“Oh, Luke.” Leo had paused just slightly, with that expression that meant he was being Humorous Leo. “You might want to give Linden some pointers, her punch is terrible.”
There had been other words spoken since Luke walked in to find Mike and Leo talking in the General’s tent, but those had stuck with him. Those, and the part where Leo had offered to give them some time alone.
“She was concerned we might not be treating you as well as we should,” Leo had informed him. There’d been a warning there. Luke had taken it to heart.
Luke stared at Mike.
Mike looked back at him. She was in female form, but her clothes said she had been travelling male.
“You’re sure…?” She hadn’t said anything since Leo had left. Now, she looked at him with her head tilted, her expression naked.
Vulnerable. Vulnerable was the word he wanted.
They’d told Mike about the mind-fucking Regine had done. They’d had to tell her twice, but Luke could see, in the way her body language shifted, that she believed them. She didn’t want to believe, any more than he had.
“There’s memories. Sa’… Cya’s good, but I don’t think she could make up the memories that are there, not with all the emotions connected to them.”
“I don’t think she ever studied Hugr,” Mike, who had always been in charge of teaching emotions, mused softly. “So Regine…”
“Took out things that were inconvenient. Stole them. Because, uh. Because I wanted to leave, usually. Because I wanted to change things. When Aleron…” His wings shifted and Luke sat down. He couldn’t deal with this.
“Aleron,” Mike breathed softly. “That long ago? That was, oh, the tenth year. I thought maybe, the Collapse…”
“That wasn’t that much longer,” Luke pointed out dryly. “But… Yeah. At least there. She’s still working. It’s…” He shrugged uncomfortably. He could take anything. He’d always let Mike think he was invulnerable to emotion.
He considered Leo, and the difference between Leo-at-home-with-Cya and Leo-the-General. Maybe he didn’t have to pretend with Mike?
Maybe, someday, he wouldn’t have to pretend with Mike.
“What is it?” She narrowed her eyes at him. She. She hadn’t been a woman in a while. “You’re…”
“I thought you didn’t read my emotions.” His voice was harsh. That wasn’t what he’d wanted.
“I don’t, I don’t. You hate it when I do. But I can read your body language.”
Luke took a breath. “Remembering those things, it was hard. Knowing my crew did this to me, that’s harder.”
“Leo said… he said something like ‘…with your crew it’s not so much of a given, is it?’ He knows, doesn’t he?”
How long had Mike been here, talking to Leo?
“You really punched him, didn’t you?”
“Not very well, I guess. It’s just, I came in here and there you were – in town, walking down the road. Steel collar, your wings all bound.” Her hand lifted up to touch Luke’s collar – silver again, because, he assumed, he wasn’t being punished anymore – and fell back to her lap.
She had seen him like that? Luke looked away. “Being Kept is… it’s not like being in the army.”
“No… no, it’s not. Oh, Luca.” She sighed sadly. “I knew this would be hard for you. But she’s a good woman, no, Cynara? She’s always seemed honorable to me.”
Luke struggled with bond-feelings (at least, he was pretty sure they were bond-feelings) and his own impressions and coughed, giving himself a moment. “I think she’s an honorable woman,” he agreed. “I think she’s being fair with me. But both she and Leo think it’s important that I know what being Kept can be like — and I agree with them.” He looked Mike in the eyes. “It’s important that we all know about being Kept, since we’re subjecting all these kids to it. Over and over again. And, Mike, there was so much I didn’t know about the collar.”
Mike winced and looked away. “Regine is — she’s hard to budge,” she whispered. “I knew, I knew that it could be hard, emotionally. I remember being Greta’s Kept, centuries ago, and how much it hurt that she didn’t really want me. I mean, to be fair, nobody had ever not wanted me, before that. I knew it could be hard — but Regine was right, we needed to, we needed to get kids in and educate them fast, and we needed them wary about the Bond before they went back out into the world. The world was ending, Luke.”
Luke’s wings didn’t move. Days in the harness had made him far too aware of how often he let his wings telegraph his emotions.
“The world isn’t ending anymore,” he pointed out, very calmly. He didn’t want to spook Mike.
She looked up at him as if he’d shouted, her eyes wide. “It’s not.” Her voice was very careful. “You think we should have intervened.”
“I know we should have intervened. Over and over again. There’s probably a Keeping going on right now that we ought to intervene with, either students or someone graduated.”
“Do you know how many people there are out there? We don’t have the resources—”
“The fuck we don’t!” Luke felt bad the minute he’d shouted. He patted awkwardly at Mike’s hands. He had such a harder time with this when she was female. “But we should try.” Luke caught his breath. “Look… we can debate this later. Maybe with Regine, since… since none of it will happen without her say-so anyway.”
“She really… really…” Mike shook her head. “Do you think she did that to me, too?”
“I’d bet on it,” Luke admitted. “Probably not as much. It took you a long time to get to the point where things bothered you. I… hunh.” He considered Mike. “I figured you didn’t want to know.”
“I didn’t. Especially not when it was my cy’ree, being Kept, Keeping. Being hurt, hurting. Because we’d said it was a good idea. I, I said it was a good idea, and I was the one who had been Kept, over and over again, out of all of us. Who’d Kept people.”
“None of us anticipated how nasty some of those kids could get,” Luke offered, an excuse as much for himself as for her. “And they, uh. They got good at hiding it.”
“I’m an empath. I’ve caught some in the last few years, and if I caught those, when they knew what to hide, I should have caught the earlier ones.” Mike shook her head. “You’re right. We should allow Keeping… but we should be a lot more careful about it. We should be watching them.”
“Later.” Luke was feeling the pressure of orders and non-orders. For a little, Leo had said. He’d leave them alone for a little. They could borrow his tent.
A flush came to Luke’s cheeks at the thought of what he could do with more than a little time and a tent that Leo often sound-proofed. He shook his head. “Later,” he repeated. “Right now… Mike, you didn’t have to release me from those promises.”
“That’s what she said,” Mike pointed out, looking confused.
“She meant the oaths from Regine. For you…. look. You know I’d go against orders to protect you, right?”
Mike looked both amused and a bit confused. “I’m centuries older than you. I’m pretty capable of taking care of myself.”
“And I’ve bailed you out against a tougher opponent how many times? Mike.” He patted her shoulder awkwardly. “I mean it.”
“I’ll do my best not to get into any trouble that runs you against orders. Have you, yet? Tried going against orders?”
Luke shook his head slowly. “No. Suggestions, yes. Orders, no.” He meant to smile but it came out as a grimace instead. “The whole thing is hard enough without doing that to myself… I’ve seen what that does to someone.”
“Good.” She reached for his collar again; this time, she let her fingers brush over it. “This is nice. It should be gold… but it’s nice.”
Luke understood why it wasn’t gold. He wondered if he could explain it to Mike. He considered it, and ran into an order, and then another order. “Silver suits me,” he said instead.
“It’s better than the steel.”
Luke grimaced. “If Addergoole ever gets serious about disciplining students who break the rules… we should hire sa’Doomsday to coordinate it.”
Mike winced. “Still can’t believe you getting in trouble. Aren’t you the straight-arrow?”
Luke snorted. “I’m the straight arrow when I like the rules, turns out.”
“Or when, what, someone’s making you forget you don’t like the rules?” She looked like it tasted bad just to say it. Luke didn’t blame her. It tasted bad, knowing it.
“Yeah. Yeah, or that.” He folded his wings close against his back. There were so many things he wanted to say to her. They only had a little while to talk. “I’d rather she not know I know.”
“She’s got to know Cynara has the Words.”
“The thing is… Regine is likely to underestimate Boom. She always have — we always have. Would you think someone you’d taught could untangle your Hugr Workings?”
“Hunh. No. You think they could?”
Luke opened his mouth, closed it again, frowned. “You should talk to sa’Doomdsay,” he said, because that was on his mind and he could actually say that. “About your mind, and about not letting Regine know before we’re ready for her to know.”
“You don’t want Regine to know that we know that you know everything you’re not supposed to know?” Mike smirked at Luke. “When did you get complicated?”
“I guess,” Luke shrugged, “being Kept is complicated, and then I have to come up with, uh, complex ways to deal with it.” He thought about the teenagers they’d Mentored who’d been dealing with this. “We really ought to teach a master class in being Kept. And another one or five in Keeping.”
“Regine wouldn’t like it.” Mike’s comment was almost reflexive. Luke could tell by the way she flinched afterwards. “And the Keepers wouldn’t like it.”
“I think the ones that wouldn’t like it are the ones who need it the most,” Luke muttered. “…and the ones whose Kept probably need it the most, too.”
“You have a point.” Mike sighed and fell silent. Luke watched her, the way he had avoided watching her for years. She had one blonde curl loose, draping over her eyebrow and hiding something of her face. She must do it on purpose; her hair was short-cropped when she was male. And yet he wanted to brush her hair out of her face and let his hand linger.
This was why he didn’t look at her, not her. This was why he liked it better when she wore a male face.
But she’d shown up male, punched Leo, and been female for a conversation that, from the sounds of things, had revolved around her being protective of him. (Her! Protective of him!)
Luke cleared his throat. He should wait. He should wait until he knew he’d be able to see her privately again. He should wait until he knew that he’d be able to… able to… He shied away from the thought process with long practice. Regine had never had to delete those thoughts.
He should wait until he had longer than a little while to talk to her.
“I’ve been thinking,” he tried, “Leo is gay.”
Mike stared at him. “We’ve known that for some time, you know. I know you didn’t like to think about that, with your Students…”
“Not like Aleron.” He tried to be level-voiced; he tried to be calm. He thought he sounded a little too urgent. “Not, uh, interested in any kind of gender. I mean, Leo likes guys.”
“Yes?” Mike had a strange expression on her face, like she was worried Luke was losing it.
“Cya… Cya’s female, which, yeah, we knew already. I’m trying to say-“
“Ohhh.” Mike’s eyes widened. “Because Leo is into guys, but – oh, are he and Cynara…?”‘
There was a lot he couldn’t say, but Luke could definitely insinuate. “They’re… something, and they’re something even though Leo’s gay.”
“Fascinating. I wondered how long it would take them.” Mike looked up at Luke’s expression. “I am an empath, you know. They’ve been… well, fighting it for – no, all I know is that they were fighting it in school. Not all the time in between. I do cheat sometimes,” she added, misinterpreting Luke’s expression.
He cleared his throat. Did he have the balls – ha. Did he have the nerve to go through with this?
He was pretty sure he’d never hear the end of it from Leo if he didn’t. “I’m…” He paid attention to his wings, placing them very carefully half-opened. He spent heartbeats on it, looking at one tip and then the other, as if he couldn’t tell exactly where they were without looking. “I’m not… into guys”
“Luke, I know that. I’ve known that for a long time. Pretty much since the moment I met you.” Mike’s voice rose up a bit, exasperated and, Luke thought, a bit hurt. Damnit. “You don’t like… you’re not into girls that are boys sometimes, either. Women that are men sometimes. You have made that very, very clear.”
She was more hurt than he’d expected. And she wasn’t letting him get a word in edgewise.
“If you’re trying to tell me you’re sleeping with Cynara, one, duh, two, what does Leo think about that, and three, last I checked, she’s female. Which you said… oh. Oh, Luke, are you and Leo… are you into… Into Leo? It’s Cya’s collar, isn’t it? I mean, if it was Leo’s, the bond can do that, even when you don’t feel it normally. That’s what it was like with Greta… oh. What?” Mike frowned. “You said it first!”
Luke cleared his throat and heroically hid a smile at the very young-sounding wail in Mike’s voice. “I don’t have much time.” Not nearly enough time, damnit, why had he started this now? “But I’m not talking about Leo, Mike. Meckil. For one thing, I think sa’Doomsday would flay me.”
“She might. I don’t think she shares well. Which, uh, begs the question…” Mike’s voice turned slowly upwards. “Luke, who are you talking about and why are you talking about this now?“
Luke swallowed. “I’m talking about… um. About you. And I’m talking about it… because uh. Someone hit me upside the head — not literally! — with it and, uh. It’s going to be a long twelve years and I am advising in an active war zone…”
Luke didn’t really think he was at any direct risk of dying. They weren’t fighting many nedetakaei, and when they did encounter other fae, most of them weren’t a match for Leo or even Leo’s younger lieutenants, much less for Luke.
He wanted to tell Mike that, especially with the ashen look her skin was taking on, but he —
“I’m trying to be honest with you. So. I’m not out here fighting gods —” He’d never been out there fighting gods, not more than the two or three times he’d managed to bully Regine into letting him go. But that was a matter for another time. “— and I’m not in huge risk. But things happen. And, uh. If I let things happen to Leo…”
Mike considered that. “From what I’ve seen, if things happen to Leo, I don’t think I’ll survive long to mourn you. Boom can be, ah… explosive.”
“sa’Doomsday can be very explosive,” Luke agreed dryly. He was letting himself get distracted. It was tempting to just let the conversation flow away from the touchy stuff. “So… if I don’t make it.” He forced himself back on topic. “I want to be sure I’ve said it. And if I do make it, I want to have said it early, so you know. So you know it’s me saying it.”
Her eyes were wide. “Luke?”
“I’m.” He coughed. “I let myself get hung up on things that are kind of ridiculous. So, I apologize. I,” his wings spread out a little bit and he tried to rein them in. “I haven’t been protecting you, sticking close to you, hell, sticking with Addergoole all these years for the fun of it, you know.” He found he was scowling and tried to soften the expression. “But… as much as I can, while…” he touched his collar with both hands, “while I’m paying off the price of my stupidity, do you think, maybe, you and I…”
She was smiling. Luke squirmed. “What?”
“You’re awful at this. I always wondered how you’d be at it.” She touched his cheek gently, taking the sting out of her words. “I think I knew you’d be awful. But I am, too. I haven’t been sticking around Addergoole, around this colonial mess here, around the frozen north, for the fun of it, you know.”
Luke’s wings twitched and he let them. “I don’t have a lot of practice,” he admitted.
“I know, cloud-chaser, I know.” She leaned back and studied him. “I don’t think I can do faithful,” she warned. “This won’t be like it was with your wives.”
“I guessed.” He smirked dryly at her, because he didn’t trust himself with another expression. “I’ve been around a while, Mike. I know you.”
“You know some of me,” she corrected. “It will be interesting to see what happens when we get to know the rest of each other.”
“I know some of you,” he agreed, “and vice-versa.” Damnit, he really did have no time at all. How long was a little while? He did not want Leo walking in at the wrong moment. “Will you let me get to know more?”
“Will your Keeper?” she countered. “Or… do you want to pick this conversation up in twelve years?”
Twelve years should be nothing to a friendship that had outlasted a nation. Twelve years…
“Mike and me, whatever’s between us, it’s been there centuries. It’s not going to go strange or stale in a decade.”
He hadn’t meant to tell Leo that he was in love with Mike. Hell. He’d never even thought those words coherently before Leo starting goading him (”unless you and Linden are secretly in love with each other or something, you’re going to have to go out and meet people….”)
It hadn’t even come out so much as Luke had let himself get agitated, and getting agitated around a mind-reader and an emotion-reader who were in control of his life was not the best idea.
And then Leo had started looking worried, and he hadn’t needed Mind or Emotion readings to guess at it. So he’d said that. That it would hold another twelve years.
And, ever helpful, Leo had said,
“You’ve never been Kept before, though.”
“…No,” he’d admitted, ruefully, unwillingly. “… Fuck. But. Let’s be honest. I never saw Mike and me going anywhere, either.”
And here he was. He took a breath. “My Keeper suggested I talk to you. My… she… Cya would probably prefer you to be her ally, rather than her enemy.”
“She enslaved you,” Mike complained.
“To be fair, we were part of an agreement that, uh, paid for her conception, arranged for her slavery, and then did the same thing to her kids.” Luke had never said the words quite that baldly before. Cya was rubbing off on him.
“She enslaved you,” Mike repeated, clearly not having an interest in being fair.
“Mike? I beat Leo to within an inch of his life, within sight of most of his army. Enslaving me let him not lose face, and, uh, kept his army from beating me to death. I made a stupid choice; I let my pride get in my way. Twelve years in a collar? I can handle that. It’s better than war.”
“It’s better than you dying,” Mike allowed. “How long do we have, do you think?”
“Probably not long.” He spread his wings a bit, testing the air like it would tell him. “But we’ll have other times, I think. I mean, I’m teaching in Fall.”
“Twelve years.” She looked thoughtful. “I suppose that’s long enough for you to teach me how to punch properly, isn’t it?”
That had not been what’d been on Luke’s mind, not at all. “…What?” He knew he was gaping. He didn’t care.
She winked at him. “Private sessions. In your room. Even if all you do do is teach me to punch… it’s still time alone with you. And I have a feeling I’m going to be a slow learner.”
There was nothing Luke could say to that, so he kissed her.
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