Jasmine turns as she hears the gentle whir of an approaching tram. It’s one of the motorized ones, with poles clamped to the new power lines overhead. They move so fast now; there’s no wonder the police are all watching pedestrians in the street so carefully.
Fast. Everything’s moving so fast now. She watches distantly as the battered old tram approaches the station. A strange but increasingly familiar sight, with sleek new chunks of metal hardware bolted onto a messy, crudely fashioned chassis that’s seen a million haphazard repairs. The new landlords can’t abide the slow canter of a horse, the endless interruptions to wait for people walking in the street. Now there are timetables, and — she glances at the rusty clock across the square — the tram is exactly on time.
She steps carefully back so they won’t mistake her for a passenger.
Not half a minute after she’s sighted it down the street, it slides to a smooth, graceful halt in front of the stop. Doors open up, soldiers in body armor taking up position outside as a brief tide of people flows out onto the street. Jasmine holds her hand to her forehead to shield her eyes from the setting sun as she looks up to scan the crowd.
Sashuan always stands out from the crowd. The bright golden hair of the People is everywhere these days, but she’s the only one sporting a crop of short golden streaks atop a head full of fading red dye. It’s cute, and Jasmine’s determined to enjoy it while it lasts.
Sashuan rushes out of the crowd, a look of delight on her face, and throws her arms around Jasmine. They hold each other tight for a long moment, to make up for a kiss they’re afraid of sharing.
“It’s been a long day,” Sashuan murmurs, resting her head against Jasmine’s chest.
Their apartment’s a short walk eastward. Technically it’s Sashuan’s apartment, which is why it’s on top of a high-rise that does double duty as the ward's administrative center, with guards at the entry and discreet security all around. But the household is theirs both, no matter what the new state thinks.
Jasmine touches her ID card to the entry panel, and the door clicks quietly as it unlocks. She pulls it open and steps inside the vestibule, nodding politely at the guard who’s checking her face against the photo they have of her on record. He gives her a cautious smile in return; salutes Sashuan.
“A til, surin.”
It’s still slightly unnerving to see men carrying firearms.
The second they’re alone in the lift, Sashuan takes Jasmine around the neck and pulls her in for a kiss, gently stroking her cheek with a thumb as Jasmine closes her eyes, her mouth curling into a smile. Sashuan’s soft, familiar lips elicit the quietest sigh, the slightest slackening of muscle as they touch hers.
They break away, red-faced, as the elevator stops and a maid — a young Khmai woman in a tight, severe black uniform — enters, hauling a cart of dirty laundry behind her. She looks slightly startled when she realizes.
“J-jakhmera ku merish… la’u?” she asks Jasmine in a small voice, faintly disbelieving. Are you… are you hers?
“…shuvarakh je, shovakhe,” Jasmine replies, glancing awkwardly at Sashuan. I am, sister.
“Jare katekae ku ebi,” Sashuan adds gently, smiling at the woman. And I am hers.
The woman’s broom clatters to the floor. She backs away, stuttering in alarm, and bowing deeply. “I— I am— please pardon my p-presumptuousness, ma’a—uh, c-comrade, I’m so sorry— I didn’t realize— I meant no—”
“I don’t think she realized you spoke Khmaira,” Jasmine says with a rueful grin.
“Don’t worry!” Sashuan says hurriedly. “It’s fine, you didn’t do anything wrong?”
“Oh. Oh, thank you, I’m so sorry—”
Ding. The lift halts as the icon for their floor lights up. “It’s fine,” Sashuan says again as she backs out of the elevator. “A good evening to you, comrade!”
“J-j— jare jakhmera—” Y-you too, ma’am— The elevator door slides shut and Jasmine breathes a sigh of relief.
“I’m going to write to management,” Sashuan says, her voice turning immediately quiet and dangerous. “It looked like someone’s been mistreating her.”
“She’s probably just scared,” Jasmine murmurs, taking Sashuan by the arm and tugging her gently down the hall. “After the kind of people she probably worked for before…”
Sashuan sighs. “…they don’t understand we’re different.”
“It’s barely been three months, Sashi. It’s a whole new world.”
“Has there really been so little time…?”
“It feels like two years crammed into the space of two seconds. I know.”
Sashuan sighs. “I’m still writing that letter. Just in case.” She looks up at Jasmine. “I don’t… Jaz, what just happened back there? Help me understand.”
“She thought I was…” Jasmine looks away, an unhappy look crossing her face. “…sleeping with you for extra privileges. For protection.”
“Lah a shos, why would she think that!?”
Jasmine purses her lips. “You haven’t been on the street much lately, have you, love?”
Sashuan gives her a worried look. “N-no, I— what have I missed?”
“A lot.” Jasmine presses her forefinger to the door panel; her name flashes onscreen and the lock snaps open.
Sashuan slides the door shut behind them, and turns to follow Sashuan past the sink and into the small sitting room. “What’s going on?” she asks, unzipping her storm-jacket and slipping it off, revealing the soft, black, skintight rancal underneath. “Help me undress?” she adds, a note of flirty warmth entering her voice.
Jasmine gives her a half-smile, slipping off her own coat and approaching her partner. “It’s nothing new to us. Sex is just another way to survive out there. I know more than a few people who wound up on the street because someone got bored of them. Sometimes they’d bounce between the street and different… patrons. Sometimes they’d run away. I’d have boys half my age showing up at night, in just a tunic in the dead of winter, covered in bruises or…” she gestures to her neck “…hand marks.” She looks down. “Sometimes the patron would come after them.”
“Holy fuck, Jaz.”
“Remember that woman with the thugs who showed up demanding to know where Lilac was?”
“The ones I saw off with half a dozen broken bones? Each?”
Jasmine smiles at the memory. “Yeah. She was some rich trader’s daughter. I was talking to Lilac about it later, and she admitted she’d been fucking her for… for food and a warm bed.”
“I don’t understand. Everyone has those now. Everyone who’s asked, anyway.”
“It’s not just about food. It’s…” She hesitates. “Look. We both know I get special treatment because I’m with you. Like this fancy apartment in the center of the ward, with a view out to the goddamn ocean. With food delivery and laundry service. I don’t have to worry about resettlement, I get a cushy bureaucratic life instead of one on the assembly lines or out on the collective farms. There’s no money anymore to bribe people with, so we find… more direct ways.”
Sashuan nods silently, her gaze turning toward the ocean as Jasmine begins to unwind her robe.
“If something… if, God forbid, something happened between us— I’d be back in the rice lines with everyone else. I’d never get that voice in government, I’d—”
“Jaz.” Sashuan turns quickly, grabbing Jasmine by the waist and neck. “Jaz, no. Look, no, I’m— first of all, I’m not going to leave you. Okay? If things get so bad you start feeling like you want to leave me, we’ll— we’ll work it out somehow. We’ll get help, or—” She shakes her head violently. “I am not going to lose you. Goddammit, I am not. I would do anything in my power to… to be better if I was hurting you somehow, and there’s nothing you could do, ever, that would drive me away; not even if you tried. And even if that wasn’t the case, even if you left me—” She rests her head against Jasmine’s chest. “Nothing would change. I will never, ever kick you out for any reason, and no matter what happens between us you will have your seat on the Cabinet; I swear to you on my honor as a citizen.” She kisses her softly on the cheek, then pulls away. “Just. I just needed you to know that. I’m not that kind of person; nothing, nothing I’ve given you, my love included, will ever be conditional on… on sex. Or… or on your love, though stars and skies I am determined to keep it.” She looks up at Jasmine, almost pleadingly. “Okay?”
Jasmine exhales, closing her eyes. She puts her hands on Sashuan’s neck and rests her forehead against her partner’s. “I love you, Sashi. I’m exactly as committed to this as you are. To all of this. You and everything else. After what we’ve been through, there isn’t anything left in the galaxy that could break us apart, and I’m so sorry if I scared you.”
“No! No, it’s— it’s okay.” Sashuan laughs weakly, as Jasmine resumes undressing her. “I’m sorry. It’s been a hard day and I— I’m terrified of losing you at the best of times.”
“That night we spent together — holding hands by candlelight under that battered old desk in your office, with… guns and grenades roaring outside — it haunts my dreams, Jaz. Every second I was terrified a stray round would…” She swallows hard and shakes her head like she can’t even say the word.
Jasmine runs her fingers through Sashuan’s hair. “The battle’s over, sweetheart. And from what they’re saying on the radio, it sounds like the war for Topaz is going to be over within the year.”
Sashuan sighs. “Jaz,” she says, her voice fearful and small, “please don’t tell anybody this, because nobody is supposed to know it and I could get in a lot of trouble for telling anyone, but— the War? The war for Haven? It’s only getting worse. Troops and ships and mercenaries just pouring in from every direction. The People are bogged down on a dozen worlds. Like, don’t get me wrong, we’ll take Topaz, for sure, but after that… I can’t see any way out of this. It’s becoming a war of attrition and I don’t know who’s going to be left standing to pick up the pieces.”
Jasmine swallows hard. “It’s really that bad?” she asks quietly. Sashuan just nods. Jasmine hugs her tight.
“It was worth everything,” she says at last. “Even if… even if the worst thing I can imagine happens, even if it turns out to be all for nothing… it won’t have been for nothing.” She kisses her softly on the lips. “I’m with you to the end, Sashi. I’d take the time I’ve spent with you over the rest of my life if I had to. All we can do is… is all we can do.”
Sashuan nods again. Jasmine can feel tears staining her cheeks. “To the end,” Sashuan whispers in a fragile voice, as Jasmine touches her cheek tenderly and wipes the tears from her partner’s eyes.
Then she returns to unwinding the folds of Sashuan’s rancal, wrapping it up around one hand with practiced motions. Sashuan shivers a little as the fabric slips down her chest, leaving her firm little bosom bare. She kisses Jasmine on the neck as the other woman pulls away the last folds, setting the neat little bundle of fabric on the couch. That leaves her naked except for a snug pair of steel-grey underwear — military-issue, if the small Society emblem printed right atop the thigh is any indication. Probably bulletproof, knowing the Greens. Jasmine can’t help but slip her hand playfully under the tight fabric, squeezing Sashuan’s rear, bringing a blush to her cheeks and a faint smile to her lips.
“Stooop,” Sashuan giggles, nuzzling Jasmine’s cheek and reaching up to massage her chest. “You’re making me want to— to just fucking throw you down on the couch and take you right here in front of the window.”
“Mmh. Not like anybody’s watching~”
“Just the security drones.” Sashuan smirks, nipping her neck gently, and making Jasmine shiver. “You want to put on a show, huh?”
“…is it wrong how much I want to say ‘yes?’”
They’re quiet for a moment. “I hate it too,” Sashuan says softly, as Jasmine reluctantly pulls her hands out of her partner’s underwear, taking deep breaths to calm her pounding heart.
“It’s not fair.”
“It’s not. One day.” She kisses Jasmine on the cheek. “One day we’ll get to kiss at the tram station, without a care in the world.”
“I just… I want them to see.”
“I do too. You have no idea how much I just…” She shakes her head. “I want the world to know I’m yours.”
A sad smile flits across Jasmine’s lips. “I have some idea, love.”
“One day we won’t have to be afraid.” Sashuan cups Jasmine’s neck in her hands, looking up at her, a sly grin slowly displacing the sorrowful look on her face. “Until then, I’ll just have to make do with keeping the neighbors awake at night.”
Jasmine smiles, blushing. “Help me with my bra?” she asks, tugging her tunic over her head.
Sashuan steps behind her, and Jasmine breathes a sigh of relief as the clasp comes undone, finally relieving the increasingly painful pressure on her ribs.
“How do you stand wearing these things?” Sashuan murmurs, folding up the bra and setting it next to her rancal on the couch-back.
“It’s better than having my tits bounce around all day,” Jasmine replies resignedly.
Sashuan winces. “Moments like this, I’m really grateful for the Ranshavlin.”
“I’ll bet. I’d kill for some of your genes.” Jasmine playfully bats at one of Sashuan’s breasts as she turns around. “Are you all this sturdy?”
“Pretty much. I’ve never even seen bras like this back home.”
Jasmine massages her own aching chest idly. “Fuck it, I’m going natural tonight. If people don’t want to see my nipples poking up, they can look somewhere else.”
Sashuan giggles. “That’s the spirit!”
“You just want to see my tits, don’t you?”
“Affirmative, ma’am.” Sashuan kisses her on the back of the neck and slaps her on the ass before plopping down on the couch, propping her legs up over the armrest. “Ugh. Khata’e’s tits I’m tired.”
“You must be, if you can’t even keep on your feet long enough to molest me properly.” Jasmine sits down next to her naked girlfriend, tugging a loose sweater down over her shoulders. “It’s really cute how you keep picking up expressions from me, by the way.”
“I am? Shit, I didn’t even notice.”
“I mean, unless Ranuir has a word for ‘Khata’e’s tits.’”
Sashuan laughs. “Shit, what would that even be? Vestalar Kataketi? Hataieti?”
“Ha-ta-je-ti,” Jasmine repeats mockingly, ruffling Sashuan’s hair. “That sounds so forced.”
“It really is. Yeah, Khmaira really doesn’t transliterate well.” She sits up suddenly, grabbing Jasmine by the shoulders. “Hey! Shit, I almost forgot — I have some good news, finally!”
Jasmine kisses her lightly on the lips. “Mmhm? Whassat?”
“I finally got you a temporary travel permit!” Sashuan beams. “You are coming with me to work tomorrow, and I’m going to introduce you to the Director.”
“Mitiku Khata’e.” Jasmine sits bolt upright. “Seriously!? Holy fuck, I’d almost given up on asking when—”
“I know, I know, it’s been ridiculous, but they’re finally moving forward on Home Rule.”
“About time. Wow. I’ve been getting really tired of just… consulting at my own damn shelter and wasting time alone at home.” Jasmine hugs Sashuan happily. “I love you.”
“I love you too, Jaz. How are things going at the shelter, anyway?”
Jasmine rubs her forehead. “Yeah. That. You know what you were saying earlier about, ‘everyone who asks has food?’”
“Thing is not everyone wants to ask. It’s been getting… difficult. Your crew is so focused on transitioning everyone to primary housing—”
“—but that means registration and not everyone wants to.”
“Yeah.” Jasmine sighs. “And I don’t blame them, honestly, after that shit the last duchess pulled.”
“Wait, back up, what?”
“Right, you weren’t here for that. The old duchess — not Raven, her mother — really, really hated the homeless, things were… really bad back in those days.”
Sashuan grimaces. “Considering how bad things were under Raven…”
“Yeah. Well, not too long before Shrike died, she came up with this scheme to try to wipe them out all. Sent the Watch around offering free food to anyone who signed up, gave them their name, where they usually slept, who their friends were, that kind of thing.”
“Yeah. Less than a month later, she sent the greys out to track down everyone on the lists and kill them in their sleep. It wasn’t completely successful, some people got away, some people weren’t there, et cetera, but something like a third of the city’s homeless died that night.” Jasmine looks down, lips tight. “Or the next couple of days. Of their wounds. Or suicide.”
“Why did I never hear about this?” Sashuan blurted. “After all the time I spent on the street organizing—”
“It’s as taboo as taboo gets out there. A lot of people… lost friends, lost family on the Night of Tears. The survivors pretty much all have… shanvol, is that what you call it?”
“Racvol, in this case, shanvol’s more… sustained war trauma, I guess, but yeah. Fuck, no wonder people don’t want to hand over their biometrics.”
“I’ve managed to get the Greens over at the shelter to loosen up a bit. The Sisterhood remembers, and they’ve had my back, so that’s helped.” She purses her lips. “The Greens were talking about things like… like cutting people off who wouldn’t register, or just forcibly registering everyone—”
“Fuck, no. No, no, no. Stars, hon, why didn’t you tell me about any of this?”
“You’ve had enough on your own plate to worry about, and it’s been under control. I would have told you if things had gotten out of hand, I promise.”
“Okay. Definitely something to talk to the Director about.” Sashuan lays back down, this time resting her head in Jasmine’s lap. “See, this kind of shit is exactly why we need you at the table. Everyone’s so fixated on… on security and— and ‘helping’ people whether they want it or not, and I have to keep reminding them of the ugly little details. Doesn’t help that the civil servants we shipped in to consult are all used to running Society worlds, where all you have to do is say “jump” and right away everyone’s all, “sir, yes, sir, how high, sir.” They expect everything to be… neat and pretty and clean, and everyone to be just totally obedient, and it doesn’t work that way here, fuck. Sometimes I think we’d just be better off with soldiers running the show.”
“Fuck, no. We’re all too devious for our own good. Part of why I trust the Director is she’s good at keeping me in check.” She gives Jasmine an embarassed smile. “A lot like you, actually.”
Jasmine puts a hand on Sashuan’s bare stomach, carressing her idly. “Sounds like we’ve been dealing with a lot of the same bullshit.”
“Yeah.” Sashuan yawns. “Fuck, I’m getting hungry — what do you want to do about food tonight?”
“How do you feel about dinner at my mom’s?” Jasmine asks, leaning down to kiss her on the forehead. “They want me to bring you around again.”
“That sounds lovely! I could really go for a plate of your mom’s kharaska right now.” Sashuan sighs. “Though I guess that means I’ll have to get dressed.”
“Yeah, I know.” Jasmine grins. “As much as I’d love eat dinner with my girl naked in my lap…”
Sashuan sits up, wrapping her arms around Jasmine’s neck and pulling herself into her lap. “Oh?” she purrs. “You like having naked girls in your lap?”
“Just a little bit.” Jasmine gently massages Sashuan’s clitoris through her underwear, and she lets out a small gasp, nestling her head next to Jasmine’s. “You know, the way your people think about sex, it’s just… I don’t know. Everyone I ever slept with was just, so focused on fucking and getting off, and it’s like—”
“Like nobody cares about intimacy?” Sashuan sighs. “Believe me, I know. I’ve fucked my fair share of tavern drunks.”
“In the line of duty or in the line of booty?”
Sashuan snickers. “Who says it can’t be both? A girl can mix business and pleasure.” She shudders slightly as Jasmine rubs a thumb against one of her nipples. “Mmhh. Yeah, the whole ‘carefree casual sex’ thing was fun for a hot minute but boy did it get old fast. You were the first person on this whole damn planet who seemed more interested in me than my body.” She smiles faintly. “Like a little slice of home.”
“To be clear, I am definitely still super interested in your body,” Jasmine responds, pausing to kiss her, and Sashuan nips her gently on the inner lip. “Because you have an amazing body, babe.”
Sashuan giggles. “A millennium of the best genetic engineering in the galaxy will do that to you.”
“Is that a thing? Does the Ranshavlin literally breed people to be hot?”
“Sort of? I mean, partly it’s we’re bred to be healthy and fit and fitness is hot to psychologically healthy people.” Sashuan kisses Jasmine’s neck, digging her teeth in a little and feeling her partner’s back arch involuntarily. “But also, you don’t want people to grow up feeling bad about their bodies. Part of the whole ‘eliminating sources of discomfort’ thing.”
“Wow. Lucky you.”
“Hon, you didn’t need any gene-tweaking to be gorgeous.”
“Oh, what are you talking about; I’m a mess.”
“Some of us find that attractive.” Sashuan giggles. “You seem… I don’t know, delicate. Fragile, rough around the edges, and it’s just… really, really appealing. You don’t really see that among the People. Not often.”
“You like tidying up messes, don’t you?”
“It’s like when other people see a mess, all they see is the mess, right? But I just see potential. I look at a world like this, I see the world it could be. The world we could make it into. I look at you…” She strokes Jasmine’s cheek as she gazes into her eyes. “I look at you and I… I see a lifetime. A story for us to write, together.”
“Let’s focus on that, then?” Jasmine squeezes her hand. “Focus on this world. Focus on us. We can’t do anything about the rest of the War, but here… here we can build something. Something real, and strong, and meaningful. Something that’s ready for the fight ahead.”
“…God, you should be a diplomat. You have such a way with words sometimes.”
“Oh Khata’e, no. No, no, no.” Jasmine laughs. “I could never, I can’t do politics. You saw how I was that day you… told me. About everything that was going to happen. I was a gibbering mess on the floor, you had to coax me back to sanity, remind me who the enemy even was.”
Sashuan takes a deep, shaky breath. “I’m… I’m still really glad that day ended the way it did.”
“Hey, Sashi? For the record?”
“If anything like that… ever happens again? And I do something stupid?” Jasmine touches Sashuan’s cheeks. “If I try to run away from you, don’t let me? I don’t care if you have to… have to lock me up until I see sense, I just—” She shakes her head. “I think about that night a lot. About everything I almost threw away. About how this whole life came down to that one moment, that one choice, and if I’d done it any different… fuck, I would have lost everything. I would have lost you.” She hugs Sashuan desperately. “So don’t let me. Promise me you won’t let me run away.”
“Oh, honey.” Sashuan closes her eyes, takes Jasmine’s head in her hands. “I promise.”
Jasmine exhales raggedly. “Thank you. You have no idea how much that means to me.”
They kiss gently for a few minutes, lost in the warmth of each other’s bodies and taste of each other’s lips. Finally, resting her chin on Jasmine’s shoulder to catch her breath, Sashuan whispers in her ear:
“I have some idea, hon.”