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Dark Watch

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She's tired of being the liability. The one who fails. It's no wonder both Breq and Mercy of Kalr prefer Tisarwat and Ekalu as lieutenants.

Of course they do. She's not stupid. She has eyes. Why wouldn't anyone? Tisarwat and Ekalu are both ... well ... Ekalu can't help what her background is, and Tisarwat can't help being seventeen, but the point is, when it comes right down to it, they both step up and get things done. They don't have to crawl into a corner and shiver, or get drunk just to stop thinking about how nice it would be not to care about things.

Something broke in her a thousand years ago, or maybe it broke when she came out of stasis. Maybe it was always broken and she just didn't know. No daughter of a house as old and respected as the Vendaai could ever be unsteady. Anything that seemed so was ... it was a mistake, it was a mere wobble, it was something she had to core out of herself and never, ever admit to anyone. No weeping on any uniformed shoulder for the seventeen-year-old Lieutenant Seivarden. No confidences for her, ten or twenty years later; no I felt sick too, when it happened ... or I loved her too and it hurt ... or any of the other small sharings she might have made. Things she heard from lieutenants then; things she hears from her Amaats now, or from Ekalu's Etrepas.

She is a daughter of Vendaai. She rolled over those unsteady emotions with arrogance and shored herself up with other people's silent respect, or at least, the respect they showed to her face (she now realizes). She aspired to her betters: their cool calm, their scorching disdain.

Only a thousand years later did she ever think of the unsteadiness they, themselves, might have been hiding (were almost certainly hiding) beneath those cool, aristocratic faces.

And, in her more sober moments (in long watches late in ship-night, between the endless series of crises that Breq and Station and the new Republic seem to precipitate) she confronts the idea that perhaps a lot of people, even then, understood what she only begins to understand now: that she could have found companionship as well as clientage, because others did; that she could have made confidences out of others' weaknesses instead of exploiting them, and perhaps in doing so found safe harbor for her own; that she might have laughed at others less, and trusted more, and in doing so found a more secure toehold for herself, a better grip on her own self-worth.

She can't help how she was born, she still thinks, about one or another of the individuals in Mercy of Kalr's ranks, and then turns it back on herself, sometimes, on those long quiet watches: thinks about the world she grew up in, where weakness was shame and unsteadiness was dishonor and the only way to be what she was born to be was to rise to a challenge that she somehow knew, deep down, she was not good enough for; thinks about throwing her own noble birth back in Breq's face, standing on a glass bridge over three kilometers of nothing, thirty seconds before Breq would leap into space and upend her view of the world forever; thinks, sometimes, about the fact that, if it is not Ekalu's fault that she doesn't know all the proper procedures for a tea service to a person two clientage levels above one's own house, then perhaps, just perhaps, it is not her own fault if she cannot quite understand ... if perhaps, learning how to hide unsteadiness is not quite the same as not being unsteady, after all ...

"It is not," Mercy of Kalr says softly, into the late-watch stillness. Ship does not often speak directly to Seivarden, nor does she often reveal how much of her humans' thoughts she can in fact understand. "But think: if Ekalu were called on to serve tea in such a house, what she might do."

At least this question, Seivarden knows the answer to. "She'd have to learn? She wouldn't shame her patron by failing to serve their patron properly."

"Just so," Ship says. "Certainly she would do everything in her power to avoid dropping a bowl of tea into someone's lap."

Seivarden laughs aloud, and then hums quietly to herself, a habit she's picked up while thinking. It does help.

... the entire fucking Republic, or whatever they eventually call themselves, is going to be singing in a generation or two. No one will be able to stand them.

"I understand what you're saying," Seivarden tells Ship, and is a little surprised to find that she does, in fact, understand. Her thousand-years-gone self would not have. "I have to learn. I have to be open. Have to --" She balks, then; first she tries to think of herself-as-Ekalu, kneeling to her betters, being properly humble; there is a certain discomfort at the thought and she tries not to -- well, all right, she knelt to Breq (not like that ... well, okay, a little like that), but it was different, and she tries not to make it different and then she just gets an awkward sense of nausea. And anyway, betters is a concept a thousand years dead and gone, at least in the world that Breq is trying to build here. What if no one knelt to anyone anymore? Would there be less to learn, or more?

"You make things a great deal more complicated than they have to be," Ship says, sounding amused, and Seivarden wonders once again how much Ship reads of her thoughts.

From Ship: "Only what you share with me."

"Oh, good," Seivarden says, tracing dry sarcasm around the words. "Because mental control is something I am remarkably fucking good at."

There's silence now, but it is a companionable one, and it interests Seivarden that she can recognize this. A thousand years gone, when she was a different version of herself, she had no idea if her ship was comfortable or not. Did not think about it at all.

"Are you happy, Ship?" she asks, with a sudden surge of contrition. "Is there anything I can do for you? Or, I guess I should say, is there anything you need to make you happier?"

Ship is silent for a moment. Taken aback, maybe. "Well, of course I would like to have ancillaries again," she says after a moment. "But it has been explained to me why this is not right. Perhaps in time I will understand."

It's a little startling for Seivarden to catch a reflection of herself in Ship. It's never happened before. The world moves on. We do not always adapt. She isn't entirely sure if that's her own thought, or Ship's.

"Other than that," Seivarden says, smoothing over a moment neither of them quite want to acknowledge. "I could choose a different song for the Amaats, maybe." This last aloud. By the door, Amaat Two breaks off her humming with a guilty start.

"No, I like that one," Mercy of Kalr says, for both of them. After a long silence from the door, the humming starts up again.

"Perfectly content, are you? Nothing a ship wants?"

"This ship has quite everything a ship might need," Mercy of Kalr says. "But should something come to mind, I will ask you."

"Do," Seivarden says. "I can't make it up to Justice of Toren, from all those years ago. But if I can do anything for you, tell me." She thinks of tea bowls, briefly. Kneeling with bowl in hand. It is not such a bad thing.

There's silence, for a time, from the ship. Then:

"I admit that I cannot fathom her quite so well as you perhaps think," Mercy of Kalr says, "but I do not think she likes Tisarwat and Ekalu quite so well as you. Please do not tell her this; it will make her very hard to deal with. Most importantly, I think Justice of Toren would have liked them ever so much better, and she knows very well that she did not like you much at all."

"But she isn't Justice of Toren anymore," Seivarden says quietly, into the watch's stillness.

"Just so," Ship says. "And she knows what Justice of Toren would have wanted, because she spent two thousand years being that."

"She's only been Breq for twenty."

Silence from Ship, and Seivarden thinks she has said something wrong again, something no one will explain to her, something that will maybe lead to weeks of cold silences, maybe to losing her place in this crew forever. Then Ship says, "I don't think that's quite how to ... think of her, perhaps. It is complicated. There isn't a line."

"But Breq wants things that Justice of Toren didn't," Seivarden suggests, cutting through any attempt Ship might make to explain. She doesn't care. Breq is Breq, and perhaps more to the point, Seivarden has always recognized Breq now as an echo of Breq (Justice of Toren, whatever) from a thousand years ago. She recognized her when Breq pulled her out of the snow, even if she didn't know why, yet. These ships make things harder than they have to be. Breq certainly does, for herself. "And she doesn't like that."

"Yes," Ship says. She seems a bit taken aback.

"See?" Seivarden says. "I do get things. Sometimes."

Only silence from Ship.

"Really, she likes me best? I'm her favorite?"

"Please do not tell her I told you that," Mercy of Kalr says with haste unseeming for a spaceship. "It is not rational. Justice of ... the fleet captain likes things to make sense."

"And pulling a kef addict out of a snowbank when you don't even like them doesn't make any sense at all."

"Not so much," Ship says. "Nor letting her into your bed. Nor accepting that perhaps one may like her a great deal more than one once did, or once would ever have."

Their watches are still staggered, hers and Breq's. They have not changed their schedules, since Seivarden became well enough to go back on duty as senior lieutenant. She had expected that to change, for Ekalu to be allowed to step up as First (and in all fairness, she believes Ekalu deserves it more than she does, would probably in fact be better at it), but this did not happen. What it means, however, is that there is perhaps an hour or two in each duty day when her sleeping time overlaps with Breq's. These are precious hours, and on this watch, Seivarden finds herself checking the time frequently, counting down those hours, those minutes.

"She likes you a great deal too, Ship, you know," Seivarden says.

"It is irrational to be jealous of a ship," says Ship.

"I'm not." And it surprises her a little to find that this is, in fact, true.

"You are such strange creatures," Ship says. "Do you think perhaps you might give Amaat One a turn on duty shift? She could use the practice."

"She probably could," Seivarden agrees, and summons Amaat One from the gym, with the allowance that it is not an emergency and there is time to change and settle herself first.

She is off duty some little time later, having relieved herself, several hours still to go in her watch. She walks the halls of the ship, nods to the Amaats scrubbing their corridors, exchanges words with some. She makes an effort to know every one, now, and what they like, and what their names are, even if she will not ever use those names to their faces.

If they die -- the thought has crossed her mind -- she should know enough to say proper things, and to wear a pin that is not just a token.

"I think Breq has better taste than she admits to herself," Mercy of Kalr tells her. "No one is born knowing things, after all."

"Some of us cower in corners," Seivarden says silently to Ship, thumbing open the door to Breq's quarters. "You have never, have you?"

"No, I was never allowed that luxury," Mercy of Kalr admits. "But I have watched many, many officers, over the years. The important thing is whether one comes out of the corner, in the end. Even if it hurts more to do so, than for one who never ran to it." She's silent, but it is a waiting silence, and Seivarden hesitates with the door to Breq's quarters open before her. Finally Ship says, "Especially if it hurts more. I respect that ... more. I think Breq does, also."

Seivarden closes the door with a slide of her hand.

It is dark inside, but darkness means nothing to a ship, after all. Mercy of Kalr monitors Breq's sleeping readings, feels the jump and shift and small adjustments as Seivarden climbs into their shared bed; feels, too, the easing of the tension in Seivarden's readings, as skin meets skin; understands that she .... it ... she is feeding these readings back to Seivarden, which is not something a lieutenant would normally get, and perhaps is not even data a lieutenant would understand.

Seivarden lays an arm over Breq's shoulders. Ship monitors the slow syncing of their pulse and respiration.

It is hours, yet, until what would be Breq's dawn. Amaat One is watching the stars and the cool gleam of Station, who hums to herself in the great wide dark. Amaat Seven sings as she does inventory: The ship goes round the station ...

It does, it does. And sometimes, just sometimes, the station sings back.