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In Good Hands

from a serial by Lexi Summer Hale

Reality comes in flickers and flashes. Warm, soft hands on my body. Darkness. An urgent voice. Silence. A ceiling, a spinning fan. Darkness.

A soft couch underneath me.

My chest feels like a pien şai’s been sitting on it for the last two weeks.

“Fucking—” I gasp, trying to sit up, turning my head wildly this way and that to try and get my bearings.

Home. I’m… I’m home. This is my apartment, my couch. My heartrate skyrockets up at the sight of the strange man standing over me — no, no, no; Cougar’s dead, I killed him myself this time, I put a bullet through his goddamn brain, that’s not him— I blink my watery eyes rapidly, try and focus— green eyes, golden hair—

—Lena.

“Hey. Easy there.” Lena grabs me by the shoulder, guiding me into a sitting position so I can lean back on the couch. He sits down next to me. “It’s okay. You’re gonna be okay.”

I shake my head. Everything is blurry, fuzzy around the edges; my memory feels disjointed the way it does sometimes after a particularly vivid nightmare, when you have to piece back together what’s real and what’s not bit by bit. “Fucking ass,” I blurt; “what happened—”

“You had a panic attack, I think.” Lena squeezes my hand. “I’m so sorry, but you’re gonna be alright, okay?”

“Did you… carry me in here?”

“I did, yeah.”

“…thank you.” I take a deep breath, feeling a strange little pang of loss as he releases my hand. “Nothing like that— nothing like that has ever happened to me before. I’m sorry you had to see that.” God, I feel so fucking unprofessional right now.

“Hey. You didn’t do anything wrong,” Lena replies, his tone casual and friendly, like nothing at all has happened. “Can I get you a glass of water, some tea, maybe?”

I bury my head in my hands. “Water. Yeah. Thanks.”

“You got it.” Lena pats me on the shoulder and gets up. “Do you want me to help you get to bed,” he asks as he fills a glass at the sink, “or do you still want to stay up and talk for a bit?”

“I — I really don’t want to go to sleep right yet,” I reply.

“Not a problem. I’ll keep you company.” Lena shuts off the tap and walks back over to the couch, handing me the glass. I take it in both shaking hands.

“Thanks.”

“My pleasure. How are you feeling?”

“…frayed.”

“I don’t blame you.”

“I’m…” I clutch my head. I don’t want to believe it. I want to tell myself it’s all a lie, that they’re manipulating me, messing with me, playing games with my head. The Empress isn’t dead. The Empire hasn’t fallen. There’s still a hope of victory. My world is still there.

But I can’t.

It all lines up too well.

“It’s all coming apart,” I murmur, draining the glass in a few heavy gulps and belatedly realizing how dehydrated I am. I set it aside as Lena sits down next to me. My eyes are stinging with tears.

“Hey.” Lena touches my cheek gently, wiping the tears away with his thumb. “We’re gonna take care of you, alright? Whatever happens next, you’re on our team now, and we take care of our own.”

I laugh bitterly through the tears. “Wh-why are you being so… so nice to the enemy?” I manage. “I gotta be fucking honest with you here, man; if things had gone different? If we’d found your cell first? I’d be having you all tortured right now; God knows I’ve done it before.”

“Yeah, I know,” Lena replies with a rueful smile. “Believe it or not, though, you’re not the enemy.”

“How’s that, exactly?”

“You know, if things had gone real different? If we’d lost the war, if the Big Three went under and the Shadows slagged Tel Casran instead of Carnelian? People like me and Rose, we’d never stop fighting. We’d spend the rest of our lives trying to break free and rebuild what the Empress took from us. Down to the last man.” Lena sits back, resting his arm casually on the couch-back behind me. “You, though. Let me ask you. If you weren’t being paid to fight for the Empire? If you could live a comfortable life and keep your girl safe without doing any of it, would you?”

“Of course I would! Wouldn’t you? If you could be safe and comfortable without ever putting yourself in harm’s way for the Greens—”

“I could, hon,” Lena replies, amused. “You know why I was one of the first to ship out? Because I started out tier-zero. I chose the fight from day one. Because I was willing to put my life on the line to defend what we’ve built. There’s not many of us aren’t.”

“Wow. That… that sure is some commitment.”

“That’s what it means to believe in something, Rhea. You don’t have that. You don’t believe in this system. The only commitment you’ve ever known is that sweet little street girl of yours. And that’s a good commitment. That means you can still be salvaged.”

“I don’t believe in your system either.”

“Oh, I know. Give us a chance, though. We might surprise you.” Lena touches my arm gently. “You look like you’re doing a little better. Is there anything I can get for you, do for you?”

I take a deep breath. “I’m… I’m sorry, this is… this is kinda silly, I just…” I look down, clasping my wrist awkwardly. “Could you just, um. Hold my hand again, for a bit? Tonight’s— tonight’s been a lot.”

“You bet.” Lena doesn’t even sound surprised, gently prying my wrist from between my fingers and taking my palm in both his hands. For a career soldier, his touch is so warm and soft. “What’s so silly about that?”

I laugh shakily. “A grown woman bawling like a little boy over a little boo-boo? You’re nice, Lena; you’re real nice, but you don’t gotta pretend for my sake. I know when I’m being ridiculous.”

“I still think you’re wrong, Rei. Do people call you Rei? Is that a thing?”

“Ohh, boy.” I look up at the ceiling. “Nobody’s even called me by my real name… literally since before I set foot on this planet, so, sure, why not? Add a cute new nickname to my collection. Sounds like a plan.”

He smiles. “Rei it is then. I don’t think you’re being ridiculous.” His grip tightens around my wrist, pressing his thumb into my palm and idly massaging my lower arm with his free hand. I can’t help but let out a quiet little gasp of surprise; it feels… really nice. “You’re human, Rei. There’s nothing weird about needing physical comfort, especially not after the night you’ve just had.”

“…you’re… you’re a really sweet bodyguard,” I murmur, glancing awkwardly up at him. “I can’t believe you’re… you’re being this… taking care of me like this—”

“My job is keeping you safe,” Lena tells me warmly. “And that doesn’t just mean safe from masculist bullets. It means looking out for you, looking after you. Taking care of each other is what being comrades is all about.”

“Oh, come on, we’re comrades now?”

He laughs. “Damn right we are. Complain all you want, but that’s the fact, comrade.”

“Ugh.” I rest my head back against the couch. “You’re really good at this.”

“Good at what, now?”

“Taking my mind off things. Making it feel like things are okay. Even when they’re… literally the least okay anything has ever been.”

“The worlds are a mess right now, yeah.” Lena squeezes my wrist tightly. “I know where you’re standing things look real bad and bleak. But tell me something?”

“Yeah?”

“Have you ever in your life had anyone you could count on? Anyone who’d stick with you come storm or come snow, who’d stay by your side and make their last stand with you?”

“Fuck no. Has anyone?”

“Guess what, Rei? You do, now.” He pats my arm. “The things you’re afraid of — they’re real, they are, but we’re going to stand by you through them, you and Violet both. And you’re going to find storms are easier to weather when you have fast friends at your back. ”

“How do you know this storm will ever end?”

“Storms always end. They can’t last. They’re unstable; they take too much power to sustain — it’s like a battery that’s been plugged in for hours, and all that power gets blown off in the space of a moment. Humanity doesn’t have the knack for true chaos in us; the storm always blows over, and when it does, it leaves a new order behind it. Usually a bad one, but you, me, Seli, Rose, and all the rest — we’re the people who get to have some say in what that new order will be, because we’re not part of this storm. We’ve got the power to stand against it, defy it, shelter who we will from heaven’s wrath. That can make all the difference.”

“I can’t tell if we’re talking astropolitics or the weather anymore.”

“Little bit of both, maybe. The thing about storms is they’re inflection points. It’s terrifying to have all the rules come crashing down, but that brings more than chaos. It brings potential. Suddenly, little acts can have huge repercussions. Suddenly, people in the right place can make a real difference. And we are those people.”

“How in fuck d’you know all this shit? You sound like a proper philosopher.”

He laughs. “I’ve been through the thick of enough wars to pick things up. Even a grunt like me can spot patterns here and there.”

I nod. “Right, yeah. You must have seen some shit.”

“Yeah, I have,” Lena replies, “and you know what, Rei? It wasn’t all bad. I’m proud of what I did, and I’m hoping we can give you a chance to do something you’re proud of for once.”

“Hey!” I glare at him. “I never said I wasn’t proud of anything I’ve done.”

“Oh yeah?” he teases. “Then tell me something you’re proud of, Rei.”

With some effort, I sit up, turning to face him — I can’t help but inch just a little bit closer, and looking him in the eyes tells me he knows exactly why I did. La dè nai but that boy’s perceptive. “Well,” I say, injecting just the slightest bit of sultry theatricality into my voice. “This was a few years back, mind. ”

“I’m all ears.”

“I don’t know if you’ve ever been to the old House Frostmorn territory — can’t say as I recommend it — but for a while I was stationed in the Duchess’ own capital.” I sigh. “Corrupt as all get-out, that family; bad enough the Service actually got called in to help the gowns— sorry, that’d be the Justicariat— clean the place up. Only time I ever operated with a full crew, and dú shan dám did we ever get up to some skullduggery. Now, there was this snotty daughter the Duchess had. I’m sure you know the type, more slaves than sense, spoiled as spoiled heiresses get, and wouldn’t you know it but she got herself tangled up in the opium trade.”

“A noble in the opium trade? Isn’t that kind of a big deal?”

“That is the big deal, yeah.” The curiosity in his eyes makes me feel just the tiniest bit giddy. It’s been so long since I’ve been able to tell anyone a single one of my stories. “Now, penalty for trafficking,” I continue, “that’s death, camps at best, even for a noble, so if word got out, the family would clamp down hard. Destroy all evidence, kill all the loose ends, maybe smuggle the girl offworld where the justiciar couldn’t even find her until the term on the crime was up. Or more likely, they’d just assert Peer’s Privilege, blackmail and pressure the other nobles to show up for the jury and vote her innocent, regardless of the evidence. Either way, the trail would go cold.”

“Why’s evidence matter in the Empire?” Lena asks, raising his eyebrows. “If the Empress knew all this was going on, couldn’t she just say the word and have the House kicked out or executed?”

“You’d think, only nobles ain’t like everyone else,” I reply. Despite it all, I’m starting to enjoy myself. “They’re blood of the Sisters, same as the Empress… was, I s’pose. There’s a reason they’re called ‘peers’ — one of their rights is the Empress can’t go around executing them without consent of a blueblood jury. More’n that, as big a deal as the Guard is, the bulk of our forces are… were in the Houses. The Countesses have all the big fleets, the Duchesses have all the greycloaks, the Baronesses grow all the grain. So if you start pissing off the gentry, you lose their backing and their armies, it gets mighty hard to keep your conquests going steady. And no more conquests means no more tribute, no more treasure, no more slaves, no more soldiers bringing home plunder — and that means nobles and common folk alike will be out for her blood. As much as the playwrights would have you believe assassinations are all about complicated schemes for galactic domination and house blood-feuds and romantic shit like that, it just comes down to plain old economics. An Empress who can’t keep the lights on is an Empress who can’t keep the throne.”

I clear my throat. “Anyway. Point of all this is, there’s only so far the Empress can piss off the nobles before she puts herself at risk, and the nobles don’t like it when she goes in on one of their own — herd instincts for self-preservation trump all but the worst of feuds. So if you want to take down a house, you need evidence that’ll satisfy the other houses.”

Lena nods slowly. “Right, okay. That makes sense.” He flashes me a smile. “Thanks for the civics lesson.”

I let out a hollow laugh. “Not like it matters much anymore.”

“It matters, Rei. It may not describe the present anymore, but the past determines the future. Understanding how the Empire worked yesterday is important to figuring out how what’s left of it will work tomorrow.” He stops. “Hey, I’m sorry, I’m getting you way off track — go ahead, don’t let me interrupt.”

I shake my head. “N-no, no. Don’t apologize. It’s okay. It’s— it’s real nice to just sit down and have a… a normal human conversation with someone for once.” I shiver, despite the warm air, and can’t keep my longing eyes off him. “I— I, um—”

He puts a hand on my neck, rubbing me gently under the ear with his thumb, and I feel my cheeks start burning immediately, my embarassed gaze dropping to the floor. Too perceptive. “Is there something else I can do for you?” he murmurs.

I bite my lip. “Sorry, I’m just, I just— I feel— it feels really nice with you holding my hand like that and I— La dè nai I’m an emotional mess right now—”

“Would a backrub make you feel better?”

“Y-you— you’d seriously—”

“Come here.” He touches me gently on the waist, turning me to face away from him. He takes my shoulders in his hands, squeezing and rubbing my upper back like an expert. “Let me know if you’d like it harder or softer.”

“H-harder. Definitely hardeohhhhh my God.” I can practically feel the tension draining away between his hands, and I squeeze my eyes tightly shut for a moment, taking deep, quivering breaths. The sheer force he’s so effortlessly exerting…

I’m not a weak woman. My muscles don’t bulge out like a wrestler’s, but I can cut a throat with a single swipe and break bone if I really need to. In a fight, I can hold my own against anything short of a masculist junkie high on rage, smack, and steroids. I stick to a strict regimen, and as Zyahua womanhood goes, it’s fair to say I’m one of the toughest examples there is — of my size, at least.

But the Greens… fuck.

It’s hard to put into words what it’s like to feel someone’s hands on your body and have no power to even try to throw them off. To be under the immediate physical control of a body so much more powerful than yours you can’t even begin to guess how badly they outclass you, to know they could do whatever in Haven they want to you and you’ll have no damn say in the matter. I wager it must be how the Sisters and their kith felt every second of every day, surrounded by bulked-up Patriarchs who could break them like sticks if the fancy took them. Reduced to squirming, crying, begging victims. Like I felt every time Cougar—

I bite into my lip to force the memory aside. The salty taste of blood stains my tongue. When I got outta there I prayed to everyone I could think of — Khata’e, Matikhe, the Heavenly Empress and God within, even if the priestesses say that’s not how it works — that I’d never, ever have to feel that way again, and I worked so damn hard to make sure it could never happen again, and then when Rose threw me around like a ragdoll, wrapped her fist around my throat like… controlling me bodily was the easiest thing in the world— La dè nai it dragged me right back there, right back to feeling completely fucking… helpless. I grit my teeth at the memory of the glee with which Rose spoke that word, like a predator licking its lips at the thought of fresh prey.

What those Greens can do is inhuman. It is the scariest thing I’ve ever felt and it’s only the scarier for knowing just how strong I really am. If I was some waif of a tavern wench, and someone overpowered me, well, I’d think — it doesn’t have to be this way! I could be the powerful one, if I work real hard and train up my body. I can be strong, and one of these days I’ll be their equal and they won’t be able to push me around anymore. That’s about what I’d think.

But I’m not a waif of a tavern wench. I’m the high water mark for the kind of physical power the female body can produce, and in my youthful prime to boot. Even Cougar, even he had to struggle to hold me down, and that was before I got anywhere near so fit. And Rose, another woman, swatted me like I was a bug.

The kind of power I felt at her hands? The kind of power I feel at Lena’s now? It fills me with the cold understanding that there is nothing I could ever do to be their equal. That they will laugh at whatever I throw at them. That it doesn’t matter how dedicated I am, how thoroughly I condition and train my muscle, how desperately I fight for the right to have some say in what does and doesn’t happen to my body, I won’t even get a fighting chance. Not fifty-fifty. Not ten-ninety. Zero-one hundred, every time. Like a frantic mortal trying to wrestle a contemptuous god.

When they touch me, I am at their mercy and I always will be.

But.

“Harder, please,” I murmur, and Lena obliges.

He’s so kind.

Lena’s not once hurt me. He not once forced me. He held back Cougar for me so I could murder the son of a bitch — like it was nothing, restraining that ’roided-up wild animal of a man — but every time Lena’s touched me, it’s been with gentleness and tenderness. The only time he’s let me feel so much as a taste of that power I know he has in him is when I asked him plain for it. And I know if I told him to stop he would in a heartbeat.

And I don’t want him to stop.

“Lena, can I ask you something?”

“Always, Rei.”

“If I…” I glance at the door. “If someone showed up here? And I told you to go out and grab them, drag them inside and take them prisoner… would you do it?”

“Absolutely, ma’am,” he replies, without hesitation. “I mean, unless it was obviously someone on our side.”

I take a deep breath.

I’ll never be able to wield the kind of power the Greens do so easily, and now I know it’s out there… I’m going to live in fear of it for the rest of my goddamn life.

But here’s one of them, comforting me and carressing me, and… he seems like he’s on my side. At least for the moment.

And something about being in that powerful fucking grip, knowing the hands on my body belong to someone who’d kill for my safety, makes me feel fucking giddy inside. And I just want to bask in it.

“You don’t gotta go easy on me, y’know,” I murmur.

“Whattaya mean?” he asks innocently.

“I mean — stop worrying about hurting me,” I reply. “You don’t gotta hold back.”

“Oh?” he asks. “And why’s that, Rei?”

“I’m a big girl, Lena. I can take it.”

“Really, now?” he teases. “You sure you don’t just like it when it hurts?”

I am so glad he can’t see my face right now.

“Comple—” I begin, but the word is yanked out of my mouth halfway through. I physically can’t restrain the heavy gasp that comes up out of my throat, as a wave of intense shivering courses through my body, leaving my limbs tingling when it passes. Lena loosens his grip around my neck and the fire goes out, leaving me quivering with humiliation.

“It sure sounded like you liked that,” Lena concludes, ruffling my hair affectionately. “Did you like that, Rei?”

“Fuck. You.”

“Roger that, ma’am.”

“Oh my God, fuck you!” I bury my head in my hands. “You’re enjoying this.”

“I can see why Rose got such a kick out of messing with you.” He puts an arm around my waist, tugging me gently into his lap, and I don’t even try to resist. “Come on, Rei. It’s okay. Your needs are what they are; there’s nothing shameful or wrong about any of that. It’s a perfectly natural thing to want.”

“…really?” I murmur, genuinely startled. I was sure he’d never let me live this down. “My girl sure don’t think so.”

Lena sighs. “Stars and skies, this Empire is one weird-ass place. Nobody’d think twice about it back home. And nobody’d ever make fun of you for it. We respect our comrades’ needs, and we do everything we can to see not one goes unmet.”

“Answer me something true?”

“Always.”

“Did Rose order you to seduce me or was all this on your initiative?”

“Seduce you?” He sounds surprised. “I’m just trying to be good to you, Rei. I don’t have any designs on you.”

“I’m just sure. Giving backrubs and holding hands and…” I can’t make myself finish the sentence. “That’s all just perfectly normal for bodyguards to do in the Society, is it?”

“Nobody needs bodyguards in the Society,” says Lena with a laugh. “It’s no lawless hellhole where people have to fear for their lives.”

“No lawless…? What about the rich merchants and lords? Who stops the workers and the peasants from taking all the gold?”

“Rei. We’re socialists. We don’t have money and we certainly don’t have rich folks or nobles.”

“…really? It really works like that?”

“Have you even read the Manifesto?”

“Sure, but you don’t seriously expect me to believe it, do you?”

“Rei.” He laughs, shaking his head. “You’re ridiculous.”

“See? See? I told you I was ridiculous!”

He pats me on the shoulder. “Well, we really don’t have bougies or bluebloods, so take that part serious at least. Now, how about this.” He pulls my shoulders back until I’m laying against him. “You finish telling me that story you’re so proud of while I give you a nice, warm massage that hurts just how you like it. Sound like a plan, Rei?”

“Mmh.” I nod, closing my eyes, and rest my cheek against his shoulder. “Good plan. Where was I?”

“Something about rich brats and opium?”

“Right! Yeah. Okay. So.” I clear my throat, my eyelids fluttering again as Lena takes me by the waist, squeezing tight and rubbing his thumb up against just the right spot to make me arch my back and gasp in pain. “Th-the Justicariat was afraid the trail would go cold if they started poking around, so they brought in the Service to do some digging where they couldn’t. Now, the good thing about nobles — they’re prissy. They’re idiots. Nine times out of ten they don’t have anywhere near the kind of steel it takes to be real, hardcore crooks. They’re so used to having their every whim instantly attended to by cringeing slaves that they have no idea how the real world works.”

“So they’re not cunning, dastardly archvillainesses who live and breathe raw power?”

“You’ve been watching too much Space Admiral Starling,” I reply. "No, they’re clueless. Soft, silly, and easy marks, totally lost in their own worlds. And this girl was no exception. She had no idea what she was doing, and her bodyguards— well. Graycloaks are always morons, no matter what planet you’re on or whose land you’re in. Grabbing her was one of my easiest ops. Up in High Gate there was this awful soulless tavern — long since burned to the ground, thank God — where she’d go to get drunk on overpriced bai dien and lose mommy’s money at due sham. We bagged and dragged her on the way home, brought her to the safehouse, tied her to a chair, the usual. Pulled the gangster act, told her she was muscling in on our territory — I had fun dressing for that part. You know what she said next?”

“Lemme guess. ‘Do you have any idea who I am?’”

“Word for word.” I catch his hand as he starts to shift his grip and tug his arm across my waist; he laughs and hugs me tightly to him.

“You’re adorable,” he murmurs, stroking my hair.

“God, you…” I whisper as he massages my shoulder with his free hand, gritting my teeth at the warm glow of cathartic pain. “You sure know how to treat a girl.”

“Practice makes perfect,” he replies lightly. “So how’d Boss Rhea break the opium princess?”

“Well, y’know, the thing that kept going through my head is, this girl’s alone in a room full of strangers with guns, tied to a chair, totally helpless, and she won’t shut up about who she is and which ancestor did what long enough for me to get a word in edgewise. I thought t-to mys-s-self…” I struggle to keep my train of thought, letting out a ragged gasp as Lena presses the edge of his wrist hard into the small of my back, holding me tight around the waist so I can’t pull away from the pressure.

It’s like he knew exactly what I wanted, God. Like he knew I wanted him to restrain me and was too embarassed to say it out loud.

That boy is dangerously perceptive.

“Go on,” he teases, “don’t let me distract you.”

“Agh—I… fuck, I— I th-thought to myself,” I manage, fighting to keep my vocalizations under control, without much success: “‘this bitch, she’s n-never faced consequences for anything her life. All she ever has to do is go crying to mommy and mommy makes the problem go away. Girl’s never once seen anything halfway real.’”

“So you showed her something real.”

“That’s it exactly. So, first thing you always gotta do with interrogations, you make the subject feel as vulnerable as you possibly can. Violate all their assumptions about how the world is supposed to work. Show them nobody’s coming for them, nobody’s going to help them, the only way they get out of this, have any hope of ever going back to their life, their family, their friends, of ever seeing their lovers again, is to cooperate. That they have no power, no say in what happens to their body, nothing of value to offer, that there’s no room for negotiation. Like you don’t care whether they live or die.”

“I’ve worked with Rose long enough to pick up that much.” I can practically hear him grinning. “She’d love to know how much you have in common.”

“Oh, so we’re moving on to psychological torture now, are we?”

“Only if you ask nicely.”

“So I had Eagle — this big hulking brute of a woman, you’d think she was Imperial Guard or something — just cut the bitch’s fancy clothes straight off her; figured that might shut her up. And La dè nai but I have never seen someone so angry. Just wouldn’t stop lecturing us about how we were going to pay for every copper she’d spent on that outfit. So I sit down, grab her by the hair, show her my favorite knife; told her she had one last chance to talk before things got ugly.” I laugh ruefully. “I admit, I really thought that would be enough to break her. And she talked, alright. About how her bodyguards would ‘make me swallow that knife’ and ‘shit it back out of my ass,’ and she just kept going until Daisy — this sweet, mousy little thing who looked half again too young to be in the business, absolute fiend with anything galvanic — took a sparker to her neck.”

“How long did it take after that?”

I grin. “What do you think? —nnh.”

“She spilled right away, didn’t she?”

“Nope. It took like ten fucking minutes.”

“You’re shitting me.”

“I swear to God that woman was 90% outrage by mass. Pain just made her angrier and angrier at first. Finally I guess the adrenaline — or the stims, God knows what she might’a been on — wore off because it finally seemed to hit her what was happening. Like it suddenly all caught up with her, and she was crying and shaking and begging us to stop. She gave us names, the first couple were obvious fakes but—” I flick my knife open, gesturing illustratively. “—after I gave her a few stripes for lying she started giving us real ones.”

“Her partners in crime?”

“Nope. I had HQ run the names right away. They were just other noble kids, from families hers were feuding with.”

“Damn. For such a spoiled brat she sure had some gall.”

“I know, right? I’m not gonna lie, at that point I was just angry. I didn’t care if it was even necessary, I just wanted to break the little shitbag. Send her home with a nice deep scar in her psyche, something so she could never forget what it was like to be truly helpless in someone else’s power.” I look down, my cheeks suddenly burning again, squeezing my wrists awkwardly — and Lena, bless him, reads my fucking mind.

He lets go of my shoulders and takes me by the hands instead, holding me expertly so I can’t slip free of his control. A sensation of warmth floods through me, a little rush of relief and release. His grip is so… comfortable.

I… I could really get used to being treated like this.

There’s something about not being able to use my hands that just makes me feel so intensely vulnerable, especially with the way Lena’s holding my arms down at my sides, leaving me open and defenseless. Even in the warm room, right up against his warm body, I’m shivering all over, this strange sensation I’ve only felt a couple times before… but for some reason, it feels good this time.

I feel safe.

Like I can just let go.

Is this how Vi feels when she falls asleep in my arms?

“So I don’t mind telling you,” I murmur, “I just went in there and I was like, okay you little shit, you think you’re pretty smart, huh? You know what smart girls get around here? She unhinges her jaw like’s she’s fixing to mouth off again and I just smack her in the face. ‘You don’t get to talk,’ I tell her. ‘You are gonna stay completely quiet for the next five minutes and if I hear a single peep out of you, it’s gonna be another five minutes, and if I run out of fun places to spark you, I’ll just let that cute little Khmai girl with the evil gleam in her eye have a turn until you learn how to follow orders. You should see that contraption she’s got set up in the other room; I don’t even know what all those electrodes are for.’ I didn’t even know purebloods could go so pale as she did when she heard Daisy giggle.”

“You sound like our drill sergeant back in training.”

I laugh. “And she was like, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’ll tell you who they are,’ and I just smacked her again, and told her, ‘now that’s ten minutes. You keep that pretty mouth of yours shut for ten minutes, you can tell me all the secrets you like, alright?’ Anyway, we were up to twenty minutes before she finally figured she couldn’t talk her way out of this one, and was just making it harder on herself. Up to thirty-five minutes before she managed to keep herself quiet. That was what finally broke her, she was too terrified to lie to us again. So we let her stew for a couple nights while we investigated the others — oh, did I mention, I never told her we were going to let her go? Every time she asked I’d just laugh and smack her around some more.”

“Damn, woman. Be careful you don’t tell Rose this story, or she’ll try to get you shipped out to run the re-education camps on Emerald.”

I grin. “There ain’t much more satisfying than breaking a smug, prissy noble, is there?”

“See? We’ve got more in common than you think, Rei.”

“Don’t you go using a nice, touching moment like this to try and read me the Manifesto.”

He squeezes my wrists, digs his fingernails in just enough to hurt. “And who’s going to stop me?” he teases gently.

Lena… Lena is exactly what has been missing from my life.

I adore Violet, I really do, with all my black and tattered heart. That girl means the Galaxy to me and I mean to spend the rest of my life at her side, no matter the cost. But I don’t kid myself: she’s a wreck. Weak, frail, and needy; impulsive and reckless. She needs a strong hand to guide her and protect her, and for all the valiant efforts she makes to return the favor with her teeth and fingernails — it’s only a shadow of what I really need.

And I don’t think I realized that until Lena laid hands on me.

Ever since… ever since that week in the forest, I’ve been so fixated on being strong — being in control, keeping other people out — that I never once got to feel what it could be like to let them in.

I never got to learn that being in someone else’s power… don’t have to be a bad thing.

Fuck, if Lena’s anyone to judge by, it can be one of the best things there is.

“Lena?”

“Yeah, Rei?”

“Thank you,” I say quietly. “Nobody… nobody else has ever made me feel this way before. I don’t know what it is I’m feeling, I don’t know what to call it, but… it’s good. It’s a really, really good feeling.”

“I know what it is,” Lena says, stroking my arm. “In Ranuir the word is sel but I don’t think there’s any real way to translate it.”

“Well. Sel, then. Thank you for… for letting me experience this.”

“I’m so sorry you’ve never been able to before.” He hugs me softly before turning me side sideways across his lap; he touches my chin, pulling my head up to look him in the eyes, stroking my cheek softly and smiling at my blush. “I really do hope I’ll be able to be a positive presence in your new life, and help look after your emotional and physical needs as well as your safety. It warms my heart to be able to.”

I rest my forehead against his neck, closing my eyes. His skin’s so smooth — not so much as a patch of stubble. It’s enough to make you wonder—

“Can I ask you a personal question?” I murmur.

“After everything you’ve shared with me? Shoot.”

“Um. I was… I was just curious if you… if you’re a, uh.” I hesitate. “Do you what the word dzuang şé means?”

“Wait, what?” Lena laughs. “Are you asking me if I was born a woman?”

“Y-yeah. Uh, sorry. I know that’s really not any of my business.”

“No, no, it’s okay. I wasn’t; why do you ask?”

“…you really weren’t?”

“I’m pretty sure someone would have told me. What made you think I was?”

“I— well, I just— you really don’t see it? Look how fucking Cougar looked compared to you. Or most men, for that matter.”

“I think I’m pretty average as far as men of the People go.” Lena puts an arm around my shoulder, softly running his fingers through my hair; I shiver, instinctively nuzzling his neck. “But now you mention it, I guess I have kind of noticed most of the other races— their men look… rougher, I guess. Kaparttu aside, anyway, but I mean they all dress so alike it’s almost hard to tell sometimes.”

“It’s normal for Green men to look so… so feminine?” I shake my head. “Put your hair down and I’d probably have taken you for a woman outright. Especially with that cute voice of yours.”

“How do you know we’re the weird ones?” Lena responds teasingly. “Maybe it’s your men who are weirdly masculine.”

I laugh. “Hah. Maybe it is, at that. Never would have thought about it that way.”

“So tell me, what happened after you broke the snotty heiress?”

“Oh! Sorry, I got completely sidetracked. I didn’t even get to the best part yet.” I open my eyes, smiling weakly up at him. “You’re a very distracting boy.”

He laughs. “I do my best.”

“So first, you gotta have some background. There was this local gang, the Ninth Street Angels. Lots of money, into everything — people smuggling, slavetaking, drug dealing, gun running, şen bootlegging, loan sharking, protection rackets, all the good stuff. They were deep in with the powers that were; the greys were on the take, the justiciar was on the take; for all I know, the duchess herself was on the take. A lot of people made a lot of money off them. By the time I came to town, it was such a slick operation that they had Khmai and Kaparttu working together side by side without so much as a fuss — and where you’ve been, you gotta know how hard that is to pull off.

“Anyway, we finally have everything we need. Barge into the girl’s cell one night, wake her up in the most terrifying way possible, just bag and drag her out of bed into the wagon. We don’t tell her where we’re going or anything, so for all she knows she’s about to be drowned in the river. We take her to the tavern we found her at, dump her in an alley, leave her tied up with the bag over her head and drive off. Of course, on the way there…” I turn my head, lean back until my lips are close to his ear, and whisper, “we made sure to let her ‘accidentally’ overhear a whole long conversation. Let slip we were working on orders of a ‘Boss Patience,’ who just so happens to be—” I grin. “—the head honcho of the Ninth Street Angels.”

“…stars and skies, tell me that didn’t work.”

“It worked. It fucking worked. I can’t believe it worked but it worked. She and the Duchess fell for it both. Next thing we know, the old bat was up to her neck in a goddamn gang war. So the gang was pissed at her. Her own militia was pissed at her. The local justiciar was pissed at her, because she was raking in so much money just for not convicting. So she had an angry blackrobe coming for her, trying to stir up trouble, making her waste political capital defending her kin from trumped-up charges. I think the gown may have been trying to just burn the family out completely. I left before it all went down but I heard on the grapevine a few years later that her Radiance completely stripped the family of their title, left them landless gentry with scarce a penny to their names, and she had the full backing of the peerage to do it. Gave the duchy to the daughter of some sycophant from Carnelian, and it sounded like she cleaned things up pretty well."

“So tell me — after all this fighting the opium trade, how’d you come to shack up with a junkie?”

“It was never the street-level folks I was after,” I reply. “You want to throw some innocent addicts to the camps, you send in the Justicariat. The whole point of our operation was we could do what the legitimate forces couldn’t do. There was never a single junkie I ever turned in, and I got real close with a few of them here, bring ’em boxes full of food and spend evenings ‘round the fire at homeless camps under the Causeway just… talking. It was wild to them ’cause here I was, this powerful outsider, treating them like human beings and just having normal human conversations with them. Well, long story short, they started to notice that anyone they mentioned to me was causing them trouble would get swept up all of a sudden just a few days later.

“So we came to have sort of an… unspoken deal. They’d help me find my way to genuinely bad people, and in turn I’d throw anyone gave them trouble straight to the justicariat. Win-win for us all. Vi…” I sigh. “Oh, she was such a mess back then. So young, never had a mother to raise her. She grew up on the street, you know? I ended up spending so much time just… looking after her, teaching her how be a woman, how to care for herself, and somewhere along the way we started falling pretty hard. One night came around and it was so damn cold out there and I just couldn’t do it anymore, couldn’t go back to my warm bed with her on the street, and I told her, Vi, come on back with me, I don’t want you out in this.” I look down. “Well, she nearly OD’d that night at my place. I gave her mouth to mouth for two hours straight until she started breathing on her own again. I’d—”

A sudden horrible paranoia overcomes me and— fuck, I have to check.

I sit up. “Hey, Lena — I’m sorry, I—”

“You need to go check on her.” Lena helps me cautiously to my feet, making sure I can stand on my own before he releases me. “Go see to your girl, Rei. Just give me a holler if anything’s wrong.”

“Wilco. Be back in a minute.”

Less than half a minute later, I’m crouched on my bed and screaming his name.

Vi’s not breathing. I can barely make out a heartbeat. I’m still screaming his name when he grabs me by the shoulders, pulls me back gently so he can see to her. The world’s a blur; it comes in flashes and glimpses. Lena yelling something into a black band around his wrist. Leaning over her, getting her oxygen like a pro. Seli — the woman I haven’t exchanged so much as a word with — in the room, opening up satchels of equipment, needles, vials; they’re fitting something over her face— chirping from a machine—

All I can do is sit there in tears and call her name, wretchedly, over and over again.

I can’t let go of her hand.