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crawled inside my head and set a fire there

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She hears the door close, and she is alone.

Perfect stillness, she reminds herself. Perfect calm. No way to know what will happen next or when. Semi-willing participant in a game that has been played by powers much greater than herself for longer than her concept of time can process. Victim.

It is tradition, for this sort of placement, for the girl not to know. The blindfold was placed around her eyes before she left; she has had no true concept of her surroundings for nearly two days, give or take a few hours. Long enough that there may even be a missing day in there, long enough that it doesn’t matter.

The strip of layered silk is the only warmth she has right now, the rest of her layers stripped away during the rituals of the past few hours. She could not place accents, is still not sure what planet she has been brought to, is only sure that none of the hands on her skin so far have belonged to her intended target. That comes later, after this unknown waiting. For now, and perhaps for the only real time in her life, she is alone.

Jessica is well aware of the tightrope that is her life path, well aware that one wrong move will ruin her, and even without clear instructions she knows what is expected of her. She stands where she was left, in the center of the room, in an open enough position. As much as she wants to curl into a ball and let her body find what warmth it can, that would be improper. So would removing the blindfold even for a moment, even to look at the color of the floor beneath her. She’s half-tempted, but she knows better, knows every little mistake will come back to destroy her and-

This is an honor, they say, the elders of her order and the unknown voices of this new home. She is to be an asset to this place, which is a polite way of saying she is to preserve whatever bloodline rules it. She wonders what honor there really is in something so primal, in being thrown to an unseen wolf like this. All her potential, all the compliments vague enough for plausible deniability, and her future still lies in an unknown bed. She could have been so much more than this but no, something happened and she is turned into an object if she’s lucky and-

The words earlier were pretty enough, but she knows men rarely mean what they say and she’s starting to think her own elders may have found ways to lie. Nothing that has happened since the blindfold was knotted around her head is real. She will trust no one here. She will guard the fragile shred of stone that is her heart, and she will be strong, and she will not-

She hears a door open behind her and she turns involuntarily. Whomever now has her life in his hands, she at least wants to make a good first impression.

Shoulders and hips back, softness made presentable, first time anyone’s ever really seen her exposed like this and she’s almost frightened and saying sacred words in her head doesn’t help and-

“You look cold.” A good voice, she thinks, probably younger than she would’ve expected but she’s not sure by how much. Confident but not inappropriately so, not quite used to whatever power he holds. This is not the worst possible start.

She is trained not to speak, to keep her body perfectly still and cooperative but apparently she has failed. Perhaps whatever light this place has makes it too clear how pale she is, how her body was not designed for certain temperatures. If she’s somehow on some ice planet, if she irritated anyone that much…

She hears some kind of hand movements she can’t place – whomever said this blindfold would make her other senses more useful was very wrong – and then there’s something warm over her shoulders, some kind of jacket from the feel of it. She is not supposed to move but she is so tempted to slip her arms into the sleeves, find out what she can about this body that will be all over hers in a matter of seconds, she deserves to know, she deserves-

He moves around her, and the next touch is hands undoing the blindfold. This is not supposed to happen until after consummation, even she knows that, so why is he-

“You can open your eyes, if you like.”

She does not want to and she has never wanted anything more, and she blinks as her eyes adjust to dim light but more than she’s been exposed to in days and this figure in front of her. Solid and angular and perhaps only a few years older than her, sharp eyes and a kind face, and more visibly uncertain than she would’ve expected. Like he doesn’t want to be here either, almost.

“This isn’t… this wasn’t my idea,” he says, and the apology seems genuine enough. “If that is at all comforting.”

“It’s tradition,” she replies, and her voice feels wrong from self-inflicted silence and she-

“Doesn’t mean it’s right. You’re supposed to be powerful and respected and they leave you here like this.” He motions towards her body, and she is not sure what reaction he’s actually had to her and that scares her a little and-

“I am not my own anymore,” she says almost reflexively.

The man – she is not sure what to call him yet, neither who he is or what formalities will be expected of her here – looks away for a moment, and somehow it is clear enough that his frustration is not with her. “None of this is right,” he mutters.

“You don’t… want me?” Is this what sadness feels like, Jessica wonders. Some primal part of her brain is wounded; the more trained part of her is an inch from finding a way to manipulate the situation. But if her exposed body isn’t enough, she wonders-

“It’s not that simple. And what either of us wants does not matter.”

“Then get it over with. I’ll close my eyes and you can do whatever you want to me and-“

“You think I’m that cruel?” Almost heartbroken, a hurt in those deep eyes that she decides in this moment she never wants to see again.

“I don’t know you,” she counters. “You could be anything and I wouldn’t know.” But no, she thinks, from these few moments of interaction he seems kind enough and-

Off that judgment alone, she cannot trust him. Men are not like that. She should know better.

“They really didn’t tell you anything,” he processes.

“Only that my purpose had been decided.” And she was lucky to get that level of information, she’s half tempted to say, but that’s mean like she isn’t supposed to be and-

“I don’t want to hurt you. And I don’t care what we’re supposed to be doing in here, I am not pinning you to a wall.”

“Am I that disappointing?” she asks, and this isn’t how this is supposed to work, she knows a girl is selected to hit all of her target’s weaknesses and she wonders again what kind of man could unconsciously want to be stuck with her and he hasn’t even really touched her and-

“You are not at all disappointing,” he says, and he looks her up and down again in what feels like a respectfully appreciative way. “You are also… something I do not know, and probably tired from your travels, and… we can wait a day or two. It’ll be better that way. For both of us.”

“You don’t want me,” she says again all too quickly, and she is scared and she is moments from something drastic and she is-

“I don’t want the idea of you,” he corrects. “Two weeks’ warning and no details beyond that for whatever reason I’m cosmically important enough to be assigned a concubine from your order, and… there could’ve been anything waiting for me in here. That’s how vague it all was.”

“Still more than they told me,” she mutters. There’s something almost likable about this one, she decides, something in him that is at least willing to take her seriously and she will cling to that.

“And I don’t know you but I want to. You’re… you’re the first person in six months who’s had any kind of backbone around me.”

Six months. She files that detail away – not immediately useful to her, but could explain some of his behavior. To be that new to power, and only in his mid-twenties if she had to guess…

“That’s… alright?”

“You’re fearless. I like it.”

“I am shaking and you really think-“

“Maybe that was the wrong word. I meant more like… confident. Not trying to minimize yourself. Strong.”

“Defiant,” she corrects. “Reckless. Out of line.”

“Fascinating. Beautiful.”

She blushes, one more act against her programming, and she decides in this moment that she will be able to make herself a nest here. “You don’t have to be kind to me. I can handle anything.”

“You shouldn’t have to.” He reaches for her hand and she traces the signet ring on his finger and it all lines up, who he is and where she is and what she is fated for. “Did they even let you have a name?”

“Jessica. It’s… nice to meet you.”

“You’re safe here, alright? Under my protection. No one can hurt you here.”

He leans in for a hesitant heartbeat of a first kiss, and for a few moments she can almost believe him.

* * * * *

Eyes closed to keep her emotions in check, eyes closed so this doesn’t become anything more than it needs to be, eyes closed so her partner does not worry about her.

This has all become routine these past three years, the way their bodies collide. She has enough trust to let it happen, enough experience to know how the next few minutes will play out. Her partner is attentive enough, and even at his most distracted he does not enjoy her in pain. This encounter right now is a nice midpoint, as close to a baseline of normal as they have found. Familiarity is already beginning to alter the patterns of their intimacies; in another few years, Jessica thinks, lying with him will be just as easy as breathing.

They are not quite there yet, she is aware, but they are close enough that she almost enjoys this.

She wonders offhandedly how much time she has left before she is replaced. It’s bound to happen sooner or later, as it does for most women in her position. There have been offers, she’s not supposed to know that but she does because she knows almost everything here, and none have been particularly advantageous yet but sooner or later that will change and she will run out of time to complete her mission and she will-

There is, in the back of her mind, one last option she hasn’t tried. If it fails, or if it is somehow not enough, she will be polite when she is sidelined. She will still make herself useful here – her partner is kind, she cannot see him outright discarding her, and even if she is no longer given current affections she will still find a way forward. In other places, women of her order serve as advisers. She could become that. She could hide her body in ritual blacks and pretend she was never anything more. It would hurt, but she could.

One last option, she repeats, and it’s almost tempting. She has known all her life, since long before her placement, that her purpose is to bear daughters who will carry some bloodline and… more likely than not, if they have any potential, be raised the same way she was. Taken from whatever created them, background completely unknown to them, loyal only to the order. Jessica is just beginning to separate the good from the bad regarding the world that created her, but even she knows that is a cruelty. If she is to go through the horrors of carrying a child, she wants to know she will be allowed to keep it. She is not made for sacrifice no matter how much her training would say she is, she is not-

In one little moment, in one shift of her intentions and one slight movement of her hips for emphasis, Jessica unknowingly breaks the known world.

What she knows, as she makes her choice, is this – her partner has all the marks of a man who will die tragic and too young, and he has asked for this and he otherwise asks so little of her, and her own importance in the grand cosmic scheme of other people’s plans feels smaller by the day and she cannot see any way this could actually go wrong. So she will break protocol and bear a son instead of a daughter. What of it? As far as she is aware, to the minimal extent she understands the twisting vines that bore her and strangle her, she is nowhere near the final link in the chain. Maybe this sets those plans back a generation or two, but she will take no blame, she will-

She opens her eyes as it is done, as her body releases the tiny dot that will become her firstborn, and she is at peace with her defiance. One more thing she was told not to do, just like every other moment here, just like every scrap of trying to make an actual life for herself where there should only be ritual and formality.

As best as she understands it, there is no real rule against falling in love with one’s target, it just… rarely if ever actually happens. Why outright ban something that, by nature of how human beings compartmentalize themselves and each other and equally by nature of how outsiders perceive her order’s power, is considered an anomaly when it does occur. She cannot remember ever being told what to do in this situation, what to do if she has grown to care about someone not just tolerate them, what-

“What are you thinking?” her partner asks. He has not yet learned to leave her be, not yet learned that she will never give comforting answers to innocent questions.

“I like you too much.” As close to a confession as she wants to give. She will not say what she just did, she’s not sure it even stuck, she will not-

Eyes closed again, eyes closed until the intimacy is completed, eyes closed as she feels the process begin. In a few hours, by morning at the latest, she will know whether or not it worked. That’s enough to keep her up all night, and she-

Her partner’s hand wraps around her wrist, gentle as ever, before she can really even think about getting up and giving herself space. “I’d like you to stay,” he says, not an order or a request with any weight to it but genuine desire in a way that scares her sometimes. “Please.”

And here she’d planned to use the walk halfway down a cold hallway to clear her head, maybe talk herself out of what she’s done before it’s truly too late. No chance of that if she’s curled up here instead. But she’s made her choice, she reminds herself, and if circumstances want to hold her to it then who is she to fight her fate.

“I don’t want to impose,” she says like she always does, covering all her weaknesses.

“And I won’t force you to do anything you don’t want, but…”

All of the unsaid things between them weigh heavy on her right now. Has he figured out that she keeps her eyes closed during intimacies because she cannot handle the warmth in how he looks at her? Does he have any idea what she’d do to stay here, to stay close and not be-

“If that’s what you want.”

“Not a good reason.”

She turns to look at him and no, she thinks, no this man does not have any damned clue how much he confuses her. “I have been cooperative. No reason to change that pattern now.”

“Did I hurt you?”

“No, it’s not-“

“Tell me what happened and I will-“

“How many more of these nights will I get?” she asks, and she will not hide her fear or her fury. Three years, she reminds herself, and she has never once been called irrational in this space. She can only hope it holds.

“What do you mean?”

“Before I am replaced, before I am alone, before-“

She watches his heart break in slow motion, the realization that this is not what it looked like and she wants to kiss that away but that would require her to move and she does not want to do that right now and-

“You are not replaceable.”

“I am at best a stand-in temporarily given a position no one wants me in. You’re not that oblivious.” Venom and self-defense and fire and fury and-

“I want you. And I… I suppose I haven’t been clear enough about that.”

“I’m not mad at you,” and she isn’t, not really, she is frustrated with a great many things right now but not-

“You are… much more significant than I’d expected you to be.”

“Not a nightmare or a curse, you mean. You could just say that.” No, she thinks, this is not the time to break her rule about never crying around other people, this is not-

“More like not an openly manipulative snake or an icicle, if you want descriptions. You are something I cannot describe and you…”

He’s gone and fallen in love with her. She’s suspected as much for years now, since only a few weeks after she was sent here, but now she knows and who is she to carry the weight of that heart. She is not a romantic, would never describe her feelings the same way, but to be paired like this, to be responsible for that fragility, she is-

“We’re going to destroy each other,” she murmurs, turning her body to face him because she needs this one good moment before her self-inflicted consequences take over her priorities. “This is too…”

“I want you,” he says again, and she can feel now the full implications of those three little words that are as close as either of them will come to a more binding or accurate statement. “And I don’t expect-“

“I am trying.” All she can give just yet.

“I didn’t realize…”

“I’m not supposed to be jealous. I’m not supposed to be a lot of things.”

“Does it look like I mind?”

“Not at all.”

She has gone so far from what she was trained for, she thinks as she does get up to clean herself, and she has so much further yet to go. Maybe this works out. Maybe she becomes, if not an actual wife, at least that powerful in everything but official title. Maybe they get a fair chance, maybe they have time, maybe she’s wrong about everything.

She glances over her shoulder at her partner, feels his eyes on her and it’s comforting now as it should be, and she is choosing her own fate here, she is making herself into something no one ever planned for her to be and-

No, she thinks. No. One person knows what she is. And if it comes to that, and she hopes so desperately that it doesn’t, she’d burn the world for him.

* * * * *

What a cruel thing the human body is, Jessica thinks, what a nightmare that must be endured for the survival of the species. And to think that she’d once innocently viewed this whole process as sacred, even knowing the rituals as she does, even knowing its purpose as a test of her control. Instead her beliefs are unraveling through pain, and what few tendencies she ever had towards idealism will not survive this process.

Alone behind a closed door, alone with limited resources and no support because this is supposed to be a challenge against her training. There will be someone on the other side of the door in case of deep emergency, but it is improper to need them. The ideal is to do this alone, the ideal is-

She bites her lip hard enough to bleed as another wave of pain washes over her. She is never doing this again, she decides. Pregnancy was miserable enough, but the act of childbirth as she is currently experiencing it is levels worse. She did not know her body could hurt this much, and she feels fragile and slightly faint and-

Focus. Breathe.

This is what she gets for being defiant. This is what she gets for keeping her secret. She reported back to her order that she had fulfilled her purpose but not in any more detail than that, and there had been no reason for them to question whether she may have rebelled. Similarly, those in her more immediate orbit do not know whether the tiny creature trying to come out of her right now is an heir or a potential liability.

Both, Jessica reminds herself. She has felt her son’s power already. She will find a way.

Even her partner does not know, though he has speculated on quiet nights with his hands over her abdomen. He will be happy regardless, she knows, would show the same affection to a daughter, but there is something within masculine wiring that wants a legacy and-

Her partner, she knows, will be the only person who will forgive her for what she has done. He will only see the beauty of it, not the problems she has caused.

Another wave of pain. She clasps her hands together and digs her fingernails into her skin, and she wants to scream and she is not allowed to scream, and this will be the only time she goes through this specific process and this will be the last major ritual she does. She will suffer through the ceremonials expected of a wife, regardless of whether her actual status gives her the right, but she will not make herself bleed again in the name of ancient codes.

“Almost there,” she murmurs, already wanting her voice to be the first thing her son hears. A few more waves yet to come before it is done. She has been brave so far, she can continue just a little longer.

She has tried to justify herself these last nine months, tried to justify and every explanation that would cover her is not enough. She is damningly impulsive, she has learned that these last four years left to run wild in a space with few real consequences. She has learned the feeling of desire. She wanted to claim a place for herself, a safeguard in case promises were not kept. None of this will be enough to satisfy those who will question her recklessness in years to come, but all of it is true.

That she is acting too early, that she may be stuck raising a possible messiah, is irrelevant.

Jessica is confident in her abilities but not proud yet nor ambitious enough to take that honor with any intent. She does not view herself as a perfect vessel for the salvation of the world. There is nothing particularly unusual about her, certainly nothing that could be revered. She will not become a saint in the history of her order; if anything, she suspects this will make her a cautionary tale, and she is not-

Another wave. Closer together. Almost there. Another swallowed scream, another attempt at bracing herself in a corner. Death would be kinder than this.

She does not know what will be waiting for her when this is done. She suspects it may be someone of her order, but she cannot know. She went into seclusion three days ago, has had too long with only her thoughts for distraction. This is how it’s supposed to be, she reminds herself, and then she remembers the near-horrified way her partner responded when she tried to explain and-

He forgets too easily that she is still her own creature, still bound to harsher rules than he would set, and she loves him all the more for it and she hates herself for that impulse.

She will use that love as a shield when she is questioned, she knows, she will claim that she was just following orders and she knows that defense hasn’t worked in millennia but it won’t stop her trying. This was what her partner wanted. She herself merely wanted to be good. She can come up with pure intentions to cover her own desperation, she’s pretty sure, she can-

She braces herself in the corner and lets her body do what it will, hands between her legs and ready for this moment. One, two, three. The greatest pain she’s ever felt and she is not focused enough to keep herself from bleeding, but there is a slick thing in her hands and-

Her son screams like she herself cannot, and every moment of her life has led to this one and she regrets nothing.

She collapses to the ground – the afterbirth is still working its way out of her but at least that is less painful – and allows herself to look at this thing she’s created, tiny and red and impossibly perfect. She knows it’s too early to tell, but she can see the faintest echoes of angular features and deep eyes and this, she thinks, this she will admit is a kind of love. Worth all of the pain, worth all of the difficulties ahead. She will do better than her own past, she will make sure her child is always aware of love, she will-

Finally. Over. The afterbirth lies on the floor and she lays her son down beside it, letting go just long enough to retrieve a knife from her small pile of supplies. She feels the need to make everything presentable, still unsure what will see her but she has learned the power of impressions and she will give a good one here. Again to her pile, a warm blanket to nest her child in and a simple wrap dress for herself for ease of offering her body. A different form of seclusion follows this, she knows, weeks or months until it is considered proper for her to rejoin the outside world again and-

Head up as she crosses the space, eyes half-open as she reaches for the door. She does not know what comes next, what disappointment she is about to face, she does not-

“You’re alright. Both of you.” Her partner’s voice is quiet, a certain shade of reverent shock to it. She feels more than watches him assess, knows he will love every detail that is found and yet-

“I didn’t think-“

He pushes her hair out of her face, almost makes her look at him. “I won’t question your choices. But this did seem like a bad one. I wanted to at least be close if anything went wrong.”

“I’m fine,” she murmurs, and for once it really is true. “Tired and bleeding and fine. And we have a son.”

Her partner puts his hands beneath the little creature between them, hands finding hers as they so often do, not taking this from her but joining with her. “We have a son,” he repeats, as if that is everything he has ever wanted. “Is everything…”

“Nothing out of the ordinary, I don’t think.” She wouldn’t know, but at least nothing visibly unusual, at least the child is alive and vocal and-

An embrace now, and this is her world, this is her family, and she allows herself to cry because she is overwhelmed above all else and this is too much and everything she could not admit to wanting and she is-

Her partner says something low that she doesn’t catch, and she knows without knowing that he is making similar promises to her own, to always protect, to keep safe what is his and to always do right by them and she knows the fallibility of human intentions but she can believe in these. This is better ritual, this is familiar hands tracing patterns on her lower back and the warmth of it all and she is-

“What are you thinking right now?” she asks, because it’s not like him – not like either of them, really – to be quiet like this.

“How lucky I am to have all of this.”

“I have created a storm.”

“You have created a minor incident that no one will remember.” There’s something almost playful in his voice, and she already knows how badly he underestimates disaster but she wants this to be the one time he’s right. “Whatever we do, now we will live on.”

She feels the weight neither of them will ever say, the fear of running out of time, and she rests her head on his shoulder for a moment and decides that is not a problem for right now. “I don’t know how to do this.”

“I don’t either. Rules and expectations but not…”

“You’ll find a way.”

“We will.”