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When she asks Nina if Nicolas isn’t scary to her, isn’t frightening, she wants to hear that she’s right; he’s imposing. She wants to hear that she isn’t the only one looking at this man like he epitomises every predator she’s ever seen on the streets, and that she isn’t paranoid not to trust him. Nina looks at her like she’s crazy, like she’s not seeing the full picture, but still Alex can’t quiet the voice which tells her to run, now, before the demands start.

It’s easy with Worick, too easy, to slip back into where she was before; to be at the beck and call of a man as his beautiful woman, to let him wear her on his arm like a fur coat. He’s already asked so much of her, pushed her so far – what else will she let him do? She’s distracted men for him to kill, stood there as tits and ass to be leered at like meat, the last thing they saw before the shots rang out. But Worick has been a plaything too, for all he picks his own clients and makes his own rules these days, and he knows how to wear the skin of an abuser as seen through the eyes of a victim. She doesn’t trust him as far as she could throw him, but he doesn’t expect her trust – just her obedience, her silence, and her presence. She’s used to men like that.

Perhaps it is Nicolas’ silence that so unnerves her, used to men who run their mouths and love the sound of their own voices. When he’s in the room, the silence is overwhelming, though Worick speaks aloud to him as he signs, trying to teach her. She doesn’t mention that she doesn’t want to learn, doesn’t want to communicate, because then, if anything happens, she can tell herself that it was just because he did not hear her say no. Alex isn’t stupid – she knows that the fists will fly, that she’ll wear bruises as a necklace again, and that her worth lies between her legs – and she’ll try to keep her psychological damage to a minimum. Making something a mere misunderstanding instead of a violation has got her through more than a few nights in dark alleyways, a man pressed into her, panting and groaning into her ear with a knife to her throat, ignoring her closed eyes and the tear tracks down her cheeks.

She knows Worick would take her to bed if she gave the slightest hint she was interested, and so she makes sure to seem shy and quiet before him, keeping her eyes down demurely and keeping out of his way. Nicolas is harder to avoid, needing to watch his hands and face to communicate, and it’s worse, she thinks, that he’s the sort of man she might have liked, had the beatings and rapes not taken any desire for men right out of her.

Seeing Nina dance around them, holding their hands like she’s got no idea what they are capable of hurts, burns right through Alex’s heart, because she knows that, at thirteen, she was already a whore, already nothing but a series of holes for pleasure, and that she would never have trusted a man to stand behind her and not touch. Whenever the girl is around, Alex finds herself watching more carefully, always ready to step in and offer herself instead of an innocent. Let the girl be a child – she’s damaged goods, and always expects the worst.

The issue, she thinks, is that Worick is a playboy, a caricature, and that he expects the world never to take him seriously. Nicolas demands respect, and when men say ‘respect me’, she hears ‘let me hurt you’. They were the words said time and time again as men left handprint bruises up her arms and on her thighs, holding her legs apart, lying spent atop her with a lazy hand around her throat, as they threw her out of houses and bars. Respect is earned, not demanded, and the men who demand it are those who do things which disrespect those they speak to. Alex learnt this the hard way – has she ever know any other way? – and she does not intend to forget it any time soon.

The real question she wants to ask Nina about Nicolas is if he’s ever touched her, if he’s ever put a hand on her knee and slid it up her skirt, if he’s ever gripped her wrists and pressed her back against a wall, if he’s ever kissed her like she’s something to be eaten up. She wants to ask if Worick has ever leered at her, pinged her bra strap, or curled his fingers in the hair at the base of her neck. She wants to know that she’s not crazy, not paranoid, that her trauma does not rule her life. Unfortunately, Nina’s answer just makes her think that she’s wrong, and that maybe she always has been.

When Nicolas grabs her wrist to pull her out of danger, she wrenches it back, nearly dislocating it in her hurry to get away, and presses herself flat to the wall, the world spinning around her. Everything narrows down to her lungs, heaving, breaths so hard to catch and everything starting to go dark. She fights against it, refusing to pass out and let him do whatever he wants to her. She’ll fight tooth and nail, she’ll not go back to that, not ever, not ever. When all he does is stand between her and danger, fingers counting slowly from one to five, over and over, until her breathing slows, she’s puzzled. He had her where he wanted her, didn’t he?

The hallucinations are the worst part, the way she sees faces she knows everywhere, even men she knows are dead, and how this can make her tense and edgy for days. Worick comes up behind her and puts a hand on her shoulder, and gets a gouge of nails to his cheek in response. Before he has a chance to be angry, Alex is on her knees, hands behind her back, waiting for punishment. He laughs it off, pressing a cold cloth to his wound to keep the swelling down, and laughs about not being able to make money with a face like that. He doesn’t touch her, doesn’t reach for her – and he doesn’t ever approach her from behind again.

It can’t be true, she thinks, she can’t have found the only two men who don’t want what every man has wanted from her since she turned twelve. It’s impossible, they’re just luring her into a false sense of security so that she’ll trust them, so she’ll approach them herself and then the spiral downwards will all be on her instigation and her fault. She lies in bed at night and stifles the sobs with her pillow, because she wants them to be good, and right, and not do what she expects, but hope is a luxury her trauma does not afford her.

Worick’s nightmares change something, because Alex can feel the pain strung between them, the knowledge that they both know what it is to be victim, to be survivor, to be laid out like meat and taken advantage of, in every meaning of the phrase. When she mentions it to Nicolas, at a good, safe distance, he makes a face she knows all too well – that frozen, heart-stopping moment where you think someone is going to use your pain against you. She shakes her head, and tries to remember what the sign is for ‘me too’, but Nic just shrugs, unfreezing, and his face goes back to being blank. She doesn’t know what his issues are, where his trauma lies, but she knows she just hit something painful, and backs off.

Even knowing that they have, perhaps, survived things similar to her own trauma does not help Alex to settle down and be calm. She knows too many victims who wear the coat of abuser because they think it will keep them from more pain, and these are men. Men, in her experience, are the ones who do the hurting. Just because they have been hurt too does not mean that they will be squeamish about damaging anyone else. It doesn’t seem to stop Nicolas from fighting, playing with his opponents like a cat toys with a mouse, nor does it stop Worick from enjoying the rush of the kill. She sees them both smile at the violence, and shudders.

There are no simple answers. Alex sleeps with a knife under her pillow, and hopes she’ll never have to use it, is thankful her scars are all easily hidden under tops and skirts, and tries to stay out of the way. She has a job to do, a purpose, and as long as she is good at her job, she tells herself, as long as they need her and she has something they want, they might not hurt her. She makes herself invaluable, both practically and emotionally, offering support and back up. As long as they need her to do her job, she won’t find herself held down and taken by force. She tells herself this every night, falling asleep with her hand on the knife handle, and doesn’t even pretend that she believes it.