Chitter squealed as she was dragged into the back seat, but the moment Erramun was cradling her, she stopped complaining. “I’m—” She smushed her face into Erramun’s chest.
“Easy, my young friend, easy. There’s always going to be more that you can learn. There’s always going to be more that you can do. But you can only grow so fast, and you can only do so much. It’s a hard lesson to learn, I know—”
“It’s a stupid lesson,” Chitter muttered. Ezer kept his face forward and drove, but Senga could see him peering in the rear-view at them.
“It is,” he agreed, “but we all have to learn it at some point. So. I’ll help you get the education you need, but you have to accept that it’s okay. You made a mistake, yes, but nobody got hurt-”
“You got shot!”
“You think this is the first time I’ve been shot?” He chuckled gently. “Nobody got badly hurt, how’s that? I was there to protect Senga, and I did. That’s my job. Your job is to do your best with the information you have to get everything you can about the target, right?”
She nodded, sniffling. Senga was privately amazed at how well Erramun was handling this. She wasn’t going to interfere, though, not when he was getting Chitter calm.
“Then you did your job. We did our jobs. Allayne did hers. Ezer did his.” For once, he seemed disinclined to take a jab at Ezer. “So we’re okay. And you’ll learn more, we all will-”
“Even me. Departed Gods know, I still have stuff to learn.”
“Yeah? Better ways to be big and intimidating?”
“I can do that fine,” he snorted. “But this – being on a team, or adjacent to one, being – uh.”
“Working for someone this much younger than you?” Chitter shifted in his arms. Senga tensed and hoped neither of them noticed.
Allayne noticed; she put her hand on Senga’s. Senga smiled at her.
“Yeah. That. She’s – mmm.” He twisted to look at Senga; she had just enough time to make sure she didn’t look worried. He winked at her. Senga lifted both eyebrows in surprised. “She’s something else, all right.”
She cleared her throat and chuckled. “You’re not the first to say that. Sometimes they say it less flattering. Sometimes they just say I’m, uh, something-something.”
He snorted. “You’re that, too. But that’s all right. You’re something interesting, and that’s a lot better than I expected.”
“Oooh,” Chitter giggled. “That’s almost a burn. What did you expect, big man?”
“What would you expect if a woman known for her schemes and plots and using people blackmailed you into kneeling in service to one of her relatives?”
He still sounded sort of easy-going, but there was an edge to him again. Chitter either didn’t notice or ignored it.
“Mmm. Trouble, probably. I mean, if it was me, I’d expect someone was miscalculating or looking to cause problems for the relative – Oooh. Did you? Did you think that Senga’s aunt was trying to make Senga’s life miserable?”
Senga looked at Allayne. She had thought it. Or that Aunt Mirabella was trying to get her killed, which would probably make her kinda miserable in the process.
“The thought occurred to me.” Erramun looked back at Senga again. “If it had been one of her cousins, I don’t know. I might have found a way to do it.”
“I’m glad,” Ezer cut in, “that you’re not finding a way to do it with this one. Because then we’d have to kill you, and that would suck.”
“Ez-” Senga began. “You-” She slumped back against the wall of the van. “Don’t threaten my – him – Erramun, please.”
“If he tries to kill you I’m bloody well going to end him!” Ezer slammed both hands into the steering wheel.
“Easy, easy.” Allayne scooted up until she was leaning between the two front seat. “Easy, Ezer. He’s not threatening anyone. He isn’t at all. You saw him on the cameras, protecting Senga. Easy, okay?”
The van began to slow down. Ezer grumbled. “I don’t like him talking about it.”
“I don’t like you threatening my life,” Erramun countered. Senga tensed. They were going to do this all over again, weren’t they? She squeezed Erramun’s hand tightly. “I…” Erramun grumbled quietly and stilled. There was silence in the van as it rolled slowly forward. Weren’t they home yet? Were they at least close enough that Senga could just get out and walk?
“I’m sorry,” Ezer mumbled after a minute. “Look, man, you’re an unknown, and it’s freaking me out.”
“Of course I am. That’s my name. It’s what I do. I’m supposed to be unknown.” He ran his thumb over Senga’s knuckles. “Mirabella was unique in that she knew me. More than I ever want anyone to know me again.”
“Even Senga?” Chitter looked up at him with a look that people who didn’t know her might assume was innocent.
Erramun looked down at her. “What do you think, short one? The woman who can order me to do literally anything she wants – and I have to put up with it – for years. Would I want her to know me? Really know me?”
Chitter was uncowed. “Only if you trusted her. Which, you know, you oughta. She’s a good person, our Senga.”
“Chitter…” Senga squirmed.
“No, she’s right.” Allayne patted Senga’s shoulder. “He ought to trust you. And we’re going to have to trust him, mmm? You, too, Ezer. It’s nothing any of us signed up for – but hey, we’ve dealt with that before. He’s a resource, he’s Senga’s resource, and we’re going to need every bit of help we can get.”
Senga hugged Allayne one-armed, squishing her crew-mate in tight against her. “Thanks.”