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The Things That Make Me Weak and Strange

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Florian was backed up against the wall, sitting on Ari’s bed, undoing the buttons on her blouse while she straddled his lap, pressed up against him so she could feel the whip-strong muscles of his legs beneath her own, so that the smell of him filled her nose, male and nervous and absolutely turned-on.

And she didn’t have much time, because she didn’t dare do this when Uncle Geoffrey was home--never mind that it was Ari’s room and Ari’s azi--because Uncle Geoffrey had always looked at Ari like another one of Olga Emory’s prize pigs, no different except this one owned the largest share of Reseune outright, or would when she was older.

Only lately it had been different.

But Uncle Geoffrey was at a meeting with Administration, and Sergey and Max were with him. Florian had confirmed it on the Minder before they’d gotten started, and Catlin sat watch on the door, not a twitch of her shoulders betraying any interest in what was going on behind her. And Florian was as quick and precise with buttons as he was with explosives, but he was still too slow for Ari.

“God damn it, Florian, forget the damn buttons--”

Ari heard something tear when she pulled the blouse off and flung it to the side, and then his hands were on her bare skin, and her breasts were something other than a nuisance now, with his fingers brushing the undersides of them and his thumbs teasing the nipples into life. She felt the hitch of his breath against her belly, and his erection quickening against her crotch through layers of cloth. She wanted. She lowered her mouth onto his and slid her hands up beneath his shirt, feeling him shudder beneath her fingers when she used her teeth.

Catlin said, “Sera--” and Ari jumped up and Florian rolled out from under her a moment before Ari heard steps in the hall. She didn’t have time to do anything more than grab her blouse from the floor before her door burst open, Sergey striding a pace in front of Uncle Geoffrey and Max a pace behind, pulling Catlin along in a grip that looked painful.

Catlin wouldn’t care about the pain. She would care that she had been Got, and that she was helpless in front of her Supervisor, whom she was supposed to protect. Her pale face was even whiter with fury. Catlin was good, and Catlin had no compunctions; if it hadn’t been Max he would have been dead, and never mind that he was Older and more than double her mass.

But it was nothing but the best for Uncle Geoffrey, in anything. Max had been to space, and taken out pirate crews singlehandedly and disarmed, they said, and Uncle Geoffrey had snatched up his contract when it had fallen back into Reseune’s hands. Sergey had been in House Security all his life, an Experimental, but they were making more like him in the labs as fast as they could. Strong, fast, polite and unobtrusive and deadly smart. When they were older Catlin and Florian might be a match for those two. Not yet.

And still Florian stood between her and the men, his body providing a pathetically inadequate shield as she pulled on her blouse. The seam up the left side was torn, but there was nothing she could do about that. Florian’s skin, a shade darker than Catlin’s, was white around the knuckles and lips.

He was just a kid. And so was Catlin, and Ari. It wasn’t fair.

“Did you ever hear of knocking, Uncle Geoffrey?”

Uncle Geoffrey shouldered Florian aside. “You look like a Theta-class hooker down by Novgorod shuttleport,” he said. “Don’t you have any sense?”

This close, Ari could smell him--like a chemistry lab, but it was his paints. He had never gone to any Administration meeting; it had been a trap from beginning to end, and Ari had walked into it. Uncle Geoffrey was right. Stupid, stupid, the brilliant heir of Olga Emory and James Carnath--and there was sex for you.

Because he had been watching her with a gleam in his eye and his breath coming faster than it should, ever since her cycles had started, since she had had that tape--Everybody gets it, Dr. Korablin had told her kindly, but you don’t have to take it home if you’d rather not. I’ll put it on my card, and you can have it in my office. Because Dr. Korablin had understood what Ari hadn’t at the time, that there were things it was better if Uncle Geoffrey didn’t know.

As if you could hide anything from Uncle Geoffrey, in Reseune.

He stood so close, and Max and Sergey were still more than a step away--if he touched her, Ari would tell Florian to kill him, and hang the consequences. She would.

“You didn’t think what you could be doing to Florian, did you, before you started pawing him,” Uncle Geoffrey went on. “Some people spend decades studying, getting experience before they get a license to work with Alphas. You had these two handed to you in your Maman’s will--no tests, no qualifications--and the moment your hormones get a hold, responsibility gets shoved out the airlock, is that it?”

It wasn’t true. She had thought. And she could see the anguish and confusion in Florian’s face, and Catlin’s, a situation they weren’t equipped to deal with--not her fault, damn it. “I know what I’m doing.”

“Do you?” Uncle Geoffrey cupped her chin and tilted her face up towards his. His hand was soft. It didn’t hurt. “Show me.”

Ari felt furious tears starting at the corners of her eyes, and heat bloomed in her belly, not too different from what she’d felt with Florian. And he could read that, Uncle Geoffrey could, could feel her pulse beneath his fingers and see her eyes go dark. She could no more hide her body’s response from him than she could hide her medical records.

If she were azi, if she could go blank--

“Ser,” said Sergey, quiet, neutral. “The plane’s landed, with the envoy from Earth.”

Uncle Geoffrey dropped his hand. “Damn,” he muttered, but Ari saw an acquisitiveness in his face before he turned away that for once had nothing to do with her, and everything to do with Art. He had been collecting the work of the early spacer-painters long before Ari had been born. “Max, stay here and keep an eye on things.”

“Ser,” said Max.

“I want a lock on my door, Uncle Geoffrey!” Ari shouted at his retreating back. “I’m going to put in a request to Security--I don’t think it’s too much to ask, a lock on my own goddamn door!”

Keep an eye on things didn’t, apparently, mean stay in Ari’s room and loom over her; in another minute Max was on the phone with Housekeeping arranging the details of the bulky and fragile shipment Uncle Geoffrey was expecting. Ari collapsed in her desk chair, taking great gulping breaths as if she could get enough air in Uncle Geoffrey’s absence to last her through his presences. Catlin and Florian crept up to her, their faces identically drawn and worried. She took their hands in hers, Catlin’s in her right, Florian’s in her left.

“I’m all right,” said Ari. “It’s all right. You did the best you could.”

“That doesn’t matter. The enemy cheats, that’s what the instructors in Barracks say.” Catlin’s voice was very soft, too quiet for Max in the other room to hear or for bugs to pick up, if there were any. “And also: Dead is Dead.”

Ari gripped Catlin’s hand harder. “No.” It wasn’t just that Max and Sergey were better. If they killed Uncle Geoffrey--maybe nothing would happen to Ari. If she told why. And she was a minor. But Catlin and Florian would be put down. Killing the Director of Reseune--a flaw in design, for sure.

For one cold moment she looked from Catlin to Florian and saw nothing but two more tools in Uncle Geoffrey’s hands.

Ari squeezed her eyes shut. “We need to be smarter. That’s all.”

Catlin nodded. Florian did. Ari went to change her blouse, and they went about their business quietly, studying at their desks, eating a quick dinner of sandwiches under Max’s watchful eye. Staying, by unspoken agreement, within touching distance of each other as much as they could.

By the time they turned in for the night in their separate beds, Uncle Geoffrey had still not come back.

Ari woke in the middle of the night. The apartment was dark and quiet, but Ari didn’t go back to bed when she was done with the bathroom. She padded down the hallway, saw a spill of light from Uncle Geoffrey’s studio--not the bright light that would mean he was working, but the dim glow of the display lights that were always on. She went inside, and saw that he had gotten what he wanted from the Earth dealer, square flat crate after square flat crate leaned against the wall, labelled with neat stencils: Fausberg, Argo. One of the paintings had been unboxed and sat under the lights. Distorted through a ship’s curved viewing port, a massive star blazed in swirls of yellows and oranges, occluded at one edge by the shadow of a planet.

If Uncle Geoffrey had a soul, it was here. And just there, in the toolbox on the shelf beside her, was a bottle of acetone, and a way that Ari could deal him hurt for hurt.

She moved quietly, deliberately, with none of the urgency she’d felt with Florian earlier. Only the rush of power was the same. Acetone, to soften the paint. A palette knife, to scrape it off afterward. And the oldest made-thing Ari had ever seen, older than human settlement on Cyteen itself, would be destroyed beyond any hope of repair. A thing that had come to her across distances too vast for the human mind to encompass--but a human mind had encompassed them, a human hand had, in acrylics and chart pens and half a square meter of canvas.

Weakling, one part of her mind said, because she couldn’t. Barbarian, said another, that she had even contemplated it. Ari blinked and her vision swam until all she saw was a random jumble of lights and darks, worth nothing to anybody.