“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m interrupting your decompression time.” She set the glass down and began to push herself up. This was clearly not the time to start a discussion that may well become heated.
“Sit, Vivian. Finish your juice.”
She stilled, startled by the unfamiliar edge in his voice, then settled back into the couch to finish her juice.
When she finished, he spoke again. “Now tell me what you wanted to talk to me about.”
Well, he wasn’t stupid. Not that she had ever thought he was.
“Your mother and Abeyya came for lunch today—though I suspect that was actually an informal prenatal checkup.”
“How did it go?”
“They told me what the marks mean.”
The air around him charged, and then settled, in a single breath. For a split second she had felt a surge of unimaginable anger, fear and then nothing. Acceptance.
“I didn’t want to tell you,” he said. “At least not until after the baby was born.”
“You didn’t have the right to make that decision for me.” But her voice lacked heat, even to her own ears.
“No. But I made it. And your response?”
“To your attitude, or to the revelation?”
Tai’ri laughed. “My attitude?” He sank further into the couch, leaning his head back. Moonlight filtered over his face as he shifted his position. His eyes were closed, a small smile playing over his lips. “You’ve been a big, walking attitude since this all started. But now I’m going to endure whatever else you decide I deserve to handle.” He sighed. “Go ahead, yada’ami. I can take it.”
She opened her mouth, closed it. For the first time, understanding a little more what the marks meant, she reached into the rope of awareness between them and . . . felt.
Resignation, low burning anger, frustration. All emotions she was intimate with, but none of them hers at the present. Grief. Old grief, juxtaposed on new. And—
She jerked out of the bond, cheeks burning. How could anyone walk around feeling like that all day and remain sane?
Tai’ri sat up, eyes snapping open. “So, they really did tell you what the marks mean.”
“The discussion wasn’t as detailed as I would have liked, but I imagine it’s something that needs to be explored over time.” Her voice remained even enough, even under the weight of his narrow-eyed gaze. “We aren’t married, not the way humans understand marriage. And we aren’t fully bonded the way you people understand it. I haven’t—we haven’t . . .” she looked away, a little annoyed at her own skittishness. “We haven’t had sex. I haven’t consented to the bond, whatever that entails.”
“No. They tell you the marks can’t be removed?”
Tai’ri shrugged. “We can stay in this limbo. It’d be miserable for the both of us. The marks may be shielding you from the worst of the effects because you’re pregnant.”
Vivian looked down, unable to meet his gaze anymore. “I just—how do we go forward from here? You’re just as trapped as I am.”
“Viv—I’m not trapped. Nothing has happened since I was released that I didn’t want. I want you. I want this child. You saw my family? Family is what I know. Even if I wasn’t prepared for it to happen the way it did.”
A thought, a memory, an emotion swam under the surface of his words and was yanked back, shut into a black box. She thought of the old grief flavoring his emotions and knew they would have to discuss it. Soon.
“I’d intended to rip you a new one,” she murmured. “Somehow it’s easier to be angry with you when you aren’t present. You’re always so . . . kind and rational. Anger is hard.”
“Be angry.” He settled back into the couch, locking his hands behind his head and gave her a crooked smile. “Yell and curse and hit if that’s what you need.”
“I doubt that would be either comfortable or healthy, especially for this baby. They don’t need to hear all of that.”
He tilted his head. “It is just a single baby?”
“Oh! No. I just can’t call them ‘it’.” And they were digressing. She narrowed her eyes. “I’m realizing you’re an expert on steering a conversation where you want it to go.”
His eyes glinted, and he leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees and clasping his hands. “I am a super-secret master spy, Viv.”
She tried to smile. “I know. What happened to me could have been so much worse, I tell myself that.”
“Some of the other women, I know they didn’t fare as well.” She stopped, picked up her glass to wet her lips with the last drop of liquid. “My child’s father is wealthy, well connected, kind and intelligent. They’ll have a big, supportive family. I’m lucky.”
“You were kidnapped, raped, and impregnated.” His voice was steely. “You are not lucky. You don’t have to accept what happened to you, or brush it aside.”
Her hands curled around the glass. “I agree with you. I’ve asked myself, how do I go on? How can I have a normal life? Those months in the pens—” she inhaled, forced her hitched breathing to smooth out. The yawning cavern of panic in her mind threatened. The familiar warmth came to her rescue as usual, an insulating blanket.
Only now she had a name for that blanket. Tai’ri. Had he been manipulating her emotions all along? Softening the stress and trauma of her memories?
Yes. He had. But intent counted for something, and she wouldn’t throw that away in a fit of anxiety.
“I’m a coward,” she said softly. “My whole life I wanted to make a difference, to buck the system. And the one time I did—or thought I did—I wound up kidnapped. And it wasn’t even real work for change. We’d meet in an attic on Fridays and discuss our grievances against the government. We talked, but we didn’t do.”
Tai’ri shook his head. “That kind of change takes decades, centuries. Overthrowing a government is only a flash of blood and brilliance in vids.”
She shrugged. “Which makes me sound even more stupid.”
“You aren’t stupid.” He frowned at her. “What you strike me as is a female who was raised to be productive and obedient and work within the system. You have a streak of creativity, of independence that clashes with your upbringing and you had begun to explore how to reconcile both sides of your nature. The timing was . . . poor. But getting kidnapped wasn’t your fault. What happened to you wasn’t your fault. Not being thrilled with the results, even if you know our baby isn’t to blame, isn’t your fault.”
“No, the past isn’t my fault. But choosing to become bitter and dwell in it is my fault.”
He was silent for a long moment. “There’s a healing process. And grief never goes away completely, it only mutes.”
Seeing the haunted look in his eyes, she was tempted to ask what shape his old grief took, but wasn’t quite brave enough to open what she suspected was an old wound. Not that she feared he would harm her—but she didn’t want to lose the steady rock of his presence.
A rock she had come to depend on. Once again, she admitted to herself that she hadn’t been treating him very well. If she couldn’t quite accept him as a lover, yet, she could at least stop treating him like a potential enemy.
“I’m sorry, Tai’ri,” she said softly.
She shook her head. “I need to be a stronger person. Not just for myself, but for this baby. For the family you’ve offered me.”
He stood, then came to crouch at her feet. “You have a family. We aren’t replacing yours. And you’ll see them again, I promise. And, Viv? You’re probably the strongest person I know.”
Tai’ri took her hands in his, his fingers caressing the insides of her wrists. She looked into intent blue eyes, and blue was such a paltry word to describe their color and did nothing to frame the expression they held. Had a man ever looked at her like this? Never.
A blush warmed her cheeks and Tai’ri smiled, the curve of his lip drifting upward. His hand slid around the back of her neck, applying gentle pressure.
“You’re distracting me,” she said.
His smile widened. “There are other distractions I can offer, Viv.”
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