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all of the thorns

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Eve, Seth says, will be easy to ply.

It’s a simple recipe: one part bringing her out of poverty, two parts fixing her up somewhere nice in what is, essentially, a mansion (though he says it isn’t in the ways of all old-money men). Pour in stories about saviours and the futures she now holds. Really, just stuff her full to bursting with praise and awe and adoration, the kind of compliments that make her think of adored princesses in fairy tales, not the spoiled women her mother didn’t want her to become.

“Man, it must be hard to be a woman these days,” Seth says, after Adam tells him that (in response to all those compliments), the girl’s gotten bashful to the point of stubbornness.

“I know. She told me she shouldn’t think so highly of herself.” Adam leans against the wall at the back of the mansion-turned-lab, wrinkling his nose as Seth’s cigarette smoke batters his face.

“It’s about time she start. It’s like she isn’t taking any of this seriously.”

He shakes his head at Seth offering him the cigarette; didn’t he see him grimacing at the smell? “I can’t imagine it’s comfortable to have all that pressure on you.”

“Pressure?”

“Saviour. Sainthood. I mean, a few months ago, the girl’s biggest worry was her onion crop going bad.”

“Hmm.”

“Now we’re telling her she’s like a goddess. She knows that for now it’s just praise, but sooner or later, it’s gonna be responsibility. So, yeah. Pressure, Seth.” Adam scuffs his boots against the concrete. “It’d freak me out too.”

“I don’t know, Moonlit,” Seth says, laughing a bit, “I think I’d let that shit go straight to my head.”

Adam smirks. “It already has.”

Seth grins back. They watch the concrete courtyard for a moment, white-garbed staff weaving across the paths. Just past it, down the hill in the valley, is the spill of towns of Levianta, and past that, the forest that fences them in. Smoke smears into the clouds.

Adam says, “We’ve all got fates. Hers is…weirder than the rest of ours, but what she has that no one else does, is other people alongside her for all of it. I want to her to know that.”

Seth’s giving him such a sustained stare that Adam feels forced to look over at him, and he finds his brown eyes shining and big; he gives an emphatic gesture at Adam with his cigarette. “Yes. I like that.”

“What?”

“Tell her that. That’s good.” Seth takes one last drag and then crushes the cigarette under his heel. “She needs to smarten up, and if your little romance narrative gets her there, then all the better for me.”

Adam flinches. Seth turns back into the lab, but Adam hangs back. When this began, it was a make-believe story. Sure, Seth. I’ll play the prince, freeing the princess from her provincial life and sweeping her away to the castle. Back then, his rage towards Seth manifested as Adam whimpering to do whatever Seth wanted.

Eve’s fate, back then, was just another thing he’d orchestrate for Seth, to get closer, closer, close enough to slip a blade through his ribs like a little key in a lock.

Adam picks the cigarette off the sidewalk and puts it in an outdoor ashtray, then follows him into the lab.

.x.

Seth calls it, affectionate in his weird way, the birdcage. Eve’s room is on the upper floors of the lab, adapted from a solarium, with techs milling outside the glass, scribbling in their charts and gossiping in their scientific jargon. Past the observation offices, past the two-sided glass, and past an elaborate ribboning of metal and bars, there’s where Eve stays.

She has a sitting room and a bedroom and a lavatory and a baby grand and an imitation-outdoors room with temperature-controlled knee-high greenhouses for her gardening. Beside them, there’s an easel and bench for her painting. She uses everything she’s got like an obedient kid giving equal attention to all their toys. But she has favourites too. She’s usually got dirt up to her elbows, and sometimes at night Adam can hear the lonely plink, plink of her pecking at the piano, like a broken tap dripping in a sink.

Seth explains that it’d, obviously, be easier to confine her to the labs that are lined with rabbit cages. But a lack of stress is very important. And no children should be born in white rooms, much less gods – we’ve got to show them what we’ve been making in their absence, and no offence, but sterilized metal walls aren’t the first impression I want them to have, Seth says like Adam’s the one who wants her in a straightjacket.

This evening, Adam catches her in the gardens. She jumps to her feet, but doesn’t run to hug him like usual. She holds up her dirty hands as an excuse. Smile on her face, turning on like a light at the sight of him. “Sorry. How are you? It’s kind of late, isn’t it?”

He proves he doesn’t mind the mess by holding her hand as greeting; the dirt is cool in her palm. He kisses the top of her head. The garden is twilit; she’s lit a smattering of paper lanterns that hang from beams overhead, like this place is just a gazebo with artfully exposed bones. “Seth made me clock out for the night but I had to see you.”

It’s a bad line, but Eve smiles bashfully. He leads her into the next room; skeleton of the cabin are covered in plywood and draping curtains so she can still get some light. Little risk of cabin fever. Just because of some light, she’s protected from that? As if. She doesn’t ever leave. Her parents and friends from Nemu can’t visit. This is her life: lab coats and this cage and the ever-present haze of him in her head.

What kind of man does she see in there? The man they sewed into formulas and toxins that spark in her head just right when she holds his hand.

He leads her to the sofa, past the easel that’s set up on the porch. He hates that thing. It was his suggestion – he’d seen the signs at her market stall and made the mistake of assuming that’s what she liked to do, not what she had to do for her little family business (There’s that rich prick privilege coming through, Seth’s voice says).

But she’d told him, once, with a self-conscious laugh, that she didn’t even know how to paint, and she doesn’t want everyone watching her as she fails.

She knows, past the glass, there are prying eyes.

Yeah, sure. No pressure, Eve.

“I brought you something,” he says. Seth didn’t approve of it, but this rich prick could pay off the silence of the lab techs.

From outside he’d wheeled in a cart of sweets and pastries, which he now gets for her from where he’d parked it. He had walked up and down the Nemu market aisles, and everyone recognised him – he was a part of something huge, and that hugeness was brought to their doorsteps since he’d taken one of theirs. His stomach flipped as he smiled and nodded to the old market women who thanked him. Our Eve, the Mem Aleph…thank you, thank you, for lifting her.

Eve’s face lights up. She squeezes Adam’s hands and dances her way to the table. From the start, Seth made a hard rule that they wouldn’t bring anything familiar to her. Because it’ll remind her of what he calls, like he’s trying to spit out a bug, ‘before MA.’ Tokens and memories from Nemu can have the same power as friends and family, Seth warned. Adam knows that, but…

So what? Isn’t it important that she remembers what’s outside the walls, what she’s here to protect?

She tucks in emphatically, looking far more relaxed than she does around Seth or the other scientists. It strikes Adam as a mix of endearing and sad – is she that afraid of them, or is she just that at ease with him? She never sees him in uniform, Adam opting instead for trousers and relaxed shirts, the kind of thing men around her town would wear (just…cleaner). Will she be nervous around him once he puts the whole costume on? White coat and papery mask, in hard white light, not the warm dusty air of her home? At her side, maybe holding the scalpel?

Seth’s never clear about what exactly Adam’s gonna do during the…event. Adam’s going to play nice with Seth in the weeks leading up to it, so Seth forgets that seed of petty meanness he always seems to water and serenade at the worst moments. He’ll scrub his fucking shoes, who cares. He doesn’t want to be on Seth’s bad side.

Eve grins at the first bite. Her pretty expression curls into relief and joy, like she's been dreaming of that taste for ages.

"You have to try," she says, already portioning a corner of the glazed, oniony pastry onto her fork. A few crumbs flake off, missing the plate, but she isn’t bothered.

"No, dove, come on. There isn't too much to go around." Adam takes his water glass close, like he's satisfied with that. "It's all for you."

She gives him a sweetly admonishing look. “No, come on,” she parrots, imitating his Levianta lilt. She holds her fork out over the table.

That’s enough to do it. No one expects mild country girls to tease. He smiles back, and the rest of the meal dissolves into sharing and Eve’s surprise at every new bite, like she’d thought the old traditions of Nemu would vanish if she wasn’t participating in them.

After, she tries to teach him some songs she invented on the piano, but is a totally dreadful teacher, and admonishes her work as much as she critiques Adam’s technique. He says as she settles her hand over his and presses his fingers on the keys, “What were you thinking of, when writing this?”

“I was thinking you’d be a little more musical!”

“What on earth gave you that impression?”

She shrugs and smiles. “Your hands,” she says. “They’re delicate, like they’re made for this. Is that superstition? Well, my family believes in that stuff. Some people are just designed for things. Fate wrote it down into the little details. Like you, and your slender fingers.”

She lifts his hand and places it further down the board; she has to lean into him to get him that far, and he likes the demanding pressure of her touch. He wonders what else she taught people, back in Nemu. Did she teach younger kids how to cook? He’s seen her expert speed and precision when chopping vegetables, making him nervous when she talks with him and doesn’t watch the blade. Did she teach them how to set up a market stall, the way she did, with crocheted carpets on the side to buffer the wind?

Did she teach other people, like this, her hands graceful and warm against theirs? He’s torn between memorizing the song so she knows what she’s teaching is worth learning, and not wanting her to stop guiding his hand.

He can hear the ghost of an admonishment from Seth: “She’d hold your hand anyways, even if you struck her with it. Venom’s foolproof.”

Adam says, “That’s not what I meant, though. I meant, when you were writing this…any of your songs, really. What were you thinking of?”

“How it sounds,” Eve answers. She’s at once defensively cagey and too clever for her own good.

“You won’t tell me? So it’s embarrassing?”

She giggles, and presses his hand down so there’s a loud off-tune clank of the keys. “Okay, fine. I was just…” Her face ghosts over with embarrassment. He wonders, not for the first time, if Venom compels the truth. She continues, “Well, I was thinking of what’s past there.” She points up, to the ceiling and the glass structure. “The skies, and really seeing them one day. The little notes,” Eve touches the highest keys with her pinkie, “remind me of the winking stars. I’d love to show them to my children one day.”

A beat. She lifts her eyes to his. He imagines he literally sees the strength gathering behind her expression, battling the words forwards, and he just has a second to be startled by her daring as she says, “I know they’re from those stars, really. But they’re going to feel like they’re from us. A wife and a husband. Married. And I want everything that word should give a normal girl.”

He squeezes her hand, choked for words.

.x.

Adam says to Seth, sitting in his kitchen, “I need to take Eve to my own rooms.”

Seth stares at him. Placidly dunking his metal tea steeper into his mug. They were here to talk about anything but the project. But honestly…Adam doesn’t trust himself to talk to Seth without a roadmap: here are stats. Here are facts. Here are numbers. Eve’s heartrate’s fantastic.

It’s annoying. He doesn’t like sharing Eve with Seth, like she’s just a folder full of measurements and blood sugar levels and the sparkling bits of her personality reduced to how they’ll make her a proper example of humanity for the gods.

He wonders where this topic fits in.

“Why?” Seth finally asks.

“She knows that people are watching her all the time. That’s normally fine, she said, but… She’s not going to go through with it, if she knows…they’re there.”

Seth waits for him to explain. Dunking his tea leaves, in, out, so slowly that the swampy water doesn’t even lap the sides of his cup. Adam doesn’t want to explain – he hates it enough that he’s asking Seth for permission like he’s Eve’s shotgun-wielding father.

Finally, understanding that Adam won’t say more, Seth relaxes in his chair. “Oh. You’re concerned for her privacy? The implantation will be in a laboratory. The only people there are going to be us and some surgeons. The reporters are all going to be outside.”

Adam rubs his face. Seth passes over his mug like the subject is done and dealt with. Adam takes it. “I understand that. But… Seth, the other week, she told me that me and her, we’re practically married.”

Seth raps his fingers against the table, whole countenance changing like a light’s switched on inside him. “That’s great, great news! I figured the Venom was working, but this is better than expected. What’s got you looking so pressed, then?”

“She’s not going to accept that her babies are from a turkey baster, Seth.”

Seth watches him, eyes keen behind his glasses. He leans meaningfully on the table. “You mean take her somewhere private to have sex with her.”

“Yes.” Among other things. A ring and a white dress and a mortgage and a kiss to seal the deal. His heart pounds deafeningly between his ears. A make-believe story, just like you always wanted, Seth.

Seth rolls his eyes, but smiles so Adam doesn’t kick up a fuss. “She’s staying conscious for that surgical process, Moonlit. I mean, legal issues aside, I’m not letting her sleep her way through the surgery, sleep with you, and then become convinced you’re the one with the power. They’re not your children, they’re specialized seeds I cultivated.”

“She knows. It’s the principal of the thing.” Adam feels his shoulders tighten. Make-believe. Scripted. Where are the throes of passion, where’s the candlelight? He hates this, and hates knowing from the way she proposed it that Eve hates this too. “Tradition and, I don’t know, love and all of that. She’s sentimental.”

“Which is exactly why she’s going to delude herself.”

Adam slams down the mug. “Just give her this, Seth!”

Seth parries, like he was waiting all along to say it: “I gave her divinity.”

“That isn’t what she wants.” Adam huffs, snatching a tea towel off the table and sopping up the spilled tea. “She wants a husband and kids she can take care of. She cares more about having dinner with me and telling me about books she’s read and trying to convince me to work in the garden. She wants a family.” The words taste acidic: “She wants me.”

Seth’s mouth sets in a crooked, contemplative line. He sets back in his chair, warming his hands around his cup, and watching Adam’s face even as it’s turned away to the spill on the table – Seth’s stare has always been like the cut of a cold draft.

Adam says, meek and hating himself, “It’ll help with managing her stress levels.”

And Seth leans forwards. He sets his hand on Adam’s. Like he’s blessing him with permission. Like he was always going to give it, he just wanted to see Adam squirm. “Fine, Adam. Just tell me when. I don’t want to suspect a kidnapping.”

.x.

A month later, the technology – and Eve herself – are deemed stable enough for the next step. They'd been having drawbacks over the last while, the kind that made Seth swing between locking himself in his ivory tower of research, and showing up distraught for Adam to pat his head and praise his research and call him a good boy.

Eve, through it all, wasn't told anything, but she just seemed to know. "Is something going on?" she'd asked Adam once, helping him with the dishes from one of their dinners. "The researchers are...getting pretty snappy with me."

She wasn't supposed to call them researchers – they were footmen, maids, staff, anything but that. Adam didn't correct her.

He’d said cagily, “Stuff’s tense further up the food chain, that’s all.”

But now, Eve feels the excitement too, though he certainly didn’t try to fill her with any. "Something's changed?" she asks him, as they both look for her other shoe that's she's misplaced – fair enough, since she never needs them. She walks barefoot, and has told him she misses the feeling of the forest floor. She observes him and asks, face lighting up, "Something's gone right?"

"Yeah. And I wanted to take you out to celebrate. If we can find this shoe."

"Out?"

"Out." He emphasizes, meeting her eye.

She grins. "Oh. In that case, the shoe's under the sofa."

He smirks at her and fetches it, a bit too haphazardly thrown under there to be actually lost. It hits him that she must have thought he was taking her to another examination or something.

They head out of the bird cage, Adam's hand between her shoulder blades. His mouth feels a little dry. Seth gave him clearance, and everyone knows it, but still they do double-takes when they realise who's on his arm. Eventually they slog through the scrutiny (Eve smiling the whole way), and cross a glass pedway to the researchers' quarters.

He lives here now, a little peace offering from Seth. As if Seth knew how empty his real home felt. Maybe it's like how he's locking away Eve from Nemu - he's hoping to train Adam to only remember the lab, the white walls and glass frames, a mission and a paycheck.

Good boy.

Eve is bouncing on her heels as he unlocks the door to the flat. He pushes the door open – she barrels in – and freezes.

She asks, "Where are you?"

He doesn't get the meaning until he sees how she's scanning the unadorned walls, the nondescript furniture, the featureless shapes of pre-packaged existence. She migrates to a stack of mail on the counter, a mug with a ring of stained coffee inside. She holds onto the mug.

He says meekly, "I don't go into town much to buy my own things."

Eve peers at the mug. "It's blue," she says, her voice mild. At that, she hurries into the next room, and the next, and then his bedroom. She tugs open his closet and the hangars scrape as she riffles through: "Why do you keep your coats in your bedroom closet?" She sounds gently relieved. Finds a little box on the top shelf of buttons to replace on shirts; she holds tight an open packet. "Do you break them often?"

"I guess so." He wants a story of how it happened once. Anything to fill the emptiness of his life.

"You sew them on?"

"Yeah. That's about as much as I can do, though." He hesitates, feeling like this was a huge mistake and not quite knowing why. "Maybe you could teach me."

"Okay," she says. "Okay."

Eve sits on his bed. The duvet is a nondescript grey, and he'd made it this morning before leaving, pillows orderly. Did he think it’d impress her, this cleanliness? Her blue eyes search every corner of the room. She says, "My room has more of me in it than yours does. And my room is  fake."

Adam sits next to her. The emptiness pushes in on him like the room is slowly losing its air. He sees it too, now - he sees a ghost just passing through. He’s been here a long time. He’s been befriending Seth, working with him, funding the project, becoming this intrinsically involved with it, falling for her – but all that these walls communicate is someone only here to get in, break Seth, get out, and fucking run.

He says quietly, "My life feels a little fake too."

She laughs softly. "You may as well live in mine."

"I'd like that."

Eve looks over at him, her gaze earnest but pitying. She sets her hand on his. "I thought you were bringing me out? To the town?"

He looks into her expression, conniving and yet so openly asking permission. She wants to go. And she knows she has to ask. To walk, to talk, to be his. He wants her to know that he doesn’t ever want to tie her to permission – he wants her to take things whenever she damn well pleases.

He would give anything to walk the compound with her – no, to take her into his town and show her the carriages and beautiful architecture and his favourite bookshops as a boy – no, to take her to Nemu, and see her family hug her.

But he doesn't have anything to give but lies and guilt and captivity.

"Sorry, Eve." He kisses her forehead, hand still under hers. "I can't. God, I wish I could. But you're too close to the surgery... We shouldn't risk anything, you know?"

"I'm not so delicate," Eve argues with a soft disbelieving laugh. She pushes his shoulder a bit.

"I know you're not. But no one else does."

"Well! Maybe they should bother to get to know me."

He thinks so too – he's so sick of hearing her be called Miss Zvezda, or worse, MA. That term with so much hope packed into it, for something none of them can define.

"I wish they'd learn everything about you."

Eve's smile tilts mischievously. Her fingers squeeze his. "Well...some things, I want to keep just for you."

.x.

There isn't much to work with, but Eve seems to like the change of scenery. He brings her up and down the halls, where there are portraits of past founders and donors and their stories – Eve stands beside every portrait and imitates their stuffy poses, Adam coaching her and joining in. He takes her to the glass pedways where they can see the sun set into the village at the bottom of the valley, and he teases her about painting it, but she says she wouldn't ever get the colours right. He’s briefly horrified when Eve finds a security office and begs the officer to let her in, and she speaks utter excitable nonsense into the intercom. He buys snacks from the canteen as it’s closing down and she's enamoured by them for their novelty even if they aren't that great and she's eating them on the floor underneath steel ceilings.

And then he takes her back to his room, and his mind is trapped.

What happens when Venom wears off?

He wonders this sometimes in the dead of night, but he can brush it away. But now, his thoughts are like streams pushing to a single source – Eve, Eve, Eve – and this vicious little question can’t paddle to shore.

She brushes her teeth and washes her face in his bathroom, door leaned shut. He stares at the stock in the cabinet, little vials nestled between his headache remedies and melatonin. Seth insisted he store them here for today, just in case.

Just in case of what , Seth? If she isn’t entirely pliant? In case it wears off?

Can Venom ever wear off?

They've never given the poison the chance. Seth had a schedule and they kept to it, telling Eve the injections were to bolster her immune system. But it’s a little vial of curses woven by an enthused Aphrodite.

She turns the water off. She's humming some song she brought in from her village, a waulking song she tried to teach him on the way here so now it's stuck in her head.

If Venom...if it did wear off, would it take away the memories completely? Would she see the puppet strings criss-crossing her life?

Or would Venom just...just fade, until her memories of him were wrapped up in fond feelings and infatuation that she couldn't summon any longer? Maybe she'd look back on their time together (on tonight) as a dream she's half-forgotten.

…Well, too late to worry. She was given a dose this morning. He feels a bit sick.

She steps from the bathroom, and he’s caught by surprise by her hair being down. Cascading down her back in blue, her hesitant hands drawing it over her shoulders and braiding it at her temples to keep it out of her face. Eve throws herself backwards onto the bed beside him , her face full of completely unabashed sunlight.

“Eve, we should – “

“Don’t.” She finishes the French braid and knots it off, and he’s caught watching where the strands weave back from her temple, all the messy perfection of it. She leans in and kisses him. “We talk about everything. We plan everything. I don’t want to talk about this, okay?”

“We…should,” he repeats lamely.

“Yeah, ‘cause that’s romantic.” She inches closer, the mattress sinking their thighs together. “Are you worried?”

It’s not quite mischievous – she’s honestly asking, and that makes his stomach flip. She has no idea what she's asking. What she's doing. He should take her back, right now - if not for how she's holding onto him.

If not for how he's cherishing it.

His gaze follows the warm line of her thigh and pooling skirt pressed against his leg, the curve at her hip, the hand propping her up and where her pinkie finger hooks under his; the concerned blue of her eyes and the weaving strands of hair and the minute part of her lips while she looks at him, and looks at him, and looks at his mouth.

This is his apartment, and this is their moment. Seth can’t take this away.

He kisses her instead of answering and feels her seriousness unravel into a smile as she cups his jaw. She arches into him, her shape lithe and insistent, other arm thrown around his neck in unabashed enthusiasm – that smile turns into a grin, like she just can’t believe her luck.

He pulls her sideways onto his lap so her legs dangle off the bed; she happily kicks one slipper off, but she can’t quite manage to slip free the other. Her immediate comfort with him sets his racketing heart at ease: if she can find assurance in him, then surely he can too.

And there, then: the hem of her skirt catching around his wrist, the fabric of her stockings under his hand. Finally that other shoe hits the floor with a muffled thunk and she giggles into his ear. In the shift from one of her breaths to another he becomes very achingly aware of how high her collar is tied and how heavy her skirt is, and it is a strange blessing to be able to indulge in that thought safely, with her taking his wrist and leading his hand up her calf.

.x.

When the plan had first been proposed to her, she’d wondered, amongst a million other things but this question ringing the loudest, how?

How were they supposed to be her children? She had no idea what went on in the laboratories. She knew no spell for this. And she certainly didn’t know any science.

But after living here for a while it became clear. Science and glass and needles and scalpels. They were going to be her children (her children!), but there wasn’t going to be a wedding or anything.

That wasn’t fair, she decided.

She was doing something more important than anyone else, and something way scarier, and something that pulled at the seams she’d made between her life as it was and her life as she wanted it, sewing in a new thatch of fabric, pretending all the hues matched when they didn’t. It patched the hole. But it wasn’t quite right.

People like Seth couldn’t make it quite right because they didn’t care to.

But Adam did – or at least, she’d make him understand how to.

Science and glass and needles and scalpels.

She needed those things for their future: all her friends and family and the people that smiled at her through the glass every day… but for her, she needed this, Adam’s hands in hers and his shy kisses down her neck.

She feels warm, from the inside out. She flexes her toes in the cool air but she can’t look at those blank walls, so she throws her head back instead and imagines the ceiling as a foggy winter sky. Weird, how she misses winter too, now. She used to bundle up in front of the fire, knitting and making stories, cursing that bite of cold lurking outside the walls, but now she wants to walk into the snow up to her thighs.

Eve hopes she’ll get the chance.

He’s supporting the slope of her back, and his other hand seeks timidly up her calf, the room so quiet that she can hear the hiss of his thumbnail scraping her stocking. Silent when he finds her bare thigh – but for the throb of her heart in her ears.

She feels his throat bob under her thumb. His hand stops. Retreats. But it’s not a refusal. He’s just cautious. Funny, too, how it makes her – her, little farm-girl, little nobody – proud to know that she makes him cautious. Eve smiles encouragingly against his temple and leads his hand up to the buttons up the back of her dress instead if her leg is so scary.

And one by one he undoes them with the attention she recognises from home, the efficient care for picking strawberries or breaking free limp leaves from stalks. Not totally knowing what she’s doing either, she opens the buttons on his shirt (coloured fabric! Coloured. Not his uniform. He tries to pretend he doesn’t have one but she’s seen it in the slivers where the glass gives her peeks into the worlds of her handlers). Traces her fingers down the column of his throat and into the divot of his collar, where she waits, pressing down, for the right words to come.

But with her they usually don’t come that easy (or that right) so she blurts, “I don’t, um… I’ve never… You know. Of course you know.”

He slips free the last button on the small of her back. She’s still wearing her slip, of course, but suddenly it seems very sheer. Adam says, just as abashed, “We don’t have to.”

“But I know there’s a time limit, for us to do this.” She pokes his chest. “I’m pretty sure the, um, genetic data of gods won’t be too appreciative of carnal sin in their vicinity.”

There's a slow reconsidering. "We...shouldn't do this."

And just like that, he's locked up, just like the doors to her cage - rooms - the lab. His hand sets on the buttons on the small of her back, like he can hold the fabric together like that.

Doesn't he get it? Or is he...embarrassed of her? Her forwardness? She says, "I want to, Adam."

And with a voice very brittle, he says, "I know you do." He takes her hand gently. She can't see what's churning behind those closed doors. "I should take you back. This was a mistake. I - "

"Don't be worried about me. Oh, don't." She bites her lip. Everything is pressing on her, like closing walls, these days. Time and pressure and expectations and the mystery of after. She can't imagine just…going back home. Just like she can't imagine leaving him. So Eve slips off his lap and stands before him and his empty walls and floors that don't have the dignity to squeak or splinter and she sighs.

He leans forwards like he's going to get up after her, but she steps away. Lifts an eyebrow. Says, "I don't get anything I want anymore. I'm sorry, you've all been very kind to me, but the fact is that I don't. Can I just have this? To be in love with you, without their eyes, for just a night?"

He is very tense for a moment. If she didn't know any better, she'd say he looked scared. Of what? Of her? He's getting everything all wrong, isn't he?

She loves him. That's truth enough.

It takes him a long moment, his eyes fixed on her face. Then he nods. "Okay."

The words spill, "No MA."

He swallows, like taking a deep breath before the plunge. And Adam says, softly, "No MA."

"Just Adam and Eve. And Eve, she's…she's a smart girl, who never did this, but she knows lots of things. He's not going to outsmart her and he doesn't need to worry about spooking her." She wrinkles her nose. "She's from Nemu. Maybe she's a witch, who knows. But she trusts Adam. That's what we know."

Adam's fingers tighten on the duvet. "And she's beautiful."

"She's so nervous," Eve murmurs, "but she can't imagine being anywhere else."

She pulls her arms from the sleeves of her dress and steps from the heavy fabric. Underneath she has a white shift and skirt, and full white sleeves, more buttons down the front, which now strikes her as quite funny. She frees the laces of her underskirt and thinks weirdly about the cumbersome mess of skirts during…this; she used to giggle with friends about what a hassle panniers must be, like laughing about it would bury how they were secretly a little singed that they wouldn't know the hassle of panniers because they weren't rich enough to have them. She wonders if, after MA, when she has twin children at her hands, if she'll have the money and the fame to wear panniers, but that's a stupid thought and she needs to follow her own rules.

She's Eve Zvezda and she's from Nemu and she's in love with a boy.

Chapter Text

The day after, Seth’s called Adam to his place.

Not even his office. His house. Adam’s just leaving the cage, hands stained with garden dirt the way Eve likes them. While he frowns over Seth’s handwritten note a lab tech scrubs his hands for him like he’ll be bringing toxins out into the workplace.

Fine, Seth. I’ll bite.

Adam turns to the cage. Eve’s looking out of her little home’s pseudo-window, more or less in his direction. He waves to her. She doesn’t react. She can’t see him after that door seals. He shivers.

Adam hitches onto the carriage with the night staff heading home, and steps off the back of it on the street where Seth lives. Seth’s sitting on his stoop, smoking, and lifts a hand in greeting. He looks weird in his civilian clothes: black jacket, paisley button-up, cuffs of his trousers turned up to keep them out of the dust.

Adam approaches as much as he should. This morning he’d woken up with an awareness that pressed so hard around him he thought his ears would pop: this is the home of a man planning to slit a throat and leave like a ghost.

And Eve was there with him.

That life doesn’t have any room for her, but he can’t imagine a life without her.

Seth says, “Look at you. Spring in your step.”

He’s got no such thing in his step. “Morning, Seth. You took the day off?”

“I’ll be back in the afternoon. I stayed up late yesterday, making sure you didn’t try to make a break for it with your blushing bride.” Seth grins, then stands and tosses his cigarette into the gutter. “Let’s talk. Have a drink.”

“I can’t stay long. I gotta get back to work.”

“No, you did your work.” Seth grins salaciously. Adam’s heart speeds up. But he ducks into the house anyways.

For all of Seth’s daily drama, it’s a pretty modest place, showing off his refined and unassuming taste without trespassing either way into too gaudy or too lifeless. Plaid dishrags hung above the counter, a cupboard door leans open to show stacks of plates and cups, some mismatched like he broke them and replaced them. It bothers Adam so much that it burns: this house, this lived-in space.

After handing him a cold bottle and taking one for himself, Seth leans against the table and appraises Adam. He says affably, “I’ll get some techs to pick her up later.”

His thumbnail scrapes over the raised glass text on the bottle. “Why? There’s no need. All her last tests came back perfect.”

“Yeah.” Seth lifts his eyebrows. “But you might have messed with the formula. I know you plied her with marriage and a future or something, but I’m not interested in playing out Heracles and Iphicles in my lab.”

It takes Adam a second. He’s twenty-five-fucking-years-old but he feels a blush crawling up his collar. “Oh. No, you won’t need to do anything, I mean it.”

Seth regards him. Trying to make him explain again.

Adam says, “I didn’t…”

He’d wanted to. Actually sleep with her. Hell, this thought makes him so flustered, but he’d been conscious of the consequences all the same. He’d given her what she wanted anyways, but couldn’t let himself screw up the plan. Couldn’t let himself take his part of transaction when he knew what pumped in her veins besides love.

Heracles and Iphicles. Yeah, right. The twin-gods would strangle anything that grew too close to them.

Fear arrows through his heart at that thought. Like they’re listening.

Like Seth’s listening.

Seth tips his bottle to him. “Good man.” Good boy. “Right, well, that takes one thing off my plate.” Seth takes a sip, his eyes narrowing at some indistinct corner of the ceiling. “One thing…it’s a heaping plate, Moonlit. I’m getting…”

A shiver runs up his shoulders. He closes his teeth hard on a grin. “I’m getting nervous. We’re really closing in on the finish line now. But still so much left to do.”

Something about Seth being so excited bothers Adam like bugs crawling over his skin. He sounds…hungry.

“Now starts the countdown. We’re banking on a typical nine-month period, but absolutely anything could happen.”

Yeah, Adam’s worried about that. Nine months if they grow like normal kids. For all they know, the gods could grow too fast inside her. Siphon too much of her strength, becoming parasites. A slow death, choking her like the weeds she’s so paranoid about in her garden.

Seth rubs his jaw, becoming his analytical self. “We’ll have to start preparing somewhere for them to grow up.”

“What, Eve’s house isn’t enough?”

“For a bit, it will be. Then we need to show them more. Our world has so much more to offer than that cage, no matter how much we dress it up.”

That’s what Seth once said about a white-walled lab. So now the solarium isn’t good enough either? What’s next, raising them in the town? Getting them a lease? Adam says, “Eve will still get to take care of them.”

Seth lifts an eyebrow.

Adam insists, “I mean, I’m head of research. That should be my call, right? So I…that’s what I think should happen. I think it’d be beneficial for everyone. If they leave the cage, then…Eve leaves too.”

“Adam, man. They’re children, but not really. They won’t need mommy for very long.”

A prickling goes down his spine because of Seth’s predatory tone. He doesn’t want to think about parting Eve from them. She wants a family. He always knew that. He can’t put her in this position just to wrench everything away from her.

He doesn’t know how long she’s going to love him once her role is done and Seth forgets about giving her Venom. He wants her, at least, to love the kids a little longer.

Adam says, “To her, they’re still kids. And I’m… I know what I’m talking about.” He sets his jaw.

Dead quiet, Seth peers at him from over his glasses. Like turning over every one of Adam’s words the way a dragon turns over its treasures. One by one, spotting them for imperfections, tasting all the betraying emotion Adam’s snuck into them. Adam swallows thickly. Don’t take them back.

Adam says, “If you were never prepared to treat them like children, why involve a mother at all?”

Finally Seth says, “Adam. I trust your knowledge, and respect your experience, I really do. If you really want to, you can play dad for them. Just for a little while. But after that, Amphitryon,” Seth’s dark eyes gleam, “you better learn a bit of piety.”

Seth becomes all sharp edges when he’s stressed, and Adam can feel the slip of the blade even if Seth’s smiling. You can play dad. He’s trying to feed Adam crumbs when he’s starving, and thinks himself so generous. Adam says mildly, “Bit hard to bow to a splatter of cells for now. When they have faces…then…”

Shut up. He’s walking back his words. But looking at the shadow Seth’s casting, Adam is suddenly unsure how to press his point – the only direction to go is back. It usually is, when confronting Seth.

“I understand.” Seth stands, voice smooth and dark. “But you’re going to be very good at bowing down, I promise you that. You already have so much practice.”

He’s moved closer. He’s couple inches shorter than Adam, but it says nothing good about Adam’s nerves if he’s treating that like a comfort.

Play nice. He doesn’t want to be holding the scalpel.

Adam pretends to cower, taking a slight step backwards.

Seth says quietly, “I know it kills you a bit, to be standing here.” He eats up the space between them that Adam thought he’d gained. The small of Adam’s back presses into the edge of the counter. “Doesn’t it?”

Adam says, because he knows Seth needs to hear it, “Yes, it does.”

“But you play our game so well. I appreciate that. Truly.” Seth takes Adam’s jaw in his hand and pulls his head back up so their eyes meet. “You’ve got quite a mind, and I need it. I know there’s something else going on in it, something about me…” Seth squints like he’s trying to solve a math problem. “Some sad little plan. I wonder how far you thought you were going to go with it.”

Adam squares his jaw against Seth’s grip.

Seth grins. “But you put yourself right in the trap.” Seth pushes Adam into the counter; it bites into his spine. “Let’s just put it out on the table. You can jack off to imagining a bullet in my brain all you please. If it makes you happy, right?”

Seth drops his hand, and boxes him in against the counter instead. He lazily sets his bottle near the sink in the same movement. Adam’s pulse rackets in his throat. Seth says, icily quiet, “But we both know that I can make better threats than you ever can.” He says meaningfully, “I can always find a new witch. So let’s be best friends for another few months, okay, love?”

Adam swallows thickly. He tells himself to nod and let it go, because he has to bow to Seth so he isn’t pushed into hurting Eve – but if there wasn’t that circumstance, he’d probably cower anyways.

So all he manages is squirming out of where Seth’s pinned him, and offering Seth his hand. Seth shakes it.

“Friends?” Seth says sweetly.

“Friends.”

.x.

The encounter with Seth shakes him to his core. He files folder after folder of tests – they’re doing them daily now, regulating everything from what she eats to how often she spends standing – and there’s a sort of pitying understanding in how she watches him check her heart rate in the dim of her cottage.

He forces himself to not retreat from her. He hates that it’s a challenge; sometimes all he wants to do is file the info Seth needs and then run out of her sight. She definitely doesn’t deserve this from him. But at the same time he knows that no one else but him should be doing this in the first place. She deserves someone who sees her beyond the data. And he sees all of her.

As the days go by, he’s determined to turn the weight of fear and dread into the comforting heft of a blanket on a cold night rather than the mantle of battle. He records the pressure in her inner arm and watches the idle flex of her fingers, the way they tap on her thigh to some song she’s thinking up. He pricks her with needles and smiles faintly at how dramatically she cringes away, trying to hold tense conversation with him to distract herself. How afterwards she spins the syringe on the table like she’s playing Spin the Bottle, defanging the whole ordeal.

But the day comes anyway, barreling towards him like a train he has no hope of stopping. Adam enters Seth’s office, feeling like he’ll faint.

He clenches his fists behind his back, hoping that the gesture looks suppliant from Seth’s point of view. The door falls shut behind him. He wasn’t sure what he was prepared to say, but the words gust out of him at the sight: papers strewn all over his desk like a storm’s blown through, the scientist rifling through them, his jacket hanging on him like he’s lost twenty pounds, though Adam’s seen him just yesterday. He’s searching through the papers like a madman having dropped his wedding ring in the sand.

Adam blinks. “Seth?”

Seth’s head snaps up. “Moonlit,” he says, his voice fighting for composure but just ending up breathy. Something about seeing Seth upset makes Adam’s anxiety increase triplefold.

Adam says, figuring he knows the answer, “Are you ready for today?”

“Fuck, Moonlit.” Seth runs his hands through his hair, but it just makes it messier. “What are you doing here?”

Adam’s confidence is shrinking. “…Checking in on you, I guess.”

“I don’t need to be checked in on,” Seth grumbles. “I’m not a fucking schoolchild. I’m not one of the lab idiots. They lost my files. I’m not that brainless. I’m…”

Seth stares down hard at the sea of papers, his eyes narrowing behind his glasses. Something odd and manic passes over his face, and it reminds Adam of the other day when he’d said he was nervous in a voice that wanted to scream in bloodthirsty excitement instead.

Adam offers and ending to Seth’s broken phrase: “You’re the only man who’s going to get this done.”

Seth meets his eyes. For a flicker, just a fragile, dangerous beat, there’s a human there, and if Adam had met him when he looked like that, there’s no way that he’d have believed Seth crushed his life into dust with an uncaring fist.

Good thing he met Seth when he was being Seth, and not this pathetic phantom, then.

Adam offers his hand. Seth takes it and straightens up from the table. He fixes his glasses, takes a loud breath, and settles back into his coat: he fills it again, all tailored lines and hard edges.

“Right you are, Adam.” He winks. “I did say you were clever, didn’t I?”

“Walk with me?”

Seth’s grin is a bit crooked. “What, my best researcher is getting soft on me?”

Adam smiles tightly. He turns to the door before his expression lets slip something worse.

Adam’s opening the office door when Seth emits an “Aha!” of triumph. Adam turns to see the scientist on his knees, tugging out a stapled pack of papers that flew under the desk in his frenzy. He scans them, shakes them out, scans them again, and then smiles with self-effacing satisfaction.

“Here we are. Crisis averted.” He tucks them into his coat and smiles at Adam. There’s a glint there, a madman’s. “How do you feel about watching the monitors today?”

Relief gusts across him. It’s what he gets for playing nice, and Seth knows it. Adam nods mutely.

Adam holds the door for him. The questions he wanted to ask are all tangled up in his throat. The refusals, too. The begging to stop this. Wrapped up in spiderwebs and squirming.

.x.

A squadron of lab techs and interns flank him like nervous birds. Adam’s at the door into the birdcage; he’s been picked to take her out, of course. No one else more suited to the job. There’re people all around so he has to stuff his fists in his pockets to stop anyone from seeing how they’re shaking.

An intern scans her keycard on the lock and the door swings open. He crosses the brief hall into the inner chamber, walls warming from the climate-control inside it, and the second door is up to him.

He hesitates at it. Fiddles with the keycard around his own neck. He should be proud, shouldn’t he?

He did his work impeccably. They got to this point with essentially no setbacks at all. Eve was a perfect specimen, and Adam, the techs, and especially Seth have faith that she’s going to make it through this without any trouble. She’s never been ill a day in her life, and working on the farm has given her a resilient strength, and magic pulses at safe levels in her veins. And Venom keeps her brain brining in safe little fantasies and siphons away her stress.

They’re making gods.

And she’s an essential part of it.

Remember, that, Adam. Good boy.

Adam swipes the keycard and enters.

She’s sitting at the piano. She looks up to see him. Her face is a touch clammy, but it breaks into a gentle smile when she sets her eyes on him. Just the way it should.

Because someone else – because Seth – decided it should, and not her.

Seth didn’t decide this for Adam, and here he is anyways, loving her. It hurts.

“Adam,” she says. “Today’s the day!”

He nods because he isn’t sure if his mouth will say what he wants it to. Eve pulls her skirt closer to her and pats the spot it clears on the bench. He sits, back rigid.

She nudges his shoulder with hers. “Jeez. You look more nervous than me. Do you know what you’re going to be doing?”

She’s so pragmatic, realistic. Strange, for someone whose reality is constructed. Adam watches the keys and her fingers playing across them, not pressing down to make music, just rehearsing or composing, he doesn’t know. Adam says, “Yeah. I’ll be keeping an eye on your vitals. Not that – not that we really need to. Everything will be okay.”

He should be at her side, right? Not stuffed behind some screen, flipping through charts, listening to the beep of her heart rather than feeling the beating of it in her palm. It’s fine. He resolves to be around her as long as he can. He’ll holds her every second, until surgeons shoo him out, and then afterwards he’ll come right back in and ask her how she is because there’s only so much that data can tell him.

Eve nods, satisfied. “That doesn’t sound so bad. You like numbers.”

He watches her hands. “What are you thinking of?”

She smirks at him. Tentatively presses down on a few keys, going through them slowly, so they resonate, shimmer, in the silences between each note. “Thinking of what’s going to happen. How could I think of anything else?”

“You’re right. Sorry.”

“And maybe…maybe I’m thinking a little bit about after it, too.” Another three keys. Slow, but not melancholy. He thinks of her and her stars again. “Because no one told me much about after. But that’s what I’ve been daydreaming about all this time.”

“After’s a bit of a mystery to us, too. But we’ll take care of you.” Adam smiles. “You can ask for whatever you want. Be a little selfish.”

“Oh, I won’t need too much.” He notices her other hand slip into her lap. It squeezes in the fabric of her skirt. “I’m excited, but I’m also scared. For this, and for what comes after, and what comes way after.”

“That’s all right. I don’t want you to be scared, but… But I’ll try to make it as easy as possible on you.” His own words run through his head – she’s stuck under the heaviest fate, but she has so many people on her side. He needs to remember that. Maybe most of those people wear lab coats and think of her in terms of numbers, but they still care. They’re going to watch out for her and he needs to have faith in that – for his own sanity, and so he can keep her head above-water too.

If something goes wrong, they’ll notice it. They’ll look out for it. They’ll look out for her.

Maybe even Seth will.

He’s got no choice but to believe it. And that, he decides, is what it really means to be trapped.

Adam takes her hand off her lap and winds his fingers through hers. Gives her fingers a squeeze. He sets his other hand on the keys and plays alongside her, those spare notes he’s grateful his rattled, terrified brain can remember.

He presses down on the six keys. She keeps up with him. The beat is a little stammered, but neither of them mind. She leans her head on his shoulder. After they play through it a couple times, he thinks he understands: it’s a lullaby.

His pager buzzes against his leg. He turns his head surreptitiously – a light above the exit door flashes a warning at him. Seth, telling him to hurry up.

Adam kisses Eve’s temple. Closes his eyes against that light and the fake walls and the cage bars. For just a second he can imagine this song playing out like the twinkling of stars, and the smell of real earth, and Eve ushering him into the garden one last time, and maybe there’s a child helping her plant as well.

He whispers to her, “Time to go. Are you ready?”

Eve plays the last note, and nods.