Safety isn't something I used to think about much. Every soldier knows fear sometimes, of course, but even if I panicked temporarily, I had a certainty in mind that everything would be all right, would work out, would go my way. That was how things were supposed to be, that was how things would be. And of course I always had my armor, ready to be raised at a moment's notice, and Radchaai armor gives you a very powerful sense of false security. So gunfire raised my pulse in anticipation, not horror, and the blink as lights on a command deck went from red to blue, shifting into combat mode, made me grin in anticipation, and sailing out in vacuum from the side of my ship to land on an enemy ship and lead my ancillaries in cutting our way through their hull was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life.
It was all of it things I understood, and therefore didn't fear. The destruction of my ship wasn't something I understood. It was so sudden. I was in the pod, watching that flash of blue light as my ship died, and then there was a deep, cold dark, and then the waking into a world where nothing made sense and there was no safety, nothing to cling to, no understanding.
The kef took the fear away, at least, though it wasn't much good for anything else.
The bridge taught me the true value of fear. The kind of fear that teaches, that awakens, that makes everything crystal clear in the way the kef was supposed to and absolutely didn't.
But that's only one kind of fear. The other kinds aren't so good. Though they're better than despair. Although in the end, both fear and despair come from the same place, don't they? The place that isn't safe. The darkness. In that darkness I am alone. Breq isn't there. I've failed her, she's gone, or in danger somewhere I can't get to, can't help her, and in the dark that's all that matters, and it's very hard to find my way out from there.
When I kneel in front of Breq, I am safe. Completely, utterly. Her hands press down on my shoulders and all the jitters and restlessness leave me along with the fear and I can be still. Inu. There is no motion without stillness. Here is where I find my stillness.
I am safe between her thighs. My knees still on the floor, the soft towel over false wood paneling over the metal that encloses and protects us. I am grounded, and she is here, and I am with her, below her, where I understand everything I need to. Her thighs are both hard and soft. She spreads them just a little further. Her hands travel up from my shoulders, to fist in my hair. I breathe out, slow, calm, a long exhale, head down, so I'm not breathing on her. Then I lean forward, and take her into my mouth. She's around me, and inside me, warm, solid and also soft. Safe. Present, here. We both are. I don't have to worry. All I have to do is obey. All I want is to do whatever she wants me to do. And I know she'll tell me, through murmured words, or a low hum, or a light touch to my neck, or through Ship.
We are both so still, except for the movement of my mouth as I carefully, slowly take her further in. Her hands in my hair don't move. My knees and legs stay on the floor. My hands rest on her knees. Stillness and calm hold us in place until my efforts overcome her and she draws in ragged breath and moves against me, but even her motion is steady. Her thighs and her hands in my hair hold me in place. She pushes further into my mouth. I relax into her, and curl my tongue around her. She tastes no different from anyone else. She says she isn't human, isn't like me, and I know what she means by it, and I do my best to accept it. But in moments like these, I can't help but believe that we're made of the same things, all the way through. How else would we fit so well? Why else would this feel so right?
I like being below her. I suppose this feeling started when I slept on a pallet below her bed for all those months. I would wake in the night, shaking and shivering, thinking the walls were closing in, or that they were too thin and the air would go out of them. Then I'd hear her breathing above me. Snoring, sometimes. You can imagine what that sounded like, given her voice. It was louder from above than it would have been if we'd been on the same level. When I focused, lying there with my arms crossed tight over my chest, I thought I could feel the warmth from her body, too. I didn't really want to be lying up there next to her. I knew imagining that would be far too presumptuous. I liked being below. It made her larger. It gave me a solid point of reference, in a constantly shifting universe. That pallet next to her bed was a place I could feel safe, because I could tell myself, the floor is here, and Breq is there, and I'm in between. I know where I am. I have a place.
The night I wasn't with her, on Omaugh, I tried sleeping on a bench for a while, but I woke up and people were glaring at me, and I missed Breq, and then I went home with someone. I didn't understand her words but the situation was familiar enough. I had sex with her and I thought about Breq the whole time. I was worried she'd try to give me more than just bed space but thankfully it didn't seem to be that kind of transaction. But I lay there panicking for a few hours and then I went out onto the concourse and walked until Security picked me up. Not the valuable kind of fear, what I felt then.
When Breq took me back to her rooms I went straight to the fold-out cot under her bed, pulled it out and collapsed into it, and fell into grateful sleep. Safe again.
On Mercy of Kalr I don't sleep on floors any more. I sleep in my bed, or I sleep in Breq's, and sometimes she's draped on top of me and sometimes I'm on top of her. I sit or lie on Ekalu's bed, or next to it, but usually I don't sleep in it.
Ekalu lets me kneel too. She seems to like it. I hope she likes it. I like it, when she commands me to stay still or to move, to touch her or myself. She was hesitant at first, but now she speaks with total confidence, and smiles when she compliments me on my compliancy. The compliments make me flush and grin, face pressed against her stomach.
Breq doesn't command me. I have to concentrate to hear or feel her orders. And she doesn't compliment me in words, but in light kisses pressed to the top of my head, the corner of my mouth, or the inside of my bare wrist.
We don't do this- sex- that often. I watch her, and when I see old phantom pains affect her movements, I talk with Ship, and I come to her quarters at the end of that shift. Ship watches me as well as her, and knows when it gets hard and I start walking down into that darkness again, and it sends me to her, to the floor and her steadying hands and the space where everything is safe and simple.
I swallow around her, feeling her at the back of my mouth. She trembles, but not in pain or fear or weariness. I move my hands up from her knees to the middle of her thighs so I can hold us both in place as she shakes apart inside me and around me, her legs squeezing my shoulders, her hands pulling my hair though not hard enough to hurt. I'd be reluctant to move back, but her hands slide down again, and guide me, firmly, and I happily move with her hands, lean back and up. I spit onto the towel. She tilts my head up, thumbs under my chin, and cleans my mouth and jaw with her fingers, wiping them neatly on the towel.
We don't make eye contact, not because we have anything to hide, but because it's more comfortable this way, more comfortable to close my eyes and feel her fingers on my lips.
"Stay still," she says, in her flat voice, and I do. My muscles don't cramp. I don't feel any need to shift. I stay kneeling. I'm a little afraid that I'd be dizzy if I got up.
She stands, moves around the cabin. I hear water running. She comes back with a wet cloth, and washes my face again, I feel the coolness over my closed eyelids. She runs her wet fingers through my mussed hair. She smooths my cheek with her palm, a gentle, intimate gesture that ought to make me gasp but I am in the cool calm place and I only breathe out again, long, slow.
I hear her sit back down on the bed, I hear her bending and leaning forward and then I feel her breath cool and fresh on my face and then the weight of her forehead against mine. Time is slow. And still.
With Ekalu it’s more of a game, with the possibility of losing, the pleasure of success. We give each other looks when our shifts pass and my Amaats whistle or whoop because they know by now that I won’t take them to task for it, will laugh it off with good humor. How can I do anything else? They’ve seen all my weaknesses. I remember being seventeen, and forty. Determined no one see anything of me I didn’t decide to give them. On this ship everyone knows the way I fall, and it ought to be terrible, and sometimes it is, but mostly it’s comforting. People here know, and I’m still followed, still fucked, still loved, still invited to tea and to counters games.
They know the way I fall and they know the way I right myself, they’ve known that since the start, since they first saw me around Breq, even I heard the gossip. I’m transparent to everyone. Maybe always have been.
When we’re on the station I stick close to Ekalu, and I try to pass that off as part of the game too, but she sees through me of course. She’s very kind to me. Indulges me. Distracts me with talk and idle touches, and sleeps next to me on our pallets on the floor in the still rudimentary Mercy of Kalr station headquarters. When I wake up she wakes up too, and kisses me, and I can feel her smiling into the kiss, and the pounding of my heart slows a bit.
Keeping still for her is a game, and part of the game is how I complain and whine a bit and tell her how beautiful she looks and how much I want to touch her and how much I want her to touch me and I reach for her and she pushes me back sternly, saying I’ll have to be good to get what I want. I tell her I’ll be good, I’ll be so good for her. I’ll stay on my knees for her as long as she wants, if only she’ll let me touch her now. Instead she takes one of my hands and sucks on my fingers and I start to moan until I remember I’m supposed to be quiet.
It’s good- it’s so good- and it’s safe, mostly, though I still get flutters of anxiety sometimes, fear that I’ll fuck up again even though I don’t think I will, but mostly it’s safe because Ekalu has also seen everything I am and she still wants me in her bed.
But it isn’t that still and quiet place where time and my heartbeat both move slow and the universe is simple.
I remember the first time I felt it. On Omaugh, when she was recovering, when I was allowed to look after her, carry her things and feed her tea, when she had to lean on me to walk, and the Lord of the Radch summoned us to a sunny grassy room where Breq collapsed into a chair and slept, and I knelt by her side, not moving or speaking, for two hours. I felt it then, kneeling there in the grass, felt that serenity, that certainty of purpose. The Lord of the Radch spoke to me, told me she was considering ordering me away from Breq, and I made my opinion of that clear. I wasn't frightened, somehow. Kneeling there, watching her sleep, hearing her breathe. I spoke to the Lord of the Radch, about the Presger, about her war with herself, thinking to clear up perhaps some of my confusion. Before we finished Breq woke, and I went silent, and very still. The calm clarity wrapping around me like a comforting blanket.
The best is when Breq’s inside me, when I can feel her and know with absolute certainty that she’s with me, she’s here and she’s safe. No separation between us. She could have her fingers in my mouth or be buried deep in my ass, doesn’t matter as long as I can feel her. I hold onto those memories, try to submerse myself in them when she’s away and I feel like I’m failing my promise. I remember her weight, comfortingly heavy above me. Her strength and her gentleness. The perfect moments when I orgasm with her hand in mine. The way we clean each other up, and I stand and wash my hands still naked, and put on my gloves to make tea with the things Kalr Five has left out for us (the compromise she and I have reached, after initial tensions.) I bring the tea to Breq and we sit shoulder to shoulder, leaning against each other, and talk about the day, politics, our soldiers, the latest entertainments, or sometimes, the things we can’t talk about with anyone else- anyone but Ship, who listens but does not always speak. I doze off still naked, still leaning against her with her arm around my waist, in this small bare room inside the ship that is our home. This is what I focus on remembering. And I remember the valuable fear, that I experienced falling from the bridge, and when I knelt in the temple on Omaugh and made my promise. And I wonder why I can’t separate it from the useless fear. Can’t dig that second kind of fear out of me and fill that space with something practical.
Breq’s away for three weeks once, only Athoek, only downwell but still millions of miles from me and she says and Ship says after the second week that I can go down for a bit if I want but I refuse, I’m not going to abandon my post. The third week Ekalu makes me go. Well. She doesn’t make me. But she tells me I need to, in the voice that I love obeying, and she’s only telling me to do what I want to do anyway, so I go. Breq’s in a meeting, when I land. Kalr Six shows me to Breq’s empty office. When Breq comes in an hour later I hear her but don’t see her at first, and it takes me some time to realize this is because I’m sitting under her desk, in the dark. I don’t remember getting there.
She sighs, gestures in the dark and the room is softly lit. She sits in her chair, and flicks through reports with one hand. The other she puts on my shoulder. I lean back. I breathe slow. There’s nothing but the carpet beneath me, the chair at my back, and her hand, so strong and firm on my shoulder. Here, in this strange room in this unknown city, so unimaginably distant from the world I used to know, there is no fear, and all I know is the safety of her touch.