Fae Apoc, for my Hurt/Comfort card. Pretty much what it says on the tin. The aftermath of a bad Keeping being handled by a new Keeper.
“Dumb, dumb, stupid, dumb.” Valla had been repeating the refrain for three nights, ever since she fell into the stupid trap from the stupid trappers with the stupid mind-fuddling haze and the stupid, stupid, stupid moment where she’d agreed to be theirs.
She knew better. She knew so much better. And this time, there wasn’t going to be any convenient rescue. There wasn’t going to be any time limit. She was well and truly boned.
…except she wasn’t, yet, which was confusing. Well, they were on the road, as it were. The trappers were actually trappers, hunting for fur and meat in what had, at one point, been a city. The brain-fuzzing mess she’d stepped into had been intended for one of the big mutant monsters. So had the pit trap it’d been in. “Stupid, stupid, dumb-ass, stupid.”
“I know.” The voice made her freeze. “But it’s not really nice to point it out.”
“Sir?” She didn’t want to move. She didn’t want to ignore him, either. “I’m sorry, I…”
“Are you done hauling water?”
“I filled the cask,” she answered carefully.
“And what’s stupid?”
“I am, sir.” She could answer that one easily!
“You’re not the first person to get caught in a trap, you know. That’s why they’re traps.”
“I know, sir.”
He sighed. Valla winced. He had been somewhere between patient and negligent since he caught her, letting the rest of his team give her chores and mostly ignoring her. “Come here.”
“Sir.” She hurried over to him, looking at the ground. What had she done? What was he going to do? What was–
“Here, sit here.” His wagon had an old van seat in the front; he patted the cushion next to him.
Cautiously, still not looking at him, Valla sat down.
“All right. Good. That’s a good first step. Can you look at me?”
“Sir?” It wasn’t an order. She didn’t know what to do with it.
Valla peeked up at him nervously. He didn’t look angry. He didn’t look anything except maybe a little bit worried.
“That’s a good start. All right. So. You said you’d been Kept before.”
“Yes, sir.” Some people didn’t like leftovers…
“Your former owner, they had standing orders for you?”
Oh, no. “Yes, sir.” She didn’t look away. He wanted her to look at him. But she tried to let her eys drift downwards towards his lips instead of his eyes.
He was frowning. She tried not to wince away. “Could you give me a couple examples of standing orders?”
“Yes, sir.” She cleared her throat. “There was, uh. ‘speak when you’re spoken to and not otherwise,’ and, um, ‘don’t fight, don’t fight back’ and…” she sorted through the rest of them, not wanting to give him ideas. “‘Do what the crew tells you to do without argument.’”
“I see. You’re drawing me a picture, here… tell me one of those standing orders you were avoiding telling me, just now.”
That one was an order. She swallowed and spoke fast and quietly. “‘Wear only what you’re given and, if you’re not given anything, don’t try to cover up.’”
“…And now you’ve colored that picture in. Thank you, Valla. That’s enough.” He patted her shoulder very gently. “All right. Here are you new standing orders.”
Valla tensed. Here it came.
“You already do what the crew tells you; you don’t need an order for that. But if they tell you to do something you don’t understand, or you find unpleasant or unconscionable, either tell them to check with me, or tell them you have to check with me, and then do so. Understand?”
“…Unpleasant?” She must have heard him wrong.
“Unpleasant. Now… if you really dislike doing the dishes or something, you may have to do some things you don’t want to do, but we can negotiate a lot of that.” He looked at her face. “…at some point, I may need to track down this former Keeper of yours and beat them up. But that’s later.” He shook his head. “Valla, you Belong to me now.”
Of course she did, because she’d been stupid enough to get herself trapped. “Yes, sir.”
“And, yeah. I want you to work hard and be an extra hand around the camp. I want to use your expertise – once you trust me enough to let me know what that is. I want you to be an asset to my team. None of those things are orders, Valla, please… You look like you’re taking mental notes. It’s okay.” He patted her shoulder. “You’re doing very well. I’m very pleased with you.”
She closed her eyes. It felt good. It felt strange, and warm, like being wrapped in a warm blanket. “Thank you, sir.”
The panic set in, and she opened her eyes. “Sir?”
“But… and Valla, I cannot stress enough that these aren’t orders… I don’t want you to be miserable. I’d like it if you could be happy.”
Valla stared at him. “Why? … Sir?”
“Well… I do?” He shrugged uncomfortably. “Look, it makes me happy when you’re happy. So… you have to tell me if something makes you unhappy.” He tapped her collar lightly. “I know this, being collared at all, being Kept, makes you unhappy. You don’t have to tell me that. But… I’m serious. If someone in the crew asks you to do something and you think it’s a bad idea or just, I don’t know, don’t want to… I’ll stand up for you, all right?”
Valla tilted her head. “It’s happened before?” she guessed. “When you were… younger? Sir?”
“It happened before,” he admitted. “You’re a smart one, Valla.”
“I know what Keeping is like, sir.” She was being very forward. But he didn’t seem to mind, at least not too much. “Someone… hurt your Kept?”
“Nobody in the crew now. But I didn’t know, not for months, because she thought I’d wanted it. And you, you look like you think any awful thing must be exactly what your Keeper wanted.”
Valla didn’t know what to say to that. She ducked her head and looked abashed and hoped that was enough.
“Sweetness, Valla… that wasn’t a criticism. Look.” He touched her cheek as lightly as he’d touched her collar a moment ago. “I’m serious, okay? Is anyone doing anything you don’t like?”
Valla swallowed. He was worried, he was really worried, about her. No, about… “What happened to the other one, sir? Your other Kept?”
“She…” He frowned; he clearly didn’t want to talk about it. “She attacked the, the guy, my crew-mate, who’d been hurting her. And he fought back, really hard. She survived, but it was a close call. When she was healed up, I freed her. I found her a place to stay and all the supplies I could afford. But I couldn’t, well, he attacked her with hawthorn.”
Valla swallowed. “I wouldn’t attack a crewmate.”
“I know. I do. But then, well, I’d never know if something was wrong, either.” He touched her cheek with his fingertips. “Is anyone doing anything you don’t want them to?”
“I don’t want to be collared. I don’t want to be a slave.”
She wanted to cover her mouth, but he was still touching her, and she didn’t want to knock his hands away. Valla flushed, though, and let her eyes slide away, looking off into the distance. He was going to punish her now. He was going to have to.
He laughed. The sound was startled and startling, pleased and confusing. “All right, I asked for that one. I got that, believe it or not. And I understand it. I’m not going to free you right now. I’d apologize for it, tell you I was sorry, but that would be kind of hypocritical. So… here, Valla, please look at me.”
Please or not, that was an order. She looked into his hazel eyes. He looked serious. He looked gentle. He didn’t look the least bit annoyed or angry. “I know you don’t want to be collared. But…” He frowned. Valla tensed and tried not to pull away.
“It was a dumb thing to say. I’m sorry, sir.”
He sighed yet again. “All right. I’m not a big fan of words-unspoken sort of orders, but I’m going to give one. For the next week, Valla, you’re not allowed to call yourself dumb, or stupid, or any variation thereof. And I’d rather you not apologize for being unhappy, but that’s not an order.” He put his big hands on her shoulders. “If you can be happy here – and it’s possible, I think, that you could be – then you’re going to have to help me find things that you do like doing, and help me avoid some of the things you dislike the most. All right?”
Valla offered him a cautious smile. “Is that an order, sir?”
“Will it help you do it, if it is?”
“I… um. Yes? Things are definitely easier to do if they’re orders?”
“Then yes.” He kissed her cheek. The touch felt strange, pleasant. It was a chaste kiss, and yet Valla found she liked it. “Yes. That one’s an order. Find things you like doing, Valla, and tell me what they are.”
It would make him happy, she realized. He would be happier – and happier with her – if he knew she was doing things she could enjoy. “Yes, sir.”
She still didn’t know what he was up to, but maybe she wasn’t quite as boned as she’d feared.
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