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Tara can barely keep the tears from falling down her face as she thinks about tomorrow and the coming days, the end of everything she’s ever known.

“I love you,” she whispers, not even sure if Sophie can hear the words over the wind sweeping past the train.

Sophie doesn’t even turn around as she says in a low voice, “I know.”

Then there is only silence between them, and it doesn’t hurt any more than it has before.


*****
This is the day Tara’s life begins. At the age of twenty, she has completed her two-year internship underneath the escort for District Seven, and since the escort for District Two has just retired, there is an opening waiting to be filled.

It helps that Tara is the only intern graduating this year. Most barely make it through the first year. They are too soft, horrified by the system and scrambling to go back to relative safety where it’s all only a television show and not real, not actually the lives of children on the line.

But Tara has managed to endure, and as her reward, she is assigned to District Four.

*****
“What happened to Victor?”

This isn’t the greeting Tara expected, but she manages to force a smile onto her face and say, “He was promoted. To District Two. I’m the new escort for District Four.”

Her statement is met with an eye roll from Sophie Devereaux, who then turns around to stare out the window. The old woman beside her, Mags, sighs and smiles in apology at Tara.

“I’m sorry for the rude greeting, Ms. Cole. Sophie is our newest victor and hasn’t learned the appropriate way to behave yet.” Mags moves closer and shakes Tara’s hand gently. “I’m sure you understand.”

Of course, Tara already knows about Sophie Devereaux, especially since Sophie just won the Hunger Games the previous year. It’s rather hard to not stare at her, actually, because Sophie is bathed in sunlight streaming through the window and she appears to glow, beautiful.

Looking directly at Mags, Tara notices the steely glint underneath the warmth of her blue eyes and shivers. “Yes, I do understand.”

There is one thing all of her training has never prepared Tara for: Victors, as a whole, tend to be frightening people.

*****
Tara finds Sophie in the living area of the District Four apartments. Their two tributes had died earlier that day in a brutal attack led by the Careers from District One. It's not something Tara's training had prepared her for, the grief and anger. She knows and understands the reasons for the Hunger Games, can rattle them off without thinking, but it's different when she knows them, knows that pretty, seventeen-year-old Talia left behind her first love, and thirteen-year-old Sebastian only wanted to have a boat of his very own one day. Tara is pretty sure that this nightmare of a world is not what she was promised.

Sophie looks up from her glass and smiles so bitterly that Tara feels it cut straight to her bones. "Not exactly as glamorous as you imagined, is it?"

"It's...different," Tara says quietly, sitting down across from Sophie.

"It's murder." Sophie stares at Tara with dark, accusing eyes. "They're just kids."

Tara opens her mouth to argue, to list out all the facts adn reasons because saying things like this, even thinking them, is treason. A second later, though, she catches the triumphant tilt of Sophie's chin, drunkenness blurring the sharp edges of fury. Breathing in sharply, Tara drops her eyes and waits.

There's a soft sigh of impatience from Sophie, then a half-full glass slides into Tara's view.

"People say you shouldn't drink alone." Tara glances up and sees the tears in Sophie's eyes as she says, "It helps some."

Tara takes a small sip, winces at the burn. She watches as Sophie palms the glass, frowning down at it as if it will give her an answer that makes more sense than her life at the moment.

"You did a good job for your first year," Sophie tells her finally when their glasses are empty and the shadows feel like they're looming closer. "Better than Victor, anyway."

"Was he not a good escort?" Tara asks, even though she's heard the rumors and knows that even if he was exceptional at his job, the demands he made were beyond the pale.

Sophie's mouth twists with cold amusement. "If he got what he wanted. Even if you were awful at this, it would be better than him. Anything would be better."

Shaking her head, Tara looks away and circles her trembling fingers around the glass in front of her. She can guess at what Sophie is talking about, can read between the lines to know that Sophie was of the many victims of Victor Dubenich, whose influence and wealth protect him from any punishment for his abuses of power. Not even Capitol citizens are immune to being crushed underneath the desires of the ruling class, but it's the way things are, have always been.

It's always better to not think about these things.

"It will get easier," Sophie murmurs. "At least, Mags keeps telling me that."

Tara shrugs and clicks her thumbnail against her glass. "It's just a job."

"What else would it be?"

As Sophie gets up on unsteady feet, Tara considers helping her to bed. She stays where she is, though, and watches Sophie leave, stumbling a little in the dark. Tara takes another sip of whiskey, savoring the trail of fire it burns down her throat.

*****
Sophie fights the urge to slap Imanuel’s hands away from her hair, to yell at him to leave her alone because fifteen minutes into her appointment, it’s not going to matter what she looks like. She manages to keep still, though, and focuses her attention on watching Tara’s reflection in the mirror.

Dubenich used to do the same thing, sit here and watch Imanuel and his prep team dress her for the evening, but that had been for different reasons, like those times he crept into her bedroom in the middle of the night and pressed her into the mattress, and it took everything she had to not respond and simply lay there because it would be over soon enough.

Shaking her head, Sophie tightens her hands into fists, barely noticing when Imanuel brushes his lips against her cheek and leaves. Sophie glances again at her reflection then turns her gaze back to Tara. Tara is a striking beauty, and except for her bright golden hair that is obviously dyed and the thick black eyeliner, there is nothing artificial about Tara’s appearance.

Sophie has decided she likes that.

She can feel Tara’s eyes on her, heavy, warm, the slight weight of desire. Sophie shifts uncomfortably on her stool but stays where she is; she is no longer offering anything that is not demanded of her. She has to keep some things for herself.

“Will you be back tonight?”

Sophie meets Tara’s eyes in the mirror. “Why?”

“I thought I could wait up with a cup of tea,” Tara says with a shrug of her shoulders.

“Oh.” Sophie plucks the hem of her dress, her clipped nails almost tearing through the thin fabric. “I’ll be back. That would be…nice.”

Tara stands and approaches Sophie, pulling something from her purse. When she reaches Sophie’s shoulder, she holds out a tab of Ecstasy, the sight of the pale pink pill making Sophie’s throat go dry.

“They won’t give you any where you’re going, and you’ll need it.” Tara’s fingers tremble even as her voice remains steady. “Here, take it.”

Sophie pulls it out of Tara’s hand and slips the pill into her mouth, letting the chalkiness dissolve a little on her tongue before cracking it open with her teeth and swallowing. The bitterness of the powder nearly makes her gag. She has yet to grow accustomed to the taste.

She catches at Tara’s fingers and grips them tightly for a moment.

When she lets go, Sophie looks away and murmurs, “Thank you.”

Tara brushes her hand lightly against Sophie’s shoulder and walks away, the door closing with a click behind her. Sophie stares at her reflection and waits.

*****
“Tara?”

Tara frowns as she holds the phone to her ear and says, “Sophie? Is something wrong?”

“No. Not more than usual.”

Edging back until she finds her couch with the backs of her knees, Tara pushes her hair out of her face. “Then, why…do you need something?”

There’s a crackled huff then Sophie says, “I need to…to talk to someone. Who knows.”

“Is Mags busy?”

“Just, please, Tara.”

“Sorry. I’m just not used to this. I didn’t know that things were like that for us.” Tara grabs a throw pillow, holds it tight to her chest.

“What do you want from me?”

“Nothing.” Tara sighs. “What do you want to talk about?”

“Something, anything. Has anything interesting happened there?” Sophie’s words spill out so fast that Tara can barely understand her.

“It’s the Capitol, Sophie. What could ever happen here that you would find interesting?”

“You say that like you think I hate all of you.”

Tara doesn’t answer because this has fast become dangerous territory and at the moment, with sleep and confusion clouding her mind, she can’t even find a response.

“I don’t,” Sophie finally says. “I want to, but I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because you…care. You try.” Sophie sighs softly. “What do you do when you can’t sleep?”

Tara fumbles for the glass of scotch she had poured earlier and barely manages to stop the reflex. “Do those pills you have not work?”

“They just make the nightmares worse, and I can’t wake up.”

Chewing on her bottom lip, Tara says, “I don’t know, Sophie. Honestly, when it gets that bad for me, I just stay awake since I don’t have to go anywhere the next day.”

“You have nightmares, too?”

“Everyone has them sometimes. It doesn’t mean anything.”

When silence follows her words, Tara hates herself for saying them to Sophie. It’s not a lie and it’s not the truth. It’s the smart thing to say, not the right thing, and right now, Tara is pretty sure any hope of friendship between the two of them is ruined. It’s not fair to expect Sophie to constantly watch her words because Capitol citizens have to follow stricter rules than the Victors.

Everyone expects the Victors to be angry and unhinged; no one else has the right.

“It’s late. I should probably go,” Sophie murmurs, her voice thick like she is talking around tears.

Tara swallows her apology and manages to force out, “I’ll see you soon.”

The click of Sophie hanging up the phone is Tara’s only answer.

*****
The soft bell warning of the elevator arriving on District Four’s floor pulls Tara out into the main living area. It’s late, another end to a hard day. District Four still has a tribute in the arena, but the favorite at this point is a slight blonde girl from District Eleven who disappears like a ghost and kills with the press of strong fingers against delicate throats.

Tara has been watching the dark circles under Sophie’s eyes grow more prominent with each day, and it worries her that Sophie hasn’t come back for the evening even though she didn’t have any appointments with clients.

She gets her answer when Sophie stumbles out of the elevator, a young man with long brown hair in tow. Pulling further back into the shadows of the room, Tara watches as he presses Sophie into the wall, hands scrabbling with the hem of her dress, mouth sliding against Sophie’s neck.

Tara clenches her hands into fists and fights the urge to announce her presence, send him on his way. She knows him, Eliot Spencer, the victor of the 61st Hunger Games, and at that moment, Tara hates him. But she can’t look away from the pair, not when Sophie is gasping and begging, tears shining on her face, and Eliot responds with a keening whine when Sophie’s fingers slip inside his pants.

When Sophie and Eliot stumble further into the room, Eliot bending Sophie over the back of the couch, her fingers gripping tightly at the fabric as she presses back into Eliot, Eliot’s fingers pushing Sophie’s dress up over her hips and fumbling with his pants, Tara starts to turn away because this is not something she is meant to see, and Eliot looks up, stares at her with hard eyes.

Tara returns his gaze coolly and leaves without glancing back even though she can still hear them and her stomach roils with disgust at the soft moans, the whisper of skin against skin.

She locks her bedroom door and curls up on her bed. When morning comes, Tara hears Eliot slip out of Sophie’s room.

She slides out of her bed and walks warily to the living area where she finds Sophie standing there, glass of whiskey in her hand and shadows under her eyes.

Sophie turns to her and drains the glass in one swallow. Tara bites her bottom lip and looks away first.

Sighing, Sophie pours more whiskey into her glass, and Tara goes back to her room because she doesn’t want to ask why Sophie is drinking this early, doesn’t want to acknowledge the dilated pupils and the shaking hands.

There are some answers that Tara just doesn’t want to hear.

*****
“She wants you.”

Sophie rolls her eyes and pushes lightly on Eliot’s arm. “Stop it. Tara and I are just friends.”

“Are you serious?” Eliot pushes his hair out of his face and leans back on his hands. “You can’t be that blind. Your escort, Tara, she wants you. You didn’t see her last night. The way she glared at me.”

“She didn’t say anything this morning about seeing us.” Sighing, Sophie chews nervously at one of her nails. “Are you sure? I just didn’t think things were like…that for her.”

“Why shouldn’t she want to sleep with you? Or, are you saying that you want to fuck her, too?” Eliot waggles his eyebrows and Sophie shakes her head.

It’s hard to remember sometimes that there isn’t even a year separating them, only a matter of about eight months, and yet Eliot seems so much younger, fresh from the arena and in his first year as a mentor. It feels like an eternity since Sophie left the arena, and as she looks at the outstretching years, she wonders if maybe her father had the right idea and she should string herself up from a ceiling beam.

“I don’t think of Tara that way,” Sophie snaps, suddenly irritated with his teasing.

Eliot gives her a soft smile. “Look, I didn’t mean anything by it. I just thought you knew how she felt.”

“I didn’t.”

“Well, I guess you do now.”

She traces her hand over his arm, feels the muscle underneath the skin. He shifts towards her and skims his lips over hers.

“I think if you let yourself, you could be happy,” Eliot says quietly.

He chucks Sophie under her chin and groans as he gets to his feet. Biting down hard on her lip, Sophie tastes blood.

*****
Sophie paces the length of the lounge area outside of the mentor control center, tearing at her ragged fingernails, her hair a tangled mess, nearly vibrating from the caffeine that has kept her up for two straight days.

Finnick is the favorite in the arena and now it’s down to ten tributes. This is the closest she's ever gotten to bringing home a tribute. But he can’t win with the way things are going.

Tara appears in the doorway, dark circles under her eyes. “You called for me?”

“I need your contacts. I need to make sure Finnick will win,” Sophie says sharply, standing up a little straighter and tightening her hands into fists.

“Sophie, you know this is a last resort. You’re not out of money yet.”

“There’s not enough for what he needs.”

Sighing, Tara slumps against the doorframe and presses her fingers to her forehead. “Are you sure?”

“That trident should have been in the Cornucopia and there’s only one reason it isn’t.” Sophie chokes out a bitter laugh and feels her nails break through the skin of her palms. “Why ever give something away for free when you make someone else pay for it?”

“I’ll do it,” Tara mutters. She looks hard at Sophie and pushes herself upright. “You need to call Imanuel, take a shower. I’ll have some appointments for you in a couple of hours. You’ll have to handle the negotiations from there.”

Sophie nods her head. “I’ll be ready.”

Tara starts to leave then turns back. “Sophie, is he worth it?”

“He is.”

*****
Three days later, Finnick is declared the victor of the 64th Hunger Games. Tara watches from the back of the mentor control room as the camera closes in on his young face, white teeth flashing against dirt and blood. Finnick certainly looks the part, vicious and beautiful.

Most of the mentors have left now that it’s all over, but Sophie is still huddled at the District Four station, Mags hovering over her. Wrapping her arms tight around her waist, Tara moves closer.

Mags glances up and steps off to the side. Tara stares down at Sophie, realizes that she’s sobbing.

“What did we do?” Sophie asks, her voice only a hoarse whisper. “What have we done?”

“You saved him,” Tara replies with a slight smile.

Sophie raises her head, and Tara almost recoils at the emptiness there. “For what?”

Tara just grabs her hand and squeezes it because she doesn’t have an answer.

*****
“You’re getting too attached.” Effie taps her spoon delicately against the rim of her tea cup, lips pursed primly. “It’s not proper.”

Tara simply raises an eyebrow and sips her scalding tea. Effie has been giving her these lectures about Sophie for the past two years, hints turning into tirades, and they’re irritating enough without that sanctimonious look on Effie’s face.

She takes in Effie’s light blue wig, pale powdered face, frills and beads embroidered into a matching, slightly darker, blue suit and suddenly feels a little out of place. Over the past few years, Tara has let her brassy gold hair fade to her natural blonde, the color softer, less vibrant, and abandoned the thick eyeliner for a barely penciled-in outline. Prolonged exposure to the Victors normally results in these changes because the escorts want to blend in as much as possible, be accepted as allies. In this regard, Effie is a huge, glaringly obvious exception.

Unfortunately, since the Hunger Games season only lasts for a couple of months at most, the rest of the time it is Tara who stands out in the crowd.

Effie sighs and says, “Appearances matter, Tara. If people think you’re sympathetic with the districts—”

“I care about Sophie,” Tara cuts in, nostrils flaring slightly. "I’m not a traitor.”

“There’s been talk that suggests otherwise.”

“It’s not true, so why should it matter?”

“Don’t be an idiot,” Effie snaps. “Rumors turn into facts, and people like us can’t afford any black marks against our reputations.”

Tara slumps back into her chair and pokes at her tea cup. “Well, what am I supposed to do? I can’t leave my job, and I can only hide my feelings for so long without slipping up. You should know that better than anyone.”

There’s a moment where Effie wilts before her, fine wrinkles appearing underneath the thick make-up, eyes shadowed with regret. Tara looks away. Some facades are better left untouched, wispy illusions that cover uncomfortable truths.

Giving her head a shake, Effie straightens her spine, that bemused smile settling back into place, a slightly vacant calm replacing the strain of years past. “Well, perhaps if you try…”

“I understand,” Tara replies softly.

Effie stirs her spoon through her tea again and taps it on the rim of the cup. The repetition sends a chill down Tara’s spine, a swift remark of manners sitting on the edge of her bitter tongue, but she smiles around it all, mouth pulling tight.

*****
Sophie shrugs her shoulders as she steps out of the shower, hissing at the stab of pain of the skin stretching too tight across her back. It's really only a dull ache, nothing serious, at least not anymore. She doesn't remember what exactly happened, but she's pieced together the more important details from scraps of memories and what Tara has told her.

The large bloodstain on the white carpet, the choked-on vomit from an overdose of too many pills of Ecstasy and Bliss, a small strip of bloodied skin that had been found when the carpet was pulled up and replaced. It turns out that the drugs kept Sophie alive long enough to get her to the medical center where she spent the next two weeks under heavy sedation while doctors replaced the skin on her back until even she can't see any scars.

Grabbing up her silk robe, Sophie slips it on and ties it shut as she slowly makes her way out to the living area. She sees Tara sitting on the couch, staring at the floor in front of it, and Sophie clears her throat, giving Tara a shy smile when she looks up, startled.

"You didn't have to stay," Sophie says quietly.

Tara shakes her head and pats the cushion beside her. "Doctor's orders, Sophie. You're in my care until you get off the train in District Four tomorrow."

Sophie sits down beside Tara and fumbles with the comb in her hands, her robe slipping slightly open. "I, um, I want to thank you for making sure my mother knew I was all right. I really do appreciate that."

"It was nothing."

"Still." Sophie sighs and ducks her head. "Thank you."

Tara gives her a hesitant smile and gently pulls the comb from Sophie's fingers; Sophie turns around so Tara can pull the comb through her wet hair, the spines tingling against her scalp. The moment is still, and Sophie feels it settle inside her, the warmth of Tara's body closer than it should be.

Sophie has always struggled with the appropriate way to express her gratitude. Good deeds done by anyone are few and far between, even in her home, and, really, she would much rather hate all citizens from the Capitol than feel that someone like Tara is giving her undeserved kindness. There are very few things Sophie has left to give freely that mean anything.

She kisses Tara before she can even really think about it, her neck bending at an awkward angle, her lips clumsier than normal, fingers catching on to Tara's blonde hair and probably pulling too hard. Tara makes a sound in the back of her throat that almost sounds like a sob as she moves her mouth slowly; she pulls Sophie further around, and Sophie sinks into her.

Later, when Sophie is flat on her back in the middle of her bed, Tara deep in between her legs, lips closing gently around Sophie's clit, Sophie thinks that this really wasn't supposed to be about her and yet, it somehow is. She can't fight it, though, can't really muster up enough outrage at herself for failing to judge the situation correctly, not when Tara is moaning and pressing her fingers deep inside Sophie.

Her vision blurs when she comes, and all Sophie can do is gasp, her body trembling as Tara crawls up beside her and pulls her close.

“This is all it can be,” Sophie murmurs as her breathing evens out.

Tara looks down at her, eyes shadowed by the dim light. “I know.”

*****
Tara watches as Finnick paces the length of the floor of the living area of the District Four apartment, tapping her fingers impatiently against the arm of the couch. Sophie left hours ago to meet with potential sponsors for Annie, and Finnick has only stopped moving long enough for his prep team to get him dressed for his own appointments. Tara is tempted to tie him up, if only to keep him from running his fingers constantly through his hair or almost tearing his clothes.

“Stop picking at your outfit, Finnick,” she finally snaps as he passes in front of the couch.

Finnick whirls around, his mouth pulled back into a snarl. “Leave me alone, Tara. I’m worried about her.”

“Sophie knows what she’s doing.”

“These men are different.” He glares at her. “You should know that.”

Tara bites the inside of her cheek and narrows her eyes. Finnick has never liked her, and that animosity has only increased once Sophie started to occasionally frequent Finnick’s bed two years ago.

Tara has had to work very hard to convince herself that she isn’t jealous.

“Damn it, why did you even set up these appointments for her?” Finnick demands, rounding on her.

Lifting her chin, Tara says in a low voice, “I don’t let Sophie do anything. This was her decision. She knows who these men are and what they will do to her. She believes that with enough funds, the two of you can bring Annie home. She doesn’t want what nearly happened with you to happen again.”

“What do you mean?”

“Where do you think your trident came from?” Tara can’t stop the slight curl of her mouth as she leans forward. “That sort of weapon, so late in the game. The most expensive gift ever sent. She was set up by the Gamemakers so she would have to go to these people for sponsorship.”

Finnick’s shoulders slump as he asks, “What did they do to her?”

Shrugging, Tara blinks back the sudden moisture in her eyes as she says, “I don’t know. She never told me.”

“And, now—”

“It doesn’t stop, Finnick. No matter what, the games don’t really change.”

*****
“Sam is sick.” Sophie can’t keep the desperate edge out of her voice, and she clutches the plastic phone even closer to her ear.

Tara’s reply is a little slow but measured, calm. “How bad is it?”

Taking a deep breath, Sophie digs her nails deep into her thigh and lets her body sag against the wall as she says, “He’ll die if he can’t get treatment in the Capitol.”

“And what do you need from me?”

“Contacts, appointments. If I can get the right doctor to pay attention, we can save him.”

There’s a moment of hesitation, then Tara’s soft voice asks, “Are you sure you want to do this?”

Sophie bites down hard on her bottom lip until blood wells up and seeps onto her tongue. It should say something about her, about her relationship with Tara that she’s turned to Tara first, before William or Finnick or anyone else; Sophie wonders sometimes if she should need Tara so much.

“I have to do something, Tara. What else can I do?” Sophie finally rasps out, tears flowing down her cheeks before she can stop them, and the distance feels longer and wider than it ever has before.

“I’ll do everything I can,” Tara says. A pause crackles over the spotty connection, then Tara murmurs, “I’ll call as soon as I have something set up.”

Sophie means to say something else, somewhere along the lines of thank you and I don’t know what I would do without you. All that comes out is a choked sob. Tara whispers something, words fading away before Sophie can catch them, then there’s the finality of the click of the other side of the connection ending.

*****
The sound of a heavy fist pounding on the door pulls Tara from sleep, and she blinks slowly, taking a breath as she reminds herself that she’s still in Sophie’s apartment. Stretching, Tara makes her way to the door and opens it.

She manages to choke back a gasp when her eyes land on a hysterical Sophie bracketed by two male Peacekeepers. One of the men pushes Sophie over the threshold, and Tara catches Sophie around the waist and holds her close.

“Make sure she doesn’t go anywhere tonight,” he tells her gruffly, and the Peacekeepers leave, the tramp of their boots echoing back down the hallway.

Letting Sophie’s weight sink them to the floor, Tara looks down at Sophie’s face, asking, “What’s going on?”

“They killed him.” Sophie’s body shudders with the force of her sobs, and as Tara clutches her tighter, she keens, nails cutting into Tara’s back. “William’s dead. They killed him. Sam’s dead, William’s dead. After everything—”

“I’m right here, Sophie,” Tara says quickly, pressing a kiss to the side of Sophie’s head and pulling her closer. “I’ve got you.”

*****
Minutes pass by, and Tara stays curled up in her corner of the couch, watching Sophie pace the length of the room. It’s the same as always, even fifteen years later. Tara’s lips curl into a slight smile as she lets the thought linger.

“I don’t know if we’ll be able to keep you safe,” Sophie says in a quiet voice, the sound small in the room.

Tara shrugs. “I think we’re beyond worrying about that now. I’m in just as deep as you.”

Sophie laughs at that, the sound strangled and cruel as it catches in her throat. She walks over to the couch and kneels in front of it; Tara twists a few fingers in the dark curls of Sophie’s hair and smiles sadly.

“I didn’t want this for you,” Sophie tells her.

“I’m not doing much, Sophie. Besides, I can make my own decisions,” Tara replies as she leans back, letting Sophie’s hair fall from her grasp.

She doesn’t say I’m doing this for you because Sophie won’t understand what she means. Over the years, Tara has learned that some things are better left unsaid because lines can be blurred and erased, people can change, this world is not meant for people like them, people who can break and keep trying anyway.

“Effie and I are taking care of each other,” Tara says after a while, when Sophie has settled onto the couch beside her, head pillowed on Tara’s shoulder.

Sophie snorts, and Tara slaps her thigh playfully, smiling because as serious as she is, the idea is laughable. She isn’t going to tell Sophie about the real Effie, the woman who is acting as the link between the rebels and the Victors, spine ramrod straight, voice firm, face pale underneath the make-up, fingers trembling even as she stares down the most powerful men in the Capitol and lies through her teeth.

Sophie won’t believe her, and even though they’re on the same side, Tara knows it’s best to keep some secrets to play later. She knows Sophie would do the same.

“I still worry about you,” Sophie murmurs, shifting and kissing Tara’s jaw.

Tara smiles at the sentiment, sorrow sitting hard and deep in her chest. “I know.”

Brushing her hand against Sophie’s cheek, Tara leans down and kisses her. She pretends that this will last and that she can’t taste the salt of tears on Sophie’s lips.

*****
Sophie steps up to Tara, rocking on her heels and biting her bottom lip, struggling to find words adequate for the moment, but each time she opens her mouth, nothing comes out.

Everything is wrong and she can feel the seconds slipping away until it’s too late. She traces a finger along Tara’s cheek, moves closer, kisses her slowly, carefully. Tara leans closer, and Sophie pulls her in, arm wrapping tight around her waist, slipping her tongue into Tara’s mouth.

Tara pulls back first, and Sophie can’t stop the tears that slip out of her eyes.

“I’m sorry,” Sophie whispers.

Tara shakes her head. “No, don’t apologize. I chose this. All of it.”

Sophie takes her hand and grips it tightly. She can feel Mags behind her, murmuring about how it’s time to leave. As she is pulled away, Sophie tries to keep her fingers wrapped around Tara’s but Tara’s hand eventually slips away.

Sophie doesn’t look back.

*****
Tara runs her tongue over her cracked lips and stares up at the dark grey ceiling. She breathes slowly, wincing when she inhales too deeply and something spikes pain through her chest. The cold damp air burns in her lungs, the hard floor digs into her spine.

The torture ended early yesterday. She thinks it was yesterday. She lost track of time a short while after being thrown into her cell, but it feels like a day has passed since they were pressing live wires into her skin and she could smell her flesh burning as her body danced with the pain.

Of course, the hours could just be taking longer to pass. She’s lost hope in any sort of mercy, somewhere in between the unofficial visits from the guards when they press between her legs and grunt against her neck and the screams that ring out along the hall from her fellow prisoners.

She listens to the clink of a key in the door’s lock, and when hands pull her to her feet Tara doesn’t resist.

They lead her out, down the hall, past blank doors. The sun hits her eyes, and she shrinks away from the light, but they drag her forward anyway.

She smiles, then. It’s the end, and laughter bubbles from her mouth at the realization that she’s done what she set out to do, to keep Sophie safe and alive.

Leaning her head back, Tara looks up at the sky and lets the sunshine dance across her eyes because now that it’s over, she’s free.