “She’s your partner, Rei.”

Coffee nearly spills out my nose.

“What.”

“Yep, she holds your hand in the field while we hold down the fort at home.”

“…I really wish someone had thought to tell me that before I accepted her fucking offer,” I blurt. “Khata’e’s dripping tits — so what, I’m the brains, she’s the brawn?”

“Whew; you’re right,” Lena tells Vi, “she really is a smartass.” Vi giggles.

“I wonder if I’ll get a reward for my vital intel~” she purrs.

“Alright, alright.” He laughs. “Come here, you.”

Vi slips between us and leans back against him, resting her legs in my lap again as he rubs her shoulders. She looks so happy cuddled up between us that I can’t help but smile, stroking her thighs as she shivers in Lena’s grip. Tomboy fits in too damn well here.

I gaze into the bright silver irises beneath her blissfully fluttering lashes, and it finally dawns on me this must be a dream come true for her. She’s always been a flirt, always craved company and companionship, but this goes so much deeper than that. Finally, she has someone to bear witness. Someone to see her being the wife she’s always wanted, always tried so hard to be to me, law be damned.

And then it hits me why she was so disappointed I didn’t fuck Lena, and it breaks my heart a little. If I had — we’d finally be a real, respectable Zyahua household in her eyes. Me to bring home the rice, her to cook and tend to me, and Lena the modest, gentle, obedient husband from a good family to safeguard our future.

I’m a goddamn spy. My insight is supposed to be better than this. Now I just feel even worse about what I did this morning. I didn’t just take away her wifely duties from her — I showed her up in front of the first person she ever got to show off our domestic life to, even if that was a Green who can’t possibly understand what things like that mean on a planet full of Zyahua.

La dè nai I am such a fucking asshole.

I need to make this right.

“Hey, Vi,” I murmur gently, touching her on the cheek, trying to choose my words carefully. “Can I talk to you private-like for a minute?” I flash Lena an awkward smile. “Family business, sorry.”

“Not a problem. You girls take your time.”

Vi nods, quickly slipping out of Lena’s lap and clasping her hands at her waist. I take her by the hand, touch her on the cheek, and kiss her on the lips in front of Lena as I stand. She rests her forehead against mine for a moment, closing her eyes, a content little smile on her lips. “Good girl,” I murmur, taking hold of her shoulder and gently leading her back to our bedroom.

“Did— is this about— I didn’t mean— did I do something wro—” she begins anxiously as I close to door behind us. I turn, grabbing her quickly by the arms and shaking my head fiercely.

“No, no, no, no— Vi, honey, darling, I am so goddamn sorry.”

She trails off mid-apology, completely derailed. “Wh-wha—?”

“C’mere.” I sit down on the bed, tug her down into my lap, and she snuggles close to me, resting her forehead against my neck. I hug her tight, searching for words.

“I fucked up,” I say finally. “Vi, I am a goddamn idiot and I fucked up and I am so sorry. You deserved better than that.” I silence her with a hand to her lips as she tries to speak. “Shh. Look, I— I didn’t put it together until just now but— I shamed you in front of Lena and that wasn’t right.”

She’s silent for a while, trembling in my arms. “I thought—” she finally begins.

“You thought I was trying to punish you for what you did last night. I know. I wasn’t. I wouldn’t ever mean to push you away like that, not for anything.”

“Why, then?” she asks, looking up at me with confused eyes. I sigh.

“It’s fucking stupid; you’re gonna laugh at me. And you should. It’s just… after everything Rose did to me last night— and then…” My knuckles whiten. “After fucking Cougar of all fucking people showed up— I just— my body’s—"

Realization dawns and it’s her turn to shush me with a hand to the lips. “You know I been raped too,” she exclaims. “I get. I do. It weren’t stupid, Rei. I’m sorry. I shoulda figured — it all makes sense now.”

“It ain’t on you to read my mind, love.” I touch my forehead to hers, and she rests her arms on my shoulders.

“Y’sure read mine, though,” she teases.

I laugh weakly, ruffling her hair. “That’s on account of I been trained how — y’ain’t a spy and I don’t want you to be. I want you to have a nice, safe, comfy life where you don’t ever gotta worry about worse’n whether we’ve got enough bai sam for dinner.”

She smiles. “I want that too,” she murmurs. “We got plenty for tonight, by the by. Tomorrow though I think we’ll have to fit in a trip to market.”

“I got your back on that op,” I say, and she giggles, then stops suddenly.

“Rei?”

“Yeah, Vi?”

She takes my hands, holds them palm up. “I thought it was just coffee jitters, maybe, but all morning you been—”

I sigh. “I know. I’m—”

“Ain’t like you to get like this.” She looks back up at me, worried eyes boring deeply into mine. “Last night messed you right up, didn’t it, hon?”

I swallow hard. My chest is quivering now. “N-now there you go reading my mind.”

She shakes her head, touching me on the cheek. “Don’t you go and laugh it off like that.”

“Babe, I don’t know what else to do.” I kiss her hand softly. “I don’t know what to do but keep on pushing through and hope I get my shit sorted eventually.”

“You gonna be able to aim okay? If shit hits the fan?”

And there it is, the thing I’ve been trying so hard not to think about.

“…I don’t know.” I look back up. “But… but we got Lena and Seli to protect us now if… if things get bad again.”

She squeezes my hand. “Promise me you’ll take Lena with any time you go out. Leastways ’til this shaky shit stops.”

“I promise.”

She exhales raggedly. “Thank you,” she whispers.

I kiss her on the lips again, long and hard this time, slipping my hand under her gown to massage her inner thigh, and she’s shivering again when I pull away. That’s always how you can tell she’s real flustered and happy — she gets all quivery and useless in your hands.

“You like that boy, don’t you.”

She nods, blushing even harder. “You like him too. Don’t even try’n lie to me, hon.”

It’s my turn to blush. “I… I think it could be nice to have him around,” I stammer.

She gives me a coy look. “Could be even nicer to have him in bed~”

“Vi.”

“I’m jus’ saying… it gets awful cold some nights… having some nice soft womanly bodies to keep him warm while Seli’s on guard’d be a right proper way to show him our appreciation~”

“I swear to God, Vi—”

“I done heard that noise you made when he laid hands on you,” she continues gleefully. “The way you jus’ trailed off with that precious little whimper. Like you were jus’ thinking about allll the things he could do to you with that powerful little body of his~”

“Violet, you—”

“Have you ever felt anyone so strong?” She shivers delightedly. “Mm, it’s such a rush, being jus’ locked up tight in his grip like that~”

“Violet Brightmoon, you cruel little thing, I swear to God within I brought you up better’n this—”

She giggles delightedly, caressing my chest. “Golly then, your nipples sure are stiff all’a sudden—”

“Maybe that’s on account of the pretty li’l girlie in my lap, not the goddamn help, you thought of that?”

She just laughs. “It’s adorable how you jus‘ keep straight on arguin’ even though we both know clear what you think of him. I don’t think I ever seen you so flustered ’afore, sure as shit not by a boy.”

“I—”

“He knows, I know it, you know, I don’t even know what that silly li’l head of yours figures it’s doin’ fightin’ about it.” She beams at me. “But go on. Don’t stop on my account. It’s the cutest thing watchin’ you stammer and protest while your face lights up like a li’l pink candle.”

My mouth moves wordlessly for a moment, and I finally bury my head in her shoulder.

“Look,” I mumble.

“Uh-huh,” says Vi.

I pull back to look her in the eyes. “I… I don’t know what happened last night. Everything was this messed up haze and all of a sudden Lena comes in and he’s holding my hand and telling me it’s all gonna be okay, and something about his touch was just so…” I can’t believe I’m saying this. “I just… I wanted his hands all over me. And then he… he started rubbing my back, and he realized I liked being… being hurt and… ”

“Awwhhhh,” Vi coos delightedly. “Isn’t he so sweet and sensitive?”

“…he is. He really is.”

She caresses my cheek. “Thank you for bein’ straight with me, Rei,” she whispers softly. “I can see plain that weren’t easy. It means somethin’ that you’ll open up like that.”

Before I can say anything, she kisses me.

“What’d all he do to you?” she murmurs slyly as she pulls back. I sigh.

“He just… held me tight in his lap and he pet me and he hurt me with his hands while we talked and it felt so good, Vi. It felt so good. I didn’t realize how bad I needed someone to just… hold me down and torture me a while.”

“So he’s good for you!”

My cheeks are so hot you could touch off a det-cord on them. “I… I think so…” I mumble.

“I’m… I’m real glad to hear that,” she tells me, and I realize there’s tears in her eyes.

“Vi? Hon, what’s up?”

“It’s… it’s just…” She shakes her head, her voice cracking a little. “I feel…” She stares up at me, tears streaming down her cheeks. “…I feel like I have a f-family n-n-now,” she finishes hoarsely.

“Oh, Vi.”

I hug her tight as she cries in my lap, her shoulders and chest convulsing. “I never th-thought—” she stammers, “—after m-m-my m-ma threw me out— I never ever thought I’d have a— a woman all my own and a man and a proper home, even if—”

“Shh. It’s okay. It’s okay. I know.” I kiss her trembling lips— and make up my mind.

“I am gonna make this work,” I tell her.

“M-make what—?”

“This whole arrangement. Lena, Seli, Rose, and me. I am gonna make it work, come storm or come snow. For you. Even if it does means working one-on-one with that handsy bitch — I don’t want to take this away from you. No matter what it cost.”

She’s sobbing again, thanking me half-hysterically, over and over again. I just hold her, petting and stroking her, until the tears have blown over and her breathing begins to calm.

“Vi?” I ask her after a while, running my fingers through her soft, fluffy hair, that same Khmai silver as her eyes that seems to glow under the sunlight’s caress.

She makes a noise, looking up at me, and I take her hand.

“About earlier… is there anything I can do? To make it up to you?”

She gives me a fragile smile. “It’s okay.”

“Are you sure?”

“Be kinda silly for you to wash all over again just on account of me.”

I laugh. “Vi, I barely washed in the first place. And you know how helpless I am when it comes to my hair.”

Her eyes brighten. “Really? It’s really okay if I—?”

“Of course it is, hon.”

She clambers to her feet, grabbing me by the hand, and tugging me gently after her. I let her lead me back to the washroom and stand in the center, in front of the water pipe and atop the drain that the counter curves around. She painstakingly undresses me — taking far more care to fold my clothes proper than I ever do — before stripping herself and filling the mixing-vessel back up with hot water and oils. I close my eyes, slowly managing to let myself relax as she tenderly washes my body.

Vi knows just how I like it, not letting the water cool for even a moment before she starts in on me, occasionally topping the vessel back off so it stays nice and hot. The burn and sting of the steaming hot water on my skin is soothing like little else. I clasp my hands behind my head so she can clean under my arms — I hear her clicking her tongue in disapproval as she pauses to take a razor to my armpits, muttering to me to hold still. “You always leave stubble behind,” she complains. “It’s sloppy. Okay, you let your hands down now.”

“Sorry, Vi.” I giggle in embarassment as she pries my legs apart and rubs a cloth back and forth slowly along my cunt. “Hon, that cloth is w-wet enough already,” I tease, voice skipping tracks ever so slightly at her attentions. That gets a snicker out of her.

She crouches down, and I feel tension draining slowly away at the feeling of hot water on my inner thighs. It’s enough I have to remind myself to keep my legs steady. She takes her time down there, lavishing sensual attention on my tender spots, before moving on to my back. Then my breasts, which she massages as she washes them, never missing a chance to fondle, grope, and tease me — and I return the favor, pressing my thigh up between her legs and squeezing her buttocks, making her squirm and giggle as she works.

“Mitiku Khata’e, you’re so distractiiing,” she complains, flustered.

“Mitiku la’u kushata jurume,” I respond teasingly. Your tits are distracting.

She laughs at me. “Come on, my tits aren’t even that good, Rei. I’m damn near twenty-five and I’m still half as fucking flat as when I was sixteen.”

“You ain’t flat, hon.” I ruffle her hair. “You’re small, okay, but you ain’t flat. Your chest is good and firm for its size; way more so’n mine. Look—” I smack the underside of one of my breasts with the back of a hand. “I need a damn bra just to go running or they bounce all over like this, and they go all pointy as soon as I take my tops off. You look like you’re made of goddamn iron; it’s hot as hell.” I squeeze her taut breast softly, and she squirms, yelping quietly as I finger her nipple — but pulling closer, pressing up against me. “And God I envy how sensitive you are.”

“Nnnh. You would, you fuckin’ slut.” She kisses me distractedly for a moment, before pulling away and patting me on the shoulder. “Come on, Rei. Down on your knees.”

I kneel down and she pulls up a stool behind me, squeezing my waist between her thighs as she sits down to wash my hair. She digs her fingers in and pulls my head back, turning me this way and that as she pours hot water down my scalp. She’s always so good at keeping it out of my eyes. She rubs in an oil that helps the tangles come loose, and spends a few minutes tugging and brushing them all apart, until my dark red frizzy hair is all free again. More water, soaps, and oils, then she rinses my hair and squeezes it part dry. She presses a sweep of front curls down above my eyes so they dry in the right shape, then stands and tugs me to my feet.

“All done,” she murmurs happily, toweling me off. She dresses me in the same clothes, and expertly wraps locks of my wet hair around the stem of the peony to hold it in place. “There,” she says proudly, standing back and admiring her handiwork. “You look fit for Court.”

“You know what they do to commonfolk at Court?” I ask her, stepping out of the way so she can wash herself. She shakes her head.

“No, what?”

“They starve ’em for a week, beat ’em black and blue, and strip ’em half naked so’s the Empress’ll have something fragile and pretty to look at,” I tell her. “On account of how boorish and plain we all are. Sometimes they cut on ’em all decorative-like too.”

“La dè nai,” she exclaims. “You’re shitting me.”

“Nope. I know people who went to Court and either saw it happen to someone else or had it happen to them. …Knew,” I correct myself, voice faltering, and looking down.

She nods. “Yeah. Lena told me ’bout what happened to Carnelian.”

“How are you taking it?”

She gazes off into the distance. “I don’t think I am,” she says slowly. “I keep sayin’ it over and over in my head, and it’s jus’… words.”

I exhale, and kiss her on the back of the neck. “I’m… I’m glad, Vi, honestly. If… if that changes, if it hits you for real, you come tell me straight, yeah?”

“Yeah. I will.” She nods, and turns back to her beauty routine. I have to restrain the urge to help — it ain’t proper to, and it’d just upset the girl if I broke with tradition again. I’d be making a house-slave of myself in her eyes, literally, and that’s the last thing she wants me to be — might actually be worse than shaming her in front of Lena the way I did, and I’ve made her cry enough for one lifetime.

This is all my own damn fault for getting her Baroness Sunvale’s Illustrated Primer for Young Ladies of Marriagiable Age. And teaching her to read in the first place. God help me, I made a prim little blueblood out of a homeless junkie.

It’s kind of adorable though, I gotta admit.

Vi’s such a funny girl. A bundle of contradictions all tied together with passion and yearning. Here she is, an inveterate crook sticking adamantly to law that ain’t even hers by birth while the Empire crumbles and she flirts with the enemy — I won’t even pretend to understand what’s going on in her pretty little head. It’s almost like the big picture just don’t register to her — and maybe that makes some sense. I’ve spent my life with one foot in the high places and one in the low, but the low places are the only ones real to her. Maybe big things like the Empress, the War, Carnelian — maybe they’re just too big and far away to really fit together in her head the way they do mine.

If that’s so, I hope to God they stay that way.

She finishes drying herself off, and I get in a quick hug from behind before she can dress, kissing her neck and caressing her waist. She gives a quiet little sigh as I pull back, and slips a gown over her head, tugging it down to her knees. It’s a soft, showy little piece of ultra-thin house-wear, like most things in her wardrobe, meant to be the only thing on your body in a flat with a good heater. I manage to sneak some practical pieces in there from time to time but she seems content with her gowns. She’ll slip on some tights or leggings for a trip down to the market but that’s the only concession she’ll willingly make to the outdoors. Girl wants it to be clear as day where we stand to anyone who looks.

She turns to me, clasping her hands behind her back, and looking up at me expectantly. I ruffle her damp hair.

“You look gorgeous, babe. As always.”

She beams and hugs me, before pulling back and fussing in the mirror to repair the damage I did to her hair. “You about ready to finish up breakfast?” I murmur, stepping up behind her and squeezing her shoulders. She nods.

“Yeah. I’m… I’m feelin’ a lot better now.”

I take her by the arm and she entwines her fingers with mine as we walk back out to the kitchen. Lena — bless him — has the coffee back on the kettle to keep it warm.

He hands me my mug back as I sit down. “What was that all about?” he asks gently, sounding faintly amused.

“…eh. Zyahua shit,” I say finally. “You prob’ly wouldn’t understand.”

He frowns quizzically, glancing between us. He nods toward Vi. “Isn’t she… Khmai?” he asks hesitantly, like it’s the dumbest question in the world.

I laugh awkwardly. “That she is but I didn’t exactly know how to raise her Khmai.”

“Right.” Lena nods. “So you’re both… culturally Zyahua, I guess?”

I glance at Vi. She shrugs and nods. “Something like that,” I say in Khmaira, which makes Lena laugh. “So, any plans after Rose is done pushing me around and feeling me up at the safehouse?”

“Well, I was thinking I’d help Violet make dinner this evening,” he replies, “but apart from that — we’re intruding on your time enough as it is. Gotta leave you some time to yourselves, ne?”

I look at Vi for a moment, and then back at Lena. I reach out, and take his hand. He looks genuinely startled.

“Hey. What’s up, Rei?”

“You ain’t intruding,” I tell him softly. “Me and Vi, we’ve been talking — we… we both want you to have a place in this household. You and Seli both, if that’s a thing y’all want.” I give him a bashful smile. “We’re together in this as… as comrades, and that’s near enough to family as either of us has ever had.”

Lena’s eyes widen in surprise. “Well, aren’t you opening right up all of a sudden,” he teases. “I’d be delighted, and I’ll talk to Seli.”

“You’re both welcome at the dinner table tonight,” I tell him, squeezing his hand and withdrawing. “Vi and I play due sham after drinks sometimes — that sound at all up your alley?”

Strip due sham~” Vi corrects me cheekily. I glare at her.

“Only sometimes!”

Lena laughs. “I think,” he said, “I can speak for me and Seli both when I say we’d be honored to join you for cards. …Just,” he adds to Vi with a wink, “don’t invite Seli to play strip anything unless you fancy ending up butt naked at the table.”

“Don’t you go giving her ideas, tomboy.”