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She has been trained for this her entire life; she has directly prepared for this specific situation, to the extent anything could be described as preparedness, for ten days.

Jessica does not explicitly know the exact details of her fate, but what she has been told is pieced together into suspicions out of the rumors that float between the girls in training. When she is told that it is her time to enter the world, she is told that she will be placed somewhere relatively quiet and that her assignment should be easy. There are plausible options within those boundaries, and she knows never to assume anything she is told, but she at least knows which is most likely and if she is right none of her sisters will envy her for it and-

Ten days she’s known what is ahead; two days with a blindfold making her focus her other senses and constant supervision preventing temptation. She decides she does not care for interplanetary travel; may this placement really be what it sounds like, she prays, may she be allowed to live and die somewhere she will run circles around every other living thing, may she-

There is public ritual, and there are too many people around and she will know some of these heartbeats in time but right now she cannot guess which will matter. She has been covered in layers and yet she does not know how she presents herself, not even what colors hide her face, and she is already so good at concealing her discomfort and no one will ever need to know how much she loathes the way this dress fits, and perhaps this is supposed to make her more cooperative for the final steps of binding, perhaps-

The ceremony ends, the hands wrapped around hers do not let go, and she feels the energy of the space change until she is alone with her…

Prey, the dark voice in her head finishes. Assignment. Target. All of those words accurate, all of them cold enough to focus her and subdue her fear, all of them-

Hands let go and reach up, cautiously removing her veils before undoing her blindfold. Her… counterpart, she supposes would be a more gracious term at the moment, also did not speak during the ceremony. Also didn’t have a choice in this situation, more likely than not, and that’s a start as she’s trying to find anything at all to hope for and-

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

She hadn’t even realized she’d kept them closed. She cooperates, and it hurts, two days of perfect darkness ended in a beautiful bright room and-

It takes a few moments longer than it should for her eyes to focus on the body opposite hers. Physically separated now, her blindfold in his hands and an expression on his face that she can’t read and damn however she’d convinced herself this would be easy and-

“Do the… other rituals happen here?” she asks. Her vision flits around the sparse room, and this would not be ideal but she does not get choices and isn’t that the horrific refrain of her little life, she doesn’t get choices she just gets to respond to other people’s and she’s hoping this man makes good ones but she’s known him for less than a minute and she can’t know that yet and-

He gives her a look that seems somewhere between unimpressed and worried, and in the deep parts of her fragile heart she suspects she’s going to become very familiar with that combination of emotions in the years to come. “No. Not… whatever you’re thinking… no.”

So, at least her newly discovered fear of losing her innocence while pinned to a wall may be irrelevant, that’s something. “Then what now?” What has she already done wrong, she wants to ask. She has not had opportunity to fail, and to be a disappointment so early is unthinkable, and-

“I don’t know. I… I want you to be comfortable. In every way that I can.”

She believes him. She has no good reason to just yet and at the same time she has every reason. The quiet confidence of this man – his emotions are unsteady right now, confused above all else, but at least he is not afraid – and the open body language and the fact that they have been alone in this room for minutes now and he has not even tried to touch her let alone do anything improper. Perhaps he is trying to find her weaknesses just as she looks for his, but-

“I don’t know that that’s possible,” she says, because she has to give him something.

“I can try.”

She is too young to question the very existence of her heart as often as she has, but right now she does not, right now she is all too aware how fragile she is and how easily she might be corrupted in the wrong circumstances. How much she wants, already, this terrifying potential. All her expectations tossed aside and replaced with… she doesn’t know.

She doesn’t know.

What does she do with uncertainty she can’t manipulate?

She is the problem, she is convinced of it now. She cannot, will not, lay blame on someone she does not know. Trained as she is to be distrustful and guarded, there is still something different about this man, something like sunlight when all she’s ever really known is darkness and-

“You’re not alright. I won’t do anything… improper like this.”

It would be a nice surprise if he’d do anything at all, Jessica is half tempted to say, but now is not the time to display her personality. She is supposed to be sweet and quiet and cooperative, she reminds herself, not any of the things she actually is, not-

“I would allow it.”

“Even more reason.”

Not what she expected, she repeats in her mind, not what she expected at all and somehow both better and worse for it and-

“What do you want from me?”

“Right now?”

She nods. The less she speaks the less opportunity she has to get herself in trouble before she’s even done what she is supposed to be here for.

“I don’t know.” Again a certain quiet confidence to it, and this is how she will piece together what she has to deal with, she decides, out of what is made open. He didn’t want this, obvious enough, but he doesn’t seem the type to take that out on her and that worries her a little and-

Oh, she’s going to spend the rest of her life worrying, she can see it now. She doesn’t know why, but-

“You haven’t…”

“I don’t know you.”

“You don’t need to.” You’re not supposed to, she wants to say, and this too feels like the beginning of a habit, this desire to hold back comments that might sting. She does not want to do harm, not yet, not when she already sees flickers of something that could be life and-

She needs to get this over with. Needs to finish the rituals and then not deal with that man for a week and make absolutely damn sure she has been as compartmentalized as possible because there is something dangerous in the beauty of him and she does not want to burn so young.

Perfect control is only so perfect, only so much she can do to keep her body… not quite still, but not as shaky as she feels as she crosses the small distance and tries to take a kiss. She knows the theory of such things but has never actually done them before; for her sort of training, she’d been told, the track she was on, innocence is an asset. The sort of man she would be assigned to would enjoy taking that. This one…

This one takes her hand again and allows but does not encourage her actions. If it is possible for a person to be neutral during a kiss, he has found a way, and-

“I did that wrong,” she murmurs as they break apart. “I-“

“You didn’t need to do anything at all.”

“We need to finish-“

“There is nothing that says we can’t take time.”

Jessica feels a red anger that she can’t stop, and if this encounter is how she learns a full emotional range, so be it. “You don’t want me. Just say it. That would hurt less than your evasions.”

He makes a low noise that she can’t place. “Want is not the problem.”

“Then tell me what is!” Already fighting and he hasn’t even pinned her yet, she’s failed, she is a disappointment, she is-

“You’re acting like a cornered animal. What… what were you told to expect?”

“No expectations, only what point to stop tolerating.”

He glances away for a moment and she can piece together the other side here, how when this situation was inflicted it probably included some idea that she might at least be more cooperative than she has actually been and-

“See, that’s why we need time. I’m not… whatever you thought…”

“You’re avoiding-“

“I don’t know how to handle this… situation. Giving you a few days to calm down doesn’t seem like a bad option.”

“A few days,” she repeats, and at least it’s not indefinite, at least there’s still potential. “People will…”

“They can’t judge what they don’t know. Aren’t you supposed to be good at that?”

Yes, she wants to say, but she’s a bad liar and-

“And how exactly is that going to happen?” She wants to like this plan, wants to like this person, wants to like too many things already and maybe her damnation has already happened at some point in the last few minutes and-

“Two people can be in the same spaces and not touch each other. You do know that, I’d hope.”

Jessica rolls her eyes. “You don’t need to protect me.”

“What if I want to?”

Why?!”

“You’re not what I expected.”

“That’s not nearly the compliment you think it is.” If it even is one, but she will not accuse what she cannot confirm, she will not-

“I don’t want to hurt you. How many ways do I have to say that before you listen?”

“Why?” In a different situation she would attribute naivety, but the energy is wrong for that, instead something she can’t place, instead-

Easy, she’d been told. A lie. Just like everything else may have been.

She knows what she should do, and at the same time that means nothing at all. Something went wrong, something got judged wrong, she has been thrown to the wolves and-

“Try to trust me,” he says after a comfortable silence. “Please.”

“I can’t piece together what you’re doing. I can’t…”

“Not everyone has an ulterior plan,” he counters, and it’s this kind of vulnerability that she both hates and already wants to protect from the rest of the known world, from everyone else who might have even less pure desires against that heart. Maybe this is the point of her. Maybe this is how she survives.

“I’m not used to that.”

“I had two weeks to accept that something was incoming. You don’t say no to that kind of obligation, and it’s not…”

“The problem isn’t me,” Jessica finally processes, and it sounds better in her voice, like she doesn’t believe it yet but she’ll get there.

“Not at all, and I… a few days. You are… already fascinating, I just…”

“Thank you.”

“This doesn’t need to be any worse than we make it. I want to do right by you.”

There are many things she is yet unaware of, wounds she has not yet found on her own heart, but… already, this is something better. Already, maybe the only thing she can ever trust.

“You’re not what I expected either,” she says, because she feels like she has to give something.

“Is that…”

“Very good thing.”

* * * * *

Her entire life will be defined by this night, and perhaps that is the greatest of her flock of tragedies. The fact that one heartbeat, one decision, has such power to change the course of her life forever.

It is impulsive and it is anything but. It is a choice made suddenly, with a single shifting of her hips, and a choice she has contemplated for nearly a year, since the first time her lover had suggested the idea. How tempting it had been even then, how clear it was that he does not and will never understand the boundaries of her existence. She wonders if clarity would’ve stopped him, and she knows better. This is what she has tangled herself up to, what she has come to…

Love, Jessica thinks in the moments before she opens her body. She has fallen in love.

That there is the problem, that complication she has spent several years trying to avoid. Her goal at first had been respectful tolerance, and she had achieved that and it didn’t feel like enough. It had been all too easy to ignore certain elements of her training, to get closer and closer, to occupy new spaces. For now, at least, she is the highest-ranking woman here. Why not take on the roles and responsibilities that entitles her to?! She has found new capabilities within herself, strengths and talents outside of the shadow-work she still practices, and become something as close to happy as she suspects she will ever get and-

Time has passed and she has not felt threatened. Time has passed and it has been made clear in a thousand tiny ways that she is adored, that her partner cares for her in a way she has no baseline for. There is a solitary limit, a line she knows will not be crossed, but that is already such a minor detail and this is them now, she thinks, this is how sure she is now, this is-

It had been winter the first time he’d suggested a way she could tether herself, one of those cold nights unique to water planets. It is winter again when she does it. She knows she could seek warmth and maintain boundaries, knows the certainty of her place in her partner’s spaces, but the mood is right and kisses escalated and this is still a kind of warmth, it is just-

She looks up at her partner, this person who has become her anchor. This is not a normal relationship for her kind, she knows that much even as she does not know what would be. She keeps most of the rules she was once taught, but she has added to them, made new codes for a new unplanned life. There is too little reason to use the power of her voice, too little to alter. She has not needed to. She is heard well enough in even tone. She is-

Is it wrong to want? Is it wrong to see ways forward outside of expectations?

If she has a rebellious streak in her, this is a strange time for it to display. She has been so good at balancing her dual loyalties, this tightrope she lives on, and… she has bought herself time. In the original plan, she should’ve had at least one daughter by now, at least one child she would not get to know. But the timing has not felt right, first the uncertainties and then the clarity that feels even more strange, and-

It had been winter, a night when innocent warmth had been enough, when the idea was first suggested. The sort of daydreams her partner is prone to, quiet words as he traced spirals on her hands. He would like her to bear his heir, he had said, and she knows he does not do things halfway but there had been no pressure in that thought, just desire placed in the open. She had turned away and let the subject drop, and then…

Intermittently over the past year, it has continued. Always with deepest gentleness, no timeline to it, just an offer. If she wanted to, it would make him happy, and-

She is all too aware of protocols and prophecies, centuries of reinforcement of her designated path. She is not the chosen one, she has always known this. She is nothing special, a fleeting moment of eternity, just another anonymous body in shapeless ritual blacks and-

No. She has become more than that. And that too is a problem.

Jessica keeps her eyes closed as her lover enjoys her, as they practice the routines she appreciates so much. She trusts him with her body, with her vulnerability in these spaces. Her kisses are sharper than normal and she is not as present in her physical form as she would like. It is strange to remember that she was once taught to separate herself during what had been described as at best necessary tasks for what she is; she has learned better now, learned how desire feels, and she tries to be better than that. Tries to be, if not normal, at least nothing that will worry her partner.

She has fallen in love, and she is loved in return, and this is how she breaks the world. This is why she uses her abilities as she does, why she allows the deepest parts of her body to bloom in the way that they do, how the fate of every living thing she will ever know becomes different. Not out of ambition, as  she knows she will be accused of. Not out of an attempt at taking power for herself. Love. Always and only love.

This new direction, this little dot inside her that is not yet her son, does not have to be anything at all. Prophecies and timelines are not absolutes, and Jessica cannot remember any talk of what might happen if one of her order bore a son decades or centuries earlier than the plan. For all she knows, nothing. For all she knows, and let her hope until she is proven wrong, there will be nothing special about what she has done.

Still, her body grows cold as she processes what she has just done, the uncertain weight of defiance. Her partner feels it too, she can tell as he pauses, she can envision the worried look that seems to be his default expression in her presence but rarely when their bodies are entwined and-

“Is something wrong?”

When he is good, she thinks, when he is good her lover is like starlight. She keeps her eyes closed and takes a softer kiss, trying to comfort as she can. “No. I’d say if-“

“You don’t always. I still…”

“Nothing you can fix.” She can only deflect so much, she has learned, and that is damage control enough. At least he realizes there are things beyond his understanding, at least-

“Do you need-“

“No. You can… I’m alright.”

She wants this too much, she thinks as they resume their movements, as she rolls her hips up because her mind may be distracted but her body is still pleased by its current activity. There is no reason to reveal what she has done, not yet, not for months. Not until the very shape of her body betrays her.

She feels her partner collapse, the sharp breaths and the different feeling where their bodies are connected. Now it begins. In a matter of hours it will be too late to undo what she has done, but even now there is a feeling of potential and-

Eyes still closed for separation, body still as she allows the process, as she waits and wonders what she will even feel. She is not prepared for this, not even the little details let alone the fallout she will face in months and years to come. There is so much that can go wrong, and only her own strength to rely on, and-

No. Not alone. More than that. Her partner is kind, she reminds herself, and there is not a flicker of doubt in her heart that he will stand by her from the moment she reveals herself in an even stronger way than he has since she was sent here, and perhaps no one in the known world is as protected as she will be after confession. This will be a future for him, for both of them, for the three of them now and she-

Jessica bites her lip hard enough to taste blood as the weight of her actions sets in. Stupid girl. Not too late to stop this. Not too late to-

She knows what she should do, and she will not. She knows what she should do, and instead she stretches out and wraps herself in a blanket and makes a nest for herself on the side of the bed that is becoming hers and only then does she open her eyes and take in her partner. Beautiful, she thinks, familiar to her, always at the very least respectful in their spaces. Safe man. Hers.

She is half tempted to leave their space, to retreat to her own rarely-used rooms and spend a sleepless night contemplating the weight of her actions, and it is that temptation that seals her decision not to. If she is here, if she is warm, she will hold to what she has done. If she is here-

“What are you thinking right now?”

“Why do you ask, love?” An endearment she is usually too cautious to use, and yet it feels right, affection above all else now and-

“You seem… I don’t know. Something.”

If she were in a different mood she’d point out how normal that is, how several years have passed and he still spends so much time on that line between fascination and outright confusion, but… oh, she will not say but she can at least admit her heart is troubled right now in some safe way, she can-

“Just tired. Nothing more.”

He moves closer to her, cautiously pushing wayward hair out of her face, and this is what breaks her perfect control, this is what causes soft crying and she’s never done that in these spaces before, she has let every other emotion wash over her but not this kind of physical release, not-

“Overwhelmed,” he murmurs, pressing a soft kiss to her forehead. “Still unlike you.”

She leans into touch, unable to speak in ways that would be comforting right now. More secrets added to her collection, more trouble she causes, and her partner has no idea the mess she’s gone and created for them. Protection will help, public affirmation will help, but at best that will lessen the fallout, not and never prevent it. She will still at best be the outsider whore who ruined a bloodline.

But she is not that yet, not publicly, and it is alright to allow her body to be maneuvered, alright to be held. How clearly her partner misjudges the source of her distress, but his response is everything she could ever hope for, more than she ever wanted and she-

For now, as her body stills and she feels the first flickers of proof that she is no longer alone in it, she is safe. She will enjoy this while it lasts.

* * * * *

She is no martyr, she is sure of that now.

To go through ritual in isolation is supposed to be a test of her strength. There is some form of assistance on the other side of the door if she needs it, but ideally she does not, ideally she is not weak, ideally-

Jessica bites her lip to prevent a scream. She was perfect once. She can be perfect one last time before she loses everything.

The reality of this situation, of her aching body hours if not minutes from completion, is primal brutality on a scale she was not as prepared for as she thought she was until she felt the first warning signs. She is a vessel, she has known this all her life, but only recently has she found out what horrors that entails. Everything hurts. Parts of her body that have never had sensation before the past day hurt. She is never, ever doing this again.

She has allowed herself some comforts in her seclusion, decided it is best to go through this in her own spaces. She could count on her hands the number of nights she’s actually slept here since her son’s conception, but it is still familiar surroundings, still just slightly altered to her preferences and even more so since she laid her plans. Supplies put aside, preparations made over the past month in particular, everything she can do to make this easier without breaking her rules. Compromise, always.

Between waves of pain she paces, constant movement to distract her from what lies ahead. This is easier than the alternatives, she tells herself, easier than the options she had been given months ago when she revealed her condition. She loathes public weakness, and outside help would be particularly vulnerable, and she does not care that what she carries makes her the most important person on this planet right now, she is not letting anyone else touch her like this, she is not-

She suspects she is not the only person pacing in this part of the complex right now. Wherever her partner is – overwhelmed with worry, she is sure of it, there are reasons she did not directly tell him it was time – she cannot imagine he is going about normal routines. He cares for her more than that, and perhaps she has ruined everything through attachment but oh how little of this was ever by intent.

That’s the complication, as she goes through every good memory she has to remind herself why she is in this current state of distress. For a short time they were what was expected, and then… something shifted, she can’t remember a specific cause or moment but respectful distance stopped being enough. Turned out she liked attention, turned out it was possible for her to feel genuinely safe around another living being and she’s not sure how that happened and-

Another wave of pain, closer together, and she wonders if this act of defiance will kill her before it’s even over.

Her current situation was communicated enough, she reminds herself, and her plan laid out clearly enough over months that she is not worried. There is a certain length of time before someone outside will intervene; she is well within it now, and if she needs to move things faster then she can but right now it is enough to let her body lead, right now-

She doesn’t have a plan for what comes after. She barely has the next two days mapped out if nothing goes sideways. This is what she hopes is left behind when she someday burns – she is above all else impulsive, and she will do anything she can to avoid the consequences of her own actions.

She keeps moving until she can’t, until the waves are too close together, until she has to support herself against a wall and she’s pretty sure her fingernails leave marks. Never doing this again, she repeats, her own frustration far more useful than any of the mantras she should be remembering right now. Never, ever doing this again.

Her body looks wrong in the bathroom mirror, as she allows herself to look and to wonder how different it will be in a few hours. If it will ever be the same, if she will be treated the same, if-

Too many things to fear, too many things that could change. Even her absolute faith in her partner has a limit; there is a chance, however minimal, that the dynamic will shift. There will still be warmth, there is no doubt in her mind that she will be respected and her son will be loved, but-

No. Those voices in her head are wrong. Nothing changes. If anything her place, this life she has created for herself, will be so much more secure. That will be another accusation from people who don’t know better in the years ahead, that she was merely trying to get attention. Better than the absolute hell she’ll get when her own superiors find out, but not by much, not enough to save her, not-

It is time, and she is scared and there is nothing that can take her fear, and for a moment she is so alone in the world and then she is not.

The tiny creature newly separated from her body is perfect, Jessica thinks, and screams like she never will. Already too much like her, and she hopes against hope that will change. May her child be the best of what created him, she silently begs whatever may be listening, may none of their problems and tendencies be passed down, may this be the chance to do better that her partner talked about on the nights that made her make her choice in the first place.

The blood is on her hands, for the moment physical representation of this chaos she has caused, but she did not act alone and that worries her even more. She should take whatever consequences there are in time to come, she and her impulsive nature and her stubbornness and everything she has never been able to fight as she should. However she can, she will protect, but even now she knows she will not be enough. Even now…

She will take what she can while she can. This at least she knows. This is easy protocol. She will take what she can while she can, and she will face the consequences whenever they come and not a moment sooner.

For now the world is limited to herself and her child, this tiny living thing who is no longer a part of her, who howls as she tries to maneuver and clean him. If she had done things according to other people’s plans, this would be the only bonding time she would ever get with her offspring. As it is…

She doesn’t know what she’s doing. Doesn’t know how to be a mother. Doesn’t know what happens when she has to deal with the outside world again in this state. Will she even be good at this? Will those daydreams and hopes that caused this mean anything at all?

One last wave of pain, and the protective cluster is out of her body now, and it is over and she hurts so much and she wants to rest for a week but not yet.

This little thing in her arms cannot be significant, she thinks as she looks down and feels the beginnings of a new kind of love. Fate is not absolute. There has to be another way. Maybe, just maybe, her son is nothing special.

She doubts anyone is that lucky, but she lets herself have these few moments of innocent desire all the same.

She places the wrapped bundle that is her child on the bed while she prepares herself, this desire to be presentable that she has never managed to outrun vocal even now. None of this can worry anyone else. Nothing she presents to the world, to whatever is on the other side of the door, can look like anything went wrong. And it was smooth, she will admit that, unpleasant but uncomplicated. She did well. For what she suspects will be the last time, she did well.

Hair up, wrap dress knotted just so, visible parts of her skin clean. Normal enough condition for where she is, normal enough despite what has just happened. Nothing out of place, no need to confirm any worries. She is fine. Her child is fine. Nothing else matters.

She cannot fight the moment of fear as she approaches, as she expects that the first thing she will hear will be some very judgmental comment about her choices from someone who doesn’t know her, as she slowly opens the door and-

Oh, why did she expect anything else.

Instead what she sees is her partner, and for a moment he looks as distressed as she has felt but the softness is immediate as he takes her in, as he takes both of them in, as-

“What were you thinking?” he murmurs, and it sounds as close to an outright declaration of love as she’ll ever realistically get.

“I’m alright. We’re alright.”

There are clearly things he wants to say, but none right for the moment, none more right than the embrace she is pulled into. She feels unsteady and she is thankful for the support, this confirmation that she has not wronged them just yet, her entire world entwined and-

“Nothing…”

“We’re alright,” she says again, and she will keep repeating those two words until she loses her voice if that’s what it takes for him to believe her. “Tired, but…”

“I still don’t understand-“

“It’s supposed to be a test. And I was good enough.”

The advantage of current positions, Jessica thinks, is that she can’t quite see the why-is-this-my-life eyeroll she doubts her partner can restrain. “Still…”

“Don’t speak what didn’t happen.”

The embrace loosens enough for him to look down at their child, this wide-eyed little creature overwhelmed by the world and oh how right it is that these are the first moments of a new life. Her heart melts as she watches the interaction, as one of her partner’s hands moves under hers for support she needs more than she realizes and-

“I don’t know what to say.”

“See? Nothing went wrong.” Her unstable body might say otherwise, but rest will solve that well enough.

“Do you even realize what we’ve done?”

Oh, she realizes all too well, and she suspects she’ll get that question hundreds of times in the years ahead and it will never be as kind as the first time. Never again close to the awe her partner shows, the reality of it all setting in but still he only sees the potential. This had been what he wanted, this way of finding permanence with only minor scandal, and-

Minor if they’re lucky, she mentally corrects, and she has her doubts. But this is a life, for now this is a life, for now this is something to live for.

“Are you happy?” she murmurs.

“More than anything.”

They stay there for what feels like forever, and the world is still just them, just this envelope of love that nothing can penetrate. Her plans are meaningless; her plans are always meaningless. What matters now is this unknown path ahead, so many new variables in the way she has altered events. This is how faceless women step from the shadows and become legends. This is how they never die.

Whatever lies ahead, whatever life their son gets to live if he gets to have a life at all, will make herself and her partner look insignificant by comparison. Whatever happens that she will not know until it does, she is sure of that much.

But a newborn child cannot do damage beyond their very existence, Jessica reminds herself. The world will stay quiet for just a few moments longer, as her partner kisses her forehead and empties her arms, as she retreats. She will follow her protocols as best as she can, will clean herself more thoroughly and then rest alone for the first real time in months, and… in the morning she will begin a new phase of her life, and she has never really been prepared for any of this and that has never stopped her.

Whatever happens, all she ever did was love.

* * * * *

There is no time for mourning.

Jessica has always been the darkness her partner could never find within himself, always the red right hand, always self-compartmentalized. She feels things deeply, too deeply for everything else she is, and buries those feelings deeper still. There had been no time to voice her fears as circumstances changed, no time to-

There had been no time.

In the end, they ran out of time decades sooner than she’d hoped.

This is what she gets for trusting sweet words in the night, she thinks, this is what she gets for how she’d convinced herself years ago that they were strong enough to survive the inevitable cosmic fallout of her defiance. This is why she’d started planning for widowhood, or an equivalent of it, even earlier.

She was not the wife, she feels that wound alongside all the others, but she may as well have been. She had occupied the same spaces and occupied them well. Apart from that one decision that seems to have damned them, she was perfect, she did not cause unnecessary scandal, she was-

Oh, but that one decision outweighed the rest. That one decision turned into her now-teenage son, turned smart enough to know what she’d done, what she’d turned him into. Will she ever be able to make herself clear enough? How many times will she have to say that apparently she is the only person she’s ever known who does not believe in absolutes? She hadn’t known, she wants to scream. She didn’t know what created her, and she didn’t know in turn what she had created.

Her partner was always better at the emotional side than she was, she remembers, or at least better at expressing the state of his heart than she will ever be. There was something in that man that people listened to, that the people around him wanted to believe in. She was no different. She fell for that presence just like everyone else did, how clearly capable he was and how good his intentions. If she had any say, if the narrative hadn’t already damned her beyond access, that would be what she would want to be remembered. Her lover tried. He tried so hard. Got him nowhere in the end, but-

She has kept memories safe in anticipation of this day, made sure she can remember every beautiful thing that has ever happened. It was strange enough that she fell in love once; she doubts it will happen again, doubts she will ever allow anyone else to get close enough to… not fully see her, no outsider ever could, but at least to try. At least to respect what stayed unknown and appreciate what could be revealed. There had been the strangest innocence to it, to how determined her partner had been to find a way forward with her, and she had responded to it far too well. Allowed herself to bloom and to reciprocate, to become patient on the rare occasions he was difficult, to mirror and out of that make a life that did not trouble her.

This doesn’t feel real, and at the same time it feels more real than anything she’s ever known.

She is, for intents and purposes, alone in the world. She still has one loyalty left and she will keep to it, but she sees even now that her son may not be what she’d hoped, may be both greater and more of a problem than she ever could’ve prevented. And oh, she too had tried. Everything she could think of, equal parts damage control and preparedness, never once believing that she had actually gone and done the unthinkable. Maybe she was wrong. Maybe she did do so much more. Maybe-

She will worry about that later, if she does not die in this seemingly barren wasteland, if there is still an outside world when the storm passes and they emerge. For now, waiting it out, she has nothing but her emotions. Clearly anything she says out loud will make other situations worse, but she has gone days in silence before and she can do a few hours, she can-

She’d had a plan for an equivalent scenario, once, when she thought she knew how it would all end. When she’d thought tragedy would unfold on her partner’s home planet, another decade if not two down the line, far enough into the future that she could’ve built up a little more goodwill around her. Even if her people skills had not improved, and she knows how cold she has always been, at least then she would have been able to mourn openly. At least then she would have been able to spend the rest of her natural life hidden under layers of white lace, her past and present status honored. Still useful as her son took power under better circumstances, or at least more controlled ones. What her position lacked in formalities it made up for in understanding; titles never defined roles, not for her, and-

She doubts there is lace, white or otherwise, in whatever twists her future is about to take. If she somehow survives, none of her plans will matter. None of her plans have ever mattered.

At least her son knows, with absolute certainty even now, that he was the result of great love. Her unborn daughter never will. At best there will be stories, at best an ache where another presence would be if the world was kind but-

Instead, a victim. Instead, a martyr. Instead, if there is any fairness left in the world and Jessica is deeply questioning that possibility right now, some kind of symbol. Not a life. Not anymore.

In another life, if this had happened the way she had prepared for, she would be able to cry. She would be able to isolate however she wanted, and she would, and she would let the loss flow through her body until nothing else would.

Here, she can do no such thing. Here, she bites the inside of her mouth and experiences the same feelings in perfect silence. Perfect composure, always, always trying to be strong for other people and she hates how good at that she is and right now it is all she has left and-

How many years will it take before she gets used to sleeping alone? How long before she forgets the mundane details of a shared life? Already new fears start to multiply in her heart, and she does not yet know how to fight them. She was never good at finding ways forward out of impossible situations – that was her partner’s strength, not hers, until whatever moment it wasn’t.

She does not know exactly what happened. She does not want to know exactly what happened. Only that she has been widowed by technicalities and close enough that she will claim that status as she never claimed its equivalent before it was too late, betrayed by the world that created her, and for the first time in her life she is completely alone in the world.

For now, her memories are safe. In time the smaller ones will fade, but when she dies – if she even can die, and this too she questions as she is made unstable – her last thoughts will be of the man she gave nearly twenty years of her life to and all that they became. She does not regret any moment of it.

They should’ve had more time. They didn’t. Too late now.

“I loved you too much,” she says, barely loud enough that she can hear her own voice. This is her goodbye, miles if not galaxies from wherever her lover’s body lies, one final time completely against her pathetic plans. This is what she gives to the ghosts. “I loved you.”