You’ve been traveling with the preacher and his wife for a perigree when you look at them and think, Oh. This is going to be a problem.
It hasn’t been a problem yet, because they’re both kinder than they have any right to be. So is the jadeblood, even though you get so nervous around her you can’t look her in the face. Olive is usually merchant class, high enough to show deference but low enough not to worry. Jade is regal, royalty. Another matter entirely.
You find homes for all the people who left with you, factory workers casting off their chains. But you don’t leave yourself. At first you’re not sure what keeps you. None of the places you’ve visited feel like home. And you love the way he smiles and the way she laughs and you could lay and listen to both of them talk forever, and you don’t think you’ve ever been happier than you are here, and you’ve been traveling with them for a perigree and it’s going to be a problem.
Quadrants were… different, in the factories. Preassigned drone season partners based on genetic matches that would yield stronger psions. A single companion in the cells because psions perform better when allowed affection and fold faster when there’s a moirail to threaten. Your choices have never belonged to you. Here you are, getting to choose for the first time in your life, and the people you want already have each other.
Wife. Not matesprit, moirail, kismesis. Wife. A word borrowed from aliens because your species has nothing like their bond. Love. They’re everything to each other. They adore each other. They orient around each other like the twin moons in the sky, constantly circling, and you have no words for what you want because you’ve never been given these choices, but even so you know that what you want will be a problem.
He kisses her cheek. She leans against him, muscles relaxed.
You turn away, exhausted and sick with longing.
Rosa - you learn to call her Rosa instead of ma’am, practice it under your breath, say it in your head until you get it right - Rosa pulls you aside three perigrees in.
“You’re not going to get what you want here,” she says gently, and that gentleness in her voice is somehow worse than cruelty could ever be. “You’ll find life is easier when you seek out people who are actually attainable.”
Your face burns with humiliation. You say nothing.
“It’s not a judgment on you, and it has nothing to do with my personal feelings,” she says. “But he doesn’t do relationships like traditional trolls. They’re both utterly devoted to the movement, and they found each other in that devotion. There’s very little room for anything else. So if you keep waiting for either of them, you’ll be waiting a long time. Your life will be easier if you settle.”
You still can’t look her in the face. “Do I need to leave?”
She picks up her sewing. “I wouldn’t ask you to go before you’re ready. I just thought you deserved a warning. I don’t like watching people have their hearts broken.” She manages to catch your eye and offers the tiniest hint of a smile. “For what it’s worth, I had the same talk with her, and I was wrong about it. She decided to stay. I may be wrong about you too. But I’ve been right on every occasion except one.”
“I don’t intend to waste my freedom, ma’am,” you say, and kick yourself for the slip. “I’m exactly where I want to be.”
“I wish you the best of luck.”
Once you call him Master and all hell breaks loose.
It’s one of those Things, capital-T, one of those hair trigger things that rips an instant response from him. But instead of shouting or defending or ranting, he goes very, very still.
“What did you just say?” and he’s trying to keep his voice even, but that makes it worse, because in highbloods that’s the tone they get just before they explode.
You’ve got your head resting against his chest as he stares up at the stars. It’s a convenient position for not needing to look at people’s expressions. “Nothing,” you tell him.
“Mituna,” he says, strangled. “Don’t.”
You don’t find words like he does. Your chest is a mix of jumbled, confusing feelings that never translate correctly to your pan. You could try to put poetry to it, but metaphors and similes are all out of your grasp. She’s the poet. She’s hunting now, but she’s the poet, and you’re - you’re -
- absolutely nothing.
“I’m sorry,” you tell him, very softly. “I won’t say it again.”
“Is that how you think of me?”
It’s easy to place the horror in his words. Harder to know how to respond. Because how do you say yes, yes, I want everything you’re willing to give me and I’ll do anything for it and I love you more than my own life while also saying no, no, I know you’d never beat me and you don’t want to take my freedom and I trust you and I love you more than my own life?
He pushes you away and sits up, and you’re still trying to make sense of the words. You need to answer him before he leaves. He’s trying to see your face, that’s all it is, but the rejection stings and you don’t know why he’s so upset about it. So you say the worst thing possible, the words tangling on your tongue.
“I want to belong to you.”
He gets even more horrified in a bad way so you put out your hands. “If you can love her and have that be outside the quadrants and still be okay, why can’t I have this?”
“Because I don’t want that,” he says. Worry makes his words sharp-toothed, biting like anger. “That’s not what I’ve ever wanted from you - did you not - I thought you understood.”
That rejection slaps. You inhale sharply and draw back, trying to breathe around the broken edges inside you. And that’s curious, that Rosa called it heartbreak, because you feel it through your chest and your stomach like you’re dying, but you didn’t think it would hurt this bad. It’s because you didn’t expect it, you think. Somehow you got wrapped up enough in life and hope and the idea of love that you forgot what you actually are. Broken, ugly, sick, worthless, nothing, and it plays on repeat in your head. Broken. Ugly. Sick. Worthless. Nothing. Of course he doesn’t want you. You should never have let yourself hope. The spread wings catch the wind and you soar until you realize there’s nothing to break your fall.
“I…” You’re scrambling for the scattered pieces of your dignity. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have imposed my will over yours. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”
“Why would you want…” His runaway pan finally catches up to his mouth, and he decides he needs to ask questions before he speaks. He clears his throat. “Why would you want that from me?”
You shrug, knead the ground with your hands.
Your voice comes out choked and very, very small. “Did I ruin it?”
You want to say everything, but you don’t. You seize the first plausible thing you find. “The night?”
“It’s hard to ruin a whole night with one word,” he says, but that’s not a no.
You want him to say no. You want him to stroke your hair and keep you close and call you pet and love you like he loves her. You want to wiggle between them while they sleep and rest, warmth on one side of you and cool on the other. You want him to kiss your cheek and her to hold your hands and you want to serve them because this is all you have ever been good for. You want to belong to him. You want to belong to them.
Because I don’t want that.
You cannot begrudge him this. Rosa already warned you and you persisted with your stupid crushes anyway. He’s not doing anything wrong by not wanting you. If anything, he’s being responsible. It’s smart to recognize that there’s not room around the movement and Di. You can exist as a concept, but not as a full person. You don’t require his attention. It was stupid to lay your head on his chest and stupid to listen to him make up constellations and stupid to memorize the thrum of his heart and so so stupid to think you were worthy of any little piece of him. You are stupid and sick and he deserves better, and it’s good that he knows he deserves better. He deserves her. They deserve each other. They are very good for each other.
The heart-shredding is getting worse, and the telltale burn at the back of your eyes lets you know you’re about to cry. That’s bad. You haven’t cried in sweeps. There was a certain protective numbness at the factories - you were so exhausted and in so much pain all the time. There wasn’t room for anything else there, just like there’s no room for anything besides the movement with them. You are a blip on the radar, a misfiring bundle of neurons, an afterthought.
You want to be more than an afterthought. That’s why Rosa warned you, to spare you this pain. You are an idiot and even now you want him. You want to curl up and cry on his chest and have him say shh, no, no, it’s all a misunderstanding, of course I want to take care of you, of course I’d never let you go. But you’re not quite selfish enough to demand that of him. He’s given a couple sermons on emotional labor. Asking him to comfort you because of problems you caused is manipulative, you’re pretty sure. You can’t keep your body from crying - you’re not used to having it out of your control like this - so you stand up and walk away. He calls after you, but you keep walking, and he doesn’t follow, and eventually you get far enough to shelter in the crook of a tree root and bite down hard on your fist to muffle your sobs.
She comes to find you when dawn is just streaking across the sky. This is a good thing, because it spares you from needing to decide whether it’s worse to go back to camp or to find shelter somewhere. This is a bad thing, because it’s painfully obvious that you’ve spent your night sobbing, and you’re trying not to be a burden.
“Come home,” she says, touching your shoulder, and you want to come home, so you do.
You curl up in your own tent, in the ragged pile of things you’ve amassed since you started traveling with them. Breathing hurts. You usually lull yourself to sleep by thinking about warm hands and cool arms and soft voices, but you quickly discover you can’t fantasize about either of them without seeing his face. I don’t want that. I don’t want that. I don’t want that.
In your mind, he pushes you away from him, his voice like ice. What exactly made you think this is okay? And she props herself up on her elbows beside him and laughs and laughs. We were never going to want someone like you, idiot.
It is officially a problem.
The funny thing about problems in this place is that people usually want to find solutions.
This usually involves a lot of talking. A lot of talking. You tune most of it out, paying just enough attention to know how and where to protect people. But when you wake up from fitful dreams in the evening, she almost immediately raps on your tent flap.
“We need to talk,” she says, and leaves you to get dressed.
You pull on fresh clothes and very, very carefully pack up your pile. It’s fortunate that there’s not much in it. A few straggly pillows, ragged from overuse. Some white linens Rosa let you borrow once and then told you to keep. The weighted blanket the three of them made for you, the one that doubles as a cloak that settles heavy on your shoulders. Small trinkets she snatched for you when she saw you eyeing them in marketplaces. Frayed edges of poems and sermon paragraphs he wrote out for you.
It occurs to you that they will probably want their things back when you leave. Everything you have is borrowed. Your chest is getting tight and painful again, but you ignore it as you unpack everything just as carefully as you packed it up. The linens belong to Rosa, the trinkets to her, the pillows and poems to him. You don’t know who to give the blanket to, so you fold it up and set it aside.
You’re not sure where to go. You want to keep the blanket, at least, want it with a fierceness that aches. You want its weight on your shoulders as you pick your way to the next town. You want to lay underneath it for shelter and pretend it’s your lusus and pretend you’re loved. But you can’t - you can’t. They’ll want to sell it, most likely, the stitching is intricate and the fabric is expensive. The money will go toward feeding and clothing needy trolls, which is good.
You spend enough time on packing and unpacking that she returns to your tent. “We need to talk,” she says again, pulling back the flap. “What are you doing?”
You intend to say something eloquent, but what comes out is, “Can I keep my blanket?”
Her brows draw together. “What?”
You bite down hard on your bottom lip, breathing out slowly. Gather the pain into something concrete and press it under your ribs, like you used to in the factories before you were too tired to cry. “I know that I need to leave. I was just wondering if I could keep my blanket when I go. It makes good shelter. It’s okay if I can’t, I won’t be upset. I was just wondering.”
“Oh, Mituna,” she says, and there’s such pity in her voice that it’s hard to keep back the tears, like balancing on an unsteady rope. “No, we weren’t going to ask you to leave.”
“Oh.” You press the heels of your hands against your eyes. “I don’t have to go?”
“No. We just need to talk. Okay?”
“I sorted everything out,” you say, pointing at your meager pile. “So I could give it back.”
“I can see that.”
“I sorted everything. I wanted to make it easier.”
She steps into your tent, moving the way she does when she’s trying to save a frightened animal instead of kill it. “Mituna, everything’s okay,” she says softly. “Everything’s okay, hey, it’s okay. I’ve never seen you this upset.”
You thought you were doing a good job of hiding the upset. It’s kind of humiliating that you’ve even failed at that. “I sorted everything out.”
“I just wanted the blanket, but you can have that back too if you want it. You can probably get a few hundred caegars for it. I’m not sure we’re supposed to have such nice things when other trolls have it so much worse.”
“Mituna,” she says, and you make the mistake of letting her wrap her arms around you.
Somewhat predictably, you burst into tears.
It’s a messy affair. She does everything you want her to, hugs you close and pets your hair and shushes you softly, and that just makes you cry harder. After what is probably thirty seconds but feels like an eternity, he pulls back your tent flap, takes in the scene, and joins the hug pile. It’s warm on one side and cool on the other and you are crying because you have wanted this for so long and now you’re getting it in the worst way possible. And as soon as you get a hold of yourself they’re going to tell you to stop being an emotionally manipulative monster and if you didn’t have to leave already you definitely will then, except you keep crying harder every time you think about it. It’s a mess. You’re a mess.
Anyway, it turns out you actually do have a finite supply of tears, so eventually you go quiet and let them both cradle you. You wait for them to draw back and tell you it’s time to go. With every passing minute the shapes clarify in your head. You, the broken body they need to clean up. Them, communicating with gazes you can’t see, trying to figure out how to let you down easy. They’re both too kind for their own good. If you want to be a good person, you have to pull yourself away.
You allow yourself a few traitorous moments to memorize the snapshot. Her frizzy hair tickles your cheek, the side of your neck. His breath is soft against your temple. His arm, a warm weight around your ribs. Her hand, buried in your hair. You give yourself this much to keep, since you will not be able to bring your pile with you, so you won’t have anything else to remember them by. Then you wiggle out of their grips.
“I’m sorry,” you say.
He shakes his head. “No, I - I’m the one who should be sorry. I should have slowed down last night instead of freaking the fuck out in every way possible.”
You shake your head. “It was my fault. I ruined it.”
“You didn’t ruin anything.”
“I think I ruined it.”
“You don’t want me.”
He blinks. “What?”
You force the words out. “You don’t want me… like I… want you.”
“Oh, for the Allmother’s sake.” She aims a glare in his direction. “What did you say to him?”
“I don’t remember! I was a little busy freaking the fuck out in every way possible!”
You have been playing the words on a loop since he said them. “‘I don’t want that,’” you whisper. “‘That’s not what I’ve ever wanted from you.’ That’s what you said.”
He looks about as stricken as a troll can. “I meant I didn’t want to be your master.”
“You want me to be your master.”
“Yes. No. I don’t know. Only the good parts.”
“There are no good parts of being-”
“Kankri,” she says, laying a hand on his arm, “ease up. What good parts, Mituna?”
You look down at your hands, fighting to put words to it. “Like… knowing someone wants you because you’re valuable, and being kept, and having… having a place. And being secure. And knowing that if you’re good, you can stay where you are. And being able to make someone happy. Not the bad parts, not any of the bad parts - not the, the lack of freedom or boundaries or pain or anything. Just the good parts.”
“Mituna,” he says, soft, pitying, “that’s not slavery. That’s just being loved.”
“Do you think my masters loved me?”
That invites a kind of long lecture about power imbalances and consent and societal romanticization of the slave trade. You don’t mind listening, though. She doesn’t stop him, probably because most of what he’s saying makes a lot of sense. Of course you crave the security of being owned - all trolls want familial security. Of course you want to be wanted and to care for others in turn - all trolls want that. You’ve never been allowed to have anything like that outside the toxic imbalance of a master’s influence. You’ve been taught that that’s what you should aspire to, and that all the horrific parts of slavery won’t matter so much as long as you’re given to the right master. Of course you don't know how to want something outside the framework you were raised in. That doesn't make what you want wrong, it just means you need to rework your definitions.
“And it’s a way to rationalize it to themselves, too,” he finishes. “Thinking that it’s okay to own trolls because they’re giving them something they need. But it’s not okay. And I’d never want to own you, and neither would Meulin. We want to be on equal ground with you. That’s what I meant last night, okay? I didn’t mean that I didn’t want you.”
You wait for a while to be sure that he’s done talking, because you’re at a loss for words again. Eventually you drag your blanket onto your lap and knead it with your claws. “What do you want, then?” you ask. That seems like a safe question.
“Mostly, I think we want you to be happy.”
“I think the things that would make me happy are…” You knead harder. “Selfish.”
“Well, we won’t know if they’re selfish until we talk about them.”
You swallow. “Why don’t you love me like you love each other?”
That is not at all how you meant to ask. You didn’t mean to ask in the first place. You just opened your mouth and the words spilled out, scattering through the air like poisoned droplets. You cringe, expecting anger. But she covers one of your agitated hands with hers and gently squeezes your fingers.
“Who said we don’t?” she asks.
You open your mouth, close it again. Open it one more time. “Rosa said you usually don’t.”
“We usually don’t,” he agrees. “But there are generally exceptions to some rules.”
You hesitate. “Are you making… a joke? Is there a punchline?”
“No. We’re making factual statements.”
“Oh.” You blink hard. “That would be an okay thing to talk about. Why were you acting like it was going to be a bad discussion?”
“Because,” she says patiently, “we thought that you’d only stayed because you thought you needed to. And since you are wonderful, and incredible, and a close friend to both of us, we were horrified. We didn’t want you to feel forced into anything you didn’t want to do.”
“I don’t feel forced. If I’d wanted to go, I would have gone.”
“Then we can talk about this. You’re right, it’s an okay thing to talk about.” She squeezes your fingers again.
“We’re talking about boundaries before we do anything physical,” he says. “You haven’t had a lot of healthy relationships in your life and obviously there’s going to be some issues with establishing an equal dynamic and making sure we’re all communicating clearly, so we need to…”
You tuck yourself up tight against his chest as he continues talking, your hand still enclosed in hers. And you close your eyes, letting his warm voice wash over you, soothe you.
It’s not going to be a problem.